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Returnal

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When I was a nipper, sometime in the mid ‘80s, it wasn’t so easy for me to play video games. Oh sure, I had a mate with a Commodore 64, and another with an Atari 2600, but those wankers didn’t like it when I lobbed over uninvited and kept wanting to play this thing called “sport’, which was downright baffling.

This was a few years before I managed to get a Nintendo Entertainment System, so if the urge to play games hit me – and it did, often – I had to go down to the local fish and chip shop to play whatever game they had. The game could be anything, Wonder Boy in Monsterland, Altered Beast, Golden Axe – whatever – it was frequently rotated and would almost certainly be a belter.

And it would always, always, be surrounded by a cadre of local teenage gronks, oozing with acne and adolescent disdain, standing at the machine, their twenty cent pieces piled high. You’d eventually get a game, sure, but you’d spend the whole time being aware of the skinny bloke with a rattail glaring at you, a pack of durries tucked into his shirt sleeve.

I mention this because the experience of playing Returnal is, in some weird ways, very similar to those formative pseudo pinny parlour experiences. Like the twenty cent-gobblers mentioned above, Returnal is a cruel mistress, causing you to start over again and again and again. And while you don’t have to deal with the bleary, piggy little eyes of Hendo and his mates, the barrier for entry is high. Perhaps, at times, too high.

Returnal is a third person shooter roguelike (or “roguelite”, depending on your definition) where you play the astronaut Selene, who has crash landed on the mysterious planet Atropos. As Selene, you’ll find you’re stuck in a time loop where you’ll dash through six biomes, fighting increasingly difficult enemies and die over and over again. And after you die? You start right back at the beginning. And even after unlocking shortcuts and new abilities, every death means a new slog to try and get back to where you were.

Hosuemarque’s slick sci-fi bullet hell is gorgeous, the graphics are superb and silky smooth, the gameplay addictive and finely honed. When you’re having a great run, everything feels so right. The haptic feedback from the PS5’s controllers adds an extra layer of immersion and clever, if minimalist writing keeps the story compelling. However, when you go for a forty minute run, get killed right before the boss and then have to start all over again, with very little of value unlocked, it just feels… cruel for the sake of it.

Repetition is clearly an important part of a time loop game, but would the overall package really have been made worse by being able to fast travel back to a new level once you’d unlocked it? Purists would say yes, but honestly, for this old time gamer, there’s a reason we stopped bowing at the altar of those cruel twenty cent hoovers, and adopted things like save points.

Returnal is a beautiful game, and those who have no fear of steep difficulty spikes and frequent restarts will no doubt engage fully with the impressive package Housemarque have delivered here. For me, though? I’ve spent enough time having ciggie smoke blown in my face by greasy monsters while I’m trying to enjoy a game session and Returnal just feels a bit too much like that. Plus, you can’t even get a chiko roll straight afterwards to soothe the sting.

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Those Who Wish Me Dead

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Taylor Sheridan is to the modern Western what Mike Flanagan is to the modern horror film: through an uncanny knack for character building and a keenly postmodern perspective, he has built a body of work that can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the all-time legends. From his incredible script work on Sicario and Hell or High Water, to his cannon blast of a directorial debut Wind River, to the ramp-up in quality with his series Yellowstone; his work over the past six years has been damn-near untouchable. And sure enough, his return to the director’s chair continues that momentum.

Teaming up with In The Heart Of The Sea’s Charles Leavitt and novelist Michael Koryta (who also wrote the literary source material), Sheridan’s latest take on Western revisionism finds him in highly environmental territory, echoing classic sentiment that the only thing more dangerous than the Frontier are the people who inhabit it.

While the effects work on the mother to end all wildfires is a little suss in places, it still creates a harrowing backdrop for the chase thrills within.

Putting a forest inferno at their backs, and lightning strikes at their heels, makes the red-dot threat of the villains that much more pronounced; you’d almost forgive them for risking the blaze.

The narrative itself almost feels arbitrary, as the audience is mainly left to run with ‘Witnesses must die’ as the impetus for the plot. Where that normally may be a bad thing becomes irrelevant in the face of what is really keeping things moving: the characters.

Beyond the pitch-perfect casting (right down to a well-utilised Tyler Perry, adding Sheridan to the shortlist of directors who can lay claim to such a feat), every character in attendance makes an impression, possesses the kind of personal strength that makes for immediate watchability, and whose presence only intensifies when put next to each other.

Angelina Jolie and Storm Boy’s Finn Little as grief-stricken targets bring the drama and quite a bit of humour as the central heroes (this is easily one of Sheridan’s most fun scripts to date). Gillen and Hoult as father-and-son partners in sociopathy turn odds-based professionalism into genuine nerve-shaking as the villains. And the degree to which Jon Bernthal and Medina Senghore’s survivalist couple refuse to take shit from anyone is immensely satisfying. Senghore in particular had damn well better get noticed for her performance here, as she is given the coolest and most heart-breaking one-liners of the entire film and sings them like a passerine. The spirit of Natalie Hanson is strong with this one.

Taylor Sheridan has knocked it out of the park yet again, delivering more of that neo-Western goodness with what are raring to be some of the most engaging characters of 2021. Not to mention some of the best action thrills, in a year that is already showing its teeth in that department (Nobody, Mortal Kombat, Shadow In The Cloud, Godzilla Vs. Kong). For Those Who Wish Me Dead, we salute you.

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First Love

Asian Cinema, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

Is there a more versatile and prolific director on the planet than Takashi Miike? The Japanese master has lobbed out 100+ films since the early ‘90s and, shockingly, many of them are straight up masterpieces. Don’t believe us? Try Audition (1999), Ichi the Killer (2001), Gozu (2003), Thirteen Assassins (2010) and Blade of the Immortal (2017) for just a sampling of the legend’s work. Put simply: any time there’s a Takashi Miike film to be seen, it’s good news. And his latest effort, First Love, continues the trend of excellence.

First Love weaves a twisted tale featuring multiple characters intersecting in interesting and ironic ways. We’ve got Leo (Masataka Kubota) as an expert boxer who has been diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour. There’s Monica (Sakurako Konishi) who is forced into drug addiction and prostitution to pay off her father’s debts. Sneakily ambitious Kase (Shota Sometani) who has a plan to rip off his Yakuza bosses, and corrupt cop Ōtomo (Nao Omori) who decides to help him. Naturally nothing goes to plan for anyone, and Miike delights in throwing these disparate plot strands into a pot and boiling up a heaping helping of violent, fast-paced, blackly comedic magic.

In terms of Miike’s other work, First Love is a much more crowd pleasing affair, eschewing the genuinely shocking gore of Audition or Ichi the Killer for slick, but non-gratuitous blood-letting. Tone-wise, the film feels a bit like a Japanese riff on Quentin Tarantino’s True Romance and a bunch of other ‘90s flicks. Performances are rock solid, with the always reliable Masataka Kubota making a solid lead, and Nao Omori providing a deliciously schlubby turn. However, it’s the recording artist known as Becky who has the most fun as the vengeful Julie, who doesn’t so much chew the scenery as set it alight and snort the ashes.

First Love is Takashi Miike in full-on crowd-pleasing action/thriller mode. Expect twists, turns, surprises, violence, love and Miike’s wry, knowing wit. If a bloke can make films this fun after directing over one hundred of the bloody things, here’s to Takashi knocking out a hundred more.

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Son of the South

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The year is 1961, and in the southern United States, Jim Crow laws are still enforced leading to the near sanctioned murders of black Americans. A young student, Bob Zellner (Lucas Till), is writing his senior college paper on race relations and takes the unprecedented step of deciding to try to speak to members of the black community in Montgomery Alabama. Segregation is still in full swing and his appearance at a black church run by Reverend Abarnathy (Cedric the Entertainer) and attended by Rosa Parks (Sharonne Lanier) threatens to derail his promising academic career.

When news spreads that Zellner and four of his college cohorts went to the church, it not only alerts law enforcement, but brings the Klu-Klux-Klan to his college campus to protest the white students’ involvement with what they consider “negro matters.” Included in the members of the Klan is Zellner’s own grandfather (Brian Dennehy) who warns Bob that he’s getting on the wrong side of things. The consequences of the students attending the service leads to the college demanding they leave before graduation or possibly face arrest.

Bob refuses to leave, and as an academic star bound for a Masters degree at an Ivy League school, he is able to graduate. His life seems on track for success. He’s dating Carol-Ann (Lucy Hale), and will soon leave the South for a life of privilege. However, his interactions with Abernathy and Parks have led him to begin to see the just cause of the Civil Rights movement. His later interactions with Virginia Durr (Juila Ormond) and her husband, who are local activists, set him on a path that leads him to become involved in assisting the Freedom Riders; a group of black and white people who ride a bus through Southern states to protest segregation.

A riot breaks out in Alabama and the freedom riders are savagely beaten by white townsfolk. The scene plays in a brutal fashion and delivers the non-too-subtle message that the South is a bastion of racism and lawlessness. It also offers a chance for Zellner to put himself bodily on the line by going into the crowd to rescue Jessica Mitford (yes, of the Mitford sisters, here played by Sienna Guillroy) and an accomplished young black woman called Joanne (Lex Scott Davis), who will become his romantic interest once Carol-Ann realises that Zellner isn’t going to play by the rules and follow his career path to a prestigious university.

Zellner decides to volunteer with the activist group the SNCC (Student Non-Violent Co-ordinating Committee), which again places him in Joanne’s orbit and cements his conviction to Civil Rights – a conviction that was life long and detailed in his book The Wrong Side of Murder Creek, which director and screenplay writer Barry Alexander Brown used as the basis of the film.

Son of the South is a well-intentioned but clunky film. It rarely moves beyond the quality of a made-for-television biopic. Partly, the cliché driven script is to blame for this, but mostly, it rests on the inert performance by Lucas Till. Till’s emotional range seems to be close to non-existent. When the audience should be seeing righteous indignation, passion or even conflict, there is little to grasp on to. Director Brown also relies on massive exposition dumps at dramatically inappropriate times. There is an overall amateurish feel to the production which does nothing to serve the story, which in the right hands could have been a gripping drama.

Brown also spends little time creating meaningful characterisations for his black characters. It’s understood that it’s Zellner’s story, but without significant representation of the people that Zellner is fighting with and for, the film falls into the trap of placing a white character as the focus for a black struggle. With so many excellent films about the Civil Rights movement, such as Ava DuVernay’s Selma, Son of the South is an also-ran that barely deserves a cinematic release.

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Finding You

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This fast-paced romantic drama/comedy sets itself up within the first fifteen minutes. Does it feel like you’ve seen what you need to see in that time? Kind of.

Within the first three minutes, New Yorker Finley Sinclair (played by Rose Reid) has unsuccessfully auditioned for a prestigious music school, suggests she’d better start over, and is on a plane abroad. Within the first five, we’ve had a cheesy line from bad-boy movie star, Beckett Rush (played by Jedidiah Goodacre). She’s ‘seen the headlines’, she ‘knows his type’.

Beckett is starring in a weird Lord of the Rings rip-off, and, ironically, is blasted by the director (Tom Everett Scott) for taking a more ‘subtle approach’ in hisacting style. The female lead in the blockbuster being filmed is a total airhead (Katherine McNamara), of course, and Beckett looks pensive. He’s obviously looking for something more, and the down-to-Earth New Yorker has got to be the one.

Finley starts her classes, and in Irish Studies, each student is asked to spend twenty hours with a senior citizen. But alas, her assigned ‘senior’ is a ‘crazy witch’ (Vanessa Redgrave)! Finley needs this grade to get into music school, so they are going to be friends whether this crazy witch likes it or not! She’s given a ‘good on you, lass’ when the nurse asks if she entered the witch’s room without permission. It’s uncomfortable.

Beckett shows Finley around Ireland because ‘you never know what’ll happen tomorrow’. They’d better take a chance on love! Unfortunately, neither character is quite likeable enough to really root for them.

Beckett asks Finley to the local dance and the scenes that follow are lively. Nice shots of the harbour, fairy lights littering the pier, and Finley gets down on the fiddle with a group of local musicians. It’s fun, and it does improve slightly from here.

Without giving too much away, everything turns out alright. There are plot points aplenty, but if you miss half the film, don’t fret. Look, it’s a little (or a lot) too packed with poorly-written cliches but if you’re after a mood-booster and love a soapie, you might enjoy it.

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Out in the Open

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Intemperie, the Spanish name for Out in the Open, means ‘outdoors’ or ‘the elements’ in English, and these translations precisely describe the look of the film. Nearly the entire running time is spent in the hot, arid landscape of Andalucía – so rarely does the action venture indoors that it seems alien to even be ‘in’ a room. In fact, the occasional time spent away from the elements takes place mostly inside wells, caves or roofless huts. It’s as though the director, Benito Zambrano, is averse to conventional housing. Nevertheless, the depiction of the Southern Spanish savanna is one of the many highlights of Out in the Open. The cinematography by Pau Esteve Birba is amazing, the sweeping pans and intimate close-ups equally affecting.

Zambrano, with writers Pablo and Daniel Remón, won a Goya for best adapted screenplay (from the Jesús Carrasco novel) and the script is laden with themes of guilt and forgiveness, as seen through the lens of post-war, Francoist Spain. The first shot is of a boy running through the fields, shortly followed by scenes of farm hands chasing a hare during a harvest. The excitement is cut short, and the foreshadowing begins, when the foreman shoots said animal dead. Luis Callejo plays this bastion of landed power with ugly menace.

The runaway boy, or Niño, is played with incredible maturity by Jaime López, and as the film progresses, we gradually learn what it is he’s running from. Early on in his flight, he tries to steal food from a wandering shepherd, the Moor, and after initial mistrust on both sides, they begin to warm to one another. Luis Tosar is gruff and resigned as the Moor, an ex-soldier whose default setting appears to be practical nonchalance, and he has a nice line in aphorisms – “You don’t need to buy a village to burn it down. You just need fire and guts. But with fire and guts, you may get smoke in the head.”

The pace is just about perfect, there’s no baggage, and the set-pieces are extremely well handled. One confrontation at a well around the end of the first act is a properly satisfying sequence, tense and bloody, with a clever call-back to a throwaway line from the foreman about the boy’s marksmanship. Another scene at another well involving a desperate disabled war-veteran is full of edge and pathos. And the climax is suitably rewarding with an added gesture from the Moor to Niño that will most likely set him on the path to a rosier future than he might have been afforded earlier in the piece. When the Moor tells him that children ‘can’t be held responsible for the actions of men’, it’s tempting to read this last line as a kind of catch-all apology for the crimes and transgressions of the past.

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The Man in the Hat

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The unnamed titular character of ‘The Man in the Hat’ witnesses a possible crime and flees the scene in his Fiat 500, while five goons chase him in their Citroen Dyane.

However, this languid car chase serves as the inciting incident for a blissful travelogue of French countryside. Almost entirely bereft of dialogue, this physical comedy is wholly crowded with incident, as the protagonist (Ciaran Hinds) encounters various eccentric characters in unusual situations. As a range of distinct figures frequently re-appear, the presence of the man in the hat seems to have an uplifting effect on them.

For example, a character credited as Damp Man (Stephen Dillane) is perpetually wet and despondent to a suicidal extent. However, each time the man in the hat meets him, Damp Man’s mood gradually becomes more jovial, as well as his clothes drier. In this way, visual cues and mise-en-scene symbolise a shifting atmosphere of positivity and the effect of kindness from strangers.

These vignettes provide a Fellini-esque sensibility, as the film canvasses aspects of European culture through evocative landscapes, as well as scenes of bull-fighting and enjoying local cuisines. Meanwhile, amusing moments are interspersed – such as mistaken identity, spilling food and losing a shoe – all of which instil an unpredictability to the film that enlivens the experience. Not only this, lively musical interludes steer the film’s atmosphere, as jazz bands on the street bring people together and furnish affection and kindliness.

Of course, these disparate scenes are all connected through the prism of the man in the hat, as Hinds utilises facial expressions alone to communicate emotions and feelings. In a performance reminiscent of Mr. Bean, Hinds is adept at conveying a clumsiness in compromising situations, as wide-open eyes scream across his face, but he also showcases affability through a gentle smile as acts of generosity from him and strangers typify the film.

The Man in the Hat lives in a shadow of Jacques Tati and Buster Keaton with its silent movie slapstick, but glows in the warmth of the French countryside. As each character exudes a big-hearted generosity, a soft tenderness underlies the smile-inducing humour of the film.

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Resident Evil Village

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2017’s Resident Evil VII was a bold reinvention for Capcom’s long-lived spookshow series. Changing the action to a first person perspective, and delivering a story that felt like an even more demented riff on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and other hillbilly horrors, the game was a tense, engaging triumph. Naturally, excitement for a potential sequel was high and now Resident Evil Village (VIIIage – geddit?) has arrived and despite minor flaws, it’s pretty bloody good.

Resident Evil Village puts you back in the shoes of VII’s protagonist, and man voted Most Likely to Injure His Hands Constantly, Ethan Winters. After the events of VII, Ethan has managed to make a better life with his missus, Mia, and infant daughter Rose. That is until his world is shattered, his daughter flogged, and he finds himself wandering the Transylvanian vistas of a very unpleasant European village.

What follows, in a lot of ways, feels like a bigger budgeted remake of VII. You’ve got a demented family, multiple members of which you’ll have to face in unique encounters, and a central mystery to decipher before it’s too late. The difference, other than the more gothic aesthetic, is in terms of scale. Instead of sickening Louisiana swampland, Ethan will be trekking across icy European environments, imposing castles, hideous dungeons. Instead of facing endless mouldy blokes, you’ll come across werewolves, leathery undead acolytes, bug ladies, cyborgs and, of course, an enormous sheila the internet is super thirsty for. It’s a huge array of foes, and it’s great to see such enemy variety.

Of course, having so many enemies means Village is more focused on combat than the previous entry. And, one wonderful sequence where you’re disarmed aside, this is absolutely an action-based experience. It’s Aliens, not Alien, which is great if you’re up for it, but disappointing if you were hoping Capcom would continue leaning towards more psychological horror.

Resident Evil Village is more of a carnival ghost train than a nuanced horror yarn, but it’s so effectively realised – and consistently tense throughout – that you can’t help but get swept up in the wild story, creepy atmosphere and surprisingly emotionally resonant conclusion. If you like your horror of the “balls to the wall” variety, you’d be an idiot to miss out on this Village.

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The Perfect Candidate

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In 2012, Haifaa Al-Mansour was met with resounding acclaim after her debut Wadjda, became the first feature film directed by a woman in Saudi Arabia. She has since found consistent work around the world, across various cultures, with the inherent oppressions of womanhood serving as the thematic skewer lancing her entire oeuvre. Her most recent film, The Perfect Candidate, is no exception.

The film follows Maryam (Mila Al Zahrani), a resolute doctor working in rural Saudi Arabia, who is exasperated by the flooded roads leading to her hospital, and local politicians’ lack of efforts to fund the necessary aid. In a culture deaf to the voices of women, Maryam decides she must run for office as the town’s first ever female candidate, much to the scandalisation of her family, friends and society as a whole.

It is a film wherein most of the drama comes from Maryam’s struggle against her inflexible environment, where change is met with such reluctance that by the end of the story, the fruits of her endeavours are hardly perceptible. This is where a lot of the power comes from in this film, as our habits of barracking for the underdog, for justice and for necessary change are aroused by our protagonist’s unyielding resolve. And yet, while the plot’s ties with Al-Mansour’s own experiences in subverting tradition are hard to ignore, we are granted little insight into Maryam’s internal conflicts.

When a film opts to leave these private realms unpenetrated, it can be explained by either one of two approaches: subtlety or laziness. Too often Al-Mansour’s efforts more closely resemble the latter; as we feel the film is too invested in the character to keep at a remote, Bressonian distance; but at the same time, isn’t aloof enough to pique the audience’s intrigue.

While you may feel the boundaries of your comfort zone briefly breached – through the often incomprehensible societal values – here, you’ll find familiarity swiftly embracing you, as the film proves itself riskless in both its construction and overall message. The gender oppression of Saudi society are effectively communicated, however, neither a hopeful nor pessimistic view is offered. That said, such neutrality can often pack a punch of its own, but in the case of The Perfect Candidate, the obstinacy of Saudi society, combined with Al-Mansour’s infirm and indecisive assessment of it, too invested in the character to keep at a remote, Bressonian distance; but at the same time, isn’t aloof enough to pique the audience’s intrigue.results in a generally stagnant film.

Further, the modesty of Al-Mansour’s aesthetics, a trademark throughout her career, again contributes to this sense of safeness, rather than controlled restraint, ensuring that The Perfect Candidate will fade quickly from memory.

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The Goya Murders

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The machinations of the serial killer have long been fertile ground for filmmakers, but the quality of the final product can vary greatly. For every Zodiac or Se7en, there’s also The Goya Murders (or El Asesino de los Caprichos), which starts with a reasonably sound premise – a killer is poisoning his (usually well off) victims and recreating scenes from Goya prints as deathly exhibits. Imagine the murder scenes in Se7en but with less gore and more artistry.

Investigating these murders are Madrid detectives, Carmen Cobos and Eva González, played by Maribel Verdú (Y Tu Mama Tambien) and Aura Garrido, and though the actors are fine, they have the writing to overcome. Their characters are broadly painted, there’s not a lot of light and shade here.

Carmen immediately takes against her younger partner for no apparent reason. Eva is a fun-loving, karaoke singing, happy mother-of-two, while Carmen drinks from a hip flask and drives erratically. At one point a fellow officer tells Carmen that her ‘bad cop’ routine is too much. Thanks for the nudge.

But the plot has to take most of the blame. It’s incoherent and vapid with obvious telegraphing – the camera lingers on one character, which is enough to solve the whodunit angle, yet confusingly, later the same thing happens to another character with no resulting pay-off. There are threads that start to develop and are then dismissed summarily. Carmen is removed from the case after a personal error of judgement but is then brought back within 10 minutes of screen time. Even more curiously, in one of the most promising ideas in the script, a high level obstruction of justice is uncovered, and then completely sidelined, never to be revisited. It could even be argued that the motive of the killer, the mechanism driving the whole plot, borders on complete irrationality.

The most egregious misstep is the ending. There’s a gruesome incident in the stereotypical final confrontation and then a short coda that serves no clear purpose. In fact, only the fade to black indicates that the movie is over. Very odd. The writer, Ángela Armero has mostly written for Spanish TV, so perhaps this story could have been better served over a run of episodes.

The Madrid streets scenes are well shot and the director, Gerardo Herrero, has a lot of experience as both a producer and director, but he really should have made some sense of this. The Goya Murders is a film that hangs its constituent parts together with no visible cohesion, leaving the viewer to try to imagine the reasoning behind everything or, more likely, to dismiss it as a waste of ninety minutes.

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