Thursday, 23 February 2017

The Wild Party @ The Other Palace

The Wild Party @ The Other Palace

The Other Palace hasn't changed all that much since its days as the St James Theatre. Now owned by Andrew Lloyd Webber as part of his Really Useful Theatres group, his plan is to turn The Other Palace into a haven for new work, where writers and directors can test and refine - before, presumedly, a successful production will transfer to the bigger West End stages.

The Wild Party opens the new theatre and whilst it's not exactly a daring choice in line with this new agenda - it's an established musical whose Broadway debut was nominated for a number of Tony's back in 2000 - it's certainly a provocative production. Directed and choreographed by Drew McOnie, it's a show that drips with sex appeal, its slinky cast writhing across the stage on just the right side of hedonistic debauchery.

Based on the 1928 narrative poem by Joseph Moncure March (and not to be confused with the Andrew Lippa penned musical of the same name based on the same source material), it depicts a particularly wild night hosted by vaudeville performers Queenie (Frances Ruffelle) and Burrs (John Owen-Jones). Theirs is a fiery love/hate relationship of lust, infidelity and violence. Throw in some bathtub gin, cocaine, and thirteen sexually liberal guests and carnage is bound to ensue.

The musical is artfully constructed as a series of individual vaudeville sketches, LaChiusa's music pastiching a variety of jazz styles with a modern twist and plenty of dissonance and chromaticism to match the sexual characterisation. There's even a certain air of Sondheim with its storytelling through music, spoken word rhythms and overlapping vocal lines. Each vignette recounts the personal tales of the fascinatingly dark characters, touching on sexual promiscuity, drug abuse, violence and paedophilia. Together they don't quite add up to an overarching, convincing narrative.

That's because the plot's success rests on the love triangle at the centre of it all between Queenie, Burrs and party guest Black (Simon Thomas) who comes as the date of Queenie's friend Kate (Victoria Hamilton-Barritt). Yet despite some show-stopping numbers from Owen-Jones as Burrs, this triangle is predictable and fails to compel. It's the periphery characters who prove the more intriguing.

They include some delicious performances. Hamilton-Barritt is on fiery form here, her gritty vocals whipping up a storm. Gloria Obianyo and Genesis Lynca are eminently watchable as the D'Armano brothers, forever in sync with their cool stylish movements, whilst Melanie Bright is an ethereal presence as the drug-addled Sally and Donna McKechnie owns the stage as the fading Dolores Montoya.

McOnie's direction just about keeps control of the often frantic chaos, with plenty of small touches on the periphery of the action as well as delivering an overall stylish and polished production. It's a strong start for The Other Palace - let's hope the wildness continues.

4/5

Watch: The Wild Party runs until 1st April.

The Wild Party @ The Other Palace

The Wild Party @ The Other Palace
Photos: Scott Rylander

The Girls @ The Phoenix Theatre

The Girls @ The Phoenix Theatre

The Girls recently won Best Regional Production at the WhatsOnStage awards. And it’s not hard to see why.

With its opening number setting the scene, it’s a celebration of rural Yorkshire: bunting, tea drinking, village fetes, hill walking, and community. Originally performed as a play back in 2009, this new musical version – with score from Gary Barlow and lyrics from Tim Firth – premiered in 2015 at the Grand Theatre Leeds and clearly captured the minds of its local audience. It’s all as quaint and cheerful and unashamedly British as the 2003 Calendar Girls film on which this production is based (inspired by true events).

In a sleepy village, a group of W.I. women put together a (tasteful!) nude calendar to raise charity money after the death of a husband to cancer. In the process, they confound expectations of the W.I., the village, and women themselves. Here are a group of middle-aged women emancipated, standing up to the stern matriarchy of the W.I. and dragging it into the modern age.

Except, little about this production feels modern – from its small-scale set, to its simple score, to its politics. Success in regional theatre doesn’t necessarily equate to West End success and it’s questionable how relevant this production is to a London audience. In a post-Brexit world, an all-white, all-straight cast stuck in a time warp feels out of touch with modern tastes.

Yet there’s charm aplenty in this production, one filled with universal truths no matter what region you live in. The plot revolves around Joanna Riding’s Annie as she struggles with grief when her  husband John (James Gaddas) dies of cancer. Her numbers prove to be the most emotive, Barlow’s simple music highlighting the little, quiet moments of this kitchen sink drama. There’s huge tragedy in something as straightforward as a visit to the supermarket alone, Riding delivering a potently poignant performance. Claire Moore also offers some belting vocals as Chris, whilst Claire Machin (Cora), Michele Dotrice (Jessie), Sophie-Louise Dann (Celia) and Debbie Chazen (Ruth) all amuse in their respective roles. These are real women with real problems serving female empowerment – a triumph of storytelling. And as the show seamlessly builds towards its inevitable naked climax, these women should be commended for their bravery in baring all for the audience.

Barlow’s score isn’t always up to much, the melodies following the rhythms of everyday speech but without much of a hook. The pop arrangements are simple and enjoyable enough, but lack the depth or complexity needed to really make a musical statement. And that’s a reflection of the show as a whole: a gently pleasant evening that will warm the heart but won’t challenge the mind.

3/5

Watch: The Girls runs until July 2017.

The Girls @ The Phoenix Theatre

The Girls @ The Phoenix Theatre
Photos: Matt Crockett

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

The Gizzle Review's 2017 Theatre Wishlist

Hamilton

Hamilton
Victoria Palace Theatre
November 2017 - June 2018

This is the big one, the one we're all waiting for. Since its Broadway transfer in 2015, Lin-Manuel Miranda's rap musical has won 11 Tony awards and is seemingly forever sold out. In October this year, the production comes to the West End with a brand new cast and produced by Cameron Mackintosh. It's set to be the biggest hit of the year - not long now to "Wait For It".


Angels in America

Angels in America
National Theatre
April - August

Andrew Garfield, Russell Tovey and Nathan Lane star in this revival of Tony Kushner's multi-award winning two-part play at the National Theatre. If the cast isn't enough for you, its frank exploration of sex and relationships during the AIDS crisis of '80s New York should prove the importance and continued relevancy of this seminal play.



42nd Street
Theatre Royal, Drury Lane
March - July

This revival of the classic musical will be replacing Charlie and the Chocolate Factory at Drury Lane. Directed by Mark Bramble and with new choreography from Randy Skinner, it's set to be a faithful production of familiar tunes and tap dancing wizardry. It stars Sheena Easton in the lead role, amongst a cast of 50!


 Don Juan in Soho

Don Juan in Soho
Wyndham's Theatre
March - June

Don Juan in Soho marks the return of David Tennant to the West End stage as the titular hedonistic lothario. Patrick Marber's take on the character is a dark comedy set in modern day London, here directed by Marber himself with design by the award winning Anna Fleischle. It's bound to be sexy as hell.


Showstopper!

Showstopper!
Lyric Theatre
Now - June

If you're yet to see Showstopper! then get yourself to the theatre immediately. An Edinburgh Festival favourite, the cast improvise a full musical based on suggestions from the audience on story, style and characters. It's a marvel to watch, hysterically funny, and different every time!


Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
Old Vic Theatre
February - April

Tom Stoppard's comedy celebrates its 50th anniversary this year and features in Matthew Warchus' second season at the Old Vic following Kevin Spacey. Starring Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe and Joshua McGuire, the play follows the events of Hamlet from a whole new and hilarious angle


Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child
Palace Theatre
Now - May 2018

Speaking of Harry Potter, Cursed Child is still the hottest ticket on the West End. With its clever continuation of the franchise, dazzling technical effects and gripping time-travelling narrative, this is pure theatrical magic.


The Girls

The Girls
Phoenix Theatre
January - April

Based on Tim Firth's 2003 film Calendar Girls, Gary Barlow's musical is finally hitting the West End this spring after his success on Broadway with Finding Neverland. The film charmingly depicts a group of W.I. ladies who strip off for a charity calendar shoot - this musical is set to follow suit with a new score from Barlow.


On The Town

On The Town
Regent's Park Open Air Theatre
May - July

Leonard Bernstein's hit musical that isn't West Side Story comes to the wonderful Regent's Park Open Air Theatre this summer, depicting three sailors visiting New York and falling in love. Directed and choreographed by Drew McOnie, whose credits include In The Heights and last year's Jesus Christ Superstar, the visuals should match Bernstein's brilliant score for the feelgood hit of the summer.


 The Goat, Or Who Is Sylvia?

The Goat, Or Who Is Sylvia?
Theatre Royal Haymarket
March - June

Another West End returnee this year is Damien Lewis, starring in Edward Albee's The Goat, Or Who Is Sylvia. It's a bizarre play about the effects of sexual secrets on a troubled family, but with Lewis in the lead role and a score from none other than Mercury Prize winning rock artist PJ Harvey, this could be the most intriguing piece of theatre of the year.



This post is sponsored by TheatreTickets.uk, click here to buy West End theatre tickets.

Sunday, 19 February 2017

Moonlight - Barry Jenkins

Moonlight - Barry Jenkins

"My eyes don't shed tears but boy they ball when I'm thinkin' 'bout you," sang Frank Ocean on Thinkin Bout You from his 2012 album 'Channel Orange'. It was a watershed moment. Here was a young black man - a hip hop artist in an aggressively straight world - not only showing emotion, but showing emotion for another man.

Now, with the Oscar-nominated Moonlight, cinema has caught up. It's an exploration of African-American masculinity, following the life of Chiron from youth to adulthood (the connotations of his name from Greek mythology are surely no coincidence). In many ways, his life feels like a cinematic cliché: he's so shy he's practically mute, he's bullied at school, his mother is a drug addict, and with no father he lacks a male role model. Yet this sort of life is tragically commonplace in current day America.

Things pick up when the young Chiron (Alex R. Hibbert), known as 'Little', by chance meets Juan (Mahershala Ali). Juan is a sympathetic figure, straddling the harsh world of drug dealing and a comfortable home life with his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe). Together they provide Chiron with something his mother (Naomie Harris) could never provide: safety, comfort, acceptance.

As he grows up, Chiron struggles to dictate his own path as he navigates the alternate worlds Juan so effortlessly balances. He eventually ends up serving a prison sentence before becoming a drug dealer, but was this inevitable with such a selfish, emotionally abusive mother? Were Juan and Teresa powerless to stop this downfall?

It's telling that the film is divided into three sections for each of Chiron's identities: Little, Chiron and Black. No matter which identity he chooses - the shy child, the explorative teenager, the mask of an aggressive thug - he remains the same person underneath. His experiences shape him, but they do not dictate his identity.

That is the key message of this film: to be a man is to accept your identity, your flaws, your decisions and take responsibility for your life, no matter what your background. You can cry and still be a man. You can show vulnerability and still be a man. You can love and support your mother and still be a man. You can be gay and still be a man.

Barry Jenkins directs with tenderness and delicacy, the camera lingering on his subject questioningly but without judgement. Orchestral strings take the place of diagetic hip-hop - the soundtrack fittingly subverting masculine expectations - but mostly it's overwhelming silence that reflects the amount of noise inside Chiron's head.

The performances are indeed Oscar-worthy, in particular Ali's touching portrayal of Juan that's equal parts hard and soft, and Harris' frightening performance as Chiron's mother that's far removed from the Miss Moneypenny we know from Bond. And the three actors playing Chiron - Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes - do a remarkable job between them of depicting a single, confused man in crisis.

And to think, this film has been released in such a tumultuous time in US history. Crumbling relations between the black community and the police. The shooting at Orlando's gay nightclub Pulse. The country's first black president leaving office for...whatever Trump is. Even the #oscarssowhite debacle and the snubbing of black artists at music awards. Black identity, masculinity and homosexuality are in crisis and Moonlight encapsulates all this and more. It is the most Oscar-worthy film of the lot. An awards snub would be painfully ironic.

5/5

Watch: Moonlight is out now.

Saturday, 18 February 2017

The Last Guardian - SIE Japan Studio

The Last Guardian - SIE Japan Studio


Some friends of mine recently got a pet dog. Cute and cuddly as he may be, it's not easy looking after an animal. He runs wild, he barks, he's far from toilet trained, and he speaks about as much human as I speak dog. Training takes time and patience but the results are rewarding.

Video games have long had a fascination with pets, but The Last Guardian, from the mastermind behind Ico and Shadow of the Colossus Fumito Ueda, is the new standard. It brings together the best of those two games - the unique pairing and 'escape the castle' theme of Ico and the grand creatures of Shadow of the Colossus - and tasks a young boy with befriending a strange beast known as Trico.

Kitty looks majestic

This isn't just a squiggly polygon whose virtual poop needs cleaning up, nor a bouncing puppy whose fluffy face needs stroking with a stylus. Trico is a mythical amalgam of cat, dog and bird, but he feels like a real beast, one that needs regular feeding, petting and training. The animation and AI combine for one of the most expressive and emotive virtual characters yet seen: the way his mournful eyes follow the boy's movements, his howling when they become separated, his gleeful bounding upon reaching an open space, his little wiggle as he prepares to leap.

More so, it's the warm and charming bond between the beast and the boy that makes The Last Guardian so compelling, cleverly expressed through animation alone. They are, unexpectedly, dependant on one other. The boy feeds the beast special barrels of goop, removes spears to heal his wounds, and bravely leads the way when Trico is tentative to proceed. In turn, the beast can destroy the mechanical armoured enemies that litter the environment and can leap to new areas with the boy clinging on to his feathery back. The game's opening wonderfully portrays the wariness of these two characters around one another; by the end their relationship is symbiotic, their fates forever intertwined.

Kitty needs petting

Around this concept, SIE Japan Studio have built a beautiful environmental puzzle game, with imposing constructions to be navigated in a surreal world of crumbling ruins drenched in stark sunlight. It's a marvel of stone and green, mist and bright light, towering ruins and rustling leaves. Stylistically it is breathtaking, even if at times it shows its PS3 heritage.

However, the game does frustrate when it remembers it's a game and not just a pet simulator. The sense of weight and momentum add to the realism of the animation, but the controls are imprecise and too often lead to death. The game's camera is also utterly untameable, struggling to balance confined spaces with Trico's might.

Kitty runs free

And while Trico is a wild animal, puzzle solving is often stalled by his lack of understanding commands. It's a double-edged sword: what makes him feel real results in gameplay that doesn't run smoothly. Similarly, the boy is helpless to defeat enemies alone meaning much of the game is taken out of the hands of the player - an irritating decision that nevertheless forges a dependancy on the beast.

Hints are sometimes overstated, but on the whole the game has the same minimalist presentation that you'd expect from Ueda. On the one hand its narrative is intriguingly ambiguous, on the other it's bafflingly obtuse, sometimes illogical and requires plenty of trial and error.

Kitty got stuck

Yet the game's weaknesses are also its greatest strengths. The minimalist presentation and reliance on Trico's intelligence are stylistic choices that lend the game its enchanting sense of character, its poetry, its raison d'être. Just like a real pet, the boy affectionately strokes Trico's nose as the beast nuzzles against him and all is forgiven.

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Rag'n'Bone Man - Human

Rag N Bone Man - Human

If there's one thing music reality TV has taught us, it's that audiences like to be surprised. When an unlikely superstar walks on to the audition stage, or when the judges turn to see a figure that's disconnected from the voice: a young girl singing mature opera, a boy with a smouldering timbre, or more typically a rags to riches story of the lower class singer with the impeccable voice. That's TV for you.

That sort of shock value is, initially, the appeal of Rag'n'Bone Man, an artist who appears to defy expectations. With his impressive beard and penchant for tattoos, you might expect him to be fronting a 00s nu metal band. But here he is singing pop-soul with a loud vocal that soars and crackles.

Strip away the aesthetic, however, and you're left with little more than the next Emeli Sandé or Sam Smith: nice voice, bland songs. It's fitting then that, like them, Rag N Bone Man has won this year's BRITs Critics' Choice award and is being touted as 2017's one to watch.

It's certainly a nice enough voice, as heard on the a capella Die Easy that sounds more like a negro spiritual. Indeed, there's a real mix of old and new on Human - best of all the Motown twist of Arrow and its earworm chorus, or lead single Human with its pulsating electronic bassline and gospel harmonies.

Elsewhere, though, this breakthrough album is unimaginative, unoriginal and unworthy of your time. It's as if this great voice has been discovered but neither the singer nor the label know what to do with it. The flimsy, nondescript songs simply do not do the voice justice, whilst the horn heavy soul production is nothing we haven't already heard countless times before.

Nice voice, bland songs and far from the best music 2017 will have to offer.

2/5

Gizzle's Choice:
* Human
* Arrow
* Die Easy

Listen: 'Human' is out now.





Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Madam Butterfly @ King's Head Theatre

Madam Butterfly @ King's Head Theatre

Puccini’s Madama Butterfly is one of the most beautiful, tragic love stories in opera history. It’s also rife for modernisation and reinterpretation, as the exceptional Miss Saigon can attest to.

One particular area of interest is the ambiguity in Lieutenant Pinkerton’s true feelings for the young Butterfly, something that’s brought to the fore in this modernised version at the Kings Head Theatre, directed by Paul Higgins. By transferring the opera to present day, Higgins hopes to highlight Japanese patriarchal society and the over-sexualisation of school girls. Here, Matthew Kimble’s Pinkerton is a sleazy American permanently attached to a bottle of Jack Daniels. He prays on the youthful Butterfly (Becca Marriott) with a smarmy grin, she dressed in girlish Harajuku fashion. It certainly adds a new angle to the opera, but it’s an uncomfortable watch. “I want you to love me, to love me very gently, to love me like a child,” sings Butterfly, in this new translation from Amanda Holden. From the characterisation, there’s a disturbing disconnect between the intentions of Pinkerton and Butterfly.

Just as Pinkerton shows a lack of respect for Japanese culture – laughing at her traditions and frequent bows – so too does Higgins. Only last month Notting Hill’s Print Room theatre was accused of “yellowface” for its all-white cast. It’s a topical issue and whilst Higgins may have good intentions for this production, the casting feels out of touch with current politics. What’s worse is the cartoonish characterisation. The inspiration may be Japanese manga comics, but from the pursed lips of Sarah Denbee’s Suzuki to the comically wide-eyed innocence of Butterfly, it feels more like playing on stereotypes for laughs rather than a profound use of modern cultural identity. As Marriott shuffles around the stage, bows and flutters her eyelids whilst clutching a Hello Kitty doll, it utterly undermines any sense of drama or tragedy.

Indeed, a few bright neon colours and a shuttered backdrop do not represent the varied cultures of Japan and its mix of advanced technology and honourable tradition. The modern setting adds little to this production, even whilst there may be some truth to the interpretation. The second half does improve as the performance becomes a more straightforward tragedy, but it’s not enough to undo the damage of the first. It’s simply not credible that this reinterpreted Pinkerton would ever return, that he would suddenly have a conscience, or that he should have any form of redemption. And, when Butterfly and Suzuki complain of their lack of money, why is Butterfly seen listening to an iPod? Hasn’t she heard of eBay?

There is some fine singing here even with the miscasting, Marriott hitting all the right notes despite the characterisation and Sam Pantcheff singing a rich baritone as US consul Sharpless. Puccini’s score is reduced to piano and cello, but sadly musical director Panaretos Kyriatzidis and cellist Alison Holford struggle to contain a whole orchestra beneath their fingers.

Where so many opera productions cling to tradition, it’s brave of Higgins to bring something new to this beloved work – something the Kings Head Theatre is well known for. Yet in today’s highly politicised world and climate of ethnic sensitivity, this production is sadly misguided.

2/5

Watch: Madam Butterfly runs at the King's Head Theatre until the 18th March.

Madam Butterfly @ King's Head Theatre

Madam Butterfly @ King's Head Theatre
Photos: Christopher Tribble

Monday, 6 February 2017

Firewatch - Campo Santo

Firewatch

Not all games have to be enormous open world complex adventures to make an impact. Sometimes what’s not there is more arresting.

Enter mystery thriller Firewatch, the debut game from developer Campo Santo. It’s a game often drenched in silence. It’s a game about isolation, not densely populated realistic worlds. It’s a game about focus and simplicity, wrapping up its story in around three hours.

Firewatch
The art style is breathtaking

That simplicity is exemplified in the text based opening, detailing the back-story of protagonist Henry and his wife Julia. Short statements loaded with emotion and gentle, evocative music are enough for the player to invest in this heart-breaking story, making small choices along the tragic path. It’s a devastating beginning.

The focus on the writing continues throughout the game, as the narrative unfolds through conversations and the occasional written note. We play as Henry as he embarks on a summer job as a firewatcher in the Wyoming forest in 1989. He’s there to escape, to isolate himself from his troubled life. His only contact is his boss Delilah, who communicates solely via radio. Firewatch has themes more akin to literature as it plays with perspective and a potentially untrustworthy narrator, but it’s interactive storytelling that only games can fully explore.

Firewatch
Just look at those colours

Thankfully Firewatch excels with its dialogue – essential for this sort of game. It’s never less than natural and believable, with nuanced voice performances from Rich Sommer and Cissy Jones. Henry and Delilah are hugely empathetic and often humorous as they discuss their lives, their thoughts, their fears. Unlike so many characters in video games, they feel human.

It’s the visuals that are immediately striking, however. Based on a painting by artist Olly Moss, the Wyoming forest is saturated in colour and mesmerising to watch. The grass gently rustles in a soft breeze as the sunlight pours through a canopy of lush trees, dappling the ground with light and shadow. You will absolutely want to stop and admire the view on countless occasions, the stunning visuals marred only by a sometimes choppy frame rate and some pop-in (on PS4). 

Firewatch
I mean, come on

The peace and tranquillity are tangible. You will revel in the silence, music used sparingly to punctuate key moments of dialogue. Yet this colourful world and its chunky almost cartoon aesthetic disguise the adult drama bubbling beneath the surface as Henry and Delilah unravel a mystery hidden in the forest. Soon that silence becomes oppressive, the solitude is utterly disquieting, and the atmosphere changes to tense and ominous. You listen out for each rustle of movement and question each shadow. Is Henry being followed? Is fire the least of his worries?

Firewatch
Look. At. That.

The plot is littered with ambiguities, but the fire does eventually burn out. In its quest to manipulate the player, the story ultimately amounts to very little with an ending that fails to reward the mystery and constant second-guessing. Yet Firewatch is a gaming masterclass in playing with expectations – this colourful world is not what it seems and in this instance it’s a joy to be fooled.

Saturday, 21 January 2017

Final Fantasy XV - Square Enix

Final Fantasy XV - Square Enix


Finally! With Final Fantasy XV we now have a reason to hit that share button on the PS4 controller that’s, until now, gone underused. It’s all down to Prompto, one of your three companions on this road trip adventure and an amateur photographer. Throughout the game he takes photographs that can be viewed at camp and shared online. The results vary from cool battle poses and goofy selfies, to questionable blurs, but they’re never less than hilarious – the bad ones especially.

It’s as much a marketing trick as anything else, making the game more visible across social media, but it’s just one of many great ideas in Final Fantasy XV. Yet for every stroke of genius, there’s an equally poor decision that results in a frustrating experience.

Final Fantasy XV - Square Enix
Expect plenty of goofy pictures

Let’s start with the good: the world itself. It’s a fantasy realm grounded in modern reality that cleverly finds real world parallels for predictable RPG tropes. Every adventure is, after all, a road trip, but here it’s taken literally as Prince Noctis and his pals drive around, swap banter, and rest at camps and hotels to level up their skills and eat specially prepared meals to enhance their abilities. Diners are a haven of information, battles take place in real time, and magic has to be sourced from specific procurement points. It’s a departure from the series that lacks some fantastical imagination, and it’s also somewhat imperfect, with flat textures, pop-in and technical bugs evidence of the game’s long development from previous consoles. It makes up for it, though, in its grandeur, character design and cinematic scenes.

It’s a beautiful open world that you’ll want to explore, especially to uncover its myriad dungeons. Hidden in the depths of the world are these self-contained labyrinths that host some wonderful design, tense boss battles, and new hidden weapons. They truly make you feel like an explorer and make this adventure worth investing in.

Final Fantasy XV - Square Enix
The world is stunning

As a whole, it’s soundtracked by a score that may not be the best in the series, but certainly has its moments. Cruising around in your car listening to old Final Fantasy soundtracks on the stereo is a retro thrill, but elsewhere there’s glorious flute melodies to mark the sunrise, gentle piano in the menus (where you’ll be spending plenty of time), and rousing, sweeping orchestration to accompany the majestic summons (more on that later).

Best of all is the relationship between Prince Noctis and his three companions, clearly a focus of the game from its comic opening that sees their car broken down, to the closing credits paired with a cover of “Stand By Me” by Florence + The Machine. Whilst their chatter can get repetitive and there’s little individual development, the bond between them is well written and believable. Noctis himself regresses into typical moodiness at times, but his friends are there to pick him up – often literally when it comes to gameplay. That said, it’s at the expense of the periphery characters: the shallow villain, the abomination that is Cindy the “sexy” mechanic (not to mention the general lack of female characters), and the overall plot itself.

Oh the plot. It’s here that Final Fantasy XV stumbles most critically. What’s most frustrating is that there’s the skeleton of a fantastic story, a coming-of-age tale about friendship, kingship, responsibility and sacrifice. Yet the gaping plot holes are unforgivable; it’s like a theatre play where half the story occurs off-stage. Partly this is down to the open world, a decision that seems to fit more with the vogue for open world games than it does to implement a satisfying narrative. For that, linearity is required – something that does occur in the game’s later stages, but they’re missing the expected emotional weight due to earlier plot holes. The game crucially lacks dramatic impetus or urgency, so quests are uncovered and completed with little explanation of motivations or character development. That’s not what you expect from the usually dense lore of most Final Fantasy games.

Final Fantasy XV - Square Enix
Battles are spectacular, if too easy

More so, there’s disconnect between gameplay and story, again owing to the open world. Noctis is a prince on a journey to save the world. So why is he stuck doing menial tasks like picking vegetables, collecting dog tags and finding food for a cat? Why, if he’s suspected to be dead, does nobody stop and question him? There’s an inescapable tension between storytelling and gameplay that ultimately undermines the reality the game works so hard to establish.

Lastly, there’s a distinct absence of challenge. The multiple side quests may distract from the story, but anyone who completes them will end up so overpowered that the main story quests can be breezed through. Get used to the rhythms of the battle system and there’s fun to be had, but it’s all too easy to beat enemies by simply holding down the attack button with little strategy. And if you’re close to dying, the summon command pops up whereby grand beings can be summoned to battle and most likely destroy your enemies in one hit – even bosses. Their power is pleasingly undeniable, but the game isn’t transparent about the circumstances under which they can be summoned. As such, they’re rarely seen beyond a fail-safe as opposed to being part of the player’s strategy – a disappointment when they’re so spectacular to behold. 

Final Fantasy XV - Square Enix
I think this is a frog? Thanks Prompto.

The summons are just one of many elements of both story and gameplay that are undercooked. The ascension board, for instance, allows characters to learn new techniques, but with so many high power skills requiring an unfeasible amount of ability points to unlock, they become pointless in the context of the main game (the game opens up post-finale). Items are rarely needed beyond a few healing potions. And the magic system has creative potential, but the game does a poor job of explaining it – it’s feasible to progress through the whole game using weapons alone.

Despite all these faults, the game has charm enough to warrant play and becomes strangely addictive. Perhaps it’s to cruise around this beautiful world with your buddies listening to retro tunes. Perhaps it’s to check off the lengthy list of quests. Or maybe it’s to see what crazy pictures Prompto comes out with next. Final Fantasy XV is a curious experimentation for Square Enix that’s uneven in its execution but enjoyable nonetheless.

Monday, 16 January 2017

La La Land - Damien Chazelle

La La Land - Damien Chazelle

After the hypnotic Whiplash and its dynamic, percussive exploration of jazz and musicianship, there's no better director than Damien Chazelle to helm this new kind of movie musical.

La La Land, like his previous film, is an ode to jazz. It's there in the intimate jazz clubs that form the backdrop to many scenes, it's there in the passion of Ryan Gosling's Seb - a jazz pianist who idolises the greats and dreams of similar success - and it's there in the rhythmic camerawork that mirrors the textures of everyday life. Above all it's in Justin Hurwitz's glorious score, which uses jazz to reflect the film's multitude themes: the bustle of city living, the giddy fluttering rush of new love, and the slow melancholy of romance.

As an ode to movie musicals, the film revels in the transporting power of music. Each song is a dreamlike sequence, light of touch, bright of colour and wonderfully surreal. The film is a playful reminiscence on classical Hollywood, with all the glamour and enchantment that brings, and filled with references bold and subtle. It all comes together in a climactic dream ballet montage that encapsulates the awesome power of music, film, romance and - above all - nostalgia. It's here that Chazelle revels in filmmaking with some brilliant direction.

Equally, however, the film is a criticism of those old movies and works instead as an ode to modern relationships. Despite its surreal music and soft cinematography, this is a harshly realistic take on romance through the lens of a musical. Emma Stone's struggling actress Mia is a thoroughly modern woman, Stone giving a typically quirky, goofy and sarcastic performance. Gosling's Seb is an old-fashioned dreamer. Neither are particularly good singers (the wispy Stone nor the flatly crooning Gosling, whose piano miming needs work) but that only adds to the film's everyday realism. Regardless, both actors are immensely likeable with believable chemistry, but their romance doesn't always run smoothly. Ironically enough, love isn't like the movies.

La La Land, then, is a sometimes awkward collision of old and new - just like its protagonists. Mia worries her one woman play is too nostalgic; Seb is a traditionalist who joins a band diluting jazz with futuristic synths. They tug in opposite directions, yet they pull together magnetically. In the twenty-first century, though, you can't have it all. Personal dreams don't allow for romance. Romance isn't always a dream.

That's a jarring but welcome message for a movie musical, though its heartbreaking realism is beautifully scripted and acted. La La Land is a clever, pensive and bittersweet film that's reflective and thought-provoking, but more likely to capture the mind than the heart.

4/5

Watch: La La Land is out now.