Wednesday 29 March 2017

Movie Review - Power Rangers

When a prehistoric group of warriors dubbed the Power Rangers falls following a betrayal from within, the remaining survivor, Zordon (Bryan Cranston), hides their source of power until those who are worthy in the future are able to seek it out for themselves. Millions of years onward, five young adults are united purely by chance and fate at a mining site, discovering a deeper chamber within and becoming known as the new Rangers, destined to stop the resurrected initial traitor Rita (Elizabeth Banks) before her planned destruction of Earth can begin.

Power Rangers, as we know, is based on an extremely corny, somewhat dated media series, and so developing a modern reboot that can rival a challenging superhero market is surely no easy task. Consequently, it's hard to summarise that story without it sounding painfully cheesy and cliché - and whilst it's far from the most ambitious tale in modern cinema, it doesn't fail at being simple and enjoyable. What the filmmakers have thankfully done is embraced the campy appeal to an extent, adopting a decent if sometimes sporadic sense of humour from beginning to end and never journeying down the dark, gritty "Christopher Nolan" route, for a lack of a better term.

Though the actors portraying the Rangers give it their all, and in the end make them all likeable and suitable protagonists, it's admittedly hard to emote and connect with them when their backstories are barely explored, often nailing the cliché's when the time comes for necessary backstory to kick in; something that's also daftly injected into the script as some sort of essential task in order for the heroes to conquer the villain. Said villain is portrayed with confidence by Elizabeth Banks, who masters her underwritten role with what little content she can work with - the end result being an intimidating but largely forgettable foe. The effects are as impressive as one would expect from big budget entertainment, adopting a solid aesthetic that is both realistic yet still colourful and spirited.

Set pieces? Apart from the undoubtedly thrilling climax, there's also really not a lot of them across this near two hour story. One has to admire the visible effort put into developing the characters and not rushing through their transition into superheroes, but the overall development is largely thin, making it feel as if the film is stalling in order to stretch the run time - you'd rather watch a bit more fight scenes than cliché campfire conversations. It may be a bit thinly written at times, but there is still fun to be had in Power Rangers, which finds itself as a respectable modern depiction of a campy superhero squad, and one that may entertain those who don't demand too much complexity from modern blockbusters.

Wednesday 22 March 2017

Movie Review - Beauty and the Beast (2017)

A marmite situation has now begun - after the success of The Jungle Book last year among other things, Disney is now confidently pursuing a path to revive their most treasured animated classics as modern live action retellings. Plans for live action updates of The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and The Lion King among others are in place for the near future - some love the idea (including myself), others feel Disney is milking their most acclaimed hits for easy profits. Whatever your stance, it's hard to deny Disney have done a great job with their efforts thus far, and this only continues (for the most part) with an adaptation of arguably their most beloved hit to date - Beauty and the Beast.

After years of selfishness and neglect to those who care about him, a young Prince (Dan Stevens) is transformed into a hideous beast by a mysterious enchantress - his only hope for redemption lies within a magical rose, which wilts over time, and the task of him having to learn to love another and earn their love in return before the last petal falls. His chance finally comes with the arrival of adventurous farmgirl Belle (Emma Watson), who takes her father Maurice's (Kevin Kline) place as prisoner after he trespasses at the Beast's castle. As time goes on, the bond between Belle and the Beast accels beyond hatred and blossoms into friendship, leading to hope after all for the Beast's redemption and his return to humanity.

The key thing most people displayed concern over with this movie was Emma Watson in the lead role - influenced by some obvious autotune on her singing voice and generally bland delivery witnessed within the film's many trailers. Such a concern I myself highlighted in anticipation for the film, and while Watson does her best, it can't help but feel evident that she was simply miscast - she's as beautiful as ever and so suits the role in that respect, but her acting often finds itself stuck in eternal blandness and her singing sounds grossly electronic, occasionally ruining what are otherwise superb reimaginings of the animated classic's most cherished songs.

These traits can't be said for the rest of the cast, however; Dan Stevens finds himself mastering the role of the Beast, a character just as well crafted from a visual perspective with some superb effects used to morph Stevens into an excellent live action adaptation of the character. In terms of supporting roles, the beloved servants of the castle Lumiere (Ewan McGregor), Cogsworth (Ian McKellen), and Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson) find themselves with the perfect actors for their roles and are just as well designed as the Beast - the CGI effects are breathtakingly realistic and the animation equally perfect.

The role of Gaston, taken on by Luke Evans, isn't as memorable as the portrayal by Richard White in the animated original, though Evans does his best with somewhat weaker material and is arguably perfect for the role. At nearly 2 hours in run time as opposed to the original's circa 80 minutes, Beauty and the Beast of course injects more narrative threads into the mix - some work, some don't. It's interesting to see a somewhat stronger focus on the Beast's past, and it's admirable to see a strong attention to detail to address unexplained if minor concerns from the animated original, though sometimes these drag out to unwanted levels and can make the film feel somewhat bloated as it nears it's undoubtedly disappointing climax. When it comes to the main chemistry between Watson and Stevens, it's arguably touching to see their bond develop from start to finish, even if some of these aforementioned new plot threads can sometimes drag out basic exposition.

Referring back to Watson, one of course has to respect the difficulty the role must have considering her interactions with many CGI characters, though such roles have been taken on by many acclaimed actors and mastered with much practice - Watson too often feels bland and boring to watch, which is a shame considering her overall talent and potential. Aesthetically, the film is just what a live action reimagining should look like - dark and stylish, with perfect attention to detail in almost every respect. The songs are equally as enjoyable (if at times ruined by some fairly obvious autotune) and Alan Menken's score is a beautiful modern update. While the film lacks the heart and innovation of the 1991 classic, it's still a decent retelling that most fans will enjoy.

Thursday 16 March 2017

Movie Review - Kong: Skull Island

In 2014, Gareth Edwards' Godzilla hit cinemas with successful results, despite it's extremely frontloaded nature and mixed views over the titular monster's limited screentime. Regardless, three years on, we now see the start of a new franchise - one inspired once again by the gargantuan MCU - which will blend a number of cinema's most iconic monsters into a shared universe of their own. Introducing the second monster to this series, and once again one of the most renowned, is Kong: Skull Island.

Government agent Bill Randa (John Goodman) spearheads a mission through his Monarch organization to visit the mysterious Skull Island, a remote location completely unexplored by mankind, leading to rumours of just what resides there. Recruited on the mission is former British Air Service captain James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), journalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), and Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson). Things seem intimidating from the get go, and the team soon enough encounter a number of hostilities within moments of setting foot on the island - the most notable is of course the colossal ape himself and self proclaimed king of the island, known only as Kong to it's mysterious natives.

The film then of course documents the journey these characters now undertake to escape the dangerous landscape around them, putting them into a huge test for survival whilst also focusing on some side plots that develop the story of Kong in some ways. Whilst there's a uber talented cast at hand and an interesting story on paper, the eventual results don't quite meet said potential; Kong: Skull Island feels just as unfocused as it's title, never really developing an interesting basis for the environment these characters explore or the eponymous ape himself - strangely, despite his decent amount of screentime and explosive input in to the film's enjoyable set pieces, it still feels like Kong is taking a backseat to the rest of the film which, sadly, really isn't as entertaining.

The creatures Skull Island is home to are just as beautifully rendered and animated as Kong, but in terms of their narrative purpose, there is next to nothing to explain about them. They seem to merely be random ugly beasts, popping up when it's time for some gruesome action, who are consistently bombarded with seemingly unlimited bullets among other kinds of military gear (or a few punches from Kong himself) to no avail - making for largely predictable and repetitive action scenes when Kong himself is absent. Even those who find themselves more central to the overall plot and involved in the climactic battle are forgettable and boring, leaving you with little to admire beyond their slick, superbly rendered designs. These action scenes also lead to some devastating events that you'd think would leave most characters scarred and traumatised, but the film even manages to weave in some humour in completely out of place scenarios which makes any dramatic influence these set pieces potentially had gone in an instant.

A common criticism of 2005's King Kong, as faithful as it is considered to be to the 1933 original, is that it's 187 minute run time is just too long. Consequently, this leads to a criticism that it takes a painful amount of time for the characters to arrive on Skull Island and meet Kong himself. There's an element of truth to this for sure, but the exact opposite is the key issue to how Skull Island begins - the characters set off on their perilous quest moments after the film briefly introduces them, as if the filmmakers were so keen to get into the main action that they forgot about believable pacing and character development. By the time things concluded I could barely remember any of their names despite their reasonably strong portrayals by a superb cast. These talented actors have roles so poorly drafted that you have no interest in what they're doing half the time, or in the pitiful attempts at dramatic backstory the film sometimes tries to weave in to nail all the Hollywood clichés. You'll find yourself admiring the special effects and gripping battle scenes, but then just begging to go back to said scenes when it's apparent how boring the rest of the film is.

Sunday 12 March 2017

Nintendo Switch - My Thoughts

After selling over 100 million units globally, Nintendo's Wii console, launched in 2006, was always going to be hard for even Nintendo themselves to build upon. It's eventual 2012 successor, the Wii U, found itself lacking both developed third party support to attract all sorts of dedicated gamers as well as the casual appeal the Wii garnered so much acclaim over. Consequently, with just 13 million units sold in the past four and half years, the Wii U can be dubbed a huge flop for sure even if it boasted acclaimed first party titles like Mario Kart 8 and Super Smash Bros.

October last year saw Nintendo finally unveil their next system - the Nintendo Switch, known as the NX throughout production. Building upon the companies' growing interest in mobile gaming and the Wii U's feature of transmitting the TV images to a tablet-esque controller for limited portability, the Switch has been dubbed a "hybrid console" by critics and even by Nintendo themselves. This time, the console finds itself as a small tablet computer with a 6.2 inch screen capable of displaying images in 720p HD resolution - it's accompanying dock and controllers, dubbed Joy-Cons, allow gamers to hook it up to their TV for a standard home console experience (with 1080p visuals) or play it on the go in a number of ways. Mixed reactions were of course present following the announcement of such an ambitious concept, but now that it's finally here, how does it hold up?

From left to right, we have the main console, the dock, and the Joy-Con controllers attached to their grip.
First of all, what I'm happy to see with the Switch is that Nintendo is finally departing from the Wii brand. One key thing I felt contributed to the Wii U's failure was the stupid name which, aside from sounding dumb, of course made the console seem like just an extension of the Wii rather than a dedicated new platform - at least to the more casual crowd. The Switch's name is super brief and efficient, capturing the console's biggest trait in a neat little way, and allowing us to move on from the Wii theme to begin a new experience.

The Switch can be played in many different ways: hooked up to the dock and played on a TV, removed and played with both Joy-Cons attached either side of the tablet, or placed on a flat surface, a built in stand able to prop the tablet up, and played with the Joy-Cons once again detached; consequently, they can either be used freely in either hand or connected to a bundled grip that matches a standard modern controller design. Said Joy-Cons can also be used as individual controllers among multiple people - turning them on their sides and equipping the bundled wrist straps allows them to essentially become mini game pads for use in a smaller games such as the launch title 1-2-Switch. They are also equipped with built in gyroscopes, once again allowing for motion controls, and so a wave of potential is created with this huge focus on flexibility. As for the handheld side of things, the system doesn't fail one bit, providing fully fledged HD experiences running beautifully in portable format, supported by a strong if sometimes inconsistent battery life.

This is the main menu on upon turning on the Switch, with your available games easy to access and switch (sorry) between.
The Switch isn't exactly huge on other features right now - stuff like Amazon Video, Netflix, or even a standard web browser can't be found from the get go, a concern which Nintendo has justified as them focusing on it being a dedicated gaming platform without distractions. Whilst this is respectable, it has to be said that in this day and age you expect these things to have the basic streaming apps and better internet access, so hopefully it won't be too long before updates introduce them - even Nintendo has assured us of this, to be fair. On a different note, it's also sad to see the loss of the much loved Miiverse from the Wii U and 3DS, with Nintendo instead wishing to focus on integration of existing social media websites - a smart decision, even if seeing Miiverse go is pretty lame. For now, you're of course only going to be using this thing to play games, and whilst the launch lineup hasn't won everyone over, there's some good stuff to explore upon purchase. The games are released as small cartridges this time round, inserted at the top of the console, though this thankfully never restricts the amount of content that can be packed into them.

In terms of games, I have my hands on Breath of the Wild and Fast RMX for now - the latter being a downloadable racing title and an enhanced expansion, if you will, of the 2015 Wii U game Fast Racing Neo. I won't lie: the game is incredibly mixed in terms of difficulty, often feeling abruptly very hard even on the easiest modes - annoying as this can be, it does make for some rewarding results when you conquer the toughest courses and a wave of manic fun that makes up once again for a lack of a recent F-Zero title. Visually, it's absolutely gorgeous, showcasing the capability of the console in terms of rich lighting and textural detail, and running beautifully whether played on the TV or on the tablet itself. Breath of the Wild...well, you'll see more from me on that very soon...

Fast is thrilling and looks amazing - though the difficulty spikes can be quite daunting.
Physically, the console has a great, modern look and feel - the dock is mainly just a plastic shell with all the ports tucked inside, as the meat of the system of course dwells within the tablet itself. It may seem surprisingly heavy at first touch, so definitely be gentle, but it's overall feel is easy to get used to and definitely a comfy fit when playing on the go, Joy-Cons strapped to both sides - essentially feels the same as the Wii U GamePad. The touch screen is also capacitive, meaning multi touch gestures are now possible, which is a first for a Nintendo product, though definitely expected nowadays. A lot of people have made comments of scratching their screens when inserting and removing the console from the dock, but I myself haven't ran into such a thing - ensure you handle with care when doing this, as you should be with a near £300 console, and you'll be fine. The Joy-Cons themselves also feel great to hold, either when you're relaxing with them freely astray in both hands or when they're compacted onto the nifty controller grip that comes with the system. Nintendo have never messed up when it comes to controls, and that tradition continues once more.

My past week with the Switch has been great fun - we're still in the early stages so not a lot of stuff has really come to fruition, such as Nintendo's extended online service that requires paid subscriptions. The eShop is of course up and running from the get go with a selection of launch games, including the aforementioned Fast RMX, but sadly the same can't be said for the Virtual Console - however, it's coming soon Nintendo have assured us, and with so many hints that Gamecube games will be available on it, to say I'm keen is an understatement. The Switch has opened to great success, becoming Nintendo's fastest selling system globally, and reaching just over half a million units at present. If Nintendo smartly handle the introduction of new content and memorable games over time, this successful launch can hopefully precede a stream of steady sales - and then we'll finally have a redemption for the Wii U's commercial failure.

Thanks for reading!

Sunday 5 March 2017

Movie Review - Logan

Hugh Jackman's portrayal of X-Men's acclaimed hero Wolverine, which began in 2000 with the initial X-Men film itself, comes to an end with this year's Logan - essentially the conclusion of Wolverine's own trilogy following X-Men Origins: Wolverine and The Wolverine. How many times am I gonna be saying Wolverine? Maybe that's why they adopted a new title. Said new title is fitting enough to represent how different it is from past efforts, and from many recent superhero flicks in general, though it's not without fault.

Logan acknowledges some of the plot points established in last year's X-Men: Apocalypse without feeling like a direct sequel or random spinoff - Patrick Stewart once again returns as a dying Charles Xavier (portraying him as brilliantly as we all expect), with the story focusing on the approaching extinction of Mutants years from now. Logan, along with Xavier and mutant Caliban (Stephen Merchant), find themselves seeking refuge in an abandoned oil plant, but are soon disturbed by those involved in the government project Transigen, which involves mysterious young mutant Laura (Dafne Keen) - someone who holds a stronger bond to Logan than he initially thinks.

The X-Men series has differed from other recent Marvel hits due to it's adoption of more mature themes and grittier violence - last year's Deadpool dished out profanities, controversial jokes, and some intense violence like no tomorrow, and became the highest grossing of the entire series much to everyone's surprise. While certainly not as comedic given the source material, Logan feels similar in many ways, with Hugh Jackman's portrayal of the titular character once again conveying the witty, dry sense of humour we know and love whilst also showing him to be someone that shouldn't be messed with. The decaying state of the character becomes clear not just with the impressive costume and prosthetic design, but also Jackman's overall acting, which finds the right balance between being savage, reluctantly heartfelt, and extremely brutal when the time is right.

Logan is not short on action - a number of fight scenes are present as the story moves forward at a steady if somewhat occasionally confusing pace. The sad thing is that many of these action scenes lack a true sense of effort in their choreography; whilst certainly enjoyable to watch and suitably intense, they can often feel repetitive when all you seem to be watching is Jackman yelling, showing off his muscles, and slashing a number of faceless thugs in all sorts of gruesome ways. The same can be said for Keen in the role of Laura, who holds an important place in the film's narrative, but can sometimes feel a little bit irritating when she comes into said action sequences screaming her lungs out and jumping around like a lunatic.

Boyd Holbrook gives a strong and appropriately threatening performance in the role of Donald Pierce, the head of security in the Transigen project, even if he can also be somewhat forgettable - there doesn't really seem to be a key focus on the villain, which is a shame given the huge potential. Logan is certainly a solid overall superhero flick in spite of said flaws, but it's widespread critical acclaim I'm just not seeing the inspiration for - there is a lot to enjoy, mainly Jackman's exceptional performance and the emotional heft in the story as we approach it's conclusion, but perhaps more could've been done to inject more variety into the action sequences as well as focus on streamlining the plot to reduce the film's rather bloated run time.