Video game review – Lego Star Wars: The Force Awakens (TT Fusion, 2016)

TT Games had a surprise hit in 2005 with their video game based on the Star Wars prequel trilogy. It offered fun for all ages, with a blend of humour and in-joke references mixed with gameplay complicated enough to keep grown-ups and youngsters entertained for hours; the perfect gaming experience for parents playing through with their children. This was quickly followed by another based on the original trilogy, which was met with even more success. Then came an Indiana Jones version along with Batman in 2008. Then Harry Potter, Pirates of the Caribbean,, Lord of the Rings, more Star Wars, more Batman, Marvel, Jurassic World… The list goes on. It has to be admitted that the games have gone down in quality since that original triumph, but never has the result been as poorly executed as The Force Awakens.

The problem isn’t just that it’s trying to make too much of a small amount of source material, nor the lack of humour in the script (they chose to use dialogue from the film, a departure from the norm).

BB-8!

No, the biggest crime here is the terrible glitches that blight the entire game. These can derail you at any point, but tended to occur late in the levels with something simply not working, usually meaning the entire level needs to be replayed. One example is on level eight, “Starkiller Base”, which requires Chewbacca to throw an explosive to open a particular set of doors. The only problem was that the bomb couldn’t be thrown, nothing could help the situation and 30 minutes of gameplay had to be redone to progress. Similarly, on the level titled The Finale, there was a glitch whereby Finn snapped to shooting mode too early and couldn’t complete essential actions to progress the main battle between Rey and Kylo Ren. Again, 30 minutes of gameplay wasted.

Elsewhere, there were simple audio glitches with music getting looped or the whole game falling silent. All this contributed to a feeling that any time a puzzle wasn’t easy to figure out (in hindsight one of the best parts of the game) there was an assumption that the game had glitched and a restart was needed.

The fault of this, presumably, lies squarely with the testing team at TT Fusion. Remarkably, the list of individuals involved with the testing, according to the end credits, was huge. This game should never have been signed off from QA testing, but even worse is the fact that no patches have been released to fix these issues despite the number of people complaining across the internet. Just search “Lego Force Awakens glitches” to see how many people are suffering.

Furthermore, having been fairly diligent with retrieving the collectibles in each level, I was met with a score of 27.1% on completion of the main story. This serves to underline the mis-balanced nature of the meaty content of the game and a ridiculous list of collectibles that are clearly there to falsely inflate the amount of gameplay on offer.

The sad thing is that there is a good game here, buried underneath all the complaints and issues. Perhaps TT Games should stop spreading themselves so thinly, because there is no chance that I will be picking any more Lego games in the future unless I know they are glitch-free.

Film review – Frantz (François Ozon, 2016)

Set primarily in Germany in the immediate aftermath of the First World War, François Ozon’s latest film is an emotional story portrayed almost entirely in black and white. It revolves around Anna (Paula Beer), a woman who is living with the parents of her lost lover and supporting each other in their collective grief. That man is the titular Frantz (Anton von Lucke), who we learn has lost his life in battle during the war. When a Frenchman by the name of Adrien (Pierre Niney) shows up at Frantz’s grave to give his respects, he tells them of his close friendship to their mutually lost friend.

Adrien (Niney) and Anna (Beer)

Ozon is something of a prolific filmmaker on almost the same level as Woody Allen. Since his celebrated debut feature length film Sitcom in 1998, he has written and directed sixteen films, amongst them the critically acclaimed Swimming Pool and the highly successful Potiche. Yet Frantz is, by all accounts, a departure in style for him and sees him in relatively unfamiliar territory with a historical war drama.

It is based on the play ‘L’homme que j’ai tué’ by Maurice Rostand. Before writing his script, Ozon was unaware that the play had already been adapted by legendary filmmaker Ernst Lubitsch as the film Broken Lullaby in 1931, though when he watched the film he realised that it was a completely different treatment to the direction he wanted to go with Frantz. He wanted to give the focus of the film to Anna, who was on the losing side of the war, providing more empathy to her as the central character.

There is an interesting chemistry between Beer and Niney, both of whom are playing extremely complex characters. They share this individual that has had a huge affect on their respective lives and begin to grow closer. Providing convincing characterisations of such  conflicting emotions is a challenge both rise to and it is this that elevates the film above being a wartime drama.

It was amazing to learn that this was Beer’s first performance acting as a French-language character. Many successful actresses couldn’t achieve what she has here in their first language let alone their second one. She revealed in a post-screening discussion that she had to learn and develop the script twice. Initially she developed the emotional responses to the words in her native German, before relearning the entire segments in French to ensure her delivery wasn’t lacklustre.

This is a truly moving film that gives an interesting point of view to the fallout from war that hasn’t often been explored before. Superb delivery from the two complex central characters means this comes highly recommended.

Film review – Queen of Katwe (Mira Nair, 2016)

Walt Disney Studios may have a long history of releasing underdog sports films, but their latest live action is nothing like any of its predecessors. In fact, it’s a breath of fresh air, as the crowd discovered tonight at the UK premiere.

Set and filmed almost entirely in the slums of Katwe in Uganda, the film tells the story of Phiona (newcomer Madina Nalwanga), a child who learns to play chess under the mentoring of missionary Robert (David Oyelowo). Much to the initial dislike of her mother Nakku (Lupita Nyong’o), she excels at the game and quickly starts competing at international competitions, giving her the opportunity to escape from certain poverty.

David Oyelowo and newcomer Madina Nalwanga

At the heart of the creation of the film was Mira Nair, the female director who knows Uganda inside out (she met her husband whilst researching the film Mississippi Masala in 1989). She spoke prior to the screening of the importance of filming the entire film in Uganda and leaving a positive message about the country outside of the anti-colonialism that is a constant recurrence in films about Africa (though A United Kingdom is very good too!). There should be no worries that this is a risky move for Walt Disney Studios.

The triangle of central characters played by Nyong’o, Oyelowo and Nalwanga are what helps the film achieve so much. Whilst Robert acts as a much-needed father figure to Phiona, he in turn proves antagonistic to Nakku, a mother who is keen to protect her second-eldest daughter for fear of her making the same mistakes as her elder sister Night.

Indeed, it is Nyong’o’s turn in the film that, for me, makes it a true triumph. As the protective mother to a daughter she fears is getting into something too unfamiliar, the result is a strong-willed role model for black women (as she is in real life). This is sadly in short supply in the modern cinematic landscape. This is a topic that will doubtless be explored in BFI’s promising Black Star programme throughout October 2016.

Festival director Clare Stewart, director Mira Nair and stars David Oyelowo and Lupita Nyong’o at the UK premiere

Nair does a great job with the telling of a captivating story throughout the chess matches. This is tricky territory for a filmmaker. If too long was spent explaining it, there’s a risk of boring your audience. Spend no time on it at all and you lose the core of the story. Get the tone wrong and you look completely foolish. Time was spent making sure that the metaphorical importance of the game was reflected in the development of Phiona as a character. It works perfectly.

It was a joy to see East Africa looking so vibrant, brought to life with some beautiful shots and an uplifting story. A total triumph.

Queen of Katwe is in UK cinemas now and can also be pre-ordered for home-viewing.

Film review – The Beatles: Eight Days a Week, The Touring Years (Ron Howard, 2016)

There is a single reason why The Beatles hitherto remain a subject largely untouched by documentarians. Quite simply, the story has been told to death. It is a well-reasoned argument that stems from the fact that a story is far more interesting if we don’t know the ending; even less so if we know the beginning, middle, end and every conversation along the way.

As a result, we have been treated to a flurry of fascinating documentary films in recent times on artists relatively unheard of to the general public: Rodriguez (Searching for Sugar Man), Anvil (Anvil! The Story of Anvil), under-celebrated back-up singers (20 Feet from Stardom); Phil Ochs (There But For Fortune). All excellent films that manage to capture the imagination of cinema-goers precisely because they tell a story as fresh as any fictional tale in the same media.

The Beatles are, however, one of the greatest bands of all time, taking over the world as clean-living heart-throbs that made radio-friendly sounds that were loved over the world. Their live performances were legendary and, at the time, revolutionary as they proved that rock bands could turn massive profits by putting in performances in large stadia.

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It’s a story that has been told many times over and it would take a brave director to try to tell it in an interesting way that didn’t feel like retreading old ground. Fortunately, the man at the helm on the clumsily titled The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years is the one and only Ron Howard, the genius behind the likes of Cocoon, Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind and Frost/Nixon.

It is a truly brilliant piece of documentary film-making, managing to tell the familiar story with a flurry of individual memories that bring to life again a rise to stardom that has not and will not ever be replicated. There are wonderful talking head contributions from the likes of Howard Goodall, Dr Kitty Oliver, Sigourney Weaver (who the editors managed to pick out from the crowd footage of the 1965 Hollywood Bowl performances) and Elvis Costello. It is Whoopi Goldberg’s retelling of her mother surprising her with a ticket to the Shea Stadium performance that really stuck out and showed the positive effect they were having on both small and large scales throughout their tours.

The real stars are The Fab Four themselves, and with hours and hours of footage recorded by a press hungry for a piece of them (a point touched on in the film by Paul McCartney), we are lucky enough to be able to build up a truthful story of what was happening to a level impossible for all other artists in the charts at the time. As Eddie Izzard points out, their ability to respond to heckling in press conferences puts them all up at the same level as professional comedians.

The film is centred around their live performances rather than their time in the studio and as such it was essential the largely bootlegged sound recordings from their gigs were remastered to a usable state. Up steps Giles Martin, son of the late George Martin, to ensure everything hits the mark. Audible for the first time in such high quality, these sound recordings are evidence that despite them not being able to hear themselves or each other play they still functioned as a wholly tight musical four-piece. All that hard work out in Hamburg seemed to have paid off, then.

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It is a shame that the film cuts off in the middle of 1966 as the band released Revolver. They wound up their US tour in California, and it was a tour they were glad to see the back of. John Lennon had to painfully respond to the “bigger than Jesus” comments, there were death threats from the Ku Klux Klan and ticket sales were in decline (a point unsurprisingly missed out of the film). As a result, whilst Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band gets partial coverage, the albums Magical Mystery Tour, The Beatles (a.k.a. The White Album), Yellow Submarine, Abbey Road and Let It Be are covered in about 30 seconds, before a welcomed clip of their Abbey Road rooftop performance rounds thing off with them revisiting their glory days just before bowing out.

The film is genuinely crying out for a sequel to do justice to these missing years and perhaps beyond, though many of this is covered by the much-celebrated Anthology series released in 1995 but sadly still awaiting a Blu-ray release.

If you’re a fan of The Beatles then put this straight on your Christmas list as it will be a perfect trip down memory lane to revisit the greatest band of all time.

Eight Days a Week is available to purchase as a special edition Blu-ray and a standard DVD.

Film review – Café Society (Woody Allen, 2016)

There is a moment in Café Society where the magic of 1950s Hollywood romance is really captured: a chance glance, an excited exchange, the promise of unfolding romance recognised instantly. That this exquisite one-shot involves not Kristen Stewart – the woman we need to believe is Jesse Eisenberg’s raison d’etre – but rather Blake Lively, reveals everything we need to know about why this Woody Allen effort fails to hit the heights of his more recent successes. That is, Kristen Stewart simply isn’t a believable love interest. At least not in this kind of film.

The 1930s-set story centres around Bobby (Eisenberg), a young Jewish man who has moved to Hollywood to pursue new career opportunities under the supervision of his uncle Phil (Steve Carell), a powerful and well-connected film talent agent. He instantly falls in love with Veronica (Stewart), an assistant at Phil’s office,  unaware of the fact that his uncle is on the verge of breaking off his marriage to pursue his affair with Veronica.

The film hangs together on Jesse Eisenberg’s shoulders, as he starts off by doing his best Woody Allen impression and progresses towards his final position that is ever-so-slightly more alpha male than that. It is genuinely an excellent performance, bringing energy to the screen whenever he graces it.

He works best playing off against the plethora of supporting characters who never fail to exude the feel of the time and he’s clearly having fun under the supervision of one of the greatest living film directors. It’s a beautiful homage to the heyday of Hollywood, as Bobby develops into a socialite, bouncing from party to party first in Hollywood and then later on his return to New York.

Whenever Stewart appears on screen, she feels like a woman out of place in the era and unable to match the authentic performances of those around her. This goes against some excellent post-Twilight performances that have given her a route out of potential typecasting (American Ultra is a great example of this), but a classic Hollywood leading starlet she is not.

The film is not a complete failure. A hilariously delivered exchange between Bobby and a first-time prostitute is just one example of the smart comedic dialogue we’ve come to expect in Allen’s recent film. The jazz-centric score heightens the positioning in the era.

It’s just a shame that I was routing for he wrong girl.

Cafe Society is available now on DVD, along with the sumptuous Vince Giordano soundtrack.