Wednesday, 30 April 2014
A couple of weeks from release and it's still hard to get a handle on what kind of Godzilla film Gareth Edwards has made. Western trailers have barely mentioned any enemy beasts and kept the sense of threat focused on the titular kaiju. Those ads have had a elliptical, apocalyptic quality that suggests a 60th anniversary reinterpretation of Ishiro Honda's 1954 original.
This Chinese trailer takes a completely different tact, revelling in confrontations with a concrete coloured monster that either mutates into various forms, or has a string of similar looking pals. Couple that with a few gasps of dialogue that seem to organise Godzilla into a celestial protector role and you have something closer to the Heisei cycle meets Yoshimitsu Banno's Godzilla vs Hedorah. Perhaps Pacific Rim is to blame for the mixed messages? Guillermo del Toro's mech-pilot punch up tanked in America but found an audience in China, raking in enough money to make a sequel a real possibility.
Wednesday, 23 April 2014
Monday, 21 April 2014
Saturday, 19 April 2014
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-ups. 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.
Wednesday, 16 April 2014
The Raid 2 has attracted comparisons with Terminator 2: Judgment Day, 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
Sunday, 13 April 2014
Tuesday, 8 April 2014
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.
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.
Monday, 7 April 2014
Sunday, 6 April 2014
Tuesday, 1 April 2014
Terminator 2: Judgment Day is James Cameron's attempt at realigning the collective male psyche after the excesses of the 1980s muscle killers. 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 Rambo: First Blood Part II, as interpreted by Sylvester Stallone and George P Cosmatos, 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.
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, Biehn's lithe intensity never stuck. His confident, secure characters were either upstaged by monolithic co-stars or de-emphasised by plot machinations. To push the ideal further, Cameron needed Arnold Schwarzenegger.
For this sequel, Cameron and co-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 gives up 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 behavioural models for little boys, 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.