Thursday, 27 October 2011

A Chinese Ghost Story (Film Review)

As the last review was of an enjoyably bad horror film it seems only right that this one should cover a genuinely good one. One which utilises the same mixture of comedy, horror and action but does it well, and which you hopefully won’t have heard of. It’s called Qiàn Nǚ Yōu Hún or Sien nui yau wan, or alternatively if you don’t speak Mandarin or Cantonese: A Chinese Ghost Story.
So what is it? As a friend of mine put it: “This is the Chinese Evil Dead II.” It’s easy to see why as well - it has gore, classic physical effects, possessed corpses, it even has its own evil tentacle tree monster.

The plot of the film is relatively simple: A timid, down on his luck tax collector known as Ning Choi-san is forced to seek refuge in an old abandoned temple in the middle of a forest. Despite being repeatedly warned away from the place by its resident, the old swordsman Yen Che-Hsia who Ning encounters fighting a rival, he decides to stay the night.
Something is quickly shown to be wrong with the temple as Yen’s rival is murdered then possessed by a demon which Yen quickly dispatches. Ning meanwhile is unknowingly menaced by stop motion zombies but more importantly encounters Nieh Hsiao-Tsing. A beautiful woman who he quickly falls in love with but learns is a ghost bound to a soul sucking tree spirit and is to be wedded to the ruler of the underworld. From there on the film’s a good mixture of romance, comedy and demon slaying as Ning and Yen try to help Nieh escape her fate.

The first thing you’ll notice watching this film is that like others of its era, such as Evil Dead II which was released the same year as this, has a very artificial feel to it. There’s a noticeable level of grain on the screen and both the lighting and scenery looks very synthetic at times, especially when indoors. This thankfully becomes less of a problem as the film goes on but it can be initially irritating.

What helps make up for this lack of quality is some surprisingly professional editing and cinematography, both of which help to give the film a stylistic feel which suits it perfectly. It’s meant to be a fantasy tale, it’s got all the traditional tropes of a romantic tale and hell, it’s even got a completely self describing name. The film seems to completely embrace its fictional aspect and it’s all the stronger for it.

The same strengths and flaws as with the setting can be found with the fight scenes. It feels “fictional” but it works well and gives it a defining style, displaying fairly impressive wirework for the time. The fighting embraces the fantasy element to the point where Yen summons a legendary sword and then starts firing energy blasts from his hands. No, that’s not a joke, he actually does that during the third act.

The only real failure of A Chinese Ghost Story worth mentioning is that it seems more like an outright fantasy film rather than a horror/fantasy hybrid. There are certainly some creepy moments which turn up throughout it but things like the stop motion zombies are more amusing than terrifying. Even when the heroes fight their way into hell and through horrific creatures it always feels more like Legend than it does Prince of Darkness.

Aside from that minor gripe there’s not too much to complain about. The performances were fairly good even if the actors did have a few over the top moments, the plot was well paced and while they are dated the effects have a lot more substance than the CGI in some of today’s films like the Thing remake.
If you don’t mind reading subtitles and can forgive a few faults due to age then you’ll probably have some fun watching this one.


A Chinese Ghost Story and all related characters and media are owned by Hong Kong Legends.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Deep Rising (Film review)

When it comes to the filmgoing public, everyone has at least one bad filmmaker they love. Directors who either churn out laughably bad scripts and fantastically cheesy pictures, or studios who produce endless streams of laudably bad movies. The Asylum, Paul W. S. Anderson, Roger Corman, Ed Wood, Uwe Boll if you’re particularly deranged, we all have our favourites. My own favourite is a bit of a dubious one as, unlike some of the above listed examples, he’s made some well-known and commercially successful films. His name? Stephen Sommers, the creator of the Van Helsing and Mummy films, and the guy who had a main character killing a Cobra with a forklift. When it comes down to his films they’re undoubtedly bad, self-referential hamtastic but above all fun. Especially when riffing on them MST3K style.

Despite his overall fame, or infamy depending upon your opinion of him, his best flick is probably the least known one: Deep Rising.
The overall plot is fairly simple: a group of people on a smaller boat are planning to pull up alongside a cruise liner and rob it while the thing is at sea. When they board the boat they quickly realise something is missing and very much amiss with the crew and passengers all being dead or missing. The protagonists quickly begin to realise they are not alone and something on board is stalking them, worm-like sea monsters which latched onto the liner’s underside and forced their way on-board.

It’s undeniably stupid and has some fairly obvious shortcomings, but it’s definitely a fun horror film which balances humour with scares and a lot of lampshading of clichés. Probably the most famous example of this within the film’s small following is the guns the protagonists use, which are prototype handheld miniguns with thousands of bullets. The reason for this? The writers needed a way to get around the characters having seemingly unlimited ammunition. Yep, it’s that kind of movie.

The biggest reason to watch this when it was first released would have been the effects. For its time the CGI was fairly good with some occasionally great moments, the poster openly advertising the effects team on it, but on the whole it has not aged well.
It looks like the sort of CGI you’d get in the background scenes of the Star Wars prequels or Lost in Space, and while it does give the whole film a great B-movie vibe you can’t help but feel they should have gone with animatronics over them. In spite of this Deep Rising thankfully does have some pretty good physical effects when it can’t directly show its monsters. It’s usually here that they’re at their most effective, because when they are moving about they’re frequently slamming into things or ripping up the floor, shredding the scenery in an incredibly satisfying manner. It feels far more intense than when they’re fully visible on screen.

Speaking of the scenery though, the cast spends a lot of time chewing it. There are a lot of recognisable actors amongst the cannon fodder, Anthony Heald, Jason Flemyng, Clint Curtis to name a few, all of who deliver the sort of performances you’d want in a film like this. Heald is especially noticeable for hamming the film up in every scene he’s in, but again it’s something which is in all honesty totally fitting of the film and blends well with the humour and fast pace of events.

The film does have a horror element with its monsters and they actually have a few good ideas behind them. How they devour people is gruesomely original and allows for the gore to be ramped up to the level you’d see in the Evil Dead films. What they do is they swallow a character alive and begin to painfully digest them, draining their fluids and using them for sustenance before spitting whatever is left of the person back out. Throughout all this, even after being spat back out, the person is still alive and dies shortly afterwards.
That’s got to rank up there with facehuggers in terms of unpleasant science fiction deaths.

All in all, the film is enjoyable to watch. It tanked at the box office and people have somehow gotten it into their heads that it is a blatant Aliens rip off, how I’ll never know, but as something to watch on Halloween you could do much worse than this. It’s cheap to buy these days and the film’s trailer is up on youtube, so I’d suggest checking it out if you’ve got nothing better to see this year.

Deep Rising and all related characters and media belong to Hollywood Pictures.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Johnny English Reborn, The Three Musketeers, The Thing and Real Steel (Film Reviews)

And we’re back. Sorry it took me so long to get my internet up and running again but there was a lot of twenty-five year old electrical cabling to be replaced and moronic wiring decisions to be corrected. It’s taken several weeks and several hundred pounds but we’ve back up and running again.

While there are two very good obscure horror films which will be reviewed leading up to Halloween, there have been a lot of nerd relate flicks released lately. So to make up for the lengthy inactivity here’s short reviews on several of them:

Johnny English Reborn – Don’t waste your money on this one. The original film was reasonable if forgettable and just managed to be somewhat passable but this is a serious flop. Rowan Atkinson is trying his hardest with what he’s working with but the script is appalling.

It’s now directly trying to parody the modern Bond films, rather than its predecessor’s generalised jokes on the whole spy genre, resulting in some very predictable gags. Anyone who has seen the trailers will know that the film lowered itself to directly plagiarising from Austin Powers in at least one scene, and they’ll also have seen just about all of the good jokes. There’s an admittedly entertaining chase scene at one point but there’s not enough good here to outweigh the bad dragging down Reborn.

The Three Musketeers  – This was nothing but dumb fun and little else. The very idea of putting the Three Musketeers in a steampunk world of espionage, flying ships and gatling guns is utterly ludicrous and not once does the film try to take itself seriously. It’s definitely one of the better Paul W. S. Anderson films and has a very entertaining first act but its not without its flaws.
One core problem is the number of characters you have to keep track of, all of who are trying to get screentime. In Anderson’s other the target casts are trimmed down until the third act, slowly being killed off in one manner or another. In this film though very few of them die before the end and it’s an irritating aspect which detracts from the film’s enjoyment. The other problem was that it does borrow a lot of elements from the more famous film like d'Artagnan wanting to become a musketeer like his dead father but getting into petty duels with the titular trio.

That being said the 3D is exceptionally well used, the battles are well choreographed and enjoyable to watch, and Christophe Waltz makes a very good Cardinal Richelieu. Watch this one for the entertainment value but don’t expect anything substantial.

The Thing – Whoever was making this clearly watched the film but did not have any idea what made it work so well. This prequel to John Carpenter’s classic pales visibly in comparison to the film it is supposed to build upon. Rather than feeling like a very tense, claustrophobic, increasingly paranoid survival situation it feels much more like a “monster of the week” production. Some part of a mini-series, a TV movie or a direct to DVD cash in than a big budget production.
Rather than acting like a very patient, calm and smart hunter the Thing repeatedly blows its cover at every turn and rampages across the base like it has no care for its own existence. Much of the CGI used for the gore effects is, bar a couple of good bits, visibly inferior to the physical animatronics of the film it is supposed to be preceding.
Oh, also, everyone has a flamethrower.
It’s better than Johnny English but this is one which isn’t worth either your time nor your money.

Real Steel – This is probably the best one out of all the films listed here. Despite the ridiculous premise and some rather predictable twists which frequently turn up to move the plot along, the script is surprisingly solid and fluidly moves from one fight to the next.
The robots themselves look pretty great and there’s some fairly brutal moments as they pound the scrap out of one another, easily rivalling the CGI brawls from Michael Bay’s Transformers films.

It probably helped that I went into seeing this one expecting a disaster of a film on par with Manos The Hands of Fate, but even without that it’s a surprisingly well told story. There’s no doubt that 2010’s The Fighter is still the best boxing film of the last few years, but I’d recommend this one if you’re a fan of giant robots or the Rocky films.


Johnny English Reborn and all related characters and media belong to Universal Pictures.

The Three Musketeers (2011) and all related characters and media belong to Entertainment One.

The Thing (2011) and all related characters and media belong to Universal Pictures.

Real Steel and all related characters and media belong to Dreamworks Pictures,

Saturday, 8 October 2011


Due to complications in life, i'm going to have to stop uploading things onto here. It could be weeks or months before current problems are sorted out. Hopefully this should be sorted out in time for Halloween, but i'm not holding my breath.

Until then don't expect to see anything no here any time soon.

Monday, 3 October 2011

Gratuitous Space Battles (PC Video Game Review)

This game is a joke. To say otherwise would be lying and it’s something the creators of Gratuitous Space Battles were fully aware of while making it. And to be honest, it’s exactly what an indie space strategy game needs to stand out amongst the classics like Homeworld or big names like Sins of a Solar Empire.

The game’s story is basically an excuse to have big battles and there’s very little serious fluff. What there is of any story is based purely around the affectionate parodies which make up the game. Every playable faction is an exaggerated stereotype or caricature of factions in some of the big name franchises.
The Rebels are, unsurprisingly, a rebellion, but one which has gone on for so long that they have become so devoted to fighting forever despite being against violence. Resulting in some great lines like this: Excellent. By blasting our enemies to atomic ribbons, we have truly proven to them that we shall not engage in their bloodthirsty wars.
The Empire is an oppressive dictatorship which has ruled for ten thousand years by an Emperor who is noted to be “under the weather”. Any person who has read the opening description of any Black Library book can tell this is a parody of Warhammer 40,000’s Imperium of Man.
There are seven other factions besides these, each more ludicrous and self parodying than the last.

The humour and themes of each faction is what makes the game stand out in terms of its feeling, but they are just dressings to the meat of Gratuitous Space Battles: the gameplay. Rather than controlling your fleet directly you give each ship preprogrammed orders as you deploy them. You can tell fighters to primarily target other small ships, frigates to engage cruisers, what range they should engage at and other general orders.
You don’t so much play your fleet so much as set them up, give them directions and let them rip into the enemy. It’s something people might find hard to get used to, but it allows you to definitely appreciate both sides beating the snot a lot more than if you were frantically micromanaging everything.

A great deal of effort has been put into the graphical quality of the engagements. The backdrops of planets and stars look beautiful. They seriously help to give a sense of scale and make you feel like you’re watching a huge engagement between two warring fleets like the stuff seen in Babylon 5 and Return of the Jedi.
As your cruisers move into range and start pounding the enemy into hell with plasma cannons, every bolt and shot is rendered and you can clearly see their effect on the opponent’s ships.
Their shields will flicker and the sections you hit of their armour will visibly start to burn and break away leaving molten chunks of steel and exposed decks open to the vacuum of space. When you crush them, ripping through their last pitiful defenses and break their ship’s back, their burning wreck will remain hanging in space as a testament to your victory over them. AND THEY SHALL KNOW THAT OPPOSING YOU IS FUTILE AND THEY SHALL SOON MEET THEIR DEATHS! EXTERMINATE! EX-TERM-INATE!

… Ahem.

The point is you genuinely feel each victory and loss keenly as each ship is stripped down and taken to bits. And you can feel like a gloriously evil prick while doing it, especially when you’re watching escape pods from enemy ships streaking away from breaking up derelicts.
What really helps with the battles is that each fleet has a unique style and colour for each fleet. Typical, yes, but each one is typically fitting of the parodies each faction is supposed to be. For example the Rebels have very rugged but solid looking ships which is fitting of them but resemble evil factions of some well known franchises, similarly a lot of Empire ships look like demonic Deep Space Nines and the Federation have very sci-fi B-50s looking fleets.

The only real disappointment of the combat is its dimensions. The whole thing is displayed as a flat, 2D battle and lacks the ability to dive over and under other vessels like in other space RTSs. This is a cost cutting measure be expected from an indie game, and it does allow for some great graphical displays during battles, but it’s definitely the biggest shortcoming of the gameplay. Thankfully other aspects make up for this.

One of the biggest parts of Gratuitous Space Battles is customising and building ships. Selecting a specific hull you select slots to add on weapons, systems, engines  and other aspects. At the same time you have to balance out how many people it will take to run it, how much power it’s going to use and how much its going to cost to make.
You might be able to build a leviathan of a battleship carrying a full compliment of plasma cannons and full armour, but it’s going to be of no use if it costs so much it has no support.
The more battles you win the more upgrades, hulls and items become available to buy meaning there’s a great deal of customization to be had in building a fleet.

The only downside of this is that there’s an easy way to create fairly reliable ship types.
Through some quick trial and error I was able to create very cheap to build frigates armed with medium armour and ion cannons (fast firing very weak guns) which could rip through almost anything. Fighter swarms, other frigates, cruisers, everything died due to the massed firepower they could dish out. The only times they needed other ships was for a cruiser to be present to bring down the shields they couldn’t shoot through.

If there is any aspect to be criticized in the game it is definitely the score. The soundtrack does a good job at initially evoking a very militaristic feel, but there are only three or four themes in total and only one for the actual battles. It seriously gets irritating over time, but it’s a minor gripe as you can obviously just switch it off.

At the end of the day Gratuitous Space Battles is fun. It’s trying to do something different, it’s well made and it stands out from the competition. It lacks the great background lore found in other stuff of its genre and 3D battles, but you’ll get your money’s worth with this one and you’ll keep coming back to play it. It’s like the Alpha Centauri of space RTS games, basic, fairly simple but having more than enough aspects to make you keep coming back to play more.

The game and its DLC can be bought here and there’s a brief demo allowing people to test out most of the game’s functions. I’d suggest at least getting the demo and playing about with it a bit if this review has made any part of Gratuitous Space Battles sound interesting.

Gratuitous Space Battles and all related characters and media are owned by Positech Games.