Friday, 23 June 2017

Take 4 Newscast: 23/06/17

This week in movie news had one big story and a few not so big ones. The Star Wars Han Solo solo movie lost its directing duo Phil Lord and Chris Miller. Creative differences? Maybe. The rest of the news included an update on the Bumblebee solo film, the Sony Spider-Man universe, and, the release of the new title for the sequel to Jurassic World. Hit play on the podcast below, or download it for later, to hear the Take 4 podcast discuss these news stories and more:

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Thursday, 22 June 2017

'Transformers: The Last Knight' (2017) Review: Exhaustingly Epic.

Catch it on Cable: The only way to watch this film. Seeing it in the cinema is too much for any sane person to handle.

It’s been 10 years since the first Transformers film was released in theaters. Since then we’ve watched the war between the Autobots and the Decepticons wage on, getting grander and grander with each film. With ‘Transformers: The Last Knight’ I do believe the series has finally reached its breaking point with its most incoherent entry yet. The war of the Transformers once again threatens planet Earth, except this time, the Autoboots face their greatest enemy yet. Leader of the Autobots gone rogue: Optimus Prime.

That summarization of the plot is extremely lacking, but to include the 1 trillion plot points this film sees fit to hurl at the viewer would be a fool’s errand. Most of them are inconsequential, go nowhere, and contradict the plot as the film goes on. If that wasn’t bad enough, the way the film presents it to you is in a manner consistent with director Michael Bay’s style, with everything in the film shot and edited like it’s the most important moment of the movie. The problem with that is, when everything’s supposed to be special, suddenly nothing is.

2017 and Syndrome still isn't being listened to.
None of this is new to the ‘Transformers’ franchise, but previously, the average movie goer could at least expect a fully finished product. Specifically, there are shots in the movie which fill the entire frame, seemingly taking up most of the screen, and then there are shots which use significantly less space, with black bars appearing at the top and bottom of the screen. The switch between the two is often rapid, forcing the viewer to constantly adjust their focus. It’s menacingly distracting, and not an experience I would wish on my worst enemy.

Perhaps just as distracting is the movie's severe tonal dissonance. The Transformers films have always been full of humour. Some of it is stupid, some of it is racist, most of it is both. At the very least, even when being forced to sit through the worst jokes possible, the film's felt somewhat balanced against the save the world plot of the main story line. Here, there's constant talk of impending Armageddon, with the world at large reacting to the threat of assured destruction, but it's hard to stick with that when the next scene is a tiny robot looking through a car magazine like it's Playboy.

Of course, there's no way to talk about the movie without mentioning its incredibly memorable characters. There's small child with cute robot friend whose go get em attitude and skill with all things mechanical shows just how influential Rey and BB-8 really were. There's old wise British man, played by Anthony Hopkins, who ranges from completely checking out of the movie, to overacting the hell out of it. There's green Australian robot, bearded gun robot, and of course Asian stereotype robot, who has gone through the immense character development of a new paint job, ditching his electric blue for a sweet black and red. All of these characters were engaging and fun to watch and in no way annoying.

Sarcasm aside, the film has 4 characters worth possibly thinking about. The rest pop in and out of the movie at such an infrequent rate you forget they were there when you see them again. Mark Wahlberg's Cade Yaeger drives the plot enough to the point where you don't fall asleep, but there's nothing remarkable about him beyond that. The female lead in this Vivian, played by Laura Haddock, is portrayed as gratuitous eye candy, but also treated like a plot device. If the movie couldn't feel any more overstuffed, the plot is focused on the journey of both these characters, with each of them concerned with their own MacGuffin and end goal. Following either is just as boring and predictable as the other. It's equal opportunity boring. 

The crux of this movie, as pitched to potential audiences everywhere, is the infamous fight between Bumblebee and Optimus Prime. The matchup of the decade. The fight to end all fights. The student must best the master in order to keep the world from falling into despair and chaos. I will admit, the idea is an intriguing one, but in a movie this long, it's an insult to the audience that the fight only lasts for about 5 minutes, isn't particularly impressive, and ends as disappointingly, but not nearly as insulting, as the Martha scene from 'Batman v Superman'.

I really need to let this go.
‘Transformers: The Last Knight’ is a technical marvel of the worst kind. It’s the very definition of all over the place. At times the movie is dark and contemplative, but then it will switch to being as goofy as a Saturday morning cartoon. When I ask myself though, did I enjoy watching ‘Transformers: The Last Knight’, the answer is regrettably yes. Much like the way one enjoys watching a series of car wrecks on YouTube. I cannot in good conscience, however, recommend that anyone, man, woman or child pay money to see this film, as being forced to sit in a cinema for the film’s 2 hours and 30-minute runtime was devastatingly exhausting.

Rating: Catch It On Cable

'Transformers: The Last Knight' is not just the start of a new cinematic universe, but it's also the return of audio reviews! Click here to listen to our discussion on Transformers 5:
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Sunday, 18 June 2017

'All Eyez On Me' (2017) Review: Citation Needed

Catch It On Cable: A fitting rating for what feels like a made for tv biopic

When thinking about 'All Eyez On Me', there's almost no way to separate it from 2015's 'Straight Outta Compton'. The two films tell stories of similar conjectures, the rags to riches story of young black men in America with a dream, that became cultural icons. They even make use of the same locales and go so far as having the same characters loitering around the background of the main story. For the uninitiated, it's easy to think 'All Eyez On Me' is a part of the 90's Hip Hop Revolution Cinematic Universe.

Waiting for the Yo! Mtv Raps crossover movie

The comparison, unfortunately, works against the untold story of Tupac Shakur, as 'All Eyez On Me' is a dull portrayal of an otherwise fascinating persona. The film follows the infamous rappers life from his childhood, all the way up to his untimely death in 1996. The movie decides to tell this story, like many biopics, in a series of flashbacks. The flashbacks are prompted by an interview being given by Shakur while in prison. This makes the flashbacks feel like dramatizations one sees in a documentary, rather than scenes in a film with compelling characters. The film also introduces its flashbacks by bafflingly displaying the dates of certain events right down to the day. I understand the film was going for authenticity, but it feels like the narrative version of Tupac Shakur trivia night.

The details of the story are fascinating, but the way they are told is messy. It felt as though someone sat down with Microsoft word opposite Tupac's Wikipedia page, and jotted down the basic highlights. You're told countless times about what a revolutionary Tupac was, but not once do you feel the effect he had. It's a shame. Not just because there was a complex identity to be explored, but Demetrius Shipp Jr. is delivering a performance that would have been great, had there been material to work with.

The moments when you're to be moved by Tupac's sheer force of will, his tenacity, and his poetry, are the moments that are the flattest. There's a far greater presentation to the supporting characters in this story. Jamal Woolard reprises his role as Biggie, and has the best musical moment in the film, quite literally upstaging the main attraction. Watching 'All Eyez On Me' is like hearing a huge Tupac fan tell you how great he is, but that you wouldn't get it cause you just had to be there.

The worst kind of way to tell a story

It's no help that 'All Eyez On Me' is extremely unfocused. It feels the need to tell every single facet of the Tupac story, but with no narrative thread between the scenes. The scenes themselves are good, with actors like Kat Graham as Jada Pinkett giving genuine pathos in every scene. The trouble is they're so disconnected it feels like you're being dragged from one storyline to the next, and then back to the original one, without having a moment to reconcile the moment.

'All Eyez On Me' is saved by two things. The exceptional performances of its actors, and the beautiful way in which it's shot. It's a good looking film, safe for a few inexcusably lazy moments, where newspaper articles fly to the screen like the movie was made in Microsoft Publisher. Much of the movie is like the cliff notes of Tupac's life. I'm sure that means a lot to the die hard Tupac fan, but since they're already familiar with "the untold story", I'm not quite sure who the movie is for.

Rating: Catch It On Cable.

Friday, 16 June 2017

'Cars 3' (2017) Review: Just What I Needed

Half Price: A true successor to the first Cars film
The notorious Cars franchise races back into cinemas this time. After the spy-themed fever dream that was 'Cars 2' the series has taken a cue from other trilogies before it and returned to its underdog story roots. The focus switches back to Lightning McQueen this time around. The movie opens with Lightning on top of his game. Winning races, but without the ego that made him so unlikable in the first film. Along comes Jackson Storm, a new breed of racecar. The faster, stronger new hotness, to Lightning's old and busted make and model. After a car accident leaves Lightning worse for wear, he has to rediscover his inner racer or leave the racing to the new kids on the track.

The Cars films have always been the black sheep of the Pixar family. The decency of the first film was undercut by the second film's inadequacy. This film, however, builds upon the best elements of the series, providing perhaps the most heartfelt of the films. It entirely disregards the events of the second film, and can be seen as a direct sequel to the first, much like the way 2016's 'Star Trek: Beyond' was better suited as a direct sequel to 2009's 'Star Trek'. Most of that is due to Lightning McQueen's introspective journey, as he comes to terms with his legacy and the life of a racer well past his prime.

If you want to feel as old as Lightning does in the movie, remember that the first 'Cars' movie came out over a decade ago.
If any of this sounds familiar, that's because it's par for the course with any long-running sports film franchise. The Rocky films are a good example. 'Cars 3' hits all the hallmarks of a sports film starring a long-established performer. It explores the mentor-mentee relationship, the challenges of an athlete growing old, and of course the passing of the torch. For advent film fans, much of this will seem like old hat, but for the target audience, it tells its story with a pathos and resonance that far exceeded my expectations. It hasn't been released that, but I'm betting it'll be better for them than 'Despicable Me 3: Revenge of the Minion'

I'm willing to bet the reactions will be the same either way.

 After the noisy rapid expansion that was the globetrotting 'Cars 2', its a comfort to know that 'Cars 3' is severely limited in scope. You get glimpses of the larger ensemble cast, but the majority of the story focuses on the characters of Lightning McQueen and newcomer Cruz Ramirez, played by Cristela Alonzo. Limiting the story gives the movie an opportunity to delve into the characters it has to work with, and gives them a treatment that keeps you interested. 

The character of Cruz is especially interesting. I feel as though I'm harping on this, but her character brings a level of sophistication you do not expect from a 'Cars' film, as she essentially tells her story of a being limited in a world run by men. The same series that gave a feature film to Larry the Cable Guy playing a tow truck.

Yes, he does say Git R Done in this movie. It's only one time and yes I did laugh when he did it. 
The downside is, often times 'Cars 3' feels repetitive. The story takes place over about a weeks time, and is chiefly concerned with the training of Lightning McQueen. To further the Rocky comparison, 'Cars 3' has a variable cavalcade of montages. There's nothing inherently wrong with montages, but since the movie takes place over such a short period of time, when the film tries to convey the passage of time so often, it feels oddly paced to see the least.

There are of course the humorous moments of the movie. My favourite being any pun to be made in a world of living vehicles. 'Cars 3' is not a non-stop laugh machine. Many of the jokes won't get raucous laughs from the older audience members, though the kids will be entertained. The characters though are charming and give the movie an endearing quality, with an ending that deviates from expectation. Parents won’t suffer through this one like most other kids films and would do well to see this film at half price.

Rating: Half-Price

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

An Infamous Practice: Diversity In Video Games

Right now the biggest event in the gaming world, the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), is coming to a close. It's the event where game companies and tech developers announce the projects they've been working on for the public. Everything from new hardware I'll never be able to afford, to games I'll never have time to play. Still, despite mostly being my own personal version of window shopping, I do enjoy seeing the new and innovative elements at play in the gaming industry. However, every year, I'm frustrated. Disappointed. The one thing the gaming world could use is the thing that never comes.

Spot the difference.

Back in 2009, one of my favourite games to come out was 'Infamous'. You played as every man Cole Mcgrath, a courier with a gruff demeanour that depending on how you played, became more "Good" and more "Evil" as the game progressed. When a package that Cole delivers explodes, it causes mass destruction to his home, Empire City, a fictional stand-in for New York City. The explosion grants him incredible electrical superpowers as well, and you play you can restore the city to its former glory, and keep it from falling siege to gangs taking advantage of the time of crisis. At the time I praised the game for its unique gameplay style, that emphasized fluidity, something that would only improve as the series went on. 'inFamous' was also an open world that catered to the player's individual experience. What I didn't realize at the time, was that beneath the surface, 'inFamous' had more to say than your typical superhero adventure.

The clip above takes place after it gets revealed to the people of Empire City, that the bomb that destroyed the lives of so many people was, in fact, a package being delivered by Cole. Of course, Cole has nothing to do with the packages he delivers. He takes them from his office and escorts them around the city being none the wiser as to what the package entails. Still, in a time of pain and suffering, the people around him look to him for blame. Since she lost her sister in the explosion, his girlfriend, Trish, even has a hard time dealing with the news.

The missed opportunity here is that Cole, like so many video game protagonists, is white. This is not to say that the story of 'inFamous' is not compelling because of the colour of his skin. Cole still remains a well-crafted character, as do the other characters in the game. But just imagine how much more potent that scene would play out if Cole were middle eastern, or even if he were a Muslim. Suddenly, it becomes a commentary on the prevailing Islamophobia that becomes more overt in the wake of a public attack. When Cole asks the player if they've ever been called a terrorist, it's supposed to be something to which that we the audience say "No of course not, I can't even imagine that." but for many people, the answer could very well be "Yes I have, and it was horrible."

It would bring a deeper level to the interactions of Cole with the other characters, as well as how you play the game. When the game asks you to choose between a good or evil act, at the back of your mind, you would take into account the resentment that comes with waking up brown in a city that isn't. When his best friend Zeke starts to look at him questioningly, it puts a strain on their relationship, because the two are such close friends. If Cole were a darker skin tone, it would be even more uncomfortable, as it would show the experience of a person of colour even with people they thought to be their friends. This would only be worsened by the fact that Zeke is a gun-toting Elvis enthusiast with a southern accent, whose middle name is Jedediah.

Not the typical picture of racial tolerance. 

The subtext gets even more powerful when the second game rolls around. In it, Cole and Zeke travel to New Marais, another fictional stand-in, this time for New Orleans. New Marais is a place that is overrun by swamp monsters, soldiers with ice abilities, and a privatized military force known as The Militia. The Militia is a gang of Chrisitan extremists who vow to rid their city of the people that cause trouble, coded here as 'deviants' of which Cole Mcgrath is the main danger. To do this, there's a strict immigration ban that's been placed on the city, even refusing refugees from the crisis in Empire City, so Cole has to sneak into the city on a fishing boat.

Again, this is just an added difficulty to Cole's adventure that's meant to serve as a challenge to the player, but it takes on a new meaning if Cole were to look like the people who normally have to suffer extraneous circumstances to travel from one place to another. The people who get accused of being the poisonous M & M's hidden in a bag of candy. The Militia essentially is presented as the worst case scenario of an Alt-Right group, right down to the leader who looks like a hybrid of Steve Bannon and Richard Spencer.

This is his good side.
All of this requires no other changes to the story, the gameplay, and anything else that goes into making 'inFamous' the game that it is. Everything in the games can stay exactly the way it is, but the events and how you play the game would change dramatically if Cole were a different colour. It would make scenes like the one's where Cole is called 'The Demon of Empire City' chilling, and it would create a much more conscious atmosphere, that affected how certain decisions were made. As it stands, the morality system in 'inFamous' is a less nuanced than it could be and as I said, while Cole is a compelling character, his struggle would ring truer were he wearing a less represented face. It's a missed opportunity for a story that could have been truly reflective of the times we live in today.

The most intriguing choice I came across in the games was in 'inFamous 2'. In the game, you're introduced to two new characters, Lucy Kuo, an NSA agent tasked with helping Cole save the world, and Nix, a New Marais citizen out to get revenge for her city besieged. They become more or less avatars for the games good and bad paths and influence Cole like the devil and angel on his electric shoulders. There's a point in the game where you're set to rescue Kuo from being imprisoned by the Militia. Zeke suggests freeing the police who have been rounded up and jailed by the Militia, give them weapons, so they can aid you in the rescue. This sparks an intense reaction from Nix. She instead suggests filling up a van with explosives and ramming it into the base where Kuo is being held, possibly injuring innocents in the process. Zeke is considered "Good" Nix is labeled "Bad"

At the time that I first played it back in the olden days of 2011, the choice was clear. Free the police, arm them up, and you have an army to help you in your quest. Now? The idea of putting a gun in the hands of a cop is far less inviting. It's much easier to understand Nix's vehement disapproval of Zeke's plan, especially considering she looks like this:

You choose Zeke's plan, Cole will remark at how crazy Nix is. How her destructive nature is completely out of the realm of reasonability. Cole says this because he would have had a different experience with the police than Nix. It's not hard to imagine why she's so opposed to the idea.

That right there is a small example of how important it is for characters in video games, movies, television shows, and all mediums of narrative to be diverse. The stories that are told can be drastically different if the perspectives are changed. They can become richer, more compelling, and important as they'd be giving a voice to those who are so often silenced. Not to mention, 'inFamous' has a character whose perspective has been explored ad nauseam. The idea is not that 'inFamous' would be a better game were Cole a person of colour. Rather that 'inFamous' would take on a much deeper, more complex role, sticking with you with a story that stands out amidst the crowd of generic white protagonists.

It's not all bad. Much has changed since Cole's last adventure in 2011. The 'inFamous' series itself continued on without him and embraced the path of inclusiveness when 'inFamous Second Son' featured a Native American protagonist. The game didn't just throw in that backstory for nothing either. It was instrumental to his character's motivations and was reflected in how his arc developed. He was played by Troy Baker who is very much not Native American but, baby steps. 

At E3 this year alone, 'Wolfenstein: The New Colossus' features a black female character, and 'Marvel's Spider-Man' teases the inclusion of Miles Morales. Even 'Beyond Good and Evil 2' featured a black female character. The throughline though, is none of these characters seem to take the centre stage. There's nothing wrong with a story that features a white protagonist, there's just extremely untapped potential at telling a story from an unexplored perspective, that also might just mean the world to a player that's less represented.