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.
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.
Sunday, 10 December 2017
Friday, 17 November 2017
Tuesday, 14 November 2017
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
Thursday, 9 November 2017
Wednesday, 8 November 2017
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.
Wednesday, 25 October 2017
Monday, 23 October 2017
Ever wonder why Resident Evil 4 always feels so rewarding to play, regardless of how well you're doing? Mark Brown thinks he has the answer - a hidden difficulty modifier that took stock of how the player was progressing then fine tuned the experience based on that information.
Tuesday, 17 October 2017
Sunday, 15 October 2017
Blade Runner winds down with Rutger Hauer's Roy Batty delivering a poetic speech about the incredible, mind-bending events he has experienced while toiling at the far end of the galaxy as a synthetic soldier. The soliloquy bubbles up out of Roy in the company of Harrison Ford's Rick Deckard, the policeman-cum-assassin who has hunted and killed all of the combat model's beloved companions. Deckard has stumbled at the last hurdle though. Despite Batty's waning energies, the replicant has overpowered his executioner then, pointedly, saved his life.
Prior to delivering his final, grandstanding statement, before he's even lifted Deckard to safety, Batty pauses to say the following: "Quite an experience to live in fear, isn't it? That's what it is to be a slave." The decision to spare Deckard's life means something to this futuristic mamluk. The action stresses a humanity apparently alien in this used up world. The android has defied both his programming and social conditioning to forgive. By showing mercy to a wounded inferior, Batty has asserted a fleeting moment of moral superiority. The machine is closer to the divine than the man who pursued him.
Denis Villeneuve's Blade Runner 2049 explodes out of this moment, conflating the experiences of Batty and Deckard to arrive at a new character, Ryan Gosling's K. Screenwriters Hampton Fancher and Michael Green neatly side-step any dangling threads regarding Deckard's biological identity by taking how society treated him at face value, then using that status to make a comparison with their own downtrodden hero. It doesn't matter if the viewer believed Rick to be the advanced Nexus 7 (a model conspicuously absent from 2049) replicant Ridley Scott has described in retrospective interviews or, like Harrison Ford, they assumed he was simply a man. Los Angeles 2019 responded to Deckard as a human, therefore, as far as power structures were concerned, he was. K is afforded no such luxury. He is a slave. He lives in fear.
2049 then explicitly delivers on Blade Runner's spectral notion that the hunter, rather than pursuing a supernatural other, might be tracking a variant of himself, a machine created specifically to eliminate other machines. K is a docile, compliant Nexus 9 who hunts and kills his mutinous antecedents. Despite holding the same position within the LAPD as Deckard, K is, at best, treated as a curiosity. Armoured pigs spit invective at him, while a sympathetic superior draws out their meetings to hint at a sexual fascination with plastic boy toys. Off-duty, K returns to a modest cell where he play-acts a loving inter-personal relationship with a lower form of artificial intelligence played by Ana de Armas.
K is free to pursue basic consumer delights and not much else. He 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. Initially, K doesn't dream, he harbours no desire to escape. He 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, allowing her greater freedom of movement and purpose within their living space.
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. She even goes as far as to hire Mackenzie Davis' replicant prostitute Mariette to be her physical surrogate. Joi maps her own image over Mariette, an imperfect solution that blends their features and occasionally lags, creating a chimeric sexual partner for K.
K has slowly and methodically built a being with the ability to think and diverge in ways that his programming and stringent defragging struggle to 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. 2049 never clarifies if Joi has become self-aware or if her upgrade has simply allowed her to present a deeper, more nourishing approximation of a relationship. Her sacrifice is real though, her decision to leave the safety offered by their apartment and its back-up hard drives denotes a selflessness surely beyond the scope of a consumer product.
Joi's customisation says something about K too, emblematic of a deep-seated desire to nurture the sort of life that he feels unable to seize upon himself. He's a synthetic man attempting to transform the actions of a murdering scab into the emancipation of a kindred program after all. Basically, like all screen replicants before him, K wants something at odds with his core servility. 2049's central plot - the quest for a bio-mechanical anointed one - allows K the scope and opportunity to veer away from his usual, plodding wet work.
Deckard's investigation allowed him to study his artificial quarry, he sifted through their meagre, flea market belongings to discover a blazing desire for self-determination. K's experience is altogether more tragic. The memories he excavates undermine his basic sense of belonging before taking on an explicitly personal dimension. As the details and information pile up, K uses the data to replace his baseline mantra, recalibrating himself to think and act as a being with an inherent destination. K reprograms himself, briefly tasting a life beyond killing in which he is allowed to carry his own personal purpose.