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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: Sea of Solitude Offers a Dreamscape Awash in Banal Abstraction

Its repetitive tasks are like the usual arbitrary gates to reach a cutscene in a mediocre video game.

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Sea of Solitude
Photo: Electronic Arts

An endless ocean submerges an orange-bricked German city, its rooftops drenched in sunlight or doused in rain as they poke through the watery barrier. The soft, cartoonish look of this place seems to deserve a word like “beautiful.” On the other hand, leading Sea of Solitude’s black-feathered, red-eyed protagonist, Kay, into collectible memories, which queue up wistful dialogue snippets from a life outside her metaphorical turmoil in the waterlogged city, might warrant something like “heartfelt.” The vocabulary for evaluating a game like Sea of Solitude, which is designed completely around emotions and various manifestations of mental health, may sound positive, but it’s also undeniably familiar.

Puttering across the sea on her tiny motorboat or hopping around sun-kissed platforms, Kay encounters literalized inner demons. Many of them are dark things to be avoided. Others can be led into the light that will destroy them. A monster in its shell blocks Kay’s path, and whispering, anonymous shadows follow her if she gets too close to them. Clouds of gloomy thought become actual baggage once Kay walks up to a glowing orange circle and the player presses the button that sucks those clouds into her ballooning backpack. The themes of loneliness and empathy are quite explicit here, and if familiarity and explicitness aren’t inherent problems, in Sea of Solitude they’re nonetheless the symptoms of the game’s difficulty envisioning a unified wrapper for feelings it wants to evoke.

The mechanical trappings of Sea of Solitude are basic to the point of feeling perfunctory, like mindless tasks to perform while each new floating orange circle spoons out dialogue for thematic context. It’s all mostly polished, of course; Kay flops around a little as she walks, and she visibly shivers at the whip-crack of thunder and lightning. You’ll jump, sail, melt ice, and illuminate shadowy figures, but the connection between these actions and the intended emotions always feels tenuous at best because they rarely have a discernible effect on or specific ties to the world in front of you. The dialogue colors in some world that’s conspicuously beyond Kay’s metaphorical dreamscape; though she claims to recognize certain places in the city, most seem indistinguishable from the last. All of these repetitive tasks seem more like the usual arbitrary gates to reach a cutscene in a mediocre video game.

There are fleeting moments of empathetic power over Sea of Solitude’s brief runtime, where the imagery and the action coalesce into some recognizable slice of Kay’s life. But so much of the game feels only slightly more cohesive than someone scribbling the word “depression” over, say, a picture of a person being eaten by a shark. Games like Psychonauts or The Gardens Between work a character’s personal details into the level design, while the horror game Devotion uses specific objects and actions to supplement the rising tide of memory. Sea of Solitude, however, is so blandly abstract that it loses any sense of specificity.

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

Developer: Jo-Mei Games Publisher: Electronic Arts Platform: PlayStation 4 ESRB: T ESRB Descriptions: Fantasy Violence, Language Buy: Game

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Review: Super Mario Maker 2 Joyously Puts Creation in the Player’s Hands

From the second you power on the game, its entire toy chest is open to you, no strings attached.

4.5

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Super Mario Maker 2
Photo: Nintendo

Like its predecessor, Nintendo’s Super Mario Maker 2 is predominantly what it announces itself to be: an extremely versatile creation engine allowing players to make their own side-scrolling Super Mario Bros. levels, using the mechanics, assets, and aesthetics of the series’s best games. The 2015 original for the Wii U had some strangely arbitrary limits and omitted elements, things that the creator community delighted in finding patchwork ways of recreating. Those creators will find that Mario Maker 2 has matched their ambitions. For one, you can now make slopes that Mario can slide down. And that terrifying evil sun from Super Mario Bros. 3 is now in the mix. Also, auto-scroll levels can be finetuned to change direction and speed at will. Whatever barriers to the player’s imagination existed in the first iteration of this game, Nintendo has torn many of them down.

That goes hand in hand with Mario Maker 2 opening up creative pathways left unexplored by the first game. You’re allowed to create levels that take place in a wide assortment of weather environments, with new chiptunes accompanying the creation of levels from the series’s 8-bit titles. Super Mario 3D World has been added as a visual/mechanical option, which allows for multi-level backgrounds and hazards, along with all the unique and delightfully adorable cat-costume shenanigans from that game. The conditions for clearing a stage can be changed to where just making it to the flag is far from enough. More ambitious is the option to switch any stage to a nighttime mode, which changes its physics. Ice stages are more slippery, and ghost houses have less visibility. Airship levels, in particular, are particularly awe-inspiring for their unique mood and texture, with rain, thunder, and lightning—conditions that allow for sea-based elements to float through the air—now standing in your way throughout.

The most blessed thing about the experience, though, is that aside from a couple of buried secrets, all these tools are all available to the player upfront. From the second you power on the game, its entire toy chest is open to you, no strings attached. Now, the only real barrier to immediate entry is that Course Mode’s user interface is still so heavily designed for a touchscreen. Using the analog sticks or a Pro controller isn’t impossible, but it’s drastically less intuitive than using the Switch’s touchscreen, while undocked, to build levels.

For those less inclined to just jump right in and start creating levels, not only is there an in-depth and endlessly amusing tutorial, where you’re taught by a woman and her talking pigeon companion, but a full-fledged Story Mode. Surprisingly, there isn’t even a Bowser-kidnaps-Princess conceit this time around: As a result of a complete accident, the hilarious particulars of which won’t be spoiled here, Princess Toadstool’s castle gets completely erased, and a small crew of Toads and Toadettes is tasked with rebuilding. The project costs money, though, and it’s up to Mario to go freelance, running through over 100 custom levels—explained here as “odd jobs”—to collect all the coins he can in order to fund the construction project. Somewhere in there is a sharp commentary on the dangers of gig economy, but more than anything else, Story Mode is a brilliantly tactile and immersive extension of the tutorial on how the myriad assets given to you in Course Mode can be utilized. You’ll leave more than a few courses with devious ideas, and that certainly seems intentional.

The possibilities are endless, and even a cursory glance at the game’s online community shows that those possibilities are being explored to their fullest, and that the limits of what this toolbox is capable of are being pushed. Indeed, some of the best stages currently out there shift Super Mario Bros. as a series of platformers into the far reaches of other genres, form spins on Pong to 2D versions of Mario Kart to elaborate facsimiles of Metroid.

Mario Maker 2’s sole problem is that it’s a fundamentally lonely game. You can share course codes, and follow your friends through their Maker IDs, and, of course, you can experience the worlds and challenges that others have created. However, the only substantive way to collaborate, compete, or build with other players is if they’re next to you on the couch. Designer and developer Shigeru Miyamoto may be a genius, but if there’s any one thing he’s been generous enough to hammer home over the years, it’s that given the option, he wouldn’t work alone. Right now, more often than not, players don’t have that option at all.

It’s still heartening to see Nintendo show the ultimate in respect to the poor, neglected Wii U by giving its best games new life on the vastly more successful Switch. Seeing Super Mario Maker enhanced to the point of becoming a straight-up sequel is magnificent, even as a few stray three-steps-forward-one-step-back decisions keep the game from true perfection.

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

Developer: Nintendo Publisher: Nintendo Platform: Switch Release Date: June 28, 2019 ESRB: E ESRB Descriptions: Mild Cartoon Violence Buy: Game

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Review: SolSeraph Makes You an Angel but Traps You in Gaming Hell

The similarities between SolSeraph and ActRaiser are unmistakable, but it’s a joyless facsimile that lacks a single spark of innovation.

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SolSeraph
Photo: Sega

Some time ago in the shallow world of ACE Team’s SolSeraph, Sky Father and Earth Mother drove back Chaos and created the Earth, before then vanishing from the planet, no longer directly meddling in the ways of mankind. But the void they left behind was soon filled by the Younger Gods of flooding, famine, and the like, who took it upon themselves to torment our nascent humanity. It’s finally left to the winged half-god, half-man Helios to defend mankind. Right out of the gate, the similarities between SolSeraph and the decades-old classic ActRaiser are unmistakable, right down to the hybrid action/strategy gameplay, but it’s an empty emulation, a joyless facsimile that lacks a single spark of innovation.

SolSeraph boasts five essentially identical biomes. Entering a region requires players to clear a menial combat section and to perhaps platform their way over a few bottomless chasms. After doing so, they’ll take an angel’s-eye view of a village and issue orders to the helpless human inhabitants who know how to forage and fight but would never think to do so without godly assistance. Periodically, as a town survives enemy waves and builds temples, monster lairs are unlocked: short combat arenas that Helios fights his way through. Finally, after clearing all of these, players can face off against the region’s animal-themed boss.

The game offers an insultingly reductive mix of resource management and tower defense. There are two types of food-producing buildings, one that increases population, and one for harvesting wood. They can be instantly demolished for a full refund of workers and wood and almost as quickly rebuilt, so there are never any shortages, and no long-term consequences for poor planning. Likewise, there are but four defensive structures: melee barracks, ranged archery towers, a laser-shooting magical hut, and a crowd-controlling bomb-shack.

Helios is known as the Father of Forethought, so perhaps the dearth of strategic options available throughout SolSeraph is an inside joke, albeit a poor one, on ACE Team’s part. After all, the demons are so monomaniacally fixated on snuffing out your central bonfire that they march right past all your other vulnerable structures. This allows players to forget their measly four tactical options, or the range-, damage-, and speed-amplifying dwellings. You can win simply by lining the road with archery towers. For even less of a challenge, players can divinely intervene, using Helios to summon thunderbolts and sun spirits.

That you only ever need to use about half of the buildings or skills exposes the game’s emptiness. Some structures are introduced with a one-note mechanic, like wells, which you can build in every level but are only required for the Sekh Desert, where they turn inhospitable sands into arable farmland. These tools also sometimes fly in the face of narrative sense: You can’t build farms in the Vale of Yeg, as it’s too cold there, but you can depend on livestock for sustenance, which may lead you to wonder what exactly your animals eat. After a while, it feels as if the game’s environmental challenges exist only to mask the tedious repetition of each level, and given how the problems you run across are so easily addressed (bridges and boats are automatically built for you) or beside the point (the Arunan Isles occasionally and briefly flood without affecting gameplay), they ultimately feel entirely cosmetic.

This same redundancy spills over into the combat sections of SolSeraph. You climb the trees of the Plains of Widhu as you do the cliffs of Mount Agnir, and every area has some kind of spider, flying bat, and club-wielding monster. Two of the bosses—a snowy owl and fiery dragon—fly about, but you can otherwise just stand next to all of them, hacking away. (Outside of a healing spell, Helios’s magic is superfluous.)

Even the game’s plot is redundant. Each village is led by a different elder, but they all offer similar platitudes about the various forms of faith and mankind’s resilience, things that the game’s active sequences consistently rebuke. There’s no insight to be gleaned here, and no meaningful interaction beyond clicking on the campfire to hear more dialogue. Helios may protect mankind’s free will and creativity, but he appears to have none of his own.

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

Developer: ACE Team Publisher: Sega Platform: PlayStation 4 ESRB: E ESRB Descriptions: Mild Fantasy Violence Buy: Game

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Review: Judgment, Though Too Reticent, Is a Worthy Yakuza Spin-Off

Where the game goes in-depth, and where it clearly feels most comfortable, is in its omnipresent brawls.

3.5

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Judgment
Photo: Sega

With Judgment, the developers at Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio turn their gaze elsewhere in Kamurocho, the fictional red-light district that serves as the stomping ground for their Yakuza series. Protagonist Takayuki Yagami (Takuya Kimura) isn’t one of the many manly gangsters who anchor the studio’s past narratives, but the current proprietor of the barely afloat Yagami Detective Agency and a disgraced former lawyer, having traded his businesswear for a punk jacket and a truly elaborate haircut that one guy alternately calls the look of a boy-band castoff or “a mop of pubes.” But if Yagami sounds like a big change for the series, fear not, as he has deep ties to the Matsugane Family, a knuckleheaded ex-yakuza of a partner in an exceptionally loud shirt, and an inexplicable mastery of martial arts that leaves him radiating red or blue energy just like any other Kamurocho tough guy.

There’s actual detective work in the game, to some degree. In his hunt for an eye-gouging serial killer, Yagami tails or chases suspects, questions witnesses, and even searches crime scenes for clues in a first-person spot-the-object sort of game mechanic. But Judgment never totally commits to these investigative wrinkles the way it does to the Yakuza series’s familiar combat mechanics, where each story thread tends to leave Yagami encircled by henchmen and where random punks roam open-world Kamurocho spoiling for a street fight.

Glancing around a crime scene is ultimately a simple matter of finding whatever you’re told to look for, and dialogue selections feel more like multiple-choice pop quizzes, the sort of thing a teacher might spring on students just to make sure they’re paying attention. Throughout the game, chase scenes are just auto-runners where you do things like press the triangle button to hop over a fallen bicycle, and the sluggish tailing segments prominently highlight whatever objects the player is supposed to hide behind. There are occasional glimpses of what might have been, when the game provides an objective that doesn’t outright tell the player where to go, or when it asks you to draw a logical conclusion instead of parrot information. It seems perfectly capable of taking these mechanics a step further, which makes it all the more frustrating to see Judgment so rigidly affixed to its investigative rails.

Where the game goes in-depth, and where it clearly feels most comfortable, is in its omnipresent brawls. Yagami’s non-yakuza profession hardly reduces the number of besuited bad guys out for his blood, though he’s a more acrobatic fighter compared to Yakuza’s beefy Kiryu, leapfrogging over opponents with ease. If the detective kicks off a wall, he can catch some unfortunate soul between his thighs and propel them with a devastating throw, perhaps into a store window or a nearby koi pond. It’s familiar stuff, even with Yagami’s multiple fighting styles (“crane” for groups and “tiger” for one-on-one), though it’s easily the most polished mechanic in the game, still satisfying even after so much use.

Judgment’s central mystery, too, features some of the most engaging storytelling in a Yakuza game to date, and it’s freed from any bounds of continuity. The entirely new cast here—disheveled dirty cop Ayabe, the team at Genda Law Office where Yagami once worked, and any number of silly citizens, such as a potion-brewing hermit and a doctor whose office is in the sewers—retains the series’s gift for endearing characters. Their sincerity and determination drive a plot with twists that feel purposeful rather than perfunctory; Yagami’s investigation uncovers unexpected layers to an initially straightforward problem, leading him to medical research facilities, real estate schemes, and organized crime.

There are faint noir undertones here and there to complement the game’s private-eye POV, as in Yagami’s haunted backstory or the layers of corruption that seem to close in around him. But Judgment is simply far too fond of its gooey-hearted crime boys to ever dwell on the depths of despair and moral compromise inherent to noir storytelling. The twisting mystery posits the denizens of Kamurocho as lost souls who have no more than the city and, if they’re lucky, each other, yet the story does little to ever muddy their path; its characters are as warm as they are secure in their righteousness. Foregrounding detective work over the power struggles of crime families (which do still figure into the plot) does, however, lead the series to rely less on a xenophobic fear of thinly characterized outsiders, even if stepping beyond its favored patriarchal organizations has done little to change the largely peripheral inclusion of women in the story beyond punching bags or objects to be ogled.

If the detective angle is little more than a mild seasoning sprinkled over the usual Yakuza beats, the two at least naturally complement one another in a thematic sense. Through its various side stories, the series has long emphasized the plight of everyday people as well as the empathy of stopping to help one another, and in Judgment, taking on such problems is outright Yagami’s job as a detective. The game even dots the main story with some of these side stories, which send Yagami after a lab coat-clad underwear thief called the Panty Professor or have Yagami’s partner, Kaito, babysit a kid who’s convinced that the burly ex-yakuza is secretly his favorite superhero, Captain Cop. Another mechanic encourages players to befriend various characters around town by performing small favors or just visiting them, and you get a little boost when greeting a friend on the street.

But Judgment is also a longer game than either of its immediate predecessors, Yakuza 6: The Song of Life and remake Yakuza Kiwami 2, which also have second open-world locations. In Judgment, almost all the action is confined to Kamurocho, where you’re often dropped on one end of the map only to learn you’re needed on the other. It all grows a little stale after a while, not just from repetition but from the knowledge that you can now interact (or are supposed to be able to interact) with the game in ways beyond simply throwing punches at a gaggle of yakuza goons. For as basic as the detective mechanics can feel, they actually harm the series’s reliance on various gauntlets of bad guys, because those fighting setups now signify the game avoiding other avenues of interaction in favor of what’s safe and familiar. Judgment suggests plenty of compelling new directions for the series to go, as well as an ultimate reticence to totally follow any of them. Yagami’s primary investigative tool is his fists.

This game was reviewed using a retail PlayStation 4 copy purchased by the reviewer.

Developer: Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio Publisher: Sega Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: June 25, 2019 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood, Intense Violence, Partial Nudity, Sexual Content, Strong Language, Use of Alcohol Buy: Game

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Review: Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night Is a Sign of the Metroidvania’s Bright Future

As varied and intriguing as the game can get on a conceptual level, it outdoes itself in the minutiae of traversal and combat.

4.5

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Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night
Photo: 505 Games

After four years in development, Tokyo-based ArtPlay’s Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night arrives on the scene bearing more of a resemblance to Sonic Mania or Mega Man 11 than to Mighty No. 9. It’s an immense joy to have a true current-generation side-scrolling Castlevania out there in the world, and more than a little embarrassing for Konami that this game, which can stand proudly alongside Symphony of the Night in terms of quality and creativity, could’ve been theirs had they not been, well, Konami for the past decade.

And make no mistake: This is a Koji Igarashi Castlevania title through and through. This could have been a 20-hour game full of creative cheap shots—and, indeed, it isn’t above thumbing its nose at its spiritual predecessor with reckless abandon, with one particular NPC and his voice actor essentially walking right up to the line of blatant copyright infringement, which would be egregious if Igarashi hadn’t essentially created that character. But Bloodstained still has its own envelope-pushing identity. This is a game that feels like the sum total of lessons learned across Igarashi’s storied history as a series director and producer, while also a promising look toward a potential future for the whole Metroidvania genre.

Bloodstained distances itself from Castlevania most in its characters and narrative. The story involves alchemists rebelling against forced obsolescence due to the Industrial Revolution by unleashing arcane horrors upon the world using demonic crystal shards. Gebel, an orphan, was supposed to be a ritual sacrifice to Hell itself, but he survives and, in his rage, leads the charge from an eldritch castle. The world’s only hope is Miriam, another orphan whose mysterious childhood coma prevented her from being sacrificed but who’s still able to wield the demonic shards on behalf of a thinly veiled take on the Vatican until the day the crystals consume her. It’s such a fertile little story that it’s almost a shame the game doesn’t do more with it. Fortunately, what largely takes its place is enthralling in its own right.

There are a few moments of pure old-school gothic horror in Bloodstained—one particular boss is essentially Elizabeth Bathory taken to the utter extreme—and Michiru Yamane’s score spectacularly sets the stage for it all, but it’s by and large operating on a very different wavelength than grim moonlit vampirism. Perhaps informed by cel shading, the game displays a command for strange colors, aesthetic mash-ups, and lighting schemes that consistently unsettle the player at tense moments, making it seem less like Bram Stoker’s Dracula than Dario Argento’s Suspiria. And it does that without every losing its sense of play. It’s incredible how often one is legitimately surprised by what’s waiting in the next room. This is the type of game that will stun you by throwing indescribable behemoths at you in one room, then have you chuckling at the flying pigs puttering their way around the next.

As varied and intriguing as the game can get on a conceptual level, it outdoes itself in the minutiae of traversal and combat. The game’s opening hours feel instantly familiar. The castle is wide open for players to explore until they come across dead ends requiring as-yet-discovered abilities. The only new aspect early on is that Miriam is able to wield guns. Before long, it becomes clear that the player has never had more freedom to choose how to play this type of game. The initial Kickstarter campaign had Igarashi asking his audience via a website whether players preferred to use a sword or a whip in their Castlevania games, cleverly concealing the enormous number of options available to them in the final game. There are physical weapons above and beyond what’s ever been available in one of Igarashi’s Castlevania titles—everything from machetes, to shotguns, to lightsabers are options here—but it’s the shards that open up the player’s imagination, a mechanic that gives Miriam additional powers to equip and swap at will after defeating certain enemies, and the options seem just endless.

At one point, while fighting a two-headed dragon, each head wrapped around the outside of a clocktower, I ended up pausing the game just to marvel at the sheer lunacy that had just been playing out on screen. Miriam was calling up columns of hellfire against the dragon with one hand, slicing at it with a steam-powered greatsword with the other, while occasionally turning into a bunny woman devastating the beast with lightning fast kung-fu kicks. All these things are slotted to shortcuts in a shoulder-trigger menu, accessible at the push of a button.

There’s a freedom to how Bloodstained allows you to tackle any obstacle that many MMOs would kill to be able to replicate. But that freedom comes at a price. There’s quite a bit of random chance involved with collecting many of those crazy powers and weapons, with progression still working off of RPG-lite principles, this time with a bit of item crafting involved. But the system is forgiving and highly versatile, and it encourages experimentation, both through the ease of accessibility and a tough-but-fair difficulty curve that has no intention of letting players simply traipse through as unscathed as quite a few Igavania titles have in the past. There will be walls of difficulty here, and they’re quite welcome.

Less welcome is a certain lack of technical finesse that riddles the game with performance stutters, stops, occasional tanking framerates and unexpected load times. It’s nothing that breaks the game—though a treasure issue caused by the most recent patch at the time of this review came frighteningly close—but often enough to make itself noticeable, even on a PS4 Pro. Sadly, the poor Switch is even less capable of plowing through the problems, and coupled with the drastic visual downgrade, it’s a much less enjoyable experience than on PC or the other consoles. (Editor’s Note: 505 Games has since issued a statement that says these issues will be addressed in upcoming patches.) Still, those hitches feel like the cost of freedom for Igarashi and his ArtPlay team. It’s not hard to imagine a Bloodstained—or, more accurately, a Castlevania—made by Konami that ran flawlessly but was released in compromised form in the way so many of their titles have been. That is, compromised in the way that weak-sauce multiplayer experiment Harmony of Despair felt compromised. The occasional two-second load screen is a paltry price for experiencing a near-masterwork.

This game was reviewed using a retail PlayStation 4 copy purchased by the reviewer.

Developer: ArtPlay Publisher: 505 Games Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: June 18, 2019 ESRB: T ESRB Descriptions: Blood, Partial Nudity, Violence

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Review: The Sinking City Doesn’t Earn Its Lovecraftian Credentials

Worse than the sheer tedium of shooting is the effect it has on the game’s atmosphere.

2.5

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The Sinking City
Photo: Frogwares

The life of a 1920s private investigator is hardly a convenient or particularly romantic one, at least to hear The Sinking City tell it. The game’s fedora-wearing protagonist, Charles Reed, owns a shotgun but has no access to a GPS, a minimap, or a little earpiece to talk to some computer-whiz partner who does all his research. Reed is on his own, tramping through the dilapidated streets of Oakmont, Massachusetts to the university library, the hospital, or some such place, combing through newspaper archives or police records based on scant clues. With the right information, he digs up addresses that must be manually marked on the map after consulting the labeled city streets. Reed becomes such a familiar sight to the librarian, whose mouth is sewn shut as a punishment according to “local custom,” that she later sends him a note asking for help. A private eye’s work is never done.

Such decidedly analog activities are one of the most engaging elements of The Sinking City; in an open-world game like this, they’re a slightly more involved alternative to the usual process of mindlessly following arrows to the next cutscene and accompanying action sequence. Here, you need to make deductions in order to figure out where you’re going, to decide which archive has the information you need and which combination of search criteria will get it. It’s a fitting accompaniment to the game’s myriad crime scene investigation sequences, where you’ll comb an area for evidence and then fit together clues to form new, sometimes differing, conclusions in the “mind palace” section of the game menu.

Developer Frogwares is best known for a long-running series of Sherlock Holmes games, and that influence is clear in their latest adaptation, which is based on the works of H.P. Lovecraft and his overarching Cthulhu mythos. Reed has arrived in Oakmont due to disturbing visions only to find the place devastated by a flood all but biblical in its proportions. And that disaster is decidedly ongoing; some ships have run so far aground that they block off parts of the city, and so many of the streets are underwater that citizens often travel by boat or on crude, makeshift wooden walkways. Thick crusts of barnacles seem to cake every surface, while hasty barricades wall off areas where the monsters are. Oakmont is a truly fascinating backdrop, where Lovecraftian horror has essentially become the new normal. Citizens simply step around the rotting carcasses of sea creatures that litter the streets of poor areas, and they’ve gotten used to weird new fauna like crustaceans that seem to wear dead cats like shells.

In a rather tenuous attempt to address Lovecraft’s virulent racism, fish-faced refugees from nearby Innsmouth are a common sight, minding their own business as they try to feed their own families like anyone else. The game specifies that they’re not all wrapped up in a Dagon-worshipping cult devoted to getting human women to birth fish-people, but so many of them are and the game is otherwise so disinterested in the average Joe Innsmouther (or even people of color) compared to the exploits of the white Mr. Reed that its journeying into race relations feels more like a perfunctory disclaimer. When it comes to Lovecraft’s metaphorical expression of his own abject horror at the Mixing of the Races, the game is largely uncritical.

You will, perhaps, take some of the in-game prejudice into account when you make your deductions. Is their cult, for example, really up to no good, or is the man opposing them just a racist? (Answer: It’s the former.) Based on such context, as well as other factors like your knowledge of the city itself or the personalities of involved characters derived from evidence, you piece together your own conclusions and make story decisions as a result. And although these investigations can feel a bit guided and simplified since there are only ever two real conclusions, they always leave a nagging sense that perhaps you were wrong.

Most of The Sinking City, though, is spent putting boots to ruined pavement in what feels like little more than busywork. Despite the presence of fast travel points, the process of running between crime scenes, archives, and the various characters grows tedious; for as interesting as the city can be beneath the surface, its grim, gray ruination makes for a rather homogeneous sight. Other activities, like putting crime scene events in order, similarly feel like time-wasters, though nothing quite approaches the drudgery of the game’s frequent combat.

Seemingly every crime scene, story area, and empty, side mission-hosting house with a similar layout is infested with fleshy gray abominations of inscrutable anatomy that Reed must shoot with a gun until they’re dead. Despite so much investigation, the game seems reticent to leave players alone with their thoughts for too long, opting to fill the spaces in between investigations with menial combat just in case you were getting bored finding clues. Loading screen tips advise that you flee when the opportunity presents itself, but the cramped environments and rudimentary stealth all but force you to make a stand over and over again.

Worse than the sheer tedium of shooting, however, is the effect it has on The Sinking City’s atmosphere; with the same four monster types lurking around every corner and conspicuous ammo crates strewn all over the place, there’s little dread to the experience of playing the game because you simply know what’s coming. The encounters are expected, and so is your triumph over them, which feels decidedly antithetical to Lovecraft’s favored themes of humanity’s insignificance and fragility in the face of forces it cannot understand. For what seems meant to be a horror game about piecing together clues and cobbling together what’s left of your sanity, long stretches of The Sinking City are inordinately concerned with killing the shit out of some monsters as a sort of Chosen One. With pistol in one hand, eldritch relic in the other, and fedora comfortably shading his white, stubbled face, Charles Reed looks and feels more like a mentally tormented Indiana Jones.

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

Developer: Frogwares Publisher: Bigben Interactive Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: June 27, 2019 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood and Gore, Suggestive Themes, Violence Buy: Game

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Review: My Friend Pedro Vividly Casts You as a Bollywood-Style Action Hero

Every shootout is an opportunity to execute a thoroughly balletic performance of sorts.

4

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My Friend Pedro
Photo: Devolver Digital

Bollywood’s charm lies in the sheer melodrama and absurdity of its films, which typically feature heroes taking arms against foes in lurid fashion. The industry’s influence on My Friend Pedro, a shoot ‘em up from Swedish developer Victor Agren’s DeadToast Entertainment, is certainly unmistakable. Indeed, you’ll feel like a Bollywood strongman as you mow down mobs of henchmen in spectacular ways as the game’s unnamed protagonist, with Pedro, your chatty banana companion, cracking wise by your side.

Each level of the game is presented as a 2D platformer, and there are unbounded thrills to be had in making it through each area, from ramming through a plate-glass wall into a room to gliding down from an overhead cable to the story below. As you caper across abandoned buildings and deserted rooftops with an array of firearms at your disposal, you’ll pump your enemies’ guts full of lead as the dizzying electronic soundtrack—redolent of a neo-noir film—slickly complements the carnage. And because you have to plan your moves in advance, it’s almost as if you’re choreographing that carnage. Every shootout is an opportunity to execute a thoroughly balletic performance of sorts. And with more points awarded for intricate stunts, there’s a huge incentive to bring as much pizazz to your violence as possible.

How you carry out all these stunts is dependent on your creativity and skill, with players equipped with an arsenal of Bollywood-esque combat techniques. Among these is a nifty trick called split aiming, which lets you wield a pair of guns and shoot two targets at the same time. You can also perform an elaborate somersault in midair, all while raining bullets down on the targets below you. Even conveniently placed objects, like a frying pan laying on the ground, can be used to pull off even more outrageous stunts. The pan, for instance, is an especially useful weapon against hard-to-reach mobsters: Kick it into the air and fire at it and your bullets will ricochet off its surface and right into nearby enemies.

In later chapters, My Friend Pedro points to a more profound narrative beneath its silly veneer, weaving in clues to the protagonist’s depression as well as a twisted backstory. There’s an entire chapter devoted to his crumbling mental state, with the player traversing through a hallucinatory dreamscape painted in pastel hues, all as quirky, floating figureheads and soft doughy clouds dance about. The shift in tonality is jarring, but there’s a pleasant self-awareness to My Friend Pedro as it shovels cartoonish levels of elegant violence at the player. Later chapters even see the game breaking the fourth wall to poke fun at you. In one instance, you’ll be laying siege upon a crew of white brutes known as hardcore gamers, whose soundbites consist of familiar gaming lingo like “Git guud noob” and “GG.”

Throughout, you can dramatically slow down the pace of combat, and you’ll feel like Neo from The Matrix as you leap off an impossibly tall skyscraper, fending off hordes of enemies falling alongside you. If the slow-motion gunplay makes such feats easier to pull off, there’s more challenge in mastering the controls that allow you to split aim, wall jump, and somersault. That gameplay may be limited in the end, but the violence in My Friend Pedro is so hyperbolic and varied—at one point, you’ll find yourself doing backflips on a motorcycle in order to avoid a barrage of bombs—that you’ll be gunning to repeat levels in order to best your high score. It’s mayhem that speaks so strongly in the language of the Bollywood action film that the only thing you may be left wanting for is the wisecracking Pedro to do a song-and-dance routine once the curtain comes down on your adventure.

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

Developer: DeadToast Entertainment Publisher: Devolver Digital Platform: Switch Release Date: June 20, 2019 Buy: Game

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E3 2019: The Best and Worst Surprises

The 2019 Electronic Entertainment Expo presented an industry in transition.

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Devolver Digital
Photo: Devolver Digital

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

E3 ran from June 11—13.

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

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

5

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Outer Wilds
Photo: Annapurna Interactive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1

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Warhammer: Chaosbane
Photo: Eko Software

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: Hitman

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

1.5

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Hitman

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

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

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Interview: Lynn Shelton on Honing Her Process for Sword of Trust

The filmmaker discusses how she wants viewers to feel like they’re paratrooping into her characters’ lives.

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Lynn Shelton
Photo: IFC Films

Lynn Shelton has amassed a formidable body of work between her eight features and countless television episodes. Her latest outing, the comic adventure Sword of Trust, represents her most topical work to date. After pawn shop owner Mel (played by Marc Maron) purchases an old sword, he gets plunged into world of conspiracy culture as the relic attracts legions of online prowlers convinced that the weapon represents proof that the Confederacy won the Civil War. The logline might be Shelton’s wildest yet, but the elements that have made her work indelible for over a decade remain intact: realistic conversations, emotional authenticity, and a commitment to multi-dimensional characters.

I chatted with Shelton on Sword of Trust’s opening day, which saw the director, writer, producer, editor, and occasional actress in great spirits. Our conversation covered her pursuit of Maron for this specific project, how she developed her unique script-development process, and why she wants viewers to feel like they’re paratrooping into her characters’ lives.

Last year on Marc Maron’s podcast, you mentioned that you liked exploring relationships between people who wouldn’t normally interact. Sword of Trust continues in that tradition for you. What keeps bringing you back to these dynamics?

Have you heard of this theory of multiple intelligences, like different types of intelligences we have? I can’t remember the names that [Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner] came up with, I think there’s eight. I know I’m not the brightest bulb on all of these scales, but one way that I think I’m pretty high is in emotional intelligence. I like to think I am, anyway. I’ve always been that close observer of human behavior. I also really love humans. I feel like the thing that makes humans human are their flaws. So, on screen, I don’t like to see people who are too smoothed out, all good or all bad. I’m interested in characters who are essentially good people, but they may be total fuck-ups and well-meaning who may sabotage themselves. Individual fucking up often happens in relation to other people. We may have a pre-determined need to connect to other people, but we’re constantly sabotaging ourselves.

Sometimes, like I said on the podcast, I’m much more interested in unlikely combinations of people because it’s not a prewritten script we’re handed. It’s not like, “This is who would be appropriate for you as a friend. This is the way you should act. This is the box we’ve already determined for you.” Any kind of out-of-the-box way of living one’s life or being surprised by a connection you feel to a human being, all those little happy accidents in life are the things I like to explore. To inspire people, not to just go through life in this sort of “this is what someone else had in mind for me, and I should follow that plan”—that feels very depressing to me. It’s more interesting to open your heart and your life up to other experiences.

To explore relationships in that way makes the everyday more interesting and exciting.

Yeah, exactly. It gives you a reason to stick around.

Having been a guest of Marc’s on his podcast twice, do you see any of his interviewer “persona” having an impact on the person you film on screen? Does training himself to listen and be present have any effect on making him a better screen partner?

Absolutely! The first time I directed Marc was on his TV show Maron, and I was so fascinated by his process. He’s raw and a really natural actor. He steps in front of the camera, and he’s looking at his scene partner and really knows how to listen and engage. A lot of that comes from sitting across from people and staring into their eyes. That’s why he’s such a good interviewer and has the top interview podcast, because he has a genuine conversation with people. And that’s all acting really is too. He also has this weird ability to let the camera and crew and other extraneous details just fade away for him, and a lot of people find all that really distracting and difficult to shut out. He doesn’t know where the camera is half the time. He said to me, “The next thing I want to do as an actor is figure out when the camera is on me.” I said, “What?! That camera’s right there!” He’s like, “I don’t see it. I’m not aware of it. I’m just in this scene with the person.” I’m like, “That is a gift, my friend. That is incredible that you’re able to not see the lights and craziness, just be in the scene.” He’s really able to do it. I think that definitely comes from that same skill set he’s drawing on.

Where does the genesis of your films occur? They usually have some kind of strong conceptual selling point or hook, but they’re often like a Trojan horse to get to deep conversations between the characters about something else.

It is, and the genesis of the vast majority of my films is an actor as a muse that I want to work with. Humpday was Mark Duplass, Outside In was his brother, Jay Duplass, this movie was Marc Maron, who I’ve been really wanting to make a movie with for three and a half years. Then there’s other things, like a territory I want to explore or an element I want to return to, like improvisation, which I haven’t done since Your Sister’s Sister. I’ve done several movies in between that have been scripted, but I wanted to allow myself a new genre. I knew I wanted to laugh because the last movie was a drama, and I was ready to laugh—and let myself really laugh by going into the outlandish and ridiculous, plot-wise. Go into some comedy-caper territory, which I’ve never let myself do before. I’ve been totally real in every moment, and this time I was like, “What if I have real characters who go to a crazy place?” I wanted to make a culturally relevant movie that didn’t make you want to slit your wrists. It referred to what was going on and some of the problematic elements of what we’re dealing with in society. We’re having this peak moment in conspiracy theories. They’ve always been around, but this is definitely where they’ve achieved a peak moment that I find very disturbing. So, it’s usually a territory I want to explore and an actor I want to work with.

How do you research or prepare to authentically treat conspiracy culture?

Well, there’s this thing called a computer and a thing called the internet, and boy, is it all in there! [laughs] We went down a rabbit hole with Mike O’Brien, my co-writer. It’s so fascinating because there’s little in-fighting. They really bonded over Pizzagate and the Twin Towers being an inside job, but then when it comes to hollow earth versus the earth is on fire, they’re at odds and frenemies for life. It’s insane, the shit you find.

How do you approach shooting improvisational dialogue? There’s a very naturalistic feel to it, but there are hardly any vocal fillers like “um” or “you know.”

Well, you get the right cast, so that really helps. I’ll tell you, you can do a lot in the editing room. You’ll see it on screen, there are these runs of incredible monologues. But if I’m cutting away to another actor for a reaction shot, it’s often because I’m slicing out an “um” or an “ah” or a little bauble. The edit room is the most redemptive place in the universe. It’s incredible what you can do and how you can carve out the right story. Especially with improvisation, it really is where the actual script is written. Our first cut—it didn’t feel fat, it was funny throughout—was two and a half hours long. I was like, “How am I going to cut out five to seven minutes, much less an hour?” And for me, a comedy has to be 90 minutes, so I knew I needed an hour out of there. It was like, “This is hysterical, this is gold, but it’s not serving the story. Ultimately, what is the story? It could be this, or it could include this, but let’s just hone it down to Mel’s emotional arc and make sure we can track it through the craziness.” We want to care about these people just enough and balance it. There was so much work in the edit room.

Sword of Trust is definitely a comedy, but the scene I found most striking was Mel explaining his history to your character, Deidre, and in such a matter-of-fact, serious fashion, in the back of the truck. Did you always intend to set off this important part of the story with such a stark tonal contrast?

No, it wasn’t. When Mike O’Brien really insisted that I be in the movie, I finally relented and thought I was going to be a random customer who came in for five seconds. But then, I realized she could be a device that helps us track Mel’s arc. I was really panicking for a long time because I couldn’t figure out how to make her funny. I can be comedic, but she wasn’t comedic. She was so desperate and tragic. Then I finally realized that I wasn’t going to worry about it. I wasn’t going to try to turn her into some kind of laughing-stock. I was just going to be what she feels like she needs to be. That was an indication that this movie is going to have that real element of heaviness to it, but it happened really organically. I wanted you to care about these people, but I didn’t realize there was going to be that much depth to one of them, so much poignant heart and humanity. That was a nice surprise.

You’ve described your writing process as being “upside-down,” where the script develops alongside the characters. How did you develop this writing style?

I never went to traditional film school. I had this long, circuitous route to get to what I’m doing. I started as a theater actor, then I went to photography and started doing experimental work, but everything as a solo artist. The most important work of the film, making the process of the acting, is obstructed at every turn by the process of making it. You’re out of order. In theater, you at least get to play a story from beginning to end and feel it out. You’re at scene 35 on the first day and like, “What’s happened before this? Where am I emotionally?” And then you’ve got to do it 40 times with the camera in different positions and act like nobody else is there. The whole thing is so hard, unless you’re Meryl Streep! But if you’re not working with Meryl Streep, what do you do as a director? I need real people on screen.

My second feature, My Effortless Brilliance, was a total experiment. I came up with these characters in my head and tried to cast them from a pretty small pool of actors. They were nothing like the characters. I realized, “What if you did it the other way? What if you had a person you wanted to work with…” That was where I started with that idea, and all I cared about was to make it feel like a documentary. I wanted you to turn the TV on and be like, “What am I watching? Am I in these people’s lives?” And people have said they’ve had that experience where they’ll turn it on in the middle of Showtime and have no idea what they’re watching but that it feels like a documentary. Which is like, “Yes! That’s what I meant.”

And then I honed it with Humpday. Once I knew I could work in that way, I upped the stakes. I’ll bring in a few lights. I had said, “No lights! Me and another camera operator with tiny cameras, a boom op, that’s it.” I eliminated the crew. But that was where I came up with that initial impulse, to make it feel really real. If the character fits the actor like a glove because it’s half them or three-quarters them and they’ve developed it with me…I want real humans.

I actually had that experience of picking up one of your movies and not missing a beat. I was late to my showtime of Your Sister’s Sister in the theater, but I didn’t feel like I was lost. Then a few years later I watched it at home from the beginning, which helped it make a little more sense. But I felt I had easily intuited what I had missed.

It’s funny because I want my movies to feel like you’re paratrooping into somebody’s life. We’re taking a little journey down the river of their life for a while, and then we leave again. I don’t like to tie things up too neatly at the end because I want you to get the sense that they’re continuing to live their lives, and who knows what’s going to happen in the future. But you just sort of paratrooped in a little bit later! [laughs]

On that note, there’s a line toward the end of the film where Jillian Bell’s character, Cynthia, takes a deep breath and says, “What a strange experience.” Is that line improvised or scripted? In a lot of ways, the line feels like it sums up where characters often net out at the end of your films.

That was all improvised! It’s all ordinary people going into crazy land, but yeah, ordinary people having weird dramas in their everyday lives. I mean, it can happen. I’ve heard stories of shit happening to random people that feel like…you couldn’t write that shit!

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Review: Into the Ashes Brings Nothing New to the Country Noir Genre

Aaron Harvey is prone to pulling back from any moment that might give greater depth to his revenge tale.

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Into the Ashes
Photo: RLJE Films

Aaron Harvey’s Into the Ashes is the latest in an increasing string of so-called country noirs set in the dilapidated backwoods of rural America, places ravaged by the opioid crisis and populated by jobless people long ago abandoned by politicians. It has little to distinguish itself, narratively or thematically, from similarly dour films, and it lets generic images of its rundown Alabama locale (rusted trucks, cramped houses, landlines in a wireless world) stand in as symbols of national decline without truly seeping into the complex social rot of the place. Its plot, of a reformed criminal forced to contend with his old gang leader over some stolen loot, is similarly superficial, hitting the typical beats of its genre.

Where Into the Ashes gets a boost is in its excellent cast of grizzled character actors, all of whom vibrantly express varying degrees of weariness and rage. Luke Grimes plays the erstwhile ne’er-do-well and ex-con Nick Brenner with the nervousness of a man who’s just learning to let go of his past and give in to hope. The man’s gruff, taciturn nature is leavened by his tender relationship with his wife, Tara (Marguerite Moreau), and he projects his faith in normalcy onto her. Nick relies so heavily on Tara for his emotional wellbeing that he anxiously calls home while on an overnight hunting trip just so he can hear her voice.

Equally human beneath a hard exterior is Nick’s father-in-law, Frank (Robert Taylor), the local sheriff whose intimidating Tom Waits-esque voice and stiff demeanor belie his fumbling, masculine attempts to welcome Nick into his family. Strongest of all, though, is Frank Grillo as Sloan, Nick’s recently paroled and vengeful boss. Grillo is at home playing big-fish-in-small-pond villains, and the actor makes the most of Sloan’s thin characterization, exuding psychopathic menace when Sloan confronts Nick in the latter’s home, drawing out every oblique threat as he circles the subject of the money that Nick stole from the crew’s last job before Sloan was sent to prison. Grillo expertly inflects even the silliest moments of sub-Tarantino dialogue with a disarming venom, such as an extended riff on pie and ice cream.

But if the actors are primed to explore the contours around a basic premise, Henry constantly pulls back from any moment that might give greater depth to his revenge tale. Women exist to be supportive and to become victims, while character-driven conversations between Nick and Frank devolve into asinine ethics debates over justifiable violence. Worst of all, there’s just no sense that the film is saying or revealing much of anything. There’s one moment where Into the Ashes achieves a touch of bleak grace akin to the work of Cormac McCarthy by skipping over the events leading to a shootout and focusing only on its grisly aftermath: bodies strewn about in puddles of blood that look like reflective pools of black ice in the pale moonlight. Then, not five minutes later, we get a flashback showing the lead-up to that carnage. As with so much else in the film, a haunting moment of elision is negated by literal representation.

Cast: Luke Grimes, Frank Grillo, Marguerite Moreau, James Badge Dale, Robert Taylor, Brad Smith, Jeff Pope, Andra Frankle Director: Aaron Harvey Screenwriter: Aaron Harvey Distributor: RLJE Films Running Time: 97 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Stéphane Brizé’s At War Is Politically Charged but Artistically Inert

The film is content to bluntly affirm that corporate attempts at compassion are always secondary to providing profit to shareholders.

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At War
Photo: Cinema Libre Studio

Seven months after the first flare-up of France’s Gilets Jaunes, the nascent populist movement shows no signs of ceasing. Combined with the country’s ongoing Telecom scandal, in which several executives have been charged with “moral harassment” after 35 workers were allegedly hounded into committing suicide, it’s evident that what’s simmering there is an extension of the same unease escalating around much of Europe, and the world at large. It’s a state of affairs that makes At War seem especially of the moment, and which leaves its eventual failure to offer any special insight so disappointing. Provided with a prime opportunity to animate the zeitgeist, Stéphane Brizé’s labor-focused drama instead uses this timeliness to prod along the most obvious of points, its nuts-and-bolts, process-oriented approach never amounting to more than a surface look at the issues it purports to confront.

The film in some ways functions as an unofficial prelude to Brizé’s prior The Measure of a Man, in which an unemployed machinist played by Vincent Lindon finds a new career as a hyper-market security guard, where he’s eventually forced to choose between serving as a traitorous management lackey and losing his job. Here, Lindon’s Laurent Amédéo is still in possession of his original occupation, though things are hanging by a thread, as a last-ditch organizing effort attempts to halt the closure of a manufacturing plant in Agen. Surrounded by a cast of convincing non-professionals, Laurent leads the picket line, refusing to waver from the straight and narrow, an intense figure of principle whose scruples are never in doubt.

At War is largely notable for its steadfast devotion to a kind of mechanistic aesthetic, which unfortunately lines up with its cheerless didacticism, the two qualities cohering in a scene-by-scene summation of a strike action that repeatedly hammers home the same general points. The scenes themselves evince heft, fluidity, and an impressive sense of improvisation, but the staging is static and the eventual outcome is always clear. The game is given away by Lindon’s stoic face and the gradual unraveling of the plot, which envisions internal disintegration—leveraged by outside pressure—as the insidious method by which solidarity is smashed. Despite some genuine drama in this dissolution, it’s always clear who’s right and who’s wrong, which material interests each is representing, and who’s lying and who’s telling the truth.

This didn’t have to be the case, as proven by David France’s procedure-focused documentary How to Survive a Plague, which balanced a similarly diagrammatic narrative with extensive character detail, expanding the stakes while affixing a deeper subtext about the ways the victory of a marginalized group eventually diminishes its radical standing. Intent on emphasizing the connections between callous corporate greed and populist unrest, Brizé’s film is bluntly focused on the bottom line. There’s a certain dramatic function to this technique, as it examines the individual human actions that allow such interests to put their will into practice, but it doesn’t justify the flat, exhortative style of address.

As another example of how well this kind of economic criticism can be carried off, there are the dazzling docu-essays of German filmmaker Harun Farocki, who routinely found surprising intricacies in the cold façade of modern capitalism, while offering empathetic alignment with workers as a matter of course. At War, on the other hand, merely summarizes what its audience already knows, affirming that corporate attempts at compassion are always secondary to providing profit to shareholders, and that genuine humanity and integrity are liabilities when confronting such an unfeeling monolith. Like Ken Loach’s recent Palme d’Or winner I, Daniel Blake, it’s a film whose political principles are hard to disagree with, yet which leans so heavily on this moral certitude as to render itself entirely inert.

Cast: Vincent Lindon, Melanie Rover, Jacques Borderie, David Rey, Olivier Lemaire Director: Stéphane Brizé Screenwriter: Stéphane Brizé, Olivier Gorce Distributor: Cinema Libre Studio Running Time: 115 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Bottom of the 9th Strikes Out with Too Much Plot Incident

Raymond De Felitta’s film offers a sampler course of formulas, which creates a strangely unfulfilling tension.

1.5

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Bottom of the 9th
Photo: Saban Films

Raymond De Felitta’s Bottom of the 9th offers a sampler course of formulas, which creates a strangely unfulfilling tension. Just when you expect the film to go in a certain direction, it goes in another, only for it to again switch routes, though there’s never a sense of expectations being deliberately challenged or tweaked. Rather, the filmmakers merely seem to be indulging a variety of passing fancies, which is a shame because the actors here are game and occasionally imbue the shopworn scenes with liveliness.

Sonny Stano (Joe Manganiello) is the perfect hero for either a noir or a redemptive sports film, a man approaching middle age who just served a 19-year sentence for manslaughter. Famous in his Bronx neighborhood for being drafted by the Yankees, only to flush his life down the toilet, Sonny is attempting to patch his life together while doing a perpetual apology tour on behalf of friends and strangers alike. He’s initially hired by an old friend, Joey (James Madio), to work in a fish market that seems to be a front for something. Joey has a cagey energy, and this narrative isn’t without intrigue, but De Felitta and screenwriter Robert Bruzio unceremoniously lose sight of it in succumbing to a number of clichés.

Of course, Sonny is revealed to have a woman who got away, Angela (Sofia Vergara), who one day runs into her old beau at a market. They clearly have chemistry, as do the actors playing them, but their dialogue is composed of nothing but redemptive platitudes. In these scenes, Manganiello and Vergara are stuck in a worst-of-all-worlds situation. Their characters are relentlessly mousey, which is appropriate to the awkward context of Sonny and Angela’s reunion, but which also robs these sexy actors of the opportunity to enjoy playing off one another. Meanwhile, said mousiness isn’t poignant either, as the characters haven’t been imagined beyond the respective stereotypes of the fallen man and jilted woman.

Bottom of the 9th then flirts with a narrative similar to that of Bull Durham and Major League, in which Sonny is hired by a local minor league ball team to rein in the fiery, egotistical talents of a rookie named Manny (Xavier Scott Evans). Evans is ferociously charismatic, suggesting a young Wesley Snipes and giving Manganiello a kinetic vibe to play off of, and so the film finally begins to come to life, with great character actors like Michael Rispoli and Burt Young riffing on the sidelines. However, this conceit is also left hanging, as the film shifts into a story of the unlikely comeback, with Sonny’s own talents taking center ring.

De Felitta might’ve gotten by with these contrivances if he were a natural showman, but the filmmaker displays little interest in the Bronx setting in which his characters live, or in rendering their experiences in a fashion that refutes screenwriterly index-card portraiture. For instance, a prison flashback in which Sonny gets into a fight during a ball game is reduced to trite and melodramatic close-ups, while much of the remainder of the film is composed of medium shots designed to accentuate only the largely uninteresting dialogue. There’s truly nothing in Bottom of the 9th but plot incident, and the leisurely, impersonal one-thing-after-another-ness of the film’s construction is stifling.

Cast: Joe Manganiello, Sofía Vergara, Denis O'Hare, Burt Young, James Madio, Yancey Arias, Michael Rispoli, Vincent Pastore, Dominik García-Lorido, Michael Maize, Kevin William Paul Director: Raymond De Felitta Screenwriter: Robert Bruzio Distributor: Saban Films Running Time: 111 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Crawl Is Fun and Economical but Lacks Go-for-Broke Inventiveness

The film is more straight-faced than Alexandre Aja’s prior work, trading absurd kills for narrow escapes from gaping alligator jaws.

2.5

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Crawl
Photo: Paramount Pictures

Unlike the giddily crass Piranha 3D, Alexandre Aja’s Crawl is a quiet beast of a film. It’s built not on a foundation of over-the-top gore, but on a series of escalations. As a hurricane barrels toward Florida, ace swimmer Haley (Kaya Scodelario) becomes worried after her father, Dave (Barry Pepper), doesn’t return her phone calls. She travels to her old family home and finds him unconscious in the house’s flooded crawl space, with large alligators swimming in the water.

Early on, the camera often lingers on the deceptive stillness of the rising water for maximum suspense. Haley and her father are trapped in the house with no more than the tools they can find or already have on hand, MacGyvering their very survival out of shovels, flashlights, and flares. The best parts of the film slyly set up those tools and other objects, including a swing set and a rat trap, only to bring them back at some later, climactic moment.

If Crawl, then, is an easily digestible piece of workmanlike thrills, its only real bit of gristle is its po-faced father-daughter bonding. Haley and Dave are somewhat estranged; the family home was meant to have been sold off after Dave’s recent divorce from Haley’s mother; and flashbacks to childhood swim meets show father and daughter tempting fate with flagrantly ironic use of the term “apex predator.” In the face of certain death, they cobble their relationship back together through Hallmark-card platitudes while sentimental music plays on the film’s soundtrack. It’s the absolute thinnest of familial drama, and it will do little to redirect your emotional investment away from the survival of the family dog.

Between these family moments, of course, the flood waters run red as people get got by gators. Aja is prone to lingering in prolonged closeup on things like a protruding bone being shoved back into place, but he otherwise seems to have gotten the most inspired bits of underwater violence out of his system with Piranha 3D. Crawl is more straight-faced than his prior work, trading absurd kills for narrow escapes from gaping alligator jaws. And while these moments are suspenseful, with nail-biting scrapes involving a handgun, some loose pipes, and one particularly clever shower-door maneuver, there’s precious little of the go-for-broke invention or outrageousness that might have made the film more than a fun and economical thriller.

Cast: Kaya Scodelario, Barry Pepper, Ross Anderson, Morfydd Clark Director: Alexandre Aja Screenwriter: Michael Rasmussen, Shawn Rasmussen Distributor: Paramount Pictures Running Time: 87 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: The Farewell Thoughtfully Braids the Somber and the Absurd

The film taps into universal truths about the passage of time, the inevitability of loss, and how we prepare one another for it.

3.5

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The Farewell
Photo: A24

In the opening scene of writer-director Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, a Chinese grandmother (Zhao Shuzhen), affectionately referred to as Nai Nai by her family, and her Chinese-American granddaughter, Billi (Awkwafina), have a warm, affectionate phone conversation in which each woman incessantly lies to the other. A professionally adrift, financially bereft millennial whose writing ambitions have come to naught, Billi lets her grandmother believe her life is busy and full of social engagements; for her part, Nai Nai insists that she’s at her sister’s house, rather than in a drably decorated doctor’s office. Wang frames Nai Nai against the kitschy, oversized picture of a lagoon that hangs on the wall, as if to emphasize the flimsiness of the illusions the pair is painting for one another.

The sequence calls to mind the advantage of audio-only phone calls: for allowing us to more easily maintain the falsehoods that comprise a not insignificant portion of our relationships. Given that minor mistruths prop up our most basic social connections, Wang focuses The Farewell on the moral quandary of whether a big lie—specifically, culturally contingent situations—might actually be an expression of genuine love. The film takes up the question with a tone of melancholic drollery, a sense of irony that doesn’t lose touch with the human feelings at its core. The Farewell is “based on an actual lie,” evidently an episode from Wang’s life, and its careful mixture of the somber and the absurd rings true to life.

As it turns out, Nai Nai has terminal lung cancer, but Billi’s father’s family elects to lie to the woman about her MRI results, an action that’s evidently within the bounds of Chinese law. But as Billi’s assimilated immigrant father, Haiyan (Tzi Ma), points out to his brother, Haibin (Jiang Yongbo), during a crisis of conscience, such a thing is both frowned upon in America and prosecutable. Struggling even more with the decision, of course, is the more Americanized Billi, who can’t reconcile her Western notions of love and the sanctity of the individual with the widespread practice of lying to family members about their impending deaths.

To create a cover for a family visit to Beijing, the family forces Billi’s cousin, Hao Hao (Chen Hanwei), who lives in Japan, to marry his girlfriend, Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara), of three months. This plan provides plenty of fodder for Wang’s dry humor, as the family attempts to maintain the veneer of celebration while also bidding farewell to their ostensibly clueless matriarch, who’s confused by Hao Hao and Aiko’s lack of affection and the generally dour mood that predominates in the lead-up to the wedding. It’s potential material for a farce, but even in its funny moments, Wang’s film is contemplative rather than frenetic, preferring to hold shots as her characters gradually, often comically adjust to the reality that Nai Nai will soon be gone.

Awkwafina, hitherto notable mostly for her comic supporting roles, gives a revelatory lead performance as Billi, the thirtysomething prone to bouts of adolescent sullenness. Perhaps playing a Bushwick-based, first-generation-American creative type isn’t much of a stretch for the Queens-born rapper/actress, but she immediately brings to the role the depth of lived experience: We believe from the first frames in the long-distance love between Billi and her grandmother, and the existential crisis the young woman feels as she negotiates two cultures’ differing approaches to death and disease. In taking us to Beijing through Billi’s eyes, which are often blinking back tears as she says goodbye without articulating “goodbye,” The Farewell’s morose but not hopeless comedy taps into universal truths about the passage of time, the inevitability of loss, and how we prepare one another for it.

Cast: Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Zhao Shuzhen, Lu Hong, Jiang Yongbo, Chen Hanwei Director: Lulu Wang Screenwriter: Lulu Wang Distributor: A24 Running Time: 98 min Rating: PG Year: 2018

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Review: The Lion King Remake Finds Its Place in the Circle of Consumption

This ostentatiously expensive remake is reliant on our memory of the original to accentuate every significant moment.

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The Lion King
Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

It’s somewhat paradoxical to critique Disney’s recent series of “live-action” remakes for precisely repeating the narratives, emotional cues, shot sequences, and soundscapes of their earlier animated versions. More than young children, who might well be content watching the story in vibrant 2D, it’s the parents who are the target audience of this new take on The Lion King, which aims to light up adults’ nostalgia neurons. In this sense, Jon Favreau’s film achieves its goals, running through a text beloved by an entire generation almost line for line, and shot for shot—with some scenes extended to reach the two hours seemingly required of Hollywood tentpoles. Throughout, though, one gets the impression that there’s something very cheap at the core of this overtly, ostentatiously expensive film, reliant as it is on our memory of the original to accentuate every significant moment.

The new film differs from its source in simulating a realistic African savannah and wildlife through digital animation and compositing, but it doesn’t provide anything resembling a genuinely new idea, visually or dramatically. Favreau meticulously recreates the framing and montage of 1994’s The Lion King as he runs through the unaltered storyline. The young lion prince Simba (voiced as a cub by JD McCrary and as a grown lion by Donald Glover) witnesses his father Mufasa’s (James Earl Jones) seemingly accidental death by stampede. Unknown to Simba, his uncle, Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor), murdered his own brother, but the jealous would-be heir manipulates the rambunctious young lion into accepting the blame for his father’s death. In self-exile, Simba represses his guilt by adopting the carefree philosophy of meercat Timon (Billy Eichner) and warthog Pumbaa (Seth Rogen), until his long-lost betrothed, Nala (Beyoncé Knowles-Carter), happens across him and convinces him to return to reclaim his throne.

The film’s world, as conceived by Favreau’s camera and an army of CG animators, is far less expressive than the one Disney’s original artists created in 1994. Tied to the idea of recompositing a reality, the filmmakers take less license in making the elephant graveyard where malicious hyenas Shenzi (Florence Kasumba), Azizi (Eric André), and Kamari (Keegan-Michael Key) live a fantastical, nightmarish terrain, and they constrain the choreography of the animals during Simba’s performance of “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” to the bounds of actual animal physiology. Such musical sequences suffer under the regime of realism: Scar’s villainous exposition song, “Be Prepared,” appears in a truncated version spoken more than sung by Ejiofor, effectively robbing the original song of its devious exuberance.

The characters’ faces are also less pliable, less anthropomorphized—their demeanor harder to read—than in the traditional animation format of the original film. This isn’t necessarily a hindrance to crafting an affecting story (see Chris Noonan’s Babe), but the closeness with which Favreau hews to the original film means that the moments crafted for the earlier medium don’t quite land in this one. Scar isn’t nearly so menacing when he’s simply a gaunt lion with a scar, and Nala and Simba’s reunion isn’t as meaningful when their features can’t soften in humanlike fashion when they recognize each other. The Lion King invites—indeed, attempts to feed off of—reference to the original but consistently pales in comparison.

There’s another important difference one feels lurking in the margins of this film. The attitude of the first Lion King toward nature approached something like deference. The original film isn’t flawless: In its depiction of a patrilineal kingdom being saved from a usurper and his army of lazy serfs by the rightful heir, it questionably projected human politics into a nonhuman world. But it was an ambitious project by the then comparatively modest Walt Disney Studios to craft an expressive, living portrait of the animal kingdom. In contrast, there’s a hubristic quality to this CG-infused remake, as if Disney is demonstrating that its digitally fabricated imagery can fully capture the reality of a healthy, autonomous animal world—at a historical moment when that world is in danger of being totally snuffed out by the human race’s endless cycles of production and reproduction. The subject of this tiresome retread is ultimately less the “circle of life” and more the circle of consumption.

Cast: Donald Glover, James Earl Jones, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Alfre Woodard, Billy Eichner, Seth Rogen, Keegan-Michael Key, Eric André, John Kani, JD McCrary, John Oliver Director: Jon Favreau Screenwriter: Jeff Nathanson, Brenda Chapman Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Running Time: 118 min Rating: PG Year: 2019 Buy: Soundtrack

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Review: Rojo Is a Chilly Allegory for the Distance Between Classes

It masterfully sustains a sense of “wrongness” that will be felt even by those unfamiliar with Argentina’s history.

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Rojo
Photo: Distrib Films

With Rojo, writer-director Benjamín Naishtat conjures a haunting aura of debauched boredom, evoking a climate in which something vast yet barely acknowledged is happening under the characters’ noses. Though the film is set in Argentina in 1975, on the cusp of a coup and at the height of the Dirty War, when U.S.-backed far-right military groups were kidnapping, torturing, and killing perceived liberal threats, these events are never explicitly mentioned. Instead, the characters do what people choosing to ignore atrocity always have, talking around uncomfortable subjects and focusing on the mundane textures of their lives. Meanwhile, Naishtat expresses Argentina’s turmoil via symbols and sequences in which aggression erupts out of seemingly nowhere, actualizing the tension that’s hidden in plain sight. Throughout the film, Naishtat masterfully sustains a sense of “wrongness” that will be felt even by audiences who’re unfamiliar with Argentina’s history.

The film opens with a home being emptied of its belongings—an image that will come to scan as a metaphor for a country that’s “cleaning house.” Naishtat then springs an odd and creepy encounter between a famous attorney, Claudio (Darío Grandinetti), and a man who will eventually come to be known as “the hippie” (Diego Cremonesi). Claudio is sitting at a stylish restaurant minding his own business and waiting for his wife, Susana (Andrea Frigerio), when the hippie storms in and demands that Claudio give up his table. The hippie reasons that he’s ready to eat now, while Claudio is inhabiting unused space. Claudio gives up the table and proceeds, with his unexpected civility in the face of the hippie’s hostility, to humiliate this interloper. And this scene reflects how skillful Naishtat is at tying us in knots: In the moment, Claudio is the sympathetic party, but this confrontation becomes a parable of how people like the hippie are being pushed out—“disappeared”—by a country riven with political divisions.

Tensions between Claudio and the hippie escalate, and the hippie eventually shoots himself in the face with a pistol. Rather than taking the man to the hospital, Claudio drives him out to the desert, leaving his body there and allowing him to die. What’s shocking here is the matter-of-fact-ness of Claudio’s actions; based on his demeanor, Claudio might as well be carrying trash out to the dump, and he moves on with his life, returning to work and basking in the adulation that his profession has granted him. In a conventional thriller, this moral trespass would be the driving motor of the film, yet Naishtat drops the incident with the hippie for the majority of Rojo’s running time, following Claudio as he networks and engages in other scams.

Naishtat emulates, without editorializing, the casualness of his characters, and so Rojo is most disturbing for so convincingly suggesting idealism to be dead—with gritty brownish cinematography that further suggests a sensorial muddying. With little-to-no sense of stability, of faith in a social compass, the characters here often emphasize what should be trivial happenings. Susana’s decision to drink water at a gathering, rather than coffee or tea, becomes a kind of proxy gesture for the resistance that her and her social class are failing to show elsewhere, while a comic disappearance during a magic show macabrely mirrors the government’s killing and kidnapping of dissidents. Rojo’s centerpiece, however, is an eclipse that engulfs a beach in the color red, as Susana wanders a wooded area lost while Claudio, lacking sunglasses, blocks his eyes. The color red is also associated with communism, of course, as if the targets of this regime are demanding to be recognized.

Rojo eventually reprises the hippie narrative, as a famed Chilean detective, Sinclair (Alfredo Castro), comes hounding Claudio for answers, yet this development is soon revealed to be an elaborate fake-out. Out in the desert, one’s primed to expect the ruthlessly intelligent Sinclair to provide the wandering narrative a catharsis by forcing Claudio to take responsibility for something. But these men, both wealthy and respected, are of the same ilk. Though they’re each bound by routine and pretense, the death of lower classes means equally little to both of them. At this point, it’s clear that Rojo is less a thriller than a brutally chilly satire, concerning men who have the privilege, like other people who haven’t been deemed expendable by their government, to playact, offering ceremonial outrage that gratifies their egos while allowing a diseased society that benefits them to carry on with business as usual.

Cast: Darío Grandinetti, Andrea Frigerio, Alfredo Castro, Laura Grandinetti, Rafael Federman, Mara Bestelli, Claudio Martínez Bel, Abel Ledesma, Raymond E. Lee Director: Benjamín Naishtat Screenwriter: Benjamín Naishtat Distributor: Distrib Films Running Time: 109 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: The Art of Self-Defense Totters Between Raw Ferocity and Lifeless Comedy

The dojo of this film is the ultimate unsafe space, a place of deadpan irony and appalling brutality.

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The Art of Self-Defense
Photo: Bleecker Street

Writer–director Riley Stearns is a fan and practitioner of jiu-jitsu, which he’s credited with making him healthier and less lazy. Yet the filmmaker’s sophomore feature, The Art of Self-Defense, would seem to posit martial arts as the epitome of toxic masculinity. The dojo here is the ultimate unsafe space, a fight club stripped of Fincherian chic, which Stearns replaces with deadpan irony and appalling brutality.

The film centers on an accounts auditor, Casey Davies (Jesse Eisenberg), the platonic ideal of a hypomasculine twerp. He tells people his name like it’s a question, and his favorite music is “adult contemporary.” Even his pet dachshund reads as a loser: scrawny, with disproportionate features. Such meekness attracts the ire of bullies: his inanimate answering machine surreally berates him; French tourists in a coffee shop laugh at him (in French, which they don’t realize he understands); and, most seriously, a motorcycle gang nearly beats him to death. He’s just that kind of guy, so contemptibly inadequate that people want to hurt him.

Wandering the lonely streets of his unnamed city, Casey happens upon one of the film’s few populated spaces: a karate studio where Anna (Imogen Poots) provides a group of children with the affirmation and social support system Casey so desperately craves. “I want to be,” he says, “what intimidates me.” When he joins the adult class, he gets something extra from the studio’s sensei (Alessandro Nivola): a heaping side of male chauvinism. Soon, Casey is studying German—a manlier language than French, says the sensei—and listening to metal. He also stops petting his dog, so as not to coddle it, changes his desktop wallpaper at work to bare breasts, and punches his accommodating boss in the throat for being friendly.

Nivola dominates The Art of Self-Defense as his sensei does his loyal students, achieving alpha-male status with well-articulated arrogance, while Poots provides a valuable counter voice as Anna, calling attention to the preposterousness of that sexism as a talented and powerful woman, held back by the gender roles ingrained in this system of unarmed combat. (A scene in which Anna recounts an attempted sexual assault against her at the dojo, for which she was subsequently blamed and punished, is particularly affecting.) And Eisenberg’s Casey is the easily influenced straight man caught between the two, drawn to the pride and confidence offered by the sensei but also to the compassionate strength embodied by Anna.

The whole cast, however, struggles with Stearns’s overarching tone, and his screenplay’s occasional wit is usually delivered by the actors in such a deadpan that it flatlines. The contrasting flashes of ultraviolence, on the mat and off, thus have no counterbalance, leaving The Art of Self-Defense tottering between raw ferocity and lifeless comedy.

Stearns’s 2014 feature-length debut, Faults, was a tightly constructed and alluringly mysterious riff on similar issues, about the malleability of a man who lacks confidence. But it was unpredictable in its depiction of the slowly changing power dynamic between its characters; the film broke down and unmoored its audience along with its protagonist, a deprogrammer of cult members tricked into becoming one. In this film, though, the plot twists are telegraphed early. The hero is overly coded as pathetic, and we’re invited to laugh at him with the French tourists, not only to shake our heads at his brief, incel-like transformation into an overcompensating bro, but finally to find comfort in his use of violence to depose his violent sensei. The stakes seem low: Casey rejects the manipulative madman, a blackmailer with a black belt, who harnessed karate’s power for ill, but Steans is careful to vindicate karate itself, which might please its admirers but leave everyone else feeling indifferent.

Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Alessandro Nivola, Imogen Poots, Phillip Andre Botello, David Zellner, Steve Terada Director: Riley Stearns Screenwriter: Riley Stearns Distributor: Bleecker Street Running Time: 104 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Sword of Trust Is an Amiable Look at Southern Disillusionment

Marc Maron’s commanding aura of regret gives the film, despite its missed opportunities, an emotional center.

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Sword of Trust
Photo: IFC Films

Like most Lynn Shelton films, Sword of Trust is amiable and humanistic almost to a fault. The filmmaker has a gift for oddball humor, and for allowing her actors to form memorable and moving rapports, yet with the exception of Your Sister’s Sister, there often seems to be little at stake in her work. Sword of Trust often feels similarly slight, even though it’s about the legacy of the American Civil War and the “post-truth” crisis that’s currently plaguing the country. An engaging tension between tone and theme animates the film, but you may wish that Shelton had approached her material with more focus.

Much of the film is set in an Alabaman pawn shop presided over by Mel, who’s played by Marc Maron and who resembles every character the actor-comedian played since enjoying a career resurgence with his series Maron (episodes of which Shelton directed). Like Maron himself, Mel is a lovable curmudgeon, a recovering addict who utilizes his past troubles as a signifier of his hard-won wisdom and humility, which he laces with acidic humor and sharp timing. Since Maron, a spin-off of his “WTF” podcast, Maron has grown astonishingly as an actor, with a rumpled charisma that suggests 1970s-era legends like Elliott Gould. Unlike most comedians acting in films, Maron isn’t afraid to slow down his performative biorhythms, which is especially evident in a lovely early scene in Sword of Trust when Mel sees an ex (Shelton) and silently trundles toward the front of the shop closer to her, clearly weighing his words.

Shelton takes her time acclimating the audience to life in Mel’s pawn shop. Mel has a lackadaisical millennial assistant, Nathaniel (Jon Bass), who’s enthralled with internet conspiracy theories, and he enjoys ice teas with Jimmy (Al Elliott), an elderly African-American man who runs a nearby restaurant. These loose observational moments are Shelton’s specialty, and she subtly allows us to grasp the sadness of her characters. These people have forged a kind of liberal bohemian idyll in the middle of a red state, but they’re lonely, drifting through life. Maron telegraphs this loneliness in how he has Mel appraise objects, with a weariness that suggests a need for both connection and money.

Kicking the film’s plot in gear is a couple, Cynthia (Jillian Bell) and Mary (Michaela Watkins), who inherit from Cynthia’s deceased grandfather a Union sword that a cult of truthers believes to be evidence that the South won the Civil War. This is a spectacular idea for a satire of our modern age—in which memes and online mythology warp discourse—that Shelton reduces mostly to an inciting incident and a MacGuffin. Cynthia and Mary partner with Mel to sell the sword to the cult, which leads to a few surprisingly scary-flaky scenes that momentarily jolt the film’s easygoing vibes. Particularly eerie is a scene with Hog Jaws, a truther henchman who’s played by Toby Huss with an unusually casual sense of menace. This is a man who doesn’t need to threaten people because he understands he’s inherently threatening.

Given its narrative involving a Jewish man pretending to take reactionary Southern values seriously, Sword of Trust at times suggests a kind of sketch-TV version of BlackKklansman. Shelton sees the truthers as bigoted buffoons, as symptoms of people’s current need to follow their own ideology, regardless of facts and carefully nurtured online, but with few exceptions, she doesn’t bring the tension between the liberals and the good-old-boys to a head. The filmmaker comes very close to suggesting that everyone has their reasons, even hateful fanatics—a potentially explosive implication in itself that, in this context, deflates the satire. One wishes that the film’s political textures had been nurtured, as they are essentially window dressing for what becomes a miniature coming-of-age road-trip comedy, the sort of indie that used to be common in the ‘90s. Yet Maron’s commanding aura of regret gives Sword of Trust an emotional center despite its missed opportunities.

Cast: Marc Maron, Jon Bass, Jillian Bell, Michaela Watkins, Toby Huss, Dan Bakkedahl, Lynn Shelton, Al Elliott, Timothy Paul, Whitmer Thomas Director: Lynn Shelton Screenwriter: Lynn Shelton, Michael Patrick O’Brien Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 88 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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