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Mudbound

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Adapted from Hillary Jordan’s novel of the same name by director Dee Rees (Pariah), Mudbound tells the tale of two families in post-WWII rural Mississippi, divided by race but tied together by the hard, hostile land that the title alludes to.

There’s Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke), who has brought his refined, city-bred wife, Laura (Carey Mulligan) into this hardscrabble world where he plans to work the land like his father, racist patriarch “Pappy” (Jonathan Banks). And there’s the black tenant farmers who live on the McAllans’ land, the god-fearing Hap Jackson (Rob Morgan), his wife Florence (Mary J. Blige), and their passel of children. The power dynamics are clearly defined along racial lines: this is the Jim Crow south, after all, and black men use the back door and don’t raise their eyes to their alleged betters.

The situation changes when to veterans return from their World War II service: Hap’s son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), who served in the tank corps, and Henry’s brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund), who flew bomber missions over Europe. Both are struggling with PTSD and their place in the world, and their wartime experiences bond them in friendship. Such a relationship, however, cannot be countenanced by the locals, and violence is inevitable.

Mudbound is handsomely shot, well acted and possessed of a rare and mournful lyricism, but it feels off by degrees. It’s issues are common to literary adaptations: a hesitancy when it comes to understanding what to keep and what to cut, where to focus the cinematic narrative. The friendship between Jamie and Ronsel is the obvious crux here, but director Rees and her co-writer, Virgil Williams, do their best to encompass as many voices and viewpoints from the source novel as they can, and in doing so muddy the waters somewhat, if you’ll pardon the expression.

What that gives us is an arresting portrait of a place, people, and time, but a weaker story than one might hope for, which leaves us with a very good movie instead of a great one. Still, there’s much to admire and enjoy here: uniformly strong performances (Blige is a quiet miracle, and let’s acknowledge that Hedlund is doing much better as a character actor than a leading man), a pinpoint sense of specificity and detail, a restrained, downbeat visual style that gives the characters room to live and the incidents we witness their full emotional weight. Still, while Mudbound is a very worthy film, that odd and nagging lack of coherence stops it from being the masterpiece it so very nearly is.

 

 
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Call of Duty: WWII

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I’m not sure when I stopped caring about Call of Duty. Sometime in the last five or so years the annual shooty series just dropped off my radar. This was never a deliberate or conscious uncoupling, and I remember enjoying some CoDs back in the day, but there were simply more interesting shooters out there. Call of Duty: WWII, however, managed to grab my attention. The WWII setting, the Nazi zombies mode and the overall change of pace seemed appealing. So does the result live up to the hype? Eh… mostly.

COD: WWII is an attempt by the series to get back to its roots. That means WWII and that means you’ll be storming the beaches of Normandy. Again. See the thing about WWII’s campaign is that it’s beautiful, bombastic, exciting… and yet utterly predictable. If you’ve played earlier WWII iterations of CoD, watched Saving Private Ryan or the excellent TV series, Band of Brothers you’ll know what you’re in for. Almost exactly what you’re in for.

You play the part of Ronald “Red” Daniels who is a generic farm boy stereotype who needs to finish fighting this gol’ dang war and get back to his pregnant missus. It’s a tofu bland character and fairly uninteresting, as are most of the supporting cast, save Zussman (Jonathan Tucker) who manages to breathe life into a stodgy script, playing Red’s smart arse Jewish mate. The tale follows the usual beats you’d expect, with occasional diversions like playing as a resistance member (which is fantastic) and air support (which is okay). The whole campaign lasts about six hours – which is long for CoD – and manages to occasionally eke out some pathos from the cliches. It’s not terrible, it’s not great – it’s fine.

Backing up the campaign is the multiplayer which, for many players, is where the game shines. The usual modes like variations on CTF and deathmatch play like business as usual, but the War mode is a highlight – striking a more narrative-based balance, similarly to last year’s Battlefield 1. Having more objective based modes is definitely a step forward for CoD, although playing with dead-eyed teenagers who only care about their KD ratio can be… grueling.

Finally the Nazi Zombies mode is four-player fun, where you and three chums battle waves of the goose-stepping dead, solving mild puzzles and upgrading weapons. Featuring voice acting from the likes of David Tennant and Ving Rhames this mode is a hoot, managing to be gory and even moderately scary. Although I missed the ability to craft barricades this was probably the highlight of the whole package.

Ultimately Call of Duty: WWII is solid but unextraordinary. The campaign is fine, the multiplayer enjoyable and the zombies pretty fun – but none of it feels as deep and interesting as Battlefield 1. With a few friends you regularly play with there’s a lot to enjoy here, just don’t go expecting a complete overhaul of CoD’s aging engine.

 
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Star Trek: Discovery S1E9: Into the Forest I Go

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The peaceful inhabitants of the planet Pahva have sent a signal to both the Federation and the Klingon Empire to come to their world and negotiate peace. Captain Lorca (Jason Isaacs) knows that the Klingons are on their way and will decimate the Pahvans when they arrive. Against Starfleet orders he commands the USS Discovery to stay and face the Klingons head-on.

With this ninth episode Star Trek: Discovery concludes its initial run, referred to by CBS as “Chapter One”. Another six episodes will be released in early 2018 to properly conclude the first season, but for now it is mid-point climax time for Lorca, Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) and the rest of the Discovery crew. It has been a maddening and frustrating ride, with numerous outstanding elements in the series constantly over-shadowed by inconsistent characterisation, poor plotting, and an attitude to Star Trek continuity that is most politely described as ‘dismissive’.

That in mind, it is a genuine relief to find the plot of “Into the Forest I Go” to be straight-forward, dramatic and pretty much the most Star Trek-like narrative so far. The Discovery is under orders to retreat, leaving the Pahvans defenceless, but Lorca disobeys orders and stays behind to fight. The bulk of the episode, in which an attempt is made to detect a cloaked Klingon starship using a combination of ship-to-ship espionage and the Discovery’s spore drive, is a wonderfully suspenseful exercise in action, character development, and the finest Star Trek technobabble. It also all leads into a great end-of-chapter cliff-hanger that suggests more than one of the current fan theories circling the Internet might be true.

The episode takes time for its characters as well. The most impactful scenes involve Lieutenant Ash Tyler (Shazad Latif), who was held captive by the Klingons and tortured for seven months by L’Rell (Mary Chieffo). Their relationship was in part sexual, and the profoundly traumatised Tyler confides in Burnham about his experience. This is, to be honest, the sort of thing I was expecting from a 21st century Star Trek series: genuinely progressive subject matter that earlier versions were too conservative to address. Could the episode have handled Tyler’s sexual assault and PTSD more sensitively? Very probably, but in the context of an action-packed mid-season finale it seemed impressive as it was.

Of course, there are still the silly bits. The sensors Burnham and Tyler must place in secret around the Klingon ‘ship of the dead’ are comically large with bright lights and a loud voice recording. The episode begins with Discovery remaining to protect Pahva, because if they leave the Klingons will destroy the whole planet, and ends with the Discovery flying away with multiple Klingon ships on approach – and Pahva presumably abandoned to destruction anyway. Star Trek continuity obsessives like me will be left wondering why Spock and McCoy had to retro-fit a photon torpedo to detect a cloaked Klingon ship when the Discovery solved that problem 40 years earlier. To be honest it’s all minor; this episode is genuinely great where it counts.

The potential in Discovery has been there from the start, but these first nine episodes have offered one hell of a rough ride. “Into the Forest I Go” brings the promise of a much-improved series as it goes on. If the production team can stick to the core of what makes its characters work, and shave off the elements that have been dragging the series back – poor plots, inconsistent characterisation, and a quite frankly insulting attitude to the franchise as a whole – it could become something quite special.

 
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The Punisher

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Hell, where do we be begin?

The hotly anticipated Punisher TV series represents the nadir of Marvel’s Netflix streaming projects, narrowly nudging out the widely derided Iron Fist by dint of squandering a perfect set up and a shedload of goodwill left over from the character’s Marvel Cinematic Universe continuity debut in season 2 of Daredevil. That’s pretty impressive; Jon Bernthal’s turn as the ex-Marine vigilante Frank Castle is the fourth live action iteration of the character since Dolph Lundgren took on the name (And little else) way back in 1989, and is pretty much universally considered the best by a considerable margin. This time, fans told each other, they got The Punisher right. Now, on the other side of 13 turgid, meandering episodes, it seems it’s time to go back to the drawing board once more.

When we left our man Frank back in Daredevil, his origin was done and dusted; his family was dead, and he’d acquired for himself an arsenal of terrifying weapons and a rather striking white on black skull motif, leaving him in prime position to begin his never-ending war on crime. The follow up series wastes no time in undoing that. After a brief, bloody and quite enjoyable montage that sees him cleaning up the last few mooks responsible for his family’s deaths, Frank calls it quits, picks up a construction job under an assumed name, and does his level best to put his violent past behind him.

That’s strike one right there: the idea of The Punisher, of all people, trying to go on the straight and narrow contradicts the very essence of the character. Luckily, we have a mechanism to pull him back into action: former NSA analyst David “Micro” Lieberman (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), who has uncovered evidence of military malfeasance linked to Frank’s time as a marine in Afghanistan, and needs his help to take down the bad guys. We still have to put up with a lot of wheel-spinning and wool gathering, though – especially frustrating when you have a character such as this stuck on the “Refusing the Call” chapter of Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces.

Indeed, The Punisher suffers from the now-familiar Marvel/Netflix issue of having to spread too little story over too many hours; there’s actually about a feature film’s worth of narrative here, maybe two at a pinch. It’s possible to actually skip from the first episode to episode 10 and not miss anything of value or, indeed, any plot points you won’t be able to infer for yourself. Much of the series is just Frank and Micro arguing in Micro’s warehouse base of operations – especially galling considering the promise of plenty of action is baked into the basic concept.

Instead we get side-plot after side-plot that drags us slowly toward the inevitable climax, and precious little mayhem until things ramp up in the final stretch. After all, why have our skull-shirted avenger mowing down armies of deserving criminals when we could be watching Micro fret over his family, who think he’s dead since he faked his own death to protect them from reprisals? Or Frank, acting as Micro’s catspaw, fixing their sink, at the same time getting a taste of the family life that was torn from him? It’s not as poignant as it sounds.

Also in the mix are a couple of Homeland Security agents (Amber-Rose Nevah and Michael Nathanson) who are also on the case; a disabled veteran (Jason R. Moore) who runs a support group for returned soldiers; returning supporting character Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll) from Daredevil; and Billy Russo, Frank’s old comrade-in-arms, now working as a private military contractor and, of course, The Villain. Rather than build a narrative that operates organically and builds satisfyingly, show runner Steve Lightfoot has simply packed the show with enough separate story strands and characters that he can just cut between them whenever a scene begins to run out of steam.

Which happens a lot – it’s impossible to overstate how leaden and badly structured The Punisher is. There are endless dialogue scenes that go nowhere, flashbacks to backstory we already know or can parse for ourselves, pointless verbal confrontations and posturing… the list goes on.

It’s also dumb. That’s not necessarily a cardinal sin when it comes to an action series, but you want to make sure things are moving too quickly for the audience to notice how sloppy things are in the moment. The Punisher does not do that. It’s at its worst when it’s trying to be smart – there’s a bit of business in the back half addressing the ever-topical gun control issue that just comes across as glib and contrived, especially in a series specifically built around and celebrating the “good guy with a gun” myth beloved of the NRA. It’s actually, on reflection, rather offensive, an act of blatant ass-covering so that the producers can point to it and say that they addressed the issue.

If that doesn’t bother you, perhaps Frank’s laughably mawkish hallucinations of his wife will. Or Paul Schulze’s scenery-chewing turn as a corrupt CIA agent. Or the fact that, when you elide away all the unnecessary window dressing, the actual plot is basically Lethal Weapon, to the point that Frank sitting down for Christmas dinner with Micro’s family as the credits roll seems like an all-too-possible denouement.

There are a few positive elements in play. The cast do everything they can to elevate the substandard material they’ve got to work with, and Jon Bernthal remains a flat-out great Punisher, all barely restrained rage and possessed of a physical stoicism that borders on the masochistic. It is absolutely frustrating to see this guy, who for a brief moment was well on track to being the definitive on-screen Punisher, undone by such bad writing, and such a misguided understanding of the character. The scenes where Bernthal gets to cut loose against his enemies, carving his way though them with methodical fury, remain the highlight of the series, but boy do you have to wade through a lot of dross to get to them.

And, in the end, it’s just not worth it. The Punisher is an absolute mess. It’s thematically naive, narratively inert, condescending to its audience,  and lacks almost any understanding of its central character’s appeal. Only the low bar set by previous on screen Punisher incarnations prevents it from being unarguably the worst live action version of the character.

And he hardly ever wears the damn skull, either. Honestly, who thought that was a good idea?

 
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OtherLife

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Ren (Jessica De Gouw) is the designer of OtherLife, a liquid substance that can be dropped onto the eyeball and re-program the human brain. As the release date for its recreational use fast approaches, Ren spends an increasing amount of time on her own secret project. When her business partner Sam (T.J. Power) comes with a lucrative offer from the Department of Corrections to use OtherLife as an alternative to incarceration Ren is horrified – but opposing such a high-value offer has made her a target.

OtherLife is a new science fiction film from Perth-based filmmaker Ben C. Lucas (Wasted on the Young). It does a superb job of spinning a smart, engaging thriller out of a modest production budget, and marks a fresh and still comparatively rare Australian contribution to science fiction cinema. Sadly, it does not quite vault from being a solid genre entry into something ground-breaking or progressive, thanks to a string of comparatively safe choices in the plot.

Where it does excel is in taking the sort of well-established virtual reality tropes of such films as Total Recall and grounding them in a much more contemporary context. The virtual reality of OtherLife is a chemical one, applied via a liquid agent, and combined with scenes of Ren being interrogated over the drug’s safety and ethical concerns it feels genuine and believable. It may be a science fiction, but it feels aggressively contemporary at the same time. As with all science fiction cinema, making the science fiction parts seem real is half of the battle – and it is a half that OtherLife absolutely wins. It also rather clever to see virtual reality, something often presented in film and television as a drug-like experience, presented as an actual narcotic.

Where the film struggles is in the predictable story. Twists and turns in the narrative feel predictable and unfold in ways that can be seen from far, far ahead. For any viewer half-versed in virtual reality thrillers there will be few surprises to be found. As it stands the film is an entertaining one, but a few more ideas and unexpected developments in the plot and it could have been something tremendous. In that respect it is largely par for the course for writer Gregory Widen, whose previous screenplays such as Highlander, The Prophecy and Backdraft all betray a similar problem: strong ideas, but a relatively ordinary execution.

Jessica De Gouw presents Ren as a complex and damaged figure, and brings a lot of talent to enhance the character and provide additional depth. It is a valuable performance given how much of the film focuses directly on her. There is a bit of a stereotype at work in Ren’s goth fashion sense and demeanour, but design-wise it does look great on screen.

OtherLife is Lucas’ second feature, following his 2010 debut Wasted on the Young. It shows a strong and developing directorial talent, and marks Lucas out as a filmmaker to keep a close eye on in the future.

 
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Star Trek: Discovery S1E8: Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum

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Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), Saru (Doug Jones) and Tyler (Shazad Latif) beam down to a strange planet in the hopes of utilising its natural harmonic transmissions to detect cloaked Klingon vessels. Their mission is complicated, first when they discover a species of intelligent energy-based aliens living on the planet, and secondly when Saru appears to fall under the planet’s control and begins working against Burnham and Tyler.

I honestly cannot pin Star Trek: Discovery down. It is a series visibly made by a lot of talented people – particularly its cast – and yet the end result each week veers wildly from well-observed drama to genre cliché, and then stumbles into bizarre tone-deaf moments of poor character development. It is the least Trek-like Star Trek series ever made, in which the upbeat Utopian values that typified its predecessors – yes, even the murkier Deep Space Nine – are sidelined in favour of a bleak setting, a war criminal captain, and an inexplicable obsession with straining franchise continuity to breaking point. At this stage I am loving Sonequa Martin-Green’s performance as protagonist Michael Burnham, and Jason Isaac’s committed portrayal of the horrifying Captain Lorca, and pretty much despising almost everything else.

Recent episodes have seen a partial shift towards the episode-of-the-week science fiction stories of earlier series. Last week saw Discovery revisit the well-worn ‘time loop’ story with fairly ordinary results. This week sees an honest-to-god away mission, with a bonus first contact scenario thrown in for free. Starfleet ships cannot pinpoint cloaked Klingon vessels to avoid getting ambushed, but the strange emanations from the planet Pahvo may hold a key to developing some sort of interstellar sonar that would pick such disguised ships out from the darkness. When the planet’s wraithlike inhabitants reveal themselves it throws this mission into crisis mode, since it means that in addition to investigating the crystal tower that is transmitting the signals the away team also has to beg permission to touch it. Saru tries to negotiate with the Pahvans, but their constant alien signals do something to his brain and lead him to sabotage the mission in order to live with them forever.

It’s difficult to know what to make of Saru. Doug Jones plays him wonderfully, and he is an exceptional piece of prosthetic design and application. At the same time he is a grossly inconsistent character. At first he seemed so risk-averse one questioned why he would have joined Starfleet at all. By three weeks ago he was willingly torturing a sentient creature to complete a mission. Now he is sabotaging mission-critical work in order to escape the war and live in peace. One spends much of the episode assuming he is under alien control, however later scenes reveal he knew exactly what he was doing all along. It turns his character into a joke, since he cannot be taken seriously as the first officer of a warship any more – assuming he ever was. Between his treachery, the captain’s willing betrayal of his superior to the Klingons, and Lt Stamets’ hiding of serious medical issues to the captain and ship’s doctor, this is the most wildly incompetent Starfleet bridge crew since they let a teenage boy pilot the Enterprise.

The production values are top-notch, with each episode looking and sounding great. Burnham is a truly brilliant lead character. The rest is just a weird mess. If Discovery was simply bad television, it would be easy to dismiss and ignore. Instead it’s actively frustrating: you can see the decent series that is almost in view, and cannot help but want the production team to somehow find it under their noses.

 
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Assassin’s Creed: Origins

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2017 is an important year for the Assassin’s Creed series. The last full scale game was 2015’s Syndicate which had its moments but ultimately was a bit too samey to stand out in a franchise that had been treading water since Black Flag in 2013. Assassin’s Creed Origins, benefiting from a longer development period, attempts to inject fresh life into the prolific series by going back to beginning and setting the caper in ancient Egypt. The results are good… for the most part.

Let’s start with the positive. Assassin’s Creed Origins is a beautiful game. Like, stunningly, jaw-droppingly gorgeous. The Egyptian setting proves to be the Creed’s most compelling environment in ages and you’ll lose hours, perhaps days, just wandering around the sun-dappled vistas, deadly swamps and snake-filled tombs. New character Bayek proves to be an engaging protagonist, as he embarks on a journey that begins as a fairly standard ‘revenge for the death of a beloved child’ plot but morphs into something bigger. Plus the new loot system – whereby you can grind for new weapons and armour – is addictive and rewarding, giving a genuine sense of progression and a reason to explore all nooks and crannies.

That’s the good news, now the not so good stuff. The major problem with Assassin’s Creed Origins is that what you’ll be doing remains essentially unchanged throughout the game’s 30+ hour campaign. You’ll begin by exploring areas, taking on missions and side missions, assassinating your targets… and then you’ll move to another area in the game’s outrageously enormous map and do it all again. You’ll get better gear, certainly, but the core gameplay loop remains frustratingly static. This becomes truly irksome in the game’s third act when the ending is gated by missions far too high above your level, so it will literally insist on your grinding lower level missions just to be able to play them. This kind of artificially extended gameplay is baffling in a game that is already massive and doesn’t need it at all.

Combat is conceptually a step forward, with the game adopting a hitbox system that means you’ll actually need to be near an enemy to make contact, and in a one on one situation there is fun to be had. However enemies tend to attack in group formation which makes the fighting frequently messy and lacking in precision. Hopefully Ubisoft will continue to hone this mechanic as it’s definite improvement, but not quite enough.

The story, also, feels a bit half-baked. There are certainly intriguing elements, and Bayek’s relationship with his wife, Aya, is extremely strong, but the overall narrative is so diffused and protracted it never feels as engaging as it ought to. The same applies to the voice acting which, main cast aside, is extremely ropey and veers from deadpan to broad caricature with baffling frequency.

Assassin’s Creed Origins starts strong and initially appears to be the shot in the arm the series needed, however its insistence on artificially extending gameplay in the third act and an overall lack of genuine innovation keeps it from being a true revelation. It is a good time, but it’s also a long time – and not always in a positive way. Still, if a lengthy visit to ancient Egypt sounds like your jam you’ll probably find a lot to dig in Origins – just be prepared to deal with the series’ usual baggage.

 
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Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus

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2014’s Wolfenstein: The New Order was MachineGames’ triumphant reboot of the long lived Wolfenstein series and a belter of a game in its own right. Creative director Jens Matthies (who we chatted with recently) managed to craft a pitch-perfect game that kept the first person shooting for which the franchise is famous but added a rich, exciting and surprisingly emotional story that packed a lot of punch and ended on an all-time great note. The idea of a sequel seemed… redundant. After all, how much more narrative can be wrung out of an alternative history storyline about killing Nazis? The answer, happily, is “a shitload” because Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus is here and it’s bloody spectacular.

The last time we saw jarhead protagonist William “BJ” Blazkowicz he was in all sorts of strife. His body was broken, his mission incomplete and as The New Order came to an end it was strongly implied he’d carked it, sacrificing his life for the greater good. Happily it seems you can’t keep a good BJ down, and William’s back – although he’s in bad shape. One of the first missions of the game has BJ hacking and blasting Nazis from a wheelchair and it suitably sets the visceral meets farcical tone, which often feels like a mashup between RoboCop (1987) and Inglourious Basterds (2009). Throughout the game’s campaign you’ll travel through the irradiated wasteland of Manhattan, the walled up interior of New Orleans and even leave the boundaries of Earth in the game’s most gleefully insane sequence, involving a certain Nazi demagogue whose name rhymes with “Badolf Bitler”, who has taken up work as a film director in his later years. On these trips you’ll kill yourself some Nazis. A whole bunch of them. You’ll sever their arms with a hatchet and watch them bleed out, you’ll cut throats, twist necks, split skulls and pour hot leaden death into their twitching, screaming nazi bodies in creatively violent ways that will have even the most hardened of gore hounds chuckling in disbelief. It’s profoundly cathartic stuff, particularly after some of the game’s more confronting sequences of Nazi evil.

There’s more than just gore to The New Colossus, however, as the surviving characters from The New Order return and strong new cast members are added to the roster. In fact some of the game’s best moments come from wandering around your submarine base between missions, finding collectibles, chatting with characters and getting a sense of the painstaking world-building. Like the aforementioned Inglourious Basterds, The New Colossus excels at the quiet, tension-building moments between the splattery displays. A tense walk through Nazi-occupied Roswell – where Ku Klux Klan members are being chastised for their poor German language abilities by armoured Nazis – or an acting audition where failure will prove fatal are just a couple of the game’s strongly cinematic set pieces. It’s unusual to care so deeply about characters in any game, much less a gory First Person Shooter, and yet The New Colossus makes it look easy.

On the downside the game’s conclusion isn’t quite as spectacular as The New Order, with a definite sense that this is probably the second part of a trilogy and occasionally the game communicates where you’re taking damage from poorly. Neither of these factors are deal breakers, but they’re worth noting. Also the game itself will probably take you between 10-15 hours to complete, which is long compared to the likes of Call of Duty, but without a multiplayer component some may take issue with the value for money factor, but that’s a conversation for you and your bank account.

Ultimately Wolfenstein: The New Colossus is bloody, spectacular, funny and moving. It’s at turns a black comedy, a rousing adventure and a gore-slicked action shooter – excelling at every genre pivot – and well worth your time and money. Plus, and this can’t be overstated, it’s so very much fun to kill Nazis. They’re so pretty when they die.

 
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Friday the 13th: The Game

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Just how into the Friday the 13th movies are you? Do you know how Jason “dies” at the end of every chapter? Can you explain which entries special effects maestro Tom Savini worked on and why they’re the best? Do you have a lengthy, detail-oriented pitch regarding a new F13th film that you’re happy to share with friends, strangers and the poor hapless people down the bus stop? The answers to these questions directly inform how much you will or will not enjoy Friday the 13th: The Game.

The game, you see, is a bit of a mess. Conceptually it’s kinda brilliant, mind you. It’s an asymmetrical online multiplayer dealy with up to eight players. Seven people will play as camp counselors, and they will search drawers, craft traps and try to escape the map alive. The lucky eighth player will assume the role of Jason Voorhees (currently available in ten different flavours) and hunt and kill the camp counselors before the time runs out. And that’s the game, simple and effective. Playing as Jason is a hoot, all of his various incarnations possess different powers, upgradable skills and unlockable kills – some of which are spectacularly gory and nasty. Pulling off a well-executed environmental kill or managing to burst through a closed door at just the right time is legitimately exciting, especially for an ageing gorehound who loves slasher films.

Playing as a counselor however is… less fun. See, the counselors in the movies were taking drugs, drinking and getting laid – it was a Friday the 13th tradition! In the game, however, you’ll be searching for loot in randomised locations and hoping you get lucky, and it’s just not that great a time. Most galling of all, playing Jason occurs randomly. So you could be solo queuing for an entire day without donning the hockey mask (or sack) of the big man once, which is to say nothing of the game’s numerous server issues, buggy connections, and legion of other technical hitches.

There is, however, one guaranteed way to enjoy Friday the 13th: The Game, but it’s kind of fiddly. You’ll need at least four mates, preferably seven obviously, and you just start up a custom game and only play with those friends. That way you can take turns playing Jason, band together more successfully as the camp counselors and enjoy the game to its full potential. When I played using this method it was an absolutely unmissable experience – funny and violent and scary – and showed what the game could be given the right set of circumstances.

Ultimately Friday the 13th: The Game is a lot like the Friday the 13th movie series: much better with mates, who’ve had a few drinks and are ready to overlook some quality issues and concentrate on the splatter.

 
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Alias Grace

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Based on the novel by Margaret Atwood (The Handmaid’s Tale), Alias Grace is the true story of Irish immigrant Grace Marks (Sarah Gadon) and her 15-year imprisonment for the murder of her employer Thomas Kinnear (Paul Gross) and his housekeeper Nancy (Anna Paquin) – yet she claims to have no memory of the murder, throwing into question whether she is even guilty.

The six-part miniseries directed by Mary Harron (American Psycho, I Shot Andy Warhol), and co-written by Atwood and actress turned filmmaker Sarah Polley, follows Grace as she shares her story with psychologist Dr Simon Jordan (Edward Holcroft), who was enlisted by the committee for Grace’s freedom to clear her name, but as their sessions grow longer and Dr Jordan becomes more invested in her story, it grows more and more unclear as to whether Grace can be trusted with her own story.

This framing device allows the first half of the series to be dominated by Grace’s recollection of her story, punctuated only by brief scenes with Dr Jordan serving to remind us of the present. Yet this is in the series’ favour: Grace’s dramatic story of her immigration to Canada with her family, the close friendship she develops with fellow servant Mary (Rebecca Liddiard) at her first job in Toronto, and her hasty exit to work for Master Kinnear and Nancy in the country, is fascinating, layered with an enchanting voiceover from Grace as she tells her tale. And as her story becomes more twisted and blood-soaked, the viewer becomes obsessed with discovering the truth about Grace, just as Dr Jordan does: is she guilty? Is she mad? Is she both?

Sarah Gadon is absolutely captivating as Grace Marks, wide-eyed and seemingly innocent, yet with a hidden coldness and darkness to her that the audience can sense just under the surface, anticipating its reveal.

However, it is Dr Jordan’s side of the story, the present, which is Alias Grace’s downfall. The series’ reliance on Grace’s story leaves his character woefully underdeveloped, and his interactions with the committee and his odd sexual dreams surrounding Grace, the few pieces of character we discover about him, are so few and far between until the final episodes that they seem almost unnecessary to begin with. His character is simply there, as are most others, to facilitate Grace’s incredible story.

With such an intriguing first two episodes setting the stage, Alias Grace settles into its groove through the middle, but just as you think you know what you’re watching, the final episode goes off the rails with shock and surprise, leaving you wanting just one more episode to process what in the hell you just discovered. Whilst not entirely earned, the twist is worth it, especially for a series that leaves you in the dark for so long.

Certainly, a different way to end what starts off as such a straightforward period murder mystery, Alias Grace is an electric six episodes driven by the pursuit of truth and a hell of a main character, but which could’ve been more.