Originality v Hollywood: Dawn of Mediocrity?

A curious phenomenon is occurring in the centre of society’s entertainment universe. Perhaps it’s a sense of potential failure casting a net of fear around what was once a creative powerhouse. Perhaps it’s a descent into mediocrity as our collective society has embraced a sense of complaisance, where banality passes for acceptable quality. Whatever it is, there can be no denying it: Hollywood appears to be running out of fresh ideas.

Instead, we’re being treated to the wonders of rehashed entertainment. I’m reminded of a sentence Nick Offerman’s character, Deputy Chief Hardy, says in 21 Jump Street (ironically, a reboot of a popular television series)

“We’re reviving a canceled undercover police program from the ’80s and revamping it for modern times. You see the guys in charge of this stuff lack creativity and are completely out of ideas, so all they do now is recycle shit from the past and expect us all not to notice.”

I feel like this is exactly what an executive-led creative industry is doing. I can almost picture the suits in their corner offices somewhere in Los Angeles, cigar in hand, smug grin on their faces, signing-off another reboot, knowing that our pop-obsessive society will eat this all up and fatten the studio’s bottom line. How stupid do they really think we are?

There will come a point, hopefully soon, when cinema audiences will tire with this. When we will finally open our eyes to the fact that it’s the same movie, with the actors-du-jour fitted snugly in to a predictable plot.

Look, don’t get me wrong. I’m just as excited about the new Star Wars as the next fan. Likewise, I can’t wait to see what Marvel has in store with Avengers: Age of Ultron. I’m an (obsessive?) follower of their Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. series, and an ardent watcher of both Arrow and The Flash, two of DC’s darling television spin-offs. These are all properties based off existing source material, whether it’s comic books or one of the most famous cinematic franchises of all time.

However, I feel that there are talented writers out there with exciting, fresh stories yearning to be unleashed from their paper bounds and brought forth onto the reflective-silver screens of our cineplexes. These stories are being marginalized when studio execs opt to “play it safe” with rehashes of recently-completed rehashes (I’m looking at you, Spider-Man), with bloated adaptations of beloved source material (The Hobbit) or the hope of capitalizing on unexpected, explosive success. In the case of this last example, I’m of course referring to the recent news that Lionsgate, boon of the young adult dystopian fiction adaptation fad, is considering continuing the Hunger Games stories beyond the book. As a fan of the series and its cast and wonderful director, I sincerely hope this will not materialize. Whilst it would be great to see more of the world that Katniss inhabits, and the fact that the last book left much to be desired in terms of an ending, the stories should just be left alone. Hollywood needs to learn about a story’s limits. They need to learn how to let go.

At the end of the day, we as cinemagoers make the final decision. We have a choice about what we want to watch. That’s the great thing about cinema: we live in an era when there are so many possibilities; were spoiled for choice, essentially. We can choose whether we feel like watching an inventive story like Birdman, or rekindle some nostalgic feels with a viewing of a Godzilla (or Ghostbusters or Robocop or Terminator) reboot. The thing I truly wish for, through, is for original stories to receive the same level of care and treatment that these existing, beloved properties are currently getting.

The First Rule of Being a Game of Thrones Fan is…

Warning: Spoilers for Game of Thrones Season 4 ahead. Although, being a Game of Thrones-related post means inherent spoilers… anyway, proceed with caution.

I recently started watching Game of Thrones – particularly out of intrigue and the pressure of wanting to find out what the hell it is that my friends are raving about each week – from their horrified recounts in the aftermath of that episode (“Rains of Castamere”, S3E09), to the constant skirting of certain book-reading watchers who are about to let slip an accidental spoiler.

So I began watching this show. And suddenly transformed into a Westerosi myself. I knew vaguely what to expect in some of the series’ key episodes – I wasn’t as surprised by the Red Wedding as most uninitiated non-book-readers were, for example. But I still experienced that sense of shock and horror at such a gruesome visual, visceral rendition, where everything from the acting to the mis-en-scéne to the music ensnared my attention.

And then Season 4 began. I was finally on-par with my Thronian friends. We were able to discuss our disgust at some favourite characters’ treatment, our glee at the deaths of other deeply-hated ones, and skirt the book-reading friends together. Which was fun. Season 4 was awesome, in true Game of Thrones quality-television style. Each episode carried the gravitas, beauty and action we’ve come to take for granted from this show. Until we got to Season Four, Episode Eight: The Mountain and the Viper.

This is where I learnt my lesson. You see, being a GoT fan requires a special skill-set. You can’t mindlessly rush into the franchise and start picking your favourite characters. In fact, the first rule of Game of Thrones Fandom is You Do Not Have Favourite Characters. Because Mr George R.R. Martin is a sick bastard. He kills characters ruthlessly.

This season, we were introduced to Oberyn Martell, the most badass character on television during those eleven-odd weeks that Season 4 was on-air. The entire Westerosi Fandom was rooting for him (well, us non-book-readers, at least). I was rooting for him. He was wronged by those horrible Lannisters. He was carrying a crimson vengeance. He was out to take names and kill some bad guys. This is the stuff epic stories are made of.

And then he has to go and die. And not just die, but get totally obliterated in the monist gruesome, gut-wrenchingly shocking manner possible. Seriously, are they even allowed to show stuff like that on television??

When “The Mountain and the Viper” ended with that sickening tracking show out of the fatal arena, and the credits began to roll, I could do nothing but just sit and stare at the screen in utter disbelief.

That’s the raw power of a cult show like Game of Thrones. It draws its audience in, makes them invest their attention and emotions for particular characters, and then wrenches them away from you. It’s brilliant storytelling, really. This show (and its enigmatic author, Co-Executive Producer and sometimes-writer-of-episodes George R.R. Martin) has the guts to do stuff that other series can’t even dream of doing.

And whilst we were made to feel bitter at the series’ creators and author, and take to social media to rage about what we witnessed, the season’s finale truly made up for it. Season 4 ended with a powerful set-up for the next ten episodes (a whole year of waiting! Say it isn’t so!), and an emphatically positive arc with some spectacularly beautiful moments (Stannis Baratheon aka “Stannis the Mannis” charging on the wildlings, and Daenerys’ and Arya’s story lines in particular).

I’ve learned to distance myself from the characters, yet in doing so the irony is that I’ve become even more invested in the series; Martin has created a richly textured world of political intrigue, fierce feuds and elements of fantasy that make for compelling consumption in both words and visuals. Whilst I’m hesitant to read the sprawling books for want of keeping the mysterious aura of the television series, I can’t help but delve into the wiki pages and fan-made social media streams to immerse myself in the Thronian culture.

So when Season Five comes a-knocking on my television time, I will indeed be better prepared, because, after all: the First Rule of Game of Thrones is You DO NOT Get Attached To Any Character or Being.

Russian Roulette (Review)

What makes someone a hero? What drives them to become a killer?

These are the core questions at the heart of the much-anticipated sequel to Anthony Horowitz’s Alex Rider series. Russian Roulette takes a look at the series’ main antagonist, Yassen Gregorovich: his life leading up to the fateful moment when he joins SCORPIA to become a contract killer, and explores just how inextricably linked both Yassen and Alex’s lives are.

Friends, family and readers of this blog will know that I’m a huge fan of Anthony Horowitz, so this review is probably a bit biased. But after reading this prequel, Horowitz’s skill at crafting such a complex story with multilayered themes cements his position as one of my all-time favorite writers. And returning to the shadowy world of Alex Rider took me back many years as a reader, to when I first discovered the series.

I did not expect this book to be so emotionally charged. We grew to hate Yassen in the earlier Alex Rider books; what he supposedly did was despicable and rooted him as our teenage hero’s nemesis. But in Russian Roulette, we explore the portrait of a child desperate to survive in a post-Communist Russia ravaged by conspiracies revolving around ruthless foreign investments and deadly technologies.

First-person narrative is a powerful device to get right into a character’s mind, and Horowitz uses this well in the main portion of the story, through the format of a memoir. Indeed, presenting Yassen’s story as a memoir makes for a rather romantic attitude to the whole assassin tale. We move with Yassen as he grows up, alone, into a harsh world and develops a hatred for the man who destroyed his entire existence, his entire childhood: Vladimir Sharkovsky.

Horowitz probes the very psychology of how a killer is made by tracing Yassem’s story from the quiet village of (fictional) Estrov, to the hustling streets of Moscow; from the timeless beauty of Venice and the sinister Widow’s Palace to the sweltering jungles of Peru, skyscrapers in New York City and, of course, the island of Malagosto, where Yassen’s transformation begins.

Fans of the series will recognize allusions to events in the future, especially the fateful moment with Yassen and Hunter (trying to avoid spoilers here!) that Horowitz wrote as a prologue to Alex’s fourth mission, Eagle Strike.

It is difficult to justify a hero as someone who kills for a living. But in Russian Roulette, Horowitz writes Yassen as a character that we truly feel for, and root for to the very end. It is true that one should never be quick to judge character based on mere assumption. In Russian Roulette, we see how an innocent boy, a child who had dreams and aspirations, is so easily transformed into a cold-blooded killer thorough the subtle events that subsequently influence decisions leading him down a path to the fearsome SCORPIA.

For any fan of Anthony Horowitz, and of his Alex Rider series, this book is a must-read. The epilogue alone makes it worth the read, deftly tying this book to the first of the Alex Rider stories: Stormbreaker. 5/5 Stars.