Inspirational Inauguration Speech

August 19, 2008

My friends, we observe today not a victory of one blogging platform over another, but a celebration of freedom – symbolising an end, as well as a beginning – signifying renewal, as well as change.  For I have sworn before you and Almighty Whedon the same solemn oath that we observed those many years ago when the great cultural pillars called Lack of Faith and Imperium were founded.

The world is very different now.  Then-unimagined treasures are now within the grasp of man.  No Country For Old Men, and Dr Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog have graced our DVD players and hard drives.  And yet the same principles and beliefs that we have always fought to defend and uphold are still at issue around the internet – the belief that the value of entertainment stems not from marketing or advertising, but from the opinions of fans.

We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that revolution.  Let the word go forth from this time and place, to fan and Hollywood Studio alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of blogger – born in radness, tempered by Company of Heroes, disciplined by Portal, proud of our ancient heritage – and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those consumer rights to which the blogosphere has always been committed.

The old ways now are behind us.  No longer can we be separated by petty differences of genre or media.  Let this new blog be a symbol that the realms of gaming and film, television and literature will from this day be made one.  For united there is little we cannot achieve.  Divided, there is little we can – for we dare not meet a powerful challenge at odds and split asunder.

And so the trumpet summons us to blog again.  With good writing our only sure reward, with our readers the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth and review the films and games we love in hopes of honoring the great critics and fans that have gone before us, and of inspiring those that we will leave behind.

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A New Beginning

August 18, 2008

Welcome all to One More Turn, a jolly merger of computer game review blog Imperium and film review blog Lack of Faith. OMT is a dream given form – a space station five miles long loc- no wait, that’s something else. OMT is a place where two broadly like-minded brothers, Chris (me) and Tom, can post their opinion, criticism and haphazard attempts at witticism for all the world to see, and then politely mock.

In burying Imperium and Lack of Faith we have preserved some of their riper fruits.  All of our past reviews have been transplanted to OMT and neatly stacked in the ‘Film reviews’ and ‘Game reviews’ sections respectively.  No doubt a cursory glance through those archives will be sufficient to give the impression that (at least for me) OMT is the end of a year long germination period.

Perhaps poetically, my first review was of what I still judge to be the best game yet made – the fantastic Planescape: Torment, and I’m not at all embarassed to admit that my writings barely began to give it justice.  Hopefully if you read forward a few months, and a few more after that, you’ll start to see a trend of improvement.  I intend to carry on that trend until dementia or madness settle in.

I also intend to keep my promises, of which I believe I currently have one outstanding – to write a review of strategy colossus Sins of a Solar Empire.  That review may still be a while coming thanks to a bout of chronic laziness I seem to suffering at the moment, but I will carry on posting about what I’m playing and any noteable gaming experiences I have until the illness subsides.

Stand by for an inspirational inauguration speech from Tom soon, and also expect the look of the blog to change as time goes by – including (most importantly) the creation of a proper site banner, amongst other delights.  Until then I invite you to explore the OMT archives.


I Am Legend

August 10, 2008

*SPOILER WARNING*

Against the backdrop of a post-apocalyptic New York City a lone scientist-soldier searches for a cure to the virus that killed off humanity.

My heart sank almost at the very first frame of this film.  The opening sequence appears to be little more than an extended advertisement for the Ford Shelby Mustang GT500, and features Will Smith racing around the deserted streets of New York hunting deer from the driver’s seat.  There are perhaps more practical – and certainly less noisy – methods of stalking game, but one hardly has time to reflect on the alternatives before we are thrust into a stand off between the protagonist and a pair of wild lions hunting the same prey as Smith.  This brings me to the second reason to be disheartened early on in the film: the CG.  Both the deer and the lions are indistinct, colourless and unconvincing, which is both disappointing and unacceptable in a film with such a large budget.  It might not have been quite as much of an issue if the graphics weren’t so central to the film, but sadly these vague and pallid forms go on to let down almost every action sequence and would-be suspenseful moment in the rest of the movie.

We soon move on to safe ground with a tour of Smith’s post-outbreak life, witnessing him gathering food, eating breakfast, securing his base of operations and driving golf balls from the wing of an SR-71 Blackbird.  All fun stuff, no doubt, if for no other reason than it’s easy to project yourself into the same survivalist scenario.  But there’s little that’s new here, and it’s all been done better – and for less money – in films like Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later.

Of course, the tranquility of Smith’s urban existence is soon shattered by the appearance of what remains of the human species; now unfortunately mutated into aggressive and under-fed zombie monsters by a virus that was designed to cure cancer.  And this is where the visual effects department rears its ugly, insipid, malformed, and conspicuous head once again.  It’s quite simple really; if I can’t believe that the villains I’m seeing are anything more than an assemblage of pixels then I’m going to have a hard time having any kind of strong emotional response to them.  And it’s not just that the monsters look obviously fake; the way they move and interact with other objects is all wrong too.  We are told that they are mal-nourished – and their lanky, sinewy, pale appearance certainly supports this – and yet they are still able to throw a heavily muscled Will Smith bodily across a room, and overturn gear-laden SUVs simply by running headfirst – velociraptor style – into them.

But that’s not the worst thing about the film.  Not by a long shot.  No, the worst thing about this film is the insidiously anti-scientific, messianic, and pseudo-religious undertone that permeates the entire movie.  Very early on we are shown a television interview with the scientist – superbly played by Emma Thompson – who developed the cure for cancer.  Already – before there is even a hint that things are going to go awry – her manner seems uncomfortable and almost guilty or regretful; as if she somehow knows that meddling with nature will inevitably bring disaster upon humanity.  “Take something designed by nature and reprogram it,” she says, while looking like she has been caught experimenting on her own children.  Later in the film Smith argues that “God didn’t do this … we did,” again reinforcing the message that we ought not to be interfering with the natural order.  To finish it all off, Smith’s companion Anna starts getting instructions from God that ultimately lead her to the promised land (which turns out to be in Vermont) where she can begin to reverse the damage done by the plague.

Yes, Will Smith is excellent, and to carry an entire film almost single-handed is impressive.  But that doesn’t make up for the movie’s very fundamental shortcomings.


The Princess Bride

August 10, 2008

A tale of true love in which a simple farm boy must do battle against a dastardly prince for the hand of a beautiful princess.

A charming fairy tale that successfully combines elements of fantasy, comedy, and romance?  Inconceivable!  But that’s exactly what Rob Reiner has achieved with The Princess Bride.  I watched this film, as I always try to, with as little information as possible.  I had the vague idea that it was a fantasy, so I was surprised and delighted when I realised that it was something quite different; something I had never seen before.

This film plays up all the classic fairy tale stereotypes to create laugh-out-loud high adventure.  Our heroes travel to the Cliffs of Insanity, the Pit of Despair, and the Fire Swamp.  They do battle with giants, master swordsmen, criminal masterminds, evil princes, and Rodents of Unusual Size.    And although this film relies on the conventions of the genre to produce comedy, the thing that makes the picture great is that it is not by any means a spoof of fairy tales; it is a celebration of them.

The film drives the point home by framing the main story within the meta-narrative of a grandfather reading The Princess Bride to his grandson.  He comments that “When I was your age television was called books”, and the boy is seen playing video games with a glassy expression before becoming absorbed by a more old-fashioned form of entertainment.

The characters here are all vivid, colourful, and hilariously funny.  The dialogue that has been written for these actors is some of the funniest I have ever seen in a film, especially a fantasy fairy tale.  Why this film wasn’t at least nominated for best screenplay I will never know.  The writing absolutely sparkles, and somehow the whole film seems to be imbued with a sort of magical fairy dust that lifts the movie from being great to being transcendent.   The only slightly boring character here is the Princess herself, who serves as little more than the MacGuffin around which the rest of the film revolves.

It’s not just the brilliance of the writing that creates the genius here; the perfection of every inflection in the delivery is what elevates the lines from witty to magical.  I have a feeling that some of the lines could have fallen flat if they had not been delivered perfectly, so it’s a tribute to the talent on show here that every line comes off flawlessly.  Of particular note are Cary Elwes as Westley, Mandy Patinkin as Inigo Montoya (“My name is Inigo Montoya.  You killed my father.  Prepare to die.”) and Wallace Shawn as Vizzini.  There are also great cameos from Christopher Guest, Peter Cook, Mel Smith, and Billy Crystal.

Naturally I watched this film twice and, of course, the first time around I was simply caught up in the story and my own private war of trying to stop crying from laughter.  But the second time around I was looking to be a bit more critical, and it’s fair to say that this film does show its age in its editing, shooting style, and storytelling structure.  It’s all a little slower and slightly more clumsy that we have become used to recently.  But it really doesn’t matter, and, if anything, the unrefined filmmaking even adds a bit to the movie’s fairy tale-like charm.

Coming to this film a little late – well, actually more than two decades late – it is obvious to see the influence it has had, and I was particularly struck by similarities between certain events and characters in this film and those in Greg Keyes’ excellent The Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone saga.  The Princess Bride is the first film I have reviewed on this blog that I can honestly say I will be coming back to again and again, and because of that I have decided to introduce a new feature to properly show my appreciation.

The Princess Bride will be the first recipient of the Lack of Faith Classic Award.  I will be awarding this to films that are not only great in every department, but which also have that extra magic that makes them tirelessly re-watchable.  These will be the films that enter into my personal culture, and will influence every other cultural experience that comes after them.  They will be the films that I quote from endlessly, and measure all other films against.


The Simpsons Movie

August 10, 2008

The Simpsons has been running for 19 years and 409 episodes, so the surprise here is that the show didn’t make the transition to the big screen earlier. With all those years of experience it’s certainly not going to come as a shock to anybody that Groening et al have created a film that is both funny and clever. The real test was always going to be whether they could successfully make a movie, rather than just an extended, feature length episode.

Well, I’m happy to report that this absolutely is a movie. In fact, it’s very self-consciously a movie, and the writers have inserted plenty of film references and an array of self-referential movie gags. There are also a lot of big screen action ‘movie moments’, my favourite of which is a Matrix-esque slow-time bullet shot. These moments go a long way to making the film feel bigger and more epic than a TV episode. The film starts out in the normal Simpsons aspect ratio but then, with the opening credit sequence, it switches to wide screen. This sudden transition, perhaps more than any other part of the film, sent an ‘I’m watching The Simpsons and it’s a movie! Wow!’ thrill of revelation up my spine.

The score, too, has really stepped up to the cinematic plate here, and Hans Zimmer has done a wonderful job of taking the familiar Simpsons themes and upscaling them to movie dimensions.

The most important thing, though, is that the story itself is big enough to feel at home on the big screen. The central characters are set on suitably important journeys of self discovery, and the themes that are explored go to the heart of what The Simpsons is all about; family, fatherhood, and community.  These themes come complete with genuinely emotional high- (and low-) points that provide essential breaks from the gags.

The other notable thing about this film is its restraint. Almost two decades of writing 22 minute television shows has obviously taught the Simpsons writers a lot of storytelling discipline. This film runs at a trim 87 minutes and every single line of every single scene is either a joke, a set-up, plot progression, or character development. There’s no waste. It’s very tight, and even though the movie is short, it doesn’t feel like we’re being short changed.

This is unarguably a success, and all the potential pitfalls that this film might have fallen victim to have been deftly sidestepped. Can there be any doubt that The Simpsons Movie II is just around the corner?


Die Hard 4.0

August 10, 2008

New York cop John McClane teams up with elite hacker Matt Farrell to save the United States from an all-out electronic attack masterminded by a crazed computer genius.

Like everybody else on the planet I’m a huge fan of this franchise, so I was naturally excited to hear that a new Die Hard film was coming out.  I was looking forward to joining John McClane in another Christmas-themed adventure.  I was looking forward to hearing his irreverent witticisms and watching him confound the plans of an evil enemy.

So I was disappointed when I realised that Die Hard 4.0 isn’t a Die Hard movie at all.  I can find almost no commonalities between the two films beyond the name of the protagonist.  The McClane of this film bears little resemblance to that of the original.  There are no witty one-liners, and none of the John McClane attitude we have come to know.  The only ‘attitude’ McClane exhibits in this film comes in the form of banal threats of the ‘I’m gonna come and beat the crap out of you’ sort.  What’s more, Bruce Willis seems to be half asleep throughout, which does nothing to help the situation.

Furthermore, this film is not set at Christmas, does not start with McClane in his usual guise as civilian (he gets involved during the course of his police duties), and features none of his down-to-earth resourcefulness that has been a theme of earlier movies.  On a few occasions the film touches on Die Hard-like moments, but then seems to recoil in horror as soon as it realises what it is doing.  For example, at one point an unarmed McClane picks up a wrench to use as a weapon, but this never goes anywhere and seems to be promptly forgotten.  Later, we see McClane talking to the bad guy over hand held radios – very Die Hard – but the banter between the two is so boring that the scene only serves to highlight the gulf between the two movies.

But never mind, maybe we should get past this film’s failed Die Hard pretensions and simply try to appreciate it as a generic action movie.  Does it fare any better when considered on these terms?

Die Hard 4.0 is broadly a mix of two types of scenes.  First there are the long, and frequent, travel sequences in which McClane and Farrell sit next to each other in vehicles (usually cars) in order to move from one location to the next.  Apparently the purpose of these scenes was to slow the film right down, and bore everybody half to death.  Second, there are the frankly ridiculous action sequences in which characters make unbelievably stupid decisions, and are then involved in some of the most absurd stunts I have ever seen.  The worst of these is the scene in which McClane is under attack by an F-35.  This scene contains so many absurdities that it would pain me to detail them all, but suffice it to say it was not an accurate portrayal of this type of engagement.

These days, though, even if an action film fails to tell an interesting story, or to create convincing characters, or even to show us some cool action sequences, you can usually still count on the technical production values to be quite high.  But, incredibly, Die Hard 4.0 manages to fail on even this score.  Some of the visual effects in this film are appalling, and the CG here is conspicuous on several occasions. At one point in particular – unsurprisingly a car scene – the green screen imagery is just unbelievably bad.  Furthermore, there are a few action sequences where the inserts are so obvious that they really jar the audience out of the fluidity of the moment.  Maybe you could get away with stuff like this 10 years ago, but not today.

There’s just so much that is absurd, nonsensical, or just plain bad in this film that it’s hard to find any positives, but if I looked hard enough I would probably come back with Justin Long’s refreshing performance as McClane’s hacker sidekick.  But ultimately there’s nothing that can save the picture.  This movie actually made me a little sad.  It almost seems like John McClane has grown into an old, embittered, washed up, and boring shell of the wisecracking hero we remember.  Funnily enough, that’s a pretty good metaphor for where the Die Hard franchise itself has ended up.


Transformers

August 10, 2008

The Autobots battle the Decepticons on Earth for control of ‘The Cube’.

What is it with Michael Bay and the US military? Is this guy getting sponsorship money or something? After The Rock, Armageddon, Pearl Harbor, and now Transformers, I’m starting to wonder if he knows any other way to approach a movie. I can’t help but feel that this might have been a more interesting film if Bay had come at it from a War of the Worlds-style, bottom-up perspective rather than his traditional Independence Day-style top-down perspective.

As a fledgling movie critic the prudent thing would be to trash this picture, thus establishing my sophisticated and refined cinematic taste. Let’s face it; the characters are mostly two-dimensional, there’s really no meaningful story to speak of, and the film requires very little in the way of brain power to follow. But none of that matters in Transformers. This film is about one thing only; bringing the cool.

Say what you like about Michael Bay – and I could say plenty – but the guy knows how to do action. And in this picture, action mostly means visual effects. I would hate to think what the VFX budget was on this film. Not only is there huge amount of CG, but the models used to create it are the most complicated I have ever seen.

Bay’s films have always pushed the envelope in this area, and Transformers is no exception. The robots here look simply spectacular, and they are used to great effect in some stunning action sequences. This was never going to be a great character film, a monumental storytelling epic, or have any sort of deep meaning or message, but as a straightforward action blockbuster it succeeds, at least to a point.

Transformers also has some entertaining dialogue moments. The Autobots tell us that they learned Earth languages from the web, which results in some hilarious pop-culture references. My favourite of these comes from Optimus Prime as he accidentally crushes a garden ornament underfoot, apologising with a Joss Whedon-esque “Sorry, my bad”. The script is rather patchy though, and for every bon mot that succeeds there’s another that falls flat.

Even when evaluated as a simple action film there are still a few problems with this movie. First, the story is paper thin. Now, I understand that the story is merely a device to lead into all the great action that follows – and that’s fine – but it also has to be solid enough to make us care about what happens. The ‘Cube’ thingy around which everything revolves is so vaguely explained that it is difficult to know what our heroes are fighting for, and without spoiling anything there are several other plot points that are even more unclear.

Second, and less importantly, there are too many robots in this film. There is just not enough time in a 144-minute movie to properly develop and make use of ten Transformers. We get to know Optimus Prime, Megatron and Bumblebee well, and several other robots are used extensively but there must be two or three that are hardly used at all. The film would have felt tighter and more focussed if we had been limited to fewer robots and had been allowed to know them better.

Finally, I have to talk about the casting which, along with the effects, is the best thing in this film. First, Shia LaBeouf absolutely steals the show, and I have to give massive props to Steven Spielberg for finding this guy. As I mentioned in my last post I’m really looking forward to what he does next. The robot voices are also bang-on, with Peter Cullen making a welcome return as Optimus Prime, and Hugo Weaving the perfect choice for Megatron. The rest of the cast is mostly solid.

Transformers absolutely succeeds as a Summer Blockbuster, and I enjoyed watching it immensely. But it could have been much more, and the plot flaws are so annoying that they really distract from the good things here. It’s a shame, because Transformers could have been this generation’s Terminator. As it is, it will be remembered merely as another solid piece of Michael Bay entertainment.