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.