Posts by Andrew:
The film watching period between October and January is one that’s full with films that simply exist to earn their talent an Oscar nomination. These are films that roll along, exist in the public consciousness for a period of time, and then simply disappear into the ether. Think August: Osage County. Think Nine. Think The Imitation Game. Think Trumbo. These were all nominated for Oscars, and they all existed in film history, but they simple came and went and did their job. Julia Roberts, Penelope Cruz, and Meryl Streep received Oscar nominations. Benedict Cumberbatch entered Oscar history by gaining a nomination for a performance that many would struggle to remember that he did, just like Bryan Cranston’s performance that seemed to exist simply so Bryan Cranston could be nominated for an Oscar.
Beautiful Boy is the latest film that embarks on the Oscar-bait train that runs full steam through the latter half of the year. Previous Oscar nominees Steve Carrell and Timothee Chalamet star as the real life father and son duo, David and Nic Sheff. Nic struggles with a drug addiction that he’s managed to keep hidden from his family for a long period of time. David is a freelancing journalist who comes to realise that the boy that he helped raise has not turned into the adult he expected him to. Both are writers, and through an act of great genius, they both turned their experience with addiction into a set of books. David wrote Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction, and Nic wrote Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines. Beautiful Boy is an adaptation of both books, with Oscar nominees Luke Davies (Lion) and Felix Van Groeningen (The Broken Circle Breakdown) adapting them for the screen. Van Groeningen takes the role of director.
With the trailer already primed for Awards season glory (literally everyone involved gets the much desired ‘Oscar Nominee’ tag next to their name), one has to ask, what exactly is the point of Beautiful Boy? With the huge array of addiction focused films out there, why this one? I mean, other than the desire to get Chalamet and Carrell extra Oscar nominations. (You can bet that Chalamet is a lock-in for the nomination, and if it turns out to be a weak year, he could be walking away with the award.)
The addiction narrative is one that’s an easy home run for actors. It provides many, many Capital A Acting moments, with both the person suffering from addiction, and those associated with them, all getting moments that show them grappling with Emotions. There’s anger, frustration, fear, despair, love, joy: it’s like a veritable rainbow of emotions. And, sure, within Beautiful Boy, there’s a wealth of scenes that do exactly that. The scene where David tries drugs just so he understands why his son uses them is one for example, or another is where Nic asks his father for money so he can go to New York just to get away from home, or maybe there’s a… y’know… you’ve seen all of this ‘movie of the week’ kind of drama before. You know exactly where this film is going, and you know how it’ll end. There is simply nothing new in Beautiful Boy, and in turn, there’s little reason for it to exist.
This rote narrative isn’t helped by the privilege that runs through the story. The Sheff’s aren’t struggling for a dime, and in turn, they have the ability to get Nic into whatever rehab facility that they want. One moment where David shrugs off sending Nic to a $40,000 a month facility because it has ‘bad reviews’ comes off as purely arrogant. And maybe that’s the point of David – a father who has no idea what his son is going through, and in turn, wants to do everything he can to help him out, even if it means doing too much. Unfortunately, even though this story is taken from two different books that contain two different perspectives, we’re predominantly given David’s perspective as the helicopter dad who struggles to let go of his son.
That in itself is an interesting narrative, however, we’re constantly kept at an arms-length, never properly being able to engage with the narrative on a deep, emotional level, mostly thanks to the implementation of well-known songs that tell you how to feel. One moment where Nic is driving alongside the ocean, all the while Heart of Gold plays over the scene, feels particularly on the nose. The less said about the cloying appearance of the song the title comes from the better.
Sure, Chalamet and Carrell prove that they are genuinely talented actors, and they definitely do the Sheff’s proud by portraying their story with all the heart that they feel it needs. The less said about the truly wasted Maura Tierney and Amy Ryan the better – their roles are perfunctory at best, merely existing to prop up the two male leads. They’re talented actresses that are simply robbed of anything of value to work with.
On top of that, if there was any value in telling the Sheff’s story, then it could have possibly trudged down the path that The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby followed. Namely, have each characters story told from their perspective in their own film, and then combine the two perspectives into one film. As it is, we are given the outsiders perspective of Nic’s addiction, never fully understanding why or how Nic became addicted to drugs in the first place, in turn, the story never escapes the feeling of perpetual head scratching.
If you’re easily emotionally manipulated by stories that only exist to emotionally manipulate you, then sure, this will work for you. But for the sceptical, cynical bastards out there like me, you’ll be in the ‘darn this Oscar bait’ boat, rolling your eyes as the storm of Oscar-nomination-seeking flicks sweeps the end of the year away.
Director: Felix Van Groeningen
Cast: Steve Carrell, Timothée Chalamet, Maura Tierney
Writers: Luke Davies, Felix Van Goeningen, (Based on books by David and Nic Sheff)
On this episode of The Last New Wave, Andrew has a chat to documentary filmmaker Catherine Scott about her new film Backtrack Boys.
Backtrack Boys follows Bernie Shakeshaft as he operates a youth program that helps kids in need with getting a good footing in life.
Read Andrew’s review right here.
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Unravel is the equivalent of looking at your very talented photographer friend’s holiday shots. Their photos of mountaintops and luscious forests look absolutely brilliant and are some of the finest photos you’ll ever see, but unfortunately no matter how many stories they tell of journeys through the countryside and treks over mountains, you find yourself disconnected from their passion for the journey. Your eyes glaze over and you think about what you’ll have for dinner tomorrow while they tell a story about carving their lover’s initials in a tree trunk, even though moments before they complained about a mining site existing in the middle of a mountain range.
This is a beautiful game, there’s no denying that. As we begin 2016, Unravel proves that it is one of the finest looking gaming creations available right now with some glorious, almost-photorealistic landscapes. All shades of green are displayed here in varying capacities – from the dark green forests, through to the phosphorescent green of nuclear waste – you’ll see shades of green you didn’t know existed. The feeling of being immersed in nature is strong and helps to push the theme of respect for the world around you and appreciating nature to its fullest.
Through these wondrous vistas, you navigate a red woollen creature named Yarny. Spawned from a yarn ball that an elderly lady drops in her house, Yarny exists as a grand metaphor for appreciating the world around you. In the real world, Unravel‘s creator was inspired to create Yarny when on a family holiday in Scandanavia. After collecting some red yarn from a stranger, and finding some discarded wire, the game’s protagonist was born. Unravel helps transport you to a part of the world that feels unique and otherworldly.
As each level comes to an end, Yarny can flick through a family album of photos, which partially relate to the environment that’s just been traversed. These are presumably photos that were taken on that aforementioned family holiday. After looking at this photo album, you navigate Yarny through a house to a framed picture, where the next level begins. It’s a nice idea to frame each level as if it’s taking place in a person’s memory, but unfortunately the exceptionally run-of-the-mill and generic themes make it difficult to properly connect with the themes presented. Unfortunately, the story itself is exceptionally vague, a problem that only manages to distance the player. Unravel wears its heart on both sleeves, but its earnest nature means little if there is no substance or depth to the images of parents with kids or lovers walking together. These generic images (which wouldn’t be out of place in an Ikea catalogue) may trigger an emotional reaction from some, but it will leave most feeling empty.
I know it’s not fair to compare one game’s vague themes against another’s vague themes, but it’s hard to not escape the fact that Journey achieved the ‘open for interpretation’ theme much better. Of course, not all games need to be ‘about something’ or have players in tears at the end. That’s where we come to Unravel‘s platform mechanics.
As Yarny navigates the world, the red yarn that makes up its body slowly unravels, leaving a trail behind the red gender-neutral creature. Using its yarn, Yarny can swing from context-sensitive hooks within the environment (such as tree branches or well-placed nails) as well as to create bridges between points. These ‘bridges’ can be used to move items between points or slingshot to higher vantage points. At its core, this navigation is simple and oddly therapeutic. There’s something pleasing and calming about swinging from point to point in video games, and Unravel‘s beautiful visuals combined with the gameplay mostly makes for a good experience. Mostly.
Unravel truly shines when its core mechanics work, but sadly this is often not the case, mostly being hampered by repetitive puzzles and imprecise moments. More often than not, the puzzles seem to have the same solution – create a bridge between two points, move an item over this bridge, progress. This is made all the more frustrating as there are many moments that could have been further developed to create stunning set pieces or challenging puzzles. Unfortunately, if you’ve seen the announcement trailer, you’ve seen the majority of the ‘big set piece’ moments – such as hooking a line on a fish and going for a ride. By developing greater set pieces, it would have made the somewhat forced emotional elements of the ‘story’ have a greater impact.
As for those imprecise moments, often I would find myself trying to navigate past a puzzle or a ledge, only to think that I wasn’t doing the right action. I would throw out a length of yarn to catch on a hook that would be the same distance as one that I’d successfully reached before, only to find my yarn falling short and missing its intended point. A couple of times, I had to refer to a walkthrough video because I was stumped as to what I needed to do to progress, only to discover that what I was doing was right and I just wasn’t being as precise as the game required. Now this doesn’t mean that Unravel is broken, it’s just a little finicky and has a lower margin of error than it perhaps should.
Further riffing on Journey is the inclusion of a sublime score. Created using local Swedish composers, this adaptive score is impactful in the right places. While maybe not up to the same level as Austin Wintory’s great score for Journey, it is still one that I look forward to revisiting down the line. Without this great score, the overall experience would be lessened. It’s unfortunate that every element within the game isn’t running on as high a level as the visuals and score is.
It’s obvious there was a lot of love and attention put into creating this game, and it’s evident that the family photos and dedication to the environment means a lot to the developers, it’s just disappointing that the conduit to these memories (Yarny) is a bland, empty vessel. Where the wanderers in Journey were able to communicate with symbols and noises, Yarny is simply a wide-eyed explorer making its way through the world, exhibiting no signs of personality. It’s fine for a character to be a conduit for the player to experience the world, but for a game that tries to include a strong emotional element in it, it’s not enough to simply have a cute figure and expect the player to fill in the blank spaces. This is not to say that Yarny should have a voice or anything like that, more that this red devil-looking creature is simply so blank that it’s hard to care when it manages to die because of a poorly timed jump, and conversely hard to cheer when that same jump is eventually successfully made.
For a game that’s all about respecting nature and experiencing the world, it’s slightly confusing that a fair amount of the animals that you interact with are hostile towards Yarny. Take the little mole-like creature that Yarny encounters underground – its first reaction is to try and eat Yarny, and then a later encounter has it chasing Yarny down a dark tunnel. Bundle the occasional aggressive animal and the imprecise mechanics together, and it further distances the player from being able to immerse themselves in the wondrous world. That’s not to say all animals here are out to kill you, rather that the set pieces related to animals feel excessively oppressive at times and at odds with the greater theme of the game.
Unravel likes to preach about respecting nature, yet the emotional through line is solely focused on humans. Maybe I’m an overly cynical person, but I found it hard to appreciate this desired connection with the people displayed in these photos, especially when the game also shows the destruction that mankind has had on nature. Random ‘memories’ (which act as set dressing) appear in the background of levels of people existing in nature, and appear to reinforce a ‘go out and experience nature’ theme that again lacks any real impact.
So, with all of that in mind – the combination of the bland themes, the beautiful visuals, the vacant Yarny, the great score, the imprecise mechanics, the repetitive puzzles – I have to ask myself, why am I already on my third play through? What keeps me coming back to Unravel even though I find the whole experience underwhelming? With all its problems and frustrations, Unravel is an oddly calming experience. There is nothing exceptionally ground-breaking here, even though it really wants to be ground-breaking and impactful. On paper, there are a lot more issues than there should be in a game that is actually not that bad to play through. When I’m in the world of Unravel, I find myself enjoying my time with it, even though every minute or so I’m cursing because I’ve missed a jump or have died an unfair death. It falls far short of what its desired goal is, but its ambition and desire to reach those lofty emotional heights is enough to make Unravel a tolerable, yet flawed platformer. In that regard, for platformer fans out there, this is a game that is worthwhile playing through when it’s on sale or you have run out of other platformers to play. For everyone else, unfortunately, this is a game I struggle to recommend to pick up.
Spider-Man. Peter Parker. Great power. Great responsibility. Yada yada yada. You know the drill.
After three different cinematic portrayals of the web swinging New Yorker (with a massive, multi-universe one coming very soon to explode that figure to a mammoth amount), you’d think we’d be all Spider-Donk’d out. But nope, here comes Insomniac Games with another version of the eponymous superhero dude.
In this spiffy new game, Spider-Man has been active for a fair while, having left behind the world of high school, and now well and truly on the path to being a responsible adult. He’s already put away a bunch of the trademark villains that have caused Manhattan havoc, and utilises his spare time to help out his boss Doctor Octavius do science stuff.
The narrative of this game works in two worlds. If you’re a Spider-Man faithful, and know the in’s and outs of the characters history, then you’ll lap this up like you wouldn’t believe. But, if you’re like me and are a bit of a Spider-Dude luddite (for example, I had no idea that Spider-Ham was a genuine thing and not just that Simpsons joke), then you’ll find the overload of lore a bit, well, overwhelming. Which, in itself, is fine. After all, odds are there are more Spider-Man faithfuls than not, and, arguably, what else are the developers going to fill their 20-30 hour game with other than everything Spider-Man?
So, while the name F.E.A.S.T. means little to me, or the presence of Miles Morales seems a bit superfluous narrative-wise, it doesn’t really matter if the core gameplay is up to scratch. And, for the most part, it is.
Swinging through Manhattan is a real joy. It’s smooth, it’s vibrant, it’s energetic, it carries all the thrill you’d hope from Spider-Man moving around a massive city. Impressively, the streets are littered with civilians and cars, all going about their own day to day life. This feels like a real world that operates regardless of whether the player is in the vicinity of it or not. Technically, this is a huge achievement.
However, while the technical advancements are impressive, the choice of making this an open world format game comes with its own issues. Yes, comparisons to the Batman Arkham series are inevitable and unavoidable, but at least with the Arkham games, the world map was gradually eeked out over the course of the narrative. Here, the world map is open pretty much immediately, well, that is at least after you initially get past some of the bugbears of open world games – namely, towers that help ‘open up’ the map.
And while this chore feels exactly like that, a chore, it’s not alone with the other mainstay bugbears of open world narrative games. I hate to say it, but if you’ve played one, odds are you’ve almost played them all. Spider-Man is no different. Each section of Manhattan is littered with busy-bee check off points that you just simply have to clear. Clarification is needed here, you don’t actually have to clear these extraneous tasks to progress the narrative, but you are certainly encouraged to do so via the narrative, the constant barrage of toxic verbal assaults J. Jonah Jameson spews on his talkback radio station, and from the game itself. On more than one occasion, I would complete a main quest, and at its conclusion I was reminded, hey, go explore the city.
On the surface, this gentle encouragement is fine. It’s simply that when you dig into the narrative of this Spider-Man, you’re left wondering if maybe the developers should have pushed the envelope a little bit more. Like Peter Parker himself, the game is simply too nice.
The notion that Peter Parker, and in turn, Spider-Man, is overwhelmed by trying to keep the city safe, is the core theme of this story. During cut scenes, we see Peter get worn down and become physically exhausted from battling his supervillain foes. Yet, outside of these cut scenes, there’s little gameplay context for this exhaustion.
To clarify this a bit more, when the whole map is opened up, and those tasks suddenly litter your screen, you can’t help but feel that you need to clear them off the screen post haste. After all, Spider-Man is a character who exists to keep a city safe, and if he knows exactly where the crime is occurring, then it makes sense for him to head right to the crime and put a stop to it.
Take a pivotal moment near the midway point of the game where Spider-Man has to attend a costume party. The party itself is a superb event, and a genuine joy of a set piece to engage with, however, the lack of a rush to actually get to the event takes all the importance of said event. Meaning, as soon as this party becomes available to visit, you’re encouraged to go to it, with Peter saying as you’re swinging around the city, ‘I should get to that party quickly’, but those map markers for other tasks remain on the screen. So, instead of me going straight to the party, I continued cleaning up the map and ticking off these other crime focused tasks before moving the plot along. Yet, in a immersion breaking moment, as I triggered one of the tasks, the game shifted from nighttime (when the party was occurring), to daytime. I ticked off the task, cleared that marker, and as soon as it was done, the game returned to the night.
Any urgency to visit the party was gone out the window. And in turn, the urgency of Spider-Man needing to save everyone and everything was gone with it. By simply having everything available at once, it robs the game of an easy way of immersing players into the anxiety of Spider-Man. Yes, it’s nice to feel like you’re swinging through the city as Spider-Man, but you’re only embodying half of who he is as a character. The other half is an overworked good guy in an overrun city, over which you’re only ever told he’s overworked and you’re never able to actually experience it.
It would have really been something if Insomniac took the notion of an open world map and threw these crime laden tasks at you as you’re progressing through the city. Have every corner be another crime that Spider-Man needs to solve. Have dilemmas where Spider-Man has to choose between trying to stop a bank robbery or the Shocker. Have it feel like an organic part of the world, rather than an obviously game based element that needs ‘ticking off’. Dr Octavius complains about Parker being late for work, but there is little narrative pressure on the player to actually go help him out in the lab, simply because you’re able to swing around the city until your hearts content before ever actually engaging in that ‘mission’.
It’s disappointing as it merely feels like Insomniac have slapped Spider-Man over the template for every other open world game. Which is frustrating as unlike Assassin’s Creed (for example), Spider-Man has a need to tick off all the tasks on the map. In a bid to provide you things to keep busy with, you’re never actually given the opportunity to feel busy. You’re never given the opportunity to feel like a hero, instead making you feel like a taskmaster. Heck, the game even goes to the point of putting in a villain called the Taskmaster – someone who literally throws ‘tasks’ at Spider-Man. I couldn’t help but groan.
Even more groan worthy is the redundant sequences that Mary Jane and Miles Morales are given to do. These moments simply have either character sneaking through an enemy filled area, trying to stay unnoticed. It’s slow, tedious, and boring, and in turn makes these two characters a chore to engage with rather than being a welcome respite from the web slinging of Spider-Man. There is, however, one sequence that involves Mary Jane and Spider-Man working together that employed the stealth mechanic wonderfully.
Other minor criticisms come from third act narrative beats that feel extremely contrived, with one character inadvertently and unknowingly carrying an item for a very, very long distance, simply so another character can be forced to interact with said item. It stretches believability, and raises the question of why the first character didn’t simply interact with the item in the first place. But, lore is lore, and lore can’t be adjusted, especially when it helps set up a sequel that will no doubt have even more Spider-Men.
Look, I may sound like I’m being unfairly harsh on what is an extremely polished game. But, ask yourself this if you’ve played Spider-Man and are a Spider-Man fan, are you enjoying the game simply because you’re playing as Spider-Man, or are you enjoying the game because of what you are tasked to do as Spider-Man? If it’s the former, then ask yourself, if this were a character in a different skin, would you still enjoy it? If it’s the latter, then you may simply enjoy open world games full with busy work more than I do.
Yes, this is a lot of fun when the game gets going, and if you’ve got yourself a Playstation 4 Pro and a 4KTV, then you’ve got yourself a reference quality game to show off. But, there are simply too many issues that drag this game down from being a great one to a simple nice time.
War stories on film are often focused on the soldiers journey, presenting their path in war as an ‘us v them’ mentality. So rarely do they explore what the ‘other side’ is going through, possibly for fear of humanising them too much and asking us (the ‘good’ guys) to empathise with their actions. After all, what use is understanding the actions of your enemy if it means getting in their head space?
Think of the narrative that Clint Eastwood takes Bradley Cooper’s Chris Kyle through in American Sniper – it’s introspective, but works in the realm of propaganda and jingoism, never questioning Kyle, or allowing Kyle to be a self reflective individual. It celebrates the long idolised figure that is the American soldier. The American dream of growing up and having a wife and 2.5 kids and a house still exists, but it’s been skewed to the point where a career in the military is the way forward, rather than attaining a 9-5 office job in the city. Partly due to this, criticism of the military, or any major introspection, is thrown asunder.
While films like The Hurt Locker, Stop Loss, and Lone Survivor, paint the never ending war in the Middle East as being a solely American operated affair, it’s worthwhile remembering that this is a multi-national endeavour, with soldiers from the United Kingdom, New Zealand, and Australia embarking on battling the ‘war on terror’.
Enter Benjamin Gilmour with his soldier on a journey film, Jirga.
Said soldier is Mike Wheeler (a mesmerising performance from Sam Smith). A former Australian soldier who heads to Afghanistan seeking redemption from the civilian family that suffered a tragedy when Mike accidentally killed their father during a night raid.
The fateful skirmish opens the film, with incoherent night vision amplifying the anxiety and confusion that countless soldiers would no doubt experience in a foreign land. Unknown towns, with languages that they barely understand, and moments of high anxiety, lead to unintentional moments that claim civilian lives. Given that the amount of civilian lives claimed in the war in Afghanistan has been a total of 1,692 in the first six months of 2018 alone, a 1% increase since the war began in 2001. Over 31,000 civilian lives have been taken due to war-related violence, and while the majority of these deaths would be due to Isis, or the Taliban, there is still a sizeable amount of ‘collateral damage’ from attacks by allied forces.
While it’s easy to sit at home in our safe suburbs, scrolling through our news feeds and skipping anything about the trauma being enacted on a mass scale in the Middle East, it’s not so easy for the soldiers who are part of that small percentage who claim the lives of civilians in the war. Gavin Hood’s interesting 2015 film, Eye in the Sky, earnestly tried to explore the complex layers of bureaucracy that drive the military, and in turn, each decision that is made before a soldier (in this films case, a drone operator) pulls a trigger.
Jirga takes the result of the trigger being pulled, the result of years of training and exercises, and asks, what happens afterwards? What happens to the soldier that has to wear this pain for the rest of their life? In turn, Mike Wheeler asks, what does the family that has been torn apart have to live with for the rest of their life, and how can this pain be eased in any way?
Benjamin Gilmour is a patient director. He ensures to humanise the civilians of Afghanistan, rejecting any notion that they should be portrayed as savages, and in turn, portraying them as being wholly empathetic people. These are men and women who have weathered decades of pain and violence, who have found a way forward in life all the while the ever looming spectre of death hangs in the sky like an ever watching unseen bird. They continue to live because what else is there for them to do?
The Jirga of the title relates to an assembly of leaders that make decisions by consensus and according to the teachings of Pashtunwali. It is this assembly that Mike will have to face for them to decide his fate – do they claim his life in an eye for an eye action, or do they accept his plea for forgiveness? This sequence alone is exceptionally powerful, with Smith giving a performance that gives the impression that he has lived in this moment once before. It’s profoundly moving.
Australia rarely steps into the world of modern war films. Whether it’s a cost factor, or simply because the romanticised aspect of World War II brings a bigger box office pull (that Gallipoli dollar goes a long way), or possibly because Australia as a whole is not ready to critically assess its relationship to allied forces in the Middle East, there simply are very few films that grapple with the plight of the modern Australian soldier. And it really should. A film like Jirga is a blessing. It acts as an apology, a mea culpa, for the decades of violence on foreign soil.
Australia treats its soldiers quite differently than that of America. The respect exists for ANZAC’s, with ANZAC day being an extremely sacred day. Yet, there is a genuine concern that this respect merely extends to those who fought in battles that reigned long ago, with many Australians making the pilgrimage to Gallipoli as an act of tokenism (what with Contiki offering a 4 day ANZAC tour of the site). In turn, defence veterans have faced a higher suicide rate than the general population within Australia. Accounts of soldiers battling PTSD have opened up the discussion within the Australian public, and hopefully there is a greater understanding and acceptance of the mental trauma inflicted upon Australian soldiers.
America also appears to celebrate their soldiers in a grander fashion than Australia does. Arguably there is a fair reason to do so, with the military industry being worth over $800 billion. This celebration extends to cinemas depiction of the ‘lone survivor’, or the ‘sole soldier’ taking on the swaths of faceless sand covered enemies and reigning triumphant at the end (albeit with having lost many companion soldiers along the way). For reference, American Sniper was the highest grossing film domestically of 2014, with it furthering the celebration and lionisation of Chris Kyle as a modern war hero.
On the cinematic front, Australia is quieter. Jirga may not be the barn storming film that will encourage a new wave of Australian films that explore the war in the Middle East, but it’s not aiming to be. It plays out like a quiet, contemplative presentation of Yassmin Abdel-Magied’s fabled tweet, ‘Lest. We. Forget. (Manus, Nauru, Syria, Palestine…)’. A mere reminder that Australia’s presence in the Middle East is one that can’t help but leave a mark on the citizens they engage with. A mere reminder that the actions of the soldiers have a ripple of consequences that leaves a mark on both the soldiers themselves and the community at large.
It was a while between films for Benjamin Gilmour, with his last film, Son of a Lion coming out in 2007. Here is hoping that it doesn’t take so long for another film, as there are precious few Australian filmmakers like Gilmour who are working to explore Australia’s relationship with foreign lands in such a manner.
If you are in need of help, please visit the following websites for guidance:
Beyond Blue: www.beyondblue.org.au
Lifeline Australia: 13 11 14
Soldier On: www.soldieron.org.au
Listen to my interview with Benjamin Gilmour and Sam Smith here:
Director: Benjamin Gilmour
Cast: Sam Smith, Sher Alam Miskeen Ustad, Mohammad Mosam
Writer: Benjamin Gilmour
On this episode, Andrew catches up with West Aussie director Stephen McCallum to chat about his feature debut, 1%. A gritty bikie drama with great performances from Ryan Corr, Abbey Lee, Simone Kessler, Josh McConville, Aaron Pedersen, and writer Matt Nable.
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Full disclosure – this film will have you crying within the first five minutes. And odds are, you won’t stop crying til the credits roll. Not only is Backtrack Boys
Filmed over two years by director Catherine Scott, Backtrack Boys follows jackaroo Bernie Shakeshaft as he runs a youth program from his farm in Armidale, NSW. The program involves taking kids who haven’t had the best runs at life and getting them to help Bernie to train his troupe of dogs that he travels rural NSW with, showing audiences the abilities of the working dog. Yeah, look, even just writing those few sentences I’m getting a little choked up thinking about the scenes of young lads sitting with their dogs and getting the dogs to be peaceful and calm, and in turn, the kids learning how to be peaceful and calm themselves.
Bernie is a wonderful character to witness working with the boys who have come to his program. He’s calm, patient, and genuinely cares about the future of these kids. Many have stumbled into the world of drugs at a young age, or have lost the father figure that they need in their life, or maybe they’ve strayed down the path of crime and recklessness, and through Bernie’s guidance, he intends to help these kids break the circle of recidivism. But, from the outset, Bernie is clear that not every kid manages to break that cycle, and while it’s great to see kids go on and lead a productive life after entering his program, it’s even more heartbreaking when they stumble and turn back to crime, drugs, or violence.
Scott follows a group of kids as they engage with the BackTrack program, with each story being as hearbreaking as the last. Take Rusty for example – a rough as guts kid who’s had a rough shake of the world with his mum dying not long after he was born, leaving his dad to raise him by himself. Rusty swears as a way of letting off steam, alongside occasionally throwing things and the odd bout of aggression – all things that the BackTrack program aims to help kids with. One of the added benefits of the program, besides teaching kids self-discipline and communication skills, is that they are able to engage with other kids who are just like them. Rusty builds a relationship with Zac, a kid who knows what path kids like him usually lead (meaning, straight to jail), and is working hard to ensure he doesn’t end up there.
While Bernie doesn’t want to replace anyone’s dad, he does recognise that over generations, fathers have lacked the necessary resources to be the best dad they can. Rusty’s dad clearly loves his kid, and obviously wants to be a part of his life, but he knows he’s only able to do so much to help Rusty be a good person, and while his knowledge of how to raise a kid is limited, his heart is in the right place. The BackTrack program may not be able to repair generations of country blokes who have grown up not knowing how to be open and share their emotions, and in turn, deal with the complexities that come with feeling angry, upset, confused, or lost in the world, but it certainly aims to help the next generation be able to process these emotions better, and in turn, work to help break the cycle of troubled kids turning into violent adults.
Scott’s camera manages to capture some beautiful, intimate moments of the boys with their dogs. One kid sleeps in a swag with a dog right there by his side. Another kid, almost dwarfed by the Great Dane he’s paired with, works to teach the dog some fantastic tricks. Another tender moment has a group of kids sitting around and simply being open about their emotions. Or, when the boys take the dogs to the NSW government house and are introduced to the members of the NSW government, they can’t contain their shock that they’ve come this far, and are able to stand in government house. Backtrack Boys is littered with moments that will grab at your heartstrings and simply make you weep with joy and sadness at once.
For me, the kicker was a scene where the boys are helping the BackTrack dogs perform their agility training, and one dog struggles to get up over the wooden jump, with boys on both sides helping push the dog up, and in turn, pull the dog over the high structure. It’s a perfect representation of everything that Bernie has been working towards with his program. Boys being selfless and helping each other out in a time of need.
BackTrack is a program that should arguably be implemented all across Australia, as it’s clear that Bernie’s work is paying off, with the program having helped over 1000 kids over the last ten years, and the local crime rate dropping by more than 50%. The proof is in the pudding – this program works. While in Dubbo recently to support the launch of Leader Life, a new youth organisation that Bernie and the BackTrack Boys will be coaching, they met up with the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, Harry & Meghan – an event that will no doubt help boost the exposure of this great endeavour.
Backtrack Boys is a genuinely beautiful film. As someone who loves and celebrates Australian cinema, I’m so excited to see that this film exists. On top of that, as someone who loves Australia and wants to see a positive future for Australia, I’m moved that someone like Bernie Shakeshaft is out there helping foster a positive future for the next generation of outback Aussies. It says a lot about someone who dedicates their life to helping others – it’s an honourable thing to do.
This film will move you. It’ll make you cry. Heck, I’ll reiterate that I’ve shed a tear or two just thinking about the film as I write this review. Simply put: this is one of the best Australian films of the year.
Director: Catherine Scott
Featuring: Bernie Shakeshaft, Rusty, Zac
On this episode Andrew chats with first time filmmaker Lliam Worthington about his film One Less God. This is a film that looks at the traumatic Mumbai Hotel siege in 2008, focusing on both the victims as well as the terrorists. It’s a fascinating look at religion and what it means to different people.
Find out about where One Less God is screening by following their Facebook page here.
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World War One is sadly under represented in video games. It’s a war that – to steal from a film critic I follow – is simply not ‘sexy’. It’s a war without the same level of firepower or artillery as World War Two or subsequent wars. It also is a war that didn’t feature as much involvement from America – there was no ‘America came in and won the war’ moment to reference in World War One. For these reasons, Valiant Hearts is a more than commendable game that bucks the war genre trend.
For too often, war games seem to be automatically represented within either the FPS or strategy genres. For this reason, it’s pleasing to note that Valiant Hearts is a platform puzzle game. The game opens with the disclaimer that it is ‘Freely inspired by the events unfolding on the Western front between 1914 and 1918’ and, by way of one of the finest narrations this side of Morgan Freeman, you are introduced to the characters whose journey you are to follow.
First there is Karl – a German, married to another character’s daughter, who is deported and drafted into the German army. His father in law – Emile – is drafted into the French army at the same time. Along their journeys, they meet Anna, a nurse, and Freddie, an American who volunteered to join the French army. To describe what paths their journeys take would be to spoil the wonder and emotional impact that embodies Valiant Hearts.
Throughout each chapter, players are given a glimpse into what occurred during WW1 — whether it be via the beautiful level design, which informs the player subtly, or through the many collectibles to be discovered within the levels. And what collectibles! It was upon finding a collectible during the second chapter that I knew that this was not only the best game released during 2014, but simply one of the finest games ever made.
To give a bit of background about myself for a moment – I was a terrible history student at school. I never understood the relevance of learning about a war that ended (at the time) eighty years prior. So when I found a pair of socks in the game and subsequently discovered the significance of those socks to the soldiers of WW1, all the history lessons I didn’t pay attention to suddenly felt wasted. Each collectible comes with notes about its relevance in WW1. They’re not just some random collectible added to give the game more content – they provide a purpose to educate the player.
Complimenting the collectibles are journal entries, which help explain the character’s motivations and how the war is impacting them. Alongside these are real photos from WW1 as well as real letters from the Western Front that were sent to families back home. Altogether, these items push the reality of the war and enforce a human element that is so often missing from war games.
Having all of this great information is useless without similarly great game mechanics to hang it on. Valiant Hearts was made using the same engine that the exceptionally beautiful Rayman Origins and Child of Light were created on, and was produced by Ubisoft Montpellier. This is different platforming than the fast-paced Rayman or the languid and thoughtful Child of Light. The characters in Valiant Hearts have a physical weight to them. This is explored wonderfully in later moments as the toll of the war weighs heavily down on them. There is no running or jumping, and given this is a war game, there’s surprisingly only a small amount of shooting or fighting.
It’s this lack of fighting that helps enforce the theme of reluctance – these characters (and you by extension) are fighting in a battle they don’t want to fight in. They are mostly forced to fight in these situations due to the circumstances placed upon them, and so it makes sense that they would in fact not want to fight if they can avoid it.
There are puzzles here, but they’re not illogical puzzles that exist just to lengthen the game – they are puzzles that in the context of the war make sense and progress the narrative. As Anna, the nurse, you sometimes have to partake in quick-time events that involve you bandaging or injecting a patient – and in some circumstances, performing CPR on a patient. It’s these quick time events and puzzles that help boost the narrative of Valiant Hearts and further educate the player about WW1.
I use the term educate and not inform because I feel that Valiant Hearts is an important game. I feel it’s important for education to remain progressive and that games such as this continue to be made. It’s a game that made me want to drag out the history books and discover more about WW1. It’s a game that, dare I say it, would be a great tool to use in schools. With its use of great character design and moments that feel genuine and earned, Valiant Hearts propels itself into the realm of great game literature.
As a film lover first and a gamer second, I’m proud to see that there is finally a game that I can utter in the same breath as Paths of Glory and Grand Illusion – two great WW1 films that are also referenced in Valiant Hearts. There is so much to recommend with Valiant Hearts that I haven’t even touched on the superb canine companion or even the beautiful score, but it’s also a game that I feel should be discovered. It’s a game that opens itself up to you as you progress – not with deep combat systems or showy graphics, but with a moving story. Valiant Hearts is a rare gem, a game that tells an impactful story through gameplay. I do hope that Ubisoft Montpellier turn their attention to similarly underrepresented wars like the Boer War or the Korean War, as I feel the design that they have created with Valiant Hearts is a perfect way of exploring the subject of war without needing to resort to just being another FPS.
After an irrelevant childhood focused opening, Ghost Stories kicks into its narrative with obnoxious sceptic Professor Phillip Goodman (co-director Andy Nyman) interrupting a psychics attempt to (falsely) reunite the spirit of a deceased son with the distraught mother in the audience. Goodman is the host of a ‘gotcha’ style TV show that aims to expose frauds, especially those working in the realm of the paranormal, with Goodman intending to carry on the legacy of long missing paranormal investigator, Charles Cameron (Leonard Byrne). However, uber-Charles Cameron-fanboy Goodman receives an invitation out of the blue from the long lost investigator. Goodman trundles off to meet up with Cameron, who rails against Phillip for being so ignorant to see that maybe people need psychics to help them heal. Cameron demands Goodman investigate the three cases that he couldn’t solve, and in turn, we have a set of ghost stories that make up a film.
Written and directed by the duo of Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman, Ghost Stories is, quite simply, a bit of a mess. It really wants to be an anthology film that’s held together by some kind of tentative thread, but instead it comes across as being a mish-mash of ideas that simply just, well, hang there in a field of atmosphere. One story has a security guard being haunted by something in a rundown warehouse. Another has a teen driving down a dark road in his parents car that he shouldn’t be driving, and hitting a beast in the darkness. And the last story has a soon-to-be father being haunted in the nursery set up for the imminent child. It’s all very wishy-washy and vague.
However, with all of its flaws, Ghost Stories is mildly entertaining.
In a world of over explained monsters and ghosts (with ghosts that appear in other ghosts stories getting their own backstory filled film – here’s looking at you The Nun), it’s nice to see a film embrace vagueness and ambiguity return to the realm of ghost stories. But, a little ambiguity goes a long way, and unfortunately for Ghost Stories, this film is positively drenched in ambiguity. The narrative would barely fit on a napkin, even with all the flourishes that Dyson and Nyman fill up the running time with. For ambiguity and vagueness to work effectively, the string pullers behind the scenes need to know more than the audience ever will – they need to know the backstory of the ghost to help inform the scare. Instead, Dyson and Nyman rely mostly on creepy imagery rather than anything else. It’s like a horror focused Tumblr page thrown up on the big screen.
As this is a horror film – a very, very British one at that – one expects shocks and frights. And, sure enough, there are a few of them. Granted, they’re not very inventive shocks and frights, as they mostly come from the ‘loud quiet loud’ toolbox. You know that that guy walking down the dark corridor will turn around to see someone standing there, and then a loud shriek of the violins will wail on the soundtrack, and then there’ll be silence. Jumps are rote and expected, but the fright still manages to work.
Once the three stories are dealt with, the film decides to go into a reality breaking climax which is visually intriguing, but again, is simply monopolising on creepy visuals rather than anything else. It’s all a bit scattered, like the toolbox of tricks has been spilled everywhere and Dyson and Nyman feel they need to use every single one of them just once. It’s equally too much and not enough.
Actors are fine, with Martin Freeman, Paul Whitehouse, and Alex Lawther doing a solid job. Andy Nyman feels miscast, with his Professor figure being more grating than interesting. For some reason, there is a distinct lack of women in the film. This is very much a male only affair, which is even stranger given it has no narrative purpose to be so.
Overall, Ghost Stories is serviceable fun. It’s good enough when you’re with it, but there’s little that will linger in your mind other than Alex Lawther’s pitch perfect line reading of ‘fuck that’.
Director: Jeremy Dyson, Andy Nyman
Cast: Paul Whitehouse, Alex Lawther, Martin Freeman
Writers: Jeremy Dyson, Andy Nyman