Monday, 31 October 2011

[515] Batman: Arkham City: art director David Hego interview

Video games! Or, more specifically, comic book video games! Last weekend, I played through the story of Batman: Arkham City, and for the most part I thoroughly enjoyed it.

More detailed thoughts could be explored in a future blog post, but for the meantime let's bring up the old 'more of the same... and more!' problem. Where Arkham Asylum was full of surprises and fresh gameplay angles on a familiar character, Arkham City can merely build, refine, and embellish. It's a remarkably polished game, but in the pursuit of new, or simply bigger, thrills, some aspects simply don't hit the mark in as impactful a way to the predecessor. I'd also say that, at least story-wise, this one has some outright flaws.

A discussion for another time, definitely. For now, here's an interview I conducted with David Hego, the game's art director.

Brace yourselves, fellow gamers - the AAA season has begun. From now until Christmas, there will be many top-tier titles vying for your time, each attempting to one-up the others in big-budget thrills and near-perfect Metacritic scores.

Currently leading the pack is Arkham City, the sequel to 2009’s Arkham Asylum - which is, we’re assured, The Best Batman Game Ever Apart From Batman On The Spectrum. So far, City has proved to be the equal of Asylum, as Batman enters the eponymous urban prison to do battle with his old foes Two-Face, Penguin and the Joker - like a remake of Escape From New York, but with Snake Plissken donning a cape and cowl, and gliding across the skyline.

However, among the plaudits showered on Arkham City by critics the world over, a few writers have taken umbrage with an underlying air of sexism seen in the game’s cleavage-centric depiction of Catwoman, and the consistent use of ‘bitch’ as a catch-all synonym for womankind.

To settle matters, we got the inside scoop from David Hego, art director at Rocksteady Studios, who gave us some insight into the artistic process, the game’s stylised, hyperreal aesthetic, and the line between sexiness and sexism.

Read the full article here.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

[514] LFF Reviews: Like Crazy, We Have A Pope and Bernie

[Cross-posted from Den of Geek]

We’re into the final few days of the London Film Festival, so here is the first round-up of our findings so far. Read on for crazy lovers, crazy popes and crazy morticians.

Like Crazy

A big hit at Sundance, where it took home the Grand Jury Prize for drama, Like Crazy tells the story of Anna (Felicity Jones) and Jacob (Anton Yelchin), two students who meet at university, but find their relationship strained by distance once Anna has to return to the UK after graduation.

Drake Doremus shoots this transatlantic tryst mostly with a handheld, intimate aesthetic, getting the viewer under the skin of Anna and Jacob’s moody, broody romance. The couple’s stares are full of longing, their days are graced by Californian sun, and their murmurs of affection are in turns affecting or off-putting, depending on how much you believe that messy, complicated love is somehow more pure than the regular, clean-cut kind.

However, the decision to use the US Immigration Authority as the lovers’ complicating action - as Anna decides to violate her student visa, and is therefore barred from re-entering the States - is rather odd, as not only does it give the film an easy logistical barrier to the realisation of love, but it further gives this navel-gazer an air of First World Problems.

Once Jacob starts his own furniture business, and Anna becomes a trendy lifestyle ‘blogger’ for an upmarket London magazine, we see their lives developing separately - especially so once new significant others come on the scene. However, we’re led to believe that the intense university relationship leaves a lasting impression, but besides a couple of small moments - a late-night text conversation here, a tentative, subtext-laden visit there - Doremus doesn’t really twist the knife in a similar way to Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine. The leads, for their part, are youthful, charming and lost, but the representation of their relationship just isn’t raw or wry enough to be compelling.

We Have A Pope

Italian actor-writer-director Nanni Moretti’s latest film starts with the election of a new pope and ends with the undermining of the entire Catholic faith. However, its mixture of cardinal comedy and papal drama is a little discordant.

An opening sight gag is priceless, where close shots of the papal conclave weaving through the Vatican’s tight corridors give way to reveal a veritable media circus just out of reach. Likewise, the assembled clergymen, pencilling in their ballots, are shot like schoolkids taking a test. They’re easily distracted, bored, and sneak looks at each other’s slips of paper. It also becomes clear that none of them want to be Pope, so the holy responsibility falls to a cheery, dopey old sod played by Michel Piccoli, who, just before making his first public appearance before the congregated Catholics in St Peter’s Square, suffers a breakdown and does a runner.

While Moretti finds much fun in this chaotic situation, especially once an irreverent psychoanalyst (played by the director himself) starts to concoct various schemes to keep the cardinals from leaving the Vatican, the ensuing ‘walkabout’ plot, with the Pope sojourning around Rome to perchance find himself and his lost faith, is bloated and directionless.

There’s conflict here not only between two types of film - that of comedy and drama - but two kinds of commentary. The satire, that the church is full of ineffectual, petty, old men, has some bite to it, but the dramatic broadside, where the central tenets of divine right meet human psychology, is lacking something, even if the potential resignation of a Pope has apocalyptic implications. This results in a film which isn’t entirely damned, but offers little salvation.


Richard Linklater has spent the last decade darting between independent projects and mainstream movies, notably with the enormously successful flick School Of Rock, which starred an energetic Jack Black just before his loudmouth rocker schtick got old.

Eight years later, Black and Linklater have re-teamed for Bernie, where the actor plays the title character, a rather eccentric funeral director in small-town East Texas. Immensely popular with the locals, Bernie’s reputation is so strong that when he kills a rich spinster (Shirley MacLaine), the district attorney moves the murder trial to another town, so as to find an unbiased jury.

The fact that this is based on true events, and adapted from a newspaper article should give some indication that this isn’t the most straightforward of comedy-dramas, but Linklater adds another twist to the film. Actual residents of Carthage, Texas appear both in talking head interludes, spouting gossip and reminiscences about the protagonist, and in the main plot, playing themselves. This brings much heart to the film, as while Black is surprisingly restrained and meticulous in creating Bernie, he is blown off-screen by some of the real-life characters, who have much more warmth, wit and personality than the actor at his best.

However, the film fails to find a balance between the artistic licence of fictional filmmaking, and the commentary of documentary. Linklater and Black seem unwilling to explore Bernie’s complexities, leaving the story rather light and shallow, and are equally unwilling to hand over the telling of the tale to the friends, foes and facts themselves, which effectively botches any claim to truth. Bernie, therefore, sits squarely in the middle of Linklater’s indie-mainstream spectrum - an experiment in marrying drama and documentary, which inevitably satisfies neither.

Monday, 24 October 2011

[513] Found at a Walworth Road Charity Shop

Joe Matt's The Poor Bastard, an absolute steal at £3. However, the bookmark nestled between the pages was just as surprising...

'How to open this Prayer book'. It was stuck a few pages in, and the book looked pretty much unread. I wonder what part of this master-work of neurotic, self-obsessed comics autobiography drove our religious fellow to give up on Matt. Was it the narcissism? The godless vanity? The compulsive masturbation? I guess we'll never know.

[512] We Need To Talk About Kevin (2011) Review

The LFF finishes this week, which means you should see most of my coverage go online. In the meantime, here's a review of what is probably my favourite film of the festival so far. And it's out on general release right now!

We Need To Talk About Kevin. It's an odd name, really, but that didn't stop Lionel Shriver's novel from becoming a bestseller. Even now, as an adaptation from director Lynne Ramsay hits the big screen, the title still has a compelling sense of mystery, but its the film’s constant subversion of expectations that makes it utterly distinctive.

The plot centres on the relationship between Eva Khatchadourian (Tilda Swinton) and her son, Kevin (Ezra Miller), cutting back and forth in time between a post-traumatic present, where Eva lives alone, and the past, where Eva and her husband Franklin (John C. Reilly) settle down to raise a family. After Kevin is born, Eva’s previous life of freedom and adventure is slowly given up in favour of full-time motherhood; but parenting proves particularly unpleasant, as Kevin grows from toddler to teenager, and turns out to be a real terror of a son - culminating in a horrific episode which upsets not only the family’s life, but that of their local community, too.

The film’s central character drama slowly unfurls, hazily moving between dream and memory, using hyper-real cinematography and dislocated sound and image to deeply unsettle the viewer. As its premise would suggest, there is darkness at the film’s heart, but the way this is manifested is consistently surprising. The basic plot calls up various genre readings - problem child horror, psycho-thriller, domestic melodrama - but Ramsay darts from one to the other, dodging tropes at every turn.

Read the full article here.

Monday, 17 October 2011

[511] 360 (2011) Review

Here's my first review from the LFF, where I take a look at the opening film, 360. Lots more to come.

Also, this is my 200th article for Den of Geek, almost 3 years since my first piece for them went online. The site's grown a lot since then, but there's still plenty of developments on the horizon - and I'd like to think my writing has improved, too. Thanks to the Geeks-In-Charge for letting me write all this nonsense for them.

Since bursting onto the international scene with City Of God, Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles has received untold goodwill from the global critical community. His English-language debut, 2005’s liberal guilt epic The Constant Gardener, received just as many award nominations as his Brazilian breakthrough, and also netted a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Rachel Weisz in the process.

Indeed, the legacy of these two peaks has proven so long-standing, that the box office failure Blindness has been all but forgotten, and his latest film, 360, takes pride of place as the opener for this year’s London Film Festival. Heralded as the new work from an international artist, the film bears more than a passing resemblance to the work of an uninspired hack.

Ostensibly influenced by La Ronde, a play which attempts to survey the sexual and moral aspects of society through a number of encounters between various characters, 360 takes the viewer from Vienna to Denver, via London and Paris, as it weaves together numerous narrative snapshots concerned with love, life and - sigh - the human condition.

While this approach is in one sense ambitious, tackling universal themes by exploring small moments that have major consequences, it is also insultingly shallow, as Peter Morgan’s script moves from one instance to another, giving only rudimentary depth to each sequence, and merely focusing on how the characters fit together in the film’s smug over-arching structure.

Read the full article here.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

[510] 13 films you can still see at the London Film Festival

The London Film Festival has started! Here's a preview post. There'll be round-ups, reviews and interviews coming up in the next couple of weeks, but you can keep up with mini-reviews of all the films I see on Twitter.

The 55th London Film Festival is now underway, boasting a programme that includes top-flight flicks like George Clooney’s The Ides Of March, Lynne Ramsey’s We Need To Talk About Kevin, and 360, directed by Fernando Meirelles. However, unless you’re a BFI member, a quick-off-the-mark cinephile, or an industry bigwig, it’s highly likely that you missed the small window of chance for getting tickets for these bigger films.

No need to worry, though, as many of the festival’s 300+ films haven’t yet sold out. Here are just a few notable or geek-friendly deep cuts that, at time of writing, still have tickets on sale.

Read the full article here.

Friday, 7 October 2011

[509] Midnight In Paris (2011) Review

I somehow missed out on reviewing Woody Allen's last two films, but in the interim I watched everything else he's directed, so I guess we're even. Luckily, though, I got to see Midnight In Paris - and it's brilliant.

With Woody Allen, it’s not so much a case any more of expecting a ‘return to form’, as seeing periodic glimpses of inspiration and genius.

Recently, his work has veered from the atrocious (Cassandra’s Dream) to the great (Vicky Cristina Barcelona), with a handful of tittersome morsels in between (Whatever Works, You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger). He’s still working at an alarming rate, and is still quite happy to gaze at intellectual middle class types and their over-inflated personal problems.

However, by now he is so comfortable with these tropes - life crises, marital issues, creative anxiety - that they are mere motifs, or a form of narrative shorthand that he can embellish ever so slightly, marking out each new film with a different location, a rejigged cast or small genre touches.

Midnight In Paris, the latest in what could be called Allen’s ‘tourist’ films, makes no claim at being anything else, starting as it does with an endless montage of Parisian vistas, a ‘day in the life’ overture which roots the audience in the French capital - its boulevards, its landmarks, its cultural history.

Paris brings out the romantic in Allen, as was previously seen 15 years ago in the musical Everyone Says I Love You, in which he staged a languid, dreamy song-and-dance sequence alongside the Seine, featuring himself and a knockout Goldie Hawn. Here, once more, Paris is a city that devours and delights, as Gil Pender (Owen Wilson), an erstwhile Hollywood scriptwriter, comes to the city with his fiance Inez (Rachel McAdams). After years of hackdom, he wishes to write his first novel, but his neurotic self-flagellation gets in the way, especially when faced with the aggressively-intellectual braggart Paul (Michael Sheen).

Paris, though, is inspiring, and he can barely walk ten paces without excitedly cataloguing the city’s rich artistic heritage. "Imagine this town in the 20s!" he raves, as Inez rolls her eyes and shops for furniture, with her equally disapproving parents (Mimi Kennedy, Kurt Fuller). Soon, Gil’s alone, wandering the streets and dreaming of the past. At which point, a church bell strikes midnight, and a vintage car stops nearby, ready to whisk him away on a jazz age adventure.

Read the full article here.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

[508] #Dissertension Done.

What now?

In the short term, I'm covering the London Film Festival for Den of Geek. Expect a preview soon, and some columns/reviews/coverage once the festival gets under way. Oh, and there's BytesCorp, which is taking off as a small production company. Crikey.

I'd like for the dissertation to find a larger readership than me, my tutor and the external marker. Sadly, 15,000 is a bit unwieldy. I'll think of something. Maybe a series of blog posts? We'll see.