Saturday, 19 April 2014

Merantau
















Merantau shares the same basic creative impetus as The Raid films. Gareth Evans is attempting to legitimise the fight film by actively addressing the kind of pat, disinterested criticism that martial arts films tend to attract - one dimensional characters, dramatic beats given short shrift, etc. The problem with this kind of approach is that it might not even be necessary. Martial arts films have their own distinct shape developed through decades of reiteration.

A puny dramatic structure can be forgiven because it's not what's attracting us to the film. Martial arts is exploitation cinema, we come to see expert practitioners mime putting each other in comas. Stray too far from this and you have to start making time for other recognisable genre beats, further mutating the final film. Similarly, a star like Iko Uwais doesn't need to be a completely engaging emotional presence. Spending more time with him doesn't deepen our relationship with him. If anything it can sabotage it by exposing his limitations.

Gareth Evans' efforts to justify Merantau are laudable but counter-productive. He spends so much time trying to weave pathos into a proportional, Hollywood style frame that the film ends up lopsided. Merantau doesn't necessarily even need less scenes, it'd just flow better if the ones it had were shorter and more concise. Still, make it through the glacial first hour and you'll be rewarded with forty minutes of exceptionally well-shot and choreographed dust-offs. These delights include Iko Uwais and Yayan Ruhian locking horns in a lift, as well as an anime inflected finale in which a flagging Iko appears to leach fighting energy from a throng of imprisoned sex slaves to vanquish his human trafficking foe.

Porches - Annah

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

The Raid 2


















The Raid 2 has attracted comparisons with Terminator 2, presumably because, like Cameron's sequel, it takes an intense, low budget idea and explodes it in a million different directions. As with T2, Raid 2 is closer to a series of successive phases than an organic three act. There's a prison section that plays like Alan Clarke doing Riki-Oh, then Super Cop wanders into a dilute version of a Johnnie To gangster film. It's interesting that this is the structure Gareth Evans has chosen for his sequel. Raid 2's story isn't just a bare bones set-up for martial arts action, there's a real attempt here to create an engaging dynastic struggle.

While this aspiration doesn't quite work - Iko Uwais' undercover rookie Rama never really impacts on how the various betrayals unfold - the frame does provide ample opportunity for Rama to get himself into trouble. There's probably an argument to be made that Raid 2 is too long, and too action-packed. The film is exhausting, piling on the mayhem for a finale that breathlessly moves through several successive boss encounters. However Evans never loses sight of how these events physically affect his hero. As in The Raid, Rama suffers and adapts. The story is told in how the hero fights. Recurring enemies are never considered the same way twice - Rama learns from his mistakes.

This is best expressed in how he tackles repeated bouts with Cecep Arif Rahman's Assassin. When they first meet Rama expects to destroy him, attacking him as if he was disposable muscle. When this proves unsuccessful, Rama changes tact. For their next battle, Rama slows himself down, allowing an Enter the Dragon style stance-off to happen. Rama recognises an arrogance in the Assassin, then uses the opportunity to learn and overcome his particular style of Silat. In a sense, Evans is eating his cake and having it too. For broad action interludes Rama is Bruce Lee demolishing subordinates. For main-events, he's Jackie Chan in his period films, soaking up punishment and eventually winning by refusing to lose.

Raid 2 also functions as a reminder for how exciting action films can be. Hollywood's obsession with computer generated superheroics is numbing, we're stuck firmly in a place where tentpole films use animation techniques to illustrate an impression of action. There's never a sense that anyone's in any real danger, and the stylised dynamics typical to animation are dialled way back to conform to an idea of reality. It's gotten so bad that Captain America: The Winter Soldier impressed recently entirely due to a preference for real auto-destruction. Rest-assured that the stunts in that film are pedestrian compared to the wonders Evans and co conjure up here.

For his car crash setpiece, Evans has three distinct levels of carefully composed action competing for attention. First there's a punch-drunk Rama stuck fighting heavies within the confines of a car. Chasing and crashing into them is mob lieutenant Eka, attempting to return the recent favour Rama has done him. Finally there are fleets of enemy cars and motorbikes hot on Eka's heels. Evans flicks back and forth between these engagements, giving us an update then moving on to the next collision. This is the point Evans' genre mash-ups work best. We get cramped martial arts, car crashes, and human level stunt work as fragile, injured people transfer themselves between speeding vehicles.

Above all, Raid 2 is just exciting. It's long past time we had another filmmaker who views action not as something you hand off to a second unit, but as an extension and a comment on the unfolding narrative. Raid 2's action feels considered and authored rather than simply accomplished. Arm bruising back and forths never sag, there's always a shocking detail or injury to make you sit up. Evans and his team have mastered the pop, every single confrontation containing a prompt to either cheer or groan. Raid 2 is sustained skill and ingenuity. It's the Braindead of fight films, it's Hard Boiled come again. It's overwhelming.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

WRONG NUMBER



One rubbishy stealth level aside, Hotline Miami was a perfectly judged risk / reward simulator. Given a top-down view and guard patrols to memorise, players started on the periphery waiting for an opportunity to strike. The game was about patterns and systems and how they reacted to your presence. You could overwhelm your enemies with speeding violence, or sneak around, waiting until they isolated themselves. Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number looks to be expanding on this awesome by allowing simultaneous two-player and dual-wielded machine guns.

First Impressions - Mercenary Kings



Mercenary Kings is a great example of how aesthetic can establish a misleading sense of expectation. Paul Robertson's chibi characters explicitly evoke Nazca's Metal Slug series, prompting the belief that this game would share similar core principles. I booted up with an idea that Mercenary Kings would be a scrolling run and gunner, ideally a playable version of Robertson's seizure inducing pixel animations. As it happens, the game isn't anything like that at all. Mercenary Kings is instead an RPG wrapped up in NES era design ideas.

The effect is actually quite confrontational. Instead of breezy dashing, players are stuck navigating vast multi-layered levels against a strict time limit. Enemies respawn as soon as their starting point is out of view, and mission related item drops aren't quite as regular as you'd hope. In this sense Mercenary Kings seems like a prank, everything about it seems to scream superficial arcade shooter, but instead it's a vast, repetitive resource hunter. As with their Scott Pilgrim game Tribute take a brief, sugary experience, extending and embellishing it to the point were it ends up something completely different.

Joe Pineapples by Simon Bisley


WASTED



NickTN getting his head kicked in by Euphoria physics on Grand Theft Auto Online.

Doraemon at the 2020 Neo-Tokyo Olympic Games



by Aleix Pitarch

HUNTER



Steve Johnson describes the miserable few days Van Damme spent cooped up in a bug-eyed, red insect suit on the set of Predator.

Monday, 7 April 2014

COULDN'T CARE LESS



Harlan Ellison talks us through how films and TV routinely garble both logic and his favourite idioms.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Dredd Head by Nate Stockman


Terminator 2: Judgment Day


















Terminator 2: Judgment Day is James Cameron's attempt at realigning the collective male psyche after the excesses of the 1980s muscle killer culture. Maybe he was motivated by guilt? After all, this is a model of masculinity that Cameron himself had a hand in pioneering. His Terminator acted like a slasher villain and inadvertently became the gold standard for the remote action heroes of the Reagan period. Likewise, Cameron's screenplay for the First Blood sequel, as interpreted by Sylvester Stallone, took a damaged Vietnam veteran and allowed him to 'win', transforming him into a poster boy for popped veins and steely, supplemented sinew. These men were isolated, emotionally distant and obsessed with automatic weaponry. Relationships, if they even registered, were usually just revenge prompts. Expendable loved ones to be gobbled up by the hero's enemies to pump him up for the revenge finale.

T2 wasn't the first time Cameron tried to steer movie manliness in a healthier direction. Michael Biehn's characters in The Terminator and Aliens were both professional soldiers able to comfortably co-operate with women. Sarah Connor and Ripley weren't considered prizes, they were partners in a capable, multi-disciplined collective. Crucially, their strength wasn't shown to undermine Reese or Hicks' masculinity, it informed it. In Cameron's films the heroes and heroines aren't islands, they're components in a greater whole. The group survives, the individual dies. Unfortunately, the lithe intensity of Michael Biehn never stuck. The confident, secure masculinity of his characters either upstaged by his monolithic co-stars or de-emphasised by plot machinations. To push his ideal further, Cameron needed Arnold Schwarzenegger.

For this sequel, Cameron and fellow screenwriter William Wisher Jr gradually deconstruct the idea of the Terminator. After a rock and roll introduction the character is slowly shorn of the accoutrements associated with the first film's mechanical assassin. First he loses his sunglasses, smashed by an institute orderly's bandaged forearm. With his Persol Rattis junked, Schwarzenegger's key colour also changes. After the Pescadero chase the Terminator is no longer lit to be a waxy blue, now flesh tones are emphasised to match his emerging, artificial humanity. Next, Terminator loses his motorbike, the two-seater an impractical way to transport two adults and a child. Terminator ends up driving a string of shitty trucks and estate cars, most notably a wood panelled Ford station wagon.

This mundanity stresses Cameron and Wisher's core idea - fatherhood as a high ideal, positioned in opposition to shallow nonchalance. Schwarzenegger is no longer an impassive leather murderer, he's someone's dorky Dad, regurgitating slang he doesn't understand. He's an incredulous focal point for the child to bounce his personality off. This isn't commodity cool, Cameron isn't trying to sell a particular product, he's taking the constituent parts of the 1980s action hero and reorganising them into something mythic and immovable. If we agree that action movies are able to provide instructive models of masculinity for little boys to measure up to, then T2 is explicitly saying that emotional distance is a sham. Much better to engage, and allow yourself to be considered weak or compromised. Being a man isn't about expensive toys or mistreating women, it's about the ability to be a stable, invested presence in someone else's life.

Saturday, 29 March 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier


















Introductions out the way, the Marvel movie universe has settled into a groove of pamphlet filmmaking. Captain America: The Winter Soldier motors along with the same brisk efficiency as a 1970s Bond film, that is to say spectacular stunts and tabloid plot prompts wrapped up in an artistically impersonal whole. Terminally decent Steve Rogers lacks any of 007's wry psychosis, the levity here usually provided by the sheer absurdity of Cap fighting normal human beings. Rogers engages like a hit and run driver, crashing into terrorists and putting them in comas.

Despite the presence of sitcom mainstays Anthony and Joe Russo, basic human interaction stalls the film dead. Scenes between the leads grind horridly through plot outlining and graceless dick waving. Cap is approached like a deathless patriotic ideal but the destination is never anywhere other than fisticuffs. This then is the second unit's film, the team clearly obsessed with practical auto-carnage. Nick Fury's invincible car plays like a set-up for quoting The Gauntlet, whilst metallic cyborgs weaving in and out of multiple-vehicle collisions recalls the Terminator series.

Hand-to-hand combat doesn't disappear into a mess of rapid cuts either, this is closer to the Sammo Hung school of fight choreography than other recent spy films. We get a sustained look at short attack chains, often featuring knives, cutting on blocks and impacts. Cap and The Winter Soldier's brawls tell their own story - these two are evenly matched. With the action sewn up, Captain America 2 flirts with ideas like totalitarian surveillance and mindwiped mercenaries, but doesn't really commit to any of them. Instead they're signposts on the way to the next pile-up. Like an ongoing comic, Winter Soldier is happy to shuffle the deck and posture, but too afraid to burn it all down to the ground.

Mars Attacks! by Shaky Kane


Sunday, 23 March 2014

VODKA GARBALSKI



Ever wanted a nose around Capcom's Street Fighter II design documents? This vid by Did You Know Gaming? offers a quick glimpse at some pencilled out notes and art that look like they were drafted by series planner Akira Yasuda.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes - SECRET SAUCE



Hideo Kojima talks IGN through the opening cinematic for Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes. It's amusing to hear that the distinctive lens flare effect used throughout is nothing more than a visual affectation inherited from Japanese pop music videos. Internet snoops had convinced themselves that the images were a clue to deeper, hidden meanings.

Total Recall by Arthur Asa