Monday, 21 March 2016

Mini Monday! - Love

love tv netflix judd apatow gillian jacobs paul rust 2016
The show is about as interesting as its poster.
This new Netflix Original is a pile of self indulgent garbage.

Gillian Jacobs is great. In Community, she played Britta's ball of lovably misguided but well-intentioned self-righteous anger spectacularly well. Britta was by no means a good person (nor is the rest of the show's cast, which is half the point) but by god was she trying, and we loved her for it. This new show, Love, has her cast in a somewhat similar role as Mickey, a heavy-drinking twenty-something with no direction in life who works in a radio station. Oh wait, no, that's nothing like Britta and more like a bingo card for "most unimaginative, contrived, bullshit Judd Apatow comedy character ever". Hold on...holy crap. It is a Judd Apatow comedy! It all makes sense now.

love tv netflix judd apatow gillian jacobs paul rust 2016 sandwich
Each episode's script: *30 minutes of fart noises*
Mickey starts out as a reasonably relate-able but barely functioning human being and gradually descends over the course of ten episodes into a forced caricature of every type of addict in existence. She starts out by drinking too much, like every goddamn twenty-odd year old in existence, then gradually graduates to heavier drugs before miraculously realising out of nowhere in the last episode that she's not only an alcoholic and drug addict, but also a sex addict too, because I really don't know. This doesn't occur over the space of months or years by the by, the whole series takes place in a couple of weeks, so we're meant to assume that she was like this from the beginning, but maybe all of these addictive behaviours just went on holiday for the first few episodes or something? It's stupid, really really stupid. Oo, and then there's Paul Rust's Gus. Heh. My god... Have you ever wanted to watch a grown man snivel and whine his way through 5 Christ-fucking hours of your life like a ten year old with Tourette's? Maybe you would like to watch him systematically ruin his perfectly good career because he's a completely useless human being who throws tantrums at his boss and has absolutely no concept of what he should and shouldn't do. He's not funny, he's not sympathetic; he is the single worst, most horrifyingly written pile of steaming turd that has ever dropped unceremoniously out of the imagination of another human being like a frozen stowaway falling out of the landing gear of an Airbus A380 at 30'000 feet.

love tv netflix judd apatow gillian jacobs paul rust 2016 argument
I do not like this show.
My final paragraph will be about the show's writing; if you would like to save time, it's pretty much more of the above. Imagine if you fast-forwarded into the future to the age of about 60 and, along the way developed severe head trauma or some kind of brain defect. Now imagine trying, with your limited intellectual capacity and horrifyingly outdated concepts of what is and isn't hip/cool/happenin', to write a television show that appeals to the current generation of penniless students and man-children. Congratulations, you just wrote the remake to the criminally despicable Netflix show Love. The characters have an inexplicable obsession with taking Ubers and some other unnecessary and already outdated cultural phenomenon that I can't be bothered checking to see what it was. Point being, pop culture buzzwords replace actual characterisation or comedy and awkward Mexican standoffs and arguments replace comical timing or wit. It's everything I expect from a US comedy and less. I'm done here.

Overall Ben Equivalence Rating

I Don't Even Know... - Nothing compares to how disappointingly awful Love is. Although, maybe that was the cynical point they were trying to make all along... Nope. It's just plain shit.

Monday, 14 March 2016

Mini Monday! - Stonehearst Asylum

stonehearst asylum kate beckinsale jim sturgess 2014 film poster
Don't let the shoestring budget-porn poster fool you.
I don't post often enough. I know, it's a real tragedy for us all; and the reason for this is often due to the long, tangential prose that I'm prone to writing. To correct both this and the issue of a rather sparse posting schedule I've decided to start reviewing select films in a rather truncated 3-paragraphs-or-less. Concise, snappy, and never listing more than two synonymous adjectives at any one time. Without further ado, here's the first of hopefully many to come.

stonehearst asylum kate beckinsale jim sturgess 2014 film lamp
Obligatory gothic-horror "character holding an oil lamp in a dank cellar" moment? Check.
To successfully portray old-fashioned medicine through the lens of a modern conscience is akin to trying to understand why 14-year old white girls on Tumblr are so angry all the time without being one of said 14-year old white girls; that is to say nigh impossible. That said, I was pleasantly surprised by Stonehearst Asylum's noble effort to do just so. With an insidiously star-studded cast, a rather sprightly 6.8 on IMDb, and drawing influence from the Gothic King himself, Mr. Edgar Allan Poe, it is a thoroughly pleasant film to watch on a Thursday night after a bag of M&Ms and three gin and tonics. If the bracingly despicable Shitty Island were German supermarket own-brand 2-ply, then Stonehearst Asylum would be the infinitely more comfortable cheap branded 3-ply that's on buy one get 1/3 off fabric softener.

stonehearst asylum kate beckinsale jim sturgess 2014 film hat outside
I pretty much exclusively know this actor as that guy who always tilts his head when he acts.
Acting-wise, there's A-listers bleeding out of the dank walls, all performing with the lackadaisical attitude of someone who was handed the script and a delicious sandwich and told to choose only one. But campy gothic period thriller is as campy gotherioller (ew, that didn't work) does, and the stunted performances bow out to make room for fog and plot, in that order. Young academic, weird asylum, creepy lead doctor, underlying mystery. It's all very expected but presented like a reasonably up-market free buffet; you're not going to complain. There's a few twists and plenty of atmosphere and I'm sure you'll enjoy yourself. Just try not to think too hard about the uncomfortable sub-plot of Jim Sturgess' doctor getting very fond of Kate Beckinsale alarmingly quickly.

stonehearst asylum kate beckinsale jim sturgess 2014 film hysteria
When a lady convulses when you touch her, it probably means no. Unless under very particular circumstances.
The interesting bit for me, though, is the medicine. Stonehearst portrays a world flipped on it's head, where the patients have taken over the asylum (no relation to the great Ken Stott/David Tennant mini-series) and put in place a system of their own. Out goes the tortuous force-feeding and humiliating examinations and in comes space for patients to express themselves, to develop occupational skills, and to begin adjusting to normal life. It purposefully parallels with many of the tenants of modern psychiatric medicine, criticising the archaic methods of old and championing these new, then avant garde ideals. What's good is the way that they manage to present these changes from the point of view of the time; as terrifying, chaotic concepts literally dreamt up by a madman, but undeniably effective. It is here, however, that the film precariously straddles the borders of profoundness with it's well-intentioned ignorance. Despite suggesting that these methods are more beneficial to the patients the film also paints it as an unsustainable model, with the asylum gradually falling apart under it's new chaotic rule, as well as once again falling into the age-old trap (bad One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, bad!of believing that electro-convulsive therapy (ECT) is some barbaric mind-wiping zap-magic. In the end, the message reflects the general "-ness" of the film: good, but not great.

stonehearst asylum kate beckinsale jim sturgess 2014 film michael caine electroconvulsive therapy ECT
As good as any film that gives Michael Caine the same number of lines as a character who
believes he is a horse could hope to be.

Overall Ben Equivalence Rating

A Starbucks Hot Chocolate - Well presented and reasonably enjoyable but inherently flawed, leaving you with a metallic taste in your mouth and the wonder as to whether you really actually liked it.

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

Dark Souls: Not As Hard As You Think

dark souls video game 2011 gaping dragon boss
Pfft. Eaaaaaasy.
So, you've heard about Dark Souls I assume? The spiritual successor to the PS3 sleeper-hit Demon's Souls (a game I've started twice and never finished, for shame), Dark Souls is most well known for being a brutal gauntlet that redefines the human perception of suffering. Your own knowledge of it may start and end at "You die. Lots." and, to a degree, that is pretty accurate. Death is everywhere in this game and if you fuck up, which you will, it will greet you more enthusiastically than a Labrador on ecstasy.

dog jumping pond happy
"Sir, is that your dog frantically trying to have sex with a pond?"
"Yes. Yes it is."
As such, when I leapt into the grimy, utterly depressing world of these now 3 games, I was expecting the worst. Demon's Souls took me by the throat and made me eat it. Have you ever seen a video game force a man to eat his own throat?! No, I thought not. That was the level of awful fuckery I was expecting. And granted, the first half of Dark Souls is pretty darn hard, but frankly, by the time the credits rolled, I was underwhelmed by the overall difficulty of the whole affair compared to how it sounds coming from the mouths of those who champion it as an interactive trial by fire. It's tough, yes, but with perseverance and a little time anyone can crack it. The greatest number of times I had to repeat any boss was around 10, which is hardly repeating yourself ad nauseum.

Since I spent the best part of a year playing this game (and thoroughly enjoying it) I thought it best to write at least something about the experience on here. This won't be a complete review or an in depth explanation of the game, there's enough of those already, but just a few observations I've made that stick out to me as often being forgotten when this series comes up in conversation. Here we go.

Stupidity, and Only Stupidity, Begets Punishment

The most common one-word description of Dark Souls, and a description I myself have used, is "sadistic". Why do we say this about it? Is the game revelling in your misery? Does it try to make you fail as often as it can, just to watch the little helpless mouse that is your character scuttle through the maze of spears, ooze and traps again and again? 

dark souls video game 2011 ceaseless discharge
"Hi there, I'm here for my 5 o'clock immolation...?"
All in all, "sadistic" could really be a synonym for "unfair". It makes you think that this game is setting everything up into a little domino set of moments designed to fuck you over, like the immensely popular I Wanna Be the Guy, a game specifically designed to screw with you to make you die. It's a complete and utter load of crap, though. Dark Souls does a spectacularly good job of laying everything out in front of you fair and square to then allow you to make your own mistakes. The tutorial level of the game has bad guys hiding behind doorways, so if you forgot to check your corners later on, that's all on you. Didn't think there was going to be a giant boulder rolling at you? Then how do you explain the mangled corpse and crushed tiles lying there in the light of day for anyone to see? Dark Souls is never unfair because it gives you everything you need, either by experience or environmental clues, to manoeuvre the situation correctly; like a puzzle whose solution results in you not getting your ass handed to you.

dark souls video game 2011 sens fortress outside
"We hope you like swinging axe blades and giants hurling boulders, cause we got you a whole castle full of 'em!
Now, question one: Why is a raven like a writing desk?"
 The two most recent occasions I can think of when I died the most suddenly and unceremoniously, together causing me a net loss in the tens of thousands of souls and a half dozen humanity (if you've no idea what I'm going on about, just roll with me here), came in two late-game areas. In one, I had just been killed by a giant flaming tree with a bug-heart and lava wings (again, just let the words wash over you like a wave) and was eager to get myself back to the fight. I sprinted out into a pool of lava, completely forgetting that I had unequipped the ring that was meant to stop me from getting burnt to a crisp by said lava so I could wear something more appropriate for the fire-bug-tree fight. Fwoosh, I died.

In the other, I'd just cleared out a cave of giant skeletons and was feeling pretty good about myself. I found a crypt that was likely full of loot and thought I could take on the three skeletons I'd spotted wandering around down there, so dropped down. Four or five more immediately sprung from the shadows and I was made into yummy adventurer sashimi before I could scream peanuts. Both of those times I was foolish and brazen, forgetting about simple aspects of the game that I'd seen a hundred times before. 

dark souls video game 2011 mimic open attack gif
For the rest of my life I'll even kick Tupperware before opening it.
There is then, however, the few occasions when Dark Souls is most definitely unfair, which mainly comes in the form of gammy combat or slightly too tight environments. I'm calling shenanigans right now on those two god-forsaken Anor Londo archers who just...fucking sniping...nnnggghh! Them and the bloody Capra demon are single-handedly preventing me from wanting to play New Game+ right here and now.

dark souls video game 2011 new londo ruins landscape
Well, that and the entirety of New Londo, but I kind of take that as a given.

The Combat is Great and Awful in Equal Measure

I've been in a total of one fight in my life (I put the guy down in a single hit, like One Punch Pan before her was cool; true story), and so I feel like I'm well versed enough in the martial arts to comment on the quality of video game combat. The Arkham series? Spot on.

batman arkham knight video game 2016 backflip kick gif
This move was actually modelled off of my own fighting style.
After the Arkham games, I would not hesitate in suggesting that Dark Souls take the silver medal when it comes to satisfying, meaty fighting. Which is very fortunate, as it is literally the only thing you do in the game: fight increasingly larger enemies, fight an even larger boss, fight other players invading your game, fight the seductive draw of the fathomless despair that engulfs your world. Initially, it looks like you've really just got the standard light/heavy-attack dealio, but then there's jump attacks, parry/riposte, running attacks, back-stabs, drop attacks, two-handing weapons; and that's without even going into the sundry weapon types which each act and react differently.

The depth to the combat system is splendidly deceptive, particularly as the game never properly introduces it to you, leaving you to find it all out for yourself. There's something very rewarding about discovering that your spear, when held in two hands, inflicts two hit-boxes of damage, or becoming particularly adept with a certain combination of stabby things all on your own. And with the subtle ways in which different equipment react with each other, you're always changing up the way you play; well to a certain extent...

dark souls video game 2011 naked gaping dragon boss fight
Here we see the famous "Run around naked with a halberd and hope for the best" method.
You see, even with all this delicately-balanced guff going on, fights all usually end up going the same way: block, wait for opening, attack, retreat, repeat. When applying that to almost every boss fight in the game, the "wait for opening bit" is pretty much synonymous with "run around in circles and shove your head up its arse". As for other players, it becomes a matter of who has a bigger stamina bar or, alternatively, resorts to pyromancy first; which is, frankly, a dick move.

dark souls video game 2011 black dragon kalameet boss
"Not cool, mate."
Oh yes, and then there's those moments when the game simply decides it doesn't like you. You see the whole entry above this one about Dark Souls generally being fair and playing by its own rules? Sometimes the enemies don't get that message, and attacks you've clearly dodged will connect, or others will simply decide that walls and other barriers don't count for them (Gwyndolin, I'm looking at you...). It doesn't sound like much, but tell that to the massive boulder-rolling guy who somehow managed to Katamari me up after I was behind him, taking the remainder of my health (and 10'000 souls) with him. Bastard...

No-One Talks About the View

Well, OK. Not entirely true. In-game, it's impossible to go within fifty paces of a sprawling, sun-drenched vista without getting drowned in a hundred "Praise the Sun!" and "Gorgeous view" messages from other players.

dark souls video game 2011 amazing chest princess gwynevere
"Heh, giant lady boobs."
But back in the real world, people are far too busy discussing what a grammatical change in an item description in the latest update means for the extended lore (see below) to remember that these games could sell themselves on their looks alone. Yes, sometimes the backgrounds look like they wouldn't be out of place in a cheap Dreamcast game, but that's an exception to the rule, and the general environment building and enemy design is phenomenal! I actually had a genuine stop and "Woah..." moment (teensy spoiler alert) upon reaching the Kiln of the First Flame, the game's final area, just due to the brilliant, ash-soaked beauty of what would soon be the setting for an epic final showdown. It was atmosphere at it's very best.
dark souls video game 2011 kiln of the first flame landscape
It's not often that games manage that real awe factor.
I've heard that Dark Souls 2 really lets it go on the interesting boss design front, but with this one there were multiple occasions where my first death at the hands of some of these brutes was entirely down to me being dumb-struck at how cool they looked (the big guy up top being a prime example). 
dark souls video game 2011 seath the scaleless boss fight
"Goodness, you have wonderful complexion! Do you exfoli-auuuughaeorhppp..."

The Story Doesn't Matter

Die hard Dark Souls fans just love their lore. They get all up in scouring the minutiae of every item to find out what relation giant spider lady was to this that and the next thing. Yes, the story is exceptionally esoteric and open to a multitude of interpretations, as well as extremely engaging and well put together if you'd like to put the time into it (which I, and the some 20 wiki tabs I had open for quite some time, did), but it's really not necessary. Yes, Seath the Scaleless up there may have betrayed all of the other dragons and become the creator of magic as we know it in this world, but to me he's just the naked lizard dude who killed me one time before I got to stab him to death in his weird wriggling dick-snake legs. But that's fine, because these games boil down to being very fancily dressed boss-rushes, and the story is just another treat for those who want it. 
dark souls video game 2011 menu cat covenant ring
Who needs weapons made from the tails of felled dragons when you could have menu screens instead.
You're not missing out on anything by not bothering to go back to that area you only visited that one time to speak to someone you had no idea was even going to be there, and it's mental that anyone could suggest that. Enjoy the game for yourself the first time around (you'll still be able to complete it even if you miss a few quests or items), and if you liked it, go back with the wiki open and scour every inch to your heart's content.

All in all, Dark Souls has been a lesson to me in taking the consensus on something with a pinch of salt. The expectation of gruelling difficulty in my head couldn't possibly have been lived up to, which marred my enjoyment of the still very hard and possibly best designed late areas of the game, and often I found myself swamped in research trying to understand little breadcrumbs of lore so I could find every secret or just learn more about the world. That's partially a character flaw on my part and also endemic of the community that surrounds these games. People want you to get as much as you can out of what could otherwise be a very sparse experience, which is admirable, but we all need to realise that it's OK to miss a few things or not understand what the hell is going on, because in the end you just killed a giant flaming centipede and all you want to do is savour the moment.

I love you, Dark Souls, you imperfect beauty, you.