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Fallout 4 (Game)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Minecraft: Story Mode (Game)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Big Short

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The brilliance of The Big Short is that it doesn’t even pretend to be a story about good guys. Four market experts – brought to life by Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, Steve Carell and Brad Pitt – glean the volatility of the soon-to-be 2008 subprime mortgage crisis. Each decides to bet against the market in an effort to secure a hefty pay-packet after everything comes crashing down. When one of the main characters tells another that “they (the banks) got greedy, and I can profit off their stupidity,” the platitude perfectly sets the tone for the film. Like thematic predecessors such as Wall Street, The Big Short is all about greed and making money. The audience can easily get caught up in the characters’ collective drive to prevail, which both sadly and exquisitely mirrors the many hapless mortgage-brokers portrayed in The Big Short whom we are told to detest.

A fairly typical Hollywood indictment on all involved, the film is so cleverly executed that it manages to be a story where you root for its central characters’ success, in spite of the knowledge that they are part of the very fraught system that the film bemoans. A reflective and consistently entertaining treatise on the crisis, The Big Short is most interesting in the ways that it renders the intricate subject matter accessible. The normalcy of an early scene featuring two characters discovering crucial material in a lobby is shattered when one breaks the fourth-wall – a regular device throughout the film – and tells us that what we saw was a lie, just a convenient plot device to explain things more clearly.

Likewise, the characters do not shy away from discussing the complexities of the financial crisis ala Margin Call, which will please devotees in the field who appreciate more than simplistic explanations of the issues. Again, the fourth wall is broken in decisive and surprisingly expository ways, with celebrity chef, Anthony Bourdain, for instance, creating a meal and talking explanatory finance direct to camera, and Margot Robbie doing the same in a bathtub. These sequences aren’t trite or overused, and while not achieving the deliberately incongruous tone set by The Wolf Of Wall Street, as apparently intended, it does the trick, conveying more complex concepts than those featured in the likes of 99 Homes or Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.

The film, while excellent, does err in a few respects, most notably in Pitt’s casting. Inundated with analysts obsessed with making money off the ensuing crash, Pitt’s character, despite his complicity, appears to be the only one whose moral compass is fixed throughout. It’s not the only film where he has served as producer and cast himself, and as with 12 Years A Slave, Pitt plays an upstanding individual whose actions and morality contrast with all of the other characters. In The Big Short, this is not only more pronounced, but is also a distracting, inconsistent thread of the narrative. But despite its flaws, The Big Short is both an accomplished intellectual exercise and an accessible drama that will play well to a range of audiences. A refreshing and piercingly clever morality tale – whether you prefer the emotive, simplistic or in-depth depictions of what happened – the film hits its target.


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Mississippi Grind

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After standout performances in the Netflix series Bloodline and last year’s severely underrated Starred Up, Ben Mendelsohn is once again typecast as another menacing lowlife – but when the performances are this good, why would he want to play anything else?

Here Mendelsohn plays Gerry, a lowly real estate agent with a serious gambling problem. His continual “bad luck” and inability to call it quits has him facing a huge debt, not to mention it’s the reason his wife and daughter walked out.

In comes Curtis (Ryan Reynolds), a fast-talking drifter who loves darts, drinking and flirting with women. After bonding over bourbon and betting, the two men venture south towards New Orleans so Gerry try make them some serious money playing poker.

Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck both wrote and directed the film, and the art of their storytelling reflects that of a good poker player, in that the audience can never quite tell what they’re holding.

Is Curtis really who he says he is? Is he even real? Will they turn on one another? And just how far down this rabbit-hole can they both continue to fall before they turn it all around or completely lose it all? These questions sit with you during the entire film, as you wait for something either really good or really bad to happen to one of them. But as Curtis says to Gerry towards the end of the film, “This is how it had to end.”

Without giving away whether or not they win, lose or something else entirely happens, the ending is never quite what you think it is, which is very rare these days.

In a way it’s like a mature version of Rounders, in that the friendship between these two characters is what drives the film, but the real fun lies is spending time in the seedy bars, casinos and underground gambling dens. Perhaps this is why the life of a hustler has always been fascinating to watch, whether Matt Damon or Paul Newman, particularly when you know the anti-hero of the film isn’t likely to walk away when we all know they should.

Watching Mendelsohn compulsively gamble provides the ultimate character study, witnessing his initial relief and fuzzy joy of winning to the sickening shock of every loss. He delivers each of these emotions in spades (excuse the pun).

Similarly, Reynolds is in top-form here. He wears a little too much eyeliner but apart from that the costume team do a good job of making him believably scummy. Unfortunately Sienna Miller’s supporting role was subpar, not because she struggled but never had much to work with. And while Analeigh Tipton is usually intriguing, it’s still a tad creepy watching the fresh-faced girl from Crazy, Stupid Love linked romantically with a much older man like Mendelsohn.

Definitely worth a watch, if only for the stellar performances of the two leads and an incredible deep southern blues soundtrack.

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The aftermath of a bank robbery leads to several deaths and a thief with a mysterious past on the run from a suave assassin in this down and dirty action flick from director Stephen S. Campanelli. Olga Kurylenko (The Water Diviner) is Alex, the thief who witnesses the death of her friends at the hands of Mr Washington (James Purefoy). Sparking off a chase that sees her doggedly pursued across Cape Town, Alex ends up embroiled in a fight not only for her life, but the lives of the widow and son her friend has left behind.

Similar in scope and style to Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire which saw Gina Carano on the run from the government, Momentum lives up to its name by being filled with set piece after violent set piece. Keeping things bruisingly intimate, Campanelli uses numerus hand held cameras that get you up close and personal with stunts he’s set up. Backed up by a distinct lack of CGI, you’ll feel every punch that connects and a brutal car crash is liable to cause anxiety.

But it’s not just the stunts that entertain, with the film’s leads adding to the madness. Kurylenko throws herself into a part that refreshingly doesn’t rely on sex being her chief weapon in the fight for survival. Purefoy is clearly enjoying himself playing Mr Washington with a serenity so deep that it screams homicidal. As he locks horns with the steely jawed Kurylenko you can almost swear he’s falling in love with her as she shoots her way through his team.

As with all action films, a suspension of disbelief is required – a bomb going off in an airport at one stage is not enough to ground all flights apparently – but when Momentum gets going, there’s an entertaining time to be had trying to catch up.

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In Stereo

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When you have a romantic comedy on your hands, not only should it be both a comedy and romantic, you should be willing to cheer on the lead couple as they step closer towards coupledom. In Stereo’s lead couple have not only broken up by the time the beginning credits have unfurled, but they have also hopped straight into other relationships so fast you can hear the rebound from Mars.

David (Micah Hauptman), an affluent photographer, is with a destructive immature airhead who is sleeping with his best friend. Brenda (Beau Garrett) has a boyfriend who doesn’t excite her and an acting career that’s spiraling downwards. As a result of their poor life choices, they are vicious to everyone they know and, in the case of David, deliberately antagonise people to get a reaction. Following them both on the same day, the viewer is invited to cross their fingers that they get back together; if not for themselves then for the sake of the city that quakes with each dummy spit.

In Stereo makes the mistake in thinking these are complicated people with equally complicated lives. However, taken at face value, they just come across as mean-spirited and, at times, kind of spoilt. David harasses people so he can take their photo and giggles at the outcome, whilst Brenda’s career is failing because she refuses to take work. With TV shows like Aziz Ansari’s Master of None proving you can play in the tortured artist sandbox and still have something to say, there’s little room for protagonists like In Stereo’s where their self-destructive nature is presented as merely quirky.

Director Mel Rodriguez III provides slick visuals and an even slicker soundtrack, but it doesn’t hide the fact that the conclusion of In Stereo is that it’s really hard when two gorgeous women want you.

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Moving into a spooky house with a terrible history, the Asher family comes under attack from numerous things that bump in the night. For all intents and purposes, this is as much the plot to The Conjuring as it is Haunt. However, this film from documentary maker Mac Carter isn’t just reminiscent of one particular haunted house movie. It can easily be identified as the summary and conclusion to an entire essay about the haunted house genre in the last ten years. Its derivative nature is such that it almost acts as a way of highlighting the faults with films such as The Haunting in Connecticut, Annabelle and Insidious.

When middle child, Evan (Harrison Gilbertson) meets his abused neighbor Sam (Liana Liberato), the two form an instant sexual bond that results in Evan agreeing to summon up the ghosts of his new home via a pimped up radio. Nothing good ever came of a post-coital séance and things soon escalate.

The film unpacks the usual showbag of goosebump riddled scares including Evan’s youngest sister talking to an imaginary friend, bloodied corpses and numerous slam cuts of ghosts set against the soundtrack of a crashing piano. These are such familiar tropes that it verges on parody.

Its only real strengths come from Australia’s own Jacki Weaver, who pops up occasionally as the previous owner of the horror house who is clearly in need of some therapy and a hug. Weaver can play these parts in her sleep, and it’s a shame that she isn’t in it more. In addition, Haunt manages, in its last few minutes, to pull a rather nasty little twist that pulls the rug from under its audience. Brutal and violent, it becomes obvious in hindsight how much this film needed less replication and a bit more bite.

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The old idiom goes that cleanliness is next to Godliness, and according to the stunning new film from writer/director, David O. Russell, the creation of The Miracle Mop should indeed qualify its inventor, Joy Mangano, for sainthood. A profoundly unusual rattling of the Christ story, Joy is the tale of a woman with a vision surrounded by fools and doubters, who – with the support of a small few – makes her vision a reality, scarring the halls of commerce along the way, and dispensing decency on her hero’s journey, while beset by temptation and delayed by lies. Punching it home one yard further, Joy actually has her vision for The Miracle Mop while staring at broken-wine-glass-inflicted “stigmata” on her hands. Even by the heady, uncompromised standards of David O. Russell – the director of such in-your-face belters as Three Kings, The Fighter, American Hustle, and Silver Linings Playbook – Joy is a big, bold, daring reach, but this eternally brave director grabs the brass ring with both hands, and doesn’t even think of letting go.

Joy Mangano (a fierce, funny, wonderfully controlled turn from the great Jennifer Lawrence) is a working class girl with an over-active brain and a facility for thinking up and making new things. But her big, messy, over-involved family – TV soap-addicted mother, Terry (Virginia Madsen); who is divorced from her blustery, bullish, big-mouthed father, Rudy (Robert De Niro); and her jealous, duplicitous, aggressive half-sister, Peggy (Elizabeth Rohm) – have always prevented Joy from taking a run at the big time. Like a human packhorse, she carries them all on her back, until she’s finally had enough, and risks it all on the creation of The Miracle Mop, a self-wringing wonder, and “the only mop that you’ll ever need.” In Joy’s corner are her sagely but nutty grandma, Mimi (Diane Ladd); her wannabe singer ex-husband, Tony (Edgar Ramirez); her childhood best friend, Jackie (Dascha Polanco); and Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper), a bigwig at the nascent home shopping cable network that provides a platform for Joy and her Miracle Mop, to the ultimate tune of millions. This, however, is no standard rags-to-riches story – Joy is far more strange, relatable, and inspiring than that.

With its mad and maddening familial unit hotly reminiscent of those in Russell’s The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, Joy shows in no uncertain terms that family ties can potentially slowly strangle the life out of anyone, but the film’s heroine – and make no mistake, Joy is every inch as admirable (though far shabbier) as any hero played by James Stewart, Gregory Peck, or Tom Hanks – is a shining beacon to the power of rising above and, cough, following your dreams. Yes, it might sound corny on paper, but David O. Russell sucks all of the potential sentimentality out of the film, and replaces it with warped humour and earthy honesty. Joy Mangano might be a pillar of virtue, but her marble comes with scuff marks and scratches. The wildly entertaining Joy has the same kind of restless spirit as all of Russell’s previous films, complete with swirling camera work, a time jumping narrative, and jittery editing. And once again, he teams with Jennifer Lawrence (and other essential cast members) to devastating effect, with the performances flighty but grounded, and across-the-board brilliant. Devoid of special effects, but supercharged through the wit of its writing, the richness of its characterisation, and the evangelical profundity of its subtext, this film about one truly amazing woman rates as an eye-popping, breathtaking achievement. All bow before Saint Joy.

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Pump, the latest from documentarians Rebecca Harrell Tickell and Joshua Tickell, is their third look at fuel alternatives. This time around the focus is on how America’s choices in how to fuel their cars have been clearly defined for them ever since the days of John Rockefeller’s first steps into the oil game.

Narrated by Jason Bateman, the documentary recounts the country’s affair with oil and offers up alternatives to gas guzzling in the form of methanol, natural gas, and, of course, electric cars. With outright tenacity, Pump sets its teeth into the problem that establishing an alternative source of fuel is hard when the biggest stakeholders are the ones who would rather it didn’t catch on. It’s pointed out several times that the public will happily fill their tanks with alcohol or plug their cars in to charge, as long as they’re given the choice. It’s the American way. And it’s not just members of the public who are convinced, former Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva waves the green flag. Which is perhaps unsurprising when you consider the success flexible fuel cars have had in his country.

It’s a sobering moment when Pump lays out how monopolised things are in the oil market. If we’re to be cynical, at times some of the Tickells’ evidence is questionable. At one point they claim that Rockefeller encouraged prohibition to curb investment in alcohol fueled cars. Whilst that example conjures up thoughts of the illuminati keeping watch over us all, it’s hard to deny the feeling that big businesses have more of a say in what we do than we realise. Despite the spotlight firmly focused on the United States, there’s still something here for Australia, another country with a large vehicular heritage, to chew on.

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Spooks: The Greater Good

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Spooks: The Greater Good, picking up where David Wolstencroft’s acclaimed TV series left off, fits comfortably between James Bond and Ethan Hunt – aptly balancing straight-edged surveillance drama and light-hearted thrills.

Spooks: The Greater Good kicks off with your typical convoy-attack sequence within London’s CBD. A small terrorist cell attacks the MI-5 unit, freeing apprehended leader, Adem Qasim (Elyes Gabel). The disaster shakes MI-5’s foundations, making the British Government, press, and fellow agencies question its purpose. Counter-terrorism department head, Harry Pearce (Peter Firth), soon disappears, further fraying relations between American and British intelligence. Pearce, investigating Qasim’s movements, believes that a top MI5 official seeks to destroy the agency from the inside. Enter decommissioned agent, Will Holloway (Kit Harington), to track Pearce throughout Europe.

The production resembles a two-part miniseries/ spin-off of the Spooks series. There is also little separating the plot from that of the Bourne or Mission: Impossible entries – checking off everything from double crosses, to a lead character on the run scenario, to a strained mentor/protégé dynamic. Director, Bharat Nalluri, working from Jonathan Brackley and Sam Vincent’s screenplay, knows how to up the ante. Aware of the original’s appeal, Nalluri delivers multiple foot chases and gun fights. Fittingly, its focus on tech-driven, nose-to-thegrindstone surveillance highlights the franchise’s immense scope. Teaming up with returning Spooks cast members, newcomers, Kit Harington and Jennifer Ehle, match the series’ whip-smart, assertive attitude. Spooks: The Greater Good, though nothing entirely new, is a pacy, well-crafted spy-thriller that certainly matches the competition.