Archive for the Review Category

The (Seriously) Amazing Spider-Man 2

Posted in Americana, Movies, Review on April 20, 2014 by Spike Marshall

Amazing-Spider-Man-2-Official-High-Res-Banner

This isn’t a review and it’s hopefully not big on spoilers. It’s designed to be more of a post film analysis, rather than something designed to sell you on a movie. If you’re still unsure about seeing the movie I’d say give it a shot, I guarantee that it’s not going to be widely loved but if you do manage to synch up with it’s very peculiar wavelength you’ll be one of the cool kids, and at the end of the day isn’t that what we all want? To be one of the cool kids.

Anyway to business, AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 (hereby  referred to as ASM 2) is a film that feels caught between two masters. On one hand the film feels perfectly happy to focus on a self contained narrative, pitting Spider-Man against the latest freak of the week, Electro. On the other hand the film feels obligated to keep powering the meta-story of the franchise at the expense of said self contained narrative. As such we end up with a film where all three acts feels like very specific and very unique movies. The first act is Spider-Man vs. Electro, this segment establishing Spider-Man’s status quo, evaluating Peter’s relationship with Gwen Stacey, introducing Max Dillon, showing his subsequent transformation into Electro and crescendoing with Spider-Man and Electro’s (spectacular) showdown. The film achieves all of the above in roughly an hour, the second act promptly remembers that this is an Orci and Kurtzman script and swiftly introduces a plotline about magic blood and sets Peter off on an internalised journey of discovery. During this period the film infrequently checks in on it’s villains, not for any plot reasons but more as a means of habeas corpus. The third act has absolutely nothing to do with the second act and serves as a pat continuation of the conflicts set up in the first act via the means of super-powered smack down. Once this is all settled the last twenty minutes of the film are essentially an internal micro-sequel to ASM 2 playing out within the movie itself and building from some of the nebulous themes explored in the second act, in much the same way the last forty minutes of THE DARK KNIGHT play more as hastily constructed sequel than an actual third act . This micro-sequel establishes a villain, deals with a villain, disrupts the status quo, teases the next sequel, establishes another villain, resolves Spider-Man’s internal conflict, dispatches the new villains and establishes a new status quo within the space of about twenty minutes.

Structurally speaking the film is a goddamn mess and it feels like there’s a lean 80 minute film that director Marc Webb is 100% invested in which has been padded out by second unit stuff designed to establish Sony’s vision of a connected Spider-Man franchise of films. The franchise aspects of the film feel as rote and unfun as the machinations of IRON MAN 2, whilst the Electro story has the giddy, anything can and will happen, tone of THE AVENGERS. It’s the equivalent of having your dessert poured over the broccoli to better expedite your meal eating experience. So as a whole I should hate the film, right? Well I kind of do and I don’t, and generally I find myself falling more into the “yay” rather than “nay” category. The reason for this is because despite the overt corporate nature, exemplified by the blatant attempts at franchising, the film feels like a wildly loony beast. On a scene by scene basis the film operates that is feverishly inventive, well acted, and beautifully shot. Webb doesn’t just have an eye for gorgeous visuals (and the film is routinely beautiful looking) but also a knack for offbeat compositions and sequences. From the exhilarating first person web slinging sections, to the use of slow motion and freeze frame to indicate thought processes all of Webb’s action sequences are not only driven by a kinetic energy, but also it’s own quirks.

A big part of this energy and quirkiness comes from Hans Zimmer’s score (which if you’re British can listen to via Spotify above). Taking over scoring duties from perennial bore James Horner, Zimmer has constructed a score that is brimming with personality. Working with a supergroup of previous Zimmer collaborators Six the score is a mixture of musical styles a world away from Zimmer’s usual rhythm and string scoring style. There are elements of Zimmer’s usual pacy scoring layered throughout the film, but they’re offset by playful woodwind accompaniments, distorted guitars, dubstep beats and ranting vocals. In particular Electro’s theme is kind of stupendous, with a muttered paranoid refrain increasing in tone and aggression as the woodwinds used to signify his more human side give way to, at times diegetic, dubstep. It’s a frenzied, multilayered, exciting piece of music and it perfectly complements the spectacular melancholy of Spider-Man and Electro’s first tet-a-tet. The entire crux of the sequence is Spider-Man trying to reach out to the newly formed Electro and the score manages to be both tragic and visceral at the same time, discordant elements bonding together to create something really memorable.

The eccentric, pulsing score, perfectly captures the gorgeous visuals of Electro, pulses of electricity peeling away from him in brilliant blue and purple strips. In comparison to the rather drab action and look of the original film, Amazing Spider-Man is constantly awash with colour both visually and in terms of it’s general tone. In fact, for better or worse, the film it reminds me of the most is BATMAN FOREVER. Largely in how willing it is to engage with the more loony aspects of the comic books. From; wonderfully malevolent German Psychiatrists, to degenerative diseases that can turn a man’s hands into talons, secret laboratories hidden in compartmentalised subway trains and giant mechanised power suits the film is practically giddy with the possibility afforded to it by it’s source material. But this unbound comic book sensibility also casts harsh light onto the moments of the film that are more grounded. With a film that can be so filled with joie de vivre it has a nasty habit of being it’s own major buzzkill. Take for example the entire second act which sees Spider-Man show up for one minor scene, and worst of all banishes Andrew Garfield to scene after scene where he’s in scenes by his lonesome. Garfield is fantastic as Spider-Man, imbuing the character with humour and warmth, but he works better as part of an ensemble. His scenes with Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy and Dane DeHaan as Harry Osborne effortlessly convey the intimacy and friendship of the respective relationships, but when the film casts him adrift for it’s long middle section he feels hopelessly alone. In fact the film is very good at creating amazing pairings of actors and then doing nothing with them, giving us just enough to want more of the dynamic but not enough to leave you truly satisfied. DeHaan for example has some amazing scenes with a variety of characters in the film, but the more indelible pairings are tragically cut short. It’s essentially a casualty of the film’s bloat, the need to jam so much plot into such a short time frame that forces the movie to be fairly cutthroat at times with it’s more character led scenes.

When all is said and done I’m probably a little easy on the film, largely because the first hour perfectly encapsulates the kind of Spider-Man movie I’ve always wanted to see. Spider-Man as a superhero who helps people, who feels like part of a community, and has genuine compassion. The first act is fun, exciting and spectacular looking and the subsequent deflation in the second act and rather pat conclusion only serve to reduce the film from exceptional to great. It also has me salivating for the next film, as the film largely feels like it’s done all of the legwork vis-a-vis both rebooting Spider-Man and establishing the tone and structure of the franchise.  It’s just a shame that to get to that point it sometimes feels like this, great, film has been sacrificed for the greater good. But when the sacrificial film includes broadly evil German doctors, zany comic book action and amazing turns by all of it’s core cast I don’t particularly feel too let down.

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Batman Begins

Posted in Movies, Review with tags on July 18, 2008 by Spike Marshall

One of the problems with Batman is that he is a character who is hard to relate too. Compared to the more blue collared heroes of Marvel the DC heroes have always strayed away from the common man angle. Superman is a deity, Wonder Woman is an Amazon, the Green Lantern is an interstellar cop and Batman is a playboy billionaire driven to the point of madness by the murder of his parents. Having his parents be killed in cold blood at such a young age not only distances the character from his readers but limits how you can tell the story of Batman. The character is essentially going through long term post-traumatic stress, raging against the world which disrupted his life and as such you can either write the character as a cipher or a mad man.

The live action Batman films all seemed to realise this with Burton’s first film portraying Batman and Bruce Wayne as a barely contained psychopath. The following films would marginalise Batman’s role in the story until he was little more than a supporting character in his own movies. Whilst the previous films would contain brief flashbacks to the murder of Wayne’s parents they never took the time to look at the origins of the character with even Tim Burton’s first Batman film showcasing a fully formed crime fighter.

Christopher Nolan’s 2005 resurrection of the character would devote nearly half of its runtime to the origins of Batman and would become the first Batman film that was as much about Bruce Wayne as his secret identity. Featuring extensive flashbacks to his youth in Gotham and showing the training that Wayne would undertake to become a masked vigilante Batman would only show up about an hour into the film. Instead of the infallible and omniscient Batman of the past we were shown a young and inexperienced crime fighter struggling to make a difference.

By focusing so much on Bruce Wayne’s formative years Batman Begins actually manages to develop something of an emotional core. Thanks largely to the work of Christian Bale and Gus Lewis (who has a few scenes as the young Bruce Wayne) Batman Begins actually creates a Bruce Wayne that feels real, a Bruce Wayne consumed by anger but who actively fights against the darkness inside him. Whilst Keaton, Kilmer and Clooney all embraced the inherent nuttiness of Wayne none of them seem to have the sense of inner turmoil that Bale brings to the role.

“Swear to me!”

With his previous work in American Psycho it was easy to assume that Bale would have brought some Patrick Bateman to the role but in fact he eschews a lot of the expected acting choices. For one Wayne never seems overtly crazy, his mission is driven by a deep insanity but when he dons the mantle of the bat it is a cathartic release for the character. Whilst I’m not usually a fan of Bale’s work have to admit that his acting choices and sheer physical presence really help to establish Wayne as a character. His Wayne is truly happiest when he is at work but he also has the mental discipline to make his social interactions not seem too rigid. Despite being uncomfortable with his role as a playboy Billionaire he never comes off as a kooky or as odd as the previous Batman.

Aiding Bale are some absolutely terrific supporting performers. Chief amongst them is Michael Caine as Wayne’s erstwhile Butler Alfred. Caine, like Bale, moves away from what you would expect of Alfred and creates a character that feels real. Whilst the general notion of Alfred is an incredibly proper and traditional butler Caine opts for a slightly more blue collar approach. He is a lot more forthcoming than any previous version of Alfred and this fact is relayed in simple things like his accent. Instead of going for a traditional ‘proper English’ approach to his line delivery Caine gives Alfred a military standing and doing so he sets himself up as an equal force to Wayne. Instead of being a surrogate father figure to Wayne Alfred becomes Batman’s conscience, the force trying to stabilise and guide the crime fighter. He also offers a little lightness to counterpoint Bale’s strict and at times joyless performance.

An impressive ensemble of British actors rounds out the rest of the supporting cast. Liam Neeson seems to be having quite a lot of fun as Ducard, the man who mentors Wayne and schools him in the ways of the Ninja. Tom Wilkinson is legitimately threatening and repellent as Falcone, a mob boss who currently controls Gotham. Cillian Murphy gives a lot of depth to a wafer thin character as Dr. Crane, his slimy intonation and gangly frame making him an interesting contrast to Bale’s Batman. In fact only Gary Oldman as Sgt. Gordon seems to get the short shrift of things, his role in the film teetering on the edge of being a comic sidekick. He’s given some of the worst material the script has to offer and you can actually see Oldman’s interest wane as the movie goes on. It’s a shame because Gordon is a key player in the Batman mythos and in Batman Begins he just seems to not really be utilised aside from two key scenes. His interactions with the young Wayne after the shooting are really well done and his conversation with Batman about escalation is some of the strongest work in the film, it’s just unfortunate everything else is so flat.

“You want my opinion? You need to lighten up”

Gordon is probably the biggest casualty of a script from David Goyer and Christopher Nolan that is at times just horrible. Whilst the bare bones of the story are fantastic and show a great love for the Batman mythos it’s the individual dialogue which really cripples the film. There’s a certain lunk headedness to lines like “My name is merely Ducard” “I got to get me one of those” and “Protection for them” which work to sabotage the entire production. The film veers wildly from being understated to being overstated and the effect is incredibly jarring at times. Ducard and Bruce’s training session on an ice flow is a really great piece of writing but when they meet again Ducard has switched from a sage mentor to a ranting villain who even delivers a speech about killing Wayne’s parents by proxy.

What hurts the film more than anything is the shift in tone halfway through the second act. The first act is probably one of the best bits in the film and in the Batman films in general. Seeing Wayne recount his past horrors and become a man strong enough to become Batman is fascinating and it’s handled in a really interesting way. Despite the presence of ninjas and Gotham’s sprawling Art-Deco design it feels like a grounded movie. It’s certainly not a realistic film but it feels like a revenge film grounded in an approximation of reality.

This tone is maintained for about an hour and a half and even Batman’s first few jaunts are handled in a way that feels a million miles away from standard comic book fare. Batman is a shadow in the film, striking out from the darkness and picking off his foes like something from a horror film. Even the films villains are handled in a more grounded way. Falcone is an archetypal thug, a gang lord with the entire city on his payroll whilst Dr. Crane is just a sadistic psychologist who’s gotten into a scheme to make some money. Crane is the more outlandish of the two and even his heightened moments are him just trying out a fear toxin on patients.

The problem comes when the film starts to amp up for its major finale with the grounded elements being replaced by typical super heroics. Whilst the finale isn’t bad it feels like a betrayal of the good work set up previously. Batman trying to escape the police in his modified tank is a thrilling piece of vehicular action but it also throws the intelligence the film had been building out of the window. Similarly the major action set piece on board of an overhead tram has stakes that are too high for the modest beginning of the film and reduces Gordon to little more than a comedy sidekick.

“Does it come in black?”

Part of the problem is that Nolan whilst being a great director when faced with character and thriller elements doesn’t seem to know how to film an action sequence and as such most of the action beats are incredibly confused. In fact the final fight on the tram itself is so muddled that it starts to become unclear exactly who has done what. As such the earlier moments where Batman is prowling around the city trying to find information work far more effectively than any of the later action climaxes.

Christopher Nolan’s vision of Batman however is one that actually works. Having Batman work against mobsters in an art-deco (with a hint of Blade Runner’s drizzly dystopia) version of Gotham actually seems to suit the character really well. Like Batman ‘89 it just feels like there is a conflict over the story and tone of the film with the influence of Goyer and Nolan apparent in several key scenes.

Still with a fantastic score (the combined work of James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer is some of the best stuff that either composers have created in a while), some incredible cinematography and a fully rounded central hero it is hard not to view Batman Begins as the best Batman film in the series.

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm

Posted in Movies, Review with tags , , on July 16, 2008 by Spike Marshall

1992 would see Tim Burton’s Batman sequel hit cinemas as Bruce Timm’s animated series debuted on TV. Batman: The Animated Series would become viewed as a landmark in children’s entertainment and its success would spur on the development of a big screen animated outing the following year. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm’s surprisingly adult plot would be indicative of the series as a whole which infused the pulp character with humanity and intelligence.

Running for five years Batman: The Animated Series would eschew the standard practices of children’s cartoons and instead build its own style and iconography. Distinguishing itself from the popular Marvel cartoons of the time Batman: The Animated Series adopted a stylised art-deco look in contrast to its competitor’s attempts at realism. It also used the timelessness of Tim Burton’s Batman films to great effect to create stories that contained modern sensibilities and technology but had the ambience and look of classic noir.

The series also largely eschewed the continuity of the comic books and films presenting classic Batman characters and stories in new and interesting ways. As such Batman: The Animated series would both create and revitalise, adding new villains to Batman’s rogue gallery and giving new context to his existing enemies. The Joker’s psychotic girlfriend Harley Quinn would be a creation of the animated series as would the tragic back story of Mr. Freeze. Previously little more than an outlandish thug with a freeze gun Mr. Freeze would gain a melancholic edge in the cartoons. This facet of his personality and revised back story would be adopted into the comics themselves and would be ultimately used for Joel Schumacher’s fourth entry in the film series Batman and Robin.

“Looks like there’s a new face in Gotham and soon his name will be all over town… to say nothing of his legs, and feet, and spleen, and head…”

The show would also take its time in setting up plot points and situations, a chief example being the use of Harvey Dent a number of episodes prior to his transformation to Two Face. In setting up the character as a friend of Bruce Wayne it granted his cataclysmic turn to darkness a far great emotional impact. This kind of emotional climax was what Batman: The Animated Series was all about with the writers often favouring smaller moments over grander payoffs.

Instead of simply offering setup for a climatic fight the individual episodes of Batman went in various different directions. Sometimes they would focus on the Batman himself as he went about his detective business, sometimes the focus would fall on a peripheral character with the Dark Knight as a background force. In doing so the series managed to build up a cast of heroes, villains and supporting players that had incredible amounts of depth for a cartoon series and this depth would be employed brilliantly when Mask of the Phantasm tackled the origins of its lead character.

Mask of the Phantasm takes place with Batman fully integrated into the running of Gotham city. His tacit agreement with Commissioner Gordon allows him to track and bring in criminals with impunity. However a new costumed avenger starts to brutally murder mob bosses leading the public, spurred on by ambitious city councilman Arthur Reeves, to view the Batman as the culprit. Hounded by the police as he tries to unravel the identity of the enigmatic crusader Bruce Wayne’s life is turned around by the reappearance of the love of his life Andrea Beaumont.

Andrea’s appearance causes Wayne to reminisce about his past and in doing so we’re given an insight into the birth of Batman. The film switches between the present and the past and as such we’re given a glimpse into Wayne as a fledgling crime fighter, fully trained but lacking the iconography which would make him famous. We see him donned in dark clothes and a balaclava, combating crime but failing to make a psychological impact. We even see Bruce swayed from his quest by his blossoming affections for Andrea. It’s a fascinating insight into the character and it marks the first feature in the series to look at this period. Batman Begins would be a full blown origin story but all the other Batman films up to this point focused on a character that had found and made peace with his identity, a vigilante who had already perfected his craft.

“So, tell me – with all that money and power, how come you always look like you want to jump off a cliff?”

Like Batman Begins the film would take its inspiration from Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One a one shot comic book which depicted Batman’s fledgling year. Whilst Year One was a far grittier and nastier take on Batman’s first forays into crime fighting its influence can be felt in the way Bruce Wayne interacts with his parents and criminals in Mask of the Phantasm. Whereas earlier films would show Bruce Wayne being spurred on by his parents murder Mask of the Phantasm created the notion that Bruce’s mission was in servitude to them. Certainly his desperate pleas for another option when he finds happiness suggest that this Bruce Wayne could have exorcised his demons without donning the mantle of the bat.

What makes these earlier scenes work is Kevin Conroy’s fantastic performance as both Bruce Wayne and Batman. Conroy’s voice work would be one of the lynchpins of the animated series and his magnetic and divergent turns as Bruce Wayne and Batman would help to create a sympathetic core to a character who could have easily been a silent loner. Conroy would be helped by a large ensemble of fantastic voice actors but the stand out supporting performer would prove to be Mark Hamill. Despite being best known for his heroic turns in the Star Wars trilogy Hamill established a career in his later life as a remarkably talented voice actor, his focus being on characters of the more villainous persuasions. With voice work in everything from Spiderman to Miyazakis Laputa: Castle in the Sky Hamill would bring a unique blend of humour and darkness to each of his roles.

But his most famous voice work would be playing Batman’s arch-enemy the Joker in the Animated Series. Clearly enjoying himself immensely Hamill would, with the help of some truly fantastic strips, create a Joker that wasn’t just good for a children’s show but which actually threatened to be one of the most interesting and bravura interpretations of the character. Perfectly capturing the Jokers conflicted and psychotic nature Hamill was able to be both funny and terrifying at the drop of a hat.

“Mi casa nostra es su casa nostra.”

The Joker’s appearance halfway through The Mask of the Phantasm should really spell doom for a production already juggling two comprehensive plotlines, but somehow it manages to handle the flashbacks, the phantasm and Batman’s most iconic showdown with his greatest nemesis incredibly well. Considering its lean runtime and exuberance of Hamill’s performance there was a danger that the Joker would once again dominate proceedings, but whilst the character is exceptionally memorable he’s reined in enough to serve as a suitable heavy without completely destroying the focus of the story

In fact despite a somewhat episodic nature Mask of the Phantasm manages to have one of best stories in all of the Batman films. Part of this is due to the fact that all three plotlines serve to flesh out one larger story which ties together all of the major and minor characters. In fact one criticism to be levelled against the film is that everything is wrapped up a little too tightly, to the point where the finals final climatic showdown occurs in a ‘World of Tomorrow’ museum which Bruce Wayne and Andrea visited when they were first dating. Simply having the Joker make his hideout at a random museum would have been fine, but by establishing an emotional connection for the other characters it makes everything seem a little trite.

But it really is a minor criticism and the museum provides a fantastic backdrop for one of Batman’s most explosive encounters with the Joker. With Jetpacks, robotic knife wielding housewives, toy biplanes and a fight against a miniature city thrown into the mix the final ten minutes is a suitably cathartic climax to a film that had avoided the usual Batman super heroics.

With a sumptuous score from Shirley Walker and some amazing animation Mask of the Phantasm is a perfect showcase of the style and intelligence that made Batman: The Animated Series so fantastic.

Batman ’89

Posted in Americana, Movies, Review with tags , , , , , , , on July 12, 2008 by Spike Marshall

“What are you?”

“I’m Batman”

If you are of a certain age that exchange between a terrified mugger and psychopath in a leather bat suit is probably the most iconic Batman has ever been as a character. Whilst I am not unaware of the failings in Tim Burton’s gothic take on the character I’ll admit to having a massive amount of love for the film he created. Of course the problem is disengaging nostalgic affection from the critical process and as such I’ve had to try and take something of an objective look at a film that was a defining cinematic part of my childhood.

Back in the late 1980s Batman was going through some interesting changes. Whilst the general publics concept of the character would be rooted in the colourfully cult TV series of the sixties Batman’s comic book audience were being introduced to a darker and more introverted version of the character. Frank Miller’s 1986 comic The Dark Knight Return’ would showcase an older Batman, a battle ravaged veteran who had attempted to retire his nocturnal activities. Switching between Batman’s own introspective musings and snippets of the media reaction to his reappearance The Dark Knight Returns would show both the need for and damage done by a zealous vigilante. It would make the fascistic underpinnings of the character plain for all to see and set a precedent for grittier content in comic books.

Alan Moore’s 1988 comic The Killing Joke would take the Batman’s greatest foe and delve into his tortured and fragmented past. The comic would both provide back story to the Joker, a character who had been up to this point something of a homicidal cipher, and counterpoint his madness against the Batman’s own psychosis. Leagues away from the classic heroism of his initial run we now had a character who was only one step removed, psychologically speaking, from his foes.

“You wanna get nuts? Come on! Let’s get nuts!”

Whilst Burton would take elements from both of these stories (to my mind the use of media in Batman is similar to the use of media in The Dark Knight returns) his main source of inspiration would seem to be the Bob Kane’s original Batman run. Showcasing a character hidden in the shadows, ready to kill and teetering on the edge of sanity. Whilst an action orientated actor would have been more of an obvious choice Tim Burton’s casting of Michael Keaton as Batman would become of the films greatest strengths. In a film almost overshadowed by one key performance (more on that later) Keaton, better known for more comedic roles, was able to deliver a performance that was nuanced, subtle and iconic.

To anyone who had seen his title role in Tim Burton’s previous feature Beetlejuice it would have been an obvious fit to cast Keaton as the maniacal Joker. However having Keaton play Batman served to create a duality of sorts between the hero and his most dangerous nemesis. Jack Nicholson would be the one to secure the role of The Joker and would craft a performance that was utterly memorable but also damaged the film as a whole.

When you watch Batman it is hard not to realise which element of the film Burton is drawn too as a director. His focus on the Joker is in hindsight not at all surprising. In fact the Joker has more in common with a traditional Tim Burton hero than anything else. The artistically oddball elements of the Joker aren’t a million miles away from the heroes of Edward Scissorhands, Sleepy Hollow and A Nightmare Before Christmas. Whilst Burton would also accentuate the oddball qualities of Bruce Wayne the focus primarily rested on Nicholson’s infectious performance.

And where is the Batman? HE’S AT HOME WASHING HIS TIGHTS!!”

The problem is that Nicholson’s take on the character is perhaps a little too fun, a little too charming. It is very hard to actually view the Joker as a villain because he’s the most entertaining thing in the film. It also doesn’t help that the Joker is given the most iconic moments in the film. Really you’re supposed to be made uneasy by the Joker, but when he is raiding and redecorating posh restaurants/art galleries, killing mob bosses with electric buzzers and quills and committing mass murder by way of festival balloons he is more impishly charming than horrifying. There really is nothing to match the Joker’s sheer presence and sense of fun and as such you almost start to miss his presence when the film focuses on the Batman or its periphery characters. With his outlandish crimes and brash purple and orange motif the Joker is a blast of colour and vibrancy in Burton’s claustrophobically gothic vision of Gotham. As such he becomes one of the more identifiable and entertaining aspects of the film.

“More Like Bruce Vain”

Of course with Nicholson and Keaton giving their all in the star spots you’d expect the supporting cast to be somewhat overshadowed. In fact Burton’s quirky style actually manages to make surprisingly thin character at least a little interesting. Vicky Vale would be your standard love interest, but she is so Burtonised and kooky that Kim Basinger actually makes the role kind of fun whilst even minor roles like Knox and the Joker’s right hand man are given life by a script that occasionally sparkles. Even Alfred Pennyworth is given a little to work with as he attempts to humanise his charge’s feelings for Vicky Vale.

So the problem with the film isn’t the cast (even actors who have little more than a cameo such as Billy Dee-Williams manage to inject personality and charm into their characters) and it probably has less to do with Burton’s visual style. Tim Burton’s use of matte paintings and set based shooting makes everything feels slightly claustrophobic but the actual look of Gotham is certainly memorable. With its art-deco stylings and gothic spires Burton’s Gotham looks like a city lost in time and place. Elements of the city suggest American design other facets are decidedly European and whilst the set dressing is very much Prohibition era the actual technology in the film is bang up to date. It really is a melting pot of ideas and yet somehow the film manages to shoulder the majority of its excesses.

What is surprising about Burton as a director is his aptitude for set pieces. Sequences like an attack on a restaurant are filmed with a bizarre mix of comic book pulp and modern extravagance. Despite the fact that the leather bound Batman is completely restricted in his movements Burton actually manages to create sprawling action sequences around the character. Compared to the rapid fire editing of Batman Begins it’s refreshing to see what Batman is doing, even if at times it is painfully obvious he can’t actually move all that well and the third act whilst horribly misguided has perhaps the strongest climax of any of the Batman movies.

“Think About The Future”

Of course the thing that makes these action segments work is the score by Danny Elfman which is probably more iconic than the movie itself. His signature Batman theme is immensely evocative as well as being surprisingly suited to action sequences and it works to give yet more energy to the film. Whilst many seem to dislike Prince’s contribution to the soundtrack its use in the film is really quite clever. Prince’s proto Pop/Dance numbers do clash with the vision of Gotham that Burton has created, but that’s part of the point. The Prince songs in the film are all diagetic, pieces of music heard by the characters themselves which serve as the Joker’s own personal soundtrack. As such it is meant to be as jarring as the Joker’s façade and in that context it works incredibly well.

I’m done praising the film now, so time to focus on what I feel weighs down the whole product. Batman has charm to spare; it’s got an electric cast, a great soundtrack and a director with a unique vision. In fact the only thing it lacks is a decent script. Whilst the film is filled with some great dialogue it is also lumbered with some of the worst structuring to befall a Batman film. Batman and Robin may be the worst film in the series but it doesn’t meander anywhere near as much as Batman and that’s one of the main problems. At times the wealth of ideas makes it clear that a lot of writers have had a crack at the basic story of the film.

Whilst the Batman script would be completed by a long time comic book fan, the 1988 Writers Guild Strike would remove the original writers away from the production process. Non-union writers were brought in for rewrites during production itself and the results are sometimes palpable in the film itself. One story concerning these rewrites focuses on the finale itself, in which Batman battles to the top of a Cathedral to save Vicky Vale from the Joker. This was an element added to the script during the rewrites without Burton’s knowledge. Apparently Burton only found out after $100,000 had been spent actually building the Cathedral steps and as such he found himself with a costly set up and no idea of how to properly utilise it.

“Gentlemen, let’s broaden our minds”

If you take the studio rewrites as fact then it starts to make sense why the film would focus so much on the Joker. At the time Jack Nicholson was the films biggest asset and as such it would make sense for the studio to want to accentuate that asset. The third act in of itself is just a complete mess, with a sudden diversion away from the established tone of the film to make way for pantomime theatrics. Batman was never a serious film but seeing the Joker pull out a revolver with a 20 inch barrel and shoot down Batman’s plane took the film to a jarringly campy place. Similarly the motivation for the Joker to take Vicky to the top of the tower was never really dealt with. Whilst it seems odd to nitpick in a film which features a bleached skin hitman being sent to a brutal death by way of lassoed gargoyle the final act was rife with inconsistencies. Not to say that the final part of Batman isn’t fun, it just feels overly chaotic and very messy.

In fact messy is probably the best way to describe Batman. Its first act despite a strong start struggles to build up momentum (partially due to the emphasis put on the Joker’s origin) but it builds to a great 2nd act before going off the rails in spectacular style for its finale. For me it is a film I enjoy for its at times feverish imagination, its fantastic production design and the fact it allowed Tim Burton free reign to make one of my all time favourite films.

Over the following week I’m going to be reviewing my favourite Batman films in the run up to the Dark Knight’s release on the 18th.

So tune in next time for my review of Batman: Mask of the Phatasm.

Same Bat Time, Same Bat Channel

No Country For Old Men

Posted in Americana, Movies, Review with tags , , on June 20, 2008 by Spike Marshall

You may have seen my previous take on No Country For Old Men. I was never particularly happy with that review and as such I’m taking the opportunity to re-review the film upon its DVD release.

No Country For Old Men is something of an oddity when it comes to Academy Award winners. Violent films have won Oscars before (The Departed’s win the year before confirms this) but the recently the Oscars have favoured either the lavish or the ‘important’. No Country For Old Men is certainly not a lavish film and its importance is shrouded in the tonality of a traditional thriller and yet it managed to beat off competition from far more Oscar suitable candidates to win its Best Picture award. I think more than anything else my shock at No Country For Old Men’s victory comes from the Academy Awards rewarding a film I legitimately liked. Usually films I like don’t make the Oscar shortlist or are snubbed in favour of more ‘Oscar Friendly’ fare. I certainly have more favourite films that were also rans (Lost In Translation, Gosford Park, The Insider, Secrets and Lies, LA Confidential, Fargo are all good recent examples) than actual winners.

But even amongst the films that I absolutely loved last year No Country For Old Men seemed like the least likely to win an Oscar. Certainly compared to the likes of The Assassination of Jesse James, Zodiac and There Will Be Blood, No Country For Old Men seemed far too unorthodox to even get short listed. The fact that only No Country For Old Men and There Will Be Blood got short listed goes a long way to demonstrating my lack of insight vis-à-vis the Academy Awards. If this is starting to sound like I don’t like the film then that was not my intention, No Country For Old Men is probably one of my favourite films of last year and my surprise comes merely from its recognition as a truly great piece of cinema.

Part of my love for the film comes from the fact that despite the Coen Brothers making some of my favourite films of the 1990s, I’d been having trouble connecting with their work since The Man Who Wasn’t There. The dour noir homage was a very nifty piece of filmmaking, clever and buoyed by a fantastic central performance by Billy Bob Thornton. Intolerable Cruelty would be a comedy that barely made me smile and The Ladykillers despite an energetic performance from Tom Hanks would prove to be the first film by the Coens that I actually thought wasn’t very good. Still their decision to adapt Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men had me very excited, McCarthy’s lean and punishing prose the perfect way to reenergise a pair of directors who seemed to be finally letting the bloat sink in.

Tommy Lee Jones and Javier Bardem are our first focal points in No Country For Old Men. Jones’ Sheriff Ed-Tom Bell provides an opening narration as Bardem’s Anton Chigurh establishes himself as a man with whom not to fuck. These two characters are the central core of the film, representing the old man whose morality is no longer in line with an ever changing world and the vicious embodiment of change. In my view No Country For Old Men is about the morality that people live by, the code and rules of conduct we engage in everyday. The film is about how that code can become untenable as the world around you changes. But it is not a film about how the modern world is becoming increasingly vicious, one of the final conversations in the film shows the world has always been this way, but about how people can become outdated or lost when their own code fails them.

Llewellyn Moss extrapolates on this by choosing to enter a world he cannot hope to survive in, and the majority of No Country For Old Men’s narrative follows his attempts to survive after taking a satchel of money from a botched drug exchange. Even from our first glimpse of Moss, played by the increasingly great Josh Brolin, we understand that he could never hope to survive when squared off with the darkness represented by Chigurh. His first line is even an echo of Chigurh, whereas Moss asks a deer to stay still as he lines up a shot (and promptly misses his intended kill shot) Chigurh asks an innocent bystander to stay still moments before casually executing him with a compressed air gun. This brief moment of duality tells us a lot about the way the film is going to proceed and also sets up the way that Chigurh approaches his victims, cattle for slaying.

Centred largely on Anton Chigurh the few scenes of violence in the film are so brutal, so honest, and so nasty and mean that it creates a palpable sense of dread and unease. Chigurh becomes more than a man in the film; he becomes an ethos, an unrelenting force which destroys everything in its path on general principal. Played pitch perfectly by Bardem, Chigurh is a truly threatening and intimidating force on the screen. Fearless, ruthless and cold blooded. We are given rare insight into his method, scenes which show the careful planning required for his flawless attacks, and it just makes him even scarier. There is just something unnerving about his planning and his innate ability which makes every scene with him in unbearably tense and every scene without him creates nagging doubts and fears that he might just be around the corner.

It’s a testament to the deliberate tone of the film that Chigurh is never allowed to become ‘badass’, in the hands of lesser directors the character could consume the film in a negative way. As it is even when he’s employing cool pieces of weaponry (No Country marks the first time I’ve ever seen a silenced shotgun and it’s a fucking marvellous piece of kit, terrifying but marvellous) you’re still never cheering for or getting excited by the violence. You just want it to stop, which isn’t to say the film is totally joyless. It’s a hard film, but there is the trademark Coen wit. The humour’s there it’s just blacker than a moonless night. From remarks about dead dogs to the dry way Sheriff Bell tells the story of a cattle owner who is paralyzed when trying to kill a steer. But the humour is often incidental to the main story which skirts on the tonal edge of bleak and finds a home in brutal.

When Moss stumbles across a botched drug deal and promptly steals a satchel containing a few million dollars he enters a world his ethical code cannot hope to survive in. His going back to give a survivor some water just proves the point of his inability to live in this new dangerous world. As such his flight from Chigurh and a bunch of pissed off Mexicans is really nothing but the thrashing of an already strung up man, his death is unavoidable and all he can hope to do is prolong the inevitable. Indeed just to stay alive requires Moss to be ever vigil and his one lapse in concentration ultimately leads to his inglorious end. Despite how careful he is, despite how much of a fighter he is, Moss just doesn’t have the ethics or immorality to survive.

Much has been said about the end of No Country For Old Men and the way that Moss’s death is dealt with. Certainly following an earlier confrontation the audience assumes that Moss will be killed by Anton Chigurh. Stalking his prey across the country and leaving a trail of death in his wake, Chigurh represents an archetypal antagonist and his lack of involvement in Moss’s final moments was a point of contention amongst my friends. But having Moss fall at the hands of Chigurh would give credence to the character; he would no longer be one of the cattle. Having him be killed off-screen by an unknown Mexican assailant once again demonstrates how unprepared Moss is for the world he has found himself in.

The final section of No Country For Old Men just focuses back on the codes that the three characters use to govern their lives. Moss finally meets the end that had been looming since he set eyes on the money, Sheriff Bell realises that his code is just untenable and gives up thus securing his survival, whilst Chigurh is punished for an infraction of his own code. Anton Chigurh’s final scene takes place at the home of Llewellyn Moss’ widow Carla Jean. Previously in the film he spared a gas attendants life after his quarry won a coin toss. He offers this same deal to Carla Jean who promptly refuses to put her life into the outcome of a coin toss. Chigurh is forced to kill her without the coin flip and this infraction leads to his being hit by a car as he drives away from the scene. Whilst the accident isn’t fatal it hammers home the tonality of the film, that even a minor deviation from the codes and ethics we live our life by can result in catastrophe.

Grand Theft Auto 4

Posted in Button Bashin', Review with tags , on June 6, 2008 by Spike Marshall

Link For Soundtrack Excerpts

Jean Michelle Jarre is on the radio again. The sky cracks white as the low boom of distant thunder almost threatens to drown out the plaintive electronica. I watch my employer, a man who has spared my life and the life of my cousin, walk into his grotty little Cabaret Club and I know that he cannot leave it alive. I’ve been playing Grand Theft Auto 4 for twenty two hours now; I’ve stolen cars for a crazed roid head, chased and gunned down a Biker Gang in a small idyllic park. I’ve murdered people, destroyed property, delivered drugs, hunted criminals, shot pigeons and driven Taxis.

In short the subsequent flurry of action in the Cabaret Club would be the finale to a great game, in Grand Theft Auto 4 executing this target is merely a prelude. In fact with Seventy story missions still in front of me I’ve barely completed a fifth of the game and still have yet to open up two of the three islands that makes up Liberty City. But this moment in the rain, on a rooftop with a man’s life in my hands is what defines Grand Theft Auto 4, a moment of melancholic reflection before the bitter end. That is an early defining point of the game for me, the moment in which I realised that Grand Theft Auto 4 was as great as the hype had led us to believe. The first few minutes in Liberty City were always going to be a cold shower of sorts, a harsh wall of reality to the preconceived expectations that had been built.

I will admit to being briefly disappointed by the way main character Niko Bellic lurched around the screen, and the way that objects in the distance popped in and out of reality, the heavy handling of the cars and the plodding pace of the initial missions. Every GTA game would start with its basic tutorial missions, but with such Grand Theft Auto 4’s depth of content the numerous tutorials and options threatened to choke the first few hours of the game. Certainly running errands for your cousin, buying some glasses to impress a date and beating up some wannabe hoodlums wasn’t what I expected of the game, but even San Andreas was cursed with a cumbersome start.

In looking at what makes GTA4 work it is probably wise to reflect on its predecessor San Andreas. San Andreas would represent the natural evolution of the GTA3 series, Rockstar confident enough with their engine to create a sprawling and immense game. Everything about was huge, from the county wide play area to the cinematic scope of the missions. Naturally the move to the Next Generation would mean that San AndreasSan Andreas’s follow up would be a slighter game, but whereas other developers would have panicked at this proposition Rockstar made it GTA4’s greatest virtue.

The dichotomy of the game is that Niko is a character far more willing to resort to crime but also a far more human protagonist than San Andreas’s Carl Johnson. CJ would represent a burgeoning humanity within the series, a central character who looked after his own and questioned the crimes he was forced to commit for his own survival. Unlike Vice City’s psychotic Tommy Vercetti, CJ was noticeably troubled by his actions and actually represented a man trying to keep above the mire he found himself in. Niko Bellic has this same kind of characterisation, he is a man haunted by his past and stuck in a mindset where he accepts what must be done. His interactions with his cousin, his friends and his employers all help to flesh out a truly human character and Niko becomes at once both likeable and sympathetic. However he also embraces his nature as a hired gun, working for anyone who can afford his services and it creates a character constantly at odds with himself.

Niko Bellic is a Serbian immigrant who has travelled to Liberty City to live with his rich and successful cousin Roman Bellic. Fleeing a life of violence for purported comfort Niko instead finds Roman living a ramshackle life and finds himself having to delve into the murky underworld to keep his heavily indebted cousin alive. Through conversations with Roman we learn that Niko is a veteran of the Bosnian War and later dialogue reveal the horrors he witnessed during his service. If nothing else Grand Theft Auto 4 is a pinnacle in videogame characterisation, the story and dialogue helping to craft a character who is perhaps one of the first truly sympathetic protagonists in videogames and certainly one of the most fully formed. This is largely down to Michael Hollick who provides Niko’s voice and much of the characters motion capture. Niko is undeniably an anti-hero, charismatic but also unpleasant. Hollick seems to understand this perfectly and consequently there is a genuine humanity to Niko which gives a real sense of weight to the serpentine plot.

The core of the game is the friendships that Niko fosters during his time in Liberty City. Niko is given a mobile phone at the start of the game and every character he meets adds their details to his phonebook. Certain characters even strike up friendships with Niko and will call up to ask to hang out. These friends will regularly call you up to suggest hanging out, you can either choose to fob them off or pick them up and hit the town. There is a pleasing range of activities to choose from, certainly you are never stuck for something to do be it bowling, playing darts, going to a comedy club, playing pool, frequenting a strip club, grabbing some fast food or just getting hilariously drunk, but more than anything it is the conversations on the way to these activities which makes the endeavour worthwhile. Your friends and associates have hundreds of lines of dialogue and are so well crafted that it is easy to get attached to them.

In gameplay terms the friend system represents an evolution of the property ownership segments of Vice City: Stories. In that game you could raid other businesses, turn them into your own real estate and then play minigames to ensure a constant supply of money. In GTA 4 catering to your friends needs does not supply you with money, but instead gives you access to individual perks. Getting your cousin to like you is simplicity itself and nets you the free use of taxi cabs around the city whilst another friend will provide his services as a mobile arms dealer. The perks themselves are always helpful but they are just additional to how much story and character is formed through these impromptu activities. As stated earlier each character seems to have hundreds of lines of dialogue and they’re almost always interesting and usually hilarious. It is ridiculously easy to get attached to these characters and you almost feel guilty after a particular nasty crash or incident sends one of them to the hospital.

Realism is a buzzword being used to describe Grand Theft Auto 4 and to be honest I can see where people are coming from but the idea of a realistic Grand Theft Auto is patently ridiculous. Certainly in comparison to San Andreas (with its city wide gang wars, alien artefacts, casino robberies, airfields, and government funded missions) Grand Theft Auto 4 has a more realistic take, but it is also a game where you race sports cars through Times Square and engage in spectacular helicopter battles above Manhattan. Whilst realism is a misnomer it is safe to say that Grand Theft Auto 4 is a more grounded experience than either Vice City of San Andreas. Whilst Vice City, San Andreas and the two PSP spinoffs all told a rags to riches tale, GTA 4 is content with moving its protagonist from squalor to comfort. There are no mansions in GTA4, you can’t buy businesses in the game, you will barely make a million dollars and Niko Bellic will rarely rise beyond his station as a hired gun. What this grounding does is ensure that each mission is important. The brutish gunplay, more realistic handling of vehicles and strength of characters makes even a simple escort and kill mission kind of exciting.

The gunplay in GTA 4 is a definite highlight, taking the usual GTA mechanics and adding a Gears of War style cover engine and a Crackdown derived auto aim system. It is still not perfect, having free aim be activated by the same trigger as auto aim can lead to the player wrestling to pull off headshots, but it is a massive improvement over previous games in the series. In particular the cover mechanic adds a new dimension to the games usual run and gun style. Niko is far more susceptible to fire than his counterparts and as such the only way to ensure survival is by adequate use of cover. Of course this cover mechanic isn’t perfect, you can sometimes get stuck on the wrong side of a wall, but it is a great addition to the game. What really makes the gunplay in GTA 4 work is the sound work. Sure shooting from cover is cool as it the way that gunfire will realistically damage cars and walls but what ties it all together is the booming sound of gunfire. Even the pistol in the game has power to it and later missions can sound like something from a Michael Mann film as M-14 fire echoes around city streets. This sound work is just one of the things that makes Liberty City feel far more alive than previous environments, even little things like the way your phone ring will echo if you’re under a tunnel help to create a true sense of immersion.

Immersion is a key word with GTA 4; it is a game that almost demands that you become invested in its world and its characters. I’ve already touched upon the characters and story that help to create such a robust and vibrant world but it is the little touches which really bring Liberty City to life. The internet in the game is a great example, you have to use it now and then but mostly it is just for sending and receiving emails. If you start to explore GTA4’s internet you’ll come across a wealth of viewable sites. Most of them are straight parodies of existing sites, but the depth of content on each page is enough to make it seem almost real. What’s great is that as you complete missions the internet constantly updates with news sites offering reports on your crimes and internet blogs updating (sometime with information about Niko if you date the right girl). What the internet does is give context to your actions, plotlines are setup and resolved through the news sites and often news stories you’ve read will be worked into a mission later on in the game.

Liberty City is given even more life by its inhabitants, a diverse bunch who will quite happily go about their daily routine whilst Niko does his murdering. Just watching the crowds can reveal how much care and attention was put into the game. People interact with each other, mobile phones go off prompting conversations and the emergency services are constantly operating around you. Pick any Ambulance in the city and you’ll be able to follow it to someone who has been hurt, watch a street fight long enough and you’ll see police break it up and drive the felons off for processing. Even the city itself is given its own personality with different districts having distinct visual styles and residents. Liberty City is an obvious facsimile of New York and its design goes a long way to establishing that New York. It is at once both cosmopolitan and utterly dangerous and Rockstar seem at home both in the squalor of the projects and the decadence of Times Square. Whilst it doesn’t offer a diverse environment as San Andreas it creates a singular environment which is utterly cohesive and at times is quite staggeringly beautiful. Certainly driving across to the central island as the sun rises over a phalanx of skyscrapers is kind of awe inspiring.

Of course the problem is that without these little touches the game can become very sparse to the unobservant. Being brutally honest the missions do often devolve to a simple formula of going to a location, scaring a guy, pursuing him, waiting for his car to stop being invincible, and then shooting the holy hell out of his vehicle until he’s dead. There are some apparent little touches (often in chases a stray bullet will score a headshot and your quarry’s car will just swerve off the road as its dead driver lies slumped on the horn) but if you choose to ignore the news reports, and the internet, and the friend activities the game can become almost alienating. There are moments of inspired mission work (an epic bank heist is one of the best missions in the entire series and another mission where you’re chasing a helicopter through times square, you’re passenger launching rockets with reckless abandon, is kind of awe inspiring if the weathers right) but unless you’ve truly connected with the characters there’s nothing here that we haven’t done before. Similarly those just wanting to go on a kill crazy rampage might find their efforts thwarted by Niko’s apparent lack of health and some overly diligent cops. Firefights in the open generally don’t end well and even vehicles don’t offer much protection from bullets. As such unless you’re constantly on the move your rampages will likely not last all that long.

GTA4 is far more concerned with telling its story and its later missions whilst not offering new game play options have thrust and weight due to the narrative. Those expecting a next generation version of Vice City are going to be undoubtedly left wanting as GTA4 even eschews that games use of music. GTA: Vice City was a revelation to many due to its use of licensed music (GTA3 had a smattering of music, but aside from its opera selection it was all rather obscure). Playing a game with Gary Numan, Blondie, Ozzy Osbourne, and Jan Hammer on the radio was something a bit new. Whereas Vice City went for easily recognisable hits of the 1980s GTA 4 took a different view on its radio stations.

The Triangle

As such a lot of the songs you hear on the radios are not what you would consider well known, the classic rock and hip hop station have perhaps the most recognisable songs, but fit the game perfectly. Each radio station is just expertly put together and truly suits the game. Everything from African Jazz to Hardcore Punk is represented and the track listing for each station has very few duds. Driving around in the rain to Philip Glass is fantastically evocative, whilst the indie rock beats of Radio Broker provide a suitably tense score for some of the pursuit missions. It is a testament to the design and structure of each station that barring the Hardcore Punk station I listen to and enjoy each station in the game. As well as suiting the game world completely the game also manages to create its own iconic songs. Certainly its use of Arm and Arm and Get Innocuous! (click the link at the top to hear them) has given new context to those songs, whilst taking off in a Helicopter on a stormy night as Queen’s One Vision kicks in is as iconic as anything in Vice City.

So what we have is a witty and engaging update of the Grand Theft Auto ideal, a game where morality is given centre stage and the decision to kill is actually given dramatic weight. It is surprisingly complex for a videogame and some of the decisions you take later on actually transcend the usual gamer think (i.e. What is of most benefit to me as a player? What allows me to get an achievement) and actually force you to think emotionally about what you are doing. Of course if you buy Grand Theft Auto to have sex with hookers and go on rampages you may find yourself disappointed, unless you go online.

The drop in online multiplayer of GTA is perhaps one of the biggest revelations in the game, by bringing up your in-game mobile phone you can access a variety of online modes and drop right into the action. There are a variety of game modes from a free roam mode which drops you and up to fifteen other people in Liberty City to standard death matches and races. There are some well designed co-op missions and even a King of the Hill variant. However the three game modes that seem to get the most play are Cops n Crooks, Mafiya Work and Car Jack City. Cops n Crooks splits players into two teams, one team are crooks and have to get their boss to a designated extraction point, one team are the cops and have to kill the boss before he escapes. Despite some fundamental design problems (the lack of rounds means that most games end in draws or are won by the smallest possible margin).

Car Jack City has teams of players scouring Liberty City for designated cars to take back to a lock up for Cash, whilst Mafiya Work has teams working for a powerful mob boss who is constantly phoning in missions. Mafiya Work is probably my favourite mode for two reasons, for one it forces the two teams to converge on singular goals and as such it ss almost always incredibly hectic and often the jobs you are undertaking are ridiculously hilarious. One task has your mob boss explaining how his ex-girlfriend wants to be an actress, he promptly asks you to pick up his laptop to take to somebody so some pictures of her can be distributed to ruin her career. As such the game type becomes a mix of sheer slapstick lampoonery with an undercurrent of black GTA humour.

Of course the problem is that your opponents are often not interested in having fun. In fact the GTA online community is perhaps one of the most hostile communities around, with all of the worst players from Halo and Call of Duty migrating over. In the month that I have been playing the game online I have not come across a single other team who did not embody the very worst that Xbox Live has to offer. From people team killing in co-op games to sheer hostility in pre and post match lobbies (“If this was real life, we’d murder all of you” is ridiculously common expression at the moment) it is almost intolerable.

Worst still are the gamers, who are intent on taking off the auto aim function of the game. If GTA was a straight shooter I would probably agree with turning auto aim off to and have more skilful games but GTA isn’t a straight shooter and all that having auto aim off does is slow a hectic game down to a crawl. Games with auto aim tend to be all kinds of chaotic, with explosions and vehicular homicide abound, games without auto aim tend to devolve into teams slinking across the ground and trying to merge into the background. It takes a game that was a little unique and turns it into a poor COD4 clone, but that is the nature of Xbox Live and online gaming in general.

Still if you are playing with friends and hosting your own games GTA’s multiplayer can be an absolute blast. Even just driving around Liberty City in Free Mode can be hilarious when you throw some like minded individuals into the mix.

Grand Theft Auto 4 is not a perfect game but it is also a game deserving of a 10/10. It represents a will to change by Rockstar and whilst the nuts and bolts of the game are largely the same, there is enough evolution to make GTA 4 feel completely fresh. There are some fundamental flaws in the game, not least the way the game handles money forcing you to nickel and dime at the start and then giving you hundreds of thousands of dollars with nothing to spend it on, but the positive outweighs the negative in nearly every instance.

Cinema Obscura:Rampo Noir

Posted in Asian Cinema, Cinema Obscura, Movies, Review with tags , , on May 13, 2008 by Spike Marshall

Rampo Noir posterTadanobu Asano stands naked in the middle of a bleached desert. As he moves forwards the eerie silence of the scene is broken by moments of vicious discord. It’s hard to make out what is happening at first, two naked bodies (moving too fast to be identified as male or female at first) battle around a room as static noise shreds your silence accustomed ear. These glimpses of madness and cruelty which make up the first film in Rampo Noir (Mar’s Canal) serve as the perfect introduction for the films which are to come.

Rampo Noir represents the latest in a long line of films adapted from the works of novelist Edogawa Rampo (the first movie based on a Rampo story was made in the mid 1920s). This quartet of adaptations gave four directors (two up and comers and two veterans) the resources to create truly lavish productions and while the money invested is utterly evident the films are in no way tied to notions of pleasing the lowest common denominator. In actuality the tone of the film is almost art house in tone with the second feature ‘The Hell of Mirrors’ being the closest to a traditional horror.

The Hell of Mirrors

The Hell of Mirrors is easily the most accomplished and confident of the films in the anthology which is no surprise considering it was helmed by occasional Ultraman Director and general Japanese cinema veteran Akio Jissoj. Sticking to a fairly regular story and narrative structure The Hell of Mirrors is essentially a battle of wills between a Narcissistic mirror maker and the cool calculating Detective Kogoro Akech. Detective Akech is something of a common character throughout the Rampo writings and in The Hell of Mirrors he is played with near shell shocked grace by Tadanobu Asano. Assigned to find the cause of a number of connected deaths Akech never appears particularly interested in the case until mythical and mystical aspects are unearthed. His detached demeanour moving to childlike enthusiasm and almost empathy with a character who should by all rights be his nemesis.

The Hell of Mirrors is a fantastic looking film but is essentially empty in terms of plotline. There is a story but it lacks a significant beginning and then seems to roll along at its own place until the finish. It is a series of set pieces held together by the lightest narrative strands. It also displays a truly odd moment of self destruction in the usage of a particularly strong bondage scene which serves no purpose other than to make a film which is almost mystically beautiful feel a little seedy. It’s not that the scene is repulsive or particularly extreme; it just lacks any cohesion with the rest of the movie and as such seems to be placed in to either fulfil a contractual obligation for extremity or satisfy one of the director’s quirks.

Caterpillar

In fact such a bondage scene would feel far more at home in the third film of the anthology, Hisayasu Sato’s Caterpillar.

Telling the tale of a wounded war veteran Caterpillar maintains a sickly, dangerous and claustrophobic sense of dark erotica which many would have only seen previously in the final minutes of Miike’s Audition. The crux of the story is that a young war hero has returned home little more than a shell of a man. Badly burned and missing all of his limbs and despite an awesome cameo in a Metallica video his life is suddenly without meaning. His attempts to exist are jeopardised by his wife who has cultivated a desire to hack parts off her little ‘Caterpillar’.

Centred around a cast of three (with Asano chipping in a bizarre prologue and even weirder epilogue) the film really is a marvel in that it remains utterly engrossing despite the repugnant characters. There’s something visceral about the torture inflicted upon the Caterpillar and something oddly compelling about his wife’s drift from maternal madness to frenzied passion. So powerful is this central duo that the third character often feels like an utter intruder which is perhaps the intent of the film. Played with utter disdain and filled with posturing macabre fantasies the third character seems like more of a plot tool than anything else.

Still as a horror Caterpillar is the best thing in the Anthology and remains suitably creepy hours after watching. Which is why the next films comes as such a surprise

Insect

A kitsch, richly funny, beautifully designed and in no way horrific tale of obsession rounds off the anthology. The first film from manga artist Atsushi Kaneko is perhaps the most visually arresting of the anthology. While it doesn’t have the sheer beauty of The Hell of Mirrors, Insect’s oversaturated hues and set design are suitably dynamic. In the film Asano (he appears in all four films in various roles) stars as an obsessive fan of a famous pop starlet who is constantly contending with a peculiar neurosis involving bugs.

Insect threatens to undo the previous work in the anthology by book ending Rampo Noir with a film that is at best confused and at worst incompetent. It has all the styling of a great film but it appears at times that the director is working with little understanding of purpose other than aesthetic. As a result the product ends up feeling more like an art project gone wrong than an actual movie.

More than anything else Rampo Noir represents what experienced directors can do when given sufficient resources and a modicum of creative control. It also shows that the same conditions given to newer directors can be damaging to the final product. The Hell of Mirrors and Caterpillar are spectacular pieces of work largely because the veteran directors know exactly what they wish to achieve and as such use their budgets to convey a professional representation of their ideas.

The newer directors both seem to fall into a trap of concept over production, a raft of ideas extrapolated upon at the expense of a cohesive final film. Rampo Noir is a film well worth watching for four very different takes on work which has obviously become deeply routed in the Japanese consciousness.