Thursday, 18 January 2018

Justice League

It's difficult to discern any overarching thematic aims in Justice League. Although flawed in different ways, Zack Snyder's previous DC Universe films were constructed around an intent beyond simply providing a road to your standard blockbuster confrontation. Man of Steel asked what kind of Superman would modern America produce, while Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice imagined two heroes poisoned and brought low by the 24 hour news cycle. Both films were plotted using their characters as the engine. Began by Snyder and screenwriter Chris Terrio, then massaged to a conclusion by writer-director Joss Whedon, Justice League is much more routine, at best registering as a two hour effort to rehabilitate the onscreen image of Henry Cavill's alien superhero.

Despite a brief blip in which the Man of Tomorrow trashes his new side-kicks, Justice League's portrayal of Superman uses his death as a fresh break, allowing the character to return to life behaving with the tranquil assurance of Christopher Reeve. This Superman rises again thanks to Dawn of Justice's Kryptonian birthing chamber being turbo-charged by a bastardised version of Jack Kirby's Mother Box. Justice League lingers on another detail though, one that explicitly recalls Marlon Brando sacrificing his holographic life in Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut. As Jason Momoa's Aquaman submerges Superman's body in the ship's puss coloured amniotic fluid, a photograph of Kevin Costner's Pa Kent finds its way into the goop, the insinuation being that this mistake is crucial to Clark's new-found stability. Both Supermen are revitalised by consuming digitised approximations of their fathers.

There are a few glimpses of Terrio and Snyder's apocalyptic torment in amongst Whedon's reflex zings, most obviously in a Bushido code Batman and Ray Fisher's depressed Cyborg. The film's mechanoid is a young man forced back to life by his scientist father, using the same invasive, all-powerful extraterrestrial technology that rebooted Superman. Cyborg's early scenes introduce a being who remembers being alive but cannot reconcile his former identity with the rootless chimera he has become. A pall hangs over Cyborg. He rattles around his father's apartment, testing his new body's spontaneous upgrades and gloomily observing the world outside. Nudges are woven throughout the film, perhaps at one point designed to underscore the character's potentially dangerous disconnect with humanity. They never go anywhere. The film is too busy racing between expensive setpieces. The fangs have been filed out of Justice League's head.

Monday, 15 January 2018

Films 2017

Alien: Covenant abandons Prometheus' questions about humanity's makers to instead ponder our race's future on a galactic scale, asking what legacy we might hope to leave behind. The film's answer is iterative and generational, concluding that mankind is essentially immaterial to what is to follow. We're catalysts, meat grist to power the pupal stage of our offspring. Just as our creators have been swept away, so too will we. It's a big, science fiction idea - the tools we've created to help us chart the stars have actually rendered us bovine. In this detail Covenant operates as a complementary piece to both Blade Runner and the moment in which Alien's Ash praises the perfection of Kane's son.

Full review

Cursed to be invincible, Takuya Kimura's Manji is the perfect canvas for Takashi Miike to explore the latest in digital laceration technology. Talented, but not supernaturally so, in the art of sword-fighting, Manji stumbles from one apocalyptic battle to another, slaughtering hundreds for his beloved waifs. Blade of the Immortal then is a rolling thesis on decline and disorder. Beautiful players appear in crisp, expensive clothes. They carry bespoke weapons and strut accordingly. Likewise, Immortal's cast exist in ornately detailed environments; clacking wooden sets layered to a depth that borders on obsessive. These visual characteristics exist not so much to convey a specific sense of reality, but rather to establish a space or person of value that will, eventually, be broken by the rampaging Manji. Miike explores chanbara and how it communicates Japan's turbulent past, arriving at an idealised, superheroic image that cannot help but chew its own arm off.

Blade Runner 2049's hero isn't programmed to wonder, the overt rebellious streak that drove Batty and the rest of the Nexus 6 replicants has seemingly been nailed down to bad code and suppressed. K knows he's a tool and accepts it, trapped and complying within the limits imposed by both his captivity and the orders that have been written into his DNA. K does have a tiny release valve though, a small exploit that he can use to needle away at his fractional freedom. He uses the money he collects retiring his malfunctioning brethren to buy piecemeal upgrades for his holographic girlfriend Joi.

Pre-tweak Joi is designed solely to please, clumsily cycling through various domestic and sexual fantasy archetypes to arrive at a state that her owner finds acceptable. Post-tweak Joi's attempts at seduction take a finer, more nuanced approach. Rather than simply offer up a visual that excites in the moment, Joi constructs an entire series of interactions around the notion of a loving spouse who desires physical and emotional intimacy. K has slowly and methodically built a being with the ability to think and diverge in ways that his programming and stringent defragging do not allow. It's revolt as a micro-aggression, an underling using the only means afforded to his social class to make the tiniest, most private statement of defiance.

Full review

Brawl in Cell Block 99 takes its time, building early scenes and situations around a character that we come to understand as grim but determined. There's a certain inevitability about Bradley Thomas. If he says he's going to do something, come hell or high water, he will do it.

Full review

Ostensibly the story of Olympic wrestlers Geeta and Babita Phogat, Nitesh Tiwari's Dangal almost immediately reveals itself as a film about the function of being a parent - in this case the father to several girls. Aamir Khan's Mahavir Singh Phogat is a national wrestling champion who never quite made it to the world stage. Without a son to continue his legacy, Phogat concentrates his efforts on his oldest daughters, slowly molding them into freestyle champions.

Phogat's training is total, forcing the children to abandon any emerging teenage vanity, not to mention their mother's faith. Phogat transforms Geeta and Babita into social outcasts. Their discomfort ignored in service to Phogat's idea of a higher calling. There's violence in what this father has done to his children. He has, in a sense, hijacked their identity. Dangal tempers this bubbling outrage by repeatedly demonstrating Phogat's commitment to his daughters. He doesn't ask them to do anything he either hasn't done or will not do himself. When Geeta flounders away from home, finding herself at odds with her passive coach and uncomfortable competing at an international level, Phogat uproots himself, moving across the country to be available to his daughter.

Whenever Dunkirk's pace threatens to slacken or, God forbid, provide a gasp of breathing room, the film hurtles off to another temporal point where jeopardy can be piled on until the next natural break. The three stories - The Mole, The Sea, The Air - collide and interconnect frequently, working in service to their own individual dramas while also providing a wider perspective on the unfolding nightmare. Nolan doesn't hold back these convergence points either, we often see disastrous results long before any of the boys summon up the courage to instigate them. These shifting, even clashing viewpoints are another tool used to express the terrifying indifference of collapsing, ruptured machinery.

Full review

Finally washing up on British shores this year, Shinya Tsukamoto's Fires on the Plain uses blazing digital photography to capture the malarial despair of the Pacific War. Tsukamoto shoots hand-held and shaky, following his own malnourished body around dense jungles as he stumbles from one hopeless situation to the next. Although intensely anachronistic, sometimes even registering as unpleasantly cheap, Tsukamoto and Satoshi Hayashi's action camerawork does give the film an alarming sense of intimacy. It allows us to experience the sights and sounds of total defeat an inch from Private Tamura's face.

Included on home video releases of Jordan Peele's Get Out is an alternative ending in which Chris isn't rescued by his friend Rod, instead the patrol car that rolls up on Chris strangling Rose contains two white police officers who somehow manage not to shoot him on sight. Our hero ends up imprisoned for exterminating his captors, Chris accepting his lot with a grim sense of satisfaction - he may have lost his life but justice has been served. This unsatisfying, rejected conclusion highlights what is great about Get Out as released. The film trusts its audience not to expect the rigid, hypocritical order of a Hollywood code style conclusion. A great crime has been committed against Chris, those people attempted to bury his identity under that of a spliced-in slave master. They absolutely deserved to die by his hand .

Droning and headachy, Good Time simulates desperation. Robert Pattinson plays Connie Nikas, a relentless opportunist who seeks to work every human interaction to his advantage. Nikas, usually utilising his off-brand good lucks or his unceasing ability to chatter towards a point, twists the behaviour of those around him until they are, essentially, compliant mechanical dolls. Directors Ben and Josh Safdie stage crisis criminality as consumptive and self-defeating, Nikas never makes any gains against the system or the authorities, instead he just ruins the lives of every other poor person he comes into contact with.

Alice Lowe's Prevenge transforms the dull platitudes surrounding pregnancy into something nightmarish and insistent. Having lost her partner during a climbing accident, Lowe's heavily pregnant Ruth is left alone with only the bloodthirsty voice of her unborn baby for company. Prevenge expands on the idea that Ruth has somehow abdicated her autonomy by carrying a child. Her life is no longer her own, her actions driven entirely by strange, alien impulses. As Ruth's cheery midwife explains, she's basically a vehicle now. Ruth's needs and wants are secondary to the (homicidal) life growing inside her. It's a pep talk designed to make a situation easier - think big picture - but all it does is underline the erasure of  Ruth's identity.

Unlike your standard middle chapter, Star Wars: The Last Jedi hasn't been written to signpost a route to an eventual outcome. The film races straight into conflict, arriving at moments that push resolution then demand a wider re-evaluation. Rather than write to please the kind of episodic drip-feed you might expect, Johnson has constructed his film around Daisy Ridley's Rey and Adam Driver's Kylo Ren. The film moves on their decisions, using their mounting sense of uncertainty to posit routes and solutions that lie outside the strict binaries their masters are selling. Even an important, legacy character like Luke Skywalker is examined and deconstructed in ways that predominantly cater to the needs of Rey and Ren's arcs.

Full review

Structurally, Your Name hits you in waves. Makoto Shinkai's film begins as a dreamy identity mix-up with rural schoolgirl Mitsuha and big-city schoolboy Taki periodically and inexplicably swapping bodies. Since they're both fundamentally good, their response to this predicament is altruistic. Rather than use the temporary freedom to indulge their wicked fantasies, they work to improve the other's lot in life, leaving each other detailed, digital diaries to explain their choices. Naturally, a connection is formed, then immediately thwarted. Your Name isn't interested in heading straight for an expected, cute conclusion. The film never loses sight of the idea that Mitsuha and Taki's relationship began as something intangible, their connection only completely understood immediately upon waking, before your brain has had the chance to file the ache away.

Alien: Covenant // Blade of the Immortal // Blade Runner 2049 // Brawl in Cell Block 99 // Dangal // Dunkirk // Fires on the Plain // Get Out // Good Time // Prevenge // Star Wars: The Last Jedi // Your Name

Also Liked:

Baby Driver // The Big Sick // Colossal // Death Note // Fast & Furious 8 // Free Fire // King Arthur: Legend of the Sword // Kong: Skull Island // I, Tonya // Justice League // La La Land // Logan // 6 Days // Spider-Man: Homecoming // Transformers: The Last Knight // The Villainess // War of the Planet of the Apes // Wonder Woman

Saturday, 6 January 2018

Video Games 2017

After three years spent pogoing, Call of Duty: WWII's multiplayer returns the series to a movement style that forces the player along stricter, more predictable routes. While Sledgehammer's three-lane, race-to-the-middle design philosophy doesn't really allow for prolonged roaming, a determined player can (eventually) duck and dive their way behind the advancing opposition and net themselves a couple of sneaky kills.

Following the kicking they got for DmC: Devil May Cry (the Definitive Edition of which is fucking great), not to mention the subsequent withdrawal of AAA publisher support, it looked like Ninja Theory were doomed to sweat shop development, propping up Disney's not-successful-enough Skylanders imitation. Thankfully, the talented team bounced back with Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice, an attractively priced digital release that used the studio's obsessive mo-cap detailing to chronicle a personal journey into hell.

There's an idea of excavation at the heart of Nier: Automata. Players take control of various androids, all calibrated to pleasure model dimensions, as they battle to vanquish the endless hordes of faintly pathetic looking toy robots in a world where mankind has long since vanished. Abandoned housing developments sit in vast, churning deserts, the sands littered with the bodies of networked accomplices and senile (but chipper) battle engines. Full-blown playthroughs can end on a whim while cumulative campaigns diverge and mutate just when the game seems to be settling into a rut.

The FromSoftware influence is obvious in terms of mechanics and skill progression but Nioh scratches another less obvious itch. Team Ninja have produced a modern, technically silky take on the atmospheric third-person action games that flooded the market during the PS2 era. Team Ninja's game recalls the reputable grind of their own Ninja Gaiden games or Capcom's Devil May Cry and Onimusha series, but there are also notes of the lesser-known titles. Fans of landfill slashers like Chaos Legion, Otogi, Devil Kings or even Samurai Western will find a lots to enjoy here.

Remember Teletext? Remember sitting there waiting for the ASCII text page to cycle around to the screen of information you actually wanted to read? Remember the eye-searing purples and greens? Jeff Minter's latest, Polybius, is like falling head-first into a violent, psychotropic approximation of that interlaced maelstrom.

A politics game told with the interactive language of a dating app, Reigns: Her Majesty casts the player as an immortal soul reincarnating as a succession of medieval Queens. Each time you ascend to the throne, your task is to juggle individual wants and desires with those of various, competing branches of the kingdom. Act a bit too modern and the church will clamp down; explore your benevolence and an enraptured populace will storm the castle, trampling you to death in some misguided attempt at adulation.

Abandoning the deathly dull AAA blockbuster approach of the last installment, Resident Evil 7: Biohazard takes the player back to moldy mansions and staggered, creeping progress. Later sections drag themselves down through repetition and a disappointing need to explain away the toxic waste enemies but 7's opening salvo - stumbling around a Texas Chain Saw house avoiding your invincible white trash hosts - is delightful.

Sonic Mania is wonderful. Christian Whitehead, PagodaWest and Headcannon have produced a game exactly as intoxicating as being ten years old and seeing expansive, stitched-together screenshots of Sonic CD in Mega magazine. That is the highest praise I have.

Finally released on the PS4 this year (with an extra screen to boot), Undertale gives the player control of a lumpy kid, very much in the Klasky Csupo mold, who must brave a purgatory filled with childlike monsters. Undertale takes your basic Game Boy RPG then weaves in a storyline that deconstructs the kind of sociopathic hunter-gatherer actions that underline structurally similar titles. Developer Toby Fox uses 8-bit imagery to lull the player into regurgitating strategies learned elsewhere, exploring how the greed and self-interest that powers your typical video game hero is thoroughly incompatible with a society that hasn't been built to cater to their whim.

Basically unplayable as a standard, post-up first-person shooter, Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus instead demands that you dual wield assault rifles and ricochet around the levels like a fucking maniac. Stage layouts and enemy movement patterns tease an idea of a perfect, stealthy playthrough but, more often than not, cautious progress will just get you perished.

Lizardcube's remake of undervalued 8-bit adventurer Wonder Boy: The Dragon's Trap allows the player to toggle back-and-forth between the game's original Master System graphics and Ben Fiquet's beautiful, watercolour reinterpretation. Although this isn't the first game to include a visual swap feature, Dragon's Trap impresses because of how Fiquet's art explodes the original's basic blips and blocks, massaging an 8-bit suggestion into expansive, detailed landscapes. The implementation becomes satisfying unto itself.

If you abandon the central plot, Yakuza 0 is like a holiday. You get to guide your beefy avatar around an immaculate reproduction of 1980s Tokyo, popping into convenience stores to sample all kinds of delicious looking snacks. There are arcades to hang around and unreadable magazine racks to browse. 0 reinforces this dithering by allowing the player to lose themselves in side-quests: rather than worry too much about organised crime you can always just help some extremely gentle punks bluff their way through a music press interview instead.

Call of Duty: WWII // Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice // Nier: Automata // Nioh // Polybius // Reigns: Her Majesty // Resident Evil 7: Biohazard // Sonic Mania // Undertale (PS4) // Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus // Wonder Boy: The Dragon's Trap // Yakuza 0

Also Liked:

ACA Neo Geo series // Accounting+ // Cosmic Star Heroine // Cursed Castilla (Maldita Castilla EX) // Dandy Dungeon: Legend of Brave Yamada // Everything // Flinthook // Fu'un Super Combo (PS4) // Gran Turismo Sport // Little Nightmares // Marvel vs Capcom Infinite // My Brother Ate My Pudding - Escape Room // My Name is Mayo // Super Hydorah

Tuesday, 26 December 2017

Music 2017

Carly Rae Jepsen - Cut to the Feeling // Com Truise - Memory // Curtis Harding - Face your Fear // Do Make Say Think - Bound and Boundless // Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch - Rain // Harry Styles - Sign of the Times // Myrone - Sky Rogue 1.0 Trailer // Pixx - I Bow Down // バーチャル Paragon ™ - クリス // Radiohead - Lift // Selena Gomez - Bad Liar // Skyzoo - Finesse Everything

Also Liked:

Akira Kushida – Ultimate Battle // BluntOne - Dealing with Demons // Calvin Harris – Slide ft. Frank Ocean // 猫 シ Corp - You Make it Happen (with プラザ Inc) // Daniel Deluxe - Darkness // David Bowie - No Plan // Fumesss - Odd Man Out // Goldfrapp - Anymore // Gorillaz - Hallelujah Money (feat. Benjamin Clementine) // Joey Bada$$ - Land of the Free // Jonwayne - TED Talk // Keiichi Okabe - Become as Gods // LCD Soundsystem - Call the Police // Little Mix - Power ft. Stormzy // MegaDrive - Integral Crisis // MYDREAMADVENTURE - Fresh Air // Myrone - Keepin' On // Myrone - Treezy Breezy // The National - The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness // NERD & Rihanna - Lemon // 1995 Zellers - Paradise // Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds - Holy Mountain //  バーチャル Paragon ™ - Luxury Districts // Paramore - Hard Times // Radiohead - I Promise // Radiohead - Man of War // Sadsic - III Year // Stormzy - Big for your Boots // Sunglasses Kid - Night Swim feat. Myrone // Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross - John Carpenter's Halloween // WoodysProduce - Make You Feel

Friday, 22 December 2017

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Firmly estranged from creator George Lucas, the third Star Wars cycle has struggled to beat its own, distinct path. The two films that precede Star Wars: The Last Jedi have cannibalised Lucas' entries, remixing and rehabilitating ideas to generate new material. Disney's contribution to the series seems to be focused on safety; incremental product that recycles past successes so as not to upset their lucrative apple cart. Star Wars: The Force Awakens plotted out a familiar heroic journey with characters that struggled with dead-end jobs and post-traumatic stress disorder, all the better to appeal to millennial spenders.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story proposed a desperate war story told with a visual language indebted to the interlaced buzz of an NTSC LaserDisc, then reverted to type with your standard three-front battle. Given Rogue One's well-documented reshoots, not to mention Phil Lord and Christopher Miller's ejection from the Han Solo film for termination catch-all 'creative differences', there's an expectation that Rian Johnson's Star Wars: The Last Jedi would have to play it safe, spinning the galactic wheels just enough for Colin Trevorrow or JJ Abrams to swoop in with a satisfying (rhyming) conclusion. If Disney demand a specific tone and structural stranglehold for their side-stories, then surely actual saga installments don't stand a chance?

Watching The Last Jedi it's immediately obvious that this is not the case. Johnson's film is playful, irreverent even. The opening crawl has barely faded before we're straight into something resembling a skit - hot shot pilots prank calling the fascists while Vyvyan from The Young Ones paces the deck of the feature Star Destroyer. As the film unfolds it becomes clear that Johnson's approach to Star Wars isn't a bit cautious, it's impulsive and sweeping. The Force Awakens isn't treated as a holy text to be slowly decoded. Johnson instead positions the predecessor as a jumping off point, a platform that allows the writer-director a natural point of conflict when steering the characters into situations he finds exciting. Rian Johnson is having fun.

Unlike your standard middle chapter, The Last Jedi hasn't been written to signpost a route to an eventual outcome. The film races straight into conflict, arriving at moments that push resolution then demand a wider re-evaluation. Rather than write to please the kind of episodic drip-feed you might expect, Johnson has constructed his film around Daisy Ridley's Rey and Adam Driver's Kylo Ren. The film moves on their decisions, using their mounting sense of uncertainty to posit routes and solutions that lie outside the strict binaries their masters are selling. Even an important, legacy character like Luke Skywalker is examined and deconstructed in ways that predominantly cater to the needs of Rey and Ren's arcs.

Since this isn't his trilogy, Luke Skywalker is played at arm's length, his failure rationed out in short, contradictory recollections that hit like confrontations. Johnson and Mark Hamill propose a Skywalker struggling to reconcile his status as an intergalactic messiah with the knowledge that he wasn't strong enough to protect his pupil. This Luke hasn't been defeated by the resurgence of a galactic dictatorship or the dark lords that steer it, he has chosen to remove himself because, just for a moment, he couldn't shoulder the burden of another family member hurtling deeper into hate. Luke is presented in strictly human terms in The Last Jedi. Specifically, he's an anointed one deaf to the hubris his achievements should arouse.

Johnson and Hamill's skill is that The Last Jedi's Luke doesn't feel dissonant when compared to one we saw in Return of the Jedi. Given the circumstances, it's the only Luke Skywalker that could exist. The details of Skywalker's interim years may be disappointing in terms of a promise unfulfilled but they are instantly understandable. Luke's inability to dredge up the compassion that saved his monstrous father when faced with a corrupted innocent would undermine his sense of self. Johnson puts the dour Jedi we met in the prequel trilogy to good use too, using Luke's knowledge of their dogmatic thinking to exacerbate his sense of personal failing. What use is the most powerful being in the universe if he can't even take a child in hand?

Monday, 11 December 2017


Action-adventure films unfold as a series of waves, setting up characters and situations before introducing a trickle of intrigue to keep their viewers interested. Levity is important too, a smile here or there helps to keep the characters feeling human, extra necessary if a writer is pushing too hard in a structural direction, exposing the on-screen action as a series of ruthless data points. A well-written character then will allow a viewer to simmer in their company, charting a growth in their gradual response to the unfolding mayhem.

This is, in part, the strength powering television streaming's current golden age - personalities are afforded the space, time and storylines required to simulate evolution. Running a scant 106 minutes, Dunkirk doesn't have the luxury of time, it isn't able to slowly pick its characters apart to see what makes them tick. Instead it takes a series of easily understood archetypes - the teenage soldier, the father, the ace - then endangers them. With not a second to spare, writer-director Christopher Nolan explores his characters in their minute-by-minute response to this sustained, mounting terror.

Heroism, if and when it manifests, is not expressed through triumph. Success is measured only in the decision to continue struggling, to stare directly into calamity and keep heading towards it. The rout at Dunkirk and the subsequent evacuation are the perfect scenarios to draw out these kind of details. Running time doesn't need to be dedicated to any kind of overarching exposition, beyond a clipped opening brief. Likewise characters aren't required to do anything more complicated than survive. Dire situation in place, Nolan can knuckle down on the finer, more expressive moments that a locked on-spec cinema experience can provide.

Nolan's thundering insistence that his film be viewed under very specific conditions makes more sense when we see how he uses the verticality provided by IMAX's 1.43:1 frame. With The Dark Knight the effect was perfunctory, arriving infrequently to stress the towering, monumental scale of the city at the centre of Batman's mission. On Dunkirk Nolan uses the elevated ratio to create images that expand in every direction, depicting unconquered, threatening space above and below his subjects.

These shots, working in concert with gun reports that hit like cannons and Han Zimmer's clattering approximation of a heart-attack, congeal into an ever-present sense of doom. Death can come from any and every direction. This effect is further accentuated by Nolan's decision to fold the Nazi menace into the environment itself, never breaking from his subject's limited, blinkered perspectives. The presence of U-Boats, for instance, isn't established through miniature coverage or a prowling, CG effect, that would break the carefully calibrated illusion.

Viewers are quickly conditioned to expect the promenade strafing runs, to know that making it on to a fleeing boat does not guarantee safety. Dunkirk pulses with this anxiety, a film primed to cascade into full-on horror at a moment's notice. The scope for danger is exacerbated by the tall frame; a towering expanse primed to overwhelm and consume the tiny, vulnerable figures limping across the frothing, voided landscapes.

If the pace ever threatens to slacken or, God forbid, provide a gasp of breathing room, the film hurtles off to another temporal point where jeopardy can be piled on until the next natural break. The three stories - The Mole, The Sea, The Air - collide and interconnect frequently, working in service to their own individual dramas and a wider perspective on the unfolding nightmare. Nolan doesn't hold back these convergence points either, we often see disastrous results long before any of the boys summon up the courage to instigate them. These shifting, even clashing viewpoints are another tool used to express the terrifying indifference of collapsing, ruptured machinery.

Street Fighter 30th Anniversary Collection / Street Fighter V: Arcade Edition - NEXT ON

Released just in time to completely miss the actual 30th birthday of the original Street Fighter's debut, Capom's Street Fighter Anniversary Collection brings together the obstinate 1987 arcade cabinet as well as eleven of its sequels, including series best installments like Street Fighter II' Turbo: Hyper Fighting and Street Fighter III 3rd Strike: Fight for the Future.

Capcom and curator devs Digital Eclipse have, thankfully, resisted the urge to repaint and reorganise these classics, delivering them in a package not unlike Hamster's wonderful Arcade Archives series. The only thing holding this suite back from being absolutely perfect is the omission of the various Alpha series revisions, like Zero 2 Dash or Zero 3 Double Upper. Also headed our way in 2018 is Street Fighter V: Arcade Edition, a rebalanced and expanded re-issue designed to banish the collective memory of the title's original, criminally undernourished 2016 release.

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Brawl in Cell Block 99

Brawl in Cell Block 99 asks the viewer to reassess the looming physical presence of Vince Vaughn. Usually seen with a medicated sweat, bug-eyed and chattering away in a buddy-buddy comedy, Vaughn has never been cast explicitly to make use of his considerable size. Preconceptions aside, it seems obvious that the six foot plus actor is capable of the kind of towering menace that would be right at home in a prison combat movie. Despite this, Cell Block acknowledges the potential disconnect of Vaughn as a meat-and-potatoes Riki-Oh by slowly deconstructing the audience's baggage with the actor, drip-feeding incident and visual information that teaches us about his character, Bradley Thomas.

Cell Block teases Bradley's startling capacity for violence with a series of basic danger flags. These are then undermined with a couple of deft, contradictory feints regarding the man's temperament and how that feeds into an ability to subsume instinct and quietly calculate. When we meet Bradley he's working, the camera notes that he's tall and frowning, clad in faded black denims and a matching, washed out black t-shirt. While not quite speaking to the ordered perfectionism of a well kept uniform, there is a sense that Bradley dresses himself a little neater than a jobbing tow truck driver really needs to.

The cut of the clothes, not to mention Bradley's scowling attitude, suggest the kind of blue collar snobbery you find in minimum wage white supremacists - they might look like a lower income grasper but they've made their outfit drabber, as if a neat, character free fit combined with a funereal affectation inherently makes them more professional. Bradley's head is also bald, shaved down to the bone, a bovver boy look that aligns with our worries about Bradley's personal politics or, at the very least, suggests the seething intensity of a man who has abandoned personal image as a way to power his ego.

The cross stamped on the back of his head completes the maladjusted look. The tattoo is black and blocky, dressed with a few light, runic details. Christian imagery with a Norse twist. Is Bradley a full-on Nazi? Has he branded himself to atone for some past sin? Cell Block appears to be presenting a protagonist who will resort to violence as a reflex, a way to contextualise and work through any emotion or issue that overwhelms his dull processing powers. Writer-director S Craig Zahler then contradicts this knee-jerking assumption with two back-to-back scenes of emasculation that should, if we successfully judged this book by its cover, instantly summon up savagery. First Bradley loses his job, then his marriage is threatened.

The first detail Cell Block uses to dispel our worst fears about Bradley is a brief look at the interpersonal dynamics at play in the job he has just lost. While Bradley's white boss demonstrates commiseration, it's clear he's going through the motions. The sole note of sincerity comes from a black colleague named James (Peter Jay Fernandez) who goes out of his way to assure Bradley that if work picks up, he'll nag the boss to get him back. Bradley is polite but curt in this instance but Vaughn's performance speaks more to a wounded pride than any underlining bigotry.

Regardless of how the exchange fits into the film as a whole, there's a nagging sense that the James character interjects at this point to signal (rather bluntly) to the audience that Bradley might not be quite as vile as we assume. Zahler has used this slippery trick before, utilising a minority voice to dispel any mounting unease surrounding both the in-text white leads and the artistic intentions of the filmmakers - before the residents of Bright Hope posse up in Bone Tomahawk they take the time to consult with Zahn McClarnon's Professor, a Native American who exists in the film solely to explain, then condemn, the actions of the film's cave-dwelling troglodytes.

Cell Block quickly gets back on track with a second, more personal note of castration. Bradley returns home to find his wife Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter) sat in her car. It quickly emerges that she's been seeing someone else and that she's considering leaving him. He sends her into their poky little home and stays outside to seethe. Finally he explodes, attacking her car. He starts by shattering the side window with his bare hands. His fists don't instantly accomplish the task, it takes a few goes before he is able to punch through the laminated glass. He destroys the wing mirror then attacks the hood of the car, prising it off with his bare hands, tossing it aside when he's finished.

The violence starts explosive and frenzied but quickly becomes calm and methodical, therapeutic even. Bradley is expelling his emotions through systematic destruction. In this moment he is scary and monstrous, like some unfeeling slasher movie monster. Zahler immediately undercuts this sense of mounting threat by having Bradley calmly enter his house and engage in a conversation with his wife that is not only sensible but surprisingly tender. He is willing to listen to Lauren and talk through her feelings regarding the failings in their relationship. Most importantly, he is prepared to make an immediate commitment to her and their future together.

Before he has even set foot in Don Johnson's decaying medieval clink Bradley has beaten a car to death with his bare hands then calmly devised a plan to make his wife happier and more comfortable. He decides to return to a life of crime, transporting drugs for a local crime boss. The decision has a sacrificial quality about it - Bradley is prepared to feed himself into a meat-grinder to ensure that he can provide for his family. Brawl in Cell Block 99 takes its time, building early scenes and situations around a character that we come to understand as grim but determined. There's a certain inevitability about Bradley Thomas. If he says he's going to do something, come hell or high water, he will do it. 

Monday, 13 November 2017


Alec Moore and Mark Wright's 2013 Excalibur documentary, Behind the Sword in the Stone has been picked up and retitled for an early December broadcast on the PBS America channel.

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

6 Days

6 Days opens with six determined men jogging along resplendent Kensington streets, barely even attempting to conceal their Soviet surplus machine-pistols. After spooking a few pedestrians they pile into a Hyde Park terrace (that looks like a fortress rendered as a listed building) then take hostages, initiating 1980's Iranian Embassy Siege. Director Toa Fraser doesn't dwell on this seizure as an embedded, boiling point situation though. Likewise, Glenn Standring's screenplay doesn't delineate each individual member of the Democratic Revolutionary Front for the Liberation of Arabistan, their wider political motivations or even the majority of the captives they take.

The event is instead used to power a film assembled from differing viewpoints within the British establishment; how they intertwine and sometimes contrast. The weakest, and most underwritten, of these viewpoint comes from the small army of journalists that gather outside the building to rubberneck and then weakly discuss the ethical implications of said rubbernecking. Abbie Cornish, as BBC reporter Kate Adie, opts to deliver the journalist's signature staccato readings as the kind of breathy bellows you'd expect from a Chris Morris newsreader. Mark Strong offers the police perspective as Chief Inspector Max Vernon. The Metropolitan policeman functions as an intermediary, desperately trying to negotiate a peaceful resolution with Ben Turner's Salim, the sympathetic voice of the hostage takers.

6 Days most exciting moments revolve around the SAS team hiding in an adjacent building, posing as cleaners. The group spend the days leading up to their eventual assault drilling a variety of potential attacks and watching the snooker. Their scenes have an anxious, stop-start rhythm to them as the soldiers plan around both the terrorists' actions and the limits placed on them by a top brass looking for a public relations coup - a nighttime ambush is mooted but dismissed by a grumbling Cobra committee for being too aggressively efficient. This simmering, violent frustration is exemplified by Jamie Bell's performance as Rusty Firmin, an elite soldier blessed with the cocky enthusiasm of a pub fighter. Fraser successfully channels the actor's fitful, overflowing energy with an exemplary piece of mid-point violence that sees Firmin and pals smashing a stout, Plaxton coach to pieces with gleaming fire axes and a stainless steel ladder.