Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Spider-Man 2 Part Deux: The Adequate Spider-Man (Review)


As this is now the fifth Spider-Man film in just shy of twelve years, it should come as no surprise that the series (even with the supposed replenishment of a reboot two years ago) is starting to slip into the early stages of old age, set in its formulaic ways. "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" however shouldn't be accused of total adherence to formula - it dips and dives and explores enough new avenues and new ideas that it should definitely be considered a noble attempt, and some of the key performances are second-to-none - but ultimately there's not enough to set it apart from the increasingly crowded superhero arena. 

Chief among the highlights of the film is Spider-Man himself - in his sophomore appearance Andrew Garfield gives one of the very best superhero performances in some time. He's always warm, always charming and crucially always believable as a teenager (despite being a grown man in his thirties). The film portrays a dedication to the teenaged way of life (just as the Stan Lee/Steve Ditko comics did) - we aren't simply told Peter is a young man - everything about his character is rooted in youth and innovation. He solves crimes from his bedroom by analysing photographs and diagrams awkwardly taped to his bedroom wall. He fixes his webshooters by watching YouTube tutorials (on his Sony Vaio), he makes up and breaks up with his girlfriend and sulks in his room listening to music on his Sony Mp3 player (get yours today!), he even takes the time to sweat the small stuff - the best scene in the film sees Spider-Man stopping a crowd of bullies from destroying a little boy's non-Sony science project (maybe the bullies were executives?). Sally Fields' efforts as Aunt May shouldn't go unnoticed either, and while she remains a tertiary character, once again she adds immeasurably to the texture of the film, providing an amusing obstacle to what is also one of Peter's greatest strengths. 

It should come as no surprise at this point that Emma Stone is a delight as well, oozing charm and presence and never prostituting herself to the tired old damsel-in-distress clichés that plagued the previous triumvirate of Spidey outings like a viral infection. The film gives her a very nice story arc in her own right, that never feels tacked on or undeserving. What's so amusing about the on/off love story between Gwen and Peter is that Peter's failure to commit has as much to do with his teenage insecurities as it does his duties as Spider-Man. Stone's chemistry with Garfield is so sizzling, so palpable, so superhumanly strong that it could probably conjure up Walter White's crystal meth. It is quite honestly the most natural and credible display of romance since Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder in the old Superman films. A rare thing in a genre plagued by stunt-casting that doesn't always take actor chemistry into account. Many have chalked this unusual dynamite up to the real-life romance of Garfield and Stone and while that certainly owes something to the effectiveness of their scenes together, the direction of Marc Webb shouldn't go unmentioned - he is responsible for "(500) Days of Summer" after all (which still teeters tantalisingly close to being The Best Romantic Comedy Ever in my estimation) and I noticed more than a few similarities to that film during the smaller Peter/Gwen scenes. 

Before we get into the negatives, I would also like to add that I loved Paul Giamatti as the Rhino - it's the definitive portrayal and depiction of the character and I would do nothing to change the nature of the character's short-but-sweet appearances. Fans are already complaining that the marketing suggested a greater role for the character, but that's not a valid slight against the actual film in and of itself. In the Spider-Man comics I always read, Rhino was an overpowered annoyance rather than a dastardly villain and the film  perfectly captured that sense of "Ho-hum, it's Tuesday and Rhino's throwing cars around the place," rather than shoe-horning in more clichéd rubbish about a sickly sister who needed medication from OsCorp or what have you. It's actually refreshing that the series has reached the point where supervillain appearances are a normal part of Spider-Man's day-to-day life, and not some grand diversion from the usual routine. 

Thus far, you would be forgiven for thinking that I loved the film. And really, if the film had been a small, quiet exploration of a week in Spider-Man's day-to-day life, dealing with the trials and tribulations of being a teenager, juggling a part-time job and a girlfriend while also trying to win over the citizens of New York  (complete with slapstick Rhino battles), I would have been beaming from ear to ear. So many small moments throughout the film were delightful. Unfortunately, the film does what all superhero films now do - it pumps dastardly villains with sinister plots and devilish deeds in by the truckload and never really manages to coordinate them effectively. 

All of the clichés rear their ugly heads - secret rooms, hidden experiments, forgotten friendships, a disease that must be cured, unexplained costumes, mental illness played both for laughs and for ham-fisted horror, dialogue like "You're too late Spider-Man!!" "The tables have turned!!" and "I will take back what's rightfully mine!!" - even the old classic of writing out letters with newspaper headlines gets a bizarre inclusion. The film trudges through the same old setting-it-up-for-the-sequel rigamarole as the first film did, and while many of the story threads from the first film are tied up, We are Left with More Questions than Answers (TM). The spiralling plot of the film (and the franchise) again involves Peter trying to discover the mystery of his lost parents, with the seedy history of the Osborns bleeding into his investigation over the course of the film - again, as a Spider-Man fan I have no interest in Richard and Mary Parker, but even divorced from any preconceptions one may have about the world of the comics, the subplot is just too clichéd, like something out of a TV action series like 'Arrow' or 'Smallville'. A multi-million dollar movie series shouldn't be wasting its time with serialised rubbish we've all seen before.  

Jamie Foxx just isn't very good as Electro. The visuals are fine and there are some serviceable displays of computer-animation and sound design, but in a film populated by characters as meaty, modern and well-rounded as Peter, Gwen and even Aunt May - Max Dillon is cheesy and one-dimensional enough that he might as well be a Power Rangers villain (right down to the 'Silly Nerd' hairstyle, buck-tooth and glasses from 1988). At times, I half-expected Bulk and Skull to come along and throw a milkshake over his face. When he transforms into his electric alter-ego, his arc essentially ends and he is relegated to muscle-duty for the sake of the We Have to Kill Spider-Man plot. Foxx himself seems to be playing the part as he was hired to play it so it's hard to lay the blame with anyone other than Marc Webb. In some ways, it would even appear that the way Electro is depicted is Webb's way of thumbing his nose at the studio, as if to say "You want a big silly villain in your film? Here you go." It's worth mentioning as well, that pre-electrofied Max Dillon bears more than a passing similarity to Jim Carrey's pre-riddled Edward Nigma in "Batman Forever".

Even more irritating is Dane DeHaan as Harry Osborn/The Green Goblin. As someone who dearly loved 'Chronicle', I did still feel that some of the acting was a bit stiff and DeHaan was certainly included in that estimation. As Harry Osborn, he plays the tortured heir as well as could be expected, and his friendship with Peter is even believable in the few short scenes they spend together as reminiscing childhood friends (again, a smaller scene adding greater weight than any of the grander scenes of action and peril). Once, however, he is charged with plunging into the depths of evil and despair, an invisible moustache appears to protrude from his face and he proceeds to twirl it like a pantomime villain for the rest of the film. The Raimi trilogy and its cast of characters receives much retroactive derision since the inception of this newer, trendier series - but I always found James Franco effective and believable as a real person (I even thought he was one of the saving graces of the notoriously-maligned third film). DeHaan is a stupid, spoiled cartoon character. A poor man's Lex Luthor. 

Ultimately, the film is split right down the middle - I adored the smaller character-driven moments as much or more than I ever have while watching a Spider-Man film. In some rare cases there were scenes and moments that are among the very best of the entire genre. The film fell spectacularly from grace however when it was required to deliver the now-customary larger elements of action, plot, villainy and pizazz. I had more interest in Peter saving the little boy from the bullies than I had in Spider-Man saving the police car from Electro. I was more engaged in Peter and Gwen talking about Korean Food than I was in Harry Osborn trying to maintain his family legacy (by doing...something?). 

As is often the case with superhero movies nowadays, the film leaves you yearning for a smaller experience that doesn't need to pander to the masses or a make a kabillion jillion box office dollars - if it's ever possible to do a Spider-Man TV series (like one of those high-budget HBO or AMC affairs) Sony should try their hand at that. Otherwise, like many others, I'm clamouring for the focus and direction of Marvel Studios in a Spider-Man movie (this film could have benefited so much from being as small and character-driven as Captain America: The Winter Soldier). 

While "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" is still on the better side of 'only okay', it still stands that the webslinger needs to be rescued and brought back home to where he belongs, with the rest of The Avengers. Maintain the crucial resource of Garfield (and the rest of the cast, for that matter) and climb aboard the helicarrier. Nevertheless, the film is serviceable enough that family audiences and fanboys should enjoy their time at the cinema without too many strong feelings of resentment.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Blue Bomb Buzzes Metropolis (into rubble): My long overdue review of 'Man of Steel'

I wrote this as a Reddit comment ages ago and I imagine it's the best summation of my opinions on the film I'm likely to write:

Review: **

"Man of Steel Theatrical Trailer #3" is the greatest superhero trailer I have seen in twenty years. I have never been as feverishly excited for a film purely based on a trailer, maybe ever. From the opening bars of Hans Zimmer's soft piano and Russell Crowe's 'Goodbye my son', through Kevin Costner's "You ARE my son!" and into Cavill's pure charm, I could not wait to inject this film into my veins. 

I've been waiting for a movie version of 'Superman: Birthright', for years and this seemed like it. That story to me legitimised Superman for the new age, without undermining his beliefs, his stances, his methods. It was the perfect way to redo Superman's origin. 

When I went to see the movie in theatres, it wasn't quite what I was expecting, but I'd still say I had a good time. 

The large amounts of pseudoscience and space opera were a bit overwhelming at times when really I just wanted a character drama, but it was still really enjoyable. It was later on upon further reflection that I realised that it just wasn't the film for me. 

Defenders of the film CONSTANTLY claim that people didn't like the film because it wasn't like Donner's Superman - for me it was actually quite the opposite - once again Clark is adrift, unsure of himself and lonely until finally Jor-El basically tells him to become Superman, becoming a major character for the rest of the film and eradicating any chance of us seeing Clark really FORMULATE the idea of a 'super-hero' on his own, the way he did in 'Birthright', many other comics and 'Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman' (a very under-rated show, especially the first season).

Remember this is part of what made the Dark Knight films so interesting - Bruce didn't just get handed the keys to the Batcave, he had to CREATE the entire idea of what a Batman would be. I was HUGELY looking forward to a similar approach for Superman, but instead it's just "Here's your 40,000 year old suit son." The film just didn't develop enough of its characters well enough and it just drifted from place to place, from time to time. Frankly it was a mess.

The characterisation of Jonathan Kent was really troubling as well. A character who should really embody everything that's decent and good about America basically amounted to a coward who didn't want to help anyone and just wanted his family to stay safe at all costs. His death was just badly handled in every respect...even if you liked the way he was characterised, I'm having trouble trying to make excuses for how ridiculous that scene is. After ten seasons of Smallville with Clark using his powers in secret, you're telling me movie-Clark can't just whizz Jonathan to safety without anyone seeing him? It was dumb guys, I'm sorry. 

The level of attention given to members of the American military was a bit uncomfortable - especially when characters like Perry White were getting shorthanded. I know this has become a subject of derision for a lot of defenders of the film, but we really don't get to see Superman actually SAVE many people other than soldiers and Lois one time. 

And finally there's that awful turgid tone of the last half an hour. It's dank, dark and depressing, it almost fetishises disturbing images of 9/11 disaster and even if he does have to kill the bad guy, having Superman snap Zod's neck was grotesque and ugly and something I don't want to see in a story that's supposed to be about hope. No one can argue that Superman didn't do the right thing by killing Zod, but there's no artistic merit in it - he cries out about it for a second and then it's all smiles for the finale in the Daily Planet. 

Last thing - I'm a journalism graduate with a masters degree in multimedia and the idea that someone who has been drifting around America (we don't see him leave America like we do in other stories) working in bars and on fishing trawlers can just waltz into a job working for the greatest newspaper in the world (unless I'm mistaken that is still DP's rep in this film - Lois has a pulitzer for crying out loud!) is flat out offensive. Not only that, but unlike the meticulous attention to detail 'Birthright' gave to the plausibility of the glasses disguise, there's no explanation for it whatsoever here. You're just supposed to already know that Superman wears glasses and accept it. I thought this was (in Nolan's own words) "A film for people who've never seen a Superman film before?". 

This film could have and should have been an exploration of an honest man villified for his honest actions by an uncaring and cynical world and that honest man proving the legitimacy of his actions and showing people how to be better than they thought they could be. Superman IS an interesting character, especially when juxtaposed with the cynical frailties of modern society - all this film tried to be was a cool space opera with explosions and fights. All attempts at interesting character drama was surface-level, and I think this is why I initially enjoyed it. 

It's a really shallow movie and as a huge fan of The Dark Knight Trilogy (I am a STAUNCH defender of 'Rises'), I was massively disappointed.

Monday, March 31, 2014

'Captain America: The Winter Soldier' is a breath of fresh air for a genre that's getting stale [REVIEW]

REVIEW: ****

While the Marvel Studios movies have rarely been truly bad, I have felt that the post-Avengers films have been lacking a greater sense of ambition - both 'Iron Man 3' and 'Thor 2' seemed content to coast along with elaborate action scenes and generous doses of comedy gags. None of the 'Studios films ever aimed for the kind of intelligent, transcendant storytelling seen in 'The Dark Knight' or even the earlier X-Men films - they seemed content in providing breezy popcorn entertainment that doesn't require a lot of brainpower.This all changes in 'Captain America: The Winter Soldier'.

The sequel to the 2011 film, Cap 2 is almost unrecognisable when compared to the earlier film - gone is the WWII backdrop (as Cap has awoken in the modern day) and gone are the gimmicky laser-cannon Hydra henchmen, which made much of the previous film's third act feel like a videogame. What's left is an intelligent, elaborate political thriller that puts heavy emphasis on slower, more thoughtful scenes of characterisation and dialogue, with action scenes that while exciting, are more reserved, more realistic and less reliant on computer wizardry. Veteran 'Community' directors Anthony and Joe Russo have crafted a vibrant, thrilling new chapter in the Marvel Cinemaverse and it's no surprise that their talents have been called on for the third 'Cap' film.

Robert Redford joins the cast as Alexander Pierce, one of the senior members of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Nick Fury's boss. Redford is mainly present to provide 'real dramatic actor cred' to the film, as is always the case in superhero films now - but unlike other examples of this trope, Redford is given a really meaty, complex role and he always invests heavily in the scenes in which he appears; he never seems embarrassed by his presence in the film, which hasn't always been the case. The other obvious reason for his inclusion is that it recalls 1970s political thrillers like 'Three Days of the Condor' - in one scene, the Watergate Hotel is conspicuously placed in the background, again strengthening this atmosphere.

Samuel L. Jackson and Scarlett Johannson return as Nick Fury and Black Widow respectively; both have more to do in this film than they have in many of the other Marvel movies (even 'The Avengers') and the films leaves you yearning for Black Widow to get her own film. One thing I liked about Johannson's role this time around was that there was a lot less overt sexualisation of her than there was in Iron Man 2 or the Avengers. Anthony Mackie makes his much-anticipated debut as Captain America's bessie mate 'The Falcon' and every time he's on the screen, he's a joy to watch. I sincerely hope he makes many repeat appearances across all the films - he even deserves his own film. Sebastian Stan plays the Winter Soldier, a character whose appearances are surprisingly scant throughout a film where his name appears in the title - every appearance is effective, however and Stan's presence is always successful. I've seen the film twice now, and on both occasions, I heard an audible gasp from people in the audience when they learnt the truth of the Winter Soldier in the second act.

The best thing about the film however, is of course Chris Evans as Steve Rogers. So many people were against the casting of Evans to the character given that he'd already played the Human Torch and there was a wealth of more immediately interesting choices rumoured for the role (John Krasinski would have been a really exciting choice).  What's so surprising then is that Evans injects so much personality and humanity into a character that could easily be very dry. Captain America is part of the 'old guard' of smiling, dashing heroes that many people find difficult to relate to or telling interesting stories with. What 'Winter Soldier' does so well (much like many of the best Cap stories in the comics), is that it juxtaposes Cap's earnest, black & white way of looking at the world with the realities of modern cynicism and fragile politics, where there are far more shades of grey. Throughout the film, Cap is found wondering if S.H.I.E.L.D. represents the freedom he was fighting for in WWII, or if it's just another oppressive bully - Evans relishes the role, injecting a commanding presence, a childlike wonder of modern innovation and a reassuring confidence in his ability to do the right thing. You literally would follow this guy into war.

Like the first film, Captain America: The Winter Soldier proves how it's still possible to take an older, more traditional superhero and make them interesting by framing their adventure within a modern context. This is something that 'Man of Steel' sensationally failed to do, because it didn't try - unlike that film, Cap 2 is a film that truly believes in its lead character and his innocent idealism, rather than trying to dirty him up. It stands proud as one of the very best of the Marvel Studios movies and a promising look at how superhero movies may continue to grow and become more intelligent and less reliant on the repetitive tropes of the genre.

Monday, March 24, 2014

5 Tips for Having the Craic and Saving Money in Dublin City Centre

While it’s a fair city to live in, enjoying yourself in Dublin has become an increasingly pricey enterprise - for a fairly small European city, it is guilty of being a bit of a tourist trap, with many of it’s key attractions diddle-ee-eyeing it up for the sake of tourists (especially Americans) looking to part with 50 euro notes. Far too many stories are being heard of pints costing 6 and 7 euro, and far too bloody often the selection is the same supermarket slush you can get anywhere. Negotiating your way through the pricey labyrinth of The Big Smoke without injuring your wallet is difficult, but doable. Let's take a look at five easy ways to soften the blow.

5. Stay away from Copperface Jack’s

The international notoriety of Copperface Jack's and its Harcourt Street brethren is known to all, far and wide and it's unlikely to lose its seedy lure for rural, hormonal twentysomethings anytime soon. If you want a paint-by-numbers Night Out, with a standard crowd (there's always a crowd there), basic drinks and an increased chance of nocturnal romance (he said, an eyebrow raised), there's not much of an argument to be had against Coppers.

Except that it's sweaty, expensive and crap.
Something that will come as a surprise to no one is that Copperface Jack's is a meat market, full of shady characters looking to Make a Sale and Bail. Far as the eye can see, it's as jam-packed as a tin of spam, with people pressing each other up against walls, glowing with condensation and remorse, awkwardly licking each others faces because they're so drunk off Carlsberg, Budweiser and other boring beers. Just like the ambience, the music is meticulously 'Does what it says on the tin', with chart hits spat out by a soulless DJ, followed by a smattering of sure-fire 1990s Nostalgia Choons. Look, everyone will guiltily confess to having had at least one epic night there, but it's the McDonalds of Dublin nightclubs - it's as condensed, processed and unhealthy as you can get. Unlike McDonalds though, it's expensive - last time I checked it's a tenner in, and the pisswater they serve is the same boring supermarket tipple you can get anywhere.

Instead of immediately leaping into the queue for Jack’s, think further toward the Liffey. Doyle’s of College Green is a perfectly fine establishment that doesn’t charge a cover, and offers a very similar experience to Coppers - minus the exorbitant drink prices for shit beer, and the sinister meaty ambience. Downstairs is a friendly, welcoming pub (although I did overhear a man there say that he thought ‘The Big Bang Theory’ was the best American sitcom he’d ever seen) while upstairs is a fun, vibrant night-club with the same “Play the hits” mentality that works for Coppers - but it’s less depressing because of the drinks promos, and the ability to sit down. For the best compromise between affordability, and ease of location (especially if you’re relying on public transport), Doyle’s is the happiest medium.

Style and affordability meet in The Workman’s Club and its accompanying pub, The Bison Bar however. It’s just a really cool place, with a reliably eccentric crowd and drinks promos that range from the sublime to the amazing. Where you’re stuck paying €5.50 for a Budweiser in Coppers, in Workman’s it’s a fiver for a Whiskey Sour. Even less still, is the ‘Gail Platt’, named after the eternally annoying Coronation Street character. On Sunday night’s Karaoke Night (where patrons were recently taken by storm by soulful reimaginings of Common People and Danger Zone) I managed to enjoy the company of Ms. Platt four times, for less than €20. The Rovers can’t compete - I say can’t compete with that, Ashley.

4. Cinemas: Choose Irish

Cineworld on Parnell Street (The Artist Formerly Known as The UGC) has some fine facilities, fairly friendly staff, is well-laid out and because of its exclusive IMAX screen is largely unavoidable when a big Summer blockbuster comes out. Unfortunately, it’s ferociously expensive, with tickets on the wrong side of €11, and for reasons that remain a mystery to me, it is basically the Hellmouth of cinemas; a hive of scum, villainy, and people who have loud, ignorant conversations throughout a film while waving their iPhone around like a floodlight, as though it were somehow the key to their release from this dark prison. I have actually been known to stand up and tell people to be quiet during films there. I can’t explain why, but it attracts utter dickheads and I always try to avoid the place for the sake of my sanity.

The Savoy on O’Connell Street is a classier gem, too often forgotten by modern Dubliners. While it has fewer screens (many of them smaller than its Parnell St. rival) and thus less choice of cinema times, it boasts undeniably better ambience (I love the way the staff still wear bow ties and some of the ushers look like they’ve worked there for decades) and is crucially a lot cheaper than Cineworld. It’s just a nicer place to be and I have fond memories of my recent trips there.

For less mainstream cinema, The IFI is the secret weapon of the city, with regular and affordable screenings of independent films, documentaries and classics (my girlfriend and I saw Casablanca on Valentine’s Day there two years ago and it was delightful). A similar venue is The Screen, a quiet little resource around the corner from d’Olier Street. Like the IFI, bigger Hollywood films generally aren’t shown there, but it’s a good place to see subversive character dramas, and usually the big Oscar nominees will be shown there. It also warrants a mention for its showings of all of the Batman movies in the Summer of 2012.

3. Antidotes for the Starbucks Infection

Like most European cities, Dublin is suffering from an outbreak of Starbucks coffee houses that have poisoned the city overnight, with new ones sprouting up like warts on every side of the Liffey, as Irish-owned businesses are ritually sacrificed to the American behemoth. Everybody in the world knows that Starbucks is overpriced, pretentious and rubbish - their coffee is so drab and tasteless that unless you order an expensive, syrupy, foamy cup of swill, you’re not going to enjoy your drink at all. The vacuum-packed food is so expensive that the fact that it looks stale and repulsive isn't even the reason you avoid it. The Wifi has rarely worked very well in any of the many outlets I've visited and while the staff are undoubtedly friendly, it’s that creepy, overenthusiastic, manufactured Stepford Wife-brand of friendliness that is more off-putting and repellant than it is welcoming. These places are magnets for ageing hipsters, loud and annoying tourists and complete assholes.

There are plenty of beautiful, gourmet coffee houses around Dublin, but the problem is that Starbucks isn’t trying to cater to these people. It understandably provides a service to people in a hurry, on-the-go, in a rush, etc. For a more affordable facsimile, with more down-to-Earth staff, dramatically more affordable coffee and reasonable food options, I've really fallen in love with Centra Foodhall on Abbey Street.

Don’t let its newsagenty title fool you - while it is fundamentally a shop, it works well as a café as well, with a cosy seating area and plenty of hot food options as well as self-service coffee machines, negating the need to deal with an Americanised automaton awkwardly asking what your name is so they can scrawl a hasty misspelling of it onto a paper cup. Get a loyalty card and you’ll quickly find yourself with a free cup of coffee, even though you’ve barely spent a tenner there over a two-week period.

If you’re not in a hurry, another cheap option is, strangely enough, The Decent Cigar Emporium on Grafton Street, which also offers coffee at insanely competitive prices (last time I went there it was 1.90 for an Americano). Also, it goes without saying that if your a motorist, Topaz is a caffeine-godsend.

2. Dealz is the greatest thing ever

Pound shops (a term so well-known that it has retained its iconic power long after the introduction of the euro) have always been an essential secret weapon to getting by in any major Irish town. Dublin is awash with these wonders, many of them loaded with budget-friendly eccentricities that presumably found their way over here in some kind of bulk trawler.

Dealz goes above and beyond, not just providing the bare essentials, but the nitty-gritty requirements that you find yourself needing, but not wanting to spend money on. Little things like white-boards (or chalk-boards) for the kitchen, thermoses, various bodycare products (don’t buy underarm deodorant anywhere else) and fiddly little entertainment requirements (HDMi cables, coaxial audio cables, USB chargers, blank CDs, DVDs and VHS tapes!) are all available there for pennies (149 to be exact). Also, if you’re stocking up for a movie marathon and you need some junk food, don’t bother throwing money down the toilet in Tesco - Dealz have got you sorted on that front as well, with lots of interesting confectionary that’s pricey or difficult to find elsewhere as well as the usual stuff for as little as half the price you’d pay in the supermarket.

An honourable mention must go to Tiger as well - they’re not quite a pound shop, as many of their products cost as much as €5, but they’re well-deserving of a mosey as they have a wealth of weird little oddities you didn’t know you needed (everything from herbs and spices to wind-up robots and fake moustaches).

1. Temple Bar by day, not by night.

This is common knowledge for anyone who has spent more than ten minutes in Dublin, but for those on the tear, the Temple Bar area is a ridiculous, stereotype-promoting, cliché-ridden tourist trap with legendarily expensive pubs. Don’t get me wrong, there are some truly wonderful, completely-free cultural events and unmissably quirky shops and stalls there that make it an essential spot to be during the day, but when night falls, the place rapidly deteriorates into an almighty dive.

If you want to actually experience Irish culture and not the tawdry ‘Darby O’Gill and the Little People’ version of it, go to Club Chonradh na Gaeilge on Harcourt Street - a bastion of truth, drinking and an tslí Gaelach. Conceptually it’s an Irish-speaking pub and at any given time, at least 80% of its patrons will usually be speaking the language - but don’t let this put you off. It’s got one of the friendliest atmospheres in Dublin and the barmen are only too happy to teach you the cúpla focal so that you can order a pionta leánn dubh. If you really want to go full-Irish, there’s traditional Irish music there quite often and even a bit of the auld damhsa. Worth mentioning that their pints are reasonably-priced as well and you’ll get a great Guinness there.

By now you’ll have realised that I hate shelling out money on crap, supermarket beer like Budweiser or Carlsberg. If you’re in town having a pint, you can enjoy far better and at cheaper cost. Places like the Portherhouse Central on Nassau Street, the Bull and Castle in Christchurch and my favourite J.W. Sweetman’s (The Artist Formerly known as Messrs Maguire) are awash with freshly brewed craft beers, on tap and often for less than a fiver (while the tasteless Budweisers are often at least a euro or two more expensive). I recommend Porterhouse’s Red Ale and Kölsch Pale Ale is a great choice if you’re in J.W. Sweetman’s (or Cologne - where it’s from, for that matter). 

Unfortunately, our national tastes are drab and uninspired even in the best environments - despite certain pubs having an abundance of these tasty treat-beers, people always favour the drab foamy rubbish they know, but you can be the change you expect in other drinkers. Hopefully I've highlighted a few money-saving spots. Even if you don't actually save any money per se, you may at least find that you've enjoyed spending it that bit more. Vive le Capitalisme!

Friday, March 21, 2014

Prequel Paralysis: Why I can't get excited for FOX's 'Gotham'

'Variety' have just released the first official image for 'Gotham', the new prequel series, set in the early days of James Gordon's career with the Gotham City Police Department. While the showrunners have promised that the origins of some of The Dark Knight's villains will be explored, given the timeline of the series, Batman himself won't be appearing - Bruce Wayne will be just 13-years old at the start of the series, having just witnessed the murder of his parents. By the close of the story, Bruce will have donned the cape and cowl. 

Like many fans, I've been clamouring for years for a police procedural set in Gotham City, where Batman isn't a main character and only occasionally appears in the background of the series, instead putting the focus squarely on the normal men and women of the GCPD who have to deal with the hardships of regular law enforcement in a city occupied by freaks. This was the premise for 'Gotham Central', a series of comics that ran throughout the 00s to critical acclaim, developing characters like Crispus Allen and Renée Montoya.

My biggest problem with 'Gotham' is that there's no reason why it couldn't have just been 'Gotham Central'. You could still have Jim Gordon and all the supporting cops, and Batman could be a periphery character whose presence is felt rather than seen. Instead the producers are going down the Smallville route, and in doing so, are already setting themselves up for the same kind of story difficulties that series regularly ran into. Prequels by their very nature are a flawed enterprise - they're always built around the premise that we know what's going to happen and therefore have built-in expectations about how those events should come to pass. Prequel stories use this expectation to tease the viewers with tantalising promises that we're nearing ever close to some kind of rebirth of the status quo - but viewers forget that once the status quo arrives, the story has to end. Certainly this is true of "Smallville", but it's also kind of the case with the Star Wars prequels, and similarly with J.J. Abrams "Star Trek" films, which promised a grand new destination for the Original crew, only to have them jump through the same "Not quite there yet" hoops in two consecutive films. It feels like the only reason it's being placed in the past is so that it conveniently doesn't have to tie in with Zach Snyder's upcoming 'Batman vs Superman' film or subsequent films. 

The other problem is the promise of villainy - the tradition of the Batman formula has always been that Gotham was always a city under siege by crime and corruption and then Batman came along and then everything changed, including crime itself, which transformed into something capable battling Batman. That's what makes 'The Dark Knight' such a perfect Batman film; we've already seen Batman bring down  more ordinary types of criminals to the point where at the start of the film, a pair of gangbangers don't even want to go out at night because they're afraid of running into him. But then the Joker comes along as a symbol of crime fighting back. It's perfect and beautiful and part of why Batman and the Joker are such brilliant characters. 

The problem is though that if you have Jim Gordon battling Two-Face and the Riddler and all these costumed crazies long before Batman actually shows up, the whole formula has been diluted to something a lot more bland and less complex. 'Gotham' is in a tricky situation of being damned if it does and damned if it doesn't: they could do an ordinary cop show with the GCPD going up against normal mobsters but that wouldn't be visually exciting or all that different from the nine kajillion police procedurals already on the air. So naturally they'll pile in the supervillains and if 'Smallville' is anything to go by, Bruce Wayne will probably find himself acquainted with most of his enemies before he ever even puts on a Batsuit. 


One thing I will say about 'Gotham' is that so far, the casting choices have been quite good. I've liked Ben McKenzie since his days on 'The O.C.' where he always pulled off a quiet intensity in a show that was dominated by a lot of motormouth characters. Similarly, Donal Logue is a solid choice for Harvey Bullock, a character who has been annoyingly absent from all of the Batman films (even though there have been numerous characters who fit the mold). I'm not crazy about some of the other choices - they all seem a bit too pretty for the parts they're playing, but anything is possible. 

Ultimately, I'm not writing the show, I don't know how it's going to turn out and I certainly think there's every reason why it could be an entertaining crime drama in its own right. After all, it's not really fair to compare this to 'Smallville', a show that ran on a completely different network, presumably aimed at a different target demographic. But right now I question the validity of their use of the source material - it all feels a bit forced. 

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The 5 Most Ridiculous Vampire Weaknesses

Vampires continue to be a go-to classic for fiction, with a wealth of films and novels that mine the collective folklore to create everything from easily-expendable villainous henchmen to all-powerful agents of Satan, from brooding anti-heroes to shining champions of good.

One thing that always remains the same about vampires is that they usually can’t be killed by the kind of conventional machine-gun, sword-slinging violence that has seen so many action movie villains bite the dust over the years. Vamps typically have more creative achilles heels, possibly one of the reasons people are so fascinated by them. We all know the classics - the stake through the heart, burned to death by sunlight, soaked in holy water, etc. Some of these actually exist in the real-life folklore surrounding vampires, others are just a result of excited storytellers (or cynical movie producers) just trying to dream up a creative deathtrap.

Unfortunately, centuries of folklore and popular culture has lead to the point where if ever there existed a vampire with every ridiculous weakness documented over the years - they’d pretty much be allergic to everything and would die instantly.

Here's a list of the the five most pathetic ways vampires have been warded off or killed over the years.

5. Running water

Typically, Holy Water has worked as a kind of Vamp-acid, capable of burning their flesh or sometimes even killing them. Unfortunately, actual vampire lore extends that to normal, non-sanctified H2O, as long as it's in motion. Some lore states that they can pass freely through the slack end of a stream, but at high tide, they're screwed.

The best example of this is in 'Dracula: Prince of Darkness', where the man in black is taken out at the end of the film when he falls into a river and drowns. You could at least make the argument that falling into a stream is a fairly strange, easily avoidable thing to happen to a person and that trying to trick Dracula into doing it would involve enough creativity that it wouldn't be easy to just push him in. The problem is that they go even farther with it in 'Dracula 1972 A.D.' (a film as ridiculous and amazing as it sounds), where Van Helsing manages to subdue a vampire by turning on the shower and pointing it at his face. Seriously, that happened in a film.

4. Fire

The concept of vampires not being able to move around in direct sunlight has been heavily employed through many different films and stories, with the consequence often being that they'll burst into flames if they do (interestingly this was not the case in Bram Stoker's original 'Dracula' novel, where moving around during the day was no problem). Many would argue that this is an interesting, creative addition to the lore and has been employed well in various films and television series (Buffy gets a lot of mileage out of it).
Many series though, (Buffy especially) go beyond merely having sunlight be the debilitating force and extend it to normal, everyday flame as well - essentially meaning you can kill a vampire with a shot of tequila, as long as it's on fire. Perhaps many won't agree with this, but the fact that vampires are bothered by such an ordinary, human weakness has always irritated me. In many stories, vampires are supposed to be spectral beings anyway (sometimes this is given as the reason they don't cast a reflection). It just feels a bit easy and it's boring - we see people get burned in films all the time.

3. Garlic

Nobody is less of a fan of garlic than I am, but it's ludicrous that a vicious, immortal creature of the night could be subdued by a particularly pungent pasta sauce. Surely if someone ate enough cloves of garlic, their bad breath alone would be enough to cause a vampire to lose their appetite?  Vampires basically wouldn't be able to kill anyone who'd just been to an Italian restaurant.

2. Crossroads 

Ancient lore says that if vampires come to a crossroads, they will become confused and won't be able to decide which way they need to go. This makes vampires about as threatening as foreign tourists. If this was still an issue for modern vampires, surely it would be alleviated by Google Maps?

1. Arithmomania

Now we're really into the weird stuff. Some folklore suggests that if you drop a large collection of beans or coins or oats or any smattering of small objects in front of a vampire, they will be compelled to count them all, thus giving you an opportunity to skedaddle. Mercifully, the only vampire who's ever shown this disorder has been The Count on Sesame Street, but the TV show 'Supernatural' did use it as a way of defeating a leprechaun in one episode.

This weakness would basically make it impossible for vampires to be able to kill anyone in the 21st Century - you could incapicitate a bloodthirsty menace by emptying a packet of peanuts on the ground.  

Friday, March 14, 2014

5 Things We Want to See in 'Batman: Arkham Knight'

Rocksteady Games have released their announcement trailer for their upcoming Batman game ‘Batman: Arkham Knight’ and as is often the case with high profile game trailers, it is a thing of divine beauty. The script saunters into cheesy territories on occasion (Thomas Wayne’s will has a lot of personal life advice for his son given that it’s probably going to be read out by a lawyer in front of dozens of people), but as is often the case with the Arkham games, style wins out over substance, with the allure of a beautiful new batsuit, environments more urban and crowded than ever and the triumphant arrival of a drivable Batmobile, at long, long last.

While this is technically the fourth game in the Arkham series, it’s only the third to be made by Rocksteady as they had nothing to do with its immediate predecessor 'Arkham Origins'.

To say 'Arkham Origins' was a bad game is doing it a grand injustice. To be fair, if that exact game had come around in 2009, I would have danced a merry dance around my living room as I soared through the streets of Gotham fighting thugs and GCPD officers. Unfortunately, it’s not the first in the series, it’s not revolutionary in any great sense, a lot of the immersive quality of the first two feels rushed and uninspired and the few new ideas that are brought to the table are far-fetched and a bit silly. For example, the “Shock Gloves” that you unlock towards the end of the game make the combat entirely too easy, removing all of the complexity from it and essentially giving you unstoppable super-punches.

For most of its story mode however, ‘Arkham Origins’ was generally fun, engaging and worth the purchase. It was only when I delved into the side-missions and extra content (usually a highlight and the extra-mile that ensured the perfect scores of the previous games) that my heart was truly broken. Entire side-missions just didn’t work (they didn’t activate when you reached the required area), the classic ‘Riddler Trophies’ weren’t always recorded when you found them, many of the achievements could only be unlocked through the story mode (which made the hallowed 100% virtually impossible unless you were the most dedicated gamer in the world). Add to this, the game was regularly prone to freezing, which led to lost progress and the tendency to just get so frustrated that you’d give up. I’ve since been on the support forums for the game, only to find them flooded with identical complaints, with no sign of support from WB Montreal, the controversial makers of the game.

Suffice to say, I’m glad to see the return of Rocksteady Studios and hopefully their involvement will ensure a return to form for the series. After all, Batman: Arkham City is arguably my favourite game ever made. So in the spirit of anticipation, I’m going to list the five things I most want to see from the new game.

1) Batmobile Race Challenge Maps

The big selling point of ‘Arkham Knight’ seems to be its inclusion of a drivable Batmobile, the most conspicuously absent element of Batman’s world in the previous games (after all, almost every other Batman game I’ve ever played have at least included some kind of mission where you get to drive the Batmobile).

The design of the Batmobile in this new game is as intriguing as it is spectacular - it seems to have borrowed design aesthetics from the tank-like Tumbler of the Christopher Nolan movies, with some of the sleek roadster sensibilities of the old 1989 Tim Burton version (the windscreen of the cockpit is quite similar to the curved one of those films), as well as some Tron-like futuristic elements that recall the current ‘mobile in the Scott Snyder/Greg Capullo comics.

Given its obvious similarities to the Tumbler, it might be safe to assume that some of the features we saw in the films might be available to Batman in this game, such as its ability to perform turbo-boost ‘jumps’ and remotely intimidate enemies with various weapons. What I’d most like to see are Challenge Maps that allow you to use the Batmobile in races, or even combat situations. As great as the story mode is in an Arkham game, the replayability of the Challenge Maps allows the player to really sink their teeth into the vast array of features that you don’t always discover during your first foray through the game. The Combat Challenges of the previous two games are a treat and even if you’re not in the mood to play through the story again, you can always jump into the ring and take on some thugs, to make you feel like The Dark Knight.

I’d be very surprised and disappointed if the Batmobile didn’t get its own Challenge missions in some way, given how likely it is to play an integral part of the gameplay.

2) DLC Sidekicks that are playable in the free-roaming city

The Arkham games have always offered a wealth of terrific extra content and while some view premium additional Downloadable Content as being an unfair and unjust way of witholding content in a game you’ve already paid for, it’s hard to deny that in almost every case with the past Arkham games, you’ve gotten your money’s worth. The inclusion of extra DLC characters in ‘Arkham City’ was a welcome one. While Catwoman actually played a part in the gameplay, Robin was reduced to a cameo and was only playable in the challenge maps. Nightwing didn’t even get a cameo.

Sidekicks are always a touchy subject in the Batman universe - fans of the comics usually recognise that they’re a necessary part of the lore that help give Batman a family structure that prevents him from going over the edge. Fans of the films and cartoons (which are more limited than comics in how big a story they can tell) often feel that sidekicks just get in the way of Batman’s mystique, unfairly removing focus from the most interesting character. I feel like Arkham City side-stepped this issue very well - not only was Robin given an awesome redesign, his role in the story was limited enough to be respectful, without being excessive.

What was disappointing about him and Nightwing however, was that unlike Batman or Catwoman, you weren’t able to explore the streets of the city with him. Given how much is left to explore and accomplish in the free-roaming City after the story has concluded, it would have been nice to play as Robin while searching for Riddler Trophies and completing other various side-missions. The Modding Community eventually made this a possibility for the PC version of the game, but it’s very much something I’d like to see in the actual build of the game, should the sidekicks return.

On that note, the only confirmed playable character other than Batman in ‘Arkham Knight’ is Harley Quinn. While that sounds like fun (hopefully she’ll have some Joker-esque gadgetry), I really hope we’re not limited to her (Azrael, Batwoman or Damian Wayne’s Robin would all be terrific options).

3) Story threads from Arkham City continued

If you haven’t played Arkham City, you’d do well to skim over this next portion…

While I had my reservations with Arkham City’s bizarre main storyline, I enjoyed some of its subplots. Whether it was the origin of Thomas Elliott’s Hush, or the creepy background appearances of Azrael, I really feel like we deserve some resolution to the story threads introduced in the side-missions of Arkham City. We know at this point that Scarecrow will play a large part of the villainous role (as well as an as-yet unknown original character), but I’m honestly more excited about Azrael’s gloomy prophecy of destruction.

4) RPG Elements

While Arkham Origins thoroughly fudged the potential of giving the player more control over which gadget upgrades they want by making it muddled and confusing, there’s still a lot of potential for a more RPG-like aesthetic, where players have more input as to what kind of Batman they want to be. The number one problem I’ve had with the Arkham games in the past is that the player is given no control over the outcome of the story, or any of Batman’s decisions or his personality. The Mass Effect dialogue-wheel system is a good example of the kind of layout I'd like to see incorporated into this series (although it needn't be anywhere near as complex).

Given that the aim of these games is so often said to be to make you ‘think like Batman’, it seems unfair to present situations where you feel like you’re taking orders from him. The prime example of this was in the finale of Arkham City, where Batman nearly placed the fate of Gotham at risk for the sake of saving Talia Al Ghul’s life. This was a wholly un-Batman-like act, especially given that (as usual) Talia was presented as a thoroughly unlikable individual throughout the whole game.

5) Movie Skins and Alternate Batmobiles

One of my favourite aspects of ‘Arkham City’ was being able to play in alternate Batsuits, particularly Animated Batman and Batman Beyond (who had the wonderful addition of the pop-out wings he had on the cartoon). The one notable exception in the vast collection of past outfits was any of the suits from the Hollywood films. The Adam West suit finally had its day in ‘Arkham Origins’ (even if it had the misfortune of being a PS3 Exclusive - a nasty trick to play on consumers), but there’s still yet to be an Arkham game where we can play as Batman in the suits worn by Michael Keaton or Christian Bale. We’d even settle for Val Kilmer or George Clooney. Obviously the peskiness of likeness rights mean that those actors’ faces will never be used, but come on, you’d only see their chins anyway.

(On second thought...)

What’s exciting about the Batmobile being included in the game is the possibility of alternate Batmobiles also featuring in the game. Obviously the Tumbler and the 1989 roadster should be included, but who in their right mind doesn’t want to tear down the urban dystopia of Gotham City in the iconic, swingin’ 1966 Lincoln Futura?

Atomic batteries to power and turbines to speed, you guys.