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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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.

Track Review: Purity Ring featuring Danny Brown – Belispeak II

Electronic hit makers Purity Ring are back with a revised version of Belispeak, a single from 2012 album Shrines. Danny Brown has breathed new life into the track with a new hip-hop flavour and a faster tempo allows it to sit more comfortably next to Hip-Hop bangers from the likes of Kanye West and Chance The Rapper. Brown’s lyrics are some of the best in the game right now and are malleable enough to fit within the framework of Purity Ring’s ethereal style. Brown’s grimy, street lyrics could jar with Purity Ring’s dark and dreamy instrumentation but he manages to tie the two very different vocal styles together fairly well, relating the lyrics about “when my belly speaks” to Brown’s hunger growing up poor and then to his hunger in the rap game.

Image

Purity Ring bring new meaning to ‘Old School’

The autotune in the track feels a little unnecessary, seemingly thrown in for a little more 808’s flavour but ends up coming across just a little tacky. Neither artists need to use autotune as a crutch or a gimmick, and it only serves to actually make Megan James’ otherworldly vocals sound less impressive.

My swag is this big

The track doesn’t break new ground for either artist but what we have here is a perfectly serviceable fusion of indie electronica and southern slightly-trap influenced hip-hop. The biggest complaint I have is that the track is simply inoffensive and challenges neither fan base or artist. With that being said, these artists both show incredible potential and my fingers are crossed for potential future collaborations making good on the promise of this track and 25 Bucks, the two artist’s second collaboration on Danny Brown’s Old.

Bioshock Infinite: Burial At Sea, Episode One (DLC) – Review

Bioshock Infinite was one of the best games of the year and undeniably, one of the greatest stories ever told in a video game. It immersed you within a bizarre new world that was at once disturbing and beautiful. It was equal parts intense first person shooter and thrilling tale of prejudice, identity and redemption.  Infinite was an ambitious attempt at mixing many big ideas and science fiction concepts with exciting game play and it did so with mastery.

The city of Rapture is more visually stunning than ever

With the bar set so catastrophically high by Infinite and the original Bioshock it would be difficult for the first part of the planned two part DLC Expansion Burial At Sea to not disappoint. The game returns to Rapture, the underwater metropolis from the first game, except this time we get to see the city in full swing. In the opening half hour we join Booker and Elizabeth, albeit alternate versions of them, re-imagined as noir movie archetypes as they explore Rapture in search of a little girl who has gone missing. Fans who have played both games should already be putting together the pieces of what is really going on, but in classic Bioshock fashion the game keeps it’s story cards close to the chest, only giving you small snippets of clues before an ending reveal that even seasoned Bioshock fans will not see coming.

Many fans will be excited to see the fall of Rapture, witnessing the transformation from high flying technological marvel to an undersea mausoleum of the weird and grotesque, just as they did the city of Columbia in Infinite. Unfortunately we don’t really get to see that in Episode One, instead we get a snapshot of Rapture at it’s peak before being dropped into an already  destroyed portion of the city in the form of Fontaine’s sunken mall, that has now been turned into a prison for splicers. Hopefully we will get to see the eventual collapse of Rapture’s ecosystem but that spectacle is clearly being held back for Episode Two.

It’s still fascinating to see Rapture’s bizarre society in full swing

The gameplay is a half way house between the slower, more RPG inspired combat of the first game with the faster, pulse pounding whiz-bang action of Infinite. The result is… it doesn’t really work. The game faces you with tougher enemies than Infinite, forcing you to utilize both your Vigour powers and the regular weapons, however ammo and EVE (mana) is very scarce forcing you to scavenge every nook and cranny for scraps of ammo, health and mana. The combat is always manic but rarely that satisfying, and sometimes frustrating. On the plus side, I appreciated the return of the skyhook which is always a joy to use and the handful of new vigours and weapons are great fun to experiment with, especially the Range Wave Gun that pumps an enemy full of heat before having them explode and damage enemies around them in a satisfying deluge of fried guts.

The game also tries to incorporate some underdeveloped stealth elements. Once you have entered a new area, Elizabeth will alert you to the presence of enemies and suggests that you try to take them out quietly. You can crouch and sneak up behind an enemy and one-shot kill them with an execution but doing so will usually result in being spotted by other guards and as such amounts to little more than a throw-away mechanic. Game designers need to learn that stealth gameplay only really works when the entire game is designed around it, for example Far Cry 3 integrated stealth from the very beginning giving you multiple options for approaching and dispatching enemies as well as excellently communicating the locations of enemies with the ‘marking’ mechanic. Burial At Sea does a poor job at communicating to the player where the enemies are positioned leading to the stealth feeling frustrating and tacked on.

‘Old Man Winter’ is a new Vigour/Plasmid that allows enemies to be frozen in ice

The other major sticking point with this DLC is it’s length. I beat the first part in little over 2 hours, which isn’t great for a game that costs £11.99, and in fact may leave players who skipped the season pass to feel slightly ripped off. The short length isn’t helped by the pacing. I only really felt like I was getting to grips with the game’s feel as I came to the end and an out of left-field story sequence placed after the game’s first truly exhilarating encounter had me feeling like the game had abruptly ended before it had really begun. Which brings me to the game’s problematic ending, I won’t go in to too much details as one of the great joys of the Bioshock series is it’s unique storytelling, but needless to say the ending of Burial At Sea Episode One left me less than satisfied. The deluge of plot information is told in such a rapid flurry of exposition that I could barely get my head around it and am still confused at how the twist ties in with the ending of Infinite. I just hope that with Episode Two all will become clear.

A chilling cameo from Bioshock’s Sander Cohen is one of the game’s highlights

Right now, it looks like Part Two is going to have a lot to answer for if Burial At Sea is to be considered a worthwhile entry to the Bioshock franchise. When all is said and done Episode One simply feels rushed. The gameplay and story both have incredible potential but, partially due to the length, they both end up feeling underdeveloped. For some, it will be worth the price of admission simply to revisit the enigmatic world of Rapture once more with upgraded visuals, but for those still on the fence, perhaps it would be best to wait for Episode Two to decide if Burial At Sea is worth your time because right now, Episode One is only making a great case for the ‘Season Pass’ model being a very flawed system.

Fall Out Boy – PAX AM Days (EP) – Review

One of the front runners of the early 2000s Emo/Pop-Punk boom, California Quartet Fall Out Boy have always had a certain disregard for their reputation, often maligned for their penchant for sugary sweet choruses and melodramatic self-hating emo lyrics. FOB know their loyal and vocal fan base and have had no qualms with catering directly to them and no one else, slowly progressing over the course of their five full length releases to the theatrical, arena-conquering sound of Save Rock & Roll, an album that embraced the band’s cheesy side in an attempt to recall the classic Rock & Roll records of old.

Fall Out Boy sure can make a racket! ….I’m sorry

Needless to say the record was not exactly to my tastes, but it was not without it’s enjoyable moments, the titular soaring ballad featuring a guest appearance from none other than Elton John kicks off with chopped and screwed vocal samples of FOB’s first record before launching into a defiant boom-boom-clap chorus and some actually pretty inspirational lyrics (“You are what you love, not who loves you”), while you can’t truly appreciate the fist-pumping anthem The Phoenix until you’ve witnessed it destroying a festival crowd of several thousand.

With this unapologetic surge towards mainstream rock legend status, it seems odd then that at this juncture FOB would make such a pointed move to win back fans who dismiss the band as overproduced garbage with the stripped down, hardcore influenced EP PAX AM Days.

While this out of left field release is an admirable concept, it has mixed results. The 8 track EP is a brief affair, with all but one of the tracks coming in at under 2 minutes. Fall Out Boy are attempting to capture that hardcore sound albeit with their own melodic stamp with varying degrees of success. The guitar work is fast and aggressive with similarly abrasive drumming, recalling the instrumentation of NOFX and Gorilla Biscuits. After the layered, lavish production of Save Rock & Roll, this almost entirely live-recorded sound is an almost jarring change of pace. The instrumentation here is more Black Flag than Jimmy Eat World with power chords and brief, improvised sounding solos abound.

“Hold up bro, we can do hardcore.”

Both drummer Andy Hartup and lead guitarist Joe Trohman have previously played in hardcore bands and this experience shows in the 8 track’s driving rhythms and grooves. This project was tipped as a collaboration between the band and producer Ryan Adams (Weezer, Counting Crows) and his influence does shine through, although when it comes to production, the recordings are so bare bones one has to wonder what Adams actually did besides setting up the instruments and hitting ‘record’.

Most out of place here are Patrick Stump’s vocals. Stump has killer vocal range, which is probably a major contributing factor to FOB rising above the sea of similar bands, however here his theatrical vocal style often jars with the rough-around-the-edges instrumentation. The “Yeah I said the king is dead!” refrain of opener We Were Doomed From The Start is one moment where Stump’s vocals work, laying a bouncy hook over the dirty guitars, but on the very next track Art of Keeping Up Appearances his R&B influenced delivery seems entirely too clean to do the track justice, neutering a track that could have been a punk gut punch. On Eternal Summer Stump seems to channel Ire Works era Greg Puciato (Dillinger Escape Plan) with a half sung, half yelled defiance and slightly nonsensical lyrics. Stump’s inconsistent delivery is my biggest sticking point with this release and is ultimately what stops PAX AM Days from sitting comfortably next to contemporaries like Rotting Out; in the end the record feels less like a hardcore band and more like Fall Out Boy trying to sound like a hardcore band.

While it is impossible to separate Fall Out Boy’s previous works from this release it is an enjoyable yet inconsistent listen. It is at the least interesting to hear one of the world’s most prominent Pop-Punk groups attempt to capture a hardcore sound and a fitting tribute to said band’s punk roots. While it doesn’t always work PAX AM Days is an admirable attempt to win over disillusioned fans and who knows, maybe this will get people who say “I remember when Pete used to scream” to quit whining.

5/10

Best tracks: We Were Doomed From The Start (The King Is Dead), Love Sex Death

 For Fans of: Descendants, Gorilla Biscuits

Final Fantasy VII: A Retrospective Review

Every gamer thirsty for new exciting games fears the summer draught. Yes it is mid-June and the gaming stores have well and truly dried up and the release schedule is a barren wasteland devoid of any real moisture at all. Needless to say with much time to kill in this summer holiday my mouth was dry (ok, I’ll stop torturing this metaphor now). After taking Max Payne 3 for a short run and deciding that it was not at all my cup of tea (one sentence review: (I found the story dull, the characters unlikeable, the gameplay run-of-the-mill and needlessly frustrating) I began sifting through my old games collection to see if there was a game amongst the rubble that I could alleviate my boredom for the afternoon. That’s when I stumbled across my old PSOne games, and with them my two favourite games of all time: Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy IX. I decided that since I had never finished this game without abusing glitches (I used a glitch to get infinite megalixers for the final boss), it was time, now that I am older and wiser, to take on this game and truly dominate it.

Before I begin the review proper, a little background. Final Fantasy VII, released 1997, was a huge leap forward for Squaresoft’s (pre-Enix merger) flagship franchise bringing the epic role playing game into three dimensions for the first time on Sony’s Playstation, departing from Nintendo in favour of the increased memory capacity on the compact disc format. The game was also a step out of the series’ safety zone, departing from the tried and tested Tolkien-esque medieval style world, in favour of an almost futuristic steampunk aesthetic. With this drastically new format came the oppertunity to create a cinematic experience on a scale of which had never been seen before. Tetsuya Nomura, series veteran took on the role of character design for the first time as his manga style fit the 3D format. This game was also the first of the series to spawn multiple spin-off games and even a sequel film that tied up the aftermath of the game’s ending and gave fans the chance to see the cast and world of Final Fantasy VII in full CGI with voice acting. Other notable entries in the “Compilation of Final Fantasy VII” are “Crisis Core” a prequel starring Zack, which featured unique combat and a moving story, and “Before Crisis” an episodic mobile phone app available only in Japan that ran for several years. VII was the first in the series to boast full motion video cutscenes to mark significant turning points in the sweeping storyline and with this came some of the most memorable moments in the series, and hell, in gaming.

In terms of gameplay structure VII was not vastly different from previous entries to the series, the gamer was placed in the shoes of Cloud Strife, a galiant hero who must assemble a rag-tag team of unlikely heroes to embark on a quest, that would eventually decide the fate of the world they inhabit. The player explored pre-rendered environments, along the way collecting treasure and fighting monsters and formidable bosses. The 3-D playstation one sprites these days look very crude and will be a turn-off to many modern gamers. The battle system is turn-based, like most Final Fantasy games. When the player engaged in a battle, he or she was transported to a full 3-D environment in which they could see the characters of your 3-man party fight with their unique weapons or use fantastical magic or summon spells. The animations are extremley impressive for their time, this is also evident in the powerful Limit Break moves, one-shot attacks that would see the player inflict massive damage after his or her Limit gauge built up from taking in battle damage. The characters would gain levels through experience just like the other Final Fantasy games, however in this game building a balanced to party was a much more open ended affair due to the Materia system. In VII skills, magic spells, summons and just about every other battle command were assigned to character’s through energy-filled orbs known as Materia (this ties into the story, which I will get to later) and the materia would develop independantly of the character who was using it meaning that you could freely switch skills between characters, leaving it up to you how you organized your party, as apposed to previous games that would have characters already in preset roles. You could also equip, weapons, armour and an accessory to each character. the key to succeeding in Final Fantasy VII’s battle system was building a balanced team that could adapt to different opponents. This system had it’s flaws too, sometimes the story would dictate that you must use a character that you had previously not used, leaving this character underlevelled, unequipped and unprepared for the battles ahead. Fortunatley, these moments are few and far between and you will usually be able to make it through the situation, albeit more awkwardly than you would like.

But the real reason Final Fantasy VII connected with me and continues to be regarded as the best in the series by many fans is the story. The story took place in a world in which a tangible river of lifeblood flows through the earth, flowing through the planet and through it’s inhabitants. This energy known as the Lifrestream is the basis for the epic tale that unfolds. A corperation known as the Shinra Electric Power Company uses the lifestream to power their technologically advanced city of Midgar. Players assumed the role of Cloud Strife, a powerful mercenary who is recruited to a rebel faction known as Avalanche, who’s mission is to take down the Shinra to stop them from harming the planet any further. The game places the player immediatley in a moral grey area, to some Avalanche are freedom fighters, to others, they are terrorists. As the story continues each character’s motivations become clear and each of the colourful characters has their own backstory that is interesting and gives them a believable motivation for wanting to risk their lives in the battle against evil (with the possible exception of Yuffie). Final Fantasy VII featured a captivating cast of characters along with the hero, Cloud. Barret, the hotheaded leader of Avalanche and the first major black character in the Final Fantasy series. Tifa, a beautiful martial artist and Cloud’s childhood friend. Aerith a kind and serene young woman, who is also the last serviving of the Ancient race, The Cetra. Red XIII, real name Nanaki, a talking wolf-like creature, who is also the last of his own race. Cid, the recurring name appears this time in the form of a chain-smoking, foul-mouthed, and downright badass engineer who is the proud owner of the game’s airship, The Highwind. Cait Sith, a Shinra spy who eventually dedicates himself to helping Cloud and friends save the world. Yuffie, a spunky ninja girl who may or may not be joining you on your journey just to steal your materia. And finally Vincent, a mysterious vampire-like character and former member of the Turks, experimented on by the evil scientist Hojo.

 

VII was the first Final Fantasy game to explore themes of scientific experimentation on humans, nature vs. technology and the afterlife. Later in the game the true threat to the planet is revealed to be Sephiroth, one of the most frightening villains to appear in the series. Sephiroth is portrayed as a ruthless and brutal killer, of Joker-level insanity, in the pursuit of power and destruction to avenge the terrible experiments that created him. The story can seem rather bonkers from the outside especially when you consider the whole “super powered alien woman” plot twist (you have to play the game) but the game ties together all these bizarre plot threads in a way that no other game has. The only criticism I have is that there is such a rich mythology built up, it is at times hard to keep up with all the different plot threads that lead us to this point, even I as someone who has played the game multiple times and also all the spin-offs had found myself slightly confused at times.

VII was a groundbreaking entry to the Final Fantasy series and it is easy to see why it is still regarded today as the best Final Fantasy to date. While the game does feel dated today 15 years on (the blocky PS1 sprites and poor translation could be seen by some modern gamers as a barrier of entry) it still holds up well, providing an epic and moving experience that is truly unique and may just help you understand how the series became the gaming juggernaut it is today.

“Alright everyone, let’s mosey!”