Thursday, 28 August 2014

CounterSpy: PS4 Review

CounterSpy: PS4 Review

Developer: Dynamighty
Platform: PS4

The Cold War is heating up again on the PlayStation 4 with the release of spy thriller, Counterspy.

In this side-scrolling stealth 2D platformer, you play a spy, slap bang in the middle of hostilities, but positioned on neither side. Briefed by C.O.U.N.T.E.R, your mission is to retrieve a series of launch codes, take out the bad guys and save the day by deactivating any potential nuclear launch.

The problem is that as well as collecting intel by searching cupboards, there are also bad guys for you to have to either take down or shoot - as well as the Nuclear clock counting down to Def Con 1 putting the pressure squarely on your shoulders.

Each time you die, the clock ticks ever closer to that launch, and if you run out of chances to run down the clock, then it's all on as there's just 1 minute for you to race through the level, silence any baddies and stop the clock.

CounterSpy is tremendous fun; the minimal visuals as you negotiate both sides of the Cold War are brilliantly realised, with your silhouetted agent slinking and grooving between targets. Employing stealth moves and tactics are really the order of the day, because each mission gets harder and each starts closer to the end of the doomsday clock.

Stealth kills work best, with the soldiers being unable to call in the fact there's a spy loose, but you have to be clever with these; moments when you wander through a camera's field without realising can raise the Def Con Level and cause all manner of chaos without you realising. Likewise, choosing to mow down all the baddies with a machine gun may seem like an obvious solution, but this does alert others to your presence.

Each level is randomly generated, which means that any game can't be cracked in the manner of a traditional platformer with no guarantees of what lies ahead. It's a clever touch, because even though there are only a few variety of levels, the fact they're not the same adds much to the game and prevents too much repetition.

Part of the thrill of CounterSpy (aside from the collecting of weapon blueprints to unlock new weapons and formulas to help you deal with enemies) is how fiendishly addictive it is - each death is avoidable and so the pull back into the game is inevitable. That's despite the glitches within.

It's not all bells and whistles though - a few moments in CounterSpy drag the game down a notch. Several times the game froze at the start of the level for no reason whatsoever, leaving the spy stranded and doing nothing and this gamer frustrated as he elected to quit the mission. Equally moments within the game saw combat moves on 3 baddies at once hit by glitches which meant the takedown cut scenes were smattered by a hail of bullets, meaning that health levels suffered for the start of the next. (Though this can play to your advantage, as you can disarm the end of levels computers by taking a hail of gunfire).

Overall, CounterSpy is great fun; a reminder that simplicity is king and that sometimes the most hours can be lost at a gaming console for the smartest of premises.


Wednesday, 27 August 2014

The Raid 2: Blu Ray Review

The Raid 2: Blu Ray Review

Rating: R18
Released by Madman Home Ent

"It's a question of ambition"

The first words spoken in The Raid 2: Berandal - and all throughout, Evans' ambition shines on like a beacon of directorial delight.

Not long after the first Raid movie finished, shortly after rookie cop Rama (Uwais) chop-sockied his way out of a building piled high with gangsters and bad guys, the sequel takes up. Suddenly, Rama finds himself asked to help weedle out the corruption within the system and enter the world of gangsters, gang warfare and an uneasy truce that's existed for more than a decade.

Despite his initial refusal to do so, the quest to do good is irresistible to Rama - and he finds himself in a world where he's not the biggest fish and there are some pretty dangerous predators around.

The Raid 2: Berandal  is an exceptionally impressive sequel that ups the ante of the first and shows no sign of resting on its laurels.

Evans has settled for the epic, and has certainly achieved that goal more often than not throughout its slightly overlong 2 and a half hours run time. If The Raid proved one thing, it's that a single man, with his fists and a knack for taking on the system could prove to be an incredibly visceral thrill. Certainly, the second reaches the dizzying highs of the first - and then amply exceeds them.

A series of set pieces prove almost balletic in their execution - from a major fight in a prison that becomes a muddy swamp scrap for survival to a final showdown that's likely to have you punching the air, this is an adrenaline packed ride that brings much originality and freshness to the action movie. Evans has directorial flair as well - using his camera to showcase a toilet fight from above and in a bravura extended car chase sequence, a fight within the back seat of the car. He's got vision and scope for the sequel that's jawdropping and fulfilled in every frame.

It's these moments that help lift the film from the predictability that annoyingly lurks in the background. The gang warfare story feels a little cliched and has been done many times before; a slightly bloated saggy middle section creaks with pointless re-exposition and almost flatlines as it sidelines our hero for turf war and attempts to channel Shakespearean type levels of betrayal (that don't quite meet the highs). But it's to Uwais' credit that he makes every moment count, perfectly encapsulating the conflict of trying to do what he believes is right but fighting his inner demons that perhaps he's out of his depth. A nuanced and restrained turn from our hero gives the emotional edge to the terrifically engaging and adrenaline-pumped action moments.

And there are so many of those - along with  Hammer Girl (a half-blind deaf mute whose MO involves, erm, hammers), this is a film whose sequel surpasses the original and delivers more than a kick to the head - it fires a shot in the arm of action movies and audience expectations for them. Beautifully choreographed frenetic fights flow like liquid, and leave the mind boggling over how many takes were needed; but serve to show how much of a talent Uwais is.

As the body count builds in the final act, you forgive the occasional creaks, the odd moment of weird characterisation (chiefly, a hobo looking aide to one family, who kicks serious ass but also has serious daddy issues); they all fade into the distance - because The Raid 2: Berandal packs a powerfully brutal punch, delivers a clear-cut KO to the genre and makes these kinds of movies all kinds of cool once again

Extras: Commentary with Gareth Evans, Q&A, Shooting a sequel, deleted scenes, behind the choreography


Tuesday, 26 August 2014

The Z-Nail Gang: Movie Review

The Z-Nail Gang: Movie Review

Cast: Errol Shand, Tanya Horo, Paul Ballard
Director: Anton Steel

This week's second passion project, after the release of Kiwi film The Last Saint, is as different a beast as you can get.

Inspired by actual events from the Coromandel in the 1980s, it looks at a small community within the Bay of Plenty battling for the future of their land.

Racked with debt and preferring to bury his head in the sand, Errol Shand's surfer Dave finds his world torn asunder when a multi-national corporation, Golia Minerals, intent on mining gold in the hills, comes to town.

But his wife, Mareeka (Horo) isn't going to stand by and let the big baddies push them around - so, pulling together their community, she starts an insurrection against the corporation, creating waves and divisions not only in the town, but also in her relationship.

The Z-Nail Gang, for all its good intentions, feels unfortunately like a community piece of theatre or telemovie that's made its way onto the big screen.

Preferring to show a community of oddballs and quirky stereotypes that live in small towns, it paints a very simplistic view of life within a coastal town. While the concerns and motivations are to be applauded (the raping of our land and heritage for corporate gain), the execution of the story is mired in comedy that feels like something out of the 1970s British sitcom genre.

Aussie prospectors who let farts out every time they bend over and are bedecked in 1970s porno- moustaches from the Village People, an American corporate boss who's got a black stetson, a comedy overweight policeman who's always eating, a glasses twitching postie, an incompetent lawyer for the protesters - they're all along for this parade of stereotyped comedy cliches and The Z-Nail Gang really does suffer for it, as moments of mugging for the camera come to the fore, drowning out the quieter more empathetic moments from the likes of Tanya Horo's Mareeka.

While it's true the piece has been put together on an extremely tight budget, that doesn't necessarily mean there's a frugality of cinema on show (simply underwritten characters).

The relaxed vibe of the starting sequences, coupled with a wonderfully chilled OST, imbue this piece of Kiwiana with the effortless joy of the coastal lifestyle. And the conflict between Dave and Mareeka would have proved to be more of a fertile dramatic source for this piece, were it not jettisoned in favour of the more cartoon-like elements. It takes over an hour to get to the meaty part of the film - and a final showdown certainly reveals how situations can boil over, but it's a long slog to get there, thanks to an unsure mix of the overly comedic and far too occasionally dramatic.

The Z-Nail Gang may be a passion project for those involved, and their passion certainly comes through for the film - but as a complete viewing experience, it's unfortunately - and sadly - wanting.


The Last Saint: Movie Review

The Last Saint: Movie Review

Cast: Beulah Koale, Joseph Naufahu, Calvin Tuteao, Sophia Huybens
Director: Rene Naufahu

Book-ending the movie with Auckland's Sky Tower, this crime thriller's clearly got the perils of the big bad city on its mind.

Beulah Koale is Minka, a teenager whose life has been ripped apart by the drug P; his mother, a former addict, is struggling to get by and his father, Joe, who owns a club, is involved in gangland concerns. Forced to work with his father, Minka's introduced into a world of crime to raise the cash to keep the wolves from his mum's door - but he soon discovers that the life path he's being guided down is not the safest choice he could ultimately make.

The Last Saint, while harrowing and shocking to some, is going to be a polarising piece.

With no financial support from the NZ Film Commission, the film's been forced into more of a passion project, and it shows within every single frame of the film. With Naufahu's shaky camera, drenched yellow Auckland by night and a searing ferocity on show, there are plenty of elements to admire in this - even if parts of the film suffer from being a little too shaky and appear speedily put together.

Koale impresses as the conflicted individual Minka whose life hangs on a knife edge as the drugs ravage his own personal life and those around him in the world of crime; this is a movie which doesn't shy away from showing some of the effects of addiction - with violence threatening to simmer over at any moment for those wanting their fix, Minka's descent into drug delivery boy is certainly horrifyingly handled.

Equally, Joseph Naufahu is certainly memorable as the P-addled dealer with the moniker of Pinball; though very occasionally, his turn teeters into OTT territory, though one guesses this is due to a drug addiction rather than over-acting on his behalf.

P is also the order of the day here too, with some finding this movie's intentions and execution polarising and also, at times, poignant as different sectors of the community are ripped apart.

While the human element occasionally falters (particularly during some of the fight scenes, where the over-reliance on grunting and bone-crunching sound effects becomes too much), the portrayal of a city ripped apart by a crippling drugs addiction never once veers from its target; oppressively written and impressively acted in parts, The Last Saint is to be applauded for its ambitions, even if its execution doesn't quite fully hit the mark.


Monday, 25 August 2014

Magic in The Moonlight: Movie Review

Magic in The Moonlight: Movie Review

Cast: Colin Firth, Emma Stone, Simon McBurney, Jacki Weaver
Director: Woody Allen

Director Woody Allen stays in Europe for his latest outing.

This time it's 1920s France, where famous illusionist (and monstrous man) Wei Ling Soo aka Stanley (an unlikeable Colin Firth) has been called in by his friend Howard (Rev star Simon McBurney) to debunk a clairvoyant Sophie (Emma Stone), who could be part of a scam.

Famously outspoken against clairvoyants, Stanley's determined to remove Sophie from the scene but his plans are derailed when she stuns him with the depth of her knowledge and apparent insight into the spirit world.

And his world view is thrown further into disarray when he starts to spend more time with Sophie.

Magic In the Moonlight follows a typical formula of a man being set up for a fall; with bluster and strong self belief, the skeptic Stanley goes through the motions of vehemently not believing, suddenly believing and then ultimately not believing again as he tries to negotiate his own questions of life beyond the pale.

Brash, abrasive, and generally grumpy, Firth's Stanley is a difficult man to get behind in this piece from Allen, that's about as light and unchallenging as anything he's recently put out. Add to that though, the fact that this Allen flick is as lifeless as one of the spirits Sophie's trying to channel throughout and Magic In the Moonlight starts to lose some of its real shine.

Allen's trademark talkiness is still in play, but the dialogue doesn't sparkle at all; none of the repartie or banter has any hidden levels or revelling in any kind of joy; most of Firth's renunciations and retorts are laced with a cruelty and harshness that means you fail to generate any empathy for what's transpiring. And over time, while the continual digs provide a scoffing from the audience, the overall effect is one of tedium, not medium. Even Stone feels downplayed a little as the waif-like Sophie, the psychic unable to really channel anything other than unfortunately feeling slightly miscast and out of place.

Allen uses the gorgeous setting of southern France to maximum effect but he demonstrates an over-reliance on jazz tunes to segue each scene; it's not enough to lift Magic In the Moonlight in ways you'd be hoping for; a final sequence adds in a clever use of a motif demonstrated early on and offers one delight, but an abrupt ending is shorn of any emotion or pull, with Allen leaving you with the feeling of a rushed screenplay and resolution.

Questions and ruminations on a life after may have been the thrust for this, with even potential discussions and viewpoints of cynicism and vehement denial forming more of a drive for any verbal jousting between Stanley, Sophie and even Howard, but Allen eschews all of that in favour of plenty of scenes of Stanley merely musing out loud.

All in all, Magic In the Moonlight is a film that has no real lasting magic once the lights have gone up even if it is pleasant enough - albeit frustrating - to watch transpire in parts.


Sunday, 24 August 2014

If I Stay: Movie Review

If I Stay: Movie Review

Cast: Chloe Grace Moretz, Mireille Enos, Jamie Blackley, Stacy Keach, Joshua Leonard
Director: R J Cutler

Based on the Young Adult novel by Gayle Forman of the same name, Kickass' Chloe Grace Moretz stars as Mia, a kid growing up in a musical family.

Her mum and dad (Enos and Leonard) used to be in a local rocker band, her younger brother's into Iggy Pop, but Mia's more classically inclined, with a penchant for the cello which is encouraged not indulged by those around her.

When a snow day is called, the family heads out together for a road trip, but a road accident changes Mia's life - and her family's - forever. Trapped in a coma, Mia must decide whether to return to life or move on.

There's a mix of the quaver of notes and the quiver of hearts (as you'd expect) in this young adult outing as it follows the usual path of first love, obstacles and naivetes.

With its bon mot of "Life is what happens when you're making plans", it plunges into the traditional tropes of the genre but without any real emotion (outside of Grace-Moretz's occasionally vulnerable performance as the prodigy) and with a dollop of cheesiness and stereotyped characters sprinkled liberally within (and plucked from a range of other stories).

Grace-Moretz brings a sensitivity and tangible sense of a life on a precipice during her hospital set scenes, but the flashbacks charting her life as she waits to see if she's got into a prestigious musical college, works through the good and bad of her first relationship with soft-rocker Adam (Blakely) and generally reflects on what's gone occasionally bring the movie into a lull. She manages to channel the uncertainty of diving into any world naturalistically, but the Lovely Bones style framing starts to drag things down into a predictably syrupy mire.

That said, Cutler does relatively good work with the subject matter (pseudo sick lit perhaps) and doesn't ever let the horror of what's going on swamp the movie. But perhaps, that's also some of the real problem here - a lack of real connection and a trite fashion of dealing with a wildly sanitised approach.

While the family flashbacks have a warmth and a corny sense of life (witness a group singalong of Smashing Pumpkins' Today around a campfire in a moment Mia describes as perfect), there's little heart as the rest plays out. The one stand-out moment comes when Stacy Keach's distraught Gramps sits by Mia's bed and pours out all the pent up emotions and repressed sadness that comes in such situations, with his heartbreaking final words mustering all the emotional tone that's needed for the rest of the film. (Though, admittedly, that could send it over the edge into overly mawkish)

Along with the usual cliched lines that are made to make teens swoon, and given the success of The Fault in Our Stars, If I Stay will benefit from having an already in-built audience determined to cry their way through the oh-so recognisable and relatable issues of life and love; as a story of a teen facing her own mortality, thanks to some unoriginal imagery (lights outside of the hospital, a white light in the corridors, music on speakers around the ward), it feels too formulaic - despite Grace-Moretz's charismatic performance, If I Stay is just another sanitised dollop of teen / young adult fare.


Boyhood: Movie Review

Boyhood: Movie Review

Cast: Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke
Director: Richard Linklater

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.