Thursday, 31 December 2009

Disaster Year 2009: The Hurt Locker

Rejecting any formal narrative, The Hurt Locker instead focuses on the last few days of rotation for a bomb disposal unit in Baghdad. Jeremy Renner's Staff Sergeant William James is drafted to the team after their previous commanding officer perishes in a preventable explosion. James' instinctive, adrenalised style agitates the reeling team, previously used to cautious book plays. His drive is puzzling through the improvised explosive devices by hand, neutralising the threat at source rather than retreating for a controlled detonation. He wants to beat the bomb makers by undoing their work. The defusals are fraught affairs, jets relentlessly scream overhead, and any civilian gawker could easily be a plain clothes sniper. James keeps his team deep in the danger zone, confident his grandstanding deconstructions will defer interference. This apparent thrill-seeking is underscored by some rigid emotional ethics. James is a father, and seeks to protect, sublimating his feelings for his estranged family by forming a rapid connection with a cheeky street vendor. Unlike many of his colleagues, James sees the Iraqis around him as people, rather than troublesome aliens. This isn't the entirety of why he does what he does, James takes an almost sexual pleasure in locking horns and thwarting detonations, but it is part of the make-up that pushes him on.

Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Disaster Year 2009: Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 boasts an utterly bombastic single player that trades its previous installment's creeping wetwork for high octane air punching. Levels are not simply passed, you're blasted through them at hundreds of miles an hour, leaping and grasping at dangling salvation. Action is split between two fronts, an all-out invasion of the United States and a spy game super-narrative that eventually mutates into a disavowed sneaking mission. Infinity Ward pic n' mixes beats and flourishes from the last few decades worth of action cinema, weaving them seamlessly into the mongrel whole. Finish that and you unlock Special Ops, an off-shot dedicated to brief, cooperative remixes of core gameplay. It's a ruthlessly arranged highlights mode, consisting of 23 bulletin length epilogues. Missions consist of snowmobile races, million dollar sieges, and aggravated auto-destruction.

The real juice in Modern Warfare 2 though is the multiplayer mode, an unending avalanche of feedback and positive reinforcement. Guns and loadout perks are rationed on a keen trickle, meaning there's always an interesting piece of kit to chase. Every conceivable action tallies towards some form of reward, from customisable handle titles to simple XP currency. There's an exhaustive list of conditions to be met, congratulating players for both the mundane and the superlative. In-game kills grant access to air support that runs the gamut from an air-dropped resupply to a match shredding Apache helicopter. Land a 25 streak and you can call in a tactical nuke, killing everyone. Even the teething problems have been entertaining: players have occasionally found themselves dumped into bugged infinite ammo matches, maps groaning under a relentless grenade spam. Others shored up in eighteen man games on six man maps, post-death respawns becoming harassed opportunities to pick off other recent casualties. Rumours have flown around about private match invites that lead you to games that grant millions and millions of points for the most simplistic of actions. There will be more. Since release, Modern Warfare 2 has gobbled time. There's always something new to learn, or something old to modify.

Disaster Year 2009: Mos Def - Casa Bey

Disaster Year 2008: The Wrestler

The Wrestler toys with the inherent fallacies of an idealised hyper-masculinity. Randy The Ram is a professional wrestler, he must exude a sense of healthy virility. Ram gamely complies. His hair is golden, his muscles tanned and throbbing. He resembles an 80s rock mentored idea of a manly outlaw, all manes and brawn. That's the image, but The Wrestler explores the upkeep necessary to maintain the illusion. Ram must preen and obsess to sustain his identity. Behind the rugged masculinity is a feminised dedication to body image. He must visit tanning salons to keep his body a sunburnt brown, his brittle hair requires constant bleaching and dyeing for consistency. He's chasing his own fiction. The buffed exterior also hides a battered interior. Ram has heart problems, he needs glasses, and occasionally wears a hearing aid. His body is shattered. Joints require tape and pad bolstering, he winces when he stands. His muscles are mostly prop, swelled through a strict regime of chemical injections and supplements. Taking to the woods for a post heart-op jog, Ram can barely manage a trot before shrinking into convulsive panic. The injury extends to his own sense of self, he's unable to think about himself in any terms other than adored. Although charming, he struggles to make and sustain connections. He longs instead for the crowd. He destroys himself for them.

Disaster Year 2008: Fallout 3

Fallout 3 tracks the complete lifetime of a messianic scavenger. Born to a super-scientist in an isolationist underground community, you live your fragile years through a personality snatch best-of reel. Stats and physical make-up sliders finished with, your adult doll stumbles out of its relative safety bubble into what's left of Washington DC. You'll have the outline of an individual, attributes and attitude established through rationed skill points, but nothing indelible. Your task is to craft a personality through experience. Alone in a hostile wasteland, what will you do to survive? Who will you help? Who will you kill? Players are offered a bare thread of narrative, tracking a wayward father, but there's no hurry. There are ramshackle communities of brutalised loners to discover. Get pally and they'll offer distraction tasks that get you exploring. These missions teach you to be patient and methodical, instructing you in the basic tools of post-apocalyptic survival. Those avenues exhausted, it's up to you to create and discover your own adventure. It can be about helping to bring a sustainable water source to what's left of civilisation if you choose. It can equally be about butchering and cannibalising those weaker than you. It's up to you. It's your hell.

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Disaster Year 2008: Beyoncé - Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)

Disaster Year 2007: No Country for Old Men

A great many thrillers are undone by a pervasive buffoonery, characters are routinely intellectually slighted in service to the needs of an advancing narrative. There's an idea that it's inadvisable to make your characters islands of forthright capability as it might upset some of the dimmer bulbs out there. Better to follow formula. Usually these calculative oversights are compensated for with explosive spectacle. The audience is harassed into forgetfulness, their attention led away from the lapse in believability by something exciting.

Not so No Country for Old Men. You could argue that having Josh Brolin's Llewelyn Moss return to a scene of slaughter with water for an afflicted is a cheat, facilitating as it does the central pursuit thread, but it's an action based on a kinder, more emotionally human instinct. His pangs of reflective conscience separate him from his terrifying enemy, a spectre man named Chigurh, played by Javier Bardem, who entertains catastrophic 'principles'. Moss has Chigurh's money, so Chigurh follows Moss. Both are cagey and self-sufficient. They are also accomplished trackers, able to posit solutions and counter-solutions to problems. They share a reluctance to seek any outside help or comfort, maintaining their shattering bodies with improvised medical care and destructive sleight of hand. So successful are they that they barely meet. Instead they delicately circle, picking at each other's worlds.

Disaster Year 2007: Crackdown

Power fantasy video games broadly emphasise environmental and psychological disconnects; players are typically cast as lone adventurers who relentlessly come into conflict with their surroundings. Sand box games exacerbate this feeling: it's you against an entire city calibrated to your undoing. Crackdown starts you out as an abilities heightened human, tasked with droning about your city dispensing jack-booting justice. You have an assigned arsenal, bolstered by arms seizures, and a fleet of cars back at the base, all the better to battle entrenched gangsters.

Experience and floating pick-ups eventually raise your abilities far beyond the mortal realm, to a point were you barely need equipping. You are now the weapon. At peak you can leap tens of feet vertically and horizontally, your territory now in the sky. Landscapes are transformed from street level grime to skyscraping loneliness. Battling with criminals begins to seem less vital, they can be thwarted in brief, hopping blitzkriegs. Your interest shifts to exploring and testing the upper limits of your character's physicality. Can I make that jump? Can I get to the top of that building? This agenda break also emphasises the condition of your assigned doll, a blank slate super-soldier unwillingly locked into reward tasks and undaunted by morality. You don't explore your super-identity by crushing inferiors, you deconstruct it through escape.

Thursday, 24 December 2009

Disaster Year 2006: Children of Men

Based on a PD James novel, Alfonso Caurón's Children of Men believably portrays a certain kind of society shuffling towards extinction. The human race has been sterile for nearly two decades, affecting a worldwide mindset of total nihilism. Eye-catch news snatches shorthand a variety of global catastrophe, including a throbbing mushroom cloud on the New York skyline. The only country apparently left functioning is mainland Britain, which has devolved into a muddled fascist extermination state.

The frame crowds with rotting cages and temporary internment facilities, full of depressed peoples in the process of liquidation. Wake-up newscasts are preceded by chummy infomercial ads for government issued suicide pills. Grasping terror cells bomb cafés for anti-establishment lip-service. Something terrible has happened in Liverpool. The British populace sleepwalks through the misery, crowding their desks with vile trinkets, and blubbing about celebrity deaths. It's a post-apocalyptic Blitz spirit tempered with an acute emotional repression, and pigheaded inflexibility. Everybody still shuffles into their awful cubicled workplace; despite Bexhill's transformation into a smoking death camp, capital nights are still spent down the pub. While the rest of the world has exited in a rationalised orgy of self-immolation, this country stockpiles works of art and worries if there will be anybody left to appreciate them. Britain maintains. Children of Men is bold and telling where the Wachowski's anaemic adaptation of V for Vendetta, issued the same year, is simply puny.

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Disaster Year 2006: Earth Defence Force 2017

Earth Defence Force 2017
is a crack compulsive shooter from budget developer Sandlot. You take control of a slender, androgynous suicide soldier, the only chap (or chapette) with chops enough to halt an avalanche of rampaging space aliens. All pulp flavoured sci-war enemy archetypes are present and correct: insects, robots, hubcap craft, and stomping radiation beasts. All massive. All aggressive. Players get to trample the lot with a spiralling arms race facilitated by captured, flat, tech pick-ups. Weapons run the gamut from small, useless welding torches to sub-nuclear screen wipers. The higher the difficulty, the better the technology. Your hero is aided throughout by teams of endlessly enthusiastic CPU troopers that chant slogan and die at a brush. Cities crumble at the slightest barrage, nearly everything on-screen can be destroyed. Better still, you are never penalised for this destruction. As long as you make it, everything else is extraneous. There are no stealth interludes or enforced use of form lugging vehicles. If allies die, it's their hard cheese. Earth Defence Force 2017 is simply fifty plus levels of enemy blasting. As pure as Space Invaders.

Disaster Year 2006: Gnarls Barkley - Crazy

Single cut recall tainted by endless rotation on Jamster ringtone shills? Rediscover Gnarls Barkley's Crazy in this slow, mournful arrangement. As seen on the BBC's since extinct Top of the Pops franchiser.

Disaster Year 2005: A History of Violence

In A History of Violence, David Cronenberg toys with a variety of male empowerment fantasises, finding them ultimately incompatible with a functional human identity. Viggo Mortensen's Tom Stall becomes a local celebrity when he expertly demolishes a couple of stick-up killers attempting to rob his diner. Elsewhere, emboldened by his father's aggression, Jack Stall savagely beats his lunk-headed, high school tormentors. Both acts bypass any sense of catharsis for the perpetrator, instead leading to further complication. Jack's fight back lands him a school suspension and a vague threat of legal action. Tom's fallout is much worse. His violence catches the attention of a Philly mobster convinced that Stall senior is actually a lapsed Irish gangster.

In both cases Cronenberg and screenwriter Josh Olsen examine the transformative nature of brutality. Jack feels both empowered and eventually revolted by what he is capable of, tracing the instinct to damage back to his father. Violence is an alien reaction to him, so he attempts to reject it. In contrast Tom slowly changes into another person. As his situation becomes more desperate another persona begins to emerge - the criminal identity he discarded. Mortensen's eyes fix into a lizard stare, his movements become measured and slow. He appears to be reverting into a prowling, cautious beast. Even his sexuality distorts. Previously a befuddled submissive, Stall becomes a forceful stairwell sport fucker. Unlike a great majority of formulaic action cinema, this mutation is not positioned as a healthy male ideal. Instead it is a destructive obstacle that must be overcome before Tom can realign with his family.

Monday, 21 December 2009

Disaster Year 2005: Resident Evil 4

No escape! From the get-go, Resident Evil 4 locks you into a survivalist think pattern. Early progress sees you stumble into a psychotically aggressive township brimming with scrabbling sickle swipers, and sack-head chainsaw brawn. Immediately cast as an interloper, players must scramble in and out houses, setting up temporary defences in an effort to survive this onslaught. Your foes are no longer stumbling, un-thinking zombies, they're a directed mob, in the thrall of diseased cult. Enemies doggedly pursue the player, smashing through windows and doors in an effort to destroy the invader, progress dictated by where your attackers aren't. The soundtrack thunders with a melody of clashing metals and panic shrieks as you desperately micro-manage the dregs of your ammo.

If Resident Evil 4 was simply this experience, it'd be worth a year end position, but it's not. Survive the village, and you can journey into an inquisition castle full of mangonel armed Omega Man zealots; you'll plunge into a rotting industrial space prowled by a Fincher draft biomech; you'll pick through a lab haunted by indestructible, reconstituted flesh shapes. You'll ride a mine cart, harpoon a sea monster, phone-in chopper support. More, more, more. Resident Evil 4 is constantly throwing new information at the player. Ever evolving locations bleed into each other. Enemy types are reconfigured, rearmed, then recalibrated before being pushed aside for something deadlier. Injury feedback on enemies cues context sensitive hurt animations. Your menu chest heaves with currency and upgradable weapons. It even gifts you an escort character that can keep herself out of trouble. Resident Evil 4 is a relentless procession of fun. A game stuffed to bursting with form mutating ideas, onion peel area secrets, and unending alarm. Disaster Year's game of the decade.

Sunday, 20 December 2009

Disaster Year 2005: The Chemical Brothers - Galvanize

Disaster Year 2004: The Incredibles

Bob Parr is a former superhero slumming it in the suburbs thanks to an ungrateful public. Every day he squeezes himself into a satirically small vehicle and commutes to and from an awful cubicle farm. His evenings are spent gazing into the middle distance, ignoring his family, and dreaming of the past. His only remaining connection to a hero identity is the odd night spent listening to a Police scanner with a former super-colleague.

Parr yearns for his past life, although not as an alternative to his new role as a provider. He loves his family, and delights in his children's fledgling abilities. His wife Helen, formerly Elastigirl, has adapted well to normal life, causing Parr to further subsume and conceal his discomfort. Rather than a middle-aged virility tantrum, Parr's longing is more about the knowledge that he has a very special gift but is unable to use it. In his current position he is completely unable to help people. It torments him.

The first act of The Incredibles is suffused with an almost overpowering sense of sadness. The denial is destroying Parr. His hair is lank, his eyes pitted, and gut hanging. In the absence of heroics, Parr has taken a position at an insurance company, a body ostensibly tasked with comfort. Instead it is ruled by a vicious grey lump who worries about his shareholders' margins, and slanders Parr for his instinct to help.

Salvation eventually arrives not in escape, but sharing his dreams and aspirations with his family. They become a unit, each member's skill-set complimenting the other. The Incredibles is the most emotionally sincere examination of costumed adventuring in a functional human context. Writer / Director Brad Bird is able to compliment the usual Pixar wonder with a craft honed after years of service on heyday The Simpsons. The Parrs are much more than zippy cartoon facsimiles, like their Springfield set antecedents, they're a rounded, believable group of people.

Monday, 14 December 2009

Disaster Year 2004: Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater

For the third game in the Metal Gear Solid saga, series director Hideo Kojima shifted focus off millennial subterfuge, winding the clock back to a 60s set inception event. Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater details the super soldier souring that facilitated a dreadful future. Players are cast as Naked Snake, the CIA trained secret agent that goes on to found a couple of psychotic paramilitary nations, and provide the raw code for his clone son Solid Snake.

Equipment skews lo-fi, forcing a more deliberately paced advance - sites and clearings must be ruthlessly scouted before proceeding. The jungle stranded Snake also requires a constant upkeep. He must be fed to keep his motors running; sweets and mythological delicacies offer the greatest boost, but positive tastings can be developed through repetition. Any wounds Snake acquires must be swiftly dealt with. A bandage isn't enough, injuries must be stitched and disinfected before dressing. This menu heavy micro-management instills a protective player-toy bond. It stresses the physical frailty of the Snake figure, whilst the narrative drives him into ever more dangerous situations. It also establishes a sense of human failing in a character previously portrayed as an archetypal bad father. This sympathy deepened by the constant betrayals Snake must shoulder. As Naked Snake limps to the finish you realise there was method in his madness.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Disaster Year 2004: Graham Coxon - Freakin' Out

Disaster Year 2003: Oldboy

An oafish salaryman is abducted and imprisoned in a facsimile living space. His indifferent captors offer no explanation, or sentence. For the next fifteen years Oh Dae-su's light is bulb sourced, food a perpetual fried take away, and his sleep cycle maintained with Valium gas. Suicide attempts are swiftly thwarted; all he can do is box the walls and think on what dreadful thing landed him there. Garon Tsuchiya and Nobuaki Minegishi's manga, from which this is adapted, posits the confinement as a necessary step to realising a new hyper-masculine identity.

On page, Oh Dae-su becomes a stoic mensch in the Golgo 13 mold; a brawn totem who beds and broods. Park Chan-wook's film retains the muscle memory training, but allows his lead to unravel. The incarceration dismantles Oh Dae-su, stripping him back to something venal. Aggravated repetition has reconstructed him as a prowling beast, possessed of considerable violence. This dominant, animalistic persona proves useful when thugging his way closer to the parties who stole his life, but can it readapt to less base drives? Choi Min-sik's Oh Dae-su is a queasy centre in Oldboy. His revenge is characterised not by equaliser triumph, but rather an instinctive necessity. A reason is the only thing that can make sense of the existential demolition perpetrated on him. It's the only real drive he has left. Complicating this further is a constant prickling fear that he actually deserves what happened to him.

Saturday, 12 December 2009

Disaster Year 2003: R-Type Final

Video games very rarely ever deal with the idea of consequences. Enemies are slaughtered, landscapes altered, all the player can do is zip off to blitz somewhere else. Not so R-Type Final; it plots a course through the ruin. Mechanically Final is a sidescroll shooter, a primitive, almost inception video game form in which a lone player battles a vast armada of foes. Final dials down the sense of invasive scale, instead positing limping dregs as challenge, and tight-fit geography as peril. Whilst players rarely ever have to dodge screen swamp bullet deluges, they do have to methodically pick their way through destitute battleships and hammered outposts. You're not resisting an onslaught, you're chasing the survivors, annihilating what's left of the fleeing invasion force. The rout takes you through a wheezing field hospital into space, where a final encounter with an amorphous techno-biology can mutate you into something horrific: a being that cannot stop fighting and doesn't distinguish between friend or foe.

Disaster Year 2003: Dizzee Rascal - Fix Up, Look Sharp


Disaster Year 2002: Blade II

Guillermo del Toro's Blade II ditches the sophisticated, European inflections usually tied up with Vampire lore. Sexual corruption is replaced with a physiological compromise that recalibrates the corrupted as a feral sub-strain called Reapers. The opponent vampires of Blade II are a scuttling infestation, man-high plague rats agitating for a fix of blood. This undead underclass isn't interested in creeping seduction; they have no use for genitalia. They don't want to fuck, they just want to feast.

Del Toro's adjustments make sense of a folklore mainstay that typically makes prey of man, whilst coveting our romantic messiness. A predator should be a predator. A lion doesn't, in any recognisable way, empathise with an antelope. Why should a Vampire? Del Toro delights in his new species, their grotesque life cycle laid bare. Their barbed, flowering protrusions are given hero shots, backs crack and ooze as filtration systems erupt during feeding. There's even an exposition slanted autopsy sequence that roots around the peculiarities of this insect efficient mutant. Blade II gave us all that and still found enough time to allow Wesley Snipes to deliver an incredible, stalled suplex.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Disaster Year 2002: Grand Theft Auto: Vice City

Rockstar North followed up Grand Theft Auto 3 with obscene speed, producing this pastel accented summer holiday. In contrast to Liberty City's docksider sprawl, Vice City is all beaches, high-rise spring-ups, and neon smog burns. The update adds missile speed motorcycles; a variety of aviatables; and a massive shipment of hysteria weaponry. Missions are structured a little looser too, players can catch a cab ride straight back into action should they fail. It doesn't quite provide the much needed checkpoints, but it's a gesture. All this topped off with a caricatured 80s time-frame that firmly locks this title in an Americana wonderland, reconfigured out of Dundee kid deconstructions of import television and scuzzy gangster epics.

Grand Theft Auto: Vice City
is also the only, to date, installment to be rooted around a central celebrity appearance. Ray Liotta stars as Tommy Vercetti, a venomously aspirational thug clashing with his surroundings. Little effort is extended to disprove the notion that you are playing as Henry Hill vacationing in De Palma land. This doesn't work as a disconnect though, Vice City's tone is consistently referential. The game more an escalating TV stunt playset spectacular than a tome serious criminality muddle. Everything geared towards fun and sweaty excess. Players scheme and plunder with their Liotta doll to secure bankable real estate, then kick back and collect the vig. The allowance quickly rolls in, offering easier access to the bigger toys. Vice City is the boozy spend-thrift entry, dizzy from an unexpected windfall, and generous to a fault.

Monday, 7 December 2009

Disaster Year 2002: Beck - Lonesome Tears

Always a sucka for soaring melancholia. Dim them lights, close them eyes.

Disaster Year 2001: The Royal Tenenbaums

A roustabout pappy attempts to weasel his way back into his family's affections after years of neglect. Gene Hackman's Royal is a blunt force curmudgeon, possessed of a lank, sozzled grandeur. Inappropriate comments stream off his tongue. His children are a gaggle of overripe proteges, each having floundered somewhere along the way to becoming an adult. The film opens with each child, now grown, having a mini-meltdown before returning to their picture book family house to seek refuge. The world's hostile; they're not special anymore.

Flanked by embassies, the building is a vast, roomy headspace brimming with trophies and cupboards full of boardgames. It's the kind of dwelling that demands watercolour diagrams and a fold-out cross-section. Wes Anderson's mise en scene does a fair facsimile, asides are packed with bold Futura font legend that functions as information and punchlines. No snarks though. The Royal Tenenbaums keeps it tender. The characters are swept along on their adventure by a mixture of Vince Guaraldi's Peanuts Jazz, and invasion punk poppers. Sweet when it needs to be, brutal when it doesn't. A film for people who, on occasion, miss being valued for having a robust vocabulary, or being able to read at speed.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Disaster Year 2001: Devil May Cry

Begun as a Resident Evil entry, with a combat system based on Onimusha bug findings, Devil May Cry defied its derivative origins to become a charter example of the extreme combat sub-genre. Devil May Cry is at once a then-gen nitro remix of Biohazard spook-mansions, the sole successful 3D update of Castlevania explores, and a riveting recalibration of abandoned side-scroll tick jab gameplay. The game features multiple swing weapon disciplines, each staffed with a assortment of unlock special actions, as well as ever escalating lead shooters.

What makes Devil May Cry so exciting is that your armaments never become irrelevant. There's always a new way to use them; danger foes can conceal unforeseen weakness to an action you've all but discarded. Everything you acquire has a specific function, and used correctly can whittle mob health in seconds. Devil May Cry's combat system enjoys the kind of depth usually only seen in impenetrable frame-count fight sims. It's fun though. The hero, Dante, is a smart mouth upstart. Endemic genre stoicism discarded for pure glee whoops, and chatty eye-rolls on Boss re-encounters. Distraction side quests provide tasks that get you thinking about how to push the limits of your moveset. There's even a super-identity trip to the Fantasy Zone that sees a seething Space Harrier Dante chasing after a marbled Father God, interact tuned to on-rails blaster. A wonderful game.

Disaster Year 2001: Super Furry Animals - Juxtapozed with U

Who can resist a friendly robot commiserating with his human pal over escalating house prices?

Disaster Year 2000: Battle Royale

The last complete film by Kinji Fukasaku, based on a novel by Koushun Takami. A class outing for problematic teens is hijacked by the government to serve as the latest victims of the Millennial Educational Reform Act. Pupils are tagged with explosive collars, armed, and cast out onto a deserted island where they must fight until only one is left. This action is categorised as a last ditch attempt to keep order in a country apparently ravaged by teenage delinquency following an economic meltdown.

Modelled on the director's own bleak teenage experience working in a World War II munitions factory, Battle Royale displays a profound mistrust of adults. Fukasaku's sympathies lie firmly with the children. The grown ups in Battle Royale are damaged and ineffectual, prioritising their own needs over their offspring's, creating what they believe is a savage generation. Rather than modify their own behaviour they create a blunt force lottery to scare the young into compliance. In contrast to adult perception, the children here are a meek, romantic assortment, disinclined to violence. Alliances are formed, and uneasy but functioning communities established. The tournament is revealed as a sham, needing to draft psychopaths in order to ratchet up the body count.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Disaster Year 2000: Marvel vs Capcom 2

Attention grab deaths. Wild power fluctuations. Endless interfering cross-overs. Being a superhero is absurd. More so if you're a supervillain. Fixed in a constant orbit, doomed to replay the same scenarios; victims of half thought-out universe statistics, and magpie readers with perpetually waning interest. This is the condition of the modern big two superpower, an unlikely basis for an interactive cash-in, but reflected perfectly in Capcom's royal rumble. This fourth stab at franchise collision sees Marvel vs Capcom 2 shed any real sense of restraint. Simplified control system aside, the game is tuned big, awash with screen filling death beams and impossible mid-air jab gymnastics. Players chose from a roster of 56 fighters, selecting three for snap-in tag team fun.

Little effort is required to provide a rolling illusion of extreme superplay, characters are assigned a bleed-in skillset, allowing attack chains that frequently stumble into the hundreds. Expert play though is a seizure spam of jump-in assists that somehow never stagger gameplay. Frame counts memorised, and constant calculations made to take better advantage of any punishable missteps. Marginalised characters can shine, page snatch abilities given foe trumping supremacy thanks to a keen desire to keep the game vaguely balanced. Everyone gets their moment, reigniting fan interest, and weaving a brief insight into the priority concerns of duelling super abilities. Marvel vs Capcom 2 represents a successful marriage of western iconography, and post-Z chakra hysteria. Marvel's characters filtered through melodramatic Japanese hero ideals, and the world's finest pugilism template.

Disaster Year 2000: Radiohead - Idioteque

The later half of my 2000 was spent floundering around in a different city occasionally attending university. Inflexible essay deadlines meant many late nights bleeding into bewildered days. In particular, I remember bumbling around a park on my way to hand something off with Radiohead's bleak beats buzzing around inside my head. I felt nauseous and swamped; effects accentuated by the sharp indistinct shrieks you tend to pick up on when you're running on empty.

2000 - 2009

As we enter the last month of the decade, a look back on just the last year seemed inadequate. Instead, I've opted to select a few favourites from each year, getting a relevant embed or noodle up. Expect three categories: Film, Video Game and Music. Hopefully one of each for every appropriate year. Enjoy!

Monday, 30 November 2009

Turtles Forever

Produced to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise, 4Kids Entertainment's feature length reality bender Turtles Forever unites a variety of disparate character incarnations, chiefly 1987's toyline supplement pizza chompers, and 4Kids' own iris free snarlers. These two Turtle groups collide when a madcap dimension hop goes awry, forcing the groups to puzzle through a caper together. There's comedy identity clash as each team struggles to understand the other.

The 80s Turtles derive from a universe that plays by explicitly juvenile rules. Universe pals enjoy regularly scheduled rescues from rampaging mutant food, and impossible techno-solutions can be whipped up on the fly. In contrast, the 2000s model exist in a state heavily indebted to Batman: The Animated Series, and sundry dubbed Japanese serials. Their universe has ongoing plot threads, and kid safe shake-ups. Turtles Forever toys with a rolling sense of agitated desperation as the 'serious' Turtles strain to make sense of their merchandised counterparts, and the power their universe bleed technology allows a competent, contemporary adversary. Even their location as the gruffer alternative is challenged when the two groups wind up in their monochrome inception universe. Immediately categorised as trespassers, the animation Turtles are swiftly battered by motion drafts of the original Eastman and Laird sociopath troupe.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Watchmen: The Ultimate Cut

A compromised pirate themed draft of that bloodied, iconic smiley; key art that proudly and inaccurately boasts 'The Complete Story'; a four disc added-value Blu-Ray box set heaving with various re-edits and flash glide stagings of the original Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons text. It must be the holiday season. Compiled from various antiquated straight-to-market shelf fillers, the juice in this US only set is yet another version of Zack Snyder's feature. This newly compiled 215 minute print of Watchmen finds further time to digress, widening its sphere of interests to include street level news vendor chatter, and a drifting meta-text.

The animated Tales of the Black Freighter movie has been woven into the feature, mostly in isolation. We aren't treated to Gerard Butler voicing bleak, situationally specific introspections over pre-Giuliani New York. Instead the segments are chaptered into the feature on downtime, usually jumping off from a trip to the newsstand. Bleed-in is minimal, the only non-diegetic intrusion comes from an agitated Silk Spectre II, apparently urging the circling Freighter to wind down a little quicker to allow her a character moment. This brief dialogue intrusion highlights something of a tonal mismatch. The inclusion of this animated Freighter adds another less intended layer of deconstruction. Butler rabidly racing through largely undoctored Moore text is an excitement way out of most of live action cast's range. Disappointing then, but not completely without merit.

While for much of the duration the Freighter segments only obliquely contrast the main movie narrative - they tend instead to operate on a pitch black comedic agenda - a place is found for the pitiless conclusion. Inserted immediately prior to Ozymandias' big reveal, the fate of the mariner neatly undercuts any test audience tinkering in the main feature. In this context, the Black Freighter interludes are explicitly and retroactively positioned as Adrian Veidt's unconscious noodling on his mission, granting the character a head-space he is denied elsewhere. Freighter drains Veidt's 'victory' of even the barest sense of triumph, giving the film's conclusion some much needed mutation. The discovery of Rorschach's diary at the right-wing rag headquarters now plays less like a gag, and more like it did in the original comic: a tiny cog springing to life in a deliberate, unknowable machine. The use here of Freighter falls short of Moore and Gibbons' weaving multi-lead commentary, but it does patch a nagging hole in Snyder's interpretation. As ultimate a cut as we're likely to get.

Sunday, 22 November 2009


Jack Hill's 1973 avenger movie Coffy adds credence to the idea that you can reap a thematic windfall by substituting a woman into a typically masculine role. Pam Grier is Coffy, an emergency room nurse driven psychotic by the corruption of her much younger sister. Coffy opens with Grier playacting as a strung out trick, using her whiles to honey trap a local smack peddler. Registering her complaint with a sawn-off, Coffy drifts back to her life, never quite reconnecting with either her job or her politician sugar daddy. A brief dalliance with a childhood sweetheart turned cop arms Coffy with a paper trail of corruption that takes in pimps, the mob and even City Hall. Deciding her best weapon is her looks, Coffy poses as a prostitute, using her sexuality to get close to her intended targets.

Coffy drives the narrative, she's endlessly capable and on-the-fly calculating. Coffy works with a kind of mechanical disconnection for much of the duration, operating under the sincere deduction that men will put themselves in ruinous situations to posses her. She feigns the kind of fragile femininity typified in low-rent action flicks, then confounds that assumed weakness with improvised maximum violence. Naturally, this revenge is framed within the constraints of attention grabbing, cheapy cinema - you're never more than a couple of minutes away from a day player's torn blouse, or a feature disrobing from Grier. The film has its cake, and shotguns it. Hill and Grier play with the idea of belonging and women needing a place. Coffy has a comfortable, aspirational life, but a deeper underlying need for a social justice. This brings her into conflict with all the established facets of her life. The climax sees Coffy reject material comfort and standing to pursue her own desires, wandering off into the night rootless and damaged, but morally uncorrupted.

Thursday, 19 November 2009


You don't expect an immediate twinge of objective doubt when booting up Namco's 1982 vertical scroll shooter Xevious, but that's exactly what you get. It's the behaviour of the opening waves of alien craft that give pause. These tiny schools of flying saucer drift towards the player, investigating your sudden zip-fighter appearance. The hubcap packs waft about lazily before noticing you're prick hard and ready for war. In the face of your relentless screen climb, the saucers bank rapidly, lurching away in a sharp, fearful peel. They never attack. Mechanically these enemies are tutorial drones allowing you to get your eye in against non-aggressors before the shooting back starts, but there's an underlying disquiet in their pacifist prodding, and your conditioned response to damage. Rather than protecting the Earth against shuffling invaders, Xevious seems to cast you as the trespasser. Armed with a Solvalou gunship, you've leapt into enemy territory and begun blasting commuters. The uniformly green landscape, and only spotted infrastructure seems to suggest you're bombarding an agricultural outpost. In Xevious you're not assaulting a techno-nightmare war base, you're simply severing supply lines.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

"Keep the rest for your time."

That plus 99 more all-killer, no-filler lines from HBO's peerless The Wire. If you ain't viewed series, expect spoils.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Commons Warfare

Keith Vaz: The Minister will be aware that at midnight a new and violent video game, “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare”, is to be released. It contains scenes of such brutality that even the manufacturers have put warnings in the game telling people how they can skip particular scenes. Given the recommendations of the Byron review, specifically paragraphs 32 and 33, what steps do the Government propose to take to ensure that such violent games do not fall into the hands of children and young people? This is not about censorship—it is about protecting our children.

Mr. Simon: The clearest recommendation of the Byron review is that content suitable for adults should be labelled and sold as such, and that it should be an offence to sell such content to children. That is the case under current law and it will be the case when the law changes under the digital economy Bill. The game to which my right hon. Friend refers is certificate 18 and should not be sold to children. The Government’s job is to ensure that what adults should be able to get is clearly labelled, and that children are not in danger of being subjected to adult content.

Mr. Tom Watson (West Bromwich, East) (Lab): I have seen the content of the video game. It is unpleasant, although no worse than in many films and books. The game carries a content warning. It is an 18-plus game, and carries the British Board of Film Classification 18-plus rating as well. Does the Minister agree that it would be better for Members of the House to support the many thousands of game designers and coders, and the many millions of game users, rather than collaborating with the Daily Mail to create moral panic over the use of video games?

Mr. Simon: I was in Dundee last week visiting the video games industry, and I certainly agree that it is a large and important industry in which we have a national competitive advantage. It is important that all Members of the House and the Government continue to support it.

A curt rebuttal to Mr Vaz's Commons raised concerns over the release of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. Complete transcript available here.

Thursday, 12 November 2009


DVD cover art for the Criterion Collection issue of Matteo Garrone's Gomorrah. Disc details here.

Monday, 9 November 2009

An Evening with Gay Tony

Spend a little time away from Grand Theft Auto 4 and you forget how to play it. An extended breather unlearns all the ticks and tricks you've amassed to cope with a control system that at its worst feels like mindless corralling. Your car spins out wildly when you attempt corners at speed. The jumble between movement and cover gets you shot in enclosed space. Helicopters often feel completely uncontrollable. This disconnect is more pronounced than ever in latest side-quest Grand Theft Auto: The Ballad of Gay Tony. For this installment Rockstar North have decided to include a post-mission breakdown screen that rates and ranks your progress: You didn't do it quick enough. You didn't know to adhere to invisible objectives. You didn't do it first time. Your aim wasn't consistent. You didn't even try and shoot them in the head! It's not enough to scrape through missions now, your method is under scrutiny. By God I resent this! If you want to start cataloguing a player's interact deficiencies, you'd better give them a solid, flexible, interface to begin with. A steady stream of relevant (but skippable) tutorial information would be preferable. It'd be nice if you give players chasing tiny speedboats in a suicidal helicopter at least a taste of a reticule. And if you're going to insert helpful checkpoints, I think it only fair to restore weapon sets and health to the value users reached said markers at. In short, the fault had better lie with them.

Conan the Destroyer

Ditching the Milius flick's brooding Nietzschean menace, Conan the Destroyer instead hitches its wagon to stunt cast action figures, and aimless, yuk-yuk sidekicks. Pitched squarely at kiddy crowd simplicity, this re-packaged franchise jump-off was toned down considerably pre-release to land a US PG certificate. Not that you'd know watching the film. Cannibal's decapitated heads soar weightlessly when swiped, umpteen extras are bloodily eviscerated, and all manner of beasts are punched, pushed, and brutalised. The UK DVD still carries a 15 certificate today, despite judicious snipping to the film's endless scenes of animal tripping.

Between films, Schwarzenegger's Conan seems to have misplaced his calculating mind, devolving into a reactionary muscle man. Destroyer pitches him as a cautious savage, adept at rending regular folk but reluctant to engage with the dark knowledge of wizards. Didn't Conan the Barbarian end with the Cimmerian toppling an entire occult nation? You'd think him emboldened. Contracted by the grubby royal line that has moved in to fill the snake cult power vacuum, Conan must accompany a bratty, virginal princess on a journey to reclaim a God-artifact. Saddled with an excess of people, Conan sets off on the rob. On the way they run into Grace Jones' Zula, a yelping blood-debt bandit who strays after them and isn't given anything to do. Journey's end involves Andre the Giant in a turd brown, Carlo Rambaldi designed swamp-suit selling for Schwarzenegger.

Saturday, 7 November 2009

Jay-Z featuring Alicia Keys - Empire State of Mind

Quantum of Solace (Video Game)

The title's a misnomer; this interact adapt is far more concerned with leading players through unseen action brackets in the Casino Royale storyline than allow play-act insight into Quantum of Solace's murky revenge narrative. Upfront, you get a few bare Quantum paths, before the game delves deep into flashback territory. On release, expectation for Quantum of Solace: The Video Game was unusually high. Bond has a fair video game pedigree, mainly thanks to the N64's peerless GoldenEye, and developers Treyarch had Infinity Ward's Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare engine to mess about with. The imagination brimmed with ideas of a polished spy-kit shooter, perhaps informed by the black-ops patter that made Modern Warfare sing.

The result, no doubt thanks to inflexible licence paymaster and a satirically short production window, is more like a product push redraft of Namco's on-rails shooter Time Crisis, with Daniel Craig's 007 as the aspiration item. Perspective shifts constantly. First person is used for iron-sighting, and third person for defence snaps. Jab buttons near the ubiquitous cover, and context drifts outside the eyeline, allowing the player to gaze upon Craig, and his relationship to surroundings. The mechanic ticks two boxes: Gears of War's land seizure gameplay is referenced for the magpies, and Craig becomes visible without excessively compromising the point and blast genre stylings. Shame it's such an uninspired affair.

A simulacra of Craig's Bond drifts aimlessly along preordained paths mucking in on sequences that bare no relation to on-screen action. Break stealth and the boring backroom levels swarm with faceless, arcade bold suicide shooters. Time to bog yourself down in cover and fire blind. A neat summation of this game's flaws would be the trailing of the Alex Dimitrios character. In the film Bond weaves in and out of Gunther von Hagens' Body Worlds, the raw exhibit figures providing a garishly fragile contrast to 007's blue-lit machine movement. Were Treyarch inclined to just import a poise shredding shoot-out into this situation, you'd have a startling centrepiece. Instead, action shifts to a nondescript science centre, full of barely breakable techno-nothings.

Bad Dog

Tease shill for IO Interactive's Kane & Lynch sequel. First game implied a playable Michael Mann flick, delivering instead a stodgy re-start shooter that asked for flamboyance, whilst stranding the user with stealth-health and a contrary cover system. We shan't even mention IO's utter failure to tap into Mann's particular brand of rootless masculinity. Poor show! For this follow-up, IO are promising little more than fleeing naked men being savaged by attack dogs. Now that's an achievable remit!

Friday, 6 November 2009

Pulp - Tomorrow Never Dies

Pulp's rejected 007 theme. This gem later shored up under the pre-misfaxed film title Tomorrow Never Lies as a B-Side to Help The Aged, then in a rough mix on the Deluxe mint of This Is Hardcore, where it finally got to die. That guitar noodling gets right in my head.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Monday, 2 November 2009


Nothing nets you a Gradius style sidescrolling shooter; in the fringes of the upper atmosphere your finger piloted spacecraft bobs about whilst you trace targets around polite formation enemies. Prod a destination and your craft will shoot a missile at it. The joy of iPhone freebie SPACE DEADBEEF is firing off a glut of deadly ordnance at these player marked destinations. Mindlessly carpeting an area in laser, as you do in most horizontal shooters, is fun, but getting to actually select a terminus point feels rather novel. It's a simplistic, but effective design flourish, virtually impossible on any other platform. Deadbeef's heat-seeking excess also recalls Treasure's pixel overload puzzle shooter Bakuretsu Muteki Bangaioh (distributed as Bangai-O in Europe), a game brimming with the same targeting pauses and screen filling feedback. Delight holds just as long as the enemies remain reluctant to fire back, once combat intensifies the game asks your one finger input to juggle movement as well as aiming. It's an inelegant set-up frustrated by your craft's tendency to drift in the direction of your frenzied target stabbing. As a teaser though, Space Deadbeef has you rooting for more from creator Yuji Yasuhara and publisher IDP.

Paranormal Activity

Supposedly found footage tweaked and streamlined into a feature isn't a new idea, Cannibal Holocaust and The Blair Witch Project both presented documentary style assemblies of last transmissions. Those films though were about people journeying into a lawless wilderness to find terror, interlopers out of their depth messing with forces they misunderstand. Paranormal Activity instead anchors its scares in a notionally safe domestic environment. This haunted house is completely atypical. Architecturally it is spaciously modern, bordering on prefab, filled with big screen televisions and boasting an outdoor paddling pool. Rather than hobble any potential disquiet, this decision accentuates it. If you're not safe here, in a place entirely too new to boast a spooked past, where can you be safe?

Director / Screenwriter Oren Pali even goes one further, staging the majority of the disturbed action whilst the haunted couple sleep. How more helpless can a person possibly be? For the most part Paranormal Activity elegantly teases at this idea, the couple's CCTV set-up urging the apparition to act in increasingly outrageous ways. There's even a sub-thread that implies one half of the duo has a vested financial interest in the horror escalating, thus smoothing some of the mounting daftness. Paranormal Activity only really disappoints when it explicitly dips into referencing like-minded cinema, thankfully it's a short burst of disconnect quickly resolved. Several different endings exist for Paranormal Activity, the version currently playing with the theatrical release has origins in a series of notes suggested by Steven Spielberg when his company DreamWorks picked the film up for distribution. This conclusion plays conventional, bordering on cynical, especially with sequel rumours flying about. It implies a new horror-identity ripe for further adventures. Much more fitting is the hopeless sting that crowns Pali's 2007 DVD screener edit. That ending speaks to an incalculable mindset that makes games out of misery.

Sunday, 1 November 2009


Between bonus gripes, a crew of grumpy space truckers stumble across what appears to be a distress signal. After a traumatic landing a small team wander out to find the source, inadvertently bringing back an aggressive, mutating infection. The title character of Alien is a curious creation, worlds away from the huffing, invincible clods that typically clog up sci-fi anxiety yarns. 

Designed by surrealist painter HR Giger and played by seven foot plus Bolaji Badejo, the alien is a bio-mechanical agitator blessed with snaking limbs and a camouflage naturally attuned to industrial spaces. The science officer of the besieged ship categorises the beast as the son of the astronaut it births from. This throwaway dialogue frames the monster in the most interesting way - the creature is not wholly alien, it is instead a hybrid that has been calibrated to human dimensions.

The creature even seems to operate with basic hunter-gatherer procreation instincts. It instantly brutalises all the male crew members it encounters. Conversely, it finds the females fascinating. It pores over the women, savouring a proximity to them. Lambert's death in particular seems to be about a grim kind of enchantment. The androgynous alien looms over the shrinking Navigator, excitedly hooking its stinger tail between her legs. Desperate, but apparently unable to rape her, the alien instead skewers its intended. 

This savage survive mind attracts a sense of fraternity in programmed snitch Ash, another bio-mechanoid, this time designed by humans and acting in secret on behalf of evil corporate paymasters. When interim leader Ripley gets wind of the crew's company mandated expendability, Ash attacks her with a rolled-up porno magazine, attempting to force it down her throat. Like the Xenomorph, Ash is another neutered half-man scrambling for a penis substitute. This is the horror of Alien. Death and consumption seem like secondary concerns when you're being considered by a violent extraterrestrial sexuality.

Friday, 30 October 2009


Happy Hallowe'en! After last year's double bill of sweaty illogic, I think a skew in the direction of bleak realist is in order. Embedded for your existential horror is Alan Clarke's 1989 the Troubles short Elephant. Partly based on actual police reporting, and the brainchild of then producer Danny Boyle, Elephant dispassionately tracks eighteen sectarian murders. The removal of any political or ideological agenda stumps justification, it's just killing. Likewise, no reasoning is ever offered, instead you get ethereal Steadicams zoning like an accomplice. This being a BBC production, and given their increased presence on YouTube, you'd figure they'd want to shout it from the rafters that they used to produce thought provoking mind splinters like this? Not a bit of it! This was uploaded by a fan under a misspelled name.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

More is Moor

Gameplay hype for BioShock 2. For this follow-up, 2K Marin have gone for hysterical sequel inflation. Case in point? The original's vaguely believable cobble-guns remodeled as bitchin' steampunker artillery, including an obligatory chaingun. Enemy designs look culled from the early design document rejections detailed in prequel tie-in artbook BioShock: Breaking the Mold. Can't really blame Marin for picking over leftovers, a lot of those barmy character drafts had mileage. It's a regression though. In Breaking the Mold, Robb Waters had this to say on BioShock's foe cast:

"(We) decided that we didn't want this to be another Doom sorta thing. We wanted our characters to not be zombies and not be monsters, but be these unique humans that were kinda screwed up. They weren't zombies, and you could sorta empathize with them. They retain their humanity, because that's a much scarier notion than just a big monster."

2K Marin's lore contribution? Rot-faced lunatics! Hulking tank men! Death-match gameplay! Still, you're not going to sell on the boring bits are you? Before this all gets too snide, I want to point out that the flooded areas look splendid, like a baroque snowglobe, and the taunting overseer voice hits on a nice little meta-truism for seek and destroy mold video games. Looks like the lithe Big Sister enemy is a constant nuisance too, shades of Claire's story from Resident Evil 2 then. Quite right! If you're going to steal, steal from the best.