Sunday, 28 August 2016

13 Hours: The Soldiers of Benghazi: DVD Review

13 Hours: The Soldiers of Benghazi: DVD Review

With a more restrained touch and a degree of maturity, director Michael Bay's more excessive touches appear reined in in this film based on a true story.

When a US ambassador's compound is over-run in Benghazi after several waves of terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2012, it falls to six defence military contractors to try and save the day.

But, as this sat in direct opposition to orders from their CIA chief, the men felt doing the right thing was more important than bureaucracy, and put their lives on the line for 13 hours.

With the likes of American Sniper and Lone Survivor blazing the trail for homegrown hero stories, and coupled with the master of Bayhem at the helm, you'd expect that 13 Hours would be an all guts, all glory, guns blazing type of affair.

But what Michael Bay has done - despite characterisation of the men being more than a little lacking - is craft something tense which transcends its Call Of Duty: Benghazi potential and which delivers taut suspense that's as close to enthralling as any base under siege story can match.

Sure, it hits the tropes and cliches of the genre thanks to scenes of the guys bonding and reaching out to loved ones just prior to fateful events going down as well as its occasionally cliched dialogue, but as it ratchets up to its sickening end, it remains a compelling watch.  It's largely thanks to a controlled level of chaos and a major dose of mistrust that you're never quite sure who's on the right side as the team of six snake their way through the streets - the powderkeg does blow but Bay manages to prolong it to keep you guessing where and when it will go off.

As the leads, The Office star John Krasinki (all buff and beardsy) and James Badge Dale imbue their weary contractor characters with an appeal that will see you empathising with them and hoping they make it, despite their having cursory slight back-story.

But it's Michael Bay who delivers the biggest surprise here with his usual patriotic and jingoistic fare, all wrapped in a hyper-real colour palette and complete with compulsory final shot American flag motif in place - dialled down a bit more than usual. Granted, the men hardly stand apart from each other and when the emotional moments inevitably come, it makes it hard for them to be sympathised with as you're not sure who's been taken down.

13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi may be close to war porn at times, but it never falls short of delivering a tense experience that's heart in its mouth gripping from the moment the action begins.


Saturday, 27 August 2016

10 Cloverfield Lane: DVD Review

10 Cloverfield Lane: DVD Review

"People are strange creatures - you can't always convince them safety is in their best interests".

It's this line from John Goodman's character that really sets the tone for the mystery that is 10 Cloverfield Lane, a film described as a blood relative to 2008's Cloverfield by JJ Abrams, rather than a direct sequel to the handy shaky-cam, found footage monster flick.

If anything this subterranean set film is best described as a taut chamber piece that you're better off knowing little about before viewing.

Loosely, Winstead is Michelle, who at the start of the film, is desperately scrabbling around, packing a bag and leaving her other half, for reasons unknown. Fleeing in her car, Michelle's involved in a car accident and wakes to find herself in a dingy room, her leg shackled to the wall, and with no idea where she is or how she got there. So far, so Saw (or so Room).

Enter into proceedings, Goodman's twitchy doomsday prepper Howard whose reasons for dragging Michelle down to the bunker appear to her to be less than clear. Also in this bunker is John Gallager Jr's Emmet, who's injured and appears to be captive too....

10 Cloverfield Lane is a masterful execution in suspense and a masterclass of Hitchcockian nail-biting drama in a three-hander setting.

Taut and lean, its strengths really are in the way it plays out, as well as the performances of both Goodman and Winstead. As Michelle does, the audience is drip fed potential reasons for her predicament and as a result, the ensuing paranoia is built as we gain empathy for her plight and her mistrust. There's a duality of trust at play here and no one knows who is telling the truth, even though at various stages, we swing the pendulum of doubt either way.

But smartly, Goodman's Hector is not just a one dimensional nutbar whose underground plans and murky reasonings make a kind of unnerving sense to the audience. The way the needle keeps flipping back and forth between believing him and distrusting him is sparingly but effectively used and is redolent of the lean story-telling on hand.

Thanks to Goodman's relative underplaying of the role (essentially a psychological bully who may or may not be blessed with a dose of veracity) coupled with his implied menace and Winstead's rounded pluck as she goes through her arc of vulnerability to strength, 10 Cloverfield Laneemerges as a thriller filled with dread that rewards as the onion peels back its layers. Hell is very much other people as they say, and in this Fallout Shelter-esque claustrophobic flick, that's evident from the nail-biting beginning.

It helps that the Twilight Zone-esque post Cold War vibe is severely amped up by a mood-ratcheting score from The Walking Dead's Bear McCreary, leading to an atmosphere of unease, mistrust and even in its most domestic scenes, distinctly unsettling overtones.

If the final act hints at more and sees the expected route taken for a Cloverfield film, then the tense and nervy journey there is nothing short of compelling as the mystery box is opened wide.

Unsettling, unease and uncertainty are redolent throughout and Trachtenberg manipulates these well throughout the lean run time (even if there are some mysteries which are never fully resolved). It's dramatic and rare to see a film these days surprise, but thanks to grounding 10 Cloverfield Lane in a relatable humanity and spinning the dial of doubt while simultaneously dredging every last drop of tension, it's one of the best genre films of the year.


Friday, 26 August 2016

Ben-Hur: Film Review

Ben-Hur: Film Review

Cast: Jack Huston, Toby Kebbell, Pilou Asbaek, Rodrigo Santoro
Director: Timur Bekmambetov

Already a critical and commercial flop abroad, the 2016 remake of Ben Hur arrives on these shores with more a whimper than a roar.

For those not au fait with the 1959 11 Oscar winning original which starred Charlton Heston, it’s the story of Judah Ben-Hur, a Jewish prince played by a Rufus Sewell like Jack Huston and Roman Messala, his adopted brother, played by Toby Kebbell.

When Ben-Hur takes the fall when accused of sedition and his brother does nothing to save him, Ben-Hur’s thrown on a slave ship and shipped off. But events conspire to return Ben-Hur back to the lands of Jerusalem and into a conflict and quest for revenge.

The 2016 version of Ben-Hur is already headed for a $100 million US flop at the box office and for the large part, it’s easy to understand why.

With its lack of a major star in the lead to bring some kind of presence (Freeman appears only as a dread-locked supporting player), it’s down to Huston to carry the piece, and unfortunately, he lacks any of the star presence required. His Judah is so saintly and well-intentioned, that he lacks anything other than blandness on the screen and it’s hard to care for a character whose lack of emotional range is his sole defining characteristic.

Mind you, Kebbell’s barely much better as Messala, looking for the most part like he’s simply seen the script moments before and then thrust in front of a camera. It’s no help the film spends an inordinate amount of time setting up the conflict between the two using clunky dialogue and heavy exposition as well as flashbacks to try and build the rift between the pair.

But neither hold the dramatic heft necessary to shift away from their default Smell the Fart Friends acting philosophy setting pioneered by Joey Tribbiani.

And matters aren’t much improved by Rodrigo Santoro as Jesus, who appears when the film needs an even more saintly presence than Judah. His first, which sees him doing carpentry in the market, slows proceedings and even veers dangerously toward guffaw-provoking territory. It’s here the film heads towards preaching a forgiveness ideology that becomes its raison d’etre as the denouement rumbles around.

If the script had spent a little more time building in some of the more moral areas needed, such as fleshing out Messala’s conflict over the family, it may have been more successful.

Instead it relies on an impressive below decks ship conflict and the inevitable chariot race to save the day. While the ships’ fracas is simply executed (though overly dark), the chariot race is a thundering creation that lacks any real emotional heft with the inclusion of other competitors who you ultimately don’t care about. Symbolism is overt with Messala riding black horses and Judah riding pure whites just in case you’re not sure who you want to win.

It’s perhaps sad the director of the excellent Night Watch film Timur Bekmambetov is attached to this – there’s little sign of any directorial flair here and the workmanlike pace coupled with undercooked script proves relatively fatal in the final wash.

The 2016 version of Ben-Hur lacks any emotional connection and while it tries for epic in places, it’s not a catastrophic mess of Biblical proportions but more of an epic fail, a chariots of dire. 

Thursday, 25 August 2016

Blood Father: Film Review

Blood Father: Film Review

Cast: Mel Gibson, Erin Moriarty, Diego Luna
Director: Jean-Francois Richet

Sparsity and brevity prove to be useful bedfellows in French director Francois Richet's stripped back action movie, Blood Father.

But they're nothing without wearied Mel Gibson's trailer park living, hard tattooing, former Nazi enforcer Link who delivers a ferocious turn in this pared back straight to video piece that lacks the narrative to compellingly drive it through.

With unleashed fury that's redolent of a 70s actioner, the Mad Max we all know and loved before that meltdown comes simmering to the fore again, and quite frankly, it's a welcome return to form.

And it's greatly needed too, because Gibson's spikiness and untamed rage is about the only thing to pull Blood Father kicking and dragging out of the hoary old cliches that fail to ignite within.

Loosely, when estranged daughter Lydia (Moriarty, who goes from unsure gangster moll to trembling terrified child within seconds) contacts ex-con and father Link for money, the duo are pulled into a fight for survival with drug cartels and killers on their tail.

Blood Father's taut action scenes punctuate a script that's lacking on all fronts in anything other than building up to the pot boiling and consequent bubbling over of Link.

It doesn't help that dialogue at the start feels unnatural and the so called rift between daddy and daughter heads more towards the forced and unrealistic. Moriarty's turn eventually succumbs to the inevitable lost father schtick that Link gives into, but even when the action starts, there's a feeling of relief that the end is near.

Narratively, as a small indie with some meta elements (you can't help but read into Link's dialogue and its allusions to Gibson's Hollywood redemption), it just about succeeds. But without Gibson's return to form, nuanced turn and some tautly executed fight sequences, Blood Father is nothing but hoary old cliches piled atop each other and which fail to ignite.

It doesn't help that the film desire to throw in a tattooed Terminator Sicario soldier whose skill set is uneven when the story needs it but lethal when it doesn't; equally, the great character set up of William H Macy as Link's sponsor is squandered later on. But not every supporting player is up to the mark, and as the film progresses, it's clearly Mel's joint above all.

But then, Francois-Richet manages to throw in some stronger character moments in the 85 minute run time and leave you with the feeling that the film would have been richer for more of them rather than resort to overt symbolism (such as a Lost Soul tattoo on Link's arm).

Ultimately Blood Father wins as Gibson demonstrates once again his old fire - it's a searing turn and return to angry old Mel that proved so caustic a cinematic tonic so long ago and is so welcome once again.

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Bad Moms: Film Review

Bad Moms: Film Review

Cast: Mila Kunis, Kristen Bell, Kathryn Hahn, Christina Applegate, Jada Pinkett Smith, Annie Mumolo, Clark Duke
Director: Jon Lucas, Scott Moore

There's no denying that Moms have it tough.

Or so the new comedy from the writers of The Hangover, Jon Lucas and Scott Moore would have you believe.

Mining the girls behaving badly oeuvre that Bridesmaids championed and the competitive streak that soared in Amy Poehler and Tina Fey's Sisters, Bad Moms is the tale of suburban mom Amy (a relatable Kunis).

In her eyes, she struggles with being a mom of two, holding down a job and dealing with a self centred husband. But when she has the mother of all days, she decides enough is enough and cuts loose in anger at the PTA, headed up by Christina Applegate's harpy in high heels, Gwendolyn.

Bad Moms is essentially about rebelling against expectations.

With the triumvirate of Kunis' everyday over-worked mom, Kristen Bell's put-upon mother of four Kiki and Kathryn Hahn's sex-crazed, foul-mouthed Carla, it's clear the girls behaving badly motif covers all the spectrum of the mothers out there, wanting to cut loose and throw off the shackles of societal expectations.

Mining the observational side of the put-upon parents delivers some solid if unspectacular laughs in this chaotic comedy, but there's no denying that the female elements of the audience will get more out of this than the males. Though, with the casting of a younger demographic as leads, it's clear the males who are dragged along won't mind.

While Kunis has warmth, it's frustrating to note that her empowerment crumbles when she falls into a romantic sub-plot with a hunky widower and she simply becomes a doe-eyed love interest rather than a kicking-loose lady.

Hahn delivers the wide berth of belly laughs as the crazed Carla (in particular, a great supermarket sequence)- and coupled with the film's insistence on using slow mo and freeze frames to showcase the bad behaviour, she has the requisite comedic chops to carry it off. She gels well with Bell's Kiki, whose under-the-thumb meek turn inevitably goes where you'd expect it.

At its heart, Bad Moms will generate a great deal of empathy with its predictable core message of it's okay to not be a great mom and have bad days, but we just keep going, though it could be loosely condemned for not doing anything more subversive in its expectedly weak empowerment message.

It garners great cinematic truck when the ladies go brazen and it's hard to imagine there won't be a few hollers among the women in the audience during certain points.

If you're willing to overlook the inevitable sappiness (which is largely staved off until the end) and underwritten males in this piece, Bad Moms will offer a potty mouthed comedy alternative for a slight night out with comedy of recognition - but perhaps the most genuine part of the film comes with the credits, where the stars and their real-life mothers impart some pearls of wisdom from their years of growing up.

It's here the earnestness, authenticity and humour winningly combine to make you wish this were a longer side-piece to accompany Bad Moms - as it lingers longer in the memory than the film itself after the lights go up.

Mahana: DVD Review

Mahana: DVD Review

Lee Tamahori returns to the New Zealand screen with a film that reunites him with his Once Were Warriors star Temuera Morrison.

Based on Witi Ihimaera's Bulibasha, and set in provincial Gisborne in the 1960s, it's the story of the Mahana family, who are ruled with an iron fist by grandfather Tamihana, a traditionalist (played by Temuera Morrison).  There's a long-standing rivalry between the Mahanas and their fellow sheep-shearing family, the Poatas and the vendetta runs deep even if no-one talks about it.

But for Akuhata Keefe's 14 year old Simeon Mahana, life is a drudge of continually doing chores and trying to get out from under the yoke of his grandfather and become his own man. However, that brings clashes and things take a turn for the worst when Simeon uncovers more about the deep-held family secret and the anguish that has bound the families inextricably together in resentment....

Mahana is a film of two pieces, wildly meshed together.

At times, it's a dark family drama that plays nicely on the rifts between families and the enmity within as well as hinting at pre-colonial lifestyles and practices. But then other parts of it veer wildly into more traditional lighter elements such as concluding the film with a sheep-shearing contest that's as predictable as the day is long.

And unfortunately, there's a wild mix of acting talents too; at times, Temuera teeters dangerously into over-acting and is not well served by the overly bombastic soundtrack of the film being cranked up at the moments of extreme drama to emphasise that bad things are about to happen. Yet, there are moments when he gives the monster some more human edges that soften his on-screen Tamihana.

If anything, Keefe's the star of the film, giving a turn that has the subtlety that's needed for Simeon, a boy on the cusp of being a man and the awkward teen struggles that come with age and the desire to become your own person.

Tamahori makes good fist of the Gisborne scenery and there are some moodily evocative shots that stand out of mist settling in the valleys and hinting at the discord ahead. But equally, there are puzzling directorial choices that frustrate. One offender is the swirling camera around the exterior of a house as the reason for the conflict is revealed. Granted, it's more about creating a mood and evoking horror, but tonally, it sits at odds with the moment it's revealed - during a shearing contest.

All in all, Mahana is at times, a muddled film which sits at odds with what it intends to do.

By mixing the light with the dark, the film's missed its chance to stamp itself irrevocably on the NZ cinematic landscape; had it been more daring, it could have been a bold and blistering film. As it is, it  sadly feels parochial and limited, when its scope should have been wider.

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Just Cause 3: Bavarium Sea Heist DLC: PS4 Review

Just Cause 3: Bavarium Sea Heist DLC: PS4 Review

Platform: PS4
Developed by Avalanche Studios

So, the final part of the Just Cause 3 DLC has hit as part of the season pass offering.

Just Cause 3 has been the bomb; a game that revels in its absurdities and took its open world shooter to silly new heights while maintaining a level of challenge that made this nigh on addictive.

With Rico Rodrgiuez, the mercenary hell-bent on doing the right thing in the most destructively beautiful way possible, the game's anti-hero and anarchic vibe was the perfect combination. With the Air, Sea and Land expansion pass DLCs that have dropped, the game's barely moved away from such sentiments and gameplay mechanics.

In the final expansion though, it's more a case of routine chaos rather than saving the very best for last (though admittedly the reward is pretty damn destructive and would help with the rest of the game if you've not completed it).

At the end of the Land expansion pack, there was a hint that the DLC's Bad Guys, the Black Hand were threatening something big - and in the sea heist, Rico has to explore the western side of Medici and take out a sea installation called the Stingray. Fortunately, Rico's got access to a craft with some pretty impressive air weaponry in the form of rockets and speed in the form of nitro... So, under the guise of one last mission, Rodriguez is back to help Medici.

Just Cause 3: Bavarium Sea Heist DLC is fairly playable for what it is.

The Black Hand bad guys seem a little less easy to dispatch this time around and it may take a little longer in the early stages of the heist to kill them all off. But a lot of the challenge dissipates when Rodriguez gets the Loochador boat (as it's nicknamed) because everything can be taken out by the cluster of six rockets fired at once. And travelling through the seas from Rodriguez's cove to the Stingray is fairly tedious as it appears there's little life out there if you play the game in order (as this reviewer did).

But it's fair to say that once you've liberated the Stingray, the final challenge is meaty, but given that you have the Eden Spark weapon, a sort of lightning bolt from the sky piece of tech that has limitless energy, the game's hardness exponentially drops.

All in all, Just Cause 3: Bavarium Sea Heist DLC is fairly disposable and as part of a wider game pack, it's alright to play but aside from the earlier challenge, the DLC's not quite the bang you would expect to conclude the pack. But that said, if you were playing the game out of order, it would make finishing the initial storyline a real destructive doozy....