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Blu-ray Review: The Amazing Spider-Man 2

Sony’s insistent to let fans have their webs and sling them too and the high-flying 4K Blu-ray does precisely that.

4.5

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The Amazing Spider-Man 2

“All right, let’s get to work!” These words are spoken by the titular webslinger near the beginning of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, and though it’s rather innocuously stated in relation to the film’s initial, commencing events, its meaning is taken more literally. Director Marc Webb’s follow-up to 2012’s The Amazing Spider-Man plays like another dot in a larger, franchising schema, proffering more avenues for future entries than tying up loose webs of its own. These intentions are made rather explicit, as the film ends with a shot of Spidey mid-air, slinging a sewer lid attached to a chain at Aleksei Sytsevich, a.k.a. Rhino (Paul Giamatti), who’s likely to be a significant player in the already announced third installment, set for 2018. Surely the same applies for Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan), a character given the Harvey Dent a la The Dark Knight treatment, in that he doesn’t actualize his villainous persona until the film’s final third.

While these developments only concern the last portion of the film, it’s necessary to point out their emergence in relation to this entry, since much of Webb and screenwriters Alex Kurtman, Roberto Orci, and Jeff Pinkner’s focus relies on disguising these impending developments through scenes that effectively tread water, as a means to bloat the film’s 141-minute runtime to “epic” length. These aims become particularly clear with initial scenes between Harry and Peter (Andrew Garfield), in which they quibble over Spider-Man’s place within New York City; Harry’s doubtful, while Peter emptily suggests: “I like to think he gives people hope.” Yet at this point, the film has done nothing to back such a claim, aside from brief insertions of Spidey swinging in to save a bullied adolescent or rescuing a peculiar Oscorp employee, Max (Jamie Foxx), from death-by-airborne-taxicab. Any deeper exploration of heroism has given way to franchising mentalities, where exposition rules and thematic explication flounders. That applies to Gwen Stacey (Emma Stone) too; she’s meant as a totem for normality and upward mobility, as her impending scholarship at the University of Oxford threatens to separate her from Peter, but at least it’s a notion the film surprisingly and refreshingly takes to its bleakest conclusions.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2’s darker aspects, such as Gwen’s fate or Max’s certifiable mental-illness-cum-transformation into Electro, suggest Webb as a filmmaker willing, but dissatisfied, to toe the franchise line. These inclinations explain not only his adept play with canted angles throughout, but also his decision to shoot his follow-up on film, rather than the now industry-standard digital. Thus, a simple dialogue scene between Peter and Aunt May (Sally Field) vacillates between standard shot/reverse-shot and camera tilts that alter the framing during the course of the shot. Such techniques are inherently experimental, at least relative to the expectations established by blockbuster filmmaking, which often reserves its camera movements exclusively for action sequences.

Webb does plenty of that as well, but these kinkier curveballs, subtle but formally significant, complement the decision to mount both a Blowup and The Man Who Fell to Earth poster on Peter’s bedroom walls. While Webb could easily be vying for cinephilic capital while delivering the yes-man goods, he elides such an easy charge through the filmmaking itself, which is goofier and more referential than one might expect. That includes a selection of “The Blue Danube Waltz” during Electro’s emergence and interrogation by Oscorp scientists, which is both a pun and dual gesture to 2001: A Space Odyssey and A Clockwork Orange. Surviving a comparable Ludovico “shock” treatment and wielding the newfound power of personified electronic media, Electro is the film’s most “Bane”-ful dialogic weapon, and Webb combines the implications into an excellently staged and photographed action sequence, set in Times Square.

Alas, Webb cannot avoid the insidious pitfalls of the studio’s corporate hand, as there are innumerous product plugs for Sony products throughout. In a prologue that reframes the disappearance of Peter’s parents, Richard Parker (Campbell Scott) studies documents on his Sony computer. Later, Peter types away on his new Sony Vaio laptop. And finally, in what’s meant to be a touching eulogy for Gwen, the Sony logo is but inches from her face, as she speaks to Peter through a recorded video. An advertisement for Blu-ray reading “Perfect Picture. Perfect Sound” is destroyed by Electro’s “Blu-rays” during the Times Square attack. Also in full view is a towering Disney sign. The synergistic self-promotion goes on and on. So while Webb displays aptitude and moxie for more playful and daring large-scale elements, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 can’t evade the capitalistic death drive which pervades too many of its frames.

Image/Sound

Sony generally goes to great lengths to ensure that their franchise entries receive red-carpet Blu-ray treatments and, on the whole, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is no exception. Reds and blues gleam with impressive clarity, while retaining the grain inherent to Webb’s decision to shoot on film. Scenes with Electro are given exceptional care, in some of the most stunning imagery yet to make its way to Blu-ray. Image depth is strong and clear, especially in Spidey’s remarkable CGI sequences, which feature the webslinger looking better than ever before. Likewise, the sound mix is a whomper, most notably when booming Hanz Zimmer’s Electro theme. But even here, there remains a nice balance between score, Foley sound, and dialogue, without one overpowering the other.

Extras

While receiving the expected assortment of deleted and alternate scenes, all of which function for expositional purposes, the real gem here is a 103-minute making-of featurette, which explores nearly every aspect of production with acumen and brevity. Marc Webb, Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Jamie Foxx, and Hanz Zimmer all make appearances, with Webb’s words the most essential, as he jumps from explaining the shoot in New York City, to his decision to shoot on film, to his adoration for Buster Keaton and its influence on his filmmaking. Moreover, he and Zimmer talk about the decision to go more electronic for the Electro theme, with Webb calling what they came up with a “dubstep manifesto.” Another featurette goes a bit further into the film’s music, with contributors Pharrell and Johnny Marr making appearances as well. There’s also a feature commentary with writers Alex Kurtzman and Jeff Pinkner and producers Matt Tolmach and Avi Arad that goes in-depth behind the efforts made to keep various story elements in-check, especially once the decision was made to kill off various characters. Also included is a rather forgettable video for “It’s on Again” by Alicia Keys, featuring Pharrell, Kendrick Lamar, and Hanz Zimmer.

Overall

Sony’s insistent to let fans have their webs and sling them too and the high-flying 4K Blu-ray of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 does precisely that.

Cast: Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Jamie Foxx, Dane DeHaan, Sally Field, Colm Feore, Paul Giamatti Director: Marc Webb Screenwriter: Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, Jeff Pinkner Distributor: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment Running Time: 141 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2014 Release Date: August 19, 2014 Buy: Video

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Review: Steven Spielberg’s Jaws Celebrates 45th Anniversary, Surfaces on 4K

Spielberg’s classic returns to home video just shy of its 45th anniversary, this time to take a bite out of the 4K market.

4.5

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Jaws

A lively, chaotic swirl of contradictions, prodigious talent, and formal mastery, Jaws is a thriller that played a role in the entire restructuring of Hollywood’s methods of selling its films to the public. It was the sure-to-be calamity that became one of the most beloved and quoted films of all time—a certain generation’s Citizen Kane that gave rise to a legendary, controversial filmmaker and seemingly turned everyone else into aspiring directors. It also played a role in the rise of an obsession with a kind of theme-park movie that gluts global cinemas to this day. That’s a lot of baggage for any film, much less a monster movie with grade-Z roots, to live up or down to.

The surprise is how good it was and still is. The film is a strange mixture of the über-controlled and the wild and wooly. Imagine if portions of Psycho were spliced into one of Hal Ashby’s early films and you’d be closer to the film’s tone than you might think. Jaws is neatly split into two almost entirely different films: The first half is a sophisticated comedy in which violence and despair are allowed to make occasionally discombobulating intrusions, and the second, daringly, is an even more violent parody of the self-flattering macho courtliness that we often find in existential, chest-thrumming stories of all kinds. The Peter Benchley novel that inspired the film played its material dead-straight, and it’s a grim, dull endeavor that got by on the enormous primal appeal of its high concept, but the filmmakers took the basic structure, threw out most of the busy plotting, and created a black parody of greed, studliness, and self-entitlement—in other words, a parody of America.

The director, of course, is Steven Spielberg, and Jaws represented a major turning point in his career, and not just for the obviously lucrative reasons. The film was the capper of a kind of thematic trilogy that introduced Spielberg to the world. First there was Duel, a nihilistic film that follows an innocent man as he’s relentlessly pursued by a seemingly prehistoric tractor trailer. Then, The Sugarland Express, a warmer, even more disturbing action comedy that follows a woman’s desperate efforts to kidnap her own child. And then Jaws, which fuses the sensibilities of the first two to create, whether it’s intentional or not, a disconcerting portrait of America trying to stake its claim in a willful naïveté in the wake of all of the sobering events that define the country in the late 1960s to early 1970s: Watergate, Kent State, Vietnam, etc.

Spielberg would eventually indulge that naïveté without irony (though not nearly as often as he’s accused of), but his first few films are the work of a ferocious, open talent who was pretty much trying anything for effect. The near-miracle of Jaws, which involved the work of quite a few uncredited screenwriters, as well as impromptu story sessions and ad libs, lies in how ultimately of a piece it is. The dissonances—probably born of desperation—feel preordained, and are also the source of the film’s lasting power. Spielberg would grow self-conscious as he became more famous, trying for (and often achieving) mythical, iconic effects, but the young Spielberg was adept at capturing the quotidian that defines the working class. The people in Jaws appear to, which is unusual for contemporary movies, actually work for a living: The offices are worn and shabby, the homes are messy and constantly marked by the demands of raising children, and the adults trade in the sort of world-weary in-jokes that should be familiar to anyone who works a thankless job in an effort to barely pay the bills each year.

For that attention to detail, and for the sly storytelling (all of the film’s major set pieces are foreshadowed in fashions so subtle you’ll miss them the first time), Jaws is the rare monster movie that doesn’t idly mark time as we wait for the next big shock. And the details only amplify those shocks; people tend to forget how ruthless a director Spielberg once was. By 26, he was already an impressive formalist, and he fills his wide shots with details and visual curlicues that maintain a continual apprehension. The film, as Pauline Kael wrote, has tricky editing rhythms that never properly prepare you for the scares. (Though people often misremember the first time we see the shark; it’s not the scene where Brody is shoveling chum, but briefly, and terrifyingly, during the moment before a fisherman loses his leg.)

And, yes, the shark, that unyielding colossus, looks rather fake when we finally get a good look at him, which works entirely in the film’s favor. The shark, effectively built up as an object of myth and obsession for the first half of the film, would be a crushing disappointment if it looked “real,” something most contemporary monster movies, in their reliance on generic CG, seem to sadly fail to comprehend. The shark in Jaws is the shark of our collective worst nightmares, almost otherworldly in its enormity (it sometimes appears to be as big as the truck in Duel) and texture. It’s also a great big phallic joke, the agent of the blowhard Quint’s (Robert Shaw) destruction. The shark can mean anything you want it to mean, or nothing, and that uncertainty epitomizes this movie’s lasting appeal. Jaws is the pop masterpiece as happy accident—a parody of America’s can-do spirit that’s also, by the end, a celebration of it.

Image/Sound

Universal has used their 2012 4K restoration as the source for both the new 4K disc and the Blu-ray included in this package. The amount of visible detail in this transfer is quite impressive, particularly in the underwater and nighttime footage. Nearly every frame exhibits a striking clarity, every ripple of water, bead of sweat, and ocean flotsam nearly popping off the screen. The dynamic color balancing also adds to the more naturalistic presentation, evident in everything from the actors’ skin tones to clothes to the ocean itself. On the audio front, the dialogue is clean, the ambient noise of beach-goers and seagulls nicely filling out the background of the mix. As for John Williams’s iconic score, it’s suitably robust, but it never overwhelms the rest of the film’s soundtrack.

Extras

The supplemental materials included on this 45th anniversary limited edition release of Jaws are identical to those on Universal’s 2012 Blu-ray. While that’s perhaps disappointing, short of a commentary from Steven Spielberg himself, it’s difficult to imagine any future home-video release of the film topping this slate of extras in terms of scope.

On the feature-length documentary The Shark Is Still Working: The Impact & Legacy of Jaws, made in 2007, various producers and cast and crew members discuss the insanity of shooting the film in the Atlantic Ocean rather than on the Universal lot, and the myriad issues that arose from that decision, including the legendary animatronic shark’s very frequent mishaps. The focus of the doc definitely leans toward fan service rather than anything resembling in-depth analysis, so there’s more than ample lauding of Williams’s score and the massive success of Universal’s marketing tactics. But intriguing little stories, like the one about the genesis of Quint’s USS Indianapolis speech as his reason for hating sharks, offer insight into the ways certain characters were fleshed out in the film with the help of the actors.

Across two hours, The Making of Jaws touches on virtually every aspect of the pre-production, from the adaptation to the casting, and the production itself, including the practical effects team’s contributions, the actors’ on-set improvisations, and the many challenges that the cast and crew faced over the grueling seventh-month shoot. The two-disc set also comes with an eight-minute feature on Universal’s restoration of the film, as well as some rough behind-the-scenes footage, storyboards, production photos, and a handful of deleted scenes and outtakes. The handsome package is rounded out with a 48-page color booklet filled with storyboards, production details, cast and crew bios and assorted promotional materials.

Overall

Steven Spielberg’s iconic Jaws returns to home video just shy of its 45th anniversary, this time to take a bite out of the 4K market.

Cast: Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss, Lorraine Gary, Murray Hamilton Director: Steven Spielberg Screenwriter: Peter Benchley, Carl Gottlieb Distributor: Universal Studios Home Entertainment Running Time: 124 min Rating: PG Year: 1975 Release Date: June 2, 2020 Buy: Video, Soundtrack, Book

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Blu-ray Review: Eric Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales on the Criterion Collection

Even Blaise Pascal would wager you have everything to lose by not picking up Criterion’s upgrade of Eric Rohmer’s “Six Moral Tales.”

4.5

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Eric Rohmer's Six Moral Tales

It’s a mistake to privilege any one of Eric Rohmer’s “Six Moral Tales” over another, though the temptation exists and is easily indulged, especially if one takes the disparate, yet complementary, viewpoints of this inimitable set of films as entirely representative of its creator’s own personal principles. Strange that auteurism should fail us so completely in the case of one of its founding practitioners, but Rohmer was always an odd man out among his contemporaries, if not in the remove of years (he was a decade older than most of his Nouvelle Vague brethren), then in the deceptive placidity of his art. His revolutions, in other words, were quiet ones, couched in a perpetual remove and observation.

Rohmer’s greatest popular success, 1969’s My Night at Maud’s, is frequently misremembered as a nonstop talkfest, as it begins with extended passages of an unnamed Catholic engineer (Jean-Louis Trintignant) silently trailing a woman (Marie-Christine Barrault) who will, by film’s end, become his wife. The devoted Catholic’s brief flirtation with the fetching divorcée Maud (Francoise Fabian) brings about his ultimate “moral” choice, a fascinating psychological mishmash of Catholic liturgy, Pascalian hypothesis, and Hitchcockian blonde/brunette dichotomy that’s all too often mistaken—at least in the West—for Rohmer’s own worldview.

At the heart of this misreading is the word “moral” itself, which is typically defined in collective terms: the conscientious needs of the society at large trumping the various bodies that make it up. These films are more concerned with individual moral codes and how they play off of each other within a given situation, and though the films share a basic narrative structure (a man in love with one woman is tempted by a second, only to return to the first), it’s the specific milieu and, resultantly, the characters who inhabit that space which determine the ultimate outcome. Rohmer puts his trust—his faith—in a sense of place: The bustling Parisian side streets of The Bakery Girl of Monceau and Suzanne’s Career beget the stark Catholic trappings of My Night at Maud’s, which lead to the dandified color palette of La Collectionneuse, the deceivingly nostalgic summertime glow of Claire’s Knee, and the theremin-scored, post-1960s fatigue of Love in the Afternoon.

Even if Rohmer’s characters hew primarily to the middle class, his gaze (complemented, in many of these works, by cinematographer extraordinaire Néstor Almendros) is all-inclusive. Witness Claire’s Knee, in which Rohmer relates a battle of generational wits with a complexity akin to Marcel Proust. The respective narrators of these tales—in this case Jean-Claude Brialy’s middle-aged writer Jérôme—always have their manipulations and powers called into question, though Rohmer, for a good stretch of this fifth film in the cycle, seems to privilege Jérôme’s intellectual lecherousness. His pursuit of both the headstrong Laura (Béatrice Romand) and the unwitting, vulnerable Claire (Laurence de Monaghan) extend from sublimated longings, specifically for his friend, fellow writer, and unconsummated love, Aurora (Aurora Cornu). That Aurora effectively masterminds the connections between Jérôme and his objects of desire shows that no one is completely innocent in Rohmer’s world, though such shades of character never come across as the finger-wagging judgments of a pseudo-aesthete.

The cruelty of Rohmer’s characters is casual: Jérôme gets what he wants by effectively destroying Claire’s youthful naïveté, using her cheating boyfriend, Gilles (Gérard Falconetti), against her to contrive a naked emotional moment in which he comforts her by caressing her knee. If this was all there was to Rohmer’s vision it would be limited and unenlightening; Claire would remain a cautionary symbol and little more. But an epilogue shows Rohmer’s true intent. Jérôme is allowed his illusions (by revealing Gilles’s wandering lusts, he’s helped Claire to see the “true” way of things) and so leaves with his desires satiated. Aurora then spies an exchange between Claire and Gilles in which the former’s accusations of infidelity are quickly put aside, and not just because of Gilles’s charms. Jérôme, therefore, has failed, but he’ll never know. The intuitiveness of the image (revelatory, as so many of Rohmer’s films are, of the many mysteries of human nature) is balanced by a concomitant sense of hope, and the moral—if there’s one to be had—is left for us to discover and then to, potentially, express for ourselves.

Image/Sound

Criterion’s original 2006 DVD release of Eric Rohmer’s “Six Moral Tales” received a good deal of flack for the studio’s choice of pictureboxing—a process that, while it retained the original 4:3 aspect ratio of the six films, left black bars not only to the sides of the image, but above and below as well. Fortunately, this re-release does away with that problem entirely, keeping the correct aspect ratio while maximizing the size of the picture on the screen. Additionally, all of the films have been transferred from new 2K restorations that offer a sharper image. The uptick in visible detail is especially striking throughout My Night at Maud’s, most notably in the interiors of Maud’s apartment and the snow-swept exterior shots of Clermont-Ferrand and its surrounding mountainous region. Rohmer’s two early 16mm films retain a healthy amount of grain even as they gain in clarity, and while the transfers for three color films lean a bit too heavily toward the teal end of the spectrum, the colors are otherwise nicely balanced, with naturalistic hues extending to everything from the skin tones to the greens of trees and grass. The audio, which consists of linear PCM mono tracks, is also consistently clean, both in terms of the dialogue and the ambient background sounds of the film’s environment.

Extras

Criterion has ported over all the supplemental materials from their earlier release. While new extras would have been welcome, this was already an impressive slate of features for touching on virtually every aspect of Rohmer’s professional life. In lieu of any commentary tracks, the set features two lengthy interviews with the auteur: a lengthy discussion from 2006 with Barbet Schroeder and a 1977 appearance he made on the Canadian TV show Parlons Cinema. Schroeder, who early in his career worked with Rohmer, gets into how the duo’s production company was created, and draws the typically elusive master out of his shell to discuss his trouble finding funding for his films, criticism of his work, and his collaborations with cinematographer Nestor Almendros. In the latter interview, Rohmer looks back on his early years as an outsider who, like many of his Cahiers du Cinéma compatriots, largely despised the mainstream French cinema of the 1950s and sought to make films without studio funding.

The remaining interviews are far shorter but no less valuable. In a 1969 conversation, acting legend Jean-Louis Trintignant praises Rohmer’s trust in his own writing and takes umbrage with assumptions about the director’s work with actors. In a chat from 1970, actors Jean-Claude Brialy, Béatrice Romand, and Laurence de Monaghan focus primarily on Rohmer’s extreme privacy and need for solitude and freedom, while filmmaker Neil LaBute, in a 2006 afterword, lauds Love in the Afternoon for its “minutiae of experience” and Rohmer’s tendency to never impose his moral judgments upon his characters. But the most enlightening archival extra is a 1965 episode of the educational TV series En Profil dans le Texte directed by Rohmer. Titled “On Pascal,” it finds philosopher Brice Parain and monk and religious scholar Dominique Dubarle discussing the work of Blaise Pascal from both a secular and religious perspective, and in a way that mirrors Rohmer’s own approach in My Night at Maud’s.

The set’s on-disc extras are rounded out with a handful of short films that Rohmer directed over the years—Presentation, or Charlotte and Her Steak (which was shot in 1951 but completed in 1961), 1958’s Véronique and Her Dunce, 1964’s Nadja in Paris, 1966’s A Modern Coed—and one on which he advised, Edwige Shaki’s The Curve from 1999. The package not only comes with a gorgeous bound book that includes all six stories, written by Rohmer, that served as the basis for the films, but also a separate 64-page booklet with essays by Almendros and such esteemed critics as Ginette Vincendeau, Kent Jones, and Molly Haskell. Rohmer’s own 1948 essay “For a Talking Cinema” is tacked on at the end for good measure, just in case one is left with any doubt of the legitimacy of his garrulous approach to cinema.

Overall

Even Blaise Pascal would wager you have everything to lose by not picking up Criterion’s upgrade of Eric Rohmer’s “Six Moral Tales.”

Cast: Barbet Schroeder, Michèle Girardon, Claudine Soubrier, Fred Junk, Catherine Sée, Philippe Beuzen, Christian Charrière, Diane Wilkinson, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Marie-Christine Barrault, Françoise Fabian, Antoine Vitez, Haydée Politoff, Patrick Bauchau, Daniel Pommereulle, Alain Jouffroy, Mijanou, Annik Morice, Denis Berry, Seymour Hertzberg, Jean-Claude Brialy, Aurora Cornu, Béatrice Romand, Laurence de Monaghan, Michèle Montel, Gérard Falconetti, Fabrice Luchini, Bernard Verley, Zouzou, Françoise Verley, Daniel Ceccaldi, Malvina Penne, Babette Ferrier Director: Eric Rohmer Screenwriter: Eric Rohmer Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 480 min Rating: NR Year: 1962 – 1972 Release Date: May 5, 2020 Buy: Video

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Review: John Boulting’s Brighton Rock on Kino Lorber Blu-ray

The film succeeds admirably both as a crackerjack crime thriller and as a moral exposé of human evil.

3.5

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Brighton Rock

John Boulting’s Brighton Rock, adapted by Graham Greene and playwright Terence Rattigan from Greene’s 1938 novel of the same name, works not only as a thriller of almost Hitchcockian precision about gangland rivalries, but as a searing moral inquiry into sin, guilt, and the all-too-human capacity for evil. The film’s formal construction adds considerably to its overall effectiveness: The confluence of Harry Waxman’s moody monochrome cinematography and Peter Graham Scott’s razor-stropped editing ensures the film comes across as exhilaratingly as the amusement park rides that figure in the titular seaside resort. Brighton Rock also boasts lots of quasi-documentary location filming, bringing to mind a contemporary film like Jules Dassin’s more resolutely urban The Naked City.

The opening set piece features a chase through Brighton’s byways, as the tight-knit gang led by Pinkie Brown (Richard Attenborough) attempts to corner reporter Fred Hale (Alan Wheatley), whose exposé on rigged slot machines got their former leader killed. The pursuit ends on a dark ride on the pier, where Pinkie proceeds to push Hale to his death. The sequence isn’t just a masterpiece of machine-tooled assemblage, from the “stolen” street shots to the impressionistic depiction of Hale’s demise, but it also succinctly establishes most of the main characters and their interrelations. The one major character introduced later is poignantly impressionable Rose (Carol Marsh), a waitress at the upscale restaurant that down-market Pinkie patronizes in order to retrieve some potentially incriminating evidence.

Pinkie and Rose are immediately linked by the similarity of their colorful names, as well as by the discovery of their shared Catholicism. Their bond, however, is more than a little one-sided. Rose falls hard for Pinkie’s innocent mien, while Pinkie can only feel contempt and eventually disgust at her attentions. The film subtly suggests that Pinkie’s aversion to physical demonstrations of affection like kissing, not to mention the act of lovemaking itself, stems from an exaggerated attention to the tenets of his religion, prompted, perhaps, by early exposure to what Freud liked to call “the primal scene.”

The decidedly ambivalent relationship between Pinkie and Rose allows Greene, who later in life called himself a “Catholic agnostic,” to layer in concepts that were of concern to him throughout his work. Imagery of hell and damnation runs rife throughout the film. The dark ride where Pinkie kills Fred Hale is called “Dante’s Inferno.” When Pinkie and Rose discuss their beliefs, Pinkie assures her that hell is real, while heaven remains at best a “maybe.” And later in Brighton Rock, Pinkie’s crooked mouthpiece, Prewitt (Harcourt Williams), invokes a line from Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus: “Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it.”

Interestingly, Prewitt’s line comes as a direct reference to the institution of marriage, about which the film seems equally ambivalent. Early on, we see a blind man holding his wife’s hand while she carouses with one of Pinkie’s men. Pinkie marries Rose only so that he can avail himself of the legal protection that says spouses cannot testify against each other. Even then, he insists that the wedding be a strictly civil ceremony, not sanctified by a priest.

As the net inexorably closes around him, Pinkie callously suggests that he and Rose take their own lives in a suicide “pax,” as he puts it, an agreement he intends to be entirely one-sided on Rose’s part. Suicide, of course, is considered one of the gravest mortal sins by the church, but Rose proves all too willing. As she insists in the film’s ironically ambiguous coda, she would rather be damned with Pinkie than be alone in heaven, so strong is their love. And as proof, she produces a record of Pinkie’s voice that he made earlier at a fairgrounds booth, on which he tells her precisely what he thinks about her. But now its surface, scratched by Pinkie in a vain attempt to destroy it as evidence at one point, yields only the phrase “I love you” over and over again. Rose is thus safe in her delusion, and only the viewer is any the wiser.

Image/Sound

Kino’s Blu-ray presentation of Brighton Rock isn’t billed as any sort of a restoration, and that’s evident from the speckling and other minor blemishes on display throughout. Overall, the image reveals some fine detail, decently balanced contrast, and reasonable depth. Grain levels are a bit all over the place, especially in low-light and night scenes. Still, it’s definitely a step up from previous SD editions of the film. There’s a Master Audio stereo track that cleanly and clearly presents the dialogue (with subtitles available for anyone having trouble understanding the criminal argot), and admirably conveys Hans May’s portentous score.

Extras

The big bonus feature here is another excellent, endlessly informative commentary track by author and film critic Tim Lucas. As usual, he has a lot to say about the careers of Brighton Rock’s cast and crew, and various filming locations in and around Brighton. But where the track really takes off is in his detailed comparison of the screenplay with Graham Greene’s source novel, indicating excised events and even stray lines of dialogue that were left out of the film, as well as comparing the 1948 film and Rowan Joffe’s 2010 remake.

Overall

John Boulting’s adaptation of Graham Greene’s novel succeeds admirably both as a crackerjack crime thriller and as a moral exposé of human evil.

Cast: Richard Attenborough, Hermione Baddeley, William Hartnell, Carol Marsh, Harcourt Williams, Wylie Watson, Nigel Stock, George Carney, Charles Goldner, Alan Wheatley Director: John Boulting Screenwriter: Terence Rattigan, Graham Greene Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 92 min Rating: NR Year: 1947 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: John Sturges’s The Great Escape on the Criterion Collection

Criterion’s Blu-ray release of The Great Escape offers an abundance of goodies to dig into from the inside.

4.5

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The Great Escape

Though adapted by James Clavell, W.R. Burnett, and an uncredited Walter Newman from Paul Brickhill’s nonfiction account of the 1944 Stalag Luft III escape, John Sturges’s The Great Escape is equally inspired by a great fiction. The filmmaker’s treatment of the massive POW escape from a camp in Nazi-occupied Poland alludes to a similar and iconic sequence from Grand Illusion Illusion, Jean Renoir’s no less furious and eloquent articulation of the faux civility of warfare. But if Sturges’s earlier The Magnificent Seven bound itself just a bit too tightly to the structure of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, The Great Escape builds its own distinct style and thematic preoccupations, even as its influences remain clear.

The absence of brutal ground warfare in The Great Escape reflects Struges’s personal experience during World War II: The director served as a captain in the Army Air Corps and spent a large portion of his time shooting documentaries and instructional films for the military. In The Great Escape, the filmmaker largely evades the action and horror of war, instead focusing on an immense creative process: the building of the tunnels that will help a group of prisoners, led by Royal Air Force squadron leader Roger “Big X” Bartlett (Richard Attenborough), get out from under the Luftwaffe. Each member of the dedicated team of soldiers, who come from various Allied Forces, provides a skill that helps the effort to build the tunnels, conceal the activity, and ultimately execute the thrilling escape.

This tactic allows for members of the uniformly excellent cast to highlight their personalities through their respective characters’ varied areas of expertise, from James Garner’s fast-talking and resourceful Scrounger to Steve McQueen’s incorrigible Cooler King to Donald Pleasance’s mild-mannered Forger. McQueen is front and center, but Sturges democratically shows the breadth of work being done and the essentialness of each man’s mission. This dense interweaving of talents working on what amounts to a great, heroic production implies Sturges’s view of filmmaking as inherently collaborative. Tellingly, Pleasance’s forgery expert has a need for a specific camera with a special lens, while another captive creates an expansive wardrobe to keep the soldiers inconspicuous outside of the camp.

The collateral damage of Sturges’s dedicated focus on the minutiae of the titular escape is that the grimness of the prisoners’ station is only mildly realized. A prisoner’s early escape attempt ends in a spray of bullets across his back, and when the prison break finally occurs, few of the escapees taste freedom for very long, but Sturges’s depiction of this civil incarceration operates far apart from the desperate, violent reality of the times. Even the prisoners’ infighting, and their interactions with their Nazi keepers, is relatively soft, little more than a few fists pounding on tables and some mockingly sarcastic retorts.

The film doesn’t offer easy catharsis, nor does it portray the Luftwaffe as essentially evil; the most prominent guard is, in fact, a complete dullard taken in by Garner’s smooth operator. Indeed, the filmmakers buck the vision of a solitary war hero who excites his fellow prisoners into revolt, and instead foreground the sense of duty in rebellion that drives the captured soldiers. And as the prisoners symbolize a broad swath of the international effort against the Axis powers, The Great Escape is that rare war film that doesn’t fully indulge in assumed nationalism, save for the fact that everyone speaks English. Sturges never touches on the essential hollowness and cruel pageantry of war, but he does the next best thing by depicting an international effort where victory, no matter how short-lived, depends on the cooperation of myriad talents, rather than the gruff can-do attitude of an unbreakable chosen one.

Image/Sound

The Criterion Collection’s new, restored 4K digital transfer boasts a generally sharp picture and impressive depth of field throughout. There are a handful of scenes where the image noticeably softens, but these instances are infrequent enough to never become too distracting. For the most part, there’s an impressive amount of visible detail throughout the frame. The color balancing is somewhat muted in places, but the blacks are perfectly inky, forest greens are vibrant, and skin tones are consistent regardless of the scene’s lighting conditions. The uncompressed monaural soundtrack gets the job done, standing out particularly when Elmer Bernstein’s memorably rousing score rises to the forefront.

Extras

This release boasts a superb array of extras, most notably two feature-length commentary tracks. The first, which was recorded in 1991 and includes separately recorded snippets from director John Sturges, composer Elmer Bernstein, and a half-dozen or so other crew members, is hosted by film historian Bruce Eder. He does a fine job re-introducing each new speaker as they return to the commentary and chimes in with his own expert analysis, offering insight on the details of how the events upon which the film is based played out in real life. Between the half dozen participants, nearly every aspect of the film is touched upon, including the performances, Sturges’s working methods, such as his allowing for improvisation on set, various production details, and Bernstein’s attempts to create a score that gives a sense of levity and soulfulness to help counterbalance the film’s darker subject matter.

The second commentary track, seamlessly weaved together from separate recordings from 2003, features actors James Garner, and Donald Pleasance, James Coburn, as well as others involved in the making of the film. Author Steven Jay Rubin serves as the host this time around, turning his attention more specifically toward the film’s performances and the various careers that blossomed following The Great Escape’s release. All three actors heap praise upon Sturges, not only for his direction, but also his brilliance at casting and editing. The trio provides plenty of entertaining on-set stories and discuss the impressiveness of seeing the finished POW camp, which was built from scratch in a forest outside of Berlin.

The four-part, 45-minute documentary “The Great Escape: Heroes Under Ground” delves even deeper into the historical events that inspired the novel and film, and covers the challenges of taking creative license to make an entertaining picture while still aiming for realism. The 25-minute featurette “The Real Virgil Hilts: A Man Called Jones” focuses on David Jones, the United States Army Air Forces pilot who served as the model for Steve McQueen’s character, while the brief documentary “Return to The Great Escape” touches on Paul Brickhill’s novel, the film’s art direction, and the extreme lengths the film went to achieve verisimilitude.

In the only newly recorded extra, critic Michael Scagrow contextualizes Sturges as a distinctly transitional director who, along with John Frankenheimer and Sidney Lumet, served as the bridge between the old Hollywood masters and the New Hollywood filmmakers of the 1970s. The package is rounded about with a booklet essay by Sheila O’Malley in which she discusses the film’s success in telling a story about “a serious subject…without self-seriousness.”

Overall

With a superb and diverse slate of extra features, Criterion’s Blu-ray release of The Great Escape offers an abundance of goodies to dig into from the inside.

Cast: Steve McQueen, James Garner, Richard Attenborough, James Donald, Charles Bronson, Donald Pleasence, James Coburn, Hannes Messemer, David McCallum, Gordon Jackson, John Leyton, Angus Lennie, Nigel Stock, Robert Graf, Jud Taylor Director: John Sturges Screenwriter: James Clavell, W.R. Burnett Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 172 min Rating: NR Year: 1963 Release Date: May 12, 2020 Buy: Video

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Queer Debauchery As Waking Dreamscape: Equation to an Unknown

Throughout Francis Savel’s 1980 porno, gay sex is depicted as immune to guilt and fear.

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Equation to an Unknown
Photo: Altered Innocence

When the French Cinémathèque gave carte blanche to filmmaker Yann Gonzalez to curate a handful of screenings in 2016, one of his selections was Equation to an Unknown, a mostly forgotten porno from 1980 teeming with pre-AIDS hedonism and prophetic melancholia. Gonzalez had been introduced to the film on a poor-quality VHS tape and was so struck by its sensibility that he decided to pay for a 16mm print of the film to be struck from an elusive negative he managed to find in a lab.

It’s easy to see why Equation to an Unknown, directed by Francis Savel (under the pseudonym Dietrich de Velsa), spoke to Gonzalez in such visceral ways. It’s exactly the kind of porn that the characters in Gonzalez’s most recent film, the underrated Knife + Heart, which is set in the year that Savel’s film was shot, would have made. Which is to say, a slice of cinema that brings together erotic and artistic drives into one single path toward the sublime.

The closest example to this type of cinematic communion between pornography and poetry is perhaps James Bidgood’s Pierre-et-Gilles-esque extravaganza Pink Narcissus from 1971, or Fassbinder’s slightly less cartoonish Querelle from 1982. Although Savel is, much like Bidgood and Fassbinder, interested in unrestrained queer debauchery, his characters don’t need to inhabit a parallel filmic universe for repressed desire to roam in an unbridled fashion, nor must they resort to the superego-defying subterfuges of dreamscapes.

Savel’s world of queer decadence is thus not wrapped up in fetish gear. Young men’s soccer matches organically become locker-room orgies and motorcycle rides give way to impromptu sexual ecstasy. There’s no need here for clothes to become campy costumes or for objects to become theatrical props. The real world is sexy, fantastic, and theatrical enough with its naturalized rituals and accoutrements, from cleats to hardhats. Every stranger is harmless, well-hung, and disarmingly sure that he will be met with unconditional hospitality.

Equation to an Unknown

A scene from Equation to an Unknown. © Altered Innocence

What’s so unusual about Savel’s film isn’t only the way it rediscovers queer bliss in the unvarnished aura of the everyday, but how devoid of anxiety its world is. Gay sex is depicted as immune to guilt and fear. If strangers catch two lovers having sex, it’s either to watch them as voyeurs or to join in. This isn’t the same logic of cheap sexual voracity that tends to govern traditional porn, but a logic of absolute openness. In the film, sex is a ceaseless flow comprised of an always welcome amalgamation of visitors—that is, sex angels that promptly turn up at door thresholds or just out of the blue to ensure pleasure lasts.

Group sex in Equation to an Unknown never amounts to a spectacle of pragmatic transactions. Pissing and rimming are portrayed as inherently tender, even poetic, activities. Orgies aren’t staged so much as they unfold spontaneously, bathed in delicate lighting and quixotic piano notes, as if each body merged with other bodies magnetically so they could form some sort of multi-tentacled organism. There’s no time for characters to reason or filter their impulses. They simply act in what feels like seamless reciprocity, or a kind of solidarity aimed at collective harmony through boundless sexual satisfaction.

For the most part, the question of identity seems foreign to the film. The sex on screen might be between two men, but are the men gay? Or is this what happens when bromance is allowed to bloom? These are bodies—all white, young, and mostly hairless—procuring pleasure in ways that precisely ignore cultural prescriptions and pre-determining scripts. But such a utopia becomes less defensible when women are finally mentioned for the first time, though they’re never seen, at which point the price of uninhibited pleasure between men begins to surface.

Equation to an Unknown

A scene from Equation to an Unknown. © Altered Innocence

Toward the very end of Equation to an Unknown, a young man acknowledges the great size of the penis which he’s about to swallow by telling its owner, “Never a dull moment for girls with you.” In another scene, a man tells his transient lover, “I wish I could love only you,” evoking womanly figures awaiting the men in some less pleasant elsewhere. These are significant bits of dialogue in a film largely devoid of speech and completely devoid of femininity. They suggest that, ultimately, even the most convincing fantasies of erotic hospitality and freedom remain just that: fantasies, propped by very tangible ideas around the effacement of the feminine as precondition for the flourishing of the masculine. Could it all just flow, so tenderly and organically, if women were allowed in the picture as actual bodies?

Equation to an Unknown is now available on VOD and on June 2 on Blu-ray and DVD.

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Review: David Miller’s Lonely Are the Brave on Kino Lorber Blu-ray

The image presentation on this Kino Blu-ray is absolutely stunning.

4

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Lonely Are the Brave
David Miller’s Lonely Are the Brave opens with a shot of a vast desert landscape. A fortysomething cowboy, Jack Burns (Kirk Douglas), is seen lounging and enjoying a cigarette by a small campfire—a moment of peace that’s interrupted by a mysterious rumbling sound whose source is revealed to be three fighter jets soaring overhead. This juxtaposition of the cowboy life with the modern technological world is a jarring one, and by the time Jack mounts his horse and struggles to cross a busy highway, it’s more than clear that this world has little use for men who refuse to trade their horses in for 18-wheelers.

After cutting through a barbed wire fence and crossing the busy streets of Duke City (a thinly disguised Albuquerque), Jack arrives at the home of a woman, Jerry (Gena Rowlands), whose excitement suggests she’s the roaming ranch hand’s wife. But we soon learn that Jerry is the wife of his best friend, Paul (Michael Kane), and that Jack has arrived in town to bust out his buddy—a former cowboy who’s serving time for helping immigrants who’ve just crossed the border from Mexico—from prison.

Despite his antisocial and anti-authority leanings, Jack isn’t an outlaw, but rather a man desperately clinging to an identity and way of life that’s virtually unsustainable in the modern world. And throughout the film, Miller and cinematographer Philip Lathrop take full advantage of the black-and-white Cinemascope frame to highlight Jack’s isolation and feelings of entrapment. From fences to busy streets to prison bars, the filmmakers see the modern world as a series of barriers to men like Jack, who deliberately gets himself arrested so that he can help Paul escape. At one point in the film, Jerry pleadingly tells Jack, “The world that you and Paul live in doesn’t exist…it’s got real borders and real fences, real laws and real trouble.” But the man isn’t interested in change, only the gratification that comes with life off the grid.

Even the local bar offers Jack no peace, as it’s there that a one-armed man picks a fight with him. This confrontation erupts into an exhilarating fight sequence where nearly everyone in the bar turns on Jack, and though he takes this all in stride, it underlines just how unwanted his presence is in civilized society. Paul, too, ultimately rejects Jack, refusing to escape with him because he’s straightened up and plans to stick around for his wife and child.

In a series of beautiful reverse shots, Jack and Paul, framed on opposite sides of prison bars, commiserate with one another before parting ways, and even though Paul is left on the inside, we get the distinct sense that Jack is re-entering his own sort of prison. These shots are mirrored later after Jack escapes and returns to his natural environment in the film’s second half, when Sheriff Johnson (Walter Matthau), standing in his stuffy office, gazes out to the mountains through a barred window, wondering where the convict cowboy could be.

It’s at this point that Lonely Are the Brave excitingly returns to the business of juxtaposing the old and new. Jack briefly enjoys living off the untouched land, but whether by land or air, Johnson’s pursuit of him is so relentless that the cowboy and his trusty horse Whiskey have to keep moving. Miller repeatedly frames Jack in wide shots, presenting him as being in harmony with the land, while Johnson is shown in mid-shots, looming over it as a dominant, inescapable, annihilating force. Earlier in the film, Jack tells Jerry that he’s a “loner clear down deep to my guts,” understanding that makes him something of a “cripple.” By the end of Lonely Are the Brave, Jack learns the true cost of his condition, one which has long been inevitable, but which arrives in a shocking event that’s as tragic as it is ironic.

Image/Sound

The image presentation on Kino’s Blu-ray release of Lonely Are the Brave is absolutely stunning, especially given that the transfer wasn’t sourced from a new digital restoration. Thanks to its wonderful set design and deep focus photography, the film abounds in minute visual details, and the transfer renders every speck of dust, bead of sweat, and mountain rock with remarkable precision. There aren’t many shadows in the film, but the contrast is still quite impressive, exhibiting a wide range of greys that highlight the many contours of the mountainous desert landscape and the nooks and crannies of the actors’ faces. The audio is similarly flawless, with a well-balanced mix that does justice to the film’s score and gives a dynamic range to the natural and technological sounds that pop up in the soundtrack.

Extras

The highlight of this Blu-ray is the comprehensive audio commentary by film historians Howard S. Berger and Steve Mitchell. They contextualize Lonely Are the Brave as being of a piece with other late westerns of the early 1960s, such as John Huston’s The Misfits and Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country, while also discussing the various traits that make David Miller’s film an outlier. Much of their conversation covers the film’s aesthetic qualities—particularly Philip Lathrop’s gorgeous black-and-white Scope cinematography and Jerry Goldsmith’s somber score—as well as Kirk Douglas’s performance. There’s also a brief but intriguing segue into the film’s subtle political dimensions, which are especially notable in the film’s changing of the crime which lands the character Paul in jail from dodging the draft, as he did in the source novel, to aiding immigrants who had just crossed the border. The disc also comes with a 20-minute tribute to the film, which includes ample praise from Steven Spielberg, Michael Douglas, and Kirk Douglas, who notes that it’s his favorite film that he’s ever been in. The package is rounded out with a short featurette on Goldsmith’s score.

Overall

Of all the films he worked on, Lonely Are the Brave was Kirk Douglas’s favorite, and this disc’s striking transfer and illuminating extras go a long way toward explaining why.

Cast: Kirk Douglas, Gena Rowlands, Walter Matthau, Michael Kane, Carroll O’Connor, William Schallert, George Kennedy, Karl Swenson, William Mims Director: David Miller Screenwriter: Dalton Trumbo Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 107 min Rating: NR Year: 1962 Release Date: May 19, 2020 Buy: Video

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Review: Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel on Criterion Blu-ray

The disc perhaps definitively contextualizes the moral urgency of the film’s intricate aesthetic.

5

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The Grand Budapest Hotel
There’s a joke that runs through Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel like a thin, fine wire. It usually, but not always, involves Monsieur Gustav H. (Ralph Fiennes), the devoted concierge of the titular hotel in the mountains of Zubrowka, a fictional country that’s ravaged by war in ways that recall the scourges that devastated Europe during the 1930s. Ludicrously soon after a fresh calamity or inconvenience, someone will attempt to sentimentalize or commemorate the transpired event with a poetic stanza, only to be dashed, with amusingly flippant suddenness, by the immediate realities of the situation at hand. An ode to man’s foible might inadvertently end with a resigned “Ah, fuck it.”

The film’s meanings reside in the various permutations of that joke. Like a few of Jean Renoir’s heroes, the characters scramble to maintain a degree of compassion and stately civility in the midst of the unfathomable rise of a fascist regime (the SS here is the ZZ). Informed by the writing of Stefan Zweig, The Grand Budapest Hotel’s plot is misleadingly delightful, with chases and dastardly villains and elegant buffoonery. Gustav inherits a priceless portrait, Boy with Apple, from a deceased lover, Madame D. (Tilda Swinton), and must do battle with her corrupt relatives, who frame him for the woman’s murder and set him scrambling about Eastern Europe setting things right. In the midst of this adventure, Gustav plays matchmaker to protégé Zero (Tony Revolori) and a brilliant pastry chef, Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), and their romance is revealed to be the heart of the story, the source of the film’s unshakable poignancy.

The film is structured as a tribute to an act of kindness that ripples like a pond that’s been breached by a tossed stone, to a gesture that speaks louder than any of Gustav’s more conscious attempts to control the scope of his legacy. The man presents himself as a foppish dandy, but underneath those pretensions, which are probably assumed to cover his shame over his own humble origins, beats the heart of a romantic hero. He never treats Zero, a refugee of a country already quashed by the fascist regime, as anything but a gentleman and a co-conspirator, and that sense of acceptance empowers the latter to win Agatha and cement the beginnings of his new adult life. This act of kindness is paid forward by an aging Zero (now F. Murray Abraham) in the 1960s to a writer (Jude Law) who ponders the mysterious old man sitting in the dilapidated old hotel. That gesture is remembered by the writer (now Tom Wilkinson) in an interview recorded years later, which itself appears in a book read by a young woman in the present, who happens to bear an uncanny resemblance to Agatha. That young woman, we’re to assume, is paying homage to a writer who recorded her family’s legacy.

But you have to parse the screen for much of this information, as Anderson has grown into a nearly abstract sentimental formalist who obsessively imbues every image with implicative remorse and heartbreak. The Grand Budapest Hotel is the most obvious marvel: a great pink dream palace that suggests one of Agatha’s cakes if she had lived long enough to pay homage to the mythical cinematic realms of Marienbad and the Overlook. Anderson cannily uses aspect ratios to affirm his vision of the past as a place of vanishing warmth and harmony: The ‘30s segments are shot in the almost square Academy ratio, which mirrors the films of that era while subtly bringing the actors closer together in a communal frame, while the other timelines are shot in wider aspect ratios, and the actors are often positioned at opposite ends of a frame that emphasizes the lonely chasms between them, or the atmospheres that dwarf them. These ratios are loaded with frames within frames and boxes within boxes, which serve as a visual parallel to the nesting narratives of The Grand Budapest Hotel.

The remarkable editing accentuates this bemused alienation. The usual fragile, graceful Anderson punchlines are interrupted with surprisingly crude and violent shards of incident that echo the chaos that his heroes are desperately attempting to ward off with their belabored protocol. Jokes hit you and intensify upon retrospection; the humor burns away, leaving only despair. A bad guy finds that Gustav has taken Boy with Apple and replaced it with a sexually explicit painting that resembles a Schiele, which the villain breaks apart in a frustrated action that reflects the abuse of the stolen and lost art associated with the Holocaust. Agatha pointedly isn’t introduced until late in the film, when half of her story has seemingly already been told off screen—a structural quirk that deepens upon your realization of her fate and Zero’s crushing inability to face his memory of her. The film’s most heartbreaking touch is a blink-and-miss one: of the elderly Zero and the writer having their desert, which has clearly been modeled after Agatha’s beautiful little cakes from decades ago.

Anderson’s mise-en-scène, which abounds in a hall-of-mirrors reflexivity that will probably take a dozen viewings to fully unpack, corresponds to an evolving point of view. All of his films explore the futility of a certain kind of egocentric fussiness as embodied by a quest for perfection of art, and, until now, they’ve criticized those quests as evasions of the messiness of humanity. The Grand Budapest Hotel also understands this striving for control as an illustration of a grand optimism. The beauty of Gustav’s elaborate customs, or of the Grand Budapest Hotel’s opulence, or of Agatha’s cakes, is that they embody art that exists for its own sake, as affirmation of the wealth of mystery, imagination, and decency that life can contain. Gustav is willing to die for his aesthetics, which are intricately tied to his good manners and commitment to craft even in the face of disaster or ascendant fascism, and he thusly reveals himself to be an Anderson hero that’s moved away from self-absorption toward transcendence.

Image/Sound

This transfer is sourced from a 2K master supervised by Wes Anderson, which is the same master that was used for the 2014 20th Century Fox Blu-ray. Like that earlier edition, this transfer has a stunning image, with ravishing colors and an extraordinary depth of field. There’s intentional softness here and there, but this transfer allows the film to virtually explode off the screen, suggesting a moving pop-up book. And such clarity allows one to pour over the minute details of the frames, from the clothing to the props to the positioning of actors, all of which offer new nuances with every viewing, expanding the film’s meaning and the relationships between the characters. The English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track also boasts superb clarity and richness, delicately balancing the many subtle diegetic noises with blasts of bombastic violence with Alexandre Desplat’s playful, melancholic score.

Extras

This vast supplements package offers a detailed portrait of Wes Anderson’s filmmaking process. In the visual essay “Wes Anderson Takes the 4:3 Challenge,” film scholar David Bordwell offers the greatest description of Anderson’s aesthetic that I’ve encountered, which he defines as following the tradition of a kind “planimetric” style that has also been utilized by directors such as Jean-Luc Godard. Per Bordwell, Anderson’s images often involve backgrounds that run perpendicular to the camera, with the actors “strung across the frame like clothes on a line” while their faces or profiles are usually positioned so as to directly face the viewer.

Such a bold and confrontational aesthetic shatters the insinuating over-the-shoulder camera positioning that so many of us take for granted as a sign of “realism,” explaining in part why some audiences are so resistant to Anderson’s productions. In the case of The Grand Budapest Hotel, Bordwell also discusses the film’s alternating aspect ratios and how Anderson ingeniously modulates the planimetric approach to accommodate them. In the package’s second visual essay, critic Matt Zoller Seitz complements Bordwell’s piece with a beautiful discussion of the moral power of The Grand Budapest Hotel, examining how the despair of Anderson’s films gradually arise out of the jokes and intricately realized atmospheres.

Meanwhile, “Visiting The Grand Budapest Hotel” and “The Making of The Grand Budapest Hotel” both include vivid footage of the film’s making, showing Anderson working with actors, producers, and various technicians to get the timing right on various scenes, as well as coordinating the intersections between real locations, miniatures, and sets. As one would expect given the final film, this appears to be a vast production, which Anderson seems to lead with understated finesse. A new audio commentary with Anderson, actor Jeff Goldblum, special photography director Roman Coppola, and critic Kent Jones also further elaborates on location scouting, a wide range of influences on the film, how Anderson likes to cultivate a family of collaborators, and, per Goldblum, the work of Philip Kaufman. Rounding out this set are trailers, featurettes ported over from the 2014 Fox Blu-ray, animatronic storyboards, and a booklet with an erudite essay by critic Richard Brody, originally written for The New Yorker, and goodies like a mini-poster and a newspaper mock-up that appears in the film.

Overall

Criterion outfits The Grand Budapest Hotel with a stunning collection of supplements, perhaps definitively contextualizing the moral urgency of the film’s intricate aesthetic.

Cast: Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, F. Murray Abraham, Mathieu Amalric, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Jude Law, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Saoirse Ronan, Jason Schwartzman, Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson, Owen Wilson, Léa Seydoux Director: Wes Anderson Screenwriter: Wes Anderson Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 98 min Rating: R Year: 2014 Release Date: April 28, 2020 Buy: Video, Soundtrack

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Review: John Schlesinger’s Billy Liar on Kino Lorber Blu-ray

One of the British New Wave’s gentler efforts receives a commendable Blu-ray release featuringan instructive commentary track.

3.5

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Billy Liar

François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows opens with the camera traveling through the streets of Paris before stopping beneath the Eiffel Tower, tilting upward to marvel at the structure’s height. Right out the gate, the film, which deals with a young boy’s feelings of confinement and suffocation, invites us to see the potential for even this remarkable monument to be an iron-caged prison. In other words, Paris is only liberating for those privileged enough to experience it as such.

The opening shots of John Schlesinger’s Billy Liar are similarly attuned to how a city’s value resides in the eye of the beholder. As the camera moves through the streets of Yorkshire, there are no wondrous buildings or monuments to behold—only indistinguishable flats with cold-looking exteriors. Inside one of them lives Billy Fisher (Tom Courtenay), a twentysomething native who wants nothing more than to escape his parents’ company and move to London. Billy is given the nickname Billy Liar by his family because he spends his days fantasizing about his future as a famous novelist or as the militaristic savior of an imaginary country. Yet despite being a narcissist who manipulates his friends (and especially the young women who fancy him), Billy is essentially a kind-hearted and naïve individual, making him something like a milquetoast version of A Clockwork Orange’s Alex DeLarge, perhaps the most definitive example of the “angry young man” in British cinema.

Billy Liar is, in a sense, an outlier of kitchen-sink realism for how Schlesinger and screenwriters Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall view Billy through an affectionate lens. This runs counter to Lindsay Anderson’s This Sporting Life, released the same year, which portrays Richard Harris’s rugby league footballer as an unsalvageable figure of tragic proportions. Schlesinger privileges comedic elements that evince Billy’s idle woolgathering. When Billy thinks about becoming a novelist, he envisions himself on a giant billboard rather than hard at work behind a typewriter. While it’s hard to take him seriously, it’s also easy to recognize—and perhaps empathize with—the foolishness of his unformed perspective.

The majority of the film’s scenes revolve around the ins and outs of Billy’s romantic entanglements with three women: Barbara (Helen Fraser) and Rita (Gwendolyn Watts), Yorkshire locals who, for various reasons, think Billy might soon commit to marrying them, and Billy’s former childhood girlfriend, Liz (Julie Christie), who’s been gallivanting around London and returned home for a brief stint. Later, at a dance hall where all four converge, Rita and Barbara discover each other’s existence, prompting the former to cheekily say: “You can’t handle the goods unless you intend to buy.” For Billy, though, a purchase is less a matter of physical exchange than a psychological state. Since he’s bought hook, line, and sinker into the notion of himself as a great writer, he latches onto Liz’s fearless attitude as his best path toward accomplishing his artistic worth—something the audience realizes is doubtful once Billy admits to her that he hasn’t even written a single page of his novel.

By pitting the allure of the big city against the stagnancy of the suburbs, Billy Liar positions itself to conclude as a rebuke of the resignation that characterizes Billy’s parents, forever rooted to their drab section of Yorkshire. But just as he finds himself seated next to Liz on a train headed for London, Billy disembarks to purchase a bottle of milk and misses his departure. In this moment, the milk that lures him away from his career pursuits is easy enough to read as symbolic of his mother’s comfort, and thus Yorkshire’s. Though the film’s ending is outwardly celebratory as Billy strolls back toward his family’s flat, the fact that he’s opted for the familiar comforts of home feels like a questionable—even nightmarish—endpoint for this young person who so craves his autonomy.

Image/Sound

With this high-definition master, which appears to be the same transfer released on Blu-ray by StudioCanal in the U.K. in 2013, Kino Lorber resurrects Billy Liar from Region 1 scarcity, as Criterion’s 2001 DVD release has been out of print for years. Denys N. Coop’s black-and-white Cinemascope images appear nuanced and rich throughout, with the wide shots exhibiting great depth of field. Close-ups are also impressive for the striking level of detail in the actors’ faces, but given the occasional blips and scratches on display, it’s easy to imagine what a more comprehensive restoration effort might look like. The DTS-HD audio track is clean and clear, and especially helps to highlight Richard Rodney Bennett’s playful, upbeat score.

Extras

Film Historian Kat Ellinger’s comprehensive audio commentary contextualizes various facets of Billy Liar’s production and its placement toward the tail end of the first phase of the British New Wave. Ellinger notably calls the film a “masterpiece in black comedy” for how it blurs fantasy and realism through straight cuts, thereby taking us directly into the protagonist’s world. Unlike in 1947’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Ellinger says, which uses hazy dissolves to signal a clear division between reverie and reality, the straight cut complicates how the viewer understands any neat separation between the two. Such stylistic traits are central to the British New Wave’s concern with how generational tension holds the potential to breed social and political dissent. The disc also comes with theatrical trailers for Billy Liar, The Knack…and How to Get It, and The Falcon and the Snowman.

Overall

One of the British New Wave’s gentler efforts receives a commendable Blu-ray release, boasting clear image and sound, as well as an instructive commentary track.

Cast: Tom Courtenay, Julie Christie, Helen Fraser, Gwendolyn Watts, Wilfred Pickles, Mona Washbourne, Ethel Griffies, Leonard Rossiter Director: John Schlesinger Screenwriter: Keith Waterhouse, Willis Hall Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 98 min Rating: NR Year: 1963 Release Date: April 28, 2020 Buy: Video

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Review: F.W. Murnau’s Adaption of Molière’s Tartuffe on Kino Blu-ray

Murnau’s light-hearted, self-reflexive film gets a solid video upgrade and an illuminating commentary track.

3.5

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Tartuffe

Although certain stretches of The Last Laugh and Sunrise amply display F.W. Murnau’s talent for constructing comedic sequences, his adaptation of Molière’s 1664 play Tartuffe was his first outright comedy. Lacking the melancholy and tragic underpinnings of Murnau’s most revered films, Tartuffe, perhaps inevitably, feels like a trifle by comparison. But its self-reflexive structure is cleverly used as a means of exploring the moral and sociological values of cinema—an art form that was still much maligned at the time of the film’s release—lending Tartuffe a rich subtext.

A year earlier, Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. featured an early example of the film-within-a-film, positing cinema as a dream space to which we can bring our innermost hopes and desires and see them reflected back to us. Murnau’s use of this postmodern device is perhaps not as revolutionary as Keaton’s, but a similar thoughtfulness is on display in his portrayal of cinema’s deep connection to our subconscious impulses.

Murnau employs a framing device set in modern-day Germany to introduce the story, in which a filmed version of Tartuffe is eventually shown to convey the ubiquity and dangers of hypocrisy throughout time. In these bookend sequences, a two-faced housekeeper (Rosa Valetti) conspires to turn an old man (Hermann Picha) under her care against his grandson (André Mattoni) so that she may become the sole heir to his fortune. Catching onto her scheme rather quickly, the grandson dons a fake beard and returns to his grandfather’s house incognito, where he directly addresses the audience and announces that his weapon of choice to loosen the deceitful grip ahold of his grandfather is a traveling picture show.

Upon receiving the offer to have a filmed version of Tartuffe shown in her employer’s living room, the housekeeper yells, “We want no cinema!” It’s as if she were keenly aware that the flickering images may disrupt the spell she’s cast over her elderly target. Once the disguised grandson flatters her, though, he’s granted entry to the home—the first of many times in the film where false praise and fraudulent appearances are used as a means of exploiting others.

As the film-within-a-film begins to play and the scowling, falsely pious Tartuffe (Emil Jannings) arrives on screen, we learn that he has the wealthy Orgon (Werner Krauss) wrapped around his finger, and that he’s already fleeced him for large sums of money that were supposedly intended for charity. The parallels between the two narratives and the respective behaviors of Tartuffe and the housekeeper who’s watching his exploits on screen are perhaps a bit too glaringly obvious, but the inventive manner in which Murnau weaves both stories together, along with the buoyancy and cheekiness of the central performances, furnishes the film with a humor and wit that counterbalances its bluntness.

Late in the film, Orgon’s maid, realizing that Tartuffe is a conman and is about to force himself on Organ’s wife, Elmire (Lil Dagover), pleads with her master to peer through the keyhole, saying, “Look that ye may be cured.” Here, Murnau ties the simple act of seeing with the pursuit of deeper truths, cannily linking the theme of Molière’s comical tale of hypocrisy to that of the modern role of cinema. While there’s certainly an instructive quality to the film, as there is in Molière’s play, Murnau’s approach never succumbs to heavy-handedness. Instead, this adaptation remains both the playful condemnation of hypocrisy that Molière intended and a celebration of cinema as, ironically, its own form of deception, albeit one through which social and psychological truths can be revealed to the masses.

Image/Sound

The new digital restoration used for this transfer is a solid upgrade from previous standard-definition releases of the film. The picture quality is sharp most of the time, but there are a number of shots that appear a tad blown out, resulting in whites (tinted orange as per F.W. Murnau’s request) that flood out some of the details in the frame. Other flaws are fortunately far more minor, such as traces of debris, scratches, and the occasional flickering noticeable at the edge of the screen. Robert Israel’s new orchestral score sounds quite robust, beautifully mixed to highlight both the low-end instruments, like the French horn, and the higher-end ones, such as the frequently employed harpsichord.

Extras

Along with the recently restored 70-minute German release version of Tartuffe, Kino Lorber has also included the 64-minute U.S. release, which was the only version of the film available on home video until now. Although it’s presented only in standard definition, it’s in surprisingly good shape. Also included is a fascinating audio commentary by film historian Troy Howarth, who covers an array of topics, including Murnau’s career and personal life and cinema’s reputation in the mid-1920s as a disgraceful art form and career choice—which is reflected both in Murnau’s name change in real life and the grandfather’s hesitance to allow a film to be shown in his home in Tartuffe. Howarth even delves into Murnau’s lost films, offering insight into everything from the frequently cited 4 Devils to lesser-mentioned titles such as Der Janus-Kopf, Murnau’s spin on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Overall

F.W. Murnau’s light-hearted, self-reflexive adaptation of Molière’s classic play gets a solid video upgrade and an illuminating commentary track on Kino’s new Blu-ray.

Cast: Emil Jannings, Hermann Picha, Rosa Valetti, André Mattoni, Werner Krauss, Lil Dagover, Lucie Höflich Director: F.W. Murnau Screenwriter: Carl Mayer Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 70 min Rating: NR Year: 1925 Release Date: April 28, 2020 Buy: Video

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Review: Miranda July’s Me and You and Everyone We Know on Criterion Blu-ray

This release is cause enough to introduce a new generation to the sure-to-be-eternal concept of pooping back and forth, forever.

4.5

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Me and You and Everyone We Know

When Miranda July’s Me and You and Everyone We Know arrived in theaters in 2005, critics were quick to pinpoint how it resembled Todd Solondz’s work in tone and theme. July, though, dismissed the similarities, telling The Independent that it was “a bizarre comparison” and noting that “maybe we’re just not the same.” While it’s difficult to know exactly what irked July without further elaboration on her part, it’s evident that each filmmaker treats the subject of adolescence with different aims. In Solondz’s Welcome to the Dollhouse, the nuclear family becomes a source of near psychotic frustration for its young protagonist, who feels the weight of her parents’ antipathy for her as an inescapable, ongoing nightmare. Me and You and Everyone We Know, on the other hand, sees the suburbs less as a torture chamber than a relatively harmless forum for kids to cut their teeth on the conditions of impending adulthood. Only sometimes, as in the case of six-year-old Robby (Brandon Ratcliff), who chats with a stranger online about “pooping back and forth, forever,” that awareness begins much earlier than expected.

The online chat, in which Robby creates the symbol “))<>((” as a visual shorthand for his idea of sex, encapsulates July’s acute eye for the innocence of adolescent desire, and demonstrates her willingness to walk a difficult tonal line in pursuit of a laugh about the fundamental awkwardness of trying to sound sexy through chat. When Robby’s chat partner asks if he’s touching himself, he looks down, sees his hands resting on top of one another, and replies, “Yes.” The film sees honesty in innocence and feels empathy for people willing to bear parts of their emotional selves in pursuit of meaningful companionship.

Other storylines help to flesh out how sexual development often occurs within the context of someone’s awkward attempt at displaying sensual prowess. Just down the street from Robby, teens Heather (Natasha Slayton) and Rebecca (Najarra Townsend) argue about which of them would be better at giving oral sex. Since neither has ever given it before, they recruit Robby’s 14-year-old brother, Peter (Miles Thompson), as their guinea pig. July directs the sequence’s focus toward smaller, less sexual details, like the individual pieces of peppermint candy that Peter places neatly on a towel for the girls after each has taken their turn. Much like Robby’s sense of sexual intimacy, Peter’s actual sexual experience—presumably his first—carries with it a sense of innocent discovery rather than shame or danger. Sex only becomes scary, the film implies, when one person takes willful and deceitful advantage of another.

July toys with this potential for criminal sexual acts by setting up both Heather and Rebecca to be victims of the much older Andrew (Brad William Henke), a possible pedophile who pastes signs on his living room window that describe the sex acts he’d like to perform on them. That Heather and Rebecca are enticed by the signs is a nearly surreal touch on July’s part given how patently wrong-headed Andrew’s actions are on the surface; indeed, no one else in the neighborhood seems to notice his clearly transgressive actions. In effect, the issue of visibility versus concealment—of making one’s desires public versus keeping them private—becomes Me and You and Everyone We Know’s major thematic identity.

It’s a testament to July’s thorough entwining of storylines that the film’s main arc involving Christine (July), an aspiring video artist and chauffeur for the elderly, and Robby and Peter’s shoe-salesman father, Richard (John Hawkes), doesn’t overwhelm the other narrative threads. In fact, though Christine anchors much of the story as the glue connecting the film’s characters, it’s only once Nancy (Tracy Wright), the curator at a local contemporary art museum, takes an interest in her work that the full scope of the connections between the characters begin to fall into place, not least because Nancy turns out to be Robby’s chatmate.

Once they do, Me and You and Everyone We Know reveals itself to have more in common with the hopeful cynicism relative to the torment of teenage years in Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World than anything found in Solondz’s work. Even Christine and Richard, both adults in their 30s and 40s, respectively, respond to the possibility of their attraction with angsty aggression, whether its Richard moodily insisting that Christine get out of his car or Christine rolling around on her bed, saying to herself, “We have a whole life to live together you fucker, but it can’t start until you call.” July threads the various layers of her network narrative together by homing in on the yearning for physical intimacy that connects everyone; these characters, unlike those in Paul Haggis’s Crash, aren’t pawns on a chess board of coincidence, violence, and ham-fisted pathos. When lives collide in July’s creative hands, they’re salvaged by each person’s generally kind, well-meaning disposition. In the end, the film’s lasting image isn’t one of violence or tragedy, but that of Robby’s palm on Nancy’s cheek.

Image/Sound

This new high-definition digital master, approved by Miranda July, boasts a noticeably sharper image than the one on MGM’s 2005 DVD release, with the transfer serving the film’s palette of pinks, greens, and reds especially well. Outdoor sequences around the central neighborhood look particularly vibrant, and the close-ups during the film’s more intimate moments reveal more accurate skin tones and rich image detail. The only quibble is that the remaster hasn’t been conducted with either 2K or 4K technology, which means that, while the image looks consistently swell, there’s a nagging sense that it could look slightly richer and more detailed. The 5.1 surround DTS-HD soundtrack, however, is perfect, with Michael Andrews’s original score bursting its oddball, mellifluous electronic melodies through the speakers with an appropriate oomph. Dialogue is mixed and balanced evenly, as is the soundtrack as a whole.

Extras

The highlight of this disc’s extras is a conversation between July and filmmaker Lena Dunham about the former’s work, both before and after Me and You and Everyone We Know. July explains how her infatuation with Agnès Varda’s films, namely 1988’s Kung-Fu Master, gave her a feel for writing material in which children are involved in potentially sexual situations. July says that she’s always been most comfortable working with non-professional actors, which makes directing children a natural fit for her. July and Dunham also discuss how the “pooping back and forth, forever” symbol became a meme and popular tattoo after the film’s release; they also examine July’s notebooks and diaries from the making the film, and July details her experience working with the Sundance Film Lab and its effect on shaping her first feature.

The remaining extras include Open to the World, a new documentary about the 2017 interfaith charity shop and participatory artwork that July created in collaboration with Artangel, the London-based arts organization; July Interviews July: Deauville, 2005, a newly edited discovery from her archives; footage from July’s 2003 Sundance Director’s Lab work featuring commentary from the filmmaker; an assortment of her shorts, including 1998’s The Amateurist, 2000’s Nest of Tens, and four films from July’s Joanie 4 Jackie video chain letter series, as well as a documentary about the project. Finally, there are several deleted scenes and a pair of essays about the film by artist Sara Magenheimer and novelist Lauren Groff.

Overall

Criterion’s excellent HD transfer of Miranda July’s feature-length debut, along with a carload of extras, is surely cause enough to introduce a new generation of viewers to the sure-to-be-eternal concept of pooping back and forth, forever.

Cast: Miranda July, John Hawkes, Miles Thompson, Brandon Ratcliff, Carlie Westerman, Natasha Slayton, Najarra Townsend, Tracy Wright, Brad William Henke Director: Miranda July Screenwriter: Miranda July Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 91 min Rating: R Year: 2005 Release Date: April 28, 2020 Buy: Video

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Review: The Amazing Spider-Man

The Amazing Spider-Man’s combat mechanic is frequently diverting if you can manage to place the fact that it’s very nearly an Arkham City doppelganger in the back of your mind.

2.5

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The Amazing Spider-Man

Regrettably, what can be said about Marc Webb’s passable The Amazing Spider-Man can also be said about developer Beenox’s video game tie-in of the same name. The second-rate postscript to this summer’s first official superhero blockbuster is big on web-slinging appeasement, but lacks a true sense of creativity and newness that its cinematic counterpart also calls for in spades. Not only that, but much of The Amazing Spider-Man feels like a direct cut-and-paste job, an arachnid-husked clone of Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham City and its predecessor. However, as simply a response to the rabid requests from fans to allow for more liberating, expansive exploration, swinging around Manhattan with stylish speed and gusto as only Spidey can, Beenox fulfills this desire piously, but unluckily, it’s not quite enough to override the multitude of mistakes they’ve otherwise made. Unarguably, in all variations, be it Sam Raimi’s film or its well-received Treyarch-helmed PlayStation 2 supplementation, Spider-Man 2 remains the essentially unshakable benchmark for ubiquitous entertainment.

Beenox is responsible for both 2010’s above-average Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions (despite its glitches, the gameplay prevailed due to its inventiveness) as well as last year’s botched Spider-Man: Edge of Time, so it’s a bit shameful to see how they’ve dropped the ball here once again with an intellectual property that comes prepackaged with such high potential. The Amazing Spider-Man is perhaps one of the most spoiler-y video-game correlations to arrive in ages, dropping plot bombs regarding the conclusion of Webb’s movie from roundabout frame two, so if you happen to be afflicted with spoilerphobia, beware of the consequences of playing the game before seeing the film, or just go ahead and avoid both entirely. The central storyline involves the pathogen let loose by Dr. Curt Connors, a.k.a. the Lizard, and its troublesome aftermath spreading quickly across the Big Apple. Additional villains round out a decent adversarial roster, including Scorpion, Iguana, and Rhino. Felicia Hardy, a.k.a. Black Cat, also makes an appearance in one of the narrative’s more well-executed passages. The actors from the film version don’t reprise their roles audibly, as expected, but the game’s auxiliary cast is generally adequate, with notable veterans from the voice-acting field such as Kari Wahlgren, Steve Blum, and Nolan North turning in worthy performances.

The graphics are nothing special, with commonplace interiors like robotics laboratories and yawn-inducing grimy sewers comprised of flat, colorless tones punctuated by little variation, and the concrete jungle of NYC is like one giant grayish, skyline-lit blur that rarely pops or elicits a sense of enthusiastic wonder as it rightfully should. Even though it’s so obviously reminiscent of Rocksteady’s successful blueprint, The Amazing Spider-Man’s combat mechanic is frequently diverting if you can manage to place the fact that it’s very nearly an Arkham City doppelganger in the back of your mind. Ballsy, full-frontal assaults come along with dexterous punch/kick combinations and nimble reversals; stealth maneuvers allow for traditional take-downs, and if you opt to strike while perched upside-down on an adjacent canopy, an amusing animation triggers, with Spidey entombing his unsuspecting targets in layers of webbing, then leaving them there to dangle from above like damp laundry. Sadly, these intermittently rewarding moments are plagued by an overall unpolished experience; lag and choppiness occur periodically, ruining any chance for consecutive fluidity during fights, especially the boss battles, which hardly feel like distinguishing, momentous sections as is customary for this genre (the difficulty level sits somewhere between effortless and mildly irritating).

Of course, there are numerous side quests to choose from in The Amazing Spider-Man, from putting a stop to low-scale arbitrary criminal offenses happening around the cityscape (burglaries, individual denizen infections, etc.) to the ultimately more gratifying yet time-consuming comic-book page-collecting. The former is assisted by the Gravity Rush-esque Web Rush ability, which, with a quick tap of a shoulder button, has Spider-Man flying across lengthy expanses of skyscrapers to meet his next mission waypoint. The latter is ostensibly Beenox’s response to the restless fanbase shouts of “We just want to web-swing around the boroughs for hours on end!,” and with 700 comic sheets scattered throughout the map you’ll likely still be searching long after the majority of your other more pressing objectives have been completed. The application of the PlayStation Move motion sensor wand adds a bit of liveliness to the control scheme (basically, point where you want to Web Rush to and so on), but it really can’t hold a candle to the casual accuracy of the standard DualShock 3.

The Amazing Spider-Man isn’t a terrible product, merely a mishandled one. Rather than erring toward the side of laziness by duplicating what has proved fruitful in the open-world category before (read Arkham City), Beenox could have contrarily drawn outside the lines—even taking a cue from its own Shattered Dimensions—by tweaking the superhero adventure formula, albeit ever so slightly, to conceive something more than just the next mindless popcorn flick in video-game form.

Developer: Beenox Publisher: Activision Platform: PlayStation 3 Release Date: June 26, 2012 ESRB: T ESRB Descriptions: Mild Language, Mild Suggestive Themes, Violence Buy: Game

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Review: If Found… Is a Poignant Grappling with the Act of Erasure

The game reveals its brilliance by constantly and subtly reconfiguring the emotions behind erasure.

4

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If Found...
Photo: Annapurna Interactive

DREAMFEEL’s interactive novel If Found… is mostly told through the early-1990s diary entries of a young Irish woman, Kasio, who returns home to Achill Island in Ireland’s west coast from college in Dublin. Scrawled with her memories and feelings, the diary’s pages tend to be unassuming and use color sparingly, with just a few shades dominating the sketches of people and environments. At times those images will be scribbled out or written over, which is when the player breaks out the eraser.

The eraser is the game’s dominant mechanic, and what you do with it doesn’t stop after you’ve gotten rid of the scribbles obscuring a face or a big word like “NEVER” over a smaller text snippet to reveal what’s underneath. Before you can move on, you need to do a second pass and then perhaps a third or fourth, until the page is blank save for a few smudges and faded lines. Sometimes there are further drawings underneath. Playing the game feels like wiping away what you’ve drawn on a foggy mirror, and then wiping away your own reflection too.

Your perspective changes depending on what page you’re viewing: Some automatically scroll from one zoomed-in section of a page to another, some let you freely drag the camera between different images, and some require you to erase the entire screen at once. The particulars of the erasing process hardly change, and in this, If Found… reveals its brilliance by constantly and subtly recontextualizing that action, reconfiguring the emotions behind it. Kasio’s family doesn’t accept her as a trans woman, so it feels appropriate to get rid of painful moments like her brother’s spoken contempt for who she is, or a strained dinner table conversation with her mother, who’s never malicious but noticeably reluctant to understand her.

Other moments, though, you might hesitate to erase, because not all of them are painful. The pages of Kasio’s diary can grow elaborate and expressive, conveying her joy during a band’s performance while she gets lost in the sound and the crowd. Through sound design, texture, and some wistful, earnest music, the pages represent things like night air, falling rain, and snow. Kasio comes to live among friends for a while, and you feel the infectious warmth of their chemistry together through her loving descriptions of their habits. But once you get started, you’re not able to pick and choose. Everything must go.

To play If Found… is to reconcile the inherently conflicting emotions that push someone toward erasure. You recognize the action’s catharsis through the smooth, meditative atmosphere that suggests its therapeutic potential, but you also grapple with its potential destructiveness, as you may accidentally erase the edges of some other part of the page you haven’t seen yet. To be freed of the negativity, you also have to go through the happier times represented beneath the scribbles and scratches, face the things that you don’t want to lose. Like Jim Carrey’s character in Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, you recognize the weight of certain moments only as they’ve begun to melt away.

The framing device for purging Kasio’s diary isn’t totally clear until the very end of the game, leaving you to ruminate on the action itself rather than the context. The connections can feel tenuous at times, with the recurring image of a black hole and space flight seeming at odds with the grounded, interpersonal storytelling. But If Found… never relies on a last-act twist, instead finding its power through the empathy and truth with which it traces the divergent trajectories of so many relationships. And if the sci-fi elements don’t totally land, the strength of its characters and the specificity of its Irish setting most certainly do.

Developer: DREAMFEEL Publisher: Annapurna Interactive Platform: PC Buy: Game

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Review: Wildfire Is a Stealth Game of Thrilling Unpredictability

There’s considerable joy to poking at the edges of its ingenious interlocking systems to see what happens.

4

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Wildfire
Photo: Humble Bundle

Everything burns so easily in Wildfire, from grass to vines to wooden gates meant to impede your progress toward a level’s exit. The player character, an accused witch from a remote village razed by the forces of the Arch Duchess, can control the elements, though only up to a point. You can pluck the flames right out of a campfire or torch and throw them at will, but what happens after that can be quite hectic and out of your control; for one, embers may leap from one surface to another, literally burning up your hiding spots and traversal options while spooking nearby guards. In their thoughtless panic, terrified guards will ignore you entirely, abandoning their posts and sometimes even deciding to take their chances by jumping off a ledge. Anything but the encroaching flames.

Such riveting chaos is the crux of Sneaky Bastard’s stealth game, upending the mannered layouts of its brief, two-dimensional levels. The zoomed-out view of each level gives off a faint sense of omniscience, letting you freely scroll to see the careful patrols and designated hiding spots. But rather than allowing the player to grow comfortable and complacent by honing the same approach over time, Wildfire constantly introduces new mechanics as the forest gives way to dark caves and snowy mountaintops. Sometimes you get new powers entirely, such as being able to use plants to generate climbable vines or bushes to hide in. Water can generate an ice column, freeze enemies, or form a large bubble to carry you upward.

Other mechanics mingle with the game’s various systems, like the many ways an object can catch fire or the traversal mechanics that find you creeping below bridges or hanging off ledges to stay out of sight. Deposits of sulfur crystals explode at the slightest flame, leaving behind a pillar of smoke to obscure your passage or suffocate enemies into unconsciousness. Freezing an enemy will also deprive them of oxygen long enough to knock them out upon thawing, as long as they’re not already carrying a lantern to prematurely melt their icy prison. The emergent results play like a 2D take on systems-heavy games like Thief and Dishonored.

But some of the game does risk being a little too open-ended, since each level contains additional goals like an optional objective (burn all the vegetation, infiltrate via the roof), rewards for going undetected or not killing anyone, and sometimes captive villagers to rescue. It’s often not possible to complete every such task in a single playthrough, so you may freely return to prior levels at any point, even with powers acquired later in the game. But as a result, many of these tasks feel trivial, such as there being little reason to rescue all the villagers again when you’ve already gotten the reward. Indeed, in one level where they’re tied to some explosives, you don’t technically have to rescue them at all.

The game’s constant flow of new ideas doesn’t always pan out either, as the complexity of a few later levels can veer into outright tedium. Still, Wildfire mostly maintains a thrilling unpredictability for the way it’s permeated by accidents both happy and otherwise, like the flaming guard who flees into a sulfur deposit or the wooden bridge that breaks beneath your falling momentum. It fulfills that all-important requirement of a great stealth game: that there’s considerable joy to experimenting with new approaches and poking at the edges of its ingenious interlocking systems to see what happens.

This game was reviewed using a press key provided by Humble Bundle.

Developer: Sneaky Bastards Publisher: Humble Games Platform: PC Release Date: May 26, 2020 Buy: Game

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Review: Maneater Is a Campy Action RPG Sunk by Repetition

The game’s campiness doesn’t extend to the shark combat, which flounders as a result of it mostly hinging on button-mashing.

3

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Maneater
Photo: Tripwire Interactive

Tripwire Interactive’s Maneater is told through the lens of a reality television show, Sharkhunters vs. Maneaters, whose obsessive host, Scaly Pete, hunts your bull shark character. That framework is a perfectly trashy choice—that is, for bringing just the right amount of reality to the game, and without standing in the way of your pure enjoyment. After all, the game is less of a true-to-life shark sim than it is an action RPG, one that lets you equip your shark with taser-like teeth, a glowing purple-streaked “shadow” body that emits toxins, and boat-breaking bony protrusions for fins. Once you gain the Amphibious organ evolution, your shark can flop its way across various beaches and boardwalks, gobbling up helpless, rubbernecking humans. Think of the game, then, as Grand Theft Shark.

Your shark’s actions may occasionally defy physics, but the environments against and through which you wreak bloody havoc rarely do. The game offers up environments that are well designed and varied, from the yellowish shallows of the Fawtick Bayou region to the pristine blues of Prosperity Bay and the darkened depths of the Gulf. Swim through narrow caves and sewer tunnels and you’ll find colorful phytoplankton, and you can interact with—that is, eat—a variety of realistically depicted sea creatures, from turtles to marlins, even sperm whales.

If only the game’s missions evolved alongside your shark as it grows from a baby-sized biter to a mega-sized masticator over the course of the campaign. There are seven main regions (and a tutorial area) and the progression through each is the same: Find the grotto so that you can fast travel, hunt a specific creature, perform “population control” by feeding on a certain species, and get “revenge” by killing a set quota of humans. Once you’ve done this, you’ll face off against that area’s apex animal—usually a higher-level version of basic predators like crocodiles, makos, and hammerheads—and then watch a clip from Scaly Pete’s reality show. All that changes are the wildlife and the biomes, like the polluted superfund site Dead Horse Lake and the golf-course islands found throughout Golden Shores.

The repetition of the mission structure extends to the actual gameplay. With the exception of the final boss fight, which forces players to make use of the tailwhip to hurl torpedoes back at your rival, pretty much every encounter is just a matter of hammering the bite button, especially if you’ve equipped the right evolutions for the task at hand. And there isn’t much to the exploration either. There are license plates, landmarks, and nutrient caches hidden throughout each area, but your overpowered sonar makes them simple to locate, and if there’s any challenge in collecting them, it comes from trying to get the camera to cooperate when you’re breaching toward an object hovering high above the water.

That exploring every nook and cranny of Maneater is still enjoyable comes down almost entirely to the spot-on casting of Chris Parnell as the narrator of the show within the game. His style of wounded snark colors both casual observations (“Catfish are monogamous, which means someone’s special somebody won’t be coming home tonight!”) and pop-cultural zingers, which arise every time you discover a submerged landmark. “Even a shark can’t help but marvel at this consumerist Babylon,” he notes, and, indeed, players will gobble up the nods to everything from Arrested Development’s frozen banana stand to SpongeBob’s pineapple home, to say nothing of the references to kaijus, Cthulhu, and Pennywise. Would that such specificity had been given to, say, the bounty hunters who wordlessly show up in progressively more advanced boats each time your shark gains a new infamy level.

Manhunter knows exactly what it is: an action-RPG so campy that the publicity material keeps trying to make “shARkPG” happen. That playful sense of camp shows up even in the game’s darkest moments, as in the spectacle of Scaly Pete losing limb after limb in his dogged pursuit of you. It even has a satirical bent, given the fact that the majority of your interactions with humanity’s accomplishments come in the form of either witnessing how they’ve sunk to the bottom of the ocean (or sending them there yourself), little more than bleached bones and rusted metal in the end. Sadly, that camp doesn’t extend to the shark combat, which flounders as a result of it mostly hinging on button-mashing. Ultimately, Maneater is too much like the “Baby Shark” song: catchy but repetitive.

This game was reviewed using a press key provided by ONE PR Studio.

Developer: Tripwire Interactive Publisher: Tripwire Interactive Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: May 22, 2020 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood and Gore, Drug Reference, Intense Violence, Mature Humor, Mild Language Buy: Game

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Review: Saints Row: The Third Remastered Serves Multiple Masters at Once

Saints Row: The Third is a game with an identity crisis, both within the context of its story and outside of it.

3.5

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Saints Row: The Third Remastered
Photo: Deep Silver

Even in its original form, Saints Row: The Third is a game with an identity crisis, both within the context of its story and outside of it. Are the rowdy street gangsters turned superstars of the game’s title better off moving forward as common criminals constantly looking for the next big score or, as Saints Row IV would end up putting it, “puckish rogues” prone to all sorts of comic shenanigans? In the broader, meta sense, the game is asking whether Saints Row as a series is better off giving up trying to be a realistic crime simulator in any way. The answer is a resounding yes, but it’s interesting to go back to Saints Row: The Third in 2020 just to see that creative struggle play out in real time.

The game’s gotten a massive visual overhaul in its newly remastered form—the city, the NPCs, and the lighting are all absolutely stunning now—but this is still very much a sandbox game from 2011, full of random, annoying little glitches, an inconsistent framerate (even when locked), and a character creator that’s both incredibly deep and hilariously janky in spots. And yet, all of that works oddly well in the context of this kind of game in 2020, especially when the appeal of the most popular sandbox game of all time, Grand Theft Auto V, comes from people trying to break it in the specific ways that this game is already broken.

Saints Row: The Third doubles down on the ridiculousness of its predecessor but still seems unsure whether that’s the way to go. A fun opening set piece that involves a gunfight during a freefall gives way to the comparatively dark note of series mainstay Johnny Gat getting got—or so we think—by the Syndicate, a European criminal organization that manages to cheat the Saints out of their stranglehold on the city of Steelport. Gat’s presumed death is treated with a measure of gravity, then immediately undercut by the next mission, where the Boss and former slacker turned no-nonsense henchwoman Shaundi end up taking over a military supply depot and ordering drone airstrikes on tanks. That sort of thing happens fairly often in the game’s early going. Throughout this stretch, the sort of bread-and-butter urban fetch quests that form the foundation of your average open-world crime game are heightened to the point of absolute absurdity, while any comedic momentum the game builds over time is eventually muted by the modern gangland material that’s played more straight than necessary.

That isn’t to say that Saints Row: The Third’s serious side is a complete wash. In fact, one of the game’s—and, arguably, the series’s—best missions is its most straightforward: a brutal, John Wick-ish shootout inside a Syndicate penthouse set to Kanye West’s “Power.” Enemy placement throughout the lavish environment is ingenious, but even this comparatively grounded moment still escalates quickly into a city-wide helicopter chase. That’s long before you factor in glorious absurdities like hovercrafts, Land Shark Guns, BSDM pony-cart chases, mind-controlling octopus launchers, and protracted jaunts in cyberspace where you get turned into a toilet. The game’s problem is one of consistency, where it would be so much stronger picking a tone and sticking with it instead of trying to serve multiple masters at once.

It doesn’t help that much of the middle stretch of the game involves introducing new and weird Activities to the player, couching them in the conceit of how they help the Saints take over the city as opposed to simply allowing them to be fun diversions for their own sake or crafting one-off narrative set pieces that stand on their own. Disguising mini-games as narrative progression creates a bit of dissonance, where the ridiculous story comes off as perfunctory as it develops, just a paper-thin excuse to introduce more grindable content dotted around the game’s map. Despite the fact that the characters you meet during these activities are by and large a joy to interact with, hanging out with them involves running the same activity for them over and over, they’re only delightful in short bursts of gameplay.

There are maybe a dozen different types of activities to do around Steelport, and the ones where the sharp writing and dialogue get to shine make going back to them worthwhile. For players who’ve already spent dozens of hours in Steelport, they’ll at least be able to marvel at the visual upgrade, of seeing these places and characters feel more impressively real without skirting into the Uncanny Valley. The level of customization for your player character, the friendly NPCs in your gang, and the arsenal you take into battle is astonishing.

With the original release’s entire DLC content included here, those options are even more expansive and ridiculous, and available from the early hours of the game. There’s a vast number of ways to approach activities and liven them up, and Saints Row: The Third is far more welcoming to players looking to break the world instead of trying to grapple with it, especially now that it’s been visually brought up to current standards.

Mainly, having Saints Row: The Third looking like a current-gen experience truly hammers home that, yes, the Saints are much better off as puckish rogues. We already have plenty of po-faced games trying to give players the experience of being a crime boss ruling the underworld with an iron fist. Why should Saints Row try to be the 20th game to offer that experience when it can be the only experience allowing you, dressed as a Mexican wrestler wearing a clown’s face, to cruise through traffic at 100mph with a live tiger in the passenger seat?

The game was reviewed using a review code provided by Tinsley PR.

Developer: Volition, Sperasoft Studio Publisher: Deep Silver Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: May 22, 2020 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood and Gore, Drug Reference, Intense Violence, Partial Nudity, Sexual Content, Strong Language Buy: Game

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Review: Neversong, Thomas Brush’s Coma Update, Never Gets Going

It has just enough bells and whistles to suck you into its world, but not enough to compel your immersion.

2.5

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Neversong
Photo: Atmos Games

Thomas Brush’s Neversong, a reimagining of his Flash-based adventure game Coma from 2009, is more expansive and deliberate than its predecessor. Formerly titled Once Upon a Coma, the game boasts an art style that’s less limited and more pointedly minimalist—all the better to accentuate the features and grotesqueries of the characters that fill our young protagonist’s world. The cohesive storybook narration better tethers this dark, Gorey-like nightmare to the real-world trauma that it unsubtly mirrors. And yet, Neversong still feels underdeveloped. There are some great items, characters, and visual effects on display here, but few leave a lasting impression across the less-than-three-hour campaign.

Red Wind Village’s denizens suffer from various mental illnesses, but Neversong superficially grapples with those afflictions. In fact, it’s just Peet’s rotund frenemy, Simeon, who serves a particularly active role—or, rather, roll—in the game, as his body dysmorphia is front and center as players maneuver him through the Spiderian Sewers. At best, one character’s obsession with parkour and another’s violent streak can be said to only tangentially influence the overall gameplay. And the fact that one villager has OCD doesn’t excuse all the repetitious backtracking, nor the recycling of a particular puzzle type involving bombs.

Even the good ideas feel squandered. It’s a smart decision to make all of Peet’s upgrades be everyday items, like an umbrella that helps him rise over air currents, or a skateboard that allows him to leap over gaps. The whimsical mundanity not only sets Neversong’s otherwise conventional gameplay apart from other adventure games, it also successfully conjures the intended level of childhood nostalgia. But short of being used to collect a few optional cosmetic outfits, these tools rarely function as anything other than a means of temporarily gating player progress. Outside of the Booty Bum Marsh, that Slugboard has no purpose, and the Bootybrella is useful only if you mistime a jump and need to glide. It’s disappointing to see hard-won goods like a creepy See n’ Say toy used for only a single puzzle.

Considering that Neversong’s last act takes place inside the Blackfork Asylum, it’s more than a little ironic that the game significantly suffers from a lack of commitment. Both at the beginning and end of the campaign, Peet is plagued by distortion effects that skew his sense of reality. Knife-wielding maniacs creepily and subtly start to appear in the windows of a repeating corridor; later, space itself warps and swirls as if Peet is stuck in some sort of time eddy, and the camera angle slowly tilts until the entire area is upside down. But these psychological flourishes are so fleeting that they feel almost out of place.

Neversong has just enough bells and whistles to suck you into its world, but not enough to compel your immersion. It’s a bit as if Brush has given players a coloring book, but only a single crayon, and so the game’s creativity ends up being flattened into a menial series of tasks. By the end of Neversong, the true story—or picture—behind Peet’s quest is arguably complete, but with just that one shade, it’s not particularly satisfying.

This game was reviewed using a press key provided by Atmos Games.

Developer: Atmos Games, Serenity Forge Publisher: Serenity Forge Platform: PC Release Date: May 20, 2020 Buy: Game

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June 2020 Game Releases: The Last of Us Part II, Disintegration, & More

Right now, we’ll take whatever form of escapism we can get.

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The Last of Us
Photo: Sony Interactive Entertainment

The June gaming calendar remains on the light side, what with studios big and small still adjusting release windows in response to the shifting realities of COVID-19, which has, among other things, limited the physical production and shipment of games. If not for a particularly nasty plot leak, Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us Part II might still be in that distribution limbo, but we’ll take whatever form of escapism we can get.

Our most anticipated titles of the month skew toward the violent, perhaps none more so than the long-delayed The Last of Us Part II, which focuses on 19-year-old Ellie, after settling with Joe in a thriving community of survivors in Jackson County, Wyoming, relentlessly seeking justice in the wake of a catastrophic event. Also of note is the Wild West-set Desperados III, a real-time tactics game that promises to leave players jonseing for creative murders, and Disintegration, a sci-fi shooter set 150 years into the future, where, after so much global catastrophe, humans are on the brink of extinction, with their desperate efforts to integrate themselves into robot bodies having led to much chaos. But this month’s games offer more than just savage thrills. Evan’s Remains, for example, features no enemies or weapons, just a soothing pixel-art aesthetic and a series of logic-based platforming challenges.

To help you find the right fit for your current mood, see below for trailers for our most anticipated games of the month, followed by a list of other noteworthy releases across all platforms. (Sound off in the comments if you feel we’ve overlooked anything.)


The Last of Us Part II (PS4) – June 19

The latest trailer for The Last of Us Part II showcases not just a grown-up Ellie, but a hardened one. No longer the young girl in need of Joel’s protection, she’s now taking hostages, chopping and stabbing human soldiers, and sobbing, bloody-faced and alone, in the darkness. The trailer ends with the 19-year-old bathed in red light, responding to a plea—“We could have killed you”—with a remorseless “Maybe you should have.” We’re beyond amped to see if the trailer’s subtle shifts between showcasing a survivor’s natural coping mechanisms and a monster’s mercilessness carry through into the game itself.


Disintegration (XB1, PS4, PC) – June 16

Between the infantry and mechs bum-rushing an abandoned farmstead and a robotic-looking protagonist who drily encourages his troops by suggesting that they “Don’t die,” it’s easy to see the traces of Halo lingering under the hood of Disintegration. Hardly surprising, given the involvement of Halo’s co-creator, Marcus Lehto. Based on gameplay footage, the feature that excites us is the prospect of gunning down foes from the cockpit of the game’s signature Gravcycle, a hovering, multi-gunned war machine from which hero Romer Shoal can both attack and issue orders to his unique three-person squad. It looks ambitious and explosive, and we hope it won’t turn out to be as empty as Anthem.


Evan’s Remains (PC) – June 11

Fans of Lost, take note. Evan’s Remains packs flashbacks, compelling dialogue, and a massive twist into its brief demo, which only leaves us wanting more. The way the narrative incorporates symbology-based puzzles that must be actively deciphered by leaping between platforms further warmly reminds us of the gameplay loops in To The Moon and the Zero Escape series. In all honesty, though, the demo hooked us from the first shot of its charmingly pixelated, sun-hat-wearing heroine: Who wouldn’t want to help her solve a mystery?


Desperados III (PC, XB1, PS4) – June 16

Each new glimpse of Desperados III further strengthens the impression that when this western is in full swing, it potentially operates as a delightful Rube Goldberg machine, with each of your five gunslingers using their unique abilities in tandem to stealthily murder their foes. We’re particularly enthused about seeing Isabelle Moreau in action, as she can use her voodoo to control hapless foes, though we also got a kick out of watching Hector Mendoza splashily brawl his way through a saloon and then later use a beartrap to disable a unsuspecting enemy.

June 2020 Releases

Little Town Hero (June 2) – PS4, Switch – Pre-Order
Rock of Ages 3: Make & Break (June 2) – PS4, Xbox One, Switch, Stadia, PC – Pre-Order
Pro Cycling Manager 2020 (June 4) – PS4, Xbox One, PC – Pre-Order
Tour de France 2020 (June 4) – PS4, Xbox One, PC – Pre-Order
Clubhouse Games: 51 Worldwide Classics (June 5) – Switch – Pre-Order
Command & Conquer: Remastered Collection (June 5) – PC – Pre-Order
The Outer Worlds (June 5) – Switch – Pre-Order
The Dark Eye: Book of Heroes (June 9) – PC – Pre-Order
The Elder Scrolls Online: Greymoor (June 9) – PS4, Xbox One – Pre-Order
Ys: Memories of Celceta (June 9) – PS4 – Pre-Order
Evan’s Remains (June 11) – PS4, Xbox One, Switch, PC, Mac – Pre-Order
Warborn (June 12) – PS4, Xbox One, Switch, PC, Mac – Pre-Order
Desperados III (June 16) – PS4, Xbox One, PC – Pre-Order
Disintegration (June 16) – PS4, Xbox One, PC – Pre-Order
Burnout Paradise Remastered (June 19) – Switch – Pre-Order
The Last of Us Part II (June 19) – PS4 – Pre-Order
SpongeBob SquarePants: Battle for Bikini Bottom – Rehydrated (June 23) – PS4, Xbox One, Switch, PC – Pre-Order
Ninjala (June 24) – Switch – Pre-Order
Hunting Simulator 2 (June 25) – PS4, Xbox One, PC – Pre-Order
Mr. Driller Drill Land (June 25) – Switch, PC – Pre-Order
Phantom: Covert Ops (June 25) – Rift, Quest – Pre-Order
The Almost Gone (June 25) – Switch, PC, iOS, Android – Pre-Order
Fairy Tail (June 26) – PS4, Switch, PC – Pre-Order
The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III (June 30) – Switch – Pre-Order
Griftlands (TBA) – PC – Pre-Order

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Review: Trials of Mana, Despite Its 3D Makeover, Is Still Stuck in the Past

Its characters already lacked personality, and the 3D makeover is mostly successful at bringing that deficiency into sharper relief.

2

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Trials of Mana
Photo: Square Enix

The original Trials of Mana, released only in Japan as Seiken Densetsu 3, may have been a revelation way back in 1995, and in spite of its underdeveloped villains and trope-laden plot, but no amount of polish can change the fact that the remake feels stubbornly stuck in the past. With Square-Enix’s other April release, Final Fantasy VII Remake, you could see the love and care that went into not just recreating but reevaluating and deepening a classic. By contrast, this remake of Trials of Mana, which was re-released in its original Super Nintendo format as part of last year’s Collection of Mana, is all surface.

The facile nature of this remake is most apparent in the way it sticks to its original structure: You can pick only three of six protagonists at the start, which means that if you want to experience the others, or hear different dialogue combinations, you’ll need to replay an already repetitious game. Actually, you’d have to play through three separate times, as there’s a unique antagonist for each pair of heroes. Choose either Hawkeye, the spry dagger-wielding rogue from the desert thievedom of Nevarl, or Riesz, the tough spear-swinging amazon from the Wind Kingdom of Laurent, and you’ll go up against the Dark Majesty.

The other two evil factions are anticlimactically written out almost entirely off camera around the halfway point, making the whole thing feel rather meaningless. That this narrative is retained, without any embellishments to make each path feel more substantive, is profoundly frustrating, especially when you consider something like 2019’s Resident Evil 2 remake, which successfully differentiated between each protagonist’s overlapping playthrough.

The old Trials of Mana boasted richly textured pixel art and lighting that helped to set it apart from other video games of its era. Now it’s been given a cartoonish 3D makeover that somehow comes across as a flatter, more generic take on the cell-shaded anime adopted by such titles as Ni No Kuni and Dragon Quest, not to mention other Tales entries. The original game’s cast of characters already lacked personality, and the new visual redesign is most successful at bringing that deficiency into sharper relief. It’s an unnecessary makeover designed to brand the game as “new,” which only more starkly calls the old-school conventions into question, especially with key features like co-op play being stripped out of the remake.

That said, the revised combat is competent enough, and the characters boast varied fighting styles, from Hawkeye being able to nimbly leap between foes so as to exploit critical back attacks, to Angela unleashing massive area-of-effect spells from afar, to Kevin shifting into his lycanthropic form in order to literally go full beast-mode on enemies. It’s just a shame that big, splashy class strikes are what the game’s developers lavished the most attention on. Instead of improving the fundamental Trials of Mana experience, the remake just tacks on a moderately challenging but equally underwritten post-game scenario that opens up additional tiers of the core game’s class system, giving each hero a total of nine potential roles.

Would that the dungeons had received similar attention. These are still brief and samey regions that—occasional hazards like momentum-sapping sands or slippery frozen surfaces aside—serve almost exclusively as combat arenas. And the 3D rendering, again, only works to remind one of just how lacking it all feels. At the very least, the remake could have inserted a few new cutscenes to better fill in the motivations of villainous cyphers like the Dragon Lord, who wants to absorb the Mana Tree’s power because, I guess, that’s what bad guys do?

The game is at its best when pitting players against massive, colorful bosses, like pumpkin god Mispolm, who lashes out with scowling gourd-headed vine arms, or ghost ship captain Gova, who swims beneath the surface of his vessel’s wooden deck, popping up to unleash dark matter at you. But you’ll spend the majority of Trials of Mana going up against the same cutesy enemies, particularly in its repetitive, backtrack-heavy second half, where it’s not unusual to face room after room of wide-eyed baby dragons of various elemental types. The whimsy of these creatures with their punny names—the glittering Gold Bulette, the smiling pink Prime Slime, the half-hatched Eggatrice, the adorable Petite Poseidon—quickly dulls from repetition. That’s Trials of Mana in a nutshell: endearing, but not for long.

This game was reviewed using a retail copy purchased by the reviewer.

Developer: Square Enix, Xeen Publisher: Square Enix Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: April 24, 2020 ESRB: E ESRB Descriptions: Mild Cartoon Violence Buy: Game

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Review: John Wick Hex Puts You in a Not-So-Kinetic Baba Yaga’s Shoes

This is a game where the triumphs come from tiny marvels of efficiency and careful planning rather than kinetic skill.

3.5

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John Wick Hex
Photo: Good Shepherd Entertainment

A traditional third-person shooter feels like the logical foundation for a John Wick game. And just like the films, there’s enough going on beneath John Wick Hex’s surface to elevate it above most games where the relentless shooting is the only point. The latest from developer Mike Bithell both functions as an opportunity to embody the Baba Yaga at his most unrelenting and as a deconstruction of everything about how he operates while he’s on the job. Nonetheless, while there’s immense value to this approach, there’s also a nagging sense that John Wick has lost something in the transition from the big screen.

It helps that John Wick Hex managed to find a narrative conceit to divorce itself from the ongoing narrative of the films. The game takes place some years before John Wick met his wife and left the murder business behind. A supercriminal named Hex (voiced by Troy Baker) has kidnapped Winston and Charon (Ian McShane and Lance Reddick, respectively) from the Continental Hotel, putting High Table’s power in check, and John—sporting Keanu’s likeness but not his voice—has been sent on a globe-trotting mission to take out Hex’s network of underlings before coming for the man himself at the Continental. Freed of the ongoing pressure of the films to find new ways to keep John tied to his former life, the game’s narrative is instead something of a running conversation between these three powerful figures on the forces that put John in that position to begin with. It’s not pushing a new twist to the narrative, but it works to give us a new appreciation of what’s already there.

That ethos also applies to the gameplay, which eschews the immediate thrills of a twitchy first- or third-person shooter for the constant deliberation of a grid-based strategy game. The lifeblood of it all is the timeline, stretching across the top of the screen, representing how long it will take John and any enemies in range to complete their actions. The key to everything is being able to take enemies off the board before they get a chance to react, and players get all the time they need to coordinate the exact dance of death required to eliminate everyone in range without taking hits. Both ammunition and health are scarce commodities, which also factor into the budget, as does Focus, the stamina stat required to pull off physical maneuvers such as close-quarters combat and rolling. Two shots from a gun will kill most enemies, but will that leave you short on bullets and too far away when other enemies come into view?

As a translation of all the things we know John Wick has done, the game is a weak facsimile. The cel-shaded minimalist noir art style is reminiscent of Suda 51’s brilliantly subversive Killer7, but the game’s minimalism results in the loss of visual stimulus we associate with the John Wick universe. There’s only so many times you can watch John perform the same judo flip to take down close enemies before you start wanting for something more impactful, given the much more innovative and diverse range of combat arts we see him utilize on the big screen.

Indeed, we never see the same takedown twice in any of the films, and it doesn’t seem like it would have taken much for this game’s engine to replicate that lack of redundancy. While landing shots with a gun feels suitably punchy, more often than not, the sheer kinetics of every stage feels more like a studio pre-visualization of a fight scene from the films than the definitive experience that allows you to inhabit a hitman at his most unstoppable. Even when, at the end of each stage, you get a stitched together composite of your run, without the pauses to sift through your menus and select options, the game comes off as cinematically broken.

There are games out there that deliver that experience on a gameplay level, most notably Superhot. John Wick Hex approaches that game’s design ethos of time moving when you do from the opposite direction: as a strategy game executed with action-movie sensibilities, where thought and deliberation can be strung together to create scenarios where your opponents don’t even get the chance to fire back. Every action costs more than just the wherewithal to press the right button at the right time. This is a game where the triumphs come from tiny marvels of efficiency and careful planning rather than kinetic skill.

Developer: Bithell Studios Publisher: Good Shepherd Entertainment Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: May 5, 2020 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood, Strong Language, Violence Buy: Game

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Review: Cloudpunk Tediously Coasts on Its Devotion to Cyberpunk

For Cloudpunk, hardship is merely the wallpaper for a pretty yet thinly conceived gaming experience.

2.5

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Cloudpunk
Photo: Ion Lands

Nivalis is a sprawling, futuristic metropolis, its skies crowded with flying cars, massive structures, and neon billboards soaked by a never-ending downpour. Its streets are populated by malfunctioning androids and humans with cybernetic implants quickly going out of date. Which is to say, Cloudpunk is certainly conspicuous about its devotion to cyberpunk. As Rania, a driver for the illicit delivery service that gives the game its title, you’ll consistently run into one staple of the genre after another. But beyond its impressive sense of place, few other aspects of the game feel nearly as considered and complex.

Much of Cloudpunk is dedicated to serving up that most familiar of sci-fi images: vehicles flying across a city skyline according to totally inscrutable traffic laws. And for as much time as you spend on the “roads” of Nivalis, traveling them doesn’t make the rules any more coherent. Beyond certain altitude limitations, you’re largely free to drive your vehicle, called a HOVA, wherever it will fit and at whatever height will help avoid collisions. Highways with speed boosts are more of a suggestion than a requirement, since you can take shortcuts by bobbing and weaving between the spires, the skyscrapers, and the neon signage. And if you crash, well, that’s okay, too, as the only real penalty is a rather lenient repair bill.

Not that you have much incentive to drive quickly. Despite its intimidating setting, Cloudpunk is incongruously easygoing. Its missions have no time constraints, with many of them largely designed as jumping-off points for absurdly ponderous conversations. These exchanges are all long enough to feel like some kind of bizarre punishment for reaching a destination too quickly, given how often you may find yourself sitting and waiting a minute or two for the voice-acted dialogue to finish up. Sometimes the game’s talkiness even holds up the start of a mission, leaving you hovering idly inside your HOVA until the game finally reaches the point in the dialogue that tells you where to go. Though areas you traverse on foot include shops and side characters, you often can’t access either one because the dialogue is still prattling on.

Nivalis has its share of amusing details, like an entire building of androids named “Anderson” or an elevator convinced that it eats people. Which makes it a pity that so many of Cloudpunk’s baffling design choices sap the game of any momentum, mainly by conflicting with the story’s overtures about struggling under the boot of tyrannical corporations. Rania is meant to be fighting against debt, to the point where she once had to sell the body of her robotic dog, Camus, for cash and has nowhere else to house his AI except inside her HOVA. A game like Neo Cab may not have an intricate city at its center, but it uses gas and lodging to approximate the desperation of a bad job that doesn’t pay enough much more effectively than the rather negligible repair and fuel costs across Nivalis. In fact, you’re less likely to run out of funds than end up with more than you know what to do with. For Cloudpunk, hardship is merely the wallpaper for a pretty yet thinly conceived gaming experience.

The game was reviewed using a review code provided by Future Friends Games.

Developer: Ion Lands Publisher: Ion Lands Platform: PC Release Date: April 23, 2020 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Drug Reference, Strong Language Buy: Game

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Review: Streets of Rage 4 Hits Hard and Soars by Looking to the Past

It’s the best kind of retro throwback, reminding us how hard these kinds of games could hit.

4

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Streets of Rage 4
Photo: Sega

With side-scrolling beat ‘em ups quietly enjoying a renaissance, it was a matter of when, not if, Streets of Rage would make a comeback. And like Sonic Mania before it, Streets of Rage 4 suggests that Sega knew that the best way forward for the series was to look to the past. Indeed, this game feels as if it’s taking care of unfinished business, as it doesn’t chase modern glory in order to prove itself. In short, Streets of Rage 4 is the gratifying sequel that fans of the iconic series should have gotten 20 years ago.

The game is set 10 years after the events of the divisive Streets of Rage 3. Series baddie Mr. X is now dead and his two silver-haired children have taken over the family business, letting street gangs run amok, buying off the police force, and amassing incredible amounts of stolen wealth. But standing in their way, as always, are ex-cops Axel Stone and Blaze Fielding. They’re also joined by series favorite Adam Hunter, his hard-rocker daughter, Cherry, and wrestler Floyd Iraia, the newest cyborg creation of Streets of Rage 3’s Dr. Gilbert Zan.

Visually, Streets of Rage 4 diverges from the Sega Genesis-era dance-club aesthetic of prior games in the series, adopting a hand-drawn animation style straight out of a graphic novel, recalling another Genesis beat ‘em up, the wildly ambitious Comix Zone, in the process. The game’s art style manages to hold onto a lot of the urban roughness that has always defined the titles in the series, while also managing to heighten the wilder flights of fancy when it comes to eclectic enemies and the characters’ special moves. All of these elements feel more at home here than they would have if Streets of Rage had suddenly decided to ape Max Payne.

As in the prior games in the series, the soundtrack goes a long way toward elevating Streets of Rage 4 above its pulpier elements. Beginning with 1991’s Streets of Rage, composer Yuzo Koshiro has been integral to the success of these games, infusing ‘90s dancehall beats, jazz, R&B, and 80’s-action-film ambience into his scores, grounding the games in a modern, urban soundscape even as the content took itself less seriously. The same heavy lifting is on display here, though Koshiro is only one of a half-dozen composers responsible for the soundtrack. If nowhere else, Streets of Rage has very much been brought up to modern standards with this release, with an EDM/hip-hop-infused soundtrack that could be playing out of a tent at Coachella at three in the morning, and without ever feeling out of place.

Otherwise, Streets of Rage 4 is mostly business as usual for the series, with players needing to walk left to right and smack the hell out of anyone in their path. The vast majority of enemies are cut and pasted from the prior two entries in the series, but the core combat still feels impactful, with success relying on getting close enough to enemies and maximizing the opportunity to inflict incredible amounts of screen-shaking, window-breaking damage.

In the end, there are only a couple of new elements thrown into the mix: enemies can be juggled in mid-air through combos, each character has a flashy new area-of-effect special move that can clear a room, and a bit of lost health can be regained by fighting without taking new damage. Those are welcome additions, but they don’t represent a fundamental shift in how you play the game. Of course, that’s not necessarily a complaint, especially given that Streets of Rage 3 represents the last time this series strayed too far from a winning formula.

What that ultimately means is that all of this game’s strengths and weaknesses are largely the same as those of Streets of Rage 2, the series’s strongest entry. Though Cherry and Floyd are well-designed—Cherry in particular is the kind of character people of color don’t usually get to inhabit—there’s no denying that they’re basically Skate and Max from Streets of Rage 2 but with a fresh coat of paint and one or two new moves. The surprises here lie mostly in some imaginative art direction; for one, an art museum halfway through the game takes some fun liberties with item placement, not to mention item validity. A riot at a police station with corrupt cops facing escaped criminals is impressively executed, even if it represents a kinetic peak that the game doesn’t quite replicate again until the last two or three stages. Nonetheless, what Streets of Rage 4 lacks in ambition, it makes up in attitude and style. It’s the best kind of retro throwback, reminding us how hard these kinds of games could hit.

The game was reviewed using a review code provided by Tinsley PR.

Developer: DotEmu, Lizardcube, Guard Crush Games Publisher: Sega Platform: PC Release Date: April 30, 2020 ESRB: T ESRB Descriptions: Cartoon Violence, Mild Language, Mild Suggestive Themes Buy: Game

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