Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Talking the Incredibly Strange at the NZIFF with Ant Timpson

Talking the Incredibly Strange at the NZIFF with Ant Timpson

Ant Timpson’s Incredibly Strange.
Ant Timpson

Not only is that a description of the great man himself, but also the section of the Film Festival he’s programmed. He’s back this year and I spent some time chatting the films he’s chosen for our entertainment.

You’re all about the Gasm this year, Ant – Deathgasm and Orgasm in Love 3D. Firstly, Deathgasm seems like it has home grown hit all over it and appears to embrace our love of homebred splatter and gore?
I think this first question could be your worst opener in all the years you’ve been doing this, Darren. I’m all about the ‘Gasm’ this year? Let’s let that slide and focus on the part that actually makes sense – that Deathgasm could be a home-grown hit. Well like last years fest smash Housebound, it’s also a comedy with horror elements. The film has had a phenomenal festival run so far – from a slambang opening at SXSW to just recently being voted 3rd favourite out of all the films that played Sydney Film Festival. I’m pretty sure folks here in NZ will love its guerilla good-time spirit and that despite all the metal and carnage, it’s actually framed around a pretty sweet love story.
Deathgasm, playing at the 2015 NZIFF

Gaspar Noe’s Love 3D looks guaranteed to be divisive – what kind of controversy are you expecting for this and what do you have to say to your detractors?
Love 3D
We’re expecting little to no controversy about Noe’s latest. Unfortunately. This is no Irreversible which devastated Strange fest audiences back in 2003 nor is it as experimental as Enter The Void. It’s about love and how multi-faceted that can be. Yes, the film does contain hardcore pornographic material but in this day and age when Youporn is everyone’s favourite incognito tab in chrome that's not going to shock many. Obviously Noe’s talent and the 3D medium sets the film apart from casual online wankbank fare – I’m tending to think it’s probably not what people are expecting.  At the end of the day it’s a new film by Gasper Noe and he’s a filmmaker that always excites. Bring your parents along for an awkward time had by all.

Last year’s Q&A saw me hold a gun to your head, and ask you to talk about your film choices. This year, I’m being a bit more lenient – it’s a court setting and you stand accused of being Incredibly Strange. Defend your choice of The Invitation, a film guaranteed to unsettle.
I’ll have to go back and read that Q&A as I was sure it was me that was holding a gun to your head or maybe that's just a recurring fantasy I have. The Invitation screened to acclaimed at the SXSW festival this year and everyone thought it was a killer comeback of sorts for Karyn Kusama the director of Sundance hit Girlfight many moons ago. She went from that into a major film called Aeon Flux and so this is a return to indie film-making - and she displays being director in full control of the material. The set-up is a slow-burn scenario with a couple being invited to a dinner party with old friends and lovers. However, something is just a little off about the proceedings and our couple begins to question the real reason why they are there. It’s just another small gem of a US thriller like Blue Ruin that I hope people take a chance on.
Goodnight Mommy

Festival director Bill Gosden’s said that Goodnight Mommy is “the most viscerally disturbing film seen in years”; this psychodrama looks positively upsetting and works better if you know little – how do you answer that charge?
I saw Goodnight Mommy last year and there are images from the film I haven’t been able to shake out of my memory. The conceit is rather ingenious. Twin brothers are waiting for their mother to return home. When she arrives, she’s bandaged after cosmetic surgery. The kids begin to doubt that this person is actually their mother. The comparison to Austrian maestro Haneke is probably one that film scholars will pooh-pooh as being lazy but I think it's a fair comparison for most cinephiles. There’s something very austere about the work – it’s so beautiful and calculated – it could be directed by a surgeon and an architect. And it’s shot on 35mm and therefore essential viewing. I would say its probably the one title out of the whole section that I think will have the most people talking about it.

The prosecution was somewhat surprised by the emotional feels of Finders Keepers, a film (documentary) that takes a stolen mummified leg, a couple of warring former buddies and America’s obsessions with a 15 minutes of fame mentality and bundles it all up into something warm and oddly fuzzy. Is this a deliberate attempt to maybe make us think twice about your attitudes to programming?
Finders Keepers
So you’re keeping up with this court schtick, huh? I really hope I’m not expected to answer with puns and legal lingo just to make you look better. Your synopsis is a little off about Finders Keepers – it’s not about warring former buddies. It’s about a fame monster trying to cash in on someone else’s unfortunate situation and how both of them are battling demons from their past.
I think every year there’s a balance to the programming – for every film that could be a tough watch there’ll be something at the other end of the scale which has a sweetness to it. A bit like me don’t you think, Darren? There’s always a documentary or two that provides what may be lacking from some of the other narrative films. This year, we have two docs that both feature larger than life characters who provide audiences truly genuine moments of humour and pathos.

There could be charges of nepotism laid, given that you’re a producer on Deathgasm and Turbo Kid too. We’ll put that to the back of our minds for now, and ask how is Turbo Kid – it looks an 80s piece of TV writ large?
Well luckily nepotism reigns supreme this year because without it there’d be no NZ narrative features selected for this year’s festival. Both features I produced Deathgasm and Turbo Kid were the only ones selected! They cleared by festival director and other programmers for my section. Mainly because if I was a filmmaker who had a film turned down and then see the programmer with two films he’s involved with in the line-up I’d be kinda annoyed – especially if they weren’t good. Luckily, both films are great and both have had a tremendous international roll-out and critical acclaim before finally coming back to NZ.
Turbo Kid premiered at Sundance and was one of the surprise hits this year. Everyone - from Variety to Wired to Entertainment Weekly - has all been championing the film. It's a NZ and Canadian co-production and was made by three Quebec directors who I approached many years ago with the idea of turning a short film of theirs into a feature and expanding the universe they created. Then legendary movie villain Michael Ironside got involved and everything picked up speed after that. You’re  incorrect about it being 80s TV writ large – the film’s roots are all from feature films of the 80s not TV – it’s been born from the love of movies like BMX Bandits, Mad Max and Braindead.  A fun hybrid of a coming-of-age pic alongside post-apocalyptic splatter films. It’s got a real sweet love story running throughout the film and all the actors just delivered fantastic on point performances. It celebrates the culture it came from. It doesn’t wink at it or make fun of it. It comes from a very pure place.
It’s good to see that you’re joining the Marvel-befuddled masses and are programming I Am Thor, a doco that looks at a competitive bodybuilder. Are you going soft or is there really something to recommend here – and is it a coincidence that there are similar themes with Finders Keepers?
I Am Thor
Well again, I gotta say you’re one hell of a sloppy lawyer when it comes to the facts. I’d be on death row or worse if you were my lawyer in real life. The doc I AM THOR is not really about a competitive body-builder. Sure, he was a body-builder but the real story of the incredible human named Thor is about watching his decades long odyssey in trying to become the greatest rock god of all-time. At one stage his band was going to be the next KISS – then everything kind of went off the rails when he kidnapped himself. Yes that is not a grammatical mistake. There are a few parallels with Finders Keepers – both feature subjects that you want to succeed – total underdogs who deserve to come out on top. I think Thor is an amazing person and his tenacity to succeed is admirable.

We know you like to push your own films, but give us 3 other films from the main programme that have you genuinely excited to view them with a crowd over the coming weeks?
What you calling pushing my own section, I call fulfilling my contractual obligation with the NZ Film Festival. If we were in a courtroom, you’d be accused of badgering the witness.
Peace Officer
I’ve seen a lot of great docs this year – people should rush to see PEACE OFFICER, BEST OF ENEMIES, CARTEL LAND, WOLFPACK and BEING EVEL. The narrative features I thought were must-sees would be reissue of the mind-blowing The Colour of Pomegranates (a visual spectacular) The Duke of Burgundy (an erotic romp with the amazing actress from the TV show Borgen), A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (a striking debut from a gifted female filmmaker), Kiss Me Kate (one of the best musicals of all time in knockout 3D), The Look of Silence (companion piece to Oscar nominated The Act of Killing), Spring (which I had to drop from my section but is a monstrous love story – slimy and sexy), and The Tribe   (a brutal polariser told completely in sign language)

We can ascertain you’ve been doing this for a while now -  what’s been the best reaction to one of your films, which was it, and have you been chasing that high ever since? Is there anything this year that could potentially match it?
Good question. And those are two words I never thought I‘d say to you, Darren. It’s strange for most to think of a high when programming but there’s absolutely a direct correlation to an audience giving themselves over to a film you love and your pleasure synapses doing a rumba. There have been many such highs over the 21yr period of doing this programme. From the utter joy of an unsuspecting audience seeing Wet Hot American Summer for the first time, to curiosity seekers having their minds blown by oddities like Psyched By the 4D Witch to the one-off screening of Irreversible that had people fainting, walking out and finally crying before slowly making their way out to the real world. I don’t think anything is going to match that this year but for me personally I’m going to enjoy seeing what audiences think of the utterly loony and fun Turbo Kid because it’s been quite a journey to get that film here in front of kiwis.
Yakuza Apocalypse

Yakuza Apocalypse seems to be quite wild and crazy (according to the programme). Is this the film which will garner the best crowd reaction?
I think fans of Miike (Gozu, Dead or Alive, Visitor Q, Ichi The Killer, Happiness of the Katakuris etc) are going to love this return to violent goofy lunacy and everyone else will be sitting there with jaws open saying “WTF?”

The defence and prosecution rests for now (judgement to be given out after this year’s festival and frankly, because this lame idea ran out of steam) – but in closing this piece, I have to commend you for being involved in the films and co-pros, is it still something you enjoy doing and do you have any further projects lined up?
Thank you and your world of entertainment, Darren. This faux court proceedings must rank as one of the laziest Q&A gags I’ve seen since reading an issue of ZOO magazine. I do have future projects but in this game you never know which ones will blossom. Making films is mostly a series of endless hassles interspersed with moments of unadulterated joy. You could say that about life I suppose.

Ant Timpson's selection of programmed films at the 2015 New Zealand International Film Festival can all be found on the official NZIFF website.

The Emperor's New Clothes: Film Review

The Emperor's New Clothes: Film Review

Cast: Russell Brand, The People of Britain, CassetteBoy
Director: Michael Winterbottom

"Everything you're gonna hear in this film, you already know."

The opening words from social activist and public court jester / enfant terrible Russell Brand sets this tone for a polemic aimed squarely at putting the wrongs of modern day Britain up on the screen and inciting discord.

Basically, an extended essay on the ills of the UK and how the rich are getting richer and the poorer are getting poorer, Brand's focus in this doco is purely aimed at trying to get any banker involved in the ills of the socio-economic world facing the consequences of their action.

He's got a fair point, and both he and Winterbottom use stark lingering print to emphasise their points, stir the pot and galvanise the masses into action. But with Brand lobbing in such lines as "If you're not angry enough to kick a pig into a ditch, then you ain't understanding", it's clear the focus is more on using his charisma and comic Cockney boy larrikin approach to the matter rather than a full on in-depth critique of the situation and a raft of eggheads to back him up.

If that sounds like a criticism, it's not.

Brand's easy-going appeal is understandable as he interviews various people in various differing dire situations - from a parent of two who is getting by earning a decent wage but only just managing to a near-mute cleaner who cuts a solitary figure as he boards London's tube to clean overnight at department store John Lewis before traipsing off to work a similar shift at a pub straight after. These are grim circumstances indeed and even the mischievous Brand seems at a loss to understand why the average Joe is suffering when the fatcats are getting fatter and the inequality gap is growing.

Using handpicked facts, archive footage of life in the old days around his home town of Greys in Essex, a series of sequences where he drives around an A Board with a "Shop A Banker" motif, and his disarming charm, Brand's fairly persuasive as he uses his once over lightly facts and figures to highlight the shocking growth between the haves and the have-nots in the UK. Clips of politicians are dropped in here and there to present a juxtaposition to the hypocrisy of their fatuous election promises and the reality of their cuts; PM David Cameron intones how it's a better Britain over a montage of those we've come to know and empathise with as the beats and slogans grow to a crescendo. There's a revolution brewing if Brand has his way.

While he's to be commended for his subversive approach to all of this, it does feel at times like Brand's essentially grandstanding and espousing absurdisms that UK satirist Chris Morris wouldn't be afraid to use (at once decrying Thatcher as Jesus with a hair helmet) the comedy softens the message he's trying to get across.

Though it could also be argued, given that nobody in officialdom will front up (surprise, surprise) Brand's never anywhere but with the huddled masses, an empathetic voice more concerned with the suffering than the shareholders (again, not a bad thing given a lack of accountability) but it may have paid to see him on the sidelines a little more.

Perhaps the most telling sequences are when he tries to interview the heads of the banks involved (the HSBC, RBS) by walking casually into their lobbies. Granted, he stands not a hope in hell, but by talking to the security guards who hold him and reeling off the facts of the financials of the bosses, you kind of feel like he's being quite crafty; on the one hand, he's showing his loqacious intelligence that he would display if the bosses came to chat but on the other, there's a distinct feeling that Brand's sowing the seeds of rebellion from the ground up - there's no denying the subversive power of his facts and there's no escaping the possibility those seeds could grow.

Ultimately, the facts of the matter of The Emperor's New Clothes are hard to deny; the inequality is appalling and Brand's presentation is contagious. He may not have succeeded in rallying the troops and rolling the current government at the ballot boxes with this and his comedy / news show The Trews, but he -along with Winterbottom - certainly display a flair for 21st century documentary making. With shrewd soundbites, curt editing and brilliant use of Cassette Boy's mash-ups, this is an appalling and occasionally intelligently subversive indictment of the world we now live in.

The most Brand can hope for is change, the most we can hope for as an audience is the start of that discussion - don't be surprised if The Emperor's New Clothes gets under your skin and opens your eyes.


Monday, 29 June 2015

Talking the 2015 New Zealand International Film Festival with director Bill Gosden

Talking the 2015 New Zealand International Film Festival with director Bill Gosden

For cinephiles, this, as ever, is the most exciting time of the year.
July heralds the Auckland start of the New Zealand International Film Festival and with so much to choose from the festival, I thought it wise to spend some time with festival director Bill Gosden, who first programmed Auckland's festival in 1984.

NZFF Director Bill Gosden
After last year’s event, The Dark Horse premiere et al, it was hard to see how you could have topped it – I think you’ve come back with the most diverse programme we’ve ever seen?
It’s a rich one for sure, and strong in so many different areas.

It’s another incredibly strong line up from Cannes – Sandra’s clearly been busy. Of the titles screening, which are you excited for and which have you already seen?
I’ve been excited for Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Assassin for years, so please don’t try to reach me while that’s playing. I’ve seen The Lobster which is fiendishly funny – and as far as you could get from a sentimental choice for Opening Night film. Obviously the World Premiere of a great New Zealand film is the ideal Opening Night scenario and The Dark Horse last year was one of the all-time greats. We had to look offshore for options this year. The nerve and originality of The Lobster will make for a startling wake-up call: NZIFF is back in town!

Another two of the best surprises amongst Sandra’s Cannes haul were not competition films.  Ciro Guerra’s wild and spectacular Embrace of the Serpent reimagines the explorations recounted by two early 20th-century European explorers in the Amazon from the point of view of an indigenous shaman. Deniz Gamze Erguven’s Mustang has perhaps been too readily compared to a Middle Eastern Virgin Suicides. The dreamy sisterhood that it evokes so brilliantly and specifically has an emotional impact that’s very different from Sofia Coppola’s world. And I’d be happy to line up for any film by Arnaud Desplechin (My Golden Days), Miguel Gomes (Arabian Nights) or Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Cemetery of Splendour).

It also feels like a festival of returns this year – the return of Jafar Panahi, Costa Botes coming back, Banksy, the return of the free China Junk…
It’s important for NZIFF to maintain these through-lines, though we don’t do it in a slavish way. (No Terrence Malick this year, for instance.) It’s hard to believe that outlawed Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi was once an NZIFF guest. (He loved Bluff oysters.) Banned from making films, he continues to do so, providing us in Tehran Taxi with more information about life and criminality in contemporary Tehran than any authorised filmmaker could possibly do.
Banksy Does New York

It’s also good to see films without a home here in New Zealand like Inherent Vice, Ex Machina, A Most Violent Year, ‘71 getting a big screen release, are you hopeful people will embrace these slightly older titles?
It’s crazy that we now think twice about programming a film because it has last year’s date on it, but we do. The ‘slightly older’ films you name all exert their own very strong present tense once you sit down with them in a cinema. That’s the test they have to pass, and I’ve had the pleasure of testing each of them personally.

Being Evel
As I mentioned, it’s a very diverse programme, with so many different genres being covered this year from sport to music; did you ever believe you’d be programming something with Johnny Knoxville like Being Evel?
I’d have programmed the George Hamilton Evel Kneivel film (1971) if I’d been in the business at the time, so no, I’m not surprised, just pleased to have the chance. It turns out that Hamilton’s impersonation of the All American Daredevil was a lot more genial in his craziness than the genuine item.

It’s nice to see a Retro section in play, has that come about because of the success of the Autumn Events seasons?
It’s the other way around really, with the Autumn Events Classic screenings spinning off from years of classic screenings at NZIFF and its predecessors. It’s been a long wait to see Kiss Me Kate in the original 3D. The ‘From That Moment On’ dance number is pure exhilaration in 2D let alone 3.

I’m interested in The Tribe and Tangerine – both seem like very different ways to communicate their stories- what can you tell us about these titles?
Both draw on the off-screen talents of their non-actor stars to create crackling on-screen energy: a deaf cast conducting gang warfare in sign language in the former, a pair of motor-mouthed transgender LA sex workers tearing up the streets in the latter. But in other ways these films are polar opposites.  The Tribe is a bracingly formal work, every Steadicam shot choreographed to a nano-second.  Sean Baker famously filmed Tangerine on his iPhone. It feels spontaneous, but looks fantastic.

Drone photography may be the instantly spottable trend of the year, but tiny, ultra-portable cameras are enabling filmmakers like never before. That shows in films as various as Tangerine, Tehran Taxi and the vertigo-inducing climbing doco Meru that lets us scale precipitous Himalayan peaks.

The Animation section, Toons for Tots all seem to be very strong this year – and a new Ghibli too, what’s the one that’s worth seeking out?
It’s all great. Don’t overlook Tomm Moore’s exquisite Irish legend Song of the Sea; or Dark Hearts, animation programmer Malcolm Turner’s compilation of some of the most confronting animated shorts of recent times.
Song Of The Sea

The talent visiting this year seems to be the finest yet – the Q&As are always a highlight of NZIFF, is there one talent this year you think could be an outstanding post film guest?
From what I have heard of his Berlin appearances, Kidlat Tahimik gives the most entertaining Q+As. And I’ll do my best not to hog the questions to Margot Nash (The Silences) and Turner Ross (Western), about two very individual documentaries that provide fertile grounds for discussion.

It’s a strong line up of female directors as well as a line up from the USA too…
The US indie scene contributes mucho character and vitality to this year’s line-up. Not all the films about women have been directed by women: Grandma and Our Little Sister barely feature men at all, but have been written and directed by men. The number of features (cf documentaries) directed by women remains infamously small, but seven of the nine we are showing pass the Bechdel test with flying colours.

So, I’ve learned from previous Q&As there’s no point trying to confine you to just one recommendation from the entire programme– what are the films this year that demand to be seen on the big screen? And which do you believe will be the audience faves?
Made to fill giant screens: The Assassin (surely), Meru (definitely), Cemetery of Splendour (quietly),  Tangerine (even if it was shot on an iPhone) , A Girl Walks Home Alone, Song of the Sea, The Postman’s White Nights, Saint Laurent, Amy, Sherpa, Inherent Vice…

Ought to be faves: see Auckland NZIFF manager Lynn Smart’s Tour Guide on the NZIFF website!
The Assaassin

Ant’s back – this time with 3D Gaspar Noe and no doubt a bit of controversy – which from his Incredibly Strange section are you looking forward to seeing with the crowd?
Goodnight Mommy is the most viscerally disturbing film I’ve seen in years – if I ventured near that one again I’d be watching the crowd, not the screen.

The NZ Section is wide and varied –from an examination of NZ Film to a makutu lifting in Wellington, there are a range of subjects on show?
Apart from Turbo Kid and Deathgasm, it’s all documentaries. Kiwi filmmakers are covering international subjects too: Robin Greenberg in Taiwan; Sven Parnell in Rwanda, Flavio Villani in Italy.

NZIFF’s never just confined to Auckland, thankfully – Wellington’s just been announced and Christchurch has a souped up venue this year, how are the regions looking?
Turbo Kid
Christchurch’s Isaac Theatre Royal is a venue of great beauty, equipped for cinema thanks to the fund-raising efforts of NZIFF. DCP has made it possible to screen bigger programmes in the regions - and closer on the heels of Auckland and Wellington.

So many films that we’ve not been able to talk about, so much choice this year, what’s your top recommendation for cinephiles aiming to survive NZIFF?
Don’t be shy. Exercise between screenings.

The New Zealand International Film Festival kicks off on 16th July - for all the information on what's screening here and around the country, hit up the NZIFF website. And don't forget, tickets are on sale now!

Ultra Street Fighter: PS4 Review

Ultra Street Fighter: PS4 Review

Platform: PS4
Released by Capcom/ Sony

Street Fighter is back and doing what it does best - delivering smackdowns for grotesquely oversized cartoony people and combos that seem difficult to initially master.

Five new characters and six new stages have been brought into the game, but to be honest, it's very similar to everything you have seen before with the re-release of the game which originally came to the PS3 a little while back. Ported over and slightly spruced up for the next gen console, this is about plugging a gap as we wait for the release of Street Fighter V which was showcased at E3 this year.

If you're a complete novice to the genre, this is how it breaks down - you take on one of a myriad of 44 characters and compete in beat downs until a disembodied voice shouts KO when your opponent is out for the count. An array of combos is available to each character and how those are used is upto you to work out, thanks to a combination of buttons pushing, move making and the moon being in the right lunar ascension at the right moment.

The PS4 version collects together all of the DLC, giving this very much a feel of a definitive collection, aimed at bringing together everything which has already passed, ready for the next iteration. So that means you get Arcade, Online, Practice and Challenge modes to play with - plenty to keep you amused.

Graphically the game looks slick, but is very cartoon-like in feel, meaning that any real brush up for the next gen console is more about making it look polished rather than adding to it. A couple of times during my play the game momentarily froze mid-air, giving it an ultra slow-mo feel but ultimately, it was nothing that fully disrupted play.

Ultra Street Fighter IV is a solid beat-em-up, a throwback to the old arcade games of the past, which relied on button mashing, reflexes and endurance mixed up with some skill. It'll do for now as we patiently wait the unveiling of Street Fighter V, but with Mortal Kombat X bringing the gore and the polish, this latest does feel somewhat retro in its gameplay and outlook. Not exactly a KO, but still fighting for another few rounds.


LEGO Jurassic World: PS4 Review

LEGO Jurassic World: PS4 Review

Developer: Travellers Tales
Platform: PS4

The park is now open.

And this time the dino revolution has been all blocky. Nope, it's not a CGI nightmare come to life, but the latest LEGO-isation of the popular series. Following on from Star Wars, Harry Potter, Lord of The Rings, Batman et al, you'd think there wasn't anything Travellers Tales couldn't turn their attention to.

It's off to Isla Nublar once again for the game, which follows the usual LEGO formula - smash bricks up to their basic pieces, collect the studs, do some building and also solving some puzzles in various areas. Following storylines from the three Jurassic Park films and also this latest smash Jurassic World, you get to play as all the characters across 5 levels per film. It's a great choice of characters too, around 100 in all and a series of vehicles to collect too as you venture further into the game.

The best moment though comes when Jurassic World gives you the chance to play as the Raptors. Sure, you can rail against the logic that allows said Raptors to build things (the usual LEGO MO for puzzle solving), but there's something awesomely fun about wandering around as Blue and his chums within the game when it's necessary.

As ever, with the LEGO series, it's purely aimed at kids, with nothing here to trouble adults and the Mr DNA Strand from the movies being on hand to offer hints and ideas as you find trickier bits. Perhaps, that's somewhat of a disappointment as there's little you need to do off your own bat, given a hint is always a click away.

Also, unfortunately, this time around, there doesn't seem to be as much humour in the cut scenes and material taken to its logical extreme. For example, the Jurassic World and Jurassic Park scenes are lifted verbatim from the movie and are quite dry - which seems to be a rare oversight for the game series and could even see the developers being accused of phoning it in.

There's no doubting the commitment to the genre throughout, and the formula rarely strays from what you've come to expect but it's still as fun as it ever was.

It's possible that any future series may have to look a little at what they can do to deviate from the norm to stop the LEGO video game franchise falling into stale territory, but for now, for the big kids in all of us, LEGO Jurassic World is relatively close to younger gaming dino-mite.


Farming Simulator 15: PS4 Review

Farming Simulator 15: PS4 Review

Platform: PS4

I've got a brand new combine harvester and I'll give you the key, UK country folk band The Wurzels once sang.

Well, that harvester is now a shiny PS4 upgrade and the keyboard sensation that swept the gaming world by storm is now on console - and likely to appeal to townies who just fancy a bit of time in the sun without the inconvenience of the 4am starts.

Ultimately, what this game is is quite simply, running a farm. Nothing more, nothing less.

From the intricacies of baling hay, sowing crops, ploughing the land and working the fields, Farming Simulator 15 takes you on a tour of the land and gives you the chance to benefit electronically from it. If you're new to the game too, then that's no worries as a series of tutorials take you through the basics - from linking your baler to your tractor, to offloading crops into a nearby truck, it's all fairly easy and simple to do.

Ploughing, sowing and driving all take a modicum of skill, and if we're honest, a modicum of toleration too so that you don't end up feeling bored senseless by the monotony of it all. Growing crops is all very well, but given that you have to trade too, there's a degree of playing the market and working out the best for what you've done.

Graphically, it's quite simple. You can play first person too if you fancy being in the seat of the tractor and to be frank, it all works very smoothly and looks quite polished and slick. Challenges litter the game too, giving you something to do other than the rudimentary basics and ensuring you have the will to live for logging in daily. There's also the option to buy new equipment and essentially work your way up the experience level of the game.

While there's little more to do than the realities of running a farm, Farming Simulator 15 fulfills that promise more than adequately; from its gameplay and look, it has somewhat limited appeal but as a time filler for a rainy day (to make you grateful you're not out on the land) you can't beat it.


Sunday, 28 June 2015

Talking Chappie with the WETA team

Talking Chappie with the WETA team

Chappie, the movie is out on DVD now - and to celebrate the release of the film we've managed to get some time with the talented guys at WETA who were involved in the digital FX wizardry that you see on screen.

Rob Gillies, Workshop Supervisor
Where did you look to for inspiration with the Chappie Robot?
On the workshop floor we looked for inspiration for Chappie a wide variety of places from existing robot technology through to racing bikes and military technology.

What were the challenges with coming up with the creation?
On the workshop floor the challenges were mainly in 3D. Deciding where to split the model apart and how to break the robot down for printing and milling to make the process as efficient as possible whist making the droid as cool and believable as possible.

How much feedback did Neill have and what was the collaborative process like given you guys have all worked together before? Did it make it easier to work that way?
Neil always gives a lot of feedback on 3D models, model made components, paint finishes etc. We had an established a pipeline from previous Neil films so we had a very efficient process for feedback that Neil tied into and that we could respond to.

What was the trickiest part of the process?
Probably the trickiest part of the process was the detailing, although this is also one of the more fun parts of the process. This is when the props etc really come alive.

What’s the one moment in Chappie that stands out for you for your creation and why?

The Moose and Chappie fight. Just seeing all the time, energy and hard work come together to work in an amazing action sequence was a big stand out moment for me.

What else would you have liked to have done with the robot – there’s so much personality that appears to have come from Sharlto and the script, was it hard to put your own touches on Chappie?
It would have been great to be able to automate Chappie a little bit more. Beyond just lights and screens but actually give him some limb movement.

Was there anything that Sharlto brought to the performance that affected your execution of the robot? No all of Shalto's work came after we had delivered the practical robots

If you had a robot like
, what would you do with him and why?
If I had a robot like
 Chappie I would make a movie about him.

Christian Pearce, Conceptual designer

Where did you look to for inspiration with the Chappie Robot?
We went back to Neill's original Tetra Vaal short, there's so much good stuff to steal from in that. It still looks great today. Chappie has the same basic proportions and concept as the robot in that film.
For detailing, functionality and materials I looked at real-world robotics: Boston Dynamic's Big Dog and PETMAN, Honda's ASIMO, assembly line ABB robots and many others. When designing a fantastical characters like this I find it important to reference as many real, existing and functional examples as possible.

What were the challenges with coming up with the creation?
Just making such an advanced, currently impossible machine seem real and believable. Studying those other robots I mentioned earlier helped ground Chappie in reality and hopefully make the leap of belief a short one

How much feedback did Neill have and what was the collaborative process like given you guys have all worked together before? Did it make it easier to work that way?
Neill was hugely involved right from the first day. He's a very talented artist, if he more time he wouldn't need any of us! Luckily for us he wastes all his time behind the camera and telling actors what to do.

How far back into Tetra Vaal did you go into? Ie how feasible was what Neill Blomkamp had envisioned in the past and how easy was it to update?
We referenced Neill's original film right from the start but he wanted to take it in a slightly different direction. Instead of the robot being a prototype, maybe even a one-off, he wanted the scout droids in Chappie to be hardy, resilient and common. They were mass produced and tough as opposed to rare and fragile, kinda cheap and heavy, emphasis on toughness and ease of production. 

What’s the one moment in
 Chappie that stands out for you for your creation and why?
My most memorable part was watching the full-scale Moose come together here at Weta Workshop. Each day that monstrous thing would become more and more impressive as different parts would come together from all over the 'shop, when it came down to the last week of assembly I decided to stop checking in on progress so I could take it all in with fresh eyes at the end. That thing was amazing! Really had a commanding presence, definitely one of the best things we've ever built I reckon

Was there anything that Sharlto brought to the performance that affected your execution of the robot?
I personally loved what Sharlto brought to Chappie. The design doesn't really have that much room for expression of emotion yet he conveyed so much through subtle movements. Added such an organic element to an otherwise simple and mechanical character.

If you had a robot like Chappie, what would you do with him and why?
Program him to master the art of burrito-making and beer-fetching.

Lans Hans, HOD 3D
Where did you look to for inspiration with the Chappie Robot?When 3d modelling components we were typically drawing inspiration from Christian Pearce’ illustrations. For finer details and subtle finishes we also looked to industrial car-assembly robots and some of the robots coming out of DARPA’s research

What were the challenges with coming up with the creation?Image Engine in Vancouver did the primary 3d modelling of the droid for their animation requirements, incorporating a huge number of complex joints to mimic the freedom of motion of a human body. One of the biggest challenges we faced was how to turn this incredibly complex 3d model into a physical object that would meet all the on-set requirements - such as ‘ragdoll’ motion - while still looking visually identical.  We ultimately designed in 44 working pivot joints and two ball and socket joints to replicate the effect. Due to the complexity of the build, and the sheer number of interlocking parts we made the call to 3d print the entire droid and assemble the molded rubber parts around a laser-cut aluminium chassis. The 3d printing technology was relatively slow and very expensive, but enabled us to capture all the detail of the Image engine model while making components which snapped together straight off the printer.  

How much feedback did Neill have and what was the collaborative process like given you guys have all worked together before? Did it make it easier to work that way?
Neil’s input was largely added during Image Engines 3d modelling, so the process at our end was relatively simple.  
What’s the one moment in
 Chappie that stands out for you for your creation and why?
Image engine did a spectacular job with the animated droids, but there are a lot of scenes where our ragdoll droids feature heavily. Its always rewarding seeing things you have put a lot of time and thought into working so well on-screen; In one scene Chappie has a full arm switched out for a new one which snaps securely into place – a challenge we overcame using a camera ballhead and quick-release plates.

Leri Greer, Conceptual designer
Where did you look to for inspiration with the Chappie Robot?
Neill wanted the robots in CHAPPiE to feel grounded in reality as much as possible, so we looked primarily at existing industrial robots for things like materials and moving parts. We also looked at the original source material, Neill's short film TETRA VAAL, using that as sort of a jumping off point... sort of like the robot in TETRA VAAL was an early test prototype, which eventually went on to become the police robots in CHAPPiE.

What were the challenges with coming up with the creation?
Things like making sure his joints functioned in a way that an human actor could move, so that he could be animated properly. Finding ways for Chappie to express emotion, so things like wireless attenae that could act as ears, protective bars surrounding his sensor array on his face to act as eyebrows, and a faceplate that could display information but also act as an eyeline for the other actors to focus on when talking with Chappie.

How much feedback did Neill have and what was the collaborative process like given you guys have all worked together before? Did it make it easier to work that way?
We have worked with Neill for close to 10 years on all of his feature films, as well as many of his smaller projects, so yes we have a very close working relationship with a ton of back and forth. He is an extremely accomplished artists in his own right, and could probably design the whole film himself if time allowed, so in many ways we speak the same language, and share many of the same interests.

How far back into Tetra Vaal did you go into? Ie how feasible was what Neill Blomkamp had envisioned in the past and how easy was it to update?
Yes we just extrapolated forward from the fictional time of TETRA VAAL, and as a mental exercise imagined the robot in that short film to be a very early plastics and carbon fiber prototype version, sent into the field for testing before mass production of the later stronger materials versions. It was a natural stepping off point, especially since that short film is so strong, and the design from it communicates many things already about functionality, and human endeavor around how robots are built and what their purposes might be in the future.

What was the trickiest part of the process?
There were many tricky parts, but primarily it was making sure that all the physical parts of the robots that we manufactured at WETA WORKSHOP matched exactly with all the CGI models made by IMAGE ENGINE. We worked very closely back and forth to make sure everything matched as closely as possible, which can get tricky when a robot is being shot, blown up, scratched, dented, stickered, spray painted, and parts replaced over the course of the film. It's a continuity and logistical nightmare in many respects, but fun at the same time because it's like a big puzzle that has to be figured out.

What’s the one moment in Chappie that stands out for you for your creation and why?
I think I can safely say that for most film workers it's just very satisfying seeing your work make it up onto the big screen. It's sort of a weird, proud deja vu moment where you are simultaneously experiencing the film, while at the same time recalling all the blood, sweat, tears, and laughs you experienced during the months and months of hard work in trying to make something the best that it can be.

What else would you have liked to have done with the robot – there’s so much personality that appears to have come from Sharlto and the script, was it hard to put your own touches on Chappie?
Yes and no. For every idea or design touch that makes it onto screen there was probably 20 more thrown away, and some of the thrown away ones you may have really liked, but in the end the most important thing is that every detail is in service to what the script and story needs to convey, and as professionals designing for film, we understand that it's less about a personal vanity project and getting our own touches on something and more about making sure the sum of the parts feels correct as a whole. This is especially true of everyone at WETA WORKSHOP. It takes hundreds of people working together, and if anything can be called a team effort it's a feature film. I'm just lucky to be surrounded by so many passionate and talented people whose love of film as an art form makes them want to honor the medium above and beyond just a paycheck.

Was there anything that Sharlto brought to the performance that affected your execution of the robot?
It was probably the other way around. Because Chappie's chest and shoulders were very different from a human, we had to build a physical device to restrict Sharlto's movements a bit, and to bulk him up in areas where the robot would be bulked up. This was so Sharlto while acting didn't bring his arms too far across his chest, or lean against something in the real world that would cause the motion capture or animation to "clip". In my experience actors like some restrictions anyways, they usually like to know the parameters of their character both physically as well as psychologically, which helps them find the best performance within those restrictions. I think Sharlto is the same way, he likes that challenge, as most great actors do.

If you had a robot like Chappie, what would you do with him and why?
Make him walk my dog sometimes, especially when I'm tired from work and it's really cold outside.

Chappie is out now on DVD and Blu Ray from Sony Home Entertainment.

Exodus: Gods and Kings: DVD Review

Exodus: Gods and Kings: DVD Review

Rating: M
Released by 20th Century Fox Home Ent

It's perhaps apt that Exodus: Gods and Kings is dedicated to Ridley Scott's deceased brother Tony, given that this story is about the bond between brothers.

Christian Bale is Moses, and Animal Kingdom star Joel Edgerton is his apparent brother Ramses in the year 1300BC as Scott's retelling of the classic Sunday school tale is doled out.

With Moses willing to do anything for his brother and apparently being preferred as the King of Egypt by King Seti (John Turturro, who appears only in a handful of scenes), his world is rocked when he discovers the truth of his lineage.

Exiled by Ramses and with the bond seemingly shattered for good, Moses rises up against the Egyption Pharaoh as God's messenger urges him to let his people go-go. But the quest for freedom continues and the clashes bring a series of terrorist-like raids, the personal cost for Moses could be too high.

Emotionally withdrawn and relatively bland in execution, Ridley Scott's Exodus: Gods and Kings may tell an epic story, but it draws it on a canvas that's lacking any real flair.

An extremely flat execution of Moses' exile, the almost Keith Richards' like Ben Mendelsohn as Hegep, and a pre-ponderence of guyliner prevent Exodus: Gods and Kings from achieving any feeling of grandeur over its 150 minutes run-time.

The one sequence that finds Exodus coming alive is the depiction of the plagues unleashed on the Unbelievers. It's here the CGI comes into its own as Scott effortlessly brings into reality the horror of vengeance. Likewise, the parting of the Red Sea is creatively impressive and smartly executed, with a deftness of touch that's somewhat lacking throughout.

Bale and Edgerton start off strongly but with a lack of character development (creatively, there was nowhere for those involved in the writing to go without bringing down a series of plagues on themselves), they soon pale and fail to reach the emotional highs which are needed to help Exodus soar out of the ordinary. A few off-kilter humorous moments involving the seers - including a cameo from Ewen Bremner - add some levity to the ponderous proceedings.

As a 21st century realisation of a timeless story, Exodus: Gods and Kings is sorely lacking.


Newstalk ZB Jack Tame Film Review

Newstalk ZB Jack Tame Film Review

This weekend, I was discussing Inside Out, Minions and Love & Mercy with Jack.

Saturday, 27 June 2015

Ted 2: Film Review

Ted 2: Film Review

Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Seth MacFarlane, Amanda Seyfried, Jessica Barth, Morgan Freeman, Giovanni Ribisi
Director: Seth MacFarlane

The amount of enjoyment you get from the longer, less charming sequel to Ted will be directly proportional to how high your tolerance for having your buttons pressed is.

The sequel, which circles around the idea of civil rights, centres on the idea that Mr Ted Goes To Court after the state of Massachusetts strips him of his rights in the wake of him trying to adopt a child, declaring him not to be a person but actually property. 

Calling in an inexperienced but pot-smoking lawyer (played with ease and earnest warmth by Amanda Seyfried) Samantha, John (a once again game and comic Wahlberg) along with Ted set out to try and recruit a top lawyer (Freeman) to their cause.

The sequel to the most successful R-rated comedy was only ever going to go further down the depravity drain and mine its vulgar excesses as far as it could go - and it's fair to say that on that journey, the mischievous MacFarlane fires off his scatological gun, taking aim at just about everybody and trying to push the envelope for edgy humour, with varying degrees of success.

Packing in celebrity cameos, a raft of crass one-liners that amuse and a sub-plot from the first film involving Hasbro and Donny (Ribisi), Ted 2 unfortunately feels in parts un-bear-able and bloa-ted. 

Legal scenes pack the proceedings and try to inject a degree of seriousness where it's not welcome -though an expeditious edit of the script could have resolved some of those problems. Equally, a Comic-Con final sequence seems unnecessarily shoe-horned in and appears to really only be a chance to give Patrick Warburton and Michael Dorn a visual gag that's serviced to the pop-culture savvy. 

But, it has to be argued that the bromance and banter between John and Ted (such a warm and earnest heart that it had in the first film) suffers the most in this sequel. The scenes where the pair bicker, harmonise over Law and Order's opening titles and generally bond with their puerile arrested adult humour are among the funniest and sweetest of the sequel, a reminder of what's missing from this and why the first film worked so well. 

However, it's MacFarlane's edgy comedic sensibilities which punctuate the lower moments of Ted 2, giving you a feeling that you're not sure what's coming next in some of the shoe-horned in non-sequitur moments within. A Lord of the Rings gag about Amanda Seyfried's eyes is perfectly on the money, and a sequence where Ted and John yell out sad suggestions at an improv night is remarkably close to the bone, but brings some shocking laughs. 

Overlong, about as stuffed as Ted's insides, Ted 2 proves to be a mixed affair; it's a story with bolted on bits of randomness which work better than the main plot. It's true the Family Guy puerile sensibilities soak through into this sequel, but it's not nearly enough to propel it through its near 2 hour run time, but side-lining the main reason the first film worked so well proves to be the fatal flaw.


Friday, 26 June 2015

Cobain: Montage of Heck: Blu Ray Review

Cobain: Montage of Heck: Blu Ray Review

Rating: M
Released by Universal Home Ent

Kurt Cobain - legend, junkie, father, suicide victim.

There's already so much which has been said about Cobain's brief 27 years on the earth and so much charted about the rise of Nirvana. So you could be forgiven for thinking this documentary had nothing new to cover, except to rake over the coals of long simmering resentments, reigniting old discussions about whether Courtney was the Yoko of the band and remember the tragedy of his passing.

But Brett Morgen (director of The Kid Stays in the Picture) manages to do something that rejuvenates the musical doco genre and breathes new life into a subject, long presumed fully researched.

Morgen was granted access to home movie footage from the Cobain family, access to Kurt's journals, drawings and tape recordings (which he didn't know existed); it's a wealth of information and one which gives an all access pass to the man's life, fears, hopes, dreams and consequently gets the most intimate insight into Cobain ever committed to celluloid.

Choosing to tell Cobain's story right from the start of his childhood years of misery in Aberdeen, Washington where he was a child of divorce (a rarity of the time) through to the bullying at school before the struggles and ultimate success of the band, this is the classic and time often told story of a tortured genius.

But Morgen chooses to use audio recordings from Cobain come vividly to life with animation, a move that borders on genuinely inspirational.  Animations in the style of Waking Life / Waltz With Bashir flesh out the past, leap off the screen and bring to life what could have simply been dry talking heads. Morgen also opts for a very small number of interviewees (no Dave Grohl though)  - including Cobain's first girlfriend who's never spoken before - which lends further intimacy to the proceedings (though it would have been beneficial to have heard more from Cobain Sr) and means the usual spouting talking heads who've been so outspoken on Cobain are kept quiet.

Pulling together footage from the band's early days through to Cobain's bizarre performance at the Reading Festival where he emerged in a wheelchair, the music is front and centre, guaranteed to give any Nirvana fan the aural thrill they seek.

The exhaustive nature of the doco and the wealth of material occasionally means that Morgen's direction sometimes feels a little overwhelmed, but the narrative thread is nicely woven through; however, it hits a minor stumbling block with a lag at about 90 minutes which is a surprise. Then home video footage from Kurt and Courtney's drug-addled time in their apartment stuns you into realising what was happening to the rocker and it's captivating in its weirdness as the pair loll around like Sid and Nancy before a damning Vanity Fair article takes aim.

Confessions from Love of a potential near-miss affair add new light to Cobain's first suicide attempt and a long bow is drawn to an inference that Cobain's fear of humiliation could have led to suicide (an implication that could have been probed further), but there's never any vilification here of any parties, merely an access to all the materials to help you draw your own conclusions. Eqaully, footage of a clearly drug-addled Cobain with his daughter Frances Bean is upsetting and harrowing, a sign that a father was losing his way.

With the lights out, it's no less dangerous - and Cobain: Montage of Heck, which will become the bar to which all future musical documentaries will be held up, certainly does entertain us. Perhaps in ways that really almost feel a little too close to the subject.

Cobain: Montage of Heck (based on a title from a mixtape Morgen found) is both exhaustive and exhausting (it could have stood to lose maybe 20 minutes) but it's a raw, unflinching, surprisingly intimate portrait of a hyper-sensitive artist and an unwilling spokesman for a generation, who will find new fans some 20 years after his death.


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