Friday, 13 July 2012

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter - Apparently, Vampires have blood too

And, with a title like that, who needs a synopsis? 

At face value, one wonders whether or not the historical setting of this film is kind of arbitrary - intended merely to provide a fresh background and setting to what can only be described as pure carnage. 

Well, in actual fact, this story doesn’t do a bad job of merging history with horror and fiction. As paper thin as proceedings might seem in the first fifteen minutes or so, as things progress we see a more considered connection between the fiction and the historic events in Lincoln’s life. The theme of freedom from slavery is strongly present, and Lincoln is indeed portrayed as the hard-working and honest leader who dedicated his life to ensure that all people, who are all created equal, enjoy equal freedom from oppression.
But let’s not kid ourselves. This is still a movie about a guy who kills vampires.

The movie sets out to tell us a story about Lincoln’s dark side... which I can only assume was lost in translation somewhere down the line of recorded history! Abraham Lincoln (Benjamin Walker), as a young boy, witnesses the death of his mother at the hands of slavedriver Jack Barts (Marton Csokas). It is not until some years later he discovers the shocking secret of this cold, sinister individual - he’s an actual vampire! Conveniently, Lincoln is saved by someone who knows all about vampires and how to kill them - that’s right, it’s the guy from Mamma Mia (Dominic Cooper)! For some reason which is not immediately specified, he offers to train Abe up in the art of efficiently slaughtering these undead pests on the condition that he only goes after the marks he specifies. Motivated by pure hatred and the opportunity to one day exact revenge upon his mother’s killer, which his new boss specifically warns against, Abe accepts. 
Now, if it seemed like I dumbed that first part of the story down somewhat - you’d be wrong. That really is all there is to it before we get to the violent bits - that’s what we came to see, isn’t it? 
As for the action and gore, there’s plenty of it. Abe swiftly becomes adept at swinging his axe around and killing things. The movie certainly does it’s damndest to try and show you action like you’ve never seen before, and you will find yourself treated to a few rather imaginative fight and action scenes - especially if, like me, you’re into those which are borderline ridiculous. There’s a bit where the guy Abe’s fighting picks up a horse by the leg and swings it around, using it as a weapon. It is as comical as it sounds, but thankfully it never gets quite stupid enough to spoil the dark tone that they were clearly going for.

But thankfully, this film doesn’t overdo it on either the plot or the action front. Of course, this is much more of a horror/action affair than anything else, but you get decent doses of plot as well - you get a break from the action here, you get a break from plot there. The pacing is actually not bad at all. The biggest breather comes when Abey hangs up his axe to become President and lead his country to freedom with his mighty words, resolving to fight instead with strong words, morals and leadership. But don’t worry, he eventually picks his axe up again when he realises he can’t actually fight hordes of vampires with these things.
As you might expect, the characters in this movie seem pretty shallow. Not that this is necessarily a shortcoming or error on the writer’s part, it’s just a question of where they decided to put the emphasis. There are certain plot-heavy moments which should be pivotal for the characters involved, but this movie places so little emphasis on their reactions and emotions it’s almost abundantly clear that it doesn’t wish to beat you over the head with superficial “character-development” just for the sake of it, as if it knows that you didn’t come here to see any of that stuff.
Once again, the movie is called Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. That title pretty much tells you everything you need to know. It just falls short of being totally one-dimensional - which is absolutely fine if you love that kind of thing. You’ll enjoy it, but... just don’t expect too much else besides the obvious.
In Summary:

+ Nice balance between action and plot
+ Impressive action scenes with nice use of CGI
+ Interesting portrayal of Lincoln - dark and brooding on one hand, but also the virtuous leader history recalls
- Other characters are mostly uninteresting and underdeveloped
- Some scenes with especially badly written dialogue
- You may feel at times like it’s “trying too hard” to impress you

My Rating: 5/10

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Men in Black III: Crazy Sci-Fi + Character Development!

Most time travel movies are pretty stupid. Usually, in an attempt to dazzle and intrigue us, things will end getting so overly-complex that they end up contradicting their own logic. 

The most famous time-travel paradox, The Grandfather Paradox, seems to be the case that gets ignored the most. In general terms, this says that if you go back in time with intent to change a particular event in the past, you mess with the causal chain of events that led to your going back in time in the first place. And that's when sh*t gets messed up. 

But then again, that's makes these sorts of movies interesting, right? And besides, what is this - the new Men In Black movie? Erm... since when did they ever make sense anyway? I suggest we forget about all that "logic" stuff and just enjoy it for what it is, don't you think?

Phew... that was an awful lot of question marks. Anyways, onto the actual film. 
This latest entry to the Men In Black series definitely doesn't disappoint on the ol' wacky aliens and plot devices front. What we have is a deranged and enraged dodgy-alien-thing called Boris (no, seriously) the Animal (Jemaine Clement), whom K (Josh Brolin - "wait, not Tommy Lee Jones?" Hold your horses, I'll explain in a minute) defeated and arrested many years ago, who busts out of his moon-prison and decides it would be a really good idea to go back in time and change the outcome of that particular event. Honestly, these freakazoid aliens have no respect for our lovely, consistent spacetime continuum, do they?
And then we're reintroduced to J (Will Smith, duh) and K (Tommy Lee Jones) as we know and love from the first two movies. J wonders why K is such a grumpy, emotionless old such-and-such. Rather than merely being an inconsequential yet comical exchange between the two, this little moment sets us up for the "real" story of this movie.

One fine day soon after, J wakes up and realises that K doesn't exist. Or rather, he's been dead for about 40 years. Realising that this ain't right, he rushes back in time after Boris, and ends up teaming up with young K (Brolin) to make sure he gets the job done right. Good job we aren't worrying about plot-holes or anything, right?

Anyways... sounds pretty simple, doesn't it? Guy goes back in time, teams up with another guy, they shoot some aliens with big fancy guns and everything somehow gets worked out, right?

That's pretty much what I was expecting, and kind of hoping, to see in this movie. But there is actually something more to it than that. Certainly, this is truly the latest installment of the Men In Black series. It's got the weird aliens, big guns, shooting and crazy fight scenes that you would expect and hope for.

But this movie is best enjoyed - surprisingly - as a character-based story focussing on the relationship between J and K.
With the technology available in this day and age, it's getting harder and harder to impress people with sci-fi. To make a really good sci-fi movie now is to either do something truly groundbreaking, or to tell a compelling story. Ideally, you do both. In this case, it's more of the latter. It's almost as if the writers realised that they weren't going to able to blow people's minds on the technical side of things, so they didn't try to. The result is a satisfying trip into sci-fi territory, the usual Men In Black fare with added time travel nonsense and even talk about possible futures and alternate timelines, that should succeed in entertaining, amusing, and even heartwarming. If you hated the first sequel, don't write this one off before giving it a fair chance - you may be pleasantly surprised!
In Summary:
+All the essential elements of MIB present and correct
+Great, convincing performance from Brolin as a young K
+An extra layer of character development
-Nothing spectacular on the technical front
-Somewhat underwhelming action scenes
-Time travel plotholes all over the place

My Rating: 7/10

Sunday, 1 July 2012

The Making of Andy Murray

The following is a piece I felt inspired to write immediately after watching Andy Murray's incredible third round match last night.

"What I have just witnessed was just incredible. My eyes glued to the screen the whole time... 
I felt the turmoil Andy was going through. I felt the joy and passion he expressed when finally, he overcame it all. 
Tonight, he was tested to the limit.
There were moments I couldn't bear to watch. 
Moments I couldn't look away if I tried. 
There were times I felt like he was on the verge of crumbling.
There were times I felt my faith in him crumbling.

But he hung on. 
Through all the missed opportunities... all the slips and falls... even after suffering a break... he hung in there.
He kept on fighting back, right 'til the end.

He may still have a temper on him.
That volatile child still not silenced.
But he didn't quit. He would never quit.
But the elation we both experienced as he finally got the lucky break he deserved...
which grew as the set drew to a close,
and transformed the atmosphere to a state of euphoria
as the final set stormed by...
as the clock edged up to eleven, he was determined not to leave things unfinished.
The clock rolled past eleven... and that final game got underway just in time...
and he wrapped it up with a bang.
I believe that tonight, he demonstrated that he truly has the spirit of a champion.
Because although he was knocked down... 
again, and again...
he constantly refused to be defeated.
Through all the pain he had to suffer, he fought back and never surrendered.

He will rest easy tonight.

But my elation came to a halt when I remembered...
In terms of this championship,
there is still a long road ahead for him.

On the other hand, the road to becoming a hero is not about reaping the rewards.
It's all about the journey - the trials and obstacles one most face along the way. 
And this man shows no intention of turning back."

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Sonic 4 Episode II: A Good Game, Not A Classic

It seems to me that at least somebody at Sonic Team must understand what makes the classic Sonic games... well, classic. This is quite event in recent rerelease of Sonic CD, with the new “retro” engine put together not by a member of Sonic Team but a talented individual known as The Taxman. The sense of speed, theme of momentum and overall feel of being “a living pinball” that made the original games so groundbreaking is so perfectly captured in this version that it feels like not just an enhanced port, but rather the definitive version of CD.
So why is absolutely none of this present in either episode of Sonic 4? It has been noted elsewhere that, as the game has been developed by Dimps, the game engine is, in essence, the engine from Sonic Rush (2005, Nintendo DS) without the “boost” feature. The defining feature of that game was the introduction of the boost. That feature is what made the engine work and the game fun. Removing it, then, doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense.
Anyways... while the feel of the game is crucial in my opinion, there are a lot of nice things to be said about the game. So let’s get them out of the way.
Visually, the game looks fantastic. The new graphical engine looks way nicer than the one in Episode I, the 3D character models and the more detailed environments breathing a whole new life into the world of Sonic 4. There is plenty of colour, fluidity and detail in the characters and backgrounds alike, and I am comfortable in saying that this particular aspect of the classics is truly captured and continued here. Like the first episode, certain level themes are borrowed from the classic games, but it is far less blatant here and overall it feels a lot less like a “tribute” game than the first did.
The soundtrack seems to be a polarising aspect. Some people quite like it, others seem to truly hate it. The truth is, it does sound just like a Genesis/Mega Drive soundtrack, which must have been what they were going for. Whether this appeals to your tastes or not is obviously subjective. Personally, I quite like it and I find myself enjoying quite a few of the tunes - highlights being the Special Stage theme (which cleverly incorporates the map theme) and Metal Sonic’s new boss theme. However, I have no idea what they were thinking when they decided to axe the perfectly fine and oddly appropriate boss theme from the first episode and keep only the pinch theme. This theme works fantastically well to my ears - as a pinch theme. Problem is, it’s about 10 seconds long. The bosses in this game take several minutes to defeat. Sooooo... yah. You’d think they might have learned from annoying the hell out of people with it in E.G.G. Station from the first episode. Apparently not! Unless they deliberately want to annoy us some more for complaining about it in the first place... 
But anyway. Now for the most crucial aspect - how does the gameplay feel? Well... I guess on one hand you could say that this game engine works perfectly fine. If you consider the engine of the first episode to be “broken”, you will most likely consider this one “fixed”. You won’t find yourself indefinitely sticking to walls and ceilings or stopping dead in your tracks the instant you let go of the controller. But unlike the modern games (and, now that I think about it... the classics), it is still surprisingly difficult to get Sonic up to any decent speed in a short period of time. The classic “spin dash” is... not at all as useful for this as it should be. A number of times I would charge it up and hammer the button a few times excitedly for more power, as you could in the classics, and... well, it just doesn’t work. Mind you, this would explain why they shove springs and speed boosters everywhere...
Now you might be thinking this is just the “Genesis kid” in me talking, and you would have a point - but then, why is this the case here when Sonic Team have shown that they are perfectly capable of producing a gameplay engine reminiscent of the classic games (see Sonic Generations, that came out last year) with these issues virtually absent? 
The answer is simple - Sonic Team dug themselves a hole with the first episode. Even if they understood what was wrong with it, they couldn’t very well make the next episode feel totally different... otherwise, it just wouldn’t make sense. Clearly a very decent attempt has been made to fix what was wrong with the first episode without straying too far from the groundwork laid by that title - just a shame it kind of pales in comparison to the classics. 
Despite everything, at least there are signs that Sonic Team are learning from their mistakes at last. You never know, Sonic 5 could one day become a reality and be what Sonic 4 should have been. However, as it stands, is this game worth paying £9.99 for? 
...well, it’s enjoyable enough, but apart from being kind of short, it just doesn’t seem like that big of a deal. This is a perfect example of game being tremendously overhyped because of it’s title and series history - had this been treated as a little spin-off (no pun intended) downloadable title I doubt that people would care anywhere near as much about it’s shortcomings. That said, it’s still decently fun - and owners of both episodes on the same system will be rewarded with “lock-on” content (mind you, it’s nothing big), so all in all this is not to be passed up by true fans. For the more casual follower, I would suggest - nay, insist - opting for the downloadable rerelease of Sonic CD instead. It’s a far superior product at a fraction of this price.

In Summary:

+ Lovely Graphics
+ Improved Physics
+ Authentic-sounding Genesis style soundtrack (if you like that kind of thing)
+ Bonus “lock-on” content available for owners of Episode I
- Overpriced and overhyped for what it is
- “Pinball” feel of the classics still not perfectly recreated
- Still borrows a little too heavily from the level themes of the classic titles

JiM-X’s Xtreme Nitpicks: still no one-button spin-dash from Generations or Super Peelout from CD? Come on, guys, these were awesome features that deserve to be used in more than one game!!
My Rating: 3/5