Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood (season four) – Review

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T. and I took a long break from Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood once we got to the end of season three. While we really enjoyed the first two seasons, by the time the action moved to Fort Briggs it felt like things were getting more and more complicated, and – being unfamiliar with the manga – I worried that the show would end up losing its way and never resolve the central drama. Well, I’m glad to have given the fourth season a chance, because not only did it feel like a marked improvement on season three, but it moved the overarching story forward in a satisfying way and at a good old pace. I’m now excited to see how things wrap up in the fifth and final season.

This may sound strange, but one of the things that encouraged us to return to Brotherhood was the fact Netflix changed the way they listed the show from “64 episodes” to a proper season/episode listing. Knowing where you’re at in the narrative arc is quite important in long-form storytelling, and it really helped knowing we would be starting again at the beginning of the penultimate season: we had appopriate expectations for pacing, character development, and so on. Brotherhood’s third season had expanded the scope of the story considerably, so we were delighted (and, I must admit, surprised) to find that major mysteries were resolved quickly and in a satisfying way, and that the overall story was likewise allowed to make progress.

One of the good things about taking time to build a story and develop characters is that, if you do it right, the payoff can be epic, and make the whole wait worthwhile. The problem with this is that so many shows have failed to live up to their promise that audiences get burned out and lose faith in this kind of storytelling (this is known as the Chris Carter Effect, with reference to the X-Files; Lost is another good example). In contrast, Brotherhood’s fourth season is well-paced, and its lore manages to be both interesting and coherent, which is no mean feat.

If you’re not familiar with it, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood is a very well-regarded and successful anime adaptation of a manga, which follows the brothers Edward and Al Elric on their mission to recover their bodies after an experiment with alchemy went badly wrong. (Edward just lost a couple of limbs, but Al lost his entire body and now has to go about in an enormous suit of armour, which contains his soul.) They soon get pulled into a much larger conspiracy, and the show starts off dark in tone and quickly gets darker; but it also has a penchant for comedy, and some really heartwarming camaraderie as well. Confusingly, it’s actually the second anime adaptation of the manga, with the first being called simply Fullmetal Alchemist, without the subtitle. Brotherhood is widely regarded as being much better. The first “adaptation” was done before the original manga was finished – a bit like Game of Thrones!

Brotherhood has a strong central cast of characters and there is great chemistry between the likes of Edward, Al, and Winry, and Mustang and Hawkeye. It’s testament to the potential of long-form storytelling that, by season four, Brotherhood has put together a whole stable of lead characters, any one of whom could carry a lesser anime (Al in particular is a real hero); but there are half a dozen stand-out leads in this one show. Even the supporting cast of Homunculi and Chimeras get their chance to shine here, too. I think it helped our enjoyment that we decided to watch this season in the English dub, rather than in Japanese with English subtitles. Although I’ve always tried to watch anime series with the Japanese voice track (because it’s more “authentic”), I can’t understand the language, and in Brotherhood I get the impression the English voice script is different (and superior) to the English subtitles. You also benefit from some characterful performances from great voice actors like Caitlin Glass and Troy Baker.

Fingers crossed that season five will prove to be as entertaining and satisfying as Brotherhood’s fourth season. If so, it will definitely go down as one of my favourite anime series.

9/10

What We Do in the Shadows (film) – Review

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2014’s New Zealand-based vampire comedy What We Do in the Shadows was something of a cult hit, and with good reason. It’s largely the brainchild of Taika Waititi and Jermaine Clement, who appear in the film in lead roles as the vampires Viago and Vlad.  The script has a distinctive take on the vampire genre, following the escapades of an ineffective and neurotic group of vampires who live in a squalid houseshare in Wellington, New Zealand. Although the vampires are ancient, ranging from several hundred to many thousand years old, and have conventionally super-human powers, their indolent and impulsive lifestyles prevent them from leading fulfilling lives as they try (and fail) to keep up with the modern world.

What We Do… is filmed in a faux-documentary style, and although the whole thing is executed with tongue firmly in cheek, the film’s unique setting and genuine good-humour set it apart from much of the tediously self-referential horror emanating from within the Anglo-Saxon world in recent years. The fact that Clement and Waititi appear in prominent roles also helps the film, as they are able to bring the right kind of energy and register to their performances; I’m not sure a film of this budget could have secured the right calibre of actors otherwise. Indeed, if you want to be picky (and isn’t that the point of a culture blog?) then you could say that the film’s cast is one of the things that holds it back: a higher budget could perhaps have allowed for more charismatic actors to appear in a wider range of roles. As it is, Clement’s delightful chewing of the scenery carries much of the weight of the film.

The vampires find a lifeline to the contemporary world in the form of Stu, the friend of recently sired vampire Nick. The actor who plays Stu gives an exceptionally naturalistic performance which really helps put across the idea he’s an unusually down-to-earth and nice guy. The film also features some entertaining exchanges between the vampires and a pack of local werewolves, which plays with familiar tropes in the same way as the main story. The werewolf scenes are memorable highlights, and apparently a spinoff centred on this community is in the works, which has some potential.

Werewolves aren’t the only creatures depicted in the film, and one of the central events  is the “Unholy Masquerade”, a supernatural ball held in a seedy community centre which is convened by vampires, witches and zombies. The film certainly succeeds in divesting supernatural entities like vampires of their glamour, but at the same time, it also makes them feel strangely sympathetic. Much of the film’s appeal surely resides in that, for a film about the supernatural, its subjects often come across as distinctly human.

8/10

New and improved Fire Emblem Awakening character guide now available

I’ve just completed a thorough revision and expansion of my character guide for Fire Emblem: Awakening. This has proven to be one of the more popular posts on the blog, so I thought I should go back and make it as good as it can be. I’ve recently been doing another exhaustive playthrough of this awesome game, so it seemed like a good time to return to the article in the hope of making it do justice to the game itself. It also feels like a good way for me to take stock of my thoughts about Awakening before I embark on the Fire Emblem Fates trilogy.

At 8000 words, it’s comfortably the longest piece I’ve written for the blog. If you’re a fan of Awakening, or even the Fire Emblem series more broadly, take a look and maybe let me know what you think!

Texas Chain Saw Massacre (film) – Review

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It’s hard for me to think of it this way, but Texas Chain Saw Massacre is now almost fifty years old. It’s an iconic and hugely influential horror movie, and even after all these years it remains an extremely effective and frightening film. As a teenager in the UK in the 1990s with an interest in the horror genre, I was intrigued by the aura of fear and danger around the movie, which was not classified for distribution in the UK until 1998. I saw it for the first time a year later, in 1999, when it was screened for the first time on British television by Channel 4. I remember finding certain sequences of the film to be utterly terrifying and profoundly disturbing; but I was also intrigued by some of the film’s subtext. Two decades later, the raw power of its horror hasn’t faded, and even if its thematic content feels a bit hackneyed, it hasn’t lost its relevance.

Texas Chain Saw Massacre is presented as a true story, but it isn’t actually based on real events (although like many other horror movies, it was informed by the real-life crimes of Ed Gein). Part of the film’s influence can be seen in that its early sequences – a group of twenty-somethings on a roadtrip in Texas come across a cabin in the woods – have been reproduced endlessly by later movies. While most horror movies tend to be shot at night, the Texas Chain Saw Massacre is shot for the most part during the day, and in intense sun and heat too. There’s a lurid quality to the cinematography that’s quite unsettling, and it’s not just down to the references to graverobbing and dead animals on the highway. The (admittedly outlandish) events of the film are situated in close proximity to the meat industry and the industrial slaughter of livestock, and the callous and inhumane treatment of animals is an important part of establishing the film’s horrific atmosphere; because of course when we see people treated in such a way, it is appalling and really scary. It would be too much to say the film has a vegetarian message as such, but it does make you think about the meat industry, in a really unsettling way.

Texas Chain Saw Massacre inspired legions of films that tried to copy its formula for success, but few have been able to reproduce the sense of tension and dread which it establishes over its first half hour. The whole hitch hiker sequence in the beginning is disturbing as hell; shortly after that, the film also features arguably the most frightening sequence in cinematic history, which anyone with an interest in the genre really has to experience.

The film gets your emotions to boiling point early on, and sets a high-water-mark which the rest of the film finds hard to match; to my mind, the second half gets a bit bogged down in unnecessary quasi-supernatural material. Filmmaker Tobe Hooper has explained the film was partly a reaction to events like Watergate and the Vietnam War, and it certainly exhibits a cynicism about American culture which was very much of its time in the early 1970s. In general, there’s probably too much pseudo-intellectual deconstruction of films like this (pot, meet kettle), and I think it’s misguided to regard Texas Chain Saw Massacre as a post-modernist film per se. But, with its cynical perspective, it’s easy to retrospectively cast the film in such a category.

On a purely functional level, it’s hard to criticize Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Its power to disturb and terrify is undiminished, which testifies to its basic integrity and twisted artistry. It’s remarkable that after so much time, it is still unsurpassed in the stakes of pure horror; which is also a statement on the development (or otherwise) of the genre. That said, certain things that helped makeTexas Chain Saw Massacre feel authentic would not fly well today (the health and safety conditions the actors and crew worked in are almost as frightening as the film itself). Also, while the first half of the film is perfectly paced, the second half does feel like it spins its wheels too long. It’s already a short film, but it probably could have afforded to lose ten minutes. You feel for the poor actress who spends so long screaming – it must have played havoc with her vocal chords. But as T. pointed out to me, at least here the screaming is in the service of a plot point, rather than the plot point itself: in other words, at least this film shows you there is good reason to scream, and you know what’s going on.

Considering that Texas Chain Saw Massacre provides the perfect template for a horror film, you’d think others would follow it better. While it might not have much of a soul of its own, it certainly does a good job of making you fear for your own.

9/10

Pacific Rim (film) – Review

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2013’s sci-fi/fantasy epic Pacific Rim was something of a risk. That’s something of a rarity these days, with most big-budget movies being sequels or new iterations of established, well-worn IPs. Pacific Rim, on the other hand, was new; an entertaining action film not based on a comic book and not part of any existing narrative universe. Although the central conceit of giant robots fighting monsters/aliens is familiar to older viewers thanks to the likes of Godzilla, director Guillermo Del Toro wanted to re-envision this neglected genre for modern audiences and bring it to a new generation. Pacific Rim was a qualified success at the box office and had a mixed critical reception, but thankfully a sequel was finally greenlit and will appear next year. That’s a good thing in my view, because Pacific Rim is an outstanding film, and one of the best action films of the last decade.

Pacific Rim is set in a near-future Earth devastated by attacks from giant monsters called Kaiju which appear from a dimensional rift at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. To combat the threat, mankind devised giant robots called Jaegers; they’re piloted by humans, but the “neural load” of piloting one means the job has to be shared between two pilots. This introduces an important aspect of teamwork, meaning the film doesn’t just focus on the genius of individual pilots, but instead has a more democratic focus on co-operation and working together to overcome a terrifying foe.

Indeed, the general mood and timbre of Pacific Rim is quite progressive and inclusive. Del Toro makes a point of avoiding the gung-ho, glamorized version of the traditional military which is familiar from most conventional blockbusters, to the point that the film barely features any conventional weaponry at all. While the film features an enormous amount of jaw-dropping destruction of major cities, it’s emphasized that for the most parts these cities have been evacuated; so the cost is mainly in bricks and mortar. The script is clear that what is ultimately at stake in Pacific Rim is the survival of our species, but because it doesn’t show lots of people dying, it largely succeeds in keeping the tone relatively light and upbeat. It’s a refreshing take on things.

The visual design in Pacific Rim is absolutely spectacular. The Jaegers and Kaiju look incredible, but the pilots’ armour also looks tremendous (and the film features arguably the most glorious pair of shoes ever designed). The fight sequences between the giant behemoths are a joy to behold, and a reminder of what a powerful and invigorating medium cinema can be at its best. 3D cinema seems to have had its day, but Pacific Rim is a movie which benefits from being seen on the largest screen available, and in 3D if possible.

Pacific Rim manages to have its cake and eat it by combining stunning aesthetics and action set-pieces with a solid script and poignant and sincere human drama. The central character, hotheaded pilot Raleigh, is appealing and benefits from actor Charlie Hunnam’s good looks, humour and charm. But over the course of the film the supporting cast are given a surprising amount of development. Hunnam has good chemistry with Rinko Kikuchi, who plays Jaeger pilot Mako and who has an endearing and entertaining crush on Raleigh. Idris Elba is great as Stacker, the head of the Jaeger programme and therefore Raleigh’s boss as well as Mako’s surrogate father. Apparently Del Toro wanted Tom Cruise to play the role at first (which would have been awesome), but Elba has the presence and authority to pull it off. Unlike many people, I’ve not been a huge fan of most of Elba’s work since The Wire, but this is one of his best roles.

The icing on the cake is that Del Toro associate Ron Perlman gets a predictably entertaining cameo as Kaiju organ-trader Hannibal Chau. But even someone like Raleigh’s at-first irritating rival Chuck, played by ex-Eastenders actor Robert Kazinsky, becomes more sympathetic once you understand his motivations. The script features much more depth and compassion than your average summer blockbuster or superhero film, and it’s a real joy to watch from beginning to end. It might not be the most sophisticated or intellectual film around, but it achieves everything it sets out to do, and what it aims for is actually quite ambitious. Pacific Rim showcased a different approach to the summer blockbuster, and shows up how limited, negative and cynical most of those films are. I wish more films were brave enough to use the approach Del Toro deploys here, but at least there’s going to be a sequel – and here’s hoping it matches the heart and spectacle of the original.

10/10

Blair Witch (film) – Review

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Don’t go into the woods today.

Some horror movie directors don’t seem to understand that just watching other people lose their shit from fear isn’t necessarilly scary; it can inspire other emotions depending on the context, like amusement, irritation, or even apathy. Quarantine, the extraneous remake of Spanish zombie film REC, was a good example: Jennifer Carpenter was a hysterical mess for the last 30 minutes of the movie, rendering it all but unwatchable. Blair Witch relies on the same technique, with equally disappointing results.

The last half hour of Blair Witch see the surviving characters running around aimlessly while shouting each other’s names over and over again. The setting and events of the film are unsettling, but the OTT panicking and idiotic behaviour of the characters drains the proceedings of any tension. When I think back to unforgettably scary sequences in movies – the first kill in Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the shower scene in Psycho, or the ending of Don’t Look Now – the characters themselves aren’t  acting like they’re about to shit their pants from fear (not until the last second, anyway). The fear and tension comes from the dreadful atmosphere and the fact the audience has access to information the characters don’t. It’s true you can have effective extended sequences where someone is absolutely terrified (the end of Texas Chainsaw Massacre), but if you try to keep that level up for too long you’ll just wear out your audience. I felt like the makers of Blair Witch didn’t have any ideas beyond mimicking the events of the first film, and sought to rely on on viewers having an uncritical reaction along the lines of “look, these guys are totally scared, so this must be a really frightening situation!”

Blair Witch Project was an influential film that popularized the whole “found footage” genre, as well as the amateur shaky-cam visual style. It received plenty of critical accolades when it was released, but it also has a very mixed reputation among horror fans with many considering it rather overrated. This sequel, simply titled Blair Witch, is set two decades after the original, and sees the brother of one of the people who disappeared all those years ago going back to the woods to try and find out what happened to her. He manages to rope a couple of friends into joining him, and is also obliged to bring a couple of local horror nuts along as well (bad idea). The characters are cliched and lacking in charisma, and the script is moribund; there’s no wit or humour, and it’s hard to care about the characters even in the face of their inevitable fates.

The Black Hills Forest in which the movie is set is actually quite atmospheric, and the first half of the film is functional if generic. The movie’s real problems start once things begin to go wrong in the forest, and it becomes clear that the makers of Blair Witch either didn’t trust their own abilities to create frightening sequences, or the capacity of its audience to pay attention. In the end, the surviving characters spend an eternity searching for each other in the dark, through the woods and abandoned buildings, breathing heavily and repeatedly calling out one another’s names. There’s nothing scary about it, it’s just inane and boring. Blair Witch is a stultifying film and it’s guaranteed to try the patience of most serious horror fans.

2/10

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (film) – Review

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Tom Cruise has had a hell of a career. Few actors have been so consistent over such a long period of time: if you look at his filmography over the last 35 years or so, every couple of years has been punctuated by a critically and commercially successful movie. Even as Cruise has entered his 50s he’s continued to put out stuff that’s interesting, entertaining and relevant. 2014’s Live Die Repeat (a kind of sci-fi Groundhog Day that’s also known as Edge of Tomorrow) was great, and Cruise followed that up a year later with his fifth Mission Impossible film, Rogue Nation.

One might have expected the Mission Impossible franchise to have fallen into irrelevance and critical ignominy by now, but 2011’s Ghost Protocol was pretty good, and made an enormous amount of money at the box office. Rogue Nation is another solid entry in the long-running series. Cruise is in fine fettle: not only is he in excellent shape (such as would put to shame most men half his age), but he demonstrates good humour and a self-deprecating streak with visual jokes about his height and so on. Rogue Nation is a high-octane action movie with a great sense of visual spectacle, and once again the MI series comes up with interesting scenarios, locations, and stunning set-pieces that make for a very good two-hour ride. Moreover, the script is written with enough sincerity and emotional intelligence that it doesn’t make you feel particularly bad for watching it, unlike a lot of the stuff that comes out of Hollywood these days. In a lot of ways, Rogue Nation is a refreshingly traditional action film, and a good palette cleanser in this postmodern age of Marvel-style self-referential irony.

On which note, my personal gripe with Rogue Nation is the prominence of Simon Pegg’s character, Ethan Hunt’s sidekick Benji. Pegg has forged a lucrative niche Stateside portraying an American stereotype of the sarcastic, sexless British man-child, but I am really not a fan. Ving Rhames also reprises his increasingly irrelevant role in Hunt’s entourage as the hacker Luther; unlike Cruise, Rhames has not maintained his physique and no longer exudes the menace and masculine charisma he once did. I really hope the next MI film shakes up the supporting cast.

One thing that Rogue Nation does get right is the character of Ilsa Faust, a British intelligence operative played by Rebecca Ferguson. Ilsa’s apparent playing of both sides helps hold interest in the main story, which is otherwise best described as functional. She’s a good foil for Hunt, with a distinctive look and fighting style, and also a much better actor than Ghost Protocol’s Paula Patton. The main villain, by contrast, isn’t given much to work with and is a fairly unthreatening and unmemorable figure with a weird nasal voice. It doesn’t help that he bears more than a passing resemblance to the actor who plays Ilsa’s handler in British intelligence, which is sort of confusing and a bit of a faux pas as far as casting goes.

You really can’t go wrong witch watching Rogue Nation, though. The Mission Impossible franchise has earned a solid reputation for turning out reliably entertaining movies that can appeal to wide audiences, and Rogue Nation is no exception. While I probably preferred Ghost Protocol on the whole, you can’t really go wrong with watching Rogue Nation, whoever you’re with and whatever the situation. It’s a consummate Hollywood action movie, and a perfect vehicle for Cruise’s undeniable and remarkable talents.

7/10