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Sunday, 23 February 2014

Romeo and Juliet (2013)

Romeo and Juliet (2013).

In theory, making an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet should be the cinematic equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel with a high powered sniper rifle at point blank range. You already have your script, and it's one of the most beloved stories in the history of the English language; you have a title that will instantly draw in an audience; and it isn't exactly difficult to find actors who have performed the roles before on stage. Romeo and Juliet should be the film industry's equivalent of a World War II first person shooter: Something that you can churn out with very little thought and still end up with something that isn't wholly painful.

So why on earth is Julian Fellowes' adaptation of Romeo and Juliet so painfully awful that every minute felt like I was trying to slog through mud?

That isn't an exaggeration. Every minute of that film, from the blandly narrated opening monologue onwards, dragged to such a degree that forty minutes through a one-hundred-and-eighteen minute film it became too painfully boring to continue and I had to switch off.

It would be nice if I could point at a single overriding issue, as I have sometimes done before, but instead I find that there's nothing good I can say about it.

The screenplay is an odd mixture of over-simplification, inaccuracy (“Mercutio, of the House of Montague,” is one of the earliest lines, thus instantly rendering at least two major plot points nonsensical), and fidelity to the text in the strangest places: Often it seemed like any sequence of dialogue that would contain even the barest trace of Shakespeares' characteristic wit was taken apart, simplified to its blandest and most straightforward form, and then reconstructed in painfully forced faux-Renaissance language.

Combined with the frankly appalling acting from the entire cast, from leads Douglas Booth and Hailee Steinfield to unexpected big name Damian Lewis as Lord Capulet, each one whispering their lines with the kind of flat, emotionless drone that in real life would bring a person under instant suspicion of being an evil robot, and the film is the cinematic equivalent of the colour beige.

This is not a story lacking for sharp, dramatic moments, and yet not a single one is capitalised upon. The crowd brawl of the play's beginning is replaced with the most sedate jousting tournament ever, where horses calmly trot towards each other while their riders delicately nudge at their opponents' shoulders; when the brawl scene does come around later, it is two minutes of lethargic pushing and shoving before Prince Escalus strolls past, mumbling something about how they should really stop that. The balcony scene is stripped of any kind of urgency, as Romeo and Juliet meander around reading their lines like Year Eights in English Literature. Mercutio's Queen Madb speech, which in better productions like Baz Luhrmann's is a show-stopper, is instead muttered while the camera gently flicks back and forth between a staring Mercutio and an equally staring Romeo, and Benvolio is left to quietly wonder if his friends are doped up on sedatives.

I can only be left with the assumption that this is a kind of prolonged character assassination against Shakespeare. Maybe he killed Julian Fellowes' parents and now Fellowes is seeking revenge by besmirching his good name. Maybe his revenge is not yet full-wrought and we'll soon be seeing a Hamlet production that no body can watch without falling into a deep, deep coma. 

Monday, 17 February 2014

El-Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron

El-Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron.

El-Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron is an odd duck of a game.

Not in terms of gameplay – disappointingly, that treads all too familiar ground, being an uninspiringly basic hack and slash with equally uninspiring (and often quite awkward) platforming elements. There are a few little things that mix it up: As your enemies almost exclusively use the same weapons as you do, you can disarm them for an easy win, and every so often you have to purify your weapons, with purified and unpurified weapons acting differently.

For the most part, though, the gameplay is nothing to write home about. It's functional but unremarkable – there's nothing poorly tuned or awkward about it, and it handles just fine, but it lacks any spice, verve or variety to make it engaging.

What makes El-Shaddai strange – and I mean that in the best way – is the plot. Based on Biblical apocrypha, the story is that of Enoch, great-grandfather of Noah (of Ark fame) and, according to various mythologies, a scholar who was taken by God and transformed into the angel Metatron.

The game expands on that basic skeleton a lot, and in strange ways – in it, Enoch, a heavenly academic, is called upon to hunt and kill seven of the Watchers, fallen angels who have conceived children with mortal women, or else God intends to destroy the world with a flood. It's worth noting that in the Genesis flood narrative, this is actually one of the reasons for the flood that Noah escapes from: You can't say Ignition Entertainment hasn't done their homework.

(Well, you probably could, but let's not dwell.)

So with this task in mind, Enoch sets out, guided by four archangels in the form of swans and a pre-fall Lucifer who, for some reason, is always encountered chatting on a smartphone with God. That bizarre mix of modernity and antiquity continues throughout the game, as Enoch, clad in white armour over a pair of stylish denim jeans, passes from crystalline caves beneath a glowing sky, to a blurry, greyed out river, to a technologically advanced city composed entirely of floating platforms amidst a kind of hellish disco, complete with strobe lighting and lasers.

It's a very attractive looking game, but the settings are somewhat disconcerting: There are very few visual clues to place them anywhere in relation to each other – as you pass from crystal cave to grey river to disco city to dark tower and beyond, you can never see any evidence of where you came from or are going – and the levels themselves are often bizarrely non-euclidean, curving around on themselves or forcing you to go around in circles, even when you're sure you're moving in a straight line. It, along with the generally surreal design anyway, gives the entire game a dreamlike quality, one that is only helped along by the snippets of cryptic dialogue from the archangels, both encouraging and somehow sinisterly derisive but never clearly phrased, as they soar overhead.

The plot is never really explained, either. You're dropped into the game, and expected to sort through the cryptic remarks bit by bit – and in a way that makes sense, since when the game starts, Enoch is meant to already know his mission. But it does make things very confusing early on.

The plot feels ambitious, even if the gameplay isn't, but it's impossible to tell whether the disconcerting dreamlike quality is intentional or not, and it makes the entire game distractingly unsettling. But I can respect ambition – and if Ignition Entertainment had been more ambitious with the gameplay, this might have been the kind of arthouse-y game I really enjoy.

As it is, I didn't really, and that's a shame. 

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

DNCG: Jack Britton's Discussion Kitchen.

DNCG: Jack Britton's Discussion Kitchen.

In my last post, in which I took considerably pleasure in venting about a day and a half's moderate frustration at a book I hadn't expected to be good, I also promised a review of the comedy show I saw, DNCG: Jack Britton's Discussion Kitchen.

How exciting,” I imagine nobody said, although if you did by all means inform me, “a review of something in the theatre.”

This is that review.

Jack Britton's Discussion Kitchen, the third in the Dan Nicholas' Conversation Garden series (the first two I have regrettably not seen) and the first of three in that series taking place during the Leicester Comedy Festival, was a comedy chat show/triple act show intercut at various points with kitchen and balloon themed burlesque.

It advertises itself as a chat show in which random audience members are interviewed using random audience-submitted questions, and the chat show sections are indeed a lot of fun, with host Jack Britton exploring a guest's story of firing a firework out of a chicken, and searching through audience questions only to immediately draw out a post-it note simply reading 'Don't ask me that.' That they're improvised is clear, unavoidable and, I should think, surely inherent to the concept: There is nothing more obnoxious than a scripted chat show, especially one that proclaims randomness, so it was pleasant to see that, no, the audience members were truly picked at random, as were the questions, and the chatting that resulted was organic. The three performers have more than enough charisma both individually and as a group to pull off the improvisation, so it works well.

But the show's main strength is the interplay between its three performers, and the scripted sections between chat segments that highlight that. Each performer plays, at least to some degree, a comedic role, with Dan Nicholas providing stony-faced and often brutal deadpan to Jack Britton's affable ebullience and Lewys Holt's gormless cheer. Arguably, some of the show's best moments come from sections that force the three into absurd situations, such as Dan Nicholas' retelling of Orpheus (which would have been funny enough on its own, with a Hades that is deeply confused by Orpheus) taking place on a revolving 'storytelling disk', and Jack Britton's failed attempt to do the same (resulting in a haiku, which, we are informed by a furious Nicholas, should instead have been done on a 'haiku ropeladder').

The burlesque performances that provided occasional breaks from the comedy, allowing for at least one costume change, were impressive – Bella Bardot and Marilyn Minx, who performed them, brought flair and personality to the dances.

The only true test of a comedy show, though, has to be whether it makes you laugh, and as you can probably guess from my earlier enthusiasm, it did: I was easily in stitches throughout the majority of the show, and nearly three days on I'm still finding myself chuckling at the memory of certain parts. So I'd call that a resounding success.

Dan Nicholas' Conversation Garden has two more shows coming up this month, with the next one being Lewys Holt's Banter Bathroom on the 14th at The Criterion, Leicester. Similarly, Upstairs at the Western, the delightful theatre that this show was performed at (it's above a pub, don't – don't tell me that's not delightful) has several shows coming up in the near future, which can be found on its website. Do a google search.

Meanwhile, I am going to proceed to wonder if the views for this post will break me past one-hundred pageviews. Just eight more to go. Just eight more.

Monday, 10 February 2014

The New Recruit by Andy McNab.

The New Recruit.

This review is late.

I just thought I'd get that out of the way. In this case, it's late because I was travelling, and seeing a show at Leicester Comedy Festival, which is definitely the best Leicester-based comedy festival taking place during February that I know of.

The show I saw, DNCG: Jack Britton's Discussion Kitchen, showing at the Upstairs at the Western theatre, will be getting a review on this blog some time this week. It is not, however, the subject of this review, as the particularly sharp amongst you may have already guessed.

Train station WH Smiths are the saviours of harried people who need something to read and, in this case, review for their terribly book-free review blog. As I perused the shelves, I found a rather slim volume with a confused looking young man on it, titled The New Recruit by Andy McNab, and with a blurb that, er …

… Well, it didn't sound interesting, to be honest, but it sounded short and outside my usual tastes in books, so I thought I'd give it a shot, seeing as this was on Saturday and I had a review to write by the next day (that went well, didn't it).

The New Recruit is the story of Liam Scott, a young man who, the blurb informs us, accidentally kills his friend with a prank. Don't open the book expecting to see that part looked at in any detail: After about three paragraphs worth of flashbacks and about three sentences spent on his reaction, the book hurtles forward into his Army training, as if to go “THAT'S WHAT WE'RE ALL HERE FOR, AM I RIGHT? NOT THIS ~EMOTIONAL~ STUFF.”

Perhaps for the book's target audience, that really is what they're there for, and I can't really blame Andy McNab for catering to them. But in that case, why bother with that tidbit of backstory at all? With the exception of the prologue, Liam never seems to be at all traumatised by this incident, nor does he blame himself – if anyone brings it up, he's quick to point out that it wasn't his fault, that the friend in question just tripped while on a rooftop. It provides motive for a minor antagonist to try to kill Liam, but to be honest, if there's any narrative set-up that allows for someone to very rapidly decide to murder a comrade without the need for a shared backstory, it's We're a set of army recruits and we're out on an extremely stressful and dangerous tour of duty.

So I can't really blame McNab for skipping over that, even though I really, truly want to. Nor can I really malign the quality of the writing, which is technically quite good, even if it's never exactly striking. What I can blame him for then, is that his main character has the approximate personality of a brick and is about as interesting as Barbara Windsor's Book of Boobs if it was rewritten into a five act play by Anton Chekhov.

I can see the thought process that took place. Liam is meant to be an everyman, a boy who could in theory come from any part of the UK (we are indeed never told where he comes from, except that it isn't Birmingham), could fit into roughly any social class from working to upper middle, and who can be identified with by a fair proportion of this book's target audience. But 'everyman' does not have to mean 'dull', and Liam is dull. Painfully, torturously dull, to the point where if I had to describe his personality to you right this second, the only thing I would be able to come up with is 'suspiciously quick to deny fault in his friend's death.' The only thing that might have spiced up his character, some inner torment over his involvement in the death of a friend, is skimmed past nearly every time it comes up.

It would help if we had any other three-dimensional, interesting characters to bear the load. We do not: We have Liam's commanding officer, whose personality starts at 'gruff' and ends at 'but fair'; we have minor antagonist Mike, who is 'bitter and sinister'; we have Cameron, who is 'working-class but more overtly than Liam if Liam is 'working class'; and we have someone else, whose name I don't remember (and might be Cameron again?) whose personality is 'sometimes makes jokes'.

No women, I will note, and while the setting does have an excuse for that, being mostly based on the front line of Afghanistan, there – are women in the Army, and in Afghanistan. Women servicemembers have been instrumental in operations in Afghanistan, so would it kill you, McNab, to put a single one in?

Far be it from me to doubt Andy McNab's portrayal of the armed forces, though, since, as the publishers strain to inform us at every opportunity, he had a long and decorated military career prior to becoming an author. But I do have to say that, as a total layman who knows nothing about the Army, McNab's portrayal of it, in addition to lacking any women (even if that is realistic, and I'm not convinced it is, that bothers me), seems weirdly inconsistent.

It's not just that every time it seems to be being portrayed as particularly tough, a character will cartwheel by and sing 'But so rewarding!' at the audience just in case they forgot. That's fairly standard, I've come to expect that from everything from soldiering to midwifery to tennis by now. It's that the Army is presented as hyper-effective when McNab is making a point, and oddly powerless when the plot demands it. Much is made of the iron authority of Liam's commanding officer, yet when Liam, who has never given said officer any reason not to believe him because that would require a personality, accuses another soldier of attempting to murder him, his response is “Well, both of you stay away from each other for now.” It's roughly the same response you'd get if a child in primary school told his teacher that Jimmy with the weird hair (Jimmy does have weird hair, it's better we accept that now) was poking him constantly.

I won't say that The New Recruit was disappointing, because my expectations were not blindingly high for it, but Heart of Darkness it is not. What it is, apparently, is part of a series, with its sequel The New Patrol hitting bookshelves soon.

I can't decide whether I want to read it to mock it, or whether I want to stay far away from it. We shall see. 

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Broken Age

Broken Age.

Broken Age, a point-and-click adventure game coming after two and a half years of development, is potentially a major test (although far from the only one) of the viability of Kickstarter in producing quality independent or semi-independent game. In this case, Broken Age comes from the minds of Tim Schafer and Double Fine, best known for the psychedelic and hilarious action-rpg-puzzle game Psychonauts, in which you play as an eleven year old psychic unravelling a conspiracy at a psychic summer camp. The Kickstarter, which asked for some four-hundred thousand, instead drew in almost three-and-a-half million, so expectations were, understandably, quite high.

So the three million dollar question is, I suppose, does it live up to expectations? It's a question to which I honestly don't have a simple answer.

Broken Age Act 1 (with Act 2 coming out later this year) has two separate stories which only join together at the end, but which can be switched between at any time: That of Vella Tartine, a young girl due to be sacrificed to hungry eldritch abomination Mog Chothra, much to her chagrin and her family's delight; and that of Shay Volta, a young boy who is the only living resident on a spaceship run by an AI with an overprotective mother.

There's an interesting contrast between the two: Vella, who is in real danger, constantly finds her quest to kill Mog Chothra derided as pointless or unnecessary by the people around her, who deny (in an almost Kafka-esque manner) that she is in any kind of danger or that the multi-eyed, tentacled, maiden-devouring creature is anything other than wholly benevolent and delightful. Meanwhile, Shay, who is never in any kind of danger and who even when he escapes the Mother's 'games' appears to have just found new games to play, is constantly forewarned of the terrible danger and responsibility he has on his shoulders.

In general, the story is a bizarre, hilarious romp, although each half of it has its own weaknesses: Vella's story, while the far more genuinely funny of the two, sometimes seems to lack direction; while Shay's occasionally tends towards repetitiveness, and has a humour that lacks some of the edge that has characterised some of Schafer's earlier works. In general, though, both are great fun, well-crafted, and leave you wanting more at the end. There are plenty of questions left unanswered, but they don't feel like plot holes - they feel like things that will be answered when Act 2 comes out. It helps that the art style resembles a children's storybook, as the narrative often deals with the nature of childhood and adulthood, with each character's story acting as a miniaturised bildungsroman in which they attempt to escape the influences that have kept them bound into childhood.

A lot of people have pointed to the gameplay as a rather shallow affair, by the standards of point-and-click adventures, and I can't disagree. Compared to the standard set by games like Broken Sword and the Monkey Island series, the puzzles are very simple, mostly consisting of finding an item from one NPC and using it to solve a nearby puzzle. It's a problem, and one that could do with being attended to in Act 2, but it's not a deal-breaker.

Where the game really falls down is the slightly suspect length and price tag. For nineteen pounds, you can get Act 1 (weighing in at about three hours) and, at an undisclosed date later in the year, Act 2 (presumably the same length) as a free download. It's not a lot of content for a price that is almost half that of a triple-A game, especially when you consider how far over its target the Kickstarter went, and that the game was made using an open-source platform.

For some, that may be more than worth it, especially considering both the production pedigree (Schafer and Double Fine's works remain some of the finest story-driven games in the industry) and the voice-acting chops (including people like Elijah Wood, Jennifer Hale and Jack Black). For me, it comes as a stretch: No matter how good a game is, that is a lot of money for very little content.

Ultimately, I find myself more and more won over to the side of 'it was worth it'. The game lacks length, and its gameplay could do with being meatier, but its story is as exquisitely crafted as it is utterly surreal, and there's a lot of mileage in that.