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Overwatch is a game that should absolutely, 100% not work. At all. It combines some of the worst aspects of modern gaming:

1) There’s no plot. Like, none. It’s a vague sketch outline that can admittedly be augmented with YouTube videos but the story contained on disc makes Destiny’s butchered narrative seem like the complete works of Leo Tolstoy.

2) It’s an online only experience. Yeah, that’s right, hippie. Internet connection down? Go read a scroll by candlelight, you luddite!

3) It’s very light on content. 21 heroes and 12 maps in a series of extremely repetitive 6v6 matches.

So it’s somewhat shocking, frankly, that Overwatch works as well as it does and the reason is simple: fun. Overwatch succeeds where so many other games fail by literally being a joy to play.

The premise is this: a bunch of heroes fight in various arenas for reasons that are vague at best, but that doesn’t seem to matter. The general goal of each match will be ‘defend the thing’, ‘control the thing’ or ‘escort the thing’. The 21 heroes are uniformly delightful and engaging, each of them easily worth their own game. You’ve got Hanzo the bow-wielding samurai who can shoot deadly arrows and dragon magic. There’s D.Va the adorable gamer lady who can fight inside and out of her bright pink mech suit. Then there’s Roadhog, the self-described “one man apocalypse” who is like a morbidly obese Mad Max character with a chunky gun and a chain to ensnare foes.

There are ape heroes, builder heroes, overpowered turret heroes and one inexplicably dull ‘dude with a gun’ hero, Soldier: 76 whose inclusion seems to be an attempt to entice extremely boring teenage boys away from their latest Call of Duty sequel.

Inclusion is actually an important word for Overwatch because as well as a range of characters from various backgrounds and in various shapes and sizes – the game itself is simple enough to give filthy casuals a good time but also complicated and deep enough to keep hardcore shooter fans engaged.

This unlikely but undeniable equilibrium comes courtesy of developer, Blizzard Entertainment (World Of Warcraft, Diablo III) who have taken this balancing act and truly made it sing. Whether your hero is assault, defence, tank or healer class – they’ll all be fun to play. You’ll genuinely want to get good at your initially chosen hero but it’s tantalising to learn all the cool tricks the others can do. And you can, from the start. All the heroes are unlocked, all the powers accessible, from the first time you boot up the game.

So what, exactly, are you grinding for in Overwatch? Well, as you ascend levels you can unlock Loot Boxes that can contain randomised cosmetic items and… that’s it. There are no new weapons, no new powers – you’re literally playing this title because the responsive, exciting, beautifully-realised (albeit small) world is a wonderful place that you’ll want to spend time in.

Whether that means Overwatch will still be high on your list of must play games in six months’ time is, as yet, unknown. Blizzard are confident that their free and consistent content drops with new maps, heroes and game modes will keep the millions of players engaged but that remains to be seen. What is clear, for now, is: Overwatch is an absolute blast, especially when played with likeminded friends who want to join you for a dozen or so “just one more game” games.

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The Witcher III: Blood And Wine

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Witcher 3: Blood And Wine is the final piece of DLC for Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. On the one hand, it’s pretty sad that the Witcher 3 saga, one of the best games of 2015, is ending. On the other, it’s hard to be too upset when the content offered is so damn good.

Blood And Wine takes place in the as yet unseen land of Toussaint, a very different landscape to the wartorn hellholes our white-haired beast-stabber, Geralt of Rivia, has explored in the main game and previous expansion, Hearts Of Stone. Toussaint is more of a “high fantasy” setting, where knights have chivalric codes, wear colourful armour and affect a mode of verbose, poetic speech that juxtaposes beautifully (and frequently hilariously) with Geralt’s gravelly grumble talk. At first the fairy tale-hued land seems to be full of well-intentioned idiots, but a few quests in it becomes clear that not all those who proclaim their chivalry are noble, and not all beasts are monsters. Geralt’s reason for being dragged into the land of vineyards and poets is, predictably, to hunt down a monster. Said creature is offing knights in darkly ironic ways, in something like a fantasy riff on David Fincher’s Seven. However, as Geralt digs into the case it becomes clear there’s more going on under the surface, and Toussaint isn’t quite the perfumed paradise it purports to be.

Gameplay, wise little has changed, and that’s perfectly fine. Geralt takes on story missions, secondary quests and Witcher contracts. Some of them are layered, nuanced, even funny and some are forgettable. Combat sees a small upgrade with a new form of mutagen crafting and upgrading that unlocks a series of new skills, but to be honest it’s hardly going to revolutionise your play style. Yes, launching Aard with a 25% chance of freezing is fun, but it’s not a game changer on any fundamental level.

New armour sets, weapons and monsters are also added, but again – this is for completists because The Witcher 3’s big strength is story, and in that regard Blood and Wine is consistently impressive. From Geralt’s relationship with “high vampire” Regis, to the tense communications with Duchess Anna Henrietta to the various problems of class, religion and conflict, Toussaint is painted with appealing levels of depth and complexity. It also features some of the most beautiful environments the Witcher 3 has offered yet, with stunning graphics on console versions and high end PCs alike.

During the 20-30 hours of Blood And Wine, you’ll find yourself facing tough foes, difficult moral choices, and complex characters. You’ll also finally have a home to call your own, with a vineyard you can upgrade and settle down in, with whichever NPC (if any) you decide to make your partner.

Goodbyes are hard, and farewelling the Witcher 3 is especially difficult, but Blood And Wine represents a hell of a parting gift and a timely reminder of the fantastic work that CD Projekt Red did crafting The Witcher 3. So raise your glass, grab your sword, and get ready to spill plenty of blood and drink loads of wine.

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Hello, My Name Is Doris

Review, Theatrical 1 Comment

It’s refreshing to see a unique American indie film, and more significantly, a leading role for the legendary and still brilliant Sally Field. She plays Doris, who has spent most of her adult life taking care of her mother, who has recently passed away. Alone in the family home filled with hoarded goods, Doris’ brother (comic actor, Stephen Root, in a deeply serious role), his wife, and a therapist put pressure on Doris to clean the place up and potentially sell. When a friendly young man (Max Greenfield from Veronica Mars, The Big Short, and TV’s New Girl) starts a job at her workplace, the frazzled and socially awkward Doris takes a fancy, and wangles her way into his life. It’s obvious to the viewer that he’s just being friendly, but Doris sees him through the imagination of a Mills & Boon novel, which leads to a resolution that is not going to end well…or will it?!

The film’s success hangs on the character of Doris, and whether you’re willing to go on a journey with this strangely naïve and anti-social human being. She’s a one-of-a-kind, though instantly recognisable, and credit goes to co-writers, Laura Terruso and Michael Showalter. Part of the fun is seeing Doris learn what young people are into in order to find common ground with her crush, including going to an electro gig in highly inappropriate fluoro gear and being embraced by the hipster crowd and the band as well!

The secret ingredient is Sally Field, who is still as cute as she was donning the religious habit in The Flying Nun all those years ago. She’s pure gold, and her charm should be bottled. It is just such a shame that this vastly talented actress doesn’t get the lead roles that she deserves due to the ageist industry that she is a part of. She is also offered great support in the film by Tyne Daly as her best friend, another ageing actress who should be cast more often in films of substance. Hello, My Name is Doris is not exactly a film that you should rush out to see at a cinema due to its no frills visual style and general design, and it will play equally well at home, but it is still very well done, and is worth watching for Sally Field alone.

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REVIEW: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out Of The Shadows

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The 2014 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reboot courtesy of Michael Bay’s production company, Platinum Dunes, was a surprising success, both critically and financially. Ironically, maybe it had something to do with the fact that they didn’t have a finished script when production commenced, but Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles delivered an energetic and goofy enough set up for a whole new franchise. Alas, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out Of The Shadows follows the pattern of Bay’s own Transformers movies, with the first flick showing promise and the subsequent sequels sucking progressively harder.

Playing like an old school sequel (remember when these were automatically derided?!), Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out Of The Shadows dispenses with any sort of character development, replacing it with introductions of well-known characters, Casey Jones (wasn’t he originally a vigilante?! Not here…), Rocksteady (embodied by wrestler, Stephen Farrelly aka Sheamus, before the CGI kicks in), Bebop (Gary Anthony Williams), Dr. Baxter Stockman (Tyler Perry), and the disgusting neuro-monster, Krang (voiced by Brad Garrett). The strangest new addition to the cast, however, is highly respected thesp, Laura Linney, slumming it for the pay cheque as the head of police.

Megan Fox, meanwhile, returns as April O’Neil (although she has very little to do here outside of the first five minutes), as does Will Arnett as sarcastic news cameraman, Vernon Fenwick, who is now better known as hero, The Falcon, after taking credit for the work of the Turtles in the first film.

The plot revolves around a pact between Baxter Stockman and bad guy, Shredder (Brian Tee), to break the latter out of prison, and to open up some form of next dimension which then introduces Krang, who just wants to destroy the world by transporting some fuck-off spaceship to earth through a hole in the sky or something The Avengers-like. With so many characters involved, the turtles themselves are given less to do here, and the film suffers for it.

Incoming director, Dave Green (Earth To Echo), turns everything up to 11 here, especially the noise and dizzying camera work. The set pieces and fight sequences are not handled particularly well, with confusion-causing showiness replacing logic. To make things worse, an early scene featuring a Transformer cameo hints that a crossover Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles /Transformers movie might be on the cards. God help us!

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Zach’s Ceremony (The Sydney Film Festival)

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Growing up is tough for boys. Making the confusing transition from boyhood to adolescence and beyond is an experience fraught with pressures both emotional and physical. How much harder, then, is this trying time for boys from indigenous cultures, and how do they balance the seemingly incompatible nature of modern society and ancient tradition?

This heady question is at the heart of Zach’s Ceremony, an extraordinary documentary from director, Aaron Petersen, and producer, Sarah Linton. Shot over a six-year period, the feature length doco introduces us to Zach Doomadgee at ten years old. At this tender age, Zach is a delightful kid, precocious and full of energy. He clearly loves and idolises his father, Alec – a respected speaker and campaigner for Aboriginal rights. Zach talks excitedly about taking part in an initiation ceremony – an important rite of passage for his tribe.

Of course, boys don’t stay ten-years-old, and as Zach starts to make his way into the murkier waters of adolescence, the relationship between the two becomes strained. Alec is loving, but very strict, and as Zach begins to form his own identity, and experience the temptations of drugs and alcohol, the strong connection between the pair begins to fracture.

This conflict between Zach and Alec forms the core of Zach’s Ceremony, and is a fascinating, and occasionally heartbreaking, look at fathers and sons. Petersen’s direction is subtle and unobtrusive, letting Zach do most of the talking, which gives the narrative a sense of immediacy. Neither Zach nor Alec are painted as heroes or villains, and it’s this nuance that makes the story so compelling. Zach’s Ceremony feels thematically similar to Richard Linklater’s Boyhood or The Up Series documentaries, but offers a uniquely Australian spin on a familiar topic. It’s a fascinating look at what it means to grow up as a modern young man who is also a part of the oldest living culture on earth. Zach’s Ceremony offers thought-provoking questions but avoids twee, easy answers and showcases aspects of indigenous culture and tradition, beautifully shot and personalised through the eyes of Zach: a young boy who wants to know what it takes to become a man.

Zach’s Ceremony screens at The Sydney Film Festival, which runs from June 8-19. To buy tickets to Zach’s Ceremony, click here.

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Mekko (The Sydney Film Festival)

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Released from prison after 19 years, the titular Mekko (Rod Rondeaux), one of the Muscogee people, finds himself homeless, and cast out from and cut off from the little remaining family that he has left. Forced to wander the streets, he quickly takes refuge amongst a similarly disenfranchised group of Native Americans. But this brief respite from despair is short lived, as the tyrannical Bill (Zahn McClarnon) forces Mekko to confront his past and the demons of indigenous legends.

Directed by Sterlin Harjo, Mekko is a slow burn, a film that takes its time, that simmers and bubbles as the minutes tick by. But it is also a film where patient audiences will be rewarded with something sombre, powerful, and deeply moving. Harjo seamlessly blends the heartbreak of reality with the mystery and wonder of the spiritual into a finished product which beautifully comes together in the closing minutes.

Perhaps somewhat paradoxically, though incredibly successfully, the Native American mysticism that permeates the film is infused with an almost documentary like naturalism by Harjo and cinematographer, Shane Brown. The result is a distinctly authentic feeling film, bolstered by Harjo’s decision to seek out real people rather than professional actors where possible. Those performers that do make their living acting are exceptional all-round. Long time stunt performer, Rod Rondeaux, quickly endears us to the gentle and empathetic Mekko, while Sarah Podemski is similarly effective as his unlikely ally, Tafv. But Zahn McClarnon is the standout. Much like his ominous turn as Hanzee in Season 2 of Fargo, McClarnon is frightening as the haunting thug, Bill.

Mekko screens at The Sydney Film Festival, which runs from June 8-19. To buy tickets to Mekko, click here.

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Destination Arnold (The Sydney Film Festival)

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The sport of bodybuilding, with all its grunting and over tanning, has always been seen as a predominately male arena. Destination Arnold tries to upturn this view point by following Natasha Lawrence and Kylene Anderson, two Aboriginal bodybuilders looking to get a spot in the ultimate competition “The Arnolds”, run by, who else, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Proud of their culture and their love of a certain Austrian actor, throughout the documentary, we get to know the women through their approach to training for the games. Natasha is a single mum raising extremely supportive kids. She’s open about her love of food, and it’s clear that at times it can be a comfort to her, as she reaches for a Nutella sandwich to heal an emotional wound. Kylene is tenacious about her regime, to the point that she admits to choosing not to be romantically involved as it affects her eating. This culminates in an emotional confession later on regarding an abusive partner. The openness of these two women is what makes the film so engaging. Their life experiences have made them tough and willing to take on challenges, and it can be heartbreaking at times to see them not reach the potential that they feel they’re up to.

Whilst Destination Arnold can’t encapsulate the whole world of female bodybuilding, there are moments that highlight the patriarchal problems that permeate in a “no girls allowed” arena, and that women are only allowed to do so much. Such as the moment when Kylene recalls a man praising her for bodybuilding, but also taking time to point out that she’s too muscular. “At the end,” Natasha retorts, “these are our bodies. We do this for us. No one else.” And whilst the documentary concludes with not everyone getting what they set out for, Natasha’s earlier words ring true.

Destination Arnold screens at The Sydney Film Festival, which runs from June 8-19. To buy tickets to Destination Arnold, click here.

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Cuckold (The Sydney Film Festival)

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Smanga (played by Cuckold’s director and writer, Charlie Vundla) has been living at the bottom of a bottle ever since his wife left him for another man. After losing his job as assistant professor at a prestigious South African university, he invites an old school friend, Jon (Louis Roux), to live with him in the hopes that Jon’s positive outlook will somehow rub off on him. When his wife, Laura (Terry Pheto), returns, Jon continues to live with the couple, and an unusual threesome blossoms.

And whilst Cuckold is ostensibly about a polyamorous relationship of sorts, the narrative is focused squarely on Smanga. Which is a problem, as Smanga is so deeply unlikeable that it’s hard to feel anything close to sympathy for him. When we first meet him, he punctuates his alcoholic stupor by firing off rounds into the bush, hiring callgirls, and watching aggressive porn on the internet. Rarely does he come across as someone that Laura would marry, let alone return to. Equally, Vundla’s flat performance doesn’t warm us to Smanga. We learn nothing about Jon and Laura that isn’t there to service the plot and place the film’s protagonist on a pedestal. We never get an understanding of why either of them would ever jump at the chance of being in a threesome with someone so utterly self-centred.

Vundla attacks his own film with a scattershot approach that sees story threads being picked up and dropped on a whim. Take for example, the films’ Breaking Bad moment when Smanga and Jon decide to deal marijuana to help pay the bills. It’s a subplot that infuriatingly goes nowhere and is completely forgotten about upon Laura’s return. There is, however, a small moment of restraint in the film’s closing moments that suggests that more focus from the director will reap better results. The film screens at The Sydney Film Festival as part of this year’s festival focus on South African cinema.

Cuckold screens at The Sydney Film Festival, which runs from June 8-19. To buy tickets to Cuckold, click here.

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A Fish (The Sydney Film Festival)

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A university professor (Jang-Hoon Lee) runs out on his class when evidence about the whereabouts of his missing wife (So-Eun Choi) surfaces. Meeting with a private detective (Sun-Bim Kim), who takes a less than professional glee out of his client’s dilemma, he sets off for an island where the professor’s wife is now reportedly a shaman. When the professor arrives at his wife’s new home, he becomes reluctantly involved in a watery ritual that harks back to Robin Hardy’s Wicker Man, and soon he finds himself struggling to make sense of his betrothed’s new life. Elsewhere, two men enjoying some male bonding over a session of fishing experience an existential crisis after a recently caught fish begins to beg for its life. This is A Fish, and it’s okay to be confused right now.

The feature length debut of South Korean director and writer Hong-Min Park is a confident and complicated piece that will certainly reward with repeat viewings. At first glance, A Fish tackles themes of loss and acceptance, and how grief can consume us. In one key scene, the professor breaks down into a childlike tantrum, begging for inclusion in his wife’s new life. Elsewhere, in the second, and admittedly weaker, story thread, the idea of belief and identity is brought to the forefront as the two fisherman struggle to remember what brought them to fish in the first place.

You’re invited to unpack what’s going on, and in doing so, the film washes over you, keeping you fully engaged whilst ensuring that you always stay at arm’s length. The director publicly sidestepped questions about the meaning of his film when it played at other festivals. And it’s understandable; exposing too much of the film’s secrets takes away the power of the mystery that the filmmaker has laid out.

Cuckold screens at The Sydney Film Festival, which runs from June 8-19. To buy tickets to Cuckold, click here.

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It’s So Easy And Other Lies

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The average music documentary tends to focus on its subjects’ struggle for fame, battling with some kind of demon – drugs, women, alcohol, all of the above – and should the person in question still be alive, there’ll be a slap on the back for them for doing so well in overcoming everything. It’s So Easy And Other Lies tries to do something different. Based around the life of Guns’N’Roses bassist, Duff McKagan, the documentary goes through a quick drive-by of his drug and alcohol addiction in order to focus on the long journey to recovery. The documentary wants you to know that he is fine, and aside from a few wobbles, he is going to continue to be fine.

The film is narrated by McKagan as he reads extracts from his autobiography in front of a live studio audience accompanied by acoustic versions of various songs from his career. This spoken word show is broken up with interviews with McKagan’s friends and family (Gunners frontman, Axl Rose, is notably absent), archival concert footage, and various styles of animation. It’s McKagan’s own particular Montage Of Heck.

With all these different styles of narration competing for attention, it’s difficult to get into the groove of It’s So Easy And Other Lies. But if you can keep up, it’s a surprisingly uplifting experience. McKagan comes across as someone who is truly happy to have been given a second shot at life. Or indeed a third shot, as is pointed out during one of the film’s interviews. And who are we to take that away from him? That said, this is very much a lightweight affair, and despite its positivity about life and love, it’s hard to shake the idea that this is really just an extended advert for McKagan’s book.