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All reviews - Movies (276) - TV Shows (42) - Books (13) - Music (75) - Games (82)


Posted : 10 years, 6 months ago on 7 March 2009 01:23 (A review of Max Payne (2008))

Max Payne is based upon the game franchise of the same name. I was sceptical when I heard of a film adaptation of the homicide detective's exploits, partly for two reasons. Firstly, I am a big fan of Max Payne, and thus wouldn't take kindly to a massacring of one of my personal heroes! Second, the distinguishing feature of the Max Payne series is bullet time, which has already been showcased in several other films with remarkably bigger budgets.

The film posters managed to enhance my anticipation. It looked like the potent noir theme of the games had been transferred across to the film. I was quietly confident about the casting of Mark Wahlberg as Max Payne, but other casting decisions weren't so easy to swallow. The transfer of Jim Bravura from an old white guy who fills a role as your boss, to a young black Internal Affairs detective seemed extremely bizarre. Maybe they were trying to fill a race quota or something. The character of Mona Sax lacked any dimension and didn't do any justice to her prominent femme fatale role in the game.

I counted a single scene that was supposed to do bullet time justice and it wasn't that remarkable. What is unforgivable about the film is the finale in which Max embarks on a drug induced frenzy. The editing and filming of these scenes was abysmal. At one point, Max's face is illuminated solely by automatic muzzle fire, but it looked more like a scene from Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody video. For the rest of the finale he was running around emptying clips of ammo into empty spaces. What was that all about?

Mark Wahlberg and (despite his miscasting) Ludacris, were adept in their roles, I couldn't complain there, but the film in general was a forgettable and generic affair. I can't see a sequel being planned, which is a shame, as Max Payne 2 is a much better game!

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Total carnage!

Posted : 10 years, 7 months ago on 28 January 2009 01:07 (A review of Shogun: Total War)

Shogun: Total War is the first instalment of the Total War series that would go on to create an intriguing new procession of mixed genre games. Shogun is set in the Feudal Era of Japanese history and the overall premise is simple. You must take control of one of the several warring factions battling for ultimate power in Japan and defeat all the others that stand in your way. I have to say, slaughtering my way across the land of the rising sun in order to unite the people under one banner was every bit as enjoyable as it sounds.

The first aspect of Shogun to master is the 'world map' screen. It is in fact a map of Japan split into various territories, each governed by different warlords, your own army or masterless rebels. You can only see territories adjacent to your own provinces, so the goings on elsewhere in Japan are completely unknown to you. Occupying your provinces are armies - each one represented by a single troop marker bearing a banner, the more red the banner, the more troops you have. You can divide your troops, combine armies and bolster them with newly trained recruits at leisure. Your armies are obviously the most important part of your campaign. You need them to keep the peace, defend your lands and carve a trail of destruction into enemy territory.

Provinces ripe for the taking!

Along with the warlord's armies, other features of the map include representations of emissaries, priests and military strongholds which often designate areas of extreme technological advancement - or killing fields for your assassins. You must decide whom to ally and wage war with, whilst splitting your wealth and technology across your ever growing territory.

The second aspect of Total War to master is the combat. Someone dropped their army into your territory? Prepare to do battle with whatever army you have on hand to fight the threat. The battle screen is completely different to the world map. You have the opportunity to arrange your troops into formations and strategically reposition them before a fight if you have the luxury of defending. If you're on the attack it is up to you to destroy or rout the opposing force before the time runs out (which is usually more than ample). Each unit represents around 50 men and it is up to you to tell them who to attack, when to retreat and keep their morale high. If your archers are charged by horseback then they're going to die - and your other troops might not be so confident after seeing your army take so many losses.

In comparison to later Total War games, Shogun does have a fairly limited number of different troop types, which make tactics easy to master. Stick your warrior monks in a forest on top of a hill and watch the bodies pile up as they destroy everything that comes to face them. The troops also react to the experience of your general in battle. If he is a combat noob with more chance of killing himself on the green grasses of Japan, then the troops will not be inspired and higher ranking units will be more likely to charge without being ordered to. Conversely, if he's a bad ass, they'll receive huge morale boosts. This feature was again elaborated on greater in latter releases, but the fundamental elements were trialled here.

In foggy conditions, the drunken farmers you call archers are probably even less likely to hit their target. They'll need a lot of practice before they can knock a samurai off his horse from a thousand paces.

The devastation that can be inflicted on the field of battle is immense in scale. With a total of approximately 1100 troops population cap for each army, the pulses are there for the ceasing. Memorable moments often include any skirmish on a map with a bridge, in which a unit of poorly trained spearmen, backed with peasant archers can usually hold of a marauding army of far greater prestige. This could arguably be considered a bug, but these Goliath kill counts never cease to produce the laughs.

Finally, as you work your way along a timeline, Japan suffers from the introductions of Christianity and gunpowdered weaponry and you may decide to change your tactics accordingly. I've nothing but fond memories of this game and it's simplicity and multitude of features made it an excellent predecessor for Medieval: Total War to build on.

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Spectacular pop music.

Posted : 10 years, 7 months ago on 27 January 2009 12:13 (A review of Oracular Spectacular)

Oracular Spectacular has to be regarded of one of the greatest albums of 2008. This is the first full length studio offering from Brooklyn-based indie band MGMT. This 2008 release contains ten tracks, several tracks of which are lifted from the 2005 Time to Pretend EP. The album versions of these tracks were modernised and reproduced to achieve a more energetic and flowing sound - much to the chagrin of some of their fan base.

MGMT (Formerly The Management) burst onto the scene almost purely because of the radio-friendly nature of some of the songs on the album. Tracks like Time to Pretend, Kids and Electric Feel were not only international radio successes, but also ensured that MGMT became the most listened to artist of 2008 on the online music documenting site Last.fm. Personally, I still find these three songs just as infectious as I did first time around and could never get tired of them. They're the strongest aspect of Oracular Spectacular.

Their sound has been described as 'the brit-pop version of Muse' in the musical press, but a combination of outlandish videos and bohemian live performances have seen them labelled more regularly as a 'psychedelic pop' band. If MGMT can ever overcome the stigma of having achieved the NME Best Album of 2008 award, then who knows what they could achieve in the coming years. Bring on the anthems!

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Down and out

Posted : 10 years, 8 months ago on 25 January 2009 12:23 (A review of The Outsider)

As a DJ Shadow fan I was literally salivating over the prospect of another release from the Californian mixmeister. When approaching the release of The Outsider I was already so desperate that I'd downloaded a pre-release leak of the album and almost instantly regretted it. I thought that, as some form of musical protection, the leak was filled with dummy tracks that resembled nothing of what was to come with the official release. I deleted the leaked version and waited until a few days after The Outsider had hit the shelves before I went back to the internet to claim yet another free copy.

Imagine my horror when the tracks were the same as the leak. I even tried a few more sources to quadruple check that I really was listening to a DJ Shadow record - a fear that was finally confirmed when a house mate purchased the hard copy. It was a chronic disappointment.

The Outsider begins with an 'intro' track that is typically Shadow. It's energetic and bombastic and it gears you up for a sublime listening experience. But then it all goes wrong. Shadow has clearly been influenced by the local rap music artists near his home town and as a result, they feature prominently on the recording. I'd heard rumours that this album was going to be 'mostly rap' but I didn't care. I'm not someone who hates rap music just because it's rap music, and I expected to be fully re-educated in the genre by the samples that Shadow would pick for his third studio release. However, the final product is truly abysmal. The rap is extremely weak, diluted and completely uninteresting to listen to. A real disappointment.

Shadow defended The Outsider by saying that he never intended to remake Endtroducing over and over again. Fair enough, but as a fan I didn't expect that either. You don't work that hard to stay in the same place, but he has a distinctive sound. His personal studio albums and countless collaborations all bring intelligent samples and slamming beats to the table. In The Outsider these trademarks are almost completely absent and his signature mixing drowned out by some street-urchin throwing slang over a poppy backbeat. It's almost as if he has tired of using samples and paying royalties to the original artist and decided to produce some third-rate local rap musicians just to haul in some money for himself. I don't think people expected a re-release of Endtroducing, but they did expect a DJ Shadow record.

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Another non-stop powermix!

Posted : 10 years, 8 months ago on 24 January 2009 11:44 (A review of The 4-Track Era: Volume 1)

The 4-Track Era: Volume 1 is an enlightening listening experience of the highest order. I'm not sure what the origins are of these releases, but what I do know is that hardcopies are extremely difficult to find. I wouldn't expect to see it in a music shop any time soon because it's such a limited release. After a quick search on eBay I see that copies of Volume 1 alone (I think there are three volumes) are going for between £25-60 already. In fact, the 4-Track bundle doesn't even have a wikipedia page yet. But fear not Shadow fans, this is what internet piracy is for.

I haven't read much into the history of these 4-Track era releases, so my assumptions are based purely on some of the voice recordings contained within the album. Essentially, this CD is comprised of two 40-minute seamless sessions performed by DJ Shadow on KMEL Radio. The recordings are from 1991 when Shadow was 19 years old and are built up from painstakingly prepared samples and hiphop breakbeats. Shadow is renowned nowadays for for building memorable melodies out of snippets of other people's songs, but this huge mix was crafted almost five years before the release of Endtroducing - an album which propelled him to critical acclaim.

I can only imagine how difficult it must've been to record and remix his samples with the equipment at his disposal in '91, but what is perhaps more impressive that he was given the opportunity to broadcast music from such a fledgling genre on national radio. There are samples here that you will recognise and others you wont, but he doesn't depend on mashing as many popular tunes together as he can (a la Girl Talk) in a short space of time. He builds a massive composition that continually evolves and changes direction to become a work of art on its own.

I never called myself a fan of hiphop music (although I'm a massive DJ Shadow fan), but that may be because I never really knew what it was. If there is hiphop music out there that sounds as immediately satisfying as this, then I'm truly converted.

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Posted : 10 years, 8 months ago on 12 January 2009 12:55 (A review of Assembly)

Assembly is a war film with a difference in that it does not follow the events of the Second World War. It portrays the events of the Chinese Civil War in the post-1945 battles. The opening scene is a blinder, and throws you into a bloody street battle with blood and dismemberment coming at you from all angles. However from this memorable opening scene, it is all downhill.

The general in charge of the opening attack is then given a mission to defend an old mine from enemy attack - right down until the last man. The mine is of no military importance but serves as the flank for the main land army involved in the conflict. General Gu Zidi is told that he must remain at the mine until he hears the Assembly bugle call from down the valley which will signify their retreat. With just under 50 weary men, a defensive perimeter is established and the company repel wave after wave of enemy attack. Their numbers dwindle rapidly, to the extent that some men claim to have heard the trumpet call. Gu ignores these claims and ends up the only human being to survive the battle.

Up to this point the action was spectacular. The film seems to be shot with a saturated pallet in which everything is grey, dead and dreary coloured. The men fight with unwavering zeal and this makes the battle scenes all the more realistic. But then the film takes a turn for the more mundane as Gu spends the rest of the movie trying to prove that his platoon were ever on the hill in the first place. The mine has been reactivated after the war and the dead are buried deep beneath tonnes of coal. He makes it his personal mission to recover their identities and grant his men official government recognition.

I've no doubt that - if this really is a true story - then Gu's exploits would have been desperate and fraught with sadness and frustration. However, these emotions don't really come across in the film as the years progress rapidly and you often get lost in the time scale. Gu's actions are of a man possessed with recovering honour for people who deserve nothing but, yet every other character or his own periods of down time are simply tiring and uninteresting to watch. What started off as an intense action film sadly petered out into a predictable and uninteresting ending, which was regretful considering the natural skill the director possessed for depicting epic wartime battles.

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Posted : 10 years, 8 months ago on 12 January 2009 12:33 (A review of Days of Glory)

Days of Glory offers a refreshing new viewpoint into the events of World War II. It tells the story of indigenous troops drafted from French-owned African territories in order to fight for the freedom of the French motherland from Nazi occupation. The troops are almost completely unskilled in battle techniques and are completely unprepared for war. It wouldn't be too unfair to suggest that they are used merely as cannon fodder in the opening battles in Italy.

The men who survive are sent to the front and into France itself. For many of the troops this is the first time that they have seen the country they have been drafted to protect. Each man continues to give his best, but despite striving for honourable goals, the African troops encounter nothing but racism from their European French colleagues. Constantly overlooked for promotion and outcast from their fellow Allied soldiers, the indigenous troops even receive worse food, drink and leave time as they continue to fight against Nazi Germany. One soldier is even depicted fighting in the snow covered countryside still wearing African-style sandals.

The performances from the African troops in this film are extremely believable and endearing. Their personal leader, Abdelkader is a budding intellectual who consistently battles the injustice faced at the hands of the French higher order. He guides three others through to the bitter end as the Indigenous troops take on a mission that claims to offer great personal glory.

If anything, you will finish this film with a very bitter taste in your mouth, as the final credits point out that African soldiers have continually been neglected the same war pensions as French soldiers by successive governments. I certainly learned something new whilst watching and felt a particularly strong attachment to all characters involved.

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Posted : 10 years, 8 months ago on 12 January 2009 12:11 (A review of Saints and Soldiers (2003))

Saints and Soldiers follows a small group of men who escape from a botched German massacre at Malmedy in Belgium. The unit of four men persevere through the frozen wastes of the Belgian countryside in a bid to reconvene with Allied lines. Their task is hindered even more by the fact that they only possess one rifle and four rounds of ammunition. Tentatively, they make their way through snow-covered forests in constant fear of detection and extermination at the hands of the weather.

Each of the soldiers brings his own unique slice to the overall personality pie, and it was this factor that grated on me the most. The medic is an ultra-pessimist, their 'sniper' is a man haunted by his accidental killing of innocent children, the commanding officer is an all-round normal guy, whilst the fourth and final member of the team is utilised as clumsy comic relief. The four men are eventually joined by a British pilot who crash landed with top secret information and he acts up to the British stereotype with flamboyant overacting. Once I'd realised the characters were all so specifically designated these 'unnatural' roles, I almost completely lost interest in them. They are the major weak spot of the entire film.

The scenery is consistently amazing, and there is some great imagery of blood, and the red cross against white snowy backgrounds. The combat is fairly scarce on the ground until the finale of the film, by which time the absurdity of the situation clouds your judgement on just how believable the fighting can be enacted. The side plot of this film dealing with the spiritualism of 'Deacon', the troubled sniper, and his unwavering faith in God is kind of the icing on the cake. It just doesn't go anywhere, and it leads to nothing.

In all, what started off as a promising film was severely let down by the ridiculous roles the major characters were scripted to perform. Including a fat clumsy soldier with accompanying 'butt of all jokes' music was too much to swallow and decimated the atmosphere of the film. A real shame.

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Posted : 10 years, 8 months ago on 11 January 2009 10:16 (A review of The Star)

The Star is a well executed, Russian-made war film directed by Nikolai Lebedev. The film derives its title from the codename used by a team of Soviet Scout troops during World War II. 'Star' are sent behind German lines to gather intelligence on German armour and troop movement during Operation Bagration, near the Polish border. The story begins with a Soviet outpost under artillery attack. The next day a meeting is called and it is proposed that the Red Army send another scouting patrol across the lines to report back on Nazi front-line activity.

Two previous patrols have already been sent and contact with both units has been lost. Two soldiers remain from a veteran scouting unit and are reinforced with several other recruits of varying competency. There is no real time for introductions and the usual bravado and hostility that usually pervades this type of 'meeting' scene is completely absent, which was a refreshing change. The scout leader, Travkin, is a reserved individual who effortlessly instils faith and discipline in those around him and commands empathy from the viewer. He is helped by an extremely youthful complexion which serves as a constant reminder of how hopelessly wasted the youth were during the conflict. The Star team rapidly gels to the extent where you begin to think of them as a single entity, with each man ready to face certain death in the hope of overall victory.

Set behind enemy lines, the film is stuffed with extremely intense scenes and moments of nervous confrontation. The undercover unit are experts of stealth and subterfuge, but must regularly go beyond their comfort zone in search for prisoners to interrogate or a more tactically relevant location. The combat scenes involving Star are relatively sparse to begin with, though their skirmishes always convey the sense of pressure that is suffocating the team at all times. Bigger battles are shot from interesting angles and are generally well choreographed, though what separates this film from many others in the genre is that most of the action is not derived from the all-guns-blazing battles.

The film isn't devoid of faults. There is a generally dismal love story between the chief scout and a new radio operator recruit (she only saw him briefly ride past on a horse and she was deeply in love from that point on), and the casting of a young, scared and perpetually liable translator is a generic one that we've seen before, it seems there's a guy like this in every unit in World War II. But neither of these detract enough from the film to make it any less brilliant.

The only other Russian war film that I could compare this to is 9th Company, and this film is much more favourable.

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The family business

Posted : 10 years, 8 months ago on 2 January 2009 04:36 (A review of Akron/Family)

I picked up Akron/Family on a whim whilst searching around for anything remotely 'folky and weird'. That was about a year ago now, and I remember the album being an instant hit. I had it on repeat a fair few times back then and regarded it as a solid album. It's only recently that I've given it more patience though and listened to it more intently, rather than relegating it to a background accompaniment.

The album begins as an incredibly serene and laid back piece of music and maintains the theme throughout. The opening tracks amble along at a very relaxed pace and each of the first four songs would make an excellent ambient soundtrack on their own, even without the vocals. The vocals themselves are something that I guess you either love or hate. At times they are noticeably whiny or too high pitched, other times they are completely essential and emotional, but overall they don't grate on me at all. I've heard some other Akron/Family songs and this album seems a lot less spontaneous and energetic than some later recordings, but that's not necessarily a bad thing!

The band members are multi-instrumentalists, so expect a mixture of sounds ranging from gently strummed guitars to 80s sounding keyboards and swirling electro noise. I do have a favourite song on the album - Running, Returning, which just stuck out as much more 'wholesome' and upbeat than the rest of the album, but I feel bad about picking out a single track because the entire record is a listening experience in itself. I think it's fair to say that Akron/Family has grown on me over time as well, even though I appreciated it from the very beginning.

In fact, as I sit here in bed at 4:30am, basking in the glare of my laptop screen, I think I've just fallen in love with the album all over again.

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