Movie Review: Argo (2012)

October 23, 2012 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

Argo, Ben Affleck’s latest film, proves two things. One, he is still a mediocre actor. And two, he is developing into one heck of a director.

Following on from one of my favourite films from 2010, The Town, Affleck returns to the director’s chair for Argo, a film about the 1979 Iran hostage crisis where 52 Americans at the US Embassy in Tehran were held hostage by Islamist students and militants.

The movie itself centers on a fascinating but lesser-known aspect of a side story to the crisis in which US involvement was not declassified until 1997. Affleck plays Tony Mendez, a CIA operative tasked with finding a way to bring back six Americans who escaped the embassy at the start of the crisis and took refuge at the home of the Canadian ambassador (Victor Garber). At a time where the six Americans would likely be tortured and killed if discovered, Mendez concocted a plan that would have been unbelievable had it not been true: producing a fake sci-fi movie.

The timing was perfect, given Star Wars had taken off and Hollywood producers were scrambling to make rip-offs. But of course, if it were so easy to get them out the film would not be two hours long.

Argo doesn’t have much of that stuff you see in action films these days, but it’s still incredibly tense and exciting all the way through. The background and context to the crisis is swiftly and effectively dealt with at the beginning, and the initial scenes of the civil unrest expertly generate a genuine sense of terror and panic that lingers on for the rest of the film.

It could have been very easy for this film to become dull and stagnant, but Affleck sustains the tension through a series of well-crafted incidents and conversations, ensuring viewers never lost track of what was at stake and the imminent danger the Americans were in at all times. Needless to say, things were probably never that tense in real life, but that’s why this is a movie.

Credit has to go to Affleck for his brilliantly authentic recreation of 1979 Tehran, which as the end credits showed paid painstaking attention to detail. Everything from the architecture, the clothing and the hairstyles brought me back to those times, and I wasn’t even born then!

The performances from the all-star cast were solid. The ever-present Bryan Cranston (sorry, Heisenberg) was subtle as Jack O’Donnell, Mendez’s supervisor, and yet electrifying when he needed to be. Breaking Bad has already proven Cranston to be one of the greatest TV actors of all-time, and I hear maybe Argo has given him some Oscar buzz. John Goodman, who plays Hollywood make-up artist John Chambers, and Alan Arkin, who plays  director Lester Siegel, provide some of the more lighthearted moments and are both excellent.

As for the six US diplomats, the only actors I recognised were Tate Donovan (best known for being engaged to Jennifer Aniston and Sandra Bullock) and Clea DuVall (whom I will always associate with The Faculty), but all of them were very good.

As it turned out, the weakest link was probably Affleck himself as Mendez. Apart from the lack of a physical resemblance (everyone else was pretty spot on), Affleck played Mendez with his usual “blank” face and unlayered line delivery. Perhaps I’m being a little harsh and perhaps the muted performance was intentional, but to be honest I never really felt as much for his character as I probably should have.

Overall, Argo is unquestionably compelling cinema and solidifies Affleck’s reputation as a director who knows how to craft impeccable dramas filled with thrills and style. I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.

4 stars out of 5

Game Review: InFAMOUS (PS3)

July 9, 2011 in Game Reviews, Reviews

I’m a bit slow. Just about everyone is finishing off Infamous 2 on the PS3 and I’ve only recently played the original (purchased about 2 years ago when it first came out). I remember seeing previews for the game back in 2009, and they looked so cool that I just had to get it.

The premise was promising. It’s set in a post-apocalyptic world and you are a mean-looking dude by the name of Cole McGrath, a bike messenger who may have started it all with a massive explosion. As a result of that explosion you have gained nasty superpowers, and it’s up to you how to want to use them. Save the world and become a hero, or destroy it and become infamous.

For whatever reason I didn’t get to play the game until now, but I’m glad I finally got around to it. If I were to summarise the essence of the game, I would say that it’s like Grand Theft Auto except your character is like an invincible, ass-kicking Jedi master.

Positives

There are several elements to Infamous that make it a whole lot of fun. The first is that it is a ‘sandbox’ game, which means there is a big open world (much like GTA) which allows you to run around and do whatever you want in it. The finely designed post-apocalyptic world is pretty big (3 districts) and there are train tracks, underground sewers, wharves, warehouses, industrial areas, police stations, hospitals and so forth. You can’t really go indoors but the outside world is big enough for you to explore for hours on end.

When I played GTA, I often wished I could just scale the walls, climb trees, jump from building to building, or even fly. In Infamous, you can do all of that and more. Cole McGrath is like Spiderman in that he can climb just about every object in the game, and he doesn’t even get hurt when he takes a massive fall. For me, this was the best aspect of the game, and kudos to the makers for creating such an interactive environment. The only downside is that Cole can’t drive (he’s one heck of a runner though).

Secondly, like GTA, Infamous has a variety of missions for Cole to tackle. There are the main plot missions, which are longer and more difficult, but progress the overarching story (I’ll get to that in a sec). Then there are the shorter side missions which help you clear specific areas (so they are safe from enemies), including the good/evil missions, the objective of which is either good (like helping the police) or evil (like blowing them up).

That brings me to the third element of Infamous, that is, the Karma meter. In the missions, Cole will often be faced with a decision where he can either choose to do good or do evil. During non-mission periods Cole can also do good or evil, such as healing injured pedestrians or killing them. The repercussions from his choices will push the Karma meter in one way or the other (between the extremes of ‘Hero’ and ‘Infamous’).

How is this relevant to the game (apart from influencing the ending)? That brings me to the fourth element of Infamous — the awesome superpowers. At various points Cole learns new superpowers which he can upgrade with experience points received throughout the game. However, the upgrades of a certain power may only be available if you reach a particular point on the Karma meter — the more extreme the Karma, the more powerful the superpower.

Cole’s superpowers are insanely cool. Some help his movement (such as being able to skid along wires and train tracks and being able to glide through the air), some are defensive (such as creating an electrical shield), but the majority of powers are offensive — from powerful electrical blasts, throwing electrical shock grenades, a sniper blast (for far away enemies), and even massive electrical storms. Collecting these new powers and knowing when and how to use them to your advantage is one of the most fun and rewarding aspects of the game. Most of these powers will use up Cole’s energy gauge, which he can recharge from n assortment of electrical items on the street (such as telephone booths and telegraph poles).

Difficulty and Replay Value

Another thing I should mention is that Infamous does run at a fairly good difficulty level. While the majority of missions are not particularly difficult, many do take more than one attempt, and the good thing about the game is that ‘dying’ has no real consequence, which significantly reduces frustration. One thing you learn quickly in this game is strategy matters — you can’t simply run into enemy territory and expect to blast everybody away. Taking cover and finding high ground are imperative if you want to be successful.

In terms of replay value, Infamous is also relatively decent. The game does take a little while to complete, and can be elongated if you enjoy exploring the city to look for ‘blast shards’ (which lengthen your electric gauage) or ‘dead drops’ (which are recordings of information that feed you bits and pieces of the back story), and try and perform one of the 20 ‘stunts’. And because of the way the game is designed, you must play through it twice if want to experience both endings (the good and the evil).

Negatives

That brings me to some of the shortcomings of the game. First of all, while the Karma meter idea is interesting, its design has a serious flaw — Cole is always better off being either really good or really evil and there is no point being anywhere in between.

Furthermore, being good or evil doesn’t have enough of a bearing on the game. The outcome of each mission is almost always the same regardless of which path you choose, and the only real impact is when doing good missions lock out evil missions, and vice versa.

A second complaint is that some of the missions get a little repetitive. To be fair, I think there is enough variety to keep you going, but several of the main missions are similar and quite a number of the side missions are basically identical.

My main gripe about Infamous, however, is the story itself. Honestly, it is not very well written at all. Despite the promising premise, the progression of the Cole’s story is convoluted, often confusing, and simply not very compelling at all. None of the key supporting characters are very interesting either. Villains suddenly appear and you get a long spiel about their background and life story, but it’s all too crammed and lacks conviction. I tuned out after a while and stopped trying to figure out what the heck was going on.

Some people might disagree, but I also didn’t like the way the cut scenes were designed. Infamous uses ‘comic’ style hand-drawn cut scenes rather than the traditional high quality videos you see in most PS3 games these days. I don’t have a problem with them per se, but they almost always try to tell too much of the story in one go. You might take half an hour to complete a single mission, then all of a sudden the cut scene crams three days of plot progression into thirty seconds. The disparity in pace was disorienting.

Conclusion

In short, notwithstanding a few flaws, Infamous is a very very good game. It looks good and sounds good. It combines many elements of other successful games and adds its own touch to it. There are some weaknesses and it certainly could have been better, but as the first iteration of a fairly fresh concept, you really can’t ask for too much more.

Will be looking forward to getting the sequel when the price comes down a bit more. Anyone know if it is a substantial upgrade on the original?

8.5 out of 10

What the crap is going on?

June 30, 2011 in Blogging, Entertainment, Misc, Movie Reviews, Reviews

So I get up this morning and, as I do on most days, check my email — and I’m shocked to see there are hundreds of unread emails that aren’t spam!  Turns out, my post on The 20 Most Rewatchable Movies of All-Time was ‘freshly pressed’ on WordPress (whatever that means).  All I know is that a lot of people have been reading it, liking it and commenting on it.

This is a humble little site that gets around 1000 hits a day, so I sincerely thank everyone for visiting and taking their time to comment, even if it’s just to say it’s the worst piece of crap they have ever come across.

I don’t have time to respond to each comment, so what I’ve done is reconsider my list based on the comments made and made an addition list of films that probably should have made the list (maybe not top 20, but on some list measuring rewatchability) but I missed for whatever reason.  Here’s another 30 super rewatchable films, in no particular order.

Read the rest of this entry →

Shock horror: I didn’t finish reading a book

February 7, 2011 in Book Reviews, Fantasy, Reviews

As my friend Xander told me yesterday during our brief catch-up, there is a first time for everything.

I’ve always had this frustrating habit of finishing every novel that I start reading, but for the first time, I have decided to abandon this current novel I am reading and put me out of my misery.

According to this blog, the last book I finished was Homeland by RA Salvatore, and I had completed it by the 20th of December 2010.  Fast forward a month and a half and I’m still stuck on the next book, a Star Wars novel called Heir to the Empire, written by award-winning author Timothy Zahn.  I’m not even halfway through.

A friend was kind enough to lend it to me and I am ashamed to admit that I’ve had it in my possession for 6+ months, or some other ridiculously long period of time.  I wanted to finish it and finish it quickly so I could finally return it and get started on that stack of books still waiting for me in the corner.

It’s not that the book is bad — in fact, it is a bestseller and widely regarded as one of the best Star Wars novels ever written.  I don’t know why, but I’ve simply struggled with it, and struggled badly.  Every time I stop reading it, I don’t get the urge to read it again, and when I do start to read it again, I have trouble remembering what the heck is going on (probably because I take such long breaks in between).

I believe the problem lies with me being only a fringe Star Wars fan.  I was born a little too late to be caught up in the frenzy, and while I have watched all the films, I don’t care for Luke, Leia and Han Solo the way the ‘true’ fanatics do.  I just like the lightsabers.

So all that Empire/Rebel Alliance stuff, the politics, the names I can’t pronounce, the history of everything — the stuff that true fans appreciate — never got me going.  And there was too much of that in the first hundred or so pages.  I have no doubt that the book will get more interesting and action packed, but I just can’t bring myself to get to that point.  I quit.

My wife says I should have done it ages ago.  She compares it to my refusal to stop watching or going to watch potentially bad movies.  She still complains that I wasted 2 hours of her life in taking her to see Buried with Ryan Reynolds.  I actually thought it was okay, but maybe that’s my problem.

Next up, The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank.  I’m loving it already.

Movie Review: The Men Who Stare at Goats (2009)

March 12, 2010 in Movie Reviews

The Men Who Stare at Goats is one of those light, quirky, darkly amusing comedies very loosely based on real events.  It features an all-star cast including George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Jeff Bridges and Kevin Spacey.  It’s enjoyable, fascinating, and in no way meant to be taken seriously.  It’s not memorable, and is unlikely to win any awards, but it’ll give you a laugh and a good time for 94 minutes.

The film is told through the eyes of Ewan McGregor’s Bob Wilton, a journalist who ends up stumbling across the story of a lifetime – the US army’s attempts to develop psychic spies with super powers.  Yes, the US military actually tried to do this (and who knows, may still be trying to do this)!

You could be forgiven for thinking that The Men Who Stare at Goats is a Coen brothers movie in the vein of The Big Lebowski and Burn After Reading.  It has that quirky feel from start to finish; you wonder what the heck is happening and what might happen next.  Every character Bob Wilton comes across is fascinating and hilarious, especially Lyn Cassady, perfectly played by the “so serious it’s funny” George Clooney.

But actually, The Men Who Stare at Goats is written by Peter Straughan (How to Lose Friends and Alienate People), loosely based on the book of the same name by Jon Ronson.  It’s directed by Grant Helsov, who hasn’t done much directing and is more of an actor.  Hopefully Helsov will have more opportunities to direct after this film.

Anyway, there’s nothing particularly outstanding about the film.  It’s constantly amusing, but the big laughs are less frequent.  That said, it is clever, and somehow manages to stand on the fence when it comes to psychics.  The movie doesn’t endorse them as genuine, but it doesn’t exactly ridicule them as frauds either.  It does, however, suggest they may all be crazy!  My favourite thing about the whole film is that it makes constant references to Star Wars, especially because it stars young Obi-Wan Kenobi himself!

3.5 stars out of 5!

[PS: and yes, goats are stared at in this movie]

 
%d bloggers like this: