Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Strange Days Indeed

The Doctor will see you now.

Doctor Strange, the latest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, opened in the UK today.

I've been fan and a reader of Doctor Strange for years, so I've been looking forward to this movie for a while. My first comics as a kid, before the realms of 2000AD even, was a British title called Super Spider-Man and the Titans. It was a Brit reprint of a number of Marvel titles, printed landscape - a double page spread each side, so four pages of US comic across when open - and in black and white. I was a massive Spider-Man nerd as a kid, but it didn't stop me reading all of the contents of this title.

Inside was the continuing stories of Spidey, just at the time when it was amazing - the death of Gwen Stacey, the Green Goblin, the Spider-mobile, and yet another attempt by Doc Ock to marry Aunt May. I loved it.

Also inside this weekly was pages of Thor, Captain America, and tucked away at the back was Doctor Strange, master of the mystic arts.

UK Marvel reprint comic "Super Spider-man and the Titans" 1976

At this time in the 70's, Doctor Strange was... well, strange to say the least. It was right in the middle of what most Marvel fans would consider the peak of Strange's run, and it was certainly the coolest art I'd ever seen. I don't know how "current" the issues being reprinted were in the UK, but at this time in the 70's, Super Spider-Man and the Titans was printing the Strange stories illustrated by the legendary Gene Colan.

Much like the art of Spider-man at that time, the artwork in black and white was glorious. If anything, the colour may have ruined it. John Romita Sr.'s Spidey was amazing and the definitive Peter Parker for me. Gene Colan's Doctor Strange was astounding but freaky as hell.

There have always been scary images that freaked me out as a kid. I was always a bit sensitive like that. The cover of IT. The Doctor Who annual 1977 with its weird art. And the sequence of Doctor Strange when he's off in the astral plane, in a weird dream sequence where his head pops off like a wax dummy and bounces down the stairs. Totally freaked out.

It was one of those things were you're a little wigged, but you can't stop looking at it. I wasn't entirely sure what the hell was going on, but it was mesmerising.

Of course, time passed. I grew. Moved on to 2000AD, Starlord, Tornado, then discovered Sandman and Shade: The Changing Man, Watchmen, etc... But that's another story.

Fast forward a bit to the mid 90's, and my future wife says that she's a big fan of Cloak and Dagger. She has the entire run of Strange Tales featuring Cloak and Dagger / Doctor Strange and I had some time on my hands after finishing art college. I blasted through every issue. Excellent!!

But again, things went quiet for me on the Strange front. Thankfully, it has returned recently with the art of one of my favourite artists, Chris Bachalo. (Been a fan of his since his work on my fave comic of all time - Shade: The Changing Man). And awesome stuff it is too.

Anyway, you didn't want to hear about my comic history, you wanted to know if the Doctor Strange movie is good.


To cut to the chase - yes. It is. Very good.

The movie follows the story of the comic fairly faithfully. Strange is a neurosurgeon, and a brilliant one. Problem is, he knows it. He's arrogant, self centred, and over confident. He's smug, rich and career-focused. When he is busy looking at his phone while driving (let that be a lesson to you all), he piles his car up and in the accident his hands are crushed. Countless surgeries and all of Strange's money later, he still can't stop the shakes from the nerve damage.

Just like the comics, his desperation to get his old life back takes him East, where he is taken in by The Ancient One where he learns that opening his mind can lead to a kind of spiritual healing that will give him his hands, but also open up the realms of magic and sorcery. And when the Ancient One opens it up, you get some of the trippiest and weirdest visuals you'll ever see.

There's the inevitable villain, played by Mads Mikkelsen (who, in my opinion, gave us the greatest Bond villain, and the coolest Hannibal Lecter ever) and various levels of training and events that gives Doctor Strange his abilities, his cloak of levitation, the Eye of Agamotto, and the Sanctum Sanctorum.

In fact, if you look at it from a distance, it really does play out through the expected beats of an origin story, and it doesn't really surprise. What does surprise is how well such a basic story is presented.

Scott Derrickson, the director of Doctor Strange, is best known for his horror work (Deliver Us From Evil, Exorcism of Emily Rose and one of the scariest movies I've ever seen, Sinister). It's rumoured Dan Harmon was brought on to lighten the tone of what could have been a very dark movie. The humour is pretty good too, showing that Marvel really know how to make an entertaining superhero movie with thrills, scares and light moments - not getting mired in the gloom.

Visually, the movie is stunning. Taking inspiration from Steve Ditko's original art, and movies like The Matrix and Inception, the world twists and bends, folds in on itself and changes orientation in a fluid and mindboggling way that is very cool but is never too confusing. It looks massively complex, but you still understand what's going on.

Being a Strange fan from my childhood, I never thought I'd ever see a fight on the astral plane, or the Dark Dimension on screen, so this is a dream come true. Cumberbatch is great, with his best Hugh Laurie doctor accent, and the rest of the cast are just as cool. Of course, Rachel McAdams is severely underused - something we can hope will be rectified next Strange movie. C'mon, Marvel. You can do better than that.

On the whole, great stuff. I'd have liked more, though. It's just under two hours long, and when the final fight comes, you don't really expect it to be the "final fight".

Not the best of Marvel (my faves still are Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy) but still a great, great movie.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Fantastic Beasts Fan Event (and Where to Find Us)

You're probably well aware by now by my posts about the regular visits to the Warner Bros. Studio Tour: The Making of Harry Potter, and my numerous posts about how and why a Harry Potter RPG would be a great thing, that the wife and I may be a little obsessed with JK Rowling's Wizarding World.

Just because you're allowed to do magic now doesn't mean you can whip your wands out for every tiny thing!
(Me and Debs in the queue - any excuse to wear the Hogwarts robes)

Press interviews the group at the
front of the queue
Last week we were lucky enough to be invited to the Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them "Fan Event" in London, at the Cineworld Empire in Leicester Square. It was one of those things that they advertise on the film's social media pages - they get you to sign up for updates and you never really expect to get tickets. But, miracle of miracles, we had the email saying we had tickets reserved for us, and we hurriedly set about booking the necessary time off of work to make a quick trip to London.

We got there in plenty of time, but considering the event we were surprised to be about fifth in the queue with only a couple of hours to waste before they started letting in. Security was high, but the press presence was even higher, with them targeting all those who had made an effort to dress up for the night (as suggested on the invitation). We were interviewed by Sky News Germany, a website for Japan, and Good Morning Britain where our bemused and startled mugs graced the TV screens across the country the following morning.

Then, the doors opened and we were let in. Checking our names off of a list, we were given our tickets and had a UV mark made on our hands. Then it was into the entranceway to take in the cool decorations they'd done. Astounding considering they weren't even showing the film, just a few bits of it.

In the main hall, we handed our tickets over to get a specially produced Newt wand, and an even more special silver foil bag. That would be an essential item later... the drinks stands had been decorated with wanted posters of the cast, and there was a couple of booths where you could wave a wand and make a video of yourself doing magic effects.

Also on display were the costumes as worn by the cast for the film. We had just enough time to take in the sights before the doors opened to the auditorium and we were let in. A quick check of the UV marks on our hands, and double checking we had a silver bag each, and we were let into Cineworld's IMAX screen. 

Costumes as worn by the cast!
Once inside there was the decision of where to sit. We knew we were there to see footage from the film, but that was purely secondary. I mean, let's face it - we're going to see the film when it comes out anyway. Possibly more than once. No. The important thing is getting to sit at the front to get a good view for the interviews with the actors. 

We managed to get seats on the front row, to the side. It was only when we really settled into our seats and looked around we noticed that we were near the doors where the cast would emerge and walk to the stage for the event! 

With the audience settled, a guy came out to warm up the audience, to get them suitably worked up into a state of complete fan-frenzy. He got everyone cheering, ran around the audience doing some quiz questions to give away tickets for the London premiere, and hosted the fancy dress competition to determine who would win the big bluray boxed set of the Harry Potter movies. 

Then our real host, Edith Bowman, came out and took to the stage. She explained that it was a worldwide fan event, and the screens would be syncing up with audiences worldwide and live on Facebook. 

You can see the whole video online here -

As you can see from that, the main cast of the film were in London on stage (Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterson, Alison Sudol and Dan Fogler) along with director David Yates and producer David Heyman. They were joined via video from LA by Colin Farrell and Jon Voight.

They answered questions, and it really came across that everyone involved really got very into their characters and loved being part of the wizarding world. Despite the huge names involved, they just seemed to enjoy their time on the film, and the meaning of their characters, and the heart behind the story. I've been to a number of press conferences and you can tell when someone's faking it, or a bit cheesed off with having to do the press junkets. None of that was apparent here. It bodes very well for the franchise.

Then, of course, was the big moment when they brought out the extra chair. Debs was about five feet away from where JK Rowling was standing waiting to take to the stage. I'm surprised she didn't just jump over the railing and hug her right then.

JK Rowling took to the stage, and announced that Fantastic Beasts wouldn't be a trilogy as originally thought, and that it would be five films. The audience went nuts. 

Then the celebs left, the live feed ended, the press cameras were taken away and we were asked to put our phones in those special silver bags, to ensure we didn't video any of what was about to be shown. Security stood at the front of the cinema with nightvision goggles to try to catch any acts of piracy, and they screened the first ten minutes of the film.

I won't go into many details, but I will say that it starts just like a Harry Potter movie, with the music, the dark clouds, the camera flying through the logo. Then, with an epic explosion of magic, we see Gellert Grindelwald, one of the most dangerous dark wizards of all time, defeat a group of wizards. Headlines from newspapers whiz by before we join Newt Scamander...

Epic stuff. And an interesting tie into the history behind Harry Potter - events covered in the books but not put on film. 
The T-shirt and wand we had in the goodie bags!

The ten minutes was over way too fast (everyone's going to want a toy Niffler) and we started to shuffle out of the screen. 

We were collared by some of the publicity people for the film and they recorded our reactions for possible use in some advertising, then headed over to the exit where they gave us all goodie bags that contained our tickets again (so we could keep them as a memento), a poster and a t-shirt (far too small for my lardy arse, but a very cool t-shirt all the same). 

The back of the t-shirt, the ticket and the free bag of popcorn everyone got!

Very much looking forward to the movie, and had a real blast at the fan event!

Friday, October 7, 2016

Dreams and Reality

This week I watched the first episodes of a couple of TV series that have had me thinking about WILD again - Falling Water and Westworld.

Burton (David Ajala) in Falling Water
Falling Water is a weird one. It has kinda crept out of nowhere, emerging from the shadows like a dream itself. The USANetwork behind it is hoping this is their next Mr Robot (which wouldn't be a bad thing) and with Gale Anne Hurd behind it, it has the credentials to be amazing. But as many people have pointed out, like Fight Club was the inspiration for Mr Robot, Inception is definitely the inspiration behind Falling Water.

The extra-length pilot is glacially slow. Moody, atmospheric and dreamlike, but still taking its time none the less. At its core, we're introduced to three characters with no apparent connection. Burton (above, played by David Ajala) is the head of in-house security at The Firm. He fixes problems, gets the rich brokers out of trouble, and is looking for his girlfriend (a very Matrix woman in a red dress). Tess (Lizzie Brocheré) is a trend spotter who doesn't like talking to people, but is having dreams of a son that she never had. And Taka (Will Yun Lee) is a cop whose mother has been in a catatonic state for the last seven years.

We follow their lives, never entirely sure of whether they are awake or not in some scenes, and gradually elements from each other's dreams start encroaching into both the dreams and the waking worlds of the others.

Tess (Lizzie Brocheré) in Falling Water

Lurking in the background and bound to unite them is Bill (Zak Orth) who is convinced that we can move from our isolated dreamworld and into each others. No technology seems to be needed - so no Inception-like PASIV devices here. But there's something else going on. A presence that wants out.

As I said, it's VERY slow. I get the feeling that if it doesn't up its pace in the next couple of episodes, it's going to get cancelled very quickly, which would be a shame. I don't want it to become the next Awake (a brilliant series with Jason Isaacs that only lasted one season and isn't available on DVD).

The most interesting thing about it is thinking about Burton's girlfriend - the nameless woman in red. He bumps into her, they go to their favourite restaurant, and in the night he dreams that she is abducted. When he wakes, she's not there and no one has any idea who he's talking about. Was she ever there? Was she purely in his dream, and was all the meeting and restaurant a dream? Or, was she really there, but abducted in the dream and now no longer exists in the real world, existing purely in the dreamrealms?

It's certainly going to be one I watch more of, I just hope it can gain the audience.

Falling Water's pilot episode is available to watch online, and premieres on Oct 13th in the States. Not sure which UK channel is going to pick it up (if any - it may end up on Amazon Prime like Mr. Robot).


Also, this week, I checked out the first episode of HBO's new drama Westworld. Based on the 70's movie written and directed by Michael Crichton, it has the basics of the same plot as its original - there's a themepark out in the middle of nowhere, where guests pay a small fortune to enter a cinematic version of the old west, complete with horses, whores and gunslingers. The guests are "entertained" by Hosts - incredibly lifelike robots programmed to act and feel like real people, but without all those pesky moral implications when you sleep with a dozen of them, or murder two dozen in a massive gunfight.

And that's possibly where the series shines. There's a lot below the surface here. Not just with the shady dealings in the real world with the company that is building the robots (there are unsubtle hints that there is a deeper purpose) but it makes us look at the moral implications of it all. These robots have memories that seem to survive the wipes, and those years of being abused, beaten, and murdered over and over again is going to have some repercussions. There's a reckoning coming. It also holds a mirror up to humanity. A humanity that gets its kicks out of sex and violence. Giving people a way to "safely" vent these desires, is that just encouraging them to give into them more often?

Dolores Abernathy (Evan Rachel Wood) in Westworld

It's gripping and mesmerising stuff that plays with your expectations and turns them on their heads in the first ten minutes. The hosts (the robots) show more humanity than any of the *human* characters in the series.

In the original movie the robots malfunction and turn on their guests (and their creators) in Crichton-esque theme-park-goes-wrong style. In this version, it's coming, but that may not be a bad thing. But it also raises additional questions. If the robots did take over, would they continue their repetitive Groundhog Day-style lives, or would they continue to live in an old west world? What if one escaped into our world? Are there robots already in our world?


Of course, both of these series have been swimming around my head all week, feeding the fuel for the WILD RPG with it. In Falling Water, Bill says that everyone's dreams are in their own little worlds that rub up against each other, and what if you could move from one dream into someone else's. That's the core of the WILD RPG, only the technology allows you to share one dream with a handful of people. It also implies that there's something sinister in the dream realms that is lurking. Is there a primordial force or is it a projection of our own subconscious fears? And then, with Westworld, it's getting into the Total Recall territory. Dreams as vacations, memories of events that never happened, sharing that dream vacation with the rest of the family or friends. Dreams pre-programmed and prepared by a dream broker - a travel agent of the mind.

There's more to dreaming than you think.