Three Minute Review #2: Breadcrumb Trail (2014)

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This superb documentary about the defunct (sort of) post-rock band Slint doesn’t attempt to address the mystique created following their dissolution; merely acknowledge it. Once the songs on Spiderland, the band’s second album, were released, it was up to listeners to absorb, filter and interpret; then share by word-of-mouth (the most effective endorsement even in the days of Twitter). By this time, the members had all moved onto other projects. You could take other things from this documentary, but it remains objective throughout, neither revealing too much about the personal lives of the creators nor their anxieties from the difficult birth process. In the end, it’s just a record. A really fucking great record.

10/10

Three Minute Review #1: The Last House On The Left (1972)

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From the black and white poster I was expecting something much more grim and uncomfortable, but instead ended up watching a cross between Deliverance and Home Alone, more comical than blood-curdling. The odd soundtrack, bumbling cops and cringe-inducing dialogue barely kept me viewing to the end. Rob Zombie ripped off the tone wholesale and the soundtrack, recorded by one of the stars of this gashfest, belongs in a bargain bin. After 85 minutes I wasn’t actually sure what the hell I’d just watched.

2/10

RetroView: Resident Evil (Biohazard) 4 (PS2) [2005]

PS2_Resi4_Sleeve I’ll admit to you now that I’m getting rather long in the tooth these days. I was an early adopter of the PS1 and bought the first Resident Evil when it was released in 1996. Whatever possessed me to buy it in the first place eludes me now, though I suspect it was because I was a teenager and they were marketed as “adult” games before we took that for granted.

Even then, I was appalled at how cheesy the live-action intro was, and I’m glad that it bit the dust and wasn’t included in the remake. It was a Necessary Evil bearing in mind the capabilities of the hardware at the time (sorry for that pun, I’m lazy).

A few years back a friend let me borrow the GameCube version  of Resi 4 but it went neglected in favour of PC gaming. I found the changes to the basic control system difficult to get to grips with and the 360 degree over-the-shoulder camera view threw me totally. The old timer was having a tough time growing up with the game.

Spin on to 2013 and for some inexplicable reason I became compelled to give the PS2 version of Resi 4 a go. And after playing it for the last fortnight, I’ve experienced suffering on an almost unprecedented scale. Died 60-plus times. Reloaded the game hundreds of times. Even did the unthinkable and resorted to all-out cheating. Even in normal, it’s a very challenging game the first time around. But did I enjoy it? Yes, yes, yes.

PS2_Resi4_Title

Once the issues with the controls were ironed out (which took a few hours), I found myself engrossed with the setpieces, more-so than the mansion or the police station. While the earlier chapters set in the village and the countryside were a departure in both tone and shocking content (the body of the burning policeman was a particularly gruesome visual that had me thinking of The Hills Have Eyes), I had to accept that the series had to move away from the static camera angles, slow-witted groaning zombies and unintentionally dated visuals of the previous instalments. Fighting my way round a village or shooting gems from a rope-bridge to make a few quid was not the Resident Evil I knew anyway. After I battled my way through the graveyard and met the first of the Los Illuminados, I started to feel like I was in more familiar territory: creepy gothic visuals, unsettling noises, surprises from all angles…

Ultimately, the biggest thing to get used to was the fact that this game didn’t feel survival horror any more, but more evolved. There are few scares in Resi 4, unlike Silent Hill 2 which still has the power to frighten the hell out of me, simply because there is no time to be scared. Limited ammo and console processing power meant that you were rarely fighting more than a handful of zombs back in the PS1 days, but when you’re faced with six-plus bloodthirsty villagers with raised scythes and a stack of ammo in your back pocket, you get trigger happy. There’s a definite shift from the empty corridor with a clock puzzle to both barrels blazing at a bunch of cultists. The corpses soon turn to sticky bubbles and you need to keep buying bigger briefcases for all the ammo they drop (as an aside, this is corrected somewhat in Resi 5 where you are limited to 9 active items that makes things a lot harder – I’ll cover that game in a later feature). It also makes you wonder why people infected with Las Plagas are walking around with undigested live ammunition in their stomachs.

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What are the irks? The only one I can think of right now: Ashley. Yes, she may be the reason why you’re playing the game in the first place, but her character is dashed by nailsdownblackboard voice-acting and Super Ham dialogue. Overtime. OVERTIME?!? Kill me now. I wasn’t sure exactly why I needed to switch to her character from time to time as it didn’t feel to me like it was moving the narrative forward. I did like the Harry Potter knights that come swinging at you with huge axes though.

Oh shi-That said, the move away from the zombies and tyrants that we’re all familiar with is a breath of fresh air. The Marilyn Manson-like creepy cultists are high on my list of favourites, the El Gigantes were intimidating and tough to bring down, but my personal fave was the Iron Maiden, not just because they’re named after the first band I ever saw live, but because I couldn’t wait to get the hell out of the room as they slunk towards me. Brown trousers time for the gamer because of its awesome defence mechanism (and the hentai heavy breathing). Lining up those shots with the thermal sight was a real challenge, and it was also the first time in the game where I ran out of ammo and had to bolt out of the room and miss out on the pickups.

Where I found myself struggling most was during the quick-on-the-button ‘dodge the croc’ moments which had me hitting continue so much the bloody controller was smoking. Perhaps old age has made me slow on the draw. I was always a fraction of a second off and so met a grisly demise. This possibly explains why I’ve never played Guitar Hero or Parapa the Rapper. Perhaps I should.

The HD version of Resi 4 is now available on the PS3, along with ports to iOS and mobile devices. For a game that nearly brought an end to the franchise and had four false starts, it was instrumental in giving the series a kick up the arse and introducing mechanics we take for granted in third-person shooters these days. Perhaps not revolutionary, but certainly a great example of evolution in a series.

Next up: Resident Evil 5 (or Biohazard 5 Alternative Edition, as I’m playing the Japanese version!)

A Brief Guide to GANTZ

This article originally appeared on totalscifi.com before the UK release of the first Gantz movie.

You’re at the train station and a drunk man falls onto the tracks. People shuffle nervously towards the yellow line to peer at the lifeless body. Everyone remains motionless, hoping somebody courageous enough will race forwards to help the guy to safety, but no one comes – until, eventually, one brave soul jumps down from the platform. He struggles to lift the lifeless, overweight body onto the platform’s edge. To your horror, he recognises you as a childhood friend. Something clicks within you and you’re standing next to him on the tracks. The light bearing down on you from the darkness of the tunnel makes you wish you’d remained passive like everyone else…

So begins the very first episode of Hiroya Oku’s manga sensation Gantz, the hyperviolent science fiction epic that’s currently being serialised in Weekly Young Jump magazine. Since its first appearance in October 2000, it has spawned a 26-episode anime series, two live-action movies, two novels, a PS2 game and a horde of merchandise that’s had a surprising cross-cultural and cross-gender appeal. The first 27 volumes of the manga has surpassed 10 million sales in its home territory, and Dark Horse Comics, who publish the English edition, have also had tremendous success (they’re currently up to volume 15).

 

The concept is simple: at the moment of death, unfortunate souls are transported to a locked room where a black sphere known as “Gantz” prepares them for battle against unusual and deranged non-human combatants. In some respects, it’s like a real life videogame where black-costumed contestants start off learning to use time-delayed explosive pistols and netting guns against spring onion-headed children, giant Buddhist statues and stripy-shirted robots that house angry birds. Rest assured, the situations are both familiar and completely alien. They’re also utterly demented.

Therein lies the appeal of the series: this is not your typical shoot ‘em up. In fact, the relationship that develops between the initially cowardly Kei Kurono, Masuro Kato and Kei Kishimoto is what keeps Gantz relatively grounded and compulsively readable. Its use of violence and sex is no more shocking than, say, Fist of the North Star or Beserk, but the real life setting makes it easier for us here in the West to jump into.

Viz Pictures acquired the rights to screen the first of two Gantz live-action feature films in the US in January, with the second, Gantz: Perfect Answer, due for release in Japan in April. With a $22m budget, it’s a no-holds-barred and thrilling experience, and the awesome, surreal set-pieces ensure it has plenty of appeal for Gantz newbies.

Two of Japan’s hottest young actors are up front and centre as Kato and Kei: Kenichi Matsuyuma and Kazunari Ninomiya. Natsuna Watanabe, a Japanese ‘idol’ (a word often used to describe attractive celebs in the country), plays eye-candy Kei. Director Shinsuki Sato has pulled back on the sexual content in the manga to make it more accessible to a teen audience, but the OTT violence still remains; one particularly explosive scene in a garage, where a group of contestants face their first true test, leaves the walls dripping with blood and limbs.

The climax at the temple (which also features in both the manga and the anime) boasts some truly stunning special effects that lift the movie from being your standard niche-market adaptation into an all-out action spectacular with wide appeal. In brief: for a condensed version of the Gantz experience, it hits the mark exactly.

Gantz the series is still running in Japan in its ‘final phase’, meaning the creator’s vision will soon be fully realised. If you’ve not had an opportunity to check out one of Japan’s hottest sci-fi exports, there’s plenty of time to get in on the act. Just don’t blame us if you find yourself with a new addiction…

Comic Review: Aliens #1 (Dark Horse)

Funny looking through these old reviews. Prometheus came out to a mixed reception (I actually like it, so stfu) and this series was buried pretty quickly. Perhaps relying on a writer from twenty years previously wasn’t a great move. 

Aliens #1 (Dark Horse)
Written by John Arcudi
Art by Zach Howard & Mark Irwin


This time it’s war. Again…

With the recent announcement that Ridley Scott is to return (on production duties) to the franchise he kick-started back in 1979 and the 30th anniversary of the film’s release this year, there appears to be no abatement of hunger for a new Alien film. Dark Horse Comics have also returned to their own past glories, relaunching a sparkly new Aliens series penned by Mask and B.P.R.D. scribe John Arcudi.

The deceptively short first issue is not as predictable as you may think, but has clearly
been written with an overall story arc in mind that detracts from the fun of reading it as
single issues. The aliens themselves appear on only four out of 21 pages as well,
leaving you feeling a bit short-changed.

Characters are introduced only to be savaged or shot to bits, and while some of the best sequences in the Aliens movie were when the marines were being picked off one by one, having this happen suddenly during the first act feels forced and doesn’t allow you to get to know the characters well enough to appreciate them. See The Walking Dead series for the way comics handle great deaths of subsidiary characters.

On a positive note, Zach Howard’s art works really well — it’s clean, modern and energetic. His backgrounds don’t look out of place from the Alien ‘verse and his characters look interesting. Hopefully he’ll be able to stretch his artistic muscles throughout the rest of the story.

Comic Review: Ultimate Wolverine Vs. Hulk #5 (Marvel)

Another one from the archives. Expect more of this rubbish until I run out, then I’ll post some scathing reviews about DC’s #0 issues.

Ultimate Wolverine Vs. Hulk #5 (Marvel)

Written by Damon Lindeloff
Art by Leinil Yu

Angry hairy man and angry green man are displeased with each other. Words are had…

There’s a Whole Lotta Lindeloff in the public eye at the moment, with Star Trek burning up multiplexes and Lost’s fifth season perplexing the hell out us. So it was a shrewd move for Marvel to resurrect the Ultimate Wolverine Vs. Hulk series that stalled back in 2006. Oh yeah, and there’s apparently a Wolverine movie out at the moment too. Ahem.

The Ultimate Marvel Universe has been around a good 10 years now, meaning that
for the casual reader – if there are any of you actually out there – jumping into a
supposed continuity-free universe like this one is a rather tall order. Jeph Loeb is
currently trashing everyone and everything with a big flood (ie, pressing a big flashing red button called RESET), but because of the hideously erratic schedule for UWvH, it comfortably stands apart from the ongoing monthlies.

The latest issue, #5 of 6, is quick to change the style and pace of previous entries with such weird and wonderful chapters as ‘Part One: In Which Logan Pisses Off A Panda’. Lindeloff is great at writing punchy dialogue and delivering the action up in spades; it’s also funny to see one of our cuddly friends tear into the guy with the daft hair like he’s a cheeseburger.
#1 saw Wolvie getting his legs torn off by one very angry Hulk; in ish three Lindeloff introduces Ultimate She-Hulk — a super-powered Betty Ross. It’s a fanboy-for-the-fanboys affair, but with Leinil Yu (Secret Invasion) providing some jaw-dropping, career-best art, you can’t help but be swept along with the energy and sheer fun of it all.

Fingers crossed that we’ll see issue six on the shelves before 2012 when the world ends.

Comic Review: Kick-Ass #4 (Icon)

Before CLiNT magazine, before Nemesis, this series actually had me excited. Four years later, I’m burned out with it all. The tasteless rape of a minor character in Kick-Ass 2 put me off for good.

Kick-Ass #4 (Icon)
Written by Mark Millar

Art by John Romita Jr.

Superheroes get real, get a MySpace page and get popular…

What does it take to put on a costume and become a real superhero? Loneliness and despair. So it goes in Mark Millar’s latest creator-owned series about a highschooler who decides to bring real life superheroics to the streets. It follows the story of a typical American teenager, Dave Lizewski, whose inability to woo the ladies and obsessive interest in comics leads him to slip into an eBay-purchased wet suit, and hit the streets to combat crime. On his first jaunt, he’s stabbed in the chest trying to stop vandals,
and then, if that wasn’t enough, hospitalised after a speeding car ploughs into him.

While this doesn’t exactly sound like a cheery read, Millar’s characters’ worldview is
not as cynical as you would expect, and this makes a nice change when most superhero output seems to go down the dark and gritty path. As Dave and his schoolfriends discuss the Fantastic Four’s battles with Galactus and the realism of Spider-Man’s web-shooters, we take one step away from the fact that we’re staring at a comic book page. The geeks that populate the pages of this story almost live and breathe.

John Romita Jr. is a long-established artist for Marvel, who’s worked across all the biggest and best titles they’ve offered up over the years: Amazing Spider-Man, Uncanny X-Men, Daredevil: The Man Without Fear (with Frank Miller) to name but a few. This month also marked his return to the pages of Spider-Man alongside Kick-Ass colourist Dean White, who transforms Romita’s rough and frenetic pencil work into something of impressionistic beauty. Yes, this is still a comic we’re talking about. And
it looks damn good.

Millar, the other half of the creative team, should be a name not unfamiliar to most comic and graphic novel readers. With Wanted recently making millions at the UK box-office, and Kick-Ass already optioned for the big screen by the Stardust team of Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn, Millar is a marquee name in the world of comics, and each new project he works on brings about an almost ridiculous level of anticipation.

Overall, this is a fast paced, over-the-top but brilliantly engaging read. It sits alongside Wanted, Chosen and new Millar series 1985 as a series that could quite easily be developed further, and it’ll be interesting to see how this evolves onto the silver screen.  Fun, violent, possibly even offensive, Kick-Ass is worth picking up.

Comic Review: Batman #666 (DC)

I’m already getting bored of reading these reviews because they’re so free of profanity. Mazza Manson should have appeared in this issue and pissed on a security guard.

Batman #666 (DC)
Written by Grant Morrison
Art by Adam Kubert

It’s Damian Vs the Antichrist in the Satanically special 666th issue of the long-running comic…

Self-professed magician and purveyor of all things Crowley-esque, writer Grant Morrison hasn’t shyed away from the controversial during his twenty-odd year career. With memorable characters like King Mob under his belt, and a string of classic runs on titles including Animal Man, New X-Men and the critically acclaimed All Star Superman, Morrison has managed to put a fresh spin on often tired concepts and still retain those aspects that make the character so enjoyable.

Batman #666 is no exception. The setup is timeless comic book: good vs. evil, with a
predictable outcome. But it’s how good triumphs that proves that the character is in
the hands of a brilliant writer who can still inject new ideas into a sixty-year-old icon and not come across as twee. This is no Batman you’ve seen before, but rather the recently introduced son of Bruce Wayne, Damian. Despite his apt name, battle scars, pill popping and dead father, he also feels inclined to dress up as a giant bat and take on the hoods of Gotham.

Thrown into the future, the story doesn’t deviate into Dark Knight realms or reference Paul Pope’s recent Year 100, but instead pits the haggard new superhero against the Antichrist. Andy Kubert, who made his name churning out classic X-Men pages during the 90s, effortlessly realises this new Gotham and its denizens with a careful balance of hyper-kinetic action sequences and splashes that are packed with detail.

If Morrison and Kubert continue to provide such concise and exciting stories, hopefully the stale fallback of multi-part crossovers will be vanquished from the pages of Batman. #666 is a one off, but it’s devilishly good.

Comic Review: Criminal – Coward (Icon)

Criminal: Coward (Icon)
Written by Ed Brubaker
Art by Sean Phillips

Ed Brubaker (Daredevil; Uncanny X-Men) and Sean Phillips (Marvel Zombies) join forces for a tightly plotted crime tale of diamonds, drugs and deceit…

There aren’t many crime comics on the shelves these days. In fact, nobody has really resurrected the genre since the heyday of 1950s when the likes of Shock SuspenStories and EC shockers ripped stories from the headlines and turned them into eight-page disposable thrillers.

There have been a few interesting twists in Frank Miller’s Sin City, which made noir almost farcical, Brian Michael Bendis’ Torso and, more recently, Darwyn Cooke’s take on The Spirit. But nothing followed in the direct tradition of Raymond Chandler or Elmore Leonard until Criminal hit stores in 2006. With dialogue that wouldn’t look out of place in either of those writers’ novels and the sort of low down characters you might find in a Tarantino flick, Brubaker’s marriage of cool-talking and lawless abandon is epitomised by Leo, Coward’s protagonist. When Leo is offered the chance to walk away with $5 million in diamonds from a cop-organised diamond heist, he doesn’t spend too long weighing up the cons.

Seasoned comics readers will be surprised by the level of conflict and complexity Brubaker injects into his characters — you can feel these hoodlums breathe on the page. Phillip’s stark artwork, heavy with the black ink and subtle with the details, brings to life the crooked and dirty streets of a nameless
city.

Best of all, the conclusion to this self-contained story comes from leftfield, but doesn’t feel contrived. This is fantastic storytelling that goes beyond mere comics, it begs to become celluloid.