5 November 2012

Skyfall Review

Carrying a legacy is no mean feat, by any stretch of the imagination - and it's more difficult than one might be able to conceive if that legacy is the James Bond film franchise, in it's 50th anniversary year. Couple this with a Bond whose appearance has divided critics and audiences alike, along with it being a follow-up to the relatively lacklustre Quantum of Solace, and you'll begin to get a sense of just how much was riding on Skyfall.

It's a relief to report, then, that Sam Mendes has absolutely nailed it. There are a couple of snags at script level, but ultimately, this is an absolute return to form for the franchise - an ensemble cast that's never been finer, a story that neatly subverts a few stale tropes as it establishes a new status quo, whilst at the same time acknowledging the 50-year-old legacy that preceded it with a degree of subtlety that's almost unprecedented.

It may have initially seemed like an odd choice for director, given his previous films - but Mendes is a genuine revelation as an action director. From the initial chase sequence that ticks every box you could imagine - cars, motorbikes, parkour and trains - to guerilla warfare in an abandoned old house, every beat of action is exciting, entertaining and above all, gloriously captured by Roger Deakins. The film's crowning moment - at least in my not-so-esteemed opinion - is the set piece involving Bond trailing and ultimately confronting an assassin in a glass office. A masterstroke of effectively setting tension before an action sequence, and then properly framing it - there's some cat-and-mouse play as Bond hides in the reflections in the glass, and the subsequent fist-fight between the two is done in a single slow zoom, silhouetted by the blue neon sign on the building behind them. It's one of those 'wow' moments unique to cinema, and I challenge you to sit through this scene without your jaw knocking out the person sitting in front of you.

What's great about the direction is that there's an effort to connect Craig's newer, grittier Bond with the suave aloofness of Brosnan, Connery and Moore. Little details abound in each scene and set-piece that link the four portrayals together. There's also some interesting questions raised about just how useful an individual like Bond is in the age of digital intelligence. As Ben Wishaw's new incarnation of Q puts it: "I can do more damage on my laptop, sitting in my pajamas, before my first cup of Earl Grey than you can do a year in the field. But sometimes, a trigger needs to be pulled". The conclusion it draws? Very useful indeed - but that's the rub of the piece, and you should see it yourself for just how it comes to this.

Performance-wise, Daniel Craig continues to do his best to become everyone's new favourite Bond, and as said, there's a real effort, both from Mendes and from Craig himself to connect the blunt instrument of Casino Royale to the sophisticated, dapper agent that we were used to before he rocked up. Javier Bardem is deliciously unsettling as Silva, the villain of the piece - he's a nod to the slightly camper days of old, but coupled with a disturbing twist that creates a genuinely memorable villain. Judi Dench provides no evidence against the ostensible fact that she can't put in a bad performance as M, and welcome additions to the cast in the form of Naomi Harris and Ralph Fiennes help round out what is a fantastic ensemble.

It's perhaps a bit of a disappointment that the story sags a little in the middle, but this is mainly due to an unreasonable number of intriguing plot threads being juggled rather deftly, and physics dictates that there's going to be some form of inevitable downward motion, so it's easy to overlook this when taking the film in in its entirety. Less forgiveable is the glossed-over motivation of Silva, which feels a little too-quickly explained and poorly emphasised. It would've perhaps been more interesting to make him a Joker-like character - "Some men just want to watch the world burn" - rather than try to hastily cram an explanation into expositionary dialogue. Still, Bardem's interpretation of the character is so strong, so beautifully off-putting, that you'll simply be glad he gets to clash with Bond at all.

Ultimately, these two minor hiccups do prevent the film from taking its place alongside the likes of Goldeneye and Goldfinger - but the gap isn't exactly what one might refer to as large. It's exciting, it's engaging, it's thoughtful, and it's iconic, with a best-yet performance from Mr Craig. See it, and - if you're like me - see it again shortly afterwards.

29 October 2012

Looper Review

Warning: Mild spoilers-by-inference contained within.

Perhaps the key to making a successful sci-fi film is to ensure that no matter how grand your ideas get, you always ground them in a relatable reality. Avatar was grounded by the incredible detail in its special effects. Moon was grounded by an incredibly human performance from Sam Rockwell. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (yes, it counts as sci-fi) was grounded by its central love story. And The Matrix? That was grounded by centralising an all-too-inevitable conflict between humanity and artificial intelligence.

After the event, the fact that Looper has been even mentioned in the same breath as The Matrix is somewhat confusing - there isn't a single shade of the Wachiowski brothers' opus here.

The story goes that in 2074, time travel is invented, but is immediately outlawed. That of course doesn't stop criminals from putting it to nefarious means, using the technology to circumvent their time's ability to track corpses - hurling people they want dead back in time to be murdered by people known as 'loopers' in 2044. When the time comes to end a looper's contract, they are sent back to get killed by themselves for a retirement-grade payday - a process known as 'closing the loop', and hence the name of the job.

If anything, this should've been coined as Back to the Future's psychotic younger cousin - it's newer, angrier and a whole lot more complicated. But the key difference that sets this apart from The Matrix - and indeed Back to the Future - is that the latter two work. Sadly, Looper does not.

At least, not fully - I'm not necessarily saying that it's without merit. The central premise of time-travel as a means of assassination is one of the best ideas to be committed to film in quite a while, and it gives way to an astonishing sequence involving one of the titular loopers, his future self and a surgery table that is beautifully unsettling. If nothing else, it proves that Rian Johnson has come into his own as a director - everything is handled with a dark, dry sense of humour that has come to be his unique selling point even in the disappointing The Brothers Bloom.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis are also fantastic as the present and future versions of Joe, with Gordon-Levitt in particular nailing the speech patterns and mannerisms of a 1980s Bruce Willis. This, coupled with the extensive make-up disguising him, makes for a compelling dynamic between these two aspects of the same character, and the best character moment is shared between the two in a Pulp Fiction-style stare-down in a remote diner. Jeff Daniels is laconically menacing as the mob boss who runs the loopers, and Noah Segan's bug-eyed secondary antagonist is a spluttering, incompentent joy to behold - the indignation when he's asked if he's blown off his other leg is fantastic.

But despite the best efforts of everyone involved, the movie ultimately comes to rely on three central conceits that aren't particularly grounded. The first is that the film's take on time travel is not particularly consistent - not being able to choose between Twelve Monkeys' approach of one set timeline in which everything has already happened, and BttF's multiple timeline's approach. The stuff involving telekinetic powers is clearly just shoe-horned in to up the visual spectacle, and could've easily been excised whilst preserving the narrative.

The final, crippling conceit, however - and this is the one large spoiler that you may wish to avoid - is the fact that the loopers are armed with weapons that cannot fire further the 15 feet. It's frankly ridiculous, and never properly explained - 'just because' is the best Johnson can come up with - but two of the film's major set pieces (including the chaotic finale) rely on this fact, and it completely undermines the joy of the admittedly spectacular sequences.

Disappointing would be the word of choice on this one, though a part of this is the comparisons with The Matrix colouring my expectations. But even discounting this fact, the best that can be said about it is that it's an admirable mess, much like The Brothers Bloom that preceeded it. Johnson has a real talent for direction, but it's possible that self-indulgence is getting the better of him, and it may be time for him to direct something that he didn't write himself.

But it's still certainly worth a look - the performances are great, the premise sound and inconsistencies aside, the story progresses in a relatively satisfying manner, with some excitingly played set pieces. It's also darkly amusing to boot - it's just such a shame that the story doesn't hold up to closer scrutiny. Have a pinch of salt ready, but otherwise, there are worse ways to spend two hours at the movies.

10 October 2012

Dredd 3D Review

Character development is an interesting thing - whilst it's more or less essential for making a movie whose timeline encompasses the passing of a few weeks or months, what if a movie takes place more-or-less in real time? Can character development be sidelined in favour of character presentation? Can we get to know and even like a character based purely on their actions within a certain scenario?

'Yes', is the reverberating answer that Dredd 3D tries to drill into you like a slow-motion bullet to the brainpan, and ultimately, it's quite successful. It's intriguing and exciting to see a comic-book movie that is not overly concerned about extolling an origin for its primary protagonist, instead opting for exploring the characters by having them react to a scenario, all of which is set up in a swift and elegant first 10 minutes.

For those of you unfamiliar with Judge Dredd - and to be fair, I was hardly what one might refer to as an expert - he, and his fellow Judges, are the logical extreme of the American system of law. Judge, jury and executioner all rolled into one, Judges are empowered to apply the law as and when they see fit in the MegaCities of the future that serve as their jurisdiction. In one such MegaCity - where crime and drug abuse are rampant - Judge Dredd and his fresh-out-of-the-academy partner Judge Anderson are called to a triple homocide in a tower block - and whilst murder is never simple, these get particularly complicated particularly quickly.

What follows this set-up is more or less 80 minutes of action, with a few stops for breath. It's beautifully filmed and directed, and whilst the 3D can feel a little perfunctory for the majority of the movie, there are a handful of moments that do make it worth sitting with those awful glasses on your face - not that you have much of a choice in the matter, if you wish to see the movie, given that there's no 2D release.

However, any sequence which involves the MacGuffin narcotic 'Slo-Mo' is a treat, with the water droplets and shards of glass suspended amid over-saturated, prismatic colours, that quickly drop back to the dull grey of the unenhanced world. It elicits a modicum of sympathy for the characters that do use it - it's a way for them to escape their colourless existence in what may well be the closest thing to an actual Hell on Earth.

The action packs a fairly meaty punch, too, with visceral slow-motion shots of bullets entering faces, chests, legs and other appendages from a variety of angles. There's some grim satisfaction, as well as mild horror to be had here, and the efficiency with which Dredd cleans up the bad guys is both impressive and a little unsettling, with the more tactical set pieces unfolding at such a blistering pace, and yet precise, technically accomplished camera allows the audience to keep up with it beat for beat.

Performance-wise, there're no weak links. Karl Urban - or at least, Karl Urban's face from the nose down - is great as Dredd, all dogged surliness and pinpoint markmanship. He also gets the best lines in the film, and delivers them with a snarl that is pitch perfect to the character. The lion's share of the character development goes to Olivia Thrilby as Judge Anderson, and she does a convincing job of finding the grey areas in Dredd's black and white morality. Lena Headley is quietly menacing as the primary antagonist Ma-Ma, and a slew of strong bit players help to create a convincing world of rather facistic oppression.

It sags a coupled of times between action sequences, and there's not as much satire as one might've hoped for, with Alex Garland himself admitting that the script was written as a wide-eyed teenager might interpret the character and world. It's still funny, but in a badass, one-liner way rather than as a skewering of the establishment. But given its strengths, it's easy to forgive the film for these minor blemishes.

Considering that Dredd 3D has next to no introduction to its characters, and even less by way of a plot - we're talking less plot points than Star Wars, here - it's genuinely surprising that not only is it quite enjoyable - in a darkly humourous, action-packed way - but thoroughly so, with slick direction, great performances and a fantastic script that characterises through action, not prevarication. A sequel needs to be earned, so go see it!

23 August 2012

The Bourne Legacy Review

It's a rare sight indeed to see any series to maintain quality into a fourth iteration, and whilst there may indeed have been hope for the Bourne series - in the form of the great Mr Jeremy Renner stepping into Matt Damon's ass-kicking boots, and Tony Gilroy not only continuing writing duties, but also stepping into the director's chair - it's derailed by some strange additions to the mythos that don't sit comfortably within the context of the overarching story.

There's a nice sense of foreboding built at the start, with stark Alaskan landscapes, and a rugged, ragged-looking Renner clambering through it rather expertly. This is juxtaposed against Edward Norton and Stacey Keach, prevaricating in suits in Washington as they deal with the fallout of Jason Bourne's escapades. It's here that the film is most interesting, laying a groundwork that is actually rather elegantly interwoven with what we know about Treadstone and Blackbriar, with cameos from various major players that serve as a constant reminder of the climate of intrigue in the world we are being presented.

Performances are good - with Renner in particular going all out as Aaron Cross, notably performing the majority of his own stunts, and brooding both intensely and appropriately as the plot becomes silly around him. Norton brings his appealing brand of fast talk to the antagonist, and the supporting players all make a convincing go of it.

It's nicely directed too, but given the grade of action that Greengrass gave us, this was never going to really measure up. There're a few beautifully dynamic shots - a continuous tracking shot of Cross scrambling up the side of a house, bursting through a window and putting down a government assassin is the most memorable - but for the most part, whilst solid, it can feel a little visually perfunctory.

Then, about twenty minutes in, the story takes its uncomfortable turn - introducing a pair of pills that Cross has been taking that are...well, it's not properly explained at first, nor is it fully explained by the end. It feels a little cheap in terms of story-telling, using facts that the characters have known all along, but have simply foregone divulging to the audience to drip feed us ultimately incomplete information that plays against the hyper-realistic, psychological angle of the first three. Brainwashing, after all, isn't far-fetched at all - and whilst that element is still present, the movie also starts coining phrases like 'virusing out', and peppering the dialogue with pharmaceutical jargon that feels quite forced, and not in keeping with the precedent that has been set.

It also never manages to make a case for the audience creating relationships with the characters, seeming to assume that we'll dislike or like the characters based on who they are aligned with from the previous films.

In fact, were it not for the fact that we know Cross is meant to be the Bourne character of the piece, his character could be construed as the villain - a drug-addicted psychopath who more or less kills indiscriminately in pursuit of what he needs, as the powers that be do whatever they can to stop him. See this without knowing the story, and you'll likely be left scratching your head as to exactly whose side you're meant to be on.

Ultimately, this is something of a disappointment - visuals that have dropped significantly in  intensity, and a muddled plot that is both deeply rooted in, and yet somehow in polar opposition to its prologue, not really working on its own, nor as the Legacy that it purports to be. The performances and the action are entertaining enough to buoy the film just above the surface, and if we want to see Greengrass and Damon back in the saddle, it should be seen, but beyond that, it's the first real let down of the blockbuster season.

22 August 2012

Ted Review

Given that this is a Seth MacFarlane comedy, it's probably safe to assume that you've already made a decision as to whether or not you'll be seeing Ted. In fact, in all likelihood, you've rushed out and seen it already! Which makes reviewing it seem a little fruitless, but what the hey.

For those of you unsold on MacFarlane's unique comedy stylings, this isn't going to sway you onto him - the same scatological whimsy that is on display in his televisions shows pervades here, even so far as to cut to slightly silly asides that don't really hold any meaning beside being quite funny.

It is, however, a terrific setup, playing on the nostalgia of similar 80s/90s movies - you know the ones, modern fantasies that have a hint of magic, riffing on them beautifully with Walter Murohy's deliciously chintzy score, and a slightly serious, yet oft-distracted narration from Patrick Stewart that is the source of the film's first laughs.

Then there's the magic moment itself, and this is rather well built-upon, with Ted quickly becoming a celebrity, and then following the path of more than a few child stars as he grows up, retreating into obscurity

But what's really remarkable is that the film does indeed have a soul - strip away the ostensible gimmick of the animated cuddly toy as protagonist, and it would still work. It has something to say about friendship, love, obsession, parenting, and more, and as it explores these with coarsely poetic dialogue swirled into outlandish slacker melodrama - recalling Kevin Smith at his best - it creates characters that you can actually invest in. Come the denouement, when what the BBFC might refer to as 'mild peril' is introduced, you find yourself concerned for the wellbeing of a stuffed toy that you're not even sure can die, which is something of an achievement.

Whilst MacFarlane's direction is occasionally a little rudimentary, he never mishandles any particular aspect, though his talents are clearly more suited to some motes of live action over others. He does, however, drive it all forward himself with a great central performance as Ted, and his sense of comic timing also makes the overall transition to the big screen intact.

The rest of the cast a good too: Mila Kunis has already established herself as a good leading lady, and Mark Wahlberg makes for a capable foil, ensuring the story stays grounded. It's nice that there's also no traditional 'straight man' within the trio. Each take their turn, and this lends the dialogue an organic feel that serves to make the comedy rather satisfying. The supporting cast - bit part cameos as a majority - are all fun to spot, and each gets a nice few moments in the limelight. Most notable are Bill Smitrovich as Frank, Ted's manager - a bit of an oddball, but a memorable one - and Giovanni Ribisi as Ted's stalker, a character that was drawn from the same part of MacFarlane's mind as Herbert from Family Guy. Funny, but also mildly creepifying.

Ultimately, the film is simply good fun - tight editing eliminates dull moments, and MacFarlane's particular brand of comedy is as it ever was, and if it's your cup of tea, you'll find more than your share to like here. Certainly worth seeing.

31 July 2012

The Dark Knight Rises Review

NOTE: I try to avoid spoilers, but one can always infer anything from anything, so be warned, ye Sherlock Holmes deductive reasoning types...anyway...LET'S DO THIS S**T!!

*trumpet fanfare*

If I had to sum up The Dark Knight Rises in one word - and I don't, but I'll be damned if I'm not going to try - it would be simply: monumental. If you go away from is review with one thing in your head, let it be that: monumental. How the film achieves this is, of course, the rub of this piece, but let's say it again: monumental.

For a film which, at least initially, wasn't really believed in - both by its creators and the public at large - Christopher Nolan has lost none of his meticulous approach to film-making, and, alongside the rest of the cast and crew, has crafted a film that not only completes a trilogy with a bold flourish, but serves as a monument to the Batman mythos, both in terms of this particular story, and the legend as an entity.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the story is that they've positioned it such a way that The Dark Knight can actually exist on its own. The only thing you need to know with regard to the second movie is that (actual spoiler alert) Harvey Dent and Rachel Dawes are dead - nothing else carries over, and what does is conveniently replayed via flashback. This allows them to rather cleverly sidestep the problem of matching a matchless movie, and allows them to get on with finishing the story.

In these terms, the Nolan brothers, along with David Goyer, simply couldn't have done a better job. The story they've created is expansive, and yet never forgets where it came from, taking story threads from the first film and intertwining them with threads lifted straight from the comics. It forges new backstories for most of the newly introduced characters, and whilst the web produced might not sit comfortably with fans of the stories that this draws on, it's still an elegant stripping down of the mythos that fits perfectly - both tonally and thematically with its predecessors - and is fully self-contained.

Particularly impressive is the adaptation of Bane's character into the franchise. Whilst Ledger's Joker was a terrorist who 'just wants to watch the world burn' - representing our collective fear of the unpredictable nature of the psychologically unbalanced - Bane here is a force that's driven by belief in a cause, and a hatred of Batman so deep that you can smell it in his voice.

It's not quite revealed why until the denouement, but the tension generated by the build-up is capitalised on brilliantly, and that culminates in a scene that,as it progresses, builds a horrible sense of dread - and this is a monument to the characters and stories that have been crafted, that you feel such genuine concern for those on screen.

So having created a story that is essentially a duology with a Joker-based interlude in the middle, you have to set about filming it. And this, my friends, is where the truly spectacular stuff starts going down.

The action chops that Nolan honed on Inception are in full show here, and it's all captured with Wally Pfister's jaw-dropping IMAX cinematography. Set pieces bristle with iconic imagery throughout, and the fist fights are abrupt but bone-crunchingly satisfying, filmed with a broader stroke here than in the previous two.

Ferocious physical performances from all those involved also give the fights a harder, more immediate sense of threat than the previous films - and this is no small part of the above-mentioned dread-filled sequence. Tom Hardy in particular provides a predatory stalk to Bane that, coupled with his deeply unsettling vocal register, makes for a villain that is entirely different, but exactly as elementally terrifying as the late Mr Ledger's agent of chaos. Bale is still both a good Bruce Wayne and a good Batman, if only for the fact that the duality of the character has been mostly jettisoned. The scene-stealer is Anne Hathaway, though, smouldering dangerously as Selina Kyle, and pulling off a feline physicality without a single reference to cats. Then there's Joseph Gordon Levitt. To discuss his performance is to ruin the fun of it, so just keep an eye on him, yeah?

If there are problems, they arise only due to the scope of the vision. Despite never truly boring, the story sags a little in the middle under the weight of its own plot threads, and takes a little while to pull itself back together. One appearing character feels almost crowbarred in, and it is occasionally a little too pacily edited for its own good.

It's perhaps a little bit early to brand the film as the best of the series - a rewatch is in order, just to make sure it did all add up. But what's here is a terrifically exciting movie that only threatens to bore in a slightly overlong, Batman-free middle section, and considering the film is 2 hours and 45 minutes long, that this is only a threat is something of an achievement. The IMAX cinematography and the imaginative set pieces are the highlights, but it's also buckling at the seams with iconography that'll stand the test of time. See this monument. See it soon, and in as big a screen as you can.

15 June 2012

Prometheus Review

So here it is, after a 10-year wait - so long absent from science-fiction, the man who brought us Alien and Blade Runner finally makes his return to the genre. Not just that, but a return to the Alien mythos - albeit reduced in significance when compared to the original concept for the film. Couple that with the a title that has all sorts of mythological subtext, and you have it: Prometheus. Sadly, the film is very much one of two halves.

The set-up is genuinely fantastic. Archaeologists discover a curious constellation of stars that crop up in the artwork of many different ancient cultures on Earth, despite it being impossible for them to have communicated with each other. There's also the fact that there's only one possible star cluster that matches, and those that made the drawings couldn't possibly have been able to see it. So a plan is made to send an expeditionary force to the cluster - and specifically, a life-supporting moon in orbit around a gas giant - to find out what's there, and why it seemed like we were being told to go there.

The first hour or so of the film's two-hour running time is dedicated to the set-up - motivating the characters, moving them to the aforementioned moon, and laying the framework for what initially promises to be a spectacular second and third act. Visually, it's absolutely breathtaking from the get go - the opening sequence is incredibly pure and thoughtful sci-fi, bringing to mind Arthur C Clarke's style of 'show, don't tell'. It offers no explanations - there's not a word dialogue - it just happens, and it's an incredibly arresting, disturbing and ultimately intriguing sequence that serves to make the set-up that little bit more effective.

That's not to say the rest of the film pales in comparison, with detailed, intricate special effects and a lovely contrast between the stark, industrial practicality of human technology compared with the organic, H R Geiger-designed and inspired alien architecture, an aesthetic brought over from the films that preceded it. The visuals are draped in Alien mythology, both overt and subtle, but never intrusive, and it's these design details, coupled with Scott's still-keen eye for the visually majestic, and Dariusz Wolski's gorgeous capturing of the really-quite-alien Icelandic landscapes, that give the film an incredibly rich visual palette.

The performances, too, are for the most part good, with the stand-outs being Idris Elba's ship captain Janek, Charize Theron's Vickers, the frosty commander of the mission, and Michael Fassbender's android David. It's Fassbender who truly steals the show, utterly nailing an unsettling, Lynchian vibe to the character. There's something not quite right about everything he does, and one of the film's better moments is a study of quite what androids get up to when all the humans are in hypersleep, although again, this appears in the film's first act.

Moving on to the second half, this is where the problems with the film start to raise their heads. For a group of individuals purporting to be on an expedition seeking out God himself - or the closest available substitute - the crew of the Prometheus do not make intelligent (or even semi-intelligent) decisions when under pressure. There's a lot of talking going on the first act - with the grand idea of finding the Creator being discussed with a decent level of intelligence and a dab of philosophy to boot and whilst this permeates the film, not a one of the character's actions in the second half reflects the grand plans made in the first.

In fact, not a one of their decisions make sense - all sorts of questionable behaviour abound, with characters not communicating with each other despite a pressing need to do so, and making immoral and bizarre choices that jeopardise both themselves and the crew, despite ostensibly acting in their own interests. Its not even a case of us, having seen the preceding films, being one step ahead of the characters - these people are on the frontier, light-years away from home, with the best communication technology imaginable, and they are simply not using it, logic be damned.

There are some lovely moments - moments drenched in the mythology, moments of fascinatingly awful body horror, and moments of pulse-pounding adrenaline, but the decisions that chain them together simply don't smack of a crew who could ever or even should ever have been put together. Perhaps this is one of the movie's points - that putting together this sort of mission requires more than 2 years planning and a bit of money thrown at it - but in a world where horror and sci-fi tropes get subverted as often as they get played straight, in a film like this, intelligent characters making intelligent decisions is a must, and there's a distinct lack of this in Prometheus' second and third acts.

There's other minor irritations, such as a dearth of actual answers to both questions we had before, and those that were raised whilst watching the film; the awkward, unnecessary international casting follies - Englishman playing American? Swede and Australian playing Brits? Really? Idris Elba did't need to be American; Noomi Rappace didn't need to be British; Guy Pearce didn't need to be in the film at all but for that one TED 2023 viral that went out. But perhaps the most irritating of all is a piece of body horror involving a robotic surgery machine that is well played visually, but is stymied thematically by an irrelevant contrivance in its build-up that is almost entirely endemic of the film having had its script drastically over-hauled during production.

For a film that had so much riding on it - both in terms of audience expectation, and in terms of the mythology driving it - the finished product is something of a mixed bag. The visuals impress, the attention to detail is astonishing - subtly integrating the film into Alien canon, whilst never dictating the direction of the plot - and as has already been said, the first hour of the film is a masterclass in setting the scene. But the sheer lunacy of some of the characters decisions, the lingering smell of grinning incompetence over the finale and a plethora of other oddities that all exclusively stem from weak writing in the second and third acts means the story lacks resonance, and without this, the film ultimately fails to engage properly. See it for the visuals and the deepening of the Alien mythos - even if it does raise more questions than it answers. Just temper your expectations of the story being told around it.

14 June 2012

Max Payne 3 Review

Sitting, as we are, in a year of long-awaiting entertainment - The Dark Knight Rises, Diablo 3, Halo 4,  The Avengers, Prometheus...the list goes on -  it's perhaps appropriate that one of the best games to saunter up is among their number.

Originally set for release in 2009, it was jostled about for a while - mostly thanks to a 'it'll be done when it's done' attitude - and has finally hit a console near you, and it comes with a heavy dose of history on its shoulders.

If you haven't played the first two Max Payne games, you genuinely missed out - the original is a prototype for the modern action game, with tight, beautifully responsive action wrapped in a gorgeously written story, told beautifully and intruigingly through the medium of graphic novel interludes, rather than cutscenes. It was a hallmark in cinematic gaming, bringing the concept of bullet time into gaming, and executing it flawlessly, with the gameplay not just looking great - bullets whizzing about your head in slow motion, sending your own right back as you fought your way through fantastically realised environments - but feeling great, with slick controls, a varied arsenal, and a satisfying difficulty curve keeping you engaged from start to finish.

The second, subtitled 'The Fall of Max Payne', continued the trend, coupling an escalating story - including a romance with what is still one of the best female co-leads any medium of story-telling has produced - with for-the-time incredible graphics, and a beautifully weighted adaptive difficulty system, all alongside the outrageously tight shooting mechanics that made the first so good. All of this meant that the franchise found its way into the 'fondly regarded' section of many a memory warehouse, and this was only mildly tainted by that appalling cinematic entry. 

So along rumbles Max Payne 3. Gone are the original developers and writers - Remedy Entertainment and Sam Lake respectively - in are some new kids on the block. Or rather, some old veterans with a shotgun on the porch: Rockstar and Sam Houser. It's a shift in creative team that may make some wary, and others excited, but either way, it's actually a match made in heaven.

Shifting the story forward in real time, it picks up with Max a now-aged ex-cop, drowning his guilt and sorrow in bottle after bottle of whatever alchohol is closest to hand, and a near-lethal daily dose of painkillers, that - thanks to our gameplay habits in the first two games - he's now addicted to. After a run-in with the Punchinellos - ah yes, the first act villains from the other two! - Max ends up working for a rich Brazilian family in what was to be a cake walk, guarding their brattish, drunken children from...well, nothing. But as ever, things never seem to go right when Max is involved, and a botched kidnapping attempt is the catalyst that creates a wave of violence and death, leaving a trail of bodies straight to the heart of the endemic corruption in Sao Paulo.

The shift in tone from the dark, snow-draped visuals of New York to the brighter asthetic of sunny Brazil is handled really rather well, with the first and second acts juxtaposing the two design ethics before shifting into a gloriously sun-kissed final act that, coupled with the story's noir groundings, serves to give the game a vibe similar to that of the late Tony Scott's opus, Man on Fire - darkness that simply cannot be overwhelmed by the light, no matter how bright and heavily armed.

This is all down to Houser's writing - and to make a bold statement, if video games have anything even vaguely close to a Quentin Tarantino, Houser is it. He's a man who understands video-games, who's grown up with them and he rides a fine balance between a gritty tale, seriously told and a knowing pastiche of both the games that preceeded it. Max's dialogue in particular is fantastically written

In terms of execution, the game is close to flawless. Characters look great without delving into the uncanny valley that LA Noire so comfortable resided in, and the detail in the animation, along with the fluidity of the transitions, is genuinely astonishing. Changes in expression this subtle are something of a rarity in video games, and this was done without that fancy facial capture tech that practically broke Team Bondi in half as they tried to get it working. The physics engine is also beautifully integrated with the Euphoria animation system, making for environmental interactions from both Max and the other characters that is rarely the same twice, with glass smashing realistically as you plough through it head first, then beer bottles and wine glasses flying elegantly aside as you slide along a bartop, mowing down a roomful of bad guys as you go, even as you haul yourself back onto your feet.

Gameplay is split between the above-mentioned running-gunning-and-Shoot-Dodging-in-slow-motion that is the series' hallmark, and the new addition of scripted set pieces that take a page from Wanted: Weapons of Fate's book when it comes to quick-time events.

But perhaps the most impressive technical achievement on display here is Max himself. Not some static, ever-regenerating man/tank hybrid - no, instead, he's a character that actual changes as things happen to him. Bullet wounds persist through cutscenes in each chapter, and Max noticeably starts moving slower the more damage he takes.

This creates an interesting dynamic in the controls - Rockstars mastery of this particular aspect of making games means that it actually feels like you're controlling a middle-aged, slightly drunk, slightly fat ex-cop, with the trademark Shoot Dodge (yes, apparently we have to capitalise that as well...) and Bullet Time being more or less his only edge. This may seem like an odd compliment - 'who want's to feel that?', I hear you ask - but it creates an attachment to the character that goes beyond him simply being a well-written, fleshed out human being. Then there's the fact that Shoot Dodging has a more than reasonable number of great moments, peppered with moments of intentional comedy, and the odd minor irritation when you manage to break the physics, or get filled with holes due to your being lying on the ground out in the open, desperately scrambling to your feet.

This serves to make an interesting tactical choice in game - there's a conflict between looking, to coin a phrase, 'pretty fucking awesome', and the actual practicality of the Shoot Dodge, encouraging you to find the incredibly satisfying midpoint between diving about like a mad-man and the more tactical, cover-based aspects of the gameplay.

If there are problems with the game, they're three-fold. First, there's the obnoxiously long loading times - I only have the Xbox version for reference, but even after installing the game onto the hard disk, each chapter is broken up by an excrutiatingly long loading sequence, and it serves to break the flow of the story rather ferociously. It's lucky that the game is very much worth waiting for, otherwise it might've been verging on a deal-breaker. It's not so bad on your first play through, but when it comes time to hit New York Minute mode, and the multiplayer, the long waits for the action aren't particularly welcome. It also fails to change the formula in any particularly meaningful way - it's still you and your arsenal against wave after wave of baddies, and it does start to get a tiny bit repetitive towards the end. There're also three rather frustrating 'boss battles', that didn't really need to be in there, but the adaptive difficulty thankfully makes these pass quickly.

Overall, this is an experience not to be missed. A writer who's never produced better, coupled with a studio at the absolute top of their game artistically and technically, it's moving, heart-pounding, often funny and above all, entirely absorbing, drawing you in to a sleazy world of corruption, violence and tragedy, with Max a broken guardian angel, giving one last stab at dishing out some justice in an unfair world that seems to be set against him. It's a sight to behold, and if you only manage to play one game this year, make it this one.

6 June 2012

Men in Black 3 Review

Men in Black has had something of a varied history - originally a comic book that was adapted into a screenplay that 'utterly stank', according to Tommy Lee Jones, then subsequently - and somehow - morphed into a rather successful, and actually genuinely excellent slice of sci-fi comedy that never outstayed its welcome. Followed up by a sequel that actually stank to high heaven, it's been dormant for the last ten years - seemingly only resurrected due to us living in the age of adding 'D' to the titles of second sequels, for what I can only surmise is aesthetic reasons.

And so Men in Black (in) 3(D) rolls up onto our screens, and in truth, it wasn't exactly the most tantalising prospect, given how very lacklustre the second film was. Barry Sonnenfield is a director whose movies have their quality dictated at the script level rather than the directorial level, and it's always clear that he started out his career as a cinematographer. His films have a joyous level of visual clarity - even that heinous Robin Williams vehicle (hah!), RV - but have recently, and without fail, been let down by the writers. See RV, Men in Black 2, Wild Wild West, and Big Trouble for what I mean.

So yes, hopes were not high taking my seat in front of MiB3, though thankfully I didn't have to suffer the 3D version of the movie.

Screenwriting duties here fall to Etan Cohen, of King of the Hill, Beavis and Butthead, and Idiocracy fame, and thankfully, the man has a decent science fiction head on him. The story hasn't exactly been wrestled away from Shakespeare, but it's actually surprisingly nuanced, bringing in a time-travelling element that doesn't suffer from the usual schizophrenic flitting between fixed and fluid interpretations of time travel - sticking with the Back to the Future 'timelines' execution rather doggedly.

The story goes that a villain known as Boris the Animal ("It's just Boris!", he rages) escapes incarceration on a prison on the Moon, with only one thing on his mind - killing the man who relinquished him of his arm, Agent K. Only he also plans to get his appendage back as well, and thus hatches a plot to travel back in time to the day that he lost it, then kill K before the de-limbing commences. Thankfully, Agent J cottons on early, and chases Boris back in time, only to discover that there are a fair few discrepancies in procedure between MiB in the present, and that in the 1960s.

Unfortunately, whilst Jemaine Clement does an admirable job making Boris really quite deliciously unpleasant, there's little else to distinguish the character from any number of other villains-of-the-week that we've seen in science fiction of late, and ultimately, this makes the story a little bit flat, especially given its labyrinthine nature, and the fact that the script was unfinished at time of filming.

The real joys of the movie are to be found in three places - first, the interaction between J and K. Initially it's between the ever-reliable Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones combination - all whip-crack jibes and surly grunts respectively, they're picking up from being the only thing that made the second film bearable, and their pairing doesn't disappoint this time either.

But shortly after it starts, Jones hands the reigns to Josh Brolin, who proceeds to do a rather uncanny impression/interpretation of the character in his late twenties - after an accent and nose change, of course. Brolin does a great job here, and manages to devolve the character quite magnificently to his 'free-wheeling' late twenties.

Next, and as mentioned, are Sonnenfield's visuals. Without 3D getting in the way - and some prefunctory objects-coming-at-you moments aside - the visuals are sharp, and have that curious, cock-eyebrowed sensibility that Sonnenfield perfected with the first iteration of the franchise. Sonnenfield also manages to keep the tone light and the pace rapid, creating a movie that once again never outstays its welcome.

The final joy is an entirely new character known as Griffin. Played with wide-eyed wonderment by Michael Stuhlbarg - of Boardwalk Empire fame - the character is an alien being who can see all possible realities, before, after and as they happen. A genuinely intriguing creation, the only shame is that there's not more of him - but he provides the MacGuffin to drive the story forward, and a few of the movie's funnier moments.

There're also other good things - Emma Thompson provides her dulcet tones and impeccable comic timing to O, Rip Torn/Zed's replacement, and there's a rather fun cameo from Bill Hader, as a version of Andy Warhol that's not quite all he seems.

Ultimately, this isn't quite as good as the first one, if only because the novelty has worn off somewhat. But if we ignore the second film and take Men in Black as a duology of 1 and 3, it actually works suprisingly well, and rounds itself off quite nicely, in the only way that a time travel narrative really can. The dialogue is sharp, the majority of the characters memorable, and even if the story is ultimately a little flat, it's brought back that little thing known as 'fun', and that goes rather a long way. Better than expected, then, and certainly worth a look.

4 April 2012

The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists Review

If you like Aardman - and let's face it, who doesn't? Apart from this prick... - then you've probably already made up your mind as to whether or not you're going to see The Pirates! In An Adventure with Scientists  - or 'The Pirates!', as I'm going to be insisting on calling it from now on, for the sake of my poor, over-worked fingers.

It's also - you'll be rather glad to hear - a foregone conclusion that you're going to love it.

Because once again, Aardman have produced a movie of such spectacular detail, of such sly wit, velocity and gregarious charm, that you simply cannot help but be swept along in the wake of a superlative script, tremendous voice work, and above all, triple-A grade stop-motion animation that will, on occasion, leave your jaw just a touch on the slack side.

The story goes that The Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant, and yes, that's actually the character's name) is out to win the 'Pirate of the Year' Award. Only there's a snag - he's a bit of a rubbish pirate, no matter how loyal a crew he may have garnered, and he faces stiff, far more competent competition. After a run-in with Charles Darwin (David Tennant), who points out that the ship's 'parrot' is in fact the world's last living dodo, the pirates join him in a bid to win 'Scientist of the Year' back in London. Only things are complicated by Queen Victoria, who really, really hates pirates.

First up, there's an interesting contrast to be made between this film and Aardman's previous effort, Arthur Christmas. If anything, this is a rather clear argument that, at the end of it all, one should stick to not only what one knows, but what one does best. The difference in quality between the two films - both from different schools of animation - is astounding. Arthur Christmas was a flat, rather stale entry, with so-so CGI animation that lacks the soulful technical wizardry of Pixar opera or the goofy charm of Dreamworks' efforts. There was a vein of Aardman's trademark British humour, but it was mostly lost underneath the awkward sheen of the animation style.

This is entirely not the case with The Pirates! - the animation is their traditional clay-mation style, and it's never looked better than it has in this movie. Character faces are expressive, and both standard movement and the slapstick antics flow beautifully. There are a few moments of relatively low frame-rate, but it's never a distraction, and you'll be far to entertained to really notice it. There is also, of course, that lovely hand-crafted feel to the film - as Mark Kermode almost invariably extols: 'you can see the fingerprints!'.

Then there's the humour, and oh what humour it is - Aardman mastered the art of appealing to both kids and adults without segregating them years ago, and they continue to do it beautifully. There're a few naughty asides that are clearly aimed at the adults - 'Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate' being the crux of this particular matter - but the bulk of the humour is just pure silliness, and kids aged one to one hundred will get a kick out of Nick Lord's keen eye for slapstick action, as well as his anachronistic, anarchic sense of humour. There's also, of course, the sight gags, and literally every single frame has a joke in it - and not just one that may illicit a wry smile, but full-on belly laughs, should you be sharp enough to spot it. Personal favourite? A sign on a pub stating 'Live Sports: Urchin Throwing! Cockney Baiting!'. Giggled my socks off at that one...

Performances are great throughout too - Imelda Staunton deserves special mention for her fabulously over-blown performance as Queen Victoria - or 'Vicky' as The Captain wonderfully refers to her as. You can practically hear her bug-eyes scraping against the pop-guard, and it's all the better for it. The rest of the cast make good showings of themselves too, but it's a testament to the quality of the production that everyone - even Staunton - seamlessly blends in with the rest of what's going on - to pick anyone else out would be doing an utter injustice to the animator who painstakingly synced those tiny, plasticine models with the rapid-fire dialogue recordings.

A genuine marvel, this is a movie that literally anyone can go to see and get something out of. Funny throughout, and even occasionally moving, it's the detail of the humour that is so genuinely impressive. You can, of course, watch the movie on autopilot, absorbing the story, the action and the spoken gags, but this is to only see half the movie. Switch you brain even to half capacity, and you'll be laughing yourself literally red. See it with your kids, see it with your girlfriend or wife, see it with your parents...just bloody see it, already!

21 February 2012

Chronicle Review

Found footage is a gimmick that, for a lot of people, does not bode well. Representative of either extreme, vomit-inducing shakey-cam, or just general rubbishness - and yes, I'm looking at you, Blair Witch. But there are those of us who have a penchant for first-person shenanigans - and we've been richly rewarded for our tolerance with excellent movies such as Cloverfield and the first Paranormal Activity. And it's this subset of the population that will almost immediately fall in love with Chronicle.

Telling the story of an unpopular kid named Andrew, who acquires a 'old' video camera to not only create a barrier between himself and the real world, but also to document the systematic abuse that he suffers at the hands of his father. The trials of high school life inevitably get in the way, though, and he, his cousin and the most popular kid at school find themselves in a strange underground cave, where a glowing rock formation pulses with energy, and subsequently knocks them out. They wake up above ground, with no recollection of what happened - but whatever it was, they now have telekinetic abilities, and the film explores quite what the average high-school student might do in this predicament.

For reasons that'll become clear further down, let's start with heaping the praise on it. 

Story-wise, it's not the most original premise, but what it does have is a fresh take on the usual formula of the every-man superhero story. It's a flipside of Kick-Ass and Super's coin - or  rather, it strips the usual superhero story of the 'hero' part, rather than the 'super' part. Filtering this through the rogues gallery of the American high-school is both ingenious and a no-brainer, and whilst it's been done before, in a year where Marvel and DC will be showboating with their primary film franchises, this is refreshingly small and simple, with a character-driven story that pushes forward at exactly the right pace. Story-turns - super-power granting rocks aside - never seem contrived, and the dialogue crackles with authenticity.

It's also wonderfully performed by the core ensemble - with Michael B Jordan (of The Wire fame) putting in a particularly good performance, turning the popular, class-president archetype into an intriguing study in empathy: his Steve's ingratiation with Dane DeHaan and Alex Russell's losers not simply down to their single shared experience, but as the act of a genuinely kind individual. DeHaan escalates his performance as Andrew remarkably, and whilst Russell, playing the main character's stoner cousin, takes a little while to get warmed up, by the end, you're hardly holding it against him.

So, all this praise under advisement, you can now understand my full meaning when I say that somewhere in here, there is a far, far better movie. The sad fact of the matter is that what prevents it from better is also its core gimmick - the found footage stylings. Had they transitioned between found footage and more traditionally cinematic shots in the manner of District 9, this could've been genuinely one of the best superhero movies in years. 

There are attempts at this towards the end, but it never actually emerges from within the found footage box, and because of this, they have to come up with more and more contrived reasons to have cameras in the frame. Don't get me wrong - the manner in which they tackle it is ingenious, and there is a commentary about quite how often, in the digital age, there is someone with a camera watching you, but the sense of contrivance never goes away. There's also a bit of awkwardness in the finale thanks to this, where there's a series of transitions between cameras in the action and the news helicopter that's trying to document it. The odd shift in audio dynamic as the view flicks between these two points mars what is otherwise an exhilarating set piece.

There're a few moments of odd dialogue that clunk a little, a couple of dubious directorial decisions and a few ropey special effects scattered about, but these aren't really noticeable thanks to the lightning fast pacing. The plot is a little sign-posted in terms of predictability, and it's incredibly streamlined, with a run-time of a mere 83 minutes. It doesn't make it any less satisfying, thanks to the relatively fresh angle, but a cynic might brand it simplistic were he to skip breakfast the day he saw it.

All-in-all, it's tough to criticise something that's as technically proficient, visually engaging and thoroughly entertaining as this. The previous criticisms have been pondered for a good while before committing to t'internet, and even now I'm struggling to really justify them. It's a real cinema movie too- sparklingly clear visuals combining with a soundtrack whose bass rattles bones, engrossing you in the experience. There is that niggling sensation that a better movie could've been made given more money and more time, but it's just not enough to derail it. A fresh, darkly intriguing take on the superhero formula, and a great action movie to boot, we can only hope round two is bigger and bolder - because what a treat we'd be in for.

16 February 2012

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

I think I can safely say that not a lot of us were expecting to enjoy the original Sherlock Holmes as much as we did. Whilst the entire prospect may have been somewhat appealing - Sherlock, is of course, a classic character - but the constituent elements may have caused the more sniffy amongst us to question its value. 'Hot as shit right now' American actor Robert Downey Jr. in the title role? An out-of-form Jude Law in support? A recently lambasted Guy Ritchie in the directors chair? This, coupled with the debut of the excellent modern update from the BBC meant that the cynical amongst us - and yes, that included me - might've thought this would amount to a rather disastrous cocktail. But come together it did, and majestically so, with its family-friendly, mischevious sense of humour blending perfectly with an intriguing, gothic-inspired story to create a surprise Christmas treat.

The box office takings were hardly insignificant either, and thus along rolls the rather inevitable sequel. But - in the spirit of the Empire striking back - we must ask: is it better than the first one?

Unfortunately, the rather inevitable answer is no. But it does come with some rather large caveats - namely the fact that it's more or less exactly as good.

There are some losses as it transitions into franchisedom - gone is the mystically gothic vibe of the first, Rachel MacAdams and the slightly looser structuring in favour of a tightly-paced, action-oriented flick with a villain whose primary weapon is economics. That and...y'know...predictive kung-fu. The mystery here seems all the less mysterious, and it's open to debate whether the film is better for it.

If you like your action at least considered, then you'll find a lot to like here. The idea of Holmes running a fight through his analytical mind is beautifully toyed with in this one, as he's not coming up against run-of-the-mill fighters now. There does come a moment where the switching between slow-motion and normal speed starts to feel a little gimmicky, but it never really comes to a head, and the fact of the matter is that it looks fantastic - if nothing else, Guy Ritchie has a fantastic eye for tensely directed action. Set pieces abound, and they're all immensely entertaining, from Watson attempting to conduct a rescue of Holmes under sniper-fire, and subsequently coming up with a rather...destructive solution to it, to a cross-dressing, train-based caper that brings about belly-laughs as well as getting the adrenaline flowing.

The story - whilst disappointingly dropping the mystical angle - is still tight and well conceived, and not a plot-hole in sight. It does occasionally feel a little contrived in its attempts to make the adventure a globe-trotting one when it could've easily been contained once again within London, with a brief foray to Reichenbach to cap it off. But this is easy to overlook, as in exchange we get a far grander plot that never drags and keeps the scenery interesting.

The chemistry between Downey Jr. and Law is still one of the main selling points, though, and they evolve the relationship beautifully. Holmes starts off, once again, having introverted himself due to a lack of an interesting case, and it's up to Watson to balance his affection for Holmes and that for his soon-to-be wife. The dialogue is as joyously tongue-in-cheek as it was in the first one, and Downey Jr's particular brand of 'insane genius' is, I must say, most appealing and engaging, and there's a certain joy to be had from the interplay between this and the more grounded intelligence of Watson that the screenwriters have done a fantastic job of capitalising on.

Elsewhere, Noomi Rappace, whilst good, feels almost entirely peripheral as Gypsy queen Simza, there almost as a MacGuffin that appears to have been accidentally made into an important player only right at the very end of the movie. Stephen Fry is great as Mycroft - or Mikey, as he's known in this interpretation. Whilst there's little familial resemblance, Fry plays off Downey Jr. rather wonderfully - QI's good and all, but he slips into Mycroft's shoes rather comfortably, and I distinctly remember wishing that he was in it more. It's a little let down by a relatively forgettable turn by Jared Harris in the nemesis role, though this could actually be interpreted as intentional - ultimately, the entire point of Moriarty's plan is that he's never implicit or even remembered in the war that his schemings creates. It's just that he's perhaps a little too successful, and this is actually, and oddly, to the film's credit.

All in all, this is a fantastic continuation of the now set-in-stone franchise. Richie does seem to have found another niche that he can operate rather well within, and the characterisations are utterly enthralling. Throw in some great performances, a wonderfully clever script and a neat twist on 'The Final Problem', and this is a sequel that for once doesn't disappoint.

20 January 2012


Ladies and gentlemen. In lieu of my more light-hearted pieces, for once I'd like to address a serious issue.

If you're not already, please get up to speed on the bullshit that's currently attempting to crimp its way through the American justice system - to bills: the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA):


I'm no pirate, but these ambiguous laws, if passed, will see the end of the Internet as we know it, both the bad parts AND the truly wonderful parts. This won't just affect the USA either, this'll have serious ramifications globally, both cultural and economic.

We need to make it clear that as a species, we will not stand for the global suppression of free speech and the systematic invasion of privacy that these bills would result in. The creative industry - and I speak as one of their number - need to learn that the onus is on *them* to pursue breaches of copyright, not on governments, internet service providers or individual websites that, as a by-product of providing a useful service to the masses, inadvertently enable pirates to go about their shady business.

It's like attempting to win the war on drugs by banning the wearing of shoes. It hurts everybody.

Intellectual property owners already have more than enough power - they have the ability to have a British citizen extradited to New York for breach of copyright. Isn't that enough?

The question we should be asking ourselves is this: why should we be forced to give up one of the great achievements of humanity - and yes, I rank the internet up there with landing on the moon, sliced bread, Firefly and the wheel - just because of a few douchebags use it to serially avoid paying for things? Should we give up language just because Scottish people swear a bit too much? Should we give up singing because of Nichole337? I think not. Censoring or banning these things hurts everbody. And if the creative industry want to go running to Daddy-government because tracking down pirates is 'too haaaaard!' then fuck them, the lazy pricks. I feel almost ashamed to be associated with them.

If you, intellectual property owners, would like to coax us, the consumers, into buying your product - make it worth buying. DVD extras, the experience of the cinema, additional but non-essential content for video games - I can go on. If they don't want to put the effort in, we must show that we won't tolerate the childish tantrum that SOPA and PIPA represent.

Pressure your bosses to pressure their bosses until the company you work for takes a stand against it, even if they have no internet presence whatsoever. Local representatives, Facebook, Twitter, your local newspaper, national newspapers, pubs, clubs, dives, squats, bedsits, kitchens, bars, hallways, lecture theatres and living rooms everywhere, get talking about it. Let's stand up for ourselves, and demand that the internet - in all it's majesty and depravity - be left exactly as it is.

Because ultimately, the internet reflects us as a society. Perhaps if governments focussed on tackling society's problems, then maybe we can set about solving the internet's problems too.

Oh yeah, and DVDs that I've bought or rented legitimately - don't fucking tell me that it's illegal to download this product. I know! That's why I bloody bought it!!!!!! YOU JERK!

Also some may recognise echoes of Jim Sterling's rant on the Escapist - I not only realise but openly admit that I am simply conforming to Jim's request at the end of the video. It is intentional, I make fuck all money from this blog and please don't sue me! Kthnxbai.

4 January 2012

I Want My Money! Or:...

Or: How The Old Republic Engaged a Cynic

Or^2: How Bioware Put the RPG Back into MMORPG

Or^3: Star Wars: The Old Republic Review

Okay, first of all, a quick foreword to this - this is the longest non-fiction piece I've ever written. So...y'know...go with it.

I'll come out of the cupboard for a moment to admit that I don't get MMOs really. Yeah, the likes of World of Warcraft, Age of Conan, and EVE Online are all incredible pieces of software – with EVE in particular getting my seal of approval thanks to its outrageously deep economic system – but I've never really seen the appeal.

I get bored of – well, not bored;I'm done with – a game usually after around two or three months, with intermittent periods of intense attention paid to the latest triple-A shooter release. It's around this time that I feel I've received my money's worth back from the developer, that they've fulfilled their end of the contract by providing me with a world or scenario that I can get caught up in.

With MMOs, they are intrinsically designed as time sinks – and skip this part if you're familiar with these kinds of games, as the following statement may contain some uncomfortable truths. Everything is deliberately protracted, from the occasionally ludicrous distances that you have to make your avatar travel just to receive a quest reward, to the sheer logistical nightmare that is organising groups to tackle the high-level areas (or raiding, to the WoW enthusiast), it takes time to get literally anywhere.

Content that might be in the first four hours or so of an ordinary RPG is stretched out over the course of days of gameplay, not just hours. Requirement after requirement piles up, and constant rewards are dangled in front of you should you meet them. Just one more hour, and you can have that awesome sword! There's some psychoanalytical angle here regarding Skinner boxes and operant conditioning, but Google – and in particular, a little webshow called Extra Credits; look it up – explains it in far more detail then I ever could.

There are inherent strengths of the MMO, though. The key is the second M – multiplayer. I'm a fan of multiplayer – in particular, cooperative multiplayer. There's something about shared effort to tackle a challenge that is a lot more satisfying than breezing through it on your own. After all, human beings are social creatures – so I'm told... - and we like working together to accomplish things. MMOs have this down pat, of course – nuturing an atmosphere of cooperative competion as guilds, coorporations and factions fight it out for dominance.

Tangentially, a key facet of gaming – and yes, I'm including all forms, not just video games - is that the medium itself is an inherently ingenious method of storytelling. Having someone progress a story through their own decisions? No other medium asks so much of the person experiencing it, and this is one of the many reasons that gaming maintains a constant presence in my life. I find the method of story-telling fascinating, to the extent that I'm willing to forgive a game technical flaws – though not that many, Fallout 3 – difficulty frustrations and flat gameplay in favour of a well-told story.

My favourite game of all time, at present? Red Dead Redemption. One of the buggiest games released last year. Flying cowboys, horses in walls, weird physics – it didn't matter. I adored every moment that I spent as John Marston. The quirky characters, the wonderfully epic plot and the earthy, endearing tone with which it was told. I would liken it to being told a tall tale by a weathered old gent, sat next to a campfire, strumming a few melancholy chords on a battered guitar as the heavens seem to listen in. It was genuinely magical.

Conversely, you can have among the most meticulously detailed and well-crafted stories currently being told, along with gameplay so deep there's entire encyclopedias dedicated to delving its crevaces; but if you fail to tell it in an engaging manner, it becomes more like a poorly taught history class. You sit there, getting battered by facts, figures, politics, plot points and a whole host of other nonsense that you don't really care about. You're just there because you need a decent grade.

This is where the protracted nature of MMOs comes to bite them in the backside – you cannot tell an engaging story through the medium of dialogue pop-ups. Not when the time between these pop-ups is being excessively padded with lengthy walks, irritating minor enemies that bite at your heels and long waits attempting to cobble together something resembling an effective four-man team.

Ask me what the story of World of Warcraft is, and I genuinely couldn't tell you. Something about the Horde coming out from somewhere, and the Alliance being none too happy about that. But the fine details? I have no idea. And I played that game for three months. I ended up on autopilot, not even registering the flavour text as I accept quests. Where do I go? What do I kill? Do I need help? Those were the three things that mattered. Everything else was just so much hot air.

Now, ask me what the story of The Old Republic is – and yes, we're finally getting to the point of this article. Well done for getting this far!

To date - and this is just for one of my characters – I (or Jayk, as I have dubbed him) has...

(I promise, I won't go into too much detail!)

…landed on a planet called Ord Mantell with a cargo-hold full of munitions. Before I could deliver my cargo, I had my ship stolen, and in an attempt to locate quite where it'd gone, I found myself embroiled in the local conflict between the authorities and a separatist movement. Admid the chaos, I teamed up with another smuggler named Corso Riggs, who proved invaluable in a fight, and also had connections to the criminal underworld. Through him, I met a kingpin, and in exchange for using his information network to track down the thief who stole my ship, Skavak, I provided my services as a gun for hire.

Whilst out doing these errands, I saved a few orphans and the lone doctor protecting them from the anarchy, I gathered some valuable intelligence for a Republic spy, saved at least three different lives and generally made a bit of a name for myself as a man who can get things done.

After a few intense gunbattles, - and declaring myself a 'Scoundrel' - I chased Skavak to the city-planet Coruscant. Through the connections I'd made – and again, in exchange for a few favours which saw me fighting for my life against the notorious Black Sun criminal organisation - I finally was able to waylay Skavak whilst he was attempting to make a deal with some Imperial spies. Defeating them, Skavak escapes by the skin of his teeth, and has the cheek to contact me with threats of 'hunting me down'.

My ship now firmly back in my possession – and my protocol droid C2-N2 dithering at every possible moment - I've got an entire galaxy to explore. And there's a strange woman in my cargo hold. I should probably go ask her what she's doing there...

The point is, I know what's going on. My character has a story. My characters have never had stories when I play MMOs. Yeah, I pick their race, their gender, and I control them for a bit, during which they forge some kind of loose-knit, jumbled narrative. But they don't have actual character traits.

My smuggler does. Yes, other smugglers will have the same major plot-points. But no experience will be identical – what I've described above is but the prologue of my story, and what makes it special is that I, the gamer, have written my own flavour text. The minor story beats that connect the major ones are my decisions, and that makes this particular story, the story of Jayk, mine.

This appeals to the very heart of my gaming fascination, and this is in no small part due to Bioware's mastery of video games as a medium for story-telling. There is no one aside from perhaps Rockstar who does it as consistently brilliantly as they do – even their recent misfire, Dragon Age II, was rarely criticised for being poorly told; instead, criticisms were focused on the stripped down nature of the gameplay, and the relatively limited scope of the setting.

I am not going to stand here and claim that Bioware have revolutionised the genre. The MMO is still standing on ground unbroken – the same tediums that plague WoW and EVE abound in The Old Republic.

What Bioware have done, though, is provide us with their take on the genre, by adding the single flourish of an entirely player-driven, constantly evolving and changing narrative. But not just that – every single character that you can speak to has a voice, has an opinion, has an intriguing quirk. I could go on about the great script, the fantastic voice work or the wonderful way that the individual stories of players magically intertwine through wonderfully staged 'flashpoints', and how Bioware have done for story what CCP did for player-driven economy with EVE. But I'm going to skip ahead ever so slightly to the very crux of the matter, as I've been yammering on for a bit now.

It reminds me of old times. I know, I know, it's ridiculous for someone in his very late early twenties to refer to any times as old times, but go with me. When I was a slightly awkward social pariah of a teenager, I had a few refuges from an insistent world. One was video games, but the other was tabletop roleplaying games.

Playing The Old Republic feels like I'm back there – only I'm privileged enough to have one of my idols, my heroes, serving as the story-teller. Particularly, and this really is the entire point of this article, when I'm playing with my wonderful friends Al and Nathaniel.

They were two of the folk whom socially debased themselves enough to partake in Dungeons and Dragons, the D20 Modern RPG and the Star Wars Roleplaying Game, and so there's of course the 'nostalgia' value to that, but there's also more to it.

When you play with friends, the game very cleverly involves all players in any given conversation with a non-player character. You're all there – each with your own unique character and perspective, and a deeply embedded (thanks to the prologue) idea of who your character is. Then it throws some chaos into the mix – randomly determining who, of the players involved, gets to actually speak and control the conversation.

Initially, you'd think this would create conflict, but it's a subtle mechanic that works incredibly well. You receive points and bonuses as if you answered with your own response – so ultimately, you can't be forced to accept perceived penalties if you don't want to - but the physical nature of the story plays on the whims of a random dice roll.

To wit, I was playing with Nathaniel. I've got my mildly gung-ho smuggler on the go, and Nat is controlling a Jedi named Kai-Lai. We're doing a story-driven scenario – one of the above mentioned 'flashpoints' - whereby we must defend a ship from an attacking Imperial cruiser. Now, after all is said and done, and we've had a bit of a laugh at my smuggler's cocky attitude juxtaposed against the wall of tranquility and compassion that is the Jedi, eventually it comes the point where we're to be rewarded.

Now, being a cocky smuggler, I initially headed for the 'About bloody time' option. But then I paused, and realised that I didn't want to look bad in front of the Jedi. I mused a moment on why I was doing this - realising that points must be given to Bioware for actually making me give two hoots about what path my Smuggler follows, even if it'll only matter to me personally.

Regaining control of my senses, and subsequently the mouse, I clicked the option that, to paraphrase, would've said 'That's very nice of you. Thank you!'.

Only to be foiled. The game rolled the dice, and Kai-Lai won with an impressive 135 to my measly 17. 'There is no need for a reward,' she said serenely, 'service to the Republic and her people is reward enough.' Then some nonsense about giving it to someone who deserves it more. Only I'm not listening.

Because my smuggler really wanted those credits. He's got speeder bikes to buy! Caught up in this tidal wave of character-based angst, we proceeded to have a relatively long conversation where I wasn't certain if we were in character or out of character. Essentially...

I want my money!!!!

Of course, I'm kidding really – I'm not actually going to full-on demand the money from Nat. Instead, we've generated a memorable moment that we can reference in future story beats. And in truth, that's probably how I would've written the scene, were I tasked with it.

But what gets me is how true a roleplaying moment that was. Nathaniel could've easily stuck to the mindset of previous MMOs - 'I must have my reward', which I had only adhered to because my character's dialogue options, coupled with my predisposition towards Han Solo-esque bravado, had inclined me to do so.

There're three moments there that prove how true a roleplaying experience The Old Republic is. My rethinking of my dialogue choice based solely on an ultimately inconsequential detail; Kai-Lai's adherence to the Jedi moral code; and finally my reaction to it.

Without even realising it, and for no in-game benefit – only me and Nathaniel will ever care about those decisions and that turn of the dice – we both found ourselves roleplaying our characters properly. It was as if we were fifteen again, huddled around those forever multiplying rulebooks, grinning with satisfaction as we played through a particularly satisfying set piece that we had sculpted ourselves. It was genuinely magical.

Yes, there are occasional moments where the immersion is broken. There's an attempt to prevent characters of the same class – and thus, similar back-stories – from mingling in their personal quests, which goes a long way to encouraging you to team up with players of other classes, which in turn results in a fuller experience. But the fact that it's a multiplayer game means that every so often you'll see another smuggler who's got the same companion and equipment as you, and the prologue occasionally feels a little crowded in this regard. But it's not game-breaking – and given the circumstances a mere smudge on the gemstone.

From the get-go, Bioware throw you into an entirely different state of mind to most MMOs. You have a story. Yes, other players will have a similar story – but it's given extra meaning and weight not just by the fantastic, player-driven story-telling, but by the friends and even strangers that you experience it with.

This is why, in my opinion, The Old Republic – for all its conformity to genre tropes gameplay-wise – is still a complete triumph. It doesn't revolutionise anything, nor is it the most technically adept of the current line-up of MMOs. What it is is entirely engaging – eight unique character stories, masterfully intertwined with an over-arching plot of grand galactic conflict. Industry take heed – story-telling this brilliant isn't solely confined to single player. This is the bar – let's set about meeting it.