Monthly Archives: March 2013

“Doctor Who – The Bells of Saint John” review

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“I’ve never seen a Jammie Dodger so scrumptiously perfect”

It usually takes me a couple of viewings to make my mind up about the episode which heralds the return of “Doctor Who” and I suspect that “The Bells of Saint John” is no exception.

For some reason – wanting to ease the wider audience back into the rhythms of the show, to introduce new characters, to just have fun with the premise – it always seems to me as if the opening salvo of each series is a little lighter and somehow less substantial than the episodes which come to follow.  Not that this is bad or ill-advised, per se, but I never quite feel that the Tardis is fully firing on all cylinders until episode two or three (Technically, of course, this is episode seven of series seven, so my misgivings shouldn’t apply).

The story dealt with a very contemporary fear – the extent to which technology enters our everyday lives and encroaches on our freedom via our inability to deal with it, which is a notion that I’m sure strikes a rueful note for any brave soul ever charged with the dire responsibility of providing technical support for computer-averse friends and family.  The villain of the piece this time utilised dear old endlessly useful wireless internet signals and used them to…do nefarious stuff.

I’ll not go deeply into spoilers, but the methodology of the Big Bad in this episode didn’t quite ring true for me on this first viewing – it smacked a bit of that notion ‘because…science?‘, which probably plays quite well with folks who view their modem and router as terrifying technology daemons which inhabit their living rooms and blink malevolently at them several times a second for no good reason.

The villain was, it may come as no surprise at all to you, hardly a match for The Doctor but the bad guy’s machinations did give Matt Smith‘s big kid in funky Edwardian clobber a chance to meet cute again with Clara – a charmingly sparky and energetic Jenna Louise Coleman – who we last saw in the Christmas special, having just died for the second time.

Clearly, her nature and repeated appearances in vastly different times and galactic locales will constitute an ongoing mystery and its to current “Who” show-runner and gigantic brainy overlord Steven Moffat‘s credit that you do want to know what her deal is and how she’ll come to affect the Doctor’s in the rest of the season.  I’ve read one theory to the effect that Clara constitutes a kind of Moorcockian ‘Eternal Companion’ and it would be interesting to know just what Moffat would do with that idea, were it to be an accurate assessment of just how the expiry-prone Clara fits into his master plan.

"Computers - how do they work?"

“Let me update my status…”

The story rattled along nicely, sure enough, but it didn’t seem to add up to much on first viewing – save for a last-minute appearance by a malevolent character we saw quite recently, albeit in somewhat different form than the last time that we encountered them (vague enough for you?), this was essentially stand-alone, monster-of-the-week stuff.   I suppose it’s daft to feel that the Doctor is ever really going to be truly challenged by the menaces he encounters, but this was somewhat a case of the Doctor waving his Sonic about, loudly asserting his intellectual dominion and then saving the day because he’s The Doctor and that’s his gig.  No real sense of the day not being saved – and so not much dramatic tension as a result.  First episode syndrome, and no mistake.

I don’t do ratings – meaningless things, be they numeric or arbitrary and letter-based – but if I did, I’d probably say this was a solid B-plus, perhaps an A-minus.    Extra marks for Clara rushing into the fray still carrying her cup of tea.  A nation salutes you, fine miss.

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White House Redux

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No sooner has Gerard Butler saved 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue from wholly plausible and in no way absurd destruction at the hands of terrorists in “Olympus Has Fallen” than another screen hunk is up to the same patriotic larks.

Hollywood does love high concept duplication of effort, after all: we’ve had duelling volcano, asteroid, CGI Insect fable, Robin Hood and even Alfred Hitchcock films since 1990, so it’s no surprise that 2013 sees not at least two movies set amidst the smouldering ruins of a White House under terrorist attack.  Puzzingly, schlockbuster DTV studio The Asylum have been entirely remiss by not cranking out a Z-budget, franchise-aping homage to this trend.  Perplexed ain’t the half of it…

The aforementioned “Olympus…” is now out and garnering decent notices – as much for saving Gerard Butler from the inglorious rom-com movie jail he was seemingly doing time in.   The redoubtable Den of Geek even dubbed it a better “Die Hard” movie than the apparently dire “A Good Day To Die Hard“, which probably suggests that multiplex audiences might have preferred to see John McClane duking it out in the Oval Office than in Red Square.

Late June, then, sees the arrival of Jamie Foxx, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Channing Tatum (and Channing Tatum’s omnipresent nipples) in serial White House mangler Roland Emmerich‘s “White House Down” and a new trailer for said action opus has arrived, bringing with it amazing scenes of America under siege, panicky news people reporting on artfully staged chaos and Mr Tatum’s sweatily exuberant protuberances bewitching all who encounter them (I understand that Channing’s bits have their own three picture deal at Fox).

I’m intrigued to see what Roland Emmerich does with an unabashed action movie for a change – his stock in trade is the contemporary disaster movie and whilst he’s an old hand at laying waste to global monuments and iconic buildings, that doesn’t necessarily mean that he’ll be able to deliver on the tropes that fans of earnest blokes in increasingly dank vests wielding sub-machine guns seek from their Friday night frag fests.

The film opens on June 28th in the US, and in September in the UK.  It’s almost as if the subject matter won’t resonate quite so much with us cynical Brits…

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From our symphonic melo-pop-death metal correspondent …

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Spring?  It has sprung!  Well, it probably has somewhere in the world (the UK is presently shivering through the last snowy vestiges of a Winter which has long-since outstayed its welcome), so why not celebrate sunnier times ahead by enjoying the new, sophomore release from Swedish/Danish musical magpies, Amaranthe?

Pop diva hooks, growling harsh vocals, keyboards duking it out for riff-mungous supremacy, drums galloping along – Amaranthe’s sound is rather akin to a bizarre and distinctly pleasurable backstage mix-up at “A Song For Europe” with lots of genres colliding together and making for a pleasingly orthodox metalhead baiting mix of tunes.

For an example of the bonkers fare which awaits you if you pick up this record, why not try out the title track on the Tubes of You?

 

 

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The Fast and the Furyon

After months of drip-fed stills, we’ve finally got a first look at the new “Riddick” movie in motion.

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It’s a teaser trailer in the truest sense of the word, clocking in at a brief 22 seconds, but no doubt acts as the outrider for a longer glimpse at What Vin Did Next – perhaps due in front of an audience primed and ready for the vehicular smack-down of “Fast Six“?

Whilst many an online movie outlet has been downright sniffy about the low-key publicity campaign that Diesel and longtime collaborator David Twohy have been engaged in – most updates on the project have come directly via Diesel’s Facebook group – I can’t help but feel that this strategy is a smart one which might be copied by any new media-savvy star.  Why not convert that millions-strong Twitter following into engaged consumers storming the box office come Friday night and the release of your new flick?

Films increasingly cost an absurd amount of money to make, and any way of engaging and reaching out to people who will get the word out to their friends and family about a new release can only help a film’s opening weekend in a marketplace which is more competitive than ever.  This third outing for “Riddick” is, after all,  a more stripped-down effort than the second film’s budget-straining, Sci-Fantasy universe building, so surely any attempt to intelligently engage with an audience who want to see the film has to make more sense than blanketing television channels with adverts that Tivo owners just zip through?

We’ll see who has the last laugh when the film opens in the US on September 6th.

 

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Cumberbatched Into Darkness

It’s a Thursday, there’s precious little on TV – why not take in the latest trailer for “Star Trek Into Darkness”?

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This would be the “Empire Strikes Back” of the reborn “Star Trek” movie franchise, then?  I’m guessing so, what with the doomy tone, Benedict Cumberbatch‘s messianic sociopath running amok and blowing up half of the planet and the gloriously blatant shuttle craft/Millennium Falcon riff showing up in this two minutes and 15 seconds of face-melting, nerd glee.

Oh, and if you’re into that kind of thing, Alice Eve‘s character apparently can’t afford clothes.  Hollywood double standards, how do they work?

Have a new poster for the movie whilst you work that one out…

"Star Trek Into Darkness" - none more dark, squire...

“Star Trek Into Darkness” – none more dark, squire…

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Heroine Complex

Running from the forces of patriarchal ass-hattery, "Remember Me" heroine Nilin

Running from the forces of patriarchal ass-hattery, “Remember Me” heroine Nilin

How difficult is it for video games developers to include female characters in their title?  Bafflingly tough, if two news stories this week are to be believed.

No sooner has French developer Dontnod revealed that publishers turned down their upcoming title “Remember Me” as it featured a female lead,than one of “Mass Effect 3″’s writers indicates that the games industry is actively resistant to featuring female characters.

If your game’s lead is a smart-mouthed dudebro, you’re on easy street but anything outside of that slight , gender-fixated design stipulation is an uphill sell, it would seem. So much for inclusion and broadening the audience, eh, chaps?  I suppose we can take some comfort from the RPG genre, where the demands of flexible character creation will out and more diverse options are frequently available but what’s to say that the next-gen can’t offer us a bit more diversity from our action platformer hybrids and shooty-shooty stabby-stabby fests.

There’s a case to be made that simply reskinning the male lead with an alternate female character model and doing nothing subsequently to address changes in the story would be almost as bad, but shouldn’t developers be trying to use the level of horsepower at their disposal to give us more choice?  Hello, player agency?  Or is that just a meaningless buzz phrase with zero actual meaning?

I suspect that some spurious marketing data suggests that people don’t buy games with female leads (just as Marvel are unlikely to make a “Black Widow” or “She Hulk” movie because nobody went to see “Elektra” or “Catwoman“), but this argument always strikes me as remarkably bogus and far too convenient.

A good game with a central female protagonist, person of colour or any non-traditional lead will sell if the mechanics are solid and publishers support it – the issue that I note time and again is that Game X is green-lit, gets good preview word of mouth and then falls over at retail because there’s no marketing behind it.  You can’t get people to buy a game if they don’t know that it’s out there.  I doubt that most consumers would actively boycott the next “Call of Duty” if you were playing a female Marine in some near-future combat scenario – they’d want to blow stuff up and head-shot dudes and the gender of the first person avatar you were inhabiting wouldn’t necessarily resonate that much.

Of course, I’m sure that the number of polygons and bump-mapping complexities necessary to render the ladies convincingly is the problem, and certainly not residual banal sexism and creative mindsets firmly locked in the 1950’s.  FYI, games industry, you’re not supposed to want to be Don Draper, lads – he’s kind of a dinosaur.

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“Tomb Raider” – Lara’s Renaissance

To quote Lady Croft herself, "I can do this..."

To quote Lady Croft herself, “I can do this…”

TL;DR verdict? “Tomb Raider” is a fantastic game.  Buy with confidence.

Whether or not Lara Croft‘s latest Crystal Dynamics game is a true entry in the series or such a departure that it constitutes an adjunct spin-off is worthy of further discussion, but the title stands on its own.

It’s a little too early to start shouting about ‘game of the year’ considerations but this latest Lara adventure is a cinematic adventure of such quality that it rivals generation-defining PS3 titan “Uncharted 2: Among Thieves” for sheer thrills, visual splendour and storytelling.  Given that the second Nathan Drake game is probably in my top two games of this generation, that’s no small complement.  I’d hope to see this title get it’s due come the end of the year, but I suspect that “Bioshock: Infinite” has game of 2013 all wrapped up unless the shipped product has been somehow inadvertently swapped out in the disc-pressing stage for a tie-in “Smurfs” shovelware effort.

Katniss who?

Katniss who?

Having listened to this week’s episode of the “Weekend Confirmed” podcast, I know that redoubtable host Garnett Lee will disagree in particular with my estimation of the story, and he’s entitled to feel misgivings towards it, but I really feel that this tougher survival story achieves the difficult balance of giving equal importance to character and plotting, pitching a younger Lara Croft through the proverbial mill whilst sketching out some of the elements of her persona in a way which should please long-term fans and players who’ve never picked up a “Tomb Raider” game before.

No game is perfect and often bears the hallmarks of influence . This game at least has the taste to be influenced by really good stuff. As well as the aforementioned Naughty Dog‘s awesome PS3 adventure series, you can pick out gameplay mechanics popularised by Rock Steady’s “Batman”games (Lara has a ‘detective vision’-like ‘survival instinct’ which highlights useful equipment and environmental tools), a gear and skills upgrading system which recalls latter-day “Call of Duty” multi-player perks and the foreboding dread of classic survival horror title “Resident Evil 4” as well as a scene in a charnel pit which is right out of Neil Marshall‘s magnificent horror film, “The Descent”.

The gore and combat can get a little overwrought, it’s true, and might put off some long-time fans who’ve felt that Lara is better when she’s exploring and traversing than when she’s sneaking up on some misogynist cult member and sticking arrows in his gullet but I see this as a real step forward for the character and a tantalising glimpse at what Crystal Dynamics might do with next-gen hardware – the PS3 version that I’ve been playing is utterly beautiful to behold.

Lara’s next game (and the inevitable “Uncharted 4”) might just be the reasons that I pick up a PlayStation 4.

 

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