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Swinging Safari

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Set squarely in the middle of the decade that taste forgot (summer ’75 – ’76 based on repeated Jaws references), writer and director Stephan Elliott’s (The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) quasi-memoir is a riot of garish clothes, fantastic plastic, rayon and Ray-Bans, all seen through the eyes of 14 year old budding filmmaker, Jeff (Atticus Robb). It’s frequently funny and anyone who spent any of their formative years in beachside ’70s suburbia is sure to have their sense memory triggered (the production design, by Fury Road Oscar winner Colin Gibson, is extraordinarily on point), but under the surface there’s not a lot going on.

Which is a shame, because out of the gate it comes across like a kind of amiable ocker Goodfellas, narrated by Richard Roxburgh as the now-adult Jeff, recalling how he spent his 14th summer running around with an 8mm camera, making weird little stunt/action movies with the neighbourhood kids, and also accidentally documenting the shenanigans of his parents (Guy Pearce, on form, and Kylie Minogue, wasted) and their neighbours, Jo and Rick Jones (Radha Mitchell and Julian McMahon), and Gale and Bob Marsh (Asher Keddie and Jeremy Sims), as they try to spice up their suburban existence with a spot of wife-swapping.

Naturally it all goes awkwardly wrong and leads to some bad blood in the cul de sac (it wouldn’t be much of a movie if they all discovered happiness in polyamory, would it?), but young Jeff has more immediate concerns: the 200 ton blue whale that’s beached itself on the local shore for one thing; his growing attraction to fellow teen Melly (Darcey Wilson), who is alienated by the middle class bacchanalia around her, for another.

Sadly, Jeff’s actual journey gets lost in the mix, with director Elliott becoming too enamoured of the film’s period aesthetic to maintain narrative or thematic focus. The social and sexual mores of the period get roundly mocked, but never examined in great detail – watching Swinging Safari, you get the sense that there was a somewhat darker and more complex story here, but it’s been elided away in service to the extant film’s brisk and brazen 96 minute running time. Interestingly, the film once went under the more oblique title Flammable Children, a reference to burn scars that both Jeff and Mellie bear, but this story element is largely reduced to a joke about synthetic fabrics.

It’s a problem that extends to every area of the film – intimacy and complexity are repeatedly sacrificed in favour of sight gags, knowing winks, and broadside parody. It’s all surface sheen, and we’re never allowed into the inner lives of any of the characters to any meaningful degree. Events happen, but are not reflected upon or contextualised. Characters are interchangeable, be they a rabble of kids running around the neighbourhood, or even the adults upon whose peccadilloes so much of the plot depends. Indeed, the three blowhard patriarchs of the story are so similar that Pearce, McMahon, and Sims could have swapped chunks of dialogue wholesale and nobody in the audience would be the wiser.

Swinging Safari is a fun enough time, to be sure, but jokes about knitwear, bad haircuts and fondue parties only get you so far. Ultimately, the film fails in its implicit aim to satirise, instead falling back on mere parody. What could have been a real deep dive into a period of uncertainty and change turns out to be just a sight-seeing tour, and that’s a wasted opportunity.

Click here for nationwide movie times for Swinging Safari

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Black Mirror Season 4

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2017 has, by any objective metric, been an unholy garbage fire trundling down a mountain of excrement. It’s been a time in which we’ve seen the true faces of our heroes, watched a cadre of mad despots busy themselves ruining the planet and been witness to many attempts by nature to rid itself of our malevolent taint.

Plus season eight of The Walking Dead has been a bit shit so, you know, bad times all around.

Just in case your being isn’t yet fully suffused by existential dread, Black Mirror season four is here to stab your optimism right in the kidneys. Although this latest outing of Charlie Brooker’s notably bleak peek into the future of technology has been experimenting with a new flavour: hope.

Yes, although season four has its share of nightmarish tomorrows, it also delivers some moments of light in the darkness, and is all the more effective for doing so. Obviously picking “the best” episodes is subjective, but in terms of overall quality standouts include: “Hang the DJ” – about a society where companionship is dictated by an app, “Crocodile” – a tense tale of retribution superbly directed by John Hillcoat (The Proposition, The Road), and “Metalhead” – a black and white vision of a terrifying utopia directed by David Slade (Hannibal, American Gods) and unlike anything Black Mirror has ever produced before.

On the slightly-less-successful-but-still-decent side we have “Arkangel” – directed by Jodie Foster (yes, that Jodie Foster) in an effective, but rather predictable look at parental intervention and “USS Callister” – a movie-length look at geek culture that is fun, but not quite as clever as it thinks it is.

The only real dud in the bunch is “Black Museum”, an anthology episode that drags and is way too similar to 2014’s “White Christmas” which was itself a bit naff.

Ultimately Black Mirror season four is another solid outing, and while nothing quite hits the giddy highs of last season’s “San Junipero”, the overall quality is more consistent this time around. It’s not always an easy watch, but Black Mirror remains one of the smartest slices of speculative fiction around. All six episodes will be on Netflix from December 29, so why not see out the year curled in a fetal ball, dreading the future, and occasionally experiencing fleeting moments of (very) cautious optimism.

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Wolf Creek Season 2

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Few horror franchises have capitalised on the inherent creepiness of the Australian outback like Wolf Creek. With the possible exception of Razorback (1984) and Wake in Fright (1971), the Aussie outback tends to be the sight of cinematic spiritual awakenings or the backdrop for epic movie road trips. Greg McLean’s robust horror franchise has managed to straddle multiple mediums, including two movies, various books and now a second televisual outing with Wolf Creek season 2. The question you may be asking is ‘how?’ How does such a seemingly simple premise lead to so many stories? The answer is Mick Taylor (John Jarratt). Mick is such a quintessentially Aussie antagonist, an uncomfortable reflection of the sunburnt country’s darker impulses – ready to strike at a moment’s notice for reasons known only to him. He’s also extremely easy to adapt to different genres.

Case in point: Wolf Creek season one featured a one-on-one grudge match between Mick and Eve (Lucy Fry), the latter of whom was on a one woman hunt to avenge her slaughtered family. Season two of Wolf Creek flips the script yet again and this time we’re travelling into the outback with a group of international tourists, keen on exploring the Aussie outback with Davo (Ben Oxenbould). A chance meeting of Mick and Davo sparks the killing urge in our favourite tourist hunter and Mick decides he’s going to take these soft city folk on an outback adventure they’ll never forget, and most of them won’t survive.

It’s a classic horror premise, and interestingly one Greg McLean has been toying with since before the first Wolf Creek movie (check out our interview). Over six episodes Mick puts the tourists through various hideous trials, whittling them down one by one until the inevitable, and grisly, climax.

Wolf Creek season two feels like a more pure horror experience than the slightly more experimental previous season. The scares are solid, the tension palpable and the kills effective, if occasionally slightly ropey. The cast acquit themselves well, and while no one is quite as standout as Lucy Fry from season one; Tess Haubrich, Laura Wheelwright and Matt Day all provide compelling personalities under duress.

Best of all director Greg McLean is on hand to deliver some of his best work to date, providing a cinematic-quality genre experience you can enjoy while sitting on the couch in your undies.

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The Wound

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The titular wound here is a particularly painful one, because the story revolves around a traditional initiation process which begins with circumcision. It takes place in a remote mountain location in South Africa, where a group of teenage boys is subjected to an ordeal which lasts for a couple of weeks and evidently involves a considerable amount of discomfort and distress. Most of what transpires is murkily or discreetly filmed, but the content is still occasionally confronting – including the mercifully brief scenes involving animal slaughter.

So much for the context. Despite its intermittently extreme content, The Wound is first and foremost a relationship story. Xolani (Nakhane Toure) is a warehouse worker from Johannesburg who himself once underwent the initiation process, but who now regularly returns to be a “caregiver” and instruct the latest participants about what supposedly constitutes being a man. In so doing, he gets to reunite with fellow caregiver Xija (Bongile Mantsai). Homosexuality is not accepted at the camp, so Xolani and Xija have to sneak away for their encounters.  Meanwhile, Xolani’s latest charge Kwanda (Niza Jay)  has his suspicions…

The Wound has its moments, but they’re pretty few and far between. There are quite a few echoes of Brokeback Mountain here. Both films involve closeted gay characters who leave the city for clandestine rural meetings with their male paramours. Both have at least one protagonist who is macho, in denial and emotionally withdrawn. The main difference is that Brokeback Mountain was a substantial movie, and this isn’t. It’s moderately interesting as a window on another world, and passable as drama, but no more than that.

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It’s been almost a decade since the seminal Western text of this century, David Milch’s Deadwood, concluded its all too short lifespan on HBO. Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) scrubbed the dark blood stain out of the wooden floors in his office and left the audience with a sentiment that encompassed the pathos of the series. “What do you want me to do, tell you something pretty?” That final line was the final ugly dagger that extinguished Milch’s masterful observation about the mechanics of modern civilisation. This week enduring fans had cause to celebrate; Milch and Co. are mere months away from production rolling on a standalone Deadwood film.

But it’s a distinct pleasure to report that streaming on Netflix right now is a series that finally satiates your desire to be taken back to the west and deep into the muck of human impulses.

Godless, unlike Deadwood, isn’t concerned with nursing a singular unincorporated town into the burgeoning Union. Writer/director Scott Frank takes us into New Mexico and the desolate and disconnected frontier makes monsters out of the hypocritical and greedy patriarchy.

Frank is a long-time screenwriter of films such as Minority Report and Logan and novelist (Shaker, a crime mystery, was released in 2016). Godless is Frank’s cinematic novel, that wears the techniques of his former collaborators on its sleeve. The world feels saturated like Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report, approaches action like a soldier tearing up a beach in Saving Private Ryan and contains a chorus of world weary and battle-scarred characters like James Mangold’s Logan.

Frank explained in a recent interview with NPR that “any self-respecting screenwriter at some point has to give [writing a western] a crack. And I wanted to do something different that I hadn’t seen before. And that’s tricky because there have been so many westerns…”

When his long-term researcher Mimi Munson drew his attention to “several towns in New Mexico where all of the men died in an accident in a single afternoon stranding the women in these places. And sometimes the women would leave and move on. And sometimes they would stick around and try and make a go of it. And I thought, wow. What a great starting point.”

Godless, a limited series by design, finds a way to use the pockets of the underrepresented crawl westward across the American continent to reflect the unchecked turmoil. Godless sets its scene in the 1880s in a newly formed union. Frank Griffin (Jeff Daniels) seeks out his former ‘favourite’ turned defector Roy Goode (Jack O’Connell). The town of La Belle, a town struck by a mining accident that resulted in the sudden death of nearly all of the town’s men, is the fragile flower in this totally hostile environment that has remained unplucked. This hint of beauty and vulnerability is a time bomb that you know must go off.

In the opening moments of the series, through a blinding haze of dust, Marshal John Cook (Sam Waterston) and a posse of men come upon the town of Creede. The town is hauntingly quiet, bodies litter the streets and sprayed across the flats like the remains of a game corpse is the tangled metal skeleton of a derailed train. Cutting through the dust is a melancholy ditty, a lone female survivor hovers over the corpse of her lover. Strung from the highest railway pole is a young lad, swaying in the breeze like rotting fruit on a poisoned tree. The senseless carnage of outlaw Frank Griffin’s (Jeff Daniels) party of thieves is enough to bring Marshal Cook to his knees.

Daniels’ Griffin is a man with twisted psychopathic piety. He’s a bundle of strange mysticism, predicting that he’s seen his death and casually reassures those he interacts with that he’s seen what’s to come and that any ‘threats’ need not be heeded. He’s, at times, calculating and conducting his personal mercenary force that swarms the landscape. Small towns and their underrepresented populace provide little resistance to their domination. However, the cracks have begun to emerge in the impervious myth that he’s conjured for himself.  In the first episode we see Griffin undergo emergency amputation surgery that takes away his arm. In a gesture of pure denial, he carries his detached limb with him long after the surgery. The sum of the parts for Griffin must represent the whole.

It’s highly likely that you’ll love the show because of how it manipulates Western archetypes to make every character an agonisingly conflicted being. Throughout the series the viewer will wrestle with finding Griffin deplorable, disgusting and yet, finding a strange kinship with the neglected orphans of heinous acts. While we view Roy’s entry into Griffin’s band of lost boys we can imagine that this is a regular recruitment drive tied intrinsically to his beliefs and fashions a portal to his soul. His scriptures and life advice ring true in the context of this world. (Most episodes contain flashbacks where Griffin is providing guidance and advice about life, morality and being a ‘good’ citizen of the world.) While you’re viewing, it’s hard not to draw parallels to the same hypocritical notions of members of an inherently corrupt and morally bankrupt institution like the Catholic Church while still being able to move you with the beauty of scriptures and visions of belief. Daniels’ manner as Griffin is often one of softness; he considers himself a teacher. The drought of real representatives of God paves way for this false prophet.

Driving Griffin’s ferocity and malice is the slight of his formidable ward, turned hardened killer Roy Goode (O’Connell). Roy rides away from the fracas with his former crew, gut shot toward a likely death when he comes upon the ranch of one Alice Fletcher (Michelle Dockery). This is Dockery about as far away from Downton Abbey as possible. She’s a stoic lioness, more than willing to shoot first and ask questions later. In the first exchange with Roy, riding up to her ranch on the outskirts of La Belle in the dead of night, he’s bewildered and unable to respond. She does not hesitate and fires a warning shot that grazes his neck and throws him out of his saddle and onto the ground. Alice is the widower of a Native American man, eking out a modest existence with her son Truckee (Samuel Marty) and mother in law played by Dances with Wolves’ Tantoo Cardinal. They begin nurturing Roy back to health and as he regains strength he begins to reveal who he is in the actions that he’s able to undertake. One reflective shot, taking the head off a rattle snake about to take a swipe at a toddler hits the seismograph and people begin to feel that he’s not who he claims to be.

O’Connell plays a haunted Roy, running away from the killer he’s become in the presence of Griffin; the greater the likelihood of Griffin’s descent on La Belle, the more that the ‘old’ Roy begins to emerge. Roy decides that instead of potentially endangering Alice and family with his presence, he’ll hand himself over to La Belle Sherriff Scoot McNairy’s Bill McNue.

McNue, a widower and father of two, is slowly being crippled by an encroaching blindness. In this vulnerable town, their lone law man (the Sherriff’s Deputy Whitey is still a gangly teen) seems more like a bumbling hazard than a town saviour.  McNairy is a terrific and diverse character actor. He’s got such a command of his posture and gait, and conveys inner turmoil with his dark eyes.

La Belle is the heart of the show. It’s here that we set the scene for some of the most fascinating explorations in the genre. In an instant, a mining accident decimates the male population, stranding an almost exclusively female community to find their own way. The stand outs are Merritt Wever’s Mary Agnes – sister to Sherriff McNue (McNairy) – and Tess Frazer’s Callie Dunne; they are Godless’ answer to Deadwood’s Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert) and Joanie Stubbs (Kim Dickens). Mary Agnes and Callie feel like the only characters in the town that are relieved in the wake of the accident. For Mary Agnes it’s about being able to assert, to step out of the dainty frontier homemaker garb and to assume a role in the town’s future that her gender had denied. Wever’s performance alongside Callie is like an island of tenderness in this harsh world. Her self-consciousness informs the way that she occupies space in an interaction, but she’s extremely forthright. While external mining interests hold the women over a barrel for the opportunity to kick-start works in the mine, it is Mary Agnes that attempts to reassert their authority. For Callie, her thriving business as a town whore dried up instantly in the wake of the accident. She then became free to reclaim her body for pleasure instead of commerce. There’s electricity between Mary Agnes and Callie that’s hiding in plain sight amongst their intuitive harem.

Thomas Brodie-Sangster’s Whitey Winn is the cocky teenager hoping to assume the position of defender to the town. Whitey takes interest in a young African American girl living in an adjoining community, Louise Hobbs (Jessica Sula). Her community is segregated, by choice, assembled by a formidable and infamous civil war unit. In the post war period they’ve made the decision to remain separate from La Belle and white society proper, in order to live their lives in peace.

Frank wants us to experience the poise of the West. Cinematographer Steven Meizler, a journeyman camera operator working on a swathe of films (Saving Private Ryan, Munich, Che) defines the aesthetic of Godless by placing the audience in the zone to experience the action. On Alice’s ranch we get inside the wooden ring to break horses and the over the shoulder style that defined Ryan and was adopted wholesale in the video game genre. It’s a great experiential posture and director/writer Frank allows each scenario to breathe. The scope of the show allows you to experience the graft of the day to day.  Frank and Meizler also show the devastation of the gun. Metal minces human targets and each wound lingers for a suitable recovery time.

At the conclusion of Godless there’s a deep satisfaction. It’s an epic and singular Western film that was granted the permission to run as long as a TV show and like all great Westerns, reflects contemporary times. Frank is aware that Godless and its characters are not wholly unfamiliar to the audience, but is innately cognisant of the enduring tragedy and relevance of the American frontier. Slimy pulp journalists exaggerate to save their skin. Corporate interests increasingly capitalise on the disenfranchised and easily exploitable. Absent patriarchal structures provide little comfort in death. The ghosts of displaced Native American Nations pushed to the fringe of the emerging society echo in the characters consciousness.

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The Disaster Artist

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Aspiring actor Greg Sestero (Dave Franco) suffers from a lack of confidence. His new friend Tommy Wiseau (James Franco, who also directs), a flamboyant eccentric of dubious origins, does not suffer from that issue, although he is hampered by a staggering deficit of talent and a strangled accent that he insists is from New Orleans. The two decamp from San Francisco to Los Angeles to try to make it as actors, but find tinseltown a tough nut to crack. Undeterred, Tommy resolves to write and direct his own movie, a melodrama in the mould of American classics like Death of a Salesman and A Streetcar Named Desire, a searing psychological passion play he will pour his heart and soul into.

That movie is The Room, now widely regarded as one of the worst movies ever made. Here’s the surprising thing about The Disaster Artist: it’s not mean. The cult that has gathered around Wiseau’s inept opus is a broad church, but for a lot of people the appeal is simply mockery – The Room is a singularly terrible work, failing on every conceivable technical and creative level, and it’s fun to laugh long and loud at this kind of unaware buffoonery.

However, working from Sestero’s memoir, director and star James Franco eschews the easy path and instead makes sure that we never forget the humanity of the people we’re pointing at. These are real folks with real aspirations, even though those dreams may exceed their grasp by a very long stretch. That includes the mercurial, often bizarre Wiseau, who remains a figure of mystery to this very day (although the documentary Room Full of Spoons, suppressed by court order, has a lot to say about Wiseau’s origins). We never get inside Wiseau’s head – good lord, imagine that! – but he remains a figure who elicits sympathy if not empathy. A lot of that is down to a fantastic performance by Franco, who leans into Wiseau’s outre mannerisms and tics – how could you not? – but still never forgets to imbue him with an inner life, even if that life might be completely unknowable to anyone outside his skin. Franco’s Wiseau approaches filmmaking like he approaches the world: with unfettered confidence and a seemingly alien set of axioms and assumptions. Asked whether he will shoot on digital or film, he boldly chose both, despite the technical impossibility that implies. Spying a big shot producer in a restaurant, Tommy just starts doing Streetcar at his tableside until security intervenes. An acting teacher (Bob Odenkirk, only one of a murderers’ row of cameos) tells the lank, scarecrow-like Wiseau that his shortcut to fame is to play monsters and villains, a la Lugosi or Karloff, but in Tommy’s mind he’s the romantic hero, and the world is at fault for not seeing that. He leaves everything out on the field in pursuit of his impossible dream – can we blame him?

It’d be an absolute tragedy if it wasn’t so funny, and yes, The Disaster Artist is straight up hilarious. Faithful fans of The Room will marvel at Franco’s nigh-perfect recreations (a side-by-side comparison crops up at the end to really drive it home) but even newcomers will be hard-pressed not to hoot at the goings on, with Wiseau’s antics anchored by the wry observations of crew members played by Seth Rogen and Paul Scheer, who act as a kind of jaded Greek chorus. Dave Franco’s Sestero gets fewer laughs, but functions as the heart of the movie: a modestly talented aspiring actor like countless others, both buoyed and hamstrung by his loyalty to the weird Wiseau. Sestero’s defining characteristic is that he’s a nice guy, endlessly supportive of his friends and loyal to a fault – a trait that ultimately sees him tied to the mast of the good ship Wiseau, come hell or high water. There’s a scene where Sestero shaves off his beard that, contextually, might be the saddest thing seen on screen this year this side of Lion.

Ultimately The Disaster Artist is about a friendship, albeit a strange and arguably damaging one. The received wisdom is to double feature it with The Room, which seems obvious, but Withnail & I might be a more thematically resonant running mate, detailing as it does a similarly cockeyed relationship (we’ll allow Ed Wood as well, obvious though it might be). In focusing on the emotional dynamics rather than the chaos, The Disaster Artist has managed a truly impressive feat of metatextuality: turning what was a one note joke into something much more nuanced and moving.

Click here for nationwide movie times for The Disaster Artist


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Paddington 2

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What makes a good family film? What are the ingredients necessary to make a picture that is fulfilling for both kids and adults? Well, whatever the specifics of the recipe, it seems that Paddington 2 has all of it in spades. Visually, director Paul King and director of photography Erik Wilson get terrifically creative, integrating illustrations, faux-pop-up books and of course reality-bending CGI work to craft the film’s world. The title character being generated through computers barely even registers – partly because the effects work is just that good, but also because a bear making sandwiches in a prison kitchen is nowhere near the most fanciful thing to be found here.

The cast, full of British talent that are either household names or rightly should be household names, imbue their characters with such vigour that everyone ends up leaving a pleasant impression by film’s end. Whether it’s Brendan Gleeson as a prison cook, Absolutely Fabulous star Joanna Lumley as a talent agent, or Hugh Grant giving the performance of a lifetime as a faded egotistical actor, everyone fits into the puzzle, to say nothing of Ben Whishaw as our favourite bear, giving his impossibly hopeful and optimistic character the right amount of sweetness and light to make this film’s ultimate purpose sink in.

Among many other things, the film medium is exceptionally good at imparting messages onto its audience. Everyone has at least one friend who is able to rattle off quotes from films and TV shows because that is how deeply ingrained media can become in people’s minds. The message that this particular film wants to impart is both incredibly simple and incredibly necessary: Be a good person. Throughout the film, between the hunt of lost treasure, the worries of losing loved ones and even time in jail, Paddington never lets the world get to him. Everywhere he goes, he spreads goodness and manners to everyone he meets, managing to brighten up even the cloudiest of mindsets. As the story carries on, we see that dedication to niceties returns to him tenfold, showing just how much impact being nice can have on others. It seems like such a simple thing and yet, with how fearful people are of difference, it’s apparent that we have managed to lose sight of it. But thankfully, Paddington is right here to give a warm and friendly reminder, with a marmalade sandwich in one hand and a toffee apple in the other.

A family film in the truest sense of the term, Paddington 2 contains so much joy, so much humour and so much sincere emotion that it is sure to delight all audiences. Not only that, it never betrays its own heart. Sweet without a hint of cynicism and silly without a drop of irony, it never tries to be more than it is. And because of that, it succeeds as a funny, emotional and altogether brilliant depiction of one of England’s most beloved childhood characters.

Click here for nationwide movie times for Paddington 2

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Star Wars Battlefront II

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In 2015 Star Wars Battlefront released to muted reception. On the one hand you had a title that faithfully recreated big battles from the beloved franchise set in a galaxy far, far away. On the other, the game was almost shockingly devoid of content, lacking anything even resembling a single player campaign, and seemed custom designed to sell players the DLC; where the allegedly “good” content was hidden.

The general consensus was, the game had good inside it, but had slipped too far over to the Dark Side. “Perhaps in the sequel,” we said, optimistically, “perhaps they’ll get it right in the sequel.”

Cut to 2017 and Star Wars Battlefront II is here and… well, shit, there’s a lot to unpack.

First up, let’s focus on the positive. Star Wars Battlefront II is a beautiful-looking game. It features massive multiplayer online battles and a solid, albeit slightly truncated and unambitious single player campaign. Also the flying mechanics are much improved and the actual stellar battles in Star Wars are good for once. If you’re an adult with a few mates keen to shoot online, then this is a good time, especially if you can grab it during the post-Christmas sales.

On the negative side? The game’s a mess. Not mechanically, mind you, some early onset server issues aside the game works well but the title’s progression system, the grind, is an absolutely broken, baffling clusterfuck. See, originally EA had most of the game’s content hidden behind loot crates that you – the player – receives for playing the game. These loot crates would deliver crafting materials, skins, and Star Cards. The latter of these can be used to upgrade character’s traits or weapons and unlock heroes like Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader. Originally this progression could be hugely assisted by purchasing loot crates directly – in other words, paying real world money on top of the hundred bucks you’d already dropped on the thing.

The public outcry to this pay-to-win fiasco was prolific and emphatic, so much so that EA has (at time of writing) disabled microtransactions in the game. However even without this rather insidious brand of incentivised gambling the progression in Battlefront II is an exercise in confusing tedium. Really enjoy playing as Assault Class and want to upgrade as you play? Tough shit, the loot boxes are full of randomised gear, most of which you won’t ever use. This leads the experience feeling hollow and strangely unrewarding, as opposed to Destiny 2 which is almost too generous with the loot (which is a conversation for another day).

It’s genuinely sad that a review of Star Wars Battlefront II has to feature so much gear about EA’s shonky practices, but it’s a spectre that hangs over the title. This game should have been a lay down misere, a hugely popular franchise you can play with your mates and have a few laughs. Instead we’re left with a compromised and unfulfilling experience that may be patched or reconfigured in the future, but right now this is probably not the game you’re looking for.


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The Fortress

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In AD 1636, Korea’s Joseon kingdom has been invaded by an army the Manchu Qing dynasty. King Injo (Park Hae-il) and his court escaped to the northern fortress of Namham, but are now under siege from Manchu soldiers. Trapped for the winter, with dwindling resources and no sign of rescue from Korea’s southern armies, a decision is to be made: hold out against a seemingly undefeatable enemy, or surrender to the Khan?

Director Hwang Dong-hyuk scored a huge commercial hit with his 2013 comedy Miss Granny, which has subsequently been remade in four different countries – the American version is in development. Viewers expecting another dose of breezy comedy will be rather surprised with The Fortress, and possibly a little disappointed. This bleak, dour historical drama does not make many concessions for its audience, either in terms of content or in its running time. For anyone interested in Korean history, it is a worthy and intriguing film.

The core of the story is political. Injo is surrounded by courtiers and advisors who not only have conflicting advice for him, but who also jostle among each another for his favour. Hwang wisely focuses on just two of them. Choi (an excellent Lee Byung-hun) advises surrender and capitulation: better to live and have hope than condemn one’s entire country to die. By contrast Kim (Kim Yeon-sook) demands defiance and resistance down to the last soldier. Beneath them the court acts out like a comedy of errors. First the soldiers defending the fortress are freezing in the cold. Then they take away the soldiers’ straw blankets to feed the starving horses. Then the horses die anyway, so they feed the horses to the now-frostbitten soldiers.

The Fortress is not only based on historical events but shot on location in as cold and inhospitable conditions as those that faced the real-life King Injo. The realism also extends to the outdoor sets and the period-accurate costumes and weaponry. It is impressively put together. It feels dreadfully bleak and hopeless. The setting outside matches the increasingly despondent debate in the King’s court.

A number of small side stories add depth and variety. At the beginning of the film Kim murders an old fisherman on the way to the fortress, because the fisherman admits he will freely show the Manchu invaders across the lake when they arrive. Later the fisherman’s orphaned granddaughter is found, with Kim guiltily taking her into his home as a secret penance. Elsewhere a widowed blacksmith named Seo (Go Soo) becomes a critical figure in an attempt to request help from the Korean army in the south. It is an engaging and heartfelt performance from Go, one that transforms him into the film’s moral conscience.

Action is sparsely distributed through the film, but impressively shot and timed when it does occur. Some other reviews for the film have been relatively unkind, calling it both a little boring and lacking in battle scenes. The simple fact is that The Fortress, for all of its military trappings, is not an action movie. Viewers seeking a political drama mixed with a history lesson will find this much more to their taste. It is an excellently crafted and atmospheric piece of work, boosted by a superb Ryuichi Sakamoto score and uniformly strong, understated performances.

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Only the Brave

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Based on true events, Only the Brave, the third feature from Tron: Legacy director Joseph Kosinksi, follows the exploits of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, an elite firefighting unit within the Prescott, Arizona Fire Department. Led by avuncular man’s man Eric March (Josh Brolin, square jawed, squint-eyed and leathery), the team’s remit is to fight by hand the ferocious wildfires that threaten rural communities across America. It’s dangerous, grueling work, but these guys are up for it, and the bonds they share are literally fire-forged. Indeed, this sort of gig is for… *points to title*.

Only the Brave is an achingly sincere tribute to a very American, rather old-fashioned brand of heroism, and what value you can pull out of it probably depends on how highly you prize your own sense of ironic detachment. Come at this film from a snide or dismissive angle and you’re in for a terrible time. Meet the film on its own terms, and it’s pretty great.

Its main assets are a really top notch cast, coupled with a willingness to spend time with them so we can get to know the characters they’re bringing to life for us. There’s plenty of action to be found here, but there are a lot of quiet moments of downtime where we just get to hang out with the crew and get a handle on the position they occupy in their community and the relationship dynamics therein.

Our point of ingress is young stuff-up Brendan “Donut” McDonough (Miles Teller), saddled with a substance abuse problem and separated from the mother of his young daughter, who finds the tough love and honest toil of the fire department is just the tonic he needs to get his crap together. His is a path of redemption, and in walking that track he mirrors to a degree his mentor, who occasionally lets slip hints at a darker time in his life when he’s alone with his wife, Amanda (Jennifer Connelly).

All other considerations aside, the film is worth it for the interplay between Connelly and Brolin (if you’re of a certain age, that’s Sarah from Labyrinth and Brand from The Goonies), whose on-screen relationship feels real and textured – there’s love and support there, absolutely, but it’s not unconditional, and it’s not just Connelly’s good wife standing by her man. Indeed, Connelly’s main narrative function is to point out that there is a cost to this kind of macho heroism, and it’s not just borne by the men on the front line. There’s a fantastic scene where she lays out the sacrifices she’s made to be in her man’s life, and it anchors the entire film in real, tangible emotion, not just crafted pathos.

Still, sacrifice is the main theme here – not just the cost of heroism, but the cost of being a part of a community, perhaps, and deciding what you’ll do for that place and those people. Going in, we know we’re headed for what will probably be a less than happy ending for some of our cast of characters (spoilers in that link), but that’s not the point; this isn’t about who’s going to make it through, but rather what it’s like to belong to a place, and the film delivers that feeling completely. After spending time with the Granite Mountain Hotshots, their friends and family, you’d need a particularly hard heart not to be moved by their story.

Click here for nationwide movie times for Only the Brave