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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: In Other Waters Is an Immersive, If Too Sequential, Sci-Fi Quest

The game offers a refreshing focus on its sense of place rather than ease of play.

3.5

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In Other Waters
Photo: Fellow Traveler

The alien ecosystem of planet Gliese 677Cc is vast, an underwater expanse of flora and fauna in symbiotic relationships. Some creatures feed from the forest of sentient stalks that grow on a reef, while others thrive within a deep abyss of toxic yellow brine. In British developer Gareth Damian Martin’s In Other Waters, xenobiologist Ellery Vas witnesses and catalogs these new, awe-inspiring forms of extraterrestrial life while searching for the missing Minae Nomura, who mysteriously called Ellery to this remote world.

You play the game as an A.I. within Ellery’s diving suit, a sentient being that can only perceive that beautiful world through a two-color user interface. The things that are so striking to Ellery are dots and lines to the A.I., and they’re brought to life primarily through Ellery’s descriptions, which are displayed in a text readout on the UI alongside the map, depth counter, and meters regulating power and oxygen. The toolset is limited but intentionally so; think Subnautica but filtered through the interfaces of Nauticrawl, Duskers, or your average text adventure. Similar to the life on the planet itself, the A.I. and Ellery are dependent on each other, both of them like separate senses working in concert to navigate the ecosystem.

Even the parts of the interface that feel clunky feed into the methodical experience. It’s hard to multitask since pulling up the inventory will, for example, minimize Ellery’s descriptive text; there’s a certain rickety, tactile satisfaction to paging through the spare menus this way, pinging the environment for scannable objects and switching to the navigation function when you must move quickly (though certainly not too quickly) across the ocean floor.

Beyond the magnificent interface, the world of In Other Waters is thoughtful in a way few other games can claim. The relationships between the plant life and the animals feel considered and sensible, rather than all over the place; there aren’t a lot of obstacles strewn about with explanations dreamt up after the fact. The game offers a refreshing focus on its sense of place rather than ease of play, though the systems for cataloging the world take that ethos far enough that the overall pacing suffers. As you bring samples from the field back to a home base, Ellery’s taxonomy records are gradually and accordingly updated, first with rather verbose descriptions and theories of behavior and then, finally, with a sketch.

While it makes all the sense in the world for the characters to parse information only in a safe place, in practice the delay between collecting in the field and analyzing at home base mostly just inundates the player with an intimidating amount of text all at once. Likewise, the way In Other Waters gifts the player a sketch only after fully updating a creature’s record contradicts how Ellery’s descriptions gradually cultivate a mental image, sometimes upending what you might have pictured in your head. But because a sketch is the most significant prize compared to paragraphs of behavioral theory, the sketch must naturally come last in the manner of familiar-seeming tiered video-game reward hierarchy.

Much of the game’s naturalism similarly conflicts with design that’s overtly linear and story-driven. Though some areas are longer and roundabout with multiple paths, In Other Waters gates progress in rather typical fashion: If you hit a wall, you have to come back to an area later with the appropriate upgrade. The more elusive samples you need to complete a taxonomy are located on side paths, as the optional collectibles of this video game world. If the ecosystem of a game like Subnautica seems much more fantastical by comparison, its open nature nevertheless weaves a more coherent sense of place. For as much as In Other Waters cultivates an impressive, often beautiful feeling of exploration and discovery, its design is too neat and sequential to totally obscure how constructed its “natural” world truly is.

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

Developer: Jump Over the Age Publisher: Fellow Traveller Platform: Switch Release Date: April 3, 2020 ESRB: T ESRB Descriptions: Mild Violence Buy: Game

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Review: Resident Evil 3 Is a Slick Hell Ride that Doesn’t Stick in the Mind

The element of fear that Resident Evil is known for isn’t as fully baked into the mechanics of this remake as it could have.

3

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Resident Evil 3
Photo: Capcom

After two games in the Resident Evil series that do revolutionary work in bringing the horror back to survival horror, it’s a little disappointing to encounter a title in the series that feels so safe and expected. Nonetheless, it’s a disappointment that many would still kill for, as Resident Evil 3, then and now, doesn’t lack for spectacular frights.

Set a few days before the events of Resident Evil 2, the game follows original Resident Evil protagonist Jill Valentine—now bearing an odd, uncanny resemblance to Natalie Portman in Annihilation—on the night the T-virus outbreak kicks into high gear. Raccoon City’s fires are still burning and survivors are still running for cover. Jill is holed up in her apartment when she’s brutally confronted by Nemesis, a massive abomination of calcified flesh and teeth that’s deliberately hunting the surviving members of her squad. She goes on the offensive after she joins up with a squad of Umbrella mercenaries trying to find a way out of the city.

This new but not so improved Resident Evil 3 feels closer to an extended DLC package for Resident Evil 2 than a major advancement of its ideas. Graphically and mechanically, not much has changed between the two except the characters involved, as this remake also uses a third-person, over-the-shoulder camera, features stronger-than-usual undead ghoulies, and places in your hands weapons that, while they hit hard, necessitate ammo that’s hard to come by. And it all leads to an eventual showdown with the hulking monstrosity who’s hunting you down.

This does mean that Resident Evil 3 shares its predecessors strengths: The game is phenomenal at making not just gore, but tried-and-true jump scares, deeply effective and unnerving, while also showing off some truly inspired and terrifying creature designs in the process, especially when the more mutated behemoths start showing up. Of particular highlight here are the Gamma Hunters wandering Raccoon City’s sewers, whose gaping maws can gruesomely swallow characters whole if they get close enough to them.

But the fear that this game instills in the player isn’t all-encompassing, and that’s in spite of the hard-hitting action set pieces involving Nemesis. They’re well-executed, for placing the giant brute where he can best send an impromptu, panic-stricken bolt up the player’s spine, but he’s not utilized nearly as well as the all-seeing, all-knowing, all-hearing Mr. X was in Resident Evil 2. This Resident Evil 3 can be hair-raising, but there’s a sense of predictability that keeps you from being truly unmoored and paranoid throughout the campaign. There are a few moments of abstract terror—the most intriguing of which is a particular sequence early on where Jill must navigate a power grid maze while being pursued by spiders that infect her with hallucinatory parasites—but these moments are brief and rather self-contained.

In the end, the element of fear that Resident Evil is known for isn’t as fully baked into the mechanics of this remake as it is in prior entries in the series, and it’s up to the rest of the game to pick up the slack. This is, yes, a Resident Evil with a flimsier storyline than most, and the developers at Capcom at least knew that leaning harder into the action side of being a horror-action title was an admirable direction to go in. Indeed, the action here is consistently frenetic and bloody, and there’s still a gruesome, wet streak to the design of this urban-apocalyptic hell ride. It’s just that, overall, this new Resident Evil 3 offers a more fleeting experience than Resident Evil 2, out to electrify in the moment than truly stick in the mind.

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

Developer: Capcom Publisher: Capcom Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: April 3, 2020 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Strong Language Buy: Game

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Review: Nioh 2 Frustratingly Fights Against Its Own Framework

The game is limited by the static nature of its mission-based structure and the protagonist’s severe lack of motivation.

2.5

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Nioh 2
Photo: Sony Interactive Entertainment

Hide, the half-human, half-Yokai protagonist of Nioh 2, fights against both a slew of historical figures from the late Sengoku period and a horde of colorful monsters. But bigger than any battle in the game is the one Team Ninja fought behind the scenes in trying to follow in the footsteps of 2017’s Nioh without getting too repetitive. It’s a goal they don’t quite achieve. The core gameplay of the original has been expanded upon, with fun new weapons like a scythe-spear hybrid called the switchglaive and terrifying new monsters like the Ippon-Datara, which bounces toward you using its massive sword as a pogo stick. But the level-to-level design remains disappointingly the same, however much Nioh 2 tries to distract from it. Even the game’s extra dimension—a surreal Dark Realm—does little more than add a splash of magical color to each arena and provide bosses with a wider range of attacks.

All of these new features are just wallpaper over the same repetitive loops. You get all of the methodical, punishing combat of Dark Souls and the loot collecting of Diablo but none of the freedom offered by those titles. Without the illusion of progressing through a larger, interconnected world, players are essentially resetting between each mission, over and over again. Visual variety and the occasional gimmick—a burning multistory foundry, a river that can be dammed, a haunted forest with spectral spotlights that must be avoided—cannot fully paper over the game’s inescapable linearity. Whether you’re manipulating a massive mining elevator or pushing through an enemy encampment in the valleys of Anegawa, each area mainly serves as a gauntlet of escalating encounters. Side missions are even more linear, and the way that they recycle smaller areas of the main missions, but at different hours or seasons, at times makes Nioh 2 feel like the world’s slowest racing game.

Nioh 2 admirably attempts to cover a large chunk of Japanese history, beginning in 1555 and ending (for the most part) in 1598. But to do so, the game veers toward broad depictions of historical figures and events, and it assumes that players are familiar enough with Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi to fill in the missing context and motivation for what’s shown, like the raid on Inabayama Castle. Worse, the protagonist is largely treated as a mute bystander, inexplicably doing the bidding of their bumbling employer, Tokichiro. The story is so emotionally shallow and poorly presented that even big narrative cutscenes, like the one in which Hide confronts their father, are only clearly laid out in the in-game synopsis.

Thankfully, the game’s combat is never anything other than crystal clear. Each melee weapon has a low, medium, and high stance, and players can use a purifying pulse to chain together combos from multiple weapons or poses. Managing one’s ki (or stamina) is more fluid than in other Dark Souls-like games because of the ways in which it can be recovered, and this leads to a faster, more balletic form of battling, one that has learned all the right lessons from Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, right down to its high-risk, high-reward form of Burst Counters.

The wide variety of Yokai also forces players to keep adapting the way in which they approach foes throughout the game, and the weapons used to do so; a spear, for instance, does well to keep the ember-winged Koroka at bay, whereas a pair of agile hatchets may be the better counter against the snake-headed Rokrokubi. Best of all, players can appropriate the special attacks of these Yokai by gathering and equipping their cores, Pokémon-style. If anything, the game’s so flexible that it devalues the blacksmith and shrine attunement options, as there’s rarely a need to spend resources leveling up existing gear or cores when you can instead simply keep swapping to newly discovered, fresher options.

Nioh 2 has also made it easier to recruit allies, which helps to alleviate the game’s overall difficulty. You can still challenge evil versions of other players at Revenant Graves, hoping to win a piece of their gear, but now you have the Benevolent Graves, where you can summon good versions of those players to fight alongside you until they die. It’s a nice concession to those who want a little more control over the game’s high difficulty, and while you can still go it alone for maximum challenge, these extra units can provide some valuable breathing room.

For as much as Nioh 2 has improved the variety and accessibility of the original’s combat, it’s still limited by the static nature of its mission-based structure and the protagonist’s severe lack of motivation. Worse, the environments and story now seem more visibly to be coasting in a post-Sekiro world. In short, we’ve seen all of this before. Ultimately, while the in-game fighting against samurai and Yokai works well, it’s impossible to ignore the many ways in which Nioh 2 seems to be fighting against its own framework.

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

Developer: Team Ninja Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: March 13, 2020 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood and Gore, Suggestive Themes, Violence Buy: Game

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The 25 Best Horror Games of All Time

Our list is, in part, an attempt to reflect the broad spectrum of frights in the world of gaming.

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The 25 Best Horror Games of All Time
Photo: Playdead

When people think of horror-themed video games, their minds often go to the survival-horror conventions popularized by the Resident Evil and Silent Hill series. Of being stuck in claustrophobic and menacing places, of running low on resources, of limping from an injury as some ghastly being drags or stomps toward you, following your trail of blood. To survive in the world of these games depends as much on how players use their unique skill sets as it does on how they learn to manage their nerves.

Yes, sometimes the effect of a horror game is not unlike that of a schlocky jump scare-athon, but horror comes in many shades across all mediums. For one, there are the action titles, like Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts and Bloodborne, that rely on the concepts of well-known horror stories, sinister and theatrical music, and well-above-average difficulty levels to intimidate and overwhelm players. And the terrifying logic of fever dreams, rather than the creaky old machinery of horror, can foist an otherwise non-gloomy series like The Legend of the Zelda into the realm of nightmares.

Our list is, in part, an attempt to reflect the broad spectrum of frights in the world of gaming. But more than anything, the following selections represent what we believe are the most provocative, well-executed, and timeless examples of horror in the medium. Jed Pressgrove


Paratopic

25. Paratopic (2018)

Breathe it in, the grime and the decay and the desperation rendered in Paratopic’s stark, lo-fi polygons. The game’s world is ambiguous and anonymous and empty, leading you through wilderness and concrete sprawl. It pulls you into garbled faces, pushes you down highways with no company but a suitcase and a distorted radio. You become disoriented as the game cuts away, throwing you into other perspectives and then back again. Are you in control? Is your fate truly your own? The long, still moments between cuts leave space for the dread of this world to seep in and build anticipation for something terrible. It seems inevitable. A short, experimental game from designers Jessica Harvey and Doc Burford and composer BeauChaotica, Paratopic is the nightmare version of so-called walking simulators, revealing the existential horror simmering just beneath their constraints. Steven Scaife


Castlevania: Bloodlines

24. Castlevania: Bloodlines (1993)

The gothic-themed Castlevania games have always featured a wide assortment of iconic scary figures, from Frankenstein to the Grim Reaper to primary antagonist Dracula. But it wasn’t until 1993, with the release of Castlevania: Bloodlines, that the series achieved a more chilling and disorienting brand of horror, with platforms that inexplicably drip blood, a boss that may arouse your unexpected sympathy when it begins to nervously clutch its beaten head, and a Leaning Tower of Pisa stage that imprisons the player in a state of hurried movement and vertigo. Visual tricks throughout the game ratchet up a sense of shock and confusion, culminating in a final level that defiantly cuts the traditional side-scrolling view into three uneven sections so as to scramble the positions of the main character’s body parts on the screen. A masterpiece of ambitious 2D game design, Castlevania: Bloodlines doesn’t need three-dimensional space to discombobulate one’s senses. Pressgrove


Parasite Eve

23. Parasite Eve (1998)

With its concise length, mixture of active time battle and survival-horror gameplay, and modern New York City setting, 1998’s Parasite Eve was a dramatic risk for director Takashi Tokita. Leaving behind the traditional adventurous spirit of the games that made Square famous as a company, Parasite Eve is marked by a melancholic and disturbing type of energy, as in its opening doozy of a scene, which starts with the Statue of Liberty looking as if she’s been struck by grief and ends with an opera performance that climaxes with its audience members bursting helplessly into flames. The game’s emphasis on gun resource management suggests a nod to the tension-building methods of Resident Evil, but the true terror in Parasite Eve lies in the emotional and psychological vulnerability of rookie cop protagonist Aya, who mourns her dead sister and whose source of supernatural power has an uncomfortably close connection to the evil feminine force that she must conquer.Pressgrove


The Last of Us

22. The Last of Us (2013)

Come for the zombies, stay for the giraffes. Dead Space fans will smile as they navigate claustrophobic sewage tunnels, Metal Gear Solid vets will have a blast outmaneuvering a psychotic cannibal, Resident Evil junkies will enjoy trying to sneak past noise-sensitive Clickers, Fallout experts will find every scrap of material to scavenge, Dead Rising pros will put Joel’s limited ammunition and makeshift shivs to good use, and Walking Dead fans will be instantly charmed by the evolving relationship between grizzled Joel and the tough young girl, Ellie, he’s protecting. But The Last of Us stands decaying heads and rotting shoulders above its peers because it’s not just about the relentless struggle to survive, but the beauty that remains: the sun sparkling off a distant hydroelectric dam; the banks of pure, unsullied snow; even the wispy elegance of otherwise toxic spores. Oh, and giraffes, carelessly walking through vegetative cities, the long-necked light at the end of the tunnel that’s worth surviving for. Aaron Riccio


Will You Ever Return? 2

21. Will You Ever Return? 2 (2012)

Jack King-Spooner’s singular vision of hell is grotesque and discordant, with bits of clay jammed together amid cut-out art, jaunty tunes, and squishy noises. Playing as the mugger from the previous game (which is bundled with this sequel in the Will You Ever Return? Double Feature), you take in infernal sights that, at first, seem impossibly goofy. There’s only one real jump scare in the whole game, yet the way this visual and aural assault oscillates between comedy, sadness, and ominous prescience accumulates its own disturbing, soulful power. Staring long enough at the jerky, claymation torture rooms sneaks beneath our usual resistance to traditional horror imagery, prodding at philosophical weak points we didn’t know we had. The mugger’s journey of self-discovery takes him through his own sins and fears, leading to a place of acceptance that emphasizes humanity’s ability to rob one another of the only things that truly matter. Scaife

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Review: Doom Eternal Is a World-Class Shooter with an Uneven Story

There’s something primal and thrilling to id Software’s further embrace of video-gamey conventions.

3.5

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Doom Eternal
Photo: Bethesda

The Doom approach is one of remarkable coherence. The series’s protagonist is essentially a personified meat grinder who signifies its single-minded goal: Demons from hell are invading our world, and they must be killed. He needs no voice, no name. He’s simply known as the Doom Slayer, the angriest space marine in the world with an undying grudge and an itchy trigger finger. Where the 2016 game brought the series back to its comfort zone of impossibly fast first-person combat with roaring confidence, Doom Eternal once again branches out, indulging in the platforming and the more involved storytelling that filled in the edges of that game, albeit to somewhat uneven results.

In this sequel, hell is a place on Earth, a world overrun by monstrosities and the cultists who worship them. Doom Eternal is another frantic dance through meaty pink grottos and wide-open metallic arenas littered with colorful pickups, environmental hazards, and enemies. Where so many shooters opt for verisimilitude, there’s something primal and thrilling to id Software’s further embrace of video-gamey conventions, complementing the floating power-ups with extra lives and optional challenges. This is a game blissfully liberated from the shackles of plausibility and realism, demanding constant motion and engagement to manage health, ammo, and armor that you pull from demon carcasses via fist, fire, and chainsaw.

Throughout Doom Eternal, the variables crash together in endless, enthralling permutations as the weapons, their modifications, and the upgrades to those modifications create combos against the encroaching hordes. Everything has its response, its counter, and its priority, each of them shifting constantly as new demons appear and your ammunition dwindles. Enemies now have weak points that may be destroyed to cripple their fighting styles; the spidery Arachnotron’s brain-mounted turret, for example, will suddenly jump to the front of your mental priority queue in an arena that offers little refuge from its barrage.

This world-class shooter is as relentless as it is deceptively thoughtful. And to that mechanical mastery, the developers give the Doom Slayer a greater sense of mobility, as he may climb walls and swing from bars. To the combat, that mobility adds an even greater propulsion and verticality, particularly in concert with one ability that slows down time while you aim in mid-air. To the intricate level design, it provides a momentary reprieve from the frequent firefights and a new layer of exploration to finding secret power-ups and collectibles. At its best, it feels like a natural extension of a shooter that rewards reflexes as much as paying attention to your surroundings and thinking through movements; taking a moment to pause and puzzle over the map to find a secret item fits right in against the chunky, forceful tactility of the platforming where the Doom Slayer digs his fingers into a climbable wall.

At other times, the game’s open combat arenas don’t always succeed in drawing your attention to those acrobatic elements in the heat of battle. While the demanding onslaughts of optional Slayer Gate challenges pressure you to make the most of a given space, it’s a little too easy to miss the portals, swinging bars, and adjoining rooms of the regular, less challenging arenas. Particularly at the start, you only notice them long after every demon has been put down.

Likewise, one particular enemy, the Marauder, slows down the flow of combat by forcing you into periods of waiting for specifically timed counters. But the game’s single shakiest addition is largely outside the confines of its otherwise exceptional play mechanics; the story of Doom Eternal is a bizarre, overcomplicated affair mainly conveyed in collectible text entries littered with proper nouns and gestures toward a more expansive universe. Pivotal characters and events are left largely unexplained unless you take the time to read about them in the menu. On some level, it makes sense to leave this backstory optional and allow players to blow through levels rather than sit through explanatory cutscenes, but it’s also totally disorienting, as the beginning of the game plays like you missed a cutscene or an expansion pack.

While it’s true that no one comes to Doom for the story, the previous game told a surprisingly good one that was crucial to its appeal. Its concept of a future Earth and Mars mining hell itself for energy was akin to a satire of capitalism and climate change by way of a heavy-metal album cover, with a protagonist who had little patience for the usual trappings of video game storytelling. The Doom Slayer pushed aside explanatory screens and smashed whatever the voice on the radio told him not to break because there was no point in negotiation; this state of affairs was simply wrong, and it had to be stopped.

Flashes of that ethos remain in Doom Eternal, in how Earth is now similarly overrun by demonic forces and there’s nothing to discuss, no third parties to placate. Cultists have even co-opted language of political correctness, insisting that hell’s denizens be deemed “mortally challenged” and that they be helped through blood donations. But whatever bits of the prior game’s humor remain, they’re largely absent that metatextual edge, instead digging into largely straight-faced backstories and motivations that feel entirely beside the point. The Doom Slayer’s refusal to compromise has given way to audio logs that aggrandize him and other “chosen one” subplots that suggest that the series is beginning to lose the plot. For as thrilling as it is to see Doom Eternal try some new things, the game also dilutes some of the carefully honed appeal from what was once a more coherent whole.

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

Developer: id Software Publisher: Bethesda Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: March 20, 2020 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood and Gore, Intense Violence Buy: Game

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Review: With Persona 5 Royal, a Masterful Game Rises to Greatness

The game speaks in specific and effective ways to the sheer exhaustion of living in perpetual strife.

5

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Persona 5 Royal
Photo: Atlus

Given everything that’s happened in the world since the release of Persona 5 in 2017, it’s not exactly a surprise that the game comes across a lot differently today. What is surprising is just how much Persona 5 Royal seems to lean into that fact, speaking in specific and effective ways to the sheer exhaustion of living in perpetual strife, even while delivering the catharsis of standing together against turmoil, even surviving it.

This is a game about the abuse of power, where every major villain represents a facet of society that’s turned poisonous, from art plagiarists to abusive educators to corrupt law enforcement. It’s up to the protagonist, Joker, and his band of merry high school outcasts to fight the good fight from the inside, magically whisking themselves into the collective unconscious by disguising themselves as badass, leather-clad avengers called the Phantom Thieves. And their goal is to literally tear down the palaces of conglomerate evil and greed that the story’s social monsters have built for themselves in their minds. It isn’t hyperbole to say that that’s about as joyous and cathartic a concept for a game as we’re going to get in 2020, especially given the gaming industry’s worsening allergy to political stances in high-profile titles such as this one.

The most powerful aspect of Royal is its propensity for self-reflection. There are new reminders that our heroes, while brave and outspoken, are still ultimately teenagers dealing with quite a bit of physical and emotional pain when they’re not performing mind heists. The most significant new character here is a student counselor/therapist named Maruki, and in order to explore the psychological effects of fighting the good fight, the Phantom Thieves have their therapy sessions with him in the game’s reality. These sessions are poignant and melancholic in their own right, but it’s all set up for a protracted endgame that recategorizes the sadness and exhaustion and extended periods of hopelessness these kids feel as genuine trauma. Persona 5 is still a game about the bravery it takes to live life in the face of pervasive injustice, but the new narrative content here is far more candid about the price of it all.

That sort of pensive messaging might suggest that Royal tends toward the relentlessly dour, but the game does the smart work of reinforcing the love and friendship that sustains Joker and his chosen family across a campaign that stretches into the 100-plus-hour range. Some of the changes are just simple and very welcome quality-of-life improvements designed to let our heroes stick it out in the game’s immense dungeons for much longer during each in-game day before running out of stamina and needing to retreat to the real world. Others, though, address major flaws, such as the way cat-shaped companion Morgana forces Joker to go to bed in Persona 5 after a busy day except after major bosses. Royal is far more permissive in that regard, as nights are now at your disposal. That leaves so much more opportunity to get out on the town, work jobs, hang out with confidants, and generally live a fuller life than in the original game. Even on nights when Morgana keeps you inside, you’re still able to do activities at home like working out, making lockpicks, watching DVDs, and cleaning.

Predominantly, this new version of the game is hitting the same story beats as before. No, Atlus hasn’t pulled a Final Fantasy XV and altered the famously aggravating last two palaces, but the developer has still chosen its battles well, improving and expanding that story in places where it would feel impactful. There are new music tracks scattered through the game during major events, dazzling new playable neighborhoods and hangout spots to see, completely reworked puzzles and quiz questions you’ll need to answer at school, and extended conversations you’ll have with friends after getting home at the end of the day.

All the ways in which the Metaverse—the alternate world the Phantom Thieves operate in—distorts and perverts that world are easier to appreciate now, especially with each boss having a new phase that hearkens much stronger to their actions in the real world. Conversely, effectively combating those villains is much more dependent on how strong a relationship you create with your allies outside the main plot. Elements of that are present in the original, but Royal rewards those relationships far more readily and organically. Going out to play darts with your friends and winning as a team, for example, grants new, additional perks to the Baton Pass system in Palaces, where giving up a turn to your companions restores HP/SP and boosts attack strength, and letting each member of your party have a turn means the last person can use abilities at no SP cost. How much of a boost you get is totally dependent on how good your relationship with each character is in the game’s real world.

The cardinal sin of the first iteration of Persona 5 is how its narrative is so disconnected from the game’s social aspects and combat. Forging friendships often feels at odds with the more traditional turn-based RPG mechanics, and even though the game makes motions toward that synchronicity, it too often takes control of the player’s time, putting the narrative on rails in ways that no healthy relationship that you create in-game should allow. Sure, you’re free to create relationships, and the game provides you with the personal breakthroughs that make every fantastical element more personal and intimate, but only on its schedule.

That, though, is no longer the case. At every turn in Royal, you’re only as good as your support system—the protagonist’s friends, his family, his teachers, and the adults who take the time to care about his well-being—and you’re encouraged to do everything possible to build it before taking on the world. For such a long game, that encouragement makes for an even more vital and of-the-moment experience than ever. If 2020 is indeed the year where it finally sinks in that we can’t rely on the adults in the room to hold societies together, we’ve never been more in need of a fantastical experience where you can stand up against all the world’s problems, with the best friends anyone could ask for right by your side.

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

Developer: Atlus, P Studio Publisher: Atlus, Sega Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: March 31, 2020 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood, Drug Reference, Partial Nudity, Sexual Themes, Strong Language, Violence Buy: Game, Soundtrack

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Review: Ori and the Will of the Wisps Shines a Bright Light on Platforming

The game improves upon its predecessor, and finds new ways to demonstrate their shared eco-friendly themes.

4

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Ori and the Will of the Wisps
Photo: Xbox Game Studios

Moon Studio’s Ori and the Will of the Wisps is as comforting as it is challenging. Every inch of the game is suffused with calming details, from the soothing orchestral score to the painterly 2D environments, which use layering techniques to bring background elements to life, like the sun dappling gently through a copse of trees and the animals scurrying about. You’ll often die, but you won’t feel too discouraged at any point, as the frequent, automatic checkpoints ensure that you’ll never lose too much progress. Even the plot, which repeats some of the same beats as Ori and the Blind Forest, feels reassuring. It suggests that Ori will be able to do for the corrupting blight of neighboring Niwen what he once did for his home of Nibel, and that he’ll be able to reach the same amicable resolution with Shriek, this game’s new avian antagonist, that he did with Blind Forest‘s angry Kuro.

Will of the Wisps improves upon Blind Forest, and finds new ways to demonstrate their shared eco-friendly themes. Not only are there countless NPCs to talk to, purchase items from, and go on sidequests for, there’s a hub area called the Wellspring Glades that you can help rebuild by gathering ore and seeds. These optional collectibles serve no practical purpose during gameplay, though there are health- and magic-boosting orbs that boost survivability and spirit shards that aid with accessibility by reducing (or increasing) damage and allowing Ori to stick to walls. But the sidequests on behalf of the feline Mokis and simian Gorleks are a vital experience, given the way the game gets you to emotionally invest in restoring the land. Even the inventory screen feeds into this, as it looks like a hollowed-out tree that becomes festooned with glowing orbs each time you fulfill a character’s request or recover a new item.

The game’s first act features levels, like the stormswept Inkwater Marsh and the mossy Kwolok’s Hollow, that recall several from Blind Forest, but beyond that, each area features distinct visuals and organic puzzles. For instance, the Luma Pools are brightly Seussian, filled with tufts of pink grass and floating bubbles that propel you through the air. And within the terrifying Mouldwood Depths, where you chase fireflies through pitch-black chittering caverns, you come to realize that walls are throbbing because they’re made of the cobwebbed bodies of crickets. Each new area also offers an upgrade that keeps the game’s exploration fresh and ever-evolving, as there’s always some different way to across an area, from burrowing through sand like a turbocharged worm to rocketing out of water like a flying fish.

The only place where Will of the Wisps feels contrived is in its combat. Where skirmishes were largely secondary to the overall experience of playing Blind Forest, with escape sequences filling in for traditional climactic showdowns and the majority of fights either avoidable or accomplished at range, Will of the Wisps makes combat a more central component. This would be fine if the more melee-based battles and the increased number of areas in which you must fight were as inventive as the platforming, but it’s often just mash-happy pap wherein you have to kill everything in a room in order to progress. The boss designs for a corrupted wolf, beetle, frog, spider, and owl are meticulously detailed, especially in the ways in which each shows different signs of the Decay that has infected the land, but the battles against them feel repetitive and dull. Though Ori gains many magical attacks ranging from fiery bursts to explosive spears, all that’s required is to simply jump into the air and swing away.

Will of the Wisps begins with Ori attempting to help his new friend, Ku, an owlet, learn to fly. Ori, who has no wings, teaches by constantly finding ways to stay aloft, and by the end of the game, players will rarely touch the ground as they string together moves, such as a wall jump, into a bashing carom off an enemy projectile and, then, an air-dash toward a lantern that can be grappled. The fluidity of this ballistic and balletic gameplay helps to set Will of the Wisps apart from other platformers. But those are just mechanics. It’s the love Ori shows for Ku, and vice versa, that distinguishes Will of the Wisps from almost every other game on the market.

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

Developer: Moon Studios Publisher: Xbox Game Studios Platform: Xbox One Release Date: March 11, 2020 ESRB: E ESRB Descriptions: Mild Fantasy Violence Buy: Game

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Review: Alder’s Blood Grimly Reimagines the Realm of Turn-Based Tactics

The game often feels like a survival-horror experience with its sharp emphasis on the senses.

4

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Alder's Blood
Photo: No Gravity Games

Turn-based tactics games always revolve around direct confrontations with enemies on the battlefield, even in more defense-oriented titles like Into the Breach and XCOM: Enemy Unknown. The old rulebook has been rewritten in Alder’s Blood, which takes place in a miserable world where God has literally been killed by humankind. Here, the absence of a higher power has led to the proliferation of demons that can cripple their prey in a blink of an eye, and so Alder’s Blood demands a sneakier style of play where concealment is paramount and running away is, at times, the best way to complete a mission.

Alder’s Blood, the brainchild of Polish developer Shockwork Games, presents its godless setting in unflattering and even critical terms. The player takes control of a party of Hunters, who look human but wield supernatural powers, the most significant of which is the ability to banish stunned demons. Banishment drains a Hunter’s stamina, a consequence that leads Duke, a blind man who was once a Hunter, to remark, “Such rituals invoke the Darkness too intimately for my liking.” Duke’s sentiment paints a picture of humankind spiraling closer to evil as it struggles to reverse the chaos that it helped bring about. Later, a guide named Myron Wright laments the loss of a better existence, commenting on the pride and greed that led to God’s murder: “We wanted more. We always do … And so mankind turned on its creator.”

It’s that much more disturbing, then, that certain demonic forces in Alder’s Blood are said to originate from God’s very corpse. And this sacrilegious concept, for irreverently suggesting that God’s essence can be corrupted, effectively gives the game an even more fatalistic vibe. An utter sense of hopelessness—also reflected in the highly demanding gameplay, where one mistake probably means you need to restart a mission—becomes the whole point of the tale.

Alder’s Blood takes an ingeniously suspenseful approach to turn-based encounters on a grid-based map that suggests a chessboard. As in many a stealth game, playable characters can avoid combat by ducking in tall grass, distract foes by throwing items from the shadows, and devastate opponents with vicious back-stabbings. One might reason that such mechanics would lead to easier victories in a system of turn-taking, as a significant challenge in stealth titles is properly reacting to events in real time. But developers at Shockwork Games introduce enough new factors to the genre framework so that Alder’s Blood winds up being one of the most challenging turn-based releases in recent memory.

One nerve-wracking element is that members of your party emit a scent that can attract demons and spoil the sanctuary of a hiding place. These scents can travel with the wind, which can change dramatically from turn to turn, across various distances, meaning that the player must constantly judge the probability of being found by a demon. Enemies also react to sound. Even in a best-case scenario where one’s entire party surrounds a single target, the wrong type of attack, like a shotgun blast, can wind up attracting the attention of off-screen threats. Alder’s Blood often feels like a survival-horror experience with its sharp emphasis on the senses—an exceedingly rare and thrilling characteristic for a tactical game of this sort.

Often the smartest strategy in Alder’s Blood is to eschew conflict altogether. One early mission, where your party must escape the unfairly lethal attacks of shadows that materialize right beside the Hunters, seems impossible to complete without the use of traps that can temporarily immobilize demons. In other situations, even if you have the potential to kill a couple of enemies, it’s usually better to refrain from violence. Almost every action in combat depletes a stamina bar, and if characters lose all their stamina, they can’t perform any action during the next turn, which can mean death if the wrong threat appears on-screen.

The game’s intimidating and intense sense of atmosphere, the need for precise decision-making, and even the term “Hunter” register as a strong nod to Bloodborne. But whereas Bloodborne was just another incarnation of the hack-and-slash, lock-on-and-dodge formula that was popularized by Dark Souls, Alder’s Blood shakes up the foundation of a long-standing genre, stretching the familiar into a realm of nightmarish wonder. Not even leveling up from consecutive victories dampens the bleakness of the game. Each Hunter creeps toward insanity, which forces the player to commit bloody human sacrifices in order to transfer experience points to new heroes. In Alder’s Blood, success is more ephemeral than it ever has been in a turn-based tactics title, implying that a godless world should not be coveted.

The game was reviewed using a review code provided by No Gravity Games.

Developer: Shockwork Games Publisher: No Gravity Games Platform: Switch Release Date: March 13, 2020 Buy: Game

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Review: Murder by Numbers Serves a Clever Mix of Plot and Puzzle-Solving

The game is a charming concoction full of endearing characters and set to a wondrous soundtrack.

4

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Murder by Numbers
Photo: The Irregular Corporation

Someone’s been murdered and there’s only one way to solve the mystery: via nonograms. Also known as picross, nonograms are grid-based logic puzzles with number clues that allow you to figure out, by process of elimination, which grid squares to fill in and ultimately form a picture. British video game developer Media Tonic’s Murder by Numbers blends those puzzles with visual novel-esque investigation sequences, creating a charming concoction full of endearing characters and set to a wondrous soundtrack.

The ‘90s-set game follows Honor Mizrahi, a newly out-of-work actress turned amateur sleuth, and SCOUT, an amnesiac flying robot who seeks her help because she played a detective on TV. The picross puzzles represent SCOUT’s visual processing system, and whenever a character gives the pair an object or SCOUT scans the environment for clues, a puzzle is triggered. Upon deciphering an image, Honor can use the resulting evidence in her conversations with the colorful cast of characters, prompting further clues or plot advancements.

Simple though it may sound, Murder by Numbers achieves a deceptively complex balance of plot and puzzle-solving primarily through its relaxed atmosphere, which keeps the puzzles from feeling like obstacles. For as often as people seem to get killed, the murders play out in that incidental, almost friendly mode of laidback case-of-the-week TV shows and paperback mysteries with groan-inducing punny titles. Likewise, the character designs are rendered in a bright, crisp anime style, and starting the game each time even prompts a faintly cheesy theme song. The resulting light tone means that no matter how many puzzles stand in Honor and SCOUT’s way, there’s never a sense that they’re interrupting the flow of the story.

Given the game’s goofy concept, the mysteries could certainly stand to be a little wackier than they are. But the storytelling manages to never feel like a flimsy, throwaway wrapper for simply solving nonograms; instead, it’s a coherent part of the whole, gifted as it is with warm, funny characters of surprising depth. Honor, for her part, has just gotten out of a disastrous marriage, and she struggles with her overbearing mother as well as the general question of where her life is headed. Even her main confidant, a flamboyant hairdresser called K.C., is more than a stock sassy gay friend, as the game makes space for his backstory of emigrating from Britain and only finding his feet in L.A. through the help of a local drag club.

Barring the occasional timed nonogram on a smaller grid, the game’s puzzles are low-stakes. Rather than being scored according to how quickly a puzzle is solved, players are simply given points for completing it. There’s an easy mode that automatically corrects errors and a couple of other assistance functions, like hitting a button to randomly fill spaces or check for mistakes. However, foregoing any such functions on the normal difficulty nets you a “difficulty” bonus to your score total, which only affects unlocking bonus puzzles. Any further challenge is mostly self-imposed, because the hints highlighting rows for your next move can be freely toggled on and off without affecting your final score.

There are a few interface hiccups, like the strange inability to remove X marks without selecting the proper function. Likewise, the “check errors” option doesn’t continue to highlight mistakes once you start making corrections, and there’s no “undo” button. But on the whole, the game moves along at a gentle hum, helped in no small part by its astonishing soundtrack. The bouncy compositions come courtesy of Masakazu Sugimori, who’s known for games like Viewtiful Joe, Ghost Trick, and the first Ace Attorney. His work is a boon particularly for a puzzle game such as this, where much of the time is spent staring at a grid while the music loops. Many of the songs are almost comedically epic in scope given the unassuming nature of the puzzle-solving, lending the simple act of filling in squares a uniquely jazzy, ostentatious power without growing monotonous, as the songs constantly move in new, undeniably catchy directions. Sugimori has done some truly impressive work here, crafting an exceptional complement to an already delightful game.

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

Developer: Mediatonic Publisher: The Irregular Corporation Platform: PC Release Date: March 6, 2020 ESRB: T ESRB Descriptions: Blood, Language, Suggestive Themes, Tobacco Reference, Violence Buy: Game

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Review: In Wide Ocean Big Jacket, the Magic Is in the Smallest of Details

The game captures place and feeling through honing in on things that are singular, small, and warm.

4

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Wide Ocean Big Jacket

Turnfollow’s Wide Ocean Big Jacket gains so much of its character from the little details: the radio playing when Uncle Brad buys a pile of wood for a campfire, or the glow-in-the-dark skeleton that he and Aunt Cloanne use to mark their campsite. Their tent is a two-roomer, and Cloanne explains that they, veteran campers that they are, usually set up a little table in the additional space, for reading indoors in the middle of the outdoors. On this trip, though, the other room belongs to Brad’s 13-year-old niece, Mord, and her best friend who’s now her trial boyfriend, Ben. The kids aren’t totally sure about relationships, as they’re still in that phase of life where relationships aren’t a “real” thing yet—more of a distraction and a declaration than a commitment. But they’ve decided to give it a try.

Mord explains this relationship to Brad while they’re setting up camp, telling him that, as a way of acceptance, Ben had said it doesn’t sound “too scary.” Backstory is delivered this way throughout the game, through simple dialogue about what’s already happened. Instead of outright flashbacks to past moments, there’s only the now, the little snapshots of time the characters spend talking in their wooded setting, or the next one, or on the beach. Wide Ocean Big Jacket is broken up into 20 such vignettes, often swapping between perspectives as the characters amble around these tiny areas with their shuffly gaits that have a pleasantly jerky quality reminiscent of hand-drawn animation. Sometimes they have actions to perform, like when Cloanne watches birds through binoculars or Mord cartwheels across the sand.

Other times, you just page through the dialogue (or, in one case, the narrative of a trashy paperback) from an observer’s perspective, seeing what the characters have to say around the campfire and look at their expressions. The dialogue unspools in small snippets on simple black screens, below black-and-white drawings of the characters’ heads. Though the portraits are totally static, the screens convey a lot through simple tone and those unchanging expressions: Mord’s dead-on stare informs her quirky personality, and Ben has the bashful demeanor of a kid whose eyes you can’t quite see behind the reflection of his glasses. What might have felt limited instead seems specific, even affecting.

Turnfollow does so much with so little. Despite its unassuming art style and brief length—a little over an hour, if that—the game suggests so much beyond itself, through the lyrical cadence of the dialogue, the charming specificity it brings to the characters’ lives, and the way it cuts out of dialogue to reveal scenes like how Mord is standing on a picnic table. The characters are so vividly defined that you get the urge to play according to their behavior, whether it’s deciding which bush to pee in or whether or not to cook a whole mess of hot dogs at once on the same skewer. Wide Ocean Big Jacket bottles small moments and makes them feel important, not because they speak to some world-ending conflict, but because they’re formative: a kiss, an argument, a sighting of a pretty cool stick to wave around. The game captures place and feeling through honing in on things that are singular, small, and warm.

The game was reviewed using a digital Switch copy purchased by the reviewer.

Developer: Turnfollow Publisher: Tender Claws Platform: Switch Release Date: February 4, 2020 ESRB: T ESRB Descriptions: Crude Humor, Language, Sexual Themes, Use of Alcohol and Tobacco 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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Blu-ray Review: Spike Lee’s Bamboozled on the Criterion Collection

Criterion’s new transfer brings out the unruly beauty of Spike Lee’s lurid, violent, daring political satire.

4.5

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Bamboozled

In Bamboozled, Spike Lee pushes racist images from the past into the forefront of our consciousness, rendering them inescapable, undeniable. The 2000 film is littered with Mammy dolls, lawn jockeys, coin banks, and other toys and figurines that feature grotesque caricatures of African-Americans. At the center of the film’s narrative are reconfigured tropes of minstrel shows, in which black performers act in blackface, dancing and joking in sketches that often liken African-Americans to animals and buffoons.

Throughout the film, Lee connects minstrelsy to stereotypes of modern pop culture, especially the gangland clichés that are peddled by white-owned corporations to consumers of all kinds, offering an illusion of danger, pivotally divorced of the actual violence of systemic racism. As such, these modes of entertainment sell a laundered form of subjugation back to us, and numb us to the atrocity of America’s original sin while allowing the power structure to continue to profit from it. In a time in which we choose our own news, in which portions of our country are trying to rewrite the past, the fury of Bamboozled is timelier and more poignant than ever.

If Bamboozled were only a lecture on racial images, it would be valuable but perhaps too comfortably processed as a history lesson. What gives the film its charge is that Lee is too much of an artist to merely demonize minstrel culture and its progeny. He sees the art in it—the soulfulness and timing of the performers. Lee uses minstrel shows to grapple with an ongoing irony of pop culture at large, as it is imprisoning, reducing people to often racist, ageist, and sexist consumerist quadrants, and freeing in terms of how it stimulates our hopes and imaginations. The fictional variety show in the film, Mantan: The New Millennial Minstrel Show, is indefensibly, disgustingly racist, though it features superb comic timing and dancing, and is filmed in a lustrous color scheme that stands in stark contrast from the hand-held, often bleached-out Dogme 95-esque aesthetic of other scenes.

Conceived by TV writer Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans) as a protest against the clueless racism of his boss, Thomas Dunwitty (Michael Rapaport), who feels he’s an honorary brother for marrying a black woman and following sports, Mantan is set on a watermelon patch and features a “couple of real coons.” In the show, which borrows bits from African-American entertainers like Bert Williams and Mantan Moreland, among others, Mantan (Savion Glover) and Sleep’n Eat (Tommy Davidson) get into a variety of adventures, stealing chickens and eluding white overseers, and their routines are accompanied by a band outfitted in prison clothes, the Alabama Porch Monkeys (played by the Roots).

Much room is made for the extraordinary verbal and physical precision of Manray and Womack, the characters playing Mantan and Sleep’n Eat, which is tragic in this context, as their talent is placed in a framework of marginalization—a tragedy that Lee clearly sees as ongoing, rippling through the decades in various permutations. Upping the symbolic ante, Manray and Womack are homeless when Pierre discovers them, dancing for nickels. They are modern slaves who choose to sell their souls—a decision that’s underscored by their despairing application of the blackface, fashioned by burned cork and fire-engine lipstick that renders them otherworldly instruments of bitterness and ridicule.

Bamboozled often feels as if it’s on the verge of exploding; it’s a head-spinning work, and Lee’s use of objects and tropes as pieces of self-indicting social infrastructure is reminiscent of the fusion of pulp and essayistic montage that drove Godard’s 1960s-era films. The modern minstrel-show conceit is socially and thematically loaded enough, but Lee adds another narrative hook—in the key of A Face in the Crowd or Network—following a monstrous creation that outgrows its maker’s intentions. Rather than serving as a screw-you to Dunwitty, Mantan becomes a sensation, unearthing the racist roots of more insidious programming. Black viewers seem to enjoy the confirmation of their worst fears, while whites savor the ability to laugh at such caricatures out in the open. Even critics like the show, calling it a brilliant satire.

Bamboozled has a wrenching, meta-textual intensity. Is Lee critiquing the images that make up the film’s Mantan sequences, enjoying them for their lurid disreputability, or both? Lee is a political filmmaker with a penchant for genre-movie sensationalism—a conflict that has always imbued his productions with a daring that’s often lacking in self-consciously nourishing “issues” films. He’s socially engaged, but there’s also a hedonist in him who cherishes style as well as the cathartic energy of sexy, violent set pieces and loose, profane comedy. There’s a strong impression here that Lee, on a certain level, enjoys Mantan, and audiences who’re honest with themselves may have similar reactions. With typical Lee bombast, Bamboozled literally opens with the definition of satire, as Pierre talks to us while dressing for work. In this touch is a terror, on Lee’s part, that this film will be misunderstood.

Even outside of the Mantan scenes, Bamboozled largely suggests a modern minstrel show or sketch comedy. The film is a collision of various tones, with plenty of free-associational curlicues; it’s a parody of stereotypes that revels in all sorts of stereotypes itself. As played by Wayans, Pierre is a peculiar parody of the black man who longs to be white. Wayans speaks in a purposefully fake French accent that’s so broad that we’re reminded of his characters from In Living Color, which is mentioned here in dialogue, while adopting a rigid physicality. Meanwhile, Rapaport commits to the cliché of the rich, educated white dude who speaks in “street” slang that’s informed by pop culture, dropping the n-word liberally. Watching these actors project reductions of the other’s race and to one another is to feel as if you’ve entered a twilight zone of cultural scrambling. The characters are so conditioned by society to play caricatures that they suggest no one; their specificity is lost, and they seek to spread this virus of anonymity with Mantan. On the other hand, perhaps they truly feel at home when assuming accoutrements that are widely associated with another’s race, opening an existential debate as to where culture’s influence ends and the “real us,” whatever that is, begins.

Dunwitty is a one-joke character, but Wayans brings a startling pathos to Pierre. That French accent often seems on the verge of cracking, and Pierre’s intoxication with parroting racist words back to Dunwitty suggests a need to cathartically confront the absolute worst of white people’s assumptions about African-Americans—a need that’s extended via Mantan itself. In this and other ways, Bamboozled rhymes with Lee’s recent BlackKklansman, which featured a Jewish police office impersonating a Klansman and confronting, with this performance, the ugliness of discrimination—an act that isn’t without a certain strange rapture.

Lee shares in this rapture, as Bamboozled is a kinetic, weirdly exhilarating howl of rage that grows more varied and risky as it proceeds, featuring absurd, sexualized, profoundly realistic fake advertisements within the context of Mantan, as a well as interludes with a militant musical act, the Maus Maus, that suggests a blend of the Black Panthers and Public Enemy. Everyone here, even those who share Lee’s own convictions, is understood to be for sale and vulnerable to branding. (You may wonder if Lee, a wealthy African-American artist with a shrewd sense of promotion and style, who’s directed advertisements for Nike and other companies, is wrestling with his own branding complicity, though this possibility isn’t explicitly broached in Bamboozled, and it’s the film’s one failure of nerve.)

Bamboozled ultimately feels less like a satire than an act of conjuring, channeling pop culture’s manipulations into an unforgettable 136-minute torrent of hyper-kinetics. A sadness of the film, retrospectively, is that it’s dated. In our present-day era, with cellphones, the Cloud, and streaming sites, with the government giving more money and leeway to corporations every year, with news that’s designed to provoke and divide, with a president who actively encourages, and profits from, racism, craven branding culture has only grown more powerful, and notions of self only more fragmented.

Image/Sound

This new digital master, created in 2K resolution and approved by writer-director Spike Lee, boasts a wider spectrum of color than prior editions. The minstrel sequences, shot in 16mm, boast especially explosive colors, notably the reds, greens, and blacks that evoke, and parody, a diseased idealization of a slave plantation. The scenes outside of the minstrel show are grittier, with shriller lighting that’s very well rendered here, with newfound subtleties evident in Lee’s prismatic imagery, especially in reflections and frames within frames. Another ingenious, disturbing visual effect is also more pronounced than ever before: As Pierre begins to suffer from hallucinations, imagining his racist toys coming to life, the cinematography grows richer and more vibrantly dark, echoing the aesthetic of his minstrel show. Facial and clothing details are also astonishingly clear, which is of paramount importance to a film concerned with various distortions of human bodies. Meanwhile, the 5.1 surround soundtrack is a show-pony triumph, a fluid and cacophonous blend of various sources of music and a dense assemblage of diegetic effects, from the click-clack of tap dancing to the shockingly loud percussion of gunfire—sounds that even blend together in the film’s violent climax.

Extras

A 2001 audio commentary by Lee has been ported over from a prior DVD edition, and it remains a frank and informative discussion of an incisive film. The 55-minute “The Making of Bamboozled,” also from 2001, has been recycled here, though one wishes it favored on-the-set footage more than talking-heads puffery. A new conversation between Lee and critic Ashley Clark covers the film’s controversy, and Lee still seems nearly giddy with the outrage it provoked. Complementing this discussion is a terrific interview with film and media scholar Racquel Gates, who offers a primer on the history of minstrel shows, particularly the many performers who are referenced directly in Bamboozled. There are also poignant new conversations with actors Savion Glover and Tommy Davidson and costume designer Ruth E. Carter, who collectively describe Lee’s adventurousness and openness to contribution and collaboration. The best new extra, though, is Clark’s essay, which discusses Bamboozled’s wide spectrum of influences, ably contextualizing its resonance. Rounding out the package are music videos for the fictional band the Mau Maus’s “Blak Iz Blak” and Gerald Levert’s “Dream with No Love,” as well as deleted scenes, a poster gallery, and the trailer.

Overall

Criterion has brought out the unruly beauty of Spike Lee’s lurid, violent, daring political satire.

Cast: Damon Wayans, Savion Glover, Jada Pinkett Smith, tommy Davidson, Michael Rapaport, Thomas Jefferson Byrd, Paul Mooney, Sarah Jones, Gillian Iliana Waters, Susan Batson, Christopher Wynkoop, Jani Blom, Dina Pearlman, Danny Hoch, Mos Def, MC Serch, Gano Grills, Canibus, DJ scratch, Charli Baltimore, Mums, Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards, Tyheesha Collins, Cartier Williams, Jason Bernard, Baakari Wilder, Sekou Torbet, The Roots Director: Spike Lee Screenwriter: Spike Lee Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 136 min Rating: R Year: 2000 Release Date: March 17, 2020 Buy: Video, Soundtrack

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Review: Antonio Margheriti’s Cannibal Apocalypse on Kino Lorber Blu-ray

Cannibal Apocalypse suggests that war isn’t just hell, it’s also contagious.

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Cannibal Apocalypse

One of the most interesting aspects of the films from the golden age of Italian exploitation cinema, apart from their entertainment value and often sheer lunacy, has to do with the way they incorporate elements derived from a wide range of other recent films. The results are too easily dismissed as mere “rip-offs,” but the reality is that they’re much more akin to what a DJ does with sampling. Ideas, images, themes all get fused together in novel and often revelatory fashion. Consider in this regard co-writer-director Antonio Margheriti’s Cannibal Apocalypse.

The original Italian title of the film is Apocalypse Domani, which translates as “Apocalypse Tomorrow,” cheekily indicating its thematic debt to a certain Francis Ford Coppola film. In Apocalypse Now, Martin Sheen’s Captain Willard sails up a river into Cambodia to stop a madman’s guerilla war, only to learn that war (and not just the one in Vietnam) is madness and moral rot. But Margheriti’s film suggests that war is also contagious, when a trio of soldiers brings the conflict back home in viral form. What’s more, the very metaphor of conflict-as-disease further aligns Cannibal Apocalypse with films like George Romero’s The Crazies and David Cronenberg’s Rabid.

Cannibal Apocalypse opens in full-on action mode, with Green Beret Norman Hopper (John Saxon) blasting his way through a cadre of Vietcong who are holding a couple of American soldiers as POWs in a pit. But these are no ordinary soldiers; deprivation and torture have turned them into cannibals, evidence of which we soon see in all its gory glory. When Hopper reaches down to offer them a saving hand, he’s promptly bitten for his efforts. This is then revealed to be a dream sequence, albeit one that also serves as expository flashback, which we realize as soon as we see the scar on Norman’s arm.

All isn’t exactly quiet on the home front for Norman Hopper, whose name is a likely nod to Apocalypse Now actor Dennis Hopper. Norman’s marriage to TV broadcaster Jane (Elizabeth Turner) seems at a standstill. As a result, Norman takes a few too many liberties with Lolita-esque neighbor Mary (Cinzia De Carolis). The scene, already hinting at Norman’s cannibalistic urges, queasily conflates the twofold meaning of the word “carnal,” positing Mary as the object of Norman’s appetites, both sexual as well as gustatory. Needless to say, this is a plot development that precious few American films would pursue.

Things are further complicated when one of Norman’s POW buddies, Charlie Bukowski (Giovanni Lombardo Radice), is inexplicably furloughed from a mental ward, having been deemed totally cured. Soon he’s avidly cramming popcorn down his gullet at a movie theater, before taking a large chunk out of a female patron’s throat while she’s making out with her boyfriend. The film blazingly charts a vicious circle of ineffectual treatment and its resultant violence, as Charlie’s actions culminate in a tense standoff at an indoor flea market that ends with his return to the psychiatric facility. The entire sequence in the flea market takes up nearly a quarter of the film’s length, playing out almost in real time. Any resemblance to Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon is likely not accidental.

After an increasingly infected Norman liberates his two buddies, Charlie and Tommy (Tony King), from the psych ward, and with the help of Nurse Helen (May Heatherly), Cannibal Apocalypse morphs into a chase through the streets and sewers of Atlanta, with the foursome being pursued by the hyperbolically profane Captain McCoy (Wallace Wilkinson). This stretch definitely betrays a family resemblance to the urban-based opening of Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, down to the makeup of Norman and his three tagalongs. Except that here the “heroes” are cannibals, and the infection they bear is spreading throughout the city.

Margheriti doesn’t take pains to chart the spread of the cannibal epidemic in the ways that Cronenberg would. Instead, he keeps close to the central foursome and their increasingly claustrophobic plight. Margheriti’s directorial strengths are fully on display throughout the sewer-set climax (clearly shot on a soundstage back in Italy): Clever camera placement and razor-stropped editing wring the maximum tension out of each further development. (Viewer beware, however, there’s some obvious fiery violence done to a live rat or two.)

The downbeat finale has Norman finding his way home to confront Jane, but not before he changes into full Army uniform. More than anything, this is reminiscent of Bob Clark’s Deathdream. Both films grimly highlight the death wish at the bottom of military endeavors. Conflict is a disease and, in the end, the best-case scenario for the couple is to put each other out of their misery, like you would a rabid dog. In its last moments, the film offers a chilling coda involving young Mary that reveals things are far from over with this contagion: Cold comfort comes from a severed arm in the neighbors’ icebox.

Image/Sound

Kino Lorber’s 4K restoration of Cannibal Apocalypse looks superb, with lots of fine details in the 1.66:1 image evident throughout, especially when it comes to the numerous sweat-drenched close-ups in the action sequences. Jungle greens, bloody reds, the teal hues of the climactic sewer scenes all register vibrantly, with black levels in the low-lit scenes pleasingly uncrushed. Grain levels are finely calibrated. The two-channel Master Audio mix is sufficiently sturdy, considering all the dialogue was looped in post, and gives suitable emphasis to Alexander Blonksteiner’s often contrapuntally funky score.

Extras

Film historian Tim Lucas delivers another exemplary commentary track, packed with information, and just enough breathing room for us to process it all. Lucas covers the backgrounds of the principal cast and crew, the film’s production history, and the location shooting around Atlanta (far more thoroughly than the perfunctory video tour that’s also included on this disc). Lucas does a particularly fine job when it comes to pointing out the myriad generic and narrative influences on Cannibal Apocalypse. The hourlong documentary Cannibal Apocalypse Redux from 2002 features star John Saxon, actor Giovanni Lombardo Radice (a.k.a. John Morghen), and writer-director Antonio Margheriti (who passed away later that year) giving their own take on the production. Both actors describe enjoying their collaboration with Margheriti, even if they weren’t always pleased with the things they were asked to do on screen. The filmmaker discusses his approach to the material, the vicissitudes of shooting in America, and his preference for filming action sequences.

Overall

Cannibal Apocalypse suggests that war isn’t just hell, it’s also contagious.

Cast: John Saxon, Elizabeth Turner, Giovanni Lombardo Radice, Cinzia De Carolis, Ramiro Oliveros, Tony King, Wallace Wilkinson, May Heatherly Director: Antonio Margheriti Screenwriter: Antonio Margheriti, Dardano Sacchetti Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 96 min Rating: R Year: 1980 Release Date: March 17, 2020 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: The Bolshevik Trilogy: Three Films by Vsevolod Pudovkin

Flicker Alley’s smartly packaged Blu-ray release is your essential introduction to an overlooked master of early Russian cinema.

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The Bolshevik Trilogy: Three Films by Vsevolod Pudovkin

While Sergei Eistenstein’s montage theory shaped Russian cinema in the 1920s, other filmmakers—such as Dziga Vertov, Lev Kuleshov, and Kuleshov’s student, Vsevolod Pudovkin—had their own ideas about how editing could be deployed to maximum effect. Central to Pudovkin’s approach to cinema is his belief that “editing controls the psychological guidance of the spectator”—a quote that gets at the heart of his opposition to Eisenstein’s tendency to focus on the unified masses over individuals and create meaning through a dialectical collision of disparate images.

In Eisenstein’s films, these collectives typically stand in opposition to their capitalist, autocratic oppressors, while individual characters primarily function as emotional signifiers rather than fully fleshed-out human beings. By contrast, Pudovkin’s films focus more on characters’ inner turmoil before spiraling out toward an understanding of collective organization and action. Where Eisenstein’s scene construction is often fragmented, abundant in jarring juxtapositions, Pudovkin’s is more fluid and psychologically motivated, wholly dependent on the specific characters within a given scene.

Pudovkin’s debut film, Mother, is perhaps the greatest illustration of his application of montage. Like Eisenstein’s Strike, released a year before in 1925, Mother tells the story of a factory workers’ strike, but much of the film’s first half plays out through the perspective of a single family: the son (Nikolay Batalov) who’s swept up in the workers’ movement; the father (Aleksandr Chistyakov) who’s recruited by the ultra-nationalist group, the Black Hundreds, to help violently shutdown the factory strike; and the mother (Vera Baranovskaya) whose initial worries about her son’s revolutionary acts eventually turn to sympathy for the cause.

Through this family drama, we’re given a sense of the divide between the classes and the struggles of everyday working-class people, with the son first standing up to his drunken father for beating his mother and later being blamed for his father’s death following a fight between strikers and members of the Black Hundreds. Because Pudovkin filters much of the proceedings through the eyes of the son, this death and the fallout it causes with his mother carries strong emotional resonance. Yet, Pudovkin still effectively weaves this experience into the larger fabric of these revolutionary times, using this event as a symbolic fracturing of the family dynamic—a form of collateral damage on the path to building a new communist society.

Following the father’s death, Mother opens up to the larger sense of sociopolitical upheaval, presenting a sweeping condemnation of Tsarist Russia, from the callous capitalist businessman to corrupt policemen and cruel, indifferent judges who condemn the son with little to no evidence against him. These men only make brief appearances in the film, but they’re granted a striking psychological realism through an array of close-ups of expressive gestures—a policeman stroking his hand, a factory owner tapping a cigarette on a fancy case, a disinterested judge sketching a horse while the son’s case plays out.

These miniature portraits are starkly contrasted with Pudovkin’s more blatantly symbolic use of nature, which always stands in direct opposition to tyrannical power. Pastoral fields (the domain of the workers) are presented in all their idyllic glory, and in a stunning sequence late in the film, melting sheets of ice flow downstream, paralleling the movement of now-empowered workers as they furiously march in protest to free their unjustly jailed comrades.

Pudovkin’s use of nature is used even more explicitly in 1927’s The End of St. Petersburg, with the beauty of the Russian countryside pitted against the harsh architecture and polluting factories of St. Petersburg. Through parallel editing, Pudovkin lays bare a nation’s class inequities, with rural areas rife with starvation and poverty while the city is controlled by an affluent upper class that’s indifferent to this suffering. The clash of ideologies is made even more glaringly apparent here than in Mother, as images of chaos at the stock market and of greedy traders and businessmen are repeatedly juxtaposed with shots of people struggling to survive in the countryside and workers suffering through long work days and the senseless violence of war, which is shown to benefit only the war profiteers.

Like Mother, The End of St. Petersburg filters the historical and the political through the hardships of an unnamed peasant (Aleksandr Chistyakov). And the man’s journey from the countryside to a factory in the titular city and then to the battlefield anchors the sweeping revolutionary history of 1917 Russia through a single perspective, at once unique and representative of the experiences of many thousands of others at the time.

Pudovkin’s final entry in his “Bolshevik Trilogy,” 1928’s Storm Over Asia, is a bit of an outlier, not only in its injection of historical fiction, with imperialist British rulers in power in Russia, but also in its ethnographic study of the daily lives of ordinary Mongolian herders. The film is stylistically and narratively the most straightforward of the three, relying on rapid montage only a handful of times throughout. Pudovkin’s focus instead lies in exploring the bonds between poor Mongolians and Russians, and conveying the value of their cooperation in helping to overthrow their domineering foreign rulers.

Pudovkin again works from the minute to the epic, first plunging the viewer into the world of a poor Mongolian herder, Bair (Valéry Inkijinoff), before contrasting the gorgeous, bucolic landscape in which the man lives and the cooperative nature of his people with the racist, materialist, and exploitive actions of the British. In a way, Storm of Asia is less pro-Bolshevik than anti-imperialist, but its more global perspective offers insight into how the Bolsheviks saw Russia in relation to the rest of the international community at the time. It’s a fitting finale to a trilogy that sets out to illustrate the various reasons for embracing a particular ideology as well as a potent display of Pudovkin’s ability to merge his examinations of individual turmoil with pointed social and political commentary.

Image/Sound

Neither Mother nor The End of St. Petersburg were transferred from restored sources, and the flawed presentation of both films highlights the myriad challenges that need to be overcome in order to restore any but the most well-preserved silent films. Both films here are obviously presented in HD and the sharpness and detail of the image is far superior to prior transfers. But quite a bit of damage and debris is on consistent display throughout both films; there’s also a recurring flickering that begins to wear on the eyes after a while. Blacks very frequently appear closer to milky grays, and although both films are still very much watchable in this state, it’s clear that they could use a hefty polishing to return them to their former state of glory. Fortunately, the transfer of Storm of Asia is sourced from a brand new 2K remaster, scanned from a 35mm print, and the difference is night and day. Blacks are considerably inkier, finer details are visible throughout the frame, and while signs of dirt and debris remain visible, it’s negligible compared to the other two films included in the set.

Extras

Flicker Alley’s two-disc Blu-ray set is brimming with informative and engaging extras that help to contextualize all three films within the period of Russian history and cinema in which they were made. The two beefiest features are the audio commentaries on Mother and Storm Over Asia. The first, by Russian film historian and curator Peter Bagrov, touches on Pudovkin’s approach to articulating the empathy and humanism of Maxim Gorky’s novel. Bagrov’s discussion of Pudovkin’s aesthetic, and the ways he uses distance, camera angles, and lighting to convey his characters’ psychological complexity, is particularly effective. Most surprising is Bagrov’s argument that American continuity editing, especially that of D.W. Griffith, helped to shape Pudovkin’s aesthetic. Film historian Jan-Christopher Horak’s commentary for Storm Over Asia is noticeably drier, as it sounds as if he’s reading from a script verbatim, but he nonetheless offers some intriguing observations, namely on the effects that Stalin’s rule had on Russian experimental cinema of the 1920s, along with a plethora of information about Mongolian and Russia history that sheds light on certain aspects of the film.

Most enlightening of the remaining extras is the 10-minute “A Revolution in Five Moves,” which uses specific shots and scenes from the “Bolshevik Trilogy” to illustrate Pudovkin’s use of motifs, symbolism, contrast, parallelism, and simultaneity. The slightly shorter “Five Principles of Editing” is a nice companion piece, giving more precise definitions of these concepts and additional examples from within the three films. Clocking it at under two minutes a piece, both “Amateur Images of St. Petersburg” and “Notebooks of a Tourist” provide a layman’s perspective of life in 1920s Russia. Pudovkin’s slight but amusing 1925 short film Chess Fever is also included as is a booklet with an essay by film historian Amy Sargeant.

Overall

Consider Flicker Alley’s smartly packaged Blu-ray release of Vsevolod Pudovkin’s “Bolshevik Trilogy” your essential introduction to an overlooked master of early Russian cinema.

Cast: Vera Baranovskaya, Nikolay Batalov, Aleksandr Chistyakov, Anna Zemtsova, Ivan Chuvelyov, Sergey Komarov, Valéry Inkijinoff, Viktor Tsoppi, Fyodor Ivanov, Boris Barnet Director: Vsevolod Pudovkin Screenwriter: Nathan Zarkhi, Osip Brik Distributor: Flicker Alley Running Time: 291 min Rating: NR Year: 1926-1928 Release Date: March 10, 2020 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: Direct Cinema Classic Salesman on the Criterion Collection

One of the great and influential American films receives a notable visual upgrade.

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Salesman

David Maysles, Albert Maysles, and Charlotte Zwerin’s Salesman truly sees its subjects, with none of the distancing formality that’s typical of documentaries or even narrative films. Following four Irish-Catholic salesmen as they work their trade in their selling territories in Boston and Florida, the filmmakers utilize no interviews or narration and make no reference to their own presence, while the salesmen exude a naturalistic ease with the camera that’s virtually unprecedented for non-actors. The result is an immersive drama that bridges real-life details with the catharses of parables with expressionistic on-the-fly camerawork, a blend of the textural and the poetic that’s hallucinatory and profound.

For contemporary audiences, Salesman will appear to be set on an alien planet. Most obviously, there’s the now-anachronistic notion of the salesmen, who appear to live on dollars at a time. The men sell illustrated bibles door to door for 50 bucks a piece, offering a variety of payment plans, which can go as low as a dollar a week. They receive their leads from the Catholic Church, which lends its prestige to the racket. We see many sales pitches in the film, and Zwerin and the Maysles foster a wrenching double-awareness: We’re empathetic to the salesmen, who’re making a precarious living, and to their intended customers, who’re often forced—via prodding, usually through means of religious guilt—to admit that they don’t have the money for an object that will probably be forgotten on a shelf the moment it’s received. When the customers are driven to these confessions, we’re aware of the camera despite its invisibility, as it’s serving to intensify the humiliation suffered by both parties.

Another detail that deepens the film’s despairing view of capitalism is that the salesmen, presumably living hand to mouth, nevertheless drive whip cars. There’s a lingering impression here that these men, as stuck as they are, have some form of security that reflects the long-gone middle-class prosperity of the post-war United States. Related to this security is the film’s proffering of another comfort that’s strange in this bleak context: The door-to-door racket, with the driving and the bullshitting and the conferences, is physically, socially tactile, in stark contrast to our present-day world, which is dominated by online transactions.

Yet these men aren’t to be envied, as they dress in drab suits, chain smoke, and live in anonymous motels and diners. (Notably, none of the salesmen are seen drinking.) The filmmakers carefully omit moments with the men at home, fashioning a slipstream of on-the-road exertions that comes to suggest a kind of purgatory. The closet we get to “home” is a brilliant scene in which the men sit in line on a motel bed, infantilized, waiting to take their turn to call their wives on the phone. Piercingly intimate details continue to surface, as a man’s wife poignantly reminds him to be sure to take care of his tires. Men who might blend into the woodwork of our lives are invested with the stature of tragicomic protagonists, as their individual personalities gradually rise to the film’s forefront.

The men are introduced while in the midst of their respective work, with on-screen text that provides names as well as nicknames. They’re Paul Brennan, “the Badger,” Charles McDevitt, “the Gipper,” James Baker, “the Rabbit,” and Raymond Martos, “the Bull.” The film reveals these monikers to be remarkably apt, especially for the Rabbit, a hyper-enthusiastic young buck, and the Bull, a stout brickhouse of a fellow who expertly wields his hail-fellow-well-met persona. These men give the film a comic pulse, as they thrive on the danger of their profession as well as on the oratorical power of their improvisatory gift for rationalization, which they render into a kind of American folk art. The star, though, is Brennan, an especially artistic and volatile soul who has a habit of perceptively, beautifully summing up his lot in life. He’s the reason that Salesman is compared to Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman and Eugene O’Neil’s The Iceman Cometh, and he’s this film’s beating heart.

A successful sale hinges on a salesperson believing their own bullshit. McDevitt, Baker, and Martos seem to recognize that, but Brennan’s understanding of his job as a racket undermines him. Early on, while the men are trading war stories after a day’s work in one of countless motel rooms, Brennan holds a hand to make a “zero” with his fingers, succinctly, theatrically summing up his strike out. And this gesture plants the seed of the film’s arc, as Brennan gets locked in a losing streak that inflames his bitterness and, in turn, his losing streak.

One of the other men memorably tells Brennan that he’s fighting his customers, which they can detect. Brennan sinks into loathing, for himself and his marks, whom he sees as pitilessly wasting his time. (What he might not see is how he sometimes pesters them to the brink of harassment.) In one of Salesman’s many unforgettable scenes, Martos pitches a sale while Brennan observes in an easy chair in the background, seething. For a moment, there’s a reprieve from the fury, as Brennan playfully humors a little boy and his toy car before seething some more. Watching such moments, one is once again made aware of the camera, wondering if this film will get Brennan fired—a constant threat embodied by a supervisor who gives a speech that almost certainly inspired David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross.

As Brennan spirals downward, Salesman offers up other grace notes, in which he connects with customers and we see a gift for flimflam that appears to be rooted in authentic humanity. And as the film progresses, these moments increasingly feel like miracles. Brennan comes to suggest a struggling actor (a rumor carelessly perpetuated by Pauline Kael in her 1970 New Yorker review) who flounders less for his lack of talent than for his sensitivity. He’s in a human prison, which is counterpointed by Albert Maysles’s fluid, gritty black-and-white compositions, many of which include beautiful landscapes seen through windows in backgrounds, mocking the cavernousness of this profession. (Other images, of perspective customers in their homes after salesmen have left, suggest the unknowability of people.)

And the final image is among the most devastating in cinema, one which fully encapsulates Brennan’s predicament: Standing in a doorway, bordered on both sides by the negative space of white walls, he’s a man, a wreck of unarticulated rage, lost in himself as an artist with no audience. He’s all of the nightmares of failure that our society conditions us to nurture.

Image/Sound

The new 4K digital transfer of Salesman, undertaken by the Academy Film Archive, offers an image with stunning clarity and depth. This restoration is most notable for its emphasis on the backgrounds of images, which often underscore the worlds that exist outside of the homes where the sales pitches are taking place. Trees, roads, snow, playgrounds, and swimming pools are intensely present, as are the up-close details of the wardrobes and home apparel of the various subjects, which speaks volumes about their lives. The blacks of the cinematography are rich, and the whites are celestially elegant. Nevertheless, a certain grittiness, reflective of the improvisatory nature of the film’s production, remains in tact, preserving Salesman’s evocatively rough and wooly textures. The monaural soundtrack can be fuzzy at times, making speech occasionally difficult to discern, though other sounds—of people’s movement, of the turning of pages and lifting of objects, and so forth—are quite vivid.

Extras

Several of these extras have been ported over from Criterion’s prior edition of Salesman, and they’re still relevant and insightful examinations of the film. The 1968 television interview with Albert and David Maysles, conducted by Newsweek critic Jack Kroll, allows the filmmakers to discuss at length the Direct Film movement and its various misconceptions. Most valuably, the Maysles emphasize that their point of view is still ultimately expressed, and that pure objectivity is impossible. (Albert does suggest that the presence of their cameras didn’t materially alter the film’s situations, which I find highly unlikely.) Salesman’s star, Paul Brennan, is also talked about at length, leading to choice observations about artistic objectivity versus moralizing. And notions of subjectivity and empathy are explored in the detailed, personal, and unmissable 2001 audio commentary with Albert Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin. Additional background pertaining to the Direct Film movement and its origins are also offered up by critic Michael Chaiken in the booklet essay included with the disc.

There are a couple of choice new featurettes. Bill Hader, an actor and comedian as well as a cinephile of impeccable taste and observation, who parodied Salesman in the IFC series Documentary Now!, discusses his love for the film, offering one particularly astute note: that the Maysles often shoot the listeners rather than the talkers, emphasizing how speech is processed rather than delivered. Rounding out the package is “Globesman,” an extraordinary episode from the aforementioned Documentary Now!, as well as the film’s trailer.

Overall

One of the great and influential American films receives a notable visual upgrade courtesy of Criterion, with a couple of fun new supplements also in the mix.

Director: Albert Maysles, David Maysles, Charlotte Zwerin Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 91 min Rating: NR Year: 1969 Release Date: March 10, 2020 Buy: Video

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Review: Jacques Tourneur’s Canyon Passage on Kino Lorber Blu-ray

An unfairly overlooked film gets a solid high-def release from Kino Lorber.

3.5

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Canyon Passage

Jacques Tourneur’s first color feature, 1946’s Canyon Passage, at first seems relatively straightforward compared to the borderline experimental black-and-white films that made him one of the classic studio era’s boldest filmmakers. Also his first western, the film tracks roughneck Logan Stuart (Dana Andrews) as he deals with local thug Honey Bragg (Ward Bond) and weighs his relationship to the virginal Caroline Marsh (Patricia Roc) against his budding attraction to Lucy Overmire (Susan Hayward), the girlfriend of his best friend, George Camrose (Brian Donlevy). This plot, a mixture of romantic melodrama and suspenseful action, is a far cry from the supernatural horror and existential noir on which Tourneur’s reputation stands, and the naturalistic hues of the Technicolor cinematography lack the almost avant-garde textural contrasts of his monochrome films.

Canyon Passage, however, gradually reveals strange undercurrents that complicate its seeming normalcy. Andrews plays Logan, who longs to roam the frontiers of Oregon rather than settle down, in the key of one of his existentially restless noir heroes. And the man’s romantic entanglements take on a psychosexual dimension when he inadvertently enters into a loose competition for Lucy with George, whose own proclivities add lascivious undertones to the film. At one point, Logan teases George for the chaste kisses he gives Lucy, to which his friend keeps asking, “Could you do better?,” before Logan finally walks over without a word and gives the woman a tender, passionate kiss to fulfill George’s cuckolding dares.

George, an inveterate gambler who exploits his position as a banker to embezzle gold dust savings from the miners of Jacksonville, Oregon, shows far more attention to money than he ever does to Lucy; in one early shot, the film’s drab colors and soft lighting brighten in a medium close-up of George weighing gold dust, reflecting his momentary euphoria at being in possession of such riches. And such subjective, hyper-stylistic flourishes recur in Canyon Passage whenever George attempts to flirt with Marta Lestrade (Rose Hobart), who presides over Jacksonville’s gambling scene, and who, given her black attire and severe visage, suggests death itself as she looms over George. Every shot that features the woman is marked by extremes in contrast, heavy shadows and stark diegetic lighting that accentuate cinematographer Edward Cronjager’s color palette. Ever so subtly, the film begins to shift from an objective, straightforward use of color and light to an increasingly expressionistic one.

That aesthetic shakeup increases dramatically when Logan and local townsfolk have to deal with raiding parties from a nearby Native American tribe. Though not as focused on the impact of white expansionism as I Walked with a Zombie, nor even as race-focused as Tourneur’s later western Stars in My Crown, Canyon Passage nonetheless acknowledges that frontier tensions owe much to Americans’ callous territorial annexations. Early in the film, Logan and Lucy visit Logan’s homesteader friend, Ben (Andy Devine), who freely admits, “It’s their land and we’re on it, and they don’t forget it,” when the topic of potential tribal aggression arises, though in the same breath he vows to defend his property with violence if necessary.

Later, when raiders approach a party celebrating a newly built cabin, they stand near a bonfire that bathes them in a reddish glow, the cinematography exaggerating their skin color and further casting them as ominous others. Even though that confrontation is dispelled peacefully, the film pointedly shows how the settlers’ mistrust of natives never fades; a raiding party plays a key role in dealing with Logan’s nemesis, local brute Honey Bragg (Ward Bond), but despite townsfolk allowing the tribe to deal with the thief and murderer, they wait to open fire on the indigenous people the second that the Bragg problem is settled.

Made under the aegis of Universal Pictures and on a large budget, Canyon Passage was Tourneur’s first major studio project, and as such it’s something of a transitional work in his oeuvre. At every turn, though, Tourneur’s mastery of visual storytelling and termitic social commentary is evident. The film’s increasingly feverish sexual energy and its handling of racial tensions form a clear link from his work for RKO to his later studio films, proving how well he could smuggle his strange, caustic vision onto a larger canvas.

Image/Sound

Kino Lorber’s disc is sourced from an unrestored transfer, as evidenced by the minor scratches and other decay throughout. There’s also some visible separation between color strips, resulting in an occasional haze around objects and especially faces. Nonetheless, the colors are richly presented, from the naturalistic oak-browns and forest greens to the later suffusion of glowing red. Black levels are also strong, with no obvious crushing and the only occasional softness looking like a result of the transfer source. The mono soundtrack is clear, with even distribution of music, dialogue, and sound effects.

Extras

Film historian Toby Roan provides a commentary track that’s informative, if at times too objectively minded, as his detailing of the actors’ biographies comes at the expense of critical analysis. Nonetheless, Roan provides a number of interesting details about the production that give insight into Jacques Tourneur’s working process.

Overall

An unfairly overlooked film gets a solid high-def release, though it’s hard not to wish for a full restoration of this subtly gorgeous Technicolor opus.

Cast: Dana Andrews, Susan Hayward, Brian Donlevy, Patricia Roc, Ward Bond, Hoagy Carmichael, Rose Hobart, Andy Devine Director: Jacques Tourneur Screenwriter: Ernest Pascal Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 93 min Rating: NR Year: 1946 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy on the Criterion Collection

A zen-like study of aging and male friendship, Reichardt’s sophomore feature remains one of her best.

3.5

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Old Joy

Carefully accumulating and juxtaposing details to form an interconnected web of loneliness, regret, and longing for happier times gone by, Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy would warrant being called a mash-up of Sideways and Brokeback Mountain if it weren’t so superior to those heralded “independent” predecessors in both form and content. Reichardt’s deceptively simple film is pitched in the key of a leisurely Sunday-afternoon drive, providing an intimate fly-on-the-wall perspective on friends Mark (Daniel London) and Kurt (Will Oldham) as they reunite to take a weekend camping trip to the hot springs nestled deep within Oregon’s Cascade Mountains.

Throughout their journey, almost nothing of particularly obvious importance occurs, as Mark and Kurt chat amicably, get lost, have breakfast, and quietly penetrate the lush, green wilderness while listening to Air America radio broadcasts in which both callers and hosts lament the sorry state of the Democratic party, national race relations, and the country’s two-party political system. And yet beneath this outdoor expedition’s façade of inactivity lurks the dull, persistent throb of heartache and anguish, a mood intensified by Reichardt’s exquisite attention to her milieu’s ambient sights and sounds, and brought to melancholic life by London and Oldham’s expressively minimalist performances. “Man, Mark, you really hold onto shit,” says Kurt after seeing his friend’s well-worn marijuana container, though the statement is just as applicable to the speaker himself, a bearded, balding guy who seemingly coasts along with blissful stoner nonchalance but who, it’s slowly revealed, also harbors inescapable sadness.

Mark and Kurt’s excursion instigated by the latter as a chance to reconnect after an apparently lengthy separation. The two men, accompanied by Mark’s dog, dutifully catch up on each other’s lives—Kurt’s miscellaneous stories about running into old friends, Mark’s feelings about his relationship with Tanya (Tanya Smith) and his fear of impending fatherhood—all the while carefully avoiding any overt talk about the tumultuous shared past that stands as the proverbial elephant in the forest. The two discuss topics such as an old record shop’s distasteful transformation into a health food shop (dubbed “Rejucination”), Mark’s father leaving his mother at the age of 70, and Kurt’s personal superstring theory that the universe is in the shape of a tear falling through space, all while a radio voice pontificates about the “uncertainties of the future.” Through such indirect conversations, as well as a naturalistic mise-en-scène encoded with oblique (but nonetheless ever-present and piercing) signifiers, Reichardt delicately reveals stratified layers of emotion.

While such reserve sporadically dampens down its narrative, Old Joy’s informality and subtlety is furthered by London and Oldham, with the former displaying a reticence that barely masks his character’s heightened anxiety, and the latter concealing an apprehensive hopefulness behind a charming, carefree affability. Reichardt fashions an intricate rapport between her protagonists and setting, the silence of the Oregon woodlands counterbalancing the noxious noise of the modern world (“You can’t get real quiet anymore,” Kurt says in explaining his affection for the rural), and the seclusion of their tree-lined destination conveying the friends’ inner and interpersonal alienation. That the hot spring baths are eventually revealed to be hollowed-out tree trunks in which people lie—thus entailing physical communion between naked man and his ancient environment—further reinforces the notion that the trip is, at heart, an attempted reversion to a more natural, harmonious state.

Yet even during Kurt’s climactic explanation of Old Joy’s title and subsequent stab at recapturing what he’d lost, Reichardt’s delicate touch is such that it creates room for an interpretative flexibility. The film’s pauses in dialogue and the unseen spaces between scenes breathe with palpable, mysterious life. It’s only fitting, then, that Old Joy concludes not on a display of expository enlightenment, but rather on an abrupt, inconclusive note that still rings with the sorrow of an airwave-transmitted Greek chorus.

Image/Sound

Old Joy was shot on Super 16mm, and Criterion’s 4K transfer preserves the tried-and-true characteristics of the film stock: warm pops of primary color, rich shadows and forgiving highlights, and a pleasing blanket of grain. Given that the film was shot largely in the Pacific Northwest wilderness, the greens and browns are especially lovely, with numerous shades of foliage represented to complement the red and blue elements in Mark and Kurt’s wardrobe. The soundtrack shares a similar analog warmth to the visual transfer. Old Joy is a quiet, ruminative film about the breakdown of connection, so certain dialogue scenes require extra attention to hear, but it’s to Criterion’s credit that they’ve preserved the dynamics of the film’s mix, allowing the whispered lines to rest right on the edge of audibility. By contrast, that’s not the case with Yo La Tengo’s lush guitar score, which comes through in loud, crisp stereo.

Extras

In newly recorded interviews, Kelly Reichardt and cinematographer Peter Sillen reminisce at length about the simultaneously arduous and informal production process, which required that everyone on the team wear multiple hats and lug equipment deep into the forests of the Cascade Range but which nonetheless sustained a friendly, casual atmosphere. Elsewhere on the disc, a sympathetic Jon Raymond, author of the short story from which the film is based (included in the liner notes), expresses his delight in how Reichardt expanded upon and recontextualized his words, and best of all, Will Oldham and Daniel London reunite for a conversation about their respective roles and the degrees to which they brought their own personalities into them. The essay included in the booklet is by avant-garde expert Ed Halter, who subjects the film to a thorough analysis touching on contemporary masculinity, the state of left politics in America, and Reichardt’s thrifty early career.

Overall

Kelly Reichardt’s sophomore feature is a zen-like study of aging and male friendship, and Criterion’s elegant package celebrates the independent initiative that brought it to the screen.

Cast: Daniel London, Will Oldham, Lucy, Tanya Smith, Keri Moran, Matt McCormick, Robin Rosenberg, Darren Prolsen Director: Kelly Reichardt Screenwriter: Kelly Reichardt, Jonathan Raymond Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 73 min Rating: NR Year: 2006 Release Date: December 10, 2019 Buy: Video

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Review: Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Quai des Orfèvres on Kino Lorber Blu-ray

Kino honors Clouzot’s post-war classic with a vivid presentation and some illuminating extras.

4

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Quai des Orfèvres

Henri-Georges Clouzot’s classic noir procedural Quai des Orfèvres doesn’t conclude, as episodes of the ABC police drama Naked City once did, with a narrator solemnly intoning, “There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them.” But it might as well, for while Clouzot’s film is shot through with certain remarkable coincidences and narrative implausibilities, it’s not a tale of exceptional people doing extraordinary things, but rather ordinary, dissatisfied Parisians driven to desperate action by the unwieldiness of their emotions and the proscriptions of their social circumstances. The film’s characters—mostly show-business types swirling around the seedy subculture of Paris’s post-war cabaret scene—are flawed, even pathetic, figures, but they provide a lens through which we can view the pervading anxiety and malaise of a nation recovering from its own near-destruction.

The plot—loosely adapted from a potboiler by Stanislas-André Steeman, who reportedly hated Clouzot and co-screenwriter Jean Ferry’s major revisions to his novel—revolves around the torrid marriage of Marguerite Martineau, a.k.a. Jenny L’Amour (Suzy Delair), a sultry burlesque singer, and Maurice (Bernard Blier), her jealous, weak-willed husband. Jenny, who spends much of the film clad in provocative lingerie or luxurious furs, is coquettish and free-spirited. She’s genuinely committed to her husband but also not ashamed to flirt with the right man if it will advance her career. Such behavior drives Maurice insane with jealousy; a man of upper-class stock who, the film subtly suggests, threw away his respectable classical training to be Jenny’s full-time accompanist, he takes a more conservative attitude toward the overflowing carnality of his proletarian wife. As one theatrical producer memorably observes, “It’s his bad upbringing. His parents were bourgeois. He sees vice everywhere.”

The duo’s passions truly come to a head when Jenny starts leading on Georges Brignon (Charles Dullin), a loathsome, malformed movie producer with a fondness for coerced sexual encounters with much younger women. After finding apparent evidence of his wife’s infidelity, Maurice sets out on a carefully planned but haphazardly executed plot to kill Brignon and provide himself with a rock-solid alibi. But when he shows up at Brignon’s house, Maurice finds that he’s already dead. We soon learn that Jenny had been at his house that night and bopped him over the head with a champagne bottle after he tried to force himself on her. It’s then that the film largely shifts focus onto the investigation headed by Deputy Inspector Antoine (Louis Jouvet), a chatty, Columbo-esque policeman whose world-weariness belies his quiet fascination with the tawdry criminal underworld he spends his life immersed in.

Though there will be additional details revealed about Brignon’s violent demise, Clouzot isn’t interested in telling a whodunnit mystery. Nor is the film really a police procedural in the traditional sense. With a lesser filmmaker at the helm, this all might have devolved into a trashy melodrama, but in Clouzot’s assured hands, Quai des Orfèvres blooms into a cynical yet deeply humane film populated by complex, full-bodied human beings whose emotional lives tangle together into a romantic Gordian knot. Perhaps no figure in the film is more deeply complicated than Dora (Simone Renant), a photographer neighbor of the Martineaus who secretly pines after Jenny. Dora is a tough yet vulnerable woman whose self-awareness about her own sexuality has done little but make her deeply unhappy, and she forms an oddly intimate relationship with Antoine. Together, they’re two knowing outsiders, doomed to a life of observation rather than participation.

Clouzot renders his characters’ lives with a deep precision and a lack of moral judgment. Shot mostly on carefully furnished sets in shadowy black and white, the film’s mise-en-scène deepens what could be simply a tale of crime and passion into a sophisticated social drama. Small details, such as the way characters frequently keep their coats on indoors, evoke the discomfort of their living situations. By contrast, scenes of a crowded, smoky dance hall where everyone checks their overcoat—the fact that Maurice doesn’t do so on the night of the murder becomes a key clue in Antoine’s investigation—feel positively muggy, thus suggesting that one of the major draws of the cabaret for its largely working-class patronage is simply the respite it provides from the chilly winter weather.

Throughout, we receive tiny little peeks at the lives of the many people that populate the periphery of the film, such as the barfly taxi driver (Pierre Larquey), a witness in the case who refuses to speak to police out of a deeply held antipathy for authority. (Eventually, Antoine, in perhaps his most devious moment, forces the man to make a key identification by threatening his cabbie’s license.) Or the languid chanteuse (Joëlle Bernard) whose ennui-laden rehearsal in one scene suggests a lifetime of bitterness and disappointment. A sequence in the police station, in which Antoine reads out Maurice’s statement to a typist, would seem to be an opportunity for Clouzot to juice up the suspense, but instead it’s presented as a lightly comic slice of office life populated by men and women dully going about their daily routine. However, later, there are indications of the Paris police’s use of torture against some suspects, indicating a corrupt and brutal underbelly to the forces of law and order in France.

The resolution of the murder investigation is essentially contrived, letting the characters off the hook in unconvincing fashion. But by that point, it scarcely matters. Quai des Orfèvres is fundamentally an exquisitely detailed snapshot of a particular time and place, one that focuses on a relatively small group of characters but which constantly spans out to evoke an entire society. It’s fitting then that the film ends not by closing in on itself with, say, a shot of Maurice and Jenny embracing, but rather finishes by opening out. The final image is of Antoine and the adopted African son he’d brought back with him after serving in France’s colonial wars. The shot is from the point of view of Maurice and Jenny’s apartment, and we watch as the pair strolls out of the courtyard and into the city at large. This has been one story of post-World War II Paris, but, Clouzot suggests, there are many, many more.

Image/Sound

Adopting the same recent 4K restoration of Quai des Orfèvres that Studio Canal used for its recent Region B Blu-ray release, Kino Lorber’s disc presents cinematographer Armand Thirard’s stunningly rich 1.37:1 black-and-white images in pristine fashion. There’s depth even in the darkest shadows, and every nuance of the complex mise-en-scène is brilliantly sharp. One can discover details hidden in the deep background of the smoky interiors of the film’s dance hall scenes. The DTS-HD Master Audio stereo track is similarly excellent, offering a nice balance of simple dialogue scenes, aurally dense musical sequences, and a few nearly silent stretches. The dialogue is ever so slightly muffled in a few spots, though this seems to be a product of the original elements rather than any error in the restoration or transfer. This is a truly dazzling presentation of a sumptuous and visually varied classic.

Extras

Drawing on historical research, academic studies, and his own incisive analysis, critic Nick Pinkerton provides a sharp, informative commentary track. He places Quai des Orfèvres in the context of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s career while excavating surprisingly detailed mini-histories of even minor performers in the film. But the strongest element of the commentary may be Pinkerton’s own trenchant critical observations on the film itself, particularly his thoughts on Clouzot’s subtle visual touches, the story’s class politics, and the non-stereotypical treatment of lesbianism. The disc also includes a 17-minute featurette on the film consisting of interviews with Clouzot and some of the key cast members culled from a 1971 French TV program. This doc focuses heavily on Clouzot’s cynical worldview and frankly abusive working methods. While not exactly loaded with extras, the disc’s two major features will be exceptionally illuminating for fans of the film.

Overall

Kino Lorber’s release of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s post-war noir classic with a vivid presentation and some illuminating extras.

Cast: Suzy Delair, Bernard Blier, Louis Jouvet, Simone Renant, Charles Dullin, Jacques Grétillat Director: Henri-Georges Clouzot Screenwriter: Henri-Georges Clouzot, Jean Ferry Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 107 min Rating: NR Year: 1947 Release Date: February 25, 2020 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: Robert Altman’s Kansas City Joins the Arrow Academy

A criminally underrated late-period Altman film gets a burnished Blu-ray upgrade and a full slate of fine extras.

4

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Kansas City

Robert Altman vividly brings to life childhood memories of his hometown in 1996’s Kansas City. But this is no mere exercise in wistful nostalgia, as the filmmaker is irresistibly drawn to the seedy underbelly of the titular Missouri town, its garish neon-lit nightclubs and swinging jazz joints. From there, the film spirals out into one of Altman’s signature network narratives, using its sprawling cast of characters to investigate political corruption, race relations, and the effects of mass media on the public. Kansas City is also an unabashed love letter to 1930s jazz music, which plays almost uninterruptedly throughout the film. This allows Altman to bring in contemporary jazz musicians to portray historical figures like Count Basie, Lester Young, and Coleman Hawkins.

Kansas City opens with a kidnapping. The fact that kidnapping was considered the prototypical crime of the era is later a topic of discussion between kidnapper and kidnapped, who bizarrely seem to bond over the fate of the Lindbergh baby. For its first 20 minutes or so, the film utilizes a disorienting nonlinear structure that incrementally fills in the whys and wherefores that lead noticeably non-blonde flapper Blondie (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to waylay laudanum-dependent society lady Carolyn Stilton (Miranda Richardson) at gunpoint. Mr. Stilton (Michael Murphy) is a local politico with some pull in New Deal-era Washington, and Blondie hopes he can help save her man, Johnny O’Hara (Dermot Mulroney), who’s gotten in over his head with nightclub owner and gangster Seldom Seen (Harry Belafonte).

Kansas City hopscotches between these characters (among others) and their various milieu. Part of the film’s enjoyment lies in discovering their interrelations and crossed intentions. To take just one example: Blondie’s brother-in-law, Johnny Flynn (Steve Buscemi), is instrumental in bringing in dozens of fraudulent voters to cast their ballot in the upcoming election. When she explains the scam to Carolyn, the latter seems incredulous that both parties would engage in those sorts of tactics. To which Blondie cynically, if quite rightly, replies: “Democrats? They’re what they’re paid to be. This is America, lady.”

The opening section of the film takes place in the Union Station terminal and, fittingly, given the name, most of the major characters can be seen crossing its cavernous spaces, though it will be some time before we are fully aware of who they are and what they’re up to. We’re also given verbal (radio announcements) and nonverbal (signage) information that’s key to understanding the sociopolitical events that are about to transpire. This setup is very similar to Altman’s use of the airport terminal at the beginning of Nashville, to which Kansas City can be seen as a modest, yet equally incisive, companion piece.

Much like Fritz Lang, Altman is fascinated by the ways that various media link individuals. Communications technologies like the telegraph and telephone play an integral part in moving the plot along. Blondie’s social aspirations are encoded in her adoration for film actress Jean Harlow (another Kansas City native), whom she seeks to imitate late in the film by dying her hair platinum blond. Her house is plastered with photographs of Harlow torn from numerous fan magazines. Earlier, while they’re waiting to be contacted by Stilton, Blondie takes Carolyn to see Harlow’s recent talkie, Hold Your Man, and Blondie can barely tear her eyes from the screen, even when more pressing business awaits.

Johnny O’Hara spends most of the film in the Hey Hey Club basement being reprimanded by Seldom for his criminal audacity. Johnny robbed one of the club’s high-stakes gamblers while wearing blackface, a twofold offense for which Seldom takes his time figuring out the proper punishment. Along the way, he has a lot to say about the acquisitive and destructive attitudes of white society. Johnny reveals his glaring misapprehensions regarding race relations in his appeal for employment instead of assassination, during which he foolhardily claims that his life is somehow worth more to Seldom than his black accomplice’s was.

Again like Nashville, Kansas City concludes with a shocking act of violence. Only this time Altman doubles down with the cruel fate that awaits both Blondie and Johnny. Johnny is quite literally deprived of the guts that he’s so boldly bragged about possessing. And, responding to Blondie’s hysterical breakdown at Johnny’s demise, Carolyn coldly puts her down like you would a horse with a broken leg. It may be a mercy, but it’s one where the dissimilarity between killer and killed reveals a vast existential gulf. This divide is put even further in boldface by Carolyn’s final line of dialogue, once she’s finally reunited with her husband. Over at the Hey Hey Club, the band plays Duke Ellington’s “Solitude,” while the lights dim, and Seldom Seen silently counts out his daily take.

Image/Sound

Arrow’s Blu-ray of Kansas City improves by leaps and bounds over the 2005 DVD from New Line. Though the image is often dark and sometimes a bit soft, the HD transfer satisfyingly captures all the fine period details of costumes and décor. The nightclubs’ neon lights really pop, and color saturation overall is far richer than it was on New Line’s DVD. Grain levels are finely resolved and never chunky. The Blu-ray offers both the original stereo mix and a repurposed surround sound track. The latter provides some roomy spatialization for the almost continuous jazz music on the soundtrack, as well as some impressive canalization of sound effects like ringing gunfire and the clacking of dogs’ nails on parquet flooring.

Extras

Arrow offers an excellent selection of extras archived from both the earlier New Line release as well as a French-language release from 2007. On his commentary track, Robert Altman leans into the childhood memories of his hometown that informed his script. He talks about how the production designers reconstructed the era, describes his early exposure to jazz music, relates some amusing production anecdotes, and gets philosophical about his cinematic and existential influences. Two featurettes briefly explore the film’s evocation of period detail and the era’s musical culture. A DVD-era EPK has tantalizing snippets of interview with many of the cast and crew and some behind-the-scenes footage. French critic Luc Lagier provides a concise intro to the film, as well as an appealingly poetic reading of its themes of interconnection and disjunction. Arrow also tacks on a new bonus feature: an on-camera interview with critic Geoff Andrew, who begins by describing “the Altman style” (overlapping dialogue, roving camera), then provides a brief outline of peak-period Altman titles. Andrew goes on to discuss Kansas City’s depictions of class and race, the film’s rather cynical portrayal of the political process, and its skeptical take on the influence of the media.

Overall

A criminally underrated late-period Robert Altman film gets a burnished Blu-ray upgrade from the Arrow Academy, as well as a full slate of fine extras.

Cast: Jennifer Jason Leigh, Miranda Richardson, Harry Belafonte, Michael Murphy, Steve Buscemi, Dermot Mulroney, Brooke Smith, Jane Addams, Albert J. Burns Director: Robert Altman Screenwriter: Robert Altman, Frank Barhydt Distributor: Arrow Academy Running Time: 116 min Rating: R Year: 1996 Release Date: March 3, 2020 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: Una Familia de Tantas and The Skeleton of Mrs. Morales

With these releases, VCI Video helps correct a gaping cultural blind spot.

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Una Familia de Tantas
Photo: VCI Video

Outside of the films made by Luis Buñuel during his two decades in Mexico, the golden age of Mexican cinema has remained largely unrepresented on home video outside of Mexico. Recently, retrospectives of Roberto Gavaldón’s work have sparked a reassessment of his career, but this rediscovery of a largely forgotten master only highlights the multitude of films still waiting to be unearthed from a national cinema that was a dominant cultural force in the aftermath of World War II and throughout the 1950s. But now, with VCI Video’s Blu-ray releases of 4K restorations of two treasures from that era, Alejandro Galindo’s Una Familia de Tantas and Rogelio A. González’s The Skeleton of Mrs. Morales, we move a little closer toward the correction of a gaping cultural blind spot.

Released in 1949, Una Familia de Tantas begins as a traditional domestic melodrama, with the patriarch, Rodrigo (Fernando Soler), running his household with the same exacting precision with which he balances his company’s books. His demands seem at first to be somewhat reasonable, if more than a bit strict (timeliness for meals and nightly curfews are de rigueur), but eventually the more draconian nature of his Catholic-infused discipline comes to the fore. There’s an undercurrent of perverseness in his obsessive need for control, particularly in his unceasing insistence that his 15-year-old daughter, Maru (Martha Roth), consider her older cousin, Ricardo (Carlos Riquelme), for marriage, as well as in his strictly observed golden rule that no man be allowed entry to the house without him present.

While Galindo stops short of linking Rodrigo’s pious authoritarian reign over his wife, Gracia (Eugenia Galindo), and daughters with an underlying sexual depravity, as Buñuel almost certainly would have, he shrewdly makes symbolic use of the domestic space as an unimpeachable domain of the patriarchy. Much of the film’s first half is set exclusively within the family home, with claustrophobic compositions underscoring the feelings of physical and psychological entrapment the various family members feel under Rodrigo’s thumb. Brief respites allow the eldest son and daughter, Héctor (Felipe de Alba) and Estela (Isabel del Puerto), to sneak out to the front gate to make out with their respective lovers, but their collective fear and paranoia inevitably draws them back inside to avoid their father’s wrath.

This testing of Rodrigo’s authority escalates more rapidly after a travelling salesman, Roberto (David Silva), tries to sell Maru a vacuum cleaner and, later, seduce her. His visit disrupts the heretofore undisputed dominance of Rodrigo’s patriarchal rule within his home, with Roberto’s arrival functioning as a metaphorical penetration of the father’s fortress of solitude and the beginning of a usurpation of an outmoded morality by a vision of modernity itself—both in the form of the modern, secular male, and in the new technological appliances he thrusts upon the family. The gradual destabilization of traditional familial structure ends with an expulsion of one family member, and ultimately leads Rodrigo and Gracia to exit the house for the first time and to a quietly negotiated reconfiguration of the family’s power dynamic.

If Una Familia de Tantas’s indictments of Catholic mores are inferred, The Skeleton of Mrs. Morales makes them largely the sole, explicit target of its contempt. Written by Luis Alcoriza—who collaborated with Buñuel on several of his Mexican masterpieces, including Él and The Exterminating Angel—González’s film ruthlessly excoriates the hypocrisies of both the church and its followers, and with a similarly acerbic wit and caustic humor as one would expect from Buñuel. Here, it’s the matriarch, Gloria (Amparo Rivelles), whose rigid ideological beliefs exert a palpable sense of sovereignty in the home she shares with her taxidermist husband, Dr. Morales (Arturo de Córdova). Yet, where Rodrigo, for all his faults, appeared wholly sincere in his Catholic beliefs, Gloria is far more conniving and prone to hypocrisy as she uses her puritanical ideals as a means of mentally torturing her husband.

From stealing the fun money that Dr. Morales has stashed away and donating it to the church, to ruining his enjoyment of both steak and sex by berating him for the disgusting nature of his job, Gloria employs an array of loathsome tactics simply to deny her husband the simple pleasures of life. Their bond is one of psychosexual torture, made all the more inextricable by Gloria incessantly playing up of the debilitating effects of her disfigured knee, which she uses to further exploit her husband’s sympathy and ensnare him in their relationship.

It’s through Dr. Morales’s increasingly desperate attempts to escape the highly dysfunctional marriage that González further lays out the corrosive effects of a form of sanctimonious self-martyrdom that stems from doctrinaire religious assumptions when mixed with an unhealthy dose of jealousy and resentment. But rather than leaning into the potential misogyny of this setup, González instead steers the plot straight into the realm of the macabre, probing the depths of human depravity with a delightfully cheeky and darkly humorous aplomb. His discerning eye reveals not only the duplicitous nature of the overly devout, but delivers a scathing indictment of a society overrun by the repressed and dispossessed.

Alejandro Galindo’s Una Familia de Tantas and Rogelio A. González’s The Skeleton of Mrs. Morales are now available on Blu-ray from VCI Video.

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Video

Review: Jennie Livingston’s Paris Is Burning on Criterion Blu-ray

Category is “Film School in a Box,” and the House of Criterion earns 10s across the board.

4.5

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Paris Is Burning

In Paris Is Burning, Jennie Livingston’s celebrated snapshot of the late-‘80s New York drag ball scene, such terms as “beauty” and “reality” become loose mercury, blurred like the identities of the black and Latino gay men hitting the drag houses every night. The documentary is right away upfront about the racial, social, and sexual politics of tucking in cocks and putting on dresses: “You’re black, you’re male, and you’re gay,” one queen says early on, recounting the three-strikes-you’re-out fringe status pressed on him since birth.

The world of flaming, cross-dressing theater, then, can stand for an enclosed universe not just of communal acceptance, but also of mockery of the gender-rigidity of “normal” society. Indeed, “Schoolgirl,” “Butch Queen,” “Luscious Body,” and “Town and Country” are just a few of the categories in the drag ball’s burlesque of the beauty pageant.

Where, however, does parody end and yearning begin? To white, middle-aged queen Dorian Corey, the film’s weary drag historian, looking like a less manic Divine while daintily putting on makeup, the events’ obsession with “realness”—that is, with convincingly “passing” as straight men or actual women, instead of gay men—amounts to strutting back into the closet. Yet, to Pepper LaBeija or Angie Xtravaganza, the performativity inherent in drag balls works as pipeline from inner psyche out into the world, transformative rather than delusional.

The beauty of Paris Is Burning is the way Livingston’s nonjudgmental camera is able to accommodate both views, among others, while depicting a familial world apart from white America, with its own sets of rules, rituals, even idioms—notably voguing, the art of pantomime dissing, taken by Willi Ninja into the mainstream via Madonna. (On another level, the creative energy of the balls is explicitly evoked as an alternative to street violence, with the face-offs between queens often acquiring the intensity of gang duels.)

Seemingly amorphous, the film is actually structured as a series of contrasts between dreams and reality, pretending and being, the hopeful youth of Venus Xtravaganza lying on a mattress and the disillusioned middle-age of Corey in front of a pitiless mirror. The quota, with the sudden deaths of various participants, leaves a sad aftertaste, though even while leaving the dry final word to Corey, Livingston’s preference for feeling over exoticism secures an ultimately hopeful study of the search for personal wholeness.

Image/Sound

Boasting a 2K transfer from a 16mm interpositive that I’m sure Junior LaBeija would crack ought to be 24K, Jennie Livingston’s Paris Is Burning has never burned brighter on home video than it does on the Criterion Collection’s crucial new Blu-ray release. The images crack with vibrant activity, and the film’s careening vérité cinematography is raw and immediate. Paris Is Burning wears its fly-by-night look on its sleeve, and if it’s not the typical type of presentation that gives home theater buffs a rise, it’s unerringly faithful to the source material. The single-channel sound is as well, in ways that play up the documentary’s aspirational concerns. For example, the polished sheen of Cheryl Lynn’s “Got to Be Real” stands in stark contrast to the sad, spacious echo of the doomed Venus Xtravaganza’s boom box as it blasts Barbara Mason’s menace-drenched “Another Man” in the summer twilight of the piers.

Extras

Category is “Film School in a Box,” and the House of Criterion earns 10s across the board. It’s truly hard to imagine a release more likely to please the film’s legion of fans than this, short of tracking down every last person featured in the film for a Michael Apted style flash-forward update. I’d personally love to see all-grown-up versions of the two 12- or 13-year-old kids caught by Livingston living their best lives off Times Square, drinking their Sunkist sodas at the height of 2 a.m., but at least the disc’s commentary track reveals one of them was eventually adopted and went to college. The commentary, recorded in 2005 just prior to the death of participant Willi Ninja, also features Livingston, Freddie Pendavis, and editor Jonathan Oppenheim. There’s a lot of material to unpack against Paris Is Burning’s tight 76-minute running time, but it retains a nice balance between examining the film’s historical, political, and technical elements and giving over to the convivial energy shared by Pendavis, Ninja, and Livingston, and in the track’s best moments, it’s the former that brings out the latter, as when Livingston challenges the other two on her qualifications as a feminist.

Livingston gets the full floor in a new, 10-minute introduction to the film’s legacy, and shares the floor in a half-hour conversation with Freddie and Sol Pendavis and filmmaker Thomas Allen Harris. It’s a kick to see how much further ex-soldier Sol, in particular, has come in the last three decades, and the four of them all get in solid observations. (Yes, Paris Is Burning should be one of the 12 films anyone sees before they turn 13.) From the other side of the “how far we’ve come” coin, the disc also features a 1991 episode of The Joan Rivers Show that, thankfully, sees Rivers only occasionally asking cringey questions to panelists Dorian Corey, Pepper LaBeija, Freddie Pendavis, and Willi Ninja, at least up to the point when Rivers corrals them into simulating a ball with dowdy audience members. Criterion rarely includes booklets with their releases any longer this day, but for this release the library is open, featuring a 1991 review of the film by poet Essex Hemphill and a new essay from filmmaker Michelle Parkerson.

But the true coup here is a reel of never-before-seen outtakes advertised as “over an hour” but actually closer to two. The outtakes, some of which has deteriorated quite photogenically (call it Decasia Is Burning), may not be consistently as engaging as the film from which they were cut but offer fans an opportunity to see more stolen moments with beloved souls. Dorian Corey, in particular, gets even more room to spin her slow-rolling ruminations (and, at one point, she calls 911 when bullets ring just outside her window as the film crew scrambles). The outtake reel also features a compilation of competitors from varying categories not featured in the film: “Best Butch,” “Face,” “Dance,” “Realness,” “House Portraits,” “Sleepers” (balls were held during tough hours), and the now undeniably problematic “International Runway Models Effect Coming from a Foreign Place (Russia, Scotland, China, Arabia and Japan),” during which yellowface abounds. And there’s an intriguing interlude in which the house of Xtravaganza takes a road trip to D.C., expounding upon dick size on the long bus ride there.

Overall

Criterion’s edition of this culturally influential doc is so good that it’ll have you working the runway with your own copy, echoing Willi Ninja’s “I bought it, mind you. I have the receipts.”

Cast: Dorian Corey, Pepper LaBeija, Venus Xtravaganza, Willi Ninja, Octavia Saint Laurent, Freddie Pendavis, Kim Pendavis, Sol Pendavis, Junior LaBeija, Angie Xtravaganza, Danni Xtravaganza, Carmen Xtravaganza, Brooke Xtravaganza, Paris Dupree Director: Jennie Livingston Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 76 min Rating: R Year: 1990 Release Date: February 25, 2020 Buy: Video

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