Thursday, 8 June 2023

The Full Monty: TV Series Review

The Full Monty: TV Series Review

The only stripping going on in the 25th anniversary reunion series of The Full Monty is the gradual erosion of the dignities of its original characters.

Returning to a Sheffield largely eroded of its beauty, the gradual crumbling is not just limited to the school which Mark Addy's Dave is now a caretaker of. As mental fortitude begin to fade, everyone of thr original gang is facing their crossroad moments.

While the first episode toys with a light flippery of a plot of the theft of a Britain's Got Talent dog winner, the end shows how desperate they've all become - a theme which is only underscored by tragedy ahead from episode two onwards where the depressing reality of daily life in the poorer areas of Britain is laid bare.

The Full Monty: TV Series Review

Though with a large dash of British gallows humor and honesty coursing through its veins, most of what transpires builds to the old English adage that it's grim up north - but thankfully, the friendships forged over two decades ago come rising to the top.

From familiar tropes of problems ignored at home in favour of wider pursuits to disjointed and dysfunctional families, the TV update of The Full Monty treads the usual gamut of quiet desperation pioneered by decades of English dramedies such as This Is England.

Yet it does it such aplomb that it becomes infectious as it gets under your skin and reminds you why exactly you cared about these characters in the first place. 

From Robert Carlyle's charismatic Gaz to Addy's heartfelt Dave the relatability factor is high even if nostalgia threatens to topple it.

It's not all successful though.

The Full Monty: TV Series Review

Tom Wilkinson is relegated to cafe bound cameos and Hugo Speers' Guy simply disappears after offset allegations toppled him. 

But largely avoiding mawkishness and giving the drama time to breathe pays dividends over the 8 episodes as those who fall through the cracks get their commentary and voices heard once again.

The Full Monty's TV series wears its heart on its sleeve and will make you fall in love with these characters all over again. Just don't be surprised if this bittersweet return breaks your heart doing so.

The Full Monty airs on Disney+ from June 14.

The Flash: Movie Review

The Flash: Movie Review

Cast: Ezra Miller, Michael Keaton, Ben Affleck

Director: Andrew Muschietti

There's a certain cheekiness running through the first half of The Flash, a superhero film that's greatly buoyed by a lead performance from Ezra Miller that's earnest, real and relatable.

The Flash: Movie Review

Called into Gotham by Jeremy Iron's Alfred, the self-confessed "janitor of the Justice League" is tasked with helping Batman stop a heist, but in reality, finds himself clearing up after the chaos of the robbery. As multiple life-ending situations ensue, Muschietti slows down the action and lets the charm and comedy through as Miller's super speedster Barry Allen races to save the day in an homage to X:Men's Quiksilver slow-mo sequence.

It's in these earlier strokes that The Flash becomes a breathtaking revitalisation that closes out this iteration of the DC Comics Universe before the James Gunn reboot takes hold. But as the film progresses, and the plot of Barry trying to unravel the multiverse after going back in time to save his mother, it becomes tied up in fan service, some truly awful CGI and a lot of what if shenanigans.

Mostly best when it concentrates on the two iterations of Barry created by parallel timelines, Muschietti's kinetic and almost hyper take on The Flash relies too much on nostalgia to pull it through. From Danny Elfman's Batman music cues to Michael Keaton's wiry and wondrous performance as the Bruce Wayne the world no longer needed, the film almost collapses in its reverence to its past, and almost forgets it's a Flash film first and foremost.

While this is all perfectly fine and crowd-pleasing fare as the Butterfly Effect takes hold, the self-deprecation and ultimate humility that Miller brings to the tragedy of the older Allen trying to readjust his life and stumbling toward a realisation is mightily impressive stuff, a sign that the comics world can bring to life a fully rounded character that doesn't rely on cliche and bombast to win over audiences.

It's Miller's powerhouse performance that elevates The Flash from the nostalgia-led bombast that it lapses into toward the end as it tries to unravel the spaghetti level mess it's created for itself. Their time on screen is utterly compelling, with both Millers demonstrating their nervous energy and their fragility in the face of it all.

The Flash: Movie Review

While Muschietti's to be commended for most of what transpires on the screen (including a riff on Back To The Future, a film which The Flash clearly apes), some truly awful CGI marrs the usual rote formulaic smash and bash of the comics book genre as Michael Shannon's General Zod tries to conquer Earth once again. 

Not everything works - certainly Sasha Calle's Kara Zor-El feels more like a plot device than a fully rounded character and the film leans too heavily into audience nostalgia for Keaton's Batman.

But The Flash speeds to victory on the strength of Miller alone. Seldom in the comics world has there been a presence that's so jittery, so nervy and so much of a livewire that you can't take your eyes off them as it transpires. It's to be hoped they can be engaged for future installments, because this Flash deserves to have another day in the sun - the race may be over for the flimsy DCEU, but emerging victorious from the rubble makes Miller one of the soaraway talents of their generation.

Wednesday, 7 June 2023

Avatar: The Way of Water: Disney+ Review

Avatar: The Way of Water: Disney+ Review

Cast: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Stephen Lang, Cliff Curtis, Sigourney Weaver, Kate Winslet

Director: James Cameron

There's both good news and bad news about the much-awaited, long-delayed Avatar sequel, Avatar: The Way of Water.

Avatar: The Way of Water: Movie Review

The good news is the sense of spectacle is once again prevalent in director James Cameron's latest, a film that's so eager to show off its technical depth and breadth throughout. But that's also the bad news - it spends so much time running scenes that seem to exist solely to help your jaws drop to the ground, it forgets about doing anything more than presenting a remotely serviceable, yet cliched, revenge-driven plot.

In the return to Pandora, Sam Worthington's Jake Sully is living his best blue-lived life with his wife Neytiri (Saldana) and their brood of kids, including the human Spider. But when the "sky people" return to Pandora with a desire to mine it for their next world as Earth is dying (an idea presented as a throwaway line and then little else) and with a thirst for revenge against Sully, the brood is forced on the run.

Leaving the forests behind and trying to join the Metkayina, an amphibious race headed up by their chief Tonowari (a venerable Cliff Curtis), Sully soon finds their quest for a new Eden can't last forever and there are inadvertent consequences brought down upon the newcomers.

While Cameron's decried those who claim Avatar: The Way of Water will be too long, there's no denying the plot is stretched so thin through a prism of such cliches, it can't help but feel its weight. Even if at its heart, it's about family, the burden of being a parent and the watching of your children blossom, learn and make their own mistakes.

Avatar: The Way of Water: Movie Review

Sub-stories of the rival families' kids bonding and scrapping mesh with a tale about the hunting of a whale-like species and one Na'vi's friendship with such a creature; and the military grunts espouse such banal and unimaginative dialogue, it's like watching the very worst of an 80s action movie, writ with an environmental and anti-imperialist narrative coursing through its veins.

No matter how immersive the underwater sequences are, and how much the creatures glow and pulse in their high frame rate resolution, after a while the sensory overload gives way to a feeling of almost tedium, as it feels like you're watching a theme park simulator at a marine park. Cameron's done excellently at coralling his digital troops into fusing the world of the water with his visions from the likes of The Abyss and subsequent Titanic docos.

This may be a third dimension writ large, but it lacks the dramatic heft needed to provide the emotional elements and story beats throughout. In many ways, it feels like an experience, rather than a movie, a double-edged sword that's both damning and worthy of praise as it plays out. Characters lack the depth that's provided by the FX wizardry and High Frame Rate resolution and even the film's strongest emotional beats seem to have come from a discarded Free Willy script. And Neytiri, once so integral to proceedings, feels sidelined here throughout.

Avatar: The Way of Water: Movie Review

It's a disappointment - as it inevitably could only have been - and while Cameron spends a lot of time creating imagery and sculpting the underwater world of Pandora, it exists solely to dazzle rather than engage. Early hints of colonisation, deforestation and destruction both of the land and sea hang in the air, providing dramatic fruit for the plucking, but discarded for the sake of dazzling your eyes.

Yet when the spectacle comes together, it does so with such visual aplomb and technical dazzle that it almost manages to overlook it's a rewrite of the final battles of the first film some 13 years ago - and a retake on the spectacle of Cameron's own Titanic. Swooping battle sequences with their hyper-realism  and action scene edges combine thrillingly to produce something that shows the digital art at its very best. Even if it does take 150 minutes to reach that stage.

Perhaps the best thing that can happen in the upcoming sequels that lie in waiting is to take the world of Pandora and its visualisation from Cameron's hands and give it to others. 

There's no denying there's been the upscaling of the world-building and the upskilling of the digital execution - but that won't be enough now to keep making the franchise a success. It's in desperate need of moving away from being just exemplary big screen spectacle, and time to add in the emotional depth that'll prove so fruitful to its characters.

Tuesday, 6 June 2023

Knock At the Cabin: Blu Ray Review

Knock At the Cabin: Blu Ray Review

Cast: Dave Bautista, Rupert Grint, Jonathan Groff, Ben Aldridge, Kristen Cui, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Abby Quinn

Director: M. Night Shyamalan

It may be to Knock At The Cabin's detriment that you spend a lot of the time awaiting a twist (as is usual of Shyamalan's oeuvre), but what's actually delivered over a 100 minute thriller is something that may surprise.

Adapted from Paul Tremblay's book, Knock At The Cabin is a simple story, one of a seemingly simple choice that has diabolical consequences. But while it purports to tackle themes of faith and trust, as well as belief, its expected horror edges will be where audiences are drawn.

Knock At the Cabin: Movie Review

Essentially a chamber piece set within a cabin in the woods, Bautista's softly-spoken Hulk-like Leonard sets proceedings in motion when he approaches little girl Wen (Cui) who's holidaying with her dads Eric and Andrew (Groff and Aldridge respectively).

Warning Wen that he's heartbroken at what he must do, Wen runs off back home - but soon Leonard and three others (Grint, Amuka-Bird and Quinn) are at the door, telling the trio they have an apocalyptic - and almost unthinkable - choice to make.

To say more is to rob Knock At The Cabin of its suspense, and its taut filmmaking.

Shyamalan has a wild streak of hits and misses in his catalogue, but it's usually due to audience expectations. Here, he puts all of that aside and concentrates more on delivering a film that is self-contained and tension-filled despite the somewhat ludicrous edges of the source material.

You could argue there's not enough time devoted to the trio having to discuss their choices, and too much weight is put on them being a same-sex couple (thanks largely to one long discourse and flashbacks), but the tightly-constructed edges of Knock At The Cabin prove to be seat-clenchingly intriguing and at times, quite upsetting.

This is a film more about relationships and interactions rather than out-and-out horror and while the edges may be more psychological and occasionally hit and miss on that front, Knock At The Cabin is a propulsive thriller that stays the course rather than becoming tied up in its mystery.

Knock At The Cabin may feel like stripped-back Shyamalan and may benefit from coming from other source material rather than original fare, but Bautista's interesting approach to his character helps to keep you feeling uneasy and unsure about where it's all going.

It may be polarising to some, but for a ride that's compelling, this is one cabin in the woods you may well enjoy checking into more than you'd have expected to do so. And given his own back catalogue, that's perhaps the M Night Shyamalan twist none of us were expecting in 2023.

Monday, 5 June 2023

The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom: Nintendo Switch review

The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom: Nintendo Switch review

Developed by Nintendo
Published by Nintendo
Platform: Nintendo Switch

The Zelda gaming world if a phenomenon, beloved by those who've fallen under its spell.

Breath of the Wild became one of Nintendo's biggest and brightest hopes when it released back in 2017, showing what the console was capable of - and retaining accolades as one of the best open world games ever.

The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom: Nintendo Switch review

So its sequel, The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom had a lot to live up to - both in terms of narrative and gameplay. But it delivers and proves accessible enough to those who've not even put any time into Breath of the Wild.

In this latest, you get to once again explore Hyrule but this time you can also head to two new areas, the Sky Islands and the Depths, to find weapons, resources, and complete quests as the adventure unfurls.

With new powers and a revamped Hyrule to discover, there's plenty in The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom that creates a gaming experience that's both rich and rewarding as you head deeper into the Zelda world.

The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom: Nintendo Switch review

From its opening magical moments and its sense of mystery, it all goes wrong for Link and Zelda when exploration brings them into danger. But while the opening hints at disaster, the unfolding world makes a brilliant sandbox exploration and story for gamers of all ages.

It may be that the game works better if you've indulged in Breath of the Wild's world, but much of The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom is about discovering the characters and the story yourself. There occasionally is an over-reliance on exposition, but most of what plays out is easy enough to pick up and get into, or leave to play in bitesize pieces as the handheld console dictates.

With plenty to explore around Hyrule, and many a chance of diversion, there's so much in The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom that it can at times feel overwhelming. But creativity is the key here and Nintendo's more than poured its heart and hope into this title to ensure that players don't feel like they have to do everything - more that they want to do it.

The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom: Nintendo Switch review

It's an important distinction for The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom and a key one to understanding why this open-world title more than delivers multiple hours of fascinating fantasy gaming.

It may be one of the Nintendo Switch's most iconic titles, but it shows that whatever the hardware, if the game is done properly and well enough, it'll satiate all those serious about gaming.

Sunday, 4 June 2023

Lego 2K Drive: PS5 Review

Lego 2K Drive: PS5 Review

Developed by Visual Concepts
Published by 2K Games
Platform: PS5

The Lego franchise gets a new next generation contender in the shape of Visual Concepts' 2K outing, Lego 2K Drive.

Lego 2K Drive: PS5 Review

And while the game may be beset by the horror of microtransactions and have a few bugs (such as floating podium visuals), the core game and its multiplayer racing is a heck of a lot of family-related fun that Super Mario Bros may feel has stolen its thunder. 

Set in the world of Bricklandia, this third person open world racing game has a lot going for it - even if it does lack the humour that's been part of the various Lego franchises that Traveller Tales did such a good job of advancing.

The kart racing game is at its heart a simple one when it's executed properly. Lego 2K Drive does manage to do so well and makes it playable enough fun for all those mini races that exist. 

While single player races form part of the narrative as you try to win enough chequered flags to take on the Sky Cup final, the game really does come alive when it's played locally or with others. It's here the karting mechanics, smooth graphics and simple execution of the premise plays well - of course, it's been done before with Super Mario Bros but Lego 2K Drive's racing has some of the familiarity of the Crash Bandicoot racing games.

Lego 2K Drive: PS5 Review

It's also heavily infused with the DNA of arcade racer Forza Horizon hurtling through its veins, as you chug through signs, smash down fences to refill your speed metre and generally hoon round an open world map unlocking further races and challenges.

Yet despite its familiarity, it's all such heady fun that proves worthy of spending either 20 minutes of gaming time or 20 hours of intense racing. The game's mechanics are familiar too - unlock various elements while building your XP; Visual Concepts hasn't radically redeveloped the genre, but it also knows that doing it badly would make a world of difference.

There's a feeling of repetition during the main storyline and side missions, but while Lego 2K Drive's main story only lasts a few hours, its main joy will come from people building their own cars in the game's garage or sharing creations with friends. While purchases can be made with earned in-game currency or victories, a large proportion of bricks are needed, meaning the dreaded microtransactions come into play (something that's a disappointment for a family-themed game).

All in all, despite that stumbling (Lego) block mentioned above, it's hard not to recommend Lego 2K Drive as a title that's definitely worth owning. Its mix of kart racing, inspired colourful edges and solid racing mechanics make it a family-fuelled blast that's worthy of all ages.

Saturday, 3 June 2023

Redfall: XBox Series X Review

Redfall: XBox Series X Review

Developed by Arkane Austin
Published by Bethesda
Platform: XBox Series X

In theory, Redfall should work.

Its mix of Borderlands-style looting and shooting mixed with the ever-cool idea fo vampires sounds like a no-brainer, an eclectic mix of gaming genres that should mash together and produce something thrilling.

Redfall: XBox Series X Review

But what Redfall is is utterly anaemic and at times, uninspiringly dull.

Arkane Studios has been behind some of the best titles in gaming. Their last game Deathloop mixed excellent FPS playing with trippy time-travel visuals and a sardonic wit that was inescapable.

How it's gone so badly wrong with Redfall is nothing short of a head-scratching mystery that will leave you bald.

The open-world first-person looter shooter leans into an unusual story before falling back on the usual tropes of an open-world shooter. In the town of Redfall, a series of botched experiments has led to a rise in vampirism, and the sun being blocked out so the bloodsuckers can roam.

As you begin the game, having selected a character, you're on a boat trying to flee what Redfall is threatening you with, but a wave overcomes the boat and leaves you stranded in the ferry looking for a way out.

It's quite an atmospheric idea for an opening - made all the more dull by the fact the game's story is set out in a series of storyboards rather than any kind of animated cut scenes. It leads to a feeling of "we'll put that in later" rather than building a vibe that's worth any kind of deep dive or emotional attachment.

However, once you find your way out of the ferry, it's into Redfall's meat and potatoes - its shooting and looting as a series of Cultists who are in the thrall of the town's vampires try to take you down.

Redfall: XBox Series X Review

Shooting is fairly solid in its mechanics - but has no logic whatsoever. Handguns can be used to take down those shooting at you - but for reasons that are inexplicable and too insane to contemplate, Redfall requires the guns of those trying to kill you to disappear into the ether, leaving you only their bullets and questions as to why you can't get their guns and level up.

The game's first mission sees you try to secure a fire station that's overrun by Cultists, has a vampire trapped in the basement and a series of allies locked behind a door waiting for you to free them. Once you've overcome those challenges, the game opens up a base, various areas of Redfall unlock as you explore and the mission ethos of the game settles into place.

Unfortunately, it feels somewhat hollow.

Redfall itself is wonderfully realised, but the Far Cry mentality of go here, do that, shoot those people, come back to base and repeat doesn't seem to have translated as well as it could have done for Redfall - and it's disappointing to report this. It's even worse to report that most of Redfall as a town itself is dead.

The world-building is confined to a series of notes from people that have left behind when they fled, or points on the map where some kind of landmark resides. It's easy to see why a world would be deserted if there are killers on the loose, but given the size of Redfall's map, and the limited interactions with your monotone characters at your base, it just feels empty rather than narratively so.

Even more frustrating is the game's intention of multiplayer.

More a squad up mentality that relies on friends being invited to online lobbies than random partnership online, the game is marketed as a co-op shooter but then shoots itself in the foot as you try to use that part of it. It's disappointing because the single player experience is enough in parts, but as you require more hands to help dispatch hordes of vampires, you need partners to help save the day - however, unless they're your mates, even that side of the game is left flailing.

All in all, what's most frustrating about Redfall is its potential. Arkane Studios has been extremely adept at bringing games to life and making various genres engaging and enticing. 

How Redfall fell so short of many of those standards is a real surprise - and ultimately, a real disappointment.

Redfall is out now on on XBox Series X and can be bought separately, or downloaded as part of the XBox Game Pass.

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