Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Dark Knight - Review

I remember going to see Batman Begins three years ago with very low expectations, my love of the franchise having been crushed by the appalling Batman & Robin. I was shocked, relieved and delighted to find that it was an exceptionally good movie and certainly the best of the franchise. The final scene at the end of the movie that setup a sequel left me giddy with excitment for the next film. It has been a very long three year wait. My excitement for The Dark Knight was further heightened with all the fabulous pre-release promotional material. I mean seriously, everyone of those posters was cool. It must be a year now since the first material started to surface and this long build up, followed by a fantastic trailer and growing media hype had started to get me a little worried that I might be left disappointed. After all we'd been burned before with the likes of the Star Wars prequels. It turns out thatI need not have worried.

So how good is it? For me it is easily the best film of 2008. Also for me the best comic book movie thus far. Is it my favourite ever movie? I will delay that decision till I see it again but it is certainly in my top three favourite movies. It isn't one particular aspect of the film that has impressed me so much. Whereas in a film like Wanted I was so impressed with the visual style and action sequences for the most part, in The Dark Knight it is every aspect of what makes a movie that I am impressed with. The story, the dialogue, action set-pieces, acting performances, the score and the cinematography.

The story in the film is superb and it is simply far beyond anything that has been attempted in the comic book movie genre before. It is more complex and intelligent than going the route of so many other comic movies of having the hero face-off against a villain and throwing in some personal issues. This film is about so much more than Batman and the Joker. This is about a city trying to fight back against the power of the mob and questioning whether they are right to let a vigilante solve their problems. There are parts of the story that would work just as well in a crime movie with Batman and the Joker removed from the story. If I had to compare this film to another I would say it is resembles Heat. The plot also managed to surprise me a few times too. The supposed death of Jim Gordon was shocking, I simply couldn't believe they'd killed off a key character. Then there was the fate of Rachel Dawes. I knew the film was going to be dark but I didn't think it was going to be relentlessly so.

The performances in the film were universally excellent. Bale once again excelled as both Wayne and Batman. I think his portrayal of Bruce Wayne the billionaire playboy is fascinating. Your not supposed to find him likeable unlike other takes on Wayne character but you do really like him when he can act like himself around those who know him best, i.e. Alfred, Fox and Rachel. Bale pulls of the duality of the role with great skill. It might be lazy to say it but Aaron Eckhart was born to play a role in a comic book film, I mean just look at the guys square jaw. It is straight out of Batman the Animated Series. His performance as Harvey Dent was great as he managed to make a character so idealistic very likeable and he also makes for a very angry Two Face. (I thought the Two Face effect was superb and worked seamlessly so I don't agree with a complaint I heard that makeup would have been more effective than the visual effect used.) As for Gary Oldman I seriously think he isn't getting enough credit for his role. No longer a peripheral figure he was one of the most important characters in the movie. I really enjoyed seeing Maggie Gyllenhaal play Rachel Dawes as she did a far better job than Katie Holmes. It is much easier to believe that this character is someone important because when Holmes was playing the role she seemed too young to be in such a position of responsibility. Add in her superior acting qualities too and plus it doesn't hurt that Gyllenhaal is the sexiest woman in Hollywood.

It is impossible to talk about this film for long without getting to Heath Ledger and the Joker. I, like a lot of people thought he was a strange choice for the role but I had faith in Nolan's decision. He has certainly been proved correct. I think Ledgers portrayal of the Joker is now the definitive version, far better in my opinion than the more comic interpretation by Jack Nicholson. Ledger's Joker is so dangerous and menacing in a way that the Joker has never been before on screen. The Joker is now unequivocally a terrorist, it's a far cry from Cesar Romero camp turn as the Joker in the 1960's TV series or Burton's imagining. The Sophie's Choice style plans that he hatches and executes with no sign of humanity make him the best villian to appear on screen in a long, long time. The Joker also gets all the best bits in the film; the disappearing pencil trick, egging on the cop in the interrogation room or leaning out of the police car like dog after escaping from the MCU building.

I nearly forgot to talk about the fantastic score for this film. It isn't surprising that it is so great considering that they managed to get two heavy-weight composers onboard to collaborate on the film. Hans Zimmer (Black Hawk Down, Gladiator) and James Newton Howard (The Sixth Sense, The Fugitive) don't bombard the audience with an overwhelming score that you might expect when two composers want to get their music on film. In fact for some stretches of the film there is very little music, take for instance the opening shot of the Bat symbol shot against a vibrant blue flame. A very striking image but it is totally silent. A bold choice but it works, while other musical cues reminded me of There Will Be Blood.

For a film of this length it is important to get the pacing right and it is. It has a number of great action sequences dotted throughout the film with the standout Batbike scene at about the halfway point. I must also give the superb sequence set in Hong Kong a special mention. I'm sure this sequence if viewed in an IMAX screening would be breathtaking. Plus who didn't think the skyhook concept was cool? In between there is a lot of plot to get through and character development that never threatens to bore. Having said that this Batman film may not be for younger children as they might be confused and/or bored with the plot. I find a lot of people are praising this film because it is so dark. I don't necessarily agree with the idea that because they've made a comic book film dark that it naturally makes it better. I enjoyed the first Spider-man movie fine and it is the exact tonal opposite of this film.

I don't think one can underestimate the brilliance of director Christopher Nolan in crafting a film of this quality. I mean just look at where he has taken this character in the space of only two films since Batman & Robin. It was good to see to that he has gotten more comfortable in filming the fight scenes. It is easier to understand what is happening as they are less frantically cut than was the case in Batman Begins. Perhaps my favourite sequence in the movie is the one in which the the police commissioner and the judge are assassinated and the Joker crashes Bruce Wayne's fund raiser. The whole sequence is cut so well that the tension just keeps building and building and it is almost a relief when the Joker finally enters the party. All credit must go to Nolan and his editor for cutting that scene together so well. With all the talk being of Ledger getting a posthumous Oscar nomination, I'd like to see some Oscar recognition for Nolan and for the film as a whole.

2009 Best Picture? I don't see why not.


Friday, July 25, 2008

Everyday Shooter (PSN) - Review

I may have said this before but I'm not a big fan of arcade style shooting games, which is kind of strange as this is the third one I've posted a review for after Assault Heroes 2 and Flow. I downloaded Everyday Shooter from the PSN store last week after reading many good things about the game. Most notably the role that the sound design plays in the game. The creator Jonathan Mak recorded an all-guitar soundtrack for the game and with a really distinctive sound it helps to set it apart from other games of this type.

The game is dual-stick style shooter like Geometry Wars on the XBLA so it will be immediately familiar to fans of the genre. On first impressions it may seem like any other shooter but after playing it a couple of times you will notice some finer details that set it apart from the crowd. Firstly, each level brings with it a new technique to set off chain-reactions of explosions to kill the enemies. The key to progression and high-scoring is to figure out how to set-off these chain reactions because without them you will soon be overwhelmed by the enemy. Another difference is the way in the scoring system works. You will have to work harder in this game to get a high score than others because just shooting the enemy does not count. You have to collect the icons that the destroyed enemies drop in order to score points. This adds a little bit of strategy to the game because when shooting you move slower than when not shooting. So should you try to zoom over to those points without shooting and make yourself vulnerable? Or should you go in guns blazing but slow and risk the points disappearing before you get there?

The sound design requires another mention as it goes deeper than just a guitar soundtrack. The players actions determine the overall sound of the music as shooting one type of enemy will generate a guitar note or riff while other enemies generate different samples. These sounds all go together well with each levels theme to create a very good experience. This idea will probably sound familiar to fans of Rez.

Long-term playability has always been an issue for me with this style of game but Everyday Shooter goes further than most to combat this complaint. The points you collect in the game can be used as 'unlock points' in the unlock menu. From here you can unlock extra lives, play specific levels or unlock a shuffle mode. There is also the ability to play specific levels with the 'Single Play' option. So if you never get to the later levels at least you can unlock them and get to try them out.

The graphics are nothing but functional really apart from the odd background effect that impresses.

Fantastic sound design helps to push the overall quality and enjoyment of the game higher.

Simple dual-stick controls that are nice and responsive. Nothing to complain about.

The best arcade shooter that I have played on any platform. The frantic gameplay coupled with the great soundtrack make for a fun and addictive gameplay experience. It is a difficult game but the unlock system brings with it many rewards that will help to provide good value for money. I'd recommend it for fans of the genre and anyone looking for a good budget game on PSN or Steam.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Flow [PS3] - Review

Flow is a very difficult game to review. In fact, it is difficult to even class what type of game Flow is supposed to be. It most resembles a traditional 2D shooter but without actually shooting any enemies. You control a worm like organism and you guide it around the water to eat other smaller organisms. The more you eat the more you grow and evolve the shape of your creature.

Most of the creatures you eat are defenseless and you just have to aim your mouth at them and swallow them up. Other creatures can fight back and you need to decide on the best way to approach these creatures to eat them without getting harmed. By eating red particles you can travel to deeper, dark and more dangerous waters but you can also return to safer waters by eating the blue particles. It kind of sounds like The Matrix's red-pill, blue-pill choice.

The most interesting aspect of Flow is the unique control scheme. The direction and movement of the creature is controlled with the Sixaxis. All the other buttons have the same function, to increase your speed. The controls work well and quite responsive, certainly one of the best implementations of the Sixaxis I've encountered. The unique controls, nice graphics and really beautiful music provide you with a nice experience as you play. Just how much you will want to play is up for debate. I think of it as a game to jump in and play for a few minutes rather than something you will spend hours playing.

Nothing spectaular but the characters all move smoothly and there is a nice 3D effect as you move to different waters.

Not much in the way of sound effects but the music is amazing.

Nice implementation of the Sixaxis and easy to get to grip with.

The main goal of the game is supposedly to help you relax and if (please excuse the pun) you go with the flow then you might just find yourself relaxing. I can't see much use for it in the long-term but it is a cheap enough game on PSN.

Rainbow 6 Vegas 2 [PS3] - Review

I really quite enjoyed my time playing R6: Vegas 2. What I enjoyed most was the change in gameplay style from most other FPS games I've played. Normally I find myself employing the run and gun style of play throughout most other FPS games but in this one it is totally different. You find yourself moving from cover to cover, not taking too many risks out in the open and planning your every move. It takes some getting used to but most importantly it becomes fun.

It is also the first squad based FPS game I've played. I was worried that the controls wouldn't be adequate or the AI wouldn't be good enough either. I need not have worried on both counts. Issuing commands to your squad is a simple as pressing the D-Pad and the AI in your teammates is surprisingly good. So good in fact you can send them in to clear a room and they will do a very good job everytime of taking out the bad guys. Only a couple of times during the game did the AI fail and they got stuck behind a box or a doorway.

There is a large online component to this game, which is good because the single player experience is quite short. There are the usual deathmatch and team deathmatch modes, plus the fun terrorist hunt modes. I've experience no lag and find it easy to get into a match. One of the best features of the game is the way that as you build up your characters experience points in single player the points are carried over to your online character too and vice-versa. I like having this persistent character as you feel as though you are accomplishing something with every game.

There are a few major points about the game that put me off. The story is the first major strike I have against the game. Firstly let me say that I've never played R6: Vegas 1 so I don't know what happened in that game storywise. It appears as though Vegas 2 picks up the story. I had no idea what was going on. There is no recap so to me it seemed as though I was just going from complex to complex, room to room clearing it of bad guys. No explainations and no real feeling of progression. It actually started to feel a little repetitive after a while. I think there was a twist in the game but as I don't know the characters this fell flat for me. Another bad point is in the way in which the enemies would spawn. If you die and have to redo a section the enemy will be in exactly the same spot each time. Therefore if you play a section enough times you know when and where an enemy will pop up and you'll be ready. It takes away all sense of tension from the scene.

One other thing that annoyed me was the choice of locations. The game promises Vegas but it isn't the Vegas we all know. There is one Casino based level but the others take place at such bland locales as convention centres, oil refineries and a college campus. No shoots outs along the strip or in famous casinos. Extremely disappointing.

A good solid FPS game but hampered by the issues mentioned above.

In an age where we have COD4 the graphics aren't overly impressive. Some nice character models and animations but lacklustre backgrounds and textures let the visuals down.

Very good sound in this game from the great sound effects to some good music. The only complaint is that sometimes the talking is very low and hard to hear.

Simply superb. It is so easy to issue orders to your squad and taking cover and firing from cover is simple.

A good solid FPS game but severly let down by a good narative. The great sound and controls make up for average graphics. There is also plenty of fun to be had in the online section of the game.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Wanted - Review

*** This discussion contains spoilers. ***

It is hard to know where to start with this discussion of Wanted as I was so totally blown away by how awesome this movie is. I am totally serious when I say that this type of movie just reminds me of why I love cinema so much. Suspend your disbelief for 120 minutes and sit back and watch the most amazing visuals you are likely to see on screen this year, video game included.

Generally speaking movies like this don't exactly live or die by their storylines and this film is no different. We all know from the ads that this movie is being sold on the promise of amazing action and the presence of Angelina Jolie. The plot concerns a secret society of assassins, The Fraternity who use assassination as a means of keeping humanity in check. When one of there number turns renegade the group recruit Wesley (McAvoy) the son of a fallen Fraternity member to avenge his fathers death and kill the renegade assassin. The story is better than I thought and it does a good job of providing plenty of scope for those promised action set pieces. The most pleasant aspect of the story is that it isn't as predicable as you might expect, at least it wasn't for me.

Simply put this is the best action movie of the year thus far. Perhaps a little disclaimer is warranted though, as you will need to check your cynicism at the door. If you like your action realistic then stick with Jason Bourne as the action in this movie harks back to it's comic book origins. Right from the first scene the action is in high gear as we get the Fraternity's top assassin jump from one skyscraper to another, shooting bad guys on the way. This is a film that doesn't try to hide from is silliness, rather it embraces and runs with it. The action does let up as we are introduced to McAvoy in a sequence that reminded me very much of Fight Club. The action soon kicks into high gear again and never lets up.

Of course we have seen plenty of action movies in recent years with tons and tons of action, like Die Hard 4.0 for instance. What sets Wanted apart from the crowd is the inventiveness of the set pieces and the unique visual touches. Indeed, the keyword for Wanted is inventiveness. We've all seen drive-by shootings, but have we seen one where a one car is flipped over the other so the shooter can shoot though the open sunroof to bypass the bullet proof glass? There is the breathtaking set piece with a train/car/bridge mashup. There is a refreshing disregard for the safety of innocent bystanders too, just check out the aforementioned train sequence for proof. The violence is also pretty graphic for a mainstream blockbuster, with a rather large helping of onscreen blood. To counter the graphic nature of the violence the film also boasts some strong humorous moments. A personal favourite is the scene where McAvoy smashes a keyboard over his friends face only for the keys 'F','U','C','K','Y','O','U' to fly past the screen. Or the running joke about 'who's the man?' that has a wonderful payoff, with Jolie at her absolute sexiest.

The actors in this movie are all extremely well cast and deliver top performances. Angelina Jolie may be third billed but she steals the show in every scene she is in. This is the best performance I've seen her give in any of her big action roles. She manages to portray a mix of uber cool, sexiness and menace with consummate ease. You will wish she had more screen time. This is the first movie I've seen James McAvoy in and he certainly showed here that he has real star potential. His character starts off as a pathetic, whinging nobody but ends up as a super cool, confident and extremely dangerous killer. Probably not the easiest character arc to pull off but McAvoy manages it convincingly as he does with the more physical set pieces. The real star of the piece however is Russian director Timur Bekmambetov. I remember seeing his Russian language film Nightwatch a few years ago and being amazed by it. It was like a Matrix meets Underworld hybrid and the story was as confusing as that sounds but the inventiveness of the action scenes is what amazed. In Wanted he has managed to meld his visual flourishes with a Hollywood blockbuster budget to bring us something special. I can't think of any director currently working in Hollywood (possibly bar Guillermo del Toro) that has such style.

The soundtrack in th movie is another thing that I was highly impressed by. The rock style songs that they went with match up perfectly with the onscreen action beats and helps to build the excitement level higher for the audience. I must mention the best use of the song 'Time to Say Goodbye' yet seen on film. In fact I was so taken with the title track, 'The Little Things' that I want to buy it, so I Google'd the song. I was stunned to discover that Danny Elfman provided the music to this movie. Everyone knows Elfman as Tim Burtonsgo to guy for his movies, or as the creator of The Simpsons theme tune but I never associated him with a rock sound. Furthermore, it is Elfman himself who lends his vocals to the title track. Surprised is not the word, although I have learned that he provided the singing vocals for Jack Skellington so perhaps I shouldn't have been. I think I'll be taking a trip to the iTunes store later today.

I said already that this is the best action movie of 2008. I would go as far as to say it is the best since The Matrix. I do not like to make a lazy comparison to The Matrix but it surely owes a debt to that film in there use of slowing down time but understand that Wanted is no mere copycat. It doesn't do just want has been done before, it takes everything to a new level. Having given it all this praise I do want this movie to be a one-off. I don't want a sequel, for it can only diminish what has been created in this film. Also I don't want to see a poor licensed video game as no console could do this game justice. If you like action, humour and want to see a director with new ideas then check out Wanted as soon as possible. Oh, and the last line's a killer.