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Lost Judgement

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The Yakuza games of which there are, it seems, several thousand, are an engaging, often unwieldy series of titles following assorted ne’er-do-wells in their various criminal enterprises. They’re chockers with quirky side quests, wandering perverts, time-wasting mini-games and more lore than you could shake a katana at. They also offer a rather high bar of entry for audiences who haven’t kept up with the series.

The Judgement series, a spin off from the Yakuza games, seemed an opportunity for developer Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio to spread their wings a little. A new focus, this time working with rather than against the law, and (mostly) new characters is a great way to shrug off some of the series’ bloat. And with 2018’s Judgement they got off to an imperfect, but solid, start with a slightly more focused adventure that just needed a little more innovation. Well, now the sequel Lost Judgement is here and if you were hoping this series might grow into something a little more ambitious… you’re not going to be deeply satisfied, hey.

Lost Judgement puts you once again in the isn’t-he-a-bit-old-for-that-leather-jacket-and-sneakers of Takayuki Yagami, a private detective who likes justice almost as much as he likes hair product. This time around, Takayuki and his associates deal with a case involving murder, high school bullying, organised crime, and enough convoluted plot twists to make Christopher Nolan go, “oof, crikey fellas, that’s starting to feel a bit forced.”

The bulk of the action takes place in the Kamurocho and Isezaki Ijincho districts, and other than a few tweaks, the gameplay is identical to the previous Judgement game. That is: you’ll lob around, have seemingly endless conversations, get pointed towards a new location, do some shallow-as-hell investigation mini-games, and get into fights all over the shop. Basically, the same as Yakuza, except with the law (sorta) on your side.

While it’s probable that Yakuza didn’t make you feel like a real Yakuza, it seemed within cooee of the concept. Lost Judgement on the other hand often feels like a reskin. You’ll pay lip service to investigations, but ultimately, it’s a point and click affair. Plus, you’re meant to stop high school bullying… by belting the shit out of actual teenagers! Seriously, it’s such a disconnect you’ll find yourself either cackling with laughter or turning the damn thing off.

The thing is, Lost Judgement is okay. The story is solid, if unnecessarily protracted, the graphics are decent, the combat slick, if a bit messy. If you like this kind of game, you’ll probably have a good time, but it’s literally nothing new. Nothing you haven’t seen before. And for the second part of a new series with all the potential in the world? That feels like a bit of a letdown.

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Comedy, Home, Review, Streaming, This Week, True Story Leave a Comment

Inspired by true events, this buddy comedy turned crime caper follows two women’s unintentional rise to the top of a criminal empire built on fraud, theft, and extreme couponing.

House of Lies, Veronica Mars, and The Good Place co-stars Kristen Bell and Kirby Howell-Baptiste team up for their fourth collaboration, this time as Connie Kaminski and Jojo Johnson, frustrated suburbanites who take their love for saving pennies a step too far and find themselves running a nation-wide grocery store coupon scam which somehow nets them over $40 million dollars.

It’s the kind of story that you read in the headlines and think “they should make a movie out of that”. The concept is entertaining enough — two friends feeling so desperately undervalued in their everyday lives that they accidentally mastermind their way into a life of crime — but while writer/director husband and wife duo Gita Pullapilly and Aron Gaudet (Beneath the Harvest Sky) have a strong background in drama, they seem hesitant to touch too deeply on any kind of emotion or social commentary; downgrading issues like Connie’s failed pregnancy to throwaway scene-filler, and instead favouring cheap gags about the consequences of regular bowel movements during a stakeout.

The easy, well-established chemistry between Bell and Howell-Baptiste does wonders in keeping the audience’s attention from wandering. There’s a relaxed, natural flow to their banter that contrasts perfectly with the irritable sparring of the film’s other duo, Paul Walter Hauser’s uptight, rule-abiding loss prevention officer, determined to bring Jojo and Connie down for their crimes, and Vice Vaughn, the long-suffering but surprisingly warm-hearted USPS investigator.

Unfortunately, despite the amusing premise and the best efforts of a likable cast, the film remains fun but ultimately forgettable.

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Rhapsody of Love

Australian, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

Joy Hopwood’s Rhapsody of Love mixes light-hearted fun with the struggles of relationships, spotlighting Asian-Australian talent.

Jess Flowers is the best woman for her close friend, Ben’s wedding. There, she meets filmmaker Justin Judd, who is capturing the special day. It is here that Jess also comes across Victoria, a cupcake maker. We soon see how the lives of different couples become linked.

The film has a ‘sweet’ aesthetic (the treats Victoria whips up will have you craving sugar), and a floral theme as well – there’s the wedding scene, but also the protagonist’s surname and the business she runs with her sister Jade: “Blooming Success Media”.

Admittedly, further storyline development could have helped. Jess expresses her dream of becoming a screenwriter and despite it being stated that she is working on a script, integrating this aspect into the plot would have been beneficial. Also, issues between Jess and Justin are solved too quickly. Some of the jokes are on point but others don’t quite land, coming off as cheesy. All that being said, it is a rom-com, a famously forgivable genre for audiences, so it could be argued that they were intended this way.

Regardless, the characters are quirky and there are a couple of twists which are well executed. Kathy Luu portrays the bubbly Jess Flowers effortlessly and Damien Sato is charming as Justin. Ben Hanly is impressive as Ben, especially when conveying the anxiety his character experiences during stressful situations. Tom Jackson excels as the hilarious Hugh, a waiter who seems to work at practically every event the characters go to. Lily Stewart is entertaining as Victoria and Jessica Niven is captivating as Natasha. Writer/Director Joy Hopwood fits the role of the caring Jade nicely, and Khan Chittenden is comical as Phil.

If you’re in the mood for a feel-good movie, Rhapsody of Love could be what you’re looking for.

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Aliens: Fireteam Elite

Game, Gaming, Home, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

The world abounds with mysteries, questions for which we may never know the answers, but surely one of the biggest – one that keeps many awake at night – is: why can’t they make a decent Aliens game? Now, don’t get us wrong, there have been good games based on Ridley Scott’s seminal 1979 sci-fi horror flick Alien. 2014’s Alien: Isolation is a stone cold classic of survival horror that remains daks-browningly scary to this day.

However, Aliens – that classic 1986 action sequel directed by James Cameron – never seems to get a fair shake. We’d be here all day if we listed them all, but the most recent – and notorious – misstep based on the movie was Aliens: Colonial Marines. This 2013 disaster promised much and delivered little, ending up being an ugly, unimaginative, buggy and boring mess. The good news about Aliens: Fireteam Elite is that it’s significantly better than that universally despised flop. The bad news? It’s still pretty average.

Aliens: Fireteam Elite is a third person shooter that takes place in several iconic locations from the Aliens franchise, with some Prometheus mixed in for good measure. The action revolves around a three person fireteam – either player controlled or single player with bots – and it essentially plays out like a horde shooter, with wave after wave of snarling xenomorphs descending upon you like biomechanical seagulls on hot chips.

You and your fellow marines can occupy different classes and use various abilities to either make killing easier or buffing/healing your teammates and every level will end with a massive bullet sponge boss. And, uh, that’s it. That’s the game.

To be fair, Fireteam Elite doesn’t pretend to be anything it isn’t. Developer Cold Iron certainly aren’t trying to sell this as a thrilling narrative experience, and what the game says on the tin it delivers. It’s just… isn’t this all a little unambitious? The shooting is… fine, the graphics are okay, there’s some joy to be had the first few times you mow down a horde of nasties but after a while the mind-numbing repetition kicks in. It’s kinda fun, for a while, with mates and a few adult beverages but then, most things are.

Look, at the risk of damning it with faint praise, we’ll say Aliens: Fireteam Elite has its moments and it knows what it is. However, if you’re looking for something that really captures the frenetic thrills of Aliens, that edge-of-your-seat excitement, then you’re probably going to be mostly disappointed… mostly.

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Birds of Paradise

Home, Prime Video, Review, Streaming, This Week Leave a Comment

Making a name for yourself in the ballet world takes talent, sacrifice, determination, and — if the current trend of dance films is to be believed — no small amount of backstabbing and manipulation. To top it off, no story about ballet dancers is complete without shots of bleeding, calloused feet or a knowing nod to the strict diet and exercise regimes that their bodies are forced to endure. On this at least, Birds of Paradise surely delivers.

Ballerinas are “warriors of pain”, says Marine (Kristine Froseth), the former star pupil at the Opéra National de Paris’ school of ballet. After time away to grieve her beloved brother’s suicide, Marine returns to school to find both her place at the top and her boyfriend usurped by former friend and rival Gia (Eva Lomby), and the private room she’d slept in since she was eight years old, now housing a roommate in the form of Kate (Diana Silvers), an awkward and inexperienced American scholarship student.

With a set up like that, you could be forgiven in thinking this will be another Centre Stage, following the melodrama of teenagers in a boarding school: love, loss and life lessons all interspersed with captivating dance numbers.

What director Sarah Adina Smith (Buster’s Mal Heart) offers us instead is more akin to a high school production of Black Swan. The twists are darker and far more cruel than a simple rivalry over the cutest boy in class. Working together with Buster’s Mal Heart cinematographer Shaheen Seth, there’s an ethereal, dreamlike quality to the world Smith builds, almost surreal at times, with the threatening air of something nightmarish pushing at the edges.

For a film about ballerinas, the dance numbers are brief and unremarkable. Perhaps a cast of professional dancers would have made things more authentic, but for all the characters insist that dancing is their life, there is very little passion in their performances. In saying that, both Froseth and Silvers are captivating in their roles as sometimes rivals/sometimes best friends/sometimes something more. Their charged relationship is the true core of the film, and both leads bring a depth of emotion to their characters’ obsessive competitiveness that is otherwise lacking.

The story is based on Young Adult author A.K. Small’s debut novel, Bright Burning Stars, but the transition from book to screen does leave audiences with the feeling that there was more being said between the lines that was lost in translation. Characters that might have been more fleshed out on the page become distorted caricatures, their motivations barely touched on, all which leads to an anti-climactic final act that is sadly formulaic and unfulfilling.

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The Colony

Review, sci-fi, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

Another day, another vision of the end of the world as we know it. Generations after the richest of humanity fled the dying Earth for a new interstellar home, a team is sent back to discern if it is once again suitable for human habitation, as infertility could spell the end of their time elsewhere.

The sophomore feature of Swiss director/co-writer Tim Fehlbaum, after his matter-of-factly-named debut a decade earlier with Apocalypse, The Colony is reminiscent of a fair amount of modern sci-fi cinema, yet it struggles to maintain either its own identity or even its own entertainment value.

The visual palette courtesy of cinematographer Markus Förderer seems designed solely to appeal to those who get horny over literal shades of grey (with the odd bit of flesh tone and lightest of blues thrown in). In depicting the swamplands of evacuated Earth, it becomes difficult to focus on what’s being shown after a while, as if the film is intentionally trying to make the audience’s eyes glaze over. When it’s not trying to discombobulate through the claustrophobic use of handheld camera work, that is.

The story at large, centered on Blake (Nora Arnezeder) as the last survivor of the second manned mission back to Earth, emphasises the tentative future of the human race through dramatic revelations about families, children, and Blake’s own relationship with her father (connecting this to the larger ‘Daddy In Space’ trend that has been occupying Hollywood since Interstellar).

However, rather than adding to the thematic textures already present in the story, it comes across more like the residents of Planet Erf from Beyond Thunderdome found their way onto the set of Waterworld.

It makes the mistake of introducing multiple ideas, including space colonialism, the separate dialect of the new Earth-dwellers, and bits of 1%-er hypocrisies through the repeated chants of “for the many”, but rather than fleshing them out, it just leaves them to introduce even more ideas to give the illusion of depth without actually creating the layers required.

It doesn’t help that the actors carrying this production (and with how drab everything is, they need to do so) aren’t all that interesting either. Arnezeder starts out rather stiff in the lead and largely stays there, never managing to bring the sense of strength and determination it calls for, while the myriad of child actors exist more as outgrowths of the story than as sentient human beings. To say nothing of Iain Glen’s later appearance, which almost makes his turn in Resident Evil: The Final Chapter seem like a step-up, as at least he had fun in that film; and Joel Basman as his right-hand-man and general embodiment of how ugly humanity turns out in just about all apocalyptic fiction, requisite sexual assault scene included. Stay classy.

The Colony is, at the risk of sounding crass, rather colon-y when all is said and done. A flat and rather disappointing feature that only manages to avoid offense of taste and mannerism purely because it’s too dull to create even that much of a reaction. It’s the kind of film you don’t forget about right after watching it, but while in the middle of watching it.

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Persian Lessons

Review, Theatrical, This Week 1 Comment

Vadim Perelman’s Persian Lessons opens with an unknown voice informing us that the archives at one concentration camp, which held the names of more than a thousand dead Jewish people, were burned by the Nazis before liberation. Thousands of names destroyed, leaving these people forgotten and merely a number.

Persian Lessons is not your typical holocaust drama. It is a story of survival in which a man is pushed to his extremes in order to stay alive. It is also a film concerned with depicting these characters as real human beings, no matter the side that they were on.

Set in Germany in 1942, Gilles (Nahuel Perez Biscayart, BPM: Beats Per Minute) is a moment away from death when he comes up with the ingenious idea to tell his potential murderers that he is Persian. The lie saves him, but ultimately leads him to another life or death situation. He is sent to a concentration camp and given the job of teaching the Persian language (Farsi) to a Nazi.

The Nazi, Head of Camp Koch (Lars Edinger), is mainly in charge of the kitchen and dreams of moving to Persia to find his brother and open up a restaurant. He is a man that seems to think he is not responsible for the thousands that are dying in his camp. He isn’t doing the actual murdering, he is only feeding the murderers.

Perelman (House of Sand and Fog) does a great job at creating this huge sense of suspense in the first half of the film. This is due to a combination of intense music, sensational acting and because the director knows when to let the audience linger in a scene. We are reminded time and again of the consequences facing our protagonist if he slips up. He makes the viewer wait and immerse themselves in the heavy suspense. We are left breathless for long periods of time, begging Giles to come up with this new language, and most importantly, remember all the words he is teaching.

Whilst this is happening, we are introduced to subplots in which Nazi soldiers are having relations, spreading gossip, and becoming jealous with each other. There are comedic moments introduced in these scenes as well. Perelman presents these soldiers as humans, rather than the mindless villains they are so often depicted as. It is interesting to watch, and ultimately makes the whole event seem even more horrifying. Humans just like you and I committed these acts, and it creates a deeper sense of terror as we look back on these events.

The camp itself is shown as a hopeless place in which nameless humans walk around eating muck and working until they cannot stand any longer. There is a chilling scene in which Gilles is taken to a part of the camp full of rocks and given an axe. We are unsure of what this means until the camera pans out and we see several more Jewish people just picking at rocks with their axe and achieving nothing. A perfect encapsulation of hopelessness.

Ultimately, Gilles is able to succeed in creating this new language through the clever act of naming each word he creates after a Jewish person in the camp. Not only does this make the words easier to remember but it also illustrates the fact that the Nazis fail to remember the names of the Jews and it means that each time Koch is speaking the language he is simultaneously learning the names of his victims. Through this act, Gilles is making them more than just faceless people in the camp.

Persian Lessons would have benefitted with more character development of our protagonist. We are given no prior backstory or potential motives behind his extreme will to survive. The film also spends too much time on the sub-plots involving the Nazis, making the film’s two hour run time feel unnecessary.

The ending is the perfect balance of emotion and satisfaction, benefitted by Biscayart’s tremendous performance. It ultimately reveals the importance of names, the way they are connected with memory, and the importance they have for each individual. Humans should be remembered as a person with a name and not just as another faceless statistic.

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A Sexplanation

Documentary, Festival, Film Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

Alex Liu’s A Sexplanation is a documentary about a topic that most of us can not define or are comfortable talking about, yet it is something we encounter every day. A Sexplanation is a documentary about sex. It is a film that questions everything we think we know about the subject and aims to get us to talk more openly about it.

Liu’s film explores how we learned about sex, what we were taught about sex, and what we don’t know about sex. It is often awkward and uncomfortable and that is exactly the point; sex is something that each of us encounters so often and is such an important part of our lives, and to not be comfortable with talking about it to others can be potentially damaging to our health.

Liu introduces this topic through his own personal struggles with sex and sexuality, which left him on the brink of suicide. And because he is so open about his own experiences, he manages to break down some of these awkward and uncomfortable barriers we put up when dealing with these conversations.

We see scenes where Liu gets personal with his family about sex, asking them how their sex life is, and whether they knew he was masturbating as a child. It is uncomfortable to watch, and you spend the whole time awaiting something terrible, except it never comes. We are left wondering if it really is that simple and are forced to question whether we have been open enough with our loved ones about sex.

Liu directs, produces, co-writes, co-edits and is essentially the main character of the film. His awkward responses and genuine nervousness ground the film and give us someone to follow. He also brings a much-needed comedic presence to the screen, inviting us to participate in the conversation by making it light-hearted. Without him, the film would be far too uncomfortable to watch.

Balanced with Liu’s personal stories are an array of different perspectives from experts, plus Liu’s friends, random people in the street, a politician and even a priest. The film does well in providing lots of different perspectives and not judging them or having an agenda. We can see the film’s primary aim is to educate people about these issues, rather than tell them what to think.

In this way, we are forced to come to our own decisions and to consider these topics deeply, which is something most of us haven’t done before.

The camerawork is personal, and makes the audience feel like we are a part of these conversations. The film is also complimented by a small amount of animation which helps illustrate emotions and the things that people are saying.

A Sexplanation is a documentary that successfully engages its viewer in conversations about porn, sex, masturbating and sexuality in a way that is entertaining and enlightening.

More about A Sexplanation here.

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Ainbo: Amazon Princess

animation, family film, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

A young Amazonian girl bounding around on a tree like Mowgli in The Jungle Book opens this Peruvian/Dutch/German co-production. We soon discover that this is the Ainbo of the title, and that her best friend, Zumi, is about to be crowned leader of their tribe. A relatively quick whip-round of characters introduces us to the two leads; a smarmy village thug called Atok; Zumi’s father and current tribal chief, Huarinka; Ainbo’s foster mother, Chuni; as well as two ‘loopy’ spirit guides, Dillo and Vaca (a bespectacled armadillo and a clumsy tapir).

The environmental theme is also introduced early on, in the form of dying fish and disease in the village, attributed to a curse but, as we find out later, the result of something more real, and more troubling. Ainbo is convinced by her spirit guides to embark on a trek to find a magical root that will save the village. On her journey, she must deal with various perils, ranging from a pursuing Atok, and a gigantic sloth in his volcano home, to the jungle demon, Yakuruna, the appearance of whom might be a bit much for the smaller humans in the audience.

Throughout Ainbo’s quest, Zumi is trying to juggle her new leadership duties with her concerns for her best friend’s safety. This sisterly dynamic plays out in a familiar way – it’s basically Elsa and Anna in the jungle but without all the irritating singing.

Co-directors Richard Claus and Jose Zelada keep the pace tight and the sight gags light, while also attempting to address the actual ‘curse’ of the Amazon, the despoliation of nature.

The message of standing up to the corporate vandals is admirable, though at one point it strays dangerously close to lumping modern medicine in with the mining companies’ dirty tricks.

There are nicely rendered visuals (with art direction by Pierre Salazar), especially in the village scenes, and the film’s resolution, while a little sad, is also affirming.

Unlike some of Pixar’s work, there’s not much here for adults, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s refreshing to occasionally find a film that aims squarely at a younger audience.

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Asian Cinema, Festival, Film Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

Director Jong-kwan KIM has to be one of South Korea’s hardest working filmmakers, having completed the introspective Shades of the Heart (also playing at this year’s KOFFIA) just months after releasing his brooding adaptation of the young adult novel Josée, the Tiger and the Fish from author Seiko Tanade.

While Tanade’s bittersweet novel is no stranger to big screen adaptions, with a feature length anime recently coming out of Japan, Jong-kwan has once again injected his own complex perspective on the contemporary love story to deliver a thoughtful, confronting, and socially relevant drama.

Released simply as Josée, the stripped down title hints at the prolific director’s approach in witling away much of the ‘fluff’ embodied by the Japanese release, instead choosing to focus on his primary antagonists, the reserved college student Young-seok and his unexpected ward, the disillusioned wheelchair bound Josee. And while Jong-kwan does sprinkle a small supporting cast into his narrative, it’s the disruptive and volatile relationship between the two very different personalities that commands your attention.

Having appeared in the 2019 drama series The Light in Your Eyes, Joo-hyuk NAM as Young-seok and Ji-min HAN as Josee, with both young actors embracing the darker side of their character’s respective damage in a deeply humanising fashion, allowing Jong-kwan to subtly craft a duel-redemptive arc that is at once hopeful and heartbreaking.

Coupled with the film’s intimate cinematography, which allows the cluttered back streets of Seoul’s suburban landscape to breathe as an organic character in and of itself, Josée is nothing short of an affecting experience.

And while there are moments where Jong-kwan over-indulges his social commentary regarding wealth and poverty, the abled and disabled, and the widening generation gap playing out in South Korea, Josée is nonetheless an engaging modern fable trapped in a confronting realism and rich in metaphor.