Wednesday, 26 November 2014

The Watch

                ‘The Watch’ (Akiva Schaffer, 2012) is one of those movies that’s trying to one-up a classic from the eighties without knowing what it was that made the original film so good. The source material here is Ivan Reitman’s 1984 comedy classic ‘Ghostbusters’, and ‘The Watch’s improvements are what you’d expect of low calibre 2010 comedy – bad sex jokes, annoying idiot characters and over the top gore.
                ‘The Watch’ follows Evan (Ben Stiller), the manager of a Costco in Glenview, Ohio. Evan is a man that wants to be everyone’s friend, and tries to be a prominent figure in the community (whilst very clearly overcompensating for something), and takes pride in being friends with a couple of the towns minorities. However, when one of his workers/ friends is brutally murdered in the Costco, Evan decides to form a Neighbourhood watch to catch the killer, especially since the police department is convinced that it was Evan.
                Unfortunately, only three people volunteer for the watch – talkative Bob (Vince Vaughn), whose more interested in hanging out with guys and stopping his teenage daughter form having sex than he is in the community; high school dropout Franklin (Jonah Hill), who clearly has some mental issues and wants to use the group for vigilante justice; and Jamarcus (Richard Ayoade), a bizarre British black man that’s just moved into the town.
                As the group attempt to investigate the murder, they find something beyond anything they could have ever imagined – aliens are real, and they want to kill everyone.  As such, the group become a ragtag team intent on hunting down the alien menace.
                The similarities to ‘Ghostbusters’ are prevalent throughout the film and are readily spotted in the synopsis, and the film never really tries to shake this similarity away or attempt to do anything with it. Instead, the film simply attempts to provide a modern spin on the idea, and fails horribly due to the lack of any comedic substance in the writing.
                The assembled cast are all fantastic actors and comedians, and regularly show their true comedic worth and presence in both film and television, but here they find themselves without good material to work with, and flounder with writing that seems to have stemmed from the minds of prepubescent’s that think that sex is funny simply because it exists. As such, the movie is filled with sexual jokes that aren’t interesting, clever or, often, relevant. It’s catering to the lowest denominator – the kind of people that keep watching Adam Sandler or Tyler Perry films.  
                This isn’t helped by the overly formulaic plot. Every event in the film is easily plotted and predictable, with nothing coming out of the blue or attempting to surprise. Even the film’s attempt at a ‘twist’ falls flat due to the lacklustre delivery – a combination of poor editing, direction and sound, not to mention the fact that it’s way too obvious.
                What’s more annoying is the inclusion of tropes and plot points that do not need to be in the film. The breaking up of the neighbourhood watch is not needed if they’re going to reform 5 minutes later, and the red herring character is so blindingly obvious that he may as well be a walking red herring (it should be noted that Billy Crudup, who plays the herring character, is not credited despite his important role).
                There are also several moments where plot points occur and are never mentioned again. Of the three murders that occur, only one has any real bearing on the plot and is mentioned again with the other two being simply ignored after they occur. This is perplexing because they give the cops more reason to suspect Evan as the killer, but they are never mentioned until the films end.
                If nothing else, the plot is also too neatly contained. When a characters problem simply is the result of an alien disguised as a human, it suddenly loses a lot of dramatic weight, and characters that have been acting consistently evil (‘dickish’ is probably the better word) suddenly become friendly at the films end. The films conclusions are too neat, and too ‘happily ever after’, resulting in tonal confusion with the rest of the film.
                That being said, the final encounter with the aliens is as tonally dissonant as you can imagine. The entirety of the film has been about a bunch of bundling men with no expertise or training trying to catch aliens, with the finale being a sequence of them expertly shooting down an entire hoard of the creatures in a slow motion sequence. Oh, and they often shoot way too many rounds for the guns they’re holding without having to reload, only to have no ammo in the next sequence.
                There doesn’t seem to have been much effort to produce anything of visual or aural interest either. The direction is subpar, occasionally bordering on average filmmaking, with plenty of shots highlighting the director’s inexperience with film. The music is mostly licensed, and often chosen to un-ironically match the visuals. If the intent was to be ironic, it failed. The original score rarely pops up and is utterly forgettable to the point where I can’t remember if it actually had a score.
                The film’s biggest insult to the audience is its blatant product placement. Much of the film feels like an extended advert for Costco, and the film obnoxiously shoves products in your face at every moment. It feels as though the film were made to get people to go to Costco, rather than as an entertaining work of fiction.  
                The film is also oddly racist. Minority characters exist to either die (Latino), be used for a sex joke (Korean) or end up as aliens (Black). The reason for the alien invasion is ‘because that’s what aliens do’. Evan’s insistence on finding a black friend comes across as that white guy who can point to a POC friend and claim he can’t be racist because of them. It all feels a little awkward, and does the film no favours.
                There are a few moments where the film manages to produce an intelligent line, or have something worthwhile to say, and the cast – whilst wasted – are fantastic. Had this film had a better script, this movie could have been decent, but instead it’s too focused on being rude and crude, with no idea how subtlety and comedic timing (as well as the art of film) works.
                I recommend you go watch Ghostbusters instead. It’s a much better film on every conceivable level.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Whisper Of The Heart


                I have an unwritten rule where I will never say something is my ‘favourite’, as I know that my favourite will change regularly and I like too many things for different reasons to list them as ‘favourites’. There is a single exception to that rule, and that is ‘Whisper Of The Heart’, my favourite film and one I return to frequently.
                ‘Whisper Of The Heart’ , the 1995 anime directed by Yoshifumi Kondo and based on the manga “Mimi wo Sumaseba" by Hiiragi Aoi, is the story of Shizuku Tsukishima (Youka Honna/ Brittany Snow), a young girl that would rather sit around and read all day than have to focus on reality, and dreams of being a writer. After borrowing several books from the library, Shizuku notices that they all have the same name on the library card – Seiji Amasawa (Issei Takahashi/ Davud Gallagher), and Shizuku can’t help but wonder if Seiji is like her, or fi they’re a fairy-tale romance waiting to happen.
                Unfortunately, the reality is less fairy-tale when Seiji turns out to be a smart-ass, and jokingly mocks Shizuku’s re-written lyrics for the song ‘Take Me Home, Country Roads’. They bond, however, over two things – the antiques shop containing a cat statue named The Baron, owned by Seiji’s uncle Shiro Nishi (Keiju Kobayashi/ Harold Gould), and their desire to be creative – Seiji as a violin maker, Shizuku as a writer. When Seiji leaves for Italy to train under a master violin maker, Shizuku makes a promise that she’ll prove her worth by writing a novel in the two months until he returns.
                ‘Whisper’ is two things; a touching love story and a reflection of the creative process, and the film is divided into two rough halves reflecting this, an hour devoted to each (yes, this is an anime romance that’s almost 2 hours long). The opening hour or so tells the romance side, from our introduction to Shizuku through to Seiji’s leaving, with the second halve being Shizuku’s struggle to be a writer whilst balancing her dreams with reality and her families expectations of her. Both sides are equally personal and relatable, and both tell compelling stories in their own right.
                The pacing of the film as a whole is perfect (save for the end, which I’ll get to later), and we spend a lot of time with Shizuku, learning about her as a person and character. Her love of reading and writing is present throughout the film, and is noticeable in her room which is a disarray of books and papers, and her reluctance to do her school work (or chores) is clearly and deeply ingrained in her. She’s a believable character, and is presented as such – she lacks the belief in herself to continue as a writer, and gets flustered when conversation turns to her crush on Seiji, though she’s more than willing to joke about the love lives of others. She feels almost real, and is a perfectly relatable character.
                The entire film is laced with a similar detail. Backgrounds are rich with detail depicting personality and story – the Tsukishima household is a mess as the film opens due to Shizuku’s refusal to help out with chores, but grows cleaner when her sister arrives home; personal desks are filled with mementos and decorations that inform the characters and the audience. The same note is applied to the sound mix and animation – everything is meticulously detailed and rendered. This version of Japan feels like an actual place, and one you’ll want to live in.
                The film’s writing is also laced with added detail. Much of the content of the film is referred back to in the later half within Shizuku’s story, further informing the audience of the artistic journey as well as of adding more to the character’s and our interpretation of them. For example, when Shizuku’s sister leaves, the character in her story finds herself lost and without help, and the plot of Shizuku’s novel is a mirror of her relationship with Seiji.
                The film never makes the creative path seem like the easy choice, either. Whilst some parts are glossed over and only mentioned (Seiji’s parent’s reluctance over him going to Italy, for example), but others demonstrate the real problems of the character’s chosen path.  Shizuku’s family worries about her lack of progress in school, and fear for her future, whilst she quietly eats junk food in her room in a desperate bid to not stop writing. A scene where Shizuku impatiently sits at her desk, trying to write, resonates deeply in the heart of anyone that’s tried and failed to be creative to a deadline.
                ‘Whisper’s music also deserves to be mentioned, as the film has a reoccurring aural theme in the form of ‘Country Roads’. As previously mentioned, the song is re-written by Shizuku, and forms the starting point (and eventual bonding) of her relationship with Seiji. The re-written lyrics also hold a deeper meaning and reflect many of the events in the film, and instrumental versions of the song play throughout the film – most strikingly in the form of a melancholic version near the films end.
                Kondo’s direction, assisted by storyboards by the legendary Hayao Miyazaki, is incredibly good. There are plenty of small moments and touches that exist solely to remind you that these are people with their own lives, and there are a lot of small human moments to show this. There’s rarely a sequence which involves just the main characters, with plenty of sequences having events occur in the background which are simply daily events, or characters greeting unimportant people who never appear again. It’s a small thing, but it goes a long way to showing the personality of the character’s and how they live in the world around them – something that most live-action films don’t do.   
                The film’s greatest failing is in its ending, which just sort of happens and cuts off with no real warning. The sequence itself isn’t bad in itself, though it is a little cheesy (which the characters do mention), but the actual cut to credits is incredibly abrupt and makes it feel as though part of the film is missing. This isn’t helped that a side story involving a complex relationship between Shizuku’s friends Yuko (Maiko Kayama/ Ashley Tisdale) and Sugimura (Yoshimi Nakajima/ Martin Spanjers) is resolved in a silent scene within the credits. Even though the film is trying to retain a realistic story, the sheer abruptness is very jarring.
                I should also note that a lot of the advertising for this film is drawn from a few fantasy scenes that come from Shizuku’s imagination and are visual representations of her novel. This is partially to fit it in with the more popular Studio Ghibli films, such as ‘Spirited Away’ or ‘Howl’s Moving Castle’, and also because the Western World is under the impression that animated romances don’t sell.
                ‘Whisper Of The Heart’ remains my favourite film, and it is certainly a very good film. Is it perfect? No, it isn’t. But it is a film filled with so much love and creativity, and has such a respect for the act of creation that I find it hard to pick fault with it. It’s a film that is more than the sum of its parts, and holds a beautiful and inspirational message within it. I urge everyone, especially those who are creatively minded, to watch it.

                As I write this, I find it oddly fitting that I talk about this film here. Back when I first started Film Studies in secondary school (some seven years ago now), Whisper Of The Heart was the film I chose to show to the rest of my class and dissect. I was mocked for it, of course – I was mocked for everything – but it was one of the films that inspired me to be more creative, and drove to pursue animation and the creative arts.
Whilst I still have yet to break through into the industry, I always remember – and always will remember – a sequence where Shizuku is unsure if she can write her novel. Nishi, Seiji’s grandfather, shows her a geode and the glittering emeralds inside. Shizuku is the geode, and within her lie beautiful and brilliant emeralds, but in order to get them, she must dig deep within and carefully extract them, polishing them and cutting them to perfection. It takes time, effort and hard work, but the result can be truly breath-taking.
To anyone reading this that wants to create, keep trying, keep digging away. There is something beautiful inside of you, something amazing. Never stop, no matter what, and one day you’ll find that beauty and the path you were always meant to take.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

American McGee's Alice

                ‘Alice In Wonderland’ and its sequel ‘Through the Looking Glass’ have been the basis for countless adaptations in media, including books, film, comics, music, art and videogames, which is where we find ourselves today. It’s actually surprising that there aren’t more games based on Alice’s adventures, seeing as they could easily be turned into cheerful games of wise whimsy and intelligent insanity.
                What we have today is not particularly high on the whimsy or the wise, but quite filled with insanity and a degree of intelligence that, whilst not all there is certainly visible. The remaining smile of a Cheshire Cat, as it were.
                In American McGee’s tale, Alice Liddell – yes, the girl that inspired Dodgson (or Carroll, whichever you prefer) to write Wonderland – finds herself back in Wonderland. This is not, of course, the actual Alice Liddell but a fictional Alice, for their lives are quite different, making our character a fictional version of a real person, filtered through an already fictional account of that person. The oddities already begin, despite not even getting past the opening lines.
                Of course, we are already past the opening lines, in our way. We have established Alice is back In Wonderland, but never established why. Some may say that the ‘why’ is not relevant, others that I should have started with the why and then gone to Wonderland. Still more, or those of a literary type, at least, would question if this change in writing style was a chance of emulating Carroll’s – or Dodgson’s – own writing. Whatever the case, words are forming without any meaning, and we are no closer to our goal.
                You see, dear little Alice is no longer so dear or so little. Nor is she so familiar, but nor is Wonderland, for the death of the girl’s family in fire renders the familiar unfamiliar, and the family a familiar memory and an unfamiliar horror. In fact, Wonderland is much less wonderful than it was before (had it ever been wonderful at all), for Alice’s world is now shattered and torn asunder, her mind broken and scattered – as if it were any different beforehand.
                The fire itself was Alice’s doing, a small spark in a library setting home aflame. The poor girl could do nothing for her parents (or is that ‘would’?), and they burnt to ashes and their screams seared into the girls mind. Poor little Alice could not deal with such grief, and her mind lost itself, gone forever. Alone in an asylum, Alice could do naught but dream of Wonderland, and wonder when Wonderland would become Wondrous once more.
                You see, Wonderland is now a place of fire and brimstone, a world cruelly ripped apart from trauma. The Red Queen has gone quite mad, you see, and fancies that Wonderland is hers to rule, enslaving the poor denizens of the land and forcing them to labour. What’s more, the Hatter has lost his marbles, or those few he had left, and become obsessed with time and machine – presumably feeling guilty after killing the first, and making up for it with gears and tea. Let us also not forget the Duchess, whose appetite has grown much too large, though she seems to be growing to fit it.
                Forget, if you can, the lovely flowers and beautiful randomness that one expects of Wonderland. Replace it with dark Buildings and raging fires, populate it with Card Soldiers and Army Ants, as well as clockwork monsters and Jabberwocky spawn, and there you have the new Wonderland.  This land is oppressive and dark, cruel and unusual (though never too unusual) and much less charming, though as equal to extended metaphor as the original.
                As our dark haired heroine, we travel through the remains of Wonderland, following The Rabbit and Cat, looking to overthrow the Red Queen. After all, she does deserve it so, for taken control and casting all fantasy aside in her nightmarish industrial revolution. Of course, it is less simple than it sounds for the route is confusing and long, and only a staff made from the eye of the Jabberwocky can hope to bring down the Queen’s gates.
                After all, what is simple in Wonderland? Why have one word when you can have a dozen, and why a straight path when circles are so much more appealing?
                The game is chiefly a platforming shooter, where levels are traversed by delicately jumping (if you can) through floating platforms before facing off against your many foes. Occasion has it where you must do both at once, and no-one said that these platforms had to stay still either.
                Combat is divided between Melee and Ranged, though only a fool would choose one or the other. Relying solely on one would lead to your death, though your death awaits if you choose both as well – the game is fickle and difficult, and cares not for the player – and you must balance your magic (which allows you to use range) and your life, deciding which would be the best too loose in that situation.  Neither regenerate, so your choice can lead to harmful results, though enemies are kind enough to offer life and magic in return for their demise.
                Aside from these two, there isn’t much more to say for the game in terms of gameplay, until we breakdown the simple mechanics and see the flaws inherent within. As a game based on Platforming, one would expect Alice to control quite tightly and to manoeuvre with ease. This is not true, as Alice never seems quite sure how high she will jump, or how far, or even if she feels like grabbing onto ledges or ropes. In fact, the jump mechanic is as random as the original Wonderland, never quite knowing what it’s going to do other than assume it’ll go in one direction or another.
                Problems arise in the act of landing, as well. Landing dictates that you, well, land, though collision seems to be away in its own wonderland for most part, with it never being certain if the edge of the platform is the actual edge or just pretending to be an edge. Likewise, some gaps in the floor may actually be holes, whilst other times it could be the floor pretending to have a hole. Every jump feels like a great risk, especially when under pressure.
                Did I mention that death awaits those with poor platform skills? Many sections of the game lack any floor for you to fall in, or else make the floor dangerous to your health. To fall and live is often worse than just falling – at least the game over screen comes quicker then. Not that falling into the bottomless abyss always leads to death, as sometimes the abyss could place you back where you were. Not that this is ever indicated before you fall, as wonderland is fickle and can change its mind whenever it feels like (and it does so a lot).
                On that subject, did we mention that the enemies suffer a similar problem? To hit one may hurt them, or may not. Worst are the moments where you waste valuable magic to hit an enemy, but find the game didn’t register it, but it certainly acknowledges hitting you. This is assuming the game bothers to indicate the enemy has been hit, which can be far too rare. This can also be applied to puzzles, which led to many frustrating moments where I couldn’t activate a solution because the game was being a nuisance.
                The combat is also often brutally unfair. Several enemies will take far too much magic and life to kill, leaving you with only physical attacks or your weakest ranged weapon to try to kill the others (few enemies attack on their own). There are also plenty of times where you’ll find yourself thrown off the edge of a platform into the darkness below by a hidden foe, or from enemies that permanently linger out of range but can still hit you in mid jump. Several enemies can attack from insane lengths, or have exceptionally eerie aim and will rarely miss.
                Combine this with the old-school save system, and you have a recipe for annoyance and hatred. When every jump and encounter is a tense, live and death situation, having to reset from the last save can be infuriating when you die from something that is neither your fault nor fair. Saving constantly is the only solution, and you best hope that you pick the best moments.
                This randomness is not a part of Wonderlands charm, but rather the poor foundation of the game itself. Alice is built on the Quake III engine, an engine designed less for accuracy and more for brutal simulated murder of your friends in mass gunfights. As such, whilst the engine can work well for combat (and often does), it is not entirely sure on thing such as jumping and 3D movement.
                The game can handle a decent amount visually, though, and looks decent for the time (though nothing spectacular). There is a great attention to detail in the game, and the models and textures can be very good. The effect work is fine when it is limited to a few effects, though multiple enemies with explosive attacks (and your own attacks) make the game drop frames as fast as the rabbit runs.
                The game does thrive in the more sense orientated departments. Though never quite Carroll, the writing has a charm to it, and does its best in an attempt to pass a story through something dialogue designed with no narrative in mind. Particularly of note is the Dormouse, whose dialogue is amongst the best in the game.  Shame that the art of Video Game voice acting was still too far behind what McGee envisioned, as the recordings are often of low quality or poorly edited.
                The games soundtrack, as much of it as there is, is genuinely creepy, and works well with the visual style and themes of the game. The overall stylistic design of the game, whilst limited in imagination, conjures wonderfully dark and twisted ideas and disturbing atmospheres. It does feel that much was left at the wayside, and the game is only half what it should be, but what is there is good. There is a single exception where the games audio randomly leapt in volume and caused me to rip my headphones from my ears, making me think the game had glitched, but the majority of the limited tracks and all incredibly effective.
                To end this, then. McGee’s vision of Alice is intriguing and works well in the broader strokes, but the actual gameplay makes for a hard sit. The game cannot be defended by its age, when much better platformers and shooters already existed at that time, nor can its bizarre charm be enough to overlook the lacklustre and poor gameplay. It is not a good game, but a good attempt at a game, one where the result is unfinished but has heart and potential. ‘Tis a good thing, then, that it’s sequel a decade later fixes most of these flaws.
                Ah, to end with a tease for the future… to end at the beginning – is that not the most suitable end for Wonderland?