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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: Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity Is Addictive in Spite of a Shaky Engine

It’s an addictive, delightfully rowdy experience in spite of the creaky, decrypt gameplay and engine.

3.5

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Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity
Photo: Nintendo

When Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild launched alongside the Nintendo Switch in March 2017, it felt like a wake-up call to developers the world over, showing that with enough creativity, a game’s horsepower scarcely mattered. Now, Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity has arrived on the scene as if to further test that premise. It’s rare that a first-party Nintendo game feels like it’s rubbing up against the upper limits of what the Switch can do, but that’s exactly the kind of judder you can feel the second the playing field in Age of Calamity gets remotely busy. Lucky for us, the experience of playing it remains addictive and delightfully rowdy in spite of the creaky gameplay and engine.

Age of Calamity, a pseudo-prequel to Breath of the Wild, shows us the last optimistic days of the Hyrule that was. As Calamity Ganon lays waste to Hyrule, a stray Guardian robot manages to open a portal and travel back in time to warn Link, Princess Zelda, and King Rhoam of the coming catastrophe. Creating an alternate timeline, the king orders Link and Zelda to travel around the world, getting the greatest champions of each of Hyrule’s tribes to pilot the massive Divine Beasts who can defend Hyrule from the apocalypse.

Here, massive armies of beasts, knights, and wizards are looking to burn Hyrule to the ground in Ganon’s name. And, of course, this being a Warriors game at heart, annihilating those armies is much easier than it is in Breath of the Wild. Arguably too easy. The sporadically winning formula from the Warriors series hasn’t changed much, as the vast majority of enemies our heroes will face are hapless cannon fodder that you can either run past to reach your goal on the map or slay en masse with three presses of the Y button. You can count on one hand the number of times that any of them will take a swing at you, let alone have it connect, during an entire playthrough. Still, this formula persists for a reason, as there’s undeniable satisfaction and glee to obliterating whole armies in a matter of minutes.

What Age of Calamity lacks in difficulty it makes up for in variety. The game’s greatest success is its huge roster of characters—the forebears of known characters from Breath of the Wild—and how wildly different they play as they dazzlingly wield the magic powers from the prior game’s Sheikah Slate. It’s easy to button-mash through Age of Calamity, but more satisfying is trying to figure out the exact Sheikah Slate power to stun your enemies with, then experiment with how to chain melee attacks into elemental barrages, arrow storms, and spectacular feats of swordplay. Just as the original Hyrule Warriors meshed Dynasty Warriors’s mechanics with Twilight Princess’s aesthetic and gameplay extremely well, it’s impressive how seamlessly Breath of the Wild adopts this combat system, possibly more so here given how much this game kicks Breath of the Wild’s less popular features—like breakable weapons—to the curb.

Here, advancement is handled by turning the various items and currencies you find on the battlefield into money or ingredients to open up new item shops, craft new items, and complete random challenge stages. While it’s possible to build characters up into overpowered invincible juggernauts with surprisingly little effort, you also don’t necessarily need to in order to do well here. Aside from leveling up your weapons at a blacksmith, you could get along perfectly fine without every other crafting system in the game. The various missions that involve actual gameplay are far more rewarding of the player’s time and efforts.

There’s nothing wrong with another Warriors game providing a familiar experience, but all that’s dependent on this particular game being enjoyable to look at and play comes up incredibly short. At its best, Age of Calamity keeps a weak grip on 30 frames a second, and at its most visually chaotic, the game effectively becomes a slideshow. And it’s at its absolute worst when it puts you behind the controls of one of Hyrule’s Guardian Beasts, massive stone-and-metal kaiju that wreak havoc on hordes of enemies. These segments should be wicked displays of payback. Instead, they’re smudgy, indecipherable nonsense, given that the camera can’t figure out where to go, enemies are too small to stand out against the various smoke and light effects, and the explosions from destroying them tank the framerate.

Age of Calamity isn’t a game that’s likely to stay with you too long after the credits roll, even if it hurts the eyes from time to time. But Warriors games have always been there to scratch a very particular itch, and Age of Calamity still manages to deliver on that front, while also letting Legend of Zelda fans spend some quality time with some familiar faces. It’s a somewhat broken experience, but it’s scarcely a heartless or empty one.

The game was reviewed using a review code provided by Golin on November 20.

Developer: Omega Force Publisher: Nintendo Platform: Switch Release Date: November 20, 2020 ESRB: T ESRB Descriptions: Fantasy Violence Buy: Game

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Review: Assassin’s Creed Valhalla Brings the Fun, but It May Leave You Uneasy

The game is fairly dedicated to correcting many of the worst creative decisions made across the lifespan of the Assassin’s Creed series.

3.5

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Assassin’s Creed Valhalla
Photo: Ubisoft

Fun comes through more effortlessly in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla than it has in years for Assassin’s Creed. Where Origins and Odyssey took more than a few cues from The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, Valhalla embraces the things that, once upon a time, made Assassin’s Creed unique. Here, there’s renewed emphasis on actual assassination, but also more focus on showing how each of your targets connect, how they affect the world at large, and the direct result of their elimination. You get to see the ways your actions make the world a better place, at least in the short term. That, in turn, provides plenty of motivation to do all the extra non-essential stuff that Origins and Odyssey kept trying to foist upon the player.

It does, though, take a few hours—after an introductory sandbox in Norway provides a bleak and uninspiring bit of setup—for the game to get to that point. You play as Eivor, a Viking who finds themselves tagging along on the first exodus out of Norway with their hot-blooded brother, Sigurd, when their father bends the knee to a new king without consulting the rest of his family. The journey leads Eivor and Sigurd to seek out their Norwegian brethren in England, where the game blooms from a set of linear plot points to a much looser structure.

The next main story mission is always out there waiting for you to tackle it, but with enough time, effort, and honest detective work, visiting a diverse array of well-written and amiable NPCs will be a great opportunity to tame the hostile English terrain. That work will also lead you to the two dozen or so assassination targets that will make settling down in England easier in the long run. There are still plenty of mindless sidequests, minigames, and timewasters to blow a 40-to-50-hour game out into something closer to 90, and a plethora of fascinating little nooks and crannies to explore for treasure, customizable items, and random secluded hermits with grand stories to tell. But blessedly, these are truly optional, instead of a required grind. Now, just about anything you do in game can help improve your equipment, or provide enough XP to unlock new tricks, better attacks, defends, and the like.

Raids are the backbone of Valhalla, at once the main source of its enjoyment and its most problematic component. On its face, a raid will find you blowing a horn and charging alongside 30 of your best CPU allies into battle against the Saxon dogs who choke the life from the land, burning their villages to the ground. It feels as if, in the thankful absence of rape, there’s triple the amount of pillaging to be done. At its best, the film’s combat strikes that happy medium between patient, Souls-like sword-and-shieldplay and easy, effective button-mashing that usually ends with your enemies finding out what your favorite axe tastes like.

The quests as part of the main story go even further, turning into full-on Lord of the Rings-scale melees. Aside from the rock-solid frame rate, if there’s anything that truly shows off the power of the next-gen consoles, it’s the way these battles, such beautiful displays of chaos, never skip a single frame—something that can’t be said about the stuttery previous gen port.

Stop for even a moment to consider the implications of all the looting and burning, though, and Valhalla starts to unravel. You spend much of the initial boat trip into England talking about how you intend to take the land from the Saxons, who had to take it from the Romans, who had to take it from others before them. But the option to take a different path, one toward coexistence, isn’t an option. And why not? A dialogue system has been built into this game that takes some rather intriguing twists and turns with the story, where enemies can become friends, innocent people can die as a consequence of your actions, and Eivor can try to find diplomatic solutions before things escalate into war. But bloodthirst is always the first option.

Granted, Valhalla is a game about a Viking assassin, so it’s difficult to imagine peace as a possibility within that premise. But the violence you bring about in prior Assassin’s Creed titles has a different flavor. You’re meant to revel in the good you’ve done in the other games, while chaos is your guiding principle here, as it’s considerably easier to progress with fury than it is with grace, which nearly every other game in this series makes a point to lean into.

There are a few motions toward grace later in Valhalla, especially when some of the more despicably bloodthirsty Vikings start to play a role in the game’s narrative, betrayals start to pile up, and named innocents start dropping like flies. Eivor begins to develop a wider, empathetic view of the world around the Vikings as the narrative progresses. There are more than just Danes trying to carve a small piece of England for their own, and Eivor is able to recognize that same settler struggle in others as time goes on. Given that everyone has lost friends and family trying to make England their home, and Eivor is often tasked with being an emotional bedrock for them as they build and rebuild. At the same time, you can’t help but wonder why Eivor is meant to feel so uneasy about the way their people operate now. Why wasn’t it a problem decapitating the men whose primary crime was defending their village?

Of course, you know the answer to that: Because it’s fun. Admittedly, lots of fun. Indeed, Valhalla surrounds you with people, places, and activities that make spending time in a bloody Assassin’s Creed open world the most enjoyable it’s been since Syndicate. A golden sunrise greets you every few hours in the game to bless a journey you take. You get the sense that you’re not supposed to think about the implications of your actions, that you’re supposed to kill and pillage at your leisure, which doesn’t make the game much different from most others, except that it makes such a point of bringing frightened terrorized bystanders into the mix.

Valhalla is fairly dedicated to correcting many of the worst creative decisions made across the lifespan of the Assassin’s Creed series. Most notably, it empowers its female characters and puts them on equal footing with the male characters. But there’s a cost, as the force of colonialism is front and center here in ways it never has been before in an Assassin’s Creed game: You’re meant to take anything that’s not freely given in England, and not nearly enough nuance has been baked into the story to say that your enemies deserve what your Vikings have come to bring. That makes the primary mode of advancement in the game rest a bit uneasy with where the narrative ends up going. Arguably, that uneasiness is the point, but it’s not enough to support how much fun the game wants you to have throughout.

The game was reviewed using a review code provided by 160over90.

Developer: Ubisoft Montreal Publisher: Ubisoft Platform: Xbox Series X ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Partial Nudity, Sexual Themes, Strong Language, Use of Drugs and Alcohol Buy: Game

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Review: The Pathless Grasps for Profundity in the Shadow of the Familiar

The Pathless ultimately buries anything it might have to say in a stupefying level of cliché.

3

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The Pathless
Photo: Annapurna Interactive

There’s something almost defiant about how prototypical and familiar The Pathless is, treading as it does territory worn not only by Shadow of the Colossus and The Legend of Zelda, but the countless other media they’ve likewise inspired, to say nothing of further forbearers like Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke. That familiarity suggests an intent to transcend the thick muck of video game cliché in which The Pathless stands, and what’s most disappointing is that the game almost manages to do so.

The forces of light and darkness are at it again in Giant Squid’s open-world game. The Hunter has traveled to a distant land where the requisite giant animal deities have been cursed and struck down. To put things right again with nature and the world at large, she must cleanse the cursed gods and switch off the radiating red towers that look like the Eye of Sauron.

The game’s unique movement system provides a magnificent sense of momentum. Armed with a bow, the Hunter sprints across the world while shooting floating talismans that replenish an ever-draining dash meter. Aiming is more or less automatic; all you have to do is look in the direction of a talisman and hold down the trigger for a brief lock-on period. As you get a feel for how long it takes to shoot and how quickly arrows reach their targets, navigation becomes a captivating rhythm that frees space for you to experiment with different maneuvers, weaving through trees or hopping over rocks and rivers while expertly aiming without a hitch.

Complementing this freedom of movement is your eagle companion, who can soar to great heights or carry you across gaps and long distances. Sometimes a river is a little wider than your jump distance, so the eagle can carry you the rest of the way. But some of The Pathless’s most thrilling moments occur when you cross areas without the eagle’s aid. For one, if you hit a talisman in midair, the boost keeps you aloft and provides just enough push to jump a wide river. Mastering the navigation means blazing through the world at high speed, able to propel yourself across the landscape while scarcely touching the ground.

Otherwise, the bow tends to be used in the puzzles that dot the landscape. And, unfortunately, those puzzles are pretty standard stuff, from lighting a torch by shooting an arrow through some fire, to hitting a switch from a distance, to, if you really want to get wild, weighing down a pressure plate. But what the puzzles lack in distinction they make up for in a fulfilling sense of discovery when you find them on your own. They’re nestled inside the trees and the ruins that might catch your eye from a distance, rewarding you with light orbs that are used for markedly less inspiring means: turning off the video game towers to unlock the boss battle.

In each area, a cursed god roams the land within an enormous storm, a swirling cloud of ominous red that occasionally expands to pull you inside for rather tedious stealth segments. While it’s possible to outrun these storms, they tend to interrupt puzzles and exemplify the odd identity crisis at the core of The Pathless. The game visibly aches to be more traditionally dramatic, which manifests in more guided stretches like the stealth sections and boss battles.

And when The Pathless doesn’t lean on the sense of discovery that so few games trust the player with, its most familiar attributes become almost laughable because there’s no longer anything to differentiate them from those of countless other games. It’s then that it becomes yet another game where you have to shoot giant eyeballs, light torches, and look around in bog-standard blue vision to highlight relevant objects while making dark clouds go away. In the wrong hands, the wonder-of-nature, light-in-the-darkness archetypes merely become another flavor of generic. The Pathless ultimately buries anything it might have to say in a stupefying level of cliché, grasping for profundity in the shadow of the things that inspired it.

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

Developer: Giant Squid Publisher: Annapurna Interactive Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: November 12, 2020 ESRB: E10+ ESRB Descriptions: Fantasy Violence Buy: Game

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PlayStation 5 Roundup: Devil May Cry 5, Spider-Man Remastered, & Demon’s Souls

Even the PS5’s most grandiose examples of a remake still pay more tribute to the past than they provide a window to the future.

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Devil May Cry 5
Photo: Capcom

The PlayStation 5’s exterior design feels sprung from the imagination of Björk, as if capable at any moment of releasing a bloom of black smoke that will eventually transform into a flurry of butterflies. Which makes it somewhat disappointing that actually playing games on the PS5 feels, well, just like playing them on the last generation. Mostly. But we can see strands of the future laid out in its handling of the past, and three games in particular provide the most intriguing taste of things to come.

The least ambitious of these visions is Devil May Cry 5, a fantastic game on the previous gen that’s been given the “special edition” treatment. In this case, that means the inclusion of all the previously gated bonus content from the deluxe versions available on the PS4—most notably new costumes for the main cast, and a delightful feature allowing players to see live-action pre-viz footage of select cutscenes—alongside a massive cache of starting currency and the addition of series antagonist Vergil and a new Legendary Dark Knight mode that drops insane hordes of enemies on the battlefield at any given moment.

The cherry on top is a next-gen spit shine, almost completely eliminating load times but adding a high frame rate mode, ray tracing, and an extra bump in detail to what was already an extremely pretty game. The most anyone can really say is, yep, that’s Devil May Cry 5 all right, and the visual uptick is certainly nothing to sneeze at, especially given the manner in which light plays off the world in ways that pop off the screen. In a game that often devolves into chaos, there’s a newfound clarity that really drags you into the world just a bit more. Fundamentally, though, it’s still the same game folks may already own.

The same can mostly be said of the remastered Spider-Man, included in the Ultimate Edition of its semi-sequel, Spider-Man: Miles Morales. It’s a prettier, more detailed game now (the frame rate can be kicked up to a solid 60), but the PS5 adds a lot more to the fundamental experience here. Two of the bigger flaws of the original game were a virtual New York City that was less effective at invoking the real thing the closer you got to the ground, and rather extensive load times that made any segment where you had to go indoors feel entirely separate from the rest of the world. Both of those problems have been solved on the PS5.

Spider-Man Remastered

A scene from Marvel’s Spider-Man Remastered. © Sony Interactive Entertainment

While it’s not a one-to-one reflection of the real deal, the New York of the game absolutely bustles with life now, brimming with new details, vendors, and NPCs interacting with each other—and it does so for full city blocks ahead of your field of vision. But more than this, the world is absolutely seamless, only breaking immersion for cutscenes, which have also been given a nice new level of detail and photorealism. That realism has, however, led to probably the most notable change to the game: A new face model for Peter Parker who, for unquestionable reasons of synergy, looks a hell of a lot like the MCU’s Tom Holland.

The kid looks great, but there’s a small dissonance cost, as his is a rather young face for a Spider-Man who, in the game, is an old hand at the superhero gig, and is already feeling its fatigue. That older, frazzled voice (Yuri Lowenthal’s) doesn’t quite synch up with the fresh face, but there’s an impressive new level of earnestness in the physical performance now that captures more actorly decisions and expressiveness. All in all, the change is worthwhile, and it’s certainly a strong reason to revisit the game before jumping into Miles Morales.

The real main event on the PS5 right now, though, is the Demon’s Souls remake, a top-to-bottom makeover that brings the eldritch grandfather of Souls games rocketing into the future. I was there back when the original Demons’ Souls was an evil secret, a dare for those who had the belly for a true challenge during one of the least challenging generations of games. But unlike the worlds offered up by its wicked spawn—Dark Souls, Bloodborne, and Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice—it never felt like a place you wanted to get lost in or held wonder. It was a grim, grisly labyrinth of torments that seemed to revel in your failures, with nothing but cold, unyielding, nicotine-yellow brickwork to bear witness, even if its enthralling representations of death and decay made it difficult to turn away from it.

Perhaps the perfect example of everything special and different about Demons’ Souls is its hub area, the Nexus. It was always a dead place, with the mood of an abandoned church—dim, bleak, and yawning, whose main purpose is to get you away from it. Its guardian was a ragged banshee barely discernible against the darkness. Conversely, the Nexus on the PS5 is a true sanctuary. It’s a palace bathed in the gentle amber of candlelight, where the floor is a clockwork mechanism protected by a membrane that ripples like water. It’s a place where choral voices soothe in all directions—probably the best example of the PS5’s 3D audio feature hard at work—where the faces of the damned are easy to read and commiserate with. It’s a place of respite, creating a powerful contrast between you and the endless agony to come.

Yes, the look, feel, and sound of Demons’ Souls is absolutely a next-level experience. The irony, however, is that the game is otherwise a carbon copy of the game that dropped on the PS3 back in 2009. Every strategy, every secret, every bit of balancing feels as warm and familiar as a hug from an old friend—that is, a friend who’s ready to kill you within 10 seconds if you don’t watch your step. It doesn’t feel old per se; every FromSoftware game that comes out is a reminder that Hidetaka Miyazaki has insight on how to build worlds and experiences that even the best Souls copycats haven’t been able to touch. But it does feel oddly safe in 2020. We’ve seen this brand of game one-upped in various ways over the years, and Demons’ Souls, as excellent as it often is, is still playing with a mood and mechanical language that’s very well tread at this point. Funnily, one of the other PS5 launch titles, Godfall, is riffing on many of the design tenets set forth by Demons’ Souls, and while it’s a more repetitive experience, it also feels like it’s reaching toward something more ambitious in concept.

Demon’s Souls

A scene from Demon’s Souls. © Sony Interactive Entertainment

Of course, we don’t expect launch titles to answer the question of what the next generation of video games will look like. The experiences that have come to define the last seven years of video games were absolutely inconceivable way back in 2013, when the PS4 and Xbox One arrived on the scene. We know how good it can look, at the very least, and we know it can make games engulf our senses like never before. But as beautifully lavish and deserving of reverence the old may be, even the PS5’s most grandiose examples of a remake still pay more tribute to the past than they provide a window to the future.

These games were reviewed using retail copies purchased by the reviewer.

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Review: Tetris Effect: Connected Will Leave You Wanting for VR Support

Tetris Effect is one of the best VR titles on the market, so without the feature Connected feels, well, disconnected.

3.5

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Tetris Effect: Connected
Photo: Enhance

There are few among us who haven’t heard of Tetris, the addictive tile-matching video game created in 1984 by Alexey Pajitnov in which players must move and rotate tetromino pieces in order to form and clear horizontal lines. For years, developers have been crafting their own iterations on this familiar formula, and they almost all feel largely the same. Perhaps that’s why Tetsuya Mizuguchi, the creator of trippy games such as Rez and Lumines, puts so much of the focus of Tetris Effect on literally changing the way people feel, using a variety of audiovisual effects to present an artistic, emotional spin on Tetris.

And yet, the successes of Tetris Effect, named for a condition where people spend so much time doing a particular activity that it begins to pattern their thoughts, come not from such ultimately superficial and distracting bells and whistles, but from the introduction of a brand new ability. As players clear lines, they’re also charging their Zone gauge, which, when it’s completely filled, will allow you to significantly slow down time. It’s a game-changing mechanic that shakes the foundation of the Tetris experience, allowing masters to massively boost their scores by clearing as many as 20 lines while also re-balancing the game for amateurs who may need an extra advantage to puzzle their way out of a tight spot.

Tetris Effect offers the most responsive Tetris experience to date, in part due to the best improvements in the series’s history, such as the ability to store a single tetromino in a queue and to T-spin shapes into awkward gaps before they lock into place. An Effects mode offers a wide variety of modifiers to the basic game, from standard speed runs and score attacks to skill-training puzzles that test your ability to quickly All Clear a board or combo together line clears. And the Master mode, which all but instantaneously drops pieces, makes a return here, but now there’s also a Relax setting, which offers up different themed levels, like Sea or Wind, but without the risk of a dreaded Game Over. And for those who have mastered every aspect of Tetris, there’s the Mystery setting, which throws weird and random rule modifications into the mix. It’s one thing to play on an invisible board, and quite another when that board is flipped upside down, or when the tetrominos take on new and unwieldy or massive shapes.

Pity, then, that the game’s emotional resonance is rather lackluster. The Journey mode, self-billed as “a journey of discovery and emotion,” more closely resembles a Couch to 5K-like training program, one that hides the repetitious work of building Tetrises beneath 27 increasingly challenging levels. Abrupt shifts between high-intensity havoc and slower, soothing tempos give players a chance to recover from the more taxing speeds, just as the varying visual styles—not just for backgrounds, but for pieces—helps with training.

Tetris Effect is staggeringly immersive, but it falls short of justifying its audiovisual ambition as anything more than a novelty, a way to resell one of the oldest video games in the world, now gussied up with high-definition colors and graphical bloom. There’s Tetris, better than ever, in the foreground, but then there’s all these other effects going on in the background.

Now, Connected brings a multiplayer component to the Tetris Effect experience. In addition to PVP modes (the same that have been available in other Tetris compilations over the years), the strongest multiplayer mode is its namesake, Connected, wherein three players unite online to take on a series of astrology-themed AI-controlled bosses. The player starts a game alongside two co-operative partners while the bosses play their own game, firing attacks back and forth as lines are created. Occasionally, all three games link up so that players can take turns dropping pieces onto a play area that’s three times the size of the standard area, making longer lines that do devastating damage against the zodiac bosses. It’s suitably epic and engaging, and boasts the same kind of thrilling immersion as the core Tetris Effect campaign.

But just as the Tetromino Lord giveth, the Tetromino Lord taketh away. The multiplayer additions, while compelling, don’t make up for the absence of a virtual reality mode, which is unfortunately unsupported by the Xbox One platform. After all, the complete audio-visual immersion of virtual reality is where Tetris Effect really shines: Beyond the stellar visuals, the sound effects of the gameplay synchronizes to the beat of the soundtrack, and when the engaging gameplay is in lockstep with the music with the gorgeous graphics surrounding the player, Tetris Effect generates a feeling of transcendence. Tetris Effect is one of the best VR titles on the market, so without the feature Connected feels, well, disconnected.

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

Developer: Resonair, Monstars, Stage Games Publisher: Enhance Platform: Xbox One Release Date: November 10, 2020 ESRB: E Buy: Game

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Review: With Melody of Memory, Kingdom Hearts Takes an Undeserved Victory Lap

In the end, Melody of Memory is very much a fans-only affair.

2.5

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Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory
Photo: Square Enix

The franchise equivalency of auto-fellatio, Kingdom Hearts features Disney and Final Fantasy characters as bit players in a contrived, bloated narrative revolving around saving the world through the power of friendship, pureness of heart, or some other nonsense. The common element between each game is that Kingdom Hearts is the greatest and you’d be a fool to think otherwise. In fact, the last thing the series wants players to do is think at all, lest they see it for the shallow, juvenile, incoherent blather that it is. And after last year’s disappointing Kingdom Hearts III, Melody of Memory serves as a wholly undeserved victory lap, a recap of the series’s major narrative beats baked into a mediocre rhythm game.

Melody of Memory features three types of levels across its World Tour campaign, all requiring you to press buttons when prompts appear: Field Battles, wherein a trio of characters (most commonly series protagonists Sora, Goofy, and Donald Duck) run down a floating path through a level from past Kingdom Hearts games and fight enemies; Memory Dives, a kind of interactive music video where the characters fly in the air as video clips from the prior games play in the background; and Boss Battles, wherein your trio circles a boss and attacks and defends until the fight ends, often unceremoniously. Completing levels unlocks cutscenes from each game, moving through the narrative of both the main numbered titles and its spin-offs.

After a bewildering interactive opening that Melody of Memory doesn’t make clear that you can even play, you’re introduced to the serviceable but unexciting basics of its gameplay—attack, jump, fly, and multiple attack—little of which changes or evolves from the start to the end of the campaign. But the game’s lack of variety is only part of its problem. The difficulty swings wildly throughout Melody of Memory, with the most difficult option, Proud, providing the most comprehensive experience, wherein the player has to press buttons in time to all of the beats in a song and misses are punished severely. Conversely, Beginner gives the player significantly fewer button prompts and frustratingly little to do, as playing the game this way doesn’t allow one to really maintain any sort of rhythm or even enjoy the music.

Better examples of this genre of game, like Harmonix’s Rock Band series, have found ways to not only give beginners a fun experience, but teach them how to improve, by, say, enlarging the timing window to hit beats instead of reducing the number of beats that you have to hit. Alas, Melody of Memory doesn’t even provide adequate feedback as to how the player isn’t hitting specific beats, making progress arduous. And while the game boasts a tracklist of over 140 songs, the arrangements often disappoint, with few orchestral versions of popular tracks and some notable soundtrack omissions from past games in the series, like “Scythe of Petals.” Surprisingly, the game also contains few licensed Disney songs, as more of them would have given Melody of Memory the opportunity for broader reach and appeal.

In the end, Melody of Memory is very much a fans-only affair. You will find no better proof of this than the banal narrative, which plays out as a “greatest hits” edit of the series’s overarching story, and in such patchy fashion that only those intimately familiar with the games will be able to make heads or tails of any it. Like Eiichiro Oda’s One Piece and its awful video-game adaptation series Pirate Warriors, truncating Kingdom Hearts’s overcomplicated narrative into fragmentary clips somehow makes the whole thing seem more incoherent. But the more cultish, nostalgia-fueled fans of the series will remain undeterred, which is ironic given that the more dedicated among them are the ones who should be the most frustrated with this gimmicky, transparently pandering product. (Imagine the backlash to a Just Dance: Dark Souls, or, heaven forbid, a Silent Hill pachinko machine.) Melody of Memory is less than the sum of its parts, a judgment one can fairly cast over the entire Kingdom Hearts franchise.

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

Developer: Square Enix Publisher: Square Enix Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: November 13, 2020 ESRB: E10+ ESRB Descriptions: Fantasy Violence, Mild Language Buy: Game

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Review: Bugsnax Is Excitingly Weird but Clumsy When It Has Something to Say

The game noticeably stumbles as it attempts to more overtly address the darkness beneath its concept.

3

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Bugsnax
Photo: Young Horses

The eponymous creatures of Bugsnax—sentient food with googly eyes—live within their environments in much the same way that regular animals do. A Bunger, a hamburger with curly fries for legs, roams its terrain, charging at anything slathered in ketchup. A pineapple spider, naturally called a Pineantula, remains buried in the sand until a crab made from apple slices—a Crapple, of course—can be coaxed to dig it out.

And those are just a few of the strange creatures that fill the delightfully odd world of Bugsnax, including anthropomorphic walrus-looking thingamabobs called Grumpuses, some of whom have built a settlement on the illustrious Bugsnak domain of Snaktook Island. As a desperate Grumpus reporter from the city, you make your way to the island to investigate the rumors of things that are, per the game’s theme song by Kero Kero Bonito, “kinda bug and kinda snack” in a comedic adventure that flounders as it reaches its climax.

With Grumpus names like Beffica Winklesnoot and Wambus Troubleham, the game can often feel like an elaborate ploy to make voice actors recite ridiculous words, given that the Bugsnax don’t grunt or growl so much as say their own names aloud like Pokémon. But unlike the Pokémon games, Bugsnax seems to be much more consciously in touch with its darker side. Upon devouring a Bugsnak, a Grumpus will transform accordingly and horrifically—though not, it appears, painfully: a leg becomes a carrot, an arm becomes a shish kebab, a nose becomes a pickle. And not long after you does this for the first time, the player meets a Grumpus who’s morally opposed to the idea of eating Bugsnax in the first place, preferring to keep them as pets on a ranch that other Grumpuses view more as an auxiliary food source.

The game is most disturbing at its most overtly whimsical, when no one seems bothered by the fact that these characters blundered onto a remote island and are gradually becoming grotesque food chimeras by eating the wildlife raw. Most of the game functions in that mode of comedic ignorance, where a Grumpus has some request and you run off to capture the corresponding Bugsnak through some combination of sauce packets that grow like plants and the gadgets you’ve accumulated, like a launchpad or a tripwire. Light on challenge, the game works best as a procession of weird characters among even weirder fauna, the Bugsnak interactions more like momentary puzzles than particularly in-depth systems.

Which isn’t to say the game is incapable of surprising you with the way the Bugsnax behave even without your interference; sometimes you’ll see them attack each other while moving along their predetermined paths. But in its breezy nature, the game ends up living and dying by its storytelling, which noticeably stumbles as it attempts to more overtly address the darkness beneath its concept. If the game is funniest and strangest while playing dumb, it becomes tedious and wholly predictable once the time finally comes to say into the camera that all the Grumpuses have done on Snaktooth Island might actually be bad. Bugsnax is so much more inventive when it’s pretending everything is okay, even when it clearly isn’t.

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

Developer: Young Horses Publisher: Young Horses Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: November 12, 2020 ESRB: E10+ ESRB Descriptions: Crude Humor, Fantasy Violence

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Indie Roundup: Carto, I Am Dead, and Noita

Carto gets a lot of brain-bending mileage from its central mechanic.

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Carto
Photo: Humble Games

The layout of the world in Carto (Humble Games) is subjective, but only up to a point. The latest from Taiwanese developer Sunhead Games finds the title character collecting pieces of her magic map to make terrain appear in the world. Place, say, a patch of forest to her east and what was once a blank void transforms into a very real forest for Carto to explore. If you pick up that same map piece and place it to her north, the forest moves to the north instead. As long as the edges match up—forest to forest, grassland to grassland—the beautiful, storybook-esque world of the game is totally within Carto’s power.

Other people also live in Carto’s world. In addition to the grandmother who she’s been separated from, there are the various tribes that have settled in different environments according to their own customs. And they’re already familiar with the land; if one character says that his hut is by the sea to the east of another hut, his home won’t appear until the player sets the map piece down in the proper place. And even if the map piece fits just fine to the north, south, or west, he knows where his home is.

Though the more complex, and occasionally obtuse, puzzles can make your constant opening and closing of the map feel a little tedious, Carto gets a lot of brain-bending mileage from its central mechanic. Each area introduces some pleasant new wrinkle, like moving big chunks of the map at once, connecting the path of an earthworm, or rotating a map tile to open a safe before moving on again, one more stop on a lovely journey about getting to know different cultures and how they survive in so many different conditions.


Death, as it turns out, isn’t the end. Deceased museum curator Morris Lupton is now a rather nosy ghost, capable of supernaturally peeking inside objects around the small island of Shelmerston in I Am Dead (Annapurna Interactive), the latest from the creators of Hohokum and Wilmot’s Warehous. The outsides melt away on command, letting him look inside of a grapefruit, the circuits of a walkie talkie, or the gears of a clock. But Morris finds himself without purpose, until the ghost of his dog informs him that they need to find a replacement spirit for the island to keep its long-dormant volcano from exploding.

What follows is a rather simple game where you seek out mementos of the dead that tend to be hidden in unexpected containers like a fox hole in a sculpture park or an armchair at the lighthouse turned yoga retreat. I Am Dead places its objects among scenes of such vibrant life and history, bursting with strange details and memories tackling a range of emotions that’s all the more surprising for the cutesy exterior. There’s pleasure, charm, and sadness here, rummaging through mementos seeing how our touch on the world persists, however brief it may seem, through the people and objects we leave behind.


Though so many games call themselves sandboxes, few can claim the depth and variety of the pixelated playground of Noita, the latest from the self-proclaimed nerds at the Finland-based Nolla Games. The simple art style belies an enormous spiderweb of systems upon systems, actions and reactions. When your magician character lights something on fire, the fire spreads and takes the terrain with it, pieces of it crumbling off into the cave network below. Smoke rises, collecting in pockets of the cavern to drain oxygen from you or the hostile creatures lurking in the dark. You can douse the fire in water or blood, or you can feed it with oil or alcohol and watch from a distance as it consumes the monsters in your way.

And fire is just one of the many potential variables on your journey, something that might crop up because you knock over a lantern or manifest it as an unexpected side effect of your spells. Acid melts terrain, electricity surges through water, and parasitic plants block your path as they grow unchecked. Even with just a handful of basic spells, Noita is an astonishing, reactive, and chaotic achievement. But as you progress, starting from scratch upon death, as it is customary in roguelikes, even the spells grow in complexity. You can bolt on additional effects, change trajectories, and tweak their potency until, say, you’re obliterating ground as far as the eye can see in a flash of red fireworks, probably killing yourself by accident in the process.

Death will come often in Noita as you puzzle out the secrets of its merciless systems, and to the game’s occasional detriment. Without a safe, reliable place to experiment, you’ll often find yourself dealing with powers and enemies that you’re unaccustomed to, scrambling for footholds and bottlenecks that might crumble at any moment. The desperation can be exciting to be sure, but Noita’s systems are so fascinating on their own that it’s difficult not to long for an option to make its wondrous sandbox just a little less dangerous.

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Review: The Dark Pictures Anthology: Little Hope Puts Scary Ideas in a Safe Package

The gameplay blunts the effectiveness of the game’s aesthetic, because there’s no real danger to exploring the environments here.

3

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The Dark Pictures Anthology: Little Hope
Photo: Bandai Namco Entertainment

Right out of the gate in Little Hope, the second game in The Dark Pictures Anthology, the so-called Curator (Pip Torrens), a Rod Serling-like master of ceremonies, makes promises that this modest thriller can’t keep. This will be a “confusing” and “disturbing” tale, he promises, one filled with “infinite” possibilities. What follows is a decent enough thrill ride with some especially well-conceived monsters, but it’s little more than a gamified ghost tour of the fictitious Salem-adjacent abandoned town of Little Hope.

A stubborn professor, John (Alex Ivanovici), attempts to shepherd his four students to a working phone after their bus crashes along the road to Little Hope. Each student is a distinct type: cynical and guarded Taylor (Caitlyn Sponheimer); her jock-y, earnest boyfriend, Daniel (Kyle Bailey); the older Angela (Ellen Davis), who’s quick to disdain; and Andrew (Will Poulter), who’s a bit of a frightened cypher on account of the head injury he sustained that’s given him temporary amnesia, though the other four all recognize him as their classmate.

If you’re playing alone, Little Hope chooses which character you control, supplying responses from the others that fit whatever character traits you’ve leaned toward in prior scenes. And if you’re playing with a co-op partner online, you’ll each concurrently take control of a character, meaning that you might see completely different scenes. The latter option is the better, faster mode that best emulates a horror movie—or, at least, it is if you’ve got some way to hastily talk things through with your partner, sharing your nuggets of the plot with theirs.

Little Hope’s quintet of bus crash survivors don’t have any real freedom, emphasized here by a disorienting fog that only lets them proceed in one direction. The mostly binary choose-your-own adventure selections you make might change the dialogue and personalities of these characters, but they don’t seem to impact where you go or what you experience there. Dario Poloni’s script neatly evokes parallels between a witch trial in 1692 and a tragic house fire in 1972, but by doing so it proves itself to be too tightly tethered to them, with a clear and correct way to “save” everyone in the present day from similar fates.

Little Hope is more ambitious than Man of Medan, thanks in no small part to its more expansive setting. It helps, too, that you aren’t just stumbling through nightmares, as the monsters here are thematically associated with the main characters. Periodically, your survivors snap back in time to 1692, long enough to see their doubles being accused of witchcraft. Joseph was once weighed down by stones cast by his fellow Puritans, and James, the drunk patriarch of the 1972 prologue, was crushed by a collapsing roof. And modern-day John finds himself pursued by a shambling, half-flattened grotesquerie, just as his students are chased through the town’s abandoned factory, sewers, woods, and church by the mangled corpses of their past selves. Such specific details and parallels go a long way toward elevating by-the-books scares that are at times undermined by some odd design choices. For instance, though these characters are reflexively aware that what they’re experiencing is “exactly what happens in horror movies,” they all move at the same plodding pace, regardless of their age. In fact, Little Hope only shows them running during quick-time-event-filled cutscenes.

The game’s aesthetic enhances the horror, with your crew’s flashlights rarely being much of a match for the overwhelming fog and darkness, and the monsters reflecting the full ugliness of witchcraft murder techniques like drowning, burning, and pressing. But the gameplay blunts the effectiveness of that aesthetic, because there’s no real danger to exploring the environments here. There might be the occasional jump scare upon opening a window or door, but nothing’s actively chasing you as it would in something like Resident Evil. It’s the weirdest sort of plot armor to be found in a horror game, in that your characters are completely safe in Little Hope so long as you control them, and at risk only when a cut scene takes over.

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

Developer: Supermassive Games Publisher: Bandai Namco Entertainment Platform: PlayStation 4 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood, Intense Violence, Strong Language Buy: Game

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Review: In Watch Dogs: Legion, Revolution Is the Stuff of Brand Aspirations

It’s difficult to escape a sense that the game’s ambition far outstrips the number of unique people it can plausibly render.

2.5

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Watch Dogs: Legion
Photo: Ubisoft

True to its name, Watch Dogs: Legion has no one protagonist. Early on, the game presents a list of random, regular Joes, asking you to choose one to restart hacktivist group DedSec. From there, you quite literally recruit characters off the street. Where prior Watch Dogs games let you pull up the personal data of any bystander, like their jobs and interests, Legion also lists what the people you encounter can bring to the table: their vehicles, weapons, and skills, like calling allies or knowing how to take a punch. Once you complete a mission to convince a chosen person to join the ranks of DedSec, they become totally, fully playable throughout the game—one more out of a potential many to join the fight.

It’s a premise that bursts with potential but is immediately poured into the familiar mold of Ubisoft open-world video gaming, right down to its toothless conception of near-future London as a dystopic police state. Like so many video games (and like many other Ubisoft games, for that matter), Legion employs a setting of unrest and political upheaval, selling itself on fashionable, exciting imagery of conflict and revolution. But such settings are often designed less for commentary than simple narrative convenience: as environments within which to take on hordes of designated enemies, and with zero qualms.

Most glaringly, the police state in Legion isn’t run by the regular police. In the aftermath of terrorist bombings falsely attributed to DedSec, the private military corporation Albion has been given free reign over Britain. They set up checkpoints, administer beatings in the streets, accost passersby for random ID checks, and openly carry lethal weapons. This allows the game to trade on what is, at a glance, the sight of people resisting the police and military while giving fascist goons a degree of remove from any recognizable institutions, obfuscating the chain of command to the point where the most visible bad guy is just the head of the PMC. DedSec’s goal is to restore a largely unexamined status quo, as characters do things like deride Albion for plastering holographic propaganda over, horror of horrors, Buckingham Palace.

Though some characters specify how Albion often specifically targets immigrants, Legion broadens the question of oppression to a point that becomes meaningless. You can recruit anyone because everyone is under Albion’s boot, and with the finger pointed so consistently at DedSec, the game’s conception of a repressed class essentially becomes DedSec hackers in particular, as you’re less targeted for your gender, skin color, or immigration status than for your ability to do cool hacker shit like hijack security cameras or make cars move on their own.

And yet, the bald appropriation of struggle and revolutionary iconography is hardly surprising. With so many millions of dollars at stake, how can a corporation afford to co-opt social justice in anything but the most brainless, superficial fashion? After many, many, many hours of playing Legion, the story doesn’t provoke ire so much as a feeling of resignation, given how it settles into a dull hum of mediocrity as it blunders through the obligatory topics of extra-judicial drone strikes and human consciousness beyond bodies.

What softens the blow, at least, is Legion’s undercurrent of absurdity. With so much of its cast at the mercy of character randomization, you spend a lot of time staring at a growing array of unfortunate haircuts, inexplicable ages, and ill-fitting voices. Though there’s a decent amount of diversity in terms of ethnicity, many of the faces (particularly the women) look so similar that they wouldn’t seem out of place in a family portrait, while everyone exhibits little meaningful variation in body type beyond being elderly or not-elderly.

It’s difficult to escape a sense that the game’s ambition far outstrips the number of unique people it can plausibly render. There’s also amusingly little pretense about characters summoning vehicles, drones, and allies out of thin air; if you’re playing as a spy, her car with a cloaking device and missiles is only ever a few button presses away. These weird, messy parts of Legion are far and away its most distinctive, such as the way a middle-aged construction worker with a baffling granny voice to hop aboard the flying cargo drone she can pluck from the ether and ride straight to the upper levels of a restricted area.

But like the initially appalling story, you soon grow accustomed to the same few displays of absurdity because there’s little variety to be had in Legion’s version of London. Each mission is a similar, stealth-viable map of cameras to jump between and vents to infiltrate with a small, discrete spider robot. Though you can commit to engaging with the clumsy, unsatisfying combat system every so often for variety’s sake, the game is so long that it runs out of different approaches long before the locations begin to repeat and the mission design begins to favor hordes of hostile enemies regardless of how stealthy you’ve been.

Worse, the characters have no meaningful sense of progression. Operatives don’t develop skills through repeated use, which may ensure that new recruits are viable from the jump but also prevents people with less immediately applicable skills from bridging the gap. If one guy only has a police contact for reduced arrest times, he’ll never grow to do more damage, carry more gadgets, or hack more quickly; he will always be less useful than, say, the construction worker or spy—good only to keep in reserve if you somehow manage to get every other operative arrested, hospitalized, or (with the permadeath option on) killed. What upgrades you earn are cross-character abilities like jamming enemy guns or more ammo for the nonlethal shotgun.

Sometimes characters have hard-wired flaws like taking more damage or hiccupping to alert guards or even spontaneously (and inexplicably) dying, but the game rarely forces players to deal with such flaws. There’s no calling for help from anyone nearby and being stuck with the drone expert who’s useless in a fight or the clerk who hacks slowly, while missions often have drones and spiderbots on site in case you didn’t bring your own. And while the game simulates what your operatives are doing when you’re not playing them, the fast-travel system and ability to swap out characters with no consequence mean there’s no incentive to just use who you have; even if you want to try and exclusively hop between nearby characters, the cumbersome process to display individual operatives on the map seems to discourage it.

Perhaps there’s some other take on Legion that lives up to its potential, if not for salient commentary then for player-authored mayhem as you juggle random variables. But as is, the game takes care to sand down its roughest edges, ensuring that no future police state can truly hinder the progress of a growing #rebellion. To turn London boroughs defiant against Albion, one of the tasks you must complete is to find a particularly prominent piece of their holographic propaganda and switch it to instead display the ever-marketable DedSec iconograph, firing up onlookers with that most powerful tool of all: a good brand.

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

Developer: Ubisoft Toronto Publisher: Ubisoft Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: October 29, 2020 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood and Gore, Drug Reference, Intense Violence, Sexual Themes, Strong Language, Use of Alcohol Buy: Game

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Review: Hitman

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

1.5

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Hitman

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

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

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Review: Soul More Sublimely Mediates on the Pull of Music Than It Does the Afterlife

In a troubling reversal from Pixar films past, it’s kids who will have to do the most heavy lifting to keep up here.

2.5

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Soul
Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), the main character of Pixar’s Soul, is a jazz pianist living in Harlem who’s desperate for music gigs alongside his part-time job directing the disengaged middle schoolers in his band class. When the school principal offers him full-time hours with benefits, it feels more like a final surrender than a lifeline. The threat of lifelong mediocrity has tightened its grasp around every corner of Joe’s life. In a brilliant stroke, even the classic “When You Wish Upon a Star” tune that plays over the logo before most Disney movies is heard here as if played by Joe’s out-of-tune student ensemble.

Soul, directed by Pete Docter and co-directed by Kemp Powers, quickly reveals that Joe is anything but mediocre. Hearing melody in the wail of sirens and rhythm in the cacophony of a jackhammer, he has music in his, well, soul. When Joe catches his big break auditioning to play with a pro quartet, headlined by imperious jazz saxophonist Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett), the film follows him into “the zone.” Not since Fantasia has a Disney film treated music with such reverence, as the seed of all the visual flowering that follows. As pinks and purples swirl around Joe and as his fingers coax unexpected harmonies from the keyboard (Jon Batiste provides the impassioned playing), Soul gives itself over fully to his music.

For these gloriously substantial few minutes, it’s jazz set to animation rather than the other way around. As such, it’s hard not to want Soul to be all about music, not just as metaphor but as the very real engine that drives the film’s characters forward. Music’s extraordinary impact is palpable when Joe’s face lights up as one of his students, Connie (Cora Champommier), leans into a trombone solo, and as Joe’s fingers escape his anxiety in their own improvisatory pursuit. Walk away 15 minutes into the film, at the end of what would make, on its own, a snazzy, sublime short, and you’ll have seen Pixar’s greatest, purest tribute to the arts.

But Joe’s joy, and soon the film’s, is cut short when he plummets down an open manhole, and finds himself—or, rather, his soul, depicted here as a blue-green turnip-shaped substance with glasses and a fedora—on the pathway to the Great Beyond. Refusing to face death, Joe hurtles into the void toward the Great Before, where not-yet-born souls obtain their personalities in a Youth Seminar. Mistaken for a celebrated psychologist, Joe’s soul is assigned a mentee, a cranky pre-human called 22 (Tina Fey) who refuses to cooperate: She’s unwilling, and, so far, unable to find the “spark” that will allow her to be born into a human body. Previous famous mentors have tried and failed (the soul of Carl Jung amusingly tells the difficult 22, “Stop talking—my unconscious mind hates you”), but Joe sees 22 as his ticket back to Earth.

It’s somewhere around here that Soul, co-written by Docter, Powers, and Mike Jones, starts to veer down its own wrong path, abandoning its accessible storytelling, along with that vitalizing jazz soundtrack, for a confusing maze of pseudo-spiritual planes of existence. Besides the Great Beyond and the Great Before, souls can also be in the Zone, where tuned-in artists like Joe sometimes find themselves while still alive, or in a desert of Lost Souls, which belong to people who’ve forgotten how to live (hedge fund managers, in particular, we’re told).

In this ever-evolving terrain occupied by 2D and 3D life forms, the film’s visual adventurousness takes off as contrasting animation styles collide. At the Youth Seminar, flat, geometric figures with transparent features direct the bulbous souls to where they can pick up personality traits (at the Excitable Pavilion, for example). Meanwhile, a New Age-inflected Mystics Without Borders subplot, with Graham Norton voicing the tripped-out Moonwind, adds a daringly vibrant psychedelic color palette to the gentle blues and greens of the Great Before. But as the categories of souls keep expanding, the rules for these overlapping worlds grow foggy, and by the time that Fey’s voice is coming out of Joe’s body in a switcheroo that’s never quite explained, it’s hard not to feel as if the film has lost track of its internal logic.

At the core of the Pixar model is an exploration of friendship within the familiar parameters of the buddy comedy—Joy and Sadness in Inside Out, Sully and Mike in Monsters, Inc., Marlin and Dory in Finding Nemo, all the way back to Toy Story’s Buzz and Woody—and Soul tries hard to plug into the transformative power of friendship in pairing Joe with 22. Despite Fey’s droll delivery, 22, who says she chooses to speak with the voice of a middle-aged white lady in order to be “annoying,” isn’t convincing enough as a fully formed character for their relationship, or Joe’s investment in 22’s decision to be born, to ever matter.

The contours of these worlds seem just hazy enough to land on the safe side of blasphemy; sometimes it seems like the film’s imprecision is a deliberate attempt to draw piecemeal from various belief systems and sidestep offending religious audiences by addressing the presence or absence of higher powers at all. But the viewers that seem most painfully left behind are the ones to which Soul should rightly matter the most: kids. Soul swirls with self-help lingo about finding your spark and seeking your purpose, but that’s almost entirely in the context of Joe’s midlife crisis, a sliver of the human experience with which children seem unlikely to resonate. In a troubling reversal from Pixar films past, which magnanimously welcomed grownups along for a sophisticated ride, it’s kids who will have to do the most heavy lifting to keep up here.

Coco’s take on the Land of the Dead and Inside Out’s representation of depression exemplify explorations of “grownup” topics with a probing awareness of the ways they also touch kids’ lives. For a while, it seems that Soul, in its treatment of the Great Before, will have a similar capacity for digging into big, unanswerable questions with care and clarity. But while most Pixar films pride themselves on presenting rich, fantastical responses to real-world wonderings, Soul keeps conjuring up visions that don’t correspond precisely enough to anything in the real world. It’s not clear whether the film ultimately offers a call to arms to pursue a passion or a warning that creative passion alone doesn’t provide for a fulfilling life.

Cast: Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Graham Norton, Rachel House, Alice Braga, Richard Ayoade, Phylicia Rashad, Donnell Rawlings, Questlove, Angela Bassett, Cora Champommier, Margo Hall, Daveed Diggs, Rhodessa Jones, Wes Studi Director: Pete Docter Screenwriter: Pete Docter, Mike Jones, Kemp Powers Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Running Time: 100 min Rating: PG Year: 2020

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Review: Black Bear Is an Unnerving Look at the Baggage that Fuels Creation

Shot through with darkly existentialist humor, the film finds Aubrey Plaza throwing a gauntlet to filmmakers who have typecast her in the past.

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Black Bear
Photo: Momentum Pictures

Lawrence Michael Levine’s Black Bear belongs to a long tradition of sexual psychodrama, in which a handful of frustrated and privileged characters hole up in a remote place and exorcize their resentments. This tradition is so venerable that it was parodied by Christopher Guest over 30 years ago in The Big Picture, and there’s also a dark strand of existentialist humor running through this similarly self-conscious film.

Levine casts doubt on his narrative’s sense of reality in the opening sequence, wherein a young woman (Aubrey Plaza) is sitting on a pier in a swimsuit looking out at a vast foggy lake. After a moment, she rises and proceeds into a luxurious home, ascends a flight of stairs, and sits at a desk and smokes a cigarette. Soon, she begins to write in a notebook and the narrative segues into what’s presumably a dramatization of the story she fashions. This scene will be repeated several times in Black Bear, suggesting both a leitmotif and a temporal loop.

We then see this woman, Allison, being dropped off on a road a bit away from the home. Meeting Allison at the drop-off point is Gabe (Christopher Abbott), who immediately sets about flirting with her. It’s the sort of flirtation indulged by aspiring artists and self-conscious intellectuals-in-training, rife with deflections, fake-outs, and challenges to the nature of reality that complement the suggestion that the entire situation is possibly a projection of some kind. Allison and Gabe arrive at the residence to meet Blair (Sarah Gadon), who’s pregnant with Gabe’s child, which wasn’t mentioned when Gabe was probing Allison about her career as a filmmaker and, especially, her relationship status. The trio have a long and boozy dinner and air a variety of grievances, leading to a shocking accident.

Allison, initially suggesting a prototypical Plaza character, seemingly prizes hip detachment above all else, in the process enraging the judgmental Blair, who was hoping for help in persecuting Gabe for various slights. This characterization of Allison is a purposeful trap door—a sop to expectation that Levine detonates. In Black Bear’s first half, Allison is cast as a male fantasy—a sexy, seemingly willing and wandering artist who’s uninterested in Blair’s sermonizing about gender roles. In effect, Allison gratifies the submerged feelings of men and even women who may feel that women wish to be subjugated—feelings that are perversely validated in the moment by Blair’s caustic hectoring, which is realistic of the patter of the blowhard at parties who wishes to bore everyone into submission with rigid political views. The film’s early scenes are so stacked against Blair that one may forgive Gabe’s own simplistic speechifying, though such forgiveness may prompt us to examine our own biases.

Remarkably, the film’s emotional intensity is inseparable from its parlor game-like self-consciousness, especially when Allison’s “cool girl” demeanor is unexpectedly demolished. At its halfway mark, Black Bear effectively reboots itself, switching the core identities of the women, with only Gabe tellingly gaining more power in the process. Suddenly, Allison becomes the vulnerable and rejected party, and Plaza imbues her transformed character with a raw and frenzied anguish. Plaza throws a gauntlet to filmmakers who have typecast her in the past, while Levine plumbs the various forms of subjugation that fuel the creative process.

In Black Bear’s second half, the remote house is now a set for an independent film with a plot that roughly re-stages the earlier clashes between Allison, Blair, and Gabe, who are now reimagined as two actresses and the director, respectively. The film thusly expands beyond the confines of a chamber play to include a micro community, with sustained, confidently intricate set pieces—reminiscent of the game-show scenes in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia—that explore the exhilaration and terror of corralling dozens of working parts and personalities to create something palatable for audiences. Both films understand such corralling to thrive in part on exploitation, and in the case of Black Bear, the film-within-a-story-within-the-film is constructed around Gabe’s gaslighting of Allison, which Levine stages with a sense of unnerving intimacy that might playfully echo his own experience working with his spouse, filmmaker and actress Sophie Takal, who’s among Black Bear’s co-producers.

Levine is hunting big game in Black Bear, as the film reflects to varying degrees the influence of dozens of self-reflective film classics, mostly notably Ingmar Bergman’s Persona and David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. If Black Bear feels too neat, a little too resolved as a game, it may be because the framing device gives us a convenient exit, though even the conclusion isn’t without ambiguities. Given that both stories are sex triangles fueled by exploitation, you may be driven to wonder if Plaza’s writer is attempting to find a way to channel real trauma. Or, perhaps more disturbingly, she’s conjuring it out of thin air, accessing unvarnished pain out of sheer talent and for the hell of it. This coda restores the smug Plaza stereotype to an extent, while alluding to the vast emotional undertow it suppresses.

Cast: Aubrey Plaza, Christopher Abbott, Sarah Gadon, Lindsay Burdge, Alexander Koch, Paola Lázaro, Jennifer Kim, Shannon O’Neill, Grantham Coleman, Haitao Zeng, Lou Gonzalez Director: Lawrence Michael Levine Screenwriter: Lawrence Michael Levine Distributor: Momentum Pictures Running Time: 105 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Review: Survival Skills Surreally Straddles the Line Between Parody and Pathos

Survival Skills feels like something you’d stumble upon on Adult Swim circa 2014.

2.5

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Survival Skills
Photo: Cranked Up Films

Purporting to be an actual VHS-shot police training video unearthed from the last gasp of the Reagan era, Survival Skills feels like something you’d stumble upon on Adult Swim circa 2014, sandwiched between Too Many Cooks and reruns of Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! Yet writer-director Quinn Armstrong’s debut feature resists indulging the easy trappings of our current cultural obsession with ‘80s-era aesthetics as it digs into some rather contentious and particularly timely subject matter.

Survival Skills opens on a training guide introducing his lesson on a stagy classroom set. Credited as the Narrator, he’s played by Stacy Keach, a recognizable enough personality to immediately break any illusion of found-footage “authenticity.” But seeing as Armstrong will continue to break the fourth wall and experiment with meta-fictional ideas throughout, Keach, with his never-failing gravitas, becomes the perfect chaperone for this cracked video project.

The Narrator’s first order of business is creating the ideal police trainee, filtering the expected qualities needed for the job through an ancient computer system to end up with Jim Williams (Vayu O’Donnell), an all-American goody-two-shoes who we’ll follow through his first year on the force in quaint Middletown, U.S.A. Speaking in insufferably chipper soundbites, Jim acts and sounds exactly like someone who you’d see in the kind of stilted training video that Survival Skills spoofs throughout. But as we enter Jim’s video world, the joke becomes that he’s almost the only one here who behaves this way, while his hardened partner—curiously named Allison Lohmann (Erika Kreutz), in what must be some kind of inside joke—and the people they encounter are all perplexed by his alien manner. No matter, though, as Jim continues to take his cues from the Narrator’s booming voice, which seems to be heard solely by him.

The line between the staged world and the real one blurs even further when Jim and Allison are tasked with responding to a domestic violence call involving a married couple, the Jennings. After the cops diffuse the situation, Mr. Jennings (Bradford Farwell) assures them that everything is okay while Mrs. Jennings (Emily Chisholm) sheepishly nods along, but Jim can’t shake the feeling that something is off. Defying orders from his superiors (and the natural progression of the training video), Jim begins a quixotic attempt to rescue Mrs. Jennings and her daughter (Madeline Anderson) from a situation that no one but him seems to particularly care about, while the Narrator desperately tries to steer him back on track.

Unlike many a throwback that adopts a retro look and doesn’t offer much beyond hollow non sequiturs (Jack Henry Robbins’s VHYes instantly comes to mind), the film avoids cheapening its domestic-abuse storyline by using its formal conceit to also highlight another absurdity that Jim must confront: the impossibility of positive, meaningful police work within a broken legal (and social) system. The only lesson Jim can ultimately take away from his training is how to not get too involved, while his well-meaning suggestions to Mrs. Jennings that she flee her husband and file charges provoke immediate scorn from the same person he’s trying to help, since she’s already well aware how stacked the system is against her.

While mostly pulling off this tricky balancing act of humor and real-life horror, Survival Skills doesn’t quite go far enough in its critiques, especially in a climate where police-community relations are more frayed than ever. The whimsical mechanics of Armstrong’s world occasionally take precedence over the thematic issues at play, making it strange at times that Jim, who for all intents and purposes is a glorified android (Allison tellingly nicknames him “Robocop”), becomes so obsessed with this one case when he can barely read the room in any other setting. This dichotomy is even more pronounced in scenes with Jim’s hyperbolically domesticated wife, Jenny (Tyra Colar), who, while being the only other person in the film to behave in the same pre-programmed way, is clearly undergoing a stifled breakdown of her own. In these moments, Armstrong hints at but doesn’t fully comment on the correlation between the pressures of police work and domestic violence in police families.

The final act of Survival Skills, however, still intrigues, with Jim’s impossible quandary causing his idyllic existence to come unglued at the seams. Armstrong forcefully dives headfirst into the deep end of the meta pool, staging an aptly surreal revenge climax before Keach’s narrator concludes with a blunt lesson in the futility of policing. It’s a sentiment that ultimately resonates beyond the film’s stylistic posturing.

Cast: Stacy Keach, Vayu O’Donnell, Spencer Garrett, Ericka Kreutz, Tyra Colar, Emily Chisholm, Bradford Farwell Director: Quinn Armstrong Screenwriter: Quinn Armstrong Distributor: Cranked Up Films Running Time: 88 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: I’m Your Woman Is an Unresolved Grab at Feminist Revisionism

Julia Hart drains the crime film genre of its macho bluster without replacing it with anything.

1.5

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I’m Your Woman
Photo: Amazon Studios

Julia Hart’s I’m Your Woman is, in practice, a feminist response to the decidedly male-centric crime genre. Rather than follow a hoodlum named Eddie (Bill Heck) as he eludes his gangster cohorts, the film tracks Eddie’s wife, Jean (Rachel Brosnahan), and their baby, Harry, as the latter are inducted into an underworld witness protection program. Such a premise has immense potential, especially given that Jean knows little about Eddie’s profession and that anyone could be an enemy looking to get back at him through her and Harry. A head of paranoid steam, resonant of Jean’s indentured status as a “kept” woman, could have been built up by the film, but Hart and co-screenwriter Jordan Horowitz are barely invested in engendering suspense. Instead, I’m Your Woman is content to have us cheer Jean as she comes into her own apart from Eddie’s lies and manipulations—except that she never does, which appears to be an accidentally achieved irony on the filmmakers’ part.

I’m Your Woman is set in the 1970s, in conjunction with the second and third waves of feminism, and more pressingly so that Hart may have reason to offer the retro pop songs and ostentatious set designs that are common of films replicating the era. A strange opening scene, in which Eddie presents the mysteriously acquired Harry to Jean as one might an impulse purchase from a fancy store, establishes above all Jean’s complacency, which would shame a stereotypical American housewife of the 1950s, let alone the ‘70s. Indeed, Jean is so accommodating, defenseless, and opinion-less that she resembles a cult member, and as such you may wonder how she’s held the firebrand Eddie’s attention. As proffered here, these details are stereotypical and unconvincing, existing only as easy thematic signifiers.

None of this might matter if I’m Your Woman were remotely serviceable as a thriller, but it’s composed of a thicket of incoherent exposition, with a cipher at its center. Jean often hears rumors of what’s happening to Eddie while he’s hiding somewhere else, mostly as related by her primary protector, Cal (Arinzé Kene), and these stories suggest the conventional male-centric narrative that’s being consciously elided by Hart and Horowitz. But this gambit backfires, given that the story that Cal relates to Jean, however convoluted, is more exciting than the one we actually see play out on screen. At times, I’m Your Woman appears to be tipping its hat to Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and Gloria—two films, both made by men, that are far more curious about the inner lives of women than this one. Martin Scorsese and John Cassavetes didn’t see their heroines merely as embodiments of an agenda, but also as volatile, intelligent, furious living and breathing human beings.

By contrast, nothing seems to elicit a recognizably human emotion from Jean. Once she’s sprung from life as Eddie’s plus one, Jean remains supernaturally passive—entirely reactive and played by the usually inventive Brosnahan in a monotonal stupor that nulls Hart’s theme of female empowerment. Jean is almost killed several times, and commits murder in self-defense, all without evincing remorse, panic, or jubilation at facing extremities of human existence, which Hart films perfunctorily without offering even scraps of the sort of basic narrative context that might’ve made these sequences thrilling. In other words, Hart drains the crime film genre of its macho bluster without replacing it with anything, only to restore said bluster belatedly and halfheartedly once she’s run her single idea into the ground.

Cast: Rachel Brosnahan, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Arinzé Kene, Frankie Faison, Marceline Hugot, James McMenamin, Jarrod DiGiorgi, Bill Heck, James Charles, Justin Charles Director: Julia Hart Screenwriter: Julia Hart, Jordan Horowitz Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 120 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Review: Superintelligence Keeps a Lid on Melissa McCarthy’s Comic Energy

The big disappointment of the film is that McCarthy’s performance is all Jekyll and no Hyde.

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Superintelligence
Photo: HBO Max

Melissa McCarthy successfully transitioned from television to film playing outcasts who chafe at conventional standards of appearances and manners. The exhilaration of the actress’s performances, especially in Paul Feig comedies like Bridesmaids, The Heat, and Spy, resides in the volcanic force she lends characters who might be reduced in to wallflowers in your run-of-the-mill production. Such visceral comic energy represents a revenge-of-the-oppressed transcendence, as these vehicles find a diminutive, overweight middle-aged woman stealing productions out from under more traditionally sophisticated stars via the profound force of her personality and talent. McCarthy is a veritable superstar-as-everyperson, which is a rare pose for an actor to convincingly master.

The big disappointment, then, of Ben Falcone’s Superintelligence is that McCarthy’s performance is all Jekyll and no Hyde. At first, Carol (McCarthy), a computer programmer who quit her job years ago out of frustration with corporate heartlessness, appears to be the sort of stunted ne’er-do-well that the actress specializes in playing. Superintelligence’s early scenes are its sharpest, parodying how Google- and Apple-type companies attempt to launder the complacency they demand from consumers and employees alike with therapeutic babble about wellness and self, which Carol isn’t able to convincingly sell. After a botched interview for a new dating site amusingly called Badankadonk, the viewer is primed to wait patiently for Carol’s rage to explode in characteristic McCarthy fashion, as a satirical rebuke against the faux-progressive hivemind of our social media age, yet this combustion never occurs.

Superintelligence is less a parody of modern consumerism than a bland gene splice of a rom-com and a 1980s-era film in which a loner befriends either an alien, a robot, or, in this case, a sentient, super-intelligent program voiced—in another amusing touch—by James Corden. Porting a narrative with such a distinctly Cold War-era makeup into the modern day also has satiric potential, for suggesting the similarity between past and present anxieties about technology run amok. And this commonality is acknowledged by the film in exactly one joke, in which the sentient program emulates the computer from John Badham’s WarGames in order to screw with characters who’re all old enough to get the reference.

Falcone and screenwriter Steve Mallory soon skimp on another wellspring for comedy, as the program gifts Carol with wealth and fashionable baubles—the sorts of privileged things that she comes to resent less once she’s capable of attaining them. Such hypocrisy, alive and well in virtually every present-day American, is acknowledged in a few fleeting jokes and soon forgotten, and even the general premise of a super-intelligent program as a kind of modern god-slash-genie is sidelined. Superintelligence is a junkyard of missed opportunities, as the unutilized ideas and gimmicks are revealed to exist as window dressing adorning a simple, frictionless kind of comedy-of-remarriage between Carol and the man who got away, George (Bobby Cannavale), who’s defined only by his sweetness and availability.

Superintelligence is probably intended by Falcone, McCarthy’s husband and regular collaborator, as a conventional star vehicle in which McCarthy plays the sort of wistful lonely heart that was once monopolized by the likes of Meg Ryan and Sandra Bullock. The film’s conventionality is meant to show that McCarthy needn’t always play the tormented weirdo with reserves of inner rage; she can also be a regular lead with regular problems with a regularly good-looking man as her “one and only.” But such generic and insidiously conformist attitudes, though born of reverence, insult and inhibit McCarthy’s talents.

McCarthy was authentically weird, profane, and confident, and therefore sexy, when playing a character who stood up to all those sexist men in Spy, which positioned her opposite of Jason Statham romantically without treating it as a big deal. By contrast, Falcone self-consciously lionizes McCarthy as an avatar of normalized romantic longing, trapping her in the process. The filmmakers here fatally forget that we love Melissa McCarthy because she isn’t a princess.

Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Bobby Cannavale, James Corden, Brian Tyree Henry, Jean Smart, Ben Falcone, Josh McKissic Director: Ben Falcone Screenwriter: Steve Mallory Distributor: HBO Max Running Time: 108 min Rating: PG Year: 2020

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Review: Julien Temple’s Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds with Shane MacGowan

The film is affectingly poignant in its frequently uncomfortable presentation of MacGowan’s physical ruination.

3

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Crock of Gold
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

The legend of Shane MacGowan, frontman for the Pogues and imbiber extraordinaire, looms large over Julien Temple’s alternately fantastical and down-to-earth documentary Crock of Gold. Since achieving international renown in the 1980s leading the biggest Irish band after U2—and just about the only one to fully celebrate and explore their Irishness—MacGowan carved out a position as one of rock’s most determined boozers, druggies, fighters, and all-around hellraisers. But though he had a Keith Richards-sized appetite, being on a smaller budget meant going without a protective rock-star bubble.

MacGowan’s kinetic and alcohol-fueled energy was a big part of the Pogues’s appeal, vividly captured here by the footage Temple includes of people roaring and dancing in packed concert venues. But time took its toll, as evidenced by MacGowan’s downward spiral of performances sabotaged by his copious drinking. Eventually, the slurred speech, physical decrepitude, and ever-more gnarled dentition spotted in the archival footage from the 1980s and ‘90s became like a self-fulfilling stereotype of the dedicated Irish drunk. While Temple includes a full view of MacGowan in his earlier form, the spiky-haired and Brendan Behan-worshipping punk balladeer, the story is told primarily through the lens of MacGowan’s racked and ruined present visage, prematurely aged and slurring his speech from a wheelchair. In MacGowan’s mind, he destroyed his body in pursuit of a different kind of legend entirely.

Much of the musician’s personal history is relayed via present-day interviews with interlocutors such as Johnny Deep—a friend of MacGowan’s and one of the film’s producers—former Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams. But here and there throughout Crock of Gold, MacGowan looks back over his own life, telling stories with a slow, slurring mumble punctuated by the occasional surly snap of pique or wheeze that approximates a laugh.

MacGowan acknowledges the problematic aspects of being the drunken Irishmen who hated British stereotypes of drunken Irishmen. “You want Paddy?” he asks rhetorically. “I’ll give you fucking Paddy.” But beyond the aggression that came from being a hyper-imaginative kid who hated the discrimination he felt being raised in 1960s England, he says that his creative drive was ultimately to create a different kind of legend. He wanted to do nothing less than save Irish culture. If not that, he wanted to at least resurrect the feeling that he had during the childhood summers he spent back in his extended family’s farmhouse in Tipperary (a one-time safe house for the I.R.A.), where even as a six-year-old he took part in the drinking and smoking and singing during the clan’s frequent all-night bashes.

MacGowan’s take on his culture is fiercely proud yet somewhat removed; his Irishness seems to come almost as much through literature and myth as through his family. Dreamy black-and-white recreations of a boy gamboling through Irish fields and archival footage of the Easter Rising and Ireland’s War of Independence fuel the sense that everything MacGowan strove for later in his art was in his mind a kind of fantasy crusade. “I did what I did for Ireland,” he says.

Raised mostly in England, MacGowan found the perfect outlet for that old poetry-infused rebel spirit when as a teenager he discovered his tribe in London’s punk scene. The raw chaos fit his natural state. After a several-month stay in Bedlam, his first concert was the Sex Pistols. Although this feels like a too-good story from a man who doesn’t mind gilding the lily, Temple includes grubby old footage showing MacGowan ecstatically pogo-ing just feet away from Johnny Rotten. Temple’s evocation of London street life in the period is short but vivid, in particular a segment set to “The Old Main Drag”, MacGowan’s semi-autobiographical song about a teenage hustler (“Just hand jobs,” he says with a grin in a later interview).

Wanting to “give tradition a kick in the ass” and make “Irish hip again,” MacGowan infused the lilt of traditional Irish music with a mixture of punk speed, wartime urgency, and late-night boozy romanticism. His recollections of the Pogues’s early years when their first three albums were met with increasing acclaim and popularity make clear that he knows that was the high point. The near-constant touring that followed the breakthrough success of 1988’s If I Should Fall from Grace with God seems to have pushed his addictions over the edge. Most everything after the ‘80s—the later albums of dwindling quality, varying side projects and break-ups, and late-career encomiums—are handled in mostly chronological but still somewhat blurred fashion by Temple in an approximation of how MacGowan likely remembers them. In this way, the film is of a piece with the ruinous spectacle that Temple’s Sex Pistols films covered and the fireside intimacy of Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten, affectingly poignant in its frequently uncomfortable presentation of MacGowan’s physical ruination.

Director: Julien Temple Running Time: 124 min Year: 2020

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Review: Before Turning Histrionic, Uncle Frank Is a Tender Look at Outsider Kinship

Alan Ball quickly loses sight of the sense of power that fuels the film’s early moments when his characters basically just gaze at each other.

2

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Uncle Frank
Photo: Amazon Studios

Alan Ball’s ‘70s-set Uncle Frank commences as a rare portrait of the love between an uncle and his niece. Beth (Sophia Lillis), a provincial teenager with cosmopolitan dreams, is in awe of her uncle Frank (Paul Bettany), a gay man living in New York City, a very long way from his South Carolina roots. “Uncle Frank was different,” Beth tells us in voiceover as we watch her pine for him at a family get-together. He was different than everyone around her because he was a college professor, his fingernails were always clear, and he used aftershave. But mostly because she could listen to him all day.

That sequence is shot like a conversation between lovers, slow-motioned laughter and all. But this isn’t the budding of incestuous love. It’s the sort of veneration that children are sometimes lucky enough to feel for the one adult in their midst who’s freer than most. Which is perhaps why many a queer uncle learns very quickly how disrupting their presence can be in family affairs. Frank represents a certain elsewhere. He truly listens to Beth, which visibly feels like some kind of a first for her. At one point, he tells her what she needs to hear with kindness—namely to believe in her dreams, which is code for her to get the hell out of the South. Four years later, she’s an NYU freshman obsessed with Harper Lee, Jane Austen, and Mark Twain.

When Beth moves to New York and they start hanging out, Frank can’t hide his homosexuality for long. After all, he lives with his long-term partner, Wally (Peter Macdissi), and an iguana named Barbara Stanwyck. Beth has never interacted with gay people before but gets used to the idea very quickly. And it’s at this moment, when the distance between uncle and niece shortens, that Uncle Frank ceases to be a tender portrait of outsider kinship and transforms into a histrionic road movie with screwball intentions, more interested in plot twists than the characters themselves. It’s an unfortunate pivot, as Ball loses sight of the sense of power that fuels the film’s early moments when his characters basically just gaze at each other, basking in what the other has to give, and something queer is transmitted.

When Frank’s father (Stephen Root) passes away, he drives back to the family home with Beth in tow. Also tagging along in a separate car, and much to Frank’s chagrin, is Wally, effectively triggering a predictable series of alternately kooky and unfortunate events, all interspersed with traumatic flashbacks to the source of the animosity between Frank and his father. It’s a whirlwind of melodrama that, before arriving at the obligatory happy ending, harkens back to the film’s initial quietude when Beth, sitting across from Frank at a diner, asks him, “Did you always know you were gay?” He responds that he always knew he was different, and in this moment Ball lets the characters breathe again, framing them much as he did at the start of Uncle Frank—in the midst of bonding, as a different sort of inheritance is passed on.

Cast: Paul Bettany, Sophia Lillis, Peter Macdissi, Steve Zahn, Judy Greer, Margo Martindale, Stephen Root, Lois Smith, Jane McNeil, Caity Brewer, Hannah Black, Burgess Jenkins, Zach Sturm, Colton Ryan, Britt Rentschler, Alan Campell, Cole Doman, Michael Perez Director: Alan Ball Screenwriter: Alan Ball Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 95 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Review: The Croods: A New Age Is a Step Up that Still Leaves You Wanting More

The film is brightly colored, inventively designed, and constantly flirting with the outright psychedelic.

2.5

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The Croods: A New Age
Photo: Universal Pictures

Brightly colored, inventively designed, and constantly flirting with the outright psychedelic, The Croods: A New Age resembles what it might be like for a three-year-old to take an acid trip. Whereas its relatively subdued predecessor, directed by Chris Sanders and Kirk DeMicco, was grounded in some semblance of the real world, the sequel follows the path of another DreamWorks Animation series, Trolls, by packing as much manic energy and candy-coated visual excess into its runtime as it possibly can. The approach mostly improves on the limp family-comedy of the original, trading tired jokes about overprotective fathers for sprawling action sequences and a bevy of oddball creatures including wolf-spider hybrids, kung fu-fighting monkeys, and a King Kong-sized baboon with porcupine spikes.

Which isn’t to say that A New Age turns its back on the Crood family. In fact, it juggles a half-dozen or so emotional arcs pertaining to their daily lives, with the relationship between the feisty Eep (Emma Stone) and her conservative father, Grug (Nicolas Cage), once more at the heart of the narrative. As the film opens, the Croods, who’ve accepted Eep’s boyfriend, Guy (Ryan Reynolds), into the family fold, are desperately searching for food and safety when they happen upon an Edenic walled paradise owned by the technologically advanced Phil and Hope Betterman (Peter Dinklage and Leslie Mann), who chafe at the boorish antics of the backwards Croods. Discovering that they knew Guy when he was a boy, the Bettermans contrive to kick the coarse cavemen off their property while stealing Guy away from Eep to live with them and create a family with their cheery daughter, Dawn (Kelly Marie Tran).

Though ostensibly existing in the prehistoric world, the Bettermans, with their turquoise jewelry and rope sandals, epitomize a certain kind of well-heeled contemporary liberalism, where a rehearsed casual demeanor masks a fundamental narrow-mindedness and even intolerance of the uncouthness of their perceived inferiors. They’re the kind of people who won’t let a struggling family stay for long on their unused property but will send them off with a passive-aggressive smile and gift basket full of fancy soaps. The Bettermans are surprisingly complex, thanks in large part to Dinklage and Mann’s nuanced voice acting. In particular, Dinklage finds droll humor in a man whose conceitedness belies an essentially good heart.

This sort of gentle satire on class divisions isn’t the most natural fit with the film’s sweeping prehistoric milieu, but the screenplay manages to strike a relatively deft balance between its character moments and the comedy-adventure set pieces that are the film’s real raison d’être. A New Age doles out its emotional beats with a refreshingly light touch, never allowing sentimentalism to overpower its buoyant sense of adventure. But aside from some delightfully crusty line readings by Cloris Leachman as Gran, the film is rarely laugh-out-loud funny. Indeed, the film is so packed full of incident that it rarely gives its jokes the space to land.

Similarly, its overall sense of spectacle is stronger than any particular image or scene. We’re never wanting for things to look at in the film—there’s nearly always some wacky creature or impossible Roger Dean-style landscape or virtuosic bit of animation onscreen—but we rarely get much chance to take any of them in before the film has moved on to the next thing. There’s plenty to look at in A New Age, but not a whole lot to truly savor.

Cast: Nicolas Cage, Emma Stone, Ryan Reynolds, Catherine Keener, Clark Duke, Cloris Leachman, Peter Dinklage, Leslie Mann, Kelly Marie Tran Director: Joel Crawford Screenwriter: Kevin Hageman, Dan Hageman, Paul Fisher, Bob Logan Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 95 min Rating: PG Year: 2020

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Noir City: International 2020

The first international edition of the Noir City film festival in six years showcases the diversity and malleability of noir.

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The Fifth Horseman Is Fear
Photo: Sigma III Corporation

Noir City 18, presented by the Film Noir Foundation in San Francisco this January, shined a spotlight on 24 noir films from around the world. It was the first international edition of the festival in six years, and it showcased the diversity and malleability of the genre—the incredible range of formal, thematic, and narrative strategies that can fall under its umbrella. Now through November 29, a virtual edition of this year’s festival, co-presented by AFI Silver and the Film Noir Foundation, featuring many of the same films is open to noir afficionados across the United States.

A handful of established classics are presented here, including Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Doulos, as well as the only two American films in the lineup, each celebrating their 75th anniversaries, Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour and John M. Stahl’s Leave Her to Heaven. But the remaining films on this year’s slate consist primarily of lesser established films like Robert Siodmak’s The Devil Strikes at Night and Helmut Kautner’s Black Gravel, as well as a few more widely known films not discussed in terms of their noir credentials, among them Kim Ki-young’s The Housemaid and Andrzej Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds.

This edition of Noir City: International further broadens the scope of what cinephiles traditionally think of as noir. But in stretching the boundaries of what constitutes a noir production, perhaps too far at times for some noir purists, the festival offers an exciting blend of undiscovered gems and more canonical films that, when reevaluated through the lens of noir, are ripe for both new interpretations and renewed appreciation.

One of more obscure titles this year is Zbyněk Brynych’s 1965 thriller The Fifth Horseman Is Fear, which, while set during the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, makes no attempt to recreate the era. This approach allows Brynych’s Kafkaesque parable to achieve an immediacy and universality in its critique of authoritarianism that extends not only to the communist party running Czechoslovakia in the 1960s, but to virtually any brutal autocratic regime. Here, the Nazi soldiers and officers remain entirely off screen, overheard only occasionally as they speechify on the radio or in the distance outside, and the film instead summons most of the danger through the crippling, maddening aftereffects of widespread oppression that manifest in the fear and panic gripping seemingly every civilian character in the film.

Employing claustrophobic compositions, opaque plotting, jarring, sometimes disjointed editing, and a hauntingly atonal jazz score by Jirí Sternwald, Brynych crafts an environment of utter despair and confusion, where suspicions are cast in every direction and friends and neighbors turn on one another in order to survive. Chillingly, The Fifth Horseman Is Fear even blurs the psychological divide between the patients of an insane asylum and the unhinged behavior of the residents of Prague. And while that particular sequence recalls Samuel Fuller’s Shock Corridor from two years prior, Brynych’s nightmarishly surreal flourishes are innovative in their own right for the uneasy sense of paranoia that they rouse throughout, foreshadowing the more grim, disturbing films to come out of Czechoslovakia in the coming years, notably Juraj Herz’s The Cremator and Karel Kachyna’s The Ear.

Román Viñoly Barreto’s The Black Vampire, a 1953 Argentinian reimagining of Fritz Lang’s M, may not be as inventive as either Brynych or Lang’s films, but in approaching the material from the perspectives of women whose lives are adversely affected by the actions of the central child killer, it’s nonetheless quite fascinating and bold in its diversions from the original. Its feminist bent morphs the story into something entirely different than the Lang film, and in sympathizing primarily with mothers of the killers’ victims, along with a cabaret singer, Rita (Olga Zubarry), who witnessed one of the murders and fears for the safety of her child, Barreto’s film turns the oft-perceived misogyny of noir on its head.

Barreto villainizes not only the killer, but also the lead detective, Bernard (Roberto Escalada), whose hypocrisy—both in his domineering behavior on the job, as when he keeps a suspect he knows is innocent in detention, and his betrayal of his disabled wife (Gloria Castilla)—undermines his positioning of himself as the moral voice of reason. Cinematographer Aníbal González Paz, who also shot another gorgeous, under-the-radar Argentinian noir, 1958’s Rosaura at 10 O’Clock, uses an impressionistic visual palette, rife with chiaroscuro lighting and canted camera angles to create a heightened sense of disorientation that mirrors the volatility of a society in which injustices regularly occur on both sides of the law.

While The Fifth Horseman Is Fear and The Black Vampire fall on the more disturbing, thematically weighty end of the noir spectrum, Henri Verneuil’s Any Number Can Win is a much lighter offering, though it’s quite an assured and stylish piece of mainstream entertainment. Verneuil, first and foremost, understands the simple surface pleasures noir can provide, be it gazing at a stone-faced Jean Gabin patiently skulking in the back of a Rolls Royce as he watches his master plan beginning to unfold or Alain Delon comically hamming it up as he uses his charm and sex appeal to fool everyone in the casino resort he plans to rob.

As delightful as it is to behold all the sharply written tête-à-têtes between Gabin and Delon—the former as the aging, implacable professional, and the latter as the virile, headstrong apprentice—it’s during the quieter, more deliberately paced third act that Veurneuil’s control of tempo and mood really shines. Generating a white-knuckle tension worthy of Jules Dassin’s Rififi, and capped off with a brilliant reworking of the ending of another ‘50s classic—to say which one would spoil the surprise—Any Number Can Win is a prime example of a film, and filmmaker, that was unfairly maligned by the cinephiles and critics of the French New Wave, and which has only just recently begun to recover its reputation.

Noir City: International runs through November 29.

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Review: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom Is a Moving Swan Song for Chadwick Boseman

Boseman meticulously charts the breakdown of a man discovering that pursuit and escape are inextricably intertwined.

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Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Photo: Netflix

In the canny opening moments of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, the camera swoops over the heads of two black men sprinting through the woods at night, tripping over branches in their haste. The sequence, calculatingly staged to evoke an antebellum-era escape, invites our assumptions about who these men might be and from whom or what they might be running, but it turns out that the two men are just music fans on the move to catch a concert performance by Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, the Southern singer dubbed “Mother of the Blues.”

It’s a pain-to-pleasure illusion that runs in reverse throughout the rest of George C. Wolfe’s film, which has been thoughtfully, gently adapted by Ruben Santiago-Hudson from August Wilson’s 1984 play. Though Ma Rainey (Viola Davis), here a fictionalized version of the real-life pioneering recording artist, may command sell-out crowds and booming record sales, she also knows what she ultimately represents for the white managers and producers who profit from her talent: “They don’t care nothing about me,” she explains early in the film. “All they want is my voice.” Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom chips away at the seeming triumph of a celebrated chanteuse to reveal the bitter truths below the surface.

Ma Rainey, gilded and painted, is playing a part. With gold teeth and coarse coats of makeup highlighting a face often frozen in a withering sneer, most often directed at the white men who pay her but sometimes at the rogue trumpeter in her band, Levee (Chadwick Boseman), or at her chorus-girl lover, Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige), she’s miles away from vulnerability.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom takes place over the course of a few hours in the recording studio where Ma presides over her deferential manager, Irvin (Jeremy Shamos), disgruntled producer, Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne), and her four-man band, which, in addition to Boseman’s Levee, includes Toledo (Glynn Turman) on piano, Slow Drag (Michael Potts) on bass, and Cutler (Colman Domingo) on trombone. For Ma Rainey, as long as the microphones are on, she has total power, and she relishes in elongating that reign through the power of refusal: she won’t sing until she has her Coke; she won’t move on until her nephew, Sylvester (Dusan Brown), who stutters, perfectly delivers the introduction to the recording; and she won’t sign the release form that would liberate her white manager and producer from her say-so.

Davis, coarsely, tauntingly, slowly slurping on that Coca-Cola, communicates Ma Rainey’s premeditated defiance: As long as she controls the recording session, she rules over the white men who crave her sound, her strength and talent arising not in spite of her black body, but through it. And if that simultaneous tribute to, and desecration of, her artistry is ultimately heartbreaking to her, Ma Rainey isn’t about to let them see through her armor.

For the rest of the band, though, things are different. Levee has visions of forming his own band, of getting his original songs recorded, of winning over Ma Rainey’s beloved Dussie Mae. His jaded bandmates have seen it all by now, though, and they know Levee’s cocksure dreams will backfire. What they cannot anticipate are the frightening ways in which Levee’s grief has already hardened into powder kegs. If Ma finds small, sustaining triumph in refusal, Levee leans heavily on the blinding comforts of denial, and Boseman offers a deliriously frantic performance of contradictory extremes that eclipses the rest of the film when he’s at his most urgent and sweltering. Of the other bandmates, it’s Turman’s Toledo who most memorably emerges from Levee’s shadow: He’s the oldest of the musicians and the clearest-eyed in his surety that the rewards of individual artistic glory, the kind that Ma embraces and Levee pursues, will make scant difference in improving black lives in lasting ways.

Wolfe, best known as the razor-witted playwright of The Colored Museum and the original director of Angels in America, takes a hands-on approach in sending sparks of activity through the film’s claustrophobic spaces. In the small basement room where the band practices as they await Ma Rainey’s arrival, the camera often ricochets from man to man, as frenetic as the film’s briefer depiction of the Chicago streets above. Successful in the early scenes at animating what could otherwise feel static on screen, that perpetual motion may also somewhat undercut the boiling stillness that eventually erupts. Wilson’s trademark undercurrent of simmering rage against the divine—the same desperate resistance that distinguishes the climaxes of plays like Fences and The Piano Lesson—only sneaks in occasionally, and, when Levee’s restless hopelessness explodes into destructive action, it neither feels wrenchingly inevitable nor cathartically shocking.

That’s not through any fault of Boseman’s. Indeed, though Davis’ gritty, authoritarian presence at the mic complexingly layers the seductive highs of stardom and the exhausting veneer of Ma Rainey’s temporary, performative power, it’s Boseman who most movingly gives voice to the ghosts that haunt Wilson’s play. In his final role, Boseman meticulously charts the breakdown of a man discovering, within the mirages of 1920s blackness, that pursuit and escape, fleeing from and running toward, are inextricably intertwined.

Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Viola Davis, Glynn Turman, Jeremy Shamos, Colman Domingo, Taylour Paige, Jonny Coyne, Michael Potts, Joshua Harto, Dusan Brown Director: George C. Wolfe Screenwriter: Ruben Santiago-Hudson Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 94 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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