four

  1. WATCH/// BLOC PARTY FOURTH ALBUM TRAILER!

    The Bloc are back! We’re excited! Exclamation marks! After an all-too-long hiatus, Bloc Party are returning with their fourth album, titled Four, late this summer (August 20th to precise). The trailer for the record showcases its creation as well as snippets of a handful of tracks. Our verdict? For the most part, it sounds quite a lot like Silent Alarm… take that as you wish.

  2. As the lights dimmed we were greeted not by the recently-reunited Bloc Party but by a superb laser display, rotating hipster triangles and all. The coloured circles on the cover of the band’s comeback album Four were blown up to psychedelic proportions, entrancing the revellers, who almost failed to notice when the four-piece actually took to the stage. With a complete lack of acknowledgment towards the crowd, which surely can only come with knowing that every single person in the room is gagging to hear you, they opened immediately with new track "3 x 3". It’s insanely heavy chorus soon made up for the fact that you really couldn’t connect with the song yet, engaging the eager crowd to surge forward in frenzy. However, the first half of the set was marred with a sense that some of the newer songs were either not up to scratch or the band had misjudged which ones would go down well live. Even the choice to play "Trojan Horse" as their first already-released song, wasn’t greeted especially well, although the simplified, stripped down guitar version of “Waiting for the 7:18” was fantastic.

    It took wheeling out first hit "Banquet" for it to feel like Bloc Party really were back with a vengeance; even the new songs just seemed to get better after it. After Kele Okereke claimed that it was his favourite off the new album, "Team A" did indeed show some serious potential. Dressed in a simple buttoned shirt and what can only be described as PE shorts, Kele seemed in complete control of the crowd and band, as they closed the set with a brilliant rendition of their keyboard-heavy standalone single "One More Chance", flowing epically, feedback and all, into the ever-so-popular "Helicopter".

    It was the encore, though, that really stands out as the high point of the gig. Playing just one short, new ditty beforehand, the band really got the cups of piss flying with Intimacy opener "Ares". However the highlight of the night certainly must go to "This Modern Love". Perhaps we were all so knackered that the chance to stare in wonderment at the surreal laser displays, while the emotion of the song really overtook you, was just too perfect. Announcing the next would be their last song resulted in actual booing from the crowd. These were quelled immediately as he began a cheeky attempt at Rhianna’s "We Found Love" straight into the fan favourite dance anthem "Flux".

    For their second gig in three years, you really couldn’t tell that Bloc Party had been gone that long. As for Four, it will certainly be a dark affair, and yes some of the songs were a wee bit iffy on first listen; "Real Talk" sounding more like Kings of Leon than what we really want to hear. Nonetheless, there was some seriously heavy potential, and we can be certain that harcore fans will lap it up regardless. The band have lost none of that raw energy, drummer Matt Tong holding the whole affair together with unrivalled skill, and the only major difference that seems to have occurred during their hiatus period, is that guitarist Russell is looking a lot less emo-tastic in the hair department than four years ago.

    - Headline photo: Kavita41

  3. WATCH/// BLOC PARTY - OCTOPUS

    Thanks to a Amazon glitch, the first cut from Bloc Party's fourth album Four (geddit?) was available on Friday night, a few days before it was the intended debut date of today. But let’s forget that happened and no one’s heard this before now. "Octopus" is so angular and spiky, it could’ve easily been released around the same time as Silent Alarm; that’s not to say they’ve regressed. Instead Bloc sound more confident in their own abilities and sound than they have before. If anything, Four is going to be an intriguing record.

  4. Frank Turner: the poverty-stricken man’s Billy Bragg. Okay, that’s a bit harsh, but even as someone who likes a significant amount of Turner’s solo output, his canonisation as a voice of the alternative youth doesn’t sit well. He’s written some superb songs, but when looking back in ten or twenty years time, it’s doubtful Frank Turner will be seen as a pivotal figure in the musical world.

Five albums into his post-Million Dead career and Turner is currently at a peak on his personal timeline. 2012 saw him headline Wembley Arena to a sold-out audience of 12,000, perform at the London Olympics pre-show, last album England Keep My Bones certified as silver, and he’s a immoveable fixture on festival line-ups around the world. But he’s lucky all this came before Tape Deck Heart, because on the evidence of these twelve songs, he’s nowhere near deserving of grabbing such high brass rings.

Before diving into the deep end of what’s wrong with Tape Deck Heart, there are a few highlights to mention. The muted emo-rock of “Plain Sailing Weather” and the switch from music hall piano number to 100mph punk on “Four Simple Words” are top-drawer, whilst “Anymore” is the pinnacle, turning in a gentle acousit ballad reminiscent of Fionn Regan. Album closer “Broken Piano” impresses too, super-sizing the usual FT formula to fit those giant stages he has to play.
But large parts of the record feel almost as artificial as Mumford & Sons’ studied folksiness; the mandolin augmentations to Turner’s usual sound (Mumford bagsied the banjos), the rousing crescendos, the jarring, incongruous "dear"s and "darling"s. But Turner’s been doing this middle-class Troubadour schtick for almost eight whole years, and if you chucked every one of his songs into a playlist and hit shuffle, there’d be little to differentiate between songs released in 2006 and those released in 2013. This could be twisted into a positive element, as a few too many bands strive to drastically change their sound from album to album instead of letting things grow and evolve organically, but five albums in a row with only nominal musical development is ridiculous.
Turner’s lyrics aren’t really evolving either. Addressing us directly as listeners, references to shows and gigs, and similar devices are all big no-nos in this writer’s mind. They take you out of the moment, swapping the escapism music often delivers with a metaphorical sharp stick which jabs you in the side, reminding you that you’re simply listening to one song out of billions, spending three minutes of your dreary little life listening Frank Turner. You poor bastard.
"Four Simple Words" is the worst offender of all. Rhyming "very" with "century" Spat references to Shoreditch hipster bands? Sleeping on people’s floors? Bands working hard and earning their keep? It just comes off as amateurish, petulant and bitter. Frank, mate, you’re an extremely successful musician, you should be above complaining about this sort of inconsequential shit. Your hero and forebear Mr Bragg used his music to talk about important societal matters, he wasn’t pandering with lyrics about “the kids who never fit in with the rest”. British music could really do with someone saying something about, well, anything; the shitty economy, the shitty politicians, the shitty state of society? They’re all fertile soil in which to sow the basis for lyrics. England Keep My Bones was an album that was quite passionate about English heritage and culture (but not in an extreme way), so you’d think Turner would have something to say two years down the lane, with the omnishambles occurring every second? 
Nope. While they can be good a lot of the time, songs about fucking up and/or having a good time are dime a dozen, and Turner’s have none of the wit, heart, humour or power of The Gaslight Anthem or The Hold Steady. Why on earth do people savage Taylor Swift for writing break-up songs when Frank Turner is giving us The Middle-Class White Boy Blues every two years or so?
★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆

    Frank Turner: the poverty-stricken man’s Billy Bragg. Okay, that’s a bit harsh, but even as someone who likes a significant amount of Turner’s solo output, his canonisation as a voice of the alternative youth doesn’t sit well. He’s written some superb songs, but when looking back in ten or twenty years time, it’s doubtful Frank Turner will be seen as a pivotal figure in the musical world.

    Five albums into his post-Million Dead career and Turner is currently at a peak on his personal timeline. 2012 saw him headline Wembley Arena to a sold-out audience of 12,000, perform at the London Olympics pre-show, last album England Keep My Bones certified as silver, and he’s a immoveable fixture on festival line-ups around the world. But he’s lucky all this came before Tape Deck Heart, because on the evidence of these twelve songs, he’s nowhere near deserving of grabbing such high brass rings.

    Before diving into the deep end of what’s wrong with Tape Deck Heart, there are a few highlights to mention. The muted emo-rock of “Plain Sailing Weather” and the switch from music hall piano number to 100mph punk on “Four Simple Words” are top-drawer, whilst “Anymore” is the pinnacle, turning in a gentle acousit ballad reminiscent of Fionn Regan. Album closer “Broken Piano” impresses too, super-sizing the usual FT formula to fit those giant stages he has to play.

    But large parts of the record feel almost as artificial as Mumford & Sons’ studied folksiness; the mandolin augmentations to Turner’s usual sound (Mumford bagsied the banjos), the rousing crescendos, the jarring, incongruous "dear"s and "darling"s. But Turner’s been doing this middle-class Troubadour schtick for almost eight whole years, and if you chucked every one of his songs into a playlist and hit shuffle, there’d be little to differentiate between songs released in 2006 and those released in 2013. This could be twisted into a positive element, as a few too many bands strive to drastically change their sound from album to album instead of letting things grow and evolve organically, but five albums in a row with only nominal musical development is ridiculous.

    Turner’s lyrics aren’t really evolving either. Addressing us directly as listeners, references to shows and gigs, and similar devices are all big no-nos in this writer’s mind. They take you out of the moment, swapping the escapism music often delivers with a metaphorical sharp stick which jabs you in the side, reminding you that you’re simply listening to one song out of billions, spending three minutes of your dreary little life listening Frank Turner. You poor bastard.

    "Four Simple Words" is the worst offender of all. Rhyming "very" with "century" Spat references to Shoreditch hipster bands? Sleeping on people’s floors? Bands working hard and earning their keep? It just comes off as amateurish, petulant and bitter. Frank, mate, you’re an extremely successful musician, you should be above complaining about this sort of inconsequential shit. Your hero and forebear Mr Bragg used his music to talk about important societal matters, he wasn’t pandering with lyrics about “the kids who never fit in with the rest”. British music could really do with someone saying something about, well, anything; the shitty economy, the shitty politicians, the shitty state of society? They’re all fertile soil in which to sow the basis for lyrics. England Keep My Bones was an album that was quite passionate about English heritage and culture (but not in an extreme way), so you’d think Turner would have something to say two years down the lane, with the omnishambles occurring every second? 

    Nope. While they can be good a lot of the time, songs about fucking up and/or having a good time are dime a dozen, and Turner’s have none of the wit, heart, humour or power of The Gaslight Anthem or The Hold Steady. Why on earth do people savage Taylor Swift for writing break-up songs when Frank Turner is giving us The Middle-Class White Boy Blues every two years or so?

  5. From 1990 to the present, pioneering mangaka Kentaro Miura has fashioned a twisted, macabre universe of demon apostles and fairies that highlights the deepest caves of the human condition through the Berserk franchise. The medieval legend of Guts, the 6ft something mercenary with a life story influenced by the bleak nature of Shakespeare’s tragedies (think Macbeth meets Inoue’s Vagabond in a hellish atmosphere) has developed a loyal, undying fan base devoted enough to wait the majority of a year just to get their hands on a couple chapters of the two decade old seinen manga. In February 2012, Miura offered the world of animation a fresh, new retelling of the Berserk story in the form the Golden Age Arc films. 

    As the exhausting full title suggests, Berserk Golden Age Arc I: The Egg of the King neglects the story’s dark prologue, depriving newcomers of the pre-emptive glimpse of traumatic post-apocalyptic scenario in the looming future and starts at the chronologically correct launch to the timeline, where Guts meets the infamous mercenary group, The Band of the Hawk. Miura maintains Berserk’s standard of hyper violence and clever swordplay, making sure every swing of Gut’s signature exaggerated long blade doesn’t go unnoticed in between the flailing ribbons of blood and discarded body parts. This is the standard of gore that western animation and even western cinema as a whole just can’t deliver, right from the opening scene where the serenity of soaring birds die as they plummet into a relentless slaughterfest.

    In-between the symphony of screaming and wailing is a journey of bonds amidst the trio of characters wrapped in an incestuous affiliation; Griffith, the effeminate rival/companion who harbors a key to an ominous happening; Caska, the unapologetically strong female soldier and love interest, and the aforementioned Guts. If you haven’t already experienced the manga, you will find yourself discovering parts of the emotional spectrum you never knew existed. The portrayal of authentic human emotion and complex psyches in these characters helps to set this Japanese animation apart from the rest; you often forget these are roles put to life via pen and paper, and not real, breathing and independent individuals, especially during some of the sex scenes (we’ll talk about those later). 

    This section of Miura’s 37-and-counting volume epic has been animated before, in a 90’s TV series, but not on this aptitude and scale. The visuals are executed in clean and fluid graphics which feature the semi 3-dimensional CG style that keeps popping up in the Tiger & Bunny and Evangelion films interwoven with classic, 2D line art splashed in vibrant, rich colour. The inclusion of this recent computer generated art style can be irksome at times, character models will frequently change from 3D to 2D and the difference in some attributes show quite clearly. This coupled with the slowed frame rate contributes to a viewing experience that just isn’t quite there, however, as highlighted in the end of the most recent Golden Age Arc film, Descent (which was released in Japan earlier this year) with the message ”This Is Only The Beginning “, which means there will be a continuation of these movies, hopefully with a natural, refined animation style. Hirasawa Susumu, who is behind the majority of the soundtrack for both the TV series and the two Berserk console games contributes to the OVAs by composing the opening theme, Aria which is an uplifting, thundery number. Shiro Sagisu creates a stunning soundtrack for the, movie, especially Blood and Guts - Passionate which is a morose but colourful piece laced with Spanish flamenco guitars that proves his compatibility with the mood of the film.

    The movies have a collective runtime of just four and a half hours, which does mean that certain parts of the story were cut out entirely, leaving some devoted followers in upset. It is shown that Miura isn’t compromising nevertheless; the story has been retold elaborately and new dimensions of character development that can’t be conveyed through still and silent black and white frames have been explored and intensified. The two major sex scenes in the story have been molded from the sickly, perverse nature that the anime world is guilty of, into tasteful and humanistic sequences that serve their purpose to the story, especially the lengthy entanglement between Griffith and Princess Charlotte which sets a sinister chain of events in motion that lead to the powerful and tear jerking finale to the trilogy. It is also worth noting that this ending will leave first timers dumbfounded as the story transitions deep into the dark and warped. A trigger warning for those affected as there is a rather upsetting but short scene featuring rape, which has long stirred a controversy in the fan base and has been cut slightly in the R15 version of the film to censor the graphic.

    Berserk is a must see for any anime fan who wants to dabble in the world of seinen and a great gateway treatment for the outsiders. This is a franchise that stands by itself as something that sets the pace for past and future productions. The world should keep an eye on Miura as he works towards completing his masterpiece.

  6. I’ll be honest; seeing the posters and adverts for Prisoners didn’t endear me to the film. The combination of Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal (neither can claim to being involved in a great film in the last half decade), with a fairly somber look (greys, dark blues and blacks, with plenty of pained stares) and a plot which in the wrong hands could turn out like a poor episode of Criminal Minds didn’t scream “must see”. But this is one instance in which I’m more than happy to throw my hands up and admit I was wrong. Prisoners is one of the most well-crafted crime films in a long while. 

    Starting on a fairly innocuous Thanksgiving in a leafy Philadelphia suburb, two families enjoy a dinner together as a rundown old RV circles the neighbourhood. Later that day, the two young daughters of the families go missing with the only lead being that very RV. The cop assigned to the case is the excellently-named Detective Loki (Gyllenhaal) who has solved everything he’s ever worked on, whilst one of the missing girls’ fathers Keller Dover (Jackman) begins to spiral out of control and take justice into his own hands. Again, that does sound as if it could be an episode of a bog-standard police procedural but what builds from that in the hands of Denis Villeneuve and a ridiculously talented cast (critically acclaimed and with award nominations out the wazoo), makes Prisoners one of the best films of the year.

    With this being his first major studio and English language film, Villeneuve impresses with both stunning visuals and tight storytelling, which has led to comparisons to Se7en and Zodiac. All three are studies in obsession and morality, but also share dense, intriguing plotting. Prisoners offers up some huge moral complexities, with our protagonists’ actions at times challenging whether we should really view them as heroes, and how far is too far to go for justice. To add to the questions of morality, there’s also a deluge of religious imagery, both subtle and overt, throughout: snakes, crosses, tattoos, a masonic ring, an impromptu confessional booth (with an ambiguity over who exactly is confessing to whom), tombs, self sacrifice by the bucketload, heck, even a dodgy priest too.

    Whilst being a feast for the mind, it’s also a feast for the eyes. Roger Deakins brings his typically beautiful cinematography to the table - last seen in Skyfall - which here has a certain stillness that recalls the contemporary crop of Scandinavian drama, from the Millenium trilogy to the works of Nicolas Winding Refn and Tomas Alfredson, to even TV series like Borgen and The Killing. Even if the bleakness of the narrative leaves you cold, the cinematography will stick with you for quite some time.

    Prisoners also represents Jackman and Gyllenhaal’s best performances in years, even if that’s not saying much (hi Prince Of Persia and Real Steel!), and it’s not too hard to envision statuettes heading their way come 2014. The rest of the cast put in excellent turns too, especially Paul Dano, who continues to be one of the best character actors in the business, subtly unnerving as mentally-troubled suspect Alex Jones. However such good performances don’t quite erase the fact that other family, who happen to be black, played by Terrence Howard and Viola Davis, just sort of fade from the narrative halfway through, despite their predicament being no different to that of the white Dover family. Most female characters treated in a similar fashion, receiving comparatively little in the way of character development or screentime.

    On the subject of the film’s failings, a runtime of 150 minutes is pushing it just a little too far, stretching the material a little too thin, especially with most of the supporting characters being so underdeveloped. The big reveal doesn’t quite have the shock or emotional punch you’d hope for, considering the growing feeling of dread for most of the film, and the somewhat-ambiguous ending is sure rub some the wrong way. But for these faults, Prisoners is still deserves to be considered a modern classic.

    ★★★★☆

  7. The phrase “true story” is the biggest scam in Hollywood. Any film which purports to be an accurate depiction of real events bears as much likeness to actual reality as Christian Bale’s Irving Rosenfeld does to Bale as Trevor Reznik. Even a film such as 2013’s Pain & Gain, which build itself up on depicting something real and twice has “This is a true story” appear on screen, was so hilariously inaccurate that you have to imagine those claims of truth had to be tongue-in-cheek. So it’s a refreshing change (and quite apt for a film about deception and con-artists) that American Hustle begins with the disclaimer “some of this actually happens”; a quick check on Wikipedia shows that David O Russell has swerved from the true facts of the ABSCAM story at several key points, but honestly, it makes for a far more enjoyable film.

    That said, it feels less like a complete package of a film than a two-hour acting showcase, especially with the knowledge that there was a lot of improvisation involved. Each of the four leads are tremendous in their roles, and deserving of the award nominations they’ve garnered and likely will garner in the near future; Bale once again transforms himself with a woeful combover and adding 40lbs to his gut, Amy Adams is terrific and continues her wonderful chemistry with Bale from The Fighter, Bradley Cooper gives his best performance yet despite looking slightly ridiculous in fake tan and and a hella tight perm, and Jennifer Lawrence… well, she’s Jennifer Lawrence. What more can be said? She’s the best thinj about the majority of films she’s in, and becomes a chaotic force of nature here. Her rendition of “Live And Let Die”, complete with marigolds, will undoubtedly be one of the cinematic highlights of the year (along with Cooper’s dead-on impression of Louis C.K.’s grumpy FBI chief).

    But as I said, with all these tremendous lead roles (and the top-notch support cast), multiple voiceovers, whirlwind Scorsese-esque direction, and an unexpected focus on comedy (unexpected to me, at least) makes Hustle immensely watchable, but threadbare in terms of plot. Not that that is too big of a downside when you’ve got excellent period detail, a “Best Of The 70s” soundtrack and Christian Bale calling a microwave a “space oven” of course, but still, it leaves the film hovering just outside that “crime classic” holy land you feel Russell was striving for.

  8. Being a teenager is a difficult time for many people. Right on the cusp of adulthood, but still technically a child, it’s a period of intense frustrations spurred on by raging hormones and general lack of experience in this crazy thing called life. As such, the teenage experience has been one that has been dragged up since, it seems, time immemorial for stories full of hedonism, unrequited love, and emotional turmoil. If you think about it, Romeo and Juliet sits a lot closer to Pretty in Pink than Macbeth. The coming-of-age story, however, had been pretty much mined of all nuggets, leaving only the bare rock left. Though there have been attempts to spark things up a bit, as with Brick’s neo-noir feel or Superbad going all out in its crude-fest, for every one of those bright sparks, there’s a 21 & Over or a Twilight (though kudos to it for trying to mix it up by throwing in vampires and the like). It’s a genre so rife with clichés that it’s like navigating a densely packed minefield. With the heady days of John Hughes-dominated 80s or Cameron Crowe’s 90s long behind us, it’s rare to get a real stand out film that can easily sit among the greats. Luckily, The Spectacular Now is that rare gem that doesn’t bother with high stakes such as murder or saving the world and just strips it back to its bare bones.

    Based on the book of the same name by Tim Tharp and adapted by Michael H. Weber and Scott Neustadter (them of 500 Days of Summer) and directed by James Ponsoldt (Smashed), The Spectacular Now focuses on Sutter Keely (Miles Teller), a charming and charismatic senior who is happy just coasting along at school with no real plans for his future. He’s of the “live for the now” ilk of teenagers; the ‘YOLO’ crowd if you will. He’s a guy filled with genuine awe and pleasure for the world, who wants to make other people smile and just have a good time. Smart, but an underachiever, he has the potential to go far but is more than happy working as a clerk in a menswear store owned by Bob Odenkirk. Despite all this on the surface, Sutter is deeply flawed, suffering from an intense drinking problem which sees him swigging from his liquor filled hip flask at most opportunities to get through the day.

    After being dumped by his girlfriend Cassidy (Brie Larson) as a result of his drinking and general apathy to his future, Sutter goes out drinking, ending the night sprawled, passed out, across someone’s front lawn after attempting to drive home. He’s discovered by the bookish, quiet Aimee (Shailene Woodley who is also set to star in Weber and Neustadter’s upcoming John Green-adap The Fault In Our Stars) who offers to drive Sutter around in search of his now-lost car. As the two begin to get to know each other, in the typically stop-start awkward teenage way that happens when you both take a liking to each other, the flirting increases and something begins to spark. But, for each of them, what is happening means something different initially. Having just broken up with his girlfriend, Sutter sees this more as a rebound to take his mind off his ex, who he continues to occasionally flirt with, whereas Aimee, who has never had a boyfriend, begins to fall pretty hard for Sutter. As they continue their messy encounter, delving more into each other’s lives, things start to become more serious as Aimee discovers that the boy she’s falling in love with isn’t as perfect and carefree as she first realised and Sutter realises that Aimee is someone who cares for him, warts and all, which is something Cassidy never gave him. She’s someone that wants to give him a future. She’s applied to colleges across the country and has already picked her dream choice while Sutter is still half-heartedly attempting the first draft of his application. He’s more a troubled boy than a man, wanting to stay in a permanent Peter Pan stage for fear he might grow up to be his dad who abandoned his family when he was younger.

    It’s an “opposites attract” scenario that the film doesn’t play up as much as other films might. This is mainly because The Spectacular Now doesn’t feel the need to put its characters into little pigeon holes. Sutter is outgoing, popular and, for many, fun to be around, but he isn’t a ‘jock’ or one of the ‘it crowd’, similarly Aimee might be bookish and mousy but she isn’t a ‘nerd’; they’re just two ordinary individuals not defined by the usual kabuki dance of high school tropes that permeate even the best teen films (the entire premise of Mean Girls is based around this). In this sense, The Spectacular Now feels a lot like Cameron Crowe’s excellent Say Anything in which John Cusack’s Lloyd Dobler is very much the same type as Sutter, a confident and charming underachiever. It’s not a stylistic version of high school, it’s one very much grounded in reality extremely similar to one we’ll have all experienced filled with kids still trying to get their head around life and not so easily defined due to their own individual experiences.

    It’s Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley as the two leads, alongside the often brutally honest and sincere portrayal of teenage life, which gives the film that ‘something else’ and puts it in the pantheon of great teen films. The chemistry between the two is electric, at their best moments feeling like a couple you’ve known for years, instantly become “that couple” that everyone knows in school. The rest of the cast is equally fantastic, particularly Bob Odenkirk as the father figure Sutter never had and Kyle Chandler as Sutter’s actual father, a role so completely against Chandler’s usual type as an ultimately disinterested, despite his good intentions, father full of empty promises, that his performance is like a frightening dystopia-dwelling version of Friday Night Light’s Coach Taylor.

    Though the conclusion of the film feels a little too “skipping through the rose garden” compared to the brutal honesty that came before it, it manages to be a pitch perfect expression of just how messy teenage relationships can be. The Spectacular Now is exactly what the coming-of-age genre needs, it’s feels like a real kick up the arse, bringing the labyrinth that is high school to a more natural place, rid of clichés but still packed full of hormone and confusion. It’s a captivating study of what it is to be in love as a teenager with phenomenal performances and some truly beautiful scenes.

  9. I vividly remember waking up from nightmares as a small child. Peering out into what appeared to be never ending darkness, a sea of shadows that the longer I stare always seem to stare right back at me. Wondering as you watch, if you are in turn being watched, something is almost smelling you, waiting for you to stumble into the darkness and straight into it’s arms. This is how it feels to play the recently released on the PS4 (previously PC exclusive) first person survival horror Outlast. 

    Outlast is a profoundly and continually terrifying experience. Set in the remote mountains of Colorado, at fictional Mount Massive Asylum, we find ourselves thrust into the shoes of Miles Upshire, an independent journalist acting on the tips of a former insider at the institute. We begin the game by stepping out of Miles’ car and onto the harrowing and beautiful grounds of the asylum. It’s from this point on that our defenceless four hour journey into the heart of darkness begins. It’s a unique and brutal experience like no other. Despite having endured and enjoyed all the Silent Hills, Resident Evils (before they got all awful) and Amnesias that the world had to throw at me, nothing has chilled me, thrilled me and consistently thrown me from my chair as often as Outlast did.

    One of the things that makes Outlast such a unique experience is the shoes you are thrown into. Miles is a journalist. Not a former marine or a super muscled Batman-esque anti hero. He’s just a dude with a night vision camera and as Outlast continues to scare the holy balls out of you, it becomes abundantly clear that Miles had no idea what he was setting himself up for when he stepped onto the grounds of this godforsaken nuthouse. Outlast is a beautiful experience, with astounding lighting that makes up much of the dynamic of the game, using darkness and shadows as places to hide but stark hallway lighting or swinging disembodied florescent bulbs as neon signs for the inmates of Mount Massive to use as a visual GPS. It also sounds fantastic. I have read reviews that stated that Outlast’s sound design falls down if not enjoyed through a headset but I can personally tell you that the ambience and effect of the soundscape is not lost on regular speakers. Running dually through my TV and a 7.1 top of the line sound bar, every creak, grunt, smash and harrowing laugh was heard to a near pitch perfect level.

    Having never played the PC version (this is a port, after all) I can’t speak for the original control scheme, but the PS4 version is dead on in terms of the usability and functionality of the use of the Dualshock 4, using your limited abilities and mapping them brilliantly to the controller. I was in terror of every turn of every doorknob. Every small rumble of the controller as I waited inside a locker or under an upturned hospital bed filled me with suspense and a burning desire to soil myself and hide under my own bed. The world that is created within Outlast is one that I was yet to experience before this week and I doubt it is one I will experience again anytime soon because within the walls of that institute, I, a grown man, was reduced to a shaking & swearing shell.

    Details are key within this world. Whether those details be inmate’s following you through footprints left by traipsing through a puddle of blood, or a door left open where it was previously closed before. Every detail has meaning and that meaning usually leads to turning a corner into a psychopath wielding a knife or a bat or a severed human arm. 

    With so many small gorgeous details, all of which fill a very well realized world, brimming over with malice and ill intent, the one thing that seems to have gone amiss is attention to detail in the enemy character models. They are downright ugly and I don’t mean because they have missing lips or a patch of skin stitched over one eye. The character models are.. average, aside from a few stand outs. Including one particularly nasty customer met later on in the game who bares a striking resemblance to Doctor Satan. Points for anyone who get’s that reference. 

    In Outlast, your aim is to discover the truth but you can’t do that if you can’t stay alive. There are no shotgun’s in Outlast, you can’t charge at your attackers with a knife or swing a bat at their enormous, hideous faces. You have two choices, run and hide or die and sometimes, running and hiding will get you lost or thrown into a corner or a dead end and when you turn around and are faced with an axe wielding inmate. You only have the other choice, die. Within the walls of Mount Massive, I died. I died a lot. I ran, I hid, I jumped, I screamed and most of the time, I died but in no way should this be considered a bad thing. You need to watch, learn and adapt to survive in Outlast and once you’ve mastered hiding and taking the chances you need to in order to get away, that is when Outlast is at its most rewarding.

    Your saving grace in Outlast comes in the form of your camera. For Miles Upshire it’s a fantastic way to keep a record of the horrors he experiences but for you, it’s the only eye you have in what sometimes feels like a never ending stretch of dark hallways. Lined with dried and fresh blood and the parts of the dismembered men who came before you and it’s this camera that brings us some of the games stand out moments. The scramble away from a maniac as your battery dies, hunting frantically for another in an attempt to use it to find a way to hide. Or in order to find your way around the environment, avoiding conflict as best you can, just to get to the next doorway or the next lit bulb. Your camera is a gift but in those moments when it dies or for some reason is unusable, the fact you are without it becomes a horrifying burden.

    Outlast is an exercise in exploration and survival, it’s an experience like no other I have ever had and frankly, it’s one I’m not sure I’d want to experience again. It’s a tense, well-written, bleak and thoroughly harrowing journey into not only the depths of a home for the depraved but also the minds of those inmates. Not to mention, in many cases, the closet maniacs entrusted with caring for them. Stumbling across diaries, documents and case studies about the experiments that have gone on within these walls and in some cases, beyond them, only serves to create a darker world. A bleaker outlook for Miles and what may lay in front of him. It’s dark, terrifying and in most cases, I find it defies description. If you have a PS4 and a PS+ account, I implore you to download Outlast and give it four hours of your life. I guarantee they will be four hours well spent. Just don’t let Mount Massive get into your head, because when you power down your PS4 and put down your controller, those harrowing screams may just keep ringing through your brain and if they do, I can only apologise and sympathise.

    Eventually they will go quiet. Eventually.

  10. Not too long ago, the idea of falling in love with your computer seemed utterly far-fetched. That was the reserve of the likes of Blade Runner or Minority Report; worlds where technology was second nature to John Anderton or robo-strippers were the norm in the seedy underbelly of Rick Deckard’s LA. Now, more than ever, it seems that romantic relations with computers seem not too far outside the realms of possibility. My first movement when I wake up is usually to reach over to my bedside table to pick up my phone and check my emails, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, and Tinder (usually in that order as well). The addition of Siri, a personal aid that interacts with what you have to say, as a constant in many people’s lives these days means it’s pretty likely that at least one person has thought, when asking Siri to check the weather, that Siri’s “voice” sounded pretty hot.

    It’s this that Spike Jonze plays off of in his first completely solo project (directed and written by Jonze alone), Her, which tells the tale of a man in the midst of a divorce falling in love with his computer’s operating system. The man is Theodore Twombly, played by Joaquin Phoenix, a terribly sad human being who, ironically, has made a career out of writing passionate letters, rich in emotion, for other people. All pastel colours, fuzzy moustache, and high-waisted trousers, he mopes around his Shanghai-esque future LA like a lost Charlie Brown until he discovers a new type of OS; one with a personality that would add a bit of pep to his routine.

    He opts for a female voice for his personalised OS in hopes of finding a replacement female presence in his life now his wife (Rooney Mara) has left him. That voice, the voice of Samantha, is the husky voice Scarlett Johansson, and we begin to realise that it is pretty impossible to not fall in love with anyone or anything that sounds like Scarlett. While he’s unable to make connections with real human beings (he somehow manages to build up the strength to reject a very keen Olivia Wilde), he forms a startlingly quick relationship with Samantha. As the pair get to know each other (i.e. Samantha looks through Theodore’s hard drive), Theodore forms a quick bond with her during their late night intimate talks; a far cry from his usual late night activities of messaging sex chat lines (a section which lets Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig steal the scene with just their voices).  Thanks to this glassy near-future LA in which Wi-Fi seems to be free and available everywhere, they go about their days as a couple who never leave each other’s side. They go to fairs, go to the beach, stroll around the city, chatting and joking like any actual couple would; the main difference being only one has a body. It’s an unusual romance, one that even the inhabitants of this world can’t really understand, but it’s surprisingly sweet, taken extremely seriously rather than played for laughs.

    The solipsistic Theodore who we are introduced to, one driven by melancholy, soon blossoms into a Theodore with a new passion for life, much like the younger man we see in the flashbacks with his wife Catherine; skipping through train terminals and the city streets with such glee on his face. Phoenix plays this transformation with such exquisite detail, where the slightest facial tick can mean so much. Because so little ultimately happens, it’s a film driven by dialogue and emotion; even the film’s sex scenes (of which there are a lot more than you might expect) are almost entirely conducted through the dialogue yet, instead of having the seedy feeling of ringing up Babestation, it feels surprisingly intimate and passionate like an actual love scene. Johansson’s rich voice displays a stunning array of moods to compensate for the fact we can’t see how she reacts, instead we’re forced to hear.

    The world in which this all takes place is so utterly believable and perfectly realised that it is so easy to be drawn into it. Spike Jonze’s antiseptic pleasantscape, a utopia in which high speed rail or walking is the main method of travel, pristine skyscrapers, and shimmering walkways, is not too far removed from what we are aiming towards today. With the likes of Siri, Oculus Rift, and so-on, the technology that is the everyday in Her is not too far out of reach. It seems so close, in fact, that Theodore has to use a safety pin to keep Samantha in his shirt pocket so she can see out into the world through her handset; a good old bit of DIY improvisation is still useful in the future. But, through this, and through the public’s interactions with their OS, Jonze stamps his belief on what technology will eventually do to us; coincidentally a theme also ever present in St Vincent’s new album. Jonze portrays the people of this futuristic LA as disconnected. As people walk through the city, they are so plugged into their own OS that they fail to acknowledge the world around them. It’s a world that, however beautiful, breeds loneliness and feelings of disconnectedness. The irony that makes all this clear from the start is that the company Theodore works for is in the business of writing personal letters for other people from other people, with the writer at the company as a surrogate for the customer. This world has reached the point where they can’t even be bothered to write letters for other people, instead delegating it to someone else. As such, it makes sense that, without a romantic partner, someone is very likely to fall into a melancholic state and would be more likely to find a romantic connection with a disembodied voice.

    The film, at times, feels weighed down by Jonze’s own need to create some sort of a response to Sofia Coppola’s telling of the breakdown of their marriage in Lost In Translation, particularly through the divorce of Theodore and Catherine who bears a pretty obvious resemblance to Coppola, and at times feels clunky as a result. But the real focus of the film is on Theodore and Samantha, about how a relationship can form, however unorthodox. Every role, including the delightful Amy Adams’, is played with intensity and a real believability; a dialogue rich film that is loaded with emotions as it tries to unravel the human heart through a sci-fi sheen. It’s at once a sharp satire of how loneliness is made no better by our ever-evolving technology, and a delightfully intimate romance without letting up on either side. Stylish and captivating, Her benefits from finally letting Jonze loose with the crazy yet simultaneously grounded explorations of human emotions that have permeated through everything he has worked on before.