26 September 2013

Late to the Party #3 - Gee Tee Ay Musing

Rostopher is usually...

#3 - Gee Tee Ay Musing

Spoilers throughout. You have been warned.

So it has come to pass - Rockstar's generational opus is upon us, as may have been hinted at ever so slightly in the last issue. And now, I've had an opportunity to play it! Shocker, I know, but it seems curiously necessary to point out that now, I have actually played the game. Well, most of it. It's just that a lot of the cricism came way to early for people to have actually played through the whole thing. Just throwing that out that.

Any-bally-hoo, we'll start with a micro-review, and about half-way through it, we'll move on to the actual meat of the matter, because...well, that's where it is: half-way through a review! 
GTA V is a really quite brilliant game. On the technical side, it's hugely impressive, particularly given that it's currently running on 8-year-old hardware. The fidelity of the world is the highlight - a self-contained, satirical snapshot of modern American society. Los Santos' rotten, corrupt heart hidden beneath a sheen of sunshine, fast cars and palm trees; Sandy Shores, a blistering, dust-covered hickville...sorry, 'home of rural Americans'; Grapeseed, your quiet little whitebread town; and Paleto Bay, your tiny beach community. Despite the triple-protagonist gimmick eliminating their necessity, you'll still find yourself setting out on drives from one mission to another, or indeed from nowhere to nowhere else. 

Allow me to paint a picture - and in no way will it do justice to the majesty of it, but I'll do my damn best.

I had been messing about on a jetski as Michael, the mobster archetype protagonist, and found myself in Paleto Bay just as the sun set over the water. I beached the jetski, and wandered into town, locating a suitable unmanned vehicle and performing the titular crime. The radio tunes in to a station playing some impressively smooth jazz, and I pull into the local garage to clean the car up. I checked my map, and saw that Michael's next mission was back at his house in Rockford Hills, a wealthy suburb in north Los Santos. I set my sat-nav marker, and set off, the route carrying me along the west coast of San Andreas, chasing the sun as she hid herself beneath the horizon. On the cusp of her disappearing, I vanish into the tunnel that takes you underneath Fort Zancudo, and emerge into the night. Streetlights, brake-lights and headlights streak past as I cross the bridge over Lago Zancudo, and I take the turn-off onto Route 68, clambering steadily uphill and then heading down into the winding, challenging road through Tongva Valley. The hills either side suddenly give way, and I'm greeting by the glistening, festering, neon-glinting jewel that is Los Santos, the full moon hovering low over her, welcoming me back.

Something like this. Only with more smooth jazz.
I pulled over.

Sounds good, no? This is Rockstar's true achievement with this piece of software - a living, breathing, dynamic, infinitely intriguing landscape to explore. It's literally jaw-dropping.

Controls-wise - whilst a bit fiddly to get to grips with in some scenarios, and not without occasional frustrations - are a slick hybridisation of three distinct gameplay types (namely third-person action, driving and piloting), and they're each satisfying enough that you can forgive some occasional control quirks. On top of the astounding diversity of stuff that you can mess around with - guns, bombs, cars, planes, bikes, boats, frikkin' submarines, and yes, the list goes on after 'frikkin submarines' - there's an outrageously deep veneer of customisation.

It's quite simply the most technically accomplished sandbox game released this generation, and a perfect generational swansong - showcasing exactly what the supposedly aging hardware in the Xbox 360 and PS3 was capable of all along.

But it's in the story-telling, and its unexpectedly varied interpretation that we're going to be dwelling on for the rest of this piece.

As you are probably aware, Grand Theft Auto is gaming's grand crime saga - all set in the same fictional, twisted version of America, they tell tales of nobodies achieving the American dream rather more violently and sordidly than strictly necessary. This rodeo is a little different, primarily in that there are no less than three protagonists - which, in absolute truth, was the next logical step in GTA's evolution. But there's also the fact that all three are wash-ups, in their own way, rather than nobodies. Franklin, a sardonic gang-banger who alienates everyone around him; Michael, a witness-protected ex-bank robber whose lack of empathy is causing his family life to fall apart; and Trevor, a certifiably insane pseudo-Canadian redneck (yeah, get your head around that one!).

Their stories begin separate, but slowly intertwine as your progress through the game. You pull heists, run drugs, work for movie producers, and more, all in the name of making that sweet, sweet dollar.

The writing is great - sharp, acerbic and bitterly satirical, Dan Houser, Rupert Humphries and Micheal Unsworth emulate Parker and Stone as they tar everyone with the same brush. Celebrity culture, gang culture, nerd culture, corporate culture, capitalism, communism, conservatives, liberals, crap TV, rednecks, white trash, gangsters, psychologists - everything is torn asunder, revealing corrupt, festering hearts within each by way of an elegant, biting (and occasionally delightfully juvenile) sense of humour.

But most intriguingly of all, the game carries a fairly broad, blaring message, written in neon lights as glorious as Los Santos' nightscape:

This shit don't pay off. 

Not in the long run. Heists go bad, loyalties are questioned, terrifying murderers (or, as they're more commonly known, governments) irreversibly pissed off. The only way to actually earn the stacks of cash required to buy up property in the game is to honestly invest - and dishonestly skew, if so inclined - in the virtual stock market it presents.

Which makes those decrying it for corrupting our minds, for being morally bankrupt, quite odd indeed. I'm going to say it - did these people actually play the game? Did they take it in as a whole?

Is it the torture? It's the torture isn't it? Yeah, I thought you might say that. It's a fallacy, though. Sure, if you strip out every ounce of context, and presented me with a game that was literally just the torture part of the scene, I'd question your sanity, based on the fact that the barely interactive three-minute cinematic that you have there doesn't qualify as a 'game' in any sense of the word, saying nothing of its grimy, grotesque content.

But here's the thing - taken as a whole, Trevor is presented from the get-go as an unhinged psychopath.  

There's not a single shred of moral consistency to his actions, from his fluctuating approach to the value of human life, to his catastrophic mood swings (he loses his rag at the mere mention of the word 'motherfucker'), to his flip-flopping between embracing and vilifying his Canadian-tinged accent.

Heck, he's the closest thing the story has to a main antagonist, in story populated solely by antagonistic figures. You are playing as the villain when you engage in the torture scene - it's not glamourised, it's not fun, and the disturbing look of glee in Trevor's eyes is a technical marvel. It's meant to disgust you - that's what the scene wanted you to feel. 

It means you're a good person - give yourself a pat on the back!

This look glamourous to you? Then you need help, my friend.
Then there's the broader point - the torture is contained within a segment whereby the torture is enacted on behalf of the 'FIB' (switching the letters! Subtle!), and it ostensibly extracts information about a high-value terrorist target. The victim himself all but admits that he's telling them anything to get them to stop. Yet the FIB act on the information, issuing the order to the cold, heartless Michael to execute the target, without a second thought given. By anyone. The scene in its entirety decries this method of 'warfare'. 
The thing is, the one thing that I actually did think crossed the line hasn't been touched upon at all in mainstream media. The Escapist noted it in their fairly critical review of the game - a sequence wherein you unknowingly plant a bomb in the prototype of a smartphone about to be presented at a press conference, and proceed to detonate it on national television. I honestly went in expecting an ingenious, humiliating technological prank, not a brazen act of terrorism. This coupled with the fact that it's literally the only crime in the game with no risk of failure (a preceeding 'stealth' section is not challenging in the slightest) or any ramifications down the line makes it all the more unsettling. Yet the denouncement of torture is what gets us?

These're two ten-minute sections of a 25-hour-plus game. Did it attack the issues a little too bluntly? Maybe, but this is no reason to renounce the game unto Satan. 

It doesn't cross the line any more than any other media portraying torture, violence or depravity. I mean come on! We had a collective critical aneurism at the sheer bold brilliance of a scene that features a pregnant woman getting stabbed repeatedly in the belly in Game of Thrones. We must afford Grand Theft Auto the courtesy of being regarded on the same intellectual level, surely?

18 September 2013

Late to the Party #2 - Don't Hate the Game, Hate the Human

Rostopher is usually...

#2 - Don't Hate the Game, Hate the Human

So once again, Grand Theft Auto has drudged up the age-old 'video games are corrupting our souls!' argument. It's sad that the BBC, the Daily bleedin' Mirror (who I will not even dignify with a backlink. Google it), and even The Escapist felt the need to stoke that particular fire, lending credence to the fact that the attack in London was motivated by a need to acquire specifically GTA V; instead of, y'know, being a crime of happenstance where the individuals were after anything of value that the victim happened to be carrying. Like his phone. And his wallet. Both of which were also taken in the attack. But no, GTA V is crowbarred into the headline, because 'vidya garms cores violins!!!1111'.

However, in a surprise twist, I'm going to open(-ish) by saying something that may initially seem like I'm contradicting myself: violent video games do affect us.

Stay with me. I would follow up by saying: 'in the same way that literally anything else violent affects us'. It's true - our advanced thinkerboxes are but one facet of our dominance of planet Earth; we're also fully capable of some really rather imaginative methods of offing other creatures, including each other. If one of us does snap and decide to go postal, are we going to use the violence that we've personally witnessed as reference? You bet we are. There are, after all, no true originals left! But it's in the same way that we might reference, say, a funny line from a movie when we're trying to impress someone (or is that just me?).

The actual question that we should be asking ourselves is whether or not video games are a factor in the snap itself. The answer is a resounding no. (Imagine it echoing in a cathedral; that's the sort of resounding I'm going for.)

Take Sandy Hook, when the media attempted to shoe-horn Call of Duty in as the scapegoat. But Adam Lanza was a deeply troubled person - the autistic son of a woman who was a gun enthusiast and 'apocalypse preperationist', if tales told are true. The already anti-social shut-in was probably not imbued with any sense of love for his fellow man, and he learned to shoot from his mother, in a rifle range in their basement; not from a video game - the notion of which is fundamentally ridiculous:

Essentially the same device! Right?
When you look at each and every other case of this happening, the perpetrators are motivated by their own personal psychosis. The denouement of each inevitably has shades of whatever violent media they took in, but to blame video games - or films, or books, or rap music, or whatever else - is to ignore the actual problem.

Now, maybe those arsehole kids were specifically targeting that poor guy in London for his copy of GTA - there're several plausible narratives that see this being the case. 

But video games are a macguffin in every single one. Replace videogames with 'a kitten'. (I know it's silly, but I'm making a point, dammit!) Do you blame the kitten for the attack? Or do you blame an irrational and violent response to a need to have something that's otherwise unavailable? 

The problem is that we as human beings seek a conclusive answer to fucking everything. We need one big answer enshrined in stone, held aloft by some dude with a beard on a mountain as thunder cracks behind him. But the problem with the random attacks issue is that there is no single explanation for all of them. Each case is disquietingly unique, but we pounce on the easiest common thread to blame - the one that's seen as most inconsequential - whilst failing to recognise the single thing that they all do have in common: humans. We just won't accept that sometimes, people do really awful shit to other people, for their own reasons. 

Dowwwwwner! Here's the kitten:

How could you blame this?! YOU HAVE NO SOUL!!!
Honestly, though? I would agree that there is perhaps an over-abundance of violence in video-games these days. It's an art-form in the final throes of a rebellious adolescence, over-saturated with boobs (hehehehe! Boobs! (I slapped myself, don't worry)) and aesthetisised violence. Of late, however, both the industry and gamers themselves have shown signs that they're growing up in their approach to both. But this is a separate issue - they still don't force people to vent their frustration with the world by shooting at it. 

I've been playing video games for a long damn while. Some of my earliest memories are of playing Snapper (a.k.a Pacman But Not Pacman) in gaudy 8-bit-o-vision on the BBC Micro with one of these fucking things:

The joysticks don't even auto-centre. That's how old-school we're talking.
But as the popular greetings card - and one of my t-shirts! - points out, none of us are flitting about dark rooms as we chase ghosts, pop pills and listen to repetitive electronic music! Okay...maybe not none of us...

And heck, I'm an avid shooter fan - but I've only operated a firearm for a grand total of about 36 minutes (three separate occasions; none of which I actually had a choice in, I would add). It is an experience that I never, ever wish to repeat - the prospect of wielding an actual physical object designed to end another human's life repels me completely. 

But the rush of pulling off a perfect strafing run on the enemy team in an attack helicopter in Battlefield? Of silently taking out a platoon of oblivious security guards in Splinter Cell? Sign me up! Why? Because it's all the associated adrenaline that stems from the aggressive nature of our species, but none of the risk of - or indeed actual - death.

If anything, anything at all, violent video games - and other violent media where we can get our fix of this sort of rush - are healthy and cathartic to indulge in. A way of reconciling the scholar with the savage, without a single drop of blood spilled. And who knows? Maybe James Wan and Eli Roth would be out there right now, enacting the awful things they thought up for the Saw and Hostel movies if the movie industry didn't exist. Instead, they made a film that let the rest of us closet psychopaths - that's all of us, by the by, and I'm using the term in the colloquial sense, before any psychologists pounce on me! - get our fix. Thanks guys!

But the out-and-proud psychopaths (again, colloquial) who perform these senseless acts of violence ultimately just hate other humans - however they arrive there, that's their conclusion. We should send that hate right back at them, not at an innocent kitten. I mean goat. I mean...ah fuck it, you know what I mean. To demonise something that brings enjoyment, comfort, and health benefits to millions of people the world over because of one arsehole who played one video game one time is just...just...

...really fucking DUMB.

Peace, y'all!

11 September 2013

Late to the Party #1 - The Goddamn Batfleck

Okay so this is a new feature that will be semi-regular. Because fuck knows I don't post enough on this blog. Basically, I'd going to stream-of-conscious type my thoughts about a recent nerdy issue that may or may not be bang up to date. For those skim-reading, I've highlighted the key points in bold. Ladies and gentlemen (and you, Din), I give you, typing errors and all...

Rostopher is usually...

#1 - The Goddamn Batfleck

So Ben Affleck is Batman. And what an absolutely massive uproar about it there was too. Which was fun! Took a while longer than I expected to die down, but thankfully it has, and whilst there are of course still the so-called 'haters' out there, there's at least now what could be described as 'lukewarm' feelings towards the prospect.

To throw down my say early, I'm actually pretty happy with this casting. Sure, Mr Affleck has been in some stinkers - but it's been shown time and time again that to dismiss someone completely based on past performances is folly. Think Heath Ledger as The Joker; Hugh Jackman as Wolverine - heck, super-hero movies in and of themselves are rife with 'huh?!' choices that went good.

Affleck is as good a choice as we were going to get, and don't read anything negative into that statement. After Bale's (and balls to the naysayers) towering performance as both halves of the character, literally no-one will feel right. 

He's got the jawline, he's the right height, build, and hair colour, so it's not like he won't look the part (pending any decision on Batsuit nipples... *shudder*). Daredevil and Paycheck (again, say what you will) showed he can competently beat the crap out of wave upon wave of Generic Non-Super Canon Fodder, and in truth, he's become a far better actor in recent years than Pearl Harbour and Gigli. Seriously, are those the only two Ben Affleck movies the naysayers have seen? And if so, are we really taking any complaint from these people seriously? These fools who haven't seen Chasing Amy, Good Will Hunting, The Company Men, Argo, The Town, Dogma, Shakespeare in Love (Britishfleck!), Hollywoodland or State of Play? He was also - I'm reliably informed - the bomb in Phantoms, yo.

Okay, so I see their argument. This is the man who got nominated for the Razzie for worst actor three times, for no less than six films. In fairness, this may have been less to do with his actual performances, and more to do with the fact that he was the exact epicentre of a massive media fuore, and it was somehow his fault that the movies surrounding him were terrible.

'He's BEN AFFLECK! How can he make a bad movie?!' was the sentiment of the time. 

It's simple.

Pearl Harbour was too long, badly written and held a tone that was at odds with Michael Bay's explosive sensibilities. Daredevil is actually okay, if you watch the director's cut - it still suffers from bland direction and Colin Farrell during his terrible phase, but the script and story are sound, and the castings are otherwise pretty good (Michael Clarke Duncan as Kingpin?! Genius! RIP, you massive, massive man.). Jersey Girl was Kevin Smith's attempt at doing something more serious - something to which he was and is ill suited. Paycheck was a fucking John Woo movie - what were we expecting? Whedon?! And the less said about Gigli (horrifying celebrity couple vehicle) and Surviving Christmas (throwaway holiday trash) the better.

Basically, the regrettable fact is that when Affleck was...shall we say, not at the peak of his acting prowess, he was also at his most prolific and scrutinised, for reasons technically outside of his control. These three things do not mix well, and he had a bad run. Any critic will tell you this - but since then, he's hardly put a foot wrong. Hollywoodland, and his entry into the directorial game with Gone Baby Gone were the gamechangers. His enjoyably daft cameo in the enjoyably daft Smokin' Aces aside, the work that followed was decidedly higher quality.

But when you examine Affleck's vast and varied filmography, it's clear that his performances vary with how challenging and interesting the material is. And when he has total creative control? Turns out he's a damn fine filmmaker all round - one that rises to the occasion as the material demands.

So this brings us to the talent that he will be working with come Superman vs Batman, and that's where the real rub is. I liked Man of Steel. I did. Despite the fact that I really rate Snyder, I can understand why those who don't...eh...don't. But the movie that we got was far better than one could've possibly expected, given the circumstances. To completely garble a quote from its oft-quoted nemesis, The Dark Knight Trilogy - it was way better than the Superman movie we deserved (after the kicking we gave the hideously under-rated Superman Returns ("You want more action? Here's Zack Snyder, fuckers," said the 'evil' movie executive)). But not as good as the Superman movie that we needed. Disappointment is a relative term, my friends.


But here's the thing - the main point raised against Man of Steel was that there was no way that a) Superman would allow that much damage to happen; and b) he would've killed Zod at the end. When I quizzed a since-childhood fan of Superman - whose comics you should read, or else! - on why it wasn't right, why Superman couldn't kill just once, and he said something that was equal parts profound and obvious: "He always finds a way." And that's Superman in a nutshell, isn't it? The very best of us - a man who has considerable power, but never uses it to harm or oppress the innocent. He's right too - in Man of Steel, Supes is practically reckless; as I pointed out in my review, he's a rougish brawler who steps up because he can, and kinda makes a mess of it, but wins out through plucky determination.

***** SPOILERS END *****

But this is also very much a Superman for the modern era, where collateral damage and the death of innocents constantly sprawls across our news headlines. It's also a crushingly realistic portrayal of super-strong, super-tough, gravity defying individuals going at each-other like gangbusters.

And who better to tame this rogue superpower, to teach him the value of damage prevention, subtlety and the power of a symbol, than fucking Batman, fully formed and having been fighting crime in Gotham for years. Given the speed at which the production is rolling forward, it's hard to not believe that this was the plan all along.

Another complaint re: Man of Steel is that Superman was more broody and dark than previous incarnations. Assuming that the above was indeed the plan, surely if anything, the casting of Ben Affleck promises a sly reversal of the darkness and light in this particular relationship. This has been done with comic-book characters before - and with Batman no-less - and it made for genuinely interesting stories - what's to say this flick can't pull the same coup?

The point I'm plodding towards is that there is no reason to think that the story of this next film will not work. Superman and Batman crossover plenty, and work almost exactly as often - Geoff Johns' current work in New 52's Justice League, as well as the supplement story 'Ghost Lights' at the end of Batmans # 19 and #20 are recent examples of how good this can be. But it's a challenge that needs to be risen to - and as we've established, Ben Affleck is a man who does just that.

If Superman vs Batman is going to be bad, it's not going to be because of Affleck. We should be more worried on two counts - first, Christopher Nolan is no longer presiding over matters. Second, Snyder is helping craft the story and script. Massive warning signs on both these - but in theory, given Affleck's directorial and screen-writing creds, coupled with his known love of comic books, he can help temper there more insane urges. If any single conclusion can be drawn at this stage - which, as we have not seen the film, is as close to impossible as it gets - it's that Ben Affleck's involvement is a step in the right direction. I, for one, am looking forward to it.

5 September 2013

The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones Review

One has to remain open to these things. One does - one day, they'll make a good'un, and you kinda have to be there to see that when it happens.

Okay, wow, way to give the game away early, Ross. Fuck it, have this, I'm putting my feet up:

Oh...you're still here. Fine, I'll write something...Jeez, you guys are pushy.

So I was clued into this by a friend who's read the books - according to both her, and the literary community at large, they're actually a pretty neat riff on the whole 'urban fantasy' thing, and were begging to have a movie made out of them. I can't honestly comment on the books - I've not read 'em, and I'm assured that they're 'completely bloody different!' from this trainwreck, so let's proceed to verbally beat the shit out of it, shall we?

I suppose the most disappointing thing is that there was almost certainly a good film to be made from the script as is. A few cheesy (and we're talking Camembert levels of stink here) lines and some braindead decision-making aside, the story is actually surprisingly solid: in a modern world where 'every story you ever heard is true', there exists a breed of human known as the Shadow Hunter, who spend their waking hours fighting the unwinnable, but essential war against the forces of darkness. Clary is not one of these people - but she can see them, even when they use runes tattooed onto their skin to turn invisible. As she tries to figure out why, she becomes embroiled in a plot from within to undo the hunters, and their hidden-in-plain-sight base, The Sanctuary.

It's at the very least interesting on its own terms - the mythology surrounding it in particular is most intriguing. It's a great shame that the execution is a stumbling, shambolic mess.

This is almost entirely down to director Harald Zwart. The cast is decent, the production values solid and the script, despite the aforementioned stinkers, is a surprisingly tight adaptation - there's even some pretty decent special effects thrown into the mix. But Zwart botches it - it's clear that the extent of his familiarity with the fantasy genre is that it exists, and is mildly popular just now. There's not a single ounce of flair, style or substance in any of the framing, fight choreography or staging. Battles lack any sense of tension or threat. Romance comes off as dumb and corny as shit because of a soundtrack that's either intrusively, obnoxiously obvious, or as dull and pointless as the staging.

Worse, Zwart fails to recognise when the characters he's marshalling are being utterly, utterly stupid. Case in point? Our heroine develops a power that can freeze adversaries in time - but rather than butchering the demons where they're stuck with their fancy demon-slaying weaponry, they move through the pack of claw-based death and leave them there. We're then supposed to care when the creatures reanimate themselves after the spell wears off, and murder a bunch of werewolves. You do know swords have unlimited ammo, right guys?

The only thing that saves it from being thrown in the same bin as AvP2 and Battlefield Earth is that admid the turgidity, there're a few few-and-far-between moments where the strength of the story and mythology shine through. A flame-thrower that appears to fire holy napalm? Awesome. Mozart was actually a musical engineer who developed sequences of chords that sounded lovely to humans, but like nails on chalkboard to demons? Genius (even if Clary brazenly forgets this fact a mere 8 hours after she learned it). But as said, there's just not enough of them present for the film to pull itself from the mire. The cast are actually also do admirably considering the non-entity at the helm - Lily Collins and Jamie Campbell Bower were perfect castings, if the fan art I've googled is to be believed, and Robert Sheehan (of Misfits fame) sports an impressively honed American accent, and a decent performance to boot. In fact, his part of the film is the only one that's not hideously mishandled, and there's no doubt that it's down to his chemistry with Collins that this works.

It's just a massive shame all round - this had the promise to be the anti-Twilight, a Shadowrun for tweens. Alas, what we've got is a watered-down pap - an incredibly basic film that's intended to sell its crappy teen-pop soundtrack and pictures of the admittedly highly attractive leads. Nothing more. Nothing about it works, it's only sporadically enjoyable, and if you've ever seen a single action-fantasy movie before this one, you'll facepalm at least three times in its bloated run-time. Unless you're interested in your eyeballs attempting to escape from your face in desperation, avoid.


22 August 2013

Elysium Review


Sci-fi is something of a painfully neglected genre of late. Whilst there's no denying that your Iron Man Threes and your Man of Steels and your Star Trek In Darknesses are all very technically accomplished films and enjoyable films, there's a common theme throughout them - they're all modern updates of already existing franchises. The dearth of originality in this genre on the silver screen is perhaps more glaring than in others, with the last decent attempt - Joseph Kosinski's Oblivion - lacking the heart that made, say, Logan's Run or Silent Running such masterpieces, and lost amid the aforementioned swathe of franchise films.

Step up Neill Blomkamp - having fully recovered from his stalled Halo project, and leaping off the back of the magnificent District 9, with Elysium, he's shown that there's life in the old genre yet. Not just that, he's crafted a story that's got Oblivion's clarity of vision, but instead of a cold, soulless centre, you have sets of fully-formed human eyes staring back at you.

In the mid-22nd century, the rich elite of Earth have fled from a planet that's become over-crowded and over-polluted to a giant orbiting space station named Elysium, where the wealthy can live forever, and the riff-raff are murdered on sight if they even dare approach. On the ground, an ex-vagrant named Max (Matt Damon) is trying to turn his life around, working on a production line which provides the station with it's all-powerful security force. After a horrifying accident leaves him with fatal radiation poisoning, and with neglectful leadership denying him readily available life-saving treatment, he resolves to get to Elyisum however he can. But all is not as peachy as it seems aboard the station, and as his plan progresses, he accidentally becomes embroiled in a plot engineered by the Secretary of Defense, Jessica Delacourt (Jodie Foster).

The story, whilst perhaps not quite as impactful as D9's apartheid allegory, is still well crafted, and examines in detail various problems facing the contemporary developed world - exaggerating them to their logical conclusion, 150 years down the line. It also succeeds in keeping you guessing as to exactly how it's all going to pan out - though a side effect of this is a couple of story threads that seem a little stalled. The flipside of that coin, however, is a commentary on quite how interesting every facet of the story is.

Then there's the action, and Blomkamp has outdone himself in this department. His penchant for exotic weaponry is on full show - the air-burst rounds are a particularly brutal stroke, but there's small touches everywhere, and they're integrated seamlessly into the world building. This is Blomkamp's true strength as a film-maker - his attention to detail allows him to construct a world that feels like it's been lived in: Earth is a breathing, stinking slum, and Elysium is Homeric in its execution. The special effects are a joy to behold too - particularly the intricate autons that police Earth's surface on behalf of those on high.

The cast do a superb job of it too - Matt Damon's performance is subtle but brilliant, but we should expect nothing less from a man who hasn't put a foot wrong since those amnesiac spy movies. Jodie Foster - despite sporting one of the strangest accents (a mish-mash of French, British and American) this side of Gerard Butler's Irish - presides over Elysium maliciously, sneering through her teeth at those that question her questionable actions beautifully. The real, gems, however, are Wagner Moura and Sharlto Copley. The former plays an outrageously fast-talking people- and data-trafficker, and he's a joy when he's bouncing off Max's literal and figurative outer shells. Copley, on the other hand, belies his previous efforts to deliver a chillingly horrid villain - merciless, psychotic and seemingly impossible to kill, the tension between himself and Damon gives their scraps a sense of urgency and purpose that is most satisfying.

If there are problems with it, it's two-fold. The allegory is a little on the nose, and some may come away with a bad taste in the mouth from its scathing skewering of America's current healthcare and immigration issues, despite it making an entirely valid argument. Most sad, however, is that whilst the action is still entertaining, it's curiously bloodless this time around. That the film carriers a PG-13/12A rating tells you all you need to know, and the result is a softening of its bite.

But truth be told, it's impossible to not overlook these in favour of the other strengths on show. It's such a complete film, bucking the trend of everyone and their dog setting up for a potential sequel that may or may not transpire. The world it creates is believable, the actions sequences are fantastic (and on occasion even darkly humourous), and the performances top notch on all counts. There's even a curt nod to Halo which brought a smile to this gamer's face. Blomkamp has now proven himself to be a major player in the sci-fi scene, and you owe it to yourself to see this.

17 August 2013

Random Film Round-Up

 John Carter (of Mars)

I'm not really sure what all the fuss was about this; terribly reviewed, and shunned by audiences at the time of its release, it's...really not that bad. It's by no stretch of the imagination great but it's not the dud that it was reported to be.

The world-building is top notch - whilst maybe not a born-and-bred action director, Andrew Stanton's eye for detail is second to none - Tylor Kitsch is actually bearable in the central role, and Mark Strong continues the proud British tradition of Hollywood villainy, along with adding to his own hand of intriguing villains played. The action sequences are a little flat and lack any real oomph, but the story carries it along, despite some turns towards the odd. Lynn Collins is most ill-served by this, her character skipping between warrior maiden and damsel in distress whenever the plot deems it appropriate. It's a shame, because the warrior maiden part is surprisingly well played - the damsel in distress is not.

Overall, it's clear that it ultimately suffers at the hands of itself - John Carter is, after all, one of the archetypes upon which most superhero- and science-fiction is drawn from. Moments that may well have been original back in the late 19th century here feel derivative of the very things derived from them, in a spectacular moment of circular logic that is nearly impossible to get yourself out of. Still, for what it is, it's fun enough, and there's just enough interesting about it to have kept me watching until the end.


Odd one this - ostensibly adapted from a book, it comes to us by way of director Oliver Stone to craft a tale of murder, drugs and treachery. It's got Taylor Kitsch in it (apparently I'm on some sort of Kitsch binge...disaster) and he's...not bearable in this. Neither's Aaron Taylor-Johnson - they're both playing unlikable young drug dealers who stumble upon a particular intense strain of that there crazy pipe weed. They're also both in love with the same woman, here played by the ever-terrible Blake Lively.

She gets kidnapped because reasons - mostly because they refuse to work with a Mexican drug cartel, who aren't willing to simply accept having their plants and distribution network under their control. Oh no, they want the two's 'expertise' (of which they have none) to help grow and sell the product. It more or less escalates from there, with double-crosses, corrupt government agents (John Travolta, continuing to fuel rumours that he's had something done to his face - I vote all nerve endings removed), and an utterly stupid ending that plays out twice. The first one would've actually been a decent place to leave these 'savages'. But no, that one was just in the girls head, and the real ending is an abrupt, deus ex machina moment that is just...dreary, really.

If there is good about it, it's Benicio del Toro and Salma Hayek doing seedy villains, the former delightfully sleazy, the latter sultry yet intimidating. If only the rest of the piece were as good as its antagonists, we might've seen a better film. Alas, actors making hamfisted jobs and heavy-handed writing abound, and this was not an enjoyable experience.



Seeing as Henry Cavill is now part of the Superman pantheon, I thought I'd finally give this a go. Coming from the stable of Tarsem - who previously gave us the shallow but visually striking films The Cell and The Fall. He bucks the trend somewhat here with a surprisingly interesting take on the Theseus legend from ancient Greece.

Cavill is decent if a little stiff in the central role, but it's made up for by some excellent supporting work from Stephen Dorff, Mickey Rourke and Luke Evans, all in slightly over-the-top mode, as is appropriate for a story that features gods fighting among men.

The story does some interesting things, trying to figure out what in reality might've inspired the legend, whilst at the same time allowing for the flights of fancy so common in Greek mythology. All of the battles - aside from exhibiting a curious beauty within the chaos - showcase same excellent fight choreography, and the set and costume design are wonderfully intricate. All of this gives rise to the film's best part - its interpretation of the Minotaur part of the legend. A vast, impossibly strong henchman of the evil Hyperion who wears bull-shaped helmet, it's a neat twist and the battle it produces is spectacularly brutal.

It does plod along at times, particularly at the start, but once it allows itself to get going, it's a great ride.

26 July 2013

"And Then Emily Was Gone" Comic Book Review

Fresh off the presses of the vibrant Scottish independent comic-book scene, this comes courtesy of engimatic writer/artist team John Lees and Iain Laurie.

Set in Scotland, it tells the story of Greg Hellenger, an ex-detective whose nightmarish waking visions have cost him nearly everything, as he's set on the trail of the titular Emily - a teenager who vanished on a Scottish Isle under mysterious, perhaps even supernatural circumstances. This is at the behest of her best friend, who has the curious quality of making the nightmares stop. There's also Vin, who has an interesting job, oh yes - and an actual mystery box to be intrigued by (my best guess at this stage is that it's JJ Abrams' head in there...).

It's a genuinely terrific read - Laurie's ever-so-slightly unsettling stylings gives the proceedings a Lynchian, dream-like quality, and Lees' script takes full advantage of its detailed nature, crafting a story where you can't be sure if it's all going to end in grim reality, or an even grimmer fantasy. It's a book that begs to be poured over immediately after you finish reading it, with details scattered about in both the writing and art that threaten us with a complex, disquieting and ultimately satisfying tale to come.

There's also a fascinatingly awful moment of extreme violence that'll completely catch you off guard - bordering on being a darkly amusing anti-joke, it relies on pitch perfect structuring, sly dialogue, and stunning use of contrast to create a most impactful two-page spread that'll stick in your head for quite a while afterwards. It's very much the kind of moment that only sequential art could achieve, and that it's nestled inside such a gem of a story is icing in the chocolate fountain - it's all pretty sweet, and flows magnificently.

The only problem is that it does feel a little slight, but this is down to it being the first half of a first act, so it's hardly fair to hold this against it. The feeling is also a direct result of enjoying it, and craving more - and given that this is indeed a mystery, that's job done, as far as anyone could possibly be concerned. WHAT'S IN THE BOX, GODDAMIT?!

And in such a short space, perhaps the most impressive thing about it is how they've succeeding in creating a fictional horror mythology on a par with the Slender Man for quite how delightfully unsettling it is - flashes of reality interwoven with the fiction to make it just believable enough to make your skin crawl thinking about it, even after you put the book down. I won't mention her here...BONNIE SHAW


Because she isn't real.

She isn't real...



Post-script: If you want to check out John Lee's other stuff, head to his blog here. If you're up for further perusal of Iain's mind to see what monsters lay inside, check out Mothwicke, Powwkipsie and his previous release, Horror Mountain. You're welcome.

23 June 2013

Total Recall (2012) Review

Sometimes, you should really re-consider your title. Or at least, consider it in the first place, because had it not been for the association with the turn of the 90s Paul Verhoven actioner, this could've been held in higher regard, because as an action-orientated adaptation of 'We Can Remember It For You Wholesale', it actually works pretty decently.

Len Wiseman's always been one for boldly-staged set pieces - see his Underworld films, as well as the irritatingly badly written Die Hard 4.0 - and he doesn't disappoint here, with scenes that sweep through a decently realised, if slightly derivative dystopian future. He does, however, retain the sense to keep the films he references within the Philip K Dick adaptation stable - everything from Minority Report to Blade Runner to A Scanner Darkly, as well as Verhoven's effort, are given visual nods. There's simply too many of them for them to really be described as derivative - rather, it feels like an effort to have all of these films take place in the same world. 

Colin Farrell is solid in the lead role, believable as a bunched up and frustrated worker to whom there's more than is initially apparent. Kate Beckinsale - despite her husband's odd penchant for presenting her backside to the world - makes a fun switch from doting wife to futuristic femme fatale, and Jessica Biel, whilst hardly challenged, doesn't really bring anything particular impressive to her role as love interest/competition. It's nice to see Bill Nighy turn up once again in a Wiseman flick, and Bryan Cranston's evil dictator is like Walter White without the moral compass and more kung-fu skills, which is more or less as entertaining as it sounds.

It falters a little towards the end - the script not really sure what to do with itself, with screenwriters Kurt Wimmer (of Equilibrium and Ultraviolet fame) and Mark Bomback (of 'ruining Die Hard' fame) presenting us with possibly cinema's first quintuple agent, and ceasing to make any sense from there, resorting to just blowing shit up in lieu of figuring out its own clusterfridge of a story. The most interesting stuff happens when they attempt to play with the concept of rekall (with a K, no less), but this is ultimately restricted to a tense scene in the middle which sees Farrell's adversaries attempting to convince him that nothing he's done thus far is real.

But the action is fun, the story just about engaging enough to keep you occupied (if Becksale's butt doesn't quite grab you, as Wiseman insists it should), and the vision of the future is pleasingly technophillic. Just don't expect a satisfying resolut-...'Rekall'!! It should've been called 'Rekall'!

19 June 2013

Man of Steel Review

If you're going to be making a Superman movie and you want it to be decent, you need two things. Well...three. First of all, obviously, you need Superman himself. Second, some heart - we need to be forming an emotional bond with this character, because otherwise, we just won't give a shit when the third thing starts. The third thing? Action - because what's the point of an invulnerable man if you can't chuck him about a bit?

Sadly, the movie falls shortest in the heart department - though it's clear that the film had more at some point. Whilst Kal-El's exodus from Krypton is examined in detail, his time from landing on Earth to becoming Superman is more-or-less skipped over. You can practically feel Warner Bros - wary of Superman Return's lukewarm reception - breathing down your neck as snippets of this essential part of his story flash across the scene before being abruptly replaced. It ultimately means that Kevin Costner and Diane Lane are required to do quite bit with not a lot - the parental bond that humanises the character given a flashy, high-impact makeover here that smacks more of Spider than Super.

It's a shame, because what is present of that aspect of the story is beautifully scripted - the scene where Martha rushes to school to coax a young Clark, terrified of his new-found power, out of a janitor's closet is rather wonderful. "The world's too big, Mom." I think we can all relate.

There is of course the argument that Superman stories are about nothing if they are not about his heart. But it'd be unfair to say that the film has no heart. It's verging on bare bones, but it's there - hence my cunning use of 'shortest' - a groundwork upon which you are expected to lay your own familiarity with the character. It's difficult to hold this against them, given how firmly embedded our Friendly Neighbourhood Kryptonian is in pop culture's psyche.

It's more than enough to invest you in the action, and as said, there's a lot of it. Thankfully, it's really quite enjoyable - no choppy wire-fu, rubbish CGI Bizarros or forced camera angles here. These are glorious, large-scale, effects-driven punch-ups, with actually rather concerning amounts of collateral damage as various Kryptonians barrel through the toughest human constructions, and humans themselves, like so much tissue paper. Snyder, ever the pop-culture masher-uperer (is that a word? Is now), references everything from The Matrix to the film's own predecessors as he wrecks various locales with gusto.

He also cleverly subverts his own precedent - having filmed both of his previous comic-book adaptations with the stop-starting slow-motion that ostensibly became his trademark, here the action only ever plays out at full speed. Overall, this gives the action a velocity that nicely emphasises our hero's core powers, and serves as a neat counterpoint to Whedon's wit, and Nolan's muscularity.

Cavill is a revelation - not only convincing as a flying man, but making us forget the ones that flew before him. No longer a clean-cut stalwart, this Superman is a something of a dashing rogue (is that... chesthair?!). But he doesn't just bring looks that will have folk swooning the world over - he nails a new physicality of the hero too, a brawler lacking in finesse, little more than instinct and determination overwhelming odds. Then there's a very cute twisting of the whole Clark Kent/Superman dichotomy throughout the film - almost like Goyer was intentionally referencing Tarantino, but I digress - and Cavill plays it brilliantly.

The support is good too, despite Michael Shannon's Zod not quite feeling right - as if he's both taking it seriously, but phoning it in at the same time. Antje Traue's Faora is, surprisingly, the far more effective villain, an entity entirely replete of morals, the ferocity with which she fights for her cause unsettling in the best possible way. Amy Adams is decent as Ms Lane, and Lawrence Fishburne, whilst given precious little to actually do, is actually rather memorable as Perry White.

Final mention must go to the composer. John William's iconic score (you know those first two bars by heart don't you, you nerd) was a tough act to follow, but true to form, Hans Zimmer forges a new musical iconography, and it's a soundtrack that is worthy of purchase by itself.

What's here is great. So indeed, it's not quite what you might've hoped for - it was perhaps a mistake of the marketing that people were expecting blown minds on a scale akin to The Dark Knight - but saying that doesn't do it justice. It's less a reboot, and more a modern clarification of an existing character - throwing an otherwise fully-formed iteration of Superman onto the screen, and creating the foundations of a DC Cinematic Universe whilst it's at it. It does both of these rather triumphantly - keep your eye out for various name drops throughout. Thrillingly shot, neatly written and well performed - even, on occasion, funny - it's far more than we could've possibly asked for, and was more than worth the wait.

18 June 2013

The Charlesbearius Hug Grading Scale

The Charlesbearius Hug Grading Scale

In the event that customers feel that the insults provided by our service are 'too mean', a hug will be offered in compensation. These will fall into one of five 'grades' or categories of hug:

Grade 1: This is like getting hugged by a skeleton wearing an inside-out iron maiden, and will only be offered sarcastically.

Grade 2: A standard hug - only enjoyable if you've not had any physical human contact in years. Otherwise, little more than a nuisance.

Grade 3: A decent hug - comforting, encompassing and quite satisfying. Like being wrapped in a nice, thick duvet. If that duvet were a person.

Grade 4: The sort of hug you'd expect to get from a lover. There may be kissing. And nuzzling. Only offered in particular circumstances.

Grade 5: Like getting hugged by Christina Hendricks and her four clones.

Note: hugs are strictly one-time redemption, and have no equivalent cash value.

The gender of the person issuing the hug is pre-assigned. Once requested, there is no taking back of the hug.

20 May 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness Review

SPOILER WARNING: It is literally impossible to tell you what I think of the movie without revealing what it has up its sleeve. But seeing as it's now plastered all over the Internet (it's on Wikipedia, for crying out loud), I figure that you, dear reader, are more likely to already know it than not. But for those who haven't yet seen it and wish to remain surprised, read on at your own peril...

Back when I reviewed the first the new Trek movies, I may have breathlessly extolled that JJ Abrams had the chops to become the new Steven Spielberg. With Into Darkness - and Super 8 in the interim, lest we forget - it's clear that whilst I wasn't exactly wrong, the road to that title is a lot longer than anticipated, and there are a few obstacles that he needs to hurdle before we let him grow The Beard.

On the surface, he's certainly built a thrilling experience. The Enterprise has never been so realistically depicted, with action sequences that pack an unprecedented punch - the highlight being a confrontation between two Federation ships that will be difficult to top in terms of scale and tension. It's all accentuated by terrific sound design - thunderous base helps, so choose your cinema wisely - and a beautifully weighted orchestral score. The story, too, is masterfully edited, serving to draw you in with carefully paced reveals that all tie together come the end.

But in spite of this sheen of slickness on the surface, there is a point almost precisely a third of the way through the film where you start to notice that this skin doesn't quite sit properly on its innards. From here, we're given a masterclass in how to give mediocre script work a triple-A makeover in the execution - that Abrams is able to defy the script's downward tug on the film's quality is somewhat miraculous.

Scenarios, both in terms of action and character development, are lazily recycled wholesale from the previous movie - with dialogue that sees our players openly admit on behalf of the screenwriters that they ran out of ideas. It also shares a fair few plot points with The Wrath of Kahn, though with a contemporary twist (Terrorism! We're suddenly relevant again!), and cunningly hidden inside John Harrison's unfolding character arc. Whilst this is the most interesting thing about the film, it also serves to artificially create a twist where one simply wasn't necessary. Yes, Harrison is in fact Kahn, and if you're a newcomer to the franchise, don't expect who or what he is to be properly explained, because lazy script writing. Also, do you remember how Wrath of Kahn ended? Notice any similarities? They tried to trick us by reversing the roles and throwing in some more deus ex machina - as if we hadn't had enough - but fumbled the sleight of hand. Because lazy script writing (And now lazy review writing! It's infectious!).

It's a shame, because performance-wise, there's joy to be had. Of particular note is Benedict Cumberbatch, - alternating between brooding darkly and kicking fifty shades of shite out of Kirk, Spock, Klingons, and anyone else who happens to get in his way. Cumberbatch is actually a revelation in that department - he fights here as a man possessed, scathing his way through his foes with a lithe brutality that serves to compliment Kahn's calm fixation on revenge. His showing is worthy of a newly forged character that tips his hat to the classic villain, rather than this lazy mark-two that ultimately ends up brushed under the carpet - though it's testament to the strength of the performance that it feels this way.

Zachary Quinto's uncanny portrayal of a young Spock is still excellent, and regardless of everything that's wrong with the climax of the film, he does a good job of it, managing to scream the iconic 'Kaaaaaaaaahn!' without shedding his dignity. Zoe Saldana provides the emotional core of the piece elegantly, and Simon Pegg - whilst still sporting an accent worse than Gerard Butler's Irish one - is enjoyably daft as Scotty. Rounding out the headliners is Karl Urban, providing the rest of the film's comic relief with aplomb. Sadly, Chris Pine seems to be under the impression that nobody's watching, playing Kirk on auto-pilot until the denoument, where he suddenly ramps it up to 11. The rest of the cast aren't really given much to do, ranging from painfully under-written, to shameless eye candy - but they all do more than is required of what they're given.

It's not that it's bad. Quite the opposite, there's a lot of fun to be had - as a sci-fi action movie, it more than delivers, with thrillingly kinetic action sequences, spectacular visual effects and in the few-and-far-between moments where the writers actually put some effort in, there's laughs and heartbreak to be had. But as a Star Trek movie, it falls flat somewhat - an echo in contrast to the first film's ballsy shout, meekly following in the footsteps of a now irrelevant predecessor. I'm sure we were promised different.

16 May 2013

Iron Man Three Review

In a twist bewildering long-term geeks and nerds the world over, we now live in a post-Avengers world - not only is a movie about four superheroes teaming up one of the most successful films of all time, it's also been celebrated for being...y'know...good. What's more, after its clash of four separate stories, it's lain groundwork for a grandiose second act that bears nothing but promise. First up? Iron Man 3 (or Three...or 'the Third', or whatever the hell you like).

After the sheer scope of the Avengers' hoedown, it's surprisingly pleasant to skim back down to just the one primary hero in shot, and being reminded that Tony Stark will have problems of his own. Particularly after Stark's 'sacrifice play', which - we are informed at the beginning of the movie - has inflicted post-traumatic stress disorder on our hero, and he can't sleep. Couple that with a series of increasingly devastating bomb attacks overseen by a terrorist calling himself 'The Mandarin', as well as a shadowy figure returning from his past, Mr Stark has quite probably seen happier times. As you may have gathered, a dark tone has been set - words like 'shadowy' and 'traumatic' are being thrown about. It's that intense.

Snarkery aside, the story is cleverly structured and carefully paced, neatly balancing the newly introduced darker themes - pride coming before the fall, terrorism, industrial espionage, the whole PTSD thang - with the action-comedy tone of what came before. Most intriguing, however, is a mostly armour-free middle act that could've been a complete drag, even going so far as to have a mission where Stark's only tools are the contents of a local hardware store. It carries this coup off with aplomb, however - the emphasis on improvisation, adaptation and some good-old soul-searching brilliantly showcasing our hero's actual superpower. This also allows for a slow reveal of the Mandarin as both more and less than what he appears - genuinely, this is one of the biggest joys of the film: a most ingenious interpretation of a classic Marvel villain that subverts, twists, combines and stretches, but somehow fits perfectly within their new cinematic canon.

New director and co-writer Shane Black's fingerprints appear throughout - touchstones seemingly lifted directly from the cutting room floor of Black and Downey Jr's previous collaboration, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. The dialogue has taken a silver-tongued turn towards Black's personal brand of quirk - to which Downey Jr is perfectly suited, let it be known - and he also retains his proven stylistic pretensions, giving the darker aspects of the story a deliciously noire-ish feel. This is particularly evident in its development of Pepper Potts from damsel in distress (in heels), to femme fatale (in track pants), with Black coaxing a fierce performance from Paltrow that surprises and thrills (and as evidenced by my choice of poster at the top, might be my favourite thing in it).

Elsewhere, Downey Jr is Tony Stark - if they intend to replace him at any point, they're going to have their work more than cut out. There would be more to say if he had put a foot wrong - but even with a slightly grimmer character to grapple with, his performance effortlessly adapts. Ben Kingsley is...eh...in the film. To say more about his performance is to spoil quite what makes it so good, so we'll move on. Guy Pearce is wondefully sly as industrialist Aldrich Killian, 'before' and 'after' aspects of the character juxtaposing mouse against snake. The transition is believable, and he does his fair share of service to the plot. Rebecca Hall, Don Cheadle and Jon Favreau are very much plot fodder, though they all do better than relatively under-written roles warrant. Best of the rest is James Badge Dale as First Henchman™, lip-lickingly evil and very much the deserving recipient of a comeuppance.

Come the end of it. the very best thing about the film - as I've been hinting at - is the way that it doesn't quite play out how you think it might've. The narrative heads roughly down the expected path, but there's a couple of surprising turns come the end of the second and third acts that really speak volumes about quite how bold they're being with this whole thing. And it works - it's a great sequel, both to The Avengers, and to Iron Man 2, and an exciting, darkly humourous ride in its own right. Plus I was late seeing it, so if you haven't seen it at this point...what exactly have you been doing with yourself? See it. Again, if you have to.

14 February 2013

Warm Bodies Review

When it comes to the zombie apocalypse, romance is hardly on the cards. Yeah, you can meet someone nice, and yeah, you'll have a whale of a time trying to survive, but social connections formed in apocalyptic scenarios are invariably based on desperation and little else, bringing together folk who might otherwise have never interacted. The genre - for all its horror trappings - feeds off of these mismatches in unforgiving circumstances to create engaging human drama. The zombies are set dressing - horrible, flesh eating set dressing, yes, but set dressing nonetheless. They're not meant to be engaged with. Are they?

Imagine, if you will, my conjecture being vocalised in an abandoned bar to you, my fellow survivor. Suddenly, the door crashes in, and in shambles a zombie, a sticker with 'Hi! My name is Warm Bodies!' on its chest. But instead of trying to open our skulls like tinned chilli, he takes a seat, and tries to answer that question. Sums up the movie, really.

Back to reality, with its male romantic lead a zombie, it's a clear attempt to take a fresh approach on no less then two genres. The mythology has obviously been adapted accordingly - one can hardly have a romance without a spot of spurning your brethren in its pursuit - and here, they're divided into two subsets. The first are the walking social commentaries featured in Romero's films: retaining some sense of who they were, and when not feasting on cerebellum, they're emptily going through the motions of a life half-remembered. Then there's the 'bonies', eyeless bags of bone and sinew, beyond saving and devouring anything with a heartbeat.

It's an interesting play from the writers, and from a script point of view, it's difficult to fault beyond proceeding exactly as you might expect it to. So much so that I'm skipping sumarising the plot as a challenge to any reading this! This isn't restricted to the narrative either, with a few of the jokes only really funny because they may have crossed your mind when you were watching the same situation played straight elsewhere.

But the laughs are there to be had - several, in fact, and good ones too - with the cast making a decent job of it. Nicholas Hoult and Rob Corddry's comic timing - and that's pretty much all they've got at their disposal here - are the stars of the show, bouncing off each-other and co-star Teresa Palmer enjoyably enough to buoy her enticing but ultimately uninteresting portrayal of The Girl (TM). John Malkovich is on autopilot in his role as the merciless military commander of the survivors - even the addition of Over-Protective Father (TM) hardly challenges him - so if you're hoping for something as fun as his turns in RED or Con Air, you'll need to keep looking. The rest are unremarkable, but never bad.

The almost inevitable let down is in the execution. Whilst it's entirely competent from a technical standpoint, there was an decision made to open it up to the audience that it shares bare plot bones with - human falls in love with supernatural creature, and you can read that however you like. The result, stylistically, is a removal of bite from the human/zombie interaction. It's completely bloodless, and lacks a single proper scare - earning a 12A from the BBFC, the horror tagged as 'moderate'. Seeing as the horror is what would ostensibly be the forbidden aspect of this love story, this in turn undermines the romance, leaving the comedy to do the bulk of the entertaining, and this can't quite fill the two gaps. It's a story that, had they made the horror aspects horrifying, could have been an unexpected delight.

Furthermore, the lack of horror is a curious decision insofar as it's a clear pastiche of the supernatural romance - taken to a logical extreme, as pastiches invariably are. To open it up to the audience you're winkingly ripping into, and completely de-clawing your movie in the process, is bordering on madness.

It's also a touch too long, meandering between plot points without any sense of urgency or threat, and it verges on outstaying its welcome in the flat finale. There's a tight, funny, blooded movie in the vein of Zombieland and Shaun of the Dead to be had from this story, and it's disappointing that this one squanders a good portion of its potential.

Still, the ideas at its core are good, it's at least competently executed, and the comedy does work, even if you're mouthing the punch lines as they're projected. It's a shame the other two aspects of the story are so toothless, caught in a viscous cycle stemming from a business decision. But this is Hollywood, so having your figurative guts ripped out so more people will see you is par for the course. That the carcass is still entirely watchable is a testament both to the strength of the idea, and to the two male leads' zombified chemistry. Not one to rush out and see, but worth a look down the line.

23 January 2013

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey Review

The time has come once again, young friends, to grab your walking stick, saddle up your pony (who's hopefully called Bill) and prepare for a trek through Middle Earth once again - for the first of Peter Jackson's latest string of Tolkien adaptations is upon us, and thankfully, whilst it's not an absolute triumph, it's entertaining enough to keep your eyes glued to the screen.

If you're unfamiliar with the close-to-legend plot of the Hobbit, do yourself a favour: stop reading this review, and go buy a copy of The Hobbit. This'll still be here when you're finished. But for the lazy: wizard recruits titular little person to aid a group of thirteen other little (but slightly bulkier) people in their quest to reclaim their kingdom from the dragon what nicked it. Or to put it another way - it's another movie about fucking walking from the fucking Shire to a fucking mountain in the east.

Don't let the pithy plot summary dissuade you, though, as Mr Jackson has done a sterling job of fleshing out the plot of the book - and whilst superficially, the plots are similar, there's a lot of emphasis placed on the telling, rather than the plot turns themselves. The embellishments on the six chapters of the novel that this, the first of three movies is based on is pleasing enough, mercilessly foreshadowing the dark times to come, and expanded on a few passingly-mentioned characters, upgrading Azog the Goblin from a long-dead enemy to a secondary antagonist, as well as an expanded role for Radaghast the Brown. As Gandalf muses at the start of the film: 'all good stories deserve embellishment', and whilst they may not sit entirely comfortably with Rings enthusiasts and scholars, in terms of the films structure, they work wonderfully.

Stylistically, the change between the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit films is similar to the books - The Hobbit playing lighter and with a touch more humour about it, which Jackson translates to film elegantly whilst still maintaining his penchant for the visually epic and arresting. It doesn't quite reach the highs of the first of his previous trilogy, thanks to a relative lack of investment in the characters, and a strange bloodlessness that removes any real sense of threat. They're still visually arresting, and not without a touch of wit, but there's nothing that can quite match the Mines of Moria sequence here, despite their best efforts.

From a technical standpoint, it's difficult to say exactly where I sit. 3D here is as perfunctory as it ever was - though there are a couple of moments where it's used to good effect, it still feels like a lame excuse to charge more for the entry fee. It is, however, the crispest 3D I've experienced since Avatar, thanks to the 4K resolution and high frame-rate filming. Unfortunately, this added fidelity can on occasion draw attention to the seams in...well...everything. From the irritatingly obvious join between actor's skin and skull-cap on Dwalin's head, to the almost toy-like quality of the various weapons wielded - now that we can see every tiny detail of a scene, it's easier than ever to have your suspension of disbelief come crashing back down to earth. The sheer breadth and majesty of Jackson's vision, as well as the absolutely stellar CGI work, go a long way to mitigating this, but as stated, such little irritations can prove distracting.

Fortunately, the film is strongest when looking at it from a performance point of view - assisting in drawing your attention away from the visual oddities. Particular credit should go to James Nesbitt, Ken Stott, Dean O'Gorman and Aidan Turner, all bringing stoic turns with just the right amount of humour to their respective dwarves. Martin Freeman is great as Bilbo, and his scene with the always fantastic Andy Serkis - returning as Gollum - is as pitch perfect a rendition as one could possibly hope for. Richard Amitage is perhaps a touch flat as Thorin Oakenshield, and the rest of the dwarves aren't really given enough screen time to really appreciate.

The most inspired bit of casting, however, must go to Slyvester McCoy as Radaghast - a shambling living earth-pile of a wizard who none-the-less displays the spryness of his less disheveled counterpart Gandalf - who is still elegantly played, less grumpy this time, by Ian McKellen. Whilst his scenes are almost entirely the creations of Jackson, Walsh and Del Toro's screenplay, McCoy plays them with a sly absent-mindedness that belies an over-active mind and his presence is missed after he vanishes about half way through the movie.

Overall, An Unexpected Journey isn't quite the tantalising prospect of adventure that The Fellowship of the Ring was - in part due to it all feeling a little bit like a retread with less blood and more slapstick comedy - but it's still hugely enjoyable, and even though it's a stately 169 minutes long, it never feels it, and come the end, Smaug's desolation in December 2013 can't come fast enough.