Sunday, September 29, 2013

THOUGHTS: Female Design in Star Wars: The Clone Wars (TV)

Like many geeks of the past forty or so years, I consider myself interested in the Star Wars universe, if not quite reaching the levels of 'fan' that others do. I don't own any Star Wars novels, posters or collectables (beyond my Ahsoka figure and a LEGO set), I don't buy Insider, I've got a small collection of the comics and games, and I have all six main films (and the two LEGO spin-offs) on DVD. And as a fan of animation, it's only natural that I have Star Wars: The Clone Wars on DVD - I bought the Season 1-4 boxset earlier this year after watching the movie. And, to be honest, I don't think it does anything new. Whilst I have enjoyed various episodes (I'm currently in the second half of Season 2), it's felt flawed from the start though it hasn't quite reached the lows of the prequel trilogy. Yet. But I have one big problem. And I have to ask 'Why?'. And post a gif that contains my reaction to each occurrence of it.

The problem is not entirely within the contradictory messages, the hypocrisy of the Jedi order and the handwaving of major details, nor the restrictive niche into which the series fills, it's how it portrays women - in more specific terms, my problem is with the visual design of the female characters. Of course, it must be pointed out that Star Wars has never exactly been excellent when it comes to women, but The Clone Wars arguably reaches a low point for the franchise. The main 'good' female cast is Padmé Amidala and Ahsoka Tano, Anakin's lover and padawan respectively, and occasionally characters such as Aayla Secura, Luminara Unduli and Barriss Offee appear in either supporting or (co-)lead roles. On the 'bad' side, we have Asajj Ventress and Aurra Sing, with other less well-known characters again appearing in supporting or short roles. The female cast is rather vastly outnumbered by the male cast, even when you count most of the Clone Troopers as a singular entity (due to their shared history and voice actor).

And yet, again, this is not uncommon for Star Wars, and whilst problematic, isn't really part of the issue. Almost (if not) every female character is wearing tight clothing. I mean really tight. There's also a focus on breasts, too, and that becomes quite unsettling when you realise there's droids with breasts walking around and a 13 year old girl wearing a top that puts the focus entirely on her chest. There's also not much variety with respect to how women look. Even with the more... eccentric-looking alien species, they've almost got 'attractive' characteristics, whether it's their face, a large bust, wide hips & a big butt, etc., these attributes are present in the vast majority of the female characters.

A lot of this comes down to the clothing that the characters are dressed in. It's tight, it's revealing, it's largely a bit daft. Let me make a simple comparison. This is a shot of a number of the main characters. Which characters have bare skin?
Indeed, it's the two female characters. Ahsoka has an almost completely bare torso (bar her bandeau top), and Asajj has a hefty amount of her décolletage on display. All other characters are covered. Still think I'm barking? How about Aayla Secura? She's got a LOT on display there. Ahsoka's redesign covered her front up a lot more, but it added a cleavage window that Daenerys would be proud of, not to mention leaving her back almost bare.

This is a shot I took during an episode where Barriss and Luminara are present, and it gives - in a single shot - a rough idea of what I meant by tight clothing.
Both Luminara and Barriss appear to have been vacuum-sealed into their tops. Despite their clothes being covering, they leave utterly nothing to the imagination. And yet, Anakin's top doesn't conform to his chest, instead fitting comfortably. And it's everywhere in the show.

It isn't even limited to the show, it moved into the supporting material such as the comics, comics being a medium well known (ha) for excellent and tasteful portrayals of women, and even the children's magazines. At times we see how badass characters like Ahsoka can look, but on the whole it's painted over with designs that don't apply equally to all characters, and instead it seems like the males get the respectful designs and the females get the scraps left over from making the male costumes, or at least clothes that are a size too small.

It's a shame, because this is genuinely affecting my enjoyment of the show. I find myself distracted by these issues frequently in almost every episode, and that annoys me somewhat.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

First Episode Thoughts: Atlantis (2013)

Broadcasting earlier today on BBC One was Atlantis, a new fantasy TV show to fill the gap left by the now-finished Merlin (with which it shares two producers), and it stars Jack Donnelly as Jason with Mark Addy, Robert Emms and Aiysha Hart, amongst others. There didn't seem to be a huge build up to it, with the first episode broadcasting around 8 months after being announced, and it's only in recent weeks that it seems like it's been marketed - the first promotional shots of the main cast were published just three weeks ago! Hence, I wasn't expecting it for a while yet and hadn't managed to get too excited. There's only one way to sum up how I felt about Atlantis, and like all good tumblr and Twitter users, I know that's with a gif. So I hereby present the gif that best summarises how I felt.


It's essentially a show for an older family - younger children might be a bit scared by it, as suggested by its 8:25pm broadcast slot - and in it Jason discovers Atlantis whilst searching for the wreck of his father's ship. Misadventures ensue, and finally Jason climbs into the house of triangle-obsessed Pythagoras (Emms). Here we also meet the third member of the party, Hercules (Addy), and the show is ready to move on to its first Atlantis-based storyline. It is time for seven Atlanteans to be picked to be sent to try to kill the minotaur (read: sacrificed), an event that will bind Jason, Pythagoras and Hercules together...

At its most adventurous, Atlantis is a very predictable show. It also seems to be stuck somewhere between comedy and serious drama, much in the same way as the recent runs of Doctor Who. It can't decide which it wants to be, and as such its jokes aren't particularly funny nor does it ever manage to be particularly serious. When the show tries to trip you up by throwing a curve ball, it's really easy to see where those balls will go, and not one aspect of the episode genuinely surprised me. I was also put off somewhat by Mark Addy's rather weak performance as Hercules (a target of ever-so-clever fat jokes a few times), which made me think less of a (slightly washed up) hero of legend and more of his role as Andy the Butcher in the sitcom Trollied, a role that was repetitive and tiresome. Indeed, I'd go as far as to say that his Hercules is fundamentally a carbon copy of his Andy.

The script was reasonably good, but it suffered heavily from the aforementioned predictability. Some as-yet-to-be-discussed plot points weren't so much implied as made blindingly obvious, and it made sure it repeated key points (for example, Jason's destiny) enough times that you couldn't miss them, not that they actually needed pointing out in the first place. And, as author Adrian Tchaikovsky pointed out (as did some of his followers), the show actually managed to make some fundamental mistakes with respect to some of its aspects. I also felt it needed to be slowed down somewhat, as it wasted little time getting us to Atlantis - there was no build up, no real context, just... BAM! We're going to Atlantis, strap in!

I don't think Atlantis was bad, it just wasn't hitting the right notes. Whilst the visuals were lovely and the soundtrack had me interested, the plotting was weak and the show closing on a repetition of an earlier fat joke really summed the whole experience up. It's unoriginal and it's repetitious, at least for the first episode. I am definitely on board for more, but it really needs to up the ante and soon, because a few more weak episodes and it won't even come close to the popularity of Merlin. It played it much too safe, causing it not to arrive with a bang, but instead it closed the door quietly and excused itself.

Friday, September 27, 2013

QUICK REVIEW: Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters

It seems like fairy tales are once again in vogue. We've had, over the past couple of years, Jack the Giant Slayer, Snow White & The Huntsman and various others... along with Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, which released in 2013. Starring Jeremy Renner (possibly best known as Hawkeye from the 'Phased' Marvel movies) and Gemma Arterton (of St. Trinian's fame), it's a shamlessly gory take on the tale by the Brothers Grimm. The cast also includes Ingrid Bolsø Berdal (best known to English-speaking audiences as Angua in the Sky adaptation of Sir Terry Pratchett's Going Postal) and Robin Atkin Downes (a prolific voice actor), amongst other lesser-known American and European actors.

Essentially, the story is that Hansel and Gretel made a career out of hunting witches since that night, and now adults, they're famed across the country for their ability and many successes. The plot isn't exactly strong, and the characterisation can leave a little to be desired, yet it still manages to be quite entertaining. I felt Renner and Arterton did rather well as the heroes, and I bought into them as much as is possible. The supporting cast also performed rather well, with the potential exception of Famke Janssen as the 'big bad', with her character and performance reminding me a little too much of Coraline's Other Mother.

The film seems to have a strange reverence for ultra-violence, and for attempting to create shocking scenes. We see a few suicides, matricide, hangings and so forth (including what may have lead to rape), yet not once does it even come close to actually being shocking, which undermines the dark atmosphere the film tries to create with numerous night or poorly-lit scenes, as well as the darker colours of the costumes. Another aspect it tries to add in is Hansel living with diabetes (referred to as 'the sugar sickness'), which seems to be forgotten at points in the film, treated almost flippantly in others, and leads to an extremely obvious plot moment.

I'm a little conflicted over the film's attitude towards women, too. Assuming it's set in Germany as it implies, it seems odd that Gretel would be wearing trousers, let alone such incredibly tight leather ones (the film thankfully spares us unnecessary, gratuitous shots of her backside) and even though she spends most of the film with some décolletage on display, barring one scene it's never picked up upon in a sexual manner. Yet whilst I felt this was mostly positive, the main witches generally were covered from neck down to toe (possibly to save time in make-up, the visible make up being rather well done) and it provided an interesting contrast, I wasn't sure why Gretel would be wearing such restrictive clothing for such a combat-heavy career (nor why her legs are clearly so cleanly shaven). There's also a LOT of violence against women, perpetuated by both men and other women, but this may be skewed by the unusually high proportion of female characters and its focus on witches as the enemy.

To conclude, I felt Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters was a fun, but flawed, film. It was a little too violent without any real reason to be, and it didn't seem able to decide whether it was serious or comedic. Yet if you can get past the extreme violence, there is an entertaining film here, and one I wouldn't say no to a sequel of.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

OPINION: Why the 'Dredd Day of Action' is Pointless

Roughly a year ago, Dredd hit cinemas in the UK to, well, quite a high level of success. It was the first 18-rated film to hit the #1 spot in a short while, and feedback was pretty good. Three to four months later, we hit the DVD/Blu-Ray release and it's almost impossible to find a copy in a supermarket by the end of the day, causing it to essentially sell-out. Yet with its relative flop in the US, the film never hit the target it had to greenlight a sequel.

Today, Rebellion launch their 'Dredd Day of Action' campaign launches, encouraging Dredd fans (and 2000AD readers) to stump up some cash on the comics, the film (not the '95 Stallone film which the current owners have denounced - despite the fact it's a more faithful, fun and enjoyable adaptation) and even special merchandise created just for today, in order to send a message that a Dredd sequel is wanted. Oy. No, really, that's basically the point. Buy this t-shirt that applies to a single day to tell someone you want a sequel! This comes off the back of a petition that circled social media which attempted to garner whether people were interested in a sequel.

Criticisms of the film aside, I just don't have faith that a Dredd sequel would be a good idea. The way the first film was handled essentially knee-capped it before it even hit cinemas, and that's arguably why it failed.

Firstly, an 18 rating heavily limits the interested group, especially in a country where comics are perceived to be for younger people (said people have obviously never picked up an issue of 2000AD), but it also cuts out a group of 2000AD's readership. And, really, the film could have been toned down to a 15 with very minor changes, and that would have definitely paid off in terms of opening it up to more viewers.

Secondly, the film released almost exclusively in 3D. 2D showings were in roughly 20 cinemas and on a highly restricted basis, I think it worked out about two or three showings a week compared to the four or five (at least) showings a day for the 3D version. 3D still isn't particularly accepted as a sole option, and by limiting it to just 3D for the majority of the country, it again closed itself to a number of viewers.

Thirdly, and finally, the stocks of home release copies were too low. Selling out may sound good, but in fact it's not a particularly good thing, because it puts a cap on the amount of money you can make that first day (if not week), and you need copies on display in order to shift them and raise awareness. No copies? No sales. No sales? No profit. No profit? Less chance of a sequel.

These three factors *in the UK alone* damaged the potential Dredd had to succeed, and that's visible in the fact it didn't hit the target for Dredd 2. If we had assurances that these three problems would be dealt with for the sequel, I think there would be a definite chance that it would succeed, and the benefits to the British film and comics industry would be huge.

But as it stands? No. Not at all. I don't think Dredd was a particularly good film, I don't think the casting was even close to strong (bar Lena Headey as Ma-Ma, but she essentially phoned it in anyway), the design was weak and really it just didn't work as a Judge Dredd film. But those are my opinions, and I seem to be in the minority in that, but they don't change the fact that Dredd's release was mishandled numerous times in numerous ways.

And that's why I think the campaign for a sequel is pointless. It doesn't address the issues at all.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Indie Time: Crypt of the NecroDancer

In another proposed feature that will no doubt be forgotten or unofficially stopped after this post, I've decided to try to post a little bit more about indie video games, a constantly-growing and evolving subset of the gaming field, and one I have a fair amount of interest in.

First up is a title I've pre-ordered called Crypt of the NecroDancer, the debut title from Brace Yourself Games. It is a roguelike, but unlike similar titles its key draw is that it is rhythm-based, so much so that the game can be played with a DDR mat. Using your own music or the game's included Danny Baranowsky soundtrack (Baranowsky composed the soundtracks for Super Meat Boy, The Binding of Isaac and, most famously, Canabalt), the in-built beat-detection system will shape itself to the music and change the flow of play.

It looks to be fairly fun, too. As someone who's put well over 100hrs into Dungeons of Dredmor, and has been following the alpha (soon to be beta?) of Claustrophobia: The Downward Struggle, another roguelike isn't something I'm particularly excited about as such, but the combination of a female protagonist (Cadence) and rhythm-based gameplay really make this title stand out for me.

With a launch price of $15USD (although a pricier $25 soundtrack edition is available) and no playable alpha/beta as of yet, it's a little pricier than other games of its type, but the feedback has been excellent at conventions and online, and it's really shaping up to be one of the next big indie hits. I'm looking forward to the early access later this year!

Crypt of the NecroDancer currently doesn't have a launch date, but it is available via the official website for $13.49 ($22.49 for the soundtrack edition) via the Humble Store, netting you a Steam key and a DRM-free version.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

REVIEW: Drakenfeld by Mark Charan Newton

Drakenfeld by Mark Charan Newton
The Lucan Drakenfeld Novels #1
Published on 10/10/2013 by Tor UK
Uncorrected ARC provided by author
Hardcover and DRM-free ebook formats

I am Lucan Drakenfeld, second son of Calludian, Officer of the Sun Chamber and keeper of the peace. Sometimes people get in the way of that ambition...

Receiving news of his father's death, Drakenfeld is recalled home to the ancient city of Tryum and rapidly embroiled in a mystifying case. The King's sister has been found brutally murdered – her beaten and bloody body discovered in a locked temple. His determination to find the killer quickly makes him a target as the underworld gangs of Tryum focus on this new threat to their power.

Embarking on the biggest and most complex investigation of his career, Drakenfeld soon realises the evidence is leading him towards a motive that could ultimately bring darkness to the whole continent.

The fate of the nations is in his hands.
- Blurb from the ARC

Drakenfeld, the first of Mark Charan Newton's Lucan Drakenfeld novels, takes place in a world heavily inspired by that experienced by the ancient Romans. Unlike many fantasy novels, Drakenfeld is a crime novel with few violent scenes, allowing the story to take a steadier pace that revels in exploring the details and asking questions rather than rushing in a blood-fuelled rage towards the end page, and yet whilst action scenes are rare, the book never feels sluggish or boring. Lucan is rarely standing still, instead moving from place to place in the search of clues and answers, meeting new people and experiencing the flavours of Vispasian life.

In the second strange turn for a fantasy novel, there isn't much of a magic system here. Supernatural aspects flavour the text and the story from time to time, but there are no wizards or druids in long, flowing robes throwing magic bolts at each other, instead Newton has opted to just add a little bit of flavour to spiritual and religious systems shown in his world. These elements serve more to add to the world-building rather than directly influencing the plot, yet their influence on the story and the characters is undeniable. Rather than the forms of magic we traditionally think of, we instead see these gods and spirits work through inspiration and aspiration.

Newton keeps to his fairly distinctive style that I enjoyed in the Legends of the Red Sun series, as well as continuing with his excellent commitment towards a diverse world, yet never is the world particularly 'utopian'. On top of this, Newton's approach towards sexuality is as accepting as his readers will now expect, yet never does it feel like he is trying to make a point, instead using it to shape a world where who you are is more important than what you are, and even when a character's sexuality is questioned, never is it judgemental or exclusionary. Male prostitutes work on streets steeped in the blood of gang warfare, women can unquestionably hold power whilst the underclass struggle to feed themselves – these dynamics that are so simple in hindsight, yet they bring this world to truly life.

I can't think of anything I particularly disliked about this novel. Any issues I had with the story – bar one or two plot points I guessed myself many pages before they happened – are likely due to my inexperience with crime novels rather than anything on Newton's part. His writing is clear and easy to read, his characters likeable and interesting, although I must confess they're a little similar in voice. But not one aspect tarred this read, nor took me out of the book.

More Cadfael than Conan, Drakenfeld is a refreshing change of pace. Newton crafts a vivid, living world that mixes modern thought with ancient aesthetics and tastes, whilst expertly mixing together crime and historical fiction with a hint of fantasy. For those new to Newton's writing, this book is a perfect starting point, and those who are already fans will once again be captivated by his fiction.

Highly recommended!

(Thanks to Mark Charan Newton for supplying the ARC!)

Monday, September 2, 2013

QUICK REVIEW: Star Trek: Into Darkness

What happens when you take the fairly dire Star Trek, remove none of the issues, add a ridiculous plotline with further questionable backing and some British actors? You get a near-complete waste of two hours.

I mean, really? Come on. Let's look at this. Star Trek is meant to depict a fairly utopian (in principle) society, one where racial divides are broken. Fine. So we have a relatively diverse cast, and then it goes and shoots itself in the foot before we even get anywhere. Firstly, Benedict Cumberbatch is cast as Khan. Yeah. You know, that old dude who was played by a Native American actor originally? Yeah. They cast the character with a white guy. Oh and Simon Pegg (English) plays Scottie (Scottish) with a ridiculous accent too. Yippee. On top of that, the dodgy sexual politics of the first film continue. Aside from Uhura and Blonde Lady Who Gets Her Kit Off (Except For Her Conveniently New Looking And Matching Underwear Set), the only other women exist in unnamed roles, in Kirk's bed or dead within minutes (or running around in a panic), and I'm pretty sure that aside from the scenes where they are either naked, in tight clothes or in a jumpsuit (which is also oddly enhancing), they're always wearing skirts. Short skirts. Jeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeez. And Karl Urban's performance is even WORSE than it was in the first film.

Visually the film is quite pretty, albeit overly bright in some places and too dark in others, but it has one flaw that wound me up. A number of scenes are done with what I assume to be a fish-eye lens, and with it in widescreen it distorts the image slightly which can be distracting, especially when you see a character's head *magically get thinner* as the focus changes (this is most noticeable when Dr. McCoy is stood behind Mr Sulu in one scene). The costume design doesn't seem to make too much sense, though, from Uhura's tight clothing on the Klingon planet to the made-especially-for-Cumberbatch black threads. It just looks too well put together, as if planned.

In terms of the plot and the script? Poor. Utterly poor. It doesn't seem to make too much sense (unless you're watching it with your brain switched off), and aside from some good moments, it falls back on familiar 'tropes' too much, especially when it comes to Urban's lines. They're just so ridiculously over-blown and forced that you do nothing but shake your head in frustration. Damn it, Karl Urban, I'm trying to enjoy this film, not pick it apart. Or something. There was one line in particular that stood out to me as a prime example (ha) of how utterly awful the script was. The other big bad guy said a line which contained "our way of life will be decimated", which makes utterly no sense with the correct meaning of decimated.

I don't know what else to say. Star Trek was passable, but not particularly good, and it has a whole heap of problems, especially for a film created post-2000. But for Into Darkness to not correct those flaws is unforgivable, and for it to whitewash a character (especially around the same time as the white casting of Johnny Depp as Tonto in Disney's The Last Ranger) is doubly so. This film does not make progress, it does not entertain. It takes the sledgehammer wielded by directors like Michael Bay and wreaks havoc with a franchise that can and should be handled with much more respect and tact.