Podcast: Schizopolitan – Episode 1 – The Saga Begins…

It’s been a long time, but Schizopolitan has risen from the grave… and this time we’re trying something a little different – presenting the SCHIZOPOLITAN PODCAST! I’ve teamed up with my friend and occasional collaborator Jehan Ranasinghe (on Twitter as @Maustallica) for what we’re hoping is going to be a regular series of podcasts looking at the world of Movies, TV, Animation, Games, Comics, and whatever else grabs our attention. It’s our first attempt at anything like this, so bear with us as we figure out various problems, wrestle with technical difficulties and generally ramble like there’s no tomorrow.

In this debut episode (running for 95 minutes), we use the recent aftermath of San Diego Comic Con to discuss some of the con’s announcements and reveals, but that soon spirals into a general discussion of blockbuster cinema in general – there’s talk about Star Wars and the new TV animated show Star Wars: Rebels, the first photo of the Wonder Woman costume and how much we know about Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, the potential upcoming DC Universe movies, and then a more wide-ranging talk about the ‘problem’ of a Female-fronted superhero blockbuster and why Hollywood seems so nervous about the idea…

Hope you enjoy our first episode, and stay tuned for more editions of Schizopolitan: The Podcast soon!

(The opening and closing music on the podcast is ‘Ouroboros’ by Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com). Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0. creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/)

Movie Review: Cars 2 (2011)

Cast (Voices): Owen Wilson, Larry the Cable Guy, Michael Caine, Emily Mortimer, Thomas Kretschmann ~ Writer: Ben Queen ~ Director: John Lasseter

Cars 2 Pixar Animation 2011 John Lasseter Poster[xrr rating=2/5]

Reviewer: Jehan Ranasinghe (aka @Maustallica)

The Low-Down: Pixar’s sequel to its 2006 animated comedy turns out to be the acclaimed studio’s least successful venture to date: a lacklustre and misguided action comedy that struggles to justify its existence on anything beyond a commercial level.

What’s it About?: Champion race car Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) has settled into a comfortable life in idyllic Radiator Springs, enjoying time with his best friend Mater the tow truck (Larry the Cable Guy), when he accepts a challenge to compete in the World Grand Prix. Soon, McQueen and pals are embarking on a globetrotting series of race events; however, suspicious circumstances surrounding the races draw the attention of British secret agent Finn McMissile (Michael Caine), setting in motion events that will draw Mater into the dangerous world of international espionage…

The Story: All good things must come to an end. It’s an old saying that often proves true,Cars 2 Pixar Animation 2011 John Lasseter but I think all of us were hoping that somehow Pixar, with their unparalleled track record of critical and commercial smash hits, could be the ones to buck the trend. After all, as of 2010, the Emeryville-based studio had presided over a run of 11 consecutive all-ages classics, redefining feature animation as a medium in the process and inspiring every other major Western animation house to raise their game in order to keep up. So much has been (deservedly) said and written about the studio’s unflinching commitment to quality, creativity and storytelling that it was becoming blissfully easy to believe in a fairytale vision of them as artistically infallible.

That’s why it’s saddening to report that Cars 2 represents the first significant crack in that pristine facade, a technically accomplished but underwhelming film that’s disappointing not only because it’s a failure, but because of the type of failure it is. It would have been almost admirable for Pixar’s golden run to come to an end with an ambitious, overreaching idea that didn’t quite come off, a fate many industry pundits had predicted for conceptually risky projects such as Up, WALL-E and Ratatouille. But it’s hard to make any such argument in defence of Cars 2, a shallow, undercooked movie that says almost nothing and spends an inordinate amount of time doing it.

That this project has resulted in this outcome sadly won’t come as a great surprise to many. The decision to create a sequel to Cars (commonly regarded as the weakest of Pixar’s previous films) was not welcomed with any great enthusiasm, but as a staunch supporter of the original, I was willing to give it the benefit of the doubt – at least, up until the point that the concept was revealed. For all of Cars’ flaws – a slow, deliberate pace and predictable structure among them – it had a deeply personal, surprisingly autumnal message beneath its bright, juvenile exterior. A passion project for director, car enthusiast and Pixar head honcho John Lasseter, the 2006 film was a loving tribute to Route 66, the golden age of American motoring, the sad loss of small-town values and the virtues of slowing down to enjoy the little things in life. That the director chose to follow this with a bombastic spy movie parody – divorced almost entirely from the personality and themes of the original – is a baffling decision, particularly from a studio that so successfully extended and embellished the core emotional fabric of 1995’s Toy Story into a remarkably consistent trilogy.

Cars 2 Pixar Animation 2011 John Lasseter The resulting film struggles to define any clear sense of identity or purpose for itself. Lasseter has stated at length that Pixar considers Cars 2 to be a bona fide 1960s-style spy film rather than a parody, but that’s blatantly disingenuous; even leaving aside the fact that the characters are talking vehicles, the slapstick humour and relentlessly flippant tone undermine any pretensions it might have had to being a true genre piece like The Incredibles was. This is as overtly and purely throwaway a comedy as Pixar’s ever produced, its tone defined by lowbrow culture-clash jokes, contrived misunderstandings and vehicular puns both verbal and visual, with Michael Giacchino’s often irritatingly lightweight pastiche score driving it along. If anything, what little effort there is to be genuinely respectful to espionage fiction serves only to undermine the film, as it prevents the script from employing any genuinely subversive material, as well as creating tonally awkward moments of straightfacedness that can’t work in a context that also includes farting tow trucks.

If one were being generous, you could partially excuse Cars 2’s weakness in this regard on the basis that Pixar has never tackled an outright parody before; however, nothing can mitigate or forgive the film’s lapses in terms of characterisation and emotional development, the qualities on which the studio’s glittering reputation is founded. Cars 2 reunites us with almost all of the first film’s major players, while introducing a host of new ones; none of this is to any great effect. As with all good stories, Pixar’s characters work best as conduits through which to explore a central theme; with the exception of a half-hearted and tacked-on moral about (yawn) the importance of friendship and being yourself, Cars 2 simply doesn’t have one, leaving its automotive protagonists to drift aimlessly.

Owen Wilson’s Lightning McQueen saw his character arc completed in the first Cars, and he develops no further here; key supporting players  from the original, most notably love interest Sally Carrera (Bonnie Hunt), are almost insultingly marginalised; meanwhile, new cast additions such as Michael Caine and Emily Mortimer struggle to bring any life to generic characters. However, the sloppiest handling is reserved for redneck truck Mater, unwisely elevated from a comic relief role to that of full-blown protagonist for this sequel. This would be a bad enough idea on its own, but it’s compounded by the fact that he doesn’t really have any particular arc or growth either, remaining a one-note stereotype throughout. US comedian Larry the Cable Guy isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but he does what he can with the role; ultimately, he’s let down by this material just as much as everyone else is.

Cars 2 Pixar Animation 2011 John Lasseter That a film this problematic was personally directed by someone with as much ability as Lasseter is troubling. After all, this is the man whose unfailing eye for a good story has benefitted not only Pixar, but also played a key role in the recent creative revival of Disney, pulling faltering projects such as Bolt, Tangled and Tinker Bell back on track with a firm and often ruthless hand. It would appear that Lasseter has something of a blind spot as regards the Cars franchise, frequently displaying an enthusiasm for its world and characters that seem at odds with the rather lacklustre reception they receive from wider audiences.

Of course, there is another, more concerning theory: that Cars 2 is a purely commercially motivated cash-in, produced with quality as a secondary concern to the desire to capitalise on the multibillion-dollar merchandising opportunities that have developed around the property. It’s a pessimistic view, and Pixar have shown enough integrity over the years to earn the benefit of the doubt for now. However, with a Monsters Inc. prequel and a rumoured (and seemingly ill-advised) return to the Toy Story franchise among the studio’s forthcoming output, it’s an idea that will be expressed more and more vociferously should the problems of Cars 2 become the rule, rather than an exception.

For the time being, an exception is what Cars 2 is; an exception to 16 years of quality storytelling, multi-generational appeal, sparkling imagination and wit in feature animation. It would be harsh to diagnose terminal creative decline based on this sole failure; at the same time, it would be hypocritical to fail to hold the studio to the high standards it has spent so much time and effort establishing. The world finally knows what a bad Pixar film looks like. Let’s hope never to see another.

The Verdict: Pixar has always had a Midas touch, but on this occasion they simply can’t make gold from a confused, shallow concept that’s tonally at odds with itself, wastes its cast and characters, and ultimately fails to deliver the meaningful experience that the studio has trained us to expect from them.

Video: Doctor Who Anime

Found via BoingBoing (and lots of other places), this is one of the more impressive fanfilms I’ve seen out there – mainly the work of one person, this is essentially a 12-minute ‘highlight reel’ that gives you an Anime-style look at what would have happened in the 1980s if a Japanese animation studio had got their hands on Doctor Who. And it’s rather astonishing – there are rough edges here and there (and the voicework that isn’t hi-jacked from the classic series is a bit on the rough side), but some of the design and animation work here is really good, especially the stylised anime take on the Third Doctor, and all in all it’s a gloriously fun mash-up of genres that has to be seen to be believed…

Movie News: It’s All Too Much (The Fall of the Yellow Submarine remake)

Yellow Submarine 3D Remake Cancelled News

I don’t normally take notice of news that a film isn’t happening – after all, projects are always going on and off the boil in Hollywood at a rate of knots. However, the announcement that Robert Zemeckis’ proposed 3-D motion capture remake of the 1968 animated Beatles movie Yellow Submarine has been officially scrapped did make me happy, simply because it had struck me as a terminally bad idea from the word go.

Yellow Submarine 3D Remake Cancelled News 2It had been mooted since last year that, following his worrying-looking Jim Carrey-starring adaptation of A Christmas Carol, Robert Zemeckis was choosing Yellow Submarine as the next stage of his oddball quest to bring motion-capture animation to the masses. It was an especially odd choice considering that the 1968 cartoon is distinctive and eccentric and wonderfully weird, but is also very much a product of its time and doesn’t exactly have “REMAKE THIS!” stamped across it.

However, it is easy to see why the Yellow Submarine remake appealed – it’s a way of repackaging the Beatles’ music once again, the visual style of the original is instantly recognisable, the merchandising has major possibilities (indeed, the Yellow Submarine action figures released in the last decade are both kooky and wonderful), and it’s a property that has plenty of brand awareness. Trouble is, the only real reason for doing it is the money – there’s no way that a modern-day remake of the film would go anywhere near the eye-searing psychedelia of the original, and I doubt that much of the flawed original’s off-beat humour would make it through either. Truth be told, Yellow Submarine isn’t a classic – it’s a weird piece of Beatles ephemera that the band themselves had very little to do with, and it just about pulls through on eccentric charm, but it’s absolutely a period piece, and the kind of film you’d probably have to break in order to remake.

Blue Meanie and Beatles Yellow Submarine 3D Remake Cancelled NewsAdded to this, the whole motion-capture question is a thorny one. Zemeckis has dedicated a ridiculous amount of time to this technology (his last live-action film was Cast Away in 2001), but I’ve yet to see a fully mo-cap movie that’s genuinely worked for me – with the exception of Avatar, but that had the major advantage of not attempting to do photo-realistic humans. 2007’s Beowulf was fitfully interesting, but I spent most of the film wishing I could see Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary’s screenplay done in live action, and feeling like there was a big sheet of CGI-animated glass between me and the movie, and the less said about The Polar Express (the most unintentionally creepy Christmas movie ever made) the better. Admittedly, it’s a technology that works better when stylised – one of the reasons why I’m intrigued to see how the upcoming Tintin adaptation The Secret of the Unicorn fares, as it’s deliberately using Herge’s visual style for its CG – and the idea of using that on the oh-so-sixties visual approach of Yellow Submarine was interesting – but it still sounded like the kind of thing that would feel horribly empty and creatively bankrupt if it ever made it to theatres.

Blue Meanie Beatles Yellow Submarine 3D Remake Cancelled NewsWell, looks like I don’t have to worry. There were already rumblings that the film wasn’t happening – Zemeckis’ animation company ImageMovers lost its home at Sony, and there were rumours that the Beatles heirs hadn’t yet signed off on the project. Now, thanks to the absolute tanking of Zemeckis-produced mo-cap animation Mars Needs Moms (Cost: $150 million, Opening Weekend Gross: $6.5 million), it’s been officially announced that the plug has been pulled on Yellow Submarine. It’s not amazing news – the trailer for Mars Needs Moms is full of the kind of creepy uncanny-valley humans that naturally freak me out (as well as looking badly conceived from the get-go), and as gimmicks go, motion-capture animation hasn’t quite received the blessing of the box office that 3-D has (however mistakenly). However, I think Mars Needs Moms’ failure is much more to do with the project than the animation style used – and while mo-cap may fall behind a little (I still think it’s best used as one technique among many), I don’t think we can completely count it out yet. Nevertheless, the Yellow Submarine remake is out for the count – and I still can’t see any megabudgeted Hollywood animation going anywhere near the sheer trippiness of the Sixties original…

Movie News: Live-Action Akira? No Thanks…

Akira Poster Live Action Remake News

There are times when I simply want to grab the relevant people in Hollywood by the lapels, give them a damn good shake and say, very firmly, “No!” Every so often, someone in Hollywood will come up with a very bad or unwise idea – these projects bubble up out of nowhere, or they lurk around for ages, and I usually have to tell myself “Well, that’s never going to happen” – partly because I know from experience that if it does, the chances of it actually turning out well are infinitesimal.

Well, it’s happening again, as someone in Hollywood is putting some serious traction into making a live-action version of the 1988 Japanese animated movie Akira. It’s the film that essentially put Anime on the map for western audiences – a dense sci-fi tale of near-future Tokyo, where a biker gang stumbles upon a mysterious secret, and soon telekinetic teens are tearing the entire city apart in a conflict that revolves around the mysterious ‘Akira’. Packed full of spectacle, action, violence, body horror and visuals that are still impressive over twenty years later, Akira is one of the last movies to be fully animated by hand (aside from a couple of primitive CG shots) and it’s an incredible cinematic experience, even if it’s also pretty incoherent at times (the result of condensing almost a thousand pages of comics into two hours, and the fact that director (and creator of the original comic) Katsuhiro Otomo was only 2/3rds of the way through the manga version when he made the film). It’s also an utterly Japanese movie in its approach and style, steeped in the cultural aftermath of the Hiroshima bombing and the full-tilt intensity of manga storytelling.

Akira - Kaneda with Gun - Live Action Remake?In short, it isn’t the kind of thing that lends itself to an easy reworking the way some foreign language movies do, but that hasn’t stopped rumours of a live-action version circulating for years, virtually from the moment that CG effects started getting close to replicating the astonishing levels of pyrokinetic devastation wreaked in the original hand-animated anime. There have been a few directors attached (including Steven Norrington, the man who managed to butcher the screen version of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, turning an amazing comic into a truly boring and lacklustre movie), but currently things are looking a little more active. There’s a new director attached, there’s a screenplay, and there are offers going out to actors – but little of this news is filling me with confidence.

First, there’s the director. Albert Hughes, one half of the Hughes Brothers (who made their debut with Menace II Society), has signed to make the film – and considering the Hughes Brothers were responsible for taking Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s dazzlingly intelligent graphic novel From Hell and turning it into yet another not-particularly-exciting ‘Who is Jack The Ripper?’ thrill ride (and also giving Heather Graham a ridiculous Oirish accent as the most cleavage-heavy yet least-employed prostitute in all of Victorian London). He’s certainly not the kind of filmmaker who screams ‘Visionary’, and I can’t help feeling that, after the over-moody nonsense of From Hell (complete with Jack the Ripper’s awesomely stupid scary-black-demon-eyes), I’ve got just about zero interest in seeing what he does with the film.

Akira Cityscape Anime Live Action Remake?Now, we do know that the action is being shifted from Neo-Tokyo to Neo-Manhattan – apparently the concept is that Japanese corporations moved in to rebuild the city after it was devastated in a Third World War, preserving some of the Japanese flavour while still keeping things in the good ‘ol USA. This doesn’t really strike me as a bad idea – I didn’t really think that a live action version would preserve the Japanese setting, although the fact that the character of Tetsuo is being renamed as ‘Travis’ doesn’t exactly fill me with excitement (especially since you can’t exactly yell ‘Traaaaaavis!’ in the same way that various characters yell ‘Tetsuooooooooo!’ in the original Anime).

Akira Kaneda Bike Shot - Live Action Remake?There’s also the rating. The producers have already said that they’re going for a PG-13 – the American equivalent of the UK’s 12 certificate – and anyone who’s actually seen Akira will, at this point, be thinking “How?”, followed by “What the hell is the point?” Because Akira is violent – exquisitely violent, violent to a level that is still pretty impressive, and which back in 1988 was simply awe-inspiring. One of the reasons Akira made so much impact in the west is that we’d never seen the limits of the animation medium pushed in this way before, rendering action in ways that weren’t constrained by Eighties movie budgets and exploring exactly how far bizarre ultraviolence could be pushed. In an era before CGI, this was explosive action without limits, and body-horror transformations that went further than anything we’d seen before. Akira is graphic, ballistic and lurid in the extreme, and it’s the extremity of the content that’s part of what makes it such an amazing piece of cinema. Take out the shocking moments of violence, and you’re de-fanging the movie before you even start. I understand the principle of it – a live-action Akira will be a very expensive project, and they don’t want to limit the audience to a big budget SF action adventure, or end up with another R-rated underperformer like Watchmen. But, to be honest, if you have to turn Akira into a PG-13 rated story in order to make it in Live-action, that’s a brilliant reason for not doing it.

However, things get really weird with some of the casting rumours. Now, there were vague murmurings last year that Hughes wanted Morgan Freeman as the Colonel – the ‘authority figure’ of the story, a military officer who’s in charge of the secret ‘Akira’ project. It’s one of those utterly obvious choices that is, at the least, fairly sensible, and certainly wasn’t getting me saying “Um… what?”

James Franco Live Action Akira Casting RumoursBut then, there are the more recent rumours, that James Franco – the man who was Harry Osborne in the Spider-Man movies, and who’s currently chopping off his arm in the name of entertainment in 127 Hours – was up for the role of main character Kaneda (although heaven knows what he’ll be called in the remake). Now, Kaneda is the teenage leader of a gang of bikers – and Franco is currently 33 years old. He’d have been a damn good choice about five or ten years ago… but unless they’re going the Grease route and having lots of thirty-year-old teenagers, it sounds like they’re happily throwing the punky teenage rebellion subtext out of the window in the hope of getting a well-known actor in.

Mila Kunis Black Swan Live Action Akira Remake Casting RumoursFranco has apparently turned down the project in favour of Sam Raimi’s currently gestating Wizard of Oz-related project (a story that focusses on the Wizard when he reaches Oz) – as has Black Swan star Mila Kunis, who was offered the female lead (which, unless they’re being really loose with the story, is Kei, the female revolutionary who Kaneda follows into serious levels of danger). This kind of thing happens a lot, of course – casting rumours filter out onto the Internet with worrying ease, and just because someone’s turned a project down doesn’t mean it isn’t going to happen. No, things get really weird when we get to the next rumour about who’s turned down the role of Kaneda – Brad Pitt.

Brad Pitt Inglorious Basterds Live Action Akira Casting RumoursYes, Brad Pitt. The 47-year old Brad Pitt. Now, I don’t know how much credence to give this rumour, and this sounds like something that’s either a mistake or a miscommunication. Having a star like Pitt onboard would have undoubtedly meant Akira instantly getting a green-light for production, and I’m hoping that maybe they were thinking of offering him the role of the Colonel (which would be smaller, but still significant and – frankly – more sensible) but I never like to underestimate how stupid Hollywood is capable of being. After all, Albert Hughes took a From Hell character who was originally a dour forty-something police detective and turned him into a louche, dandy-ish, opium-smoking visionary fop played by Johnny Depp, so the idea of him saying “Yeah! Why can’t Kaneda be in his forties?” doesn’t seem completely impossible, sadly.

The one definite piece of confirmed news we have is that screenwriter Steve Kloves has been hired to rewrite the script. A veteran of the Harry Potter films (He wrote all the screenplays, save for number 5), he does at least have form when it comes to turning unwieldy source material into a comprehensible (if not necessarily awesome) movie, and it’s easy to see why he might have been hired. It’s always possible that they’re experimenting with shaving some money off the budget to make the project more alluring to one of the big studios – but as with so many of these projects, Akira is being pursued because it has brand potential. The name is known, and that’s the kind of thing you can build on – plus there’s two thousand pages worth of comics that are sitting there and say “Storyboard waiting to be filmed!” to people who don’t understand the real difference between comics and movies.

As always, all it’ll take is the right people to say yes, and whether or not it’s a good film, the live-action Akira will move forward. It’s the first time a live-action anime adaptation has gotten this close to being made (There’s a live-action Neon Genesis Evangelion that has long been in development but with no movement, while rights have been sold for a US version of cyberpunk classic Ghost in the Shell), and Akira is close to being the Lord of the Rings of anime – a genre-defining classic that you should either do right, or not at all. I can’t deny that even if they just set out to do an adaptation that played fast and loose with the story but kept perfectly to the visual style of the anime, I wouldn’t be rather excited – but certain stories are designed to be told a certain way (as proved by Watchmen, which still works best in its original form, and – to be honest – the original Akira anime). I can’t see many ways of making a live-action Akira that wouldn’t lose sight of everything that makes the original interesting in the first place, and I’ve been burned too many times before (including with the From Hell movie adaptation), so until I hear some extremely promising news, I’m going to be keeping my fingers crossed that this is one Hollywood project that never quite gets off the drawing board…