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Bloodsucking Bastards

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Telephone marketer Evan (Fran Kranz) has broken up with his girlfriend Amanda (Emma Fitspatrick), had his promotion given to his former high school bully, and found the blood-spattered corpse of a colleague in the toilet. All things considered, it’s not been a good day. Swapping gothic castles and coffins for office politics and water cooler moments, Bloodsucking Bastards is a horror comedy – with more emphasis on the latter than the former – from Ryan Mitts and comedy collective, Dr God.

Getting off to a shaky start with jokes that reach for low hanging fruit, Bastards soon finds its stride as Evan’s colleagues succumb to vampires, and literally no one seems to care. Like Zombie Strippers, which saw burlesque dancers deliberately becoming the undead for the benefit of their patrons, the best way to get ahead in business is to clearly take someone else’s. This all dovetails into a strong third act that shows that there’s always time to learn about delegation, even when you’re Nosferatu.

Bastards’ self-aware humour, acknowledges that the audience might be a few steps ahead of them and then turns left when they turn right. Evan’s slacker buddy, Tim (Joey Kern), is great fun as he sleepwalks through the insanity of the events with the simple desire of leaving at five on the dot. Meanwhile, Fitzpatrick’s Amanda is sadly a plot device to spur Evan on to do things. It’s a shame as something like Shaun of the Dead proved you could invert the damsel in distress trope if you put your mind to it.

Proving that a nine to five existence can be life draining, Bloodsucking Bastards is as juvenile as its title suggests, but with a strong script and a stronger cast, it’s also a lot of irreverent, gore tinged fun.

 
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Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation

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Mission: Impossible is a curious movie franchise. It’s a property based on a classic TV series, a trait that usually indicates a total lack of creativity behind the scenes, and yet previously employed a diverse group of directors including Brian De Palma, John Woo, J.J. Abrams and Brad Bird. Each director left an unmistakably individual stamp on their entries; for better (Bird) and worse (Woo). This makes it all the more confounding when faced with the latest instalment, Rogue Nation, which has the dubious honour of being the blandest mission yet.

Ethan Hunt (Cruise) returns with colleagues, Benji (Simon Pegg), Luther (Ving Rhames) and Brandt (Jeremy Renner) to face a mysterious global terrorist organisation called The Syndicate. Yet again the IMF is in the political doghouse for their gung-ho ways and Hunt must fly under the radar to face off against the enigmatic Solomon Lane (Sean Harris). There’s nothing particularly wrong with the shop-worn premise, and indeed the first act has a few stellar sequences (the attempted assassination during a session of Turandot at the Venice State Opera is memorable), however it’s not long before the action gets bogged down in lengthy scenes of talky nonsense and absurd plot contrivances.

That’s not to say a Mission: Impossible film needs to be even remotely plausible, but Christopher McQuarrie’s direction is so unremarkable that there’s no energy to the piece and the whole story takes way too long to unfold. It’s not a total loss; Simon Pegg is delightful as usual and Tom Cruise proves he’s still a leading man, even if he spends a baffling amount of time shirtless and exercising. Less successful is new character, Ilsa Faust (yes, that’s Rebecca Ferguson’s character name) who is basically a long-legged plot device with great taste in shoes.

We’re told, repeatedly, that the stakes are high but it never really manifests in the story and the action sequences feel overly familiar and executed with little panache. Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation isn’t the worst blockbuster released this year (that honour goes to Terminator: Genisys) but it’s a rather ordinary one, that never rises far above the level of competence. It can be your mission, if you choose to accept it, but there are many superior options for your entertainment dollar.

Special features include a host of featurettes taking yoiu behind the scenes on the action as well as a commentary with Tom Cruise and Christopher McQuarrie.

 
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Zipper

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The critically acclaimed Shame showed Michael Fassbender coping, or not coping to be exact, with sex addiction and the subsequent fallout from it. Even lighter films like This Means War hypothesizes the extent a man will go to when dragged along by his libido. In the bluntly titled, Zipper, dilmmaker Mora Stephens throws the spotlight on Sam (Patrick Wilson); a hotshot federal prosecutor with his sights set on congress. With George, a powerful campaign adviser (Richard Dreyfuss) on his right hand side and backed by his dominant wife, Jeannie (Lena Heady), Sam is the boy most likely to succeed. However, a stolen kiss with a co-worker starts Sam down a path of pre-paid phones and escort services that threaten to tarnish his squeaky clean appearance.

Whilst Sam hops from sexy montage to sexy montage, the true strength of the film lies in Heady’s portrait of ambiguous support. She practically runs away with every scene she’s in as the cuckquean wife trying to balance her righteous anger at her husband’s infidelity with her desire to see him achieve the dreams they have shared for so long.

George makes a none to subtle reference to the lawyer’s ‘zipper problem’ and in a way, this succinctly describes the film itself. When it’s good, it is very good. Sam’s new addiction and the disposable manner in which he treats his escorts is perfectly captured when he gives a post-coital pep talk to a young escort, chastising her for sleeping with him. But every time it gets right, Zipper is let down by heavy-handed writing. When George hands Sam an envelope filled with voter donations, the clanging comparisons with how Sam’s pays for his own proclivities is deafening and unwieldy. None to subtle in its approach, Zipper works only when it wants to.

 
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StalkHer

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John Jarret steps behind the camera, as well as in front of it, in this unusual battle of sexes by first time writer Kristijana Maric. Co-directing with Kaarin Fairfax (Bed of Roses), Jarrett plays Jack, an extreme stalker breaking into the home of nurse Emily (Fairfax herself). After caught off guard by Emily, Jack finds himself tied up and having to explain himself before Emily calls the police.

It quickly becomes apparent that Jack knows Emily from working in the same hospital as her. Through the wailing and gnashing of teeth, Jack is adamant that his breaking and entering is part of a misogynistic plan to get at her for simply being a woman. Emily, to her credit, doesn’t believe him and spends the evening sharing diatribes about the futility of men with the woman hating Jack.

Both leads clearly relish the opportunity to shout and spit at each other over the course of 90 minutes with enough foul language to make Tarantino seem coy. Fairfax as Emily is the backbone of the movie, playing Jarret’s John like a violin as she mothers him one minute and then admonishes him the next, playing upon the sexist characteristics his chauvinist mouth has tars her with. There’s no doubt she’s in control. Like a nihilistic When Harry Met Sally they share their thoughts on relationships, the world and their place in it. Their dialogue is broken up by individual fantasies about the sadistic things one would do to the other.

At times, it’s a confronting movie which specialises in dark humour. Whilst it doesn’t stick its landing when the credits roll, Wolf Creek fans are perhaps going to get a kick out of seeing Jarratt failing to get the upper hand for a change. Others may find it a little too acidic to swallow.

 
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The Night Crew

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With his British boy band roots firmly behind him, Luke Goss has carved himself quite a career as an action hero and The Night Crew, co-starring Danny Trejo, is perhaps one of the finer examples of his work outside of Hellboy 2.

Goss plays Wade; the leader of  a gang of bounty hunters carting a fugitive across state whilst under the close and violent scrutiny of Trejo’s cartel leader, Aguilar, who will do anything to get them back. Said fugitive is Mae, played by Chasty Ballesteros, whose importance is kept somewhat under wraps for the majority of the narrative. When her past is eventually brought to light, it has the potential to be a jumping off point for a number of viewers. You’re either going to roll with it or you’re not. In Night Crew’s defence, the film does drop enough hints throughout to somewhat cushion the blow for those unrepentant in their dislike of twists.

Stepping away from that for fear of spoilers, what can be discussed is the film’s tenacity to give you some killer action scenes. As Aguilar closes in on our band of not-so-merry bounty hunters, they decide to seek refuge in an abandoned motel. From this point on, there’s enough exhilaration on hand to keep the story moving along despite its limited scenery.

Director Christian Sesma’s finer moments come not from people being blown through doors, but one-off little moments that come out with an iconic status. Such as when Mae stands emotionless and unmoving as bullets fly around her, literally moving one stray hair from her face after another. Admittedly adding nothing to the action, it does suggest a maturity in direction that goes beyond the gung-ho ‘let’s see if this blows up’ attitude presented on screen.

 
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Unexpected

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A white Chicago high school teacher bonds with one of her black students when both fall unexpectedly pregnant in this dramatically inert indie from director and co-writer Kris Swanberg (wife to mumblecore darling Joe Swanberg).

Cobie Smulders is Samantha, who reacts to the news of her impending baby bump by quickly marrying her boyfriend John (Andres Holm) and frets about her job prospects. Jasmine’s (Gail Bean) situation is somewhat more desperate: she’s a good student from a struggling family, and having a child will certainly make landing a university scholarship more difficult. Samantha, in true White Knight form, decides to help Jasmine out.

Painfully earnest, Unexpected dances around some interesting issues – race, class, poverty, bodily autonomy – without ever grappling with them in any meaningful or dramatic way. Swanberg and her co-writer, Megan Mercier, seem loath to imbue their characters with any kind of negative traits – unless you count Samantha’s obliviousness to her privilege, which seems accidental. The film meanders along, never presenting a real conflict or problem besides the situational. Elizabeth McGovern throws some sparks as Samantha’s mother, disappointed that she never got to splash out on a big white wedding for her daughter, but like every other soft obstacle in the narrative, she’s easily overcome.

Unexpected is a nice film – too nice for its own good. It’s a movie by middle class white people who want to talk about certain issues but are so reluctant to cause inadvertent offence that they present those issues as trifling. They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions; well, so is the road to obscurity, which this effort is most assuredly on.

 
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Turbo Kid

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Veterans of the video age (aka the ‘80s) ought to find plenty of familiar signifiers in this deliberately schlocky Canadian/New Zealand tribute to low budget, high concept sci-fi.

In the dark, post-apocalyptic future of 1997, a plucky, BMX-riding survivor known only as The Kid (Munro Chambers) has his humdrum, hardscrabble existence upset when he has to save his new friend, the quirky Apple (Laurence Laboeuf) from the tyrannical warlord, Zeus (Michael Ironside, and that’s a perfect bit of casting right there).

There’s a bit more to it, but Turbo Kid is more concerned with aesthetic over narrative – specifically, the gonzo aesthetic of such VHS mainstays as Metalstorm: The Destruction Of Jared-Syn, Spacehunter: Adventures In The Forbidden Zone, Ice Pirates, and any of a dozen more cheapie epics which tried to turn a desert location and a shopping spree at the Salvos into a quick buck.

It’s gloriously gory at times – the film takes pride in its beautifully brutal practical effects – but at heart, Turbo Kid is a charming little oddity that makes an asset of its low budget (it was financed by a Kickstarter campaign). Chambers and Laboeuf bring the right amount of earnestness to match the deliberately winking tone, while old warhorse Ironside could do this sort of stuff in his sleep, and his rogues gallery of freakish henchmen look like they’ve just stepped off the set of an Italian Mad Max knock-off – and they’re supposed to. It may not be worth a second look, but for fans of B-grade genre fare, Turbo Kid definitely rates a first.

 
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Elstree 1976

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You might think that everything that could be said about the original Star Wars (or A New Hope if you’re, you know, one of those guys) has been said, but then along comes Jon Spira’s crowdfunded documentary Elstree 1976 to show you that you’re wrong.

Spira takes a boots-on-the-ground look at the classic film, eschewing the Hamill/Ford/Fisher triumvirate and instead tracking down a host of bit players to tell their story. The two biggest subjects at hand are Jeremy Bullock (Boba Fett) and David Prowse (Darth Vader – or at least his body) but the former X-Wing pilots, Stormtroopers and aliens Spira digs up are much more interesting. Certain elements of Star Wars lore are reaffirmed – pretty much everyone involved thought it was a kids’ film, and not a very promising one – but what really stands out is the picture of mid-‘70s British show business that Elstree 1976 builds up, populated with dancers, chancers, wannabe actors and near-miss pop stars.

At times, Elstree 1976 – named for the studio where much of the original Star Wars was shot – is a bittersweet affair: few of the subjects interviewed amounted to much in the entertainment world after their brief turns in Star Wars, and it’s only that film’s enduring cult that keeps them in the spotlight, albeit largely at fan conventions hawking their autographs and anecdotes. Still, all seem happy with their lot and eager to share their stories.

The casual viewer might be nonplussed by Elstree 1976, but Star Wars fans – and Lord knows there’s more than a few of them – should find plenty of value.

 
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Fallout 4 (Game)

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I’m trudging through an irradiated swamp in the wasteland on the way to a community under attack by feral ghouls. My robot butler, Codsworth, chats amiably about nothing in particular as I make sure I’ve got enough ammo for the battle to come. I avoid the gigantic mosquitoes and ready my hunting rifle… when suddenly the heavens issue an almighty bang! A UFO, damaged and flaming, comes streaking out of the sky, flies over the swamp and crashes with a concussive thud nearby.

“You know, ma’am, I rather think we should investigate that,” Codsworth dryly observes. I walk over to the flaming wreckage. Nothing’s inside the craft but there’s blood, green in colour, leading in slimy streaks away from the crash site. I follow and eventually enter a cave. Inside is an alien, pissed off, who starts blasting at me, but I’m ready. I fire my rifle and explode his tumescent, extra-terrestrial head. Digging through his pockets I find a unique Alien Blaster. I add the weapon to my inventory and head back out into the wasteland.

Welcome to Fallout 4, Bethesda’s latest iteration in the beloved series about a post-apocalyptic, alternate reality earth. This time, the action takes places in what remains of Boston, in the year 2287, on a quest that is initially about finding your stolen son in a world gone mad. However, anyone who has ever played a Bethesda game, like Fallout 3 or Skyrim, will tell you the main story is largely a backdrop for the random encounters and strange journeys you embark upon in this massive, open-world action RPG.

When it comes to size and sheer volume of content, Fallout 4 does not disappoint. The game is huge. Even just playing the main story missions with no side quests would take a good few days of uninterrupted play, but when you factor in the various side quests and exploration, crafting options for DIY settlements (a new addition for this iteration) and just wandering about, getting lost and discovering things for the hell of it, Fallout 4 offers potentially hundreds of hours of play.

On the downside, the RPG elements have been stripped back and simplified this time around. This means that levelling up is less meaningful and, curiously, the emphasis of playstyle seems almost exclusively action-based, with most problems being solved via shooting. There’s nothing wrong with shooting in video games, mind you, but one of the exciting elements of Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas was you could quite often talk or use guile to extricate yourself from a sticky situation, lending more depth to the proceedings.

Presentation-wise there are also a few niggling problems. The graphics and environments are beautiful-looking, especially on high-end PCs, but the character models and facial animations are oddly stiff, heading into uncanny valley territory. This is a problem that is particularly noticeable in 2015, when Witcher 3 proved RPGs can be as beautiful as they are massive. It may seem like a surface-level problem, but it’s hard to emotionally connect to a character who looks like a slightly baffled mannequin.

Still, in terms of offering a persistent, strange and darkly humorous world, Fallout 4 is hard to beat. Exploring the ruined remains of a once proud and thriving society is always poignant and the level of immersion and intrigue is likely to keep you hooked for many dark days and radioactive nights.

 
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Minecraft: Story Mode (Game)

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Telltale Games are becoming the go-to company for expanding existing Intellectual Properties into satisfying, episodic narratives. The company has worked their magic on Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones and even lunatic loot-and-shoot FPS, Borderlands with the surprisingly satisfying Tales From The Borderlands.

So when the announcement was made that Telltale would be giving the treatment to Minecraft it was met more with curiosity than outright disbelief. Minecraft, for those of you over 35 and/or without children, is the procedurally generated crafting game, where players spend however long they want building, creating and existing in a deliberately retro looking, blocky environment. There is no story to speak of, nor are there goals or, ultimately, a point in the traditional sense of the word.

It’s a pretty steep task Telltale were handed, to turn this into an engaging multi-part adventure, but done it they have and the results are impressively solid but not spectacular. Using the same art style as Minecraft, Story Mode puts you in the shoes of Jesse. Jesse can either be a male avatar voiced by Patton Oswalt or a female avatar voiced by Catherine Taber. Jesse and his band of friends like to craft things (naturally) and after a brief introduction soon find themselves embroiled in an epic adventure where they must find The Order of the Stone – five legendary adventurers who had previously saved the Minecraft world from a threat that has now returned.

The positive aspects of Story Mode are the buoyant tone and the excellent voice talent on hand. Along with the Patton/Catherine lead, we have Brian Posehn, Martha Plimpton, Phil LaMarr, Paul Reubens and Corey Feldman (!) lending their distinctive voices to their likeable characters. Plus Billy West narrates the adventure, which is delightful.

On the downside, Minecraft: Story Mode lacks the essence of what makes other Telltale Games great: tough decisions. In Wolf Among Us, Walking Dead and Game of Thrones some of the choices you’re forced to make are literally painful and heart-wrenching. It would take a cold-hearted automaton not to shed at least a single glistening tear at the end of Walking Dead Season One.

By comparison, Story Mode’s choices are more of the ‘will I wear a funny hat’ or ‘should I pat my pet pig’ variety. This is certainly in keeping with the younger audience Minecraft is likely seeking, but it’s hard to become too emotionally invested when you know everything will probably work out okay regardless.

At time of writing this review three of the five episodes are out, and all are engaging, light entertainment. The script is brisk, the voice acting excellent and there are loads of cool little easter eggs and in-jokes for Minecraft devotees. The stakes are low but the joke count is high and ultimately Minecraft fans will likely embrace this more narrative driven addition to their sandbox.