Monday, 30 January 2012

Southern Films Double Bill

Once again my film rental service has surprised me by sending out a serendipitous match-up of similarly themed - yet tonally contrasting films - in the form of two movies set in Middle America.

Again I watched them back-to-back – here’s what I thought.

First up was Winter’s Bone, written and directed by Debra Granik – which follows the story of an Ozark Mountain girl searching for her father in order to prevent her family’s eviction.

Amidst scenes of struggling with poverty, caring for her ill mother and two younger siblings – we also see her do a bit of amateur sleuthing and poking around in parts of the tight-knit community she shouldn't - which be inevitably leads to trouble.

A breakout role for Jennifer Lawrence – who has since gone on to roles in The Beaver and X-Men: First Class, and its not hard to see why, as here she is utterly convincing in the role and great to watch. John Hawkes is also a standout, as her unpredictable uncle ‘Teardrop’.

Whilst the film boasts good production design and beautiful photography – especially of landscapes and the harsh surrounding wilderness - the story unfortunately doesn't fully deliver. Despite being touted as a ‘redneck-noir’, the suspense built up doesn't seem to have a satisfactory payoff, and some viewers will be disappointed by the ambiguous and low-key ending.

Directly contrasting to this sombre and realistic flick we have Kevin Smith’s latest film, Red State. Also a genre mashup, this film veers from horror movie beginnings to siege movie, with a few dialogue-heavy trademark Smith scenes thrown in for good measure.

The story involves the kidnap of three teens by an evangelical cult and after a suspenseful and slow first half, the action of the siege in the second half is a direct contrast. Whilst some will not enjoy the messy plot and inconsistent pacing, there aren’t really many films like this out there; Kevin Smith fans especially will be surprised at how different this is from his previous works.

Red State is likely to divide audiences down the middle with this raw and uncompromising picture which contains some genuine surprises in the story that upsets many genre conventions.

A special mention - Michael Parks provides an electrifying performance in this film as the main antagonist Pastor Abin Cooper. One scene in particular (love it or hate it) where he delivers a ten minute sermon - is both terrifying and yet utterly compelling to watch. Rather than him ranting abnoxiously like you would expect, it's the understated normalcy of it all that is truly scary.

Of course, many will bring up the religious and political commentaries that the film offers – but really these are largely inconsequential to its enjoyment.

So if you are hankering for some films chock full of southern accents, check out these two. For a slower paced atmospheric mood piece go for Winter’s Bone – for a more shocking b-movie type feel go for Red State.

30 Jan 2012

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Lost in Lost - Season Five

[Spoilers ahead: Don’t read if you haven’t watched Lost and don't want it ruined for you.]

Lost was one of those TV series that I watched avidly when it first came out. The first two series were really good - but then the third and fourth started to drag on a bit - and so after the Season Four finale I stopped watching.

Generally I dislike American TV series for the fact that each series has on average about twenty episodes each. As well as the time factor (committing that many hours even for one series of one show is a pretty heavy investment), the main reason I don't agree with this is that I think that with too many episodes the story-telling starts to suffer.

At the end of the day its a money issue – if a show is doing well and has high ratings, the makers want as many people hooked into watching it for as long as possible in order to justify the high budget and start-up costs that a TV series typically such as Lost typically has.*

That makes sense business-wise, but my issue is how the story-telling suffers as a result of having to artificially extend the natural story and/or character arcs in order to accommodate a greater number of episodes. Specifically in Lost, this is done by continually adding more mysteries and unanswered questions (to an already mystery-heavy premise established from the very first episode), continually adding new characters into the mix (whilst bumping off a few every now and then) and showing flashbacks of past events (and also rather confusingly flashforwards) in various characters’ lives.

With Lost finally coming to a close at the end of Season Six, I started watching it again from where I left off (the start of Season Five), as having a definite conclusion to the story has peaked my interest in it again.

And now, at the time of writing, I’ve finished Season Five. And yes, it does introduce new characters and new questions that need to be answered. In regards to timelines too, the show is definitely not friendly for newcomers.

The first half of the season follows two timelines: one being the survivors who were not rescued jumping erratically through time, and the other following the group who did get rescued and how they are coping back in the world three years later. The second half of the season follows these two timelines: the survivors not rescued being stuck in 1977 after their time jumping is halted (where they remain for three years), and the rescued survivors returning to the island in another plane crash resulting in some of them being transported back to 1977 (and joining the others who were originally stranded there) and some of them remaining in the present. Oh, and there are also continued flashbacks from each character’s past to help flesh out/retcon their current motivations. Confused yet?

You can see why Lost is very unfriendly to viewers who haven’t watched it from the very beginning - but in a strange way is more deeply satisfying for those who have, the complexities and intricacies of the story being sustained over all this time being a testament to the skill of the writers.

And it is a well written series. Aside from having to somewhat stretch out the narrative around Seasons Three and Four, with the end now in sight it seems that Season Five is starting to prepare to tie up it’s loose ends and does provide some genuine answers to everything that is happening. Characterisation also remains strong as do the emotional arcs with an average of one tear-jerking moment™ per episode (as has always been the case with Lost episodes since the beginning).

So despite my reservations about long running series, I am excited to start Season 6 of Lost to see how it all wraps up and to finally conclude the story. In an ideal world, Lost would be a perfectly formed nugget of a tale told in two seasons – but for now I just want to see how it all comes together and am happy to sit through eighteen more episodes in order for it to finish properly and get the ending it deserves.

You’ll probably hear my thoughts when I get there.

25 Jan 2012

[*British TV series, by comparison, usually have lower budgets and fewer episodes – typically around six per series. One example is the UK and US versions of ‘The Office’. The original UK version had two series with six episodes each and two ‘Christmas Special’ episodes. The US version initially started with six episodes in Season One, but each subsequent season averaging twenty-five episodes. They are currently airing their eighth season at the time of writing.]

Monday, 23 January 2012

Portal 2 - Narrative Through Design

Just finished Portal 2 the other night.
Had I played it last year it would have definitely made the Top 5 Games of 2011 list. Not only that, but I can say it is one of the best games I have ever played.

A follow up to the hit game Portal bundled in Valve’s The Orange Box, it does everything that a good sequel should: expand upon the gameplay, mechanics and narrative of the first game, with everything being bigger and better. Whilst it could have just been more of the same, the game even succeeds in throwing in a few unexpected surprises – with new characters and locations mixing in with the old.

The trademark humour is present and correct too – I can’t think of many other games out there that are legitimately funny as this one is. As well as the return of Ellen McLain’s GLaDOS, the game also features Stephen Merchant as Wheatley and J.K Simmons as Cave Johnson – resulting in a triple threat of perfect casting and excellent voicework.

What I really loved about the game, however, was Valve’s ability to point the player in the right direction and let them know how they need to progress within the game without explicit instructions. There is no HUD display, no on screen control prompts (bar the odd hit square to open door prompt), no on-screen text, no status screen. This is the genius of Portal 2’s design. It is up to you to figure everything out, but at the same time the game design facilitates this without explicit instructions or incessant handholding – which ultimately leads to a far richer and rewarding experience for the player when they do manage to complete a puzzle or find the exit to an area.

The subtleties of design layouts, audio cues, recurring motifs, passing comments by Wheatly or GLaDOS – all help to nudge you in the right direction. Although some of the puzzles had me scratching my head for a few minutes, not once did I have to consult a guide or look up where I had to go to next. That's not to say it’s an easy game. Although at times tricky, all the puzzles can be solved with lateral thought and the logical application of the mechanics you have learned about whilst getting up to this point – something which all puzzle orientated games ought to do, but few actually achieve on a par with the experience that Portal 2 offers.

Similarly, the backstory of Aperture Science, what happened to the old laboratories in the 70s, the fate of its founder Cave Johnson and even the origins of GLaDOS are all slowly revealed to the player, not through reams of text or clumsy exposition, but by environment – as you explore the ruined, desolate and crumbling laboratories deep under ground, the posters and signs on the walls, the recorded messages of Johnson – it all weaves a rich texture to the story that the player feels they discover and piece together themselves rather than just being directly told about.

And that’s really what makes Portal 2 a unique and satisfying experience. After playing the first game and falling in love with it, I didn't think the second could be that much better. In that respect it exceeded my expectations – in my view, Portal 2 is possibly one of the most finely crafted game experiences out there - especially in regards to inferring its narrative through its game design.

23 Jan 2012

Friday, 20 January 2012

Asian Cinema - Revengeance Double Bill

Today I watched two rented blu-rays films – somewhat coincidentally they were both of Asian cinema and shared a similar theme - that of Revengeance!*

However both were almost opposite in tone and handled their subject matter very differently.

First up is the Japanese film Confessions directed by Tetsuya Nakashima, a story that starts with the stark revelation by a teacher to her class that not only was the recent death of her young daughter not an accident, but the killers are amongst the students present. The film continues to reveal further shocking truths as the various narrations of events or ‘confessions’ by different characters further expands upon the tale – mostly centred around a complicated revenge plot orchestrated by the teacher as the guilty youths could not be punished justly by the law.

Although the occasional evil genius child machinations akin to Death Note might feel a bit contrived to some – the twists keep things interesting right up until the end.

It should be mentioned that this film is beautifully shot, one of the most visually arresting Japanese films in recent memory - and the haunting score also helps to create an almost dreamlike feel to the entire piece. People can also enjoy it as an expertly written commentary on juvenile crime, the absence of parents and of course revenge (as much of it in a psychological form as well as physically).

On the other end of the spectrum we have I Saw the Devil by Jee-woon Kim - which sees the clash of two Korean acting heavyweights: Min-sik Choi (who starred in Oldboy and Lady Vengeance) and Byung-hun Lee (A Bittersweet Life). After the former murders the latter’s fiancée, a brutal game of cat and mouse ensues, with plenty of blood, violence, torture and casualties along the way.

Both leads are excellent in their respective roles and perfect foils for one another, likened by the director as fire versus ice in their performance styles. This story is centred around revenge as well – whereas Confessions is largely about mood and often very talky, I Saw the Devil serves up plenty of violent action and brutality in its tale of retribution.
Recommended if you are a fan of Chan Wook Park’s films, but others may be turned off by its unflinching nastiness that is pretty relentless throughout. Decapitations, cannibals, being smashed in the nuts with a wrench – its all there.

Polar opposites in tone but both equally chock full of revengeance! Take your pick – personally, I preferred Confessions - its gorgeous cinematography clinched it for me – one of the best films I’ve seen this year.

*Revengeance is defined by the as ‘The act of revenge at a rate of at least 2.54 times greater to that of standard revenge and 1.61 times that of standard vengeance’.

19 Jan 2012

L.A.Noire and MotionScan

Recently I’ve been playing last years hit game L.A.Noire – and whilst I am enjoying it, I also cant wait to finish it and move on to something else. Here’s why.

Now at the risk of boring you with stuff you already know – I’ll sum up the background quickly. The game is set in post war L.A and you follow the story of a police officer called Cole Phelps who works his way up from a lowly beat cop through to traffic, homicide and various other departments. Whilst there is a huge recreation of late 40s Los Angeles to walk, drive and shoot in, the majority of the time you will either be searching around for clues at a crime scene or questioning/interrogating people.

Now the big draw of this game is the insanely detailed facial animation courtesy of the newly developed MotionScan technology – a way of recording an actor’s performance in incredible detail and reproducing it within the game. Sometimes it’s so good you occasionally forget you are playing a game and are just watched a TV program.

In fact, you could argue that the whole game is built around this technology and as a result, somewhat adversely, lives and dies by it. When you are questioning witnesses or interrogating suspects – a good portion of the game is spent doing this – you are supposed to carefully watch the facial animations to guess if they are lying or not as they spout their testimony. All nervous tics, shifty eyes and other subtle facial gestures are recreated well – it’s just a shame that the actual gameplay surrounding these amazing feats of animation are largely inconsequential.

Every so often after hearing them say something you have a choice of deciding whether or not they are telling the truth, if they are lying or (somewhat confusingly) if you choose to simply ‘doubt’ them – which means you think they are holding something back but you cant prove it. Getting the answer right will give you more details about the case, getting it wrong usually means you get less information. There have been a few times when I knew the person was lying but didn’t know which piece of evidence specifically that you need to refer to in order to confirm this (a wrong piece of evidence selected causes you to ‘fail’ the line of questioning, as would only choosing ‘doubt’ when you were supposed to choose ‘lie’).

Regardless, ‘failing’ the questioning has only very few times led to a ‘game over’ screen – the majority of times it is inconsequential to the flow of the story – the game just carries on to the next scene. On one hand the developers Team Bondi could have made this aspect of the game less cut and dry and really effect the overall outcome of the story – but on the other hand, seeing repeated game over screens and having to watch and listen to all the dialogue every time you fail is guaranteed to have you reaching for the power switch.

The facial animation tech is amazing to watch – it’s just a shame that it couldn't be implemented usefully in any other aspects of the gameplay.

There ARE cut scenes to watch – lots of them – and whilst the facial animation is still brilliant here, the rest of the body whilst adequately mo-capped, is not up to that high standard set by MotionScan, sometimes leading to a jarring effect and the occasional tumbling into the uncanny valley.

The game’s other activities, such as shooting and driving, whilst competent, have been done better in other games and the remainder of the time all you are doing is walking around crime scenes pressing ‘x’ at every object hoping to pick up all the clues so that the story can progress. Whilst at first this investigation can be exciting and intriguing – it becomes rote and mechanical after the thirtieth time you have to do it.

Whilst the city has the appearance of a highly detailed and bustling metropolis, there is sadly nothing to do out there apart from visiting the next location on the current case you are working on (and a handful of very short ‘street crime’ sidequests) – making the whole thing feel strangely empty. Most of the time I found myself skipping the driving sequences entirely by asking my partner to chauffeur me over to the next scene.

This all points back to the MotionScan. Clearly this is what the majority of the development effort went towards (apparently over 400 characters had their faces animated this way) and it’s just a shame that it didn't somehow play a wider role. Perhaps a sandbox detective game was an overly ambitious project to first utilise this technology in?

We can hope that facial animation of this calibre makes an appearance in future games in order to capture more realistic performances from actors – but sadly late last year, despite L.A. Noire selling well, Team Bondi went under and was shut down.

Despite this, I can bet that the technology is sure to return in some form in the future and be utilised in different ways in gaming – although it is sure to be an expensive and painstaking process – L.A. Noire reportedly took seven years to develop. It would be interesting to see who will take on the risk next.

Whilst L.A. Noire is for the most part an enjoyable experience thanks to excellent writing and intriguing story and setting – I don't think I could sit through its lengthy investigations and cut scenes again once I’ve finished it. Which is shame since MotionScan creates animation that is truly astonishing.

To see a demo of the tech and some spiel from the developer, click HERE.

18 Jan 2012

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

New mixtape up! - Walternate's 80s Simulation mix

I’ve just posted up my new mixtape this morning so click on the player below to have a listen.

It’s another Electro House type mixtape, but this time its 80s styled, inspired both by my love of 80s music but also by the character of Walter/Walternate in the US TV series Fringe.

Being a science fiction based detective show, Fringe introduced the idea of an alternate universe into its main story – in particular one that is very similar to ours in many aspects and yet also subtly different. All the characters that appear in our universe also exist there, albeit most are slightly different in their personality, mostly as a result of their environment and what has happened in their life.

In our universe, Walter Bishop (played by John Noble) is a brilliant yet socially awkward scientist and in the other alternate universe the other Walter – dubbed “Walternate” (also played by John Noble) is a dastardly, ruthless and ambitious genius – now also the Secretary of Defence. The main reason for these wildly differing personalities being the former’s incarceration in a mental hospital for twelve years, and the latter being on a personal quest for vengeance ever since he had his son stolen from him many years ago.

Anyway, the point is that at one point in time these two were very similar and it was these major events listed above that contributed to how they turned out later in life. This is shown in a few episodes of Fringe were it is set in the 80s and we see what happens to both characters.

Anyways… I’m off track again. So this mix is an 80s ‘simulation’ – because although its definitely 80s styled, all the tracks in the mix are actually fairly recent ones – hence the title.

Now a couple of technical notes on the mix.

I used Sound Studio again – and because the software isn’t really meant for this kind of thing, lots of weird annoying things happen when making the mix which usually means I spend a lot more time checking and correcting things in post than in the actual mixing.

Specifically, there are occasional audio spikes that appear randomly causing nasty clicking sounds and in turn, this caused the audio after that to suddenly drop in volume (I think this is an automatic countermeasure). This means I have to go through the track and manually remove all the clicks (usually by zooming in on the wave and editing) – but also annoyingly have to go around fixing all the volume so it’s consistent through the whole mix.

The most annoying thing however, is the randomness. I could have a totally fine mix, and then after having added more tracks and saved over and then reopening the file, would find MORE clicks or volume drops added. Aaargh!!!!

I’ve scoured the interwebs but to no avail. Nobody else has this problem as they don't really use Sound Studio to make mixtapes, nor have I found any similar problems on any forums.

Previously I thought the variable formats and bit rates of different tracks used may have something to do with it and so I converted all the tracks prior to mixing but the problems did crop up eventually as before in previous mixes. I am now starting to think that it may be to do with volume levels and so although I did lower each tracks volume prior to mixing, next time I will put together the whole mix at a much lower volume than usual and just raise it all at the end – or even use an entirely different software to amplify the volume at the end before publishing.

Anyway, that's the idea (a new mixtape is already in the works) so we’ll see if I have better results then. I’ve rambled on for long enough - so if you haven’t already done so have a listen to this mixtape by pressing ‘play’ in the embedded player.


Oh- and if you want to check out my previous mixtapes click HERE for my mixcloud page, or HERE for a more detailed writeup and links for each one.

17 Jan 2012

Monday, 16 January 2012

Shoe collection - old and new

A photo-based post for a change.

As I go through a bunch of shoes in my time and feel kind of sad every time I have to get rid of a pair, I thought it would be good to start to keep a photo record of the shoes I own.

You can click on any picture for a close up or to go into gallery mode.

So here they are in no particular order:

Puma (Felt)
Colour: Black with neon green stripe
Bought: 2008 or earlier?
Status: Retired
Notes: Limited edition felt material with insole artwork

Puma Suede
Colour: Red and Black
Bought: 2008 or earlier?
Status: Retired
Notes: Had the exact same pair in purple also around the same time

Name: Converse Low
Colour: Black with turquoise trim
Bought: 2010
Status: Retired
Notes: My first pair of lows ever

Name: Converse High
Colour: Purple with zebra inside
Bought: 2011
Status: Active
Notes: Really nice but a pain to put on/take off

Nike Dunk Low
Purple and black
First pair of Nikes in a long time

Name: Puma ???
Shiny purple/pink
Got them cheap at TK Maxx. Never been worn. Saving them for a special occasion.

Name: Vans slip-on
Black with white skull and bones honeycomb pattern
2008 or earlier?
First pair of vans slip-ons

Name: Vans Slip-on
Purple and black
2009 or earlier?

Name: Vans Slip-on
Black with Iron Maiden artwork
2009 or earlier?
Limited Edition 'The Trooper' artwork

Vans High

Black with Iron Maiden artwork
2009 or earlier?
Limited Edition 'Killers' artwork

Addidas Allstars Shelltoes (suede)

Tan with dark brown stripes
2008 or earlier?
Very rare

Name: Converse Low
Purple toe piece and thick tongue

Addidas Samba

Black with white stripes

Puma Suede

Purple with white stripe

Puma Suede

Purple with red stripe
Status: New


16 Jan 2012

Friday, 13 January 2012

Film Roundup January - Part 1

Welcome back to film roundup – the first of 2012!

First up we have spy drama The Debt, about three Mossad agents on the hunt of a Nazi war criminal, the story playing out in two timelines with two different sets of actors.

The older trio (set in 1997) which includes acting heavyweights such as Helen Mirren and Tom Wilkinson are brilliant as usual and could pull off this material with their eyes closed – and the younger actors (of the 1965 story) equally rise to the challenge, with special mention to Marton Csokas and Jessica Chastain as two of the young agents - and also to Jesper Christensen as the sinister Surgeon of Birkenau.

The tense scenes of espionage as well as the unfolding drama of the prisoner scenes and the interplay between the characters keeps the story interesting to watch, as well as the affecting themes of truth, justice and guilt that drive the characters forward.

The order that the story plays out also deserves a mention – as more information is gained by the viewer as the story progresses, new light is shed on past events.

Next up we have Real Steel, a story set in the near future where boxing has been replaced by robot fighting.

Essentially a family drama that happens to be set in the midst of this ’sport’, there are plenty of fun moments to be had. The robot effects are uniformly excellent and fights are weighty and brutal – no problem there. My only gripe is in the technicality of the fighting and how the regulations of the sport are a bit murky and inconsistent. There doesn't seem to be any discussion or apparent rules of how the various machines are to be built (some are much larger than others or have two heads), how they are allowed to be controlled (some are controlled by one person via remote, others by multiple people via a console, some voice activated, some shadowbox, some react on their own…) etc...

Similarly, some fights are over within a few punches leading to the total destruction of a robot, others go on for ages with sometimes hundreds of blows exchanged with little to no damage. Whilst it might sound like nitpicking, the various inconsistencies do pull you out of the realism of the robot boxing. As a result, fight outcomes appear to simply service the needs of the story rather than to convince. A little consistency could have gone a long way.

That being said, kids (and the kid inside of you) will love it – and there are plenty of fights throughout so viewers won't feel short-changed. Hugh Jackman convinces as a retired boxer and Kevin Durand has a hoot (sometimes literally).

Last up we have Footloose – yet another remake of an 80s film, although not as bad as you might have anticipated due in most part to the likeable Kenny Wormald in the lead role – incidentally he’s a better dancer than Kevin Bacon too.

The plot remains largely the same as the original, with certain aspects modernised such as the obligatory ‘urban’ styles now included in the myriad of dance styles in the film. The film feels a bit raunchier and edgier than the original – and yes, that ‘angry dance’ in the warehouse scene is still there – utterly ridiculous and yet amazing to watch.

The central device of the story still seems a bit wobbly: the town has banned public dancing as a result of some teens dying in a car crash after a party? Why not just the drink ban and curfew? Other various anomalies (despite the ban there are amazing dancers everywhere in town – when and where do they get to practice?) although appearing at odds can be forgiven for the sake of the plot. Dennis Quaid does a fair job in the Lithgow role although Andie McDowell isnt given much to do except quietly object. Perhaps
the film seems almost more relevant than before as a commentary on youthful expression through dance - now more than ever before with the increase of dance in popular culture today.

13 Jan 2012

Thursday, 12 January 2012

The Woman - or 'The Women'?

[Spoiler warning: This article contains a discussion of certain plot points]

The long awaited new film from talented director Lucky McKee, The Woman is his first feature film since The Woods back in 2006.

Always one for the bizarre and macabre, McKee’s The Woman is a story about a family man who discovers a feral woman living in the woods and decides to kidnap her and keep her prisoner in order to civilise. Although already sounding a bit ‘out there’, this barely scratches the surface as really the story revolves around domestic violence and abuse and how the true nature of evil can always lurk behind the façade of normalcy.

Introduced in the opening scenes at first as simply a guy suffering from a whiff of douchebaggery, the true extent of the father’s horrific nature and degree of control and influence he has over his family is only revealed as the film goes on – his charming outward persona slowly peeled back to reveal further deepening layers of increasing depravity. What at first seems like almost childlike enthusiasm for his pet project slowly reveals its true sinister nature. It's a stark reminder of how the true psychos in this world aren’t running around with chainsaws or hockey masks but are often hidden away in plain sight – posing in this case as a respectable pater familias.

The real theme that permeates the film however, is the role of women. Whilst the actions of the father character are the driving force throughout the story, it is the various women of the film and their reactions and coping mechanisms that make up the substance of the narrative. McKee regular Angela Bettis as the mother, locked into silent and submissive servitude by the tyrannical father, a psychological prison – a direct contrast to the physical imprisonment of the feral woman, who without the chains is more than able to survive and take care of herself.

We also have the elder daughter, also living in fear – compounded by the early stages of a pregnancy that may or not be by her father’s own hand. The younger daughter too – still innocent but brought up in an environment where it’s taught as perfectly normal to have a person chained up in the basement. And finally the teacher character – who despite having the moral fortitude to intervene in the situation is totally unprepared for what awaits her as truths are uncovered.

Although the film is entitled The Woman as a direct reference to the feral woman, it also refers to all women in the film and how they are viewed and treated by the father – made explicit in the a scene near the end with his rant against womankind and how they are to blame for everything.

The subject of nurture is also a recurring theme throughout and the effect the absence of a mother can have on someone. The feral woman is presumably brought up in the wild from a young age – she cannot speak but is more than able to hunt and kill to sustain herself. Since the mother character’s influence on the family is severely stifled by the father, the son (the only other male role in the film) gradually grows in his likeness – including the more disturbingly sociopathic aspects.

The shocking reveal of the existence of another daughter, referred to only as ‘anophthalmia’, shows a more extreme and direct way of how one is a product of their environment – literally raise by dogs. Incidentally, the father blames the initial condition she suffers on the mother too (‘your shame!’).

The Woman succeeds as a horror movie, one that contains a sharp commentary on gender roles as the usual shocks and gore expected from the genre. With excellent performances all around – most notably from the father (Sean Bridgers) and of course the feral woman herself (Pollyanna McIntosh) – the film disturbs and lingers in the mind long after you've finished watching.

12 Jan 2012

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

My Top Ten Favourite Films of 2011

[Note: This isn’t intended as a definitive ‘best films of the year’ list but personally ones that I most enjoyed the most and would watch (or have already watched) multiple times. You are free to take them as recommendations of what to watch and/or disagree with my choice – it’s just an opinion.]

Now read on for a top ten countdown of my favourite films of 2011…

10) Thor

Directed by: Kenneth Branagh
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Anthony Hopkins, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston
Summary: Family drama on an epic scale. Impressive costumes and set design in Asgaard, fish out of water humour down on earth. Manages to avoid the cheesiness that the source material could have fallen foul to – Loki’s plight being especially effective.
Choice moment: Thor in a hospital surrounded by medical staff, “How dare you attack the son of Odin!”

9) Attack The Block

Directed by: Joe Cornish
Starring: John Boyega, Jodie Whittaker, Nick Frost
Summary: Aliens vs Hoodies. Succeeds in making heroes of those that are at first presented as villains – really a story about learning responsibility and earning redemption - just so happens to be funny and thrilling too.
Choice moment: “This is too much madness to explain in one text!”.

8) Captain America: The First Avenger

Directed by: Joe Johnston
Starring: Chris Evans, Hugo Weaving, Hayley Atwell, Tommy Lee Jones
Summary: Charming period set Superhero adventure. Full of witty exchanges and presents the Cap in a new light – not just as a larger than life patriot. Also I still can't get over how well they did the ‘skinny’ Steve Rogers…
Choice moment: The montage of Captain America selling war bonds.

7) Source Code

Directed by: Duncan Jones
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga, Jeffrey Wright
Summary: Mind-bending, thought-provoking sci-fi. After this and Jones’ previous film Moon, he’s definitely one to watch.
Choice moment: The slow motion kiss.

6) The Guard

Directed by: John Michael McDonagh
Starring: Brendan Gleeson, Don Cheadle, Liam Cunningham, Mark Strong
Summary: Witty, hilarious, and irreverent and constantly surprising – and that's just Gleeson’s character. Gem of a film that you may never have watched but would be glad when you did.
Choice moment: “I’m Irish. Racism is part of my culture.”

5) Hanna

Directed by: Joe Wright
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Eric Bana, Cate Blanchett
Summary: Mesmerising fairy tale with a unique performance from Ronan. Stylishly shot and scored and filled with memorable characters, both hilarious and terrifying.
Choice moment: The single take ‘tail down to the subway and fight’ shot.

4) Rise of The Planet of the Apes

Directed by: Rupert Wyatt
Starring: James Franco, Andy Serkis, Freida Pinto, John Lithgow
Summary: A prequel/origin story to a franchise that stands on its own two feet. The masterstroke of the film was to present the Apes as the heroes and not as fodder for a monster movie. This film should be watched just for Andy Serkis’ performance as Caesar alone – in my opinion it eclipses even that of Gollum.
Choice moment: “Noooooooo!”

3) Hobo with a Shotgun

Directed by: Jason Eisener
Starring: Rutger Hauer, Molly Dunsworth, Brian Downey
Summary: Sure it’s shlocky, B-movie and Troma-esque in its deliberate trashiness, but Eisener’s homage to a bygone era of 80’s video nasties is also a ton of fun. Filled with colourful characters and hammy performances – only Rutger Hauer plays it straight – but is more effective for it. An iconic role for him comparable to Blade Runner’s Roy Batty and The Hitcher’s John Ryder.
Choice moment: The introduction of ‘The Plague’ and their entrance to the hospital.

2) Drive

Directed by: Nicolas Winding Refn
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, Albert Brooks
Summary: Slick slice of 80s styled neon noir. Rather than frantic noise and fury of most ‘car’ movies, this one is quiet, restrained and cool in its driving sequences. With a growing sense of inescapable menace punctuated with ultra-violence, the characters edge forward, often knowing they can’t escape their fate. Ryan Gosling is the mostly silent ‘western’ hero of the piece, his character a movie icon in the making. The gorgeous lighting and slick camera work and 80s-flavoured yet modern electro soundtrack are just the icing on the cake.
Choice moment: The cool and calm getaway driving of the opening heist.

1) Black Swan

Directed by: Darren Aronofsky
Starring: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey
Summary: The film that took me by surprise and blew me away. Comparisons to Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue aside, the story is rich with themes and motifs and is played out masterfully – both simultaneously haunting (at times downright terrifying) but also beautiful and uplifting. Part mystery, part psychological thriller, part Cronenberg body horror with an extra splash of sex and death – the film is consistently keeps you on the edge throughout – the extreme attention to detail that Aronfsky employs requiring multiple viewings to fully appreciate.

There are excellent performances all round too, with everyone hitting the right notes of ambiguity when called for, creating a tense unsettling feel. Is Mila Kunis a friend or an enemy? Is Vincent Cassel really lusting after Nina or is he just trying to coax the best performance out of her? Barbara Hershey teeters from suffocating coddling to suddenly flying into a rage.

Of course Natalie Portman in the role of Nina suits the material perfectly – her performance that covers both the roles of the virginal white swan and the sultry black swan as well as the mental breakdown throughout are spot on – and the Oscar she won for the role is well deserved (and I usually don't even like Natalie Portman in films!)

Other aspects such as the cinematography, lighting, production design, costume design, music and the dance choreography are all amazing too.

Some viewers were disappointed by the lack of a clear (ironically) black and white explanation at the end of the film, others who watched it expecting a film about ballet were left horrified and confused at what they just witnessed – for me though, Black Swan was my favourite film of 2011.

Choice moment:
There are so many: all of the dance scenes, the horrific nail file scene, any of the Barbara Hershey scenes – just watch the film already!

9 Jan 2012

Film Roundup - December - Part 3

At last – the final art of December’s film roundup!

First up we have The Guard, starring Brendan Gleeson in a quirky dark comedy set in the west of Ireland. Without giving away the story but basically he plays a policeman who gets involved in a drug smuggling plot.

Except its not really about that – it's about his character – one so well drawn that despite his own drug usage and self professed ‘whoo-ering’, is extremely down to earth and likeable and most of all: sharp as a tack.

The dialogue is witty and often hilarious – with Don Cheadle, Liam Cunningham and Mark Strong all on top form. Fans of Gleeson’s performance in In Bruges will love this one – similar humour between these two films (the writer/director on each films are brothers!).

Sleeping Beauty showcases a brave performance from Emily Browning (she gets naked a lot and fumbled by rich old men whilst asleep for money), but occasionally misses the mark due to some of her traits as the central character making her unlikable resulting in the viewer distancing themselves from her plight. Some may find the film a bit slow and pretentious but others will enjoy it as a meditation on the fleeting nature of youth and beauty.

Takashi Miike continues to produce work at an alarming rate – this time he tries his hand at a period piece in the form of 13 Assassins. A film of two distinct halves, the first is all moody setup as a group of samurai band together to put an end to the dastardly Lord Naritsugu. The second is one long set piece where the thirteen men face off against over two hundred samurai in a booby-trapped ‘village of death’.

Whilst the film is beautifully shot and the action plentiful, the film could have benefited from a bit more blood and gore (here, pretty tame by Miike’s usual standards); and the pacing could have been a bit better. Most will find the almost hour-long set piece entertaining at first but draining toward the end of it. Perhaps that was his intention all along?

Super is a ‘real life’ super hero story that will have inevitable Kick-Ass comparisons, despite the two films having very different tones. Whilst the latter is definitely still comic book-y in its delivery, Super is far more grounded in reality with a darkly comic and yet gritty tone - to sum up: Rainn Wilson’s character Frank suffers from depression, dons a costume and hits people with a wrench.

Despite committing these violent and sociopathic vigilante acts, the film has heart and we feel for Frank despite his misguided actions. Ellen Paige also appears as a comic book nerd who somehow manages to be even more mentally unhinged than Frank, as his psychotic sidekick Boltie.

Finally, we have the remake of the 1985 classic Fright Night, this time with Colin Farrell in the Chris Sarandon role as the vampire neighbour terrorizing a teenage boy – this time played by Anton Yelchin.

Whilst many have cried sacrilege (when is there a remake when they haven’t?), I enjoyed this film despite a touch of over reliance on CG - especially towards the finale. The story is opened out a little more to various locations and the cast is uniformly great. Farrel brings a distinct animal nature to his role and Yelchin continues to impress with his performances and is slowly building a name for himself as a reliable actor. Christoper Mintz-Plasse is always great despite being typecast and its nice to see Brit Imogen Poots getting a deserved Hollywood break.

Lastly, David Tennant deserves a special mention for totally hamming it up as Peter Vincent who (despite being totally different from the 1985 incarnation of the same character) still hits the spot as a sweary gothic Las Vegas illusionist and vampire ‘expert’.

All in all, a fun alternative to the po-faced twilight movies.

Now the final film roundup is out of the way, next up: my Top Ten films of 2011!

4 Jan 2012

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Interesting Pirates Myths

A while ago I read some interesting facts about pirates – among them, some common misconceptions.

For example, did you know that the reason pirates wear eye patches isn’t because they've lost an eye?

As well as peg legs and hooks being also extremely rare – there weren’t many one eyed pirates around. In fact, the eye patch was primarily used when raiding other ships. After making it across onto the enemy’s deck, going from the bright light of day into the dark, poorly lit interior of a ship would render you essentially blind - as it would take time for your eyes to get adjusted to the darkness. During which time, any enemies laying in wait down there could easily get the drop on you.

The solution? An eye patch to cover one eye prior to battle - so that once you get down in to the darkened interior you can lift it up and have one eye good to go. A similar piece of advice given to me in my youth on a CCF night exercise (we did that kind of thing at my school) about looking at flares that were shot up in the sky. If you had to look up at them, do it with one eye covered so that you wouldn't end up being blinded in the dark for the next few minutes. Simples.

Other interesting pirate related trivia: pirates didn’t speak with the so-called ‘pirate’ accent that goes ‘Arrrrrr’.
This was first made popular by the actor Robert Newton who played a pirate with a (slightly over the top) West Country accent in the 1950 Disney adaptation of Treasure Island; and has been perpetuated by nearly all other pirates in fiction since, its legacy including the Pirates of the Caribbean movies for the younger generation as well as an ‘International Talk Like a Pirate Day’.

Another quick one – pirates didn't hoard or bury their treasure. Any bounties gained from plundering were promptly spent on much needed supplies for their seafaring, particularly medical supplies which were essential to surviving long sea voyages. There have only been about three recorded instances of treasure being buried and in all these cases it was unearthed pretty much straight away, rendering the action pretty useless.

It makes you wonder just how these myths have became so ingrained and remain inseparable from the idea we have of ‘pirates’ in popular culture today. Why are pirates continually thought of this way?

The answer: they just Arrrrrrrrrr!

Sorry - couldn’t resist.

4 Jan 2012

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

2012 and the Coming Apocachips

And here we are – now in 2012...

The year of the apocachips! Supposing the world does end on December 21st? I guess that would give you extra motivation to stick to your New Year’s resolutions and make the most of this coming year.

As for me, I’ll try and keep the regular updates coming - it’s all about keeping the momentum going – a bit of writing everyday, the easier it gets.

Looking backwards - recently most updates have been film related, but that's because I have been watching a lot of films. I’ve been trying not to simply ‘review’ films (there are a ton of places you can go for that) but try to offer some kind of insight into what interests me about a particular film I’ve watched, or some form of commentary.

The exception to this being the monthly ‘film roundup’ series, which continues to be just a quick glance at what I liked (or didn't like) about a film – which kind of sounds like a review, really. Oh well, at least they are kept short.

In fact, I still have Part 3 of December’s roundup to do – don’t worry, its in the pipeline.

Looking forward - other things beside film related stuff should also be coming up in the future. More games, music and TV related pieces can be expected, as well as more off-kilter stuff like more weird things I’ve learnt and maybe some interesting photos and websites too.

I’m also planning another mixtape at the moment – so when that's ready it will debut via the blog too.

So not really New Year’s resolutions (the real ones are a bit different for me - and secret) - but at least its some kind of statement of intent.

Oh and by the way, the whole apocachips thing is not real – ask the Mayans. It’s just a day when the Mayan calendar rolls around and resets (as its done a couple of times already throughout history) – so don't panic. Don't believe me? Look it up.


3 Jan 2012

Drive - Neon Noir

A surprise late entry at the nick of time to make it onto the list my favourite films of 2011 is Nicolas Winding Refn’s film Drive, starring Ryan Gosling.

This film simply astounds with its style. Not your typical action thriller, it's a largely restrained affair punctuated with sudden bursts of ultraviolence.

One of the things that first hit me was the 80s styled electro soundtrack (I almost jumped out of my seat with joy when they played Kavinsky’s ‘Nightcall’ over the opening credits), coupled with a brooding synth score by Cliff Martinez.

With the pink GTA:Vice City style titles and flying overhead cityscapes of a neon lit LA, the 80s vibe is set early on.

The lighting in the film is consistently striking. From the aforementioned nighttime driving sequences to beautiful sunrises and sunsets (in particular the scene driving in the aqueduct) it is truly something to behold.

Plenty of slow motion is utilised too – but unlike the overkill of Zack Snyder for instance, Refn uses it often in quieter moments (not during action scenes) to capture the serenity – the calm before the storm.

Whilst this is a thriller centred around a driver (and there are thrilling driving sequences), the majority of the time that we see Gosling’s character in his car it is peaceful and serene - speaking volumes about the character without him having to say a word. Unlike say The Transporter, where The Stath often gets out of the car and engages in raging martial arts, this driver can only really truly express himself within the car. It is an extension of him. Such is his finesse behind the wheel he almost floats around the city.

The Western connections are also very apparent – he is a nameless man, silent and stoic, always chewing on a toothpick. A tragic hero, trying to escape his criminal past but is unavoidably drawn back into violence in order to protect an innocent woman and child (in the form of his neighbour and her son, played by Carey Mulligan).

For all its dreamy quiet there is the brutal violence that acts as its counterbalance. Abrupt, vicious and bloody, the portrayal of violence in this film is never glamourised and is often shown to be grounded in grim reality - all the more shocking in contrast to the film’s gentler moments.

This is a beautifully filmed 80s styled noir crime thriller that manages to be highly stylised without being overly pretentious or filled with brash inconsequential Hollywood action film moments. With a surprisingly effective lead turn from Ryan Gosling, Drive is definitely one of my top films of this year.

31 Dec 2011