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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: Ghost Giant Is Adorable in Small Doses but Clumsy with the Big Stuff

This VR title boasts an endearingly goofy premise, but it’s one that’s executed in bumpy fashion.

2.5

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Ghost Giant
Photo: Thunderful Games

In Ghost Giant, players take on the role of an enormous and comforting specter that’s been accidentally summoned by the tears of an 11-year-old kitten named Louis. Unfortunately, this spirit is as clumsy as the boy turned superhero from Shazam, and in trying to calm the understandably frightened cat down, almost ends up killing him. It’s an endearingly goofy premise, though one that’s executed in bumpy fashion by this VR title, as using the PlayStation Move controllers to lift and poke physical objects rarely goes as planned.

The game’s unwieldy control scheme should come as no surprise to those who’ve played previous titles from developer Zoink!, such as Flipping Death, in which players fumble around as a spirit possessing living creatures, and Stick It to the Man, where the human protagonist comes equipped with a wacky spaghetti-like third arm. But Ghost Giant also suffers from a bit of an identity crisis, in that it can’t quite decide whether it wants to be an adorable, low-stakes exploration game or if it wants to be about capital-B big issues.

The game looks like Night in the Woods and plays a bit like Beyond: Two Souls but lacks the gravitas of either. Louis’s mom is suffering from severe depression, and Louis is rightfully terrified that if he can’t hide her ailment from the neighbors and cheer her up, she might be taken away. But that’s as far as the game goes in addressing mental illness; for the majority of the game, it’s just a puzzle to be overcome. Ghost Giant understands that not all problems can be solved by, say, baking Mom’s favorite apple pie and restoring her beloved cello, but it doesn’t respect us enough to acknowledge that most problems require hard work to resolve.

If Ghost Giant avoids similar issues of insincerity or exploitation with the other villagers in the game’s French-inspired Sancourt, it’s only because these characters lack any sort of interiority at all. They’re all plagued with low-stakes problems, all directly solved. A melancholy bird, for instance, isn’t depressed so much as it simply refuses to sing—that is, until its favorite hat is returned. And that bird’s owner doesn’t have some deep-seated issue preventing her from writing; she just misses the bird’s song. Satisfying these needs can be humorous, as when you—an actual but sadly invisible spirit—must create a bedsheet poltergeist that you can dangle in front of a ghost-hunting photographer. And some of the tasks make clever use of your size: After pulling wilted sunflowers out of the ground and reseeding a farm, you have to reach up and grab two clouds and squeeze them together to make it rain. What these literally odd jobs don’t provide is room for growth, either in the characters or in the gameplay.

That’s a shame, because it’s so obvious that more vivid, elaborate stories could have been told using these anthropomorphic denizens, like the goat landlord who’s desperate to catch some shut-eye, the avian scuba diver who dredges up trash, or the confidence-lacking lion who sets out to become a confectioner. These are well-designed characters, and they’re nicely voice-acted, which make it all the more frustrating that the player’s interactions with them are largely limited to single scenes, entirely within the context of puzzles. The same goes for the districts of this model-sized town, which don’t feel lived in so much as designed around cheap and often repetitive gimmicks, from using a magnet to fish through a creepy, cemetery-adjacent junkyard, to operating a crane in a sunny, seaside harbor.

Ghost Giant’s puzzles are as precise as the clockwork machinery around Sancourt that’s used to rotate and raise some of the varied buildings. Creative or brute-force solutions are restricted, as players are allowed only to manipulate copper objects (though you can carry and throw just about any loose inanimate object) and can only rotate around a fixed point. Why allow players to be a giant freaking ghost and give them the wider range of movement offered by VR if you’re just going to restrict that freedom? (I wish I could say this was an intentional manifestation of Louis’s mother’s depression.) There’s only one way to accomplish each task, so when players are asked to clear a bird out of a pedestrian’s path, you’ll have to lean in and physically blow on it, because nothing else is designed to frighten the bird. In another nonsensical situation, you’re required to paint a picture to get a crowd’s attention, as if slathering paint on these individuals wouldn’t make them move.

The game’s most enjoyable aspect is how you get to pull apart the walls and ceilings of miniature homes, so as to get a better look inside them. But it’s baffling that so few fixtures are detachable, and that they hold only meaningless, disparate collectibles like hats, insects, basketballs, and pinwheels. In the moment, you feel the thrill of spying on some hidden interior world, but then you’re just clumsily activating what are essentially animatronic displays. However impressive some of these dioramas and mechanisms may be on the surface, like so much of Giant Giant, they’re ultimately lifeless.

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

Developer: Zoink! Publisher: Thunderful Games Platform: PSVR Release Date: April 16, 2019 Buy: Game

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Review: Heaven’s Vault Is a Refreshingly Cerebral Take on Navigating History

The game is ambitious for its translation mechanics and its big-picture look at the evolution of culture through the ages.

3.5

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Heaven's Vault
Photo: Inkle

Archaeology in video games is descended almost exclusively from the Indiana Jones School of Marauding, where puzzles help players raid tombs or pilfer uncharted temples in competition with gun-toting rivals. Heaven’s Vault, however, has no such trappings of the violent colonialist adventure. Your primary engagement with the game is through language, as you must decipher the hieroglyphs of a fallen ancestral empire, making for a refreshingly cerebral take on navigating the remnants of history.

In Heaven’s Vault, you play as Aliya, an archaeologist who travels the flowing rivers of a spacefaring setting known as the Nebula, a network of moons containing dusty villages, farms, and more. Throughout, she sifts through the fallen empire’s ruins to the dismay and suspicion of many around her, who believe in a fatalistic doctrine, The Loop, that touts cyclical patterns in history. That which has happened will happen again, so they see no point in unearthing the past, especially when sailing the rivers is said to strip away the soul. Undeterred, Aliya continues to explore in the company of a fussy robot she calls Six, morbidly christened after the loss of his five predecessors and the presumed inevitability of a Seven.

Much of the game involves steering Aliya’s ship around those rivers, translating an ancient language she finds carved into crumbling structures and objects strewn throughout ruins. Aliya and Six are free to wander these environments, bouncing theories off one another and bickering while they piece their history back together. Deciphering the glyphs is something of a guessing game, with each word’s definition narrowed down to several possibilities that you choose by extrapolating from context. What are the glyphs on? If they’re on an object, where was it found? What are the other words? The long phrase on what you believe to be a makeshift grave, for example, might nudge you toward a tombstone-appropriate vocabulary.

If this process sounds impossibly daunting, the game mitigates the sheer enormity of the task by not keeping score. There are no end-of-level tallies to track your accuracy, and many of the possible translations remain just that: possibilities, denoted with a question mark. Some are eventually confirmed or debunked by repeated use or consulting another character; most never are. Each individual translation doesn’t matter so much in a pass/fail sense except in how they inform your continued understanding of the ancient language and culture.

The past in Heaven’s Vault is never totally clarified and much of your progress is theoretical, so it’s astonishing that the game provides any sense of accomplishment at all despite dealing mostly in ambiguity rather than absolutes. You really do begin to understand the more you play, learning which glyph denotes a place and then easily guessing the new word when it’s paired with one you recognize to mean, say, a liquid. Combined with environments that task players with using their growing knowledge to uncover possible functions for a building or a mechanism, the game’s sense of discovery feels truly immense. You share Aliya’s excitement, or perhaps her horror, as you’re totally enveloped in her cosmic search for answers.

But for as much as Heaven’s Vault emphasizes the futility of diminishing the messy past into something simplistic and easily digestible, its mechanics never quite escape doing so all the same. The fact that everything works out into a coherent English phrase (sans maybe a preposition or two) built from four options per word feels impossibly neat and composed. To some degree, these concessions are what makes Heaven’s Vault playable at all. When taken next to the game’s emphasis on translations that are mere possibilities and functions that are only theories, however, they’re something of a tear in the curtain meant to conceal a world that’s been neatly gamified yet making every effort to conceal itself as such.

The most challenging opposition comes less from piecing history together than simply navigating the game’s unwieldy interface, which works well at the start before buckling under the translations’ growing complexity. Hieroglyphic text you’ve found drops onto a timeline menu for what’s supposed to be easy access, until the translations clog the menu to such a degree that it borders on unusable, while the translation screen fails to hold longer phrases without asking you to scroll repeatedly back and forth. Most galling of all is the total exclusion of any sensible search function. Indeed, there’s simply no way to search the phrases by word or glyph, while paging to a “related word” is too limited to be of much use. Some amount of repetition would have set in anyway with these mechanics, yet the interface issues only ensure it arrives quite ahead of schedule. The game’s sailing is dull and saturated with similar-looking environments, to the point where you might bypass whichever nondescript rock you’re meant to find if the game didn’t automatically stop you, but it’s outright preferable to the sheer headache of stopping for even a single moment to go back to any old translations.

Despite how these issues range from irritating to outright infuriating, though, they never totally dampen the considerable accomplishments of Heaven’s Vault. This is a hugely ambitious game, both for its translation mechanics and how they provide a big-picture look at the evolution of culture through the ages. It’s an achievement that the game realizes any of those ambitions at all, and that such a rewarding sense of discovery emerges from them.

Developer: Inkle Publisher: Inkle Platform: PC Release Date: April 16, 2019 Buy: Game

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Review: Dangerous Driving Does the Bare Minimum to Earn Comparison to Burnout

Though it’s abundant in hyper-realistic visuals, that isn’t enough to disguise its lack of polish in almost every other way.

1

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Dangerous Driving
Photo: Three Fields Entertainment

Because Dangerous Driving comes to us from the former Criterion Games co-founders who developed Burnout, it was natural to expect a high-octane, edge-of-your-seat experience. But while this ostensible spiritual successor to that long-dormant series can be effectively tense as you barrel down tracks at upwards of 200 m.p.h., crashing and taking down your AI rivals on the way to first place, it isn’t long before the game slips into cyclical repetition of its core gameplay loop. Dangerous Driving riffs on the Burnout formula in only superficial ways, and though it’s abundant in hyper-realistic visuals, that isn’t enough to disguise its lack of polish in almost every other way.

Dangerous Driving features six car classes with about 10 races each. The monotony starts here. Each car, from souped-up formula cars to tuned coupes, handles the same way. Drifting in a sedan feels identical to drifting in an SUV. The bombastic, fiery end to a 200 m.p.h. sprint lacks exhilaration because the cars look like pristine, still-sealed Hot Wheels. The races also wear the same mask of familiarity. Of the 10 or so races per car class, the choices are identical, just in varying orders, and regardless of race type, the tracks are indistinguishable.

Worse, though, is the haphazard change in seasons during these races: One minute, players are speeding through autumnal vistas draped in oranges and reds, the next driving beside frozen fields blanketed in white and leafless trees. Yet somehow, the tracks remain unaffected by the changing seasons. The sudden, inexplicable season change would be forgivable if the scenery weren’t so excessively bright. Because the color contrast is so high (and no settings exist to adjust the game’s display), players will end up wrecking their cars more often than not because of the obnoxiously bright sun rays bouncing off the bright silver cars.

Dangerous Driving isn’t mechanically difficult to understand, but the AI makes the game impossible to enjoy. Rubberbanding exists in many racing games, but Three Fields Entertainment takes this frustrating feature to new and unfortunate heights with this game. The AI respawns immediately after crashing and appears right behind the player. Should players regain their position after falling behind or crashing, the AI will magically boost just five or so miles faster to maintain their lead. Your competitors turn corners perfectly, dodge oncoming traffic with ease, and maintain high speeds all while swerving through lanes. Unless players chain together boosts to get ahead, they’ll often find the computer AI no less than a car’s length behind. There’s no gratification in coming in first when players can never really pull far enough ahead and always fall annoyingly far behind.

The game, handicapped by stiff and imprecise controls and riddled with bugs, also lacks for the extras that might have allowed it to stand out from just about any other racing game. There’s an alt-rock song that plays during the menu screen, but no music to soundtrack your racing, though Dangerous Driving does allow for Spotify integration—that is, if you happen to have a premium membership. There’s no free race or time attack modes, no local split-screen, and the game has shipped without online functionality, a feature supposedly coming in the ensuing months. Which is to say that the folks at Three Fields Entertainment were only too eager to push a game into the marketplace without it possessing the bare minimum necessary to even allow it to sensibly be called a kindred spirit to Burnout.

The game was reviewed using a review code provided by Three Fields Entertainment.

Developer: Three Fields Entertainment Publisher: Three Fields Entertainment Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: April 9, 2019 ESRB: T ESRB Descriptions: Mild Violence Buy: Game

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Review: Earth Defense Force: Iron Rain Misfires After a Provocative Start

It’s a special kind of frustrating sequel that’s too inconsistent to realize its potential as an incisive comedy or exciting shooter.

3

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Earth Defense Force: Iron Rain
Photo: D3 Publisher

The Earth Defense Force series specializes in spectacle and literally gargantuan tasks, putting players in the shoes of human soldiers trying to take down enormous alien invaders. Yuke’s Earth Defense Force: Iron Rain doesn’t stray from this over-the-top premise, but unlike its Sandlot-developed predecessors, which were primarily influenced by campy sci-fi flicks, this sequel injects the proceedings, at least for a time, with a biting wit that recalls that of Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers. This shift in tone is both unexpected and welcome, with the script at various points focusing on the economic struggles that result from war and taking aim at the media’s attempt to manipulate people’s emotions.

Iron Rain’s first mission brings to mind the start of prior games in the Earth Defense Force series, as you find yourself in the middle of a city as part of an infantry going toe to toe with humongous ants. The difference here is that, after the final threat has been taken down, your protagonist appears to be dead meat. It’s then that Iron Rain jumps forward in time and to your playable character waking up from a seven-year coma. Since you’re apparently okay, an official says, it’s time to get back to the battlefield, as the war against the alien invaders continues unabated on our planet’s streets. The insensitivity of this casual command from a superior announces the game’s intent to comment, both seriously and mischievously, on the consequences of the world being controlled by EDF, a military-based de facto government.

In terms of third-person shooting action, Iron Rain follows the lead of its predecessors, with the player, before each mission, choosing two main weapons from a wide variety of options: shotguns, sniper rifles, grenade launchers, laser blasters, and more, all with their own ammo capacities, reload times, and other features. Most missions task the player with simply destroying all enemies on the stage, but the earlier ones stave off repetition with an impressive range of scenarios. During one level, you might drive a nondescript pick-up truck, searching for giant machines to destroy. In another, you might don heavy armor to block countless projectiles as you attempt to dismantle all the legs of a humongous crab robot that unleashes waves of smaller foes via trapdoors in its appendages.

In its first half, Iron Rain regularly introduces new threats for you to terminate. This sequel distinguishes itself within the Earth Defense Force series with uniquely intimidating imagery, such as disgustingly gaseous beetles that sometimes crawl on their towering robotic allies. More significantly, the enemy AI has never been as dangerous in a Earth Defense Force game as it is here, even on normal difficulty. Single bugs will relentlessly assume flanking positions as you attempt to blast away other enemies who run straight at you, flying drones are peskier now that they can teleport, and larger foes require careful management of your evasive abilities, lest you run out of energy and open yourself up to a series of crushing attacks.

Between levels, Iron Rain outlines the numerous ways that EDF’s reign impacts life on the planet. After the player beats a mission, the game features a few lines of voiceover dialogue to flesh out its story. These skits are only accompanied by stock loading-screen imagery, in line with the series’s overall budget-game aesthetic. Despite the cheap feel of these segments, the game’s script often conveys a sophisticated sense of class awareness. At one point, a soldier reveals that he has a family who lives in an area that receives less protection from EDF, and that he needs to earn three more badges to move his loved ones to a safer location. In a later exchange, one soldier tells another that his energy core, an essential part of any fighter’s gear, is only 12 percent intact, but it will have to do since core replacements are deducted from a soldier’s salary. In such scenes, Iron Rain paints EDF as an institution that barely cares for the well-being of the very people tasked with saving humankind.

Other between-stage skits adopt a wryer tone as they go about illustrating the media’s role as manipulators. During one interlude, you hear the voice of Olivia, a radio personality who tries to hype up EDF soldiers with a sort of childish excitement—and as if she weren’t patronizing enough, Olivia also markets a brand of coffee. In some segments, you’ll listen to a reporter from the Universal News Network, and at one point the broadcaster announces that EDF has defeated a critical threat, which results in regular news programming being halted for four hours to celebrate the historical significance of EDF. Such bits satirize the media’s complicity in creating distractions from the harshest of realities, which is to say that Iron Rain marks the first time an Earth Defense Force game has struck an intellectual and ironic chord.

Regrettably, the storytelling and action begin to suffer to a significant degree at around the game’s halfway point. The dialogue between stages loses much of its sting, with characters sharing fewer remarks about working-class struggles. Inexplicably, Iron Rain sometimes features no spoken lines from characters after a mission is completed, raising the question of why it dedicated so much time to developing a critique of EDF through dialogue early on.

What hurts the game the most, however, isn’t the lack of follow through on its initial critical gumption, but rather a lack of compelling drama in its later levels. Missions that take place in caves not only dully recall multiple similar stages from Earth Defense Force 2017 but also require little strategy (just fire rockets into the recesses of the cave where bugs congregate and be on your way). Objectives that require you to protect certain targets fail to apply any distinct pressure on the player, as the targets are rarely in danger of destruction provided you continuously attack foes. And similar to select missions in Earth Defense Force 4.1: The Shadow of New Despair, certain levels’ emphasis on a Godzilla-sized monster is anticlimactic and wishy-washy: In some instances, the monumental threat hightails it after you wipe out smaller adversaries. After a promising start, Iron Rain becomes a special kind of frustrating sequel that’s too inconsistent to realize its potential as an incisive comedy or exciting shooter.

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

Developer: Yuke’s Publisher: D3 Publisher Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: April 11, 2019 ESRB: T ESRB Descriptions: Violence, Blood, Suggestive Themes Buy: Game

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Review: Yoshi’s Crafted World Turns the Mundane Into the Stuff of Dreams

To enjoy the game is to believe that there can be purpose or joy in peeking around the most distant corners of our world.

4

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Yoshi's Crafted World
Photo: Nintendo

In a gaming landscape that doesn’t lack for vast, sprawling epics, mercenary time-wasters, unspeakable horrors, and indomitable challenges requiring nothing short of spiritual discipline, there’s perhaps nothing more revolutionary than a game where you collect smiley-faced flowers across a world made out of discarded cereal boxes. Yoshi’s Crafted World is nothing short of a delight, and that’s because and not in spite of its ease and relative emptiness in terms of what it asks of the player. It’s a firm reminder of the value games can have beyond putting your skill to the test, or pushing you to only earn or collect countless stuff, exhibiting the value of a well-imagined game world that exists for its own sake.

Of course, the game is still built on a basic platformer framework. Bowser Jr. and Magikoopa leader Kamek sneak onto Yoshi’s island to try and steal the Sunstone, a wish-granting tablet made up of five Dream Gems. When this thievery causes the Sunstone to break, scattering all the gems across the island, Yoshi and his buds must trek across the island to grab them before Jr. and Kamek do. It’s standard fare, but playing a Nintendo platformer for the story is like listening to Taylor Swift for the insight into Bolshevik influence on modern socialist ideology. The “why” is a trifle in Yoshi’s Crafted World. It’s the “how” and “where” that’s everything.

Yoshi’s solo platformers have always been an outlet for Nintendo to play with aesthetics, and this time, the series has gone the next logical step from the yarn-based Yoshi’s Woolly World into full-on DIY arts-and-crafts territory. It’s an aesthetic we’ve seen before in games, primarily from Media Molecule’s delightful Tearaway. The comparisons end there, though, and only mildly to the detriment of Yoshi’s Crafted World. There’s no opportunity to craft things that are used in the game and can be shared in real life. The game is simply a well-crafted romp through a wide assortment of worlds literally held together with glue, tape, and string.

Despite running off the Yoshi series’s same old game mechanics—running, jumping, eating enemies and making eggs out of them, throwing the eggs at other things—Yoshi’s Crafted World isn’t a platformer that’s about stopping the player from reaching their goals. It’s about the active, gentle encouragement of players to interact with and explore their environment. You never know what’s behind some bit of cardboard, what’s hiding in a papier-mâché house, or how the bits of trash you’re picking up will come together to make other things.

That last bit is truly the meat of this blissfully pure game. There’s no time limit on its stages, all effortlessly charming worlds awash in tiny, clever details, from train engines powered by soda cans, to stars and asteroids made out of aluminum foil, to all the little felt-covered creatures who wander around the place. Your sole duty is to see it all, peek behind every leaf or cardboard bush and collect what’s inside, which is hopefully one of the seven or eight Smiley Flowers hiding around. Anyone can get to the end of each individual stage, but the only way you can proceed into a brand new area on the overworld map is to find as many Smiley Flowers as you can. That means truly exploring your environment, which can be perilous, sometimes tricky, but rarely tense. You lose hearts when you get hit, but nothing in Yoshi’s Crafted World feels like it’s actively gunning for the player. Enemies are mostly there as a means for Yoshi to make more eggs; they’re a tool more than a hindrance. Even falling into a bottomless pit just means that you float back to the last checkpoint in the stage.

To enjoy Yoshi’s Crafted World is to believe that there can be joy in a long stroll, in being curious enough to peek around the most distant corners of our world. Aside from the occasional wacky boss fight, there’s not much more to the game than that, and doesn’t need to be. One of the greatest tests of that fact comes a few stages in, where Yoshi comes across a mother dog whose puppies hide in the stages you just beat. To find them, players enter “flip sides” of the stages, in which the perspective is reversed, meaning you see firsthand how every obstacle and background object is put together from the back.

It’s here, for a brief moment, that you marvel less at the objects themselves than the madcap imagination behind it all. These are joys that a great many games tend to obscure, for fear that the magic will be dispelled. But the light, breezy, and welcoming Yoshi’s Crafted World is all the more magical for showing us, confidently and unpretentiously, that even the mundane can turn into the stuff of dreams when laid out in the open by the most talented and careful hands.

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

Developer: Good-Feel Publisher: Nintendo Platform: Switch Release Date: March 29, 2019 ESRB: E ESRB Descriptions: Mild Cartoon Violence Buy: Game

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Review: The Punishing Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice Coasts on Borrowed Moves

Its boss fights highlight the contrived lengths that FromSoftware has gone to in order to satisfy players’ thirst for difficulty.

2

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Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice
Photo: Activision

After the release of 2011’s Dark Souls, Hidetaka Miyazaki became one of the most respected names in the gaming industry, and with good reason. After all, Dark Souls is much more than a difficult action title with a fascinating semi-open environment, as its tense purgatorial trials and the ambiguity of its dread-inducing journey leaves one with a sense of ennui. Now years later, Miyazaki’s latest game, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, offers the best opportunity yet to question the media’s worship of this undoubtably talented artist. While Dark Souls represents a distinctive landmark in game history, Sekiro is more like an uninspired contemporary clone of 1998’s Tenchu: Stealth Assassins in which the stealth gameplay largely comes down to you watching little awareness meters above the heads of enemies and running away with ease when you’ve been spotted.

In a fictional 16th-century Japan, you play as the eponymous shinobi, who must rescue a young lord named Kuro from danger. There’s more at stake here than Sekiro’s loyalty as Kuro’s official bodyguard, as Kuro carries a bloodline that can grant immortality to those who can harness its power. Though this premise is more straightforward than the quest in Dark Souls, which refrains from giving the player an explicit direction or motivation, Sekiro still borrows ideas from that 2011 masterpiece, including, most significantly, the notion of restoring one’s health at a checkpoint in exchange for the resurrection of almost all defeated threats.

This double-edged mechanic feels more obligatory in Sekiro than it was in Dark Souls, as the player can fast travel to avoid repetitious combat or, in quintessential ninja style, silently destroy nearly every foe with various stealth tactics. Sekiro can also, under certain circumstances, come back to life on the spot immediately after being killed, further reducing the probability that players will be troubled by resurrected obstacles.

Sekiro’s shinobi protagonist knows a few melee tricks, but the game is best conquered by picking off guards one by one without being seen. Such killing can be satisfying in the moment, particularly when you feel as if you’re just blowing through a complex route without much issue. Right down to how the game’s grappling-hook tool allows the player to perch on top of gorgeous Japanese buildings to spot potential prey, Sekiro’s emphasis on sneaky, cold-blooded executions owes an obvious debt to Tenchu’s style and gameplay.

Yet Miyazaki and his team betray the point of following in the footsteps of a title like Tenchu when they also subscribe to the forgiving nature of modern stealth games. In Sekiro, you always know how aware a person or even an animal is of your presence, thanks to the tiny indicators hovering above them. On top of that, the hero is very quick, perhaps inspired in part by Snake’s over-the-top speed in Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain.

Such factors translate to a reasonable amount of comfort for players, which distances the game from the uncompromising Tenchu. As long as you’re willing to be unrelenting in your approach—like fleeing a group of enemies after murdering one of them, hiding, and coming back to dispatch another poor bastard from behind—your adversaries will fall like dominoes, as they, unlike smarter AI opponents in other games, are prone to forgetting that you were in their space within a few seconds of your escape, sometimes even when you’re still within sight.

Sekiro’s draining boss fights not only seem to contradict the idea of the player feeling like a furtive ninja but also highlight the contrived lengths that FromSoftware has gone to in order to satisfy players’ thirst for difficulty. The recipe for success in these melee contests, which can initially appear unfair, tends to be similar to that of so many other violent skirmishes within Miyazaki’s catalogue: lock on, dodge (a lot), parry, and counter during openings. You do have to keep an eye on the hero’s posture bar to prevent bosses from completely piercing your defense, but you don’t have to worry about a stamina variable as in the Dark Souls series.

In the end, the game’s combat system lacks a truly innovative hook such as the Ki Pulse dynamic from 2017’s Nioh, the boomerang axe from 2018’s God of War, or the total dependence on defensive technique in last year’s Way of the Passive Fist. Even though Sekiro does sport a prosthetic arm that can be equipped with non-sword weapons, the items are hardly inventive: axe, spear, flamethrower, shuriken, and so on. There’s simply little in Sekiro to make it stand out in a vast ocean of releases, rendering it more of a footnote in the gaming market than the product of a distinguished auteur’s imagination.

The game was reviewed using a review code provided by PMK•BNC.

Developer: FromSoftware Publisher: Activision Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: March 22, 2019 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood and Gore, Violence Buy: Game

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Games

With an Injection of Youngblood, the Wolfenstein Series Looks Fresher Than Ever

Did you get chocolate in my peanut butter, or did you get peanut butter in my chocolate?

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Wolfenstein: Youngblood
Photo: Bethesda Softworks

Did you get chocolate in our peanut butter, or did you get peanut butter in our chocolate? That’s the question on our mind looking at Wolfenstein: Youngblood, the upcoming collaboration between MachineGames (makers of the last two Wolfenstein games) and Arkane Studios (developers of the Prey and the Dishonored series). Though the newly released gameplay trailer looks every bit as gratuitous as Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus—at one point, a Nazi’s head pops off like a pimple, accompanied by a hearty “Fuck yeah!”—the game also boasts a variety of first-time features for the franchise.

Beyond the new alternate-history setting—1980s Nazi-occupied Paris—the nonlinear structure allows players to tackle the game’s missions as they best see fit, light RPG elements provide options for deeper weapon modification and cosmetic upgrades, and a co-op campaign (whether with an AI companion or a friend) will yield potentially refreshing new ways to slaughter fascists. As MachineGames’s Game Director Jerk Gustafsson notes of the collaboration between studios, “Sharing [our] respective expertise has not only resulted in a truly great and completely new Wolfenstsein experience, but it has also brought our two studios closer together in a friendship that will be of tremendous value in our continuous efforts to craft beautiful, original, and fun video games.”

Not to bury the lede, but the feature that has us most intrigued is the “Buddy Pass” feature that’s included with the game’s deluxe edition. Essentially, if you’ve bought the game, your friends can download and play it with you for free, which is good, because there should be as few barriers to entry as possible when it comes to killin’ Nazis.

For a glimpse at the blood-drenched story, which involves BJ Blazkowicz’s daughters—the so-called “Terror Twins”—searching for their missing father, check out the trailer below:

Bethesda Softworks will release Wolfenstein: Youngblood on July 26.

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There’s Nothing Shaky About the Launch of the Firmament Kickstarter

The launch trailer seeks to cover every angle of Cyan Inc.’s pending project, and the funding they’re seeking.

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Firmament
Photo: Cyan Inc.

In the Kickstarter video that introduces us to Cyan Inc.’s newest venture, Firmament, a narrative adventure game built from the ground up for VR, the company’s long-time CEO, Rand Miller, notes that they “don’t just build games, but build worlds.” That’s a lofty proclamation that nonetheless feels accurate, based on Cyan’s 25-year-plus development work, from Myst and Riven to their previous Kickstarter-funded project, Obduction.

That experience shows in Firmament’s launch trailer, which seeks to cover every angle of the company’s pending project, and the funding they’re seeking. A small proof-of-concept segment shows how the game will appear both in VR and on flat screens, and though it focuses largely on a wintry setting, also shows off concepts for a variety of other worlds. So far as such Kickstarter ventures go in gauging audience interest, in under a day, Cyan’s already raised more than 20% of its $1,285,000 goal.

Perhaps that crowdfunding is due to the apparent trustworthiness of Cyan (given their previous two successful Kickstarter projects). Or, as we’d like to wildly speculate, maybe there’s some cross-genre intrigue, given that the mysterious little puzzle-solving device/companion at the heart of Firmament looks a bit like a Ghost from Destiny. More factually, Firmament’s worldbuilding looks engagingly complex and the brief story trailer sounds suitably dramatic, with three-time Emmy Award-winning sound designer Russell Brower (from World of Warcraft) serving as lead composer.

To hear and see the magical-steampunk aesthetic of Firmament in action, and to get a cryptic taste of its puzzles and storyline, check out the teaser below.

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Let Your Sanity Go on Vacation with a Trip to the Moons of Madness

If you dare, ascend into the horrors of the Martian mind and check out the trailer for yourself.

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Moons of Madness
Photo: Rock Pocket Games

The announcement trailer for Moons of Madness opens with an empty shot of the Invictus, a research installation that’s been established on Mars. The camera lingers over well-lit but equally abandoned corridors, drifting over a picture of a family left millions of kilometers behind on Earth before finally settling on the first-person perspective of Shane Newehart, an engineer working for the Orochi Group. Fans of a different Funcom series, The Secret World, will instantly know that something’s wrong. And sure enough, in what may be the understatement of the year, Newehart is soon talking about how he “seems to have a situation here”—you know, what with all the antiquated Gothic hallways, glitching cameras, and tentacled creatures that start appearing before him.

As with Dead Space, it’s not long before the station is running on emergency power, with eerie whispers echoing through the station and bloody, cryptic symbols being scrawled on the walls. Did we mention tentacles? Though the gameplay hasn’t officially been revealed, this brief teaser suggests that players will have to find ways both to survive the physical pressures of this lifeless planet and all sorts of sanity-challenging supernatural occurrences, with at least a soupçon of H.P. Lovecraft’s cosmicism thrown in for good measure.

If you dare, ascend into the horrors of the Martian mind and check out the trailer for yourself.

Rock Pocket Games will release Moons of Madness later this year.

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Review: Tom Clancy’s The Division 2 Is a Blast, and in Spite of Its Split Personality

The game doesn’t rely on narrative reasons to entice the player, leaning instead on endorphin-releasing gameplay hooks.

3.5

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Tom Clancy’s The Division 2
Photo: Ubisoft

O say can you see, perhaps by the dawn’s gleaming light, the mortars bursting through air? That’s the impression Tom Clancy’s The Division 2 so clearly wants to evoke as it asks you and up to three squadmates to determinedly scramble from the cover of one barricade to the next. There’s a story baked in there somewhere, something about reclaiming the various districts of Washington, D.C. from a violent gang of criminals known as the Hyenas; the cultish, embittered, quarantine-surviving Outcasts; and the traitorous former military True Sons, who’ve carved up the country’s capital. But what most clearly comes through the muddled yet consistently entertaining The Division 2 is a narrative driven less by plot than patriotism. You don’t fight for the American ideal so much as for its iconographic representation. That’s evident in everything from the restoration of the White House to the liberation of the Washington Monument, as well as in the familiar dome of the Capitol Building coming closer into view as you make your way between barricades.

The Division 2 is a, well, immensely divided game. Sometimes this is the result of intent on the part of developer Massive Entertainment, like the decision to keep the PvE campaign content apart from the PvP Dark Zones, in which players can turn on one another—to go rogue in order to steal high-level loot from other players. In others, this schism speaks to some necessary compromises, like the way in which this challenging, unforgiving game that’s been finely tuned for a co-op multiplayer experience can often feel untenable when tackled solo: Encounters scale to the number of players in the party, but without a squadmate to revive you, loners have to adapt to a much slower, methodical, and long-range approach to missions.

But above all, The Division 2 is marked by a disconnect between its story and its gameplay. The details of the game’s already vague plot never seem relevant to any mission—so much so that it comes as no surprise that your radio briefings are often conspicuously drowned out by the sounds of gunfire and your squadmates yelling for help. Still, the adrenaline rush of battle, your need to survive, is almost enough to distract you from the lack of story. Indeed, this is a game that requires your full attention to be placed on the actual engagements and their scenic settings, from desperately seeking cover in the Air and Space Museum’s famed planetarium, to trying to hold the besieged stage of the Potomac Event Center’s theater, to looking to outflank enemy encampments in the forested areas of Theodore Roosevelt Island.

It’s fitting that The Division 2 takes place in America’s capital, because the game, like many of D.C.’s politicians, is driven above all by strong emotions, many of which are dangerously misguided, and with very few facts to back them up. The game’s introductory sequence doesn’t elaborate on the biological attack that left American in ruin; instead, it proselytizes on the importance of owning a gun. Post-collapse society is the Republican wet dream of limited government, where if you want something done, you just go out and do it by any means necessary. For all the weapons and skills—like drones, turrets, and nanobot beehives—at your disposal, there’s no variety to the overall conflict or various factions you encounter. Enemies are suicidal zealots who never negotiate or surrender; they just keep fighting until their health bar has been whittled away. In this way, the game echoes the devolution of the Tom Clancy brand itself, which once dealt in complex geopolitical entanglements before turning to a modern-day fetishization of guns and violent, paramilitary engagement.

There’s depth to The Division 2, but it’s evident only in its systems: the looter-shooter gameplay, the cover and co-op mechanics, and the min-maxing of equipment. The story is just the window dressing, a fact that becomes almost painfully obvious during a mission that takes place in a fictionalized version of the National Museum of American History. Here, players non-ironically fight their way through an ambush that takes place in a Vietnam War exhibit. There’s no consideration given to that historical conflict, just as there’s no deeper significance given to any of the battles in The Division 2. For the game, a war is especially “cool” to fight if it gets to play out within a memorial to a past one. But that drive to simplify history is at least consistent with the way the game doles out its McGuffins: Location aside, there’s no difference between retrieving batteries from a big-box retail store’s warehouse than there is from recovering the Declaration of Independence from the hallowed National Archives.

Whether or not the player notices the interchangeability of its objectives, The Division 2 still works like gangbusters, and in no small part because there’s an iron curtain between the various components of the game. Each mission is pretty much its own self-contained vignette, which leaves players free to tackle them in a nonlinear order, a choice enhanced by the way The Division 2 scales a party to the relative strength of the highest geared player. Without having to focus on the big picture, players can take in all the little ones. And the effect is almost liberating, like taking a vacation in D.C., albeit a run-down, war-torn version of D.C. in which you may have to save a bunch of hostages from the Lincoln Memorial’s Reflecting Pool before using the selfie emote, or might have to disrupt an enemy convoy before getting to kick back in a quaint Foggy Bottom house with a terrific view of the Potomac.

The Division 2 doesn’t rely on narrative reasons to entice the player, leaning instead on endorphin-releasing gameplay hooks. And the best one is saved for last, with a fourth enemy faction—the Black Tusk private militia—showing up after players “beat” the game, which allows previously completed areas to be recycled with new objectives and enemy archetypes. There’s a “final” showdown that players can unlock against these enigmatic elites, but because the game isn’t driven by plot, this ends up being just another step on the loot treadmill, this time opening up access to exotic-tier weapons. Instead of revealing a deeper story, the game keeps unlocking deeper customization options, with a shift from merely collecting weapons and upgrading skills to crafting and tacking on modifiers for that gear and then choosing one of three specialization skill trees that reward long-range, explosive, and support classes.

Though there’s a less-defined storyline in The Division 2 than there was in its predecessor, every other nuance has been refined to keep players engaged in the post-game. It’s easy to jump into a quick bounty hunt, or to matchmake for higher-difficulty replays of the side, main, and stronghold missions, depending on how much time you have. The addition of clans provide a peer-pressuring incentive to keep logging on to work toward communal goals, and the splitting of the Dark Zone into three distinct areas is a smart way to cater both to PvP and PvE communities. Ultimately, whether you’re playing to take in the detailed Washington, D.C. scenery or simply to cause a scene, the game is optimally balanced to keep you hooked.

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

Developer: Massive Entertainment Publisher: Ubisoft Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: March 15, 2019 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood, Drug Reference, Intense Violence, Strong Language 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: Chasing Portraits Is Welcome Personal Testimony, but Its Scope Is Narrow

Its major contribution, as one museum curator suggests, may be to bring the works of Moshe Rynecki back into prominence.

2.5

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Chasing Portraits
Photo: First Run Features

Before World War II, Poland’s Jewish population was the largest in Europe, numbering over three million. Afterward, only 10% of that populace remained. Although the current right-wing Polish government prefers to suppress this fact, the 300,000 surviving Jews faced continued persecution at the hands of gentile Poles—themselves the victims (though to a much lesser degree) of Nazi persecution. Today, when the number of Jews in Poland is well under 10,000, one can visit the old Jewish quarters in cities like Warsaw and Krakow, where street kiosks sell small plastic caricatures of Hasidic Jews. On the streets, though, you’re unlikely to encounter any actual Hasids.

In her trip to Warsaw in search of her great-grandfather’s lost paintings, Chasing Portraits director Elizabeth Rynecki stumbles across these figurines. As she observes in voiceover, there’s nothing overtly demeaning about the miniature, jovial, cartoonish Jews, but the image they project doesn’t feel right, given local history. And one must agree that there’s an undeniable aspect of minstrelsy to them: Unlike her great-grandfather Moshe’s textured scenes of Jewish life in Warsaw, they’re almost certainly not self-representations. Given the Jewish culture that was destroyed in Poland—and whose richness is embodied by Moshe’s few surviving paintings—the grinning trinkets seem all the more like frivolous kitsch.

Rynecki’s discovery of these unsettling souvenirs is potentially one of the most interesting parts of Chasing Portraits, given that she happens across them while on the trail of lost Jewish art. As a curator at a Warsaw museum observes to the filmmaker, Moshe’s work depicts traditional moments of Jewish culture in a distinctly modern sensibility, attesting to the robustness of the Jewish culture on the eve of its destruction. In this way, his paintings are the opposite of the post-facto plastic caricatures, and Rynecki’s confrontation with the mass-produced simulacra of absent Jews is a moment when her highly personal documentary almost extends toward a wider perspective. But she doesn’t linger for too long on what the Holocaust and Judaism mean in Poland today, as she’s on her way to ask a private collector named Wertheim about how his family managed to acquire some of Moshe’s works.

Rynecki’s insular approach works well early on in the film, when she, in conversations with her father, outlines who her great-grandfather was and what his surviving paintings mean to the family. Of around 800 works that Moshe painted before he was murdered at the Majdanek death camp, just over 100 survive in the possession of the family, with an unknown number in the hands of private collections and Polish museums. That much is a miracle, but Rynecki—more so, it seems, than her father, a Holocaust survivor himself—wants to discover more. In the film, we see her consult with historians, compose emails to private collectors, and read excerpts of her grandfather George’s memoirs, in preparation for her trip to Poland.

Chasing Portraits is about Rynecki’s investigative process rather than Moshe’s paintings themselves; in voiceover, she narrates each step of her process as she takes on the role of amateur historian. And in maintaining an intense focus on her investigation—how she reads out the emails she writes to institutions, and shows us footage from each flight she takes from one corner of the world to another—the film raises probing questions that it dutifully bypasses. Her encounters with the Wertheim family are a case in point: The first Wertheim brother claims the family own paintings by Moshe because they bought it from a farmer, but the second tells the more plausible story that they have the paintings because their parents, resistance fighters hiding in the Polish woods, raided them from a bombed-out train.

In Rynecki’s narrative, these conflicting stories become a personal conundrum: If the paintings were looted rather than bought, she may be able to make a claim on them. In the end, it’s Rynecki’s growth, her decision about whether or not to become a claimant, that structures the film. But this approach means skirting over other thematic threads that might have emerged from this project, such as the ethics of museum versus private ownership of recovered art like Moshe’s, the meaning of art in desperate times, the politics of remembrance in Poland. Chasing Portraits is thus valuable as part of an expansive mosaic of personal testimonies to the legacy of the Holocaust, but it’s a documentary of sometimes disappointingly narrow scope. Its major contribution, as one museum curator suggests, may be to bring the works of Moshe Rynecki back into prominence.

Director: Elizabeth Rynecki Screenwriter: Elizabeth Rynecki Distributor: First Run Features Running Time: 78 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: If the Dancer Dances Diminishes Its Subject by Succumbing to Hagiography

The documentary is incessant about reminding us of the late Merce Cunningham’s achievements.

2

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If the Dancer Dances
Photo: Monument Releasing

More than once in Maia Wechsler’s If the Dancer Dances, a dance is described by one of numerous talking heads as existing only in the moment; once any movement or routine is complete, it essentially can never be replicated to an exacting degree. But the film inadvertently appears as if it’s trying to prove that poetic and insightful observation wrong, which becomes increasingly clear as we follow choreographer Stephen Petronio as he and his dance company work on a production of Merce Cunningham’s RainForest.

Wechsler’s depiction of the company seems unwilling to step out of Cunningham’s shadow, given the extent to which the members of the current production and Cunningham’s former pupils happily provide hagiographic accounts of the groundbreaking avant-garde choreographer and his work. In an about-face from the repeated description of dance’s unreplicable nature, the new RainForest’s choreographers and dancers set out to duplicate rather than interpret the work. The fawning over Cunningham, and the implication from the company that they’ll never be able to live up to his vision, only exposes an overbearing inferiority complex running throughout the documentary.

If the Dancer Dances really only comes to life when showcasing the company’s rehearsals, throughout camera movements that match the gracefulness of the dancers and compositions that incorporate multiple points of action. Wechsler’s observational methods in these sequences capture mini-dramas in themselves, such as when choreographers quietly confer, attempting to adjust the dance routine that’s playing out in front of them.

Still, rather than letting the audience simply observe the company at work and letting the process speak for itself, Wechsler incessantly reminds us of Cunningham’s monolithic presence via scores of interviews that laud his work process. The film’s constant lionizing of the man amid so much rehearsal footage has the unintended effect of sapping the dancers of agency. Throughout, it’s as if Wechsler is judging the company’s artistic decisions based on whether or not Cunningham himself would consider them right or wrong.

At one point in the film, a former colleague of Cunningham’s explains that the late choreographer, in an effort to ensure that his works felt fresh, tried to never be influenced by other productions. This anecdote rings of irony, given how the film includes numerous sequences of Petronio’s choreographers discussing how to ape Cunningham’s aesthetic in precise detail—and often in incomprehensibly abstract directions that even some of the dancers appear not to grasp. The film operates under the impression that for any present or future company to change any one aspect of Cunningham’s original vision would be blasphemous and offensive, which turns If the Dancer Dances less into the insightful backstage documentary it wants to be, and more into a gushing, sycophantic love letter.

Director: Maia Wechsler Distributor: Monument Releasing Running Time: 86 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Watch the Trailer for Ava DuVernay’s Netflix Series When They See Us

Netflix will release the series on May 31.

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When They See Us
Photo: Netflix

In 1989, the rape and near-murder of Trisha Meili in Central Park rocked the nation. A little over a year later, a jury convicted five juvenile males—four African-American and one Hispanic—to prison sentences ranging from five to 15 years. In the end, the defendants spent between six and 13 years behind bars. Flashforward to 2002, after four of the five defendants had left prison, and Matias Reyes, a convicted murder and serial rapist serving a lifetime prison term, came forward and confessed to raping Meili. DNA evidence confirmed his guilt, and proved what many already knew about the so-called “Central Park jogger case”: that the police investigation of Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise, conducted at the beginning of the Giuliani era in New York City, was motivated less by a thirst for justice than it was by racial animus.

Last year, Oscar-nominated Selma filmmaker Ava DuVernay announced that she would be making a series based on the infamous case, and since then hasn’t been shy, on Twitter and elsewhere, about saying that she will be putting Donald J. Trump in her crosshairs. Trump, way back in 1989, ran an ad in the Daily News advocating the return of the death penalty, and as recently as 2016, claimed that McCray, Richardson, Salaam, Santana, and Wise are guilty of the crime for which they were eventually exonerated—behavior consistent with a presidential campaign that, like the case against the Central Park Five, was a full-time racist dog whistle.

Today, Netflix dropped the trailer for When They See Us, which stars Michael K. Williams, Vera Farmiga, John Leguizamo, Felicity Huffman, Niecy Nash, Blair Underwood, Christopher Jackson, Joshua Jackson, Omar J. Dorsey, Adepero Oduye, Famke Janssen, Aurora Perrineau, William Sadler, Jharrel Jerome, Jovan Adepo, Aunjanue Ellis, Kylie Bunbury, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Storm Reid, Dascha Polanco, Chris Chalk, Freddy Miyares, Justin Cunningham, Ethan Herisse, Caleel Harris, Marquis Rodriguez, and Asante Blackk.

According to the official description of the series:

Based on a true story that gripped the country, When They See Us will chronicle the notorious case of five teenagers of color, labeled the Central Park Five, who were convicted of a rape they did not commit. The four part limited series will focus on the five teenagers from Harlem—Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana and Korey Wise. Beginning in the spring of 1989, when the teenagers were first questioned about the incident, the series will span 25 years, highlighting their exoneration in 2002 and the settlement reached with the city of New York in 2014.

See the trailer below:

Netflix will release When They See Us on May 31.

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Review: The Curse of La Llorona Is More Laugh Riot than Fright Fest

With The Curse of La Llorona, the Conjuring universe has damned itself to an eternal cycle of rinse and repeat.

1

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The Curse of La Llorona
Photo: Warner Bros.

Michael Chaves’s The Curse of La Llorona opens in 17th-century Mexico with an all-too-brief rundown of the legend of La Llorona. This weeping woman (Marisol Ramirez) is quickly established as a mother who, in a fit of jealousy, drowned her two children in order punish her cheating husband. And after immediately regretting her actions, she commits suicide, forever damning herself to that liminal space between the land of the living and the dead, to snatch up wandering children to replace her own.

Flash-forward to 1973 Los Angeles, where we instantly recognize an echo of La Llorana’s parental anxieties in Anna Garcia (Linda Cardellini), a widowed mother of two who struggles to balance the demands of her job as a social worker for Child Protective Services and the pressures of adjusting to single parenthood. One might expect such parallels to be further expanded upon by The Curse of La Llorona, but it quickly becomes evident that the filmmakers are less interested in character development, narrative cohesion, or the myth behind La Llorona than in lazily transposing the film’s big bad into the Conjuring universe.

It’s no surprise, then, that La Llorona, with her beady yellow eyes, blood-drained skin, and rotted mouth and fingernails is virtually indistinguishable from the antagonist from Corin Hardy’s The Nun; just swap out the evil nun’s tunic and habit for a decaying wedding dress and you’d never know the difference. Even more predictably, The Curse of La Llorona relies heavily on a near-ceaseless barrage of jump scares, creaking doors and loud, shrieking noises as La Llorona first terrorizes and murders the detained children of one of Anna’s clients (Patricia Velasquez), before then moving on to haunting Anna and her kids (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen and Roman Christou). But this family is so thinly conceived and their behavior so careless and illogical in the face of a known force of evil that viewers may find themselves less terrified by La Llorona than overjoyed by her reign of terror.

Once Rafael (Raymond Cruz), a curandero whose healing powers promise to lift La Llorona’s curse, arrives on the scene, the film makes a few concessions to Mexican cultural rituals, as well as offers brief but welcome respites of humor. But after the man rubs down the Garcia house with eggs and protects its borders with palo santo and fire tree seeds, The Curse of La Llorona continues unabated as a rote scare-a-thon. Every extended moment of silence and stillness is dutifully disrupted by sudden, overemphatic bursts of sound and fury that are meant to frighten us but are more likely to leave you feeling bludgeoned into submission.

All the while, any notions of motherhood, faith within and outside of the Catholic Church, and Mexican folklore that surface at one point or another are rendered both moot and undistinctive in the midst of so much slavish worshipping at the altar of franchise expansion. Indeed, by the time Annabelle’s Father Perez (Tony Amendola) pays a house visit in order to dutifully spout exposition about the series’s interconnected religious elements, it becomes clear that the Conjuring universe is damned to an eternal cycle of rinse and repeat.

Cast: Linda Cardellini, Roman Christou, Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen, Raymond Cruz, Marisol Ramirez, Patricia Velasquez, Sean Patrick Thomas, Tony Amendola Director: Michael Chaves Screenwriter: Mikki Daughtry, Tobias Iaconis Distributor: Warner Bros. Running Time: 93 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Books

Review: David Bordwell’s Reinventing Hollywood & W.K. Stratton’s The Wild Bunch

Stratton goes beyond the production of Sam Peckinpah’s film, on to its impact and reception and legacy.

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Reinventing Hollywood

The 1940s were the decade in which Hollywood attained what we now term “classical” status, when the innovations and developments of cinema’s formative years coalesced into a high level of sophistication across all areas—technological, visual, narrative. The narrative element is the focus of Reinventing Hollywood, film historian and University of Wisconsin-Madison professor David Bordwell’s latest deep dive into the aesthetics of film.

Bordwell begins with a series of questions: “What distinctive narrative strategies emerged in the 1940s? Where did they come from? How did various filmmakers use them? How did the innovations change the look and sound of films?” He then proceeds with quite thorough answers across 500-plus pages. The narrative developments were gradual and cumulative. While the earliest narrative cinema was static and stagebound, inheriting principles of storytelling from theater and the most basic novelistic tendencies, a richer narrativity developed throughout the 1930s, when the visual language of silent cinema melded with the oral/aural elements of “talkies” to create a more systemized approach to narrative filmmaking.

As Bordwell notes at one point in Reinventing Hollywood, “[p]rinciples of characterization and plot construction that grew up in the 1910s and 1920s were reaffirmed in the early sound era. Across the same period there emerged a clear-cut menu of choices pertaining to staging, shooting and cutting scenes.” In short, it was the process whereby “talkies” became just “movies.” Narrative techniques specifically morphed and solidified throughout the ‘30s, as screenwriters and filmmakers pushed their way toward the discovery of a truly classical style.

While the idea of a menu of set choices may sound limiting, in reality the options were numerous, as filmmakers worked out a process of invention through repetition and experimentation and refinement. Eventually these narrative properties and principles became conventionalized—not in a watered-down or day-to-day way, but rather codified or systematized, where a sort of stock set of narrative devices were continually reworked, revamped, and re-energized. It’s what Bordwell calls “an inherited pattern” or “schema.”

Also in the ‘40s, many Hollywood films traded in what Bordwell terms “mild modernism”—a kind of light borrowing from other forms and advances in so-called high modernism, such as surrealism or stream-of-consciousness narratives like James Joyce’s Ulysses: high-art means for popular-art ends (Salvador Dalí’s work on Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound being a notable example). These techniques included omniscient point of view, the novelistic ability to traverse time and space (ideally suited for cinema), and involved flashback or dream sequences. This “borrowing of storytelling techniques from adjacent arts […] encouraged a quick cadence of schema and revision,” an environment of “…novelty at almost any price.”

Such novelties included “aggregate” films that overlaid a plethora of storytelling techniques, such as Sam Wood’s 1940 adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, which employed multiple protagonists, complex flashback sequences, and voiceover narration drawn from the most advanced theater. Perhaps no other film embodied these “novelties” so sharply as Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, an “aggressive aggregate” that amounts to a specifically cinematic yet total work of art, weaving together not only narrative techniques such as multiple character or “prismatic” flashbacks (screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz’s term), but also drawing on elements from music, painting, and photography, as well as Welles’s first loves, theater and radio. In some ways, Citizen Kane may be seen as a kind of fulcrum film, incorporating nearly all that had come before it and anticipating most everything after.

Though Bordwell references the familiar culprits—Casablanca, Gone with the Wind, and, of course, Citizen Kane—he doesn’t just stick with the A films, as he goes deep into the B’s (and even some C’s and D’s), in an effort to show the wide-ranging appeal and effectiveness of these narrative models no matter their technical execution. He also alternates chapters with what he calls Interludes—that is, more intensive readings illustrating a preceding chapter’s discussion, homing in on specific films, genres and filmmakers, and not always the ones which one might expect. There’s an interlude on Joseph Mankiewicz, for example, a sort of intellectual master of multi-protagonist films like All About Eve and The Barefoot Contessa, and the truly original Preston Sturges, whose films pushed narrative norms to their absolute limits. There’s also an intriguing interlude on the boxing picture and the resiliency of certain narrative tropes—fighter refusing to throw the fight and thus imperiled by gangsters, for example—demonstrating how Hollywood’s “narrative ecosystem played host to variants.”

Reinventing Hollywood is a dense read. Its nearly 600 pages of text, including detailed notes and index, isn’t for the academically faint at heart. Often Bordwell offers frame-by-frame, even gesture-by-gesture analyses using accompanying stills, mining synoptic actions and tropes across multiple films of the era. The book can read strictly pedagogical at times, but overall, Bordwell’s writing is clear and uncluttered by jargon. Despite its comprehensive scholarly archeology (and such sweet academic euphemism as, say, “spreading the protagonist function”), the book is leveled at anyone interested in cinematic forms and norms.

The title is telling. Clearly, narrative cinema was already invented by the time the ‘40s rolled around, but in Hollywood throughout that decade it became so systematized that it progressed into something new, indeed something that exists through today: a narrative film style that’s evocative enough to affect any single viewer and effective enough to speak to a mass audience.

Part of the charm of what was invented in the ‘40s is the malleability of the product. Narrative standards and conventions were designed for maximum variation, as well as for revision and challenge. And perhaps no decade offered more revision and challenge than the 1960s, not only to film culture but world culture as a whole. By the mid-to-late ‘60s, the old Hollywood studio system had expired, leaving in its wake a splintered version of itself. Yet despite the dissolution of the big studios, the resilience of the classical film style engendered by those studios was still evident. Popular narrative films retained the clear presentation of action borne in earlier films, however much they shuffled and reimagined patterns and standards.

One such movie that both embraced and pushed against Hollywood standards is director Sam Peckinpah’s 1969 western The Wild Bunch. It possesses such richness in both themes and execution, in form and content, that there’s a lot to mine. With its tale of a band of out-of-time outlaws scamming and lamming away their fatal last days in Mexico during the country’s revolution, it revels in and reveres western conventions as much as it revises them.

The film carries a personal elusive impact, particularly on first viewing. In The Wild Bunch: Sam Peckinpah, a Revolution in Hollywood, and the Making of a Legendary Film, journalist and historian W.K. Stratton quotes filmmaker Ron Shelton on this phenomenon: “Something was different about this movie…it was more than [just another shoot-‘em-up] but I couldn’t figure out what…I’ve been trying to answer that question ever since.” The book examines the epic making of this epic film, and goes a good way toward explaining the reasons behind the film’s unique power. Stratton is a Texan and also a poet, and both of these credentials make him perhaps the ideal candidate for exploring this pure piece of western poetry.

Stratton maps the story of the film from germ to gem. Conceived in the early ‘60s by stuntman Roy N. Sickner as a somewhat typical “outlaw gringos on the lam” story, the property evolved over the course of the ensuing years as much as the country itself. America in 1967 and ‘68 was a vastly different place than it was in ‘63. Stratton notes how “[t]he picture…would never have been filmed had not circumstances come into precise alignment. It was the product of a nation torn by divisions unseen since the Civil War, a nation that was sacrificing thousands of its young to a war in Southeast Asia…a nation numbed by political assassination…where a youthful generation was wholesale rejecting values held by their parents.”

A film made in such turbulent times required its own turbulent setting. If America had become no country for old men, and Vietnam was no country for young men, then Mexico during the revolution was no country for either. Stratton gives brisk but detailed chapters on the Mexican Revolution, filling in the tumultuous history and social geography for what would become a necessarily violent film. But just as the film could never have been made in another time, it could also have never been made without Sam Peckinpah. As Stratton notes, Peckinpah was a Hollywood rarity, a director born in the actual American West who made actual westerns, and a maverick director who, like Welles, fought against the constraints of an industry in which he was a master. Peckinpah was a rarity in other ways as well. A heavy-drinking, light-fighting proto-tough guy who was also a devotee of Tennessee Williams (“I guess I’ve learned more from Williams than anyone”), Peckinpah was a storyteller who could break your heart as well as your nose. His second feature, the very fine Ride the High Country, was tough and tender; it was also, coincidentally, another story of old outlaws running out their time.

Stratton traces the entire trajectory of the film’s making, from the start-and-stop scripting to the early involvement of Lee Marvin, right on through to every aspect of production: its much-lauded gold-dust cinematography (by Lucien Ballard, who early in his career worked on Three Stooges comedies “…because it gave him a chance to experiment with camera trickery”); the elegant violence, or violent elegance, of its editing; and its casting and costuming.

The chapters on those last two elements are particularly rewarding. Costuming is a somewhat underlooked aspect of westerns, simply because the sartorial trappings seem so generic: hats, guns, boots, and bonnets. Yet period clothing is so essential to the texture of westerns because it can, or should, convey the true down and dirtiness of the time and place, the sweat, the swill and the stench. The Wild Bunch, like all great westerns, feels filthy. Wardrobe supervisor Gordon Dawson not only had the daunting task of providing authenticity in the costumes themselves—much of them period—but of overseeing the sheer volume of turnover. Because Peckinpah “planned to make heavy use of squibbing for the movie’s shoot-outs…[e]ach time a squib went off, it ripped a whole in a costume and left a bloody stain.” Considering the overwhelming bullet count of the film, in particular the barrage of the ending, it’s no wonder that “[a]ll the costumes would have to be reused and then reused again and again.”

But perhaps no aspect was more important to the success of Peckinpah’s film than its casting. While early on in the process Marvin was set to play the lead role of Pike Bishop, the actor, thankfully, bowed out, and after the consideration of other actors for the role, including Sterling Hayden and Charlton Heston, in stepped William Holden. As good as all the other actors could be, Holden projected more of the existential weariness of the Bishop character, a condition that Marvin’s coarseness, for example, might have effaced. Stratton agrees: “There could not have been a better matching of character and actor. Holden was a…deeply troubled man, a real-life killer himself…on a conditional suspended sentence for manslaughter [for a drunk driving accident, a case that was later dropped].”

This spot-on matching of actor to role extended all the way through to the rest of the Wild Bunch: Ernest Borgnine as Pike’s sidekick, Dutch Engstrom, emanating toward Pike an anguished love and loyalty; old-time actor Edmond O’Brien as old-timer Freddie Sykes; Robert Ryan as Deke Thornton, Pike’s stoic ex-partner and now head of the pursuing posse; Jaime Sanchez as the doomed Mexican Angel; and perhaps most especially Warren Oates and Ben Johnson as the wild, vile Gorch brothers. (While Oates was a member of what might be called Peckinpah’s stock company, Johnson was an estranged member of John Ford’s.)

Along with broad, illuminating biographies of these actors, Stratton presents informative material on many of the peripheral yet vital supporting cast. Because the film is set and was filmed in Mexico, much of it verisimilitude may be credited to Mexican talent. Throughout the ‘40s and ‘50s, the Mexican film industry was second only to Hollywood in terms of quality product and critical prestige. Peckinpah drew from this talent pool for many of his film’s key characters, none more indelible than that of General Mapache (to whom the bunch sell guns and, by extension, their souls), one of the vilest, most distasteful figures in any American western. For this role, Peckinpah chose Emilio Fernández, a.k.a. El Indio, recognized and revered at that time as Mexico’s greatest director. Apparently, Fernandez’s scandalous and lascivious on-set behavior paralleled the unpredictable immorality of his character. Like almost everyone involved with this film, Fernandez was taking his part to the extreme.

Stratton goes beyond the production of The Wild Bunch, on to its impact and reception and legacy. A sensation upon its release, the film was both lauded and loathed for its raw violence, with some critics recognizing Peckinpah’s “cathartic” western for what it was, others seeing nothing but sick exploitation (including in its bloody treatment of Mexican characters). While other films of the time created similar buzz for their depiction of violence, notably Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (a film often compared to The Wild Bunch), the violence of Peckinpah’s film was as much moral as physical. All one need do is compare it to a contemporary and similarly storied film like George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, a winking high-jinks movie in which, in Marvin’s resonant phrase, “no one takes a shit.”

Everyone involved with The Wild Bunch attributes its power to Peckinpah and the environment he fostered in its making. “[S]omething remarkable was occurring at…rehearsal sessions,” writes Stratton. “Under Peckinpah’s direction, the actors went beyond acting and were becoming the wild bunch and the other characters in the movie.” Warren Oates confirms this sentiment: “…it wasn’t like a play…or a TV show […] It was our life. We were doing our fucking lives right there and lived it every day […] We were there in truth.”

Stratton considers The Wild Bunch “the last Western […] It placed a tombstone on the head of the grave of the old-fashioned John Wayne [films].” One may argue with this, as evidence shows that John Wayne—especially the Wayne of John Ford westerns—is still very much alive in the popular consciousness. Yet there is a fatal finality to The Wild Bunch, a sense of something lowdown being run down. The film is complex and extreme less in its physical violence than in its moral violence, as it transposes the increasing cynicism of 1968 to an equally nihilistic era, all while maintaining a moving elegiac aura. No image or action expresses this attitude clearer and more powerfully than the bunch’s iconic sacrificial end walk, four abreast, to rescue one of their own, to murder and be murdered into myth. If the film is a tombstone, Stratton’s book is a fit inscription.

David Bordwell’s Reinventing Hollywood is now available from University of Chicago Press, and W.K. Stratton’s The Wild Bunch: Sam Peckinpah, a Revolution in Hollywood, and the Making of a Legendary Film is now available from Bloomsbury Publishing.

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Film

Review: The Heart of Someone Great Is in the Details of Female Friendship

The film plays like a mixtape of various sensibilities, partly beholden to the self-contained form of the bildungsroman.

2.5

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Someone Great
Photo: Netflix

Jennifer Kaytin Robinson’s Someone Great presents a vision of New York that makes the bustling metropolis feel like a small town. The film’s setting is a utopian playground where everyone seems to know everyone else and bumping into friends and acquaintances on the street is a regular occurrence. Robinson exploits the narrative possibilities of this framework, as all it takes for three friends, Jenny (Gina Rodriguez), Erin (DeWanda Wise), and Blair (Brittany Snow), to dive into another misadventure is to simply turn a corner.

The film plays like a mixtape of various sensibilities, partly beholden to the self-contained form of the bildungsroman; surely it’s no coincidence that a James Joyce poster hangs in the background of one scene. Set to an eclectic, almost perpetual soundtrack of songs, the film follows Jenny, Erin, and Blair as they float on a wave of spontaneity. The friends are gung-ho about having one last night on the town, and as the they make plans to attend a music festival on the eve of Jenny moving to San Francisco, the film makes a vibrant show of every fallout, every sharp turn in mood and behavior across this journey, which also finds Jenny grappling with her recent breakup with Nate (Lakeith Stanfield), her boyfriend of nine years.

In the world of Someone Great, a flashily decorated room is an extension of a person’s personality, every object a vessel of human memories. Jenny is wounded, and the film tenaciously homes in how everything around her feels like a totem of lost love. Robinson elaborates on Jenny’s pain as much through the young woman’s exchanges with her two best friends, each dealing with their own emotional troubles, as through the neon-dappled flashbacks to Jenny and Nate’s time together. But if Jenny, Erin, and Blair’s scenes together are marked by an infectiousness fueled in no small part by Rodriguez, Wise, and Snow’s incredible rapport, the vignettes of Jenny and Nate’s past feel comparatively inert—an almost steady stream of generic and often awkward articulations of how it is to fall in and out of love.

Someone Great also gives itself over to a needlessly somber tone whenever Jenny reflects on her relationship with Nate, and the effect is so self-serious that you’d think she’s the first person to lose a lover in human history. Her breakup certainly stands in sharp contrast to Blair’s own split from her long-term boyfriend (Alex Moffat), the fallout of which is treated as an offhand (and very funny) joke. Fortunately, though, Robinson is always quick to reorient the focus of her film, sweetly underscoring throughout the value of Jenny’s friendship to Erin and Blair, and how their bond is bound to persist regardless of the hard knocks these women weather on the long and often bumpy road to romantic fulfillment.

Cast: Gina Rodriguez, Brittany Snow, DeWanda Wise, LaKeith Stanfield, Peter Vack, Alex Moffat, RuPaul Charles, Rosario Dawson Director: Jennifer Kaytin Robinson Screenwriter: Jennifer Kaytin Robinson Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 92 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Festivals

Cannes Lineup Includes New Films by Terrence Malick, Céline Sciamma, & More

Perhaps as notable as what made the cut is what didn’t make it onto the lineup.

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Pain and Glory
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

This morning, the lineup for the 72nd Cannes Film Festival was revealed, and just as notable as what made the cut is what didn’t. Most notably, Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in America and James Gray’s Ad Astra were nowhere to be found. Gray, whose had four of his previous films appear in competition at the festival, is still working on Ad Astra, which seems destined at this point to make its premiere at a fall festival. As for Tarantino, who’s still editing this ninth feature ahead of its July 26 theatrical release, Cannes artistic director Thierry Fremaux told press this morning that there’s still a chance that Once Upon a Time in America could be added to the festival lineup in the upcoming weeks.

Terrence Malick will return to Cannes for the first time since winning the Palme d’Or for The Tree of Life with the historical drama and ostensibly mainstream-friendly A Hidden Life, previously known as Radegund. Ken Loach and the Dardennes, both double winners of the Palme d’Or, will also debut their latest works, Sorry We Missed You and Young Ahmed, respectively, in the competition program. As previously announced, Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die will kick off the festival on May 14, and Dexter Fletcher’s Rocketman will screen out of competition on May 16, two weeks before the film hits U.S. theaters. (The Director’s Fortnight and Critics Week selections will be announced at a later date.)

See below for a complete list of this year’s competition, Un Certain Regard, out of competition, and special and midnight screenings.

Competition
Pain and Glory, Pedro Almodóvar
The Traitor, Marco Bellocchio
Wild Goose Lake, Yinan Diao
Parasite, Bong Joon-ho
Young Ahmed, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
Oh Mercy! , Arnaud Desplechin
Atlantique, Mati Diop
Matthias and Maxime, Xavier Dolan
Little Joe, Jessica Hausner
Sorry We Missed You, Ken Loach
Les Misérables, Ladj Ly
A Hidden Life, Terrence Malick
Nighthawk, Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles
The Whistlers, Corneliu Porumboiu
Frankie, Ira Sachs
The Dead Don’t Die, Jim Jarmusch
Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Céline Sciamma
It Must Be Heaven, Elia Suleiman
Sybil, Justine Triet

Out of Competition
Rocketman, Dexter Fletcher
The Best Years of Life, Claude Lelouch
Maradona, Asif Kapadia
La Belle Epoque, Nicolas Bedos
Too Old to Die Young, Nicolas Winding Refn

Special Screenings
Share, Pippa Bianco
Family Romance LLC, Werner Herzog
Tommaso, Abel Ferrara
To Be Alive and Know It, Alain Cavalier
For Sama, Waad Al Kateab and Edward Watts

Midnight Screenings
The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil, Lee Won-Tae

Un Certain Regard
Invisible Life, Karim Aïnouz
Beanpole, Kantemir Balagov
The Swallows of Kabul, Zabou Breitman and Eléa Gobé Mévellec
A Brother’s Love, Monia Chokri
The Climb, Michael Covino
Joan of Arc, Bruno Dumont
A Sun That Never Sets, Olivier Laxe
Chambre 212, Christophe Honoré
Port Authority, Danielle Lessovitz
Papicha, Mounia Meddour
Adam, Maryam Touzani
Zhuo Ren Mi Mi, Midi Z
Liberte, Albert Serra
Bull, Annie Silverstein
Summer of Changsha, Zu Feng
EVGE, Nariman Aliev

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Features

The 2019 TCM Classic Film Festival

As evangelistic as I tend to get about making new discoveries at TCMFF, the familiar can also be revelatory.

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TCM Classic Film Festival
Photo: John Nowak

In 2014, on the occasion of the fifth annual TCM Classic Film Festival, even as I took the opportunity to raise a glass to an event that encourages audiences, especially younger ones, to acknowledge and embrace the past, I indulged in a little public worrying over the festival’s move toward including a heavier schedule of more “modern” films whose status as classics seemed arguable, at the very least. The presence of Mr. Holland’s Opus and The Goodbye Girl on the festival’s slate that year seemed geared toward guaranteeing that Richard Dreyfuss would make a couple of appearances, causing me not only to wonder just what constitutes a “classic” (a question this festival seems imminently qualified to answer), but also just how far down the road to appeasement of movie stars TCMFF would be willing to travel in order to bring in those festivalgoers willing to pony up for high-priced, top-tier passes.

If anything, subsequent iterations have indicated that, while its focus remains on putting classic films in front of appreciative audiences and encouraging the restoration and preservation of widely recognized and relatively obscure films, the festival’s shift toward popular hits and the folks attached to them seems to be in full swing. And from a commercial point of view, who could credibly argue against feting 1980s and ‘90s-era celebrities who can still bring the glitz and glamour, especially as it becomes increasingly more difficult to secure appearances from anyone directly involved in the production of 60-to-80-year-old films? One has to believe that the numbers would favor booking films which could afford “sexier” in-person attendees like Billy Crystal, Meg Ryan, and Rob Reiner, and maybe for a good portion of the TCMFF crowd that showed up to celebrate the festival’s 10th anniversary this year, that sort of thinking is perfectly in line with what they expect for their money.

Of course, the flip side of that coin is an opening-night gala devoted to the celebration of When Harry Met Sally, which isn’t the first film I would think of to announce to the world that TCMFF is celebrating a milestone. It’s been 10 years since the festival launched, and its mother channel is celebrating 25 years on the air this year—and, okay, the Rob Reiner-helmed, Nora Ephron-scripted comedy is now 30 years young. But I really wonder, beyond When Harry Met Sally’s most famous scene, which is all but stolen by the director’s mother and her delivery of the memorable zinger “I’ll have what she’s having,” if this dated rom-com really means enough to audiences to be included among a TCMFF schedule of films ostensibly more qualified to be considered as classics. Maybe it does. Because objections like that one were forced to fly in the face of the rest of the TCMFF 2019 schedule, populated as it was by other equally questionable attractions like Sleepless in Seattle, Steel Magnolias, Hello, Dolly!, and Out of Africa, all of which crowded screen space in the festival’s biggest auditoriums.

Speaking of amour, it was that most mysterious of emotions that was the biggest rationale other than filthy lucre for clogging the schedule with not one but two Meg Ryan “classics,” a weeper that’s broad by even the standards of borderline-campy weepers, a bloated musical nobody seems to like, a would-be epic best picture winner, and even the bromantic sentimental indulgences of the Honorary Greatest Movie for Men Who Don’t Love Movies. Because the theme of TCMFF 2019, “Follow Your Heart: Love at the Movies,” virtually guaranteed that room would be made for some of the festival’s least enticing and overseen selections, under subheadings like “Better with Age” (Love in the Afternoon, Marty), “Bromance” (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Shawshank Redemption), and, in a love letter to not romance but instead a movie studio, “A Celebration of 20th Century Fox” (Hello, Dolly!, Working Girl, Star Wars). Of course, each of those subheadings had their glories as well (I’ll get to those in a second, after I stop complaining), but it’s worth noting these selections because they seem clearly representative of the sort of programming choices that have become more dominant in the second half of TCMFF’s storied and much appreciated existence, choices that may signal a further shift away from discoveries, oddities, and rarities and toward even more mainstream appeasement in its near future.

For all of the problems that seem to be becoming hard-wired into TCMFF’s business model, however, there was plenty to get excited about as well, even when one of the weaker overall schedules in terms of cinephile catnip made maximizing the festival experience a little more challenging than usual. If that “Love in the Movies” header seemed at first a bit too generic, it also proved elastic enough to accommodate some pretty interesting variations on a obvious theme, from dysfunctional relationships (A Woman Under the Influence, whose star, Gena Rowlands, had to back out of a scheduled pre-screening appearance), to erotic obsession (Mad Love, Magnificent Obsession), to habitual obsession (Cold Turkey, Merrily We Go to Hell), to romance of a more straightforward nature rendered in various shades of not-at-all-straightforward cinematic splendor (Sunrise, Sleeping Beauty, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Tarzan and His Mate). Why, there was even a couple of straight shots of undiluted movie love in the form of François Truffaut’s Day for Night, adorned by an in-person visitation from the film’s star, Jacqueline Bisset, and a grand screening of my favorite film, Robert Altman’s Nashville, which Pauline Kael once famously described as “an orgy for movie lovers.”

My own obsessions this year ran, as they usually do, toward the unfamiliar. Six of the 11 films I saw were new to me, including the obscure, ultra-cheap film noir Open Secret, which pits John Ireland against a secret society of small-town Nazi sympathizers; the deliriously racy and surprisingly violent adventure of Tarzan and His Mate, entertainingly introduced by Star Wars sound wizard Ben Burtt and special effects whiz Craig Barron, whose pre-film multimedia presentation electronically deconstructed the Tarzan yell; and James Whale’s Waterloo Bridge, starring Mae Clarke and Kent Douglass. Also among them were two major surprises: Dorothy Arzner’s romantic drama Merrily We Go to Hell, a gloriously cinematic roller coaster of love, codependency, and betrayal starring Fredric March, forever testing the audience’s tolerance for the boundaries of bad behavior, and Sylvia Sidney, who displays a range that will surprise younger audiences who may only know her from her later work; and the rollicking, hilarious, fast-paced snap-crackle-punch of All Through the Night, in which a gaggle of Runyonesque Broadway gamblers headed up by Humphrey Bogart develop an uncharacteristic patriotic streak when they uncover a Nazi conspiracy brewing in the back alleys of the neighborhood.

As evangelistic as I tend to get about making new discoveries at TCMFF, the familiar can also be revelatory. My two favorite experiences at the festival this year were screenings of F.W. Murnau’s almost indescribably gorgeous and primally moving Sunrise and a beautiful DCP of Nashville, with screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury and actors Jeff Goldblum, Keith Carradine, and Ronee Blakely in attendance. (At one point, Blakely held court like Barbara Jean in rambling pre-meltdown mode and innocently gave away the ending of the film.) The joy contained in the five hours of those two films wasn’t necessarily matched by the gorgeous restoration of Anthony Mann’s powerful Winchester ’73, the exquisitely expressionist delirium of Karl Freund’s Mad Love, or the revelation of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, with its roots in the music of Tchaikovsky, as the partial fulfillment of the ambitions of Fantasia, the studio’s great folly. But then again, it didn’t have to be. It’s enough that those are all movies worthy of and inspired by true movie love, which is precisely what they were received with by TCMFF audiences.

Of course, the obsessive, orgiastic nature of movie love is itself the underlying subtext of any film festival, but at TCMFF that subtext is consistently resonant enough that it seems inextricable from any given moment during the long four-day Hollywood weekend over which it unspools. Some festivalgoers get dolled up in vintage clothes and five pounds of customized TCM-style flair to express it. Others rattle on endlessly about their irrational devotion to Star X and Director Y, or how some obscure B noir blew their goddamn minds, and they’re usually surrounded by a pack of fans with similarly hyperbolic stories to tell. And still others just tilt their heads down and barrel through the long lines, breathlessly scurrying between theaters in pursuit of something they’ve never seen or perhaps never even heard of. (I’ll let you speculate as to which category I belong, though I will say I have never worn a fedora or brandished a silver-tipped walking stick in public.) A good friend and former TCMFF regular once told me that the best way to be cured of a particular obsession is to suddenly find yourself surrounded by those whose individual enthusiasms match or exceed your own, and sometimes it seems that the first-world trials of the TCMFF experience as they have accumulated over the past five or so years, and contrasted as they have been by the multitude of peaks the festival has offered its most ardent fans, have been devoted to road-testing that theory.

However, no matter what TCMFF devotees do or say in between programming slots, the movies remain, providing a constant opportunity to either plumb the depths of cinema history or to simply go for the good times. With all intentions pitched toward continued prosperity, the greatest challenge for TCMFF as it enters its second decade might be finding a better balance between those deep dives and the allure of skimming the perhaps more lucrative shallows. And if genuinely great films and even greater chances to experience films one can only experience in a setting like TCMFF keep getting slotted out in favor of familiar dreck like When Harry Met Sally and Steel Magnolias, it isn’t unreasonable to imagine that TCMFF 2029 might, to its inevitable detriment, look and feel considerably less classic than it does now. No, it’s not time for sackcloth and ashes just yet when it comes to this beloved fest. But I’d be lying if I said, to purloin and repurpose the concluding sentiment of one of this year’s big TCMFF attractions, that the ultimate resolution of that dilemma don’t worry me just a little bit.

The TCM Classic Film Festival ran from April 11—14.

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Review: Instant Dreams Intimately Ponders a Casualty of the Digital Age

Willem Baptist’s film is a free-form essay on the spiritual differences between analog and digital.

2.5

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Instant Dreams
Photo: Synergetic Distribution

Throughout Instant Dreams, director Willem Baptist returns to footage from “The Long Walk,” the 1970 short film in which Polaroid co-founder Edwin H. Land pulled from his coat a black device that bears an uncanny resemblance to an iPhone. Land envisioned a day in which instant photos could be taken by a device the size of a wallet, which we would use to document every moment of our lives. This dream came spectacularly true, of course, beyond even Land’s wildest fantasies, ironically paving the way for Polaroid’s irrelevancy. Polaroid stopped manufacturing instant film in 2008, an event which Baptist rues as a symptom of our increasing impersonality as a globalized culture that’s grown to take its information overload for granted. “The Long Walk” haunts Baptist’s documentary as a kind of death prophecy.

Seen in stock footage—and in the famous photo on a 1947 cover of the New York Times in which he holds up a snapshot of himself, nearly appearing to have two heads—Land proves to be one of Instant Dreams’s most fascinating and enigmatic figures. In a contemporary light, pictures taken by Polaroid instant cameras have an eerie and poignant power, as their imperfections, such as their blotchy yet vibrant colors, evoke expressionistic art. These photographs reflect the frailty and subjectivity of time, while digital images are ageless, changeable, easily distributed ciphers. The power of Polaroid pictures resides in the effort they require to create, as people had to carry a bulky camera around and wait several seconds before producing a fully developed snapshot. Following several Polaroid cultists, Baptist shares their lament for an intimate and communal culture that’s potentially been forgotten in the wake of our ability to have pristine images whenever we want them.

Stephen Herchen is a scientist who helped to buy the last remaining Polaroid factory in the Netherlands, and he’s working with a group of specialists to revive the technology, as instant film was born of a complex chemical recipe that Herchen has yet to crack. (Baptist looks on as Herchen’s pictures take nearly 30 minutes to develop, rather than a few seconds.) Meanwhile, New York magazine city editor Christopher Bonanos, author of the book Instant: The Story of Polaroid, documents the growth of his son with his stash of Polaroid film, and German artist Stefanie Schneider takes photographs with the expired stock that she keeps in the vintage refrigerator of a trailer that’s parked somewhere in the California desert.

Herchen, Bonanos, and Schneider speak over the documentary’s soundtrack, which Baptist assembles into a free-form essay on the spiritual differences between analog and digital. The filmmaker portrays analog as a kind of magic, born of a conjuring which he dramatizes with trippy images of photographic chemicals, while digital technology is represented by chilly metallic graphics that connote anonymous efficiency. (Instant Dreams exudes that simultaneously real and staged quality of an Errol Morris film.) It’s a sentimental vision, and one that provokes a question that Baptist doesn’t attempt to address: In a time of technological marvel, in which we carry what are essentially supercomputers around in our pockets, why are so many of us so miserable, so convinced that we’re living in a dark age?

The rage and ennui of our present culture is cultivated by the ease of modern media, in which we’re eternally plugged into stimulation that cancels itself out, leaving us feeling both stuffed and hollow, as well as interchangeable with one another as receptacles for corporate product. Our primary camera is now our phone, which can do hundreds of other tasks, while the Polaroid instant camera only takes pictures, relics which cannot be shared with the click of a button with other people. To long for the Polaroid, or for other objects of nostalgia such as VHS tapes, is to long for a sense of specialness and remoteness. The subjects of Baptist’s documentary seek disconnection from the cultural hive mind.

These meanings are often only implicit in Instant Dreams, and it’s a pity that Herchen and Bonanos aren’t more overtly in tune with their yearnings. They tend to speak in platitudes, which Baptist attempts to render mystical with hallucinatory imagery and a retro synth-y score that’s reminiscent of Vangelis’s compositions for Blade Runner. While Instant Dreams offers an appealingly nostalgic trance-out, it’s often short on detail, especially in terms of Herchen’s struggle to create the instant film technology, which Baptist reduces to exchanges of jargon in atmospheric laboratories. The film’s ruminations gradually grow repetitive and unfocused, especially when Baptist branches off into a fourth narrative, following a young woman who savors digital technology the way that the other subjects do Polaroids.

Schneider steals Instant Dreams from her co-stars, however, taking bold photos of young women out in the desert, cannily milking the limitations of the expired film stock to create mini canvases that suggest fever dreams. One scene is unexpectedly erotic: Schneider takes a bath in a tub outside with a beautiful model, their legs intermingling as the latter tells of a dream that suggests a metaphor for instant film. This image embodies the intimacy that Baptist’s subjects believe Polaroid stock to represent, merging the film’s emotional ambitions with its hypnotic aesthetic. In such moments, Instant Dreams truly comes alive.

Director: Willem Baptist Screenwriter: Willem Baptist Distributor: Synergetic Distribution Running Time: 91 min Rating: NR Year: 2017

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Review: Rafiki Is a Feat of Representation, If Familiar in Execution

The audacity of the film’s assertion of a queer African identity shouldn’t be overlooked.

2.5

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Rafiki
Photo: Film Movement

Wanuri Kahiu’s Rafiki is a salvo in an ongoing cultural war in Kenya over the rights of LGBTQ people, and as such, it’s difficult, and maybe even irresponsible, to judge the film in a vacuum. Homosexuality is illegal in Kenya—punishable with up to 14 years in prison—and Kahiu’s film is officially banned in the country, though that ban was temporarily lifted for a week last fall so that it might qualify for an Oscar nomination. As a romantic drama, Rafiki turns out to be conventional in most senses except that its star-crossed lovers are two women—but then, particularly in Kenya, that makes all the difference.

Rafiki’s radicalism, hardly evident in its form or narrative structure, becomes more apparent when the film is situated in the context of state censorship and socio-culturally dominant homophobia. Adapted by Kahiu and co-writer Jenna Cato Bass from a short story by Monica Arac de Nyeko, the film takes its cue from that most over-alluded-to of romantic texts, Romeo and Juliet, complete with feuding families, illicit liaisons, and impossible love.

Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) and Ziki (Sheila Munyiva) are the daughters of two small-business magnates opposing each other in an upcoming city council election. They live on the outskirts of Nairobi, in an area characters refer to as Slopes, which Kaihu presents as a relatively secluded community. The story plays out over a limited number of distinctive locations—such as the church that Kena and Ziki’s families attend and consists of a purple-clad Anglican preacher leading sermons under a purple tent and a food stand where the young denizens of Slopes eat, with its nearby van on blocks where Kena and Ziki can have some privacy.

As young romantics are wont to do, the two women fall in love despite the immense familial and social pressure to avoid anything of the kind. And in addition to the mutual animosity of their respective families, they have the stigma that homosexuality carries among their friends to worry about. Kena hangs out with a pair of hypermasculine guys who routinely hurl epithets at the taciturn man everyone in the neighborhood knows is gay; when Ziki’s clique of friends start suspecting Kena is her lover, they react with a surprising outburst of violence. With its handful of locations and its small cast, Rafiki emphasizes the inescapable social gaze this queer couple is subjected to: The supporting characters are liable to pop up in any given place, making anywhere but the abandoned van a potentially threatening space for the two women.

In a country in which homosexuality is seen by a majority of the population as imported Western decadence, the audacity of the film’s assertion of a queer African identity shouldn’t be overlooked. Rafiki announces its intent with defiant opening credits, streaked with spray-painted neon colors and blasting feminist African hip-hop. But this rebellious energy also dissipates rapidly after the credits: While Christopher Wessels’s cinematography is drawn to saturated colors that recall the punkish animation of the credits, there’s a staid quality to the film that belies the intensity of the visuals. Major scenes play out with characters summarizing their feelings in sketchy dialogue, as when Kena’s mother (Nini Wacera) exposits Kenyan women’s motivations for being more homophobic than men in the midst of an argument.

While Kahiu proved herself a visionary filmmaker with her 2009 short film Pumzi, her visual ideas here are often sentimental short cuts: slow-motion close-ups of a smiling Ziki to suggest the character’s sexual longing for Kena, and slow-motion shots of birds in flight to symbolize the couple’s desire for freedom. Ziki herself, with her flashy, colorful braids and broadly sketched character arc, is little more than a romantic fantasy—and perhaps purposefully, as Kena is clearly the main character, drawn to Ziki at least in part because of her distinctive look. But it seems odd that a romance about two women should recapitulate a structure in which only one of the pair—the one in the position of looking—gets a full character arc. Regardless, Rafiki’s slotting of two African women into this familiar romantic structure represents a radical and important upending of contemporary Kenyan sexual mores.

Cast: Samantha Mugatsia, Sheila Munyiva, Neville Misati, Jimmy Gathu, Nini Wacera, Patricia Amira, Muthoni Gathecha, Dennis Musyoka, Nice Githinji, Charlie Karumi, Patricia Kihoro Director: Wanuri Kahiu Screenwriter: Wanuri Kahiu, Jenna Cato Bass Distributor: Film Movement Running Time: 82 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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