Horror Today: Are Our Expectations Too Low?

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The Horror genre is an established and beloved facet of film with a wide variety of sub-genres, each of which have garnered healthy fandoms. The Body Horror, Psychological Horror, Slasher and Torture Porn genres all boast classic films as part of their libraries – from mainstream hits like Halloween to less conventional movies like Audition and Funny Games – and each year a plethora of new additions hit our screens.

Shows like The Walking Dead and American Horror Story keep the genre relevant in the mainstream and provide a valuable (if somewhat diluted) gateway to more artistic and intellectually stimulating experiences in the world of cinema, but on the big screen the Horror genre is often misrepresented and abused by filmmakers, production companies and studios alike.

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Narratively cohesive and visually exciting films like The Babadook and Mother! are widely disregarded by audiences because they challenge viewers and don’t rely on cheap tricks to generate entertainment, and in an effort to cater towards the masses studios produce fast-paced, surprise-heavy films with little substance by the bucket load. In doing so they inform their audience’s choices and create a lower level of expectation, facilitating a system which favours profitability over quality and doesn’t require one to ensure the other.

Audiences are consistently short-changed by companies which would rather make an empty but financially-safe movie like The Gallows for $100,000 than something ambitious, and the idea that effective jump scares are essential to the genre is constantly reinforced to mainstream audiences by these kinds of films. Movies like Lights Out are heralded as ground-breaking by casual cinemagoers because they have appealing premises and are marginally more stimulating than the standard throwaway horror that you might find at your local Cineworld, regardless of the fact that the filmmaking is middling at best.

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As previously mentioned, the genre has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to variety; many of the classics come from one or two sub-genres – with movies like Scream, Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street all most readily branded as Slashers – but others are great films regardless of how they are categorised such as Alien, The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby.

Horror is a study of themes – an exploration of human psychology and our penchant for fearing that which we do not understand – so by virtue of the fact that we know as little as we do it’s a diverse and rich field to study. Yet, within this field filmmakers and audiences alike play it safe, preparing and digesting the same mishmash of clichés on a daily basis whilst ignoring the fact that the taste has faded.

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This Halloween the only cinematic release to capitalise on one of the calendar’s most celebrated holidays was a tepid reboot/sequel of a franchise which should’ve died many movies ago. Jigsaw was a tired and inept attempt at breathing life into a series which at this point has about as much energy as the rotting corpse of its fictional anti-hero John Kramer, and the fact that audiences went to see it is both disappointing and encouraging in equal measure.

The good news is that Jigsaw’s commercial success demonstrates the fact that fans will still pay to see a horror film if a trailer peaks their interest. When there isn’t a recognisable name behind the film the situation is admittedly more complicated – the stars have to align and the need for careful marketing is more pronounced – but if you can find the balance between a pandering set of jump scares and a pretentious art film then there’s a lot of money to be made.

The bad news is that the majority of people can’t tell the former from the latter, and ultimately they’ll pay to see anything as long as a marketing team makes the choice for them.

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The truth is that fans aren’t given an immense amount of choice. Brilliant horror films are being made around the world on a regular basis but they aren’t easily accessible to everyone and they certainly aren’t shown in every cinema across the United Kingdom. You can find them, of course, but in an age when people aren’t willing to interact socially unless their conversations are filtered through a barrage of apps, and can’t articulate their emotions without a meticulously chosen emoji, how can we expect them to make informed decisions on which films to watch? People do as they’re told – like it or not – and they’re told to watch whatever Blumhouse Productions wants them to watch.

Goodnight Mommy is a prime example of the type of movie from within the horror genre which should be made available to fans without the need for excessive research, but unless you happened to stumble across it at your local arthouse cinema it’s unlikely that it made a blip on your radar. Luckily Austria’s nomination for Best Foreign Language Film at the 88th Academy Awards is now available on Amazon Prime and is accessible to anyone with a subscription, but the fact remains that for every well-produced horror drama there’s a franchise-killer like Rings to tell audiences that they needn’t get their hopes up.

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Streaming services like the above-mentioned Amazon Prime make lesser-known movies available to the masses, and Netflix has recently added quality to the genre with two stellar Stephen King adaptations (Gerald’s Game and 1922 respectively), but these services can only suggest which films their viewers should watch. They have extensive libraries and an abundance of quantity over quality, so for every film like The Descent there’s an eyesore like Before I Wake to balance the scales, and the latter will likely gain just as much traction as the former.

This isn’t a criticism of people’s viewing habits or a recommendation for what they should choose to enjoy – I can appreciate a bad film just as much as the next person – it’s merely a reflection on the fact that as a society we’ve been conditioned to accept movies of a certain standard simply because they’re convenient to find and consume. We shouldn’t give our money to Twisted Pictures so that they can churn out another lacklustre film in the Saw franchise – that horse is dead and it’s about time that we stopped beating it – we should collectively put more of an emphasis on quality and demand that filmmakers earn the money that we give them.

All of these points boil down to one thing, which is that Horror is an underappreciated and misunderstood genre which is unfairly categorised as niche and tasteless because people don’t have easy access to the types of movies which validate being a fan. As fans we’re as much responsible for that as the filmmakers because we fund their projects and thank them by buying a ticket when they make something which is fundamentally deficient.

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Refer back to my earlier comment about The Walking Dead; it’s one of the most watched and talked about shows on television today, yet in my view it’s also one of the least compelling. The first six episodes were character driven, well-shot, and they had direction, so although the characters weren’t fully-realised there was a sense that it could become something special.

Frank Darabont started as showrunner and he cared about Robert Kirkman’s material; he got some of his talented friends on board from projects like The Mist and they helped to steer the ship in the right direction. However, by the time the second season rolled around creative differences between AMC and Darabont (director of films like The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile) meant that he was let go. Ever since then the show has been less of a drama and more of a soap opera, yet the popularity of the series remains intact because now people are invested and want to be part of the conversation.

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Horror is an exceptional genre of film and popular culture. It plays with human emotions more than any other genre, forcing people to participate and to use their imagination in order to  answer the question – ‘what would I do in this situation?’. It’s an engaging form of entertainment and a valuable tool for growth which encourages people to face their fears and conceptualise scenarios which they’d rather avoid. It provides an avenue to explore abstract concepts and themes which are relevant to our everyday lives, and it does so through a format which allows casual viewers to enjoy what’s happening on screen even if they don’t want to consider the implications. Of the films that I’ve already mentioned The Babadook considers mental illness, Rosemary’s Baby examines ambition and The Descent explores the impact of grief, and each one does so in a considered and symbolic manner.

It’s a genre which iconic filmmakers like John Carpenter, Wes Craven, Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick and George Romero have each dedicated large portions of their lives to, and it’s one which needs to be disassociated from those films which sully its reputation in cinemas today. Horror is not a group of teens throwing popcorn from the back of the cinema or speakers turned up so high that you can’t help but jump out of your seat at the end of every sequence; it’s a study in aspects of human psychology which are too complex to consider through everyday experiences – an exploration of our vulnerabilities – and when it’s done right it can be the most emotionally effective variety of film.

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Ingrid Goes West

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Ingrid Goes West” is a comedy-drama starring Elizabeth Olsen and Aubrey Plaza.

It revolves around obsession and the dangers of social media, and at the festival it was billed as a comedy. However, to my surprise it was a rather difficult film to watch as the main character is damaged – verging on deranged – and her behaviour is rarely amusing. Her fixation with internet mogul Taylor Sloane (Olsen) is more unsettling than it is comical, and I didn’t laugh once.

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Ingrid is a mentally-ill woman who invades the life of a more successful person in order to live vicariously through her. This could be played for comedic effect with the right script, but it never feels as though that’s what director Matt Spicer wanted from the movie.

Instead, the bulk of “Ingrid Goes West conveys the message that behind the façade Taylor is just as empty and self-conscious as Ingrid. Again there’s a way to make this work, and the fact that the focus is on drama rather than comedy isn’t a criticism in itself, but the relationship between Ingrid and Taylor isn’t developed enough to engage the audience in their dynamic.

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If Spicer had worked harder to make Ingrid likeable then “Ingrid Goes West would’ve been monumentally better, particularly because the moral dilemma of the film required Ingrid to be at least minimally relatable. Unfortunately, the reality is that none of the characters in this movie are multidimensional, the story is predictable, and the concept of tone is essentially non-existent.

I respect the fact that Spicer wanted to tell a story about a woman who was so infatuated by the idea of celebrity that she lost her sense of self, and I understand that the narrative was designed to beat the audience over the head with the idea that social media can be perilous, but the execution was poor and the end product was monotonous.

5/10

The Shape of Water

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Guillermo Del Toro’s latest monster masterpiece, “The Shape of Water”, tells the story of a mute woman working on a secret military base who makes an emotional connection with an amphibious creature.

This is a suitably bizarre synopsis for a movie which tackles human problems such as love and individuality, and there’s nobody better equipped than Del Toro to tell such a curious tale.

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From the moment this film starts to the second that it ends Del Toro creates a visual feast, with creature design and make-up which is second to none. The world, whilst confined to just a few locations, feels lived-in and the characters are relatable despite their exaggerated natures.

At a Screen Talk after the film Del Toro explained that he wanted to create a love story in which a woman falling in love with a creature was ‘just a fact’, rather than the point of the narrative. He recalled that as a child he couldn’t understand why the creature from the Black Lagoon didn’t end up with the damsel, and he stated that films such as “Beauty and the Beast” are flawed because change shouldn’t be required to facilitate love.

‘Love, like water, has no shape’, he explained, and this is the essence of his latest monster movie.

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Overall, “The Shape of Water” is a life-affirming film which tackles familiar themes such as the ability of love to conquer all things, but it does so in a refreshingly abstract way. Del Toro uses fantasy to tackle human stories and by doing so he’s able to make unique movies – “The Shape of Water” is no exception and whilst it isn’t perfect it’s held together by a number of powerful performances, a wonderful message, and accomplished cinematography.

7.5/10

Apostasy

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Apostasy stars British actors Siobhan Finneran, Sacha Parkinson and Jessica Baglow as a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses struggling to cope with adversity whilst maintaining their religious lifestyle. It’s directed by ex-Witness Daniel Kokotajlo and competed in the First Features Competition at the 2017 BFI London Film Festival.

The first thing to say about this film is that whilst it challenges our common sense understanding of human behaviour it doesn’t pick a side. If a committed Jehovah’s Witness watched this film they would likely find its exploration of their organisation to be unfair and inaccurate, but to mainstream secular viewers the portrayal of the group may seem rather kind.

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This is intended in a sense as Kokotajlo didn’t try to make a film which denounced the Witnesses or their way of life. Rather, he wanted to articulate some of the problems that he has with their practices and explore scenarios which he’d considered whilst being part of the system.

In a Q&A after the screening, Kokotajlo explained that “Apostasy” considers the cognitive dissonance between the way that the Witnesses see the world and how an everyday person understands reality, forcing the audience to enter the protagonist’s perspective and attempt to comprehend why a family might ostracise their loved one in this life in order to save them in the next.

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Kokotajlo has had 15 years to think about this film since leaving the Witnesses and that time has provided him with a balanced perspective on the group and their practices. The movie which has been born from this period of reflection is nothing short of fantastic and every decision works, whether it be the close-up camerawork which is intended to detach the characters from their backgrounds, (just as they are detached from the physical world and only think about ‘the new system’), or the way in which many characters demonstrate the duplicity of a religion which is simultaneously well-meaning whilst also being antagonistic to outsiders.

Overall, “Apostasy is a thoughtful and surprisingly poignant film from an exciting director.

8/10

The Florida Project

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“The Florida Project” is the latest film from director Sean Baker, starring Willem Dafoe as a hotel manager and Bria Vinai as Halley, one of his most challenging tenants.

The stars of the film are the child actors, Brooklynn Prince (Moonee) and Valeria Cotto (Jancey), who turn The Magic Castle into their playground and bring joy to a bleak narrative.

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The first act focuses on the children and their mischievous exploits at the hotel; they spit on cars and hassle residents, making the most of their surroundings whilst their parents stay inside and struggle to make rent. These opening scenes are hilarious and heart-warming and the children’s mannerisms feel completely natural, but there’s always a sense that something is about to go wrong as tension builds in the background.

As the film progresses Halley’s situation becomes unmanageable and it’s obvious by the third act that she can’t provide for her child. This makes scenes in which the children venture off on their own feel suddenly disconcerting and brings a sense of urgency to what could’ve been a meandering narrative. Baker pulls this tonal shift off perfectly, allowing it to creep up on you slowly before abruptly injecting dread into what is an otherwise colourful and joyous experience.

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“The Florida Project” is a great film and one of the best that I saw at the London Film Festival. The direction is fantastic and the performances that Baker is able to get out of the child actors are exceptional. By juxtaposing the world that the children make for themselves with the altogether less wondrous one that their parents live in, Baker creates a poignant and at times beautiful film which packs an emotive punch.

8.5/10

Stronger

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“Stronger” is directed by David Gordon Green and stars Jake Gyllenhaal as Jeff Bauman, a man who lost his legs during the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013.

This film is as much about acceptance, overcoming adversity, and taking ownership of your responsibilities as it is about Jeff’s recovery from a life-changing injury, and Green does well to frame the entire movie around these themes.

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At the start of “Stronger” Jeff is a funny, likeable, care-free man chasing a girl he’s been dating on-and-off for a prolonged period of time. Immediately the idea that Jeff doesn’t show up is planted in the audience’s mind as Erin (played by Tatiana Maslany) cites this as one of the reasons why she recently broke up with him, and it’s this character trait which sparks the conflict of the movie into motion.

In this film just as in real life Jeff goes to the Boston Marathon to cheer Erin on, attempting to displace the aforementioned idea that he isn’t reliable and therefore isn’t a good choice of partner. In doing so his life is altered dramatically as not only does he lose his legs but he also identifies one of the bombers from memory and becomes a local hero in the process.

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This movie works on a number of levels – in one sense it’s a film about coping with a horrific injury and the trauma that comes with that, but in another it’s a story about handling celebrity whilst struggling to keep a stable personal life. It’s a very complex and emotionally affecting drama which is made all the more powerful by two immaculate lead performances from Gyllenhaal and Maslany.

The love story between Jeff and Erin is the thread that ties the film together and it’s worth saying that Maslany is perfect as Erin. Erin is devoted to Jeff throughout the film and loves him sincerely, but before the accident she was tired of putting up with his lack of dependability and although Jeff’s injuries create an obligation for her she’s strong enough to do what’s right for herself regardless of the situation that she’s in.

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She’s a very well-realised and relatable character and she certainly isn’t a plot device in this movie. She doesn’t feel as though she’s there to act as a pawn in Jeff’s story and if anything this is as much a film about her as it is about him – as she points out in the movie Jeff’s injury didn’t just happen to him, it happened to all the people that love him and are there for him every day.

To summarise, “Stronger” is a wonderful movie about a painful event in our recent history and a family’s struggle to recover from something that they never could’ve expected. It tackles its subject matter with care and within the ugliness there’s plenty of joy to be found. The visuals are harrowing, the performances are fantastic, and from start to finish I was emotionally invested in what was happening.

8/10

Borg vs McEnroe

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“Borg vs McEnroe” is a surprisingly cinematic film which is much prettier than it has any right to be. Colours pop off the screen and strike you with their clarity, although at times the artificially enhanced visuals can take away from the fact that this is a movie designed to interpret true events.

This is an accomplished film with much to enjoy, but there’s a sense in which the technical aspects have to be exceptional in order to make up for a limited narrative. Whilst screenwriter Ronnie Sandahl does well to focus on the mental side of tennis and the pressure that success brings, the margins that this movie sets itself are inescapable. It’s a well-made film with many positive features, but the experience as a whole is very samey.

Nothing stands out beyond the presentation because the story is narrow and ultimately predictable regardless of whether or not you’re familiar with what happened in real life, so it can be difficult to feel invested in the narrative.

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Thankfully, “Borg vs McEnroe” boasts strong performances and thus remains compelling in spite of its flaws, although I would’ve liked Sandahl to explore the psychological conflict at the heart of the titular characters in a more inventive manner.

The characters in this film are developed mainly through exposition and flashbacks; these writing tools are tired and contrived and their inclusion can make the film feel lazy. Mainstream audiences aren’t likely to recognise the shortcuts that the script takes when using these plot devices but that doesn’t make them any less frustrating from my perspective.

There are also points at which certain characters can seem slightly exaggerated which takes away from the realism of a story which is inspired by true events. However, because Shai LaBeouf (McEnroe) and Sverrir Gudnason (Borg) capture the basic flavour of their real-life counterparts this issue is somewhat mollified. The dynamic between the ice-cool Borg and the hot-headed McEnroe is interesting and I appreciated the fact that the two were kept separate for large periods; this made their personalities clear before they were thrust together in the movie’s final act and allowed their characters to feel properly realised.

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In summary, “Borg vs McEnroe” is a limited but well-presented film with good performances and a fascinating real-life story. Framing the narrative around the psychological struggle of being a top sportsman was a smart decision and I enjoyed the movie for what it was, but I felt it could’ve been improved with a few careful tweaks. I would happily recommend it to mainstream audiences and I think that it’s a much better film than its lack of meaningful marketing would suggest, but it wasn’t creative enough to be a great movie.

6.5/10

Mother!

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“Mother!” is a psychological horror film written and directed by Darren Aronofsky, the director of the Oscar-nominated “Black Swan” and “Requiem for a Dream”. It stars acting powerhouses such as Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, and Ed Harris, and tells the story of a woman who is marginalised in her own home.

The first thing to say regarding this film is that it simply isn’t for everyone. The narrative is abstract and symbolic to the point that it can often seem pretentious and much of what is shown is left up to interpretation.

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However, it’s important to note that the story that’s being told wouldn’t be more compelling if it was presented in a less figurative manner. The issue at play isn’t whether or not the plot should’ve been presented in a more straightforward way; it’s whether or not this kind of film has any sort of narrative value to begin with.

From my perspective this type of filmmaking is exciting and challenges mainstream audiences to consider how narrow their understanding of film as an art form actually is, so although many viewers might leave the cinema thinking that they’ve watched something nonsensical they’ll at least have been tested. Some may even be intrigued enough to widen the scope of the movies that they go to see in the future which in my opinion can only be a good thing.

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Jennifer Lawrence’s presence in “Mother!” will certainly go some way to enticing unsure cinemagoers in and I’m pleased to say that she’s fantastic in this movie. She plays a character (Mother) who is constantly treated poorly and she easily evokes the sympathy that you’re supposed to feel for her. She’s expressive and her performance is committed which makes all the difference to the overall quality of the film because the camera almost exclusively centres on her face.

Most of the shots in “Mother!” track Jennifer Lawrence’s character through her house and they’re carefully framed so that you’re focused on her whilst still being able to make out images on the periphery of your vision.

This works well at the start of the film because many audience members will be of the impression that the experience is going to mirror that of a conventional horror movie, with characters jumping out of the shadows at regular intervals in order to surprise the audience. Of course this isn’t actually the case and the real reason that the film’s cinematography is so captivating is that it forces you to enter Mother’s perspective and experience the events of the film with her, creating an intentionally confusing and disorientating atmosphere.

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On top of the cinematography and the performances the sound design is immaculate as every sound echoes through the cinema. This is perfect for early scenes in which Mother and her partner are alone in the house and it continues to work as characters enter the fray and begin to make the pair’s life together more chaotic. The sound feels as though it’s invading the silence and destroying the tranquillity inside Mother’s home, which makes a great deal of sense when you read about Aronofsky’s intentions for the film.

Nevertheless, whether or not these decisions on Aronofsky’s part create an enjoyable viewing experience is entirely down to the individual. This is the epitome of what people would call a divisive movie and many will detest it for its conceited nature. Personally I found it to be a rewarding and absorbing watch and I feel that the value of the film comes from the way that the narrative is told rather than the direction of the narrative itself, but I will concede that it’s ostentatious and difficult to digest at times.

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Cinematically, “Mother!” is interesting, assured, and constantly engaging. I wouldn’t recommend it to casual cinemagoers but Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem are brilliant and they deserve praise for their performances. The narrative is often perplexing and after watching Mother suffer throughout the film the pay-off isn’t necessarily worth the wait, but that doesn’t change the fact that this is a movie made by a master of his craft.

8/10

Pro Evolution Soccer 2018

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“Pro Evolution Soccer 2018” is a step backwards for the world’s second most popular console football game. It retains the realistic passing techniques of the last iteration and the quirky non-simulation nature of the series, but it doesn’t move the franchise forward in any discernible way.

Last year’s game was a fun and moreish experience which left you wanting to play another match every time you completed 90 minutes. It wasn’t the most accurate depiction of football as a sport but it was an enjoyable game to play which made up for its peculiar sensibilities.

Unfortunately, this year Konami have attempted to portray a more truthful version of the beautiful game and in doing so have undone much of what worked about “PES 2017”. This game isn’t as entertaining or as easy to play as its predecessor and it isn’t as fluid.

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The best thing about “PES 2017” was its contextual moments, in which players would choose the right technique for a particular pass or shot depending on the situation without requiring the player to insert another input. However, because the game is much slower this year these passes feel idiotic, especially given the fact that the AI react slowly and dwell maddeningly on the ball when in their own defensive area.

Previously I was able to ignore many of the issues that “PES” had – whether it be the AI passing the ball straight to the opposition from free-kicks or playing the ball across their own box – but in a game which feels as though it’s been stunted so that it can transition towards being a football simulator those problems aren’t as easy to swallow.

In many ways this game feels like just that – a transition. It doesn’t feel as though it actually works when you’re playing it and much of the time the experience is a bit of a chore. I can still have a good time when I’m playing on a team with my brother because he makes runs that the defence don’t track and when it gets too easy we can enjoy passing the ball laterally, but when I’m playing on my own there’s very little joy to be had.

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I don’t want to be too hard on this game because “PES” is one of my favourite franchises and I think it gets unfairly overlooked because of licensing issues and graphics which are restricted by a budget, but it’s hard to overlook a game’s flaws when they represent the dismantling of something you love.

For many years “Fifa” has felt the way that “PES” feels this year – a game that has taken a lot from the previous iteration and then tried to change the wrong things. This approach is infuriating for the player, not least because the changes being made aren’t tangible in any positive way.

I want to believe that Konami are taking the game in a new direction (one which feels more deliberate when playing) for the right reasons, but to me it feels as though they’re trying to make a game which is more like “Fifa”. This, in my opinion, is a lost cause.

I’m not “Fifa’s” biggest fan and I’ve made that clear in the past, but Konami can’t compete with EA when it comes to realism or presentation. They have to win on gameplay and offer an experience which feels substantially different to EA’s football behemoth – sadly they haven’t done this with “PES 2018”.

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Of course, there are positives mixed in with my mostly negative comments – the shooting is still satisfying with efforts flying past the keeper from distance, some of the player faces are great, and as previously mentioned most of the techniques are superb. The issue isn’t that “PES 2018” is completely awful or that Konami aren’t trying, it’s that this game’s positive features were all present in the previous game and thus the issues I’ve mentioned make “PES 2018” substantially worse than “PES 2017”.

I wish that I could endorse this game more confidently and delve into a list of positive features but the reality of the matter is that “PES 2018” represents a misstep for Konami and a fundamental misunderstanding of what made the last game great. I have a better time playing the free “Fifa 18” demo than I do playing this £40-£50 game so I can’t recommend it without being disingenuous.

5/10

Game of Thrones: Season Seven Finale – “The Dragon and the Wolf”

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“The Dragon and the Wolf” started in King’s Landing with Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and Bronn (Jerome Flynn) looking down on the Unsullied army. Tensions were high and for the first time in the series you really got the feeling that the Lannisters were the underdogs.

I enjoyed the dialogue in this opening scene because although I don’t think that comedy works particularly well on “Thrones” it’s more effective when it’s used to highlight the fact that characters are nervous and want to talk their worries away. Here you could feel what the characters were feeling and by starting in a subdued fashion the writers eased the audience into an episode which was designed to be incredibly tense.

After two throwaway scenes, (one with Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) and Jon (Kit Harington) and the other with The Hound (Rory McCann)), the episode continued in King’s Landing. Cersei (Lena Headey) spoke briefly to Qyburn (Anton Lesser) before giving The Mountain (Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson) instructions on who to kill if something went wrong. It was pretty transparent that this was intended to make the audience wonder whether or not there would be bloodshed at the meeting, but this was okay because it was a viable possibility.

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Next Daenerys’ (Emilia Clarke) entourage delivered exposition about the Dragonpit before bumping into Bronn and a group of Lannister soldiers. Seeing Pod (Daniel Portman) and Tyrion interact again was nice, as was the exchange between Tyrion and Bronn, but neither of these conversations lasted long enough to really excite me. The same can be said for the moment in which The Hound spoke to Brienne (Gwendoline Christie) about Arya (Maisie Williams), although in my opinion this worked better because it served to show how far The Hound has come since season four.

With the formalities out of the way the episode finally got going as the main characters found themselves together in the Dragonpit. The first thing to note here is that The Hound got a glimpse of The Mountain and all but confirmed Cleganebowl. I enjoyed this moment because it’s going to be important in the future, but the dialogue that Rory McCann was given was a little on the nose for me.

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Then, after a moment of tension, Cersei broke the silence by asking Tyrion if Daenerys had travelled with them. Tyrion told her that she hadn’t which obviously annoyed Cersei, but it wasn’t long before the real Queen of Westeros made her grand entrance. As usual Lena Headey’s facial expressions were perfect in this scene and throughout the episode, and I think every fan of the show would’ve been excited to carry on watching at this point.

Dany then arrived, bringing both her remaining dragons with her and looking like a woman with a purpose. This moment was cool but it annoyed me slightly because it would’ve been smarter on Daenerys’ part if she’d brought just one of her dragons so as to keep Viserion’s death a secret. Nevertheless, I liked the fact that Cersei was unmoved by the dragons because this made the reveal of the wight more impactful later in the episode, and I thought that Emilia Clarke was commanding when she appeared on screen.

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Euron (Pilou Asbæk) then spoke up and was typically irritating, telling Tyrion that his kind aren’t allowed on the Iron Islands. I’m not sure why Tyrion didn’t respond to this because he’s a quick witted character and I imagine that the writers could’ve got some clever dialogue out of this interaction, but at least Euron was featured in this episode because we haven’t seen him in a while.

Tyrion and Jon then tried to demonstrate the seriousness of the situation, but Cersei quickly put them down. Her logic made sense given that in the South the White Walkers are nothing but imaginary monsters used to scare naughty children before bed, but obviously her resistance was tiring because we know that she’s wrong.

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The wight reveal came next and was brilliantly effective, although it was silly that the wight was chained up just enough so that Cersei was out of its reach. Nobody had the opportunity to test the distance that the wight was able to run and this coincidence broke my immersion. Still, Lena Headey sold Cersei’s fear impeccably and this made her lie later in the episode more believable.

Part of me would’ve liked Cersei to simply accept the truce that Daenerys was offering and get on with fighting the White Walkers because this would’ve been a real surprise and changed the direction of the series, but I concede that this wouldn’t have been fully believable. The showrunners have spent the best part of seven seasons developing Cersei’s character and an act of nobility wouldn’t have made sense at this point given that development.

I’m not going to talk about Cersei’s ultimatum with regards to Jon’s allegiances in any great detail, because although this moment set up later scenes I didn’t think that it was very compelling. This request from Cersei was there purely to prolong the tension and from where I was sitting it felt somewhat forced. Jon was rightly berated for his stupidity and for making the same mistake that Ned (Sean Bean) made in season one, but he also displayed a strength of character which the world will need going forward if the right people end up on the Iron Throne.

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When the episode finally left the Dragonpit we were treated to one of my favourite scenes of season seven, in which Tyrion tried to convince Cersei to fight alongside Daenerys. For the first time in a long time Peter Dinklage was allowed to show off his considerable talents, delivering his dialogue with passion and believability, and as was so often the case in the early seasons he played off Lena Headey beautifully. Both Cersei and Tyrion brought up the past and their hopes for the future and at one point I really did think that Cersei might have him killed for the fun of it.

The presence of The Mountain made the scene almost unbearable to watch because at this point Tyrion’s death would be a real gut-punch, and I thought that the end result of Cersei pretending to side with Daenerys was interesting. When Cersei announced that she was going to fight with Daenerys I initially thought that the dialogue was clunky and too honourable coming from such a detestable villain, but on a re-watch it actually works really well because this type of wording fits with the fact that she was lying.

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At around the halfway point this episode turned its attention from King’s Landing to Winterfell and began to deteriorate in quality. I was enjoying the episode up until this point but once again I found Littlefinger’s (Aidan Gillen) behaviour quite tedious. For someone who has been telling Sansa (Sophie Turner) to fight all of her battles in her mind before they happen he was so overconfident and idiotic in this episode. His strategy was to force Sansa to think the worst of Arya in order to take the latter out of the picture, but surely he must have realised that his advice extended to him as well.

This is an issue with the writing and the characterisation of Littlefinger but it’s pretty obvious that it’s the former which causes the latter. Up until this point Littlefinger has pulled all the strings and has been a master of manipulation so it baffles me that he’s become so lazy late in the game. It seems to me that the writers simply ran out of ideas for what to do with the character and wanted to give the Stark children a moment of triumph, but surely this could’ve been achieved in a more believable way?

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The most effective way to kill Littlefinger off would’ve been to have him survive The Great War and be left in a world that he couldn’t bend to his own liking. Imagine how much more impactful it would’ve been to see Littlefinger out of his comfort zone in a world run by honourable people like Dany, Jon and Tyrion. He could’ve still been executed just as he was in this episode but the difference would’ve been that it would’ve served his arc as much as it served his killer’s. That wasn’t the case here, and all this moment did was make a great character look foolish.

I get the basic idea behind the death because Littlefinger was in an unsalvageable situation. Bran (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) knew everything about him so he couldn’t deceive Sansa in the way that he might’ve been able to if Bran wasn’t there, but if this was the plan all along then Littlefinger could’ve at least been portrayed as dismissive towards Bran’s powers. Earlier in the season Bran told Littlefinger that ‘chaos is a ladder’, revealing the fact that he knew more than he was supposed to. This should’ve raised a red flag for Littlefinger because as previously mentioned he fights every battle in his mind before it happens, but for some unknown reason he disregarded it.

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Back at Dragonstone Daenerys spoke to her advisers about how she planned to travel to the North, deciding to make her way there by ship rather than by dragon (mainly so that she could be closer to Jon Snow). Then Theon (Alfie Allen) had the chance to speak to Jon and essentially revealed the conflict at the heart of his character to the audience. This was a redemption scene for the character so it was a shame that it happened so quickly and out of the blue. The writers don’t have enough time to properly explore Theon’s attempted rescue of Yara (Gemma Whelan) at this point so in my opinion they shouldn’t bother. With six episodes left they can leave Theon aside because his arc has been good and although it might not be completely finished there’s no reason to ruin it in the same way that Littlefinger’s has been ruined.

After Littlefinger’s death scene which I’ve already explored “The Dragon and the Wolf” went back to King’s Landing. Jaime and Cersei finally had it out and Jaime’s arc progressed nicely. He wouldn’t break the promise that he made earlier in the episode to fight alongside Dany against the White Walkers and he finally disobeyed Cersei. His reasoning was sound, as was Cersei’s in its own deluded way, and both actors gave powerful performances. You could see the disgust on Jaime’s face and the realisation of what his sister really is, and Lena Headey was as awesome at playing an arrogant bully as she’s always been.

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When Cersei threatened to have Jaime killed I believed that it might happen and I was frightened by the possibility – I thought this might be the token shock moment in the finale and I was genuinely worried that one of my favourite characters was going to die. Jaime’s arc has been building to this point for a very long time and this was a suitably well-executed scene which was topped off by the fact that it began to snow in King’s Landing as he left. I’m excited to see what Jaime does next season – hopefully he’ll team up with Bronn to fight the White Walkers – and I thought that this was a superb scene.

Finally, the season closed with two contrasting sequences. The contrast that I’m talking about is a contrast in quality rather than a contrast of themes, as the Daenerys/Jon sex scene was silly but the destruction of The Wall was magnificent.

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Bran’s narration over the top of the sex scene cheapened it significantly and it felt like it was only there to make sure that less attentive audience members realised the importance of Jon’s ancestry. The fact that Jon and Dany are now an item is great and I’m sure that casual fans were excited by this, but I care about how the episodes are executed rather than whether or not the narrative goes in a direction which suits the protagonists. In this scenario the narrative was fitting but the execution was disappointing, so I didn’t like the scene.

It’s a good thing then that it was followed by a spectacular moment to end the episode and the season. Arya and Sansa had a quick chat before Bran warged into a raven to cast his eye on Eastwatch. There Tormund (Kristofer Hivju) looked out beyond the Wall to see the Army of the Dead marching in formation, followed by the harrowing sight of the Night King (Richard Brake) flying towards him on Viserion’s back.

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From there it was only a matter of time before The Wall came crashing down, and when it did I have to say that I was impressed. Viserion breathing blue fire was a nice touch because the fact that wights can be killed by fire would’ve made a conventional flame a little confusing, and I thought that the CGI in this scene was wonderful. I’m sure that this moment will be played many times on adverts building up to next season and I think it’s one of the best things the series has done to date, so it deserves a lot of praise even if the rest of the episode was fairly underwhelming.

Overall, “The Dragon and the Wolf” was a decent season finale but it certainly wasn’t the best that “Thrones” has had to offer. The final sequence was visually outstanding and season eight is well-poised, but the pacing of this episode wasn’t perfect. I enjoyed every scene in King’s Landing, particularly the interactions between Cersei and her brothers, but events at Winterfell were frustrating. “The Dragon and the Wolf” did nothing to hide the issues that have plagued season seven as a whole but it did leave me excited to see where the story will go next.

7.5/10