From Beyond (film) – Review

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From Beyond marked another collaboration between Stuart Gordon, Brian Yuzna and Dennis Paoli after their cult hit Reanimator. As with Reanimator, From Beyond saw them craft a new tale based on a HP Lovecraft story, and also saw Gordon cast some of the main actors used in the earlier film. Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton therefore make a return, alongside charismatic giant Ken Foree from Dawn of the Dead. It’s something of a B-movie dream team, in other words, and it’s a bit of a shame that From Beyond never really lives up to its potential. Nevertheless, this is still a better than average horror movie with a few particular points of interest.

From Beyond’s first scene sees Combs’ character Dr Crawford Tillinghast activate a machine called a Resonator, which sort of blurs the boundaries between our reality and a nightmarish dimension’from beyond’. This other world is full of hellish creatures who basically want to devour humans, body and soul. In something of a role reversal from Reanimator, Combs’ character here is a relatively blameless research assistant, and it’s his boss who is obsessed with carrying out obviously crazy research. The Resonator has an affect on the pineal gland in the brain, and after the initial disaster which sees his mad boss decapitated, Combs is consigned to a mental hospital. However, he’s rescued from the asylum by Crampton, who plays a medical researcher keen to learn what Crawford and his boss discovered about the potential of the pineal gland. Yep, From Beyond makes healthy use of the trope that ‘we only know a tiny fraction of what the brain is capable of’. So, out of the frying pan and into the fire–Crawford leaves the madhouse to return to the mad house and have another go on the Resonator.

Most of the film subsequently revolves around Crampton, Combs and Foree investigating the Resonator, and dealing with the inevitable consequences. There are a number of interesting scenes, but the pacing feels a bit off and certain sections go on for too long. At times it feels like a haunted house movie, with characters entering trances and dream-states. Not only is there a dimension-bending evil machine in the attic, but Crawford’s boss was big into S&M and his bedroom is basically a sort of sex dungeon. Thankfully, the writers made good use of this by taking the opportunity to place Crampton in a dominatrix outfit, which was a scene I didn’t mind the film taking its time over.

The special effects are quite variable, and although the first scene features some really appalling, cheap-looking creatures, later on there’s some quite inventive and rather disturbing monster design. There is some real body horror here. Also, the, er, stimulation of the pineal gland leads to some quasi-parasitic results that might make you squirm and chuckle at the same time.

From Beyond is a movie all serious horror fans should see. It has an all-star B-movie cast and production team, and it’s also an interesting and somewhat entertaining film in its own right. Provided you don’t expect it to be as good as Reanimator, you shouldn’t end up disappointed.

7/10

 

Would You Rather (film) – Review

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Would You Rather is a consummate horror B-movie, which may be a good or a bad thing depending on your point of view. The grammatically suspect title tells you what you need to know about the film’s simplistic premise, which sees a bunch of people forced to play a nightmarish game of ‘Would you rather?’ In terms of plot, this is about as basic as it gets. But within its rather limited ambition, the film manages to be very effective.

Would You Rather assembles a quite remarkable cast, with a keystone performance from Jeffrey Combs. Combs is something of a horror legend due to his role in the classic Lovecraftian 80s horror film Reanimator, but his movie appearances since have been sadly few and far between. It’s delightful that he has so much screen time here, and he shows his characteristic ability to inhabit weird and disturbing characters with a trademark fusion of menace, humour, and a disarming vulnerability. Combs is a special talent and he makes this film. He plays Shepard Lambrick, the wealthy head of the Lambrick Foundation, an ostensibly philanthropic body dedicated to giving down-on-their-luck Americans a second chance. Just so happens their way of doing this is by subjecting them to horrific torture in the guise of some kind of social experiment or as a means of ‘re-educating’ them. The film superficially satirizes inequality in modern America and particularly the philanthropy of the rich and powerful, but ultimately the story and script just serve to set the scene for ninety minutes of increasingly bloody action.

Would You Rather’s superb supporting cast features familiar faces from a motley assortment of movies and TV shows. As if Jeffrey Combs wasn’t enough, Would You Rather also gives us Ricky from Trailer Park Boys, Victor from Dollhouse, D’Angelo Barksdale from The Wire, porn legend Sasha Grey, and the dad from Home Alone. What’s all the more amazing is that they all have proper parts. If there was any justice in the world then whoever cast this movie would have won an Academy Award.

Most of these poor sods have been lured to Combs’ mansion by the prospect of a lucrative prize if they win his mysterious ‘game’. Everyone involved has some kind of life problem that has rendered them desperate, mainly drug or gambling debts; while our heroine and main character (Brittany Snow) is trying to raise money to pay the hospital bills for her kid brother, who is dying from cancer. Everyone has agreed to participate in the event without knowing what is entailed, and they quickly find out that once they’ve started participation is no longer optional. Thus begins the world’s most sadistic game of ‘would you rather…?’, which quickly escalates into torture, mutilation and murder.

As you may have guessed, this is not a film for the squeamish or faint of heart. But then you’re unlikely to come across this film by accident, and if you’re seriously considering watching it chances are you’re already a fan of the genre. Even then, this isn’t as nasty as some other more famous ‘torture porn’ movies, and on the whole it has a bit more of a black comedy feel than some other examples of the genre. If you find yourself short of a horror movie some Friday or Saturday night, you could do a lot worse than give this one a try.

8/10

The Witcher 3: Hearts of Stone (PS4) – Review

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The Witcher 3 finished on a pretty dramatic and emotional note, for me anyway, so it was always going to be a bit of a challenge for the DLC to continue Geralt’s story in an interesting and meaningful way. Hearts of Stone was the first of two major expansions released for CD Projekt Red’s game, and both expansions are now bundled with the base game if you buy the GOTY edition which is currently retailing for £35. This should be an absolute no-brainer for anyone who hasn’t played it yet and who is even vaguely interested in Western RPGs: Witcher 3 is one of the best games of all time, and a single play-through including DLC is going to take you about 200-250 hours, easily. So, money well spent.

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That said, only a small portion of those hours will likely be spent in Hearts of Stone, which at 15-20 hours is relatively light on content–by Witcher 3 standards, if not those of the games industry as a whole. Hearts of Stone is set in Velen, adding an extra part to the map in the hinterland between Oxenfurt and Novigrad. I actually liked this, as one of the best things about Witcher 3 was the congruity of its topography and its sense of place, so in a way I preferred them expanding Velen than moving the action to a new location entirely, as happens in the second, much larger, expansion Blood and Wine. Although you might assume the expansion doesn’t make extensive use of new computing resources, I did notice one or two bugs and graphical glitches while playing it; noteworthy simply because during 200 hours in the base game I barely experienced any technical problems whatsoever.

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Hearts of Stone is based around a single significant quest, and I’m pleased to say that the writing featured in this story is up there with anything you’ll experience during the main game. Several new characters are introduced: some are completely new, while others are welcome re-appearances of characters from older Witcher games and the wider Witcher universe. As is normally the case with the Witcher, the main story is rather dark and unnerving at times, but is also full of pathos, humour, and poignant and moving moments. As with the main game, the balance of story, setting, pacing, and characterization is exquisite, and makes for a level of immersion almost unparalleled in video games. Hearts of Stone is also notable for containing one of the most entertaining and downright funny sections I’ve ever played, and what’s all the more impressive is how long this section lasts. Some games would sell a quest like that as a DLC in its own right, but here it’s a minor (but extremely memorable) episode in a much longer, winding story.

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Hearts of Stone’s main quest is exceptional, but the expansion is relatively light on side content–or at least, some players might have difficulty accessing it. Some of the new content requires Geralt to fork out a lot of cash, which will be a problem if (like me) you blew all your savings on upgrading multiple sets of armour before completing the game. On the plus side, it means there is still some content to set aside for a New Game Plus run, but it does mean that some players will likely miss out on this. One of the reasons this is a bit of a shame is that the characters associated with this content are traveling merchants from the kingdom of Ofier, and whose inclusion addresses the criticisms of “whitewashing” leveled at the original game (which I discussed at length in my review).

Just as I got the feeling a bit more could have been done with the Ofieri, who have a distinctive philosophy and outlook which provides a refreshing take on the game universe, I felt like the ending to Hearts of Stone’s story was a bit abrupt. It’s possible this was the result of choices I made, and another play-through might reveal extra scenes: another reason, as if I needed one, to try and play this whole game again.

9/10

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Collateral (film) – Review

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As a huge fan of Michael Mann movies such as Heat and Last of the Mohicans, I was super-excited to see Collateral when it came out in 2004, and I wasn’t disappointed. Collateral is a taut, fast-paced thriller about a disciplined and clean-cut Los Angeles cab driver, Max (Jamie Foxx), who picks up the fare from hell one night. Said passenger is “Vincent” (Tom Cruise), a charismatic and ruthless hitman who bribes, then coerces, Foxx into being his designated driver for one night only, as he assassinates a bunch of targets across LA. It’s a simple premise, but thanks to some tight writing, stunning cinematography, and several excellent performances, it makes for an extremely entertaining and quite memorable film.

Collateral was one of the first movies to make extensive use of high-definition digital cameras, and you can really notice it. Mann has always had a talent for shooting cityscapes, especially at night, and that knack is evident here as much as in Heat, Thief, or his otherwise forgettable version of Miami Vice. The contrasting shades of blue, in particular, are really quite beautiful. One of the film’s most famous sequences sees a coyote trotting across the freeway just in front of Foxx’s cab: a completely unscripted event, of course, but one which the crew was able to capture with the new hi-def cameras, and it does add something to the final movie. Just as Collateral captures something essential about LA, from a technical point of view it also captures a moment in American cinematic history.

Cruise is a hugely charismatic actor but he is also a natural heel, and he is perfect for the role of Vincent, which must surely go down as one of his best roles. Vincent is a wisecracking, charming, and entertaining killer who is prone to backseat philosophizing but who has a fundamentally nihilistic view of the world. Collateral also featured a debut of sorts from Mark Ruffalo, who does well portraying the sympathetic LAPD detective Ray, on the trail of Max’s taxicab of death. Soon after this film came out Ruffalo became pretty much your typical jobbing actor, but back in 2004 I thought his character was the epitome of cool. I even wore my ear-ring the same way he did.

Of course, this was a break-out role for Foxx as well. Foxx is certainly a likeable actor, and here shows natural charm and a talent for comedy when given the chance. That said, I’ve never really bought into Foxx either as an everyman (as he starts out in this) or as a tough guy (as he ends up). T. pointed out that his role would have been perfect for Will Smith, and I absolutely agree that the Will Smith of 2004 would have taken this movie to the highest level. Jada Pinkett Smith is here, of course; maybe that’s what brought it to mind.

Collateral is a film you’ll remember for several of its scenes and conversations, as well as its cinematography. Pinkett Smith has a resonant monologue in the back of Max’s cab when she describes the pressures of maintaining a high-powered career, while Max finds himself having to talk round some extremely powerful and dangerous drug barons–something which just minutes before he would have thought impossible. This is one of the themes of the film: Vincent constantly harangues Max, teasingly trying to push him to make more of himself and realize his potential, yet never really meaning any of it; even while the situations he puts Max in force him into a kind of metamorphosis. One of the best sequences, though, is a shoot-out in a Korean nightclub, which stands out even today as a remarkable technical achievement and an awesome spectacle in its own right. The nightclub scene also features an extremely cool trance tune, a highlight in a consistently excellent soundtrack.

Looking back, Collateral stands out as a supreme technical and artistic achievement. My only complaint is that it peaks too early, and the last section is a bit of a disappointment, somewhat formulaic after 80 minutes of highly inventive and flawlessly executed action. Nevertheless, this is a classic American action film, and probably the last great film of one of the best filmmakers of his generation. Everyone should see it, and Blu-ray is the perfect format to appreciate its technical accomplishments. As Vincent might say, why wait for tomorrow?

9/10

Fargo (season two) – Review

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The second season of Fargo acts as a prequel of sorts to the events of the first, and follows a largely new set of characters. The anthology format means we get another host of fairly big name movie and TV actors, just like True Detective was able to entice Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey as they only had to sign up for one season. We don’t get anyone quite of that caliber here, but nevertheless, a cast with Patrick Wilson, Ted Danson, Kirsten Dunst, and a number of other recognizable actors, is pretty impressive.

The season starts quite well, although the mass murder which gets the ball rolling feels a little contrived. The main plot sees Fargo’s Gerhardt crime dynasty start to crack under pressure from the Kansas City mafia. The Gerhardts have controlled organized crime in their part of Minnesota for two generations, but find themselves presented with an ultimatum by the larger operation. They’re told they have to sell up or be put out of business. One of the few thought-provoking parts of the series is this reflection on the impossibility for small-scale family enterprises to contend with impersonal, nationally integrated corporate structures. Most of the drama revolves around the internal Gerhardt family disputes as they face up to the mob. As one of the Kansas enforcers says to the Gerhardt matriarch, if one of his guys disobeys him, he’ll kill him; a choice not readily available when your employees are your own children.

This series has a pretty high body count. Much of this is down to Hanzee, a First Nations enforcer loyal to the Gerhardt family, and particularly to Dodd, the oldest surviving brother at the start of the series. This is a pretty trope-heavy depiction, and Hanzee is very much the strong and silent type, killing in a rather cold-blooded manner though generally with a clear reason and with no apparent enjoyment. There are also a couple of typically ‘kooky’ Minnesotans who somehow get caught up in the middle of the gang warfare: Ed and Peggy Blumquist (Dunst), a butcher and hairdresser who simultaneously show terrible judgement and a strong will to survive during the course of the season. Peggy, in particular, comes across as insane by the end of the season, but Ed has his moments too. Disappointingly, the other main characters are yet another family of cops, revealing a distinct lack of imagination or ambition from the writers. At least there’s no Colin Hanks this time.

One of the strengths of this season is that, at times, it moves away from the absurdist Coen brothers style of the original movie and the first season (think Frances McDormand saying ‘oh yah?’ into a telephone for minutes on end). By contrast, at times the second season feels comparatively serious, aided by some impressive performances. Ted Danson in particular is really good here. Unfortunately, the season is still prone to hokey surrealism, and in the end is badly let down by its script. Almost every conversation includes characters going into long-winded metaphors or reciting stories about ‘the old times’ in order to make a tortured point, or to try and intimidate someone. When used properly–and sparingly–this technique can be very powerful, and in recent years has been used very well by Cormac McCarthy. However, the key here is the word ‘sparingly’, and you have to know how to mix things up. Your characters should be able to convey menace or charisma by a means other than telling stories, and the upshot of it here is that almost everyone, appearances aside, ends up seeming quite similar. A few individuals don’t rely on this method of dialogue, but then they’re mainly marked out as imbeciles and figures of fun. Our comic relief is supposed to come in the form of a drunken lawyer, fond of conspiracy theories, but I found him largely intolerable.

The unfortunate thing about this season is that it comes off the rails just at the moment when it should be starting to come to a climax, about two thirds of the way through. Right about the time the Gerhardt-Kansas City war takes off, there are a number of baffling plot inconsistencies which are necessary to create later set-pieces, but which are highly incongruous in themselves and rather spoil the overall sense of immersion. The show is also guilty of appalling overuse of a narrator, which is jarring, unnecessary and lame. Any detail or subtlety which you might want to leave to the viewer to figure out is instead rendered explicit courtesy of the grating voice of Martin Freeman. Attention TV used to be cool; is that not a thing any more? I can’t think of a single instance when a narrator has added to my enjoyment of a movie or TV series, and it certainly doesn’t help here.

Every single episode of Fargo starts with a claim that the events are all true. This is a lie, of course, which harks back to the original 1996 film. It made the same claim, a claim that was believed by many who watched it. This was before the internet, remember. Now, you could argue this is just a ‘cool’ throwback to the original film; and if it was just done at the beginning of the season, I could get behind that. However, they do it at the start of every single episode, and it sits wrong with me. It’s gratuitous, and it cheapens drama which is truly based on real events. But that’s not all. As mentioned above, so much of the dialogue here consists, tediously, of stories within a story, layer upon layer of fiction that would have you believe it is fact. The ending is framed by evocative scenes of racist abuse and violence, against the backdrop of a real historic massacre of Native Americans at Sioux Falls. And then, we have flying saucers. Just, you know, because. I guess it will give film  students something to write their dissertations on. Ultimately, Fargo’s second season is postmodernism at its finest or, to put it another way, at its worst.

5/10

 

 

Resident Evil: Revelations (Wii U) – Review

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Resident Evil: Revelations is a bit of a strange one. It was released for the 3DS in 2012, and having found critical and commercial success on the handheld console it was ported to the HD consoles PS3, 360, and Wii U the following year. Playing it on the big screen now, it looks reasonably good, but nevertheless belies its handheld origins. Textures, particularly in the few outdoor areas, look a bit flat, while some characters’ faces look angular and lacking in detail. Chris Redfield looks weirdly puffy, but Jill Valentine fans will be pleased to know Capcom went the extra mile to make her look as good as possible.

Jill is the main character across Revelations’ campaign, which is spread across a dozen ‘episodes’. The episodes range in length from about 20 minutes to over an hour, but most are about half an hour. During each episode you can control one of several anti-bioweapon operatives, in a system that anticipates Resident Evil 6’s campaign, which featured four parallel and overlapping storylines. Naturally, considering it began as a handheld game, Revelations is much less ambitious than Resident Evil 6; though perhaps that’s not entirely a bad thing. RE6 was criticized by many for being too bombastic, and Revelations is comparatively focused, a relatively concentrated experience.

The campaign sees Jill and her allies investigating a (you guessed it) B.O.W. outbreak on board a cruise ship in the middle of the Mediterranean. Resident Evil plots tend to be corny as hell, and Revelations takes it even further than most. Floating cities, weaponized satellites in space, terrorist organizations with daft names, a plethora of hidden agendas and ulterior motives… the story is very silly but a good handmaiden to the action and setting. If you like these games you’re not likely to be put off by the plot. You might be put off by some of the character design, though. One of the new characters, Raymond the ‘Cadet’, has an entirely incongruous look–the character is written like he’s supposed to be 19, the voice actor sounds about 25, and the avatar looks about 45 with a downright bizarre, bright red hairdo. Meanwhile, another of the secondary characters, Jessica, wears some rather exploitative clothing, and Capcom aren’t doing anyone any favours here. The series is known for featuring sexy leads like Jill and Ada Wong, but there’s a difference between that, and tastelessness and camp self-parody. This isn’t as bad as Kojima or anything, but even so, much of what is presumably meant as humour or titillation instead comes across as immature and just falls flat.

Most of the game is set on the aforementioned cruise ship, a claustrophobic setting consisting primarily of tight spaces and one which is naturally suited to the limitations of the 3DS. It bears up pretty well on the Wii U too, certainly more so than the few land-based sections which are slightly more expansive and where the graphics suffer because of it. The setting is definitely creepy, and the game has its share of scares. As a function of the graphical limitations, most of the enemies you meet look extremely basic, although some of them still manage to evoke a strong sense of body horror and revulsion.

Revelations’ gameplay is like a mid-point between the slow, survival horror pace of the classic RE games and the more high-octane ride that was RE6. You get a decent array of weapons, with a limited range of customization options, but ammo is generally scarce and the game does a good job of putting you under pressure. Towards the end, it does start to throw more challenging and frustrating scenarios at you, including some set pieces where you’re pretty much doomed to die the first time you try. There are some inventive boss fights, but the difficulty can be quite extreme, and a cynical person might suggest the developers were trying to eke out what is a pretty short campaign (about eight hours). Moreover, the deliberately clunky controls are not very well suited to some of the more dramatic action that occurs towards the end. While the Wii U’s gamepad is integrated well in the sense that the second screen is used for your map and inventory management, the damn thing is so big that something as simple as switching weapons can sometimes be a bit of a hassle. Not really what you want when you have a group of flesh-eating monsters bearing down on you.

In lieu of the familiar Mercenaries score attack mode, Capcom included a ‘Raid’ mode, a time-attack mode where you play through sections from the game trying to get from A to B while killing monsters and collecting a few bits and pieces. Experience, gear and even ammo is persistent between stages, meaning there’s a reasonable amount of content here. There’s also a New Game Plus when you finish the game, plus an ‘Infernal’ difficulty setting which is ridiculously difficult. Have fun with that.

Revelations is a fun enough little game, and definitely worth picking up if you haven’t played it and want something to do before RE7 comes out. I bought it during the recent Capcom sale on Wii U, when it was discounted from £40 (!) to £8. You can buy physical copies brand new for about £10; I don’t know why Nintendo insists on keeping the base price of digital games so high. Revelations 2 never came out on the Wii U, so it looks like I’ll be scrabbling around with my connections behind the TV so I can play it on PS3. That is, unless I play the remake of RE4 on PS4 first. So much Resident Evil, so little time…

7/10

Castle Crashers (PC) – Review

maxresdefaultCastle Crashers was first released on the Xbox 360 back in 2008, and has since been ported to Playstation and PC. I picked up the PC version in a Steam sale some time ago, planning to play it in co-op mode, but I ended up playing it on my own. That’s not really how you’re supposed to play it, but my impression is that the online community is pretty slim now (no surprise after all this time!), so if you want to play it with others you probably need to rely on people you know getting it.

Castle Crashers is a side-scrolling 2.5D beat em up, where you control a sort of medieval knight on a journey to rescue some kidnapped princesses. Gameplay consists of bashing enemy soldiers and an array of weird fantasy creatures based on animals and toys as you make your way through a number of levels. Your knight gains access to an array of swords and a few other weapons, can learn combos, and can cast a couple of spells for variety. You gain experience for damaging enemies, and as you level up gain points you can use to improve your damage, speed, defense, and magic, giving the game a light role-playing element.

The game was generally quite well-received when it came out, with the graphics being particularly praised. The game has a cartoony look, but is still violent and has a kind of seedy and delibrately ugly style that is quite distinctive. Personally, I’m not a fan of the game’s graphics: I don’t think it’s an attractive game to look at, and I find the unsympathetic attitude to be a bit mean and cynical. More broadly, Castle Crashers tries to be funny, but I generally found the humour to be crass, crude, and just not very nice. The general spin on things is to take something that would normally be cute or innocent, and then twist it into a monster. I prefer the old beat em ups from my childhood in the 80s that featured tough guys and tough chicks beating up street punks. Something about cutting the head off evil teddy bears and seeing cartoon blood splash everywhere sits wrong with me.

The campaign is surprisingly long, featuring a host of levels spread across a world map and broken up by shops where you can buy consumable power ups, new weapons, and familiars–little floating animals that give you some kind of minor bonus. It might be well-balanced in multiplayer, but a single-player game can be quite challenging and you may find yourself having to grind for levels or currency to be able to buy items. This genre isn’t supposed to be easy, of course, but Castle Crashers can become quite grueling. Enemies have a quite surprising amount of health, meaning you have to whack them a fair number of times; you’ll also have to move and dodge pretty much the whole time, and the end result is a lot of button mashing. It can become rather trying.

Some reviewers hailed Castle Crashers as a classic beat em up, but in my view this is a largely forgettable game. If you manage to find some friends to play it with, enjoy button mashing, and if you dig the style of humour, you might have a lot of fun with this. But most people will be better served by tracking down some of the better versions of genuine classics like Streets of Rage, Final Fight, et al. They’re just way cooler, too.

6/10