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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: The Last of Us Part II Is a Gory and Complex Feat of Empathetic Storytelling

The game displays a thorough, haunted understanding of what cruelty for cruelty’s sake can do to the soul.

4.5

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The Last of Us Part II
Photo: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Editor’s Note: This review contains spoilers.

The moment that Naughty Dog announced a sequel to The Last of Us, we knew a day of reckoning was coming. No matter how one felt about Joel, the grizzled protagonist of the 2013 game, it was inevitable that his actions—saving 14-year-old Ellie’s life at the expense of the human race—would have consequences. And the first and most expected of those consequences occurs not even an hour into The Last of Us Part II, when, four years after the events of the first game, a small militia manages to snatch Joel, and his surrogate daughter, after coming to his rescue, watches him meet a particularly grisly end.

Yes, of course, Ellie goes after Joel’s killers, a hunt that leads her—along with her ride-or-die girlfriend, Dina—to Seattle, where the militia is embroiled in a bloody civil war with an urban-agrarian pseudo-Christian cult known as the Seraphites. And all the while, the Cordyceps epidemic continues to roil, making new, hideous, screeching monsters by the day, and in even more horrifying, hard-to-kill forms than before. And, of course, the underlying message of the whole thing, belabored by so many zombie stories before this one, is that humans are the real monsters, and that it takes a certain innate viciousness to survive in a world of monsters.

Which isn’t to say that The Last of Us Part II gets too high and mighty about the ugly, gratuitous nature of revenge. If it was, the game’s violence wouldn’t be necessary, justified, or cathartic—and killing here is often all three of those things at once. This is a game that asks players to accept the multitudes of its heroes, its villains, and every other poor, suffering soul that Ellie and Dina encounter throughout their journey, about what it means to be another monster among monsters, and what purpose that grotesquery serves.

That, though, is still a hard ask for a game like this. As in the original, you sneak, scavenge, shoot, stab, and bludgeon your way through the world, and The Last of Us Part II is home to some of the most ferocious acts of sinewy, effective, and affecting violence in a video game, and they’re made all the more lurid and visceral by being rendered in unparalleled detail that’s consistent with the rest of the story. That’s even more egregious given that the story could have been just as effective without the game’s utter realism being an imperative by any means necessary, especially given the despicable, and well-documented, human cost of achieving that level of detail. And just like most of Naughty Dog’s forays into cinematic action games, what goes on in the cutscenes is only tenuously connected with everything going on in the rest of the campaign.

As a gameplay experience, The Last of Us Part II brings just the right amount of that Uncharted-like intensity into its every set piece. You’re still best served by sneaking around enemies instead of facing them directly, but unlike the first game, you’re also not utterly doomed by choosing to face them head-on. Being prepared and armed to the teeth is the real deciding factor here, and the player is given much more freedom to figure out how to best accomplish that. Do you take out your enemies with a shiv or a switchblade? Do you have the materials for a makeshift silencer? Are you so overloaded with ammo that you can afford to get loud? Or do you just make a mad dash for an exit, praying that the door isn’t blocked? Once you have set your goal, the overall approach to achieving it is up to you, and that’s a massive and welcome improvement over the first game.

The Last of Us Part II

Ellie and Dina in a scene from The Last of Us Part II. © Sony Interactive Entertainment

Most of the gameplay takes place in a semi-open world that recalls that of Naughty Dog’s underrated Uncharted: The Lost Legacy. The starting and end points of any given area are largely set in stone, but you can wander the ruins of Seattle across a wide expanse, and there’s an impressive number of fully rendered and true-to-life locations that you’re free to explore. Entire neighborhoods feel like real, once-lived-in places, frozen in time, derelict and overgrown. An abandoned music store isn’t just a depository for ammo and health items, with a few records strewn around, but a place that felt as if it was desperately looted during an apocalypse and now has been overtaken by vines and serves as a sanctuary for those who should need it.

The closest that the gameplay comes to elegantly and seamlessly pairing with the overarching story occurs in such places, where Ellie and Dina feel safe enough to sing to each other, or talk about old movies, comic books they’ve found, their families, and the like. Respite and genuine engagement with the game’s morality is also offered up by the periodic flashbacks, which fill in the gaps of time in between our leaving Ellie behind in 2013 and our glimpsing the wiry, flint-eyed killer she became. These sections are all playable, and range from beautiful moments of wonder and curiosity, even laugh-out-loud humor, to devastating flashes of revelation, to the game’s biggest and most meaningful curveball, when the entire climax is put on hold while players step into the shoes of the girl, Abby, who killed Joel and is now Ellie’s ultimate target.

One might feel an understandable sense of consternation when this shift in perspective happens in the game, as Ellie’s story is already too long for its own good by the time it reaches its logical climax. But Abby, who’s built like a shot putter and commandingly voiced by Laura Bailey, is a beautifully imposing and undeniably captivating presence. But more than this, Abby’s story represents a crucial narrative shift for The Last of Us Part II, not in the sense that it humanizes the enemies that Ellie has been taking out up to this point, but for the way it allows the game’s actual theme to reveal itself. You start the campaign thinking that the story is about revenge, when it’s really one about mercy, of the meaning of sacrifice and letting go.

We learn about Abby’s connection to Joel early on during this shift in perspective, but much of her story is set in the aftermath of his murder, once Abby has returned to her Seattle militia, the Washington Liberation Front (WLF), whose members are also known as Wolves, and life goes on as usual. But that changes when her ex-boyfriend, a fellow soldier named Owen (Patrick Fugit), goes missing, and Abby goes AWOL in order to find him. And that journey leads her to Lev and Yara, siblings and former members of the Seraphites.

The closest that The Last of Us Part II gets to true villains are the Seraphites, and yet they aren’t seen as just outright evil. Hard and fast details about why this hyper-conservative order is the way it is are thin on the ground, but we know not to have too much empathy for them when you find out they’ve sentenced Lev to die for the “crime” of being transgender. The second one of these people deadnames the poor kid before trying to shoot him with a crossbow, Abby’s story very quickly becomes a roaring, bloody act of defiance solely to allow Lev and Yara—and, by extension, herself—the opportunity to live a life free of these horrors. You may feel conflict about how many Wolves need to die so Ellie can get her revenge. But you feel much, much less of that the more you realize how much the Seraphites hold Lev in contempt for just existing.

The Last of Us Part II

Lev in a scene from The Last of Us Part II. © Sony Interactive Entertainment

Even then, there’s a lot of blood spilled on the way to freedom, culminating on Abby’s side in one of the most breathtaking, anxiety-inducing action set pieces ever executed in a video game: a breakneck ride through a burning village that feels like the barbarous hate-child of Atlanta burning in Gone with the Wind and the single-shot warzone in Children of Men. Once again, there’s a faint sense in these scenes of the even stronger experience that could have been, of a story being truly told through gameplay, not cutscenes. A sequence where Lev has to coax Abby through her fear of heights to cross a man-made bridge between skyscrapers is maybe the second most tense sequence in the game, and there’s not a single Seraphite or Infected to kill in it. It’s hard not to see the frequent shootout sections as a crutch preventing the developers from thinking of sequences that are more like this one, places to give the player something more to do than engage in stealth action.

That’s despite the fact that the game is certainly aiming for more with the cinematics, and how it paints Abby and Ellie on opposite sides of a gory existential crisis, one where Ellie is blindly screaming and clawing for a life that has purpose, and Abby actually finding it. Where The Last of Us Part II leads both of them is quite haunting, a place where uneasy, wrenching questions are answered, such as at what point do we determine the cost of hate, chaos, death, and vengeance to be more or less than the cost of simply stopping?

The risk that came with making a sequel to The Last of Us was the possibility of rendering the great ambiguous ending of that game null and void. To their absolute credit, the developers at Naughty Dog have crafted a story here that walks right into that fire, and wrestles with the implications and consequences of Joel’s lie in full. It’s hard not to trace every human failure in The Last of Us Part II back to that lie, and the strongest, most special moments here are examples of unmistakably human grace transcending that self-interest, even when the game is at its darkest. It’s in Ellie seeking comfort in her girlfriend’s arms to calm her shaking hands, Lev slowly discarding the shackles of his old-time religion, but sharing the parts of it that mattered with a frightened friend. It’s in forgiveness and acceptance, in all its various, excruciating forms.

These moments are myriad throughout this sequel, and they’re so unlike what you find in a game operating on the AAA level. The Last of Us Part II is still sending a very awkward message about how much mercy truly matters when so many of the campaign’s most complex, graceful moments are out of the player’s control, but the vast majority of its moments of cruelty—thrilling and righteous though they can often be—aren’t. That’s a failure of the creative space the game inhabits as a big, expansive blockbuster more than a failure of the game itself. But most importantly, it’s a problem only because The Last of Us Part II is a game that displays such a thorough, haunted understanding of what cruelty for cruelty’s sake can do to the human soul.

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

Developer: Naughty Dog Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: June 24, 2020 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Nudity, Sexual Content, Strong Language, Use of Drugs Buy: Game

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The Best Games of 2020 (So Far)

Making the old new again could be the mantra of this year’s gaming.

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The Best Games of 2020 (So Far)
Photo: Square Enix

There are various reasons why the games on this list are our favorites of the year so far, but the key one is how many of them are so strikingly illustrative of how the old ways of gaming are increasingly evolving into something resolutely new. Doom Eternal and Streets of Rage 4 showed that small tweaks to well-established gameplay modes could breathe new life into beloved franchises. Countless technological advancements made in the 13 years since the release of Half Life 2: Episode 2 have allowed for the world of this iconic series to be realized anew, and in virtual reality, with Half-Life: Alyx.

Elsewhere, Final Fantasy VII Remake not only shows how far games have come graphically in 23 years, but also how storytelling sensibilities have shifted. Yes, the game’s battles are more active and strategic than ever, its characters more well-rounded, its environments more breathtakingly expansive, but it’s most impressive for the way its narrative engages with our memories and interrogates our expectations of what a remake should be.

Indeed, making the old new again could be the mantra of this year’s gaming. But sometimes what’s new today is simply what was unseen, or unheard, yesterday. An eraser is the dominant mechanic of If Found…, and how a trans woman from the west coast of Ireland is pushed toward erasure is its dominant theme. And The Last of Us Part II not only centers the experience of the queer surrogate daughter of the first game’s prototypical white male protagonist, it evinces a hyperawareness about the nature of violence in games and the world at large.

For those of us who’ve been playing video games since a young age, there’s something comforting about sitting with a great game and realizing that the medium has grown with us. Like a best friend, such a game sometimes even gives you a gentle ribbing, as in the way Lair of the Clockwork God addresses our evolving tastes and the medium’s growth head-on, constantly breaking the fourth wall to point out how it’s updating platformer and adventure conventions. And in 2020, when the world is continuing to predictably and catastrophically disappoint us, that this industry is still surprising and delighting us feels like a salve. Aaron Riccio


Alder’s Blood

Alder’s Blood (Shockwork Games)

Alder’s Blood’s intimidating and intense sense of atmosphere, the need for precise decision-making, and even the term “Hunter” register as a strong nod to Bloodborne. But whereas Bloodborne was just another incarnation of the hack-and-slash, lock-on-and-dodge formula that was popularized by Dark Souls, this game shakes up the foundation of a long-standing genre, stretching the familiar into a realm of nightmarish wonder. Not even leveling up from consecutive victories dampens the bleakness of Alder’s Blood. Each Hunter creeps toward insanity, which forces the player to commit bloody human sacrifices in order to transfer experience points to new heroes. Here, success is more ephemeral than it ever has been in a turn-based tactics game, implying that a godless world should not be coveted. Jed Pressgrove


Desperados III

Desperados III (Mimimi Games)

This first installment in the Desperados series since the 2007 spinoff Helldorado is a prequel, and it opens with a flashback to protagonist John Cooper’s last adventure with his bounty hunter father, during which he learns to “think slow, act fast.” That’s basically the modus operandi of German-based Mimimi Games’s latest, because deliberate, stealthy gameplay is the player’s key to victory. For one, it’s more than satisfying to watch your minutes-long action planning, of furtive repositioning and queuing of unique skills, result in the swift and simultaneous sacking of guards at the hands of your five colorful posse members. While the plot and characters in Desperados III may be familiar, and the gameplay recalls that of other modern real-time tactics titles like Mimimi Games’s previous Shadow Tactics: Blade of the Shogun, each scenario feels distinct. You’ll need different skills to burn down a riverboat than you do to blow up a bridge or defend a ranch. Even slight shifts in terrain and available party members (or their inventories) serve to shake up your tactics. Riccio


Doom Eternal

Doom Eternal (id Software)

Doom Eternal is another frantic dance through meaty pink grottos and wide-open metallic arenas littered with colorful pickups, environmental hazards, and enemies. Where so many shooters opt for verisimilitude, there’s something primal and thrilling to id Software’s further embrace of video-gamey conventions, complementing the floating power-ups with extra lives and optional challenges. This is a game blissfully liberated from the shackles of plausibility and realism, demanding constant motion and engagement to manage health, ammo, and armor that you pull from demon carcasses via fist, fire, and chainsaw. Throughout, the variables crash together in endless, enthralling permutations as the weapons, their modifications, and the upgrades to those modifications create combos against the encroaching hordes. Everything has its response, its counter, and its priority, each of them shifting constantly as new demons appear and your ammunition dwindles. Steven Scaife


Final Fantasy VII Remake

Final Fantasy VII Remake (Square Enix)

Final Fantasy VII Remake is directly in dialogue with the player about what a remake can and probably should be, about how much of a waste it might be to proceed past the endpoint of this particular story—essentially the moment in the original where you’re allowed to freely explore the world outside Midgar—and realize that the journey and the outcome has remained the same. You’re given the chance to choose a different path, to face a literal hideous embodiment of the hands of fate in the game’s climax. It’s a forceful, kinetic statement—that this remake should not be bound by what we already know. And as monstrous as it can be, the symbolism of that gesture is incredibly daring. The game flips the script on the very idea of nostalgia being the only guiding creative force behind a remake, making it another enemy to be slain. The final hours of this game constitute an extraordinary act of subversion, actively challenging us through gameplay to expect more. Justin Clark


Half-Life Alyx

Half-Life: Alyx (Valve Corporation)

Creating a sequel-slash-prequel to an iconic video-game series 13 years in cryosleep is just as an unenviable a task as launching a big-budget title using new technology that might evolve the entire medium, yet Valve delivers with Half-Life: Alyx. Returning fans to the sci-fi nightmare of City 17, a young Alyx Vance fights the omnipresent alien invasion alongside other members of Earth’s resistance, pulled into a plot to rescue a mysterious individual who disappeared some 20 years earlier. While Half-Life: Alyx’s core gameplay doesn’t deviate too far from that of other VR titles, Valve has refined the exploration, shooting, and physics puzzles that this series is known for into something that isn’t played as much as it is experienced. In Half-Life: Alyx, fighting the Combine is just as compelling as exploring the derelict buildings of City 17, and being able to lift and inspect and throw any object contributes greatly to the game’s feeling of immersion. Guns are reloaded by physically putting a new mag in and pulling the slide, marker pens draw on whiteboards, and liquid even sloshes around inside bottles. Boasting visuals that border on the photorealistic and intuitive 1:1 controls that feel entirely natural, Half-Life: Alyx pushes virtual-reality gaming to new heights. Ryan Aston


If Found...

If Found… (DREAMFEEL)

DREAMFEEL’s interactive novel If Found… is mostly told through the early-1990s diary entries of a young Irish trans woman, Kasio, who returns home to Achill Island in Ireland’s west coast from college in Dublin. Scrawled with her memories and feelings, the diary’s pages tend to be unassuming and use color sparingly, with just a few shades dominating the sketches of people and environments. At times those images will be scribbled out or written over, which is when the player breaks out the eraser. The framing device for purging Kasio’s diary isn’t totally clear until the very end of the game, leaving you to ruminate on the action itself rather than the context. If Found… never relies on a last-act twist, instead finding its power through the empathy and truth with which it traces the divergent trajectories of so many relationships. And if the sci-fi elements don’t totally land, the strength of its characters and the specificity of its Irish setting most certainly do. Scaife


Kentucky Route Zero: TV Edition

Kentucky Route Zero: TV Edition (Cardboard Computer)

Kentucky Route Zero is a game often content to remain as mysterious as its namesake, an underground highway seemingly unbound by physical laws. Any fights, between unions and predatory companies, have already happened or doubtless will happen again. Instead, it explores the aftermath of cultural devastation, of how people survive in the ruins of the American experiment and how they build atop (or beneath) that wreckage, with the strange reality meant to represent what capitalism has done to the world. The magic is there, only contained and warped by the society that has grown around it. The characters’ paths narrow as the game continues, as the fist of an unfeeling system closes and people are overwhelmed by weaknesses; you drift from the role of driver to the person being driven to a simple observer of what’s to come. The people you encounter are refugees of greed and exploitation and obsolescence, and there’s a sliver of hope as they defiantly continue, finding pleasure in creation and companionship. They write, they compose, they perform, and they record, inspired by past struggles and a world content to forget its own history beyond facile preservation attempts in arbitrary little museums. After seven years, this visionary masterpiece concludes, an impressionist portrait of people doing what they can in a world that will never recover. Scaife


Lair of the Clockwork God

Lair of the Clockwork God (Size Five Games)

“Why play only one genre of game when you could be playing two slightly different ones at the same time?” That’s a somewhat misleading tagline for Lair of the Clockwork God, as you never simultaneously control the game’s self-aware protagonists, Dan and Ben. Rather, you swap between them, as well as control schemes. Dan is a platformer enthusiast who refuses to interact with objects, while Ben is a stubborn LucasArts point-and-click adventure junkie who doesn’t care to jump. Figuring out how to use the skills we associate with their favorite genres of game to navigate through a Peruvian jungle, apocalyptic London, and an alien spaceship results in a game that’s fresher and more innovative than yet another standalone platformer or adventure game would be. Lair of the Clockwork God is an exciting way for creators Dan Marshall and Ben Ward to not only set it apart from their prior Dan and Ben titles (Ben There, Dan That and Time Gentlemen, Please), but to successfully extend their lovingly parodic style to a much broader range of genres. Riccio


The Last of Us Part II

The Last of Us Part II (Naughty Dog)

The consequences of Joel’s stunning decision at the conclusion of The Last of Us come home in the game’s sequel, which opens with a brutal execution as seen through Ellie’s eyes. Abandoning her relatively carefree life in a Jackson, Wyoming colony, Joel’s surrogate daughter and her romantic partner, Dina, travel to Seattle on a quest for revenge. A shift in perspective reveals the hollowness of Ellie’s vendetta, as she’s barely a blip on the radar of her supposed antagonists, who are consumed in a larger conflict brewing between two sets of “adults” playing war at the cost of countless lives. (If any of the character choices here seem foolish, glance outside at the real world and take in how well we’re doing as humans in our present-day.) While much has been made of this game’s grueling violence, its smaller moments of intimacy and empathy are what resonate most, with much of the lengthy campaign centered around your aiding of innocents caught in the aforementioned war’s crossfire. In the end, The Last of Us Part II is about moving on from complicated legacies, ones for whom forgiveness might never be possible. Aston


Moving Out

Moving Out (SMG Studio, Devm Games)

Wacky mechanics and obstacles abound throughout the game’s 50 levels, from Dread Manor’s haunted floating chairs to the Flamethrower Factory’s titular deathtraps. Each level adds another zany complication to your job. While at first your biggest challenge may be manipulating large or oddly shaped furniture through tortuous hallways, the increasingly outlandish assignments soon become full-on obstacle courses that not only require players to optimize their routes, but to nimbly move in unison across collapsing walkways. All of these various challenges make Moving Out overwhelming in the best possible sense. Even better, accessibility options allow players to modify things like the number of hazards in or the maximum time for each level, which is nice if you want to play with friends of differing skill levels—and stay cordial with them after a failed level. While the game takes pains to differentiate itself from real-world moving, there’s one area in which it remains the same, and that’s in the way it nails that feeling of accomplishment where, at the end of a move, something that once seemed impossible has nevertheless fallen perfectly into place. Riccio

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Games

July 2020 Game Releases: Paper Mario: The Origami King, Ghost of Tsushima, & More

After a few exhausting months in the gaming world, July promises to be fun by comparison.

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Ghost of Tsushima
Photo: Sony Interactive Entertainment

After a few exhausting months in the gaming worlde—from delays to disappointments, and one particularly grueling release—July promises to be fun by comparison. Take, for instance, Iron Man VR, whose highest purpose seems to be just to allow players to exhilaratingly fly about, zapping enemies out of the sky. And while the ambitious Ghost of Tsushima may be modeled after a violent historic event—the first Mongol invasion of Japan—gameplay trailers have been sure to emphasize all of the peaceful, entertaining options provided for exploring the artistically rendered open-world island of Tsushima.

Even Deadly Premonition 2: A Blessing in Disguise, the unexpected sequel to a cult survival-horror game from 2010, looks to be cultivating a sense of humor between its moments of darkness. (Is this the first horror game to allow its protagonist to skateboard between destinations?) And, of course, there’s Paper Mario: The Origami King, whose colorfully absurd bosses, like Box of Crayons, suggest that the latest game in the series will be a pure delight.

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


Ghost of Tsushima (PS4) – July 17

The latest Ghost of Tsushima trailer opens with protagonist Jin Sakai learning that an honorable samurai always looks his enemy in the face, and almost ends with a shot of him skewering a guard through a screen door. We’re excited to explore the contrast between Jin’s two schools of training—the head-on, stance-driven swordsmanship of a Samurai and the stealthy assassination techniques of a Ghost—and to see how Jin’s toolset holds up across this open-world action-adventure game. The game also promises a phenomenally immersive—and historically accurate—depiction of the 1274 Mongol invasion of Japan, though we’re most looking forward to wallowing in all the visual flourishes that characterize the game outside of skirmishes. Just watching the way wind effects are used to whip Tsushima Island’s vibrant red, purple, white, and golden foliage through the air, it’s a credit to just how good this game looks that we’d even consider playing through in the black-and-white Samurai Cinema mode.


Iron Man VR (PSVR) – July 3

Some games sell themselves, and that’s certainly the case with Iron Man VR, whose trailers largely stick to one simple promise: that glory comes to those who fly like Iron Man. Okay, maybe two simple promises, because in addition to the latest demo showcasing the way you can skim along the surface of the ocean and swoop through a cloudy sky, it also lets you fight like Iron Man. We’re already impressed by this demo’s aerial set piece, which has you freefalling from a plane and using your suit’s gadgets to execute emergency repairs. We’re dizzied, in the best possible way, by the potential of this VR experience.


Paper Mario: The Origami King (Switch) – July 17

We’ve never been so intimidated by origami as in the first shot of the Paper Mario: The Origami King trailer, which turns the usually charming Princess Peach into a creepily creased bit of papercraft. Lest you worry that this means the Paper Mario series is losing its trademark humor and charm, Peach immediately cuts the tension with a pun: “Your replies are all paper thin!” What “unfolds” in the trailer suggests that this could be the biggest Paper Mario yet, with Bowser appearing as a potential ally and sights of 3D deserts and oceans for Mario to traverse. At the very least, we’ll be checking this one out just to see how it pulls off epically comic boss battles against office supplies like Tape.


Deadly Premonition 2: A Blessing In Disguise (Switch) – July 10

The original Deadly Premonition was a mind-trippy survival-horror/detective game that played a bit like Twin Peaks meets Silent Hill, and by the look of things, the last decade hasn’t changed director SWERY’s sensibilities at all. Instead, it’s given him a larger sandbox of references to pull from, with the voodoo-tinged Louisiana setting and dual timelines suggesting that he’s a fan of True Detective as well. Of course, it’s hard to put SWERY in a box. After all, the stylish Bond-like trailer for this game is cryptically all over the place, with the image of a man plummeting through red mists, clarinets, and a twerking ass, giving way to a gleaming golden skull and flashes of everything from blood and snakes to hurricanes and what seem to be ninjas. With the game seemingly throwing so much at the wall—for instance, you can skateboard through town—we’re absolutely fascinated to see what sticks.

July 2020 Releases

SINoALICE (July 1) – iOS, Android – Pre-Order
Trackmania (July 1) – PC – Pre-Order
Infliction: Extended Cut (July 2) – Switch – Pre-Order
Marvel’s Iron Man VR (July 3) – PSVR – Pre-Order
Catherine: Full Body (July 7) – Switch – Pre-Order
CrossCode (July 9) – PS4, Xbox One, Switch – Pre-Order
Elden: Path of the Forgotten (July 9) – Switch, PC – Pre-Order
Deadly Premonition 2: A Blessing in Disguise (July 10) – Switch – Pre-Order
F1 2020 (July 10) – PS4, Xbox One, Stadia, PC – Pre-Order
NASCAR Heat 5 (July 10) – PS4, Xbox One, PC – Pre-Order
Death Stranding (July 10) – PC – Pre-Order
Rocket Arena (July 14) – PS4, Xbox One, PC – Pre-Order
Hunting Simulator 2 (July 16) – PC – Pre-Order
Radical Rabbit Stew (July 16) – PS4, Xbox One, Switch, PC – Pre-Order
Drake Hollow (July 17) – Xbox One, PC – Pre-Order
Ghost of Tsushima (July 17) – PS4 – Pre-Order
Paper Mario: The Origami King (July 17) – Switch – Pre-Order
Into the Radius (July 20) – Rift, Quest, Vive – Pre-Order
Rock of Ages 3: Make & Break (July 21) – PS4, Xbox One, Switch, Stadia, PC – Pre-Order
Destroy All Humans (July 28) – PS4, Xbox One, Stadia, PC – Pre-Order
Grounded (July 28) – Xbox One, PC – Pre-Order
Othercide (July 28) – PS4, Xbox One, PC – Pre-Order
Pistol Whip (July 28) – PlayStation VR – Pre-Order
Skater XL (July 28) – PS4, Xbox One, Switch, PC – Pre-Order
Monster Crown (July 31) – PC – Pre-Order

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Review: Xenoblade Chronicles Earns Its Definitive Edition Moniker

The most impressive thing about the game is still the strength and specificity of its vision.

4

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Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive Edition
Photo: Nintendo

Even for those who never played Xenoblade Chronicles, elements of the game will feel instantly familiar. The broad strokes of the story are certainly nothing new, with chosen boy Shulk wielding a mysterious blade, the Monado, against a race of robotic enemies called the Mechon while fighting alongside his ragtag group of friends. But most of all, the game was integral to Nintendo’s entrance into the realm of open-world gaming. Developer Monolith Soft would go on to assist with the world design of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and the Xenoblade Chronicles echoes are all but unmistakable in that game, which demonstrates the same sprawling approach to an explorable space.

Though the game originated on the Wii, its size and scale has scarcely been diminished by the march of time and technology. Indeed, the sense of scope is baked right into its very concept, with one of the all-time great video game settings: the ecosystems growing atop the corpses of two titanic deities, the Bionis and the Mechonis, frozen forever in lifeless conflict. The most impressive thing about Xenoblade Chronicles is still the strength and specificity of its vision, a dense world transcending any familiar hero’s journey. The very air glows in the dark by the light of the world’s ether, the cliffs and rocks jut out at strange angles with an alien sort of beauty, and one deity always looms large in the sky, opposite its opponent.

In retrospect, some of the touches that are used to make the game feel like a coherent world don’t totally withstand close scrutiny, from the glowing blue orbs that stand in for every type of collectible to the general lack of conflict between the various creatures that dot the landscape. But despite such limitations, Xenoblade Chronicles still feels massive thanks to the breadth of its design, for the way it emphasizes its wide variety of fauna by leaving huge disparities in size and strength between them, peppering the environment as much with docile creatures as with looming monstrosities that might kill you in a single blow.

Though Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive Edition now features an auto-run as a concession for the sheer sprawl of each location, your traversal remains constantly engrossing and involved. You climb, you swim, and you dodge certain creatures, or pass peacefully through herds of others depending on, say, whether a mother dinosaur is around. Experience point rewards nudge you to explore the map, to poke around in dangerous areas and find new landmarks, basking all the while in Monolith Soft’s imaginative art design rather than keeping your nose to the ground, hardly looking up while you sift for inane crafting materials.

The various townsfolk you encounter may have rudimentary schedules and routes by today’s standards (and the standards of the time as well), but our impression of these people truly inhabiting this world is confirmed by their having names and, especially, meaningful relationships, all logged on a screen called the Affinity Chart. It’s just a menu, but it’s that one more detailed step than many similar games will go, even today. Xenoblade Chronicles thrives based on the sheer amount of thought put into it in the first place, and that quality has only been clarified with time, with what is now so much distance from the original release.

Through abilities to fast travel or change the time of day, the original tempered its sense of place with a certain level of convenience. In the face of the world’s scale, these shortcuts often felt necessary, and the Definitive Edition introduces changes that similarly keep tedium at bay without turning the game into a mindless series of chores. Menus are now more coherently organized, while the user interface now includes health bars and notifications when, say, you’re in the right spot to get extra damage for a back attack. But perhaps the most welcome change is the vastly improved quest system, which marks relevant monsters and items on the map and even lets you set an active quest to plot routes to quest givers and destinations.

This Definitive Edition also comes with a new scenario, Future Connected, that continues the main story. Yet for as welcome as it is to return to certain characters, this new stretch of story never feels particularly essential, as it lacks much of the base game’s stunning environmental design and features some spotty voice acting. But, then, that base game is still very much the attraction here, from the gameplay improvements to the rerecorded versions of an already superb soundtrack to the graphical upgrade, which gives the memorable characters more expressive faces and the environments more detail from a distance. In every possible sense, this release of Xenoblade Chronicles earns its Definitive Edition monkier.

This game was reviewed using a press key provided by Golin.

Developer: Monolith Soft Publisher: Nintendo Platform: Switch Release Date: May 29, 2020 ESRB: T ESRB Descriptions: Blood, Mild Language, Partial Nudity, Use of Alcohol and Tobacco, Violence Buy: Game, Soundtrack

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Review: Desperados III Is Perfect for Gunslingers Without Twitchy Fingers

While the plot and characters in Desperados III may be familiar, each scenario feels distinct.

4

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Desperados III
Photo: THQ Nordic

Because the average western so often revolves around big, tense standoffs between cowboys with itchy trigger fingers, it’s almost a relief that Desperados III eschews all that rootin’ tootin’ machismo. Given the prominence it gives to real-time tactics, consider the game a thinking person’s western, more puzzler than action extravaganza.

This first installment in the Desperados series since the 2007 spinoff Helldorado is a prequel, and it opens with a flashback to protagonist John Cooper’s last adventure with his bounty hunter father, during which he learns to “think slow, act fast.” That’s basically the modus operandi of German-based Mimimi Games’s latest, because deliberate, stealthy gameplay is the player’s key to victory. For one, it’s more than satisfying to watch your minutes-long action planning, of furtive repositioning and queuing of unique skills, result in the swift and simultaneous sacking of guards at the hands of your five colorful posse members.

That’s not to say that Desperados III lacks the tropes of your traditional western; short of a poker game, it has those in spades. Over the course of the 16-mission campaign, players will find themselves using dynamite to thwart a train robbery, breaking up a wedding with a gatling gun, escaping a mining prison camp with a minecart full of gunpowder, and kidnapping a rich tycoon. It’s a bit like playing through a collection of the genre’s greatest hits, but thanks to the novelty of the tactical framework and the wide range of characters, it never plays out in a derivative fashion. There may not be anything new or particularly deep about the way in which roguish Cooper and wily Kate slowly fall for each other as he attempts to save her ranch, or the way she aids him in his quest for revenge, but their interactions are well-voiced and neatly developed with organic mid-mission observations. It especially helps that Kate is no damsel in distress, even though her main function—as a sexy distraction—is a bit retrograde.

The game’s writing is so sharply detailed that characters come to be defined by more than just their unique skills and abilities, and you come to know them more as they open up about themselves depending on the mission. It’s particularly hard not to fall for the burly trapper Hector Mendoza, given the way he so lovingly speaks about his precious bear trap, which he calls Bianca, and curmudgeonly explains his rationale for being unable to swim. And when Cooper alone first interacts with Doc McCoy, the latter comes across as a mere archetype, tersely refusing to get involved in anything he’s not being paid for. But in later missions, when he’s paired up with spirited voodoo practitioner Isabelle Moreau, who endearingly dubs him “Sunshine,” you’ll come to see his steely front for the fear of intimacy that it is.

While the plot and characters in Desperados III may be familiar, and the gameplay recalls that of other modern real-time tactics titles like Mimimi Games’s previous Shadow Tactics: Blade of the Shogun, each scenario feels distinct. You’ll need different skills to burn down a riverboat than you do to blow up a bridge or defend a ranch. Even slight shifts in terrain and available party members (or their inventories) serve to shake up your tactics. No sooner have you mastered using Kate’s flirtatious disguises to lure guards out of position than you’ll find yourself in a situation where she doesn’t have a costume, or isn’t with your gang, and you’ll suddenly have to come up with other ways to advance, such as using McCoy’s long-range (and silent) sniper rifle or Isabelle’s poison darts, which let her temporarily possess a target.

Many missions require players to further adapt to using non-lethal or indirect actions, particularly those set in civil zones like the small town of Flagstone, Colorado; the bustling streets, brothels, and docks of New Orleans; and a gala in a massive, cliffside New Mexican estate. In some cases, players may even need to sneak around eavesdropping in order to figure out how to proceed. Environments, too, often force a change in tactics. Muddy swamps and sandy mines are especially dangerous, as you’ll leave footprints behind, and nighttime encounters require players to find ways to disable light sources.

If there’s any fault to be found here, it’s a certain rigidity. Compared to Hitman 2, which allows you to find numerous paths to perform an assassination, Desperados III begins each mission by walking your team through a pre-established plan. And enemies are as much a slave to this as players, as they have no real AI, and move in completely predictable patrols. They work on automated loops, so your window of opportunity never closes; a guard who wanders off to take a piss will comically continue to do so, over and over again, until you make your move.

At times, Desperados III gives you the illusion of choice, such as your being able to reach a building through one of two streets, or to take one of two paths through a canyon to a goal. Which is to say, when it comes to completing certain objectives, there’s little room for your creativity to be stirred. For instance, you can’t use a torch to set a guard ablaze, nor can you burn a barrel or a haystack hiding spot—unless the game specifically states otherwise. In the game’s restrictive language, a torch exists only to burn an existing pool of oil, and no other use will do. It’s still fun to figure out how to get past each new configuration of enemies, but the game’s coolest feature, a 64x-speed end-of-mission replay that iconographically shows how you navigated the map, ends up a bittersweet reminder of your own constraints.

While there may be a missed opportunity here for some big-picture tactics, the individual, self-contained puzzle-box encounters are each discretely entertaining. As a puzzler, then, Desperados III thrives on its rigidity, particularly in a series of optional missions, the Baron’s Challenges, that serve to break up some of the more complicated stages with some short-and-sweet tests of your mastery of specific skills. These levels demonstrate that not all restrictions are bad. In fact, one particular challenge in which players can only use environmental effects to kill their targets is a highlight, with chains of distractions akin to a Rube Goldberg machine required in order to set the stage for some very happy “accidents.”

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

Developer: Mimimi Games Publisher: THQ Nordic Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: June 16, 2020 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood, Strong Language, Suggestive Themes, Violence Buy: Game

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Review: Persona 4 Golden Is Better Served As a Cherished Memory

Its occasional pizzazz, including Shoji Meguro’s blissful J-pop soundtrack, is undermined by how hard it often is to actually look at the game.

3

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Persona 5 Golden
Photo: Atlus

In the time it takes for Persona 4 to allow players to even walk freely around the dry, rural town at its center, you could blow up a reactor in Final Fantasy VII Remake, grab a horse, slay a bunch Moblins, and reach Calamity Ganon’s doorstep in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, collect two or three gym badges in Pokémon Sword and Shield, or decide the fate of the good people of Edgewater in The Outer Worlds. You could even have plotted a successful route for the Phantom Thieves to steal Coach Kamoshida’s heart in Persona 5 if you know what you’re doing and don’t waste any time on any sidequests.

Indeed, it will take you six hours of playtime before you get into a fight in Persona 4 that isn’t part of a cutscene, and for every 30 minutes of actual gameplay, there are 90 where the game is narratively spinning its wheels. There are games—even JRPGs—that finish in the time it takes for this one to let you touch more than the button that lets you advance the text box. That was bewildering when Persona 4 was first released in 2008 on the PlayStation 2, aggravating in 2012 when Persona 4 Golden came out on the Vita, and utterly maddening in 2020, especially considering that its direct sequel did everything right in the same year.

In fairness, that’s a deliberate design choice. Your initial lack of agency is meant to dovetail with the idea that you’re living out a year in the life of your silent teenage protagonist, who’s just moved to the sleepy village of Inaba out in the sticks, where everything moves slower. Here, when something exciting happens, it stands out all the more. And when excitement occurs in the game, it’s in the form of a series of murders ripped straight out of The Ring: A mysterious television program seems to broadcast at midnight, allowing shadowy figures to snatch people and murder them in TV World, an abstract place where repressed emotions grow malignant and cross over into the real world. As the protagonist and his friends start to discover what’s happening to the hapless victims, they awaken to special powers through the titular personas—modeled after characters from Japanese folklore—that allow them to both combat the shadows and contend with their own repressed feelings.

That’s a solid premise, and when Persona 4 Golden finally kicks into high gear, with its young heroes essentially playing the part of a Japanese Scooby Gang, it has charm in spades. The cast in particular is a wacky menagerie of colorfully characterized teachers and students, with an endearingly twee ensemble of misfit teenagers and village weirdos following the protagonist into battle. And that charm is much easier to appreciate with the option of hearing their voices in native Japanese instead of the stilted English dub. The central mystery even has a Twin Peaks vibe to it, as the town’s deep, dark secrets manifest in bizarre, wildly imaginative ways.

Funny enough, even considering how silly his introduction is, the chirpy Teddie, essentially the Scooby-Doo of your gang, ends up having one of the more poignant arcs of the whole game. And when Persona 4 Golden finally gets you into a proper dungeon and pits you against random enemies, the same old Persona loop of needing to find enemy weaknesses to exploit in order to prevent an opponent’s turn—by decisively stringing your ensemble’s efforts together as a team—is gratifying. Which makes it all the more unfortunate that the combat feels so milquetoast in comparison to the visual riot of every Persona 5 encounter.

The devil is in the details, though, and in between everything endearing and compelling about Persona 4 Golden is hours of mind-numbing tedium, from the randomly generated copy-paste dungeons that take longer than necessary to complete, to the activities and social links, few of which connect in any meaningful way to the central story, thus making it all seem like padding for padding’s sake. Yes, life in a rural town can be boring, but the game isn’t good at homing in on the way that rural boredom can feel meaningful and peaceful the way that Animal Crossing and Stardew Valley do. Rather, boredom is the brick and mortar that holds Persona 4 Golden together between short spurts of gameplay, and it kills your investment in the plot.

This is all exacerbated in a woefully optimized PC port that retains the original versions’ eye-watering motion blur, with no option to disable it, and stuttery cutscenes, even on rock-solid hardware. That’s particularly frustrating given how stylish and imaginative the game can be when you’re in TV World, from the DayGlo bathhouses to the pixelated 8-bit castles to the goth-psychedelic strip clubs. All of that pizzazz, including Shoji Meguro’s blissful J-pop soundtrack, is undermined by how hard it often is to look at the game.

Somewhere, maybe in the same kind of alternate universe that figures into Persona 4 Golden’s storyline, there’s a 25-to-30-hour version of the game that’s set in the same little town, tells the same cute, twisty supernatural murder mystery, and offers the same thoughtful approach to combat, but where there’s never a dull moment. That would be a truly golden version of Persona 4. But what we’ve gotten here is a title that mostly shows it was better off staying as a cherished memory on the Vita instead of resurrected as a dated, exhausting relic on PC.

This game was reviewed using a press key provided by fortyseven communications.

Developer: Atlus Publisher: Atlus Platform: PC Release Date: June 13, 2020 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Alcohol Reference, Animated Blood, Language, Partial Nuditym, Sexual Themes, Violence Buy: Game

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Review: Disintegration Puts Old First-Person Shooter Ideas in a Shiny New Shell

The game’s attempts to distinguish itself from other first-person shooters ultimately feel superficial.

2.5

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Disintegration
Photo: Private Division

Romer Shoal, like many humans in the future envisioned by Disintegration who’ve had their brains placed into robot bodies, sets himself apart from his brethren by wearing a stylish leather jacket. Similarly, V1 Interactive’s debut title tries to distinguish itself from other first-person shooters with a slick hook that places the player somewhat at a remove from the action, as Romer streaks above battlefields in his one-man aerial vehicle, a Gravcycle, that backs up his comparatively tiny ground troops. Unfortunately, Romer and Disintegration’s attempts to carve out unique identities for themselves ultimately feel superficial.

The Gravcycle itself is at least well-designed and enjoyable to handle. The vehicle is capable of short bursts of speed that allows it to dodge in any direction, and while restricted to hovering above land, it’s capable of rising up to 16 meters in the air—all the better to scan upcoming enemy emplacements and chart out a course of engagement. And the game has its moments of impressively kinetic action, as when you’re juking through the tunnels of a subterranean jail or darting for cover beneath ionic umbrellas, lest Romer’s ship be disabled by sporadic EMP blackout pulse. But Disintegration is largely mired in dull, repetitive sieges (or defenses), where the only thing that significantly changes is the background, from a mid-desert scrapyard to the glistening, water-slicked canyons of Iceland.

The more you play Disintegration, the less it has to offer, at least throughout its single-player campaign. Take, for instance, Romer’s crew, up to four of whom accompany him on each of the game’s missions, and who can at any time be given tactical instructions by pinging locations and units or by manually triggering their skills. At first, his fellow outlaws seem to possess distinct personalities, wardrobe items, and armature. But once they’re reduced to tiny figures on the battlefield, they all feel exactly the same—an impression amplified by the similarities between their special moves. One character, Seguin, stands out by wielding temporal pulses that can create a slow-motion field around foes, but the rest are just equipped with varying forms of explosives, like concussion grenades or mortar fire.

That sameness extends to your enemies. Though the terrain changes throughout Disintegration, there are only so many times you can fight, say, a pack of ultra-armored Rhinos or go through the multi-stage takedown of a massive Thunderbird before it all starts to feel stale. Worse, your only showdown with main antagonist Black Shuck occurs at the halfway point, after which the game proceeds as a long stretch of anticlimactic story beats.

Disintegration tries to keep things fresh by modifying the design of the Gravcycle between missions. One engagement might find you equipped with powerful rockets and a sluggish frame; another might give you a nimble body but weak twin machine guns. But the changes to the speed, armor, and power of the Gravcycle, or a series of optional objectives, have negligible effects on the gameplay, at least on lower difficulties levels. Your capable AI crew will handle just about everything for you, so long as you revive them when they’re downed, and with the exception of certain enemy classes, like snipers or other Gravcycles, most units do negligible damage. In this regard, the whole campaign comes across as an extended tutorial for the nine different crews found in the Multiplayer mode, from the Nano Emitter-wielding healers in the King’s Guard to the machine-gun-blitzing, samurai-themed Lost Ronin.

The best parts of Disintegration actually occur between missions, in the brief monologues that these characters deliver, should you choose to visit them in the hangar. Seguin, who uses no personal pronouns, explains that posthumanism has allowed them to finally assume a fitting identity, and Six-Oh-Two provides a heartbreaking rationale not only for his odd-sounding name, but why his exoskeleton is so massive. These imaginative, human, world-building moments are what make Disintegration stand out from other sci-fi shooters, and there should be more of them. How ironic that a game that purports to be about fighting against conformity ends up giving in to a stultifying homogeneity.

This game was reviewed using a press key provided by Tara Bruno PR.

Developer: V1 Interactive Publisher: Private Division Release Date: June 16, 2020 ESRB: T Buy: Game

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Review: Evan’s Remains Is a Unique, If Much Too Brief, Puzzle Platformer

The scarcity of the game’s puzzles is frustrating, because, slight repetition aside, every one of those puzzles is cleverly designed.

3

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Evan’s Remains
Photo: Whitethorn Digital

Decked out in a cute orange sundress and a floppy, wide-brimmed hat, Dysis, the protagonist of Matías Schmied’s Evan’s Remains, looks more prepared for a tropical vacation than she does for an adventure. That, though, is somewhat fitting in the case of this enemy-free, logic-based platformer that strives to be something more than your typical adventure. And yet, the game too often comes across as an overly laidback vacation, with too much time spent passively looking at things as opposed to actually interacting with them. The game’s just over two hours long, the majority of which you’ll spend reading dialogue bubbles as opposed to actively solving the game’s puzzles. Moreover, its casual visuals—lush, pixelated fields of red flowers and moonlit beaches—undercut any sense of danger, even once Dysis starts running into strangers on her supposedly deserted island.

Dysis’s progression along the island’s beach is pretty linear, as you’ll read some text, move to the next section, then read more text. Occasionally, one-screen logic puzzles appear, breaking up the text much like illustrations scattered throughout a novel’s pages. And like such illustrations, these puzzles, which take the form of giant monoliths left behind by an ancient civilization, visually describe what you’ve been reading about. According to Clover, a fellow explorer who Dysis runs into, the stone platforms jutting out of these pillar-like structures function collectively as a giant hieroglyph that spells a message that’s rumored to lead to a hidden treasure. And plot-wise, flashbacks sprinkled throughout the game operate a bit like the monoliths, as each new interaction shown between Clover and a self-obsessed vagrant named Vincent peels back a bit more of the twisty plot, particularly with regard to the island’s true purpose and why Dysis, of all people, was specifically asked to travel there.

The story of Evan’s Remains benefits from the puzzles, since the titular man, whom Dysis has been sent to find, is exactly the sort of reclusive, eccentric genius who would probably get a kick out of them. But those puzzles don’t always benefit from the narrative. The message that Clover is seeking to reconstruct is only 28 words long, with each monolith representing one of those words. That’s a far cry from the hundreds of puzzles found in games like The Witness, where the various symbols you pick up in various places eventually all start getting used in unison to modify one another and make for increasingly complex puzzles. It doesn’t help that one puzzle in Evan’s Remains representing the word “the” is repeated several times. This is narratively understandable, given that each puzzle represents a word and that some occur more than once in the message. But this limited vocabulary comes at the cost of showcasing a wider variety of puzzles. It also means that the revelations that occur after Dysis and Clover decode the final puzzle have to be presented in an entirely non-interactive way. By design, there aren’t any puzzles left to support the remaining plot twists.

The scarcity of the game’s puzzles is frustrating, because, slight repetition aside, every one of those puzzles is cleverly designed. It’s fun to try and decipher the color-coding and etched symbols for each type of platform, so that you can then plan a proper route to the top. For instance, as Dysis leaps off a standard platform, it recesses into the wall, and when she lands on a step marked with a bowtie-like infinity symbol, all of the plain platforms reverse their current state, either springing back out again or vanishing from sight. To scale one level, she’ll first have to make every platform recede so that, once she hits a certain platform, they all pop back out to make a clear pathway to the top. As the plot gets twistier, introducing a warp-gate technology and some hidden identities, so, too, do the puzzles grow more complex, with symbols appearing that allow you (or platforms) to travel between points or which can alter other symbols. Working out the tricks for each new sequence of platforms mirrors the way in which Dysis, and by extension the player, is deciphering the island’s own properties.

It’s admirable that Evan’s Remains resists the urge to pad out its plot with superfluous puzzles. But it goes too far in doing so, given the long stretches of exposition between each monolith. This serves neither the puzzles, which are too rare, nor the characters, who, apart from Clover, end up severely underdeveloped, the result of having only a few between-monument scenes in which to appear. Given that there are already two plot-removed bonus puzzles in a post-credit ode to Kickstarter backers, the addition of a New Game+ mode could have gone a long way here. Not only could it have given players an excuse to revisit earlier plot points, but a series of remixed, harder levels could have better satisfied rabid puzzle-solvers, all while still remaining true to the essence of the 28-word message you’re trying to reveal.

This game was reviewed using a press key provided by Whitethorn Games

Developer: Matías Schmied Publisher: Whitethorn Digital Platform: PC Release Date: June 11, 2020 ESRB: E Buy: Game

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Review: Resist the Call of the Pretty but Empty Shantae and the Seven Sirens

It retreads the same ground of the prior games’ fetch-quest-driven, backtracking-filled action-adventuring.

2

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Shantae and the Seven Sirens
Photo: WayForward

With each new entry in WayForward’s Shantae series comes the hope that new light will be shed on its adorable half-genie hero’s mysterious heritage. And the opening of Shantae and the Seven Sirens suggests that the series is going to at last fill in some of those blanks, as Shantae is for the first time meeting her brethren at Paradise Island’s Half-Genie Festival. But before Harmony, the eldest and wisest half-genie, can reveal her newfound friend’s history, she and the other half-genies are mysteriously abducted by Shantae’s old rival, the pirate Risky Boots, forcing Shantae to retread the same ground of the prior games’ fetch-quest-driven, backtracking-filled action-adventuring.

This familiarity is frustrating because the Shantae series has never been better animated. Shantae’s various animal transformations are adorable and seamless, particularly in the way her stone-breaking Bonker Tortoise retains those elegant eyelashes and how her ponytail becomes a tentacle when she shifts into her pink Octo Jet form. The other half-genies are also well-defined, with Zapple’s electrical powers self-evident in her spiky hair and Vera’s nature-tuned healing magic reflected by all the leaves woven into her mane. No doubt, Shantae and her fellow half-genies have never brimmed with as much life as they do here, but after a while the animation starts to feel like wallpapering over the game’s fundamental emptiness.

Maybe this purposeless feeling comes from the fact that Shantae and the Seven Sirens is a clone of a clone. The prior games in the series were already sexy reskins of the Wonder Boy games, right down to the animal transformations, but without the complexity. Shantae and the Seven Sirens offers an even more sultry update of what its predecessors have done. Sure, Shantae now turns into a Dash Newt instead of monkey, or a Sea Frog instead of a mermaid, but she still more or less puts into action the same wall-hugging and water-swimming abilities that she did in earlier games in the series. Though the well-written, if glib, fourth-wall-breaking narrative may lampshade the repetitious antics of returning characters like Squid Baron, it does nothing to alleviate the player’s déjà vu.

Complacency is the name of the game here: Each dungeon does just enough to differentiate itself from the previous one—look at the sliding-block puzzles of the Coral Mine or the cannon-mazes of the Sea Vent Lab—but they’re otherwise completely forgettable. The chip-tune beats are fine when matched to the waves of enemies or perilous spike-filled corridors, but if you listened to them outside of the game, they’d be a fate worse than elevator music.

The game’s backgrounds adequately convey the theme of each location, whether it’s a mossy tunnel or a spooky ghost ship, but only in the most basic sense, as there’s no real depth to these flat 2D renderings. There’s even an entirely superfluous “Monster Cards” gimmick that tries to make you feel better about all the repetitive hair-whipping attacks you have to perform against largely unthreatening enemies and bosses, in that occasionally your foes will drop cards that you can then equip to get slight ability boosts.

All of these flaws are much more noticeable in the rushed second half of the game, once the novelty of Shantae’s cute dance moves have given way to the realization that, no, you’re not doing anything interesting with that Quake Dance ability—just casting it on every screen, hoping that it causes some new treasure or path to reveal itself. This makes the constant backtracking even more irksome, since picking up those extra collectibles simply requires the push of a single button, as opposed to some creative combination of Shantae’s abilities. Worse, the final two dungeons in Shantae and the Seven Sirens do away with any pretense of exploration: The first, the so-called Squid Pit, is nothing more than a timed series of battles, and the second, the Flying Fortress, is just a long gauntlet of trite platforming challenges.

Shantae and the Seven Sirens is likely to work its magic on younger players who are new to video games, who will ooh and aww at all of its cute bats, crabs, spiders, and skeletons, unable to recognize just how contrived so much of game’s elements really are. They won’t be bothered by how easily the bosses can be defeated, almost always by mashing the one attack button. Which is to say, if you haven’t seen this sort of thing before and don’t know what you’re missing, it’s a competently built distraction. But for everyone else, it’s hard not to be disappointed by the unfulfilled promise of Shantae and the Seven Sirens. For a game that’s centered around taking a vacation, it’s really just too much work.

This game was reviewed using a press key provided by WayForward

Developer: WayForward Publisher: WayForward Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: May 28, 2020 ESRB: E10+ Buy: Game

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Review: Sludge Life Will Vividly, Weirdly Stoke Your Sense of Rebellion

The world of the game may be small, but it brims with a weird sense of life.

3.5

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Sludge Life
Photo: Devolver Digital

As a tagger called Ghost, your main interaction with the open world of developer Terri Vellman and musician Doseone’s Sludge Life is to spray it with graffiti. The place is a small island overseen by the GLUG corporation, a mess of shipping containers, warehouses, and fences near an apartment block and a single greasy burger joint. All of it is built on concrete atop a vast ocean of sludge that stretches to the horizon, never deep enough for you to sink down into but squelchy and thick enough to slightly hinder your stride.

In this world, which you view through a grainy VHS filter that distorts the otherwise clean lines of Sludge Life’s art style, there’s little to do but make your mark. You parkour in order to tag spots on the game’s open world marked with floating blue spray cans, in the process acquiring enough of a reputation to eventually collaborate with other taggers, like an anthropomorphic fly named Mosca and a guy called Hans who sprays a big white hand all over the place in the image of his own humongous mitts. And they’ve all got their chosen graffiti motifs, including yourself: a bug-eyed green ghost that one tagging duo likens to a pimple.

When you’re not tagging in the game, you’re littering—the next best thing to assert your presence, to feel something by demonstrating that you were there, if only for a moment. Once you drink a can of what’s presumably soda or finish off a cigarette with the dedicated smoking button, you toss them right onto the ground. You even unceremoniously drop equipped items like a camera or a laptop or a glider as soon as you finish using them. And though your cigarette butts and empty cans remain were you left them, necessary items like the laptop teleport back to your hands as soon as you press the button to use them, as if the game were trying to reinforce the futility of your mildly rebellious littering. The graffiti, at least, isn’t so easily wiped away, the only thing close to a permanent trace that you can leave behind.

Jokey sight gags lurk around every corner, many of them accompanied by one-off mechanics like hocking a loogie into a plate of food. Vellman and Doseone get so much mileage out of the off-kilter atmosphere, a tiny world of disaffected misfits enveloped in a haze of ennui and diegetic cloud rap, with little to do beyond smoke, drink, watch TV, and do mushrooms. The island is a graffiti playground because everyone has gone on strike, demanding the attention of the cyclops cops (“clops”) who might otherwise chase taggers away. The cigarette mascot, a red smiley face named Ciggy, has been crushed by a fallen statue; a girl with a big scar stages regular heists to steal a washing machine; a normal dog paints graffiti; and a cat has two buttholes, one side-by-side with the other. This world may be small, but it brims with a weird sense of life reinforced by the simple mechanics that let you tag, platform, and consume.

Collecting everything can be a little tedious, particularly when coupled with the fiddly controls that make falling from narrow platforms a little too easy. But despite the presence of an in-game checklist, the game doesn’t encourage you to compulsively collect and complete as much as you can. Notably, the “bad ending” and “weird ending” both involve tracking down one final, elusive tagging spot, but the “good ending” has no such requirement. With no explicit quests or missions, everything on the island is there for you to explore and experiment with or even totally ignore. Sludge Life is a game to loiter in, for however long you need to grab some momentary respite. Remembering how one tagger got over-invested to the point where he pulled out his eyeballs and stuffed them in a jar, one character summarizes the game’s ethos: “I like life like I like my games: when it stops being fun, you just quit.”

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

Developer: Terri Vellman, Doseone Publisher: Devolver Digital Platform: PC Release Date: May 28, 2020 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Violence, Crude Humor, Blood, Use of Drugs Buy: Game

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Review: Hitman

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

1.5

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Hitman

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

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

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Review: Palm Springs Puts a Fresh Spin on the Time-Loop Rom-Com

The film smuggles some surprisingly bleak existential questioning inside a brightly comedic vehicle.

3

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Palm Springs
Photo: Hulu

The pitch for Palm Springs likely went: “Edge of Tomorrow meets Groundhog Day but with a cool Coachella rom-com vibe.” All of those components are present and accounted for in Max Barbakow’s film, about two people forced to endure the same day of a Palm Springs wedding over and over again after getting stuck in a time loop. But even though the concept might feel secondhand, the execution is confident, funny, and thoughtful.

Palm Springs starts without much of a hook, sidling into its story with the same lassitude as its protagonist, Nyles (Andy Samberg). First seen having desultory sex with his shallow and always peeved girlfriend, Misty (Meredith Hagner), Nyles spends the rest of the film’s opening stretch wandering around the resort where guests are gathered for the wedding of Misty’s friend, Tala (Camila Mendes), lazing around the pool and drinking a seemingly endless number of beers. “Oh yeah, Misty’s boyfriend” is how most refer to him with casual annoyance, and then he gives a winning wedding speech that one doesn’t expect from a plus-one.

The reason for why everything at the wedding seems so familiar to Nyles, and why that speech is so perfectly delivered, becomes clear after he entices the bride’s sister and maid of honor, Sarah (Cristin Milioti), to follow him out to the desert for a make-out session. In quick succession, Nyles is shot with an arrow by a mysterious figure (J.K. Simmons), Sarah is accidentally sucked into the same glowing vortex that trapped Nyles in his time loop, and she wakes up on the morning of the not-so-great day that she just lived through.

Although Palm Springs eventually digs into the knottier philosophical quandaries of this highly elaborate meet-cute, it takes an appealingly blasé approach to providing answers to the scenario’s curiosities. What initially led Nyles to the mysterious glowing cave in the desert? How has he maintained any semblance of sanity over what appears to be many years of this nightmare existence? How come certain people say “thank you” in Arabic?

This attitude of floating along the sea of life’s mysteries without worry parallels Nyles’s shrugging attitude about the abyss facing them. In response to Sarah’s panicked queries about why they are living the same day on repeat, Nyles throws out a random collection of theories: “one of those infinite time loop situations….purgatory….a glitch in the simulation we’re all in.” His ideas seem half-baked at first. But as time passes, it becomes clear that Nyles has been trapped at the wedding so long that not only has he lost all concept of time or even who he was before it began, his lackadaisical approach to eternity seems more like wisdom.

Darkly cantankerous, Sarah takes a while to come around to that way of thinking. Her version of the Kübler-Ross model starts in anger and shifts to denial (testing the limits of their time-loop trap, she drives home to Texas, only to snap back to morning in Palm Springs when she finally dozes off) before pivoting to acceptance. This segment, where Nyles introduces Sarah to all the people and things he’s found in the nooks and crannies of the world he’s been able to explore in one waking day, plays like a quantum physics rom-com with a video-game-y sense of immortality. After learning the ropes from Nyles (death is no escape, so try to avoid the slow, agonizing deaths), Sarah happily takes part in his Sisyphean games of the drunk and unkillable, ranging from breaking into houses to stealing and crashing a plane.

As places to be trapped for all eternity, this idyll doesn’t seem half bad at first. Barbakow’s fast-paced take on the pleasingly daffy material helps, as does the balancing of Milioti’s angry agita with Samberg’s who-cares recklessness. Eventually the story moves out of endlessly looping stasis into the problem-solution phase, with Sarah deciding she can’t waste away in Palm Springs for eternity. But while the question of whether or not they can escape via Sarah’s device for bridging the multiverse takes over the narrative to some degree, Palm Springs is far more interesting when it ruminates lightly on which puzzle they’re better off solving: pinning their hopes on escape or cracking another beer and figuring out how to be happy in purgatory. Palm Springs isn’t daring by any stretch, but it smuggles some surprisingly bleak existential questioning inside a brightly comedic vehicle that’s similar to Groundhog Day but without that film’s reassuring belief that a day can be lived perfectly rather than simply endured.

Cast: Andy Samberg, Cristin Millioti, J.K. Simmons, Peter Gallagher, Meredith Hagner, Camila Mendez, Tyler Hoechlin, Chris Pang Director: Max Barbakow Screenwriter: Andy Siara Distributor: Neon, Hulu Running Time: 90 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: Hamilton Comes Home, Still Holding Conflicting Truths at Once

The show offers testimony to the power of communal storytelling, just as mighty on screen as on stage.

3.5

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Hamilton
Photo: Disney+

The actual physical production of Hamilton has never been at the heart of the show’s fandom. Its lyrics have been memorized en masse, Hamilton-inspired history courses have been created across grade levels, and its references have invaded the vernacular, but, for most, Hamilton’s liveness has been inaccessible, whether due to geography or unaffordability. Hamilton the film, recorded over two Broadway performances in 2016 with most of the original Broadway cast, winningly celebrates the still-surprisingly rich density of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s score and the show’s much-heralded actors. But this new iteration is most stunning in its devotion to translating Hamilton’s swirling, churning storytelling—the work of director Thomas Kail and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler—to the screen.

Most films of live theater feel partial and remote. There’s usually a sense that with every move of the camera we’re missing out on something happening elsewhere on stage. The autonomy of attending theater in person—the ability to choose what to focus on—is stripped away. But instead of delimiting what we see of Hamilton, this film opens up our options. Even when the camera (one of many installed around, behind, and above the stage) homes in on a lone singer, the shots tend to frame the soloists in a larger context: We can watch Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.), but we can also track the characters behind him or on the walkways above him. Every shot is rife with detail and movement: the rowers escorting Alexander Hamilton’s (Miranda) body to shore, Maria Reynolds (Jasmine Cephas Jones) hovering beneath a stairway as Hamilton confesses his infidelities to Burr, ensemble members dancing in the shadows of David Korins’s imposing set. There’s no space to wonder what might be happening beyond the camera’s gaze.

Off-setting the cast album’s appropriate spotlight on the show’s stars, the film, also directed by Kail, constantly centers the ensemble, even when they’re not singing, as they enact battles and balls or symbolically fly letters back and forth between Hamilton and Burr. Audiences who mainly know the show’s music may be surprised by how often the entire cast is on stage, and even those who’ve seen Hamilton live on stage will be delighted by the highlighted, quirky individuality of each ensemble member’s often-silent storytelling.

Kail shows impressive restraint, withholding aerial views and shots from aboard the spinning turntables at the center of the stage until they can be most potent. The film also convincingly offers Hamilton’s design as a stunning work of visual art, showcasing Howell Binkley’s lighting—the sharp yellows as the Schuyler Sisters take the town and the slowly warming blues as Hamilton seeks his wife’s forgiveness—just as thoughtfully as it does the performances.

And when the cameras do go in for a close-up, they shade lyrics we may know by heart with new meaning. In “Wait for It,” Burr’s paean to practicing patience rather than impulsiveness, Odom (who won a Tony for the role) clenches his eyes shut as he sings, “I am inimitable, I am an original,” tensing as if battling to convince himself that his passivity is a sign of strength and not cowardice. When Eliza Hamilton (Philippa Soo) glances upward and away from her ever-ascendant husband as she asks him, “If I could grant you peace of mind, would that be enough?,” it’s suddenly crystal clear that she’s wondering whether taking care of Alexander would be enough for herself, not for him, her searching eyes foreshadowing her eventual self-reliance. And there’s an icky intimacy unachievable in person when Jonathan Groff’s mad King George literally foams at the mouth in response to the ingratitude of his colonies.

The production’s less understated performances, like Daveed Diggs’s show-stealing turn (also Tony-winning) in the dual roles of the Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson and Renée Elise Goldsberry’s fiery embodiment (yes, also Tony-winning) of the shrewd, self-sacrificing Angelica Schuyler Church, benefit, too, from the way that the film’s pacing latches onto Miranda’s propulsive writing. In Jefferson’s return home, “What’d I Miss,” the camera angles change swiftly as if to keep up with Diggs’s buoyancy.

Despite Christopher Jackson’s warm and gorgeous-voiced performance, George Washington remains Hamilton’s central sticking point. While Jefferson receives a dressing down from Hamilton for practicing slavery, Washington, who once enslaved over 200 people at one time at Mount Vernon, shows up in Hamilton as a spotless hero who might as well be king if he wasn’t so noble as to step down. There’s a tricky tension at Hamilton’s core: Casting performers of color as white founding “heroes” allows the master narrative to be reclaimed, but it’s still a master narrative. For audiences familiar with the facts, the casting of black actors as slave owners (not just Jefferson) is an unstated, powerful act of artistic resistance against the truths of the nation’s founding. But for those learning their history from Hamilton, especially young audiences, they will still believe in Washington’s moral purity, even if they walk away picturing the first president as Christopher Jackson.

But Hamilton is complex and monumental enough of a work to hold conflicting truths at once. In attempting to recraft our understanding of America’s founding, it may fall short. In forcibly transforming the expectations for who can tell what stories on which stages, Hamilton has been a game-changer. And as a feat of musical theater high-wire acts, Miranda’s dexterity in navigating decades of historical detail while weaving his characters’ personal and political paths tightly together is matched only by his own ingenuity as a composer and lyricist of songs that showcase his characters’ brilliance without distractingly drawing attention to his own.

Dynamized by its narrative-reclaiming, race-conscious casting and hip-hop score, and built around timeline-bending reminders that America may be perpetually in the “battle for our nation’s very soul,” Hamilton, of course, also lends itself particularly easily to 2020 connections. But the greater gift is that Hamilton will swivel from untouchability as Broadway’s most elusive, priciest ticket to mass accessibility at a moment of keen awareness that, to paraphrase George Washington, history has its eyes on us. The show offers testimony to the power of communal storytelling, just as mighty on screen as on stage. That we are sharing Hamilton here and now offers as much hope as Hamilton itself.

Cast: Daveed Diggs, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Jonathan Groff, Christopher Jackson, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Leslie Odom Jr., Okieriete Onaodowan, Anthony Ramos, Phillipa Soo Director: Thomas Kail Screenwriter: Ron Chernow, Lin-Manuel Miranda Distributor: Disney+ Running Time: 160 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2020

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Review: In Family Romance, LLC, Reality and Fantasy Affectingly Collide

Throughout, it’s as though Werner Herzog were more witness than author, simply registering Japan being Japan.

3

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Family Romance, LLC
Photo: MUBI

Werner Herzog’s Family Romance, LLC presents Japan as a place where the technological follies of modernity that many see as embryonic in the West are allowed to blossom unabashedly. The Orientalism inherent to this myth, that of Japan as a high-tech dystopia where human alienation reaches its pathetic zenith, is somewhat masked here by the film’s style, which inhabits that strangely pleasurable cusp between fact and fiction. We are never quite sure of the extent to which situations and dialogues have been scripted and, as such, it’s as though Herzog were more witness than author, more passerby than gawker, simply registering Japan being Japan.

The film is centered around Ishii Yuichi, playing a version of himself, who owns a business that rents out human beings to act like paparazzi, family members, lovers, or bearers of good (albeit fake) news. One of his clients, for example, is a woman who wants to relive the moment when she won the lottery. We follow Ishii as he travels to his business calls, which may consist of going to a funeral home that offers coffin rentals by the hour for people to test out, or to a hotel where the clerks behind the helpdesk and the fish in the aquarium are robots.

The camera, otherwise, follows Ishii’s encounters with his 12-year-old “daughter,” Mahiro (Mahiro). The girl’s mother, Miki (Miki Fujimaki), has enlisted Ishii to play Mahiro’s missing father, who abandoned her when she was two, and make it seem as if he’s suddenly resurfaced. The film’s most interesting moments don’t arise from its largely obvious critiques of simulation, but from the human relationship between Ishii and Mahiro. In the end, the film’s smartest trick is getting the audience to genuinely feel for this young girl on screen, acting for us, all while scoffing at Ishii’s clients for scripting their own emotional experiences.

We know the relationship between Mahiro and Ishii to be false on multiple levels. They may not be professional actors, but they are very much acting, and their interactions nonetheless tap into something quite authentic and emotional. Although their kinship is an act of make-believe, it’s driven by similar malaises that plague “real” father-daughter relationships. Mahiro, who doesn’t meet Ishii until she’s a pre-teen and is presumably unaware that it’s all just an act, struggles to articulate feelings that overwhelm her. Asking for a hug from Ishii is a Herculean task for her. But granting her the hug is also a Herculean task for Ishii, who ultimately confesses to wondering whether his real family, too, has been paid by someone else to raise him. Must a father’s hug be so clinical even when he’s getting paid to do it?

Such moments as that awkward father-daughter hug, a scene where Mahiro gives Ishii an origami animal that she made for him (“It’s delicate, so be careful,” she says), and another where she confesses that she likes a boy all point to the ways in which feeling slips out of even the most perfectly scripted protocols. That’s a relief for the kind of society that Family Romance, LLC aims to critique, one where tidy transactions are meant to neuter the messy unpredictability of human interactions but fail. Emotion slips out despite diligent attempts to master it, forcing even those who stand to gain the most from hyper-controlled environments to eventually face the shakiness of their own ground. Ishii, for instance, is forced to reconsider his business model when Mahiro’s demand for love starts to affect him. Ishii’s fear that he may also have been swindled by actors posing as parents tells us that authors are subjects, too, and that the equation between reality and fantasy is never quite settled.

Cast: Ishii Yuichi, Mahiro, Miki Fujimaki, Umetani Hideyasu, Shun Ishigaki Director: Werner Herzog Screenwriter: Werner Herzog Distributor: MUBI Running Time: 89 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Force of Nature, Much Like Mel Gibson, Is an Absolute Disaster

The film presents its scattershot cop-movie tropes in earnest, as if, like hurricanes, they were natural, unavoidable phenomena.

.5

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Force of Nature
Photo: Lionsgate

If cancel culture truly had the power its detractors ascribed to it, then Michael Polish’s Force of Nature would have probably never starred Mel Gibson. The film stars the one-time Hollywood idol as a trigger-happy retired cop who hurls insults like “cocksucker” at men who inconvenience him. By itself, casting Gibson as the kind of manic, violence-prone cop for which he was once known for playing speaks to the film’s defiantly conservative politics, its will to return to a cinematic era when violent white cops were viewed as good cops. But also having Gibson’s Ray toss out homophobic slurs almost turns this insipid action flick into a statement about Gibson himself, as if the actor’s own record of making such remarks should be viewed as the charmingly impolitic outbursts of an old-fashioned geezer.

Because Ray joins a multiethnic crew of good guys to save the day, we’re presumably meant to view his personality flaws as minor, the attributes of a classical cop masculinity that’s entered its dotage but ready to be awakened for one last shoot-out with big-city scum. The big city in this case is San Juan, Puerto Rico, which, as the film begins, is under siege by a hurricane. Set almost entirely in a cramped apartment building, Force of Nature is part Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, part The Raid: Redemption (or one of its many clones), attempting but failing to imitate both the former’s eccentric take on the clash of extreme personalities and extreme weather and the intensity of the latter’s kinetic, close-quarters action.

Despite being the biggest star on the bill, Gibson isn’t quite at the center of the narrative, even if the meaningless flash forward that opens Force of Nature, of Ray shooting at two figures in the rain, initially suggests otherwise. Ray plays second fiddle to Emile Hirsch’s point-of-view character, Cordillo, the San Juan police officer who refuses to learn a word of Spanish and might as well be wearing a MAGA hat. (“Where is el victim-o?” he asks regarding an incident at a supermarket early in the film.) Cordillo and his new partner, Peña (Stephanie Cayo), are assigned to help move San Juan’s residents to shelters, encountering Ray and his daughter, Troy (Kate Bosworth), at the apartment complex where Griffin (Will Catlett), Ray and Troy’s newly arrested neighbor, needs to feed his very hungry pet.

For those who’ve seen Netflix’s Tiger King, it will be clear from the 100 pounds of meat that Griffin intends to feed his pet that the man illegally owns some kind of wild cat. And if this offbeat scenario doesn’t elicit the laughs it may be aiming for, that’s at least in part due to composer Kubilay Uner’s score, which applies Wagnerian bombast to nearly every narrative event, as if it could will the paper-thin plot into some kind of significance. The tonal inconsistencies, however, aren’t confined to this clash between image and soundtrack. On a visual level, it’s difficult to know what to make of the scene in which Griffin’s pet, kept entirely off screen, drags Griffin into its pitch-black den and mauls him in front of a not-quite-horrified Cordillo, while a gang that Ray identifies as high-end burglars begins a raid of the complex. Neither funny nor suspenseful, it’s a bewildering mash of visual codes.

Led by a ruthless figure known as John the Baptist (David Zayas), the burglars first make an appearance in the second of the film’s two prologues, in which John kidnaps an elderly woman to get into her safety deposit box, before executing her as well as his accomplice in plain sight—a scene that somewhat belies Ray’s later in-the-know description of the gang as clever plotters. The nature of their interest in Ray, Troy, and Griffin’s apartment building is left vague until a late reveal, a nonsensically belated introduction of the story’s MacGuffin that contributes to the feeling of arbitrariness that pervades the film.

While Peña and Ray confront John and his crew, Cordillo and Troy go off to find medical supplies, along the way developing a thoroughly underwritten and ill-conceived romance; Troy is abruptly drawn to Cordillo after he shares his history of accidental violence against a former girlfriend (Jasper Polish). Meanwhile, the wounded Griffin is left under the watch of Paul (Jorge Luis Ramos), a German about whom multiple characters ask, in all sincerity, if he’s a Nazi, and based solely on his white hair and nationality—certainly not on any arithmetic, as the seventysomething man appears far too young to have been a Nazi Party member.

It would all be material for a parody of cheap-action-flick sensibilities: the preoccupation with Nazism, the hollow romance, the valorization of white male rage barely masked behind a rudimentary psychologism. Unfortunately, Cory M. Miller’s screenplay presents all these scattershot cop-movie tropes in earnest, as if, like hurricanes, they were natural, unavoidable phenomena. The truth, of course, is that Force of Nature, much like the consequences of the hurricane that clearly inspired it, is a man-made disaster.

Cast: Emile Hirsch, Mel Gibson, Kate Bosworth, David Zayas, Stephanie Cayo, Will Catlett, Jasper Polish, Jorge Luis Ramos Director: Michael Polish Screenwriter: Cory M. Miller Distributor: Lionsgate Running Time: 91 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Review: John Lewis: Good Trouble Places a Hero in Dialogue with the Past

The film is well-outfitted with telling, thematically rich shards of historical information.

3

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John Lewis: Good Trouble
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

John Lewis isn’t easily rattled. As a nonviolent foot soldier for desegregation and voting rights in the 1960s, he was severely beaten on several occasions. As a U.S. representative since 1987, he’s contended with a Republican Party that has tacked steadily rightward. John Lewis: Good Trouble presents another, if much less demanding, test for the congressman: Watching his life unspool around him on three large screens in a darkened D.C. theater.

Dawn Porter’s authoritative documentary mixes contemporary and archival material, and the latter includes many rare images, including some that the 80-year-old civil rights pioneer himself had never seen. Porter and her crew decided to show their findings to the Georgia Democrat while simultaneously filming his reactions, and the emotions prompted by this experience are palpable but carefully modulated on his part. Like most successful politicians, Lewis knows how to stay on message, and it’s clear from the moments captured here that he long ago decided which of his private feelings would be elements of his public persona.

One example of this is Lewis’s story about his early desire to become a preacher. As a boy, he says, he would address the chickens on his sharecropper family’s Alabama farm but could never get them to say “amen.” Porter places this anecdote early in Good Trouble, amid comments from family members, so it plays like a revelatory glimpse at Lewis’s formative years. But the congressman, of course, began constructing his biography long before this particular documentary crew arrived. And Porter acknowledges this fact with a scene, toward the film’s end, where Lewis tells the story again during a get-together of former congressional staffers and it becomes clear that everybody in the room already knows it.

Good Trouble, which takes its title from Lewis’s advice to young activists to get into “what I call good trouble,” is partly a testimonial. It includes snippets of praise from Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, and Bill and Hillary Clinton, as well as congressional new wavers Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who says she wouldn’t be where she is today without Lewis’s example. Yet the film also recalls moments when Lewis wasn’t in perfect sync with his allies, notably the bitter primary for the seat he now holds in Georgia’s 5th District. Lewis defeated Julian Bond by winning support of the district’s white voters, and by hinting that Bond had a drug problem. Earlier, Lewis had recoiled from the militancy of “Black Power” and lost his position in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee.

Lewis doesn’t say much about these chapters in his life, just as he doesn’t reveal a lot when he gives tours of his homes in Atlanta and D.C. A widower, he seems to live alone, though a cat is glimpsed inside the Georgia house at one point. One of the documentary’s most personal stories, about his tearful reaction to the news that his great-great-grandfather registered to vote in 1867, is told not by the congressman but by cultural critic Henry Louis Gates Jr., who unveiled the voter card on the show he hosts, Finding Your Roots. Good Trouble is well-outfitted with such telling shards of historical information, and Porter skillfully fits them together, assembling her subject’s biography thematically rather than chronologically.

Thus, a section on the young Lewis’s battle for African-American suffrage naturally begins in the 1960s before leading to 2014, when a Supreme Court ruling undermined the Voting Rights Act, and ultimately to the 2016 and 2018 elections swayed by voter suppression. The effect is illuminating, if not especially visceral. When the filmmakers arranged this kind of “This Is Your Life” for Lewis, they may not have elicited as much emotion as they’d hoped from the congressman. But they did fashion a microcosm of what the entire Good Trouble shows: the present in dialogue with the past, and a hero in the context of a larger movement.

Director: Dawn Porter

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Sheffield Doc/Fest 2020: Mon Amour, Film About a Father Who, & The Kiosk

There’s colossal might to a cinematic image achieved through the scrappiest of means.

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Sheffield Doc/Fest 2020
Photo: Arte France Cinéma

In the opening narration to his documentary Mon Amour, David Teboul recalls a message that his former lover, Frédéric, sent him in the middle of the night before taking his life: “It’s crazy how many things we must invent to keep us from just eating, shitting, and sleeping.” The great organizer of these “many things” we invent to convince ourselves to be something more than mere organisms is the belief in love. That, anyway, is the idea that organizes Mon Amour as Teboul travels from his native France to Siberia in order to interview locals about their experiences with love, as a way to mourn the end of his own love story.

What Teboul finds in Siberia is quite disheartening: that love, when it materializes in the figure of the lover, burns fast, and what seemed like a panacea to make our miserable world a livable place turns into the poison we call domesticity. Lovers become enemies we can’t get rid of. But the little bit of love that’s saved in the ashes of the deflated mirage that once promised to save us is once in a while rekindled through Teboul’s prodding as he interviews elderly couples who seem to articulate their feelings for the first time in ages.

The very dispositions of these individuals mimic the abyss between what was once a prospect of a pleasurable life and the crude reality of vodka and violence that replaced it. In the rare moments when someone sings the praises of togetherness, they do so by looking down or away, as if addressing their own partners when speaking about love would mean losing the little bit of honor they have left after putting up with so much betrayal.

Although Teboul interviews young people, too, the strongest portraits are those of the elderly, who, on some level, take advantage of their cinematic moment to air their grievances and, once in a while, admit gratitude. A very old-looking woman in her mid-60s who lost her sight from reading too much Pushkin late at night tells us that any other man would surely have left her long ago, but not her husband, who senses when she’s awake in the middle of the night, makes her tea, and tells her that if she dies he will follow her to the grave. Teboul’s questions can be refreshingly unexpected. As when he asks the woman what her husband’s favorite body part is. When she whispers the answer into his cute little mushroom ears, you sense that it’s the closest thing to an “I love you” that he will ever hear. We don’t know if his eyes water as she praises his ears, for he looks down and away, before then heart-breakingly saying, “The main thing is not to suffer, and not to make others suffer.”

Teboul juxtaposes these portraits with digressions about his simultaneously wonderful and dismal times with Frédéric. These reflections borrow from Hiroshima Mon Amour, which Teboul watched as a child and has haunted him ever since. Frédéric, like Emmanuelle Riva’s character in that film, was also from Nevers. In these poetic detours, we see barely lit naked bodies meant to represent Teboul and his ghostly lover, recalling the opening of Alain Resnais’s film. It often feels like these autobiographical avowals, plagued by unnecessary classical music, belong to a different film. But they’re symbolically important, if not indispensable, as if Teboul was offering a self-implicating gift in exchange for awakening the long dormant intimacies of strangers.

Film About a Father Who

An image from Lynne Sachs’s Film About a Father Who. © Lynne Sachs

The absence of love, and our insistence on spending our entire lives looking for it anyway, is also at the core of Lynne Sachs’s Film About a Father Who. Sheffield Doc/Fest is screening several of Sachs’s documentaries on its streaming platform. For Film About a Father Who, Sachs spent over three decades amassing footage (from Super 8 to digital) of her father, an eccentric salesman from Utah who lived a Hugh Hefner kind of life, neglecting his children and hosting a different girlfriend almost every night at his official family home. Lots and lots of them got pregnant, which resulted in Sachs having what feels like hundreds of siblings, whose testimonials she collects here. Some didn’t know who their father was until they were adults. Others, in order to protect themselves from so much hurt, still think of him as a kind of godfather.

The title of the film is an obvious play on Film About a Woman Who…, Yvonne Rainer’s experimental masterpiece about heteronormativity and monogamy. Rainer’s approach is acerbic, perhaps even folkloric, in the sense that her film portrays one specific woman wallowing in the sinking boat of heterosexual coupledom at the same time that it tells the archetypal tale of heterosexual domesticity writ large. Sachs’s approach feels a lot less multi-layered. Film About a Father Who is so fast-paced and Sachs’s narration so detached, or literal, that it can seem more like an underdeveloped absurdist comedy as random siblings keep turning up out of nowhere to give a brief account of their contradicting feelings toward their father. One of Sachs’s many sisters recounts how their father was arrested for possession of weed when they were kids and how she didn’t know whether to weep or jump with joy at the time. But the family constellation in Sachs’s film is so vast we never spend enough time with any one single relative to see them as something other than an element.

There’s a sort of North American pragmatic froideur in the film, also present in self-ethnographic films like Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell, that Rainer queers through stylistic experimentation, and that Teboul completely avoids by surrendering to melancholia with gusto. There isn’t much of a point in self-ethnographies where filmmakers protect their vulnerability through intellectualization, or prod their family wounds with a 10-foot pole. At one point in her narration, Sachs tells her audience that Film About a Father Who isn’t a portrait but, rather, her attempt to understand “the asymmetry of my conundrum.” The film is also shot in such a matter-of-fact manner that you may forget that the father is actually the filmmaker’s. It doesn’t help that the father himself pleads the fifth on every question and Sachs often directs her camera elsewhere, toward her siblings, instead of letting it linger on the silent and sad remnants of an aging womanizer.

Alexandra Pianelli also captures aging bodies in The Kiosk, but in a very different fashion. Her film was entirely shot on her phone, which was mostly stuck to her head, and without her ever leaving the tiny area behind the cash register of her family’s press kiosk in a posh area of Paris. We never see the world outside of Pianelli’s field of vision from her counter, and yet it feels like she shows us the entire mechanics of the contemporary world.

The Kiosk

An image from Alexandra Pianelli’s The Kiosk. © Les Films de l’oeil sauvage

The film’s subjects are mostly the elderly regulars who seem to show up at the kiosk everyday, for magazines and for Pianelli’s company. Pianelli crafts a tale of hopeful pessimism about humans’ relationship to otherness by explaining the ecosystem of her trade—namely, the slow decline of the printing industry in France and how the physical circulation of ideas can be the only connection to the world for an aging population that doesn’t master digital technology and for whom kiosks play the role of cafés, pubs, or even the analyst’s couch.

When filmmaker Pedro Costa said, at this year’s International Film Festival Rotterdam, that all one needs to make a great film is “three flowers and a glass of water,” not “money, cars, and chicks,” this is what he means: the colossal might of the cinematic image achieved through the scrappiest of means. The Kiosk is a master class in filmmaking resourcefulness. Pianelli paints a portrait of our times through simple drawings that she makes of her clients, makeshift props and miniature sets made out of cardboard, and the anachronic gadgets around her workstation: a cassette tape player, an early-19th-century clock, coin holders that bear her great-grandparents’ fingerprints, and the very publications that she sells. Pianelli’s no-nonsense voiceover glues these elements together with the stunning honesty of the unflappable young Parisian for whom difference is an existential aphrodisiac. There’s no affectedness here. It’s as if a refined cinematic object accidently emerged on the road to her making an artisanal project for the sheer pleasure of making something out of dead time.

Pianelli humanizes the figure of the press kiosk clerk who, in turn, humanizes the strangers she comes across, from seniors who spend more time with her than with their own children to the Bangladeshi asylum seeker who goes to her for legal help. In one sequence, Pianelli witnesses a homeless man insistently offering his metro-ticket money to a bourgeois lady upset that the machine won’t take her credit card. We also learn that the demographics of the clientele per day of the week is contingent on what kinds of publications come out on which day, as well as which niche newspapers are the most anti-Semitic, anti-Arab, or pro-monarchy.

Pianelli lets the serious emerge but doesn’t dwell on it. Seriousness often comes wrapped up in quirkiness and play, as when she plays a guessing game with the audience, telling us what a random customer will buy before they open their months, solely based on what they wear, and always she gets it right. Men in suits and ties go for either the newspaper Le Figaro or Les Echos, while the well-coiffed ladies who don fur coats gravitate toward Voici, unless Kate Moss’s ass is on the cover of a nearby fashion magazine.

At one point, Pianelli says that she considers herself a seller of dreams. By this she means that each magazine at the kiosk stokes a different fantasy, from a supermodel body to a nation without Arabs. But The Kiosk makes Pianelli a saleswoman of a very different sort. Instead of working as the intermediary between vulnerable denizens and the idealized images that tease and haunt them, she cobbles a much more original fantasy through the bodies they actually have. The kiosk becomes the prototype for the most utopian vision of the public library, or any old space inhabited by a curious mind—an ebullient infinity of poetry and care.

Sheffield Doc/Fest’s online platform will be available to all public audiences from June 10—July 10.

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Review: My Spy Is a Clumsy Mix of Comedy, Action, and Romance

Peter Segal’s film is pulled in so many different directions that it comes to feel slack.

1.5

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My Spy
Photo: Amazon Studios

From Arnold Schwarzenneger in Kindergarten Cop to Dwayne Johnson in The Game Plan, pairing an oversized, hyper-masculine actor with a cute and precocious youngster has long been a staple of Hollywood family-friendly entertainment, as well as something of a rite of passage for action stars since the 1990s. And now, with My Spy, it’s Dave Bautista’s turn to ward off an array of villains with the help of a spunky, three-foot tall sidekick.

To its credit, Peter Segal’s film at least has the decency to cop to its derivativeness throughout, with several shots that cheekily poke fun at characters slow-walking away from explosions and one character calling out how a scene feels eerily similar to the famous fight scene near a propeller plane in Raiders of the Lost Ark. But these occasional self-referential nods prove to be only fleeting distractions from how antiquated and unimaginative My Spy is much of the time, and how clumsily it tends to its mixture of comedy, action, and romance.

The film’s mismatched duo consists of nine-year-old Sophie (Chloe Colman) and JJ (Bautista), a C.I.A. operative who’s spying on the girl and her mother, Kate (Parisa Fitz-Henley), with the help of his tech officer, Bobbi (Kristen Schaal). It’s all for a good reason, as Sophie’s Uncle Marquez (Greg Bryk) not only recently murdered her father, but is now caught up in some shady Russian dealings that have put Sophie and her mother in danger. But these more nefarious threats fade to the background as soon as the film starts to fixate on Sophie’s concerns about being the new girl at school, as well as her blackmailing of JJ, which results in the beefcake being uncomfortably forced into the role of surrogate father.

Given that JJ is still reeling from his prior overseas combat experience and Kate is coping with the fresh challenges of single motherhood and a time-consuming job, My Spy too readily foreshadows their later romantic entanglement. And while Bautista and Fitz-Henley share a charming, easy repartee, and Coleman has impressive comic timing for a child actor, the film is pulled in so many different directions that it comes to feel slack. JJ’s efforts alone are split three ways, as he’s not only dealing with becoming a long-term father figure to Sophie and partner to Kate, both of whom force him to confront his trauma, but he’s also stuck with Bobbi, who hero-worships him and wants to learn all his tricks of the trade.

And that is to say nothing of the half-baked subplot involving the Russian crooks (Vieslav Krystyan and Jean-Michel Nadeau), or the gay couple (Devere Rogers and Noah Dalton Danby) that appears to have stumbled in from the set of a ‘90s sitcom. Schaal’s unrestrained zaniness ensures that a few jokes land here and there, but My Spy is ultimately sunk by a reliance on clichéd character types—the emotionally distant vet, the overworked single mom, the isolated new kid at school—that leaves it feeling like several mildly amusing after-school specials were stitched together with a handful of action scenes tossed in for good measure.

Where to Watch My Spy:

Cast: Dave Bautista, Chloe Coleman, Parisa Fitz-Henley, Kristen Schaal, Greg Bryk, Ken Jeong, Nicola Correia-Damude, Devere Rogers, Noah Dalton Danby Director: Peter Segal Screenwriter: Erich Hoeber, Jon Hoeber Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 101 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2020

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Review: The Audition Grapples with the Consequences of Oppressive Discipline

With great clarity, the film conveys how discipline can be directed both inward and outward.

3

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The Audition
Photo: Strand Releasing

A film about the oppressive discipline of classical musicianship, Ina Weisse’s The Audition recalls The Piano Teacher, only with the erotic grotesqueries dialed all the way down. Nina Hoss, like Isabelle Huppert in Michael Haneke’s film, plays a middle-aged music teacher whose fragile sense of self becomes entwined with a new student. Here, though, the student isn’t a peer but a young high school violinist, Alexander (Ilja Monti), and her projections onto him, mercifully, are more about her own perceived failures than any shameful sexual hang-ups. Even if it takes us to some rather dark places, Weisse’s spin on the tortured psyche of a professional female musician is more humanistic than Haneke’s.

Weisse, a violinist herself, clearly knows the pressures of high-caliber musicianship. The film aptly opens with an audition in which we see the impassive administrators of a Berlin youth conservatory, including Anna (Hoss), evaluating young teens taking turns playing orchestral instruments on stage. Although each of them has prepared multiple pieces to play, the judges consistently cut them off moments through their first piece—an unforgiving intimidation tactic that introduces us to the film’s portrait of music education as a regime of oppression.

Anna’s cold exterior is momentarily broken by Alexander’s audition, which, however much his performance of a difficult piece by Édouard Lalo moves her, fails to fully impress her colleagues. Gradually we learn that Alexander’s visible nervousness is part of what draws her to him, as Anna suffers from a nervous condition that led her to retire from an orchestra and become an instructor, and continues to manifest itself in a daily inability to make decisions, as in an early scene in which she repeatedly changes orders and then tables when out to dinner with her husband, Philippe (Simon Abkarian). “Whenever I play, I’m thinking of how I’ll fail,” she later confesses to Christian (Jens Albinus), a colleague with whom she’s having an affair.

Anna takes Alexander on as her student, to prepare him for their school’s intermediate exam—also referred to in the dialogue as an audition. The film’s German title, Das Vorspiel, has two meanings—“audition” and “prologue”—and most of Weisse and Daphne Carizani’s screenplay, in fact, could be seen as a kind of prologue, centered around the series of rehearsals preceding Alexander’s big performance for the conservatory, tracking their gradual devolution into punishing routines. Anna begins directing her own self-punishing thoughts onto the vulnerable young boy, at one point forcibly clipping his fingernails.

The filmmakers let us into Anna’s life through compact scenes that often open in media res, or end abruptly in the midst of a character’s movement. It’s a subtle way of communicating the anxiety encroaching on the order of Anna’s world. Glimpses of Philippe, a luthier who runs a shop below their apartment, handling her with kids’ gloves, and of her son Jonas’s (Serafin Mishiev) neutral responses to her presence, come to be emplaced within the atmosphere of alienation that Anna’s unraveling sense of discipline has produced. Anna, of course, knows that her insecurities themselves actually lie at the root of the problems in her life—a neurotic feedback loop of inner despair that Hoss captures wordlessly in her performance as a woman who puts on an increasingly fractured stone face for the outside world.

Discipline can be directed both inward and outward, as personal rigor or as interpersonal punitiveness. Anna has been raised in a culture of self-discipline, as a line from her father (Thomas Thieme) intimates. “Your mother always saw her illness as a lack of discipline,” he reminds Anna, a recollection that neatly sums up the cultural and possible genetic roots of her issues. The Audition is about the relation between those inward and outward senses of discipline, as the strict self-control that Anna has internalized cracks, turns outward in imperious, borderline violent behavior, and eventually shatters.

It all builds toward a tragic conclusion that may have better served the narrative by letting the consequences of Anna’s unglamorous breakdown remain as understated as Hoss’s captivating performance. Nevertheless, The Audition captures with clarity an irony at the base of accomplished musical expression: the conflict between interiority and imposed technique, which can be fraught with repressed frustration and resentment.

Cast: Nina Hoss, Simon Abkarian, Jens Albinus, Ilja Monti, Serafin Mischiev, Thomas Thieme Director: Ina Weisse Screenwriter: Ina Weisse, Daphne Carizani Distributor: Strand Releasing Running Time: 90 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: As Political Satire, Irresistible Too Often Pulls Its Punches

Jon Stewart’s amiable satire tries to show that you can make light political comedy in the Trump era.

2.5

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Irresistible
Photo: Focus Features

Is it possible to make a light political satire in the Trump era? Jon Stewart’s amiable and occasionally quite funny Irresistible makes a credible, if not fully successful, effort to do just that. While not all of the film’s punches land, its low-key confidence in its characters, snappy dialogue, and disinterest in pandering to heartland stereotypes (positive or negative) makes for a decently thoughtful, but not exactly groundbreaking, comedy.

After a scene-setting and soul-depressing 2016 election audio montage, the film proper begins in the economically depressed small town of Deerlaken, Wisconsin. Jack (Chris Cooper), a local farmer, makes an impromptu speech at a council meeting in which he rails against Republican Mayor Braun’s (Brent Sexton) move to demand IDs for town services. Called “Hero Marine Stands Up for Immigrants” on YouTube, the speech is shown to Gary Zimmer (Steve Carell), a star Democratic consultant who’s looking for a way to get himself and his party out of their post-election depression. Calling Jack a guy who makes “Joe the Plumber look like Dukakis in mom jeans,” Gary seizes on him as a vessel for winning back the heartland.

Acclimating to life in flyover country is a rough transition for this creature of the Beltway. But while Stewart’s screenplay tries to mine some yuks out of a very familiar fish-out-of-water scenario—in one scene, Gary turns the radio from the country station to “Fresh Air” and sighs in relief—it focuses more on Gary’s desperate need to turn Jack into a polished and gleaming West Wing hero capable of rallying a demoralized political infrastructure. The stakes get ramped up quickly, particularly once the Republicans realize what Gary is up to and turn this rinky-dink mayoral race into a multi-million-dollar referendum on the nation.

Carell’s knack for playing small-minded, explosively anger-prone, and relentlessly clueless men supplies most of Irresistible’s laughs early on. Fortunately, just when the appeal of the cringe comedy threatens to wear off, Gary’s nemesis appears in the form of a soulless GOP operative, Faith Brewster (Rose Byrne, playing the role as a gleeful mercenary). The mixture of her cynical appetite for battle (“Twenty bucks says I do better with fear than you do with shame”), Gary’s frustrated desire for a win, and a strong dose of sexual tension gives their scenes a nearly Preston Sturges-like vibe at times.

Too often, though, the film seems to be pulling its punches. The satire is so heavily focused on the D.C. consultants crashing around the sleepy town of Deerlaken that it seems to forget the actual political differences that brought them there in the first place. Even though the reason for that is ultimately explained in a not entirely satisfactory third-act twist, it leaves a good part of this ostensibly political story feeling somewhat light on substance.

Irresistible will likely be criticized for not taking a harsher tone in the face of incipient fascism, and there’s some merit to that critique. The film’s both-sidesism is particularly noticeable in one scene where Faith rolls out her Koch brothers-esque billionaire backers, only to have Gary present his own billionaire liberal backer, Elton Chambers (Bill Irwin clowning as an animated-corpse-like octogenarian held upright by a mechanical exoskeleton). But this feels less like Stewart ducking the issue than taking the longer view.

The film doesn’t focus its ire on Trump, conservatives, and the like, but rather on the cable news and consultant infrastructure that was accelerating America’s collapsing democratic polity long before anybody in a red baseball cap screamed “Lock her up!” and will continue to do so after Trump leaves the White House. This makes sense from Stewart, who went after Glenn Beck back in 2010 not through white-hot invective, but by holding a rally dedicated to polite, level-headed disagreement. These are desperate times, but if Stewart wants to tack toward a more Frank Capra vein, that’s just fine. We already have one Adam McKay.

Cast: Steve Carell, Rose Byrne, Chris Cooper, Mackenzie Davis, Topher Grace, Natasha Lyonne, Will Sasso, C.J. Wilson, Brent Sexton, Debra Messing, Bill Irwin Director: Jon Stewart Screenwriter: Jon Stewart Distributor: Focus Features Running Time: 101 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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The Best Films of 2020 (So Far)

It’s hard to tell whether we’re in the midst of a film apocalypse, a film revolution, or both.

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The Best Films of 2020 So Far
Photo: Grasshopper Film

It’s hard to tell whether we’re in the midst of a film apocalypse, a film revolution, or—most likely—both. The long-predicted collapse of the movie theater as an institution may be underway, though drive-ins seem to be having a moment. Brett and Drew T. Pierce’s low-rent spooker The Wretched led the domestic box office for seven weeks starting in early May, Trolls World Tour became the first studio success story of the year, and June’s biggest release wasn’t a mega-budget superhero movie, but a Spike Lee joint on Netflix.

Nobody could have seen 2020 coming, but reflecting on the best movies of the first half of the year, it’s clear that unrest was already in the air. Ken Loach’s Sorry We Missed You tracks the devastating, cascading effects of a gig economy on its workers—whose fates became immediately uncertain when a health crisis locked down the economy. In The Cordillera of Dreams, behind the mountain range that ensconces Chile, documentarian Patricio Guzmán finds the suppressed record of popular uprisings against Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship—images of militarized police forces attacking unarmed protestors that look unnervingly familiar. Dramas about women’s experience in Trump’s America, like Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always and Kitty Green’s The Assistant, may end up being cinematic landmarks of fourth-wave feminism.

Of course, given our acute sense of living in an historical moment, perhaps we’ve been particularly drawn to films that reflect history and history-making, and apt to filter our interpretations through our consciousness of the tumult outside our windows. Even Andrew Patterson’s enigmatic 1950s-set The Vast of Night, whose Twilight Zone-esque story—which is advanced largely through conversations on various telecommunications networks—about an unseen menace threatening a small town, feels tied to 2020 in ways that the filmmakers likely did not intend. In the final analysis, cinema can’t help but reflect our world, because—even in the absence of theaters—it remains an inextricable part of it. Pat Brown


The Assistant

The Assistant (Kitty Green)

With The Assistant, Kitty Green offers a top-to-bottom portrait of incremental dehumanization, and, on its terms, the film is aesthetically, tonally immaculate. The narrative is set in a film mogul’s Tribeca offices, but it could take place in a branch of any major corporation throughout the world without losing its resonance. This is a pseudo-thriller composed entirely of purposefully demoralizing minutiae, and it’s designed so that we feel as starved for rudimentary human emotion as the young woman, Jane (Julia Garner), at its center. No names are uttered throughout (the name Jane, which brings to mind the anonymity of a Jane Doe, is only stated in the credits), while the mogul is only evoked via male pronouns. Increasingly unsettling details seep into this deadening atmosphere, and after a while it becomes evident that we’re watching—from the perspective of a powerless yet ultimately complicit person—a parable about rich, insulated predators like Harvey Weinstein, and Green’s grasp of Jane’s indoctrination into this perverse world is impeccably believable. Chuck Bowen


Bacurau

Bacurau (Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles)

Kleber Mendoça Filho and Juliano Donnelles’s Bacurau assembles a vibrant and eclectic collage of reference points. It’s a wild neo-western that pulls into its orbit UFO-shaped drones, elaborate folklore, limb-flaying and head-exploding gore, and Udo Kier as a villain who shouts in a mockingly high-pitched voice, “Hell no!” The Bacurau of the film’s title is a fictional town in Brazil’s northeastern interior, depicted here at some point in the not-too-distant future. The citizens live in a relatively undisturbed harmony—until Bacuaru is literally wiped off the map (GPS no longer can locate the backwater), local cell service is jammed, and the people find themselves hunted, A Dangerous Game-style, by gringo infiltrators. Mendoça Filho is one of contemporary Brazilian cinema’s most sharply political filmmakers, and Bacurau solidifies his commitment to rebuking Brazil’s current administration and its willful erasure of the country’s culture and heritage. Sam C. Mac



Beanpole

Beanpole (Kantemir Balagov)

Kantemir Balagov has set Beanpole largely in tones of dark amber, bright green and red, and filthy yellow redolent of old incandescent lighting—and it’s the red of upholstery, Soviet imagery, and blood that cuts most forcefully through the brightest of those greens. Cinematographer Kseniya Sereda’s color palette recalls that of Krzysztof Kieślowski’s The Double Life of Veronique for the way it gives settings an artificiality that nonetheless brings Beanpole’s grounded sociopolitical commentary into greater focus. Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko), a nurse working at a Leningrad hospital after the end of World War II, feels trapped in trauma, suffering from recurring fits of full-body catatonia. Her psychological state is magnified by the more visible scars of the soldiers recuperating all around her, adding to the sense that Balagov’s hermetically sealed vision of Leningrad only compounds and reflects Iya’s PTSD back onto her. The filmmaker may depict the pain of his characters in blunt terms, but he traces the aftershocks of collapse with delicate subtlety. Jake Cole



The Cordillera of Dreams

The Cordillera of Dreams (Patricio Guzmán)

Patricio Guzmán understands the totemic power of the long strip of Andean mountains that runs between Chile and Argentina, effectively severing the former from the rest of the world. But the ruefulness in his voice also gets at something else: that this wall of rock and earth is also a mausoleum. Throughout interviews with writers and sculptors, among others, Guzmán accords to the Cordillera a level of importance that’s nothing short of reverential. And just at the point where it feels you can take no more of his metaphorical heavy lifting, the documentary gives way to an extended survey of the ravages and legacies of Augusto Pinochet’s regime, including the doctrine of neoliberalism that’s brought Chile to its knees in the present day. If The Cordillera of Dreams leaves us on a razor’s edge between hope and futility, that’s by design. Guzmán knows that the day when those looking for the disappeared are themselves lost to time is an inevitability, and it will be as tragic as the day when there are no more images left to depict the story of that search. But the documentary advances the belief that, until then, we will be stronger for exhorting ourselves to reflection and atonement. Ed Gonzalez



Da 5 Bloods

Da 5 Bloods (Spike Lee)

Da 5 Bloods is a mix of genre film and political essay, and it exudes, especially early on, a lurid, confrontational electricity that’s often been so exhilarating in prior Spike Lee joints. Regarding a Ho Chi Minh City that, with its active nightlife and proliferation of fast food establishments, might be mistaken for a contemporary American city, Eddie (Norm Lewis) says that “they didn’t need us, they should’ve just sent Mickey D’s, Pizza Hut, and the Colonel and we would’ve defeated the VC in one week.” The sly implication is that, one way or another, America got its hands on Vietnam. Minutes later, the Rambo and Missing in Action movies are familiarly criticized for offering a white-man savior fantasy of “winning” the war, while Otis (Clarke Peters) reminds us of a true hero, African-American soldier Milton Olive III, who jumped on a grenade for his platoon, a picture of whom Lee briefly and movingly cuts to. These pop-cultural references make us privy to how war is committed and then sold back to us as an often-exclusionary fantasy—a double dip of atrocity. Bowen



First Cow

First Cow (Kelly Reichardt)

If it’s true, as Balzac had it, that behind every great fortune lies a great crime, then perhaps behind every minor prosperity lies a misdemeanor. In Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow, that petty offense is the theft of some cow’s milk, which gentle-hearted chef Cookie Figowitz (John Magaro) and his friendly yet opportunistic companion, King Lu (Orion Lee), use to build a successful enterprise selling delicious fried honey biscuits in a small, not-quite-established town in 1820s Oregon. Like most of Reichardt’s work, the film is a deceptively diminutive affair, an intimate, almost fabulistic story told with the warmth and delicacy of a children’s picture book. Cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt’s images honor the verdant lushness of the Pacific Northwest, making us feel as if we’re seeing its Edenic beauty through the soulful brown eyes of Eve, the titular bovine who’s been brought to this new land by her owner (Toby Jones) as an ostentatious display of his own wealth. But the film’s boxy 4:3 aspect ratio serves as a constant reminder that Cookie and King’s lives (not to mention Eve’s) are ultimately constrained by forces greater than themselves. Even here, at the far distant edges of civilization, the film pensively suggests, the machinery of industrial capitalism is tragically inescapable. Keith Watson



Fourteen

Fourteen (Dan Sallitt)

The dominant theme of Dan Sallitt’s Fourteen is the relentless march of time and its indifference to personal hardship. Balancing a fine-grained attention to character with placid detachment, the film traces a decade in the friendship of Mara (Tallie Medel) and Jo (Norma Kuhling), former grade-school friends who’ve sustained their bond into young adulthood, where they’ve both managed tenuous livelihoods in the Big Apple. Through his unannounced and often startling leaps in chronology, Sallitt cultivates a feeling of implicit tension, a growing fissure in Mara and Jo’s chemistry that bears itself out in pauses in conversation and in their interactions with a rotating gallery of supporting characters. One of the last times we see Jo, she’s walking away from camera into a busy Brooklyn intersection—perhaps a call back to the earlier long take of the train station, a reminder of a larger network of people whose trajectories we ultimately have no control over. In Fourteen, Mara must come to accept the limits of her ability to influence these peripheral lives, and in doing so prompts an evolution of spirit that’s at once painful and transformative. Carson Lund



The Grand Bizarre

The Grand Bizarre (Jodie Mack)

A film that’s constantly on the move, Jodie Mack’s The Grand Bizarre is a brilliant bonanza of color, texture, and globe-trotting good vibrations. With extensive use of time-lapse photography, stop-motion animation, and quick-cut montages, Mack creates a sense of boundless energy and constant movement, of people and things (but mostly things) in an endless flow around the globe. Mack takes fabric—vibrant, beautifully crafted swatches and scarves from a range of different cultures—as her central image, seeing them on trains and planes, popping out of suitcases, on the beach, in rear-view mirrors, and in dozens of other configurations that present them not as objets d’art to be admired in some folk art museum, but as products moving in the international stream of capitalism. The Grand Bizarre is a rumination on human creativity, and it’s so idiosyncratic and highly personal that it ends with the director’s sneeze. It’s also one of the most purely enjoyable works of avant-garde cinema made this century. Watson



Heimat Is a Space in Time

Heimat Is a Space in Time (Thomas Heise)

Documentary cinema’s most popular formal device is the so-called Ken Burns effect, that famous slow-motion slide across an archival photo until the camera settles on the main subject of the image. Heimat Is a Space in Time abundantly indulges this device but never quite in the way you might expect. Instead, filmmaker Thomas Heise’s photographic material creeps across the screen as if it were a tectonic plate, indifferent to the camera documenting it, which often only catches human faces for a brief moment before dwelling in negative space. All this time spent contemplating blown-up grain and blur might seem counterproductive in a film that, at least on paper, is a survey of 20th-century German history through the lens of Heise’s own genealogy. But the emphasis on the micro over the macro extends to every facet of this sprawling four-hour work, which seeks to excavate real human thought and feeling beneath the haze of larger political structures. Lund



Liberté

Liberté (Albert Serra)

As they move inexorably forward in time, Albert Serra’s films don’t crescendo so much as peter out. In Story of My Death, the harbinger on the horizon is the return of irrational, Romantic thinking in the late 18th century, which would effectively smother the enlightened libertinism that the story otherwise wallows in. And in The Death of Louis XIV, it’s the fate promised by the title, to which the film marched with solemn certitude. Serra’s new film, the audaciously perverse and amorphous Liberté, doesn’t give up its game so readily. Nearly without narrative conflict, it homes in on a long night of sexual experimentation among a group of libertines hiding out from the French courts on the Prussian border in the late 17th century, and for much of Liberté’s duration, the only things generating forward momentum are the subtly escalating intensity of the acts themselves and the faint expectation, however ruthlessly exploited, that the sun will eventually rise again. Lund

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