Wanted

Posted in Movies with tags , , on June 25, 2008 by Spike Marshall

One of the teaser posters for WantedAmongst my friends Wanted is viewed with a healthy degree of scepticism. As such rounding up people to actually see the movie with me was something of a Herculean task. So why are people who were quite happy to see Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk and yet so against seeing Wanted? The response was that most of them were put off by the entire ‘twisting bullet’ aspect which was prominent in the trailers. This is the kind of thing that is acceptable within the realms of comic book films, but in what is marketed as a straight action thriller it does look admittedly suspect. The fact of the matter is that Wanted is actually a comic book movie in of itself.

Wanted is based off of a mini-series of comics by Mark Millar (who would ultimately be responsible for Marvel’s Ultimates line). Wanted represents one of the few Graphic Novels I’ve read and is based in a world where Super Villains rule the world in secret after successfully killing every living Super Hero. Wanted the film removes the Super Villain aspect of the material, but maintains its central characters prenatural powers. The film still follows Wesley Gibson as he is inducted into a shadowy organisation of assassins, but the Super Human elements of the ‘Fraternity’ are replaced by something a tad more mystical. But even if the film doesn’t feature all the content of its comic counterpart it maintains the tone and spirit of its source quite impressively.

Mr. Sloan and his trusty LugerThe first action sequence in the film is pretty much a statement of intent. This sequence revolves around duel between a group of assassins that takes place between two skyscrapers and ends with the victor getting sniped from across the city. This sequence not only establishes the heightened reality of the film, but also the visual inventiveness of the film. Assassin’s jump between buildings, bullets curl around cover and the final headshot is not only rendered in loving and bloody fashion but is shown completely in reverse, the bullet arching back through the city to the rifle it has been fired from.

Wanted is a film filled with such moments, every scene brings at least something new or quirky to the table. Be it bank machines calling people Assholes for having no money, bullets passing through the rings of donuts, cars being flipped to allow the driver to shoot through a limo’s sunscreen, or cars propelling themselves into the side of trains the film is just stuffed with all kinds of lunatic spectacle. This should be expected really when the movie is helmed by Timur Bekmambetov who was previously responsible for the Russian Night Watch films. These films dealt with the escalating conflict between supernatural forces of light and darkness in Moscow and were stuffed to the gills with cool little ideas and touches (my favourite being the contextualised subtitles, which appeared all over the screen and shifted fonts and colours depending on who was speaking).

Of course those of you who saw Night Watch will probably remember the films plot matching its delirious visuals, with side stories, sub plots and dozens of characters all interacting with each other for nebulous reasons. It wasn’t that the Night Watch films had a dearth of story; it’s just that Bekmambetov didn’t have a strong enough focus to rest the plot strands on. Wanted seems to show a director who has gotten the bloat out of his system, whilst the film clocks in at just ten minutes shy of two hours you never feel the running time and for the most part it is a surprisingly lean tale.

In Wanted Bekmambetov focuses solely on the character of Wesley Gibson and in doing so finds the strong plot line that was missing from his earlier work. Gibson is an accounts manager who is living in a permanent rut and it’s only with arrival of super assassin Fox that he starts to find himself a purpose. James McAvoy plays Gibson and manages to be both endearing and aggravating at the same time. His early scenes of a life on hold are easy to relate to (especially if you’ve seen Fight Club which the comic book and film both reference a fair bit in the beginning) but rather than wallow in this nihilism McAvoy presents a character that just seems like a regular guy who had plans and never achieved them. The everyman quality that McAvoy brings to the character help to create something akin to a sense of humanity in the midst of a film that is often deliriously extravagant.

McAvoy and Angelina in Wanted

The problem is that with the film focused squarely on Gibson none of the other characters really have much of a purpose other than in the context of Gibson. Perhaps the most fleshed out of the supporting cast is Fox, the assassin who is ordered to retrieve and train Gibson. Fox (played by Angelina Jolie who is charming enough and does her usual scary/sultry routine fairly well) is allowed some semblance of character and a flashback, but even that is in service of Gibson.

The other members of the Fraternity fair far worse. Marc Warren plays the ‘Repairman’ whose sole function is to beat the shit out of Gibson as part of his training, you have the knife expert The Butcher who is essentially a larger and better armed version of Cheech Marin’s raucous announcer from From Dusk ‘Til Dawn. Meanwhile Common manages to find a character in Gunsmith with even less to do than his character in Smoking Aces. In fact the only character that properly interacts with Gibson out of this bunch is the Russian comic relief character.

These members of the Fraternity are little more than ciphers and their lack of personality really does a lot of damage to the second act of the film. The training segment of Wanted is neat enough, but after a while the lack of interaction between the characters starts to drag on to the point where you’re just willing Gibson to finally get on with it and leave their company. In fact the only likeable character during this point is Sloan who is played by Morgan Freeman and whom effectively runs the Fraternity. You can tell that Freeman is really enjoying himself playing slightly against type and his ruthless exuberance is sometimes a joy to watch.

When Gibson starts working for the Fraternity and trying to find the man who killed his father (the earlier headshot recipient) the film quickly picks up pace again. A couple of assassinations and an action set piece onboard a train prove to be a nice prelude for a finale that actually manages to outshine what has come before. Usually films like this peter out as they reach their end and whilst the final shoot out isn’t as inventive as an earlier car chase or the aforementioned train set piece it still works surprisingly well thanks to an energetic performance from McAvoy and a liberal sprinkling of black humour.

What makes Wanted stand out from recent Hollywood action films is the way its set pieces are staged. A lot of American action pictures seem to be fairly anaemic at the moment. Whilst this has a lot to do with individual directors the trend to remove the gore from action films and shoot with the shaky camera style employed by Paul Greengrass for the (still excellent) Bourne films has removed a lot of the bite from Hollywood films. What Wanted does is treat the gore with a bizarre sort of reverence, each headshot is a bloody affair, the blows Gibson takes actually leave an impact on his face, and each battle is framed with an impassive and steady eye. This is a film in which we’re meant to enjoy and appreciate the bloodletting and as such it is brought to the centre of the screen as much as possible.

Mr Gibson gets up close and personal with a keyboardWhat Wanted represents is a film designed to be enjoyed more than anything else. Its primary concern is to entertain and in those terms it never fails. What it loses in character and nuance it makes up for in sheer spectacle and surprisingly economical story telling. Wanted is a film where keyboards are violent weapons, headshots are plentiful and rats are explosive.As such it represents the most fun I’ve had with a film since I caught a midnight screening of Grindhouse.

Advertisements

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.

Spike’s Top Tracks: May 2008

Posted in Music, Spike's Top Tracks with tags , , , on May 31, 2008 by Spike Marshall

The six or so people who used to read my weekly top tracks feature might have noticed its absence over the last month. To be honest it was kind of draining writing three or four pages about music every week (it’s a subject I’ve never written about) and I actually kind of got bored of it. So I decided to switch it to an expanded monthly slot. So each month I’m going to try and compile a 60 minute mix and give some thoughts on the songs I’ve picked (hopefully avoiding the navel gazing paragraphs of the older features) as one essay rather than separate ruminations.

The Playlist

That’s Not My Name is a great crystallisation of what I love about The Ting Tings. Pared down beats from Jules De Martino and snarling vocals from Katie White really give the song a sort of effortless post punk vibe, and the result is quite infectiously catchy. They are currently the darlings of the alternative scene, getting massive amounts of airtime on NME and MTV2 and it is easy to see why. Their bright and colourful visual style mixed with their aggressive but precise music is nice contrast from the contrasting dourness and high camp of alternative artists at the moment. They’ve certainly been savvy in their marketing and keeping themselves in the alternative market helped raise their profile. In fact you could argue that if White and De Martino had tried a more mainstream approach their energetic, but DIYish, sound may have been lost amidst the pop shuffle.

Air have always been a favourite of mine since their video for Sexy Boy entertained the then 12 year old me with a gigantic monkey. It would take the score to The Virgin Suicides and 2004’s Talkie Walkie to dislodge Kelly Watch The Stars from its coveted spot as my favourite Air song. It’s probably one of Air’s more commercial pieces, but its use of a singular repetitive line and constantly evolving music always enraptured me.

It would be Wong Kar Wai who would make me ultimately appreciate DJ Shadow, his blisteringly brilliant music video for Six Days making me purchase the album Private Press. Upon purchase I realised that a lot of incidental music from British TV shows had been cribbed from the album, the songs Giving Up The Ghost and Blood On The Motorway in particular being used very effectively by the BBC and Film Four. But it would be the gently apocalyptic Six Days which would stick with me. From its laidback back vocals to its muted strings it was a song that was both elegiac and inspiring and would find itself appearing on many of my early morning mixes.

Another mainstay on my early morning mixes, playlists designed to try and rouse me from bed gently, would be the music of Jimmy LaValle aka Album Leaf. An American solo performer, Album Leaf would craft gloriously minimalist and minutely detailed pieces of electronica enabled guitar music. With its shimmering central chords and glitchy backing We Need Help is a perfect example of the Album Leaf sound, light hearted and soulful whilst maintaining a sense of precision.

I was going to write a long post about how I discovered Sébastien Tellier, a French artist whom I first discovered via the soundtrack to Sofia Coppola’s luminous Lost In Translation. The song would be Fantino and would lead to seek out other songs and fall in love with his electronica jazz stylings. However my plan was scuppered when he went and appeared on Eurovision and stopped being a well kept secret.

To those blessed enough to not know about the Eurovision Song Contest it is a yearly event in which every country in Europe submits a singer to compete in an international song contest. It essentially boils down to all kinds of campy excess and ridiculously political voting which ensures that us Brits, with our stiff upper lips and outright loathing of other nations, never win anything. In actuality Tellier’s song Divine was fairly decent for a Eurovision entry, it just means I can’t be all snooty about liking obscure French Electronica/Jazz artists anymore.

Of course it is silly to allow the success of favoured artists to annoy you, despite that feeling of superiority you get when compiling a mixtape full of bands the recipient will never have heard of it is always great to see other people recognise the sheer brilliance of the artists you’re currently enamoured with. There is an occasional downside in that the more successful an artist becomes the harder it is to see them live. It was like this with the Arcade Fire, a band who I was desperate to see but found myself facing the prospect of shows selling out within minutes. When I finally got to see them it was at a massive arena and whilst the performances were still absolutely incredible it lacked that tangible quality you get from smaller performances. So imagine my annoyance when I found out that Fleet Foxes, a Seattle band on the cusp of greatness, were to be playing down the road from me at a tiny venue on the day I was to travel down to London to meet family. Fleet Foxes are an unusual little group their debut EP Sun Giant sounds like a record unearthed from the 1970s, the kind of thing Paul Giovanni would have a hand in. Mixing folk with a dash of blues it’s a beautiful piece of work, if a little precious at times, and apparently the songs are substantially improved by hearing them live.

Another artist who has constantly eluded my attempts to see live is Björk. Whilst my all time favourite by her has to the be the delightfully frosty Vespertine, my favourite individual tracks come from Debut and Homogenic. Debut represents Björk at her messiest, flitting from genre to genre to find her voice, but it also contains one of my favourite songs by the artist, Venus As A Boy. Homogenic would be a conceptually more solid album, but only a handful of songs would create a true emotional connection. One of these would be Bachelorette, with its epic soundscape and brooding lyrics it’s the kind of song that was easy for my teenage self to gravitate towards and whilst its probably a little overblown that emotional connection is still immensely powerful. This is partially aided by Michael Gondry’s incredible video for the song which would be on almost constant play through 1997.

This penchant for overly dramatic songs would unfortunately continue well into the present day, with my attention currently rapt by a group named Tunng and in particularly the cheerily bleak song Bullets. With its lyrics about funerals and self doubt it’s the kind of material which would normally be covered by androgynous guys wearing eyeliners, thankfully a folk undercurrent to the song spared me the ignominy of that association. Harder to explain is my current passion for Martha Wainwright’s current album. I have general reservations about Martha; in particular I find her decision to add odd inflections to her exceptional voice to be quite odd. It pays off on certain songs, but a lot of the time it sounds like she is holding back. The song So Many Friends is one which accommodates these vocal vagaries, the emotional core strong enough to support a technique which seems to be cynically kooky.
Seen as this mix has been dawdling a bit I felt it was time to amp things up, I go by the High Fidelity principal of starting strong then easing down to build up to a big finish. In this case the big finish compromises two up tempo songs and two oddities, so stick with it if you can.

Sonny J is something of a mystery in the British Music scene. Releasing three singles his actual identity hasn’t been ascertained yet. His three singles have however been absolutely fantastic, from the Jackson 5 inspired Can’t Stop Moving to his latest barn stomping hit (complete with unknown Country sample) Handsfree. Enfant Terrible is the middle song so far, and is an oddity in of itself. Handsfree and Can’t Stop Moving are heavily sample led songs, big rousing dance numbers packed with energy. Enfant Terrible seems to be minimally sampled and has the sound of some obscure post punk band, you’ll have to listen yourself to try and draw up a conclusion because I’m kind of drawing a blank myself.

Part of the reason for the current sparseness of What Spike Likes is that Spike has liked GTA 4 very, very, much. I’ve logged about forty hours of playtime on the single player campaign alone and I’ve probably logged just as many hours playing online and trying to run over my friends with ice cream trucks. They’ll hopefully be a review soonish and in that review I’ll make sure to mention the incredible selection of music in the game. Filled with minimalist masters, afro-pop legends, obscure rock hits, classic hip-hop, contemporary Dance, and ambient electronica the GTA4 soundtrack is just incredible and one of the highlights is the Boggs song Arm in Arm. A thudding piece or electro-rock, it’s a piece of music which is just given context and weight by being used in GTA4. Heard on its own it’s a bit of a mess, within the world of Liberty City it’s just evocative as all hell.

Speaking of evocative the Israeli/South African song writer Yoav can, using just a guitar and looping device, create riffs and songs which bring to mind some of the great rock artists. Beautiful Lie is a great example, with its urgent final moments just having the strength and conviction that most men would die for. If you don’t get carried away by the plucked strings and pounding percussion then you’re either dead on the inside or an anti-Semite.

I have no idea what is in the water over in but I’ve heard three groups now which have sought to recreate the aesthetic of Balkan orchestras. Albuquerque has the ever awesome Beirut and the quietly fantastic A Hawk and A Hacksaw and I’ve just been introduced to Colorado’s take on the genre DeVotchKa. Whilst I’m trying to wade through the albums, they definitely feel like a grower mixing the Balkan sound with the rousing anthemic pop/rock of the Arcade Fire. This fucking bizarre cover of Venus In Furs isn’t particularly good at showcasing the band, but it sounds really, really, good.

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.

Iron Man

Posted in Americana, Movies, Review with tags , , on May 5, 2008 by Spike Marshall

I saw Iron Man on Friday, judging by box office reports so did everyone else. Whilst the film itself is worthy of discussion I’m also interested in what Iron Man’s surprise financial success means for future superhero films from the newly emancipated Marvel Enterprises. You see Iron Man represents the first film Marvel comics have funded, produced and distributed without another major business partner. Later this year we will be treated to yet more films produced solely by Marvel. So this is going to be split roughly between my musings on Iron Man and my musings on Marvel Enterprises.

Okay here is a disclaimer before I go into this review properly; I’m not a big comic book guy. I’ve read maybe half a dozen Graphic Novels in my entire life and I don’t think I’ve ever actually owned a regular comic book. However being born in 1985 would allow me to appreciate the raft of Marvel superhero cartoons that would air in the mid 90s. So despite not reading Marvel comics the cartoon versions of Iron Man, Spiderman and X-Men gave me a working knowledge of Marvel’s mythos.

It is a testament to the vitality of the Marvel universe that even exposure to the simplified mythos of the cartoon shows would become almost iconic. Due to the cartoons I knew about key elements of the Marvel franchise without having read any Marvel comic books. So I knew that Venom was a piece of alien slime, I knew that Iron Man battled a green skinned Chinese guy with alien technology embedded in his rings and I knew about Jean Grey’s eventual turn into the all powerful Phoenix. As such comic book adaptations would become exercises in nostalgia for me, a chance to see real adaptations of the stuff that had entertained me when I as nine and ten years old.

Iron Man

Iron Man is an origin story, the unwritten rule of all superhero films is that the first film is always setup, and as such it shows us why ludicrously wealthy weapons magnate Tony Stark would chose to don a suit of armour and fight the forces of evil. Following an attack on his armoured escort in Afghanistan Tony Stark is captured by a militant group known as the Ten Rings and instructed to build a multiple payload missile of the type he has just sold to the US military. Instead of doing this he builds himself a suit of battle armour and sets about planning an escape.

To be honest I was little worried about Iron Man to begin with, an early music choice making me fear the worst. The film starts and immediately Back in Black by AC/DC kicks in. I sink into my seat a little, slightly dejected, as my fears over the potential tone of the film are realised. You see as soon as I saw a trailer use Black Sabbath’s Iron Man as scoring I realised I would probably be at odds with the film, I was just hoping for a little time to get settled in before the Heavy Metal kicks in. To be honest by the time the film had finished I was practically craving Sabbath, just so that the film would at least have some vaguely stirring music. If Iron Man has one fault it is its ridiculously anaemic soundtrack which occasionally tries to evoke Black Sabbath but mostly just whimpers along in the background.

If Iron Man has another fault it is director Jon Favreau who displays a knack for character based work but is far too impassive and mundane to give life to the action scenes. Thankfully Favreau seems to understand that he is an actor’s director and sticks with his strengths by leaving a lot of the heavy lifting to an absolutely magnificent cast. Favreau is also aided by the nature of the story which negates the need for overt superhero theatrics. Telling the origin story of Iron Man allows Favreau to keep the focus purely character based and as such the action scenes are thankfully few and far between.

You will probably have heard this many times by now, but Robert Downey Jr. is utterly fantastic as Tony Stark. He takes a character that could easily have been a soulless and hollow vessel and imbibes it with humanity and warmth. There is a natural charm to Downey Jr’s performance and whenever he is on screen the rest of the cast seems to up their game immensely. So magnetic is his performance that Downey Jr. is able to make sequences in which he is acting against mechanical claws enthralling.

Backing up Robert Downey Jr. is a trio of co-stars that seem utterly energised by the spirited central performance. Terence Howard’s character Jim Rhodes feels like he is in the film purely as setup for future plot elements but even in his minimal screentime he has a sense of camaraderie with Stark which makes you accept their friendship. Gwyneth Paltrow is actually all kinds of fantastic as Pepper Potts turning a character that could be flat and cliché (doting secretary in love with playboy boss) into a viable element of the film. As well as having fantastic chemistry with Downey Jr. she is shown as being both resourceful and competent. In a lot of ways Pepper Potts works in a similar way to Batman’s Alfred providing moral support and acting as a confidant for our beleaguered heroes.

Jeff Bridges does a fantastic job with an exceptionally compromised character. Obadiah Stane is a pretty rote and hopelessly one note character, a scheming business partner to Stark who descends into outright vaudevillian villainy by the end of the film. Stane’s character arc is highlighted at the beginning of the film where a montage of magazine covers shows his position in Stark Industry slowly becoming minimised. The problem is that Bridges makes Stane a little too charming and his interactions with Stark make his sudden about turn into outright villainy seem out of the blue. It is easy to figure out that he is going to be the main threat in the film, but his scenes with Stark are so well played that you almost start to believe he is a good guy.

Of course the problem the film runs into is that its major action scenes are CGI reliant and as such become fully incumbent on Favreau’s talents as a director. Whilst the action in Iron Man isn’t bad it isn’t particularly interesting either, coming across as a perfunctory afterthought rather than a vibrant part of the film. Favreau is far more intent on the building and testing of the two suits and the few moments of genuine spectacle come not from fight scenes but from testing scenes. Stark’s initial flight in the Mark II suit is a truly great moment in the film because it perfectly captures the sense of awe and wonder prevalent in the series.

Still an unexpected benefit of Favreau’s lack of action experience was the liberal borrowing of ideas from Robocop. Iron Man punching through a wall, targeting individual terrorists, and his final battle with Iron Monger all seemed to be at the very least inspired by the Robocop films and it at the very least amused me. It is an odd paradigm really as I think a more proficient director would perhaps have given the action sequences a lot more of a kick but would not have been able to provide the focus on actors which allowed the film to truly shine.

The Future

Ever since I ventured back into a cinema screening room to retrieve a jacket after a viewing of Street Fighter: The Movie and was greeted by a slither of movie magic after the end credits I’ve always been fastidious about checking if there is anything after all the best boys had been listed. Generally speaking if there is something it is usually kind of dull ‘oh that’s cute, the dog with the keys is now the god of the cannibals’ so I approached the news that there was something super awesome after the credits of Iron Man with a little bit of trepidation.

The extra scene in Iron Man is something that is actually kind of important in terms of the new perspective Marvel Enterprises bring to their ventures. In the extra scene Nick Fury approaches Tony Stark and tells him about a group called the Avengers. I’ve been reliably informed that the Avengers are a team of Superheroes in the Marvel universe. As such it’s a nice little shout out for the fans. However news also reaches me that Robert Downey Jr. is due to make a cameo appearance in the new Incredible Hulk film.

With Marvel now producing and financing its own adaptations they are free to call the shots on how their properties are handled and it seems that from the off they are looking to create the same kind of interconnectivity that is abundant in the comics. All of the Marvel heroes inhabitant the same world and will often help each other out, a great example being Reed Richards helping Spider-Man defeat Venom and Matt Murdoch essentially being an on-call lawyer for every Marvel superhero around. Whilst the chances of an all star Avengers movie are slim, although an Iron Man led Avengers film would help divert attention from the characters lacklustre pool of villains, the idea that all Marvel films will at least acknowledge their existence in the same universe is kind of neat.

This year we are going to see The Incredible Hulk and The Punisher: War Zone, both sequels to films which weren’t particularly well received and both of which are helmed by risky directors. The Incredible Hulk’s Louise Leterrier is perhaps best known for his Transporter films and the surprisingly decent Danny The Dog. Whilst the Punisher’s Lexi Alexander had previously worked on Green Street Hooligans. Both choices could end up being disastrous but there are elements to both directors past work which suggests that they might be able to deliver on the spectacle and tonal core of their respective properties.

In the near future we’ll see Magneto and Wolverine’s back stories playout in the first two X-Men prequels, whilst Edgar Wright’s Ant-Man is now in its second draft. Most interestingly is Matthew Vaughn’s rumoured adaptation of Thor which is supposedly set entirely in the realm of Norse Legend. Given Vaughn’s sterling work on Stardust it is easy to see why they’d go this down route although a Thor film set entirely in Asgard would be a particularly difficult sell, especially from a director with one borderline cult film and one commercial miss. Edgar Wright may have a lesser known character to work with but his clout as a comedy director should at least make it an easy sell.

With Iron Man becoming something of a beast at the box office, taking 200 million dollars worldwide over its opening weekend, it is safe to assume that a sequel will be in the works. In fact of all the projects currently listed on IMDB as being produced by Marvel the one that seems the most in doubt is Captain America, a character who would need to be seriously retooled for modern day consumption. But with all of these properties currently in development the idea of them all leading into one interconnected movie doesn’t seem so absurd. If The Incredible Hulk does well at the box office, and that’s a big if judging by reaction to its trailer and general ill will garnered from its predecessor, it might embolden the company to make good on what was essentially a little bit of fan service and invest in an all star Avengers film.

In fact minutes after writing this Marvel announced that an Avengers movie was indeed slated for a release in 2011, a year after an Iron Man sequel and Captain America film. Captain America still seems like a risky venture to me, Iron Man made half of its bank overseas, but it seems like the film is setup for the Avengers film more than anything else.

Spike’s Classics: All About Lily Chou-Chou

Posted in Asian Cinema, Movies, Spike's Classics with tags , on April 29, 2008 by Spike Marshall

DVD Cover

Link To Excerpts from the Beautiful Soundtrack

All About Lily Chou-Chou is an interesting piece of filmmaking, partially due to its roots. Director Shunji Iwai would launch an online novel in early 2000, creating a fictional website and posting in the forum section as several different characters. For half a year the site would be regularly updated with members of the public allowed to become part of the ongoing narrative. He would close down the site in late 2000 and start work on the film version, using previously untested Digital Cameras to quickly and concisely film his product before it was released to critical and surprising box office acclaim in 2001. The film would take the constantly evolving narrative of the website and adapt it into a surprisingly bleak and yet elegantly beautiful look at life for modern Japanese schoolchildren.

For anyone who had to deal with bullying, or knew a victim of bullying, All About Lily Chou-Chou will probably be an ordeal. Its lucid, vivid and repellently uncompromising look at social isolation and bullying would probably cut a little too close to the bone. Not that Lily Chou-Chou is the first film to deal with such issues (bullying is after all a fairly generic cinematic trope), but it is rare that the issue is dealt with in a way that is both lyrical and incredibly visceral. Whilst most other films offer a buffer zone of detachment Lily Chou-Chou forces the viewers to feel and relate to its young stars through its near documentary style of film making.

Yuichi

Despite this documentary stylisation film is stunning to look at, its colour palette and design ethos giving vibrancy to an altogether rather bleak film. Shot entirely on DV cameras the film has a sort of ethereal quality, a point reinforced by the hazy and often dreamlike narrative. If anything Lily Chou-Chou feels like a film which is suffering from post traumatic stress, its recollection of scenes hazy and confused, events cutting off and merging haphazardly. As such we are largely only offered glimpses of the story; key events delivered without context which all build up to create the central arc of the film. A contributing factor to this haphazardness is the way the chronology in the film works, or to be more honest doesn’t.

All About Lily Chou-Chou follows two Japanese schoolboys as they leave Junior School, go on a summer vacation and attend the first year of High School. Yuichi is something of an introvert, devoting his time to the running of his fansite and listening to the music of Lily Chou-Chou. He has a few friends at school which is more than can be said for Hoshino, the academic star of his year whose success has ostracised him from the rest of his peers. The film opens in high school with Hoshino having already turned on all around him and set himself up as a vicious and brutal bully. His relationship with Yuichi is never fully explained until about thirty minutes into the film when the narrative doubles back on itself to examine the previous year’s events.

HoshinoIn a lot of other films the boys bonding and eventual trip to a sunny locale (in this case Okinawa) would be handled with a light and breezy touch, the slight of hand to prepare you for the sucker punch of the next two acts. What Lily Chou-Chou does is cast a shadow over these moments of exuberance; we know that Hoshino is going to turn out bad. But by looking at these happier times with foreknowledge of his present situation everything becomes a little darker, a pall is cast over every event and the viewer finds themselves searching for links as to Hoshino’s change in behaviour.

Our first encounter with Yuichi is as a miscreant and then as a victim, our first encounter with Hoshino is as a victim and then a miscreant. The establishing moment for Hoshino is a speech he is forced to read on behalf of his classmates explaining their hopes and aspirations for high school. You can see the duality immediately, the pride at being chosen for this honour conflicting with his persistent knowledge of his classmate’s hatred.

This trip to Okinawa during the school holidays is funded by the aftermath of a petty theft, the boys descending on a robbery and sprinting away with the loot they find. It is Hoshino who makes the first move and invariably secures the money for the boys and it is another layer added to the character. He is already acting out by this point, but without the context of the schoolyard or his later violence. It is only during the trip to Okinawa and a series of near fatal accidents that Hoshino truly withdraws from the group. His near Shakespearean fall into isolation and near madness is juxtaposed against the stories of those whom he abuses and allows to be abused. Indeed, the last hour of the film is so shocking because of the fact that Hoshino is so calculating. His actions are carried out with a cool, detached, malice and his crimes become more and more unspeakable.

A film which started off as an average treatise on school life suddenly descending into a brutal, nihilistic, vision of a schoolboy kingpin who blackmails his schoolmates into prostitution, organises a brutal gang rape and ritually humiliates one of his closest friends. Indeed Hoshino’s first two acts aren’t particularly violent but demonstrate a cruelty and malice that is utterly disturbing. We first see him betray Yuichi (setting his gang on his former friend and destroying his prized CD and CD player) and then we see him assert dominance over the school bully by stripping him of his pride. He doesn’t particularly harm the bully, he just makes a mockery of him in a detached and sociopathic way.

His snapping of Yuichi’s copy of the new Lily Chou-Chou CD is perhaps far more significant than any other action in the film. It’s a severance of ties between him and his old friend and also a pollution of the ‘ether’ a spiritual energy which Yuichi and Hoshino talk about on their website. The major indication of the extent of this action is the fact that the near continuous soundtrack is ominously missing for a few minutes after this action. In fact it doesn’t return until the film goes back into itself for the flashback. Music plays such a large and vital part of the film that its sudden absence feels almost like an assault and its conspicuous absence suggests the destruction of purity far better than anything else in the film.

At its core All About Lily Chou-Chou plays broadly with the corruption of innocence idea. The corruption of the Ether (a term used several times in the film) a pretty apt metaphor for the corruption of innocence taking place within the children’s lives. Music is the only escape Yuichi has from his tormentors and the only way he can truly connect with his fellow victims. The text message excerpts from his website explain how easily people fall into the lure and escape of the Ether and the final scenes go a long way to corrupting even this last bastion. Indeed Yuichi is not really a victim in a traditional sense, only suffering one physical abuse at the hands of Hoshino’s gang. More than anything else the damage is done by how he is forced to intergrate into Hoshino’s ever expanding gang, given the menial task of watching over the schoolgirl Hoshino has turned into a prostitute.

The film offers no real answers to the problems of bullying and to expect it to would be rather moronic. What it does is paint a real picture of what it is like to be a victim of a bully and how innocuous and random their dislike can be. The overall message is rather distressing; the film seems to revel in unilateral action as the only way to fight against bullying. As such suicide, self sacrifice, and murder are the only solutions the victims are left with. Whilst the film seems to drift toward melodrama at points, the rape scene and the fate of a girl doomed to be a child escort both feel perhaps a little detached from the general narrative, the effect of the Digital Photography always grounds it at least in a facsimile of reality.

That is the odd dichotomy at work in All About Lily Chou-Chou its ethereal elegance matched with material that is indicting in its reality. It is a tale that is both supremely stylised and at times hyper real. It is a film that is utterly shocking and morally depressing but that is also lyrically beautiful and bursting with colour and vitality. Every technical aspect is remarkably polished even the fictional score by Lily Chou-Chou is the kind of music that is enrapturing and alluring and it all works to make the impact of the film even more brutal.