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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

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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

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Review: Ghost Giant Is Adorable in Small Doses but Clumsy with the Big Stuff

This VR title boasts an endearingly goofy premise, but it’s one that’s executed in bumpy fashion.

2.5

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Ghost Giant
Photo: Thunderful Games

In Ghost Giant, players take on the role of an enormous and comforting specter that’s been accidentally summoned by the tears of an 11-year-old kitten named Louis. Unfortunately, this spirit is as clumsy as the boy turned superhero from Shazam, and in trying to calm the understandably frightened cat down, almost ends up killing him. It’s an endearingly goofy premise, though one that’s executed in bumpy fashion by this VR title, as using the PlayStation Move controllers to lift and poke physical objects rarely goes as planned.

The game’s unwieldy control scheme should come as no surprise to those who’ve played previous titles from developer Zoink!, such as Flipping Death, in which players fumble around as a spirit possessing living creatures, and Stick It to the Man, where the human protagonist comes equipped with a wacky spaghetti-like third arm. But Ghost Giant also suffers from a bit of an identity crisis, in that it can’t quite decide whether it wants to be an adorable, low-stakes exploration game or if it wants to be about capital-B big issues.

The game looks like Night in the Woods and plays a bit like Beyond: Two Souls but lacks the gravitas of either. Louis’s mom is suffering from severe depression, and Louis is rightfully terrified that if he can’t hide her ailment from the neighbors and cheer her up, she might be taken away. But that’s as far as the game goes in addressing mental illness; for the majority of the game, it’s just a puzzle to be overcome. Ghost Giant understands that not all problems can be solved by, say, baking Mom’s favorite apple pie and restoring her beloved cello, but it doesn’t respect us enough to acknowledge that most problems require hard work to resolve.

If Ghost Giant avoids similar issues of insincerity or exploitation with the other villagers in the game’s French-inspired Sancourt, it’s only because these characters lack any sort of interiority at all. They’re all plagued with low-stakes problems, all directly solved. A melancholy bird, for instance, isn’t depressed so much as it simply refuses to sing—that is, until its favorite hat is returned. And that bird’s owner doesn’t have some deep-seated issue preventing her from writing; she just misses the bird’s song. Satisfying these needs can be humorous, as when you—an actual but sadly invisible spirit—must create a bedsheet poltergeist that you can dangle in front of a ghost-hunting photographer. And some of the tasks make clever use of your size: After pulling wilted sunflowers out of the ground and reseeding a farm, you have to reach up and grab two clouds and squeeze them together to make it rain. What these literally odd jobs don’t provide is room for growth, either in the characters or in the gameplay.

That’s a shame, because it’s so obvious that more vivid, elaborate stories could have been told using these anthropomorphic denizens, like the goat landlord who’s desperate to catch some shut-eye, the avian scuba diver who dredges up trash, or the confidence-lacking lion who sets out to become a confectioner. These are well-designed characters, and they’re nicely voice-acted, which make it all the more frustrating that the player’s interactions with them are largely limited to single scenes, entirely within the context of puzzles. The same goes for the districts of this model-sized town, which don’t feel lived in so much as designed around cheap and often repetitive gimmicks, from using a magnet to fish through a creepy, cemetery-adjacent junkyard, to operating a crane in a sunny, seaside harbor.

Ghost Giant’s puzzles are as precise as the clockwork machinery around Sancourt that’s used to rotate and raise some of the varied buildings. Creative or brute-force solutions are restricted, as players are allowed only to manipulate copper objects (though you can carry and throw just about any loose inanimate object) and can only rotate around a fixed point. Why allow players to be a giant freaking ghost and give them the wider range of movement offered by VR if you’re just going to restrict that freedom? (I wish I could say this was an intentional manifestation of Louis’s mother’s depression.) There’s only one way to accomplish each task, so when players are asked to clear a bird out of a pedestrian’s path, you’ll have to lean in and physically blow on it, because nothing else is designed to frighten the bird. In another nonsensical situation, you’re required to paint a picture to get a crowd’s attention, as if slathering paint on these individuals wouldn’t make them move.

The game’s most enjoyable aspect is how you get to pull apart the walls and ceilings of miniature homes, so as to get a better look inside them. But it’s baffling that so few fixtures are detachable, and that they hold only meaningless, disparate collectibles like hats, insects, basketballs, and pinwheels. In the moment, you feel the thrill of spying on some hidden interior world, but then you’re just clumsily activating what are essentially animatronic displays. However impressive some of these dioramas and mechanisms may be on the surface, like so much of Giant Giant, they’re ultimately lifeless.

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

Developer: Zoink! Publisher: Thunderful Games Platform: PSVR Release Date: April 16, 2019 Buy: Game

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Review: Heaven’s Vault Is a Refreshingly Cerebral Take on Navigating History

The game is ambitious for its translation mechanics and its big-picture look at the evolution of culture through the ages.

3.5

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Heaven's Vault
Photo: Inkle

Archaeology in video games is descended almost exclusively from the Indiana Jones School of Marauding, where puzzles help players raid tombs or pilfer uncharted temples in competition with gun-toting rivals. Heaven’s Vault, however, has no such trappings of the violent colonialist adventure. Your primary engagement with the game is through language, as you must decipher the hieroglyphs of a fallen ancestral empire, making for a refreshingly cerebral take on navigating the remnants of history.

In Heaven’s Vault, you play as Aliya, an archaeologist who travels the flowing rivers of a spacefaring setting known as the Nebula, a network of moons containing dusty villages, farms, and more. Throughout, she sifts through the fallen empire’s ruins to the dismay and suspicion of many around her, who believe in a fatalistic doctrine, The Loop, that touts cyclical patterns in history. That which has happened will happen again, so they see no point in unearthing the past, especially when sailing the rivers is said to strip away the soul. Undeterred, Aliya continues to explore in the company of a fussy robot she calls Six, morbidly christened after the loss of his five predecessors and the presumed inevitability of a Seven.

Much of the game involves steering Aliya’s ship around those rivers, translating an ancient language she finds carved into crumbling structures and objects strewn throughout ruins. Aliya and Six are free to wander these environments, bouncing theories off one another and bickering while they piece their history back together. Deciphering the glyphs is something of a guessing game, with each word’s definition narrowed down to several possibilities that you choose by extrapolating from context. What are the glyphs on? If they’re on an object, where was it found? What are the other words? The long phrase on what you believe to be a makeshift grave, for example, might nudge you toward a tombstone-appropriate vocabulary.

If this process sounds impossibly daunting, the game mitigates the sheer enormity of the task by not keeping score. There are no end-of-level tallies to track your accuracy, and many of the possible translations remain just that: possibilities, denoted with a question mark. Some are eventually confirmed or debunked by repeated use or consulting another character; most never are. Each individual translation doesn’t matter so much in a pass/fail sense except in how they inform your continued understanding of the ancient language and culture.

The past in Heaven’s Vault is never totally clarified and much of your progress is theoretical, so it’s astonishing that the game provides any sense of accomplishment at all despite dealing mostly in ambiguity rather than absolutes. You really do begin to understand the more you play, learning which glyph denotes a place and then easily guessing the new word when it’s paired with one you recognize to mean, say, a liquid. Combined with environments that task players with using their growing knowledge to uncover possible functions for a building or a mechanism, the game’s sense of discovery feels truly immense. You share Aliya’s excitement, or perhaps her horror, as you’re totally enveloped in her cosmic search for answers.

But for as much as Heaven’s Vault emphasizes the futility of diminishing the messy past into something simplistic and easily digestible, its mechanics never quite escape doing so all the same. The fact that everything works out into a coherent English phrase (sans maybe a preposition or two) built from four options per word feels impossibly neat and composed. To some degree, these concessions are what makes Heaven’s Vault playable at all. When taken next to the game’s emphasis on translations that are mere possibilities and functions that are only theories, however, they’re something of a tear in the curtain meant to conceal a world that’s been neatly gamified yet making every effort to conceal itself as such.

The most challenging opposition comes less from piecing history together than simply navigating the game’s unwieldy interface, which works well at the start before buckling under the translations’ growing complexity. Hieroglyphic text you’ve found drops onto a timeline menu for what’s supposed to be easy access, until the translations clog the menu to such a degree that it borders on unusable, while the translation screen fails to hold longer phrases without asking you to scroll repeatedly back and forth. Most galling of all is the total exclusion of any sensible search function. Indeed, there’s simply no way to search the phrases by word or glyph, while paging to a “related word” is too limited to be of much use. Some amount of repetition would have set in anyway with these mechanics, yet the interface issues only ensure it arrives quite ahead of schedule. The game’s sailing is dull and saturated with similar-looking environments, to the point where you might bypass whichever nondescript rock you’re meant to find if the game didn’t automatically stop you, but it’s outright preferable to the sheer headache of stopping for even a single moment to go back to any old translations.

Despite how these issues range from irritating to outright infuriating, though, they never totally dampen the considerable accomplishments of Heaven’s Vault. This is a hugely ambitious game, both for its translation mechanics and how they provide a big-picture look at the evolution of culture through the ages. It’s an achievement that the game realizes any of those ambitions at all, and that such a rewarding sense of discovery emerges from them.

Developer: Inkle Publisher: Inkle Platform: PC Release Date: April 16, 2019 Buy: Game

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Review: Dangerous Driving Does the Bare Minimum to Earn Comparison to Burnout

Though it’s abundant in hyper-realistic visuals, that isn’t enough to disguise its lack of polish in almost every other way.

1

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Dangerous Driving
Photo: Three Fields Entertainment

Because Dangerous Driving comes to us from the former Criterion Games co-founders who developed Burnout, it was natural to expect a high-octane, edge-of-your-seat experience. But while this ostensible spiritual successor to that long-dormant series can be effectively tense as you barrel down tracks at upwards of 200 m.p.h., crashing and taking down your AI rivals on the way to first place, it isn’t long before the game slips into cyclical repetition of its core gameplay loop. Dangerous Driving riffs on the Burnout formula in only superficial ways, and though it’s abundant in hyper-realistic visuals, that isn’t enough to disguise its lack of polish in almost every other way.

Dangerous Driving features six car classes with about 10 races each. The monotony starts here. Each car, from souped-up formula cars to tuned coupes, handles the same way. Drifting in a sedan feels identical to drifting in an SUV. The bombastic, fiery end to a 200 m.p.h. sprint lacks exhilaration because the cars look like pristine, still-sealed Hot Wheels. The races also wear the same mask of familiarity. Of the 10 or so races per car class, the choices are identical, just in varying orders, and regardless of race type, the tracks are indistinguishable.

Worse, though, is the haphazard change in seasons during these races: One minute, players are speeding through autumnal vistas draped in oranges and reds, the next driving beside frozen fields blanketed in white and leafless trees. Yet somehow, the tracks remain unaffected by the changing seasons. The sudden, inexplicable season change would be forgivable if the scenery weren’t so excessively bright. Because the color contrast is so high (and no settings exist to adjust the game’s display), players will end up wrecking their cars more often than not because of the obnoxiously bright sun rays bouncing off the bright silver cars.

Dangerous Driving isn’t mechanically difficult to understand, but the AI makes the game impossible to enjoy. Rubberbanding exists in many racing games, but Three Fields Entertainment takes this frustrating feature to new and unfortunate heights with this game. The AI respawns immediately after crashing and appears right behind the player. Should players regain their position after falling behind or crashing, the AI will magically boost just five or so miles faster to maintain their lead. Your competitors turn corners perfectly, dodge oncoming traffic with ease, and maintain high speeds all while swerving through lanes. Unless players chain together boosts to get ahead, they’ll often find the computer AI no less than a car’s length behind. There’s no gratification in coming in first when players can never really pull far enough ahead and always fall annoyingly far behind.

The game, handicapped by stiff and imprecise controls and riddled with bugs, also lacks for the extras that might have allowed it to stand out from just about any other racing game. There’s an alt-rock song that plays during the menu screen, but no music to soundtrack your racing, though Dangerous Driving does allow for Spotify integration—that is, if you happen to have a premium membership. There’s no free race or time attack modes, no local split-screen, and the game has shipped without online functionality, a feature supposedly coming in the ensuing months. Which is to say that the folks at Three Fields Entertainment were only too eager to push a game into the marketplace without it possessing the bare minimum necessary to even allow it to sensibly be called a kindred spirit to Burnout.

The game was reviewed using a review code provided by Three Fields Entertainment.

Developer: Three Fields Entertainment Publisher: Three Fields Entertainment Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: April 9, 2019 ESRB: T ESRB Descriptions: Mild Violence Buy: Game

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Review: Earth Defense Force: Iron Rain Misfires After a Provocative Start

It’s a special kind of frustrating sequel that’s too inconsistent to realize its potential as an incisive comedy or exciting shooter.

3

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Earth Defense Force: Iron Rain
Photo: D3 Publisher

The Earth Defense Force series specializes in spectacle and literally gargantuan tasks, putting players in the shoes of human soldiers trying to take down enormous alien invaders. Yuke’s Earth Defense Force: Iron Rain doesn’t stray from this over-the-top premise, but unlike its Sandlot-developed predecessors, which were primarily influenced by campy sci-fi flicks, this sequel injects the proceedings, at least for a time, with a biting wit that recalls that of Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers. This shift in tone is both unexpected and welcome, with the script at various points focusing on the economic struggles that result from war and taking aim at the media’s attempt to manipulate people’s emotions.

Iron Rain’s first mission brings to mind the start of prior games in the Earth Defense Force series, as you find yourself in the middle of a city as part of an infantry going toe to toe with humongous ants. The difference here is that, after the final threat has been taken down, your protagonist appears to be dead meat. It’s then that Iron Rain jumps forward in time and to your playable character waking up from a seven-year coma. Since you’re apparently okay, an official says, it’s time to get back to the battlefield, as the war against the alien invaders continues unabated on our planet’s streets. The insensitivity of this casual command from a superior announces the game’s intent to comment, both seriously and mischievously, on the consequences of the world being controlled by EDF, a military-based de facto government.

In terms of third-person shooting action, Iron Rain follows the lead of its predecessors, with the player, before each mission, choosing two main weapons from a wide variety of options: shotguns, sniper rifles, grenade launchers, laser blasters, and more, all with their own ammo capacities, reload times, and other features. Most missions task the player with simply destroying all enemies on the stage, but the earlier ones stave off repetition with an impressive range of scenarios. During one level, you might drive a nondescript pick-up truck, searching for giant machines to destroy. In another, you might don heavy armor to block countless projectiles as you attempt to dismantle all the legs of a humongous crab robot that unleashes waves of smaller foes via trapdoors in its appendages.

In its first half, Iron Rain regularly introduces new threats for you to terminate. This sequel distinguishes itself within the Earth Defense Force series with uniquely intimidating imagery, such as disgustingly gaseous beetles that sometimes crawl on their towering robotic allies. More significantly, the enemy AI has never been as dangerous in a Earth Defense Force game as it is here, even on normal difficulty. Single bugs will relentlessly assume flanking positions as you attempt to blast away other enemies who run straight at you, flying drones are peskier now that they can teleport, and larger foes require careful management of your evasive abilities, lest you run out of energy and open yourself up to a series of crushing attacks.

Between levels, Iron Rain outlines the numerous ways that EDF’s reign impacts life on the planet. After the player beats a mission, the game features a few lines of voiceover dialogue to flesh out its story. These skits are only accompanied by stock loading-screen imagery, in line with the series’s overall budget-game aesthetic. Despite the cheap feel of these segments, the game’s script often conveys a sophisticated sense of class awareness. At one point, a soldier reveals that he has a family who lives in an area that receives less protection from EDF, and that he needs to earn three more badges to move his loved ones to a safer location. In a later exchange, one soldier tells another that his energy core, an essential part of any fighter’s gear, is only 12 percent intact, but it will have to do since core replacements are deducted from a soldier’s salary. In such scenes, Iron Rain paints EDF as an institution that barely cares for the well-being of the very people tasked with saving humankind.

Other between-stage skits adopt a wryer tone as they go about illustrating the media’s role as manipulators. During one interlude, you hear the voice of Olivia, a radio personality who tries to hype up EDF soldiers with a sort of childish excitement—and as if she weren’t patronizing enough, Olivia also markets a brand of coffee. In some segments, you’ll listen to a reporter from the Universal News Network, and at one point the broadcaster announces that EDF has defeated a critical threat, which results in regular news programming being halted for four hours to celebrate the historical significance of EDF. Such bits satirize the media’s complicity in creating distractions from the harshest of realities, which is to say that Iron Rain marks the first time an Earth Defense Force game has struck an intellectual and ironic chord.

Regrettably, the storytelling and action begin to suffer to a significant degree at around the game’s halfway point. The dialogue between stages loses much of its sting, with characters sharing fewer remarks about working-class struggles. Inexplicably, Iron Rain sometimes features no spoken lines from characters after a mission is completed, raising the question of why it dedicated so much time to developing a critique of EDF through dialogue early on.

What hurts the game the most, however, isn’t the lack of follow through on its initial critical gumption, but rather a lack of compelling drama in its later levels. Missions that take place in caves not only dully recall multiple similar stages from Earth Defense Force 2017 but also require little strategy (just fire rockets into the recesses of the cave where bugs congregate and be on your way). Objectives that require you to protect certain targets fail to apply any distinct pressure on the player, as the targets are rarely in danger of destruction provided you continuously attack foes. And similar to select missions in Earth Defense Force 4.1: The Shadow of New Despair, certain levels’ emphasis on a Godzilla-sized monster is anticlimactic and wishy-washy: In some instances, the monumental threat hightails it after you wipe out smaller adversaries. After a promising start, Iron Rain becomes a special kind of frustrating sequel that’s too inconsistent to realize its potential as an incisive comedy or exciting shooter.

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

Developer: Yuke’s Publisher: D3 Publisher Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: April 11, 2019 ESRB: T ESRB Descriptions: Violence, Blood, Suggestive Themes Buy: Game

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Review: Yoshi’s Crafted World Turns the Mundane Into the Stuff of Dreams

To enjoy the game is to believe that there can be purpose or joy in peeking around the most distant corners of our world.

4

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Yoshi's Crafted World
Photo: Nintendo

In a gaming landscape that doesn’t lack for vast, sprawling epics, mercenary time-wasters, unspeakable horrors, and indomitable challenges requiring nothing short of spiritual discipline, there’s perhaps nothing more revolutionary than a game where you collect smiley-faced flowers across a world made out of discarded cereal boxes. Yoshi’s Crafted World is nothing short of a delight, and that’s because and not in spite of its ease and relative emptiness in terms of what it asks of the player. It’s a firm reminder of the value games can have beyond putting your skill to the test, or pushing you to only earn or collect countless stuff, exhibiting the value of a well-imagined game world that exists for its own sake.

Of course, the game is still built on a basic platformer framework. Bowser Jr. and Magikoopa leader Kamek sneak onto Yoshi’s island to try and steal the Sunstone, a wish-granting tablet made up of five Dream Gems. When this thievery causes the Sunstone to break, scattering all the gems across the island, Yoshi and his buds must trek across the island to grab them before Jr. and Kamek do. It’s standard fare, but playing a Nintendo platformer for the story is like listening to Taylor Swift for the insight into Bolshevik influence on modern socialist ideology. The “why” is a trifle in Yoshi’s Crafted World. It’s the “how” and “where” that’s everything.

Yoshi’s solo platformers have always been an outlet for Nintendo to play with aesthetics, and this time, the series has gone the next logical step from the yarn-based Yoshi’s Woolly World into full-on DIY arts-and-crafts territory. It’s an aesthetic we’ve seen before in games, primarily from Media Molecule’s delightful Tearaway. The comparisons end there, though, and only mildly to the detriment of Yoshi’s Crafted World. There’s no opportunity to craft things that are used in the game and can be shared in real life. The game is simply a well-crafted romp through a wide assortment of worlds literally held together with glue, tape, and string.

Despite running off the Yoshi series’s same old game mechanics—running, jumping, eating enemies and making eggs out of them, throwing the eggs at other things—Yoshi’s Crafted World isn’t a platformer that’s about stopping the player from reaching their goals. It’s about the active, gentle encouragement of players to interact with and explore their environment. You never know what’s behind some bit of cardboard, what’s hiding in a papier-mâché house, or how the bits of trash you’re picking up will come together to make other things.

That last bit is truly the meat of this blissfully pure game. There’s no time limit on its stages, all effortlessly charming worlds awash in tiny, clever details, from train engines powered by soda cans, to stars and asteroids made out of aluminum foil, to all the little felt-covered creatures who wander around the place. Your sole duty is to see it all, peek behind every leaf or cardboard bush and collect what’s inside, which is hopefully one of the seven or eight Smiley Flowers hiding around. Anyone can get to the end of each individual stage, but the only way you can proceed into a brand new area on the overworld map is to find as many Smiley Flowers as you can. That means truly exploring your environment, which can be perilous, sometimes tricky, but rarely tense. You lose hearts when you get hit, but nothing in Yoshi’s Crafted World feels like it’s actively gunning for the player. Enemies are mostly there as a means for Yoshi to make more eggs; they’re a tool more than a hindrance. Even falling into a bottomless pit just means that you float back to the last checkpoint in the stage.

To enjoy Yoshi’s Crafted World is to believe that there can be joy in a long stroll, in being curious enough to peek around the most distant corners of our world. Aside from the occasional wacky boss fight, there’s not much more to the game than that, and doesn’t need to be. One of the greatest tests of that fact comes a few stages in, where Yoshi comes across a mother dog whose puppies hide in the stages you just beat. To find them, players enter “flip sides” of the stages, in which the perspective is reversed, meaning you see firsthand how every obstacle and background object is put together from the back.

It’s here, for a brief moment, that you marvel less at the objects themselves than the madcap imagination behind it all. These are joys that a great many games tend to obscure, for fear that the magic will be dispelled. But the light, breezy, and welcoming Yoshi’s Crafted World is all the more magical for showing us, confidently and unpretentiously, that even the mundane can turn into the stuff of dreams when laid out in the open by the most talented and careful hands.

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

Developer: Good-Feel Publisher: Nintendo Platform: Switch Release Date: March 29, 2019 ESRB: E ESRB Descriptions: Mild Cartoon Violence Buy: Game

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Review: The Punishing Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice Coasts on Borrowed Moves

Its boss fights highlight the contrived lengths that FromSoftware has gone to in order to satisfy players’ thirst for difficulty.

2

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Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice
Photo: Activision

After the release of 2011’s Dark Souls, Hidetaka Miyazaki became one of the most respected names in the gaming industry, and with good reason. After all, Dark Souls is much more than a difficult action title with a fascinating semi-open environment, as its tense purgatorial trials and the ambiguity of its dread-inducing journey leaves one with a sense of ennui. Now years later, Miyazaki’s latest game, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, offers the best opportunity yet to question the media’s worship of this undoubtably talented artist. While Dark Souls represents a distinctive landmark in game history, Sekiro is more like an uninspired contemporary clone of 1998’s Tenchu: Stealth Assassins in which the stealth gameplay largely comes down to you watching little awareness meters above the heads of enemies and running away with ease when you’ve been spotted.

In a fictional 16th-century Japan, you play as the eponymous shinobi, who must rescue a young lord named Kuro from danger. There’s more at stake here than Sekiro’s loyalty as Kuro’s official bodyguard, as Kuro carries a bloodline that can grant immortality to those who can harness its power. Though this premise is more straightforward than the quest in Dark Souls, which refrains from giving the player an explicit direction or motivation, Sekiro still borrows ideas from that 2011 masterpiece, including, most significantly, the notion of restoring one’s health at a checkpoint in exchange for the resurrection of almost all defeated threats.

This double-edged mechanic feels more obligatory in Sekiro than it was in Dark Souls, as the player can fast travel to avoid repetitious combat or, in quintessential ninja style, silently destroy nearly every foe with various stealth tactics. Sekiro can also, under certain circumstances, come back to life on the spot immediately after being killed, further reducing the probability that players will be troubled by resurrected obstacles.

Sekiro’s shinobi protagonist knows a few melee tricks, but the game is best conquered by picking off guards one by one without being seen. Such killing can be satisfying in the moment, particularly when you feel as if you’re just blowing through a complex route without much issue. Right down to how the game’s grappling-hook tool allows the player to perch on top of gorgeous Japanese buildings to spot potential prey, Sekiro’s emphasis on sneaky, cold-blooded executions owes an obvious debt to Tenchu’s style and gameplay.

Yet Miyazaki and his team betray the point of following in the footsteps of a title like Tenchu when they also subscribe to the forgiving nature of modern stealth games. In Sekiro, you always know how aware a person or even an animal is of your presence, thanks to the tiny indicators hovering above them. On top of that, the hero is very quick, perhaps inspired in part by Snake’s over-the-top speed in Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain.

Such factors translate to a reasonable amount of comfort for players, which distances the game from the uncompromising Tenchu. As long as you’re willing to be unrelenting in your approach—like fleeing a group of enemies after murdering one of them, hiding, and coming back to dispatch another poor bastard from behind—your adversaries will fall like dominoes, as they, unlike smarter AI opponents in other games, are prone to forgetting that you were in their space within a few seconds of your escape, sometimes even when you’re still within sight.

Sekiro’s draining boss fights not only seem to contradict the idea of the player feeling like a furtive ninja but also highlight the contrived lengths that FromSoftware has gone to in order to satisfy players’ thirst for difficulty. The recipe for success in these melee contests, which can initially appear unfair, tends to be similar to that of so many other violent skirmishes within Miyazaki’s catalogue: lock on, dodge (a lot), parry, and counter during openings. You do have to keep an eye on the hero’s posture bar to prevent bosses from completely piercing your defense, but you don’t have to worry about a stamina variable as in the Dark Souls series.

In the end, the game’s combat system lacks a truly innovative hook such as the Ki Pulse dynamic from 2017’s Nioh, the boomerang axe from 2018’s God of War, or the total dependence on defensive technique in last year’s Way of the Passive Fist. Even though Sekiro does sport a prosthetic arm that can be equipped with non-sword weapons, the items are hardly inventive: axe, spear, flamethrower, shuriken, and so on. There’s simply little in Sekiro to make it stand out in a vast ocean of releases, rendering it more of a footnote in the gaming market than the product of a distinguished auteur’s imagination.

The game was reviewed using a review code provided by PMK•BNC.

Developer: FromSoftware Publisher: Activision Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: March 22, 2019 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood and Gore, Violence Buy: Game

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Games

With an Injection of Youngblood, the Wolfenstein Series Looks Fresher Than Ever

Did you get chocolate in my peanut butter, or did you get peanut butter in my chocolate?

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Wolfenstein: Youngblood
Photo: Bethesda Softworks

Did you get chocolate in our peanut butter, or did you get peanut butter in our chocolate? That’s the question on our mind looking at Wolfenstein: Youngblood, the upcoming collaboration between MachineGames (makers of the last two Wolfenstein games) and Arkane Studios (developers of the Prey and the Dishonored series). Though the newly released gameplay trailer looks every bit as gratuitous as Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus—at one point, a Nazi’s head pops off like a pimple, accompanied by a hearty “Fuck yeah!”—the game also boasts a variety of first-time features for the franchise.

Beyond the new alternate-history setting—1980s Nazi-occupied Paris—the nonlinear structure allows players to tackle the game’s missions as they best see fit, light RPG elements provide options for deeper weapon modification and cosmetic upgrades, and a co-op campaign (whether with an AI companion or a friend) will yield potentially refreshing new ways to slaughter fascists. As MachineGames’s Game Director Jerk Gustafsson notes of the collaboration between studios, “Sharing [our] respective expertise has not only resulted in a truly great and completely new Wolfenstsein experience, but it has also brought our two studios closer together in a friendship that will be of tremendous value in our continuous efforts to craft beautiful, original, and fun video games.”

Not to bury the lede, but the feature that has us most intrigued is the “Buddy Pass” feature that’s included with the game’s deluxe edition. Essentially, if you’ve bought the game, your friends can download and play it with you for free, which is good, because there should be as few barriers to entry as possible when it comes to killin’ Nazis.

For a glimpse at the blood-drenched story, which involves BJ Blazkowicz’s daughters—the so-called “Terror Twins”—searching for their missing father, check out the trailer below:

Bethesda Softworks will release Wolfenstein: Youngblood on July 26.

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There’s Nothing Shaky About the Launch of the Firmament Kickstarter

The launch trailer seeks to cover every angle of Cyan Inc.’s pending project, and the funding they’re seeking.

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Firmament
Photo: Cyan Inc.

In the Kickstarter video that introduces us to Cyan Inc.’s newest venture, Firmament, a narrative adventure game built from the ground up for VR, the company’s long-time CEO, Rand Miller, notes that they “don’t just build games, but build worlds.” That’s a lofty proclamation that nonetheless feels accurate, based on Cyan’s 25-year-plus development work, from Myst and Riven to their previous Kickstarter-funded project, Obduction.

That experience shows in Firmament’s launch trailer, which seeks to cover every angle of the company’s pending project, and the funding they’re seeking. A small proof-of-concept segment shows how the game will appear both in VR and on flat screens, and though it focuses largely on a wintry setting, also shows off concepts for a variety of other worlds. So far as such Kickstarter ventures go in gauging audience interest, in under a day, Cyan’s already raised more than 20% of its $1,285,000 goal.

Perhaps that crowdfunding is due to the apparent trustworthiness of Cyan (given their previous two successful Kickstarter projects). Or, as we’d like to wildly speculate, maybe there’s some cross-genre intrigue, given that the mysterious little puzzle-solving device/companion at the heart of Firmament looks a bit like a Ghost from Destiny. More factually, Firmament’s worldbuilding looks engagingly complex and the brief story trailer sounds suitably dramatic, with three-time Emmy Award-winning sound designer Russell Brower (from World of Warcraft) serving as lead composer.

To hear and see the magical-steampunk aesthetic of Firmament in action, and to get a cryptic taste of its puzzles and storyline, check out the teaser below.

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Let Your Sanity Go on Vacation with a Trip to the Moons of Madness

If you dare, ascend into the horrors of the Martian mind and check out the trailer for yourself.

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Moons of Madness
Photo: Rock Pocket Games

The announcement trailer for Moons of Madness opens with an empty shot of the Invictus, a research installation that’s been established on Mars. The camera lingers over well-lit but equally abandoned corridors, drifting over a picture of a family left millions of kilometers behind on Earth before finally settling on the first-person perspective of Shane Newehart, an engineer working for the Orochi Group. Fans of a different Funcom series, The Secret World, will instantly know that something’s wrong. And sure enough, in what may be the understatement of the year, Newehart is soon talking about how he “seems to have a situation here”—you know, what with all the antiquated Gothic hallways, glitching cameras, and tentacled creatures that start appearing before him.

As with Dead Space, it’s not long before the station is running on emergency power, with eerie whispers echoing through the station and bloody, cryptic symbols being scrawled on the walls. Did we mention tentacles? Though the gameplay hasn’t officially been revealed, this brief teaser suggests that players will have to find ways both to survive the physical pressures of this lifeless planet and all sorts of sanity-challenging supernatural occurrences, with at least a soupçon of H.P. Lovecraft’s cosmicism thrown in for good measure.

If you dare, ascend into the horrors of the Martian mind and check out the trailer for yourself.

Rock Pocket Games will release Moons of Madness later this year.

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Review: Tom Clancy’s The Division 2 Is a Blast, and in Spite of Its Split Personality

The game doesn’t rely on narrative reasons to entice the player, leaning instead on endorphin-releasing gameplay hooks.

3.5

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Tom Clancy’s The Division 2
Photo: Ubisoft

O say can you see, perhaps by the dawn’s gleaming light, the mortars bursting through air? That’s the impression Tom Clancy’s The Division 2 so clearly wants to evoke as it asks you and up to three squadmates to determinedly scramble from the cover of one barricade to the next. There’s a story baked in there somewhere, something about reclaiming the various districts of Washington, D.C. from a violent gang of criminals known as the Hyenas; the cultish, embittered, quarantine-surviving Outcasts; and the traitorous former military True Sons, who’ve carved up the country’s capital. But what most clearly comes through the muddled yet consistently entertaining The Division 2 is a narrative driven less by plot than patriotism. You don’t fight for the American ideal so much as for its iconographic representation. That’s evident in everything from the restoration of the White House to the liberation of the Washington Monument, as well as in the familiar dome of the Capitol Building coming closer into view as you make your way between barricades.

The Division 2 is a, well, immensely divided game. Sometimes this is the result of intent on the part of developer Massive Entertainment, like the decision to keep the PvE campaign content apart from the PvP Dark Zones, in which players can turn on one another—to go rogue in order to steal high-level loot from other players. In others, this schism speaks to some necessary compromises, like the way in which this challenging, unforgiving game that’s been finely tuned for a co-op multiplayer experience can often feel untenable when tackled solo: Encounters scale to the number of players in the party, but without a squadmate to revive you, loners have to adapt to a much slower, methodical, and long-range approach to missions.

But above all, The Division 2 is marked by a disconnect between its story and its gameplay. The details of the game’s already vague plot never seem relevant to any mission—so much so that it comes as no surprise that your radio briefings are often conspicuously drowned out by the sounds of gunfire and your squadmates yelling for help. Still, the adrenaline rush of battle, your need to survive, is almost enough to distract you from the lack of story. Indeed, this is a game that requires your full attention to be placed on the actual engagements and their scenic settings, from desperately seeking cover in the Air and Space Museum’s famed planetarium, to trying to hold the besieged stage of the Potomac Event Center’s theater, to looking to outflank enemy encampments in the forested areas of Theodore Roosevelt Island.

It’s fitting that The Division 2 takes place in America’s capital, because the game, like many of D.C.’s politicians, is driven above all by strong emotions, many of which are dangerously misguided, and with very few facts to back them up. The game’s introductory sequence doesn’t elaborate on the biological attack that left American in ruin; instead, it proselytizes on the importance of owning a gun. Post-collapse society is the Republican wet dream of limited government, where if you want something done, you just go out and do it by any means necessary. For all the weapons and skills—like drones, turrets, and nanobot beehives—at your disposal, there’s no variety to the overall conflict or various factions you encounter. Enemies are suicidal zealots who never negotiate or surrender; they just keep fighting until their health bar has been whittled away. In this way, the game echoes the devolution of the Tom Clancy brand itself, which once dealt in complex geopolitical entanglements before turning to a modern-day fetishization of guns and violent, paramilitary engagement.

There’s depth to The Division 2, but it’s evident only in its systems: the looter-shooter gameplay, the cover and co-op mechanics, and the min-maxing of equipment. The story is just the window dressing, a fact that becomes almost painfully obvious during a mission that takes place in a fictionalized version of the National Museum of American History. Here, players non-ironically fight their way through an ambush that takes place in a Vietnam War exhibit. There’s no consideration given to that historical conflict, just as there’s no deeper significance given to any of the battles in The Division 2. For the game, a war is especially “cool” to fight if it gets to play out within a memorial to a past one. But that drive to simplify history is at least consistent with the way the game doles out its McGuffins: Location aside, there’s no difference between retrieving batteries from a big-box retail store’s warehouse than there is from recovering the Declaration of Independence from the hallowed National Archives.

Whether or not the player notices the interchangeability of its objectives, The Division 2 still works like gangbusters, and in no small part because there’s an iron curtain between the various components of the game. Each mission is pretty much its own self-contained vignette, which leaves players free to tackle them in a nonlinear order, a choice enhanced by the way The Division 2 scales a party to the relative strength of the highest geared player. Without having to focus on the big picture, players can take in all the little ones. And the effect is almost liberating, like taking a vacation in D.C., albeit a run-down, war-torn version of D.C. in which you may have to save a bunch of hostages from the Lincoln Memorial’s Reflecting Pool before using the selfie emote, or might have to disrupt an enemy convoy before getting to kick back in a quaint Foggy Bottom house with a terrific view of the Potomac.

The Division 2 doesn’t rely on narrative reasons to entice the player, leaning instead on endorphin-releasing gameplay hooks. And the best one is saved for last, with a fourth enemy faction—the Black Tusk private militia—showing up after players “beat” the game, which allows previously completed areas to be recycled with new objectives and enemy archetypes. There’s a “final” showdown that players can unlock against these enigmatic elites, but because the game isn’t driven by plot, this ends up being just another step on the loot treadmill, this time opening up access to exotic-tier weapons. Instead of revealing a deeper story, the game keeps unlocking deeper customization options, with a shift from merely collecting weapons and upgrading skills to crafting and tacking on modifiers for that gear and then choosing one of three specialization skill trees that reward long-range, explosive, and support classes.

Though there’s a less-defined storyline in The Division 2 than there was in its predecessor, every other nuance has been refined to keep players engaged in the post-game. It’s easy to jump into a quick bounty hunt, or to matchmake for higher-difficulty replays of the side, main, and stronghold missions, depending on how much time you have. The addition of clans provide a peer-pressuring incentive to keep logging on to work toward communal goals, and the splitting of the Dark Zone into three distinct areas is a smart way to cater both to PvP and PvE communities. Ultimately, whether you’re playing to take in the detailed Washington, D.C. scenery or simply to cause a scene, the game is optimally balanced to keep you hooked.

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

Developer: Massive Entertainment Publisher: Ubisoft Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: March 15, 2019 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood, Drug Reference, Intense Violence, Strong Language Buy: Game

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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

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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

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Review: Todd Haynes’s Far from Heaven on Kino Lorber Blu-ray

Kino Lorber’s release marks the long-overdue arrival of Todd Haynes’s ravishing melodrama on Blu-ray.

4

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Far from Heaven

In Douglas Sirk’s 1955 masterpiece All That Heaven Allows, a middle-aged widow incurs the wrath of a small town when she falls in love with her young gardener. She sacrifices love for a community’s acceptance only to realize, perhaps too late, that she’s made the wrong decision. The film’s title not only refers to her upper-middle-class milieu and its grueling demands, but also to the widow’s own personal allowances. In Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, Rainer Werner Fassbinder reworked All That Heaven Allows but introduced race and the ideology of a working-class Germany into the equation. Now, in Far from Heaven, writer-director Todd Haynes goes one step further by adding the element of sexuality.

The film opens with a dissolve between a painting of a tree branch and its real-life representation, a flourish that immediately calls attention to the mechanism at work in this melodrama. Haynes is fascinated with the thin lines that separate the world from an idealized version of reality and the paths of resistance that lie therein. At an art exhibition, Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore) bumps into her African-American gardener, Raymond Deagan (Dennis Haysbert), who teaches her to interpret the Picassos and Mirós that hang on the walls and observes how modern art has pared religious art down to simple shapes and colors. Again, Haynes calls attention to the expressive elements at work in this magnificent experiment, the “smoke and mirrors” of a mise-en-scène that demand decodification.

Cathy, a mother of two, is married to a successful businessman, Frank (Dennis Quaid), who works for Magnatech, a powerful television sales company. (In All That Heaven Allows, television was used to keep women occupied and, therefore, out of trouble.) Cathy and Frank are referred to as “Mr. and Mrs. Magnatech,” no doubt because they embody everything that’s seemingly “perfect” about upper-middle-class suburbia. A Weekly Gazette reporter (Bette Henritze) does a story on Cathy because “behind every great man there’s a great woman,” and after the article causes a stir for claiming that Cathy is “kind to the Negroes,” her best friend, Eleonor Fine (Patricia Clarkson), covers for her, saying that she’s been called a “red” ever since “she played summer stock with all those steamy Jewish boys.” Society extols her even as they recognize that she may be a loose cannon. She may not be able to distinguish a fake Rembrandt from the real thing but she can appreciate Picassos.

Cathy’s willingness to understand others isn’t only implied by her support for the NAACP and her kindness to Raymond but in her willingness to forgive Frank after she catches him cheating on her with another man. “I know it’s bad because it makes me feel despicable,” says Frank to his psychologist (James Rebhorn). He looks to cure his “disease” just as Cathy looks to fix her husband before the world outside begins to notice that their lives are far from perfect. Indeed, when Frank accidentally strikes Cathy, it’s only natural that she hides her bruises from everyone around her. Haynes understands how women like Cathy were financially dependent on men, reduced to supporting players in their husbands’ lives. What he understands more, however, is how these women were forced to keep up appearances.

Far from Heaven is set in Hartford, Connecticut in 1957, the social realities and political upheavals of which are buried beneath a rich tapestry of signs. Haynes’s remarkable use of mirrors emphasizes the emotional distance between characters and the sad way they avoid confrontation. For Christmas, Cathy gives Frank a box full of vacation brochures, and front and center is a pamphlet extolling Cuba’s beauty. Not only was 1957 the height of Fidel Castro’s war against Fulgencio Batista, but it was also the year of the Little Rock school desegregation scandal. Haynes repeatedly frames Frank next to elaborate Eames-era light fixtures and, in one scene, implies that he broke a lamp in his office during a fit of rage and hid the broken pieces inside, yes, a closet. Cathy and Frank don’t go to Cuba, instead opting to travel to Miami, this in spite the prevalence of pink in the city’s architecture.

Elmer Bernstein’s score punctuates key moments with expert precision, complementing the tone of the characters’ voices and the traumas written on their faces. When Frank enters an underground gay bar, Edward Lachman’s camera evokes the character’s fear with a splash of menacing greens and muted reds. More remarkable, though, is how the film seemingly loses its color when things begin to go wrong for Cathy. Haynes seemingly suggests that there’s no need for labels (gay and straight, black and white, inside and outside) if people are willing to listen to others. Cathy is drawn to Frank not because of his race or because of her own sense of not-being, but because he’s willing to listen to her voice. Here is a film of great humanism that applies as much to the ‘50s as it does to the world today and everyone who inhabits it. Standing before a painting by Jean Miró, Frank and Cathy grow closer together. The name of the painting? The Beautiful Bird Revealing the Unknown to a Pair of Lovers. And so the film’s final shot evokes not only changing season, but hopefully also a changing cultural tide.

Image/Sound

The almost too-perfect colors of Ed Lachman’s cinematography absolutely pop on this release, rendering all those deep, moody periwinkles and rusty, autumnal oranges with a fidelity and grace that neither mutes the emotional force of the film’s heightened Technicolor-inspired artificiality nor exaggerates its vibrancy into garish excess. The disc’s sound, provided in DTS-HD 2.0 and 5.1 audio tracks, is similarly well-balanced, handling both the film’s subdued dialogue and Elmer Bernstein’s emotionally complex score with equal integrity.

Extras

There’s nothing new here, but the extras carried over from the film’s initial DVD release are solid. The highlight of these is undoubtedly the audio commentary by Todd Haynes, who provides a steady diet of anecdotes, technical insights, and essay-like analysis, often focusing on the film’s relationship to the work of Douglas Sirk and Rainer Fassbinder. One of the more cerebral directors of his era, Haynes often comes off less like a filmmaker commenting on his own creation than a critic interpreting a text. That same cerebral auto-analysis is on display in a well-produced half-hour documentary, originally made for the Sundance Channel, that dissects the film’s pivotal party scene, offering brief but incisive tidbits about the sequence’s editing, cinematography, production design, and more. The rest of the extras, however, are purely perfunctory: a trailer, a brief clip from a panel discussion with Haynes and Julianne Moore, and a by-the-book making-of featurette.

Overall

Kino Lorber’s release marks the long-overdue arrival of this ravishing melodrama on Blu-ray, and thanks to its vibrant audio-visual presentation, the wait was more than worth it.

Cast: Julianne Moore, Dennis Quaid, Dennis Haysbert, Patricia Clarkson, Viola Davis, James Rebhorn, Celia Weston, Bette Henritze Director: Todd Haynes Screenwriter: Todd Haynes Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 118 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2002 Release Date: March 19, 2019 Buy: Video, Soundtrack

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Review: Riccardo Freda’s The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire on Arrow Video Blu-ray

With this noteworthy release, Arrow Video’s devotion to vigorously excavating lesser-known gialli continues unabated.

4.5

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The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire

Dario Argento is consistently deemed the preeminent giallo maestro by critics and fans alike because of how his films blend mystery and obsession into an irresistible concoction. In The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Deep Red, the gonzo plunge into the unknown doesn’t forsake the basic mechanics of plot and characterization. Yet the Argento-centric focus in giallo criticism and scholarship has effectively shortchanged the spectrum of diverse approaches to the genre, many of which seem to adopt incoherence as an almost philosophical aim. Whether The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire embraces narrative confusion by daftness or design, Ricardo Freda’s film nevertheless possesses a propulsive energy that gradually makes coherence an insignificant, even undesirable feature.

The film begins on a strange note, with wide shots of a motorcyclist making his way through Dublin. The Irish setting is random and nearly irrelevant to the subsequent story of a Swiss ambassador, Sobiesky (Anton Diffring), and his family being tormented by an unknown killer, but it does pave the way for some stunning footage shot near the Cliffs of Moher, where the ambassador’s daughter, Helen (Dagmar Lassander), flirts with John Norton (Luigi Pistilli), a detective in pursuit of the assailant. The film finds little meaningful activity for its characters to engage in amid this and other vistas, like the snow-covered ski slopes of Zurich in a later scene, besides moseying about. As sequences essential to developing the film’s themes or ideas, they’re practically useless, but as widescreen landscape footage, they’re magnificent.

The dissonance between story and image defines The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire, and sometimes in contrasting ways depending on the scene. The core of the film’s criminal investigation involves a plethora of suspects and possible motivations being discussed within the sparse confines of a police station. While Inspector Lawrence (Arthur O’Sullivan) is established in early scenes as the lead investigative figure in several interrogations of possible suspects, he’s gradually supplanted by Norton, whose own family becomes one of the killer’s targets. The switch plays less like a calculated shift of the audience’s expectations than an indication of Freda’s investment in the potential jolt of individual set pieces; in short, since Norton’s vulnerable mother and daughter make easy targets, the film uses their assault as the climax, pitting Norton face-to-face with the murderer.

That the killer’s identity is almost impossible to surmise becomes part of the broader absurdist tone that feeds into Freda’s knack for composing striking images amid so much narrative chaos. There’s a sense that Brian De Palma was influenced by The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire, as Dressed to Kill similarly blends reality and dreams to memorable visual effect; there’s also the matter of the killer in both films wearing the same clothes and using the same murder weapon. But whereas Freda funneled his story into the cinematic equivalent of a lottery machine, De Palma makes guessing his killer’s identity a cinch, prompting us to truly wrestle with the implications of Dressed to Kill’s psychosexual and oneiric imagery.

The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire demonstrates how the different shades of the giallo genre, made in Italy and beyond, require variable critical orientations for identifying their aims. If one assumes that Argento’s genre model is the supreme and only approach to the giallo, then other, less logically inclined filmmakers like Freda or Massimo Dallamano, risk being marginalized or, worse, lopped from the canon entirely.

Image/Sound

Struck from the original 35mm camera negative, this transfer marks the film’s first appearance on North American home video and should be cause for celebration. Particularly striking are the incredible on-location scenes in Ireland: The saturated greens and browns of the Cliffs of Moher are fully discernible, while Zurich’s snow-covered ski slopes shimmer with vitality. There are only minimal signs of image damage, including slight scratches and debris, throughout the film. The monaural soundtrack sounds clean and comes in both Italian and English versions. It’s a release like this, of a film that seemed to have been relegated to eternal damnation on VHS or low-grade streams, that calls for terms like “renaissance” in reference to the spectrum of giallo titles being made available in HD by Arrow Video.

Extras

Among the plethora of extras on this disc, most noteworthy is the audio commentary by film critics Adrian J. Smith and David Flint. Simultaneously playful and informative, Smith and Flint oscillate between providing historical information about The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire and their own personal takes on the film. A notable highlight of this commentary includes the revelation that, despite the credits citing a novel as the film’s source material, there was no such book; the claim was made in an effort to lend legitimacy to the production.

An interview with film scholar Richard Dyer provides a remarkably lucid explanation of the film’s themes and shortcomings. Dyer differentiates between the narrative details that provide the viewer with food for thought and those that are so thinly sketched or convoluted that even he can’t follow their logic. Elsewhere, DJ Lovely Jon gives an appreciation of composer Stelvio Cipriani, which is similar to but distinct enough from his words about the music of ‘70s Italian cult cinema on Arrow’s release of The Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion. Also included are interviews with actress Dagmar Lassander and assistant editor Bruno Micheli, the film’s original and international theatrical trailers, a virtual copy of the film’s original photo novel published in 1971, an image gallery, and a booklet containing an essay by film historian Andreas Ehrenreich on the film’s creation from pre-production to post.

Overall

With this noteworthy release of Riccardo Freda’s 1971 film, Arrow Video’s devotion to vigorously excavating lesser-known gialli continues unabated.

Cast: Dagmar Lassander, Anton Diffring, Luigi Pistilli, Arthur O’Sullivan, Werner Pochath, Dominique Boschero, Renato Romano, Valentina Cortese, Ruth Durley Director: Riccardo Freda Screenwriter: Riccardo Freda, Sandro Continenza, Günter Ebert, André Tranché Distributor: Arrow Video Running Time: 96 min Rating: NR Year: 1971 Release Date: April 9, 2019 Buy: Video

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Review: Clint Eastwood’s The Mule on Warner Bros. Blu-ray

There are no real supplements on this disc, but Eastwood’s eccentric and moving film speaks quite well for itself.

3.5

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The Mule

Clint Eastwood’s The Mule doesn’t move like many contemporary American films, especially those in the crime genre. Crime cinema is often pumped up on machismo, with breakneck action sequences and tough and derivative dialogue. Meanwhile, other genres—superhero films, musicals, horror films, politically motivated biopics, animated fantasies—are often tethered to so rigid a narrative structure that they lack the emotional contemplation and sense of being-ness that drove, say, the best of the westerns that Hollywood produced when Eastwood professionally came of age. In this wearying paint-by-numbers context, The Mule is bracingly warm and eccentric, with a wandering tempo that refutes the overstimulated hyperventilation of pop culture. The very pace of Eastwood’s new film is inherently political.

As actor and director, Eastwood is intensely in sync with the rhythms of Earl Stone, a 90-year-old horticulturalist who winds up smuggling cocaine for the Sinaloa cartel up from El Paso into Chicago, once his flower business falls apart due to competition from online corporations. Quite a bit of the film is devoted to watching Earl as he drives the countryside or bullshits with people, with time passing via intertitles and elegant fades and ellipses that communicate liberation and sadness. Earl is a cheeky old man who feels that he’s earned the right to do whatever he pleases, whether it’s savoring our country’s gorgeous landscapes, slowing down a drug delivery so he can savor the “best pulled pork sandwich in the Midwest,” or soliciting a threesome with prostitutes a fraction of his age. Along the way, Earl speaks to cartel members in fashions that could get him killed, and his shamelessness earns their and our respect.

Your average director might have used Earl’s vigor and personality to spice up a suspense narrative, but the old man’s devotion to screwing around is the very subject of The Mule. Enjoyable details—Earl listening to oldies on the radio, pulling into rest stops for a snack, and even bantering with members of the cartel—allow Eastwood’s complicated political ideology to come into focus with understated ease. Currently Hollywood’s most iconic conservative filmmaker, Eastwood revels in Earl’s sense of self—in his implicit ability to refute modern self-censorship with his racist humor and politically incorrect sexual indulgences, which in this film often suggest a clearing of repressed air. Eastwood celebrates Earl as a refutation of our current culture, in which we police everything we say and do out of perpetual fear of causing offense, and in which art is often celebrated merely for parroting liberal platitudes back to critics who’re understandably enraged by the current government. Earl’s staunch resistance to these trends, embodied by his resentment of cellphones, render him an alternately baffling, pitiful, and exhilarating figure to younger people—white, of color, straight and queer alike—who’re used to playing by the modern rules of the game.

Yet this conservative filmmaker is also deeply attached to community, understanding that our direct and personal connections keep us healthy and human. Eastwood reveres the sorts of institutions that Republicans usually can’t wait to defund, and this conflict between a fetishizing of self and a yearning for community often animates his films, most recently Sully and The 15:17 to Paris. Eastwood, then, is conflicted in similar fashions as America itself. This is a place built on oppression that has fostered the intoxicating, maddeningly elusive possibility of freedom, a possibility that’s somehow both represented and refuted in microcosm by Earl’s hedonism and willingness, in his own antiquated, occasionally embarrassing way, to meet people of all sorts on their terms. One of The Mule’s most moving and telling narrative detours shows Earl using some of his drug money to save the local V.F.W., which is expressed by a joyous dance scene that suggests the ideal of our society.

Eastwood and screenwriter Nick Schenk also understand Earl’s sense of self to be selfishness—a privilege that’s not available to all Americans, some of whom pay a price for Earl’s revelry (such as his family, one of whom is played, in a suggestively autobiographical touch, by Eastwood’s daughter, Alison Eastwood). Not everyone can do whatever they like on the highways of America. In a tense and heartbreaking scene, the D.E.A. agents searching for Earl, led by Agent Colin Bates (Bradley Cooper), pull over a Hispanic man. Terrified of being killed by police, this man telegraphs his obedience with haunting and resonant steadfastness, which Eastwood plays for pitch-black comedy that never fails to shortchange the man’s fear. And this sequence has a wicked and subtle punchline: As the man returns to his truck unscathed, a tractor trailer roars by the highway in the background, causing the audience to wonder if it’s carrying drugs right under everyone’s noses, just like Earl does.

Many critics took The Mule for granted as an offhand bauble, the sort of thing Eastwood can knock off whenever he likes. But Eastwood’s casualness here, as both actor and director, represents an aesthetic apotheosis—a realization of a tone that he’s been trying to conjure off and on for decades. The heaviness of Eastwood films that were taken more seriously by audiences, such as Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby, is almost entirely absent from The Mule, as Eastwood sustains here a lightness of being—a sensuality—that contains multitudes of emotional, personal, and political textures. The film is a poem of an America that never quite was, an America that haunts the dreams of people of all political affiliations, especially as we move further into a corporatized, artificially connected and manipulated monoculture that, incidentally, doesn’t favor atmospheric character studies like The Mule. When Colin captures Earl, Eastwood frames himself in shadowy profile as Earl’s placed in a police car. This portrait of a legend’s face against a doorframe, ruing lost time, ruing the promises that he and his country failed to keep, is worthy of the final shot of John Ford’s The Searchers.

Image/Sound

As with many of Clint Eastwood’s recent productions, The Mule favors muted colors, abounding in blacks and blues throughout its interior scenes, which are contrasted here with the bright craggy landscapes of New Mexico. The colors are rich and well-varied in this transfer, and the settings boast a good amount of detail, per the tradition of Warner Bros.’s often superb presentations of Eastwood’s films. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack isn’t a show pony, as this is a film composed often of alternating silence and dialogue. That said, those elements are handled perfectly well here. The score and various sound effects—gun shots, cars screeching—also boast appropriate bass and body, the latter of which effectively startles the film’s often quiet soundscape.

Extras

A 10-minute making-of supplement is a traditional promotional puff piece, though one interesting detail emerges: Eastwood’s character in The Mule wears clothing worn by the protagonists he played in True Crime and Gran Torino, among others, giving the film a subliminal autumnal texture. A music video for Toby Keith’s soundtrack song, “Don’t Let the Old Man In,” rounds out a virtually nonexistent supplements package.

Overall

Though there are no real supplements on this Warner Bros. disc, Clint Eastwood’s eccentric and moving The Mule speaks quite well for itself.

Cast: Clint Eastwood, Bradley Cooper, Taissa Farmiga, Michael Peña, Alison Eastwood, Andy Garcia, Laurence Fishburne, Dianne Wiest, Manny Montana, Robert LaSordo, Jill Flint Director: Clint Eastwood Screenwriter: Nick Schenk Distributor: Warner Bros. Home Entertainment Running Time: 116 min Rating: R Year: 2018 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice on the Criterion Collection

Criterion’s release breathes new life into a self-appraising late period work that’s a lavish and lugubrious meditation on art and death.

4.5

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Death in Venice

Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice opens with a steamer approaching Venice, the strings of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony gorgeously throbbing on the soundtrack. This opening suggests the Italian city as an entry of romanticized escape for Gustave von Aschenbach (Dirk Bogarde), a reserved German composer on sabbatical, but then the sequence’s staid rhythm is abruptly dispelled by a blast from the boat’s steam engine, as if to hint at all the scorching filth that underlies Venice’s hyperbolic beauty. Throughout the film, Aschenbach’s vacation getaway will devolve into a ruinously obsessive journey, as he becomes captivated by the beauty he’s spent a career idealizing, manifested in a 14-year-old Polish boy. And this while Venice, cosmopolitan center for European art and culture, falls prey to a hazardous cholera epidemic.

We intuit that Aschenbach has retreated from his native Germany after a hostile reception to the premiere of a new composition. Doctors recommend a long period of complete rest, and he ventures to the south alone. In Venice, Aschenbach’s noble pretenses are undermined almost right away by grotesque encounters with a made-up dandy and a nefarious gondolier. He isn’t met with the deference he’s used to receiving, but with recalcitrant mockery. In this way, Death in Venice has deep connective tissue to Visconti’s The Leopard, wherein the aristocracy of Old Europe comes to grips with its collapse. Here, Aschenbach feels like a vestige of that class of European: a 19th-century ghost who hasn’t realized his obsolescence.

Through flashbacks, the audience learns that Aschenbach’s music is committed to ideals of beauty. Whereas Alfred (Mark Burns), his friend and colleague, preaches of the triumph of the senses and the significance of ambiguity in art, Aschenbach believes that art should uphold the dignity of humanity. For him, the nobility of beauty and intellect triumphs over our rudderless senses. Yet just as disease grips Venice, Aschenbach’s sensorial enthrallment overtakes his sense of reason. He settles into his hotel, and as Visconti’s camera—doubling for Aschenbach’s gaze—spends several minutes canvassing the dense dining hall, our main character’s languor and detachment is impressed upon us.

It’s then that an aristocratic Polish family passes before Aschenbach and the man is instantly taken with the beautiful Tadzio (Björn Andrésen). Even when the boy looks back at Aschenbach with an ambiguous smile, there’s a subtle sense that the boy’s preternatural glance has been constructed in the composer’s head. In one scene, Aschenbach spies Tadzio playing the piano, only for Visconti to then reveal that the boy isn’t there at all. At first, this kindling infatuation within Aschenbach is exciting for him, then frustrating, and eventually infuriating. And Death in Venice aesthetically complements Aschenbach’s unraveling: Visconti’s stylistic approach remains staid and evenly controlled in its presentation, yet the stready progression of flashbacks offers more questions than resolutions, plying the story with the kinds of ambiguities a conservative artist like Aschenbach disdains, suggesting that he’s being destroyed as if by a contagion carving its way through him.

Throughout, Tadzio’s perfection contrasts with Aschenbach’s loss of control. In The Leopard’s famous ball sequence, the noble patrons maintained their grace despite being so sweat-stained. But in Death in Venice, the sphinx of Old Europe has fully eroded. Aschenbach even attempts to remake himself in a barber’s shop as a younger man, blackening his graying hair and reddening his cheeks. “And now the signore may fall in love as he wishes,” the barber says, and yet as the cosmetically redrawn Aschenbach wanders through the stench of an ostensibly desolate wasteland, he embodies a ridiculous (and futile) retort to time.

Death in Venice is based on a 1911 novella by Thomas Mann, who often connected themes of disease and erotic enthrallment. For his adaptation, Visconti reached beyond his source material and incorporates elements from Mann’s 1947 novel Doctor Faustus, wherein Germany’s abandonment of reason to tribal barbarism becomes analogous to an artist’s pact with the devil for acquiring genius. In that novel, composer Adrian Leverkühn’s means of sealing this deal is by visiting a prostitute who infects him with syphilis, a slow-moving contamination that isolates his body and mind just as it destroys them (the scenario is based on an apocryphal story about the philosopher Friederich Nietzsche, whose work influenced so much of the trajectory of thought in the coming century). With haunting precision and muted sexual ferocity, Visconti stages the brothel scene from Doctor Faustus as a flashback, as Aschenbach—in place of Leverkühn—visits the prostitute Esmeralda (Carole André).

This flashback connects to Aschenbach’s infatuation with Tadzio, as both Esmeralda and Tadzio are spotted playing Beethoven’s “Für Elise” on a piano. It’s not clear if Visconti’s Aschenbach, like Leverkühn in Doctor Faustus, acquired syphilis from Esmeralda. But in connecting Tadzio and Esmeralda, Visconti implies Aschenbach’s metamorphosis from a dignified disposition to some irrational urge for destabilization (Esmeralda is also the name of the ship that carries him to Venice). The film is constructed of long camera setups with impeccably calibrated zooms to capture Old Europe’s denizens marching through crowded frames, conveying the hold of a master filmmaker in his twilight years over the action. Yet thrashing beneath that control, the film is submerged in ambiguities and incongruencies.

In his 1943 novel Joseph and His Brothers, Mann—in exile from Nazi Germany—wrote, “Do not assume the human being’s deepest concern is for peace, tranquility, the preservation of the carefully erected structure of his life from shattering and collapse. Too much evidence goes to show that he is headed straight toward ecstasy and ruin—and thanks nobody who holds him back.” True to Mann, Visconti’s Death in Venice details the self-evisceration of an individual’s—and nation’s—proud ideals. Not reconciling such ideals with the demonic is a grave error. The dying Aschenbach spies Tadzio in the sun kissed Adriatic, unable or unwilling to see the specter of fascism and two World Wars over the horizon.

Image/Sound

The only version of Death in Venice available to most viewers since 2004 was the Warner Home Video DVD, which offered a patchy transfer worthy of Aschenbach’s own corporeal entropy. Comparatively, Criterion’s release, which comes from a new 4K digital restoration, is akin to Tadzio himself. Throughout, the colors are newly, vibrantly saturated, allowing the widescreen compositions to shimmer in ways they haven’t since, surely, the film’s original theatrical release. There’s also an exceptional clarity to the spectrum of skin tones, from Aschenbach’s deathly pallor to Tadzio’s youthful, full-blooded beauty. Another drawback of the old DVD was its often unintelligible dialogue, as well as how it made the wall-to-wall Mahler compositions sound like they were pulled from a secondhand recording. Criterion’s uncompressed monaural soundtrack breathes new life into the film’s corpse, as it were, with the sound effects (such as the oars brushing through Venice’s ravines) boasting a profound crispness. The dialogue is perfectly intelligible and the dubbing—however flagrant—never strident. Mahler’s strings don’t blare out so much as sweep in smoothly like a tide.

Extras

The most informative extra here features literary and cinema scholar Stefano Albertini, who digs deep into the genesis and themes of the film, in particular its place in Visconti’s “German trilogy” alongside The Damned and Ludwig and the director’s lifelong adoration of Thomas Mann. A 1971 short film by Visconti documents his continent-wide search for a boy to play Tadzio. When we see Björn Andrésen being auditioned in Helsinki, it’s obvious that he’s the stand-out, but even Visconti admits the boy—too tall and too old—isn’t at all perfect (the process will probably touch a disturbing third rail for viewers, given how this search relates to the story of erotic attachment for a child just broaching pubescence).

The grandest extra, though, is an hour-long TV documentary about Visconti’s life and work titled Visconti: Life as in a Novel. It doesn’t offer anything in particular that will be new to the filmmaker’s more ardent fans, but it features engrossing interviews with some of Visconti’s more notable collaborators, such as Burt Lancaster, Marcello Mastroianni, Claudia Cardinale, and Silvana Mangano. There are also excerpts from a 2006 interview with Piero Tosi, whose journey with Visconti went from working as a lowly design assistant—who could only talk to the filmmaker through intermediaries—to finally graduating to the role of costume designer on several of Visconti’s later films, including Death in Venice.

A brief 1971 film festival interview with Visconti is of interest in how the aging director admits he doesn’t understand the new generation of filmmakers. Ported over from the Warner DVD is Visconti’s Venice, a rather ho-hum behind-the-scenes documentary filmed during Death in Venice’s production. Finally, the disc’s accompanying essay, “Ruinous Infatuation” by Dennis Lim, is a rewarding encapsulation of the film as a work of adaptation and how Visconti tackles the challenge of a turning a novella rife with metaphor and symbols into something tactile.

Overall

Criterion’s release breathes new life into a self-appraising late period work that’s a lavish and lugubrious meditation on art and death.

Cast: Dirk Bogarde, Björn Andrésen, Romolo Valli, Mark Burns, Nora Ricci, Marisa Berenson, Carole André, Silvana Mangano. Director: Luchino Visconti Screenwriter: Luchino Visconti, Nicola Badalucco Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 131 min Rating: NR Year: 1971 Release Date: February 19, 2019 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: Carlos Reygadas’s Japón on the Criterion Collection

Criterion has graced us with an intoxicatingly beautiful release of a strange and challenging film.

4

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Japón

It’s unlikely that Susan Sontag ever saw Carlos Reygadas’s debut feature, Japón, which made the festival rounds just a couple of years before the writer’s death in 2004, but if she had, she might well have recognized in the young Mexican auteur a kindred spirit—an artist whose work achieves (or at least attempts to achieve) what Sontag identified in her classic 1964 essay “Against Interpretation” as the mark of all good films: “a directness that entirely frees us from the itch to interpret.” Because while Japón is rife with religious iconography, socio-political observations, and heady filmic allusions, it never seems to be saying something (a pejorative phrase for Sontag) about Christianity, Mexican society, or cinema itself.

An unnamed traveler (Alejandro Ferretis) journeys to a remote village to commit suicide, only to find himself strangely absorbed in the life of an elderly woman, Ascen (Magdalena Flores), with whom he stays. It’s a simple story that Reygadas approaches with a sense of wonder that borders on naïveté. Far less concerned with what his film says than in how it sees, Reygadas attempts nothing less than to recapture for the audience the feeling of perceiving the world for the first time. Shooting in a highly unusual 16-mm Cinemascope format, Reygadas expands our field of vision with the super-widescreen aspect ratio while at the same time reminding us of the limits of our perception by rounding off the corners of the image, which places the entire film in a subtle frame. The breathtaking vistas of the valley where most of Japón takes place takes on an eerie and disorienting aura when viewed through the grainy textures and washed-out color palette of Reygadas’s low-budget film stock.

Japón begins in the city, with a strangely unsettling montage of shots filmed from a vehicle moving through traffic, tunnels, and fog, all set to an ominous orchestral score. This opening exudes a tantalizing sci-fi vibe, a feeling of uncanniness that carries through to the rest of the film as Ferretis’s character treks across the countryside, a stranger in a strange land. His first action out here in the wilderness is simultaneously brutal and magical: He decapitates a bird with his bare hands, after which its head lies on the ground, continuing to caw. It won’t be the last instance of shocking, senseless violence the film will expose us to.

As in his later work, Reygadas isn’t particularly concerned with constructing a narrative or probing his characters’ psychology. Rather, he cycles through various narrative modes; at times we seem to be watching a parable-like tale of suicide in the vein of Abbas Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry, at others an absurd, darkly comic journey like that of K. in Kafka’s The Castle, and at others a brutal, Herzogian struggle against the elements. Similarly, the behavior of the characters can often seem as arbitrary as the narrative curlicues, even downright weird. Why does Ferretis’s character want to kill himself? Why does he later propose to Ascen, out of the blue, that they have sex? And why does she accept? Not only are these questions left unanswered, but even to ask them feels somehow beside the point. Reygadas asks us not to analyze particular actions, but to feel them in all their elemental strangeness.

Not that everything in Japón is successful in attaining this feeling, as the ambling narrative pace can at times come off as pointless, and Reygadas’s long takes can sometimes seem like little more than patience-testing provocations. The overall effect of the film, however, is one of metaphysical intoxication, a kind of heady gratification brought on by the beauty of Reygadas’s images and the sheer eccentricity of the world the film conjures. In the film’s most memorable sequence, Reygadas depicts with impenitent matter-of-factness his main characters having sex. The filmmaker isn’t trying to turn us on, nor is he attempting to shock us with the unvarnished sight of two older people’s starkly naked forms. Rather, the scene provides the natural culmination of the main character’s journey. His is a quest for higher meaning that inexorably leads back to the base satisfaction of his animal urges.

Image/Sound

The new 2K digital restoration of Japón, supervised by Carlos Reygadas, honors the film’s strange, intoxicating imagery. Despite some small but noticeable image shuddering during a few of the film’s panning shots, it’s safe to say that Reygadas’s film hasn’t looked this good since its initial theatrical rollout. This release preserves the film’s muted yet striking color palette and the gorgeous granularity of its unique 16-mm Cinemascope cinematography. The DTS-HD Master Audio surround soundtrack which highlights the rich sonic environment of the film, from the remarkable subtleties of wind and animal sounds to spectacularly rich music cues from the likes of Bach and Arvo Pärt. This meticulous preservation effort makes a case for Japón as one of the most visually singular debut features of the 21st century.

Extras

The disc’s most notable feature is a conversation between Reygadas and filmmaker Amat Escalante that goes deep into the former’s creative process, influences, and biography. The interview provides a particularly incisive look at Reygadas’s use of storyboards, some of which are also reproduced in the release’s attractive full-color booklet along with production photos and a high-spirited essay by novelist Valeria Luiselli. Also included is Adulte, a Deren-esque short made by Reygadas as a way of teaching himself filmmaking, as well as a deleted scene, a trailer, and a video diary of the production shot by lead actor Alejandro Ferretis. It’s a rich assortment of supplementary materials that provides useful background on Reygadas’s creative methods without attempting to provide any answers to the film’s mysteries.

Overall

In restoring Japón to its original glory, the Criterion Collection has graced us with an intoxicatingly beautiful release of a strange and challenging film.

Cast: Alejandro Ferretis, Magdalena Flores, Yolanda Villa, Martín Serrano, Rolando Hernández, Bernabe Pérez, Fernando Benítez Director: Carlos Reygadas Screenwriter: Carlos Reygadas Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 134 min Rating: R Year: 2002 Release Date: March 26, 2019 Buy: Video

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Review: Kogonada’s Columbus on Oscilloscope Laboratories Blu-ray

Kogonada’s elegant and moving narrative debut has been outfitted with a lovely transfer that will hopefully expose the film to new audiences.

4

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Columbus

Early in Kogonada’s Columbus, Casey (Haley Lu Richardson) and an unnamed co-worker (Rory Culkin) discuss the notion of attention bias. When people prefer video games to reading, the co-worker says, they’re often said to have a short attention span, even if they’re concentrating on video games for hours at a time. However, a reader who’s unable to engage with video games is unlikely to weather the same criticism. Casey and her co-worker are both bookish young people, intellectuals in the making, who clearly favor reading over most anything else. But Culkin’s character raises an evocative and perhaps alarming point, challenging the tendency of readers and other connoisseurs of art to believe that their interests render them better people and are superior to other people’s pursuits. Is art another evasion for the introvert? The co-worker asks Casey, “Are we losing interest in everyday life?”

It might not occur to the audience until much later in the film that the co-worker is telling Casey that he’s in love with her, asking this guarded and intelligent young woman to truly see the person facing her every day among the comforting cavernousness of the library. This conflict would be enough for a good film, but Kogonada, who challenges every potential platitude that he uncovers, allows us to see that the co-worker also gently and almost imperceptibly retreats from Casey when she opens up to him.

Columbus is invested with the empathy, curiosity, and attention to detail that drive the video essays that Kogonada has produced for the Criterion Collection and Sight & Sound, among other places. A key to the film resides in a question that Kogonada posed in his extraordinary analysis of the work of director Hirokazu Kore-eda: “Does cinema offer escape from this world? Or deeper entrance?” These concerns implicitly fuel the co-worker’s occupation with attention bias, and they elucidate Casey’s obsession with the modernist architecture in their hometown of Columbus, Indiana. Art heightens a connection to the world, nurturing a sensitivity and an awareness of one’s surroundings, but it can quickly become an introvert’s crutch, providing an illusion of a life lived in full, rather than as an existence devoted to collecting and analyzing the ghosts of other artists’ dreams.

Kogonada surveys the town’s architecture with the exacting, worshipful eye that he’s brought to analyzing the cinema of his heroes, and it’s impossible not to wonder if Casey’s awakening—her discovery of her right to live her own life and to create her own art—is representative of Kogonada’s own drive to create. Like his video essays, Columbus is intensely occupied with the ways in which the space and symmetry of images reveal character and emotion.

As Culkin’s character discusses attention bias, our gaze is drawn to the square pattern in the library’s ceiling, which suggests a kind of cubist green quilt with lights housed in each geometric structure—the sort of wonderful texture that the co-worker feels they may be missing. A little later, Casey observes that a church has been designed with a deliberate sense of asymmetry, yet its total effect is one of balance. Every image is rich in striking, supple through lines and prisms, which are often made asymmetrical by the placing of human characters in the frame, celebrating the unlikely wealth of art that abounds in this town, capable of being beholden by citizens of all walks of life, as well as the distance from life that art can both obfuscate and crystallize.

Kogonada doesn’t fall for the false dichotomy between intelligence and emotion that frequently mars American culture, understanding that—for people such as Casey, her co-worker, and a visiting Korean book translator, Jin (John Cho)—intelligence is emotion, as well as a code of morality. Casey and Jin meet and engage in an erudite courtship that’s nearly unprecedented in American cinema, which Richardson and Cho perform with a lucid and magnificently poignant sense of control. The seeming miracle of Columbus is its mixture of formal precision with a philosophical grasp of human mystery, which recalls the work of Kogonada heroes such as Hitchcock, Tarkovsky, and Antonioni. Until the ending, Casey and Jin are often refracted through mirrors and other surfaces when they risk revealing too much of their pain and desire, suggesting their urge to efface themselves with their interests and blend into the nesting designs that comprise the grand patterns of life.

A relationship between symmetry and asymmetry governs the images as well as the narrative structure. Jin’s emotionally trapped by estrangement from his ailing father while Casey is, by contrast, suppressed by her devotion to her recovering meth-addicted mother (Michelle Forbes), which she uses as a front for her intellectual insecurity. A few scenes into Columbus, we see a shot of traffic flowing underneath the triangular Second Street Bridge, which we can assume to represent Jin’s arrival into town. Near the end of the film, Casey leaves under the same bridge to pursue her dream of studying architecture. This entrance and exit represent both a symmetry (one person is traded in Columbus for another) as well as an asymmetry, as Kogonada could’ve easily positioned the entrance and the exit as the exact beginning and ending of the film but doesn’t, though Columbus has a pervading emotional balance—a sense of two lives granting themselves the possibility of transcendence.

Kogonada offers, to use a phrase coined by Casey’s co-worker, a “critique of a critique,” as the rapturous clarity of his own images is the very source of his interrogation. In the context of this film, symmetry can mean a balance of life and art or refer to order that’s imposed on life, draining it of vitality. Meanwhile, asymmetry can evoke the wonderful chaos of life, or connote a lack of balance, as artists and aficionados retreat definitively into their own obsessions. Balance is tricky, in other words, and these anxious riddles inform the surpassingly beautiful Columbus with probing human thorniness, as it’s an art object gripped by the possibility that art, in the right light, can insidiously launder alienation. Though life without art, for people such as Casey and Jin, is akin to life without life.

Image/Sound

The image is strikingly attractive, honoring Kogonada’s symmetrical, colorful compositions, the beauty and fastidiousness of which reflect the emotions of characters who qualify their yearnings via discussions of architectural aesthetics. Colors are sharp—perhaps sharper than they were in the theater—and details are plentiful, with particular textural emphasis accorded to the buildings that serve as a kind of visual Greek chorus. The soundtrack is necessarily subtle, as this a film that’s often composed of silence and whispers, which are well-balanced here with a rich score and the minute sounds of the everyday.

Extras

The most notable supplement is a select scene audio commentary by actors John Cho and Haley Lu Richardson, who’re both intelligent, sensitive, intuitive performers who seem to enjoy a camaraderie similar to that of their on-screen counterparts. They speak of the various physical challenges inherent to their roles, particularly Richardson’s stillness in the film, which is somewhat at odds with her more frenetic way of being in real life. Cho and Richardson also celebrate working with Kogonada, whom they cumulatively describe as having an exact yet flexible vision. The deleted scenes are fine on their own, offering additional texture about the protagonists, though not revelatory. (In other words, they were justifiably cut.) A seven-minute short film by Kogonada, “Columbus Story,” free-associatively mixes footage of making the film with additional narration about the buildings of Columbus, Indiana. The theatrical trailer rounds out a slim but charming package.

Overall

Kogonada’s elegant and moving narrative debut has been outfitted with a lovely transfer that will hopefully expose the film to new audiences.

Cast: Haley Lu Richardson, John Cho, Parker Posey, Rory Culkin, Michelle Forbes, Erin Allegretti Director: Kogonada Screenwriter: Kogonada Distributor: Oscilloscope Laboratories Running Time: 103 min Rating: NR Year: 2017 Release Date: March 26, 2019 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: Robert Zemeckis’s I Wanna Hold Your Hand on the Criterion Collection

The disc’s 4K restoration offers Zemeckis’s debut, a madcap celebration of the pop-cultural phenomena, a chance at a second life.

3.5

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I Wanna Hold Your Hand

Robert Zemeckis’s I Wanna Hold Your Hand is a film with the absurdist bent of a funhouse mirror. Set around the Beatles’s iconic 1964 appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, the film is refreshingly free of baby-boomer nostalgia for a more innocent time. Zemeckis instead fully embraces the “mania” in Beatlemania, setting his focus on both the band’s fans and no less crazed haters and leaving the Fab Four on the fringes of the film (they’re only seen in archival footage and shots where the actors playing them are framed from behind or the waist down).

Zemeckis’s directorial debut unfolds in a series of mini-narratives that follow a group of New Jersey teens who make their way to New York City hoping to score tickets to the Beatles’s first live U.S. television appearance, or at least see them at the exclusive hotel where they’re holed up. Zemeckis and co-screenwriter Bob Gale capture not only the sheer lunacy of a wildly obsessive and fiercely loyal fandom, but also the various shades that exist within and around that distinctive subculture.

The loudest and most boisterous of this bunch is Rosie (Wendie Jo Sperber), who doesn’t hesitate to jump out of a moving car or break into a stranger’s hotel room if it means getting to a phone from which she can call the radio station giving away tickets to attend The Ed Sullivan Show. But where Rosie is the prototypical teenage Beatles fan, fainting at even a cardboard cutout of the dreamy Paul McCartney, she’s surrounded by friends and classmates whose motives for making the trip are less than pure.

The street-smart Grace (Theresa Saldana) arrives on the scene with camera in hand, hoping to get a snapshot of the band so as to jump-start her journalism career, and it isn’t long into the film before she finds herself moving on from her relatively innocent scam of selling squares of bed sheets the Beatles supposedly slept on to flirting with prostitution to get enough money to bribe her way into The Ed Sullivan Show. And then there’s the recently engaged Pam (Nancy Allen), who begrudgingly tags along with her friends in spite of knowing that her fiancé will be jealous. Of course, her worries quickly melt away later on when she finds herself alone in the band’s hotel room, where she tucks her engagement ring in her shoe before stroking and kissing the phallic neck of McCartney’s bass guitar as if it were a lover.

Lest it be populated entirely with fangirls, I Wanna Hold Your Hand also offers up an artsy poseur, Janis (Susan Kendall Newman), and post-greaser tough guy, Tony (Bobby Di Cicco), as prospective foils to Beatles fans everywhere. Janis and Tony join in on the fun only to protest the band’s sudden domination of the country’s entire cultural landscape. Where Janis sees the Brits overshadowing more socially important music like that of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, Tony yearns for a time when the Four Seasons and Elvis were still on top. Such anti-Beatles furor also torments the younger Peter (Christian Juttner), whose conservative father (Read Morgan) employs a one-eyed barber (Newton Arnold) to chop off his son’s mop top, only to be saved by Janis and Tony in an act of generational camaraderie.

Along with the onslaught of intricate and humorous character details that help form its multifaceted portrait of its particular cultural zeitgeist, I Wanna Hold Your Hand is defined by its relentlessly manic energy. Zemeckis’s fondness for Looney Tunes, which would be on more explicit display in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, is already in full effect here in the consistently heightened, cartoonish quality of the slapstick. From the often-spastic nature of the actors’ movements (particularly those of Eddie Deezen in his Jerry Lewis-like interpretation of a crazed Beatles trivia nerd) and their comically twisted facial expressions to the sheer speed of the action which is amplified throughout by undercranking the image, everything in I Wanna Hold Your Hand is pushed right up to the breaking point of absurdity. The lunacy of pop-culture infatuation is lent the undying fervor of a fever dream.

Image/Sound

The Criterion Collection’s transfer, from a new 4K restoration, is quite remarkable. The image is so crisp and clear that it’s hard to believe that I Wanna Hold Your Hand is a relatively low-budget film shot over 40 years ago. The reds and blues especially pop, and there are warm yet naturalistic hues to the actors’ skin tones. The contrast of the image is also perfectly calibrated, allowing for the highest quality and detail in both the brighter outdoor sequences and darker interiors. The 5.1 audio track is also beautifully layered, giving the numerous Beatles tracks a booming intensity, while the rapid dialogue remains clean and easy to decipher throughout. If there’s a minor flaw, it’s the slight disparity between those dialogue and music tracks, which may have you occasionally adjusting your volume level.

Extras

The beefiest extra on the disc is the 2004 audio commentary with Robert Zemeckis and co-writer and frequent collaborator Bob Gale. While their focus is more on I Wanna Hold Your Hand’s production than on breaking down the film in any meaningful way, they provide a wonderful variety of amusing on-set stories and insight into their casting process and how they ended up working with their mentor, Steven Spielberg, on the film. The discussion is brisk and light-hearted, which is fitting given how free and loose-limbed I Wanna Hold Your Hand is, but it also details Zemeckis and Gale’s process of working with mostly inexperienced actors and how many of the more challenging shots were accomplished.

The recent interview with Zemeckis, Gale, and Spielberg covers much of the same ground as the commentary, with some additional campfire stories pertaining to their later collaborations with John Milius thrown in for good measure. In Nancy Allen and Marc McClure’s accompanying interview, the actors talk about their fascinating experiences during the casting process, though they too often default to lavishing praise on Zemeckis and restating how enjoyable it was to work on the film. The release also includes an essay by Scott Tobias and two of Zemeckis’s student films, The Lift and A Field of Honor, the latter of which provides an interesting glimpse at his propensity for manic absurdism in its embryonic form.

Overall

The disc’s beautiful 4K restoration offers Robert Zemeckis’s debut, a madcap celebration of the pop-cultural phenomena, a chance at a second life.

Cast: Nancy Allen, Bobby Di Cicco, Marc McClure, Susan Kendall Newman, Theresa Saldana, Wendie Jo Sperber, Eddie Deezan, Christian Juttner, Will Jordan, Read Morgan, Dick Miller Director: Robert Zemeckis Screenwriter: Robert Zemeckis, Bob Gale Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 104 min Rating: PG Year: 1978 Release Date: March 26, 2019 Buy: Video

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Review: Douglas Sirk’s The Tarnished Angels on Kino Blu-ray

The Blu-ray boasts an exciting transfer of one of Douglas Sirk’s most visually resplendent films.

5

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The Tarnished Angels

Through the prism of the Technicolor camera, Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows and Written on the Wind elaborate on the perceived comforts of middle-class life. In these cinematic realms, the brightest of colors enliven the finely decorated homes of characters who, on the surface, appear to be living their ideal lives. As Jane Wyman’s Cary Scott from All That Heaven Allows sits in her living room across from a brand new television—a Christmas gift from her grown children—near the end of the film, Sirk offers up a seemingly picturesque snapshot of her class-based satisfaction. Yet the irony is clear: The children, having objected to their mother’s relationship with a man beneath her social class, see her as something to be tended to, not someone to really care for as an emotional being.

If these kinds of slippery distinctions between a character’s contentment and devastation tend to define Sirk’s oeuvre, then the New Orleans-set The Tarnished Angels finds the director slightly modifying his standard themes to examine the thin line between achieving happiness and crashing and burning in pursuit of it. Death literally looms large over Roger Schumann (Robert Stack), a World War I fighter pilot turned daredevil who takes to the sky as part of an airshow around the time of Mardi Gras. Stack plays him as an outright bastard plagued by undiagnosed PTSD; though not physically violent toward his wife, LaVerne (Dorothy Malone), and son, Jack (Christopher Olsen), Roger weaves a web of psychological entrapment that, at one point, involves him suggesting that LaVerne should sleep with local honcho Matt Ord (Robert Middleton) so that Roger might gain access to a particular plane.

The Tarnished Angels, written by George Zuckerman, complicates character motivation and action by using flashbacks and ellipses that sometimes make it difficult to discern when, or even if, certain events are taking place. Sirk uses black-and-white images to stage a contrast between the oneiric promise of the film’s nostalgic feelings for past glories and the stark reality its characters face when death comes knocking at their door.

Sirk frames the Schumann family as a nearly grotesque extreme of the American dream; from afar, they might appear to have obtained an intractable happiness. However, The Tarnished Angels uses journalist Burke Devlin (Rock Hudson) as a conduit for the viewer to realize that, in close-up, these are damaged human beings with little grip on their lives. That Devlin, too, is no better equipped to navigate his alcoholism and wayward idealism indicates Sirk’s perception of the fundamentally fractured logic that often founds a sense of duty to a particular cause. In Devlin’s case, his affection for LaVerne, combined with his drinking problem, clouds an ability to act rather than speak in grandiloquent terms.

The film makes the act of looking a significant part of the story, with several scenes featuring shots of audiences gawking and howling in appreciation as Roger flirts with death. When one flying event takes a tragic turn—and a screeching airplane hurls toward the grandstands—Sirk prompts us to ask if the inclination to watch near-death spectacle is an unconscious way of wanting to vicariously experience death. That Roger didn’t perish in WWI but plunges into the sand while displaying his aeronautical prowess for a stateside audience reinforces the theme of self-imprisonment, both personal and cultural, that runs throughout Sirk’s work.

Like Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole, which creates a damning critique of media circuses that would allow a man to die if it means increasing readership, The Tarnished Angels understands the innate human desire to look at beauty or terror as the potentially catastrophic fuel of public interest. Yet, while Wilder never turned that critique on himself or his own film, Sirk, ever the craftsman of multi-vision art, sees that he’s no saint himself.

Image/Sound

The depth of field during the film’s airshow sequences is remarkable, while close-ups of faces are nicely textured. The black-and-white cinematography is consistently balanced throughout. While there are occasional small scratches or bits of debris that are visible within the frame, they don’t considerably distract from the viewing experience. The DTS-HD Master Audio track maximizes the potency of Frank Skinner’s memorable score, while the dialogue is clear and crisp. There are no distracting pops, hisses, or screeches.

Extras

The sole extra of note is a lovely feature-length commentary track by film historian Imogen Sarah Smith, who contextualizes Sirk’s career while offering an insightful reading of the film itself. Smith has put in the work here, speaking almost nonstop from beginning to end in a style that accomplishes the depth and rigor of a master’s thesis, with dates, names, and tidbits so thoroughly entwined with analysis that it’s an immediately essential listen for anyone who’s serious about their knowledge or study of Sirk. Smith’s tone is also conversational, leaning as she does on personalized takes on the characters; especially amusing, and succinct, is her explanation of Burke Devlin’s faults. The film’s theatrical trailer is also included.

Overall

Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray boasts a smashing feature-length commentary and an exciting transfer of one of Douglas Sirk’s most visually resplendent films.

Cast: Rock Hudson, Robert Stack, Dorothy Malone, Jack Carson, Christopher Olsen, Robert Middleton, Troy Donahue, Alan Reed, William Schallert Director: Douglas Sirk Screenwriter: George Zuckerman Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 91 min Rating: NR Year: 1957 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: Barbara Loden’s Wanda on the Criterion Collection

Criterion has outfitted Barbara Loden’s Wanda with a beautifully rough-and-tumble transfer.

4

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Wanda

In Wanda’s first few minutes, writer-director-actor Barbara Loden renders the heart of America’s coal country with an empathetic scope that’s unrivaled in our country’s narrative cinema. It’s not Loden’s attention to misery—the wasteland of the gravel pits, the dirty dishes and Coke and beer bottles littered about indifferently, the altogether cramped and dingy homes—that distinguishes her vision, but her sense of the beauty that crops up even in lives of hardship. This film has a wonderful, hard-won sense of everyday rapture.

Before Loden cuts to a screaming child—the sort of image that’s common to earnest films geared toward bringing about social reform—the filmmaker lingers on a shot of an elderly woman looking out a window as the sun shines in and casts her in heavenly light. Such a grace note suggests the possibility of refuge in this world, illustrating the thoroughness and breadth of Loden’s curiosity. Quickly afterward, in a heartbreakingly brief and casual interlude, Loden lingers on a woman (Dorothy Shupenes) getting out of bed and sighing before addressing the screaming child, steeling herself for the day.

Those who know nothing about Loden’s film may assume that this woman is Wanda, and as such our protagonist, but she’s really Wanda’s sister. Wanda (Loden) is revealed soon enough, crashed out on her sister’s couch, her presence causing problems between the sister and the latter’s husband (Peter Shupenes), who storms out without taking his coffee. Wanda, a lost soul, doesn’t seem to belong to the world of the Pennsylvania coal mines as intently as her sister does, and her sense of misplacement mirrors our own. This isn’t to say that Loden telegraphs or “indicates” in the manner of an actor who might be touring America’s un-prosperous nooks and crannies for an Oscar. When Loden telegraphs, it’s always in character.

Often, Wanda arises from her sister’s couch, or a motel bed she just shared with a stranger who picked up her tab the night before, and holds her head in a universal sign of a godawful hangover. For Wanda, such a gesture is a cry for help—a break from her pervading insularity and illusiveness, which Loden renders with a committed and poignant airiness. Loden’s performance is a prodigious and ecstatic blend of naturalism and expressionism.

The film’s first act establishes Wanda’s aimless routine with merciless and detailed precision. We learn that she abandoned her family and can’t be bothered to fight for custody of her kids. In a court hearing, Loden allows us to see something that the other characters can’t or won’t recognize: that Wanda is unbearably depressed almost to the point of muteness. Wanda tries to get her job at a dress manufacturer back, but is told she’s too slow right after she’s informed that taxes get roughly 65 percent of what she was already owed. All that seems to remain for her are the bars and the one-night stands, which Loden renders with a sensitivity that’s as keen and insightful as the scenes set in Wanda’s sister’s house. Men call Wanda “tootsie” and “blondie” and treat her with unveiled contempt, regarding her as a nuisance, a drunk, and a whore. Such moments acutely allow one to sense the discomfort of a woman who’s subjected endlessly to unfeeling male scrutiny, recalling the similarly visceral films of Ida Lupino.

Just as the viewer settles in for the ride, perhaps presuming Wanda to be composed entirely of a drunk’s hopeless grasps for communion, Loden springs a conceit that’s daring in this context, threatening the stability of her closely observed character study. Wandering into one of her regular bars to clean up as best she can in the bathroom, she meets Norman Dennis (Michael Higgins), a bartender who’s actually a criminal holding up the joint.

As Norman, Higgins disrupts the film’s tender, depressive rhythms. Wanda is a modern portrait of a woman who’s subjecting herself to primordial sexism, while Norman, whom Wanda always calls “Mr. Dennis,” is a pointedly retro throwback to the male criminals of 1940s-era American cinema. Curt and squarely bespectacled, with a mustache that adds at least 10 years to his appearance, Norman is weirdly commanding in his confidence in his own skin, in the intensity of his conviction in his own old-fogey-ness.

Wanda goes on the road with Norman and the two become lovers on a crime spree in a trope that’s nearly as old as the movies, as if Wanda’s life became so untenable that a divine presence offered her an escape hatch through the rituals of genre cinema. In certain fashions, Norman is no less condescending to Wanda than anyone else, though there’s an unusual respect evident in his refusal to flatter her. He often prefaces his orders with “when you’re with me,” and the implication of this line is obvious: that she can either take it or leave it. Norman isn’t born of any fashionable act of man-hating, as we’re allowed to see his own misery—his inability to receive love. Comically and tragically, he tells Wanda that he doesn’t like “friendly” types as she caresses him after they have sex.

Loden also uncomfortably shows how Norman’s dictatorial ways fulfill Wanda. Norman asks her to dress differently, more like a woman before women’s liberation, and she looks happier and more comfortable in her skin. Loden understands that gender relationships can’t be reduced to think pieces and anal-retentive tabulations of how often women discuss men, as there are yearnings, pounded into us from cultural regiments, that seek expression whether or not they’re reputable. Wanda has wanted a Norman Dennis to come into her life and take control and give her function and meaning. Is this relationship a product of a kind of desperate Stockholm syndrome? Emotionally, this distinction almost seems beside the point.

Opposite Higgins, the carefully sustained flakiness of Loden’s performance becomes funny in a fashion that complicates its pathos. And this ironic flowering softens our guard for the hammer that falls in the third act, when the genre fantasy collapses and Wanda returns to the bars and the motels, alone among a crowd, searching for another qualified Prince Charming, settling for a beer, a smoke, a hot dog, and another night she won’t remember.

Image/Sound

There’s a hearty amount of grain in this image, reflecting Wanda’s sparse budget and docudramatic aesthetic. Colors are surprisingly rich and intense, particularly reds and blues. And textural details, which are the manna of this film’s power, are extraordinary. One can see the thin materials of Wanda’s worn-down wardrobe, and the way that beer cans are illuminated by shards of punishing morning sunlight. The soundtrack is a bit variable—it’s not always entirely hear what characters are saying—but this flaw appears to truthfully reflect the source material, deepening the film’s fly-on-the-wall verisimilitude. Secondary sounds—of sewing machines, cars, and beer cans being popped open, for instance—are quite crisp and lifelike.

Extras

Katja Raganelli’s 60-minute documentary I Am Wanda features intimate footage of Barbara Loden in 1980 not long before she succumbed to cancer. We see Loden coaching actors and reading passages from books at the dinner table with her children and husband, Elia Kazan, among other things. Loden discusses filmmaking and her artistic process with a sadness and vulnerability that, given the context of her illness, is almost unbearably moving. This sadness is also evident in the talk that Loden had with students at the American Film Institute in 1971, as she outlines the challenges of making a low-budget film.

One of the more fascinating inclusions in this supplements package is “The Frontier Experience,” a short educational film that Loden directed about a pioneer woman’s struggles in the largely uninhabited Kansas plains in the late 1800s. The film has the same emphasis on detail as Wanda, with long pauses and bustling winds that emphasize the grueling loneliness, and danger, of frontier life. Rounding out this package is a clip from Loden’s appearance in 1971 on The Dick Cavett Show, in which she artfully handles sexist condescension, Wanda’s theatrical trailer, and a booklet with an essay by film critic Amy Taubin that emphasizes how viscerally personal Wanda was to Loden.

Overall

Criterion has outfitted Barbara Loden’s Wanda with a beautifully rough-and-tumble transfer as well as supplements that movingly elaborate on the filmmaker’s life.

Cast: Barbara Loden, Michael Higgins, Dorothy Shupenes, Peter Shupenes, Jerome Thier, Marian Thier, Anthony Rotell Director: Barbara Loden Screenwriter: Barbara Loden Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 102 min Rating: NR Year: 1970 Release Date: March 19, 2019 Buy: Video

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Review: Robert Wise’s The Body Snatcher on Shout! Factory Blu-ray

This sterling Blu-ray transfer is occasion for reconsidering the film as more than a minor entry in producer Val Lewton’s body of work.

4

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The Body Snatcher

Robert Wise’s The Body Snatcher thrives on dramatizing how individual responsibility functions within a larger chain of command. Though the film is set in late-19th-century Edinburgh, the dilemmas faced by medical student Donald Fettes (Russell Wade) are in lockstep with the global catastrophe of World War II, as Fettes struggles to determine whether or not he should obey the unorthodox commands of his mentor, Dr. “Toddy” MacFarlane (Henry Daniell). MacFarlane employs the graverobber John Gray (Boris Karloff) to deliver corpses for his medical experiments, as bodies are in short supply due to legal reasons. While not an explicitly coded story about Nazi war crimes (for one, neither MacFarlane nor Gray profess an ideology of hate), the focus on the shadowy machinations of power is prescient of the rhetoric of the Nuremberg trials, where Nazis who participated in the atrocities committed in Auschwitz and other concentration camps denied their criminal culpability.

Though the stakes of The Body Snatcher are much lower than genocide, one of the film’s primary thematic concerns is the psychological guilt of those who participate in murderous schemes for personal benefit. The medical field becomes a conduit for fascism, as Fettes wants to develop a medical practice devoted to personal care rather than profit, personal agendas, or scientific advancement at all costs. And since these ideas are being explored under the supervision of producer Val Lewton, they’re conveyed in the style of his frightening poetics.

One remarkable scene finds Wise amplifying the claustrophobia of confined spaces through tight framings. In it, MacFarlane’s slow-witted assistant, Joseph (Bela Lugosi), has just announced to Gray his blackmail demands after learning of Gray’s body-snatching practice. Despite the initiative to profit from his knowledge, Joseph is at best inept and seems to be merely imitating the kinds of exploitation he witnesses all around him. Wise flips Lugosi’s popular on-screen persona from suave predator to clueless victim. Karloff gives Gray a snarling confidence that manifests in the steady luring of Joseph toward his death. Confronted with the reality of his actions, Gray immediately locks into a mode of self-preservation, seduction, and murder. Such cold and calculating actions project the underlying terror of how rationality might be abused to harm weak or unsuspecting citizens.

A lesser, plot-driven subplot of the film concerns the efforts of Fettes to restore spinal function to young Georgina (Sharyn Moffett), a paraplegic who arrives with her mother, Mrs. Marsh (Rita Corday), at MacFarlane’s home seeking help. Georgina feels like a redux of the girl from Wise’s prior Lewton production, 1944’s The Curse of the Cat People. Whereas in that film Wise gave profound expression to how a child’s mind is affected by parental abuse, The Body Snatcher reduces Georgina’s emotions to a plot device, as Fettes’s more personal and intimate approach to medicine is meant to impugn MacFarlane’s unfeeling, hard-nosed methods.

Even if the narrative threads aren’t as tightly focused on exploring a complex theme as one might hope, The Body Snatcher nevertheless manages to still send chills, and predominately through Wise’s fleet direction and Karloff’s unflinching embodiment of a real-world monster. As with other Lewton productions, the scares are rooted in how character guilt or corruption gives way to fear rather than vice versa. Indeed, while Karloff receives top billing as the film’s embodiment of terror, it’s actually Daniell’s MacFarlane who pulls the strings. In fact, after MacFarlane believes he’s snipped away all loose ends, it’s his own mind that proves to be the final obstacle that cannot be overcome. Less supernatural than secular, the film challenges viewers to look more closely at how society might be impacted by their own behaviors and actions—especially those conceived of or acted upon when others aren’t watching.

Image/Sound

While the DVD transfer of The Body Snatcher released with Warner Home Video’s The Val Lewton Horror Collection was certainly serviceable, the new 4K scan of the film’s original camera negative absolutely sparkles on this Blu-ray release. From beginning to end, the film’s sumptuous high-contrast, black-and-white images are stable and without discernible fault. Depth of field is sharp and focus remains consistent throughout. To this viewer’s eye, hardly a single shot looks anything less than superb. The DTS-HD monaural soundtrack is clean and highly audible, with dialogue and music perfectly balanced.

Extras

Several extras are holdovers from Warner’s 2005 DVD collection, including a feature commentary track by Robert Wise and historian Steve Haberman, as well as the documentary Shadows in the Dark: The Val Lewton Legacy. Each are a wonderful means to comprehend the significance of both this film and Lewton’s legacy, especially if one is just getting acquainted with the extent of the producer’s work. The one new extra is a brief appreciation of The Body Snatcher by Gregory Mank, who spends the bulk of his time talking about why Boris Karloff’s performance is so special. Also included on the disc are a theatrical trailer and a stills gallery.

Overall

Shout! Factory’s sterling Blu-ray transfer is occasion for reconsidering The Body Snatcher as more than a minor entry in producer Val Lewton’s body of work.

Cast: Boris Karloff, Rita Corday, Russell Wade, Henry Daniell, Edith Atwater, Sharyn Moffett, Bela Lugosi Director: Robert Wise Screenwriter: Philip MacDonald, Val Lewton Distributor: Shout! Factory Running Time: 77 min Rating: NR Year: 1945 Release Date: March 26, 2019 Buy: Video

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