Friday, 26 January 2018

Gammera the Invincible

This American chop-job of Gamera: The Giant Monster amplifies the basic city-stomping premise, exploding the scope of the giant turtle's destruction from a few isolated appearances off the Japanese coast to a full-on, catastrophic world tour. Unfortunately for Gammera the Invincible, this escalation is communicated through dull office set-ups and circuitous dialogue rather than an expanded suite of exciting special effects shots. Localisation director Sandy Howard laces Noriaki Yuasa's film with bursts of secretarial faff, all shot flat and sensible.

Survive the meeting room intrigue and Invincible eventually treats the viewer to the murky, atmospheric effects photography of Nobou Munekawa. Gammera's rampages see the giant turtle rubbing up against various factory landscapes, all of which are battered beneath his feet. Presumably nocturnal, Gammera is only glimpsed at night, the all-encompassing darkness accentuating the turtle's flamethrower head and the white-out electric shocks that irritate him. Despite the attempt to iron out the film's peculiarities for a drive-in crowd, it's Munekawa's camera work that leaves the biggest impression. If anything the mind-numbing war council scenes provide a stable point of contrast for the ethereal sight of enormous, inky smoke clouds lingering over the ruin of heavy industry.

Thursday, 18 January 2018

Justice League

It's difficult to discern any overarching thematic aims in Justice League. Although flawed in different ways, Zack Snyder's previous DC Universe films were constructed around an intent beyond simply providing a road to your standard blockbuster confrontation. Man of Steel asked what kind of Superman would modern America produce, while Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice imagined two heroes poisoned and brought low by the 24 hour news cycle. Both films were plotted using their characters as the engine. Began by Snyder and screenwriter Chris Terrio, then massaged to a conclusion by writer-director Joss Whedon, Justice League is much more routine, at best registering as a two hour effort to rehabilitate the onscreen image of Henry Cavill's alien superhero.

Despite a brief blip in which the Man of Tomorrow trashes his new side-kicks, Justice League's portrayal of Superman uses his death as a fresh break, allowing the character to return to life behaving with the tranquil assurance of Christopher Reeve. This Superman rises again thanks to Dawn of Justice's Kryptonian birthing chamber being turbo-charged by a bastardised version of Jack Kirby's Mother Box. Justice League lingers on another detail though, one that explicitly recalls Marlon Brando sacrificing his holographic life in Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut. As Jason Momoa's Aquaman submerges Superman's body in the ship's puss coloured amniotic fluid, a photograph of Kevin Costner's Pa Kent finds its way into the goop, the insinuation being that this mistake is crucial to Clark's new-found stability. Both Supermen are revitalised by consuming digitised approximations of their fathers.

There are a few glimpses of Terrio and Snyder's apocalyptic torment in amongst Whedon's reflex zings, most obviously in a Bushido code Batman and Ray Fisher's depressed Cyborg. The film's mechanoid is a young man forced back to life by his scientist father, using the same invasive, all-powerful extraterrestrial technology that rebooted Superman. Cyborg's early scenes introduce a being who remembers being alive but cannot reconcile his former identity with the rootless chimera he has become. A pall hangs over Cyborg. He rattles around his father's apartment, testing his new body's spontaneous upgrades and gloomily observing the world outside. Nudges are woven throughout the film, perhaps at one point designed to underscore the character's potentially dangerous disconnect with humanity. They never go anywhere. The film is too busy racing between expensive set-pieces. The fangs have been filed out of Justice League's head.

Monday, 15 January 2018

Films 2017

Alien: Covenant abandons Prometheus' questions about humanity's makers to instead ponder our race's future on a galactic scale, asking what legacy we might hope to leave behind. The film's answer is iterative and generational, concluding that mankind is essentially immaterial to what is to follow. We're catalysts, meat grist to power the pupal stage of our offspring. Just as our creators have been swept away, so too will we. It's a big, science fiction idea - the tools we've created to help us chart the stars have actually rendered us bovine. In this detail Covenant operates as a complementary piece to both Blade Runner and the moment in which Alien's Ash praises the perfection of Kane's son.

Full review

Cursed to be invincible, Takuya Kimura's Manji is the perfect canvas for Takashi Miike to explore the latest in digital laceration technology. Talented, but not supernaturally so, in the art of sword-fighting, Manji stumbles from one apocalyptic battle to another, slaughtering hundreds for his beloved waifs. Blade of the Immortal then is a rolling thesis on decline and disorder. Beautiful players appear in crisp, expensive clothes. They carry bespoke weapons and strut accordingly. Likewise, Immortal's cast exist in ornately detailed environments; clacking wooden sets layered to a depth that borders on obsessive. These visual characteristics exist not so much to convey a specific sense of reality, but rather to establish a space or person of value that will, eventually, be broken by the rampaging Manji. Miike explores chanbara and how it communicates Japan's turbulent past, arriving at an idealised, superheroic image that cannot help but chew its own arm off.

Blade Runner 2049's hero isn't programmed to wonder, the overt rebellious streak that drove Batty and the rest of the Nexus 6 replicants has seemingly been nailed down to bad code and suppressed. K knows he's a tool and accepts it, trapped and complying within the limits imposed by both his captivity and the orders that have been written into his DNA. K does have a tiny release valve though, a small exploit that he can use to needle away at his fractional freedom. He uses the money he collects retiring his malfunctioning brethren to buy piecemeal upgrades for his holographic girlfriend Joi.

Pre-tweak Joi is designed solely to please, clumsily cycling through various domestic and sexual fantasy archetypes to arrive at a state that her owner finds acceptable. Post-tweak Joi's attempts at seduction take a finer, more nuanced approach. Rather than simply offer up a visual that excites in the moment, Joi constructs an entire series of interactions around the notion of a loving spouse who desires physical and emotional intimacy. K has slowly and methodically built a being with the ability to think and diverge in ways that his programming and stringent defragging do not allow. It's revolt as a micro-aggression, an underling using the only means afforded to his social class to make the tiniest, most private statement of defiance.

Full review

Brawl in Cell Block 99 takes its time, building early scenes and situations around a character that we come to understand as grim but determined. There's a certain inevitability about Bradley Thomas. If he says he's going to do something, come hell or high water, he will do it.

Full review

Ostensibly the story of Olympic wrestlers Geeta and Babita Phogat, Nitesh Tiwari's Dangal almost immediately reveals itself as a film about the function of being a parent - in this case the father to several girls. Aamir Khan's Mahavir Singh Phogat is a national wrestling champion who never quite made it to the world stage. Without a son to continue his legacy, Phogat concentrates his efforts on his oldest daughters, slowly molding them into freestyle champions.

Phogat's training is total, forcing the children to abandon any emerging teenage vanity, not to mention their mother's faith. Phogat transforms Geeta and Babita into social outcasts. Their discomfort ignored in service to Phogat's idea of a higher calling. There's violence in what this father has done to his children. He has, in a sense, hijacked their identity. Dangal tempers this bubbling outrage by repeatedly demonstrating Phogat's commitment to his daughters. He doesn't ask them to do anything he either hasn't done or will not do himself. When Geeta flounders away from home, finding herself at odds with her passive coach and uncomfortable competing at an international level, Phogat uproots himself, moving across the country to be available to his daughter.

Whenever Dunkirk's pace threatens to slacken or, God forbid, provide a gasp of breathing room, the film hurtles off to another temporal point where jeopardy can be piled on until the next natural break. The three stories - The Mole, The Sea, The Air - collide and interconnect frequently, working in service to their own individual dramas while also providing a wider perspective on the unfolding nightmare. Nolan doesn't hold back these convergence points either, we often see disastrous results long before any of the boys summon up the courage to instigate them. These shifting, even clashing viewpoints are another tool used to express the terrifying indifference of collapsing, ruptured machinery.

Full review

Finally washing up on British shores this year, Shinya Tsukamoto's Fires on the Plain uses blazing digital photography to capture the malarial despair of the Pacific War. Tsukamoto shoots hand-held and shaky, following his own malnourished body around dense jungles as he stumbles from one hopeless situation to the next. Although intensely anachronistic, sometimes even registering as unpleasantly cheap, Tsukamoto and Satoshi Hayashi's action camerawork does give the film an alarming sense of intimacy. It allows us to experience the sights and sounds of total defeat an inch from Private Tamura's face.

Included on home video releases of Jordan Peele's Get Out is an alternative ending in which Chris isn't rescued by his friend Rod, instead the patrol car that rolls up on Chris strangling Rose contains two white police officers who somehow manage not to shoot him on sight. Our hero ends up imprisoned for exterminating his captors, Chris accepting his lot with a grim sense of satisfaction - he may have lost his life but justice has been served. This unsatisfying, rejected conclusion highlights what is great about Get Out as released. The film trusts its audience not to expect the rigid, hypocritical order of a Hollywood code style conclusion. A great crime has been committed against Chris, those people attempted to bury his identity under that of a spliced-in slave master. They absolutely deserved to die by his hand .

Droning and headachy, Good Time simulates desperation. Robert Pattinson plays Connie Nikas, a relentless opportunist who seeks to work every human interaction to his advantage. Nikas, usually utilising his off-brand good lucks or his unceasing ability to chatter towards a point, twists the behaviour of those around him until they are, essentially, compliant mechanical dolls. Directors Ben and Josh Safdie stage crisis criminality as consumptive and self-defeating, Nikas never makes any gains against the system or the authorities, instead he just ruins the lives of every other poor person he comes into contact with.

Alice Lowe's Prevenge transforms the dull platitudes surrounding pregnancy into something nightmarish and insistent. Having lost her partner during a climbing accident, Lowe's heavily pregnant Ruth is left alone with only the bloodthirsty voice of her unborn baby for company. Prevenge expands on the idea that Ruth has somehow abdicated her autonomy by carrying a child. Her life is no longer her own, her actions driven entirely by strange, alien impulses. As Ruth's cheery midwife explains, she's basically a vehicle now. Ruth's needs and wants are secondary to the (homicidal) life growing inside her. It's a pep talk designed to make a situation easier - think big picture - but all it does is underline the erasure of  Ruth's identity.

Unlike your standard middle chapter, Star Wars: The Last Jedi hasn't been written to signpost a route to an eventual outcome. The film races straight into conflict, arriving at moments that push resolution then demand a wider re-evaluation. Rather than write to please the kind of episodic drip-feed you might expect, Johnson has constructed his film around Daisy Ridley's Rey and Adam Driver's Kylo Ren. The film moves on their decisions, using their mounting sense of uncertainty to posit routes and solutions that lie outside the strict binaries their masters are selling. Even an important, legacy character like Luke Skywalker is examined and deconstructed in ways that predominantly cater to the needs of Rey and Ren's arcs.

Full review

Structurally, Your Name hits you in waves. Makoto Shinkai's film begins as a dreamy identity mix-up with rural schoolgirl Mitsuha and big-city schoolboy Taki periodically and inexplicably swapping bodies. Since they're both fundamentally good, their response to this predicament is altruistic. Rather than use the temporary freedom to indulge their wicked fantasies, they work to improve the other's lot in life, leaving each other detailed, digital diaries to explain their choices. Naturally, a connection is formed, then immediately thwarted. Your Name isn't interested in heading straight for an expected, cute conclusion. The film never loses sight of the idea that Mitsuha and Taki's relationship began as something intangible, their connection only completely understood immediately upon waking, before your brain has had the chance to file the ache away.

Alien: Covenant // Blade of the Immortal // Blade Runner 2049 // Brawl in Cell Block 99 // Dangal // Dunkirk // Fires on the Plain // Get Out // Good Time // Prevenge // Star Wars: The Last Jedi // Your Name

Also Liked:

Baby Driver // The Big Sick // Call Me By Your Name // Catfight // Colossal // Death Note // Fast & Furious 8 // The Foreigner // Free Fire // King Arthur: Legend of the Sword // Kong: Skull Island // I, Tonya // Justice League // La La Land // Logan // Paddington 2 // 6 Days // Spider-Man: Homecoming // Thor: Ragnarok // Transformers: The Last Knight // Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets // The Villainess // War of the Planet of the Apes // Wonder Woman

Saturday, 6 January 2018

Video Games 2017

After three years spent pogoing, Call of Duty: WWII's multiplayer returns the series to a movement style that forces the player along stricter, more predictable routes. While Sledgehammer's three-lane, race-to-the-middle design philosophy doesn't really allow for prolonged roaming, a determined player can (eventually) duck and dive their way behind the advancing opposition and net themselves a couple of sneaky kills.

Following the kicking they got for DmC: Devil May Cry (the Definitive Edition of which is fucking great), not to mention the subsequent withdrawal of AAA publisher support, it looked like Ninja Theory were doomed to sweat shop development, propping up Disney's not-successful-enough Skylanders imitation. Thankfully, the talented team bounced back with Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice, an attractively priced digital release that used the studio's obsessive mo-cap detailing to chronicle a personal journey into hell.

There's an idea of excavation at the heart of Nier: Automata. Players take control of various androids, all calibrated to pleasure model dimensions, as they battle to vanquish the endless hordes of faintly pathetic looking toy robots in a world where mankind has long since vanished. Abandoned housing developments sit in vast, churning deserts, the sands littered with the bodies of networked accomplices and senile (but chipper) battle engines. Full-blown playthroughs can end on a whim while cumulative campaigns diverge and mutate just when the game seems to be settling into a rut.

The FromSoftware influence is obvious in terms of mechanics and skill progression but Nioh scratches another less obvious itch. Team Ninja have produced a modern, technically silky take on the atmospheric third-person action games that flooded the market during the PS2 era. Team Ninja's game recalls the reputable grind of their own Ninja Gaiden games or Capcom's Devil May Cry and Onimusha series, but there are also notes of the lesser-known titles. Fans of landfill slashers like Chaos Legion, Otogi, Devil Kings or even Samurai Western will find a lots to enjoy here.

Remember Teletext? Remember sitting there waiting for the ASCII text page to cycle around to the screen of information you actually wanted to read? Remember the eye-searing purples and greens? Jeff Minter's latest, Polybius, is like falling head-first into a violent, psychotropic approximation of that interlaced maelstrom.

A politics game told with the interactive language of a dating app, Reigns: Her Majesty casts the player as an immortal soul reincarnating as a succession of medieval Queens. Each time you ascend to the throne, your task is to juggle individual wants and desires with those of various, competing branches of the kingdom. Act a bit too modern and the church will clamp down; explore your benevolence and an enraptured populace will storm the castle, trampling you to death in some misguided attempt at adulation.

Abandoning the deathly dull AAA blockbuster approach of the last installment, Resident Evil 7: Biohazard takes the player back to moldy mansions and staggered, creeping progress. Later sections drag themselves down through repetition and a disappointing need to explain away the toxic waste enemies but 7's opening salvo - stumbling around a Texas Chain Saw house avoiding your invincible white trash hosts - is delightful.

Sonic Mania is wonderful. Christian Whitehead, PagodaWest and Headcannon have produced a game exactly as intoxicating as being ten years old and seeing expansive, stitched-together screenshots of Sonic CD in Mega magazine. That is the highest praise I have.

Finally released on the PS4 this year (with an extra screen to boot), Undertale gives the player control of a lumpy kid, very much in the Klasky Csupo mold, who must brave a purgatory filled with childlike monsters. Undertale takes your basic Game Boy RPG then weaves in a storyline that deconstructs the kind of sociopathic hunter-gatherer actions that underline structurally similar titles. Developer Toby Fox uses 8-bit imagery to lull the player into regurgitating strategies learned elsewhere, exploring how the greed and self-interest that powers your typical video game hero is thoroughly incompatible with a society that hasn't been built to cater to their whim.

Basically unplayable as a standard, post-up first-person shooter, Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus instead demands that you dual wield assault rifles and ricochet around the levels like a fucking maniac. Stage layouts and enemy movement patterns tease an idea of a perfect, stealthy playthrough but, more often than not, cautious progress will just get you perished.

Lizardcube's remake of undervalued 8-bit adventurer Wonder Boy: The Dragon's Trap allows the player to toggle back-and-forth between the game's original Master System graphics and Ben Fiquet's beautiful, watercolour reinterpretation. Although this isn't the first game to include a visual swap feature, Dragon's Trap impresses because of how Fiquet's art explodes the original's basic blips and blocks, massaging an 8-bit suggestion into expansive, detailed landscapes. The implementation becomes satisfying unto itself.

If you abandon the central plot, Yakuza 0 is like a holiday. You get to guide your beefy avatar around an immaculate reproduction of 1980s Tokyo, popping into convenience stores to sample all kinds of delicious looking snacks. There are arcades to hang around and unreadable magazine racks to browse. 0 reinforces this dithering by allowing the player to lose themselves in side-quests: rather than worry too much about organised crime you can always just help some extremely gentle punks bluff their way through a music press interview instead.

Call of Duty: WWII // Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice // Nier: Automata // Nioh // Polybius // Reigns: Her Majesty // Resident Evil 7: Biohazard // Sonic Mania // Undertale (PS4) // Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus // Wonder Boy: The Dragon's Trap // Yakuza 0

Also Liked:

ACA Neo Geo series // Accounting+ // Cosmic Star Heroine // Cursed Castilla (Maldita Castilla EX) // Dandy Dungeon: Legend of Brave Yamada // Everything // Flinthook // Fu'un Super Combo (PS4) // Gran Turismo Sport // Little Nightmares // Marvel vs Capcom Infinite // My Brother Ate My Pudding - Escape Room // My Name is Mayo // Super Hydorah