Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Bullfighting with Bardot

I always new that I'd be robbed one day.

By my late teens, practically all of my school friends had been mugged at some point.
For the most part, nothing was hurt but their pride, giving in to the threats of the bigger, usually older boys that often outnumbered them, but one guy did come in to college one morning with bad grazes up his face after being tackled to the ground in Harlesden.
As the years went by and I met no challenges, I often wondered why I managed to avoid being a victim too.
Did I have some keen street smarts that I wasn't myself aware of? Did my protruding brow and natural composure of dissatisfaction combine to create the impression of a man with slight build with whom you do not want to mess?

Of course I have no idea, and rare was the occasion when I did not consider an attack whilst out and about alone a real possibility. What would I do? Was there somewhere to run; would I fight back; how many would be too many; would I still resist against a knife; where were the makeshift weapons on my journey - the loose bricks, empty bottles etc.
It wasn't so pervasive that I'd call it an obsession, more it was a consideration, one of the many things you think about in the periphery of your consciousness when walking, like checking the road for traffic or glancing at the pavement for dog shit.
Perhaps this perpetual state of awareness helped me avoid trouble?

Then at the end of November the phone rang when I was about to leave for work. As I never get calls in the morning, I thought it may be important, so I picked up to hear a robot voice identify itself with my bank. I proceeded to ask me for security info, and as it wanted nothing too detailed I went along with it. It was when it asked about my recent transactions that a chill ran up my spine. Money out from a machine at the weekend? Yes. Online council tax payment the day before? Fine. 250 Euros withdrawn in Sicily that morning? Fuck!
I got put through to a human who proceeded to go over the details for me. Card stopped, replacement sent recorded delivery. But I won't be home, can they send it to a branch? It takes longer and they'll leave a note so I can pick it up. What about the PIN? I can use the old one as the thieves won't have the new card details. Their fraud division will be in touch about refunding the total stolen £360.
So the card didn't arrive, nor a note to say someone had been round, and a week on I rang them up - it had been dispatched that day so they canceled it and sent a new one, this time to the branch near my work. Three days later I get a letter from a courier company, saying they tried to deliver a card when I was out. It took ten days to tell me this, cunts. A further three days and my card has turned up at the bank - I can use my PIN, right? No, it's been changed. Great. Another five days or so before that turns up at the flat, the morning I am due to leave to see the family for Christmas.
The money was refunded surprisingly quickly, within two weeks of being robbed, but I was left with no access to my cash without going to a bank with a passport and all kinds, and not enough in there to get the presents I wanted to get for my love ones. Because of some virtua-mugging cunt.

It's unlikely I'll ever meet the people that robbed me, and if I did I wouldn't know it, but there were two films released this year that give you an idea as to what I'd like to do:




Have a happy new year!

Friday, November 23, 2007

Desperate ventilation

It's odd to think that I've been a pretty solid internet user for the past six years.
Whilst many battles are waged about what the internet is and what it means, from my own perspective I have to admit that it has made a huge impact on my life.
The ease with which you can procure information made me interested again. That inquisitive spark that led me into the philosphy degree that I gave up on after a combination of death and finding out that it was little more than a specified history course, was lit again and I did more writing and research in a few months than I ever did in three years at university.
I even wrote an article/essay examining the impact of allied bombing campaigns on immigration levels, just for fun.
Ah, those heady days.
Then there were the virtual communities, the coming together of like-minded (but sometimes polar-opposite) peoples under assumed names, to debate the political issues of the day or compare pop culture, usually with copious amounts of arguing.

Nowadays it's mostly swift raids into the web, seeking out a hit of entertainment here, some information about cinema times or where to find cheap games there, but mainly, the internet got me writing, so much so that it feels like it's something I should have always been doing, but somehow got lost along the way. First about politics, then about films as I became disillusioned and stopped trying to keep up.

This blog is a continuation of this trend, an outlet to wax lyrical about whichever topic gains my fancy, whether read or not as I mostly write for my own enjoyment - barely a handful of people are ever likely to read this, after all.

Still, this post isn't really about the internet itself, or what it has done for/to me. Instead, it's an opportunity to link to this video, a great example of what the combination of virtual community and creativity can bring. Every few seconds brings some new idea or great image, and the tune is, for me at least, the kind that stands infinite repeat listens. Every time I come across it I end up watching the whole way through so it's odd I've not thought to seek it on YouTube before.

Enjoy.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Kerry's animal tincture

I have seen lots of films, and I have written about some of them. For some reason I enjoy it, and it makes me feel productive.
I am clearly deluded.

Death Proof:
I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this. After the enjoyable mess of Kill Bill I wasn't expecting a lot from a film that further celebrates the B-pictures that Tarantino clearly genuinely loves, but everything from the sleazy, characters of the first half and it's downgraded, frame- skipping treatment, to the great performances from Russel and the sassy, engaging posse from the second half lends Death Proof a sheen of quality. It revels in its low-rent ancestors but holds together a narrative far more successfully than Kill Bill did, making me wonder what could have been added to the movie post Grindhouse split. All the typical Tarantino tics are there, from the feet to the self-conscious witty dialogue to the visceral action, but there is something more satisfying there this time, perhaps being a benfeit from not having the timeline-jumping tricks of most of Quentin's other pictures.
It's still not as good as he's capable of, but in Death Proof as with Jackie Brown, Tarantino has made a film that shows as much admiration as fanatic adoration for its flea-pit origins.
True, there are a lot of holes to be picked, but this time around they're not so important.

Ploy:
Ploy is very laid-back.
It's evocative of both the odd, slowed-time feeling of waiting with the three main characters all in-between two points, killing time at a hotel, a classic setting for transition, and the dream state that they are all in as they potter about, snatching a few winks of broken sleep.
The dream sequences stand out as more conventional narratives, and all have a stark quality where you often aren't sure of whether the scene is 'really' happening.
Some of the ideas about love and relationships struck a chord with me, and it felt odd that this indie Thai movie should be so astute in its observations, with no cultural difference in these feelings.
It's undoubtedly a slow film, and I know if I'd not slept enough that week I'd have difficuty concentrating, but in the right frame of mind this is a great film.
You probably already know if you enjoy films that are slow and langorious, taking their time to explore ideas and characters, or whether you prefer films that concentrate on the narrative thrust and advancing the plot.
So you probably already know if you'll enjoy Ploy.

Glory to the Filmmaker!:

I've not yet seen 'Takeshis' and know that this draws a lot from it, but for me this reminds me a lot of 'Getting Any?' - essentially a sketch-based comedy movie, with its absurd situations, deadpan characters and broad humour.
Some of 'Glory...' is amusing, particularly the early scenes where we are treated to a series of sketches based on an alternate reality of Kitano's directorial career as he tries to make successful films, trying out different genres and taking the piss out of the road he has taken so far. It does degenerate toward the end as the film concentrates on one scenario and the gags slow down, but it isn't a bad film, even if it is probably Kitano's worst so far.
It's still interesting to get an insight into what he thinks of himself, and have a movie that pretty much explains the reason for its existence.
Looking at the vast range of outlets for creativity that he's been using for decades, it's less surprising that he has decided to direct something way out line with the usual features for which he has become known, and he no doubt knows that a large part of his audience probably would be happy with another Hana-Bi, or even Violent Cop. 'Glory...' feels like he has decided to film his own search for a project, trying to avoid retreading old ground but unsure of where he should go next. It makes for an interesting film, but unfortunately not quite as enjoyable as the narrative films he's made so far.

No Mercy for the Rude:

Like the best in recent Korean cinema, No Mercy for the Rude flits between genres, successfully mixing slapstick humour and taut, serious drama in a film which is more than just a spoof of the 'cool assassin' sub-genre.
It borrows numerous features from other films, the muteness of the protagonist and surrogate family remind me of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, whilst the sharp contrast between genres that somehow still seem to mesh evokes The Host. The detail of the characters who seem simultaneously exaggerated and authentic, and the settings that are both humdrum and distinct at the same time add up to a finely crafted feature that demonstrates that South Korean cinema is still on a roll, more than ten years on.

Ocean's 13:

Ocean's 13 is weird.
After the exercise in plot periphery that was 12, 13 is all about the heist. From start to finish it is non-stop planning and set-up and damage control, but this time you have something to root for as it's a revenge job.
I'd avoided anything about this before seeing it and so came in fresh, wondering how they could successfully engineer a situation in which all these millionaires would meet up again to risk it all - ah. Nice one.
Very enjoyable, but less depth somehow. Still a lot more impressive than a squillion similar hollywood flicks, and that score is fantastic. Holmes again managing somehow to bring something classy, timeless and inobtrusive yet definitely an essential part.

Ocean's 12:

It's a bit strange how Soderbergh managed to slip this through Hollywood, even with the name stars and the success of the first. Here it's not about the heist at all, it's all about the characters, about quirks, thier interaction. It's a film about moments, and it's really verging on the sublime. I can see why this has had such mixed reviews - from the perspective of the 'more of the same' sequel, this is rubbish, and more like a compilation of deleted scenes, the great little moments that the director loves but had to cut for time and pacing.
Someone else gave it half a star with this little number: "It's like some sort of hellish indie movie the rest of the time"
That's exactly what it is, with some little heist moments tacked on.
Your opinion is really going to revolve around what you expect before you see it.

Time of the Wolf:

There is no redemption and there are no heroes.

Haneke seems to really hate people. It's hard to imagine actually enjoying his films, as good as they are, and time and again it feels like an endurance test that you are compelled to take.
For me, he's always seemed like the classy older brother to Gaspar Noe, less bravado and far more chilling.
The end of the world is nasty and grubby, nothing is explained but it's horribly believable. It makes every other post-apocalyptic film seem like the work of adolescents, but it's hard to recommend a vision so bleak.
Not the best of Haneke's films, but it certainly fits in with the tone that has cut through the Piano Teacher, Funny Games and Hidden like a dull razor.

Conversations With Other Women:

For a film which concentrates largely on just two actors, it's important to get good performances. Luckily, Bonham-Carter and Eckhart are effortless in this tale of lost love. It treats the subjects of infidelity and the motivations behind the actions - the doomed attempt to rekindle the flame, the mixed yearnings - with reverance and skill. There are no easy answers or happy endings, but maybe there don't need to be. Afterwards it's the people I remember and not how it was shot, so the style is perhaps a way to distinguish it from the feeling of a play where this story would easily be at home?
Good.


I also saw The Marine recently, a cliched action vehicle for a WWE man whose name I forget. It is stunningly bland, with little to distinguish it from a bajillion other knucklehead fighty/shooty B-pics of the type that usually go straight-to-retail/rental hell. It's only Robert Patrick's turn as the slightly surreal bad guy that gives this a flicker of substance. It is also quite amusing to watch the star fly into the air in front of explosions in the same way, three times in a row.
Alongside the likes of Crank, this fares little better than that advert where the kid is hit by a car before he becomes a film star.


And for my return to DVD reviews, I have covered the Optimum release of Election 2, which isn't a sequel to Reese Witherspoon's excellent high-school film.
Link to the right!

Monday, October 22, 2007

The New Milk

I could never be confused as a man’s man.
I was relatively short until my mid teens, and even as an adult I have small hands and feet and a slight build. I had a squeamishness of dirt and muck when I was young, a fact often pointed out by my family when I visited my great Gran’s farm, and I’ve never been interested in sports or cars. I’ve only been in one real fight, and that was with my dad, but he was pretty drunk so I don’t think it counts.
I also had little time for beer, as growing up I saw booze solely as a vehicle to drunkenness, and therefore was not interested in the taste of the liquids in question, especially when they tasted of stale dog’s piss. Luckily, my teenhood coincided with the great British introduction of the alcopop, allowing me to sup a tipple without resorting to spirits and mixers, seeing as spirits are absolutely vile and taste like the poison they are. To this day I don’t see the attraction of any alcoholic drink as a drink in and of itself, devoid of the inebriating affects, and I can’t help but believe that teenage boy after teenage boy inures himself to the foul taste of beer and lager as part initiation rite, part peer pressure and part machismo posturing. Thousands upon thousands of men will argue that they enjoy a beer for the drink itself, vast industries and even festivals are devoted to beer as if to underline the legitimacy of the beverage, but how do you argue that you are excluded from social conditioning? “Oh not me, I actually like the taste”.
Even wine, some variations of which could realistically be described as potable, has embedded itself within a vast web of self-conscious maturity, as so-called connoisseurs whip up in a frenzy about the myriad tastes and textures for what is a drunkenness tool. Sure, you may prefer a certain flavour to convey you to the point of pissed, but that’s all it is.

I am probably coming at this with a skewed vision however, as I don’t see the fuss in food and drink and don’t get excited by it. Of course I prefer some tastes to others, but given the choice I could do without the bother of eating. Most of the time it’s a chore that I have to get through in order to continue functioning, and I often put off meals until later because I can’t be bothered with the preparation.
At times I feel like an atheist in a world of believers – I don’t really believe in food.

But that’s another topic for another day.

Ironically enough this topic came up thanks to a flavour that I do enjoy.
I posted last year about the limited edition diet Vanilla Coke, lamenting its demise, when recently I came across a vanilla flavoured Absolut vodka. Of course I have known about flavoured vodkas for years, but as they do not tend to be stocked down the local supermarket, and I haven’t been as interested in drunkenness for some years, I never sought out such a thing before.
I happened upon the stuff while looking for something else, and decided it might be a decent substitute when mixed with diet Coke, with the added value of tipsiness. At this point I had already been on the hunt for cream soda, and specifically a diet variant, to fill my vanilla coke hole, but I had been stumped at every newsagent and supermarket until I came across Sainsbury’s own brand stuff.
Not a match on what I wanted, but it was close enough to bring the memories a touch more vividly to the surface.
Needless to say I set about my Absolut/Coke mixing with some mild excitement, and this is what happened.



Here are the ingredients with which I hope to resurrect the soul of Vanilla Coke, even if it is a shambling, undead version of the glory it once was.

Diet Coke you know, the non-sugar variant of the world’s most widely known beverage after water, and a poster-boy for global capitalism.



The Diet Cream Soda is a Sainsbury’s own brand, and purports to have ‘only natural flavours’, self-consciously jumpiing on the current organic/carbon neutral etc. band wagon. As I’ve said it’s been hard enough to find any Cream Soda, let a lone a diet variety, so it really has no competition in my search for sugar-free vanilla-pop.



Absolut Vanilla is Absolut vodka, with vanilla in it, and neat it’s probably the only spirit I can keep down, but still not an experience I’d enjoy repeating. There’s something perversely enjoyable in the feeling of spirits burning the throat, but being no fan of vomiting I don’t want to take the risk.



First up: Absolut Vanilla with Diet Coke.

This is a hard one, as I don’t want to use too much vodka. True, I’m a wuss, but also too much vodka will make the mix too alcoholic and therefore ruin the desired affect. As it is, even with this small measure of vodka, the taste is evident in amongst the coke, and the vanilla flavour is perhaps too natural, too sweet, to bring back the memories. It reminds me more of vanilla ice cream than vanilla coke, but even then the vanilla taste is still sweeter than a coke float – perhaps because there is less dilution?
Not what I was after, then, but nevertheless an effective way of getting vodka down you very, very quickly.



Second up: Diet Coke and diet cream soda.

As neither of these is likely to be dominant, I feel it’s safe to go for a 50/50 mix as we want both flavours present.
Unfortunately, this tastes just like the Absolut and coke, only without any alcoholic kick. The sweetness is a little softer, but it’s still far from whichever dark chemical the Coca-cola company saw fit to brew up. It probably doesn’t help that I already feel a little tipsy from my one drink, I could probably be out-drunk by 12 year olds at this point.
But no, the cream soda taste is fairly strong and is clearly eclipsing the coke, and yet if I balanced the mixture in the coke’s favour then I risk dwindling the vanilla input, which defeats the whole purpose of this jaunt.



Third and final: Coke overcomes the cream.

A mix more in favour of coke may help, but I didn’t hold out much hope. And actually, it’s just weak, a dilution of each half, this is the worst of both worlds.

Bastard.
For the moment I’ll just have to hope that Coke get bored with their orange variant and bring back the vanilla to its needy public.

And now you can see that, rather than living alone in order to avoid other people, it is more my selfless gift to everyone.

Here’s a Kids in the Hall sketch that I think is relevant at this juncture. Despite tonnes of KITH clips on the ubiquitous Youtube this particular one has been pulled by The Man, so it has to be a link rather than an embed, I’m sorry to say. Clicky!

Girl drink drunk

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Eyes that turned my very core to dust





















It's been a long while since I posted, a long time to get out of the habit of blogging and writing reviews.

I hadn't realised, not having moved house in nearly ten years, just how time-consuming it would all become, with a solid week of packing before informing the various services and institutions, and then the age-old tradition of negotiating the archetypal hands-off landlord when trying to address a dozen and one domestic complaints.
Suffice to say, I do not take hot water for granted, the easy transportation and convection of this most necessary of liquids is a daily wonder, a luxury to be cherished.

But this a mere blip, a hiatus if you will, for I am back in the game and may yet write something almost witty.

Having said that, Halo 3 finally comes out tomorrow...

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

My fine lines and dark circles are more prominent

E3 (which I believe stands for Electronic Entertainment Expo) has been the games industry's chest-thumping bandstand for years now, as console manufacturers, publishers and developers all vie for the attention of millions of gamers and their billions of moneys. Often acting as a showcase for the forthcoming games of the Christmas run-up and following year, the E3 ballooned into a braying behemoth, with a swollen attendance level and ever-expanding budget for those behind the the scenes.
After last year's zenith, a number of gaming's big hitters realised that the cash squandered on promotional activities looked set to eclipse any return on investment, especially as game development budgets spiral and margins shrink. They decided that E3 '07 would be a much more modest affair, paring things down to the bone and cutting down the bombast and 'booth babes' in favour of the event's real focus - the games.
Many a net pundit worried about an empty space in the calendar, a dearth of juicy games news that would hopefully be picked up by other international events, but it seems the big three players have merely taken advantage of the current techno climate. With the three home consoles all offering some sort of downloadable content facilities or net access, why fork out for a thumb-fun festival when you can just beam the teaser trailers direct to your potential customers?

Those worried by the E3 shrink should now be fully satiated by the eager ejaculation of electronic elucidations.
The internets are positively plastered with up-to-the-minute soundbites, screenshots and trailers, and indeed it is these trailers that explain the ease with which Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft stepped back from the merry-go-round. Short of demos released for each and every title, the trailer is the best way to give you an idea of what a game may be capable of, carefully edited to get you salivating for more content and the impending release.

There is a lot of promise on the horizon, and a lot of potential for all three parties, but there really is only one game that I am interested in:



Halo 3 got me to buy a 360 recently, picking a machine up when I saw one cheap enough in time for the September release.
Halo got me to buy the original Xbox, despite having played through the game from start to finish on friend's machines.
Halo 2 got me to stay online, shooting at shrill-voiced American teens as the adrenalin coursed through my system and I played into the small hours, feeding off that twitch-game hunger for 'just one more go'.
Despite the repetitive latter act of Halo, the mindless (though fitting) rush of the flood when compared to the cunning of the Covenant and the endurance-testing grind of the Library, Halo has won a place in my all-time top games.
The kind of game you can come back to years later, I have played through some levels of Halo dozens upon dozens of times, with fun melee runs on easy modes and a hard-fought battle against overwhelming odds on Legendary, the enemy AI and precision aiming of pistol fire and grenade lobs still ranks amongst some of the best in the First Person Shooter genre.
Even the cheap-shock non-ending of Halo 2 didn't taint my affection for the series, as I returned again to replay choice sections and try and find those bastard secret skulls.
Alongside the sublime coding, the Halo storyline has a lot of background depth, even if it does sometimes manifest in the trite (the main character Master Chief, is named John 113, which is also a bible reference...). Usual space marine grunt frag-fests barely make an attempt at a coherent storyline, but the portrayal of the alien Covenant's systematic, faith-fuelled eradication of mankind enjoys a substantial background beyond the games, and makes for a passable sci-fi tale (as evidenced in the tie-in novels by Eric Nylund and Wiiliam C. Dietz, The Fall of Reach, The Flood and First Strike. The first and last are pretty good, freed as they are by not being tied in by the in-game plot, but I have not yet read the newest Halo universe book, Ghosts of Onyx).

I have been looking forward to Halo 3 since the second I finished the second game, and despite the possibility for more big flaws as found in the previous instalments, and the surrounding cash-in circus that includes wallets and bags, the Real Time Strategy game Halo Wars, and not one but two different special editions of the game itself (the turbo-bastard edition of which I pre-ordered weeks ago), I don't doubt that I will be hugely satisfied and probably surprised when it finally finds its way into my disc-tray.

I am sold, hook, line and sinker.

The only other E3 tidbit to excite me was the news that Bungie's (for they are the developer of Halo) precursor to Halo, Marathon, is coming to Xbox Live Arcade in a natty enhanced mode. I have been aching to play this since I first heard of it (you can see the historical reference in the title, that Halo later shared with it's use of the Spartan codename for the enhanced soldier you play, and the Mjolnir codename for his armour...more in depth examination of the background to Halo can be found at this excellent site, as well as links to fan art, stories, videos and untold amounts of crap - http://nikon.bungie.org/)

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Combien coûte ce chien dans la fenêtre? Celui avec la queue de remuement.

Stuart Harling, currently being tried for the brutal murder of the nurse Cheryl Moss in April last year, is one of the latest figureheads of the unquestioned demonisation of video gaming in the media.
“… the defendant was a "loner and fantasist" who spent much of his time playing computer games and surfing the internet to fuel his interest in serial killers, knives, racism and pornography.”

One year later on the other side of the Atlantic, the murder of 32 people at Virginia Tech University by Cho Seung-hui was blamed on the influence of video games. In this particular case the hugely popular online shooter Counter Strike took the flak, largely thanks to the disturbingly swift cod-punditry by the infamous Jack Thompson. The well-known US anti-games campaigner once again lost no opportunity to bend a tragedy to his motives, flying in the face of a total lack of evidence: Click

The urge to jump to conclusions and strike out at the nearest scapegoat is familiar, and echoes the media coverage in 2004 after the murder of Stefan Pakeerah by Warren Leblanc in a Leicester Park. In this case it was the turn of Manhunt, an undoubtedly violent game by the developers of the Grand Theft Auto franchise, Rockstar. Stefan’s mother, Giselle, called for a ban on violent games as she saw Warren’s alleged obsession with the game as a core factor to his actions, despite the fact that the police discounted this possibility based on the fact that the murder was motivated by robbery:
which is more likely?
This didn’t stop several retailers withdrawing the game from sale in a bid to avoid unwanted negative attention.

This week’s news shows us that this time around, retailers may not even have the choice. The BBFC has rejected Manhunt 2 from gaining a certificate, making it illegal to sell in the UK and the first case of a game being totally banned to my knowledge.
The game has received an ‘Adults Only’ rating in the USA, (presumably equivalent to US cinema’s ‘NC-17’ or the UK’s ‘18’) but seeing as it has been developed for the Playstation 2 and Wii, and both Sony and Nintendo refuse to carry ‘AO’ rated games on their systems, this too is an effective ban on release.
Predictably, multitudes of enraged net-denizens have seen fit to lambaste the actions of the BBFC, and indeed of ‘the Man’, despite obviously having never played the game for themselves. There could very well be sound reasons behind the decision, but I can’t see how Manhunt 2 managed to distinguish itself from so many games for which violence is the sole raison d’etre, particularly the original game. Is it more depraved than Hostel? (a film I’ve not yet seen, merely because it seems like an excuse to see what torture scenes they can come up with, as opposed to something like Jason X which revels in violence and death scenes but does so in such a way that it’s hard to deny at least the attempt at black comedy)
At this point in the 5th generation of consoles, it’s hard to say what the qualitative differences are between gaming and films in terms of their effect upon the audience, but I can’t help but think that this is a 21st century version of the urge to cover up the penises of statues lest they tempt maidens into wanton acts of depravity.

Sure, that comparison is a bit facetious, but I think it’s worth comparing the cause/effect relationship. The existence of myriad examples of Beatles recordings doesn’t make me a massive fan, despite the fact that I like them. But the person who does take a big shine to the Fab Four is likely to spend a good deal of time and money tracking down all the different recordings they can lay their hands on.
A propensity for violence may not be in the same class of leisure-time pursuits, but it is hard to deny that someone interested in maiming or killing their fellow man is likely to hold an interest in violent games and movies, serial killers, weapons and suchlike. Most of these things are easily obtainable to all, but this doesn’t manufacture more psychos. In essence, the material does not generate the obsession, the obsession leads to seeking out the material.
On the other hand, in a move of heroic audacity, there is the possibility that Rockstar have purposely manufactured a totally OTT version of their game in order to garner reams of free publicity, before appealing to the review boards and submitting the ‘edited’/original version of the game, and then cashing in. This is highly unlikely however, in light of the fact that review copies had previously been sent to critics, offering the chance of highlighting such a scam, and perhaps more importantly the acres of negative commentary over the past months concerning the PS3 is likely to have dampened any enthusiasm for such a risky manoeuvre.

Besides the general criticism of the machine’s price-point, the lack of decent software, the hard evidence of slow sales (in the US in May, the PS3 barely shifted half what the 360 did, and less than a quarter of Wii units, whilst the first week of June saw the Wii outsell the PS3 8 to 1 in Japan) and the backfiring publicity stunts such as the fake fake blog and European God of War 2 launch party, the problems of Sony have been compounded by yet another poorly conceived sideswipe at video gaming.
The fuss over Manchester Cathedral’s use as a setting for part of Resistance: Fall of Man seems particularly bizarre.
Besides the fact that the game is undeniable science fiction, with the violence at the centre of the dispute aimed at the invading hordes of aliens into WW2-era Britain, games have featured real-life backdrops, including places of worship, for years, particularly in the many popular World War 2 shooters and strategy games.
Churches and the Vatican have long been the source of inspiration for many a violent and gory horror film, and it seems bizarre that the Church of England would choose this game at this time to pick a fight.


The fact that it gets mentioned in Parliament highlights the dangers of well-meaning but ignorant people sticking their oar in – yes violent games that are becoming increasingly photo-realistic may have an adverse affect on some young people who might play them (often despite these games being rated out of these children’s hands, blithely supplied by parents who give their kids GTA to shut them up on the one hand, and then open the Daily Mail floodgates with the other), but in the absence of any evidence whatsoever, why should games be treated any differently from movies and music?

Time and time again, otherwise rational human beings completely purge their minds of the idea that their fellow man was quite capable of committing heinous crimes in the days before games, movies and mass literacy, and in no smaller proportion than today.

-

After that more heavyweight fare, you may be in the need of light refreshment, and so I point to this video which shows a gamer in the making:


Also, feel free to have a read of my latest movie reviews, all accessible via the handy links section to the right, newest reviews are from the Duelist on up.
Apart from the viewing of movies, I’ve had my time eaten up thanks to my cave-in purchase of a PS2. I’ve already clocked the very violent, enjoyable and 18-rated God of War, and now I’m a good 30 hours into Final Fantasy 12, so I’m quite glad it’s been a rainy summer thus far.

Monday, May 28, 2007

A sweeping generalisation


Each season dozens of new anime shows are broadcast in Japan.
A handful of these are chosen by the various fansub groups for translation, and are released for download over the net. A further proportion of these titles are then picked up by the anime distribution companies, and then another fraction are picked for UK distribution, meaning that the majority of titles never see the light of day here.
It’s true to say that this filtering process does do the job of filtering the wheat from the chaff, but a lot of great series are never picked up and even those that make it can often take years to reach our island.

For the moment the fansub community offers the best opportunity to catch series that you might otherwise never see in translated form, and as ever this season has offered up a smattering of shows that peak the interest.

Darker than Black is set in the near future, where shadowy government operatives called contractors use their psychic powers to do whatever it is shady agents do, and adopts a straight-faced more realistic tone akin to that found in the acclaimed Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. After a couple of episodes it’s hard to say if this is worth sticking with, but it certainly is ‘dark’.

Denno Coil is also set in the near-future, where cyberspace is integrated into the real world via hi-tech goggles and holographic pets are the norm, but the tone is completely opposite to Darker than Black, focusing on the experiences of a young girl who has to move to a new city and meets a young cyber-detective investigating illegal programs living in hidden cyberspace. The show reminds me of My Neighbour Totoro, with its cutesy animals and the tumbling, giggling little sister to protagonist Yasako, who shouts “poop!” at everything. Despite the initially simplistic style, Denno Coil sports some sophisticated animation.

Claymore is set in the favoured anime backdrop of a generic medieval world of swords and sorcery. In this case, the Claymores are half woman-half demon warriors who travel from town to town, answering requests to despatch demons, or Yoma, who disguise themselves as people in order to have ready access to their favourite food – human guts. The set-up is initially clichéd, but the story quickly picks up the pace and by episode 8 has turned into a shocking and gripping show.
Lots of bloody violence which crucially comes second to the character development.

El Cazador de la Bruja also treads familiar ground, dealing as it does with bounty hunters, and that old “children who have escaped from labs with uncharted special powers and who are on the run from secret organisations” chestnut. In this case the setting is Mexico and our kind hearted bounty hunter forms a female double-team with the escaped super-child. There are flashes between the action as our girls outsmart/fight their pursuers, and the wider plot as we see who we assume to be the man in charge of the super-child programme do his secret organisation thing. It’s totally generic and unlikely to go anywhere particularly interesting, but is polished with a fair amount of charm that keeps it worth watching.


My favourite of the season, though, is yet another entry in the well-worn category of High School rom-com.
Lovely Complex stars the unlikely duo of Otani and Risa, a short boy and tall girl who are unlucky in love, thanks, it seems, to their height, and end up hanging around each other, constantly bickering as their friends pair up around them. They both have a lot in common and it’s clear from the off that these two are meant to be together, but it’s a rocky road.

Lovely Complex manages to mix the comedy well with the drama. You do care about the characters, particularly Risa who realises first that she and Otani could be an item, which is no easy task when the jokes are so prominent. With lots of exaggeration of expression, physical comedy and misunderstanding, Lovely Complex is genuinely funny and highlights the popularity of this genre in the West. Whilst a number of comedy shows mercilessly lampoon popular culture, it is hard to get a lot of the jokes when said culture is unfamiliar. On the other hand the various situations related to love in high school are familiar to most people; the unrequited love, love triangles and the squirming attempts to ask your dream boy/girl out are things that many more people can identify with than Ultraman parodies.
Even though you can barely breathe for anime high-school romcoms, Lovely Complex stands out for me as one of the better examples, and indeed a decent show in its own right.


I would have loved to include a clip from the show as animation is unsurprisingly key in anime, but the only thing available on Youtube at the moment are snippets of the live action version of the show, chocked to the brim with some of the worst acting that you could ever hope to avoid.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Crocodile

Movies are often designed to elicit emotions in their audience – the fear of the horror film and the joy of a comedy are examples of two genres which offer up efforts that aim to do their utmost in bringing about the desired feeling in the viewer.
Two genres that everyone is familiar with, and kin to the weepie, a type of movie often aimed at a female audience and deigned to tug the heartstrings via some doomed or troubled romance that usually, but not always, wins through in the end.
I like to think that I’m too cynical and knowing to fall for the obvious attempts of some movies to increase hankie use, but even I, stiff-upper-lip Englishman that I am, have found the tears welling up thanks to some films.

The majority of movies that have moved me have come about in the last few years – could it be that movies are getting more cutting, or am I just going soft in my old age?

The first film I remember leaving me in danger of wet cheeks was Dancer in the Dark, Lars Von Trier’s case against capital punishment which featured Bjork in her first and last starring role.
You do kind of expect that a film about a self-sacrificing, single mother, who is slowly going blind as she desperately tries to provide for her son before being unjustly sentenced to death, may try to elicit a response. And you’d be right. But what could have been a worthy but stodgy TV movie of the week in another’s hands, becomes, due to the direction of Von Trier and the influence of his Dogme background, a devastatingly intimate story that earns rather than forces its empathy from you. After the film finished, all I heard around me in the dark as the credits rolled were the snifflings of the Curzon Soho patrons penetrating the stunned silence.
Don’t hold the fact that it’s a musical against it.



Not long afterwards I caught a screening of the Grave of the Fireflies as part of a Studio Ghibli season at the Barbican. Directed by Isao Takahata, the co-founder of the studio alongside the better-known Hayao Miyazaki, the film tells the story of a brother and sister’s desperate struggle for survival when they are orphaned as a result of the Tokyo fire bombing in World War 2. The death of parents and children in peril are themes that are admittedly ripe for the cynical heart-string pluckers of the weepie world, but even though the body of translated anime offers few examples that transcend the realms of adolescent fantasy or romance, Fireflies succeeds in telling the tale with no little subtlety and care, allowing you to develop a real attachment to the children that would have been so hard to achieve with live actors and their fine line of schooled ability or unskilled naivety both potentially pulling you out of their world.
Again, a hushed auditorium punctuated by wet sounds as people dragged themselves, dazed, from their seats.



Alongside the films of Satoshi Kon that match live action cinema for their craft in storytelling, beauty and immersion, Grave of the Fireflies is one of the finest anime movies ever made.

No films got to me as deeply in the intervening years. Some like Seul Contre Tous, or Funny Games, succeeded in shaking me to the core so that I felt shaken for hours afterwards, but these weren’t sad films so much as a type of horror film that needs not rely on monsters and are all the more horrifying for it. United 93 also left me affected, as surprisingly for a film in which you know the entire plot from beginning to end beforehand it was and is the tensest film that I have seen in my life, but it didn’t push the same buttons.

Then last year came Children of Men.
I have spoken of this film before, and it is truly a film that deserves to be seen before you learn anything about it, but suffice to say it was the best film last year. I’ve written about it before (link), but it needs to be said that it not only brings you close to the characters so that you fear for them, but it says things about the world today that also cut me deep. Without giving to much away, after one of the most superlative scenes of the film (and, indeed, cinema) I had to literally fight back the tears for about ten minutes, such was the urge to just burst out sobbing. It is a truly affecting film and I would urge (again) that everyone who thinks themselves a fan of cinema owes it to themselves to see it. Looking back on what I’ve written, I suspected that I might have built it up too much.
But I haven’t.



Reign Over Me is an odd one. I initially resisted the idea of seeing it chiefly down to the casting of Sandler. I’d never actually, watched an Adam Sandler movie from start to finish before, so my dislike was firmly irrational, but that feeling was enough to have me avoid him until now.
After a favourable write up in Time Out, though, combined with my free cinema pass and a work related journey near one of the few cinemas screening the film, I decided to give it a shot.
The tale of a dentist bumping into the college roommate he has not seen in years, it revolves around the fact that his old friend, Charlie Fineman, lost his wife and kids to one of the planes used on the fateful day of September 11th 2001, and has retreated into an adolescent bubble ever since, aided by a huge compensation payout.
In part it seems a typical Hollywood offering, with schmaltzy sentiment and some skirting round the more difficult problems faced by the characters, but there is real warmth there, too, along with some great acting from Don Cheadle who shines in the lead role of the everyman Alan Johnson, a character that could so easily have been a bland foil to Sandler’s occasional Rain Man-esque histrionics. Jealous of Charlie’s freedoms, Alan feels trapped by his job and his family, and finds some release through his visits to his friend, but comes to realise that what he has is actually what he needs blah blah blah. Ably supported by Liv Tyler, Jada Pinkett-Smith and Saffron Burrows, with a brief but hearty cameo from Donald Sutherland, Reign Over Me manages to move almost despite the seemingly cynical origins of a film that seems designed to tug at America’s heart(land)-strings and provide Sandler with another crack at getting taken seriously with that whole acting thing.
Whilst Sandler is admittedly responsible for the scene that actually caused me to well up, be it from the power of ACTING or the situation of his character, it is nevertheless Cheadle’s movie and makes you wish that he wasn’t so often stuck in supporting roles, playing that second fiddle. Whilst certainly not one of the greatest movies dealing with grief, it’s worth watching for the Don alone.



It also has one of the greatest examples of movie product placement with Sony’s Shadow of the Colossus, rubbing your face in the fact that Charlie Fineman Has Retreated Into A Fantasy World.

Most recently though, it is the marvellous This Is England that has been worrying my tear ducts.
Set in 1983, Shane Meadow’s latest follows 12 year old, fatherless, Shaun, who gets picked on at school and generally has a rough time of things until he is welcomed into a gang of skinheads by Woody and finds happiness with his new friends and surrogate family. Inevitably this joy is short lived thanks to the return of Combo from a stretch inside, who quickly divides the group with nationalist speeches, and takes Shaun under his wing when Shaun decides he wants his dad’s death on the Falklands to mean something.

This Is England is an uncanny glimpse at early 80’s Britain risen from the dead, with every performance note-perfect and a devastating and gripping story despite the predictability of things all going wrong.
As Combo, Stephen Graham succeeds in the unenviable task of portraying a racist, thuggish skinhead as a three-dimensional character, but it is Thomas Turgoose who shines out as Shaun, exactly like a 12 year old boy from ’83, with that intangible mix of wisdom and innocence that films fail to capture with child characters again and again.
Even though you can see the events at the close of the film coming from a long way off this builds on rather than detracting its power, making for a searing and sobering experience.
A massive contribution to the emotion involved comes from early in the film where a few scenes of the gang together somehow seem to distil what it means to be friends, and is as touching as the tragedy that rears towards the end.

This Is England shares with A Room For Romeo Brass and Dead Man’s Shoes a wonderful naturalism from the performers, so that it never seems that you are watching a film with players but rather are catching a slice of people’s lives. This Is England joins the aforementioned films as some of the best British cinema has to offer and marks Meadows as a director to watch, if only to see how he plans to follow what he has achieved so far.
Best film of the year.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Down. In the dark.


This little clip is both a test of embedding Youtube clips and an indication of the possibilities of Wii. See how much fun they're having? You could too.


What if you launched a console but nobody came?

Barely a month on from the next gen console war peaking with the release of Sony’s stunningly monikered PS3, it already seems as if an age has passed.

Not long ago Sony Europe announced their European Launch a huge success, after taking £100 million in the first two days.
Success

Such jubilation hardly sits well with the nigh-on simultaneous laying off of 160 Sony Europe employees, from mainly UK sources:
P45
And the rest of the Sony world isn’t necessarily safe:
Fear in Hi Def

In other news, Sony announced a PSP price drop:
Cheap, hand held fun
Hardly controversial at this stage in the console’s life, but the PS3 was offered at over 5% off the RRP (at less than £400) at numerous online sites just days after launch, lending weight to the theories that the hefty price tag is holding back all but the most ravenous Playstation fans. Now over a month later, the software is changing hands at £30 a go:
And not just the crap games
Sales for the third week after release have the freely available PS3 at 17,000 units, whilst the Wii, coming up to 20 weeks from UK release and still in short supply, shifted 25,000 units according to this:
DS still wins

Then this week there has been a media fury, predictably from the hateful Mail newspaper, about the European launch of the critically acclaimed God of War 2 on Playstation 2.
But this time they do have a point:
Goat slaughter and topless waitresses


As media stunts go this one’s pretty fucking weird.

So, it’s not a good sign for Europe. But what of the other main territories? Gamecube and Dreamcast died horribly in the UK, but in the US and especially Japan they enjoyed somewhat more success, so is the PS3 held back by the comparatively massive prices Brits have to pay?

For most of this year the Wii has been outselling the PS3 by two-to-one in Japan (with 360 sales barely a fraction of these) and the NPD US sales figures speak for themselves:

February sales figures:
Wii 335,000
360 228,000
PS3 127,000

March:
Wii 259,000
360 199,000
PS3 130,000

Then to top it all off, Ken Kutaragi steps down as the head of Sony’s Playstation division.
Jump or pushed?
Demoting oneself is rarely the action of a successful businessman.

In the UK it’s fair to say that the PS3’s initial (as in two day) success was fuelled by fans waiting a long time, but it is not being picked up by those who are only curious as it’s too big an investment, unlike the Wii, which offers something different from the norm that consoles have offered for a long time, and comes in at a comparatively budget price, as well as possibly offering some kudos thanks to it’s perpetually ‘sold out’ status at the moment.
A valid criticism of the Wii is that there are just too few decent games on the system, without delving in to the Gamecube catalogue, but the sales figures point to the fact that Nintendo have successfully hit the market of ‘non-gamers’, who aren’t too worried about a smaller crop of games as they buy them less frequently anyway. How this demographic will impact on software sales and therefore developer support is a worry for the future of the machine.

With all the negative press, it’s all too easy to assume that the PS3 is dead or dying, but with their still imposing brand name and dedication to producing decent software, it is more likely that this time around the battle of the formats will be on a much more level playing field.

For the first time I’m really torn between the machines on offer.
The Wii is a great little machine which more than any other promises of shiny potential that you haven’t even thought of yet. But at the moment it is plagued by a dearth of titles, and those that are available consist of an uncomfortably large proportion of lame kids’ movie tie-ins, ports of very old games from the last lot of machines with usually shoddy optimization for the new control system, the horrific curse of the ‘party game’ and only the distant promise of the Nintendo first-party blockbusters, which are all just nth generation updates of hoary old franchises anyway. I hope that that potential isn’t lost before it has a chance to be found.

The 360 is a great machine backed with great games, great looking, great sounding and great fun. But none of these games are any different than what’s been offered before. Lush graphics, sharp sound and some extended gameplay thanks to the extra horsepower, but the games on offer are the same games we’ve been playing for years. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as the resurgence of ‘retro gaming’ would attest. But it’s hard to get very excited about.

The PS3 isn’t much different, with the same sort of old-gen-game, next-gen-polish line up on offer, and the integrated Blu Ray drive is essentially the audio-visual equivalent – it like DVD, but looks and sounds better. Besides the free “Home” online service (compared to the 360’s subscriber service), the PS3 has little different to offer, more so as previously exclusive titles such as Devil May Cry 4 and Assassin’s Creed hop onto to the Microsoft platform, but there are promises shining through in the shape of games such as LittleBigPlanet. Click when you're linking

It’s a shame that Sony aren’t known for keeping their promises.

But rather than doom & gloom, things in the world of games are actually fantastic, because the people behind Lego Star Wars 1&2 are bringing out Lego Batman:


Now that Play.com are offering the Playstation 2 for only £69.99 I am so tempted that I can actually smell and taste it. I've long resisted the lure of the thing as it looked cheap and nasty, and seemed built that way judging from the number of friends who have had to return faulty machines, but there are a wealth of critically acclaimed games that just aren't available elsewhere.
I am desperate to play the God of War games thanks to what I've read about them, I've been dreaming of the gorgeous looking Okami for months -

- and others, such as Rockstar's Canis Canem Edit, the Devil May Cry games and the second volume of the Capcom Classics Collection have taunted me with their exclusivity.

I know that this path is that of madness, as even as I covet Sony's last gen dominator, dozens of unplayed Xbox and Gamecube titles call to me and a copy of Eledees for the Wii will shortly be joining my little library, but I almost can't help myself. Should I give in? I have the money, but will I ever have the time...

An Eledee. Or Elebit. Depends which country you're in.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Pawing at the door frame.

Tim Roth's controversial directorial debut, The War Zone, captures the desolation and gloom of the English countryside with an uncanny eye. The vast, overcast skies seem to speak of impending doom or hidden terrors, except 'terror' is too exciting a word to describe the kind of inevitable, mundane horror, like the South London wifebeater Winstone plays in the de facto companion piece, Nil By Mouth, which shares having both a gritty and uncompromising English setting and being the solitary directing effort from an established actor (to date). Even the scenes set back in London share the same quiet desperation in the locations of a scraggy dive and a tower-block council flat, where an awkward, aborted seduction takes place.


The War Zone has numerous beautiful landscape shots, especially on opening and closing, but their beauty doesn't stop them being depressing as hell.

A London family relocates to a ramshackle farmhouse and experience turbulence as a new baby girl is born amidst a car accident and dad and his first daughter seem a little too close for comfort. Told through the eyes of the son Tom, the classicly glum and sullen, gangly teen, who already feels isolated at being taken from his old life and dumped in the middle of nowhere, he becomes understandably upset as his relations with his family deteriorate after discovering the secret.

Ray Winstone who usually seems incapable of playing anything but the cockney wide-boy (three-dimensional or not), yet displays here a range in the difficulties of fatherhood (outside of incest) and in his dealings with business people on the phone, catering for what he thinks they expect to hear and proves that he's capable of more than that fackin' accent.
Colin Farrell makes a brief appearance as the local catch who woos Jess to the beach and the war-time pill box, later the scene for the abuse between Jess and her father, but does little besides looking pretty and not sounding Irish.
In keeping with it's 'challenging' indie roots, the main cast all spend some time in states of undress in a decidedly non-tittilating fashion.
Choice quote: "Does he do it up your arse all the time?"
The War Zone can justifiably be called bleak and uncompromising, but despite the controversy surrounding its release, the child abuse/incest is only betrayed as a terrible act, though it's a shame that more isn't made of the father's motivations - leaving him little more than a self-denying monster.

Throughout the film you get the sense that there's something missing in the family home, with the strained, awkward silences as they slouch in the living room, and it took an hour before it struck me - they don't have a telly. Whether it was a part of the back-to-nature impulse of the characters or not, it sends a clear message that if you don't get a TV for the family to sit around, you will Rape Your Kids.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Jesus on the dashboard

For a long time I've bemoaned the lack of variety in men's fashion. Whilst ladies are open to the possibilities of a thousand variations of garments, men find themselves restricted to a narrow range of shirts that either do up or do not (shirts and t-shirts as they are better known), and trousers made from different material of different lengths. And that's it.
The shirts can be made from different materials, they may be cut in slightly different ways, they may have long or short sleeves (or none, turning them into a 'vest'), but they're all shirts. Trousers are trousers, shorts are short trousers and jeans are trousers made from denim.
The different names for women's tops do actually refer to different clothes - a strapless top is not simply a variation on a blouse, and a dress is not a joined-up skirt and top.

This dearth of options has always led me to err on the typically male attitude to clothes shopping-it was a chore to be endured as quickly as possible, opting for larger sizes that can be held with belts to avoid the hassle of actually trying them on. I was lucky in that my culture of choice was that of the 'metaller', meaning baggy or oversized trousers were generally accepted and not a sign of laziness but of taste. These added to a band t-shirt meant getting up in the morning was an activity to which Americans would refer to as a 'no-brainer'.

Whilst this made dressing easy, it didn't prevent my yearning for real difference in my choices, and so my expression came about in other areas - from the age of about 14 I grew my hair long, so for a time I experimented with different types and numbers of pony tail, pig tails and also hair dying, at one time having as many as four colours in my hair at once.
It all ended at Uni when my hair became unmanageable to the point of anarchy, and I shaved it all off. I never had the chance to grow it back again because I started going bald shortly after, and started a mighty goatee instead.

For the last nine years I worked a job where I could wear what I wore outside work, so I did, but just recently my new workplace comes attached with the rule of having to scale up a few levels of classiness, to that of trousers, shoes and shirt, and has led me once again into the quandary of male fashion.
That, and the fact I had the misfortune to visit Oxford Street's Topman on Friday.

The horrors within, dozen upon dozen of preening male halfwits in hideous diamond jumpers with haircuts that would have resulted in mass suicides five years ago. In a pique of desperation the minds behind Topman have clubbed together to concoct methods of persuading young men to buy clothes more often than the cloth actually wears out. Like women do.
Their answer this 'season' is to have people think that it's a must to dress like colourblind golfers.
It's all very well to have fashion houses go for the straight male's wallet, but you'd think that in the jump from offering the purely functional they might try something other than t-shirts with different designs and jeans the same as all the other jeans, only with built-in stains?
It prompts a cry of why bother? And more to the point why do people buy into it? Because they're idiots, that's why.

Look at these. Only idiots would buy these! Idiots I say! Info here at FHM, who along with the other mags like Arena, GQ and Maxim etc. will attempt to tell you what hellish clobber is "in" alongside the celebrity boob pics.
In case further clarification for 'idiots' is needed, exhibit B:

Link to GQ's "Let's look at the catwalk" mind-melt

There was a time when men wore robes, capes, ruffled shirts and permed wigs, pantaloons, buckled shoes, jerkins and thigh-high boots, but now the norm is the trouser and shirt variation on a theme. I blame the Victorians, with their regimentation of everyday life forcing people to confirm to proscribed moral guidelines. As women fought for their freedom, their fashion changed alongside the suffragette movement and led to the sartorial bounty on offer today. But men were free to begin with and their social change has been slight - the focus of life has slipped a little in the last century and a half from work towards a life with more leisure time, and fashion movements have followed suit, or rather left the suit. Haha.
But the basis of the suit-type is still there - even the most slovenly chav wears a variation on the suit, albeit a 'sweat-suit'.

Of course it's not just me noticing this situation, indeed there is a whole website dedicated to broadening men's fashion horizons, or at least trying to get them to wear skirts. Which I think defeats the point really, as you're not bringing much new to the table but instead are just borrowing from what's already out there. But you can see where they're going, the skirt already has a precedent in the kilt so it's not too out there for most men's minds.
If you are into skirts for men, here is a treasure trove. I'm not really into the skirt thing, shorts are bad enough. Men's legs are best left unseen.

Men's fashion - it's either simple or it's a mess.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

I sing in the shower. Don't tell my wife.

For weeks I've been meaning to write write about the so-called "next generation" of gaming, and in particular, the fate of Nintendo's Wii.
But what with my Cineworld pass tugging me silver screen-ward, and games themselves demanding to be played I've never found the time, so rather than perpetually putting it off I present a Frankenstein's monster of half-formed opinion and hyperbole that I've written hither and thither over the past months.

I took a picture a while ago, to better exemplify the wonder of Wii in my imagined little article:



Not quite on a par with Nintendo's own shiny, happy, metrosexual marketing, but I had a go. It probably doesn't help that I've never had any of my friends visit. Imagine a group of scrubbed and breathless twenty somethings squashed together on the bed behind me, grinning. Now stop being dirty.

From an e-mail I wrote to a collective of 360 owners, having one of those archetypal platform debates of the kind that you may remember if you were around for those fabled SNES vs. Meagadrive days:

"Watch out, this is a long one!

Mmmm...Sony are getting a lot of stick at the moment, and they aren't helping themselves any.
Microsoft have already built up a massive user base with the 360 and have a ton of stonking games out, whilst Sony have had to perpetually delay their system because they thought it necessary that they offer more of a games console, and keep backtracking on the stellar specs that they first offered.
They were probably banking on the success of the PS3 making the Blu Ray drive the HD player of choice, but it looks like they have misread the market - people would prefer to see how the HD 'war' plays out before they take a plunge and possibly back the loser.

The issue of the price appears again and again all over the internet and it shouldn't be ignored. Don't get me wrong, the PS3 will sell out on launch in Europe and will initially be a 'success', but I think Sony are in danger of resting on their laurels.
They expect the PS3 to be the Daddy because the PS2 totally slaughtered the competition. The Gamecube died a death (though maybe not as savagely as the N64) and the Xbox put up a good fight, but obviously could not compete with the sheer amount of PS2s (is it snide to slip in a suggestion that a lot of those were repeat buys due to the notoriously faulty PS2 drive?). But why was it so successful? It received overwhelming support from the developers and publishers, with more games than there are Welsh people, but it only received this support because of the numbers of machines sold. So if the machines sold first, and the games followed, why won't the PS3 be the automatic Daddy?
The main reason that the PS2 was so successful was that it traded on the Playstation name. The original Playstation was the machine that launched gaming into the media spotlight it enjoys today, that got more girls into gaming before the DS was invented and ruled the games market thanks to the weak competition - Sega just didn't have the power to back the Dreamcast and the N64 was killed by the outdated cart tech - £60 for a game was nuts when you could pick up blockbusters for £20 on the Playstation, and like Busby said the few top-notch Nintendo games couldn't keep the console afloat without third party backup, who flee any machine that won't guarantee enough of an audience to make their money back.

But now the PS3 is up against the 360 which has a massive and possibly fatal head-start. Plus this time the Nintendo option looks a little stronger - this time around Nintendo are offering something that you can't get anywhere else. This is why the DS has been wiping the floor with the PSP - whilst the PSP mainly offers what amount to home console games, and multimedia options that are usually better served by dedicated machines (or even mobiles!), the DS allows you to play games that are unique, that give you a reason to own the handheld even if you already own a home console. As long as Nintendo don't drop the ball, and third party companies make an effort to differentiate their Wii games from their PS360 ones, the Wii might well be the main rival to the 360 with the PS3 running as the outsider.

The fact that in the media Sony continues to be cocky seems to only damage it's reputation: clicky

Remember that at the end of the day a console is only as good as it's games. Sony must have been mental the day they let Genji out."

The group of 360 players are people I used to play Xbox Live games with, back before the 360 launched. The question of me owning a 360 is an inevitability, a when not if as I salivate at the prospect of Halo 3, but I've been waiting partly because I need to whittle down my game library rather than add to it, and partly for a price drop. £280 still loooks like a hell of a lot in my book, PS3 or no, but the upcoming release of the turbo-bastard 360 Elite should hopefully knock the price down. Hopefully.

This brief slip of an e-mail was a reaction the Elite release announcement and the uncoincidentally simultaneous UK PS3 launch:

"See? Now it makes sense that I've waited so long!
Now I need a date and a price.

Also: PS3 breaks sales records:
clicky

BUT! There are still plenty of consoles out there. Sony claim to have shipped 220,000 to the UK, and sold 165,000 in two days. This is all well and good, but we all know that the Wii and 360 sold out way before launch - they would have sold a lot more if the consoles had actually been available to pick up off the shelves. As far as I have seen there are still stock problems with the Wii months after launch, so who knows how many it would have shifted if demand could be met?

Let's put things in another light: the PS3 will probably do well, if not as well as Sony hope.
The DS has sold 3 million units in the UK so far.
In the UK.
So far.

DS wins."

As I said, DS wins.

This nugget I wrote today as a comment to yet another article damning Wii graphics in comparison to the 360's, on the Computer & Video Games (C&VG) website.

"This has been bugging me for months so I have to add my tuppence worth:

1. Reviews and previews and such on this site, in GamesTM, Edge and other places regularly bring attention to the graphics of Wii games - of course looking at the progress of any game on any system will involve judging it's look, but in this case it's often a comparitive measure against the other home systems, how the Wii compares against the 360 or PS3.

You could argue they share the same level, but I struggle to find similar comparisons between DS visuals and those of the PSP when looking at their respective games' articles. It seems that Wii is unfairly bearing the brunt of the 'graphics question'.

2. There is no doubting what the Wii is capable of: seeing as it runs Gamecube games, it is at worst as good as a Gamecube, which arguably has Resident Evil 4 as it's benchmark. There's no question that in the case of the shoddy graphics of many Wii games out thus far, it's lazy development at fault wherever the graphics are shoddy, especially when they can't match the Cube launch title, Rogue Leader.

3. Having said this, the few bastions of Wii capabilities to date are Nintendo titles, and many unreleased ones at that, which doesn't exactly inspire hope.
The N64 and Cube both had first-rate first-party titles, shining examples of the respective generation's gaming, but both consoles died a slow death due to lack of third party support.
If the third party support at this early stage of the Wii's life is so half-hearted that developers can't produce the goods from a system that is comparitively easy to code for, the public won't buy, the third party support will dry up and people won't wait out the arid deserts between Nintendo releases.

That's the pessimism - for the optimistic outlook you take the DS. Underpowered in the handheld market, a unique control system that forces developers to make an effort, but massive software support and king of it's hill.
The question is, which path will the Wii end up on?"

As an aside, it was the C&VG magazine, followed by Mean Machines, that inspired my love of the caption. Something about the type of humour, the non-sequiter or surreal idea used to livenup the screenshots had me in stitches month after month.
No magazine I've read since has ever managed to match those giddy heights of picture captioning, an art unto itself, but it's something I feel like reaching for.
Halcyon days...


To summise, the PS3 launch wasn't as spectacular as Sony have attempted to spin, bearing in mind the year they had to build up stocks and the year punters had to build up savings, and with their price handicap along with a poor software showing, it will be an uphill struggle to gain anything like the momentum they had with the PS2 (which has still been outselling the PS3 in Japan).
The Wii will live or die by it's games, and the jury's is still out as Nintendo has still to launch a "killer app" and the third party developer releases are bitty to say the least. Whilst the Nintendo track record for home consoles is far from rosy, the Wii is different enough to come up with something no-one expected and pull a DS.
The 360, whether it finishes this latest console war in first, second or third place, will still continue to do well thanks to it's large user base and wealth of decent games both already released and in the planning stages.

But whatever happens, the DS wins.


What's your favourite Wii joke?

Friday, March 30, 2007

Witness a side of beef

Ghost Rider is best summed up by the very last shot of the movie: as Nicolas Cage zooms towards the camera on his motorbike, the camera pulls close to his face as he arches one eyebrow.
It’s as if, on deciding that no one could ever take the film seriously thanks to yet another disastrous Nic Cage wig, they decided to play it for laughs. Not such a bad move when you consider how well comic book movies play on being camp – Fantastic Four was successful enough to spawn a sequel and even the first X Men adaptation had the knowing references to spandex suits and such.
But whilst many fans profess a fondness of vintage Doctor Who because of the wonky cardboard sets, Ghost Rider’s flaws aren’t endearing anybody to it.

As a comedy the film is virtually flat line, and as a spectacular event picture it scrabbles to hold interest, let alone generate thrills.
If the amount of cheese on display is anything to go by, it would be fair to assume that the creators were banking on Ghost Rider coming across as an ironic comedy. The moments where the Ghost Rider points to sinners and demons, pointing and growling “Guilty!” are almost embarrassing to the point where you want to look away, like watching a sex scene on telly as a twelve year old with your parents.

Embarrassing

Wes Bentley as Cage’s nemesis is awful. He wanders around looking like a lost goth, touching people to death and summoning three elemental demons to fight for him. One made of water, one made of dust, and one made of dust, only swirling in the air. Except that they’re all really made of CGI that looks dated compared to 99’s “The Mummy” remake. The ropey effects could be forgiven if there was some invention to the baddies or their deeds, but there seems little point in them at all as they don’t offer any challenge or menace to the Ghost Rider, maybe pushing him over or something before he decides to set fire to them.
The actual plot is so humdrum it’s not worth going into, but the casting is interesting. The role of a cowboy-era Ghost Rider is taken by gen-yoo-wine cowboy actor for hire, Sam Shepard, who was thoughtful enough to even bring his chewing tobakky along (but is not seen mounting his steed in one take). Cage’s slovenly friend and co-worker is played by Donal Logue of the Tao of Steve fame who elicits mild smiling and thoughts of “It’s that Steve guy, where’s he been?”.
Eva Mendes serves well as a pretty lady who likes to wear tops that stop plunging halfway down her chest, and Peter Fonda shows up as the devil, seemingly prompting the hiring of Wes Bentley to make Fonda more convincing as the Prince of Lies.
A number of other characters are played by weird look-alikes – a no-shit police captain is played by a Michael Rooker-alike whilst Cage’s dad by a Chris Cooper-alike, for example. These actors seem to cement the film, along with its effects, firmly in B-movie territory, but with none of the wit or charm that makes efforts like Lake Placid stand out, Ghost Rider just stinks. Let’s not even mention the young versions of Cage and Mendes.
It was nice, briefly, to see Cage go wacko in his transformation scene as his head catches fire, recalling the old days of Vampire’s Kiss, but even this was a fleeting distraction from the main sport of Waiting For The End.

Cage feels a gurn coming on in Vampire's kiss

Ghost Rider successfully makes all of the other comic adaptations shine, elevating the likes of Daredevil and Punisher by helpfully adding a lower rung to the ladder.

It’s fair to ask why I even went to see it when my cack-radar was screaming even back when I first peeped the trailer last year – I avoided the Wicker Man after all. The reason is that of many of mankind’s foibles – greed. With my access-all-areas Cineworld pass I can go and see anything without feeling a financial burn, a side effect being that I’ll now take a chance where before I would have passed. I have been surprised by enjoying things I may never have otherwise seen, like the Pursuit of Happyness and the wonderful Guide to Recognising Your Saints, and glad that I caught treats like After the Wedding where before I might have missed its tight screening window, but Ghost Rider serves as the Karmic answer to these.

A film that I would have likely seen even if I had to pay actual money for it is the Good German, and in this case the film pass gains some ground that it lost to Ghost Rider, at least in financial terms.

Ever experimental, Soderbergh decided to make a 50’s noir steeped in betrayal, conspiracy and femme fatales. Unfortunately, despite the opening scene in hazy 4:3 which uses period footage, he doesn’t go all out to “make ‘em like they used to”, instead going the uncharacteristically (?) Hollywood route of jazzing up the proceedings with swears, sexy and violence. Rather than bringing the noir up to date it just creates a fat mess as the fucks and beatings grate like nails on slate against the faithful noir trappings.

A boring plot that is undoubtedly sunk by the awful characterisation further heaps upon these thematic problems.
Clooney can do little to enliven his army-based detective/journalist character, who seems to try and uncover the plots afoot in Berlin between the defeat of the Nazis and the post war carve-up not out of any real motivation, but simply out of sheer plot mechanics. His character has little wit or charm and even brains don’t seem to stand out as pieces of the puzzle seem to fall in his lap rather then actually get tracked down.
Tobey Maguire is badly cast against type in a role that calls for a nasty piece of work, and whilst it is heartening that he is trying to broaden his range, he does not come across as anything more than annoying despite the frequent and savage beatings he dishes out. Whilst his character does call for him to be weak and scared at heart, he doesn’t manage to make the flip side of ballsy menace come off.
Most surprisingly is the failure of Cate Blanchett.
As an actress who can easily set a scene alight with her glowing, slightly awkward beauty and undeniable acting chops, it seems odd that she blended into the background in her scenes, offering little besides enigmatic statements delivered in a corny accent and not matching the presence of the noir femmes of old, despite her proven ability to do so.

"You mean I've fucked Spiderman and Batman?

It is encouraging that Soderbergh is still willing to experiment and not stick to any genre or style, but rather than creating a hit or interesting failure, the Good German is just plain boring.