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.