Thursday, 23 October 2014

The Dead Lands: Movie Review

The Dead Lands: Movie Review

Cast: James Rolleston, Lawrence Makoare, Te Kohe Tuhaka, George Henare, Rena Owen, Raukura Turei
Director: Toa Fraser

With praise ringing in its ears from the Toronto International Film Festival, Toa Fraser's The Dead Lands hits cinemas, completing a veritable belter of a year for Kiwi fare at the multiplex.

Entirely in Te Reo, Boy and Dark Horse star James Rolleston is Hongi, a Maori chieftain's son whose witnessing of a desecration of ancient descendants by rival chief son Wirepa (Tuhaka) sparks a rift in pre-colonial times.

When Wirepa and his men attack Hongi's tribe in the night, slaughtering all the men and killing Hongi's father Tane, Hongi swears revenge on Wirepa, despite not being fully versed in the ways of the warrior. Hongi sets out to get his vengeance, and with Wirepa crossing the abandoned Dead Lands, he sees his chance to use the spirits of the land and the ancient ways of the warrior to achieve victory.

In among the lush, verdant land so beautifully captured by Fraser and his team, there's a potent mix of spirituality and brutality on show in The Dead Lands.

Rolleston cements his place as a national treasure by pulling in a performance that's a subtle blend of ferocious anger during the quick cut fight scenes and sensitively scared maudlin boy on a coming-of-age journey, teetering on the verge of manhood. Equally, Makoare as the Monster in the Dead Lands is also a frightening presence, a reminder of the simmering rage and yet sadness that lurks in the violence of the past within this taniwha.

But it's Fraser who's the real star of this piece, for pulling together an epic genre film that blends martial arts style fight scenes that spit over with brutality, spirituality, Greek tragedy (via Wirepa's hubris - which is cunningly subverted at the end), 80s action movies (quick zoom ins, an atmospheric synthesiser score from Don McGlashan) and full on te reo. The soundscape's also impressive too, with bone-crunching fight scenes sizzling among the violence of this old fashioned revenge flick.

The te reo is also a masterstroke, with the colourful enunciations delivering an evocatively emotional edge to the spiky dialect and dialogue when practically spat by some of the cast - it's a touch which wouldn't have worked as well were it in English or dubbed.

Presence is key here and Fraser crackles with it with his cast and behind the camera, even as the vengeance story goes on - and leads to a finale that somewhat lacks in final act showdown showmanship after plenty of posturing has filled out the screenplay and screen time. (And given that the haka is more menacing here than on any rugby field)

It's an interesting end where Fraser looks to bridge the violence that's gone on previously and has so wrecked Hongi's life and other tribes with the signs of a dawning of a new sensitivity in the dawning of a new age. Perhaps, a more mature response to what's gone on before.

The Dead Lands proves to be creatively fertile ground for New Zealand cinema in a year that's been unprecedented for Kiwi product - and a sign that when required, we can offer an unique spin on events.


Brand new Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies video

Brand new Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies video

There's a brand new epic video for The Hobbit: The Battle of The Five Armies which has just dropped.

Except it's sort of not... it's the last of the Air New Zealand safety videos with a Hobbit theme.

Take a look below

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Sunset Overdrive: Marcus Smith Q&A

Sunset Overdrive: Marcus Smith Q&A

Sunset Overdrive hits XBox One on October 30th - and the creative director of Insomniac Games, Marcus Smith was in town for the recent Digital Nationz event. So, I got to catch up with him to discuss the much awaited game, why lunacy is the key element and what's next for Ratchet and Clank.

1) What can you tell us about Sunset Overdrive?
At its heart, Sunset Overdrive is a game built around ‘fun in the end-times’. What if instead of scavenging for single rounds of ammunition in a dark, depressing world, as we so often do in post-apocalypse genre games,  we put the player in the role of someone who thrives after an outbreak that turns everyone into mutants? And what if that world was bright and colorful, even inviting? In short, Sunset Overdrive is about fun- it’s fast-paced, high-action, and doesn’t take itself too seriously. Players will perform physically impossible moves to get around, jump, bounce and grind around the city and dispense enemies with unique weaponry while helping other survivor groups to fight against the giant corporation responsible for the outbreak.  

2) How did the idea come about- you’ve said you’d been dreaming about this for many years, why it’s been such an obsession?
Drew (Murray, Game Director) and I had been working on Resistance 3 when we started talking about the type of game we’d make in the unlikely event that someone would give us the funds to make whatever we wanted. We started talking about the book, “I am Legend” by Richard Mathison. The idea of a single person surviving after everyone else turns in to vampire-like monsters seemed tailor made for an open world game- “scavenge by day, defend at night” was the early pitch for Sunset. But before we pitched the game to Ted Price, Al and Brian Hastings (owners of Insomniac Games), we added a twist by making it the “rock and roll end-times”, the idea of not just surviving, but doing it with style. We thought, “what would Iggy Pop do if he were one of the last surviving members of society?” We don’t have a definitive answer for that, but we’re pretty sure it’d be spectacular! We knew there was great opportunity for really unique gameplay and story opportunities, but the team really brought the amazing idea to the table.

3) The initial trailers for Sunset Overdrive suggest there’s a level of complete lunacy about the project.
Indeed. “Fun trumps realism” was a mantra. We’re creating a world that is filled with things you’ve never seen before in other games. As such, we created a few rules for the world, the player character, and the various factions and then just directed the chaos of ideas coming from the team. We told the designers that they needed to surprise us with any mission or quest. The results are entertaining and will make players want more, I’m sure.

4) How far did you reign yourself in terms of story / concepts – was there ever a chance of you having a moment where you said we’ve gone too far?
Not really. We told the stories we wanted to tell for this game. If anything, we pulled some stories that were kind of crammed in, feeling rushed. Hopefully we can expand on those for DLC or a sequel.

5) How did you get involved with Insomniac?
Well, I’d worked for Mark Cerny at his design consultancy group, Cerny Games, for several years. Insomniac and Mark had always had a great working relationship, sharing office space near Universal Studios and then moving into a larger space together in Burbank. I’d been involved in a startup development company that grew out of Mark’s company at a pretty bad time- when Sony was stretched trying to launch the PS3 *and* PSP. It wasn’t a good time to try something new and resulted in a cancelled game. When that company dissolved, Insomniac, our next door neighbor, came by to suggest we apply. It was dumb luck because I’d always been a fan of Insomniac since the days of Spyro and I sort of fell from one dream job into another.

6) What’s your favorite title to have worked on- and to have played on?
Sunset Overdrive is my favorite game to have worked on. It’s just stupid amounts of fun. In terms of my favorite game of all time, Zelda: Ocarina of Time is up there, for sure. As is Half-Life, Journey, and Final Fantasy X. Tetris was pretty good, as well.

7) I can’t tell you how much fun I’ve had with the Ratchet and Clank games over the years; the perfect combination of platforming, shoot ‘em up and also puzzles – what’s next for that series?
Well, as one of the few Insomniac to have never worked on a Ratchet title, all I can say is that I share your enthusiasm for the Lombax and his robotic friend. But as a studio, we’re creating a PS4 R&C game to coincide with the feature film coming out in 2015.  You can read more about it here:

8) An Xbox One only title for Sunset Overdrive, are you massively excited for the launch of this exclusively on this platform?
Yes, absolutely. It’s a game that is a lot of fun to play, even for someone like me, who plays it every day as part of my job. We just really can’t wait for people to finally be able to play the entire game- experience the single player campaign and play Chaos Squad together.

9) What do you see the future of the next gen titles?
The latest hardware platforms give us a great opportunity to push more to the screen, from particle effects to physics, we can simply build more.  The more robust specs give us additional horsepower to rev up and make player’s gaming experience all the more exhilarating.

10) How do you rate the current gaming environment – what’s been your favorite game to play in recent years?
I think we’re in a new Golden Age of games. With so many viable platforms- from the three big consoles to IOS, Vita, Gameboy, PC, browser games, etc, there are game playing experiences to be had for all types of tastes. I’m hoping that the diversity will push publishers and developers to create new forms of entertainment. For me, the most exciting games of late are barely games at all, but experiences- from the flowing beauty of Journey, to the ‘Hitchhiker’s Guide-esque’ “The Staley Parable”, to the gripping “Papers, Please” and interactive storytelling of “Going Home”. These are games that developed out of the indie gaming community and hopefully these types of experiences can push the industry as a whole to pursue more than just the derivative.  

11) As Digital NatioNZ has shown, there’s plenty of gamers out there- what advice would you give to those who want to get involved in the industry?
Don’t wait to get your foot in the door. If you want to make games, just do it. There are plenty of tools out there that let individuals build sophisticated games. Unity, Unreal, HTML 5 game creation tools, etc. Many people started in the modding community, showing that they could build compelling experiences in a playable format. Nowadays, it’s the best way to build experience. There are plenty of schools out there as well, but they might be as available to people as game making tools. So just do it yourself. Who knows? You might be the next great indie game maker.

12) And finally- give us a secret about Sunset Overdrive that you’ve told no one yet…
The butler did it.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Fury: Movie Review

Fury: Movie Review

Cast: Brad Pitt, Logan Lerman, Michael Pena, Shia Labeouf, Jon Benthal
Director: David Ayers

They say war is hell.

And for large chunks of David Ayers' war-warts-and-all movie Fury, that's certainly the case (read into that what you will).

In this latest to join the pantheon of panzer crushers, Brad Pitt plays Wardaddy, a sergeant 
scarred literally and metaphorically by a long tour of duty. He's the head of a Sherman tank (with Fury blazoned on its gun - Freud would have a field day with that visual lack of subtlety I suspect) whose bloodied and muddied crew is faced with death during the final days of World War II, lumbering from one job to the next, escorting troops and clearing the way as the final push into Nazi territory reaches its ultimate end.

Into their number comes fresh-faced Norman (cliche number one) played with quaking fear and moral sensitivity by Logan Lerman, who's inevitably going to undergo a baptism of fire as the assistant tank driver, helping the Fury team to push into Germany. But, the further into the enemy's territory they get, the more challenges and horrors await them.

Fury is, in many ways, your typical Hollywood war movie. 

There are intense fight scenes where the explosions are bigger than anything you'd have imagined, bullets whip through the air like red and green laser beams and there's a final (reality-defying) showdown which sees the tank crew overwhelmed by insurmountable odds as they draw a line in the sand. There's also plenty of time during the final battle for speeches and soul-baring heroics which don't ring true given the level of menace apparently on their doorstep.

Plus, with the exception of the aphorism-spouting Wardaddy and the from-baby-to-man-in-one-day coming of age journey of Norman and their relationship, the men in the tank are pretty much one note - (the smart quippy Mexican, played by Pena, the hillbilly played by Bernthal and the quiet Bible reading one played by LaBeouf) - making the emotional pull of the climactic showdown all too lacking. In fact, at times, you feel the plot and its execution is lumbering and lurching as much as the tank itself as it charts a course through Germany, even though Pitt's performance rises above the rest.

And yet, there are moments where Ayers defies the Hollywood war machine conventions and proffers up something commendable which rises above the cliche of the combat and the gritty horrors in most war movies post Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan.

Visually, Fury is tremendously affecting, with striking war-torn vistas and hauntingly bleak imagery peppered throughout. 

In among the grim and mud-strewn atrocities of war (people strung up by the sides of the road, a body in a suit crushed under a tank track, half a face is to be cleaned off from the insides of a tank, a soldier on fire who shoots himself in the head rather than burn alive), there are long swathes of quieter scenes where the tedium of war and the tensions and psychology of men together are exploited to maximum effect.

None more so than one central pivotal scene which sees the stoic Wardaddy and Norman enter a German home in a liberated village for some R&R. The house has two women within and, thanks to Pitt's effectively dialled down, questionable character and almost mute performance, the simmering tension and latent uncertainty of how this play out brings out a dramatic frisson that's missing. Things are further ramped up a notch psychologically when the remaining members of the crew gate-crash the meal, adding a level of ugliness to the extended proceedings and proving a reminder of what lies ahead when the final vestiges of humanity are threatened.  

Ultimately, Fury is a solid war-is-hell movie, with scattered moments of poignancy that whimper rather than roar; the claustrophobia of the tank is under-used and the shattering of Norman's innocence is over-used. 

War is indeed hell, and while Ayers is to be applauded for his keen eye for horrific detail, his taking his eye off the ball in other areas and sub-par characters almost cause this tank to stop dead in its tracks.


Monday, 20 October 2014

Edge of Tomorrow: Blu Ray Review

Edge of Tomorrow: Blu Ray Review

Rating: M
Released by Roadshow Home Ent

With the earth invaded by creatures known as the Mimics and with nations toppling around them, Tom Cruise's spin doctor Major William Cage finds himself thrust onto the front line by a vindictive general (Brendan Gleeson) on the eve of a major last push from UK soil.

Unable to cope with the concept of fighting, and with a Normandy style beach landing just around the corner, Cage does all he can to escape the war - but to no avail. Thrust into the theatre of war, Cage is killed by a Mimic - only to wake up and find that he's jumped back in time and is being forced to live the same 2 days over and over again....

Edge of Tomorrow is based on the Japanese novel, All You Need Is Kill and is a heady mash up of the sci fi and other genres you've seen before - from Starship Troopers to Groundhog Day,Saving Private Ryan to LooperElysium with its exo-suits and even Cruise's last outing,Oblivion,  it's derivative in many ways.

Humour permeates the first third of the film with Cruise's Cage being offed in a variety of ways, in a plethora of situations that if you're not a fan of the superstar may bring you an element of perverse glee (as well as make you think it's some kind of bizarre cinematic video-game).

Though, it's Cruise that shines through in this as he starts out as a smug PR weasel of a man forced into a baptism of fire on the battlefield; with each death, there's a grim edge that creeps into his character and an attitude that he manages to sell incredibly well, with his own old age helping.

Equally, Blunt impresses as the bad-ass Rita Vrataski, despite starting out as the "Full Metal Bitch", heroine of the army and gradually softening to Cage's continued assault. Toned and combat ready, she carries her no-nonsense one-note heroine as Cage's foil throughout - she shoulders the burden of the bulk of the laughs during the reset sequences in a nice twist of expected gender stereotypes. Mention must also go to the evangelical Bill Paxton who, as a base sergeant, spouts such litany of Biblical proportions on combat that you almost feel like signing up yourself.

Liman's brought together an alien invasion that's visually original too, with spidery-style octopus like creatures ripping through the troops during the Saving Private Ryan beach landings. Speed and visual FX impress and make up for some of the convenient lapses in time travel logic and plotholes that permeate parts of the film (why is Gleeson's general so adamant that Cage will fight, how does an airship get off a base during lockdown).

Though it has to be said, the final portion of the film almost muddies the whole experience with a showdown that's as generic and predictable as most sci fi fare and derails the sparkiness and edge that delivered a freshness so early on, despite the sci-fi hokum and flimsy premise.

All in all, Edge of Tomorrow is a fine example of its oeuvre, a fun blockbuster sci-fi blast that reinstates Cruise as the king of the popcorn flick and proffers up Blunt as the queen of kick-ass.


Sunday, 19 October 2014

Grand Designs Series 11: DVD Review

Grand Designs Series 11: DVD Review

Rating: PG
Released by Roadshow Home Ent

The ever amicable Kevin McCloud returns in another series of Grand Designs as he negotiates the usual perils of Britain's propensity for self builds.

From the restoration of a decaying 1920s cinema in South Yorkshire to revisiting homes in Malaga and Woodbridge, McCloud brings his usual formula to the screen, inspiring those who want to change their homes and those who actually get off their backsides and do it.

There are the predictable perils in the fore; money and time being the worst, but there's also a degree of heart warming sentiment in this series; none more so than in the episode in Tiverton where a former soldier, left with only limb after a bomb blast, is forced to rethink his plans for a new home.

If it ain't broke, don't fix it is the motto which could be applied to this season - but as ever, Grand Designs remains watchable enough fare for a rainy day.


Saturday, 18 October 2014

This Is Where I Leave You: Movie Review

This Is Where I Leave You: Movie Review

Cast: Jason Bateman, Jane Fonda, Tina Fey, Timothy Olyphant, Adam Driver, Rose Byrne, Corey Stoll, Connie Britton, Kathryn Hahn
Director: Shawn Levy

From Jonathan Tropper's novel, dramedy This Is Where I Leave You sees an all-star cast gathering together to mourn the loss of a patriarch and to rediscover their own connection.

Bateman (in sad-sack moping mood) is Judd Altman, who, after discovering his wife is cheating on him on her birthday, receives a message to say his father's died. Heading back to the family home, run by therapist Hilary (Fonda), he's forced back into the quarrels and squabbles that comes with his two other brothers, Phillip and Paul (Driver and Stoll respectively) and his sister Wendy (Fey in a dramatic turn).

Forced by their mother to attend a 7 day shiva for their deceased father, the group finds former resentments, former loves and current problems close to wrecking it all...

This Is Where I Leave You brings together an impressive ensemble and then largely wastes them in this chick-flick sentimental sap-fest that borders on the bland and pedestrian in places as it wallows in suburban angst.

Half the problem is that supporting characters don't have enough development in this crushed cast; Bateman dials in his ever watchable charismatically depressed turn as the sad-sack Judd, whose life is falling apart; Driver brings his goofy edge to the baby playboy of the family and Fey flits between edges of comedy and drama as the sister who's still in love with the boy across the road who's suffering because of their past.

Orbiting these characters and their emotional baggage is a tough job already, but there's not enough dramatic meat on the bones for the rest of them. Hahn's frustrated wannabe mother who's unable to conceive, Olyphant's distant ex-love, Stoll's older brother and Britton's love interest to playboy Phillip are simply shells of characters, brought in to serve the narrative and do little to propel the drama.

And yet, in parts, there are moments of sentimentality and issues touched upon which will resonate with older audiences; mortality, loves lost, fertility issues - the broad spectrum of potential moping material is likely to hit somewhere and at some point in the rather muted This Is Where I Leave You. It's all perfectly serviceable fare that trundles along while teetering on wallowing.

It manages to tap into the frustrations of a home-coming film, but proffers up none of the surprises from its cast; the dramatic signs are all there, but they play out so ploddingly that by the end, you'll start to feel the exasperations the cliched Altmans feel as the emotional balls-in-the-air are juggled and dirty laundry aired.