Thursday, 19 January 2017

Gorillaz - Hallelujah Money (feat. Benjamin Clementine)

The Final Challengers





No matter how many sequels or spin-offs Capcom release, there will always be something special about Street Fighter II. Nintendo obviously agrees as they've commissioned a spruced up re-release for their new Switch system, a canny attempt to snag the attention of people with fond memories of expensive import copies and SNES pack-ins.

Given the decision to stick with the ugly high-definition coat of paint Udon Entertainment rustled up last-gen, Ultra Street Fighter II: The Final Challengers initially appears a bit disposable. Certainly not the kind of release that has you browsing pre-order pages for the game's home hardware. Then I discovered that you can run the game using the original CPS-2 graphics and immediately found myself desperate to play a pillarboxed reissue of a 20-odd year old game I already own about four different versions of.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

David Bowie - No Plan

Lone Wolf and Cub: White Heaven in Hell













The baby cart series ends with Yoshiyuki Kuroda's Lone Wolf and Cub: White Heaven in Hell, an off-piste entry with supernatural underpinnings that, while it doesn't adapt the titanic showdown that closed Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima's manga, does allow an element of closure to creep in around the edges. White Heaven opens with a desperate Yagyu Retsudo facing political irrelevance. In an effort to forestall any further disgrace, the ageing ninja decides to gamble the lives of his remaining heirs on a final push against our heroes.

Retsudo's illegitimate son Hyouei has been raised by the ghostly Tsuchigumo clan, an army of theatrical psychopaths who bury their best warriors in graves for weeks on end until their very existence blurs the line between life and death. Once dispatched, these phantoms haunt Itto and Daigoro, killing every person they come into contact with. These tactics are an exciting change of pace for the series, rolling an unpredictable, spectral sense of horror into the film. So while Itto never quite boils over into a full-on frenzy, it's exciting to see the implacable samurai genuinely rattled by an enemy.

Disappointingly, the Tsuchigumo assassins' eventual death (not to mention the fate of the legion of skiing ninja that follow them) has less to do with Itto meditating on, then overcoming their omniscient terror and more to do with this episode's gadget-laden perambulator. It's a strange choice because, as Tomisaburo Wakayama has repeatedly proven, stationary special effects aren't anywhere near as exciting as an unbroken take of a middle-aged actor forward-flipping into a slide tumble, then darting up to slash and swipe at goons.

Daigoro's baby cart is to Kuroda's film what Little Nellie was to You Only Live Twice, an improbably invincible gun platform that regimented enemies are inexplicable drawn towards. Thankfully Kuroda is often canny enough to simply get out of Wakayama's way, allowing fight sequences to unfold with a stop-start quality that makes you feel the trepidation simmering in Itto's enemies. Kenji Misumi hurtled in towards Wakayama to stress his speed and unpredictability, Kuroda opens up the confrontations, shooting extremely wide to show us how Itto's strikes carry like waves along the assembled armies, daring them to try their luck.

White Heaven ends with an exhausted Itto standing on a mountain side, surrounded by those that have died by his hand. Yagyu Retsudo has skated away, broken and bereaved, to prepare himself for an apocalyptic sequel that never actually arrived. So while the saga ends unresolved, Tsutomo Nakamura's screenplay has done enough to propose a sort of moral victory for Itto and his son. They may not have claimed Retsudo's head, but they have murdered every last one of his heirs and irreparably damaged the social standing Retsudo sought to improve by acting against them. That, and they still have each other.

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in the Land of Demons













Kenji Misumi's fourth and final contribution to Toho's assassin and child series oozes confidence, functioning both as a statement regarding the nihilism at the core of chanbara cinema and an entertaining fight-film besides. It's also, thanks to cinematographer Fujio Morita and a seething, summertime Japan, absolutely beautiful.

Unlike Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in Peril director Buichi Saito, Misumi isn't particularly worried about clarifying the threads that surround Ogami Itto and his son Daigoro. So while Baby Cart in Peril featured an intermittent narration that contextualised and clarified the social constructs and politics impacting on Itto's mission, Misumi trusts the audience to key into the film's mood instead.

Saito's sop to data gave us a different perspective on Itto, it sold us stakes to better anticipate a reaction. Misumi's approach, by comparison, is more chaotic and disconnected, providing insight into his lead character's emotional outlook. Misumi shows us Itto's emptiness to make the point that perhaps the wronged samurai is not a figure that should be depicted as heroic or even particularly engaged. Despite the information and vendettas screaming in at him, Itto's thoughts are permanently elsewhere. He is a monster walking the path to hell, dragging his infant son along with him.

Although Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in the Land of Demons is dramatically disjointed, thanks to the series' grab-bag idea of manga adaptation, the constituent parts are united by an overarching thesis - Itto and Daigoro may be perfect and invincible but they are also damned. Neither demonstrates any capacity to develop or change, they are wraiths roaming a milieu that has a need for, and takes a delight in, their ability to kill.

In Land of Demons Itto's quest involves several loyal retainers of a beleaguered clan slowly drip-feeding him information after he bests them in combat. It's a rolling test, designed to ensure that Lone Wolf is as expert as he claims. It's a hook that keeps Itto occupied and fighting but it also tells us something deeper about the kind of clan that, while lousy with ninja and cavalry of their own, require the services of an assassin. Their task is sedition, a violent and outrageous pruning of the clan hierarchy to ensure that a specific status quo endures.

As always with the Lone Wolf and Cub series, the futility of the individual in the face of the Tokugawa shogunate is important to how the story unfolds. The clan members themselves go with the flow, they see their own lives as transitory, they are currency to be invested in a legacy that they hope will span centuries. This macro-thinking is contrasted by Itto's stubborn refusal to consider anything other than the path. He doesn't fret about Daigoro's place in a world beyond their revenge either, the father doesn't even tremble when his son receives a public flogging for refusing to betray a pickpocket. For all intents and purposes, the duo are already dead.

What remains of the Ogami family isn't trying to regain its place amongst the ruling class, they're feeding off the regime's secrets and hypocrisy to fuel their own desires. Misumi uses space and landscape photography to stress the wonderful, pig-headed absurdity inherent to Itto's mission. The scale of the undertaking is baffling. An entire country pivots and thrives on the film's periphery, Misumi filling the frame with picturesque depictions of vast, unyielding nature. Japan is depicted as well-watered and overripe; a great, pregnant beast bursting at its seams. It's an incredible backdrop for Tomisaburo Wakayama's star turn as death incarnate.

Myrone - Champagne Fire

Thursday, 29 December 2016

Films 2016

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice - Ultimate Edition













Restoring entire sub-plots worth of Superman scenes elevated Zack Snyder's film from a meandering punch-up to a timely jab at toxic media. We see Superman struggle against Lex Luthor under the microscope of a 24 hour news cycle designed to wilfully misunderstand and misinterpret events and actions. You've got to fill that never-ending schedule somehow.

As if to atone, an implicated Clark Kent pounds pavement, talking to street level observers as he investigates Gotham's brutal vigilante. Naturally, he is scolded by his boss for abandoning his assigned puff-pieces. No-one cares anymore. The Ultimate Edition of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice weaves this slow-acting poison into the bones of the film, so when a despondent saviour scales a snow-capped mountain to ponder if it's worth continuing his mission, we understand his deep-seated sense of rejection.

Theatrical release review

Ultimate Edition review


Elle

















Isabelle Huppert plays a woman in total control of herself. Michele is the co-owner of a successful video game company, she lives in a wealthy Parisian suburb and all the people in her life adore her or, at the very least, defer to her opinion. Elle begins with Michele being attacked and raped in her own home. Any presumption that these terrifying events will have a profound, destabilising effect on Michele are immediately silenced by her reaction - she slowly and methodically tidies up, then orders take away.

As the film unfolds we start to understand that Michele has seen (and perhaps even participated in) horror before. It's nothing new to her, she can cope with anything. Paul Verhoeven and screenwriter David Birke string together a series of events and situations in which Michele should register as distasteful - at work she demands her game's interactive sexual assaults be more violent and visceral; she takes time out at her mother's funeral to let her dimwitted son know that everyone is laughing at him for not realising that his long-term girlfriend has been unfaithful.

A lesser film might ask us to hate Michele, but Elle doesn't. Instead, Huppert makes us feel her frustration. The film's other characters, particularly the men, struggle to contextualise their feelings and drives, leading to an unhappiness that pores out of them and infects the world. These men register as ditherers or weaklings, desperately seeking an approval they don't know how to ask for. Comparatively, Michele exudes strength. She understands what she wants, no matter how alien it may seem. Her ability to act upon these desires makes her invincible.


Green Room


















Nazi punks. Nazi punks. Nazi punks, fuck off.

Original review


Hunt for the Wilderpeople













Taiki Waititi's Hunt for the Wilderpeople pulls a similar trick as early seasons of The Simpsons. The film sketches out flawed but lovable characters, then puts them through the wringer, expertly darting back and forth between surreal mischief and all-consuming despair. Waititi makes it look easy too. It helps that his cast are so talented. Julian Dennison, in particular, is delightful as Ricky Baker, able to effortlessly convey the kind of complex emotional damage experienced by someone who has been treated like a nuisance his entire life.


The Nice Guys

















Even when you're watching a Shane Black film, it's easy to forget just how talented a writer he actually is. The Nice Guys begins by making this case on two fronts - character and detail. Ryan Gosling's Holland March is one of our narrators, the role implying a certain kind of omniscience within the film. Russell Crowe's Jackson Healy seems to know what he's doing, so why shouldn't March? We assume Gosling's private detective, despite him telling us exactly how burnt out he is, will have some kind of handle on things.

He doesn't. He can't even perform basic burglary without nearly ending his own life. With March's incompetence firmly established, the film motors on, using March and Healy's relationship to put a fresh twist on breadcrumb detective work. Then, just when you think you see where The Nice Guys is headed next, Black pulls the rug and the film darts off in a completely different direction. Black has perfected the 90-minute Hollywood action pal movie. He knows the notes so well he can diverge at will then, when he's finished having his fun, he can pull it all back together to deliver an organic, satisfying finale.


Shin Godzilla
















Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi's beautiful, standalone take on the King of Monsters bucks the recent trend of making disconnected sequels to Ishiro Honda's original, choosing instead to reset the series and proceed from zero. Shin Godzilla doesn't take place in a Japan that has weathered kaiju incursions and learned to cope, this Godzilla is an incomprehensible nightmare that refuses to follow the basic behavioural patterns laid out by in-universe experts.

Anno's screenplay repeatedly stresses reality, finding tension in a mundane, human response to a destructive, wandering God. Rather than narrow the film's focus to a couple of charming principal players, Shin Godzilla takes a similar approach to 1984's The Return of Godzilla, locating the unfolding drama in featureless rooms full of printers and stressed out politicians desperately measuring unpopular but necessary decisions against their career aspirations.

Since Shin Godzilla prizes verisimilitude, Anno and Higuchi use the visual language of fly-on-the-wall documentaries, shooting people either once removed or as part of an uneasy collective, daring us to discern a favourite from the crowd. They are subjects rather than participants. We aren't allowed to get too close to them, their interior lives are extraneous details. All that matters is how they contextualise and react to the bubbling crisis.

Similarly, glimpses of the Godzilla monster itself are captured rather than shot. Unconsciously, we know these images arrive from an observer's vantage point. Street-level views stress his nauseating verticality - a blistered, volcanic giant towering over picturesque rural scenes. In-action shots are data culled from the various airborne antagonists struggling to stay alive in his presence. Regardless of how we see him, Godzilla's behaviour is constant, he's a lurching, cascading disaster that cannot be stopped.


Train to Busan
















Gong Yoo's Seok-Woo isn't a great Dad. He's absent, emotionally inert and keeps buying his lonely daughter the same, thoughtless present over and over again. Seok-Woo acts mechanically, defined by an all-encompassing sense of greed. His job involves moving other people's riches around then taking a cut for himself, while the relationship he has with his daughter seems less about love and more about holding onto a prized possession to spite his ex-wife.

Yeong Sang-ho's Train to Busan tracks with this selfish loner, relentlessly placing him situations he cannot exert control over. He expects to thrive, given his wealth accruing background, but is repeatedly thwarted. The slimy leg-up tactics that steered him to financial success in the corporate world offer very little protection from carriages and carriages filled with ravenous body-popping zombies. Seok-Woo's path is clear. If he really wants to save his daughter, he'll have to knuckle down, get his hands dirty and learn what it means to be a real father.


The VVitch: A New England Folk Tale


















Even before Satan reveals himself, Robert Eggers depiction of life in pre-industrial America skews dangerous and chaotic. Against all reason, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy)'s family depart from the safety of civilisation to make their own way in the world. Unfortunately for them, the patch of land they choose has no intention of being conquered.

The VVitch: A New England Folk Tale plays from the perspective of a daughter who is undervalued and unceasingly chastised, Thomasin is trapped within a family that barely even pay lip-service to the idea of love. She's just another hand to toil in their rotting fields, chattel to sell off when the harvest fails to come in. When events start spiralling out of control, it's her that the family blame. No wonder she rebels.

Original review


The Wailing


















The Wailing takes an unusual but immersive stance when plotting its own emotional pitch, it uses Kwak Do-won's officer Jong-goo as a mood guide, patterning developments in step with his understanding of the unfolding events. So when Jong-goo is dealing with a few scattered incidents of homicidal strife, the film is comparatively comedic and hands-off. After all, it's easy to blame the psychotic episodes on country bumpkins eating psychedelic mushrooms.

When the horror steers closer to home, The Wailing picks up, locking us into the mission mode of an incompetent but determined father dealing with a series of terrifying supernatural events. Writer-director Na Hong-jin weaves a scenario that not only deals with the paranormal in terms of scenes and information but also motive.

The Wailing contains several, distinct players whose intents are, frankly, unknowable. They don't have Jong-goo's simple, earthly ties, each giving the impression of having been summoned. They are chaotic agents, converging on the isolated village to exploit an imbalance, working in service of the incomprehensible. Since the drives of these characters stray beyond a contextual remit based on Jong-goo's understanding of events, Na doesn't waste any of the film's time (or mystery) trying to explain them.


When Marnie was There















Hiromasa Yonebayashi's second (and final) film for Studio Ghibli is a patient, emotionally delicate piece about a lonely little girl named Anna. In terms of plot, When Marnie was There is about a young woman who experiences a brief, powerful bond with a ghost while on holiday.

Yonebayashi's film, adapted from a children's book by Joan G Robinson, tracks a deeper, more glacial progression though, we're watching Anna come to terms with the various aspects of her life and experience that, she feels, have marked her as an outsider. The phantom Marnie gives Anna someone and something to latch onto. Their relationship is complicated and contradictory, encompassing the first, electric prickles of a romantic crush and a deep, enduring love that will linger forever.


Also Liked:

Arrival / Blair Witch / Bone Tomahawk / Captain America: Civil War / The Childhood of a Leader / Creed / Doctor Strange / Hail, Caesar! / The Hateful Eight / High-Rise / Hypernormalisation / The Jungle Book / The Legend of Tarzan / The Neon Demon / Rogue One: A Star Wars Story / Sing Street / Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows / 10 Cloverfield Lane / 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi / Victoria / Wiener / X-Men: Apocalypse / Zootopia

Tuesday, 27 December 2016

Video Games 2016

Battlefield 1
















Growing up reading Pat Mills and Joe Colquhoun's Charley's War left me with an indelible interest in shell-shocked men winging their way around muddy mazes, clubbing and shooting everything in their path. That, and an all-consuming hatred of authority. Battlefield 1 is the first game to really scratch that first itch, framing popular seek-and-shoot multiplaying within a gorgeous, smoke-choked evocation of The Great War. Armed with primitive, era-specific weaponry, players find themselves relentlessly trapped in situations that naturally track from long-range snipe-offs to desperate trench thwacking.


Dark Souls III
















At one point during Dark Souls III you get the opportunity to slip out of the natural order of things and explore the ruin that awaits should you fail in your quest to rekindle the world's flame. The Untended Graves is a short, completely missable area that houses a depressed boss thrashing around in his failure and precious little else. It's dark and unforgiving, the few basic enemies that have survived long enough to dwell here are twisted and malformed, perhaps feeding off the unending night.

Press on and you'll discover a forgotten version of the game's usually friendly hub area. It's empty this time, except for an old crone who thinks she might've met you before. There's no sense of relief or safety here anymore. The place feels invaded, hope has been vanquished. Dark Souls III builds itself around these kind of feelings, exploring an apocalypse as a state of existence that can be traversed rather than an end unto itself. Failure is never final in this world, that'd be too easy. Instead it's grist for your relentless, pig-headed march towards victory.


Doom
















Not since Halo 3 has a shooter campaign taken such delight in assuring the player that they are this realm's apex predator. It's not enough to just shoot your way through the flailing, injured hellspawn, Doom wants you to catapult yourself towards your foes, dig your fingers into their body and rip them apart. Played at maximum clip, Doom has you careening around occult arenas blasting demons until they're groggy, then auto-angling your looming, POV presence in particular, unintuitive ways just so you can activate the most visceral coup de grace possible.


Hidden My Game by Mom - Escape Room

























Hidden My Game by Mom - Escape Room sees you assume the role of a child scouring the living room in search of his confiscated 3DS. The first few levels have you snooping around, smashing pots and toppling bookcases in an attempt to reveal the contraband handheld. Before long though the titular Mom gets inventive, employing acrobats to block your path or feeding your toy to a hungry elephant. Escape Room is a series of simple tapping puzzles that lean heavily on joke manga staples like magical pendants and defecating animals. Perfect for short commutes.


Inside
















Playdead's Limbo follow-up steps back from exhausting puzzles and pixel-perfect leaping to focus on a series of alarming reveals. Where Limbo skewed abstract, Inside stays investigative, slowly prodding your wheezing, vulnerable child along a conveyor belt of horrors that run the gamut from extrajudicial killings to the body-rending expulsions of an enormous, industrialised nightmare. Inside isn't the least bit precious about the human body either. Like Dark Souls III, your failure to protect a fragile little figure is as much a part of the story as any of your successes.


Ninja Senki DX
















Like Mega Man games? Disappointed that Capcom have stopped making their faux 8-bit sequels? Furious that Mighty No. 9 turned out to be an opportunity for Keji Inafune to build a multimedia empire rather than a deeply personal passion project? Not to worry, Tribute Games have got you covered. Also ideal for those of us who missed out on Alex Kidd in Shinobi World on the Master System.


Oxenfree
















A supernatural adventure game about extremely talkative teenagers looking for terrifying, inter-dimensional triangles. Oxenfree is a scavenger hunt in which you comb the landscape for fixed items and buttons that allow progress. Night School Studio massage this basic interaction with a deep and well thought out conversation system that allows you to play a variety of roles within the high schooler collective. You can slowly prod romantically interested parties together and make nice with your new step-brother, or you can slap people around and burn bridges. If you really want to, you can say nothing at all and score a trophy in the process.


Rez Infinite
















Completely immersive, even without Sony's VR head-set, Rez Infinite surrounds the player with colourful, pulsing feedback as you glide through a psychedelic shoot-out. Tetsuya Mizuguchi has built his career around visual signals and gameplay elements that build on and around an all-encompassing soundtrack. His games give players the opportunity to feel like they're directly interacting with a living, evolving musical experience. VR takes this even further. You're not just staring at a bright little window, now you're inside the action, turning your head to watch the targets as they obligingly queue up on their way to being blasted.


Stardew Valley
















Eric Barone's love letter to 16-bit farming games is a beautiful example of loop gameplay. Your early days in Stardew Valley will be spent rising early to water your slowly expanding farm before limping off into town to burn your last dregs of energy networking and scouring the notice board for quests. Concepts that break or compliment these tasks are introduced slowly and surely. Pop into a one of the shops near the pier and you'll score a fishing rod, keep planting the same seeds and eventually you'll be introduced to the pitfalls of seasonal crop. There's no hurry in Stardew Valley, precious little danger either, instead you get to enjoy a slowly expanding sense of routine.


Titanfall 2
















In a year full of excellent shooter campaigns, Titanfall 2 is the very best. Respawn approach game design in a similar way to Nintendo or Valve, filling their single-player full of situations and ideas that can only be expressed through gameplay. Story and character both play important roles in Titanfall 2 but they are secondary to the sheer joy wrung out of stages designed like luxuriously curated dares.

Every level Respawn introduce a new input proposition that takes the game's core mechanics and asks you to do something a little bit different. The studio twist and invert these concepts over the length of the course before discarding them and moving onto their next eureka moment. You know, just in case there was any chance you could get bored of scaling an enormous conveyor belt producing futuristic Ikea showrooms or skipping back and forth in a building's lifetime.


Also Liked:

BioShock: The Collection / Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare / Call of Duty: Modern Warfare Remastered / Dead Rising (PS4) / Dex / Islands: Non-Places / The Last Guardian / Let It Die / No Man's Sky / Pang Adventures  / Sky Force Anniversary / SteamWorld Heist / Street Fighter V / Uncharted 4 / Virginia / We Become What We Behold

Thursday, 22 December 2016

Music 2016

Beyoncé - Sorry




Carly Rae Jepsen - First Time




Christine and the Queens - Tilted




Gryffin - Heading Home ft. Josef Salvat




John Carpenter - Distant Dream




L'Equipe du Son - Night Drive




Radiohead - Daydreaming




Sia - Waving Goodbye




Two Door Cinema Club - Bad Decisions




Vulfpeck - Dean Town




Also Liked:

BeyoncĂ© - Formation / Julian Winding - Demon Dance / Myrone - Clear Eyes Clear Skies / Nice Try - Your Hair / Perturbator - Neo Tokyo / Porches - Underwater / Portishead - SOS / Power Glove - Punch! / Sadsic - Son / The Weeknd - False Alarm / Yuka Kitamura - Soul of Cinder