Friday, 31 October 2014
Stuart Brown casts his analytical eye over Half-Life for the first in a more detailed retrospective series. Brown is a bit of a treasure. He doesn't rely on manufactured excitement or a cynical gimmick, instead he turns out short, snappy information pieces. He's basically the BBC2 of video game culture.
Thursday, 30 October 2014
Arnold Schwarzenegger stars as a Great Ape in charge of a team of heavily armed Juggalos. Sabotage plays like an old man fantasy with Schwarzenegger's Breacher as the elder gent able to run intellectual rings around the kids. His age makes him mythic and untouchable in their eyes, an abstract idea of masculine supremacy. The kids fucked up though. Although an idea of fraternity or family is repeatedly stressed, usually by the subordinates, it's clear Schwarzenegger has other ideas. Initially Sabotage seems to be a Friday the 13th instalment with Schwarzenegger as a monstrous bogeyman ticking off his disappointing children.
Sabotage, as it turns out, is instead about how disposable everybody else in your life is when measured against loved ones. Schwarzenegger allows his team to eat itself, but doesn't actively participate. Neither does he intervene. He's above the infighting because he's locked in somewhere else, waiting. Skip Woods and David Ayer's ending was allegedly hijacked, pruned and re-arranged to shift overt villainy off Schwarzenegger. All the nervous studio interference has done though is add an air of indifference. Breacher is truly, exceptionally, callous. Schwarzenegger as a giant, flushed knuckle that'll step over the bodies of people prepared to die for him if it'll equalise a personal situation. The team might love him but he doesn't love them.
Ayers shoots Schwarzenegger as an icon. The star's age isn't avoided or concealed, it's almost fetishised. Repeated close-ups let you drink in the decades. Ayers holding on an eyeline that looks more and more like Clint Eastwood's with every passing year. Arnold is shot like he's The Dark Knight Returns' Bruce Wayne, an ageing weightlifter who gets drunk to dredge up the most awful memories he can. Even his haircut is great, a self-administered close crop that undoubtedly reeks of Brylcreem. Sabotage is easily the best post-Governor Schwarzenegger film simply because it approaches the star as a relic. He's from another time. This mechanical male doesn't fit in with his beer-swilling tat-frat. They're flawed and messy. In comparison, Schwarzenegger is steel.
Tuesday, 28 October 2014
Monday, 27 October 2014
Chuck Russell and Frank Darabont hijack Irvin Yeaworth's red scare original, amping up the individualism and transforming it into a strange, outsider movie. As well as having a more politically dubious, terrestrial origin, The Blob systematically kills all the usual male leads until we arrive at the second-banana motorcycle enthusiast and a would-be distressed damsel. The film initially seems to be orbiting a young guy-next-door. Paul Taylor is set up as a Michael J Fox figure, he succeeds by accident in sports and has a friend that gets him into trouble with his prospective girlfriend's father.
Paul appears to be the engine, he has romantic potential and homespun guts. Unfortunately for him The Blob doesn't give a shit about the hero's journey. Next up there's the local Sheriff, initially an antagonistic presence who redeems himself by following logic rather than prejudice. He's killed as an afterthought, his half-digested body showing up as a soupy detail in his love interest's death. The government forces that turn up half-way through end up being completely compromised, leaving local pariah Brian Flagg and cheerleader Meg to take care of business.
Meg and Brian form a back-and-forth, post-Aliens action collective. A couple united through a desire to not be told what to do. While the rest of the town is being rounded up by Hazmat infantrymen - possibly for liquidation - Meg is breaking curfew to find her missing brother. Brian plays rebel by investigating the crash site and turning up a conspiracy. Aside from that, the duo spend the last act rescuing each other. Brian crashes a snow machine into the Blob and ends up rolled and trapped, Meg loots an M16 and lays down suppressing fire.
Sunday, 26 October 2014
In its opening acts Friday the 13th comes on like a safe, corporate alternative to Halloween. There's no real attempt to make the teen victims particularly likeable, Sean S Cunningham's film delivering an in-built emotional distance between the audience and his characters. They act like Porky's extras even though they're in a dire situation. So when they get slashed and prodded we can delight in the Tom Savini orchestrated deaths.
On the face of it, 13th is the slasher film as product, ruthlessly hitting a series of bullet points passed down from realer, rawer examples. Tick them off - mild titillation, spook house gore and everyday objects re-purposed as anti-teen arsenal. The technique's not even really there. Shots that initially appear to be simulating the killer's POV often settle into that of a passive, invisible third-party. This observer is often, obviously, in the actors' way too. 13th can't decide if it's an immediate, Panaglide thriller or a baroque, marshland terror.
Eventually though it becomes clear that Cunningham was pitching something a little closer to a reverse-Psycho. Structurally, it was there all along. We opened with a bright, sparkly first girl - who we assumed was the lead - being casually despatched by the, then apparently male, killer. This detail was confused by introducing the rest of the cast half-way through the episode, breaking tension. The danger surrounding Annie wasn't really given a chance to percolate, coming off as a distraction rather than a shock.
Heavy breather percussion aside, much of Harry Manfredini's music is shrill, screeching strings swiped wholesale from Bernard Herrmann's Psycho score. When the killer finally arrives it's a middle-aged woman with a little voice in her head, egging her on. Mrs Voorhees is an odd proposition for a final threat, she looks like a TV busybody in the Jessica Fletcher mold and betrays little savagery beyond a few gleeful head bumps. The rolling confrontation between her and final girl Alice, despite a meaty conclusion, is an airless thing full of rubbish on-the-fly weaponry and arthritic movement.
Saturday, 25 October 2014
I'm finding it hard to get excited about Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare. Although the air-dashing looks kind of fun, the near-future weapons don't do anything for me. Guns made up in planned city sweatboxes rarely do. They all seem so dull and interchangeable. I spent most of my time with Destiny wishing I had a possessed Mosin-Nagant with a futuristic, retrofitted sight. I want some connection to reality. The classic Modern Warfare games were equipped with the best of Cold War engineering - the M16 platform vs the AK-47, with run-ins by the FN FAL.
Those guns had resonance. I grew up with them, saw them on TV in proxy wars and The A-Team. Good guy and bad guy guns from a million 80s action movies, choose your fav. You can grab an MP5 and play-act as Hans Gruber, or equip an M60 and pretend you're Rambo or Animal Mother. Guns are interesting to me in the abstract, horrifying things that track alongside ideologies and political movements. I can accept them as grey machinery you lug around like an accessory in an expensive, networked game of tag, but I don't want to be told they're awesome. Knee-jerk revulsion is part of the appeal. These new weapons look like something that'd ship with an action figure.
Matt Lees with a superb breakdown of Destiny. Unlike their previous games, Bungie's latest is a game built on constant repetition with zero setpieces that still manages to keep you playing for over a hundred hours. Lees touches on basic feedback loops, something Destiny is incredibly good at, and the only occasionally satisfying one arm bandit reward system. As Lees points out Destiny, like the Call of Duty series come to think of it, is a game experience wholly built out of how well the in-game guns handle. Every single weapon, regardless of class or level, is consistently fun to fire at your enemies.
Thursday, 23 October 2014
The polar opposite of something off-brand and colourful like The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Jonathan Liebesman's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles sees an established children's line subsumed in a misunderstood, post-The Dark Knight mire. Urban terror should be a decent fit for the franchise, after all Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird's original comics were full of gritty avengers engaging in bootlegged, Frank Miller mysticism. Liebesman's film wobbles though because it's clearly meant to be consumed by kids. Pre-teens at that. The turtles have the sing-song personalities rattled off in Chuck Lorre's 80s cartoon theme and the central character is basically a child detective.
Ninja Turtles 2014 gives the impression of a half-term feature hijacked at the last minute to appeal to the ghoulish spectrum of the superhero crowd. Life-ending bumps and matter-of-fact executions are present but never justified. Shredder has been inserted as a final boss but there's no solid narrative space for him. Villain minutes are instead apportioned to a megalomaniacal scientist who's despatched with a spot of head trauma courtesy of the sixth male lead. Like every other rebooted 1980s toy line Ninja Turtles seems to have been pitched as being exactly the same but with even more violence. It's a playground grasp at maturity, chemical weapons are smuggled into the film as if to denote seriousness and weight.
Likewise the turtles are depicted as seething mini-Hulks with the strength to hurl rival ninjas through speeding subway trains. Raphael and pals are massive, sweating, muscle lumps apparently running on the Unreal Engine. Splinter is positively Cronenbergian and Shredder looks like Michael Bay's Megatron cosplaying as a Predator. All this ugliness directly informs the film's one saving grace - the fights are blocked like someone's watched a Donnie Yen movie. Liebesman shoots low and wide on full-contact between a menagerie of McFarlane Movie Maniacs. CG stunt work is experienced in sustained, side-slipped takes that emphasise impact with grinding, mechanical noise. The animated delivery in Ninja Turtles' action scenes may undermine any real sense of danger but I appreciated the effort.
Wednesday, 22 October 2014
To mark the 20th anniversary of Sonic the Hedgehog 3 this week, blast processor Christian Whitehead released this proof-of-concept clip for an iOS port. Bizarrely it seems Sega are reluctant to take Whitehead up on his proposal, despite the developer's superb track record with the company mascot. Whitehead's conversions of Sonic 1, 2 and CD are world-class digital curation, Sega should be beating down his door to put together a re-release of Sonic 3 & Knuckles, not the other way around. Really, if the Japanese Corporation had any sense, they'd be issuing his ports on every format and have him building a Sonic game from scratch.
Tuesday, 21 October 2014
Dreary parlour intrigue enlivened by Peter Cushing's reptilian Baron. Terence Fisher and Jimmy Sangster's Frankenstein is a cold-blooded man-child who grew up wealthy and, therefore, indulged. He treats the people in his life like possessions: poured over when they have value, discarded when they don't. Sangster's screenplay for The Curse of Frankenstein introduces duplicity and psychosis to the Baron's actions. He uses his steely, detached, determination to go shopping amongst his social circle, selecting prize body parts to build his idea of a perfect man. Unfortunately, the Monster's brain is damaged between cadavers. Christopher Lee's stiff reanimated highwayman has but two gears - cowering and homicidal.
Friday, 17 October 2014
Terence Fisher and Jimmy Sangster's pass at Dracula stresses the otherworldly sexiness of the Count, comparing his animal magnetism - and any attendant vampirism - to a drug addiction. Dracula's wives know he's wrong for them but they just can't help themselves. Although primarily set in Germany, the cast behave with the prim disposition of Victorian gentry. They're all buttoned-up and desperate. Despite having a fiancée back home, John Van Eyssen's ill-fated vampire hunter Jonathan Harker can't resist falling under the spell of the brunette he meets whilst poking around Dracula's castle.
Played by Valerie Gaunt, this temptress flounces around in a nighty, pleading with her visitor to help her. She's being held against her will you see. This Harker, apparently the take-charge type, is all too willing to play the hero. Her weakness is a ploy though. The second Harker takes her in his arms to smother away her worries, she clamps down on his neck. Dracula has similar success with the woman in Harker's life. Straight-laced German fraus are no match for Christopher Lee hurriedly running his lips all over their faces. Lee's Dracula isn't a superhuman monster that can transform into a bat, he's a mysterious stranger in complete command of his sexuality. He lures woman from their marital bed and makes them his. He ensnares them with his piercing stare and won't let them go. He awakens things inside them they didn't even know existed. He's the other man.
Thursday, 16 October 2014
'71 trades in danger. It takes the political and ideological framework of The Troubles and uses them to confuse and catalyse a midnight expedition movie. After a police raid becomes an excuse to beat up cowering Catholic mothers, a young Private is separated from his unit by a riot. In terms of genre, '71 immediately recalls The Warriors or John Carpenter's Escape From New York, but this isn't just instant hostility from a city full of droogs. By dint of birth anyone the lost Private meets could be help or hindrance. Likewise, the political perspective doesn't, to this outsider at least, feel shortchanged.
Screenwriter Gregory Burke layers characters with anxiety, creating a sense that no-one in '71 is operating moment-to-moment. Instead everyone is wracked with fear, acting out the labels they've been designated. '71 portrays ethno-nationalist conflict as a compulsion that grips the young and wearies the old, a fever state that various levels of establishment use to get their way. '71 takes a recent and underreported conflict and uses it to complicate every level of plotting until the film seethes with total menace. The people the Private meets have interior and exterior objectives, often operating in direct opposition.
The most terrifying group in play though are the Military Reaction Force, a four-man black-ops squad that rolls around Belfast in a clapped-out old banger. The MRF are pure venom. They aren't muscled specimens dressed like film stars, they look supernatural. Razor thin pub fighters dressed like childhood photos of your mad uncle. These guys look like they survive on cigarettes and spirits. Everything in Yann Demange's mise en scene suggesting that they are completely empty, both physically and emotionally.
The MRF aren't there to prop up any local agenda, instead they sow chaos and perpetuate conflict. I mentioned Escape From New York earlier, the MRF's presence here would be the equivalent of having Snake Plissken tailed by a team of CIA hitmen that make counter-productive deals with every side and casually chat about the necessity of rubbing out allies. They're aliens beamed in from the gamesmanship dimension, utterly amoral and working for someone you've never even heard of.
Wednesday, 15 October 2014
Tuesday, 14 October 2014
Dima Fedotof's CG short is pure Heavy Metal. In a far-flung future automated war machines go through the motions, fighting long past the point of reason. Fedotof's functional aesthetic mixes Dan O'Bannon data read outs with the kind of mass produced monstrosities you'd expect from tomorrow's total war.
Wednesday, 8 October 2014
Tetsuo: The Bullet Man won't sit still. The film seethes with energy, Shinya Tsukamoto's camera hurtles around with DV abandon, inducing a low-level kind of motion sickness. Bullet Man is often physically uncomfortable to watch. Following the acrobatic motion of our latest mutated salaryman is impossible. His actions are lost in a hyper-caffeinated jumble of destruction and shocked reaction shots. Although obviously employed to mask a meagre budget, the spasming point-of-view perfectly tallies with the psychological state of a man transforming into a Brutalist art sculpture.
Like Tetsuo: The Iron Man this optical assault is backed with a clanging industrial noise that runs through the film like a malfunctioning heartbeat. It's oppressive, a restless note that implores progression. Tsukamoto brackets revelation with screens filled with writhing wires and scratched up medical stills. Bullet Man is a collage, a feature-length music video able to suggest a level of narrative coherence through visual consistency. Until it decides to unspool and explain things, Bullet Man sings, reorganising the Oedipal trauma of Tetsuo II: Body Hammer using the visual language of the first film. Tsukamoto can't resist unpacking his ideas though. A backstory involving human vivisection and sex robots is undermined by the kind of stilted, stumbling line readings usually heard overdubbing imported 80s anime.
Tuesday, 7 October 2014
Monday, 6 October 2014
Lacking the frenetic, fevered energy of its forebear, Tetsuo II: Body Hammer is instead a series of dreamy interludes linked by variations on the same chase. Tetsuo: The Iron Man was a waking nightmare in which a young man struggled to cope with the changes his body was undergoing. Body Hammer, although apparently unconnected, deals with metamorphosis as an ancient abuse regurgitated in times of extreme stress. Iron Man was concerned with the present, Body Hammer is about tapping into the past and divining memory.
Taniguchi Tomoo and his family live in an apartment straight out of an aspirational hi-fi advert. Tomoo looks like a Steve Ditko drawing, his wife is permanently dressed for a minimalist fashion shoot. This time Tokyo is shot with cool blues, focusing on glass buildings and an attendant sense of alienation. When his son is kidnapped by a team of muscle bombers, Tomoo pursues, his body stretching and exploding to reveal a rib cage made from pistols. Iron Man felt like a city collapsing in on itself - circuitry, effluence and people mixing to create a creature able to survive in this steaming pit. Body Hammer instead presents a city locked in stasis. Mutation is something to be forced, often leading to rusty, clattering failure. Tomoo then represents a pure evolutionary leap. He is the new life form, a stumbling mix of concrete and artillery. A mobile city state able to consume weaklings and spit out carnage.
Friday, 3 October 2014
Shinya Tsukamoto shoots Tokyo as a claustrophobic ruin unfit for human habitation. Tsukamoto's city is a series of tight, cluttered rooms filled with knotted wires and electronic bric-a-brac. Roofs seem far too low - Tsukamoto's characters are always stooping and crawling. They writhe and sweat profusely, the camera pushing in tight on their pained, dripping faces. In this sense Tetsuo: The Iron Man is reminiscent of Harlan Ellison's I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream. Like Ellison's short story, Tetsuo features a handful of humans trapped in a vast mechanical landscape, suffering at the mercy of some sadistic higher being.
Tetsuo's ascended intelligence is The Metal Fetishist, a vagrant that has forced a threaded steel rod into his leg and become a kind of rust God. After a hit-and-run encounter with a bespectacled businessman and his horny girlfriend, Fetishist transforms into a virulent, mechanical, infection that mutates anybody he comes into contact with. The businessman accidentally triggers his own transformation with his electric razor, causing pustulous steel boils to sprout up on his cheek. Tetsuo takes the body-morphing antics of the Japanese superhero genre and wrings them dry. People in Tsukamoto's film don't become cybernetic do-gooders, instead they shred their significant others with drill-bit dicks and dream of the Earth as an endless factory dedicated to liquefying mankind. Power corrupts them instantly.
Thursday, 2 October 2014
The Fog opens with an elderly man telling ghost stories to children on a beach. Although brief, and (by all accounts) added after reshoots, the interlude is this film's version of the Dr Loomis' framing diatribes seen in John Carpenter's earlier film, Halloween. We are told about the destruction of a clipper, the boat shorn apart on rocks after the crew mistook a campfire, set by greedy locals, for a navigation light. The yarn helps us understand the psychological viewpoint of something betrayed and dead, a cold thing at the bottom of sea that hates the living and wants to strike out at them. Despite such a simplistic set-up, The Fog is still a little flabby. Themes fire off in a million different directions but never quite coalesce - Director Carpenter and cinematographer Dean Cundey spend a lot of the film's screen-time (beautifully) photographing smoke prowling over various landscapes.
Attacks are few and far between and none of the human characters are interesting enough to really anchor a sense of creeping dread. The Fog's other major problem is that the menace keeps shrinking. We start out with the idea that everybody and everything in Antonio Bay is imperilled. Unfortunately, this concept is quickly ditched. We trade a full-scale attack on a town for a less demanding six man countdown. The Fog, like all camp-side tall tales, rambles on, but the ghost attacks themselves are great. The drowned sailors are swollen, rotting lumps, drained of colour and detail. They snatch at the living; clawing at them with fish hooks or plunging kitchen knives into their warm bodies. Considering its adult rating and the viciousness of its killers, The Fog does end up being unusually anaemic. Instead of arterial blood, Carpenter uses a suite of visceral sound effects to turn basic stunt mobbing into something suggestive of a crunchy, X-rated cannibal attack.