Saturday, 24 April 2021

Mortal Kombat

Mortal Kombat's problem is it keeps proposing situations and scenarios that are far more exciting than anything the film actually ends up being about. Initially it appears the filmmakers have twigged that, for a video game series suffering under mountains of contradictory lore, the franchise's most gripping tension is the one between the two colour-coded ninjas positioned at either ends of the first game's character select screen. Simon McQuoid's film, screenplay by Greg Russo and Dave Callaham, begins in the midst of feudal artifice, with Joe Taslim's Chinese Sub Zero leading an army of expendable goons to the sliding door of his Japanese rival, Hiroyuki Sanada's Scorpion. Whatever the root of their conflict, the two assassins cannot communicate; the pair exchange growls in incompatible mother tongues before cutting each other down. 

Although affected in terms of location - a picturesque minka, complete with nearby stream - this prologue is by far the most assured segment in terms of storytelling and action choreography. Taslim and Sanada's mutual loathing is palpable and, once we've been battered over the head by the tragic symbolism of Scorpion's trademark spear tip, the swirling violence that issues from this twilight Samurai often tracks movement from the first twitch of an arm to the clattering, bloody, result. Expectation raised into the heavens, the film comes crashing down with the introduction of Lewis Tan's Cole Young, an MMA tomato, bumming around modern day gyms and marked for death by multi-dimensional wizardry. Taslim reappears in this section as a spectral blizzard, indiscriminately lashing innocent bystanders with a torrent of brick sized hail in pursuit of a Tan's cross-generational loose end. Hand-to-hand kombat is briefly subordinated by weaving trucks and KelTec shotguns, suggesting a prolonged, supernatural, chase.

Sadly, Mortal Kombat isn't interested in hurtling momentum; neither is the film content to build itself around a tightknit family besieged by weather warping button men. Taslim's mighty presence is tidied far away from a scholastic special in which a team of attractive martial artists slowly learn to channel their cosmic energies for a tournament that never actually comes. Mortal Kombat's middle section is massive and yawning, a lumpen mega-act straining to solve a deeply unnecessary storytelling decision that demands that each of our fantasy fighter heroes begin this would-be series as rookies, unable to summon up any of the game's countless special moves. Cole's path to power, training alongside Ludi Lin's Liu Kang, Mehcad Brooks' Jax, Max Huang's Kung Lao and Jessica McNamee's Sonya, is nothing like the computer assisted chanbara that opens the film either, their scuffles often resolving to a weakly animated collage that completely loses track of Kombatants and pales in comparison to the FX studios' blubbery, Body Worlds, fatalities. 

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles by Juni Ba

The Smashing Pumpkins - Go

StackOne - naura

Thursday, 22 April 2021

Scream 3

Firmly in the realm of Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! nonsense, Scream 3 sees the series slide further into a bloodless, but still entertaining, state of self-parody. Director Wes Craven's third entry, working from a script by Ehren Kruger (Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Dark of the Moon and Age of Extinction), allows the characters to drift a little further away from each other before it finds a homicidal cause to reunite them. Neve Campbell's Sidney Prescott lives in picturesque seclusion, fielding crisis calls for victims of domestic abuse. David Arquette's Deputy Dewey, now a little steadier on his feet, works in Los Angeles as a technical consultant on Stab, the schlocky franchise within this film series. Courteney Cox's indefatigable Gale Weathers is also out and about in LA, meeting the actress who portrays her on the big screen - Parker Posey's hare-brained Jennifer Jolie - and investigating the secret Hollywood history of Sidney's dead mother, Maureen. 

Seemingly barred from exploring lacerating violence, this sequel leans closer to the strange and supernatural than any previous Scream. Sidney is visited in her dreams by her murdered parent, a restless, rotting, spectre who smears her congealed blood all over her daughter's beautiful bay window. This film's Ghostface - essentially an abandoned child in the midst of violent hissy fit - appears then disappears with the teleporting logic of Jason Voorhees and is similarly immune to small arms fire. This turbo-charged killer also has access to a portable voice changer that allows him to sample and remix speech from any source, enabling all sorts of simulated betrayal. The show business setting, broad enough to encompass other damned citizens of the Weinstein cinematic universe, vacillates between the comedy observed in unacknowledged narcissism and, in its bleaker moments, hints at the yawning chasm within the powerful men who take full advantage of young, struggling, actresses. In this sense, Scream 3 does provide a thematic connection to the first film but the crimes of these sexually abusive men are crowded out by a final act reveal that dares to rewrite established text. 

Superman by Victor Santos

Thursday, 15 April 2021

Scream 2

Rushed into production after the success of the first film, Scream 2 is less concerned with following up on the themes and threads of its predecessor and more interested in examining itself from a metatextual perspective - the quicky sequel as an obligatory, financially lucrative, imperative. Director Wes Craven and screenwriter Kevin Williamson both return, their second stab at the material seeking to deconstruct immediate follow-ups as a concept, specifically the ways in which successive instalments attempt to re-bottle lighting. In Scream 2's case, this is an especially difficult proposition, following on from a film that was designed to present itself as literate, but ironic, and concluded with both murderers definitively vanquished. Turns out branding is the series' most consistent aspect; Scream 2's killers adopt the same ghostly fright mask persona as Stu and Billy Loomis. 

Although not necessarily ill-considered, there's a sense of needless haste in Scream 2, particularly when it comes to the finesse side of the production. The first Scream had a strangely indifferent musical voice, crowbarring in Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds or grinding mood pieces to bluntly establish a scene's tone. Scream 2 goes even further into temp-tracking, licensing a Hans Zimmer piece from John Woo's smoky, swaggering, Broken Arrow (released not even two years prior) that springs to life every time David Arquette's unwavering ex-cop Dewey does something gently masculine. The music isn't at odds with the image in this instance, in fact the unhurried plucking compliments them greatly, but you're always aware that these notes have been lifted from another, hardly obscure, source. At the other end of the scale, the fetid approximation of Ska that closes the film does nothing but puncture a bereft Sidney's hard won victory. This clumsiness extends out into Scream 2's structural make-up too - the détente between Neve Campbell's Sidney and Courteney Cox's muckraking reporter Gale Weathers dissolves so instantly that the falling out feels less like a character expressing personal betrayal and more like an artificial obstacle dumped carelessly into the film. 

While not as fun as a high school friendship circle in homicidal meltdown, Scream 2's university setting does allow a certain kind of young adult pantomime to emerge. These students dress and behave with an air of affected maturity; teenagers straining to live with a straight-laced professionalism they've only read about in lifestyle magazines. Disappointingly, this tension between commercial façade and disappointing reality doesn't feed into either of the killers' intentions or identity. The duo stalking Windsor College don't have a motive carefully threaded throughout the meat of the episode either, their causes aren't even aligned with each other. Timothy Olyphant's Mickey has a reheated copycat motive while Laurie Metcalf's Debbie Salt eventually drops her phoney reporter cover to behave with the shrieking mania of a slasher movie mother. A far more bombastic conclusion than Scream's idiots dying in slow motion then. While the film doesn't quite come together thematically, it does contain a couple of carefully crafted set-pieces, the best of which sees Sidney and her friend, Elise Neal's Hallie, crawling from the back seat of a crashed patrol car, past the remains of a burst policeman and over an unconscious costumed murderer. 

Punch and Counterpunch by Rui Onishi

Thom Yorke - Videotape, Down is the New Up and Last Flowers

Wednesday, 14 April 2021

Returnal - DOUBLE DASH

Housemarque's PS5 exclusive Returnal promises ground and air dashing (brilliant), as well as a menagerie of alien menaces that run the gamut from moon beasts to slithering approximations of the player character. There are notes of From Software's games, not just in some of the enemy designs but also a gameplay model that appears to be very much rooted in opportunistic attacks and invincibility frame retreats. It's also encouraging that despite their move to a three dimensional movement model, twin-stick shooter experts Housemarque haven't turned their back on resurgent, crashing, waves of regimented bullets. 

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Shredder's Revenge - GRAND UPPER

Tribute Games, the Ninja Senki DX and Flinthook devs, are collaborating with Streets of Rage 4 publisher's DotEmu to deliver Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Shredder's Revenge. In this first gameplay clip we get a look at simultaneous four player as well as rolling brawls that hint at command dashes and rushing attacks. There's also clear demonstrations of each Ninja Turtle's screen clearing special attacks. Fun on wheels. 

Oxenfree II: Lost Signals - DIALOGUE CHOICE

Announced during Nintendo's Indie Direct stream, Night School Studio's Oxenfree II: Lost Signals is due sometime this year on Switch and Steam. Fingers crossed other systems follow quickly. The first Oxenfree, released in 2016, was an entertaining coming-of-age adventure game that saw a gang of love sick teens scouring a mysterious island plagued by supernatural radio static. 

Monday, 12 April 2021

Paladin - Zone I - II

Perturbator - Dethroned Under A Funeral Haze


Remembered for a misleading ad campaign that positioned Drew Barrymore as the star or the ways in which Jamie Kennedy's video shop clerk directly addressed the audience, Wes Craven's Scream - at least on this viewing - plays more like a film committed to detailing a particularly awful relationship. Neve Campbell plays Sidney Prescott, a teenager mourning the brutal murder of her gossip magnet mother. Her boyfriend, Skeet Ulrich's Billy Loomis, quivers with hormonal tension, absolutely desperate to trap Sidney in any situation conductive to him taking her virginity. Knowing the film's twist - that boyfriend Billy and his lickspittle, Matthew Lillard's Stu, are the killers - reorganises Craven's slasher film, magnifying the kind of pleading and placating inherent to any relationship in which one party is doggedly seeking some kind of access from another. 

Billy is consistently thoughtless throughout Scream, acting with a creepiness that is only really massaged by the proximity Sidney allows this boy to have to her. Sidney holds a certain kind of status within the film, apart from being the main character she's portrayed as forthright, morally good, and willing to take physical action when prompted. The character therefore works against a designation of one-dimensional victim. This standing has a knock on effect for Billy - if the clever, collected, Sidney sees something in him, maybe we should too? Really, Billy isn't too far away from the hornier male characters present in screenwriter Kevin Williamson's contemporary TV series Dawson's Creek. Billy is pop culture (rather than emotionally) literate and, seemingly, sensitive enough to play the long game with a girlfriend who isn't currently comfortable having sex with him. 

Billy needles though. Beginning with an impatient hectoring, his arguments grow over the course of the film, the young man's need to get his own way eventually revealing a complete absence of empathy. The ghost-faced Father Death costume that Billy and Stu wear when on the prowl serves not only this psychological deficiency but also a structural function within the film; The Munch-mask is instantly identifiable as dangerous. It's an anonymous and interchangeable kind of peril though, one that speaks to a violent haunting rather than a calculating but deranged perspective. Unmasked, the individual homicides that Billy and Stu have committed now clearly have roots in human thought processes. What prompted these slayings then? Among the ex-girlfriends and love rivals are Rose McGowan's Tatum, Sidney's similarly direct best friend and the current girlfriend of Stu. Her murder - crushed in a malfunctioning electrical garage door - has a level of perverse curiosity to it, like a smug cat playing with a dying mouse. 

When the subject of Tatum's absence comes up, it's positioned as convenient for Billy and his continued attempts to get Sidney on her own. Stu is also dismissive when asked where his girlfriend is, outwardly unconcerned but apparently happy to be either complicit to, or the active element in, her elimination. This casual approach to human cruelty echoes throughout a film filled with myopic, predatory boys and the self-assured women they hope to taint. In this way Craven and Williamson's film skewers a genre often noted for knuckle-dragging sexual politics simply by offering up plenty of confident, capable, women. The whodunnit guessing game is subverted too. By focusing all of the film's male outlooks around some kind of predatory intent, Craven and Williamson implicate all of them. Every male character is used in ways that align with some barely repressed ulterior motive, be that the bumbling cop happy to lead an attractive newscaster down dark country lanes or the high school student who raped then murdered his girlfriend's mother because, in part, he couldn't bully her daughter into bed. 

Thursday, 8 April 2021

Death From Above 1979 - Totally Wiped Out

Streets of Rage 4 - SWORDFISH

Streets of Rage 4's Mr X Nightmare DLC adds three new playable characters and a survival mode to one of last year's very best games. This paid update releases alongside a patch with some quality of life tweaks as well as a new difficulty mode and alternative colours for each of the playable Ragers. Perhaps we'll get the strange, Turbo-style colours seen in the western releases of Streets of Rage 3? Axel always looked pretty cool in a yellow T and black jeans. Officer Estel, a boss in the initial release of this sequel, is the first of the revealed fighters, while the shapes of the two remaining silhouettes would seem to suggest another two end-of-level challengers, the brainwashed Max and Mr X's right-hand man, Shiva? 

Street Fighter V - PROJECT JUSTICE

After 20 years away Akira Kazama, the leather biker brawler from Rival Schools: United by Fate and Dreamcast gem Project Justice, is back! Scheduled for release sometime this Summer, Akira is a welcome addition to Street Fighter V's roster, recalling a time when Capcom were battering out hit after hit in fight-focused arcades. By now a long dormant property, Rival Schools is up there with Power Stone and Darkstalkers as a series begging for a modern follow up. 

Monday, 5 April 2021

Godzilla vs. Kong

Despite placing Godzilla's name at the top of the card, Adam Wingard's Godzilla vs. Kong is very much structured around Edgar Wallace and Merian C Cooper's Eighth Wonder of the World. Like seemingly every Warner Bros tentpole these days, Godzilla vs. Kong's debut is preceded by rumours of production difficulties and whispers of a director being side-lined or second-guessed. This initial release version (presuming another may eventually follow) is very much like the theatrical cut of Zack Snyder's Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice in that the assembly itself has chosen their preferred combatant. While Snyder's film strained to place Batman in a driving seat that the character hadn't been designed for, this MonsterVerse sequel happily motors along under Kong's impressive steam. 

Josh Schaffer's brisk edit, and perhaps even Eric Pearson and Max Borenstein's screenplay, makes gigantic strides to keep the film under two hours. The minutiae of kaiju wrangling is renounced, circumvented by witty snips and tranquil 70s rock that centres Kong's predicament as the film's driving force. The soundtrack speaks for him. This computer generated Kong, mapped out by umpteen special effects studios, is never simply a featured trick - he's the film's mute male lead. An ape the size of a building that is (somehow) communicated as an underdog; struggling manfully to not only keep himself breathing, but to protect the puny humans that have made themselves his family. Wingard's Kong is one weathered by age, far past his blonde abducting years, happily settled into the role of a colossal Grandfather to the last human survivor of Skull Island, Kaylee Hottle's Jia. 

Lifted out of an enclosure lined with a flat panel sky, Kong is press-ganged into acting as a guide for Alexander Skarsgård and Rebecca Hall's seafaring academics - the hope being that a brush with his ancestral environment will spark something in the ape's latent, genetic, memory. The sense of discovery that Godzilla vs. Kong offers is communicated, not just thematically but emotionally, using the film's enormous gorilla. Godzilla is simply a reactive force, acting as the predatory answer to mankind's latest pilot driven horror. It's a portrayal very much like the King of Monster's role in the Millennium era of his Japanese series but it's also a framing that keeps him offscreen for the majority of the runtime. Kong on the other hand is placed in chains and shipped back to a point of origin that he has no living connection to. Like the 1933 original, Kong's story here is one of displacement. The character, always portrayed as some form of prisoner, suffers for the curiosity, or outright greed, of humans. 

In this film the physical trajectory, if not the dynamic, is reversed. So instead of being tranquilised then shipped off to a New York to be gawped at, the Skull Island native is drugged for passage to the Antarctic, the icy continent apparently the one stable access point to the mythical Pangea at the centre of the Earth. Kong's place in Hollow Earth is hereditary rather than personal but the prehistoric, lighting racked, location does allow the long-suffering primate an opportunity to assume the position of a monarch. A moment to pick up a magical weapon then take a throne that, once, could have been his. The human connection to this realm is technological, an opportunity to synthesise a particularly powerful energy wavelength. For Kong this brief stop, before battle is joined in Hong Kong, is therapeutic; it demonstrates to him that, not only does he physically come from a line of culture and Kings, but his predecessors were able to vanquish the lizards that plagued them. 

Although he passed away in 2017, Godzilla vs Hedorah director (and, let's not forget, Prophecies of Nostradamus' assistant director) Yoshimitsu Banno is still credited as Executive Producer on Godzilla vs. Kong. The credit acknowledges that this big budget monster movie still has its roots in an unproduced IMAX short - Godzilla 3D to the Max - that Banno had attempted to steer towards the largest possible screen. Banno's great big credit registers as ironic in an American production where the King of Monster's portrayal feels peculiarly laundered - specifically, one that has had its atomic hide sheared off. While Toho's creation has multiple, contradictory, creation stories, Wingard's film is the first to suggest that Godzilla and his kind might be naturally occurring behemoths. Presumably, the ancient saurischian bones scattered over the Hollow Earth's seat of power haven't been mutated by mankind's extremely modern nuclear arsenal? This hint of whitewash lingers, a distasteful correction that generates its own background radiation, particularly in a film where Asian characters are portrayed as either shopkeepers or attachés who behave like Vulcans. 

For its finale, Godzilla vs Kong offers up a triple threat in which every neon structure on the Hong Kong skyline sits ready to be used as a turnbuckle. True to form, the film examines these massive interactions from the perspective of the newly crowned Kong. Godzilla is clearly adversarial, a bristling abomination that charges through skyscrapers like a blood-crazed crocodile. Kong doesn't rely on his mass, and cannot count on fire breath, so he fights smarter - snatching up rotating restaurants to use as a shield or hanging from superstructure's, crane cudgel in hand. Although we are repeatedly assured that Hong Kong is in the process of being evacuated, ground level shots of kaiju calamity are framed by darting pedestrians, struggling to get to safety. An early news report improbably tallies up only 8 deaths from a particularly violent Godzilla landing in California. The Hong Kong collision inspires no such updates but surely the count is far higher? 

For a film in which Godzilla's portrayal skews far more bestial and aggressive than either Gareth Edwards' Godzilla or Michael Dougherty's Godzilla: King of the Monsters, Wingard's film is reluctant to really embrace the individual, physical, calamity generated by a collapsing, photo-realistic, city. Even Mechagodzilla's synthetic villainy - when it finally puts in an appearance - is expressed purely in the realm of his contemporaries. The mechanical facsimile attacks a flagging Godzilla, exhausted from a night spent battling Kong, using spine rockets and electrified fists to clobber the ailing tyrant lizard. Firmly bracketed away from human terror then, this Mechagodzilla is simply a cheat. An opportunist who sees their chance to batter the current title holder. A backstory for MG that includes exhumed Ghidorah bones and a supercomputer run amuck barely factors into the robo-beasts characterisation - presumably included so the audience can delight, unapologetically, in this undead creature's eventual dismemberment.