Saturday, 31 December 2011

Top5 Favourite Games of 2011

As 2011 is drawing to a close I will be doing a couple of countdowns of my fav things of the year. In this episode, my top 5 games!

Now as with all these countdowns, it is merely my personal favourites out of what I’ve been playing this year, not any kind of definitive list. And so without further ado:

5) Dead Space 2 (PS3)

The most apt comparison here is what Aliens is to Alien. Similar to the first Dead Space game but everything is bigger and bolder, with more creatures to dismember and more frantic shooting than the original’s more creepy ‘haunted house in space’ feel.

The fact that Isaac now talks and shows his face in this one made me initially feel a bit more detached from the experience, however with a decent story and cut scenes this soon didn't matter all too much.

Dead Space 2 also gets the award for hardest platinum trophy of the year for me – in order to get it you had to complete the game on the hardest setting using ONLY three saves during the entire game. The fact that I persevered and finally snagged that plat is a testament to this game’s enjoyability.

4) NBA Jam (PS3)

A remake of sorts of the old classic (played on the SNES for me), NBA Jam has been updated and improved in every way - yet still retaining that simple yet highly enjoyable gameplay.

It's at its best when enjoyed with friends – the new alley-oop mechanic especially being a joy to pull off when coordinated just right.

Want to see big-head mode Obama jump 30ft in the air over McCain’s head to dunk and shatter the backboard? In this game you can.

3) Scott Pilgrim vs The World: The Game (PSN)

At first I was slightly disappointed that the game didn't rise up to the high standards left by last years scrolling beat-em up fav Castle Crashers, however in time the depth of the fighting mechanics slowly revealed themselves - especially the more you levelled up.

Being able to smack down enemies and bosses you previously found hard proved immensely satisfying due to the excellent levelling system; and the pixel art and chiptune soundtrack were delightfully retro and yet fresh at the same time - accurately evoking the feel of the Scott Pilgrim comics.

2) Uncharted 2 (PS3)

Why not Uncharted 3, I hear you cry? Well, because I haven’t played it yet! I only got around to playing the second installment of this series earlier on this year and I loved every minute of it.

Great story, acting and animation, beautiful scenery, engaging platforming and shooting mechanics - this game has it all. It's the equivalent of a blockbuster movie for games, but one that ticks all the boxes.

With added multiplayer competitive and coop missions, there is plenty to do even after playing through the story (which I did more than once).

I'm looking forward to playing the third installment soon, even though I don't really know how much more Naughty Dog can improve on the existing formula. To be honest though, I’ll be happy even of its just more of the same – its that good.

1) Dark Souls (PS3)

You knew it was coming didn't you?

I had high expectations of this game after playing the excellent Demon’s Souls last year (also from Japanese developers From Software) but this one still managed to amaze me.

Differing from the hub system of the previous game, Dark Souls presented the player with one huge open world to explore, from crumbling castles to flooded dungeons and eerie hushed forests all stitched together seamlessly. The location is key here – there was a definite sense of place.

Whilst some RPGs have bigger worlds and play areas, you would never find empty expanses here – everything is insanely detailed and serves a purpose to the overall function of facilitating your exploration. If you saw a building in the distance, chances are you could walk to it.

This game is dark too. Both literally - lighting plays a strong role in creating much of the game’s atmosphere; and figuratively – this is dark fantasy. Its all blood splattered, moulding, festering, tentacles and dark gothic spires. Not a comedy orc sidekick in sight.

The music (which only really occurs in boss fights) is also consistently great and adds to the dread, the rush of battle and the eventual elation you feel when facing and then finally overcoming one of the games many gigantic monstrosities. My heart has never pounded so fiercely than in this game's (and precursor Demons Souls') boss fights.

Yes, people are going to go on about the difficulty – but as far as games go – it’s really not that difficult. Having platinumed both Souls games I can say that rather than being unfairly harsh due to bad game mechanics or overly cheap enemies, the game rewards careful progress and thoughtful, calculated movement and combat (when you swing your sword you better mean it!), making every new enemy defeated and every new area discovered an intensely rewarding experience. It’s the kind of game where you can’t wait and yet are simultaneously terrified of finding out what’s around the next corner.

I could elaborate on all of these points for days and I haven’t even started to discuss the character classes and customisation, the blank player-action driven narrative, the souls system, the killable NPCs, the PvE and PvP experience, the sense of isolation - there is no other game experience quite like it.

For those reasons and so many more, Dark Souls is by far the game of the year for me.

30 Dec 2011

Film Roundup - December - Part 2

Okay, we’ll keep this quick and zip through as there are going to be another part (or two) after this one.

First up we have Crazy Stupid Love, which includes (amongst a uniformly great cast) Steve Carel, Julianne Moore, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. Although at first glance it appears to be just another rom-com, this one isn’t afraid to go a tone darker in its humour one minute (the marriage an older couple falling apart) and then delight with witty banter the next (Stone’s charming ‘seduction’ scene with Gosling).

Various coincidences, complications and love triangles abound; and despite the lengthy running time (the ending should have come soon after the barbeque scene where all the characters collide spectacularly), this one’s a keeper.

Also starring Emma Stone is The Help, based on the best selling book of the same name. Set around the time of the civil rights movement, the film documents the experience of several black women who serve as hired ‘help’ in rich white families and contains plenty of tear-jerking and heart-warming moments.

Standouts include the two housekeepers Aibileen (Viola Davis) and Minny (Octavia Spencer), but also Bryce Dallas Howard shines as the stupendously villainous socialite Hilly.

Mel Gibson stars in The Beaver - a darkly comic effort directed by Jodie Foster, where he plays a CEO of a toy company who is rescued from the spiral of depression by a talking glove puppet with a mockney accent.

After regaining his family’s affection and turning his fortunes around via the outspoken and can-do attitude of the puppet, it becomes apparent that the thing has a life of its own and is unwilling to relinquish its host.

Despite sounding like a barrel of laughs (at one point this was a purported Jim Carrey vehicle,) this film is actually very dark in tone, with scenes of Gibson attempting suicide and struggling with his mental illness.

Perhaps it is just fate that recent controversial events in Gibson’s personal life add more resonance to his part and make his fall from grace and eventual redemption in the film eerily fitting.

Last up we have Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, the fourth entry to the series – actually presented as more of a spin-off, with Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow taking centre stage in the adventure.

Despite having a great cast (Geoffrey Rush’s Barbossa returns, joined by new entrants Blackbeard, played by Ian McShane and Angelica played by Penelope Cruz), the film which should have been an exciting monstrous Squid ends up being a lacklustre damp squib.

The characters are not given much room to breathe and the story lacks any tension or interest. Maybe its time to commit this franchise to a watery grave?

Also can Hollywood please give Stephen Graham a good role, already? Have they not seen This is England?

See you in Part 3 of December’s Film Roundup!

29 Dec 2011

Thursday, 29 December 2011

Hanna - A Fairytale

Hanna is wonderful.

And I don't just mean the 16 year old, trained from birth assassin – although Saoirse Ronan in the role is indeed wonderful.

The film itself evokes a sense of wonder much like a fairytale, that aptly matches the title character’s own discovery of the world.

Here we have an action thriller shot like an art film via the dreamy haze of a fairytale. At times, such as in one early chase scene, the camera spins dizzily about, disorientating - as Hanna flees in unfamiliar concrete environs.
Another moment sees Eric Bana in a single take shot where it follows him through the streets and then down into a Berlin subway culminating in a frantic fight scene.

In contrast, the intimate moment between two girls is shot in soft lighting and fuzzy close ups.

The cinematography is continually stylish and striking whilst still staying true to the narrative. Hanna has been sheltered (literally) whilst growing up in a wintery forest and the wealth of new experiences hitting her senses (already highly tuned genetically) when going out into the civilised world for the first time, manifests itself in this distinct dreamy, fairytale style.

The music by the Chemical Brothers also adds to the overall effect – frantic electronic pounding one minute, soft enchanting tinkling the next.

Obvious fairytale signposting comes in the form of the Brothers Grimm abandoned theme park featured in the film – but less obvious is the narrative undertones of Hanna discovering who her parents really are and her intended place in the world – a familiar theme of many a fairytale – not forgetting the evil witch role played by Cate Blanchett’s dastardly CIA agent Marissa.

Audiences more used to traditional action fare have been divided down the middle by Hanna – some lauding this mash up of styles, others deriding its lack of grounded realism. But since when have fairytales had to be realistic?

I personally thought it was an excellent and stylish film that succeeded in transferring Hanna’s own sense of wonder and enchantment over to the viewer.

All that's left for me to wonder now is who would win a fight between her and Hit Girl?

28 Dec 2011

The Even Final-er Destination?

(Spoiler Warning! This article contains plot points and spoilers for the film Final Destination 5, so in the rare chance that you do actually want to watch it sometime soon, skip this article.)

So, I watched Final Destination 5 the other night. Now most of you are screaming: Why? Why? Would you do such a thing? Well hey - I love the art form and will give most films a chance. Well, except Sex and the City 2 - thems two hours of my life I definitely wouldn't be getting back.

The basic structure of each Final Destination film is pretty much identical and is as follows:

A group of kids escape from some large scale accident due to one of them inexplicably having a vision of it beforehand and then convincing the others to get out of there before it all goes down.

‘Death’, somehow personified as a mysterious force (sadly not as a grim reaper), feels they have cheated him/it and so gets them back by killing them in a series of bizarre ‘accidents’, mostly involving household items or in everyday, unsuspecting locations.

What originally started as a creepy, almost science-fiction horror premise with the first Final Destination movie has ballooned into an increasingly gory montage of elaborate death scenes primarily designed to scare you into thinking that anything and everything around you can somehow conspire to kill you.

Similarly to the Saw franchise, the originality and freshness of the first movie becomes null and void with sequels that solely increase their focus on the deaths at the expense of any meaningful story development. And since the formula appears to sell, who can blame them? Just substitute ‘aeroplane explosion’ for ‘motorway pileup’, ‘rollercoaster malfunction’, ‘NASCAR pileup’ or ‘suspension bridge collapse’ and off you go.

The plots are almost identical each time. In Final Destination 2 they sort of tried to explain the mechanics of it a bit more but then it appears they said screw it - lets just go for more gory and elaborate deaths each time. In this regard, Final Destination 5 doesn't disappoint. The deaths here are possibly the most over the top and gory in the series yet (now in eye-popping 3D, kids! Yay!)

They even get to kill Champ Kind!

However what really bugs me is that some things are just never explained. For example why do these main protagonists (different in each film) have these visions? It cant be ‘Death’ granting them these as then why would he/it get upset and feel the need to redress the imbalance of fate that has been caused?

And what’s Tony Todd’s character have to do with any of it apart from appear randomly and creep them out with gravely exposition?

And why is the fourth entry in the series actually (and rather confusingly) called The Final Destination. What does that make the fifth one? ‘The More Final Destination’?
The Even Final-er Destination?

A trite answer would be – ‘they thought the fourth would be the last one, but then they decided to make more’, - but there is actually a reason for it.

You ready?

Its because the film is actually… A PREQUEL!

Oh Em Gee! Just like The Thing!

For some reason (that again is never explained – save for the filmmakers shouting a-ha gotcha! in the audience’s face), two characters that think they have cheated Death’s plan at the end of the film - board a plane for France.

Which is the same plane that blows up in the first one.

In fact it shows you (with footage cleverly cut from the first film) the original group of kids kicking up a ruckus and getting kicked off the plane shortly before it departs. The plane takes off, blows up and the two ‘survivors’ die horribly, thus spitting in the face of any ‘rules’ about how to survive that the films have tried to establish for the sake of a cheap gimmick.

So the fourth one really was the final one – chronologically speaking anyway. And they couldn't have called this one Final Destination: Origins or Final Destination: Beginnings, as that would have ruined the whole ‘twist’. So they just thought, meh, lets just call it: ‘Final Destination 5’ instead.

So the fourth one remains the awkwardly titled, non-numbered sequel: The Final Destination – but hey, there exists out there Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare (the sixth out of nine Nightmare on Elm Street films) and Friday the 13th The Final Chapter and Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday (The fourth and ninth of eleven films), so its not uncommon.

The question is, will they keep making Final Destination movies? As the franchise is so lucrative and the story template is becoming simply a matter of copy and paste, this is a very distinct possibility.

But in my view more importantly… will there be numbers in the titles?

27 Dec 2011

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

The Thing about 'The Thing'

(Spoiler Warning! This article contains plot points and spoilers of the most recent version of The Thing, so if you don't want anything ruined, skip it.)

So, I recently watched the remake of the seminal 80s John Carpenter flick similarly entitled The Thing. As any fan of that great film would, I approached this new one with certain trepidation – after all, is there much point in attempting to remake an already awesome film that still stands up to this day?

Keeping my expectations fairly low, I sat down to watch it. It was actually the third time I had attempted to do so, as the first two times I had fallen asleep – not because the film was boring but because it was late and I was watching it in the dark. Anyways, third time lucky – and off we went.

The film centres around a group of Norwegian dudes in an research centre in the Antarctic and they are joined by some American’s as they discover a crashed spaceship and the remains of an alien trapped in ice. I’m guessing you know the rest of how it goes – the alien (or the lifeform pretending to be the alien?) can attack and mimic other lifeforms in order to survive and spread and a lot of the film is about paranoia as they need to try and work out who is infected and who is not.

So far, fairly similar to the original.

Now the first difference here is the female lead – Mary Elizabeth Winsome, miles away from her sassy Ramona Flowers incarnation; and dare I say it a little chubbier? No matter, she still has those big cute eyes that are to die for. And yeah, she gets to run around wielding a flamethrower and not once does she play the role of scream queen… Love it.

Now the creature effects in this film, the majority being CGI compared to the first film’s practical effects, are pretty impressive. The first time you see the creature I sat up and thought ‘damn, this film might actually be really good!’ All the gross morphing and body horror stuff is totally awesome, but it’s only in extended scenes where the creature is running around and such that it looks a tad videogamey. The original’s practical creature effects had an oozing gooey rubbery look to them (in a good way) that the new film lacks, but obviously you can do some much more with a CGI creature and today’s technology – the imagination is your limit, really. The detail in the creature effects here is simply amazing.

Special mention also goes to the sound design – its superb in the film. All squelchy and slithery as well as the hissing moan - all cues taken from the original film and reproduced well.

The central ‘test’ scene is also represented – where they are all in a room and need to determine who is human and who isn’t. Instead of the original ‘blood test’, this one is cleverly replayed as a ‘fillings test’.

Everything keeps going well… until towards the end. When ‘The Thing’ tries to get back to the ship to fly off and escape. Wtf???

Now here's my problem with this whole ending bit on the ship. It just seems really incongruous that what is essentially a killer microorganism parasite thingee has this massive spaceship that it can fly. It just doesn't make sense. Sure, it may have hitched a ride in the body of another alien that the ship belonged to (which explains why the alien crawled from the wreckage – the Thing wanted to find more hosts to spread to) so why did it want to fly away later? Perhaps it just wanted to lie dormant in the crashed ship for other humans to find? But no – it was firing up the engines!

I always imaged the ‘Thing’ to be essentially bacteria of limited intelligence that just reacts to survival instinct and can absorb and mimic other lifeforms. How intelligent is it really? What is its ultimate aim apart from simply survival? Sadly, not many answers come to light.

You see, the thing about The Thing is that the film makers are obvious fans of the original and it appears they have set out to make a film for fans of the original. In fact, so much is playing up to the expectations of the first film that many people who haven’t seen the it will be left a little nonplussed at many details sly nods and references.

For example, some guys are evaccing in a chopper – the one who looks ill and anxious turns out not to be the ‘Thing’ but it's the other, totally normal guy sitting opposite him! Other than deliberately going ‘aha! We tricked you!’ to the audience, it doesn't make sense – why would the ‘Thing’ (assuming it knows what it was doing) want to crash the helicopter instead of letting it take him out of there to a greater populace? Or why did it attack the other guy who was weak and sick and definitely suspect if you were looking for an alien when it was posing as a perfectly healthy and unsuspected human?

The answer: just to turn it around on the audience.

Similarly at the end, when it appears only Ramona and Joel Edgerton have survived (much like McReady and Childs at the end of the original), she turns around and calls him out as an alien and torches him. Despite giving a reason for knowing that (although makes sense) it just seems like the film makers where going ‘aha! Two people survived the end of the last film – you thought the same was going to happen here didn't you!? Well guess what we tricked you again!’ - at the expense of actually crafted a solid narrative.

Lastly, the very very ending is the ultimate taker of biscuits. It shows another Norwegian guy (previously thought dead) did actually survive back at the base and ends up chasing the ‘Thing’ (disguised as a husky) in a helicopter, whilst shooting at it in the rifle. Hang on a minute… that's just like the beginning of the original f-

…Holy shit!!! It’s not a remake at all! It's a PREQUEL!!!

Mind. Blown.

That one I did actually like. From the shots to the score, everything from the John Carpenter movie’s very beginning is recreated perfectly.

But you know what? To anyone who hasn't seen the original film – scratch that, lets call it ‘PART 2’, this ending wont mean a thing as the dog is referenced to only briefly earlier on in the film (where has it been hiding all this time?).

It just seems too much like playing up to fans of the original rather than concentrating on crafting a solid film in its own right. Much like how the actual alien itself acts: certain shots, scenes, set design and narrative beats mimic the original film and poses as a copy of it until it reveals itself at the end as (gasp!) a totally different film after all - a prequel posing as a remake.

And that, my friends, is the thing about The Thing.

Was it a genius move or purely coincidental? Who knows...

(If you are interested, a trailer for the original 1982 The Thing can be seen HERE.)

26 Dec 2011

Film Roundup - December - Part 1

Watched a bunch of films this month so thought I'd get an early start to December’s film roundup – so read on for Part 1!

First up we have Paul, starring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost as two British nerds going on a roadtrip across America to visit UFO hotspots on their way back from ComicCon.

If you are expecting this to be in the same vein as Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz you would be mistaken as this film is not directed by Edgar Wright and features a predominantly American cast and setting, not to mention the smoking, swearing titular CGI alien voiced by Seth Rogan. Whilst director Greg Mottola plays the humour very broadly, Paul is presented as a fairly pleasant affair that most will find fairly inoffensive.

That is, unless you are a fairly staunch Creationist and/or Catholic (IMDB boards continue to rage as we speak) as it seems aliens and religion are not easy bedfellows - leading to much anti-religious ribbing within.

Apart from that, the film doesn't hold many surprising turns (with the one exception of an epic cameo of Zombieland proportions), and even the well worn Pegg and Frost chemistry, although always affecting and welcome, is nothing new if you have seen the aforementioned Edgar Wright films.

Next up we have The Devil’s Double – a ‘based on a true story’ tale of an Iraqi man Latif hired to be Uday (son of Saddam) Hussein’s body double.

The story mostly plays out as a gangster fantasy as Latif finds himself surrounded by all the riches, drugs and women that come with the job, but soon comes to realise he both cannot ignore the atrocities Uday causes to those all around him and that he cannot ever escape the job for fear of his life as the threat of harm to his loved ones.

Whilst the film doesn't hold too many surprises, it’s shot in an appropriate golden hue and doesn't hold back on its brutal depictions of violence, drug excess and rape. The real draw to the film, however, is Dominic Cooper, who astounds by playing dual roles of both Latif and Uday, one quiet and dignified, the other a maniacal yet sometimes goofy psychopath. Worth watching just for his performance alone.

Next, we have the long awaited return of horror legend John Carpenter with his haunted mental hospital flick The Ward.

Amber Heard stars as the girl with no memory and makes for a watchable and strong protagonist. Despite the film having an interesting (mostly) all female cast, creepy setting and good old-fashioned ghostly jump scares in its favour, the final reveal isn’t as original as it hopes to be - Sucker Punch and Shutter Island come to mind.

Still, there is no doubt of John Carpenter’s flair, its just a shame the story couldn't have been a bit better.

Last up we have the (yet another) Marcus Nispel helmed remake/reboot in the form of Conan The Barbarian. After seeing Jason Momoa in Game of Thrones, I think he was perfect for the role of Conan, bringing his hulking physique and brooding countenance to the role.

What falls short here however is the mixed tone of the film – they try to go for depicting a brutal epic however most of it is implied only and the violence is pretty tame. If you are going to make a convincing Conan film I expect hacked limbs and decapitations, instead we have Rose McGowan and Stephen Lang camping it up ferociously as the villains. If they wanted to go for a more teen friendly, badly CGed fight with tentacles and (admittedly good CGed) sand demons fight then they should have committed to that all the way. It just feels like the whole thing smacks of compromise.

The same could be said for the story. The ‘origin’ of Conan takes up too much of the film and the plot is full of holes: The villains get all the pieces if the mask and have to wait until Conan is all grown up to complete the last part of the ritual? The villain puts on the mask and it does pretty much nothing? It seems many rehashes of the script during production didn't help matters leading to a mess with the narrative.

I was disappointed with this one as the material has such potential and Momoa can have great presence on screen. It’s just a shame he is not given much to do apart from rote and often tame action scenes and minimal dialogue. With a little more focus this could have been an epic, but sadly due to bombing at the box office a sequel is unlikely.

25 Dec 2011

Saturday, 24 December 2011

Captain America - So Damn Likeable

Having missed the chance to see Captain America: The First Avenger in the cinema when it came out, I finally got around to watching it last night – and boy what a pleasant surprise. The title says it all really. Everything about Captain America is so damn likeable!

And by everything I really do mean everything. From the story, to the characters and dialogue, everything is just so… well… likeable!

First off, the casting is a treat. Everyone just fits their parts to a tee. Who better to have as a baddie than Hugo Weaving? Hayley Atwell refuses to just simple be the love interest and mixes a delicate vulnerability to her tough girl exterior. Tommy Lee Jones is perfect as the battle-worn Colonel, snappy but with a good heart. Dominic Cooper more than just a cameo appearance with his (foreshadowing his son Tony’s) suave and boyishly cheeky engineer and entrepreneur Howard Stark. Toby Jones and Stanley Tucci (lets face it - always good in whatever they are in) playing up to their roles effortlessly. Every performance is pitch perfect.

This leaves us with Chris Evans. There was a bit of concern prior to release of the film – (he now plays two Marvel characters, Johnny Storm AND Captain America?) but now as far as I am concerned he is no longer the fiery Fantastic Four member but is Steve Rogers. With his earnest desire to do good in the world and standing up to protect the ‘little man’, he inhabits the character perfectly with an old timey sense of morality rather than a misguided blind patriotism that the character could have embodied.

It was great that they worked the emergence of his character into the story so you can see why his character is like that: being bullied as a skinny weakling (the skinny Steve Rogers CGI trickery still amazes me) and his sense of showmanship and panache (and choice of costume) coming from his earlier work in a war bond selling propaganda stage show.

Like X-Men: First Class, having the film as a period piece was a stroke of genius and evokes a definite style and atmosphere implicit in the respective time period. Back in the Golden Age of comics, Captain America did indeed fight Nazis and so it makes sense that his origin story reflected an aspect of that. The existence of the power cube MacGuffin and the advanced technologies of Hydra and Stark Industries also allows for a bit of anachronistic future tech to be included in this portrayal of the 1940s putting a fresh spin on the production design evoking a past/future mash up similar to that of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.

On paper, Captain America runs the risk of being a bit of a hokey, 'American as apple pie' character (lets try to forget the terrible 90's adaptation), but the film finds ways to work around this and the genuinely charming script and warming character interactions evokes the golden hue of innocence and escapism of old school superhero comics, making this in my opinion, one of the most sensitively handled comic book adaptations I have ever seen. There were just so many moments that made me grin like I was being back to a little boy.

As stated earlier, everything is just so likeable.

That being said, Captain America is not a film without its flaws. Although starting off as a total badass, the villain Red Skull is not given much to do later on in the film except scowl and run away a lot and despite being presented as a great threat, never really feels like one. His death was a bit low key and slightly disappointing also. The gang of soldiers the Captain recruits seemed to feel a bit like ticking ethnic stereotype boxes and occasionally some CGI was a bit rough around the edges in some action scenes.

Having said that, these are minor flaws in an otherwise complete package of a film – one that also succeeds in neatly leading up to the upcoming Avengers movie. Similar to Thor there are many story links and hints of things to come, most obviously the bittersweet ending to the film that segues in nicely.

The Avengers seems an even more exciting prospect to me now especially since you have all these big characters (with large personalities to match) occupying the same celluloid space.

As mentioned in a previous article, Thor was a decent movie adaptation but I never really had any doubts that Kenneth Branagh could pull it off. However, Captain America proved to be a genuine surprise to me as it greatly exceeded my expectations. Props to Joe Johnston for that – you will definitely be seeing The First Avenger in my top ten films of the 2011.

24 Dec 2011

Film Roundup - November - Part 2

Continuing on from a previous article – Film Roundup November! …Part 2!

First up we have the horror movie The Rite starring Anthony Hopkins as an exorcist tasked with showing the ropes to a younger, more cynical priest in training. It starts off promisingly, with a creepy realistic build up, trying to separate the fact and the fiction of what goes on in an actual rite of exorcism.

Despite its attempts to remain grounded in tone, (“what did you expect,” snorts Sir Tony at one point, “spinning heads and pea soup?”) the film eventually falls back into the regular possession tropes such as snarling demon voice cursing and body contortions. Although I’m all for that sort of thing (possession movies probably scare the shit out of me more than any other), the fact that The Rite attempts to distance itself from all that at the beginning but then almost reluctantly falls back on it leads to an uneven tone and presentation.

It would have been better overall if the filmmakers tried to stick to one or the other but Anthony Hopkins is always watchable and does his best with what he’s given.

The Farrelly brothers once reined supreme with high grossing comedies such as There’s Something About Mary and personal favourite Stuck On You, but their output has seemed somewhat low profile of late. Hall Pass, their latest starring Owen Wilson presents the story of two married men getting a allowance from their wives to sleep around on the grounds that a) they can get it out of their system and remain faithful for the rest of their lives, and b) they probably wouldn't be successful in their endeavours anyway.

Although the majority of the film is pretty predictable and jokes fall flat left right and centre, Christina Applegate is the only actor whose performance stands out and Stephen Merchant (whose funniest bit only appears during the credit sequence) seems weirdly out of place in the brief moments he crops up in during the film.

It's a shame really when an exploding poo gag is pretty much the funniest thing in this film.

Continuing on with comedy, I finally got around to watching the highest grossing R-rated comedy film ever: The Hangover. Whilst mildly entertaining, and the best bits inevitably spoiled by people and trailers beforehand (yeah you, Mike Tyson cameo!), the film actually doesn't have that much going for it.

You see, the problem with high concept films like this is that once you know the mystery of what happened you cant really watch it more than once if the actual content within is fairly mediocre - No endlessly quotable Anchorman lines or Zoolander gags here, folks. A quick litmus test on whether or not you will like this film: do you find a naked Chinese man jumping out of a car boot to be absolutely hilarious? Surprising, sure. But comedy gold? Not for me.

Still, its worth watching once and Zach Galifianakis is always endearing in his childlike manner.

Last up we have Kung Fu Panda 2 – featuring a ridiculously star studded cast. Pretty much everyone from the first film returns along with the inclusion of Gary Oldman, Danny McBride, Michelle Yeoh and Jean-Claude Van Damme. If this wasn't an animated film and you had all these people on set it would have been truly unbelievable but alas, most of them probably even get together except for the press junket. Alas, such is the nature of voice over work.

The film itself is pretty competent with superb design and animation; the voice work is great and the fight choreography and action sequences are (as they were in the first film) top-notch. The standout for me was Gary Oldman’s preening, scheming Peacock villain Shen - an original and inspired antagonist.

Although more of the title character Po’s origin is revealed, it’s slightly disappointing that there is not as great a character arc as he had in the first film when he first learnt to fight (now its just about him finding inner peace) and you never truly feel that he has met his match whenever he gets into a scrap. After all, he is recognised by everyone as the fabled 'Dragon Warrior' now.

Still, Kung Fu Panda 2 delivers and proves that Dreamworks is still up there with Pixar producing quality animated CG flicks. Good thing the Kaboom of Doom suffix was dropped from the title. Now that just sounds silly…

23 Dec 2011

Thursday, 22 December 2011

Reflections and Duality in Black Swan

(Warning: Spoiler Alert! You should probably watch the film first before reading this article as it contains some plot points and the discussion of certain themes. Plus you should watch the film anyway as its really good!)

I actually first watched Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan a few months ago but didn't get around to writing a piece about it at the time (as you could literally talk about this film for days) but felt I should discuss some of its many themes a little as it will no doubt feature in my upcoming ‘favourite movies of 2011’ article.

So, what to discuss? With a film this layered and rich thematically there is so much to choose from: a commentary on artistry and performance, being consumed by a desire for perfection to the point of madness, the overbearing mother and the loss of innocence, the figurative as well as literal metamorphosis into the Black Swan… the list goes on.

Perhaps the most obvious theme presented in the film is that of reflections and duality. Firstly, presented at face value: the ballerina Nina (played by Natalie Portman) is asked to play the dual role of the White and Black Swans in an upcoming production of Swan Lake. She is constantly told by the show’s director that she easily embodies the grace, poise and innocence of the White Swan but not the darker, more free and full of lustful desire character attributes of the Black Swan, thus setting up (in her mind and the viewer’s) a constant self examination of her character and comparison to those around her – after all, one’s identity is often realised and/or put into perspective through comparison to others, whether for good or bad.

It’s no surprise then that mirrors feature heavily in the film. Either directly: in the backstage area, the dance studio, the bathroom or the bedroom – all locations that Nina spends a lot of her time in; or indirectly: reflections in the subway car window, in water, multiple drawings and paintings of her, and the eventual use of a mirror as a weapon.

She is always comparing herself and being compared whether consciously or not and almost every other female role acts as a direct comparison or reflection to her. First and foremost her ‘rival’ and friend Lily played by Mila Kunis. Portraying a carefree, open, confident, tattooed, fast food eating, clubber with an olive complexion, she is a the direct opposite to Nina’s pale, uptight, sheltered and more traditional ballerina. The lines between these two characters are increasingly blurred as the movie goes on and Nina sinks further into madness and into the role of the Black Swan. It is obvious that this character of Lily exists in reality to some degree but to what extent? At times Nina thinks they have spent time together when they haven’t, she thinks she has killed her but she hasn't – her character is as much a reflection of what she wants to be or needs to be herself at the time in order to fully assume the characteristics needed for the role of the Black Swan.

Again, this is a direct comparison to the other dynamic at play in the film in which Nina becomes paranoid that Lily is going to steal her role in the show – just as the White Swan has her love stolen by the Black Swan in the story of Swan Lake. So all at once Lily acts as Nina’s friend, enemy, counterpart, lover, reflection and sometimes even becomes her – in several scenes she even mistakenly sees Lily as herself or even a ‘dark’ version of herself.

To further add to the mindfuck, rumour has it that in certain scenes the actresses briefly played each other’s roles – you will have to watch the film again carefully to catch these bits. Although worlds apart in character, the two actresses purposely share a similar height, build and hair colour which makes this trick very feasible practically but also helps bolster the themes of reflection and duality the film.

As mentioned earlier, other female roles in the film act as comparisons to Nina, whether it’s the old and maligned ballerina Beth whom Nina has previously idolised and now replaced, or her overbearing and protective mother trying to relive her failed youth as a dancer vicariously through her daughter’s successes; both cracked and distorted reflections in the mirror of what Nina sees in herself.

Finally, the theme of duality manifests itself in Nina’s figurative and literal transformation into the Black Swan. Running in parallel to her acquisition of the Black Swan character traits are the Cronenberg inspired body horror scenes of Nina’s rashes turning into gooseflesh, the sprouting of black feathers and bent swan legs. So consumed is she in her quest to become the Black Swan that her mind loses control over the separation of the real and the metaphorical. Following on from this line of thought, the ending makes sense – she feel she needs to die in order to create the perfect Swan Lake performance.

Stepping out of the film, we also see a duality with the Black Swan’s companion piece The Wrestler (2008), also directed by Aronofsky. Although poles apart in their physicality (one is young, petite and lithe, the other old and hulking) the films' protagonists share similar traits of dedication, obsession, physical and mental wounding and ultimately, sacrifice.

One could even (rather cheekily) say that Black Swan is a ‘reflection’ of Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue (1997) that eerily shares many similar ideas and plot points about duality, confusion of identity and yes, mirrors! Whilst Aronofsky admitted he was influenced a lot by the story of Perfect Blue, we could just argue Black Swan is simply a warped reflection in a western mirror.

Now that’s meta!

(For an idea of some similarities these films share, watch this comparison video HERE)

22 Dec 2011

Film Roundup - November - Part 1

Got a bunch of films to rattle through so without further ado I present… film roundup November!

First up we have our very own Ken Brannagh’s rendition of the Marvel Comic’s take on the Norse god Thor. Seemingly an odd choice of director to some at first, it is in fact inspired as who better than Wallander himself to elevate what is essentially a story of the family dynamic of the gods of Asgard to lofty, regal and almost Shakespearean heights.

In lesser hands this could have been a distinctly cheddary disaster and yet Brannagh manages to keep the characters fantastical (as powerful deities ought to be) and yet grounded through their oh-so-human flaws.

The other balancing act comprises of half the film taking place in the exquisitely designed mystical realm of Asgard, and the other half on plain old earth, the former being more interesting to watch than the latter.

Chris Hemsworth hits the mark as the titular character as does his antagonist Loki played by Tom Hiddleston. Both provide excellent multi-layered and nuanced performances. Others of note include Anthony Hopkins as Odin (once again, when isn’t he good?) and Idris Elba as the hulking Heimdall.

Unfortunately, with so many characters crammed into the story it is a shame that other great actors such as Stellan Skarsgard and Tadanobu Asano are not given much do to do – and Natalie Portman is a distinctly ‘meh’ presence throughout. Perhaps more can be expected in the inevitable sequel?

But before that we have The Avengers movie to look forward to and at times the setup for that within Thor can be a bit blatant. With an extended role from Agent Coulson as well as cameos from Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye and Robert Downey Jr., it sometimes feels a bit forced. Nevertheless, Thor is an enjoyable romp and a recommended watch.

Nicholas ‘bad hair’ Cage returns again to grace this blog with his coiffeur in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. Not a remake of the 1992 Abel Ferrara Bad Lieutenant but a totally new story, this time set in post flooded New Orleans and director by Werner Herzog.

Now Herzog is known to be a little ‘out there’ as a director. Similarly, although Nicholas Cage gives the occasional dull performances in some of his films, we all know one thing he can act very well is bat-shit crazy. Put the two together and what do you get? Fireworks.

I cant really describe this film other than it is a nightmare – but in a good way. The plot is a jumbled mess as Cage crashes through it all ranting, pointing guns at people and being off his head on drugs more often than he is not. His character is so insanely bug-eyed and shouty that it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role. In between pulling over youths to confiscate their drugs for personal consumption, threatening old ladies and hallucinating lizards and a break-dancing soul of a recently deceased mobster, you’ll definitely feel cracked out yourself when watching this film.

Not for everybody, but if you feel like something different then give this one a shot.

Finally, we have The Kingdom – a film about a group of US FBI investigators sent to Saudi Arabia after a terrorist attack on a military base there, the majority of the story focussing on how local customs, religion and resistance from the military there all hamper the progress in their investigation.

Although very interesting factually, the film occasionally smacks of ‘American intellect and superiority over belligerent, backwards Arabs’ throughout, so its fortunate that Ashraf Barhom provides the standout role of the film playing a morally conscious Saudi Colonel willing to buck the trend.

The Kingdom may not be to everyone’s taste with a slow middle section but makes up for it its blistering opening sequence when the terrorist attack takes place, and the final half hour where all the shit goes down and the Americans are forced to go in guns blazing.

For more films check out Part 2 of November’s film roundup!

21 Dec 2011

Sunday, 27 November 2011

The Rise and Fall of Splatterhouse

Having recently played through the reboot of Splatterhouse on PS3, it was a pleasant surprise to find the three original Splatterhouse games available to play on the disc. It led me to read up a little on the history of the games and find out how a potentially great IP such as this has re-emerged on modern consoles just to fade back into obscurity again.

First released in 1988, I distinctly remember seeing the original Splatterhouse in the arcades in Japan as a child and being both disturbed and intrigued all at once. A simple side-scrolling horror beat ‘em-up, the macabre subject matter, copious gore and violence lingered in my mind as being a unique game of its time.

You can watch a longplay of the game HERE. (If you don't know what a longplay is, that’s explained HERE.)

Obviously, by today’s standard the gore and violence of the original games are pretty tame – now everything is just amped up to a ridiculous degree as can be seen from this side by side comparison of posters.

The one on the left is the poster for Splatterhouse 2 released in 1992 and the one on the right is a ‘homage’ version of the same poster but for the more recent 2010 game.

After gaining popularity as cult games, the series was revived in 2010 with the new reboot of Splatterhouse released on consoles. Whilst not really groundbreaking, the game managed to successfully translate the gameplay into an ultraviolent 3D action brawler with more blood than I have seen in any game to date.

I particularly like how it is an entirely new game in itself and yet homages the old games with its setting, characters and enemies as well as love for the horror genre in general, with numerous references to H.P Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, Re-animator and Evil Dead.

However the game failed to do well commercially due to two factors – firstly an initial moment of trouble during production when the publisher Namco Bandai dropped the original development team BottleRocket and moved all the production internally.

Despite recovering from this and gradually building up the hype again during production, the second killer stroke came when Namco Bandai hit financial difficulties and dropped all support for the game with no advertising, promotion or demo leading up to the games launch. Further on it was revealed that the whole development team had been laid off.
With lacklustre reviews (some say the lack of payoffs to big reviewers contributed to this) and minimal exposure, Splatterhouse spectacularly tanked and with the development team disbanded a sequel or any future addition to this IP is highly unlikely. You can read all about the debacle HERE.

Although not a massive fan of the Splatterhouse games, I love their style and have an admiration for their legacy – and personally (although this would likely never happen given the events that have transpired) would love to see the main character Rick appear as a guest character somewhere along the line in the Soul Calibur or Tekken Series.

One can only dream…

26 Nov 2011

Friday, 18 November 2011

Film Roundup - October

So there was no ‘Film Roundup September – Part 2’ – I lied! Muhahahaha!

Well the lack of recent updates are to blame for this, but also the lack of films watched – but anyway I’ve combined those with last month to bring you… ‘Film Roundup October!' (Insert Fanfare here!)

It’s been a good month as almost all films watched have been exceptionally good and come recommended for you to watch.

First up we have Ironclad, the story of a group of rag-tag men holding off the siege of Rochester Castle from the vengeful King John.

Despite budget limitations, the film excellently portrays brutally gory medieval battle scenes, and boasts an excellent cast - most notably the insane ranting of Paul Giamatti as the King convinced of his divine right over the land (despite having just signed the Magna Carta) and Brian Cox as the grizzled leader Albany.

So if you like your historical epics realistically portrayed with lots of blood, mud and severed limbs, then Ironclad is for you. Oh, and there are lots of Vikings and Mackenzie Crook doing a Legolas too!

You would expect (being a high numbered sequel) that Scream 4 would surely suck some serious ass – but surprisingly in this case you would be wrong. Kevin Williamson is back on board as the script writer, and the deaths are back to good old fashioned no nonsense stabby stabby nastiness that the ghost-faced killer was originally known for.

Once again the film acknowledges its position in the series as well as its place in the modern horror film genre as well but keeps things fresh by boldy stating ‘all bets are off’ – meaning pretty much anything can happen. Anyone can be the killer and anyone can be killed.

This is brilliantly pastiched in the opening film within a film within a film that sets you on edge right from the get go. So despite not reaching the heights of the original Scream (released all the way back in 1996!) Scream 4 is an unexpected worthy entry to the series.

Next up we have Norwegian ‘found footage’ film TrollHunter, which despite the seemingly action packed trailer, takes a good while to actually get going with not much happening during the first half of the film. Many will be put off with the slow pace and having to deal with (God forbid!) subtitles as the story follows a trio of student film makers documenting the exploits of a man who claims to be a secret government sanctioned troll hunter.

If you can persevere through the slow first half then you will be rewarded with troll action in spades as the effective CGI, tense set pieces and deliberately open ending more than make up for it.

Apparently a Hollywood remake is in the works. No surprise there, then.

Trick ‘r Treat is a great Halloween movie because it is one of the only films out there that is actually about Halloween and not just a story that happens to occur on that day. That's one of the great things about it – the love of that holiday season is very evident and comes across very strongly throughout the movie.

Four different stories are presented, sharing characters and criss-crossing timelines (similar to Pulp Fiction) that keep the pace varied and naturally make you want to piece together the order of events.

Highlights include an effectively creepy Dylan Baker, a pre-True Blood Anna Paquin, a grizzled Brian Cox (again!) and the birth of a new horror icon – the pumpkin headed boy Sam. Or else it would have been if only studio politics hadn’t severely limited the films exposure upon its very limited release.

Still, this film is worth hunting down if you are looking for something to watch next Halloween.

Finally, we have Source Code – a mind-bending feature from Moon director Duncan Jones. Part Groundhog Day style whodunit and part exploration of quantum physics as well as the existential ponderings on ‘souls’, the nature of one’s consciousness and alternate realities – Source Code has a lot to take in on the first viewing.

Whilst the mystery involving a terrorist attack is wrapped up pretty neatly, the greater question of the fate of Colter Stevens (played effectively by Jake Gyllenhaal) and the ending will have viewers pondering all sorts of questions about what really happened and the science behind it.

But don't worry, you can also just enjoy the film for what it is on face value with great performances and thrilling action – Source Code comes highly recommended.

18 Nov 2011

Modern Warfare 3 - They Did What?!

(WARNING: This article contains big story SPOILERS so please do not read if you don't want to know what happens in the game’s Singleplayer Campaign.)

The juggernaut that is Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 has already smashed all records as the best selling game of all time. Even more astonishingly, I read today that MW3 has just broken the five-day sales record for any movie, book or video game that has existed EVER.

It would seem then that the game had better deliver.

Personally, I loved the game – having been slightly disappointed by Black Ops I found it good to be back and continuing the Modern Warfare story that concludes the events following on from the first two in the series.

I even played through the campaigns of MW1 and MW2 to reacquaint myself with the epic narrative before diving into the third instalment. Kind of like watching a film trilogy back to back. It was very epic and I’m glad I did it – my new big TV and surround sound headphones further amplifying the experience.

However, this article isn’t a review of the game, its actually about a specific thing that happens in the story that left many an internet fanboy enraged, saddened and confused – and my take on it. Last chance to back out if you don't like spoilers…

Ok… here goes.

On one of the missions towards the game the unthinkable happens.

Soap dies.

Now, the Modern Warfare games do have a history of killing off popular characters such as Ghost or even characters you are actively playing as such as Allen or Roach. But this seemed different.

Firstly, following the moment Soap gets injured you have to help carry him for a fair distance throughout the level, before he finally expires (incidentally this is something you also did earlier in the game but back then you end up getting him the medical attention he needed and thus saving him).

Secondly, Soap is probably the most popular Modern Warfare character (having been the main character used by the player in MW1 and as your mentor/leader in MW2 - voiced by Kevin McKidd) and having him die was a major bombshell for most players.

When witnessing that moment I stared open mouth in disbelief. ‘What!? They killed Soap!?’

I felt myself welling up as Captain Price (played by Billy Murray AKA Don Beech from The Bill) loses it, unable to accept his death.

Now although the death of Soap is indeed tragic, I stand by the developers Infinity Ward for their decision for the following reasons:

Having Price die instead would have had less of an impact emotionally on the player as it borders on the cliché. As the duo of Price and Soap have fostered the father/son dynamic over the course of three games through constant quipping and camaraderie, it would be no surprise (narratively speaking) if the older one died, leaving the younger to want to avenge him and thus ultimately replacing their mentor.

The phrase ‘no parent should outlive their children’ rings true here and makes the situation all the more tragic and Price’s actions at the end of the game in hunting down Makarov become more of a personal vendetta and the ending all the more cathartic for it. In fact once the deed is done, Price isn’t even concerned for his own safety or escaping, he just sits there in front of Makarov’s hanging body and whilst smoking a cigar, his driving purpose now complete. World War Three was over at the end of the previous chapter but now his personal fight is too.

The tragedy of Soap’s death at the time of his passing is further compounded by the revelation that your character Yuri has some previous connection with Makarov (referred to by him as ‘old friend’) and therefore the player feels directly responsible for their beloved Soap’s death, an ingenious if a little contrived move by Infinity Ward - as it turns out you aren’t really.

I think Soap’s death can be justified in the game as it throws a curveball at the audience (who would probably have been expecting a major character like Price to die instead in this game) to create a shocking event in the story that you genuinely didn't see coming and makes the denouement at the end all the more satisfying for it. And besides, the reality is that warfare is cruel and harsh and bullets and explosions don't discriminate when you are in the thick of battle.

Being a dedicated hardcore soldier and unlikely to have a normal life and family outside of his work, Soap was a son to Price in all but name and the tragedy of war is conveyed through Price’s (and the audience’s) feeling of utter loss by bucking convention and pulling the rug out from under the player and their expectations.

Players of the game should be right in feeling outrage and sadness at this story event and if they feel even a miniscule amount of what Price must have felt then Infinity Ward have succeeded in making us feel empathy for the characters.

So although I loved Soap and was saddened at his death in the game, I feel ultimately it was the right thing to happen in terms of making the narrative of Price's revenge on Makarov more effective.

(You can watch the whole scene from the game HERE).

17 Nov 2011


Okay, so I’ve been away for a while – almost a month, but hear me out. I have excuses, see! Yeah, enough of this lameness, I need to get back on it again, stay focused and disciplined - cos that's what its all about really isn’t it – aside from just gabbing about random stuff I like, which is just a bonus really.

So yeah, the excuses…

Firstly, I have been super busy with work stuff – not only have been doing lots of filming and editing (and still a fair amount to do) I have been travelling up and down the country cramped up in car full of people and luggage. Sardines would be mocking me with their amount of leg room.

Not only within the UK, but we also drove to Belgium. That's right BELGIUM – that country in Europe. By Car.

Anyway it’s all good fun even though it was super long. Combined with other work related things this explains half of why I haven’t updated this blog in a month.

The other half can be summed up in two words: Dark Souls.

What’s that you ask? The spiritual sequel to my favourite game ever Demons Souls, Dark Souls has met my high expectations and exceeded them. Seriously, this game is awesome.

I wont go into too much detail about what makes the game so good (as I may save that for another write-up) but lets just cover the main points.

Firstly, its super addictive. The game itself is pretty challenging but infinitely rewarding because of it. Although death can come swiftly and often it just makes you want to keep playing regardless to regain what you've lost and to overcome the obstacles in front of you having returned with one of the most precious of commodities within the game: knowledge.

Now this isn’t some in-game currency or stat, by this I mean the actual knowledge the player has of what traps are awaiting around the corner, enemy placement and attack patterns, boss weaknesses etc… Since everything in the game has the capacity to kill you easily, knowledge literally is power, allowing you to evade death just that little bit longer and inch forward further into the depths of the game.

Anyway, I’ll write more on this later but just to say I have spent many hours on this game (hence the lack of blog writing) finishing the game over three times in a row (to get the Platinum, natch!). Needless to say this game has surpassed Demons Souls to become my most favourite game ever.

So yeah, hopefully Ill be able to get back on the regular updates for your reading pleasure now that I’ve finished with that game…

For now….

8 Nov 2011

Thursday, 29 September 2011

"I'm gonna sleep in your bloody carcasses tonight!" - Hobo with a Shotgun

Now Hobo with a Shotgun is the very definition of a Marmite film – you will either love it or hate it. I am very much in the former camp and hence this write up – just so I can put this film in context before you decide to go and watch it.

Of course this film will not be suited for everyone – it’s violent. And I mean really violent with lots of blood, gore and dismemberment - but we’ll get to that in a minute.

Story wise, the title pretty much says it all – the film follows the tale of a wandering Hobo who arrives in a town that happens to be overrun by brutal gangsters, petty criminals running amok, corrupt police and quick to mob civilians. After intervening in a confrontation, the Hobo is brutally punished. Instead of accepting his lesson of intimidation, the Hobo decides enough is enough and goes on a vigilante killing spree with a shotgun, determined to clean up the town at all costs.

Now at face value it doesn't seem all that interesting - that's why it took me by surprise so much when I watched it for the first time. I was literally blown away. Firstly the violence – the portrayal is not only very bloody but very brutal – just a few examples include a baseball bat lined with razorblades, a gun pointed point blank at a baby and let’s not forget a certain scene involving a bus (one of the more controversial scenes in the film).

Having said that, this film is deliberately made in the Grindhouse style (a la Machete, Death Proof and Planet Terror) and so the violence, although very much over the top, is often schlocky and slightly comic in its delivery (think it terms of Ichi the Killer or Braindead). In fact, the story and characters are decidedly comic book in their presentation, especially the villains who are the nastiest but also most strangely appealing villains I have seen in films for a long time. I mean these guys haven’t even heard of a moral compass. They just don't care.

…Which fits in nicely with the vibe of 80s excess that permeates the film. The film is awash with various fashions, neon stylings and music of the 80s and filmed largely with a handheld camerawork and a gritty filter; and is a clear homage to Troma flicks such as The Toxic Avenger.

A more modern day comparison to the tone of the film would be the current wave of Japanese splatter films such as The Machine Girl and Tokyo Gore Police, so if you have seen and enjoyed those films then this one is highly recommended.

Similar to Machete, this film originally started its life as a fake trailer for the Death Proof/Planet Terror double bill Grindhouse – but where it differs from Machete is that it manages to expand upon and transcend the trailer instead of merely making a 90min version of it. As well as the aforementioned 80s styling’s being added there is one big added factor that I have yet to discuss.

He goes by the name of Rutger Hauer.

Most noted for his superb roles in films such The Hitcher and Blade Runner, Rutger playing the part of the Hobo grounds the film with a downplayed performance that lends the character gravitas but also anchors the film so it doesn't fly off too far into absurdity. Rutger is a force to be reckoned with and shows real heart in a film that is filled with characters that often gleefully show that they have none. I mean this guy can expound acres of his character without even saying a word – he’s that good! Moreover, the father daughter relationship between the Hobo and Abby (the requisite prostitute with a heart of gold) provides a delicate counterpoint to the rest of the film’s carnage, which makes it all matter. Put simply, the film just would not work as well without Rutger as the Hobo.

If you want a quick comparison, check out the original fake Grindhouse trailer here with the actual feature film trailer here.

So all in all a recommended film – and I haven’t even mentioned THE PLAGUE yet. Yes, when THE PLAGUE (so awesome they deserve capital letters all the time) turn up a good way into the film, the whole thing steps up a notch. I wont ruin it for you but these guys are awesome. Also watch out for cameos by Ricky from Trailer Park Boys and David Brunt who played the Hobo in the original fake trailer.

So if you don’t mind a bit of bloody violence in your films then this is one to watch. Despite some rough edges, uneven acting across the cast and the limited budget occasionally showing through, for me personally this film was shocking and refreshing in equal measure as there is not much else like it currently out there. Coupled with the 80s music and aesthetic that I love (that Bricklin!), makes
Hobo with a Shotgun a sure-fire contender for placing in my top ten films of the year.

29 Sep 2011

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Film Roundup - September - Part 1

Since there are a few films already this month I’ve decided to split September in two, so keep reading for the first part of September’s film roundup!

First up, we have Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows - Part 1 which, whilst boasting the expected high production values and stellar cast, remains largely a fan service film which proves to be nigh on incomprehensible for those who haven’t seen the previous films in the series or read the books.

Whereas earlier Potter films were presented much more as fun standalone family romps, Deathly Hallows suffers heavily from relying on assumed previous knowledge as well as a decidedly unfamily-friendly gloomy darkness, pensiveness and angst that pervades the entire picture.

Of course the stakes are much higher now in the story and (I can only assume) the film follows the tone of the book closely and it is interesting to see how much it has shifted in tone since Chris Columbus’ Philosopher’s Stone (AKA Sorcerer’s Stone).

Despite its dreary nature, there is one highlight which takes the form of a short animated interlude explaining the origin of the Deathly Hallows, which strangely contains more charm than the rest of the film.

That being said, it has made me interested in seeing The Deathly Hallows - Part 2, if anything just to see how it all concludes, but as a movie watched on its own it’s pretty unsatisfying.

Next up is low budget British horror flick Salvage, filmed in Merseyside (on the old set of Brookside no less – fun fact for you kiddies!) about a mother’s desperate search for her daughter amidst a quarantine by armed forces due to an unidentified creature that escaped from a nearby beached container.

This film successfully overcomes the usual problems associated with low budget horror films by focusing heavily on the character’s plight and only showing the ‘creature’ very sparingly. Some may not enjoy the family drama elements and feel short changed by the lack of action and gore but I personally enjoyed it.

Neve McIntosh, who plays the mother, is the best thing about this movie and her performance is outstanding. Not a great film by any means but worth a watch if you don't mind low budget horror with good acting.

Similarly, another low budget horror is presented in the The Silent House (La Casa Muda) from Uruguay. Filmed entirely on location in one house on a digital camera with only three actors, this is pretty much as low budget as you can get.

The interesting part here, however, is the way the film is presented – in one long continuous take. Although this premise is not entirely original (see Rope and Russian Ark) and also unlikely to really have been filmed in one take due to filming logistics, the edits are disguised well and it does lend a unique sense of immersion with the film as it is all played out in real time.

Whilst the technical skill of the cinematography is impressive, the actual story is not and with the exception of one scene (utilising photo flashes for scares) the majority of the film is a damp squib with the almost obligatory ending ‘twist’ being highly unoriginal. Only worth watching for the purported single take film presentation - if you have an interest in the more technical aspects of film such as that.

Recommended to me as being one of the best martial arts films ever, I recently watched Ip Man. Telling the story of Yip Man, famous for his Wing Chun and being one of Bruce Lee’s mentors, Ip Man boasts great fights scenes and choreography but is mired somewhat by its overly heavy political message of the Chinese being enslaved by the Japanese during the War.

Reading up on it, it turns out that the events portrayed in the film are mostly fictional which is a shame considering the film is presented as a biopic. Having said that though, Donnie Yen is fantastic as always and the film is still worth watching once if only for the fight scenes.

As for it best martial art film of all time? Not even close. My personal favourite still remains Iron Monkey, which coincidentally also has Donnie Yen in it.

Finally in our roundup we have Attack the Block, based on the similarly ridiculous match-up of Cowboys and Aliens by pitting ASBO yobs against aliens.

Whereas Cowboys fails in its bland and muddled presentation, Attack the Block sparkles with its astute characterisations, witty dialogue and memorable performances. It’s usually very difficult for characters who we see mugging a young woman at the beginning of the film end up as characters we empathise with and root for, but director Joe Cornish and his young cast manage to pull it off with ease.

The aliens themselves are striking in their design and the action suitably bloody showing that you can still make things work effectively on a non-Hollywood limited budget. Special mention also goes to gang leader Moses (played by newcomer John Boyega) whose brilliantly nuanced performance belies his limited acting experience.

That concludes Part 1 of the September Film Roundup, with Attack the Block being the recommended watch.

One film that I left out of the roundup is Hobo with a Shotgun but only because it deserves a write up of its own! Stay tuned!

20 Sep 2011

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Roller Coasters

One of the perks of my work is that I get taken to places for free and enjoy stuff that other people usually have to pay for – case in point: Alton Towers.

Having finished work early there, we had about an hour to dash about and go on a few rides before closing time.

Now, much to everyone’s surprise, I’ve never been to Alton Towers before and upon walking around it I was notably impressed. Not because I’ve never been to a theme park before (I’ve been to my fair share over here and abroad) but by the simple fact that there is so much greenery there.

You see, differing from the various concrete and steel monstrosities of a lot of other theme parks, Alton Towers was built on the grounds of a ‘semi-ruined gothic revival country house’ (not my words but the words of wikipedia!) and so is built around pre-existing gardens, forests, lakes and expanses of grass, not to mention the old country house structure itself.

The family outing potential here is huge as there is something for everyone – if you don't like the rides you can just explore the picturesque area to your hearts content.

But really, most people come here for the roller coasters, and Alton Towers, although holding no current records (cos I look up stuff like that), prides itself on having its fair share of ‘world first’ roller coasters.

Anyway, on that particular day we only had time to go on three of these rides: Thirteen, Air and Nemesis. What follows is a brief rundown of each.

First up was Thirteen, or using its frivolously hip correct spelling ‘Th13teen’.

The set-up was great: being described as a ‘psychoaster’, this ride was designed to scare you in unexpected ways.

*SPOILER WARNING! Skip to the paragraph after next if you don't want to know what happens in this ride!*

The ride starts off fairly standard – a seated coaster with banks and hills travelling through the forest area until the train comes to a complete stop inside a dark crypt. This is where the ‘worlds first’ element takes place, as the car suddenly drops, first a tiny amount and then a bigger five metre drop, all in pitch black. The ride then hurtles backwards through the darkness until it emerges back outside into the light.

The thrills of this ride came mostly from its surprise elements and not knowing what was going to come next but just as a roller coaster was fairly tame. Recommended if you are looking for something different.

Next up, we went on Air the ‘flying’ coaster, dubbed so as the ride takes place with you leaning forward in the prone position so as to get the full effect of the scenery whizzing past beneath you. Having taken the extra queuing time to have the privilege of sitting in the front-most carriage I can tell you it was well worth it.

Not only does the prone position offer a new experience of flying above the ground, when the ride corks you end up going headfirst backwards and upside-down. As far as roller coasters go, this is the closest you will get to the experience of flight and is thoroughly recommended.

Finally, we have Nemesis – an oldy, but a goody. Built back in 1994, despite its age Europe’s first inverted coaster is still a BEAST. There are corks and inversions aplenty and the ride uses its surroundings such as caves, trees and waterfalls to make the ride more dynamic. Oh, and did I mention all the water in the area is pink? Gnarly!

The ride can be a bit rattley at times due to its age and you do feel slightly dizzy stepping off of it but that's to be expected really after what it puts you through.

So all in all I would recommend Air the most of the three, followed my Nemesis. Just going on these rides has reignited my interest in extreme roller coasters and may now make it my mission to try and go on some of those world record holders.

13 Sep 2011