Wednesday, 30 December 2020

Films 2020

A comedy of errors, Beasts Clawing at Straws charts the incremental progress of an article of hand luggage - a designer bag stuffed with cash stacks, originating from a dodgy life insurance pay out. The film, based on a novel by Keisuke Sone, allows writer-director Kim Yong-hoon to sketch out a variety of greedy patsies, each brimming with the boundless energy and bad decisions of the unexpectedly wealthy. Along the way, the coveted hold-all briefly comes into the possession of Jeon Do-yeon's Yeon-hee, the madam-cum-muscle for a hostess club. Yeon-hee represents a cooler head in Beasts, a life-long scammer willing to play up to a variety of interpersonal roles - from doting girlfriend to wise mentor - in order to stake a claim. In a film full of excitable amateurs, Yeon-hee displays a detached expertise, quickly calculating her perceived standing in relation to her temporary partner then moulding their relationship in ways designed to exploit their calamitous underestimation. 

The tragic, untimely, passing of the brilliant Chadwick Boseman intensifies an ache already felt in Spike Lee's often unflinching Da 5 Bloods. The film, in part an examination of the devastated psychological landscapes imprinted by the Vietnam War (told with The Treasure of the Sierra Madre action-adventure scaffolding), pivots on memory - particularly those of the men who survived Boseman's commanding officer, Stormin' Norman. The waking recollections of these elderly men - vignettes told without substitute actors or sandpapered avatars - present Norman in adoring terms. He is both ageless and perfect, the star that this disparate, disintegrating, platoon orbits around. In death, Norman represents everything the proxy war conflict took from these soldiers. Not just their youth but their agency; the confidence, or ability, to overcome momentary selfishness or, at their lowest, craven impulses. In the minds of these men, Norman towers. A revolutionary holy man who held stick-up sermons to an always enraptured audience. 

A horror film located in a very specific sociocultural moment, Host charts the rapid disintegration of a socially distanced, video conference séance after one participant - you know the type, thinks they're hilarious - completely fails to take the dead contacting seriously. Writer-director Rob Savage, working with co-writers Gemma Hurley and Jed Shepherd, build their fairground ride out of the pressures and disappointments inherent to this once-removed form of telecommunication - specifically, how it expands a sense of personal disconnection. The central friendship group clearly has factions and sub-groups; straining niceties in the face of the louder, lairier, participants who bubble up and overwhelm this carefully curated spooky Zoom. When calamity arrives, the punishments are varied and overwhelming, completely disproportional to crimes committed and predicated on the swirling tension of an empty background space waiting to be filled. 

Brandon Cronenberg's Possessor traffics in cruelty, using a massive technological leap to explore discordant interior desires, specifically those that revolve around curdled ambitions. Whatever kind of person Andrea Riseborough's Vos was before she embarked on her homicidal career path is irrelevant, she's a communicable idea now, one focused around plunging a knife into a lawyer's throat or the amount of pressure required to shatter a billionaire's jaw. Vos swims on the periphery, initially drunk on the power and immunity her hijacking missions provide, later a fading passenger in a brain-wipe link-up that has overstayed its welcome.

Promare's use of 3D animation is novel, at times closer to the kind of blocking and arrangement seen in sixth generation video games. Armoured up characters in Hiroyuki Imaishi's film prowl with the same deliberate gait seen in supernaturally themed releases - the creeping marionettes of the early 2000s, a style of ambulation currently out-of-fashion following the interactive industry's decision to fully embrace motion capture. Lio Fotia, the high commander of the mutant Burnish, is introduced wrapped in an ink black battle plate. Once cracked, a childlike face oozes through the damage - a snarling cherub, very much in the style of manga greats such as Osamu Tezuka or Mitsuteru Yokoyama. This is what Promare offers: a fluid, expert conversation between classic and futuristic visual techniques. The harsh polygons of computational smoke and flame effects sit perfectly alongside figures that betray a fitful, human, expression.

Writer-director Steve McQueen and co-writer Courttia Newland's Red, White and Blue brings a generational dimension to the real-life activism of London Metropolitan Police Officer Leroy Logan. The film initially proposes a divergence, with the academic Logan forgoing a promising career in Applied Biology to pursue institutional change in a racist police force, much to the frustration of his Jamaican-born father, Ken, a frequent target for white, uniformed, bully boys. John Boyega's Leroy and Steve Toussaint's Ken spend the majority of the film at odds; simmering together in silent, but palpable, disagreement - Ken resenting his son for what he contextualises as a form of betrayal. Ken is portrayed as difficult throughout Red, White and Blue, particularly when he clumsily engages with the women in his family. He's opinionated and disinclined to peace-making but it's this forthrightness that powers his son - a ground floor personality trait that allows Leroy to stride into the lion's den, chest out, then shout down the snivelling cowards who deface his locker. 

Director Masaaki Yuasa and writer Reiko Yoshida manufacture up a beautiful sense of breeziness with Ride Your Wave, a film that plays to the romantic strengths that Yuasa displayed (between the rending) in 2018's Devilman Crybaby. Without giving too much away, the film charts the relationship between Hinako Mukaimizu, a shy surfer, and Minato Hinageshi, a confident but disarming firefighter. Their love is sincerely and unselfconsciously sketched, the duo bonding on their journeys to the beach and their mutual affection for a sing-song chart hit. Hinako and Minato's connection is portrayed in passionate, if not necessarily physical, terms; the pair long for each other, accepting their new partner as the missing piece of themselves. Wave has an ache to it, even before fate intervenes.

Christopher Nolan's temporal thriller Tenet has so much to tell you that it affects an aggressive posture, detailing conversations with the crisp clip of a fist fight. The film is, essentially, Nolan's science fiction take on a James Bond film (or perhaps more accurately, an Ian Fleming novel) with entropy inverted invaders subbing in for the usual megalomaniacs. The concept of rewinding calamity provides Tenet a genuine puzzle to decode, allowing Nolan access to briefing scenes that do not run on the staid explanations of atomic bomb defusal or cyber-security blather. Entertaining a similar sense of trespass to the 1960s Bond films, Tenet's central spy forces his way into simmering social circles, accessing Kenneth Branagh's monstrous Sator through Kat, the estranged wife he tortures (Elizabeth Debicki in a role that oscillates between underwritten and pivotal). John David Washington's unnamed CIA agent may eventually stray into the disconnected realm of the all-knowing but the discombobulated-but-game energy present in the film's early passages is reminiscent of George Lazenby's performance in On Her Majesty's Secret Service - a creeping sense of arrogance informed by narrow successes. 

The tension between expectation and desire rendered as a feature-length panic attack. Benny Safdie and Josh Safdie's Uncut Gems is pure momentum, tracking Adam Sandler's Howard Ratner, a gambling addict who willingly hurls himself deeper and deeper into impenetrable, tail-gobbling, basketball spreads. Despite nothing but set-backs, Howard never loses an assailed sense of optimism, babbling away in shrieking SNL tones, clad head-to-toe in expensive, baggy, sweats. Howard is your typical, hectoring, Sandler character, possessing a face fixed in a leering perma-grin with an outlook geared only for terminal indulgence. Unlike Sandler's 90s smash comedies, Uncut Gems traps this gibbering maniac in a realm of pure hostility. Howard is punished and pummelled, chewed up over and over again for failing to shut the fuck up and fall in line. Absolutely brilliant. 

An escaped man thriller that does not labour under the delusion of flight. Hu Ge's Zhou Zenong represents criminality as a fading tremor, the leader of a small group of motorcycle thieves who operate amongst a grumbling, and ultimately treasonous, co-op. Diao Yinan's The Wild Goose Lake traps its subjects in and around a decaying waterside town notable for labyrinthine food stands and paddling sex workers. Following the shooting of a policeman, a case of mistaken identity, Zhou goes into hiding, prolonging his capture so he can send word to his estranged wife to grass him up for the reward money. Navigating an underworld now teeming with stomping soldiers and swarms of undercover (and underglowing) policemen is Gwei Lun-Mei's Liu Aiai, the bathing beauty selected to be Zhou's contact. Like Zhou, Liu operates from a position of defeat, grasping at fleeting pleasantries rather than seismic, romantic, change. 

Also liked:

Alone // Away // Bad Boys for Life // Beastie Boys Story // Bill & Ted Face the Music // Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn // Borat Subsequent Moviefilm // Burrow // Emma // His House // The Invisible Man // Lamp Life // The Lighthouse // Lost Bullet // Lupin III: The First // Martin Scorsese's Quarantine Short Film // New York New York // Out // 1917 // Puparia // Rocks // The Secret Garden // She Dies Tomorrow // Soul // Superman: Red Son // Time to Hunt // Trip to Greece // Underwater // Wonder Woman 1984 // You Cannot Kill David Arquette

Tuesday, 29 December 2020

Video Games 2020

Last year's instalment in the never-ending Call of Duty franchise, the Modern Warfare reboot, didn't really gel with me. As beautifully appointed as that game's multiplayer was, it seemed solely designed around seeking out head-glitches to shoot incoming traffic. All other playstyles, particularly rushing, felt not so much neutered but actively detrimental. While I'm not opposed to vanquishing unthinking invaders - as the above clip demonstrates - I prefer it when multiplayer stages aren't designed to cater specifically to that trepidatious style of interaction. I want to roam around the outside of the map, avoiding the meat-grinder middles to stage a series of base-pushes. Never quite enough so the safe areas flip, but certainly hoping to catch the newly spawned unaware. A few maps aside, Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War caters to this seeking, hewing closer to the pre-jump pack era of the early Modern Warfare and Black Ops series. 

A special mention too for Call of Duty: Warzone, the free-to-play battle royale with an elegant armour-up solution that kept Infinity Ward's latest firmly installed, even though the newer game jettisoned Blackout's brilliant weapon accessory gathering loop. Warzone's comparatively massive play area and juiced-up health settings also helped to butt Modern Warfare's weapon meta in a few interesting directions; while the seasonal game mode additions were often superb - particularly the Zombie Royale rules added for Halloween. 


A few one-note redesigns aside, Bluepoint's biggest contribution to FromSoftware's Demon's Souls was technical stability. The 60Hz performance mode tightened the game's drum, lending character movement a darting, anchored, sense of weight rather than haphazard clash experienced on the game's ancient, bloomed-out PS3 version. This rock-solid refresh rate (only really dipping for this player when jostling ogres in fossil-filled spider tunnels) unifies the game's otherwise disparate aesthetics, delivering rolling encounters carried along by superb tank combat and load times that are practically nil. PS5 Demon's Souls is in many ways a dream game, a big budget pass for a series (and, in FromSoft, a game development studio) that excels in every other area but visual stability. For someone who collected a stack of White Dwarf magazines as a child, Bluepoint's authoritative remake is exactly the adventure I was after when tip-toeing through Fighting Fantasy game books like Ian Livingstone's Deathtrap Dungeon or Mark Smith and Jamie Thomson's Sword of the Samurai

Demon's Tier+ curses players to wander pixelated ruins, seeking out keys and blasting incoming hordes. A twin-stick shooter with a roguelike underpinning, Demon's Tier+ welcomes adventurers into a series of procedurally generated dungeons, each requiring the completion of a basic task before you are forced to make a swift exit - completionism is proposed by a slowly unfolding map and treasures crammed into every nook-and-cranny but, dawdle too long, and an angel of death appears, drifting through walls and other obstacles to lay its invulnerable finger on you. Tier+ excels thanks to a 'one more go' difficulty tuning that recalls the great arcade coin gobblers. Opportunities for success, and failure, are innumerable and ever-changing, meaning there's always a reason to take yet another plunge. 

An interactive foam rubber gameshow, Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout sees dozens of networked players cramming themselves into a series of obstacle courses, hoping to escape an end of stage cull. Fall Guys has the faint whiff of social experiment about it, especially since each of the unfolding levels contains multiple chances for progress resetting calamity. Since it's not always wise to race ahead, contestants often bunch up, moving as one massive, cowardly, blob. Vulnerable parties are prodded - or outright pushed - forward, to test the cracking ice. 

A stealth action game that massages players towards outright savagery, The Last of Us Part II - especially in its first-half and concluding chapter - delivers an experience less obviously regimented than its predecessor. Part II opens up its combat areas, trapping lead characters Ellie and Abby in expansive, multi-layered dungeons. Threat in this sequel feels more prolonged and less like you're disturbing an otherwise passive arena. In that sense Naughty Dog have successfully modelled enemy encounters much closer to the free-flowing multiplayer of the first game, tasking its audience to be quick-witted and reactive rather than simply dominant.  

A twitchy twin-stick shooter with an extremely basic two colour aesthetic, Null Drifter begins easily enough with a shimmering ship nudging around a one-screen alien invasion. Eventually the trip-hop beats agitate, signalling a head-first plummet into a dithering screen-seizure. Demands on the player become constant, requiring much quicker thinking and reactions than I betray in the above vid. Panda Indie Studio's game reminds me of the ancient Apple Macintosh port of Asteroids, a black and white rock battler that popped up occasionally in the 80s end of my childhood but with a speed and feedback loop now fine-tuned for hyper fighting. 

First time through Resident Evil 3 is a rolling disappointment, a truncated half-game that plays more like additional content for the recent Resident Evil 2 remake than a full-blooded bash at recreating 1999's Last Escape. Resident Evil 3 2020 improves tremendously on a New Game+ file, when expectations have been completely curtailed and the player is tackling the game as a series of closed loops - hunting keys and burning rubber with the in-game Shop in the back of their mind. The post-completion store offers a variety of new weapons and items that upset the finely tuned (but not necessarily super fun) survival horror balance. In truth this 3 is a piecemeal experience, encounters that barely track on an unsullied playthrough are able to shine when attacked in the singular; mercenary rushes disconnected from a half-baked narrative that only pollutes Capcom's dynamic third-person action model. 

Initially wonderful simply because it breaths new life into a long-neglected (but no less beloved) Sega franchise, Lizardcube, Guard Crush Games and DotEmu's Streets of Rage 4 gradually reveals the chasmic depth working beneath the obviously stunning, hand-drawn, artwork. The game rewards a long-term commitment beyond simply thumping the colourful aggressors, building into a thesis-level appraisal of belt action gameplay mechanics. Rage 4's diverse enemy spawns can be directed, pummelled and rearranged into level-long strings with players physically positioning their rager in ways that ensure a straining combo continuity. 

Get a couple of playthroughs under your belt and the game allows players to select classic, sprite-based, characters hailing from the three 16-bit Mega Drive instalments. During their initial reveal I, wrongly, assumed these late additions would be placeholder dumps, covering for this belated sequel's unfinished, not-quite-extended, cast. As it happens these unlock fighters are closer to museum pieces, lovingly transplanted relics with move-sets that both compliment and defy Streets of Rage 4's push-and-pull between jeopardy and empowerment. Rage 4 is an instant classic; gameplay as arcade academia that recalls Capcom's equally wonderful victory lap brawler, Hyper Street Fighter II: The Anniversary Edition.

It definitely helps that I have very little exposure to the Dragon Quest series or SNES classic Secret of Mana. It ensures that the idea of a game dressed up in Akira Toriyama's finest livery remains almost completely novel. With that in mind Trials of Mana is an interactive treat, a bright and colourful landscape full of wonderfully designed monsters to whack. Toriyama is an incredible talent, a genius level cartoonist with a genuinely magical touch when it comes to imbuing knockabout nonsense with a distinct sense of, not just character, but mischief. That's Trials of Mana, an extremely traditional sense of progression massaged with endless encounters with jerks straight off the pages of Toriyama's beautiful The World artbook. 

Monday, 21 December 2020

Music 2020

ALISON - Sunshine Girl // Christine and the Queens - People, I've Been Sad // Crystal Cola - Seaside Cocktail // DEEM - City Walk // Everything Everything - Violent Sun // Fiona Apple - I Want You to Love Me // Haim - The Steps // Hayley Williams - Dead Horse // HER - Hold On // Hotel Pools - Snowfall // Jessie Ware - Spotlight // Kupla - Weightless // lojii - Lo & Behold [prod. Swarvy] // Memorex Memories - Midnight Madonna // Olivier Deriviere - Rising Up (Extended) // Power Glove - Brain Jack // Phoebe Bridgers - Kyoto // Rina Sawayama - STFU! // System96 - Imagine // Tonebox & Lucy in Disguise - Road Rage // Taylor Swift - This is Me Trying (The Long Pond Studio Sessions) // Unfound - Clarity (WIP)

Sunday, 20 December 2020

NiElsir - Aurorean

Mega Drive - ZPF

Coming soon to Sega's 16-bit home system! ZPF, an absolutely gorgeous arcade shooter (that looks like Gynoug by way of Mega Turrican) from Gryzor, jgvex and Tanzer vet Mikael Tillander. 

Saturday, 12 December 2020

Billy the Kid - A Day Out

snaer. - December

Captain America by Tatsuki Fujimoto

NieR Replicant ver. 1.22474487139... - BARRAGE

Described by series producer Yousuke Saito as a 'version up' rather than a remake of Nier Replicant (a Japanese exclusive PS3 release), the thoroughly titled NieR Replicant ver. 1.22474487139... looks to be continuing a new and very much appreciated trend (shouts also to Bluepoint) for the technical rejuvenating of notable curios that otherwise sputtered along on Sony's notoriously fussy seventh gen system. 

Friday, 11 December 2020

Season - JAM JAR

Scavengers Studio follow-up Darwin Project, their stab at the battle royale rush, with Season, a beautifully mounted game that looks to combine the summertime melancholy of a Studio Ghibli film (in no small part due to that Joe Hisaishi soundalike on the piano) with the lonesome but picturesque wandering of Hideo Kojima's Death Stranding

Back 4 Blood - SAFE HOUSE

Speaking of potential (nearly) squandered, Turtle Rock Studios, formerly Valve South, are prepping cooperative horde shooter Back 4 Blood for release. A belated follow-up to the fantastic Left 4 Dead games (a series that Valve themselves quite apparently no longer have any interest in), Back 4 Blood looks to be designed around a similar gameplay flow - coping with the easily vanquished, but sometimes overwhelming ,undead while keeping an eye out for creeping, specialised, super zombies. 

Perfect Dark - FARSIGHT

It's been crazy seeing Rare absolutely die on the vine after Microsoft's purchase of the studio. After a brief rush of early Xbox 360 releases, the British developers - who had, let's not forgot, consistently delivered games absolutely at the level of their internally developed Nintendo stablemates - were demoted to dashboard avatars. Absolutely criminal. What are Rare working on currently? No idea. Certainly not this belated reboot of Perfect Dark - that honour falls to The Initiative, a new studio based in Santa Monica who Microsoft are talking up as their AAAA secret weapon. 

Ghosts 'n Goblins Resurrection - ACME

Based on almost nothing, I'm a bit peeved that Ghosts 'n Goblins Resurrection doesn't have an art style laboriously patterned after the chromed luxury of legendary Famitsu family artist (and Maximo: Ghosts to Glory concept artist) Susumu Matsushita. Still, this watercolour picture book look has has a charm of its own, transforming the digital nudges of a precarious player into the over-ambulated comedy of a Tex Avery cartoon character. 

Capcom Arcade Stadium - GOING ALL-OUT

Rather than release individual emulation suites like Hamster have done with their superlative Arcade Archives series, Capcom are back drip-feeding DLC content packs for a freemium download. Exclusive to Nintendo's Switch, by all accounts, Capcom Arcade Stadium is a bells-and-whistles update of M2's Capcom Arcade Cabinet, released on PS3 and Xbox 360 in 2013 (itself a reworking of the PS1 and Sega Saturn's Capcom Generations series). No word if M2 are involved for this round of coin inserting. 

Warhammer 40,000: Darktide - CHAINSWORD

Since all my Warhammer 40,000 knowledge revolves around half-remembered John Blanche illustrations from Rogue Trader era rulebooks and mid-90s copies of White Dwarf, I'm going to assume that Warhammer: Vermintide developers Fatshark are updating their scuttling horde-shooter to include beleaguered Imperial Guardspersons battling against aggro alien death cults? Surrounding blurbs for Warhammer 40,000: Darktide seem to indicate that the wave-based foe are aligned with Chaos - I was expecting Genestealer hybrid gangs? They were the hive infestation of choice back when I was a bit more attuned to this universe. Have the Tyranids gone the way of the Squats?