Tuesday 31 October 2017

Movie Review - Blade Runner 2049

Though met with mixed reactions and mediocre box office takings upon release, 1982's Blade Runner now remains an iconic cult hit and that many consider one of Ridley Scott's finest directorial efforts. Now, over thirty years later, an unexpected sequel has arisen; though it's sadly ended up a financial disappointment, Blade Runner 2049 is also one of 2017's very best films, and a sequel that the original film certainly deserves.

In 2049, biorobotic humans dubbed replicants are engineered for a variety of tasks; one such model, K (Ryan Gosling), works within the LAPD to hunt down and retire older replicant models hidden deep in society. His work eventually begins to unveil more and more mysteries about the replicants' history and potential, which in turn triggers questions over his own origins and purpose.

Blade Runner 2049 thankfully creates a story respectful towards the original and is far from a lazy rehash; it cleverly intertwines a number of new ideas within an engrossing premise to further develop this rich fictional world. The film's superb art direction creates an absorbing and equally unique dystopian future, depicted with some stunning visual effects and set design. Such aesthetics are further bolstered by a superb soundtrack; one that pays homage to the original film with similarly iconic themes whilst also offering up some lovely original music of its own.

Audiences will journey through all manner of twists and turns as the plot moves forward; while not without occasional sluggish moments (leading to a huge run time), the complex narrative is still handled with care and attention to detail. It challenges viewers with a number of intriguing questions about what is human and what isn't, and of course leaves it to the audience to deduce a number of interesting twists themselves. Certain plot threads seem to intentionally lack a degree of finality, allowing for more subjective outcomes and inviting debate amongst audiences over what various scenes mean and how they fit in with the original film.

This story prospers even further thanks to a superb cast lead by Gosling, and also featuring talents such Jared Leto and Sylvia Hoeks in threatening if slightly forgettable villainous roles. Gosling's deadpan protagonist wins merit for an intimidating presence during various set pieces as well the genuine heartfelt persona that comes to fruition during more tender moments; it certainly leads to what is arguably one of Gosling's best roles to date. Harrison Ford also makes a welcome return in the role of Deckett, and it's fair to say his performance is just as spot on as it was in the original. His character blends seamlessly into later portions of the story and is developed even further with great results, making his role far from a lazy cameo.

Blade Runner 2049 didn't need to be nearly three hours long; some of its set pieces are also a little excessive, and the plot undeniably gets a little confusing during its deeper moments. Still, what you watch is an enthralling piece of science fiction and a worthy successor to a beloved cult classic. Fans of the original will be just as impressed as those fairly new to the story; it's certainly a shame to see it fail to attract a larger audience, for it deserves one for sure.

Thursday 26 October 2017

Movie Review - Thor: Ragnarok

The MCU continues to grow as each year passes, and now has reached new standards in the eyes of many critics with the God of Thunder's threequel blockbuster (sure to be anyway); Thor: Ragnarok is now the most acclaimed film in the franchise, exceeding the immense praise of even Iron Man and The Avengers, so to say the hype of fans is only escalating would be a gross understatement. Now, sorry to sound like an elderly killjoy, but this is the part where I come in and try to justify my controversial thoughts - Thor: Ragnarok is an enjoyable adventure, but far from the masterpiece most people strangely make it out to be.

Thor (Chris Hemsworth) returns to his world protecting duties across the stars following the overthrow of Ultron, but soon finds himself stripped of his ancient hammer Mjolnir and stranded on the planet Sakaar, forced to battle against the also captive (and universally hailed) champion Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) to satisfy the gladiatorial desires of the violent natives. He soon leads an effort to escape as his homeworld Asgard comes under threat by Odin's twisted firstborn Hela (Cate Blanchett), reborn to exact her revenge and spearhead the impending Ragnarok - the predicted end of Asgard and all who live there.

To begin with, Thor: Ragnarok simply adopts the same flaw that many recent MCU films have been suffering from - many may disagree with me, and it's all a matter of taste perhaps, but it's simply too goofy. It certainly has a likeable sense of humour, deeply funny at it's very best, but the filmmakers simply can't step back and develop a sensible scene without throwing in an awkwardly timed gag to debunk any buildup of genuine tension or emotional weight. This is a superhero film for a wide audience and not one that has to be dark, gritty, and obsessed with complex themes, but it's also one that does have the potential for some more serious development - sadly said development never quite comes to fruition. Indeed, there are times where you'd think this is a parody of the genre more than anything else.

But Ragnarok is not without charm; as said, when it's funny, it's really funny, and even it's most awkwardly placed jokes are not without their humourous appeal. It's cast perform strongly to ensure said laughs and eventual epic moments are executed wonderfully - particular praise can be handed to Hemsworth himself as a likeable if overly silly Thor and especially Jeff Goldblum as the film's secondary villain Grandmaster, the ruler of Sakaar. His character is fairly flat and role in the narrative somewhat unbalanced, but Goldblum's performance does a sound job of capturing the character's twisted sense of humour to make him an entertaining villain whenever he shows up. In terms of the film's principle antagonist, Blanchett brings Hela to life with suitable sadism, though her strangely long absences and occasional daft antics can make investing consistent interest a tricky task.

Hulk's inclusion holds some significance given that Ragnarok is derived from the Planet Hulk comic storyline, however I can't say his role won me over. Ruffalo's performance is decent, and the effects used to bring his giant green self to life are as refined as ever, but the character's gross idiocy and irritating dialogue frequently reduce him to a cliché moronic comic relief - a real shame considering his former threatening appeal. Thor: Ragnarok still boasts the same visual thrills and stylish set pieces that most MCU films have mastered so well, but these can't fully make up for the unfocused, overly silly humour and generally mediocre story. It's good fun, and another treat for the most loyal of fans, but little else.

Tuesday 17 October 2017

Movie Review - The Ritual

Following his closest friends' murder, some bloke named Luke (Rafe Spall) leads the rest of his college pals on a hiking trip as a tribute to their late colleague's memory. Initially evocative and more adventurous than they expected, the journey is soon cut short following a tedious injury. In order to get to safety as quick as possible, a shortcut through the forest is taken, where a sense of unease slowly begins to emerge and a number of dark truths soon come to fruition.

The Ritual is a film very independent at its core, which makes its superb production design and special effects all the more admirable. This same praise also applies when discussing the overall atmosphere; yeah, it occasionally relies on cheap jumps, but isn't without strong moments of eerie chills and many frightening twists, certainly making some of its key set pieces all the more entertaining and intimidating.

The movie's key flaw lies within the story itself; while it begins with some surprising emotional heft, it eventually resorts to following many horror clichés and lacks consistently refined development, particularly when the key antagonists emerge within the climax. The protagonists fare no better in all honesty, which is a great a shame considering how the leading performances are largely superb and deserving of much praise.

It's basically a story that begins strong yet sinks majorly as it approaches the conclusion. While it has its chilling and thrilling moments, the final act itself certainly feels rushed and contrived in many ways, all coming to an end with an unusually abrupt and inadvertently comical conclusion. The Ritual does offer a genuinely scary experience in some of its most unsettling moments, but that makes it even more disappointing to see it lose interest in its narrative and pacing as it goes on.

Friday 13 October 2017

Worst to Best - Super Mario 3D

Super Mario Odyssey is on the way, and to say I'm hyped would be a vast understatement. Since his arcade debut as Jumpman in 1981, Mario has long been Nintendo's iconic mascot and one of the most renowned heroes in the gaming industry; his reputation certainly precedes him with some of the best games on offer to audiences of all ages. Without a doubt his 3D outings remain just as iconic as his famed 2D ones, and it goes without saying that all have maintained a consistent streak of quality over the past two decades.

So this list sure wasn't an easy one to form; but now let's rank all of Mario's main 3D adventures, all of which adopt their own innovation and offer some of the best experiences on their respective platforms.

#6 - Super Mario 3D Land (3DS, 2011)

A simple yet strong effort for Mario's main 3DS debut, Mario 3D Land deftly blends the straightforward structure of the 2D classics with the complexity of his 3D efforts; the end result is a game that offers an addictive and well designed platforming experience approachable for loyal fans and newcomers alike. Its first admirable factor are of course the visuals which are certainly some of the best the 3DS has to offer; full of colour and vibrancy, and with the simple yet insanely appealing art direction Mario's finest works are always known for.

Yes, 3D Land isn't quite as memorable as Mario's other 3D efforts, largely due to it being a tad short lived and not full of as much innovation to give it the same impact other titles have boasted. Despite this, there's still no denying that it's one of the best 3DS titles even half a decade on.

#5 - Super Mario 64 (N64, 1996)

Mario 64 being so low on this list may not click with many of you I imagine; however, I must emphasise once more that these games are largely even in terms of quality, and so I still find this to be a great game nonetheless. It already wins points for being such a benchmark in the platforming genre, pioneering and refining conventions such as complex analogue control and a 3D camera system. It's also quite remarkable how well the experience has aged; even two decades later, revisiting 64 never feels like an outdated experience and it remains just as fun as it was way back when.

What makes it such a great experience is the expansive structure most levels boast, promoting exploration without feeling too vague in their design. It's bags of fun to just mess about within each stages' most intricate areas, allowing you to locate more and more secrets in the process. It's also pleasing just how much variety the game offers, with stages ranging from colourful yet chaotic battlefields to soothing harbours to a tall, tall mountain (literally). There's plenty of fun and variety on offer, and the game's influence on the industry alone makes it something that will never get old.

The DS remake, somewhat awkward controls aside, is also a respectable update; being able to play such a masterpiece on the go already makes it worth having.

#4 - Super Mario Sunshine (NGC, 2002)

Mario Sunshine is a title that yields some more mixed reactions within the fanbase. It's a great game, no doubt, but a slightly stronger focus on story didn't quite work in the eyes of many, and the occasionally savage difficulty wasn't always appealing when trying to reach an 100% completion.

Sunshine's story sees Mario on vacation at the gorgeous Isle Delfino resort, yet he quickly finds himself framed for polluting the island's beautiful locales and is forced to clean up the mess whilst also tracking down the real culprit. It's not a poor story, but is perhaps just a bit hard to connect with considering the blatant idiocy of Delfino's native Pianta's and the incredibly cheesy cutscenes. That aside, Sunshine is still one of my favourite GameCube titles; notably impactful as I'd dub it my first true experience with the plumber, considering I was more into the Sega Genesis and PlayStation during past generations.

The new Isle Delfino setting allowed each stage to be fresh in terms of design, and their expansive structure once again promotes a lot of exploration; it's just as fun to put the main quest aside to goof off and locate more and more secrets. The integration of FLUDD, Mario's water backpack, also stirs up the experience. FLUDD's various nozzles allow you to not only take care of foes and hazards with blasts of water, but also navigate large over gaps and zoom up to higher locations. The game's aforementioned difficulty perhaps could've been toned down a little, and you may certainly wish the characters didn't open their mouths during most cutscenes, but Sunshine is still one of my favourite Mario titles to date.

#3 - Super Mario Galaxy (Wii, 2007)

Branded one of the best games of all time by critics and audiences alike, Mario's debut on the Wii ten years ago now certainly helped prove Nintendo wasn't just trying to milk the casual market with their latest and most controversial console. Indeed, they were still the same genius game developer that we all knew and love within, capable of making some of the best first party titles across all generations of gaming. Galaxy deserves strong acclaim simply because of how much ingenuity the developers injected into the experience; as the title suggests, Mario is now whizzing into outer space to stop Bowser yet again, and such a setting of course paves the way for some of the most innovative level design to ever grace the series.

The various galaxies Mario explores adopt all kinds of themes: beaches, gardens, volcanoes, you name it. We've seen similar stuff in previous Mario titles, but the fresh design in Galaxy's most notable stages make them far from repetitive. The overall aesthetic helped show the Wii as something very capable of impressive modern graphics, even if it lagged behind its rival consoles. As well as visually stunning, each level is also packed with depth; while the design is arguably more linear than that of 64 and Sunshine, there's still a lot of fun to be had as you explore more and more of each world. The game's a bit too easy at times, but that matters not when Ninty have still crafted a masterpiece that will never lose its appeal.

Oh, and that music...enough said.

#2 - Super Mario Galaxy 2 (Wii, 2010)

The Wii became such a gargantuan hit and enjoyed such a long lifespan that there was even time for two main 3D Mario games. With so many ideas that they couldn't possibly squeeze into the original, Nintendo came back for the first main sequel in Mario's 3D history, building upon an already stellar formula with some neat little additions and of course an onslaught of new, equally absorbing levels. Of course, the most notable addition at first glance is the return of Yoshi, who makes his first 3D Mario appearance since Sunshine eight years prior. He's a little underused, but the inclusion was still a great design choice, and he's far more enjoyable and less fiddly to play as compared to his Sunshine gameplay. He ultimately paves the way for more and more creativity during his main segments in many levels.

Galaxy 2 also streamlines the experience a little more by featuring a much smaller hub world and a simple world map to connect each level. It may seem disappointing to not have as much freedom initially, but this is a minor concern when the game's fluidity is seriously aided by this new, simpler approach. Aside from these tweaks, Galaxy 2 doesn't dramatically alter the experience offered by its predecessor, but this is certainly good thing as of course if something isn't broken, it shouldn't be fixed. The new stages and missions offer plenty of fresh challenge and innovation, yet the game still adopts the same stellar visuals and fluent controls that the original game demonstrated. The outcome? Certainly that rare superior sequel.

#1 - Super Mario 3D World (Wii U, 2013)

Though certainly considered one of the Wii U's best titles, Mario 3D World wouldn't be most people's choice for the best of the plumbers 3D outings. Most still seem to love it, but just not as much as past efforts, considering the resounding influence many of them had on the platforming genre.

But alas, whilst it took me a lot of thought due to the franchise's consistently refined quality, 3D World still has to be my pick for the best of the best. The game adopts the same format as 3D Land, with timed, somewhat linear stages, but builds upon it with a dozen new ideas of its own: a world map more open to some exploration, more and more thoughtful concepts within each level, new power ups, and of course a multiplayer mode that makes the experience over ten times as fun when shared with friends. The multiplayer may make things a bit too overcrowded during later stages, but it remains one of my favourite aspects of 3D World's experience, and it's nice to see some later levels actually designed with it in mind to allow you to unlock new secrets and pathways alongside your teammates.

It also goes without saying that on a visual and audial level, 3D World remains true to the series' high standards, boasting some of the Wii U's most crisp, vibrant graphics and a soundtrack that is without any forgettable tunes. Whilst I look forward to Odyssey returning to the more open world design, 3D World again proves that a more linear structure can still offer plenty of its own depth, and can be just as engrossing throughout.

UPDATE: This post has now been adapted into a video for the gaming channel ProjectFalconPunch! Check it out via the link below!

Click here!

Thanks for reading!