Friday, 29 April 2011

I Saw the Devil Review

Looking at American cinema, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the Yanks take on revenge tend to involve the likes of Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson angrily punching people and walking in slow motion towards the camera in a manner that can only suggest he’s about to whip his dick out at any moment. Korean cinema isn’t as bravado as that, focusing more on the emotional distress that all-consuming revenge has on the characters. With films like the emotionally gripping Oldboy to the cathartic violence of Bedevilled, it’s easy to see that Korean film makers do not wish to glamourize revenge but rather show it as a force that inevitably drives the characters into self-destruction. I Saw the Devil is no exception. While being overly long, this is once again, another gripping film from our Korean brothers which shows us things we simply wouldn’t get to see down at our local Odeon. 

Min-sik Choi as Kyung Chul
From director Jee-woon Kim (director of ‘A Tale of Two Sisters’, a film that donned a strap-on of confusion and skull fucked you), I Saw the Devil is a revenge thriller that sees Special Agent Kim Soo-hyeon (Byung-hun Lee) relentlessly pursuing psychopathic serial killer Kyung-chul (Mr ‘Oldboy’ himself, Min-Sik Choi) for the brutal murder of his pregnant wife. Pretty standard stuff, yes, but the deliverance of the film is pretty unique viewing in Korea’s quickly growing collection of revenge films. Not content with meting revenge out quickly, Soo-hyeon catches up with Kyung-chul, dishes out some pain and then lets him go but not before planting him with a GPS. It seems Soo-hyeon wants us to actually have a film to watch. So for most of the proceedings, we watch Kyung-chul act like one of the biggest bastards around, attempting to rape defenceless women and pick on old men only to have Soo-hyeon show up, beat seven shades of shit out of him and fuck off to wait for him to do something evil again.

Byung-hun Lee as Soo-hyeon
The two main characters both give a rock solid performance. Soo-hyeon is a stoic man, with his grief hidden under a mask of grim determination. We see this mask slip from time to time as his in-laws desperately beg him to end his pursuit of Kyung-chul. We watch his determination evolve into obsession as his pursuit for revenge consumes him until we finally see the wreck he becomes after he witnesses the consequences of his actions. However, Byung-hun Lee’s performance is over shadowed by Min-sik Choi’s embodiment of ruthless serial killer Kyung-chul. A character that completely lacks remorse or guilt that steals the spotlight as he scarily drags his battered and broken body from place to place, inflicting his pain on others. The scariest aspect is that Kyung-chul generally seems to be having fun despite some of the horrific things that are done to him. He’s bleeding, he’s limping and he’s rummaging through his own shit at one point, but all through it he cracks that smile we grew to love in Oldboy and his presence on screen is just something you cannot ignore. He is easily one of the most memorable and evil serial killers to grace screens since Se7en’s John Doe.
With two such opposite characters, you’d expect to be cheering on Soo-hyeon until the bitter end, hoping for a cathartic climax in which he will finish the evil bastard that murdered his wife. But the film does a wonderful job of taking the palette of black and white and mixing it into a great big dollop of grey. As the film progresses, you genuinely don’t know which character you feel more sympathy for. Maybe it’s because of Min-sik Choi’s electrical performance, but you can’t help but feel sorry for Kyung-chul and some of the things he has to endure throughout the film.  You feel bad when Soo-hyeon bursts him to ruin his fun when he was just getting his groove on, even though he was about to commit some atrocious act. Watching Soo-hyeon act like a man possessed also makes you wonder what kind of man he’s allowing himself to become and you will start making comparisons between the two as you realise they are becoming one and the same.

The violence in I Saw the Devil is what originally drew me to the film in the first place. Many reviewers claimed the film to be too violent; with one reviewer on IMDB claiming censors deemed it as ‘offensive to human dignity’. Instantly I had images in my head of people being beaten to death with their own arms, choked with their own intestines and raped with their own legs. The violence isn’t that gratuitous. The word I would use is unsettling. Look at violent films that plague American cinemas today like the Saw franchise. The reactions to these overly graphic death scenes is applause, or have the audience ‘ooing’ and ‘aahhing’ at some particularly gory, but creative, death scene. I Saw the Devil’s approach to violence is grim. It’s raw, gritty and can at times be over the top but some scenes will have you squirming in your seat at the general unpleasantness of what is happening on screen. This is also down Jee-woon Kim’s use of direction, occasionally letting us watch some of the squeamish moments and other times, cutting away and letting our imagination take over. Be warned though, the violence and general theme of the film treads into some very dark territory. Think of scenes from The Vengeance Trilogy and then crank up the violence to 11 and you get a good idea of what to expect.

Overall, if you’re a fan of Korean cinema, this is definitely worth your time. It is long, clocking in at 147 minutes, this sadly can make it feel a bit slow in places and can feel like the film has been padded out with some unnecessary scenes. It’s gripping and completely engaging but these scenes seem to diminish the film slightly as you occasionally find yourself checking how long is left, or looking at the clock. Despite this, I would definitely recommend this Korean revenge blood-fest.

Saturday, 16 April 2011

Crysis 2 Review

There is one part in Crysis 2 that sums up my overall feeling for the game. In this sequence, you watch from a distance as Central Park rises up from the ground. To say this looks fantastic is an understatement but while you are watching this awesome spectacle, people you have been in radio contact with throughout the game shout in panic “Central Park is rising from the ground!” and “May god help us all…” A perfect example of just how over the top Crysis 2 can be. With a story that has little interest but stunning visuals, one cannot help but compare Crysis 2 to a summer blockbuster. But this is interactive entertainment and gameplay is where Crysis 2 really shines over other first person shooters.

Crysis - PC
From what I played of Crysis on the PC, it had stunning visuals in a massive jungle environment that allowed you to approach many of the missions in what gameplay style you preferred thanks to the Nanosuit. With the sequel now being available across three platforms, one could not help but wonder if Crytek would make a worthy sequel and retain the same quality we saw in the original. The answer is a mixed bag. 

I would like to give more information on the story but truth be told I could not care less. This is, after all, a first person shooter and I learnt a long time ago that FPS are not the place to go for a deep engaging storyline (with a few exceptions, of course). There are alien invasions, people trying to kill you for your ability enhancing suit and a deadly virus that is wiping out New York City. Maybe if I had bothered to complete Crysis I would be following the story better but even after reading up on the whole thing I cannot seem to bring myself to care about what is happening nor the characters.

Crysis 2
The setting for Crysis 2 takes place in New York City that has fallen under Marshall Law due to a deadly virus. This is also in the midst of an alien attack leaving the city a worn torn urban battle ground. It’s a bold step away from the open jungles of Crysis but some of the visuals in Crysis 2 look fantastic. Crytek throw all the punches at you, having you witness buildings explode, bridges collapse and helicopters crashing through more buildings. All of this is executed beautifully. I’m sure there are people that would happily go over the game with a fine tooth comb and complain there may be a texture off here and it may not match up to the original game. Ignore these naysayers. Crysis 2 boasts some of the best visuals today.

What truly makes Crysis 2 stand out from other shooters today is the Nanosuit. The suit enhances the player’s abilities, making you stronger, faster and giving you stealth and armour abilities. However, the suit does not make your character invincible or overpowered. Using the suit drains energy which means planning when and where to use the suit is always a must. Thanks to the tactical mode at the start of every area, you can easily plan your routes, choosing to take a stealthy option or grab the nearest and biggest gun you can find and blast your way through with your armour on. The choice is yours and it’s a flexibility we rarely see amidst the linear shooters that litter consoles today. You are even given a variety of upgrades, both for the suit and your weapons. These become unlocked as you progress through your first playthrough and remain unlocked once you finish the game, offering replay. Tweaking your guns to your liking is a very welcomed option. Attachable shotguns and grenade launchers, an assortment of scopes and laser sightings all allow you to customize your preferred weapon to your liking. You can even put a silencer on your shotgun for those that wish to feel like a supersized Anton Chigurh.

There are a few issues I have with Crysis 2. Unable to skip cut scenes can make starting a mission again after you have died tiresome. One particular instance that irked me was the beginning of a vehicle level. The level starts with you sat on a slow moving tank while you listen to people chatter over the radio. Each time I died I had to sit and listen to this conversation again and again. The radio chatter can also become annoying. There were a few instances when characters would be shouting over each other to get your attention and it is hard to hear what anyone is saying through the static and people incessantly bellowing in your ear. These small, personal issues aside, Crysis 2 can, in some ways, feel like a step back from the original. Essentially, you are still boxed in. While you are free to tackle many of the open areas whichever way you like, it loses the openness and freedom of the original. This isn’t to say the areas you have to tackle in Crysis 2 are not big. They’re just not big. But these ‘baby sandbox’ scenarios are so richly detailed it is easy to forgive this step back. In no way are the size of these levels more apparent once you complete one and have to find a way out of it. With the loss of freedom from the original, it can be a sad reminder that you are boxed in when trying to find the next check point that in some cases, can be frustratingly difficult to find, only to kick yourself when you realised you ran past the exit several times. The enemy AI can also make some dreadful errors. While they can easily put up a fight and make some areas quite a challenge, you will occasionally find a lone solider aimlessly running into a wall completely oblivious to what is going on around him.

With all that said, I wouldn’t let these few niggling issues stand in the way of something that feels incredibly fresh amongst first person shooters today. PC gamers may feel let down by what feels like a watered down sequel. But console gamers should rejoice at having something that stands out from the usual corridor shooters today. It looks great; the gameplay is solid and offers something very few shooters offer today – choice.

Monday, 4 April 2011

Fringe Season One

Do you enjoy TV shows like The X Files or The Twilight Zone? If so, then you should probably watch Fringe. Fringe follows an FBI agent, a mad scientist and his son as they investigate strange phenomena that dwell on the fringe of science. Throughout the series, you’ll see the likes of telepathy, spontaneous human combustion, telekinesis and other assortments of the weird and wonderful. Even though everything is given a scientific explanation, it is still science fiction with the explanations being just as out of this world and ridiculous as any supernatural phenomenon.

When you first watch Fringe you would be forgiven for wanting to pick up that remote and turn it off immediately. You will see Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv), the blonde and always pouting FBI agent. Peter Bishop (Joshua Jackson) a character quite poorly written early on in the series, with the writers not quite sure as to whether to make Peter a roughish badass or the sensitive hero of the piece, who is quick to disregard some of the more outlandish science one minute then willing to accept anything that’s thrown at his unshaven, punchable face the next. Plus he’s from the hateful, teenage angst fest of Dawson’s Creek, a show that is so bad even the thought of the theme tune makes me want to vomit. Finally, we have Walter Bishop (John Noble), a character I can’t really say anything bad about because he is simply a joy to watch on screen. If it wasn’t for this character, I would have stopped watching very early on. Am I glad I kept watching though? Absolutely because Fringe evolves into something incredibly enjoyable that is certainly worth your time.

If you have ever watched shows like Supernatural or The X Files, you will have a good idea of what to expect. Every week the team head somewhere to investigate some strange occurrence with some evil mutant or strange disappearance. They work, they solve, tea and medals for all. Some of the episodes can be great, being hosts to some truly weird stuff while some are just horribly boring. The real strength of Fringe are the over arcing stories that weaves threads in and out of the episodes, sometimes adding a little to tease you and sometimes dropping bombshells. This being from J.J. Abrams, you can expect a rather complex story but a very rewarding one as well. Mysterious events known at ‘The Pattern’, a huge conglomerate Massive Dynamics with its shadowy CEO William Bell who is also Walter’s old lab partner, a mysterious bald man in a suit that appears at every ‘pattern’ event know at ‘The Observer’, the mystery of Peter’s childhood and his illness that he has no memory of are just a part of what Fringe will offer. With so much happening, it is easy to think that Fringe would go down the same path as Lost, a show that asked too many questions and didn’t give enough answers which made it frustrating to watch. Thankfully, Fringe doesn’t work like this. Questions get answered and things get resolved making it even more watchable because you can’t wait to get the answers to some of the big questions. Yes, the little questions lead to big questions, the big questions lead to bigger questions and the biggest questions lead to the mind-blowing answer you’ve been waiting for.

If I have any gripes with season one it’s that it starts slow. It can take a few episodes to get into but the writing picks up and you begin to watch characters bond and they start to develop a rapport. This is particularly true to Peter and Walter’s relationship, which starts off rocky (due to Walter being in a mental institution for the last 17 years) but watching them start bonding as Father and Son is lovely to watch, especially since Walter is such a lovable character.
Also, with this being an American show, the series can be just too long, with some episodes being unnecessary. With 20 episodes, each lasting roughly 45 minutes, this is a lot of telly watching and sometimes you wish they would have cut a good 5 or 6 episodes from the series to at least shorten it and remove the duds.

Overall, Fringe grows into something truly spectacular. If you get the end of season one and witness the jaw dropping and incredibly powerful (and controversial) ending, you will be hooked on this TV show.