Published on February 23 2016

Well, looks like SOMEONE hasn't been taking their protein pills...

Well, looks like SOMEONE hasn't been taking their protein pills...

Before the notification on my iPad had finished ringing with the news of David Bowie’s death, “Blackstar” was already queued up. Most music nerds probably reacted in such shock, but for me it was equally a kickback of guilt, since I’d already waited nearly 48 hours before listening to the unexpected swan-song album in its entirety.

If you haven’t seen it yet, the title-track’s video is a collaborative effort with director Johan Renck, and typical of Bowie it’s also a miniature sci-fi epic of the most ritualistic sort. The ten-minute story of space theology has been analyzed through and through, with half-truths and retracted comments coming out relating its influence and meaning to Breast Cancer, old Pop-Eye cartoons, and even ISIS. Yet to me the immediate stand-out, and longest lasting image, was the corpse of Major Tom, whose crystalline skull is carried off to be ceremoniously whisked into oblivion. Renck has neither confirmed nor denied whether that was indeed the fictional astronaut, and I agree its better that way. To me, the mere possibility nevertheless shines light on a reflective topic that sits at the very heart and soul of the man's life’s work; that once you jive past the catchy pop tunes, his early avant-garde androgynous value and radically shifting genres, the enduring appeal of David Bowie has always been fuelled by character reinvention.

Every new unveiled persona instilled its own fictitious reality within his work, masterfully bridging the gap between man, music and…whatever the hell Aladdin Sane was supposed to be. The world lost its one truly self-sufficient music artist 45 days ago today, yet throughout the 70’s and 80’s the only people to lose more ‘lives’ than Bowie himself were the era’s video gamers. Whilst each new mask that the Brixton rocker bore was by its own nature a fable, perhaps the reason no other theatrically inclined artist has made the ‘alter-ego’ so essential to their career is because there was a unique, autobiographical grounding behind each of David Bowie’s latest self-imposed roles. Whether you’re Prince, Norah Jones or Chris Sievey, no one could be Bowie quite like Bowie - not even Bowie.

Each character wasn’t simply an escape from his mainstage act or an attempt to trial a new genre. Whereas most artists will retire their creations with as much ceremony as quietly handing back the costume, Bowie made spectacle out of the cycle of reinvention, with death being entrenched as a necessary part of each. The most notorious example was the retirement of the galaxy’s most famous fiery-haired third-dimensional sexual Ziggy Stardust. Even though it was quite clearly setup with the album closer “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide”, the extraterrestrial miming rock star’s famous farewell speech at the Hammersmith Apollo on July 3rd, 1973 was ambiguous enough to strike fear into Bowie’s soaring fanbase, but suitably symbolic to suit the concept album and bring it to life on stage.

Bowie would similarly breathe life and reap death with his later creations; the Thin White Duke perished as his creator’s cocaine and red pepper habit finally began to surcease, Halloween Jack ironically ceased to exist after the ‘Diamond Dogs’ tour was renamed to the ‘Soul’ tour, and well, we already discussed the potential astral fate waiting for strung out junkie Major Tom. As these examples are listed off, it’s easy for any casual fanatic to spot the ever present similarities between the artist’s personal strife and those of his characters, although let’s be honest, that job was already long taken up by the music-consuming public, who could start a decade long conversation about Bowie’s sexuality just from Ziggy Stardust’s 1972 Top of the Pops performance, or a controversy of fascist views that were ultimately blamed on ‘the White Duke’s spiraling erratic behaviour.

I tried really hard to not make a pun about Bowie's frequent ch-changes but, well...

I tried really hard to not make a pun about Bowie's frequent ch-changes but, well...

An actor before he was an actor, part of this stems from how Bowie theatrically imbued heavy portions of himself into his alter-egos. His claim that what he did on stage was “theatre, and only theatre…” is perfectly valid, but that just drives the interest in what fueled this actor’s method. Every nervous smile from Ziggy or reference to both Major Tom and his maker’s withdrawing drug abuse ultimately seem rooted in a reality, but how genuine that reality is has often been open to interpretation. I don’t believe Karl Popper ever gave a comment on David Bowie, perhaps in fear that if he acknowledged listening to his work, he may had to upgrade his three worlds concept (the physical world, the mental world and all objective knowledge) to include an additional ‘Bowie World’.

One artist who attempts much of the same biographical blurring in his work as Bowie did is the director Alejandro Jadorosky, who’s aptly titled The Dance of Reality is a must-see retelling of his early childhood living under his strict communist father, embedding every detail with surreal comedy and fantastical metaphor. The great shame is that these two will now never work together, especially since Bowie was capable of carrying on his all-inclusive character creation into even the most obscure of projects. Whilst we all know of Jared the Goblin King from Labrynth or his you’re-a-celebrity-if-you-saw-it theatre portrayal of The Elephant Man, more of Bowie’s strange creations can be found in the 1999 adventure game Omikron: The Nomad Soul (which he also provided a soundtrack and design elements for), or the living magic trick that is Phillip Jeffries in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (a brief appearance that includes ghost transmissions, masked afro-men and the world’s whitest white suit…three minutes with David Lynch well spent).

David Bowie characters: each more predictably unpredictable than the last.

David Bowie characters: each more predictably unpredictable than the last.

One of the most fascinating aspects surrounding the death of David Bowie is that, whilst researching this article, when I searched 'death of Ziggy Stardust', news reports of Bowie's actual passing were what popped up in Google. Despite being his most well known creation, ol' Ziggy doesn't even have his own Wikipedia page - any attempt to search for him simply redirects to the rockstar behind the lightning stripe. Whether this amusing little oddity was deliberately played out or a simple coincidence, I can think of no better demonstration of how much Bowie became his characters, and in turn how they became him.

Even in his latest and last pieces, Bowie was still playing with the create-a-character tool. The strange new figures in “Blackstar” – Button Eyes, the flamboyant trickster and the ‘priest guy’ – may not be his most developed, but they continue his legacy of mixing haunting behavior with something deeper to dig for. Perhaps you didn’t really care much for David Bowie’s canon, and purely enjoyed the fact he could reliably create a great pop beat. That’s perfectly fine – you’re still appreciating the work of an artist who didn’t just refuse to lay down an image, he turned that lack of identity into the core of his brand. Long live the Bowieverse.

Next Time: From Metroid to Mass Effect: How video games tackle Genetic Modification

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Published on February 9 2016

How ‘Warcraft’ and the Blizzard logo could define the next era of Blockbuster cinema

In less than a decade, Marvel went from licensing out their characters to one of the most formidable Hollywood movie studios.

Could the upcoming Warcraft movie send Blizzard in the same direction?

Preceding my re-watch of Star Wars: The Force Awakens (the write-up of which received a very positive response – my sincerest thanks!) was a slog of trailers that would have crumpled my geeky mind to dust ten years ago. Back-to-back previews for Captain America: Civil War, Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice and X-Men: Apocalypse is cream dream satisfaction for most early-internet comic book fans, even if the multitude of 2016 releases is a clear sign that the curve of this caped crusader craze is about to curtail. The most underappreciated bit of media hype surrounded the Warcraft movie, due out this June as a combined production effort from Legendary Pictures and Blizzard Entertainment, the developer of the original video game franchise.

The heavily cheesy and somewhat substance-lacking footage didn’t do much to ‘wow’ the audience. Nor did the interview-heavy promo video for the flick that followed immediately after. There were two images that did leave a profound impact on me though: seeing director Duncan Jones talking on camera so cheerfully (in light of the recent passing of his father, David Bowie), and gazing at the Blizzard logo, so bold and blue on the big screen. At the moment, any opinion space that can be spared for Warcraft is spent debating whether this highest of fantasy films can disenchant the spell that stops video game movies from actually being enjoyable. Personally, I think there’s a pretty convincing case to be made that one great success for Blizzard in the cinema could signal the start of a whole new paradigm for Hollywood.

If any intellectual property could captivate an audience of moviegoers for a protracted, obsessive and unhealthily long period of time, it would be Warcraft. Every soulless movie studio has tried to rewrite the strategy guide for amassing the asses perched in cinema seats, but in terms of shaping video game movies to better resemble their thumb-twiddling counterparts, none can truly claim success. The continued struggle of traditional film companies to mine the potential box office gold of these films suggests that actual game developers should just give it a go themselves. Especially when the company in question has the ultimate crafting resource at its disposal: millions of subscription hours spent daily on re-jigging raid plans and endlessly grinding for gear.

The potential success Blizzard might have as a debut film producer lies beyond the fact that their premier product, World of Warcraft, is unabashedly the highest grossing game of all time. It's hard to deny that any title from the California developer thus far been less than ‘pretty good’, but more astounding is just how forward-thinking they’ve been with each new endeavour. Take for instance Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft. More than a simple online card-game spinoff, the game’s monthly $20million revenue is partly owed to the way Blizzard fostered its popularity in the larger gaming community, with mad methods such as:

  • Making waves with a recent card culling announcement, suggesting they’ve even found a winning business solution to keep the game going, as promised, for the next two decades.

Point is, despite how unassuming they may seem in public, Blizzard are capable of bouncing back from every setback with publicity and financial success twicefold to their losses. Examples? Reclaiming the MOBA market with Heroes of the Storm. Challenging the First Person Shooter juggernaut with the upcoming Overwatch. Continuing to pioneer Always-on DRM regardless of how controversial the practice proved with Diablo III. It's all well and good that a video game maker makes good video games, but how well will they make the same clever turns when it comes to film?

Part of the problem with video games as a lucrative intellectual property is their relatively young age. It just doesn’t give them that instant ring in the public ear that many named superheroes command. Sure, you can find plenty of Marvel films that were inspired by best-selling comic books arcs, but whether it’s the price of an individual ticket or a multi-million dollar rights contract, people are paying for the comic book character name first and foremost. Warcraft, conversely, may have a fairly famous title, but the majority of punters won’t be pining to see cinematic incarnations of Azeroth, Durotan or the Murlocs (I will be, and if you knew what a murloc was you would too…).

How ‘Warcraft’ and the Blizzard logo could define the next era of Blockbuster cinema

Video game movies to date, apart from failing to impress critically, have hardly made a monetary case for their own lucrative future. The most financially successful is the mindless Resident Evil adaptations. These were profitable, but haven’t convinced their hapless creator Capcom to pursue similar strategies to follow-on their adaptations of Street Fighter or Pheonix Wright: Ace Attorney. These catastrophes of commercial cinema come down to several factors:

  • An astonishing absence of truly accomplished directors.
  • Few recognisable elements that actually helped sell the cartridge and CD copies in the first place.
  • Most oddly, very few films being made out of the video games best known to millennials and mature audiences.

The latter has the hilarious exception of the Super Mario Bros. movie from 1993; a box office bob-omb that forever scared Nintendo away from leaving the house and licensing out another of their franchises.

This brings us to the topic of logos that started this discussion. Rather than begin proudly with the round Nintendo icon, the Super Mario Bros. film rather lamely opens its curtains to reveal its production company Light Motive - while the familiar Mario theme tune plays awkwardly in the background. These few seconds probably bear the closest resemblance to the original platformer, and yet they symbolically represent the original creator’s lack of involvement and care in the movie version. By lending their shiny and spiky lettering to the Warcraft movie, Blizzard already took the first step of taking responsibility for whatever ends up on screen. Given their purported faith in Duncan Jones directorial vision, this could lead to the first Tim Burton equivalent of a video game adaptation. Furthermore, with purported plans to give away all the World of Warcraft expansions to cinemagoers, we start to see a bigger picture of how Blizzard could pull off a Marvel-scale takeover of the box-office.

How ‘Warcraft’ and the Blizzard logo could define the next era of Blockbuster cinema

Blizzard’s brand name and cross-promotional strategy gives them an edge. Aside from having a shared universe series of games in Warcraft ala Marvel, each of their titles bear similar core aesthetics. When a new instalment looms on the horizon, gamers are often treated to exclusive content for other Blizzard hallmarks. Overwatch even stuck a Hearthstone cameo into its Disney-rivaling cinematic trailer. Let us not forget also that the Emmy award winning South Park episode lampooning World of Warcraft succeeded precisely because Blizzard were on hand to unlock the potential enjoyment of the spoof, rather than just blindly hand over the keys. The involvement Blizzard have in their imminent Warcraft movie-starter pack has been kept quite hushed, but given the textbook examples of how to achieve cross-platform success, it’s clear that there’s more planned here than just another fantasy flop.

Speaking of, with Nintendo having shot down every emerging rumour that they’re developing a live-action Legend of Zelda series for Netflix, the only rivals to Blizzard on the movie-game front are, oddly enough, themselves…sort of. Aside from Sony’s attempt to resurrect the dying zombie genre with a Last of Us adaptation, the biggest news in movie-game tie-ins was announced last November by Activision | Blizzard (the parent publishing company of Blizzard Entertainment) to create a series of ‘cinematic universes’ based on their best-selling titles under the banner of ‘Activision Blizzard Studios’. The production frontrunner is unsurprisingly Call of Duty. I would feel very foolish to doubt division head Nick van Dyk (who was chiefly involved in acquiring Pixar, Marvel and Lucasfilm during his tenure at Disney), but with the lack of core branding, characters to establish or names beloved to hardcore and casual gamers alike, this aggro approach to building a movie-game empire, instead of their subsidiary’s calculated, control method, seems spearheaded for a very fast game over.

Next Time: A lifetime of character building: Exploring the canon of David Bowie

Whether they’re for feedback or discussion, comments are always appreciated!

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Published on February 2 2016

How 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens' brings the magic of good Exposition back into film

Like most fanfare revolving around Star Wars: The Force Awakens, this piece begins not just with a spoiler warning, but with an actual spoiler. From particular shots to well executed twists, it’s a miracle that so much from Disney’s latest pay-off actually remains in the brain. For myself however, picking a favourite moment offered little contest:

As Finn, Rae and BB-8 are dashing for dear life from the First Order’s assault on Jakku, our conscientiously objecting stormtrooper points out of frame to a ship with which the trio might make their escape. Rae responds by dismissing the unseen intergalactic spacecraft as “garbage”, but when the snazzier ride in front of them is roundly disintegrated, she changes her tune and they dash towards the ship, now brought into the shot and revealed to be the Millennium Falcon.

I will always remember the audience reaction to that 10 second sequence; a back-to-back chuckle and mini-applause, followed by a heightened interest that lasted for the rest of the running time. To me, it’s a brief reveal that helps fulfill the promise of the sequel trilogy, however flawed the rest of this opening act may be. We obviously wanted to know what became of the most famous kessel runner of the galaxy, but to touch that nerve of nostalgia so expertly (in the middle of an action-chase sequence no less), using little else than some carefully crafted dialogue and bit of camera panning is an achievement I feel has been heavily glossed over amongst all the hearsay, hereditary guesstimations and ‘it’s A New Hope rip-off!’ grumblings.

I should point out at this point that despite being heavily lapsed as far as geeks go, I still consider a second viewing of Star Wars episode VII to be a pretty requisite outing. Now that all my hopes and fears for this installment had been dealt with in appropriate fashion, the difficulty for round two lay in deciding beforehand just where or what my eyes and ears should focus on once the familiar opening scroll faded away. I’d absorbed nothing but speculation and factory-line fan theories before reuniting with Han Solo and co., and since then I’ve seen the film’s story go through every kind of take-down and equally passionate defense imaginable. In the end, my undivided attention landed on an aspect that I think almost everyone has brushed asunder: the filmmaking itself.

Despite racking up a massive slew of records and memes at the jump of lightspeed, it’s nothing short of peculiar just how little the reviews and fan dissections have appraised the cinematic bells and whistles on display. Whilst I’m sure it’s something best left for the DVD and on-demand release, sitting through the film twice offered plenty enough to explore in the way of cinematography, editing and (remember, its J.J Abrahams at the helm here) lighting techniques. Without the freedom to screen-capture and explore all the individual shots just yet, I’d like to focus on an area of filmmaking that, in my opinion, has always sat as the perfect segway between script and screen: narrative exposition, and why Star Wars: The Force Awakens, warts and all, actually pulls it off quite beautifully.

How 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens' brings the magic of good Exposition back into film

When it comes to dishing out important plot details with an approach that feels natural and not so (sorry to say it…) ‘forced’, this movie has its work monumentally cut out for itself. Not only does it need to plug up the time gap typical of just about every sequel, but it has no less than thirty years of lost history to account for. Worse still, it wants to ensure we learn as many facts about the new faces as those we discover about our old heroes, to bait us to return for two more thirds of a trilogy, and to provide a ‘Star Warsy’ feeling whose definition no two fans can agree on.

Isn’t it interesting then, that neither of our two lead characters are given any dialogue in their opening ten minutes? Seamlessness is the name of the game when it comes to exposition, and without a single spoken word, the audience gets everything they need to know about Finn and Rae through purely visual storytelling cues. Better yet, their introductions run quite counter to one another; Finn is established as the killer-who-couldn’t through body language, inaction and an abundance of close-up shots (quite outside the image of a Star Wars stormtrooper - the fictional go-to of militarized anonymity), whilst Rae’s role as the interplanetary dreamer is done differently to that of Luke Skywalker in episode 4; with breathtaking establishing shots and a-day-in-the-life-on-Jakku sequence that, again, bait audience expectation using old Star Wars iconography (Star Destroyers, an AT-AT walker etc.). It’s an admittedly cheesy method of rebuilding your fantasy world sure, but one that was sorely missing last time around.

Famed author Jo Walton coined a term that stands as the cornerstone of good narrative exposition: Incluing. Defined as "the process of scattering information seamlessly through the text, as opposed to stopping the story to impart the information", I think the examples I’ve listed so far are textbook standard as far as film is concerned. If you were also looking for a one word answer for what was wrong with the prequel trilogy, incluing is as simultaneously effective and blunt as any lightsaber. Whether you felt more uncomfortable in a Jedi council hall or a galactic republican coffee room, so rarely was any information imparted to the audience through purely cinematic means, perhaps explaining why the CGI rendered ‘single-take’ that opened up Revenge of the Sith probably got more praise than it deserved.

Of course Star Wars as a series has the unique advantage over other blockbusters in that it can actually spell-out plot points from the get go using its opening crawl, yet have it be one of the most thrilling portions of the flick (trade negotiations notwithstanding). Personally, I think this is where our new movie actually outshines the original. Not envisioned as a trilogy, its strange how A New Hope kicks off with the sentence, “It is a period of civil war”, and ends basically in the thick of conflict (though I am aware that George Lucas had other ideas for how it was supposed to read). Meanwhile, J.J. Abrams actually sets up the perfect bookend for film one: “Luke Skywalker has vanished.” And then he is found. Storytelling at its finest!

On the subject, I’ve heard every fan and their mother (and I do mean that earnestly) complain that The Force Awakens tells a story they already heard a long time ago in the exact same, far, far away galaxy. I’ll put my biases on the table and say the throw-backs bothered me far less than others. Whilst a pastiche of old Star Wars tropes was something I only half expected, I rather like the idea of the ‘retro-movie’ that George Lucas himself ironically and deridingly threw out in his Charlie Rose interview.

How 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens' brings the magic of good Exposition back into film

In practice though, many of the more obvious reused story beats are not given the same expository grace as the new elements. Sure, the film tries not to waste any time in plainly telling us that Kylo Ren is Han Solo’s son, but the reveal of Starkiller Base and subsequent destruction of the Republic, shoehorning Maz Kanata’s cantina into the lull point and setting up a tensionless final X-wing assault wouldn’t feel so tasteless if they were given the same storytelling care as the all important first act of the film, which was happy to let the camera and setting guide the viewer, rather than leave it up to clunky dialogue that pretty much defines the inferior second half.

The most in depth critique of Star Wars: The Force Awakens directorial approach I’ve read is the repeated crowning of J.J. Abrams as the ‘ultimate fan-film director’. Well, to me that implies at least that he is somewhat exceptional at making movies, and an exceptionally made movie is what we got. It leaves me both arrested and cautious for Episode VIII, to be directed by Rian Johnson. Though his complicated 2012 sci-fi hit Looper relied on a narration-led approach that would never fly with Star Wars, it did present symbolic character dynamics and pulpy futuristic-action that could take this premier Hollywood franchise to even bolder frontiers.

Next time: How the 'Blizzard' logo could define the next era of Blockbuster cinema.

Find out when The Urban Shepherd goes on his next diatribe by following him on Twitter!

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Written by The Urban Shepherd

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