Saturday, 1 April 2017

Captain Actor vs. CGIron Man

Watching the excellent computer-animated movie Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV got me thinking once again about some of the faults and problems of superhero cinema. I keep on wondering if the forthcoming wave of DC pictures and current Marvel phases are doing the mixed genre (of sci-fi and fantasy that comic-books have often combined so well), a gross disservice. As seen in last year’s super-team epics - Captain America: Civil War, Batman v. Superman: Dawn Of Justice, X-Men: Apocalypse, and pictures with related themes, like Gods Of Egypt - the main spectacular action is entirely or, at least, largely CGI. So, for digital artists, actors become a liability when physical reality is shoehorned into virtual scenes. If we pause to consider the contractual fudges that might undermine genre narratives on screen, and the logistical nightmares of using actors - never mind big-name Hollywood stars - in superhero movies, the problems faced by filmmakers today seem a burden that could easily be avoided if Marvel and D.C. were to follow trends established by Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001), and Robert Zemeckis’ stylish Beowulf (2007), and continued by the aforementioned Kingsglaive. Simply abandon the practice of live-action, and make the new superhero movies entirely with photo-real animation.  

A standard measure of potential for spectacle in genre movies used to be counting the picture’s special effects shots. Nowadays, the gauge is far more likely to be how many special effects companies have worked on the production. If cinema product depends, so blatantly, upon digital visuals, what’s the point of maintaining a system supporting the arguably narcissistic tendencies of American superstars and human actors? Is this an example of artistic cowardice on the part of studios? Are a majority of the cinema-going public too easily put off by the prospect of watching animated features (are they ‘just cartoons’?), and/ or perhaps so unhealthily emotionally-invested in following the career trajectories of their favourite thespians, that watching fully-animated movies is unacceptable as entertainment? “Must there be a super man?” What’s wrong with the end products of motion-capture becoming the focus of attention, instead of the quick-ageing actors lending their faces (or increasingly, only their voices) to superhero roles that can most effectively be depicted (and often are, anyway!) by digital animation?

Since the millennium, we have seen three live-action versions of Bruce Banner, three Peter Parkers, and, if we look back further to 1989, there have been five actors cast as Bruce Wayne. These examples, and various cinema or TV incarnations of Clark Kent, all indicate that even iconic actors are not indispensable. And despite the possibilities for definitive superhero portrayals (Chris Evans’ popularity as Steve Rogers is wholly based upon his Captain America trilogy, something none of the previous TV or movie Captains had), any individual’s contribution to screen mythology building, that might span generations for these franchised characters, seems rather inconsequential. Some of these comicbook heroes can boast a lifetime’s worth of history and fantastic lore, so most of them are not simply larger-than-life, they are legends in the very best sense of modern SF-fantasy. Since it’s impossible for any actor to live up to the expectations of all fandom (of comics or movies), why continue bothering with actors? 

If audiences/ viewers can suspend their disbelief enough to cross the ‘uncanny valley’, then photo-real animation is clearly the option most likely to succeed - when it comes to presenting superheroes as something more-than-human. So, whether these movie characters are intended to be role models, or inspirational figures, only CGI is able to showcase the various powers of Superman, Silver Surfer, Vision, Hulk, Iron Man, and especially the likes of Dr Manhattan. Masks that conceal stunt performers, who make the actors redundant in busy action scenes, are one reason to abandon the constraints that expensive star-names bring against artistic progress. Another aspect, of arguably bolder creative idealism, the advent of digital costumes (like Green Lantern, and new Spider-Man) uses animation effects instead of physical suits. When so little of what is on screen is real and so much is made by computers and virtual cameras, what do the actors have to offer compared to the increasingly superior contribution of CGI artists?

As several thought-provoking comic-books (from the seminal Watchmen, to Alex Ross and Kurt Busiek’s Marvels onwards) have shown us, if superheroes existed in the real world, none of them would survive public exposure, or government scrutiny, whether they are aliens or not. So, unless the whole point of any new movie is clearly frivolous, or vaguely satirical, entertainment values (am I the only comics fan-boy disappointed by Tim Miller’s dumb Deadpool?), instead of accepting the much greater challenge of serious screen drama, then visualising superheroes for the 21st century’s cinema calls for freedoms from the shackles of theatre and the burdens of reality, as we saw in The Matrix trilogy and the Transformers movies, before the current Marvel and DC super boom started. For such an Art form, with its long history of being dismissed as merely juvenile reading, comic-books deserve fully artistic adaptations of the medium’s finest works - without all of the inevitable limitations that actors bring to the movie-making process.

Saturday, 7 January 2017

Helicopters unlimited

I have not done a blog post about diecast model helicopters for a while, so it’s time for an update...

Recently found out Altaya produced a series for Spain and France as a magazine part-work Helicopteres de Combat - similar to the Amercom collection, but with generally better quality models. What made the European list of helicopter models particularly interesting was the inclusion of a couple of British rotorcraft, along with an expanded range of continental company products, and iconic American versions notably absent from the Polish and UK editions.

First, I bought models of Aerospatiale SA-321 Super Frelon (trans ‘Hornet’), a Boeing Sikorsky RAH-66 Comanche (certainly a big improvement over that earlier Amercom edition!), and a Piasecki H-21 ‘flying banana’ (an excellent model in navy blue). Later, as the Helicopteres de Combat series progressed, the choices got bolder, and soon, at long last, they produced an Aerospatiale AS-350 Ecureuil (‘Squirrel’). I already have a couple of larger and smaller-scaled A-Stars, but this is the first time anyone’s made a 1:72 scale edition. The grey Australian Navy model is better quality than some diecast helicopters twice its size.

The Kamov Ka-58 Black Ghost was a peculiar choice. A Russian stealth design to rival the now-defunct Comanche, the Black Ghost’s main claim to fame seems to be that it was pirated for a computer/ video-game. Like other Soviet-era military helicopters, it has distinctive co-axial rotors and no tail-rotor. 

My latest purchase is a Sikorsky CH-37B Mojave from this series. The Mojave is a big ugly beast of a heavy lifter (amusingly, the model is of an actual helicopter nicknamed ‘Tired Dude’), but its reign as the largest twin-engined cargo helicopter in the western world was short-lived, and the Mojave was eventually succeeded by a prototype of the Skycrane.  

I have a couple of smaller scaled versions of the Skycrane, including a red S-64 (from Corgi), and a CH-54 from Maisto (supposedly in 1:87 scale), but it’s good to finally get a Sikorsky CH-54A Tarhe in 1:72 scale. This US army version of the familiar Skycrane comes complete with a container marked as Red Cross. The large model is a foot long, with rotor span to match.   

Another Sikorsky machine, the H-19A Chickasaw is a US rescue helicopter, complete with pontoon floats for landing on water. The model is just as sturdy as all the others I have that are made by Altaya, and its silvery finish contrasts with the British version of this helicopter, the yellow Westland Whirlwind in RAF colours, from the Amercom collection. 
The first British copter design specially built for the post-war RAF, the Bristol (Type 171) Sycamore HR.14 is a bug-like machine with a long tail-boom and three rotors. It looks great in diecast with a round nose, four-doors, and skylight cockpit. The model is a solid construction but highly detailed. It’s peculiar, and rather sadly ironic, that a French edition of the magazine part-work to produce this historically important RAF helicopter in a quality diecast model after the British version of that Amercom series failed to include a Sycamore.     
The Belvedere... even its name is good, as it sounds like a flying hotel! 
Best of all is the Bristol 192 Belvedere, the British tandem-rotor creation that lost out, sadly, in army purchase contracts, to the American Chinook. The fine Belvedere looks great on my display shelf, alongside 1:72 scale models of the Sea Knight, Shawnee, an HUP-2 Retriever, a British Airways Chinook (Corgi), and for contrast, smaller models of tilt-rotors like the Osprey, and the stuck-in-development AW-609 VTOL design.  

Sunday, 1 January 2017

Horror double-bill

“Sure it wasn’t just a bad dream?” INSIDIOUS - CHAPTER 3 (2015) is actually a prequel set in the haunted house before the Lamberts owned it. Motherless teen Quinn (Stefanie Scott) visits a psychic biddy (Lin Shaye), and then gets hit by a car. Soon, she’s possessed by big bad and causing havoc in her own bedroom. The creator of Saw and Insidious’ writer Leigh Whannell (who acts in this as blogger Specs) makes his debut as director here, conjuring pop-up/ drop-in frighteners, like phantom arms and legs that crave poor Quinn’s company in darkness.

A faceless crawler embodies otherworldly forces with a stranglehold on domestic reality, but horrible clich├ęs of night-vision POV-cameras spoil the atmosphere. Exorcist and especially Poltergeist are the obvious genre touchstones and this merely routine spook fest is a major disappointment. Insidious: Chapter 4 is due this October.

A simplistic haunted-house rationale is never quite enough for chillers like SINISTER 2 (2015), a sequel that works fairly well as standalone suspenser, although it’s not in same class as Sinister. “The aesthetic observance of violence” in 16mm snuff movies (surely the original found-footage format!) is a kind of gateway drug when a gang of evil ghosts practice their malignant influence upon the twin sons of heroine, Courtney (Shannyn Sossamon - Catacombs, Wristcutters, One Missed Call remake), whose hobby is restoring furniture. A disused church is an unsolved-crime scene that’s best visited in daylight. Courtney’s boys squabble over the stash of celluloid reels and filmmaking equipment found in the cellar. Watching those collected ‘death games’ of the past inevitably threatens murder in the present. 

Ciaran Foy (maker of Citadel) directs episodic supernatural events in set-pieces imperfectly integrated into a predictable storyline. However, it’s wholly effective as it fulfils the expectations of a spooky drama with some well-timed frights. Prompted by mysterious, and seemingly omnipresent, entity Bughuul, the bad kids’ idea of fun is visually referential to Children Of The Corn so the ending soon becomes obvious. As usual in this type of broken-family scenario, real human villainy comes from the young boys’ arrogant/ abusive father - a bullying redneck intent on winning a custody battle by using all the crooked tactics he can muster.