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Review: Hitman 2

Hitman 2 is a dense assassination sim bursting with possibility, tension, and wicked comedy.

4.5

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Hitman 2
Photo: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment

The 2016 soft reboot of Hitman adopted an outsized back-to-basics approach, returning the series to open-ended stealth missions, and across bigger levels than ever before. It fine-tuned familiar systems to create the most playable, accessible incarnation of the series yet. Compared to that game, Hitman 2 is more of a refinement than a reinvention. It has big, brand-new levels, but the mechanical changes are rather slight, like allowing your character to hide in foliage, blend into crowds, or be seen in the mirror.

Of course, even refinement is cause for celebration. Hitman is one of the greatest stealth games ever conceived, and the sequel is still a dense assassination sim bursting with possibility, tension, and wicked comedy. As before, the bald, bar-coded Agent 47 infiltrates wide-open levels that offer a variety of ways to reach and then execute his targets—though with the aid of poison or a sniper rifle, sometimes he doesn’t need to reach them at all. Many of the mechanics and level-design philosophies carry over to this new game entirely intact, to the point where levels from Hitman (which can be redeemed if you own the earlier game or purchase them as additional content) even slot neatly into the Hitman 2 menu as if they’ve been there all along.

Also as before, the slightest bit of plot is threaded through the game’s five levels. The story is a rote, convoluted conspiracy thriller just po-faced enough to serve its higher purpose: contrast. Like its predecessor, Hitman 2 recognizes that the inherent silliness of its premise—the highly conspicuous 47 can successfully disguise himself as almost anyone, as if he lives in some bizarre one-clothing-size-fits-all parallel universe—is funnier when it plays some things straight. So, while the story is concerned with 47’s true origins and who runs the world from the shadows, it works best to highlight the pleasing nonsense of something like the stoic 47 wearing the costume of a big flamingo sports mascot. His head pokes out of the hole in the costume’s neck, an oversized beak wobbling above his chrome dome as he struts away to grimly murder someone for money. Throughout, 47 crosses professional, vocal, and even racial lines with ease, manipulating a deeply oblivious society to a degree so absurd that it all plays like outright social satire.

That you can complete levels normally while dressed as a pistol-toting security guard instead of, say, an animal wrangler referred to as a “hippo whisperer” is an integral part of the game’s comedy, though traditional approaches are rewarding in their own right. Hitman 2’s combination of hiding in plain sight and ducking behind objects, creeping through hostile areas in search of a new disguise is as tense as it’s ever been. It’s still rewarding to pull off a careful series of plans, and still even more thrilling to watch those plans spiral out of control as you’re forced to violently improvise.

With its huge levels and the dizzying number of possibilities within them, the game walks a fine line between leading you along and leaving you to your own devices. The mission opportunities of the previous game, which set up the most outlandish and, more often, elaborate kills imaginable, sometimes made players feel as if they were going through a script as they went from one waypoint to the next. One of Hitman 2’s larger improvements attempts to remedy this: Opportunities are now called “mission stories” and function in largely the same way, laying out a number of steps to follow, but they now tend to require some additional input or step. They less often lead you by the nose up to the moment of a kill so much as set up an environment for players to take advantage of. Other elaborate methods don’t receive stories at all.

However, the game again lacks much of a middle ground for getting through these stories. The “minimal” guidance option is preferable since it lists objectives without marking specific waypoints to follow, but in massive levels loaded with information, the openness can be daunting and a little frustrating when you’re expected to follow such specific steps. The stories are often the best way to get to know the locations and possibilities of a level, so it seems counterintuitive to come back to them only after acquiring an intimate knowledge of the location. To create a more fully fledged “minimal” option, the developers at IO Interactive might have done better to write vaguer objectives or use waypoints that only mark a general area (or some combination of the two) rather than get rid of the waypoints entirely.

Elsewhere, Hitman 2 still struggles a little to incentivize improvisation. The series has come far in emphasizing its preferred playstyle of exploration and experimentation across repeat playthroughs, but like the Dishonored series and many stealth games in general, what the game marks as an ideal playthrough isn’t always the most engaging way to play. Though level-specific challenges and even some of the mission stories don’t require perfect runs to complete, it sometimes feels as if the most rewarding parts of the Hitman series mean making your own fun with the tools available to you. IO Interactive have left more than enough of those tools lying around the levels to accommodate, but it remains a challenge they have yet to solve.

To some degree, the difficulty of encouraging improvisation and emergent play is a problem of the entire genre, and perhaps it’s a little unfair to expect Hitman 2 to solve such a far-reaching issue forever. But the fact that this issue stands out, and that it even seems like something IO Interactive could potentially address, is a testament to how far the Hitman series has come since its rough beginnings. Hitman 2 reasserts Agent 47’s spot at the apex of the stealth genre. Even if the lavish detail, excellent writing, and world of possibility within vivid levels mostly just refine what came before, that’s because IO Interactive have all but perfected what they set out to achieve in Hitman: Codename 47 nearly 20 years ago.

Developer: IO Interactive Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: November 14, 2018 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood, Intense Violence, Strong Language, Use of Drugs and Alcohol

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Review: In Wide Ocean Big Jacket, the Magic Is in the Smallest of Details

The game captures place and feeling through honing in on things that are singular, small, and warm.

4

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Wide Ocean Big Jacket

Turnfollow’s Wide Ocean Big Jacket gains so much of its character from the little details: the radio playing when Uncle Brad buys a pile of wood for a campfire, or the glow-in-the-dark skeleton that he and Aunt Cloanne use to mark their campsite. Their tent is a two-roomer, and Cloanne explains that they, veteran campers that they are, usually set up a little table in the additional space, for reading indoors in the middle of the outdoors. On this trip, though, the other room belongs to Brad’s 13-year-old niece, Mord, and her best friend who’s now her trial boyfriend, Ben. The kids aren’t totally sure about relationships, as they’re still in that phase of life where relationships aren’t a “real” thing yet—more of a distraction and a declaration than a commitment. But they’ve decided to give it a try.

Mord explains this relationship to Brad while they’re setting up camp, telling him that, as a way of acceptance, Ben had said it doesn’t sound “too scary.” Backstory is delivered this way throughout the game, through simple dialogue about what’s already happened. Instead of outright flashbacks to past moments, there’s only the now, the little snapshots of time the characters spend talking in their wooded setting, or the next one, or on the beach. Wide Ocean Big Jacket is broken up into 20 such vignettes, often swapping between perspectives as the characters amble around these tiny areas with their shuffly gaits that have a pleasantly jerky quality reminiscent of hand-drawn animation. Sometimes they have actions to perform, like when Cloanne watches birds through binoculars or Mord cartwheels across the sand.

Other times, you just page through the dialogue (or, in one case, the narrative of a trashy paperback) from an observer’s perspective, seeing what the characters have to say around the campfire and look at their expressions. The dialogue unspools in small snippets on simple black screens, below black-and-white drawings of the characters’ heads. Though the portraits are totally static, the screens convey a lot through simple tone and those unchanging expressions: Mord’s dead-on stare informs her quirky personality, and Ben has the bashful demeanor of a kid whose eyes you can’t quite see behind the reflection of his glasses. What might have felt limited instead seems specific, even affecting.

Turnfollow does so much with so little. Despite its unassuming art style and brief length—a little over an hour, if that—the game suggests so much beyond itself, through the lyrical cadence of the dialogue, the charming specificity it brings to the characters’ lives, and the way it cuts out of dialogue to reveal scenes like how Mord is standing on a picnic table. The characters are so vividly defined that you get the urge to play according to their behavior, whether it’s deciding which bush to pee in or whether or not to cook a whole mess of hot dogs at once on the same skewer. Wide Ocean Big Jacket bottles small moments and makes them feel important, not because they speak to some world-ending conflict, but because they’re formative: a kiss, an argument, a sighting of a pretty cool stick to wave around. The game captures place and feeling through honing in on things that are singular, small, and warm.

The game was reviewed using a digital Switch copy purchased by the reveiwer.

Developer: Turnfollow Publisher: Tender Claws Platform: Switch Release Date: February 4, 2020 ESRB: T ESRB Descriptions: Crude Humor, Language, Sexual Themes, Use of Alcohol and Tobacco Buy: Game

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Review: Lair of the Clockwork God Is a Fine-Tuned Comedy Machine

With their latest, Dan Marshall and Ben Ward successfully extend their lovingly parodic style to a much broader range of genres.

4

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Lair of the Clockwork God
Photo: Size Five Games

“Why play only one genre of game when you could be playing two slightly different ones at the same time?” That’s a somewhat misleading tagline for Lair of the Clockwork God, as you never simultaneously control the game’s self-aware protagonists, Dan and Ben. Rather, you swap between them, as well as control schemes.

Dan is a platformer enthusiast who refuses to interact with objects, while Ben is a stubborn LucasArts point-and-click adventure junkie who doesn’t care to jump. Figuring out how to use the skills we associate with their favorite genres of game to navigate through a Peruvian jungle, apocalyptic London, and an alien spaceship results in a game that’s fresher and more innovative than yet another standalone platformer or adventure game would be. Lair of the Clockwork God is an exciting way for creators Dan Marshall and Ben Ward to not only set it apart from their prior Dan and Ben titles (Ben There, Dan That and Time Gentlemen, Please), but to successfully extend their lovingly parodic style to a much broader range of genres.

The game is a gold mine of comic scenarios in which the fictionalized, fourth-wall-breaking duo at its center solves novel puzzles using an intentionally haphazard control scheme. Dan’s refusal to interact with even basic objects like a light switch results in gloriously convoluted workarounds, like the one where Ben must find a way not only to reactivate a drone, but to somehow make it glow in the dark. As the game points out, Ben is essentially Dan’s platforming gimmick; instead of Dan having to seek out skill upgrades, Ben combines items from his inventory into accessories that allow Dan to double-jump or hang from walls. Lair of the Clockwork God’s hybridization of platformer and adventure conventions is more than just a successful approach to everything that Ron Gilbert was trying to do with 2013’s The Cave; it’s also a simultaneous homage and critique of the conventions of various genres, with the two protagonists mercilessly commenting on how games have evolved—or not.

Lair of the Clockwork God’s central conceit is that Dan and Ben must teach a faulty A.I. how to re-empathize with humanity. They do so by entering “constructs” (self-contained levels) that represent feelings like Grief or Fear, and each area is “beaten” once the duo has done enough to sufficiently model that emotion to the game’s titular god. This focused, vignette-like structure also allows Marshall and Ward to quickly bounce between concepts, the result of which is a game that pokes fun at everything from visual novels to virtual reality, with plenty of righteous indignation left over for walking simulators and monetization options.

Ironically, the one thing Lair of the Clockwork God doesn’t have much to say about is other platforming games. One of the 11 constructs, Anger, does a fine job of channeling through Dan the sort of curse-spewing, controller-flinging rage that those who’ve played masocore games like Super Meat Boy will instantly relate to. The rest of Dan’s platforming sections feel secondary to Ben’s adventuring. Whereas the inventory puzzles are given new life by Ben’s outsized attempts to puzzle his way past obstacles that Dan can simply jump over, Dan’s largely dialogue-free acrobatics feel like the interstitial stuff you have to complete to get to the next clever puzzle or bracing joke. Dan’s the straight man who sets up the jokes, as when he mantles over some ledges so that he can pop the balloon holding up a dead clown aloft. But it’s Ben who lands the comedy of those moments; his ability to Look at objects or to Use items on them provides the literal observational wit and shock humor needed to push these scenes over the edge: “I feel like pissing on a clown’s entrails wouldn’t be funny somehow.”

Everywhere else, though, Lair of the Clockwork God has plenty to say, with each new area finding a clever way to demonstrate a particular emotion. Joy, for instance, manifests for Dan as a Sonic-like Green Hills Zone filled with floating beer caps and frothy alcohol waterfalls for him to run and jump through. By contrast, Ben’s never happier than when he sets about dismantling the bureaucracy that governs the way a platformer respawns upon death.

Regardless of whether you share Ben and Dan’s nostalgia, their emotions are infectious. The scenarios they face are absurdly over the top, but their actual responses are all too relatable. Most remarkably, however, is that the game can troll players with levels like Confusion and Disappointment and lull them into thinking that Hope is nothing more than a stinging punchline, only to at the last minute show up to the table with the unexpected sincerity of Regret. As it turns out, Lair of the Clockwork God is less about teaching an A.I. what it means to be human than about providing players with examples of how to be better people.

The game was reviewed using a review code provided by Size Five Games.

Developer: Size Five Games Publisher: Size Five Games Platform: PC Release Date: February 21, 2020 ESRB: T Buy: Game

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Review: LUNA The Shadow Dust Is Visually Dazzling but Succumbs to Monotony

Its point-and-click adventure elements eventually feel alternately rudimentary and more than a little tedious.

2.5

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LUNA The Shadow Dust

Presented in a beautiful hand-drawn style with detailed animation and a soft color palette, LUNA The Shadow Dust suggests a storybook come to life. The main characters, a cat-like creature with a shadowy face and a boy who wears a rabbit-eared hood, wordlessly make their way through a mysterious tower. Its rooms are full of puzzles tied to intricate devices and murals from long ago, depicting patterns to follow that will let you unlock the next door. But despite the game’s considerable visual panache, its point-and-click adventure elements eventually feel alternately rudimentary and more than a little tedious.

Throughout, you control the characters separately, initially needing one of them to complete a simple task on one end of a room that will have some effect on the other side. As the game continues, you begin to split the characters up even further, moving them into entirely separate spaces. The creature, for example, may need to stand in some ethereal void filled with trees, while the boy pulls a lever to cycle the void through different seasons. Though the initially basic puzzles grow somewhat more challenging and satisfying to complete with this degree of separation added to the mix, monotony takes hold as you watch the characters laboriously shuffle from one end of the screen to another.

The game is at its best early on, as a kind of visual tour that demands minimal effort from the player, where the puzzles are a largely inconsequential barrier to seeing the sights. The puzzle rooms’ initial layouts are economical, with small areas that hold some obvious visual clue for how to proceed. Such simplicity makes those first puzzles feel a little rote, but they’re the most effective, unintrusive vehicle for simply appreciating LUNA’s artistry.

As the game wears on, though, it introduces the aforementioned complex spaces, requiring the characters to separate for longer periods and trek up and down stairs as well as in and out the same doors. Combined with the sluggish walking cycle, the backtracking can often feel like outright punishment for not solving the progressively more involved puzzles on the first try. The very space that once seemed so breathtaking becomes easy to resent. As some of the animations and actions repeat for no discernible reason (one cart ride to gather books needs to be done a baffling four times), the gorgeous, otherwise relaxed experience begins to grate.

The game was reviewed using a review code provided by Application Systems Heidelberg Software GmbH.

Developer: Lantern Studio Publisher: Application Systems Heidelberg Buy: Game

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Review: Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance Tactics Takes Path of Least Excitement

The uninspired material is unable to elevate the game’s moth-eaten ramblings about good and evil.

2

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Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance Tactics

The draw of a game inspired by The Dark Crystal and indebted to Final Fantasy Tactics is easy enough to grasp. Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance Tactics offers fans of Jim Henson’s 1982 fantasy film and Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance the chance to see Rian, Brea, and Deet—characters from the Netflix series—engage in tile- and turn-based combat. But it’s difficult to imagine anyone being elated by BonusXP’s game, as the paper-thin quality of its story is as undeniable as its mechanics are behind the times.

The gameplay loop of Age of Resistance Tactics is beyond familiar. You select different points on a map to initiate battles with bad guys—in this case, everything from the Skeksis, the main antagonists in the The Dark Crystal franchise, to giant worms. As in chess, you move your characters to different tiles in order to control key segments of territory, set up combination attacks, and so on. The objectives of war range from wiping out every enemy to moving a set number of characters to an exit. After victory, you gain experience points and gold, which can be spent on equipment that increases your power, defense, and other attributes.

Oddly enough, you rarely acquire enough gold to buy much of anything for a party that eclipses 10 members, but it doesn’t matter. You can get by with substandard weapons and armor in Age of Resistance Tactics because the battles don’t demand any unusual strategic thinking. Enemy groups tend to be small, the environmental elements are unthreatening (gusty winds, for one, can be avoided or ignored with little repercussion), and the character techniques fail to fall outside of what one would expect from a tactical game of this nature. The melee techniques, buffs, projectiles, and magic attacks at your disposal recall the player’s combat options in everything from Into the Breach to Fire Emblem: Three Houses.

The developers at BonusXP try to spice up the affair with tiles of different heights and a job system that allows characters to combine disparate abilities. Obviously, then, they believe that emulating the well-executed concepts of Final Fantasy Tactics is a sturdy enough foundation, and to their credit, the results are serviceable. You certainly can’t sleepwalk your way through Age of Resistance Tactics and fail to, say, increase the adaptability of your party by making offense-dominant characters adopt healing skills from a defense-oriented job. And you can’t truly take advantage of the soldiers with ranged attacks unless you pay attention to height dynamics. But these gameplay elements are integral to more than a few titles from this subgenre of game, and BonusXP mostly just follows a well-tread formula.

Take away the characters, myths, and other connections to the Dark Crystal universe and it’s easy to see that Age of Resistance Tactics has no real identity of its own. Outside of the occasional comic-book cutscene, the story is largely relegated to a small handful of lines of dialogue before or after battle. The plot is easily digestible but with the anonymous quality common to something made by committee, as in the way the heroes have to exterminate pests before a community will guide them to a new location. And such uninspired material is unable to elevate this fantasy game’s moth-eaten ramblings about good and evil.

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

Developer: BonusXP Publisher: En Masse Entertainment, Netflix Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: February 4, 2020 ESRB: E10+ ESRB Descriptions: Alcohol Reference, Fantasy Violence Buy: Game

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Review: Kentucky Route Zero: TV Edition Is a Magisterial Elegy for a Nation

Kentucky Route Zero is about America in a way few games aspire to be and fewer still succeed at.

5

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Kentucky Route Zero: TV Edition
Photo: Annapurna Interactive

Had Kentucky Route Zero been released for the first time this year, it would have been easy to mistake its concerns for being entirely contemporary. When we talk about recent art that addresses the many injustices of capitalism and widespread disenfranchisement, there’s a tendency to frame such discussion in the context of the 2016 election. Rising discontent, widening income gaps, and chosen ignorance in the face of ecological devastation have further popularized stories to voice our collective anger, usually with subtext about eating the rich or gazing upon the end of the world. The setting of the five-part episodic adventure game fits right into such an atmosphere of resentment: a ravaged, mysterious Rust Belt stripped for parts and left to rot, its people displaced and indebted yet doing their best to scrape by.

But this towering masterwork from the three-man development team of Cardboard Computer stretches back further, taking a much longer view of things past than what might simply be described as “post-Trump.” Though the first part, Act One, came out in 2013, the game’s weariness and outrage extend beyond even the late-2000s financial crisis that inspired it, cutting to the very bones of moral compromise that make up the United States. Kentucky Route Zero is about America in a way that few games aspire to be and fewer still succeed at, as its deceptively quiet story gives way to something odd, sad, and brimming with humanity.

Though the game begins with Conway, an old man who drives a sputtering delivery truck for a floundering antique store, the cast gradually expands with each act. Shannon Márquez repairs old television sets in the back of a bait and tackle shop and is the cousin of the enigmatic Weaver, who tends to appear and disappear through pirate TV signals. Ezra, introduced in Act Two, is a boy who lives with a giant eagle in the Museum of Dwellings, a housing display over a razed neighborhood. First seen in Act Three, Junebug is a robotic musician in punk attire, originally designed to clear the old mine but now making her own way and her own sense of self alongside Johnny, another mechanical worker. To some degree, you control all of them, moving them around the screen in different scenes, but mainly you choose their dialogue and decisions.

Spilling out in a script-like format and typeface, the words of Kentucky Route Zero are numerous, the majority of the game predicated simply on talking to people and visiting dreamlike places. Though it superficially resembles a point-and-click adventure game, there aren’t really any puzzles, just choices to navigate the locations and the dialogue paths. A few of the choices matter, though most are flavor; for one, Conway’s dog can be a male Homer, a female Blue, or have no designated name and gender. Mainly, you pick the direction of conversations, defining what the characters might say and what they fixate on, who speaks and who stays quiet as the other choices often melt away, the dialogue having flowed in one direction instead of another.

This is, then, a game that asks you to inhabit multiple perspectives rather than consider them from a fixed distance, absent the artifice of world-defining choices. You consider personalities and states of mind, discovering the characters through half-remembered snippets of stories and the way they speak to each other, the way they think, the way they interact with the world. The game develops its own unique rhythms of easygoing movement and gradual exploration, a gorgeous synthesis of sound, image, and text that gets to the heart of how it feels to be out in the night air, to inhabit space along country roads and woods and fields. This is a twilight drive made physical, evoking the imagery of abandoned places and husks of human habitation often only through the words of characters who speak in the over-sharing cadence of the lonely and lost.

Here, you don’t poke around for collectibles or experience so much as a general sense of discovery, the urge to take your time and drive through the darkness for the simple sake of finding weird, pretty scenes dense with metaphor. One of the most impressive things about the game is how it has evolved, growing more ambitious from one act to the next while remaining remarkably cohesive. Later acts switch up camera angles and dialogue presentation without uprooting what’s come before, without diluting its power; some of the most affecting moments are still the early ones that eschew the simplistic graphical style entirely, leaving you only with the text interface and the brilliant sound design of ethereal music, chirping bugs, and dripping water.

Kentucky Route Zero is a game often content to remain as mysterious as its namesake, an underground highway seemingly unbound by physical laws. Any fights, between unions and predatory companies, have already happened or doubtless will happen again. Instead, it explores the aftermath of cultural devastation, of how people survive in the ruins of the American experiment and how they build atop (or beneath) that wreckage, with the strange reality meant to represent what capitalism has done to the world. The magic is there, only contained and warped by the society that has grown around it.

The characters’ paths narrow as the game continues, as the fist of an unfeeling system closes and people are overwhelmed by weaknesses; you drift from the role of driver to the person being driven to a simple observer of what’s to come. The people you encounter are refugees of greed and exploitation and obsolescence, and there’s a sliver of hope as they defiantly continue, finding pleasure in creation and companionship. They write, they compose, they perform, and they record, inspired by past struggles and a world content to forget its own history beyond facile preservation attempts in arbitrary little museums. After seven years, this visionary masterpiece concludes, an impressionist portrait of people doing what they can in a world that will never recover.

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

Developer: Cardboard Computer Publisher: Annapurna Interactive Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: January 28, 2020 ESRB: T ESRB Descriptions: Language, Use of Drugs Buy: Game

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Review: Reality TV Strikes Back in the Darkly Satirical Ministry of Broadcast

The game does a fine job of narratively showing the way in which a person can be broken down and made to believe anything.

3.5

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Ministry of Broadcast
Photo: Hitcents

There’s always been something fatalistic about video games, the way in which, once you’ve selected your playable character, you’re locked into a specific role. As much as certain games might emphasize personal choice, like Mass Effect, or navigational freedom, like Skyrim, they’re ultimately offering little more than the illusion of control.

The darkly satirical Ministry of Broadcast doesn’t wait for some late-game BioShock-like twist to reveal that your character has never been—and never will be—more than a cog in the machine. The reality television program The Wall Show, filmed in what appears to be a repurposed Siberian prison, serves as a framework for a game that can’t help but emphasize just how scripted everything is in its world. Even in the opening title sequence, which shows your character blithely jumping out of the back of a speeding truck that’s just gorily flattened a janitor, the game is gleefully explicit about how your progress comes entirely at the expense of others, even going so far as to point out your complicity in all of it. What won’t you stoop to as this unnamed, ginger-headed competitor in the latest season of a dystopian country’s reality program, hoping to win the right to cross the wall and reunite with your loved ones?

Though this shoeless, put-upon protagonist believes himself to be an unsorted contestant, one without a clearly defined role in the competition, it quickly becomes obvious that Shoeless is being molded into the exact sort of player that the regime ruling the country he calls home demands its citizens to be. Resistance isn’t just futile, it’s not even an option. This is the flipside of what happens in Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee, where saving your colleagues simply requires additional puzzle-solving. Here, you absolutely cannot progress if you’re not willing to repurpose your comrades as fleshy bridges over spiked pits, or as distractions for feral dogs.

At first, this violence is explained away by The Wall Show as being staged: Nobody’s really dying, thanks to absurdities like puncture-proof clothing. And Shoeless’s belief in that allows him to absolve himself of guilt. For players, the pixelated aesthetic and comic tone of the game are similarly distancing: They downplay the goriness—and finality—of some of these later encounters, as if a person is any less dead if they’ve been cartoonishly impaled on a zeppelin, sucked into a drainage pipe, or consumed by an alligator. But though your character escapes angry enforcers, collapsing structures, and radioactive rooms, the game itself never lets you get away from the consequences of your actions. Regardless of the nature of any episode’s violence, it always ends with your protagonist having to trudge back through the prison-like facility’s basecamp, passing the baleful stares of his unhappy fellow contestants.

While Ministry of Broadcast does a fine job of narratively showing the way in which a person can be broken down and made to believe anything—the game’s creators cite George Orwell’s 1984 as an inspiration—the gameplay often feels out of sync with that storytelling angle. For one, the limited control scheme only lets you jump directly up or across and makes it difficult to position yourself by the ledges you’re trying to climb. Making Shoeless’s actions so laborious feels incongruous with the game’s central premise: that Shoeless is all too easy to control, that he doesn’t struggle or think twice about killing his companions.

It’s one thing to be inspired by the classic mechanics of cinematic action-adventure games like 1989’s Prince of Persia and 1991’s Out of This World, but it’s another to be unnecessarily beholden to them. Indeed, Ministry of Broadcast’s allegiance to those games’ clunky controls is especially odd given that its artistry is miles away from the drab, pixelated graphics of those older titles. This is a game that knows how important it is that players feel the full illustrative soullessness of all those snowy exteriors, graffitied corridors, red-lit bunkers, and empty warehouses that make up the barbed-wire-ringed confines of The Wall Show.

But if you can get past its unnecessarily irksome controls, there’s a lot to enjoy about Ministry of Broadcast. While it remains a platformer throughout, the game’s various episodes offer different takes on the genre, from the emphasis on stealth during a prison break, where you walk around wielding an imaginary finger-gun, to a surreal horror sequence in which you stumble around the dark depths of the facility where The Wall Show is filmed, led by a talking, glow-in-the-dark crow. One day you’re participating in a (rigged) election between the colors Red and Blue, and the next you’re in the middle of a war movie, diving desperately into bunkers as you flee an enemy nation’s aerial bombardment.

The only constant throughout these settings is the way in which you’re being conditioned. Just look at the way each episode’s name riffs on the Kübler-Ross model, shifting from the “Celebration of Denial” to the “Repression of Depression” before ultimately ending with a fatalistic choice in which you either accept what you’ve done, or you die. Or to frame it as Ministry of Broadcast does, sometimes a game simply isn’t winnable.

The game was reviewed using a review code provided by Hitcents.

Developer: Ministry of Broadcast Studios Publisher: Hitcents, PLAYISM Platform: PC Release Date: January 30, 2020 ESRB: T Buy: Game

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Review: Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot Is a Bloated Serving of More of the Same

The world here is littered with side missions out in the wild, and most of them amount to uninspired fetch quests.

2.5

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Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot
Photo: Bandai Namco

With over nearly 40 years of material to draw from, for any Dragon Ball video game to retell the story of the first Saiyans to arrive on Earth and Goku awakening to his lineage is as lazy as a Star Wars game going to Hoth. And yet, that’s exactly the story that Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot tells, without doing anything new to make it worth telling.

It’d be nice to say that Kakarot at least represented a sea change in telling that story as an RPG, but “DBZ as an RPG” has also been done to death, even done quite well a couple of times. And, for what it’s worth, Kakarot isn’t even remotely the worst example of a Dragon Ball RPG: For that, look no further than the awful, throwaway card-based games.

Visually, this game is largely on par with 2018’s stellar Dragon Ball FighterZ. The combat, while extremely simplified, does capture much of that trademark DBZ flash and destructive flair. And quite a bit of work has gone into recreating the show’s TV-style presentation through interstitials, narration, and music, bringing back the playful tone of the original Japanese production (every version of the show broadcast in the West tries to introduce an edginess that isn’t there in Japanese cuts). The best thing about the game is that it’s the most faithful adaptation of the saga, but that also happens to be the worst thing about it.

The anime was notorious for padding out each episode and each story arc with startling amounts of filler material. That included special attacks that would literally take multiple episodes to charge and fire, slapsticky interludes involving characters light years away from the main action, and, at times, characters just standing around waiting to continue a fight.

There’s a sequence early in the DBZ metaseries where Saiyan baddies Vegeta and Nappa face off against Earth defenders Piccolo, Krillin, and Gohan, but when they sense that Goku—killed in a previous battle with his brother, Raditz—is being resurrected, they literally stop the fight to wait for him to arrive. There’s legitimate reason for that on the show—the anime was in production while the manga was still being drawn, which left the animators stalling for time—but, for reasons beyond explanation, this and other excruciating wheel-spinning has been replicated perfectly in Kakarot. And there’s easily over 25 hours of that sort of scene here. Indeed, this is an RPG that won’t allow the next major story beat to be advanced until you’ve done unrelated busywork to stall for time. What should be rousing nostalgia for the early days of the DBZ series ends up bringing back painful memories of playing Anthem.

What makes Kakarot particularly egregious is how much its padding issues apply to its design. This is, ostensibly, an open-world game, abundant in massive countrysides and cityscapes, but these environments are largely empty. The world here is littered with side missions out in the wild, and most of them amount to uninspired fetch quests. There are cooking and fishing mini-games, though neither of them are as crucial to the plot, character development, or your survival as similar mechanics in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild or Final Fantasy XV.

In Kakarot, you can fly around collecting orbs that can be spent to unlock new moves, which is fun but not nearly enough to justify all that empty, unused space. There are training grounds scattered across the game’s open world where you can defeat random characters to learn new moves, and there are stores that sell healing items to use during battle. These are both useful resources, but they’re tiny points of light across what’s otherwise miles and miles of nothing.

Though Kakarot comes alive during combat, that’s also not without its flaws. You can perform all manner of light-show-inducing Super Moves by holding the left shoulder and pushing a button. However, as long as you can maneuver properly and you’re stocked up with enough healing items, you can so very easily cheese your way through the entire game by just spamming your most basic attacks. Super Moves wind up being for your own satisfaction than a vital cornerstone of a fight. That’s despite having an entire Final Fantasy-style grid/job system meant to provide enhancements to your team of fighters, and the lack of tension or challenge from fights provides you with absolutely no urgency or incentive to use it.

Kakarot’s overarching problem is one of focus. This is a game made with all the resources necessary to create a great Dragon Ball title, and no small amount of affection for the universe. It also has no ambitions of being more than a set of weak, timewasting barriers between you and witnessing a storyline that fans have seen recreated dozens of times before. Even the folks behind the anime knew there was room to reduce the story to its strongest elements, which is how the abbreviated Dragon Ball Z Kai came about. It’s not certain who exactly needed Dragon Ball Z regressed to its most bloated form, but it does this story no favors.

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

Developer: CyberConnect2 Publisher: Bandai Namco Platform: Xbox One Release Date: January 17, 2019 ESRB: T ESRB Descriptions: Mild Language, Suggestive Themes, Violence Buy: Game

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Review: Journey to the Savage Planet Gamifies What It Means to Critique

The game’s themes feel like facile wallpaper over mechanics that feed into the ideas being critiqued.

2

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Journey to the Savage Planet
Photo: 505 Games

In Journey to the Savage Planet, you work for Kindred Aerospace, a dubious space exploration company. At their behest, you’re dropped onto the uncharted planet AR-Y 26 with orders to explore, document, and ultimately plunder the place for resources. All the while, live-action videos of Kindred’s wacky CEO and audio commentary from EKO, the sociopathic ship AI, emphasize that this is all supposed to be comedic. By loudly depicting resource exploitation as well as general disregard for the environment, the company’s personnel, and any semblance of collateral damage, the developers at Typhoon Studios mean to send up colonialism and capitalism at large. (The “savage” part of the game’s title is satirical, or at least it’s supposed to be.) But like The Outer Worlds, the game’s themes feel like facile wallpaper over mechanics that still feed into the same ideas being critiqued.

Like so many modern video games, for example, you must engineer new equipment from whatever stuff you’ve scrounged from the environment. AR-Y 26’s system of branching paths, potential shortcuts, hidden health upgrades, and scan-able objects recalls Metroid Prime, only with the addition of alien alloys and mineral deposits to swat at for crafting materials. It plays like the standard-issue consume ‘em up, only with EKO’s snarky voice whispering in your ear to assure you that this is the point—that this is the commentary.

EKO jokes that your menial progression is incremental at best, and for a while, that’s true; it takes several hours before the game feels particularly satisfying to navigate, as you gradually invest in things like grappling hooks and jetpack boosts that provide double, then triple, then quadruple jumps. The combat never feels particularly good, either, since it demands too much aiming precision from what otherwise amounts to an undemanding series of dodges.

The game might have been onto something if its progression was appropriately banal or if your struggle for resources felt particularly disempowering, positing you as a lowly worker whose labor chiefly benefits someone higher up the ladder. But instead, the materials are your reward. You’re meant to comb the environment’s tall grass and hidden alcoves for any hint of more resources to vacuum up, because the allure of that incremental progress is your carrot on a stick. It’s a compulsive progression loop familiar from so many other games, where finding another orange goo or alloy chest pumps the good chemicals into the right part of your brain. The only difference is a thick cloak of irony that’s supposed to pass for subversiveness.

In a game like Subnautica, the exploration gives you a better sense of the world; it makes you feel small, makes you appreciate what you’re taking from it to survive. At its most intermittently successful, Journey to the Savage Planet is built with a thrilling verticality that might have achieved a comparable, if far less successful, effect. The outcrops of floating rocks are conducive to death-defying shortcuts and last-minute grapples, often letting you hop right off the edge of one area to immediately land in another far below.

But the game scarcely quiets down long enough to give in to these moments of wonder, undercutting any fleeting semblance of awe with obnoxious comedy. AR-Y 26 is a playground to be bulldozed, full of things to poke, prod, and jokily slaughter in Kindred’s name. It is, for example, reasonably humorous that your jetpack vomits out a conspicuous cloud of smug. But it becomes far less funny once EKO insists with a wink that, no, it definitely isn’t harming the environment. The whole game is like this. There’s no restraint or subtlety to the comedy, only loud and constant underscoring of the things that the writers (often mistakenly) believe to be funny, like an explorer log that details horror at encountering the “Valley of a Thousand Farts.” Titles and text entries are riddled with groan-inducing internet lingo, as one quest advises you to “kill it with fire” and EKO’s self-written encyclopedia entry opens with “It me.”

There’s perhaps a version of this game that’s content to shut up and let players get their colonialist kicks in blissful ignorance. Though it wouldn’t fix the problems inherent to the premise or video game progression systems in general, it would rouse a mere fraction of the irritation. But as is, so full of insistent and toothless satire, Journey to the Savage Planet is a monument to hypocrisy, content to gamify and reward the very things it means to criticize. The result is less an anti-capitalist statement than a statement that anti-capitalism is trendy.

The game was reviewed using a review code provided by 505 Games.

Developer: Typhoon Studios Publisher: 505 Games Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: January 28, 2020 ESRB: T ESRB Descriptions: Blood and Gore, Crude Humor, Language, Use of Drugs, Violence Buy: Game

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Review: SELF Nightmarishly Grapples with Our Vanishing Sense of Self

SELF rejects the power-building, level-gaining escapism that typifies the majority of pop games.

4

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SELF
Photo: indienova

Developer doBell’s SELF employs a storytelling mode that defies easy categorization. For one, you must play the game and see multiple endings in order to truly understand the nature of a young boy’s search for his missing dad in a world that scarcely comprehends him. The text-based narrative is, for no immediately apparent reason, presented as subtitles on a monitor that will often be overwhelmed by static at certain points. The game’s terse writing places your playable character in a dream of sorts, where the people closest to him avoid answering his questions and where everyone in the city he calls home can disappear in the blink of an eye. The effect is nothing short of nerve-wracking.

By repeatedly showing an image of cracked glass, where the diverging lines of the crack are explicitly characterized by the narrative as different pathways and destinations in the story, SELF encourages the player to restart the game after arriving at one of many endings. The proceedings concern a child named John who wakes up from sleep only to enter an obfuscating nightmare of an existence in which he cannot find his father. The fractured narrative is consistently fascinating to put together as a puzzle, even if does occasionally lead to tedium. Even though a helpful checkpoint system allows the player to skip parts of the story, you may still have to retread sections of SELF’s narrative that you recently finished reading, depending on which ending you’re trying to discover on a subsequent playthrough.

A bigger drawback of SELF, though, is its occasional reliance on the “bullet avoidance” of Toby Fox’s acclaimed indie Undertale. This type of gameplay is one-dimensional by design, as the player simply controls a powerless icon within a box and attempts to avoid contact with objects that move into the space. The largely mindless routine of moving a bland avatar—a heart in Undertale, a crudely drawn face within a square in SELF—away from easy-to-dodge projectiles becomes stale, and the action is even more unsatisfying in SELF, as objects entering the box have even more predictable trajectories than those in Undertale.

Luckily, everything else about SELF largely works and adds up to an unsettling and revelatory experience. John’s mother absurdly evades the child’s questions about the new status quo. Eventually, he’s able to leave the house for answers, but visits to an arcade, school, hospital, and bus bring more confusion before the player is able to discern exactly what has happened to John’s family. And along the way, any sense of calm in the story is challenged by a variety of sharp sound effects, from balloons popping to the high-pitched dinging of bells.

The game goes in different directions based on whether John wishes to “face” the truth during crucial moments in the story, and the various endings often transpire out of nowhere and vary in their emotional impact. In an unexpectedly comic turn, one ending brilliantly comments on the tale’s general sense of fatalism: At the very start of SELF, the player can choose to keep going back to sleep rather than get out of bed—one of gaming’s oldest clichés—and this decision brings you to “The Happiest Ending,” in which John never has to wake up to the disturbing dreamscape that awaits him otherwise.

Other choices reveal curious reversals of seemingly established facts. If you’re able to trigger particular memories within the dreamlike narrative, the text will sometimes read as if it’s written more from the perspective of John’s father. And deeper into SELF, the script implies that perhaps you’re actually playing as the father who imagines himself as the son.

Although the story certainly suggests that dreams contain hard-to-define approximations of reality, the ultimate theme of SELF is that you are whom you love. In a mind-blowing twist on the game’s primary visual conceit of a monitor displaying text, SELF redefines the screen as a mirror with nails in its corners. If you remove the nails and then the mirror, another mirror appears with a silhouette of a kid. From there, one by one, mirrors can be pulled away to reveal a larger shadow of a person. The tragedy of life, as SELF sees it, is the older we get, the more we grow, but this growth is offset by a loss of self via the deaths of loved ones. Far from an orthodox release, SELF rejects the power-building, level-gaining escapism that typifies the majority of pop games that audiences so casually, unassumingly embrace.

The game was reviewed using a review code provided by indienova.

Developer: doBell Publisher: indienova Platform: Switch Release Date: January 16, 2020 ESRB: E10+ ESRB Descriptions: Fantasy Violence, Mild Language Buy: Game

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Review: The First-Person Puzzler Lightmatter Coasts on One Bright Idea

It can’t step out of the silhouette of its most brilliant predecessor, Portal.

3

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Lightmatter
Photo: Aspyr

At the start of the first-person puzzler Lightmatter, within the mined-out heart of a mountain, an arrogant scientist, Virgil, is experimenting with ways in which to efficiently turn light into an energy source. Things inevitably go wrong, and soon your blank slate of a protagonist is stranded in the depths of the mountain, trying to follow Virgil’s caustic directions in order to safely evacuate a facility overrun with killer shadows. It’s a concept that turns everyday objects, from an overhead ceiling fan to a conveyor belt, into deadly platforming challenges, as the shadows they cast must be avoided at all costs.

At one point, Virgil directly compares this situation to the classic childhood game “The Floor Is Lava.” It’s a too-winking nod that calls attention to the carefully constructed nature of Lightmatter’s puzzles, which are better encountered as a naturally occurring part of a given area’s background, like the way in which a cubicle farm’s haphazard arrangement of desks and chairs damningly form a river of shadows that must somehow be forded. In such moments, the game hews closer to The Witness than Portal, in that the puzzles feel like natural extensions of the environment as opposed to artificially engineered test chambers.

The correct paths through Lightmatter’s once-generic office and cavern areas are deliberately engineered to have a single, tricky solution. But the game generally does well to distract the player from this contrived construction, wherein the path to the exit is always blocked by a broken light source but the moveable klieg lights and beam-reflecting photon connectors you’ll use to literally shine some light on the problem are always conveniently within reach.

It’s not until the last third of the game that the puzzles become jarringly conspicuous in their design. Until this point, the various contraptions found within the facility—like conveyors and light-activated switches—have a practical purpose, whether that’s for transporting quarried rocks or for testing and containing the lightmatter. Only a few of these machines felt like they served no purpose other than creating a puzzle, like an elevator that doesn’t normally travel between floors, requiring instead that you send it back to the first floor so that you can ride atop it to the third. In these final experimental labs, though, the rooms give themselves over to needless brain-teaser padding, as they serve no purpose beyond stymying players.

On a visual level, the developers at Tunnel Vision Games have done a fine job of translating the complexities of lighting into a puzzle mechanism. Going with a clean, cel-shaded look, as opposed to a more photorealistic aesthetic, ensures that the spotlight effects operate predictably in each environment, just as the game’s muted palette makes it easier to distinguish between objects. Perhaps taking a cue from Mirror’s Edge, the rare splashes of color—green plants, orange machinery sparks, red warning lights—help make even clearer what can be interacted with. And, incidentally, this streamlined aesthetic doesn’t lead to dumbed-down puzzles, as the complexity of each area stems from clever design as opposed to an excessive number of obstacles or a misleading series of visual cues.

Would that the game’s mad-scientist-run-amok storyline weren’t so derivative. There’s not a single transmission from Virgil that doesn’t bring the comically sociopathic ribbing of Portal’s GLaDOS to mind. (There’s even a reference to Aperture Laboratory and its cake.) Those lines can do little else, because Virgil is ultimately as much of a cypher as your own “persistent, replaceable, and silent” player character, whom Virgil identifies as a tourist, a safety inspector, a journalist, and, finally, a spy, as if trying to establish what the developers won’t.

This is a game that tasks you with trying to escape the facility in one moment, then with helping to shut it down in the next. And because your motivations are so ill-defined, it’s impossible not to see your character as anything but a vehicle for solving puzzles, ensuring that Lightmatter is unable to step out of the silhouette of its most brilliant predecessor. And that’s a damning thing for a game that’s all about deadly shadows.

The game was reviewed using a review code provided by Zebra Partners.

Developer: Tunnel Vision Games Publisher: Aspyr Platform: PC Release Date: January 15, 2020 Buy: Game

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Review: Hitman

Though based on a popular video-game series, Xavier Gens’s Hitman plays like a music video without the music.

1.5

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Hitman

Though based on a popular video-game series, Xavier Gens’s Hitman plays like a music video without the music, a spectacle of shiny weapons, spurting blood, and Jesus Christ poses that would have benefited from more overlaid songs and less blabber. Timothy Olyphant stars as Agent 47, a man bred by some secret organization’s killer-manufacturing program to be a lethal assassin. Given the premium his profession puts on stealth, it’s hard to understand why his employers have shaved his head and tattooed a barcode on the back of his neck, thereby making the suit-wearing killer stand out glaringly in the various Euro locales he’s commissioned to frequent. But then, questions of this sort are moot; Agent 47 was bald in the game, and thus regardless of practicality or logic, he must be here too. Olyphant, a charismatically noble presence in Deadwood and amusingly devilish bad guy in The Girl Next Door, is here reduced to glowering and posing with pistols, which is still a better fate than that suffered by Dougray Scott, who barely registers as the nondescript Interpol agent on Agent 47’s trail. Olyphant’s anti-hero is such a well-oiled murder machine that he’s a veritable RoboHitman, able to not only dispatch hordes of special ops soldiers but also to instantly survey, assess, and memorize his surroundings, so that he knows, while at a restaurant, that the woman sitting two tables away is actually a transsexual and that the Russian whore he’s dining with is wearing no panties. Despite the fact that Agent 47’s chrome dome is strikingly phallic, he nonetheless has the good sense to resist screwing Nika (Olga Kurylenko), a scrawny prostitute with her own facial tattoo as well as a slinky red dress that wouldn’t fully clothe a well-fed infant. His decision to remain chaste is about the only rational decision on display throughout the film, which otherwise opts for lazy nonsensicality at every turn, exemplified by a scene in which the superhuman assassin crashes into a hotel room, finds kids playing Hitman on their Playstation, and doesn’t bat an eyelash at what should be a mind-bending revelation that there’s a video game based on his ultra-covert life.

Cast: Timothy Olyphant, Dougray Scott, Olga Kurylenko, Robert Knepper, Ulrich Thomsen, Henry Ian Cusick, Michael Offei Director: Xavier Gens Screenwriter: Skip Woods Distributor: 20th Century Fox Running Time: 100 min Rating: R Year: 2007 Buy: Video, Soundtrack

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Review: Saudi Runaway Is a Raw and Immediate Chronicle of an Escape

Camera, character, and cameraperson are one throughout, and the effect is exquisitely suffocating.

3.5

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Saudi Runaway
Photo: National Geographic Documentary Films

Susanne Regina Meures’s invitation into the filmic world of her exquisite Saudi Runaway is by way of a camera that moves as if attached to a body. It’s a mobility completely devoid of the vulgar familiarity of a GoPro, or the numb slickness of a dolly shot that only simulates the point of view of a character. We don’t yet know where the body is headed but we can feel its fear. Camera, character, and cameraperson are one here, and the effect is suffocating. We see people’s heads bare and covered. Our vision is fuzzy. Soon, though, the wind lifts what turns out to be a piece of a garment—the camera’s sartorial filter. We’re moving inside an abaya. That’s where we remain for most of the film: between the body of a young woman, Muna, plotting her escape from Saudia Arabia and the dark fabric of her garb.

The film’s handheld camera suggests a baby being held. Not just because of how tethered it often is to the cameraperson, but because our mostly hazy gaze suggests eyes just getting used to a terrifying world. By the time Muna tells us that she will try to record “everything” and that “it will be dangerous,” she’s stating the obvious. Though it pulsates with raw intimacy, Saudi Runaway does have its share of obvious elements, from the sound of music when we least need it, to one too many shots of a trapped bird, to Muna telling us, midway through the film, that “the majority of society is conservative.” But its conceptual device is so uncanny, so un-mediated by how Meures structures Muna’s original footage, that we can’t help but excuse the director’s attempts to turn the original fragments into a coherent narrative.

The camera in Saudi Runaway is so prosthetic, and its images all but birthed by Muna, that, at first, it’s difficult to accept that someone other than she is credited with directing the film. Must Westerners save brown women so that they can speak? However, Muna’s occasional prefacing of her murmured voiceover account with “Dear Sue” gives us a hint of a transnational sisterly collaboration. The epistolary layer of Saudi Runaway isn’t fully explained, a technique often used in the essay film genre that helps give a video-diary aesthetic a sense of depth while maintaining its mystery. Is Sue the director or an imaginary friend? Is Sue a rhetorical device like one of Chris Marker addressees in Sans Soleil? Is Sue actually listening?

The fact that this writer sat immediately in front of both Muna and Meures at the film’s Kino International screening at this year’s Berlinale made the experience of watching it all the more eerie. Our real-life escapee was clearly now safe and sound in Germany, reacting in real time—with self-conscious sighs and sad moans—to the presentation of her ordeal.

On screen, we learn that Muna isn’t allowed to leave her family home without being escorted by a male relative. That she will only be allowed to drive if her future husband allows her to. That her father keeps possession of her passport, which she can only renew with his approval. “Be obedient and everything will be fine” is the advice that Muna’s grandmother gives her.

All of the film’s faces, apart from Muna’s, are perpetually pixilated, reminding us that these are images captured without her family members’ consent. That betrayal and guilt might be prerequisites for deliverance. The pixilating effect also means Muna “covers” everyone else’s faces while liberating her own, her flight necessitating an exhilarating mix of precision, and risk, and anxiety. But, also, the anger of those she must dupe in order to leave them behind. “Do you really think you can go to paradise and leave me here in hell?” is Muna’s mother’s reaction to her daughter’s courage. Although with the benefit of hindsight, she eventually anoints Muna’s newfound independence with a WhatsApp voice message praising her. As if freedom were contagious, experienceable by proxy, or the sheer power of imagination.

Director: Susanne Regina Meures Screenwriter: Susanne Regina Meures Distributor: National Geographic Documentary Films Running Time: 88 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: Swallow Is a Provocative Me Too Parable in Body-Horror Guise

Fortunately for the film, Carlo Mirabella-Davis continually springs scenes that either transcend or justify his preaching.

3

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Swallow
Photo: IFC Films

Writer-director Carlo Mirabella-Davis’s Swallow pivots on a queasy premise: the uncontrollable urge of a young trophy wife, Hunter (Haley Bennett), to swallow inedible objects. Hunter first ingests a marble, after touching it as if it’s a talisman, cherishing its assuring tactility. Later, Hunter carefully removes the marble from the toilet after passing it, cleaning it off and placing it on a tray as a trophy. The marble will soon be joined by a stickpin, a lock, and a variety of other increasingly disturbing things. But there’s another wrinkle of perversity to Hunter’s new hobby: She’s pregnant, and the possibility of these objects puncturing her developing child, no matter how irrational, haunts the film.

For a significant portion of Swallow’s running time, Mirabella-Davis maintains an aura of ambiguity, keeping the audience in a state of discomfort as to what Hunter’s ailment precisely means. There are plenty of hints even early on, as Hunter is married to a svelte GQ-ready hunk, Richie (Austin Stowell), who’s more interested in his phone and his job with his prosperous father, Michael (David Rasche), than his wife. Yet Mirabella-Davis initially resists doubling down on the sort of denouncements of the wealthy that come so easy to filmmakers. In his way, Richie seems to care about Hunter, and his mother, Katherine (Elizabeth Marvel), occasionally comforts her. The filmmaker’s initial refusal to totally render these people rich monsters only intensifies the scenario’s mystery and tension.

Mirabella-Davis is also willing to take Hunter to task for her own alienation, as people often tune her out because she has so efficiently rendered herself a dully accommodating and complacent Stepford wife. Her psychological disorder, known as pica, partially appears to be a response to her knowledge of this fact, serving as a contemptuous act of self-punishment, with perhaps an element of sexual gratification. The narrative contains multitudes of subtexts, and Bennett superbly modulates between learned impassivity and outright despair, capturing the pain of a kind of actress who has come to feel trapped in her role. This entrapment is formally complemented by an aesthetic that’s been very fashionable in art-house horror films lately: pristine, symmetrical compositions of stylish, remote residences that express the inhumanity of essentially living in a one-percent fashion catalogue.

Swallow is initially marked by a driving tension, as we’re led to wonder just how awful and crazy Hunter’s habit will become. The film is never as gross as one might fear, as Mirabella-Davis is less interested in shock-jock flourishes than in sincerely rendering Hunter’s physical pain and mental anguish; like Mike Flanagan, Mirabella-Davis is the rare humanist horror filmmaker. As such, Hunter’s choking—the most disturbing detail in the film—becomes a piercing affirmation of her struggle to feel something and be seen.

There’s a strange irony to the film’s second half. As Mirabella-Davis sets about explaining the meaning of Hunter’s predicament, Swallow grows simultaneously more poignant and pat. Dished out in pieces throughout the film, Hunter’s backstory has been self-consciously overstuffed with topical elements of women’s struggles against patriarchal atrocity, from casual objectification and condescension to rape to the struggle to be pro-choice in the United States. (Hunter’s mother is even said to be a right-wing religious fundamentalist.) This psychology eventually waters the evocative premise down with literal-mindedness, so that Swallow becomes less a body horror film than a Me Too parable.

Fortunately, Mirabella-Davis continually springs scenes that either transcend or justify his preaching. Later in the film, a nurse, Luay (Laith Nakli), is hired to keep watch over Hunter. As a refugee of the Syrian civil war, Luay is partially offered up as a device to score points on Hunter’s privilege (he memorably remarks that one doesn’t have time for mind problems when dodging bullets), though he also shows her profound compassion, most acutely when he climbs under the bed with Hunter in a moment of crisis, patting her back with an affection that we’ve never seen extended to her by anyone else.

Near the end of the film, Hunter holes up in a cheap motel, shoveling dirt into her mouth while watching soap operas that peddle the dream of marrying rich and hot—a sequence of profound and wrenching loneliness. And the film’s climax, in which Hunter tracks down a man from her past, Erwin (Denis O’Hare), is equally heartbreaking, exposing Hunter’s swallowing for what it truly is: an attempt at annihilation as atonement, as well as a self-defiling as paradoxical affirmation of control. Hunter resists her status as an accessory by swallowing others.

Cast: Haley Bennett, Austin Stowell, Denis O’Hare, Elizabeth Marvel, David Rasche, Luna Lauren Velez, Laith Nakli, Babak Tafti Director: Carlo Mirabella-Davis Screenwriter: Carlo Mirabella-Davis Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 94 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Interview: Corneliu Porumboiu on The Whistlers and Playing with Genre

Porumboiu discusses the links between his latest and Police, Adjective, the so-called “Romanian New Wave,” and more.

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Corneliu Porumboiu
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

Anyone inured to the downward-facing schadenfreude of Corneliu Porumboiu’s prior features might be taken aback by The Whistlers, the Romanian auteur’s first foray into slick, international genre filmmaking. The title refers to a crime ring in the Canary Islands that uses a bird-whistling language to evade surveillance. A crooked cop named Cristi (Vlad Ivanov) successfully infiltrates the group, but his undercover status is increasingly compromised by his fixation on Gilda (Catrinel Menghia), the sultry girlfriend of the ringleader, as well as by the tight leash his commanding officer back in Bucharest has him on.

Lest anyone think Porumboiu is making a play for more commercial appeal, The Whistlers is choc-a-block with teasing allusions, including repurposed music like Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger” and Jacques Offenbach’s “Baccharole” from The Tales of Hoffman, as well as cinephilic references: One expository dump happens during a screening of The Searchers, while a climactic set piece takes place at an abandoned movie set. I had the pleasure of picking Porumboiu’s brain after the film’s U.S. premiere last fall at the New York Film Festival about his toying with genre, the so-called “Romanian New Wave,” and more.

All your films are playful in my opinion, but with this one, you’re playing with genre.

If you had asked me four years ago if one of my films would have flashbacks, I would have said, “No, no way.” [laughs] With The Whistlers, the way it’s structured, I was interested in the process of learning the language. That determined the core of the film. After that, I knew I needed flashbacks so I can have different types of plot movements happening—so that the main character, Cristi, can look differently at things as they happen, because of language. Double-movement. A parallel structure. After that came the other characters in the film, who play specific roles for—in front of—the camera. Catrinel Menghia plays Gilda, which is an assumed name. We don’t know much about this character.

The femme fatale.

Right. She’s assuming that position. At the end of the day, this is a world of people chasing money. They’re using dialogue to have a fight, you know? So, I knew it was time to look back at the classical noirs. I watched some films and began pulling from them.

The film’s plotlines get increasingly convoluted as Cristi learns more about the world he’s stepped into, the threat of a double-cross always looming over him.

Well, at the end I think you get it all back. My focus was to arrive in the middle, to arrive at a type of cinema linked exclusively to his character, his personality. So, I was thinking in classical noir but not dominated by it.

This is your second time working with Vlad Ivanov, the first since Police, Adjective, nearly a decade ago. Was this role written for him?

Yes. Because in a way I was revisiting the character from Police, Adjective, starting from that. To me he’s an almost theological character. So, at the end of the day, I asked myself if this guy, who’s almost like a military officer, who has a very strict background, can his philosophy last? To find this guy 10 years after, what does he still believe in? Who is he now?

Tell me more the difference between then and now.

Well, in the last film he was someone who trusted a certain system, was a part of it. He had his own philosophy, he knew very well where his power was. A decade later he’s completely lost. He doesn’t know what he believes in anymore. I wanted the difference to be subtle but indisputable. He’s become obsessed with money, his motivations are more harsh.

Is there something about Romania’s economic situation that you’re linking this to?

In 12:08 East of Bucharest, my characters defined themselves in relation to the revolution of 1989, and they believed in communication. In Police, Adjective, you have a boss imposing his own ideology from the top down. In Metabolism, it’s like a game: The director can’t assume his position at the top. Here, my characters don’t believe in anything, they just think in terms of fighting and winning. This is how we perceive the world now, I think.

The transition from value systems to anarchy, or at least a certain realpolitik—even working cooperatively, everyone is looking out for themselves.

I think after the economic crisis, the world changed drastically. I don’t know, the classical noir has a certain vision about the world that’s quite dark, yet was proper for that time. Maybe we can find some similarities today.

Can you talk a little bit about the relationship between this film and Infinite Football?

Infinite Football is about utopia—one man’s political, ideological utopia. He wants to change the game, and what his new game implies is a reflection of the history of Romania. His personal history. But I was doing it in a different way, so I did it like a work in progress.

And you figure into the film as well. You have personal history with these people. They talk to you, talk to the camera, pull you into the frame.

Well, it’s a personal project. Laurentiu, the subject, my friend, he may not have faith in the system, but he has faith in the game, or that his rules will prove themselves. This is the Don Quixote thing of it all.

Spanish and Romanian are not that far from one another, and in order to whistle, the main character has to break his messages down into units of Spanish syllables.

I saw a documentary on TV about La Gomera, the island in Spain. From that I learned about the language of whistling and became very curious. That was 10 years ago. I started to read about the language, and I went to the island where they were teaching it. It was then that I knew I wanted to do a film about the character from Police, Adjective. Being a film about language and codes, I thought I could play with genres; cinema at the end of the day is coding reality, after all. When I write, it’s like going back to the first act, and trying to be there, be present with the characters. Eventually it is them who move me into the story. I have a very particular way of writing. Police, Adjective had eight or nine drafts. I wanted the dialogue to be functional, transactional. And not to go too deep. Each of the characters has a double nature that can’t be opened too much. At the end of the day I’m making these movies for myself. You have to believe in what you’re doing, at least at the beginning of the shoot. [laughs]

I think the first 15 minutes of this film have more edits than all of Police, Adjective. Surely this switch-up is getting you questions from people.

The story called for this approach though. It pushed me to do that.

Critics love packaging things. The “Romanian New Wave,” epitomized by the slowness and realism of your earlier films, is a perfect example. Do you find these categories or tropes at all oppressive?

Well, the truth is it wasn’t a “movement” in the sense of something written down or programmatic. Young filmmakers started working in 2000 and, of course, critics outside Romania don’t know much about Romanian cinema before “us,” so it’s expected that they will put a stamp on new films coming out. For me, each of the directors has their own voice, their own way, developed on its own terms, and for me the movies are especially different now. I’m not offended, but it means I have to speak about my own cinema—none of these generalizations. These critics probably have not seen The Reenactment, or Reconstruction, by Lucian Pintillie, my mentor—the so-called “Old Wave.” This was a hugely important, inspiring film for all of us in my generation. He died before I finished shooting The Whistlers. Regarding Police, Adjective, he told me: “If you cut five or 10 minutes from this film, you’ll have a really good audience.” And I told him, “No.” [laughs]

The generalizations tend to break down, or that’s just the nature of an artist discussing their own work. And the idea of a “movement” implies a finitude or a strategy.

The Treasure was a fable, no? You could find the structure less threatening if you had seen my previous films. Maybe other films from Romania around the same time. But I began to try a nonlinear structure in my documentaries, then applied it to The Whistlers.

Do you prefer the original title, La Gomera, to The Whistlers?

I do think The Whistlers is better. But translated into Romanian, it doesn’t have the same power as La Gomera! Also, I wanted to avoid confusion with Gomorrah.

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Review: Autumn de Wilde’s Emma Takes a Classic for a Stylish, Ironic Spin

This lively adaptation plays up the novel’s more farcical elements, granting it a snappy, rhythmic pace.

3

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Emma
Photo: Focus Features

Jane Austen’s Emma concerns the mishaps of a self-assured young country aristocrat who prides herself on her savoir faire but who remains, in the terms a certain modern adaptation, totally clueless. A light comedy neither broad enough to be farce nor pointed enough to be satire, the novel lends itself to interpretation as both, given the narrative’s manifold romantic misunderstandings and host of kooky, idle gentry. Without departing far from the text, director Autumn de Wilde’s lively new film adaptation emphasizes the more farcical elements of Austen’s second-longest novel, granting it a snappy, rhythmic pace.

The eponymous gentlewoman, the story’s only three-dimensional character, is played with impressive depth by Anya Taylor-Joy here. On screen, Emma can seem frivolous right up until the climactic moment that forces her into a self-confrontation, but Taylor-Joy’s open, expressive face, so often in close-up, captures Emma’s creeping uncertainty regarding her powers of judgment, as well as her own feelings, even as she continues to act the social butterfly. She’s aided by a screenplay by Eleanor Catton that doesn’t quite resolve the story’s main fault—its concluding romance counts as perhaps the least convincing of any of Austen’s works—but which preserves much of the complexity of its “handsome, clever, and rich” heroine, who must learn to abide by her judgment rather than her vanity.

Emma begins the film at the height of self-regard, the reigning socialite of the small countryside community of Highbury. The 20-year-old has recently made a match for her governess, Miss Taylor (Gemma Whelan), arranging her marriage—well above her station—to the neighboring widower gentleman Mr. Weston (Rupert Graves). She elects Harriet Smith (Mia Goth), a recently arrived schoolgirl of uncertain origins and inelegant manners, to be her next project. She teaches the naïve girl, enraptured by Emma’s ostentatious wealth and delicate bearing, to present herself as worthy of a genteel suitor, manipulating her into rejecting the proposal of hardy local farmer Mr. Martin (Connor Swindells), and encouraging her to pursue the affections of the young vicar-about-town Mr. Elton (Josh O’Connor) instead.

O’Connor plays Mr. Elton with palpable smarm, wearing a perpetual shit-eating grin above the ridiculous splayed-out collar of an early-19th-century Anglican vicar. Here, as elsewhere, de Wilde communicates much of what remains implicit in the novel (like Mr. Elton’s odiousness) via a tidy mise-en-scène redolent of Wes Anderson. The sterile pastels of the elegant clothing and the precise movements of both the aristocracy and their servants (who hover about in the background like strange automatons) give the film’s sudden eruptions of human neuroses a droll, punchy tone—as when Mr. Elton casually mentions that it may snow, and a dinner party suddenly erupts into chaos, the nervous guests rushing to the carriages to get back home.

It’s in one of those carriages that, in a scene played perhaps a bit too broadly, a slightly drunk Mr. Elton confronts Emma with the revelation that he’s been aiming to court her. Naturally, the news of Mr. Elton’s true affections devastates Harriet, whom Emma very belatedly realizes may have been well suited to Mr. Martin, though at this point Harriet has learned to think of the farmer as beneath her. Outraged at Emma’s tutoring of Harriet in the ways of class presumption is Martin’s landlord, Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn), a wealthy Highbury bachelor who, as brother to her brother-in-law, counts as family to Emma and her worry-wart father, Mr. Woodhouse (Bill Nighy). In the lavishly decorated living rooms and salons of their immense estates, Emma and Mr. Knightley bicker in the way that unwitting lovers in Austen tend to, arguing verbosely about the propriety of introducing Harriet to high society.

Emma and Knightley later have occasion to debate the relative virtues of Frank Churchill (Callum Turner) and Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson), who arrive separately in town under much whispered ballyhoo. The young and handsome Frank seems destined to ask for Emma’s hand; Jane, the orphaned niece of local gossip Miss Bates (Miranda Hart), is rumored to be heartbroken after forming an inappropriate attachment to her adopted sister’s husband. Emma is as flattered by Frank’s attentions as she is jealous of Jane’s level of gentlewomanly accomplishment. Catton and de Wilde extrapolate from the novel’s succession of social scenarios to make Emma’s doubt about the shifting social field more comically apparent: One of the funniest scenes has the ostensibly modest Jane follow up Emma’s dilettantish performance on the pianoforte with a beautiful, complex sonata, in front of the whole town.

Emma’s discomfort in her new situation will come to a head when she, with Frank’s encouragement, grossly abuses her privilege as a gentlewoman with a practiced wit, embarrassing herself and wounding an old friend. Emma is interested in such textures of early-19th-century society, if not in the latter’s pace. The film fits so much of Austen’s narrative in by judiciously condensing scenes to suit its more ironic tone, occasionally using transitional smash cuts to get right to the point. The result is a stylish, eminently watchable farce that, despite its old-England trappings, is every bit an update as it is an adaptation.

Cast: Anya Taylor-Joy, Johnny Flynn, Bill Nighy, Mia Goth, Miranda Hart, Josh O’Connor, Callum Turner, Rupert Graves, Amber Anderson Director: Autumn de Wilde Screenwriter: Eleanor Catton Distributor: Focus Features Running Time: 125 min Rating: PG Year: 2020 Buy: Soundtrack, Book

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Review: The Trouble with Being Born Is a Chilly Rumination on Memory

In the end, the film suffers from the same issue as its moody androids: enervation borne out of repetition.

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The Trouble with Being Born
Photo: Berlinale

The near future looks a lot like the present in Sandra Wollner’s The Trouble with Being Born, only bleaker and lonelier. That sense of isolation is conveyed right from the start. In the fantastically dreamy introduction, we float through a forest on a summery drift of whispering voiceover and buzzing insects before coming upon a father and young daughter next to a backyard pool. What looks like a relaxing day quickly reads as forced, even icy. While the girl (Lena Watson), Elli, stays by the pool, the father (Dominik Warta) goes inside, only to dash back out again when he sees Elli floating lifeless in the water. “Fuck,” he says. “Not again.” In the next scene, he’s using his phone to reboot the not-quite-drowned Elli.

An android whose deep black eyes and waxily smooth skin—evoking the eerie expressionlessness of Christiane’s face mask in Eyes Without a Face—are the very definition of the Uncanny Valley, Elli was built to replicate the father’s daughter, who disappeared 10 years before. Her reactions are slow and mannered, as though she were puzzling over a bug in her programming instead of playing like a human 10-year-old. Even though her actions are mostly set on a loop built out from scraps of what the father remembers of his daughter, Elli seems to take a mix-and-match approach to those implanted memories, obsessing like an amnesiac trying to make sense of a muddled past. At times, it’s unclear whether the lines in the voiceover (“Mum…doesn’t need to know everything”) are repeated from the human Elli or invented by the android Elli as a way of mimicking her biological predecessor.

The first half of The Trouble with Being Born is narratively thin but heavy with the promise of something more. Inklings of something disturbing in this isolated idyll, that too-close stare of the father and his dressing her just so, are eventually made explicit and disturbing. In one of the more effectively queasy body-horror moments ever put on film, the father removes Elli’s tongue and vagina for cleaning, leaving her naked on the counter. It’s a strikingly disgusting moment, pointing not just to the abuse he subjected his human daughter to, but the casual disdain with which he regards her replacement. But despite the power of this scene and a few others—particularly the wordless shot of Elli watching her father from a distance with the same restless curiosity of the cat flopped next to her, visualizing the unbridgeable gulf between “father” and “daughter”—Wollner continues to fill her film with too little story.

That problem becomes more acute once Elli runs away and the story shifts to another android-human relationship. After Elli is picked up by a passing motorist (Simon Hatzl) who then gifts her like a new toy to his elderly mother (Ingrid Burkhard), still mourning the little brother she lost 60 years before. The ease with which Elli is made into a boy—in the world of the film, reprogramming androids is about as complicated as restarting a smartphone—stands in stark contrast to the violent trauma of abuse that still lingers like a ghost in her flickeringly sentient CPU. But while the setting and the primary human character changes in the second half of the film, Wollner’s narrow view of her story means just more of the same glassy expressions and long maundering silences, like Tarkovsky without the existential pain. At some point, the mirroring begins to feel more like straight repetition without any significant revelation.

In the end, The Trouble with Being Born suffers from the same issue as its moody androids: enervation borne out of repetition. There are some attempts here and there to comment on the replacement of human connection with silicone facsimiles. We almost never see people together. The only time the mother, who spends much of her time walking her dog and wistfully pondering the past, is with another person is when her son drops off Elli. Shopping malls, car-choked roads, and distant skyscrapers dominate the landscape. But rather than truly exploring the ramifications of its futuristic conceit, whether from a broader societal or individualistic and relational perspective, the film just keeps looping back to the same luminously filmed but ultimately blank silences.

Cast: Lena Watson, Dominik Warta, Ingrid Burkhard, Jana McKinnon, Simon Hatzl Director: Sandra Wollner Screenwriter: Sandra Wollner, Roderick Warich Running Time: 94 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: Cristi Puiu’s Malmkrog Wages a War Between Language and Cinema

It all has the makings of a game of Clue, but the mysteries here are linguistic.

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Malmkrog
Photo: Berlinale

Cristi Puiu’s Malmkrog is based on 19th-century Russian philosopher and mystic Vladimir Solovyov’s prophetic Three Conversations, which, through a series of dialectical maneuvers, addresses such topics as economic materialism, nationalism, and abstract moralism. The film takes place on a snow-covered hillside, where a large pastel-pink mansion sits and Puiu turns the philosophical into drama. Sheltered in the mansion’s walls are a small group of aristocrats that includes a politician, a general and his wife, and a young countess. It all has the makings of a game of Clue, but the mysteries here are linguistic. A Christmas gathering stretches on in what seems to be real time, as the party’s high-minded philosophical and political chatter takes on an increasingly strained air.

That tension is heightened by the obstacles that Puiu uses to discombobulate his audience. Malmkrog is the Transylvanian village where the film takes place, yet the characters, who speak primarily in French, talk of being in Russia. And as they discuss imminent war and the potential outcomes of violence, it’s as if the film appears to exist outside of time and place. Doorways and mirrors obfuscate who’s involved in a conversation, and the characters move through the mansion as though compelled by spirits of the past, with cinematographer Tudor Vladimir Panduru often lighting all those drawing rooms using only natural light sources. Malmkrog exudes a painterly expressiveness that’s a far cry from the cold, handheld aesthetic that typically defines the look of Puiu’s work and the Romanian New Wave as a whole.

The film’s first scene lasts nearly an hour and is a magnificent example of staging. The camera glides left and right, with each movement matched by a change in composition that the actors match as though dancing to the music behind their endless words. This balletic circularity, slow but constantly surprising, recalls Max Ophüls’s fixation on the oneiric, circular properties of time. In a surprising moment of violence, a number of characters die on a staircase, only for them to come back to life a scene later, and without comment from anyone. When Nikolai (Frédéric Schulz-Richard), the mansion’s wealthy owner and Malmkrog’s central figure, looks up the staircase, it’s as if he recalls what previously occurred there. The moment echoes one from Letter from an Unknown Woman where Joan Fontaine’s Lisa stares up the very staircase up which Louis Jourdan’s Stefan and another woman ascended years earlier.

Whenever Nikolai, who makes the domineering Stefan from Ophüls’s 1948 masterpiece seem meek by comparison, utters lines like “prayer is a soap for the soul,” he carries himself like the Sherlock Holmes of moral arbitration. But he’s closer to a 19th-century Ben Shapiro: a pompous rat obsessed with facts and logic, who won’t let a woman finish a point for fear that he won’t be able to counteract it with a cogent counter-argument. It’s not always clear to what extent Puiu is satirizing this type of behavior, given the spectacle of the man’s endless pontificating, and that the other characters only rarely undercut his words with references to his verbosity. Puiu clearly believes in Nikolai enough to make him the mouthpiece for Solovyov’s philosophizing, which makes it harder to buy to what extent these people are being sent up, and how much Puiu wants the viewer to eat up his words wholesale.

With our perspective held hostage in one place, memory and imagination blur into one. When Ingrida (Diana Sakalauskaité) reads from a book, the account of a vicious battle between Cossacks and bashi-bazouks, the effect is rapturous. In this claustrophobic endurance test, Puiu transports the viewer through language to a scene with the epic scope of the film’s runtime. He focuses on listening faces, themselves teleported to a different space.

Like his characters, Puiu wages his own war of discourses, in his case between language and cinema. Whenever Malmkrog seems to have settled into a formal rhythm, the filmmaker flips it, using a different device to interrogate how people talk, and to what extent they listen. One heightened dialogue exchange culminates with the main characters staring out of the window in complete stillness. Then Nikolai starts to move, unstuck from this tableau, and seemingly from time. The boundaries of reality keep getting pushed at, to the point that one almost expects the mansion’s walls to fall and reveal a film set. Later, he glides away from a tea reception to observe the servants, who silently rearrange the house and conceal their own power structure through glances and outbursts of violence that are hidden from the wealthy class. They are like spirits, pulling out chairs for aristocrats who don’t acknowledge them, clearing out items like empty champagne glasses that hint at the echo of a past time.

The creeping dread of history repeatedly overwhelms character and viewer, particularly during General Edouard’s (Ugo Broussot) screed on the world’s necessary “Europeanness,” which becomes a Buñuelian account of fascist tendencies and culminates in the film’s most shocking moment. His wife, the imperious, frizzy-haired Madeline (Agathe Bosch), obsesses over the authority behind language: who may speak, and how. This is the sneaky vessel for a larger discussion on power and control. Living in a religious nation, Nikolai posits, one must first understand what Christianity is, and define national identity from that. The characters situate this in the context of war, and a globe that’s shrinking in the face of technological progress.

But with each scene, Puiu strips away the layers of his ornate style, so that by hour three, all that’s left is the close-up. With Nikolai’s straight face berating Olga, evangelizing on resurrection, the sophistication of the dialogue rarely matches that of Puiu’s aesthetic form. As Malmkrog becomes less ostentatious in style, the redundancy of its philosophizing becomes almost impossible to ignore, having made its conclusions about the inability of the intellectual class in combating fascism through language by the 100-minute mark. Puiu’s assaultive mass of a film speaks to modern times in its depiction of aristocrats indulging in comfortable platitudes as the world edges toward the precipice of chaos, but the Romanian auteur doesn’t entirely make the case for sticking around to listen.

Cast: Agathe Bosch, Frédéric Schulz-Richard, Diana Sakalauskaité, Ugo Broussot, Marina Palii, István Téglás Director: Cristi Puiu Screenwriter: Cristi Puiu Running Time: 200 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: For Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man, the Cruelty Is the Point

The thrill of the film’s craftsmanship is inseparable from its main character’s abuse.

1.5

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The Invisible Man
Photo: Universal Pictures

Elisabeth Moss brings unexpected shades to the flimsiest of roles, and she makes it look so easy. Even if you go into writer-director Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man blind, you will know what Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) did to his wife, Cecilia Kass (Moss), simply from the way she moves one of his hands from her belly. Across a taut and nerve-wracking opening sequence, Cecilia orchestrates what becomes increasingly clear is an elaborate escape. If it’s easy to overlook the hoariness with which the camera lingers at various points on some object that portends things to come, that’s because Moss never stops conveying the agony of the years-long abuse that Cecilia has endured, through the surreptitiousness of her gait and the way paralyzing bolts of fear shoot through her body.

That kind of talent only helps a film like The Invisible Man that doesn’t really care about abuse beyond its function as a plot device. After escaping Adrian’s clutches, Cecilia goes to live with a childhood friend (Aldis Hodge) and his daughter (Storm Reid). Or, rather, struggles to live, as leaving the house is too hard for Cecilia to bear. Cecilia never really stops talking about the control that Adrian exercised over her, even after she learns that he committed suicide, thus freeing her to finally put her life back together. But there’s a frustrating friction to such scenes, between an actress sincerely committed to expressing her character’s pain and a filmmaker interested in trauma only as far it whets our appetite for how a psychopathic tech magnate who specialized in optics could possibly torment his wife from beyond the grave.

With his directorial debut, Insidious 3, Whannell effectively goosed an otherwise insipid haunted-house attraction with clever twists on a franchise’s trite dependence on the jump scare. But it was Upgrade, which saw him freed of franchise responsibilities, as well as longtime collaborator James Wan, that felt closer to a coming-out party for the filmmaker. And it practically announced him as a master, if not of horror, then of evasion, for the way his acute sense of movement is so thrilling in the moment that it can make one overlook his rickety storytelling. Upgrade is a film that’s less suspicious of the not-so-brave new world of tomorrow that anti-authoritarian tech bros are rapidly ushering in than it is in awe of what their toys can do. Its meditation on vengeance is closer to justification: that it’s okay that a bro turned half-machine is going on a violent rampage because of what was done to his wife.

The Invisible Man, another distinctly male fantasy set in a more recognizable present-day San Francisco, has even less to say than that, though it seeks to also entertain us with all that a techie can do with one of his toys. And that it does, as in an impressive early scene inside James’s house where Cecilia walks out of the kitchen while making breakfast and a long shot unobtrusively captures a knife falling off the counter and the flame on one of the gas burners being turned to high. The frisson of unease to this and several other scenes, of a man hiding in not-so-plain sight as he mounts a spectacular show of gaslighting, is close to unbearable. And when the titular menace is finally glimpsed, if only intermittently, the straight shot of action-infused momentum that marks the sequence as he lays waste to a small army of police officers inside the hallway of a mental institution feels like a release, for Cecilia and the audience.

But to what end does Whannell really fashion all this style? In one scene, and only one scene, the film tells us that Cecilia is an architect, not to illuminate all that she’s capable of as a creative, but to allow for the moment where she shows up to an interview at an architecture firm and discovers that the samples of her work were removed from her portfolio. That scene, some 30 minutes into The Invisible Man, is the moment where the film starts to provoke a certain queasiness, where it becomes clear that Cecilia only exists, for Adrian and for Whannell, to be terrorized, to be held up in the air, to be flung across a room, to be punched, to not be believed, to be thought of as insane. And to be raped. That this violation happens off screen proves that Whannell has foresight, that he’s aware of the controversy that surrounded Hollow Man upon its release in 2000. But that we must be told that it also took place at an indeterminate time, almost as a matter of course, feels like an icky attempt at not having to actually grapple with the implications of the crime by casting doubt on it.

Out of sight, out of mind. That feels like Whannell’s mantra. Indeed, by the time it gets around to the business of Cecilia being believed, the film starts to collapse under the weight of an increasingly absurd series of plot reveals for the way she turns the tables on the invisible man to feel like anything but an afterthought. Even then, when her tormentor is right there out in the open, it’s still clear that Whannell only thinks of violence in terms of how it can be paid back. Which is to say, he’s consistent. Through to the end, you can’t get off on the thrill of this film’s craftsmanship without also getting off on the spectacle of more than just Cecilia brought to the brink of destruction. Like its style, The Invisible Man’s cruelty is the point.

Cast: Elisabeth Moss, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Aldis Hodge, Storm Reid, Harriet Dyer, Michael Dorman, Benedict Hardie Director: Leigh Whannell Screenwriter: Leigh Whannell Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 125 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Review: Guns Akimbo Squanders a Nifty Setup with Excruciating Humor

Writer-director Jason Lei Howden’s humor might have been tolerable if his film was at least reasonably imaginative.

1.5

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Guns Akimbo
Photo: Saban Films

For much of Jason Lei Howden’s Guns Akimbo, Miles (Daniel Radcliffe) is in his jammies, because getting dressed is difficult when your hands are nailed to pistols. Eating and using the bathroom are no easy feat either. With this, the film hits on an amusing setup for physical comedy, as Miles can do little but stumble about as he strives to drive a car or use his phone with his nose. He also must avoid being shot by Nix (Samara Weaving), his designated opponent in a kill-or-be-killed online competition called Skizm. But the film ultimately fails to capitalize on its concept and gets smothered by its smug, abrasive tone.

Miles is a coder for a video game titled Nuts Bust 2, one of too-many examples of the film’s groan-inducing comedy. He’s also a bizarrely self-aware depiction of an internet troll, as Miles admits via narration that, in order to feel worthwhile, he seeks out arguments in comment sections and reports “offensive content.” When he goes to Skizm’s chatroom to tell the viewers off, he runs afoul of the organization’s facial-tattooed leader, Riktor (Ned Dennehy), who at one point says, “I’m going to do a poo-poo in my pantaloons,” because why not? Those guns for hands and his forced participation in Skizm are Miles’s punishment.

Most of Guns Akimbo’s dialogue squanders an intriguing concept through truly excruciating attempts at humor, oscillating between snide comments, gay panic jokes, and capital-A attitude-laden one-liners. In one scene, Miles remarks that the world looks “so HD” because, with gun-hands, he can’t go outside with his face in his phone.

The humor might have been tolerable if the film was at least reasonably imaginative. Radcliffe really digs into Miles’s sniveling bafflement and the expressive Weaving clearly has a lot of hammy fun as the unhinged Nix. But too much of Guns Akimbo consists of unremarkable car chases and gun fights that hardly feel transformed at all by Miles’s unique predicament. We watch a lot of people fire a lot of guns against a lot of concrete backdrops, except Howden deploys a hyperactive camera style that’s always zooming around the characters in slow motion or fast forward. He appears to be going for the Neveldine/Taylor style of films like Crank and Gamer, except he’s not nearly as inventive and most of his flourishes outright distract from the action choreography, sometimes obscuring it altogether.

Worse, Guns Akimbo strains to be self-aware, with Miles assuring audiences via narration that this isn’t one of those stories where he wins back his ex-girlfriend, Nova (Natasha Liu Bordizzo), in the end. And it’s weirdly self-congratulatory for a film that visibly revels in torturing Weaving’s character and eventually has Nova kidnapped for the big climax anyway. The film has even less to say about the sort of obsessive spectatorship that makes up the story’s backdrop, as though simply depicting reality-TV audiences and internet users as assholes is some profound statement. Luckily, unlike Miles, viewers have a say in the matter. They aren’t bolted to the couch and the remote isn’t nailed into their hands; they’re free to quit watching at any time, or simply opt not to watch this obnoxious film at all.

Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Samara Weaving, Natasha Liu Bordizzo, Ned Dennehy, Rhys Darby, Grant Bowler, Edwin Wright Director: Jason Lei Howden Screenwriter: Jason Lei Howden Distributor: Saban Films Running Time: 97 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Review: The Assistant Is a Chilling Portrait of Workplace Harassment

The film is designed so that we feel as starved for rudimentary human emotion as its main character.

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The Assistant
Photo: Bleecker Street Media

With The Assistant, writer-director Kitty Green offers a top-to-bottom portrait of incremental dehumanization, and, on its terms, the film is aesthetically, tonally immaculate. The narrative is set in the Tribeca offices of a film mogul, but it could take place in a branch of any major corporation throughout the world without losing much of its resonance. Offices encourage professional functionality as a way of divorcing people from themselves, leading them to make actions without a sense of complicity. What starts small—throwing co-workers under the bus, neglecting friends due to punishing work hours—can blossom over time into people enabling atrocity under the guise of “doing what they’re told.”

With this psychology in mind, Green fashions The Assistant as a pseudo-thriller composed entirely of purposefully demoralizing minutiae. The film opens with a young woman, Jane (Julia Garner), being picked up from her apartment for work so punishingly early that it’s almost impossible to tell if it’s morning or night. By 8 a.m., she’s been making copies, printing documents, reading emails, and tending to office errands for hours. Other employees gradually drift in, talking obligatorily of their weekends off—a privilege that Jane isn’t accorded.

In these early scenes, Green conjures a peculiar, very palpable dread, her precise, anal-retentive compositions suggesting what might happen if David Fincher were to adapt Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” This dread springs from two places, as the visual palette is silvery and moody, evoking a potential corporate thriller, though the film refuses to move beyond the expository stage and gratify this expectation, and so we fear that we may be trapped with Jane in her tedium. We are, and this is by Green’s moral schematic.

The Assistant is designed so that we feel as starved for rudimentary human emotion as Jane. No names are uttered throughout (the name Jane, which brings to mind the anonymity of a Jane Doe, is only stated in the credits), while the film mogul is only evoked via male pronouns (he’s never seen but often referenced and occasionally heard over the phone, usually in a torrent of rage against Jane for her inability to talk down his wife, who knows of his infidelity). Jane brings another assistant the wrong sandwich, and he treats her cruelly; it never occurs to him, or anyone else, to thank Jane for the tasks she performs for everyone in the office. At best, Jane’s co-workers regard her with a kind of pitying befuddlement, as if she’s not quite real. When Jane eats, it’s quickly and without pleasure, and she’s always alert to being watched. No one speaks of their personal lives. Green springs one perceptive, poignant detail after another, especially when the mogul compliments Jane via email just as she thinks he’s reached his limit with her. This is, of course, a major tool of the master manipulator: praise when least expected, and only enough to keep the person in your sphere of influence and at your mercy.

Increasingly unsettling details seep into this deadening atmosphere. Jane finds an earring in the mogul’s office, which is repeatedly seen from a distance through its open door and becomes a chilling symbol for the mogul himself, suggesting his unshakable presence even in absence. There are jokes made about his couch, which Jane cleans. Young, beautiful women are brought into the office at late hours, and are referenced by both male and female employees with contempt. Growing fearful for one of the women, Jane tries to complain to an unsympathetic H.R. officer who sets about gaslighting her. It becomes evident that we’re watching—from the perspective of a powerless yet ultimately complicit person—a parable about rich, insulated predators like Harvey Weinstein, and Green’s grasp of Jane’s indoctrination into this perverse world is impeccably believable.

Yet The Assistant also feels too narrow, too comfortable with its thesis. The rendering of the mogul as an unseen specter is effective but also dime-store lurid in the tradition of mediocre horror movies, and this device also conveniently absolves Green of having to wrestle with how a Weinstein type might live with himself. George Huang’s similarly themed 1994 film Swimming with Sharks, which is mostly inferior to The Assistant, benefited from such a friction, as its own Weinstein surrogate (played by Kevin Spacey) had a magnetism that complicated and enriched the script’s anger. There’s also something insidious about Green’s evasion, as the mogul’s absence elevates him, mythologizes him, which reflects how people low on the power ladder see powerful exploiters. But Green physicalizes this idea without standing outside of it, challenging it, or contextualizing it; she traps us in a monotonous hell and leaves us there. Her fury with Weinstein and his ilk contains an element of awe.

Cast: Julia Garner, Matthew Macfadyen, Makenzie Leigh, Kristine Froseth, Jon Orsini, Noah Robbins, Stéphanye Dussud, Juliana Canfield, Alexander Chaplin, Dagmara Dominczyk, Bregje Heinen Director: Kitty Green Screenwriter: Kitty Green Distributor: Bleecker Street Media Running Time: 87 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Benh Zeitlin’s Wendy Is a Half-Hearted Spin on Peter Pan

Wendy veers awkwardly and aimlessly between tragedy and jubilance, never accruing any lasting emotional impact.

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Wendy
Photo: Searchlight Pictures

Like Beasts of the Southern Wild before it, Wendy unfolds through the eyes of a child. Benh Zeitlin’s sophomore feature puts a new spin on Peter Pan, and not only because it takes on the perspective of a 10-year-old Wendy Darling (Devin France). The film’s modern-rustic settings and costumes and relative lack of fantastical elements—notwithstanding the presence of a majestic, glowing sea creature, referred to as “mother,” who may hold the secret to reversing time—also play a large part in re-envisioning J.M. Barrie’s classic. But Zeitlin’s brand of magical realism strains in its conflicting desires to both demystify Neverland (never mentioned by name in the film), chiefly by grounding it in a rather prosaic reality, and imbue the story with all the enchanting qualities we’ve come to expect from fantasies of everlasting childhood. Like its version of Peter (Yashua Mack), Wendy wants to fly, yet, because of its self-imposed restrictions, it never quite gets off the ground.

Across this tale of a child lurching toward adulthood, there’s a sense of wonder and awe to the sea creature’s brief appearances, and to Wendy’s initial encounters with the free-spirited Peter, who playfully eggs her on from atop the train that regularly roars across the barren, rural locale that houses her family’s rundown diner. But Wendy’s whimsical flourishes, from Dan Romer’s incessantly rousing score to Wendy’s breathy and all-too-mannered voiceover, brush awkwardly against the film’s dour conception of a Neverland drained of all its magic and grandeur. Despite this, Zeitlin strives to capture an unbridled sense of childlike exuberance as kids cavort around the rugged cliffside vistas of the remote volcanic island that Peter calls home. But lacking any of the mystical features typically associated with them, Peter and his cohorts’ behaviors appear overly precocious to the point of ludicrousness; it’s almost as if they’re performing a twee, optimistic rendition of Lord of the Flies.

Unlike Quvenzhané Wallis, whose magnetic presence imbued Beasts of the Southern Wild with a pervasive warmth and soulfulness, Mack is an unfortunately listless presence as Peter. Several years younger than Wendy and her twin brothers, Douglas (Gage Naquin) and James (Gavin Naquin), Peter appears, more often than not, like a six-year-old playing dress-up. His utter lack of charisma and gusto renders him an ill-fitting avatar for boisterous youthfulness, while his occasionally domineering, yet still unimposing, demeanor hardly makes him out to be the inspirational figure that the film ultimately wants him to be. Not only does he allow one boy to drown at one point, he chops off the hand of another to prevent him from aging.

Such events position Wendy as a twisted take on Peter Pan, but these moments are never given room to breathe. Rather, they’re uniformly undermined by the film cutting back to the idyllic adventures of children, in lockstep with Zeitlin’s relentless pursuit of galvanizing his audience through a gleefully idealized vision of the world. This jarring intrusion of darker elements into the story makes for bizarre clashes in tone, leaving Wendy to veer awkwardly and aimlessly between tragedy and jubilance, never to accrue any lasting emotional impact. When Peter buoyantly declares that “to grow up is a great adventure,” one is left to wonder not only why the boy who never grows up would, out of nowhere, embrace this worldview, but why Wendy, or any of the other children, would want to follow such a troubling figure on that journey.

As Wendy stumbles into its final act, where adult pirates attempt to use Wendy as bait to catch the giant sea creature, it becomes even more convoluted, contradictory, and murky in what it’s trying to say about growing up. Wendy eventually begins to stand up to and question Peter, both for his mistreatment of her brother and his harshness toward the adults Peter has excommunicated to an impoverished community on the outskirts of the island. But no sooner does she chide Peter than she’s back on his side, cheering him on as he fights off an admittedly cleverly devised Captain Hook. It’s as if she, much like the film, can’t seem to settle on whether Peter’s a hero or a borderline psychopath, or if childhood is a magical time to live in permanently or a necessary step on the way to adulthood. Rather than meaningfully subverting audience expectations, Wendy instead plays like a half-hearted twist on the familiar tale that ultimately doesn’t change the moral at the core of countless other Peter Pan adaptations: childhood is magical, and growing up is scary but inevitable.

Cast: Tommie Lynn Milazzo, Shay Walker, Devin France, Stephanie Lynn Wilson, Ahmad Cage, Gage Naquin, Krzysztof Meyn, Gavin Naquin, Romyri Ross Director: Benh Zeitlin Screenwriter: Benh Zeitlin, Eliza Zeitlin Distributor: Searchlight Pictures Running Time: 112 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2020

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