Thursday, 29 December 2011

Back To The Future Thumbnail

Just finished watching the trilogy, so I thought I might as well slap my thumbnail review up here. Can't hurt, can it?

Back to the Future is one of those classic film sagas that become enshrined in the pantheon of pop culture. However, as the ropey reputations of some of the Star Wars films attest, being fondly remembered by a nostalgic generation is not automatically a mark of quality. Yet for all its more dated and childish elements, namely moments of broad humour and general silliness (not to mention how amusingly off the mark the second instalment’s imagining of the 2010s is), the trilogy has an undeniable zing, a sense of fun that elevates its playfully daft time-travel plotting. Most importantly, it sports two excellent lead characters in the shape of agile every-teen Marty Mcfly (a blessedly non-obnoxious example of a teenaged protagonist) and that loveable eccentric for the ages, Doc Brown. The first film is charming, though its depiction of teenage love and bully-defying heroics is cringe-worthy in its idealism, even by Hollywood standards. The third film has an appropriately dramatic finale, and a satisfying resolution to Marty Mcfly’s character arc. Yet Part Two is the stand-out, cleverly using the time-hopping, paradox-dodging mayhem of its premise to play around with the original’s plot, while throwing in plenty of fresh drama, fun and peril, not to mention a higher ratio of memorable moments.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Ironclad: A Review

Ironclad doesn’t pretend to be anything other than a blood and thunder medieval action movie, and delivers the anticipated carnage with considerable aplomb. However, the film gets off to an unprepossessing start, with waffling talk about freedom and other pious abstractions to set up the central conflict between a heroic rebellion and Paul Giamatti’s cartoon villain of a King John. The film’s glorification of the Magna Carta rather unfortunately evokes Ridley Scott’s dud of a Robin Hood movie, and early fight scenes suffer from the curse of choppy and confusing editing.

After the brooding Templar protagonist and his plucky band of rebels get settled in at a strategically-vital castle, and King John turns up with army in tow, the film really gets going. Ironclad is grimly, relentlessly, gruesomely violent. Characters and extras alike are mutilated in a creative variety of ways, the fallen scream and writhe, and prisoners are tortured before a gloating mob. The loving attention given to fleshly violation is to be applauded in this instance. A depiction of medieval warfare that limited itself to the occasional tasteful shower of blood would fail to do justice to the horrible reality of siege. The constant death begins to get wearisome by the third act, however, outstaying its welcome by a whisper.

Underneath the sometimes deafening clash of steel is a strong cast that gets a lot of mileage out of the script in its sharper moments (that thankfully outnumber its moments of plodding idealism). James Purefoy brings his usual effortless cool to the underwritten lead role of a Templar who (predictably) doubts his faith, backed up by capable thespians like Brian Cox and Derek Jacobi. Even the thankless role of the love interest, played by Kate Mara, brings something to the table, as the quiet tension between her and Purefoy is a welcome dramatic break from the noisy, grisly set-pieces. The stand-out, however, is Paul Giamatti’s ranting, bloodthirsty King, who rises above his clichéd evil by putting on a master-class of perfectly-judged ham. He deserved more screen-time.

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

5 Old-School RTS Games That Hold Up Today

A cult hit, Stronghold could never lay claim to the snazziest graphics or the most fiendish AI, but it had heart, character and a genuine affection for its own gritty, grisly, yet blackly comic spin on the Middle Ages. Even more importantly, it was an absorbing dual simulation and strategy game that let the player indulge their fantasies of medieval despotism, wage war against teeming enemies or just build the best damn castle they could. Stronghold’s strength lay in that it could be enjoyed in multiple ways. There were the wholesome pleasures of logistics, in which the player immersed themselves in the economics of running a castle. There was the appeal of castle design, crafting impressive, sprawling fortifications. And there was war, lots and lots of gory, desperate battling, against swarms of lemming-like soldiers and cartoonish theme-named villains like the Snake and the Wolf.

Red Alert 2
Kane aside, the colourful, ludicrous Red Alert games have the highest camp entertainment value of all the various Command and Conquer franchises. Set in an increasingly convoluted alternate timeline, it pits teleporting Allies with laser weapons and shape-shifting tanks against extra-dastardly Soviets with zeppelins, mind-control and killer squids. The second entry in the series is perhaps the most popular, with straightforward mechanics and a wide range of memorably deadly units. Play tended to be accessible, frenetic and ultraviolent, with a storyline (told through those infamous cut-scenes) that preferred overacting and no-nonsense objectives (Destroy that base! Zap those nukes!) to subtle drama and strategic intricacy. What’s more, the Soviet war machine so cheerfully stereotyped real-life Communist propaganda that it made the return of the Cold War seem a weirdly appealing prospect. In games, at least.

Warcraft 3
Warcraft’s popularity remains massive, even if the venerable RTS franchise will forever languish in the shadow of its MMORPG successor. Its game-play, with four distinct feuding factions and some basic RPG elements for Hero characters, was entertaining but not ground-breaking; it was simply a solid, well-crafted game. Its lasting appeal came from its lavish game-worlds (which rewarded critter-hunting exploration), it’s plethora of units and (fantasy clichés aside) it’s surprisingly epic story, which gave genuine motivation to some of the savage single-player battles. More about micromanaging special powers than assembling vast hordes, it made ripping the Scourge to shreds with a well-timed barrage of spells endlessly satisfying.

Age of Mythology
A spin off from the legendary Age of Empires franchise, Age of Mythology is still a very good-looking game, with lovely environments that evoked ancient mythologies while playing fast and loose with the source material. It married familiar AOE game-play mechanics to nifty new features like God Powers, giving conventional warfare a fantasy twist. Having a deity on your side added excitement to the usual RTS brawling, as you rained flaming meteors on the heads of enemy hoplites and Minotaurs. The different mythologies had different styles, with the Egyptian religion rewarding frantic monument-building and hordes of cheap troops, while the Norse literally earned their god’s favour through combat, encouraging speed and aggression. Even a slightly awkwardly-inserted Atlantean faction in the expansion pack couldn’t ruin it, though sadly a proper sequel looks unlikely.

Age of Empires 2
One of the grand-daddies of the RTS genre, Age of Kings may have crude graphics by present-day standards, but it makes up for it through sheer potential for epicness. The game can produce vast armies without breaking a sweat, locked in sprawling, rock-paper-scissors medieval warfare. The game is both ideal fodder for back-stabbing LAN parties, and a challenging single-player experience, especially with the Conquerors expansion pack bringing Aztecs, Huns, and Koreans to the party. Massed cavalry charges, castles under storm from scores of rams and knights, cannon galleons sacking elegant towns in a frenzy of destruction…the strategy genre may be evolving, but classics like AOK still have the power to entertain armchair warlords everywhere.

100 Greatest Fictional Villains: Lotso

Appears in: Toy Story 3 (2010)
Setting: Pixar’s wacky universe of anthropomorphic toys.
Type: Corrupt authority figure, tragically twisted.

It might seem crazy that a greatest villains list that includes serial killers and arch-criminals includes a stuffed purple bear from a family film, but in the context of the wonderful world of fiction, it makes perfect sense. In real life, butchers and tyrants get the lion’s share of morbid attention, but in the world of fiction, the effectiveness of a villain’s characterisation and the sinister energy that accompanies him are the key markers of his place in any nefarious pecking-order. This list isn’t being organised around anything as prosaic as fictional body counts.

Lotso-Huggin-Bear, despite his recent appearance in a single film, is one of the best animated villains ever. This is mainly because your standard animated baddie, the sort that crops up a lot in the Disney canon, is a simple soul. They want power for the sake of power, or to hurt the heroes out of pointless spite. Lotso wants power, and he definitely messes with Woody, Buzz and co out of spite, but the addition of a tragic back-story and blatant deep-seated psychological anguish adds the spice that makes him the nemesis of the Toy Story trilogy. Sid from the first film was a bargain-basement sadist (who obviously didn’t know that the toys he was torturing were sentient), and Stinky Pete in the sequel had just snapped from frustration; he’d gone overboard, but you didn’t sense he was Evil with a capital “E”.

Lotso, however, is profoundly damaged goods. The fact that he starts out looking like a stock amiable grandfather-type character makes the reveal of the festering nastiness underneath pack more of a punch. Unwittingly abandoned by his owner, he got so hung up on self-pity that it warped the way he saw the world; he lost the ability to contemplate love and playfulness, and only saw the bleakness and the betrayal. Using his size and newfound bullying, manipulative tendencies to spread the pain around, he turned a supposedly idyllic day-care centre into a tiny police state. It takes a SERIOUSLY mangled psyche to turn a place where pre-school children hang out into a police state, even if it was after closing time.

Lotso’s sullen, pettily malignant presence helps turn the last Toy Story into one of those awesome youngster movies that have massive, unabashed streaks of darkness running through all the colourful hi-jinks. The grimness of having such an unlikely brooding Dark Lord figure for the heroes to define themselves against makes his spectacular karmic defeat, and their life-affirming triumph, a fitting capstone to a mini-epic of pop culture.

Friday, 4 November 2011

A review of Danny Boyle's Frankenstein (Repost)

Danny Boyle’s lavish production of Frankenstein (a bold adaptation of Mary Shelley’s original novel, penned by Nick Dear) lives or dies on the strength of its two alternating lead performances, in this case Benedict Cumberbatch’s arrogant Victor and Johnny Lee Miller’s wretched, embittered Creature. Though the play is hampered by the occasional grating issue with script and supporting cast, these ferociously impressive leads ensure a memorable and ultimately satisfying experience.

Shedding the cumbersome framing devices of the novel, Dear has written the play as very much the Creature’s story rather than Victor’s, beginning not with the driven scientist’s first experiments but with the Creature’s tortured first moments of consciousness. Miller rises to the occasion, bringing an energetic physicality to the role that demands fascinated attention. The extended opening sequence, in which he struggles pitifully to figure out the use of his limbs, writhing, staggering and sobbing with frustration, make you yearn for someone to step in and help him, to coax him through his initial terror and confusion. All he gets, however, is a fleeting appearance by Frankenstein himself, who reacts with panicked revulsion and spurns him, driving him out into the world. After a series of formative experiences, some tender, usually harrowing, the Creature returns for a reckoning, its motor skills now advanced enough to give it the threatening agility of an ape.

Miller’s use of speech shines too, as his awkward, halting tones, seemingly straining to escape his throat even as his intelligence soars, invoke vast pathos, whether yearning for a mate or brooding on the cruelty of his unnatural existence. It is a wrenching, arresting performance.

As for Frankenstein himself, Cumberbatch makes him a monster, a man of towering vanity and callousness who ironically could learn a few lessons in humanity from his inhuman creation. A truly villainous Frankenstein has precedent in the murderous Peter Cushing version, but Cumberbatch’s steely confidence and crippled emotional life (there is genuine bitterness in his voice when he questions the Creature about its feelings of love) make him both impressive and pitiful while remaining an utter cad. The role is less meaty than that of the Creature, with Victor absent for a sizeable stretch of time, and the roots of his character are given less exploration, but Cumberbatch holds his own.

Unfortunately, in comparison to the leads the supporting cast are reduced to ciphers, with the honourable exception of Karl Johnson, who plays the role of the blind old exile who educates the Creature (before their relationship is cut tragically short) with paternal warmth. The script is also hit-and-miss. There are clumsy moments, such as when Frankenstein’s pure, bland, boring bride Elizabeth lectures him on his interference with “the natural order”, in a painfully unnecessary spelling out of the novel’s most famous theme. When she berates her husband for “trying God’s work” it’s difficult not to suppress an irritated sigh at the redundancy of the rebuke; Cumberbatch’s performance has already succeeded at putting across Victor’s blasphemous enthusiasm.

The production values are suitably memorable, somehow simultaneously grand and understated, rolling out a mock steam train with a hideous industrial cacophony one minute, and efficiently evoking the beauty of nature with little more than a strip of grass the next. It also sports perhaps one of the most ambitious and effective uses of atmospheric lighting to be attempted on stage recently.

Overall the production sports genuine substance underneath all the directorial flash, staying remarkably faithful to the spirit of Shelley’s words, albeit sometimes awkwardly expressed. It may not be well-rounded enough to qualify as a genuine masterpiece, but is certainly worth watching for the bravura acting of its leads, who summon up a duality of fascinated enmity and grotesquely oversized passions.

Friday, 28 October 2011

100 Greatest Fictional Villains: Harry Lime

Appears in: The Third Man (1949)
Setting: Post-war Vienna, Austria.
Villain type: Amoral businessman, hardened criminal.

Harry Lime’s claim to fame is his charisma. Lime is remembered as a dashing villain, whose popularity outlasted and outgrew his relatively brief screen-time in celebrated classic The Third Man. Even if memory of the actual plot is a little hazy, the average cinephile can probably at least paraphrase That One Quote about Borgias and cuckoo clocks, which has seared itself into popular culture. Orson Welles put his star power to good use in stealing the film away from the actual protagonist, Joseph Cotton, making Harry Lime a sly, knowing rogue, with a perpetual twinkle in his smiling eyes.

Yet Harry Lime is a monster. For all his patter about Michelangelo and the Renaissance, his idea of artistic flourish was selling dodgy, stolen penicillin to the desperate, in order to make some fast cash at the expense of the lives of children. Everyone remembers him talking up his devil’s bargain to Holly on the Ferris Wheel; less people remember the pivotal scene where British officer Major Calloway (representing the unrelenting forces of Law and Order), shows Holly the children wasting away because Mr. Lime thought getting rich and filling up his monthly smugness quota was more important than the children of war-ravaged Austria getting proper medicine. This is the moment that Holly makes the painful yet morally-correct decision to set aside the bonds of friendship in favour of justice, and help set Lime up to be caught or killed.

The sneaking desire to see him escape in that climactic sewer confrontation, to see such a watchable character melt back into the sheltering gloom like some trickster-god bent on endless mischief, is a perverse desire. It’s a testament to Welles that he was able to put such a deceptive gloss on such a hollow character, whose amiable disposition and slick justifications ultimately fail to conceal the pettiness of his ambitions or his total ruthlessness.

The cuckoo clock was invented in Germany anyway. Not such a killer argument after all…

Friday, 14 October 2011

100 Greatest Fictional Villains: John Doe

Appears in: Se7en (1995)
Setting: The City of Destruction, 1990s.
Villain type: Religious fanatic and depraved killer, diabolical schemer.

From one of the most memorably-executed villain defeats ever, to one of the most memorably-executed villain victories ever. The effectiveness of John Doe lies in how sparingly he is used; the detective protagonists spend most of the film tailing in his wake, only ever seeing the aftermath of his horrific crimes, until he makes a mockery of their detective work by simply turning himself in (Kevin Spacey kept his name out of the opening credits, to increase the impact of the reveal). He oversees religiously-themed atrocities, forcing his victims (selected for supposedly embodying various unpleasant vices) to do terrible things to themselves at gunpoint, usually involving extreme mutilation. The film classily leaves the most grisly details of these set-pieces to the viewer’s imagination, but this only adds to the demoniacal creepiness of the investigation.

John Doe is a faceless terror for the bulk of the film’s running time, a shadow flitting around a sprawling metropolis leached of virtue, where civic pride, community spirit and everyday decency have withered away and left only pettiness, apathy, and passionless, selfish hungers behind. Spectacular disgust at the banality of this bleak place prompted an unassuming man with a blank past (and oozing meat where his fingerprints should be) to begin a meticulously-planned mission to shake things up. His evil acts are jet-black exclamation marks of satanic violence, slashed across the grey back-drop of the city’s everyday wickedness.
Spacey plays John Doe as smugly confident and strangely collected; the eye of the legal storm that swirls around him. Watch his measured movements in the police station while everyone else explodes in fear and rage. Focus on the faint smile and the steady gaze, and forget the blood soaking into his bland shirt, and the deformed fingertips. And the endless diaries full of hatred for the human race. And the torn-up bodies, swollen and shrivelled with calculated sadism.

Yes, the crimes are wildly over the top. Yet part of the reason why the film’s violence works, while being played utterly straight, is Spacey’s performance. Both the dialogue and his physical mannerisms emphasise that John Doe isn’t some pantomime Lucifer, but a cipher, deliberately self-effacing, obviously hiding massive reserves of sadism behind a composed mask and a sing-song voice, only creeping out for a moment as his voice quivers with misery and rage at the wretched state of the world; the existential horror his acts of physical horror were intended to highlight. Earlier in the film, Morgan Freeman’s character comments how the killer being revealed as anyone less than Satan would be an anticlimax. The John Doe character cleverly evades this problem by being anti-climactic by design, flipping the depressing real-life phenomenon of the infamous, narcissistic killer and the forgotten victims. He is an enigma, who lets the gory tableau of his victims do most of the speaking for him. Which was his demented point, all along.

100 Greatest Fictional Villains: Warden Norton

Appears in: The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
Setting: New England, 1940s-1960s
Villain Type: Greedy, abusive, corrupt authority figure.

Obviously, the smirking, sanctimonious, viciously genteel Warden Norton (character actor Bob Gunton’s best role) is not the main antagonist of The Shawshank Redemption. That honour goes to the grim presence of Shawshank itself; vast and stern and pointlessly, pitilessly cruel towards the wretches caught up, rightly or wrongly, in its grip. Norton is more that unhappy institution’s human sidekick, a figure of towering hypocrisy whose façade of righteousness and discipline is a mask for the most banal of motives. He doesn’t care about an orderly prison beyond the minimum needed for convenience (indifferent towards the sadism of guards and inmates alike) and he certainly doesn’t care about instilling moral values. For Norton, Shawshank is a means to an end; that end being nothing more than a corrupt buck. There are few things more simultaneously despicable and pathetic than a man prepared to lie, threaten and kill for the sake of getting rich, but a man prepared to lie, threaten and kill for the sake of getting rich who ALSO engages in totally insincere religious posturing has got to be one of them.

In retrospect, Norton was actually the perfect foil for good old Andy Dufresne. While Andy is a degraded convict in spite of his innocence, the Warden is a thriving pillar of the establishment, despite his guilt. Where Andy has to survive by his wits with scarce resources, the Warden has the full backing of the state, and addresses his problems with brutal directness (the cause of his richly-deserved downfall, as he overestimates his ability to simply break anyone in his path). Whereas Andy has a yearning for freedom that leads him to a transcendent redemption, Norton is quite comfortable to stay ensconced in his prison office and hoard his fraudulent gains. The chilly glare and severe glasses don’t make him some kind of evil mastermind; his effectiveness as a villain stems from the prosaic nature of his plan. He’s a figure of worldly, everyday evil, and that look of dull shock on his face when he realises Andy has vanished into the howling night, where someone like him can never follow, makes the film’s climax all the sweeter.

One of the many, many things to like about the Shawshank Redemption is that it pulls off one of the most perfect movie revenges ever. It makes the total defeat of the bad guy seem satisfying and earned; Andy completely DESTROYS the Warden, and he does it without ever doing anything as dull-witted as sinking a fist into him or ridiculing him. He just takes his licks in solitary, absorbs the fact that the Warden has had a young man killed (thereby scotching any chance of proving Andy’s innocence, in order to keep him in prison doing the Warden’s crooked finances), and calmly, confidently sets about arranging the means to blow open Norton’s massive fraud, setting up his own escape at the same time. That put paid to the obtuse son of a bitch.