Category Archives: Reviews

Event Wrap Up: Tech + Gadget Expo Melbourne

A couple of weeks ago a friend and I journeyed into the exhibition centre here in Melbourne to check out the second annual Tech + Gadget expo and it’s clear that we have some work to do as far as consumer electronics is concerned. The expo had a range of technology on show from VR to Home Automation but it lacked contributions from many major developers and a huge variety of products in some areas. The only categories which may be exceptions were Drones and motorised bikes and skateboards these combined seemed to make up more than half of the expo floor. Presumably this focus may have been the result of trying to cater for families as these products could easily be considered kid friendly. On this point the expo was definitely successful since their were copious amounts of kids and teenagers walking around with a new drone tucked under the arm. At least the expo is a starting point and with clear development from last years inaugural event the future looks good. So here are the few of my observations:

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VR

The first thing we were confronted with when we entered was e2media’s VR Land which combines VR with hydrologic movement and surround sound to immerse people in an experience. It was worth a wait in line as the pendulum experience we had was powerful enough to make us both a bit motion sick. This might seem counter productive as you may ask why feeling sick would every be considered a good sign, but just go to a theme park and ask anyone who has left a ride feeling a bit queasy. Nearby another major VR player, the HTC Vive provided visitors with more of a home based experience by pairing the headset with controllers for uses to play a range of different games. Finally, Phoria rounded out the category and offered uses a bit more of an understanding of the potential application for VR in a variety of different industries. Despite the clear presence of VR at the expo there were a few noticeable absences from all ends of the spectrum as there was no Galaxy VR or Oculus rift in terms of headsets and there was no sign of any of the mixed reality products about to flood the market in the USA due to Microsoft’s partnership with OEMs. On an experience side Zero latency a clear Leader in VR in Melbourne offering a full immersed experience who could have easily used the event for promotion was also nowhere to be seen. If you haven’t had the pleasure of a full blown VR experience killing zombies it is a must so follow the link, gather your mates and book a session 

Drones

Starting as cheap as $50, drones were everywhere last weekend and with a test area provided a great hand on opportunity for the hordes of visitors it perhaps was not really a surprise. Personally, I’m still a little confounded by the popularity of Drones as it either suggests that everyone is a bit of a voyeur or are fascinated with remote control helicopters. The expo was my real first up-close look at a wide range of drones and I am still puzzled by the fascination as the range, 8-12min flight time and likelihood of being lost don’t seem to make a compelling case. On the other hand, the discounted price on offer at several booths with a fully equipped drone with altitude hold for less than $100 made tempting to get one and see the fascination for myself.

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There were two main exceptions to most Drones on show. The first being the range of devices from DJI which included the Spark, Inspire 2 and Phantom 4. All of which come with advance intelligent flight technology including Tapfly, which allows the user to control flight direction by a simple tap on the live feed, Flight anatomy, which allows the drone to detect and avoid obstacles, Activetrack and return home. The Inspire 2 and Phantom 4 advanced are capable of 4k video at 60fps and around 30min of flight time which gives them more potential for serious applications in film, sport and industries like tourism.

On the complete other end of the spectrum is the Airblock, a modular drone made of magnetic parts which can be disassembled and reassembled in a variety of ways. Unlike most of the other drones the Airblock does not include a camera and is marketed as a toy for stunts and races. The app even provides users with the opportunity to learn basic coding. Relying on Bluetooth and the uses phone the range of Airblock is limited to 15m horizontal and 5m vertical which is perfect for anyone looking for a bit of fun who doesn’t want to intrude on their neighbours.  Not to mention if you follow the link to their Kickstarter page

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Cars

Tesla was the major player in automotive represented at the expo with both the Model S and Model X on show. Once you get a closer look at the inside of the Model X it’s clear that cars fit a luxury market. Strictly from a design standpoint both cars share a uniqueness which is pushed further on the Model X SUV that lacks the raised cabin of other more traditional manufacturers and narrows towards the rear of the car. This is topped off with the vertically opening doors that are reminiscent of a DeLorean except that they fold and slide down at the middle. It’s certainly unique but as car enthusiasts neither my friend and I thought it looked like an attractive “sexy” car. Obviously, this is not the reason to purchase an electric car but since it starts at $134000 for a 75kWh battery in Australia it is something that consumers think about.

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Tesla Model X

The only other real display was from Toyota demonstrating the alternative to electric cars with the hydrogen powered Mirai. Not surprisingly the Mirai looks a little more mainstream and the technology is far more adventurous as it produces electricity rather than relying on the grid. Unfortunately, it is even further away from adaption in Australia as while charge stations are very rare and often need an grade to existing infrastructure for home installation, Hydrogen stations are not existent. No matter which way the future goes its clear that Australia will be lagging while that might be a tragedy for the environment the car enthusiasts in me that gets excited by the sound of a combustion engine or the look of Muscle Cars has a wry little smile.

 

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Toyota Mirai

 

Of course, there was other car tech around like the odd dash cam and Navdy heads up display. It was hardly an extensive range with only one booth and personally I feel there is scope in this category for development. Especially in trying to develop a long-lasting battery-operated dash cam because personally while every day on the road I’m reminded the of the value of dash cams but there is no way I’m running a cable from my windscreen to my centre console or paying more than the device is worth to get it installed, but maybe I’m being superficial. I doubt I’m the only one.

e-bikes & e-skateboards

To be honest this was an area I had very little interest in as even more than drones I just don’t see the point and that’s trying to be kind, since it could be said their raising popularity of a society that is become lazy. In some ways, perhaps an e-bike in the city makes some sense to avoid congestion but in most cases, I’ve still got to wounder why people just wouldn’t ride a normal bike. However, even this reasoning doesn’t explain the fascination with e-skateboards or Segway’s Firstly anyone using the later just look ridiculous and is a danger to themselves and others while the former seem like cashed up wannabe skaters.

Despite my personal ideas about such things the category was well represented with everything from skateboards with large Segway style wheels to those resembling their more traditional cousin with artistically designed decks. The inclusion of a test tract was a master stroke as I witnessed hordes of teens testing out anything that had at least two wheels. This is ultimately the key to sales, put the product in people’s hands and no doubt a few stalls cultivated a bit of interest.

Wearables

One of the more underrepresented categorise at the expo which is surprising considering the proliferation of fitness trackers and among other things. Firstly, none of the major brands were in attendance and secondly even most of the more niche makers who focus on fitness trackers like Garmin weren’t present either. The only watch like device on show was the HELO LX which is more health monitor than smartwatch in the true sense as it is not used to check emails or make calls. Instead the HELO LX is an active health monitor which tracks blood pressure, EKG, fatigue and soon your blood alcohol level, the later especially I’m sure received some interest from visitors. These features make it a unique but very niche product as realistically the average user is not going to want all this info at their finger tips but for anyone with health problems it is likely the least invasive solution.

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The other main piece of wearable technology that peaked my interest as a bit of a GYM junkie was 776bc and their range of active wear. Beyond state of the art compression tights the motion range uses biometric markers to allow you to film, annotate and compare your form to range of athletes. It is defiantly a worth while concept especially if your semi serious about your regime or a technical sport like rowing. However, it is worth noting that there are other products out like Athos training gear that has built in senses to track muscle effort and heart rate at a less affordable price or something like the Lumo Run which is more affordable but provides specialist data for running. Regardless of the merits of each brand it would have been good to see all these different smart clothing options in person just have a look at a few of the other options creeping onto the market with this list from wearable.com.

Smart Home

Unfortunately, the field I was most interested in was also the most poorly represented. Despite the presence of a Philips hue and Google Home display connected to Harvey Norman the Telstra booth was really the only one booth worth discussing. The telco set up a pop up lounge room to display its new smart hub subscription service complete with electric door locks, video cameras, thermostat and lights. The service starting at $25 a month for a starter kit looks like it might be the most cost-effective way to get started but the price could easily add up once you start adding components. Personally, it just made me think about researching other options like the Winx hub 2 among others which will defiantly cost more in the short term but has a wider range of compatible devices.

Final thoughts

Unfortunately, Australia doesn’t have a history in consumer electronics and it shows at the Tech + Gadget expo if you compare it to anything overseas. However, it has almost doubled in size from the inaugural event last year so hopefully this means that we can continue to develop change thus perception as there was enough of a turnout to suggest that it is worth the investment.

Victory in reliving defeat: Dunkirk

A war movie with a difference ‘Dunkirk’ is a testament to Christopher Nolan’s skill and vision as a filmmaker. A student of history and film I have seen most notable war movies from Apocalypse Now to Saving Private Ryan and can safely say that like these Dunkirk has a unique element which makes it a modern masterpiece.

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First and foremost Dunkirk is focused on the scale and magnitude of the events it is dramatizing. This is clear from the very beginning as Nolan uses wide establishing shots to show thousands of soldiers waiting inline for their chance to escape the beach. There is an odd order to the soldiers’ ere vigil as they stand patiently and helpless in the middle of a war zone which makes the entire scene feel surreal. However, to suggest that the film relies only on the large scale nature of events is overly simplistic instead it combines scale with the individual stories of almost nameless characters so that their own intimate experiences represents the stories of all the soldiers, pilots and seamen. This is perhaps most evident with Tommy and his different experiences trying to escape the beach. It is the combination of this scale and intimacy that gives the film its power and the ability play on the audiences emotions.

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Structurally, Nolan is able to explore these events and their emotional impact because the film is able to explore three different narratives which converge at the films climax. This is an element more common to epic fantasy than a war movie which traditionally focus on a small group of soldiers and their experiences. It is a convention which is violently put down at the start of the film as the opening sequence of a small band of soldiers walking through desolate streets seems to fit with the genre as the audience can assume these will be the men the film will follow, until the are all shot in the back without a word except for Tommy who escapes and starts the narrative. Not only does the plot of the film fail to follow convention but Nolan complicates the narrative by providing three different time scales; one week, one day and one hour. Logically this makes sense as the planes can only stay in the air for so long but an hour is not enough time to properly cover the experience on the ground. At times this can be a little disorientating especially as the film approaches the climatic focal point but the quick cuts between narratives and that very sensation adds to the building tension and ultimately works.
In a way the logical necessity of the different time scales is symbolic of one of the Dunkirk’s other main strengths, realism. This normally means a war movie with graphic levels of carnage like ‘Saving Private Ryan’ but Nolan does not look to sensationalise war in anyway, instead the film aims to present an authentic vision of the evacuation. The starting point here is establishing historical accuracy which is consistent throughout the film from the German propaganda, Churchill’s pessimistic hopes for the evacuation, the importance of the mole, the decision to hold back planes and even the soldiers’ anger towards the RAF all demonstrate Nolan’s commitment to detail and build a strong foundation. This is developed through the films ability to avoid sensationalism, perhaps most obvious in the depiction of the aerial battle. The small grouping of planes, the cramped cockpits, limited visibility and absence of eye-catching aerobatics are just a few examples as the film never tries to make these men out to be more than what the were. Instead the real story is allowed to impress audiences with the heroism of sacrifice and battling the odds. Perhaps the most striking element of realism is the limited use of dialogue which is kept only to lines that are seemingly necessary for the situation. It seems a simple idea but very few films seem to recognize that often by adding more dialogue it actually detracts from the overall visual medium as there is a tendency to use words to express ideas and emotions that can be shown to the audience rather than told using contrived dialogue.

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In many ways this is the context for a raft of strong supporting performances as in many ways ‘Dunkirk’ lacks a traditional lead. Fionn Whitehead who plays Tommy may have the most screen time but at no point does he dominate the film this makes sense since his character represents ever man on the beach. He has a difficult task alongside Domien Bonnard to make their non-verbal communication work but they both make their characters mutual understanding believable. As a result their journey is ultimately able to highlight the desperation and self preservation of all the men on the beach effectively for the audience.  Tom Hardy is no less effective using non verbal cues in his portrayal of Ferrier as the characters major decisions can all be seen clearly in his eyes. Emphasised perfectly by the films cinematography and editing to show the thoughts running through his mind. Than there are the elder statesmen in Mark Rylance and Kenneth Branagh who both bring so much to the film. Whether it is Rylance’s ability to downplay the heroism of his character Mr. Dawson or Branagh’s weary appearance of shouldering the burden of command they both create depth in their respective characters.  As a fan I couldn’t see anyone else balancing Commander Bolton’s forlorn sense of responsibility and his seemingly dry sense of humor with such master as Branagh, even his accent seems perfect for the role, a real British officer.

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Historically Dunkirk was an important moment in WW2, a catastrophic defeat that could have been much worse. Yet, the fact that the British were successful in evacuating most of their troops providing them with the will and resources to keep fighting the Germans until they could go on the offensive with the US. This fine line between victory and defeat is captured throughout the film as almost every moment of heroism is connected to tragedy. Even in the film’s conclusion there is seemingly nothing to celebrate and this highlights the triumph of Nolan’s work.
An absolute must see, 9/10

Old Man Logan

These day’s I rarely get to the cinemas to see the latest release, so I have had an agonising wait before finally getting  the chance to see ‘Logan’ but it was worth the wait. The latest instalment in the X-Men franchise is undoubtedly “The very best at what it does” and is not only notable as probably Hugh Jackman’s final appreance as Wolverine but a well written and directed film. It is darker and more complex intrant to the superhero genre which we haven’t seen since “The Dark Knight” and is a clear departure from the feel good uplifting films of the rest of the X-Men movies.

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One element responsible for the very noticeable change in tone is the movement away from the lighter side of the science fiction genre which has always been present in the rest of the franchise. Starting with the moment Logan opened his eye’s in the high tech lab under Xavier’s School for the Gifted to the Sentinels he was sent back in time to stop Wolverine’s appearance in the X-men films has always been connected with technology. In contrast “Logan” has a more post – apocalyptic feel similar to ‘Mad Max’ this is partly due to open and desolate landscapes that dominate the film. Sure their are still elements of technological advances like the robotic hands of the Alkali-Transigen Reaves who pursue Logan or the continuation of the Weapon X program. However, even this set in a rudimentary Mexican hospital and the entire process of impregnating young women is decidedly low tech not only for the franchise but for 2029 when the film is set. Perhaps the greatest example of this change is shown by comparing the scene in which Logan sees Laura receiving her adamantium graft, strapped to a simple medical chair and covered in blood, compared to his own operation at alkali lake in the submerged tank.

This more dystopian style of science fiction is than blended with elements of an old fashion western which focuses more on character and relationships than the grander idea of saving the world found in the rest of the X-Men movies, in fact the storyline itself, a journey across the country, has more in common with this genre. It is a link that James Mangold was quick to reinforce with reference to the movie ‘Shane’ which is not only paralleled in Logan and Laura’s own journey but the desire Charles has to see Logan settle with a family. Further, to this mix of genres Mangold introduces an extreme application of gore again reminiscent of something like ‘Mad Max’ with close ups of injuries and gritty fight sequences emphasised at times by the fact that many of the films most graphic sequences are perpetrated by a child. Again this is a departure from the rest of the X-Men franchise as although Wolverine has always amassed a body count his victims have rarely left a trail of blood. As a result the film has a darker and in some ways more realistic feel rather than the more family friendly version of Wolverine we have become more familiar with.

It is this darker tone that allows Mangold to explore more personal themes through his characters rather than the grandeur ideas of discrimination, tolerance, sacrifice and responsibility which have been done to death in the past films. Instead Mangold focuses on Logan’s depression and desire to escape either through the adamantium bullet or the unrealistic dream of escaping to the sea. This is tired in part to Logan’s physical deterioration as a result of adamantium poisoning which makes him reflect on the lives he has taken as his own is seemingly coming to an end and his recognition with the decline of mutants in society he no longer has a place. At the same time Mangold is able to explore similar real world experiences with an elderly Charles Xavier whose declining health has made him a danger to everyone around him. It’s clear for most of the film that he is haunted by the damage his powers have done but still wishes desperately to hang on to his sanity and therefore resists the medicine that keeps them in check, his struggle mirrors the experience of those with dementia. It’s not surprising than that Charles wants to try and make amends by encouraging Logan to take responsibility for Laura and possibly settle down as it is his last chance to make a positive impact on the world. The introduction of Laura and the revelation of her paternity, which lessor films would have made into a grand reveal at the end, forces Logan into a position of responsibility he never quite fulfills. Through out the film we see him offer sage advice and obviously protect Laura from the Reavers with their growing bond leading to his willingness to sacrifice himself to save her at the end but it’s clear that he recognises that it’s impossible for him to be the father that Charles wants him to become. These personal themes make the film far more relatable and powerful than previous X-Men movies and the feel good sense of adventure.

The resulting character driven storyline requires strong performances from both Patrick Stewart and Hugh Jackman. Since handing over the role of professor Charles Xavier to James McAvoy it seemed the Stewart’s contribution to the X-men Universe maybe finished but his final performance has more depth than before. Instead of the wise, self assured Professor X we have been accustom to from the original trilogy, Stewart gives a compelling vision of man battling against his own mental state. His ability to appear fragile and lost at the start of the film and yet still hold a semblance of the moral authority audiences expect from the character even if it is only apparent when he is pleading with Logan is testament to Stewarts credentials as an actor. Not to be out done Jackman also puts in his best performance as for most of the film Logan’s depression is communicated with an expression as it is not until late in the film that it is properly articulated. His portal of the popular brash and antagonist hero is still present whether it is in the action packed final sequence or through the simple little glimpses like Logan’s decision to grab a cigar after telling Laura not to steal but these glimpses are buried beneath the limp of a man carrying the weight of his past missed life on his shoulders.

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Amongst this mix of established and renowned talent Dafne Keen managers to hold her own. Her portrayal of Laura a deadly killing machine filled with rage in the form of a little girl is made more difficult by the fact that she does not talk for a large portion of the film. This means that Keen needs to communicate volumes with every look and piece of body language not an easy feat for a 12 year old actress. She does unbelievably well as it is obvious to the audience the different thoughts and feelings going through her mind. As a result the character appears sympathetic despite her ability to decapitate the men hunting her, this is thanks not only to Keen’s performance but Mangold and Scott Franks work with the script. Since they have been able to give Laura a sense of  innocence through the wonder she experiences at the outside world and cleverly balances the references to her childhood suffering in a way that prevents it becoming forced. When Laura does talk it serves to reinforce all the key elements of the film since she speaks in Spanish without subtitles. The English speaking audience like Logan is left to use the context of what she says to derive her meaning but fail to comprehend every word. Not only does this put the audience alongside the main protagonist but it also serves to highlight the fact that despite their growing bond the characters are separated by very different worlds.

So far I have highlighted in depth what makes “Logan” a great film but it is more than that as it is still an X-men movie to the core as Mangold does a wonderful job of paying tribute to the comic book universe in addition to the past films. Some times these are in subtle elements of set design like the Samurai sword hanging in Logan’s room  or the throw away line at the start about Liberty Island that takes fans back to the very beginning in 2000 or my personal favourite the Wolverine figurine wearing yellow spandex. More significantly the premise of an aging Logan pays a respectful homage to the ‘Old Man Logan’ series of comics without adapting the story and Mangold even finds a way to use the X-men comics as a plot device which defiantly got this fan boy excited. Even these elements could have easily become a gimmick if the plot and the introduction of Laura ( X – 23) was done poorly but the film manages this well by using the X-men evolution series as a starting point and returning to Wolverine’s own origins as part of the Weapon X program.  The film therefore can be seen as a maturing of the franchise aimed at the audience who grew up with cartoons and comic books but are now looking for something a bit darker and complex than the lighter films of the past.

“Logan” won’t be for everyone, for starters it’s not the film to take your kids to see but for diehard fans and movie junkies it is a must see. I’m sure there are many fan boys out there who see “Logan” as a bit bitter sweet moment, it is the stand alone movie we have waited for especially since the train wreak which was X-Men Origins: Wolverine but unfortunately the last.

5.5 Claw marks out of 6

 

 

 

 

Review: Legacy of the Beast

Iron Maiden’s well publicised RPG now available on the Apps Store and Google Play has been well promoted by the band during their latest world tour supporting “The Book of Souls”. The game draws inspiration from all the bands previous albums and combines the music and artwork that fans have come to love with the tried formula of a turn based RPG. As you might expect the gameplay isn’t anything unique for mobile RPGs with a simple levelling system and well throughout skill trees combined with a plethora of in app purchases. This was never going to be the draw of “Legacy of the Beast” as it has been a game designed for hard-core fans who would recognise every reference from the bands back catalogue.

The game is well conceived to take advantage of Maiden’s mascot Eddie as you must play through a series of worlds from the Ailing Kingdom (The Wicker Man), The Kingdom of the Sands (Powerslave) and The Underworld (Number of the Beast) in order to recover the pieces of Eddie’s soul. Playing through each world unlocks another portion of Eddie’s soul and an aspect of the mascot to add to your playable characters which are interchangeable during play to capitalise on  their unique abilities.

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Beyond the inspiration for each world it’s not surprising that the developers have managed to squeeze in as many references to the bands body of work wherever possible. The newest album features strongly in the games mechanics as the book of souls which you collect early in the tutorial phrase allows you to utilise soul shards in order to summon creatures to help Eddie as he fight his way an army of cultist. However, the others are all their somewhere in different ways like the equitable items called talismans (The Final Frontier) the ever present guide called “The Clairvoyant” (Seventh Son of the Seventh Son) or a line of dialogue.

The result is a real blast for any Maiden fan as you can’t help prove your knowledge of the band by picking up all the little nodes to individual tracks. A soundtrack of some of the bands greatest hits is just the icing on the cake but is the element that obviously has pulled everything else together.

The Force Awakens a hit of nostalgia

Before the 17th of December the world was in overdrive with speculation and we all wondered whether J.J Abrams could deliver on the hype. After the disappointment of the prequels many fans were sceptical of a new Star Wars movie especially with the recent acquisition by Disney a brand who has always focused on targeting a younger audience. The involvement of the original cast helped convince many of us that “The Force Awakens” was going to be different as it suggested a more respectful approach to the original movies. Ultimately this is what Abrams has been able to deliver a continuation from “Return of The Jedi” that feels like a Star Wars movie and generally gives a balance between something new and a strong shoot of nostalgia.

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This mentality is obvious from the film’s opening scene to the start of the credits elements of the story, settings and even specific shots are all reminiscent of the originals but slightly different. The perfect example of this without giving anything away is Jakku, a sand covered backwater planet that looks remarkable like Tatoonie. The film draws the similarities together through the establishing shots of the scenery and the costume design of its inhabitants while emphasising the differences like the remains of a past battle. The result is a setting the conjures up memories of “A New Hope” while not simply reusing the same familiar places like Episode 1. A trend continued throughout the film, this is the Star Wars we know but different.

The overall storyline of “The Force Awakens” follows this same principle as it obviously borrows elements from all of the original films. The overriding structure of “A New Hope” mixed with the intensity of a character driven story like “The Empire Strikes Back” and just a dash of “Return of the Jedi” finished off with a couple of changes to make it different. It’s a combination that works well for most of the film as it allows fans to get comfortable, embrace new characters and be satisfied with a thoroughly genuine Star Wars experience. However, it’s a difficult balance which shifts a little too far for my liking in the films climax and just needed to be a little more unique to deliver the same intensity of the original trilogy. This is less of a problem with the more personal part of the storyline which tries to deliver a few twists and surprises much like “Empire”. Overall this part of the plot is done well yet, personally I found a few of these surprises a bit more predictable than Luke’s parentage and perhaps removing some of the sign posts would have increased their impact for the audience.

The main source of originality in “The Force Awakens” comes from the introduction of a new cast and well developed characters. Daisy Ridley gives an especially praiseworthy performance as Rey the resourceful scavenger on Jakku ends up being thrown into the conflict between the Resistance and The First Order. The character is unique in the Star Wars universe as she distinguishes herself from Leia through her background, resourcefulness and the profound sense of abandonment which Ridley doesn’t overplay as is the custom in many Hollywood blockbusters. Rey’s backstory is only partially revealed in the film suggesting that her history is going to be a focus for the rest of the trilogy however these gaps were well thought-out and don’t leave the audience feeling let down like something was missing. Rey’s struggle against the First Order is well supported in part by Poe Dameron played by Oscar Isaac whose delivery of refreshing one-liners makes sure he leaves an impression as the ace x-wings pilot. However, it is Rey’s more direct sidekick in Finn a Stormtrooper with a conscious fleeing the First Order (John Bodega) who threatens at times to steal the show. Bodega does well early in the film to portray the character’s sense of fear through a rushed and panicked demeanour but is equally effective in representing the characters shift to a more driven antagonist. The strength of these characters are at the core of “The Force Awakens” positive reviews as they are a noticeable improvement on a key failure from the prequels and don’t fit into any preconceived imitations of the existing characters.

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On the other side Kylo Ren is possible the most well characterised villain in Star Wars history as he has a well-defined backstory, clear motivations and inner conflict. This is in stark contrast to the prequels which failed to even give Darth Maul anything resembling a character. Perhaps the only downside is that Ren’s backstory develops so quickly that the film loses this possible source of tension. Despite this he is well-conceived as weaving in a helmet and voice distortion that resembles Darth Vader gives the character presence and ultimately fits well with his motivations so that it doesn’t seem like the filmmaker just tries to capitalise on the past success. Adam Driver was well cast to fill the role as he seems to personify the uncertainty that plagues the character and is equally believable earlier in the film with youthful confidence in his abilities. Unfortunately, Ren is not as well supported by his fallow First Order leaders, General Hux is given some clear characteristics as the traditional soldier in uniform who follows orders and clearly resents Ren for his methods and position but he is only really partially defined. Next to Hux the characterisation of Supreme Leader Snoke and Captain Phasma is non-existent and perhaps are the result of the filmmakers fixing plot holes or developing a means of introducing information. In the case of Snoke this is a clear limitation of the film and may have been more effectively introduced while Phasma is an opportunity lost as the idea of a female Stormtrooper was intriguing. Hopefully, these failings can be improved upon in Episode 8 as without any support from existing characters The First Order needs to be more clearly defined.

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Importantly it is these characters rather than the old favourites that carry the film at the start as Abrams obviously recognised that an audience needed to be invested in Rey, Finn and BB-8 before the appearance of familiar faces. The current internet buzz about Rey’s backstory demonstrates the overall success of strategy. When it happens the introduction of the old heroes generally works well as Han Solo is as roguish as ever and C-3Po still wins the prize for worst timing awards. The only miss step is the films use of Princess Leia as her role in the Resistance is poorly defined and she doesn’t seem to add much to the story. Conversely, the appearance of Luke Skywalker was perfect as the central hero of the original trilogy he more than anyone needed to take a step back but still remain important. The result is a clear point of suspense for the next film and a good starting point to transition Luke into a mentoring role previously filled by Obi-Wan and Yoda.

The other main element that has contributed to “The Force Awakens” success in the past few days is the return to practical effects. This was the hallmark of the original films using models and wires rather than the modern CGI which nearly destroyed the Star Wars universe in the prequels. Embracing these techniques means that Episode 7 feels and looks like a Star Wars movie and not just any big budget action flick made in the last 15 years. It does mean Maz Kanata does standout a little for the wrong reasons but overall the different elements are blended well by a director with a history in science fiction including Star Trek, Fringe and Lost. This feel is capped off the customary John Williams score and the sound team who bring the universe to life.

Overall “The Force Awakens” is a very successful continuation of the franchise that uses nostalgia effectively to satisfy existing fans and introduce the new characters that will drive the series forward. It’s not perfect with a few plot holes and some characters that aren’t properly defined but these don’t detract too much from the whole package. I’ll be definitely going back for a second viewing in the coming weeks and might update this review with a few more specifics so keep checking. Until then let me know what you think as I’m always keen to discuss anything Star Wars or check out these reviews over at the movie guysThe .

8.5/10

Jono

 

Spectre: A Fanboy Homage

The 24th Bond movie is a strong continuation from the hugely successful “Skyfall” but it is definitely more aimed at traditional fans than any of Daniel Craig’s previous efforts. SPECTRE takes all the elements reintroduced in “Skyfall” like Moneypenny, Q and the DB9 to another level combining them with the new method of personalised storytelling that revolutionised the francise with “Casino Royale”. The result is largely successful but does make a few trade offs which might not appeal to wider audiences but are second nature to die hard fans like myself.

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SPECTRE’s opening scene works well to capture audiences attention following the model of Craig’s other movies as it creates certain questions which the film has to answer. This opening chase sequence is inhanced by the stunning setting of Mexico City during the day of the dead which allowed the custome designers to explore different images of the macabre and turn it into a real spectacle. Where as Craig’s other films have emphasised a focus on slightly more realistic stunts the helicopter sequence at the end of Bond’s breif chase through the parade requires the audience to suspend their disbelief and is a little reminiscent of “GoldenEye” where Bond jumps into a falling plane. In many ways this shift epitomises the differnce between SPECTRE and “Skyfall”.

This exangeration is also visible in the main plot as it tries to tie the previouse three films together. Like “Quantum of Solace”, SPECTRE follows on directly from the last film and does this reasonably well with ‘M’ leaving Bond a secret message that sets up one last mission for the old boss. It also offers continuaty with Ralph Fiennes, Naoime Harris, Rory Kinnear and Ben Whishaw all reprising their roles from “Skyfall” as Bond’s fellow members of MI6. Unfortunately, the link with Craig’s other films isn’t as successful since the overiding storyline becomes a bit far fetched and feels overly simplistic at times.

Beyound the links to the previouse films the plot continues to deal with more of Bond’s personal life. This does successfully build the tension between Bond and Blofeld played by Christopher Waltz but is incapable of reaching the development present in “Casino Royale” or “Skyfall”. Similarly the film tries to build a relationship between Bond and Dr Madeleine Swann portayed by Léa Seydoux but despite their on screen chemistry she’s no Vesper. Overall the plot tries too hard to recaputre previous success and doesn’t quiet pull it off, yet it is far from a complete wreak.

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The strength of SPECTRE is undoubtedly the emphasis on the traditional Bond formula. Firstly, Ben Whishaw’s return as Q brings with it new and familar toys including a fully equiped Austen Martin DB10. More subtle then this is the return of a good old fashioned Bond henchmen in Mr Hinx played by Dave Bautista. A silent imposing figure he often appears seemingly out of nowhere and his physical size makes him a match for Craig. Like these elements the return of Blofeld the old nemesis might not please everyone but it does get fans who have grown up watching Bond films excited.

The result is a very good Bond movie but one that doesn’t rise to the heights acheived by “Skyfall”. Still it has it’s moments and is the first time since before the 80’s that a highpoint in the francise has not been followed by a monumental disappointment.

7.5/10

Jono

Retro Review:Casino Royale

Taking over from the naturally charming Pearce Brosnan who had become regarded by many as possibly the best Bond after Sean Connery was always going to be a challenge. Daniel Craig was also for many at the time an unknown quantity with parts in movies like Tomb Raider, Munich and Layer Cake when he was cast as the world’s most famous spy.  Plan’s for a rebut made some fans nervous and only added to the building uncertainty as film makers had flagged their intention to follow the more physical and realistic style laid out by the Bourne series. In this climate it was announced that Daniel Craig’s first movie as 007 would be an adoption of Fleming’s first novel Casino Royale which didn’t fail to get people excited. Ultimately these decisions help lead to a successful debut and possible the best Bond film ever made.

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The switch to a more physical approach worked perfectly for the introduction of the athletic Daniel Craig. This new look is obvious from the film’s opening sequence as the planned clean kill turns into a desperate struggle for survival. It isn’t until after Chris Connell’s theme that Craig’s physical approach to 007 really comes into focus through the parkour chase sequence in a construction site. While this opening scene may have been the height of Bonds physicality it remains visible throughout the rest of the film either in several hand to hand fight sequences or Bonds torture. This change allowed the film to distinguish Craig’s Bond from the earlier versions but isn’t the main reason for the film’s success.

Instead it is the focus on character development and creating a more emotionally complex storyline that makes Casino Royale standout. The central plot based on the capture of La Chiffre makes for an interesting backdrop to develop Bond’s character. The nearly promoted 007 spends most of the film coming to terms with his new position in the secret service as he is driven by a need to prove himself to those around him. This play’s out in the suspense of the poker game where Bond matches wits with La Chiffre and tries to impress the hard to catch Vesper Lynd. Unlike other movies where everything runs to plan the poker game forces Bond to face his own failure before he is given the chance to learn from his mistakes. His success is short lived as he must learn yet another cruel lesson when those closest to Bond ultimately betray him leaving him damaged and enlighten to the dangers of failing to remain detached.

This focus on character development would not be possible without a strong supporting cast. Dame Judi Dench remains reprising her role as M, ably fulfilling a duel maternal role, part guardian and part disciplinarian.  Mal Mikkelsen gives a calculating performance as La Chiffre providing a reserved counter to Bond’s charisma. It is the rare occasions when he loses his cool that Mikkelsen makes the role work as he gives a real intensity that represents the desperation of La Chiffre position. Possibly the greatest choice made by the production team however is Eva Green as Vesper Lynda. Not only is she captivating on screen but her ability to deliver witty comebacks with believable sarcasm makes the banter with Bond work. Like the other characters in Casino Royale, Vesper drops the prickly demeanour which Bond highlights at their first meaning and Green is able to effectively communicate her character’s emotional turmoil as their relationship develops. These strong performances help make Casino Royale more believable and contribute to Bond’s own development but what I notice the most is the film’s return to Fleming’s original body of work.

Reading my first Bond novel years ago ‘Dr No’ the thing that struck me as a fan of the films is Bond’s fragility as a man of flesh and blood as he spends a large section of the book either in pain or recovering. This same element is present in Casino Royale as unlike other Bond movies every battle leaves him with new scares that he must carry, the best example is after the fight in the hotel staircase as later when he is using the defibrillator the bandage from this earlier sequence is visible. Like Fleming’s Bond the representation in Casino Royale doesn’t get everything right and this leads to his capture and torture. This scene which makes every man in a cinema wince has Bond stripped of any hope or chance of escape and he relies ultimately on Mr White’s intervention for his survival.

The film ends with the classic James Bond calling card but Casino Royale is far from the simplistic story of its 20 predecessors with clear layers of development. However, importantly for fans it does not do away with the traditional elements of the classics as the silencer, car and witty one liners are all balanced with new style of Bond movie.

9/10

Jono

Retro – Review: Halo 3

The final instalment of the original story arc was always going to have to be something special and it delivered. Personally I have found memories of the games release in 2007 as a friend and I hooked the Xbox 360 up to my dad’s projector and surround sound system. The hours of gaming that followed as we ran through the campaign on heroic always comes to mind any time I play the game. So what made Halo 3 almost the perfect shooter…

Game play

Like Halo 2 the major format of game play remains largely unchanged from the original but adds a couple of new elements. The inclusion of “support weapons” made it easier to take down large groups of Brutes or vehicles. Extra firepower comes at a price as caring the two handed weapons prevents you from using grenades and slows movement. Limited ammo in “support weapons” means that you can’t hang on to them forever which prevents the game from getting easy.

The other major addition to overall game play was the introduction of deployable equipment which includes grave lifts, energy drains and different shields among other things. These items can be picked up and swapped like weapons depending on your tactics. This new feature is helpful in campaign but really comes into its own during multiplayer due to the faster pace. While some equipment is clearly more useful then others it does provide players with more opportunity to change their strategy which for me has always been important to the success of Halo.

Multiplayer

Along with the general game play additions Halo 3 introduced a couple of new multiplayer features which allowed it to capitalise on the strength of Halo 2. The most revolutionary element of the game is the introduction of Forge a personalised multiplayer map system which allows players to change the location of vehicles, weapons and items. Historically I haven’t been a massive online gamer and have only briefly tested this out but I can definitely see its appeal.  Considering this It’s not surprising that 343 have promised to add Forge to Halo 5 with an update.

Personally, my favourite multiplayer option has always been cooperative normally on a split screen. Halo 3 unlike most games didn’t ignore this method of gaming as it introduced online cooperative for the first time and to capitalise on players’ competitive nature this included a points rank system. This feature provided a lot of potential which is set to be recognised in Halo 5 as players all had original characters; Master Chief, The Arbiter and two elites. Unfortunately, in Halo 3 game play is the same for all characters which is where Halo 5 will take the next step.

Storyline & Setting

The main campaign starts from where Halo 2 unceremoniously left fans hanging and picks up the story with Truth’s forces occupying part of earth. The first part of the game sees the Chief hook up with some old friends to regroup before moving to attack. At first it’s a bit odd playing through Halo without Cortana’s usual commentary but we are constantly reminded of her presence due to some quick flashes.

Despite your best efforts the Chief can’t stop Truth from reaching the Ark but before he can follow the The Flood crash High Charity into the remains of the city. Thankfully this gives the Chief the opportunity to keep a promise and save Cortana before traveling through the portal to stop Truth and The Flood.

Unlike Halo 2 the campaign is hugely satisfying as it incorporates customary Halo twists where the Chief finds himself temporally allied with different enemies and more importantly an ending. The storyline even works on character development with the forming of a friendship of sorts with the Arbiter and a clear progression of the relationship between Cortana and the Chief which becomes central to Halo 4. In the main storyline Halo 3 even gives homage to the original which gets the nostalgia really flowing and is a real payoff for diehard fans.

Overall

Halo 3 is the most complete game in the series as it continues to develop game play in small ways while retaining the formula that has made the series a success. In addition, it builds on the strengths of Halo 2 while clearly making an effort to improve open it’s weakness through a well developed central storyline. If this is the way the world ends, I’m cool with it.

Game play: 9.5

Multiplayer: 9

Storyline: 10

Overall: 9.5/10

Jono

Retro – Review: Halo – Combat Evolved

Less than 10 days out from the release of Halo 5: Guardians I thought it was the perfect time to look back on each chapter of the Master Chief’s journey so far, starting with the game that started it all way back in 2001. Back then after a Nintendo 64 I was tossing up between a PS2 or jumping on board Microsoft’s new Xbox. Not invested in any PlayStation titles due to my previous experience with the N64 Halo was one thing that helped me reach a decision, one I have never regretted. This is all easy to say but what has made Halo, one of the most successful franchises in gaming and allowed it to revolutionise the first person shooter?

Gameplay

In the late 90’s the first person shooter was dominated by Rare’s Goldeneye and Perfect Dark with an overflowing bag of weapons with multiple firing modes, duel wield and different level objectives. Halo was a departure from this formula as for the first time it introduced a two weapon cap on players which means you had to think about your load out, ammo and the terrain. The addition of grenades and mêlée attacks without holstering your weapon enhanced the speed of combat making it more intense than other shooters at the time. This combination, Bungie’s “golden trilogy” is a large part of Halo’s success as it added strategy to the well-established run and gun experience.

Halo never just relied on the traditional FPS format however as after the first stage the straightforward “The Pillar of Autumn” players are quickly introduced to more open environments with a range of more complex objectives. Once the Chief crashes on the ring the game takes on a whole new life with the addition of a range of vehicles from Warthogs to Banshee’s. Not only does this continue to add diversity to the campaign but vehicles have become a key element of the multiplayer experience. I will never forget taking out a guy in a Scorpion with a shotgun and then repeating it with his brother in a Ghost, priceless.

This diversity is definitely a highlight of the first part of the game whether it’s the covert start to “The Truth and Reconciliation” or the playful beach combing of the “The Silent Cartographer” the game just draws players in with the combination of elements. Unfortunately, the only criticism I have is that some of the later maps just can’t keep this up and become a little to repetitive. In part this is because you are in fact back tracking at times through the same environment while fighting the Flood. Even so Halo’s game play developed a winning formula which has now redefined the way gamers approach first person shooters since the old Rare days.

Storyline & Setting

Being the first entrant into the Halo universe the game needed to introduce gamers to the Covenant, the UNSC and their ongoing conflict without trying to bore us with long explanations. The opening sequence with Captain Keyes does this really well as we know that humanity is at war against a more advanced Alien species and the ship you are on has been trying to escape. Aside from this you are introduced to Cortana and set out to kill some Covenant while trying to escape the besieged Pillar of Autumn.

During game play Cortana is actually able to build your knowledge of the Halo universe whether it is through intercepted Covenant communications about the ring, an analysis of the artificial weather or simply warning the Chief of incoming ‘Hunters’. This is extremely well-done as Cortana’s dialog works within the context of the game to assist the Chief yet teachers the player almost subconsciously to be able to recognise different types of enemies or build their knowledge of the wider backstory. It is through this ongoing communication that we first learn that Halo holds some form of religious significance for the Covenant as this is never mentioned in any of the games cinematics which like the opening tell you enough while avoiding explorations by focusing on the development of plot.

It doesn’t take long before the universe you thought you were getting to know gets thrown upside down with introduction of the Flood. Quickly you find yourself trying to work out this new enemy without Cortana who is temporarily replaced by 343 Guilty Spark thanks to a well-planned series of events that find you a companion who is in a position to give the same style of hints about this new enemy. Lesser games and even poor quality movies would just say that Cortana has hacked a console to find the information rather than providing 343 Guilty Spark to fulfil the role in “The Library”. The monitors betrayal and the revelation of Halo’s true purpose is the final twist that sets up the games conclusion as you fight your way through the Flood, Covenant and the installations drones to destroy the ring.

The main plot is engaging and has always been successful at drawing gamers in to the Halo universe but it is the cultures and history it alludes to that has allowed the franchise to build over the next decade. A mention of the destruction of Reach has grown into its own game and numerous books while the Forerunners are currently being explored in the latest additions to the Master Chiefs story. All of this is ultimately the result of the world presented to us in this original master piece.

Audio

Normally, I wouldn’t comment on the sound of a game as while it is perhaps the most important element that allows gamers to leave their living room and become engrossed in another world it is never usually that memorable. Again this is where Halo is unique like the James Bond theme or the opening to TV shows the score is cemented in our minds and can conjure memories of playing the game. I cannot think of another game with a similar effect and its testament to the strength of the composition to inspire a sense of wonder.

Since 2001 Halo has rightly been recognised as one of the greatest games ever made as it revolutionised the genre and gave fans such a rich world to explore. It is definitely responsible for the success of the original Xbox and Microsoft’s continued presence in the console business. Personally, what still sets Halo apart for me is the well-crafted and non-predictable storyline which is something absence from most shooters.

Gameplay 9/10

Storyline 10/10

Audio 9/10

Overall 9.5/10

Check back in a few days as I take a look at Halo 2,

Jono

An Iron Soul part 2: Maiden’s “The book of souls” continued

In stark contrast to the atmospheric “If eternity should fail”, disc 2 begins with the intense and galloping “Death or Glory” which follows in the footsteps of “Aces High” as it tells the story of WWI tri-planes. The guitar really complements this concept as the riff seems to climb before falling back down to earth and rushes Dickinson’s well composed lyrics to give the impression of dog fighting. Through all this is Harris’ customary bass line which really gives the song a truly Maiden feel.

Reprising the opening from 1986’s “Wasted Years” is “Shadow of the Valley” a reasonably safe song which struggles to stick in my mind Beyond the first 30 seconds. In many ways it reminds me of 2010’s “Isle of Avalon” but fails to reach any of the same heights and doesn’t really distinguish itself from the rest of the album.

Dedicated to the memory of Robin Williams, “Tears of a Clown” is a powerful and well written reminder about the dangers of depression. To start the guitar seems to halt mind riff as the energy wants to build it stops and is concluded by Nicko’s drums which remain noticeable throughout the song. It is however Dickinson’s vocals carried by the rhythmic bass that makes the track. Not only are they clear and easy to follow but from personal experience they made me reject on aspects of my own minor struggles with depression. It is a fitting tribute to actor who gave everyone years of laughter and whose personal struggles went unnoticed through the public façade, perhaps giving us a final lesson to look beyond the surface.

“The Man of Sorrows” has a bit more of a stripped back and raw sound reminiscent of the bands earlier work but at a noticeably slower pace. Dickinson’s operatic vocal style is in full effect with different length notes dominating the song before the guitar solo adds a little more intensity. Like, ” Shadows of the Valley” this track fails to really distinguish itself however it is reasonable entertaining if not memorable and provides a moment to take a breath before the grand finally.

The album’s triumph and possibly the bands magnum opus “Empire of the clouds” doesn’t sound anything like an Iron Maiden song. Opening with Dickinson on Piano and building a layered orchestral melody the song foreshadows the tragic events of the history it is about to tell while also symbolising the beauty of the havens. As the song develops the music begins to tell the story alongside the lyrics as Nicko’s military drums softly allude to the idea of Empire and the Airships own roots while the melody of the piano is gradually taken over by the mimicking guitar as it builds towards its final flight. The well composed lyrics with their multiple meanings like the obvious reference to the our father, in the  ‘kingdom yet to come’ while alluding to the notion of an Empire united by Air travel symbolised by the title, to the imagery of the ‘silver ghost’ make this one of Maiden’s most finely crafted tracks. This well constructed build up changes with the approaching storm as guitar’s quicken their pace begin to drive the Airship towards France this instrumental movement forms the basis for the songs outstanding solos before giving way to the turbulent description of the tragedy. This raising torrent resolves itself with the crash and the piano returns with its sombre tones and bury the ‘Empire of the Clouds’ along with the 48 victims of the tragedy.

Maiden’s longest ever track at 18 minutes carries ever second better than other songs of similar length like In – The – Gadda – Da- Vida and is their purest example of storytelling. After multiple listens I can recognise why Steve Harris labelled the song a masterpiece as it has distinct movements, multiple layers and elements of a classical overture as the music itself inspires listeners to imagine scenes and moods. Personally, I can’t help but put “Empire of the Clouds” up their with “Rime of the Ancient Marnier” as the best epics produced by the band over their 40 year history.

Maiden have their own ‘Empire of the Clouds’ as they take the new Ed Force One across the continents in 2016

The album as a whole is simply brilliant with variations in pace and melody Maiden is able to combine their established sound with new elements. At 92 minutes it might be an exercise in endurance for some but as someone who has easily spent hours in the last few weeks listening to their back catalogue non-stop this isn’t a problem. Even so the divide between discs makes “The book of souls” work as two separate albums of more manageable length. While not every song reaches the same heights the album delivers  two clear standouts  that sit amongst the bands best work, “The Red and the Black” and “Empire of the Clouds” makes it arguebly their most complete effort since “Seventh Son of a Seventh Son” in 1988 but for me it is a toss up with “The Final Frontier”.

4.5/5 Eddies

Up the Irons!!

Check out the first half of my review here.

Jono