The Chain Reaction Film Club: Silverado

Film 40: Silverado

Silverado 01

The Rules

My chum Tim and I watch a film almost every week, taking it in turns to pick. The only catch? Each film has to be linked to the previous one by a shared actor.

Previously on…

Last time we watched Wyatt Earp, in which Kevin Costner spent three hours ten minutes running up behind people from out of shot and clubbing them over the head. And occasionally shooting them. And being generally grumpy. It was a laugh riot.

The Shortlist

This is unusual in that we’re trying to get to a specific film for next week. So rather than take my pick from the filmographies of Costner, Hackman, Quaid, Madsen, Rosselini, Sizemore (who has 30 projects currently in development, who knew!) and a bar-room full of notable character actors, I can only choose things that will be a direct conduit to The Fifth Element. So bearing that in mind, here’s the shortlist:

Bringing Up Bobby (2011)

Big Night (1996)

Silverado (1985)

Planet Terror (2007)

True Romance (1993)

Rush Hour (1998)

The Choice

I had two main conflicting thoughts here. Tim doesn’t like doing things by halves, so when it’s his turn to choose he looks through the entire filmographies of pretty much everyone. And any film he hasn’t heard of he’ll read about. I’m slightly more laissez-faire, and if there’s a lot of choice at a glance I won’t get too bogged down in the bit-part players.

Given that the next choice is already made for us – The Fifth Element – it means he doesn’t have to waste his life spend the time doing this. So I could pick something that would otherwise have given him nightmares because of the incredible casts, and help ease his blood pressure. Alternatively, isn’t that a waste of a great cast? Why pick Big Night, and then not let him use Stanley Tucci or Tony Shaloub? Silverado has a ton of great names in, as does True Romance.

Even Bringing Up Bobby, which neither of us had ever heard of, has a brilliant cast – it’s Famke Janssen’s directorial/writing debut so I imagine there are a few favours going on.
So, like the song says, it’s tricky. I’ve seen True Romance and Planet Terror before. Tim’s also seen Rush Hour and Silverado. But all of these are on the table for a rewatch….

Ultimately I narrowed it down to Silverado and Big Night, and, seeing as we just watched a disappointing Lawrence Kasdan western starring Kevin Costner, I opted for Silverado. It’s a Lawrence Kasdan western starring Kevin Costner.

Silverado and me

Whilst I’d heard of Silverado, up until I added it to a shortlist a couple of weeks ago I thought it was a classic-era Western. A John Wayne or James Stewart vehicle. Or maybe a musical – there’s something about the name that wants to be sung.

But it’s neither of those, it’s an 80s film with Kevins Kline and Costner, John Cleese, Jeff Goldlum and a raft of other notables. There are three or four shared actors with Wyatt Earp (the official link I’ve picked is Jeff Fahey), and for The Fifth Element it’s Brion James.

IMDb Says

A misfit bunch of friends come together to right the injustices which exist in a small town. 7.2 stars.

Silverado 03

I Says

Like Wyatt Earp last week this was co-written and directed by Lawrence Kasdan. He also wrote Raiders of the Lost Ark and oh boy am I pleased that Silverado is closer to the latter than the former. Where Earp was ponderous Silverado is light as a feather. There’s a blend of comedy and action very reminiscent of Indiana Jones, with Kevin Kline stealing the show as a Jake Gyllenhaal-resembling grizzled-yet-optimistic gunslinger (though there’s stiff competition from Linda Hunt’s saloon matriarch).

The action does take over in the second half, and the comedy all but vanishes. There’s excitement and fun though. Jailbreaks, posses, John Cleese playing a sheriff with an English accent – there’s a lot going on.

The main draw is our quartet of do-gooders picture above – Kline, Scott Glenn, Danny Glover and Kevin Costner. In Wyatt Earp Costner was a wooden plank. Here he’s an explosion of energy, a great counterpoint to the more traditionally terse Scott Glenn. What happened in those 9 intervening years to rob Costner of that sense of fun?

Now, this is weird. This film was on the shortlist as I saw it had one shared cast member with The Fifth Element – Brion James. I double-checked on the day we were due to watch it, and spotted that he was listed as ‘uncredited’. Following a bit of frantic googling it looked like he did indeed have some lines – originally his part was larger, but it mostly ended up on the cutting room floor. Turns out he was in two or three scenes with a chunk of dialogue in each. And yet uncredited. Bizarre.

Silverado 02

Here’s Brion James, most definitely in the film!

There are other telltale signs of more lost to the edit – Rosanna Arquette’s character is somewhat shoehorned in as a not-quite love interest. Jeff Goldblum, Cowboy pimp chic aside, makes an uncharacteristically bland impression. But if some elements were lost to keep the pace sprightly then it was probably a sensible choice.

The Verdict

A ripping cowboy yarn, and one I wish I’d seen sooner.

If you’re in the mood for more Kevin Kline it’s worth checking out the version of Pirates of Penzance he starred in – here’s a taster.

Coming Attractions

Lilu Dallas Multipass.

Autowash.

Big badaboom.

It’s going to be the Fifth Element.

@BornToPootle

The Chain Reaction Film Club: Wyatt Earp

Film 39: Wyatt Earp

Wyatt Earp 1

The Rules

My chum Tim and I watch a film almost every week, taking it in turns to pick. The only catch? Each film has to be linked to the previous one by a shared actor.

Previously On…

Last week was Apollo 13. It was never going to be less than fine with that cast and director, and indeed it was not less than fine. It wasn’t much more either… This time around it’s Tim’s choice.

The Shortlist

The Big Picture (1989)

Cast Away (2000)

Terminal (2004)

Absolute Power (1997)

Frailty (2001)

A League of Their Own (1992)

Tombstone (1993)

Wyatt Earp (1994)

The Choice

The Big Picture is a Christopher Guest film which stars Kevin Bacon and neither of us had heard of. I’m still puzzled as to why Tim didn’t pick it. Having confessed my youthful disdain for Tom Hanks last week it may not be that much of a surprise that I haven’t seen Cast Away or Terminal, the former of which has been on shortlists a couple of times before. Absolute Power is probably the film that we’ve shortlisted most without yet picking… we’ll get there! Gene Hackman and Clint Eastwood facing off against each other has a certain appeal.

I read about Frailty in Bill Paxton’s obituary and it’s been on my radar ever since. Tim felt it would be a bit dark for such a warm sunny evening. And then there’s A League Of Their Own. Tim keeps shortlisting it and I’m scared he might actually choose it one day.

Tombstone we’d both seen before but fancy a rewatch. Wyatt Earp seems like it covers the same territory, but takes three hours over it. And so, our film-watching time being limited, Tim chose the three hour version.

Wyatt Earp 2

Val Kilmer, Sam Elliot, Kurt Russell and…  Oops, wrong film. This is actually Dennis Quaid, Linden Ashby, Kevin Costner and Michael Madsen

Wyatt Earp and Me

I don’t recall being particularly aware of this at the time. As far as three hour westerns starring Kevin Costner go, I saw Dances With Wolves once and have never felt the lack of more. So I haven’t specifically avoided this film, but, as you can probably tell, it’s not one I would have picked.

IMDb Says

Wyatt Earp is a movie about a man and his family. The movie shows us the good times and the bad times of one of the West’s most famous individuals. 6.6 stars.

I Says

Two weeks ago we watched Sunset, which starred James Garner as a twinkly-eyed older Wyatt Earp in 20s Hollywood. My verdict was that it didn’t overstay its welcome. The same can’t be said of Kevin Costner’s three hour plus biopic.

I don’t know much about Earp – I’ve seen Tombstone but only really remember Val Kilmer’s Doc Holliday purring ‘I’m your huckleberry’. Given a bit of time I reckon all I’ll remember of this film is Dennis Quaid’s Doc Holliday. Even if he sounds like Hoggle from the Labyrinth in one scene. Doc Holliday is the Mercutio in this story, the one everyone really wants to be rather than the staid hero.

Doc Holliday

He’s your huckleberry… probably

And about that hero. I’ve not revisited a 90s Costner film since… I guess the 90s. How did he rise to such prominence? He’s so wooden – there must have been some kind of mass delusion. Something in the water.

The first hour and a half of the film features all the traditional story beats – starting with young Earp wanting to run off to the Civil War we get the inciting incident, the mid point shift, the dark moment, the resolution… and then… we do it all over again. There’s a scene 30 minutes in of a house burning down. 40 minutes in we get a flashback of the house burning down. How could they have trimmed that running time down, I wonder?

The supporting cast is pretty good and features the standard variety of face furniture you’d expect in this sort of thing. It’s all very nicely shot too. There’s more of an attempt at grittiness than I was expecting, but post Deadwood it has to be more than an attempt to really register. Suffice to say that all is not OK after the O.K. Corral shootout.

Also, Adam ‘Jayne Cobb’ Baldwin turns up. And him dressed in cowboy clothes just makes me want to watch Firefly gorram it…

The Verdict

Exactly as good as one would expect a three hour plus film about Wyatt Earp starring Kevin Costner to be.

Having now done a little research I was gratified to see Costner won a Razzie for his performance. Not only that, but he left Tombstone to work on this and tried to block distribution of Tombstone. Guess which fared better at the box office? I’ll give you a clue, it was the one without Kevin Costner in.

Coming attractions

Ok. Full disclosure.

For the first time we’re actively trying to get to a specific film. That’s not our usual modus operandi and it feels slightly shameful in a way. But screw it, we’re going to watch The Fifth Element on the 20th anniversary of its UK release. We’re both fans and neither of us saw it on the big screen (oh, I should point out that we watch CRFC films on a rather lovely HD projector, so we get a quasi- cinematic experience).

On that basis the next film, my choice, needs to link to The Fifth Element. Will narrowing down the options like this mean we’re stuck with a turkey? We shall see!

@BornToPootle

The Chain Reaction Film Club: Apollo 13

Film 38: Apollo 13

Apollo poster

Eh? What’s the Chain Reaction Film Club?

Having been friends for too long, my chum Tim and I have run out of things to talk about. So instead we meet up pretty much every week and watch a film. The only catch is that we take it in turns to pick, and it must be linked to the previous film by a shared actor. We’re looking to catch up with films we haven’t seen for ages, find classics we’ve overlooked and uncover hidden gems. We started with the film Chain Reaction, hence the rather fortuitous name.

Previously on…

We tackled Sunset last week, the Bruce Willis/James Garner silent-era Hollywood romp the world didn’t really need.

The shortlist

The Cotton Club (1984)

Get Crazy (1983)

Apollo 13 (1995)

Breach (2009)

Nobody’s Fool (1994)

Twilight (not that one – this one’s from 1998)

The Choice

This was agonising, and I’m sure I’ll be coming back to all of these and more that I longlisted. Tim is determined to get me to watch Running Scared, so he pushed for The Cotton Club as both star Gregory Hines. Twilight (not that one) has an incredible cast – Sarandon, Newman, Hackman, The West Wing’s John Spencer – but neither of us had ever heard of it. Get Crazy is an early 80s film about a Jagger-like rock star played by Malcolm MacDowell – and it’s well regarded; how could I not pick that? And the pairing of Paul Newman (again) and Bruce Willis in Nobody’s Fool is Exciting. Fuck it, Paul Newman on his own is exciting. I’d never seen Apollo 13 though, and when Tim announced he’d  never seen it either, suddenly it seemed like a big omission… And so Apollo 13 was chosen.

Apollo 13 and me

apollo 13 film

This is exactly the kind of film I instigated the film club to get around to watching. It’s a big, popular, well-regarded film that somehow I’ve never actually sat down and watched. I used to have an aversion to Tom Hanks – something about his voice needled me – but I’ve been a convert for the best part of a decade now. I liked space as much as any teenage boy in 1995, but that wasn’t enough to sway me at the time – it’s not exactly lasers-and-aliens space is it? And ever since, well, I just don’t remember considering watching it at any point. I’ve thought of it like a korma on an Indian restaurant menu. Sure, I’ll like it, but what about that one with the strange name that I’ve never tried before… So here goes: Hanx, Bacon, Paxton, Sinise and an explodey spacecraft. Ignition!

IMDb says

NASA must devise a strategy to return Apollo 13 to Earth safely after the spacecraft undergoes massive internal damage putting the lives of the three astronauts on board in jeopardy. 7.6 stars.

I says

Having now seen and read about Apollo 13, it could have been a lot worse – Brad Pitt turned a role down to star in Se7en. John Travolta was approached to star but turned it down. John Travolta also turned down Forrest Gump. What an even more fucked-up world we could be living in.

Anyway. Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton and Kevin Bacon are lost in space but Ed Harris and Gary Sinise are going to bring them back. With that cast it was always going to be fine, wasn’t it. And with Ron Howard directing it was always going to be fine, wasn’t it. And it is. It’s fine. There’s some over-egging of the pudding with overblown music and an ill-advised what-if fantasy. But there’s also lots of clearly well-researched detail and tense obstacle-overcoming.

It does suffer from the Titanic-effect – I knew the fate of the astronauts going in, so it’s all about the journey. And that journey is, well, fine. I’ve read through an interview with one of the astronauts now, and while he was positive about the film and its representation of events, it was also clear there was a lot of exaggeration going on – he made the point that every single thing that the astronauts on Apollo 13 did to get home was something that had been either simulated for or done before. Still tense and scary as hell for them, of course. There are signs of other added tensions – Kevin Bacon’s character seems weirdly ostracized by the others and almost set up to be the closest thing to a bad guy before redeeming himself. It felt like an unnecessary extra layer, though perhaps there’s some basis for it in the reality.

Apollo real

The verdict

It took flight, but didn’t quite stick the landing.

Coming attractions

It’s Tim’s choice next, and I’ve crippled him with options again. Kevin Bacon is famously unconnected film-wise. Reading all the Bill Paxton obituaries a few months ago (sigh), we both made a note of a few films to check out, perhaps now will be the time… And with Paxton and Xander Berkley present we could rewatch either Terminator or Terminator 2. OR BOTH. Or banish the bitter taste of Alien Covenant with Aliens. Add Hanks, Sinise, Ed Harris and a Mission Control full of notable character actors and the sky’s the limit.

Oh, and Tim ended up watching Mission To Mars after I left last week, which we had shortlisted (I gave him permission to go ahead as I wasn’t keen on getting back to it for CRFC). His feedback – there was significantly more shouting at the screen than while watching Sunset. We did indeed choose wisely.

The Chain Reaction Film Club: Sunset

Film 37: Sunset

Sunset

Eh? What’s the Chain Reaction Film Club?

Having been friends for too long, my chum Tim and I have run out of things to talk about. So instead we meet up pretty much every week and watch a film. The only catch is that we take it in turns to pick, and it must be linked to the previous film by a shared actor. We’re looking to catch up with films we haven’t seen for ages, find classics we’ve overlooked and uncover hidden gems. We started with the film Chain Reaction, hence the rather fortuitous name. The full list is here.

Previously On…

Last time we watched The Player, which starred all of Hollywood circa 1992. It was a justifiably well-regarded romp through the sleazy side of film production that, car-phones apart, had aged very well indeed.

The Shortlist

Mission to Mars (2000)
Fifth Element (1997)
Sunset (1998)
Silverado (1985)
Brooklyn’s Finest (2009)

The Choice

This week was Tim’s choice. The only shortlisted film we’d both seen was Fifth Element. It’s one of my favourites, though it’s been a few years since I last watched it. Given that we were due to watch the chosen film in the week of the 20th anniversary of Fifth Element’s release I lobbied hard for it. Tim was more keen on Mission To Mars, but I just about managed to dissuade him. I have a bad feeling about it… Sunset however features Bruce Willis and James Garner – and so the choice was made.

Sunset 02

Sunset and Me

Never heard of it before. Not a clue. Zip. Zilch. I was hoping for an overlooked gem…

IMDb says

Tom Mix and Wyatt Earp team up to solve a murder at the Academy Awards in 1929 Hollywood. 5.7 stars.

I says

Bruce plays an actor at the tail end of the silent era. He specialises in playing cowboys and wearing snazzy trousers. James Garner’s Wyatt Earp is brought on board a film production for no particular reason. Malcolm McDowell is the studio head with dark secrets. There are some hookers and hearts of gold. Blake ‘Pink Panther’ Edwards directs.

A shonky tone and mis-cast Willis hampered this one a bit. Some not particularly great physical comedy carried on into scenes that were seemingly supposed to be tense and serious. Willis’ actor was dressed like a dandy and remonstrated with Wyatt Earp for stealing his limelight, but otherwise was the standard Willis – a bit hangdog, a bit wise-cracky, equally handy in a fight or dancing the tango. In fairness, it did rollick along at a fair old pace and McDowell’s villain was good and villainy.

The Verdict

It didn’t outstay its welcome, but neither did it excite. I can see why Sunset rarely sees the light of day.

Coming Attractions

It’s my choice next, and there are a lot of options. McDowell is in a huge amount of (mostly terrible) stuff. There are some Bruce Willis actioners I’ve never bothered with (Armageddon, I’m looking at you). A detour into James Garner cowboy country would be fun – he even played Wyatt Earp in Hour of the Gun in 1967, so that might be fitting. The supporting cast have a lot of clout too, so it’s going to be a struggle.

Also, I could just get us back to Fifth Element…

The Chain Reaction Film Club: The Player

Film 36: The Player

The Player 01

Eh? What’s the Chain Reaction Film Club?

Having been friends for too long, my chum Tim and I have run out of things to talk about. So instead we meet up pretty much every week and watch a film. The only catch is that we take it in turns to pick, and it must be linked to the previous film by a shared actor. We’re looking to catch up with films we haven’t seen for ages, find classics we’ve overlooked and uncover hidden gems. We started with the film Chain Reaction, hence the rather fortuitous name.

So where are films 1 – 35?

Good question! You can find the full list of films here. I’ve been meaning to blog about it from the start but… haven’t been. If I have the time I’ll fill in the blanks.

Previously on…

There’s been a bit of a gap thanks to me being off on holiday. Last time we watched The Tall Guy, a Richard Curtis comedy that isn’t as fondly regarded as his more recent stuff. It was good fun, especially when Emma Thompson was on screen. And made me want to see Griff Rhys Jones’ ‘Whoops, Hamlet.’ Just a shame that doesn’t exist. This time around it’s my choice…

 

The shortlist

Jeff Goldlum

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

Morning Glory

Jurassic Park

Chain of Fools

The Player

The Fly

Silverado

 

Emma Thompson

Last Chance Harvey

In the Name of the Father

Peter’s Friends

 

Geraldine James

Made in Dagenham

 

The Choice

From the shortlist I’d only previously seen Jurassic Park (a lot) and The Fly (once, a long time ago). Neither me nor Tim are fans of Wes Anderson, but do like a bit of Bill Murray, so Life Aquatic was a front runner for a while. Eventually though I narrowed it down to The Player and Silverado. Both have incredible casts for the next pick. Tim is already a fan of Silverado, but hadn’t seen The Player, and so the choice was made. Tim is also easily flummoxed by big casts full of options for the next film, so that may have influenced my choice a little.

The Player 02

The Player and me

Tim Robbins is a favourite thanks to an early appreciation for Bob Roberts, Shawshank (obviously) and The Hudsucker Proxy (which I’ve seen more times than any other Coen Brothers film now that I think about it). I like Robert Altman too – though he’s one of those directors who I always think I’ve seen more of than I actually have. So why haven’t I seen it?

It’s a film about Hollywood. I know Hollywood is fond of films about Hollywood, but I’m not really. Whether it’s a fear of self-indulgence, worry that I just won’t get the references (Hail Caesar suffered from this in particular) or just not being that interested in the realities of the film industry there’s not much that entices me. It’s either all backslapping or spleen-venting. So I imagine that’s a part of why I haven’t sought it out before, despite being aware of it. My understanding prior to watching was that it fell more into the spleen-venting camp than the backslapping one. Was I right?

IMDb says

A Hollywood studio executive is being sent death threats by a writer whose script he rejected – but which one?

I says

Yup, definitely more spleen-venting, but has a lot of fun while doing it. Tim Robbins is the Hollywood exec who  spends his days rejecting scripts and suggesting tooth-achingly cheesey amendments to what might otherwise have been interesting projects. He’s wary of his position at the studio, particularly as a new hire is brought in, and things take a dark turn when he starts receiving death threats with increasing regularity…

This is definitely in the top tier of films we’ve watched in the Chain Reaction Film Club. From the opening 7 minute tracking shot (during which characters discuss great opening tracking shots) to the Hollywood ending, The Player managed to make for an interesting character drama and an enjoyably vitriolic look at one side of the film business.  I’m sure there’s lots of exciting technical stuff going on (I spotted a lovely shot that begins on Burt Reynolds and chum chatting, zooms in to the table behind them where our main character sits down and has a conversation and ends by zooming back out to Burt still deep in conversation.

And that cast… It’s an absolute who’s who of Hollwood circa 1992. Robbins, Greta Scacchi, Fred Ward, Whoopi Goldberg, Jeff Goldblum, Bruce Willis, Julia Roberts, Rod Steiger, Harry Belafonte even!  The only oddity was seeing so many people playing themselves then Whoopi Goldberg turning up playing a character rather than herself. It took a while to work out who was a character and who wasn’t.

The plot was engaging and, if not ultimately that satisfying, sacrificing that for the point it was making about the industry seems fair enough. The other day I read a piece about studio execs rejecting pitches that were secretly famous French nouvelle vague classics (a marketing stunt, but hey ho) which chimes nicely with this film.

Tim Robbins is both naïve and conniving, a great choice of actor for an unlikeable role. This felt like a proto American Psycho – released at almost exactly the same time as the book – and they’d actually make for an interesting double bill. The studio machinations, and particularly the way they talk about scripts, still feel very relevant.

The verdict

Definitely an overlooked (by me) classic

Coming attractions

It’s Tim’s choice next, and he effectively has all of Hollywood to pick from. Brion James is a good shout for the next link (I’d kill for a Fifth Element rewatch), as is Bruce Willis (I’d kill for a Fifth Element rewatch). All being well the film club will take place on Wednesday and I’ll update as soon as possible afterwards.

 

 

 

Witcher, Skyrim and Fable – Feeling like a part of the world

I’ve been revisiting Witcher 3 recently, specifically the Blood and Wine dlc. It really is rather good – if you haven’t downloaded it I’d highly recommend you do, and if you haven’t played Witcher 3 go do that right now. No spoilers here though, so maybe you could read on first…

I used the word ‘revisiting’ in the first sentence very specifically. Playing Witcher does feel like visiting somewhere. To use a gaming cliche, it feels like a living, breathing world. But there’s nowhere near the level of interactivity of Fable 2. What’s that? I get to talk about Fable 2 some more? Well ok then…

Fable 2 is, hitherto, my favourite example of feeling like part of a gaming world. I’ve written about it before, repeatedly. Sorry. You’re able to use various emotes, from posing to growling to farting, which the people of Albion respond to in different ways. Some of them find burping disgusting, some find it funny. And depending on how you’ve behaved on your travels they may have a different response altogether. And if you’re fat they might call you Pie Eater. I love it. Witcher doesn’t have this though. On the surface, Witcher seems to have more in common with Skyrim than Albion. 

I find Skyrim to be a frustrating place. At the beginning of the game the responses you receive make a sort of sense. You’re a nobody and by and large people are standoffish towards you. But my character pursued the mage guild quests. He worked his way up the ranks to become the Dean of Winterhold College. The Dean. The head honcho. The wielder of the largest wand. His staff most definitely had a knob on the end. And yet. The way people greeted me, even in the college itself, didn’t change. I was still being hailed with the same stock lines about my honeyed words, being looked down on as a stranger. Skyrim is so immersive in many ways and really jarring in as many others.

The Witcher, like Skyrim has a pool of stock reactions with which the populace greet you. Every now and then there’s something a little more personal, but by and large there’s distrust. Fear. Hatred of the outsider. The lines may be better acted, but it seems similar to Skyrim. Last night I wandered past a village, and the whole populace were dancing around a fire. Some kind of fete was going on. I stumbled down the hill, eager to take part, but I couldn’t. Geralt doesn’t have those verbs. In Albion my hero could have danced around the fire, but Geralt and the Dragonborn have to look on and wonder. 

But then I realised. Geralt feels much more a part of the land than the Dragonborn does. And it’s very much because he is an outsider. He is sneered at by passers by, called the Butcher of Blavikenand much worse. And he always has been. He looks distinctive. Word spreads. He is a mutant and people have their opinions of that sort. Because Geralt feels like as much of an outsider as the player does, the world of Witcher 3 feels real.

Ok, I know I promised no spoilers, but since starting this piece I’ve played a little more and there’s something from the main quest that’s pertinent. So skip the next para to avoid SPOILERS.

There’s a moment when Regis asks Geralt whether, if he could start from the beginning again, he would want to become a Witcher or whether he would rather live a normal life. And the player gets to choose the response. It’s a great question and cuts right to the heart of this topic. Is Geralt satisfied with being the outsider? Is the player? Cursed to hear the same petty insults wherever you go, to never be allowed to join the dance… It’s probably the longest I’ve thought about a response in Witcher? The answer? To me, Geralt would want to be a Witcher again. He still feels like a part of the world, even if he is apart from most of it. And he gets to hang out with some pretty nifty sorceresses, so it’s not all bad.

End of spoilers.

It’s the synergy of player feeling and character feeling which enhances what is already an excellent game, and it’s in part the lack of that which has left me slightly cold (ahaha) about Skyrim (full disclosure: I’ve completed the main quest and more beside, and started a second character – so it’s not entirely without merit!).

Fable 2 and Witcher 3 are my favourite examples of immersive game worlds, but please recommend some more to me – it’s plainly something I respond to!

@BornToPootle

Films of 2016 – a pattern emerges…

Last year I saw more films in cinemas than I’ve seen in a year before – it’s quite a nice personal record to break (without specifically trying to I hasten to add), and I still missed some films I was pretty keen on. All in all I saw 55 films in cinemas in 2016, a full list can be found here if you’re interested.

While the real world was becoming less and less palatable, I thought the cinema was a jolly good place to hole up – it was a pretty good year all told, with not a single film walked out of. And the top five? The
order is pretty flexible except for the top spot:

1.      Sing Street

2.      Under The Shadow

3.      Green Room

4.      Your Name

5.      10 Cloverfield Lane

This year I’ve noticed a pattern in my choices, which is something I haven’t really been aware of before. Sing Street is, plot-wise, an unremarkable feel-good schoolkids-form-band tale. Under The Shadow and Green Room are pretty standard horror set-ups (though of wildly differing kinds). Your Name is a teen body-swap fantasy. These are all very well-worn set-ups or tropes. The general plot beats by and large aren’t that surprising (though there’s a twist in Your Name which I didn’t see coming at all). 10 Cloverfield Lane doesn’t fit quite so well into an archetype, but neither does it exactly re-invent the wheel.

This was a year where I really responded to genre being
embraced. All five films grip hold of genre preconceptions and use them to best advantage. They hone all the best elements of the films they remind me of or call back to or flat-out reference and then take them on that step further. They seem like they were made with a genuine love of their genres. Even just out of my top five this is apparent. Hell Or High Water is in my top ten of the year and was a love letter to a kind of Thriller that doesn’t seem to make waves much any more. Nocturnal Animals was also fantastic, with about 80% of the narrative being a pretty standard revenge thriller – albeit one featuring the two best male performances of the year.

Whether this is something changing in my tastes, a quirk of the year’s finest films, or just me trying to find a pattern in an end-of-year list, remains to be seen. I imagine I’ll see a similar number of films in 2017 so I’ll refer back to this in a year’s time.

In the meantime, happy cinema-ing and let me know what your favourite film of the year was.

Oh, by the by, Sing Street and Green Room are on Netflix right now so I’d strongly recommend watching them if you haven’t seen them already. Let me know what you think. 

@BornToPootle

Life Is Strange – The Secret To Its Success

life-is-strange

There are a huge number of things Life Is Strange does brilliantly (and perhaps a few that aren’t so great, shaka brah) but the more I think about it the more one thing stands out. No major plot spoilers ahead, but if you haven’t played it and want to go in fresh, maybe check back after you’ve finished.

So, what’s this amazing thing? No, not the tenderness with which it deals with a huge variety of sensitive topics. Not the casting of the player as the geeky girl rather than the geeky guy pursuing said geeky girl. Not even making the main character a photographer, mirroring the player’s sense of watching events unfold with varying degrees of powerlessness (incidentally, we’ll be talking about all this plus subtext, gender, sexuality and more on the next episode of The Conversation Tree Podcast).

Nope, the best thing about what is, with hindsight and distance, rapidly becoming my favourite game of all time, is the very central core mechanic. It’s Max’s time manipulation power.

Games are stuffed full of characters with superpowers. Look at Geralt and his ability to set things on fire, create magical traps and a shield. How about Commander Shepherd and his/her biotics? Corvo, The Inquisitor, Booker DeWitt’s fistful of crows… Even supposedly normal characters often have superhuman abilities – Nathan Drake can definitely absorb more bullets than the average chap, and shrug wounds off with astonishing ease.

No, a mild bit of time manipulation is not the most earth-shattering addition to gaming culture. Not in general terms at any rate. But who has gained this power? A socially awkward teenager. Which is perfect.

Who gives a monkeys that Booker DeWitt can summon a watery tentacle to fling foes off a flying city – sure it’s fun, but it’s rootless. It doesn’t mean anything. Max’s time travel means everything. It’s the one thing that a socially awkward teen might conceivably most want. Rewind that conversation and be less of a dork next time. Rewind that meeting and don’t trip on the way through the door. Just like the powers in The Incredibles (still the finest of superhero films) Max’s power is directly related to an aspect of her personality.

Not only that, but gaining the power is the inciting incident for the plot. Without that power the rest of the story couldn’t happen. It seems obvious, but happens surprisingly infrequently. Booker could still murder his way through Columbia without his vigors. Geralt might have a tougher time with  just a silver sword, but could give it a good go. The Inquisitor’s glowing hand may be more integral to Dragon Age Inquisition, but it ends up just one of a range of stupendous abilities.

So the power perfectly fits the character and is central to the narrative. Great! I’m sure there are other examples of this though. Life Is Strange’s power has another benefit though…

Ever since choice became a hot topic in games I have had a struggle with myself. I know in Mass Effect what Shepherd did and who he (yup, Shepherd is forever a dude to me) was. I started a replay at some point, and tried to make different choices but… that wasn’t Shepherd. But was there any point replaying if I just want to do everyhing the same way?

I’ve played The Walking Dead season one twice. Season two once (though I reloaded the ending). SPOILERS AHEAD. SKIP PARAGRAPH TO AVOID! I definitely want to replay both but… what’s cannon now? When the third one comes out, who is Clementine? Did she kill Jane? Is Kenny still out there? It’s muddled. I can’t separate out my ‘true’ playthrough from the one where I just wanted to see what the other options were.

Life is Strange gives the player the best of both worlds. Being able to rewind time means being able to make a different choice, to see how events might play out differently. And when you’ve tried all the options, seen what could be, you can make your choice. What would Max do given all the information? It’s not some weird omniscient player reloading to try a better option, it’s an integral part of the fiction. It’s the fabric of the story. There are of course unforeseen consequences. How some scenes play out will affect things much further on, so there is still an element of needing to replay to see everything. But that’s why I think it’s the best of both worlds. The player gets enough curiosity sated to not need to constantly reload and simultaneously there are enough palpable changes that you still wonder what-if. You can still see your impact on the lives of other characters.

Not only that, but this also enables better immersion in the game. Exhausting conversation trees in rpgs and talk-em-ups can sometimes feel very strange. Why does the other character suffer through your incessant questioning, particularly when you start looping back through questions to get to different sub-questions? In Life is Strange you can try out all the conversation options while still remaining in the fiction. Super-Max can simply rewind time and try something else.

Effectively this all comes down to obstacles. As a player, using the time power to try different options removes an obstacle to immersion and developing a fully rounded sense of character. As a character Max uses her power to overcome  her own personal obstacles. And not just the big plotty stuff. Max starts crippled by self doubt and shyness. By the end of the game she’s confident. She’s a badass. That’s how to weave game mechanics into a narrative and that’s one of many reasons Life is Strange may well be my favourite game.

@BornToPootle

@TheConvoTree

Videogame Gothic

I mentioned the game Layers of Fear in a previous post. I hadn’t played it but was looking forward to trying a horror game that didn’t become merely stressful. I have most definitely played it now (twice – it’s sensibly short) plus its dlc and enjoyed it very much. In fact the game was the subject of the last Conversation Tree Podcast episode (which I co-host) and I’d like to expand on a few of those thoughts and broaden out to include a few more games.

If you haven’t listened to the episode (and it’s worth it – Lyd loses her shit at the subtext of the game) one of the main things I spoke about was how Layers of Fear fitted very snugly in the gothic tradition. And further still, I idly wondered if games could be the best medium yet for the genre?

Let’s backtrack a little. What does gothic actually mean as a genre label? I went to a great exhibition on gothic at The British Library a couple of years ago and there was a definition from Neil Gaiman along the lines of:

‘If the book cover could feature a woman wearing a nightie, holding a candelabra, running away from a mansion at night, and the windows of the mansion are dark except for one at the top… and in that window is the silhouette of a man…then it’s definitely gothic.’

There’s more to it than that of course, but it’s a good starting point. Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto set the genre in motion with an apparently found historical manuscript detailing the plight of a woman exploring a ruined castle beset by spirits. Ancient buildings, the supernatural and ancient tomes are all key features. There’s an otherness too, an atmosphere of slow, dawning doom. Or does doom set rather than dawn?

A great recent film example is Crimson Peak (which I also wrote about). This ticks all the boxes, with Mia Wasikowska’s ghost-seeing ingenue beguiled by Tom Hiddlestone’s aristocrat-with-a-secret. She’s whisked away to his crumbling ancestral home that he shares with his austere sister. Blood red clay oozes through the floorboards. There are mysterious documents and recordings, and the whole place seems ready to morph into The Fall Of The House Of Usher at the twitch of a cloak. There’s a knowing morbidity which stays, for me at any rate, just shy of descending into camp or kitsch.

In Layers of Fear you play as an artist trying to finish his masterpiece: a portrait of his wife. He’s dealing with tragedy and completing this painting is his attempt to move on, but all is not well. As you walk through the house to gather the materials you need fragments of letters and scrawled notes reveal an unhappy home and encroaching madness. The house starts to reshape itself, becoming more and more labyrinthine and ruined as the painting nears completion. Ordinary objects are possessed. A ghost stalks the halls. And the materials you are scavenging? Flesh, hair, bone, blood.

A lot of games have used trappings of the gothic in their presentation – the Castlevania series is an obvious example, stuffed as it is with vampires and gargoyle-studded castles. That’s surface detail though; the Castlevania games don’t have gothic right through the core experience.

The core of Layers of Fear is about something reaching out of the past that the player/artist must confront and either overcome or succumb to. There isn’t much more to it than that – there’s no combat, a few puzzles, little gameplay in the traditional, now almost antiquated, meaning. And boy does it have the gothic trappings.

The house crumbles around you as you investigate. PT is the obvious comparison gameplay-wise, but where that involved looping through the same two corridors with minor changes each time, Layers of Fear substitutes a constantly shifting geography to echo the mental descent of the main character into some kind of psychosis. Reach a locked door, turn around and the corridor behind you has changed into a claustrophobic room. Try the other door which has appeared and find it’s also locked. Turn again and the room has changed once more. You can’t trust the house or the artist.

Bioshock is a spectacular example that works both in more traditional gameplay and in fusing the gothic right into its core. Rapture is effectively a gothic castle, isolated, largely abandoned and haunted by thudding armoured apparitions accompanied by scuttling ethereal girls. Audio logs piece together the history of Rapture, which is itself coming apart at the seams, and you are in a way piecing together something of yourself. These aren’t optional collect-for-a-trophy audio logs, these are crucial for continuing. Finding out the secrets of Rapture is the point of the game – shooting splicers is the set dressing.

This idea of finding out the history of a seemingly abandoned space is one which games do very well. Recent horrors Soma and Alien Isolation play with this to mixed effect – Soma rather better for my money, though the first half of Alien Isolation is a pretty spectacular experience. In both there’s a supernatural horror stalking the sci fi corridors, a personal history to unravel. Alien Isolation is less satisfying because that personal history is less integral to the experience. It’s a macguffin which, rather perplexingly, is resolved half way through.

Witcher 3 played with the gothic well too – it does everything well, so it’s probably not much of a surprise. Even in a game stuffed full of supernatural beasties the quest to Fyke Isle that sees Geralt strolling into an abandoned, crumbling, isolated tower is the gothic nadir. In true genre fashion it’s a story of a doomed romance told by ghostly apparitions, and it does not end well.

Games excel at creating architecture to explore – they’re better at it than any other medium (apart from experiential theatre perhaps, but the architecture is more limited by reality there). Stuff it full of ancient tomes, scribbled notes or audio diaries that illuminate the history of the place, and you’re well on your way to the gothic. Turn the lights down low, make sure the location’s history is intrinsic to the player character in some way and you’re even closer. A sprinkling of the supernatural, a sense that things aren’t going to end well and… yum.

It’s often said that cinema was the best medium for the gothic in the 20th century. In the 21st it is surely going to be videogames.

@BornToPootle

VR and Forum Theatre

In Chekhov’s The Seagull a young, snobby playwright bemoans the old traditions of theatre. New forms, he calls out for. New forms he (spoiler) kills himself for. I think it’s time to take this naïf’s clarion cry into the videogame community.

I spoke on a previous episode of The Conversation Tree Podcast (plug cough splutter plug) about VR game The Circle and the exciting possibilities for roleplaying (in the purest sense of the genre) it presented. I’ve also written about games being more analogous to theatre than film. Now I get to combine the two topics!

I went to see a new play on Friday – Cathy, produced by Cardboard Citizens at The Pleasance (now touring). The first half of the evening was fairly standard: I sat in the audience and watched an interesting and affecting play, a sort of updated version of Cathy Come Home. It was a moving and provocative piece of work. After the interval however, there was a slightly different second half.

In fact the play had ended at the interval. The second half of the evening was thrown open to the audience to suggest different ways the main character could have behaved. This was a play about a mum and daughter (weeks away from GCSEs) being evicted and then falling through the cracks in the housing system. The challenge was thrown to the audience to try and spot the moments where Cathy could have done something different, tried another option.

Suggestions were tossed out for debate, from small delaying tactics when dealing with unruly landlords to names of charities and support groups to contact – there were a commendable number of people from said organisations in attendance. And then the extra twist. The play restarted. When an audience member had a suggestion, all they needed to do was shout ‘stop’, pop down to the stage, and take on the role of Cathy. The other actors would then react to the new direction of the scene. This isn’t something new – it’s called forum theatre – but it was my first time, despite training and working as an actor for a number of years. 

It was fascinating, and I was reminded more than once of Tim Schaeffer’s observation that writing adventure games is all about imagining the protagonist is drunk (see Shitfaced Shakespeare for a more literal translation of this on stage). Some alternatives sputtered an failed, others provided a glimmer more hope than that of the scripted drama. It was a piecemeal choose-your-own adventure. Kitchen sink drama where you could save and reload.

No one tried anything ‘dramatic’ – taking an estate agent hostage for publicity, going on a murder rampage – but that reminded me of my experience with The Circle. I was an actor playing a role. I could react how I liked and sometimes the world might react, sometimes everything would carry on just the same. Much like life.

In the brief demo of The Circle I tried at EGX I played as a trans woman recovering from a traumatic experience. I was effectively stuck in my flat in front of my computer and unable to move around. What was so exciting about that proposition wasn’t the immersive email replying, but the ability to get angry, in character, with the content of the email I was reading, and physically fling the empty bottles of beer surrounding me against the wall. In the demo that made no difference (apart from the most fundamental difference of course – my individual experience of the game), but when it’s complete it may impact on what happens later. If someone comes to check on me, the invalid, they’ll find a collection of smashed beer bottles. What will that do to their interactions with me? Or do I want to hide the evidence and collect the shards in the bin? The developer has big ideas in that direction.

So could this be a way for VR games to go? I really hope so. The games unveiled for PSVR so far all seem fairly standard. An amalgam of the usual suspects – a few Duck Hunt style target shooting titles, driving, shoot ’em up… Casual, if that’s a descriptor that suits. Isn’t this the time for role playing games to shine? True role playing, where you can try a scenario (whether it’s storming a castle or trying to claim benefits) in any way you see fit and have the immersive VR world adapt around you?

VR has yet to convert me, but if developers can harness it to bring us true roleplaying rather than a collection of reskinned novelties then maybe I’ll start to pay attention. Maybe there’ll be an upsurge in games actually about something more than instant gratification. Maybe we’ll have the new forms Konstantin raved about.

@BornToPootle