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Mass Effect: Andromeda

Better than I expected, worse than its potential
Although a former Mass Effect fan (especially of 1&2), I skipped Andromeda at its release. The game was received as well as a new COVID-19 wave, with scornful memes, reports of ghastly bugs, video montages of dreadful animations and embarrassing scenes; to be fair, the Mass Effect 3 ending had also poisoned the well for many. Last year, during lockdown, I finally tried it.

The bad:
  • For a game about space exploration, this is stunningly unimaginative in terms of worldbuilding, planets (desert planet, ice planet...) AND creatures (TWO new races compared to the fifteen or so introduced in the main series);
  • The bad guys are generic space orcs and their leader (the Archon) is the weakest BioWare villain ever;
  • While writing is decent by videogame standards, some dialogues are clunky and badly in need of a new draft.

The so-so:
  • Party members, BioWare's secret sauce, are... okay. They are mostly a bunch of likable characters, although none of them is a classic BioWare companion like Garrus, HK-47, Mordin, Bastila, Wrex, Morrigan, Jolee Bindo, Legion, and the list goes on. A few of them are too blatantly a retread of previous ones - take Drack, who is fine but essentially Wrex 1.2.

  • There is a lot of content here, although much of it (like in Dragon Age: Inquisition) is typical open-world busywork, following the philosophy that if a quest is worth doing once (say, activate an alien beacon), it's also worth doing many times again and again with minimal variations.

The good:
  • The premise was a clever way of getting around the Mass Effect 3 ending, which seemingly nuked the chance of a direct sequel with vastly different (and mostly nonsensical) possible outcomes to its infamous final choice;
  • The combat is fast, energetic, the best seen so far in the series;
  • Ground exploration with the "Nomad" vehicle is also the best Mass Effect has to offer;
  • After years of patches, bugs and facial animations appear to have been mostly fixed.

This is the polar opposite of the first Mass Effect, which had the best world-building, writing and lore but also the worst combat in the series; the second had okay combat, amazing companion quests but a so-so main plot, and the third some of the best moment in the series (the Genophage), but was also very linear and with a dreadful ending.

Considerably lowered expectations helped me enjoy Andromeda, although it feels like a missed opportunity.


He travels the fastest who travels alone
As a history buff who wishes there were more World War One movies, this was right up my alley - and what a great piece of filmmaking it turned out to be.

The premise is brilliantly simple and effective in its urgency: two British soldiers have to reach another battalion and call off a doomed attack. Performances are effective: the relatively unknown leads bring sincerity and intensity to their roles, supported by a cast of veterans (Colin Firth, Mark Strong...) with short but memorable appearances.

Technically, 1917 is a marvel: director Sam Mendes and legendary director of photography Roger Deakins really achieved something remarkable. The movie appears to be filmed in an unbroken single take (actually with innumerable perfectly hidden edits), but it never feels gimmicky or distracting.

The level of tension is phenomenal.


The Watch

We truly live in the darkest timeline
There is a moment in one of Terry Pratchett's brilliant Discworld novels where the protagonist's "organiser", a magical device reminding the owner of his daily appointments, breaks, so it starts reciting the schedule from an alternate universe where the characters made the wrong choices with awful results.

This feels like a show made in that darker timeline.

Maybe the producers were making their own steampunk cop show and decided to slap Discworld names on it as a marketing afterthought. Imagine if someone was planning an on-the-road sci-fi/comedy and, by some dark miracle, managed to get the Lord of the Rings license from the Tolkien Estate: cue a LOTR version where a bunch of stoner hobbits and an insane cackling Gandalf ride speeder bikes towards Mordor through a cyberpunk Middle-earth; Aragorn is a woman, Galadriel a dude, Gollum a politically-minded revolutionary and everyone else is missing. That's The Watch. I'm no purist when it comes to adapting books to screen... but when setting, plot, tone and pretty much all characters are unrecognizable, you should just create your own original work instead of bastardizing someone else's.

Some of the actors could have been fine in a proper adaptation, like Dormer as Vimes - if the iconic character had not been turned into a punk Jack Sparrow. Vimes - who is, with Granny Weatherwax, one of Discworld's more complex, nuanced characters among so many memorable ones - was, pre-development, a broken, depressed drunk, not a goofball. Nearly every member of the Watch has been tinkered with in similarly deplorable ways, to say nothing of Sybil.

Also, how do you ruin the running joke of the huge Carrot being an adoptive/honorary dwarf? Why, you cast other tall actors as dwarfs! It takes some special kind of anti-genius to mess this up.

So, as its own thing? Not good. As an adaptation? Offensive, tone-deaf and nightmarishly bad. We'll always have dozens of great Discworld novels, I know, but it's sad we couldn't get a good Watch TV series as well.


The Midnight Sky

Two decent movies in one... but they don't gel with each other
I like the premise of The Midnight Sky a lot more than its execution. Oh, it's competent; the solemn cast does a fine job with rather thin characters.

The problem is structure, as this film ambitiously features two intertwining but wildly different plotlines.

In the first, Augustine (Clooney), an aging astronomer with a terminal illness, chooses to remain behind when most mankind leaves Earth facing an ecological disaster, as he desperately tries to contact the returning spaceship Ether and warn them not to land on Earth but to continue their journey. As a further complication, Augustine finds out he is not alone: a young girl has been left behind.

The second plotline follows the crew of the Ether, with pregnant Sully (Felicity Jones) and her companions, who ignore what happened, struggling to survive the return journey and contact Earth.

I believe Clooney has described the film as a mix between Gravity and The Revenant. Sounds interesting, right? It is, sort of, but the two storylines are so disparate in setting and pacing, they don't really work together all that well.

As we get invested in Augustine's struggle to survive in the wilderness while taking care of the girl, we suddenly jump to the astronauts facing an asteroid swarm - then we jump back to Augustine, and tension just whooshes out of both storylines.

This strange cross-genre exercise required REALLY tight writing and editing, but doesn't fully deliver. It's passable, but instead of one visceral story like in either Gravity or The Revenant, we get two half-hearted ones mixed together in an intriguing but flawed hybrid.


The Meg

The Meh-g
I love monster movies. It's a sickness I have. I can't get enough of ferocious creatures treating fictional idiots as their all-you-can-eat buffet.

Sadly, the Meg, while not exactly awful, is lacking in the writing department.

Even a decent cast cannot save it. Statham is fine with his roguish, Bruce Willis-h presence. The delightful Bingbing Li is an interesting female co-protagonist. Rainn Wilson can be funny, Cliff Curtis solid...

However, the characters are so uniformly vanilla, blandly noble and ready to deliver non-abrasive quips, they are incredibly boring - starting with the hero, whom the movie and the other characters spend an inordinate amount of time shilling. Even those who initially Wrongly Distrust Him™ are singing his praise before we are halfway through.

You need variety, conflict, arcs. Remember blunt, aggressive sea wolf Quint giving his companions a hard time in Jaws? Alan Grant in Jurassic Park starting off as a child hater (and being stuck protecting two kids for most of the movie)? Ian Malcolm, the keen scientist with "a deplorable excess of personality"? The well-sketched marines in Aliens and the tension between them and supercilious, unexperienced Gorman? The difference between gruff, blue-collar Parker and icy, smug Ash in Alien?

Another mistake is the way the movie tries to escalate the tension. It works better if the situation gets more and more personal, like in Jaws, where the shark is initially a generic threat to Amity, then in the last act the leads are fighting for their lives on a sinking boat. In The Meg we start with the main characters being directly in danger in the first two acts, then the goal becomes stopping the giant shark before it attacks a beach full of swimmers. It's exactly backwards! We don't care about nameless people, they're just extras! We care about the main characters... or we would if they had been better written.


Alien Worlds

Great concept, decent execution
Love the premise of this Netflix mini-series, which is: suppose you have an exoplanet with certain features (high gravity, oxygen-rich...) and, using comparative biology and special effects, imagine what kind of lifeforms could evolve there. It's the sort of stuff a committed science fiction writer would feverishly write pages and pages about for his world-building; as an unapologetic nerd, I kind of dig that.

CGI is impressive, although at least 50% of the run-time of each episode is devoted to short documentary segments about animal life on Earth. On one hand this is perfectly undestandable for reasons of budget (I imagine CGI of this quality is insanely expensive, so you need to pad out the length) and especially to compare the imagined alien lifeforms to known ones.

On the other hand, these comparisons often feel too broad and forced, so they are sort of hit-and-miss. For example, we skip from the dangers faced by young "sky grazers" on "Atlas" (the high-gravity planet which starts the series) before they learn to fly to... baby meerkats facing scorpions? As much as I find meerkats adorable, I don't quite see the connection other than the very generic "young animals are in constant danger in the wild". Given the "sky grazers" anatomy and life cycle, the race to the ocean of baby turtles would have been a far more appropriate comparison.

Neat concept, though.


Cyberpunk 2077

Excellent story/characters/quests, flawed sandbox
I'd put the Witcher 3 up there with my top ten games of all times, a serious contender for the best written RPG I've ever played, competing against Planescape: Torment and Knights of the Old Republic 2.

After the triumph of Wild Hunt, the hype for this new release of CD Projekt RED was insane, which is leading to strongly mixed reactions. Eight MILLION preorders is an incredible result; however, a certain part of the fandom seems to be receiving this as well as the last season of Game of Thrones, churning out scornful memes at impressive speed.

I've read console versions have important issues in terms of visuals and stability. On my PC no complaints on the matter, the game looks neat and I've encountered no major bugs.

More than a cyberpunk Witcher 3, however, this feels like Deus Ex: Night City.

Writing is typically fine, both in the main and secondary quests, with memorable characters and solid dialogues anchored by strong voice acting. CD Projekt RED has a knack for creating NPCs far more interesting than the usual quest-delivering puppets.

What doesn't work? Well, the open world sandbox element of the game lacks immersion and feels rushed compared to, say, Red Dead Redemption 2, which came out two years ago. Night City is vast and looks impressive (I particularly like its verticality) but kinda feels empty, because NPC (and vehicle) AI is lacking and, well, there's not a lot to do other than quests. Some features reek of cutting corners, like the awful police AI: when a crime is committed a bunch of angry cops will spawn behind you like law-enforcing, trigger-happy ghosts and start shooting. It's so rough compared to the sophisticated reactions of lawmen in RDR2.

My advice: if you liked, say, Deus Ex: Human Revolution and want to play this on PC for the story and characters, Cyberpunk is strongly recommended. If you crave an immersive sandbox cyberpunk experience ("GTA 2077: Blade Runner"), wait for new patches and see.

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children

Do you want to know what killed me?
This is one of those "mid Tim Burton" movies, not up there with Ed Wood, Batman Returns or Big Fish but not down the well with Alice in Wonderland or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory either.

Burton seemed like the perfect choice to deal with the material (adapted from the first book of a young adult fantasy series), as the director has always been enamored with bittersweet stories of creepy/poetic outcasts. The result is watchable but beyond its full potential.

Young Jake (Asa Butterfield) loses his beloved grampa (the great Terence Stamp), who used to tell him incredible tales from his youth before being mysteriously killed. Jake visits an island in Wales to find out his grampa's stories were true: he finds a school with a group of superpowered children and teens, tutored by Miss Peregrine (Eva Green, always interesting).

The headmistress and her pupils are stuck in a time loop in an ever-repeating day of 1943 - which Miss Peregrine resets every evening before a Nazi bombardment destroys their mansion - hiding from a group of sinister creatures hunting them.

The first act is a little slow but the second gets genuinely compelling - I was on board with the movie at that point. There are some neat ideas: the "peculiar children" of unusual skills enjoying a sheltered, unending youth but unable to grow up and lead an actual life; Miss Peregrine Groundhog-Daying her routine, from answering the same phone call again and again to slaying a monster always attacking at the same hour. There were enough ideas for a whole mini-series in this section of the film.

Sadly, the last act peters out into something conventional and nowhere as intriguing, the typical showdown with the Bad Guys™ - including a ghoulish Samuel L. Jackson, a usually fantastic actor who here hams it up like (appropriately) there is no tomorrow. The rules of time travel established earlier get sloppy and confusing; the themes of choice and loss get a very hasty "love trumps all" resolution. Pity, there was a great concept back in that second act. It's also weird how the script desperately hastens to tie up all loose ends, whereas the source material ended with an effective cliffhanger (and the book series is still going on - five novels and counting). I appreciate giving some closure in case you don't get to make a sequel, but this felt like deliberately torpedoing any chance of a second movie.

Parental advice, this isn't for smaller children (younger than 10). The tone is mostly lighthearted but, in typical Burton fashion, there are creepy creatures (which look like they swam all the way from Silent Hill) and grotesque moments, including monsters gorging on their victims' eyeballs... yeah.


The Mandalorian: Chapter 10: The Passenger
Episode 2, Season 2

Solid transitional episode
This was an okay episode, if a step back from the excellent season premiere. The Mandalorian for me continues to be pleasantly competent and quaint: new adventures in a galaxy far away without the lore-breaking and character assassinations of the sequels.

In this episode Mando and the Child escort an alien passenger on their ship but crash on a frozen planet which turns out to be inhabited by dangerous creatures. Call this Baby's First "Aliens".

Was this amazing television? Nope. Did I enjoy it? Yep - another yummy Star Wars cheeseburger.


Star Wars: Squadrons

X-Wing reborn
This Star Wars space simulator looks and sounds neat, features four different spaceships for both the Rebel Alliance and the Empire with wildly different playing styles and a good level of customization, both functional and cosmetic.

The single player campaign, set after the destruction of the second Death Star, jumps back and forth between playing as a Rebel and an Imperial pilot with intertwining stories. Multiplayer allows for space battles with either simple dogfights or more elaborate fleet battles.

It's solid, although there is room for improvement, like a few more ships (TIE phantom, B-Wing...) and WAY more multiplayer maps. Incidentally, I appreciate the lack of micro-transactions, with EA apparently learning the lesson after the Battlefront 2 uproar.


The Mandalorian: Chapter 9: The Marshal
Episode 1, Season 2

You had me at "Krayt Dragon"
Give Jon Favreau (and his pal Filoni) the control of Disney Star Wars! Unlike Kathleen Kennedy, J.J. Abrams and Rian Johnson, Favreau loves and respects Star Wars. Also, he understands what fan service is - hint: NOT showing the old heroes humiliated and defeated, with their character arcs rebooted and their accomplishments deleted.

For the record: the episode is okay, not the new coming of The Empire Strikes Back. Still, imagine this: you went to a restaurant years ago and had the best meal of your life (the original trilogy). You come back some years later and everything is different, the cook is experimenting with strange new dishes, some tasty, some just weird (the prequels). You return again and, although the dishes are in theory the same you ate the first time, everything tastes like dog food (the sequels). So you get out and buy a cheeseburger (the Mandalorian). Sure, the cheeseburger may not be the best thing you've ever eaten, but it's just SO much better than your last disastrous experience at the restaurant, it feels delicious.

The Mandalorian continues to be solid, a pleasantly straightforward sci-fi / western / adventure with memorable characters and just the right tone. In this episode, Timothy Olyphant guest stars as the sheriff of a small Tatooine settlement threatened by a monster; the sheriff makes a deal with Mando, our Man With No Name in shining Beskar armor still protecting his Baby Yoda.

Star Wars meets Sergio Leone meets Tremors? Sign me up.


In the Tall Grass

All scares and no lore makes horror a bore
The very King-esque premise was intriguing and the ending decent but, as something of a King fan, this was mostly a disappointment. Here's the problem: "anything goes". It's a big issue with supernatural horror. Trying to explain everything like a math test is a tragic mistake but, on the other end of the spectrum, a random collection of creepy-but-repetitive vignettes isn't much better.

Horror needs some kind of rules and lore to work. Not a rational explanation, no. But a framework for our fears, yes. Let's see other better works by King. Salem's Lot vampires are taking over the town but have to follow some rules (avoid sunlight, enter houses only when invited in). The creatures in "The Mist" may come from another dimension or not, it doesn't matter: don't go outside or they will eat you, but they can't materialize out of thin air or pass through walls. See what I mean?

Here, the unfortunate protagonists enter a mysterious field and get trapped into a sort of eldritch maze/temporal loop. Some kind of evil rock lies at the center of it. Touching the rock turns you crazy and evil, except when it does not. Grass-faced people inhabit the place, except when they do not, and can attack/capture those lost in the field, except when they can not. People die but then other iterations of them appear alive again: when you realize they can try again and again after every failure and death, as in some kind of Lovecraftian Groundhog Day, the stakes crumble into dust. There is a rather horrific scene where a character meets her demise, is mourned... and then walks onscreen alive and well from another direction. Oh, okay.


Star Wars: Battlefront II

NOW it's a great game
Battlefront 2 was a highly controversial release at the time, as the game was heavily (and rightfully) criticized for its emphasis on microtransactions, which allowed to pay real-life money for in-game advantages, a toxic gaming attitude if ever there was one.

What about today? Microtransactions are gone and the game has been polished and updated to satisfying results. The single player campaign is short but decent; the multiplayer is excellent, with maps from different eras (original trilogy, prequel trilogy, sequel trilogy), many classes and heroes with a neat variety of powers, tactics and customization, and also various game modes, including spaceship battles and a personal favorite, Ewok Hunt, where some players are Stromtroopers lost on Endor and the others are the Ewoks stalking them.

I wish local co-op on the same console offered more choices - there are a few game modes allowing it, but a minority compared to what you can play online. Still, this is how you salvage a fiasco.



Eloi and Morlocks
A compelling thriller, Ransom follows the kidnapping of Sean (Brawley Nolte), son of Tom (Mel Gibson) and Kate (Rene Russo), by crooked cop Jimmy Shaker (Gary Sinise) and his gang.

Ransom features an above-average script and solid performances, especially by a reptilian Sinise, who is menacing and effective as the main villain. The cast is rounded up by Lili Taylor, Liev Schreiber and Donnie Walhberg as the other members of the gang, plus Delroy Lindo as the agent following the case.

The film misses a few intriguing opportunities: in particular, the rift between Tom and Kate caused by an unexpected development and the moral ambiguity introduced when it's mentioned Tom was specifically chosen by the kidnappers for his shady past are both quickly jettisoned and never mentioned again. A few moments are also distractingly over-directed; the climax feels obvious and predictable.

Still, this is one of Ron Howard's best films, worth watching, if nothing else, for Sinise's creepy villainous turn.


Game of Thrones

I liked Game of Thrones. Really, really liked it. It got me into Martin's still unfinished but excellent book series. Now that Game of Thrones is over and The Winds of Winter STILL hasn't come out, here's a brief autopsy of the show.

So, what killed it? Writing, after Season Four. Everything else was wonderful: visuals, special effects, costumes, the soundtrack by Ramin Djawadi.

Acting was amazing, with special mentions to Sean Bean, Mark Addy, Charles Dance, Lena Headey, Pedro Pascal, Conleth Hill, Stephen Dillane (even if Stannis was butchered), Liam Cunningham and Peter Dinklage - the latter was fantastic as Tyrion before the character was written in the last seasons first as a quip-delivering machine, then as a wet blanket and an idiot.

But really, everyone was great, with initially unknown leads Kit Harrington and Emilia Clarke growing nicely into their roles and revelatory performances like Alfie Allen's and Maisie Williams' (who was stellar before Arya's transmogrification into a smug psycho). One of the best acted shows ever, no doubt.

Seasons One, Two and Three were mostly superb, bringing Martin's detailed fantasy world and complex characters to life. Best episodes: 1x05, 1x07, 1x08, 1x09, 2x03, 2x08, 2x09, 3x05, 3x07, 3x09.

Season Four showed the first cracks (like the awful Jaime/Cersei sept scene) but was still generally great. Sadly, the show died more or less when Tywin Lannister did. Best episodes: 4x02, 4x08, 4x09. Worst episodes: 4x03, 4x05.

Season Five was the beginning of the end - not coincidentally, that's when show writers Benioff and Weiss started running out of book material to adapt. Sure, there was the occasional visually luscious battle episode (5x08, and later 6x09, 7x04...), but I maintain that stuff like the farcical Dorne storyline, the character assassination of Stannis and the abominable Sansa/Ramsay subplot were as bad as anything in Seasons 7-8. Best episode: 5x08. Worst episodes: 5x06, 5x09.

Season Six was marginally better but another major issue emerged: for a series where supposedly "nobody is safe", the obscene amount of plot armor displayed by some characters became incredibly jarring. Best episodes: 6x05, 6x09. Worst episodes: 6x07, 6x08.

In Season Seven the direwolf was out of the bag: many viewers realized the pacing was rushed and some plotlines were absurd (the wight hunt, Dany's war strategy). Best episode: 7x04. Worst episode: 7x06.

Season Eight (best episodes: 8x02, worst episodes: all the others) of the once most beloved show on television was received as well as an invasion of plague rats. It was clear to most fans at that point that the Writers did not care about: 1) details - for example, distances, so important in a world full of geographical barriers affecting journeys, were totally ignored, with characters teleporting all around the map in the span of a single episode; 2) themes (they had been misinterpreting Martin's "romantic realism" for garden-variety nihilism for years); 3) coherent character arcs.

In fact, when a protagonist did get something resembling a thematically sound character arc (i.e. Theon), it felt almost jarring compared to the haphazard development of nearly everyone else who survived after Season Four (the worst being poor Jaime).

Final verdict: Seasons 1, 2 and 3: 9/10; Season 4: 8/10; Season 5: 4/10; Season 6: 5/10; Season 7: 4/10; Season 8: 3/10

Ready Player One

Philip K. Dumb
I love Spielberg - he made four of my favorite movies of all time - but file this one under his "missed opportunities" section.

There was a great premise buried deep behind this, a cyberpunk quest with intriguing philosophical elements. The execution is juvenile, clunky and masturbatory though. What's truly baffles me is how set-pieces are visually busy and tiresome: it is, in a word, tawdry, which is astonishing for Spielberg.

This CGI MacGuffin hunt feels more like a barrage of MMORPG trailers than Blade Runner. Pity, really.


King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

Why have enemies when you can have friends?
As someone who liked pretty much all Ritchie's previous movies, I'd say this is a mixed bag.

The movie has some imaginative visuals and creature design, like the creepy monster/witch/thing in the underground lake, and a moody soundtrack.

The villain, played with malicious glee by Jude Law, is also effective. Ironically, the black-hearted bad guy is the only one with any meaningful characterization. Although, frankly, given the choice between becoming a scythe-wielding abomination and staying married to Katie McGrath, I'd toss the scythe into the nearest garbage bin.

Sadly, Arthur (Charlie Hunnam)'s followers are not as interesting; they are a multitude and barely distinguishable in terms of personality - the unnamed female mage, Littlefinger, Djimon Hounsou, the kid, the blonde spy, the redhead, the kindly prostitutes who raised Arthur, the wounded one, the kung fu teaching Asian guy... yeah, kung fu in Arthurian legends, it's that kind of movie. And in bad guy's entourage we have bad guy's daughter, Roose Bolton, bearded lieutenant, bald lieutenant... And in the prologue Uther, Mordred, Igraine, Elsa...

It's A LOT of people, too many for a two hours movie where a huge chunk of the running time is action set-pieces, so none of them is given time to develop a memorable personality. It feels like one of those "Game of Thrones in under 2 minutes" videos. Funnily enough, the two characters everyone does know from the Arthurian legend other than the titular protagonist, Merlin and Lancelot, are either onscreen for two seconds (the former) or absent (the latter).

Overall, this reminds me of The 13th Warrior, another watchable historical fantasy/adventure which flopped and had a huge cast of characters but developed like three of them.



A monkey, a wolf and a crocodile walk into a city...
If a couple of decades ago you had told my teenage self that I would have groaned with boredom watching a movie where giant monsters lay a metropolis to waste... well, I would have called you a liar, and yet here we are.

Rampage is not so much bad or incompetent as it is tedious and mediocre. The creature stuff is decent, but the character stuff is paper-thin. Johnson plays the kind of hero who is decent, brave, cool, competent and always right. Remember when protagonists of this kind of brainless fare were played by, say, Bruce Willis, and they were shady and deeply flawed and so much more fun?

For a solid monster movie, watch Skull Island or the first Pacific Rim instead; while they are not exactly cerebral stuff, there is at least an attempt to give characters and lore a little more development.


Into the Night

Stephen King Lite
This is a rather silly but enjoyable mini-series with a high-concept premise reminiscent of the works of Stephen King, with a group of ordinary people forced to work together to face a deadly threat.

An armed NATO officer hijacks a plane and forces it to fly west, as he claims sunlight has become deadly and the only way to survive is to outrun the dawn, constantly speeding across the globe, "into the night". Passengers and crew obviously think he is crazy but then start noticing creepy signs he may be telling the truth.

Cue the damaged helicopter pilot who is suicidal after losing her partner but will need to help with the plane; the seemingly charming businessman hiding a secret; the nurse who tends to the wounded pilot; the hysterical mother with her sick child; and so on.

The show's breakneck pace and dumb-but-fun premise keep together a first season which is wisely squeezed into only six fourty-minutes episodes. The whole thing collapses once you start thinking about it for a second: my favorite plot hole is how in the last episode they claim to have been on the run for a week... when, due to the specific premise and the itinerary they have followed, this is very conspicuously impossible.

Still, it's decent enough for a couple of binge-watching sessions if you're still in quarantine (in which case, hold on!).



Writer/director Bong Joon Ho pulls off another sharp genre film with a darkly comedic twist - after tackling serial killers (Memories of Murder, 2003), monsters (The Host, 2006), science fiction (Snowpiercer, 2013, the only one I did not like) and child-and-her-pet genre (Okja, 2017), it's time for the family drama with a dash of Hitchcockian thriller.

The poor but cunning Kim family infiltrates the rich Park family through a series of deceptions, as the Kims discredit the previous domestic workers to replace them one by one, fabricating fake credentials. However, the Park house hides a dark secret which throws the Kims' plan into chaos. To say more would be a shame.

This is, for me, Bong's best movie since The Host, possibly even since Memories of Murder, boasting perfect editing, fine performances (the great Kang-ho Song, Bong's long-time collaborator, plays the patriarch of the poor family) and clever visual storytelling. The attention to details is stunning: the film has a strong vertical structure, with the road to the Parks house ascending into the sunlight while the journey back to the Kims' basement is a long, dim descent; the two great windows of the houses contrast each other, with the Parks' showing a gorgeous garden and the Kims' a squalid alley populated by drunkards; when a Native Americans-themed birthday turns into something far more sinister, a character's face is smeared with blood in a way to resemble war paintings.

The script is worthy of these remarkable visuals and finds a miraculous balance between comedy, tragedy and tension.


Gibbous - A Cthulhu Adventure

LucasArts' Call of Cthulhu!
This excellent third-person/point-and-click adventure game is clearly inspired in tone and visuals by LucasArts' classics - while it doesn't come anywhere close to The Secret of Monkey Island or other similar gems, Gibbous is an inspired debut by these new developers.

The unusual premise is a comedic take on H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos, as a noir-ish private detective team up with a slacker librarian with a talking cat (due to an accident with the newly-found Necrononomicon) against evil cultists with nefarious plans to raise eldritch abominations.

Visuals are neat, with lovely hand-drawn graphics and animations possibly inspired by Disney and Don Bluth animated movies of the Eighties. Characters are enjoyable, with solid voice acting and amusing dialogues.

There are issues. Gameplay is competent but on the easy side (think the latest Wadjet Eye adventure games after the Blackwell series); I found only a handful of truly challenging puzzles in the 9 hours or so it took me to complete the game. Without going into spoilers, I wasn't too fond of the conclusion, which feels convoluted and ends with a weird Twilight Zone twist.

Still, if you enjoy adventure games, Lovecraft and black comedy, this is strongly recommended.



Intriguing visual novel
I picked the game up because of graphic designer Olly Moss, whom I knew for his awesome movie posters (seriously, check them out).

The premise: in 1989, Henry (Rich Sommer), a man escaping from serious family problems, accepts a job as a fire lookout in the Shoshone National Park, which means he will be alone for months doing menial tasks in the beautiful wilderness; his only contact is Delilah (Cissy Jones), his quirky supervisor, who lives in a relatively nearby tower and communicates with Henry via walkie-talkie. However, strange events begin to occur, park visitors disappear, someone stalks Henry and spies on him and Delilah.

This first-person adventure/mystery is the kind of game some players praise as an incredible experience while others contemptuously peg as a boring "walking simulator". Let's find some middle ground. Firewatch has several strong points. Visuals are luscious, no surprise here given Moss' talent. Acting and dialogue are top-notch: the interactions between Henry and Delilah, ranging from amusing to touching, are the core of the game. The story is compelling, sometimes emotional, often quite unnerving, with an atmosphere of rising paranoia as your main character explores the area, often at night, while he and Delilah realize mysterious enemies conspire against them.

Gameplay is scant. The player basically: 1) hikes through the wilderness checking map and compass to reach various destinations; 2) chooses dialogue options when discussing with Delilah; 3) interacts with items in a way that never goes beyond "pick up, open or activate". There really are no *puzzles* as in "use the thing with the thing to unlock the other thing" like in LucasArts, Sierra or even Wadjet Eye adventure games.

While the narrative kept my interest until the end, the last act feels anticlimactic, with some setups never paid off and some developments weakly set up.

Still, this can be a short but engrossing experience. For the record, I completed the game in seven and a half hours and I often got lost in the woods; I can't see anyone taking much longer unless his sense of direction is truly abysmal!


Glengarry Glen Ross

Third prize is, you're fired
One of the main themes of the works by David Mamet is the tension between human relationships and professional goals. In Speed the Plow, a movie producer is torn between greenlighting the artsy project sponsored by the young woman he likes and a more conventional script likely to become a hit. In American Buffalo, petty criminal "Teach" gaslights his fellow thieves at the prospect of a promising robbery.

Seldom, however, the depiction of a toxic business environment smothering human relationships has been as effective as in Glengarry Glen Ross, a gripping drama/character study about a group of real estate salesmen followed the day before and after their office is robbed.

Nearly every relationship in the film is some shade of awful. Desperate Levene (Jack Lemmon), former ace salesman on a bad streak, tries to appeal to supericilious middle-manager Williamson (Kevin Spacey), but all his pleas fall completely flat. Levene isn't bringing results so he is worth nothing to Williamson.

The flipside is the relationship between Williamson and hotshot salesman Roma (Al Pacino). Roma despises his young, inexperienced boss and loses no opportunity to verbally tear him to shreds.

See also Roma's persuasion of client Lingk (Jonathan Pryce), a man with crippling self-esteem issues who falls for Roma pretending to be his friend; or bitter Moss (Ed Harris), apparently supporting spineless Aaronow (Alan Arkin) only to attempt to drag him into a scheme.

The only non-poisonous relationship, based on mutual respect, seems to be the one between Roma and Levene; the movie suggests they are symbolically the same person in a different stage of life, with Roma being Levene's brilliant past while Levene is Roma's bleak future. In fact, when Levene temporarily gains the upper-hand on Williamson, he adopts Roma-like mockery and scorn.

The most vicious scene, however, is the brutal motivational speech delivered by powerful Blake (Alex Baldwin) to the increasingly humiliated salesmen. Mamet's staccato, profanity-heavy dialogue has never been sharper, his portrayal of how professional goals can destroy human relationships never bleaker. Acting is masterful throughout.


The Snowman

A fascinating case study...
... on how a troubled production can destroy a movie, even when, on paper, cast and crew are great. Michael Fassbender, one of the best performers of his generation, here looks miserable and lost. The same goes for Rebecca Ferguson, for whom I've had a crush since her breakout role in Rogue Nation as Ilsa, the conflicted spy in a form-fitting yellow dress.

Director Tomas Alfredson made one of my favourite spy thrillers ever, the phenomenal Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. One of the credited editors is none other than legendary Thelma Schoonmaker, long-time Scorsese collaborator and among the best in the business.

So what happened? Time and money. Production was rushed, many scenes were never filmed, pacing is completely off. The result is a choppy, clunky mess; the noirish plot of a snowman-building serial killer unfolds with the elegance of a long fall downstairs.


Sea of Thieves

Fun pirate sanbox
Sea of Thieves can be breathtaking. Create your pirate and control him in a visually gorgeous game world, sail on your customized ship, explore remote atolls, duel with skeletons, face other crews and sea monsters.

You can play co-op with your friends online: that's a great experience. Maybe during a quiet journey you place yourself at the helm and your pal stands on the mast, watching the horizon with a spyglass; or, during a night expedition on an island, you dig for buried treasures while your companion opens fire on approaching enemies; even better, you struggle to recover a chest from a sinking ship while your pal rescues you from an approaching giant shark (true story!).

All this is supremely fun... although there is no real endgame, you keep repeating variations of the same missions to earn enough money and give your custom pirate nicer-looking items, weapons and ships. This should be just the beginning, the pillar on which to build a game with a story progression that goes beyond "let's get the coolest gear".

A source of irritation is how there are no dedicated servers without PvP (Player versus Player). This means other players will be out to rob and kill you and your team members; although conflict is not mandatory, it is the typical outcome of meeting people who are not part of your crew. Admittedly, this can be fun in itself, but the choice should have been left to the player, including servers where PvP was forbidden. This flaw is mitigated by two factors though. One, long-time players don't have significant advantages over newcomers other than skill and experience, meaning they will not be hideously overpowered since even expensive gear is just cosmetic, leveling the playing field. Two, maps are fairly large and meeting a hostile crew is not uncommon but not constant either.

Overall, sailing around with friends is great, although there is room for further improvement.


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