The Orphanage

The Orphanage.I’ve been interested to see The Orphanage ever since I saw it advertised with the Pan’s Labyrinth HD DVD as something presented by Guillermo del Toro. I’m quite wary of these endorsements, given that Tarantino’s name has given us such classics as Hostel, but I don’t think that del Toro has made a bad film yet, Pan was ridiculously good (to continue a theme from my last post, I own four copies of that film), and it’s looking like he’s going to direct The Hobbit. The man’s a legend, and the reviews of The Orphanage have justified his interest.

I had the opportunity to see The Orphanage ahead of my Blu-ray order arriving in a couple of weeks, and I was impressed. It’s not as terrifying as some critics (Mark Kermode, I’m looking at you) made out – I only had one good jump out of it – and it doesn’t even have a particularly unsettling atmosphere, a few scenes aside, but it still stands out as a bloody good film.

It’s not that often that you can say that about a horror film. Nowadays they tend to fall into the two categories of blood-drenched ‘torture porn’ (Hostel, Saw), or something from a director whose idea of horror is to jam on the piano keys every time another cat is inexplicably released from a cupboard. That or a remake of one of the seminal 70’s horror films. Both may be scary or entertaining in their own ways, but they’re usually used to prop up a crepe-paper story that really isn’t worth watching between the wanton bloodshed and cat jumping.

For one thing, it’s not like every post-Sixth Sense supernatural thriller, in that it’s not reliant on being turned on its head in the final few minutes to make it worthwhile and really doesn’t have all that much supernatural stuff going on. There are ghosts, sure, but no “they were dead all along” revelation. Just a story of past trauma that hits close to home (the following link is a spoiler) at this time and that I really should have seen coming in retrospect, and an explanation of how the events of the past 90 minutes have come to pass.

Cinemas that show non-English language films are like hen’s teeth around here – the nearest one to me that’s showing The Orphanage is 30 miles away – but if you have one (or the ability to import the BD or DVD), this one comes recommended.

The Byron Review

“Hardly a day goes by without a news report about children being brutalised and abused in the real world or its virtual counterpart. Some make links between what happens online or in a game, and what happens on the streets or at home.  

“These headlines have contributed to the climate of anxiety that surrounds new technology and created a fiercely polarised debate in which panic and fear often drown out evidence. The resultant clamour distracts from the real issue and leads to children being cast as victims rather than participants in these new, interactive technologies.

“It quickly became apparent that there was a big difference between what concerned parents understand and what their technologically savvy children know. […] Put bluntly, the world of video games has come a long way since the early days of Pac Man. And while change and innovation are undoubtedly exciting, they can also be challenging or just plain scary.”

Tanya ByronDo my eyes deceive me? Am I reading a report about games and the Internet that not only doesn’t immediately vilify the industry as corruptor of our youth or blame it for the collapse of Western society, but blames the media-led moral panics and goes on to say that risk-taking is an essential component of growing up? And this quote was taking from the first page!?

The Byron Review, summarised here or available in its entirety here, is shocking in that it is an independent look at how children can be protected from the dangers presented in games and online that doesn’t assume that gaming is a childish pursuit – as it says, games are no longer just Pac-Man – and doesn’t recommend clamping down on the industry and removing responsibility from where it should lie.

It recognises that children are raised by their parents, not games, and that if the opposite is true then it is the fault of the parents. The fact that the majority of parents couldn’t tell Facebook and Xbox Live apart doesn’t mean that we should descend into Luddism and ban the whole lot. We should look forward and recognise that today’s kids are tomorrow’s parents, and that letting them learn from their mistakes, as a kid who fell out of a tree one too many times would tell his kids that climbing trees can be dangerous, is how we’ve always done things and will mean that the next generation is ready to face a digital future.

As for the recommendation that all games carry BBFC ratings, I wouldn’t disagree. I think it’s been coming for a while, and it makes sense to use the same ratings for all entertainment. I actually like the clear iconography of the PEGI ratings, which are much better at describing the content than the BBFC ones, but it’s counterproductive to want parents to take an interest in what their children are playing but then make it difficult by using something other than the well-known film ratings. Most games with any objectionable content use both anyway.

Still, it hasn’t taken long for more exposés that – shock! – some games are violent from the usual sources, so some things never change. But at least we can’t complain that nobody’s given our digital entertainment a fair look. The difference here is that people are taking interest.

The Sarah Connor Chronicles is Rubbish

I’ve given it a chance, I really have, but I can’t keep living this lie.

The first two Terminator films are among my favourites ever and I don’t even find the third completely objectionable, but this new TV show is a blight on the series. A 9.1 user rating on Nothing but proof that people do, in fact, have no taste. They’ll come to their senses eventually, once the novelty has worn off; it’s like when the Star Wars prequels went straight into the IMDb chart, before everyone came to their senses.

It’s not for any frivolous reason, like that Lena Headey looks distractingly not at all like Linda Hamilton (although couldn’t they have dyed her hair?). Or that Summer Glau is just playing River again. Or that the T-888 hides a pistol inside its leg, creating another plot hole to try to fill – why didn’t Arnie bring back a phased-plasma rifle in the forty watt range for any of his appearances? I can just about live with the fact that there are suddenly tons of Terminators sent back and a similar number of resistance fighters. Anything beyond Terminator 2 isn’t canon in my book, anyway. Just make it entertaining.

But this isn’t, which is the problem. Think of those little internal monologues from Sarah Connor in Terminator 2, when she was sitting and watching the terminator and John talking as she waxed philosophical about the nature of human existence – it happened maybe three times in two-and-a-half hours of film. It happens to a similar extent in every single episode of The Sarah Connor Chronicles, and those are only about an hour. All she needs is black makeup and a MySpace account on which to write shitty poetry.

Now anyone who knows me knows how much I like Firefly – I own three copies of Serenity across two formats, and fully intend to buy the Blu-ray as well – but I just don’t like Summer Glau in this. Like I said before, she’s playing the same emotionally distant killing machine, struggling to relearn about human emotions. Expect her to either (metaphorically) descend into the smelter by the end of the series, since I don’t expect the writers to be creative enough to anything else with it. They couldn’t better the thumbs up from T2 as an emotional coda, anyway.

To be fair, I have enjoyed some moments. Despite making little real sense (a bath full of blood that attaches to him in a humanoid shape? Really?), Cromartie’s quest for some artificial flesh was reasonably effective, and given the television budget I liked his paintball mask and trench coat combo as a means to avoid showing CGI endoskeletons in every scene, in that it didn’t make me roll my eyes. Although I’ve come to love it as a plot device now, the same can’t be said for the humanoid Cylons in the new Battlestar Galactica.

But despite these flaws, I can say with absolute certainty that this will be better than the new series of Doctor Who, simply for not having any Catherine Tate. It’s undeniable.

I Don’t Get Smash Bros.

Continuing on from a previous theme, the Super Smash Bros series, though obscenely popular and capable of selling millions, is a series that I just can’t seem to get on the right wavelength to enjoy.

Though I’ve been known to, I’m not going to get on that high horse about how it’s not a proper fighting game and the world would be much better off if everyone would master the intricacies of Street Fighter III or Mark of the Wolves. It would, but the point is that Smash Bros is as much a party game and a Nintendo museum as it is a fighting game. It’s all very tongue-in-cheek; a snakes and ladders to Street Fighter’s chess. I’ll just leave that argument there since I’m sure you can find several theses’ worth of fanboys clashing over it.

Super Smash Bros Brawl

I have my copy of Brawl, just like I had Melee and the original game before it, and yet the huge appeal still eludes me. Subspace Emissary, the bizarrely titled adventure mode, is a painful slog that’s totally at odds with the classic mode and that had me bored senseless after an hour. I’m not opposed to a story mode in this – indeed, the FMV scenes and the ludicrous contrivances that bring Mario, Sonic, and Solid Snake together in one universe can be pretty brilliant – but the platforming just doesn’t do it for me. How about wrapping the story around the normal fighting engine?

Regardless, the basic fighting has a certain charm, and when played online (when that decides to work – Nintendo WFC makes PSN seem reliable) or in local multiplayer it’s a blast. The arenas also never fail to impress me, from the schizophrenic Wario Ware stage to the quite beautiful [insert ‘for a Wii game’ disclaimer here] Twilight Princess one, all with their own little idiosyncrasies and gimmicks. Coupled with the fact that the game’s basically one big fan-wank – hundreds of music tracks, even more obscure characters to unlock in the form of trophies and stickers – I can see the appeal, but to me the underlying game is just incredibly overrated.

Still, credit for Nintendo for really going all out with this game. The fact that it allows you to create maps and save screenshots (the above one is mine) and replays to be shared on SD card or – get this – traded online, shows that if they can move on from the friend code rubbish (mine’s 2621-2435-6589, incidentally), Nintendo might not be completely left behind when community features like those in Halo 3 and LittleBigPlanet become commonplace. God knows what they’re going to put in there for the next version. Every Nintendo character ever playable?

God of War: Chains of Olym…oh

As shallow as they are, I do rather enjoy the God of War games. It’s no Ninja Gaiden or Devil May Cry when it comes to depth of the combat system, and Kratos makes Marcus Fenix look like a Marlon Brando performance, but in terms of spectacle and art design it’s almost peerless. Last year I said how ridiculously good God of War II looked for a PS2 game, and now I’m pretty much about to say the same thing about the PSP prequel. I mean, just look at it…

God of War: Chains of Olympus

It’s so pretty that I’m just going to drop in another screenshot here…

God of War: Chains of Olympus

Epic temples with nice lighting are all well and good, of course, but what about enemies? Here you go…

God of War: Chains of Olympus

And it wouldn’t be God of War without the ludicrous sex scene that mysteriously never gets debated on Fox News. I’ll be kind to the working folks and leave that one as a text link.

Wowee. And those don’t even show the most epic areas, coming as they do from within the first hour of the game. In other words, the first 25% of the campaign. There lies the major problem with this game.

Chains of Olympus is really short – less than five hours the first time through – and while it’s all extremely high quality stuff and I’m already on my second playthrough (admittedly not entirely from choice, given that the save from the promo copy I was playing for the last week doesn’t carry over to my retail copy), it’s getting slightly annoying when big games all turning out to be slightly slim on the content front. Halo 3, Uncharted, Gears, Heavenly Sword, this…all recent high profile games which are lucky to hit eight hours, and yet still cost £50.

Still, I’ve always said that I’d prefer a short but great game to an artificially extended and average game, and I’m sticking by that. Chains of Olympus is a proper God of War game – spectacular graphics, a rollicking rollercoaster ride – and I still enjoy them despite the flaws. The games are a guilty pleasure, like watching Independence Day on Blu-ray when I have 2001: A Space Odyssey here, and five hours of great spectacle on a handheld is something to dip into, almost short enough to blast through in one sitting on a long plane or train journey.

What with it being a PSP game, I don’t expect this game to do particularly well, but if you’re one of those people who’s fallen off the PSP wagon and hasn’t bought a game in months, this one is well worth a look. With Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII due this month as well, it might even be worth charging up the thing again.