Wednesday, 28 October 2009

[254] Shane Acker Interview

Even though I did not think that 9 was a complete success, it was a great pleasure to speak with Shane Acker, especially hearing him talk about his inspirations, and his approach to the creative process. A good interview, I think.




9, Shane Acker's first feature film, is out this week. Adapted from an award-winning (and Academy Award-nominated) short film from 2005, 9 is a dark, imaginative, dystopic 3D animated film that is full of expressive design and mad bouts of inspiration, as little 'stitchpunk' ragdolls live and survive in a post-apocalyptic world.

I recently had the chance to speak with Acker, about his background in architecture and sculpture, the process of adapting the short into a feature (with the help of producers Tim Burton and Timur Bekmambetov), as well as the processes and influences that go into creating a disinctive, affecting world.


Read the full article here.

[253] 9 (dir. Shane Acker, 2009) Review

I was very torn over this film. Its visual style is incredibly impressive, but the narrative aspect just wasn't up to the challenge, sadly. (Check out the short here.)





What do you expect out of an animated film? Great ideas? Great stories? Quirky characters? Family entertainment? Wholesome messages for the toddlers of today? Wonderful aesthetics? Or a bit of everything? Best to think about this up front, because it will seriously effect your potential enjoyment of 9, the debut feature film from director Shane Acker.

Adapted from his genuinely brilliant Oscar-nominated animated short of the same name,
9 is a film bursting with visual ideas, but completely lacking in the narrative department. Central to the story are little rag-doll creations called stitchpunks, who roam a ruined, post-apocalyptic wasteland brought about by a major war between man and machine.

Over an opening narration, we are introduced to the world, where the 'blind pursuit of technology' cooked up man's downfall. All that is left are the stitchpunks - cute marriages of thread, cloth and metal who speak with the voices of Elijah Wood and Jennifer Connelly - and the Monster, a cat-like machine of bone and cogs.

The film follows the story of #9 (Wood), the youngest of the stitchpunks, who wakes in the workshop of a deceased scientist, and ventures out in the wide world. Along the way, he meets others like him, such as the kindly tinkerer #2 (Martin Landau), and the dopey, big-hearted #5 (John C. Reilly). When it comes to raw visuals and atmosphere through animation and design, Acker creates some wonderful, stunning and chilling work.



Read the full article here.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

[252] MCM Expo, 24th October

It's time for the MCM Expo again! While, last time around, I went as a wide-eyed punter, this time I ventured out to the Excel Centre with 'scoop' hat in tow, under the guise of a hard-nosed journalist. Therefore, the majority of my coverage, thoughts, and reportage, will be going up over at Den of Geek in the near future. However, here are some capsule remarks for the time being.





The MCM is still utterly surreal and strange. As I stepped out of the Press Room, and into the maelstrom, I realised how utterly impossible it is to be fully prepared for the masses of excited cosplayers, and the assembled noises of a thousand squees calling out at once. Although, the surreal-cake must be taken by guest-of-honour Ronny Cox, whose four-piece bluegrass/country band, playing a set in place of a traditional Q&A, completely jarred with the surroundings. Priceless.

Being at the Expo under the pretence of covering it for a geek-y news outlet completely changed my approach. I had to grit my teeth, and ask a few cosplayers to pose for photographs - which brought rise to a whole new feeling of guilt and emotional awkwardness. That said, I was also kept busy by all of the distracting STUFF happening; it was just as teeming as last time, with plenty of games, films, and comics-related malarkey going on. Although, this time I was able to go behind-the-scenes, and take part in some of the press round-table discussions with the guest talent.





The only round-table I took part in was with Idris Elba (famous for playing Stringer Bell in The Wire), who was attending on account of the upcoming film adaptation of Andy Diggle and Jock's The Losers. He's a handsome, suave man in real-life; I was also taken aback by my table-mates, which included BleedingCool's Rich Johnston, Joel Meadows from Tripwire Magazine, and a fellow from Slashfilm. The interview went very well, and will be going up at Den of Geek soon.

However, I felt mightily at home, as previously, in the Comics Village, where I chatted with a handful of wonderful people. I even interviewed a few (stay tuned for that). I'll cut to the chase, with my my (nicely sized) haul from today.





(anti-clockwise from bottom-left)

- We Are Words + Pictures - The Robot EP, from Matthew Sheret and Julia Scheele.
- The Wolfmen, by Dave West and Andy Bloor, published by Accent UK.
- Comic Pie, and Tales from the Crust, by Laura Howell.
- A Friendly Demon, by Alastair Maceachern (who now has a blog!).
- Tozo: The Public Servant 1 + 2, by David O'Connell.
- The Adventures of Ninja Bunny: Blue, by Philip Spence.
- Badger: Then and Now, by Howard Hardiman.
- Grandville, by Bryan Talbot.

Phew, I think that'll do me for a while!

You can check my full photo gallery here; I'll make sure to post links to my further pieces from the MCM Expo, as the articles are published.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

[251] The Men Who Stare At Goats Press Conference Report

The second - and final - report from my two days as an accredited journalist at the London Film Festival is yet another installment of 'Clooney Fest'. This time, he was joined by Grant Heslov, Kevin Spacey and Jon Ronson to talk about The Men Who Stare At Goats.




After the initial barminess that was the Fantastic Mr. Fox press conference, in which the 7-strong panel were mostly snubbed in favour of lead actor George Clooney (with Bill Murray and Wes Anderson making gracious efforts to participate), the conference for Men Who Stare At Goats had a lot to live up to.

From the beginning, though, things were a little weird. In stark contrast to the dignity of the ballroom of the Dorchester Hotel, the Goats conference was held in Screen 5 of the Vue West End, in London's Leicester Square. This set up a bizarre situation of sitting in a cinema seat, staring at real-life actors, in front of a movie screen, while a bank of photographers and film crews (sitting in the audience) are furiously snapping and recording away.

In attendance at this conference were director Grant Heslov, co-star Kevin Spacey, and Jon Ronson, writer of the original non-fiction book upon which the film is based. And Clooney, always Clooney, the black hole for crazy questions and inane stabs at banter from the journos.

But do read on, as there are some enlightening gems about the genesis of the film - and book - among the recurring conference characters and tabloid rag antics. Including an epiphanic moment, in which Spacey and Clooney talk about the cult of celebrity.


Read the full article here.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

[250] Fantastic Mr. Fox (dir. Wes Anderson, 2009) Review

I'm a fan of Wes Anderson, Noah Baumbach and stop-motion animation, so was very surprised to see the three of them collide in an adaptation of a Roald Dahl book that I was certainly read as a child, even if I don't recall much of it as an adult. It's a film worth your time, definitely.




Did you notice? Autumn's here. I know it's hard. We're either sitting in offices, in classrooms, in living rooms, staring at computer screens, or watching Flash Forward with ever diminishing enthusiasm, with the curtains closed and the heating cranked for the first time in months.

But with that acrid stench of collected radiator dust, you're missing the beautiful orange loveliness going on outside (probably). You've just not twigged, you were too busy jostling on the bus, packing on the train, or furiously cycling (always cycling). But here's a tip. If you make one knowing nod to the current season, go and see Fantastic Mr. Fox, Wes Anderson's adaptation of the Roald Dahl children's book.

Fantastic Mr. Fox, from the very beginning, posits itself as a perfectly Autumnal film. It is, at its heart, subtly ambiguous, with neither the sunny optimism of summer films, or the 'chestnuts roasting' sentimentalism of Christmas cinema, instead exhibiting a wistful, roughshod charm, a fascination with nature, and a wry sense of humour.

Key to this aesthetic is the textured, tactile dimension brought to the film by its stop-motion animation, with figures designed by Corpse Bride artisans MacKinnon and Saunders, photographed by Aardman DP Tristan Oliver, and manipulated at London's Three Mills studios. Unlike Tim Burton's 2005 piece, however, Fantastic Mr. Fox isn't polished to perfection. There is a retro, old-fashioned glow to the whole enterprise, giving the film the welcoming air of a big-hearted labour of love.


Read the full article here.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

[249] Fantastic Mr. Fox Press Conference Report

Sometimes you've just got to laugh. The two George Clooney-centric press conferences that I attended last week were definitely sub-par in terms of probing questions and enlightening answers, but they were quite amusing in their own way. So I decided to go with the humorous route with my two reports. Here's the first part of 'Clooney Fest'.



You know, press conferences are usually quite mellow, chilled out affairs. In the past, I've likened them to lectures, intimate (en masse) conversations, and fan-squee love-ins. They're part of the promotional machine, sure, but they are usually firmly focused on the film at hand, as well as the art of filmmaking, the inspiration behind the work, and other cultural-artistic concerns.

In the space of two days, I had the pleasure of attending two press conferences being held at the London Film Festival, for Fantastic Mr. Fox and The Men Who Stare At Goats. No doubt due to the international scope of the festival, and the world-conquering stardom of the lead actor of both films - George Clooney - these conferences were more like entertaining hyperactive, cheeky children. They were bizarre and, for the most part, wholly unenlightening - with some noted journos loudly proclaiming afterwards that they would never attend a press conference again. They might be over-reacting, because it is actually splendid, absurd entertainment (even if it is, in a way, a mockery of their profession).

Below are some of the choice bits of chatter from the Fantastic Mr. Fox press conference - or, as I now tend to call it, Clooney Fest #1 - which was held in the packed-out ballroom of the Dorchester Hotel on London's Park Lane. The impressive panel of guests included writer-director Wes Anderson, and actors Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, Wally Wolodarsky, and Eric Chase Anderson, and beardo-musician Jarvis Cocker. Oh, and that Clooney fellow, who, unsurprisingly, was the magnet for most of the questions.

Luckily, both Clooney and Murray were on top form - with the latter especially flying off the handle at opportune moments.


Read the full article here.

Monday, 19 October 2009

[248] Ubisoft Winter Line-up Preview

Another fun little preview piece, this time from a swanky event put on by Ubisoft at the Future Gallery in London. I had a chance to get to grips with Avatar: The Game, Assassin's Creed II, Splinter Cell: Conviction and Red Steel 2. Check out the piece below.



Pull out the warm coats, winter is almost upon us. But, as you turn up your collar, brace against the wind, and trundle through the sludgy paste of what was once fallen leaves, you can find some comfort in the highly impressive delights coming to home consoles over the next few months. Recently, French gaming behemoths Ubisoft were proudly displaying their tantalising wares in London, and we got to check them out.


Read the full article here.

Friday, 16 October 2009

[247] King of Fighters XII: Coulda Been a Contender

I feel a little sorry for SNK (SNK Playmore, really). They have a couple of very solid, recognisable, cult franchises in their catalogue, yet they seem unable to use them effectively on contemporary platforms. This time last year came Metal Slug 7, a short DS game that showed little innovation, and few thrills for any but the blindly obsessive. More recently, they released King of Fighters XII, the latest in the long-running 2D fighter series. It is not a triumph, for a number of reasons. I've had a chance to kick back with the game a little over the last week or two, so will spill some thoughts from my brain.





One of King of Fighters XII's most immediate design choices is its incredibly stripped back single player mode. The primary mode is a 5 stage 'Time Trial' set-up, with none of the story modes, survival modes or other variants that can be found in other fighting games. The game's central mechanic involves the player picking a team of three characters (not unlike Marvel vs. Capcom 2), and the matches are played out in rounds until the either team of three fighters are defeated. It is certainly a nice spin on the fighting formula, especially from a tactical point of view - and creates some wonderfully triumphant moments, where the one player comes back from the brink of defeat, using their last fighter.

However, there is very little incentive to play. The Time Trial mode can be easily completed in just over 10 minutes, with no unlockable characters or other game-enhancing rewards. Even though it is a cheap design ploy in other games, having unlockables hidden behind 'completing' a story mode with multiple characters invites the player to try different members of the roster. Here, the 22 character strong cast is more overwhelming than inviting.

Which leads me on to my main issue with fighting games (and I count myself as a mild fan of the genre): they're not very accessible. Of course, you can pick up the controller, blindly choose some characters, and button mash to your heart's content - you might actually beat your opponent! - but if you want to get even a small understanding of the intricacies and subtleties of the gameplay, you have to be ready for hours of hard graft, trial and error, and pedantic obsessiveness.

Even with the decades of development and evolution of the genre, fighting games still haven't found a good way to introduce new players other than, well, playing until your fingers bleed. However, King of Fighters XII does itself no favours by lazily printing basic technique instructions in the manual, or by hiding movelists in a pause menu screen (which takes a painstaking number of seconds to load). Street Fighter IV made a bold step by giving new and returning players a helping hand with its Challenge Mode - which taught special attacks and simple combos with on-screen instructions - but even that was somewhat flawed.

If strategy games are computerised board games, then fighters are computerised sports. They cannot be taught by reading books or looking at lists of icons - they need hands-on tutorials. Even then, however, the serious player needs to develop their own instincts, and an on-the-ball familiarity with the mechanics of the game - when to use certain combos, when to block, when to throw, and so on.





Certain games, like Street Fighter, have become so mainstream that their move sets have become part of pop culture knowledge; that 'quarter circle forward + punch', the input for a hadouken fireball, is seen on t-shirts is a fine example. But it's not that King of Fighters XII is a complicated game - in fact, it has less active buttons than Street Fighter IV - it's just that the quirks of its system aren't communicated effectively. The 2D fighting genre, like to a certain extent the platforming genre, is so overshadowed by one franchise, that different games need to telegraph their distinctive aspects to new gamers.

That's where King of Fighters XII slips up. It doesn't invite deep gameplay, unless you're willing to venture online, which is a whole different story. The online space for KOFXII is underpopulated, and prone to obscene bouts of lag. The implementation is flexible, however, with options for winner-stays-on or loser-stays-on tournaments in a room-based set-up, where up to 8 players can hang out, take turns, and spectate. Unfortunately, the lag makes both playing and sitting through games a horrendous chore. So, until I convince someone with patience to spend time with me on the sofa, King of Fighters will most likely gather dust.

It's a shame, because there is a good game in there. It is a much faster game than Street Fighter IV, especially where jumps and dashes are concerned. Quick jumps mean that even the larger characters can cover most of the arena area in a good amount of time, making the fights more dynamic and speedy.

The aspect that the games flaunts the most though, is its HD (meaning both high-def and hand-drawn) 2D graphics. While the character designs and animations are nice, there is a strange, pixellated jaggedness to them, which stands out against the smooth, expressionistic lushness of fighting games like BlazBlue or Battle Fantasia. Also, in comparison with those games, King of Fighters' art style looks a bit generic, even outdated. This is especially seen in other areas of the presentation, from the lazy title screens, to the underwhelming arenas (only 6, one of which is a duplicate), that feature non-sensical, incongruous backgrounds with a few frames of repeated animation.





This makes King of Fighters XII look buggy, incomplete, and clunkily old-fashioned when laid alongside its peers - heck, it doesn't even look that good alongside the fighters now available on Xbox Live Arcade, such as Marvel vs. Capcom 2 and Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix. Apart from a minor spit and polish, it does little to reinvent itself, let alone reinvent its genre.


King of Fighters XII is out now.

- For more details about King of Fighters XII, visit http://kingoffighters12.co.uk/.
- To purchase the Quarter Circle Forward + Punch t-shirt, visit Zazzle.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

[246] WMD (2009), Out This Week

I recently had the chance to see a new, small budget, independent British film called WMD, directed by David Holroyd. It is a politically charged thriller, centered around the infamous 'sexed-up' September Dossier, which claimed that Iraq had been importing uranium from Niger and, most controversially, estimated that Saddam Hussein could ready a WMD attack within 45 minutes. The film takes these real-life political issues, and narrates them through a fictional plot regarding Alex Morgan (Simon Lenagan), a desk officer for MI6, who becomes entangled in the mystery and inconsistency behind the dossier's dubious evidence.





It is a slick, confident film, with narrative flaws that only come with the territory - taking one of the most complicated international scandals of recent history, and burying it in a fictional plot, can only complicate matters further (unlike, say, a documentary on the same topic, or even a straight dramatisation). For the most part, though, the strident political subtext keeps its composure, only rarely straying anywhere near soapbox ranting - but the result is a taut, fish-out-of-water thriller sourced from real life politics, and, where its core issues are concerned, not much more.

However, the real attraction is found in the direction. Holroyd and company decided to go with an ultra-naturalistic approach, that served their realistic theme. The film, as it is played out, is supposed to be a spliced together from footage from hidden cameras, as Morgan is tailed by surveillance agents. The resourcefulness of the production team really shows here, as digital cameras are stored away in coffee shops, office buildings, and cars, or are placed at oblique angles, on adjacent tables, or are carried by shady, out-of-frame agents.





On a mundane level, it is fascinating to simply marvel at the savvy production work, and spot the locations in London, Rome and Berlin that they have brought onside (including the BFI Southbank and, seemingly, a central London Starbucks). On a more thematic, subtextual level, however, it subtly strenghtens the film's impact - creating an alternative narrative of its own, of the criss-crossing cameras, and of the tapped wires. It helps not only to fix the viewier in Alex's world, but it also creates a tense air, never letting go of the fact that there are much larger powers at work.

WMD is certainly a promising film, and luckily there are a number of opportunities to see it in the near future. The film goes on general release on October 15th, available for download through LoveFilm, Amazon and iTunes. If you're emotionally attached to the cinema, however, there are two events coming up as well, with the Shortwave Cinema hosting a Q&A screening with Holroyd on the 15th, and the Frontline Club hosting a similar Q&A screening on the 20th. For more information, visit http://www.wmd-insidestory.com/

[245] Patrick Dwyer (Robomodo) Interview

Another fun interview, chatting about Tony Hawk Ride and skating games with Robomodo lead designer Patrick Dwyer.




Formed out of the closure of the EA Chicago games studio, ultra-stylish new start-up Robomodo's first project is Tony Hawk Ride - a radical reinvention of the established skate-em-up series, featuring a board peripheral. Recently in London to oversee a preview event for the game, we had the chance to speak with Lead Designer Patrick Dwyer about Robomodo (featuring talent that has worked on the Fight Night, NBA Street, and Mortal Kombat franchises), the design processes behind the game, and the fun of skating in the living room.


Read the full article here.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

[244] Tony Hawk Ride Hands-On Preview

I've tried a few times to shoot for a writing style that incorporates the subjective-yet-insightful aspects of the writers I admire. They all seem to be games journalists, but writers like Simon Parkin, Kieron Gillen and John Walker manage to all have distinct voices, giving even the most bland or mundane of writing tasks a bubbly humour and engagement (and what more throwaway than a preview?).

I don't think I've completely got there yet, but this is the most comfortable I've been with an article in that vein so far. So here's my preview of the new Tony Hawk game, Ride.




Has it really been ten years since Tony Hawk's Pro Skater came out? It seems like yesterday that I was hanging out at a friend's house, fully reclined on a semi-broken sofa, indulging in short, intense-bursts of Americophilia to go along with our Jay & Silent Bob obsession and mid-pubescent crush on Jane Lane from Daria.

As we grew, Tony grew, developing extra tricks, skills and modes with every instalment like extra appendages. Soon, you could skitch, revert, manual, wall-plant, and even get off your board in order to pelt a homeless man with tomatoes (Tony Hawk's Underground, you will not be missed).

By 2007, EA's Skate franchise had ruffled some feathers, taking Tony Hawk's face-button approach, and chucking it out, in favour of mapping control of the skater's body weight and stance to the dual analogue sticks. It was intuitive and brain-bending, but subtle and immersive.

Back in May, it was revealed that Activision, and new developer Robomodo, had a new trick up their sleeve: a peripheral. A peripheral! The gaming innovation of choice for a generation that has seen grannies playing tennis in the living room, baby boomers practising yoga on a Wii Fit balance board, and whole families uniting over a shared love of The Beatles (causing 'true fans' to sulk in a corner, listening to a pristine remaster of You Know My Name (Look Up The Number)). A peripheral, you say? You might as well buy a proper skateboard!

Well, Tony Hawk Ride follows Wii Fit, Wii Sports and Rock Band into the arena of well-made, inclusive games that come with well-made, sturdy peripherals. While not strong enough to inspire a spurt of recreations of the skateboard-as-weapon scene from Larry Clark's Kids, the Ride board is (almost excusing its £99.99 price tag) a nice, slick object - even if it seems to be awfully good at attracting dust and hair.


Read the full article here.