james debate
james debate

Thursday 18 September 2014

Directed by Zach Braff
Written by Zach Braff, Adam Braff
Produced by Zach Braff, Adam Braff, Stacey Sher, Michael Shamberg
Starring Zach Braff, Josh Gad, Kate Hudson, Mandy Patinkin
Studio None
Running time 106 minutes

wish i was here zach braff kickstarter scrubs garden state

Sophomore films are always difficult, especially when your debut is considered by many to be a modern classic. Zach Braff rose to stardom as the star of comedy TV series Scrubs, but his first film Garden State, which Braff not only starred in, but wrote and directed, saw him lauded as the next Woody Allen. But where as Allen seems to churn out a good three or four films a year, Braff has waited a full decade for his follow up.

So what has taken Braff so long? For starters he has been busy in the theatre, his self-scripted production All New People seeing an extended run on Broadway before making the jump over to London. But the main issue as far as Braff is concerned has been the freedom to make the movie that he wants to make.

In retrospect, Zach Braff was given an incredible amount of freedom for a first time film maker with Garden State. Few relative unknowns are allowed to write and direct their own movie debut, let alone produce, select the soundtrack, and have such influence over the casting and overall production. Braff's fans would be the first to suggest that the success of Garden State owes much to Braff having the freedom to pursue his vision.

And so, surrounded by meddling studios and troublesome regulations, Braff did something quite outside of the box, he turned to Kickstarter. Wish I Was Here is something of a landmark movie in at least one respect, the fact that it is by far the most prominent film ever funded through the online crowdfunding platform Kickstarter. As a backer of the film with a potential conflict of interest, The Ephemeric had reservations about reviewing Wish I Was Here, but once you reach the end of the review we think it will be pretty obvious to all that we have not simply come here to lavish unwarranted praise.

Ultimately a huge $4 million was raised from everyday fans in exchange for merchandise, preview tickets, and general insider access to the production of a movie. Braff then added $2 million of his own money, and a movie was made, one without any meddling from studios or anyone else, a truly pure Zach Braff vision. $6 million might not seem like a lot of money with which to make a movie, but it's worth remembering that Garden State was made with a paltry $2.5 million, which even adjusted for inflation comes out to like $3 million, barely half the amount raised for Wish I Was Here.

Unfortunately, Wish I Was Here is no Garden State. The latter is often credited with bringing indie film into the mainstream, and defining an entire generation of shoe-gazing youthful storytelling. Practically every romantic comedy or quirky drama owes something to the tone and production of that film, and it is rightly held up as a classic of the genre. The list of films that have merely followed the template set by Garden State is long, and the trouble is that Wish I Was Here absolutely joins that list.

There is little ground here that has not been trodden before, from the plot devices to the themes, individual camera shots and even the character archetypes. They may be archetypes and themes that Braff helped define, but that was ten years ago, and they've been done to death since then. The immature dad, the precocious child, the stern father and the goofball brother. Long slow motion strutting, nightmare co-workers, and big family drama. This can describe any of a thousand other films. While a little familiarity is no bad thing, and even a lot can be forgiven if the content is good, some moments of Wish I Was Here are true cliché.

The biggest problem is with the script. While there are some moments of genuine heart, and a few good belly laughs, too much of the dialogue lacks the natural nuance that made Garden State's script so remarkable. There are certain scenes where you listen to the characters speak it sounds just half-baked; the kind of dialogue that might have sounded witty and clever on paper, but definitely comes across as jarring and stilted on film. Certainly this is not the case with every scene, but there were too many moments that pull you out of the experience like this

The good news is that if you accept Wish I Was Here for what it is, a pleasantly watchable, if unoriginal, quirky dramedy, then there is plenty still to make it worth your while.

Zach Braff's total, unfettered freedom meant that he was allowed to pick the cast he wanted, and it is a wonderful cast. Braff, of course, is in the leading role and brings his characteristic blend of vulnerability and self-effacing humour. He also brings his usual entourage of friends, Scrubs' Donald Faison in a cameo role, Jim Parsons of Big Bang Theory fame also has a small role, and they're both pretty hilarious.

Of the newcomers, his wife in the movie is ably played by Kate Hudson, bringing an unconventional voice of sanity and reason to the film's proceedings, while some talented kids, especially the young starlet Ashley Greene, round out the family. But the absolute star performer of the movie is Mandy Patinkin as Braff's character's ailing father, a truly magnificent total performance from a wonderful actor.

The soundtrack, as with every Braff production, is another highlight. A good mix of familiar names and newcomers, with the centrepiece being the eponymous title track written by Coldplay and performed alongside Cat Power. It's wonderful music for sure, but often the film feels like it's using the soundtrack to prop up a lack of content. Soundtrack is most effective when used sparingly, but honestly how many scenes in this film don't feature a song at some point? Very few, it's overdone.

Does this film make a compelling argument for why studio intervention can sometimes be a good thing? Is it an indictment on the value of crowdfunding in Hollywood? It's far too early to answer these kinds of questions.

Ultimately Wish I Was Here is nowhere near as groundbreaking as Braff's first film Garden State, but if you enjoy it for what it is it's a perfectly enjoyable family movie; beautiful to look at and listen to, extremely well acted, with some (albeit infrequent) memorable moments. It'll be interesting to see where Braff's career takes him next, but hopefully we won't have to wait another decade to find out.

Wednesday 10 September 2014

Developed by EA Maxis
Published by Electronic Arts
Genre Life Simulation
Platform PC

the sims 4 ea maxis terrible awful disaster debacle simcity electronic arts

Once upon a time there was a great videogame developer called Maxis Software, headed up by legendary designer Will Wright. Wright was the creative force behind some of the most celebrated, early genre defining games ever made, including Sim City, The Sims, and pretty much anything with "Sim" in front of it. Without doubt a legend of the industry, Wright's gift was the ability to take complex or mundane activities, like the ministerial running of a city, the management of an ecosystem, or simply just going through one's daily routine, and turn it into a game that was not only deep and compelling, but accessible to all gamers.

Unfortunately that company no longer exists. Mega-sized videogame publisher EA bought Maxis and all its intellectual properties, killed it, and hung the carcass on its mantle in the form of subsidiary EA Maxis, a company which is linked with the old Maxis in name only, with Wright and all of the original team having left the company soon after the takeover.

But without a doubt Maxis' most commercially successful creation has been The Sims, one of the last great franchises created before the takeover by EA. As most everyone will know, The Sims is a life simulation game, whereby players design an individual and play through their daily life, managing relationships, careers, friendships and family. The Sims also worked splendidly as an interior designer game, allowing players to build and furnish the homes of their dreams using the hard-earned cash their Sims accumulated during the game. Each new game in the series has gone from strength to strength, introducing new features and ever-greater depth. Then EA happened.

Blah blah blah, anti-corporate whining, right? Well hold on there sparky, EA has quite a storied history of destroying great companies and franchises. EA acquired Bullfrog, developer of beloved games Theme Park and Theme Hospital, then literally gutted the company. It doesn't exist, and neither do those franchises any more. EA acquired Westwood, developer of the hugely famous Command & Conquer, a series that essentially created the real time strategy genre, and inexplicably took out all the base-building and strategy of the series and gave us the critically panned abomination that was Command & Conquer 4.

But the most recent and high profile debacle was the new SimCity 5, one of the most famous games franchises of all time, and the first videogame ever to be nominated for war-crimes at The Hague. EA took what was once a deep simulation of huge urban expanse and turned it into a glorified Facebook game. Tiny plots of land, cartoonish art design, forced and unnecessary multiplayer components, and most unforgivably, an always online requirement (a thinly veiled security check against piracy as it turns out). Not only was it an appalling game, it was barely playable due to having to connect to their congested servers.

Given the universal shitstorm EA suffered after SimCity 5, you would expect them to learn from their mistakes and deliver a better product with The Sims 4. It's incredible then, that The Sims 4 appears to be an even bigger catastrophe than SimCity 5.

The name of the game appears to be streamlining. The Sims 4 has been designed to run faster and smoother on more low-powered computers, and to accomplish this EA have cut a huge number of features out of the game.

One of the big new innovations of The Sims 3 was that everything took place in a single continuous world, which had the benefit of eliminating the need for loading screens, and also allowed Sims to leave their home and simply wander about town, or head to their jobs, shops, restaurants etc. This was really quite brilliant, as one of the weaker points of old Sims games had always been the disjointing disconnect between the isolated home and the rest of the world, for the first time in The Sims 3 Sims had complete freedom of movement via walking, or owning their own vehicle, not to mention the possibilities for exploration and discovery of secrets out in the game world.

This has all been cut from The Sims 4, individual homes are now isolated once again. In fact homes are more isolated now than they ever have been in The Sims series before. Sims can no longer walk to other properties, can no longer own vehicles, and in fact don't even get a carpool or bus to work. Now when Sims leave the property they simply "disappear". It seems fitting then that there is far less reason than ever to leave the property in the first place, with no restaurants or shops, and lacking even the most basic ability to go visit neighbours. If all that is not bad enough, the neighbourhood itself is no longer an animated, evolving, viewable location, having been replaced by a static cartoon map where you simply select the house to play.

All of those things essentially take The Sims series back to the very basic mechanics of the first Sims game... but then it gets even worse (We're going to be saying those words a lot in this review by the way).

The most inexcusable, inexplicable, impossible to believe change in the game concerns the career paths your Sims can take. It's a fact that the vast majority of Sims players project themselves into the game somewhat, and play the game at least semi-realistically. To this extent the previous games in the series have allowed Sims to pursue any manner or real-life profession, from doctor to teacher, police officer, businessman, politician, lawyer, etc. Incredibly these most basic of things have been cut from The Sims 4. The only careers present in the game now are cartoonish fantasy careers like secret agent, criminal mastermind or astronaut. In one fell swoop, EA have taken away the ability to play The Sims the way that probably 90% of people play it. It beggars belief.

So then the life-simulation aspect of the game is essentially gone. Sims can no longer leave the home to do anything, there's no town or public areas to visit, and no real careers to pursue. We really can't stress enough just how gutted out this part of the game is. You ever see the movie Misery? Because that's the life your Sims are forced to live now, reclusive and lonely hermit existences. I look forward to the first expansion pack "agoraphobic stuff".

Most learnable skills are gone, relationship managing is hugely streamlined (read: overly simplistic, even by Sims standards), there's honestly just nothing to do in this game. And of course since it's a new Sims game all of the stuff from add-ons like pets, vacations, etc are all gone, you'll have to pay another £40 each if you want those in the near future. The most laughable omission though? Toddlers are gone. That's right, your Sims now grow from a baby (which in Sims 1 style is now simply a movable object rather than another person) to a fully grown child.

But nevermind, maybe the home-building/interior decorating has been improved? Wrong. House building is now much more restrictive. Smaller lots, fewer floors, and only one foundation allowed per lot (so no sheds or guest houses). In addition major series hallmarks have been removed like swimming pools, gardens, most things really.

Another of The Sims 3's major improvements, the create-a-style which ingeniously allowed players to create their own patterns and textures for all items and clothing in immaculate detail, is completely gone. Many familiar items like pool table, hot tub, all gone. Book shelves, gone, as are all books in general. The Ephemeric likes to pretend that The Sims 4 is set in some dystopic nuclear wasteland whereupon leaving the home at all you will be mauled by angry mutated guinea pigs, and as luxury items are so rare all one can do is mournfully watch TV until the sweet caress of death takes you to Simheaven.

Also there are no dishwashers, and The Ephemeric doesn't want to live in a world without dishwashers.

So what has been added to the game? Not a whole lot. The Sims 4 looks pretty much the same as The Sims 3 from a graphics standpoint, which is still quite pretty. Some additional customization of Sim mannerisms has been added which gives a nice bit of character to your Sims. Quite notably the motives and aspirations systems have all been removed and replaced with a new "emotion system" which does pretty much the same thing, but in a much less nuanced entirely "on/off" way... not sure why anyone thought that would be an improvement.

By far the biggest (and possibly only) improvement is the addition of multi-tasking. Sims can now do multiple things at once, and in fairness that is pretty brilliant, it's just like real life. For example as we speak The Ephemeric is multi-tasking, simultaneously writing this review and contemplating over rock hard scotch why he keeps giving EA his money when they churn out such utter tosh. It's like battered-wife syndrome for gamers.

The create-a-sim mode has also been improved, allowing players to drag facial features and craft some pretty nicely detailed Sims, but of course the lack of create-a-style means that clothing your nicely detailed Sims is very restrictive, especially with the tiny selection of default clothing available.

We could go on forever about everything that's been cut out of the game, and the cynical among us would suggest that they'll all be added at a later date, and probably you'll have to pay extra for it, and at the end of the day that's exactly what The Sims 4 feels like. The Sims 4 has far, far less content than it's predecessor games, and adds very little indeed. Honestly it's incredible that this is a final, finished product rather than a very basic proof-of-concept beta version.

At best, The Sims 4 has been stripped down into a very barebones, casual Facebook-style version of The Sims without any of the depth of its predecessors, at worst it's a cash grab designed to sell you an empty shell and then charge for all the content. It's The Sims, but with half the content removed, and likely to be sold to you in addition to the hefty price you already pay for the base game. The question for existing Sims players is why would you pay this much money for a game you already own, but with all the content taken out and costing additional coin? We can't think of an answer, so save your money and get your Sims fix from The Sims 3.

Monday 1 September 2014

Genre Folktronica
Label Parlophone
Producers Damon Albarn, Brian Eno

damon albarn debut solo album everyday robots 2014

There are precious few musicians in the game today who can really claim to be among rock-royalty. With a career spanning a good 25 years, and some of the most celebrated songs produced during that time credited to his name, Damon Albarn has surely earned that right.

Albarn is widely known as the frontman of iconic Britpop band Blur, and more recently as the founder and principal creative force behind the chart conquering Gorillaz project. It would take all day to list just some of the world famous tunes he has written as part of those two acts, but what impresses most is simply the breadth of his work, delving into an incredible range of different genres, and inventing whole new ones. This chameleonic nature and distinctive vocal qualities have often earned Albarn comparisons to another British great, David Bowie, and as time passes it's a comparison that seems ever more apt.

It's somewhat of a landmark event in British music then for Albarn to be releasing his first album as a solo artist, Everyday Robots, and true to form it's almost nothing like anything Albarn has done before.

While a wide gulf can be drawn between the spangly Britpop of Blur and Gorillaz's more club-focused dance music, Albarn has always put distance between the musician and the person. Both bands are known for radio-friendly pop, with subjects ranging from the environment to general life in London. With his first solo work, Albarn has delved much deeper into his own mind to bring us his most intimate music yet.

Everyday Robots strikes a more downbeat and introspective tone. Albarn lays bare his demons and explores his own troubled past with drug addictions, relationships and insecurity. The result is something more revelatory than revolutionary.

Without doubt the highlight of the album comes in the stunning double-sided track You and Me. The opening "you" segment begins in chasteningly paranoid fashion, brutal and demoralizing, before breaking down with a flurry of steel drums into the gorgeously cathartic "me" section. Absolutely incredible.

Elsewhere the quality remains high with the beautifully nostalgic Hostiles, delicately acoustic and hauntingly sparse, while The Selfish Giant is a dazzingly lovely opine on narcissism and loneliness in the digital age.

The trouble with Everyday Robots is that it is too relentless. It's all very dark, and melancholic, and introspective. While some of the songs are absolutely brilliant, others are much less memorable, and the relentless drudgery of it all makes sitting through the entire album hard work. From Albarn we have come to expect variety, but with his debut solo album the listener is forced very single-mindedly through his worst nightmares. The music may be brilliant, but like Schindler's List it's the sort of classic you may want to listen to once and then only sparingly after. Have a listen, pick out the key songs and cherish them, but you won't stick around for the rest.

Must Listen :
You and Me
The Selfish Giant

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