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Get the signal out!!

After spending last night playing the board game with a couple of friends I felt like it was the right time to talk about one of my favourite TV shows, Joss Whedon’s “Firefly” and the follow up movie “Serenity”. Back when I was in high school I came across this little gem while surfing channels late at night where it had been relegated by Australian commercial TV. After a couple of weeks of raving about it to my best mate at school he jumped on board and neither of us missed an episode. We were both crushed when we learned it had been cancelled and I ordered the box set from the US for about $70 (it did not appear in Australia until the movie was released). The release of “Serenity” in 2005 offered a bit of closure after we saw it opening week but still “firefly” remains for me one of the best TV series ever made especially in the Science Fiction genre which is often plagued by clichés and generic storylines.

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A massive “Buffy” fan from an early age the fact that “Firefly” was the latest Joss Whedon project never really entered my mind back when I started watching even though his trade make wit makes the series. The storyline and character of Malcolm Reynolds played by Nathan Fillion grab my attention from the start as a roguish smuggler who was torn between his desire to make a buck and do the right thing in the ‘Train Job’. Immediately as a Star Wars fan I couldn’t help but draw a comparison with Han Solo (obviously a common feeling since the production of Han and Mal Associates t-shirts) which made me want to keep watching. Beyond this first impression the character is quickly revealed to be far more than Star Wars knock off as Mel is plagued by the failure of the independent movement and battle of serenity something that Han never has to deal with. However, there is more to ‘firefly’ than one character and it is the relationship between crew members and their little quirks that make the show, whether it is Jayne’s (Adam Baldwin) macho attitude, Wash (Alan Tudyk) playing with dinosaur figurines in the cockpit or Zoe’s (Gina Torres) badass solder routine it all create a tight nit feeling of family. The fact that all the cast returned for “Serenity” shows the joy they had working on set and this comes across in the performance as they seem to genuinely care about each other and naturally share banter which is the core of the show.han-solo-and-captain-malcolm-reynolds-partners-in-crime-t-shirt
The main entertainment might come from the characters, but it is the unique premise of the series and the unusual combination of different genres that still shows a lot of scope for development and really set it apart from the rest of the genre. Starting with ‘The Train Job’ as the pilot was aired out of order the audience are left with a lot of questions even before the opening credits as the firefly transport Serenity roars to life over a western style bar brawl. On first impression this is a bit of shock but as you continue watching the genus of “Firefly” quickly reveals itself. The show is largely based on the separation of the wealthy on the central planets emphasised in episodes like “Ariel” or “Trash” and those who are forced to struggle for survival, it is therefore an extension of the inequality present in our own society. This also reinforces the reality that the ‘verse was recently torn apart by war and therefore the defeated communities also need to deal with economic and social recovery largely without the help of the Systems Alliance which is too busy policing the wealthy that supported them in the first place. After watching the whole series it’s clear that Whedon has tried to imagine a future based on our current world. This includs the proliferation of corporations in the form of the omnipresent Blue Sun which if you watch the special features is likened to coca cola but is probably more in line with Apple or Google today. Constructing a future based on the present is also behind the Anglo-Chino fusion that makes up the surrounding culture as the USA and China as the major economic and political powers of today would survive the destruction of ‘Earth that was’ and form a new culture as humanity spreads into space.
This gives the series its uniqueness, but I also found that it also creates a sense of realism despite the odd combination of horses and spaceships. Primary this is because ‘Firefly’ unlike most other Science Fiction series or films does not suggest that humanity in venturing out into the black would suddenly fine peace and become united since if history has shown us anything it is our undeniable capacity for conflict. Secondly, the Anglo-Chino fusion also does not assume that western culture has become the dominate and only human culture while also not going overboard and suggesting that cultural boundaries remained the same after the destruction of earth. The whole thing makes the world of ‘Firefly’ rich viewing based on a level of complexity only someone like Joss Whedon can create.
The movie picks up on these elements and follows one of the plot threads started in the series however due to the limited running time the complexity is simplified and never really explored. In a way that means the premature cancellation of “Firefly” by Fox leaves a lot of perspective plots undeveloped and in some ways, it is primed for a second run. Previously, Netflix has likened “Firefly” to other cult classics like “Twin peaks” with a decreasing fan base however my experience is that Browncoats like myself haven’t lost any passion and since 2002 when the show first aired increased in number (possible because we happen to sell it to anyone we think will like it). Perhaps that means at some point it will go the way of other classics like “Twin Peaks” and the “X-Files” but this could only work with the return of Joss Whedon alongside Nathan Fillion, Gina Torres and the rest of the cast and with all of which having moved on to more recent success it seems unlikely.

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Regardless of the absence of any future, do yourself a favour jump onboard because the whole thing is like one mighty fine shindig. It doesn’t last long but you’ll be talking about it for years.
Jono

10 best journeys to a galaxy far, far away

Considering The Force Awakens is still dominating the box office I thought I might do a countdown of my top 10 games that took us into a galaxy far, far away. Just a quick disclaimer as a console gamer there is only one PC game on the list and I haven’t played anything that predates the N64, so if one of your favourites doesn’t appear don’t hold it against me but would love your opinion in the comments.

10.Shadow of the Empire – N64 (1997)

I’m not going to argue that Shadow is a perfectly produced game but it had a really good bases as it allowed players to take on a unique character that shared traits with one of the favourite hero form the films without having a predetermined outcome. In addition, it was possibly the first Star Wars game which combined different modes of game play whether it’s plying on foot as Dash Render or piloting the Outrider. The opening stage is definitely a highlight and while most players find it drops away the longer you play it definitely opened up possibilities for the future.

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9.Republic Commandos – PC/Xbox (2005)

A unique chapter in Star Wars gaming as players take command of an elite band of clones rather than the usual role of a hero. This first person shooter developed using the Unreal engine has obvious similarities with other squad based games like Gears of War released a year later, as players can be revived by squad mates and issue commands. Therefor it’s no surprise the fast paced action left players wanting more and the only real drawback was the short length of the campaign and multiplayer.

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8.The Force Unleashed – PS2, PS3, Xbox 360, Wii (2008)

Excellent graphics, a good storyline and a well voiced protagonist helped this game establish itself as one of the best sellers for 2008. However, The Force Unleashed was well hyped before its release and the repetitive method of game play combined with the absence of multiplayer disappointed some fans. Never being much of an online gamer this was never that much of a drawback and I just try to change up my own tactics to keep it interesting, after all where else can you electrify your lightsaber before thronging it.force_unleashed_1a-1920x1200

7.Lego Star Wars: The Complete Saga – Xbox 360, PS3, Wii, PC (2007)

Combining one of the most successful toys and Star Wars started something as the Lego series has since expanded to including Indiana Jones, Batman, Harry Potter and The Avengers. These games allow players to jump into well-known story lines and regularly change amongst their favourite characters while experience a fun easy to learn method f game play. Star Wars was able to capitalise on this combination due to its wide fan base and the desire to play through the events of the films for less serious gamers. Lego Star Wars might not be anything special on game play but all the sequel means that it has definitely had an impact.

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6.The Old Republic – PC (2011)

The only exclusive PC game on my list grab my attention due to its console origins is an MMORPG based 3500 years before the films. On release it became the fastest growing MMORPG but after the initial surge it had trouble keeping subscribers and has since introduced a free-to-play option.

The game play draws heavily from its predecessors and distinguishes itself from other MMORPG’s through the introduction of companion system. These companions are linked to your chosen class which also offer a range of different builds to explore. The scale of the Star Wars universe has never been bigger and this is definitely a must for serious fans

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5.Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy  – PC, Mac, Xbox (2003)

Jedi Academy like its predecessor Jedi Outcast combines first person and third person shooters with elements of RPG’s by allowing gamers to customise their characters’ force powers. Academy’s main advantage is the story allows players to jump straight into combat with a lightsaber this allows players to develop their fighting technique and customise their lightsaber later on. In addiction the game brought an enhanced multiplayer which allowed players to take on each other using Xbox live. The drawback for me was the replay value of the campaign as the limited customisation did nothing to change the story or levels. Even so Jedi Academy ranks as one of my favourite due to partly to it’s application of force powers, being able to push storm troopers off a ledge never gets old. Jedi Academy is now available along with all its predecessors in the Jedi Knight series on steam so if you haven’t had the pleasure I suggest you check it out.

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4.Knights of the Old Republic: Sith Lords – PC, Mac, Xbox (2004)

Obsidian’s follow up to Bioware’s original lived up to fans expectations as it maintained the same game play while making an effort to expand and introduce new characters. In every way it feels like a sequel as some of our favourite characters like HK-47 return and the storyline links back to Revan and the Mandalorian Wars yet it does this in a way that is approachable for new comers. The game maintains the party, combat and levelling systems from its predecessor but does add some welcome tweaks such as the character’s ability to influence your companions. This evolves into your ability to change their alignment and their physical appearance and will also open up the opportunity to train several of your companions to use the force. Combined with the additional prestige classes this gives a sense that the player is able to take the next step beyond the original.

Like the original the storyline offers great replay value with a plethora of side quests each with multiple outcomes and several core decisions that can affect the progression of the main story. As expected with a sequel it expands our knowledge of the Star Wars universe by taking us to some new places while revisiting some familiar planets that have been left scared by the events of the original. My only real criticism of the Sith Lords is that perhaps more could have been invested into the graphics as they are not a massive leap forward but this has never stopped me playing on my Xbox 360.

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3.Star Wars Rogue Squadron – N64, PC (1998)

Back on my N64 Rogue Squadron was up there with Goldeneye as one of my favourite games. The arcade style action game allows players to pilot different rebel craft through 16 levels to fulfil different objectives and is set alongside the original trilogy. Using passwords or attaining medals on all the levels also gives players access to bonus levels from the movies including the Death Star run and special crafts like the Millennium Falcon. These elements combined to make Rogue Squadron an enjoyable and accessible simulation of aerial combated without focusing on it. Recently playing Battlefront on my Xbox One has remained me a little of Rogue Squadron but it lacks the mission objectives to keep me interested for long periods.

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2.Battlefront 2 – PC, Xbox, PS2 (2005)

A sequel that surpassed the original and has inspired the latest large scale console game in the franchise. Gameplay is based around third person combat with a collection of different playable classes available and a range of power ups based on in-game performance. Into this framework the game adds vehicles including full scale space battles and playable heroes awarded for meeting unspecified objectives. If this wasn’t enough Battlefront 2 includes the four major armies from the prequel and original trilogies which introduces players to a larger range of classes and different vehicles.

This last point contributes to what separates and raises Battlefront 2 above the more recent incarnation as it offers 2 different solo/co-op styles of play beyond multiplayer. Initially campaign offers players the ability to fight through the entire saga and develop their skills. It was the Galaxy mode which really impressed players and has probably been the biggest disappointment with the new version as players could choose an army and take over the galaxy one plant at a time. All this combined for a great experience with excellent replay value that appealed to hard-core Star Wars fans and was accessible to all levels of gamers.

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1. Knights of the Old Republic – Xbox, PC, Mac (2003)

This should not come as any surprise as the 2004 Game of the Year not only took Star Wars games to a new level but redefined RPG’S. Since the success of Knights of the Old Republic BioWare have continued to use the same companion, decision and dialogue system with a few developments in the Mass Effect and Dragon Age series. It was these elements along with a high level of customisation which has given all these titles their replay value.

However, none of these titles would have been successful without a great storyline, characters and an expanded universe to explore and this is where KOTOR delivers with spades. The overriding storyline of Darth Revan, Malak and the star forge is compelling with Empire style twists. The side quests allow players to explore some of the more well-known planets and aspects of the Star Wars universe while introduce new lore or building characters. The final piece of the puzzle is characters and while Carth can become a little tedious or Juhani & Jolee appear stereotypical the game delivers entertainment in the form of HK-47 and Canderous while Bastila Shan providing an unusual level of development for a companion. If you haven’t played KOTOR before it is a must for any hard-core RPG gamer or Star Wars fan and regardless of the dating graphics, it’s still one hell of a game.

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Would love to hear some of your views and hits of gaming nostalgia so don’t be afraid to comment.

Jono

 

 

Revenge of the Sith

The final instalment in the prequel trilogy continued where “Attack of the Clones” left off and thankfully was not a backwards step. Unfortunately, this also means that “Revenge of the Sith” also contains similar drawbacks including a heavy reliance on CG and some poor acting. Possibly the most frustrating element of Episode 3 is that the film shows glimpses of potential but ultimately disappoints.

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The opening space battle is a perfect example of this as the scale and effects were an effective hook for audiences. It then teased the possibility of an intense character building scene in the confrontation with Count Dooku which fizzled into mediocrity. The duel was over too quickly and Palpatine’s manipulation of Anakin if you could call it that made no attempt at subtlety. All this is then capped off by the clumsy ray shields trap and some poor dialogue. Another example would be the introduction of Darth Plagueis the Wise which gave an opportunity to explore the nature of the force but was left undeveloped.

One of the few strengths of the entire prequel trilogy is the casting of Ewan McGregor as Obi-Wan and the character’s development over the three movies. This reaches a climax in “Revenge of the Sith” as Ewan McGregor ‘s version of Obi-Wan needs to transition towards Alec Guinness. It involves gradually distancing the character from the fatherly role he occupies in “Attack of The Clones” and developing the burden of failure that marks the character in “A New Hope”. The costume design team also made this work as they make sure that Ewan McGregor looks more like a younger Alec Guinness then he did in the previous films.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for George Lucas’ script as too many times the actors were forced to try and make simplistic dialogue seem believable. Whether it is Obi-Wan’s disappointment, Padmè’s concern or Palpatine’s manipulation these dramatic moments are often let down by the complete lack of complexity and reliance on clichés like “you were the chosen one”. Another weakness in the script is that Lucas often fails to capitalise on stronger cast members like Natalie Portman since Padmè’s role in the film is extremely limited. It’s easy to pick out the faults in the script but what it does well is create an overall storyline that effectively links the rest of the prequels together with the original trilogy. It is only a shame that the other short comings detract from a storyline that offered such emotional climaxes.

Effects have always been a highlight of the Star Wars franchise and “Revenge of the Sith” is no different from the opening sequence it grabs our attention with the stunning space battle. The introduction of General Grievous gives the filmmakers another opportunity to dazzle audiences but they focus too much on the effects and failed to build any sense of the character. This is perhaps the key difference to the originals in that the effects become the centre of attention rather than a vehicle to transport the audience to the universe of the characters. In addition, the use of CGI rather than practical effects in all the prequel movies meant the films did not feel like Star Wars regardless of how awesome the final battle between Anakin and Obi-Wan looked onscreen.

I couldn’t talk about the prequel trilogy without discussing Hayden Christensen’s portrayal of Anakin Skywalker. It’s a topic that always makes me think about a quote from Clerks 2, “shity acting is ruining saga”, but perhaps this is a bit unfair on Christensen as others need to shoulder some of the blame. Casual observes might ask what was wrong with his performance and I could pick out a plethora of things from different scenes but most importantly is his whole characterisation as it fails to invoke the audiences’ sympathy. Instead of an image of Anakin as a tragic figure Christensen performance comes off as an overconfident teenager who wingers about those around him and is easily manipulated by others willing to play on his desires. This is ultimately problematic since the entire trilogy was built around creating sympathy for Darth Vader ahead of “A New Hope” especially considering at times I find myself satisfied knowing that the character gets what he deserves. Admittedly it was a hard task for Christensen and others let him down as obviously the direction was taking him down the wrong path.

In no stretch of the imagination is “Revenge of the Sith” a terrible movie as it has a solid storyline some excellent special effects and a couple of good performances to carry the rest of the cast. Unfortunately, it lacks the feel and focus on character development that we expect of a Star Wars as the originals were never reliant on the storyline to keep the audience entertained.

6.5/10

Jono

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

 

Attack of the Clones

A large improvement on Episode 1 the second instalment in the prequel series clearly learnt from its predecessor failures. Despite the progress it is nowhere near the level of the original trilogy still has a few really obvious flaws.

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The most noticeable difference between “Attack of the clones” and “The Phantom Menace” is the overall tone. Gone is the simplistic humour and attempt to target a young audience as the film has a more grown-up feel. It shows character development and dispenses with the endless procession of coincidences and stereotypes. A perfect example of this is Count Dooku played by Christopher Lee who in contrast to Darth Maul has some backstory as Yoda’s former padawan. Yet, even despite this progress Dooku lacks the screen presence of Darth Vader and has a limited role in the film.
“Attack of the Clones” makes a clear attempt to model itself on the original trilogy. An opening rush of adrenaline with the pursuit through Coruscant before a period of development and investigation leading to a final climatic battle. In addition, the film follows the format of “The Empire Strikes Back” by developing alternating plots in the love story between Padmé and Anakin while Obi-Wan is busy investigating the cloners on Kamino.
Beyond the format the film also makes an effort to engage long term fans by making references to the originals. The most obvious of which is the introduction of Jango Fett as the template for the clone armour. However, as a dedicated fan I prefer the subtler homages like Obi-Wan’s use of an asteroid or his confrontation with the assassin in a bar. These are the types of things that make diehards feel satisfied when a new film is added to a pre-existing franchise.
The major weakness of “Attack of the Clones” is the development of the love story. This side of the plot is noticeably more superficial than Obi-Wan’s investigation of the assassination attempt. In part this is due to Hayden Christensen and his petulant teenager approach to the role which detracts from his ability to command our attention like Ewan McGregor. This is not assisted by the reliance on clichéd scenes that just don’t fit in a Star Wars movie. While feeling out of place these scenes also impact pacing as the film does drag a little at times, something that was never a problem with the original trilogy.
Undoubtedly the highlight of the film is the protracted final battle and the beginning of the clone wars. At first this sees Obi – Wan, Anakin and Padmé fighting for survival against a collection of exotic predators before the arrival of the Jedi offers a false sense of hope before they are overwhelmed by the droid armies. The arrival of the clones is not unexpected and saves the remaining Jedi but as Yoda points out has played into the hands of the Sith. The real surprise comes in the form of the more personal battle between Yoda and Dooku as it challenges our preconceptions and limitations of the character much like he did in his first encounter with Luke on Dagobah in “Empire Strikes Back.”
Overall “Attack of the Clones” was definitely a move in the right direction after the disappointment of Episode 1 and did definitely increase our expectation for the final instalment.

7/10

Jono

The Phantom Menace 1999

The first of the prequels and the start of our flashback, “The Phantom Menace” is personally not a required watch when going through the saga. That Episode 1 was a colossal disappointment would be an understatement and as such I’m not going to take the time to review it in depth so this is going to be a quick fire set of impressions.

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The Good

Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor: The two main characters were ultimately well cast as Liam Neeson has a well-established track record in mentor rules bringing the necessary gravitas and intensity. While McGregor is an excellent character although he doesn’t really come into his own until Episode 2 where Obi Wan’s character is more prominent but it’s a starting point.

Double sided lightsabres: A minor inclusion in the film there is a reason why they make an appearance in nearly every Star Wars game since. Simple fact two blades look better than one.

Pod Race scene: The highpoint of special effects in the film and surprisingly well scripted with clear ebbs and flows to build tension. Film editing is also important here as the cuts between different pilots, the track and the crowed give it that sense of excitement.

Final duel: Undoubtedly the only part of the climax that works as it says away from any attempt at humour. The three-way battle is possibly the best technical lightsabre duel on film as the combats exchange blows as the move amongst the different levels of the palace before the drama of the force fields makes the necessary change needed to lead to a result.

The Bad

Target audience: The largest misstep in the production of the film is trying to capture a young audience. Ultimately this attempt motivated the introduction of simplistic comic relief and a lack of depth. Perhaps the most disappointing element is that this was totally unnecessary as the original trilogy has always proven to engage young people, I’m living proof.

Young Anakin: This isn’t really Jake Lloyds fault as the dialogue didn’t really do him any favours and his character was often positioned to deliver a contrived source humour. He does succeed in creating a sense of sympathy but this could easily have been enhanced by taking the slavery angle more seriously and developing some emotional baggage.

The storyline: Even after the completion of the prequel trilogy “The Phantom Menace” stands aloof from the rest of the saga. Since the storyline doesn’t develop in either of the next movies and they are necessarily separated by several years. In addition, too much of the events in episode 1 are the result of coincidence as the band have to make an emergency landing on Tatooine, where the happen to meet Anakin at Watto’s shop who just happens to have the rare parts they need. Star Wars have a get out clause in this situation as characters are guided by the Force however the original trilogy does not rely on this to cover bad script writing.

Darth Maul: In many ways the most visible villain of the film is a great example of what’s wrong with Episode 1, absolutely no development. Nearly no lines and only a handful of scenes there is no real hint at backstory, motivation or much agency. If it wasn’t for the double bladed lightsabre he would be completely forgettable.

The Ugly

Jar Jar Binks: do I need to say any more? The horror, the horror!!

Overall if it wasn’t a Star Wars movie perhaps I wouldn’t be so harsh but it had a lot to live up to and failed completely. Hopefully it has been a lesson to J.J  Adrams and Disney ahead of “The Force Awakens” so that history doesn’t repeat itself.

5/10

Jono

The Empire Strikes Back – 1980

My personal favourite it is hard to put a finger on a specific element that makes “The Empire Strikes Back” any better than the original as for the most part it relies on similar strengths. The model for educating the audience about the Star Wars universe, the cast of familiar characters and an extension of the techniques that brought “A New Hope” to life. However, to suggest that Episode V simply relies on its predecessor would be a disservice to a movie that alongside “The Godfather: Part 2” and “Judgement Day” I count as one of the best sequels in cinema history. One thing these films all have in common is a willingness to expand upon the existing context and add complexity to the storyline through plot twists.

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A sequel is often grander than the original as one method of expanding on an existing idea is to scale it up. In some ways the “The Empire Strikes Back” does follow this principle as the epic Battle of Hoth dominates a good portion of the film and the story develops over a wider expanse of space as Darth Vader chases the Millennium Falcon to Cloud City. Despite this I would argue that the film does the opposite as the plot is in fact more personal than the central storyline behind “A New Hope”. Since the main plot is focused on Luke’s developing connection to the force and Darth Vader’s plan to trap him using his friends in order to turn him to the Dark Side. The personal nature of the film is embodied in the climatic lightsabre duel leading to the most quoted lines in pop culture “Luke I am your father” it is a stark contrast to blowing up the Death Star. In this way the film takes what we expect from “A New Hope” by starting with Hoth before turning it on its head.

The emphasis on character development is not limited to the major plot and Luke’s training as a Jedi as there is an obvious focus on developing the relationship between Han and Leia. This interplay begins on Hoth with both characters’ exchanging jibes but develops while they are on the run from the Empire. The sarcastic banter between the two is a long established technique for developing romantic tension dating back to Shakespeare. However, it needs the on screen chemistry between Ford and Fisher to make it believable and it is ultimately Fisher’s ability to portray Leia’s resistance and final acceptance of her feelings that makes this work. Ford’s stoic response cements this scene as one of the emotional climaxes of the film and turning point in their relationship throughout the saga.

On the other side, the film develops our knowledge of Darth Vader who is seen largely as a blunt instrument in “A New Hope” searching for the stolen plans and doesn’t really come into his own until his conflict with Obi Wan. This is dramatically different in “The Empire Strikes Back” as it is Vader making the decisions and punishing the failures of his subordinates. These instances reveal his ability to visualise opportunities and use different resources to get the job done including bounty hunters and manipulation rather than the one size fits all approach employed by Grand Moff Tarkin. In addition, we get a clear understanding of his servitude to the Emperor and his schemes to draw Luke to the Dark Side in order to overthrow his master. He is also shown at his most vulnerable when his helmet is refitted on board the Super Star Destroyer this cleverly alludes to the fact that there is a man behind the mask which is important for the development of the climax and ground work for “Return of the Jedi”.

While the plot may have narrowed onto a personal scale the film still expands on the Star Wars universe through the introduction of Yoda, Buba Fett and Lando Calrissian. All of which play a significant role in the plot and add to the development of the existing characters. The most iconic of these is undoubtedly Yoda voiced by Frank Oz with his unique speech patterns and limited physical stature. Like with Obi Wan in “A New Hope” he is reasonable for Luke’s training and continues to unveiled the power of the Force to audiences. It’s hard to imagine anyone else other than Frank Oz delivering that backwards dialogue and his ability to shift from the comical nuisance to a series tone really sales the deception to the audience. Conversely, Billy Dee William’s portrayal of Lando Calrissian raises the right amount of suspicion when Leia and Han arrive at Cloud City. Beyond their own characterisation Lando and Buba Fett also act partially as a demonstration of Vader’s will and also explore Han’s back story therefore adding to the overall depth of the film.

It would be impossible to review “The Empire Strikes Back” without a closer look at the Battle of Hoth. At its core the Battle is a complete reversal of the climax of “A New Hope” with the Empire now trying to attack a small Rebel target the difference is that they never appear as underdogs due to the military might of the ATATs. Unlike the destruction of the Death Star it is also not a complete victory as the majority of the Rebel Alliance escape, a clear juxtaposition to Grand Moff Tarkin’s refusal to evacuate. Hoth demonstrates a real challenge for the visual effects team as the white background manipulating objects difficult as imperfections are more obvious especially in the shots through the speeder cockpits. The result in 1980 was always good enough for audiences but remained a frustration for the effects team and was an element addressed in the special edition demonstrating the dedication of the whole filmmaking team to the project.

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After reflecting on it perhaps the reason I prefer “Empire Strikes Back” is the added complexity and character development which all culminate in the plot twist. It could be simply as they put it in “Clerks” that it just ends on such a downer which is more realistic than the big against the odds victory of “A New Hope”. Whatever the case there is very little to separate the first two Star Wars movies and they are a must watch for any film buff.

10/10

Jono

A New Hope

In preparation for the release of Episode 7: The Force Awakens on the 17th I thought it was about time to look back at my favourite movie franchise of all time. Like many other people born in the 80’s I grew up watching the original trilogy and have memorised nearly every second of these timeless classics. I would not have been the only one that got excited with the release of the prequel trilogy only to be momently disappointed by the result but hopefully this time will be different. This has raised a serious question for me regarding viewing order ever since and thanks to a few hints online I have settled on IV – V – (I)II- III – VI with the prequels acting as a flashback after the plot twist of “Empire Strikes Back”. My purpose in giving this little preamble is to offer a suggestion to fallow fans trying to introduce Star Wars to others as Episode IV is a much better hook then the prequels while also being much more satisfying for die hards. Considering this I have chosen to review the saga in this order and hopefully if you have any doubts by the end you might give it a try.

Episode IV: A New Hope – 1977

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I can only imagine how the opening of “A New Hope” first memorised audiences in 1977 from the characteristic scrolling prologue to the opening space battle but it was a masterful piece of film making. The iconic scene with its chasing Star Destroyer filling the screen is often not given enough credit for hooking audiences. The sequence in its entirety is the perfect start to a film introducing a whole new galaxy as it not only gets the blood pumping but it importantly leaves the viewer with a plethora of questions not the least of which is based around the central plot and the plans which are ‘not in the main computer’. In addition, it gives a glimpse of the Star Wars universe from Stormtroopers and Darth Vader to the rebellious Princess Leia. Combined these elements engages an audience and leaves them wanting more over the next 120 minutes which is a lesson for any filmmaker.

The film largely follows a linear storyline from this point forward with only a few brief exchanges between Darth Vader, Grand Moff Tarkin and Princess Leia on the Death Star interrupting the main plot. Besides these moments the plot maintains a fairly classical formula with a young hero found in the middle of nowhere on the planet of Tatooine adopted by a wise mentor and drawn into a galactic conflict by forces outside their control, the arrival of R2-D2 and C-3PO. The journey to answer the Princess’s distress call leads them to the egotistical Han Solo and his co-pilot before escaping the clutches of the Empire. There escape is short lived as they run into the Death Star and must disguise themselves to save the Princess and escape, before returning for the climatic final battle. In many ways’ the main storyline is actually reminiscent of mythology as the characters are on a quest to deliver the droids but are forced to face several challenges to prove themselves before a heroic victory.

The characters are only a slight deviation from this as Luke is perfectly characterised by Mark Hamill who optimises the naïve young upstart dreaming of adventure. Harrison Ford’s casting as Han Solo was truly inspired as he represents the character’s conflict between his instinct for self-preservation and noble delusions of grandeur. It’s no wonder why he has become an in during fan favourite ever since with his ability to delivery witty insults and appear aloof from those around him while still remaining irresistible charming.  The difference is in Princess Leia who refuses to be the traditional damsel in distress as Carrie Fisher gives her a sharp edge fitting for someone who believes in a higher cause. Not only is her passion obvious when confronted by Darth Vader and the threat to her home planet of Alderaan but later in her dealings with Han and Luke during their rescue attempt. Beyond this key trio R2-D2 and Chewbacca are something of an oddity as it is impossible to think of another movie where the audience cannot understand two of the principal characters by design, this places a lot of importance on the actors’ delivery and their interaction with each other. In the case of R2 his constant companion C-3PO while doing some translations for Luke, normally carries on the second half of a conversation allowing the audience to infer what has been said in the odd collection of beeps. The overall success of this is a combination of good script writing and excellent delivery by Anthony Daniels with the right insinuation in his tone. This talented cast and their on screen chemistry is a large part of the franchises success and is unfortunately something missing from the prequel trilogy.

The importance of relatable characters and a reasonably straightforward plot cannot be overestimated in a movie like “A New Hope” which is intruding audiences to a whole mythology. These elements have allowed people since 1977 to focus on understanding the back story including the nature of the Force and the way of the Jedi. Most of this information is given to the audience through the instructions of Obi Wan Kenobi as he begins Luke’s training. Alec Guinness is perfect for this role as he brings a real gravitas and is also able to communicate a sense of the burden he carries due to the character’s past failures. One thing that Star Wars does well is that although it needs to communicate a lot of information to the audience it does not bore us with any long explanations as the training is interspersed and involves some development of the plot, for example Obi Wan’s decision to leave for Alderaan. Lesser films often try to explain everything rather than using these little tricks like a remote training exercise to show an audience that a lightsabre can defect blaster fire, this is one area where “A New Hope” really distinguishes itself as most of the context be it the Force or the Rebellion evolves gradually out of the plot.

It may have aged since its release in 1977 but the original film smashed onto the screen with revolutionary special effects, precise film editing, well-crafted sound, fantastic set and costume design. Unlike today it was a combination of body suits, prosthetics and miniatures which gave us the look with a combination of wires and blue screen for visual effects. Meanwhile the sound designers gave use the unmistakable sound of a lightsabre while seamlessly blending in all the little background ticks that make a movie. This is capped off by John William’s masterful score which produced the most recognisable movie theme of all time, one that represents the scale of the film and gives that uplifting sense of triumph needed for the final scene. Possibly the greatest example of their efforts is in the Rebels attack on the Death Star as it started out in a parking lot with a collection of model kits on a couple of table tennis tables filmed from a jeep driving past. This raw footage comes to life with the addition of sound effects and the expert editing to quickly cut between shots of Luke’s  X-Wing, Grand Moff Tarkin, Darth Vader, the rebels on Yavin and the count down clock to add the perfect amount of tension. Finally, Williams score echo’s the movement of the fighters through the trench and is simply the exclamation point making for one hell of a climax.  It is the hard work of all these teams that were ultimately responsible for creating the Star Wars universe by making George Lucas’ vision a reality and it is not surprising that they were recognised by claiming 6 Oscars in 1978.

Writing this review, I have been trying desperately to think of anything that could have been improved and coming up with only minor adjustments. One that stuck in my mind was the characterisation of Grand Moff Tarkin as despite his position ‘holding Vader’s leash’ he is never really developed in any detail. These little things don’t detract from the movie in the least and are more observational then critical as I can’t imagine how Tarkin’s role could be developed without impacting the screen presence of Darth Vader. As such I still consider “A New Hope” to be one of the most complete films I have ever seen. 

9.5/10

Jono

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Believe the Hype: Star Wars Battlefront

The gaming news of the week has been the release of the Star Wars Battlefront Beta and the opportunity for Star Wars geeks like me to jump in to our favourite galaxy far, far away before the November 17.  Despite a busy week I managed to squeeze in a quick half hour or so to test it out, so here are my first impressions.

If you haven’t been excited by Battlefront it’s time to believe the hype. Game play follows a similar style to the Battlefront 2 one the original Xbox and PS2 with a few new features and a welcome upgrade in graphics. The biggest change is the first person format which is now standard except for hero’s. Moving away from the third person game play makes it harder for players to see their surroundings and makes online multiplayer more intense as blaster fire rapidly comes from everywhere. This is obvious playing walker assault with the 20/20 format of this iconic moment in the Star Wars universe becoming a rush of adrenaline with enemies closing in quick it takes a few goes to really get the hang of it. Despite my first few deaths coming in quick succession the intensity of the experience had me ready to spend hours building my skills, if only I had the time.

The beta also provides access to a sample of the games survival mode based on everyone’s favourite dust bowl, Tatooine. As you can see from clip below it’s a pretty simple format with enemies coming in waves in increasing difficulty. Limited in the beta to 6 waves the full version will test gamers with 15 waves of enemies which I can’t even fathom at the moment because while the first wave was pretty easy by wave six your fighting an AT-ST and a squad of Stormtroopers. Along with single player, survival can be played in co-op but only having tested it out briefly by myself I’m not sure how well the difficulty scales if at all to accommodate the second player which is something l’ll test out in more detail with the full version. This little clip below gives me the opportunity to talk about one of the other major developments, the addition of power ups. Including portable shields, vehicle torrents, jet packs or a variety of hand held weapons like grenade launchers it definitely makes the game more interesting as not only does it change the way you take on enemies but especially in multiplayer games it will be a race to the little blue emblems. There’s more to talk about but this is just a taste of what Battlefront has to offer so I’m not going into to much detail.

Overall I’ve definitely seen enough to pick my copy up on the 17th of November which to be honest was already the case when it was announced due to my experience with Battlefront 2 and my obsession with Star Wars. Even so from my experience I think Battlefront will actually appeal to people who aren’t necessary fans of the film due to the intensity of the Game play especially in multiplayer. Make sure to check back in November for my full review.

May the force be with you,

Jono.

E3: My Games Wishlist

E3 2015 is done and dusted so I thought I’d look more in-depth at the games that really caught my attention and those I personally can’t wait to get my hands on.

Halo 5 guardians

Platform: Xbox One

Release Date: 27/10/15

A new Halo is always a big deal for the Xbox community and the first instalment on the new console will be expected to boast overall console sales just like the past. The small snippets of the story line have got fans like myself sitting on edge, is the Master Chief a traitor, is Spartan Locke friend or foe and the inclusion of Buck voiced by Nathan Fillion from ODST is a welcomed addition. At E3 we were given a glimpse of the campaign that diverges a little from the traditional formula as it seems more like ODST and Reach with two teams of Spartans led by Locke and the Master Chief made for drop in & out coop play. In addition 343 industries gave us Warzone a new 24 player multiplayer mode combining elements of PvP and PvE where two teams compete with the added fun of AI opponents in a crazy overload of Halo awesomeness. Suddenly the 27 of October seems so far away.

Forza motorsport 6

Platform: Xbox One

Release date: 15/9/15

Recently I have really got into playing Forza 5 as it has outstanding graphics and is perfect for gaming when you have time constraints. The 6th instalment promises much of the same running in 1080p it looks stunning and with an extensive list of 450 cars it’s perfect for car enthusiasts. However, the main development is the addition of meaningful racing conditions, this goes beyond the basic visual effect and includes real world experience as rain doesn’t just look pretty but actually make the track slippery and effects your handling. A subtle inclusion but one that will make it just that little more challenging for seasoned racers.

Fable Legends

Platform: Xbox One and Windows

Release date: 2015

This free to play cooperative title has been promoted before at Microsoft events as it demonstrates the capabilities of Windows 10’s cross-platform gaming as PC and Xbox users can play alongside each other. Legends offers gamers a different experience than previous titles as players can choose between the traditional hero game play without the exploration alongside possibly up to 3 friends or as the villain who plans the obstacles faced by our band of heroes like a strategy game. It seems like an interesting combination of different game styles and I’m looking forward to testing it out later this year.

Fable Legends hands on

Rise of the Tomb Raider

Platform: First on Xbox

Release date: 10/11/15

Crystal dynamics sequel to their 2013 reboot of Tomb Raider promises a lot with different combat options and more opportunity for discovery. Learning from the feedback after the previous title developers have incorporate a new ability for Lara to use her environment to create weapons and make choices as to how she will engage combatants. Most notably this includes the ability to avoid lethal engagements using items as distractions and finding other methods to take down the enemy. In addition crystal dynamics have stated their aim to make Lara the most realistic and humanised character in gaming by focus on the emotional impact of decisions and the storyline. We shall have to wait until November 10th to see if Rise of the Tomb Raider delivers.

Gears of War ultimate edition and Gears 4

Platform: Xbox One

Release date: 25/8/15 and holidays 2016

The other Xbox franchise also had its time at E3 with two announcements. Gears of War Ultimate Edition was unveiled and its more than just a remastered HD version of the 2006 original but more of a full rebuild. The Coalition has gone back to basics with new motion capture and animation to help bring the game into the next era of gaming. Beyond this the remake incorporates new game elements from more recent titles in the series including an enhanced  multiplayer. Even thinking about it gives me a pang of nostalgia.

Gears 4 the first game in the franchise since Microsoft took over the rights shows more of what we expect, chainsaws, weird creatures and a post apocalyptic setting. Still scarce on details all we really know about Gears 4 is that the gameplay looks similar to the other titles in the series. It’s still far away but any new chance to saw through your enemies can’t easily be passed up.

Rare Replay

Platform: Xbox  One

Release date: 4/8/15

This collection of 30 classic Rare games is a steal for the $30 price tag. Many of the games pre-date my  gaming experience  but classic 64 titles like Banjo Kazooie, the sequel Banjo Tooie and Perfect Dark are enough for me to jump on board. Adding  some Xbox 360 up dates to those series alongside a host of other games to explore for the first time and I’m counting the hours of game play. The only disappointments are the absence of GoldenEye and Diddy Kong Racing due to legal restrictions. Click here to see the full list.

Star Wars: Battlefront

Platform: Xbox One, PS4 and PC

Release Date:

A self professed Star Wars tragic I have been looking forward to this one since Battlefront 2 was released years ago. One of my absolute favourite Star Wars games because it allows players to jump into the epic battle and key events of the films like no other game. Gameplay follows the same basic format as the earlier titles in that it is primarily a third person shooter with different class options and you need to complete a series of objectives in order for your side of the Star Wars conflict to gain victory. It doesn’t look like there are any real changes to this basic formula but the new Battlefront takes advantage of the next generation consoles through new game modes and refinement. Personally I can’t think of a better way to get in the spirit before the release of The Force Awakens.

Mass Effect: Andromeda

Platform: Xbox One, PS4 and PC

Release Date: Q4 2016

Details are still scarce about the new Mass Effect but we learnt at E3 that the game is set outside the milky way in the Andromeda galaxy long after the events of Mass Effect 3. This means that developers have the freedom to imagine a new host of planets and new alien species without being restricted by the previous games. Despite this scope for innovation its clear that this next chapter will maintain most of the elements we have come to expect of the series as the game will still follow a human protagonist leading a team made up of different specialists. Beyond this we also know that Mass Effect Andromeda will use the Frostbite 3 game engine behind Dragon Age Inquisition which promises a rich experience. I’m very excited about this one as I’ve spent hundreds of hours playing through the previous titles multiple times, I’m just shattered its such a long wait.

Check back later as I preview the best of the rest from E3

Cheers

Jono