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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: Hypnospace Outlaw Is a Lament for the Wild West of the Early Net

The game masterfully uses its microcosm of the internet circa 1999 to examine the way society functions when it’s extremely online.

5

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Hypnospace Outlaw
Photo: No More Robots

The technology at the center of Hypnospace Outlaw sounds futuristic: a headset that lets you access an online community while you sleep. But it’s also 1999, which means your brain-beaming helmet displays the limited color palette and grainy, pixelated artwork of an early internet, cursed with horrendous fonts that mingle with faintly terrifying 3D image renders and cursor trails. Nothing quite compares to the gaudy Wild West of the early internet, and Hypnospace Outlaw mines that eye-searing kitsch for pages upon pages of vivid, outrageous comedy as you dream-surf a privately owned net.

Throughout, you marvel at unfortunate interests like fan pages for rap-rock groups and chain letter-esque images that promise to ward off evil. You click through personal blogs and projects and advertisements grouped into zones according to shared subject matter. That’s the job, after all, since you play the game as an “enforcer,” a newly assigned moderator to the Hypnospace community. A purveyor of banal justice, you seek out unapproved commerce or strike down images and links with the divine hammer of copyright infringement.

In Hypnospace Outlaw, you’ll page through the teen zone and the conspiracy theory hub, but the game simulates more than just a web browser; an entirely customizable desktop runs the programs you find and opens downloaded documents. You can’t send email, but you’ll receive it. As you’re assigned more cases, the scope of the detective work begins to incorporate these other elements, requiring you to scan for references and redirects to pages tucked out of plain sight, accessible only through backdoor links, search keywords, or outside software that’s just as clunky to use as something from the early net era might have been.

The game could easily sustain itself on no more than this conceit, the base investigation and ironic appreciation of a World Wide Web still full of strategically deployed “under construction” banners. Instead, it uses those elements to build something both stranger and more ambitious, weaving a world of staggering consistency. Designers of HypnOS—the headset’s operating system—hang around their creation, and so do their commercial partners. You begin to pick out business strategies and creative decisions, to spot revealing nuances in page design, some as small as whether or not they redirect back to the home page.

The more zones you gain access to, the more familiar you grow with Hypnospace’s own terms and trends. Its users post images en masse to protest copyright removal, support underground music like “coolpunk,” or supposedly insulate themselves from “beefbrain.” Others make pages that recount the deepest cuts of a comic book bull’s history, link to spooky interactive fiction, discuss the nuances of “trennis,” and recount the erratic career trajectory of The Chowder Man, an aging rocker turned corporate sellout. Some of the autoplayed page jingles—all of them specifically, hilariously designed for the game—get stuck in your head regardless of how much they sound filtered through a tin can. Though Hypnospace Outlaw’s clear reference point is the early internet as we knew it, the game is more about exploring the developers’ own unique spin on the web pre-Y2K, which is so distinct that it never devolves into a round of spotting real-world references. Hypnospace, after all, is a world of its own.

To a point, the game is about pointing and laughing at the outdated presentation of user-created web pages, but it’s careful not to fall into easy parody. Hypnospace users are totally sincere about their creations, or totally sincere in their insincerity. They live in their present, and that present is one where every page hosts disastrous touches like an eyesore font or a 3D emoticon with a terrifying rictus grin. While you become accustomed to, and begin to appreciate, such idiosyncratic Hypnospace trappings while you moderate content, the web pages seem to build partial portraits of the people behind them: thoughtful writers, edgy teens, misanthropes, simpering wannabe cool kids, myopic control freaks, and people who feud through amateurish MS Paint-like art because they see too much of themselves in each other. Snippets of real life peek through every page’s design choice and written word.

You never directly converse with these people, but you come to know them by their work. They maintain their own projects and pages, displaying personas that are deeply personal because everything had to be built by hand. Hypnospace Outlaw functions as a kind of goofy lament for a personality that’s been diminished in the decades since, as social media corrals us into an infinitely more homogenous personal space. But the game never feels limited to its chosen era, as its depiction of obsessive personalities, crowd mentalities, and people who look for meaning by carving out a space online resonates all the way through to the present day.

For as much as the game pays tribute to the spirit of the early web, Hypnospace is certainly not a utopian vision. Even between the content you’re supposed to scrub, the place is absolutely ravaged by commerce and capitalism. Such a space must, of course, be monetized as much as possible. The desire to be recognized and heard by literally anything or anyone, to feel like more than voices that cry out into an online void from small towns where they don’t fit in, is exploited for corporate gain. Companies cash in on trends, marketing to children in their sleep. They pay people like you, volunteer enforcers of dubious corporate norms, in currency that can only be spent in Hypnospace. The company town has gone digital.

None of this stops Hypnospace Outlaw from being hilarious (one child’s drawing is too poor to qualify as copyright infringement), but it situates the game on the thread that connects comedy with tragedy, and endearing eccentricity with outright toxicity. The pain seems funny until you recognize that it’s real, learn that there are people behind those screens. The game is a monumental achievement, not just for its detailed rendering of another place and time but for the observed humanity of its writing and the things it has to say about the intersection of capitalism and art. Hypnospace Outlaw’s surprising thematic sweep transforms an already wondrous internet simulator into a striking commentary on the development of movements and communities even in the intervening decades, using this microcosm of the internet circa 1999 to examine the way society functions when it’s extremely online.

The game was reviewed using a code provided by No More Robots.

Developer: Jay Tholen, Mike Lasch, Xalavier Nelson Jr., ThatWhichIs Media Publisher: No More Robots Platform: PC Release Date: March 12, 2019 Buy: Game

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Review: With Devil May Cry 5, a Series Is Back to the Old-Time Rock-n’-Roll

The game is a near-endless buffet of innovative options for turning enemies into mincemeat.

4.5

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Devil May Cry 5
Photo: Capcom

Not only a return to form for the Devil May Cry series after the lethargic Devil May Cry 4, Devil May Cry 5 is also something of a restatement of intent for the original numbered series after the woefully underrated DmC: Devil May Cry’s detour into more grungy terrain. Devil May Cry is now back to the old-time rock-n’-roll for Dante, reverting to much of the trashy anime swagger of the first four games, emphasizing style over anything resembling substance. And yet, there’s still a touch of the reboot’s madness floating around in here, which keeps the game from falling back on some of Devil May Cry’s worst habits, while also advancing the series’s past ideas with great zeal and imagination.

As one might expect, considering that Devil May Cry 4 was released 11 years ago, Devil May Cry 5 represents an enormous jump in visual complexity for this series. Beyond the incredible fine detail in every humanoid character’s face and performance, the landscape marries realistically rendered European cities with a stomach-turning sebaceous mess, borne from a demonic tree that leaves a sort of hellish insectoid apocalypse in its wake. In terms of actual game design, there’s nothing terribly audacious going on here, with sometimes too-tight linear corridors leading to wide-open kill zones. But the this isn’t a game about what you plan to do about a problem, but how ridiculously elaborate and flashy you can do that thing, and the game is a near-endless buffet of innovative options for turning enemies into mincemeat.

Every move that’s ever been a part of Dante and Nero’s repertoires in the past is an option here. Nero is all about hard single strikes, and figuring out ways to maximize them each and every time. He’s aided by the Devil Breaker system, which builds on Devil May Cry 4’s main gimmick. In that game, Nero could grab or slam anything from long distances with his demonic arm. In Devil May Cry 5, after the arch-demon Urizen rips off that arm, Nero now has a set of disposable cybernetic replacements that can do anything from blasting nearby enemies with lightning, to being able to temporarily stop time. The upshot is that the arms are fragile, and will break if you get hit while using their special functions. It’s a careful balance that teaches players to respect the immeasurable power at their fingertips.

Dante, on the other hand, is all about the right tool for the right job, and the four styles returning from Devil May Cry 3 and 4—Trickster, Gunslinger, Swordmaster, and Royalguard—combine with an expansive, devastating arsenal that changes function whenever those styles change is legitimately daunting at first. Experimentation is welcomed more in this game than the others, especially thanks to a new long-overdue practice space called The Void. However, it doesn’t take long to find a set of moves you’re comfortable with, and once you’re ready, there’s a formidable list of skills to unlock in order to take your repertoire to the next level.

The wildcard here, however, is the addition of a new character, V, a demon conjurer who fascinatingly resembles a frail, underfed, Uncanny Valley version of Adam Driver. He doesn’t fight himself, but instead summons three demonic familiars—a panther, a wise-cracking talking raven, and a massive golem—to do his fighting for him. The slower, more deliberate gameplay in his levels is a strangely captivating contrast with the typical Devil May Cry style, if not entirely successful since you’re issuing commands second-hand.

V’s mechanics feel like they were built for a JRPG that never happened, rather than for a series built for speed. Yet it’s such a unique moveset for this type of game that it’s hard not to admire Capcom’s bravery for even trying it here. More than the developer’s typical method of ratcheting up the difficulty in the series’s traditional Dante Must Die mode, V’s stages require players to truly study their prey, to think 10 seconds ahead at all time in order to avoid V getting hit before the familiars can take out the closest enemy. Playing as V requires considering the opening created by every move instead of wailing away at a ragdolled demon. These levels truly force the player to consider and respect their enemies, something none of the previous games can really allow given that they’re all about making Dante and Nero look unstoppable in combat. V never does, and it’s an intriguing breath of fresh air.

Devil May Cry 5 executes this rowdy stage-destroying romp with all the glee that was missing in the fourth installment, making the real difference between the main series and DmC abundantly clear. Most players would like to pretend that Devil May Cry is all about being stylish and cool, but the truth is a bit more complex. Because, as far as what’s legitimately popular and edgy in the 2010s, DmC had its thumb right on the zeitgeist, with its EDM-kid Dante, its beautiful graffiti-infused aesthetic, tipping its nose rather unsubtly at the loneliness and teenage abuse that create alt subcultures in general. Arguably, Devil May Cry 5 is more successful as a traditional Devil May Cry game for not trying to follow the zeitgeist and instead existing permanently in the one it created back in 2001—one that revels in recent-past hallmarks of cool like Scrooge McDuck taking a bath in a bin full of ‘90s arcade tokens.

On the surface, Devil May Cry’s aesthetic appeal conforms to a sort of goth-Eurotrash John Wick chic: wearing a trench coat, doing death-defying acrobatics wielding dual pistols in ways that would make John Woo proud. This is the window dressing for what is—and, in retrospect, always has been—a collection of mechanics, character beats, and elaborate flourishes that thrives on self-awareness and arch camp more than the series’s severe and grim premise lets on. DmC leaned into that severity and grimness with great seriousness, whereas Devil May Cry 5 gave us a climax involving a character becoming a divine creature of retribution by literally giving a middle finger to heaven itself. It’s enough to wonder why nuance and social relevance would ever want to become part of this series’s narrative vocabulary?

If anything, Devil May Cry 5’s success stems from embracing that camp with greater vigor than the series ever has before, if not as wholeheartedly as its estranged cousins, Bayonetta and Bayonetta 2. However, there’s no greater embodiment of Devil May Cry’s entire ethos as a series than Devil May Cry 5’s newest and absolute best character: Nico, a chain-smoking, biracial cowboy hipster gun nut engineer-slash-arms dealer who’s into lo-fi hip-hop, built her workshop into the back of her van, and cartoonishly drives into any situation to sell our heroes weaponry like a deranged version of the Kool-Aid Man.

An entire review could almost focus on Nico as the perfect encapsulation of the game as a whole, but the one scene that says it all is right at the start: After arriving on the scene by mowing down an entire crowd of demon ants with her van, Nico steps out to face one of the survivors, a cop who’s still dumbstruck that the demon apocalypse is even happening and his friends and colleagues have just been burned or eaten alive in it. Nico, on the other hand, is the one fully human character who’s seen that angels and demons exist and that a bunch of goth pretty boys are the only ones capable of stopping them. She plops down next to the cop and tells him to sit back, chill out, and enjoy watching Nero whup ass. Which they—like anybody who sets eyes on Devil May Cry 5—can’t help but do.

The game was reviewed using a retail PS4 copy purchased by the reviewer.

Developer: Capcom Publisher: Capcom Platform: PlayStation 4 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood, Partial Nudity, Strong Language, Violence Buy: Game

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Review: Dead or Alive 6 Is a Soft-Core Fighter Stacked on More of the Same

Throughout, you may be gripped by the feeling that you’ve seen all that there is to see in the fighting game genre.

2.5

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Dead or Alive 6
Photo: Koei Tecmo

As you play the fifth sequel in the Dead or Alive series, you may be gripped by the feeling that you’ve seen all that there is to see in the fighting game genre. Sure, Dead or Alive 6 offers up features that are new to the series, like blood effects and a super meter, but those are bells and whistles culled from a decades-old industry playbook for games of this sort. Meanwhile, the most distinguishing factors of the Dead or Alive franchise—from an emphasis on counters to its interactive stages—have long lost their luster or, in the case of their sexily dressed female characters, curdled into predictable fetishism. If the goal of Dead or Alive 6 is to appear over-familiar, this entry is a roaring success.

If you’ve never played a Dead or Alive game, there are few fighting styles and moves here that don’t bring to mind other 3D fighters, such as the titles in the Virtua Fighter and Tekken series. Developer Team Ninja surely knows this is the case, and so it attempts to woo its predominantly male audience with a cast of mainly young female martial artists, some of whom, based on their playful attire and attitude, feel as they’ve been pulled from a daddy/daughter fetish porn. While Dead or Alive 5 added visible sweat to character bodies, Dead or Alive 6 opens up the possibility for dirt to accumulate on the skin and attire of its fighters. One might say this addition reflects the consequences of battle, but once you see, say, a very young and coquettish woman with soiled stockings, it’s clear that the game is primarily aiming to titillate by serving up a lite version of mud wrestling.

One of the defining concepts of the Dead or Alive series is a button that allows you to reverse the various melee attacks of your opponents. The idea behind this mechanic is to give the player a toolkit that can stop competitors from spamming kicks and punches. In theory, dedicating a button to counterattacks encourages an evolution of action, forcing rivals to mix up their combinations and approaches to avoid being stopped. But rather than lean into or reimagine this standby, Dead or Alive 6 includes an additional special button that plays off the Break Gauge, essentially a super meter. As in many fighting games, the gauge fills up as you inflict and take damage. When filled enough, the gauge enables you to initiate offensive and defensive techniques with the special button. But at this stage in the genre’s history, the meter and its associated moves feel less like an innovative wrinkle to a formula and more like a capitulation to a trend popularized by Capcom’s Street Fighter series.

Perhaps the most endearing aspect of Dead or Alive 6 is its stages, specifically their different environmental effects. One level has scattered explosives waiting to be triggered. Another boasts an electrified barrier. In a particularly entertaining arena, you can smash your opponent into a giant egg that inspires a mother pterodactyl to snatch and drop the unfortunate recipient of your blow. Yet even this one clever moment carries a hint of staleness, as it’s quite reminiscent of the disruptive dinos on a similar stage in Dead or Alive 4.

In line with its predecessors and some of its contemporaries, Dead or Alive 6 lets you juggle opponents in the air after you knock them off their feet, but the game demands virtually no skill for its ridiculous displays of unanswerable hits. Eating away 30-to-50 percent of a foe’s health bar with juggles here is only slightly more complex than dialing a phone number. Contradicting the franchise’s dedication to counters, the game’s juggling mechanic leaves your victims completely helpless. It’s another reminder that running old tricks into the ground in order to reward the fanboy’s thirst for domination, and in unchecked fashion, will be the legacy of Dead or Alive 6 and so many other fighting games.

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

Developer: Team Ninja Publisher: Koei Tecmo Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: March 1, 2019 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood, Language, Sexual Themes, Violence Buy: Game

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Review: Hitman

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

1.5

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Hitman

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

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

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Review: The Load Offers an Oblique Portrait of the Toll of War

Ognjen Glavonic conveys the devastation and numbness that results from atrocity without resorting to exploitation.

3

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The Load
Photo: Grasshopper Film

Were it not for a text crawl identifying the drab, undistinguished setting of Ognjen Glavonic’s The Load as Yugoslavia at the outset of NATO intervention in the Kosovo War, it would be difficult to know where we are. The war is glimpsed only in the margins, heard in the distant rattle of automatic gunfire or seen in flashes of missiles cutting through clouds like heat lightning. Indeed, even the plot is vague and amorphous, though the subject can be easily gleaned by those familiar with Depth Two, Glavonic’s documentary about bodies being transported across Yugoslavia to mass graves during the war.

The film centers on one of the drivers tasked with toting bodies across the country to a waiting grave in Belgrade. Of course, Vlada (Leon Lucev) has no idea what he’s carrying when hired by some suspicious men to drive from Kosovo to Belgrade with strict instructions to not look in the cargo bed. This doesn’t seem to stoke Vlada’s curiosity, though he’s scarcely unique in his aversion to courting trouble. When Vlada pulls over early in his journey to ask a group of men for directions, we see the general attitude of people living under wartime; other people are as circumspect as Vlada, and in general most of them tend to avoid direct eye contact. One gets the sense that this is a nation of people who’ve learned to mind their business at all costs, and even those who tell Vlada the way to Belgrade do so as if trying to say as little as possible.

Only Paja (Pavle Cemerikic), who asks for a ride to Belgrade is remotely personable, though Vlada initially turns him down before reconsidering and giving the young man a ride. Why Vlada does so is a mystery, as he clearly doesn’t desire much companionship, though the silence left between the two makes it all the more striking when the sound of something falling (or moving) can be heard from the truck bed, prompting both men to reflexively glance back at the cargo they cannot see, only to look forward again and drop the matter.

Glavonic favors these long stretches of uncomfortable silence as Vlada trudges across the countryside, only revealing the character’s depths in flashes. He keeps a decrepit, barely functioning lighter for sentimental value and showing his first emotion in the film when he freaks out after someone steals it after he stops his truck in order to call his sick wife. The handheld camera, relatively sedate up to this point in The Load except for the expected wobbles here and there, suddenly moves in animated fashion as it follows Vlada as he chases the thief, often circling around him to catch glimpses of the thief ducking detection.

It’s the film’s sole moment of true action, the one instance where Vlada shows enough emotional investment in something to drop his mask of dispassion. The brief foot chase is a stylistic outlier in a film that otherwise hews closely to the established art-house tropes of contemporary Eastern European cinema. People are ashen and drab, and buildings sport pale mold on dull concrete walls. Chromatically, The Load makes Saving Private Ryan look like The Band Wagon. Yet Glavonic still manages to convey the devastation and numbness that results from atrocity without resorting to exploitation. Trauma is approached obliquely, more a subliminal fact of life than a single psychological rupture to be confronted and mended.

Vlada tries in the end to give some voice to his disgust and horror, dispiritedly comparing this “video game war” to his father’s prouder service in WWII, but it’s Paja who most directly contends with the present-day conflict. Intent on reaching the West, Paja at one point gets a glimpse of the escalating war when he hears a battle in the distance and sees the aerial dancing of tracer rounds fired from anti-aircraft cannons. Though far removed from the action, the young man is overwhelmed by the hopelessness of it all and, confronted with a reminder of the omnipresent carnage rending his country apart, can only collapse into a swing in a children’s playground, immobile from the shock of being unable to outrun his despair.

Cast: Leon Lucev, Pavle Cemerikic, Tamara Krcunovic, Ivan Lucev, Igor Bencina Director: Ognjen Glavonic Screenwriter: Ognjen Glavonic Distributor: Grasshopper Film Running Time: 98 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: Buddy Is Hesitant to Look a Gift Dog in the Mouth

The film is only concerned with dog love, which is occasionally cordoned off by the filmmakers into a sentimental bubble.

2.5

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Buddy
Photo: Grasshopper Film

Heddy Honigmann’s Buddy is something like porn for dog lovers, following six specially trained canines as they help their owners live with various physical and mental traumas. The documentary’s great appeal and limitation are soon revealed to be one and the same. Honigmann and editor Jessica de Koning admirably refuse to shoehorn these people and animals, inhabitants of the Netherlands, into a contrived plotline. The filmmakers are devoted to capturing the everyday communion between dogs and humans, but to the point of filtering out other elements of life, including basic and pertinent details of the needs and experiences of said humans. Buddy is only concerned with dog love, which is occasionally cordoned off by the filmmakers into a sentimental bubble.

Watching a white dog named Kaiko as she helps her elderly and wheelchair-bound human, Erna, make coffee in the morning—opening and closing drawers and fetching objects with amazing acumen—one may wonder about the nature of Erna’s predicament, which is never disclosed. One may also wonder what breed Kaiko is. (Throughout the film, Honigmann takes the viewer’s knowledge of breeds for granted, telling us virtually nothing about any of the featured dogs.) Later in Buddy, when Kaiko helps Erna remove her socks, we see that one of Erna’s feet doesn’t have toes and is twisted at an odd angle. This is a joltingly privileged moment for Erna and Kaiko, and Honigmann films it with a sense of rapture and respect that’s quite moving, yet more context would’ve grounded such scenes in specific, tangible details. If we knew what ails Erna, our curiosity wouldn’t be encouraged to compete with our empathy. A similar vagueness clouds Trevor, the film’s most troubled subject, a soldier with PTSD who’s helped greatly by an adorable big brown fur ball named Mister.

If Buddy sometimes succumbs to generality, its love for dogs still yields aesthetic rewards. Honigmann doesn’t compromise the dogs’ inherent nature with cuteness; she doesn’t “humanize” them for us with music and pillow shots of animals smiling and yawning for the camera. The filmmaker is viscerally alive to the dogs’ movements, to how their body language expresses their emotions. The pride Kaiko takes in helping Erna in the kitchen is intensely poignant, as is the piercing way she regards Erna in an effort to read her human’s needs. Mister is similarly aware of Trevor’s torment. When Trevor’s wife leaves a park bench, Mister becomes more alert, or “on duty.” Mister understands that he and Trevor’s wife alternate “shifts” watching Trevor, and Honigmann brings this information to bracingly lucid visual life.

Honigmann films the other dogs with similar care and awe, particularly Makker, who helps Edith, an elderly woman who lost her sight to a German bomb as an adolescent. Edith is the most memorable of the documentary’s human subjects, because Honigmann allows her to offer the audience a significant amount of backstory. Edith strides the countryside with astonishing confidence, and continues to ride horses even as a blind person pushing 90. In one of the film’s most exhilarating sequences, Honigmann cuts to footage of Edith riding a horse as a younger woman while her first dog races around the track behind them.

In this moment, the devotion of the dog and the unity of Edith with her animals while in flight is nothing less than transcendent, and Honigmann rhymes such a sequence with the transcendence of everyday gestures, following Makker in a tracking shot as she catches up to Edith after relieving herself by a tree. Honigmann is alive to the beauty of a dog in motion, and of a woman who hasn’t allowed herself to be stymied by atrocity.

Buddy may follow special service dogs, but it’s implicitly concerned with the macroscopic miracle of the animals. Dogs are beloved for offering an ideal of tolerance, representing a democratization of friendship. Not all of us can be accepted by our fellow humans, but we can be loved by dogs if we’re willing to meet them even a quarter of the way. Do dogs allow the disenfranchised to give up on their own species? It would appear that some of Buddy’s humans have indeed written off their fellow people. Does this matter? Honigmann’s film doesn’t plumb this potentially resonant question, as it’s hesitant to look a gift dog in the mouth.

Director: Heddy Honigmann Distributor: Grasshopper Film Running Time: 86 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: Ramen Shop Is a Low-Calorie Take on a Rich Culinary Tradition

Its drawn-out descriptions of culinary traditions and practices are enticing enough, but the same can’t be said about the characterizations.

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Ramen Shop
Photo: Strand Releasing

Eric Khoo’s Ramen Shop celebrates the culinary mecca that is multi-ethnic Singapore—once described by Anthony Bourdain as “the most food-centric place on Earth”—with a slight family drama that tries to bring to light the tensions underlying its history. The film begins with Masato (Takumi Saito) working in his cold, distant father Kazuo’s (Tsuyoshi Ihara) much-praised ramen shop in Japan, experimenting with Singaporean dishes in his spare time. When Kazuo dies suddenly, Masato finds himself in possession of the journal of his long-deceased Singaporean mother, Mei Lian, motivating him to head to Singapore and rediscover his past. There, as he walks in his parents’ footsteps—and flashbacks reveal their courtship over various dishes—Masato begins an immersive love affair with Singaporean cuisine.

Aided by a Japanese ex-pat food blogger, Miki (Seiko Matsuda), and his chef uncle, Wee (Mark Lee), Masato experiences local dishes like fragrant chicken rice and fish head curry. But the meal that comes to obsess his mind is the one that brought his parents together, and the one he wants to bring back to Japan in order to conserve their memory: bak kut teh, or pork rib soup. Like ramen, bak kut teh was originally a Chinese recipe that’s become emblematic of its adoptive country, and as such Masato sees something of himself in the dish.

Half-Japanese and half-Singaporean, Masato finds himself confronting the damage left by Japan’s brutal occupation during World War II on the city and his family. Mei Lian’s (Jeanette Aw) decision to marry Kazuo, a Japanese national, led to her exile from her family. Despite Mei Lian’s deepest wish, the grudge remained until she died and has been extended to Masato himself. To bridge this gap between him and his relatives, he prepares a novel blend of ramen and bak kut teh to placate his Singaporean family. How things will go is clear enough—this a film that has no qualms about gushily assuring us that food brings us together, in spite of our differences—but the gesture stands as the film’s final confidence in Singaporean cuisine’s dynamism and openness to all things, even reconciling the dark reaches of history.

Throughout Ramen Shop, each dish that Masato tastes appears on screen. In these moments, the narrative is momentarily suspended while ingredients, their source, the dish’s origins, and its preparation are explicated in full as mouthwateringly shallow-focused photography catches the glinting colors and textures of the food. The purpose is to titillate and to instruct. Indeed, some moments are so didactic as to explain the exact cooking time required for each step of the preparation process. And, inevitably, each of these displays ends with Masato’s first bite and his uttering some variation of “incredible” or “delicious.”

These drawn-out descriptions of the culinary traditions and practices of Singapore are enticing enough, but the same can’t be said about the characterizations. While Masato feels a lot of things—excitement at discovering his past, loss over his parents, wonder at his new environs—the thirtysomething’s journey through Singapore is depicted in the same ambling, emotionally listless fashion. Khoo, a native Singaporean, is an excellent ambassador for his homeland’s cuisine, using the film to extol its variety and singularity. Would that he had summoned the same exuberance in celebrating this cuisine on the low-calorie narrative filler that seems to exist only to tide us over until the next on-screen meal.

Cast: Tsuyoshi Ihara, Takumi Saitoh, Seiko Matsuda, Mark Lee, Jeanette Aw, Beatrice Chien Director: Eric Khoo Screenwriter: Tan Fong Chen, Wong Kim Hoh Distributor: Strand Releasing Running Time: 89 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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