The comma (and bracket) filled thoughts of Sam Coleman.

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Final Fantasy Type-0 HD

Forget everything you once knew about Final Fantasy – Type-0 immediately throws everything out the window. The very first scene of the game depicts a bloodied soldier, caught in a warzone, collapsing against his equally bloody Chocobo mate and tearing up about his swiftly-approaching death – it’s raw, shocking and powerful.

Mercifully, Type-0 eases up on the Chocobo deaths but the war motif is used heavily throughout. The player controls the 14 students of Class Zero, members of a magic academy who are charged with aiding a rebellion to save their home country Rubrum. It’s fairly intriguing stuff but the game detracts from this with a tendency to throw complex terms around without really explaining them – those who paid little attention to Final Fantasy XIII might spend most of the game wondering what exactly a l’Cie is, for example.

There’s an odd contrast which needs to be discussed too. Yes, Type-0 (rather ambitiously) seeks to create a tale about the brutal realities of war and conflict but it’s also a game which features cartoony Moogles who end every line with ‘kupo!’. It’s really quite jarring at times (though it never fully detracts from the experience), almost as if Square wanted to completely start fresh with the series but had to keep certain elements intact for the fans.

This can also be seen through the excellent but underutilised soundtrack. Hefty, dramatic themes are placed alongside classic remixes from across the series, creating a score which evokes nostalgia but also seems to want to push forward in a different direction. These conflicting themes and ideas aren’t really bad, they’re just slightly odd – Square were clearly in two minds when making Type-0 originally.

It’s the fourteen main characters which really stand out and pull the game together though. Rather than handpick a couple of characters for the game to revolve around, Square created something of an ensemble cast – every character has their own role to play and they’re all equally important to the narrative (something which ties in really well to the gameplay). This is especially notable in the sections between missions where the player is free to wander the Academy – building relationships and chatting with classmates might not be as vital as it is in Persona 4 but it’s still an interesting way to learn more about Class Zero and their various personalities.

Class Zero’s differences really shine in battle though. Each character has their own unique weapon and set of skills, offering a whole bunch of different playstyles to choose from. The game actively encourages the player to switch characters regularly to keep everybody’s levels balanced but you won’t really need prompting – trying out each character, getting to grips with their unique talents and unleashing them on foes is terrific fun.

Type-0’s focus on war and combat needed a strong gameplay system to match and happily, Square didn’t disappoint. Borrowing the ATB system from Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII was a great move (there’s definitely a dash of Kingdom Hearts in the mix too) and the quick pace of the game encourages players to constantly be on the move; dodging attacks and maneuvering around the battlefield is essential for survival in Type-0.

The game layers tactical elements on top of this too – enemies will be vulnerable at certain moments (usually after attacking) and the player can capitalise on this for massive effect. Landing an attack on an enemy while they’re surrounded by a yellow circle will result in a massively damaging critical hit; attacking while the circle is red will kill the enemy instantly. It’s a neat way of preventing the player from simply spamming attacks and hoping for the best – pausing and waiting for the opportune moment in the heat of battle is tricky but rewarding. It’s a battle system which tends to favour ranged characters (they’re less vulnerable and they’re able to target weaknesses far easier) but melee characters are far more fun to use, thanks to the fast, skill-driven dodging and combo attacks. It’s a fine balance and it works really, really well.

But what about the HD tag in the game’s name? Unfortunately, this is generally where problems arise. Type-0 for Xbox One and PS4 is a high-def remaster of a PSP game, released in Japan in 2011, and the limitations of that portable console are still on show here. The game’s mission-based structure breaks the action down into small, bite-size pieces; those who want to push on with the story might be aggrieved at the constant breaks.

The PSP’s limited hardware has left some areas poorly textured, something which would look awful in high-definition, were it not for the quality of the art design – the remastered cutscenes make up for this somewhat though. Another constant source of trouble is the atrocious camera; a slight nudge to the right stick results in the angle violently swinging around, making it hard to accurately point the camera where it needs to be facing. The motion blur effects which accompany a change in angle are fairly unwelcome too.

Don’t allow yourself to be put off by these factors though. After all, it is a port rather than a fully-fleshed next-gen title – there was bound to be some rough edges. Persevere through the game’s cutscene-heavy intro and you’ll be rewarded with something special. The diverse, thrilling combat is reason enough for Final Fantasy fans to buy into this remaster and the mature re-imagining of a classic series is certainly intriguing, to say the least. It even brings back the world map, a lost RPG staple; if that doesn’t get the hardcore Final Fantasy crowd interested, absolutely nothing will.


Chappie

The pitfalls, dangers and misadventures of creating artificial intelligence have been common themes in film for years – for this reason, perhaps, Chappie completely forgoes those perils and decides to look at the positives instead. Witnessing the birth of an AI and watching it learn, develop and grow (both in intellect and character) is utterly fascinating – this basic concept provides some great groundwork for Neill Blomkamp’s latest sci-fi blockbuster.

At the heart of it is the titular hero – the innocent and almost painfully cute Chappie. Undoubtedly, some will find the robot’s childlike mindset annoying (or maybe even frustrating?) but there’s no denying the appeal – seeing Chappie copy He-Man’s sword wielding exploits is unashamedly heartwarming. Sharlto Copley’s skill in bringing the character to life will probably be overlooked by many (he provided voice and motion capture for Chappie); it really shouldn’t be.

Built around the character is a plot which rarely thrills or offends – it’s fairly standard sci-fi fare. Deon Wilson’s (Dev Patel) fleet of police robots has helped restore order to the crime-ridden streets of Johannesburg and his employers Tetravaal are experiencing phenomenal growth as a result. Rather than complain about the fact he doesn’t have his own office though, Deon simply goes home everyday to work on his AI project; not long into the movie, he succeeds and bids to insert his finished experiment into one of his police droids.

On the way though, he’s kidnapped by the band Die Antwoord, who apparently enjoy indulging in criminal activities when off tour – that might sound like a joke but bizarrely, they really do seem to be playing fictionalised versions of themselves. Anyway, they need money so they plan to steal some money but they need to shut the police robots off first so they can steal the money and so they kidnap the guy who made the robots and so it goes on; the pair have their moments but for the most part, their side of the story is impressively uninteresting.

Hugh Jackman’s role in the film is spectacularly disappointing too. As Vincent, he’s the main villain of the piece (hardly surprising – have you seen the mullet he’s rocking?) but he’s awfully one-dimensional and rather petulant too; much of his anger towards Deon simply stems from his robot being inferior to the police scouts. The film gives no background to the character and there seems to be little reason for his deep loathing towards Deon and his prized AI; it vaguely states that Vincent used to be a soldier at one point, like that’s an excuse to be a complete arsehole.

The plot’s a bit thin then but it does convey some great messages and themes. Blomkamp’s District 9 was highly acclaimed for its depiction of xenophobia and social segregation and some of those themes are lurking in the background of Chappie too. The film never directly confronts them (perhaps for the best) but it frequently dives into the murky crime underworld of Johannesburg, offering glimpses of the struggles people face in the city.

Violence is used beautifully by the film to illustrate just how unwelcoming this world can be. Chappie’s police scout body gets him into a spot of trouble with a gang of youths and Blomkamp effectively utilises slow-motion to really shock the viewer – the audience might view Chappie as an innocent, loveable child but the people of Johannesburg definitely don’t.

This also ties into the visual pleasures that the film provides; the Vodacom-advertising Ponte City Apartments (already a popular filming spot) provide several interesting scenes and Ninja’s hideout is awash with neon colour – Die Antwoord’s influence on the film must have been an inspiration here.

Unfortunately, in the final half an hour or so, the film falls apart. It stumbles from one far-fetched event to the next, throwing every loose plot thread into the mix in a vague hope that the end result will satisfy all; sadly, it fails. Most disappointing of all, though, is Blomkamp’s decision to suddenly allow ultra-violent influences to creep in; the film hypocritically begins to revel in the bloody violence that it seemingly condemned earlier, as though it desperately needs something exciting to keep the action movie fans happy. Even putting aside the divisive final plot events, the ending is a bitter disappointment.

Thankfully, the earlier, more intriguing moments of Chappie are strong enough to prevent the movie from turning into a total dud. There’s a real heart to the film and a lot can be excused as a result – the ending really does push that to the test though. It’ll be interesting to see if the same applies for Blomkamp’s next project – the forthcoming fifth installment in the Alien franchise.


Nightcrawler (2014)

Lou Bloom is not a nice man – the very first scene of Nightcrawler (which depicts Lou attempting to steal from a construction site, attacking a security guard and stealing his watch) tells us this fairly bluntly. Yet somehow, there’s an oddly engaging and charismatic appeal to the character – an intangible sort of quality which sets the tone for the dark but appealing Nightcrawler well.

Lou’s journey into the murky, brutal and competitive world of crime journalism is far more exciting than it really has any right to be, thanks to a great script and an acting masterclass from Jake Gyllenhaal. Slimy, eccentric and downright weird, in the hands of many actors, the conflicting appeal of Lou Bloom would have been lost. Happily though, Gyllenhaal dives right in to inject a thrilling mixture of dark amusement and terrifying fervour into an increasingly bleak world.

Lou’s antics are unforgivable (stealing a racing bike then trading it at a pawn shop for film equipment, all while mischievously riding around the shop) yet the purpose behind his grisly actions is kept at the forefront by a tightly written script which rarely wastes a line, let alone an entire scene.

Gyllenhaal is obviously the stand-out then but Nightcrawler features some great break-out performances from the supporting cast too. Riz Ahmed (probably most recognisable from cult comedy Four Lions) definitely deserves a mention for his role as Rick, Lou’s somewhat reluctant assistant. He serves as a balancing act to the whole thing – as Lou’s actions grow increasingly disturbing, Rick acts as the ignored shoulder angel; watching him dig his heels in as the narrative rolls on is immensely engrossing.

All this serves as a platform to build an enthralling tale about the growing dearth of ethics in TV journalism – the exploration of these elements is almost satirical. Lou’s commissioning editor Nina Romina (Rene Russo) sums it up neatly – “to capture the spirit of what we air, think of our news cast as a screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut”. This underlying scrutiny of seedy television production is immensely thought-provoking and it constantly finds new layers to confront.

All of this would be impressive for an experienced, well-versed director – the fact that Nightcrawler serves as the directorial debut for Dan Gilroy is staggering. The slick neo-noir elements suit the film’s content well with the subtle, mystical, synth-driven soundtrack perfectly capturing the mood. Light and shadow are used beautifully throughout, effectively conveying or contrasting the increasingly erratic swings of Lou’s mind; fans of top quality cinematography will find plenty to pour over here.

A tense, exhilarating thriller which manages to be effortlessly dark and disturbing, Nightcrawler is an absolute must-watch on several levels – Gyllenhaal’s performance will rightfully be lauded for years to come but it’s the more subtle elements which really impress. The script is engaging, conflicting and sprinkles humorous lines in at the opportune moments, allowing Gilroy to craft a film that will undoubtedly be tagged as a cult classic soon enough.


(Note: I would suggest seeing the Dark Knight Rises for yourself first before reading this; as I would any other film. I would hate for anybody to accuse me of spoiling the film for them, so take this as a disclaimer.)

This is it people. This is the one we’ve all been waiting to see. Honestly, can you name a film as anticipated as this? Christopher Nolan has turned Batman from a camp 70s icon into the biggest fictional bad-ass on the planet. Dark Knight Rises brings the trilogy to an end before Nolan goes to help Zack Snyder reboot Superman… But does it leave you wanting more or much, much more?

+ Positives

+ Selina Kyle

The Bat family is arguably as important to Batman stories as Batman himself. Robin is as much of an icon as Batman is and characters like Nightwing and Batgirl in recent times have become just as important. It’s odd then that Nolan hasn’t used any of Bats’ supporting cast until the casting of Anne Hathaway as Catwoman/Selina Kyle. Now you see that ‘saving the best for last’ isn’t just an expression. She steals pretty much any scene that she’s in. A lot has been made of how women are portrayed in films and games recently;  nobody can accuse Nolan of misogyny. There was some outcry about Hathaway’s casting as such a vital character but all of it was misplaced. She’s witty, sexy, determined, scheming and a whole number of other adjectives every time she appears. Borrowing character elements from Frank Miller’s Year One has brought Catwoman to life, making her appearance one of the high points.

+ Joseph Gordon-Levitt

As Officer Blake, Gordon-Levitt would probably have stolen the show if not for Catwoman. His character’s destiny is obvious from the moment he steps onto the screen but he adds the humanity that Bruce Wayne often lacks. Having been an orphan in Gotham, he is the hothead that drives the middle section of the movie, giving us a ground-eye view of the city. It’s kind of a shame that the character wasn’t introduced earlier – he really could have become as important to the trilogy as Batman. They really should have just named the character Dick Grayson or Tim Drake though.

+ It’s Batman.

There are just things that make a Batman film better than any other film. Beating ten guys in hand to hand combat simultaneously. Driving really fast in a Lamborghini. Using a range of gadgets that you can’t even begin to imagine in reality. Heath Ledger has rightfully taken much of the praise for the success of The Dark Knight, but the style of Nolan’s films are evident in all three. You kinda hate Bruce Wayne but you really, really like him. Jim Gordon would have retired years ago if he existed but his perseverance lets him roll back the years. You pay your ticket price to see Batman get overwhelmed but inevitably rise (see what I did there?) from the ashes: this is why Christopher Nolan is so celebrated for this trilogy. Batman used to wear spandex and have a stupid theme song –  Nolan has made him into everybody’s favourite hero. When Batman is riding around on his motorbike shooting rockets and evading the police, it’s hard for anybody not to be enjoying it.

– Mixed

– Bane

Overall, Bane’s a threatening villain. He differs hugely from the venom riddled monster from the comics but it suits the overall tone of the movie. However, it sacrifices so much of what makes the character unique. You could replace Bane with any typical thug and little would change. Large portions of his character are stripped away by the plot twist near the end and he pretty much becomes a sideshow. For a trilogy that’s put so much emphasis on building its central villains (Ra’s Al Ghul, The Joker, Two Face), it’s almost remarkable how bland Bane is.  Good in places, but expect no Best Supporting Actor awards for Tom Hardy I’m afraid.

– Plot

I read a comment just after watching the film and it basically summed up the direction for me perfectly. It said that the Dark Knight Rises should have been named Gotham City (although I would say Gotham City Rises would be much better overall). Obviously the film would never have been called GC, but the point remains: this isn’t a film about Batman. Of course, without Batman there is no film but in no way is he the only focus of this movie. Commissioner Gordon has been a vital character throughout the trilogy, but new characters Miranda Tate and Officer Blake also take pivotal roles within the story. It’s not a bad thing; it just leads to a lot of jumping around, particularly in the latter stages of the film where the film darts around to wrap everything up.  Apart from this the plot is pretty good, with classic stories Year One and Knightfall clear influences, particularly with Catwoman and Bane. It’s just a shame that a 2 and a half  hour film can feel rushed.

– Negative

The Ending

I’m going to attempt to keep this as spoiler-free as possible. The cynic in me always struggles to feel completely satisfied at the end of a movie but I felt flat-out letdown by the Dark Knight Rises’ final ten or so minutes. The plot twist arrives from seemingly nowhere to introduce a classic Batman character. Bane is built as the masterful villain until the new character arrives to unceremoniously push him aside. There’s no real feeling of a Batman triumph and it kills any sort of momentum towards the finale. The ending scenes were so predictable (in particular, one involving Alfred’s holiday) that it was hard to feel shocked or surprised. As a cliffhanger for a sequel, it would suffice. As the end to a trilogy, its barely satisfactory. A certain character’s discovery at the end makes it evident that this world will be revisited – so it’s hardly a goodbye at all. Perhaps it will all lead to a Dark Knight Returns-esque storyline, but for now, I feel a little disappointed.

There’s little doubt in my mind that this is the worst film in the trilogy, although not by much. Of course, it is still a damn good movie. It just couldn’t live up to the expectations put upon it. My problems with Bane may not ruin the movie, but a stronger villain would have been a benefit to the film. Largely it’s the final act that annoys me so much about the Dark Knight Rises. Admittedly, I’m a cynic that has perhaps read too many comics, but I just find it hard to believe that the predictable conclusion was deemed the best one. A great movie then; it just could have been so much more.

(Edit – Jonathan Crane makes an awesome cameo in this movie and it is by far my favourite part.)

Agree? Disagree? Tweet me – @colemansa.