The Desolation of Smaug, not a review but… well… something.

So I saw the Desolation of Smaug for a second time last night and noticed some really quite bizarre things to do with the Nazgul. Let’s start by outlining the Nazgul’s history and then move on to how these new films have deviated from Tolkien’s legendarium.

The Nazgul: The Early Years

As we all know the Nazgul were once great kings of men, given nine rings of power by cheeky old Sauron. They lived lives of great wealth but one by one were all turned into wraiths and became Sauron’s most prominent servants. According to the Silmarillion, they first appeared as Ringwraiths in the Second Age (SA) 2251. Much later, 1190 years in fact, Sauron is destroyed by Isildur as seen in the prologue of the film The Fellowship of the Ring, and thus begins the Third Age (TA).

When Sauron lost the ring the Ringwraiths ‘dispersed’ but, just like Sauron, were not truly destroyed because the one ring survived. In TA 1300 the Nazgul reappear, led by the self-titled Witch-King of Angmar. From Angmar, a city north-west of the Misty Mountains, the nine led Sauron’s armies against the kingdom of Arnor, which was located east of the shire and west of the Misty Mountains. Weathertop, the ruin where Strider and the hobbits first encounter the Nazgul in FotR, is a remnant of this kingdom. By TA 1974, The Nazgul were successful in utterly wiping out Arnor.

In TA 1975 Earnur, the thirty-third and last king of Gondor (before Aragorn rocks up 956 years later), arrived with his army, too late of course. Yet he marched on Angmar, alongside the elf Glorfindel and the combined armies of Rivendell, The Grey Havens and Lothlorien, and they were victorious. During this battle the Witch-King escapes and Glorfindel makes the prophesy that the wraith will be killed in the far future, but not ‘by the hand of man’.

Divergence

This is where the movies stray drastically from the books. In the Rivendell scenes in An Unexpected Journey, Galadriel states that when Angmar was destroyed the Witch-King was KILLED and entombed in the high fells with special enchantments.

So, he can be killed by the hand of man apparently?

From memory, they never explicitly state ‘no man can kill it’ in the original three films, but in the end Eowyn kills the Witch-King, just like the prophesy said.

In this same scene (in AUJ) Gandalf also reveals the Morgul blade, retrieved by Radagast at Dol Guldur. The same blade, presumably, that the Witch-King will eventually stab Frodo with in FotR. The blade was supposed to be buried with them and so it is suggested that Sauron/The Necromancer has brought the nine back from the dead. It also seems that this blade is famous enough, and more importantly the title of ‘Morgul’ is famous enough that Gandalf, Galadriel, Elrond and Saruman all immediately recognise it. Which leads me to…

The Morgul Shaft*

In the Desolation of Smaug, Kili (or Fili) is shot in the leg with an arrow by Bolg, big bad CGI Orc #2. This arrow is referred to as a ‘Morgul shaft’, clearly implying that it has the same poison as the Morgul blade from FotR. This irks me for the following reason:

It is called a ‘Morgul’ blade because the Ringwraith’s base of operations AFTER they are chased out of Angmar, is Minas Morgul (formerly a city of Gondor, called Minas Ithil). If in the films the Nazgul were entombed after the destruction of Angmar, then they couldn’t have taken over Minas Ithil, which means there’s no Minas Morgul which means no Morgul blade.

Maybe they conquered Minas Ithil before turning their attention northwards to Arnor and Angmar? Well, maybe, and this is probably how they would explain it when asked, but this also doesn’t make sense. It takes a good 600 years for the Nazgul to deal with Arnor, and before that they weren’t even active, presumably they were too weakened by Sauron’s defeat. Yet the White Council recognise the blade and the name ‘Morgul’, which means that Minas Morgul must have been their base for some time.

In addition, Gondor wasn’t as derelict back then compared to how it appears in the films. They had destroyed Sauron, they were in control. The Ringwraiths couldn’t have popped up, nabbed Minas Ithil AND wiped an entire kingdom off the map. Even if they somehow did capture the city and turn it into Minas Morgul, they wouldn’t have been able to hold it AND conquer Arnor.

Peasant Elf

It took four nights and three days for Lord Elrond, one of the most powerful elves in Middle-Earth at that point, and wielder of one of the three elven rings, to heal Frodo after he was stabbed by the Witch-King. Yet in this film Tauriel does it in minutes. She uses Athelas, which Aragorn only uses to slow the poison in FotR, not cure it. This can all of course be explained away but in the end it really showcases how tenuous a plot device this Morgul shaft is. It’s very transparent that they needed Kili (or Fili) to get wounded, but stay wounded long enough that he has to stay behind in Laketown, and long enough that his love interest can rock up and save him.

A Questionable Phantom

In An Unexpected Journey, when Radagast goes to investigate Dol Guldur, he is set upon by what looks like a Ringwraith that sort of comes out of a statue, which also takes the form of a Ringwraith. Dol Guldur was originally an Elven fortress so it makes no sense for there to be statues of Ringwraiths there, and Orcs don’t strike me as the type to build beautifully carved statues of their superiors. Also, for no discernible reason, the phantom that attacks Radagast looks like the Nazgul when seen by someone who is wearing the one ring (except CGI this time). In DoS, we see quite a lot of Dol Guldur and yet the Ringwraiths are nowhere to be seen, in any form. This is extra odd when you consider that Sauron has apparently become strong enough to bitch slap Gandalf and snap his staff in twain. If he has the strength to do that, why not summon the nine?

Looking Forward

The third film is undoubtedly leading to a big arrival of the Nazgul, an origin story if you will. I am sure it will be utter nonsense. It just seems so weird to show them in phantom form in AUJ, and yet only hint at them in DoS, with the sundered tombs. Their thread throughout these recent movies is a bizarre one, and is a monumental waste of potential, along with many other things in this latest film.

If you read this whole thing you’re strange, but thanks.

Nerd essay over.

 

*Incidentally, this would make a great title for a LotR porn parody.

 

Cloud Atlas – Old Georgie be yibberin bout the true-true.

CLOUD ATLAS

Thee directors, six different stories, one film. It sounds like a recipe for disaster and yet somehow the trio of Lana and Andy Wachowski and Tom Tykwer have managed to create something a little muddled, but ultimately enjoyable and undeniably thought-provoking.

Cloud Atlas is an incredibly ambitious project. I haven’t read the source material (a novel by David Mitchell), yet it’s clear after ten minutes that the directors have chosen one hell of a book to adapt for the screen. Here’s why: Cloud Atlas tells six different stories that span hundreds, potentially thousands of years. Each story is set in a different time period with its own characters and plot, yet has the same actors playing different (the same?) people across time and space. Each separate story is sliced, diced and spliced together to form something roughly 85% cohesive.

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When it’s all brought together, Cloud Atlas is a story about the perseverance of  love despite all the forces that may work against it. Love is a natural phenomenon and two entwined souls will continue to find each other again and again, across the vastness of time. To be honest, the fact that they managed to convey anything this meaningful with such chaotic juxtaposition is an impressive feat, and for this reason alone the editing should be commended. Of course it isn’t perfect, there are several times where the pacing feels off, for example I often wished we could stay with one particular story for just a bit longer before moving on to somewhere (somewhen?) else. This problem only worsens as the film progresses and the intensity and stakes are raised.

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There is some incredible imagery scattered throughout and some rather poignant character moments amidst the whirlwind of jumping back and forth through time. Performances are very entertaining given the diversity demanded by the script: Hugh Grant playing a post-apocalyptic savage, Tom Hanks playing an Irish thug (WARNING: cringe worthy accent), Halle Berry playing a white Jewess and Hugo Weaving playing a demonic, radiation-induced hallucination are all treats to behold. The actors can’t be faulted, they do a wonderful job. However there are some creative decisions that left me scratching my head.

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One of the caveats of utilising the same set of actors for multiple characters is that they need to be coated in fifty layers of prosthetics and fake hair. In the case of Cloud Atlas, sometimes they pull it off and sometimes they really don’t. When they fall short of the mark the results range from laughable to just plain absurd. For the most part I could see past it and just enjoy the movie, but there are some instances where it totally broke the immersion for me. The curtain of movie-magic was torn down and I bumped my nose violently against the page. Hugo Weaving playing what is essentially a Korean Agent Smith, the Korean actress Doona Bae playing a white woman in pre-civil war America, it’s inescapably bizarre and problematic from a critical point of view, because I believe that the movie wouldn’t work in any other way. Orwellian doublethink in action.

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It does make sense for a film that is all about breaking conventions to charge head first at such an ‘obstacle’ of cinema. A lot of people (and actors) would shy away from dressing white actors as Asian characters, black actors as white characters and Asian actors as white characters, but not these three. Like a gay interracial couple holding hands in a rural Australian pub despite all the menacing glares, they’ve taken the world head on and are proud of it. But is this enough reason to ignore the films obvious flaws? I suppose that’s something you’ll have to decide for yourself.

3.5 out of 5

CLOUD ATLAS

“Bridge’a’broken, hide below. Hands’a’bleedin’, can’t let go. Enemy sleepin’, don’t slit that throat” – Abbess.

An Unexpected Journey – Deus Ex Mithrandir.

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Peter Jackson returns to Middle-Earth, this time to tell the tale of a younger Bilbo and his unexpected journey to The Lonely Mountain. An ancient dragon, Smaug the Magnificent, has invaded the dwarven city of Erebor and ousted the king under the mountain. Thorin Oakenshield, the heir to this throne, has banded together a group of dwarves to reclaim their home and his birthright. All they need is a burglar, and the dwarves turn to Gandalf the Grey to help them find one.

Let me preface this by saying that The Lord of the Rings is kind of my thing. It is true I have many ‘things’, ranging from observing fire ants to putting up scaffolding, but if I were forced to pick just one ‘thing’ from amongst this rather impressive spectrum of ‘things’, it would be cheese-rolling. But lo, if you were to press the matter, or perhaps even refine the matter’s restrictions, I would undoubtedly pick The Lord of the Rings as my one and only ‘thing’.

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My point is that I was heavily invested in this movie from day one and, as it turns out, I was not disappointed. This in itself is remarkable, especially after a year of stupidly-hyped yet ultimately disappointing movies (Prometheus, The Dark Knight Rises), but when you consider how highly I regard LotR, my satisfaction with An Unexpected Journey is nothing short of a Christmas miracle.

I saw An Unexpected Journey in good old 2D and 24fps and loved every minute of it. Everything that brought middle-earth so vividly to life over ten years ago is in full-force once more. Peter Jackson and co have again done such an incredible job creating a living breathing Middle-Earth that it’s like the last ten years never happened. As soon as the music kicked in and “The Hobbit” appeared in the familiar ruined-stone lettering, all my fears and Phantom Menace Again! fever dreams evaporated: I was in good hands.

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Of course it never reaches the lofty heights of LotR and I never expected it to. Based on the source material alone it would be foolish to expect something as grand and character-driven as the original trilogy. Of the newly introduced characters, only Thorin (Richard Armitage) and Balin (Ken Stott) could be said to have any depth, the remaining dwarves struggle to break the surface. This is understandable considering their number, but anyone hoping for a large amount of round characters, such as in FotR, will be disappointed. Sir Ian McKellen, Andy Serkis, Hugo Weaving, Ian Holm, Elijah Wood, Cate Blanchett and the ever-withering Christopher Lee are all wonderful in their reprised roles. Martin Freeman, while definitely not treading any new ground, is perfect as the bumbling, tea-and-biscuits Bilbo and Armitage captures the inner turmoil of the dwarf prince Thorin beautifully.

THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY

The film is visually breathtaking, as expected. The sweeping on-location landscapes, the incredibly intricate sets, the costumes and makeup are all top notch. Something that was mildly disheartening however was a large increase in the use of CGI over the practical/prosthetic effects of the original trilogy. In particular, the CGI that makes up The Pale Orc Azog stood out like a sore thumb amongst all the more grounded, prosthetic-wearing orcs. For the most part it’s not an issue, although I fear this second trilogy will not date anywhere near as well as the first.

Tonally, An Unexpected Journey treads a fine line between the source material and the original films. In the end however I felt that the more child-like aspects of the book, the silly songs, creatures and general light-heartedness,  was melded successfully with the more adult nature of Jackson’s Middle-Earth. I was afraid the ‘Riddles in the Dark’ scene would fail to unnerve considering Serkis’ take on the character being somewhat comic, as well as familiar, but I underestimated him. The gleaming eyes and guttural splutters of Gollum are as chilling as ever, making Bilbo’s encounter with him no laughing matter (except when it is).

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

There wasn’t a single moment where I tuned out or became bored. Honestly. However, I can understand how people could’ve become frustrated. I’m talking specifically of the opening scene with old Bilbo and Frodo, the scenes involving the white council at Rivendell, and Radagast. I’m sure with another viewing my opinion might change, but I had no problems with any of this ‘padding’ as a million people seem to be calling it. Dismissing the opening scene as an enjoyable but unnecessary Jackson let me try and explain why the other two are important.

While Radagast won’t be winning any character of the year awards from me, he definitely isn’t LotR‘s answer to Jar Jar Binks, and for that I think we should all just be very, very thankful. The kooky wizard-hermit is little more than a plot vehicle in this first film, he exists only to deliver information to Gandalf, but he will undoubtedly have a larger part to play in the later films, particularly when the party enter his domain: the forest of Mirkwood. As for the gathering at Rivendell, for the most part I was in awe of those involved (both the characters and actors). The rather heavy exposition that took place in this scene was once again setting up some rather large divergences from the book in the next two films. I have no doubt that The Necromancer and his fortress of Dol Guldur will get a lot of screen time and their presence would be very confusing for audiences if scenes like the one at Rivendell did not take place. There is a lot of stuff that goes down in that area that, while not in the book version of The Hobbit, is covered in fair detail elsewhere and will more than likely be expanded upon in the films.

THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY

Speaking of The Necromancer, I was ecstatic with how he was handled. They didn’t show a flaming eye or his horse-skull armour, just a subtle but unsettling black outline down a warping hallway: perfection! On the other hand, and this is possibly my only problem with the film, the CGI ghost of the witch-king seemed very out of place. The prosthetics they used for the Weathertop scene in FotR are so iconic (for me at least) that when you see the exact same thing rendered in CGI it was jarring.

Howard Shore’s score is great and yet not nearly as good as his previous work. He reuses themes from the original trilogy, which is fun for those familiar with them but ultimately it creates nothing noteworthy. The real standout is ‘The Song of the Lonely Mountain’ and its orchestral version, which are used to great effect. I feel we were spoiled somewhat however, as this song features prominently in the trailer and aside from the wonderful ‘Radagast the Brown’, it’s the only really impressive new piece of music.

I feel I’ve said far too much and at the same time not nearly enough. The film is long and there’s a lot to take in, especially for those of us familiar with the extended legendarium. Looking back this is more an ejaculation than a review, and for that I apologise. I suppose a score may seem arbitrary after this veritable torrent of praise, but that won’t stop me giving it one. An Unexpected Journey may not be your thing, but if it is your thing then you’re in for one hell of a ride.

5 out of 5

THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY

“That’ll do it” – The Goblin King.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower – No one can hear you scream.

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Written and directed by Stephen Chbosky, who also wrote the novel, The Perks of Being a Wallflower tells the age-old story of the shy kid who gets picked on at school, had a troubled upbringing and spends his spare time writing to an imaginary friend in his diary. Charlie’s (Logan Lerman) life turns around when he meets quirky seniors Sam (Emma Watson) and Patrick (Ezra Miller) who take him under their wing. While it begins on well-tread ground, Perks quickly becomes quite dark and gripping as we’re taken deeper into the lives of Charlie and his new friends.

You’re in for a teenage drama, but it’s a damn good one. Each character is angst-ridden and suffering, but it’s all justified, it’s all real. The struggles of each character are weighty, they have depth and are slowly realised, not simply thrown at you to raise the stakes. The plot twists punch you right in the gut, leaving you breathless as if a real friend had just shared a real secret with you.

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The performances are great across the board and Watson gets bonus points simply because my brain wasn’t screaming ‘HERMIONE’ every time she was on screen. The undeniable stand out however was Lerman as the central outcast, Charlie. He’s fantastic here and a joy to watch, bringing a freshness to a cliched character. He captures brilliantly the different facets of teenagery: the timid wallflower at the school dance, the intense romantic, the nervous wreck. Miller is the source of a lot of genuine laughs as the bombastic Patrick, yet he never slips into the ‘comic-relief’ category. His story is just as sad and important as the other’s.

There were one or two lines that failed to be as profound as they were so obviously intended to be. Sam’s “welcome to the island of misfit toys” comes to mind. This could just be something that was lost in translation between novel and film, perhaps if I read rather than heard that line it wouldn’t make me feel violently ill.

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For the entire duration of the film I failed to notice that it was set in the early 90′s, despite the many obvious pointers. I’m not sure if this is an indication of the timelessness of the story, or if it’s because so many defining things about the 80′s and 90′s are still being used (ironically or nostalgically) today. I remain confused however, and I acknowledge that this is a petty and inconsequential comment, when it came to the elusiveness of the ‘tunnel song’. How could a bunch of teenagers who grew up in the 80′s not know David Bowie?

Visually the film had what I will call a ‘nostalgia-filter’ effect, a very grainy, not at all crisp overlay that made me think, not of any specific decade or of Instagram: The Movie but instead of a collective recollection of teenage life, locked away deep down in the cellar of our adult brains. Perks deals with the universal. The awkwardness, the excitement, the despair, the heartbreak, all the twists and turns that you never thought would happen to you. Every teenager lives a vastly different life to the next, and Perks is a film that does not wallow in, but rather celebrates these differences and the diversity of young human experience.

4 out of 5

THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER

“We accept the love we think we deserve” – Chris.

The Master – There will not be blood.

What’s it called?

The Master.

What’s it called?

The Master.

Are you lying?

No.

What’s it called?

The Master.

Is it any good?

*blink*

You blinked! Back to the beginning.

Paul Thomas Anderson directs Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams in a film about the allure of the cult, and the subjection of self to a master. The second World War has ended and Freddie Quell (Phoenix), a troubled navy veteran, struggles to adapt to normal life. He drifts from place to place and from job to job, being fired for assaulting customers or for giving them strange alcoholic and borderline lethal concoctions that he brews himself. Eventually Freddie finds his way onto a boat that belongs to Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman) and The Cause.

The Master is a difficult and frustrating film. I thoroughly enjoyed the first twenty minutes or so, right from the start you know you’re in for a treat with Phoenix’ performance. He’s incredible here, reminding me in no small way of Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will be Blood and also of Ted Levine as Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs. Dodd becomes fascinated with Freddie and begins using him as a human guinea pig for his ‘experiments’. I got the sense that Freddie finds some sort of belonging amongst The Cause and yet he is constantly doubting it and he gets frustrated with the tasks that are set for him. There is one scene where Dodd has Freddie walk from a wooden wall to a glass window, back and forth, back and forth, asking him to touch each surface and tell everyone what he feels. Freddie does so, and becomes agitated when he feels nothing but wood or glass. This is how I felt watching The Master. I felt as if I was being told to walk back and forth between wood and glass, trying to feel something that wasn’t there, and after two-and-a-half hours of this I was just dazed and confused.

As mentioned, the performances by Phoenix, Hoffman and Adams and the expectedly beautiful cinematography are all worth the price of admission. The Master is by and by a character film, and it’s here that the acting and script shine. Where they fall flat however is in the plot. Once Freddie joins The Cause nothing really happens. It’s disappointing, as the loyalty and faith that the members of The Cause have in Dodd and his teachings is very interesting to watch. My favourite scene involved an exchange between Dodd and a sceptic who tears into him and asks all the right questions. To be honest I was on the sceptics side, and herein lies one of the films flaws: I couldn’t sympathise with any of the characters. I get that it’s supposed to be an insight into cults, both the leaders and members, but what they believe was so foolish I just couldn’t get behind them. There was no redeeming quality to them, they were all so wacky or, in Freddie’s case, violent, that I just didn’t care.

The Master and There Will be Blood are both character films more than anything else, yet Daniel Plainview made for far more interesting viewing than Freddie Quell. There were human aspects to Plainview, something you could relate to in some way, however small, so that when he does go off the rails you feel something. Freddie is a violent lunatic for most of the film, and Dodd is a cult leader for most of the film and so there was no investment for me. The rivalry and conflict between the greediness of an oil man and the sanctity of the church in There Will be Blood is the reason why Plainview smacks Eli around, and why Eli forces Plainview to submit to a public confession. In contrast, Freddie beats up people who speak out against The Cause, yet there was no doubt in my mind that what these people were saying was fair, so when they get attacked I felt nothing but sympathy for them, and dislike for Freddie.

Everyone has a master. Even the master has a master in his wife, Peggy (Adams). I feel as if my master in this instance is Mr Anderson, who I’ve been following for some time now and have enjoyed the majority of his teachings, but this latest book is too inaccessible, too difficult and he changed – WHAT DO YOU WANT HELEN!?

Watching The Master is like watching a cackle of mummified hyenas maul to death and then eat a convicted child molester who sings loudly as he dies. At first you’re enthralled, you’re seeing something you’ve never seen before, it’s vibrant, colourful and a little bit surreal, but in the end you’re left in the dark as your questions about some of the more bizarre details remain answer-less  Where did the mummified hyenas come from? Why is this child molester out in the savannah instead of in jail, and why the hell is he singing about a slow boat to China?

3 out of 5

“You’re the bravest girl I’ve ever met. Now stick it back in, it fell out” – Freddie.

Looper – The Rainmaker cometh.

Looper was written and directed by Rian Johnson, whose previous films include Brick (2005), The Brothers Bloom (2008), and two episodes of the TV series Breaking Bad. Having only seen Brick, which wasn’t the most exciting or well-constructed film, I responded to Looper‘s widespread acclaim with apprehension at first. I now know that this praise is well-deserved. Looper is a great sci-fi movie and, more importantly, an original one, something that’s damn hard to come by in this post-Alien, post-Matrix world. Looper joins the likes of Sunshine, Moon and District 9, all films that have helped define modern sci-fi cinema.

The year is 2042. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Bruce Willis, that is, Bruce Willis plays the older version of Joe. Not Joe as in ‘Joseph Gordon-Levitt’ Joe, but the character of Joe in the… movie. Look. This is a film about time-travel, it’s going to get wobbly. As Old Joe says to his younger self “it doesn’t fucking matter!” So, with that in mind, lets start again.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Joe. Joe is a Looper, a special type of hitman. Loopers wait in designated areas, blunderbuss’ raised, for their bosses from the future to send their targets back in time. As soon as these targets appear, the Loopers shoot to kill, collect their payment and dispose of the body. !Disclaimer! if you’re the type of person who goes looking for plot holes in movies like this, then sit the hell down. “Why don’t the future people just zap whoever they want dead into a furnace? Weigh them down and zap them into the ocean?” These sort of questions are irrelevant because they can all be answered with “well then this movie wouldn’t exist at all because Loopers wouldn’t be needed, and if this movie doesn’t exist then your complaint would be the mutterings of an insane person. So we have a paradox on our hands, are you happy now?” I’ve been led to believe that paradoxes are pretty dangerous so for the love of god please stop asking these kind of questions.

Everything goes to hell when Joe is faced with the task of ‘closing his loop’. And no, that doesn’t mean he has to look into advanced diabetes technology, it means that his future bosses will at some point send back Joe’s older self, in order tie him up as a loose end. Young Joe gets a lot of money for killing himself, and has thirty years to spend it all before he himself gets sent back to be shot by his younger self, who then gets a lot of money and gets to spend it for thirty years until he himself gets… you get the idea.

Johnson’s vision of the future is presented subtly; it’s believable. The world is different but not that different. Their cars look like our cars except for the solar panels strapped lazily across the bonnets. Weapons seem to be exclusively called ‘blunderbusses’ and ‘gats’, a primitive shotgun and a big-ass revolver respectively. People use eye drops to ‘drop’ and get high. Telekinesis exists but it’s only good for cheap tricks like making coins levitate. Our introduction to this world is beautifully efficient. There’s no exhaustive exposition like Inception and no “this is the future! Look how wacky it is!”. It just is and so can afford to quickly move on without the audience being burdened with confusion. There’s a lot of iconic imagery to be found here, and I don’t think it will be long before I start seeing certain plot-important objects displayed on tshirts.

Looper has some amazing action sequences and some rather unique camera work to compliment them. The performances are good among the adults, but one little boy steals the show. I won’t talk about him too much for fear of ruining things, but wow was he impressive. There is the issue of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s make-up  that was used to make him look more like Bruce Willis. After watching the trailer I thought it looked so odd that I wouldn’t be able to ignore it, but it turns out I could. It’s bizarre, but not worth dwelling on.

As with most modern sci-fi, Looper is not without its flaws. For the most part the script is good, especially when it comes to explaining how this particular version of the future functions. Where it falters is in its character moments. During the films few relaxed conversations, where we’re given back story or character motivations, I ended up frustrated at how empty it felt. It simply failed to interest me, which was disappointing. There are also some pacing issues; the troublesome second act dragged a little too much for me to be able to ignore it. The tone changes quite abruptly from time-travelling fugitive on the run to a mix between The Exorcist and The Sixth Sense. In the end this shift pays off, but the transition is undeniably jarring. The ending is a mixed bag. It satisfied me in terms of plot, but the last minute or so was bewilderingly awkward. When the credits rolled there was an unspoken but collective ‘huh?’ that permeated the cinema I was in. I don’t think this was a response to the plot, but rather to the way it just kind of trails off, there’s no definitive final shot. I’m not suggesting that all sci-fi movies should end with an infinitely spinning top, but it really could’ve used something a little punchier.

It’s not perfect but Looper remains a fantastic, original time-travelling romp. The mechanics may strain under scrutiny, but as far as paradoxical plot holes go, it’s pretty solid. These days it’s rare for a movie to show you something you’ve never seen before and Looper manages to do just that.

 4 out of 5

“Shut your fucking child mouth.” – Old Joe 

Sleeping Dogs – Once upon a time in Hong Kong.

What was once True Crime: Hong Kong is now Sleeping Dogs. You play Chinese-American Wei Shen, who grew up among the gangsters of Hong Kong and is now an undercover operative for the HKPD. The main storyline consists of a series of missions that reflect the duality of Wei’s character. Half of the time you’re working for the triads: killing people, selling drugs, street racing etc, and the other half you spend doing police work: planting bugs, hacking security cameras, beating up thugs. Now, this ain’t L.A. Noire, when I say police work I don’t mean you get to sit down and whip out a notepad like good ol’ Cole Phelps. The triad missions are pretty much the same as the policing missions, and I think this is a missed opportunity. United Front really could have capitalised on the two-faced nature of the main character to create some really unique gameplay. Unfortunately, every aspect of gameplay you carry out as a policemanofficer you will at some point carry out as a criminal. You’re gonna hack a lot of security cameras and you’re gonna beat up, shoot, and chase a lot of people from both sides of the game.

Sleeping Dogs sports a rank system similar to that of the Saints Row series, but here it’s split into three. One for your criminal activities, one for your police work and one for your general reputation or ‘face rank’. Compared to the latter, which enables you to unlock useful things like faster regen and the ability to call for someone to bring you a car, the triad and police unlocks have a very minimal impact on how you play. In my playthrough I had maxed out my police and face rank waaaay before the end of the game, meaning that every police or side mission I completed after that point didn’t really get me anything but cash. The higher your face rank the better clothes and cars you can buy and it definitely feels good to save up enough for a ridiculously fast car and some stylish threads after spending the start of the game wearing trackpants and driving a car that handles like my great aunt Elsie. The side missions are basically what you’d expect: street racing, stealing specific cars, shaking down people for money etc. They’re simple and fun for a while, but quickly become repetitive. Then there are the favour missions which sometimes relate directly to the main story, once again they’re fun but nothing special.

I played the PC version and it looks pretty damn good, especially if you download the free high-res texture pack. I used mouse and keyboard (madness I know), but it actually wasn’t too bad. There are few annoyances, for example the button for sprint and for leaping over things s the same, which makes running near balconies quite terrifying. While you can change which key to use, whatever key you choose will still do both sprint and leap. I would recommend a gamepad, if you have one.

So why should you bother? It may sound generic and it’s certainly derivative, but where Sleeping Dogs shines is in its great characters, compelling script, better than average voice acting, and a truly outstanding atmosphere and sense of place. Hong Kong is wonderfully realised here. Shopkeepers screech at you to buy their food and their knock-off clothes, rows and rows of skinny skyscraping apartment blocks jut up into the smoggy sky and neon signs pulse at every turn. When it rains the pedestrians pull out umbrellas or huddle under a newspaper. “Wei Shen”, some of them whisper as you pass them, a sign that you’re gaining reputation within the Sun On Yee, one of several gangs that make up the Hong Kong triads.

Sleeping Dogs borrows heavily from GTA, Saints Row, Arkham Asylum and Assassin’s Creed, and while it never really reaches the same heights as any of these titles, it remains a fun open-world game with a very refreshing atmosphere and a certain uniqueness that is desperately lacking in this Rockstar-dominated genre. If you feel like a whole lot of old mixed with a fair amount of new, then Sleeping Dogs is worth a look.

3.5 out of 5