Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Je t'aime, mon Québécois: Revisiting 'Allied'

There are no doubts that Robert Zemeckis is one of the most talented filmmakers ever. In more than one film he manages to touch the most unreachable strings of anyone's soul, giving the audiences the lowest emotional blows that no emotionally strong alpha male could ever resist. 2016's Allied is certainly not an exception as the story revolves in one of the world's darkest hours: World War II, when Europe was cornered by the deadly Nazi forces and the Luftwaffe dropped bombs all over England.

Theatrical poster for Allied.
It all began with a screenwriter Steven Knight remembering a story he heard when he was 21 years old, about an Allied officer marrying the female agent he had to work with. A time after their son was born, his superiors ordered him to kill her with concrete evidence that she was a German double agent.

This was the basis of Allied, where Canadian RAF commander Max Vatan (Brad Pitt) is sent on an assasination mission in the French Morocco, where he meets his liason Marianne Beausejour (Marion Cotillard), posing as his wife until the mission is accomplished. At first, they'll resist falling for each other, but the physical and emotional connection between the two will grow significantly after they get the job done and miraculously escape alive.

Years later, after Max and Marianne marry and have a daughter, he is summoned by Section V of the Secret Intelligence Service and told that Marianne Beausejour was dead and replaced by a woman looking very much alike, and that their target in Morocco was actually a Hitler dissident. Max is ordered to run a "blue dye" on her: leave a fake important message to see if she reports it to Germany. If she does, he'll have to kill her or they'll be both executed for treason.

The story is also very reminiscent to the very las pages of Ian Fleming's Casino Royale, where Bond discovers his very much beloved Vesper was a double agent after she commits suicide not bearing with the guilt and the posibility they could both be hunted down. In comparison, Allied extends that premise by having Max presented with the facts and having to act, standing on a crossroad between the flag and the woman he loves.

While Brad Pitt feels a bit unemotional on his performance as Max, Marion Cotillard makes an exceptional role. Perhaps one of the best of her career. The French actress is incredibly convincing as both a cold and self-reliant agent of the French Ressistance and as the caring and loving wife every man would dream of. Despite the cloud of doubt floating avobe the loyalties of her character, it's hard not to fall for her and not to feel her every time as much as his husband does. She was, without a shadow of doubt, the right actress for the role.
Marianne (Marion Cotillard) and Max (Brad Pitt) in a scene set in Casablanca in the fiction.
The detail of the production design by Gary Freeman and the costumes by Joanna Johnston is outstanding.

"C'est moi. This is the real me," she tells Max as she hugs him in tears, while she's giving birth to their daughter Anna in the middle of an air-raided London.

Robert Zemeckis brings back the glory of his Forrest Gump days with this movie: the soundtrack -also by Alan Silvestri- has the same emotional charge as the one of the highly acclaimed 1994 film. A good mixture between the soft wind instruments underlining the ill-fated romance between Max and Marianne and the intense and fast percussion cues of the war scenes. The setting of the movie in the 1940s was also very detailed: Marion Cotillard's costumes designed by Joanna Johnston resembled the times with very chic designs, so was Brad Pitt's black tuxedo and cream three-piece suits, very suitable for the hot climate of Morocco.

"The movie is a romance at its core, so the production design was always done with an eye towards being romantic", commented Zemeckis. "When we start the film in Casablanca we wanted it to evoke the Casablanca that we know from the movie Casablanca".

The happy days of Max and Marianne.

Production designer Gary Freeman took attention to every detail to turn the Moroccan city into a North African version of the French Riviera as it was during the days where Morocco belonged to France. It is with the great team work made by Freeman, Silvestri and Johnston that we fall in love with an exotic and romantic story right from the very beginning: the people in charge of the set design, the soundtrack and the costume design succeed in making the film beliavable, sexy and intense.

As the story moves to London, the costumes and sets change to provide a darker related to the days of Wartime. The Special Operations Executive office were based on Winston Churchill's claustrophobic offices inside a bunker and the cottage where Max and Marianne live has small rooms as it was fashionable back then. Gary Freeman often used the same location or building to prepare three different sets, and the changes went unnoticed.

The same happened with Marianne's clothing, which are much opaque incomparison to her colorful costumes from the Moroccan scenes. And the cinematographic palette offers an abrupt change between the gold and red hues of the desert and nightclubs to the desaturated colours of the Wartime London, showcasing Max's inner feelings as he is facing the posibility that his wife may be betraying him and his country.

Allied is a masterpiece, a movie that seduces and makes you cry. It can be defined as a war film, a drama or a romance, with the balance inclined much more towards the latter. A story on how could true love prevail over war. On how true love could prevail over masquerades, betrayals, deceit and even death.

Nicolás Suszczyk

Saturday, June 23, 2018

'I.G.I.-2: Covert Strike': An Overlooked Masterpiece

A long time ago when video games were gaining newer grounds among worldwide entertainment mediums, they were becoming less arcade-oriented and more cinematic-inspired in the late 1990s and early 2000s, before the Call of Duty franchise came to exist. One of these video game franchises was the Project I.G.I. series that only spawned two video games, both developed by the Norwegian-based late Innerloop Studios.

The first video game itself was described by the developers as "GoldenEye 007 on Windows PC," bearing the difficulties of a hard-edged first-person shooter (minus the blood and gore a la Wolfenstein and Doom, for instance) while involving a plot centering around military espionage. It challenges the player to move quick, think strategically, and fire the weapon accurately without being reckless as the enemies are themselves quite the marksmen. Each level has to be completed in one go where mid-game saves do not exist. Although, it did garner a lot of fans back in the day, the game received mixed reviews from the critics for a number shortcomings including the aforementioned lack of save option and a multiplayer mode that is demanded by the general audience of the video gaming world. Project I.G.I.: I'm Going In was published 15 December 2000 by the late Eidos Interactive, whose current parent company, Square Enix, hold the rights to this particular title.

Three years later, we've had a sequel to the millennium game, that is vastly updated from its previous effort, adding more agility, a lot of functionalities and further induced development and programming into the heart of the project. I.G.I.-2: Covert Strike arrived on the shelves on 3 March 2003 by the same development team, albeit with a different publisher - Codemasters. A game that was different yet the same, although better - a debatable matter among the fans - as it introduces new arrays of strategies that would lead the player to tackle each of the levels, objectives and given missions. But, of course, the game's military strategy and other set of technicalities were consulted by ex-SAS officer and Bravo Two Zero survivor turned author and novelist Chris Ryan. A fact that's very apparent in this game and why is it so great (perhaps even better) compared to many stealthy shooters that came before and after, hence the sub-title as it suggests "covert strike."

The story sees the return of I.G.I.'s most trustworthy agent, and ex-SAS operative David Jones who is sent to collect stolen modified EMP device smuggled from NATO by the Russian Mafia in and around the Carpathian mountains and Romanian borders, but overtime he discovers that things are not as they seem, having himself caught amidst the crossfire as he hovers around the globe, evading the dangers of betrayal in the process, and uncovers a plot by Chinese rogue military General to start World War III. And it's up to Jones to prevent the chaos.

The gameplay reflects on realism, albeit differently than the likes of Call of Duty gave birth to at the time. You, as the player character, are allowed to carry one primary weapon, one secondary weapon, a combat knife (always present by default), a hand grenade and sometimes other optional instruments of kill and first-aid kit rarely making appearances. Equipped with a GPS map tablet computer (called map computer, a product of its time), you can observe and decide where to make the attack or sneak in if you want it stealthy. Putting on the complete undetected stealth mode requires a lot of experience. But, if you're going to burst in with full attack mode, you are going to have to be very quick. Especially when confronting the Chinese troops face to face. Their level of accuracy in marksmanship is very high.

Now, what is my opinion of this video game? Let's see...

It is designed rather greatly, if I'm quite honest. Chris Ryan's influence on how to infiltrate a base, engage with the enemy (or disengage for the matter), balance your accuracy and learn to control your subtlety is evident throughout the experience. It is up to the player to dictate one's own movements and method in a sandbox map, allowing you to move around the area in your preferred order, delude the enemy, and pave the way in for your own advantage if you play your cards right. It's a lot more atmospheric, in my opinion, than the first installment, and draws the world around you as if it were real. Imagine the experience in virtual reality, it could be a commando's survival simulator, if you will, as opposed to its predecessor which relied on the player's accuracy and quickness of the hand - namely, a generic shooter (albeit a great one!). I could describe David Jones as a more "hands-on and gloves-off Sam Fisher" minus the acrobatic agility and the nightvision goggles.

Each mission one tackles places the player in circumstances where somewhat of a huge responsibility has to be taken, if one isn't an expert in the game. I myself am not an expert, despite my years of playing the game since it came out. A large part of what makes this game fun is that you are given the option to be rewardingly stealthy, but it would require a huge amount of patience, bravery and strategical thinking for you to go through with it. Otherwise, you could play the game just like Project I.G.I.: I'm Going In, blast the doors open, and leap in with guns blazing, provided you're as careful and quick as you were in the first game. As for me, I fall in the middle - Half stealthy, half confrontational, depending on my situation.

What also makes the game outstanding in its tone is Kim Jensen's music as I stated above who has upped his game and gave every level its own specific track which could get to your nerves and spawn anxiety if you will - the fear of getting caught. That is, of course, if you are to take the game seriously, which I do. Without the soundtrack, half of the game's fun aspect would be taken away, truthfully speaking. For a spy experience, you need quite the ambiance to keep you away from the fourth wall and treat the missions accordingly, it's supposed to be haunting even for someone as professional as David Jones. Then, there's also one element in each of the levels (well, most of them, anyway) I rather like - in each of their beginnings, the first thing the player sees is the landscape overview of the map from afar, and the world around it is silent, thus paving you the way in for an atmospheric infiltration.

A sample of the soundtrack by Kim Jensen - I.G.I.-2: Covert Strike main theme

...And then, there's that one specific level set at the Romanian borders where you are to evade hordes of hostile border patrols with Dragunov sniper rifles. Good Heavens! That's one level where you can't simply barge in with full action commando execution and let your gunbarrel flash its muzzle. It's even more petrifying than its namesake from the previous game (both called "Border Crossing") where you start off with no weapon but your combat knife.

Overall, while the first game is a tactical shooter, this one is a strategically stealthy shooter. Personally, I prefer the latter. The storyline for Covert Strike is also more appealing to my tastes, as I could see it easily being a James Bond thriller, something that is indeed noticeable this time around in the characterization of David Jones who differs quite than that of his previous incarnation. No disrespect to the great Philip Morris (Jones's voiceover in the first) in the slightest, but I do like Boris Sosna better as I find him more suited to the veteran ex-SAS turned IGI covert operative character with his deep voice and the confidence that oozes in the lines he delivers without overdoing it. Then again, being a lifelong Bond fan myself, I do like Jones better as a Bond-like rather than something akin to a young and yet-inexperienced Jason Statham type. While I love Project I.G.I.: I'm Going In very dearly, the second game is by far higher in my book as it is in my top five spy video games list (all of them being shooters, mind?) that I yearly revisit, at least once.

Is there a future for this series? Luckily, yes. Sometimes, good things come to those who wait, as they say. Video games developer studios named Artplant purchased the intellectual property regarding Project I.G.I. as well as the character of David Jones and others in January, last year. Artplant is in itself founded by former employees of the now-defunct Innerloop Studios, who officially announced that a third game in the series, named Project I.G.I.: We're Going In is already in development as of May 2017. While the general fans of the franchise prefer the first game by a wide margin over the second, I personally hope the third installment is akin to I.G.I.-2: Covert Strike which is more atmospheric, in my opinion. We're yet to get a first look at the third game or any reports for the matter. But, Artplant revealed that it will continue building up on the feature of "the freedom the series has become known for." Well, I can hardly wait!

Thank you for reading! Feel free to discuss the topic below!

Monday, June 18, 2018

Going Back In Time: Dynamite Entertainment Presents James Bond Origin

Ever since assuming the license from Ian Fleming Publications back in 2014, eligible for twenty years to use and produce comic books centering on the character as well as the universe that surrounds him, we've had twelve installments from Dynamite Entertainment based on Ian Fleming's intellectual property, three of them being spinoffs, while the rest are original stories by various artists and a faithful graphic novel adaptation of Fleming's first novel, Casino Royale that came out only a couple of months ago to positive reviews.

But, that isn't all. Dynamite made a whole new revelation today that they've announced back in 2017 during the Diamond Summit event, originally scheduled for Fall 2017, only to be pushed back to Spring 2018, which didn't materialize but now.

The original announcement image by Ian Fleming Publications
James Bond Origin is the title unveiled today, depicted as a whole new series that takes the readers back to March 1941 where James Bond is a 17 year old boy making the decision that will change his life forever. But, before I further come to discussing the details, I'd like to mention that despite Fleming's given birth of year of Bond's, novelist Charlie Higson settled on 11 November 1920 as the character's date of birth while writing the Young Bond novels, which would make him over 20 years old by then. Anachronistic, sure. But, it's all in a minor factor that changes over the years with fictional characters. Writer and comics veteran Jeff Parker reflects on the experience:

“It’s a weighty challenge to reverse-engineer this icon into a young man on a life’s journey of danger, but Nate Cosby paired me up with Bob Q, who not only brings the gravitas of war in 1941 Europe, but nails the promising hero in his youth,” Parker said in a statement. “James doesn’t have the vast experience of a double-O agent yet, but he’s tenacious and a lightning-quick study. Bob and I work to show the full force of Bond’s spirit.”

James Bond Origins #1 F-Retailer Exclusive cover by artist Bob Q

The official blurb proposes this:

Introducing a 17 year James Bond, a restless student in Scotland, who is eager to leave his mark on the world, a sudden but unfortunate series of events coincides the visit by an old family friend with devastating Clydebank Blitz, thus forcing a young Bond to fight to survive.

Written by Jeff Parker and illustrated by Bob Q, the first issue is set to come out sometime in September, later this year, resulting in the debut of a new series in the franchise. The first issue - of course - will come in various selection of covers illustrated by several artists, a treat that VARGR had seen back in November 2015. It's worth to mention that one of the covers is brought by Kev Walker, who himself worked on various artworks for the Young Bond novel series as well as the graphic novel adaptation of Silverfin, the first book in the aforementioned sub-franchise within the main franchise.

Variant covers for James Bond Origin feature materials delivered by
(left to right) John Cassaday, David Mack, Kev Walker
Gene Ha, Ibrahim Moustafa, and Bob Q in collaboration with Jordan Boyd.

Thank you for reading! Feel free to discuss the topic below!

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Agent 47 Returns In 'Hitman 2'

With E3 2018 at the doorstep, IO Interactive announced the upcoming installment in the globally renowned video game franchise, Hitman in a new title, conveniently called Hitman 2, taking after the sixth entry in the series which was simply named after the franchise's label, thus serving as a continuation of its predecessor and bearing a very similar gameplay style.

Hitman 2 (not to be confused with the actual second game, Hitman 2: Silent Assassin that came out in 2002) puts the world's deadliest assassin, Agent 47 against the shadowy backdrop of conspiratorial conflicts as he pursues the mysterious figure only referred to as 'The Shadow Client' who has ties to his past while also looking into the organization known as Providence who meddle with world affairs without anyone in the know.

When IO Interactive bought themselves out of the holdings of Square Enix as well as purchasing the rights to the Hitman franchise last year, what was supposed to be an episodic release in the form of Season 2 in the title that made its debut in March 2016 was canned in favor of a complete retailer release only unveiled a few days ago. Only this time, Warner Bros Interactive Entertainment will be publishing and distributing the title rather than Square Enix that has cut ties with the intellectual property regarding Hitman. It is scheduled for release on 13 November 2018 on Microsoft Windows PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 in various editions.

Aside from the six-level official missions narrating the plot, the concept of weekly Elusive Targets will return, downloadable contents will be available in each of their respective schedules, features from the fourth installment in the series, Hitman: Blood Money, will also be making comebacks, including the briefcase to hide a carbine rifle in, and the Sniper Assassin mode is available to those who pre-order the game, added by the cooperative multiplayer feature in it, as well. There will be further two expansion packs in the future, that include new sniper maps, locations, weapons, outfits and side missions unrelated to the plot of the game.

On side notes, after two unsuccessful efforts to bring Hitman to the big screen with an established film franchise, a television series adaptation was announced in November 2017, commissioned by Hulu, with the pilot episode being written by Derek Kolstad, the famous creator of another assassin franchise, John Wick. Although, it is not yet known when it will be airing as production on the episodes is yet to commence.