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Sunday, 26 January 2014

Pacific Rim

Pacific Rim.

Here's a slightly odd confession that might shock slightly but won't really appal anyone: Until Pacific Rim, I had never seen a Guillermo del Toro film. Yes, I know. It's moderately terrible. Lightly singe the non-believer.

I did try to watch Pan's Labyrinth, and that I stopped about ten minutes through had little to do with the film and more to do with my being somewhat distractable at the time. Still, Pacific Rim was a landmark moment for me – not a major landmark, like the Eiffel Tower, but a minor landmark, like the Wytheville Giant Pencil. I was losing my Guillermo del Toro virginity, by which I mean I was watching a two hour film, not that I was engaging in any sordid activities with a no doubt lovely Mexican director.

Pacific Rim looked like it was going to be a fun film – it was obvious from the trailers that this was not going to be high art, and I don't think anybody went into the cinemas with the expectation that it should be. It was always advertised as a light, fluffy action film that heavily referenced the kaiju and tokusatsu genres. Del Toro said as much, referring to it as 'airy and light.'

It doesn't disappoint. If you're the kind of person who idolises Frank Miller as your god and thinks that all action films should be grim, dark and bloody, like the The Dark Knight Rises and Man of Steels of the film industry, this will be a massive letdown. But if you watch expecting, as advertised, giant robots beating up equally giant monsters, you're in luck: There is plenty of that.

What elevates Pacific Rim from a fun but ultimately forgettable action film – because while it is fun, very little stands out as overtly remarkable – is Idris Elba's performance as Marshall Stacker Pentecost, the main characters' leader and mentor.

The other actors aren't bad, by any stretch of the imagination – Charlie Hunnam and Rinko Kikuchi put in fine performances as the two leads; Robert Kazinsky, Burn Gorman and Charlie Day all do well in portraying their over-the-top, caricaturish roles. But Elba easily stands head and shoulders above the rest of the film's cast, and easily steals every scene he's in.

(The role was initially offered to Tom Cruise. You may take a moment to ponder that, if you will.)

Elba's performance is easily one of the quieter of the displays on show, so the best way of describing why he is so engaging is that he oozes a certain presence. Like some kind of fiendish eyeball magnet, he sucks all of your attention towards himself, and imbues every stare, word or movement with an unnerving gravitas.

Apart from that, Pacific Rim is more or less what you'd expect: Robots punching monsters while everything explodes.

The one part that made me prickle slightly in irritation was when they hastily tried to shoehorn in an environmental message. Yes, global warming is a very bad thing. We should do something about it – but amongst the many and varied reasons why we must sort this problem out, 'because monsters might invade' is not one of them. 

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Sherlock Series Three

Sherlock: Series Three.

This time, I said to myself, we're going for three out of three. A series of Sherlock in which there isn't a single episode that I hate.

'Hate' isn't an overstatement. With each series of Steven Moffat's modern adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's detective stories, I have found at least one episode utterly repulsive. In Series One, it was the second episode, The Blind Banker, an exercise in mediocre writing and directing turned all the more sour by an ongoing theme of mild racism. In Series Two, it was the first, A Scandal in Belgravia, in which Irene Adler – known in the original stories as a fiendishly clever but ultimately noble con-woman who forever earns Holmes' admiration by outwitting him with extraordinary ease – is ultimately turned into a dominatrix, falls in love with Sherlock, is revealed to be working for another man, is outwitted by Sherlock Holmes instead of vice versa, and ends the episode as a damsel-in-distress. It's a sad day when your modern adaptation is more misogynistic than the Victorian story you based it on.

But this series of Sherlock had a strong opening, one that gave me hope that good things were to come. While in the past, Sherlock has seemed like an amalgamation of Moffat's fantasies than anything (something that seems to be a running theme in his shows), in The Empty Hearse, the long-awaited first episode of Series Three, we see a Sherlock who is more prone to failure, who comes across less as a kind of pornographic aide for Steven Moffat and more like a brilliantly intelligent but deeply flawed character.

The story itself, a tale about an evil MP attempting to bomb Parliament, is standard Sherlock fare – fun but not particularly coherent, sufficient for purpose but far from the most memorable thing about the episode. As ever, more interesting are the details surrounding it, whether that's the interplay between Sherlock, Watson and Mary Morstan, or the various imagination spots depicting ways in which Sherlock could have survived his (non-)fatal fall at the end of the last series.

(A little The Killing Joke, I won't lie, but the similarity is no doubt wholly coincidental.)

Overall, I enjoyed the first episode, possibly more than I've enjoyed any previous Sherlock offerings. But I was wary still – this first episode was written by Mark Gatiss, by far the most talented of Sherlock's writing team, and could very easily just have been a fluke.

Mere days later came the second episode, The Signs of Three. While it was one that divided opinion, I admit that I enjoyed it nearly as much as The Empty Hearse. The episode was a departure from the series' standard fare, replacing the adventure and crime-fighting with a slightly saccharine and often awkward series of slice of life scenarios, as we listen to Sherlock give a wedding speech, with flashbacks dispersed amongst it.

A lot of people were understandably annoyed that their mystery drama had been replaced with something that would not have been at all out of place in How I Met Your Mother. Since I've never found the mystery plots in Sherlock particularly compelling, I was not one of those people – instead, I relished watching, again, a Sherlock who seemed more deeply and more overtly flawed than the Sherlock of previous series as he interacted with Watson and Mary, who seemed to have taken the role of surrogate parents for him.

We did get a brief hint of a mystery plot towards the end. Like most of Sherlock's mysteries, it strained suspension of disbelief nearly to breaking point, but it was fairly inoffensive.

So, we were doing well! Two episodes in, and I had enjoyed both. I had loathed neither. All that remained was our series finale, a Moffat-penned story about Sherlock tangling with professional blackmailer Charles Augustus Magnusson.

As some of you may have guessed by now, this story doesn't end well.

With Moffat at the helm, Sherlock returns full force to all of the bad habits of its first two series. The plot is stylishly pulled off, but nevertheless a sprawling, stumbling, incoherent mess just barely held together by characters behaving in the most absurd ways possible – why, I asked as Magnusson gloated gleefully over having no physical evidence, would a master blackmailer reveal to a 'high-functioning sociopath' (that still isn't a thing that actually exists, by the way) and an ex-soldier that all their problems could be solved by killing him, thus painting a gigantic target on his own forehead? Why, if he is so eager to blackmail Mycroft, does he not take advantage of John Watson being in his house after a shooting and accuse him, thus giving him prime blackmailing material? Why does Sherlock wait until he's surrounded by witnesses to shoot Magnusson?

But as I've said before, I have never thought much of Sherlock's plots, and my enjoyment of it (when I do enjoy it) is not dependent on a story that withstands even the lightest prod at its foundations. But the episode hinges on the twist that Mary Morstan, John Watson's wife and general all-round awesome character, is actually a sociopathic assassin who worked for the CIA. This should have been the kind of shocking plot twist that rocked me, especially since I like Morstan a lot as a character. Instead, it left me cold: Whether because we didn't know get to know her well enough beforehand or because I simply found it impossible to sympathise with John and Sherlock as they sat her down and proceeded with a sneeringly judgemental mini-trial – a frankly bizarre exercise in hypocrisy when one of the two was, earlier in the episode, revealed to have been cultivating a long-term relationship so that he could gain access to an office.

Without either an intriguing and well-crafted plot or emotional weight, what does the episode have left? Well, misogyny, as Molly is implied to be angry and emotional at Sherlock primarily due to her relationship collapsing (what was the point of that relationship crumbling off-screen again? Did it add anything to the plot? Was it, as I am increasingly starting to suspect, just to imply that Molly can never move on from Sherlock and is, proverbially, 'ruined for other men'?), while Janine is shown selling stories to the tabloid press and fiddling with someone's pain relief.

It also has a mind palace sequence, which was the high point of the episode. It was creepy, it was well-shot, it had Andrew Scott back as Jim Moriarty – it didn't really do anything, except demonstrate the imagery of the mind palace, but it was impressively stylish. So that was good. Can't fault the mind palace sequence.

Series Four is likely not far off, and with the (possible) return of Moriarty, it's set to get off to a good start. But I'm not holding out hope that I'll like more than two episodes of Series Four, either. After all, the third time wasn't the charm, so why should the fourth? 

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag.

Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag.

Assassin's Creed has always been a slightly tricky game series to pin down in terms of quality.

Assassin's Creed had a sparkle of inspiration, beautifully designed settings in an uncommonly used era and place, but was bogged down with repetitive gameplay and deep, abiding confusion as to why your medieval Syrian character spoke with an American accent. Assassin's Creed II continued that theme of fascinating settings and bolstered it with a greater variety of gameplay – but as its spin-offs wore on, more and more optional gameplay was added, leaving the games unpleasantly cluttered.

Assassin's Creed III was arguably the lowest of a bunch. Crammed to the brim with enough poorly implemented minigames and sideshows that I often felt like I was desperately trying to escaping the grasping claws and ravening teeth of an entire village development simulator hiding in the belly of my ridiculous historical stealth game, they also made the baffling decision of setting it in one of the most boring eras of history.

The American War of Independence is many things, but interesting is not an adjective which could ever be applied to it, being as it was a prolonged pushing and shoving match between two functionally identical groups of genocidal white Englishmen. Even American fans seemed to be enamoured with the setting less because it was interesting and more because a game set in America was somehow reassuring to them, a soothing balm in the face of the abject underwear-wetting terror that had come with alien locations such as Acre, Damascus, Venice, Rome and Constantinople.

But Ubisoft did its very best to milk the era anyway, consigning a coherent plot to the waste bin in favour shoving era-appropriate politicos at you or dropping you at the sites of notable battles in the frankly baffling hope that you'd be able to distinguish them from any other battle that has taken place in history. Often, Ubisoft was a tangible presence, looming over you and softly hissing “Are you feeling patriotic yet?” like some kind of Tea Partier Gollum.

Thus, I was arguably a little wary when Assassin's Creed IV was coming out. Pirates? Seemed a bit pandering. You'd spend half the game at sea? Not very good for free-running.

As it turns out, both concerns turned out to be correct: Pandering is this game's middle name, throwing practically every named pirate from history it can feasibly work in to the game at you. Before the game is done, you have become acquainted or close friends with Blackbeard, Mary Read, Anne Bonnie, Jack Rackham, and about a dozen more, and it feels as clumsy in this game as it did in the last.

As for free-running, well it's true that it's down from the last game, but the sea sections aren't really to blame for that. They're frequent, that is for sure, and awkward at first, but before long become quite fun. The real problem is that when on land, almost all of your missions are variants on 'follow this person without being seen or getting too far away', and involve you flinging yourself from well-placed bush to well-placed tuft of grass as you pursue a meandering figure past guard checkpoints. It helps that your targets are quite unobservant: At one point, I murdered a target's entire retinue of guards as he made his way through the city, and at not a single point did he seem noticeably spooked by his compliment of guards having suddenly vanished.

Where the game really excels is when it drops you into an area filled with both guards and places to hide, and instructs you to achieve a simple objective – kill a target, acquire a key, reach an important location, it hardly matters precisely what it is. You're left with your start point and your end point, and all the choice in the world of how to get from one to the other, and the gameplay thrives on that kind of freedom. But even that isn't without its issues, as game often seems to conspire to, through the use of watchtowers who can see almost everything around them, pinned down in the same piece of grass for increasingly long and frustrating periods of time.

But in spite of all of these problems, Assassin's Creed IV is, unlike its immediate predecessor, actually fun. A lot of fun. I found myself enjoying the sailing sections, and I even found myself enjoying the endless follow-the-target sections by the end. While the plot occasionally bordered on the incoherent, I always knew roughly what was going on and roughly what still had to be done.

But probably more important than all of those things is that unlike your character from III, Connor Kenway, your avatar for this game, Edward, is actually interesting and fun to be around. Connor had, regrettably, all of the personality of a particularly boring log; Edward, meanwhile, is alternately playful and serious, deeply conflicted between his mercenary tendencies and his better nature, beset by bad habits and delusions of grandeur that lead him astray more than once. It's genuinely fascinating to see what he'll do next, and the game is not shy about punishing his many, many mistakes.

Even the sections set in the present, where you play a silent first person protagonist wandering around the headquarters of an (evil) game development company, were a blast, not least because of Ubisoft's cheery self-deprecation.

Assassin's Creed IV is a game that shouldn't work but does, with what would be painful flaws in any other game pulled off with enough grace and panache to make them genuinely engaging. With Ubisoft's rapid-fire development rate, too, it won't be long until we see them tackling another setting from history. If they tackle that one with as much flair and skill as they did the golden age of piracy, then Assassin's Creed V should be an excellent game.

Final Ratings:

Gameplay: 7/10
Story: 9/10
Graphics: 9/10
Total: 8/10