Thursday, 10 October 2013

Trials on Trial: Beyond: Two Souls

I could put aside my qualms about French Canadians as Americans and the world’s worst “legal” police procedurals of 2010’s Heavy Rain when it came to loading up the demo of Beyond: Two Souls, a similar game that presents itself more as an interactive movie than a traditional game. First of all you hired a real actress this time. I like Ellen Page and the motion capture seems top notch from the title screen alone, so let’s kick it off and…

…I’m playing as a little girl? Ok, it’s not her yet but I can see they are doing an origin or flashback sequence. So let’s play…

…erm, ok, watch instead, something that was the recurring sentiment throughout my trial. I was asked to follow the polite enough orderly, who remained as such no matter how many times I picked up a toy only to be told to knock it off and come along, repeatedly.

Now unless this is a home visit I can quickly see my little pink girly bedroom is merely a quick paint job in the always creepily mono-shaded ward. But apparently I’ve earned that much as even as a small child, I am the only one in this medical practice that can open doors. Apparently being polite comes with favors. To these people. But I shouldn’t complain, even as a work down the hall people around me are neither ignoring me nor jumping out of nearby windows screaming. I feel like things are going to be just fi…

Willem Dafoe? NOOOOO!

You can’t tell me a man on the edge of the uncanny valley OUTSIDE of motion capture is going to be thinking of my best interests. Unfazed, apparently mini-Page has seen worse, probably X-Men: The Last Stand. So much though she doesn’t even care when a large mechanical apparatus is put on her head and told by Dafoe it’s just like crown fit for a princess.

Finally close to conventional enough gameplay began because before you can say Paranormal Activity, I find myself throwing bric-a-brac up and down and around the fat lady in the next room. Now whatever the head apparatus is intended for, what it is not is a lie detector because I specifically remember Dafoe asking mini-Page to knock things about, not her ghostly companion. I can’t trust anyone in this game…

FLASHFORWARD! A pile of polygons resembling the real Ellen Page is now in my control, this time learning hand-to-hand combat techniques with vague nods and quick time events. Better yet, you can fail a twenty-second routine nine times in a row and still be considered ready for active duty on the barely passed tenth attempt.
FLASHFORWARD! Never mind those guys with super seriousness caked all over their faces, it’s a demo after all. Now I’m on a train and before you say Paranormal Activity 2 I’m yet again a disembodied prankster, bothering my fellow passengers. From a story structure perspective, I can clearly tell I’m on the run by this point in the script and as the immovable force of knocking over plastic cups I’m also clearly a threat to national security. Who are our top men on the job? The back mountain pass Highway patrol!

While it is hard to tell how much of my input is taking effect, Page is running from her pursuers between train carriages, all the while the storm rages outside. Wait a second, raging storm? Outside? Nighttime? ON A TRAIN!? Climb outside, dam you! The cinematic effect can only enhance this thrill ride. Not bothered by the high speeds, strong winds, shaking and slippery surfaces, the patrol pile onto Page like she was Arnold Schwarzenegger and like Commando she throws them off with ease, but not off the high speed, strong winds, shaking and slippery surface. If I was a member of the patrol I would find it jarring with someone that small taking out so many officers. But then again, they didn’t have the luxury of that twenty-second routine from before.

Ellen Page is like an unstoppable train herself, evading officers, swatting off large vicious hounds like flies and climbing high rocky slopes in enough time to catch her breath and to whip out her invisible plot connivance trigger for another sequence of the Incredible Machine meets the Exorcist. But I may be underestimating my incorporeal companion though, because not long after having stolen a motorbike, I found myself literally driving through a three car thick roadblock with nothing more than a shadowy bubble around me. Although that might have come in handy earlier in the train.

Yet if totaling an entire police department wasn’t enough to get the message, next up for the chopping block were actual well-armed, highly trained operatives. Hiding behind a nearby car, it was time for Ghost Dad to clean up once more. So what’s going to happen this time? Am I going to roll their trucks out of the way? Kick up the snow in their faces? Or maybe control the guards to play grab ass?

Holy sh...

Screw just pranking potential threats, let’s straight up murder people! While only a demo, I would still like some indication that these men are doing something more sinister than just doing their jobs. But there is no time, instead men are driven to suicide, helicopters crashed and cars dumped on heads. Forget Ghost Dad, this is straight up Carrie!

Once the blood and dust have settled, Ellen Page grabs the last man standing as warns that if she is not left alone she will kill everyone…

…by the end of this demo I thought I already did.

What struck me by the end of the trial though was a quick pop up of recognition from the Triberca Film Festival and I believed it. But like the time notable film critic Roger Ebert weighed in on the matter, I never really understood the film industry’s need to critique gaming. I could easily walk out of the nearest cinema and complain about the overly linear gameplay and lack of proper input that “game” just presented. Although after this demo, I didn’t even need to do that.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Trials on Trial: Spartacus Legends

NOTE: Trials on Trial are not reviews but brief run downs of recently played demos.

By Jupiter’s cock they finally made a Spartacus game? Based on the hit TV show where by the third season every new episode came with a mandatory sex montage. Announced long before that though, it seems we might be getting the gladiator experience we’ve been waiting for all this time and now it’s here…

…for free to play?

A game that is free to play up until you hit the colossal pound shaped wall demanding your real world denari where you realise you have been fooled all this time into playing a longer than average trial. You take the role the head of the house of some guy where you train and fight with a gang of nobodies against the some bodies of the house of some other guy. The closest to bombastic personalities and scenery chewing galore of the TV show came when the titular Spartacus himself appears for a tutorial teaching me nut kicking is the way to go.

So like a demo, how far can I go as the penniless leader of men? I was first presented with a free-players choice between tanned guy A or slightly tanner guy B. It looks hot on that sand, so B should be used to it. After equipping him with the armour equivalent of a G-string I somehow button mashed my way into victory. Did I wield a sword and shield? A mighty trident or great spear? A long blade worthy of the Gods themselves? Nope, daggers. Every time daggers. Apparently reach has no purpose in a real fight. One by one the fellow houses fell at the might of my spam, yet all this time I thought for a game based on show known for violence and sex, Legends so far was light on punchy stabby lovey fun times. Granted I was hardly expecting a game about gladiators get hot and steamy but when it came to the gratuitous violence, the thumbs down moments were nowhere in sight.

In seems the only way to kill man in a fight to the death is to flex and show off to spectators. When I take a spear in the chest, as long as it’s wielder didn’t make a song and dance about it before hand, I should be able hold my. This is Spartacus dam it! Real man’s play! Eventually though my moment of bloody red glory came and in one swing of what the game told me was a old rusted dull blade (free to play so far after all), I sliced a strong man’s head right down the middle in two. Basic laws of science aside, I found myself more taken aback by the revelation that I had been fighting humanoid golems made of thick red clay this entire time.

Like the gladiatorial games of the Rome itself though, my victory was in name only. Tanner guy B was my only champion, the rest regulated to gamers with deep pockets. The moment I finally climbed the blood-stained ladder to the next tier, I found my once great slaying of clay men hacked up, dead in the sand. The only weapon worse than daggers were slightly bigger daggers. By the end of the trial run I came to the conclusion that when faced with defeat, if John Hanna were to suddenly appear and berate you with harsh worlds about godly phallus, I might of mourned his passing with a little levity intact. Alas tanner guy B did not become the legend I was promised, nor could I look back on his exploits with any shred of genuine glory. Granted I should have fought with more thought than that of a runaway train yet I still felt that the free silver I was receiving was pity charity next to the shining gold out of my free to play reach. I was taught a valuable lesson about the consolidation of wealth and power. That only the rich may survive in mighty Rome. Jupiter forbid I even attempt online play.

Friday, 14 June 2013

Film Review: Man of Steel

Directed by Zack Snyder, running time 143 minutes.

Marvel is currently ridding what could be casually described as the “money train”, with the recent success of Iron Man 3 showing no signs of it slowing down. While Marvel has great characters, DC has icons and no other more famous and recognizable than the Man of Steel; Superman. With the critical and commercial success of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy and the polar opposite farce that was Green Lantern, it’s no wonder then that this reboot gravitates towards the former in terms of somewhat darker style and ‘character-based set pieces’, with the said Batman director acting as producer. Yet while one tells the story of a man behind a cowl, the other is about a near invincible, super strong alien that can defy gravity… yes, a different story altogether. Enter 300 and Watchmen director Zack Snyder.

Henry Cavill stars as the technically non-titular character of Superman, referred to as Clarke Kent to Kal-El, but not so much as good old “supes”. It’s the classic comic book origin story with a few changes in details peppered throughout; Krypton is about to be destroyed, Jor-El (Russel Crowe) sends his son to another Earth where the different star environment grants the child super human abilities and of course not everyone is happy with this prospect. While it wouldn’t be unfounded to simply say “been there, done that”, with a character SO recognizable, a complete pulling of the rug from under this memorable prologue would actually be a crime, culturally. Instead it is the running message and overall tone that sets this adaptation apart, which is both its strength and its kryptonite.

Man of Steel clearly has its heart in the right place, emphasizing the reality of its other worldly character by the posing the big questions about what it means to be said “super”. The title itself is reflective of this, Cavill playing a “man” of steel, rather than simply just a super man, where even the mention of the original hero title is played for laughs. The film is at its most interesting when the focus is on its characters. Of particular note are the various flashbacks to Clarke Kent’s younger Smallvile years and his relationship with his adoptive father who is the catalyst for the character’s own ideals. This is carried by a memorable if not show stealing performance by Kevin Costner who seems to be the key to injecting a little humanity into this CG powerhouse. By the conclusion I’d be lying if I didn’t find the final flashback to highlight this best. The interactions between Cavill and Amy Adams as Lois Lane also does have a degree of believability to it, with Adams acting as a bridge between his sheltered side and the public hero.

It’s a shame then however as these scenes, as good as they are, are scattered in-between the running narrative, not only fragmenting the pace at times but also shining a light on what is an ever changing tone. It can be jarring when you prop up slow paced thoughtful dialogue next to bombastic action and scenery chewing. The script is trying to have it both ways as a character study and a summer blockbuster and when it comes down to it, sadly the latter always becomes the showpiece and has the potential to lessen any emotion the film makers were going for. To put it bluntly, it’s classic Zack Snyder where style is put over substance, even if the substance we get is actually the centre of the story.

But then again, its style is a whole other beast, but more on that later.

A recurring problem with the concept of Superman in cinema is if a character is larger than life with powers and stories far beyond that of reality, it can be difficult to shoot on a technical level. But this is the digital age and now is the perfect time to really show what Superman is made of. The plausible choice of first villain; General Zod levels the playing field by having another Kryptonian to test out our new incarnation. Even better however is the choice to cast Michael Shannon purely based on physical appearance alone, being the kind of man you would find intimidating with a soul-piecing stare even if he was being wholesome like taking his children to the zoo. Despite doing his fair share of the previously mentioned scenery chewing, Shannon appears to be having fun with the role, fun that’s injected straight back into the film making every scene he’s in a set piece in itself. The perfectly serviceable Russel Crowe as Jor-El is surprisingly prominent despite being dead following the first act, a disembodied presence briefly explained by Kryptonian science the same way you explain the unknown to a child to just to change the subject *waves hands around going oooooooo*. In addition to Shannon, his right hand lady Antje Traue also proves as an effective and memorable villain, if only to act as mini-boss when the action begins to be turned up to 11.

Snyder clearly has a spot for the elaborate set piece and with fights where every punch results in the collapse of a building; the result is what you’d expect, about as subtle as a getting tackled through a falling satellite… which happens in the film by the way. Problem is, when you consider that the audience is supposed to care for our characters up to this point, when Metropolis is getting pounded up, down and side to side, no doubt causing untold numbers of causalities in the process, that previous element of humanity from the first two thirds is lost amongst all the fire and rubble. Instead it seems to be expecting me to suddenly turn my brain off, if only because I got bored then I suppose it worked. While the visual spectacle of seeing super humans throw one another miles back and forth through buildings does a have a flare to it, being a succession of grand spectacles that is sure to please, when the final show down came I felt it was over staying its welcome having dwelled on it for nearly 40 minutes, made worse by the genuinely effective character moment that came by the very end of it, reminding me about the large gap in between. I'm glad that the true power of Superman has been well represented on the big screen, apparently just not as much as the filmmakers.

As the credits ran, I wondered just where this reboot could be taken next. On one hand I felt is had been a success, with Cavill acting the part, perfectly serviceable supporting roles including a couple of standout performances and a new sense of perspective on the character. Yet I also wonder if Snyder has gone all in too soon. Heavy action in a super hero film is not expected, it’s mandatory yet when I’m more interested in the character development than Dragon Ball-style showdown, a balance is in dire need. The overall experience is an enjoyable if noticeably flawed one. Warner Brothers clearly wants this to be a success and should be told as such for what they have produced nonetheless. Where they take the character next is ripe with possibilities, I just hope they realise that they are in the man part of it and not the super.

Now then… Wonder Woman?

Also starring Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburne and Christopher Meloni.

Monday, 29 April 2013

Film Review: Iron Man 3

Directed by Shane Black, running time 130 minutes.

The Avengers may have raised the bar for expectations of the entire super hero adaptation crowd, where such films can be loud and bombastic yet also have likable well-rounded characters even if they are dressed for Halloween and battling space whales. The first Iron Man set this stage and the second, despite an apparent lasting lack of enthusiasm, was personally at least, serviceable fun. It may be easy to follow Iron Man 2, but the Avengers may be tricky.

The now ever reliable Robert Downey Jr. returns as Tony Stark, still probably the best cast of the entire Marvel lineup so far. Following the events of the Avengers, Stark is going through a series of anxiety attacks, and let’s be honest, following a potential suicide mission of hurling a live nuke in a wormhole at an intergalactic armada may not be the trick to taking of the edge. Pushed to an emotional brink, he calls out international terrorist archetype, the oddly named non-Chinese ‘The Mandarin” played by Ben Kingsley with obvious explosive results. All the while, a shifty Aldrich Killian played by Guy Pearce is peddling strange regenerative experiments under shrouded connections.

Even with explosive results, the third installment is predominantly a character piece in bed with a fast paced crime thriller. Rather than the “how Tony Stark got his grove back” motif of Iron Man 2, here Stark is attempting to rebuild himself as a new man. From the beginning we see that he is struggling to settle down legitimately with Pepper Potts played by Gwyneth Paltrow, constantly working to avoid admitting he has a problem. Seeing Downey Jr.’s titular character in a withdrawn, even vulnerable state is an interesting shift in the dynamic of the character. However there are the stretches of egotistical snarkiness that we seem to be drawn towards, so while on paper it may read as unfunny brooding, the character is still the all the same, just that the circumstances have changed also now requiring a change of heart and Robert Downey Jr. is giving it his all.

There seems to be a current trend where super heroes are not allowed to appear as such for most of the film, with the Dark Knight Rises and Amazing Spider-Man probably having a collective half hour each of costumed antics. Iron Man 3 does gravitate towards this portrayal, even beating him down to the point of being thrown back to a position reminiscent of the first half of the earliest Iron Man, after all it’s about the man, not the suit. Although rather than have entire acts absent of “super-fun-time”, Stark ends up jumping in an out of suits at a swift pace, backed up by antagonist minions in constant hot pursuit (that will become a bad pun after seeing this film) making up most of the action. The action itself outside of the obligatory impossible stunts climax is for the most part weaved into the narrative, rather than contrived director “oh no, we need some action here” moments that plague most films with any hint of fast pace. The final act itself is also fine but given the emphasis on characters so far, the showdown set piece is not the highlight you came to see and take away by the end.

Don Cheadle returns, now as the now rebranded “Iron Patriot” but has a noticeably lower key role, being less of a starring supporting role of the second and more of casual support, at least until the finale. Despite Ben Kingsley appearing in every trailer with menacing monologue and doing an overall fine job, given that Guy Pierce is set up from the get go as a shady corporate suit, if you’ve seen the last two Iron Man films with their “business conspiracy” plots than it wouldn’t be a spoiler to say that he has a major antagonistic role to play. In fact I will go as far as to say most of the plot can be figured out before the revelations… again, most however. Without giving away any major developments, there is a twist of a certain kind two-thirds the way into the film. While it does work in terms of the script, it’s initially tonally jarring and I would be lying if I said it didn’t bother me at first. However by the time the credits rolled it wasn’t a lasting issue and the film had gone ahead with payoff. Although there is one quick action Guy Pierce does for a couple of seconds that is incredibly cartoonish even for the standards of a franchise with Viking Gods and green monster men. You’ll know it when you see it.

Director Shane Black has clearly held is own in the Marvel Cinematic Universe franchise, without the plot of The Avengers hanging over the story. The third installment is very much its own feature, with the occasional line acknowledging the wider playing field and as a result the film is much stronger for it. However that didn’t stop my inner nerd asking where S.H.I.E.L.D. is in all of this mess, although the average bystander and small character roles asking about the aliens is a nice subtle touch. You would if you knew there were aliens, right?

Also, yes, there is a post credit sequence.

Iron Man 3 has continued to prove the popularity of the character and Disney/Marvel’s cinematic conquest, being a more than worthy follow up. In all honestly though, at time of writing I’m not sure if Iron Man 3 matches up with the first or not. I would have to revisit both again soon but even asking the question is a good enough indicator that third time is still a charm.

Also starring Rebecca Hall, John Favreau and Paul Bettany.


Sunday, 28 April 2013

Game Review: Injustice: Gods Among Us

Before I start, a “little” context:

It would be fair to say that I have a particular inclination towards the fighting game genre. The idea of a cast of martial arts masters to outright cartoonish misfits going toe to toe, often for some of the most contrived reasons in any story telling medium, has a certain appeal I admit to enjoying for entire run of my gaming run (IE nearly all my life)… and now for the contradictory statement. I have never been the best at them either, at least against enough uman opponents.   However in another twist of logic, my enjoyment of the genre is also why I can’t throw a Hadoken to save my life… bar.

Variety is the spice of life, you can’t just limit yourself to a game where grandmasters fight for the title when you can also play one where demon ninjas slice up cyborgs or a Chinese girl tags in panda bears. Yet with it, one can never take the time to perfect the art of stringing combos and a well-timed blocks and counters of any one game and be a real competitor. I won’t shell out a brick of notes for an arcade stick and I more than likely won’t survive the first few rounds of a tournament, but what I can do is get to grips and learn beyond the basics. To tell when a fighting game has more than flash in its mechanics...

…and with that: Batman!

Well, actually it’s the DC Universe when it comes to Injustice: Gods Among Us but if you’re just the casual observer to the comic giant, it’s all about Batman for you. Injustice is developed by NetherRealm Studios, the most recent brand for the veteran developers of the Mortal Kombat series. While having struck oil with their most recent entry to the series, rather than follow the obvious path and simply churn out a samey sequel, NeatherRealm actually created something of a spiritual successor… with Batman!

Injustice features a current cast of 24 super heroes and villains from across the DC Comics (multi?)universe to “throw down” and the choices are defiantly unique. Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman may be the obvious choices yet other characters who, let’s be honest are outside of the public spot light make appearances; like Ares, Killer Frost and Black Adam. Other choices are recognisable to those without the archive comic knowledge but have been given fresh spins, namely Aquaman who despite all the Super Friends and Family Guy jokes at his expense is one the most “badass” characters in the roster.

But why are the defenders of justice Green Lantern and the Flash destroying downtown Metropolis just take out eachother? The plot is simple yet told well enough, concerning an alternate reality where a traumatised Superman establishes a new world order, causing heroes and villains to switch sides on the fly. While is sounds simple (and it is), the extra layer of cross-mortality punch-ups occur when the prime, sane and good natured Superman universe crosses over with the other. Again, trust me it is simple.

This is because the story is presented in the same straight forward manner of the previous Mortal Kombat, where players switch between characters and fights as the plot unfolds like a film/series with in-game cut-scenes, where the gameplay begins just as conflict starts, a format more fighting games should adopt, even if the occasional mini-game thrown on the side doesn’t quite gell with the rest of the presentation and gameplay. Overall, I’d say it acts as something of a lavish 4 to 5 hour tutorial for new players.

It isn’t a particularly riveting tale or on par in terms of development with notable examples of its source material. Because of the constraints a fighting game immediately places, there are some very contrived events and character motivations at times to start conflict. A casual conversation turns to blood shed due to spontaneous suspicions while a hero who was punched into outer space has no hard feelings moments later. Then of course one begs the question how Harley Quinn can survive a brawl with Doomsday, a reason quickly mentioned then brushed off that is actually more dumb than “HEY! MAGIC!” Yet I would be lying if I said I didn’t appreciate any reason to play as the Joker on the level of Bane.

Still, overall the script is inoffensive with great voice talent, including those pulled from the classic DC animated series (Kevin Conroy Batman baby!), with dialogue that does a good job at outlining the DC universe without getting bogged down in exposition. Plus there are some unique character portrayals such as a hero turns by villains like Deathstroke and Lex Luthor (in a nifty robot suit to boot). Despite issues, it is still an improvement on the majority of its genre.

Other modes include a traditional arcade ladder of battles with a chosen character towards a showdown with an evil Superman, but also a list of variations such as sped up time or slowly draining life bars that add some variety to a fairly typical format. A side mode called S.T.A.R. Labs provides 240 challenges that covers the entire roster. However despite the scale appearing as a potential abundance of playable content, the challenges themselves are mere distractions disguised as optional “stories”, if by story you mean brief text without context or audio. Some are useful in that they can further teach the player mechanics and character move sets, others are simple mini-games that may be mildly fun the first or second time only, while others are just frustrating and out of place in a fighting game. Along with the functional obligatory multiplayer options, all game modes keep a record of your play time, with certain conditions granting experience points towards levelling up your player profile. While holding no real merit beyond a false sense of “showiness”, each level allows unlockables ranging from new somewhat, near costumes to concept art, the usual pointless affair.

But what of the gameplay itself? Also like the story mode, if you played the 2011 Mortal Kombat, there is also a sense of familiarity. I’m not saying you’ll witness a scene where Catwoman decapitates Green Arrow, far from it, but the mechanics and control are strikingly similar. Jumps, upper cuts and projectiles are fielded with the same timing and strategy, while certain attacks like Batman’s grapple cable to a degree call back to Scorpion’s classic “GET OVER HERE” move. That isn’t to say this is an issue however. Firstly, Mortal Kombat’s fighting engine is solid and secondly Injustice does have a few features to call its own. For one, characters vary in how they play depending on size and fighting style with some having quick strikes, jumps or projectiles while others are slow and brutish but powerful. Characters also all have a special ability mapped to the same button input but is unique to each one, from shields to powerups.

Another feature that is very unique to Injustice is the interactive environments. While you can transition to other levels during a single fight like some other fighting games, Injustice utilizes an interactive background. Despite the game playing on a two dimensional plain, players can reach into the near background and use them in battle. These interactions work functionally well the different character styles, for example in one level a larger fighter can throw a motorcycle while a smaller fighter will leap on and drive it into their opponent. The extra layer of interactivity combined with the noticeable character differences provides an interesting and fresh approaches to the fighting gameplay, knowing how to tackle different sized opponents or when to use the environment to your advantage. Having been developed with gameplay, instead of simply tacked on, these features of not intrusive or hard to understand. However if you desire straight fighting, these interactive elements can be optionally disabled.

While this is all happening, players will progressively fill a meter separate from their life bar that can be utilized in ways such as enhancing the damage of their regular moves or countering others. It can also be “wagered” to regain health, however this mini-game system is actually intrusive without any strategy that game seems to pretend is has. Even if the resulting clash that ensues is delightfully flashy with great character lines, it doesn’t quite gell with the system. But really, you’re only going to use your meter for one thing: super moves!

With a full meter and well timed usage, players can pull off devastating cinematic style combo attacks that defy the laws of practicality and plausibility. I’m talking Superman launching opponents into space and back, the Flash charging up a punch by running around the planet and Doomsday pummelling others right through the Earth’s core. Even the more grounded characters can to enjoy the spectacle with Deathspoke’s unusual large arsenal of firepower and the over the top brutality combo of Solomon Grundy. Sadly there are few tame stinkers, namely Harley Quinn and Wonder Woman’s when compared to others. Another issue is these animations are the same each time, which may prove tedious if you end up witnessing them on a regular basis. In my humble opinion however, they did not grate on me and are in fact on the highlights of the entire game, with Lex catching and throwing an orbital satellite laser blast being a personal favourite.

…and Aquaman? Like a boss!

Injustice: Gods Among Us is a uniquely strange fighting game. On one hand it is reminiscent of Mortal Kombat at times, while on the other it utilizes some features currently unheard of in the genre, all the while showcasing iconic DC characters. Bizarre though as it may be at times, combing simple controls with solid gameplay together with the elaborate presentation, NeatherRealm have developed an entertaining original IP within a genre dominated by long standing franchises.

While it could be tempting for the studio to develop another Mortal Kombat or Injustice, it would be interesting to see where they can take the framework next…

…just don’t make another Mortal Kombat Vs. DC Universe.

Friday, 26 April 2013

Long time, no writing

It has been more than a year since I've done any proper writing despite not only having seen plenty of films but also having more to say about them. The last year has been a jumble of tasks, jobs, traveling and other random events.

However things have settled for now and now it's time to jump back in... even if there isn't anyone to read it, it's what I want to do.

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

The Top NINE Films of 2011

As with every year, I present my own personal favorites of 2011 IN NO ORDER. As also with every years the films are those that came out in just the UK that year, while I also admit myself there are no doubt a number of films that year I have missed with a good chance of breaking this list.

And why just nine films? Everytime you do a Top 10, you're always stuck on one of them.

(Directed by Gavin O’Connor, running time 140 minutes)

Tom “soon to be Bane” Hardy and Joel “I think he was in that poor remake of the The Thing disguised as an even poorer sequel, seriously, what was the point of that film again? But I digress”... Edgerton star as a pair of estranged brothers who both enter a mixed martial arts fighting tournament for their own personal reasons, with Hardy under the training of the even more estranged father played by Nick Nolte. What reads like a predictable set up of every other sports drama definitely holds true, with more people comparing it to last... same year’s The Fighter. Yet with the MMA as the focus for once a long with a strong script and some fantastic character performances, with Nick Nolte easily topping the best of them of 2011. Couple that with some genuinely thrilling ‘Ultimate Fighting’ sequences, Warrior is a drama that doesn’t bore.

13 Assassins(Directed by Takashi Miike, running time 141 minutes)

Modern day Japanese popular culture is a confusing, baffling and even at times wholly perverted enigma, so any throw back to a time where the nation had a sense of dignity is always welcome. However with Ichi the Killer, Audition director Takashi Miike's 13 Assassins, the reign of the samurai once again feels fresh on the big screen. Set during the slide of Shogun rule, an honorable samurai plots the assassination of the heir of the shogun, a young but cruel tyrant who murders, rapes and pillages for pleasure. With it comes a build up of well constructed exchanges of dialogue that leads to a literal 45 minutes pay off of none stop professionally choreographed and shot violent action of 13 assassins against a small army of body guard. While far from the cinematic heights of Akria Kurosawa, to capture that traditionalist style to a point is in itself an achievement.

(Directed by Gore Verbinski, running time 107 minutes)

Johny Depp voices a pet chameleon lost in the Mojave Desert who stumbles upon a makeshift Old West-style community of other small dusty critters, where he inadvertently becomes something of a folk hero. With a cast packed of less than Hollywood attractive animals includes geckos, rattle snakes, naked mole rats and desert mice, the colourful ensemble makes for some more interesting characters and highly detailed animation. Even with the bland set up of a fish out of water becoming a hero scenario, the narrative is well paced supported with a good level humor, both crude and slap-stick. We’ve had a break from Pixar this year (you made a sequel to your weakest film?) so it’s good to have an animated feature that’s not necessarily ambitious but well constructed.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
(Directed by David Fincher, running time 158 minutes)

It would be fair to say that I’m usually one of the first to set themselves on fire in protest at the prospect of film remakes, particularly foreign films. However since the Swedish original was a film based on (in all honestly) a rather weak story, and with David “The Game, Seven, Fight Club, Zodiac, Social Network” Fincher, this project was innocent until proven guilt. Better what audiences received was not only a worthy adaptation of the book but also in my humble (HA!) opinion the superior of the two. While Daniel Craig is serviceable as the journalist Mikael Blomkvist hired to uncover a murder within a rich family, the latter team up with Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander easily steels the show with delightfully unhinged performance as the investigative hacker. The story is further supported by memorable supporting roles from Christopher “Greybeard” Plummer and Stellan Skarsgard, Trent Reznor’s unconventional score and Fincher’s classic flair for gritty atmosphere and subtle humor.

The Troll Hunter
(Directed by André Øvredal, running time 103 minutes)

This humble piece from Norway probably surprised me the most and is probably contender for most underrated film of the year. This fictional “found footage” style documentary follows a small student film crew as the document the exploits of a reclusive hunter of “real life” wild trolls, whose secret profession is supported yet hidden by the Norwegian government. Unlike other films of its genre, the majority of the film is presented in a structured format and escapes, for the most part, being nothing but a string of shaky cam footage and screams. After all, this is supposed to be a professional hunter. What not only saves yet propels this creature feature is an obvious yet down played tongue in cheek sense of humor and the attention to detail when attempting to present the trolls as potentially real life natural beasts, including faux biology and medical science. Otto Jespersen as the titular troll hunter is a clear break out performance as a man who is clam and collected in the face of savage beasts and is what makes his dangerous practice such a thrill ride to be apart of.

True Grit
(Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, running time 111 minutes)

Yet another remake but one that follows a cliche ridden John Wayne western. The Coen Brothers inject new life into the Western with this superior and grittier version that follows a young girl played by Hailee Steinfeld as she hires local legend gunslinger (and drunk) played by Jeff Bridges to hunt down a low life who killed her father, played by Josh Brolin. As with any Coen Brothers piece, the setting is still harsh to a degree, with most characters being straight up terrible people yet is full of wit and black humor that makes the long stretches of dialogue both interesting and fun. With supporting roles from Matt Damon and Barry Pepper, great cinematography and atmosphere, True Grit is far succeeds as a modern western classic. What still confuses me though is the last year nomination for Steinfeld for Best Supporting Actress... she’s the main character let alone actress.

Black Swan
(Directed by Darren Aronofsky, running time 108 minutes)

Aronofsky returns with his trademark theme of hopeless adversity. Natalie Portman plays a meek ballerina who is given the chance to the duel role in a theater production of Swan Lake. Attempting to achieve this given role comes at the cost of what quickly becomes a descent into madness, worsened by the presence of the more free spirited fellow dancer played by Mila Kunis. The script is dark to say the least, with additional scenes of blunt sexuality, body horror and surreal mindsets. Yet it is all in support of the film and it’s multiple twists and turns, along with some particularly striking performances from Vincent Cassel and Winona Ryder. It’s easy to see why Portman swept the awards last year as Black Swan is by far her most demanding and bleak performance yet.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes
(Directed by Rupert Wyatt, running time 105 minutes)

A personal favorite as it delivers on a somewhat ridiculous premise, at least one on paper. James Franco is a scientist attempting to cure Alzheimer’s disease by improving the brain functions by testing on chimpanzees. One of his test chimps named Caesar played by Andy Serkis in motion capture quickly shows signs of human level of intelligence. However as misunderstanding leaves him in wild chimp house where he becomes bitter while also rallying the other primates around him. What makes this film fascinating is it being on of the few where big budget CGI actually supports the characters. There are long stretches with next to no dialogue, instead showing the facial expressions and body language of the apes that not only makes them believable but the more sympathetic characters of the film. In short Serkis deserves a new form of acting award his work. However even the human characters hold their own with a strong performance from John “Dick Solomon” Lithgow as the Alzheimer’s inflected father of Franco.

Midnight in Paris
(Directed by Woody Allen, running time 94 minutes)

*SIGH* Fine... you got me. Out of all of the film industry, Woody Allen: you win. I actually really like a straight up romantic comedy for once. A better yet, you actually gave Owen Wilson something credible to be in for once!

Owen Wilson plays a developing writing who takes his fiancee to Paris, which he believes was host to some of the greatest artistic and literary minds during the 1920s. Despite being shrugged off by many around him in the present, he somehow finds a way to go back to the 20s every midnight. While the prospect of time travel and interacting with famous figures of history sounds like something a six year old would conceive, Woody Allen places his protagonist amongst the famous intellectuals and creative minds of the time causing much of the dialogue and humor to be full of charm and wit. Ever present is also the theme of nostalgia and what it can mean to people personal and their work method. I’ll say it again, this is very much a romantic comedy, yet it’s also a great film that I genuinely liked. Thus, it’s probably up as one of, if not the best of its genre.

Honorable mention:
127 Hours
Captain America: The First Avenger
The King's Speech
...and any other a end up watching further done the line in 2012