Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Now I have a machine gun. Ho, ho, ho.

Today we're going to start with a question. What do the above ten movies have in common?

If you want to study the picture and work it out for yourself, you ought to stop reading now.

Like, right now.

Because I'm about to give you the answer.

They are all set (or have key scenes set) during Christmas.

It's relevant, see? It's a time of year where we imagine settling down in front of a roaring fireplace with loved ones and family members to watch a tonne of films on television. But a lot of the films we end up watching are the ones being broadcast on the main TV channels - often characterised by schmaltzy, saccharine, storylines where Santa Claus is a real person and Jingle Bells plays loudly in New York department stores.

So if you're after something a little different, check out this list of movies for alternative Christmas viewing. In all of them we get to see Yuletide without the elves, without Santa Claus and without the mushiness. And in at least one of them Bruce Willis has a machine gun. Ho, ho, ho.

Ten Alternative Christmas Movies

Die Hard (1988)
This is an obvious one. It's action packed, funny, original and has Bruce Willis at his very best. A lot of people watch this film every single year. And they're unlikely to stop any time soon - because you know what they say about old habits.

Gremlins (1984)
Is this a monster flick? Kind of, but there's definitely more than one critter, and although not very big, they're mischievous, nasty, little buggers. Setting it in what appears to be a homebaked American village during the holiday season, worthy of a place in It's a Wonderful Life, just adds to the eventual chaos.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)
Great cast, acid sharp script, brilliant characters and a beautifully twisted plot. All of which is centred around a murder at Christmas. Extra fun if you're a Raymond Chandler fan.

Batman Returns (1992)
Back before Chris Nolan rewrote the way superhero movies worked, there were a couple of excellent Batman films made by Tim Burton. The second one was set in a snowy Gotham City, offering a little extra juxtaposition for the creepy bad guys.

The City of Lost Children (1995)
Okay, so although I promised you films that don't feature Santa Claus, he's in this. And not just one. There's a whole room full of them. But being such a darkly inventive science-fiction film you never come too close to any schmaltz.

12 Monkeys (1995)
Bruce Willis again. Does he have a machine gun? You'll have to watch it to find out. But director Terry Gilliam's twisted time-travel film keeps you as confused as the protagonist, slowly revealing the plot, until an ending where you realise all the threads have come together. Look out for the Christmas moments.

Prometheus (2012)
This prequel to the Alien movies is almost entirely set at Christmas. Did you know that? Props to Pete 'The Chef' Cook for pointing it out. Apparently there's a scene where a Christmas tree makes it abundantly clear. I have no recollection whatsoever, and it's not quite good enough for me to want to watch again right now. But the visuals are utterly fabulous so I'm sure I'll get round to it soon.

I Am Legend (2007)
When a virus causes mass panic on the streets of New York City at Christmas, the resultant, mutated inhabitants look less like the vampires of the original book and more like zombies. But it's the change to the ending that really infuriated the fans. That said, it's still a pretty decent movie. Certainly more so than the earlier Charlton Heston adaptation, The Omega Man. And who doesn't love Will Smith?

First Blood (1982)
The Rambo films were pretty silly. A bare chested Sly Stallone obliterating America's enemies with a rocket launcher and a heavy machine gun probably torn from a tank. All pretty silly except the first one, where he's forced to use his black ops survival skills against good ol' yankee cops. An exciting film dealing with PTSD, the dislocation of veterans returning to society, and what it's like to sew yourself back together after a vicious fall. Look out for the decor in the Sheriff's office. It's that which tells us the film takes place at Christmas.

L.A. Confidential (1997)
In one of the opening scenes Russell Crowe's brawny, hard-as-nails detective pulls the Christmas lights off a bad guy's roof. From then on the film takes you deeper and deeper into LA's criminal underworld of the 1950s. And with Guy Pearce's scrawny smarts we are shown a shift of ideologies between the old world and the new. Based on the book by James Elroy.

Monday, 14 December 2015

Jar Jar Abrams

Jar Jar Abrams is a name floating around the internet at the moment. It's what some people are saying they will call J.J. Abrams if his latest film, the much-anticipated seventh episode in the Star Wars saga, doesn't meet their high expectations. But I'm wondering if he could take that monicker and make it mean something else.

To date Jeffrey Jacob Abrams has had a pretty exciting career. From his earlier TV shows like Alias, Fringe and Lost, to Super 8 and his Star Trek reboot movies, his work has brought often niche sci-fi ideas into the mainstream. Ideas like parallel universes, time-hopping, Illuminati-style sects, occult corporate meddling, unexplained phenomena and alien visitations to name just a few.

Sure, there have been mistakes - the ending of Lost was something of a disappointment for me and most of the people I subsequently sought cathartic counselling from, and the second Star Trek film isn't loved by all - but generally he seems to be one of the world's most capable pairs of hands when it comes to putting exciting science fiction on screen. His two Star Trek films currently score 8 and 7.8 on, so I'm probably not the only person who thinks this.

And Star Wars: The Force Awakens could be his best film so far. Certainly there are a lot of people out there hoping it will be. And probably no-one more so than J.J. himself. 

But he sets the bar high, so might it be enough for him to simply make another decent film? What if he wanted to try to improve upon the franchise? What if he wanted to try and fix the prequels? Short of re-releasing them as actually good films, perhaps a way of approaching this would be to take their worst elements and re-introduce them in the next set of films as new and improved versions. Take an awful thing from The Phantom Menace, update it, fix it and sell it back to the fanbase as something we can't live without.

Here's an idea I've been kicking around, that I'd like to share.

In The Empire Strikes Back, after we lost Obi-Wan in the original Star Wars film, the unfolding story needed a new wise man to act as mentor and help with the plot exposition. Into this role stepped Yoda, a several hundred year old oracle of all things Force related. Any issues that the audience needed to know, great, get Yoda to tell Luke. Need a little backstory? Get Yoda to tell Luke. Need to explain to the audience just how bad it will be if Luke lets his anger run free? Get Yoda to do it. Maybe even via a conversation with Obi-Wan's force-ghost.

Not only was Yoda funny and cute and cool and dangerous, but also absolutely necessary to the unfolding plot. 

Now suppose one of the new Star Wars films needs a character to perform a similar role. An older Luke Skywalker would be the obvious choice, but what if he's incapacitated or killed or he's become a Dark Lord of the Sith or he's simply busy elsewhere? The movie makers could invent a new character, someone who wasn't around during the other films, or they could bring in Lando or one of the other unused characters from the original three films. 

But what if J.J. Abrams was able to take something utterly reviled by audiences last time we saw it and turn it around? Something that would link the new Star Wars films not just to the original trilogy, but bring the prequel films back into the fold too. The hatred runs deep, so this next bit may just be too much to stomach, but you and I have got this far together, so I'll take the punt.

Yup, that's right: Jar Jar Binks.

Bear with me. The most annoying, pointless character from the prequels, in Abrams' expert hands could be the Yoda of the next set of films.

For a start he'd be roughly, what, 50 years older? That's a significant timeframe, granting licence for the character to be almost completely rewritten. How might age have mellowed him? He could have changed beyond all recognition, away from the awkward, ungainly character we all hated so much.

When Jar Jar first came lolloping onto the scene with the release of The Phantom Menace in 1999, there were complaints that his vocal style was reminiscent of ebonics and that his floppy ears resembled dreadlocks. This gave rise to the belief that he was based on Jamaican tropes and stereotypes. George Lucas denied this, but the accusations never went away. Therefore if we're looking for a lazy shortcut to describe his accent, Jamaica would be a good place to start. But for this reboot version it won't be the impossibly annoying "meesa sorry sir" accent from the prequels. We'll base his new, older voice, on the veteran rastas that sell reggae on vinyl in various markets dotted around London. The grizzled old guys doing this, who I've met, are the opposite of annoying. They're laid-back and world wise, yet serious and profound. Interesting and intriguing. In other words, quite cool. Could Jar Jar possibly become cool too?

Not what I'd expect to draw for an article about cool things in Star Wars

To still be alive he would need to have survived the entire span of Imperial rule across the galaxy. And with Darth Vader himself leading the hunt for old dissidents (see Star Wars: Purge) any survivors from the Republic days would probably have had to learn a few new survival skills.

Not only that but Jar Jar would have wisdom too. He was right there at nearly all the crucial events that led to the fall of the Old Republic and the rise of the Empire. Right there standing next to some of the most important characters from that time. Mistakes don't get much bigger than the fall of an order and you can learn an awful lot through failure. He was on first names terms with Obi-Wan Kenobi, Padmé AmidalaBail Organa and even the Emperor, and his best friend grew up to become Darth Vader. I would say Jar Jar Binks could easily be well placed, perhaps even the best placed to take on the role of mentor for the next generation.

So if J.J. Abrams wants to show us more movie magic, why not adopt the insulting monicker in the title of this post and turn it into something positive.

Thursday, 10 December 2015

We interrupt this programme

Sci-fi and fantasy are taking a bit of a break this week. A bit of a break, but not a whole one. Because I've gone on holiday somewhere gorgeous, and snuck a few sci-fi books and comics into my luggage.

And one of those books really stands out. Within just a few pages it already looked like a contender for my shortlist of favourite science fiction and fantasy literature. It's Ready Player One by Ernest Cline.

It's a dystopian real-world adventure centred on a fantasy quest across a riddle-laden future internet. Does that make sense?

Dystopia in utopia

It mixes cyberpunk elements with existing sci-fi universes and a nostalgic trip through the early days of gaming. It's like Neuromancer and Snow Crash meet Dungeons & Dragons and early 16K home computers in a desperate hunt to discover the ultimate Easter Egg.

Don't worry if you still don't follow me, I'll put my shortlist of favourite sci-fi and fantasy books together in a future post, and try to offer a more comprehensible summary of each. In the meantime, if you think you might be interested then I'd strongly recommend reading Ready Player One - especially if you remember Adventure on the Atari 2600 games console or Pac-Man in the arcades. 

Anyway I can't sit here typing all day, I've got some serious lying by the pool to do.

Normal service will resume shortly.