Beauty & the Bad & the Ugly

Disclaimer: I was invited to an early press screening of the film. 

The original Beauty & the Beast is, in my opinion, one of Disney’s finest animated fairytales, taking the essential elements of the folk tale and distilling them down to tight 90-minute runtime, packed with memorable characters and some truly spectacular musical numbers.

Sadly, though, it seems that Disney has forgotten what made this original film great as, it pains me to say that Beauty & the Beast (2017) is the very definition of bloated Hollywood filmmaking.

In an attempt to please the widest audience possible, in every WAY possible, the filmmakers here are throwing everything in, along with the kitchen sink (the kitchen sink, by the way, is played by Tom Hanks).

In translating one of the most beloved animated features of all time to live-action, the focus has shifted to pure spectacle. Whether that’s the loud and uninteresting CGI-heavy action sequences or the fact that every single character is portrayed by a celebrity (often to the detriment of the singing performances), Disney has attempted to wow audiences in ways that original could not and in doing so, the film has lost a little of its soul.

The film is also too long. I don’t know when it became unwritten law that every blockbuster had to teeter on the edge of three hours long, but this one certainly feels stretched thin. Musical numbers are extended, extra superfluous scenes added, even additional musical numbers have been cooked up, and no, they don’t hold even a tiny birthday candle to the classics of the 1991 original.

In the film’s favor, the additional backstory given to Belle’s family unit hints at a darker and more interesting route the filmmakers could have taken to differentiate this from its predecessor but even this isn’t given enough screentime to grow into any substantial depth to the development of these slightly re-imagined characters.

Ultimately the most enjoyable elements end up being the ones that remain largely unchanged. Alan Menken’s inspiring songs remain the beating heart of the piece, delivering the thrills that the CGI scenes cannot. Despite my problems with the casting, all performances are solid. Rising star Emma Watson shines as the naive but headstrong Belle, providing a role model for little girls everywhere, while Luke Evan’s swaggering Gaston is every bit as side-splittingly obnoxious as his animated counterpart. Josh Gad’s LeFou benefits greatly from extended screentime, with a surprisingly nuanced reading, although Gad (as always) plays it a little too broad.

At it’s best this is escapism at it’s most crowd-pleasing, you can almost hear the Disney execs happily checking boxes as you watch. But to the cynical viewer, Beauty & the Beast lays bare the Hollywood machine, uncomfortably drawing attention to the grinding of its gears. While many will feel swept away by the indulgence of this big-budget fantasy, this is creatively bankrupt filmmaking, that, despite its pleasures, sets an alarming precedent for Disney’s future output.

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Why the Nintendo Switch is a true PC alternative

Alright let’s get this out of the way up front: I am PS4 peasant. Not really by choice but pure necessity – as a young professional still making his way in this crazy world I have found myself with neither the funds or the technical know-how to build myself a nice beefy gaming PC so I have stuck with the dependable and convenient home console. However, as anyone who has had to sit through one of Destiny’s 20GB+ patches can attest to, the consoles are no longer the sources of instant gratification they once were.

This past Friday night I happily popped my Mafia III disc into my console, ready to get up to 1950s criminal hi-jinks and sat through a short installation process. This was a minor setback, however after a few minutes I was prepped and ready to enjoy an open world crime spree.  Imagine my dismay when I launched the game and was presented with a SECOND INSTALLATION – the process of which would take over 9 hours to complete. Thankfully, this gave me enough time to read the game’s mediocre reviews and trade it in at my local Game in exchange for 90 minutes on PlayStation VR (and, boy, was that money well-spent).

So console’s convenience factor is now vastly devalued by publishers forcing massive installations on us and it’s widely recognised that, technically, consoles simply cannot compete with high-end PCs. The PS4 Pro and Scorpio are paving the way for a future where more regular upgrades are required to stay ahead of console technology and let’s not forget that we are still expected to fork out up to £40 a year for online services that are of course, completely free on PC. So… why are we all not PC gamers again?

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This brings us to the Nintendo Switch. After the failure of the Wii U, the games industry was rightly concerned as to the nature of the Nintendo Switch. In a crowded market where consoles are alienating large portions of their audience, the stage was set for Nintendo to fail spectacularly if they did not come up with a truly unique offering. Against all my predictions, I believe Nintendo have done just that.Although at this stage the technical aspects of the Switch still remain hazy, the core concept here is a winner. As the Wii U failed, Nintendo have regrouped and taken stock of the current climate and came up with a device that takes the home console experience and melds it with tablet and handheld gaming, all wrapped up in that warm Nintendo charm. Nintendo have done right to not split their user base this time – the Switch is the successor to both the Wii U and the 3DS – meaning that fans of Nintendo’s first party games (aka everyone) can have one centralised hub of colourful gaming goodness. For many, the Switch will sit alongside their PS4 or PC, a machine that they can come to for a different experience; an experience that emulates the wonder of the first time you fired up the Nintendo 64 or the original Wii.

Of course, the Switch could still let us down. As Wii Music proves, Nintendo don’t always execute on an excellent idea. As with most consumer technology, this device will live and die by its price point. Go as high as the PS4 Pro and you’ve priced yourself out of the casual market, and also made it a tough sell for folks after a second machine. As Michael “The Value Factor” Pachter explained earlier this week, undercutting the latest consoles will give the Switch a running start in carving out its own niche.

It’s too early to form a meaningful opinion on the Switch, while so much remains unknown. One fundamental question that remains unanswered is whether or not the tablet screen is indeed a touch screen. The fact that not a soul in the 4-minute pitch video tapped the screen to interface with it leads me to believe that this functionality will be absent – which seems like a bad move. If Nintendo could position the Switch as a unique gaming system AND an entry-level tablet that supports the likes of Netflix and Youtube then Nintendo find themselves in an even better position to market this machine to the casual gamer who has passed on current gen systems.

Jack Ridsdale

I loved Persona 4 – despite loathing a large part of it

Version played: Persona 4 Golden (Playstation Vita)

Persona 4 might just be the most charming game I have ever played. From the chirpy J-pop soundtrack to the unmistakably Japanese environment designs I was won over in seconds. It’s in the small things that Persona 4 will win your heart, not in wild gameplay innovation or eye-popping graphics but in the character’s interactions, genuine laughs (a rare thing in videogames) and impressive attention to detail.

From the moment you step off the Tokyo bullet train in Yaso-Inaba station, you know you’re in for something unique. As a city boy transferring to the small town, the stakes aren’t as high as most JRPGs that would have you slaying monsters in pursuit of world-threatening evil; instead you’ll be facing far more daunting ordeals like introducing yourself to a new class or asking the first girl you like out on a date. Persona is a game about growing up and finding yourself which it frames within this fairly mundane scenario, what makes it special is how well drawn each and every character you’ll meet truly are and how much you will grow to like them. While typical world-ending catastrophes do eventually factor into P4 they are never the focus of the story and serve only to complement the character’s internal struggles.

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Put in enough time and you can successfully date a female woman. You can even be cheeky and keep more than one on the go

Like many other players, P4G was my first introduction to the Persona universe but the game does a great job of making you feel instantly at home. This is very much a Japanese role-playing game and is heavy on the story so let me be clear; if you’re not the sort of person that enjoys clicking through reams of dialogue then this game isn’t for you. However, those who have the patience to absorb all of P4’s dialogue will find superbly crafted, personal stories that will make you chuckle, wince and maybe shed a little tear.

Now, you might have noticed that I haven’t touched on the real “meat” of Persona 4’s gameplay – the dungeon crawling. While going into the character’s subconscious was always intriguing on an intellectual level, it’s in the more traditional JRPG trappings that the game falls down. There are just over a half dozen dungeons in the game, one for each new member of your team with a few more that I won’t discuss further for plot reasons. Each one is an exploration of a respective character’s subconscious often dealing with difficult issues such as self-esteem, social anxiety and even sexual identity. For the most part, the way the level design weaves together with the characters’ struggles for validation are handled beautifully, with the notable exception of Kanji’s dungeon which, while not malicious in its depiction of repressed homosexuality, is at best a misfire and at worst, perpetuates mildly offensive stereotypes of LGBT people.

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The character’s emotional issues and insecurities are the focus of the story

Outside of this misstep P4 presents considered and relatable portrayals of the psychological struggles that many of us face growing up and beyond. Each dungeon takes on a theme related to that character’s prominent issue, for example, Rise, a character who feels that she is always being forced to put on a performance, transports you to a strip club which ends in a boss battle against an other-worldly creature draped across a stripper pole. In traditional JRPG fashion, you will fight smaller enemies along the way in random battles, giving you the opportunity to level up your personas (kind of like Pokémon – but scarier) and grind for better equipment.

Unfortunately, the minute-to-minute gameplay that takes place in these dungeons is not compelling at all. The combat is a plodding, slow-paced affair that lifts most of its strategic depth from the ‘rock, paper, scissors’ action of the Pokémon games, albeit with obtuse, cryptic move names (the thunder attack is called Zionga, the healing spell Dia and so on). The enemies are spongey right from the start and only get tougher and more tiring as the game progresses. I am a fan of the Pokémon games and rate many of the turn-based Final Fantasy games among my favourite games ever but the crawling nature of Persona 4’s turn based battles was too much even for me. To make matters worse, the game does a poor job explaining the various mechanics at play. For example, I was more than two thirds through this 60+ hour game before I realised that you could directly control every member of your party, rather than just your player character.

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The combat has its moments but fails to engage over the long running time

Those who have the patience to deep dive into the combat and explore the intriguing Persona fusion system will find a lot to like but for me, it was a slog akin to waiting in a 20 minute line at McDonalds to get a Big Tasty, only to find that they’re all out and settling for the vastly inferior Big Mac. To make matters worse they put ketchup on it when you specifically asked- I’ve overdone the McDonalds thing. Tortured fast food metaphors aside, the combat system never quite reaches the satisfying levels of contemporaries like Chrono Trigger yet the student life role playing never wanes in its appeal even over an incredibly long running time. You can power up your Personas through social links, which are your bonds that will gradually increase the more time you spent with certain acquaintances. You can also kill time with sports clubs, studying and part-time jobs, allowing me to do all the things that I was too busy playing videogames to do in my actual high school life.

Despite my frustrations with the game’s combat, I still had the time of my life playing it. I was so absorbed in the high school drama and beautiful art design that I found my morning commutes turning into the highlight of my day as I escaped fusty train carriages to the colourful world of Persona. The level of immersion offered by P4 is a true thing of beauty that is essential to any PS Vita owner. If like me, you don’t have the patience for trudging combat you may be best of switching the game down to it’s lowest difficulty setting and breezing through to experience one of the most compelling JRPGs ever made.

New Music: XTRMST

When writing my undergraduate thesis on the role of the music critic, a main topic of my research was to determine to what degree analysis of the wider context of music was intrinsic to writing about music. Obviously understanding the messages and ideals being communicated in a piece of music through it’s lyrics and it’s sound is essential to understanding the artistic purpose and merit of the music as a whole, but when it comes to visual materials (album art, music videos etc) and the personal lives of the musicians performing the aforementioned music, things become a bit more tricky.

A good example of these interests butting heads comes with AFI side project XTRMST. Named with the supercool method of thinking of an edgy word and then removing the vowels, XTRMST is Industrial-influenced Hardcore project from Davey Havok and Jade Puget, the lead vocalist and guitarist of AFI respectively (who also struck out on their own with electronic project Blaqk Audio). While AFI started life as a hardcore-influenced punk outfit, over their 23 year career they have experienced many genre shifts from pop-punk to emo to alternative, even embracing elements of electronic dance music and synthpop.

Havok and Puget, in a promotional shot for Blaqk Audio.

Havok and Puget, in a promotional shot for Blaqk Audio.

The members of this two piece are both strong advocates of the ‘Straight Edge’ lifestyle (no drink or drugs, but you already knew that) but unlike AFI or Blaqk Audio the lyrical content of XTRMST’s music seems to be exclusively about the straight edge lifestyle, with more than a few songs sounding like pointed attacks at those who would choose to use such substances recreationally.

As someone who does not align myself with the straight edge movement but still lives a drug-free lifestyle I feel I sit somewhere on the outside on this one. Take this ‘subtle’ jab from Conformist:

Yeah, you’re so wild. But you’re counter culture falls straight in line. Yeah you’re so wild, you and everyone else.

Before tearing into the call and response of:

Inhale. Hold it in. Let the deterioration begin.

You’re being awfully on the nose about this, Davey. The whole thing just seems a little impotent, furiously striking out at an invisible enemy that doesn’t really affect anyone who doesn’t choose to associate themselves with that type of lifestyle. It sounds like as a whole I’m pretty negative on this whole project, right? That’s the thing; the music is really, darn, good.

The key word here is furious. Everything about XTRMST is furious, savage, aggressive. They’re the musical equivalent of an MMA fighter delivering a precise flurry of  lethal blows to an opponent’s face. The guitars are tight, blending heavy grinding riffs and confident grooves with occasional bursts of technical fretwork. The rhythm section is equally on-point. The basslines are downright filthy, showing a lot of influence from Industrial metal bands like Ministry, with the fairly standard hardcore drumming being the only element that leaves room for improvement. It’s slightly baffling that after all of AFI’s radio friendly pop-punk hits, Davey Havok can still deliver such a chillingly ferocious vocal performance but his high pitched screams more than match the ferocity of the instrumentation at every turn.

The only spots where Havok falls flat are the spoken word interludes peppered throughout the five tracks available on the band’s Soundcloud page. It is in these moments where the slightly juvenile nature of the lyrical content are laid bare and while Havok’s rallying cries to his straight edge bretherin are certainly catchy, more often than not they also come across as more than a little silly.

With that being said, the majority of the material released thus far is top quality hardcore; fast, tightly played and focused. The weakest track so far released is the latest single Words For The Unwanted, which opts for a slower moody tempo. Dirty Nails is by far the band’s stand out track, boasting a fist-pumping chorus and some very memorable riffs. The band’s self titled album will be available on 18th November.

'XTRMST' will be available 18th November.

‘XTRMST’ will be available 18th November.

So can a band’s social and cultural context be separated from the music they produce? I guess that’s a matter of personal opinion, but I could sure as hell chug a beer and bang my head to XTRMST. You can read Davey Havok’s personal statement on the aims of the project here.

New Music: Deafheaven – From the Kettle Onto the Coil

The hype surrounding San Francisco quintet Deafheaven is quite remarkable considering the band’s most identifiable genre is Black Metal, a sub-genre of loud music often maligned by music critics and critical listeners.

While the harsh, acidic screamed vocals are certainly a Black Metal trademark (even showing some influence from more recent Death metal and ‘Deathcore’ acts), it’s in the band’s accessible instrumentation that non-metalheads can find something to enjoy.

Deafheaven at the Basilica Hudson Festival

Deafheaven at the Basilica Hudson Festival

Like some other American black metal groups that have penetrated the mainstream lately (see Liturgy), Deafheaven seem entirely disinterested in adhering to expectations of a band within the genre, melding the abrasive aggression of black metal with the sweeping atmospherics of shoegaze and the slowly building song structure of post-rock bands like Mogwai. Even their bright pink album art is intentionally different from the traditional dark and gothic imagery that is usually associated with Black Metal.

From The Kettle Onto the Coil, a one shot single released as part of a promotion with Adult Swim, fits snugly into the mould of Deafheaven’s debut LP Sunbather while tugging in a slightly more traditionally metal influenced direction.

The 6 and a half minute track starts out dark with the rapid and aggressive drumming laying down a foundation for the tremolo-heavy guitars. Frontman George Clarke’s vocals are louder now than on Deafheaven’s LP, with low growls layered over the acidic high-pitched screams.

Deafheaven performing in Los Angeles (2013)

Deafheaven performing in Los Angeles (2013)

As the song progresses through it’s multiple chord progressions the melodic guitar work is given the opportunity the shine before the song breaks into a soft, atmospheric interlude. The song’s triumphant climax is classic Deafheaven, closing out the track with atmospheric sweeping chords, favouring a slightly more melancholic tone than tracks like Dream House or The Pecan Tree. Lyrically, Clarke stays fairly close to the themes touched upon in Sunbather, namely aesthetic beauty, desire and isolation.

This single doesn’t really blow away expectations quite so much as Dream House did, only because Deafheaven’s style is now established. However, the slightly faster progression of this track hints at interesting new directions the band’s songwriting could take in their upcoming records.

News: Watch Dogs mod upgrades visuals to match E3 2012 demo

A modder has given the PC version of Watch Dogs a make over with an impressive mod that claims to match the graphical fidelity of the E3 2012 demo.

A member of modding website ‘Guru3D.com’ has released a mod named ‘Watch Dogs E3 Bloom’ that adds features including improvements to lighting and fog, headlight shadows, improved reflections and rain and enhanced overall performance.

The demo shown at E3 2012 wowed critics and gamers with it’s extremely high-end graphics. Many were dissapointed when the retail version of the game launched with significantly scaled back visuals.

The modder who goes by the username ‘The Worse’ found and unpacked several features within the game’s code that were ultimately not used in the release build, probably to ensure the game runs stably.

It is undeniable that the game now looks closer to the game’s initial reveal. Below are some screenshots of the modded game and the original E3 demo. Take a look and let us know what you think.

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E3 Demo:

Source: http://forums.guru3d.com/showthread.php?t=390114

 

Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes (PS4) Review

Value for money is a touchy subject for gamers. Time was you would buy a game and that would be all you need for next 3 months. Now that we live in the age of on-disc DLC, online passes and 5-hour campaigns, people have a keen eye for games that would try to rip them off, which is why Ground Zeroes, the prologue to full game Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain has caused such a stir. The game’s asking price is £25, which for a game that can be comfortably completed in about an hour, is admittedly quite steep. The odds would seem stacked against Ground Zeroes, if it weren’t for the fact that it is the first truly superb action game of this generation.

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The first thing you will notice after firing up the game is the truly stunning look. On PS4, GZ flexes the Fox Engine’s muscles with an unparalleled visual fidelity. Previous Metal Gear games have relied on a semi-realistic, stylized visual style, but with the power of the Fox Engine, Ground Zeroes shoots for hyper-realism and does an admirable job.  Especially during the game’s main night-time mission, the environments are dazzling. With rain glistening from rocks and each individual blade of grass swaying in the wind, there is a level of detail here that surpasses anything we have seen in the past generation. The character models look great too. Snapping necks has never looked better in 60 frames per second and Snake’s iconic buttocks rendered in 1080p is the first true sign that next-gen has arrived. The game does show a few signs of it’s cross-gen development, some textures on buildings look a little flat and there is very occasional pop-in, but these are very minor gripes on what is an otherwise flawlessly attractive game.

With these hyper-realistic visuals comes a darker, more serious tone. There is still typical Kojima quirkiness here, but it is significantly toned down, making way for a sombre plot dealing with some troubling themes including torture, war crimes and even rape. Kiefer Sutherland’s Snake is quiet, reserved and sometimes detached, painting the portrait of a man hardened and tortured by his many years on the battlefield. While I, like many MGS fans, was dissapointed that series veteran, David Hayter, would not be reprising his role as the iconic voice of Snake, I am excited to see where this new interpretation of Big Boss will go in The Phantom Pain, chronicling the character’s descent into madness that will inevitably lead to his villainy in the MSX originals. This makes a change from the cartoony tone of Peace Walker, one only hopes that Kojima and his team possess the intelligence and restraint to handle these dark themes in a way befitting of their weight. In it’s short running time, the plot makes some narrative turns that seem intentionally designed to indicate the shift in tone from Peace Walker and create a more adult aesthetic. The twist ending definitely succeeds in doing so, leaving the player gripped to their controller yearning for retribution.

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For a franchise that, for all intents and purposes, invented the stealth genre, it only seems fair that Ground Zeroes borrows rather heavily from the new Ubisoft stable of Stealth/Action games. Fans of Far Cry 3 and the Assassin’s Creed series will notice the ‘marking’ mechanic that allows enemies to be identified with the binoculars and then be seen through walls as well as the detection meter that appears over enemies heads as they begin to notice your presence. But where these games fail, with less than ingenious AI, GZ excels, presenting the player with deviously crafty enemies that will see through simple deception and force you to think tactically every step of the way. There is also a new ‘Reflex’ mode that quickly snaps Snake’s sights to an enemy when he is discovered giving you one last chance to silence him with a bullet to the head or swift neck-snap. These features do make the game easier than previous entries to the series but they also make the game flow much more smoothly, alleviating some of the frustration of messing up. Being an open world, there are no convenient area transitions to act as checkpoints, so restart points are now much farther apart, meaning that the slight drop in difficulty is necessary.

Every inch of the game’s one location, Camp Omega, feels meticulously thought-out, from the unpredictable guard routes, to the thoughtfully placed bushes and crates to hide behind to the secret stashes of ammo and weaponry placed sparingly throughout the map. The various tactics for taking down enemies are as satisfying as ever. CQC allows Snake to grab enemies and interrogate, knock out or kill them. Interrogating enemies often reveals valuable information about ammo or weaponry stashes, enemy routes or locations of mission objectives (hostages). The open world setting allows for more freedom too. Vehicles can now be commandeered, however doing so is never necessary. Stealing a truck or even a tank is tremendously satisfying if you choose to abandon stealth and go guns blazing. The Side Ops missions add some variety to affairs, but even without these additional missions you will want to play through Ground Zeroes‘ main mission multiple times just to enjoy the refined mechanics and controls once you have surpassed the initial learning curve. Like other Metal Gear games, the variety of weapons and gadgets at your disposal as well as optional objectives like no-kill runs add incentive for multiple playthroughs.

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Ground Zeroes functions excellently as both a tutorial and a prologue for the full-blown next-gen Metal Gear extravaganza. The inescapable question of value is indeed a tricky conundrum that makes it almost impossible to assign Ground Zeroes an objective score, so I will forego doing so. What I will say however, is that Ground Zeroes is a visually stunning and staggeringly enjoyable demonstration of what a current gen action game from one of the most talented game studios can be and if that isn’t worth the price of admission then you probably won’t mind waiting for The Phantom Pain. If it can make good on the promise of Ground Zeroes, The Phantom Pain may just be Kojima’s finest hour.