Guardians of the Galaxy | Review | Film

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The one thing most people seem to know about Guardians of the Galaxy is that it has a talking raccoon in it. After two hours of interstellar fun and games I can officially confirm that yes, there is indeed a talking raccoon in it. If you needed more than a semi live-action, feature length version of 1980s cartoon The Raccoons then you’ll be happy to hear that Guardians has a lot more to offer.

Guardians of the Galaxy poster

First of all the style of the film is definitely lighthearted, a clear and obvious departure from some of the superhero flicks of late – more similar to the likes of Kick-Ass and Scott Pilgrim vs The World – which makes for a refreshing watch without worrying about which character is going to turn out to be evil later on. In fact the plot is remarkably simple, almost to a fault, but serves as a device to bring this band of misfits together. Any film which begins with the main character dancing under a huge, glowing version of its logo knows exactly what it is.

All fun and games

You can't help but have fun with Peter Quill (Chris Pratt)
You can’t help but have fun with Peter Quill (Chris Pratt)

Self awareness is, in fact, one of the film’s strongest points, often throwing in 1980s pop culture references which remain just as well-known today almost to make a point. Our hero Peter Quill (The Lego Movie’s Chris Pratt), known as Starlord…by only himself, is a notable thief who gets caught up in something bigger – imagine a more childish Han Solo and you’re almost there. His inevitable incarceration calls him to join forces with his former enemies and so the games begin.

You could call the guardians the ‘B squad’ Avengers, but that would be selling them short as in fact they are very far removed from the power, might and glory of superhero status, rather doing the right thing even though no one expects anything of them in the first place – just the opposite in fact. Groot, notable for being a giant humanoid tree, has a delightfully sweet demeanour and this plays well against Rocket the Raccoons wise-cracking (courtesy Bradley Cooper).

Zoe Saldana, who plays token female character Gamora, is perhaps the most disappointing of the quintet, not showing the sort of variety we have seen from her as Uhura but retaining the childish female stereotype aspects in places, admittedly used to great effect at one point in particular.

The final character of the group is Drax, played by former wrestler Dave Bautista, who at first comes across as a one-note brute, but is soon gifted with some excellent one-liners in his own right.

More than just a pretty (furry) face

The space battles in the film almost take you by surprise
The space battles in the film almost take you by surprise

The visual effects are stunning in the sense that you barely notice them. There are few moments where you feel your eyes adjusting into ‘visual effects mode’, instead they are slipped in to the story and action sequences naturally. Particularly the look and feel of CGI characters Groot and Rocket, of which the latter really gets top marks for fur effects.

There is a certain beauty to the use of music in the film, all of which comes from a mix tape given to Starlord when he began his journey across the stars, and as such has not only an 80s vibe (something which follows through the whole film) but a consistency, keeping the film grounded and relatable while out-of-this-world madness and excitement happen on screen.

Small but perfectly formed

The ties to the existing Marvel films are passing at the most
The ties to the existing Marvel films are passing at the most

As a Marvel film, certain expectations have been built up over the past few years as its film universe has grown, but this film proudly stands alone with only a passing connection to the events of other films. In a way that’s the most refreshing thing about watching it – being able to enjoy the experience without thinking about the impact it will have on something else.

So, it might not be a perfect film, but it is the most entertaining and fulfilling cinema experience of the year so far, and suitable for all ages…for the most part anyway. Guardians is exciting, funny and just easy to watch, something has been lost in the convoluted cross-pollination of Marvel films and this title reminds us why we liked them in the first place – they are damn good fun.

Rating: 5/5

James Michael Parry

How To Train Your Dragon 2 | Review | Film

How to Train Your Dragon 2Everyone would like a pet dragon. Generalisations be damned – you know you would. Like all pets though, there is an element of danger that they could act out, or bite you, or – to a somewhat lesser extent – burn you to a crisp with fiery breath.

You’d think with a film called How to Train Your Dragon, once the titular dragon is tamed you’d be done and dusted, but no. As we all know, after all the hard work you’ve put into sorting stuff out, something else will come along to mess it up.

Back in black

Creating a map of the world is cool, but...the idea basically disappears after the first ten minutes
Creating a map of the world is cool, but…the idea basically disappears after the first ten minutes

So, five years have passed and Hiccup is back (still with a silly name, but well-voiced by Jay Baruchel) exploring the world and creating a map of it – for no apparent reason, in fact this particular task screams of a plot device purely because it doesn’t really come up again at all.

Evil people being evil, one of them, named Drago Bludvist (Djimon Hounsou), fancies having his own dragon army and ‘freeing’ the world from the fear and destruction of dragons, by scaring and destroying things with dragons, particularly the peaceful and tranquil little island that is Berk.

OK, OK, so far, so obvious right? Well, similar to a lot of animated films, the story isn’t the important thing – it’s the characters and if you have fun with them. This is an adventure clearly made for children first and foremost, but adults can enjoy the ride as well.

All in the family

Hiccup's mum and dad are reunited in the film, and immediately you know it'll end badly
Hiccup’s mum and dad are reunited in the film, and immediately you know it’ll end badly

Gerrard Butler’s Chief of the island Stoic, which is an equally silly name but does at least offer a good pun at one point, is particularly engaging and you care about the fate of Berk – just as you did in the first film.

This sequel largely avoids falling into a trap of jumping into an awkward teenagey romance (perhaps they’re saving it for part three…) and focuses on family, particularly Hiccup’s relationship with his parents, which is where Cate Blanchett comes in as Hiccup’s mother, who was long thought dead.

One of the most touching moments in the film is when she is reunited with Stoic, which really adds some emotional depth for the characters, particularly for those in the audience who can relate to an estranged parent.

Stand by for action

The Luke Skywalker parallel is really emphasised by Hiccup's flame lightsaber
The Luke Skywalker parallel is really emphasised by Hiccup’s flame lightsaber

Visually the film looks stunning in it’s cartoony glory, but these days that is really a necessity – there’s no excuse for hair which doesn’t move properly – but in this case the details are really nicely done, on the dragons as well as the humans.

Your life probably won’t be changed by this film, but what you will enjoy is an adventure which doesn’t fall into the trap of cliché too often, and has plenty of jokes thrown in casually without labouring the point or leaving too long to force them down the audiences throats.

It’s simply a fun film, and, really, what more do you need from a summer family outing?

Rating: 4/5

James Michael Parry

Why co-op gaming is the way forward | Opinion | Gaming

EvolveI’ve never been much of a single player gamer. For as long as I’ve been gaming I’ve always enjoyed the comfort and security of having a buddy around to revive you when you inadvertently fall of a ledge or get caught on some clutter strewn across the floor of a level – designed to add richness to the setting but in fact amounting to another thing to navigate your character around.

Never has the value of having human co-op players on side been more clearly spelled out than when playing Left 4 Dead, a game which had a single player campaign in name only since even playing alone saw three AI teammates join you as you try to survive the zombie apocalypse.

Being Human

Left 4 Dead 2
Going it alone in Left 4 Dead (or its sequel, pictured) is a speedy shortcut to Dead City.

Add in human players instead and, providing they are half decent, the balance of the game changes entirely and is far more entertaining. Original developer Turtle Rock (not Valve as I had first thought, who merely published the first and developed the second) have kept this point of difference in their new game Evolve.

The game is based around an asymmetrical multiplayer mode which pits four hunters against a monster. The monster begins fairly weak and must snack on local wildlife to evolve (ahhhh now you’re getting it) to become a force strong enough to take down the hunters one by one.

At the same time the hunters must try to find and take out the monster, and if they don’t kill it before it reaches its stage three of evolution, an all-out fight begins to either destroy or protect the power generator for that particular area.

Getting it together

With hundreds of players milling around in Destiny it would be hard to shut yourself off, and other players are part of your experience.
With hundreds of players milling around in Destiny it would be hard to shut yourself off, and other players are part of your experience.

What does this have to do with co-op I hear you ask? Well granted, for the monster there isn’t a lot of co-op to be had, but it would be a completely different game against AI rather than humans, since it is all about reading the opposing team, tricking one hunter into saving another so you can take them down too, for example.

On the hunters’ team, good communication and cooperation are vital to survival. It’s a game where you rely on your team just as much as in Left 4 Dead, except there’s no escape – you have to face this monster – and it’s a far more sophisticated predator than the likes of the Tank.

In the old days you’d need to get three (well four, really) friends around to complete your team for a game like this, and sofa and TV space are a precious commodity. These days co-op is far easier, with Xbox Live (and other services which I’m less familiar with…) connecting players across the world in seconds, and with minimal lag even at low connection speeds.

When faced with such a wide range of possibilities as that – even in a single multiplayer map with single character choices (of which there are in fact multiple, even for the monster) – it’s difficult to imagine a single player experience matching up to it.

In your own little world

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
Many have lost hundreds of hours to Skyrim, an entirely single player experience, but will they lose more to the Elder Scrolls Online?

That said, there are many who find escapism, solace and relaxation in single player, and I absolutely understand that. That experience will never disappear from games, but you only need to look at the biggest releases due for the rest of 2014 to see some clear signs of where console gaming is going – Destiny being a particularly high profile example.

The fact is that people are more easily connected than ever before, so it’s no wonder they want to share their favourite past time, but let’s hope the experiences we are presented with in co-op gaming going forward are well thought out, feature rich and diverse, and not just a clone of the main character bolted on to the campaign for the sake of it.

James Michael Parry

Six exciting things from E3 2014 | Opinion | Gaming

E3 2014We’ve been going on about E3 for years (seriously, it’s our most rambled about subject…) but this year’s show was something different and exciting – it wasn’t a disappointment.

After the tough time Microsoft in particular had last year, the general air of positivity to come out of this year’s show is genuinely astonishing.

Seriously, game announcements were tumbling out of people’s mouths so quickly people’s eyes started to bleed from all the shiny new-ness…

And so what do we make of all of this? We make precisely six (totally not a random arbitrary number) things which we’ve decided to tell you a little bit about, in no particular order.

It’s like Crackdown on crack

CrackdownIt’s always nice to see a game resurrected from the dark corners of the past (OK, that may cease to be the case if they release an HD remake of phone game phenomenon Snake), and Crackdown brought a smile to many a gamer’s face when it exploded on screen – multiple times – at Microsoft’s conference.

The original game in the series proved a hit, but its sequel didn’t set the world on fire. Now MS are bringing it back, with the number three conspicuous by its absence and complete with the original voiceover announcer.

Destruction made up a big part of the game’s reveal, suggesting it could be a big part of the game, which could make reaching the highest buildings tricky, knowing how trigger happy the title makes you – here’s hoping the buildings respawn, or at least there’s something to bring them back, perhaps a weapon in the vein of Red Faction‘s nanoforge…

Lots and lots of Halo

Halo 5: GuardiansOver 100 maps. One hundred. That’s how many multiplayer battlegrounds are included with Halo: The Master Chief Collection.

It seems ungrateful to complain, but we’ve never been much of a fan of re-releases. The plus side is that not only is this a re-release done well, the first to make us sit up and take notice since the Gamecube remake of Resident Evil.

All multiplayer modes, vehicles and quirks of each iteration are included, with both Halo 1 and 2 benefiting from a visual clean-up, but the Halo series isn’t just about multiplayer, unlike other shooters we could mention.

The clever way in which 343 have pulled this together is impressive. The release not only includes a Halo 5: Guardians Beta (and a TV series produced by Alien king Ridley Scott), but serves to tool up the protagonist of the new game as they begin their quest to find Master Chief following the convoluted events of Halo 4.

It is your Destiny

DestinyThough Bungie, developers of Destiny, may always be remembered as the team who originally gave the world Halo, they are going to great lengths to set themselves apart from their past with this new title.

There might be a few visual and gameplay similarities, but the ambition drives the genre forward into new territory. There’s a strong emphasis on coop play, though it isn’t essential for most of the modes, as well large, expansive worlds and exploration.

It might not be far-flung from the heights reached by games in other genres (Skyrim is no doubt a frequent reference point), but this is the first time on console where an MMO – or Massively Multiplayer Online – title has really captured people’s imagination.

Defiance caused a stir with its own route into the world in 2013, but failed to have the staying power demanded by a lot of players. Destiny has got an awful lot packed in, and though we haven’t had our hands on it yet, everyone who has agrees it’s an experience difficult to put across in words.

WiiU may have been down, but it’s not out

Super Smash Brothers WiiUNintendo has had a rough time the past few years, and with the release of the WiiU failing to reach the benchmark set by the Wii they were left feeling like Metallica after their unfortunate 2003 album St. Anger, treading water with a sad look on their faces.

Unlike Metallica (who, coincidentally, took five years to hit back with another, better album), Nintendo didn’t let the bad publicity around the WiiU stop them from doing what they are good at – making games.

So finally this year we are seeing the fruits of those efforts with more Super Smash Brothers, more Zelda and the already very tempting Mario Kart 8.

Thanks to this strong first party showing, something Nintendo can be relied on when they get their act together and focus on their core franchises, they have shown that they aren’t worth forgetting about just yet.

Colour comes to next gen

Sunset OverdriveLet’s face it, there’s a trend in media these days across the board to be gritty, realistic, dark and suspenseful. Don’t we all miss how it used to be? A giant ‘pow’ for every Batman villain foiled? (scroll down for more of that)

Apparently, we do, and our prayers have been answered in the form of another Xbox exclusive (or Xclusive…) - Sunset Overdrive. The beginnings of this game last year were just as colourful sure, but now we’ve seen some actual gameplay, and it’s looking even more fun.

The E3 reveal trailer began by a nice bit of fun poking at the FPS genre in general, and the fourth wall-breaking protagonist is a refreshing change of tact from some of the other new protagonists shown off through the week.

Focusing on momentum, there’s wall running, rail grinding, and a crazy array of weapons to take down mutants in a game which, clearly, doesn’t take itself too seriously, and, in an industry which is supposed to be about entertainment, all too often that gets lost in translation.

The Dark Knight rises (sorry…)

Batman: Arkham KnightWe all knew Batman was back, and in fact it almost looked like a misfire out of the gate when it was revealed the game had slipped from the end of this year to next almost immediately.

Luckily, we have nothing to worry about with series heavyweights Rocksteady back at the helm for their conclusion to the series Arkham Knight.

Despite showing up in the Sony press conference, the game is also making its way to Xbox One (as is GTAV, not that Sony would appreciate me pointing that out), and is looking very very good.

The Batmobile sounded like a bit of a gimmick when it was first announced, but the gameplay videos shown off for the game show how slickly it compliments the gameplay (and, as if on purpose or something, here’s some gameplay).

So, there you have it, some stuff like what you should get excited about. Sadly it won’t all be with us in 2014, but there’s a fair chunk of good stuff on the way. Expect more game reviews and stories going forward (for Xbox One at least) and possibly some video reviews too, once we’ve worked out how to bully the computer into editing.

For now, run along and play.

X-Men: Days of Future Past | Review | Film

X-Men Days of Future PastAs bands of misfits go, it’s difficult not to relate to the X-Men. As the seventh film in the franchise (depending whether you have a selective memory about X-Men 3: The Last Stand or not), the series has gone the distance without succumbing to the allure of a reboot, and here’s hoping there’s a long way to go yet.

X-Men Days of Future PastHugh Jackman might be typecast as the poster boy for the X-Men, but there’s no hiding that he carries the role well, and this film is no exception. In Days of Future Past, Wolverine is integral to the plot, acting as the time-defying bridge between the ‘current’ cast and that of the 2011 prequel X-Men First Class.

Getting your head around the contorted plot might prove a challenge of you’re someone who needs to understand things rather than take them at face value. The key to the story is Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page)’s new mutant ability, the power to send people’s consciousness back in time.

Like many aspects of the film, no explanation is given for this, but it does give us a good excuse to why there’s two versions of a few characters in the movie, namely Professor X and Magneto.

The past sections pick up 10 years after the events of First Class and the years have not been kind to the Professor (James McAvoy) who has sacrificed his powers for the ability to walk again, thanks to a handy serum developed by Hank McCoy (Nicholas Holt), which explains why you’ll have spotted him walking in some of the trailers.

Herein lies the beauty of what Director Bryan Singer has created. Touches like that which seem like a disregard for the established canon are expertly explained. It’s clear that Singer has a great love for the franchise, and from his track record fans were excited to see him return to the helm.

Even more reassuringly, Singer’s work here is easily up to the standard he set with the original X-Men and X-Men 2. Getting the balance of so many characters right is a tricky skill, one which went awry when Brett Ratner picked up the third installment with disappointing results.

All of this adds up to a film packed with familiar characters – with big name actors to do them justice – and a complex but exciting plot. All it needed to top things off was a devastating new enemy: the sentinel.

Created by Dr. Bolivar Trask (Game of Thrones’ Peter Dinklage on top form), these towering robots, with more than a hint of the fire-breathing titan from Thor, can adapt to the abilities of mutants when they are attacked, and since they soon decided to get rid of most humans as well, a bleak future awaits mankind – unless James McAvoy and the gang cant stop them.

X-Men Days of Future PastBack in the 70s alongside Professor X is Magneto (Michael Fassbender), who has been locked in the most secure building in the world – The Pentagon. Luckily, Wolverine knows someone who can help them, leading to the introduction of the most fun character in the entire film, Quicksilver, who can move at incredible speed. One gripe with this film could be that we didn’t see enough of him.

The stakes are high with this film, not just in the story but for the franchise too, since a critical flop could have led to a loss of faith from fans. Fortunately Bryan Singer has delivered a film which ticks all the boxes and is consistent in a universe wrought with irregularities.

Whether the already announced X-Men: Apocalypse can keep up the standard remains to be seen but for now it’s time to sit back and enjoy the best film of the year so far.

Rating: 5/5

James Michael Parry

The Wind Rises | Review | Film

The Wind RisesAnimated films get a hard time. Sure plenty of them are for children, but just as many – even from the Disney stable – are good fun for adults as well. In anime there is a wealth of great storytelling out there, and few studios can claim the consistent quality produced by Studio Ghibli.

The Wind Rises posterThe Wind Rises is the latest masterpiece from the studio, and I don’t use the word lightly. Following the story of Jiro, a young japanese boy (a fact which we are, somewhat oddly, reminded of a fair few times through dialogue) who wants to design aeroplanes, the film is set between the two world wars and there is an uneasy tension in the air as Jiro begins his journey.

The balance of this film is one of its greatest strengths. The plot is driven by a combination of both Jiro’s development in aviation and his relationship with Nahoko Satomi, and just as you fear one may overpower the other the film redresses the balance – it’s a fantastic bit of filmmaking, and a credit to its world-renown director: Hayao Miyazaki.

Miyazaki, who also wrote the film, is responsible for countless classics to come out of his studio over the years (and has had a hand in the rest), including Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle and Nausicaa Valley of the Wind. It has been said that this will be Miyazaki’s final film (though it has been said in the past), and if that is so then it is definitely a high note to go out on.

The Wind RisesOne aspect of the film which is particularly high quality, is that of the English voice cast. Jiro is played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Inception, Looper and Brick) and the chemistry between him and Emily Blunt as Nahoko leads to a lump in the throat at more than one point through the film. Other big names are involved include Stanley Tucci as inspirational Italian inventor Caproni and even Elijah Wood who pops up briefly.

Visually the film is everything we have come to expect from the studio, with a few 3D-style animation sequences really giving it a contemporary feel, despite its historical setting. Musically the film is a joy too, with soaring swells of strings sending a tingling sensation along your arms and a smile to your face as the sunshine blazes. One stand out piece of sound design is the sounds of the aeroplanes themselves, which are all created using human voices in a style which is SO Ghibli and fits in effortlessly into the film’s world.

As usual, it’s compelling characters which really bring the film to life, and though some might be put off by the fact that it is animation, really the film delivers drama and touching moments just as well as some of the best traditional flicks. The connections between the characters are sincere and you really relate to Jiro in his dedication – and borderline obsession – to creating his masterpiece.

The Wind RisesIn a lot of ways there are similarities to The Aviator, but mostly in the way that the fact that the film is about planes isn’t important, it’s more those characters which you care about.

In all, The Wind Rises soars (pun very much intended) as almost all Ghibli efforts do. This is a film which anyone could enjoy, so long as they give it a chance, and in fact could be the most realistic film from the studio, making it more accessible to those who might otherwise be put off by the eccentricities and surrealist aspects of some of these sorts of films.

Calling it a masterpiece is no hyperbole, the film is undoubtedly one of the strongest films this year.

Rating: 5/5

James Michael Parry

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 | Review | Film

Andrew GarfieldWeb-slinging isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. The struggles of being a teenager (played by 30-year-old Andrew Garfield) are bad enough without evil villains turning up to mess with your on again, off again relationship.
Spider-Man isn’t having an easy time of it either, with many in New York City, including the conspicuously absent J. Jonah Jameson, Editor of the Daily Bugle, calling for his arrest as a vigilante.

Swinging into action

The Amazing Spider-Man 2The thing which sets this series of films apart from the memorable Toby Maguire trilogy, has always been depth of character, and every big-hitter here takes things up a notch from the previous film.

Garfield is excellent at playing a teen, and puts across Peter Parker’s internal conflicts about right and wrong expertly – though possibly the run time didn’t quite give him a chance to really develop things due to the sheer amount going on in the film as a whole.

Therein lies the first issue with the film: it is full to bursting. Whether it’s villains (technically three-ish, but really only two a bother), subplots (numerous) or supporting cast (who all do a great job), you have to stay on your toes not to miss anything.

A big part of the plot is Peter’s quest to find out what happened to his parents, as hinted in the trailer, but sadly it feels too rushed to feel genuinely resolved. Those expecting a long voyage through Richard Parker’s mysterious research and fantastical revelations will be left disappointed.

The trailer was borderline misleading in some areas as a number of lines you’ll remember from it didn’t make the final cut of the film, causing you to question where they would have fitted and it really begins to take you out of the film.

That said, the casting makes the more surreal aspects of the film, such as the creation of Jamie Foxx’s Electro, believeable, and Dane DeHaan (of Chronicle fame) in particular is an outstanding portrayal of Harry Osborn.

Harry isn’t having a great time of it either, since he is suffering from a degenerative, fatal, hereditary disease and is convinced only Spider-Man’s blood can help him overcome it. As you might expect, things quickly escalate.

Fight the power

Electro (Jamie Foxx)In fact, Electro is the big bad for the most part of the film, and Foxx makes you really identify with him as a misunderstood victim (up to a point anyway) which really gives gravitas to what could easily have just been a CGI showoff piece.

The story begins with us meeting Electro when he is just an electrical engineer at Oscorp, unappreciated and unnoticed, until his life is saved by our favourite swinging hero and he quickly develops an obsession.

When he gets into an accident, which anyone could see coming a mile off, he becomes Electro, a being seemingly made of energy with a strangely familiar to look to those who’ve seen Watchmen.

Emma Stone as Gwen does well with the comparatively little screen time she has, and even moves the character on, but the romance feels sidelined in favor of action. In fact the action even has it’s own tiny-version-of-hero-fights-evil á la Iron Man, but it’s slightly less cheesy.

Peter Parker and Harry Osborn in The Amazing Spider-Man 2The film then, is altogether a good superhero flick. There’s lots of action and excitement and strong characters, but in the end the frantic nature of the films plot and trying to do too much means there is no slow build for the characters, no time for the villains to grow naturally before they are just destroying everything in sight just because.

The final coda is a thinly veiled trailer for the next film rather than something designed to wrap things up which is also a shame as it cheapens the film slightly as a result. That said there is undoubtedly some exciting and interesting things on the horizon, whether that’s in Spider-Man films themselves of spin-offs.

It’s an enjoyable film to occupy for the Easter break, and probably will sit nicely between parts one and three, but on its own it dangles slightly and doesn’t quite go as deep as you might have hoped.

Rating: 3/5

James Michael Parry

For a slightly different, and altogether more disappointed take on the film, see Andy Hemphill’s review

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