Mass Effect Andromeda Review

Andromeda Initiative

Look: it’s planet Earth in a few years time

It might only be 5 months old, but 2017 has already distinguished itself an excellent year for gamers. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild undoubtedly stands out from the rest, receiving almost universal adulation from critics and players alike upon release, however, titles such as Nier: Automata, Horizon Zero Dawn, Persona 5 and Nioh have all contributed to make this a truly remarkable period for the industry.

Yet, despite this cavalcade of incredible games, the one I, personally, was most looking forward to at the outset of the new year was Mass Effect Andromeda; the latest title in developer BioWare’s inimitable space opera franchise and the first in 5 long years. Unfortunately, this only made my sense of frustration and disappointment all the more acute when, having finally played Andromeda myself shortly after its late-March release, I experienced first-hand the abundance of glitches, missteps and sundry other issues that plague this otherwise largely enjoyable sci-fi epic.

For all the technical issues alluded to above, the thing that’s always attracted me most to the Mass Effect series, is the extraordinary world building. The story, characters and world building is so impressive that, for me, it comfortably surpasses Star Trek and, dare I say it, even Star Wars in terms of depth and creativity. And it’s here that the game’s best features shine.

Taking place 600 years after the events of Mass Effect 2, Andromeda puts players in control of Ryder (who, as always, can be male or female depending on your preference). As a pathfinder representing the daring Andromeda Initiative – an enterprise composed of Human, Krogan, Asari, Turian and Salarian emigrants who’re seeking to colonise a small section of the distant Andromeda galaxy – it’s Ryder’s job to locate any potentially habitable planets within the so-called Heleus Cluster and deal with any threats or obstacles that stand in the way of the mission; and there are many. Led by megalomaniacal and somewhat derivative Archon, Ryder’s primary concern is the alien race known as the Kett, although he/she also has to deal with a range of other problems, including a mysterious phenomenon dubbed The Scourge, various groups of former Initiative representatives turned bandits, a race of ancient robotic guardians called the Remnant and an insular, terrorist sect of the otherwise peaceful if mistrustful Angara; the game’s second new species of sentient aliens. Each element is well-considered; supported by genuinely interesting fiction and seemingly plausible science.

The Archon.jpg

Space invaders

As this extremely brief summary suggests, there’s a lot to take in here, but, thankfully, the main narrative is a mostly interesting one that, while not quite as captivating as the Reaper storyline from the original Mass Effect trilogy due partly to some inconsistent writing, generally manages to maintain the player’s attention from start to finish. It’s true the sheer number of side-quests and sub-plots can distract you from the primary story and thus make the plot feel slightly disjointed at times; it’s not uncommon to find yourself rifling through the game’s comprehensive codex every so often as you desperately search for a clue as that’ll remind you what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. However, these secondary narratives are enjoyable in their own right, especially that which involves Ryder’s family history and their relationship with his/her AI implant, SAM.

The game’s characters – all of whom you can romance as you’d expect – are hit and miss. Squad mates Cora and Liam come across as bland and unforgettable though not aggravating, whilst Drack essentially serves as the updated version of Wrex or Grunt from Mass Effect’s 1 and 2 respectively; the physically imposing, uncompromising and often endearing Krogan tank. On the other hand, I found Jaal, Vetra and especially Peebee to be welcome additions to the Mass Effect mythos; a trio that wouldn’t be out of place in any of the preceding instalments. Erratic as the portrayal of Ryder’s squad mates are, it’s worse for the supporting cast of NPC’s. Sloane Kelly is about as stereotypical a gang leader as it’s possible to write without devolving into satire, Initiative director Jarun Tann is bewilderingly insipid for a character that occupies such a position of authority within the game’s story and transgender quest giver Hainly Abrams is so poorly written, it’s hard to imagine anyone at BioWare could have been happy with this version of the character. The reception of Hainly was so negative in fact, it elicited an apology from BioWare themselves, who’ve subsequently confirmed they will be patching her character in future. Ultimately, the cause of this regrettable disparity in quality is the patchy writing. Capable of amusing or even inspiring on occasion, it’s far more frequently exasperating.

Considering these problems, it’s a good thing for Andromeda that the gameplay is pretty robust and benefits from the multitude of alterations made since the release of Mass Effect 3 in 2012; though again, it’s far from flawless. The simple addition of personal jump jets enables you to zip around the terrain with an agility that was lacking in previous Mass Effect titles, increasing the number of offensive and defensive options available to you during skirmishes. BioWare has also overhauled the character progression system to facilitate far greater flexibility when building your perfect explorer/soldier/diplomat/space Lothario. Whereas previous instalments forced you to select a specific class at the commencement of your adventure, restricting the type and quantity of abilities available to your character, Andromeda adopts a more fluid approach. Every one of the game’s skills are accessible to Ryder (once you’ve spent sufficient upgrade points to acquire them), allowing you to fine-tune Ryder in whatever way best suits your play style. For instance, if you decide you would like to augment Ryder’s physical talents with a smattering of biotic powers, you can; it’s entirely up to how aggressively you invest in combat, tech and biotics. Not everything about Andromeda’s combat is quite so laudable, however. The game’s obligatory crafting system for one becomes irritatingly time-consuming towards the end of your adventure as you attempt to manufacture the highest-quality weapons and gear, whilst encounters start to feel repetitive after a few hours of play in spite of the relatively healthy assortment of enemy types you have to contend with, boiling down to little more than mass, free-for-all brawls. Andromeda’s multiplayer offering suffers from a fair amount of déjà vu as well. With just the one co-operative mode available, a tiny pool of maps and precious few options for customising your avatar, it’s not going to make much of an impact on the player base.

Combat

Jump around

Still, aside from the aforementioned surfeit of side-quests, there’s so much to explore in Heleus the mediocrity of the online mode shouldn’t cause too much consternation. Whether you’re traversing the cluster in an effort to learn more about the numerous star systems and fully immerse yourself in the experience, or speeding across one of the game’s 5 distinctive worlds in the surprisingly intuitive Nomad, helping out distressed colonists as you go, Mass Effect Andromeda is one of those non-open world titles that still manages to keep you permanently occupied.

Conversely, there are few positives to draw from the game’s customisation options. Anyone who enjoys spending a good half an hour in character creators will find the variety of options seriously disappointing here, made worse by the unappealing hair styles, facial templates and collection of distinguishing features that are available for selection; even something as simple as fashioning a realistic looking hair colour becomes a Herculean challenge. The switch to a less polarising morality system likewise seems to have fallen short of the promises made prior to the game’s release. Rather than giving you greater freedom to mould Ryder’s personality, the 2-5 response types don’t actually appear to affect the course of events in any significant way so that relationships with your team mates and NPC’s tend to develop in exactly the same way from one playthrough to the next. Forming a truly despicable anti-hero is thus impossible: gone are the days of punching journalists, extorting innocent civilians and pushing enemies through windows.

Up to this point, balancing the negatives and positives hasn’t been particularly difficult, but finding complimentary things to say about Andromeda’s performance and presentation – a game that spent 5 years in development, let’s not forget – is really challenging. Frame rate drops are extremely common, the action stopping for at least 10 seconds altogether at least once a session; sound effects regularly fail to trigger, usually immediately after booting up the game; online connectivity fails just as frequently, restricting your access to the APEX missions you need to gain extra resources and enemy troops routinely become trapped within the level geometry. Character animations are even worse, which is saying something. Eyes are always difficult to render in video games, yet BioWare has partnered the habitually emotionless eyes of the game’s hundreds of individuals with death mask faces that are as rigid and lifeless as a Madame Tussauds exhibit.

Jaal

Jaal’s face is slightly more expressive than most

Similarly, looking at surfaces close up reveals grainy textures that would be considered average last generation, while the papery leaves and garish colours of the native plant life also fails to withstand closer inspection. That being said, the game can appear quite attractive, even charming from a distance. Harvarl – one of the quintet of planets you visit early in the narrative – is reminiscent of Pandora from the film Avatar; a beautiful twilit landscape decorated with flowers and trees of deep purple, blue and pink. The cut-scenes are easily the most evocative visual spectacles, as you might expect, and therefore account for roughly 90% of the screen shots taken during my 2 playthroughs.

All things considered, thanks to its combination of immaculate world building and largely entertaining combat, anyone who has fond memories of the original trilogy would be remiss to forgo Mass Effect Andromeda: it might not be as immersive as we were all hoping, but it’s not as appalling as some would suggest. Those without this sentimental like to the franchise, however, will find the profusion of bugs and slap-dash game design too obtrusive to ignore and should therefore give it a wide berth – 7/10

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Metal Gear Solid’s 5 best boss battles

Metal Gear Solid image

The Metal Gear Solid series is one of the most distinctive in the history of gaming. Alongside a cast of engaging if somewhat bizarre characters and a game world that so perfectly blends real life with science fiction, there are a number of smaller elements that combine to produce something wholly unique. The lengthy cut-scenes, cardboard boxes and heart-wrenching lamentations of Colonel Campbell whenever Snake is killed in action, for instance, will be fondly remembered by veteran players.

But for me – someone who’s been following Snake on his adventures ever since the original Metal Gear Solid released on PlayStation in 1998 – one of the franchise’s most interesting and at times innovative features are the boss battles.

With dozens of encounters to choose from, identifying the 5 that best demonstrate the brilliance of the series wasn’t an easy task. Nevertheless, the quintet recorded here will, I believe, satisfy Metal Gear Solid fans of all tastes.

5. The Boss – Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater

Set amidst a meadow of snow-white blossoms and absent of the rousing score that usually accompanies a Metal Gear Solid boss battle, the final confrontation of Snake Eater (my favourite game in the series, in case you were wondering) is one of the most profound not just in MGS3, but the entire series and, perhaps, gaming in general.

Notwithstanding her mentor/pupil relationship with Snake, the drama of their encounter is only heightened by the discovery that the aptly named ‘Boss’ isn’t the traitor she seems to be at the beginning of the game, rather, her defection to the Soviet Union (the enemy, obviously; the game is set in the 60’s after all) was actually part of a convoluted plan formulated by the US to allow them to reclaim ‘The Philosophers Legacy’; a sum of $100 billion collated by the eponymous ‘Philosophers’ to fund their illicit endeavours. Unfortunately, Colonel Volgin – Snake Eater’s real antagonist – launches a nuclear attack during the game’s first mission, blaming the incident on the US. As a result, The Boss is compelled to sacrifice herself to Snake; America feeling this is the only way to prove their innocence – it’s a complicated story.

The fight itself, meanwhile, is similar to those preceding it, in that players have the freedom to adopt a lethal or non-lethal approach to the battle and are compelled to rely on the game’s camouflage mechanic to overcome the highly-skilled ‘Boss’. So far, so normal. However, once Snake’s erstwhile friend is defeated and the standard post-skirmish discussion is completed, the action is suspended until the player and thus Snake chooses to finish the job with a final, echoing shot from The Bosses signature weapon, ‘The Patriot’. After this tragic denouement, creator Kojima ramps up the emotion yet further as the field of pristine white flowers suddenly erupts into a sea of crimson red, symbolising the violent end to their relationship.

4. Fatman – Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty

Changing tack altogether from the theatrical nature of the former, the Fatman boss fight from Metal Gear Solid 2 is a textbook example of the series’ wonderfully singular style. Before the actual battle begins, the suitably corpulent Fatman immediately sets himself apart from other boss battles with his large green bomb disposal jacket and the glass of red wine he readily downs during the usual pre-fight badinage. Oh, and he’s wearing roller skates: yes, it’s as preposterous as it sounds.

With the preamble’s out of the way, Raiden – the controversial replacement for Solid Snake – must start by disarming the handful of bombs secreted throughout the battlefield by the portly demolition expert whilst simultaneously dodging Fatman as he zips around the field taking pot shots at protagonist the player with his trusty SMG, guffawing manically all the while. Having disposed of the C4, the contest becomes pretty straight forward, the player simply alternating between taking cover behind one of the numerous storage containers dotted around the elevated platform and returning fire whenever the opportunity presents itself. And given the size of Raiden’s enemy, these openings are pretty frequent.

It’s certainly one of Sons of Liberty’s easier fights and therefore probably won’t give the average player much of a headache, but the character of Fatman – erring just on the right side of amusing rather than stupid – is undoubtedly memorable and provides some welcome light-hearted relief from the story’s more severe concepts.

3. Ray – Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots

Nostalgia and wish fulfilment unite to make this otherwise mediocre boss fight into one of the most enjoyable in the whole series. Set amidst the ruins of Shadow Moses – the location of Snake’s very first mission back in 1998 – the fight against Metal Gear Ray differs from past confrontations between man and machine. Instead of pitting his experience and skill against this imposing bi-pedal tank, the prematurely aged Snake (the cause of his expedited maturity having been explained earlier in the narrative) fights fire with fire as he himself pilots the iconic Metal Gear Rex from the original Metal Gear Solid.

Armed with the full suite of weaponry that anyone who finished the 1998 classic will well remember, the clash of these titans showcases the spectacle that is such a huge part of the series, thanks in no small part to the booming score that accompanies the fight and the gradual destruction of the battleground itself as the two colossal mechs launch barrage after barrage of high-powered ordinance at one another.

Again, it’s not a particularly challenging clash; a few well-placed salvos from the Rex’s missile launcher should be enough to bring down Ray within the space of 10 minutes. But it’s this relative simplicity that makes it such a pleasurable encounter, giving players the time to relish the experience of controlling Rex whilst drinking in the delightfully familiar surroundings many will remember from their childhood; rendered faithfully by the PS3 in clear and crisp high definition.

2. The End – Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater

I’m not ashamed to admit it, I must have spent a good hour slowly wearing The End down the first time I fought him back in 2004. For me, the indescribably tense game of cat and mouse between Naked Snake and this nonagenarian, technically deceased sniper was an incredibly protracted affair as I flitted between whatever cover the jungle afforded, my teenage self dreading the report of his sniper rifle any time I had to switch position or scour the underbrush for signs of my adversary; a sense of tension that was only increased by the sheer size and complexity of the battlefield, and the seemingly benevolent sounds of chirruping birds and groaning frogs that serve as the soundtrack to the skirmish.

Now obviously, that’s not typical of this confrontation; there are plenty of people on YouTube who’ve beaten him in 15 minutes without too much trouble. Still, thankfully for me and others of similar skill, developer Konami saw fit to provide the player with a couple of workarounds that essentially allow you to bypass the encounter entirely. Firstly, it’s possible to launch a pre-emptive strike at the climax of a cut-scene earlier in the narrative. As The End’s wheeled away from the aforementioned discussion, players with sufficiently quick reflexes have just enough time to take him out in a couple of shots; the only danger is the wheel that hurtles towards the player’s area of concealment once the underhanded deed is done. It’s my favourite method for defeating this difficult enemy and the one I’ve utilised on all subsequent playthroughs.

Alternatively, if you find such an action somewhat reprehensible (I don’t), you can wait for him to die of old age; seriously. By saving your game shortly after the standard battle begins and leaving your current file untouched for a week thereafter, upon your return, you’ll find The End has died of waiting his fate confirmed by a quick codec call from Snake’s supporting crew who award him the victory by default. It might be a bit long-winded, but it spares you the hassle of meeting the decrepit sniper mano-a-mano as well as displaying the brilliant sense of humour that permeates the entire series.

1. Psycho Mantis – Metal Gear Solid

For many fans, this is the pre-eminent battle in the entire series. Indeed, you’d be hard pushed to find a boss battle in any game that’s quite as innovative and unique as this fight from the first Metal Gear Solid.

Before you even have the opportunity to fire your first shot, Snake is treated to an exhibition of Psycho Mantis’ powers. The gas mask-wearing academic kicks things off by triggering the rumble pack inside the player’s controller, showcasing his telekinetic abilities specifically. After this novel introduction, he proceeds to ‘read your mind’ by naming some of the other PS1 titles stored on your memory card as well as the frequency with which you’ve saved your game hitherto. The cherry on the icing on the cake, however, emerges once the action commences and the player discovers the only way to actually damage Psycho Mantis is to plug their controller into the second port (unless you use the long-winded tracer shot method which I won’t go into here). When first released, players without an internet connection had to repeatedly badger Colonel Campbell via the codec until he mercifully decided to throw Snake a bone and reveal the key to success.

From this this point onwards, the fight is pretty straightforward, yet 20 years after the its release, this battle doesn’t fail to impress. It proves beyond a shadow of a doubt Hideo Kojima’s mastery of game design; his ability to use all the tools at his disposal to create ground-breaking features and mechanics in a way few others in the industry can replicate.

Regretfully, since Kojima’s well-publicised split from Konami, it’s possible we won’t see this level of craftsmanship ever again in the Metal Gear Solid series; in fact, if Metal Gear Survive is anything to go by, we’re in for a steady decline going forward. Still, at least we have the auteur’s first solo project – Death Stranding – to look forward to in the not too distant future.

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Boyhood (2014)

boyhood-poster

Boyhood – IMDB 224/250

6 Academy Award nominations was the prize for Richard Linklater’s brave and ambitious coming of age drama Boyhood, starring Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke as divorced parents of two children, Mason Jnr (Ellar Coltrane) and Samantha (Lorelei Linklater). The film was shot over twelve years, depicting Mason’s and Samantha’s childhood and adolescence growing up in Alabama, Texas.

Mason Jnr is the main focus as he ages from ages 6 to 18, along with the actor that plays him, Ellar Coltrane, and we get to invest in the life of this young boy as he moves from childish disobedience to liking girls to teenage rebellion and finally into university, where he will discover even more about himself and his place in the world, possibly, I just learnt what my drinking limit was and how to muddle through exams.

Although Linklater’s decision to film over twelve years may just sound like a marketing tool and gimmick, it works to perfection in helping us invest in each and every character in the film, as we see the children and in essence the young actors naturally grow up on screen.  Linklater reportedly had this idea and vision for some time before it came to fruition, and he must be very proud how this was brought to life on screen, using the actors own experiences in those twelve years to make the story even more real and natural.

Boyhood was one of the best portrayals of real life I have seen, particularly in its representation of childhood, family life and growing up in the modern world. Essentially Mason Jnr is brought up in a time that I myself was growing up in and this gave the film even more poignancy for me, even if my character traits and household situation is vastly different. (I couldn’t really relate to his success with women… or successful haircut for that matter).

What really helped the film and Linklater’s vision was the strong, accomplished performances of the two young stars Coltrane and Linklater’s daugther Lorelei, who were brilliant when they were younger and kept that confidence throughout the film, and were just as good as the two Hollywood stars Hawke and Arquette whom both received Oscar nominations, with Arquette winning.

Linklater really stood out for me, with clearly no nepotism on the part of the director when he gave his daughter the role, as she was the funniest character when she was younger and grew into her performance as a young woman as she got older. They didn’t need to replace the young stars as they grew up for more prolific actors, Linklater and Coltrane were terrific throughout, which sadly can’t be said for The Walking Dead’s Carl Grimes (Chandler Riggs), who comes close to ruining such an amazing show. I needed an excuse to throw the utter awfulness of his performance in somehow to my blog.

As I said earlier I felt Boyhood’s presentation of real life was so realistic, almost to the extent I couldn’t see the film ending, just like life itself it was going to keep going on and on. There was no natural end to the story as it is someone’s life happening before you, and ultimately our final scene is a rather non memorable moment, and like many great films it leaves you wanting to know what happen to these characters after the screen goes dark.

Patricia Arquette received a deserved Oscar for her incredible portrayal as single mother Olivia Evans

Patricia Arquette received a deserved Oscar for her incredible portrayal as single mother Olivia Evans

Boyhood is a very underplayed and underacted film, which is a style that works really well when it is as well directed and written as Boyhood is. There is an improvisational tone to the film which worked with its attempt at recreating real life, with every actor in the film clearly believing in the idea Linklater wanted to get across.

The film just perfectly highlights the fleeting quality of life, how quickly it moves and changes. As I grow older this is something I notice more and more, each year moving quicker than the last. This is shown in one of the end scenes when Particia Arquette, (Olivia Evans), cries when her son leaves for university. She speaks about the importance of milestones, and has a bleak realisation that her own life and experiences are growing thinner on the ground. Although the film is a slow burner, really we have witnessed by the end a young boy grow up into a college student in just under 4 hours, working as a kind of microcosm of our own lives.

The only issue Boyhood faces is it may not have mass appeal, as it does require a lot of patience, and you really have to like or at least empathise with the main characters to appreciate it. (Mason Jnr does get rather pretentious as he gets older).It goes on for a long, long time, (at near 4 hours) and really in that time very little happens outside of the dialogue and story of these children growing up in modern USA.  And although I related to them growing up in a time of technological advancement in the 90s and 00s, there is some displacement as it is set in Alabama, which is such a different setting to my own life. I related in the end to their emotions rather than their actions or lifestyle. But for anyone wanting to get lost in a magic piece of cinema and settle in for the night, Boyhood would be one of my top recommendations.

BEST ACTOR: Patricia Arquette

BEST MOMENT: When Olivia prepares Mason Jnr for University, expressing her sadness about life’s fleetingness is very poignant.

BREAKTHROUGH PERFORMANCE: Both Ellar Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater really shine, keep an eye out for them, big futures potentially ahead.

Boyhood: 9/10

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Wild Tales (2014)

wild-tales-cover-poster

Wild Tales – IMDB 225/250

It is another first for me in my long and arduous trek through the IMDb 250, as I got to watch my first ever Argentinian film, and if all their films are as good as this, I might have to dabble more in the Argentine market. Wild Tales is a 2014 dark comedy anthology film, telling six completely separate stories around seemingly everyday situations, all united by themes of revenge, violence, anger and frustration.

Expertly directed and put together by Damian Szifron, Wild Tales succeeds where the majority of Hollywood anthology films fail, such as 2016s Mother’s Day or the atrocious Movie 43 (2013), what I can only describe as the worst 98 minutes of my life sitting through it. Szifron does an excellent job of creating six unique stories, with characters and plots that you can invest in despite each story lasting no longer than 20 minutes.

Some of the best literature comes in the short story format, such as Henry James’ ‘Turn of the Screw‘ or even Charles Dickins’ ‘A Christmas Carol‘, and Wild Tales feel more like a well told piece of literature than it did a cheesy and clunky anthology film. As long as each scene is unique whilst staying in the overall theme of the film, it is well acted and the story intrigues, Szifron proves that anthology themes can really work. Just like ‘Love Actually‘ (2003) (Perhaps a bad example… but I don’t think so).

The first story ‘Pasternak’ is probably the weakest of the six, but as the film progresses each tale gets more interesting, well told and the darkly comedic aspects of each story comes into play. This all culminates in the final story, ‘Hasta que la muerte nos separe’, which tells the story of a bride finding out the groom has cheated on her with one of their guests at their wedding. Complete and utter madness soon prevails, but the story is as funny as it is tragic.

This would certainly be an interesting wedding to go to

Romina (Erica Rivas) and Ariel’s (Diego Gentile) wedding resembles more of a Quentin Tarantino film than it does Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994).

Although described as a black comedy I actually preferred Wild Tales for its drama, plot building and its excellent portrayal of frustration than I did for its overall comedy. With perhaps the exception of the last story it never really made me laugh out loud, but the sense of frustration in each story was palpable, I genuinely found myself getting annoyed with the situations the characters found themselves in. As one critic put it, each character seemed to be on the verge of a mental breakdown, fighting to stay calm and sane against the ridiculous and sometimes unfair situation they have been placed in.

For the most part it is a very dark story and as life can be sometimes it is very maddening, making the film very easy to invest in and relate to. Rage flows through the film and into the characters as they look to escape their individual fates. This maddening effect it had on me was helped by the wonderful acting from the likes of Ricardo Darin as Simon Fischer, a demolitions expert who looks to get out of a parking ticket, and Erica Rivas as Romina, the bride who descends into madness after discovering her husbands infidelity. These two performances helped make their stories the most memorable of the six.

Wild Tales won numerous awards in 2014 and deservedly so, including the Best Film Not in the English Language at the British Academy Film Awards, as well as an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language film, but it had completely escaped my knowledge or attention.

This goes right up there with Paris, Texas (1984) for the best film I’ve seen on this list that I had never heard of, let alone seen before, and was a really pleasant surprise for me. For anyone that can be bothered with the subtitles (or perhaps you speak Spanish), and wants to see their own projection of anger on screen, this is a film for you.

BEST ACTOR: ERICA RIVAS

BEST SCENE: The ending to ‘Hasta que la muerte nos separe’ will leave you surprised, and maybe wanting cake.

BEST STORY: ‘Bombita’ was the most frustrating tale, ‘El mas fuerte’ the most intense, but the best told was ‘Hasta que la muerte nos separe’.

Wild Tales: 8/10

 

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Jurassic Park (1993)

jurassic-park

Jurassic Park – IMDB 226/250

After a long hiatus waiting for NOW TV rather than buying the DVD, I’m back with a Christmas edition of my IMDb reviews. A Christmas edition if only because it is the 22nd of December.

And really what is more Christmassy than dinosaurs going terrorising humans, as the latest film in my IMDb top 250 list is Steven Spielberg’s modern classic, Jurassic Park.

Starring the likes of Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum and the late great Richard Attenborough, Jurassic Park tells the amazing story of a new type of theme park opening in Costa Rica by John Hammond (Attenborough), who by ‘sparing no expense’ has managed to create real life dinosaurs, using DNA and mosquitos and some loose science type things. (That’s a technical term),

It isn’t long before said dinosaurs get out of control and out of their captivity, and start raging havoc through the park, as Sam Neill desperately tries to get Hammonds’ two grandchildren to safety from the parks Jurassic inhabitants.

Jurassic Park is a film that has become synonymous with my childhood, as I remember watching and being terrified by it as a child. It has so much nostalgia which I’m sure it has with many children across the world, especially having been fascinated by dinosaurs as I was when I was younger, and still am to a degree.

Moments such as the first time we hear the thud of the T-Rexs’ approach, with the brilliant image of the water rumbling, and then when it eats the lawyer (Martin Ferrero) on the toilet, are all iconic moments that have been written in to the history of cinema.

The arrival of the Tyrannosaurus Rex is an iconic moment in modern cinematic history

The arrival of the Tyrannosaurus Rex is an iconic moment in modern cinema – Many peoples pre-conceptions of T-Rexs’ now come from Jurassic Park – at the time it was considered the biggest and baddest dinosaur

But the scene that has always stuck with me is when the main villain of the film Dennis Nedry (Wayne Knight), encounters a Dilophosaurus. I remember for some reason being petrified of this scene, and whenever I watch it now it brings back memories of watching it through closed fingers.

The whole film just had an endearing quality to it. The stunning and at the time ground-breaking visuals are perfectly complimented by the memorable score from film legend John Williams – which is still instantly recognisable to this day. My Mum has it on her Classic FM at the Movies CD. You know you’ve made it big when you get on this.

It truly is a modern classic, which can be loved by kids and adults, with an excellent blend of action and adventure, like many of Spielberg’s films such as Indiana Jones or E.T. And though I enjoyed Jurassic World (2015), it didn’t have the same heart or energy the original provides.

The ominous looking Dilophosaurus. As a kid, this scene was terrifying

The ominous looking Dilophosaurus. As a kid, this scene was terrifying

It may be aimed more towards children, but Jurassic Park still poses serious questions as well. It questions the power and our use of science and technology, and whether or not we are going too far in our advancement of it. Like Dr Ian Malcom (Goldblum) says “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.” These sorts of questions are still raised in TV programmes today such as Humans and Westworld, and clearly writer Michael Crichton is occupied with this question as well.

But it isn’t a film without its flaws. The writing is somewhat simple and at times stale, but this may be largely because the focus was always going to be on the visuals and action of the dinosaurs. And due to the progress and new discoveries we have made in the last 23 years regarding dinosaurs, some of the science here is very wrong. But you can hardly blame Spielberg or Crichton for that.

My main issue with this movie is sadly Richard Attenborough. Though his performance is as usual charming and his character an interesting one, the Scottish accent he provides left a lot to be desired.

He keeps going in and out of the accent, like he forgets his character is supposedly Scottish, particularly at the end when it seems he decides to drop it altogether. So rather than watching and listening to what he said, I couldn’t help but concentrate on whether or not a Scottish accent would creep out.

But though it has its issues, Jurassic Park is still an extremely enjoyable film. It really is the sort of movie that will be on television at home at 5 o’clock on a Sunday, you’ll be curled up on the sofa eating some crisps or chocolate or whatever you people eat, and no matter what point of the film it’s on, you’ll start watching.

BEST ACTOR: JEFF GOLDBLUM

BEST SCENE: Many would say the arrival of the T-Rex, I’m going for the Dilophosaurus bringing justice to Dennis

BEST LINE: Dr Ian Malcolm: ‘Remind me to thank John for the wonderful weekend’

Jurassic Park: 8/10

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A Fistful of Dollars (1964)

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A Fistful of Dollars – IMDB 227/250

An iconic Western scored by the legendary Ennio Morricone and the film that turned Clint Eastwood into a household name, A Fistful of Dollars is number 227 on my IMDb 250 films of all time list.

In the first real spaghetti western to come out of Hollywood, Eastwood plays The Man With No Name, a mercenary like cowboy who wanders into a town where anarchy rules, particularly by two rivalling families, the Rojo brothers and the Baxter family.

Eastwood’s character begins too play off the two families against each other winning favour with both sides, as he attempts to install some order into this town, particularly after seeing a woman essentially a slave to the barbaric Rojo brother Ramon (Gian Maria Volonte).

The film really felt like a star making vehicle for Eastwood, more than a serious attempt at making great cinema. A Fistful of Dollars is completely centred on his mysterious character, and Eastwood has enough raw energy and charisma to make it work to a point.

His character is pretty cool for a classic western hero, relatively over the top and highly clichéd but it does work in this type of film.

Later on in the film as well we see a more human side to his character when he is badly beaten by the Rojo’s, which shows his vulnerability. But ultimately he was simply the tough Western cowboy who deep down had a heart of gold.

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The Man With No Name has become a legendary film character

The character he most reminded me of weirdly was James Bond. It felt almost as silly and over the top as Sean Connery’s portrayal of Bond in the 60s; he was the action hero and superman type character you knew would save the day from the moment he strutted on screen.

A Fistful of Dollars as a whole had a Bond feel to it, with its cheesy action and over the top acting, but just a different genre of film.

My main issue with this movie was however its inability to suspend my disbelief. At times it was just way too over the top. The Gatling gun scene was simply mental, the kind of thing you would see on a countdown of the worst movies ever made.

What was presumably supposed to be a dramatic moment was ruined by its nonsensical action, over the top acting from Gian Maria Volonte and to be fair the limitations of filming techniques at the time. It is the kind of scene where I would argue modern cinematic techniques would help greatly.

For me modern western films such as the remake of True Grit or Slow West have more artistic merit than A Fistful of Dollars, which I think is ranked higher more as a nostalgic piece than actually because it is a better film.

But there is one thing you can’t ignore or disrespect in this film, and that is the music score by Ennio Morricone. Possibly the most famous film composer of all time, Morricone created something legendary for this film, and it was from this movie where his genius first came to light.

Morricone really gives this film and all his others a certain ambience and mood, still scene today in the flawed The Hateful Eight, which benefited greatly from his work.

A Fistful of Dollars was a simple story told well. Our hero walked in to town, saved the day and rode out again, with a simple ‘Adios’ as a way of goodbye (I did like that scene).

The second half of the film is vastly superior to the first, as the film transitioned from the ridiculousness into a deeper and darker film, with our main characters fleshed out so that we could actually invest in them.

A Fistful of Dollars essentially invented and followed many of the troupes we see in Spaghetti Western films, which is a genre I personally dislike, but as a film that had such a large impact on the industry, it would be hard to deny its place on any list of the best films ever made.

A Fistful of Dollars: 5/10

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Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)

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Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?– IMDB 228/250

Hollywood icons Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton are probably more famous for their own tumultuous relationship than any they portrayed on screen, but the next film on my list was them exuding their chemistry and love life on film in Mike Nichols’ Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

One of only two films (along with Cimarron from 1931) to be nominated for every eligible category at the Academy Awards, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is a hilarious yet dark portrayal of a long term relationship between Martha (Elizabeth Taylor) and college professor George (Richard Burton).

Having just come from a party, Martha has invited a young couple round to their house (despite it being the early hours in the morning), and the four of them soon reveal intimate secrets about one another as the drinks consistently flow.

The early beginnings of the film really set the tone, brilliantly depicting a drunk, constantly battling couple, with George frustrated that Martha has invited these relative strangers round to their home. Immediately we see the fiery chemistry between Burton and Taylor, and many said this film mirrored their own troublesome relationship.

It's thought George and Martha's relationship resembled Burton and Taylor's own troubled Hollywood romance

It’s thought George and Martha’s relationship resembled Burton and Taylor’s own troubled romance

George and Martha’s insults to one another seem to flow through their conversation like the alcohol is flowing through them, with a new drink seemingly poured every 10 minutes. They are in a long marriage of convenience, grown bitter towards each other yet somehow thriving off of their confrontation and arguments. It is like they are at war, in a battle of wits in its most literal form as each tries to one up the other and get the last word in.

What really impressed me about this film along with the performances of the actors was the dialogue. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf was originally a play by Edward Albee, and that theatrical mind-set and feeling is highlighted here, as the film is very reminiscent of a theatrical production. The fact Nichols shot the film in black and white also adds a kind of film noir and mystery element to it, which made me think of plays such as An Inspector Calls or The Mouse Trap, particularly in the secrecy surrounding George and Martha’s child.

The dialogue is written with precision and care, perfectly executed by Burton and Taylor. It is smooth and funny without coming off as unrealistic, and actually is very relatable to the audience. Burton’s hilarious retort when Honey (Sandy Dennis) says she needs to powder her nose particular stood out for me, “Martha would you show her where we keep the euphemism”. The film I found genuinely funny, which is a rarity for me when it comes to older films.

Ernest Lehman who wrote the screenplay brilliantly depicts drunken conversation and arguments, with the masterful dialogue showcasing a screenplay real writers would strive to write. It is something seen so rarely in modern films, with too much focus on action, franchises and reboots, and not on character driven narratives like we see here.

The story and plot isn’t told through action, but rather in the dialogue of each character. The mystery regarding George and Martha’s son, the story of their relationship, and even Honey and Nick’s (George Sagal) secrets are slowly revealed, all boiling up to a point towards the end until George drunkenly and bitterly reveals all their secrets when he himself has been humiliated.

Burton and Taylor are the clear stars of the film, but their characters needed another couple to play off, and Dennis and Sagal are wonderful in their roles too, with Sandy Dennis scooping a best supporting actress award for her role. (Taylor would win best actress).

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Taylor, Burton, Dennis and Sagal all deserve high praise for their performances

The contrasting couples help with the comedy at first as Honey and Nick are baffled to walk into their drunken domestic, but as the film progresses all four characters get darker, bitter and vengeful toward each other.

Essentially as our characters get drunker the film gets darker, this is why it is often described as a black comedy. The first sign of this is when Burton pretends to shoot his wife with a fake gun, which although taken with surprisingly good humour from the guests, is a clear sign things are becoming more serious.

With the exception of Honey, each character gets more vindictive, bullying and attempting to embarrass each other, with George taking it a step further. When he physically attacks Martha we see a truly brutal side to him, and our sympathies lie solely with Martha as we see how cruel George can be.

By the films end George and Martha are essentially in a twisted sort of personal game, which George particularly thrives and ingratiates himself in. The ending is very bizarre, and George becomes especially cruel to Martha, but this darker element to the movie only gives this film more depth and helped make it one of the best films I’ve seen on this list.

The film can be accused of being slightly overly long, and by the end their back and forth dialogue loses some of its earlier edge, but its portrayal of relationships and characters is really masterful.

And for anyone that has been blind drunk this is a highly relatable film, and the fact I drunk a whole bottle of wine while watching it added to its effect, almost like I was joining in on their revelry and drunkenness. Which can only be a good thing.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf: 9/10

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Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)

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Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl– IMDB 229/250

With the recent release of the teaser trailer for the fifth instalment in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, Dead Men Tell No Tales, it is a happy coincidence that this week for my IMDb reviews I am reviewing the original, and quite easily the best in the franchise so far, The Curse of the Black Pearl.

The film sees Johnny Depp magically return to form as the now legendary character Jack Sparrow, as he unites with the very vanilla Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), as they look to rescue Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) from the dead pirate clutches of Captain Barbosa (Geoffrey Rush) and his swashbuckling crew.

It is a simple story told brilliantly, bringing the former myth and legend of piracy back to life, giving pirate mythology a resurgence in the same way Johnny Depp has a career renaissance based off of his performance in this film.

Heavily inspired by pirate traditions and stories, particularly those created by Robert Louis Stevenson for his novel Treasure Island, director Gore Verbinski does a fantastic job of bringing this lore to life in The Curse of the Black Pearl, translating these traditions to screen in the smoothest way possible without ramming it down our throats (as some of the other films in the franchise can be accused of).

Pirate traditions are brought wonderfully to life in Pirates of the Caribbean

Pirate traditions are brought wonderfully to life in Pirates of the Caribbean – including deserted islands and drinking rum

The action and story is very exciting, perfect to keep kids and young adults entertained throughout, but it is rather dark for a Disney film, which means that adults can easily invest in it as well without it being too aimed towards children. Add in the wonderful pirate banter and humour, and The Curse of the Black Pearl is a pulsating film for kids and an almost nostalgic piece of cinema for adults.

It has a classical film feel to it. When watching it now with some more film experience under my belt, it really reminds of films such as the original Clash of the Titans (1981) and Jason and the Argonauts (1963) with its astounding portrayal of adventure and mythology.

But Verbinski benefits from having much better special effects at his disposal, which really adds to this film, but does become hammy and overdone in later additions to the film series.

What makes this film so excellent though is its original soundtrack, and the leading performances from Johnny Depp and Geoffrey Rush.

Klaus Badelt and Hans Zimmer have created an iconic soundtrack with their incredibly catchy and wonderfully adventurous music, which is comparable to the music in films such as Star Wars, Harry Potter and Jurassic Park.

Sometimes the music can make a film and elevate it to legendary status, and when you now think of Pirates of the Caribbean, I bet it’s the music that first comes into your mind.

But talking of creating something iconic, Depp really has created a new film icon in Jack Sparrow. He now goes around schools still portraying him and you can see why his character is so loved. What he simply describes as an impersonation of Keith Richards is just perfect for this role, with Geoffrey Rush excellent as his counterpart and rival Captain Barbosa. I mean, how many film characters can say they have had a whole song written about them?

Their relationship of hatred and mutual respect is excellent; they play off each other perfectly with their constant betrayals and insults, with Depp in particular striking a relationship and chemistry with every other actor in this film.

I think what keeps this film from being truly legendary has to be the cookie cutter relationship between Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann.

Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley are the epitome of the film ‘goodie’ in The Curse of the Black Pearl, which only gets worse as the film series goes on, somehow becoming even cheesier than a Wallace and Gromit short film.

It is the Disney romance no one wants to see and it doesn’t really fit in with the theme or atmosphere of this film, derailing the pace and enthusiasm the film has built every time it seeps its way into the action.

The Curse of the Black Pearl has certainly earned its place as a modern classic. With excellent and now iconic performances from Johnny Depp and Geoffrey Rush, and a soundtrack that you could say has created the music of mythical pirates, I feel confident saying this is one of the best and most memorable films of the 21st century.

It is just a shame the other films in the series couldn’t really live up to the adventure and wonder this first film created.

Let’s just hope Dead Men Tell No Tales brings the fantasy back.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl: 8/10

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Castle in the Sky (1986)

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Castle in the Sky – IMDB 230/250

When I heard that Castle in the Sky was the next film on my IMDb list, I was pretty chuffed, as I am a big fan of East Asian cinema, and one of my favourite films of all time would have to be Spirited Away from the incredible Japanese animation company Studio Ghibli.

Castle in the Sky was actually the first film produced and released by Studio Ghibli, and I was very excited to watch it.

The film is a lavish and wondrous depiction of Earth, set in a world where there once was floating cities in the sky, but only one now remains, Laputa, which is hidden by a giant hurricane, leading many to believe the floating city is only a myth.

The protagonists in Castle in the Sky, like in many of Studio Ghibli’s films, is two children, Sheeta and Pazu.

Sheeta (voiced by Anna Paquin in the English dub), is a young girl who has an incredible amulet, infused with a special crystal which has the ability to make cities float. She has been hunted down by Colonel Muska (voiced by Mark Hamill, or Luke Skywalker to the majority of the world), who wishes to use her amulet to find Laputa for his own evil ends.

And we also have the boisterous and brave Pazu (voiced by James Van Der Beek), who has his own obsession with finding the floating city, as well as protecting Sheeta when the two become close friends.

Hamill actually does a very good job as the villain of the film, and Cloris Leachman is wonderfully witch like as Captain Dola, with her and her air pirate sons the most interesting characters in the movie, except perhaps their unhealthy attraction to Sheeta at one point in the film.

The imagination that goes into this film and Japanese animation in general is just incredible, which is showcased in their movies as well as their video games, creating these amazing new worlds we can get lost in.

Their obsession with airships, which is also shown in my favourite video game series Final Fantasy, is fully on display here, along with director Hayao Miyazaki’s own love of futurism mixed with naturalism. In Castle in the Sky there is cities that can float, giant robots and magic crystals, but we also have coal mining towns, as well as natures ability to overrun technology as seen on Laputa, with plants and trees overrunning many of the city’s wonderful buildings and automation.

Laputa is a floating castle overrun by nature

Laputa is a floating castle overrun by nature

A theme of this film seems to be that ultimately love wins over power and nature wins over technology, particularly as Japanese tech was very much on the rise at this time, and so it is clear Miyazaki wasn’t simply marketing this at kids, as is the case for many of Ghibli’s films, but instead had a message that he expertly portrayed here, within the confines of a kids movie.

But despite all this and my appreciation of what Miyazaki has done, in the end I felt this film didn’t match the magic and wonder of Spirited Away, which isn’t easy as it is a true masterpiece of fantasy and animation.

I felt this was just setting the stage for the brilliance that Studio Ghibli would soon produce. It was still extremely fun, fast moving, with some excellent action pieces, but it struggled to keep me invested the whole way through, and it lacked some of the humour that I have grown accustomed to in Disney and Pixar animation.

I also found that after such a big build up, Laputa the floating city wasn’t as magical as I would have liked, yes it floats which is cool, but the actual colours and animation of it was rather dull, which was disappointing.

And although I liked the overall relationship of Pazu and Sheeta as our two young protagonists, Anna Paquin’s voice did grate by the end. A bit overly sweet for me, like drinking too much baileys.

Sheeta and Pazu, our two young protagonists

Sheeta and Pazu, our two young protagonists

Most likely I would have enjoyed this film a lot more in its original Japanese with English subtitles (the dub versions are always worse), annoyingly however I didn’t see this was an option until after the film ended.

As the first of Studi Ghibli’s animations Castle in the Sky will go down in the history books, showcasing the beginnings of the only animation company that can really rival Disney and Pixar in terms of consistent quality.

But the story began to drag towards the middle part of the film after a very intriguing start, and the wonderful world that Miyazaki created though imaginative, didn’t have me completely lost in a new world. Though maybe at 24, that is asking a bit too much of the man.

Castle in the Sky: 6/10

Paul

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La Strada (1954)

La Strada

La Strada – IMDB 231/250

The second Federico Fellini film in my IMDb list, La Strada is an Italian movie starring Giulietta Masina as Gelsomina, a naïve young woman who is bought from her mother by the brutish Zampano (Anthony Quinn), a travelling strongman looking for a new assistant after his last one, Rosa (Gelsomina’s sister), mysteriously died.

As the two travel together; with Gelsomina seeing the world outside her home for the first time, they build a complicated relationship, with Zampana abusive physically and mentally to Gelsomina, who seems to strive to win Zampano’s love and affection despite the abuse she receives.

Their relationship is what La Strada is built on. The plot is a simple one of following these two around Italy trying to make money off of Zampano’s strongman act, but it is the relationship of the strongman and his assistant that takes centre stage.

But things become more complicated when the character of the fool (Richard Baseheart) is introduced. A relatively kind and playful clown, The Fool is the opposite and nemesis of Zampano, and quickly builds a friendship with Gelsomina, questioning why she stays with such a cruel man. This rivalry between Zampano and The Fool soon turns to tragedy, having a lasting himpact on Zampano and Gelsomina’s difficult relationship.

In terms of the way La Strada is filmed, the action and the cinematography, I would say it is dated, or at the least very culture specific. The acting is largely over the top, (but does improve in the more dramatic moments), and if there is one thing I don’t want to see in a film it is circus acts, with Zampano’s breaking the chain act shown at least four times in the movie.

Gelsomina

Gelsomina was played by Giulietta Masina – who has been described as the female Charlie Chaplin

But Gelsomina and Zampano are very interesting characters.

She is a very kind and quirky if somewhat dim-witted woman. Absolutely reliant on Zampano for food, money and a home when she is bought by him, she tries to change him into a better, more compassionate man, but is constantly rebuffed for her efforts.

Zampano interestingly remains the same throughout the film. Tough, aggressive, quick to anger, and though the fool teases him for really no reason, his over the top reactions to his pranks soon turn very violent, which leads to the climax of the film.

And it is finally here where we see something that perhaps Gelsomina has seen in him, a man who doesn’t want to be alone. The end of the film ends with him in tears, lost and alone. and for the first time we see Zampano’s fragility.

La Strada poses the question do Zampano and Gelsomina love each other, or simply need each other?

La Strada poses the question do Zampano and Gelsomina love one another, or simply need each other?

Ultimately though La Strada will struggle to appeal with today’s modern audience. It’s rather tedious at times and hard to invest in, with Fellini’s style better illustrated in La Dolce Vita I believe than here, with its more romantic portrayal of Italy and cinema in general.

Reportedly Fellini almost suffered a nervous breakdown due to his emotional investment into this film, and the early reviews seemed to suggest it felt almost incomplete, and that is kind of how I felt after watching it. It seemed unpolished, messy, and like Zampano unwilling to let too much emotion shine through.

But my main problem was with the character of the Fool. Apparently he was a character we were supposed to sympathise with and like, but I just found him annoying and obnoxious, to the point where I was kind of rooting for Zampano to get him. Probably didn’t deserve what happens to him but still.

La Strada has gone down as a classic piece of Italian cinema and one of Fellini’s finest. And as the first official winner of the Best Foreign Language film at the academy awards, it is certainly deserving of its place on this list.

It just wouldn’t be in mine.

La Strada: 4/10

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August 20, 2016 · 7:05 pm