Thursday, 29 June 2017
Michael Bay's problems are rooted in cohesion, specifically he struggles to arrive at a consistent tone or emotional wavelength. With Transformers: The Last Knight the director appears to have manufactured a solution - endless, breathless propulsion. Tossed off concepts and writer's room notes boil in a cauldron of pure, kinetic imagery. Bay is keyed into a ratcheting, agitated movement that extends to every facet of the filmmaking experience, even a constantly changing aspect ratio. The film never sits still, there's none of Christopher Nolan's stately approach to IMAX inserts, Bay's film is rabid, hurtling back and forth between the towering, vertical photography of super projection and letterbox vistas that read left-to-right.
Viewers are warned early and often that The Last Knight has been assembled to express a specific vision. It is not an easily digestible Summer product. Even for a Michael Bay film Last Knight is aggressive and inflexible, chewing up hundreds of millions of dollars so the director can scratch his various itches. Like Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and King Arthur: Legend of the Sword before it, The Last Knight holds up John Boorman's Excalibur as a primal filmmaking text. Ever the obsessive, Bay zeroes in on the details, littering the battlefield with the swords that assailed Gabriel Byrne's Uther Pendragon and replicating Terry English's chromed plate armour on a massive, techno-organic scale.
Although The Last Knight lacks Excalibur's mythic sweep, God-King Optimus Prime notwithstanding, Bay's film does attempt to replicate the elliptical storytelling of Boorman, a model in which image and feeling trump structure and order. Boorman's compression came from a desire to fit a storied King's entire lifetime into 140 minutes of film. Bay's truncation is different, more about removing any peak on the film's carefully calibrated emotional chart that isn't total, screaming noise.
The Last Knight then allows us an insight into how Bay chooses to interpret the screenplays he's assigned. An undercooked example like Bad Boys urged the director to lean heavily on his cast, using them to create skits that conveyed critical plot details in a package that, if not organic, at least had a fair opportunity to be entertaining. The career that has followed that film is indicative of a talent not completely sold on writing as anything other than a blueprint used to string together disparate, fantastical situations.
Armageddon and Pearl Harbor stand as garbled attempts to ground the director's bombastic leanings in human stories about amateurs under stress. Bay fails to draw out any finer details in these situations because he either doesn't believe the moments or simply cannot relate to them. The Last Knight is, at a conceptual level, a committee crafted jump-off designed to dangle threads and hit specific, audience friendly targets. Bay has been handed a piece wringing with a particular kind of arrogance, it's a franchise maker. Bay may be on his fifth Transformers film but the director has never been asked to do anything as vulgar as consider continuity.
Each Transformers film has been an iterative example of what a live action interpretation of the 80s toyline could be. Love interests and even protagonists have come and gone; doomsday scenarios are replayed and reconfigured; the Transformers themselves die and are resurrected over and over again with zero regard for where the previous films left them. The Last Knight places a marker and, barring another entry that dispense with the concepts presented here, asks that further sequels proceed from a point where the Earth is slowly mutating into Unicron, the world-eating machine from Nelson Shin's The Transformers: The Movie, and Optimus Prime is battling a malevolent robotic Gaia.
With very little need to spin wheels, Bay delivers a film that moves at two hundred miles an hour. Aiding and abetting this rampage is Sir Anthony Hopkins, the actor brimming with the kind of unfiltered glee he brought to the later, trashier Hannibal Lecter films. In Hopkins Bay has a collaborator genuinely capable of plugging one of the director's most obvious leaks. Hopkins can deliver stilted, stuttering exposition as a lark, turning the kind of heavy lifting usually reserved for a bug-eyed John Turturro into something that actually moves.
The winding, circuitous logic of Hopkins' info dumps are adrenalised by a companion action sequence that sees super-charged sports cars attacking London's landmarks and side-roads. The set-piece focuses on tourist destinations and the old city arteries that connect them. Bay forcing a McLaren 570GT down cramped, atypical alleyways manages to evoke the brief, busy thrill of Claude Lelouch's C'était un rendez-vous if not that piece's sustained, death-defying intensity. The image of gleaming, finely-tuned automobiles struggling along cobbled streets could even be read as the director using the absurdity of the film's unceasing momentum as a literal, self-referential component. Michael Bay has been allotted several finely packaged ideas and they're going down your throat whether you like it or not.
Monday, 26 June 2017
Martin Campbell is finally out of movie jail! Six years for the excretable Green Lantern sounds about right, shame he didn't take Ryan Reynolds down with him. Anyway, Campbell is back, coralling a hopelessly mistimed terror revenge film starring Jackie Chan to the big screen. Still, inciting incident aside, looks like The Foreigner will be filled with scenes of Jackie kicking people trapped inside tiny flats with a glum expression plastered all over his face. What more could you ask for?
Friday, 23 June 2017
Tuesday, 20 June 2017
Monday, 19 June 2017
Friday, 16 June 2017
Post-apocalyptic in every detail bar a nuclear exchange, John Carpenter and Nick Castle's Escape from New York takes an action premise then describes it with the kind of anxiety usually reserved for horror filmmaking. Kurt Russell plays Snake Plissken, a raspy ex-special forces operative who made his name sneaking into a litany of Russian cities before dropping out, turning to a life of crime. Snake is a relic from a world that has passed, a rugged, bad-tempered individual bumping heads with the compromised and robotic company men who now rule the country.
Whatever happened in Leningrad burnt Snake out, perhaps exposing the lie that forms the bedrock of a regime that has seen America congeal into a total police state. Snake is a soldier so explicitly used up that orders have no meaning to him. He isn't invading the Big Apple to redeem himself and therefore become heroic by the standards of the men who have crow-barred him into this assignment. He's being coerced. Snake is captured, dragged to Liberty Island and injected with explosives before being issued with shuriken and an Ingram sub-machine gun for what amounts to a suicide mission. Despite his legendary status he's still just a disposable commodity, an experiment forced into play while jack-booting dead heads weigh up an air strike on the Island.
Snake doesn't represent salvation, he's just another component in a desperate, pessimistic mission engineered by an acting leadership going through the motions. Carpenter and Castle have done something wonderful in Escape from New York, they've taken a scenario that could be told with the sweeping, bullying voice of patriotic duty then torpedoed it. The rescue of an encircled President isn't played for glory, the situation is splayed open, exposing the rot and ruthless opportunism that would be at work if the unthinkable actually happened with these witless bullies at the helm.
The one shred of humanity shown by the establishment comes from Lee Van Cleef's Hauk, an older man with much the same background as Plissken, now acting as the warden of the vast Manhattan penitentiary. Hauk vouches for Snake, his interim criminal years made irrelevant because Hauk remembers when the ex-soldier once did something bold and impressive. Of course Hauk may trust Plissken's skills but he doesn't trust his intentions. This isn't a world founded on honour and pride, instead Escape from New York spins on the kind of utility you'd expect from a world in which Reaganomic rhetoric has infected every aspect of the ruling class. Something terrible must have happened, no-one has any higher, romantic aspirations anymore. Instead everyone behaves like cronies prepping for their next corporate appraisal.
The one nod to chivalry displayed by the government's forces again comes from Hauk. Following the mission's completion he makes himself available to Snake, asking him if he still wants to kill him. Hauk is acknowledging something unspoken, that perhaps by serving this power structure he actually does deserve to die. Snake, the uncompromised hero would actually redeem Hauk somewhat if he chose to take his life. The gesture is immediately poisoned by The Warden's insistence on pitching Snake a potential return to the fold after it's clear that the jail-breaker has chosen to stay his hand. Russell's limping, injured hero couldn't be less interested.
Snake Plissken isn't an action hero and Escape from New York isn't structured to express victory. This massive story is told in details, Snake's individual triumphs are always small and stolen. Carpenter never falls into the trap of letting his main character build up a head of steam, stakes are never lost to scale, every dangerous interaction is essentially Plissken attempting to misinform his quarry, allowing him to strike. Snake by name, snake by nature. Carpenter doesn't linger on the violence either, Escape may miscommunicate a few of its thumps but even these under-covered cracks play into an overall thesis about how liquid power can be. Violence in Escape from New York is always a surprise.
Once on Manhattan Island all bets are off, it doesn't matter if you can talk big or have access to incredible technology, are you vicious? Will you strike first? Escape has a feral quality, man reduced to teeth and claws, roaming around the ruins of a financial fortress. Carpenter and cinematographer Dean Cundey shoot dark and wide, allowing the gutted mise en scene to tell a story and communicate the stakes. Snake is never alone once he enters the prison city. There's always something or someone else in the frame, running interference or sizing him up.
Escape communicates a state of complete hostility. The film barely jumps around, the opening act in particular charts its discoveries by Snake's slow, hesitant pace. This segment, the film's best, has no sense of release in it. Snake is given an impossible task then we watch his attempt slowly unfold. Carpenter's film delights in this sense of pressure, the siege mentality of his horror films bleeding into the language of action / adventure. Pointedly, Snake does not surmount every challenge or bend the devastated city to his will, the film's too canny for that. Snake creeps around the pitch black streets as quietly as he can, waiting for an opportune moment to lash out and do some damage.
Thursday, 15 June 2017
Tuesday, 13 June 2017
What can you say? Limits are, quite obviously, completely meaningless to Nintendo. Based on this charming little infomercial and the hat mechanic it promises, Super Mario Odyssey is quite simply magical, allowing the player almost infinite opportunities to experiment and, above all, have fun. Stunning.
After their delightful work on Uncharted: The Nathan Drake Collection, Bluepoint Games have been handed the crown jewel of Sony's video game library - Team Ico's Shadow of the Colossus. Predictably, Bluepoint's remake looks beautifully polished, already improving on their 2011 pass for The Ico & Shadow of the Colossus Collection on PS3. Fumito Ueda's baby is in good hands.
Two years later, Sony system owners finally get their chance to give Undertale a whirl. Developed by Toby Fox, Undertale seeks to evoke the unease felt in Nintendo's Mother series by deliberately layering complex themes and decisions into a cutesy, pixel-based RPG. Reading around it sounds like Fox succeeded completely, managing to create a game that plays like you're starring in your very own creepypasta.
Sledgehammer Games pick up where Call of Duty: World at War left off, rolling period specific flamethrowers and player guided aerial bombardments into a gameplay model that, thankfully, appears to have returned to circuitous, map roaming gunplay after years spent leaping in every available direction.
Shades of Vectorman in Housemarque's latest. That is to say Matterfall takes your basic run-and-gun platforming and dresses it up with exciting, modern graphical tricks, in this case a destructible world built out of the clattering voxels that powered the studio's launch day hit Resogun.
Monday, 12 June 2017
Nearly there! Studio MDHR's gorgeous, long-trailed homage to Treasure shooters and Fleischer cartoons is set to release this September. By all accounts, Cuphead's extended development time can be attributed to a greatly expanded game scope that moved further and further away from a Betty Boop boss rush and the developer's decision to hand animate every single frame of the elasticated action.
While never quite in the same league as his two Resident Evil entries, Shinji Mikami's last pass at a letterboxed horror game was full of atmospheric creeps and twitchy shooting galleries. The model was sound, the execution just needed a bit of tweak, its course corrected away from situations that overwhelmingly tracked towards one-hit deaths. Combat in The Evil Within 2 could stand to be a little less fussy, players should be allowed to build towards a firmer sense of power in how they tackle the oozing, creeping horrors in Mikami's latest tetanus prison.
With The Phantom Menace's 20th anniversary approaching rapidly we're probably at a point where the children who greedily gobbled up the adventures of Darth Maul and pals are looking to re-examine their lost youth and spend their way towards resuscitating their long stagnated sense of wonder; hence DICE's tried-and-tested Battlefield 1 sporting a Clone Wars revamp.
Even though they shovel out enough anonymous anime tie-ins to sink a fleet, Arc System Works do occasionally play an absolute blinder. Dragon Ball Fighter Z looks set to do for Akira Toriyama's peerless masterpiece what their 2005 Fist of the North Star coin-op did for Tetsuo Hara and Buronson's, namely transform hundreds of pages of static pose downs into a 2D fighting game kinetic enough to get the Justin Wongs of the world excited.
Sunday, 11 June 2017
The Three Musketeers froths with exuberant, youthful energy. Director Richard Lester is a dab hand at capturing this liveliness, his films revolving around the breathless vitality present in young men desperate to make a name for themselves. Lester channels their exhilaration, crafting visual scenarios that convey an explosive kind of excitement. With A Hard Day's Night Lester took the runaway popularity of The Beatles and transformed it as a series of static, telephoto shots of screaming youths running directly into the camera. In adapting Alexandre Dumas' d'Artagnan romances, Lester starts with a whip-thin, beaming Michael York then allows the actor to hurl himself about the screen, clearly having the time of his life.
The film's sword fights track with this conceit, packaging expert jousting within scrappy, spontaneous confrontations. Any object left lying around can and will be used as a weapon - Oliver Reed's brooding Athos never fails to hurl his floppy, wide-brimmed hat directly into his opponent's face. The goal for these clashes is never really to kill either, instead the combatants seek to humiliate each other by either drawing first blood or by booting any inattentive enemies up the arse. Lester and screenwriter George MacDonald Fraser laser in on the flippant, moneyed absurdity of the 17th century's ruling classes, interpreting their adventures as terrifying flights of fancy, driven by brain-dead and terminally horny aristocrats. Lester is an obsessive entertainer too, layering his frame with slapstick sight gags and grumbling commoners who can always be relied upon to skewer the oblivious, oversexed lords and ladies.
Tuesday, 6 June 2017
Monday, 5 June 2017
So far, the loudest voice in DC's most recent push for a Cinematic Universe has been Zack Snyder, the director of Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Snyder, working in the thrall of 80s comic book smashes like The Dark Knight Returns and Miracleman, proposed a slate filled with passionate, immoral Gods thrashing around seething CG tableaux. Snyder's heroes are not particularly selfless or altruistic, they're introspective and obsessive. They moon and stew over the kind of problems that swim out into an abstract range of thought.
Dawn of Justice (in its expanded form) is a three-hour epic predicated on Batman's gut feeling that a messianic alien has the potential to turn against the people of Earth. Despite all evidence to the contrary, Bruce halts his war on crime to assemble the tools necessary to kill this Superman. It's a decision that deliberately invites accusations of jealousy. Bruce Wayne has seen a power and strength that cannot be bought or duplicated, feeling inadequate he works towards crushing it, reasserting his standing as the ultimate man. Dawn of Justice is Nietzsche's will to power viewed through the prism of Frank Miller's big feet comics, emboldened by poor box office returns for the two previous Superman films.
Patty Jenkins' Wonder Woman then functions as a counterpoint, standing in opposition to all these unregulated, male expulsions. Gal Gadot's Diana of Themyscira isn't ancient and embittered, she hasn't seen her parents bleed out or be whisked away into a tornado. Instead she's from a stable, loving background, raised by a doting mother and an island's worth of adoring warrior women. Snyder's twin superheroes spring from altogether less stable situations - the alien moped around in agricultural misery denying who he was while the child billionaire found himself in a bottomless pit filled with clattering rodents. No wonder they export disaster.
Thanks to several superhero cycles that never found the time to bring Wonder Woman to the big screen, Allan Heinberg's screenplay is allowed to discover her in circumstances that reflect the character's initial creation rather than an angle designed to repackage something people have already bought. William Moulton Marston and Elizabeth Holloway Marston, working with artist Harry G Peter, created Wonder Woman to serve as a powerful, feminine hero who extolled the virtues of love and compassion. William specifically organised his co-creation as a form of psychological propaganda designed to sell readers on the idea of female leaders who ruled without instantly resorting to force.
Jenkins and Heinberg interpret this desire with a hero who approaches the quagmire of the First World War in much the same way as Alexander the Great dealt with the Gordian Knot. Instead of listening to the men who bark orders and limits at her, Diana sees problems then acts decisively, placing herself in the thick of desperate street fighting and frostbitten trench warfare. Diana acts as a leader too - running out into No Man's Land armed with a shield, she soaks up the incoming machine gun fire, allowing the boys that follow enough breathing room to gain precious ground. Her actions invite this collaboration, her strength equalising the otherwise insurmountable danger for her allies.
Jenkins approaches this action atypically, seizing on the regular bulletins as an opportunity to watch and delight in the graceful movements of experts. Gadot and her fellow Amazons are shot in ways designed to capture their power and authority rather than the damage their movements affect. Jenkins isn't interested in the minutia of violence, the destruction and fitful energy of Snyder is tamed here, channelled into brief glimpses of an earthbound Goddess skipping across slate rooftops. It's an action model predicated on delight rather than might, a decision that works hand-in-hand with Mr and Mrs Marston's desire to see unburdened femininity communicated in the language of deification.
Friday, 2 June 2017
Thursday, 1 June 2017
Do you know why Superman III is great? It puts the Clark Kent / Superman dichotomy front and centre, drawing dramatic premises out of the turbulent emotional state created by two separate identities sharing the same vessel. It also allows Christopher Reeve to flex his jerk muscle. The film begins with Kent feeling a little unloved at work - Perry White is busy ignoring malfunctioning bingo machines and, after their amnesia kiss in Superman II, Lois Lane is back to being an indifferent co-worker. With very little to keep him in Metropolis Kent pops back to Smallville for his High School reunion, spending some time with his teenage crush, Annette O'Toole's Lana Lang.
Lang is a distinct romantic proposition in these Superman films. Unlike Lois, who is first and foremost besotted with the Man of Steel, Lana is actually interested in the human Clark Kent, recognising his innate goodness as an opportunity for long-term emotional stability. For balance, she also views his decision to move away from their small town as exciting and forward-thinking. He's the complete package. Leslie Newman and David Newman's screenplay doesn't really do much with Lana and Clark's relationship beyond proposing it as a road bump along the route to Superman's human persona and Lois finding each other but the structure is there for, at the very least, some Silver Age two-timing in the next instalment.
Superman III seizes on the fracture Lana and Lois' disparate interests propose then, thanks to a blazing crystal of synthetic Kryptonite provided by Richard Pryor's Gus Gorman, uses the idea to power action scenes grounded in Superman's shattering sense of self. Poisoned by the radioactive rock Superman starts to degrade and corrupt, his hair loses its immaculate styling, he gets a 5 o'clock shadow and his bright, primary coloured cape curdles into a rusty, carmine red. This split comes to a head in a scrap yard filled with gutted automobiles. Superman and Kent disentangle from each other, two opposing ideas battling for control of the whole. It's a dazzling sequence, skipping delicately between director Richard Lester's fine comedic detailing and the terrifying proposition of a Superman governed by his oozing, reptilian brain.