Friday, 27 May 2011

Favourite Films on Fridays: #30, Return of The Jedi

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Toys.

There's an accusation often levelled at Star Wars, especially in its latter incarnations, that the films are just big toy adverts. Meanwhile, there are people whose main relationship with Star Wars is the toys, to insane extents.

I'd argue: that's the joy of the Star Wars films. Backgrounds can be filled with one-off character designs. Unnamed things: squid-faced guards, furry spider-monsters, women you can't quite put your finger on what's odd about them...

It's why so many people have relationships with Star Wars that extend far beyond the six hours of cinema it comprises. Why there's such a craving for stories set in its universe. Why Star Wars dominated the imaginations of kids on playground three decades after it came out. Why there's a toy of Bossk the reptilian bounty hunter who appears in Empire for approximately three seconds, and why people collect them.

...That's what I reckon, anyway.

By sheer quantity of stuff, Star Wars manages to feel immediately lived-in. Not everything is of equal quality, and there's no definitive aesthetic (look at the devil-man from New Hope for evidence of that). But's that's how the world is, right?

And so Bossk ends up with not only a name, and a species (Trandoshan), but a fleshed-out language (Dosh) that provides the meaning of his name ('Devours His Prey', which seems a little on the nose, frankly) and a full history. All from a quick glance.

This is perfect for those who want to escape, to hide in a world. What our, real world would cruelly label 'geeks'. There's so much crammed in that you're practically invited to find your own niche in this long-ago, far-away universe. The films obviously predates Wikipedia, but they feel like they were designed for each other. Each snapshot glimpse practically begs to be filled in.

For me, however, they remain more pleasing as teases, encouraging your imagination to do the rest. I've been there, in my adolescence: awkward-sideburn-deep in dusty encyclopedias of a fictional historical world. But these days, I just don't want to know: Boba Fett escaping the stomach of the Sarlaac (which, by the way, had just undergone a painful divorce), to be the last remaining piece of his cloned-thin DNA in the universe undermines some of the power of the character for me now.

Maybe it was the difficult lessons taught by the prequels, and pop-culture that took its cues from these films, stuff like Lost. Maybe it was just growing up. But I appreciate that the detail is there, even if it's just to give my lobes a little tickle with each new, surprising piece of sensory overload. And I won't begrudge anyone whatever they want to get from it either.
FFoF30ReturnoftheJedi
(...Unless they're Geoff, of course.

Incidentally, I realised I talked about the trilogy as a whole here, and in fact explicitly referred to the other two films. There's so much other stuff which is great about this film - the speed and physicality of the action sequences, the instant iconic power of certain moments, great trashy dialogue... But you know all that already, surely, and besides, it's impossible to think of the trilogy as separate entities nowadays. Return of The Jedi is just the zenith of all this for me. Consider the Ewok, my friend. Consider the Ewok.)

Friday, 20 May 2011

Favourite Films on Friday: #31, From Dusk Till Dawn

#31
So we all know how a Tarantino film goes, right? It’s something like this. A couple of tough guys commit some crimes, and they’re bad dudes – like, real bad motor-scooters – but you start to love them anyway, because they’re talking about all this stuff you know.

And it opens exactly like that. A long, drawn-out conversation between a guy behind a till and a cop, full of mundane stuff and stylised swearing, while the Gecko brothers there – the guys farming this film’s melons – provide the underlying tension. They’re in the back, and they’ve got guns, and hostages, okay?

So even when the tension inevitably releases itself, and the cop gets a bullet through the back of his Stetson, it remains comfortable territory. This is what you put down your pounds, dollar, yen, or currency of choice down for, right?

Except that From Dusk Till Dawn isn’t just a Tarantino film. A trademark bare foot marks, with its delicately wiggling toes, exactly where that territory ends…

(Anyone who has never watched the film, and intends to, stop reading. Now. Buy, rent, download. We’ll still be here when you get back.)

Because this is a Rodriguez joint too. He’s the director, after all. And, nearly an hour and over halfway into the film, Dusk Till Dawn totally flips genres about with a single nudity-filled, mariachi-soundtracked scene.

The mariachi band start playing on guitars made of human meat, and the topless girls turn into grotesque vampires. Cue over-the-top violence, b-movie make-up monsters, and Tom Savini with a cannon for a penis.

The surprise makes the change-over deeply, darkly hilarious. It’s the perfect punchline to a long shaggy dog story of a joke, and from here on the film is armed with shotgun/baseball bat crucifixes, condoms full of holy water and cheesy one-liners.

Pleasant is a strange word to use, but it’s one of the most pleasant shocks in cinema, and one that, in a perfect world, I’d preserve for future generations. I’ve spent many an hour with my lovely girlfriend arguing the merits of my refusal to ever read those blurbs on the back of books that tell you roughly what the story’s going to be. Dusk Till Dawn is the perfect example for my side. The effect of both halves would be negated if you knew what was coming.

Because you don’t (hopefully, and if you’ve read this without watching, you’ve only got yourself to blame), the second half of Dusk Till Dawn turns – ta-da! - into something all its own, equal parts black comedy and survival horror. There’s a line to be drawn between it and Tarantino/Rodriquez’s other cinematic collaboration, Grindhouse, also a film of two parts: one distinctively QT, another more on RR’s turf. But this feels more organic, and does it in one single film. In a much shorter timeframe, using the same characters, you get two equally pleasing, entirely distinct films.

To steal one of the ideas those two threw around during the promotion of Grindhouse: From Dusk Till Dawn is incredible value for money. Two flicks in one, okay?

FFoF32DuskTillDawn

Don't Take It Personally, Babe, It Just Ain't Your Story

...That's not even one of my silly pop-quoting titles, by the way. That's the genuine title of the game.

Game being a word I have to use advisedly here. There's not much of your traditional videogame about DTIPBIJAYS. There's little player agency, no competition, no moving around and - to stereotype a little - no violence.

So, if you're one of those people who tends not to read my gaming posts, please don't disregard this game. (I'm resisting the term 'visual novel' because it is both silly and possibly even more off-putting.) Equally, most game-orientated types, not much of what I'm about to tell you is going to tickle your usual pleasure zones. Both of you, stick with me.

Because DTI-- let's just call it ...Ain't Your Story, mmkay? -- looks like this:
LIKE THE FILM!
Right, let's get this out of the way:
  • Yes, this is a game where you just read dialogue for a couple of hours.
  • It is illustrated in, not even anime, but manga style. It is not animated, in any sense that matters.
  • It is essentially a soap opera revolving around the romantic life of a bunch of sixteen year old schoolkids.
You're placed as a new teacher who has fallen into the job; a self-doubter, both in his skills as a provider of education and the appropriateness of his dealings with the small group students in his charge. And people who know me personally might be able to see where I climbed onboard here. For those who don't: today is my final day as a trainee teacher, working in the same school I grew up in. Ain't Your Story feels particularly close to real life for me.

It is, however, a sci-fi story: the game is set about ten years in the future, and it's hinted that books are essentially obsolete. Students' ever-increasing devotion to electronic distractions means the school you work at is offering you the power to monitor all of the students' social networking interactions. You're given access through the game's menus to their various wall comments, profile pics and private messages.

You have to spy on these kids' interactions to advance the game, and it gets ...unprofessional very quickly. In some cases, directly involving you. I don't want to ruin what I consider to be the strongest plot-thread, scroll down to the big pastel-coloured blocks to get past the spoilers.
...Not touching kids?
In my many, many discussions on exactly what makes teacher/student relations so inappropriate this year, the point has been raised repeatedly that it's not necessarily the age gap but rather the necessary hierarchy that exists. It's an abuse of power.

Never more so than you when your students' private conversations are yours to read at your leisure.

So, you know seduction is coming, long before it happens. Not through some fuzzy intuition - dread or excitement - but because you've seen the messages where one girl asked another for advice, and declared just how she is going to come onto you.

The game doesn't try to influence you morally, the character can bend both ways, but it is pretty fully horrifying. It ends in an awkward, clumsy attempt at a seduction, that just reminds you of the youthfulness of the character. But there's temptation there too, mixed in with the pity and the shame, and it's echoed in the teacher character's narration.
The union of a hippopotamus and a tyrannosaur.
Well, quite. The writing isn't exactly afraid to cut close to the bone, either. As the inevitable moral choice approaches, as she squeezes your hand and you gear up your rejection, there's a bit of brilliantly uncomfortable honesty. I'm embarassed to say it, so I'll just quote directly:
"She smiles sweetly at me, getting ready to confess to me ... with her short dress, with her surprisingly deep eyes, with her unsubtle flirting, with her delicate grip ... I realise, in spite of myself, I'm becoming just a bit hard."
It's not exactly the kind of thing you'd want to be caught playing this on a park bench.

But it's not explotaitive. It's honest, for the character and the situation (it does help here, death of the author be damned, that the game is penned by a woman). And it helps sell the choice you have to make next: Will you or won't you?

(And me? What do you take me for? Some kind of pervert? But the truth is, saying no made me feel good. It made me feel like a real gentleman, of unwavering moral calibre. I can't help feeling that's kind of worse.)

Copy + Pastel
...So that's Virtue #1: the Realism. The dialogue is convincing, down to the narration of your character's mind, and the characters work. It quickly tangles you up in the small machinations of these peoples' lives, and the plot is deeply compelling. The interactivity might be limited but most decisions had me squeezing my eyes tight and thinking, in a way that all the kill-the-puppy/save-the-orphan 'moral choices' that we've seen in every game for the last ten years have never managed.

What separates it from being a slightly-interactive soap opera is Virtue #2: the Post-Modernisms. The metafiction, once you start to notice it, is everywhere.

Which, given the concept, is probably inevitable. The game is presented as if on your character's iPad-style device: the menu screens are neatly integrated alongside the students' Facebook-esque social network. But there's also 12Channel, a 4Chan riff which plays with and teases the game itself. Its first "lol porn" response (in a self-reflexive discussion about a slightly dodgy-looking visual novel) helps put any worries about the game at ease.
lolporn
It also justifies a little why a game ostensibly set in America is so Japanese-styled. Like the rest of the game, it's just communicating in a way native to the geekier (sorry, otaku-ier) corners of the internet. This is a game, after all, which features at least one Belle Airing. The language of this culture leaks into even the spoken dialogue: expect a lot of lols, omgs, and desperate squinting whilst you backwards-engineer acronyms to their meaning. Just like talking to real teenagers.

Which adds to the realism, but also sets up all sorts of crazy meta stuff. The game cut out at a pivotal moment, and my computer blue-screened and restarted. Ain't Your Story is the kind of game where I spent a good five minutes convinced it was all a clever ploy.

And for anyone who doesn't know what meta-textuality is, your character is conveniently an English teacher (who previously worked as a computer technician, neatly bringing together the two halves of Ain't Your Story). Eventually, the students give a presentation about foreshadowing and spoilers that both foreshadows and spoils (not only this game but referring to the twist of Christina Love's previous, Digital, too).

It all gets a bit too much by the end, without really going anywhere new, but its high moments elevate the game. Even Ain't Your Story's title is a great big wink at the audience, and being such an audacious bit of naming it sticks in the mind. It's the perfect title, capturing most of the game's character in a single sentence (something I have entirely failed to do).
This isn't as bad as it looks...
But, like the title, there's also a bit too much of Ain't Your Story. Each section is centred around one of your students. There are seven of them, and they're a little difficult to tell apart visually, partially down to the androgynous art style and partially down to the inconsistency between their presentation in the classroom and profile pictures. (All of which is perfectly fitting, actually.) Their stories cover the full range of teenage issues that you'd expect, but this means some of them are predictable, and having to do it seven times means some repetition and flat notes.

I'm hesitant to pick any holes in Ain't Your Story. I don't know how much my demographic crosses over with it, really, and I realise we're on a tightrope here. I can't guarantee you'll like it; nor can you. It's not like anything else you'll have played, most likely. And isn't that enough of a justification to give it a go? You might love it. Better still, you might hate it.

You can get the game here, for a princely sum of £0 (≈$0). If you do, please let me know what you think. Even if it's just to tell me I'm a big girl's blouse, or a perv. Especially if.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

The Incredible Inflating Head of Alex Spencer: Disney-Colo(u)red Death

I had a list of dreams for 2011 that I made in the early months of this year. Amongst them were making some money whilst dressed in my bunny onesie, and writing for the Escapist, a games-orientated website showing the breadth and quality that games writing can, and should, consist of...

So that's two birds with one stone, then.

Prediction: this image alone will be enough to make about 10% of readers' throats tighten.

Disney-Colo(u)red Death is me taking a look at Bambi, The Lion King and Up and their tear-the-still-beating-heart-from-your-chest moments, and then applying any patterns I spot to the world of videogames. The title is theirs, not mine (which were all as long and unwieldy as emo album track titles), and much better for it.

It's also my first ever piece of professional journalism. As first times go, it could be a lot, lot worse.

Friday, 13 May 2011

Favourite Films on Friday: #32, Wall-E

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There’s a point, about ten minutes into Wall-E, where you begin to suspect that Pixar are just showing off. The most successful producer of kids’ films at that moment, and their new film opens with sweeping shots across an abandoned Earth, then cityscapes devoid of life and dominated by towers of compacted waste. A lengthy opening sequences featuring almost no speech, and soundtracked by songs from a 50 year old musical. The only dialogue is delivered by a live-action Fred Willard from the past, with animation representing the present. The protagonist himself is mute. His facial features consist entirely of a pair of shuttered binoculars.
...And this is Pixar, so of course it works perfectly.
With tilts of those binoculars and raising of the shutters, Wall-E is one of the most expressive characters in … I was going to say in animation, but unless you’ve got Robert Downey Jr’s face, it’s probably fair to say in cinema. The bleak future is presented effortlessly
When considering any Pixar film, considering the company that produced it seems inevitable. It’s a stop we’re going to be making another few times before this is done, so I’ll get all that out of the way now:
The Pixar legacy is the most casual miracle in modern pop-culture. They’ve been casually throwing out classics that are accessible to anyone and rewatchable for years. You know that, of course. But with the lineage potentially in danger this very summer, it’s worth baldly stating just how magical this is. It’s been like a second Christmas, an event as dependably annual and – probably more dependable, in fact. I can guarantee you’ve had a disappointing Christmas more recently than you’ve seen a disappointing Pixar film (...2006, probably).
That Wall-E doesn’t capture the beginning’s mad spirit, the filmmaker-let-loose feeling, again in the second half is a weakness. But that’s because it’s so easy to take for granted the classic Pixar story that’s left once the ambition of the opening has been jettisoned.
What’s left is hardly charmless or simplistic. It’s a sweet love story between two mostly mute robots, with a satirical backdrop, that also manages to be a thrilling adventure story. Then there’s the beautiful contrast between the analogue Wall-E and the other digital technology: it’s all a bit ‘I’m a Mac’/‘I’m a PC’. And then that translates into plot’s story of liberation and revolution, with people – and robots – exploring beyond the narrow glowing single path set out for them. All that in the less ambitious half of the film, the half that’s generally considered weaker.
It should be surprising. But it’s done so casually, so easily, that you just accept it. After all, this is Pixar.
FFoF32WallE

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

The Lovefilm Files: 100-Word Reviews

It's time for my yearly Lovefilm 3-month subscription. As a rule, I'll play more new (and newish) console games over this period than the entire rest of the year. So let's take a look at what I've got out at the moment, shall we? And why not do it in perfectly-formed, exactly-100-word chunks?
WARNING: Combat Equipment May Spontaneously Combust
Battlefield: Bad Company 2
looks like a Modern Warfare clone and kinda-sorta is… until you blow your first wall down. That big irrepressible grin carries you to the point where destroying buildings feels natural and tactical. But it makes awful choices, especially in the unlocks system. Rewarding more experienced players by boosting their abilities is counter-intuitive enough. But depriving classes of key equipment? (It takes two hours playing medic before you’re allowed medkits). Madness. I’m right on the cusp of greatly enjoying it, and can't help but feel it's me doing something wrong. But isn't that the first sign of an abusive relationship?

More like PanOH-YEAH
Just Cause 2
proves you only need two things to make a game compelling: an interesting setting, and an interesting way of getting around it. The latter is most obvious: you can grapple, skydive and parachute around with comedically ridiculous ease. But Panau is possibly the greater achievement, harking back to the tropical lusciousness of Far Cry and the nooks & crannies of GTA: San Andreas. It could do with more usable stuff hidden around: there's nothing to be found as brilliant as GTA's jetpacks. Nevertheless, it's a deeply satisfying place to explore and then blow up, one fuel depot at a time.

Spider-Men
Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions
is, for a game featuring four different Spider-Men (Vanilla, Teeny, Gritty, Dayglo), surprisingly repetitive. It steals smartly, especially in its stealthy Noir levels which are equal parts Arkham Asylum and Splinter Cell Conviction (working the HUD-minimising features of the latter into its sepia-tone world better than Conviction did). But every level follows the same boss/rubbish minions/boss formula, and making long play sessions exhausting. Most of the pleasure I got out of it were tickles to my geek lobes from seeing the familiar rendered in shiny graphics. For all it borrows from that game, it's as if Arkham Asylum never happened.

Friday, 6 May 2011

Favourite Films on Fridays: #33, Army of Darkness

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Series – or, ick, franchises – aren’t something that are going to make a big dent in this list. I’m not averse to a sequel or two, but it’s rare that I’ll hold two films from the same series in equal regard. Most of the time, you can do everything you want to do in one film, even if it happens to be the fourth one.
…Not Army of Darkness, mind. It’s totally tied to the first two Evil Dead films, going as far as opening with a brief ‘previously on’. (The films are a strange exercise in Russian-doll-ery, given that Dead II starts with sort-of remake of the first film). But it almost ditches the premise of the previous Evil Deads almost entirely.
The last film ended with a huge portal sucking everything into its maw and, where that was a classic cabin-in-the-woods horror comedy, that transported us to a medieval fantasy world, throwing away the setting, all the supporting cast (who were dead anyway, to be fair), and cinematic style of its predecessors.
What it keeps is its greatest single asset: Bruce Campbell as Ash, the chainsaw-armed one-liner-spewing everyman, of the kind that every man wishes they were. The film, on my DVD at least, is presented as Bruce Campbell vs. The Army of Darkness. That’s more of a promise than a title.
And it’s one that’s fully upheld. The Charisma Machine vs. The Forces of Evil. A series of set-pieces, fights between Ash and whatever gets in his way, while the sweeping heroic narrative is distilled into armoury upgrades, generally accompanied by the camera whooshing into a close-up of that face as he delivers another insta-catchphrase.
Army of Darkness is fully aware of the inherent ridiculousness of the action film – one of those upgrade requires Ash to jump and catch the weighty chainsaw-attachment tumbling through the air, only for it to land on his stump – but embraces it, and makes it feel triumphant. Action isn’t a genre that regularly works for me, but it manages the air-punching moments that people come to those films for on a remarkably regular basis.
All of which is tempered with a deep, deep silliness. Sometimes this works against the film a bit – a strong stomach for the Three Stooges is recommended – but mostly it’s funny, in a way that’s so broad it borders on innocent. Except, oh yeah, for all the ultra-violence…
Severed hands fly through the air to slap an old man on the face. Ash peels his face off a hotplate using a spatula. And most of all, blood gushes forth in bright-red fountains. It turns out the physical comedy of slapstick, something else that has never really worked for me, becomes much funnier when you push the violence and bloodshed far enough.
…A lot of which is true of Evil Dead II too, thinking about it. I sure do hope it isn’t on this list and I have to think up a whole new lot of things to say about it…
FFoF33ArmyofDarkness

About Me

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London, United Kingdom
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.