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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: Spelunky 2 Spit-Polishes a Familiar Formula to Near-Perfection

Spelunky 2 remains staunchly committed to its immaculate core design.

4

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Spelunky 2

Right down to the start menu, Spelunky’s modus operandi has changed little for its long-awaited sequel. Once more, you take your whip, bombs, and ropes for a precarious two-dimensional descent through pits littered with cartoon critters. Again, white text proclaims, “The walls are shifting,” before the start of each completion attempt—that the levels are randomized and re-rerandomized each time you die. And you will die a lot.

The first world’s brown and rocky caveman dwelling, though populated by a few new enemies and obstacles, is reminiscent of the original’s opening mines. Still, you will spot tweaks to the familiar Spelunky formula early on. They seem small at first, like how the end of the first world presents a choice to enter either a jungle or a volcano, letting you pick the next set of obstacles that will probably kill you. Creatures like wild turkeys roam certain levels, able to be ridden and then lost (or abandoned) in times of distress like a Yoshi from Super Mario World.

The design of Spelunky 2 is so tightly wound and meticulously considered, though, that what seem like small tweaks and additions have wide, reverberating effects on the way the game plays. Nothing is immune to the environment and the objects within it, with bombs disastrously bounced away by punching-bag traps or pebbles you’ve tossed in the air coming back down to hit you in the face and stun you if you’re not careful. Trigger the giant drill at your own peril, because in the process of carving out a shortcut it might burrow down through pools of flowing lava, the domain of the volatile shopkeeper, or the bloody altar to a fickle god.

The turkeys, for one, provide a boost to mobility with a double-jump and a glide, though their headbutt differs just enough from your whip to be a liability until you get used to it. The turkeys can be carried up latters, and they can shield you from damage as long as they’re alive, giving out a health item when they’re blown up or otherwise set ablaze at the cost of losing the carcass as a throwable object to hit enemies or trigger traps. You can also give away the birds to a man in exchange for treasure, but take care not to blow up his pen, steal his turkeys, or kill the birds when he’s nearby if you don’t want to run afoul of his itchy trigger finger.

And while these tweaks hugely affect the game on a moment-to-moment basis, the larger structure of Spelunky remains intact here. Secret areas are abundant, and there are still unlockable shortcuts, but Spelunky 2’s similarity to its predecessor now functions as a sort of rebuttal to the various games that have followed the original’s procedurally generated permadeath lead over the last eight years. Where those other games lay breadcrumbs of progress to soften the impact of repeated failure and ensure every attempt feels meaningful, Spelunky 2 still rewards you only with scant knowledge through lessons learned the hard way. You don’t accumulate gold to upgrade your ropes or your whip or your jump height, and though you can unlock new characters, none of them play any differently.

Spelunky 2 remains staunchly committed to its immaculate core design, demanding that we adapt to its rhythms and its secrets. In this way, the game argues for the importance of that finely tuned core over the adornments of incremental progress, the various carrots on various sticks that inundate the entire medium. Such a firm declaration feels appropriate for a game whose very existence began with skepticism, where we questioned the point of more Spelunky when the original, after all, was polished to a mirror shine. Spelunky 2 may only change the size and shape of that mirror in subtle ways, but the things it allows us to glimpse about perseverance and tight, considered design are perhaps more vital than ever before.

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

Developer: Mossmouth, Blitworks Publisher: Mossmouth Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: September 15, 2020 ESRB: T ESRB Descriptions: Violence, Blood, Crude Humor Buy: Game

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Review: Marvel’s Avengers Forces You to Run the Games-As-a-Service Hamster Wheel

Everything truly good in Marvel’s Avengers is compromised by its mercenary feature set.

2

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Marvel’s Avengers
Photo: Square Enix

With Marvel’s Avengers, Crystal Dynamics has managed to do what many reviews, screeds from established film directors, and anti-mainstream voices couldn’t: They’ve made me question my devotion to the titular superheroes. Namely, whether there really is nothing more to the latter-day iteration of the Avengers than fighting robots in between spouting Whedonesque dialogue. But, then, all it took was an afternoon of revisiting how they’ve been portrayed in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, comic books, and beyond across the last decade or so to see that Marvel’s Avengers alone does a disservice to the legacy of its superhero characters by making it seem as if they’re saving the world with empty promise.

While the characters here largely take their visual cues and personalities from their portrayals in the MCU, you won’t know them from their faces, voices, and histories. That isn’t a problem in and of itself, except that Marvel’s Avengers doesn’t do the legwork of endearing them to us. And because they feel like strangers, it’s impossible to buy into the way they’re put at odds with one another after Captain America meets his demise and S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Avengers are blamed for the cosmic explosion that killed him, as well as the mutations that occurred in many of those who were in the blast’s range. Much of the game involves trying to put the band back together to stop the evil A.I.M. corporation from capitalizing on the world’s new state of chaos.

The bones of a good, old-fashioned, linear action game are evident here. Brawling is a straightforward affair, with each Avenger’s special powers mapped to the shoulder buttons. Traversal feels right, with every superhero having their own snazzy method of getting around, from swinging on wires to clinging to and bouncing off walls; characters like Iron Man and Thor can even fly around the battlefield at will. Pity, then, that the battlefields often get too chaotic for their own good, choked with explosions, lasers, and exploding machine parts. The camera is sometimes a source of struggle. Level designs are bland, generic industrial wastelands surrounded by empty wilderness, and many of your objectives for each level have no sense of urgency. Worst of all, the game’s obscenely long load times make retrying a stage feel extra aggravating.

Crafting a sturdy Avengers beat ‘em up, a modern-day spiritual successor to the classic Captain America and the Avengers arcade game from the early ‘90s, is a noble aim. Which is to say, the aforementioned flaws aren’t a deal breaker, except that Marvel’s Avengers doesn’t make its stages feel vital to its story, nor does it deliver truly memorable high-stakes surprises or introduce creative or well-known foes into the mix. Had it delivered on all those fronts, the game wouldn’t have been too far removed from the breezy, top-down action titles in the Marvel Ultimate Alliance series. And if Marvel’s Avengers doesn’t, it’s because it’s too beholden, a la Destiny, to a live-service model—more interested in ensnaring than entertaining the player.

The core gameplay mechanic of Marvel’s Avengers doesn’t hinge on making players feel the exhilaration of saving the world, but on the allure of amassing stuff. The only real way to proceed in the game is by constantly collecting more and better gear for each character, upgrading their stats, and adding to a preposterous list of currencies, resources, and random junk that you need to, yes, keep upgrading. And all of that is worse here than it is in Destiny, because at least the new items that you collect in that game can change the parts of a character’s costume or the way a weapon fires; even a basic mission nets quite a bit in rewards. By contrast, none of the gear you collect in Marvel’s Avengers even changes the way a character looks. The only way to do that is to grind through stages and complete a character’s challenge card, and if you rightfully start to feel the snail’s pace of your progress, you can always just buy the cosmetics with real world money.

When the game, on its normal difficulty, starts to ramp up to the point where three hits from an enemy decimates your lifebar, there are no patterns to learn or strategies to change. What you feel instead of determination is the urgency of having to find another mission to take on and grind for better numbers, and the motivations aren’t strong enough to justify repetitive tasks for paltry rewards. Yes, there’s the base gratification of watching those numbers tick up, but with little else going on between its ears, Marvel’s Avengers feels creatively bankrupt. And while this sort of monotonous grinding typically makes it easy to just loathe and ignore a game, there’s collateral damage involved in completely writing this one off: Kamala Khan.

Kamala is already one of the best things to happen to Marvel Comics just by being who she is: a 16-year-old Pakistani Muslim female superhero whose ethnicity, culture, and religion aren’t played to inspire controversy or feed into easy stereotypes. And even then, those aspects aren’t the whole of who she is. At least, all those things don’t outweigh the fact that she’s also just a dorky superhero stan living out her wildest dreams after she gets super powers. Somehow, despite all the despicable trappings of games as a service, everything special about her in the comics has made it into this game. She’s the star here, the one who decides to bring the Avengers together again, who wrestles with the implications of what to do with her power. She believes, without question, that she has to use it to face down the various injustices around her. As opposed to almost every other major hero in the game, she doesn’t lack for nuance. The game makes room for a moment in which she implements a burkini into her superhero outfit, as well as foregrounds her pride in knowing that she belongs with the Avengers, while also not ignoring that she’s still a kid who makes huge tactical mistakes.

Kamala is this game’s heart and soul, joyfully written and lovingly and enthusiastically performed by Sandra Saad. Much of the story centers on her presence and actions, and even as a playable character, her polymorph powers are by far the most blissfully fun mechanics in the game. As such, it’s easy to imagine what Marvel’s Avengers could’ve been completely about: the focused, straightforward story of a girl coming to grips with who she is, what she’s capable of, and where she fits among Earth’s Mightiest Heroes as she defies an evil corporation who wants people who look and act like her dead. That story is there in Marvel’s Avengers, but unfortunately it’s one that’s swept aside often and awkwardly by wheel-spinning missions that exist only to teach players how to run that import-free, gear-garnering games-as-a-service hamster wheel of missions, never reaching a place where your job is ever done. And the fact that players must suffer that to experience one of the best crafted characters in gaming this year makes Marvel’s Avengers all the more infuriating.

There’s an oft-repeated mantra in Marvel’s Avengers that goes, “Good isn’t a thing you are; it’s a thing you do.” And it’s one that’s recited in a game where doing good largely means “smash more robots” and “open more glowy chests.” Everything truly good in Marvel’s Avengers is compromised by its mercenary feature set. Live-service engagement is ultimately its guiding principle, and that’s a principle that’s never been heroic.

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

Developer: Crystal Dynamics Publisher: Square Enix Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: September 4, 2020 ESRB: T ESRB Descriptions: Language, Mild Blood, Violence Buy: Game

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Review: No Straight Roads Is Richly in Tune with Its Personal Themes

You never lose sight of No Straight Roads’s thematic intent during its big show-stopping numbers.

3.5

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No Straight Roads
Photo: Sold Out

In the world of No Straight Roads, music is the electricity-generating energy that powers Vinyl City. So when the rock duo of Bunk Bed Junction rebels against the EDM-obsessed NSR corporation that runs the city, they’re not just fighting the Man, but also rising up on behalf of those living in the city’s poorer districts, which suffer from rolling blackouts whenever there isn’t enough music to go around. It’s a smart way to keep the game’s six gloriously absurd band battles grounded in political stakes and interpersonal relationships, much as Scott Pilgrim vs. the World used music to illustrate the ups and downs of love.

Despite what its title might suggest, progression through the game is straightforward. Bunk Bed Junction targets the lead NSR performer of the district closest to them, hijacks their performance by fighting and platforming through a series of security checkpoints, and then duels the artist in a multi-phase boss battle. Recalling the way that Psychonauts and Persona 5 built unique worlds around their characters, these showdowns are the game’s highlight, with each (literal) stage serving as a visual metaphor for the type of music or performer involved. These battles are also puzzles as much as fights, as you can’t just randomly swing Mayday’s guitar or thrash about with Zuke’s drumsticks. Rather, players must learn to follow a level’s underlying beat so as to dodge and parry attacks, swapping between the band’s two members as necessary and using the elements of each arena to expose a boss’s weakness.

Put simply, the creativity of the concerts in No Straight Roads are consistently cranked to 11. With the exception of the game’s two optional rap battles against Zuke’s brother, DK West, that have their own separate control scheme, no two performances are the same. In fact, even the phases of each boss fight tend to be radically different. When players first encounter DJ Subatomic Supernova, they’re merely running around his dais, smashing disco balls to gain the musical notes that serve as the band’s ranged ammunition. By the end of the battle, the scope has expanded considerably, as the disco balls are now planets that orbit a massive, sun-like DJ, and players must find a way to pierce the asteroid belt that protects him. The fight against Yinu, a neoclassical nine-year-old piano prodigy, starts out simply enough, with you needing to learn the hard way to differentiate between full- and half-note attacks by the speed at which the projectiles fly in your direction. At the battle’s crescendo, Yinu’s angry mother has gotten involved, doing her best to crush you with piano hammers.

You never lose sight of No Straight Roads’s thematic intent during its big show-stopping numbers. But the brief interludes in between, where players can freely explore the district of the boss they’ve just beaten, also speak to the game’s larger themes. You can see how music influences not only the citizens of Vinyl City, but the architecture: Sayu, a digital mermaid idol modeled to some extent after Hatsune Miku, comes from a Japanese-themed area called Akusuka, whereas the robotic boyband Ten Ten hails from the harsher, steelier Metro District.

No Straight Roads also benefits from not dwelling too much on its rock-versus-EDM premise, by and large using it to compellingly shade its artist characters. Eve, a so-called “psydub” performer, uses her powers to physically split up Mayday and Zuke for most of their battle with her, which is a neat way of reflecting not only her own feelings of rejection—she once worked alongside Zuke—but to demonstrate the teamwork that a successful band needs to master. There’s not a missed beat, so to speak, in the way Eve’s surrealism also tries to make a statement against Mayday’s so-called “pedestrianism,” with the game ultimately declaring that all perspectives, no matter how plain, have their own appeal.

The game’s exuberance helps to smooth over its rough spots, like the awkward parrying mechanics, imprecise hit boxes, and messy camera angles that come as a result of being unable to lock onto enemies. That’s because No Straight Roads stays true, above all, to its themes. Take, for instance, the rap battles between DK West and his brother Zuke: Only the first one is truly catchy and verbally dexterous, but the others get tripped up in all the right way, with the brothers fumbling over words not because of a lack of skill but because of a surfeit of emotion. Even the occasional wrong note in No Straight Roads works, as it’s in service to an earnest and resonant grand design, or as the game might put it: BUNKA, JUNKA, SHAKALAKA BAM.

The game was reviewed using a review code provided by Wonacott Communications.

Developer: Metronomik Publisher: Sold Out Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: August 25, 2020 ESRB: E10+ ESRB Descriptions: Alcohol Reference, Fantasy Violence, Language Buy: Game

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Review: Samurai Jack: Battle Through Time Wields the Dullest of Blades

The game lacks for Samurai Jack’s smooth, stylish animation and deceptively deep characterizations.

2

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Samurai Jack: Battle Through Time
Photo: Adult Swim Games

Genndy Tartakovsky’s television series Samurai Jack remains memorable for its smooth, stylish animation and its deceptively deep characterization of its titular samurai, who’s transported into an unrecognizable future that no longer has a place for him, and where his magical foe, Aku, reigns supreme. Evincing little of that style and depth, Samurai Jack: Battle Through Time’s story plays out in a 50-second window to time from Samurai Jack’s series finale that occurred off screen, stretched out here to a five-to-six hour experience in which Jack finds himself unstuck in time and reliving his past. The game’s 3D art style inevitably loses the comic book-like screen framing of Samurai Jack, but worse is that playing Battle Through Time feels like you’re watching a clip-show-like reprisal of the series.

To its credit, Battle Through Time nicely mines Tartakovsky’s source material in its efforts to at least be an entertaining brawler. The enemies—doddering robotic alligators, sleek metal fish demons, agile and leonine bounty hunters—are as comical yet deadly as they are on the show. Jack’s prowess in combat is also neatly summed up by the variety of tools at his disposal. That includes everything from shurikens and bows to machine guns, plus five different classes of melee weapons: trusty swords, fast fists, horde-clearing hammers, distance-closing spears, and powerful clubs. Even the game’s genre-standard skill tree stands out for the way it reflects Jack’s growth on the series, with separate branches for his Combat, Physical, and Spiritual levels, and the in-game shop where he can purchase skill upgrades allows for a good cameo from Da Samurai. None of this is particularly innovative for the genre, but it at least solidifies Battle Through Time as a flattering, form-fitting adaptation of the show.

Nonetheless, the game’s combat is cluttered. Each type of enemy is weak to one of Jack’s weapons, but because he can only equip up to four different items at once, the fluid fights are broken up by constant trips to the pause menu, where players must swap out their gear. Along the same lines, the game introduces a durability meter to all weapons (save for Jack’s Magical Sword and his fists) that requires players to frequently change armaments. Ostensibly, this exists to make players experiment with all the various hammers, spears, and clubs at their disposal, but given that you can just stockpile identical versions of the same weapon, the majority of items that Jack acquires by disarming—or in the case of Beetle Drones, dis-legging—his opponents come to feel as if they exist only for their cosmetic appeal.

Instead of following in the footsteps of a classic like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time, which thrusts its familiar animated characters into bizarre new worlds that could hold up on their own, Battle Through Time chooses to instead recreate specific, random episodes from the series, and in contextless ways. There’s a dog who flies around in a spaceship, wears a monocle, and offers you helpful advice, but if you haven’t watched the show, you wouldn’t know this to be Sir Rothchild, a canine archeologist. You’ll encounter a kilted warrior, as well as his warrior daughters, but the game never gets around to explaining that he’s the Scotsman, Jack’s most trusted ally on Samurai Jack. Boon’s Castle was where Jack met the Scotsman’s wife on the series, and the Cave of the Ancients was where he saw his potential fate reflected in that of a long-suffering Viking warrior, but those locals don’t feel purposeful in the game, as they exist here only to provide differing backdrops for otherwise identical fight sequences.

The ability to walk a mile in Samurai Jack’s sandals simply isn’t worth the cost, given Battle Through Time’s clunky 3D rendering of Tartakovsky’s distinctive visuals, its empty retelling of individual episodes from the series, and repetitive boss fights, especially the one against Demongo, one of Aku’s strongest minions. All of which is to say that players would be better off firing up their Hulu apps if they want to get a sense of Samurai Jack’s breadth and wonder.

The game was reviewed using a review code provided by Sandbox Strategies.

Developer: Soleil Ltd. Publisher: Adult Swim Games Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: August 21, 2020 ESRB: T ESRB Descriptions: Violence, Blood Buy: Game

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Review: To Survive in Windbound Is to Conquer a Grueling Progression System

Windbound is an exploration game whose sense of exploration is painfully rigid.

2.5

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Windbound
Photo: Deep Silver

As a warrior separated from her seafaring tribe in Windbound, you’ll have to scavenge small islands for food and craft materials in order to build a boat. The early hours of other such survival games tend to be the most thrilling because that’s when players are at their most desperate and vulnerable. Not only do you have few materials to fall back on should disaster strike, but you’re often still learning the game’s mechanics, from what to craft to what materials to look out for, and what can kill you in a moment’s notice. Windbound, however, is different insofar as its early and middle hours are an absolute chore, suffering from a mind-numbing lack of variety that’s only rectified once the game is nearly over.

At the start of Windbound, you must build and paddle a small canoe, but as the game progresses, you construct decks and sails to more smoothly and confidently navigate the waters to distant islands with more resources available to you. Unlike the wider worlds of so many other survival games, the procedurally generated space of Windbound is consciously limited, requiring players to find three towers housing nautilus keys before they can proceed to the game’s next chapter, which has a new chain of islands to explore.

The decision to segment Windbound into discrete chapters isn’t ruinous on its own; the game only spirals into tedium through the slow drip feed of new areas, items, and enemies on a per-chapter basis. The first chapter has only one island type, all with the same handful of resources, like sticks and tufts of grass to cobble together a canoe and a flimsy sail. The second chapter, while carrying over the plain landmasses from the first, introduces islands marked by red-leafed trees that house the first hostile animal that you’ll encounter (the wild boar in the first chapter don’t attack unprovoked) as well as bamboo, which is sturdier and offers crafting options for more elaborate vessels. Only after three more keys will you find the next type of island and the crafting recipes that go with their new resources.

Windbound is, in other words, an exploration game whose sense of exploration is painfully rigid, one that sabotages its own sense of discovery by so insistently waiting until you have earned the next mechanic. By the time you reach the fourth and fifth chapters (out of five total), the game’s ocean presents a much wider range of possibilities for fortune and ruin. In many ways this is a clumsy, glitchy game, saddled with an awkward crafting menu and controls for sailing and combat that lack any particular sense of impact or intention. But in those late hours, Windbound finally delivers the sense of wonder and adventure inherent to its seafaring premise, even without the early-game sense of just skirting disaster. Until that point, though, you repeat the same menial tasks among locales that soon grow maddeningly familiar.

Worst of all, the game, on its default difficulty, kicks you back to the first chapter once you die, leaving you with a few of your items but otherwise forcing you to work your way back up again past those same few islands with their same few materials and animals. The ensuing repetition is far more punishing than if the game had simply thrown you into the deep end from the very beginning. In most games that make you start over after you die, you use knowledge of past runs to move forward more quickly. But in Windbound, such experience is useless because the game doesn’t give you the right materials to do so before you’ve jumped through its prescribed number of hoops by gathering keys from islands you’ve seen again and again and again.

Even so, it’s difficult to shake the specter of the better game that Windbound might have been. There’s a real splendor to the game’s open ocean, a joy to navigating its waters with a vessel that you’ve constructed as well as a captivating stress when you realize just how flimsy that vessel can be. In these moments, even issues like the horrid progression melt away. But those moments don’t arrive often enough, and they tend to arrive far too late.

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

Developer: 5 Lives Studios Publisher: Deep Silver Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: August 28, 2020 ESRB: E10+ ESRB Descriptions: Fantasy Violence Buy: Game

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Review: Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout Is More Like the Ultimate Pain

Even when Fall Guys is working perfectly as intended, its appeal is limited.

2

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Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout
Photo: Devolver Digital

Cuteness isn’t in short supply across Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout, from the customizable Minions-like blob you control to the wacky games that will have you dodging giant pieces of falling fruit or running through spinning windmills like a ball on a mini-golf course. This is an unmistakably fast and frenetic battle royale, but one in which actual fighting isn’t really an option: Your tackle has all the force of a pillow, and your grab is effective only at momentarily slowing both yourself and an opponent. Your goal? To outrun or outlast your 59 adorable foes over a series of various elimination stages, and should the opportunity arise to gently push a rival off a ledge, you’ll want to take it.

No amount of cuteness, though, is a proper substitute for competent design. The majority of the game’s 24 challenges are more a matter of luck than skill, with players often forced to fling themselves into plushy and disastrous pile-ups of their peers, hoping that they’ll be able to funnel through an obstacle just fast enough to break away from the pack. As for those unfortunate enough to stay mired in a mob of competitors, good luck catching up with the rest of the field. It’s already hard enough to land a tricky series of jumps given the game’s imprecise physics, let alone to do so when players keep colliding with you in mid-air.

Other minigame-filled titles like Mario Party and WarioWare are memorable for their diversity—how each activity throws something distinct, unpredictable, and truly competitive at players. By contrast, Fall Guys generally just throws other players at you. The contestants are the only variable that really changes. The races themselves feel all too similar, especially once you’ve done them a few times and have learned the fastest routes, and survival challenges are just a series of repetitive actions in which you wait for an often-unseen opponent to mess up first. The game rarely encourages you or gives you the time to appreciate all of the anonymous strangers getting knocked off a course by a foam hammer. You’re too busy ignoring them, after all, trying to avoid the same fate. As a result, courses that are designed to fit 60 players end up feeling under-populated and empty when it’s just you ahead of the pack.

The game also suffers from major balancing issues, and not just in terms of how difficult it is to walk and jump across narrow cylindrical beams in “Slime Climb.” For one, Fall Guys presents itself as a player-versus-player action game, but nearly a third of the challenges it offers are team-based. If you were playing with actual friends, it might be fun to strategize how to best (and most ridiculously) gather eggs from a central area and horde them in your team’s zone, striving to have more eggs than the other teams after two minutes. But you can’t communicate with your randomly assigned partners, so you just have to hope that they’re not actively trying to troll you, as when, in a game of “Team Tail Tag,” your allies keep trying to grab your tail instead of protecting you, or when a game of “Fall Ball” gets nasty, with teammates actively trying to score own goals with the oversized soccer ball. And nothing has been built into the game to discourage such behavior, as there are no leaderboards, no rankings, no low-priority pool, only an endless grind for trivial cosmetic loot. Nothing disincentivizes players from choosing to find their fun at your expense.

Even when Fall Guys is working perfectly as intended—no server issues, quick matchmaking, good teammates, balanced levels—its appeal is limited. If you’re doing well, you’re likely to find yourself racing well ahead of the pack, unimpeded by competitors, in which case you’re essentially just playing the same brief level over and over again, grinding out loot. And when you’re doing poorly, you at least have to contend with others’ unpredictable antics. It’s here that the game feels like it might have a point, however accidental, because losing at Fall Guys feels like democracy in action: You can see exactly where you need to go, but you’re trapped in place by the dozens of obstinate others who maddeningly insist on doing things their own way.

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

Developer: Mediatonic Publisher: Devolver Digital Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: August 3, 2020 ESRB: E ESRB Descriptions: Mild Cartoon Violence Buy: Game

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Review: Destroy All Humans! Is Dated and Prescient in Equal Measure

To say that the game feels like a relic from a different age would be an understatement.

3.5

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Destory All Humans!
Photo: THQ Nordic

To say that Destroy All Humans! feels like a relic from a different age would be an understatement. The original 2005 game, goosed up by Black Forest Games for current-gen consoles, is a snapshot of gaming on the cusp, back when wild ideas and great writing could live in a sort of digital middle class right alongside big-budget blockbuster titles, and feel right at home. From its approach to problem solving and to its unabashed politics, there’s an anarchic streak running through it. That it stood out less in 2005 is somewhat damning given where we are now, but this remaster’s upgraded visuals, controls, and mechanics have made everything special about the original release shine much brighter.

Set in 1959, the game begins with a UFO crash-landing on Earth, leaving its pilot, Cryptosporidium-136—Crypto for short—in the grubby hands of a government agency known as Majestic. Soon after, Crypto’s clone, 137, and their boss, Orthopox-13 (Richard Horvitz, again bringing his uproarious Invader Zim voice out to play), sends their mother ship to Earth for some extraterrestrial vengeance. And by vengeance, they mean anal probes. For everyone.

In a nutshell, Destroy All Humans! suggests a ‘50s-era alien invasion movie where you get to play as the aliens. Just the idea of hopping in a flying saucer and laying waste to the cities of men would carry a game all by itself, and doing it as a period piece even more so, which makes it rather surprising that we haven’t seen another game quite like this one in recent years. Which makes it somewhat of missed opportunity that this new version of the game lacks for a black-and-white filter that could have supplied an extra mood boost.

But we still get the lasers and flying saucers, and, of course, the permission to lay gleeful waste to ‘50s suburbia. Outside of his saucer, Crypto gets to walk around on foot, either disguising himself as a hapless human or wreaking havoc with all the alien rifles, probes, and psychic powers at his disposal, and these are the sections where the game gets to show off much more of its creativity. Crypto can lift and throw all of Earth’s pitiful creatures with his telekinetic powers, and there’s plenty of weaponry allowing you to either shock enemies to death, reduce them to skeletons, or shoot a device that allows Crypto to probe them so hard that their brains pop out. No one ever accused Destroy All Humans! of being a particularly mature game.

Except when, surprisingly, it is. There’s a mean undercurrent to this game, whose human characters are all ‘50s caricatures, many of them suggesting white-bread castoffs from a Norman Rockwell tableau. And with Crypto’s mind-reading powers, you get to hear that which is thinly disguised behind the upright citizen’s façade: the racism, the Nixon and McCarthy worship, the self-hating homophobia. “I wonder if I ought to hit somebody with my nightstick,” thinks one police officer. “Could be fun.” All of that suggested a smirking parody of a not-so-great America back in 2005 when the game was originally released, but today it plays as an unsubtle reminder of how little things have changed in this country since the ‘50s. The game’s political humor simply hits very different now, and it makes all the different ways that Crypto can mess up Main Street, U.S.A. all the more impactful.

The good news is that it’s definitely much easier to do that now than in 2005, with the remake getting a whole host of much welcome and smartly implemented quality-of-life improvements that bring the original game’s clunky controls up to code. What was once a stiff, finger-tangling process of switching between weapons and telekinesis is handled with a modern, elegant weapon wheel, and a separate button for telekinesis. A mid-air dash and, later, a pair of hover skates make on-foot traversal much easier, and more dynamic.

All of that, however, isn’t exactly a panacea for the things that haven’t aged as well. The highly regimented and rote mission structure still makes some missions feel a bit empty, especially now that open-world quest mechanics have evolved so far past how the original version of Destroy All Humans! did things. The difficulty curve swings wildly from mission to mission, which could have been flattened with a dedicated button for lock-on targeting. This is a game before its time in many ways, but there are parts here that were clearly made in 2005.

Still, Destroy All Humans! moves at such a steady clip that you won’t find yourself fixating for too long on the things it does wrong. Even the more annoying missions tend to breeze by, ushering players toward the next nifty weapon or hilarious cutscene without breaking stride for much more than to let players upgrade their arsenal. And there’s a relief to that. Modern open world games are designed in such a way that bad design decisions tend to stew and linger in ways they don’t here. This is the kind of game you don’t realize you missed until you start playing it, one that doesn’t demand much of the player’s time or commitment or discipline but is just trying to find new ways to amuse you from one stage to another.

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

Developer: Black Forest Games Publisher: THQ Nordic Platform: PlayStation 4 ESRB: T ESRB Descriptions: Violence, Sexual Themes, Violence Buy: Game

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Review: SWERY’s Deadly Premonition 2 Is a Janky, Navel-Gazing Exercise

Everything about your quest feels dragged out to mask how little substance there is to Blessing in Disguise.

1

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Deadly Premonition 2: Blessing in Disguise
Photo: Rising Star Games

Lise Clarkson’s body has been found after 14 years, her dismembered body parts pristinely reassembled and frozen in a block of ice, like something out of Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal. Every bit as striking as this opening to Deadly Premonition 2: A Blessing in Disguise is the reveal that the prime suspect in Clarkson’s murder is none other than Francis Zach Morgan, the “metaphysical offender” who was at the center of 2010’s Deadly Premonition. But it quickly becomes clear that this game, both a sequel and prequel to the original, is largely unconcerned with taking Zach’s potential guilt seriously. It is, though, quite interested in waxing rhapsodically about the power of pizza, and having you bow down before creator and director Hidetaka “SWERY” Suehiro’s love of esoterica.

Indeed, Clarkson’s murder is just a bait and switch. You think you’re going to delve into the supernatural horrors surrounding her death, but instead you spend most of your time listening to characters quip about how a personal connection to the 1986 Sylvester Stallone film Cobra can help one to appreciate frozen pizza, or, in one of many fourth-wall-breaking moments, how by-the-book F.B.I agent Aaliyah Davis and her eccentric techie partner, Simon Jones, would be “the perfect stars for the latest video game.” These asides are endemic to Blessing in Disguise, the bread and butter of both the brief 2019 sequences and the remainder of the game, which transpires in 2005 in Le Carré, Louisiana and features Zach’s earlier self, Francis York Morgan. (If you haven’t played Deadly Premonition, this won’t make any sense, as A Blessing in Disguise can’t be bothered to bring newcomers up to speed.)

The game’s present-day timeline is little more than a non-interactive visual novel, as Aaliyah’s investigation is limited to her asking Zach about random objects, like a shrine of milk cartons, in his one-bedroom Boston apartment. The game never stops shunting the mystery to the side, but being restricted to Zach’s apartment at least keeps things somewhat focused, and because the action all transpires within a few hours, it at least has a feeling of immediacy. York’s 2005 case allows him to more freely, albeit sluggishly, roam through Le Carré, but he’s essentially going through the same rote click-to-investigate motions as Aaliyah, the difference being that the objects he interacts with are thousands of meters apart, a distance that he inexplicably chooses to cover on a skateboard he calls “my darling.” Like its predecessor, A Blessing in Disguise operates on a 24-hour schedule, and while you certainly feel the pull of time, you don’t feel the urgency to investigate the game’s various crimes, which take a back seat to your attempts to set high scores at barely functional minigames like rock-skipping and bowling.

Everything about York’s quest feels dragged out to mask how little substance there is to Blessing in Disguise. The game’s 24-hour schedule forces you to spend a good chunk of each chapter literally wasting time by smoking cigarettes and camping out in the street, waiting to trigger events that only occur at dawn or during an establishment’s business hours. But as empty as it feels to use inventory items to force time to pass, that’s still preferable to the other activities the game offers up: hunting squirrels, dogs, gators, and bees; foraging for items in dumpsters, mailboxes, and fields; and shooting mysterious miniature UFOs out of the sky.

Throughout, the materials you collect, or the stat-boosting charms you craft from them, are somewhat necessary, but the disappointing rewards further spell the game’s irrelevance. There are “realistic” systems in place to account for York’s hunger, sleepiness, body odor, and sobriety, but they’re barely connected to the plot. (Which is to say nothing of how questionably realistic it is that otherworldly monsters tend to drop fresh cups of coffee when slain.) And the meaningless of the game’s busywork is compounded by the poor frame rate and low-texture graphics that would’ve seemed cut-rate even on an early-2000s console.

Given the disconnect between the game’s various systems, it’s hard to view SWERY as anything more than an amateur auteur. He imitates others, but to what end? In the vein of Hideo Kojima, he suffuses his games with pop-cultural references but never shows poetic aspirations. He channels Suda51’s irreverence but not the satirical bite of No More Heroes. He even has Aaliyah indiscriminately quote Nietzsche, which would be a well-intentioned effort to guide players through a philosophical inquiry of crime and morality, if only these references connected in the slightest to the story at hand. Referencing hyperrealism and likening the way York’s hand transforms into a Psychogun as being like that scene from David Cronenberg’s Videodrome doesn’t make this game smart; it outs it as a spectacle of flimsy appropriation, which is evident even in the demonic “Pains” that York faces in the Other World, all inexplicably named after stock characters from commedia dell’arte.

This is also a game that mistakes character development for quirky things happening to characters or being done by them. In one scene, a family’s patriarch forces his son-in-law to feed his own arm to an alligator—a cruel moment that’s never acknowledged again. In another, a character delivers a five-minute-long monologue detailing all of the work he’s put into the ritual he’s about to enact, only to anticlimactically set his knife down, having changed his mind mere moments later. Rather than have to address the effect of these decisions, Deadly Premonition 2 generally just kills off its characters, a particularly maddening move when it comes to the game’s transgender character, Lena, whose efforts to settle things with her family would have benefited from even a superficial grasp of her emotions.

And that’s how the game treats its main characters, as the side ones are either stereotyped and saddled with tics that invite our laughter more than our empathy. There’s a crawfisherman whose most memorable feature is his dwarfism, a bartender who stands out only on account of his tight white underpants, and the employees at the hotel you’re staying at who are all the same person, each one defined by a different, terrible accent.

Ironically, by the time A Blessing in Disguise finally gets around to introducing monsters into the mix, you may find yourself longing for the quirkiness of its shallow caricatures of people. Not only do three of the game’s four chapters end in identical red-misted corridors with no distinguishing features or puzzles, they also recycle the same three enemy archetypes: a creature with giant scissors who snips toward you, a giant chained to a doorway who releases lock-shaped explosive crabs from his bindings, and a half-naked woman who slinks toward you, summoning tentacles. These survival horror sequences are neither scary nor fun, and the most challenging thing about them, beyond their forcing you to try to auto-adjust your aim in order to account for the stuttering lag in the frame rate, is how you have to push past boredom. Consider, then, these sequences not so much a premonition but a warning born of experience: Turn back all who enter here, for there is nothing good awaiting within.

This game was reviewed using a review code provided by Thunderful.

Developer: Toybox Inc., White Owls Inc. Publisher: Rising Star Games Platform: Switch Release Date: July 10, 2020 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood and Gore, Use of Drugs, Violence Buy: Game

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Review: Ghost of Tsushima Lacks Ambition but Is Rife with Poetic Flourishes

The game has the look of a thoughtful samurai epic, but the façade flakes under scrutiny.

3.5

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Ghost of Tsushima
Photo: Sony Interactive Entertainment

Despite the game being about as far as you can get from a story set in 13th-century Japan, there’s a quote from Mass Effect 3 that kept echoing in my head throughout the 40-plus hours it took me to complete Ghost of Tsushima: “Stand amongst the ashes of a trillion dead souls, and ask the ghosts if honor matters.” It’s a wonderfully poetic line of dialogue, from a game that’s every bit as concerned with how people fight a righteous war, and how much tradition and legacy and optics play a role in that.

Poetry can be wrung from human attempts to justify horrific but necessary actions—it’s just that, aside from the occasional line of dialogue like the aforementioned one, video games as a medium are often lunkheaded when it comes to deploying poetry. Bless Ghost of Tsushima, then, for trying to do so. Sucker Punch’s latest has a rich, painterly beauty that places a premium on silence, and on the way its systems treat swordplay, creating environmental systems that bring awe to even the most mundane scenes. And the game very much explores the relevance of honor in a world that requires the wetwork of bastards. Quite often, Ghost of Tsushima suggests poetry in motion, but it’s still playing in a space that relies too much on imprudence for mass appeal.

That foolishness was baked into Ghost of Tsushima right from the conceptual stage, as this is a game about Japanese culture and traditions that doesn’t have a single Japanese person credited as a writer or creative director. It’s a problem somewhat mitigated by how many Asian creatives were still involved in its making, but this is still a game that caters to players who’ve maybe seen Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and aren’t likely to do a double take while their character composes (largely meaningless) haikus some 400 years before Matsuo Bashō was even born, or being told that a particularly murderous Japanese woman had to teach the Mongols, of all people, how to properly use a bow and arrow. Nonetheless, if you’re willing to extend the good-faith exception to Ghost of Tsushima and judge it not for its historical accuracy, but for its true aim of delivering a lurid, pulpy tale of samurai vengeance set in one of the most strikingly beautiful open worlds ever crafted for a video game, you will find that it’s a ringing, if pointedly unambitious, success.

The game is set in 1274, as the Mongols, during their first invasion of Japan, raid their way across the tiny island of Tsushima. Our hero, Jin Sakai, and his uncle, Lord Shimura, are the first to try their hands against the invaders, but led by Khotun Khan, a soft-spoken but hulking, brutal warlord, the Mongols lay waste to the island’s best samurai—save for Lord Shimura, who’s held hostage, and Jin, who’s left for dead on a beach until a thief named Yuna nurses him back to health. Determined to get his uncle back by any means necessary, Jin adopts a few tactics frowned upon by proper samurai warriors, and makes a name for himself across the countryside as the Ghost, defending the weak and striking fear into the hearts of his enemies.

Ghost of Tsushima

A scene from Ghost of Tsushima. © Sony Interactive Entertainment

You could be forgiven for thinking that sounds more like the stuff of Batman than of the code of Bushido, but it’s difficult to deny that that game makes it feel really good to play as a samurai caped crusader. It’s gratifying to wander beautiful watercolor valleys and approach marauders with steel in the eyes and hands, taking them down with extreme prejudice. And, in general, the combat is exquisitely simple, for basically forcing players to match their sword style with that of their enemies at the push of a button, and for the way the game’s forgiving parry system leads you to harshly punish enemy mistakes. Ghost of Tsushima’s most thoughtful and well-executed element is its Standoff mechanic, where pressing a button within a certain distance invites a group of enemies to send their best warrior for a face-to-face quickdraw, which is quite literally predicated on the visceral release of tension, of letting go of the attack button and opening an enemy’s neck.

The game largely follows the open-world action-adventure playbook to the letter, with all the map exploration, base-clearing, and collectible hunting that implies. On its face, that’s disappointing, especially given that Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice was more ambitious on that front. But that’s also a game that breathlessly hinges on survival and has no interest in giving you power and exhilaration. Sekiro is out to kill you, whereas Ghost of Tsushima is literally and figuratively guiding players to follow where the breeze takes them.

Across this game, Jin takes up the sword not just for the scattered resistance fighters attempting to force the invaders off their land, but in the name of farmers in search of their dead families, warriors looking to avenge their fallen comrades, dying family members looking to clear the enemy out of their ancestral cemeteries, and just straight-up bloody revenge against a horde of bandits. Alluring little side stories dot your path to the next major objective, and as you’re constrained by the limits of having to travel such long distances by horseback, the game gives you plenty of opportunity to get lost—all the better to let its beautiful and tranquil approach to storytelling wash over you. The basic bones of Ghost of Tsushima are open-world tropes, but they hold up thrilling little dimestore tales that could have been pulled from a collection of Lone Wolf and Cub manga, and those tropes are executed with a deliberate elegance that’s rare in the big-budget game space.

It’s frustrating, then, how often the game pulls the reins back on our joy, to remind us that we’re somehow playing the role of a samurai wrong. As much as dissonant ludonarrative guilt usually grinds up against the sheer glee of stabbing an enemy in the back here, it’s especially unfortunate when one of the lovingly rendered assassinations triggers a cutscene with Lord Shimura reminding Jin how he promised never to do that same exact thing. But for what it’s worth, the best elements of the story also seem self-aware of such hypocrisy.

For one, the first samurai you ever see on screen attempts to face Khotun Khan face to face, with honor, and the warlord retorts by setting the man on fire. Later, when Jin finds himself playing dirty against Khan’s forces, resulting in an aftermath that would be horrifically grisly if it wasn’t against proven monsters, Jin proudly states that he did what had to be done to crush the enemy. Throughout, you probably won’t regret anything, and the story will, by and large, take your side over strict samurai doctrine. It’s made abundantly clear that this is a fight that requires monsters, and aside from two very story-specific missions, you’re allowed to confront the enemy in whatever way you see fit, with no long-lasting effects on the game world itself.

Ghost of Tsushima

A scene from Ghost of Tsushima. © Sony Interactive Entertainment

Then again, why even attempt to instill guilt on the player at all if there’s no imperative to change the way you play the game? Even The Last of Us Part II has the sense to use the player’s own bloodlust against them, as a means of underlining how emotionally tiring and spiritually numbing it is. The guilt over becoming the Ghost, and all the grotesquery that implies, is the crux of Ghost of Tsushima’s story, but it’s a non-issue until the game sporadically decides it is one, admonishing us for using stealthy, ninja-like tactics but giving no impetus to want to stop doing so. It’s not until the emotionally complex epilogue that regret means anything for more than a few scant minutes at a time, and plopping the need for regret in the middle of the game’s most magnificent and cathartic moments of savagery comes across half-hearted at best.

That’s a byproduct of Ghost of Tsushima not pushing the envelope far enough away from its open-world ancestors. The things that would rush the game toward maturity—a firmer handle on history, a more in-depth exploration of the deeply stratified and elitist samurai caste system, or making Jin’s defiance of his uncle’s teachings a more proactive thing in the player’s hands—are largely left underdeveloped. Instead, like many big-budget prestige games, this one settles for “that primally satisfying violence you’re doing is bad.”

That Mass Effect 3 quote is a good summation of Ghost of Tsushima, but there’s a much more poetic one enabled right from the options menu: a visual filter called Kurosawa mode that renders the whole game in grainy black and white. You can even turn on the Japanese language track for an extra hint of verisimilitude, and some particularly strong performances from the voice cast. But no matter how excellent those performances are, or how much the visuals suggest deleted scenes from Rashomon, it’s hard to ignore that the characters’ lips are in sync with the English dub, and that the subtitles fail to convey what the Japanese actors are saying. Which is to say, Ghost of Tsushima has the look of a thoughtful samurai epic, but the façade flakes under scrutiny, revealing that it serves Western blockbuster tastes and tenets above all. It’s a game that so desperately wants to be 13 Assassins but more times than not ends up looking like The Last Samurai.

Sony Interactive Entertainment did not respond to our request for review code. This game was reviewed using a retail copy purchased by the reviewer.

Developer: Sucker Punch Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: July 17, 2020 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Partial Nudity Buy: Game

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Review: Paper Mario: The Origami King Is a Cut (and Fold) Above Other Comic RPGs

While a lot of care has gone into refining the game’s combat, there’s no shortage of things to do outside of battles.

4.5

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Paper Mario: The Origami King
Photo: Nintendo

Late in Paper Mario: The Origami King, Mario’s charming new origami companion, Olivia, thanks him for all his hard work in saving both her and the Mushroom Kingdom from her power-mad brother, Olly, and his Folded Soldiers. Though Mario’s efforts are credited to “the power of flat paper,” and Mario himself is a literally two-dimensional character, there’s nothing flat about this latest Paper Mario game, a delightful ode to craft and creativity that squeezes new possibilities (and puns) out of the beloved series.

Being a more-is-more game, it isn’t enough for The Origami King to have Olly’s evil henchmen be sentient art supplies, or have cleverly named attacks, like the bright and pointy missiles in Colored Pencil’s “art-senal.” Nor is it enough that each baddie has a vivid and comic identity, like the gangster Tape (“Stick ‘em up” indeed) or Stapler, an attack dog with metallic “teeth.” On top of all that, each boss fight is yoked to a unique gimmick, from Hole Punch taking chunks out of the arena to Handaconda forcing you to play a high-stakes game of Rock-Paper-Scissors mid-battle. Even after nearly 30 hours of immersion in this latest Paper Mario, which now brings massive open regions like the Scorching Sandpaper Desert and The Wind Waker-like the Great Sea to the mix, the game continues to surprise and delight.

Though based on a decades-old formula, The Origami King never feels like more of the same. A river-rapids minigame is followed by an in-depth trading quest within a Japanese-themed amusement park, Shogun Studios. A relaxing stay in the hot tubs of Shangri-Spa is first interrupted by a chase sequence involving a papier-mâché Chain Chomp and later by a Mario Party-like series of minigames on the game-show-within-a-game Shy Guys Finish Last.

The Origami King does feature traditional dungeons, but even here, the puzzles and themes remain wholly distinct; the closest overlap is between two types of sliding block puzzles. One, in the Water Vellumental Temple, involves moving slabs around to form a path. And later, in the Ice Vellumental Temple, you’ll have to find a way to hammer your icy floe from wall to wall across a slippery floor. And as for the game’s character work—well, let me just say that this reviewer didn’t expect to ever feel so much compassion for Bowser’s long-suffering magician, Kamek, nor to fall heartbreakingly in love with an amnesiac Bob-omb.

The game’s biggest change, though, is its spin—literally—on combat. Like most of the Paper Mario games, battles are turn-based, with Mario using various Boots and Hammers (and the occasional Fire and Ice Flower or Tail) to attack foes. Active timing is still key, with extra damage awarded (or blocked) if players press a button before each animated attack lands. But now, in addition to those components, each battle opens on a dartboard-like grid that’s divided into four circles and 12 slices. Players are given a limited amount of time and a set number of moves with which to slide or rotate enemies into place: Putting four enemies in a column means that Mario can hit all four with a single, down-the-line jump attack, and the proper alignment of all your foes not only awards bonus coins, but grants a damage multiplier.

As this long-winded explanation of combat suggests, regular encounters can sometimes get a little overcomplicated and tedious. But that’s almost apt given the game’s origami theme. After all, folding and creasing should be more complicated than the collage-like combat of Paper Mario: Sticker Star or the card-combining mechanics of Paper Mario: Color Splash. Moreover, it’s not just some slapdash extra feature. While bosses all require unique and specific interactions with the board, even regular enemies often gain an extra dimension from the ring-based arena, like vanishing Boos, whose positions must be remembered, or Lil’ Cutouts, whose intimidating paper-chain armies must quickly be spun back down to size.

While a lot of care has gone into refining the game’s combat, there’s no shortage of things to do outside of battles. Each region is teeming with hidden question-mark blocks and Toads that have been folded up into amusing new objects, and a “fax travel” system allows you to fairly quickly backtrack in your fight against “orgamized crime.” The Origami King has so much exuberance and confidence in all of its designs that even if you’re not completely sold on the combat—and there are modifiers that allow you to get rescued Toads to help solve it for you—the game will still win over all but the most puzzle-phobic and pun-hating players.

This game was reviewed using a review code provided by Golin on July 17.

Developer: Intelligent Systems Publisher: Nintendo Platform: Switch Release Date: July 17, 2020 ESRB: E ESRB Descriptions: Mild Cartoon Violence 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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Interview: Miranda July on Kajillionaire and the Malleability of Movies

The multihyphenate artist discusses why the medium she wants to work in comes before her ideas.

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Miranda July
Photo: Focus Features

Prior to chatting with Miranda July last week, I was assigned homework—a first in my experience as an interviewer. The multihyphenate artist’s team sent over a copy of her decades-spanning monograph (titled, perhaps naturally, Miranda July), which is both a compilation of her output across mediums and a clear line of sight into her creative and collaborative process. And if you’ve had the chance to read the tome, released by Prestel in April, you will know that July’s continued artistic endeavors have rendered it outdated.

July’s third feature, Kajillionaire, only represents the tip of the iceberg of her recent interdisciplinary efforts. Over the course of November and December 2019, she crafted a “movie” on Instagram with actress Margaret Qualley. In March, she curated the “Covid International Arts Festival,” a celebration of art during quarantine. That was followed by a more self-contained short film, Jopie, edited together from footage she crowdsourced from her Instagram followers during pandemic-related lockdown. And her debut feature, Me and You and Everyone We Know, joined the Criterion Collection this year.

While Kajillionaire might be July’s most expensive feature to date, the extra bells and whistles don’t come at the expense of her singularly off-kilter perspective. The premise alone, about a family of eccentric thieves living in the margins of Los Angeles, makes the film feel of a piece with a recent wave of cinematic scammers both real (Fyre Festival and Theranos) and imagined (Parasite and Shoplifters). Yet, as filtered through July’s unconventional lens, the grift is never the goal of the narrative. The film goes in surprising and poignant directions once the tight-knit team welcomes an affably green newcomer, Melanie (Gina Rodriguez), into their fold, exposing long-simmering tensions between the emotionally stunted Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood) and her eccentric parents (Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger).

I spoke to July over the phone as Kajillionaire prepared for a theatrical run prior to hitting VOD in October. Our conversation covered the porous boundaries of what constitutes a movie, why the medium she wants to work in comes before her ideas, as well as why she’s confounded by reactions to her latest feature as a work of “genre.”

You’ve been on my side of this exchange before, interviewing Rihanna for The New York Times. I watched the video in the profile where you talked about worrying you might start acting like her? I have a lot of fears when interviewing, but that’s not one of them. Where does that stem from exactly?

You’re used to watching someone who’s such a star like that without them being able to see you. You’re just unclear on what you look like, or what you might unconsciously do in front of their face. I sing along to her! Obviously, I’m not going to do that in the moment, but I guess it’s just a way of describing the fear being looked back at by someone who really should only go one way.

Cinema as practiced in the traditional model of a narrative feature like Kajillionaire is very much a one-way conversation between you and the audience. But the Instagram project you did with Margaret Qualley is a little more of a two-way conversation because it allows the audience to become a part of it. Especially as so many American cinemas remain closed, do you think this kind of social media cinema could start to kind of supplant or substitute what we traditionally think of as cinema?

Yeah! I feel like we have such insane tools, our phones are really such good cameras. And the means for sharing things. I’m sort of surprised more hasn’t been done. I remember right before the pandemic actually saying to someone, “No one’s using Live stories [on Instagram]. Like, that’s weird! Why is that feature not being used more? Because there’s so much that can be done!” Now, that’s an example, the pandemic has pushed that forward. I mean, it’s a terrible time politically for a pandemic. But in terms of filmmaking and tools [laughs], we are better equipped than we would have been even a few years ago.

As an artist, you seem ahead of the curve in recognizing that social media is a venue for entertainment and storytelling as much as it is for messaging and advertising. As someone who’s created art for both social media platforms and traditional cinema, how do you regard them in relation to each other as audiovisual entertainment?

I guess one thing to keep in mind is I’m working in so many mediums. I mean, I used to call my performances “live movies,” so I’m not a purist. I’m sort of the opposite of that as far as cinema goes. What I loved about doing that project with Margaret was that it was very immediate and spontaneous. It allowed her a little more agency than an actor would usually have on a set. I couldn’t have, like, perfect control over her because she was also living her life. And I would ask, “What are you doing?” She’d be like, “Okay, I’m gonna be at Paris Fashion Week,” and we were kind of building things around her real life to some degree. And then, also, it’s porous. Like, Jaden [Smith] became involved because I noticed he was following it. He had commented on posts. So I just DMed him, and I said, “Do you want to be part of it? Imagine that, that’d be like a Purple Rose of Cairo-level of cinema if that happened!” It’s amazing.

The way you have described your process makes it seem almost cyclical—as if you could never follow making a movie with another movie. What’s behind that impulse?

I should say, actually, I do often want to make another movie right away. I think the Margaret thing was a little bit like my muscles are still warm from this. But each of those disciplines is really important to me. And if I don’t write another book, I won’t keep growing as a writer. I’m really interested in figuring out how to write. It sounds so boring but, like, I don’t want to do another movie because that’s too long. It’s too many years in between, and I’m aware of how finite this life is. I’m really just trying to get to do both.

Is the medium you want to work in where the germ of a project starts? Or does the idea itself determine how it’s going to be expressed?

Usually it’s the medium because, in a dumb way, I know I need a movie idea when I’m done with a book. So, I’m just kind of a mercenary or something. But then, also, the mediums themselves have different energies and capacities, and they inspire me. If you think of Instagram as a medium, I’m having fun thinking, “What can you actually do there that I couldn’t do just now in Kajillionaire?” Or, “What can I do in fiction that would be just terrifying to do if there had to be real people involved?”

I was struck by a quote about Kajillionaire in your monograph that was attributed to Richard Jenkins, but apparently you repeated frequently: “It doesn’t necessarily have to be right, it just has to be alive.” What does “alive” mean in the context of this film or your art in general?

I think he partly said that to me because I, as a writer-actor, get pretty hung up on my words [being] said exactly how I pictured them. Because I’ve already acted out all these parts, and I think they know it and can feel it on some level. But that can also go both ways. It makes me really precise, clear, and able to communicate to my crew. I know what I want, but at the same time, there’s something that has to be out of your control, free, and kind of unhinged to take flight. I know that even as just a writer: You gotta let go, even of yourself. That was that was so powerful because it’s not like I changed my process from the day he said that on, but it emboldened to me to do things that were almost counterintuitive. Just to see what would happen if I could be more alive.

Your previous features have been explicitly about lonely or isolated humans interfacing with technology and contemporary society. That element isn’t entirely absent in Kajillionaire, but it seems a little more in the background. Were you consciously trying to approach these themes in a more oblique way?

Well, I’m never thinking that there’s a theme that I have interest [in]. But I had become a mother since my last movie, that was influencing me and making me a little more conscious of what parenting means, the sort of inherent tyranny within family structures. I think I was influenced by writing a novel that, while it wasn’t like a heist story, did have sort of twists, turns, and reveals. I knew I wanted to do that in a feature film.

You’ve talked about the narcissism of the Dyne parents being one of their defining characteristics, and it got me thinking about how the trait seems to be generational. When people say millennials are narcissists, for example, that’s largely a reflection of the fact that they were raised by boomers, who are often categorized as narcissists. Was that something you were looking to explore through the film?

When you’re only a daughter, if you’re not yet—or are never going to be—a mother, then you just have this sense of parenting as almost like God or something. It’s only something you can shake your fist at. And then, once you’re on the other side of it, it’s like, “Well, hold on this thing that’s your whole childhood, this was just like a series of decisions I made because I was in a weird place in my life—some of them conscious, some of them accidental.” The whole thing doesn’t hold water so tightly as it does when you’re on the other side of it. That seemed kind of criminal to me. I mean, not to be too literal. And then also it seems like the child’s job is to betray the parents, like that’s inherent and will always happen. Yes, all these things are made more explicit and heightened in the movie, but I think I was feeling them in a gut, new way in the years that I was conceiving of the movie.

I’ve noticed a repeated sticking point of yours: female directors are so often asked about whether their work is autobiographical because people, consciously or not, presume that men create while women just reflect. With Kajillionaire, where you aren’t in front of the camera as a performer, has that experience changed at all?

Yeah, maybe it helps that I’m not in it. But people love saying I’ve made a genre movie, and that seems really male. Which, to me, is so funny because it’s a pretty emo heist movie. It becomes abundantly female by the end. But, yeah, I don’t know. I mean, I think I’m getting asked probably a lot more about, like, “Is that my family?” than the Ocean’s 11 people are being asked that. The funny thing is it’s not that I don’t think personal stuff is interesting. You just want men to be asked the same thing.

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Review: Beginning Is a Transfixing Study of a Woman’s Faith Being Tested

The low-key, serene natural beauty of Beginning’s setting provides a counterpoint to the often-disturbing events of the film.

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Beginning
Photo: New York Film Festival

Dea Kulumbegashvili’s Beginning centers around a Jehovah’s Witness missionary, Yana (Ia Sukhitashvili), who lives with her husband, David (Rati Oneli), and young son in a remote village in the mountains outside of Tbilisi. The close-knit community they tend to faces extreme prejudice and persecution from the local Orthodox Christian majority, as illustrated in the film’s startling opening. After seeing and hearing nothing for a minute or so, except the sound of a woman whispering, apparently in prayer, we glimpse congregants entering a small chapel. A sermon plays out in a static, unbroken shot from the rear of the room, before being interrupted by petrol bombs thrown through the chapel’s doors, eventually sending the building up in flames. Abruptly transitioning from reflective, communal peace to shock and panic, the scene casts a long shadow over the subsequent events, suffusing even the calmest, most intimate scenes with a sense of uncertainty and tension.

The attack also functions as an indirect representation of the senseless violence at the core of the Old Testament story of Isaac, which is the passage being discussed by the congregation before they’re forced to flee. Foreshadowing another shocking event late in the film, one that shows the imperceptible force of religious scripture weighing on the characters, this blurring of boundaries between spiritual imagination and reality reveals itself to be a key theme of the narrative. As the children of the community learn Bible stories and verses in preparation for their upcoming baptism ceremony, their carefree attitude and weak grasp of the basics of their religion is contrasted with the heavy moral burden that Yana and her husband have placed upon themselves. As seriously as Beginning treats their faith, we’re also given a sense of the apparent futility of their mission, and the sacrifices they have made for it.

The aftermath of the burning of the chapel leads to more personal trauma for Yana, who faces an uphill struggle against various abuses of power, institutional failures, and societal prejudice, while seeking a new purpose in life and trying to stay true to her religious convictions. Holding together many of the film’s long, often dialogue-free scenes is an impressive performance by Sukhitashvili, who balances vulnerability with a kind of opaque self-possession, never allowing us to grasp the full extent of Yana’s motivations. As traumatized as the woman is by what befalls her and her community, she also appears frustrated by her victimization, by her husband’s inaction in the face of injustice, and by her own diminished prospects since she abandoned her former career as an aspiring actress. A visit to her mother also reveals a family history of male neglect, which is a particular type of behavior that she apparently feels obliged to overcome by whatever means necessary.

Though a strictly minimalist approach means that her visual motifs emerge organically from the action, Kulumbegashvili makes a few unexpected, rather Hanekian compositional choices that break with the film’s sense of naturalism to more explicitly wring allegorical significance from certain sequences. Early on, Beginning introduces its main antagonist, an unnamed detective played by Kakha Kintsurashvili, in the extreme foreground, appearing unexpectedly from the right of the frame after a nighttime shot of the still-smoldering church fire gradually goes out of focus. He then walks off toward the fire raging in the distant background as Yana’s son and the other local children curiously follow him. The eerie religious symbolism here is subtle enough to keep the film grounded in the material world, while still hinting at an undercurrent of spirituality and superstition beneath its austere surface.

The low-key, serene natural beauty of Beginning’s setting provides a counterpoint to the often-disturbing events of the film, most obviously in one extended scene of a rape whose sounds are completely drowned out by the gentle burbling of the river shallows where it takes place. The idea of a god whose silence both challenges and affirms religious faith is driven home forcefully here. Indeed, the sensorial environment that Kulumbegashvili builds with a rich, naturalistic sound design, as well as the feeling of stasis created by the film’s glacial pacing, could qualify it as an example of what Paul Schrader has referred to as the “transcendental style.” And though Beginning is a lot less ostentatious than Schrader’s First Reformed, it does share that film’s intense focus, and a central theme of faith being tested. Both even conclude with a surprising tonal shift, accompanying a pivot in their protagonists’ behavior from a tightly controlled precision toward a mystical catharsis.

The introduction of a kind of magic realism at the end of Beginning is simultaneously jarring and strangely logical, following from its ambient mood of quiet spiritual intensity and haunting dread. A harrowing final narrative development is left ambiguous and unresolved by Kulumbegashvili, after which the filmmaker abruptly cuts to an uncanny sequence in which holy retribution seems to be delivered by the landscape itself. Demonstrating the extent of Yana’s resilience in facing the most extreme and personal tests of faith, and her willingness to sacrifice everything for her community, Kulumbegashvili vividly imagines powerlessness and despair being transformed into a supernatural, redemptive force.

Cast: Ia Sukhitashvili, Rati Oneli, Kakha Kintsurashvili, Saba Gogichaishvili Director: Dea Kulumbegashvili Screenwriter: Dea Kulumbegashvili, Rati Oneli Running Time: 125 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: Tragic Jungle Turns a Woman’s Exploitation into a Potent Allegory

It operates in an ambiguous register, suggesting that a woman is working in unison with nature to dole out revenge for their exploitation.

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Tragic Jungle

Yulene Olaizola’s Tragic Jungle begins with Mexican chicleros scaling and notching huge trees in order to collect their sap. As the men hack away with their machetes, the zigzagging patterns they leave on the trees bring to mind injuries of flesh and blood, an impression underscored by the pinkish living part that’s revealed beneath the surface of the bark. Though this practice of collecting gum sap dates all the way to the Aztec and Mayan empires, the sight of the workers silently and miserably toiling for their boss feels like a demonstration of the unfettered agency of colonial capitalism, and as the milky sap trickles down the paths carved by the machetes, the trees suggest victims crying out for justice.

Set in the 1920s on the border between Mexico and Belize (at this time still part of the larger British territory of Honduras), the film then jumps across the Rio Hondo that divides both nations to track the clandestine movement of Agnes (Indira Andrewin), who’s running away from an arranged marriage to a white settler with the help of her sister, Florence (Shantai Obispo), and a guide, Norm (Cornelius McLaren). Dressed in virginal white, Agnes stands out against the greens of the jungle, and while all three characters are Belizean, they exist at a remove from their immediate surroundings, as they all speak perfect, unaccented English.

The film’s first act concerns itself with Agnes’s attempted escape and the power differentials at play in this world. When the woman’s prospective husband, Cacique (Dale Carley), shows up to her home for the wedding, he does so flanked by guards toting shotguns, as if he already expected some kind of resistance. And though Norm instructed the women to cover their tracks, they’re quickly found, and the juxtaposition between Norm arduously rowing a canoe and Cacique and his men arriving suddenly on the scene via motorboat speaks volumes about the hopeless futility of escaping this man and the imperial might that he represents. Furious at Agnes’s betrayal, Cacique doesn’t even attempt to retrieve his runaway bride, instead having his men open fire on her, killing Norm and Florence and leaving her for dead.

This narrative arc plays out as a vicious critique of colonialism, but Tragic Jungle takes a dramatic turn when the unconscious Agnes is found by the chicleros. The sight of the sleeping beauty flanked by the hard laborers suggests an image out of Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and the initial scenes between the English-speaking woman and the Spanish-speaking men make for awkward, amusing interactions, albeit ones also charged with sexual tension, as some of the men aren’t devoted to protecting her virtue. Agnes herself, who earlier acknowledged her sexual inexperience and curiosity to her sister, is at once apprehensive and receptive to the callous advances of the more aggressive workers. The convoluted sexual politics that arise from her excitement and fear complicate subsequent scenes where sexual violation becomes indistinguishable from fantasy.

As if sparked by Agnes’s ambiguous responses to her sexual encounters, the film foists itself into a mythic realm in its final act, with the chicleros who get closest to her falling ill or dying under mysterious circumstances. As a result, the men start to regard Agnes as the female demon Xtabay of Yucatec Mayan myth. Sofia Oggioni’s cinematography up to this point stressed the verdant hyperreality of the jungle and the ways that the characters at once mesh with their environment and are in conflict with it; an earlier shot of Agnes asleep under the chicleros’ mosquito netting is lit in such a way that she appears encased in spiderwebs, in a limbo state until she’s devoured. But the visuals become even more hypnotic as the men start to fret over their new ward, with colors growing brighter during the day, and nighttime shots losing a bit of their sharpness as Agnes’s interactions with the men, once marked by obvious menace, become more difficult to parse. In one jarring moment, an imaginative use of CGI distorts the woman’s features to acknowledge the extent to which the film has been turned on its head into a work of horror with no easily identifiable foe or hero.

Andrewin, too, modulates her performance in fascinating ways, lacing Agnes’s indeterminate passivity with hints of smirking malice that challenge all preconceived notions of the character. Tragic Jungle never becomes a full-on horror film, but Olaizola engages with indigenous legends and colonial history across a story where misogyny is turned against the patriarchy in ways that recall recent genre offerings like The Witch. Compared to that film’s turn toward the outright macabre, though, Tragic Jungle operates in a dreamier, more ambiguous register. It suggests that Agnes is working in unison with nature to dole out revenge for their exploitation against men who second-guess their fears and superstitions until they realize too late they should have trusted their instincts from the start.

Cast: Indira Andrewin, Gilberto Barraza, Mariano Tun Xool, Gabino Rodríguez, Eligio Meléndez, Eliseo Mancilla de la Cruz, Dale Carley, Shantai Obispo, Nedal Mclaren Director: Yulene Olaizola Screenwriter: Yulene Olaizola, Rubén Imaz

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Review: Kajillionaire Whimsically and Sincerely Reflects on Family Ties

Although its crime-caper structure is worn extremely lightly, Kajillionaire represents Miranda July’s first real flirtation with genre.

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Kajillionaire
Photo: Focus Features

Early in Kajillionaire, the third feature by Miranda July, a building manager explains that “I have no filters!” as he tearfully confronts the cash-strapped protagonists to ask for the rent that they owe. This line works as both a mea culpa and a defiant declaration from July herself. The willfully naïve sincerity of her work has as many detractors as devoted fans, and her choice to give such quirky emotional openness to an incidental character like this is unlikely to change anyone’s mind. However, July’s latest effort also shows potential elsewhere to convince a few of her more world-weary cynics, who might have previously seen cloying self-consciousness where others see a broad humanist perspective.

Kajillionaire is notably more driven by narrative than July’s previous two films, Me and You and Everyone We Know and The Future, which were mostly content to observe slices of life, searching for transcendence in the everyday. Here, a more contrived story concerns a dysfunctional family composed of disheveled, small-time grifters Robert (Richard Jenkins), Theresa (Debra Winger), and their introverted daughter, Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood), who see their fortunes change slightly when they encounter worldly and assertive Melanie (Gina Rodriguez). The thirtysomething Melanie finds herself drawn to their criminal lifestyle, as laughably low-key as it might be, and helps them with a new set of scams.

Although its crime-caper structure is worn extremely lightly, Kajillionaire represents July’s first real flirtation with genre, and it’s also the first occasion that she hasn’t given herself a leading role. The multi-hyphenate artist has explored a multitude of perspectives and personalities throughout all her work, but this feels like the first time, at least in her films, that we’re seeing characters who aren’t projections of some aspect of her psyche.

This new focus succeeds in putting her considerable storytelling talents on display more clearly than ever before. Instead of blowing up mundane quandaries and conflicts to an existential scale, July shows us people who are doing their best to maintain the unconventional daily grind they’ve found themselves on. We’re only given glimpses of their internal conflicts, and they’re all the more relatable for it. And while it would perhaps be a stretch to say that the clan’s comical grifting has any real-world political relevance, they do seem to be a reflection of their times, particularly in repeated scenes of them going to absurd lengths to avoid the aforementioned building manager’s demands for rent.

Indeed, the financial precarity and itinerant lifestyle of the central figures in Kajillionaire can be seen as a logical next step in July’s filmmaking trajectory, from neurotic suburban eccentricity and confused sexual awakenings (Me and You and Everyone We Know), through urban millennial angst and impending mortality (The Future). There’s a sense of real-world responsibilities and necessities progressively encroaching on innocence and insularity, and the conflict between these two poles also proves to be the emotional core of Kajillionaire.

Childhood, and particularly immature sexuality, has always been a key theme of July’s work. Here, she adopts an interesting alternative perspective, imagining a character who was denied this whole phase of their life. Old Dolio was part of Richard and Theresa’s money-making schemes since before she was even born (one of the film’s best throwaway gags reveals that she was named after a homeless man who won the lottery, in exchange for an inheritance that never materialized). She received none of the traditional trappings of parental affection, being treated more like a respected accomplice and business partner than a beloved child.

Wood’s hilarious, affecting performance convincingly sells this slightly on-the-nose premise. She depicts a woman with a niche set of skills and a shaky sense of pride in her independence, whose repressed emotions are peeking through the surface at almost every moment. When Old Dolio reluctantly redeems a gift voucher for a massage, following an unsuccessful effort to claim its cash value, there’s a memorable shot of her face seen through the hole in a massage table, as this rare instance of physical contact causes a single tear to fall from her eye. Here, July’s underrated visual sense serves to bring us closer to a character, in contrast to the distancing effect of her more Michel Gondry-esque flights of fancy (such as the nightly stream of pink foam that comes through the wall of the office space where the family crashes).

Toward the end of the film, there’s some more unintentional provocation to the haters, when Melanie points out that “most happiness comes from dumb things.” This is a more direct version of the soul-searching aphorisms that usually pepper July’s dialogue, and could also be a comment on the atypically conventional way that she concludes Kajillionaire, as Old Dolio finally opens up to a cathartic, hard-won moment of intimacy with another person. Whether you can allow yourself a similar embrace of July’s indigo child honesty is still a matter of taste. But, almost two decades on from the early-2000s whimsical bohemia that she epitomized, her latest at least functions as a nostalgic reminder of a time when a lot of us could.

Cast: Evan Rachel Wood, Gina Rodriguez, Richard Jenkins, Debra Winger, Patricia Belcher, Kim Estes, Da’vine Joy Randolph, Rachel Redleaf Director: Miranda July Screenwriter: Miranda July Distributor: Focus Features Running Time: 104 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Review: Tate Taylor’s Ava Doesn’t Lack for Star Power, Only Narrative Thrills

Ava isn’t only banal, but also, in its half-hearted stabs at novel ideas, seemingly content with its banality.

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Ava
Photo: Vertical Entertainment

Action thrillers don’t get much more generic than Tate Taylor’s Ava, which tells of a veteran assassin being hunted down by the shadowy organization that employs her. If there’s a twist here, it’s that Ava (Jessica Chastain) is a recovering alcoholic trying to mend her family relationships while fending off attackers after she becomes too careless in the field. But even this thread of family drama is as uninspiring as the film’s thriller trappings. Because Ava never bothers to articulate how its eponymous character’s secret professional life affects her personal life, and vice versa, or even the emotional and psychological toll that such a delicate balancing act must take on her, it’s difficult not to see Ava’s alcoholism as a superficial affectation, a transparent means of making her seem “complicated” as a character.

Ava’s interactions with her mother, Bobbi (Geena Davis), and sister, Judy (Jess Weixler), are marked by a sassy repartee that feels inconsistent with the film’s otherwise gritty atmosphere, though the relaxed nature of these moments gives the impression that Taylor is more at ease handling this aspect of the narrative. A music-free and exhausting fight scene between Ava’s handler, Duke (John Malkovich), and their superior, Simon (Colin Farrell), where the sound is amplified to emphasize the brutal physicality of every punching, bone-crunching hit, would make for mesmerizing cinema if not for the fact that the film’s action sequences are borderline incomprehensible, all frenetic camera movement and erratic editing.

Chastain, at least, proves to be a compelling presence, as she admirably tries to elevate the flimsy, one-note material—most notably in later scenes where her subtle expressions convey Ava’s failing attempts to fight back the emotions that are getting the better of her projected stoicism. But the performance isn’t worthy of the film, which is likely to leave audiences wondering how it even managed to attract so much A-level talent. For Ava isn’t only banal, but also, in its half-hearted stabs at novel ideas, seemingly content with its banality.

Cast: Jessica Chastain, John Malkovich, Colin Farrell, Common, Jess Weixler, Geena Davis, Diana Silvers, Joan Chen Director: Tate Taylor Screenwriter: Matthew Newton Distributor: Vertical Entertainment Running Time: 96 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Review: Time Is an Oblique Look at Black Lives Undone by the Prison System

The film reminds us that behind the numbers and procedures of a court case are actual lives existing in actual, human time.

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Time
Photo: Amazon Studios

If you want to argue that the law enforcement, criminal justice, and penal systems in the U.S. are badly in need of reform, a first instinct may be to point to the hundreds of felony sentences that have been overturned in the last few decades due to wrongful convictions. Arguing that a man was justly convicted but nevertheless victimized by the carceral state—getting people to accept a guilty man as a locus of sympathy—is a taller order, but it’s just what Garrett Bradley does, in plain but morally forceful terms, in her documentary Time.

The man in question is Robert Richardson, convicted along with his wife, Sibil, of robbing a credit union in Shreveport, Louisiana on the morning of September 16, 1997. At the time, the couple had four sons, and Sibil was pregnant with twin boys. Considering her situation, Sibil took a plea bargain and was sentenced to 12 years, though she was out on parole after only three-and-a-half. Meanwhile, Robert was sentenced to 65 years without parole.

Bradley doesn’t, and perhaps doesn’t need to, trot out statistics to make the case that Robert’s draconian sentence represents a perpetuation of anti-Black racism. She’s got the receipts: years of home-video diaries that Sibil recorded for Robert as she worked tirelessly to support her family while also trying to secure legal motions for his re-sentencing. All the while, their boys grew up without their father. Time opens with a montage of these home videos, set to Tsegue-Maryam’s whirl-a-gig piano piece “The Mad Man’s Laughter”: Sibil waking the twins for the first day of school; observing them playing in the snow; riding rollercoasters with them; filming them play at a pool party; and giving them lectures on work ethic at school.

At the end of the documentary, we see some of this footage again, of Robert and Sibil’s boys at play and growing up, only this time run in reverse. The camera performs an act that for Sibil and her family is impossible, rolling back the lost years, completing the story’s happy ending. Matching the black and white of Sibil’s home movies, Bradley’s new footage captures the culmination of the herculean efforts that eventually get Robert released after 21 years. But, of course, Robert’s return can’t restore lost time, like the camera seems to.

Bradley’s film gives us glimpses into the status of the family as it stands in the weeks leading up to Robert’s release. Now living in New Orleans, the boys are in the process of striking out on their own. The youngest, twins Justus and Freedom, are diligent college students, and at one point we catch glimpses of one’s poli-sci debate and another’s dedicated French study. An elder brother, Richard, is on the cusp of graduating medical school. “Success is the best revenge,” Sibil muses at one point, as she waits in her office for a call from a judge.

The film’s title evokes “doing time,” but we don’t see Robert actually serving his sentence; instead, we feel its duration in the gap it’s left in his family’s life, and in their words we’re offered an oblique commentary on the history of Black incarceration. “It’s almost like slavery time, like the white man keep you there until he figures it’s time for you to get out,” Robert’s mother avers to the camera. It’s a statement that could serve as a succinct summary of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, though it’s delivered with the extemporaneity and subdued anguish of lived observation rather than with muted scholarly precision.

Bradley’s film is about feeling time, about conveying some idea of what 21 years feels like to someone else. In images of the almost imperceptible movement of clouds over New Orleans, Barrett finds a lyrical metaphor for time’s ineffability—as well as for abiding faith in the eventuality of grace (“God looks over the sparrows, Sibil. He’s going to look over us,” Sibil recalls Robert saying to her after his sentencing). Far more than a polemic against the prison-industrial complex, Time reminds us in eminently cinematic ways that behind the numbers and procedures of a court case are actual lives existing in actual, human time.

Director: Garrett Bradley Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 81 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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The Best Horror Movies on Netflix Right Now

These great horror films are currently streaming on Netflix.

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The Best Horror Movies on Netflix Right Now
Photo: New Line Cinema

Ever since audiences ran screaming from the premiere of Auguste and Louis Lumière’s 1895 short black-and-white silent documentary Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, the histories of filmgoing and horror have been inextricably intertwined. Through the decades—and subsequent crazes for color and sound, stereoscopy and anamorphosis—since that train threatened to barrel into the front row, there’s never been a time when audiences didn’t clamor for the palpating fingers of fear. Horror films remain perennially popular, despite periodic (and always exaggerated) rumors of their demise, even in the face of steadily declining ticket sales and desperately shifting models of distribution.

Into the new millennium, horror films have retained their power to shock and outrage by continuing to plumb our deepest primordial terrors and incarnate our sickest, most socially unpalatable fantasies. They are, in what amounts to a particularly delicious irony, a “safe space” in which we can explore these otherwise unfathomable facets of our true selves, while yet consoling ourselves with the knowledge that “it’s only a movie.”

At the same time, the genre manages to find fresh and powerful metaphors for where we’re at as a society and how we endure fractious, fearful times. For every eviscerated remake or toothless throwback, there’s a startlingly fresh take on the genre’s most time-honored tropes; for every milquetoast PG-13 compromise, there’s a ferocious take-no-prisoners attempt to push the envelope on what we can honestly say about ourselves. And some of our favorites are currently streaming on Netflix. Budd Wilkins


The Blackcoat’s Daughter

10. The Blackcoat’s Daughter (2015)

The Blackcoat’s Daughter has a sad, macabre integrity. Kiernan Shipka, Lucy Boynton, Emma Roberts, Lauren Holly, and James Remar are poignant in their minimalist roles, and writer-director Oz Perkins arranges their characters in a cleverly constructed narrative prism that simultaneously dramatizes violence and its aftermath in an endless chain reaction of perpetual cause and effect. And the carnage, when it arrives, is staged with an aura of guttural bitterness that refuses to give gore-hounds their jollies, elaborating, instead, on the desolation of the characters committing the acts. When the demons appear in the film, and in terrifyingly fleeting glimpses, Perkins understands them to spring from the deepest chasms of human despair. Bowen


1922

9. 1922 (2017)

In 1922, Wilfred James (Thomas Jane) initially scans as a broadly brutish characterization given by an actor looking to disrupt his handsomely aloof image, following a cinematic tradition of expressively filthy, monosyllabic and flamboyantly antisocial characters such as Daniel Plainview and Karl Childers. Though Jane’s dramatization of rage is haunting and shrewdly comical in its overt and ultimately moving über-manliness. The casual violence of Wilfred’s physicality is subtly calibrated, particularly the tension in his muscled back as he drinks lemonade on the porch after a hard day of murder. Complementing Jane’s portrait of coiled wrath, Molly Parker physicalizes the fear that informs every minute wrinkle of Arlette’s relationship with her husband, which the character attempts to paper over with bravado, inadvertently sealing her doom. Arlette is one of countless women who’re damned if they do and if they don’t, yet somehow the men are able to rationalize themselves as the victims. 1922 informs Stephen King’s pulp feminism with primordial, biblically ugly force. Bowen


The Invitation

8. The Invitation (2015)

The Invitation filters each sinister development through Will’s (Logan Marshall-Green) unreliable perspective, to the point that one friend’s failure to turn up at a lavish dinner, or another’s precipitous departure, appear as if submerged, changing with each shift in the emotional current. Returning to the rambling house where he and Eden once lived for the first time since the death of their son, Will finds himself inundated anew by his heartache, and the film, which otherwise hews to crisp, clean realism, is run through with these painful stabs of memory. Eden slashes her wrists in the kitchen sink, the sounds of children playing emanate from the empty yard, inane talk of the Internet’s funny cats and penguins becomes white noise against Will’s screaming: The question of whether or not to trust his sense of foreboding is perhaps not so open as director Karyn Kusama and company might wish, but against the terrors of continuing on after losing a child, the issue of narrative suspense is almost immaterial. Matt Brennan


Sinister

7. Sinister (2012)

Scott Derrickson’s Sinister isn’t a period piece, but by directing its attention backward it brackets its chosen tech-horror particulars as products of a bygone era—in this case considerably further back than the period of tube TVs and quarter-inch tapes to which this subgenre of horror so often belongs. Much like Ringu, Sinister concerns a cursed film whose audience dies after exposure to it, but here the curse is disseminated not by clunky videotape, but by a box of 8mm films. The projector, more than simply outmoded, is regarded here as practically archaic, and as with Berberian Sound Studio and its reel-to-reel fetishism, Sinister makes quite a show of the mechanics of the machine, soaking in the localized details and milking them for their weighty physicality. Even the format’s deficiencies, from the rickety hum of sprockets to the instability of the frame, are savored by what seems like a nostalgic impulse—a fondness for the old-fashioned that even transforms the rough, granular quality of the haunted films themselves into something like pointillist paintings of the macabre. Calum Marsh


Session 9

6. Session 9 (2001)

As in real estate, the three most important factors in Brad Anderson’s brooding Session 9 are: location, location, location. The filmmakers have hit upon something special with the Danvers State Mental Hospital, whose sprawling Victorian edifice looms large over the narrative: A motley crew of asbestos-removal workers, led by matrimonially challenged Gordon (Peter Mullan), run afoul of a baleful, possibly supernatural, influence within its decaying walls. Anderson uses to brilliant effect a series of archived audio recordings—leading up to the titular “breakthrough” session—that document a disturbing case of split personality. While the film doesn’t entirely stick its murderous finale, no one who hears those scarifying final lines of dialogue will soon forget them. Wilkins


Before I Wake

5. Before I Wake (2016)

Director Mike Flanagan’s Before I Wake hints—in flashes—at a remarkably cruel psychodrama, physicalizing one of the worst and most common fears that orphans share: that they’re awful and unlovable, and therefore undeserving of parents. This fear is similar to the terror that parents have of inadvertently destroying or disappointing their children, and Flanagan unites these anxieties with a ghoulishly inventive plot turn that he doesn’t fully explore. Flanagan is deeply invested in Cody’s (Jacob Tremblay) welfare, to the point of rigidly signifying the various manifestations of the boy’s nightmares, pigeonholing irrationality into a rational framework so as to justify a moving yet literal-minded finale. Chaos could’ve opened Before I Wake up, allowing it to breathe, though Flanagan’s beautiful and empathetic film cannot be taken for granted. Bowen


The Evil Dead

4. The Evil Dead (1981)

The Evil Dead still feels like the punchiest horror flick this side of a Dario Argento giallo. Sam Raimi relentlessly fashions the film’s first half as a creepy-crawly sweat chamber with evil seemingly taking the form of an omniscient, roaming camera, gleefully poking fun at his five protagonists along the way. Despite the signs—the difficult-to-start vehicle, the fallen bridge—no one else believes the woods are alive. Ash (Bruce Campbell), horrordom’s most memorable wuss, and his girlfriend, Linda (Betsy Baker), share an intimate, peek-a-boo moment in which he gives her a necklace, and when he’s later forced to kill her, Raimi takes great joy in referencing this coquettish exchange of affection. Now infamous for its over-the-top gore and cheesy effects sequences, The Evil Dead is most impressive for Raimi’s unnerving wide angle work and his uncanny, almost unreal ability to suggest the presence of intangible evil via distant headlights, bleeding light sockets, and, in the film’s most awesome set piece, a simple game of cards. Gonzalez


The Guest

3. The Guest (2014)

The Guest is carried by an intense and surprising mood of erotic melancholia. Adam Wingard leans real heavy on 1980s—or 1980s-sounding—music in the grandly, outwardly wounded key of Joy Division, and he accompanies the music with visual sequences that sometimes appear to stop in their tracks for the sake of absorbing the soundtrack. The film is a nostalgia act for sure, particularly for The Hitcher, but it injects that nostalgia with something hard, sad, and contemporary, or, perhaps more accurately, it reveals that our hang-ups—disenfranchisement, rootlessness, war-mongering, hypocritical evasion—haven’t changed all that much since the 1980s, or ever. Bowen


Poltergeist

2. Poltergeist (1982)

Tobe Hooper is officially credited for having directed Poltergeist, but it’s co-scripter Steven Spielberg’s fingerprints that are all over this dark-mirror image of E.T. and Close Encounters of a Third Kind, about unseen spirits tormenting a suburban family. It’s structured as an escalating series of reveals, from the frisson elicited by inexplicably mobile furniture on up to third-act hysteria derived from birth imagery, child peril, and the eternal creep factor of video snow in a dark room. Hooper’s Grand Guignol flourishes are occasionally evident, particularly when a paranormal investigator pulls his own face off, but the technical proficiency is all Spielberg’s, as is the abiding interest in families and the influences (supernatural or otherwise) that disrupt them. Abhimanyu Das


The Silence of the Lambs

1. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Detective thrillers often concern contests of male ego, involving brilliant investigators who confront physically superior and equally brilliant psychopaths. Often lost among such face-offs are considerations of the lives that are destroyed and ruined over the course of the narratives, as these thrillers exist to evoke and satisfy our own fears and resentments. By contrast, Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs is grounded in the psyche of a ferocious yet unproven female protagonist, whose thoughtful fragility intensifies the film’s violence, invigorating it with a sense of dread and violation. The film is a strange and still novel mixture of coming-of-age character study, murder mystery, and Grand Guignol horror spectacle. Bowen

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Review: Victor Kossakovsky’s Gunda Is the Eraserhead of Animal Documentaries

In Kossakovsky’s latest, common farm animals have rarely seemed so un-human.

2.5

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Gunda
Photo: Neon

On paper, Victor Kossakovsky’s Gunda, a wordless documentary about the everyday life of a few farm animals—a mama pig, two cows, a one-legged chicken—may suggest a quiet idyll in the vein of the goatherding sequences from Michelangelo Frammartino’s Le Quattro Volte. But with its stark, forbidding black-and-white cinematography and dense, unsettling sound design, the film resembles nothing so much as Eraserhead.

The newborn piglets in Kossakovsky’s film, whose faces look surprisingly alien-like in extreme close-up and whose aching squeals can be rather unnerving, even at times resemble the baby from David Lynch’s cult classic. By eschewing the Disneyfied anthropomorphism of Luc Jacquet’s March of the Penguins and the tidy narrativizing of the Planet Earth series, Kossakovsky refuses to resort to the old cliché that animals are “just like us.” They’re not, really. And in Gunda, common farm animals have rarely seemed so un-human.

Which isn’t to say that we don’t form a relationship with these creatures. Relying heavily on shallow-focus shots often positioned near ground level—and thus close to its subjects’ eyeline—the film gives us something of the experience of being a farm animal: of grazing in a field, caring for a newborn, and aimelessly roaming around a farm. As in his prior work, Kossakovsky trusts his audience to stick with the film through lengthy shots where nothing in particular seems to be happening until, gradually, a miniature narrative begins to emerge. But while ¡Vivan las Antipodas! and Aquarela played out largely in a series of breathtakingly composed long shots that allowed the audience to drink in the scenery of various international locales, in Gunda, Kossakovsky follows the opposite impulse: pulling his camera in as close as he can get to these animals and keeping their environment largely out of frame.

In the film’s harrowing and unusual opening shot, a hog that’s lying down and seemingly in pain is framed by a barn door. Kossakovsky’s camera closes in with a slow Kubrickian zoom, but we don’t quite understand what’s happening here until a tiny newborn piglet emerges from behind its mother. She’s been giving birth, but Kossakovsky treats this usually joyous moment as if it were a death scene. Only by the film’s end do we truly understand why.

Sadly, the rest of Gunda is rarely so meticulously composed. The film’s meandering sequences tend to grow repetitive, only rarely crystallizing into meaningful or memorable form. There’s a tedium to much of Gunda that may be true to the lives of its animal subjects but makes for dull watching after the first hour. The scenes involving the mother pig and her children exert a fascinating pull—particularly the mother’s sometimes brutal parenting tactics, such as when she stomps on the runt of her litter—but the sequences involving the chickens and the cows feel like filler and a distraction from the pigs, who are the emotional core of the film.

As Gunda lurches toward its close, an impending sense of doom starts to hover over it as we begin to realize just how much these animals’ lives are directed, controlled, and circumscribed by human hands. But there’s an unfortunate lack of specificity here that’s rare in Kossakovsky’s work: Though shot across three different countries (Norway, Spain, and the U.K.), the film feels as though it’s all taking place on a single farm, one that could be located almost anywhere. That universality is undoubtedly the point, as Gunda isn’t simply an observational documentary, but one with a message about the cruelty of livestock agriculture. Though the creatures at its center live in relatively pleasant free-range environments, a far cry from the industrial hellscapes denounced by documentaries like Food, Inc. and vividly depicted as essentially a death camp in Bong Joon-ho’s Okja, they’re ultimately objects of exploitation. The human use of animals for livestock is, the film suggests, inherently brutal. If Gunda never subjects us to gruesome images of slaughter à la Georges Franju’s Blood of the Beasts, it nevertheless closes with a prolonged single-shot sequence that’s more heartbreaking than any depiction of the goings-on in an abattoir ever captured on film.

In this sequence, a truck pulls up to the barn where the pigs live and drives off with the piglets, leaving the mama pig in a state of grief-stricken perplexity. For minutes on end, we watch her pacing around, clearly distressed and unable to fathom why her piglets have been taken from her. It’s the kind of viscerally upsetting moment that, as Orson Welles said of Leo McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow, would make a stone cry. And if this conclusion doesn’t quite make up for Gunda’s fundamental monotonousness, it does at least lend some shape and significance to the rambling sequences that precede it, calling into question how free these free-range animals really are. By the time the credits roll on the film, we realize we’ve been watching not so much a sketch of the lives of farm animals as a threnody for their deaths.

Director: Victor Kossakovsky Screenwriter: Victor Kossakovsky, Ainara Vera Distributor: Neon Running Time: 93 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: Werner Herzog’s Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds

The documentary’s ethnographic bent is balanced out by a healthy dose of hard science.

3

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Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds
Photo: Apple+

Filmmaker Werner Herzog and volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer team up again for Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds, which stands as something of a companion piece to their previous collaboration, 2016’s Into the Inferno. Where the earlier film followed them on a globetrotting game of hopscotch to gaze into the hellmouth abyss of active volcanoes (and obsess over them with a motley crew of visionary scientists), their latest finds them looking to the skies for trailblazers of a completely different sort.

Herzog and Oppenheimer once again dash off to various far-flung destinations in order to investigate the multifaceted phenomena surrounding asteroids and meteorites, with each of the film’s episodes loosely strung together like so many gaudy beads on a necklace. What emerges is the fact that these extraterrestrial entities represent both bringers of life, having conceivably contributed basic organic building blocks to our planet’s primordial inorganic “soup,” as well as harbingers of disaster and death, as in the impact on the Yucatan peninsula that brought about the mass extinction of the dinosaurs.

Indeed, that prehistoric event serves as a sort of epicenter for Fireball, to which Herzog and Oppenheimer return at several points. The film opens with footage from a Day of the Dead ceremony in Mérida, Yucatan—crowds adorned with the requisite black-and-white skeleton makeup—that finds its direct echo at about the midway point when we visit Chichén Itzá and discover a forecourt there that’s decorated with numerous skeletal figures.

The symbolic duality of the meteorite is made most manifest at a stop at the Ramgarh crater in India. At its center stands a 10th-century temple to the god Shiva, whose cosmic dance regulates the cycles of creation and destruction across vast stretches of time. The meteorite’s significance to other belief systems is illustrated by a visit to the Kaaba in Mecca, Islam’s most sacred site. (Here, the filmmakers had to rely on amateur cellphone footage, since nonbelievers aren’t allowed near the shrine.) And at the Wolfe Creek crater, aboriginal artist Katie Darkie discusses taking inspiration from folklore and legends involving the impact site.

The film’s ethnographic bent is balanced out by a healthy dose of hard science. As usual for a Herzog documentary, the focus is just as much on the scientists themselves as it is on their pursuits. We learn all about quasicrystal structures via a jigsaw puzzle, take a tour of the Center for Meteorite Studies with a jittery scientist who’s especially loathe to drop any of the precious collection, and visit the Pan-STARRS Observatory in Hawaii, where scientists monitoring the skies for approaching asteroids excitedly compare megapixel capacities. In perhaps the film’s most rhapsodic interlude, we witness the sheer joy of members of the Korean Polar Research Institute when they discover a handful of meteoritic shards that stand out in stark contrast to the endless white glare of the Antarctic glaciers.

The moment is reminiscent of scenes from Encounters at the End of the World, in which Oppenheimer first appeared in a Herzog production. Nor is this the only callback in Fireball. Descending into a cave at the bottom of a cenote in the Yucatan where the Maya civilization used to inter their dead, we’re instantly reminded of similar ritual usages in Cave of Forgotten Dreams. At one point, footage from the Hollywood blockbuster Deep Impact is incorporated into the mix, in order for Herzog to evaluate it as what you might call disaster poetry.

One of the most striking effects here occurs whenever Herzog and Oppenheimer slow down the film’s often-hectic pace to let viewers ponder the sheer beauty of the imagery, whether that’s painterly rendered details of landscape or the natural splendor of closely observed crystals and minerals. Herzog has always had a keen eye for remote places, and Fireball lets him visit his fair share of them. As ever, his assessments are delivered in his trademark Teutonic deadpan. For instance, he describes the village of Chicxulub, near the center of the Yucatan impact crater, as “so godforsaken you want to cry.” Nor does he have much fondness for its “dimwitted dogs.” Asides like this leaven the visual poetry with some welcome humor.

Visiting Mer Island in the Torres Strait between Australia and New Guinea, Herzog and company are treated to a lovely bit of local lore involving falling stars, as well as the revival of a ritual dance interpreting the tale that hasn’t been performed in nearly 50 years. As day darkens into night, assembled on the slender strand between land and see, the dance reanimates the age-old interplay between the living and their dead ancestors. For a moment, before the screen slowly fades to black, all these elements are held in beautiful balance.

Director: Werner Herzog, Clive Oppenheimer Screenwriter: Werner Herzog Distributor: Apple+, Running Time: 97 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: Another Round Honestly and Poignantly Grapples with Alcohol’s Pull

Thomas Vinterberg’s latest, like The Hunt, is ultimately a parable about breaking a social contract.

3

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Another Round
Photo: Toronto International Film Festival

There’s a revealing moment early in Thomas Vinterberg’s Another Round when high school teacher Martin (Mads Mikkelsen) and his friends and colleagues—Tommy (Thomas Bo Larsen), Peter (Lars Ranthe), and Nikolaj (Magnus Millang)—are out for a birthday dinner. By this point, the audience knows that Martin is in the throes of a midlife crisis, sleepwalking through his history courses, inspiring the ire of students and parents alike, while regarding his family as little more than roommates. (Throughout, Mikkelsen doesn’t foreground self-pity or defensiveness, suggesting that Martin is too far gone to rouse himself to indignation, hiding under a veil of accommodation.) Because he’s driving, Martin initially resists drinking at the dinner, though his friends talk him into changing his mind, and soon he’s downing a shot of vodka and a few glasses of red wine in quick succession. Mikkelsen shows us the alcohol taking control of Martin in something like real time, his studious reserve vanishing to reveal great waves of sadness, bitterness, and salvation.

Anyone who knows alcoholism knows that face—of completion and fulfillment at the cost of alienation. The poignant terror of the scene resides in how quickly the booze grabs Martin, as if he’s an empty vessel waiting for his charge. In this light, Martin’s prior aloofness takes on new meaning. Though he has many real disappointments familiar to midlife, he was probably a dry drunk who didn’t know it. Over dinner, Nikolaj mentions the Norwegian psychiatrist Finn Skårderud, who said that people are born with a blood alcohol content that’s .05 percent too low, and that people should maintain a higher level in order to bring out their potential. We know from Martin’s face that he should stay away from alcohol, but he takes this idea at face value and begins drinking at school. Once the first day is over, he asks Nikolaj for a ride home, claiming that he can’t drive, revealing that he’s begun to experiment with the Skårderud philosophy. We expect Nikolaj to insist that Martin get help, but he and the others immediately join in, claiming that their boozing will be the basis of a future report.

The suspense of Another Round has little to do with whether or not these men will “prove” if day-drinking boosts livelihood. Rather, it’s derived from two nervous mysteries: the question of how long it will take them to recognize this idea for the rationalizing cry for help that it is, and how much damage will be done in the meantime. There’s also a kernel of satire here that one wishes Vinterberg had mined more fulsomely: that the men are taking to the next level a social obsession with alcohol and the various mythologies that we utilize to justify it. Alcohol is still greatly mythologized, associated with virile (masculine) creativity, with great writers and movers and shakers. Martin works the most famous boozers into his lectures, such as Hemingway and Churchill, and his literal and figurative intoxication brings his classes to life. Initially, the theory works, mostly for Martin, but for the other men as well.

In 1995, Vinterberg and Lars von Trier co-founded the Dogme 95 movement, which, broadly speaking, stresses found lighting and parred productions as resistance to the bloat of studio productions. Today, Vinterberg’s films still reflect this ideology, favoring handheld, docudramatic camerawork and few overtly expressionistic frills, which has often seemed prosaically “realistic” in the past. But this aesthetic serves a masterful purpose in Another Round, as his characters are calmly, objectively regarded as they drift further into alcoholism.

Their debauchery is clearly pleasurable in the moment, as benders with friends can be, but the camera is mercilessly attentive to the toll the booze takes—to the confusion, the staggering, the babbling, and especially to the existential pain of a massive hangover after days of being at sea. Overt formal fireworks might’ve glorified this behavior (think of Mike Figgis’s Leaving Las Vegas, which equated a prolonged suicide-by-liquor to a stylish, woozy jazz concert), whereas Vinterberg honors the lure and the danger of drinking simultaneously.

Still, it doesn’t require much artistic ingenuity to make the case that addiction is bad. Another Round is elevated by its cast, especially Mikkelsen, who gives one of the greatest, most lived-in performances of his career, and by a nagging ambiguity. Even as booze begins to destroy these men, the film doesn’t entirely refute the Skårderud philosophy. Someone dies, a marriage nearly dissolves, and the other men sober up, which they soon tire of in the tradition of many people who feel incomplete without indulging in their governing habit. They’re happier after returning to booze, and the teachers among them accomplish the mission of energizing their students. Martin, once a dancer, even begins to dance again.

Like every alcoholic, the film’s main characters are nagged by the exceptions to the rule (the Churchills of the world), by the possibility that they can keep their hungers within a certain perimeter. Another Round, like Vinterberg’s The Hunt, is ultimately a parable about breaking a social contract. Martin and his friends break a code by day-drinking, but perhaps they refuted a larger contract by going sober in a world that values casual lubrication. Every recovering alcoholic is intimately familiar with such a contract, which is among the profound challenges of putting the bottle down and keeping it down. One is reminded of that haunting line from Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master: “You can’t take this life straight, can you?”

Cast: Mads Mikkelsen, Thomas Bo Larsen, Lars Ranthe, Magnus Millang, Maria Bonnevie, Susse Wold, Helene Reingaard Neumann, Michael Asmussen, Martin Greis-Rosenthal Director: Thomas Vinterberg Screenwriter: Tobias Lindholm, Thomas Vinterberg Running Time: 115 min Rating: 2020 Year: 2020

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