REVIEW: The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

Nolan's back to finish off his Bat trilogy, but does the threequel live up to its predecessors?

REVIEW: The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)

Spidey's back, with Marc Webb's controversial reboot finally swinging into cinemas. Can he justify it?

REVIEW: Rock of Ages (2012)

So, as it turns out, yes, Tom Cruise *can* sing. What more do you want?

REVIEW: Prometheus (2012)

Ridley Scott marks his return to sci-fi with this sort-of-an-Alien-prequel. But does it live up to the hype?

REVIEW: Casa de mi Padre (2012)

Yep. It's all in Spanish. And it's all batshit crazy.

Friday, 30 September 2011

Assassin's Creed: Revelations [Preview]

The Ubisoft developer’s conference which took place on Saturday, September 25th 2011 at Earl’s Court was, to say the least, an inspiring one. Showcasing the next instalment in the Assassin’s Creed series, subtitled Revelations, Ubi developers Brent Ashe and Raphael Lacoste teased an early gameplay sequence whilst also introducing us to the core themes of the game.

This is Ezio Auditore’s pièce de résistance; a closing chapter on the protagonist we’ve spent the past two instalments dealing with. But Revelations also brings back old flame Altair, star of the series’ inception into videogame lore, in a subtle yet ingenious move by Ubisoft. By involving two alternate characters, two highly contrasting milieus are afforded to the player, with exceptional results. It’s a lot more work for Ubisoft’s art directors, but it’s certainly rewarding.

Ezio’s older now - “he’s wiser and more focused,” said Ashe of the returning assassin. “He’s a lot more like Altair now; he never wanted to be an assassin, but now he is and he’s a lot more focused and driven than we saw in the past two games.” Put simply, Ezio’s grown up. And this is, according to Lacoste, partly down to his extensive travels over the years between previous instalment Brotherhood and November’s Revelations - from clothing items he’s collected to more personal changes.

Yes, apparently Ezio’s been on a bit of a soul-searching journey. “He’s been travelling, but it’s not just been a physical journey, it’s also been on a personal level.” Ashe states, suggesting Ezio’s newfound maturity is down to a more enlightened level of thinking. “He’s been looking inside himself and looking back over his life and how it turned out like that.” So Ezio’s back, but it’s not the Ezio we once knew.

To touch upon the gameplay element for a moment; one striking moment during a battle between Ezio and Templar agents sees a ghostly shadow of Altair appear in the foreground, turning and walking away. This connection between the two ancestors of present-day protagonist Desmond is the central theme of Revelations; the game’s story, as per the title, will offer some narrative closure to players after three chapters of mystery and codes, tying up Ezio and Altair’s respective stories. Here’s hoping a full-blown sequel, with new settings and characters, is lined up for 2012/3.

Of course, it’s not just all ‘this happened because of this, these guys are actually the good guys,’ and whatnot. Ezio’s journey might once have been spiritual, but now it’s firmly back in the physical. The game opens in Masyaf, setting of the first Creed game, now doused in whites and greys and blemished with a wintry sleet. Ezio’s looking for a library left behind by Altair; the latter’s legacy, built underneath a fortress high in the mountain reaches. But he finds the place swarming with Templars, and so begins a ferocious battle which sees Ezio felled and captured.

After a narrow escape, we see the aged Italian fleeing in a carriage, pursued in force by Templar agents. Ashe promises the entire sequence will be playable in the final game, but for now it’s a rather lovely cinematic. The lighting and textures have also improved since last year’s Brotherhood, and it’s quite noticeable. Lacoste’s artistic team have developed a huge new sandbox to play in across the Ottoman Empire, from Masyaf to Constantinople, where Revelations eventually takes our vigilante hero.

Ubisoft have also integrated a range of new gameplay mechanics, from a ‘hook blade’ tool that blends combat and navigation - think zip-wires and aerial attacks - to an enhanced Eagle Vision that allows Ezio to see his target’s path. Also new to the Creed series is the ‘bomb factory’; a pouch Ezio carries that allows him to construct his own bombs from various ‘ingredients’ that can either be bought or found (often on corpses). For each bomb, three different factors are decided - type of shell, gunpowder and effect - to assign the weapon into one of three categories; lethal, tactical or diversionary.

Take the Cherry Bomb - a classic diversionary tactic, it’s effectively a grenade thrown to act as a decoy. Of course, one might argue that Assassin’s Creed is straying ever closer to modern weaponry - from Ezio’s projectile firing wrist mechanism in ACII (i.e. his gun) to the grenades and landmines the bomb pouch offers - but the way it’s dressed in the time period, to such great effect, should still keep players completely immersed in the era.

A second spin-off for the Assassin’s Creed series might not be on the priority list for fans of the series, particularly re-using old characters, but its titular promise of answers to some pressing story questions, combined with a refreshing mix of new gameplay elements and beautiful locations, should give players enough to tide them over until the next full blown sequel. For which, by the way, I’d just like to throw out the suggestion of 19th Century Victorian England. Maybe with a brand new female assassin. Anyone?

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy [Review]

Premiering at the 68th Venice International Film Festival around two weeks prior to general release, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was greeted almost instantly with unanimous critical acclaim. Cries of sophistication, intelligence, and an astounding, absorbing experience were bandied around various film institutions; as of this writing, Tinker holds a 97% aggregate on Rotten Tomatoes after thirty five reviews. Just one of those has been negative, which only begs the question: why?

The film revolves around the British secret service in the 1970s; more specifically, the attempts of a forcibly retired spy, one George Smiley (Gary Oldman), to uncover a mole within the organisation, who has been feeding information to the Russians. Thus commences a twisted, vicious web of lies, deceit and corruption; with every other character a suspect, Smiley’s hunt for the perpetrator brings him into conflict with almost the entire supporting cast.

And what a stellar cast that is. Oldman is supported by everyone from John Hurt to Colin Firth in an absolutely outstanding A-List set of actors; a line-up complemented superbly by up-and-coming stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hardy (the latter you may recognise from last year’s Inception and in next year’s Batman flick, The Dark Knight Rises). The performances are all immeasurably British, and really help to capture the feel of Cold-War era England.

Such an atmosphere is furthered still by Alfredson’s stellar direction. Tinker carries style by the barrelful, with murky greys, greens and browns dousing the rain-filled milieu; in essence, it’s everything a typical Brit might imagine when conjuring up images of their homeland. And it only serves to reflect the ambience of the film in general; in a world where no one can be trusted, full of lies and misery, the mise-en-scene of Alfredson’s efforts is a directorial marvel.

It’s a huge shame, then, that Tinker’s strengths end here.

Indeed, what’s clear from Alfredson’s interpretation is that Tinker Tailor was originally adapted as a seven part television series for a reason. All credit to John Le Carré for such an intricately woven web of a tale, but the means to an end that Tinker relies on for its sucker punch are woefully underplayed in Peter Straughan’s subpar script. Should you manage to follow its elaborate, jarring storyboard to the last detail, and correctly assume the identity of the mole, there’s little chance you’ll care. Tinker tries to be complex and ends up convoluted.

Much of this is down to Alfredson failing to allow the plot to develop at a natural pace; much of the film’s opening scenes belong solely to Smiley, yet instead of exposition to the story we’re given montages of his character. This of course allows for development of the protagonist, personifying the film to such an end, but where a plot as complex as that of Le Carré’s is concerned, crammed into a meagre 127 minute screenplay, it might be assumed that more focus should be given on expanding the story. Character development is intrinsic, yes, but Alfredson captures it throughout the film anyway. The slow starting pace of a rushed plot hinders Tinker; indeed, it is precisely this which gives it such a convoluted feel.

In Alfredson’s desire to illuminate such an intelligent plot in little over two hours’ runtime, he manages to almost completely alienate the audience, providing little to engage with. Multiple narrative threads dangle loosely as the credits roll, helped in no manner by yet another montage that seemingly wishes to only give every character, no matter how minor, another couple of seconds of screentime, offering few tied knots.

This hectic wish to complicate things further simply alienates the antagonists; too little exposure is given to the suspects and secondary characters, to the end that when the reveal happens, you’ll be left wondering why you wanted to know in the first place. Tinker boasts style, sophistication and a little substance, but ultimately ends up disengaging, unabsorbing and emotionally defunct.


See also: The Debt (2011)

Dir: Tomas Alfredson
Cast: Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, John Hurt
Studio Canal, 127 mins, 16/09/11

Synopsis: Intelligence has been discovered that suggests a mole in the British secret service. In comes George Smiley (Oldman), an ex-MI6 agent, who narrows down the search to four suspects...

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Final Destination 5 [Review]

The Final Destination series has never been a favourite of mine; indeed, I don’t recall ever having seen the first couple of instalments, instead being introduced through the third. While this threequel managed to allay my preconceptions about the series to an extent, the fourth [and, at the time, supposedly last] instalment, The Final Destination (2009), did far less disservice to such a bias. Now we’re back to the numerical film titles, with a brand new director, and still the Final Destination series slips steadily further into the dark abyss of forgettable cinema.

If you’re new to the series, fear not: the film’s tone is introduced almost immediately through a heavily stylised opening title sequence, which makes ample use of the 3D effects, catapulting plenty of tools of minor destruction at the audience in an attempt to see what sticks. This theme is true of most of the film; indeed, throughout the entire Final Destination series the writers appear to have been throwing things at a wall in such a manner as this analogy, purely in order to stretch further and further the audience’s suspension of disbelief.

What gave the previous films an ounce of credence, defying an often dire range of bland characters - played by an even more forgettable cast - and horribly gaping plot holes or otherwise suspicious plot devices, was the tension created through the often intriguing Rube Goldberg machines that might lead to a character’s untimely (or otherwise) death. The mechanisms were simultaneously nerve-racking yet fascinating, and served to give the Final Destination series a ‘unique selling point’. Final Destination 5 does away yet again with any kind of character development, sports a pitiful cast (replete with seemingly a poor man's Christian Bale in Miles Fisher), has a minimal plot with still too many insane devices, and has now also lost its USP.

Sure, the mechanisms are still there, but it’s clear that the filmmakers are starting to run out of ideas (or they’re just getting lazy). Take a fatality in a factory around the halfway point; a few sparks on a girder and a hook comes tumbling down to impale a union leader. The 3D makes everything a hell of a lot more gruesome, but it’s still nowhere near as complex as has been previously seen. And with the loss of such intricacies, it’s hard to see what the series still has going for it.

To the credit of rookie director Steven Quale and scriptwriter Eric Heisserer, attempts are made at forcing a plot. The recycled themes of premonitions and avoiding death are still present and correct, but now spiced up with a simple premise: kill another, and their ‘years’ on earth become yours. It’s an interesting idea that sparks some plot development towards the end of the film, but through a series of yet more plot holes is ultimately irrelevant.

It seems, then, that aside from some average 3D effects, Final Destination 5 really doesn’t have any strengths after all. And if you’re expecting a ‘nevertheless’, ‘but’, or ‘on the other hand’… well, there isn’t one. The Final Destination series is a ship of tired, lazy themes in a sea of mediocrity, soon to be swept into a whirlpool of forgotten cinematic history. Hopefully to rest for good this time.


See also: Final Destination (2000), The Final Destination (2009)

Dir: Steven Quale
Cast: Nicholas D'Agosto, Emma Bell, Miles Fisher
New Line Cinema, 92 mins, 26/08/11

Synopsis: The fifth instalment of the Final Destination series, and this time a premonition of a collapsing bridge saves eight employees on a team building retreat from certain doom. But Death doesn't like to be cheated... 

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Star Wars Blu-ray edits confirmed by Lucasfilm

George has gone and done it again. After tinkering around with the original trilogy of Star Wars films for their DVD release in 2004 (where, yes, Greedo shot first), Lucasfilm confirmed today that rumours circling the web about further changes to the upcoming Blu-ray release are indeed true. And, much like the original edits with the first DVD releases, these are unlikely to be welcome.

I find myself dismayed at the majority - take the closing scenes of Return of the Jedi. The DVD special editions already had a young Hayden Christensen spliced in as Anakin Skywalker, yet now Lucas has decided to take the destruction of sci-fi's greatest villain one step further.

Following Vader's horribly dramatic "No!" at Revenge of the Sith's closing moments, in anguish at supposedly causing his wife's death, the director has now attached a further (though slightly less emotional) cry to the Dark Lord's redemption upon killing the Emperor. Check out the YouTube video here to witness this crime to cinema for yourself - one of the most powerful moments of the entire saga, as Vader silently observes his master and son, the latter dying by the former's hand, and makes his choice, has been almost destroyed.

There's another audio edit here, when Obi-Wan scares away some sandpeople with some freaky sounds. Though that might be a slight understatement now. It's stretching belief that a man of his age could make such a sound, even for a wise old Jedi.

There's a couple other heinous changes here and there (Ewoks now blink?), but the worst of the rest would probably fall to the replacement of puppet Yoda in Phantom Menace with dafter looking CGI Yoda (see above). That puppet was one of the last strands of continuity with the original films, from the days before CGI controlled the world (or at least Lucasfilm) - even in 1999. But no, even the little green man's been decimated now.

It's about time someone mutinied against George Lucas, and just said 'stop'. I did see one insightful tweet on the subject this morning, though I can't for the life of me remember who it was by (sorry!):

"...the more changes [Lucas] makes, the more I'm led to believe the original films happened by a bizarre accident."

Sums it up nicely, I think. At least give us the original, untouched versions in the special features, Lucasfilm. Or will you be charging extra for that, in a mega, ultra deluxe box set two years from now?

Photo (Yoda): Collider