Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Pan: Film Review

Pan: Film Review

Cast: Hugh Jackman, Garrett Hedlund, Rooney Mara,
Director: Joe Wright

Joe "Atonement / Anna Karenina" Wright's Pan is rarely as good as its opening sequence.

It's one which puts the stuff of childhood playtimes and active little boys' imaginations into the world of reality / fantasy with pirate ships soaring through the skies as they are attacked by British planes in a bizarre dogfight.

But once the film heads to Neverland, it's almost as if some of the vivid imagination is ironically lost, even if the visual flair isn't.

The film's a prequel and as such deals with the abandonment of Peter (Levi Miller, all cockney kid fresh out of Mary Poppins school of character writing) and his dream of escaping the orphanage run with grisly gusto by Kathy Burke's evil nun. Convinced the boys are being taken in the night, Peter waits up one evening only to find his suspicions given form. Swept up in the theft and onto Blackbeard's pirate ships, Peter finds himself in a new world and facing ever more peril.

Mainly in the shape of a prophecy and a pirate Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman in pantomimey form) who believes that Peter will try to overthrow him...However, with the native princess Tigerlily (Mara) and the rogueish Hook (Hedlund), Peter finds he has friends that he never expected in this battle.

Pan is a mix of so many other influences of film that it occasionally struggles to garner an identity of its own.

Hedlund's Hook is a melange of characters and by definition, not one of his own. Even though you know ultimately how it will turn out for him. By turns Indiana Jones style explorer / 30s B-movie pastiche and Han Solo / Leia romantic interaction with Mara's doe-eyed Tigerlily, Hedlund overplays his part and ends up being one of the memorable people in the cast for all the wrong reasons.

Likewise, Miller's plucky luv-a-duck youngster grates, giving this Pan the type of character you want to slap as much as you grimace when he comes out with lines like "Holy pudding!", as if lifted from the Dick van Dyke school of writing.

There's some depth to Jackman's Blackbeard and his first appearance with all the lost boys singing Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit adding to the oddness on show. But parts of his character are left without answer either, with one shot introducing a rejuvenator to keep him young and then ditching it with no explanation in favour of his Nazi-esque determination to wipe out the pixie race.

If anything, Wright's prequel will be justly remembered for its Irwin Allen-esque visuals as it creates the tribal territories land, filling them with the kind of wonder of a Sunday afternoon TV jaunt that fired the imagination.  In fact, it's the FX which help this film soar in the minds of kids, and the 3D brings much depth, as well as the obligatory duck from cannon-balls being fired toward you.

Mixing in Star Wars, Superman-esque flying in a fairy covered fortress of solitude, and some utterly bonkers ideas, this prequel will more likely fire with the kids than the adults. It becomes a sensory and silly overload that will keep many of them enthralled and will see them leaving with the biggest cinematic sugary hit ever. A little more work on the characters and this Pan prequel really could have flown as high as Peter believes he could.


Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain: PS4 Review

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain: PS4 Review

Developer: Konami
Platform: PS4

How do you finish a series like Metal Gear with a protagonist that's become so culturally iconic?

Well, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain doesn't really care what your perceptions of how it should be wrapped up are - it simply delivers to them. And easily exceeds them - if you're prepared to bear with the game.

The title's become synonymous with Hideo Kojima's split from the studio, but that threatened to overshadow what was simply an exceptional title from the moment it starts up.

Once again, it's back into the open world of stealth, but not before a slightly mind-bending prologue. You wake as Snake after a 9 year coma, with your body riddled with both pains and elements that could kill you - but before a doctor can give you a new identity to help you start again, the medical base you're on comes under assault. And it's up to you to escape the blood thirsty bandits who swarm. Your only method of escape is to follow a heavily bandaged dude who has a striking vocal similarity to Kiefer Sutherland....

For the prologue, patience is required; it's a trip in many ways, but also a smartly intuitive way to get you back into the world of stealth and the rationale for not going in all guns blazing. It's also potentially where some may feel The Phantom Pain will hold players back - but push on through, because Kojima's created a story that's as engrossing as it is intriguing. This is not a game that rewards quick hitters; this is a game that commands longevity, tactics and intelligence - and is all the better for it.

Once through this prologue, it's here that The Phantom Pain opens up as you begin to lead a mercenary group known as the Diamond Dogs and out into the wilds of Afghanistan. And it's here that the game itself begins to open up, proffering possibilities you'd perhaps perceived as impossible before and as captivating as you'd have hoped.

Graphically, the game's superb; from the hyper-realistic prologue to the Afghan based areas, it's a game that excels and offers the very best of the next gen mentality and console execution. The mo-cap work is second to none and there are times that you can feel that you are watching an animated thriller that's a little too life-like for your own comfort.

But it's also ideologically weighty too with story points touching on many important topics of war which are hitherto left by the wayside for nothing more than simply shooting people and progressing through a game - it's the depth of this which puts it into the echelons of Kojima's drama, hitting both the resonance which is needed and the kind of gameplay you've come to expect from this sort of game.

Mother Base has a lot to explore and do as well, from missions to side-missions - all of these come together to create a fluidity and experience that just works and rewards the dedication. And as you build your forces, it's rewarding to see it all come together under the umbrella of the game - and proves to be sufficient reward for the time you'll inevitably spend on this.

Ultimately, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is a top tier title; from its story-telling to its execution and from its intimate openings to its open world play, it just excels. If you're serious about gaming and want a challenge rather than a constant mashing of buttons, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is the game for you. Sure, it takes some time to get into, but stick with it -there's a real sense of satisfaction of getting the end results and seeing it all play out.


The Falling: DVD Review

The Falling: DVD Review

Released by Vendetta Films

Ethereal, bizarre, ambiguous, filled with subtext, trees and to be endlessly debated in film school.
All of these can be levelled against the dreamlike film The Falling, from the director of the truly sad documentary Dreams of A Life.

It's 1969 Britain at an all girls school and Abbie (Pugh) and Lydia (Williams) are intense BFFs at a time when sexuality and an awareness of the world around them are blossoming. However, when a tragedy occurs involving Abbie, Lydia's life is turned upside down by mysterious rhapsodic fainting fits.  Things get worse when other members of the school are similarly affected by the fits and soon there's an epidemic....
Hazy echoes of Sofia Coppolla's The Virgin Suicides riddle parts of The Falling, garnering it with a touch of the mysterious and occasionally, the aloof. Themes of alienation and awakening are peppered through Morley's, at times slow, piece. It even borders on the fine line between enigmatic and deliberately opaque as it plays out. At one point, one character even intones "It's not simple, it's all about perception", a knowingly self-aware line that appears to tip its hat to the hauntingly oblique story within.

Game of Thrones' Arya Stark is self-assured throughout, imbuing her Lydia with a preternatural presence that's unsettling, leading you to question what's true and what's not. Equally, Pugh engenders her Abi with enough charisma to make you understand Lydia's loss. Peake makes a good fist out of the agoraphobic mum, Scacchi plays against type as a teacher and Dolan is suitably prissy as the school head.

But the real star of The Falling is the tone; granted there will be frustrations for some over lack of answers, but thanks to it being evocatively and disturbingly moody throughout with directorial use of subliminal flashes spliced in head-scratching moments, there's enough to ride you through the lulls and into the idea that a collective mania / strong bond could cause such ripples.

The one moment that feels out of place is the culmination of an incest story thread that worked better as a troubling portent rather than an outright exploration.

Ultimately arty, occasionally oblique and destined for debate, The Falling shows Brit cinema is in rude health and talents are rising to the top, even if the answers are short on coming.


Monday, 28 September 2015

The Martian: Film Review

The Martian: Film Review

Cast: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kate Mara, Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wiig, Sean Bean, Benedict Wong, Chiwetel Eijofor
Director: Ridley Scott

Ridley Scott's latest film, The Martian, is a heartfelt paean to the time when NASA missions and the space race held the world in its thrall.

Based on Andy Weir's novel, Matt Damon stars as NASA astronaut Mark Watney, who's part of an ARES mission on Mars. When a storm hits the base, the crew's forced to flee the planet - but just before they leave, Watney's struck and believed dead. With a split-second decision to make, the commander of the team (Chastain) decides they must leave....

When Watney comes around on the red planet, he realises that he's on a foreign alien world, abandoned, with limited rations and with no way to contact NASA....

The Martian is, for the most part, really the Matt Damon show.

Channeling once again his affable everyman appeal to great dramatic effect, Damon manages to do much with little to interact with. Thanks to a narrative trick of having to record logs for back on Earth, Damon finds his Wilson and we, the audience, find some kind of semblance and route into what he's actually thinking, why he's doing it and how he's doing it as well (it's not hard to think of this film as Ridley Scott's audition for a NASA recruitment video).

Though one suspects there may be issues with some of the science (I'm not 100% sure that duct tape can fully seal a cracked spacesuit, or congealed blood), the fact that The Martian becomes a problem solving film is inherently one of its pluses, as it swings back and forth between Earth-bound efforts to save him and Watney's (occasionally convenient) efforts to survive on the surface of Mars.

It's back on earth that the ensemble cast really opens up to dramatic effect as the usual tropes of time and supplies threaten to run out and tough decisions have to be made. Daniels deserves mention for his relatively impassive head of NASA, the kind of guy you want to have make the tough decisions - and his stoic approach is counter-balanced by Bean's humane touch as the head of the crews of NASA. Equally, the politics of the situation are calmly thrown into the mix, rather than used as dramatic sounding posts.

It's fair to say The Martian lacks the urgency of the likes of Gravity, the hard science of Interstellar and channels more of Apollo 13's collaborative approach to humans being human and tackling problems. Wisely shorn of the hysterics that ramped up Gravity's stress-levels and avoiding any kind of mention of whether Watney has family waiting for him  (a bold dramatic move), Scott's insistence on getting on with the job, celebrating humanity's approach to dealing with problems and general resilience when the chips are down serve the story well. By bringing in bouts of unexpectedly humour on Watney's behalf, Scott and Damon make him a character to easily identify with even if his plight will be alien to many.

Mixing in disco songs and a prepping montage to David Bowie's Starman bring a level of cheesiness to the ever-so slightly overlong proceedings too, but not once does it truly threaten to derail Ridley Scott's latest space opus. His opening sequence continues his ethos that space is all well and good but can go to hell in a handcart in but seconds; and there are little signs of Watney losing the plot after so much time alone and being forced to "science the shit" out of his predicament. (Though Damon's facials when faced with the tantalising prospect of rescue say more than any dialogue could)

However, ultimately, The Martian is a heartfelt ode to NASA, a salutation to its dreams and dreamers among the stars and a rising chorus of support for humanity's place in the universe, both literally and metaphorically; it's sci-fi at its most stripped down and simplistic, but it's a film that is as aspirational as it is entertaining.


Sunday, 27 September 2015

A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night: DVD Review

A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night: DVD Review

Rating: M
Released by Madman Home Ent

Ultra-stylish, sleek, sonorous and sensuous, A Girl Walks Home At Night is a definite must after its appearance at this year's New Zealand International Film Festival.

Set in the mythical Iranian ghost town of Bad City, this film sets out its store with its very first few shots. A James Dean-esque character lounges by a shed, as if modelling for a catalogue, before swooping in and stealing a cat and driving off in his car.

But this character is Arash, and his world is conflicted; his father is addicted to drugs, his debt to a dealer is close to being cashed in with the ultimate price to pay if the money is not forthcoming. However, Arash's world is changed when he meets up with a victim of the vamp in a veil (Sheila Vandi) who stalks the street at night - to say more would be to spoil it.

A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night is from first-time director Lily Amirpour and her cinematic concoction is an intoxicating one.

Pristine monochrome visuals, affected with ease and afflicted with visually expressive shots are striking, leaving the viewer feeling like they're witnessing something iconic being born. The Blancanieves style aesthetic mixes with Jarmuschian sensibilities, and the whole thing's swathed in a Tom Waits glow, as the soundtrack crackles with hipsterish intent and sonorous simplicity. (In fact at times, with careful and considered direction and precisely choreographed moments, it feels like a music video, swathed in romance and cool)

Described by Amirpour as a cross between Sergio Leone and David Lynch, A Girl Walks Home At Night is like a Wild West of yore, but struck with louche expectations, rather than continual showdowns. A languid pace helps the shocks which come few and far between but renders them exceptionally effective. However, the director never loses her flair for visuals and comedy - where else can you expect to see a veiled vamp skateboarding down an empty street?

Simply put, this rich vein of vamp bursts with ingenuity and charisma; it's a film that aches and deserves to be loved, it's a dreamy dance with the devil and it's spell-binding viewing.


Saturday, 26 September 2015

Michael Brinker, lead designer for Rise of the Tomb Raider interview

Michael Brinker, lead designer for Rise of the Tomb Raider interview

During XONZ in Auckland, I was fortunate enough to get some time with Michael Brinker, lead designer of Crystal Dynamics for Rise of the Tomb Raider - we talked about what to expect of the game - and Lara Croft's Future.

Take a listen below:

XONZ Inter view - talking Forza Motorsport 6 with Chris Bishop

XONZ Interview - talking Forza Motorsport 6 with Chris Bishop

During Saturday's XONZ, I got to spend some time with Chris Bishop, global marketing manager for the Forza Franchise.

Take a listen to the interview talking Forza's future here.

XONZ 2015 hits town

XONZ 2015 hits town

Auckland got a first look at some of the big games coming to the XBox One very soon this weekend.

The inaugural XONZ hit town - and with it, some of the developers of the biggest games coming to the gaming console.

Devs from Forza Motorsport 6, Rise of the Tomb Raider, the local Bethesda gang to talk Fallout 4 and 343 Industries of Halo were around to hang with 400 lucky fans who won a draw.

Below are some of the sights of XONZ for those who couldn't make it to play demos of the likes of
  • Halo 5: Guardians
  • Rise of the Tomb Raider
  • Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six: Siege
  • Forza Motorsport 6
  • Rock Band 4
  • LEGO Dimensions
  • Gears of War: Ultimate Edition
  • FIFA 16
  • Cuphead
  • Plague Inc.
  • Wasteland 2: The Director’s Cut

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