Movie Review – Baywatch (2017)

TL;DR – It tries to tread a familiar path with tone and execution, but lacks the charm with its story and Dwayne Johnson’s charisma can only get you so far.

Score – 2.5 out of 5 stars

Baywatch

Review

So to be fair, where ever possible I try to read nothing about a film before I go see it, because I want my first viewing to be through my own eyes and not the through the lens of other people’s views, it’s why I avoid trailers wherever possible. However, for Baywatch that simply was not possible as it released a week later here in Australia and the mixed reviews were everywhere. So when I walked into the cinema I was not really expecting anything of great quality, possibly even a dumpster fire of a film. However, I do have to say it’s not that bad, I mean it is not great, or even good, more borderline, but if anything it is just a real missed opportunity. Now throughout this review, I am going to be referring to 21 Jump Street (2012) and its sequel 22 Jump Street (2014) a bit. Now, on the one hand, I do think generally films should stand or fall on their own merit, however in the case of sequels or here when they were clearly trying to replicate the success of a previous movie, well then you can’t help but invite comparisons.

Now before we start I should make it clear that this is a very R film with drugs, swearing and nudity, so not quite in line with the source material, but something you should know before someone inevitably takes their kids to go see it.

There are some beautiful moments of color and framing

There are some beautiful moments of color and framing

So to set the scene, we are here in lovely Emerald Bay Florida, on the first day of try-outs for new lifeguards for the summer season. Overseeing the try-out is Lt. Mitch Buchannon (Dwayne Johnson), his second in command Stephanie Holden (Ilfenesh Hadera) and long-time lifeguard CJ Parker (Kelly Rohrbach). Now they usually only accept one new recruit a season but this time they can accept three new recruits which is lucky for the plot since there are three name brand characters running for the position. Of course there is Matt Brody (Zac Efron) the I don’t want to be here but they are making me but I’ll probably learn a lesson and come to like it at some point recruit, then there is Ronnie (Jon Bass) who has a lot of heart which is code for him not having the same physique as the rest of the lifeguards and who is mostly reserved for a slapstick comedy role, and you have Summer Quinn (Alexandra Daddario) who is positioned as the no-nonsense recruit who immediately calls Matt out on his inappropriate flirting which means they will have a will they/ won’t they flirt off for the rest of the film. All is calm on the bay … that the lifeguards watch… until mysterious businesswoman Victoria Leeds (Priyanka Chopra) comes to town and drugs start washing up on the beach. Ok as far as a set up goes there are some interesting characters, you have a good setting, and you have hired a cast that can really pull of these roles. But on the other hand, you have created a set-up that is so stock standard it feels like I have seen components of this film reproduced over and over again in different and often better films.

So firstly the good parts of the film and the first good point is the acting because I do think everyone here is giving their best even with the story not working all that well. Honestly, I think this is a perfect role for Dwayne Johnson because he gets to show a lot of his strengths, from his charisma to his ability, to motivate others, and he has the physicality that the role needed. Zac Efron plays the cocky overly ripped guy that needed to learn a lesson, basically a role he has played many times in the past like Bad Neighbours and a host of others.  The rest of the supporting cast all have their moments but bar the subplot of Ronnie and CJ the story leaves them all feeling a little one-note.

Everyone is giving their all, even if the story is not helping them

Everyone is giving their all, even if the story is not helping them

When it comes to the technical side of things there were also interesting features, first, it really helps that a lot of this was filmed on location it helps give you that sense of reality that the film needed. Most of the action scenes were competently put together, there was a flow to the editing that made the sequences clear and not the hacky jump cut edits of some movies. For me I think the standout moment was the opening sequence with Mitch rescuing a kite-surfer that hit the rocks, there was a great flow to the sequence and it had a more surreal style that would have worked a lot better had the film employed it throughout, but alas. The music worked well with a mix of orchestral and licenced works which do a good job of setting the scene. One area that they do need to work on is the sound mixing, you could tell the difference between some of the dialogue recorded on site and those recorded later in ADR.

So we’ve talked about some of the things that did work we need to now talk about the big thing that did not work and that is the story, pretty much all the story. Because we are talking about the story there will be [SPOILERS]. Ok, where to begin because there is a lot to unpack, so for starters let’s look at how they adapted this movie from the source material. There has been a big vogue in Hollywood to adapt old TV shows and turn them into movies, to tap into that nostalgia market that has been powering juggernauts like Nintendo for years. We’ve had such gems as the before mentioned 21 Jump Street, or The A-Team, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and this year’s Power Rangers, but also a whole ton of films that just did not adapt all that well to the big screen because of creative decisions like Avatar: The Last Airbender or Ghost in the Shell. What has been happening recently is that to stand out of the crowd movies spice these adaptations up by making them (USA) R-rated comedies to tap into that mindset of what if, imagine Baywatch but what if they were allowed to curse and actually show the things that we always saw in slow motion. It’s a good idea and one that works for about five minutes before the novelty wears off. Part of this is because the writing is just not as clever as it needs to be to pull this off, like there is a scene where they basically riff of some weird scenarios and clearly these were all plot points from old Baywatch episodes but it feels so forced, unlike say the similar thing that was done in The Lego Batman Movie which tipped its hat to the audience to let them know they were in on the joke. Or for example it is quite common to get the old stars to appear in the new film as cameos, it happened in The Brady Bunch Film, in Ghostbusters, in 21 Jump Street, in Get Smart etc. It is one of those things that is there for the fans of the original but one of the reasons that they work is that they are a surprise. But here there is no surprise because you know David Hasselhoff & Pamela Anderson are going to show up at some point because there are in the opening credits and not in a tongue and cheek Deadpool kind of way. Also, the R rating just does not provide anything new to the film like it does in say Logan, it all felt more than a little unnecessary, and took away from the charm the film could have had. For example, save for the unnecessary prison scene, in 22 Jump Street, they used their R rating as a way of highlighting the absurdity of the story not as a crutch to try to prop up the story

While the style is there in places, there needed more work on the substance of the story

While the style is there in places, there needed more work on the substance of the story

This, of course, leads us to the next problem, while the adaptation is one issue, the bigger problem is the threadbare story that is full of inconstancies. Look sure there are some funny moments in Baywatch but it all wears off really quickly once they start repeating the same gags, and everything else becomes really predictable. You have the film hitting stereotypes early and it does not let up throughout, like Ronnie and his often changing body hair. You have sloppy writing like at the start where Mitch points out a sea urchin and goes this will make you super strong and then kill you, and sure Chekhov’s Gun and all that, but it might as well have been labelled ‘This will be important to the final battle’. If it had just been these clunky foreshadowing’s then it might not have been that bad but the lazy writing leads to characters acting out of character just because the plot needed them to. For example Mitch is shown to put the people’s lives above everything, and he gets understandably angry at Matt when his actions led to people’s lives being put in jeopardy, but half way through the movie he abandons his post, and leaves no one watching the beach to run down a lead at the morgue. Also, there is Dave (Hannibal Buress) who is shown at the start to be friends with Ronnie, only just to pop up later in the film as one of Victoria’s henchmen. Finally, also there are those moments where characters just act stupidly with no regards to their lives. While it might not be at Alien: Covenant levels, but in the end, Victoria went to almost the worst place she could have gone to get helicoptered out. Seeing such lazy writing which amounts to nothing is annoying when there are really good examples out there like 22 Jump Street’s meta-commentary on sequels, or Man from U.N.C.L.E.’s exploration of Cold War politics, is just disappointing. [End of SPOLERS]

In the end, look it is not the train wreck I was expecting, but it wasn’t all that good either, so as much as a couple of things made me laugh I can’t really recommend Baywatch. Honestly, it has such a good cast that I really did wish that they had gotten a better story to play around in. So my recommendation is to spend your money elsewhere.

 

Trailer – Click Here to View (all trailers have heavy spoilers)
Directed by
– Seth Gordon
Screenplay by – Damian Shannon & Mark Swift
Story By – Jay Scherick, David Ronn, Thomas Lennon & Robert Ben Garant
Based onBaywatch by Michael Berk, Douglas Schwartz & Gregory J. Bonann
Music by – Christopher Lennertz
Cinematography by – Eric Steelberg
Edited by – Peter S. Elliot
Starring
– Dwayne Johnson, Zac Efron, Priyanka Chopra, Alexandra Daddario, Kelly Rohrbach, Jon Bass, Ilfenesh Hadera, Hannibal Buress, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II & Rob Huebel with David Hasselhoff & Pamela Anderson
Rating – Australia: MA15+; Canada: 14A; NZ: R; UK: 15; USA: R

Advertisements

Movie Review – John Wick: Chapter 2

TL;DR – John Wick was the gold standard for action films and John Wick Chapter 2 continues this with brutal action, and a deeper insight into this fascinating world.

Score – 4.5 out of 5 stars

John Wick Chapter 2 Banner

Review

Now it should come as no surprise that I love the first John Wick film, from the action, to the world building, to the sheer commitment of Keanu Reeves put into preparing for the role. Indeed I wrote a whole article on how it sets the gold standard for Worldbuilding and Visual Storytelling. The issue is that when you love the first film it is always a bit difficult to look at a sequel with an objective lens, on the one hand, you may be blinded by rose tinted glasses, or you may judge it harshly because nothing can live up to the expectations the first film made. With this in mind, I approached John Wick 2 cautiously but I am still happy to say while it did not quite live up to the first film it is still an amazing film in its own right. Its action is still as good as the first, we delve deeper into this world they are creating, and we get to see what happens when a movie is perfectly cast.

Poor John can't catch a break

Poor John can’t catch a break

If you missed John Wick 1, well first you should go watch it, but to give you a summary. John (Keanu Reeves) was once assassin/professional ‘Baba Yaga’ working mostly for the Russian mafia in New York but part of a greater underground world. After finding love in a hopeless place he wanted out of his life, and was offered an out if he did one impossible task, a task he did and for a brief moment he was happy. However, his wife died due to an illness, but knowing John she gave him a new puppy to care for, as a way to help him grieve. But that was all ruined but professional asshat Iosef came into his house, attacked John, stole his car, killed his dog, and awoke the ‘Baba Yaga’. Now it is important to look at this set up because in the first film Winston gave this piece of advice “You dip so much as a pinky back into this pond, you may well find something reaches out, and drags you back into its depths”. Well, John should have taken that advice.

To set the scene John Wick Chapter Two is set within days of the first film, John and his new dog are starting a new life … once John gets his car back from the Tarasov’s. However, John’s hope that he could bury what he had just dug up is dashed when Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) the one man left with some hold over John, a Marker, signed with his own blood, rocks up to his front door. Ok, to cut a long story short John is forced to do something he does not want to do to keep his obligations to the world he lives in, and everything that he had worked on starts to fall apart.

He does not like it but John is dragged back into this world

He does not like it but John is dragged back into this world

So when you are talking about a John Wick film the first thing we have to talk about is the actions, and it is just as good as the first film. Now you don’t have to watch the video of Keanu training (though you should) to know that he goes above and beyond in this role. Filming actors in action sequences can be a difficult job because you don’t just have to work on the choreography, in most cases, you also have to work on framing it so you don’t see the stunt double. Now stunt coordinators and stunt teams have a lot of great tricks that they can use to hide performers from the practical to the CGI, and usually this is done in such a way that the audience suspends their feeling of disbelief and goes with it. However, sometimes it just doesn’t work, you see the performer can’t fight, or they have to cut so many times between shots to hide it, so you lose the flow of the fight, it’s the difference between Daredevil and Iron Fist. While it is not uncommon to see actors train and perform stunts themselves, it’s rare to see an actor go to such lengths to be in as many shots as possible, and for a studio to finance it. This clearly has an impact on the screen, because you can film longer shots if you don’t need to cut all the time, so you can build each moment naturally. It also helps because John employs a form of Gun Fu that each movement is not about looking good it is about dispatching the enemy as quickly and efficiently as possible and to make sure they don’t get up to be a threat. There are numerous action set pieces throughout the film and each could be an article in its own right, but we get car chases, gun battles, hand to hand combat, and battles with assorted objects he finds lying around. Look you probably know what to expect here, but everything needs to work to make scenes of this quality, the cinematography, the acting, the stunt performers, the directing, the editing, the score, everything.

The action is brilliantly realised

The action is brilliantly realised

While we are talking about acting, let’s chat about the cast. Like the first film John Wick 2 could be accused of employing stunt casting, and while I can see where you are coming from with that complaint, when the stunt casting is as good as it is here I welcome it with open arms. Why it works as well as it does is that everyone is giving the best, going that extra mile, so it’s hard to say who is stealing the scene from who because everyone is game with whatever the film throws at them. For example, we have our returning characters Winston (Ian McShane), Charon (Lance Reddick), and Aurelio (John Leguizamo) who continue to give this look into the deeper mythology of the world of John Wick. I mean every line of dialogue Lance Riddick has is pure gold, with the perfect intonation for his character. But this is only the start we have Peter Stormare who is in the film for all of five minutes and is amazing for every single moment of screen time, Franco Nero who has a resume that few can outmatch and who establishes his character with a single line of dialogue, now you can’t go wrong with adding Laurence Fishburne to your film and of course he is a delight, even Peter Serafinowicz who has a small role as the Sommelier is amazing. When it comes to the new antagonists I liked that all of the three big bads all had different motivations, fighting styles, and relationships with John. We have Cassian (Common) who set on a collision course with John by forces outside either of their controls, you have Ares (Ruby Rose) a straight up no nonsense unremorseful killer, and Santino the winner of this chapters Iosef’s award for overconfidence through being an ass. They are all amazing but I want to give a special shout out to Ruby Rose and the writer Derek Kolstad here, Aries is a fantastic character but it is also fantastic to see a character that has an impairment, something that leads to her communicating through sign language, but it does not stop her in any way from being central player in this brutal world.

What a fascinating charioteer Ares is

What a fascinating charioteer Ares is

Now as I said the first John Wick film was a masterclass in world building and John Wick 2 does not just sit on its laurels, instead it delves deeper into this world. In the first film there was only one unbreakable rule, no business on Continental grounds, but in the second film we get an extra rule, all Markers have to be upheld. A Marker is an agreement that for services rendered the bearer will at some point call in the debt and you have to do anything they request under pain of death. As well as this, we see where all the contracts are processed and without giving anything away I was fascinated by every moment in this place. We also find that this world that they live in goes deeper and higher than we saw before. Now one of the more interesting analyses of the first John Wick film I’ve watched was Movies with Mikey, who in part of his analysis looked at the film in the guise of it being a classical Greek God narrative. While I can sort of see that in the first film, it is much clearer in the second film and no that’s not just because one of the characters is named Ares. We see this world existing in counter to our own, but more than that, human almost seem to be oblivious to the other world, it’s not until they are brawling in front of you that the scales are removed from your eyes and you see what is going on.

This works because technically speaking the film is firing on all cylinders, now I have mentioned the action side but more than that, it’s the little touches. For example, we have people speaking Russian, Italian, and ASL, so there needs to be subtitles, but instead of just plopping them on screen, they are integrated into the narrative and the cinematography. The score is also used to highlight the action sometimes by having a driving beat when you needed and sometimes playing back so you can hear the foley in all its gory glory. The story also works well, because unlike other comparable films like Taken, the second film is not just a rehash of the first in a new location, sure it has similar themes, but it is about dealing with the consequences of the first film and how they start to tear his life apart. It is also good with leaving narration breadcrumbs throughout the film to add to the impact. For example, a character at the start references something from the first film, it’s kind of played for laughs, but instead of being a throwaway gag, it’s actually there to remind you of it so when it happens later in the film you already have that connection. Now while I did like the story, one area they need to work on is that some of the sections just felt a little too much like treading water till the next action set piece. [Spoilers] Also the ending I think will work better once we get to see John Wick Chapter 3, it’s sort of that same feeling I had when I walked out of The Two Towers for the first time, which is not really the film’s fault but more just the fact of where this film lies. [End of Spoilers]

John Wick Chapter 2 5

You should never make this man get angry with you

In the end, did I like John Wick Chapter 2 as much as the first film, to be honest no, but to be fair I doubt anything could have because I came into that knowing nothing about the film and that is an experience you just cannot have with a sequel. But is the action great, yes, are the characters intriguing, yes, was the story engaging, yes, do I want to see more of this world, you bet ya I do, and I do look forward to the next film which gen how well this did in the cinema’s I hope we get to see.

Trailer – Click Here to View (all trailers have heavy spoilers)
Directed by
– Chad Stahelski
Written by – Derek Kolstad
Based onCharacters created by Derek Kolstad
Music by – Tyler Bates & Joel J. Richard
Cinematography by – Dan Laustsen
Edited by – Evan Schiff
Starring
– Keanu Reeves, Riccardo Scamarcio, Common, Ruby Rose, Ian McShane, Lance Reddick, John Leguizamo, Laurence Fishburne, Franco Nero, Tobias Segal, Claudia Gerini, Peter Serafinowicz & Peter Stormare
Rating – Australia: MA15+; Canada: 14A; NZ: R; UK: 15; USA: R

The X-Men Movies Ranked from Best to Last


So Logan came out this weekend and it was fantastic, oh spoiler alert for the list. But it had me thinking, one of the big issues with the X-Men films is how scattershot they are in terms of their quality, from fantastic to utter trash and everywhere in between. So I thought I would work out for me at least, where I place all the films on that spectrum, and why I put them there.

Now for me personally I’ll always be comparing the X-Men films to the X-Men Animated Series, because for me we didn’t get the comics where I lived so this was my first and best experience with the franchise, also it has the best theme of the series. Which led to it becoming my yard post to compare anything X-Men related to. So this, and the fact that personal preference is subjective means that I might have a different order than you, but that is the good thing about reviews because this is where discussion lies. Now there may be some spoilers for you in the list below, but then most of these have been out for a while, so it should not be much of a problem.


Fantastic:

Logan

Logan (2017) – Wow, just wow, what a fantastic film Logan is, I was expecting it to be good given the buzz around it, but nothing prepared me for just how good it was. Tonally the grounded setting gives Logan a much more brooding feel, which is helped by the first act being a slow burn, you know something is about to happen but they make you wait for it as all the pieces line up. Not only does this brooding feel give you a real sense of foreboding, but it also heightens the emotions. You just can’t help but feel for Charles, the man of immense intellect and power destroyed by his own mind, I just can’t help but see my grandfather in his performance, it is one of Patrick Stewart’s best. The cast is giving their all, everything they can and you can’t help but get hit right in the feels at times. This is the story that made the best of the universe and the setting, and it was all the better for it.

Great:

X2

X2 (2003) – For many, the success of the first X-Men was a complete surprise, and now with the studio completely behind you (for the moment) how do you follow it up? Well, you do it by taking everything that worked for the first film, amplifying it and adding some iconic characters. To this day that opening fight in the mansion was one of the best action sequences in the franchise. It has that power because it is a bunch of military goons attacking a school, but it is also the first time we really see Wolverine go full tilt, and that’s because he cares for the students even if he wouldn’t admit it. It also have some really important themes ‘have you ever tried not being a mutant’ this along with the interesting story of using a fake attack by a mutant to forward the mutant registry gave X2 thematic weight. The big disappointment is that from this great jumping off platform they decided to bellyflop, but then we’ll save that for later down the list.

Days of Future Past (2014) – Continuing the trend of great second films in the X-Men trilogies comes the follow-up to First Class, Days of Future Past. This was a really tricky film to pull off as it had the task of trying to meld the two different timelines/casts into one franchise. Frankly, it should have been a mess, but somehow they get it to work. You have the return of old cast members, you have a new battle being formed, and you have people die left right and centre. There are some issues like the killing off of a lot of the cast in-between this and First Class which was odd, but whether it was just great to see some old faces, or just great to see a full on mutant battle, Days of Future Past just worked. Also, it retconned the Last Stand out of existence, so you know it could have been a trash film and it still would get props for that.

Deadpool (2016) – So the success of Deadpool was a surprise the studio, which had to be dragged kicking and screaming into greenlighting the movie, and even then they slashed the budget just moments before filming. This should have killed the film, but instead, it thrived. Ryan Reynolds is captivating as Deadpool, you can tell he has a lot of passion for the role (he spent a decade trying to get this film made), and he riffs well with the cast, a standout being with Colossus & Negasonic Teenage Warhead. The fight scenes are quite good, some nice use of slow motion at times, and the final rumble was quite good, though the smaller budget shows in places. A tip of my hat to whoever designed the opening sequence, I have not laughed at credits like that since Monty Python. I know Deadpool can be quite polarising, but I really enjoyed it, and its zany meta humour.

Good:

First Class

X-Men (2000) – The original and the trailblazer for the X-Men and broader Superhero franchises the first X-Men movie has to be given the credit it deserves for kicking this all off. That opening in the Concentration camp sets the tone for the film that when given the ability humans can be truly dreadful to each other. This is where we first get introduced to the cast, the snarky Wolverine, the scared Rouge who almost killed her first boyfriend, the noble Professor X, the over confident Cyclops, and the terrible wig Halle Berry had to wear. It was a movie about building a team, getting people to know the characters, and trying to locate them in this new world, and in that it succeeds. However, of course, as it was the first in this new wave of superhero films it is also a little reserved, everyone is in black rubber suits rather than the unique costumes they were famous for. Overall X-men was a good introduction that X2 took and ran with.

First Class (2011) – This is a movie that has the distinction of only being made because Fox had too, or the X-Men rights would lapse back to Marvel, this is not a great motivation to make a film and usually ends with a pile of trash (see the Fantastic Four for example), but for some reason it worked. Part of the strength of the film is in its casting with both James McAvoy & Michael Fassbender being strong successors in the leading roles. As well as this, its setting as a prequel gave the movie some space, whilst still being about to have the best cameo that was not even Stann Lee. It also allowed for it to be set in a really interesting time, those days during the Cuba Missile Crisis defined America for better or worse. Also, it never hurts when you have Kevin Bacon stealing every scene he is in. There will of course always be debate over what would have happened if they let Matthew Vaughn continue making the reboots, rather than defaulting back to Bryan Singer, but all in all, First Class is a great entry into the franchise.

The Wolverine (2013) – This was actually a surprising film, after the mess that was Wolverine Origins and set in a post-Last Stand timeline it had all the hallmarks of being utter trash, but instead it was actually a solid film. Now it was not revolutionary in any way but it was really good to see Wolverine explore the Japanese side to his story, something that had been missing from the movie adaptations so far. Look we get to see Wolverine fight on the top of a bullet train, the movie is worth the ticket price for that alone. But also we start to see a side of Wolverine, someone who is being tormented by his past, and who he had to kill. So, it may not have given us the best Silver Samurai, but overall it was a fun movie, that really explored the character of Wolverine, and that is a huge step up from its predecessor.

Ok:

Apocalypse

Apocalypse (2016) – Ok now this is one where I know when I talk to people they think it is in the wrong spot, as many people find Apocalypse to be trash, and I can completely see why they would put it there. As a bad guy Apocalypse just does not work for me in this film, he was completely lacking any charisma or presence. Look I know Oscar Isaac can do charisma and presence, (see Star Wars), and I don’t know if it was the direction or the prosthetics that let him down, but that really drags the film down. As well as this, we have big bad making thing that will destroy Earth that has a big beam of light and stuff floating around it, which if you have seen films in the recent past, you would have seen this done over and over again. But for me, the reason why it is ok and not trash is that most of the actors are still giving amazing performances, even if the script is not that strong. The scene where Magneto loses his daughter and kills everyone is powerful, and Quicksilver to the rescue was just fun to watch. It is these things and other that just edge it up into the ok category for me.

Trash:

The Last Stand

The Last Stand (2006) – Wow where to begin summing up this mess of a film, as there are so many issues here. First, we have a film trying to smash together two very complex storylines (Dark Phoenix & The Gifted) into 90 minutes, where it would be a difficult enough task just to cover one of these. This means that we have characters thrown at us left and right with no care as to who they are and no stakes into whether they live or die. They kill off mainstay characters like Cyclops with no thought or care, and Professor X where they could not commit to their decision all the way. What makes things worse is that there are some really great moments here like Ellen Page as Kitty Pride. It just seems that either Brett Ratner was thrown in the deep end here, or just he was the wrong person to direct this cast, or maybe he did the best he could with a trash script that butchered the source material. After such a strong performance with X2 to see The Last Stand just drop the ball was heart-breaking to watch, what a waste of potential.

Wolverine Origins (2009) – Our final film on this list and wow did it really suck because at every stage of the production was a missed opportunity. First and foremost, the decision to sew up Deadpool’s mouth has to go down as one of the more stupid decisions in the history of comic book adaptations. As well as this, you introduce one of the fans favourites, with Gambit and you do nothing really with him. Liev Schreiber is trying his best as Sabertooth, but the movie is giving him nothing to work with. The plot is predictable and rehashes over many things we have seen before, and so it doesn’t do a good job of justifying why we have this film. In the end what Wolverine Origins does is make the X-Men universe that little bit duller, and no amount of Professor X cameos can change that. The best thing is that of the Wolverine trilogy this was the low point and each successive film was better than the last.

How well did they create Australia in Civilization VI?

TL;DR – So how well does Civilization 6 capture Australia with its new entry? Struth, it’s a ripper of a new Civ.

Civilization 6

Review –

Civilization is one of the pioneers of the strategy genre a series that has lasted six iterations, numerous expansions, and last year on its 25th anniversary launched the next entry into the franchise Civilization 6 (See Review). Since its release, there have been new Downloadable Content (DLC) released and this week it was announced that the next civilization to be added would be Australia. So Australia joins the large and expansive franchise as the 55th civilization¹ ² to be added, but the question remains: Is it any good? And then also is it a good representation of Australia? These are the question we will be looking at. Now there were three components of the Australia update The Australian civilisation, The Outback Tycoon scenario, and Uluru natural wonder, and we will be touching on all of these facets throughout this analysis.

Adding Australia was actually quite a controversial pick as it brings into question the notion of what we mean by ‘Civilization’, and can a modern post-colonial nation-state be considered a civilization? Well for many the answer is no, with people expressing sentiments like “Australia seriously? I guess it’s a pure marketing decision” on the popular Civfanatics forum, as well as the Civilization sub-Reddit. However, is it something we can even define, that line between what makes something a civilization and something, not a civilization, well even the game does not quite know where it is. For example it has had the civilization of India in every iteration that is meant to represent the multitudes of races, nations, and empires that have existed on the Indian sub-continent, but then it has also had Germany and the Holy Roman Empire in the same game, or in one iteration there is The Native American civilization and in other iterations of the game we get the Shoshone and the Sioux. So given that any definition of what a civilization is will probably be problematic, and given the context of the game, we’ll work on the following definition – ‘A civilization in a Civilization game is whatever the developers want it to be’

It is really nice to see your home country be represented so well

It is really nice to see your home country be represented so well

Now of course while we will be talking about Australia as being a new civilization, it has sort of appeared before in previous games of Civilization, Sydney and Melbourne were City States in Civilization 5, The Great Barrier Reef and Uluru have appeared as natural wonders in Civilization 5, The Sydney Opera House has appeared as a world wonder in Civilization 5 and 6, and Australia did make an appearance in the spin-off Civilization Beyond Earth (See Review) as part of the sponsor Polystralia (Commonwealth of the Pacific), and an Australia-focused civilization that also included New Zealand, the Pacific Islands, Indonesia, Malaysia and The Philippines. As well as this there have been mods that have added Australia, and many of the Indigenous peoples of the continent to the game, but these are not official additions. However, while these exist, it has never appeared as a full civilization in its own right until now, and since that is the name of the game, we’ll be focusing on its release now.

So let’s start by first looking at the gameplay bonuses to answer the question – Is the Australian Civilization any good? For my money, it is now one of the stronger civs in the game, as long as you are in the right situation. If you start a city near cattle, sheep and horses, you will have a huge benefit from both the culture boom you get for building a pasture as well as the agency bonus from Australia’s unique improvement the Outback Station.  Indeed, there is no reason you would not build an Outback Station on any desert tile you have, turning desert into a productive terrain, also all the fences join together to make one combined station, and you have no idea how amazing that is, it’s one of those things you wish had been possible for the polders in Civilization 5. The bonus for housing on the coast is a good help at the start of the game to get a city going where you don’t have a river, and a bit of a powerhouse if you can get a city next to the mouth of a river. Another situation bonus but quite powerful is the bonus production for certain districts if you build them on high appeal tiles, this gives Australia a super head start if you can position them well (Editors Note: The Appeal bonus was reduced at a later patch which makes the bonus a little less over powered).  Also given how war-prone the AI is, that bonus production you get is going to appear over and over again. Overall Australia is an all-rounder civ, and a powerful one at that, and one you can position to any of the victory conditions. So should you play as Australia, yes, if for nothing else you should play it for its music which might be my favourite from the entire series so far, sorry Scarborough Fair, but it was fun while it lasted?

Claiming Australia, just not Tasmania for some reason

Claiming Australia, just not Tasmania for some reason

So we have answered the question of is Australia a powerful civ, as far as the game mechanics go, but another thing we have to analyse is how well they got the representation of the country and its very complex nature. Unlike say Rome or India which has had six games of past experience and traditions, there is nothing really here binding Firaxis to any particular interpretation, which gives them free reign when decided Australia’s mechanics. That being said the first thing to mention is that the developers have picked a very specific snapshot of Australia to use as the basis of their interpretation here, which is WW2 Australia. This was a really smart choice by Firaxis, as it was a turning point for the country and a defining moment that had a wealth of information to draw upon. Though this does lead to some odd choices, like John Curtin really, John Curtin not Menzies, ok sure whatever, but seriously.  Overall it presents a really good snapshot of colonial Australia: taming the land, being focused on the coast, fighting British wars, colonising the interior, but there is clearly something missing here, and that was that there were people living here before the British arrived.

Now, this being said the developers actually do a really good job of giving a clear depiction of the history of the colonisation/occupation of the Australian continent in the civilopedia, it even throws some real shade in its entry on Uluru at the ridiculousness of naming something that already had a name. However, there are still some really problematic things that can be found throughout the game. While it was good to see the game layout that people existed before the British arrived, it does not help that at times they are referred to as ‘natives’ or that they ‘lived in a timeless, magical realm of the Dreamtime’. Now it was clear what the developers were trying to say, that the Indigenous population had a vibrant and unique culture, but the way they phrased it was not great here. While poor phrasing in the civilopedia might not be an issue for some, there were other issues with actual elements of gameplay. In the ‘Outback Tycoon’ scenario, the aim is to colonise the continent and exploit its resources, with the winner being the Australian state with the most gold per turn at the end of the game (bar Tasmania, which is hilariously missing from the map). However, there is no acknowledgement that this land belongs to someone else, nothing to challenge the player, instead the Indigenous peoples are relegated to being random events like “Fruitless Discourse With Aboriginals” event. The scenario is not as bad as say basing a whole game around colonisation whilst glossing over or ignoring everything the colonists did, but it is the safe option. Though it gets more problematic when one of the policy cards you can use is called ‘Terra Nullius’, which you can slot in without really understanding the weight and damage that legal term did. Now in interviews the developers have stated that they didn’t add Indigenous elements to the Australian civ to give them space to potentially add an Indigenous Australian civ in the future, and I really hope that they do, and I can sympathise with wanting to take the safe option, but this was an opportunity that Firaxis could have used to challenge the player like Spec Ops The Line, which was missed.

australia-3

So much shade in such little space

Look there are a couple of issues with how Firaxis depicted Australia in Civilization, but it is clear that they put a lot of time and effort has gone into researching the history and the culture of our great country. I literally laughed out loud when the achievement for losing an explorer in the Outback Tycoon scenario was called ‘Drop Bear’, and the list goes on with references to Bunyips, yabbies, funnel web spiders and more. Also, as an Australian, it is just nice to hear all our city names being pronounced correctly on the live streams. A lot of care and attention has gone into creating the Australian civilization and that’s really great to see. Also the music, yes I have already mentioned it but it demands being praised for the second time.

In the end, there will be some people who won’t pick up Australia because it is DLC and that is completely fair, but Australia is a worthy addition to the game. Also, it is super fun to play as Waltzing Matilda tunes along with you, Waltzing Matilda, waltzing Matilda, You’ll come, a-waltzing Matilda, with me, And he sang as he watched and waited till his billy boiled: “You’ll come, a-waltzing Matilda, with me.”

¹ It could also be the 52nd depending on how you class the relationship between The Vikings and Demark/Norway, and also how you categorise The Native American Civilization & The Holy Roman Empire

² For those playing at home the Civilization currently released across the franchise are: America, Arabia, Assyria, Australia, Austria, Aztec, Babylon, Brazil, Byzantium, Carthage, Celts, China, Denmark, Egypt, England, Ethiopia, France, Germany, Greece, Hittite, Holy Roman Empire, Huns, Inca, India, Indonesia, Iroquois, Japan, Khmer, Kongo, Korea, Mali, Mongolia, Morocco, The Maya, Native Americans, The Netherlands (Dutch), Norway, Ottomans, Persia, Poland, Polynesia, Rome, Portugal, Russia, Scythia, Shoshone, Siam, Songhai, Spain, Sioux, Sumeria, Sweden, Venice, The Vikings, &The Zulu

Lead Designer – Ed Beach
Lead Engineer – Ken Grey
Producers – Dennis Shirk & Sarah Darney
Art Director – Brian Busatti
Music – Geoff Knorr,  Phill Boucher, Roland Rizzo & Christopher Tin
Developer – Firaxis Games
Publisher – 2K

Disclosure – I am a moderator on the site Civfanatics of which several staff and players are members of the ‘Frankenstein Testing Group’, Firaxis Games internal playtesting team. I am not part of this team nor do I have any links with Firaxis Games or 2K.

TV Review – Luke Cage ‘Ep. 1, 2, & 3’ review

TL;DR –  Luke Cage starts the season with a slow build, but the tension it creates is amazing, and more importantly it hooks you in for the long run.

Score – 4 out of 5 Stars

Review

Well off the back of both a movie series that keeps going from strength to strength (Team Cap all the way) and some groundbreaking TV adaptions (like who knew that Daredevil could be likeable) Marvel is simply killing it at the moment. Indeed the Netflix experiment itself is still growing exponentially, it’s a service that can show everything from Chef’s Table to Stranger Things and all in between. Within all this, we get the next in the Marvel/Netflix joint project Luke Cage (after Daredevil and Jessica Jones), and like its predecessors, Luke Cage is provocative, but also brilliantly made. For this review we are going to look at the first three episodes ‘Moment of Truth’, ‘Code of the Streets’ & ‘Who’s Gonna Take the Weight’ because they clearly set the scene and the tone for the rest of the season. Now we are going to be talking about these episodes in detail, so to be clear spoilers are now in effect.

We first met Luke Cage (Mike Colter) in last year’s Jessica Jones, he was a complicated man trying to deal with his wife’s death, and well Jessica Jones didn’t really help him much. Here in his stand alone series, it’s been some time since the end of Jessica Jones and Luke is hiding out working multiple jobs for cash to try and hide from his past. While this is not a rewarding life, it was a way for him to live under the radar and out of the eyes of the authorities, well until some stupid kids do something stupid. Luke was working two jobs, as a floor sweeper of Pop’s (Frankie Faison) barber shop, a Harlem institution and respected neutral territory, and as a dishwasher at Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes’ (Mahershala Ali) club. Mr Stokes is a ‘self-made’ man and is working with his cousin Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard) to gain Power, Respect, Money and control over Harlem. Now, of course, it should come to no illusion that he is doing this by less than legal means.

This scene was amazing This scene was amazing

This scene was amazing

Luke Cage starts us off with what must be some of the most incompetent criminals on TV. So when you are working for a mob boss, you know what is a great course of action, yep, you rob him whilst they are doing a deal with a rival gang, and then of course since you are amateurs, you end up killing everyone, but not before they phone it in and tell everyone who is robbing them, and then, even though you have got 500k that you robbed from a mob boss, you don’t flee the city, instead you go to a strip club and throw your dirty money around, and of course you get caught. This is why you should stay in school kids, so you learn not to do stupid things. So this event is the trigger for everything that happens in the first three episodes (and most likely the rest of the season) as these idiots worked at both Pop’s and Cottonmouth’s so they end up causing extensive collateral damage, as well bringing Luke into the middle of it.

The story across the first three episodes really is a slow build punctuated with moments of intense action. This works as it gives you time to absorb yourself with the locations, the central tensions, themes, and relationships, but just when you are starting to feel like it is dragging a bit, bam they hit it for a six. Part of what has made these Netflix/Marvel series as strong as they are is that each of them deals with some really important themes. Daredevil looked at what it meant to have power and if you have it how should you use it, while Jessica Jones used the character of Kilgrave to examine the theme of consent and sexual violence. Here in Luke Cage the theme, in at least the first three episodes, is that of what it means to be African American. You see it in the interplay between Cornell and Mariah, what should you be striving for, to make you community a better place, or should you be striving for Power, Respect and Money? Mariah herself is a fascinating character because she does want to see her community grow, but she is will always (so far) put family first. But also she wants to keep Harlem black and protect it from invasion using the same exclusivist language we see being used by less than charitable politicians and their views towards immigration. As well as this there a look at notions of masculinity and pride and the devastating consequences they can have. In just the first few episodes we get some of the most tragic yet powerful soliloquies I have seen on TV in a while. Pop expands on how most of the boys he mentors are too proud to ask for help so they are dooming to a life working on the streets because of their pride. As well as this Luke in the end of Ep2 who, after someone tries to degrade him with the N-word and a gun to his head, he lambasts the youth in what should be an Emmy-worthy speech. So few shows on TV really deal with these issues, but also to explore all the nuances both good and bad, the recent Cleverman is also another good example of this.

Luke Cage 1

You have to love framing like this

We’ve looked at the story and theme, but the question is ‘how does it all come together’, well actually it should come as no surprise that it all really works. Each episode is beautifully filmed and staged, that shot with Mahershala Ali standing in front of the iconic picture of The Notorious B.I.G. wearing the crown is stunning, in one frame it tells us everything we need to know about Cottonmouth or is that Mr Stokes. There are some beautiful sweeping shots that help give us a view of the amazing sets but also helps locate both the characters but also the power relationships between them. The action sequences are all really well filmed, full of ‘oh damn’ moments, but so far nothing quite rivals those exceptional fight sequences in Daredevil or the intensity of that final scene in Jessica Jones, but it is still early days. I do have to give a shout out to the music, it has been such a long time since I have seen a film or TV show double down on jazz as the tone for the music backing, it gives Luke Cage an almost Cowboy Bebop feel. The cast is all amazing, Mike Colter rivals anyone in the MCU in his sheer physicality, but also in his depth, for a man that is bulletproof there is a lot of pain in Luke Cage’s life and Mr Colter masterfully shows this range. The interplay between Mahershala Ali and Alfie Woodard is amazing, when you have such seasoned professional working at their best, I mean just wow. As an eternal optimist, I really do relate to Simone Missick’s Detective Misty Knight, she wants her neighbourhood to be better, she wants the police to be better, its’s just such a shame that her partner is a bit of an asshat.

In the end, Luke Cage is an exceptionally well filmed, amazingly well-acted TV show, but it is also more than that. It is a show that deals with some both important but also very complex themes, and it will both entertain you but also probably make you really uncomfortable at times. Given everything I have seen and the way episode three ended with such a bang, I will definitely be watching the rest of the season (Edit: The end of the season does not really hold up unfortunately) and I highly recommend you do too.

 

Directed by – Paul McGuigan (Episode 1 & Episode 2), Guillermo Navarro (Episode 3)
Written by – Cheo Hodari Coker (Episode 1 & Episode 2), Matt Owens (Episode 3)
Based onComics written by Archie Goodwin, George Tuska, Roy Thomas & John Romita
Created by – Cheo Hodari Coker
Staring – Mike Colter, Mahershala Ali, Simone Missick, Theo Rossia & Alfie Woodard

Movie Review – Snowden

TL;DR – It’s not a bad film, but it is more boring that it should be given the exciting subject material.

Score – 2.5 out of 5 stars

Review

Edward Snowden is one of those people that invokes a very polarising response from the general public, he’s either a hero or a villain, a patriot or a traitor with very little grey room floating around. Now when I first heard they were doing a movie about Snowden, I was really quite interested because as part of my day job I have actually taught about these issues like intelligence gathering, Five Eyes, Media etc. Also, the original documentary Citizenfour by Laura Poitras is an amazingly well-constructed documentary, informative while being thoroughly engaging, and truly worthy of the Oscar it received last year. So I was able to go see Snowden and how was the final product? … well um … unfortunately, it’s just a bit boring.

Snowden is a biopic about the life of Edward Snowden, now if that name means nothing to you, he was the former CIA/NSA contractor who leaked details of America and other nation’s intelligence gathering methods which mined data indiscriminately from their citizens in the guise of fighting terrorism. This was a big deal as intelligence agencies were engaging in what could be said as unregulated behaviour, and in this age of the digital life, this could have had or indeed is having significant restrictions on how we live our lives. So with this in mind, it is clear this movie’s goal is to cast Snowden in a very particular light, someone who is forced to engage in unconscionable conduct with regards to the data mining, who fights against the man to let people know what is going on. Now in this regard, I think the move does quite well, Joseph Gordon-Levitt is really quite convincing as the titular Snowden, even down to his mannerisms and speech pattern. As well as this, there were some nice locations shots that helped sell the global nature of the film. However, while the film may have succeeded in its goal to present Snowden as a sympathetic character, what it does not do is create an engaging narrative.

Unfortunately they keep cutting away from the interesting part of the film

Unfortunately they keep cutting away from the interesting part of the film

The main reason this film doesn’t work for me is that what you are hoping for is a big budget (or at least an ok budget) unpacking of the Snowden leak story, and part of that is there, but what you get for the majority of the film is a paint by number biopic of Snowden’s life, like a Hallmark made for TV movie only with name brand actors. The first issue is the structure of the film, it keeps jumping from the ‘leak’ (the events in 2013 which Snowden releases classified material to reporters of The Guardian) to events in Snowden’s life, in many respects it is a similar style that has been used in many films like the recent Deadpool [Review]. The problem is that what we get is this really quite exciting film for about five minutes and then it cuts to Snowden’s life and then we have to slog thought that for ages. Every time it jumps back in time you sigh because you have to wait for the film to get good again.

The reason why the biopic part of the film does not work is a combination of factors, firstly, it’s just not well done, it’s lazy with its symbolism, at one point it literally has a giant head speaking down to Snowden, gee I wonder what that is symbolising. As well as this, it goes through so many cases of Snowden’s inaction, once you have seen one the others just feel like a repeat. Also, there was no real chemistry between the two leads, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Shailene Woodley have worked well in other films but I just didn’t buy their relationship here. And I mean [spoiler] when you jump from fake Snowden to real Snowden at the end of the film, I mean come on could you be any more made for TV film.  Also, weird Nicolas Cage cameo is weird.

snowden-2

There just isn’t a lot of chemistry between Joseph Gordon-Levitt & Shailene Woodley,

There are other really odd decisions with this film, it’s clear that one of the main reasons this was created was to give a platform for people to push for the American government to pardon Snowden (which let’s be honest is highly unlikely to occur before the election). However, for this to work you kind of want as many people as possible to watch your film, so it is perplexing that they have gone for an American R rating. Firstly, because it would hurt the sales for the film, and undercut one of the main reasons for the film to exist, but also, there was no need for it. The film could have lost all of its course languages and not lost any of its impact.

The thing that saves this film is that the scenes in the hotel in Hong Kong that link the different parts of this film together are actually quite good. This is because of Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto & Tom Wilkinson work really well and this really helps sell their motivations. Also, the flashback parts of Snowden start to pick up once things move to Hawaii, and this starts to make them bearable.

The movie has all the subtlety of a brick to the head

The movie has all the subtlety of a brick to the head

In the end, I can’t really recommend Snowden, which is frustrating because it is dealing with really important issues. Instead, can I recommend that you watch Citizenfour, it is a much more engaging and informative piece of work.

Directed by – Oliver Stone
Screenplay by – Kieran Fitzgerald & Oliver Stone
Based onThe Snowden Files by Luke Harding & Time of the Octopus by Anatoly Kucherena
Starring – Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto, Tom Wilkinson, Rhys Ifans, Ben Schnetzer, Scott Eastwood & Nicolas Cage.
Rating – Australia: M; Canada: 14A; NZ: NA; UK: 15; USA: R

Movie Review – Nerve

TL;DR – Nerve is an ambitious film that gets a lot of credit for tackling one of the big problems of the Internet, its mob mentality, but it doesn’t quite stick the landing

Score – 3.5 out of 5 stars

Review

Nerve as a film is sort of a first, well at least for me it is, as it is the first mainstream film I have seen that really attempts to address the rise of the YouTube celebrity, the Social Media star, the Internet Mob, and the clear problems that come from displaying your lives online for all to see. However, unlike other attempts to engage in this topic which come off as either old people making a film, they think young people will like or indeed, the moralising ‘lazy silly millennials have it too easy’, Nerve is trying to engage with these important issues, but not in a condescending way.

Nerve tells the story of a group of friends about to graduate high school who become participants in an underground online app called Nerve. Now besides being the quickest ‘roll credits’ CinemaSins has ever done, Nerve is an app which allows you to be a ‘Player’ or a ‘Watcher’, Players get given dares that they have to do which gives them money, Watchers pay a subscription and get to watch but also pick the dares, however, if a Player refuses to do the dare, or does not do it in enough time they are out of the game, and of course ‘Snitches get Stitches’. Vee (Emma Roberts) is happy not to be involved and let her friend Sydney (Emily Meade) become famous on Nerve until Sydney breaks BFF rule number 1 and Vee decided to join up as a Player to live a little. Here she ‘randomly’ runs into Ian (Dave Franco) who shock horror is also a player and shenanigans abound, until you know, stuff gets real.

One of the things that makes this film work is the chemistry between Emma Roberts & Dave Franco

One of the things that makes this film work is the chemistry between Emma Roberts & Dave Franco

There is a lot of really interesting themes going on in Nerve, the dissociative effect of the Internet that makes us forget that there is a real person on the other end of our text/rant/troll, how the Internet has fostered a mob mentality that can have serious repercussions when combined with the already messy lives of teenagers and the gladiatorial nature of today’s entertainment when people struggle to stay relevant while schadenfreude permeates popular culture. Nerve does a really good job of showing you these issues through this lens of the game, and the repercussions that they can have. These issues have an impact because there is really good chemistry between the two leads, and without that, this film would not work. Dave Franco shows his range and his physicality in this role, he is really carving a name out for himself in these types of films. As well as this, Emma Roberts really nails her character that finds themselves in too deep desperately trying to find out the right thing to do.

From a technical standpoint, there is a lot of really interesting things going on in this movie that really help give it a unique style. One of the conceits in the film is that Players have to always record themselves but watchers can film them too, so this allows for some really interesting camera shots that help give a lot of the action more intimacy than it would have normally. Though some of those shots do come off with you going, there is no way someone filmed that, in that location, with their phone. As well as this, [Spoiler] there were some moments of the film where people go out on cranes and other high places, and it is really uncomfortable to watch, which is quite the testament as these scenes always feel more than a little bit safe.

Nerve does have an interesting visual style

Nerve does have an interesting visual style

While there are a lot of great things that work really well with Nerve, there are a couple of things that are just a bit frustrating, and to do that we do have to delve into the story a little bit, so [Spoiler Warning]. Firstly at times it can be a bit predictable like you can probably work out what will happen during that entire ladder sequence. Also, Nerve is really dependent on you not thinking through the scenario, but once you do, it just starts to unravel. For example, on one hand, it is good that they have set Nerve up to be completely crowdsourced, there is no big evil person/organisation/company behind it, this really helps the ending, but on the other hand logistically it creates a universe that just does not make sense. There is a reason we have the phrase ‘designed by committee’, there is no way (especially with the climax of the film) that this could have happened unorganised. As well as this, as the film progresses, it shown that every man and their dog is watching Nerve, with mobs of Watchers following Players around New York, it all undermines the core tenets of the App that it is meant to be underground, with the media and the authorities not knowing about it (see Snitches get Stitches). There is no way in today’s terrorism-conscious world that this game would go unnoticed, at one point, one of the dares is to try and steal a policemen’s gun, I mean come on.

One of the problems is that it is desperately trying to make you not actually think it through, because then it starts to fall apart.

One of the problems is that it is desperately trying to make you not actually think it through, because then it starts to fall apart.

In the end, Nerve is not without its problems, but that being said, it is well acted, well directed, it has a unique style and it is dealing with really important issues. So while it doesn’t quite stick the landing, the routine was amazing to watch.

Directed by – Henry Joost & Ariel Schulman
Screenplay by – Jessica Sharzer
Based onNerve by Jeanne Ryan
Starring – Emma Roberts, Dave Franco, Emily Meade, Miles Heizer, Juliette Lewis, Colson “Machine Gun Kelly” Baker & Samira Wiley
Rating – Australia: M; Canada: na; NZ: M; UK: 15; USA: PG13