Tuesday, 17 September 2019
Twenty-odd films in, the Marvel Cinematic Universe largely functions as an on-going, episodic serial rather than a collection of distinct, individual pieces. Characters are seemingly allowed one film to set their stage before the demands of a wider playing field bleed into their space, polluting their identity. Case in point, Spider-Man: Far From Home, a film that uses a loose, poppy superhero-on-holiday structure to definitively paint over the incalculable trauma of Thanos' snap while simultaneously wallowing in the departure of Robert Downey Jr. Stark's shadow is such that the very idea of Peter Parker as a sweet, working-class prodigy is obliterated. This Parker is an heir, fumbling his way around with a fantastical pair of DITA sunglasses that constitute his terrible, unmanned combat vehicle inheritance.
Convoluted and episodic, Far From Home simulates that stale comics standby, the Summer Special. It's a bumper compendium of half-baked ideas and sketches not fit for general consumption; all the odds and ends lumped together in one volume with very little care for tonal or creative consistency. In terms of the intrusive Marvel bookkeeping and SHIELD autophagia, consider those encroachments trace crossover, the storytelling equivalent of some particularly nasty background radiation requiring extended stretches of corporately mandated attention. What makes Far From Home all the more frustrating is that there are blips of purchase here and there. Moments that threaten to arrest interest before they're lost in the churn of droned-out entitlement.
Aunt May hurling bananas at her nonplussed nephew, not to mention Peter's general anxiety about his so-called 'tingle', seems to suggest that Parker is losing touch with his innate spider-skills by focusing so heavily on Stark's endowment. As it is, the idea exists as a proposition and a tumbling, back-flipping conclusion embedded within the finale. The pain of this disconnection is never mapped out, we aren't given the opportunity to understand Peter's apparent disassociation. This tidiness extends out into the film, denying the human level conflicts the rough interactions they require: Peter's best friend Ned is enjoying a holiday romance, so he can't possibly feel ignored. Mary Jane definitively rejects a handsome rival suitor, meaning Peter doesn't have to spread himself thin to grasp at a private life.
Emotionally, at least in terms of interpersonal relationships, Jon Watts' film is chronically neat, leaving all sense of self-shredding conflict to the special effects realm. It is to Far From Home's credit that visual effects house Framestore, channelled through Jake Gyllenhaal's precious, artistic performance as Mysterio, deliver an incredible illusory sequence that hammers Spider-Man with images and situations in which he is either specifically powerless or, if he manages to react quickly enough, simply hurling his body weight against unyielding phantasms. Regardless, Parker is being mocked, forced to respond to immediate, confusing visual and audio data. Framestore use shattering mirrors and the dense choke of poisonous green smoke to suggest the swirling anxieties that underline the best of Spider-Man co-creator Steve Ditko's work. These apparitions strip Peter of his Iron Lad exterior, forcing him to contend with his beginnings as a child in a personalised hoodie. Unfortunately this ordeal does not force Parker to re-examine his methodology, the teenager is quickly aboard a Stark branded VTOL jet using the billionaire's impossible-tech to manufacture a toyetic costume change.
Monday, 16 September 2019
One last clip before the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare beta becomes a dead boot, hogging valuable space on the HDD. Since this game is pitching itself as more of a tactical shooter, I decided to play tactically; holding down a nice set of stairs that were, apparently, of great interest to the enemy team. It's a shame that FAMAS could not be used outside of the default class set-ups. Still it was good to have Le Clairon back in any form - filling the same precise, burst-fire niche that made it a Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 fav.
Sunday, 15 September 2019
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare's beta test has been running this weekend. First for people who had pre-ordered the game then, when all the big spenders had suitably levelled up, the preview event was opened up for myself and all the other cheapskates. In terms of gameplay, it pays to sneak around or plant yourself somewhere with lots of cover. Interiors are extremely dark when viewed at distance, meaning window camping is a frequent tactic. I myself am having a little trouble adjusting how I aim the guns, bad habits mainly. I tend to start firing before I'm properly zeroed in then adjust along the subsequent kick. Given this game's negligible health, short time-to-kill, and wild (possibly largely cosmetic) recoil, this is an absolutely awful approach to gunfights.
Thursday, 12 September 2019
Despite an early brush with executive action - rescuing a brace of astronauts from their own interstellar incompetence - X-Men: Dark Phoenix's mutant teenagers are allowed to explore their relationship with superheroics from an emotionally human perspective. Conflict is treated as scary; violence its own kind of metamorphosis, forcing these children to confront aspects of their identity activated by some unknowable hereditary vandalism. Writer-director Simon Kinberg grounds his characters in a fragile world, not at all equipped to deal with the power proposed by mutant kind.
These X-Men aren't soldiers, or even experts, they are aberrations, not in the sense that they are warped or inferior to the people around them, rather they are a terrifying evolutionary leap. A caste of distinct individuals who, when not safely tucked away in their compounds, must bow and scrape so as not to upset the apple cart. This proposition is magnified in Dark Phoenix thanks to James McAvoy's pointedly useless Professor Xavier. It's an idea that Kinberg toyed with in his screenplay for the basically dire X-Men: The Last Stand, the all-seeing headmaster shown to be not just flawed but actively insidious, an egomaniac who has caused untold damage to one of his young students by actively burying her emerging, psyche-splitting abilities.
Shakespearean barker Patrick Stewart was not the best way to communicate this take, especially coming off two films in which he had been presented in patient, regal terms. McAvoy's Professor X is an entirely different proposition though, introduced in X-Men: First Class as a groovy pub tosser cracking on to any woman in sight. This Professor X has slowly, naturally, transformed into a starfucker, shilling for an elevated position within the kingdom of America. In Dark Phoenix he's made it, enjoying a presidential hotline in his headmaster's office while the school's graduates are discussed in flattering asides that contextualise their current relationship with the public as one-part celebrity to two-parts Thunderbirds.
By making Professor X so consistently unreliable and self-serving, Kinberg denies the film's mutants a credible sense of foundation. They are each adrift, having to count on the connections they have made themselves to navigate the constantly changing expectations thrust upon them. These ideas inform and contextualise Sophie Turner's Jean Grey, a nice but dull young woman who suddenly inherits incredible cosmic powers. Indeed the film is built around this character and Turner's limited but likeable performance - the capricious, indecisive nature of youth blown up to body warping proportions. Despite a body count, Grey never truly becomes evil. Her one brush with sadism is even somewhat justified - scooping up and puppeteering Xavier's unresponsive body; a cruel literalisation of the emotional and psychological manipulation the Professor has heaped on this child.
Dark Phoenix's main problems are structural, Kinberg is reaching for a 90s character action piece but he's stuck with the expectation of explosive, superhero noise. We should spend a little longer simmering with the changing Grey, experiencing moments that underline not just the toll this power is taking but how her newly acquired Godhood upsets her basic sense of self. The detailing isn't quite there and Turner's nice girl interpretation stays firmly within the lines. Still, there's something to be said for banality, especially when dealing with such a young character. Jean Grey isn't Magneto. Therefore her new powers are treated as momentarily intoxicating rather than morally altering. Friends may be pushed and prodded with abandon but when cold, hard reality intrudes the spell is broken.
Kinberg's biggest crime then is that he isn't interested in making a film that adheres to the Marvel template. Characters are allowed to fade into the background. There's no push to massage their roles, to write and rewrite until everybody has something cool or funny to say. Similarly, Dark Phoenix isn't full of dopamine drip confrontations, it wants to unsettle, to invite disquiet. Like X-Men: Apocalypse before it, Kinberg's film does not want to reassure the audience about superpowered beings, in this series their very existence is never treated as anything less than a threat to the rest of mankind. After all, mutants are less our champions and more our evolutionary replacements - do you think Neanderthals cheered on the rise of Homo sapiens?
This ever-present tension is best expressed in the film's deliberately grounded action sequences - the best of which takes place on the edge of Central Park. Kinberg forgoes massive, intricately photographed exchanges, deciding instead to keep the warring mutants at ground level, fighting in and around helpless, bovine civilians. People freeze or flee, forced to dart away from the impossible feats that are exploding around them. Again, we are not soothed - normal people are, at best, irrelevant to these warring mutants. At worst, they're shrapnel. The film's best moment, indeed one of the finest in the whole series, sees Michael Fassbender's Magneto summon up a subway carriage from New York's underground. The action is brilliantly callous, a self-styled Übermensch casually warping the basic rules of civic reality (not to mention placing dozens of commuters in serious danger) just to achieve momentary respite from the flies buzzing around him.
Tuesday, 3 September 2019
Monday, 2 September 2019
Friday, 30 August 2019
John Wick: Chapter 2 ended somewhere wonderful by weaponising the secret, subdermal societies that otherwise strain to give the films any sense of a terrifying, vampiric centre. It was a smart decision - taking the series' weakest, chummiest element then transforming it into a rolling, enormous threat. Wick trespassed against the rule-set, killing an enemy currently under the protection of the sacred hotel chain that offers its clients boutique ceasefire. Thanks to this action screenwriter Derek Kolstad was able to pivot, taking Wick out of the comfort provided by being a murderer among murderers. There's a bounty on his head. He's prey now.
John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum begins shortly afterwards, plunging the title character into an Invasion of the Body Snatchers sized nightmare in which every single person in New York is living a pantomime life, concealing incredible martial arts skills and an intent to collect on Wick's head. For one act Parabellum keeps us locked into this paranoia - we see the bounty ticking up, our favourite assassin burning through former allies (including The Matrix Reloaded's Randall Duk Kim) and pointedly battling against foes he enjoys an otherwise friendly rapport with. Wick is attacked and injured, losing all access to the city's network of underground death bazaars. Gunless, he is forced to break into a museum armoury to assemble a six-shooter from antique parts like Tuco in The Good, The Bad and the Ugly.
Parabellum's problem is that it isn't interested in working through this idea of an assailed Wick. The character's fracturing sense of self is suggested then played at arm's length, the film preferring instead to lean back into the circuitous, disinteresting machinations that prop up this counterfeit world. Wick seeks audiences with higher and higher authorities, begging forgiveness along the way. These acts, which at least seem to be taking John somewhere compromised, are instead ways to massage through the dramatic dead-end of two opposing powers that cannot, yet, taste defeat. Still, the finale's the best yet - the aperitif before the tower climbing, Game of Death style, main course sets Wick against special forces soldiers clad head-to-toe in the same bulletproof material used by the assassin's tailor. Sustained gunfire does nothing but wobble the incoming hordes. Wick must instead get in close and use his pistol like a dirk - jamming its muzzle into the armour's creases to score the kill shot.
Thursday, 29 August 2019
It's all a matter of taste but I bounce off a lot of the detailing in the John Wick universe. The baroque rule-set baked into the stories often seems unduly synthetic; a series of hanging excuses designed to stop or re-start the action whenever the screenwriters (in this instance, Derek Kolstad) can find no other, meaningful way to push our hero forward. Likewise, the technological leaps in tactical tailoring - that keep Wick buttoned up and protected without ruining his silhouette - suggest a heroic immunity that, really, stands to undermine any sense of situational distress. Nevertheless this particular flight of fancy does give rise to one fantastic moment - Reeves tugging at his slim-fitted jacket, forcing his lapel up over his face to protect his head from incoming bullets.
What is unmistakably and consistently brilliant about John Wick: Chapter 2 though is its star, Keanu Reeves. The 53 year old actor's movements stand in tonal opposition to the flamboyant nonsense around him. His Wick gait is stiff and deliberate, arthritic even. A living testament to a career filled with colliding bodies. The film's interpersonal action - just as frequent as the close-quarters shoot-outs - sees Wick using his size and weight against his enemies. His signature move is to trap his assailant's arms or pistol in some way, then kick away at their legs until both of their bodies collapse in a heap. Wick is then able to use them as an axis to take aim at other, incoming goons. Another choice that stands out is the actor's speed or, rather, his lack of it. There's no great hurry in Chad Stahelski's film. We see Reeve's body contorting and crashing in ways that let us know that it is pained, that these manoeuvres require an effort beyond simply shifting mass. A small but perfect note that lends every single confrontation a faint sense of fallibility. John Wick will win. But it will hurt.
Monday, 26 August 2019
JJ Abrams can pile on as much C3PO-with-murder-eyes, stroke Evil-Rey-is-Kylo-Ren's-saucy-Dagobah-tree-fantasy misdirection as he likes, the one thing you cannot take away from the Star Wars series is the sheer, awe-inspiring scale of John Williams' music. A couple of creeping notes and you're instantly transported to this place of space opera adulation that you might not even otherwise possess. That's the power in Williams' brooding, heroic score - it's authored - connecting you with an instant sense of fondness that no temp track snippet could ever inspire.
Sunday, 25 August 2019
Friday, 23 August 2019
A slow start on Call of Duty: Modern Warfare's new Gunfight mode but I get there in the end. The decision to preview Infinity Ward's big money reboot with this small, stop-start, cage match style mode is unusual. Rather than prowl around looking for backs to ventilate, players are immediately confronted with short but intense bouts where victory hinges on their ability to read their opponents then react accordingly. In this way it is somewhat similar to Call of Duty: Black Ops 4's Blackout mode - death as a real, meaningful loss condition rather than just a minor setback on your path to scoring sky-filling killstreaks.
Wednesday, 21 August 2019
Fancied some modern warfare so I reinstalled Battlefield 4. Despite the last-gen geometry, DICE's game still presents as pretty nifty thanks to the blaring, exaggerated lighting effects and the all-encompassing clacks and cracks of frustrated conflict. Unfortunately official servers are a thing of the distant past, leaving server trawlers at the mercy of cranky admin looking to orchestrate fish-in-the-barrel spawns for their greedy pals.
Tuesday, 20 August 2019
Jackfrags with a snappy gameplay clip for Infinity Ward's upcoming Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. Mr Frags' approach to games-casting is a little different in that he takes some time to focus on options browsing and mechanical interaction. For instance, if this video is indicative of final gameplay balance, then at least some gun recoil is superficial - animation traits and ostentation designed to evoke a sense of reality rather than offer a true representation of the path you can expect your in-game bullets to follow.