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In Darkness

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No stranger to the small screen, Natalie Dormer (Game of Throne, The Tudors) co-writes this gritty crime thriller alongside Director Anthony Byrne (Ripper Street, Peaky Blinders). The first half of the film plays like a “Hitchcockian” thriller, accompanied by a nice suspenseful film score by Niall Byrne.

Set in London’s busy streets, the film follows strong female protagonist Sofia, a blind pianist who finds herself entangled in a world of murder and crime when she hears her upstairs neighbour Veronique (Emily Ratajkowski) fall to her death. Soon discovering that Veronique’s father Radic is a ruthless criminal accused of horrific Serbian war crimes, Sofia is embroiled in a cat-and-mouse game between a dishevelled detective and the criminal underground festering with Radic’s henchmen.

Throughout the first half of the film, Sofia’s motives are at times questionable and she is not initially who she seems, as her own path of revenge is revealed. Mysterious thug Marc (Ed Skrein) seems to play Sofia’s knight-in-shining-armour, which at times feels unnecessary simply because of the fact that Dormer kicks-ass as a one-woman wrecking machine. But the connection both characters have developed makes for a nice twisted romantic part to the story.

The storyline is at times generic, yet it does have redeeming qualities. Anthony Byrne constructs a very simple, yet effective scene where a fight breaks out, but all you can see are fighting shadows on a wall; plus, tight pacing, slick sound design, plus Dormer’s strong blind person, who outshines all the other characters in the film.

The film provides a few too many twists and turns, which makes for a convoluted narrative and an unconvincing ending, however, you can also easily look past this to appreciate it for the impressively directed, clever thriller that it is. All-in-all a nice addition to the small screen.

 
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Divinity: Original Sin II: Definitive Edition

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I’ve always considered myself to be something of a polyamorous geek; that is I can hold many different pop cultural passions in my heart at once. Certainly horror movies are my first and most notable love, but I also ardently adore video games, sensually worship excellent telly, vigorously exalt books and even give comics a friendly frotting from time to time. But for all of these most delightful lovers one particular branch of the gnarled dork tree has always eluded me: the turn-based fantasy RPG.

I’ve admired them from afar, mind you, and even dipped my toe into Pillars of Eternity and the first Divinity: Original Sin but something about the setting, characters and/or world always failed to grab me long term. That is until Divinity: Original Sin II: Definitive Edition came along and ignited a new passion in my old, cold, black little heart.

Divinity: Original Sin II: Definitive Edition (called Divinity 2 henceforth) tells the tale of a number of characters – both existing and user generated – who are “Sourcerers”: magicians who can command the power of Source. Because of this enigmatic power they are treated like second class citizens and at the start of Divinity 2 you’ll find yourself jailed by Magisters at Fort Joy – a prison island – wearing a Source-dampening collar. What you do from there is pretty much up to you, although forming a party and escaping the island is a pretty good first goal.

This isn’t a spectacularly original premise for a fantasy RPG – mysterious powers, unknown origins and a quest to embark on are all pretty well-worn elements of the genre – but what separates Divinity 2 from the pack is the quality of the details. Every character in the game, and I mean every character, is voiced and has a backstory. From the lowliest shopkeep to a random wandering crab (yes, you can talk to animals with the Pet Pal perk – and it’s highly recommended you do) you’ll find details, lore and even helpful hints on quests in the area. The game is dense with choice and options, featuring dozens of different ways to tackle even the smallest objective. Having trouble in a head-on fight? Why not sneak in via the back and sabotage a base’s oil barrel stash. Not feeling violent? Why not bribe your way into your objective, or disguise yourself as your enemy? Or turn invisible? Or summon a giant spider made of bone? Or… look, you get the idea. That’s not just for main quests either, every single quest feels meaningful and never ‘collect six radishes’ or ‘kill nine frog monsters’. Hell, I found myself investigating missing eggs for a group of chickens, only to find them murdered later – so I chatted with one of their ghosts – and had to take the surviving chook to meet its papa. Then the twist ending of that was the bloody kid was the murderer and I had the kill the bastard! Ended up with some nice trousers and a spear though so, you know, worth it.

This level of nuance and detail doesn’t come without a price, however. You’ll sometimes find yourself confused about what to do next and properly baffled by a few of the more Byzantine mechanics. Still, that’s nothing a quick trip to the game’s Wiki won’t help, and in a game as richly detailed as this there’s no shame in it. Less appealing were a half dozen or so bugs that reared their ugly little heads from time to time, but nothing a quick reload didn’t fix and one suspects they’ll be patched out soon enough.

Ultimately Divinity: Original Sin II: Definitive Edition is an embarrassment of riches. A complex, fascinating turn-based fantasy RPG of epic size and scope, with nuanced characters, rewarding combat and satisfying exploration. Whether played single player or in the game’s excellent co-op mode Divinity 2 is the kind of title that will have you calling in ‘dead’ and staying home, playing it for hours.

It also turned me into a new kind of dork and, frankly, I couldn’t be happier.

 
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7 Days in Entebbe

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Brazilian director Jose Padilha is no stranger to the action genre, best known for the Elite Squad series and the 2014 remake of RoboCop. This time, Padilha directs 7 Days in Entebbe, produced by Working Title Films, and penned by Gregory Burke (’71), based on the real-life events that took place on July 1976, when a group of revolutionaries hijacked an Air France flight carrying 250 passengers en route from Tel Aviv to Paris. The hijackers set the plane down in Entebbe, Uganda, where they held hostages captive for one week. The film depicts the real-life “Operation Entebbe”, a counter-terrorist hostage-rescue mission launched by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and carried out by the Israeli Defense Force.

The film starts with an upbeat performance from members of the Batsheva Dance Company. Padhila uses the performance throughout the film, cleverly going back and forth to the suspenseful dance between certain scenes. However, the dance sequences are arguably the most attention-grabbing thing about this film.

The Entebbe hijacking has been retold through two 1977 films, Raid on Entebbe and Operation Thunderbolt. The Last King of Scotland, a 2006 film also contains the raid as a subplot. Padilha takes a different approach; 7 Days in Entebbe offers us a ‘through-the-eyes-of’ narrative, focused specifically on two German revolutionaries. One a slightly timid Wilfried (Daniel Bruhl) and the other an edgy, yet fearless Brigitte (Rosamund Pike). Wilfried and Brigitte are just two members of the hijacker group made up of pro-Palestinians. The two Germans seem out of place in a group who have contrasting ideas of what a “revolutionary” is.

Nevertheless, Bruhl and Pike make the most of their characters. There are times where you feel sorry for them, even more-so than the actual hostages themselves. The regret and panic that overcomes them as the seven days are closing in, makes you want to believe that what they’re doing is good and they’ve just been misguided.

Adding to the mix of complex characters is Prime Minister Rabin (Lior Ashkenazi) and his defense minister Shimon (Eddie Marsan). Rabin wants to negotiate with the terrorists, something Israelis insist they never do, whilst Shimon wants to take charge with a daring rescue plan. Then there’s Ugandan President Idi Amin (Nonso Anozie), who happily welcomes the terrorists and supplies them with troops and weapons. Idi Amin was a brutal dictator of his time, yet this film portrayed a somewhat nervous and feeble side of him.

Entebbe is a well-made film, although it falls just short of captivating. It’s a tough reminder that peace between Israel and Palestine are still a thing of the distant future. With high production values and a great cast, it was originally slated for theatrical release in Australia but after a tepid reception in the US it comes straight to the home here, which is where it belongs.

 
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Warhammer 40,000: Inquisitor – Martyr

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There are certain immutable truths in this strange world of ours. Hollywood will never stop churning out technically-competent-but-forgettable-remakes, films based on video games will invariably suck and the Warhammer series will continue to release a half dozen games each year, until humanity’s bones have long since turned to dust.

You can see the appeal, mind you, the tabletop gaming franchise exists in a realm of constant war, with epic battles spanning galaxies and featuring countless ghastly enemies – of the human and alien variety. And to be fair Warhammer 40,000: Inquisitor – Martyr (by the Emperor, what a title!) has a neat premise and engaging concept.

You play an Inquisitor (shonky future black ops types) who uncovers a conspiracy aboard an enormous abandoned vessel, and is sent on a mission that will take you all through the Caligari sector and beyond. Unlike most Warhammer entries there are genuinely intriguing concepts and ideas woven into the narrative, and playing through the story campaign feels rewarding as a result.

Unfortunately the gameplay, the majority of what you’ll be doing, is less polished and engaging. Based in a top down view similar to Diablo III, Martyr has you wandering through abandoned ships/planets/caves etc. and blasting waves of enemies as you uncover secrets and grind for loot. The shooting is… fine. It gets the job down but never feels like a joy to play, which is a problem when the action is this repetitive. You can unlock and build different weapon loadouts but they rarely amount to anything beyond ‘more bullets’ and ‘different flavours of explosion’. Plus the cover system is just terrible, having you latch onto objects seemingly at random, and never really justifying its existence.

Yet for all of that, Martyr is actually pretty fun. The environments are weird and atmospheric, the story is engaging and gleefully over-the-top and there’s a general sense of future grimdark horror/action that feels so unique it’s almost worth putting up with some of the weaker gameplay elements and general lack of innovation.

Ultimately Warhammer 40,000: Inquisitor – Martyr is a worthy if unspectacular addition to the already staggeringly huge (black) library of games, and while flawed this latest effort improves on the storytelling and is fun when grouped with like minded friends. It’s not the game that finally clarifies the appeal of Warhammer 40K to non-fans, but it’s another clanking mech suit footstep closer.

 
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How Heavy This Hammer

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Imagine Tony Soprano had no affiliation with the mob; instead of spending time amidst criminals and criminal-related activity, he was addicted to computer games.

Fat, lazy, selfish, childish and at times unnecessarily violent, these are the same characteristics of Erwin, the very unlikeable protagonist conceptualised by Canadian director Kazik Radwanski and actor Erwin Van Cotthem.

On first impressions Erwin may seem like your typical family man; middle-aged and overweight, living with his wife (Kate Ashley) and two children. He has a respectable job and enjoys playing rugby and having a beer with his mates. However, most nights or whenever else he can find the time, Erwin sits alone playing a fantasy game on his computer – he’s addicted.

It’s clearly impacting his personal life, and Erwin soon starts to neglect his responsibilities. He’s physically exhausted from playing all night, often falling asleep at family outings, but also detaches himself mentally from the real world. Erwin becomes isolated and frustrated with the people closest to him and eventually decides to move to his own place.

So he settles into a new life, free to drink and play computer games as much he wants, which is great… for a while at least. However, Erwin soon realises the situation he created for himself is also a lonely one – and in the end the real question is whether or not he’s too lazy and selfish to do anything about it.

Just as Erwin gazes blankly at his computer screen, Radwinski and Cotthem evoke the same behaviour from viewers, who can’t help but be mesmerised by this miserable creature – partly fascinated by his antics but also terrified that it’s not far from reality for many people these days.

Radwanski uses an intense operatic score to depict these key sequences, switching between the actual gameplay and a close-up of Erwin’s face. The music is used effectively as both a representation of the character’s obsession but also ironically, to illustrate the insignificance of his actions.

The ambiguous ending will have audiences divided but that shouldn’t detract from the performances within. Van Cotthem makes you love to hate him and Kazik Radwanski seems to be cementing himself as a master of character studies, clearly one of Canada’s most exciting new talents.

All in all, it’s a quiet-achieving gem that will definitely make you evaluate your own relationship with technology. For that, it’s definitely worth a watch.

 
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Sheilas

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Sheilas‘ premise is simple: tell four unjustly obscure stories of great women from Australian history.

Sheilas‘ execution is brilliant: coming off the success of Growing Up Gracefully, sibling creators Hannah and Eliza Reilly undertake four quick, comedic commando raids into the past, banging out the stories of WWII commando Nancy Wake (Cecelia Morrow), Olympic swimming legend Fanny Durack (Nikki Britton), pub-occupying feminist Merle Thornton (Brenna Harding), and bushranging Indigenous single mum May Ann Bugg (Megan Lilly Wilding, a comedy shotgun of prodigious talent) in ribald, risque, take-no-prisoners style.

It’s simply great stuff, easily surpassing its three-way remit of a) celebrating some amazing women, b) dropping a little history on the audience, and c) being brutally, laugh-out-loud funny the whole time. The jokes come at a machine-gun clip, and whether the scripted gags are funnier than the on-the-record historical events and quotes (Nancy Wake was wild, guys!) is in the eye of the beholder. The show makes a merit of its budgetary constraints in true self-deprecating Australian style, with dodgy props (see: Captain Thunderbolt’s horse) and deadpan line deliveries, along with a finely tuned sense of the absurd, carrying the day.

It is, in the shell of a nut, a nigh-perfect dose of Aussie comedy. We need a second season yesterday.

Head to the official Sheilas site for more

 
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Disenchantment Season 1, Part 1

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In the magical kingdom of Dreamland, princesses just want to have fun. At least, Bean (Broad City‘s Abbi Jacobson) does, much to the consternation of her grumpy, despotic old man, King Zog (the ever-reliable John “Bender” DiMaggio), who wants to use his hard-drinking, hard-partying daughter to seal up a political deal in an arranged marriage. Such is the lot of a fairy tale princess.

Onto this scene come two interlopers, Elfo the Elf (Nat Faxon), booted from his smurf-alike village for not being happy enough, and Luci (Eric Andre), Bean’s sarcastic, wisecracking personal demon, sicced on her in a subplot that will no doubt pay off some time down the track.

In the meantime, though, what we get is essentially Futurama-but-with-fantasy-tropes (Fantasirama?), which is only to be expected seeing as Disenchantment is the latest TV series from Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons and the aforementioned sci-fi satire. 10 episodes will drop on Netflix this Friday and, based on having checked out the first seven, is worth carving some time out for over the weekend.

Let’s qualify that, though. Like all Groening series, Disenchantment takes its time to find its feet, and it’s not quite there yet. At the moment it’s a broad concept, some character traits, and a set of tropes that have been flung at the wall – we’re yet to see what sticks (Elfo’s characterisation is all over the shop right now, for example). It remains to be seen whether the fantasy genre, although a very broad church, offers to Disenchantment the depth and complexity that science fiction gave Futurama, in terms of providing  a variety of subjects and dilemmas for the show to deal with. Right now we’re pretty much dealing with a Grimm’s Fairy Tales/Game of Thrones mash up, which is fine, but may not have the legs required for longevity. Fantasy has a pretty deep conceptual bench – here’s hoping the creative team use it effectively. Bring us Conan, bring us Elric, bring us Dunsany, Peake, Liever, and more.

In the meantime, the jokes-per-minute ratio is in the acceptable range (and certainly bluer than what the Simpsons ever got away with on network TV), the animation is comfortably familiar (only Luci pushes the boundaries appreciably, being a matte black demony kinda thing) and the voice cast is game and talented – Britcom fans please note the presence of Noel Fielding, Matt Berry, and Rich Fulcher in supporting roles.

Based on this first taste, Disenchantment is good, and promises to get even better once it’s found its groove. It’s probably greedy to expect a third bonafide classic in a row out of Groening and co. – but let’s hope for it anyway.