Monday, 26 August 2013

Movie Review - Jurassic Park 3D

What can be said about Steven Spielberg? He's one of the most famous directors of our time, and you'd be hard pressed to find a single person who doesn't at least know of his existence. Run up to anyone, even some brainless oaf, and say Steven Spielberg - and you can be sure they'll have a rough idea of his work in the film industry. His 1975 hit Jaws launched his name into its own brand, and since then he's become one of the top earners in Hollywood - and his wallet is now increasing as yours (hopefully) empties, for here comes the glorious IMAX rerelease of one of his greatest films yet - Jurassic Park.

Businessman John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) invites palaeontologist Alan Grant (Sam Neil), his partner Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) and chaos theorist Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) to his own Jurassic Park - a controversial amusement park where living, breathing dinosaurs have been resurrected from fossils to serve as public attractions. Their outside opinions are crucial to the park's currently dismal future, but when a power outage sweeps the island, the trouble escalates even further as the creatures begin to rampage and break loose; leaving the visitors battling for their lives against Earth's formerly dominant species.

Jurassic Park was well known for its astounding use of computer generated imagery and is generally regarded as the first film to demonstrate its incredible capabilities in blockbuster cinema. There's been no ill effects on the CGI since the film debuted in 1993 - everything holds up beautifully and is made even more stunning in IMAX 3D, which isn't always noticeable but truly brings to life some of the majestic establishing shots and makes the set pieces far more intense.

Though it takes over an hour for the epic T-Rex scene to begin and the film arguably features more talking than dinosaurs, it still constructs a beautiful balance between storytelling and action, treating its characters with care and providing a satisfying degree of emotion to what seems like a very odd premise. When it comes to the dinosaur action, it's handled delicately; these are large animals stripped from their time period and they behave as such. There's no silly battles and the dinosaurs do not have sinister intentions - they simply behave as animals defending themselves, dominating humans with their intelligence and superior strength. This renders the action scenes far more tense and unpredictable for first time viewers, and removes any potential corniness from these frightening scenes.

Jurassic Park is one of the greatest summer films of all time and its influence on special effects is just one of its many pros - it's always tense and keeps you thrilled but sticks to a tone of adventure of excitement, making it far more attractive for families than many contemporary summer films. The acting throughout is exceptional and the script is rich with character development and a superb overall narrative. Even for those who have seen it countless times, this IMAX rerelease is an exciting cinematic experience and definitely worth a look.

Thursday, 22 August 2013

A Tribute to ToonTown

A few days ago, a very surprising e-mail landed in my inbox - a widespread message from Disney that their MMORPG, ToonTown Online, would close its gates after 10 years of activity next month. I really didn't know how to take the e-mail, if I'm honest; I played ToonTown from 2004 till 2007, then again from April - June 2013. I stopped playing it two months ago due to a lack of interest and commitment to other activities, but the game is still good fun and will always be important to me. It seems strange that even though Disney heavily reduced their influence on the game after 2008, they would abruptly shut it down despite its huge fanbase.

Now, Disney isn't doing this without reason: their Interactive unit has been suffering in recent years, and 2012 saw losses of around $216 million which isn't exactly acceptable, even for a gargantuan conglomerate like Disney. The recent release of Disney Infinity is part of a new direction for the video game subsidiary, and the company intends to focus heavily on their hugely successful Club Penguin game when it comes to online virtual worlds. ToonTown clearly isn't as profitable as it once was and it seems shutting it down is the last resort to keep the money sound.

For those of you unfamiliar with the game, let me bring you up to speed: ToonTown Online is a massive multiplayer online video game created by Disney Interactive, billed as the first type of such a game for children. It launched in 2003, and allows you to create your own cartoon character from an animal basis (a duck, dog, bear etc) and freely roam around the world of ToonTown, which features cities, docks, fields and factories modelled after Disney's rich history. The world is under the oppression of the evil cogs, a gang of robots who seek to turn the fun and carefree toon universe into one of business and accounting. Toons must use gags, such as cream pies, water flowers and anvils, to destroy the cogs and restore happiness to the toon world. This explanation barely covers the entirety of the game, so those not knowledgeable of it still won't have a clue what I'm talking about in the next paragraphs. But keep reading anyway.

Disney never released any figures on the number of users, but it's estimated that during 2007 it had around 1.2 million - though this is a great figure, other popular MMORPG's like RuneScape and Disney's own Club Penguin have over 200 million registered accounts. It's clear that ToonTown attracts a lot less attention now than it did in its prime, partially due to Disney's own abandonment of the game. The last major update to the expansive world was the addition of BossBot HQ, the headquarters for the BossBot cogs, which was during 2008. Since then, not a lot of new stuff has appeared in the game bar new items to purchase, a redesigned Toon HQ in ToonTown Central and the addition of Birthday Parties which attracted minimal interest. Disney have since done absolutely nothing with the game - the world is divided into neighbourhoods which are different parts of the toon world, and the last of these to be added was Chip N Dales Minigolf in 2007. And if you go there now, you won't find a single player in sight.

ToonTown is a superb game, even for older audiences. The graphics are excellent, the music is jubiliant and upbeat and the amount of activities to do is exceptional. The game allows you to undergo a series of ToonTasks to gain rewards and prizes, but you can ignore the main quests and enjoy many other activities the game has to offer such as kart racing, fishing, gardening or playing minigames. You can chat to other players using in game phrases or through typing messages (though many words are blacklisted to prevent swearing or sharing personal details) and these players can also be added to your friend roster so you can keep in touch. There's undeniably plenty to do within the game and it's sad to see such an expansive and enjoyable world finally reach its end.

ToonTown is arguably what triggered my love of Disney. Sure, I loved Disney films as a kid - but playing this game made me a loyal Disnerd and encouraged to further explore the company's multitude of media. It's packed with Disney lore and is easily one of the best MMORPG's in recent memory. However, while I like to take part in the numerous petitions to try and save it from closure, it seems inevitable that ToonTown has to close its gates once and for all, as Disney clearly have no hope for the game's future and the lack of interest from players is very apparent. Club Penguin is getting all sorts of promotions for new Disney releases, such as Monsters University and even Star Wars, but ToonTown has been left with nothing. I personally think Disney have a great game here if they only put some more effort into it, but what's done is done, and it seems the beloved virtual world has indeed had its time.

The game officially closes on September 19, and until then all members can enjoy all the unlimited features of paid users without emptying their wallets at all. No new accounts can be created, and when the aforementioned date arrives, the servers will be shut down for good. It's a shame and it will be missed.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

The Dragon Dream

On August 24, 2012, I posted a blog post that likely amused and confused many people. The blog post spoke of the events of a dream I had in May 2011, relating to a comet passing the Earth that was portrayed in a number of video games I played including Pokémon and Metroid Prime 2: Echoes.

I can't remember the last time I had a dream that wasn't as cool as that one - until now. A few nights ago I dreamt a rather vivid one involving a pet dragon I had befriended. It was quite bittersweet in a way, and as I woke up I felt rather strange indeed.

It's a hard one to remember but had several completely out of place scenarios. The first of which had me competing in The Death Games (yes, they were really called that). These games had me surviving a number of strange tasks, failure of which would result in forced suicide. The picture you see above is the closest I could find to a dark blue corridor I was walking through with other contestants. Upon opening a random door, I discovered the body of a person I knew from school who was also competing. He was hanging by a rope from the ceiling, his neck snapped and his face wide eyed and lifeless, as he had lost and was forced to kill himself. Pretty damn freaky.

And then, what's next? I go to visit my dad at work, but in some truly fucked up dystopian world where the water levels refuse to act normally. I had to cross a bridge to the other side of a large body of water at the docks, and almost lost my phone, explaining to whoever I was with that finding it in the water would've been impossible. I then traversed up a large embankment of stones and sand, approaching a tall building, inside which the water levels fluctuated and shifted dramatically for no apparent reason. The events that happened after this are clouded in my memory unfortunately.

Trains are animals, apparently. Animals we had dressed up in metal plating to do our bidding. This was less of a slavery sort of thing and more of the trains being our companions, much like horses pulling traps. The trains didn't meow or bark, and they looked no different - it was just a definite fact established in the dream that they are living organisms. But this only seemed to apply to steam locomotives. You want me to make sense of that? Haha, good one.

By now you're all wondering what relevance the title of this post has aside from the random picture of Dratini. Well, in a way, so am I. When I remember this dream, I remember a complex relationship established between me and my pet dragon - but I don't remember that specifically. That truly exemplifies the power of dreams and their dramatic effect on your emotions. The only appearance of the dragon that I can remember is when it died - its death was linked to a giant sheet of ice, and it had apparently drowned or frozen to death, and lay motionless as I sobbed uncontrollably in front of it, comforted by my friends.

And then, I kid you not, this quote was spoken in the dream. Rarely do I have dreams this poetic, but never do I have dreams that speak such a meaningful piece of advice.

We must keep the ones we love close because the world won't do it for us.

No joke, guys. My brain came up with that in its unconscious state while, in the real world, I was probably snoring away like an asphyxiated pig. I even remember waking up from all of this with a feeling of affection and sadness, and a slight tear in my eye. For once, a dream with MEANING.

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Movie Review - The Conjuring

I love supernatural horror. But I also hate it. Why is this? It's simply because the genre has vast and complex potential that's often wasted on cheap jump scares, stupid actors in ghost make-up and pointless references to Satan. We've all grown tired of demonic possession or vengeful ghosts, but are we really tired of the conventions or just how badly they're executed?

While the success of the film speaks for itself, I must state that while The Conjuring may appear to be cliche from its loud trailers, it certainly manages to stand out from the genre's biggest stinkers - and become one of the best modern horror films to date.

Based on yet another true case investigated by the renowned Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga), The Conjuring follows the aforementioned ghost hunters on their most troubling mission yet - the family of Roger (Ron Livington) and Carolyn Peron (Lili Taylor) who have been forced into a dilapidated countryside house due to their low funds. Within the house begin a series of strange paranormal events, preying mostly on Carolyn and their daughters, which have to be stopped before the disastrous consequences become reality.

The Conjuring doesn't win any points for originality, but then again even the best horror films can struggle to garner such a merit. It's more about how the conventions are developed and staged, and in this respect the film truly shines. The atmosphere is mostly tense and eerie, creating unsettling scenarios and charging up some extremely freaky jump scares. It wouldn't be a horror film without loud frights - and while there's one too many at times, it rarely becomes annoying. I've always believed that a jump scare can't just be a loud noise; it has to be contextually freaky, so that the thing making you jump has spooky consequences or aftermath. The Conjuring meets this criteria perfectly and delivers some of the most unsettling frights in a recent horror film.

The third act releases all the tension into a manic and spooky finale, but unfortunately this can drag a little and the film chucks in a few meaningless scares to generate fear as it begins to finish. What mends this flaw, however, is the exceptional acting - a horror film is home sweet home for atrocious performances and laughable scaredy cat acting, but The Conjuring avoids this flawlessly. Everyone, even the young female leads, performs brilliantly, injecting more fear and tension into every scene. The demonic entities briefly seen are excellently designed and their sporadic appearances, which are mostly suggested, keep you constantly on the edge of your seat.

A slew of awful supernatural horror films have hit cinemas in the past year or so, some of which I didn't even bother seeing, but The Conjuring is truly an impressive work. It's not flawless by any means, as it feels a tad bloated and far too loud at times, but everything is staged and shot wonderfully to create a truly disturbing horror atmosphere which is further supported by a great and engaging story. For any fan of horror movies, this is one you have to check out.

Friday, 2 August 2013

The Making of NIGHTMARE - Part 2 - Roll the Cameras


The filming of Nightmare was stalled by one initial problem - I wanted a new camera. Many criticisms targeted at The Attic were focused on the poor quality of my SD camcorder, which I bought in 2010 and started using it to film The Map of Five. The camera cost around £100 and had little going for it aside from an easy point and shoot format - manual focus was poor and difficult to use, excess light was difficult to block out even with a lens hood and the camera performed poorly in low light situations. However, I wanted to keep making films without stalling the production dramatically - the camera I was aiming to buy cost a staggering £700 and, had I saved up for it, Nightmare still wouldn't have been finished even now.

As a result, in September 2012, I made the decision to continue using my Panasonic SD camcorder, but promised that Nightmare would be my final film to make use of it. After decisions in regards to locations were settled, the first day of shooting commenced on September 15 at my granddad's house - this was the opening scene, in which Henry has a nightmare and is attacked by the strange cloaked demon within the haunted house.

Nightmare's opening scene was intended to be more intense than that of The Attic. Whether it was or not is down to the viewer!

Filming was split into a schedule across the two main locations: my granddad's house to film nightmare scenes, and the flat to film scenes set in reality. During the first weeks of filming, scenes largely took place at night - as a result, the early darkness of winter was a massive benefit, allowing us to prepare a filming session after college without having to work into ridiculously late hours. On any potential days off during holidays or weekends, we shot daytime scenes - the first of these was the scene immediately after the opening (where Bill is introduced), which was shot on September 23.

Filming for Nightmare was less eventful than filming for The Attic as it moved on at a brisk pace over the course of seven months, with no major hiatuses or gaps in the schedule that delayed the release. It was more a team effort for the most part; The Attic was mainly just me and Nathan, but in Nightmare, my girlfriend Kerry often helped out during scenes where were both acting. For the majority of the nightmare scenes, however, it was me and Nathan, which is why Henry and the demon are seldom seen in the same shot.

The old aesthetics and worrying histories of my granddad's house made it an apt place to film.
Nightmare features more conversation scenes than any of my previous works and this is a true test of patience for any filmmaker. The conversation scenes were not shot in a multi cam fashion - only one was used and so we had to keep moving it back and forth, speaking our individual lines when it was recording and rinse and repeat. Some simple scenes took over 2 hours due to this time consuming task. The final scenes of Nightmare were without a doubt the most challenging and intense of the entire film - and a change in the script had to be made due to a personal error of mine. Originally, Henry was going to find a new letter amongst the pile on the table, written by his grandmother to his mother when she was a child - the letter would've detailed the activity of the demon. Not only did I find it to be a bit of plot contrivance, but I also forgot to make the prop of this letter for the final scene and so it had to be redone. It was removed from the scene entirely and so some of the finale had to be improvised, which made it even more testing. The scenes where Bill and Henry end up in the flat and then return to it for the climax were shot in the same session on April 1 which lasted a whopping six hours.

For those wondering why I chose my granddad's house as a location, it is simply because my mum had a severe nightmare involving it which was similar to the plot of Nightmare - this and the story of my original short film were combined to form the final plot. Many of my family members are scared of the house and are convinced it is haunted, apparently because the previous tenant was a woman who, after having a failed love affair, hanged herself in the living room. My mum has told many stories of the house from when she was there as a child, such as cold sensations felt during the night and strange tapping that appeared to be some sort of communication. Freaky as this all was, the only creepy aspect I found the house to possess during filming was its archaic aesthetic - nothing supernatural occurred during our experience there. Still, it was an ideal setting to film, and it made for a nice spooky set without trying too hard in my eyes.

Shooting this scene was a literal nightmare due to that bloody rain.
Filming concluded on April 1, seven months after it began. It was a challenging but fun process, though I personally enjoyed filming of The Attic more. That's not to say Nightmare wasn't fun, but it became very stressful at times due to scheduling conflicts and travel problems, not to mention the length it took to shoot some simple conversation scenes. I didn't expect it to go any quicker or be any less of a challenge but sometimes I burned out during production and got a tad bored, which I feel affected the film in areas. Still, it was a memorable experience for everyone involved, and the final product born from it was definitely worth any hurdles we faced!