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