Tuesday 28 December 2021

What I'm Watching: December 2021

A recap of my month in movies, media and games, featuring the Apple series Mythic Quest, Netflix's The Power of the Dog and Bethesda's timeloop shooter, Deathloop

Mythic Quest season two (Apple TV+)

The second season of this irreverent workplace comedy about an American game studio sees its two leads, the enigmatic Ian (Rob McElhenney) and Poppy (Charlotte Nicdao) embark on a new direction, as joint co-directors. However, both have sizeable egos to stroke and the inevitable power struggle threatens to derail the progress on updates to their popular MMO, Mythic Quest.

Season two sees this show drive a wedge between its characters and sometimes that conflict causes discomfort to supplant comedy. It's okay though, because the relationships are deeper and more impactful – particularly in the first of two special episodes that centre around the pandemic. 

Overall, I enjoyed season two a lot – the banter between characters with big personalities is reminiscent of other shows like The Office, Parks and Recreation etc. But I don't think it's as strong as season one, where there was more focus on the game itself and how the characters were striving to improve it. Plus, there's an overlong two-episode diversion that solely focuses on F Murray Abraham's sci-fi writer character, which is nice at first but drawn out.

The Alpinist (VOD)

Something of a spiritual sequel or companion piece to the celebrated documentary Free Solo from a few years back, The Alpinist continues the conversation around free climbing and daring acts of mountaineering by focusing on French-Canadian climber Marc-Andre Leclerc. Seemingly more daring, more audacious and more enigmatic than Alex Honnold, the film poses the question 'is Leclerc – who traverses sheer cliff faces and icy gullies without a rope – a brave extreme sportsperson, a reclusive artist or just a straight-up idiot?'

Leclerc makes for an interesting subject; he doesn't appear to care much about being famous or the appearing on camera, going so far as to go MIA during shooting and leave filmmakers Peter Mortimer and Nick Rosen scratching their heads. As such, the film sometimes has to navigate tricky fourth walls breaks, as the filmmakers struggle to keep up or pin down their subject.

But underneath all that is some scarcely believable footage of Leclerc scaling impossible mountainsides. Sometimes, Mortimer and Rosen just let the footage of Leclerc soloing an icy cliff play in total silence - with just the scrapes and crunches of picks and boots in the background. It's terrifying and mesmeric in equal measure, something so unreal and raw that you don't want to watch but can't tear yourself away.

The film does an excellent job of detailing Marc's idiosyncrasies and relentless pursuit of 'purity'. He's a frustrating and captivating character who keeps the filmmakers at arm's length, but The Alpinist is one of those terrific documentaries that needs to be seen to be believed.

Midnight Mass (Netflix)

Mike Flanagan's third limited series for Netflix feels like a long lost Stephen King novel that has only now been unearthed and adapted. The domestic setting, the gloomy mood, the deliberate pacing and the eventual reveal feel like King mixed with the gothic horror of Guillermo del Toro with a healthy dollop of Roman Catholic myth and legend mixed in for good measure. 

The show follows an isolated fishing community who find themselves in the midst of a religious renaissance after the arrival of a new, charismatic priest to their island. However, strange happenings soon cast a shadow and threaten to tear the villagers apart. 

Split into seven chapters, Flanagan starts out slow – like, really slow. It's not until the third or even fourth episode that the show starts to reveal itself, by which point things really kick up a gear. There's a lot of really chewy character stuff going on here; a wealth of great performances are what anchors this show from completely flying off the rails once you get to the 'twist' and the blood and gore starts to pour. 

Midnight Mass is definitely a stronger overall piece than The Haunting of Bly Manor, but The Haunting of Hill House remains top of the pile when it comes to Flanagan's limited series work with Netflix.

The Power of the Dog (Netflix)

Jane Campion's The Power of the Dog has been garnering lots of acclaim since it made its debut at the Venice Film Festival back in September, so I thought I'd give it a whirl now that it's available on Netflix.

Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons play Phil and George, cattle rancher brothers in the Old West who learned their craft from and revere a mentor figure known as Bronco Henry. After George meets and woos Kirsten Dunst's Rose, Phil starts to grow envious and harbours misgivings about Rose's effeminate son Peter (played by Kodi Smit-McPhee). 

With a plot that moves at a snail's pace, The Power of the Dog can be described as a glacial character study that explores power structures, masculinity and sexuality. Campion does this through subtlety and by keeping motivations open to interpretation; don't expect this film to spoonfeed you the answers or hold your hand, particularly during the third act. 

I can't pin down exactly why, but this film just didn't click for me. Yeah, it's slow – there's a very deliberate build of tension but the pay-off wasn't there. All the performances are great, there's no denying that – I imagine Cumberbatch, Smit-McPhee and Dunst are in the running for some accolades. But I'm not going to recommend it or think about revisiting it either.

Far Cry 6 (PlayStation 5)

Look, I know it's not high-brow stuff, but I've always had a good time with the Far Cry series and its various spin-offs since I first picked up Far Cry 4 for the PS4.

This latest entry is no different and delivers the same kind of addictive gameplay loop filled with destruction and mayhem.

 The story sees the player step into the shoes of revolutionary soldier Dani Rojas, who is fighting to overthrow Anton Castillo (played by Giancarlo Esposito from Breaking Bad and The Mandalorian) from the presidency of Yara, a Central American island that looks and feels a lot like Cuba.

Far Cry 6 introduces a grab bag of new gameplay mechanics to mix it up; ramshackle combat backpacks that are armed to the teeth with rockets or flames is one, and basecamps that can be upgraded and personalised is another, but I didn't find myself using them too much. The same can be said for the animal sidekicks (or 'amigos') that can accompany you on missions; I found they just got in the way.

Narratively, the storyline is nothing to write home about. What keeps you coming back is that slick gunplay and propulsive action. The game does a great job of hooking you in and rewarding you for ticking off each enemy base, checkpoint or outpost.

Deathloop (PlayStation 5)

This one is a 'work in progress', because I'm only four or five hours into Deathloop – but I've really liked what I've seen so far. 

There's a really cool art style at work and the core mechanic – a timeloop where the player must uncover secrets and elude enemies to avoid returning to the start of the day – is fun. I'm still learning how it all fits together and the game keeps introducing new mechanics all the time, so there's quite a way to go, but on the whole this is a great first-person shooter experience (with a twist) for the PS5. 

The characters are wacky and colourful, the voice acting is a little iffy and there's already been a handful of glitches where I've had to reload the save or restart the game, so I'll check back in next month with some final thoughts, assuming I stick with it through to the end.

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