Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Tomb Raider - Protecting Lara

When it was first revealed I was excited to play the new Tomb Raider reboot. I liked the idea of a realistic  protagonist who got bruised and cut throughout the course of the action. Unlike Marcus or Dom or any of their kin, characters who can take a full clip of bullets to the face and keep on walking, Tomb Raider promised to present players with a real person, a human hero. A person who bleeds when cut, hurts when falls and bruises when hit. Sign me up.

Then this happened. And much controversy ensued. Many people were understandably angered by the suggestion of sexual assault being presented in the game. Issues of sexism and gender politics exploded and Crystal Dynamics went into damage control, did a complete 180, and denied that the game would feature any themes involving rape and/or sexual assault.

But, is that really the issue?

Sexual assault is a undoubtedly serious matter. It's a subject that requires tactful handling and a degree of maturity perhaps not immediately associated with the Tomb Raider franchise. It certainly isn't something that should be thrown into a game as a convenient plot point or flashy cut scene. On the other hand however, no one has played the game yet so who's to say it's not handled in a deft and thoughtful manner? Thematically it seems to fit the tone and sense of realism Crystal Dynamics are shooting for. They seem hell bent on evoking a real sense of malice and danger, both when falling from trees and when captured by vile murderous thugs.Would the threat of sexual violence not naturally factor into the scenario presented by Tomb Raider?

However the real problem rears its head when when executive producer Ron Rosenberg says this:

"When people play Lara, they don't really project themselves into the character," Rosenberg told me at E3 last week when I asked if it was difficult to develop for a female protagonist. "They're more like 'I want to protect her.' There's this sort of dynamic of 'I'm going to this adventure with her and trying to protect her.'"

This is where the true issue lies, not in the fact that the game features mature content, but that its developers feel that because Lara Croft is female players "don't really project themselves into the character" and that instead they simply "want to protect her". This notion is not only incredibly sexist, but insulting players in general. Insinuating that players are incapable of "projecting themselves" into Lara is, in my view, either the product of a design flaw or an assumption that players lack the cognitive ability to project themselves into the female avatar. It also subsequently calls into question the motivations for making the game so brutal an realistic in the first place. If this is how Crystal Dynamics see Tomb Raider, is all the grunting, screaming and bleeding there to heighten the sense of realism and danger as the player traverses the game world? Is it there to pull them into the narrative, and engage with a real and disturbing danger? Or is it merely there for players to observe, detached from the character of Lara? Is it just designed to evoke pity? Is it simply a clinical attempt to make the player want to protect her?

Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Grey - Future hidden gem

I literally just finished watching the recent Liam Neeson film The Grey and I must say I was very impressed. The plot revolves around a group of men who survive a plane crash in Alaska and are then forced to defend themselves against a pack of ferocious wolves as they attempt to trek to survival. Think Alive... with less cannibalism... and more wolves.

There are a lot of things to like about this film, the performances are decent, the wolves (for the most part) look incredibly realistic, it's frightening, and it's exciting. It's simply a very enjoyable film. Sure, there are one or two nonsensical moments, and a handful of cringe-worthy lines of dialogue, but on the whole, it's a good film.

But what makes this any better than the run-of-the-mill action films that get churned out each year? I hear you ask. Well, there are a few aspects in particular that lift The Grey above your standard testosterone laced popcorn flick. It features a sprinkle of non-linear narrative structure, which keeps it from feeling stale. It also has a somewhat unconventional soundtrack, the score often emanating a real sense of sadness and loss. It does a great job at creating a somber mood which is very much at odds with the typical bombastic scores found in this type of action/thriller film. Similarly surprising is that the film ponders some weighty existential topics on the nature of life and death. This is no art house think-piece, but The Grey is peppered with enough thoughtful moments to give you something more to chew on than one would likely have expected. The Grey also cleverly uses the old trick of filling the entire cast, Neeson excepted, with relative unknowns. This creates a palpable and pervasive sense that no one is safe. And they're not.

The most successful aspect of the film, however, is its location. Or more specifically, how its location is shot. The majority of the film was shot, not in a studio, but out on location. And this makes all the difference. When the characters are out in the freezing conditions the suspension of disbelief is never once broken by obvious sets, fake snow, or CGI clouds of breath (I'm looking at you The Social Network). The Grey consistently feels cold. It feels as though the characters are actually out in the wilderness. Snow constantly falls, wind howls, hands shiver, plumes of steamy breath fill the screen. If these guys don't find shelter they die. The threat of succumbing to exposure feels very, very real. Without this, the film would have collapsed. If we could tell Neeson and his buddies were actually standing in a warm set full of Styrofoam snow, it wouldn't have mattered how real the wolves looked or how scary they were, the film would have lost its sense of realism, and the tension would have dissipated.  

So there you go, The Grey is a great little film. Not a masterpiece, but a really great little film. I have the feeling that in twenty or so years it will be one of those little known gems that people stumble across and discover. People will stumble onto it playing late at night on TV, or find it buried deep in their Netflix service. It's a film they will tell their friends about. Film geeks will talk about "that great film with Liam Neeson and the wolves". And I bet, one day, it will make for a great midnight screening at little cinema somewhere.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Raid - Violence as dance

Last week a friend and I headed to the movies to check out the new Indonesian action film film The Raid, we had heard good things and were keen to see if the praise was deserved or not. Upon emerging from the cinema we were both in agreement - it was very impressive and very brutal. Not very surprising. However, what made this viewing unique was that I am currently living in Jakarta and as such the film featured no subtitles.

I cannot speak Indonesian, so I literally cold not understand a single word anyone in the film said. All I could do was watch. This of course, as I later discovered, led to my misinterpretation of some of the events depicted in the film and basically meant that as I watched The Raid I ignored any semblance of story completely, instead I simply watched for the visceral action. Of which there is an abundance.

In doing so I found that I gleaned a unique appreciation for the film. As the spectacular fight scenes escalated I found myself engrossed not in why characters where fighting, but how. I marveled at the intricate choreography, the precise timing and the raw physical power on display. As the scenes progressed and the bodies piled up I found myself caring less and less about story, I stopped trying to piece things together in my head and instead just watched. The screen became all movement and flow. The camera dancing through a bloody and violent ballet of knees, fists and heads. And that's when it dawned on me - The Raid is perhaps one of the most beautifully choreographed dance films I have ever seen.

Rayman Origins - Platforming preconceptions

Rayman Origins is a beautiful, beautiful game. Perhaps one of the most gorgeous games I have ever had the pleasure of playing. So much so, in fact, that I am having a great deal of difficulty finding a screenshot from the game that does it any justice. Much of the game's beauty comes from the flowing, layered movement of the multiple 2D planes that make up each of the its levels. I guess you just need to play the game to appreciate it (please do!). However to put it simply - aesthetically, I love this game.

Though interestingly the visuals also had an unintended effect on the way I played the game. Or, more specifically, with which character I played the game. Basically when the player begins Rayman Origins they have four different characters available for them to play as. There is the titular hero Rayman, his frog-like buddy Globox and two variations of Teensie. Technically all these characters are identical, they posses exactly the same moves, speed and jumping ability. However, they don't feel the same.

The most notable example of this was when I attempted to play a level or two using the Globox character. As mentioned above, in terms of abilities he is an exact clone of the Rayman character, however he looks very different. He is presented as an overweight, dopey-looking frog creature. And this visual representation brought with it a whole load of preconceptions. Suddenly, even though I knew Globox was moving through the level with the same agility and precision as Rayman, it felt like he was slower. He felt cumbersome and unwieldy and ultimately less fun.

I figured this is due to two factors, firstly Globox's character design and animation simply and directly suggest that he should be slower. He is big and fat, logically he should not be able to move as fast as the slim (and limbless) Rayman. As soon as I look at him I automatically think "that guy looks slow". And secondly, years of video game experience has taught me that often when presented with a selection of characters they will have differing attributes. Conventionally the larger characters will be slower but will often be able to take more damage or perhaps deliver a more powerful attack in order to compensate for their lack of physical finesse.

Perhaps this happens all the time? Perhaps I am always misinterpreting the way a character behaves and moves though the game world based on appearance and it simply took that chiseled precision of a old school 2D platformer to bring it to my attention? Who knows. But one thing is for sure - despite all this food for thought, I still played through the rest of the levels as Rayman.

Monday, April 9, 2012

On why I dislike Call of Duty

I recently completed my first Xbox 360 game in over 8 months. For no reason in particular other than it's relatively short campaign length, that game was Call of Duty: Black Ops. I was interested in playing this game after the Guinness World Records voted it as having "the greatest video game ending of all time". Now, for the record I don't give the award any credence myself, but it did pique my interest in a game I would otherwise have overlooked.

Now having finished the game, I have come to two conclusions. One - the ending was pretty cool. And two - I really dislike Call of Duty games.

To be fair, I already knew COD games weren't my cup of tea, but it had been a while since I had actually played one and this just nailed that feeling home. The main issue I have with this series is its manufactured sense of chaos. COD never earns its mayhem, it simply drops the player into it. Typically I begin a mission with no knowledge of what is going on or what I am expected to do. All the information I am given is a "follow" marker over the head of one of my allies. This in itself is problematic and often counter intuitive as I typically must push forward past this AI character in order for the mission to progress. "Follow" indeed.

Then when the bullets begin to fly I more often than not have no idea what is happening. Superiors bark orders and commands at me which are only occasionally audible, they will tell me where to go, what gun to use or what vehicle to procure, mission critical objects will sometimes glow yellow to catch my attention, other times they will not. Sure it feels chaotic, but not because I'm a soldier out in the field with everything falling apart around me. No, instead it feels chaotic because I'm continually wrestling with the game, trying to figure out what it wants me to do or waiting to be told what to do. All the while avoiding the billions of bullets and grenades the fill my screen.

Call of Duty: Black Ops, and the COD series in general, have never made me feel like I'm a soldier. A man with his life on the line and everything at stake stuck in the chaotic hell of war. Instead they make me feel like a frustrated gamer, waiting for the next muffled instruction which I will need to decipher through multiple trial and error attempts. Not my cup of tea.

Having said that, the ending of Call of Duty: Black Ops is pretty rad.

Friday, March 16, 2012

The Prestige - Complexity and Symmetry

This post contains huge plot spoilers for The Prestige.

Last night I inexplicably had the urge to watch Christopher Nolan's follow up to Batman Begins, 2006s The Prestige. I had enjoyed the film immensely upon release but had not had a chance to revisit it since. I fired it up on my laptop and sat back in my hotel room to see if it was still as captivating as it was six years ago.

There were two things in particular that really stood out to me on this viewing. The first was how Nolan has the uncanny ability to tell an extremely complex tale in a way that never seems complex. If you actually break down the plot of The Prestige it is astounding how many layers deep it goes (a prelude to Inception no doubt). The film opens with the murder trial of Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) who has been accused of killing fellow magician Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman). While behind bars Borden is given the journal of Angier which he proceeds to read, it's content being played out on screen via flashback. In the journal Angier writes about having acquired Borden's journal which he is deciphering, and again we see the contents of that journal played out too. Essentially the film begins at the end and then we are unraveling the mystery via a flashback within a flashback. Then on top of this already mind-melting structure, Nolan also freely jumps around in time independently of the journal flashbacks (such as the opening shot of the top hats etc.). Phew. As you can see, saying that The Prestige has a complex structure is an understatement. Hell, I'm struggling to even describe the temporal nature of the plot in this post!

But this is where Nolan's genius lies. The Prestige is never hard to follow. Miraculously Nolan is able to weave a coherent and gripping tale all the while never alienating his audience. It would have been incredibly easy for this film to be an indecipherable mess. But somehow Nolan dodges that bullet and crafts a film the feels as though it is totally in control of it's structure. Sure, you need to pay attention. But it never makes the audience feel stupid or lost. This is an amazing feat, and one that should not be overlooked.

The other aspect of The Prestige that really struck me was the thematic symmetry that permeates throughout the film. Firstly, and most obviously, the film is itself is about doubles, Borden's twin brother and Angier's eventual clone. The majority of the plot revolves around Angeir's obsession with discovering the the secret behind the "Transported Man" illusion, one in which identical cupboards or doors are positioned at each end of the stage. There is also symmetry to be found in the lives of the characters. Angier's wife drowns then he himself drowns each night at the climax of his final performance. Borden's wife hangs herself then Borden himself is hanged. The whole diary, within a diary conceit has a beautiful symmetry too.

There is also symmetry in the construction of the film itself. The opening sequence features a scene in which Cutter (Michael Caine) performs a magic trick for a small girl. The illusion consists of a bird and a cage disappearing then the bird reappearing as if my magic. However what is actually occurring is that Cutter crushes both the bird and the cage (killing the bird) then presenting a new bird which the girl assumes is actually the old one. This trick perfectly mirrors the final reveal of the film in which we discover that Angier has essentially been performing the exact same trick using himself and a clone each night.

It is this structural mirroring and thematic symmetry that helps Nolan create a film that, despite its incredibly complex nature, is easy to follow and dramatically powerful. The Prestige is a remarkable film from a remarkable director. Nolan is often showered in praise for his Batman films, however looking beyond those (admittedly groundbreaking) films, I think it is worth taking note that there isn't another filmmaker working within Hollywood that consistently produces such complex and interesting work. I for one am looking forward to discovering what he has planned for us once his Batman trilogy is complete.

American Horror Story - Disappointingly conventional television

A few weeks ago I wrote a post praising FX's American Horror Story for is unique and bold take on serialised television based on its pilot episode. Since writing that piece, however, I have completed the remainder of the series and unfortunately must report that the success of the pilot is not mirrored in subsequent episodes.

American Horror Story isn't a complete disaster, but it does shoot itself in the foot quite spectacularly. The most glaring error made by the show is that, beginning with episode two, it starts to humanise its spirits and ghouls. A large number of the twelve episodes open with a flashback which depicts the way in which a previous occupant of the house came to their grizzly end. These flashbacks serve one of two purposes, they either add a new spook to terrorise the house's current occupants or explain the existence of an already present ghost. This makes sense in terms of the way serial dramas traditionally flesh out a large number of characters in order to fill many hours of screen time. However in this case the show fails to understand one of the key aspects of horror: we fear what we do not understand. The second we know that one of the ghosts is merely a poor former occupant who was tragically murdered, they lose their scare factor. They are not necessarily malevolent, just tragic characters stuck in limbo. After the pilot episode American Horror Story rapidly loses its brilliant sense of the surreal and steadily slips into the conventional.

The other way the show trips up is by introducing a "rule" about halfway through the series. The rule is, if a spirit is terrorising you, all you need to do is close your eyes and tell it to "go away" and it will disappear. Yep that's right, every single ounce of threat that was left in our increasingly humanised spirits is instantly destroyed by uttering two words. Sure it serves as one of the ways to rationalise why this family would continue living in such a (literal?) hell hole, but it comes at too costly a price. As an audience we simply do not feel as though our protagonists are in any form of danger. The tension is sucked from the show and suddenly it all becomes a bit dull.

The combined effect of these developments is that as the season progresses its ability to frighten diminishes. That's not to say it's all bad. There are some dramatic arcs that are compelling and work to hook you in, and there are even a few plot developments late in the series that are quite impressive. However, as a whole, it's just not enough. It is disappointing to see a show that premiered feeling genuinely bold and actually frightening devolve into such a scare-free affair.

Monday, March 5, 2012

The Clone Wars - Star Wars done right

OK, so this post is going to expose my inner nerd.

This week Simon Pegg announced on his Twitter feed that he will be voicing the character of Dengar in upcoming episodes of The Clone Wars animated series. I had never watched the program having written it off as nothing more than a cheap cash in aimed at selling new toys to young children. Hell, the three prequel films were cartoony enough, why would I want to subject myself to something that would surely fall even further into silly slap-stick comedy and kids exclaiming "yippee!"? But Simon Pegg was willing to be involved? OK, maybe it's not that bad? In fact Pegg even tweeted that he chose to star in The Clone Wars as it is "making Star Wars cool again, twenty minutes at a time."

That was all the endorsement I needed. I dived in. Admittedly the first episode didn't inspire much confidence. It featured Yoda and a bunch of clone troopers facing off against a platoon of droids. Nothing atrocious, but I was in no way blown away. However episode two really impressed me. It featured a nail-biting rescue sequence set amongst the debris of a destroyed spaceship. A small escape pod desperately attempting to remain unnoticed by a droid ship that was making it's way through the wreckage, slaughtering any survivors. Yep, killing survivors. Sure it wasn't in any way graphic (though we do see dead bodies) but what is important is that it lead to a palpable sense of danger for our protagonists. Something sorely lacking in the prequels.

My point is, The Clone Wars seems to understand what Lucas clearly forgot when making the prequel trilogy. Suspense is everything. Sure, The Clone Wars is a cartoon aimed at quite a young demographic, but it still understands how to build tension and create drama. If you can overlook the hammy writing and sometimes clunky voice acting, there is a great little show to be found here. Stylistically beautiful and narratively captivating. Perhaps Simon Pegg was right, The Clone Wars really is making Star Wars cool again, twenty minutes at a time.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Rant: Source Code - Frustratingly overrated

This post contains major plot spoilers for Source Code.

Lately I have been catching up on the Slate Spoiler Special podcasts, going through the backlog of episodes and listening to opinions on older films which where either controversial or - at least in my eyes - overrated. Today I listened to their take on Duncan Jones' sophomore effort Source Code.

I distinctly remember seeing this film upon its theatrical release. I had been anticipating it for some time as I was a huge fan of Jones' previous film Moon. On the day it opened I rushed to the cinema with my girlfriend at the time and a group of work colleagues. Upon exiting the film I distinctly remember being the only person in the group who didn't like it. They all seemed completely satisfied with everything the film presented. Hell, one of my friends even claimed it may be one of the best films he had ever seen. I was dumbfounded. Had we seen the same film? Because the Source Code I saw was full of plot holes and huge inconsistencies within its own internal logic.

To make things worse on the train ride home I tried to explain the issues I had with the film to my girlfriend. She loved the film and after I attempted to argue my case things got a little heated and she claimed that I just didn't "get" it as I didn't understand quantum theory and the concept of branching realities (now I don't pretend to be an expert on such matters but I sure as hell have enough of an understanding to "get" the plot of a Hollywood film!). Needless to say that was not at all the problem with the film and she is indeed now my ex-girlfriend.

I found this series of events infuriating, and the myriad of positive reviews the film seemed to receive only exacerbated my frustration. Eventually I chose to forget the film. I moved on and simply refrained from recommending the film to any friends or colleagues. Until today, when I decided to listen to the Spoiler Special for the film. And boy was I pleased to hear them tear the film apart.

The Slate guys had the exact same issues with the film I did. Namely that the internal logic simply does not make sense. Basically for those who are unfamiliar with the film, a bomb destroys a packed train and the authorities are trying to figure out who the bomber is before he destroys a new target. An army Sargent named Colter is then given access to a program named Source Code which allows him to inhabit the body of one of the passengers on the train for a period of eight minutes before the bomb is detonated. Repeatedly Source Code tells its audience that when Colter is on board the train for these eight minutes - in which he must identify the bomber - that it is not time travel. Essentially the logic that the film lays out is that after death the brain is still active for eight minutes, so the military has recovered a passenger that was on board the train and are (somehow) able to give the consciousness of Colter access to that eight minutes of memory in order to try and figure out who the bomber is.

So there is essentially no time travel taking place. All Sgt Colter is doing is repeatedly reliving the last eight minutes of a dead man's memory. Now this alone proves problematic as when Colter is reliving this memory he is inexplicably able to visit places that Sean, the bomb victim, could never have seen. He interacts with other passengers and generally gleans new information that could never have been found in the memory of his "host". This may seem nitpicky, but it just goes to underline the inherent flaws in the reality presented by Source Code.

Then on top of all this, at the film's end, Colter is able to stop the bombing and for some unknown reason exist within Sean's body after the eight minutes has expired. What the fuck?! Suddenly the film completely changes tack and suggests that Colter has indeed traveled back in time and is now existing in a alternate reality where the bombing never happened. Though bizarrely he still inhabits the body of Sean, which begs the question, what happened to poor Sean's consciousness if his body is now being controlled by Colter??

These questions infuriated me. How could Jones, the man responsible for the subtle and intelligent Moon, have left such glaring holes in the logic of this film? It is actually quite incredible how many inconsistencies emerge in Source Code's second half. Frustrating doesn't begin to describe it. Particularly as the beginning of the film holds so much promise. Perhaps I should write it off to studio interference? Or maybe Moon was just a fluke? I guess I'll just have to wait for his next effort before I can make a call. Though in the mean time I might just re-listen to the Spoiler Special podcast. There was something supremely cathartic about finally hearing someone who shares my opinion of the film.

The Artist - Silence as gimmick

This post contains plot spoilers for The Artist.

A  few nights ago The Artist cleaned up the this years Academy Awards ceremony. Hardly a surprise as the majority of the press had it pegged as the favourite. And it's easy to see why. It's an undeniably charming little film. It's central story of an silent film actor's fall from grace thanks to the introduction of the "talkie" into Hollywood is endearing, and the romantic subplot that develops is crowd-pleasingly sweet.

I was not immune to it's charms either. For the most part it is a delightful piece of cinema. I was completely along for the ride, that was, until the end. The climax of the film sees our hero George Valentin finally agree to do a new film which sees him tap dancing away in a musical number. Ok, that's a nice way to end the film.  Over the course of the plot we have followed  George as he stubbornly refuses to embrace the introduction of sound into film. His pride is his downfall, and we watch on as he gradually slips into poverty. But in the end our protagonist finally overcomes his crippling self pride and finds a "talkie" he is willing to participate in. Everybody wins.

That is until the sound continues after the musical number is complete and inexplicably we hear George speak, his words emerging in a thick French accent. Turns out he wasn't a stubborn actor who refused to embrace a new technology. He just couldn't speak fluent English. Turns out that the studio executives didn't write him off as a has-been, they just needed someone who spoke English for their talkies. The "twist" also plays as cutesy. Suddenly giving the world diagetic sound as our hero charmingly speaks his lines in a thick accent. Isn't that adorable?

No. It undermines the entire narrative of the film. And not only that, it turns what at first seemed like a loving devotion and respect to the silent roots of cinema into nothing more than a set up for a cute punchline. As a result the film comes off, not as sincere, but as gimmicky. Admitedly this revel is somewhat forshadowed by a dream seuqence in which George (and inexplicably the audience) begins to hear the sound of his glass as he places it down on the table. This monment is indeed cringeworthy, but as it has little ramification it can be easily overlooked. The finale however, damages the film as a whole. The Artist is still a fun film, I still enjoyed myself. Hell, I'm even keen to see it again. I just wish Michel Hazanavicius had been more in love with silent cinema, and less in love with making The Artist cute and clever, because it was both those things to begin with. It didn't need a gimmick. 

Saturday, March 3, 2012

American Horror Story - Surprisingly bold television

I started watching the recent FX series American Horror Story this week. I've always been a bit of a horror fan and upon hearing relatively good reviews I figured that it would be a fun way to fill the hole left by the first season of the excellent Downton Abbey.

I wasn't disappointed. At least not with the first episode. American Horror Story is a strange beast indeed. Not at all what I expected. The series pilot is a giddy exercise in excess. The episode opens with a flashback to the 1970s in which a preteen handicapped girl eerily tells two young redheaded twin boys that they will die in the creepy house they are about to enter in order to retrieve their wayward baseball. Surely a prime time TV show wouldn't kill two young children in its opening sequence. Right?

Wrong. They die. Brutally.

And that's just the beginning. We are then treated to a deliciously disturbing opening title sequence, very reminiscent of Fincher's Se7en, except here tinged with hints of the supernatural. Following the titles the show hits the ground running and over the remaining forty minutes we are relentlessly assaulted with a barrage of creepy imagery, some more successful than others, but the show screams forward at such a pace that there is barely a chance to think about what you have just witnessed before the next ghoulish image is splashed across the screen.

And this is what I loved about the pilot. There is simply so much craziness thrown at the audience that the show begins to take on a surreal, Lynchian atmosphere. American Horror Story presents a world that is spatially and temporally fractured. Nothing seems to fit, you are never sure how much time is passing. It's full of jump cuts, crash zooms and off kilter camera angles. Yes it's brash and silly. But if you roll with it you will be rewarded with one of the loopiest, most fun television pilots I've seen in years.

The downside however is that I have since watched the next four or five episodes and the giddy insanity doesn't quite hold up. American Horror Story has begun to morph into a more conventional television serial. That's not to say there isn't any fun to be had, there is. It just lacks the crazy surrealism of the pilot. The spooky creatures are becoming fleshed out characters, which unfortunately also renders them less frightening. The jarring, choppy structure too has begun to fade into a more conventional passage of time which again lessens the show's creepiness.

Having said that I do plan to keep watching. American Horror Story is a bold and unique show. It's certainly not afraid to go places most shows would never dream of going. Admittedly the strategy of the creators seems to be to throw as many scares at the audience as possible and assume at least some will stick. But luckily, some usually do. And I for one am keen to know where this show will go and what it will become.

Plus I need to know what's up with the weird haunted leather gimp suit.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Adventures of Tintin - Cinematic fun

I've been hearing and reading quite a bit of negative feedback for the new film The Adventures of Tintin, particularly from US viewers. For some this may be expected. After all Tintin is not a name very familiar outside of Europe. However after having seen the film I find this lack of support for the film in the States surprising. I loved the film for a number of reasons, and none of them had anything to do with prior knowledge of the Tintin name. Sure I'd heard of Tintin before, I think I read a comic or two in primary school, but I would in no way consider myself a fan of the series. Yet the film still worked for me. And here is why:

Unbridled Creativity - This is Steven Spielberg's first foray into animation. And you can feel it... in a good way. It's like suddenly he has pulled out all the stops, anything is possible. Swooping cameras, beautifully unique (and even surreal) scene transitions, exciting, death defying chaotic action. It's all there in spades. You can just feel how much fun Spielberg is having in every frame of this film. He is like a gleeful kid getting to play in an amazing new toy box with amazing new possibilities. And it's infectious.

Darker Tone - Ok, so this is no Munich, but it certainly features a tone darker than I was expecting. People get shot. People die. Hell, there is even blood! This film is, in many ways, more violent than Spielberg's previous outing, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, was. And while I'm in no way trying to suggest that violence alone makes a film good, in an adventure film such as this, the threat of violence is what raises the stakes and generates the excitement. It's thrilling when there is a legitimate threat that your lead character may be maimed (lets be honest, we all know Tintin won't actually die).

More Indy than Indy - Expanding on that last point, this film in many ways really does feel like Spielberg is atoning for Crystal Skull. Now it is an animated film based on a children's comic. It's no Temple of Doom. But it is exciting. It's action packed. And most importantly it's fun. The plot may not quite be up to Raiders standards either, but once the initial contrivance that sparks the adventure has passed there is a rollicking good time to be had.

Captain Haddock - In many ways this film is the story of captain Haddock. And that's a good thing as he is amazing. He provides both the comic relief and the pathos. He is the heart of the film and I'm convinced that one of the key reasons (if not the key reason) why he works is Andy Serkis. The man is a genius.

The most important thing about The Adventures of Tintin however is that it's fun. It is a gleeful ride of a film, both narritively and stylistically. And you don't need to be a Tintin fan to love that. 

Saturday, February 18, 2012

The traveling gamer

So I am currently travelling. I have been so for over 6 months now. And while travelling I have been listening to many gaming podcasts. This is great for keeping up with current discussions and news, however the the downside is that it really is making me miss gaming.

I've been trying to do a little gaming when I can, mainly on my iPhone. I recently picked up Ghost Trick for iOS which is amazing, and I'm still somewhat addicted to Tiny Tower. But I still long for my 360. I'm dying to sink my teeth into Batman: Arkham City, Dark Souls and Skyrim. I want to plant myself on a comfy couch and get lost in a game for hours on end.

Then I had a revelation. I got back from a 9 day trek in the Himalayas with an injured knee and ankle and was confined to my hotel room. Before long I got through Ghost Trick and was out of new podcasts to listen to. Then I remembered that I had my DS buried deep in my backpack which I had not yet played during my travels. I dug it out and looked at the cartridges I had with me. To my delight there was The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass sitting snug in it's little pouch. Back in 2007 I started the game but gave up due to the repetition. But it is a different story now. I didn't have a pile of games I need to play. I  didn't have a job I need to go to. I literally had nothing but time. Hell, a little repetition sounded like a good thing.

I boot the game up and start fresh. And you know what, this may be the most enjoyable experience I've had with a Zelda title. The key to this is that I didn't rush. I didn't feel like I just needed to smash through the core story line. I took my time. I explored. I spoke to the townsfolk. I hunted for treasure. I explored new islands. And I loved it. I finished the game last night and am a little sad that it's over. It's a valuable lesson I've learned. I need to take my time. It may be hard when I have a huge backlog of titles leering at me. But what's the point of blasting through a game if I don't enjoy it?

When I do finally get my 360 and my comfy couch I'm totally sinking 100+ hours into Skyrim

Friday, February 17, 2012

War Horse - The horrors of war... for kids

This post contains significant spoilers for War Horse.

Ok, full disclosure. I'm a Spielberg fanboy. I can't help it. I specifically consider the moment that I saw Jurassic Park to be the seed that grew into my lifelong love and obsession with film. Having said that I approached War Horse with some trepidation. The trailer looked over stylised and over sentimental. I had next to no knowledge of the book and subsequent play on which the film is based. And I was still reeling from Spielberg's last effort, the abysmal Crystal Skull.

But do you know what? I came out of War Horse impressed. It's not a perfect film by any means. But it certainly captivated me. Tonally it doesn't make much sense. The beginning of the film in particular stands out as being oddly whimsical. It features a comical goose and strangely childish humor. In fact almost feels like these scenes were lifted from a more traditional "children's" film. Which is in stark contrast to the darker atmosphere felt during the rest of War Horse. One could perhaps argue that this mirrors the loss of innocence felt by the titular horse's owner Albert. However this feels unearned as he scarcely features in the film beyond the opening and closing moments. It also seems forced to read it as a metaphor for the loss of innocence felt by England as a nation. The opening scenes do not so much evoke a sense of innocence for which the audience can nostalgically pine for, but rather the attempted comical tone feels hollow and throwaway. Narritively these scenes work. They successfully rationalise the intimate bond felt between Albert and his horse Joey which fuels the films 2+ hour runtime. But tonally boy do they feel out of place.

It was the films violent (though notably bloodless) and harrowing depiction of war that surprised me. While it would indeed seem natural that the director of Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan would tackle the subject of WW1 seriously. After having sat through the film's opening scenes I honestly thought I was in for a family drama. Something in the vein of Free Willy perhaps. But suddenly people started dying. There were intense battle scenes, child executions, and terrifying trench warfare.

Essentially the film is a series of short vignettes. Joey, our equine hero, trots through Europe (and the war) meeting various colorful characters on his journey. Joey himself is a positive force. He brings hope, love and compassion to everyone he encounters. However almost all of these characters, after being enriched by their encounter with the lovable and noble Joey, end up dead. This is a bleak film. The inspirational and compassionate general who rides Joey into battle is gunned down. The German children who use Joey to escape from the oppressive and dangerous German army are found and executed via firing squad. The young French girl who finds Joey and in him the one small joy in a world where her parents are dead both has the horse taken from her by German soldiers then eventually dies. The other horse which Joey 'befriends' while being forced to pull German artillery succumbs to injuries. Even in one of the final scenes, in which an injured Joey, tangled in a mess of barbed wire in no mans land, inspires an English and German soldier to work together in order to free him has somber undertones. It is implied that, once the horse is free, they will both go back to their respective platoons and continue trying to kill one another.

A film for children? Definitely.

Once the comical opening scenes are dispensed with that the film really begins to work. And while it may not be a "children's film" per se, the relatively tasteful and gore free depiction of war make it a film older children could see. It's a family film that doesn't glorify or gloss over the horrors of war. Spielberg isn't afraid to include intense and frightening imagery, which is why the film works. And I think it is why older children will like the film. It is the kind of film that I, as a child, would have felt proud to have watched. Sure it would probably have scared me, but getting through it would almost have been a badge of honour. It would feel like I had been trusted enough to see a "grownup" film. A mature, violent story that didn't patronise me (with the exception of that damn goose!).

And in that sense it reminds me of vintage Spielberg. A film from the man who understood that being scared is one of the greatest things about going to the cinema as a kid. It's what made it exciting. Just like that first time I saw Jurassic Park as an 8 year old. And with a film like War Horse, I probably would have felt like I had learned something too.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Black Mirror - Pitch black comedy

So, I know I'm somewhat late to jump on this bandwagon, but shit me, Black Mirror is amazing.

I've been meaning to get around to watching the highly praised British comedy series for a while now. Last night, on a whim, I gave the first episode a whirl. Holy bejesus. I wasn't expecting that! For the uninformed the first episode of Black Mirror, titled 'The National Anthem', tells the story of a mystery kidnapper how abducts a much loved princess and demands that unless the Prime Minister has sexual intercourse with a pig on live television she will be executed. The kidnappers demands are broadcast via YouTube and before anyone can even try to keep everything quiet things have "gone viral". From there, things only get worse.

The setup sounds ludicrous. Which it is. But what stands out above all else is the deadly serious tone Black Mirror takes on the subject. This is dark, dark television. Nothing is taken lightly. It's a bleak study of our social media dependent society. And it cuts deep. Series creator Charlie Brooker doesn't pull any punches and isn't afraid to go places most writers would shy well away from.

But is it funny? To be honest, I think I laughed once, maybe twice during the first episode. But it's not that kind of comedy. Black Mirror's humour comes from us being aware of the absurdity of the situation these characters have been thrust into. We might not laugh, but we know that what is happening on screen is "funny". And the brilliant thing is we still care. We feel for what these people are going through. Hell, the last shot of this episode is absolutely heartbreaking.

Comparisons to the brilliant work of Chris Morris are inevitable.
And to some extent they are accurate. Perhaps the most apt comparison would be Morris' Four Lions, but even that has a much lighter tone than Black Mirror. Morris and Brooker have even worked together in the past. But where Black Mirror outshines any of Morris' efforts is in its uncanny ability to evoke such pathos from such an outrageous premise. It's ability to still feel like a comedy while simultaneously being the bleakest 45mins of television I have perhaps ever seen. I don't quite know how he accomplished this. Colour me impressed.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Drive - Expecting the unexpected

I first saw Drive three weeks ago. When I arrived in London, it was the first film I saw. Having missed it at last years Melbourne International Film Festival, and having been unsuccessful in finding it screening throughout my months in Africa, my anticipation to see this film was high.

I tried my best to steer clear of any and all reviews. Anyone's attempt to spark a conversation on the topic of Drive was typically met with me screaming at them to "SHUT UP!" followed by me inserting my fingers into my ears and repeating "LALALALA NOT LISTENING LALALALA". However despite my best efforts I still heard things. Dribs and drabs from fellow film fans and the occasional traveler. Whispers of a surprising ultra-violent turn. Murmurs of a utterly sublime soundtrack. Hushed comparisons to Taxi Driver. I couldn't help myself. I got excited.

I sat in the tiny, almost empty, cinema in central London. The lights dimmed. Then The Chromatics' Tick of the Clock kicked in. I was in love.

At least I thought I was.

The first half of the film really resonated with me. I was swept up in the seductive 80s infused electro soundtrack. I loved the minimalist nature of the film, dialogue was sparse, with more communicated through looks and smiles than actual words. It was beautiful.

Then the violence kicked in. I didn't have a problem with its graphic nature, it was pretty much on par with what I was expecting, I just didn't love the more traditional criminal underworld story that emerged along with the violence. It wasn't that it was bad. In fact it's actually very exciting. It was just that it somehow didn't live up to the promises made by the beginning of the film. I wanted more style and beauty and less gangsters spouting expository dialogue.

This got me thinking about expectations. Did the second half slump I experienced simply occur due to my outrageously high expectations for the film as a whole? Or was it born from the expectations set up by the film itself? Had the beginning of the film simply been too good? Perhaps it was a mixture of both. I went in, despite trying to have a clear and open mind, expecting a masterpiece. I expected to be blown away, knocked back in my seat. And I was for the first half. Had I not known that the film would turn violent, perhaps that jarring change of pace would have propelled the film into the stratosphere for me. But as it stands it didn't. It was more like “oh ok, I guess this is where it gets gory”.

As much as I preach about judging a film on its own merits. This notion is essentially impossible. An audience will always bring with it its own baggage. Its own preconceptions. Its own expectations. At the end of the day, all we can do is try. Try to be impartial. I have since seen Drive a second time and actually enjoyed it more. I believe the second half actually has some interesting things to say (more on that in another post). In fact I think it may actually be my favourite film of 2011. By seeing the film a second time I went in knowing exactly what to expect and could focus on what the film was saying as opposed to getting caught up in whether the film was providing what I had expected it to. The beauty of film is its ability to surprise, to take us to new and exciting places. However the true nature of film can only be exposed once we strip away the surprise, reconcile all expectation and are then free to delve in beneath the surface and explore the hidden treasures that await.


Ok, so I lied in my last post. Blatantly lied.

I've done no blogging. Hell, I actually forgot that I even had this blog.

But that will change. Mark my words. I have been inspired. Posts will likely be sporadic and brief, particularly while I'm travelling. However I am determined to record my thoughts on all things filmic and gaming related.

Wish me luck.