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LONG BLOG

NVGR Review-o-rama: Prince of Persia, Bad Lieutenant, Ashes To Ashes & Chuck

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NON-GAMING REVIEW #6

How to present posts not related to videogames continues to pose a conundrum, because while on the one hand I love writing and discussing the latest films, television or (more rarely) music and books, I'm very much aware that this is a videogame site and that the large majority of my posts should focus on that medium. I've usually put my NVGR articles after one focusing on gaming, but that usually ends up splitting the discussion. Posts exclusively dedicated to NVGR feel a bit antithetical to what posting on Dtoid is supposed to be about, while getting the timing right (no point in writing about something too long after its release – I wanted to review both the film and game versions of Prince of Persia in the same post, but only received the game this morning) is another difficulty. This is my latest attempt to overcome these issues, by presenting a collection of reviews of all the notable stuff in non-gaming culture that has happened in the last week or two.

Because this post ended up far longer than I intended it to be, I'll do the film reviews first and then the two television shows. The order will be:

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (film)
The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans (film)
Ashes To Ashes series review (TV)
Chuck Season 3 review (TV)

The pictures will help you find whichever reviews you might be interested in reading. They're all spoiler-free, apart from a wee bit of suggestion in the Ashes To Ashes write-up. Enjoy!

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FILM REVIEWS

Film Review Scale - 5/5: Masterpiece; 4/5: Very Good; 3/5: Decent; 2/5: Weak; 1/5: Awful; 0/5: Uwe Boll



PRINCE OF PERSIA: THE SANDS OF TIME
Dir: Mike Newell
Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Gemma Arterton, Ben Kingsley, Alfred Molina

Prince of Persia is about as mainstream as big-budget filmmaking gets, but that's no bad thing: while nitpickers will find plenty to criticise, this is not only by far the best adaptation of a video-game to the big screen to date (although given that its nearest competition is either the camp cult appeal of the original Street Fighter or the thoroughly risible Doom, that's not saying much), but a big bouncy summer adventure that hits an agreeable balance between adventure, romance, silly banter, impressive stuntwork and big effects with only the occasional wobble. The film captures the spirit of the game but isn't enslaved by it: they share a similar neo-Arabian visual style and a lead who's part-warrior, part-champion gymnast, but places these lifts in a context of external enjoyment as part of a larger scene and narrative, rather than a game's strict focus on its protagonist as sole driving force of the story and action.

The dialogue is as wooden as the sets, using the ridiculously arch sentence construction that always gets thrown out in these 'myth and legend' pictures, but leads Gyllenhaal and Arterton have enough fun zinging one-liners back and forth at each other that their chemistry gets the point across, even if you won't want to pay much attention to the words themselves. Weaker casting would have killed this film, but this is one of those marvellous occasions when a set of actors clearly gelled together and made the most of their limited characters.



Where Arterton is prim and exudes spiky sex appeal, Gyllenhaal and Molina play their characters in the vein of working-class London wide boys, eyes always open for an opportunity to nab a kiss or make a bit of cash but with hearts in the right places. It's Middle-Eastenders, albeit far more fun than that dready soap opera and includes the total delight of seeing Alfred Molina plant a kiss on an ostrich. Ben Kingsley is the only one who doesn't seem all that interested (but given how he even phoned in for Scorsese, you won't find a lazier actor still in work today), but even his bland delivery just about works as the cunning, treacherous uncle.

There's no question that the film is formulaic, but also a timely reminder of how good formula blockbusters can be when done well. If anything, it loses momentum when it casts its eye into more highbrow territory (an Iraq allegory falls flat, character scenes don't add up to much). It's no Indiana Jones, won't make you think, but will make you smile, chuckle and devour popcorn at a rate of knots, with an air of free-spirited adventure about it that recalls the work of Douglas Fairbanks. Some might accuse it of turning the clock back to a less sophisticated age, but as someone whose favourite films put Kurosawa and Sergio Leone alongside entries in the James Bond and Shogun Assassin series, I find nothing wrong with that at all.

4/5
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THE BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL – NEW ORLEANS
Dir: Werner Herzog
Stars: Nick Cage, Eva Mendes, Xzibit, Val Kilmer

For a start, look at those names. Herzog, Cage, Mendes, Xzibit, Kilmer. How could this film not be spectacular? Werner Herzog's work might have felt a bit lacking in direction since the death of his near-psychotic muse Klaus Kinski in 1991, but while Bad Lieutenant isn't up there with Fitzcarraldo or Aguirre amongst the director's finest oeuvre, in Nicholas Cage he has found a new actor whose off-kilter sensibilities are a match for his own, injecting both of their dwindling mojos with a straight shot of OH YEAH!

Since I'd imagine that the majority of Dtoid readers are from the US, this review will probably be more pertinent to most as a DVD rather than cinematic review. And while it's a shame that a lot of you might not get to see Bad Lieutenant on the big screen, the first thing you should do after reading this is get the DVD, organise a large group of friends to go over to whomever owns the biggest TV, get stupendously crunk and press play. I guarantee, it will be a night to remember (at least until the following morning, if the whole crunk thing played out to its bleariest, bawdiest extent).

Whether watching sober or hanging from the ceiling, you won't be able to believe what you are watching. In fact the film is so unrestrained in its derangement, you might wonder whether any booze and drugs you might have taken are having any affect at all. When Nick Cage is inspired by a script and given rein to enjoy himself, he can be one of the most compelling actors of his era. This is a man who chooses his diet by how dignified an animal's sex life is. With Herzog never known for holding anything back, Cage's floodgates are opened and any hint of restraint is swept away under a tidal wave of insanity. Whether accosting two old ladies, demanding that a dead mobster be shot again as 'his soul's still dancing!', emotionally bonding over a spoon or amusing himself at a pair of hallucinatory singing iguanas, Cage's ferociously drug-addicted cop Terence McDonagh makes for mesmerisingly hysterical viewing.



The real strength underpinning the performance is that not only does Cage make his wildness somehow seem entirely unforced, but gives it a lot of sympathy as well. Plenty of actors can go over-the-top, but few have the nuance to know how to ground their characters in firmly human territory as well. McDonagh behaves like a man watching an atom bomb exploding inside his own head, but through all the gesticulating and volcanic intensity there's a very real sense of a man pushing himself to fight through the pain and bring some semblance of justice for the atrocious crime he is assigned to investigate. There's suffering behind those glaring eyes that in a more traditional performance would earn calls for awards season recognition.

Although the film is very much Cage's theatre, Herzog keeps up his end of the weirdness bargain. The visual style is eclectic to say the least, reflecting the fractured state of its protagonist's mind. The writing packs in the clichés then joys in subverting them in the most obvious and ridiculous ways possible: most films allow themselves one lucky coincidence to keep the plot moving, but Herzog gets three into one scene, in as many sentences. There are valid criticisms to be made here: at two hours, the film is too long and too exhausting. Cage's performance is so exhilarating that the other actors simply can't get a look in (although Xzibit is as entertainingly daft as ever), while the moments between McDonagh's outbursts can drag towards the end. But none of those things really matter. This is an hallucinogenic freefall of a movie, with Nicholas Cage your howling guide all the way to the ground. You can see it, but you won't believe it.

4/5


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TELEVISION REVIEWS



ASHES TO ASHES
Series retrospective

Two shows of huge iconic cultural status came to an end last week. In the US, Lost bowed out with as many questions as it started, while over in the UK, a smaller and lesser known police drama closed its final case and retired one of the most important characters in British pop culture to the past from whence he came. Ashes To Ashes, brought closure to the mysteries that had followed through from its more popular predecessor Life On Mars, which was subject to a yet another completely disasterous US remake that ended after a single season to a conclusion so jaw-droppingly stupid it drew snorts of derision even over here in the UK.

Ashes, the story of female officer Alex Drake, who is shot in 2007 but wakes up the 1970s assigned to work under the very old-fashioned Chief Inspector (DCI) Gene Hunt, mercifully avoided similar creative crises and signed off with its dignity and heart standing strong. While the answer to its biggest question was correctly predicted by fans, it tied up the evidence left in its trail perfectly and put enough twists into the individual character stories that it never felt like you were watching something that had already played out in your head. Gene Hunt, the man at the heart of the mysteries driving both Mars and Ashes, was given a farewell befitting his beloved status, the reveal of his role in the show's mythos a happily ironic nudge to his worshipping fans (really, what else could a man like Gene Hunt have been?), but layered with a hint of tragedy. The only disappointment was the resolution of the Jim Keats story arc, lowering a previously subtle and deviously dark character into pantomime villainy.



Gene Hunt, a misogynist, foul-mouthed, short-tempered, borderline-racist bull of a man with an unnatural devotion to male bonding, booze and the belief that the law should be conducted in the manner of the Wild West, became an icon not just for his obvious politically incorrect bravado and delicious one-liners ("Give up! You're surrounded by armed b-----ds!", "This case is going like a spastic in a magnet factory" or "She's as nervous as a very small nun at a penguin shoot"), but how he was a figure of certainty, seeing life in shades of black, white and booze, in a time when there was increasing uncertainty as to Britain's role in the world and the values it believed in. Hunt emerged at a time when questions about the humongous government-led rise in immigration were being suppressed and civil liberties were being taken away under the guise of terrorism. It was not that the British people agreed with Hunt's less-than-sanitary views on women or foreigners, but that he was a man who lived on terms he alone dictated, with certainty in his beliefs and unshakeable loyalty to his friends. As British culture was increasingly challenged by a rising immigrant population and accusations of racism flying the moment anyone sought to raise a debate, Hunt both gave a context for those questions to be raised and through his relationship with his modern-day partners (played by John Simm in Mars and Keeley Hawes in Ashes) offered a case for both the importance of sticking to the traditions you believe in, but also warned against returning to the fears and prejudices that were the dark lining of life in the '70s and '80s.

With a new government in place, a coalition between the Conservative centre-right and the socially conscious Liberal left, vowing to repeal the previous administration's centralised authoritarianism and social engineering, Hunt's exit was as timely as his entrance. Apart from the terrible writing and miscast Harvey Keitel, perhaps that's one of the reasons the character never caught on in the US, whose global empire is still standing and whose cultural identity (regardless of the racial issues that continue to bubble away) remains strong. Life On Mars, Ashes To Ashes and Gene Hunt did what all great works of drama do and gave British viewers new perspectives on our lives, our relationships to others and ourselves... though if anyone ever said that to his face, he'd probably call them a namby-pamby Man Utd supporting poofter, punch them in the gut, then retire to his sheriff's office for a tea of whisky and hoops. May the man live forever.

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CHUCK
Season Three review

I came to Chuck quite recently, on the (indirect) recommendation of Alan Sepinwall, a TV critic I started reading for his keen insights into Man Men. Those two shows aren't anything alike, which is a testament to how appealing Chuck can be that a spy comedy can share fans with a slow-paced period drama. Chuck is not what you'd call intellectual or even particularly well-written for the most part – it's rare to come across an episode whose plot can't be picked apart by a few seconds' thought - but its successes are judged on how big and silly your grin is at the end of each episode and how much you have fallen in love again with either of the leads. Though the storytelling might not be up to much, the show's fundamental building blocks are rock solid: the laughs keep coming, all safe humour but with a penchant for the absurd that keeps it surprising and delightful, and the action beats are better staged, choreographed and acted than most dedicated genre efforts – Sarah's second season fights in a shower room and a car are achievements worthy of a bigger screen. Its scripts are sharp and the three lead characters completely charming as individuals and better still when flirting/arguing/grunting between each other.

The reason I bring up these factors that most fans will already be well-aware of is because they're so fundamental to both what the show's third season did right, as well as where it went wrong. Showrunners Chris Fedak and Josh Schwartz were wise enough to keep the dynamic between the three leads evolving, giving Zachary Levi (Chuck Bartowski), Yvonne Strahovski (Chuck's CIA handler and on-off love interest Sarah Walker) and Adam Baldwin (grunting, gun-loving Republican super-soldier John Casey) scope to play on new character angles and dynamics. The inclusion of Chuck's best friend Morgan into Team Bartowski at a stroke made his character more sympathetic (his blind immaturity in preceding seasons wisely recognised as a hindrance to the show's affability, with the character's evolution beautifully and hilariously recognised in 'Chuck vs The Tooth' when old flame Anna Wu returned to take him back) and gave Casey, who had gained some grudging respect for Chuck, a new target to grunt angrily at.

Less successful by a long way was new character Daniel Shaw, played by former Superman Brandon Routh. The show had already exhausted its supply of exceptional-men-to-make-Chuck-feel-insecure, with Bryce Larkin (S1) and the James Bond-alike (S2) challenging his relationship with Sarah and his sister's rarely-clothed husband Dr. Devon 'Captain Awesome' Woodcombe (flawlessly played by the genuinely awesome Ryan McPartlin) in his family life. That Shaw proved to be by far the least interesting of any of those characters, given a clichéd backstory (becoming a spy to avenge his dead wife) and no interesting character traits for Routh to work with, dragged down the show's light tone and put up yet another barrier between the Chuck and Sarah romance that had little substance and felt contrived. It also left Sarah in a perpetual state of uncertainty and misery, which went against what was appealing about the character in the first place (arguably television's most fully rounded warrior-woman-with-a-soul since The Avengers' Emma Peel) and robbed male viewers – aka: me – of Yvonne Strahovski's wonderful comic timing and brain-meltingly gorgeous smile.



When Shaw was briefly taken off the scene following the conclusion of the show's first story arc (the final six episodes were commissioned late in the day), the show regained its vitality in spades in season highlights 'Chuck vs the Honeymooners' and 'Chuck vs the Role Models'. Upon Shaw's belated return, the refocus away from comedy and romance and back to drama (never the show's strong suit) gave its two-part finale a flatness that failed to recognise how Chuck finds far more power in character drama than 'epic' story gimmicks (especially since those in question seemed to emerge from nowhere and vanish just as quickly). It's ironic that the end of the show's weakest season was also the first time it was certain of coming back for another year. Despite the third season's misjudgments, the characters are in very different places to where they were at the end of the previous year and, should lessons be learnt from the mixed fan feedback, there's bags of potential for the show to not only recapture the heights of its second season glory, but build them into something even better.

PREVIOUS NON-GAMING REVIEWS

Iron Man 2 + Disappearance of Alice Creed (Films)

Clash of the Titans (Film)

Doctor Who: 'The Eleventh Hour' (TV)

Kick-Ass (Film)

A Curious Thing: Amy MacDonald (Music)
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About Xander Markhamone of us since 3:08 PM on 02.07.2010

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I'm a 26-year old English writer, formerly known on the CBlogs as Xandaça. I've been an avid gamer since I was a wee lad, gripping a NES controller in my hands and comprehensively failing to get past those infuriating Hammer Bros on Level 8-3 of Super Mario Bros. I've stuck with Nintendo since then (not for any animosity towards the other console makers of course - Nintendo just make games I enjoy and have grown up with), apart from a brief sojourn with a Sony PlayStation, several woeful attempts to play Half-Life 2 using a laptop touchpad and sporadically wrangling a turn on my sister's beloved Sega Saturn.

In addition to burping out the occasional novel, I'm a passionate critic, writing reviews and articles of films, book and games for my school magazine and university newspaper, for which I created and edited its film section. In addition to starting up my own blog, covering television, games and movies, I am also a writer for Destructoid's cine-geek sister Flixist. While primarily a film geek, the evolution of the games industry over the course of its short lifetime has fascinated me and provided vast quantities of content for some incendiary pieces of work - perhaps a few more might spring up on here?

My Favourite Games of All Time (because who doesn't love having a few Of All Time lists?) are GoldenEye 007 (which I still play through at least once a year to remind me of its glories), Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars, Gunstar Heroes, Super Mario Bros 3 (I don't know who told Shigsy Miyamoto-san that raccoons could fly, but I'll love them forever) and No More Heroes.

I hope you find great enjoyment in my many scribings, and please keep an eye out for upcoming news on my novel(s) and do pay a visit to my blog sometime. And yes, the Dtoid community's 'no copy and paste' rule will be fully respected!

Good gaming, everyone!