Connect with us

Games

Review: Infamous 2

Refining an excellent template isn’t simple or easy, which is what makes Infamous 2’s success all the more thrilling.

4.5

Published

on

Infamous 2

Refining an excellent template isn’t simple or easy, which is what makes Infamous 2’s success all the more thrilling. In countless ways (graphics, controls, environment, missions, cutscenes), this sequel is borderline identical to its predecessor, hardly a bad thing given that the first game was one of the few titles to ever provide a genuine, no-corners-cut sense of controlling a superhero in actual superhero circumstances. If you’ve played Infamous, there are no mind-boggling surprises to be found here. And yet in almost every crucial respect, Sucker Punch’s latest is a superior product that smartly builds on the original’s foundation, the most crucial being its decision to not have players start from scratch. Whether you’re a newbie or someone whose PS3 still contains save data from the follow-up (which this game recognizes, and customizes the action around), Infamous 2 shrewdly avoids resetting electricity-controlling protagonist Cole back to a powerless wimp who must, over the course of the action, turn himself into a badass. Kicking off with a monumental boss battle that’ll be revisited at the end of the lengthy campaign, this stellar saga commences with Cole fully powered, only to then continue to offer awesome additional enhancements as rewards for noble or evil actions in and around your current open-sandbox metropolitan home, the New Orleans-ish New Marais.

As a result, instead of striving to earn Cole’s core abilities (which include a variety of lightening bolt blasts, force-pushes, levitation, and a new melee beating-stick known as the Amp), one is compelled to work for even more outrageous powers, including a devastating tornado attack, that augment the overall impression of wielding a true superman. Just as engaging, however, is the series’s continued use of environment as an endlessly explorable playground that functions on dual planes; as before, Infamous 2’s urban jungle is a two-tiered landscape, with street-level action at once wedded to, and yet distinct from, rooftop mayhem. By stratifying its explorable area, the game actually winds up feeling twice as big as it actually is, lending further expansiveness to a title that affords not just satisfying story-forwarding main missions, but also a healthy dose of peripheral tasks that are geared toward advancing one’s progression as a do-gooder or a baddie. Such distinctions are made through rather simplistic dilemmas that will hardly challenge one’s moral compass. But because turning Cole heroic locks out evil side missions (and vice versa), this structure does create an extra layer of playability to a game already rich in variety, which also extends to collectible tasks, as well as myriad user-generated content missions created by other players that (if you’re connected to the Internet) crowd one’s map.

There’s so much to do, including halting muggings, saving hostages, and searching for glowing “blast shards” that augment one’s ammo meter, that Infamous 2’s plot—though multifaceted, engaging, and laced with an omnipresent mood of impending doom wrought from updates about an apocalyptic Beast’s approach toward New Marais—doesn’t have to carry the game’s entire burden. The city itself might have benefited from more well-placed cables and wires to facilitate long-range travel, and there’s a degree of repetition that no amount of large-scale battles can quite overshadow. Yet that action is often so hectic that its familiarity rarely becomes a hindrance. Moreover, the game smoothly incorporates its objectives within its narrative, making sure that every goal—be it large or small, honorable or disreputable—is always directly related to the primary purpose of turning Cole into a being capable of confronting the Beast and, more generally, achieving his (i.e. your) dreams of being a savior or scoundrel. As a beautifully rendered title that allows players to dictate the length, direction, and depth of their experience, as well as one that faithfully delivers larger-than-life comic-book adventure via a wholly original concept and character, Sucker Punch’s sequel has few open-world equals.

Developer: Sucker Punch Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment Platform: PlayStation 3 Release Date: June 7, 2011 ESRB: T ESRB Descriptions: Blood, Drug Reference, Language, Sexual Themes, Use of Alcohol, Violence Buy: Game

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Advertisement
Comments

Games

Review: Sea of Solitude Offers a Dreamscape Awash in Banal Abstraction

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

2

Published

on

Sea of Solitude
Photo: Electronic Arts

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Games

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

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

4.5

Published

on

Super Mario Maker 2
Photo: Nintendo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Games

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

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

1

Published

on

SolSeraph
Photo: Sega

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Games

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

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

3.5

Published

on

Judgment
Photo: Sega

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Games

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

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

4.5

Published

on

Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night
Photo: 505 Games

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Games

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

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

2.5

Published

on

The Sinking City
Photo: Frogwares

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Games

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

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

4

Published

on

My Friend Pedro
Photo: Devolver Digital

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Features

E3 2019: The Best and Worst Surprises

The 2019 Electronic Entertainment Expo presented an industry in transition.

Published

on

Devolver Digital
Photo: Devolver Digital

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

E3 ran from June 11—13.

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Games

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

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

5

Published

on

Outer Wilds
Photo: Annapurna Interactive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Games

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

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

1

Published

on

Warhammer: Chaosbane
Photo: Eko Software

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading
Advertisement

Giveaways

Advertisement

Newsletter

Advertisement

Preview

Trending

Video

DVD Review: Infamous

Though superior to Capote in almost every way, Infamous has gotten nowhere near the level of acclaim, proving that victims of hype do not come bigger or more transparent than AMPAS.

3.0

Published

on

Infamous

In the first scene of Infamous, Truman Capote (Toby Jones) and Babe Paley (Sigourney Weaver) are enjoying drinks at a swanky New York nightclub when a singer, Kitty Dean (Gwyneth Paltrow), is introduced. She begins to sing an up-tempo version of Cole Porter’s “What Is This Thing Called Love?” in a small, knowing voice matched by the smug expression on her face. Let’s just say that in these first few moments, you may begin to have your doubts about needing to see another movie about Truman Capote after last year’s wintry Philip Seymour Hoffman court briefing. Then something surprising happens: Paltrow’s singer begins to retreat from her song, finally stopping completely, staring at the audience with red, wounded eyes. The musicians halt and a hush falls over the nightclub. Paltrow sings a few childlike words a cappella, as if she’s trying to locate the source of some deep trauma, then, slowly, she resumes singing the song exactly the way she began it, professionally and insincerely. Jones’s Capote looks impressed and disturbed by the singer’s disintegration and her soulless carrying on, as if he intuits that his own emotional problems will eventually kill his career as famous writer and society court jester.

This rather unnerving opening is emblematic of Infamous as a whole: it’s risky, emotionally raw, maybe not entirely successful, but always searching and intuitive. The screenwriter and director, Douglas McGrath, has helmed two respectable literary adaptations (Emma and Nicholas Nickleby) and a Cuban Missile crisis comedy so dreadful that its stench has never quite left my nostrils (Company Man). With this ambitious film, McGrath has done a passionate job of fleshing out not only Capote but his entire milieu. Using George Plimpton’s oral biography of the writer as a basis, McGrath moves constantly between New York high life and the bleak Kansas plains where Capote writes In Cold Blood. The shifts in tone are jarring at first, but the editing has all kinds of strange pleasures and echoes, connections between people, thoughts, and places. The cutting is often fast, which is why the scenes played in long takes land as hard as they do.

Sandra Bullock, who plays Capote’s friend Harper Lee, has two impressive speeches that bookend the film. In the first, she remembers Capote’s loneliness as a child, and the muscles in Bullock’s face tighten as she recalls a specific memory where he was badly hurt. At the end of the film, she bitterly speaks about how America expects the best of you over and over again, and how hard it is to live up to early promise. We’ve always been presented with a picture of Lee as a sweet woman who had one book in her, delivered it, then retired into maidenly seclusion. In Infamous, Lee is boldly depicted as a blocked writer who’s very angry about not being able to continue her work, and Bullock really captures her awkward kindness. Bullock has been pleasant in her forgettable star vehicles, but never striking enough to convince me she had any business on screen. Yet in Infamous, with her hair cropped, looking older, and asked to carry single-take monologues that would tax the most resourceful actress, Bullock is quietly heartbreaking. She would dominate the movie if it weren’t so stuffed with other talented people doing some of their best work.

The previous Capote was a solemn, limited chamber piece and one-man show for Philip Seymour Hoffman, who won an Oscar for his work. It’s an accomplished performance, but when set beside what Jones does in Infamous, it fades in comparison. Jones, a little-known British theater actor, feels exactly right for the part, physically and emotionally. Hoffman is a big man and a big actor: size is his thing. Turning himself into fey little Capote was a big act of will on his part, and justly rewarded. But Jones captures things about Capote that Hoffman could never touch, such as his lightness, his wild humor, and, most importantly, his vulnerability. We see him lying and boasting of famous friends, but he isn’t condemned for his faults, as he was in Bennett Miller’s version.

When Capote encounters his double, Perry Smith (Daniel Craig), a Brando-esque killer, Jones creates a perilously exposed portrait of Capote’s romantic thrills and misery, feelings never touched on in the previous film. The riskiest part of Infamous is its imaginative leaps concerning Perry. Craig is uncanny here, low-voiced, overwhelmingly physical, a brute, and a poet. He looks like a bruiser, but his sensitive eyes give away his secret interior life. During a flashback to Perry’s murder of the Clutter family, McGrath audaciously suggests that the sticking point lay in the jock-beauty of their young son; when his partner Dick (Lee Pace) notices Perry staring tenderly at the boy, he taunts him into the murders by calling him out as a queer. Played in silhouette, the scene builds upsettingly, but it might be one point where McGrath goes too far with his fancies about what could have happened.

However, McGrath is on the nose most of the time. In one scene of extraordinary and erotic emotional violence, Perry attacks Capote and threatens him with rape. The camera stays punishingly focused on the two actors, Jones’s smallness set off against Craig’s muscular brutality, with Perry trying to tear real emotion from Capote. It matches up with the first sequence, where the singer broke down, and it’s clear that after falling in love with Perry and losing him, Capote can’t go on singing cheerily for his supper any longer.

Infamous is a film about flashy facades and what lies beneath them; before it’s over, many of the veneers we’ve seen have cracked apart, especially Capote’s toughness and Harper Lee’s wistful career hopes, not to mention the macho assurance of Capote’s lover Jack Dunphy (John Benjamin Hickey), who speaks painfully of romantic betrayal. The film manages to be many things at once: an eerie ensemble comedy, an actor’s showcase, and a tragic love story. Unlike its predecessor, it does Capote justice and makes a sharp case for the power and destructiveness of liberated feelings.

Image/Sound

A sparkling, near-spotless image-surely one of the finest DVD transfers of an indie release in some time-with succulent colors, accurate skin tones, and stunning shadow delineation. (This may be a pristine example of image quality benefiting from the lack of extras on a DVD.) Audio is almost as lush: the surrounds bounce excitingly from channel to channel, score by Rachel Portman is deeply potent, and dialogue sounds front-heavy only during scenes where the impression is necessary (the interview sequences).

Extras

Who needs a making-of featurette given writer-director Douglas McGrath’s way with words? Though the film is a vast improvement over Bennett Miller’s dour Capote, McGrath almost bests the quality of his creation with the level of anecdotes and observations he relates over two hours. This is no hyperbole, but I don’t think anyone has spoken at length about Truman Capote, his life and friends, and his relationship to the people of Holcomb, Kansas with such insight and passion. McGrath’s shock during the scene when Juliet Stevenson relates how her character, Diana Vreeland, irons her money proves that he is not smitten by decadence, just as his understanding that Holcomb’s residents were more wary of Capote’s persistence than his sexuality explains why the film never digresses into a horror show about a flamboyant gay man shocking a conservative town to the core of their beings. Rounding out the disc are trailers for The Painted Veil, For Your Consideration, Fur, and The Prestige.

Overall

Though superior to Capote in almost every way, Infamous has gotten nowhere near the level of acclaim, proving that victims of hype do not come bigger or more transparent than AMPAS.

Cast: Toby Jones, Sandra Bullock, Daniel Craig, Sigourney Weaver, Hope Davis, Isabella Rossellini, Peter Bogdanovich, Gwyneth Paltrow, Lee Pace, John Benjamin Hickey Director: Douglas McGrath Screenwriter: Douglas McGrath Distributor: Warner Home Video Running Time: 118 min Rating: R Year: 2006 Release Date: February 13, 2007 Buy: Video, Soundtrack

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Advertisement
Comments

Video

Review: Ealing Studios’s Dead of Night Horror Anthology on Kino Lorber Blu-ray

This lasting work of existential horror has been given an audio commentary that serves as a veritable seminar on British cinema.

4

Published

on

Dead of Night

Ealing Studios’s 1945 production Dead of Night helped popularize the horror-themed anthology film. Many such films feel like short story collections, with disconnected narratives of varying quality and often negligible framing devices. Meanwhile, Dead of Night feels more like a confident concept album, as it’s all of a disturbing piece, its framing narrative setting the stage for an inquiry into the fragility of reality that’s bolstered in various subtle fashions by the subsequent stories. The film is influential not only to its own genre, but to surrealists and to practitioners of suspense narratives with “twist” endings. The Phantom of the Liberty, Psycho, EC Comics, Twin Peaks and everything all these landmarks touched might’ve been enabled in part by Dead of Night.

The film doesn’t come on strong, as it’s often more interested in plumbing the uncanny—the slight “wrongness” of everyday life that can reveal unmooring fissures into our sense of setting and self—than in springing overt shocks, though there are a few of those too. It opens with a man already disconnected from reality, an architect named William Craig (Mervyn Johns) who’s summoned to a country home for a weekend. The details of this weekend are vague, and we first see William already in motion, approaching the estate in his car. As he’s escorted into the home, William claims that he’s dreamed of this place before, many times, and that he knows this visit with a motley collection of people will become a nightmare. Dr. Van Straaten (Frederick Vaalk) is the resident cynic, and his resistance to William’s claim inspires the other guests to tell stories of their brush with the supernatural.

Dead of Night’s framing story, directed by Basil Deardon, has the elegance of a British drawing-room drama, with attractive and well-dressed characters initially discussing spooks as they might the day’s cricket tournament. And this rarefication lowers our guard, though William’s escalating nervousness foreshadows, say, the astonishing intensity of Michael Redgraves’s wiry, sexually neurotic performance in the film’s fifth and most famous story, “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy,” in which Redgraves plays a performer eaten up with jealousy over the professional betrayal of his dummy. Directed by Alberto Cavalcanti, the segment abounds in eerie touches that distinguish it from all the stories centered around evil dolls that it would inspire. For instance, we’re allowed to notice that Redgraves’s Maxwell Frere has a framed picture of his possessed ventriloquist dummy—a bizarre, almost obscene detail that Cavalcanti allows us to feel as if we’re discovering for ourselves.

The film abounds in such intimate and insane textures. In “The Haunted Mirror,” directed by Robert Hamer, a man’s gradual possession is represented by an opulent bedroom with an elaborate fireplace and bedframe, which can only be seen through a mirror he received as a gift from his fiancée. We see no ghosts, only this magic bedroom as it contrasts with the plain and sterile room the mirror actually inhabits. As Peter (Ralph Michael) continues to look into the mirror, gazing at this lurid room, he becomes convinced that Joan (Googie Withers), now his wife, is cheating on him, and the story becomes a metaphor for the fears of the concessions required of marriage. Michael expertly dramatizes Peter’s escalating instability, and the room in the mirror remains an unnervingly ambiguous image of discontent and violation, especially given the cockeyed images that emphasize the mirror as an instrument of fracture.

There’s an emphasis in Dead of Night on rooms within rooms and passageways within passageways, suggesting nesting forms of consciousness and existence. In “The Christmas Party,” directed by Cavalcanti, a young girl, Sally (Sally Ann Howes), discovers a hidden chamber she believes to be a nursery housing a small boy, and while the punchline is familiar, its notion of a murder chamber hiding in plain sight remains haunting. In “The Hearse Driver,” directed by Dearden, a man glimpses a death prophecy through the curtains of his hospital room, which are so heavy and velvety they suggest the curtains of a movie theater. Even “The Golfer’s Story,” directed by Charles Crichton as a comic palette cleanser between the intense “The Haunted Mirror” and “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy,” features at least one lasting image that suggests the intertwining of multiple worlds. When a jilted golfer named Larry (Naunton Wayne) commits suicide, he does so by merely walking into the lake on a golf course.

Dead of Night is a snake eating its own tail, a story of the dream of a potential madman that branches off into other dreams, which branch off into yet others. Many of these dreams are presumed to have an exit, until it’s revealed that William’s circular reality is the potential “god” of all these other lives. This idea, endlessly explored by surrealists, scientists, and philosophers alike, is almost too unnerving to contemplate at length, though Dead of Night gives it a febrile sense of possibility. The passageways aren’t the most memorable images of the film; those would be the many close-ups of faces twisting in agony and loneliness.

Image/Sound

This transfer has a luscious sense of darkness, according cinematographers Stanley Pavey and Douglas Slocombe’s shadows a rich and foreboding prominence. Facial close-ups are also vividly detailed, with white light that’s bright and strong without being shrill. In fact, visual textures are vibrant throughout, illuminating striking details of the sets and clothing. The soundtrack can be fuzzy at times, especially the dialogue in Dead of Night’s first 10 minutes, but Georges Auric’s score has been rendered with a strong and menacing body, and small supporting sound effects are also quite vibrant.

Extras

The audio commentary by critic Tim Lucas is a characteristically detailed and erudite examination of how Dead of Night arose out of the British film industry, and its lasting influence. Lucas provides elaborate biographies of all the players, and discusses how the film’s then-unusual structure was a response to productions like Grand Hotel and The Halfway House. Along the way, we hear choice bits about Alfred Hitchcock, Luis Buñuel, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, and many others, and Lucas is also a shrewd observer of symbolism—he catches the curtains in the hospital, and offers many lovely comments on the framing of the haunted mirror. A feature-length remembrance of Dead of Night complements Lucas’s commentary, rounding out a slim but dense supplements package.

Overall

This lasting work of existential horror has been given a beautiful transfer, and an audio commentary that serves as a veritable seminar on British cinema.

Cast: Mervyn Johns, Anthony Baird, Roland Culver, Sally Ann Howes, Renée Gadd, Barbara Leake, Mary Merrall, Frederick Valk, Googie Withers, Judy Kelly, Miles Malleson, Michael Allan, Barbara Leake, Ralph Michael, Basil Radford, Naunton Wayne, Peggy Bryan, Michael Redgrave, Hartley Power, Allan Jeayes Director: Alberto Cavalcanti, Charles Crichton, Basil Dearden, Robert Hamer Screenwriter: John Baines, Angus MacPhail, T.E.B. Clarke Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 103 min Rating: NR Year: 1945 Release Date: July 9, 2019 Buy: Video

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Video

Blu-ray Review: Agnieszka Holland’s Europa Europa on the Criterion Collection

Criterion’s release of this timely, socially relevant film is outfitted with a richly detailed transfer, but it’s a bit slim on extras.

3.5

Published

on

Europa Europa

Early in Europa Europa, a child pulls back a curtain to observe a bris ceremony taking place in the room beyond. The ritual exudes a distinct air of solemnity—a secrecy that appears to be breached in this moment. It’s a millennia-old rite of passage for Jewish males, and in Agnieszka Holland’s film, Salomon Perel’s circumcision will become the definitive marker of his cultural heritage, and at a time when Jews live in constant fear of being annihilated by the Nazi machine.

The notion of identity as essentially fluid—something that can be obscured or transformed as a means of survival—is central to Europa Europa. And when it jumps 13 years into the future to 1930s Germany, Holland’s film picks up with Salomon (Marco Hofschneider) confronting the indignities inflicted upon Jews during this time. Fleeing the Nazis by blending in with Soviet Stalinists, only for an incredible series of circumstances to land him in a Hitler Youth academy in Germany, Salomon is locked in a perpetual state of performance, forced to conform to another identity, another ideology.

From the moment he straps on a Nazi leather jacket to cover his nude body after escaping a mob attacking his home, Salomon conceals the truth about his heritage by spinning an alternative narrative of his life. After a while, though, the very belief system that seeks to destroy him and his family proves so insidious that it nearly deludes him into fully embracing the teachings of the Hitler Youth. But when he goes so far as to tie his foreskin above the tip of his penis to make it appear visibly uncircumcised, his body rejects this attempted transformation, as if to remind him of that which he’ll never be able to hide.

Europa Europa is almost perversely focused on Salomon’s struggle to hide his penis or change its appearance, and Holland indulges in absurdist flourishes in recounting the real-life existential ordeal. Much of the young man’s journey, which sees him move to Poland before being forced to join the Komsomol in Russia, then the German army, and finally the Hitler Youth, is surprisingly filtered through a comedic lens that ruthlessly mocks the blind allegiance, hypocrisies, xenophobia, and outrageous fervor of Nazis and communists alike.

Caustically funny dream sequences involving a parodic representation of Hitler are weaved into Europa Europa, along with incidents of broad yet cutting humor that accentuate the irony of Salomon passing not just as a Nazi, but an exemplary one at that. Many scenes, such as one in which an anti-Semitic scientist goes into disturbingly vivid detail about the physical and biological superiority of Aryans, are appalling. Yet when Salomon is propped up as the ideal Aryan, or later when he loses his virginity to a German officer who believes him to be a war hero, Holland employs a playful, offbeat tone that amplifies the preposterousness of the Nazis’ belief in the inherent superiority of the Aryan people and their ability to sniff out non-Aryans based solely on appearance or behavior, thus exposing the sheer hollowness of their rhetoric.

If the film mostly succeeds in its tragicomic satire of authoritarian regimes, it’s spottier on a micro level. In skirting over the psychological ramifications of the real-life Perel’s experience, Holland leaves Salomon feeling more like a cipher caught up in the cycles of history than a flesh-and-blood person struggling to come to terms with his identity and place in the world. It’s only in Europa Europa’s second half, once Salomon begins a lengthy relationship with a beautiful Nazi temptress (Julie Delpy), that we begin to get a sense of the emotional and physical toll that his state of cognitive dissonance takes on him. And it’s then that the film strikes the right balance between a pointed satire and an emotionally rich portrait of the twisted and terrifying high-wire act its protagonist had to walk in order to survive.

Image/Sound

The film’s new 2K digital restoration is rich in detail, with the image remaining sharp and clean throughout. Colors appear somewhat muted in a number of the darker interior scenes; greens and browns especially look a bit drabber than they do in exterior shots. Otherwise, skin tones are consistent and grain levels are pleasingly film-like. The uncompressed monaural audio is sturdy, boasting clear dialogue throughout and mostly flexing its muscles whenever Zbigniew Preisner’s score hauntingly swells on the soundtrack.

Extras

The main event here is a 2008 commentary track with Agnieszka Holland. Though dry and prone to pregnant pauses, Holland is informative, covering everything from the initially divisive response sparked by Europa Europa to her unusually playful approach to serious subject matter. Also included are three 15-to-20-minute interviews. Holland’s chat hits much of the same beats as her commentary, while lead actor Marco Hofschneider goes into more detail about the filmmaker’s desire to have a non-actor play the lead, so as to bring a sense of naïveté to the role that would mirror that of the young Salomon Perel. In his interview, Perel himself opens up about what led him to first share his story and how he survived not by pretending to be someone else, but by allowing himself to be swept up in insidious ideologies. The package is rounded out with a brief video essay by film scholar Annette Insdorf, who unpacks the film’s visual motifs, and an expectedly perceptive essay by film critic Amy Taubin.

Overall

Criterion’s release of this timely, socially relevant film is outfitted with a richly detailed transfer, but it’s a bit slim on extras.

Cast: Marco Hofschneider, André Wilms, Julie Delpy, Hanns Zischler, Ashley Wanninger, Klaus Abramowsky, Michèle Gleizer, Delphine Forest, René Hofschneider, Halina Labonarska Director: Agnieszka Holland Screenwriter: Agnieszka Holland Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 112 min Rating: R Year: 1990 Release Date: June 9, 2019 Buy: Video

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Video

Blu-ray Review: Bruno Dumont’s L’Humanité on the Criterion Collection

Dumont’s philosophical tragi-comedy receives a gorgeous 4K digital restoration and insightful range of contextualizing interviews.

4

Published

on

L’Humanité

If Bruno Dumont’s La Vie de Jésus is something of a horror film about the failure of empathy, L’Humanité is its comedic B-side, taking an equally horrific scenario and examining it through the perspective of a bumbling police force. Yet as is typically the case with Dumont, his sense of comedy isn’t straightforward. When police inspector Pharaon De Winter (Emmanuel Schotté) rejoices after receiving a hug from his friend and secret crush, Domino (Séverine Caneele), the man sits in a chair rattling his fists up and down after she leaves the room—a spectacle that doesn’t suggest a moment of triumph so much as a fit. That this scene occurs not long after an 11-year-old girl is found raped and murdered in a nearby field demonstrates part of Dumont’s dissonant sensibilities. The oddity of Pharaon’s behavior coexists in a world with unfathomable brutality, something the film views less as a contradiction than a defining feature of human nature.

Dumont’s filmography is practically a study of faces, and that fixation is especially prominent here. The characters in L’Humanité wear blank or neutral expressions, and Dumont’s camera lingers on these visages as if waiting for people to remove their skins and reveal their true selves. It’s a visual choice that can be understood as a commentary on the characters’ alienation. Since Dumont works with non-professional actors with highly distinctive facial features, close-ups complement the viewer’s contemplation of these lonely souls rather than gauging a character’s reaction to someone or something in their immediate surroundings.

L’Humanité opens with a wide shot of Pharaon running across the Bailleul countryside, and as in La Vie de Jésus, the rural setting projects an image of innocence about to be upended by violence. Sex also factors into this film’s equation. Shortly after greeting Domino and her lover (Philippe Tullier), Pharaon walks in on the couple having intercourse on the floor, staring at them in expressionless silence. When Domino later reprimands him for “getting an eyeful,” it’s less out of anger than conviviality. While Dumont consistently awakens a Hitchcockian dimension within his work as it pertains to the pleasure of looking, ready-made psychological explanations for such behavior remain out of reach to both characters and viewers.

Like Pharaon, Domino also likes to watch. Indeed, one of L’Humanité’s indelible images is a recurring close-up of Domino casting her eyes onto something or someone within eyeshot. While at a beach, she’s introduced to a handsome male friend of Pharaon’s wearing Speedo trunks. As Domino’s eyes move toward the man’s groin, the camera catches him noticing her stare. Once Domino realizes he’s aware of her gaze, she averts her eyes. To what extent Domino is either aroused or absent-mindedly looking at the man remains ambiguous, but it’s nevertheless clear that L’Humanité makes a thematic drumbeat out of its characters’ preoccupation with staring. While this at times comes to feel redundant, Dumont’s refusal to give his characters reducible motivations is as mysterious as it is refreshing.

In one of the film’s most obtuse depictions of people staring, Pharaon becomes entranced by the large, reddened neck of his police commissioner (Chislain Ghesquère) while the pair drive across the countryside. Whatever Pharaon’s interest in the man’s body, the close-up reveals his skin as an abstract, nearly indiscernible image. In this instance, all we see, in effect, is blood covered by a thin layer of flesh. These grotesque implications reducing human beings to meat might recall the paintings of Francis Bacon, particularly 1936’s Abstraction from the Human Form. That Pharaon is a descendent of the 19th-century painter Pharaon De Winter—and even lends some of De Winter’s paintings for an exhibition to a nearby gallery halfway through the film—makes explicit the linkage between L’Humanité and artifice. Because Pharaon stares at these paintings with the same expression he offers to the world, we’re further made aware that we’re not merely, as viewers, gazing upon the lives of real people. Dumont reconciles each character’s personal desire through his own cultural and artistic means, something the natural world, in all its incomprehensible vastness, cannot afford them.

Image/Sound

Criterion’s Blu-ray release of L’Humanité boasts a clean image abundant in striking details. Outdoor shots evince vibrant colors, with the smallest of nuances, such as the individual bricks of buildings, appearing well-detailed way back into the farthest reaches of the frame. While the DTS-HD surround track is a tad muted overall, the classical music at the start and close of the film is forcefully mixed, and dialogue is clear throughout.

Extras

As on Criterion’s La Vie de Jésus release, the extras here largely consist of interviews with Bruno Dumont from across the past 20 years. In the newest one, conducted this year by Criterion, Dumont discusses how the conclusion of his prior film inspired him to write L’Humanité. In fact, he had intended to have the same actor, Jean-Claude Lefebvre, who played a police inspector in La Vie de Jésus, reprise his role here, and when he declined, Dumont revised Pharaon De Winter around Emmanuel Schotté, who would go on to win best actor for his performance at the Cannes Film Festival. The second interview, conducted by film critic Philippe Rouyer in 2014, is a deeper dive into the film’s production history. Here, Dumont explains how he collaborates with his actors to significantly shape his characters’ behaviors, all the way down to the use of groans and sighs. The pair also discuss how Dumont approaches character psychology from a visual perspective. And the final interview is a segment from a 1999 French television news program, with Dumont walking the streets of Bailleul and explaining how he shoots. Rounding things out is a segment from a 2000 episode of Tendances featuring actress Séverine Caneele, a trailer, and an essay by critic Nicholas Elliott that, among other things, traces some of the film’s art-historical references.

Overall

This Blu-ray of Bruno Dumont’s philosophical tragi-comedy boasts a gorgeous 4K digital restoration and insightful range of contextualizing interviews.

Cast: Emmanuel Schotté, Séverine Caneele, Philippe Tullier, Ghislain Ghesquère, Ginette Allègre Director: Bruno Dumont Screenwriter: Bruno Dumont Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 148 min Rating: NR Year: 1999 Release Date: June 18, 2019 Buy: Video

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Video

Review: Andrew Bujalski’s Mutual Appreciation on Arbelos Films Blu-ray

This package is the perfect opportunity to revisit a paragon of mid-aughts mumblecore cinema.

4

Published

on

Mutual Appreciation

Andrew Bujalski’s best attribute as a filmmaker isn’t his much-heralded ability to reproduce the idiomatic lingo of his stuck-in-neutral twentysomething subjects—who, to these ears, sound a bit too self-consciously aimless and uncomfortable to pass as authentic—but, rather, his knack for unearthing subtle insights about interpersonal relations from meandering, semi-improvisational dialogue. A modest step up from Bujalski’s breakthrough 2002 film Funny Ha Ha, which is acknowledged as the first mumblecore film, Mutual Appreciation reveals discerning truths about post-college anomie through a carefully arranged narrative structured around casual ellipses and sly symmetries, whether it be the juxtaposition of one evening’s dissimilar drunken parties or its pair of gender-role-reversal scenarios (one involving a man reading a woman’s short story, the other marked by some sloshed cross-dressing).

Though often compared to Cassavetes—an association reinforced by Mutual Appreciation’s bargain-basement black-and-white 16mm cinematography—Bujalski makes films that simmer rather than seethe. His sweet, stuttering protagonists are based on, and played by, friends—all defined by their lack of direction, fear of obligation, and refusal to grow up. Reticence is the predominant tone struck by this tale of indie-rocker Alan (Justin Rice, co-founder of the band Bishop Allen), who, having moved from Boston to Brooklyn to jumpstart his career, develops a reciprocated crush on Ellie (Rachel Clift), the journalist girlfriend of his grad school buddy, Lawrence (Bujalski). As for the talkative action, it’s dominated by a sense of people willfully muting emotional expression in order to evade confronting potentially troublesome truths.

Articulations of genuine feelings are coded within rambling discussions about everything and nothing. As such, when something meaningful is stated—as in Alan arguing in favor of creating a community of kindred spirits “willing to do stuff” for each other, or Ellie confessing that “the problem with Lawrence is that he’s not the master of his own destiny”—the respite from the characters’ usual avoidance tactics is bracing. Throughout, Bujalski seems to self-reflexively comment on his own stylistic quirks, from Ellie overtly addressing a particular “long, awkward pause” to Alan saying, in an apparent jab at Mutual Appreciation’s peculiar rhythms, that he hates math rock’s “weird beats and time signatures.” Yet solipsistic as it may occasionally be, Bujalski’s sharp sophomore effort—courtesy of its perceptive, heartfelt humanism—ultimately makes such self-infatuation more infectious than off-putting.

Image/Sound

The new 2K restoration, from which this transfer is sourced, offers an image quality with far more depth and sharpness than what’s typically afforded to home-video releases of the low-budget, mumblecore films of the aughts. A good deal of grain remains from the 16mm negative, preserving the film’s raw integrity. There’s also a nice balance in the contrast between blacks and whites, with exterior scenes looking neither too bright nor blown out and interiors never overly dark. The sound is clean and evenly mixed and the dialogue is easy to understand even when characters trip over their words or talk over one another.

Extras

In an appropriately low-key, clever commentary track, parents of various cast and crew members offer up an array of observations, complaints, and dad jokes. Very much in the spirit of the film, these off-the-cuff comments abound in charmingly awkward attempts at humor and amateurish stabs at interpreting Mutual Appreciation. There are moments of genuine insight, but it’s primarily a light-hearted addendum to the film, with some choice moments of parental disappointment, whether it’s a bit actor’s parents complaining about how the framing leaves their son off screen for most of his 20-second appearance to another parent declaring, “Well, this, we know, is just solipsistic masturbation.” A 30-minute interview with Andrew Bujalski provides insight into his working process and the ways it did and didn’t change as he began to work with bigger budgets and stars in the years since Mutual Appreciation’s release. The disc also includes Bujalski’s 2007 short film People’s House, which serves as a companion piece to this film, essays by Damien Chazelle and singer-songwriter Will Sheff, and, in an unexpected nod to Elvira, a low-def, tongue-in-cheek intro by “Vampira.”

Overall

Arbelos Films’s sturdy 2K transfer and a scrappy assortment of extras present the perfect opportunity to revisit a paragon of mid-aughts mumblecore cinema.

Cast: Justin Rice, Rachel Clift, Andrew Bujalski, Seung-Min Lee, Pamela Corkey, Kevin Micka, Ralph Tyler, Peter Pentz, Bill Morrison, Tamara Luzeckyj, Mary Varn, Kate Dollenmayer Director: Andrew Bujalski Screenwriter: Andrew Bujalski Distributor: Arbelos Films Running Time: 110 min Rating: R Year: 2005 Release Date: June 11, 2019 Buy: Video

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Video

Review: Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville on Kino Lorber Blu-ray

Kino’s Blu-ray brings the film’s shoestring-budget beauty to life with an exceptional new transfer.

4

Published

on

Alphaville

Much has been said of the overwhelming ingenuity of Jean-Luc Godard’s early films, but less so about just how well the director knew how to work around budgetary limitations. Alphaville, a dystopian sci-fi noir set in an Orwellian world of omnipresent surveillance run by a malevolent artificial intelligence, sounds at first blush like a large-scale work filled with the sort of macro world-building one typically sees in blockbusters. But Godard, working with next to no resources, captures the oppressiveness of totalitarian government through the claustrophobic conditions of repressed citizens. Ordinary Parisian streets and buildings are captured as they are, though in inky shadow, so that a certain kind of present-day dilapidation comes to suggest futuristic social decay.

Godard takes private detective Lemmy Caution and illustrates the film’s themes of social tension and incipient fascism by demolishing the man’s image. Godard secured Eddie Constantine, who had already played Caution in a number of films as a James Bond-esque rake whose chauvinism was portrayed as roguish and charming. Here, however, Constantine plays Caution as a somber has-been, a caustic loner in his twilight whose pathetic weariness is further emphasized by Godard forbidding the actor to wear makeup, preferring to capture every wrinkle and blemish on his face. When Godard does nominally adhere to the tropes one might expect from a Caution caper, the filmmaker does so in the most parodic of ways, as in an early action scene in which a hitman springs out of nowhere in Caution’s hotel room, leading to a brutal scuffle where all diegetic sound drops out and is replaced by elegant, lilting classical music, until noise comes crashing in as the would-be killer and hero are sent through a series of glass doors. It’s a gag worthy of a Jerry Lewis film.

In mixing elements of noir and science fiction, Godard doubles down on the existential horror of both genres, emphasizing their common emotional detachment through a narrative involving a supercomputer, Alpha 60, that rules over a realm, Alphaville, in which human emotions like love are punishable by death. That premise anticipates future tech-noir features like Leos Carax’s Mauvais Sang, and the rapport between Caution, so grizzled but still full of longing, and a thoroughly brainwashed, deadpan young woman, Natacha (Anna Karina), has the same kind of mutually dispassionate but compelling quasi-romance that Harrison Ford and Sean Young shared as androids performing love in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner.

One of the least energetic of Godard’s New Wave films, Alphaville nonetheless evinces his puckish wit and allusive modernism. Caution frequently engages in conversations with Alpha 60, which articulates its thoughts through a growling voice box and decries human illogic while also largely reciting lines that Godard cribbed from the work of Jorge Luis Borges. In one scene, rebels who refuse to live in a world without love are executed by firing squad next to a pool where swimmers calmly perform laps below the machine-gun fire. At its heart, though, the film’s tension between emotion and logic epitomizes the early internal conflict of intellectualism and love that suffuses Godard’s early work. And, in one of the supercomputer’s Borges quotations, the film lays out the thesis that would undergird all phases of Godard’s search for unified truths: “Sometimes reality can be too complex to be conveyed by the spoken word. Legend remoulds it into a form that can be spread all across the world.”

Image/Sound

Kino Lorber’s disc, sourced from a 4K transfer, is a revelatory presentation of a film that often seemed one of the least visually dynamic of Godard’s early career. Raoul Coutard’s cinematography, shot under incredibly difficult lighting conditions, has always appeared heavily grained and crushed on home video, but here the full beauty of his images is on fabulous display. Eddie Constantine and Anna Karina’s faces are rich with texture, blacks sink into abyssal levels of darkness without crushing, and outdoor location shot boast a healthy distribution of grain that never compromises detail. The robust-sounding audio is so clear that it’s now easier than ever to understand Alpha 60 supercomputer’s musings.

Extras

An audio commentary track by novelist and film historian Tim Lucas provides ample details about Alphaville and its place among both Godard’s filmography and the series of Lemmy Caution films, but Lucas’s dry, fact-based approach skirts a deeper, more formal analysis of Godard’s methods. A brief interview with Karina finds the actress recounting her memories of working on Alphaville. Most memorable is her amusing recollection that Coutard was so anxious about shooting in such dark lighting conditions that he couldn’t bear to look at the film’s dailies. An introduction by critic Colin McCabe provides a cursory but probing look into some of Godard’s techniques while not giving too much away.

Overall

Jean-Luc Godard’s sci-fi curio is a fascinating outlier in his New Wave period, and Kino’s Blu-ray brings its shoestring-budget beauty to life with an exceptional new transfer.

Cast: Eddie Constantine, Anna Karina, Akim Tamiroff Director: Jean-Luc Godard Screenwriter: Jean-Luc Godard Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 99 min Rating: NR Year: 1965 Release Date: July 9, 2019 Buy: Video

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Video

The Myth of the American Dream: Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Trilogy

These films are as elegant as they are expansive, acutely perceptive and operatic in their high emotions.

Published

on

The Godfather: Part II
Photo: Paramount Pictures

In approaching his adaptation of Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, Francis Ford Coppola has said that he saw the story as “the tale of a great king,” Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando), who passed the best and worst of him to his three sons: passionate and aggressive Sonny (James Caan); sweet, childlike Fredo (John Cazale); and intelligent and cunning Michael (Al Pacino). Coppola’s archetypal sensibility is the hook that makes The Godfather trilogy so compelling, an emotional buttress that registers deeply through the thorny convolutions of each film’s narrative. Indeed, one of the remarkable things about The Godfather—commensurate with Brando’s marble-mouthed performance—is how the emotional clarity of this one family’s story so powerfully emanates through the soup of business and politics.

The Godfather sees the Corleone clan struggling to hold ground on a battlefield peppered with memorable antagonists: narcotics entrepreneur Virgil Sollozzo (Al Lettieri), corrupt police Captain Mark McCluskey (Sterling Hayden), duplicitous rival mafioso Emilio Barzini (Richard Conte), stubborn Hollywood producer Jack Woltz (John Marley), ruthless Las Vegas high roller Moe Greene (Alex Rocco), to say nothing of the sundry turncoats within the Corleone family. The film’s canvas is a crowded one, and at its center is a rite of passage: the aging Don Vito handing the reins of the family business over to the reluctant Michael, the black sheep who wants nothing more than to be part of the great American melting pot. During the film’s opening, which depicts the wedding of Vito’s daughter, Connie (Talia Shire), Michael is introduced to us in military fatigues, with his blond-haired, WASPy girlfriend, Kay Adams (Diane Keaton), on his arm. And by the film’s end, he’s embraced the shadows outside of bourgeois American life. As he says at the beginning of The Godfather Part II, officially sanctioned politics and nefarious organized crime are both part of the same hypocrisy.

Throughout Connie’s wedding, the vividness of Coppola’s characterizations allows us to quickly understand how this particular family learned to thrive in a distinct American subculture. Meanwhile, consigliere (and adopted Corleone son) Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) exists to fill us in on the ins and outs of how New York’s crime families negotiate power. The gestures, glances, and tonal registers between siblings position The Godfather as a primal story of love and devotion between a father and his children, and how siblings square off with each other in trying to live up to their father’s regality. And as Caan’s ferocity plays off of Duvall’s lawyerly reason and Pacino’s exacting coolness, we’re effortlessly swept up in the intimate emotional currents that flow beneath the power machinations of a dynastic family.

Partly set in 1958, The Godfather: Part II amplifies this complicated interplay as Michael secures his criminal empire in Nevada’s casinos and works toward setting up operations in Havana. In a memorably winking scene, old-time capo Frank Pentangeli (Michael V. Gazzo) requests tarantella music to be played at the Corleone Lake Tahoe compound during the celebration of Michael’s son’s first communion, but the band instead plays “Pop Goes the Weasel.” Senator Pat Geary (G.D. Spradlin) gives a speech thanking Michael for his contributions to the state. Kay is pregnant with their third child, and Michael aims to have a family as propitious as his father’s. But there’s a revolution brewing in Cuba, and political committees are cracking down on the mafia. More intimately, Kay is distressed about bringing more children into an apparatus strewn with corruption. Dancing with Michael, she brings up a conversation they had in a scene from the first film. “You told me in five years the Corleone family would be completely legitimate. That was seven years ago.”

Michael’s conflicts in The Godfather: Part II are connected to the past as much as to the present. The burden of history is represented by the avuncular though treacherous Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg), who did business with Michael’s father, and Frank, who’s uncomfortable with how Michael is straying from the family’s Sicilian roots. Also at the heart of the film is the story of the younger Vito (Robert De Niro), who finds himself embroiled in a war with the governing mafia chieftain Fanucci (Gastone Moschin) after arriving in America. Throughout, Michael’s spiritual entropy is intercut with Vito’s ascendancy 30 years earlier, and while both men act to preserve their families, it’s telling how Coppola contrasts the father’s warmth with the son’s sclerotic obtuseness (ironically akin to the patriarchs with whom Vito does battle). By the end, Vito’s power is secured, his fall into criminality established as the means by which he protects his family. Michael also secures his power, but at the cost of his brother Fredo’s life, as the latter unwittingly betrayed Michael by colluding with Roth.

The Godfather: Part II is as elegant as it is expansive, acutely perceptive and operatic in his high emotions. Its story is more complicated than that of the first film, almost to the precipice of becoming a muddle. For one, it’s never really made clear what exactly is going on between Fredo and Roth’s organization, other than securing some information about Michael’s compound for an assassination attempt, or what’s the backstory of Frank’s relationship to Roth’s malevolent partners, Tony (Danny Aiello) and Carmine Rosato (Carmine Caridi). But such muddiness doesn’t matter in a film so magnificently constructed, where the tenderness of De Niro’s Vito seems to linger through the conspiracies and betrayals woven by Michael, the now-dead father hanging over Michael’s final confrontation with Fredo, a scene where Cazale’s tremulous id almost bursts through the man’s forehead, voicing his demand for respect with an afterglow of understanding his own inadequacies. Michael looms and Fredo struggles to stand up for himself while still inextricably tied to his chair, and Coppola orchestrates one of the most dramatically compelling scenes in American cinema.

Released in 1990, The Godfather: Part III may be considered a tragi-ironic commentary on the cultural clout of the first two films, which influenced how the public thought about the mafia but also how the mafia thought about itself. Set in 1979—or a few years after the first two films were released—Coppola’s trilogy caper emphasizes a performativity in everyday life that was absent from the more authentic dramas of its predecessors. The story begins with a sham Catholic ritual for Michael, now a billionaire businessman, being given a papal pin “for his charitable work,” which in actuality relates to a shady transaction with Vatican bankers, and concludes with a staggering half-hour sequence in an opera house, with Coppola magnificently cutting between action off and on stage to the music of Mascagni.

Reality and performance grandly intersect throughout The Godfather: Part III, with the actors posturing like performers on a stage, as if they were indeed characters in an opera. Take the the grandiose gesturing between Shire’s Connie and volatile Corleone heir Vincent (Andy Garcia) as he takes her hand with gusto and kisses it. Or the “bella figura” Gotti-like Joey Zasa (Joe Mantegna) and how he loves to cavort in front of photographers and reporters, contributing to the spectacle of himself. Eli Wallach’s performance as the duplicitous Don Altobello may initially feel strenuously affected, but his theatrical magniloquence comes to feel more than apt; Coppola shows Altobello in his opera box singing and pantomiming along with the performers on stage, as if to say that there’s no demarcation between life and theater for this two-faced crook. Reconciling with Kay, Michael brings a knife to his throat and says, “Give me the order!” It’s then that Kay, the one figure who sees through Michael’s fronts, grimaces. He drops the knife and chuckles apologetically, “We’re in Sicily. It’s opera.”

The way Coppola and his actors approach performance brings up the controversy of Sofia Coppola’s casting as Michael’s doomed daughter, Mary. Her line readings are sometimes flat, and at other times awkward. But in contrast to the other players, she’s startlingly pure, her unseasoned candor making her tragic function in the story more heart-wrenching. There’s an unexpected feeling of truth as she delivers her last line (“Dad?”) on the steps outside the opera house, breaking up the theatrical masquerade over which Michael has presided. Coppola gives his tragedy a twist that goes beyond King Lear, one of his film’s models. Michael, unlike Lear weeping at the death of his beloved Cordelia, doesn’t die of grief. Rather, it’s implied that he lingers on for years, alone in the company of despair and sorrow.

Michael kneels at his slain daughter’s corpse and finally cracks, raising his head and howling his sorrow before passing out. The unchecked emotional nakedness is out of step with the rest of the trilogy, almost breaking the fourth wall. Keaton, Shire, Garcia, and George Hamilton’s characters suddenly break from their grieving and look at Michael with what feels like baffled surprise. Coppola’s trilogy begins by observing the charade of American ideals and institutions. He ends it outside a theater, the horror in Michael’s scream breaking apart the compound of lies and artifice this arch American criminal has built around his heart. In this one moment, the opera is over and the consequences of reality are made manifest.

Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Trilogy: Corleone Legacy Edition is now available on Blu-ray from Paramount Home Entertainment.

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Video

Blu-ray Review: Bruno Dumont’s La Vie de Jésus on the Criterion Collection

Criterion resurrects one of the great debut features of the last 25 years with an impressive 4K transfer and informative extras.

4

Published

on

La Vie de Jésus

Bruno Dumont’s La Vie de Jésus provides the occasion to contemplate how approaches to kindness and justice work on a philosophical level. As Paul Bloom explains in his 2016 book Against Empathy, the “morally corrosive” influence of empathy sometimes prompts an immediate action that overlooks the long-term effects of said action. Dumont creates scenarios that are farsighted in their scope; the basic story of Freddy (David Douche), an epileptic teenager harboring racist resentment toward Kader (Kader Chaatouf), his North African peer, prompts us to see how empathy fails at getting to the root cause of what precipitates Freddy’s violent acts. It’s not that Freddy lacks the ability to see Kader as human; it’s that the cultural foundation of Bailleul, a small French town, is shackled by the strictures of racial and sexual repression.

Not that Dumont is shy about depicting sexual contact. In fact, Freddy’s relationship with Marie (Marjorie Cottreel), another local teenager, is steadily reduced to an entirely physical state of being. This culminates in a close-up of Freddy’s erect penis thrusting in and out of Marie’s vagina; in this moment, the hardcore sex act is offered by Dumont not as an empty provocation, but a commentary on bourgeois skittishness over representations of sex. When Kader and Marie start seeing each other, Freddy irrationally targets Kader for violence. Like the murderous brother in Luchino Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers, Freddy only knows physical cruelty as a response to being threatened by his own desire because he cannot articulate his response in any other manner. While Dumont allows Freddy’s precise feelings to remain mostly unspoken, the implication is that Freddy’s been conditioned by his community to be ashamed of his sexual impulses. When shame meets anger, violence ensues.

Dumont’s debut feature draws upon conventions of neorealism and documentary by employing non-professional actors in all of its roles, but its stylistic traits are closer to the formalist cinema of Robert Bresson, also known for working with first-time actors in nearly each of his films. Like Bresson, Dumont stages shots to highlight their flatness and the base elements of any given action. These visual choices create the sensation that we’re encountering more a tableau of reality than anything approaching documentary realism.

This is especially evident in Dumont’s depiction of Freddy’s mother, Yvette (Geneviève Cottreel), who owns a local pub and seems to do little more than watch the news on a small television set. Early in La Vie de Jésus, the woman sees what appears to be a dead body in an unspecified African location. “What a shame,” she mutters, expressing nominal concern when faced with the evidence of global catastrophe that she believes has no immediate impact on her life. Later, she musters a similar response when Freddy goes to see Cloclo, a friend who’s dying of AIDS. Yvette only approaches the point of outrage when reprimanding Freddy for not having a job. Dumont is foremost concerned with depicting how the nagging worries of quotidian life steadily contribute to the absence of culture, the death of art, and abuses of power that, above all, leave the impoverished destitute.

Yet, despite viewing Yvette through a critical lens, Dumont isn’t blaming her for the violence her son will soon commit; rather, he’s juxtaposing the people of Bailleul against a series of problems, whether local or global, that seem to have no immediate solution. This approach has been deemed by some critics as lacking in compassion, but Dumont’s intent is to soberly reflect on the complex ways that hate is fostered by collective forms of ignorance.

Dumont demonstrates, too, how passivity maintains tradition as a form of oppression. Freddy and his friends, who effectively patrol the countryside on their motorbikes, also mock Kader and his family under their breath with religious chants and racial epithets inside a café without reprimand. Later, after Freddy and his friends have committed a heinous act, a police officer (Alain Lenancker) questions the boy, asking if he doesn’t like “Arabs.” Dumont stages the exchange to amplify its procedural nature, with the officer’s back to Freddy throughout the interrogation. Freddy, inarticulate and surrounded by authority figures who are themselves relying on a limited vocabulary to define criminal acts, is the product of a culture that has neglected to discover the essence of its own existence.

Image/Sound

Criterion presents La Vie de Jésus in a pristine 4K digital restoration. The wide outdoor shots boast vibrant colors and detail-rich depth of field; as Freddy rides his motorcycle throughout the countryside, the surrounding trees and grass intensely radiate green. Scenes set in indoor spaces also boast significant clarity and excellent focus. Given how important faces are to Dumont’s style of filmmaking, this transfer is especially notable for how close-ups reveal the pores of actors’ faces. The monaural soundtrack is clean and clearly audible throughout.

Extras

The bulk of the extras consist of interviews with Dumont from different years since the film’s release. In the most recent one, conducted by Criterion in 2019, Dumont explains how his background in industrial films prepared him to make La Vie de Jésus. He also spends ample time considering the philosophical basis for his filmmaking, saying that he views his work as “metaphorical representations of the inner experience of human nature.” The filmmaker also discusses the failure of popular cinema to become anything more than a product for mass consumption. The second interview, a lengthy talk with critic Philippe Rouyer from 2014, sees Dumont digging even deeper into how he tries to reconcile “the coexistence of different sets of values.” And the final one consists of excerpts from two 1997 episodes of the French television program Le cercle de minuit, during which Dumont talks about society being racist and how his job as a filmmaker is to “rattle the cage.” Rounding things out are the film’s trailer and an essay by critic Nicholas Elliott on Dumont’s distinctive visual style.

Overall

Criterion resurrects one of the great debut features of the last 25 years with an impressive 4K transfer and an informative grouping of supplements.

Cast: David Douche, Marjorie Cottreel, Kader Chaatouf, Sébastien Delbaere, Samuel Boidin, Geneviève Cottreel, Alain Lenancker Director: Bruno Dumont Screenwriter: Bruno Dumont Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 96 min Rating: NR Year: 1997 Release Date: June 18, 2019 Buy: Video

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Video

Blu-ray Review: David Lynch’s Blue Velvet on the Criterion Collection

Criterion offers what should prove to be a definitive transfer of a pivotal and still overwhelmingly intimate David Lynch film.

5

Published

on

Blue Velvet

The most direct metaphor in David Lynch’s canon arrives early on in his 1986 landmark film Blue Velvet. After an opening credits sequence set against blue velvet curtains and accompanied by Angelo Badalamenti’s swooning score, Lynch offers up a montage of iconic images of Americana, including gleaming white picket fences, a fire truck with a dog, and roses that gleam with a feverish red hue. Bobby Vinton’s version of the title song serves as the soundtrack to these images, and, with this song, Lynch signals both his yearning for and disbelief in this idyllic world—a conflict in emotions that would drive his subsequent film and television productions. In case this conflict is lost on viewers, Lynch ends his montage with a father collapsing from a malady as he waters his front yard, and the camera homes in on blades of grass, pressing further into the ground until we can see black insects festering underneath the surface.

It’s too simple to say that Lynch yearns for a society that could be likened to that of The Andy Griffith Show’s Mayberry, even though much of his work is a viscerally textural paean to vintage American manners and artifacts. The 1950s-era puritanism that partially drives Blue Velvet and its TV offspring, Twin Peaks, would most likely bore Lynch on its own. Lynch is attracted to duality, to the contrast of the sweet and sour textures of purity and perversity, and Blue Velvet was the filmmaker’s first pure articulation of this desire.

The film is also one of the definitive explorations between the cultural links of the ‘50s and ‘80s. In the ‘80s, American horror cinema was mining the communist paranoia of the ‘50s, indulging in violence that at one point could only be implied. These films now play as a reaction to how President Ronald Reagan exploited America’s yearning for a return to a golden age, a dream version of an earlier time cleansed of various atrocities, such as internment camps and hate crimes. Reagan was selling a fantasy while committing his own atrocities, such as ignoring the ravages of AIDS on the gay community, while Lynch and other directors, such as John Carpenter and David Cronenberg, were telling a kind of truth.

Of course, Lynch voted for Reagan, which perhaps testifies to the intense pull of the sunny-side-up portion of his fantasy world. And, indeed, Lynch has always understood a primordial and insidious human quality: the satisfaction of conformation—of successfully following social rules regardless of their potential implications, and committing to a mythology of country. In Blue Velvet, this idea is most beautifully embodied by the scenes between Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachlan) and Sandy (Laura Dern). Jeffrey is a college student who returns to the small, woodsy town of Lumberton following his father’s hospitalization, and Sandy is a high school senior with a father (George Dickerson) in law enforcement. Investigating the mystery of a severed ear that Jeffrey discovers in a field, the couple regularly meets at a diner, drinking sodas and, in Jeffrey’s case, eating what appears to be a grilled cheese and fries. The pleasure that Lynch takes in the old-fashioned-ness of all this, with Jeffrey and Sandy playing a variation of the Hardy Boys, is palpable. (These scenes are so overwhelmingly earnest that certain critics missed the point, describing them as shrilly satirical.)

With his father, Tom (Jack Harvey), immobilized, Jeffrey confronts his blossoming adulthood, and so Sandy partially represents his yearning to return to the simplicity of high school, which suggests the longing for an idealized dimension that drives, at large, this production that’s so resolutely set in a timeless dimension and abounds in obsessive fairy-tale imagery that suggests an X-rated Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger production. Yet Jeffrey’s also a man now, and most men need more than nostalgic puppy love. Drifting away from Sandy, the ear leads Jeffrey into an underworld, to Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rosellini), a tormented lounge singer who’s the plutonic ideal of the male fantasy of the experienced older woman, who’s forced to sing “Blue Velvet” over and over in a club with an ardor that rivals Vinton himself. Where Sandy is gorgeous in a trim, blonde, idyllic “prom queen” way, Dorothy is a bruised brunette with ripe red lipstick (it matches the roses from the film’s first scene), a chipped tooth, and a sensual fleshiness that knocks the film off its naïve axis.

Dorothy’s apartment, which is of course on the wrong side of the tracks, is one of Blue Velvet’s many masterpieces of irrational set design. Primarily represented by the oval shape of a living room that segues into a small kitchen, the apartment abounds in deep reds, blues, and blacks that are morbid as well as titillating, explicitly suggesting a strip club’s back room while subliminally representing a womb. This set somewhat prepares us for the film’s audacious tonal U-turn. When Jeffrey wanders into this apartment, the sense of danger is intense, yet Lynch surpasses all expectations with what is still the wildest set piece of his career.

Peeping on Dorothy from behind the wall of her closet, after she’s already caught him, threatened him with a knife, and explored the possibility of going down on him, Jeffrey watches as this woman is tortured by Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper), who beats her and calls her “mommy” before getting high on gas and stuffing a blue velvet sash in each of their mouths and savagely fucking her. Though the scene is symbolic—as Robin Wood stipulated, the sash suggests an umbilical cord, while also echoing the lost innocence of the Vinton song—it’s also unhinged, exorcising fantasies that Lynch can barely keep a handle on.

Sex in mainstream cinema has rarely felt this intimate and defiant of what we’re supposed to find erotic, which is why Blue Velvet was controversial upon its release, and would probably be even more so were it to first be seen in 2019. To an extent, Dorothy gets off on Frank’s abuse, and she subsequently attempts, in her affair with Jeffrey, to assume a Frank-like role, taking control of their sex and goading Jeffrey to tap his inner reservoir for violence. When Jeffrey eventually beats Dorothy, Lynch films the action in extreme slow motion, with what sounds like animal roars on the soundtrack. Lynch dramatizes a fissure in Jeffrey’s sense of who he is, as he plumbs his propensity for darkness. The film is, at its root, a coming-of-age tale that’s unusually connected to the dirtier and messier implications of self-knowledge.

There’s almost nowhere for Blue Velvet to go after the scene between Dorothy, Jeffrey, and Frank in Dorothy’s apartment, which also suggests a fulfillment of the fantasies implicitly driving, say, Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, where an ambiguous male hero also peeped in on imperiled women. This sexual-violent stand-off is what Lynch has been building to throughout Blue Velvet, as he’s bringing to the fore the damage, allure, rot, exploitation, and sick hunger that exist under Lumberton’s tableaux of neat, asexual domesticity and under much of vaguely sexualized pop culture at large.

The film subsequently follows what is a fairly straightforward mystery-thriller template, though ecstatic details and images continue to pop up, and there’s one other extraordinary scene. Frank and his goons kidnap Dorothy and Jeffrey and take them to the inner sanctum of Ben (Dean Stockwell), a terrifyingly fey and polite gangster who dances and lip synchs to Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams,” enjoying the kind of expressive catharsis that appears to be impossible for Frank, a frustration that’s probably at the center of his insanity. Many critics have commented on the inverse relationship between Sandy and Dorothy, the respective women of day and night who would initiate an ongoing Lynch obsession, but Frank also suggests an inverse of Jeffrey: a man-child who never reckoned with his desires, until they erupted out of him in a torrent of cruelty and obscenity. Even one of Ben’s prostitutes enjoys a moment of lonely grace, dancing on top of Frank’s car outside of a factory as “In Dreams” is reprised.

Blue Velvet’s mixture of pop-cultural fetishizing and extreme and occasionally ironic brutality would prove to be monumentally inspirational to cinema, as there’s a weird kick to Lynch’s mixture of banality, kink, and tragedy. Quentin Tarantino’s films, particularly Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, would be unimaginable without Blue Velvet, which would also serve as a roadmap for Lynch’s own career. Lynch is still obsessed with sexual perversity, with men’s historic torment of women, with various mystic and generic totems, and with the underbelly that secretly powers pop culture. After Blue Velvet and the first season of Twin Peaks, Lynch drifted away from traditional narrative, blurring plot points and character identities. He doubled down on his own brand of American surrealism, emphasizing beauty and decay as two halves of one coin. Blue Velvet’s happy ending—in which Sandy’s dream of robins casting evil away is realized—is deliberately unconvincing. Faced with a truth about himself, Jeffrey retreats to childish illusion, though Lynch continues to wrestle with his and our madness.

Image/Sound

Per the disc’s liner notes, this new transfer was created in 16-bit 4K resolution from the 35mm A/B negative and was supervised by David Lynch. The results are spectacular, with radiant colors and a purposefully soft grittiness that intensifies the film’s luridly dreamy feeling. Most important, though, is the profound weight and materiality of surface textures in this image, which is important to Lynch’s fetishistic aesthetic. All of Lynch’s pet obsessions—lamps, drapes, lipstick, food, smokestacks—practically pop off the screen. Two sound mixes are included here, a 5.1 and a 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio track, and, though I didn’t discern many major differences between them, they both have extraordinary depth, balance, and dimension, with an operatic level of attention paid to diegetic sounds. (When Jeffrey flushes a toilet, imperiling himself, the thing gurgles so magnificently as to suggest a moaning whale.)

Extras

The most notable supplement here is a 54-minute collection of deleted scenes, which have been assembled by Lynch more or less in chronological order, suggesting an entire omitted opening act of Blue Velvet. The cut footage fleshes out Jeffrey’s reasons for returning to his hometown from college, and offers many more scenes of his aunt and mother (played by Frances Bay and Priscilla Pointer, respectively). These moments are fine on their own, and anticipate the purplish tone of Twin Peaks, but a three-hour cut of Blue Velvet that conventionally explored Jeffrey’s conflict over his sick father might’ve been disastrous, killing the narcotic pull of the film as it presently exists. There’s also an alternate introduction of Sandy that’s so tossed-off that it’s nearly banal, which is a significant contradiction of her iconic entrance in the final cut. One moment—in which Jeffrey and Dorothy ascend the roof of her apartment—is pure Lynchian poetry, though these scenes otherwise offer a primer on how a filmmaker whittled a rough cut down into something stark, mysterious, and essential.

Also essential is “Blue Velvet Revisited,” an 89-minute documentary by director Peter Braatz that uses free-associative editing to offer a one-of-kind portrait of the film’s production. Braatz includes stock footage, intimate still photos, such as of Lynch taping the word “Lumberton” onto an ice truck, and uses interviews as a form of narration. (Isabella Rossellini’s thoughts on making the film should serve as a definitive refutation of Roger Ebert’s absurd and condescending review, in which he essentially implied that Rossellini was Lynch’s victim.) Meanwhile, “Mysteries of Love” is a more conventional archival documentary, with interviews with most of the film’s principal players, and a recording of Lynch reading from Room to Dream, the 2018 book he co-wrote with Kristine McKenna, includes stories that will probably be familiar to Lynch obsessives. An interview with composer Angelo Badalamenti, a look at the sets and props of Blue Velvet, and a booklet with an excerpt from Room to Dream round out one of Criterion’s strongest packages of the year.

Overall

Criterion offers what should prove to be a definitive transfer of a pivotal and still overwhelmingly intimate David Lynch film.

Cast: Kyle MacLachlan, Isabella Rossellini, Dennis Hopper, Laura Dern, Dean Stockwell, Priscilla Pointer, Frances Bay, George Dickerson Director: David Lynch Screenwriter: David Lynch Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 120 min Rating: R Year: 1986 Release Date: May 28, 2019 Buy: Video, Soundtrack

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Video

Bob le Flambeur, Le Doulos, and Leon Morin, Priest on Kino Lorber Blu-ray

Kino’s Blu-ray releases help chart the crystallization of Jean-Pierre Melville’s distinctly rigorous style.

Published

on

Bob le Flambeur
Photo: Rialto Pictures

From his first film, Le Silence de la Mer, Jean-Pierre Melville displayed a remarkable control of both atmosphere and pacing, generating suffocating dramatic tension with the most limited of means. His following two films—Les Enfants Terribles, an interesting, albeit misguided, collaboration with Jean Cocteau, and When You Read This Letter, a little seen romantic melodrama that the filmmaker disowned—are quite different. At one time, they almost suggested that Melville could have gone on to become a skilled journeyman, bouncing from genre to genre across his filmography. But the glimpse at the austere style Melville introduced in his debut would be re-introduced, and further chiseled and honed, once he began working in the genre he would master: the crime film.

In Bob le Flambeur, Melville’s gaze shifts to the crime-ridden pockets of Paris that were often overlooked in French cinema. Serving as the predominant milieu of his films from this point forward, this seedy world—populated by crooks, prostitutes, drunks, and degenerates—is rife with ambiguities that blur the traditional lines between good and evil, with cops and criminals often co-mingling, even co-conspiring. Moral certitude is lost amid the ever-present clouds of cigarette smoke that fill the cheap bars where these nightcrawlers congregate.

With Bob le Flambeur, Melville’s breezy weaving of location shooting and improvisational acting into the hardboiled tropes of American gangster films from the 1930s and ‘40s laid the groundwork not only for his evolving representation of film noir, but for the early classics of the French New Wave, most notably Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows and Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless. But it’s Melville’s foregrounding of the role of fate in Bob le Flambeur, soon to become the most commonly recurring theme in the director’s canon, that marks the film as a truly distinct transition into the next phase of his career.

From Bob’s (Roger Duchesne) first roll of the dice, the audience understands that the suave, smooth-talking gambler is, unbeknownst to him, reliant upon forces outside of himself for survival. He’s an ex-con who can only get his kicks with games of chance, yet, despite his addiction, he holds tightly to his moral code of “honor amongst thieves” and a view of the underworld that is as black and white as the checkered patterns that adorn both his apartment floor and the walls of the casino where he soon begins to hemorrhage money on a regular basis. Melville meticulously ratchets up the tension just as Bob’s luck begins to sour and his stringent code and icy demeanor brush up against the more lax approaches taken by the younger crop of hoods with which he’s now working.

Before Bob’s last big heist plays out, the narrator dryly declares, “Now Bob will play his last hand and destiny will play out.” This feeling of impending doom renders the suspense both nerve-wracking and unusual, particularly because the audience, given knowledge of various betrayals, is all but certain that Bob’s plan will fail and is left to helplessly root for him to jump ship before it’s too late. Bob is a consummate professional, but he doesn’t realize the game’s being played with a stacked deck. Such is fate in Melville’s films.

By his next Parisian-set noir, 1962’s Le Doulos, Melville’s aesthetic had crystallized into a more rigid, emotionally restrained and visually precise style. The jazzy, buoyant energy of Bob le Flambeur is replaced with an asceticism akin to that of Robert Bresson, with narrative and compositions alike stripped of all excess, leaving every gesture and line of dialogue to carry with it a potentially deadly weight, ultimately delivered unceremoniously from the barrel of a gun. Our heroes are no longer gamblers down on their luck, but stone-cold killers provided with only one choice: to “die or lie.” And in this film, people do both quite regularly.

Where the machinations undergirding Bob’s fate in Bob le Flambeur are made clear even before the film’s big heist is set in motion, Le Doulos offers no such transparency, keeping nearly everyone’s motives and loyalties shrouded in ambiguity, hidden beneath deep, angular shadows that cut harshly through the screen like a knife. The characters’ pasts are mysteries, and who they are in the present can only be gleaned from the machinations on the job or the elaborate deceits they cook up as a means of survival. As for their futures, more often than not we know that these characters are on a collision course toward an early death.

Le Doulos’s narrative is perhaps Melville’s most labyrinthine, weaving an intricate web of deceit, betrayals, and misdirections that reveals new layers of subtext and psychological complexity with every twist and turn. Jean-Paul Belmondo’s Silien stands as one of Melville’s most enigmatic creations: a charmer with the police when he needs to be and a ruthlessly efficient crook whenever the occasion calls for it. And he remains a cryptic figure to his former cohort, Maurice Faugel (Serge Reggiani), who struggles to confront the possibility that Silien was the rat who set him up and landed him in the joint.

In Melville’s previous film, Leon Morin, Priest, Belmondo also plays a man who intentions are difficult to read. Only here, Leon’s (Belmondo) potential duplicitousness isn’t in service of self-preservation, but for the supposed eternal salvation of the various women he comforts, sometimes with a sexual flirtatiousness that makes his attempts to convert them to Catholicism all the more disingenuous. The film is a bit of an outlier in this middle period of Melville’s, yet its spareness and intense focus foresee the increasing minimalism that would take hold of the director’s style from Le Doulos through to Le Samouraï. Its questions of faith return us again to the role of fate, but the cold, unfeeling criminal world of Melville’s other ‘60s films is replaced with a quintessential struggle between the spirit and the flesh. And questions of honor and professionalism play out not through an elaborate heist or murder, but rather a series of tête-à-têtes between the attractive young priest, Leon, and the bisexual atheist, Barny (Emmanuelle Riva), he coyly tempts.

Where professionalism in the face of certain demise is a driving force in Melville’s crime films, in Leon Morin, Priest, the uneasy and inevitable intermingling of faith and desire yields a tension every bit as biting. If Bob le Flambeur and Le Doulos find men using their expertly honed criminal skills to keep their predestined fates at bay for as long as possible, Leon Morin, Preist sees a man who uses the means at his disposal—his natural charms and sex appeal—to instead rewrite the fates of the women he sees himself as protecting. That he’s successful because, rather than in spite, of his very unprofessionalism makes this film all the more intriguing as a counterpoint to Melville’s many exercises in noir.

Jean-Pierre Melville’s Bob le Fambeur, Le Doulos, and Leon Morin, Priest are now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Kino Lorber.

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Video

Blu-ray Review: Sergei Bondarchuk’s War and Peace on the Criterion Collection

Audiences at home can now experience the visual and audio impact of Bondarchuk’s masterpiece as it was intended.

4

Published

on

War and Peace
If one were to judge the history of cinema solely on the basis of scale and ambition, Sergei Bondarchuk’s War and Peace might well be considered the greatest film of all time. A seven-hour-plus adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s classic doorstopper, Bondarchuk’s film was by far the costliest production in the history of the Soviet Union, and it certainly looks it. Priceless artifacts, countless military weapons, thousands of lavishly costumed extras, and a menagerie that includes hundreds of horses, rare wolf-hunting borzois, and a beer-drinking bear are swept before our eyes in a constant stream of ecstatic stimulation. Maximalist in every aspect, War and Peace is, like the novel on which it’s based, a work that wants to contain as many thoughts, emotions, and perspectives as possible. And Bondarchuk goes about accomplishing that by utilizing every wild cinematic technique he can think of.

In contrast to Hollywood epics of the era like Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Cleopatra and William Wyler’s Ben-Hur, which are marked by long, static processions of extras marching around expensive sets, Bondarchuk never simply shoots for coverage. His camera instead darts and dashes through grandiloquent interiors and hellish battlefields, roving through burning buildings and flying through the air like a cannonball. Where another director might have resorted to a simple wide shot or close-up, Bondarchuk gives us a sweeping helicopter aerial, a complicated superimposition, an expressive split screen, or a camera that seems to float above a ballroom just as Mikhail Kalatozov’s did over the streets of Havana in I Am Cuba.

Bondarchuk often seems here to be attempting to synthesize the entire history of epic historical filmmaking into a single work. He borrows the pioneering split-screen technique of Abel Gance’s Napoleon, the legendary crane shot from Gone with the Wind, and the eerily majestic iconography of Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible, to name just a few, while also anticipating at various points the hallucinatory combat sequences of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and the idyllic poeticism of Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line.

All this restless innovation and titanic ambition, however, has a tendency to deaden the senses at times, particularly early on in War and Peace, when Bondarchuk’s experimentation comes off as little more than amateurish noodling. The filmmaker’s woozy sonic effects and blurry camera filters come off as dated and distracting, while the use of an off-screen narrator to translate French dialogue in the very first scene is downright confusing. The film can sometimes seem over-eager to impress: Never content to simply allow us to feel the emotional weight of a relationship, Bondarchuk is constantly intervening as a director—underlining, amplifying, and bludgeoning us with heavy-handed visual metaphors.

Bondarchuk’s restless approach often causes him to obscure Tolstoy’s complicated narrative and its vast, inter-connected familial relationships. The film essentially condenses the novel’s sprawling, digressive narrative into a murky love triangle between the socially awkward misfit Count Pierre Bezukhov (Bondarchuk), his friend and philosophical opposite, Prince Andrei Bolkonsky (Vyacheslav Tikhonov), and the idealized, waif-like woman, Countess Natasha Rostova (Lyudmila Saveleva), with whom they both fall in love. Of the three, only Natasha leaves much of an impression, thanks in large part to Saveleva’s radiant performance. A trained ballerina, Saveleva flits and flutters through War and Peace like a butterfly, imbuing her scenes with a litheness and effulgence that provides stark contrast to the portentous philosophizing that Andrei and Pierre are prone to.

If Bondarchuk struggles to convey the story’s gradual shifts in relationships and psychology, he nevertheless demonstrates the ability to give cinematic life to Tolstoy’s rhapsodic depth of feeling. In one of the film’s more emotionally resonant techniques, Bondarchuk jarringly cuts between two scenes with wildly different emotional tenors—a joyous dance and a man dying, for example—emphasizing one of Tolstoy’s great themes: the simultaneity of human experience. While one person is suffering, another is celebrating; while one man is enjoying a banquet in St. Petersburg, another is engaged in bloody combat against Napoleon’s armies.

Bondarchuk’s War and Peace is in some ways less a straightforward adaptation of Tolstoy’s novel than a symphonic representation of its themes—its sense of drama, portent, and grandeur. That’s never truer than in the film’s astonishingly stirring set pieces, which find Bondarchuk variously capturing the buzzy excitement of a ball, the calamitous anxiety of battle, and, in the film’s most haunting passage, the wrenching pain and despair of a city under siege. Bondarchuk’s delirious rendering of the French army’s brutal invasion of Moscow, during which Napoleon’s forces burned the city to the ground, represents the most sustainedly apocalyptic vision of war’s madness and cruelty this side of Elem Klimov’s Come and See. War and Peace couldn’t possibly do justice to every aspect of Tolstoy’s mammoth tome, but at the very least, it captures the essence of the author’s scornful description of war: “an event … opposed to human reason and to human nature.”

Image/Sound

From its initial American release, for which it was dubbed into English and cut down by an hour, to an atrocious DVD release from Kultur that reduced its 2.30:1 aspect ratio to 1.33:1, War and Peace has rarely been seen in its intended form in the United States. But thanks to Criterion’s meticulous transfer, which is sourced from a Mosfilm restoration, audiences at home can now experience the visual and audio impact of Sergei Bondarchuk’s masterpiece as it was intended. The film’s moody interiors, sprawling battle vistas, and intricate trick shots all sparkle with a crystalline intensity. Everything looks almost impossibly sharp; there’s no evidence of motion shudder during the film’s whip-fast camera pans, and depth of field is breathtakingly clear throughout. The film’s complex, six-channel soundtrack has been remastered from the original elements in 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio, providing an appropriately titanic aural experience that’s equally adept at handling subtle dialogue scenes as it is with overwhelming combat sequences.

Extras

There’s no commentary track or information about Mosfilm’s grueling and expensive restoration process. The most useful extra here is a program with author Denise J. Youngblood that gives a broad overview of the film’s cultural context and difficult production. Two archival making-of documentaries, one from Germany and another from Russia, provide behind-the-scenes glimpses of the film’s making, while a 1967 documentary on Ludmila Savelyeva made for French TV offers a breezy look at the actress and her life in Moscow. New interviews with cinematographer Anatoly Petritsky (one of several who worked on the film) and Bondarchuk’s son, Fedor, provide some personal reminiscences about the notoriously imperious director. Rounding out the package is an insightful essay by critic Ella Taylor that stresses the importance of War and Peace as a work of Russian nationalism.

Overall

While not exactly skimpy, Criterion’s offering of supplementary materials doesn’t quite match up to the monumental nature of the film itself.

Cast: Sergei Bondarchuk, Lyudmila Saveleva, Vyacheslav Tikhonov, Boris Zakhava, Anatoli Ktorov, Anastasiya Vertinskaya, Antonina Shuranova, Oleg Tabakov, Viktor Stanitsyn, Irina Skobtseva, Boris Smirnov, Vasiliy Lanovoy, Kira Golovko, Irina Gubanova, Aleksandr Borisov, Oleg Efremov, Giuli Chokhonelidze, Vladislav Strzhelchik, Angelina Stepanova, Nikolay Trofimov Director: Sergei Bondarchuk Screenwriter: Sergei Bondarchuk, Vasiliy Solovyov Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 421 min Rating: NR Year: 1966 Release Date: June 25, 2019 Buy: Video

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Trending