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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.

 
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Fight Valley

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When a young woman is killed in an illegal underground fighting club, her sister, Windsor (Susie Celek), quite rightly seeks vengeance. In order to get to the bottom of who threw the killer punch, she enters the world of women’s street fighting. And those two sentences are enough to tell you whether this is going to be your kind of movie.

Fight Valley is The Fast And Furious with more chokeholds, featuring a supporting cast of UFC fighters, including Cris Cyborg, Meisha Tate, and Holly Holm (who knocked out Ronda Rousey in Melbourne last year). As Windsor navigates her way through the murky world of the titular fight club, she learns the ways of the street from her sister’s motley crew, who all have a tale to tell and a code to live by. If there’s an opportunity to say how tough they have it, they will grab it with both hands and will it into submission.

There’s no denying the fact that Fight Valley is rough and ready in its approach; the editing needs another round and the performances on show are a mixed bag. But in a world choking on movies about white guys hitting each other, from Van Damme’s Kickboxer through to the title-says-it-like-it-is Fighting with Channing Tatum, Fight Valley at least gains credibility for trying something different. Writer/director, Rob Hawk, offers up a film whose female protagonists don’t need to wait for a man to validate them. In fact, any men who do have a presence in the film tend to be on the outside looking in. That said, whilst UFC fans will delight in seeing their favourites flexing their acting muscles, for everyone else, this will be nothing more than a knockabout exploitation flick.

 
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House Of VHS

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July 2016 saw the end of days for the VCR when it was announced that the humble machine would cease to be manufactured. The fact that, in an age of Blu-rays and digital downloads, there was still a demand for VHS will surprise those who are accustomed to streaming Game Of Thrones. House Of VHS, the feature length debut from French director, Gautier Gazenave, is both a typical haunted house movie and a monument to the outdated, but resilient eponymous format.

In the French countryside, a group of young multinational backpackers break into an abandoned villa for a weekend of partying. When one of them finds a VCR and a stockpile of tapes, the opportunity for an old fashioned movie night beckons. But as one night turns into a few days, it’s evident that the machine has some sort of control over its watchers.

With its antagonist a demonic VCR, it’s clear that House Of VHS wears its absurdity proudly on its sleeve. Whilst performances are a mixed bag, if you know your public domain films, there’s fun to be had watching how Gazenave weaves Bloody Pit Of Horror, Circus Of Souls, and Santa Claus Conquers The Martians into a series of increasingly disturbing montages eaten up by our band of unlucky heroes. Interestingly, the film plays with the idea of art imitating life, and vice versa, as the increasing levels of violence that the group experience are shown to reflect that of what they watch on screen. With all that said, Gazenave, who also wrote the film, never allows himself to let rip. There are several missed opportunities for innovative horror, and the promise of being sucked into the film that you’re watching, ala 1992’s Stay Tuned, isn’t as satisfying as you’d expect.

 
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The Similars (The 2016 SciFi Film Festival)

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First thing’s first: the less that you know about this film going in the better. The Similars is a pastiche of existing horror and sci-fi ideas, yet it somehow manages to feel original. Mexican director, Isaac Ezban, takes strong cues from The Twilight Zone, Hitchcock, Stephen King, and other classic sci-fi and horror, and the film ends up a campy, oddball homage to those works. Lovers of old school sci-fi, horror, and all things weird are in for a treat.

The Similars is essentially a maniac’s extended episode of The Twilight Zone. It is a dark and rainy night in 1968 at a bus station on the outskirts of Mexico City. Martin (Fernando Becerril) is the elderly station manager, while Ulises (Gustavo Sanchez Parra) – an anxious man trying to get to the city before his wife gives birth – and a Native American woman (Maria Elena Olivares) are initially the only occupants of the station. It doesn’t take long for the cast to fill out, however, with your staple gallery of oddball characters falling into place: the hippie, the creepy kid, and his doting mother, to name a few. When they discover that they’re supernaturally trapped in the station and people start having seizures, insanity ensues.

Isaac Ezban does a great job of creating a sense of mystery with these characters and the stranger and stranger events which follow. The Similars certainly takes a while to get going, but when it does, the craziness really ramps up, and you’ll find yourself laughing at the film’s campy horror moments. The sense of drama and insanity is further intensified through dramatic close ups and unconventional camera angles, with moments of revelation and horror punctuated by pounding, orchestral notes à la Hitchcock. There are a few classic scenes that are just so bizarre and inventive that you won’t forget them anytime soon. The film climaxes too quickly, and there are moments bordering on overkill, but fans of outré cinema will love this tripped out Mexican homage to old school genre filmmaking.

The Similars 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 Similars and to buy tickets, head to the official site.

 
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Marvel’s Luke Cage

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The third of Marvel’s six Netflix shows* is almost upon us, with Mike Colter’s super-strong, bullet-proof street hero, Luke Cage, taking centre stage, fighting crime and corruption in modern day Harlem.

Making a living sweeping up at a barber shop and moonlighting as a kitchen hand, escaped con Luke Cage doesn’t want any trouble. He certainly doesn’t want to draw any attention to the superhuman abilities bequeathed to him by an illegal experiment undertaken in prison, even though his friend and mentor, Pop (Frankie Faison) urges him to use his powers to help people “like them other fellas”. For all his protestations, though, Cage is a good man and a man of his place who feels responsibility for his neighbours, and it isn’t long before he’s on a collision course with both local crime boss Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes (Mahershala Ali) and his more respectable but arguably more dangerous cousin, Councilwoman Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard)

As a comics character, Luke Cage was a response to the blaxploitation films of the ’70s, and its surprising and exhilarating how much the show leans into that, laying on a garish, pop-cinema aesthetic that really makes the show stand out from its more dour counterparts. Add to that a constantly shifting, energised soundtrack that takes in everything from Motown to jazz to modern R&B to gangsta rap, and slick, tough street-smart writing, and what we have here is, for all intents and purposes, the story of a modern day John Shaft, dealing with the problems of his community that nobody else can or will.

Mike Colter is simply fantastic in the role, expanding on what we saw in Jessica Jones. Possessed of an incredible dignity and gravitas, his Cage is man who doesn’t swear and doesn’t grandstand… at least until his star starts to rise and he allows himself to begin to enjoy his “local hero” status. One of the key themes of Luke Cage is the reclaiming of selfhood and pride after being beaten down, and it is so much fun to see the character evolve until he’s walking the streets in a tailored suit, putting the fear into thugs and criminals in order to help out the hardworking people of Harlem, and clearly loving almost every minute of it.

In the other corner we have Mahershala Ali as Cottonmouth, the scion of a family of Harlem criminals and the inheritor of a generational cycle of violence and graft. Cottonmouth’s arc goes in the opposite direction, beginning as a figure of confidence and strength due to his elevated position as a feared criminal, and gradually losing it all as he starts to realise that it’s hard to deal with a problem that you literally can’t shoot. That’s the central binary of the story right there: Cage’s sense of responsibility versus Cottonmouth’s love of power – it’s the classic Spider-Man ethos dramatised.

Around this is woven the larger story of Harlem and the African American community therein. Make no mistake, Luke Cage is specifically and unapologetically a black story, and indeed it communicates the experience of blackness in America more entertainingly and more authentically than its Netflix stablemate, The Get Down, could ever dream of doing. That’s down to the work of the showrunner, Cheo Hodari Coker, who has worked elements of the African American experience into every facet of the show. It’s in the dialogue, the music, the fashion, the history, the locations and the palpable sense of place that infuses the show. From the writ-large themes of race and community to the tiniest details – at one point Cage is kicking back reading a Walter Mosley novel – this is a series that celebrates African American culture in a manner both deep and vibrant.

Which is to say it’s fun – this is a superhero show, after all, and it doesn’t shy away from its pulpy roots. Connections to the wider Marvel Cinematic are layered in, which is only to be expected, and the action beats – which are a little too spaced out, if we’re being honest – are great. Cage’s hesitant, resigned approach to fighting is never not fun; he knows he can’t be hurt, so he just kind of gently thumps his enemies until they go away, looking disappointed when they keep trying to batter his unbreakable skin.

If there’s a problem with Luke Cage, it’s one endemic not just to Marvel’s Netflix shows, but to the majority of streaming binge-watch drama: there’s not quite enough story to fill the episode allotment. Netflix supplied seven episodes for review, and there are thirteen in total, but unless something extraordinary happens in the back half, the show feels like it could have been better served by a tighter eight to ten episode season. The idea that length is its own virtue is one that plagues modern TV, though, so we’re not exactly singling Luke Cage out for it.

That niggle aside, this is an absolute win. It’s not the absolute triumph that Jessica Jones was, but it’s also not the rather muddy Greatest Hits package that is Daredevil. Luke Cage is a bold, strutting, confident slice of street heroism and urban culture, expanding the superhero paradigm to tell  a story about pride, respect, community and responsibility. Can you dig it?

*We’re getting a Punisher series now, remember?