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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: Daryl Duke’s The Silent Partner on Kino Lorber Blu-ray

Kino’s release should help bring new eyes to this wonderfully offbeat Canadian thriller.

3.5

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The Silent Partner

In Daryl Duke’s The Silent Partner, Elliott Gould plays against type as Miles Cullen, a mild-mannered bank teller who spends his free time collecting exotic fish and practicing chess moves at home. There’s nary a trace of Gould’s typically acerbic wit or effortless charisma to be found in the listless Miles. In fact, he’s so unthreatening that he’s often tasked with escorting his boss’s (Michael Kirby) mistress, Julie (Susannah York)—a co-worker on whom he has an incurable crush—around town just to cover for him. Like everyone else working at the tiny bank branch housed in a gloriously gaudy, era-specific Toronto mall, Julie also grossly underestimates Miles, refusing his advances and describing him to a new co-worker who shows a fleeting interest in him as “less than the sum of his parts.”

Appearances, though, turn out to be quite deceiving. And as Miles quietly susses out an impending robbery by Harry Reikle (Christopher Plummer), the shady character who’s been scouting the bank incognito as the mall’s Santa Claus, the threat ignites in him excitement rather than fear or apprehension. Curtis Hanson’s sharply written screenplay initially appears to be priming us for a high-stakes heist, but after Miles concocts an ingenious plan that allows him to keep the bulk of the loot for himself while laying the blame on Reikle, the film transforms into psychologically complex and sexually charged game of cat and mouse.

The Silent Partner playfully toys with the tropes of the thriller genre, counterbalancing its escalating tension and sense of impending violence with a dark humor and offbeat romanticism that accompanies Miles’s growth into a more fearless, and eventually arrogant, man. It’s a tricky tonal balance that, at times, recalls Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild, especially in the surprising ways its dopey male protagonist copes with his impending collision with a relentlessly sadistic psychopath. Though Duke’s film lacks the warmth and humanism of Something Wild, it’s possessed of a similarly idiosyncratic edginess.

The Silent Partner’s pageant of perverse sexuality, betrayals, and fluid identities eventually takes Miles into darker, pulpier realms, particularly in the shockingly brutal third act. And the film is particularly fascinating in the ways it connects his subtly shifting persona to that of the terrifying Reikle, who draws the once tightly wound teller out of his dull, conservative shell to realize his full potential as something of a neurotic Übermensch. Both men have a woman in their life, but it’s their intense, increasingly obsessive draw to one another that ultimately stirs up far more trouble than the once tightly wound Miles could ever have imagined.

Image/Sound

Kino Lorber’s transfer gets off to a pretty rough start throughout the first reel of the film, which features murky colors, some rather noticeable film damage, and an exceedingly soft image that suggests something off an early-era DVD. Thankfully, after those first 10 minutes, the image quality sharpens significantly and the color balancing evens out, with primary colors, particularly the red of Christopher Plummer’s Santa costume, really popping. The grain, which is distractingly excessive in the early stretches, is also toned down to a healthy amount, giving the image the soft-textured look one expects from a ‘70s film shot on location. The sound is nothing beyond serviceable, but the dialogue is fairly clean and only hampered occasionally by the ambient background noise of chatter throughout the mall.

Extras

The commentary track with film historians Howard S. Berger, Steve Mitchell, and Nathaniel Thompson strikes a nice balance between three colleagues casually discussing a film they all love and a more disciplined, academic grappling with the script’s rich, hypersexual subtext. The homoerotic tension between Elliot Gould and Plummer’s characters is exhaustively covered, but there are a number of other keen observations made about the film’s more subtle qualities, such as its commentary on workplace hierarchies and the breakdown of identity in the face of middle-class conformity. The only other extra included is an interview with a somnambulistic Gould, who fondly remembers working with Plummer, Susannah York, and director Daryl Duke, but offers little of substance beyond his random reminiscences.

Overall

Kino Lorber’s serviceable release of The Silent Partner should help bring new eyes to Daryl Duke’s wonderfully offbeat Canadian thriller.

Cast: Elliott Gould, Christopher Plummer, Susannah York, Céline Lomez, Michael Kirby, Sean Sullivan, Ken Pogue, John Candy, Nuala Fitzgerald Director: Daryl Duke Screenwriter: Curtis Hanson Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 106 min Rating: R Year: 1978 Release Date: June 18, 2019 Buy: Video

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Review: The Buster Keaton Collection: Volume 1 on Cohen Media Group Blu-ray

This Blu-ray release of two of Keaton’s greatest films does justice to the silent comedian’s visual genius.

3.5

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The Buster Keaton Collection: Volume 1

A Buster Keaton creation that combines the classic form of his earlier man-on-a-quest comedies with the visual heft of a Civil War epic, The General isn’t likely to be the favorite opus of the star’s purist fans, but it’s the one with the trappings of ambition and historical poesy. The melancholy behind Keaton’s comedy, visible in his lionized Great Stone Face, is a natural match with his Johnnie Gray, a railroad engineer and Southern everyman who becomes a hero of the lost cause after being rejected for military service on the basis of his vital profession. (The film does no propagandizing for the Confederacy; in the interests of making the story—loosely based on an actual 1862 incident—that of an underdog, Keaton felt his hero had to be a Southerner.) Still an iconic clown with an unsmiling sense of purpose, Buster the actor-filmmaker-stuntman makes the context work; in this singular larger canvas, he takes over the War Between the States.

Johnnie not only suffers from feelings of inadequacy as a result of the army rejecting him without an explanation, but also from the sting of being dismissed by his fiancée, Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack), for being a coward (she’s unaware that he tried to enlist). He then responds to the theft of his titular locomotive by Union raiders with a one-man campaign to recapture it that forms the entire second movement of The General. Running down the track toward the horizon, then by handcar, bicycle, and finally by newly appropriated locomotive, his chase is one of frenzied resourcefulness and experimentation. Keaton measuring gunpowder in his hand as if it were salt for a piecrust is just as indelible as his riding on the front of the steam engine’s cowcatcher, knocking saboteurs’ planks off the railway.

It’s the film’s symmetrical chase framework—engineer Johnnie’s pursuit, then his retaking of the General and flight to warn the South of an imminent Union attack—that makes a lovely visual match with Buster’s paradoxical physicality: the deadpan man in perpetual motion. The early scene of Keaton, after being dumped by the belle, sitting heedlessly desolate on a train axle as it rotates him slowly through space, is a sublime hint of what’s ahead; through mechanically powered heroism, he must recover his two loves, the girl and the locomotive. (Even when he presents his intended with a photo, it’s of himself stolidly posed in front of her wood-burning rival.) Mack’s plucky but bird-brained sweetie—idealized in one “cameo” shot when the engineer, hiding, stares at her through a cigar burn in a tablecloth—takes time during their escape run to sweep out the engineer’s cab and toss out needed firewood whenever she finds a knothole (Keaton lunges to choke her but swiftly improvises a kiss).

In staging a mammothly expensive railroad bridge disaster near the climax, Keaton and co-director Clyde Bruckman impress not only with the scene’s pyrotechnics and dramatic impact, but the comic reaction shot of a nonplussed Union commander. The General affirms the star’s unflappable heroic persona in more unfamiliar and solemn circumstances than lesser comedians have dared. If it doesn’t possess the same otherworldliness and surrealistic flair of The Navigator, Cops, or Sherlock Jr., its marriage of reliably brilliant clowning with a simulacrum of the Great Conflict (still a living memory for its original audience’s older members) lacks the self-importance and pretension that usually hobbles history represented on film. Keaton was no purist, and he cited the film as his personal favorite.

The capper of Keaton’s final independent production, Steamboat Bill, Jr.’s climactic cyclone sequence provides some of the most iconic images of its visionary creator. Awaking in a hospital to discover that a storm has lifted the walls and roof of the building away, Keaton and his bed are blown through the streets and into a stable. Then, in the street, he struggles headlong against the wind, crouching and leaping into it like a souped-up, literalized version of the familiar pantomime cliché. Finally, taking refuge in a theater, he eerily encounters the gaze of a ventriloquist’s dummy and the trickery of a magician’s “vanishing” platform.

Most indelibly, he stands frozen, pondering his next move, as the full façade of a house topples over him, crashing with unsimulated force and sparing Keaton’s Willie Canfield as its upper window neatly and harmlessly frames him. (A spectacular refinement of an older Keaton gag, it caused his camera operator to look away in fear.) This finale, concluding with the star’s typical redemptive heroics, is among the most happily realized expressions of the central motif found amid his immaculately choreographed slapstick: a lone young man rising to battle human and natural obstacles with balletic, kinetic energy.

Steamboat Bill, Jr. also features Keaton’s strongest treatment of father-son relations, as his freshly graduated twit arrives in a Mississippi River town from Boston with a foppish mustache, beret, and ukulele, appalling his two-fisted father, William “Steamboat Bill” Canfield (towering, flinty Ernest Torrence). The grizzled pop is in danger of losing business for his rustbucket paddleboat to the sleek new steamer of his hated rival, whose daughter happens to be Junior’s classmate and potential life-mate (16-year-old Marion Byron, peppy and cute, but sort of an afterthought compared to other love interests in Buster’s oeuvre).

It’s Bill Sr.’s efforts to masculinize his dubious heir that make up a sizable chunk of the plot, from a rapid-fire store scene where Keaton reacts to being lidded with a dozen hats—including a glimpse of his otherwise absent trademark porkpie—to the slovenly Steamboat Bill’s slow burn when the lad boards his boat for work, snappily outfitted like an officer of the Titanic. In the film’s most sustained comic set piece before the windstorm, Willie attempts to smuggle a saw via a loaf of bread to his jailed father, and the series of gags and reversals finds Bill walking back into custody in solidarity with his son. The familial theme has an affecting emotional undertow that’s never heavy-handed.

If Steamboat Bill, Jr. is Class 1A among Keaton’s prime work rather than top-shelf (like his previous seacraft-set The Navigator), its concluding 15-minute showstopper is a high watermark in imaginative, exhilarating entertainment. Audiences or lone viewers are more apt to open their mouths in astonishment than laughter, both at the audacious stuntwork and the odd, forbidding universe created by this placid, soon-to-decline Kansas vaudevillian. Like The General, it was a box-office flop, and Keaton’s move to MGM the following year meant a loss of control over his work, but the first dozen years of his filmmaking career produced uncannily conjured works by an artist with few peers in American cinema.

Image/Sound

Both films are presented here in new 4K restorations. The higher level of detail visible across both films is welcome, and allows for a fuller appreciation of Buster Keaton’s precise use of the frame. There’s a small amount of flickering in the images of Steamboat Bill, Jr., but this appears to be an effect of aged filmstock, while The General exhibits sharper contrast throughout. Carl Davies composed the full orchestral scores that accompany both films on this disc. Each of them is a rich and varied score, available as a DTS-HD stereo or 5.1 mix. The latter is particularly engrossing for the way it captures reverb effects on the back channels, conveying an expansive sense of space.

Extras

“Reflections on The General” and “Buster Keaton: The Luminary” are five-minute compilations of interviews with an assortment of film heavies (Ben Mankiewicz, Quentin Tarantino, Leonard Malton, and Bill Hader, among others) about Keaton and his influence. Both conclude by imploring viewers to purchase Cohen Media Group’s Blu-ray release of Peter Bogdanovich’s The Great Buster: A Celebration in order to see the complete interviews. These barely glorified commercials are accompanied by two more commercials: trailers for the theatrical release of the two films’ respective restorations. The accompanying booklet contains a few stills from the films but no essay—or much text at all, other than a chapter listing for both films and (befuddlingly) an abbreviated cast and crew list for Steamboat Bill, Jr. only.

Overall

This Blu-ray release of two of Buster Keaton’s greatest films does justice to the silent comedian’s visual genius, but its nominal extras are little more than advertisements.

Cast: Buster Keaton, Marion Mack, Glen Cavender, Jim Farley, Frederick Vroom, Charles Henry Smith, Ernest Torrence, Marion Byron, Tom McGuire, Tom Lewis Director: Buster Keaton, Clyde Bruckman, Charles Reisner Screenwriter: Buster Keaton, Clyde Bruckman Distributor: Cohen Media Group Running Time: 148 min Rating: NR Year: 1926 - 1928 Release Date: May 14, 2019 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: George Stevens’s Swing Time on the Criterion Collection

Criterion offers a lovely transfer of one of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers’s most enduring films.

4.5

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Swing Time

The maddening joke of 1936’s Swing Time is the effort it takes for Fred Astaire to dance with Ginger Rogers. Director George Stevens and his various collaborators—including screenwriters Howard Lindsay and Allan Scott and legendary songwriters Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields—knew that the audience wanted to experience the bliss of watching one of cinema’s most ideally matched pairs move. But as romantic comedies continue to teach us, part of the pleasure of coitus resides in interruptus. Astaire and Rogers are icons who must be first humbled by the strictures of three-act plotting, which comes to mirror the petty irritations that stymie our own lives. In this context, an Astaire and Rogers duet isn’t only technically audacious, it suggests catharsis—a leap from the banal everyday into transcendence.

Swing Time has some of Astaire and Rogers’s mightiest set pieces, which are intertwined to reflect their characters’ evolving relationship. Early in the film, Lucky (Astaire) tricks Penny (Rogers) into believing that he can’t dance, showing up at the institute that employs her pretending to be a klutz. She tries to teach him a three-step move, inspiring him to tease her with pratfalls. (Astaire falling over is more graceful than most of us dancing.) When he finally decides to turn on the juice, he twirls Penny with peerless precision to the number “Pick Yourself Up,” perfecting the three-step move, their bodies gliding through the dance hall like pendulums as they intuitively bridge swing with tap, polka, and ballroom dancing.

And as Lucky and Penny dance, a farce blossoms into romance, and a recurring pattern is subtly established. The swing gesture of this routine, with Astaire and Rogers alternately twirling one another and performing intricate solos, is laced into the subsequent numbers. Many dances also end with the duo spinning off a given stage, which comes to signal either the salvaging or the dissolution of Lucky and Penny’s romance.

This number is even more exhilarating for the fact that it takes the film nearly 30 minutes to unleash it. In the first act, Stevens and his collaborators build a magnificent tension, teasing the audience. For an Astaire and Rogers film, Swing Time has an unusually involved, almost free-associational plot that suggests what might happen if every 1930s-era screwball comedy and crime caper had been thrown into a mixer. At the film’s opening, Lucky is to be married to Margaret (Betty Furness), which inspires Lucky’s fellow song-and-dance men to stage a remarkably mean-spirited ruse that ruins the ceremony. Trying to patch things up with Margaret’s father, Judge Watson (Landers Stevens, the director’s father), Lucky promises to go to New York City and make a man out of himself, which the judge values at $25,000. The song-and-dance men also screw up this plan, and Lucky hitches a ride on the back of a train, clad in tux, with his Sancho Panza-like friend, Pop (Victor Moore), in tow.

Scene by scene, the plot makes little sense, and at times this seems to be a deliberate, and effective, means of deriving comedy. The ease with which Lucky changes the judge’s mind over an arbitrary figure is resonantly funny, evoking the patriarchy with which Margaret and especially Penny must contend, and the judge’s hypocrisy is capped off with a sharp sight gag: a portrait of the man, initially frowning, is smiling once father and suitor have brokered a deal. This notion of unfairly wielded male power is revisited soon again when Penny reports a theft to a cop, who sides with the well-dressed male perpetrator, Lucky. And the plot continues to pivot on elaborate, also intertwined deceptions, in which Lucky and Penny must appeal to influential and unappealing men so that they may dance. At times, Swing Time may remind contemporary viewers of a video game, in which prized footage must be “unlocked.”

The elegance of Stevens’s direction is most evident in the attention that’s paid to the characters even in the film’s most ludicrous stretches. Lucky, Penny, Pop, and Penny’s friend, Mabel (Helen Broderick), are moving archetypes that embody the fantasy of America as a place where people can pull themselves up by the so-called bootstraps, conning their way into the upper echelons of society—an especially appealing fantasy during the Depression, when the screwball comedy’s conventions were cemented. Stevens spryly stages Lucky and Penny’s courtships and breakups, though he doesn’t give these scenes the subterranean emotional charge that an Ernst Lubitsch might have. Stevens values speed, racing through the script to get to the film’s reasons for existing, and the scruffiness of the romantic comedy contrasts likeably with the mathematical brilliance of the dance sequences.

For most films, “Pick Yourself Up” might be a show-stopping climax, but for Swing Time it’s the aperitif for set pieces of escalating intensity, in which Astaire and his choreographer, Hermes Pan, stretch the boundaries of their formalist imaginations. “Waltz in Swing Time” suggests a furious riff on “Pick Yourself Up,” with Astaire and Rogers elaborating on the latter’s swing motif with more pointedly syncopated solos that morph into duets. “Bojangles of Harlem” stops the film in its tracks, opening with nasty iconography as a prop modeled after a minstrel version of, presumably, Bill Robinson opens to reveal Astaire in blackface, presiding over a throne with giant legs and feet protruding out from him.

What follows is one of the most astonishing dances in the history of cinema, in which Astaire moves with 24 chorus dancers, who break up into trios before reuniting in a single vast line, allowing Astaire to partner with all of them simultaneously before moving on to a different set piece in which he out-dances a trio of shadows of himself. In these shockingly obsessive and insular sequences, Astaire pushes his co-stars aside to plumb the outer reaches of his own talent, and his angular, demonic racial caricature has undeniable force.

For a while, “Lucky” is forgotten, as Astaire is channeling, probably both intentionally and inadvertently, the perverse America that resides underneath the screwball musical’s Horatio Alger myths. And Astaire’s self-absorption is only partially exorcised by “Never Gonna Dance,” in which Lucky attempts to win Penny back on a deserted stage with a double winding staircase, their movements disconnectedly echoing one another’s in a haunting physicalizing of loneliness and heartbreak. At the end of the song, they reunite for a pained spinning gesture that explodes the emotion of the set piece, visualizing a failed stab at reconciliation.

Astaire and Rogers’s dances are as difficult to evoke in theory as jazz, as both arts can be described in technical terms that fail to honor their profound emotional power. Astaire holding Rogers in his hands and arms suggests a grace for which many of us yearn—an ability to fully express a sense of belonging or of disenchantment with a lover. The plots of Astaire and Rogers’s films, though often amusing, are irrelevant, aside from serving as a contrasting mechanism in relation to the dances. As actors, Astaire and Rogers are tasked with performing formulaic romantic melodramas; as dancers, they embody the deepest and most ineffable, beautiful, and disruptive stirrings of the soul.

Image/Sound

The image here is often pristine, particularly in the wide shots of the fabulous sets. In these compositions, the blacks are rich and the whites really pop. Facial textures are occasionally soft and the details of the costumes are sometimes a bit vaguer than one would prefer, though neither of these issues are deal breakers. The monaural soundtrack, however, is positively dynamic, rendering the Dorothy Fields and Jerome Kern songs (all now standards of the American songbook) with piercing clarity and nuance. The same can be said of the presentation of the score at large, as well as, perhaps most importantly, the visceral machine-gun tapping of Astaire and Rogers’s shoes.

Extras

This Criterion Collection’s release of Swing Time balances archive supplements with new features, providing a rich examination of both the technical marvels and the social implications of Stevens’s film. A 1986 audio commentary by John Mueller, author of Astaire Dancing: The Musical Films, is a stunningly detailed examination of the film’s dance sequences, explaining Astaire and choreographer Hermes Pan’s working methods, and how these were folded into the production at large. Complementing this commentary are other older interviews with Astaire, Rogers, Pan, and George Stevens Jr. Some of these interviews are mere snippets, but they offer a piece of the living history that Mueller discusses.

Produced for Criterion in 2019, “Full Swing” features jazz and film critic Gary Giddins, dance critic Brian Seibert, and Dorothy Fields biographer Deborah Grace Winer. This program isn’t as exhaustively technical as Mueller’s commentary, but it offers a full portrait of the major collaborations that drove Swing Time, Astaire and Rogers’s sixth collaboration, and even some of their other films. The dancing, songwriting, screenwriting, and direction are all discussed, refuting the notion of filmmaking as the act of a single conjurer.

Meanwhile, a new interview with film scholar Mia Mask directly confronts the troubling racial implications of the “Bojangles of Harlem” number—a subject everyone else on this disc more or less skirts. Mask offers a primer on the history of minstrelsy in America, discussing its roots in the ridiculing of slaves and connecting this legacy to Bill Robeson’s transcendent showbiz career and to Astaire’s “erasure” of Robeson in Swing Time. Mask offers an incisive and wide-reaching work of criticism in only a handful of minutes, contextualizing the exploitation that powered even our most beloved entertainments. A booklet featuring a characteristically lovely and erudite essay by critic Imogen Sara Smith rounds out the disc.

Overall

Criterion offers a lovely transfer of one of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers’s most enduring films, complete with a well-detailed and occasionally tough supplements package.

Cast: Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Victor Moore, Helen Broderick, Betty Furness, Eric Blore, Georges Metaxa, Landers Stevens Director: George Stevens Screenwriter: Howard Lindsay, Allan Scott Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 103 min Rating: NR Year: 1936 Release Date: June 11, 2019 Buy: Video

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Review: Paul Leni’s The Last Warning on Flicker Alley Blu-ray

The film’s debt to Universal’s The Phantom of the Opera cannot be overstated.

3.5

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The Last Warning

One of the last entirely silent films of its era, Paul Leni’s The Last Warning stars Laura La Plante as Doris Terry, a Broadway actress who finds herself in the middle of a murder mystery. An attempt to capitalize on the success of 1927’s The Cat and the Canary, Leni and La Plante’s first horror collaboration, The Last Warning plays like Universal’s curtain call to a certain stripe of horror movie that would be supplanted by their iconic monsters of the early talkies.

The Last Warning is an amusing, if clunkily structured, affair revolving around the unsolved murder of a theater company’s leading man that took place during an on-stage theatrical performance. While the bulk of the film’s action takes place years after that fateful performance, with the theater company reconvening to try and finally resolve the actor’s murder, a significant amount of real estate is taken up at the start by a lengthy and mostly unnecessary introduction of the company’s actors and crew, including Doris, actor Harvey Carleton (Roy D’Arcy), and director Richard Quayle (John Boles).

As was typical of how female stars were conceived within genre-oriented studio films of the era, The Last Warning sees La Plante less as a flesh-and-blood woman than as an icon of vulnerability and fear. Leni’s close-ups of this leading lady are essentially opportunities for her to make a show of Doris’s various states of fear, confusion, and suspiciousness. And the woman’s suspicion is most evident in scenes where the story deliberately positions her as one of the prime suspects. But it’s clear that this tactic is a red herring. After all, to make the top-billed heroine of a silent-era studio picture a killer would not merely deviate from convention, but dismantle it, and the film is nothing if not married to convention.

Indeed, the film as a whole is too geared to its rather routine whodunit plot, which at various points flirts with the supernatural without every fully committing to it. At the behest of the company’s producer, Mike Brody (Bert Roach), and the theater’s new owner, Arthur McHugh (Montagu Love), the company decides to not only reenact the performance from the night of John Woodford’s (D’Arcy Corrigan) murder five years prior, but to put on the show for a paying audience. Alas, these flatly ridiculous story choices don’t lead to any particularly terrifying moments, as they’re mostly a jumping-off point for Leni to have a little bit of fun with shadows in order to suggest that the dead actor’s ghost might be haunting the theater.

The film’s debt to Universal’s The Phantom of the Opera cannot be overstated, though Leni finally plays against the pathos of the 1925 film’s sentimentality with a sequence involving a masked killer that plays more like a prototype for the Italian gialli films of the 1960s and beyond. It’s only at the climax that The Last Warning embraces genuine thrills, as the killer, a member of the production crew, sets out to murder again. If the whole of the plot proves rather thin by the time the perp is unveiled, that impression is leavened at times by Leni’s visual choices. Most notable is the moment—so kinetic in its sense of terror and play—when Barbara Morgan (Carrie Daumery), an elderly actress with the theater company, leaps from atop the stage and plummets to the ground, with the camera taking on her POV.

Image/Sound

Although the image has been struck from a 4K restoration, the visible deterioration and scratches on display suggest that the film’s negative was beyond economical repair. Still, the damage isn’t so bad that it prevents our enjoyment of The Last Warning, and, to be fair, the less damaged footage does give us a rather sparkling sense of what the film must have looked like during its initial run. Arthur Barrow’s newly recorded score, which vacillates throughout between the lightest and darkest of notes, sounds robust on the DTS-HD audio track.

Extras

The only extra of substance is a 10-minute visual essay by film historian John Soister on the film’s significance within Paul Leni’s filmography. The Last Warning was to be Leni’s final work, as he died from blood poisoning less than a year after its release. There’s also an image gallery with some intriguing scans of vintage promotional materials and production stills from the film’s initial run, an essay excerpt titled “Of Gods and Monsters” from Soister’s book of the same name, and a short essay by composer Arthur Barrow on his score for the film.

Overall

Less scary and innovative than modestly amusing, Paul Leni’s 1928 whodunit receives a new 4K restoration, utilizing the best available elements, from Flicker Alley.

Cast: Laura La Plante, Montagu Love, Roy D’Arcy, Margaret Livingston, John Boles, Bert Roach, Carrie Daumery, Burr McIntosh, D’Arcy Corrigan Director: Paul Leni Screenwriter: Alfred A. Cohn, Tom Reed Distributor: Flicker Alley Running Time: 78 min Rating: NR Year: 1928 Release Date: June 4, 2019 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: William Wyler’s The Heiress on the Criterion Collection

Criterion’s release excellently preserves William Wyler’s psychologically probing masterwork.

4

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The Heiress

William Wyler’s The Heiress demonstrates the filmmaker’s keen eye for composition as a means of enhancing his actors’ performances. The spectacularly ornate home at the center of the film is befitting of the considerably wealthy Austin Sloper (Ralph Richardson). Yet the ample space left between objects in a room hints at a hollow, impersonal atmosphere that envelops Austin’s unwed daughter, Catherine (Olivia de Havilland). A plain, naïve, and shy young woman, Catherine comes across as a woman so socially awkward and insecure that the coldness of the family home seems comforting compared to the world outside.

Despite Catherine’s shyness, the young woman does want to socialize, and she accompanies her father one night to a party where she meets Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift), the son of a local family in the Sloper’s aristocratic circle whose profligate spending has already decimated his inheritance. If Catherine’s array of nervous tics—widened eyes, reflexive but forced smiles—alienate her from others, Morris’s magnetism is such that everyone is drawn to him. He takes a keen interest in Catherine and effortlessly carries the conversation when she gets flustered and doesn’t know what to say.

De Havilland, who won an Oscar for her performance here, painstakingly captures Catherine’s manic, disbelieving glee at seeing a man talk to her, and in this moment, the camera moves more than it does for the remainder of The Heiress, not only in sync with the dancing at the party, but with Catherine’s sudden rush of infatuation. Morris thoroughly charms her and even puts on a face of mock dejection when a drunken old man cuts in for a dance, and when he calls on Catherine the next day, their courtship turns into an engagement in short order.

Catherine’s impending nuptials should be wonderful news for Austin, who’s struggled to find a suitor for his child, but he rejects the union on the grounds that he believes that no man as handsome and suave as Morris could possibly be interested in his dull, homely daughter, and as such must simply want her for her inheritance. The disdain that Austin reveals for Catherine shocks her to the core, and to make matters worse, her father may be right about Morris. The dual blow of discovering that the men in her life see her largely as an object is shattering, and if Wyler’s mostly static compositions first communicated her introversion, slowly they come to reflect her abject misery. Some shots endure for so long that you can almost see as Catherine’s sorrow and humiliation harden into bitterness in real time.

Wyler’s willingness to set up a shot with exacting formal precision, then cede prominence to the actors who move within the space of the frame, results in a multivalent study of not only the story’s characters, but of the classic Hollywood era’s markedly different styles of acting. Richardson portrays even Austin’s more subtle gestures of contemptuousness with the most theatrical of cadences. Elsewhere, Clift’s facility with intoxicating yet repellent characters stresses the ambiguity of Morris’s devotion, and the longer any of Morris’s scenes last, the harder it is to tell whether he’s manipulating Catherine or genuinely interested in her. There’s even the character-actress bawdiness that Miriam Hopkins brings to Catherine’s widowed aunt, whose genuine affection for her niece belies her own exploitative tendencies, as she lives vicariously through the younger woman’s romance.

Then, of course, there’s de Havilland. The actress was often typecast as homely characters, and here she upsets common expectations by pushing Catherine’s innocence to parodic levels before shifting into a tragic-heroine mode worthy of the cinema’s greatest depictions of emotional despair. The Heiress is mysterious when it comes to characters’ intentions, but it’s downright confrontational in the brutal impact of its protagonist’s struggle for social acceptance. The finale, in which Catherine finally gains agency in her life only by consciously walling herself up in the very home that previously served as her cage, is an act of cruelty perpetuated as much against herself as those who wronged her.

Image/Sound

Criterion’s Blu-ray boasts a sparkling transfer with only a handful of noticeable artifacts. For example, some shimmering is evident in scenes due to the clashing patterns of the characters’ clothing. Otherwise, contrast is stable throughout, and detail is so sharp that the finest details of Edith Head’s costumes are plainly noticeable. The lossless mono track is faultless, with excellent dialogue clarity and no audible hisses or tinniness.

Extras

In an extended conversation, critic Farran Smith Nehme and screenwriter Jay Cocks extensively cover the film, from its influence on Cocks and Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence to the manner in which Wyler’s mostly static, open compositions communicate the characters’ psychological depths. Also included is an episode of The Merv Griffin Show that pays tribute to Wyler and includes interviews with the director, de Havilland, Bette Davis, and Walter Pidgeon, as are archival interviews with de Havilland and Ralph Richardson. An interview with costume historian Larry McQueen covers Edith Head’s designs for the film, noting how Catherine’s style of dressing slowly changes with her emotional arc. An accompanying booklet contains an essay by critic Pamela Hutchinson that thoroughly breaks down the film, from its faithfulness to and divergences from Henry James’s Washington Square to its rich acting to Wyler’s sophistication as both a stylist and actor’s director.

Overall

Criterion’s release excellently preserves William Wyler’s psychologically probing masterwork.

Cast: Olivia de Havilland, Montgomery Clift, Ralph Richardson, Miriam Hopkins, Vanessa Brown, Betty Linley, Ray Collins, Mona Freeman, Selena Royle, Paul Lees Director: William Wyler Screenwriter: Ruth Goetz, Augustus Goetz Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 115 min Rating: NR Year: 1949 Release Date: May 7, 2019 Buy: Video

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Review: Edward Dmytryk’s Warlock on Twilight Time Blu-ray

Twilight Time’s release of Warlock will bring some much-deserved attention to Edward Dmytryk’s morally knotty western.

3.5

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Warlock

Edward Dmytryk’s Warlock, so abundant in richly drawn characters and moral ambiguity, is a meticulous deconstruction of western tropes, beginning with the heroic stranger riding into a troubled town. Indeed, when the stoic and implacable Clay Blaisedell (Henry Fonda) shows up in Warlock, armed with his famous pair of gold-handled Colt pistols and his loyal sidekick, Tom Morgan (Anthony Quinn), at his side, he’s understood to be the town’s last hope of ousting a ruthless gang of criminals led by Abe McQuown (Tom Drake). Clay’s arrival lays the groundwork for a clearly defined conflict between good and evil, with the legendary aging gunman set to stand up to Abe and his thugs, who’ve been holding Warlock’s citizens hostage for months, running multiple sheriffs out of town. But the film undercuts expectations at nearly every turn, as characters frequently shift allegiances, effectively blurring the line between good and evil.

Despite Clay’s seemingly honorable intentions, he’s certainly no hero, but rather a mercenary who trades law and order as a commodity, providing it for the hefty price tag of $400 a month, quadruple the salary given to the town’s sheriff. While his ruthless methods make him seem quite cynical, he’s a realist at heart, admitting to the citizens committee that hired him that they’ll inevitably come to resent and fear him for retaining the power they hand over to him in desperation. And, of course, he’s right. But the film’s thorniest dramatic entanglements arise neither from Clay’s uneasy alliance with the people of Warlock nor his ongoing conflicts with the McQuown gang, though the latter makes for a few outstanding action set pieces.

Instead of gun fights, it’s the psychological interplay between Clay and Tom, whose partnership grows increasingly tumultuous, that takes center stage. Tom, the Doc Holliday to Clay’s Wyatt Earp, worships his friend and remains as committed to establishing him as a living legend as he does to moving on to other towns in order to rake in as much money as possible. But even though Tom’s affection is genuine—he almost tearfully admits that Clay was “the only person who looked at [him] and didn’t see a cripple”—he plays dirty behind his partner’s back, setting up murders that might otherwise be unnecessary simply to protect his idol. And when Clay finds himself smitten with Jessie (Dolores Michaels) and talks of hanging up his spurs and settling down in Warlock, Tom’s mix of anger and melancholy is palpable.

The rift between the men is further widened when Clay finds himself in another thorny alliance, this time with Johnny Gannon (Richard Widmark), a world-weary thug who finally leaves the McQuown gang after they slaughter 37 cattle herders, and surprises even himself by accepting the open offer to serve as Warlock’s official sheriff. Johnny’s transformation is as close as this otherwise sobering, pessimistic film comes to sketching a redemptive arc, but even he remains conflicted to his core, struggling to balance his burgeoning desire for uncompromised law and order and his emotional attachment to some of McQuown’s men, specifically his little brother, Billy (Frank Gorshin). The resulting showdown among Tom, Clay, and Johnny sees the men applying morally dubious methods as they vie to implement their own versions of justice in Warlock. But justice remains an elusive ideal in this rough, little frontier town where the cycle of violence continues unabated no matter who’s in charge.

Near the end of Warlock, it’s Tom, as the audience surrogate, who hammers home the film’s final blow to the mythmaking that drove so many Hollywood westerns of this era. In a last-ditch attempt to secure Clay’s status as a town legend, Tom keeps him alive by holding him at gunpoint and preventing him from fighting McQuown’s men once again. Afterward, Tom gleefully says, “You’ll be a hero again. That’s all I want Clay. I’ve won.” In disgust, Clay replies, “All right, you’ve won. We’ll play this out to the end just as you want it.” But Tom’s optimism is revealed as a delusion and Clay, who resigns himself to the inescapable transience of his way of life, doesn’t deliver the happy ending the viewer has no doubt come to expect. Instead, he leaves behind everything that’s made him a legend and rides into the horizon to yet another town—and without the girl, his partner, or his trusty gold-handled pistols.

Image/Sound

Warlock has a color scheme that’s familiar from so many ‘50s westerns, where the earthy tones of dirt and dust are intertwined with the vibrant colors of high-end saloon interiors, expensive fabrics, and big, blue skies. It’s a tricky palette to correctly color balance, but Twilight Time’s transfer is up to the task, retaining the richness of the primary colors without amping up the brightness of the entire image. There are a handful of shots that are less than sharp, especially in some of the wider exterior scenes, though this flaw, but the flaw is infrequent enough to never be distracting. Overall, there’s a solid contrast to the image, and a bit of the grain from the 35mm is held over to provide a bit of depth and prevent the picture from appearing overly digitized. The lossless audio tracks are very clean, and mixed robustly enough to never miss the various aural details during the chaotic shootout sequences.

Extras

The disc extras are pretty meager, consisting only of the original theatrical trailer, the brief Fox Movietone Newsreel that shows the stars at the film’s premiere, and an isolated music track. A small booklet is included with an essay by Julie Kirgo, who makes a case for the film’s homoerotic subtext between Clay, Tom, and Johnny, while also covering the film’s subtle tale of morality and themes of redemption and justice.

Overall

Twilight Time’s release of Warlock will bring some much-deserved attention to Edward Dmytryk’s morally knotty western.

Cast: Richard Widmark, Henry Fonda, Anthony Quinn, Dorothy Malone, Dolores Michaels, Wallace Ford, Tom Drake, Richard Arlen, DeForest Kelley, Regis Toomey, Vaughn Taylor, Whit Bissell Director: Edward Dmytryk Screenwriter: Robert Alan Aurthur Distributor: Twilight Time Running Time: 121 min Rating: NR Year: 1959 Release Date: May 21, 2019 Buy: Video

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Review: Agnès Varda’s One Sings, The Other Doesn’t on Criterion Blu-ray

An optimistic celebration of women and their ongoing liberation, the film remains moving, inspirational, and perhaps a shade too relevant.

4

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One Sings, The Other Doesn’t

Agnés Varda’s One Sings, the Other Doesn’t is about two friends whose lifelong bond is forged when, in 1962, 17-year-old Pauline (Valerie Mairesse) helps 22-year-old Suzanne (Thérèse Liotard) get an illegal abortion. Separated after the tragedy of Suzanne’s lover’s suicide, the pair encounter each other again in 1972, on the cusp of the legalization of abortion in France. From this point, the film follows their lives as they intersect and diverge, and as these two women are shaped by the politics of the 1970s. Reflecting on 15 years of second-wave feminism, One Sings, the Other Doesn’t is a poetic homage to the strength of women as they fight a protracted battle for liberation—one that’s made all the more relevant given the new generation of feminist activism that’s confronting a fresh wave of assaults on women’s rights.

Pauline and Suzanne encounter each other for the first time in 10 years at a protest outside the trial of a woman charged with terminating her pregnancy. Suzanne is in the crowd of protestors with her daughter when they see Pauline performing a folk protest song as part of the real-life feminist performance group Orchidée, whose members include Joëlle Papineau, Micou Papineau, and Doudou Greffier. Suzanne, much more the calm bourgeoise than Pauline, runs a women’s health clinic in the South of France. Pauline, who stole the money for the abortion from her parents and soon thereafter moved out to live on her own, is now an outspoken hippie activist who’s changed her name to Pomme (or Apple).

One Sings, the Other Doesn’t takes on the quality of a cinematic epistolary novel. Having reconnected, Pauline and Suzanne begin exchanging letters and postcards, read by the actresses in voiceover. This exchange becomes Varda’s elegant celebration of a multi-vocal feminism. The women are different: one is orange-haired and outspoken, the other brunette and more reserved; one sings, the other doesn’t. And yet, their friendship is close, held together by an almost utopian bond rooted in their shared experiences as women, both positive and negative. Varda is the implicit third member of this trio, also appearing on the soundtrack as narrator, mediating between the two perspectives like an older sister.

Through their letters, the pair recount to one another the course of their lives in a France being changed by women’s liberation. Pomme, living on her own since she was 17, unified her ardent feminism with her passion for singing and Orchidée’s formation. Her story provides the film’s exuberant feminist musical sequences, with music by François Wertheimer and lyrics by Varda herself. One Sings, the Other Doesn’t is sometimes described as a feminist musical, even though the songs appear infrequently and irregularly. Less vital to the narrative than the letters, they are asides that show how a joyful form of homespun art—not totally dissimilar to the handcrafted quality of Varda’s film itself—can be an effective political tool.

When Pomme’s letters catch up to the film’s current-day setting, she’s taking a leave from the band to travel to Iran with her boyfriend, Darius (Ali Rafie). She falls in love with the exotic beauty of the country—as does Varda’s camera, lingering on the bright orange and yellow arabesques painted onto a mosque the couple visits. Caught up in romantic notions of the East, Pomme decides to marry Darius, and is soon pregnant.

In contrast to Pomme’s story of communal feminist activism and love, Suzanne was more or less banished to the countryside after the suicide of her married lover, Jérôme (Robert Dadiès), living with the conservative family who disapproved of her and Jérôme’s two “illegitimate” children. “I felt like I was frozen in time,” Suzanne recounts of her first years outside Paris, over Varda’s representation of a desolate and stifling rural life. Varda uses impersonal lateral tracking shots, similar to those she would employ in 1985’s Vagabond, to convey Suzanne’s alienation as she performs chores around her family’s farm. Gradually, Suzanne takes charge of her situation, learning typing skills, cutting her teeth in factory work alongside other women, and building an independent life for herself and her children.

In Suzanne’s words we are reminded of the importance of time to Varda’s films—and to her feminism. Varda’s Cléo from 5 to 7 is one of the greatest films about time, exploring what it means to live inside a feminized body. One Sing, the Other Doesn’t is a different use of cinema to represent time, capturing the duration of a political movement as it runs through the lives of these two women. When they first meet, Pomme and Suzanne are both dominated by Jérôme, the tortured-artist photographer, who takes black-and-white pictures of women looking weary and dissatisfied. By the end of the film, as each of them is surrounded by their children and friends, they’re able to look forward with optimism—reflected in the vibrant colors of Varda’s mise-en-scène—to the next generation of women, represented by Suzanne’s teenaged daughter, Marie, played by Varda’s own daughter, Rosalie Varda-Demy.

“The personal is political” declared second-wave feminism, and certainly Varda’s depiction of an enduring female friendship is a realization of this slogan. One Sings, the Other Doesn’t reminds us that women’s personal lives—their relationships with men and each other—are a political matter. Merely showing women who support each other across great distances and differences counts as a brash political assertion, both in 1977 and today.

Image/Sound

The 1080p transfer, based on a 2K restoration of the film overseen by Agnés Varda and cinematographer Charles Van Damme, exudes a striking filmlike quality, preserving the grain of the 35mm original. The level of detail is impeccable throughout; even in low-light exterior shots of a harvested field late in the film, for example, it seems as if every blade of grass is visible. The PCM mono track, restored from the original 35mm magnetic mix, isn’t terribly dynamic, but the dialogue and songs are nonetheless clear and crisp-sounding throughout.

Extras

In addition to “Bodies and Selves,” an essay on the film by Amy Taubin that focuses on the audacity of Agnès Varda’s emphasis on issues of bodily autonomy, the disc’s liner notes reproduce excerpts from the film’s original press kit. Here, Varda and actresses Valérie Mairesse and Thérèse Liotard discuss the origins of the film and their experiences making it; Liotard and Mairesse’s observations about how much safer a woman-directed set feels reverberates in our Me Too moment. And on the actual disc we’re offered several extras that serve as perfect companion pieces to the feature. In Plaisir d’amour en Iran, a 1976 short film by Varda that stands on its own as a poetic exploration of erotic love, Darius and Pomme are seen sharing a blissful first few days in Iran. And in Réponse de femmes, a short essay film from 1975 that exhibits the same embrace of women’s divergent lives and desires as the feature, Varda gathers a group of French women and girls of various ages to answer the question: “What is a woman?” Finally, a making-of documentary by Katja Raganelli titled Women Are Naturally Creative: Agnes Varda takes us into the Varda-Demy household, in which a very businesslike Varda—far removed from the coy old lady we know from her late documentaries—discusses the goals and pressures of being an independent female filmmaker.

Overall

An optimistic celebration of women and their ongoing liberation, One Sings, the Other Doesn’t remains moving, inspirational, and perhaps a shade too relevant.

Cast: Valérie Mairesse, Thérèse Liotard, Ali Raffi, Robert Dadiès, Jean-Pierre Pellegrin Director: Agnès Varda Screenwriter: Agnès Varda Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 121 min Rating: NR Year: 1977 Release Date: May 28, 2019 Buy: Video

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Review: Paul Leni’s The Man Who Laughs on Flicker Alley Blu-ray

The magnificent transfer further deepens the emotional resonance of Leni’s strange, transfixing, and compassionate film.

4

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The Man Who Laughs

Early on in Paul Leni’s The Man Who Laughs, the surgically perma-grinning Gwynplaine looks at himself in his dressing-room mirror. A one-time son of English royalty who as a boy was turned into a freak-show attraction by political enemies, Gwynplaine spends his time as a traveling performer whose wide crescent smile sends the great unwashed into tizzies of both horror and, eventually, delight. As he looks at himself in the mirror, he’s struck with the hollow ghastliness of his life, and his face sags into a visage of misery, with the exception of his perpetual grin. A moment of bravura acting by Conrad Veidt (already famous for his portrayal of Cesare in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), it’s topped by a wonderful cinematic grace note when Gwynplaine closes the doors of the mirror and finds them ironically painted with the Greek masks of comedy and tragedy.

Whether it was because Lon Chaney had recently signed a contract at MGM and was unavailable for work at Universal, or because one of the studio’s founders, filmmaker Carl Laemmle, had a great eye for German expressionism, The Man Who Laughs took the Universal “super jewel” series of gothic horror to new and unparalleled heights in cinematic intelligence. Like many a German expressionist nightmare, the film, based on a novel by Victor Hugo, is a collision of non-complementary angles and framing that confuses as often as it elucidates. At the same time—and unlike The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari or Leni’s own 1924 silent Waxworks—it it’s also remarkably clean in its delineation of action.

In the same manner that Veidt is both the film’s central monster as well as its main source of pathos (all but laying out the blueprint for James Whale’s Frankenstein), the film’s fascination with bric-a-brac and its tendency toward spare, minimalist compositions is evidence of a stylistic schism. This obsessive dualism that runs throughout the film also informs the love triangle between Gwynplaine, his blind co-star girlfriend, Dea (Mary Philbin), and the Duchess (Ogla Baclanova). It’s a little off-putting—and probably also a function of Laemmle’s insistence that The Man Who Laughs rival Phantom of the Opera’s phenomenal box-office success—that all superfluous characters basically adhere faithfully to one of two sides of the classic good-evil dichotomy, but even that framework could be taken as a critique on Leni’s part of Hollywood’s psychologically limiting archetypes. Veidt’s terrifying grin masks the horror of having one’s looks be objectified at the expense of their humanity.

Image/Sound

Flicker Alley’s transfer of a new 4K restoration by Universal Studios brings a remarkable depth and level of detail to almost every shot. A healthy amount of grain is evident throughout, and the strong image contrast highlights both the film’s impressively detailed set design and the intricacies of the actors’ faces, particularly that of Conrad Veidt, whose tortured, tragicomic expressions present the film’s pathos at its most overwhelming. There’s the slightest bit of flickering in about one-third of the shots, and some far less frequent signs of scratching, but for a 90-year-old film, such minor artifacts of natural decay hardly count as negatives. The Berklee Silent Film Orchestra’s new score sounds fantastic, boasting a dynamic range that perfectly accompanies the film’s dramatic ebbs and flows.

Extras

The lone extra on the disc, aside from a collection of production stills, is the short but informative “Paul Leni and The Man Who Laughs.” Despite its title, the featurette’s focus is less on Leni than on studio head Carl Laemmle, whose “fondness for literature’s quirky side” led him to produce The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Phantom of the Opera before taking on The Man Who Laughs. After quite a bit of historical context surrounding Universal’s release of the film and the reasons behind the studio’s inability to cast Lon Chaney in the lead, Leni is given his proper due, rightfully celebrated for his uncanny ability to mix black humor with an expressionistic eye. The Blu-ray, and accompanying DVD copy, comes with a 20-page booklet with an array of production stills and two essays. The first, by film historian Kevin Brownlow, covers the film’s production history in detail and touches on each of the major performances, while also praising the film for its innovation and influence on later films such as Frankenstein and The Old Dark House. The second essay, by Sonia Coronado, discusses the creation of the new score and, in the process, provides unique insight into the scoring of silent films.

Overall

Flicker Alley’s magnificent transfer only further deepens the emotional resonance of Paul Leni’s strange, transfixing, and compassionate film.

Cast: Mary Philbin, Conrad Veidt, Julius Molnar, Olga Baclanova, Brandon Hurst, Cesare Gravina, Stuart Holmes, Sam De Grasse, George Siegmann, Josephine Crowell, Károly Huszár Director: Paul Leni Screenwriter: J. Grubb Alexander Distributor: Flicker Alley Running Time: 110 min Rating: NR Year: 1928 Release Date: June 4, 2019 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: Claire Denis’s Let the Sunshine In on the Criterion Collection

Criterion gives one of last year’s most deeply felt and beautifully shot films a rich transfer and a respectable set of extras.

4

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Let the Sunshine In

Claire Denis’s 2013 film Bastards is a squalid and serpentine anti-thriller, the most lugubrious, nihilistic work in an already bleak oeuvre. In it, Denis depicts, with her usual salaciousness and elusivity, the vindictive stratagem of a sailor whose brother has committed suicide and whose niece is the victim of a barbaric sexual assault that’s left her broken. He ascertains that the man responsible is a wealthy and sleazy septuagenarian, whose wife becomes a desired effigy, an object for masculine revenge. “Give me a handjob,” the old man demands of her, in his first scene. Shooting digitally for the first time, Denis drags the viewer through an aphotic, disconsolate endeavor, infected with the still-lingering influence of Dominique Strauss-Kahn. A lurid enigma, erotic noir as tragedy, Bastards is a film that burrows into genre like a parasite, while probing the darkest alcoves of the human heart.

Denis’s latest, Let the Sunshine In, is considerably less despondent, concerned as it is with the fragility, and perseverance, of the heart. Its modesty and intimacy runs the risk of being erroneously labelled slight. It’s a 95-minute reconciliation with love, which has always been something of an unmitigable poison for Denis’s characters. The self-destructive nature of searching for meaning, for a partner, has long fascinated the filmmaker, and here she strips bare that hopeless pursuit. In those diurnal moments, the mundane, unexceptional motions that make up a relationship, Denis disinters the pleasures (however brief) and pain of love.

Isabelle (Juliette Binoche) is longing for love. Hers is a Sisyphean desperation. In a world of wolves, she finds selfish and acrimonious men with raging libidos and diminished morals. We first see her naked on her back as a man, Vincent (Xavier Beauvois), humps away on top of her—and right away, one may wonder if this is a portrait of a liberated woman or a glimpse from the male gaze. There’s much huffing and moaning and no cumming. Vincent asks if Isabelle came faster with her former lovers, which earns him a slap. Portly and pretentious, a sybarite banker with a posh apartment, royal blue shoes, and an abstract vermilion painting that resembles the blood-streaked wall from Trouble Every Day, Vincent is Isabelle’s first lover in the film. In a bar bedecked with glimmering top-shelf liquors and mood-setting candles, he instructs the bartender to leave him a bottle and two glasses, so he can pour the drinks himself. Denis shoots Isabelle and Vincent’s ensuing conversation with fluid pans instead of traditional reverse shots, evoking love as a continuous stream.

The next time we see the self-pitying Vincent, Isabelle calls him scum and kicks him out. He clings like a stain she can’t scrub out, but she moves on to other lovers, from a beer-swilling actor (Nicolas Duvauchelle) to a gaunt, purportedly uneducated man (Paul Blain). She brings them home, begging if they hesitate, but fails to find that one true love, the kind you hear about in fairy tales and old French films. Denis regular Alex Descas portrays a man who could be “the one” for Isabelle, but life (and self-destructive tendencies) have a way of ruining these kinds of things. Denis isn’t known for letting her characters have traditionally happy endings, and the tragedy here is how normal that feels: how futile love can be for the unlovable.

The film is inspired by Roland Barthes’s 1977 exegesis The Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, a clinical examination of love that’s comprised of quotes and musings from a medley of canonical and esoteric writers. Turning an unadaptable work of postmodern literature into an incandescent cinematic reverie on love’s follies as a quick side project could have been a masturbatory exercise in intellectualism, but Denis finds the inexorable beauty (and sadness) in that most corrosive and fugacious of feelings. For Isabelle, love is a toxic need. Barthes, not known for sentimentality, discusses love as an intellectual pursuit, an aching inevitability, one to ponder rather than feel. Denis is also not known for producing art of a cuddly nature—her career is rife with barbarities, with the dissolution of lives and loves—yet Let the Sunshine In is easily the most empathetic, heartfelt film of her illustrious career. Throughout, Isabelle’s romantic plight encapsulates the confusion of being alone. The film is garrulous and often uproarious, especially Gerard Depardieu’s late appearance as a psychic charlatan, but within these laughs is a deep, familiar disappointment, the sensation of irreparable loneliness.

Denis’s films reveal themselves with precision and control, and often with a macabre reverence for genre, probing the inherent rot in the human core. Trouble Every Day shrouds itself in the aesthetic of vampires and zombie lore; the poetry and pain in that film are innate in the seduction of venereal destruction, the entanglement of love and sex, love and hate, sex and death. Bastards wears the stoic face of noir so it can cogitate the roles of sex and betrayal. Beau Travail transliterates Herman Melville’s low-key homoerotic sailor tale Billy Budd, in which Melville wrestles with the magnanimity of God and the mendacity of man, as a vituperative study of imperialism and militarism as wanton outlets for flimsy masculinity.

Let the Sunshine In, the closest thing to a rom-com that Denis has made since Friday Night (a film that’s tender yet tormented, and not particularly comedic), feels, thematically and formally, like an epilogue to her favorite theme. It’s gentle yet devastating, like an insincere “I love you” whispered into one’s ear, the duplicity hidden behind upward-curving lips, the pangs of misplaced vulnerability. Isabelle isn’t emotionally reticent, and she opens up quite easily, but she tries to force love, afraid it will never find her. Denis’s films often end with a reveal, a character learning something previously withheld, or the viewer learning that a character knew more than we expected. Here, nothing is learned; nothing changes. Over Depardieu’s lecherous skullduggery Denis lays the end credits, his affably manipulative performance and Isabelle’s swoony obliviousness suggesting that Isabelle will never find what she’s looking for.

Image/Sound

Color balance and contrast is consistent throughout this striking transfer. This is especially impressive considering the varied hues of Agnés Godard’s cinematography, from the dark colors that predominate in the settings and costuming, as in the low-sit clubs and nighttime streets, to the warmest of yellows that illuminate the characters’ faces. The sound is very clear, which is very important for such a dialogue-driven film. The 5.1 mix doesn’t get too much of a workout, but it does show its euphoric might whenever off-screen sounds and the occasional song—mostly notably Etta James’s “At Last”—flit into the mix.

Extras

Included on this disc are two separate interviews with director Claire Denis and actress Juliette Binoche, who discuss the origins of the project and hit on some of the same points: Binoche’s real-life love of painting, their momentary disagreement over costuming choices, and what the film has to say about being a single middle-aged woman. Denis gives much credit for the final shape of the film to her co-writer, the novelist Christine Angot, as well as to cinematographer Agnés Godard. Also included is Denis’s 2014 short Voilà l’enchaînment, a heartfelt series of vignettes about a mixed-race couple. The liner notes contain a brief but insightful essay by film critic Stephanie Zacharek that places Let the Sunshine In in the context of Denis’s canon, as well as draws out its connections to the work of two of her major influences, critic and literary theorist Roland Barthes and filmmaker Jacques Rivette.

Overall

The Criterion Collection gives one of last year’s most deeply felt and beautifully shot films a rich transfer and a respectable set of extras.

Cast: Juliette Binoche, Xavier Beauvois, Nicolas Duvauchelle, Alex Descas, Philippe Katerine, Josiane Balasko, Laurent Grévill, Bruno Podalydès, Paul Blain, Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, Gérard Depardieu, Sandrine Dumas, Claire Tran Director: Claire Denis Screenwriter: Claire Denis, Christine Angot Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 95 min Rating: NR Year: 2017 Release Date: May 21, 2019 Buy: Video

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Review: Hal Ashby’s The Landlord on Kino Lorber Blu-ray

Kino offers a sturdy transfer of Ashby’s overlooked and still quite volatile feature film debut.

3.5

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The Landlord

Mainstream American films concerning race relations tend to follow one of two patterns: Either they hopefully suggest that reconciliations are possible, or hopelessly dramatize the chasm of privilege existing between white people and everyone else. Hopeful films can win Academy Awards, while hopeless ones more reliably earn a critic’s respect, though both modes often feel pat, suggesting that the filmmakers believe they’re imparting concrete, unambiguous wisdom to audiences. By contrast, the best films about race in America—such as Imitation of Life, Nothing but a Man, Ganja & Hess, Losing Ground, Do the Right Thing, and O.J.: Made in America—tend to suggest the intense unknowability of the power of endemic racism to separate, limit, and destroy people.

The Landlord, Hal Ashby’s relatively and unjustly obscure directorial debut, similarly communicates the bewildering sense of apartness existing between two poles of social opportunity. Based on a novel by Kristin Hunter, which was adapted by screenwriter Bill Gunn (the director of Ganja & Hess), The Landlordhas the same shaggy intensity as Ashby’s subsequent films, as well as the ferocious humor of Gunn’s later work. The narrative concerns a young, rich, white man, Elgar (Beau Bridges), who enters a low-income black world and mucks around in it with no consideration as to the outcomes of his actions. For Elgar, the New York slum building he buys is an upgradable dollhouse, an effort to prove to his family that he can handle a business venture. For his renters, of course, this building is their lifeblood, and they ready themselves against Elgar’s trespass in a variety of often startling fashions.

The scenes establishing Elgar’s motivations are the film’s shakiest, as Ashby indulges in arty, essentially meaningless formal tricks, such as having the protagonist talk to the camera, but The Landlord quickly catches fire when Elgar begins mixing with his new tenants, whom he plans to evict. Marge (Pearl Bailey), the wise old broad of the place, who runs an illegal fortune-telling business out of her apartment, plies Elgar with soul food and attempts to prevent him from making an entire fool out of himself or getting killed. In a majestic performance, Bailey informs Marge’s intelligent, weary eyes with an unexpected texture: pity.

This thoughtlessly powerful white man might be a sign of many of America’s injustices, but Marge understands that he’s essentially a boy, and she talks to him in a fashion that’s familiar of how African-Americans must gently “handle” whites who have an inflated sense of their own humanism. This understanding helps to give The Landlord its core toughness and dimensions of tragedy. Throughout the film, Ashby nurtures a sense of double awareness, imbuing scenes of communion with an undertow of guarded isolation.

Elgar’s intimate moments with Fanny (Diana Sands), a.k.a. “Miss Sepia 1957,” exude a similar aura of tenderness. It’s not difficult to understand what the characters see in one another. Soft, physically unimposing Elgar is a relief from Fanny’s terrifying, tightly wound husband, Copee (Louis Gossett Jr.), who may be insane, and who brings to the fore the bitterness and violence that often churn beneath the film’s surface. And for Elgar, Fanny is a beautiful and experienced older woman who is also, of course, forbidden fruit. This thread resembles the plot driving The Graduate, though The Landlord doesn’t turn the older woman into a caricature to score easy generational points. Ashby and Gunn understand that Elgar and Fanny are mutually exploring one another for reasons that neither of them entirely fathom. There’s an impression here of sex only intensifying the very issues that tend to lead to love affairs.

In the tradition of many future Ashby protagonists, Elgar is subsumed into a world he doesn’t understand, a world that’s truly governed by women, who let the men have their saber-rattling theatrics while privately making the real decisions. Women rule the ghetto apartment complex that Elgar buys, and they rule the posh realm that he’s attempting to flee. Elgar’s mother, Mrs. Enders, is played by Lee Grant, who’s so sexy she nearly throws The Landlord off its axis. Elgar and Mrs. Enders have a conspiratorial rapport that’s almost erotic, rooted in each character’s feelings of imprisonment. In fact, Elgar has more chemistry with his mother than he does with Lanie (Marki Bey), his biracial girlfriend, and so one wonders if Elgar is working through more than racial curiosity when he sleeps with Fanny.

You never know where this highly combustible production is going, as the filmmakers fuse a variety of seemingly contradictory tones with daring finesse. Gunn’s astonishing dialogue has a terse, poetic bluntness, with punchlines that wouldn’t be permitted in our woefully cautious and polite contemporary cinema, such as Elgar’s alternate definition of the acronym N.A.A.C.P. And, working with cinematographer Gordon Willis, Ashby fashions a hallucinatory atmosphere in which sex, danger, and bonhomie casually comingle. The apartment building, particularly at night, comes to suggest an alternate dimension, most notably when the tenants have a rent party and get Elgar drunk and confess some of their true feelings about white society to him as he submits to the spell of the noir lighting and the booze.

Bridges grounds and unifies this film’s wild-and-wooly tangents, giving an extraordinary performance that’s so natural it could easily be taken for granted. He plays Elgar’s poignant cluelessness, his lost-ness, without sentimentalizing the character’s self-absorption, as Dustin Hoffman did in The Graduate. In one of the film’s best and toughest scenes, Elgar discusses the child that Fanny has had—his child—telling her he has no room for a baby in his life. Bridges plays this scene as a perverse awakening, as one can see Elgar hearing his own words and becoming disgusted with the person speaking, a person Elgar might not have known himself to be capable of being. The film, then, is about Elgar, a faux-liberal, realizing that he isn’t quite a hero—that he simply wants to be comfortable. And, though he eventually confronts the ramifications of his meddling in this other world, there’s still a lingering aura of disenchantment in The Landlord. No wonder that the film was relegated to cult status, as it asks Baby boomers to swallow a rather bitter pill.

Image/Sound

There’s quite a bit of softness to this image, which is mostly attractive and probably reflective of the film’s source materials, though background detail is occasionally murky. Facial detail and general foreground clarity is impressive though, with painstaking attention paid to textures of characters’ skins. Colors are also robust, especially the reds and the blacks of the shadows. The 2.0 DTS-HD soundtrack lends the songs a sharp bounce, and captures all the subtle cacophony of the city life that has been so vigorously rendered by the filmmakers. This is an appealing restoration, but there’s room for improvement.

Extras

Interviews with actors Beau Bridges and Lee Grant and producer Norman Jewison respectively cover the film’s making. Most interesting are Bridges’s recollections of feeling authentically threatened by the ghetto setting, and how co-star Louis Gossett Jr. helped acclimate him to some of the rougher locals. Wanting no police on the set, Hal Ashby also collaborated with the nearby hoods, hiring them as extras and supporting actors. Ashby is celebrated in all three of the interviews, which also include context regarding the social climate of the film’s release, when the country was suffering from riots and upheavals that somewhat resemble the heated chaos of today. These are solid extras, but an audio commentary or wider-ranging documentary would’ve been nice. Several trailers round out the package.

Overall

Kino Lober offers a sturdy transfer of The Landlord, Hal Ashby’s overlooked and still quite volatile feature film debut.

Cast: Beau Bridges, Lee Grant, Diana Sands, Pearl Bailey, Walter Brooke, Louis Gossett Jr., Marki Bey, Mel Stewart, Susan Anspach, Robert Klein Director: Hal Ashby Screenwriter: Bill Gunn Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 110 min Rating: R Year: 1970 Release Date: May 14, 2019 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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E3 2019: The Best and Worst Surprises

The 2019 Electronic Entertainment Expo presented an industry in transition.

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Devolver Digital
Photo: Devolver Digital

The 2019 Electronic Entertainment Expo presented an industry in transition. As the current console generation winds down and new hardware is still in development, the subject of how games will be played going forward has come into question, as the technology to stream games via the cloud supplants the need for consoles or PCs.

In a 15-minute presentation prior to E3’s launch, Google unveiled their cloud gaming service Stadia, a subscription-based service—for use on desktop computers, laptops, and mobile devices—that allows high-end gaming without the need for expensive hardware. Supposedly offering computing power significantly stronger than that of the PlayStation Pro and Xbox One X combined, Stadia relies on Google’s own data centers, with the only real bottleneck being consumer internet speeds and bandwidth caps as the gameplay is streamed to the end user. Hands-on experience with Stadia has shown it to be incredibly impressive—provided one’s internet connection is stable and fast enough to handle the required download speed.

Even before the expo officially kicked off at the Los Angeles Convention Center, notions of “traditional” video gaming were being challenged. There was no greater sign of the shake up than the absence of one of the three major console makers: Sony. The company eschewed not only their usual press conference, but any showing at all. While many have suggested that Sony, who had informally announced their upcoming PlayStation 5 console earlier in 2019, wanted to benefit from Microsoft announcing what the target specs would be for the Project Scarlett, the simple truth is that Sony doesn’t have much to currently show to the public.

Only two of Sony’s upcoming first-party exclusive titles particularly stand out: Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us 2, a known quantity which has already seen multiple previews, and Hideo Kojima’s Death Stranding, whose trailer premiered shortly before the expo kicked off. In the end, releasing the trailer ahead of E3 was a smart move on the company’s part, as the ongoing enigma that is Kojima’s next title dominated discussion for days instead of getting lost in the sea of announcements after E3 was officially under way, and a solid release date is something that Sony can boast about in a year where their exclusives are scant.

EA also elected not to host their customary press conference, instead opting for a streamed video presentation similar to the Nintendo Direct broadcast. The company’s decision not to discuss anything about this year’s disappointing Anthem is damning, not only for the remaining fans of the game hoping to see the game properly supported moving forward, but for EA itself, whose frustrating trend of misusing developers they acquire has left BioWare on thin ice. As one live service game in an ocean, and created by a company with little experience making such games, Anthem was always destined to face an uphill battle; at this point, some four months after its release, turning the game around would require faith in the product and an evolving cycle of new content, both of which EA could have presented to the world here. And there’s precedent for this, demonstrated by the success of Destiny after its first tumultuous year. Alas, not even a mention across the entire show.

The main event of EA’s Play presentation was their upcoming Star Wars title Jedi: Fallen Order. Though the somnolent 14-minute video that capped the presentation seems to promise a cross between Uncharted and The Force Unleashed, hands-on time with the game reveals that its closest analogue is Dark Souls, given that it takes place across large open areas with bonfire equivalents the protagonist can meditate at, which inexplicably revives all enemies. The combat feels like that of Dark Souls, with the fast-paced lightsaber duels of something like Jedi Academy replaced by slower, more precise one-on-one battles where you must manoeuver around enemies to fight them individually, and in a manner that recalls other From Software games. Whether Jedi: Fallen Order will be as difficult as the Soulsborne titles remains to be seen, though one would assume EA would want the title to be accessible as possible, especially considering their recent and lousy track record with the franchise.

The first official E3 press conference was presented by Microsoft, which had a stellar showing of new games and announcements. New titles demonstrated include Outer Worlds, a Fallout-esque sci-fi action adventure game, a new Battletoads game featuring bright and colourful cartoonish graphics, the latest iteration of Microsoft Flight Simulator, the next chapter in the Gears of War series simply titled Gears 5, and survival horror outing Blair Witch. Microsoft’s next console, Project Scarlett, was broadly discussed as a technical powerhouse without mentioning any specifics, including price, as if to ensure Sony has no edge on the competition when their PS5 announcement finally comes. More interestingly, Microsoft presented their version of the cloud streaming gaming, the Microsoft xCloud service, which Phil Spencer was able to elaborate on during Giant Bomb’s Nite Two live show.

Spencer notes that while cloud streaming services are convenient, allowing gamers to play games anywhere, they’re to the detriment of consumers in terms of actually letting them own the games they buy. The Stadia pricing model includes not only subscription fees, but also additional prices on top for some games, which is troubling as purchasers will only “own” any game they buy as long as the service is active, or if they have an active internet connection. If Google, or any streaming service, pulls the plug, purchased products simply go away.

Which is why Microsoft is working toward a hybrid of cloud streaming services with traditional ownership models, where gamers will own their console and their games, but can also stream them to other devices to play games on the go using the cloud. Google’s Stadia offers something more akin to Netflix, and looks to suffer from some of the same issues as Netflix when it comes to content disappearing as licenses expire. Whether Microsoft’s model works also remains to be seen, but their excellent and inexpensive Game Pass service, which saw extension to the PC during E3, has demonstrated both the excellent value and the focus on services benefitting the end user that Spencer advocated for.

Bethesda was in full-apology mode for their first press conference since the disastrous launch of Fallout 76, bookending their presentation with saccharine, insipid videos about how they understand and like gamers, how they’re gamers themselves, and other such rigmarole. Bringing out Todd Howard to discuss said elephant in the room would have been a misstep had it not been for the announcement of the game’s Nuclear Winter DLC—a fresh take (currently available in beta) on the battle-royale genre—as well as a Fallout 76 freeplay period where anyone can play the game with the new content. Nuclear Winter is a surprising amount of fun, a squad-based battle royale allowing players to choose where they spawn on the map and then take advantage of classic Fallout devices while fighting to become the only survivor. For example, becoming invisible with a Stealth Boy offers a fleeting chance to get the drop on enemies or flee an area teeming with overpowered opponents, or jumping into a set of Power Armor gives more health but impedes player speed and is loud enough to give away player location. At time of writing, Bethesda have made Nuclear Winter an indefinite add-on for Fallout 76, which gives the populace at large a reason to try Fallout 76.

Standing high above Bethesda’s other announcements and demos, Doom Eternal looks to be a spectacular follow-up to the successful 2016 reboot, escalating on the core gameplay with new abilities including a combat grappling hook and a flamethrower, and an expanded narrative involving angels as well as the demons of Hell. Elsewhere, Square Enix’s press conference largely focused on the Final Fantasy VII Remake and concluded with a baffling look at Marvel Avengers, a game that probably should have been revealed back when Avengers: Endgame was still a part of the popular conversation but probably wasn’t given its ugly and bizarre character models. More notable, though buried within the conference, was the announcement of Dying Light 2, which looks to be an ambitious and sprawling follow-up to the original game. It boasts expanded parkour gameplay in a new environment that changes with player choice, promising to give fans a unique experience with each playthrough.

Nintendo Direct closed out the conferences, announcing two new Super Smash Bros. Ultimate DLC characters: the much-loved dynamic duo of Banjo and Kazooie and the not-so-loved hero from Dragon Quest. The Link’s Awakening remaster, which boasts frustratingly cutesy graphics that go against the original game’s theme and tone, was also exhibited; it’s as if the developers thought that the cartoonish look of the original 8-Bit Game Boy title was an intentional stylistic choice, rather than how Zelda games looked at that time, and that it was something that needed to be made cuter. It feels like a significant misstep, and one that’s bound to cheapen the surprisingly mature and thoughtful narrative. Nonetheless, it’s pleasing that this underplayed classic will find a new audience, and Nintendo’s diorama displays of areas from the game on the show floor were exceptional and gorgeous.

Finally, a new Animal Crossing was revealed, with a fresh island setting, new crafting gameplay, and the inclusion of fruit stacking. After sideline missteps like Pocket Camp, Amiibo Festival, and Happy Home Designer, a new Switch entry seems to be exactly the shot in the arm that this beloved series needs to get back on track.

Although E3 2019 demonstrated that there are major changes coming for the gaming industry, some things remain the same, even if it’s just Devolver Digital taking the piss out of, well, the big-budget press conference. Indeed, latest conference was as fresh, joyous, and deranged as its predecessors. The future of video gaming might be uncertain, but there’s still plenty to look forward to and celebrate, and this is something the folks at Devolver Digital are committed to proving year after year, and with a humor that could stand to rub off on the industry at large.

E3 ran from June 11—13.

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Review: Outer Wilds Is a Wondrous Maze of Infinite, Breathtaking Possibilities

This is a rare adventure game in which the journey is actually more of a reward than the destination.

5

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Outer Wilds
Photo: Annapurna Interactive

Mobius Digital’s Outer Wilds begins and ends with a quietly spectacular explosion. As a result of this open-world space exploration game’s time-looping mechanic, one of those explosions is the first thing you’ll see every time you reawaken, but it’s so far off in the distance—just a brief flash of rippling orange in outer space that’s overshadowed by the surface of a massive green planetoid—that it might take a few cycles before you actually notice it. And even then, its significance won’t become apparent until you’ve blasted off from your home planet and flown yourself out there to get a better look at the blast.

The understated appeal of the smartly designed Outer Wilds stems from its abundance of deliberate details scattered across its worlds, ever-nudging you toward understanding how various scientific phenomenon operate. This is a game so beautiful that you might spend hours taking in the sights before you start focusing on its loose, nonlinear plot. Despite taking place in a comparatively small six-planet solar system, the game’s open-galaxy design feels full of infinite possibilities, each excursion as fresh and exciting as the last, even hours in.

Should you survive for a consecutive 22 minutes, you’ll come across that second explosion. You’ll hear a sonic boom and, if you’re facing the right way, see a universe-engulfing tide of crackling blue energy coming your way, resetting the time loop and providing a fairly substantial (though never obtrusive) endgame, one in which you must find a way to prevent your sun from going supernova. But think of the solar system’s terminal diagnosis as less of an ending than a chance at a fresh beginning: carte blanche to try just about anything.

Even if there’s only one real way to “beat” it, there’s no wrong way to play Outer Wilds, and no barriers in your way. You don’t have to fight any enemies or level up—a tacit acknowledgement on the game’s part that the galaxy’s destruction can’t be prevented through brute force, only through the fearless act of discovery. For one, you’ll fly through a tangle of tornadoes on Giant’s Deep that are periodically thrusting the planet’s islands into orbit, and on Brittle Hollow, you’ll follow a precarious trail of gravity crystals along the underside of the planet’s exposed equator. You also don’t need to collect any items. Everything you need is given to you at the game’s start: a radio-frequency scanner, a launchable probe that takes pictures and measures surface stability, an auto-translator for alien languages, and a spacesuit capable of rocket propulsion. How you choose to use these items to do your first-person exploration is entirely up to you, and that freedom is a large part of the game’s charm.

Early on, you’ll visit a museum that outlines the history of the Outer Wilds space program, with exhibits that call out some of the unexplained quantum phenomena and gravitational distortions that your fellow explorers have found. You’ll later encounter many of these same exhibits in the wild, on a much larger and dangerous scale, but as the museum suggests, the game’s overarching theme isn’t just about encountering these things or exploring the many eye-catching, heart-stopping wonders of Outer Wilds, but appreciating how they work. You’re going to be eaten by a giant anglerfish, smashed by a rotating column of ash, engulfed by the sun, buffeted by heavy gravity, thrown through a black hole, electrocuted by a jellyfish. But you’ll also study the skeletal remains of that fish or the frozen corpse of a jellyfish and realize how to utilize them. You’ll marvel at what first seems like magic, and then you’ll pull up Clarke’s third law and exploit the technology or quantum physics behind it.

The game’s time loop allows players to harmlessly test lethal hypotheses, such as what might happen if you use a geyser to propel yourself to new heights, or mix two forms of warp cores in the High Energy Lab located on Ember Twin. Throughout, your ship’s log tracks the overarching goals via a digital corkboard web of rumors—concerning gravity cannons, missing escape pods, your fellow explorers, and the mysterious Quantum Moon—but it doesn’t explicitly ask you to pursue any of those leads. In fact, Outer Wilds never even warns you that your sun is about to go supernova or suggests that you find a way to stop it.

Repetition is often the bane of time-looping games, and this is where Outer Wilds benefits from its open galaxy setting. You can travel to anything you see, even if it’s not always apparent how to, say, land on a stray comet, or approach the tiny space station that orbits the sun without being pulled into a massive star. Moreover, each planet feels distinct: Your home world of Timber Hearth is a small region of geysers and massive oxygen-producing trees, which is a far cry from Giant’s Deep, a gas-giant-like planet made of fluid layers, and the dangerous Dark Bramble, what with its misty voids and treacherous anglerfish.

And these planets continue to change as time passes, which makes familiar locations feel new again, if visited later on in the game. Take, for instance, the two binary planets known collectively as the Hourglass Twins. As sand is gravitationally pulled from Ash Twin and deposited on Ember Twin, you’ll find that the latter planet’s caves fill, becoming inaccessible. By contrast, as Ash Twin is denuded of its sandy shell, entire towers are unearthed.

Elsewhere, as planets orbit closer to the sun, iced-over paths might melt open, revealing shortcuts through, say, deadly, invisible ghost matter. You might start out trying to access the Southern Observatory on Brittle Hollow, but along the way, you may discover the massive bridges leading to the Hanging City, get sidetracked by signage pointing to the Gravity Cannon, experiment with leaping between tractor beams that lead to a Quantum Tower, or simply stumble into the hollow planet’s black-hole core and end up teleported elsewhere. Or you might get struck by debris and die, resetting back to the game’s start.

Think, then, of Outer Wilds as a maze without dead ends, or like the Nomai language itself, which is depicted as a series of geometric spirals branching out from a fixed point. Each branch, no matter how small, offers up some sort of discovery, whether it’s just a breathtaking vista, a scientific model, a fossil, or a text log. The rare adventure game in which the journey is actually more of a reward than the destination, Outer Wilds delights in inviting you to spend a few minutes marveling at the sight of the galaxy as planets orbit balletically in and out of view. You’re not exploring a series of discrete worlds so much as you are engaging with one interconnected star system, constantly learning right up to your final expedition. That’s the brilliant hook that’ll keep you returning, loop after loop, not just for the chance to watch the dizzyingly beautiful (and angrily reddening) sun crest into view, but to better know why it does so. The real world is overwhelming and unmooring, but here, in 22-minute chunks, you can wrest back a sense of control and understanding of a momentous model galaxy.

The game was reviewed using a download code provided by fortyseven communications.

Developer: Mobius Digital Publisher: Annapurna Interactive Platform: PC Release Date: March 30, 2019 ESRB: E Buy: Game

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Review: Warhammer: Chaosbane Is a Hack-and-Slash Adventure Without Purpose

Even the few inventive stretches of the game are ultimately driven into the ground by a punishing sense of repetition.

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Warhammer: Chaosbane
Photo: Eko Software

The opening cinematic for Warhammer: Chaosbane sets the tone for the game that follows. The series of crudely animated storyboard sketches describe a rather generic massive-scale war that’s just been concluded against the forces of Chaos and how your chosen protagonist bravely helped Commander Magnus to victory. What follows isn’t a hack-and-slash dungeon-crawler so much as a hack-and-slack time-killer, one that pales in comparison to the game that Chaosbane fruitlessly emulates: Diablo.

Chaosbane’s squandered potential is most evident in how the game mishandles its four selectable characters. Elessa, a wood-elf archer, is meant to use poisons and traps to keep enemies at bay, but those skills are never needed, as the game’s witless AI hordes are only too happy to serve as stationary targets for her arrows. The dwarven Bragi Axebiter uses a chain axe to grapple into foes, since his rage-based mechanic relies upon constantly hitting things, so it’s odd that many dungeons are filled with long, empty corridors that drain his rage meter. Konrad Vollen, a shield-bearing soldier gains extra strength when taunting or being swarmed by enemies, and yet outside of the co-op campaign, he seems rather listless, his status-boosting AOE banners largely going to waste. And then there’s the high-elf mage Elontir, who’s impossibly complicated to handle in the solo campaign. Indeed, the joy of finely controlling his spells is lost in the hectic rush of constantly teleporting away from foes.

The first few dungeons showcase Bigben Interactive’s latest at its best, as they at least offer the illusion of depth and variety. You’ll move from the green-hued sewers beneath Nuln to the ramparts above, and then through the grim, gray-hewn streets of the ravaged fortress city, all the while learning exciting new moves. (Never mind that the characters seem to have inexplicably forgotten all their heroic skills from that introductory cutscene.) But should you decide you don’t like Bragi’s fast-paced dual-wielding axes and want to shift to Konrad’s slower, more methodical sword-and-shield bashing, you’ll have to begin a whole new campaign, and it’s here that the game’s non-randomized levels come dully into view.

Even if you never restart and choose to stick with a single character, the rewards are quickly diminishing. You’ll revisit slightly different areas of Nuln’s sewers and streets throughout the first chapter, fighting, for the most part, the same types of monsters: some sort of swarmer, some sort of tank, a ranged unit, and perhaps a mounted creature. Your hero, limited to a single weapon type, only ever minimally upgrades his or her loot, and of those 14 active abilities and countless passives to equip, only a few builds seem viable or interesting.

The game’s main campaign is relentlessly repetitious. Dungeons are straightforward affairs, mostly linear corridors that are occasionally pockmarked with a treasure-filled cul de sac, though they offer no optional objectives or lore. There are no side quests, no interactions with townsfolk, not even a shop. There are only five or six NPCs, all of whom give the same fetch-quest variations, only with slightly different accents, and ultimately, whether they send you to the frosty trees of the Forest of Knives or the floating stone bridges of the Chaos Realm, the result is always exactly the same. While Chaosbane abounds in colorful background details—toothy red maws pressing out of the earth, tentacles flailing far beneath you—the game would have been better served by bringing more hazards to the actual forefront, so as to break up the monotony of just how easy it is to vanquish your enemies.

Even the few inventive stretches of the game are ultimately driven into the ground by that sense of repetition. Chaosbane’s four bosses are its strongest feature, given that they possess unique mechanics that you must learn to strategically overcome, from dodging a bullet-hell attack to baiting a laser away from the pillars that you’ll later need as cover. But replaying these encounters in Boss Rush mode quickly blunts the excitement of learning boss patterns, making these encounters as rote as any other enemy in the game. Increasing the difficulty simply allows enemies to hit harder and absorb more damage, which makes the game longer, not harder, and the post-game Relic Hunt mode’s random enemy modifiers do little to change this. To put it lightly, it’s a case in which nothing is adventured, and nothing is gained.

This game was reviewed using a download code provided by HomeRun PR.

Developer: Bigben Interactive Publisher: Eko Software Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: June 4, 2019 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood and Gore, Violence Buy: Game

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Review: Pathologic 2 Bears Witness to the Enormity of a Town’s Suffering

Playing Pathologic 2 feels like suffering, and it’s meant to be that way.

4

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Pathologic 2
Photo: tinyBuild

If “fun” is on one extreme of the video game emotional spectrum, Ice-Pick Lodge’s Pathologic 2 is on the other. It drops you into its setting with a harshness that’s redolent of a season’s first blast of freezing cold. As that setting, a remote town on the Russian steppe, is ravaged by mass hysteria and plague, you feel desperate and hopeless, struggling against a force you don’t understand and cannot seem to overcome so much as momentarily stave off. Playing Pathologic 2 feels like suffering, and it’s meant to be that way.

Despite the number in its title, the game is a partial remake of the cult 2004 original, which featured three playable characters with different yet interconnected stories. As of its initial release, this remake features only one: Artemy Burakh, also known as the Haruspex, a surgeon called back home by his father, a sort of folk healer within the community. For most players, however, experiencing Pathologic 2 once as a single character will be more than enough, given the game’s length and sheer difficulty. Over the ensuing 12 days, everything in the village goes wrong. Its dubious meat-packing industry halts, the tensions with an indigenous group called the Kin run hot, and a plague fills the air with black particles. People die in the streets, their houses, and the makeshift hospital cobbled together in the theater. Plague districts are cordoned off and marked by great bonfires. The army arrives, prepared to purge. For this isolated village, it feels like the end of the world, and you feel it in your bones because the game constantly places you on edge through its harsh survival mechanics.

Meters for exhaustion, hunger, and thirst tick down every minute of each hellish day, and while there are initially plenty of functional water pumps around town to quench your thirst, the other two meters need to be managed on a constricted schedule and whatever pittance is on hand. If any bar fills, it begins to subtract health. Throughout, you get what you need however you’re willing to get it. Children, for one, love nuts and sharp objects, so you might trade a pair of broken, rusty scissors and some peanuts for a salted fish to eat (at the cost of thirst), or sell one of three revolver bullets for the coffee beans necessary to stay awake instead of losing a few precious hours sleeping. Perhaps you’ll sully your reputation by cutting out the kidney of a dead mugger to sell for a bandage. Furthermore, plague districts affect an immunity meter that, if you don’t manage it properly, gives way to an infection meter.

Players will have these variables hanging over them as they’re loosed upon the town in first-person perspective. Each new day provides new events, new conversations, and new leads on certain mysteries. On the way to investigate any such points on the map, you must constantly weigh the need to finish certain events before nightfall with the need to manage meters. Is it worth it to take a detour to a shop, to trade with kids playing in a yard, or to root through an abandoned house? After all, the way Pathologic 2 handles failure is harsh, reducing the health meter and occasionally subtracting from other statistics in the event of your extremely likely death, making the next attempt more difficult. And yet the very act of managing those stats or prioritizing certain tasks might also lead to missing others entirely, with resulting consequences. Other events seem designed only to waste precious time by diverting your attention from other matters, and you’re rarely told which is which.

The only thing that significantly hinders the game’s apocalyptic despair is the sense that its difficulties have been tuned a little too sharply. For as much as the game’s survival systems are designed to be overbearing and exhausting, they often feel unnecessarily harsh, somewhere beyond the point that has already been so clearly made. In such moments, you begin to wonder if scavenging wouldn’t still convey a huge amount of stress if food satisfied just a little more of your hunger, and if the meters ticked down just a little more slowly. The developers have promised an option to adjust the difficulty in the future, though in the game’s current state, it’s hard not to wish for a slight loosening of its grip around your throat.

All the same, there’s seemingly no “right” way to play Pathologic 2. Its design philosophy is totally antithetical to the mainstream, prioritizing the embrace of failure and the stirring of emotion over linear forward progress meant to feel traditionally “good.” Even before you’re tasked with saving lives, the game is already an intensely difficult, grueling experience, and the eventual need to treat infected people—whether they’re general patients you’re being paid to save or the named characters whose survival continues their role in the story—adds still another potential stop on a crowded itinerary, another place where funds and items may be diverted to pay a toll in human lives. For example, gathering herbs allows you to brew tinctures that can be used for diagnostics, but tinctures as well as antibiotics can be traded and sold just like anything else. So you’re forced to choose which lives are most valuable, and it feels horrible to end up choosing yours over and over again.

As these different elements converge, it feels as if a community’s entire being has been crammed into Pathologic 2. You grapple with the town’s economics, keep up relationships, save lives, and peel back what layers of the place’s dark history that you can. It’s one of the most stunning examples of a game as a cohesive whole, as every aspect is tuned for maximum stress and horror—an atmosphere of imbalance and overhanging dread that’s enhanced by the eerie, ever-clanging score. All the while, the abattoir looms large in the distance, its giant, dripping sacks of meat hanging uselessly on their suspended journey to the station. The doomed wander in full-body canvas cloths tied around them, and strange beings in ghastly crow masks with glowing eyes stand watch. The town appears lost in an endless ocean of straw-yellow grass. Few games are as transportive as this, and fewer still will leave players so utterly convinced that they never want to see such a place for as long as they live.

This game was reviewed using a download code provided by tinyBuild.

Developer: Ice-Pick Lodge Publisher: tinyBuild Platform: PC Release Date: May 23, 2019 Buy: Game

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Review: Draugen Undermines Its Mystery by Pulling a Shyamalan on Players

The game forsakes worldbuilding as it increasingly gives itself over to making the most digressive of statements.

2.5

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Draugen
Photo: Red Thread Games

The self-professed “fjord noir” whodunit Draugen certainly doesn’t lack for wild ambition. While that can be an invigorating impetus to the artistry behind a video game—or that of any creative work, really—it can also run great ideas into the ground. And there’s no clearer example of that than the latest from the Oslo-based Red Thread Games. Draugen is clearly mistrustful of its potential, stuffing itself with more and more narrative ideas until it practically asphyxiates, ending up as a sprawling and unresolved mess.

The game, though, makes a great first impression with its breathtaking setting and attention to detail. You play as a stodgy American named Edward, languidly rowing a boat along a meandering Norwegian fjord, backdropped by impossibly blue skies and snow-capped mountains. He’s accompanied by his young ward, Lissie, a boisterous and irreverent teenager who has a penchant for dropping quips and endearing jibes, and much to Edward’s chagrin. All the while, the tranquility of this scene is punctuated by a beautiful and evocative orchestral soundtrack, the melody eventually subsiding as the duo docks at a nearby island.

To Edward and Lizzie’s surprise, no one has come to pick them up. The island’s small village seems recently abandoned, almost as if its inhabitants vanished overnight. It’s an impression made all the more eerie by the fact that Edward and Lissie were invited to the remote island by its most prominent family. And as Lissie tears off toward their host family’s homestead and he trudges after her, Edward can only ponder exactly what’s going on in this place.

It’s a picture-perfect setup to a potentially enthralling mystery about the secrets that plague this remote island, except that Edward is troubled by another mystery he’s looking to solve: the disappearance of his long-lost sister, Betty, who he insists has been leaving him clues to her whereabouts. But the inquisitive Lissie, who very much has the moxie of a budding detective, picks up his slack, jumping at every opportunity to learn more about the island’s secrets, even egging Edward on with her unbridled enthusiasm and imagination.

Throughout, Edward is able to search his surroundings for clues to his host family’s whereabouts, with prompts tagged to specific items around the island and inside the family’s house, leading him to make more logical conclusions than those of his more instinctually driven companion. At its strongest, Draugen spins colorful banter from the collision of Edward and Lissie’s disparate approaches to investigation. Lissie, for one, is prone to pulling nonsensical theories out of nowhere, and the contrast between her youthful exuberance and his reserved demeanor feels natural and lived in—until it suddenly isn’t.

Draugen’s sense of atmosphere is rich enough to keep one riveted for two thirds of its campaign, but then the developers spring on us a narrative curveball that effectively kills their game’s momentum. And things go downhill from there. Twist after twist is introduced without seeming rhyme or reason, almost all of them completely untethered from the mystery behind the island. After a while, Draugen completely buckles under the weight of one too many revelations, which mostly revolve around Edward’s deteriorating mental state—a plotline so astonishingly convoluted that it raises more questions than it answers.

Moreover, the game forsakes worldbuilding as it increasingly gives itself over to making the most digressive of statements, which includes poking at the fallacies of the very detective genre to which Draguen belongs. This is most apparent in how Edward, in a moment of exasperation, tells Lissie that delving into the island’s mystery is a colossal waste of time, hollering at her, “This isn’t Agatha Christie. There won’t be a convenient set of clues leading to a tidy conclusion.” And Draugen seems only too happy to heed his words, given how many stones it infuriatingly leaves unturned. By the end, the impression that lingers most is that Red Thread Games didn’t have much of an endgame planned out in advance aside from wanting to leave players feeling as if all their detective work was for nothing.

This game was reviewed using a download code provided by Evolve PR.

Developer: Red Thread Games Publisher: Red Thread Games Platform: PC Release Date: May 29, 2019 Buy: Game

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Review: Void Bastards Drolly Weds the Roguelike with the Immersive Sim

It fits together disparate genres so perfectly that you wonder how nobody thought to combine them sooner.

4

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Void Bastards
Photo: Blue Manchu

The droll wit of Void Bastards is baked into the game’s very premise: A transport spaceship bearing an assortment of freeze-dried prisoners (more room that way) is stranded in a particularly nasty nebula. There, pirates roam, monsters devour ships, and all the unfortunate citizens have been bizarrely mutated into murderous, foul-mouthed horrors. Once rehydrated, prisoners are shooed out into this unforgiving corner of space to scavenge derelict ships for parts until their probable death, after which the next unfortunate soul indicted for a comedically pedantic crime (having too many teabags, entering an office after business hours) continues the work. And so on. The gears of capitalism turn even in these ruins of bureaucratic failure, a sprawl of files and forms and insidiously softened terminology from which the prisoners (who are referred to as “clients”) may cobble together the tools to return home, where things probably aren’t all that different anyway.

As setups go, it’s a cheeky, immaculate framing device for a roguelike, which typically deals in randomized levels, permanent character deaths, and accumulable items. It contextualizes its inherently morbid repetition as, in the terms of this pencil-pushing dystopia, “expendable” prison labor, which allows Void Bastards to start shifting variables as early as the start of every attempt. Since each prisoner is a distinct entity, each comes with randomized traits, like being short (meaning they don’t need to crouch and are harder to hit) or never being attacked by one specific type of mutant. Others might smoke and therefore cough every so often, or shout in joy every time they pick up an item, both of which will alert nearby enemies to their position.

Such interactions between different variables, even as small as the way incidental noises affect stealth, typify the other genre that developer Blue Manchu patterns Void Bastards after: the immersive sim. In the image of System Shock, BioShock, and even the recent Prey, you have a variety of options to survive your first-person scavenging. Whether you favor stealth, traps, or running and gunning, the goal is to potentially take advantage of all the different systems at work. You can lock mutants in a room with a cluster bomb, or perhaps get creative with the Rifter, which warps an enemy out of existence until you bring them back in whatever location you wish. But those same systems can also work against you. For one, a ship with sporadic power outages might mean, at the worst possible moment, that you need to take a detour and give the generator a good kick. Both the roguelike and immersive sim are predicated on happy accidents, unexpected consequences, and the adaptation necessitated by both.

Void Bastards does, though, dramatically simplify the scavenging process to encourage a more frenetic style of play. Rather than fiddle with an inventory screen, prisoners vacuum up every single item inside green storage containers, which are marked on the minimap when you’re in range. This shift turns each excursion into more of an actual run, where you’re skating down metallic corridors, popping open containers, and blasting (or fleeing from) any enemies in the way. From there, the game piles on additional pressure points, like a limited oxygen supply or rifts that endlessly spawn enemies. You can certainly mitigate most of these risks—lock the doors to the rift, visit the oxygen resupply room if there is one—but it will take time, oxygen, and perhaps health if you run into, say, a powerful gun turret on the way.

These scenarios can even create further complications. What if the rift spouting nasty conglomerates of floating heads is in the oxygen room? The game is successfully designed to force you into split-second decisions and rethink your strategies, given the way its different systems interact in pressure-mounting ways. That said, the game doesn’t eliminate the immersive sim’s more meditative qualities so much as shift them to a separate planning stage. Prior to boarding a derelict vessel, you’re given a detailed readout of what to expect and allowed to choose equipment accordingly. It tells you enemy types and the quantity of each, what resources are plentiful, and what complications will arise, like power outages or radiation leaks. You even get a map of the ship in question, with items logically distributed among the named rooms; food, as you might imagine, is most plentiful in the dining hall.

The amount of forethought the game affords you is rare among roguelikes, which tend to introduce things by surprise. It imbues Void Bastards with a greater sense of consequence since you’re not at the mercy of randomization so much as your ability to plan and execute, as well as knowing when to retreat or when to avoid a ship entirely. An ideal run of Void Bastards is about planning, going on a run, and then having your plans upended by any of the different variables at work, requiring you to quickly adapt while coming up with a new plan.

However, this also means that Void Bastards is at its weakest when everything hums along smoothly. The game features a variety of absurd, amusing weapons and its distinctive comic-book art style is pleasing to look at, but a glut of smooth, uncomplicated runs can grow monotonous. The amount of strategy it affords you somewhat hinders its ability to tempt you off the path of least resistance, into the unknown and the sense of discovery that makes both roguelikes and immersive sims truly shine. But beyond this issue, what makes Void Bastards so thrilling is exactly what elevates other great nontraditional roguelikes like Slay the Spire and The Binding of Isaac: for fitting together disparate genres, in this case the roguelike and the immersive sim, so perfectly that you wonder how nobody thought to combine them sooner.

This game was reviewed using a download code provided by Humble Bundle.

Developer: Blue Manchu Publisher: Humble Bundle Platform: PC Release Date: May 29, 2019 Buy: Game

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Review: Castlevania Anniversary Collection Turns Its Back to a Series’s History

It’s not greed in this day and age to expect publishers to respect and preserve their history. At this point, it’s an artistic responsibility.

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Castlevania Anniversary Collection
Photo: Konami

The prospect of the widely detested Konami of 2019 turning a jaundiced eye toward the best franchise the beloved Konami of yore produced was, rightfully, a frightening proposition. After all, this is a publisher that’s had no qualms about charging $10 for an extra save slot, or canceling entire games, regardless of positive reception or earning potential, based on a grudge against creators. Remember that Konani’s last major contribution to the Castlevania series was a pachinko machine. So, it’s almost a tiny blessing that the worst thing visited upon the Castlevania Anniversary Collection is a sort of benign neglect.

Out of the series’s history, the Anniversary Collection includes the three NES titles (Castlevania, Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest, and Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse), the first two Gameboy titles (Castlevania: The Adventure and Castlevania II: Belmont’s Revenge), Super Castlevania IV (originally released on the SNES), Castlevania Bloodlines (originally released on the Sega Genesis and outside the United States and Japan as The New Generation), and the NES port of Kid Dracula, which was only released on Gameboy in the U.S. Want to play Haunted Castle, the obscure arcade game that serves as the mechanical basis for the first NES Castlevania? Or Dracula X: Rondo of Blood, the beautifully ambitious PC Engine CD spinoff? You’ll have to purchase those, and a sizable list of other Castlevania titles, separately. Which is a shame, because it only takes about five minutes of playtime apiece to realize that the Gameboy titles are taking up valuable real estate here that could easily have been filled by better and more interesting games in this series. The same can somewhat be said of Kid Dracula, an old-school mascot platformer that’s adorable but ultimately expendable.

The big question to be considered with any sort of collection or remaster effort is one of purpose. Is it to bring a game visually or mechanically up to modern standards? Or is it to preserve its code? In recent years, we’ve seen Sega accomplish both with their Genesis Collections, Capcom with their Anniversary Collections of Street Fighter and Legacy Collections of Mega Man, and SNK with their 40th Anniversary Collection. The list goes on and on. Ultimately, for a collection supposedly celebrating a series’s 30th anniversary, the amount of effort put into this release suggests a relationship long dead.

There are countless stories and questions about the creation and advancement of the Castlevania series that remain untold and unanswered—stories you can tell either through the inclusion of the later games that showcase that evolution, or through the inclusion of ancillary materials that tell the story more directly. Many a developer has made that effort in bringing games of this age to modern players. Konami simply doesn’t, and it’s not for a lack of proof to draw from, given how different latter-day titles in this series became in the PlayStation/Nintendo 64 era. There’s an entire thriving genre of video games co-named after this series. That alone is a grand reason to chronicle the how and why of this series’s legacy in thorough detail. Yes, putting the effort in to localize Kid Dracula certainly took work, but it’s also the least relevant game to said chronicle. This is a collection that feels loveless as a result, as it lacks so much context or respect for the place these games hold in gaming history.

Konami—partnered again with developer M2, a studio renowned for their work on similar compilations for Sega and SNK—takes a similarly haphazard approach to the more restorative aspects of this collection. Aside from a manual Quick Save system, a few perfunctory graphics filters, and screen frames, the games are, well, essentially ROM dumps. The only major concession to posterity at the moment of this review—post-launch content is planned—is a digital book, with rough concept sketches for all the games, and one admittedly excellent interview between famed series composer Michiru Yamane and Adi Shankar, show runner and executive producer of Netflix’s fantastic animated Castlevania series.

Even just the small favor of including one or two of the basic graphics-smoothing options that even the most rudimentary emulator can provide would’ve shown some level of forethought and consideration went into the Castlevania Anniversary Collection. Putting aside that it’s being released at a time when archival efforts for gaming are in full swing, this collection feels almost begrudging of the series’s existence. Given Konami’s current rep among both those who play and develop games, it’s not a stretch to consider that that may be the case.

Thankfully, whatever enmity Konami holds toward its glory days as a developer doesn’t affect the games whatsoever. The meat of the collection is, of course, the NES, SNES, and Genesis titles, which have all held up extraordinarily well to time. The original Castlevania remains quite difficult, but there’s very little in the game that goes beyond “tough but fair” aside from an infuriating fight with the Grim Reaper toward the end. Simon’s Quest is the most troublesome of the bunch, in that it’s so obtuse in its clues and RPG elements that it’s essentially impossible to progress without the aid of a strategy guide. But it’s also the most academically fascinating game in the collection. Many of its puzzles, designs, and mechanics are easily decades ahead of their time, even if they’re poorly implemented into the game.

Dracula’s Curse, Super Castlevania IV, and Bloodlines represent the series hitting a creative stride, the 8-bit Hammer horror trappings of the first two games making way for the series to develop its own identity. Dracula’s Curse and Bloodlines both bring a playfulness and mechanical ambition to the fray. The former does this via a grand experiment with branching paths and character swapping, the latter through a series of hardware-pushing special effects and optical illusions. Despite being a first-generation SNES title, Super Castlevania IV remains one of the system’s crowning achievements, especially in the sound department. Adventurous beats and melodies give way here to impressive facsimiles of an orchestral experience, featuring haunting choirs, evil organs, and ethereal, synth atmospherics that create a soundscape unlike anything else produced at the time. That, and the game’s organic, painterly aesthetic brings a dose of legitimate unsettling terror and dread far beyond the abstract pixels of the NES games or the bloodier but more cartoonish aesthetic of Bloodlines.

It’s not greed in this day and age to expect publishers to respect and preserve their history. At this point, it’s an artistic responsibility, and for a series as creative and ambitious as Castlevania, simply tossing a few barely touched ROMs at players and calling it a day can’t help but feel a little insulting, all the more so because the games presented in this collection make a rock-solid case that they’ve never been more worthy of the attention.

This game was reviewed using a download code provided by Hill+Knowlton Strategies.

Developer: Konami, M2 Publisher: Konami Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: May 16, 2019 ESRB: T ESRB Descriptions: Blood, Fantasy Violence, Partial Nudity Buy: Game

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Review: Layers of Fear 2, Though Terrifying, Clings Too Tightly to Its Script

The game’s first few acts are its finest, particularly for their strong sense of physicality.

3.5

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Layers of Fear 2
Photo: Bloober Team

Bloober Team’s latest, Layers of Fear 2, puts you in the shoes of an actor trying to find his or her character, in both the literal and figurative sense of that phrase. From a physical perspective, this means interacting with all sorts of horrific sights aboard a luxury cruise liner’s cabins: the dioramic creations of an enigmatic director (voiced by Tony Todd of Candyman fame), each designed to trigger the actor’s suppressed childhood memories. And from a psychological perspective, this means losing one’s grip on reality, as the line blurs not only between the role the actor has been tasked with playing and the actor’s past, but between a film production’s props and sets and what the actor becomes convinced he or she is seeing: hedge mazes, pirate coves, industrial cityscapes, and so on.

You’ve been hired to star in a film being shot aboard the 1930s-style Icarus Transatlantic, but over the course of the game’s five linear acts, it becomes clear that something else is happening on the curiously empty ship. Players set out from an increasingly dilapidated dressing room, exploring not just the ship itself—everything from the coal-lined engine rooms to the kitchens and first-class cabins—but a variety of on-board sets that have been built by the director, such as a pirate ship that’s surrounded by papier-mâché waves, and a recreation of a private screening room. Such visual touchstones and their recurring motifs are the layers of fear of the game’s title, opening themselves up to multiple meanings, like the playing cards that reference Alice in Wonderland but also point to a relative’s gambling addiction.

The game’s first few acts are its finest, particularly for their strong sense of physicality and connection to filmmaking methods and aesthetics. The simple puzzles require you to operate slide projectors until you’ve found the perfect shot, to use turntables to position your mannequin co-stars, or to follow chalk-drawn blocking notes across the various dioramic film sets. Even though some effects are logically impossible, such as the way flickering projector beams pierce solid walls, so that the ship’s cabins sometimes seems as if they’re bleeding pinpricks of light, the director’s manipulations are so clever that you convince yourself that it’s all somehow just a practical effect, or a really good perceptual illusion, as with the various doorways that vanish if you so happen to break your line of sight with them.

As Layers of Fear 2 reaches its conclusion, however, and the protagonist becomes more defined, we become disassociated from what should be the game’s most unnerving effects, like red-gel-lit hallways lined with squirming body parts. At times, it feels more like you’re watching a scary film from the comfort of your living room than actively participating in one. An early sequence that draws inspiration from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis—its giant brass pipes, its columns of steam—is particularly strong for its function as a filter through which the actor processes whatever horrors he or she is actually seeing in the boiler room. But it’s not long into the game before it starts to feel as if films are being referenced as a matter of course. Indeed, no narrative purpose is served by the awkward mini-game in which you fly, and in hallucinatory fashion, the rocket ship from Georges Méliès’s iconic silent short A Trip to the Moon, or the appearance toward the end by the twins from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.

Still, even when these references and recreations fail to connect to the game’s grand design, they’re at least arrestingly vivid in their aesthetics and often quite unsettling. Layers of Fear 2 doesn’t explain or justify these sequences, which makes them all the more striking. You may ask, “What, exactly, have I stumbled upon?” By contrast, the many artifacts and collectibles that you pick up throughout are frustrating for the way they elaborate upon the game’s horrors instead of deepening them: Watch as art imitates life, they seem to say to you, specifically the fateful choices made by a brother and sister who once stowed away on a ship very much like the one you’re trapped on. These narrative moments provide a safe harbor from whatever else is more immediately going on around you, giving truth to the game’s binary choice to either “Lose the character, find yourself” or “Find the character, lose yourself.”

Because Layers of Fear 2 is a game about the madness that lies within one’s imagination, it’s no surprise that the moments that hint at unseen horrors—and the 3D audio is particularly effective on this front—are more unsettling than those that explicitly show them. The sequence in which you’re trailed by ogre-like footsteps is infinitely more unnerving than the one in which your pursuer is depicted as a fire-breathing titan, whom you can easily hide from. The more that Layers of Fear 2 offers players a peek behind the curtain, the more it leans on redundant trial-and-error chase sequences, effectively leaving psychological complexity in the rear-view mirror and making it harder for us to get lost in its illusory horrors.

The acting conceit of Layers of Fear 2 presents a compelling psychological dive into what it means to create a character, to truly imagine yourself as someone else. But each time players might be swept away into something truly unsettling, the director’s demands snap things back to a comfortable reality. For all its unsightly imagery, the overall arc of the game conforms to a familiar structure (especially in the ineffective New Game+ mode), forgetting that its scariest moments are those unexpected ones between the instructions given to you by the director. Layers of Fear 2 can be terrifying, but only when it stops clinging so tightly to its script.

This game was reviewed using a download code provided by Evolve PR.

Developer: Bloober Team Publisher: Gun Media Release Date: May 28, 2019 Buy: Game

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Review: In Observation, the Ghost in the Shell Is the Player Itself

The setting of the game is the familiar stuff of science fiction, but the lens through which it’s viewed is not.

3.5

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Observation
Photo: No Code

The setting of Observation is the familiar stuff of science fiction: a space station dotted with airlocks and hatches and run by a voice-activated artificial intelligence. But the lens through which it’s viewed is not. You play as S.A.M., the aforementioned AI armed with a battalion of unblinking eyes: the cameras that line every one of the eponymous station’s hallways. Despite his constant watch, something has gone wrong aboard the station. The Observation has spun far off course, most of its crew is gone, and neither S.A.M. nor Dr. Emma Fisher, who appears to be the station’s only survivor, know what happened.

Besides observing, most of S.A.M.’s functions are doled out piecemeal for the exclusive task of progressing through the guided storyline. He can access things like laptops and terminals. He can open (and close) doors, and he can recite whatever data he’s been asked to find by Dr. Fisher to help unravel the mystery behind the station’s crisis. Though sci-fi connoisseurs may already have ideas about where the story will end up, Observation is, despite appearances, less a game about refusing to open the pod bay doors than cooperating with Dr. Fisher. S.A.M. isn’t one to cause problems so much as help solve them by dutifully performing different tasks.

If Dr. Fisher needs to broadcast a signal, for example, you’ll need to call up the ship’s map and access cameras in the room housing the astrophysics terminal. From there, you’ll use the terminal to look up the coordinates on a black-and-white image, send those coordinates to the communications screen, and then input the numbers manually. It’s not glamorous or even particularly challenging work, but neither is being a space station’s artificial intelligence; the game’s most complex tasks involve things like tracing a schematic for clues or piloting one of the spheres floating around the zero-gravity station to reach camera blind spots.

As rote and mechanical as these operations may be, they sink you deeper into your role as the AI. The game’s excellent interface design helps you feel at one with the environment through interactions that feel tactile. Adjusting camera angles is slow and accompanied by a faint hum. Spheres are likely to bump into objects since they’re a little unwieldy and don’t turn on a dime, and their camera view fizzles accordingly. Various text displays don’t look friendly, as a smartphone display might, so much as functional. They’re rendered in stark reds, whites, greens, and grays that evoke old technology—the loud clacking of keyboards, of numbers not entered so much as forcibly pressed in. The station isn’t exactlys old-fashioned, but its occasionally clunky software feels rooted in a tangible past, as if modernization has yet to erase the vestiges of technology conceived near the turn of the century.

And yet, playing as a computer isn’t the same as feeling like one. Engaging with the game means navigating its menus and devices by lumbering through human thought processes, relying on the inefficient motor functions of sausagey fingers mashing on controllers and keyboards. When moving inside a sphere, the labyrinthine station can be confusing to navigate without stopping to check a map, making it easy to float off down the wrong hallway.

To compensate for player awkwardness, Observation specifies that S.A.M. is too damaged to operate at full capacity, but it’s not quite enough to maintain the illusion. No machines ask you to interact quickly or skirt around a fail state. While this gentleness keeps the game humming along smoothly without constantly stopping to chastise players, it makes what are ostensibly the routines of a computer feel built to accommodate humans’ comparative sluggishness, preventing you from fully inhabiting a believable role. Frantic characters simply stand and stare while they wait for you to complete even the most time-consuming of tasks.

But the player’s presence isn’t a total loss since it gives the story room for subtlety. The development of S.A.M.’s emotions is understated and even totally peripheral to the central mystery because your personal reactions to characters, the solutions you uncover, and the attachments you develop stand in for what S.A.M. feels. Your emotions are his. As the plot escalates and the suspense grows, the momentum may slow as you fiddle with a door switch, but it never stops to explain character growth because you fill in the blanks yourself. S.A.M.’s development is almost taken for granted, allowed simply to be as a part of a larger story and compelling mystery buoyed by a unique perspective. There’s a ghost growing inside S.A.M.’s mechanical shell, and after just a few hours with Observation, it turns out to be you.

This game was reviewed using a download code provided by Tinsley PR.

Developer: No Code Publisher: Devolver Digital Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: May 21, 2019 Buy: Game

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Review: Rage 2 Brings the Flair, but It Barely Fills Its Open World

It’s hard not to be disappointed in how little use the Wasteland has for you when you’re not dealing in lead.

3

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Rage 2
Photo: Bethesda Softworks

The first Rage was released back in 2011, when it seemed like every game was painted in washed-out browns and grays—a visual shorthand for a world in ruin. Weirder and wilder out of the gate, Rage 2 is certainly more varied in that regard, with lush vegetation and advancements in Wasteland technology bringing modern and bracing fluorescent green and yellow glows to its environment, making for a much more colorful reality, with a striking pink visual motif cutting through almost every scene like a knife.

It’s two decades after the events of the first game, and there’s been enough peace in the post-asteroid-collision world of tomorrow for the Wasteland to develop something resembling an ecosystem capable of supporting life in the long term. And then General Cross makes his grand, violent return, wiping out the Wasteland’s seat of military power and quickly revealing that things haven’t changed as much in this world as its people would like to imagine.

There’s quite a bit of interesting world-building going on here, with the gruff warlords, scrappy survivors, and crackpot scientists of the first game joined by a motley transhumanist population that’s evolved into a slapdash DIY iteration of our modern life. Transgender bartenders and store owners are commonplace. Every human with missing limbs or other body parts seems to have their own personal, customized replacements.

The larger-than-life characters of the upper-classes range from Desdemonia, a Norma Desmond-esque vamp producing a daily televised deathmatch, to simpering scumbags like Klegg Clayton, who’s like the unholy cross between Kenny Powers and Guy Fieri. The critical NPCs who hand out the missions that advance the story are simple archetypes—save for one horrifying, Kuato-like living prosthesis—but people under their leadership are anything but.

The world of Rage 2 is a grand place to shoot things, but an even better place to simply people-watch for a spell. Strolling into new settlements and meeting these people is the most engaging part of the game, as the post-apocalyptic society feels very well conceptualized and lived-in. That said, it doesn’t take long after actually getting involved with missions and side quests to realize little has changed about Rage’s overall gameplay loop. As wonderfully realized as the world is, you only meaningfully interact with it when NPCs have missions to dole out. And those missions almost unilaterally involve driving to a specific place on the map, killing everything that moves, looting the place blind, and moving on.

The killing and looting in and of itself isn’t necessarily a detriment. There’s a lot of the same ethos going on here that fueled Id’s Doom reboot from 2016—a game that, for what it’s worth, I’ve come around to since my initial review. Every gun has a visceral heft and punch to it, bolstered here by a surprisingly vast collection of superpowers and nanomachine-aided combat enhancements. Mechanically, Rage 2 feels more like Crackdown than, well, the Crackdown game we got this year. Missions are rewarding enough where every couple of skirmishes nets you a much-needed upgrade or the materials/currency to purchase or trade for it. It’s become pretty clear in recent years how much we all need to treasure games operating at this level that aren’t abhorrently stingy with immediate gratification.

Doom, however, is a game content to just let the player plow through hordes of nameless cannon fodder for hours, and little else. It starts with the protagonist literally pushing character motivation and backstory aside so he can get some killing done. The setup is far more involved in Rage 2, and the world so much bigger, but it’s one that’s littered with distractions from the main quest, and characters whose motivations and problems beg for more nuance than Rage 2 is willing to provide. Roaming from place to place looking for either more things to kill or better, more efficient ways to do it is a huge waste of an interesting world, and if there was any lesson this type of game should have taken from the Fallout series—or, more broadly, from the Mad Max films it’s drawing so much inspiration from—it was telling dozens of tiny interpersonal tales using the deep pool of well-drawn characters at its disposal without sacrificing being a gory shootout in a desolate environment.

The actual, spatial waste just compounds the problem. Rage 2 is another in a sad class of open-world games that has trouble filling up that open world, and that’s a bigger problem when gameplay doesn’t meaningfully vary from “kill everything in sight.” There’s plenty of driving to be done, and there are races, just like in the first Rage. There’s also a tidy collection of armored vehicles to try out beyond the APC you get at the game’s start. These are the only activities that significantly stray from the one thing Rage demands from its players.

Still, it cannot be understated how good Rage 2 is at that one thing. It’s a game that works wonders in small, appreciable bursts of neon violence, engaging enough to see its comparatively brief story through to its conclusion. When it’s all over, however, it’s hard not to be disappointed in how little use the Wasteland has for you when you’re not dealing in lead.

The game was reviewed using a download code provided by fortyseven communications.

Developer: Avalanche Studios, id Software Publisher: Bethesda Softworks Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: May 14, 2019 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood, Language, Suggestive Themes, Violence Buy: Game

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