Category Archives: Reviews

Dear Esther, Landmark Edition (PS4)


Dear Esther, and so begins the letter of a lifetime, as you’re immersed in a world you’ve always known but hardly seen.

Originally released as free to play modication, the game was entirely redeveloped for a commercial release in 2012. Featuring a relatively new gameplay model at the time, the game was later mockingly referred to as a ‘Walking Simulator’ due to its minimalist player involvement – ultimately the only physical thing for the player to do is explore a Scottish island.

Having always wished to travel to an uninhabited Hebridean island this game provided me with the chance to do just that. It’s tranquil peace and the history the island preserves, either through basic settlements, shipwrecks or geology, is immense and is created here in painstaking detail. As you wander throughout the game the character’s voice sporadically gives you information as to the nature of his recently departed wife, as he recounts instances which led to her sudden death and also comments on the nature and history of this island.

I found that the game is certainly endemic of mental health and mental illness. The character, player unnamed, is certainly suffering from grief and this has led – over time – to illness and despair. In his grief he has essentially come to the most remote place he can find; and his intentions, although morbid, are incredible to watch. As you join him on what is his last journey there’s a sense of hope and exploration, an understanding of your own life and a peace you simply don’t get from Black Ops.

Originally developed as a research project through The University of Portsmouth the game is the creation of The Chinese Room, responsible for such other BAFTA nominated masterpieces as Everyone’s Gone to the Rapture and Amnesia; A Machine For Pigs. But it’s Dear Esther which never fails to capture me, despite how many times I’ve replayed this game, and its entire journey would take you just 90 minutes – something that you can do in an evening, drawing the curtains and submersing yourself in gaming.

Accompanying the game is an incredible soundtrack from Jessica Curry, which is nothing short of immense, and has also been released on Vinyl and CD so popular is the demand. I regret deeply missing the opportunity to see an orchestra tour the UK performing this soundtrack while a gamer engaged in playing this game on a big screen.

One particular scene, perhaps my favourite in the game, involves walking uphill towards an abandoned bothy built by a long since departed Sheppard. As you climb you can realistically feel the strength in the effort it takes, the game adjusting for the end pushing against you. One can only imagine what might happen if this was ever developed into 3D, and despite the harsh weather conditions, it’s possibly one of the most hopeful moments in the entire game. There’s a real sense of achievement as you finally manage to reach the bothy’s door and enter its tiny space.

Eagle eyed fans should also note the original game soundtrack is also available as a free download online from the developer, and you’d be best advised to take advantage of this while it still stands. In August 2018 Sumo Group, the parent company of Sumo Digital, acquired The Chinese Room for GB£2.2 million and thus downsized it to a fourth UK based production under Sumo Group. One can imagine both the “end of an era” but also the developers and founders of the group taking some time to consolidate their achievements while playing Dear Esther.

Walking Simulators may face criticism because you can, of course, always just leave the house and walk yourself – but the additional location of this game, its unique perspective and narration make it quite frankly unmissable. Now I’m off to hunt down a sealed physical copy on eBay. To replay once more.

Netflix’ll Be There For You

Last year I read an article in which Netflix paid $100 million in order to keep the show ‘Friends’ for another year. Apparently, this happened because both Hulu and WarnerMedia (who originally owned the show) wanted it back for exclusive streaming, and Netflix didn’t want to let it go. I’ve never considered myself a fan of Friends but recognize that airing over 10 Seasons and producing 236 episodes it was something a generational phenomenon.

Originally launching in September 1994 the show (for the one person who has never heard of it) focused on the lives of six friends in New York City. The different characters and commotions they encountered evidentially brought them closer as they moved from late 20s into mid 40s – and the actors portraying them became increasingly wealthy in the process. In fact, by the end of the shows final season, it was well documented each actor was receiving $1 million dollars per episode filmed.

So the value of $100 million to each actor across 18 episodes ($108 million) means the show has lost virtually none of its value in the previous two decades – which, in itself, is somewhat of an astonishing achievement. Even if the actors themselves claim to have made virtually nothing from the shows first three seasons, and that it wasn’t until the latter half the shows run that they were able to capitalize on their monetary worth and value.

But asides what makes this show so watchable, as every fan has no doubt watched Friends in its entirety about 20 times now (and I thought I was bad re-watching the entire Breaking Bad series four times and counting) there’s a real question of why we do this and what the point is. Well, we are creatures of comfort, and as humans we enjoy squeezing chance out of our lives. Consider, for a moment the stressful world in which we live, or at least which social media would have you believe the majority of the population live.

Within this world, we look for moments in which to rid ourselves of stress, whether that’s taking a night out with friends and getting inebriated, reading a book we love or watching a film we’ve seen a thousand times. Netflix is, in itself, a reliever of stress.

And as consumers of mass entertainment we’re unlikely – more often than not – to watch programs and films we’ve seen before. Either because we wish to “half watch” a program and pay little attention to it, in the case of tormented parents subjected to the 100th watch of ‘The Greatest Showman’ or ‘The Little Mermaid’ or because we really want to escape to a world where we know all the exits. The kind of person who spends more time checking their phone than watching the movie. Just the other day I visited a cinema where a patron stopped during a film to take a selfie in a darkened theatre, with the flash on, before continuing to watch the film.

No surprises and no shocks from the “real world” make life better. That, coupled with the nostalgia we experience from the familiar – and in this case, we’re literally talking about the cast of Friends – mean that we remember good memories of previously watching this show or interacting with the dated set pieces and situations these characters find themselves in. Particularly when we’ve little to no interest in new experiences or taking chances.

Consider the success of YouTube streaming services over the last decade. Someone will unbox the product, play the video game, reveal the ending, berate and review the movie or react to the trailer – all before you’ve had a chance to express your opinion. Between work and travel we are constantly looking for ways to squeeze the most out of those precious few hours luxury we have a week. I personally choose to write, and many would argue I should stop wasting my time, but I choose to take a chance and challenging myself to create something on a particular topic. Reading a review of an a book before I’ve read it or spoiling the end of a movie so I can validate it’s worth my time isn’t of interest. Because if the Internet does your thinking for you, what’s the point?

But what does this mean for Netflix and streaming services? Well, effectively, it means that Friends is a popular show. But it also means that just like the terrestrial stations of years gone by it is now streaming services who are encouraging people to subscribe to their services by offering long established product. Disney’s recent acquisition of Star Wars will ultimately mean that their offering of the entire franchise created by George Lucas gives another massive boost to their pre-existing animated catalog and makes Disney + an attractive proposition.

I’ve spoken on this site before about streaming services making more physical venues like HMV obsolete. The other day I saw a ‘Rick and Morty’ Season 3 Blu Ray newly released over the Christmas period for £19.99; and considered why someone might purchase content that restricted them to just one season where the entire show was available to view on Netflix, whose cheapest subscription is now just £5.99 a month within the UK. It made no sense to pay so much more for a physical copy, yet on the other hand I’ve done just that, paying over the odds prices on not only physical copies of films and albums but also purchasing obsolete formats on Vinyl and Cassette in favor of just using a streaming service on my phone.

2018 may be recorded as many things, but as we enter 2019, we’ll be looking at the second decade of this millennium truly coming into its own – entering its “roaring 20’s” and that this is an age of streaming and mass consumption based on a whim gives one reason to pause for thought. Social Media such as Facebook and Instagram, Music on Spotify, Film and TV on Netflix, streaming platforms on video games all essentially offering us an a la carte menu through which to consume whimsically and skip ahead to what we like. There’s no sense of achievement in taking that Friday night trip to the video store, browsing the shelves and choosing what you’d like, instead you select your choice (based on pre approved reviews that tell you to absolutely watch Birdbox now) and if you don’t like it you can discard it and move on quite quickly.

With that mountain of content growing, and more emphasis placed on older achievements and nostalgia (as we think about the countless prequels, reboots and comebacks Netflix alone has supported) it won’t be long before we simply stop taking chances – stop paying or investing in new product – stop doing anything but watching reruns of Friends and ironically fail to make our own Friends to grow, share and bond with.

Your mother told you there’d be days like this, but she didn’t tell you when the world has brought you down to your knees.

Bumblebee (2018)


It’s fair to say that I’ve recently fallen out of touch with the latest cinema releases. Work commitments have met that I haven’t been obsessing as much as I hoped. Hearing of Bumblebee long before actually seeing it, I was aware this project existed, but given the lack of a now traditional Star Wars release at Christmas it seemed that this ideal summer blockbuster had been delayed to fill the void. Whether or not this film had actually been purposefully delayed, I’m not sure, but I did find it amusing that with the Christmas decorations all around us we went to see a movie set in the height of summer.

Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld) is a young woman working at a summer’s fair in 1987. Grieving the loss of her father and listening to The Smiths, Charlie spends her time obsessing over an old Mustang she owns in the garage, hoping that the open road will bring freedom and change from suburban life and her mother’s new boyfriend. In many respects, it’s a very atypical script, but I did find it was written with a view to this being 2018. Supporting character Memo (Jorge Lendeborg Jr) is not your typical “boy next door” and Charlie – although sometimes jealous of others – is not outwardly looking for fame or popularity.

There are several scenes in which you’d expect the typical Shia Le Beouf attitudes, and yet they’re not forthcoming, so as Tears for Fears blasts from the tape deck in the Volkswagen you remember all the fun you can have with your clothes on for a change. In an era of ‘Me Too’ it’s actually rather refreshing to see some elements adapted and incorporated into the film, but it does drag you a little out of reality, and also reminds you just how ridiculous (and possibly dated and even sexist) Shia making moves on Megan Fox was in the original film. The jury’s still out on that.

Into this rather interesting mix comes Bumblebee, fresh from the war on Cybertron, which provides G1 Transformer fans like me with their greatest few minutes on film in the franchise so far. I’ll say early in my review that this film is worth watching but it’s the scenes on Cybertron – which in themselves amount to a relative sprinkling – that bring the film together. Cameos from Cliffjumper, Shockwave, Soundwave, Ravage and Arcee are just the beginning as we learn some vital clues as to B-127’s original mission.

One of the things I really enjoyed about this film was the minimal casting. Asides from Bumblebee and a few cameos, the most predominant involvement comes from two no name Decepticons. To be fair, they do have names, but I found it rather unusual that a female Decepticon would be so well positioned as to climb the ranks in the organization. I’m not being sexist, it’s just that any G1 Transformers fan will tell you that Arcee was about the only female Transformer with a back story; and she was an Autobot!

Shatter and Dropkick (don’t look them up, they don’t have any linage) are introduced as new one shot characters and, to be fair to 2018, it’s a refreshing change. My feeling is that they’re soldiers on a mission and we’re not necessarily dealing with a command line here, which makes the story far less contained then it could have been, and I actually think that’s a real bonus. The appearance of Blitzwing early in the movie is something that caught me off guard, but I was pleased that he was at least given his real name, if not that he used the colours of Jetfire – something that could have made for a really interesting plot dynamic.

The film is set in California and looks glorious, even if it limits the use of urban areas due to the timeframe of the plot, but at least one shot of the Golden Gate Bridge from the coastline is enough to put on a postcard. As I’ve mentioned before, there’s a real lack of money with this film, but I think this easily makes it my second favorite Transformer film after Michael Bay’s original – something I remember adoring so much about that first installment. There are so many glorious nuggets of 80s culture that I don’t want to ruin it for you, but look out for that moment where Sammy Hagar is playing on the radio and there’s a scene in the tunnel from Back to the Future. Also, for those film fans, it’s the same song Marty hears as he arrives in an alternative 1985 during the second installment.

Of course, as this film is a prequel, there are some serious plot holes. Sector 7 features in the film primarily through Agent Burns (John Cena) and Dr Powell (John Ortiz) but there’s no mention of either Witwicky or the All Spark and – if I remember correctly – it was Sector 7 who built the Hoover Dam around the All Spark and MBE1, that is, Lord Megatron. His complete absence from this film is unsurprising but it’s also interesting that nobody from Sector 7 – especially upon encountering the Decepticons for the first time – doesn’t believe they bear a striking resemblance to a creature that’s been in the basement since 1907.

Looking past plot holes like this, and the one in which Ratchet is still trying to fix the vocal processor Bumblebee had damaged (try ripped apart) almost 15 years after it was first lost, you actually do have a really good film. The soundtrack is nothing short of phenomenal and the first twenty minutes of the film paint a picture that between Duran Duran, Bon Jovi and The Smiths we really must be in the 80s…though I myself took a real shine to the scene in which we take a moment to appreciate that Vinyl truly is better to cassette while Bumblebee watches The Breakfast Club on VHS. Oh nostalgia, you’ve done it again.

Let Me Be Frank

I loved House of Cards. It was a powerful show, built from the memory of a BBC serial, it outgrew its predecessor rapidly as it focused on the political machinations of Chief Whip Frank Underwood and his wife Claire. Drawing comparison with Macbeth, Underwood is the classic politician loyal to the King, yet spurned by that King and driven by ambition he aspires to become the King himself. Setting the show in Washington DC, in the heartland of US politics led to all kinds of possibilities, as the series itself began to be mirrored in the real life political ambitions of one Donald J Trump.

And yet, as good as the show was, it’s main drawing power was actor Kevin Spacey. As Underwood, Spacey gave another phenomenal performance, proving that he is an extremely gifted actor with the skill for deception and the art of imitating life.

On Christmas Eve 2018, it was announced by the prosecutor that Spacey would be charged with a felony over his sexual assault allegations, a matter which had first arose in October 2017 when Spacey admitted his homosexuality publicly on Twitter and spoke about allegations made from fellow actor Anthony Rapp. This snowball effect created a public outcry against Spacey who made no further comments and retreated into a self imposed exile while a number of Spacey’s current projects where either delayed or entirely altered altogether. We’re used to seeing celebrities fall from grace, normally such allegations coming long after their prime has passed, those like Jimmy Saville posthumously or Gary Glitter. Rumors or allegations may surface but it is only once the individual is well past their prime. Not so with Spacey.

Although arguably some of his best work behind him, Kevin Spacey was still producing thought provoking and engaging drama, very present in public life and not likely to be retiring anytime soon. I had personally heard allegations from a family friend, who claimed Spacey had been auditioning for a play in Dublin in the late 90s, and had invited one of the younger cast members back to his room to discuss the role in private. It was always something that had stuck with me – even though I’d been told the story many years previously – but something I had assumed was such commonplace in certain Hollywood circles it was thought impossible to police.

When the felony charge was confirmed on Christmas Eve, it seemed like old news, considering there had been no new comment from Spacey for well over a year. In the interim the studio responsible for his House of Cards show had announced it would continue for a sixth season. It was explained that Underwood had been killed off screen, with his wife Claire now resolved to take her place in the Oval Office. The show lacked something for me, and although there were moments of sparkle, I regret to say that they were moments built on the back of Frank’s involvement. The show was legitimately the Kevin Spacey hour and without his presence it felt like Netflix had commissioned the series simply to make a point that didn’t hold much water. Without the show’s lead actor it had nowhere to move. A deeply unsatisfying end to the series came and went and we were promised a resolution but received none.

Suddenly, both Spacey’s fiction and reality were merged together, as he presented a short video from his official YouTube page. Entitled ‘Let Me Be Frank’ it showed a character, performed by Spacey, in the accent of Frank Underwood addressing the audience and asking what actually happened. The video has acquired several million hits in just a few days and that counter is far from slowing down, as many people have spent Christmas literally recording, editing and publishing their own reaction videos, analysis and feature commentary to this piece.

At the beginning of the video Spacey is seen washing his hands preparing a Christmas dinner. Dressed in a novelty apron, it would suggest that the video has either been created recently (owing to the fact it is Christmas Eve) or planned somewhat in advance. I personally believe the former, since Underwood’s character in House of Cards had grey hair and although Spacey may wish to give the impression Underwood is now living a secret life with colored hair, the lack of any grey hair is more significant I feel as a way of merging fiction and reality. Given the emphasis on Christmas, the washing of the hands is also slightly significant, considering that Jesus Christ (born on Christmas Day) was executed on the testimony of what is described as an angry mob. When attempting to deal with Jesus, and adjudicating his trial, Pontius Pilate is known to have washed his hands in gesture of relieving himself of the responsibility of this matter. My belief is that Spacey, who could have begun the video anywhere, chose to begin it at this point as he is washing his hands of previous issues and what is before him.

Spacey turns to the camera having wiped his hands, and affixes a stare, though his words are spoken with the distinctive Southern accent of Frank Underwood. He starts by berating his audience, telling them they trusted him when they shouldn’t, and how he shocked us by revealing his deepest, darkest secrets. It’s an interesting juxtaposition between life and art, immediately Spacey is creating a sense of confusion between Frank Underwood and his own personal abilities as an actor and what rumors might have been heard in his private life.

He takes a cup to drink, and does this twice in the video, which I believe in itself is significant. The cup definitely appears to be a regal – a royal design – and has a message in Italics on it. Of course, when Spacey continues and says “you and I are not done, despite what they say” it’s a chilling statement.

His defense counsel will likely argue this is Spacey in character, though prosecutors may see this as an attempt for Spacey to influence any trial, stating that he knows what the audience wants, that they were quick to judge him without evidence and that they haven’t heard the real story yet. Even the video’s title, “let me be frank” is both a play on Frank Underwood and a potential way for Spacey to address his accusers. It’s also a way for Spacey to influence any potential jurors or judge before the trial is even set. If such a thing was released during jury selection there would no doubt be uproar. Spacey has chosen an ideal time, when the Holiday’s prevent anyone from doing much of anything until the New Year.

Spacey is to be arraigned on January 7th, according to the Boston Globe, but he himself asks in the video “no, not you, you’re smarter than this…all this presumption led for such an unsatisfying ending” and this is easily believed to be a reference to the online disapproval of House of Cards Season 6. But it’s Spaceys next comment which I find the most significant in the video;

“If you and I have learned anything these past years, it’s that in life and art, nothing should be off the table”

This in itself is seen as a direct statement to anyone watching. Spacey goes on to say that if he (Frank, who knows at this point?) got away with the stuff he did do he sure as hell won’t be punished or what he didn’t. There’s a moment of pause after this statement, and you can’t deny the powerful nature of any monologue, which immediately makes you think about what is being said. Is Spacey blackmailing his accused, are we looking at the threat of further repercussions if they dare to challenge him. What does he know? Or is this just Frank talking. We are, after all, a world so heavily influenced by dialogue of fictional characters, people we’ve never met and reality television.

At the end of the segment Spacey points out that you never actually saw him die, and then puts on a ring, a ring which looks suspiciously like (but which I doubt is) the ring from House of Cards Season 6 that Frank Underwood was meant to have been buried wearing. Frank wore the ring for the entire show but it was most prominently featured in the final season in his absence. The ring itself was about as close as we got to having Underwood as a character in Season 6 and showed just how much presence an actor can have in legacy when they’re not even present on the camera.

Think about what Spacey is doing. He’s cooking a meal. He’s got his hunger back. He begins by washing his hands of the past, and he ends the video by assuming character, placing the ring off his finger and walking off screen. Those familiar with the very first season of House of Cards remember the pilot episode; Underwood eating ribs at Freddy’s the morning after Walker’s inauguration, and marking a page in the print with sauce to indicate the hunt had begun.

I believe Spacey, a clever man with a tactile mind, has just given us a very clear motive of what he intends to do. Many reporters comment that the video has backfired. I don’t believe it has at all. Just like I don’t believe he’s made a bad move here. As of last count there were 42,939 thumbs down on YouTube from 6.375 Million Views; and 138,461 thumbs up. Regardless of guilt or innocence, I believe the true winner here is entertainment and fiction.

A message seeking comment was left with Mr Spacey’s spokeswoman Laura Johnson.

As Spacey walks off screen, we remember that he is an incredibly gifted actor, and what we’ve seen is a performance we’re likely to see again. Though on whose stage?

Die Hard (1988)

“When they touch down, we’ll blow up the roof, they’ll spend a month sifting through rubble, and by the time they work out what went wrong, we’ll be sitting on a beach, earning twenty percent.”

Every year since 2014 I’ve visited The Tyneside Cinema in Newcastle to watch Die Hard at Christmas. It’s become something of an annual pilgrimage, one which I took great pride in repeating last night, despite some real changes having taken place in the previous four years. I actually ended up working at the Tyneside for a considerable period between 2014 and 2017; with me experiencing the night at other selected screenings as a member of staff.

This year also marked a change because of the newly “remastered” version of the film, leading to an increased drive in Blu Ray sales for Christmas, also meaning a fresh print of the movie in which we’re expected to be able to see a notable difference in picture and sound quality. But more on that later.

For those who don’t yet know the story, and every year seems to bring in an additional group of people who are watching this movie for the first time, Die Hard is set in Los Angeles on Christmas Eve. John McClane (Bruce Willis), a New York City cop, is visiting his estranged wife Holly at her new job. He’s hoping to take some time to reconnect with his family, and the sub current of the film – which doesn’t get explored much – is that effectively Willis is somewhat of a misogynist with a drinking problem who assumed Holly would come crawling back after a few weeks.

When Willis arrives at the party, and repeated viewings of this film will make you realise just how absurd some of the supporting dialogue in these opening scenes are, he surprises his wife just prior to the arrival of German “terrorists” led by Hans Gruber (played fantastically by the late Alan Rickman) who are ultimately working for the benefit of a third party never identified. Willis then has to fight as a “lone gunmen” against unsurmountable odds, involving the LAPD, the FBI and, ultimately, the media in his quest to continue a conversation with his wife.

The film was written adapted from the novel “Nothing Lasts Forever” and depending upon whose stories you believed, the rights are purported to have been originally owned by Frank Sinatra. Sinatra was 77 when Die Hard was filmed and was contractually obligated to have been approached for the lead role, as he’d previously stared in the novel’s original film. Another theory is that Clint Eastwood was to play his own version a few years prior, but both he, Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger turned the film down.

One of the areas in which this film succeeds so well, although doesn’t receive much praise for doing so, is its supporting cast. Notable 80s actors like Paul Gleeson, William Atherton, Robert Davi and even a cameo from comedian Rick Ducommun make this film a directory for talent; yet Willis and Rickman, who themselves remain separate to each other for almost all of the film, remain in completely different locations than those outside. Part of this is rumoured to have been done owing to exhaustion, with Willis also filming Moonlighting during the same period, meaning more scenes involving the supporting cast had to be added.

The film, originally written to have a reveal towards the end between hero and villain, only avoided achieving that goal because of antics on set. The rumour goes that Alan Rickman was practicing an American accent prior to filming. Considered so good, director John McTiernan felt it was a perfect opportunity to have the pair meet without realising who the other one was. This scene was also unrehearsed, which upon re watching is phenomenal, showing just what depth of talent they had. This was also Rickman’s first day of shooting, and the actor effectively sprained his knee making the jump at the beginning of the scene.

Rewatching this film simply reminds you of how pivotal a role can be for an actor, and certainly it changed both Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman’s careers going forward. Reginald Johnson, the actor playing Al Powell however, never truly managed to find the same footing and his cameo appearance in the films sequel has been long since forgotten.

Picture wise I saw little difference in newly remastered print, with more continuity errors spotted, such as the shadow of the stage hand who knocks over the Christmas tree towards the films climax and the issues surrounding the filming of the final scene – which I’m unsure whether was now filmed earlier in the day than the preceding scenes during which Al shoots Karl and meets McClane. At the start of the film I was incredibly impressed with the colour of the sunsets, though note one scene in which the villain’s truck can be seen driving down the freeway. This truck seems to be filmed at a completely different time of day and weather condition to the rest of the film and such remasters make the print all the more obvious.

Crucially, though, the expanded light range is never taken so far that it looks unnatural or forced. Provided you’ve got a good HDR TV, you’ll see no clipping of detail in the newly invigorated light peaks, or crushing out of detail in the newly enriched dark scenes and image areas.

The 4K Blu-ray image is also a worthwhile upgrade over the HD Blu-ray when it comes to sharpness and detail. There’s a beautiful density and granular quality to the image that just isn’t present on the HD Blu-ray. Plus, you get far more texture and minutiae in everything from clothing to facial close-ups and the Nakatomi Tower’s stark combination of stylish and sterile environments.

Die Hard remains as riveting and engaging 30 years (and many viewings) on as it did when it first exploded into cinemas in 1988. The only difference now is that it looks unprecedentedly glorious in its new 4K and HDR clothes.