FILM REVIEW – Sicario

Violence is ubiquitous in our culture and our entertainment. In particular, violence is a staple in my own diet of films, TV and video games. So it’s natural to become inured to a certain extent. I don’t mean inured to violence itself, which still sickens and frightens me, but inured to its depiction in popular culture.

Sicario is an impressive film for a number of reasons, but for me the most notable was that it consistently created an atmosphere of palpable fear and dread that is highly unusual in modern entertainment. Although the film is framed as a thriller or politico-action film, for me it had, in part, the quality of the best and most fearsome horror films.

The only thing I can compare it to that I’ve watched recently was the episode of True Detective in which Rust goes undercover with racist bikers while they attempt to stick-up a drugs den in a black ghetto. Sicario has several scenes with the same sickening atmosphere of physical violence and impending disaster. It’s not a pleasant feeling, for sure, but it is very impactful and certainly a triumph of storytelling and cinematography.

It is important that Sicario does this, because in doing so it does justice (if that’s the right word) to the horror of the cartel conflicts and atrocities that blight areas of Mexico especially the border city of Juarez. For all the depictions of real-world violence on our TV and cinema screens it is rare to find an example which actually feels like it is truthful to the reality. There’s a good reason for this, of course, because the reality is too shocking. But, in parts, Sicario does a very effective job of interpreting real-world horror for us. What’s scarier than that?

The sense of horror is deepened by the score, which at times felt like it could have been borrowed from a conventional horror film; but it wasn’t overdone. Similarly, the film showcased a quite remarkable turn by Benicio Del Toro. He plays an unutterably creepy character who is seen or implied to be responsible for appalling acts of violence; but who at times gets disturbingly close to feeling sympathetic. It’s a fine balance and is only maintained because Del Toro plays the role with a deft touch. It is very compelling to watch, and it’s no wonder there are reports of a spin-off film in the works centred around this role. In contrast, early on I was worried that Josh Brolin’s CIA agent would descend far into cliche territory as a slobbish CIA ‘maverick’, but fortunately this aspect of the film was reigned in as it progressed.

Perhaps the weakest part of the film, for me, was the central character and partial audience avatar, Kate (Emily Blunt, of whom I’m actually a big fan). Kate’s role is dramatically necessary as an ‘outsider’ to the drug war, as otherwise the atrocities that go on would just seem ‘normal’ to everyone in the film. The film has to have someone speaking out against the horror. That said, the strength of Kate’s reservations about the black ops against the cartel seemed excessive: Kate wouldn’t be in this position in the first place if she didn’t ‘know the score’ and show a willingness to, essentially, break the law for a chance against the drug barons. This felt incongruous, as if the film was searching for a good guy in a story where there are no good guys, period.

I must say I was surprised by how effective and bold a movie Sicario was. If anything, it should be better in a home viewing than it was at the cinema: at home the thick sense of dread the film creates won’t be interrupted by people looking at their phones and what-not. Can’t wait!

8/10

First Impressions – Tales of Graces F (PS3)

Tales of Graces F is the last of the three games on the Tales of… PS3 compilation that I’ve got round to playing. I picked this up for £15 in June, for what I thought was an incredible bargain. I played Tales of Symphonia on the Gamecube around 2004; recently, my girlfriend and I played through Tales of Xillia 1 & 2, and I wanted to introduce her to my first Tales game. Having Graces thrown in was just a bonus.

Well, having now played Symphonia and just started Graces, I can say: I am really excited about playing through this game which promises to be the highlight of the package.

First, you just have to comment on the graphics and presentation. This is a beautiful game. The use of colour is stunning, and the art design is coherent and very pleasing, falling somewhere between the more mature style of Xillia and Symphonia’s cartoonish appeal. It is a joy to behold. The menus and all-round presentation are very slick too. The same goes for the audio, and already I have the sense this is a soundtrack I will be listening to long after I finish the game.

We are about five hours in and can’t say too much about the story yet, as the game hasn’t really shown its cards. However as usual for a Tales game this is a crapsack world: it looks pretty but very bad things happen to innocent and defenseless people all the time. A young girl has a debilitating (potentially fatal?) respiratory condition. Adults die prematurely. Children are farmed off for adoption seemingly for no reason, breaking up friendships and even sibling relationships.

The combat system is intriguing, with a few steps away from other Tales games. It is heavily combo-based, and dispenses with mana (or TP) and instead uses combo points. Once you run out of combo points you can’t attack, but they replenish quickly on their own and various actions regenerate them as well. On the whole combat is very fast-paced, energetic, and fun, although it remains to be seen whether there is any role for casters in this game. Another point of interest is that skills are associated with particular titles, which need to be equipped in order to learn the skill through battle. I’ve always liked systems where you gain skills through equipping gear, and this is a variation on that, so I’m loving it so far.

One thing I would mention is that Tales is a series I play now in large part because of its co-operative multiplayer. There has been a lot of chopping and changing in the game so far with the ‘player two’ character, which is down to story imperatives, but it does mean that perhaps it can be less engaging for the second player. But there is still plenty of action and I expect this will improve as the game goes on.

Overall, I’m really excited about Graces and looking forward to cracking on with it. I’m surprised to see it was first released on the Wii in 2009, as it seems like a very fresh and up-to-date experience so far. They obviously took seriously the task of porting it to PS3.

I’m pleased to be finishing my 360/PS3-Tales experience on a high note, as before this we had tried playing Tales of Symphonia 2: Dawn of the New World, the third game on the PS3 compilation. The less said about Symphonia 2 the better, really. Suffice to say that from a story, character and gameplay point of view, it is the worst Tales game I have ever played. We stopped about 5 hours in when we had our asses handed to us in a boss fight that took place after sitting through 40 minutes of excruciating dialogue and no chance to save. No thanks.

Why I cancelled my WWE Network subscription

I decided to cancel my subscription after the first match of Hell In A Cell last night. I decided I was cancelling after the first match, once I realized the second match was Bray Wyatt v Roman Reigns. I’ll explain why, but first some context.

Although I only signed up to the Network a couple months ago, I’ve followed WWF (and WCW) on and off since 1990-1991, when I was about six years old. Back then following WWF meant watching tapes of pay per views that belonged to the big brothers of friends, and buying magazines. Pro wrestling was a really exciting form of entertainment for me–the physicality, the costumes, the drama and storylines–and part of that joy has stayed with me ever since. Its stayed with me even as an adult with extensive knowledge of how horrific the wrestling business can be.

I started watching WWF towards the tail end of the Hart Foundation’s run, just before Bret started his singles push. The HF were by far my favourite tag team and Bret was my favourite wrestler, although I loved The Anvil as well. Bret was so damned cool and such a good wrestler too. I loved the stories that he told through his matches. Bret has always had a reputation at being bad at promos, but that made no difference to me. I never watched promos. We never had satellite television, and I only ever watched tapes of pay-per-views and compilation videos. The stories that mattered were the ones told in the ring, which the announcers helped explain. So credit goes to Gorilla Monsoon, Jesse Ventura, Bobby Heenan and the like. The other reason was that my mother hated the promos: she hated seeing me watch steroid freaks like Ultimate Warrior shouting their heads off and behaving like morons. She thought it was stupid, and she didn’t want me watching them. So I always fast-forwarded through those. But when it was someone like Jake Roberts or Bret, I could watch without being told to turn it off.

From an early age I learned to pay close attention to what was happening in the ring and to the little details of what the wrestlers were doing, in order to understand what was going on.

It’s not like I followed wrestling non-stop since 1991. Far from it. There have been long periods where I’ve stopped watching and even stopped looking up the results. I followed it pretty closely from 1991 up to about 1995, when Bret lost the title to Backlund/Nash, and then I started again when wrestling got hot in 1998. But after the triple blow of the death of Owen, Bret’s retirement, and the end of WCW, I completely lost interest until the release of the Hitman DVD collection around 2006. But even then I had little interest in the product and the Benoit murder-suicide made me stop following it again.

But despite everything, I keep coming back to wrestling. My recent subscription to WWE Network was my second serious attempt to get back into pro wrestling as an adult. The first was in 2012-2013 when I introduced my girlfriend to it and we watched a number of pay per views and even Raw and Smackdown for several months. Around that time we both read Bret Hart’s autobiography and I felt that I understood the world of pro wrestling so much better than ever before; I understood the history of wrestling and things I’d seen as a child in a whole new way. I watched wrestling with new insight. Also, we were fortunate that we started watching at the time when CM Punk was starting out as WWE Champion and Daniel Bryan was just starting to take off in a big way. In fact, in hindsight, it was the publicity around and fallout from CM Punk’s match with Cena at MITB 2011 which drew me back in. I had the sense something important was happening, although I don’t think I believed anything had seriously changed. Also, if I’m honest, the fact that Shawn Michaels was no longer wrestling was a big factor too. As a child I always hated Michaels and even today I can’t really even bear to see a picture of him.

For a while we really enjoyed it. But Punk’s title reign never seemed really satisfying–recent revelations by Punk, which have been widely publicized, help explain why–and of course Bryan was never pushed as he should have been. When Brock Lesnar, famed MMA fighter, returned to WWE and was beaten by Cena and started to feud with Triple H, I was disgusted, and stopped watching again.

This year I was drawn back, again. I think there were two things this time. Sting signing up last year was part of it. The other was Paige. I’m from the UK. I watched the documentary on Channel 4 a few years ago about Paige’s family and parts of it reminded me of Bret’s book. Wrestling is her life, for better or worse. It was obvious then that she had talent and I thought she had the looks, personality and talent to make it on the big stage. Then I found out this year that not only was she in WWE, but she had been Divas Champion, was a pretty big star and was playing a prominent role in something called the ‘Divas Revolution’. I like women’s wrestling and so does my girlfriend. I actually felt excited about watching wrestling for the first time in years.

Of course, it wasn’t to last.

So I signed up for my free month, expecting to watch a bunch of old pay per views as well as the new product. The nostalgia kick wore thin pretty fast–when you get down to it, it feels a bit weird in your early 30s to spend too much time rehashing stuff you watched as a small child. There are plenty of other things that I can do with my time. Ultimately I was only going to keep the subscription going if the product could keep my interest.
Now, up to a point I know what I’m getting with WWE. So much of Vince and WWE’s history have been widely discussed, and I followed WWE in the 90s, including the Montreal Screwjob and the death of Owen Hart. I’ve watched thousands of hours of wrestling; spent far too long reading stuff on the internet; I’ve read Bret’s book, seen Wrestling with Shadows and Beyond the Mat a bunch of times, listened to countless wrestling podcasts, etc. So I knew what I was getting when I signed up to the WWE Network, but even then I’ve been disappointed.

The wrestlers are great. They always have been. The wrestlers have never been the problem with wrestling. Most of them are talented guys who love the artistry of what they do and go all out day after day to entertain people. Its always been that way. The problem was always the business. Vince does what he always did but but now there’s also Stephanie McMahon and Paul Levesque to contend with.

First, the promos. I’ve never been able to listen to 90% of WWE promos, simply because they are so incredibly stupid and contrived. There’s the occasional guy who is good to listen to, like CM Punk or Daniel Bryan; but for the most part they’re insufferable. That’s because the stuff they’re reading has been written by Vince, or by a team of goofy writers and then edited by Vince. So little of the personality, individuality, or reality of these wrestlers comes through. Often when it does, it seems like the wrestlers are punished for it.

I have absolutely no interest, none whatsoever, in seeing either Paul Levesque or Stephanie McMahon on my television screen, unless it’s a documentary about what’s wrong with the wrestling business. I always loathed Levesque as a wrestler when I was a kid, when he debuted with his lame aristocrat gimmick. I thought he was a boring worker, and an ugly and charmless wrestler with no charisma. Watching him insinuate himself into position as the second most powerful man in wrestling over the past 20 years has been hugely depressing. Stephanie McMahon has always seemed to me to share the values and priorities of her father and I think that sense is reinforced in her choice of life partner.

Why on earth do Levesque and McMahon think putting themselves at the heart of everything that happens on WWE TV is going to help business? In 2015, is this what people want? If this is what people ever wanted, which I doubt? Who wants this except Levesque and McMahon? The funny thing about wrestling fans is that they generally watch for the wrestling, not for the other stuff; that’s supposed to help provide a context for meaningful wrestling matches. How does Levesque and McMahon being at the centre of everything help build storylines or shape meaningful wrestling matches? Seeing Stephanie preside over the women’s division is like Brooke Hogan running the TNA Knockouts. But it’s nothing compared to watching Levesque put himself at the centre of everything, from WWE title feuds, to being the centre of attention for NXT where he’s hailed as some sort of demigod because he allows people to work normal wrestling matches. Watching Sasha Banks talk in the buildup to the Bayley v Banks ironman match about how Levesque is like a father figure to all the NXT wrestlers, and how they all want to do him proud, really made me sad, knowing what this man has done and how many wrestlers’ careers he has helped to bury. Levesque is doing the same thing he always did, exploit everyone and everything around him to put himself over at all costs. The ones who lose out are the fans and the wrestlers.

But the centrality of Levesque to WWE programming doesn’t just strike me as being about his own sheer egotism. It’s also about maintaining the centrality and supremacy of the WWE brand. Having married into the McMahon family, Levesque is the ultimate company man, and is routinely used by Vince to demonstrate the superiority of his company and product to that of everyone else. When Brock Lesnar returned to WWE in 2012, his mainstream reputation as an MMA fighter and legitimate badass was unquestioned. Of course, Lesnar lost his first big match after his return to John Cena, and then entered a feud with Triple H in which he lost the highest profile match at Wrestlemania 29. Although Lesnar was later to have significant win streaks and took Undertaker’s undefeated streak at Wrestlemania 30, this was only after he had safely put over the WWE brand via his losses to Cena and Triple H and himself became subordinated to the WWE brand. So long, UFC.

A similar process happened after the WWE signed Sting in 2014. Sting is a legendary figure in pro wrestling history and also iconic as the only North American wrestling superstar to have had a decades-long career since the 1980s and never signed with McMahon. As of time of writing, Sting has had two WWE matches. His first, inevitably, was a loss to Triple H at Wrestlemania 32. His second was a loss to WWE Champion Seth Rollins, in which Rollins injured Sting in a hard-hitting match after a series of buckle bombs. Rollins beat Sting having gone back-to-back after a match against John Cena in which Rollins lost, and after which Cena left Rollins laid out after multiple finishers. The very talented Rollins was also in the midst of what can only be described as a chickenshit heel champion run where he was about 1-20 in singles matches in the last couple of months; but he still managed to beat Sting! So, regardless of whether Sting would ever have any more matches in WWE after his injury, the fact that he was inferior to the company man (Triple H) and the heel WWE champion, who routinely lost to everyone else, was established.

This kind of strategy is central to WWE booking. The ultimate goal of it is not to create new stars, or to get wrestlers over with fans in a big way, but rather to perpetuate and maintain the WWE brand. Everything is subordinate to that. This makes sense from a standpoint of corporate strategy, but it sure makes for lousy entertainment. This is also reflected in the quality, or lack thereof, of the announcers. From an entertainment or storytelling point of view, it is hard to imagine how the likes of Jerry Lawler, JBL, or Michael Cole could be much worse. But again, they are there not because they are good announcers, but because they are slavishly loyal to the company line and will put over whatever McMahon wants. What he wants is nearly always something about the WWE brand rather than anything about the wrestlers or the match they are trying to have.

This was one of the things that infuriated me about the Cena v Del Rio match at HIAC. I personally don’t care for either wrestler. That said, I saw a good deal of Del Rio’s main event run in 2012, and thought it was underwhelming, to say the least. But of course the announcers were putting it over that his previous feud with Cena was legendary and one of the greatest things in WWE history. It was really absurd and completely untrue. The feud wasn’t even one of the best things in WWE in 2012. I’m willing–no, like most fans, I want–to suspend my disbelief when watching wrestling. It’s part of the entertainment and escapism. But when I’m being told obvious lies to my face the scales fall from my eyes and I’m left looking at the product for what it is. And I don’t want to see it.

Of course, one of the other reasons I was so angry about this match was that I knew Cena was taking time off after HIAC, and would be out for a couple of months. So, I figured whoever he faced would be winning the US Title. I was gutted when I found out this would be Del Rio. He was clearly going to be hot-shotted to a title, and that even rarer honour, beating Cena, immediately after re-signing. I wouldn’t care about this if the guys who actually deserved a break in WWE got them in a timely fashion (Danielson, Ziggler, Tyson Kidd, etc). Would it really be so hard to have given Dolph a win over Cena instead? Before he suffers a career-threatening injury like Kidd or Daniel Bryan? I guess so.

I was angry enough at that point, and the fact the second match was Wyatt v Reigns was enough to make me switch off. By all accounts it was a surprisingly good match, but the point here is that WWE has done absolutely nothing to make me care about either of these characters, and even worse, I have no faith that a match featuring them will mean anything or be any good. So, I switched the network off, and cancelled my subscription.

With the pay-per-view business collapsing and Raw TV ratings tanking, I wonder what state the business will be in the next time I decide to give it a look.

FILM REVIEW – Crimson Peak

My girlfriend and I have been looking forward to seeing Crimson Peak for some time. And not only have we been looking forward to seeing it; its a film we wanted to do well at the box office. It’s rare I feel strongly enough about a movie to care about that side of things, but the reason is this: we really liked Sons of Anarchy, and both of us really like Charlie Hunnam as an actor. With Sons having wound up, this movie feels like it is coming at an important, perhaps decisive, time in determining where Hunnam’s career goes after this. So for that reason, we wanted the film to be a success. Secondarily, both of us really like Jessica Chastain (duh), and also are fond of Guillermo del Toro’s films. Speaking of which, Pacific Rim was fantastic and obviously Hunnam was in that, but the film didn’t really make bank at the US box office. Neither has Crimson Peak, it appears, but we’ll get to that.

So, we wanted very much for Crimson Peak to be a top quality film, on the level of Pan’s Labyrinth. Sadly, it didn’t really deliver, although it’s not a bad film. Most of its weaknesses stemmed from its opening Act. Setting up the relationship between protagonist Edith (Mia Wasikowska) and the English ‘Baronet’ Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), a character straight out of David Cameron’s Cabinet, the opening felt like it dragged on far too long; partly because it was difficult to care too much about either of the two main characters. There is a storyline involving Edith’s ambitions as a writer which never really goes anywhere; otherwise it’s just Edith falling for the nefarious but charming Sir Thomas against her father’s wishes. The more interesting characters were rather in the background in this section, particularly Sir Thomas’s sister, Lucille (Chastain), and Edith’s father, the self-made millionaire Carter Cushing (in a welcome appearance from Jim Beaver of Deadwood fame). The tedium is punctuated by a shockingly violent murder, the impact of which is lessened by the surprising willingness of the other characters to assume that it was an accident. It’s always difficult to sympathize with stupid heroes.

The film does pick up once it moves to its eponymous locale in England, and we start to get some scares. The impact of these is rather detracted from, though, by literally the first scene in the film, where a ghost appears to a young Edith bearing a warning to ‘Beware of Crimson Peak!’ The ghost itself is rather frightening, and reminiscent of the creature from ‘Mama’, of which del Toro was a producer. However, scary as the ghost is, it is actually trying to help our heroine; so once the apparitions start appearing later on, we’re already expecting that they will actually help rather than hinder poor Edith, as of course it turns out. Instead, most of the actual fear in the movie comes via an intimidating performance by Chastain, who does an excellent job of portraying a seemingly reserved character with terrifying fits of rage brimming just beneath the surface. Some of the scariest moments in the film actually involve Chastain spooning porridge out of a bowl or holding a cooking pot in a threatening manner, which goes to show less is sometimes more in these things.

The film winds its way to its conclusion in two hours and the conclusion is fairly satisfying and predictable. Overall, the highlights are definitely Chastain’s performance and the stunning cinematography and visual design. On the other hand, the plot is somewhat lacking and we found it hard to care very much about what was going on. Which was a shame. Also, I personally can’t really get behind Hiddlestone as an actor, although I preferred him in this to his appearances in the lamentable Marvel films. I would have preferred seeing Charlie Hunnam in the ambiguous villain role as the likable ophthalmologist he plays in this doesn’t really connect and it is hard to see that this will do very much for his career.

Rather like Pacific Rim, it seems that Crimson Peak’s showing at the US box office has been underwhelming, but a strong international showing has gone some way to make up for that. Hopefully del Toro will attempt more films in this genre, although he could do with a stronger plot next time. Apparently Hunnam is starring in a couple of films due out in 2016 (including a Guy Ritchie film where he plays King Arthur and a biopic about the explorer Percy Fawcett), so we don’t need to start worrying about his career just yet.

7/10