1st impressions: Preacher & issues with over adaptation

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Truly we live in a cross-media Golden Age, where anything from any medium can find new life and wider fandom in a different format.

Basically, if it can be adapted from a comic or a book or a video game or someone’s stupid Twitter Feed it can be transformed into a television show or movie.

The zenith of this are the television adaptions of A Song of Ice and Fire (renamed A Game of Thrones after the first book in the still running series) & The Walking Dead as well Marvel & DC’s various superhero cross-media “events”.

Unfortunately this means that with so many adaptations filling so many screens, the quality & which parts of the narratives they choice to follow as well as which characters they may change or cut various from production to production. More often than not fans of the original medium are angry &/or disappointed that they favourite scene, character or story arc has been either cut or changed beyond all recognition. After sci-fi series The Expanse had run its first season I was going to write an article about how the show completely race-washed, turning minor characters white for no other reason then TV producers prefer white people on screen because they perceive their audience to still be almost all white. I shit-canned the article because of crippling mental health issues but the arguments stayed with me.

When an adaptation diverts or completely diverges from its source material, it often creates a schism in the fan base. With the source material purists on one side decrying the changes as they wrest their shirts and beat their manboobs and the new/adaptation fans being blessed in their supposed ignorance of what they are missing out whilst being deprived of the original greatness (from the view of the members of 1st camp).

Yet there are many reasons for altering material within an adaptation that go beyond mere culturally ingrained racism. These have to go with keeping costs down, having to fit things within time/broadcast restraints as well as basic ignorance of the people doing the adapting. These harsh practicalities often mean that sections of the audience are left lamenting what they may never see or what never was yet they are crucial to how an adaptation is both produced and viewed by a wider audience. Obviously there are issues with not including important material from the source but if the adaptation is handled well, all that is cut or changed is not truly missed.

This brings us onto AMC’s last comicbook adaptation (the other being the widely popular The Walking Dead), Preacher.

Preacher was a seminal work from writer Garth Ennis and artist Steve Dillion as part of DC’s “mature” publication line, Vertigo, made (in)famous by how far Ennis was willing to push the idea of the grotesque, violence and the absurd (three trademarks of Ennis’ work). There had been previous adaptations in the works over the years, some even making into pre-production phases, but it wasn’t until 2013 when Hollywood uber nerd (and stoner) Seth Rogen had teamed up with AMC to produce a pilot of a series. Cut to 3 years later & the results are finally on our screen.

The short of it is, that the story surrounding Preacher is about titular preacher, Jesse Custer, being possessed by an entity called Genesis, the infantile product of breeding between a devil and an angel, that has escaped from a furious God, granting Jesse the ability to verbally command almost anyone around him to do, literally, what he says. This power bring him into conflict with forces divine and mundane who either want it for themselves or wish to see it destroyed. So he travels the US with his arsekicking ex-girlfriend, Tulip, & charming rogue-cum-scumbag Irish vampire, Cassidy.

Rogen & his writing/producing partners Even Goldberg and Sam Catlin obviously have a lot of love for the original comic but does not mean that they are not willing to make changes where they feel they are necessary or interesting.

The greatest toxic stain on any adaptation or franchise are those directors & writers who both adhere vehemently to the source material yet make drastic changes which make no thematic or narrative sense for the sake of a shiny visual or action scene. Zach Snyder is fundamentally the king for doing such things, so it is refreshing to see how Preacher’s creative team have handled their changes to the source.

One thing that riled a lot fans up was the casting of Ruth Negga (known mainly for being Raina in Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD), born of Ethiopian and Irish parents, as Tulip in a case of what some net-dwellers called “reverse whitewashing”. Some people genuinely can’t handle a known character being turned from white into another race yet have no qualms about it going the other way (this is why I term to be examples of Cultural Paradigm & Cutural Privilege). Yet in complaining they fail to see how well Negga captures the essence of Tulip, in her brutal creativity, capacity for violence yet her utterly caring nature. The scene in which we are introduced to her is kept lighthearted in how she teaches two small children how to make a bazooka out of household items, metal toy soldiers & cornshine but never denies that she’s a force to be reckoned with. Negga’s ownership of the character is impressive, even down to how she gets her Texan regional drawl, but never once does she feel like she has been changed for a misguided sense of tokenism.

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Original vs. TV version: let the race debate begin!

In fact, it is how much the actors who play the central characters inhabit their roles which makes Preacher such an impressive adaptation.

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Dominic Cooper (who is known for playing Howard Stark in Marvel films & TV series) plays Jesse Custer & you would swear that he was a native Texan with how well he performs the accent. There is no trace of English civility within him, replaced with a broken scene of Americanism that’s a fettered mix of faith & violence. Within the first scenes you know that Jesse is a man who is running away from something, whilst trying to do his best but not his hardest for the small & exceedingly backwards/redneck community to which he has returned after a long, unexplained absence. Cooper plays Jesse as a man seething with an underlying sense of helpless & rage, trying not to fall back into old habits but struggling with keeping the moral high ground against people without any sense of shame or even human decency to their fellow man.
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He’s joined by Joe Gilgun as the Irish vampire Cassidy, portraying him, ironically enough, as full of life. Cassidy is the embodiment of hedonism & self destructive behaviour all cloaked within the guise of roguish charm, to which Gilgun plays up with utter aplomb. His accent is flawless, especially reflecting the speed in which Irish people can talk when they’re spinning up a tale. Gilgun plays Cassidy as a man without a plan but confident that he can get out of any situation he finds himself stuck in through a combination of disarming charm, ingenuity & extreme violence -as depicted in his fight scene on a private jet. His involvement with and meeting of Jesse is a little tenuous but plays off well as Cassidy sees Jesse as both a kindred spirit & a source of entertainment who can provide him with shelter from the sun & whomever he’s happened to have pissed off.

The strong trinity of Negga, Cooper and Gilgun pushes the pilot episode through despite how it changes so much from the original comics, such as introducing the character of Eugene Root way earlier than he should’ve been but the young actor Ian Colletti portrays what would otherwise be a pathetic character as one nuanced with hope, shame & fragility at how he is perceived by those around him.

This is a series that I have good hopes for, especially by the impact made by the first episode.

The episode itself exists to set up basic context with the three lead characters without flooding the viewer with an over abundance of background information, played out against an invisible force from deep space (as seen in an incredible retro sci-fi B film opening) that is possessing & destroying high ranking members of the global religious community (including a Russian high priest of the Church of Satan & Tom Cruise delivering a Scientology sermon). The focus is primarily on Jesse as he struggles & fails to be the moral centre for a highly immoral community, constantly beset by members of his congregation, like mother issue swamped Ted, & their personal issues. This is reflected in how a young boy asks Jesse is hurt his dad because he beats up his mum, with Jesse laying out how things escalated when resorting to violence but fully knowing that the other authorities in town will do nothing to prevent the abuse & that often violence is the only answer to a bad situation. This is constantly brought up in how other characters, such as the sheriff & Tulip, bring up his past & bad reputation within the town -mainly by referring to how he is no longer acting like he used to. It’s all brought to a head by Tulip’s return to recruit Jesse into what one would assume to be a major crime & Cassidy crashing out of the sky only to stumble into a bar where Jesse drinks away his emotional pain.

The episode as a whole does not take itself too seriously but does not disrespect the audience or actors by playing up serious scenes or ideas by being silly, self conscious or giving any knowing winks of fan service. It plays with comicbook convention & loose scene/time transitions as well the hyper-realised violence &  yet does not over play the jokes. This is seen from the opening scene of an African minister exploding over his congregation you are well aware that this will be a show that indulges, like the original comic, in the grotesquity & absurd idea of violence without flashing up nudity ever 20 minutes (which is Game of Thrones greatest failing, replacing drama with tits & now cock). There is even a lack of foul language, despite the gory violence, which is a little surprising but well done in its own way.

This is so refreshing when we are caught in such a glut of cross-media adaptations, where things are being turned into movies or TV shows before their even published or dragged out or transformed beyond recognition of the original. Preacher touches the high watermarks of other series like Game of Thrones or Marvel’s work with Netflix where it keeps largely faithful to the source but isn’t afraid to venture out when new ideas are needed.

Time will basically tell if a wider audience will be willing to adopt another comicbook adaptation for the small screen -especially one from the 90’s before a large section of the audience weren’t alt-pop culture consumers. If the actors & production team keep up with what they provided in the pilot & stick to the spirit of the comics then it will be easily adored by others. Yet if they decide to swerve away from the cores of the characters & narrative, especially what sets both apart from other series out there, then it will more than likely be dropped quicker than a sci-fi series on Fox.

One More For The Road – Movie Critique: Wyrmwood – Road of the Dead

Wyrmwood coverTitle: Wymwood (AKA Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead)
Genre: zombie, horror, action, comedy, road movie
Director: Kiah Roache-Turner
Studio: Guerilla Films
Original Release: 12 February 2015
Running time: 98 minutes


Synopsis:

“After meteors fall over Australia, Outback mechanic Barry, his aboriginal friend Benny & their companions must battle flesh crazed zombies, non-combustible & a dwindling beer supply in order to save Barry’s sister Brooke from the clutches of a rogue army and the insane Doctor.”


Review:

When people think of Australian cinema, the first film they tend to think of, more oft than not, is Mad Max 2 (aka The Road Warrior). It wasn’t the first Australian genre film but it certainly set the benchmark for all those that followed -more so since it was more popular than the respectable Aussie releases of the era, such as Picnic At Hanging Rock. It was Mad Max 1 & 2 (& to a lesser degree, Mad Max [3] Beyond Thunderdome) That set the template for Post-Apocalypse genre from then on, with their crazed, leather clad raiders, insane & inhuman villains, wasteland setting & off-ya-face car designs & chases. They became the stable, & then the cliche, of so many Post-Apocalyptic forms. That was until the zombie genre gained a resurgence & took the throne. Yet, what would happen if you were to blend the tropes of the Mad Maxes & (over-indulged) zombie genres? The result would be the Aussie zombie road movie Wrymwood: Road of the Dead.

What makes Wrymwood instantly different from the hundreds of other zombie films out there is it’s very Aussie sense of humour. It’s dry, laconic, sarcastic, caustic & very self aware of how stupid the scenario is but it doesn’t give any knowing winks to camera. It plays the silliness straight & the actors –whilst not entirely brilliant– take it all very seriously so you can suspend your sense of disbelief. It’s very much more like Peter Jackson’s classic take on the zombie flick Braindead than George A. Romero’s genre launching flick Night of the Living Dead. The directors kept the trick of never letting the audience getting a proper rest to digest anything. It’s not non-stop action but the plot moves at a quick pace, yet still fitting in times for reflections upon the End of the World & a few beers to pass the time.

At first the narrative is chronologically disjointed. It begins with armour glad men trying to get a truck into a mechanic’s garage whilst fending off a ravenous hoard (well, cluster) of the Undead before cutting to Benny (Leon Burchill) telling his unseen (on screen) companions about how he & his two brothers, Tony & Mulla, were out hunting when they witness a meteor shower. The story sticks with Benny for a bit, with him telling the audience-surrogates how next day, Benny’s brother Tony has turned into a zombie who just slowly followed Benny around until Benny got the courage to put him down with a good old double barrel shotgun to the head. It’s a very good way to open such a cliched story, since it neatly tells you how the zombie outbreak began & how quickly it spread without getting bogged down in needless dialogue or rapidly intercut scenes of the news & global/local panic like so many other movies tend to do. It’s a very sedate start, lulling people in before it ramps up. The narrative then jumps back in time & between two characters, Barry –builder & family man– & his sister Brooke –alternative & tattooed artist-type.

Whilst doing a zombie inspired photoshoot, Brooke’s friends are turned into zombies & she is forced to kill one of them. This shows some very creative use of camera & actions –which very typical of early Aussie genre films with lots of Dutch Angles being used to give a sense of tension & make up for a lack of technical knowledge & budget. Brooke’s chaotic fight is juxtaposed with the serenity of Barry’s domestic life, with his wife & daughter settling in for the night. When their home is invaded by zombies, Barry must do all that he can to save them. The intersection of these two plots comes together when Brooke calls Barry to warm him of what’s going on, followed by Barry & family’s hectic escape from town -mowing down zombies who leap for them in their car.

What follows does come straight out of the zombie flick playbook –with Brooke being kidnapped by evil military people & given to a mad scientist, who is simply called The Doctor (played with utter relish by Berynn Schwerdt) & Barry dealing with the zombification of his loved ones (not really a spoiler, since it’s so obvious it was going to happen)– yet how the playbook is handled is what really pushes Wyrmwood above the usual grind(house).

Is everyone ready to. . . dance?!
Is everyone ready to. . . dance?!

One way is how the characters each react to the zombie apocalypse or have circumstances pushed upon them. Barry is both grieving & stoic but shows a vile temper simmering beneath the surface that he is all too happy to unleash upon some shambling flesh munchers. That temper is echoed in Brooke, who is subjected to torturous experiments by The Doctor, which seem to have no purpose other than to make Brooke suffer & for the camera to angle down at her cleavage. Yet she remains utterly defiant, even whilst tied up. She has the ability to fight, as seen in her earlier scenes, & is smart enough to learn when to wait. Other characters try to cling to some sense of (Australian) normalcy. Mainly by doing those little rituals that keep you human & keep you sane. This includes the character Chalker always toking on a joint, Frank & his mate doing a BBQ for Barry & Benny & keeping their sense of humour about them.

One thing that I do applaud the film makers for doing, something I’ve been saying all zombie media is stupid for lacking, is putting their characters in protection.

It might be made of plastic but it gets the job done
It might be made of plastic but it gets the job done

Early on they learn they zombies get you by biting you, so they quickly figure out that the best way to survive is to go all Ned Kelly & armour up. It doesn’t make them invincible or destroy the tension but it helps bridge the credibility gap that so many zombie things fail to grasp (looking at you The Walking Dead).

The other little clever twist that the directors add in is that formerly combustible fuels –such as gasoline & methylated spirits– no longer combust, so they can’t use their cars. What our heroes do discover is that the zombies produce a gas that can be turned into fuel, giving them a zombie powered road machine. So the zombies become both predator & prey for Barry & his mates. Since they need to escape the zombies but also need them to get away.

There are some other little nice genre twists but going into them would spoil the film somewhat.

Aside from the subversions of genre establishment, the other thing that Wyrmwood really has going for it is the very very Aussie sense of humour. There is lots of swearing –“fuck” & all its derivations are pretty much used as punctuation & sentence joiners– but it feels natural as an aspect of the Aussie vernacular (for the part). It plays on some lost tropes of Aussie humour, such as irony & understatement. Even though it does have a very Aussie flavour, I don’t think it would be alienating to international (at least English speaking) audiences.

The special effects & design also stand out. With a lot of time seemingly spent to get the zombie makeup just right & the gore everywhere. The film does overindulge in the old claret but it fits with the nature of genre films –where more blood than a body can hold has to spray out everywhere. It’s beyond cheesy but it’s done with love -mixing practical old fashion blood effects with CGI to fit bullet wounds. The action is also very well shot, with a clever & low grade fight scene at the end being a stand out. It can’t really compare with something out of Hong Kong or Hollywood but the fight choreography shows a love of genre & a working knowledge of how a scene should be shot without losing any sense of character, place or perspective (something which so many Hollywood fail to do these days).

Another note to add is that the film was made on a very limited budget ($160,000) with backing from  foreign investors -with the cast & crew saying that they won’t take any payment until the film sees a profit. So this is one film that I implore people NOT TO PIRATE! It’s rare to see a good Aussie genre film these days & it had a very limited cinematic release in Australia, so if we want to see the promised sequel we need to support it as much as we can.

In the end, if you are feeling jaded by the whole over saturated zombie genre but still can’t get away from it, Wyrmwood is the film for you. It may not be entirely original but it does so much that is new & interesting that it does breath new life into an (un)dying genre. & it’s good to resurrect a local industry once powerful, now near death.

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