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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: Contra: Rogue Corps Cannot Outgun Its Classic Predecessors

Perhaps its efforts to fit in with the big dogs of the gaming world would be more tolerable if there were more variety to its challenges.

2

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Contra: Rogue Corps
Photo: Konami

Known for its relentless pace, high difficulty, and over-the-top machismo, the Contra series has been unapologetic about its action identity for more than 30 years, to the point where the manual for 2007’s Contra 4 mocked the very notion of save points. Contra: Rogue Corps, by contrast, features a save system, gear upgrading, level gaining, and a hub in which players can access various game modes and features, including upcoming DLC. In short, it offers the whole industrialized shebang. And so, this latest Contra feels as if it lacks an identity altogether—other than the sense that it’s obviously, tediously modern.

Set years after the events of Contra III: The Alien Wars, Rogue Corps allows you to select from one of four characters, including a giant minigun-wielding panda. As always, the goal is to blast a plethora of enemies throughout, with a more significant opponent waiting for you at the end of each mission. Unlike Contra III and the other mainline entries in the series, the camera’s main position here is a top-down angle, though the perspective will shift to over-the-shoulder from time to time, and the game utilizes a twin-stick shooter control scheme. Also different is the general stage design. While Contra built its reputation on aggressive run-and-gun action, Rogue Corps is more akin to 2016’s Doom, where a level tends to funnel the player toward individual arena battles that, once completed, unlock new paths.

This type of structuring isn’t inherently bad, but Rogue Corps doesn’t do anything particularly noteworthy with it. The environments aren’t very dynamic; the occasional destructible fuel barrels and sudden door openings are more than expected at this point. And the way the game leans on familiar mechanics makes the proceedings feel predictable. For one, there’s a dodge maneuver, one of the most timeworn of gaming conventions, that you’re supposed to spam in order to escape enemy crowds, maintain distance, and stun individual threats. And like several of the “stronger” foes in Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, many of the bosses here can’t overcome that tried-and-true diagonal dodge that places the hero right behind the baddie, the soon-to-be recipient of much, much damage. Your adversaries’ limited attack patterns can also be recognized and memorized quickly, which leads to monotonous bouts of attrition.

Rogue Corps desperately wants to appear hip to its target audience. The audio more than confirms this pandering approach, with plenty of glibly voice-acted, profanity-littered dialogue, an odd turn for a franchise that up to this point has preferred to let the action do most of the talking. Although you’ll hear a classic Contra melody here and there, the music usually becomes tense in a Metal Gear Solid sort of way during pivotal battles, and the lightly jazzy track that plays at the game’s main hub sounds like it came straight out of Persona 5. That’s a pity, as the scores to the best Contra titles are intent on keeping your blood pumping with a masculine fury, and without reminding you of other games’ musical compositions.

Perhaps Rogue Corps’s efforts to fit in with the big dogs of the gaming world would be more tolerable if there were more variety to its challenges. Judging by the content of this release, the bosses are as recyclable as plastic water bottles. One level’s map is practically a carbon copy of a prior one, only with more (of the usual) threats to extinguish. And be prepared to constantly switch between two weapons, whose tendency to overheat means that being conservative with firepower is often the best way to win out. Rogue Corps hopes that everyone likes it, and wishes to achieve this by implementing ideas that can be easily tested and approved by modern fans. Which is to say that the uncompromising design that made the original Contra a formative touchstone is missing in action.

Developer: Konami, Toylogic Publisher: Konami Platform: PlayStation 4 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood and Gore, Strong Language, Violence Buy: Game

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Review: Borderlands 3 Is a First-Person Shooter with No Point of View

The game is boorish, infantile, and violent, and, in refusing to take any sort of consistent stand, is wildly off the mark.

2.5

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Borderlands 3
Photo: 2K Games

Futuristic settings in many works of fiction often exist for creators to reflect on the present, but Borderlands 3 takes that approach much too literally. Instead of commenting on modern-day America, the game essentially just mirrors it, wrongly thinking that an exaggerated tone is a suitable substitute for an actual opinion. This makes for shotgun satire that’s loud but scattershot. Borderlands 3 is boorish, infantile, and violent, and, in refusing to take any sort of consistent stand, is wildly off the mark.

Over the course of nearly 100 missions designed primarily as loot-delivery systems, you’ll meet a stand-in for Tommy Wiseau at the Sin-A-Plex, overload a bandwidth-throttling CPU by uploading “dank” memes, and kill the murderous carnival hosts Penn and Teller, err, Pain and Terror. Yes, that’s Penn Jillette’s voice, and he’s joined by a bunch of outstandingly over-the-top voice actors, but no aspect of Borderlands 3 is ever really saying anything of import. It’s all just endless references to popular culture, which is why you get random side missions that just mash together a panoply of things, like the one where you enter a Bachelor-like dating competition that’s decided with a Fortnite-like battle royale. There’s plenty of first-person shooting and punching, but very few punchlines, unless you count the forlorn last words of slain foes, such as “I never took up painting!” and “Jokes on you…I was in massive debt!”

After three games—four if you count the non-FPS Tales from the Borderlands—the Borderlands series really might not have anything left to say, even if it does offer you the opportunity to choose between four new protagonists, each with their own unique action skills. There’s Zane, the Irish-accented Operative who has the ability to swap places with his own digital decoy; FL4K, who permanently gets a beastly companion; Amara, who has status-afflicting Siren magic; and Moze, a mech-riding Gunner. But after a few hours, the novelty of their class mechanics wears off, making the remaining 30 hours of the game’s campaign a tedious retread of everything you’ve seen and done before in the series.

The developers at Gearbox Software do their best to avoid that franchise fatigue by finally allowing players to leave Pandora and travel to four other planets, each of which has its own enemy types and architectures. Athenas, for instance, is a monastery besieged by the shield-heavy miscreants of the Malawan corporation, and Eden-6’s bayou is infested by fleshy saurians. Pandora has wide open deserts that are perfect for vehicular combat missions—even if the game’s rigid controls make driving through those environs remarkably unfun—while Promethea, Atlas’s corporate homeworld, is a narrow grid of urban streets and high-rises. But if interplanetary travel is handled well in Destiny and Mass Effect, insofar as each of the planets in those games feels uniquely alien, the whole Borderlands 3 galaxy shares the same pottycore mise-en-scène. No matter where you go, you’re still scrounging for loot in toilets, teaming up with underwear-clad characters, and taking shit from foul-mouthed villains.

It’s a shame, because there’s a sense that underneath all this more-is-more fan service—just about every character who’s survived a prior Borderlands game plays some role in this one—there’s a deeper, less-cartoonish story than the one it provides about Troy and Tyreen, the murderous twins who’ve used their violent livestreaming to appeal to and unite Pandora’s bandits. Their antagonistic antics are dulled by repetition, so much so that it’s jarring to see Tyreen suddenly get serious in the game’s final act, set on a long-lost alien planet. Then again, even here at the end of the galaxy, the game still makes room for two bickering robot butlers and a “homeopathological” doctor, which suggests that while the series’s overarching plot is capable of expanding and maturing, the game’s tone is incapable of growing up.

Even the things that Borderlands 3 dwells on, like gunplay, end up feeling unfocused. That comes, in part, from the game’s intent on advertising “over a billion guns,” a feat achieved only by counting the tiniest statistical shifts between otherwise identical weapons as a difference. Because you’re always out-leveling gear into obsolescence, you can’t just focus on one type of weapon, as you have to be flexible in shifting between whatever randomly comes your way.

Do you want a small-caliber pistol that deals armor-destroying damage and is manufactured by the Children of the Vault, and as such doesn’t need to be reloaded? Too bad, here’s a long-range sniper rifle that has to charge each shot, deals flesh-melting incendiary damage, and was made by Hyperion, which provides a damage-boosting shield when aimed. There’s no guarantee you can play the way you prefer, or that you’ll have the right gear for a tricky boss, and attempting to micromanage one’s unreasonably small inventory slows the game’s fast pace to a crawl. (It’s worth noting, too, that you can’t pause in co-op; if you attempt to find a safe place to sort through your gear when in a squad, you’ll likely be left behind.)

In the course of mercilessly mocking everything, Borderlands 3 inevitably opens fire on itself, in a mid-game side mission involving the dudebro adrenaline-junkie Chadd. His quest perhaps too well encapsulates the game’s target demographic, as well as its gameplay; essentially, Chadd loves danger and stunts, and is constantly throwing himself into foes or off of cliffs, instantly dying and then waiting around for you to revive him. In turn, much of the game focuses exclusively on careening around enemy-filled arenas, filling the screen with massive explosions and color-coded status damages until you win (or die) in a colorful cacophony of action that you can’t clearly see. Borderlands 3 hurdles over this extremely low bar that it sets for itself, but like the game itself in regard to just about everything, that’s not saying much.

The game was reviewed using a review code provided by 2K Games.

Developer: Gearbox Software Publisher: 2K Games Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: September 13, 2019 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood and Gore, Inense Violene, Sexual Themes, Strong Language Buy: Game

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Review: Daemon X Machina Takes the Exhilaration Out of Piloting a Mech

All that’s cool about flying a mech has been executed in the most leaden, user-unfriendly, nonsensical manner possible.

2

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Daemon X Machina
Photo: Nintendo

In retrospect, the dog should’ve been the first clue. Once you get to control Daemon X Machina’s customizable human character—who all but vanishes into the background after you’ve created it—you’ll find a pooch standing by one of the kiosks in the mech garage where you start missions and perform upgrades. The dog will follow you around, but there’s no way to pet it, and no way to interact with any other being unless they send you an email or you start a mission. This is a game with a social space that has a poor sense of being social.

Daemon X Machina is a mech game where all that’s cool about flying a giant world-saving robot has been executed in the most leaden, user-unfriendly, nonsensical manner possible. Aside from that dog, the next inkling you get that something is off about the game is the sheer fact that you’re thrown into a far-future world where cartoonishly gruff mercenaries spout terms and references to in-universe events and conflicts before you have even the slightest clue of who you are, and what exactly has happened to the world.

Eventually, enough breadcrumbs are dropped during in-game dialogue for you to piece things together, and an early cutscene does show that part of the moon broke off and slammed into the Earth, triggering some sort of extinction-level event that had the secondary effect of turning our planet’s artificial intelligence robots against us. A few human survivors, though, developed special powers, allowing them to pilot mechs whose sole job it is to quell the AI rebellion. The game doesn’t come close to rising to the level of Neon Genesis Evangelion, but anime-style mech stories have rarely, if ever, needed more than this to make an impression.

The problem is entirely in the execution, as the bulk of Daemon X Machina’s plot has to be gleaned from the motormouth CPU pilots who fight alongside you in the early missions. And if you’re still trying to figure out which button equips weapons to different arms while someone is explaining how mercenary factions operate, you’re entirely out of luck. It also doesn’t help matters that, once you’ve fully grasped what’s going on in Daemon X Machina, the story settles into a mediocre merry-go-round of stock anime characters blathering on about their duty, internal politics, and long-standing grudges between missions—drama that’s impossible to care about since most of these characters will appear for one stage, then disappear for the next two or three hours of gameplay. Underwhelming characters and dialogue can be generally ignored but not when there’s such an overwhelming abundance of both at all times.

Nothing would’ve been as effective at muting the narrative problems than the core gameplay being stellar, and sadly, it isn’t. You’re allowed to fully customize every aspect of your human character, your mech, and the weaponry you carry into battle, but what should’ve inspired fond memories of games like Virtual-On, MechWarrior, or even Titanfall mostly brings back painful memories of Bioware’s Anthem. You can glide across the ground, fly through the air, and carry three types of weaponry into battle. But despite a vast arsenal of guns, melee weapons, and missiles available to the player to buy or loot from fallen enemies, very few of them are exhilarating to use during the first half of Daemon X Machina; actually selecting and switching them around is a pain thanks to a highly unintuitive UI, and only a scant few are even effective against the game’s most annoying and prevalent enemies.

Even just your basic, run-of-the-mill assault rifle has to struggle to fire on one specific target, and what passes for lock-on targeting is just a red square that tells you where your next shot will go. There are powerups you can buy and develop, as well as, weirdly, an ice cream shop where every scoop gives you performance enhancements, but the gains provided are paltry. Eventually, some of the cooler higher end weapons do start to make gains in terms of effectiveness, but the promise that Daemon X Machina becomes somewhat more tolerable after some 15-to-20 hours of gameplay is a hard pill to swallow.

Ultimately, the best part of Daemon X Machina boils down to the very simple act of collecting new mech pieces and putting together an impressive-looking custom build. It’s the one joy that doesn’t have a rather annoying price of entry, but it’s also a joy you could get faster just by walking to the local anime shop and buying a Gundam model kit.

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

Developer: Marvelous Inc. Publisher: Nintendo Platform: Switch Release Date: September 13, 2019 ESRB: T ESRB Descriptions: Fantasy Violence, Mild Blood, Mild Language Buy: Game

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Review: With Gears 5, the Quintessential Dudebro Shooter Series Grows Up

Gears 5 is the first time the series has made the brutality of its combat feel captivating and disturbingly intimate.

4

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Gears 5
Photo: Xbox Game Studios

While it’s not as drastic a reinvention as 2018’s God of War, the latest title in the Gears of War series is a striking course correction. Actually, it’s just Gears now, thank you very much, and with this new streamlined name also comes quite a few other signifiers of refinement and maturity. That feels like a Herculean feat considering how gleefully dumb Gears of War has always been. There’s still a little bit of that lunkheaded so-called charm in Gears 5, what with the campaign centered around hulking, armored Marines using their chainsaw guns to slice snarling lizard men in half, but it’s a game clearly made by people who’ve done some soul-searching, and actively looked for ways to break that certain toxicity that the games in this series have been enslaved to since the beginning

Right from the start, Gears 5 makes a concerted effort to open the series up to all, with new options like Boot Camp set up to teach players not just how to play the game, but offer a long-overdue rudimentary and forgiving primer on basic shooter-game strategy. It’s an appreciable effort on Vancouver-based developer the Coalition’s part to bridge the ever-increasing gap between those who want to play Gears 5 as a hobby and those approaching it as a job. You go from there to the campaign, which eases players in with a “Previously on Gears of War…” montage straight out of a primetime-TV drama. That leads into a couple of breezy, familiar hours strolling through fiery civilian war zones as J.D. Fenix, previous series protagonist Marcus Fenix’s cocky son. But this isn’t actually his story. Things take a dark turn when J.D. makes a tactical error that, in one of the game’s more harrowing sequences, costs innocent lives, and after a time jump, we take control of the game’s true protagonist, Kait Diaz.

We follow Kait, played with incredible depth of character by the always exceptional Laura Bailey, as she heads out into an expanse of frozen tundra looking for answers to the questions raised by Gears 4’s cliffhanger ending. The road to those answers has some effective, haunting twists and turns. Beyond Kait’s own problems as a soldier suffering from severe—and quite believable—PTSD, the search unearths some abominable truths about the wars that the titular Gears have been fighting for so long. And this doesn’t just concern the one against the Locust, but the past wars only vaguely touched upon in previous games in the series. The journey ends up being a grisly tableau of military atrocities, attempted genocides, abuses of power, Geneva Convention violations, and just plain old broken trusts and bitter betrayals. Surprisingly, no matter how much it undercuts the “oorah” bravado of the previous games as being a show of empty jingoism, the game’s recounting of these stories never flinches.

Fundamentally, though, this is still Gears of War, and the paramilitary darkness at the heart of this game is well balanced against the baser joys of making a Swarm head explode, and with a well-timed quip capping the carnage. And yet, the sense of Gears trying to grow up is pervasive, as evinced by the surprise reveal of two major chunks of the game which are semi-open world, traversable via land skiff. It’s akin to the wide open stretch of Uncharted: The Lost Legacy. There’s not as much to do here as there is in, say, your average Ubisoft title, and it’s honestly a bit of a relief. Gears 5 is a case of quality over quantity, and the side missions actually have the sense of urgency so many open-world titles lack outside of their main plots.

Across Gears 5, the gameplay feels far more cohesive and gratifying than it ever has in a Gears of War title. Swarm enemies remain strong, but they never feel like exceedingly boring bullet sponges, and there’s intelligence and cunning behind most enemy placements and strategies. Fortunately, you also have a new toy to play with: Jack, an intuitive floating robot companion who essentially acts as a one-stop shop for the game’s best new combat ideas. Jack is at once a spare healer, armorer, puzzle-solving mechanic, and guerilla fighter toolkit, offering a unique and intuitive range of new mechanics that finally put players on equal footing with the Locust/Swarm’s bag of technological tricks, instead of constantly at their mercy.

Anyone looking to go back to feeling woefully underprepared and outmatched at every turn, however, can find solace in the multiplayer, where always-enjoyable mainstays like Versus and Horde modes are joined by Escape, a sort of Gears take on Left 4 Dead. It sounds like a good idea in theory, but the tender loving care that obviously went into making the game’s campaign feel like a situation under your team’s control gives way to a stinginess of resources that makes most Escape matches feel like the worst examples of survival/crafting games.

Escape stands out in particular because of just how much work has gone into making Gears 5 otherwise accessible. The Gears of War series has been broken of its worst habit: trying to put up the front of being better or harder or more stoic than the rest, allowing the deeper implications of its lore to come to the forefront. Despite dropping “of War” from its title, Gears 5 is the first time the series has made the brutality of its combat feel not only bloody and cathartic, but also captivating and disturbingly intimate on a human level. The quintessential dudebro shooter has evolved with the times, and the world is so much better for it.

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

Developer: The Coalition Publisher: Xbox Game Studios Platform: Xbox One ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Strong Language Buy: Game

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Review: Telling Lies, for Better and Worse, Lets You Choose Your Own Interpretation

Without a sense of feedback or progress, the rambling, leisurely narrative of Telling Lies comes across as unfocused.

3

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Telling Lies
Photo: Annapurna Interactive

As a game, Telling Lies is an exercise in frustration, an objectiveless search through over 200 nonlinear full-motion videos that span a period of 15 months. But as an interactive narrative experience, a collection of intimate, slice-of-life moments in the vein of Steven Soderbergh’s Mosaic, game designer Sam Barlow’s latest is an impressive and defiant act of literal storytelling, a sort of choose-your-own-interpretation.

At the heart of Telling Lies is a mock operating system that’s running a program called Castle, which operates a bit like the logic-based OS from Barlow’s previous game, Her Story: Type in a word or phrase, and in return you get the first five videos, chronologically speaking. After five or so hours, you unlock an option to have the mysterious protagonist you’re controlling, who you can see reflected in the monitor at all times, do a WikiLeaks-like upload of all the footage viewed to date, and doing so triggers the game’s anticlimactic ending.

Whereas you view short clips throughout Her Story, Telling Lies, which is more than four times as long, has you view entire scenes, some nearly 10 minutes. Moreover, given that these scenes are only ever from a single camera at a time, hearing both sides of a long-distance Skype-like conversation doubles the time spent with each scene, assuming that you listen closely enough for the context clues in one side of the conversation that will let you search for and access the other side. Putting together these moments provides short-term investigatory goals, stymied only slightly by the refusal to let a player jump to the start of a video clip, forcing you to manually, agonizingly slowly rewind the footage from their search term.

More impressive in scope than Her Story, which played out over a few weeks and was driven by the format of a police interview, Telling Lies follows, over the course of 15 months, the various interactions that a man, David (Logan Marshall-Green), has with three women: Emma (Kerry Bishé), Max (Angela Sarafyan), and Ava (Alexandra Shipp). Players journey down a particular rabbit hole of search terms and videos depending on which moments interest them most. That may be the dramatic detailing of a murder, an espionage effort, or a planned act of eco-terrorism, or it could be video of a father bonding with his sleepy daughter over a loose tooth, a mother attempting to cope with her absent husband and overbearing momma, or a couple falling in love. The game doesn’t treat any of these moments—the majority of which are impeccably, naturally acted—as red herrings, and doesn’t judge you for how you take them in: as a voyeur, a family-drama junkie, or a political hacktivist looking for dirt on the government.

And yet, Telling Lies feels as if it’s missing a crucial element of gamification to unify these discrete threads, something of the way in which Tim Follin’s Contradiction or Rockstar Games’s L.A. Noire task players with carefully watching a person’s body language in order to suss out a lie and proceed through the game. Here, you can too easily accidentally stumble upon key bits of plot while searching single words as benign as, say, “deserve.” In the absence of goals, the post-game profile that summarizes what you found, how you found it, and what that says about your interests, almost comes across as the results of a BuzzFeed quiz.

Without a sense of feedback or progress, the rambling, leisurely narrative of Telling Lies comes across as unfocused. The game’s structure risks the most rewarding parallels between characters or connections between scenes being missed by players who simply never stumble upon them. Depending on your path through Telling Lies, the subtext of any given moment may lay fallow; for one, David’s two tellings of the story of Rumpelstiltskin to his daughter, eight months apart, could rightly be dismissed as 17 minutes’ worth of throwaway bedtime stories. Obfuscation is fine, up to a point, but when you don’t even know that you’re missing a needle, you’re just searching through a haystack for its own sake.

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

Developer: Sam Barlow, Furious Bee Publisher: Annapurna Interactive Platform: PC Release Date: August 23, 2019 Buy: Game

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Review: Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey Shows Players an Obtuse Age

Our ancestors didn’t have it easy, and that’s the for-better-and-worse message reverberating through every interaction in the game.

2.5

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Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey
Photo: Private Division

Our ancestors didn’t have it easy. That’s the for-better-and-worse message reverberating through every interaction in Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey. From a design perspective, the first title from the Montreal-based Panache Digital Games brilliantly shows you firsthand, again and again, just how frustrating, difficult, and deadly life was for our hominid brethren some 10 million years ago in Africa. But everything that was frustrating, difficult, and deadly back then is what drags down the gameplay, which so rigidly commits to unevolved mechanics that Ancestors is often just a slog to experience.

Even on the easiest difficulty setting, death is permanent, and you can’t create multiple save slots. This feels especially punishing given how reliant the game is on trial and error, and how frequently those errors lead to death. In the game’s early hours, as you attempt to navigate your hominid from a third-person perspective through the perilous jungle, you’re likely to freeze during a chilling rain, bleed out after a saber-tooth tiger or eagle attack, starve, or, most embarrassingly, die of thirst or exhaustion because Ancestors doesn’t tell you how to drink water or sleep. This is a game that insists on obfuscation, and it isn’t shy about bragging about it. “We won’t help you much,” it declares in the introduction to its campaign.

Over time, you’ll come to realize that you can use your senses—sight, sound, and smell—to scan for objects, animals, and foods. This scanning of the game’s surroundings allows the player to separate things into two categories—things you’ve seen before, and things you haven’t—and the meat of the game is converting the latter into the former. And as Ancestors progress, players will also need to alter objects, either making them into tools that can then be combined with other items or into Minecraft-like stacks that can then be built on.

These initial discoveries can be exhilarating, but they’re also kind of arbitrary. If you time an alteration properly, you can strip the leaves off a frond, leaving you the stem, which you can use to interact with a beehive. But that’s the only tool you can use to gather honey; you can’t just plunge your hand into a hive, beestings be damned, or use a stick, even though it looks identical to a stem. Elsewhere, you can build a sleeping area by stacking leaves on top of one another, but this action isn’t made available to you until you’ve stacked five leaves in a pile.

When you successfully groom a fellow hominid, rhythmically plucking parasites out of its fur, a meter tells you that you’re bonding with it. But no such indication is given for stacking objects, or banging rocks together, which may leave you to maddeningly wonder if you just need to try something a sixth time, or maybe a seventh, or if Ancestors secretly requires you to sharpen that stick with a different tool. The game’s simple iconography goads you, suggesting that there’s another use for, say, a coconut, but damned if the folks at Panache Digital are going to hint at what you’re doing wrong each time you try to open it.

All of these frustrating elements are at least justifiable given the specific circumstances that Ancestors is emulating. (There were definitely no walkthroughs 10 million years ago.) But the game also artificially gates players, punishing you for knowing too much. There are no shortcuts for teaching your hominid things that you’ve already learned in a failed campaign, and even when you progress in the game by breeding children and choosing to advancing to the next generation, you can’t pass on all of your hard-won genetic abilities. You’ll have to relearn things the long way, such as scanning objects one by one until you’re at last able to unlock Form Recognition, which lets you identify multiple objects at once. Since you need to advance generations in order to bank your evolutionary experience, it feels as if Ancestors is constantly punishing your progression, pushing you back to the basic hook of looking, smelling, and hearing things in the environment and scanning every object.

What feels novel for a few hours of your first playthrough grows onerous with each new generation. You may not need to spend millions of years in real-time evolving your ancestors, but that doesn’t make Ancestors feel any less like an era’s worth of repetition.

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

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Review: Astral Chain Vibrantly Super-Charges the Same Old, Same Old

If you ask if something is possible for you or your Legion to do in Astral Chain, most of the time, the answer is yes.

4

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Astral chain

Platinum Games’s Astral Chain takes place in a post-apocalyptic future where much of the Earth is unlivable, and where what remains of humanity has huddled together inside a single megacity, the Ark. Which isn’t to say that life inside the Ark is safe, now that its citizens are being abducted or killed by interdimensional monstrosities called the Chimera. Which is where the city’s police force comes in. Its new sector, Neuron, seeks to combat the problem, and with a secret weapon that tethers police officers to a powerful half-breed Chimera known as Legion, harnessing each other’s powers and standing up against their common enemy. Throughout the game, you play as twin siblings—only one selectable and customizable at the outset—who seem to have a special connection with the Legion, and who’ve been reassigned to Neuron to help their police captain father fight the Chimera.

On paper, there’s complexity to be mined out of that premise, and the game’s world is striking enough to deserve it. Especially of note is the nightmare realm the Chimera call home, a dominion of shifting landscapes and foreboding architecture. In execution, though, Astral Chain’s narrative and design are rather juvenile. That’s to be expected considering how much of the game’s tone and aesthetic is informed by modern anime, particularly evident in the characters and secondary missions outside of the main plot. Still, it’s a genial and generally good-natured derivativeness, and the story isn’t without its occasional surprises and affecting character beats. Ironically, the weakest part of the game is the plot, which amounts to fairly typical “I will create the ultimate being” nonsense that isn’t connected to the characters in any meaningful way. It also doesn’t help that whichever version of the protagonist you choose is silenced for the rest of the game while the NPC sibling gets all the best dialogue.

Once you’re out in the field, however, things are decidedly less simple. Where NieR Automata went out of its way to delineate its styles of play throughout, Astral Chain is a wildly ambitious shotgun blast of concepts centered around the idea of having a companion constantly tethered to the player. Platinum’s deceptively simple button-masher mechanics are inextricably tied to the Legions, as the vicious biomechanical beasts are literally fused to your right arm. Combat and traversal require a sort of mental rewiring on the player’s part, because you have to think of yourself not as one person, but two, and work in synergy to do absolutely anything of note. Doing the most damage involves hitting a specific QTE prompt to command your Legion to get involved in the action. Obstacles may force you to yank yourself around corners where your Legion is waiting. The most unruly enemies will require being bound by the titular chain, with both your characters circling or clotheslining an attacker.

This isn’t the first game to try out something like this; most notably, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons laid out a dual narrative using a single controller with subtle craftsmanship. Combat and traversal in Astral Chain dance astonishingly hand in hand, but it’s a dance that the Switch’s Joy-Cons can barely contain, and often don’t. Fighting with your Legion is fluid enough, though a few of the secondary attacks for each Legion type—which you will need to execute on the fly during heavy fighting—require you to stop, stand still, take aim and slash/fire. The Switch’s controls are highly versatile, and the gyro sensors picking up a bit of slack with the aiming helps, but there’s limits to that versatility before it becomes straight-up clumsy.

Still, any one of your powers with the Legions would be enough to anchor an entire game, and there’s literally dozens of them at your command that come into play in and out of combat. Much of your time outside of fighting is spent doing honest-to-god detective work, gathering clues, talking to citizens, and making conclusions, using most of those same mechanics to solve cases. A hellhound Legion can sniff out a perp’s trail, and a Legion with massive arms can punch blocks to complete puzzles. Your analysis computer can access a police database to figure out someone’s age on the fly, or figure out if they’re lying. There are so many different styles of play and ways you can utilize the tools at your disposal, it’s a miracle that the game doesn’t collapse under its own weight. And yet, each of Astral Chain’s mechanics adheres to the guiding principle for many of the Switch’s best exclusives: If you ask if something is possible for you or your Legion to do in Astral Chain, most of the time, the answer is yes.

On its surface, Astral Chain feels like a regression back to the same old same old of lightning-fast chaotic combat and anime tropes. But that’s just a small aspect of a game that’s trying and largely succeeding at doing so much more. Astral Chain’s narrative is straightforward, but it’s one that’s enriched by alluring character moments. Early on, you’ll find yourself flailing and button-mashing everything around you, until you’ve figured out how to integrate your Legion into your routine. And if the game’s platforming feels obvious at first, the tricky discovery of a shortcut—a power-up, maybe even the best way to escape some of your larger enemies—will change your mind. Once Astral Chain moves past its opening, a literal anime intro complete with electronic J-pop theme song, it reveals that the powerful creativity that gave birth to NieR Automata is still alive and running rampant at Platinum Games.

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

Developer: Platinum Games Publisher: Nintendo Platform: Switch ESRB: T ESRB Descriptions: Drug Reference, Language, Use of Alcholol, Violence Buy: Game

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Review: In Blair Witch, There’s No Greater Horror than That of the Glitch

Not only does the game cheapen the idea that a dog is man’s best friend, it also falls apart like a cheap chew toy.

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Blair Witch
Photo: Bloober Team

Many a video game has capitalized on our connection to dogs, though few have grappled with the complexity of that relationship. From Secret of Evermore to Fallout to Call of Duty: Ghosts, the loyal canine typically exists in the world of games to sniff out hidden items and attack their owners’ enemies. Blair Witch tries to break from the ranks of such titles by foregrounding the needs of a German Shepherd named Bullet, who requires regular attention from his master, Ellis, and keeps the former cop from going insane during a rescue mission in the woods. The potential for the player to feel a unique kinship with Bullet is certainly there, but the pooch too often functions as nothing more than a tutorial-like guide—and that’s assuming one of the many technical flaws that plague Blair Witch don’t get in the way of him doing the bare minimum of leading you through the game.

Like Eduardo Sánchez and Daniel Myrick’s The Blair Witch Project, the game centers around a mysterious force haunting the Black Hills Forest. Developer Bloober Team introduces the psychologically unstable Ellis, a man dedicated to his search for a child, Peter, who disappeared in the woods. In flashbacks, we catch a glimpse of Ellis raging against his girlfriend when she seeks his attention and love. As such, when he disregards the orders of those in his search party due to his obsession with finding the lost boy, one senses that he’s trying to redeem himself for past failures. At the very least, there’s more emotional intrigue hiding behind the game’s premise than there was behind the 1999 film.

Ellis’s backstory, though provocative on the surface, isn’t particularly enriched by the man’s interactions with his trusty canine sidekick. Through an abrupt pop-up message, Blair Witch announces that the status of Ellis’s fragile psyche is linked to how close he stays to Bullet as you scan the woods for clues about Peter’s disappearance. You’re also informed that if you don’t consistently pet Bullet, something unfortunate might happen. So, pet you shall, with each touch activating a generic mini cutscene of Ellis rubbing Bullet that, at times, is preceded by a seconds-long glitch, thus giving the false impression that Ellis is hesitating to reach out to the dog. Indeed, the prescribed, awkward nature of the petting sequences fails to establish any sense of an authentic bond between human and animal.

Ellis and Bullet also seem emotionally disconnected from one another as a result of the latter’s mechanical function. If the player doesn’t know where to go, Bullet can be called to go on a search for items that can put him on Peter’s trail. For much of the game, you simply follow Bullet like you would a tutorial arrow. Unlike the pet-like griffin Trico from 2016’s The Last Guardian, the dog’s behavior is simply a convenience. Trico’s scattershot obedience—as when, by design, the griffin becomes perturbed by a foe and fails to pay attention to the player’s commands—made it appear like a genuine living thing in video-game form, whereas Bullet suggests little more than a computer program that helps one complete tasks.

That contrivance is only magnified by a variety of technical issues that undermine the game’s ability to immerse players in its atmospheric woodland setting, much less in the relationship between Ellis and Bullet. During my experience with Blair Witch, Bullet once glitched out of one part of a chapter in which he was supposed to be present—as was subsequently confirmed by a reloading of the chapter. Even when important characters don’t inexplicably vanish into thin air, the game’s framerate is rarely consistent, no matter what the scene is or what graphical setting you select. But the biggest problem here is the possibility of a game-ending crash, which occurred multiple times during my playthrough, effectively cordoning off a significant portion of the story. Which is to say that not only does Blair Witch cheapen the idea that a dog is man’s best friend, it also falls apart like a cheap chew toy.

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

Developer: Bloober Team Publisher: Bloober Team Platform: PC Release Date: August 30, 2019 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Strong Language Buy: Game

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Review: The Dark Pictures Anthology: Man of Medan Is a Fun, If Slight, Party Toy

One hopes Man of Medan will function similarly to a mediocre TV pilot for a series that only later finds its footing.

2.5

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The Dark Pictures Anthology: Man of Medan
Photo: Supermassive Games

Working from the interactive, choose-your-own-horror-movie framework of 2015’s Until Dawn, Supermassive’s latest game opts for something smaller and shorter, as well as more easily replayed. The Dark Pictures Anthology: Man of Medan is framed through a man known only as the Curator (Pip Torrens), who’s seen walking through a hallway of moving pictures, a kind of spooky version of the Eyewitness educational series, before coming to rest in his library and pulling one book from the shelf. Man of Medan is meant to be the first of several such short stories, though it gets The Dark Pictures off to a choppy start.

The game’s setup—a group of young divers are kidnapped by pirates and taken aboard a wrecked World War II-era vessel—is an excuse for players to steer multiple characters through a creepy place loaded with jump scares. And despite some irritatingly stiff character movement in many tight corridors, Man of Medan is otherwise adept at dreaming up a miniature house—or ship, as it were—of horrors. With severed heads dropping from out of nowhere and mottled gray hands withdrawing from the foreground to a particularly jolting soundtrack cue, Man of Medan is very much in the mode of “fun” horror.

Graham Reznick and Larry Fessenden’s dialogue is hardly either of the two’s best work, though the filmmakers supply appropriately cheesy, if forgettable, lines to augment an atmosphere that might make you jump or hold your breath but is certainly never meant to be overpowering with real dread. The tone works to keep things entertaining, though a late reveal torpedoes much of the tension even as it invites you to change the way you interact with the game.

The formal multiplayer component is perhaps the best example of Man of Medan’s rather light ambitions; after assigning characters to different players, you take turns passing the controller around when prompted to explore an environment and complete quick-time events. The story will change, with some characters even dying outright depending on which rooms you enter, what choices you make, and whether you miss certain button presses. There are also options to go through the story alone or in online co-op, where another person concurrently plays through separate scenes as other characters for an outcome ultimately shaped by both players.

Man of Medan, though, is more functional than it is particularly clever about implementing different play styles and branching story paths. The intro feels especially slow in a social setting where other people are waiting their turn, and the game’s reliance on reading documents in small font to learn the ship’s backstory doesn’t feel totally suited for communal play. Other problems are more general interface foibles. For one, while the game is quite short and notes pivotal decisions as “bearings” in the pause menu, there’s no easy way to experience different story permutations short of playing through the whole thing again, unskippable cutscenes and all. Likewise, a screen listing character traits and relationships seems to imply that the way everyone behaves toward one another may change certain outcomes, but how (or even if) this takes place is so poorly conveyed that the screen feels totally arcane despite near-constant notifications that traits or relationships have been updated.

If Supermassive’s latest lays out a respectable template for future horror dramas, it hardly impresses with its execution. Anthologies are often inconsistent in quality, and where The Dark Pictures and its post-credits sequel tease are concerned, one hopes Man of Medan will function similarly to a mediocre TV pilot for a series that only later finds its footing.

This game was reviewed using a retail copy provided by fortyseven communications.

Developer: Supermassive Games Publisher: Bandai Namco Entertainment Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: August 30, 2019 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood, Drug Reference, Intense Violence, Strong Language, Suggestive Themes Buy: Game

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Review: Control Serves Up Mind-Bending Thrills and Institutional Critique

The game is as much a thrilling paean to human curiosity as it is a warning of its numerous casualties.

4.5

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Control
Photo: 505 Games

The Federal Bureau of Control is officially unofficial, the kind of place that’s sanctioned and funded yet kept top secret. It has the flags, portraits, and other mainstays of banal government office life spread beneath stark fluorescent lights, except the bureau is headquartered within the Oldest House, an interdimensional construct of shapeshifting brutalist architecture. Few outsiders visit the clandestine FBC, and it can’t rely on help from other organizations if, say, a malevolent force runs rampant by warping its layout, possessing its employees, and releasing all manner of threats previously penned within a metaphysical prison. Such is the state of affairs that confronts players in Remedy’s Control, a third-person shooter with one of the strangest, most fascinating settings in the history of the genre.

In FBC parlance, “paranatural” is when our typical perception of reality has been altered by some extradimensional entity or the collective human unconscious. The bureau’s agents are sent out by its scientists in order to contain such events and bring back evidence for further study. It’s an almost ludicrously broad umbrella able to encompass all manner of strange phenomena, and the developers at Remedy Entertainment use it to let their imaginations run truly wild within the FBC’s confines. There’s an anchor that ominously floats in a gray abyss, an imprisoned refrigerator that must be constantly observed to quell its anger, and the telekinetic arsenal of Jesse Faden (Courtney Hope), a newcomer to the bureau. She arrives on the scene only to find the place locked down and in the middle of an extradimensional invasion, overrun by a strange force in the air that she names after its telltale noise: the Hiss.

The former bureau director, Zachariah Trench (Max Payne’s James McCaffrey), is dead, and by claiming his shapeshifting paranatural service weapon, Jesse becomes the de facto head of the FBC, newly in charge of the survivors and the search for a solution to the calamity. The various portraits of Trench hanging on the wall immediately morph into ones of Jesse, and from there, the game mixes the rhythm of Remedy’s other shooters—where characters have both strange powers and a lot of guns—with Metroid-esque exploration elements. New abilities and new keycards let her travel deeper into the strangest corners of the bureau, all of which are infested by Hiss-possessed FBC agents or other rampaging paranatural phenomena, like a wayward flying television or multicolored mold that mutates anyone who ingests it.

The boundless imagination of the bureau’s design is perhaps Remedy’s crowning achievement to date. Each of the FBC’s backdrops feels purposeful, all of them labeled and strewn with accompanying materials and documents that make as much sense as an interdimensional government agency possibly could. Rather than a bunch of laboratories filled with random test tubes and such, you find the remains of specific paranatural experiments; the department experimenting with the concept of luck, for one, is littered with horseshoes and four-leaf clovers and Japanese beckoning cat figurines to test their effect on a roulette table that, upon an unlucky spin, keeps making the fire extinguishers explode. One office has been sealed off to contain an epidemic of multiplying sticky notes, and a mysterious janitor keeps sending you after a disgusting behemoth he calls the Clog; other areas require Jesse to pull a light cord three times for transport to a mysterious empty motel that connects certain Bureau corridors.

The whole place runs on decades-old technology, because anything that’s too new tends to break or even explode upon entering the Oldest House (one document that Jesse discovers theorizes that the accelerated pace of technology prevents newer materials from shoring up a spot in our collective memories). Videos are shown on old projectors, while conversations or recordings from a late-night radio show about the supernatural are heard from reel-to-reel players. The official documents that you find lying around—with some of their details, naturally, blacked out—are across-the-board captivating for the breadth of stories they tell, informing the history of different objects around the bureau as though you’re piecing together tangential story threads that took place long before Jesse’s arrival.

The sheer detail of the game’s setting provides a stunning backdrop for its frenzied battles, because rather than seem like specifically designed gunfight locales, you fight off the Hiss in rooms and labs and offices with discernable functions. And in the ensuing violence, those functions are totally upended, lost in the explosions and telekinetic chaos wrought by the bureau’s myopic need to probe the forces of the unknown. Throughout Control, papers and desks are sent flying as battles leave the unmistakable marks of your passage, the lucky golden fish used in a probability experiment now ammunition against a Hiss gunner. The game encourages you to be constantly on the move; staying in one place for too long allows the Hiss to focus their fire or blow up your cover, and health can only be recovered by running over to enemies for the blue droplets that fall out of them upon death.

These fights don’t always go smoothly, not least of which because the framerate on a base PS4 tends to sag under the weight of all the explosions and flying debris. The health system, particularly when combined with some questionable checkpoints and long load times, can grow exasperating as the game piles on more variables for you to pay attention to, from airborne foes to invisible ones to whatever attack might knock out most of your health bar. But between such bouts of frustration, the battles are a deeply satisfying struggle of strategy plucked from chaos, as when you grab hold of some flying debris, levitate to circumvent enemy cover, and then telekinetically launch it at a cluster of exploding Hiss mutants.

And though Jesse’s journey might seem like a rote Chosen One arc, the game complicates matters purely through context. With so much detail in its writing and environmental design, Control provides a palpable sense of history, a feeling that the FBC functioned long before Jesse and might just as easily continue to do so without her presence. Here, it legitimately feels like Jesse has arrived at a place in the midst of something far larger than her, rather than, as in most video games, a space specifically tailored to her, her abilities, and her antagonists. Together with a faint metatextual awareness of tackling a sort of Chosen One scenario, Control becomes an alternately absurd, frightening, and hilarious critique of power and hubris, aided by the hard-boiled, paranoid ramblings of former director Trench on a paranatural hotline phone and the amateurish video presentations of the excitable Dr. Casper Darling (Alan Wake’s Matthew Porretta, who’s filmed in live-action segments).

While the game is clearly enamored with the bizarre wonders scattered around the FBC, it questions the institutions’s attempts at control at every turn by leaning into government sterility. The whole place, especially when ravaged by so much death and destruction, is a ridiculous juxtaposition of bureaucratic banality and the seemingly unknowable; indeed, no one here seems to truly comprehend the paranatural phenomena, but they certainly understand that everybody ought to file things alphabetically and work in cubicles and hang a flag on the wall, even when their potential annihilation sits in a closet just a few rooms over. With its everything-but-the-kitchen-sink imagination, Control is as much a thrilling paean to human curiosity as it is a warning of its numerous casualties.

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

Developer: Remedy Entertainment Publisher: 505 Games Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: August 27, 2019 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood, Strong Language, 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 Death of Dick Long Reckons with Male Fragility in Madcap Fashion

Daniel Scheinert’s film finds a very human vulnerability lurking beneath the strange and oafish behaviors of its male characters.

3

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The Death of Dick Long
Photo: A24

For a film populated almost completely by utter morons, Daniel Scheinert’s The Death of Dick Long is shot through with a surprising emotional complexity. While its characters may appear to be, and often behave as, stereotypical rednecks and bumbling small-town cops, the film approaches them not with contempt, but with a bemused kind of empathy, finding a very human vulnerability lurking beneath their strange and oafish behaviors.

Make no mistake, the people in the film do some pretty bizarre things. “Hey, y’all mother fuckers wanna get weird?” the soon-to-be-deceased title character (Daniel Scheinert) asks his ne’er-do-well pals, Zeke (Michael Abbott Jr.) and Earl (Andre Hyland), after they’ve just wrapped up band practice and Zeke’s wife (Virginia Newcomb) has put their little girl (Poppy Cunningham) to bed. And so they do, shotgunning beers, smoking tons of weed, shooting off fireworks, and firing rifles in a raucous intoxicated haze, all of which is captured in elegiac slow motion, and lit with chiaroscuro beauty. But The Death of Dick Long withholds the truly freaky stuff these guys get up to that night until nearly an hour into its running time. All we know is that somehow this evening of country-fried debauchery results in a fatal injury to Dick, whose near-dead body Zeke and Earl unceremoniously dump at the local hospital.

The film proceeds as a Deep South riff on the Coen brothers’ Fargo, with Zeke and Earl desperately, and very stupidly, attempting to cover their tracks. At one point, after dumping Zeke’s blood-soaked station wagon in a pond (shades of Hitchcock’s Psycho), the two men find that the water is so shallow that it only covers half the car. Meanwhile, Officer Dudley (Sarah Baker), who feels like Marge Gunderson’s supremely incompetent cousin, is, well, cold on their trail. She’s excited to be on such a big case, but her natural sunniness and trusting nature consistently blind her to the painfully obvious clues sitting right in front of her face.

When the cause of Dick’s death is finally revealed, it’s shocking, horrifying, and brutally funny, a hugely satisfying answer to the film’s central mystery. But it’s also weirdly moving, a tragicomic peek inside the fragile, fucked-up heart of the disaffected white American male. Like John Cassavetes’s Husbands or Todd Phillips’s Hangover films, The Death of Dick Long recognizes the potential for both humor and horror in a certain kind of toxic male homo-social relationship that’s based primarily around getting utterly hammered.

Scheinert approaches this tricky material with the same tone of wry pseudo-sincerity that he and Daniel Kwan brought to their 2016 film Swiss Army Man, keeping the audience at a slight remove from the characters’ outlandish travails while still investing us, on some level, in their emotional journey. Scheinert’s careful foreshadowing of the reason for Dick’s death is so subtle and clever that one is likely to identify the hints only in retrospect. If The Death of Dick Long’s Coenesque tone of ironic distance often encourages us to laugh at this collection of buffoonish weirdos, Scheinert never loses sight of their fundamental humanity.

Billy Chew’s screenplay sharply explores the bizarre and shame-filled byways that result from straight men shutting out the women in their lives in order “get weird” together. And the impact of the film’s plot revelations derives in no small part from the reactions of its female characters, who discover how little they truly know about what the men in their lives get up to when they’re not around. For Zeke, Earl, and Dick, getting drugs and going wild is their haphazard, self-destructive means of fleeing from the demands of their lives, which they’re ill-equipped to deal with responsibly. While the film never lets them off the hook, dropping countless hints about how indolent, pathetic, and dependent on the women in their lives they are, it also recognizes the loneliness and despair that lies deep in their hearts.

Cast: Michael Abbott Jr., Virginia Newcomb, Andre Hyland, Sarah Baker, Jess Weixler, Poppy Cunningham, Roy Wood Jr., Sunita Mani, Janelle Cochrane, Daniel Scheinert Director: Daniel Scheinert Screenwriter: Billy Chew Distributor: A24 Running Time: 100 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Abominable Is Both Poignant Tale of Grief and Commodity Fetish

The second half’s series of hollow visual spectacles foreground the film as a corporate product.

2.5

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Abominable
Photo: Universal Pictures

Writer-director Jill Culton’s Abominable is, by and large, a gene splice of How to Train Your Dragon and Ice Age, with its nefarious corporate-military villain drawing comparison to Incredibles 2 and its quirky background animal characters recalling the Madagascar series. By replicating proven formulas, some of them originally its own, DreamWorks Animation is no doubt counting on at least subliminally calling these other films to mind, but for the first half or so of Abominable, Culter’s screenplay effectively deflects the sense that the film is driven by marketing calculations. Yes, one of its protagonists resembles nothing more than a very cute plush doll, but a fine first act lays down a groundwork of emotional realism that elevates what might otherwise be taken as just another kid’s movie.

Abominable opens promisingly, with Yi (Chloe Bennet), a teenage girl living in a Shanghai apartment with her mother (Michelle Wong) and grandmother, Nai Nai (Tsai Chin), closed off from the world in the wake of her father’s death. Nai Nai, a diminutive Chinese-grandmother type who’s critical and loving in equal measure, worries that Yi finds any excuse she can to be out of the home. Even inside the apartment, she’s found ways to be elsewhere, having built a secluded fort on the roof of their building, where she continues to play violin, despite professing to her mother that she has given up the hobby she shared with her father.

Yi’s inner conflict, the inability she feels to cope with and fully grieve her father’s death, is vividly drawn and immediately recognizable, and despite being presented in simplified terms that the film’s intended young audience can comprehend, it doesn’t lack for poignancy. Culter finds in Yi’s violin playing an expressive device for conveying the girl’s unspoken pain, and there’s a beautiful sequence of Yi playing in the solitude of her rooftop hideout, framed against the Shanghai night sky. It’s there that she discovers the yeti she will eventually dub Everest, who’s hiding out from the forces of the nefarious Burnish Industries, whose aged head honcho—identified only by the mononym Burnish, and voiced by Eddie Izzard—is hunting the snow monster as a way of recapturing his ice-climbing youth.

Ultimately, Culton’s film lives and dies by Everest. Suggesting a cross between a polar bear and dog, he’s covered in meticulously rendered white fur, and his oversized blue eyes and gap-toothed underbite are guaranteed to activate the cuteness-receptor neurons in your brain. He doesn’t speak, but growls rather intelligently and, more remarkably, hums with the deep, resonant voice of an upright bass. When he does so, he magically affects natural objects: Initially, Everest makes things grow (a flower blooms, blueberries sprout), but as Abominable goes on, his powers become essentially boundless, morphing to suit the situation or, quite overtly, to realize some spectacular concept art, as when Everest, Yi, and her friends Jin (Tenzing Norgay Trainor) and Peng (Albert Tsai) take a ride on some dolphin-shaped clouds.

Yi, Jin, and Peng shepherd Everest all the way across China and toward the Himalayas, the home from which the young abominable snowman was taken. And they’re pursued the whole way by Burnish and his company’s resident zoologist, Dr. Zara (Sarah Paulson), who professes to believe that capturing the animal will help protect him. As the three children and the yeti make escape after escape, each set in iconic Chinese landscapes and always enabled at the last minute by Everest’s ever-changing powers—the most fun effect of which is a giant dandelion they use to waft away on the wind—Abominable grows repetitive, and the second half’s series of hollow visual spectacles foreground the film as a corporate product.

The film’s outcast-teen-meets-outcast-creature formula serves to motivate a journey that includes beautifully rendered depictions of well-known Chinese locations: the Yangtze Valley, the Gobi Desert, the Leshan Giant Buddha. Touristic photographs even play an important role in the plot, as Yi comes to understand through one photo that her adventure has realized her father’s trans-China dream trip. The film promises that the real places are even more magical than they appear in such mementos, though the sense of wonder conveyed by its images have less to do with the majesty of nature than they do with the mystic power of the commodity fetish. Something rings false about Burnish’s eventual reformation, the humility before nature that he professes while standing before the film’s depiction of a beautiful and untouched Mount Everest—an image that, these days, only exists in the fantasies of the tourism industry.

Cast: Chloe Bennet, Albert Tsai, Tenzing Norgay Trainor, Eddie Izzard, Sarah Paulson, Tsai Chin, Michelle Wong Director: Jill Culton Screenwriter: Jill Culton Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 97 min Rating: PG Year: 2019

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Review: First Love Is a Well-Oiled Genre Machine, As Bloody As It Is Haunting

First Love reveals itself to be an elegant and haunting Takashi Miike film in throwaway clothing.

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First Love
Photo: Well Go USA

Takashi Miike’s First Love shuffles between slapstick and disturbing violence with fluid ease. The film’s plot suggests an unpromising blend of a ‘50s noir and a ‘90s-era Quentin Tarantino joint, as it involves a variety of derivative genre types who’re sent on a collision course via a requisite drug scam gone wrong. For a while, Miike and screenwriter Masa Nakamura occupy themselves with setting up the film’s elaborate domino-effect-like structure, crisscrossing between half a dozen nearly self-contained stories of yakuza warfare, Chinese criminals, crooked Japanese cops, and wronged women on a warpath. Pointedly missing here is the gleefully unhinged sense of humor that typically marks Miike’s yakuza films, but as the plot coalesces, the filmmaker’s long game grows increasingly rewarding, and First Love reveals itself to be an elegant and haunting Miike film in throwaway clothing.

Leo (Masataka Kubota) is First Love’s most sentimental and least interesting hero, a gifted boxer who’s often lectured by his trainer for lacking a competitive edge. This notion of a man of promise who’s unable to fulfill his potential is amusingly rhymed with the plight of a coterie of yakuza killers, who bemoan their dwindling power and necessary collaboration with other gangs. The rhyming structure is bluntly asserted when Miike cuts from Leo punching an opponent to a head as it’s sliced off on a random street via a sword. This beheading is staged in Miike’s customarily flippant comic style, as if to say “murder’s a boring and tedious matter of business.” For a filmmaker who so often gets off on violence, Miike has a wonderful, nearly unparalleled ability to throw away a violent bit for the sake of a punchline.

For reasons that require less explication than the film offers, Leo gets entangled in a conspiracy engineered by Kase, a midlevel Japanese criminal who serves as a link between the yakuza and drug dealers, and who’s played by Shota Sometani in a performance of deranged and freewheeling grace. Sometani renders Kase a kind of criminal yuppie, betraying dangerous people in a blasé manner. The joke, one of First Love’s best, is that Kase’s slimy, white-collar-feeling betrayals often involve brutal murders born of unexpected complications, which he orchestrates with a matter-of-fact self-absorption that grows funnier and funnier as the film’s fuse becomes shorter. In one of the most hilarious sight gags in Miike’s vast canon, Kase attempts arson with a trap that involves a little plastic dog that’s been rigged to stroll into and ignite a pool of gas. Once again, Miike doesn’t emphasize the humor in all caps, staging it with a casualness that suggests the inherent insanity of mercenary life.

First Love is a one-thing-after-another, night-in-the-life crime comedy that gradually becomes ineffably serious and haunting. This sort of transition, a specialty of Miike’s, is signaled early on with sequences that disrupt the film’s tone of chaotic revelry. Leo meets Monica (Sakurako Konishi), a prostitute enslaved by a drug dealer connected to the yakuza, and who’s haunted by hallucinations of the corrupt father who abandoned her. When we first meet Monica, she’s trying to escape the drug dealer’s apartment, and the bed sheet she’s left on the floor rises off the ground, chillingly assuming human form. The film’s bringing together of a young man and a prostitute with a heart of gold may be an ancient, indestructible cliché, but such sequences revitalize First Love’s tropes and give them urgency. And this urgency grows as the yakuza carnage continues, its senseless endlessness becoming less absurd than tragic.

Unlike many practitioners of this sort of pulp narrative, Miike and Nakamura understand that the film’s McGuffin—in this case the bag of drugs—doesn’t matter. Kase and the yakuza and the Chinese gangsters may be chasing the booty, but the latter is an excuse for frustrated people to do what they wanted to do anyway: kill one another. Killers keep pouring into the film, and it’s sometimes difficult to tell them all apart, but Miike frames the most important characters in stylish poses that give them, and First Love at large, a comic-book grandeur—an association that’s literalized when the director audaciously segues into animation in order to realize a huge stunt that was almost certainly beyond his budget if it were to be staged for real. First Love climaxes in a department store with two men, one Japanese, one Chinese, beating and cutting each other senseless, which Miike allows to unfold at brutal length, effectively suggesting that all these genre mechanics, all the romantic window dressing, come down to this: the bloodlust shared by characters and audience alike.

Cast: Masataka Kubota, Shôta Sometani, Sakurako Konishi, Becky, Sansei Shiomi, Seiyô Uchino, Takahiro Miura, Cheng Kuo-Yen, Chun-hao Tuan Director: Takashi Miike Screenwriter: Masa Nakamura Distributor: Well Go USA Running Time: 108 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Rambo: Last Blood Wears Its Muddled Ethos Like a Purple Heart

The Looney Tunes nature of Rambo’s murder spree tempers much of the script’s ideological offense.

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Rambo: Last Blood
Photo: Lionsgate

When we last saw battle-scarred Vietnam veteran John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone), he was walking toward the dusty homestead of the father, and the metaphorical American fatherland, that he left behind several decades prior. That was at the end of 2008’s Rambo, a film released early in the final year of George W. Bush’s presidency. Dubya’s war-mongering doctrine was well-complemented by this tale of a steroidal white savior getting savage with big bad Burmese rebels. Body-disintegrating bullets and longing bro-ish gazes said everything words couldn’t. Mission fuckin’ accomplished! It was completely offensive and totally awesome—as long as you could key in to the undercurrent of virile camp.

Give credit to Rambo: Last Blood, capably helmed by Adrian Grunberg, for tapping that gleefully repellent vein one (apparently) final time. Rambo is still on his dad’s ranch, though the old man has departed this mortal coil, leaving behind Maria (Adriana Barraza), who has worked the farm for decades, and Gabrielle (Yvette Monreal), a college-bound 17-year-old who Rambo treats like his own flesh and blood. Gabrielle has hopeful dreams of the future and loves riding horses with her “Uncle John.” But before she heads off to school, she wants to face the abusive father (Marco de la O), now living in Mexico, who abandoned her many years ago.

Mexico, full of what our current commander in chief might term “bad hombres,” is portrayed here as a cesspool of drug addicts, sex traffickers, and violent hedonists, in addition to a single crusading journalist, Carmen Delgado (Paz Vega), because some Mexicans, we assume, are good people. Before we’ve hit the 15-minute mark (the film itself runs an exploitation-flick-friendly 89 minutes), Gabrielle finds herself in the clutches of two evil pimps, brothers Victor and Hugo Martinez (Óscar Jaenada and Sergio Peris-Mencheta), who oversee a back-alley prostitution empire. Time, then, for John Rambo to go all Taken on these mofos.

That he does, though you may be surprised to learn that the kidnapping plot is resolved by the halfway point, after which Last Blood becomes a hilariously gore-splattered variant on Home Alone, with Rambo using all of his survivalist skills to exact revenge on the brothers and their innumerable disposable henchmen. You better believe his iconic compound bow is an integral part of the plan, though his even more characteristic red headband and greasy/stringy Fabio mullet are, sadly, lost to time. In a film filled with all manner of elating kills (sawed-off shots to the head, razor-sharp machetes to the ankles and throat), nothing is more exuberantly cold-blooded than Rambo blasting the Doors’s “Five to One” as a diversionary tactic.

The Looney Tunes nature of the murder spree tempers much of the ideological offense of the screenplay, though the Rambo films have always been incoherent texts—propagandistically gung-ho in some moments, peculiarly upstart and rebellious in others. There’s a scene here in which Rambo drives up to a border fence on the Mexican side, briefly glances at the English sign warning him off, then floors the accelerator and crashes through the barbed wire. Boundaries mean nothing to Rambo; after this scene, he shuttles between the U.S. and Mexico as if he were popping down to the local grocery store. Though it’s only right to ponder whether lone-wolf actions such as this are more on the side of righteous or regressive fury.

The latter seems more likely, in no small part because of how often Rambo has been co-opted by hawkish powers-that-be. After seeing 1985’s Rambo: First Blood Part II, the second film in the series in which Rambo rescues American POWs in Vietnam, Ronald Reagan was heard to remark, “I know what to do the next time this happens.” And Reagan is alluded to in both the fourth and fifth film via the initials of the name on the family farm mailbox: R. Rambo.

Yet there’s still the matter of Stallone himself, who at 72-years-old has become even more of a gloriously sinewy sight gag, one that tends to cut against any serious ambitions or ideas that these films, this one in particular, might harbor. The degree to which he’s aware of his own absurdity is debatable; never forget that he boasts a 160 Mensa I.Q., so the joke could very well be on us. Intentional or not, he consistently courts the ridiculous to touch the sublime, and that’s certainly true in Last Blood, which he stalks through like Frankenstein’s monster.

There’s a lizard-brain thrill to his single-mindedness, and a stab, such as it is, at emotional complexity when Rambo’s killing spree culminates in a literally heartrending gesture. This is followed by a scene set on a sun-dappled country porch that draws equally on the multifaceted mytho-poeticism of John Ford and the jingoistic stupidity of John Wayne circa The Green Berets. That neither sensibility fully overwhelms the other is testament to the Rambo series’s consistently wandering convictions—a muddled ethos worn as proudly as a Purple Heart.

Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Paz Vega, Sergio Peris-Mencheta, Adriana Barraza, Yvette Monreal, Genie Kim aka Yenah Han, Joaquin Cosio, Oscar Jaenada Director: Adrian Grunberg Screenwriter: Matthew Cirulnick, Sylvester Stallone Distributor: Lionsgate Running Time: 101 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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The Films of Pedro Almodóvar Ranked

Finding the crux of a Pedro Almodóvar film is not unlike asking how many licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop.

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The Films of Pedro Almodóvar Ranked
Editor’s Note: This entry was originally published on November 28, 2016.

Finding the crux of a Pedro Almodóvar film is not unlike asking how many licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop. In each case, the supposed science of the issue at hand is often short-circuited by impatience. Lest the comparison seem too glib, Almodóvar’s entire filmography is, to varying degrees, about the performance of taste, where characters often relate to one another not through their minds, but through their fingers, eyes, and teeth. Sweet tooths are more than a matter of dental hygiene; they’re a means of defining personal placement within the broader spectrum of vivid characters and self-serving interests. The bright color scheme of Almodóvar’s mise-en-scène redoubles these matters by problematizing realism as a dissenting faction amid otherwise psychologically defined characters, whose motivations are typically for sustenance of a rather short-order sort. On that note, Almodóvar’s oeuvre, and the characters that comprise it, can perhaps be best summarized by Carmen Maura’s character in Matador, who says near the film’s end: “Some things are beyond reason. This is one of them.” Clayton Dillard

On the occasion of the release of Almodóvar’s latest, Pain and Glory, we ranked the Spanish auteur’s films from worst to best.


The Films of Pedro Almodóvar Ranked

21. I’m So Excited! (2013)

The broad comedy of I’m So Excited! stays too comfortably on airplane mode throughout the film’s brisk runtime. It’s a deliberately frivolous, tossed-off effort, with middling jokes about barbiturates and musical numbers that pander, and too nakedly appeal, to camp impulses. These shortcomings are partially assuaged by the film’s sheer pep, especially as it becomes evident that actors like Javier Cámara and Carlos Areces are having a great deal of fun in their roles as unperturbed flight attendants. Still, these fairly meager pleasures are unsatisfying consolation prizes when stacked against Almodóvar’s finest films, where there’s no evidence of an in-flight creative nap. Dillard


The Films of Pedro Almodóvar Ranked

20. Julieta (2016)

Arguably the most conventional film of Almodóvar’s career, Julieta consistently renders its titular character’s recollections in explicit terms as those of a conflicted woman whose life has been spent in the throes of filial grief. Lacking an exuberant production design, the film settles for a predictably varied visual palette that, at this point, operates only as a commercial selling point for Almodóvar’s directorial style. The screenplay’s unimaginative frame narrative isn’t helping matters either; instead of reconfiguring memory into emotionally resonant bursts or revelations of desire as in All About My Mother, Almodóvar opts for template melodrama, with cutaways to Julieta (Emma Suárez) literally scribing her recollections in the present tense. In a career defined by inventive methods of access to his characters’ lingering duress, Julieta is an unfortunately flat-footed step toward complacency. Dillard


The Films of Pedro Almodóvar Ranked

19. What Have I Done to Deserve This? (1984)

More compelling in theory than practice, What Have I Done to Deserve This? finds Almodóvar forgoing the punkish abandon of his earlier work for a calmer, if still rambunctious, domestic drama starring Carmen Maura as Gloria, a housewife whose husband and children have little respect for her. Almodóvar regular Chus Lampreave stands out as Gloria’s cupcake-hoarding mother-in-law, whose mitigating presence within the patriarchal family recalls a similar figure in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Master of the House, but several of the gags, whether a lizard being the only witness to a murder or a man’s demand for “elegant, sophisticated sadism…like in French films,” don’t resound with the same resourcefulness of those from Almodóvar’s sharpest farces. Dillard


The Films of Pedro Almodóvar Ranked

18. Broken Embraces (2009)

After the popular and critical success of Talk to Her and Volver, Almodóvar opted for a decidedly reflexive opus (Broken Embraces boasts the longest runtime in his oeuvre at 127 minutes) of self-indulgence, guided through time by the memories of Mateo (Lluís Homar), a blind filmmaker whose newfound creative partnership with the much younger Diego (Tamar Novas) breeds a series of episodes detailing past love affairs. Unwieldy by nature, Broken Embraces is in some sense the most sprawling presentation of Almodóvar’s telenovella revisionism, but the narrative net is cast so wide, and with such a decided but superficial emphasis on the tortured process of an artist, that few of the passages, let alone characters, are given the necessary affective space to blossom. Dillard


The Films of Pedro Almodóvar Ranked

17. Kika (1993)

By the early 1990s, the stakes of both Almodóvar’s perceptions on contemporary sexuality and intertextual play with film history had necessarily reached a point of no return. If the director’s films were still going to be capable of shocking or at least surprising audiences, they would require a refreshed template, one informed by but not beholden to his films of the past decade. The first of those three efforts was Kika, a wholly postmodern experiment that collages bits and pieces of classical Hollywood with Almodóvar’s fearless bid to fuse rape, cunnilingus, and the music of Bernard Herrmann into a whirligig of excesses. While there’s a certain je ne sais quoi to the film’s sheer energy, there’s also a fundamental hole at its emotional core, with flattened characters and meandering visual motifs. Dillard

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Review: James Gray’s Ad Astra Is a Deeply Felt Existential Space Odyssey

Balancing humanist optimism with a profoundly downcast view of our collective destiny, the film is inextricably of its moment.

3.5

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Ad Astra
Photo: 20th Century Fox

James Gray’s Ad Astra envisions what human civilization might look like when our notion of a globalized capitalist order turns into something more galaxy-sized. Set in the near future, this bleakly premonitory film imagines the moon and Mars as mere arms of the same techno-corporate nightmare-scape we’ve concocted here on Earth. And Gray immediately homes in on an esteemed astronaut, Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), who’s a beleaguered functionary of this newly expansive human flow, his regular trips to and from planetary pit stops haunted by contemplations of the same old “fighting over resources” he’s accustomed to from our terrestrial origin point, or even grimmer summations like “we go to work, we do our jobs and then it’s over.” As an unspecified enemy’s lunar rovers mount a hostile attack on Roy’s fleet during an outing on the moon, puncturing the wheels of his AAA-sponsored rover, killing a crew member, and wounding his sage envoy, Colonel Pruitt (Donald Sutherland), there’s a distinct sense that nothing ever changes for the better.

Ad Astra’s sobering prophecy of a future where Subway still peddles foot-long subs in the far reaches of outer space is casually and succinctly expressed through the subjectivity of Pitt’s cerebral hero, who’s tasked with his great assignment—locating the remnants of an aborted deep-space mission—in an early dialogue scene that represents one of Gray and co-screenwriter Ethan Gross’s few concessions to sci-fi movie cliché. Roy’s higher-ups intimate to him that his famed father, Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), long thought dead after pioneering the Lima Project to Neptune, may still be alive, tinkering with dark matter and unknowingly setting off destructive power surges throughout the universe. Identified as one of the few astronauts physically fit and emotionally stable enough to execute such a tremendous undertaking, Roy—fixed in his belief that his father is long gone and uninterested in dredging up painful old memories without good reason—accepts his duty ambivalently.

For the first time in his body of work, Gray renders the innermost thoughts of his protagonist as an ongoing narration track that will garner comparisons to the whispery monologues in Terrence Malick’s films, though the thoughts expressed here are less poetic than functional. Coloring in Roy’s personal backstory (his floundering marriage, recollections of growing up with a domineering father) and telegraphing his emotional state (“I’m looking forward to the day my solitude ends”), the occasionally on-the-nose voiceover might seem at first like a studio-mandated device to bring clarity and sympathy to an otherwise opaque central figure.

But Pitt’s utterances quickly become a jet stream of anxiety that throws into relief the image of the strong, stoic masculinity that Gray presents in Ad Astra, and it’s this dichotomy of ambition and self-doubt that the filmmaker thrives on. As a requirement of his daredevil occupation, Roy is subject to frequent automated therapy sessions designed to monitor his psychological fitness to perform his space work, and it’s telling that a rare emotional response on his part, triggered by a high-security session on Mars where he attempts to communicate by radio with his father, is what costs him his job and sets the film into full swing.

The Lost City of Z similarly treated personal passion as a virtue nonetheless seen by the wider society as a disqualifying liability to professionalism, and Ad Astra’s narrative again charts a leap into the unknown precipitated by an almost foolhardy display of initiative. When Helen Lantos (Ruth Negga), a native of Mars and fellow descendant of Lima Project royalty, gets wind of Roy’s dismissal, she personally sees to it that he finds his way onto the Neptune-bound shuttle, a code breach that sparks panic and ultimately a string of casualties.

Soon the mission is Roy’s alone, at which point the film’s portrait of a consummate professional ambivalently going through the motions of his job yields to something more soul-searching, with the reverberations of Roy’s past gradually superseding the hassles of his present. It all leads to a father-son confrontation near the rocky rings of Neptune—one that swiftly sidesteps the expected tone of reconciliation in favor of a startlingly bitter reunion performed by Pitt and Jones as a dance between casual hostility and repressed longing, and imaginatively staged by Gray so that Roy must literally ascend to his father’s level.

It’s here, in the anguished lack of catharsis, that Ad Astra is unmistakably revealed as James Gray’s creation. In a film that has all the hallmarks of epic science-fiction filmmaking (state-of-the-art special effects, elegant world-building, an A-list cast), yet feels distinctly small-scale in its emotional spectrum, Gray’s reckoning with the burden of a father on his son carries with it the subtext of a contemporary Hollywood auteur contemplating the legacy of those that came before him. Alongside Roy’s insecurity, Clifford represents pure, unbridled ambition, the kind that defined a director like Stanley Kubrick, whose 2001: A Space Odyssey is unavoidably in conversation with Ad Astra. As an astronaut, Roy commands respect and admiration but nonetheless feels a gaping disconnect from his father’s era of interstellar exploration, a time when, he imagines, there was a greater sense of danger and a higher capacity for discovery, given that modern man’s technological reach has managed to turn outer space into little more than an elaborate highway system.

Ad Astra is a beautiful, lovingly wrought film, from Hoyt Van Hoytema’s impeccably unfussy cinematography (much of it centered around Pitt’s restrained visage) to Max Richter’s ethereal score, but it seems fair to say that the film doesn’t possess, and arguably isn’t reaching for, the moments of jaw-dropping spectacle that epitomized 2001 or, more recently, Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity. What it does have is a palpable honesty and humility, not only with regard to the genre it’s occupying, but also in relation to the cosmos and the future of humanity. In a future where the plagues of civilization have only evolved into new shapes and sizes, it asks, in a roundabout way, if there’s anything worthier of exploration than our own relationships. Balancing this humanist optimism with a profoundly downcast view of our collective destiny, Ad Astra is a film inextricably of its moment.

Cast: Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga, John Ortiz, Liv Tyler, Donald Sutherland, Greg Bryk, Loren Dean, Kimberly Elise, John Finn, LisaGay Hamilton, Donnie Keshawarz, Bobby Nish, Natasha Lyonne Director: James Gray Screenwriter: James Gray, Ethan Gross Distributor: 20th Century Fox Running Time: PG-13 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 122

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Review: Judy Finds a Paint-by-Numbers Drag Revue at the End of the Rainbow

Renée Zellweger can reach all the notes and hit all the marks, but Garland’s intense emoting eludes her.

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Judy
Photo: Roadside Attractions

“Do you know how difficult it is to be Judy Garland?” said Judy Davis when she played the supremely talented and tragedy-prone actress-singer in the 2001 miniseries Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows. Difficult, indeed. The woman born Frances Ethel Gumm in 1922 is damn near inimitable. Davis’s natural neuroticism suited her high-strung, unsentimental interpretation of Garland; even the scenes in which she lip-synced to original recordings had an energy that came close to capturing the Old Hollywood starlet’s raw-nerve essence. No such vigor exists in director Rupert Goold’s Judy, a declining-years biopic that details the on- and off-stage drama during the London residency of Garland’s sold-out 1968 concert tour of Britain (less than a year before she died of a drug overdose at age 47) and mainly serves as a meager star vehicle for Renée Zellweger.

That’s not to say that Judy, adapted by Tom Edge from Peter Quilter’s fanciful, to put it kindly, stage play End of the Rainbow, is entirely without merit. Of course, it takes some time for the single point of admittedly meta interest to emerge: A prologue and several subsequent flashbacks set during her prolific MGM years situate the young Garland (Darci Shaw) as both a wide-eyed innocent in Edenic Tinseltown and, via several sinister interactions with imposing studio head Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery), a sacrificial forbear of the #MeToo era. Yet none of these scenes jibe with the mawkish main narrative in which Zellweger, leaning hard into tic-laden mimicry, plays the broke and barbiturate-addicted 46-year-old Garland.

Zellweger’s performance is all-surface—uncanny at a glance (the close-cropped wig and the anxious gestures, especially), though rarely evocative or lived in. This is acting that seems contrived to impress and to garner cheap sympathy even when the character is at her most difficult. In the early going, Garland has a belligerent blow-up with her ex-husband and manager, Sid Luft (Rufus Sewell), over the well-being of their two children, as well as a swooning first meeting with eventual fifth husband, Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock), a musician and entrepreneur whose big-picture promises are mostly hollow. Money, however, proves the biggest issue. So, with financial security nonexistent, and the custody of her kids at stake, Garland accepts an offer to do a headlining season at the Talk of Town nightclub in London.

There’s a tense lead-up to opening night, since Garland fails to show up at call time and her handlers have to bend over backward to right a seemingly sinking ship; unsurprisingly, this isn’t the only time this occurs. Then, when Garland finally takes the stage, a film going through all the expected motions suddenly becomes a shade more intriguing.

This isn’t because of Zellweger’s singing, all of which she does herself, every note of course failing to emulate or equal Garland’s uninhibited authority. Compare Zellweger’s technically accomplished performance of Garland staple “By Myself,” which she croons here in full, with the real deal’s Kabuki-maniacal rendition of the same song in her final film role in Ronald Neame’s great musical melodrama I Could Go On Singing from 1963. The contrast is damning, and not just because the actual Garland, in I Could Go On Singing, has the added background benefit of a ceiling-to-floor-length crimson curtain straight out of Twin Peaks’s Red Room.

Zellweger can reach all the notes and hit all the marks, but Garland’s intense emoting—the sense that, at every moment, she’s drawing on some deep, dark recess of feeling and experience raggedly shaped by a life in the spotlight—eludes her. Yet there’s still something to her efforts that goes beyond simple awards-baiting or audience ingratiation. Like a drag queen doing a desperately full-on deconstruction of an idol that she knows she can never touch, she’s so committed to trying to be Garland that her failure to do so becomes the main allure.

Is that conceit a bit too Borgesian for a film that’s otherwise cloyingly paint-by-numbers? Take your interest where you can because you won’t find it elsewhere. Not in Garland’s many doomed or thwarted attempts at a normal romantic or social life. Not in Liza Minnelli (Gemma-Leah Devereux) tossing some in-jokey, exasperated shade Mom’s way during a swinging-‘60s shindig. And certainly not in the extended scene in which Garland goes home with a fannish gay couple (Andy Nyman and Daniel Cerqueira) for some teary talk, amid copious Judy memorabilia, about homosexual persecution. The latter sequence is particularly egregious, a feint toward pop-cultural-cum-sociopolitical significance that plays like the ultimate in blinkered wish fulfillment. That is, until an even more shameless finale in which the same two queer acolytes lead the anguished Garland’s last-ever audience in a serenade of “Over the Rainbow.” Friends of Dorothy represent and all, but this is ridiculous.

Cast: Renée Zellweger, Finn Wittrock, Jessie Buckley, Rufus Sewell, Michael Gambon, Darci Shaw, Royce Pierreson, Andy Nyman, Daniel Cerqueira, Richard Cordery Director: Rupert Goold Screenwriter: Tom Edge Distributor: Roadside Attractions Running Time: 118 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Features

New York Film Festival 2019

If cinema is, indeed, the domain of freedom, then the festival doesn’t see Netflix as the villain in that struggle.

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Varda by Agnès
Photo: Netflix

“Cinema is the domain of freedom, and it’s an ongoing struggle to maintain that freedom,” said New York Film Festival director and selection committee chair Kent Jones in a statement last month accompanying the announcement of the films that will screen as part of the main slate of the 57th edition of the festival. And depending on who you ask, Netflix is either the hero or villain in that struggle.

More than half of the 29 titles in the main slate enjoyed their world premiere earlier this year at Cannes, where Netflix had no film in competition, as its battle with festival director Thierry Frémaux, who requires a theatrical run for any Cannes entrant, continues unabated. (The streaming giant did walk away from the festival with acquisition rights to Jérémy Clapin’s I Lost My Body and Mati Diop’s Grand Prix winner Atlantics.) There’s no right or wrong here per se, though it’s clear that Frémaux’s edict is an extension of his nostalgia for the golden age of cinema, which he sees as sacrosanct as the length of the theatrical window, and just how steadfastly he sticks to his guns may determine the fate of the world’s most important film festival.

The New York Film Festival opens on Friday, September 27 with the world premiere of Martin Scorsese’s hotly anticipated The Irishman, almost one month to the day that it was announced that Netflix could not reach a distribution deal with major theater chains, including AMC, Regal, and Cinemark. The film will drop on Netflix less than a month after opening in some theaters across the country—a non-traditional distribution strategy that will continue to be seen as short-circuiting a Netflix film’s best picture chances at the Academy Awards, at least until one comes along and does what Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma couldn’t last year.

It remains to be seen if The Irishman will be that film. But this much is also clear, and the New York Film Festival is making no bones about it: This streamable movie is very much a movie, and to be able to see a new Scorsese film that might not have run three hours and 30 minutes had it been released by a traditional distributor is very much a win for freedom—or, at least, a certain stripe of cinephile’s idea of freedom.

In addition to The Irishman and Atlantics, Netflix also has Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, starring Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver, at the festival (the centerpiece selection no less). Baumbach’s divorce drama bowed last month at the Venice Film Festival, alongside Martin Eden, Pietro Marcello’s first feature since Lost and Beautiful, and The Wasp Network, which marks Olivier Assayas’s 10th appearance at the New York Film Festival. Among the returning auteurs are Kleber Mendonça Filho (Bacurau, co-directed with Juliano Dornelles), Kelly Reichardt (First Cow), Albert Serra (Liberté), Arnaud Desplechin (Oh Mercy!), Pedro Almodóvar (Pain and Glory), Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (Young Ahmed), and the greatest of the great, Agnès Varda, whose Varda by Agnès premiered earlier this year at Berlinale alongside Nadav Lapid’s Golden Bear winner Synonyms and Angela Schanelec’s I Was at Home, But…

Among the festival’s noteworthy sidebars are Spotlight on Documentary, which includes new works by Tim Robbins (45 Seconds of Laughter, about inmates at the Calipatria State maximum-security facility taking part in acting exercises), Michael Apted (63 Up, the latest entry in the filmmaker’s iconic, one-of-a-kind British film series), and Alla Kovgan (Cunningham, a 3D portrait of the artistic evolution of choreographer Merce Cunningham); the MUBI-sponsored Projections, which features the latest films from Éric Baudelaire (Un Film Dramatique) and Thomas Heise (Heimat Is a Space in Time); and a Special Events section that includes Todd Phillips’s surprise Golden Lion winner Joker and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Cotton Club Encore, which brings the 1984 period film back to its original length and luster. Ed Gonzalez

For a complete schedule of films, screening times, and ticket information, visit Film at Lincoln Center. And check back in the upcoming weeks for reviews of First Cow, The Irishman, Saturday Fiction, and Wasp Network.


Atlantics

Atlantics (Mati Diop)

Starved for work after the depletion of Senegal’s local fishing industry, thousands of young men take to the sea every year aboard pirogues, or small boats, fleeing their country for Spain. Those who have emigrated, died, or been incarcerated as part of the “pirogue phenomenon”—referred to colloquially as “Barcelona or death” in Senegalese communities—are the ghosts that haunt Atlantics. The forms those spirits take in the film represent just some of what’s so extraordinary about Mati Diop’s first feature as a director, a work of disparate influences and genres that pulses on its own oblique wavelength. Atlantics transitions into oblique genre fare in a manner reminiscent of Bertrand Bonello’s Zombi Child, with electronic musician Fatima Al Qadiri’s multifaceted score adding ghostly strings and pop guitar riffs over spiritual, syncopated Middle Eastern arrangements. Despite its wild narrative leaps, the film is undergirded with a holistic mix of serenity and trauma that recalls Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cemetery of Splendour. Christopher Gray


Bacurau

Bacurau (Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles)

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



Beanpole

Beanpole (Kantemir Balagov)

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



Fire Will Come

Fire Will Come (Olivier Laxe)

Oliver Laxe’s Fire Will Come refreshingly occupies an almost uncategorizable cinematic realm. Were it a piece of writing it would exist at the crossroads of an essay, a reportage, and a series of haikus singing the praises and the plights of a threatened ecosystem. Although we know its images to be composed and assembled, and as such “fiction,” the film’s delicate pace and the contemplative choreography of its camerawork conjure a sense of authenticity so organic that we’re almost convinced that there’s no space between the characters and the actors, between the filmed setting and the actual landscape. This is a film where the characters’ names coincide with those of the actors playing them. It’s at once a portrait of a place and a portrait of a person—namely, of the Galician countryside and of Amador (Amador Arias), an arsonist who returns home to see his elderly mother, Benedicta (Benedicta Sánchez). Given the rich simplicity of the scenario, Laxe recognizes that even the smallest amount of traditional plot would feel excessive. Diego Semerene



A Girl Missing

A Girl Missing (Kôji Fukada)

Throughout his 2016 film Harmonium, Kôji Fukada favored ambiguous, emotionally charged tableaux over narrative mechanics, and he continues that emphasis in A Girl Missing to ambitious, evocative, and troubling effect. The film is a story driven by kidnapping that’s almost entirely disinterested in the motivations of the kidnapper and the pain of the victim and her family. Instead, the film is attached, to a consciously insular degree, to a nurse, Ichiko (Mariko Tsutsui), whose life is ruined peripherally by the kidnapping due to one peculiarly bad choice on her part. As austere as Harmonium could be, the characters were in their way dynamic and made sense. With A Girl Missing, Fukada may believe that he’s transcended the melodramatic strictures of a regular crime film or of the kind of woman’s martyr vehicle in which Joan Crawford used to specialize. Instead, he’s fashioned an occasionally haunting art object with miserable stick figures. Chuck Bowen



I Was at Home, But…

I Was at Home, But… (Angela Schanelec)

Angela Schanelec’s I Was at Home, But… take a fairly simple premise and builds a multilayered series of narrative threads around it, one filled with the detours and inconsistencies of life as it’s experienced on a day-to-day basis. In doing so, Schanelec isn’t complicating or overthinking the familiar, but, rather, inviting her audience to rethink how these seemingly universal narratives function. The film is at its in moments when Schanalec’s insight into trauma as a menace that asserts itself at inopportune and confusing moments is powerfully dramatized. It’s less successful when reaching for symbolic associations, as in the strikingly staged but inert passages of Shakespearean recitation that draw out connections between the story of Hamlet and a troubled fortysomething mother’s (Maren Eggert) life, or in the strained, bookending bits of business involving a dog and a donkey. For her part, Schanalec has preached in interviews that an experiential, non-intellectual approach to watching her films is ideal, so it’s telling that, in spite of its occasional academicism, I Was at Home, But… configures itself most potently in hindsight as a punch to the gut. Carson Lund



Liberté

Liberté (Albert Serra)

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



Marriage Story

Marriage Story (Noah Baumbach)

Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story initially occupies a rather nebulous spot between broad-strokes comedy and raw melodrama. But as the initially amicable split between a playwright, Charlie (Adam Driver), and his actress wife, Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), takes a sour turn, the film becomes more acerbic, fixating on how familiarity breeds contempt. At one point, we catch a glimpse of old magazine profile of the couple—written at the height of their artistic collaboration and domestic bliss—titled “Scenes from a Marriage,” a throwaway allusion to Ingmar Bergman that’s also a winking promise of the decline and fall to come. But even at its most blistering, the film contains small moments of grace in which Nicole and Charlie reflexively help or comfort each other. These subtle glimpses of their lingering affection for one another and familiarity complicate the bitterness of their separation. Elie Wiesel once said, “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference,” and only two people who were once as deeply in love as Nicole and Charlie were could have spent so long observing every minute detail of their partner to become so obsessed with each other’s flaws in the first place. Cole



Martin Eden

Martin Eden (Pietro Marcello)

Pietro Marcello’s Martin Eden works better as a story of self-loathing and self-destruction than it does as a social critique or political statement. Marcello and Luca Marinelli, as the handsome, uneducated sailor of the film’s title, don’t make the difference between Martin at the beginning and Martin at the end distinct enough for viewers to really appreciate the character’s transmogrification. But as a piece of filmmaking that’s about the craft of filmmaking, Martin Eden, which was shot on 16mm, is occasionally brilliant. It’s an amalgamation of epochal aesthetics and formal styles, from drifty handheld shots and grainy close-ups of emotional faces that recall the French and Italian films of the late-‘60s, to static compositions and inky-black shadows that threaten to swallow Martin and the bourgeoisie. The color grading lends an ethereal air to the landscape shots (the ocean, blue and writhing, looks especially beautiful). Marcello splices in clips of silent films and footage of workers in Naples, which further emphasizes the timelessness of the film’s themes. Greg Cwik



The Moneychanger

The Moneychanger (Federico Veiroj)

Federico Veiroj’s The Moneychanger charts the prosperous, morally rotten career of Humberto Brause (Daniel Handler), a prominent money changer for all manner of ne’er-do-wells. Much is made of gestures like hand-tailoring suits to transport money, but the movement of cash—from client to Humberto to various far-flung locations around the globe—is by and large curtly presented. The film eventually verges on the farcical, with Humberto engaging in a Force Majeure-esque act of cowardice during a shooting while driving with his wife (Dolores Fonzi) in Argentina and a rushed scheme to steal from a dead man before he’s interred, among other indiscretions. While these scenarios are somewhat absurd and funny, they feel calculated in their attempts to stress just how pitiful Humberto has become that he has to turn to such pathetic ploys to stay afloat. It’s apparent that Veiroj disdains no one so much as Humberto, but the film makes little of the man’s undoubtedly twisted psyche. Throughout, The Moneychanger maintains a monolithic meanness, skirting even the smallest gesture of sympathy for Humberto and bulldozing him with further proofs of his depravity. Peter Goldberg



Motherless Brooklyn

Motherless Brooklyn (Edward Norton)

Fans of Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn will be immediately struck by Edward Norton’s decision to change the novel’s time setting from 1999 to 1957 for his long-gestating film adaptation. Given how effectively the novel transplanted a classic hardboiled noir setup to contemporary New York, Norton’s popping of the novel’s anachronistic bubble is curious for how it makes literal what Lethem made so playfully postmodern. By setting his film in the ‘50s, when the noir style was at its most influential, Norton only makes it easier to spot those moments where the dialogue is trying much too hard to capture the snap, wit, and loquacious cynicism of the genre’s best films. Throughout, Norton’s too-neat visual coverage is indicative of his film’s greatest failing. At its best, noir leaves enough unsaid that, even if a mystery is solved, one is left with the distinct impression that nothing has been fixed. Motherless Brooklyn feels altogether too tidy, a film that revives many of the touchstones of noir, but never that throbbing unease that courses through the classics of the genre. Cole



Oh Mercy!

Oh Mercy! (Arnaud Desplechin)

Based on a 2008 documentary, Oh Mercy! follows a police precinct in Roubaix as it pursues various cases. Throughout, director Arnaud Desplechin is bracingly concerned less with any isolated crime or character than he is in conveying simultaneousness by seizing on stray details. There’s a sense here of the dwarfing mechanics of maintaining process amid chaos, which is rare for films and common of perfunctory crime novels. Before the authorities in Oh Mercy! can comprehend an act of arson, a serial rapist commits another assault in a subway. And before someone can make sense of that action, a girl runs away. Presiding over the madness is a police captain, Yakoub Daoud (Roschdy Zem), who’s a quiet and dignified model of patience and sobriety, who must navigate nesting strands of social tensions, on the personal as well as the political level. Oh Mercy! is a striking stylistic departure for Desplechin. By the standards of florid pseudo auto-biopics such as Kings and Queen and Ismael’s Ghosts, this film is an exercise in formal and tonal restraint. Bowen



Pain and Glory

Pain and Glory (Pedro Almodóvar)

A film about an aging artist struggling to recapture his yen for creation, Pain and Glory has the makings of a deeply personal, career-capping work for Pedro Almodóvar. His name may be Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas), but the gay filmmaker, with his tussled hair, white beard, and red turtleneck, may as well call himself Pedro. One of the very few differences between them is that Salvador has stopped making films while Almodóvar continues to work at a relatively steady clip. Pain and Glory is a ballsy admission on the Spanish auteur’s part that he hasn’t made a film in more than a decade that can compare with his most outrageous and subversive output, which makes it all the more dispiriting that his latest only occasionally captures the spry, comedic rhythms and impassioned, melodramatic intensity that defined Law of Desire and Bad Education. Still, however much Almodóvar’s formalist bona fides may have cooled, his ability to craft emotionally acute, achingly felt scenes between men in the throes of love is as vigorous as ever. Mac



Parasite

Parasite (Bong Joon-ho)

Parasite finds Bong Joon-ho scaling back the high-concept ambitions of Snowpiercer and Okja, in favor of examining a close-knit family dynamic that’s reminiscent of the one at the center of The Host. Except this time the monster isn’t some amphibious abomination that results from extreme genetic mutation, but the insidious forces of class and capital that divide a society’s people. Parasite is an excoriating indictment of South Korea’s dehumanizing social culture, mounted by Bong with a dazzling control of genre conventions that he continues to seamlessly bend to his absurd comic rhythms. The film is also reinstates the emotional core that’s been missing from Bong’s recent work, and even feigns a concise narrative structure. It’s the kind of bold and uncompromising work that confirms why Bong is one of our most exciting auteurs, for how his sociocultural criticisms can be so biting, so pungent, when they’re imbued with such great focus and sense of intent. Mac



Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Céline Sciamma)

Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a taxonomy of gazes that’s also a discourse on them. This sweeping portrayal of a romance doomed to brevity asks how to memorialize an image, but also how to keep it eternally alive. Sciamma isn’t out to question the gazes exchanged between Marianne (Noémie Merlant) and Héloïse (Adéle Haenel), but to point out that one gaze is always met by another, and what’s most stirring about her film is the lack of artifice in Héloïse and Marianne’s feelings for one another. The film frustrates when it feels compelled to elucidate those struggles in words, or through a hokey flashback structure (that, it should be said, yields to an ecstatic final shot). Sciamma’s script has more than a handful of dazzling turns of phrase, but it’s also unnecessarily keen to give some present-day relevance to a romance that’s assuredly timeless. Where her prior films have excelled in situating their protagonists in complex, sometimes hostile societies, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is at its most beguiling and probing when the rest of the world feels far away. Gray



Sibyl

Sibyl (Justine Triet)

Justine Triet uses the relationship between the creative process and the work of psychoanalysis, or its simplified cinematic version, as raw material for her latest dramedy. Sibyl follows the madcap efforts and subterfuges that the eponymous alcoholic therapist (Virginie Efira) deploys in order to finally write a novel. And the first step she takes is to get rid of most of her patients—most, not all, so that there’s always a lifeline connecting the new Sibyl to the old one. That is, so Sibyl never has to truly let go of anything at all. This tactic, beyond mere plot device, is the first crucial clue, or symptom, that Triet discloses about Sibyl as the filmmaker smartly humanizes the figure of the therapist as someone in desperate need of a therapist herself. The initial line in Sibyl’s (non-)emancipatory equation, to start anew by keeping her old life handy, is one of the film’s many instances of mirroring, as some viewers will easily recognize in Sibyl’s pursuits their own tendency to make half-decisions. Which is to say, the way we can fool ourselves into thinking that we’re pursuing something whereas we’re secretly pursuing something else—something less avowable. Semerene



Synonyms

Synonyms (Nadav Lapid)

Nadav Lapid’s Synonyms doesn’t hew to a steadily progressing plot. The attraction Emile (Quentin Dolmaire) and Caroline (Louise Chevillotte) feel to Yoav (Tom Mercier), and the tensions that drove Yoav away from Israel, will come full circle, but only after the film takes a circuitous route through Yoav’s brief employment in security at the Israeli embassy; his friendship with a militant Zionist who tries to provoke fights he can claim as anti-Semitic attacks; and a required assimilation class he takes as he attempts to legitimately immigrate. A certain calculated inconsistency in style and pacing also makes the film feel elusive and estranging, but that’s most likely the point. Certainly one concern of Synonyms is the irrational sickness that’s nationalism: At times it appears that Israeli nationalism has driven Yoav mad, given him his detached affect and his habit of obsessively reciting synonyms in the street. Funny, frustrating, and stealthily sad, Synonyms is a bold film about the refusal to assimilate in one country, and the failure to assimilate in another. Pat Brown



To the Ends of the Earth

To the Ends of the Earth (Kiyoshi Kurosawa)

Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s latest is a radical departure for the auteur, as it isn’t beholden to a taut narrative. Instead, it’s squarely focused on character—a strategy that results in his most intricately rendered portrait of the psychology of fear to date. To the Ends of the Earth is not, by any measure, a horror film, but it uses aesthetic and philosophical foundations that Kurosawa laid in his genre work to insinuate tensions and anxieties lurking beneath the serene surface of everyday life. The film’s setup could almost be interpreted as a kind of self-aware joke: A Japanese camera crew arrives in Uzbekistan with the purpose of shooting footage for a travel show and becomes increasingly frustrated over not having enough usable material. As such, generally little in the way of incident occurs for much of the film. However, To the Ends of the Earth isn’t just a meandering film born of an auteur’s plane ticket to a foreign country: If Kurosawa is less interested in narrative dynamics, it’s because he’s focused on an acute understanding of societally and sociologically conditioned behavior. Mac



The Traitor

The Traitor (Marco Bellocchio)

Though Pierfrancesco Favino plays Sicilian mob boss turned informant Tommaso Buscetta with the stern poise of a criminal boss, the gangster easily, almost comically buckles under the slightest pressure from the state. But it’s in director Marco Bellocchio’s depiction of the “Maxi Trial” in a heavily fortified courtroom in Palermo that The Traitor completes its metamorphosis from a grisly, stone-faced drama about mob violence into an almost farcical satire of Italy’s justice system. Unfortunately, as is often the case with contemporary Italian genre pieces, the film is too brutish by half, as well as 40 minutes too long. The comic brio of Bellocchio’s staging of the “Maxi Trial” invigorates The Traitor, but he surprisingly wraps up that arc with close to an hour left in the film’s running time. The extended final act, which follows Tommaso and his family as they enter into American witness protection before ultimately returning to Italy for a series of follow-up trials, drifts along without clear purpose, unevenly oscillating between the comedic and the somber. Cole



Varda by Agnès

Varda by Agnès (Agnès Varda)

Agnès Varda’s final film is essentially a lecture, with the iconic filmmaker’s talks from multiple events threading together highlights from her oeuvre. Throughout, she shares the underlying inspiration for films like Cléo from 5 to 7 and details her creative process. While her other documentaries (among them The Gleaners and I, The Beaches of Agnès, and Faces Places) have often explored the intersection between art and life, Varda by Agnès finds the filmmaker far less able to extend her gaze beyond her own work. She allows herself to go off on tangents, and, ironically, her ancillary thoughts feel a bit less navel-gazing than the film’s main thrust. For one, the story about directing Robert De Niro for one day for her final fiction film, One Hundred and One Nights, should seem an extraneous bit of boasting, but Varda’s bashfully excited tone makes it seem generous. And whenever she talks about her beloved husband, director Jacques Demy, who died of AIDS in 1990, the film also approaches a kind of “sharing” not borrowed from her previous work. Brown



Vitalina Varela

Vitalina Varela (Pedro Costa)

As in Horse Money, shadows blanket Vitalina Varela, with slivers of light only illuminating people and whatever objects writer-director Pedro Costa wishes to call attention to. This yields images that are arresting on their face but also hint at richer meanings, as in a shot of Vitalina (Vitalina Varela) in silhouette folding the safety vest of a construction worker who stands in a doorway in the background, also in shadow, with only the reflective green-yellow of the vest giving off any light. The sight of immigrants obscured from view as a symbol of their menial labor glows in the foreground speaks volumes to a way of life that consumes the characters. Yet the film is no polemic. It raises delicate questions about postcolonial immigration, such as whether breadwinning vanguards should gamble on the allure of the unknown to make way for a possibly better life or settle for the hard but known life they already have. The film’s oblique nature elides any simple interpretations, and the irresoluteness of the social commentary mingles with Vitalina’s personal ruminations over her life. The film, like Colossal Youth and Horse Money, is a ghost story. Cole



Zombi Child

The Whistlers (Corneliu Porumboiu)

Mercilessly efficient and righteously cynical, writer-director Corneliu Porumboiu’s The Whistlers is nested with twists that place corrupt Bucharest policeman, corrupt Bucharest policeman, further and further from discovering who’s manipulating the byzantine plot he finds himself enmeshed within on La Gomera, the “pearl” of the Canary Islands. Cristi’s inability to make sense of his place in the very case he’s investigating is just one of the film’s cruel, quite funny jokes. Another is Silbo, a whistled register of the Spanish language that inspires the film’s title. Composed of a half dozen notes that each represent certain letters of the Spanish alphabet, the ancient language has been used by natives of La Gomera for generations. Throughout, Porumboiu largely handles The Whistlers’s persistent strain of artifice masterfully, hurtling his narrative ahead even as he’s jumbling timeframes and lingering in moments of ironic menace. Though the film is sometimes too liberal in its arsenal of references, Porumboiu executes his plot with a persistently low-key swagger, coaxing his actors into memorable but perfectly blank performances. Gray



The Wild Goose Lake

The Wild Goose Lake (Diao Yinan)

Diao Yinan’s The Wild Goose Lake is a crackerjack genre exercise, but it’s up to a fair bit more than it might at first seem. Diao joins other contemporary Chinese filmmakers like Vivian Qu (Trap Street) and Xin Yukun (Wrath of Silence) in recognizing that genre movies offer a kind of smokescreen for a form of sociopolitical engagement that the Chinese censors likely wouldn’t otherwise approve. Which is to say, the heightened violence and ugliness of a crime film seems to allow for a kind of depiction of Chinese social life that wouldn’t be acceptable from a “realistic” drama. Diao takes this all a bit further, however, utilizing the sprawling geography of what’s essentially a chase film to deep-dive into the sordid underbelly of a Chinese society where lawlessness trumps order. The Wild Goose Lake’s masterstroke is that its fugitive antiheroes are framed by an environment that reflects their criminal lives back at them, seemingly no matter where they turn. Mac



Young Ahmed

Young Ahmed (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)

In many of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s films, elliptical structures communicate the scattershot-ness of people’s lives, suggesting an endless string of calamity and confusion. But in Young Ahmed, the ellipses suggest an unwillingness to imagine an aspiring radical’s inner life. Initially, the Dardennes don’t exactly engender pity for Ahmed (Idir Ben Addi), as that response would compromise their fetishizing of his impenetrability as a testament to their own humanist bona fides. They maintain a distance from the Belgian teen as a way of celebrating their refusal to reduce him to any easy psychological bullet points, which ironically reduces him to a signifier of their virtue. Yet Ahmed’s seduction by a manipulative mentor, Imam Youssouf (Othmane Mouman), is still fleetingly “explained” with references to family trauma that unsurprisingly suggest that Ahmed has daddy issues and is looking for a mentor. The Dardennes don’t dramatize these traumas, as such events might destabilize the plaintive quotidian mood they cultivate throughout and require them to stretch and challenge the strict boundaries they’ve applied to this subject matter. Bowen



Zombi Child

Zombi Child (Bertrand Bonello)

Restlessly shuttling between 1960s Haiti and present-day France, Bertrand Bonello’s Zombi Child roils with colonialist tensions. But as with the director’s prior Nocturama, this quixotic, slow-burn genre film is political largely in the abstract. While there are moments here where a history of exploitation informs the relationship between the French, lily-white Fanny (Louise Labeque) and Haitian refugee Mélissa (Wislanda Louimat)—classmates at an all-girls school established by Napoleon Bonaparte—Bonello’s interests go much deeper than race relations. The dialectical relationship between past and present has become a central organizing principle of Bonello’s artistry, evident in his anachronistic soundtrack choices and his unmooring of characters from their period settings through decidedly modern behaviors or situations, but here he approaches that dialectic in a crucially different manner. Instead of overlaying modern-day signifiers on a period piece setting, as he did in House of Pleasures, Zombi Child suggests two temporalities that exist parallel to each other. Mac

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Review: Loro Mostly Signals Paolo Sorrentino’s Fealty to Wealth Porn

Like most of Sorrentino’s films, Loro is closer to a stylistic orgy than an existential rumination on Italy’s heritage.

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Loro
Photo: Sundance Selects

Paolo Sorrentino’s films are closer to stylistic orgies than existential ruminations on Italy’s heritage. Most of his productions are consumed in debauchery for the better part of their running times, and capped by obligatory lambasts against said behavior, which is meant to inform the narratives with “deeper” meaning. Sorrentino is so devoted to tracking shots of beautiful female bodies, to montages of drug abuse, to brief explosions of loveless, commercialized sex, that the particulars of his characters, settings, and plots are essentially interchangeable. In Loro, Sorrentino’s regular leading man, Toni Servillo, may be playing the controversial Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, but the actor could just as easily be reprising his fictional writer from The Great Beauty for all that actually matters.

If Sorrentino were to confront the fact that he’s essentially a sensationalist, his films might achieve a kind of nihilistic purity. Loro initially promises such an about face, as its opening 45 minutes have a hard and lurid pull. At first, its protagonist appears to be Sergio (Riccardo Scamarcio), a hustler who moves to Rome and builds a harem with promises of TV roles and mountains of cocaine. Sergio is a handsome and charismatic wild man, and Sorrentino characteristically fetishizes the character’s life of anonymous sex and endless partying. The point of Sergio’s networking is vague, as he references wanting to get in the same room as “him.” This desire is realized by the beautiful and mysterious Kira (Kasia Smutniak), who urges Sergio to set his act up within eyeshot of Silvio’s sprawling property. Dramatizing these negotiations, Sorrentino stages the film’s one legitimately erotic sequence: Kira dry-humping Sergio as she talks with a power broker on her phone. This moment elegantly underscores Sorrentino’s initial interest in the intersection of power, sex, and money.

One is primed, then, for a battle of the charismatic crooks, in which Sergio falls in with Silvio—a melodramatic hook that Sorrentino leaves dangling as the film devolves into a series of disconnected sketches. (It bears mentioning that this 158-minute cut was edited down from a much longer one.) Instead, Loro switches protagonists, homing in on Silvio as he attempts to become prime minister again after the leftist party has ousted him. We learn virtually nothing about Silvio’s politics or business machinations, as Sorrentino turns the figure into another of his tortured symbols of the decadence of classist culture. At a certain point in the film, Silvio decides to flip six leftist senators over to his side so that he can regain power, a potentially fascinating process that Sorrentino reduces to one (vivid) scene and a montage. What Sorrentino doesn’t skimp on, however, is the endless pillow shots and self-conscious bids for Fellini-esque surreality. The film’s title is Italian for “Them,” potentially referencing Silvio’s demonization of the liberal press, but the plot is hermetic and sentimental.

Servillo is magnetic as always, and he has a few startling moments in which he replicates Berlusconi’s smug and wax-like smile, but his kinship with Sorrentino leads the film astray. It’s distasteful and baffling to see a reactionary strongman utilized as a lonely romantic figure, which probably happens because Sorrentino’s love for his actor muddies his view of Berlusconi. The filmmaker turns the politico into a Gatsby who prowls his land fighting with his estranged wife, Veronica (Elena Sofia Ricci), who voices the film’s trite lessons on the shallowness of rich and horny old men—sentiments which ring hollow given the stature of Servillo’s presence and Sorrentino’s ongoing fealty to wealth porn.

Cast: Toni Servillo, Elena Sofia Ricci, Riccardo Scamarcio, Kasia Smutniak, Euridice Axen, Fabrizio Bentivoglio, Roberto De Francesco, Dario Cantarelli, Anna Bonaiuto, Giovanni Esposito, Ugo Pagliai Director: Paolo Sorrentino Screenwriter: Paolo Sorrentino, Umberto Contarello Distributor: Sundance Selects Running Time: 158 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: Promare Finds Studio Trigger Spinning its Anime Wheels

The film often feels like a maximalist season finale trimmed of any build-up.

2.5

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Promare
Photo: GKIDS

Loud, chaotic, and borderline nonsensical, Promare is the logical result of anime studio Trigger creating what amounts to a feature-length extension of its prior work. Set in a future where high-tech firefighters clash with pyrokinetic humans called the Burnish, the film pays explicit tribute to anime series like Gurren Lagann, Kill la Kill, and others in everything from names to character and robot designs to basic personality types. The film leaves you with the sense that director Hiroyuki Imaishi, writer Kazuki Nakashima, and their frequent collaborators could create it in their sleep, both because they’re clearly great at what they do and because their ultimate product scarcely departs from established formula.

The film’s bombast is present even in its individual character introductions, which use giant block letters to name everyone from the supporting cast up through pivotal players like protagonist Galo Thymos (Kenichi Matsuyama), a blue-haired firefighter with boundless energy and determination. His long-held truth, that the world is neatly divided into firefighters and Burnish terrorists, is shaken over the course of the film as he fights the slender, melon-green-haired Lio Fotia (Taichi Saotome), who leads the rebel Burnish.

Promare is immediately striking to look at, with a style that favors a cool color palette, minimalist backgrounds, and abstract geometric shapes; fire, for one, is frequently rendered as purple triangles. The characters are drawn in pleasantly smooth lines, and they pilot chunky, ice-shooting robots whose siren lights send out solid beams of red and blue. The camera tracks each action scene, every zoom through the scenery and every collision of a fist with a face, in roving close-ups with thrilling precision. Everyone screams their feelings aloud over and over again (“Only your soul should burn!” cries Galo as he crosses swords with Lio at one point), albeit against a typically regrettable score from Hiroyuki Sawano, who leans so heavily on songs with cheesy vocals that they swiftly become a distraction.

Mixed metaphors and baffling plot twists ensure the film doesn’t totally hold up to scrutiny, but its escalating weirdness is part of the fun. All the same, its loudly repeated message remains clear: Rather than douse a fire, sometimes you need to let it burn as bright as possible. Promare is a mix of themes from Nakashima and Imaishi’s prior collaborations, wrapped up in a pat “the Other is a person, too” premise used for a familiar inspirational conceit. Galo, in looks and personality, is a clear analog for Gurren Lagann’s Kamina, who perishes early in the series so that other, less static characters may wrestle with his ideals. Leaving such a character as the hero in Promare exemplifies its rather straightforward trajectory.

While the film’s propulsive, slapdash plotting provides no shortage of frantic action, it leaves little room for the personalities, actions, and philosophies of its peripheral characters to sink in through gradual escalation. Promare often feels like a maximalist season finale trimmed of any build-up, a climax that’s outstanding to watch yet empty beyond its pure spectacle. And in this context, the fact that so many designs echo Studio Trigger’s prior work feels less like a fun reference than a concession that Imaishi and company are spinning their wheels.

Cast: Kenichi Matsuyama, Taichi Saotome, Masato Sakai, Ayane Sakura Director: Hiroyuki Imaishi Screenwriter: Kazuki Nakashima Distributor: GKIDS Running Time: 111 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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