Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Focus: Film Review

Focus: Film Review

Cast: Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Rodrigo Santoro, BD Wong
Director: Glenn Ficarra, John Requa

The con is back on in Will Smith's latest.

Smith is Nicky Spurgeon, a veteran con-man who takes newbie Jess (Robbie) under his wing and into his bed for his latest scam. But when the two part ways and reunite by chance three years later, their meeting could cause all kinds of problems for either side.

For a film with as generic a title as Focus and with a subject matter of con-men and heists, this latest heist flick entrant into the pantheon does little to distract you from its sleight of hand trickery as the cat-and-mouse game plays out.

Packaged up into a pristine shimmer with many backgrounds and scenes looking like they're straight out of adverts, there's very little to shake your attention away from the flimsiest of plots and lightest of characters.

With the likes of Now You See Me, American Hustle, The Wolf of Wall Street, Ocean's 11,12 and 13, The Hustler and others ringing in your ears, you know nobody is to be trusted (hence shattering any kind of illusion before it's started) and no lines are simply thrown away for no reason whatsoever (in fact the denouement's resolution is mentioned early on if you know where to look)

But the joy of Focus comes from seeing Smith hustling as an ultra-slick veteran conman out to score big; there's a thin crackle of chemistry between him and rookie pickpocket wannabe big timer Jess (a star cementing turn from Robbie) whose naïveté sets you off mark to begin with; (it is, after all, a conman caper, and everybody is on the make, surely)

There's a minor fizzle that never quite froths over in Crazy Stupid Love's directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa's handling of Focus' action as it swirls from one moment to the next.

But like any magic trick or smart con, the real thrill is supposed to come in the chase.

However, a healthy detachment from any veracity to anyone's comments and a once-over-lightly touch for the main leads actually holds the film back from achieving some of the tension it occasionally strives for.

And at times, it's a real struggle to love - or even like - Smith whose weariness requires effort to engage with; as opposed to Robbie whose infectious and effortless charm is self evident from the moment she's on screen. Equally, the tubby comedy relief offered by one of Nicky's cohorts played by Adrian Martinez - which speaks volumes that a supporting character's better written than anyone else.

That and the fact the heists are more fun and a little more convincing than the two lead's story.

(And don't the best heist films work when you care about the protagonists?)

That's not to say a couple of sequences don't stand out in Focus.

These include BD Wong's extended cameo at a high stakes bet at a football game and an initially puzzling sequence with a goon sent for Nicky which really see the film focus in on what it does best, by sharpening the elements and giving you something to really drill down to. Which is the inherent problem of Focus - you're expecting the bait and switch at any moment, which cripples it and the two halves of the story don't quite gel together as perhaps they should.

Ultimately, Focus is a frothy style over substance tale, complete with the smooth upbeat jazzy music you'd expect of its genre and the resolution you can see a mile off, rather than a smart last minute pull-the-rug-from-under-you Eureka moment.

The greatest con Focus will be able to pull will be convincing an audience into either loving it or remembering it days after it's done.


The Order 1886: Garret Foster interview

The Order 1886: Garett Foster interview

As The Order 1886 hits shelves, I was fortunate enough to spend some time with Garret Foster, the technology director Ready at Dawn studios who oversees all the programme developments of the studio.

The Order 1886's been 4 years in the making, tell us a little more about it
It was early 2011 when we pitched the game to Sony and they liked it almost as much as we did and so we went forward with it. We were gearing up for it for a long time; we had done Daxter and the God of Wars on the PSP and we thought the kind of games we wanted to make were most suited to being on a couch, because we wanted to tell a story. When you're hopping on a train and playing things in one hour chunks, it's hard to tell a story in that short period of time. What we wanted to do was get to a scenario where we can really convey a meaningful story and not to say that you couldn't do that on a handheld, it's just that it's extremely difficult to do that.

Do you still enjoy the handheld gaming?
Yeah, don't get me wrong, I love it; If I'm waiting in line, the first thing I do is pop out a PSP or the phone and start playing something random; so I have to do that - there's no way I can't.

How did you get to the idea of The Order - in hindsight, it seems mad that nobody's ever done it before?
Yeah I think what's cool about it is, the idea was kicking around for a while; Dana and Ru (fellow workers at Ready At Dawn) had this idea that they really wanted something in the Victorian era. Ru (director of Ready At Dawn) is kind of a history buff and he's all into Victorian London and the idea of the Knights of the Round Table. Dana had this idea of wanting something kind of pretty , alternate universe, and everyone agreed that London during that time was an amazing atmosphere of ideas. I don't think anyone hates it - you talk to anyone about they just get it, everyone gravitates toward it, they love it cos so much of that is the genesis of what we are today, what our society is. Especially the western world, you see Victorian era houses everywhere, the architecture; the influence has never gone away, so it's familiar. Then we went to this natural conclusion - once you throw an evolutionary curveball into the mix, it changes everything. The whole plot of the story is mankind diverges into humans and half-breeds; and that happened a couple of centuries before the revolution and what that does is if you start working backwards and forwards there is this natural thing that you'd have to have someone to defend the common people and that's what King Arthur did, to establish the round table etc and then you're at war, what does that do for technology, how would a historical figure tie into that. The whole thing was, I don't want to say effortless but it just made so much sense. A lot of hard people put a lot of hard work into that and I look back on it and think "Oh yeah easy road" (Laughs)

What were the challenges on the technology side?
Everything's bigger; we went from making small buildings to making skyscrapers and infrastructure that goes along with that. Every turn we made, we had to re-evaluate how and what we were doing; every turn we'd look at the simplest things such as placing objects in the world and the cinematics. We didn't make our lives any easier in this game - we didn't want to have any pre-rendered cinematics in the game, it's all real time. Normally what you do is you have a cinematic in the offline, you'll render it out and have a movie player play it back. That's all fine, there's nothing wrong with that, but the thing we wanted to do was have seamless transitions and you can't do that with a black screen cut. So it may sound like that it's technical and just stroking your ego in terms of what you're trying to do, but that wasn't the real reason; we wanted to have a seamless transition because we wanted the player to be immersed and as soon as you cut, you're taken out of the game, out of the world before you even got into it.

Do you believe it makes the game harder to get into because of the cinematics?
I just think that's people not playing the game. Once they play it, they'll realise a lot of people think that just because we put a lot of love and time into graphics and cinematics, that we didn't put it in the gameplay and they think just because we did one thing, we couldn't have the other - that's absolutely not the truth. That's absolutely ridiculous; we did everything to ensure the gunplay and the characters were exactly right and so you'll see it when you play it. The controls are tight and the experience is a fun thing. The game really hasn't demoed well because the game is constantly evolving as you're playing it and it's not just a third person shooter; there's horror sections, there's exploration sections, there's action - everything's there. As you play the game, it's constantly changing and that was kind of a challenge to demo. To distill that in half an hour is hard - you have to see the whole thing and experience the journey.

In terms of the development, what got you excited going into work every day?
Every day there was something new that was uncharted.  Everything we were doing, we were doing something nobody else was doing and that was terribly exciting. A lot of time was spent pondering how do we do this because not doing it is not an option and excuse. Everyone was ultra-passionate about it.

What's the moment that stands out for you?
My wow moment came when I realised that you can play the game early on, but you can't actually play the game until later on. You don't get the polished experience until later on. At least every game I've worked on comes together at the end. I got to sit down and played it one night all the way through - I went into a dark room and went into the next day and kept playing it and I kept playing it in one sitting. I was so tired! I haven't done that since I was a kid and this is something I've been involved in.

At the launch of The Order 1886, you were watching people play?
I love watching people play, no two people play the same. We do a ton of focus testing internally and we see people play all the time and you get so much data from it. Even just like little subtleties like where do people slouch their shoulders, look, put their controller down. The psychology of that is exceptional.

Tell me a little about the characters and how the game was put together?
There's a ton of motion capture in The Order - we did it the similar way to how Avatar was put together; they had a full jump suit with motion trackers on them as well as a face camera.While they were acting, we were capturing the face - it's a pretty exciting thing to have, everything is cohesive and not as disjointed. With any filming, the actors were given a little creative freedom and allowed to put their own flair on it. As with movies, with any actor, the performance shines through - but only if they believe it. We find actors who look and move and sound like we want. All the principal characters as we had an idea of what they should look like, we brought them in and had their face 3D scanned. It was really neat that the designers could put a little of their own elements onto the characters and that was really cool. We did 16K eyeball scanning - even one of my eyeballs is in the game! I couldn't see for a few days after it because the machine is so bright! Even if you're making something stylistic, you have to make sure it's grounded in some form of reality though. If I was to make a stylistic game like The Order 1886 I'd do it the same way; I'd start with reality and add layers on top of that.

It sounds like you had a wealth of material - what was the point you had to stop and maybe rein yourselves in?
It was way too late that we realised that! (Laughs) We are constantly pushing and we don't know when to stop. Left to our own devices we wouldn't ship a game!

What is the future of The Order? Do you see it as a franchise?
I hope it is! For me personally, I had a lot of fun working on it and it's such a rich universe that there are still plenty of areas left to explore. It'd be a crime to not make another element of it. The world just begs to be explored and that's something that I hope personally keeps going on because I think as a gamer I want more. As soon as I'd finished the game, I went and bugged Ru to see what's next, what's the story, where are we going - and he said there's nothing next.... yet..

The game's story is shrouded in secrecy - where do you personally stand on spoilers?
I'm sure that our game is being streamed somewhere on Twitch right now and my personal view is I don't mind people but I think they're harming themselves.If it was my choice, I'd go into it completely blind and experience it myself. When you have a story based game, it's the best way to experience it. It's like movies, if you'd told me the plot of Pulp Fiction, I'd want to know myself - I didn't want to know she was stabbed in the chest - I think we're passed the statute of limitations of that spoiler!

What are you digging in terms of games?
Right now, as you can imagine, we've been deep in development and are just coming out of that - I have a backlog of gaming to play. People may be surprised, but I'm going back to things chronologically. I've gone back to Telltale's Walking Dead right now and it's different to anything I've played. I'm a big first person shooter and I was really into Starcraft for an embarrassing amount of time so I'm all over the board in terms of games I like. I'm really looking to playing the new inFamous as well - I really love that series. I'm actually kicking myself for not playing that when it came out - that's next in the queue! If you're a gamer, you're a gamer, you love it all regardless as you're in for the experience.

The Order 1886 is out now exclusively for PS4.

Monday, 2 March 2015

Supermensch: The Shep Gordon Story: Movie Review

Supermensch: The Shep Gordon Story: Movie Review

Cast: Shep Gordon, Tom Arnold, Mike Myers, Alice Cooper, Michael Douglas, Sylvester Stallone
Director: Mike Myers

Chances are the name Shep Gordon will not be one which many of us are familiar with.

But stepping behind the lens, Austin Powers' star Mike Myers is determined to change that perception.

Weaving a tale of Hollywood behind the scenes, Supermensch: The Shep Gordon Story offers up a snapshot of what exactly Gordon has offered to the entertainment world in his years of service.

Sex, drugs, the Playboy mansion, rock and roll are all prevalent in this tale - what would you expect for a man whose T Shirt says "No head, no backstage pass" and who's associated with so many people who have reputations?

Through a pacy documentary, replete with supercuts and a gentle OST, Myers proves to be a relative talent behind the lens as well as in front. Peppering Gordon's stories with recreations proves to be a smart move, even though there's plenty of photographic evidence on hand.

That said, it could be levelled at Myers that he's a little too close to the subject having fallen on this benefactor for help when needed, so a bit more professional distance may have been of use and given the doco less of a feel of a film that's more bathed in light than shades of grey.

Though that could be said that the subject is partly to blame; a man who believes in karma and about whom very few have a bad word to say means there's little darkness in this tale over than some health issues toward the end.

The doco is also one of two halves as well, with Gordon's warning early on that "If I do my job properly, I will probably kill you" proving the entrance into the Hollywood way of life, Janis Jopli, Jimi Hendrix, Teddy Pendergrass and Alice Cooper. Cooper proves to be the real highlight as the almost svengali-like Gordon appears to have been more of a force than many would believe he has credit for

But around 40 minutes in, Myers suddenly detours into Gordon's personal life giving him a human edge that's a little more needed and a rounder picture of the nice guy of showbiz.

For Myers, Supermensch is a surprising documentary in terms of subject and of his life, but it doesn't deviate too far from the norm of the genre, despite Myers' adeptness at bringing it to life on the screen.

Pleasingly put together and smartly executed, it's eminently watchable but lacks an occasional depth as it leads to its cautionary ending. A confident doco but one that could have done with more of an injection of another point of view, Supermensch is the story of a nice guy done good. In this day and age, that's a rarity to be celebrated.


Sunday, 1 March 2015

Farscape Seasons 3 and 4: Blu Ray Review

Farscape Seasons 3 and 4: Blu Ray Review

Rating: M
Released by Madman Home Ent

The third and fourth seasons of the cult fave Farscape have a lot to live up to.

Fortunately, they deliver to fans of the show - though you'd expect newcomers may be a little lost at some of the subtleties of what's going on. The series centres around Ben Browder's lost in space via a wormhole pilot John Crichton and his involvement in an ongoing war with Scorpius who's after the wormhole technology.

With creatures from the Jim Henson Muppet Company, this series mixes the sci-fi drama with the zany in an effective manner, wrangling all manner of character moments as well. It's this humanity which serves the series well - and proves the in road to those who may be a little unsure of what's going on.

Complete with an effectively wide set of extras on both discs and a smart transition to HD, these final two full seasons of Farscape showcase a series that was perhaps ahead of its time, but like Firefly, refuses to die due to fervent fan love.


Saturday, 28 February 2015

Boyhood: Blu Ray Review

Boyhood: Blu Ray Review

Rating: M
Released by Universal Home Ent

Time is an illusion in Richard Linklater's masterpiece coming of age film.

Set over 12 years of the life of Mason Jr (Ellar Coltrane in a stellar turn - how did Linklater know he would turn out exactly as needed?), Boyhood charts the boy's growth and ends with graduation from high school.

But the passing of time is not signposted, nor remarked on as lives change, circumstances become more and less complicated and life, basically, happens.

Eschewing conventional narrative tropes that usually blight these kinds of movies (parents separate, parents reconnect, everyone lives happily ever after), Linklater remains true to the often messy and unpredictable ways of life. Mason's parents, Olivia (Patricia Arquette) and Mason Sr (Ethan Hawke) start the movie separated, with his dad zooming into town here and there and parenting where and when he's allowed; meanwhile his mother goes through a series of relationships that splinter under time (and dissolve off-screen) having had the seeds of discomfort sown early on.

With life evolving and dissolving, Linklater never loses his focus and eye for detail and moments as seamless time shifts take place throughout; be it the Harry Potter mania that grips both Mason and his sister Sam or discussion of the Twilight novels, the zeitgeist is certainly present throughout the 165 minutes run time, making this piece feel both timeless and yet also of the era as well. Problems are universal - girls, school choices, alcoholism - they're all there for the rich dramatic pickings

But in among the humour, there's poignancy as well; a final speech from Olivia as Mason Jr prepares to move out works on two levels; there are laughs within it but at the same time a bittersweet recognition that in amongst the various haircut changes and fashion sensibilities, life has marched on and the inevitable lies ahead; a sad admission that life, in all its forms, is to be treasured and embraced. (Even if most of the audience laughed at this, it's an indication of how wide ranging the film is and how differently it can be interpreted)

And its main protagonists fare exceptionally well too; Coltrane inhabits the role with ease from the naivete of youth to the highs and lows of life's disappointments and makes an eminently watchable lead no matter the age; Hawke is an affable easy presence and (along with Arquette) is spared the indignity of watching the relationship fall apart - and Arquette, the mother is an achingly real centre of Mason's world, as she tries to find her own identity and negotiate life.

The main thing about Boyhood though is how incredibly easy Linklater's made this all look - committing to a film for 12 years certainly is one hell of a decision (and reeks of the 7 Up series of docos) but proves to be a masterstroke in the coming of age genre.

Quite simply, thanks to Boyhood, that genre has been forever changed and its limitations blown out of the water. Do what you can to see Boyhood, it's one of the most rewarding films of the year and is as life-affirming as it is life-changing.


Friday, 27 February 2015

Whiplash: Blu Ray Review

Whiplash: Blu Ray Review

Rating: M
Released by Sony Home ent

What drives creativity and what makes it thrive are the two potent ingredients in Damien Chazelle's intensely electrifying Whiplash, the story of Miles Teller's wannabe jazz drummer, Andrew Neyman.

He's enrolled in the Schaffer music school for the gifted, inspired by his admiration for the likes of Buddy Rich and determined to break into the group run by conductor Terence Fletcher (JK Simmons) which works the competition circuit and is believed to be one of the best.

However, Neyman soon discovers that wanting to be the best isn't enough for Fletcher, and an educational game of cat-and-mouse begins with musical and personal stakes at the highest level....

Whiplash is an astounding piece of cinema, essentially a two-hander which thrives on the perverse and monstrous relationship between student and mentor. As this mental game of chase plays out, with Neyman doing whatever it takes to impress Fletcher, the film delves deeply into what students are willing to lay on the line to succeed, with the actions on the screen revealing more about the pair's psyche that reams of exposition ever would.

It helps that both Teller and Simmons are utterly commanding presences, with Simmons bringing some of the drill-sergeant intensity, volatility and utter terror that he displayed as Schillinger way back when in TV series Oz. It's simply a career best for him.

But whilst Fletcher's a truly despicable mentor, riddled with simmering ferocity that's bubbling under just waiting to explode like your worst nightmare, Teller's Neyman more than matches him with his initial wide-eyed, keen-to-learn student attitude being shaped into something more sinister by the drive to succeed. His burgeoning relationship with another student (Benoist) and his interactions with his sports-loving family merely serve to demonstrate how far detached he's become from what's normal in life.

Thankfully, both Teller and Simmons demand your attention on the screen, and in initial rehearsal scenes (where you can see the explosion waiting to happen from a mile off), you can hear a pin drop in the build up and resultant moments as the vulnerable Andrew digs deep into himself to reach the heights which Fletcher demands of him. The final sequence alone in this psychological tale is perhaps one of the finest committed to celluloid this year.

There's a whole debate about whether latent talent is to be nurtured and coaxed out or whether it is to be pushed as far as is humanly possible in a callous way; Chazelle doesn't shy from that, leaving the audience in no doubt that there are no easy answers, opting instead for ambiguity.

And there are certainly calluses on screen as well, with Teller's ferocious drumming leading to some shocking images such as bloodied hands being plunged into ice water. There's also a raw power to the music scenes as well with jazz tunes Whiplash and Caravan being brought kinetically to life as the car-crash comes into full focus. Sacrifice, self-worth, self-belief, teaching, learning and personal drive and limits are all valid themes espoused throughout Whiplash, and with no easy answers proffered.

However, it's thanks to two electrifying leads that Whiplash is one of 2014's greats; the questions over who's the bad guy here (student or mentor) furrows down deep into some serious questioning and may prove equally as intriguing, but at the end of the day, Whiplash is as an astounding, passionately claustrophobic and as raw a movie as you're likely to see.


Thursday, 26 February 2015

Wahlburgers: Season 1: DVD Review

Wahlburgers: Season 1: DVD Review

Rating: PG
Released by Vendetta Films

Whoever knew there was a Wahlberg dynasty?

In this reality series from A&E (the people who brought you Storage Wars), the focus is on the lesser know brother of Mark and Donnie, the Boston based chef Paul Wahlberg.

Dubbed the most talented sibling by Mark, Paul's a chef whose dreams of getting his burger restaurants to work as a Boston based franchise clash directly with the family ambitions of Mark to get it global. That of course causes friction as Paul's very focussed on ensuring the business stays local so as not to lose the special touch he has with it.

Over the course of 9 episodes, we follow the Wahlberg family - and the matriarch - as they deal with Paul catering for Mark's movie premieres, scouting new venues around America, and generally japing around. Eminently watchable for the first 5 or so episodes, this series is an interesting look into the Wahlberg world. It's light and fluffy easy viewing that doesn't challenge, but like any meal, after a while, you start to feel somewhat bloated and a little sick.

Wahlburgers works best when it focuses on Paul's ideas, because Mark emerges as being slightly bratty and selfish as the series progresses.

Fun and forgettable, Wahlburgers is a tantalising look at the Boston family, conveyed under the usual A&E reality (ie occasionally feels scripted) trappings.

Extras: Featurettes and bits and pieces