FILM REVIEW: THE FAULT IN OUR STARS

Starring: Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort, Nat Wolff, Laura Dern, Willem Dafoe

Genre: Drama

Adapted from John Green’s novel of the same name, The Fault in Our Stars depicts the story of terminally ill Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley). Burdened physically by the heavy oxygen tank to which she owes her life, and plagued by the knowledge that her impending death will destroy her parents, Hazel comes to view herself as a ‘grenade’, and does her best to limit the damage she will inevitably cause. However, after reluctantly attending a cancer support meeting, Hazel meets a survivor of the disease in the form of charming amputee Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort). What follows is a complicated, unconventional love story which sadly loses some of its originality by emulating too strongly the tropes of the generic, forgettable romance flick.

Firstly, the film is a very faithful adaptation of the source material. Despite frequently stating that he has no control over the movie, author John Green was often on set during filming, and, thanks to his online prevalence, his genuine excitement and approval of the film are captured in many of his YouTube videos. Much of the dialogue of The Fault in Our Stars is taken directly from Green’s novel; thus readers of the book are unlikely to be disappointed in terms of the screenplay. Inevitably, due to the existence of time, some scenes from the book do not appear in the film. A scene in which Hazel witnesses an argument between Augustus and his mother regrettably did not make it into the movie, despite its subtle and devastating hint to the story’s tragic climax. As ludicrous as it sounds, the film sometimes seemed a little too faithful to the book; including as much as possible in order to not disappoint existing fans or the author himself. For example, a scene involving Hazel’s homemade swing set seemed a little random and unresolved considering much of that storyline is omitted from the film. However, if viewers are unfamiliar with the source novel, this scene is unlikely to appear underdeveloped or out of place.

The focus of The Fault in Our Stars is the whirlwind romance between Hazel, a matter-of-fact, sarcastic teen, and Augustus, a grandiose, metaphor-spouting optimist. The pair’s differing outlooks on life do not stand in the way of their friendship; immediately portraying the protagonists as more intelligent and sensible than many adult characters in romance films. All too often a film’s running time is filled with two characters disagreeing until ten minutes before the end when they decide that they have mistaken their hate for love, and subsequently end up snogging and getting married. It seems important and symbolic that the film rejects such clichés. As terminally ill teenagers, Hazel and Augustus recognise the importance of time; they do not have time to waste on petty arguments and playing ‘hard to get’. This is a refreshing and clever way in which the film’s format and narrative structure reflect the nature of the characters. Despite the fairly unfamiliar fast-paced nature of the narrative, The Fault in Our Stars often borrows many elements of classic romance films. The moment the pair literally bump into each other for the first time is straight up embarrassing, whilst the much talked about kiss in the Anne Frank House scene was sickly and so badly executed that audiences may find it less heart-warming and more vomit-inducing. The presence of such clichés takes the audience out of the story as they depart from the ‘tell it like it is’ attitude of the remainder of Hazel’s narration.

Instagram: johngreenwritesbooks

Although the film emphasises the love story between the main characters, another important plotline of The Fault in Our Stars is Hazel’s relationship with her parents. After hearing her mother cry that she ‘won’t be a mom anymore’, Hazel is haunted by the fear that her passing would ruin the lives of her parents. The fact that the protagonist’s mother and father are awarded so much screentime is unusual for a film aimed at a teenage audience, though it is refreshing and important to see healthy parent/child relationships on the big screen. Moreover, the unusual prominence of parents in a film about teenagers further adds realism, reflecting just how much more dependent Hazel is on her parents than other people her age. The struggle of looking after a teenager with cancer is portrayed brilliantly by both Laura Dern and Sam Trammell, though the former features more heavily. Dern successfully conveys the perpetual terror Hazel’s mother must face, rushing to her daughter assuming the worst even when Hazel is simply alerting her of an email. Some of the film’s most poignant scenes involve Hazel and her parents, making the story more well-rounded and believable. Other stories are explored, for example Willem Dafoe features as the drunken, Swedish hip-hop loving, author, exemplifying why one should never meet their heroes. One of the most disappointing transmissions from book to film however was the underuse of Hazel and Gus’ friend Issac (Nat Wolff), a fellow cancer sufferer who loses his sight. Isaac’s relationship with the main characters is much deeper than the film shows, and his scenes often seem tagged-on simply because he was too big of a character in to omit altogether.

While the cast as a whole gave good performances, Ansel Elgort’s portrayal of Augustus was particularly commendable. A pretentious and arrogant character, with a different actor Gus could have come across as flashy and unlikeable. Instead, Elgort was charming and funny without shying away from the more challenging and potentially irritating aspects of Augustus’ character. Fans of the novel will almost certainly be delighted with Elgort’s near perfect portrayal of Gus, though Woodley’s Hazel does not so closely match the character in Green’s much-loved book. Hazel is a character who is very witty, though this trait seems to be downplayed within Woodley’s performance. Perhaps the movie aimed for a slightly more serious tone, which would also explain why some other humorous, light-hearted elements did not make the cut. The film does still include a few comedic moments, though its focus seems clearly set on the romance elements and the gut-wrenching, weepy ending.

SUMMARY: A faithful adaptation of the best-selling young adult novel, The Fault in Our Stars should not be dismissed simply because it is aimed at teenagers. The performances are impressive all round, and, ignoring a few sickly clichés, the film is a fairly original, refreshingly honest, romance drama which tackles difficult subjects effectively.

GAME REVIEW: JAZZPUNK

Recently, many of the products churned out by the giants of game development are very serious, with most of the big name games being dreary, dark, psychologically exhausting adventures. Often the protagonist is forced to fight through bleak and hopeless situations, and the setting is almost certainly a baron, apocalyptic wasteland inhabited by more zombies than even George A. Romano could cope with. It’s almost as if Netflix is broken, and now we are only allowed to browse the psychological-thriller-with-a-strong-female-protagonist genre. Whilst such dystopian duplicates dominate the triple-A market, there are a few light-hearted alternatives heading the indie revolution. Alongside some recent simulators (some good, some admittedly dreadful) for example the octopus-simulated madness of Octodad, one of the best games of the movement is undoubtedly Jazzpunk.

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Made by Necrophone Games and published by Adult Swim, Jazzpunk is a surreal faux espionage comedy adventure in which you play as Polyblank, perhaps the most unremarkable lead protagonist of any game. Jazzpunk begins with a Catch Me If You Can style opening sequence where we follow a suspicious human shaped suitcase though the conveyor belts of baggage reclaim. We are eventually dropped off at Darlington Station where we meet our boss ‘The Director’, who then sends us on some weird, prescription medicine induced missions. And that is where I’m going to stop talking about the game, because Jazzpunk begs to be played. Just as a joke is more about the teller than the punchline, in order to fully appreciate the humour of Jazzpunk you have to play it; the game would be nowhere near as funny if you simply read what the game is about.

Jazzpunk is visually fantastic. It has a distinctive style, which is often the key to the success of an indie game. Despite its individuality, Jazzpunk clearly has many influences; perhaps most notably the 1950s American noir inspired story and characters. The cartoonishness of the game’s slap stick comedy as well as its artwork distances Jazzpunk from other recent games and keeps the tone humorous. The comedy really is the main selling point here. The game is simultaneously nostalgic and futuristic, packed with clever pop culture references and absurd jokes. The abundance of sight gags and characters who are authoritative yet hilariously incompetent ensures comparisons to Police Squad! or indeed any one of the Leslie Nielsen spoofs. However, the sheer nonsensical childishness of Jazzpunk resembles old fashioned British surrealist comedy so strongly that comparisons to Monty Python would not be unwarranted.

One downside of Jazzpunk is that the gameplay does get a tad repetitive, and this is because you’re not really playing a game in the traditional sense. It could be argued that this is more of an interactive story similar to Gone Home or Dear Esther. There is some ingenuity in the interaction, which is always incredibly exciting the first time it happens, but eventually the tedium of the actions will set in. The controls themselves are very basic but do feel a bit loose and it can be hard to control; it’s a bit slip-and-slidey, so when precision is required it can be a bit difficult. Jazzpunk suffers from the same inaccuracy of controls as Half-Life, whereby imprecision of the controls made laborious jumping puzzles almost impossible. This frictionless experience adds to another issue with the game in that it can cause motion sickness. We’ve seen this before in The Stanley Parable and Anti-Chamber, and although it doesn’t affect everyone, it does ruin the enjoyment if you are permanently semi-nauseated.

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Here is the main sticking point with Jazzpunk: It’s £11 and that’s only for 3 hours of gameplay. Yes, there is a lot to do and a lot to see, and in each level you can look around every nook and cranny finding things so intensely cool that you’ll wonder why it wasn’t the main focus of the game. A plethora of achievements are available to strive for, and you really need to explore the levels thoroughly to complete them. Jazzpunk also boasts mini games in which you can attack anthropomorphic pizzas or perform 360 noscopes on unsuspecting NPC noobs. However, there is no real replayability. You are paying £11 for three hours, meaning every hour of gameplay costs you £4. It is currently the same price as Battleblock Theatre which has a much longer main story, an online mode, a co-op mode and many downloadable maps in the Steam Workshop. Jazzpunk is not a demanding game on your system though, and thus should run pretty well on even low-end computers. The settings menu isn’t particularly inspiring, but you can change the quality through some pre-sets if your computer is struggling; as the owner of a potato I can confirm the game runs reasonably well on low end systems, as long as there aren’t any mass particle effects happening.

Jazzpunk is an incredibly fun game that begs you to play it, to explore everything it’s got. The more you look around, the more entertaining and amusing it is, though you’ve got to want to look around. You are not going to enjoy your £4 an hour experience just trotting through the objectives and then never touching it again. At £11 it’s going to be hard to justify, but if it’s ever on sale you won’t want to miss it.

THE BENEFIT OF HINDSIGHT: CALL OF DUTY 2

Do you remember your first gaming memories? Those first bouts of excitement and enthusiasm from deep in your soul? Those first few games you remember now so vividly? The long and elaborate skirmishes in Age of Empires, the swatting of headcrabs and the clanging of Gordon Freeman’s crowbar give us the rawest of all these pleasures. Don’t you think they all seemed so perfect compared the mass produced, committee-made follow-ups? Well it’s time to remind ourselves that no matter how nostalgia may blind us; even our most beloved things have maggots behind their masks.

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Today, I’m going to replay a game I played as a child in a cold attic on a computer that ran slower than a geriatric tortoise moonwalking through sludge. This game I played so intently was not among the first to introduce me to video games, yet Call of Duty 2 is definitely the game I remember the most vividly from my childhood. I remember my brother bringing it home one day and how I used to peer over his shoulder, watching him blow chunks out of the enemy. I would sneak around trying to play the game without my brother finding out, sitting for hours just running around in the game before re-enacting my victories in the garden with some twigs. My nostalgic affection for Call of Duty 2, and my wish to preserve that childish glee, makes me terrified of playing the game again as an adult. Oh bugger it, let’s hammer another nail into my masochist coffin and boot up the game.

When revisiting a beloved game from the past my first reaction is usually to recoil in horror at the graphical abomination on the screen, as in the case of Mafia or Morrowind. For a game released in 2005, Call of Duty 2 holds up surprisingly well and looks visually decent. Of course, it lacked the realism we are now accustomed to, for example the lip sync was noticeably awful; this does affect the immersion of the game, though I can forgive this as I am reminded of my beloved, late goldfish, Josephine. The game begins in the Russian field so familiar to me as we are taught the basics of warfare. This appears to be the usual tutorial, except news quickly spreads that a huge counter-attack is being launched against your front. From there it’s straight into gameplay, refreshingly without any unnecessary filler. This differs from the 30 or so minutes it usually takes to start a game now, accumulating pointless achievements for loading the game, moving your character successfully, not putting your controller in the oven and so on. The game just lets you go for it, and within minutes of starting you’ll be sneaking through streets, flanking tanks, clearing out houses and shelled buildings and basically shooting anything that looks vaguely Aryan.

That's a rather cuddly looking Luger

That’s a rather cuddly looking Luger

When I first played this game I remember gleefully running around the map casually flinging grenades and spraying rounds like a sprinkler on a waltzer. It really felt like I had free reign of an open map. After playing again, open is a word I would no longer use; it feels more engineered than open. For each large bit of the map there are 3-4 corridors of adversaries to march through to get to your target, meaning you don’t notice the small and limited maps. This became a bit of a drag and it seems unnecessary when there are bombed out building I would rather walk through rather than cut through streets filled with bloodthirsty enemies with machine guns.It is reminiscent of the modern Call of Dutys whereby the game is just some narration accompanying one long path of under-armed, unmotivated troops being gunned down in the name of conspiracy.

Anyway, let’s get back to the battlefield. After a short while, I noticed an odd flaw in the game’s AI. The spawning appears somewhat inconsistent, for example Captain Price – an undefeatable character – spawned in enemy infantry rather than by my side. He then went Full Metal Jacket and rifle-butted 15 unlucky soles to death, one after another whilst more enemies spawned around him. On a separate occasion, enemies began to spawn behind our lines which lead to the AI becoming confused; charging into corners of the map and talking about non-existent artillery piece which apparently needing taking out. I’ve also been stuck inside multiple walls and been hit many times with the butt of a gun when I could have easily been shot and progressed through the level.

Despite its flaws, Call of Duty 2 has plenty of enjoyable features that are worth revisiting. For example the American campaign in which you fight, from the Normandy beaches, through trenches and towns, foot by bloody foot, spurred on by the rousing words of General Pattern. You begin to think victory is in your grasp only to be forced to fall and retreat as the superiorly armed opposition push you back and force you to watch your men die around you and your ammo dwindle. As you’re sitting there with your back to a cliff and 120 adversaries trying to blow you out of your foxhole, I noticed how fun it was to be forced to defend for once. Even through my cynical adult eyes I had fun with this scene, almost as much as I did as a sugar powered child, but after 3 minutes it was over. Some planes flew overhead, killed everyone who wasn’t on our side, and claimed victory. What? 3 minutes? That’s it? Can’t the planes do something else for a bit? I don’t want another mission I want to struggle on defending with my doomed comrades!

Is that my hand or do I have trench foot?

Is that my hand or do I have trench foot?

The main problem with Call of Duty 2 is that it rarely seemed to play to its strengths. For example, the game would litter some of the maps with giant artillery pieces for you to play with. While this was a nice touch, you soon realise having a cool gun means nothing in an uninhabited warzone. I waited and waited for something, anything, to spawn … but it was not to be. These giant, cool weapons usually only become available once you’ve already killed everyone, which seems like a strange decision for the developers to make. I must have repressed this memory as I don’t remember the artillery; I probably got sick of waiting for the opposition to blow up and wandered off to find sandwiches and someone else to annoy.

I do recall from my childhood, and not so fondly, the tagged on vehicle missions that the game throws at you. I sighed a couple of times, hoping there would be a way to avoid them, but this was to no avail. My younger self may have been gullible enough to grind through this horror and get back up, persevering when everything went wrong, but now I am simply unwilling to give myself a peptic ulcer. At one point I was stuck in a truck and I was meant to shoot at something, but I didn’t know what. What am I shooting at? And why am I in this truck? Just as I decided to fire randomly, a tank pops out. Finally, I know what I’m doing! But then the game reprimands me for my random firing, telling me ‘you shouldn’t have done that’ and making me restart the level. Well, since I didn’t want get in the truck in the first place, I think I’ll just bloody well walk.

Call of Duty 2 used to be enjoyable, a game I turned to in order to emulate the emotions and the rush of war. However, after playing it again with a fresh, older and less cute face, I can now see it is not a gift from the gods but rather just an average war game. The paragon of enjoyment it isn’t, even though child me would insist otherwise. It’s a game that’s good at putting on a show, so that your memory fades out the ever present feeling of annoyance. She says it’ll be fun and things will always be the same, but when you go back you’ll realise what a horrible mistake that was.

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Who decorated in here? They deserve to be shot.

The Benefit of Hindsight: What was once an open world of excitement is now a forced corridor of tedium. It’s still alright though, I guess.