Zelda – A Link Between Worlds is 2013’s Game of the Year

Granted, I didn’t complete a whole lot of games in 2013, but I did manage to check out some of the most important ones. Like this one: Nintendo’s Zelda – A Link Between Worlds. For a handheld console no less! That’s right, I actually bought a 3DS just to play this game. I’m glad the game turned out as good as it did, because, going by the videos, that really wasn’t a sure thing. The videos made it seem more like a weird little remake of a Super Nintendo classic, but one that has fallen out of the proverbial ugly tree and hit a bunch of branches on the way down. That’s also why I went with some concept art instead of the usual screenshot, the media that’s been released for this game really doesn’t do it justice, it looks quite good in motion. A Link Between Worlds strikes a fine balance between 3D visuals that actually work and the style that echoes a lot of what defined the original game on Super Nintendo. The only thing I found lacking personality were some of the dungeons, but then, you’re not really going to worry about that once you’re playing it: it’s positively bleeding ‘Zelda’ everywhere else.

That’s readily apparent when you first hear some of this game’s music. A lot of it has been lifted from a Link to the Past (the original game), though it has been rearranged and iterated upon in quite a spectacular fashion. Pretty dicey if you ask me. When you start tinkering with tunes that are regarded as all time classics, you run a fairly serious risk of ruining them. They didn’t though, and it’s pretty much flawless as a soundtrack that simultaneously plays on nostalgia (which is when music is at its very best anyway) while offering plenty of new sensations as well. However, since games have always been about ‘doing stuff’, nostalgia doesn’t work as well with games as it does with music. Unlike that infinitely re-playable album you first discovered when you were thirteen years old, games often aren’t able to hold your attention quite as firmly the second time round a decade after you first play them, however good your memories of those games might be. And since I’m declaring A Link Between Worlds game of the year here, that must mean it’s something more than a simple remake.

I remember watching Vinny over at Giantbomb doing his ‘quicklook‘ of this latest Zelda game and thinking ‘this looks exactly like a Link to the Past, how is this a thing?’ How indeed. Well, A Link Between Worlds has a number of interesting spins on the formula, spins that you just would not expect from Zelda. Gathering items through dungeon completion for instance, a series mainstay since its very inception, has now been replaced with a rental system (run by some shady looking dude in a purple bunny suit). This allows the player to choose from pretty much all of the game’s items from very early on. This philosophy extends to other aspects of the game, like the dungeons themselves: the player can pick the order he or she wishes to complete them in. Fairly radical for a Zelda game and it’s one of the things chiefly responsible for the sense of freshness this game exudes. I also caught myself approaching puzzles the way I was taught by the original game, back when I was ten years old, which, for instance, led to me figuring out how to acquire the ‘Pegasus Boots’ only at the very end of my play-through. Shame, though indicative of a playful approach in terms of the game’s design. In addition, A Link Between Worlds‘ use of 3D is superb: a game I once considered to be very flat now has a very unique sense of depth as you peer into the abyss underneath one of the game’s later dungeons. Very cool stuff.

It’s also a genuine, old fashioned, gamer’s type of game. I loved the Last of Us as much as the next guy, but this was better.

LIFF 2013 Round Up #2: Blood Ties

Blood Ties Poster

Llewyn Davis included, I ended up seeing five films during our local ‘Leidse’ film festival (the week before) last week, and this one: Blood Ties by French director Guillaume Canet (that guy from Boyle’s the Beach), I had relatively high hopes for (mostly because I’m a big fan of the awesome 2006 Tell No One, also by Canet). Sadly, however, even Clive Owen couldn’t save this 70’s crime drama from mediocrity.

Blood Ties tells the story of a family that’s torn apart when two brothers find themselves on ‘either side of the law’, one a cop, the other a criminal. Seems awfully familiar, and it is: James Gray (screenwriter for this film) did pretty much the exact same thing in We Own The Night (the 2007 Joaquin Phoenix flick). I certainly don’t mind a little bit of repetition every now and then, but this didn’t seem to have any new ideas to justify its existence. It felt like a bog standard 70’s crime drama, except this one’s done in 2013, which means some wardrobe stylist person had to go to great pains to make everyone look suitably ridiculous. To tie it all together, Blood Ties even had the typical ‘calm before the storm’ criminal backyard family BBQ get together moment. Just awful.

There were a couple of cool scenes though. One shot with Clive Owen leaning against, what looks like a beautiful 1972 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme (the car in the poster there), was particularly well executed (though I’m a sucker for stylish transportation). Regrettably, Blood Ties also insisted on having the usual undercurrent that communicates, a little too clearly, that poor Owen isn’t going to be enjoying his ill gotten gains for long. Bummer. Marion Cotillard features in another memorable moment as she makes her way through a seedy 70’s bar. The ‘lustful’ look on Owen’s face as he watches her go is great. The mutual attraction here is further capitalized upon when Owen shows Cotillard his plans for a brothel she is to manage (later in the film). The way she flops down on one of the beds, shifts her clothing ever so slightly, and (successfully) proposes to ‘test the bed’ with just the tiniest of taps on the mattress, is pretty hot.

Blood Ties has a couple of these standout moments, but considering its 144 minute runtime, there just weren’t enough of them. Moreover, Blood Ties suffers from that unquantifiable weirdness that is probably a direct result from it being a foreign production pretending to be an American film. Seems to work rather well for videogames, but otherwise…. Which makes it all the more surprising that Canet managed to turn it around for the ending. You’d think that if you didn’t care for most of the duration of the film, you’re not going to give a damn about the ending either. But no! The final scene surprised me with a great little pay-off that involved another one of those great smirks by Owen. Love that guy. Hope he gets to do some more stuff in the coming years.

Inside Llewyn Davis

Inside Llewyn Davis

It’s November, which means Leiden gets to play host to its very own ‘International’ Film Festival (LIFF). The festival is relatively small, but they usually have a pretty cool selection, most likely a direct result of their professed interest in ‘the border between art-house and mainstream cinema’. Which is nice, since that particular ‘area’ offers a degree of focus and production value that’s rare for the cheap stuff, while retaining some of the depth that is often lost in bigger pictures. The Coen Brothers’ latest film Inside Llewyn Davis fits that description neatly and it’s also one of the headliners for this year’s event. It was my first pick for the week (I’m also seeing Blood Ties and Captain Philips tonight and tomorrow evening) and despite my ‘take it or leave it’ attitude towards (most) folk music, I had a great time with it.

Inside Llewyn Davis chronicles a week in the life of, you’ve guessed it, down on his luck musician Llewyn Davis. Davis is played by Oscar Isaac, whom I was already familiar with from Refn’s Drive (2011). In what probably isn’t a coincidence, that film also paired him with Carey Mulligan who plays Davis’ former lover Jean, though she’s just one of many characters Isaac comes across during (t)his week in 1961. Isaac is something of a vagrant (depicted nicely when he wakes up on the couch in a house that is obviously too nice for a man of his non-existent means) and, I guess, a couch surfer ‘avant la lettre’ – thanks, Koosje – if you want to put it less pejoratively. When he sets out to seek the next refuge from the freezing New York winter he is inadvertently joined by a red tabby named ‘Ulysses’. They don’t reveal that particular bit of information (the name) until much later in the film, but you can see where this is going (it also elicits a fitting reaction from Isaac). The implications of that are later echoed by a movie poster Isaac drifts past somewhere near the end of the film.

Now, what I appreciate most about this film is that it basically shows us a not-so-grand journey to absolutely nowhere. Contrary to the romantic image conjured up by the likes of Kerouac (or the film rather), this story conveys the more melancholic and surreal feeling one expects from the deserted streets and empty bars Isaac wanders through. There are some suggestions that Isaac’s situation is a result of poor decision making or the fact he’s a difficult person to live with. Mulligan, for instance, refers to Isaac as ‘King Midas’ idiot brother’, everything he touches turns to shit. Though the truth is much harder to accept: it’s just the arbitrary nature of a universe that is ultimately indifferent to his talent and ambition. That much is clear when Isaac’s final, and beautiful, performance is set against the appearance of the guy that did make it.

Pacific Rim is all right

Ron Perlman and Charlie Day in Pacific Rim

Ok, here’s the deal: I fully intend to keep doing these little write-ups on whatever I’ve watched or played, but since I started working last September it’s been difficult to find the time I need to come up with anything worthwhile. Still, it’s better to keep writing, maybe with some sacrifices in terms of length or quality, rather than letting it slide completely. With that in mind, let’s discuss the film I saw last week, Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim (2013).

Pacific Rim has been something of a passion project for del Toro (though what isn’t, I think del Toro doesn’t really bother with anything other than passion projects). You’ll probably know the director from the offbeat comic book adaptation Hellboy (2004) and its sequel The Golden Army (2008), which was even better. Apparently, he had a seven year fight with studios to get Ron Perlman cast in those two films. Guess he rather works on something he believes in. Too bad he’s still the only one with any faith in Lovecraft’s 82 year old novel At the Mountains of Madness. Though Tom Cruise was rumored to star in that film for a few scary moments. And, you know, while I do enjoy a bit of Tom Cruise every now and then, maybe it’s best for that particular project to remain in limbo a little while longer.

Anyway, Pacific Rim then, it’s not based on one of the beautiful Lovecraft novels, but it does have monsters from, I guess, both the beyond and the deep. However, quite unlike any of Lovecraft’s stories, Pacific Rim has giant robots and the great Idris Elba to ‘cancel’ the apocalypse those monsters wish to bring about. Which makes sense, this is a summer blockbuster and above all, those have to be fun. So while the circumstances in Pacific Rim are dire, they are never desperate. In true tentpole fashion, the film’s premise can be conveyed in a single sentence: giant robots fight giant monsters. The robots are called ‘jaegers’ (German for ‘hunter’) and the monsters are referred to as ‘kaiju’ (Japanese for ‘strange creature’). The robots are so huge and complicated they require two pilots, working in unison through something called ‘the drift’, to successfully control them. This ‘mind-melt’ or drift, and the piloting of a jaeger, is quite stressful apparently (a clear nod to Neon Genesis Evangelion). All the more when the pilot you’re connected to dies during combat, which is what happened to Raleigh (played by Charlie Hunnan) in the film’s first encounter with a kaiju. Traumatic stuff, certainly. Raleigh spends most of his time in Pacific Rim coming to terms with the loss of his brother and forging a connection with a new co-pilot, Mako (Rinko Kikuchi), the story line that forms Pacific Rim‘s emotional core. It’s not great by any means, but it’s just enough to make you care a little for the characters and their plight. Also making an appearance are Charlie Day and Burn Gorman as the mad scientists that provide most of Pacific Rim‘s strained and unnecessary comic relief. I was, however, very happy to enjoy a few precious moments with Ron Perlman as a colorful underground dealer in kaiju body parts. Let’s just say I’d be in the market for a pair of those shoes.

Odds are you’re probably going to want to see this for the kaiju-jaeger confrontations. While these skirmishes don’t provide much in the way of outright ‘fuck yes’ moments, the fights are entertaining nonetheless. Personally though, what I like most in films of this sort is the world-building, stage-setting, mood-enhancing stuff that can be found in the details. It’s sparse, but it’s there and coming from del Toro’s hand, it’s good and unique (Perlman’s shoes for example or the little scene with the blue goo in the picture above). On the whole, I’m trying to think how I feel about Pacific Rim when I compare it to other films that once competed in this ‘summer’ genre. Take Independence Day (1996) for example, everything about that film is utterly memorable. Like that moment where Jeff Goldblum, in a plaid shirt, stands on a New York rooftop in the shimmering summer heat with the sky darkened by that huge fucking saucer hovering overhead, that’s the kind of imagery that sticks. Now perhaps it’s because I love Jeff Goldblum or that I’m no longer thirteen years old, but I’m having serious trouble finding enjoyment like that in the films that have been released recently (in this category). For instance, I’m incapable of recalling anything particular about any of the three Iron Man films, even though I did enjoy them during the actual viewing. It’s odd. Is Pacific Rim any different? Perhaps it’s too early to tell, but it does have Ron Perlman and right now I feel like I wouldn’t mind seeing it again.