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Review: The Magnificent Seven

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With a pedigree in tough, gritty, mean-streets-specific dramas and thrillers like Training Day, Southpaw, and The Equalizer, Antoine Fuqua’s remake of The Magnificent Seven comes as a major surprise. The obvious assumption was that this distinctly contemporary director would perform some kind of modernist reconstruction of the western, applying a patina of new millennium style and attitude in order to drag this burnished genre up to date. But The Magnificent Seven – a remake of John Sturges’ classic 1960 western of the same name, which itself was a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 masterpiece, Seven Samurai – does the exact opposite of that. No revisionist western, this is very much a traditional, classicist approach to the genre. Yes, the filmmaking techniques are a little more pumped up, and you could probably draw a long bow and say that the film makes comment about today’s unscrupulous, rapacious, and government-sanctioned mining companies, but The Magnificent Seven remains a straightforward tale of good guys and bad guys built on gunfights, machismo, and double barrelled toughness.

The film opens in the frontier town of Rose Creek, which is under the deadly control of wealthy miner, Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard), who’s angling – in no uncertain terms – to remove the hamlet’s hardscrabble farmers from their land so he can plunder it for what lies beneath. Living in fear, the desperate townspeople employ protection from seven hired guns, led by the ever watchable and authoritative Denzel Washington’s fearsome bounty hunter, Sam Chisholm. As these inveterate tough guys prepare the town for an inevitable violent showdown with Bogue’s mini-army of hired guns, these seven mercenaries – Chris Pratt (indulging in his now trademarked brand of wisecracking charm), Ethan Hawke (brilliant as the most complex and nuanced of the motley crew), Vincent D’Onofrio (picking chair legs out of his back teeth in a cackling, willful display of entertaining scenery chewing), Byung-hun Lee (the Korean superstar oozes star quality, and has great chemistry with Ethan Hawke, with their characters’ oddball relationship one of the film’s highlights), Manuel Garcia-Rulfo (who’s gruff and not much else), and Martin Sensmeier (whose Native American warrior is thinly drawn but visually arresting) – find themselves caught up in a fight with more meaning than just the gold that they initially signed up for.

With The Magnificent Seven, you unquestionably get what you came for: it’s exciting; the narrative kicks along at a hectic pace; the action set pieces are elaborately and inventively staged; and the charisma of its big-name cast practically bleeds off the screen. But while the screenplay by Nic Pizzolatto (creator/writer of TV’s True Detective) and Richard Wenk (The Mechanic, The Equalizer, The Expendables 2) boasts plenty of amusing snap-and-crackle in the dialogue, it’s decidedly more lacking in the equally important territories of characterisation and motivation. While the film’s seven tough guys are enjoyably flashy in an almost superhero-style way with their near otherworldly facility for arse-kicking, their reasons for so willingly signing up for a suicide mission are never made sufficiently clear. Along with the mostly thumbnail sketch level of characterisation, it makes for an unstable dramatic foundation which constantly creaks and shudders throughout the film. The whole shebang never falls down, however, and The Magnificent Seven ultimately rates as an entertaining, rollicking ride.

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REVIEW: Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children

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Ahhhh Tim, we want to like you, we really do, but you don’t make it easy. All the ingredients were there for Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children, with lots of beautifully pale sunken-eyed characters, and Burton’s signature 1940s-style beasties battling it out among the foggy moors of Wales. But like much of his work in the last fifteen years, you find yourself giving up on the story and just watching the pretty pictures. It’s a shame really, as the film is based on the original novel by Ransom Riggs, an exceptionally well-written piece of literature for the young adult set and a New York Times bestseller.

The story follows Jake Portman (Asa Butterfield), a teenage outcast with a close relationship to his eccentric grandfather, Abe (Terence Stamp). As Jake discovers clues to his grandfather’s mysterious past that spans different worlds and times, he finds a magical place known as Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children. But the mystery and dangers deepen as he gets to know the residents and learns about their special powers…and their powerful enemies.

The problem with Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children (and Burton’s work since the 2000s) is the director’s almost flagrant disregard for the story, as he consistently opts to gloss over what are very meaty plot points and backstories in favour of a scored montage of highly stylised sets and creepy characters. There are hints of deeper plot points in there somewhere, but Burton’s increasingly selfish directorial style unfortunately means that we never get closure on any of them.

The cast do what they can, really. Asa Butterfield is pure Burton-bait: he’s tall, skinny, pale, blue eyed, and slightly ill-looking. He does a decent job, but delivers nothing captivating enough to write home about. Eva Green as the eponymous Miss Peregrine is the only really thrilling feature here, having an intensely alluring duality (quite literally) to her character that keeps you locked in.

As with any of Burton’s films, modern or otherwise, his real talent is arguably in his devotion to costume and set design. The steady hand of his long-time costumer designer, Colleen Atwood, gives the film that traditional Burton quality a la Edward Scissorhands (1990), Ed Wood (1994), and Beetlejuice (1988) that you wish you could see more of.

Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children is riddled with issues, but all in all, is probably Burton’s best work in years. Loyal followers of the book will likely be disappointed at the missed story opportunities, but none the less satisfied seeing these quirky characters come to life in true gothic-chic Burton style.

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For The Love Of Spock (The 2016 Sci-Fi Film Festival)

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In the heady, much-debated world of science fiction, few characters carry the weight of Mr. Spock from the Star Trek TV series and films. As so brilliantly played by Leonard Nimoy, this half-human, half-Vulcan emotionally challenged man of science has become a true icon not just of the sci-fi genre, but of pop culture in general. Before his sad passing in February of 2015, Nimoy was in pre-production with his son, Adam Nimoy, on a documentary about the cultural significance and influence of the character. Upon his father’s passing, Adam Nimoy (a prolific director of episodic TV) shifted gears, and opted to make not just a doco about Spock, but about his father as well. The results are charming, funny, heartfelt, incisive, and honest.

No mere glowing hagiography, Nimoy doesn’t go easy on his old man, painting him as a workaholic who often put his family second. The younger Nimoy doesn’t go easy on himself either, admitting to a history of irresponsible, selfish behaviour that made his often fraught relationship with his father even more difficult. But the portrait that Nimoy crafts of his father is essentially one of a decent, fair man who used his stardom only to help others, including his Star Trek co-stars in a number of pay disputes. He was also intrinsically linked to his most famous creation, with Nimoy shown as responsible for many of Spock’s most interesting and unforgettable tics.

And while Nimoy’s other pursuits (as well as a busy actor, he was also a keen photographer) are duly covered, it’s the “Spock stuff” that really sings. Including warm, candid interviews with all of Star Trek’s main players (from both the original series and films, and the new reboots), every aspect of the Enterprise’s first officer is covered, from the way in which he has become a touchstone to outsiders and the disenfranchised, to the bizarre fan art and fiction featuring Spock that has sprung up on the internet. While Star Trek fans will absolutely adore this tribute to a fascinating actor and his most lasting creation, the reach and appeal of For The Love Of Spock extends far beyond that niche audience. This truly affecting doco is essentially about father and sons, and who can’t relate to that?

For The Love Of Spock is screening at The 2016 Sci-Fi Film Festival, which runs from October 19-23 at The Ritz Cinema, Randwick. For more on For The Love Of Spock and to buy tickets, head to the official site.

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The Purge: Election Year (The 2016 SciFi Film Festival)

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For our third trip into writer/director James DeMonaco’s near future world of government-mandated slaughter, the scope of Blumhouse Productions’ premiere franchise widens once again, embracing the political parody that has so far been more of an excuse than a raison d’etre – and just in time for the Presidential Debates, too.

For those who came in late, the titular Purge is an annual orgy of violence wherein all laws are suspended for a period of 12 hours and America is plunged into a bloody chaos that serves to keep the poor in their place and cement the class inequality that serves the needs of ruling cabal, the far right New Founding Fathers of America. Not everyone is happy with the status quo, though, Senator Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell) is campaigning to end the Purge, having seen her own family brutally murdered some 18 years back. Of course, Purge night is a perfect time for a deniable political assassination and it looks like Charlie is going to be a martyr for her cause. Luckily for the senator, her head of security is former cop Leo Barnes (the always reliable Frank Grillo), the MVP of the previous film and not a man to let something as trifling as a Neo-Nazi death squad ruin his night.

Intersecting this main narrative, we get the story of a convenience store owner (Mykelti Williamson) defending his store through the night, and a paramedic (Betty Gabriel) who works Purge Night in an armoured ambulance, trying to help people caught in the crossfire. It’s interesting to see the various little threads that make up the fabric of the Purge universe: the notion of Purge Insurance for businesses (skyrocketing premiums are what put Williamson on the roof of his shop with a rifle), so-called “murder tourists” travelling to the US to kill with impunity, even the ubiquitous Purge masks and their function as both disguise and fashion/political statement. Like its predecessors (and its Blumhouse stablemates), Election Year is realised on a tight budget, but a lot of thought has gone into presenting a world which, while not necessarily realistic, is at least textured and somewhat plausible by its own lights.

The action has been ramped up considerably, too, with our heroes on the run from not only masked marauders, but a hit squad with a cannon-equipped helicopter. You can feel DeMarco testing the limits of his film, both in terms of complexity and scale, milking every scene for everything it’s worth. Indeed, the film’s chief failing is that it goes too far in that direction, abandoning its exploitation roots in favour of something more high-minded. It’d be great to see a Purge movie successfully bridge those two poles, but this one doesn’t quite manage the trick. While the political satire lands solidly, the film often ignores the more base charms of its premise, and let’s face facts: while we might laud the film’s intellectual ideals, we’re also here to watch a variety of people die in enjoyably gruesome ways. Election Year often forgets this implicit promise.

It is the best of the series so far, though, and leaves the door open for a more expansive continuation down the track. The Purge series is one of those rare franchises that keeps getting better as it rolls on, from the first housebound siege film to this more thoughtful installment. Election Year is a B movie with brains, balls and blood, and that should be high enough recommendation.

The Purge: Election Year is screening at The 2016 SciFi Film Festival, which runs from October 19-23 at The Ritz Cinema, Randwick, in Sydney. For more on The Purge: Election Year and to buy tickets, head to the official site.

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Destiny: Rise Of Iron

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Destiny: Rise Of Iron is the latest content drop for Destiny, Bungie’s ambitious MMO/shooter hybrid. Released in September 2014, Destiny has improved a great deal since its somewhat inauspicious beginnings. The sci-fi/fantasy story was negligible upon release, and improved only very slightly with The Dark Below and House Of Wolves additions. Things took a turn for the better when The Taken King arrived, a decent-sized content addition, replete with a coherent story, improved gameplay mechanics, and – shock of all shocks – a sense of humour! Things were finally looking up for Destiny’s future, and Bungie’s alleged “ten-year plan” seemed a more attainable goal than ever.

Destiny: Rise Of Iron, then, has a lot resting on its broad shoulders, and, we’re sad to say, the results are not all that they could have been. First things first: if you haven’t played Destiny, here’s the quick recap. Destiny is a gorgeous FPS shooter with some of the most satisfying gun mechanics in modern gaming. The simple act of pulling the trigger, fighting off waves of enemies, and launching visually spectacular, gleefully destructive super attacks feels profoundly satisfying. Destiny is also extremely light on content, it suffers from an almost non-existent story, and is comically repetitive at times, particularly if you’re trying to grind up to Raid-ready light levels.

Basically your enjoyment of Destiny comes down to one question: do you have friends who regularly play the game? If the answer is no, then you might want to reconsider Destiny. The single player campaign can be a lonely old trip, and the endgame content, when you finally reach it, will likely be a nightmare. If the answer is yes, then you’re honestly in for some of the most satisfying multiplayer gaming available on consoles.

Destiny: Rise Of Iron doesn’t add much new to the mix. There’s the new patrol area, The Plaguelands, which is a continuation of maps set in Old Russia. There’s a new enemy type, SIVA-infused Splicers, which like The Taken are essentially reskinned versions of foes that you’ve faced a thousand times before. There are a couple of new Strikes (which are fun) and a new Raid (which I’ve yet to properly experience) and a gorgeous looking social hub area, Felwinter Peak. The campaign missions on offer are enjoyable, but the entire questline can be easily blown through in 90 minutes or less.

Essentially Destiny: Rise Of Iron suffers from the same issues as year one Destiny: not enough content, not enough imagination, and too much grinding. That said, playing with my regular Destiny crew is still an absolute hoot. There’s “Jase-ON-too” who vents his frustration by punching his couch and swears with the alacrity of a cursing poet. There’s “Bemused-Moose” who seems to have some kind of special deal with Bungie and gets all the good drops. And there’s “yourmumsawesome”, an actual journalist who will never live his name down. This band of brothers from the Salty Little Biscuits clan are what makes Destiny: Rise Of Iron fun to play; it’s just a pity that the content itself isn’t a worthier addition.

Destiny: Rise Of Iron is a solid but inessential addition to the Destiny canon, and a step back in terms of quality from The Taken King. It’s still worth the journey for Destiny obsessives, but could have been so much more.

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The BioShock Collection

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The BioShock Collection comprises BioShock, BioShock 2, and BioShock Infinite, a loose trilogy of titles linked by heady philosophical themes, original environments and, in the case of the first two games at least, a profound sense of tension and fear. The original BioShock in particular is just as impressively suspenseful and engaging as it was back in 2007. All three games have been given a current gen makeover, which is extremely apparent in the case of the first two titles. BioShock Infinite was released in 2013, so while it’s prettier in this collection than on release, the upgrade is less noticeable.

The big question for HD remasters is: is this worth the $90 asking price. We’ve had a few disappointing remasters this year (we’re looking at you, Resident Evil 4), so it’s not always a simple question. With The BioShock Collection, however, if you’re on XBOX ONE or PS4, the answer is an emphatic hell yes.

BioShock’s remastering process is beauty to behold. The game is already a masterpiece, and a top ten all time title, but Blind Squirrel Games have done a superb job of making the graphics slicker, with the framerate running at a solid 60fps. Some of the gameplay mechanics can feel a little dated, but that’s due to the game being a decade old rather than poor remastering, and if you don’t currently own a copy of the game, then there’s no excuse not to take another trip down to the depths of Rapture, where politics and plasmids battle in a surreal nightmarish adventure.

BioShock 2 is the red-headed stepchild of the BioShock series. It’s essentially a somewhat artless retread of the original BioShock, and it lets you play as a Big Daddy, which is something that no one was really asking for. That said, it’s a retread of an amazing game in a brilliant location, and is well worth a second spin or first time playthrough. It also comes with DLC Minerva’s Den, which is considered some of the best extra BioShock content currently in existence. It’s not without its narrative flaws, but it’s a hell of ride nonetheless.

Rounding out the package is BioShock Infinite, a game with limitless promise that is let down by a sagging, ordinary second act and unexciting, repetitive shooter mechanics. That said, it also has one of the greatest openings and endings in video game history, and though it never hits the heights of the original BioShock, it toys with fascinating concepts that are explored in the game’s final act and the Burial At Sea DLC, which is also included.

Put simply, The BioShock Collection is an essential purchase if you (a) love BioShock and (b) own a PS4 or XBOX ONE. PC Players with high end rigs have probably experienced Rapture and Columbia as truly intended already, but console owners are in for a treat because The BioShock Collection shows how remasters should be done.


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REVIEW: Wednesday, May 9

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Iranian cinema? Need we say more? Always classy, always interesting. Iranian culture is a complex mix of modernity and superstition (or religious control) and this proves fertile ground for its many talented directors. Wednesday, May 9 is an honourable addition to this canon.

At the centre of the multi-strand story is the desire to gain redemption. Middle aged journalist, Jalal, wants to help others. He has suffered a great loss. What stays with him from that experience is that, if others had helped at the time, tragedy would have been averted. When he comes into a little money, he decides to place an ad in the local paper offering 30 million Rials to anyone who has good need of it. Leading up to, and overlapping with, this narrative, we have other strands that will eventually entangle. Leila – a single mother with a sick child – represents one strand. In another, we meet Setareh, a young woman who tries to make a love match with a slightly unsuitable guy, bringing down the wrath of two families upon her. Eventually, on the day announced by the ad (and also the title of the film), huge crowds turn up at Jalal’s office, presenting him with a heartrending set of decisions.

First time director, and co-writer, Vahid Jalilvand, shows early maturity in the handling of the strong cast, and in the emotional palette of the film. It is confidently directed, with many long, well written scenes in which the balance shifts again and again, involving us in the dilemmas from all sides. Everyone has a case to plead and, in many instances, a case to answer too. No one is innocent or guilty; it is always circumstance and human failing that ensnares us. In the true Iranian cinematic tradition, there is a strong humanist grounding to this. It enlists our sympathies in their ordinary struggles to withstand poverty or to fall in love freely without the controls of family or state and religious zealotry. As noted, Iran seems to have its many clashing world views within its borders. It is a fertile ground for artists.

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Life, Animated

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When he was three-years-old, Owen Suskind was diagnosed with autism, withdrawing into himself and becoming uncommunicative. As he grew older, Owen’s parents noticed that he was quoting lines from his favourite Disney films. In one of the film’s many touching animated flashbacks, Owen’s father, Ron, recalls having a conversation with his 9-year-old son for the first time in years simply by talking to him through a puppet of Iago the parrot from Aladdin. And yes, he’s happy to show you that he can do the voice too!

As the film shows, Owen continues to make progress, through therapy and by taking situations that he’s memorised from Disney movies and applying them to his own life. When we meet him as an adult in the documentary, he is 25 and getting ready to move into an assisted living apartment away from his parents and elder brother. In some ways, Life, Animated is more of a coming of age film than it is a documentary.

Director and Oscar winner, Roger Ross Williams (God Loves Uganda), has crafted an immensely joyful film. Despite the presence of the big mouse, the documentary doesn’t shy away from showing the harder aspects of the Suskinds’ life. Elder brother, Walt, is loving, but in a moment of vulnerability admits that he’s worried about what kind of future he and Owen will have when their parents eventually pass away. Meanwhile, Owen’s belief in everything good that comes distilled from The Magic Kingdom fails him when nothing he’s seen helps him understand why his girlfriend has broken up with him. Life, Animated may well wear its heart on its sleeve at times, but ultimately, it’s a thoroughly positive experience, and reaffirms the joy that comes from a close knit family like the Suskinds.

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REVIEW: Equity

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If films like Wall Street have taught us anything, it’s that the financial world of FTSEs and investments is one big boy’s club, on the outskirts of which women are merely spectators. The latest film from Meera Menon (Farah Goes Bang), however, shatters that mythos by bringing the “fairer sex” to the frontlines.

Anna Gunn plays Naomi, an investment banker whose boyfriend, Michael (James Purefoy), is, unbeknownst to her, being investigated for insider trading by an old college friend, Samantha Ryan (Alyssa Reiner). Meanwhile, her assistant, Erin (Sarah Megan Thomas), is perhaps showing too much promise of being the next big thing. Whereas Naomi had to conform and be one of the boys to get where she was, Erin appears, in Naomi’s eyes at least, to glide along on her femininity if not her talent.

All three women are strong in their roles, but this is Gunn’s time to shine, and nothing can take that away from her. She dominates the screen, marching down the corridors of financial gain, a woman clearly in control of her destiny if she were allowed to do so. When Naomi talks of money needn’t being a dirty word for women, Gunn savours what is clearly her Gordon Gecko moment.

Like most financial thrillers where the mighty dollar is God, discussions about hedge funds, IPOs and investments take on a Shakespearean quality; you might not completely understand every word, but you’ll certainly get the gist. Unfortunately, this take-no-prisoner dialogue contrasts sharply with the screenplay’s haphazard moments, where an outburst about a cookie becomes a stale metaphor for the patriarchy’s glass ceiling and doesn’t pack the punch that you want it to, considering its place in the narrative.

Produced by Sarah Megan Thomas and Alyssa Reiner’s own company, Broad Street Pictures, Equity is a mostly successful skewing of stereotypes that sets fire to the old red braces and cigars of yore.

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The Walking Dead: Season 6

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When Shane sacrificed someone to save himself in the second season of The Walking Dead, the scene highlighted a shift in how the audience were being asked to view morality in this new world. Now into its sixth season, that idea of right and wrong has never been more apparent.

Having found sanctuary in The Alexandria Safe-Zone, an upscale community set up to be self-sufficient, Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) and his motely crew’s moral code is in complete contrast to the people that they now call neighbours. The Alexandria citizens are clinging onto their humanity, and Rick is just a big old poster boy for everything that’s wrong in this zombie swamped apocalypse. In turn, members of Rick’s team, such as beaten wife turned warrior, Carol (Melissa McBride), now faced with a glimpse of what life used to be like, find themselves questioning what they have become.

Even if everyone was to hang up their guns tomorrow, though, there are still people out there wishing to do them harm. But before then, The Walking Dead takes some time out to focus on characters and, like Game Of Thrones, it’ll do you no good to pick a favourite, as anyone could be next, as shown in the shattering episode, “No Way Out.”

The Walking Dead has faced criticism in the past for never really putting its main core of characters in situations that they can’t get out of. However, this season’s antagonist in the form of a whispered name, Negan, could change all that. The show holds back on who that is with numerous false starts and red herrings, but come the finale, it’s clear that The Walking Dead’s showrunners are ready to make drastic changes, and Negan is at the forefront of that revolution.