Friday, 25 February 2011

Favourite Films on Fridays: #43, Wristcutters - A Love Story

Classification #43

Wristcutters is about as obscure as this list has gone, by my reckoning. It might be as obscure as we’re going to dive in the whole list, even. So, naturally, there’s that sense of being in a secret club when you meet someone who likes it. It’s nice, and makes me realise what advantages it might have to be the culture-snob I come off as sometimes.

But while I bathed in this secret-society fun, I hadn’t actually watched Wristcutters since it first came out, half a decade ago, and received the traditional Birmingham one-week run. They should have kicked me out long ago, the Wristcutters Enjoyment Club. Anything more than the strongest moments, quirks and characters had escaped me.

Those include: Eugene, the mad-bastard Russian, letch, and frontman. The black hole under the passenger seat of his car, waiting to suck up unsuspecting sunglasses and tapes. The unique setting…

Oh yeah, the setting. I don’t generally like to synopsise too much but, as I’ve said, Wristcutters is about as obscure a film as this blog has ever touched upon. It’s also perfectly high-concept. The film opens with our nominal hero, Zia, committing suicide. (And if that, as an opening gambit, made you grin, please go and grab a copy of Wristcutters now, this film is 100% for you.) We zip through the aftermath, disinterestedly narrated by Zia, and end up in the toilet of a shabby pizza restaurant.

“Soon after I killed myself, I got a job here at Kamikaze Pizza.”

And that’s all the explanation we’re given. Welcome to the afterlife, for people who committed suicide. Everything’s the same, Zia tells us with a sigh, just a little worse. From here, the film follows his roadtrip across the suicide afterlife with Eugene. It’s a world populated with burnt-out and crashed cars, and soundtracked by musicians who committed suicide, from Joy Division to Nick Drake.

That stuff is all memorable. But what definitely, fully, stuck with me for that time was Gogol Bordello’s Through The Roof ‘n’ Underground, from the soundtrack. It’s a brilliant song, moving from delicate whimsy into a full gypsy-punk stomper, and perfect showcase for the oddities in the crevices of Eugene Hütz’s Ukranian-inflected, somewhat unhinged voice.


…Nevertheless, I’ve never really bothered to listen to anything else by Gogol Bordello. This one song is so tightly bound to the film, my love of it so dependent on their symbiotic relationship, that I’m just not that interested.

Through The Roof… permeates the film, existing as a song by Eugene’s band (from the film, rather than the real-world Eugene’s band, Gogol Bordello). This blurring of lines increases the potency of the song, giving it the feeling of hearing a Sex Bob-omb song at a party, and allows the song to be used throughout, used perfectly.

Eventually, the tape with the song on becomes an important plot device, its safety more treasured and its doom more feared than some of the characters. I mean … Don’t get me wrong. There’s more to the film than just this one song.

Despite being a film which revels in its indie status, from the very first moment, it’s an almost shockingly brilliant fantasy film. It manages a surprising amount of world-building, in its subtle way, within the slender 80-minute running time. It’s inventive, and the world is believable and thorough. But then, after a certain time has passed, the fact that one song remains, soundtracking faint memories? One song. That can be all that matters.

FFoFWristcutters

Friday, 18 February 2011

Favourite Films on Fridays: #44, 24 Hour Party People

Classification #44

24 Hour Party People was never meant to be on this list. When I first put together together the longlist of seventy-or-so films to be pruned down, it was nowhere to be seen. It wasn’t even on the final list, as I wrote the first entry. Why? Because I only watched it in January, having already written and published the first entry. The FFoF project was already out there, with a solid list of forty-nine films ahead of it to chew through.

People have been asking me about the process of making a list this long, that stretches a full year into my own future. Largely this has meant them challenging my hubris (fair enough), and asking: ‘Yeah, but, what if you see something new that becomes your 23rd favourite a film while you’re doing it?’ And I explain my philosophy, that favourite films need time to settle, and give the example that – spoiler! - there are no films from the entirety of last year in the list.

But this is the dirty truth, 2011: I’d sneak it in and you’d never know.

Unless, of course, I decided to use a cheap trick to draw your attention to it. Because, really – and this is the truth that lists like these are never meant to admit, out of fear that it will make them irrelevant – lists like this are arbitrary. My favourite dozen or so films are fairly set, probably for life. But the full list of 50? Is 24 Hour Party People really, exactly, my 44th favourite film, precisely 6 places better than The Wrestler? Of course not.

What its presence here, where it was never supposed to be, actually means is that 24 Hour Party People had a profound enough effect on me to barge its way into the 40s of this list without me even noticing. It might not been able to get away with that in the more ossified strata of the 20s but... With a friendly don’t mind me, lads, it elbowed its way in, in its cheery, brash way, and pushed some other film aside, tumbling with a Wilhelm Scream into the abyss.

The reason it’s here now is down to how the film affected me, post-credits. I noticed how, like the better class of drugs represented within, it changed my mood, speech and the way I walked as I went upstairs, ostensibly to bed: this was, after all, a school night, the first of the year, and I was being responsible.

But 24HPP is not the kind of the film you go straight to sleep after watching. And so I went to my bedroom and started dancing, with an energy and lack of self-consciousness unseen in the most drunken club-night. (There are series of embarrassingly earnest Tweets from the night I watched it, actually, if your inner stalker bends that way.) It was miracle: here was a film which had got me dancing.

Which … what? I should probably talk about the film? Yeah, probably. Okay, the dancing was fitting because of 24 Hour Party People’s subject matter. It tells the story of Manchester’s music scene, from the end of punk to the opening salvos of Britpop. It follows Factory record label/Hacienda club founder Tony Wilson – more accurately, is presented by Tony Wilson, as Coogan’s Wilson spends a lot of the film talking to camera about the events you’re watching – and a supporting cast including the Happy Mondays, and Joy Division/New Order, respectively plus and minus Ian Curtis, whose depiction is a counterpoint to that of Anton Corbijn’s Control. (Note: I am blagging here. I have never watched Control but I have an idea how it goes.)

So: a perfect fit of (subject) matter and manner (of telling). Especially because it wasn’t the film’s music that actually got me dancing. The soundtrack is a fine one, but it was the film’s style, which adapts that ‘Mad-chester’ swagger, that got my feet moving.

There’s just something in the way the film buzzes with energy. The way characters talk and act. The documentary-intrusive shaky cam. The acid-green titles, apparently melting under the heat of sheer projection. The complete lack of pretense in the block-colour backgrounds of car scenes. The tongue firmly in post-modern cheek.

24 Hour Party People is unpretentiously smart and inviting in pulling back the curtain. Tony Wilson treats us like a mate he hasn’t seen for years, jovially pointing out cameos or inaccuracies. It could easily collapse the film, removing the narrative drive, like a writer deflating the notion of any serious canon in his own list, but instead it lends the film a charismatic personality as huge as its subject matter’s music and characters. And as Jules Winnfield puts in it in Pulp Fiction (…on the list? ooh, wouldn’t you like to know): “personality goes a long way”.

Will it work for me? There’s only one way to find out.

FFoF44: 24HourPartyPeople

Thursday, 17 February 2011

That's me in the corner/That's (not) me in the spotlight (A Letter Concerning Halo Reach)

IHeartReach
Dear Bungie,

I am writing to thank you, for one particular part of your recent and in almost all senses admirable game, Halo: Reach. This part was clearly designed with me, Alex Spencer, in mind, and for this personalised service to loyal fans you should be applauded. The Holographic Decoy is, as I imagine you already know, a great big hug to my mind as a gamer.

For people like me, for whom there is no greater gaming pleasure than really, deeply annoying one's friends, this is a beautiful invention. Thankyou for that moment of opponent bafflement when two of me come running at them. Thankyou for this new feather in the sniper's cap, smoking out an enemy with a decoy mindlessly running in their direction, before splitting their skull in twain on the moment they poke it out from cover. Thankyou, most of all, for giving me a way to make my friends chase after an entirely lifeless holographic copy of myself, only to realise, having spent half of their precious ammunition, that it melts away under their pistol-whipping melee attack.

The Holographic Decoy represents nothing less than a sheer one-hundred-percent endorsement of my gaming habits and pleasures. The low-level griefing of friends has found a new tool, tailored and sharpened to its specific, sadistic purpose. For this is a method more destructive than ramming someone's car off the road during a tightly-fought race; more annoying than kicking someone at just the right moment during an otherwise civilised game of Wii Golf. More beautifully, aggravatingly simple than Solium Infernum's Vendetta bartering system, which allowed me to tie rudely-phrased passes at fellow players' mothers to ridiculous demands.

It is an electronic version of me which all of their senses invite them to shoot, but by which they achieve nothing except their own frustration. This is all I have ever asked of you, Bungie, and with Halo: Reach, you have finally delivered. Thankyou.

Yours loyally,
Alex Spencer
xxx
GOTCHA!

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Reach: The Control Wars

IHeartReach
There is a war raging in my household right now. It is not one fought with virtual bullets and soldiers, though they are entangled in the conflict. It is one fought in the physical sphere; in the living room, to be precise. The two sides? Those those who lay praise at the feet of the 'Recon' control-scheme and those who venerate the mighty 'Default'.

It is a series of battles, all fought over the same two-inch strip of white plastic battlefield, the weird hybrid known only as RB - the 'Right Bumper' - placed, between the buttons and triggers from whom it draws its mongrel DNA, on the top right of the Xbox 360 controller.

Every battle begins the same way. In the middle of a particularly tense, especially hard-fought, online game of Halo: Reach, an index finger strays to RB. It is squeezed, the player expecting a triumphant raising of gun-butt to the back of an enemy's head. Instead, their avatar snaps a magazine into the rifle. Meanwhile, their opponent turns round, and places a messy no-scoped sniper round into their visor. The 'seconds until respawn' counter ticks down. "WHAT?!?" comes the inevitable cry. "WHY THE HELL IS RELOAD ON THE BUMPER?!?" This person is a follower of the 'Default' faction.
Just when you thought it was safe to remap the controls...
A particularly tense, especially hard-fought, online game of Halo: Reach. An index finger squeezes RB. They wait for the assault rifle they have been recklessly emptying - into the American 13-year-old who has been aggressively questioning their sexuality all game - to reload. Instead an impotent melee animation plays, gun-butt meeting disinterested air. They crumple to the ground, plasma rounds still hot The 'seconds until respawn' counter ticks meaningfully down. "Fag", quips the 13-year-old. "WHO DID THIS?!?" screams the player. Meet the 'Recon' axis.

Immediately, there is shouting, and cursing of names. Accusations are flung like daggers: did you do this? Did you change my set-up? Any further than this, I am afraid, conversation becomes unrepeatable on this family-friendly blog. The offended player presses 'Start', attempting to pause an ongoing game, while they fiddle with the settings, which only makes things worse for the person they are sharing a screen with.

Treaties have been suggested: Why don't we all agree to use the same control scheme? The response is a unequivocably clear 'No', often accompanied by language more colourful than one imagines hearing in the hallways of the UN building.
WHOOSH!
Here's the thing: controls are personal, as individual as the angle of a computer keyboard or the tuning of guitar. They represent your only way of interacting with this fictional world which exists inside the television screen. With that hindered, the link between you and the world of the game is severed. Personally, I always liked the switch the Halo games made between their second and third installments, taking advantage of the then-new 360 controller. 'Reload' was pushed onto the aforementioned bumper. For Halo 3, this also meant that the weapons wielded in the left or right hand could be reloaded individually with the two bumpers. It was a decision borne out of functional necessity, no doubt, but it felt more magical than that.

You see, by placing all interactions with the guns on the bumpers and triggers, the game created a sort of distinction between the mechanical and the physical. The melee, jump, and change weapon functions were all assigned to the face buttons, colourful and inaccurate, the human inside the armour. The analogue-precision of the triggers and bumpers were saved for the Spartan's primary interaction with the world: blowing things up with military efficiency. It fit in neatly with the Halo universe, which revolves around this dichotomy of precision and gleeful abandon. Dropping people silently from afar with a sniper rifle vs. manically squealing as you pound them in the face and hope for the best.

It helped define the contrast between it and the (clearly inferior but equally fitting) controls of the Call of Duty games, then in the ascendant. That was a messy world of sudden headshots and dirt and blood flecked onto your screen. Halo is a clean-edged world of genetically perfected robo-men doing battle. Reach switched to a more CoDesque control set for its default, but that was nothing less than a flagrant betrayal of the series' roots.
I think I'll take ...this guy's head off.
Those controls were as much part of the series' differences in the admittedly inbred world of first-person-shooters as having a recharging shield, rather than the traditional percentage health of med-packs. Call of Duty 3 had incorporated the more organic approach of red splats obscuring your vision rather than a health-bar. But Halo took that piece of artifice and moulded it into part of the game, a game where you played a man in a suit of armour which granted you extraordinary abilities. Now, with Reach's 'armour ability' toys (jetpack, shield, hologram, etc) assigned to the left bumper, that feeling is augmented.

...Until someone comes and messes with your controls and puts them back to stupid 'Default' mode, that is. And so, the conflict rages on, at home and online. There are websites where 'Default' aficionados scoff at the 'claw grip' necessary to jump and aim at the same time. Which is practical enough, from a utilitarian standpoint and everything, but can't you see how it ruins my fantasy? Can't you just give in?

This post is dedicated to the brave, stubborn men
of St Stephens Road - the Benjamin Edwards, and Geoffrey
Maillards of this world. May their names and uninformed
preferences be forever etched into the face of history.

Monday, 14 February 2011

Scared of Boys: Halo Reach's Singleplayer Campaign

It's Valentine's Day and I'm in love. It's not an entirely healthy relationship, I know, but goddamn it, Halo: Reach makes me feel so good. I present this, the first of a planned series of articles this week on why.

IHeartReach

"30 seconds of fun, over and over again".

And in one fell swoop, Bungie pinned down everything about why their game Halo: Combat Evolved was so deeply addictive and satisfying an experience, leaving games journalists all kicking around with nowt to do. Self-aware as Bungie might have been about Halo's successes, however, they've struggled to fully recapture it. While the multiplayer has retained its initial vitality, growing over the years with the addition of online play, new maps, weapons, and ideas, that's not been so true of the singleplayer campaign mode.

The new mantra for Halo 2 was "Halo 1 on fire going 120 miles per hour through a hospital zone chased by helicopters and ninjas. And the ninjas are all on fire too." Which, incidentally, is not a bad illustration of how over-encumbered the campaign segment of each following iteration has been. It's telling that the last two Halo campaigns have done away with Halo 2's key innovation, dual-wielding two independently-triggered guns, altogether. From the very first, there was a sense of trying to recapture Combat Evolved's singleplayer magic; of faking it under the looming shadow of the Law of Diminishing Returns.

But Halo Reach's singleplayer has stolen that spark back, and breathed new life into playing Halo on yer lonesome.

'Splorin'

A lot of that's in the little things. The Covenant Focus Rifle, for example, neatly solves the problem of tension-creating but hugely frustating enemy snipers by forcing them to keep a consistent, visible beam on that headshot for a few seconds before it drops you. In the multiplayer, that means a more interesting, quirky variant on the standard sniper rifle. In the campaign, it reduces frustration of sudden random deaths without losing any tension.

Mostly, though, it's how streamlined the experience is. Bungie have dispensed with the vast majority of mythology that plagued Halo 3's nonsensical attempt at storytelling, or efforts at experimentalism that proved beyond the ability of ODST. It also ditches the Flood, a brilliantly fresh enemy for one or two levels, but the first thing to come along and undermine Halo's classic balanced formula. What does that leave?

It leaves simplicity. There are plenty of other things I love about Halo campaigns - the satisfying weight of the vehicles, the feeling of genuine responsibility for your marine sidekicks - but ultimately they all weigh down the purity of the core "3o seconds of fun". Looking back fondly on the first Halo, as I often do, it's those wide-open green and blue vistas. The claustrophobia of Flood-infested corridors and Warthog races through linear tunnel systems, even the feeling of getting your hands on the all-powerful Scorpion tank for the first time, just melt away. It was always about those open environments.

Nooks, Crannies.

They're iconically pretty, and provide these peaceful moments where you're presented with a small base of enemies, three or four well-placed Elites and whatever two half-empty weapons you've happened to end up with. And you look at it all and try to work out how to best solve this puzzle you've been handed. These peaceful moment before you run in and watch it all fall apart, are something Bungie have managed to finally restore.

For Reach's greatest asset is one that sounds monumentally lazy: the campaign levels are largely recycled. The arenas where this kind of battle takes place are shared with the multiplayer, or the co-operative Firefight mode. This means they are designed the same way Halo's finest multiplayer maps are: full of explorable nooks and crannies, offering tucked-away weapons, or alternate approaches to the action. Reach's big addition, 'armour abilities' - toys which grant special abilities from jetpacks, shields, and holographic decoys of yourself - manage to genuinely increase your options, as well as streamlining Halo 3's smart but rarely-used similar range of pick-ups.

The whole world is my plaaayground

All of this means there's a unique feeling of being in control of your experience, making battles feel spontaneous, which just isn't available in any sociably multiplayer mode of the game. Playing on your own means that: a) you're not responsible for anyone else, and b) you can set the pace yourself. Trying to find a moment of quiet in Slayer deathmatch, or even playing the campaign alongside a co-op partner who wants to push relentlessly ahead, never offers the same experience.

So you sit on your own in the dark, and eye up the Spire, having already died on your last six attempts at taking it. The Elites have all got powerful-but-short-range plasma cannons, one sniper has tucked himself up at the top, and there are a couple of Hunters there ... and there. You swear softly under your breath. But right before Death #6, you happened upon the spot where the mighty rocket-launcher is hidden. So you look down the scope, empty your last three shells into those Elites over there, hold LB and sprint for your life in the opposite direction. Maybe, just maybe, you'll have the rocket-launcher in your grubby metal-clad paws before they catch up with you...

Simple.

Friday, 11 February 2011

Favourite Films on Fridays: #45, Anchorman

Classification #45
Truthfully? The first time I saw Anchorman, I was disappointed. In the year that had passed since it was first released, it had gathered quite the reputation. And when I watched it, I just couldn't see any of the qualities I'd heard praised. I didn't even laugh that much.

But, here we are: Anchorman is my 45th favourite film of all time, and a contender for the most watched film on this entire list.

How did we get from there to here? It wasn't the film itself, exactly. It was the adoption of its jokes, quotables and - best of all - approach to comedy. It was drunken rewatches and festival-campsite chants. That sense of being in-the-know that I've mentioned hurting my enjoyment of Spinal Tap worked entirely in its favour.

It's notable that the DVD extras and the outtakes over the credits (rarely a source of pleasure in any non-Pixar film) played an equal role in this. 'Great Odin's Raven!' or the Afternoon Delight video hold just as much currency as the best jokes of Anchorman itself.

So could it have been any film? Perhaps. This place could easily be filled by Team America (which is a funnier film, I reckon) or at a stretch Napoleon Dynamite (which is much less funnny, but better crafted, and just odder). All three films dropped at about the right time, 2004, the year I started Sixth Form.

But it was Anchorman my friends adopted, at school, and it was a film that retained its value with new friends met at university. We were immediately speaking the same language. As a film that wholeheartedly celebrates the ridiculous, it immediately enabled that aforementioned attitude to humour. Anchorman gave us license to just try things: say silly stuff and see what gets a laugh.

And this is me accepting that Anchorman and I have probably had our day, like college sweethearts growing off in separate directions. If I was watching Anchorman for the first time now, I'd tire of hearing jokes that had been worn out for me, second-hand. It was a matter of timing, a fling that could never grow into a lifelong relationships.

Those jokes we used to laugh at together have been adopted by the world, in the inevitable flipside of that quotable, gang-forming quality. It's hard to feel in-the-know when 'I love lamp' has 'don't call me Shirley'-level recognition. Nowadays, Anchorman fails the basic litmus test of cool: if your film has been quoted to death on Radio 1, it is dead. After all, who'd want to be in any gang that would have Fearne Cotton as a member?
FFoF45 Anchorman

Thursday, 10 February 2011

"You have tried your best to please everyone/But it just isn't happenin'" - Black Swan

Fluffy!

“The Ultimate Girl Film!” cries Cosmo. Black Swan "will lift your heart"! Five stars, Pick Me Up! "Love. Shoes. Glory."

...But that didn’t happen, did it?

A companion piece to The Wrestler, replacing the ballet of tights and the ring with …well, ballet. The female yin snuggling into that film’s sweaty masculine yang. Out of context, its individual components - female jealousy between performers, powerful male romantic lead with a French accent, dancing - suggest a film as narrow as that of its twin. It could have been so easily read as a ... sigh ... 'chick flick'. But that just doesn't seem to have happened.

Instead, the buzz around Black Swan was tense. People had spoken about coming out shaken, not feeling quite right. When I sat down to watch it, finally, I wasn't being quite sure what I was about to face. That itself is a fist-in-the-air moment of cinematic triumph.

It reminded me that cinema, for me, hasn’t always been quite so safe, so - if I'm being uncharitable - inert an experience as it is now. I used to be, straight-up, a little scared of going to the cinema. We’re not talking about big scary films, here. I mean when I was really young, so largely the family-friendly output of the Disney corporation. It wasn't the films themselves, it was the unknown, having no idea how I'd feel when I emerged from the dark in two hours' time. It's still there, under the surface, and to this day, horror films in cinemas present a boundary to me that, say, an equally scary TV series just doesn’t.

Phwoar, what a crackin' bird.

One way in Black Swan is kind of a chick flick, actually, is its relationship with horror. It’s a genre which is often ignored in the female-demographic stereotype, but almost all the horror-hounds I know are girls. Obviously, it’s non-traditional as horror film. Black Swanis undeniably, unashamedly Art. It invites you talk about it in terms of technique, how excellent Natalie Portman’s performance is and just how precisely constructed it all is, and puzzle over motivations and meanings. Honestly, it’s hard not to fall into language which might be termed ‘pretentious’, and I can feel my film-critic voice coming on as I type this. Sorry.

But it does borrows from the horror genre, using some of its cheap schlocky tricks to make you jump, and diving regularly into body horror. But the film as a horror depends upon expectations, both of the mundane and of high-art, to let all that slip in, under your skin ... and then pulls.

And so a film which never in a thousand years would announce itself as a horror story leads to everyone talking about how weird and shaken it left them feeling. The Wrestler brought out the weepie in its manliest of settings, tears alongside the sweat and blood. Black Swan finds the horror in a dance movie. But tears? Sweat? This isn't the film for those, thank-you very much. It's tight where its older brother was loose; all clean lines, and black and white. The David Bowie to The Wrestler’s Iggy Pop.

The film’s world is constructed from blacks and whites: every location emphasises the two colours, and the camera takes the opportunity to drink it all in. Where monochrome wouldn’t be suitable, or believable, the palette is instead drained of colour, shading everything into grey. It’s not colourless in the way Transformers is, or most post-Gears of War shooters are, but in a way that makes the world feel a little anodyne, stiff, and sexless.

Those come-to-bed-and-die eyes.

This is the world of the beginning of the film. Natalie Portman’s Nina is living an enforced childhood, innocent and absent of corruption or sexuality. This absence casts a looming shadow bigger and blacker than any film saturated with depravity and evil. It’s not quite real. Nina’s mother never slips into the clichéd controlling stage-mother trailers suggested, but her motivations are unclear and not wholly pleasant.

And it’s from here that the shivers creep in, working their way under your skin. The new colours that seep into the film are attractive, but they're dangerous. The basic construction of Nina’s life is a tension between being uncomfortable with the way things are and the stakes of an wide-eyed child being corrupted. You’re not sure which way to pull, for Nina to grow up or for her to remain safe in her bubble.

So: a perfect metaphor for growing up then.

And corrupting influences do enter Nina’s life, of course. You know enough of the story by now, by trailers and osmosis, and what you don’t know it’s best to keep that way. But it’s inevitable that Nina will try to grow up, and that colour will seep in (the clubbing scene being a perfect example of both, its flashing reds and greens like throwing paint directly into your eyeballs). Nature might abhor a vacuum, but nowhere near as much as fiction does.

Those sharp edges never collapse. Black Swan remains to its final moment totally precision-crafted, a perfect mirror. That conclusion seems inescapable: mirrors are everywhere in the film, literally, and permeate its idea metaphorically. But a mirror to what? Increasingly, as the film continues and the mirror is smashed up, everything. It is a mirror reflecting Nina's twin, within the film and its own, The Wrestler, outside of that. The reflection of male and female, that false dichotomy. It reflects Swan Lake, in a way that is entirely obvious once someone points it out. It is a mirror the way performance is a mirror, trying to get your lies close enough to the truth to communicate some grand Truth about the world. And Black Swan's particular set of lies are exactly perfectly picked.

Multiplicity

...So, yeah, sorry, got a little pretentious there. Can't say I never warned you. And, hey, to cheer us all back up, here's a little game:first person to tell me why I chose the title (no Googling, cheaters!) wins themselves a kiss.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Information is Beautiful: Last.fm Tools

MusicCloud
It's not often I put things like this up here (after all, this isn't one of those Tumblrs!), but this was too good to not share. It's a tool which generates graphics of your listening habits, as recorded by last.fm. You're free to pick through and choose a timeframe to produce the most aesthetically pleasing result. All three presented here are from different periods, showing, I think: my top listened artists for the last year, top albums for the last three months, and the genres/tags last.fm has given all the music I've listened to ever.
Covers Band
It made me consider the twin obsessions which it manages to mash together in a deeply satisfying way. Those obsessions being:
loudly presenting my music tastes (see: ever-growing collection of band t-shirts)
and carefully presented stat-porn (see: Bungie.net's salivation-inducing Halo stat-collector).
It also made me think about how carefully I've cultivated my Last.fm account over the years, for largely no reason that I understood, and why a record of what you've listened to might be important, and why you might want to present it to the world, or hide it. It's certainly, provided you don't cheat, an honest record of your records.
ArtistsCloud
This chunk of beauty courtesy of shoxrocks' brilliant Last.Fm tools.

Saturday, 5 February 2011

The Croft Bulletin: 'Guardian of Light' Review

Xbox Live Arcade/PSN downloadable game Lara Croft & The Guardian of Light was one of my favourite games of last year, and something I still haven't played enough of. I've already written one piece (and a quick one-sentence summary) on it, but here's something closer resembling a traditional review:

Sadly, being 2000 years old, Totec didn't get the reference.

Inside every gamer is an addict. That hoarding magpie that wants to grab every shiny trinket and tick every number as far as it’ll go. You might think you’re better than the average World of Warcraft player, Achievement whore or Farmville addict, but everyone has their price. Lara Croft & The Guardian of Light is very possibly the game to teach you that.

The set-up is classic Tomb Raider nonsense. One of Miss Croft’s globe-trotting scavenger hunts lands her in a battle between two ancient Mayan spirits, one evil, one good: Lara’s new 2,000 year-old BFF, Totec. It’s inessential, skippable stuff, but it’s only really there to provide the traditional backdrop of tombs, traps and T-Rexes.

While the plot might just be the same old, the game itself is anything but. It’s telling that they dropped the Tomb Raider moniker along with the usual up-Lara’s-arse cam. That this is a total reinvention is obvious from the moment you lay eyes on Guardian of Light’s old-school isometric perspective. Along with the addition of a RPG-esque inventory, this gives the game shades of classic PC collect-a-thon Diablo. A feeling complemented by levels of full of glistening collectibles and additional challenges. Most challenges are run-of-the-mill: speed-run times and high scores to be beaten, ten collectible skulls in every level. But better are level-specific goals: cross the river without touching the water, or use mines to get a hole-in-one with the huge stone balls that litter the levels.

Combined with sharp replay-inviting levels, inventive gadgets (grappling hooks, remote mines, magic spears that are both weapon and throwable platform) and a brilliant co-op mode (which shares the gadgets between Lara and Totec) every element of Guardian of Light is designed to make sure you come back, again and again. After all, you didn’t quite manage the high score. And all those shiny, shiny trinkets are waiting for you…

Don't falllllllllllllll

Friday, 4 February 2011

Favourite Films on Fridays: #46, Zodiac

Classification #46

Last week I talked about how the opening of The Thing was its weakest moment. My love of Zodiac, a film that before writing this I’d only seen once, rests on the lasting memory of its opening scene. The good Sam Lewis spent a lot of last December talking me round to the idea of pure cinematic joy, the thrill of just watching something ambitious unfold before you, on a huge canvas screen, and it's moments like this that I understand him.

It's a scene that lasts under a a minute, real-time, in a film that runs for one hundred and fifty seven. And in that time it covers a lot of ground.

It's a single tracking shot, framed by the side window of a car, scanning past a row of suburbans homes on July 4th, as fireworks explode overhead. People go about their lives on a series of front lawns, setting off roman candles, having BBQs, or playing with sparklers, as the smooth nothingness of Three Dog Night's Easy To Be Hard washes over you. It's effortless but impressive, featuring clearly meticulous choreography without ever presenting itself as such.

It reminds us that David Fincher is a director deeply interested in stylistic flourishes, while also laying out that it's not going to be like before. Zodiac is the film where Fincher, who got his start directing Madonna videos, more or less drops the style that made him famous in favour of a more subtle approach, pushing the characters and narrative to the fore.

That's captured a few scenes along, in the credit sequence, something Fincher is a little famous for, from Panic Room’s architectural typography, pushing the words themselves against the huge skyscrapers, to Fight Club’s race through the human brain. Zodiac, meanwhile, has tiny, uncapitalised captions in the bottom left of the screen, over an unassuming scene of a father taking his son to school and driving to work. It's just a naturalistic human film, digesting the narratively-similar genre work of Se7en into something more real.

It lays out the world of the film easily, softly, so you're immersed in the era before you've even stopped marvelling at the pretty fireworks. Knowing the context of the film you're about to dive into, it's a sharp contrast, especially when set alongside the very next scene, the sudden murder of two teenage lovers. Without any context, it's just a beautiful piece of cinematic joy.

...Oh, yeah, and then the film continues for another hundred and fifty six minutes, which are mostly brilliant. But, if you're anything like me, your mind is still swimming trying to process the sheer magnificence of that first one.

FFoF46: Zodiac

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Videogames, film, music, comics: feed them into the Alex-Spencer machine and out come neat little articles. Like the ones you're looking at here.