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
Review: Rage 2 Brings the Flair, but It Barely Fills Its Open World
It’s hard not to be disappointed in how little use the Wasteland has for you when you’re not dealing in lead.3
The first Rage was released back in 2011, when it seemed like every game was painted in washed-out browns and grays—a visual shorthand for a world in ruin. Weirder and wilder out of the gate, Rage 2 is certainly more varied in that regard, with lush vegetation and advancements in Wasteland technology bringing modern and bracing fluorescent green and yellow glows to its environment, making for a much more colorful reality, with a striking pink visual motif cutting through almost every scene like a knife.
It’s two decades after the events of the first game, and there’s been enough peace in the post-asteroid-collision world of tomorrow for the Wasteland to develop something resembling an ecosystem capable of supporting life in the long term. And then General Cross makes his grand, violent return, wiping out the Wasteland’s seat of military power and quickly revealing that things haven’t changed as much in this world as its people would like to imagine.
There’s quite a bit of interesting world-building going on here, with the gruff warlords, scrappy survivors, and crackpot scientists of the first game joined by a motley transhumanist population that’s evolved into a slapdash DIY iteration of our modern life. Transgender bartenders and store owners are commonplace. Every human with missing limbs or other body parts seems to have their own personal, customized replacements.
The larger-than-life characters of the upper-classes range from Desdemonia, a Norma Desmond-esque vamp producing a daily televised deathmatch, to simpering scumbags like Klegg Clayton, who’s like the unholy cross between Kenny Powers and Guy Fieri. The critical NPCs who hand out the missions that advance the story are simple archetypes—save for one horrifying, Kuato-like living prosthesis—but people under their leadership are anything but.
The world of Rage 2 is a grand place to shoot things, but an even better place to simply people-watch for a spell. Strolling into new settlements and meeting these people is the most engaging part of the game, as the post-apocalyptic society feels very well conceptualized and lived-in. That said, it doesn’t take long after actually getting involved with missions and side quests to realize little has changed about Rage’s overall gameplay loop. As wonderfully realized as the world is, you only meaningfully interact with it when NPCs have missions to dole out. And those missions almost unilaterally involve driving to a specific place on the map, killing everything that moves, looting the place blind, and moving on.
The killing and looting in and of itself isn’t necessarily a detriment. There’s a lot of the same ethos going on here that fueled Id’s Doom reboot from 2016—a game that, for what it’s worth, I’ve come around to since my initial review. Every gun has a visceral heft and punch to it, bolstered here by a surprisingly vast collection of superpowers and nanomachine-aided combat enhancements. Mechanically, Rage 2 feels more like Crackdown than, well, the Crackdown game we got this year. Missions are rewarding enough where every couple of skirmishes nets you a much-needed upgrade or the materials/currency to purchase or trade for it. It’s become pretty clear in recent years how much we all need to treasure games operating at this level that aren’t abhorrently stingy with immediate gratification.
Doom, however, is a game content to just let the player plow through hordes of nameless cannon fodder for hours, and little else. It starts with the protagonist literally pushing character motivation and backstory aside so he can get some killing done. The setup is far more involved in Rage 2, and the world so much bigger, but it’s one that’s littered with distractions from the main quest, and characters whose motivations and problems beg for more nuance than Rage 2 is willing to provide. Roaming from place to place looking for either more things to kill or better, more efficient ways to do it is a huge waste of an interesting world, and if there was any lesson this type of game should have taken from the Fallout series—or, more broadly, from the Mad Max films it’s drawing so much inspiration from—it was telling dozens of tiny interpersonal tales using the deep pool of well-drawn characters at its disposal without sacrificing being a gory shootout in a desolate environment.
The actual, spatial waste just compounds the problem. Rage 2 is another in a sad class of open-world games that has trouble filling up that open world, and that’s a bigger problem when gameplay doesn’t meaningfully vary from “kill everything in sight.” There’s plenty of driving to be done, and there are races, just like in the first Rage. There’s also a tidy collection of armored vehicles to try out beyond the APC you get at the game’s start. These are the only activities that significantly stray from the one thing Rage demands from its players.
Still, it cannot be understated how good Rage 2 is at that one thing. It’s a game that works wonders in small, appreciable bursts of neon violence, engaging enough to see its comparatively brief story through to its conclusion. When it’s all over, however, it’s hard not to be disappointed in how little use the Wasteland has for you when you’re not dealing in lead.
The game was reviewed using a review code provided by fortyseven communications.
Developer: Avalanche Studios, id Software Publisher: Bethesda Softworks Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: May 14, 2019 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood, Language, Suggestive Themes, Violence Buy: Game
Review: A Plague Tale: Innocence Will Make You Squirm But Its Story Comes Up Short
It’s unfortunate that A Plague Tale’s story falls short of its technical accomplishments.3
French video game developer Asobo Studio’s A Plague Tale: Innocence imagines a 14th-century France ravaged by the combined horrors of the Hundred Years’ War and the Black Plague. After witnessing the murder of their parents by religious fanatics, Amicia De Rune and her sickly younger brother, Hugo, escape their family’s affluent estate, trying to avoid being caught in the machinery of the Inquisition. What follows is a visually impressive third-person adventure game that’s focused to an almost stubborn degree on the extent to which these two young children must stealthily evade their foes, not least of which the swarms of flesh-hungry rats that have overrun the country almost as a matter of course.
Light itself is the star of A Plague Tale, as the rats that emerge from the underground will swarm and consume any living being that doesn’t remain shrouded in light. Throughout, Amicia can use lit torches to safely walk past the ghoulish critters, but these burn out, as well as draw attention from Inquisition knights. Luckily for her, she also has a slingshot at her disposal. This instrument of destruction—and distraction—is your weapon of choice at the start of the game. With it, you can use rocks to knock lanterns from your enemies’ hands, or extinguish their torches, leaving them helpless to the hungry rodents that maddeningly linger in an area. Each scenario is presented as a puzzle where the objective is to figure out how to lure enemies to a certain spot so that they can meet their certain doom.
These sequences are consistently varied, with new tools introduced across the game, such as chemicals that can be used to lure rats away from Amicia and toward your human foes. Likewise, searchlights set up by the Inquisition to provide safe pathways can be moved by the player to plunge enemies into the fatal darkness, and provide new trails for Amicia and her brother to safely traverse. And using these varied gameplay mechanisms in tandem elicits satisfying results, especially when you’re trying to overcome the unusually strong AI, which doesn’t give up as easily as enemies in similar stealth action games like Metal Gear Solid.
Being spotted by the guards who patrol an area will almost always seal your fate, as the guards will relentlessly give chase, and groups of them will work together and cover escape routes to enclose Amicia, as well as call out your position to long-range enemies, such as archers. It’s a dynamic game of cat and mouse, and there’s pleasure to be had in trying to figure out how best to take advantage of A Plague Tale’s core gameplay in order to ensure your survival.
It’s unlikely that players have come across adversaries in a video game as squirm-inducing as A Plague Tale’s rodent swarms. Their movements are realistic, and especially horrifying as the rats overpower their prey in a blood-crazed frenzy, their beady little eyes just barely reflecting the light coming from some nearby object. No less detail-rich are the dilapidated castles and plague-ridden villages you come across that conjure a tense atmosphere that rarely lets up throughout the game. Inside abandoned homes, walls are caked with grime and blood, harrowingly evoking the violence that transpired there, while exterior ruins are cloaked in darkness and fog that obscures all sorts of horrors contained within.
Given how believable this plague-ravaged world is, it’s unfortunate that A Plague Tale’s story falls short of its technical accomplishments. While the plot here is ripe for an examination of the destructive nature of Christian fanaticism, as well as the class divide between the De Rune siblings and the poor, criminal underclass they fall into, the game sidesteps deeper questions about the themes it raises. Even though it casts agents of the Inquisition as its primary antagonists, A Plague Tale is careful not to vilify any kind of faith. In fact, at one point it goes so far as to hastily introduce an archbishop character so that he can conspicuously state that none of the game’s evildoers are real Christians, at which point he’s quickly ushered out of the narrative. And perhaps as a result of the game refusing to label its villains as Christians, it leans on cartoonish, otherworldly depictions of evil taking root in medieval France. Throughout, clichés of power are carried unto absurdity, with the final boss reveal so ludicrous that you’d think we were back in the Eldritch-nightmare-themed world of Bloodborne.
It doesn’t help that A Plague Tale’s protagonists are also flimsily characterized, barely inviting the player’s emotional investment. A late-game chapter that takes place in Amicia’s head lifts more than one sequence from the Silent Hill series’s unnerving Nowhere, but it doesn’t land with any real effectiveness because the girl’s trauma still feels alien to us by that point. Indeed, by the narrative’s conclusion, the player will have spent over a dozen hours with the girl but still know little about her as a person. This is especially unfortunate given that Amicia comes across a few potential romantic partners and personal adversaries across her journey. Just as it seems as if A Plague Tale is about to fully open the door on a personal reckoning for the girl, it quickly closes it shut, ensuring that she remains a cipher.
Nothing in A Plague Tale, though, is as ineffective as Hugo’s characterization. The child’s behavior seems to pivot on a dime, either exhibiting the bearing of a helpless innocent or the wisdom of an old sage. In one scene, he throws a tantrum over the loss of family members; then, not long after, he bemoans how characters lie to him and refuse to trust him with information. Despite being terrifically voice-acted, Amicia and Hugo rarely exhibit the sort of conduct that realistically syncs up with their ages. And after a while, their lack of response to the horrors that befall so many innocent people in their midst comes to feel weirdly aloof. Of course, that flaw might be more accurately understood as the result of programming work that was less devoted to character work than making sure that the sights and sounds of rats tearing into human flesh struck the deepest of nerves.
The game was reviewed using a review code provided by Evolve PR.
Review: BoxBoy! + BoxGirl! Makes the Most of Its Two-Dimensionality
The game is clearly geared toward young players, so expect a lightweight experience.3.5
You might have to think back to your childhood to remember the mystery, even magic, of a plain box, as it seemed anything could be inside of it, or that it could be imagineered into just about anything. This, perhaps, explains the unlikely triumph of the minimalist BoxBoy! series, a hybrid platformer-puzzler from HAL Laboratory that arrives on the Nintendo Switch with the release of BoxBoy! + BoxGirl! If the game’s largely black-and-white levels—with a few splashes of color to call out helpful switches or dangerous electrical traps—don’t try to awe players with fancy graphics, that’s because their gameplay is more than enough. There are over 270 levels here, and it’s to the credit of the consistently creative design of BoxBoy! + BoxGirl! that said gameplay, which consists of variations on stacking chains of boxes together so as to traverse obstacles, almost always holds up.
To those who’ve played any of the prior BoxBoy! titles, the first third of BoxBoy! + BoxGirl! is a little repetitive. In these early, solo levels, players are reintroduced to the way in which Qbby (or his be-ribboned pal Qucy) can break the rules regarding the conservation of mass energy. Qbby can generate up to six additional Qbby-sized boxes, which he can then carry or throw so as to create bridges, staircases, ladders, and so on. The obstacles he needs to contend with are also largely familiar: moving platforms, switches that need to be pressed, lasers that have be to blocked. Gradually, however, Qbby’s moveset expands, past the returning Up Hook (by which Qbby can retract through his boxchain so as to slither from point A to point B), to new skills, like being able to butt-slam stacks of blocks down through solid objects, or sliding your shapes from wall to wall, as if playing a horizontal game of Tetris.
These skills are further tested by the co-op campaign—the series’s first. As in BoxBoxBoy!, this allows for two distinct sets of boxes to be placed simultaneously (if one character tries to generate a second chain, the first disappears). More so, it allows characters to use one another as boxes, or to carry one another, jumping in tandem to reach new heights. (Rest assured, too, that this mode isn’t boxed off from solo puzzlers; it just requires players to do a lot of manual swapping between roles.) As a further bonus, the game also includes a third full campaign featuring a rectangular box, Qudy, who can generate either 2×1 blocks or 1×2 blocks, depending on whether he’s standing upright or bowed at a 90-degree angle.
That said, BoxBoy! + BoxGirl! is clearly geared toward young players, so expect a lightweight experience. That fact is readily apparent from the goofy four-panel comics that you can unlock with the medals you earn from clearing levels. Checkpoints are generous, and as no puzzle takes longer than 30 seconds to complete (once you know what you’re doing), there are none of the gauntlet-like dexterity tests so often found in other platformers. You can even use in-game currency to purchase visual hints in the middle of a puzzle, or to pick up assist items that allow you to move faster, jump higher, generate extra boxes, or become invincible. Though laudable that HAL Laboratory has ensured that anyone can beat the game, it’s frustrating that there are few ways in which to increase the challenge, beyond collecting optional crowns. You can also optimize the number of boxes used and try to cut down on the time spent clearing an area, but these are just additional hoops, not harder content.
This relative lack of challenge is compounded by the way the game’s difficulty is designed to reset with each new world. World 13, which introduces drill blocks that can be snagged by your own boxchain, gets increasingly complex across its seven levels, but it’s no harder than World 9, which offers seven levels focused on an exclusive warp portal gimmick. It’s not until the appropriately titled “The Last World” that you get to combine various mechanics, and even then, only two at a time. HAL Laboratory is leaving a slew of underutilized concepts on the table, and BoxBoy! + BoxGirl! is crying out for a Super Mario Maker-like level designer that would allow players to pick up those boxes and run wild with creativity.
Developer: HAL Laboratory Publisher: Nintendo Platform: Switch Release Date: April 26, 2019 ESRB: E ESRB Descriptions: Mild Fantasy Violence Buy: Game
Review: Mortal Kombat 11 Is Well-Executed, But It’s a Hell of a Grind
The game is at its most entertaining and gleeful when it is, indeed, just Mortal Kombat.3
At the heart of Mortal Kombat 11 is a great fighting game—one from a studio, NetherRealm, that clearly learned all the right lessons from not just Mortal Kombat X but Injustice 2. By and large, the studio has divined the winning formula for thoughtful, tactical, and satisfyingly brutal gameplay. Which makes it all the more baffling that much of the game seems to begrudge players their enjoyment of it.
That’s even more bewildering considering no Mortal Kombat game has ever been this comprehensive about teaching you how to actually play it. There’s an exhaustively dense tutorial that teaches you literally everything there is to know about the game’s mechanics, from the numerous strategic escape and counter moves you can perform, to the game’s Fatal Blow system, a simple two-button ultimate move that functions like a hyperviolent counterpart to Super Moves from the Injustice games. There’s even a section that explains attack frames, generously opening up a bridge for casual players who hope to one day hang tough with the pros. Most useful, however, are the character tutorials that offer a basic primer on each character’s specific moveset. It’s rare and truly heartening to see a game that doesn’t have Arc System Works’s name on it be so thorough about preparing its players for battle.
The game is also rather good at giving players just the right amount of context for each fight, via its Story Mode. Here, the game leans hard, and in winking fashion, into its Saturday-afternoon B-movie trappings. The game picks up directly after its predecessor, with the thunder god Raiden now a megalomaniac, corrupted by coming in contact with fallen Elder God Shinnok’s amulet. Seeing as this is a direct result of Raiden screwing around with the fabric of time in Mortal Kombat 9, the goddess of time herself, Kronika, steps in to correct the problem in the extreme: She decides to merge the original Mortal Kombat timeline—which covers the first game through the eighth, Mortal Kombat Armageddon—with the current one in hopes of breaking the entire space-time continuum and starting anew.
Plenty of multiverse shenanigans ensue, with old Mortal Kombat characters meeting their changed counterparts and dead villains returning to wreak havoc. The game’s story is a wild, freewheeling kung-fu/sci-fi mashup that knows better than to stop and get too bogged down in the gritty minutiae of time travel when just letting Johnny Cage quip or Scorpion and Sub-Zero beat up robot ninjas is so much more engaging.
More than anything, the Story mode provides context for the game’s bread-and-butter single-player and online Versus modes, especially with the tiny character interactions that occur before and during matches. Combine that with the expected cherry on top—a slew of brand-new creative, surreal, and horrifying Fatalities—and we could have had a Mortal Kombat 11 that was a gloriously bloody and deep fighting game that builds impressively on the gameplay principles of its forebears. But NetherRealm then proceeds to drown that game in a collection of appallingly unfriendly and unrewarding mechanics that begin to sour the entire package.
New to Mortal Kombat 11 is the ability to fully customize every character to each player’s liking, from their special move loadout, to their weaponry, to their costumes, to their intro and win poses. Theoretically, it’s a wonderful idea, and there’s a plethora of options in each category to allow for some truly unique builds. The problem is that you earn most of these customization options through the Towers of Time and the Krypt.
The Towers of Time are a series of four to eight consecutive matches, not unlike the old-school Arcade modes in prior Mortal Kombat games. The caveat is that each opponent may possess randomized buffs and each stage may have various debilitating hazards. You can use buffs and magic and assist items, earned through the course of gameplay in the Towers, but the game is stingy with it all, and few are as utterly devastating as what the CPU can use. So many of the hazards and buffs that your quite aggressive CPU opponents can utilize are literally unavoidable, and, unfortunately, completing the full gauntlet of Towers for specific characters is the only definitive way to unlock the vast majority of a specific character’s arsenal.
For everything else, there’s the Krypt. What was traditionally just a spooky treasure-laden grid strictly for unlocking bonus content is now a third-person, fully explorable recreation of Shang Tsung’s island from the first game, with a motion-captured Cary Hiroyuki-Tagawa performing some grandiose, scenery-chewing fanservice, reprising his role from the now-cult-classic Mortal Kombat film from 1995. That’s delightful, again, in theory. In reality, aside from a few exceptions locked to specific locations, the Krypt’s content is randomized, as are the prices for opening each treasure trove within. The game is also grudging with that currency, of which there are four different kinds. If that’s appalling enough in a game like Destiny, it’s unfathomable why that’s the case for a Mortal Kombat title’s bonus area, especially since there isn’t even a guaranteed way of getting exactly what you want for a character in the Krypt.
It’d be infuriating but understandable if this was all to funnel players to spending real money in the game’s store to unlock everything, but a revolving door of salable items means you can’t even cherry pick from there either. The end goal of all this seems to be to keep players trapped grinding for currency in the fervent hope that they will unlock something they want, but the needless grind is likely to tire players long before they actually get to unlock everything. It’s the gaming equivalent of a cable company that offers excellent internet but uses every shady tactic in the book to offer you the landline telephone package. The sole saving grace is that the game’s beating heart—its combat—is so well-executed. Mortal Kombat 11 is at its most entertaining and gleeful when it is, indeed, just Mortal Kombat. It’s at its most utterly repellent when it’s trying to be Mortal Kombat Mobile.
The game was reviewed using a review code provided by fortyseven communications.
Developer: NetherRealm Studios Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: April 23, 2019 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Strong Language Buy: Game
Review: Days Gone Demands Your Submission to the Content Treadmill
The game meets the baseline level of quality we might expect from a big-budgeted joint, yet it remains a tiresome, empty experience.1.5
The second big zombie game of the year, Days Gone, is also the total inverse of the first, Resident Evil 2. Its zombies don’t shamble, and its resources aren’t doled out in a tense drip feed while you creep between cramped rooms and corridors. In Days Gone, the zombies run—namely, in vast hordes across the vast wilderness of a post-apocalyptic Oregonian open world that you navigate by foot and motorcycle. Enough time has passed to foster new societies yet not enough to uproot memories of the fall. Where Capcom’s game relied on understated linearity, the latest from developer SIE Bend Studio opts for excess, in the process clarifying the worst parts of our fascination with the sandbox fantasy.
Days Gone is, in every possible sense, a capital-M modern video game. Its world is littered with crafting materials and tasks to complete, which feed the player experience points to unlock parts of a skill tree. As you progress through the game and build up trust in different wilderness encampments, you gain access to more weapons, more skills, more parts for your motorcycle. Days Gone replicates the excruciatingly basic stealth elements of so many other games, where violent takedowns are easy and throwing distraction objects is key. You’re totally invisible if you duck into any of the conveniently placed bushes, which comes in handy when capturing outposts full of non-zombie marauders. The cruel, cliché-riddled story is of little consequence, perhaps best summarized by the fact that the game’s (initially) bearded protagonist, Deacon St. John, has the name of the woman he’s mourning tattooed on his neck. He wears a backward baseball cap and is meant to be a serious character.
Very little in Days Gone stands up to close scrutiny. Something like the crafting at first seems like a natural function of post-apocalyptic survivalist fantasy, yet the system imparts no desperation or need for resource management because every location practically leaks crafting materials out the ears. Carrying capacity is so low (and the increase for it so far down the skill tree) that there’s hardly any point to scavenging, because upgrades are only found at the checkpoints specifically marked on the map. Missions may task you with shooting and stealthing your way through zombies or humans amid various arrangements of chest-high walls, yet there’s no need to prepare; the item wheel slows the action of these encounters to an accommodating crawl, allowing you to quickly and comfortably craft anything on the spot. It’s no problem at all to repair a weapon or cobble together a Molotov cocktail while fleeing a flesh-eating horde of zombies, which, in the regrettable parlance of this new world, are referred to exclusively as “freaks” and “freakers.” A heavily zombie-infested area is called a “freakshow,” and the land outside safe encampments is called “the shit.”
Likewise, the game contrives a reason for Deacon to start over from scratch when upgrading his motorcycle but offers no explanation for why this expert survivalist has accumulated just about no weapons whatsoever in his personal gated outpost, or why his skill tree is full of things like basic shooting accuracy when he’s ostensibly been killing zombies for years. Why must he seek out gasoline so often when it’s found lying around everywhere in containers, as one of the many red objects you can shoot to blow up? “You know, we’re gonna run out of this someday,” one character alleges when you buy gas, though it’s certainly not any time soon.
The various systems of Days Gone aren’t in service to a coherent whole so much as the vague idea of an open-world video game, where everything is arbitrarily gated off as an Unlockable simply to impart a sense of progress. Of getting better. Of winning. This is world where a young girl character exists only to suffer and, in the process, affirm Deacon’s humanity—a world where there are droves of self-mutilating human cultists who are okay to slaughter because they’re “lunatics” high on PCP. You can permanently clear camps of marauders and burn zombie nests to make the map safer because this dour, violent post-apocalypse is built to be conveniently managed and maintained by the player’s hand.
These inconsistencies lay Days Gone bare as a vapid content treadmill, an “immersive” fantasy nevertheless carefully modulated to accommodate the player’s thirst for dominance. Many of the systems seem included mostly just because they’re expected of an open-world game, if not to weave the absolute thinnest of illusions that this is a hard, unforgiving existence. The game provides some pushback through enemies and resource management but not so much of it that the player might actually feel anything beyond all-encompassing authority in the shoes of the cool, tatted-up, backward-baseball-capped bikerman; running low on materials only ever requires a momentary search of your surroundings.
Even character moments are set aside as designated content. If you visit a man on his sickbed when you’re not on a mission that specifically takes you to him, you can’t interact with him at all beyond picking up whatever he’s crafted in his spare time and left in the box by the door; you visit him at your convenience, to pick up items for your trouble.
Of course, enough time, enough money, and above all enough effort has been poured into Days Gone so that it looks nice and, once you’ve upgraded beyond the absurd limitations that pad the early game, it controls okay. The game meets the baseline level of quality we might expect from a big-budgeted joint, yet it remains a tiresome, empty experience. Even the outlandishly long Red Dead Redemption 2 felt like its occasionally cumbersome elements were meant to be in service of something, regardless of how successful that game ended up being.
Days Gone is the apotheosis of the more-is-more philosophy: more bars to fill, more gates to progress, more hours of playtime, more zombies per square inch because “more” is supposed to fill the hole where some semblance of meaning ought to be, bridging the gap between one mind-numbing mission template and the next. It’s the purest example yet of the video game as mere content to be consumed, down to the very fact that each storyline you’re supposed to be emotionally invested in is marked with a completion percentage. Days Gone is a void.
The game was reviewed using a review code provided by Sony Interactive Entertainment.
Developer: SIE Bend Studio Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: April 26, 2019 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood and Gore, Drug Reference, Intense Violence, Sexual Themes, Strong Language Buy: Game
Review: God’s Trigger Deliriously Gratifies the Player’s Thirst for Schlock
The game takes delight in its over-the-top violence, cheesy monologues, and nonsensical plot.3.5
Some games don’t aspire to be sprawling epics, like Witcher 3: The Hunt and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, as they have a different idea of greatness, if not pleasure. Take, for instance, Journey and David O’Reilly’s Mountain, which suggest miniature art-house films for the way they lean heavily on atmosphere or aesthetics above all else to stoke our curiosity. Others are unabashedly joyful aberrations, evoking the feverish intensity of a B movie—content with just being offbeat. They revel in schlock for its own sake, not unlike God’s Trigger, a top-down action game that’s closer in spirit to the campiness of the violent House of the Dead than the more thoughtful, neo-noir cool of Hotline Miami.
Mechanically, the game still functions more like Hotline Miami, where most of the action—planning, looking, and slaughtering—is viewed from an overhead perspective. As a fallen Angel and a banished Demon—both of whom go by the amusingly mundane names of Harry and Judy—players have to save the world from certain annihilation at the hands of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Death, Famine, War, and Pestilence. True to the threadbare plot of most B movies, Harry and Judy’s grand plan to cancel the apocalypse is brutal and straightforward: Rampage through the highest heavens, the bowels of hell, and everywhere else in between, and pulverize every corrupted being standing in your way. But whereas Hotline Miami sets out to make a statement about violence, God’s Trigger dispenses with such pretenses, wanting above all else for you to savor that endorphin rush that comes from fighting violence with bigger, badder forms of it—a spectacle that’s often capped with the cheesiest of one-liners, like “I never thought I’ll be fighting alongside a demon like her.”
God’s Trigger can be played as single-player or co-operatively, and if you chose to storm through the campaign by your lonesome, that means having to switch between Harry and Judy at opportune moments. Conversely, the game’s co-op mode not only shows more relish as you exact unholy justice against your enemies, it channels the most cliché of tropes from your average buddy-cop film along the way. For one, Harry and Judy are prone to trading barbed quips like “Am I doing this alone?!” in the midst of near-death scenarios.
The game is exceptionally good at empowering you with the means to enact such violence, and in a satisfying variety of ways. On one side we have Harry the melee warrior, armed with a celestial blade and an aura of righteous anger that grants him the strength to storm through crumbling walls. On the other we have Judy and her infernal chain-whip, which allows her to attack grunts from afar; she can also teleport a fixed distance between rooms that are separated by prison bars, incinerating her opponents when she re-materializes. Between levels, you’re awarded experience points, letting you fine-tune these skills and unlock even more techniques for bludgeoning your way through mobs of foes.
Given its emphasis on teamwork, God’s Trigger is a far more gratifying experience as a co-op shooter. The protagonists’ abilities are highly complementary; one is a close-combat fighter, while the other is a ranged hunter. Beyond that, the puzzles strewn across the levels often require players to coordinate and strategize with one another, such as having Harry and Judy pull two levers at the same time in order to open up a new route through a level. And at more challenging levels, they even have to keep their movements perfectly in sync, so as to avoid triggering deadly traps like spiked floors. Meanwhile, synchronizing Harry and Judy’s kills rewards players with additional experience points and perks, such as a bullet-time effect.
Coordinating and strategizing with a second player is so rewarding that the single-player feels beside the point, lacking as it does the thrilling unpredictability and momentum that the co-op mode delivers in spades. The solo approach, which requires overthinking one’s moves or taking a stealthy approach, flies in the face of the riotous fun found in the co-op mode.
In the vein of so many B movies that seek to provide the campiest of thrills, God’s Trigger takes delight in its over-the-top violence, cheesy monologues, and nonsensical plot. It’s what makes the game so memorable, even if that means it never defies genre expectations. God’s Trigger is no rousing masterpiece, nor does it want to be. Only time will tell if it will land in the pantheon of B movie-inspired gaming classics. Until then, sit back and enjoy how much fun and violence it lets you extract from obliterating the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
The game was reviewed using a review code provided by fortyseven communications.
Developer: One More Level Publisher: Techland Publishing Platform: PC ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Violence, Blood and Gore, Suggestive Themes, Partial Nudity, Strong Language Buy: Game
Review: Ghost Giant Is Adorable in Small Doses but Clumsy with the Big Stuff
This VR title boasts an endearingly goofy premise, but it’s one that’s executed in bumpy fashion.2.5
In Ghost Giant, players take on the role of an enormous and comforting specter that’s been accidentally summoned by the tears of an 11-year-old kitten named Louis. Unfortunately, this spirit is as clumsy as the boy turned superhero from Shazam, and in trying to calm the understandably frightened cat down, almost ends up killing him. It’s an endearingly goofy premise, though one that’s executed in bumpy fashion by this VR title, as using the PlayStation Move controllers to lift and poke physical objects rarely goes as planned.
The game’s unwieldy control scheme should come as no surprise to those who’ve played previous titles from developer Zoink!, such as Flipping Death, in which players fumble around as a spirit possessing living creatures, and Stick It to the Man, where the human protagonist comes equipped with a wacky spaghetti-like third arm. But Ghost Giant also suffers from a bit of an identity crisis, in that it can’t quite decide whether it wants to be an adorable, low-stakes exploration game or if it wants to be about capital-B big issues.
The game looks like Night in the Woods and plays a bit like Beyond: Two Souls but lacks the gravitas of either. Louis’s mom is suffering from severe depression, and Louis is rightfully terrified that if he can’t hide her ailment from the neighbors and cheer her up, she might be taken away. But that’s as far as the game goes in addressing mental illness; for the majority of the game, it’s just a puzzle to be overcome. Ghost Giant understands that not all problems can be solved by, say, baking Mom’s favorite apple pie and restoring her beloved cello, but it doesn’t respect us enough to acknowledge that most problems require hard work to resolve.
If Ghost Giant avoids similar issues of insincerity or exploitation with the other villagers in the game’s French-inspired Sancourt, it’s only because these characters lack any sort of interiority at all. They’re all plagued with low-stakes problems, all directly solved. A melancholy bird, for instance, isn’t depressed so much as it simply refuses to sing—that is, until its favorite hat is returned. And that bird’s owner doesn’t have some deep-seated issue preventing her from writing; she just misses the bird’s song. Satisfying these needs can be humorous, as when you—an actual but sadly invisible spirit—must create a bedsheet poltergeist that you can dangle in front of a ghost-hunting photographer. And some of the tasks make clever use of your size: After pulling wilted sunflowers out of the ground and reseeding a farm, you have to reach up and grab two clouds and squeeze them together to make it rain. What these literally odd jobs don’t provide is room for growth, either in the characters or in the gameplay.
That’s a shame, because it’s so obvious that more vivid, elaborate stories could have been told using these anthropomorphic denizens, like the goat landlord who’s desperate to catch some shut-eye, the avian scuba diver who dredges up trash, or the confidence-lacking lion who sets out to become a confectioner. These are well-designed characters, and they’re nicely voice-acted, which make it all the more frustrating that the player’s interactions with them are largely limited to single scenes, entirely within the context of puzzles. The same goes for the districts of this model-sized town, which don’t feel lived in so much as designed around cheap and often repetitive gimmicks, from using a magnet to fish through a creepy, cemetery-adjacent junkyard, to operating a crane in a sunny, seaside harbor.
Ghost Giant’s puzzles are as precise as the clockwork machinery around Sancourt that’s used to rotate and raise some of the varied buildings. Creative or brute-force solutions are restricted, as players are allowed only to manipulate copper objects (though you can carry and throw just about any loose inanimate object) and can only rotate around a fixed point. Why allow players to be a giant freaking ghost and give them the wider range of movement offered by VR if you’re just going to restrict that freedom? (I wish I could say this was an intentional manifestation of Louis’s mother’s depression.) There’s only one way to accomplish each task, so when players are asked to clear a bird out of a pedestrian’s path, you’ll have to lean in and physically blow on it, because nothing else is designed to frighten the bird. In another nonsensical situation, you’re required to paint a picture to get a crowd’s attention, as if slathering paint on these individuals wouldn’t make them move.
The game’s most enjoyable aspect is how you get to pull apart the walls and ceilings of miniature homes, so as to get a better look inside them. But it’s baffling that so few fixtures are detachable, and that they hold only meaningless, disparate collectibles like hats, insects, basketballs, and pinwheels. In the moment, you feel the thrill of spying on some hidden interior world, but then you’re just clumsily activating what are essentially animatronic displays. However impressive some of these dioramas and mechanisms may be on the surface, like so much of Giant Giant, they’re ultimately lifeless.
The game was reviewed using a review code provided by Thunderful Games.
Developer: Zoink! Publisher: Thunderful Games Platform: PSVR Release Date: April 16, 2019 Buy: Game
Review: Heaven’s Vault Is a Refreshingly Cerebral Take on Navigating History
The game is ambitious for its translation mechanics and its big-picture look at the evolution of culture through the ages.3.5
Archaeology in video games is descended almost exclusively from the Indiana Jones School of Marauding, where puzzles help players raid tombs or pilfer uncharted temples in competition with gun-toting rivals. Heaven’s Vault, however, has no such trappings of the violent colonialist adventure. Your primary engagement with the game is through language, as you must decipher the hieroglyphs of a fallen ancestral empire, making for a refreshingly cerebral take on navigating the remnants of history.
In Heaven’s Vault, you play as Aliya, an archaeologist who travels the flowing rivers of a spacefaring setting known as the Nebula, a network of moons containing dusty villages, farms, and more. Throughout, she sifts through the fallen empire’s ruins to the dismay and suspicion of many around her, who believe in a fatalistic doctrine, The Loop, that touts cyclical patterns in history. That which has happened will happen again, so they see no point in unearthing the past, especially when sailing the rivers is said to strip away the soul. Undeterred, Aliya continues to explore in the company of a fussy robot she calls Six, morbidly christened after the loss of his five predecessors and the presumed inevitability of a Seven.
Much of the game involves steering Aliya’s ship around those rivers, translating an ancient language she finds carved into crumbling structures and objects strewn throughout ruins. Aliya and Six are free to wander these environments, bouncing theories off one another and bickering while they piece their history back together. Deciphering the glyphs is something of a guessing game, with each word’s definition narrowed down to several possibilities that you choose by extrapolating from context. What are the glyphs on? If they’re on an object, where was it found? What are the other words? The long phrase on what you believe to be a makeshift grave, for example, might nudge you toward a tombstone-appropriate vocabulary.
If this process sounds impossibly daunting, the game mitigates the sheer enormity of the task by not keeping score. There are no end-of-level tallies to track your accuracy, and many of the possible translations remain just that: possibilities, denoted with a question mark. Some are eventually confirmed or debunked by repeated use or consulting another character; most never are. Each individual translation doesn’t matter so much in a pass/fail sense except in how they inform your continued understanding of the ancient language and culture.
The past in Heaven’s Vault is never totally clarified and much of your progress is theoretical, so it’s astonishing that the game provides any sense of accomplishment at all despite dealing mostly in ambiguity rather than absolutes. You really do begin to understand the more you play, learning which glyph denotes a place and then easily guessing the new word when it’s paired with one you recognize to mean, say, a liquid. Combined with environments that task players with using their growing knowledge to uncover possible functions for a building or a mechanism, the game’s sense of discovery feels truly immense. You share Aliya’s excitement, or perhaps her horror, as you’re totally enveloped in her cosmic search for answers.
But for as much as Heaven’s Vault emphasizes the futility of diminishing the messy past into something simplistic and easily digestible, its mechanics never quite escape doing so all the same. The fact that everything works out into a coherent English phrase (sans maybe a preposition or two) built from four options per word feels impossibly neat and composed. To some degree, these concessions are what makes Heaven’s Vault playable at all. When taken next to the game’s emphasis on translations that are mere possibilities and functions that are only theories, however, they’re something of a tear in the curtain meant to conceal a world that’s been neatly gamified yet making every effort to conceal itself as such.
The most challenging opposition comes less from piecing history together than simply navigating the game’s unwieldy interface, which works well at the start before buckling under the translations’ growing complexity. Hieroglyphic text you’ve found drops onto a timeline menu for what’s supposed to be easy access, until the translations clog the menu to such a degree that it borders on unusable, while the translation screen fails to hold longer phrases without asking you to scroll repeatedly back and forth. Most galling of all is the total exclusion of any sensible search function. Indeed, there’s simply no way to search the phrases by word or glyph, while paging to a “related word” is too limited to be of much use. Some amount of repetition would have set in anyway with these mechanics, yet the interface issues only ensure it arrives quite ahead of schedule. The game’s sailing is dull and saturated with similar-looking environments, to the point where you might bypass whichever nondescript rock you’re meant to find if the game didn’t automatically stop you, but it’s outright preferable to the sheer headache of stopping for even a single moment to go back to any old translations.
Despite how these issues range from irritating to outright infuriating, though, they never totally dampen the considerable accomplishments of Heaven’s Vault. This is a hugely ambitious game, both for its translation mechanics and how they provide a big-picture look at the evolution of culture through the ages. It’s an achievement that the game realizes any of those ambitions at all, and that such a rewarding sense of discovery emerges from them.
Developer: Inkle Publisher: Inkle Platform: PC Release Date: April 16, 2019 Buy: Game
Review: Dangerous Driving Does the Bare Minimum to Earn Comparison to Burnout
Though it’s abundant in hyper-realistic visuals, that isn’t enough to disguise its lack of polish in almost every other way.1
Because Dangerous Driving comes to us from the former Criterion Games co-founders who developed Burnout, it was natural to expect a high-octane, edge-of-your-seat experience. But while this ostensible spiritual successor to that long-dormant series can be effectively tense as you barrel down tracks at upwards of 200 m.p.h., crashing and taking down your AI rivals on the way to first place, it isn’t long before the game slips into cyclical repetition of its core gameplay loop. Dangerous Driving riffs on the Burnout formula in only superficial ways, and though it’s abundant in hyper-realistic visuals, that isn’t enough to disguise its lack of polish in almost every other way.
Dangerous Driving features six car classes with about 10 races each. The monotony starts here. Each car, from souped-up formula cars to tuned coupes, handles the same way. Drifting in a sedan feels identical to drifting in an SUV. The bombastic, fiery end to a 200 m.p.h. sprint lacks exhilaration because the cars look like pristine, still-sealed Hot Wheels. The races also wear the same mask of familiarity. Of the 10 or so races per car class, the choices are identical, just in varying orders, and regardless of race type, the tracks are indistinguishable.
Worse, though, is the haphazard change in seasons during these races: One minute, players are speeding through autumnal vistas draped in oranges and reds, the next driving beside frozen fields blanketed in white and leafless trees. Yet somehow, the tracks remain unaffected by the changing seasons. The sudden, inexplicable season change would be forgivable if the scenery weren’t so excessively bright. Because the color contrast is so high (and no settings exist to adjust the game’s display), players will end up wrecking their cars more often than not because of the obnoxiously bright sun rays bouncing off the bright silver cars.
Dangerous Driving isn’t mechanically difficult to understand, but the AI makes the game impossible to enjoy. Rubberbanding exists in many racing games, but Three Fields Entertainment takes this frustrating feature to new and unfortunate heights with this game. The AI respawns immediately after crashing and appears right behind the player. Should players regain their position after falling behind or crashing, the AI will magically boost just five or so miles faster to maintain their lead. Your competitors turn corners perfectly, dodge oncoming traffic with ease, and maintain high speeds all while swerving through lanes. Unless players chain together boosts to get ahead, they’ll often find the computer AI no less than a car’s length behind. There’s no gratification in coming in first when players can never really pull far enough ahead and always fall annoyingly far behind.
The game, handicapped by stiff and imprecise controls and riddled with bugs, also lacks for the extras that might have allowed it to stand out from just about any other racing game. There’s an alt-rock song that plays during the menu screen, but no music to soundtrack your racing, though Dangerous Driving does allow for Spotify integration—that is, if you happen to have a premium membership. There’s no free race or time attack modes, no local split-screen, and the game has shipped without online functionality, a feature supposedly coming in the ensuing months. Which is to say that the folks at Three Fields Entertainment were only too eager to push a game into the marketplace without it possessing the bare minimum necessary to even allow it to sensibly be called a kindred spirit to Burnout.
The game was reviewed using a review code provided by Three Fields Entertainment.
Developer: Three Fields Entertainment Publisher: Three Fields Entertainment Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: April 9, 2019 ESRB: T ESRB Descriptions: Mild Violence Buy: Game
Review: Earth Defense Force: Iron Rain Misfires After a Provocative Start
It’s a special kind of frustrating sequel that’s too inconsistent to realize its potential as an incisive comedy or exciting shooter.3
The Earth Defense Force series specializes in spectacle and literally gargantuan tasks, putting players in the shoes of human soldiers trying to take down enormous alien invaders. Yuke’s Earth Defense Force: Iron Rain doesn’t stray from this over-the-top premise, but unlike its Sandlot-developed predecessors, which were primarily influenced by campy sci-fi flicks, this sequel injects the proceedings, at least for a time, with a biting wit that recalls that of Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers. This shift in tone is both unexpected and welcome, with the script at various points focusing on the economic struggles that result from war and taking aim at the media’s attempt to manipulate people’s emotions.
Iron Rain’s first mission brings to mind the start of prior games in the Earth Defense Force series, as you find yourself in the middle of a city as part of an infantry going toe to toe with humongous ants. The difference here is that, after the final threat has been taken down, your protagonist appears to be dead meat. It’s then that Iron Rain jumps forward in time and to your playable character waking up from a seven-year coma. Since you’re apparently okay, an official says, it’s time to get back to the battlefield, as the war against the alien invaders continues unabated on our planet’s streets. The insensitivity of this casual command from a superior announces the game’s intent to comment, both seriously and mischievously, on the consequences of the world being controlled by EDF, a military-based de facto government.
In terms of third-person shooting action, Iron Rain follows the lead of its predecessors, with the player, before each mission, choosing two main weapons from a wide variety of options: shotguns, sniper rifles, grenade launchers, laser blasters, and more, all with their own ammo capacities, reload times, and other features. Most missions task the player with simply destroying all enemies on the stage, but the earlier ones stave off repetition with an impressive range of scenarios. During one level, you might drive a nondescript pick-up truck, searching for giant machines to destroy. In another, you might don heavy armor to block countless projectiles as you attempt to dismantle all the legs of a humongous crab robot that unleashes waves of smaller foes via trapdoors in its appendages.
In its first half, Iron Rain regularly introduces new threats for you to terminate. This sequel distinguishes itself within the Earth Defense Force series with uniquely intimidating imagery, such as disgustingly gaseous beetles that sometimes crawl on their towering robotic allies. More significantly, the enemy AI has never been as dangerous in a Earth Defense Force game as it is here, even on normal difficulty. Single bugs will relentlessly assume flanking positions as you attempt to blast away other enemies who run straight at you, flying drones are peskier now that they can teleport, and larger foes require careful management of your evasive abilities, lest you run out of energy and open yourself up to a series of crushing attacks.
Between levels, Iron Rain outlines the numerous ways that EDF’s reign impacts life on the planet. After the player beats a mission, the game features a few lines of voiceover dialogue to flesh out its story. These skits are only accompanied by stock loading-screen imagery, in line with the series’s overall budget-game aesthetic. Despite the cheap feel of these segments, the game’s script often conveys a sophisticated sense of class awareness. At one point, a soldier reveals that he has a family who lives in an area that receives less protection from EDF, and that he needs to earn three more badges to move his loved ones to a safer location. In a later exchange, one soldier tells another that his energy core, an essential part of any fighter’s gear, is only 12 percent intact, but it will have to do since core replacements are deducted from a soldier’s salary. In such scenes, Iron Rain paints EDF as an institution that barely cares for the well-being of the very people tasked with saving humankind.
Other between-stage skits adopt a wryer tone as they go about illustrating the media’s role as manipulators. During one interlude, you hear the voice of Olivia, a radio personality who tries to hype up EDF soldiers with a sort of childish excitement—and as if she weren’t patronizing enough, Olivia also markets a brand of coffee. In some segments, you’ll listen to a reporter from the Universal News Network, and at one point the broadcaster announces that EDF has defeated a critical threat, which results in regular news programming being halted for four hours to celebrate the historical significance of EDF. Such bits satirize the media’s complicity in creating distractions from the harshest of realities, which is to say that Iron Rain marks the first time an Earth Defense Force game has struck an intellectual and ironic chord.
Regrettably, the storytelling and action begin to suffer to a significant degree at around the game’s halfway point. The dialogue between stages loses much of its sting, with characters sharing fewer remarks about working-class struggles. Inexplicably, Iron Rain sometimes features no spoken lines from characters after a mission is completed, raising the question of why it dedicated so much time to developing a critique of EDF through dialogue early on.
What hurts the game the most, however, isn’t the lack of follow through on its initial critical gumption, but rather a lack of compelling drama in its later levels. Missions that take place in caves not only dully recall multiple similar stages from Earth Defense Force 2017 but also require little strategy (just fire rockets into the recesses of the cave where bugs congregate and be on your way). Objectives that require you to protect certain targets fail to apply any distinct pressure on the player, as the targets are rarely in danger of destruction provided you continuously attack foes. And similar to select missions in Earth Defense Force 4.1: The Shadow of New Despair, certain levels’ emphasis on a Godzilla-sized monster is anticlimactic and wishy-washy: In some instances, the monumental threat hightails it after you wipe out smaller adversaries. After a promising start, Iron Rain becomes a special kind of frustrating sequel that’s too inconsistent to realize its potential as an incisive comedy or exciting shooter.
The game was reviewed using a review code provided by ONE PR Studio.
Developer: Yuke’s Publisher: D3 Publisher Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: April 11, 2019 ESRB: T ESRB Descriptions: Violence, Blood, Suggestive Themes Buy: Game
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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.
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).
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.
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
Blu-ray Review: Jim Jarmusch’s Night on Earth on the Criterion Collection
This is a beautiful refurbishing of one of Jarmusch’s more uneven films, which is still a must-see for a handful of beautiful performances.4
Jim Jarmusch’s films are often celebrations of blue-collar intellectuals who grapple with a classic balance between life and art, and, in his best work, his deadpan humor is revealed to be a pose that shatters, revealing longing and desperation. His best films (Dead Man, Coffee and Cigarettes, and Paterson) are about the limitations of even great art to soothe the tortured tides of the soul, while his worst suggest works of shrewd museum cultivation—that is, the indie director equivalent of brand management. (Ironically, The Limits of Control, whose title essentially sums up Jarmusch’s most astute preoccupations, is one of his most smug and lifeless films.)
Jarmusch’s 1991 anthology film Night on Earth is a sampler of his best and more mediocre instincts, an example of a production being less than the sum of its parts. The film has issues that are common of most anthologies: inconsistency and redundancy. After a couple of these vignettes, one becomes accustomed to Jarmusch’s rhythms and—despite the variety of terrific performances on display, as well as the usually impeccably hip artistic reference points—a certain tedium sets in that’s heightened by the reduction of each city to a series of pillow shots.
Night on Earth is hermetic—like all Jarmusch productions—and rigidly structural even for an anthology film, as every story concerns an odd-couple pairing between a passenger and a taxi driver in an iconic city. Every story begins with the passenger being picked up, and ends with their delivery to their destination, after an oddball pseudo-catharsis has occurred. In his own puckish, glancing way, Jarmusch is rather preachy here, riffing on what the protagonist of Preston Sturges’s Sullivan’s Travels might have termed the “universality of man.”
The film’s first vignette is its best, dooming Night on Earth to an anticlimax from the outset. Set in Los Angeles, the narrative concerns a Hollywood casting executive, Victoria (Gena Rowlands), who’s picked up from the airport by Corky (Winona Ryder). The contrast between these women is visceral and poignant without succumbing to cartoonish-ness, like the pairings of later episodes. Victoria is stylish and elegant, bringing to the cab all the gravity of, well, a legendary actress, while Corky is a small and spunky eccentric.
Jarmusch’s pared-down dialogue underscores a very truthful element of human communion, which recalls the meaning at the heart of the glorious scene between Jason Robards and Paul LeMat in Melvin and Howard: that people are most revealing when they don’t appear to be talking about much. Rowlands’s deliberate diction and guarded timing mesh evocatively with Ryder’s spitfire spontaneity. And Jarmusch ends this story with a beautiful punchline: Victoria offers to make Corky a star, but the girl declines. Corky wants to drive a taxi and to eventually become a mechanic. She wants to meet a man who will appreciate her soul. Unlike many of us, Corky knows who she is, and Victoria will probably never forget her.
Set in New York City, the second story pivots on a decent joke that quickly grows stale. Armin Mueller-Stahl plays an immigrant cab driver from Eastern Germany who can barely drive his cab, and who picks up a passenger (Giancarlo Esposito) who takes over the vehicle and drives them to Brooklyn. Mueller-Stahl and Esposito have lively timing, but the notion of a slow-on-the-uptake European and a brash New Yorker soon comes to feel as obvious as a sitcom—and, just when one wonders if Esposito has been intentionally instructed to reprise his frenetic performance from Do the Right Thing, along comes Rosie Perez, who repeats the profane shrillness of her own performance from the Spike Lee film.
Due to the charisma of the actors, this vignette nevertheless goes down fairly easily, but it still exudes a reheated quality. Equally glib, and quite a bit less palatable, is the episode set in Rome, featuring Roberto Benigni as a predictably oversexed Italian lothario who drives a predictably outraged priest (Paolo Bonacelli). In these portions of Night on Earth, Jarmusch falls prey to a problem that recurs throughout his filmography, congratulating himself merely on throwing “name” actors together in unexpected fashions.
The stories set in Paris and Helsinki, respectively, have the ambition and some of the gravity of the Los Angeles segment. As a Parisian cab driver who originally hails from the Ivory Coast, and who suffers racist and classist remarks even from African diplomats, Isaach De Bankolé radiates a ferocious sense of anger and emotional repression that shakes Night on Earth to its core, and he’s matched in intensity by Béatrice Dalle, who has the film’s single best absurdist joke. The cab driver asks the young woman, who’s blind, why she doesn’t wear sunglasses like other blind people, and she says she’s never seen other blind people. The remark is inherently funny, and it also encapsulates the obsession with connectivity that runs through the film.
The Helsinki segment concludes Night on Earth on a heavy, melancholic note, tonally counterpointing the deceptive, multifaceted lightness of the Los Angeles narrative. A gaggle of drunk men (Kari Väänänen, Sakari Kuosmanen, and Tomi Salmela) pour into a cab, plying its driver, Mika (Matti Pellonpää), with a sob story of losing a job and finding out that a teenage daughter is pregnant. Mika proceeds to top the story with a remembrance of losing a baby in childbirth, which Pellonpää delivers with a magnificent and heartbreaking stillness that reflects an ongoing struggle to soldier on against hopelessness.
This monologue is one of the most vulnerable and straightforward scenes in Jarmusch’s career, and it reminds one once again of the lovely surprises that can be uncovered via the filmmaker’s penchant of collecting actors he likes and bouncing them off one another. Jarmusch allows Rowland, Ryder, De Bankolé, Dalle, and Pellonpää to bloom, expanding on performances they’ve given in other films. Meanwhile, Jarmusch reduces other actors to stereotypes. The uncertainty of Jarmusch’s vision complements the driving obsession of his narratives, then, evincing a struggle for purity of empathy.
This high-definition digital restoration, approved by Jim Jarmusch, has a healthy vitality that honors cinematographer Frederick Elmes’s stunning images. The nightscapes have a lush, enveloping sense of darkness that recalls Elmes’s work for David Lynch, and the faces of the various actors sport striking detail. The clarity of this restoration further underscores the subtle visual differences between the film’s various vignettes: New York City, for instance, has hot, bright colors, while Helsinki’s hues are more autumnal and depressive. There’s also a strong element of attractive grit that gives Night on Earth a shaggy lived-in quality. (The film looks so good that one wishes that Jarmusch, an aesthete and traveler, had worked each city more intrinsically into the various narratives.) The 2.0 surround DTS-HD master audio soundtrack is fairly unassuming, given Jarmusch’s wont, though it gives Tom Waits’s playful score a bass-y bounce that complements the gravelly tenor of the singer’s voice. The actors’ voices are clearer than they were in prior editions of the film, rendering it all the more vivid.
Disappointingly, there are no new supplements for this disc, but the featurettes ported over from the label’s 2007 edition hold up quite well. A selected-scene commentary featuring cinematographer Frederick Elmes and location sound mixer Drew Kunin details the making of an anthology-style production, which Elmes memorably likens to several “first weeks” of shooting. The visual symmetry of each vignette is discussed, and ample technical information is provided, along with poignant personal anecdotes. (Night on Earth was Gena Rowlands’s first film after her husband and collaborator John Cassavetes had died, and we learn here that Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara, and others called in to check on her.) A Q&A with Jarmusch, in which he reads through questions that fans have sent him, is charmingly conversational, allowing the filmmaker to riff on the making of Night on Earth, including how he dealt with shooting scenes in languages he doesn’t speak, as well as his favorite music and movies. A short Belgian TV interview with Jarmusch, from 1992, also includes some choice encapsulations of his reasons for initiating the project. Rounding out the package is a booklet featuring essays by filmmakers, authors, and critics Thom Andersen, Paul Auster, Bernard Eisenschitz, Goffredo Fofi, and Peter von Bagh, and the lyrics to Tom Waits’s original songs from the film.
Criterion offers a beautiful refurbishing of one of Jim Jarmusch’s more uneven films, which is nevertheless a must-see for a handful of beautiful performances.
Cast: Gena Rowlands, Winona Ryder, Giancarlo Esposito, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Rosie Perez, Isaach De Bankolé, Béatrice Dalle, Kari Väänänen, Sakari Kuosmanen, Tomi Salmela, Emile Abossolo M'Bo, Pascal N'Zonzi, Roberto Benigni, Paolo Bonacelli, Matti Pellonpää Director: Jim Jarmusch Screenwriter: Jim Jarmusch Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 128 min Rating: NR Year: 1991 Release Date: April 9, 2019 Buy: Video, Soundtrack
Review: Jacques Rivette’s La Religieuse on Kino Lorber Blu-ray
Featuring a searing performance from Anna Karina, the film much more than the scandal that made it famous in France.4
Jacques Rivette’s La Religieuse is based on an epistolary novel by Enlightenment philosopher Denis Diderot that decried the injustices of the Catholic church under the ancien régime by adopting the voice of a young woman forced into a convent. In this adaptation by Rivette and Jules and Jim screenwriter Jean Gruault, Diderot’s protest against the violation of an individual’s free will becomes not only a reflection of the individualist ethos of the French New Wave, but also an augury of uprisings of the late 1960s.
Suzanne Simonin (Anna Karina) is a young bourgeoise whose parents compel her to take vows as a nun after her father discovers she’s the child of an affair. Genuinely devout, Simonin nevertheless has no interest in a nun’s vow of “chastity, poverty, and obedience,” and endeavors to leave religious life and rejoin the world. The Nun opens with the ceremony at which she’s meant to pledge herself to her new order, as a desperate Simonin breaks away from the ceremony and begs to be let free, framed from the other side of the iron bars which she grasps to make her plea to the assembled witnesses.
Rivette would become known for his improvisational approach to the fiction film, but La Religieuse has all the marks of a tightly controlled production, from the way the director’s long takes follow the action with subtle but emotive re-framings, to the production design’s coordination between the gray-green of the nun’s habits and their convent’s walls (they seem to dissolve into their setting), to Gruault’s often poetic dialogue (“This robe has attached itself to my skin, to my bones,” Simonin laments at one point).
Even the lack of subtlety in aspects of Rivette’s aesthetic—as in the iron bars in the opening scene that paint the church as a prison—has a purpose, as the film is peppered with Brechtian touches that call attention to themselves as formal techniques. Just as we become engaged with the melodrama of Simonin’s dilemma, we’re jolted out of our credulity with a jump or smash cut, or a snippet of noise from the sparse, modern score. Such moments remind us that, while the story is set in the baroque past, it’s told with an eye toward the modernist present, when the individual is still under siege by the disciplinary control of societal institutions.
Rivette is aided in this oscillation between empathetic drama and distancing formal abstraction by Karina’s performance. It’s a role that could easily turn into hysteric caricature, particularly when Simonin’s convent confines her to her quarters, denies her food, and frames her as possessed by the devil. But Karina deeply communicates the trauma of a person trying to hold themselves together as the mechanics of power devastate her mind and body, and Simonin never seems to be merely a metaphor for the offenses against the individual perpetrated by the system—though, of course, she is that too.
Simonin’s first convent, run by Sister Ste Christine (Francine Bergé), exercises its dogmatic piety through cruel punishment and masochistic penance. It prohibits communion with even the natural world outside the gates, and relationships between the women are strictly regulated. After her ordeal, Simonin manages to have herself transferred to another convent, this one overseen by Madame de Chelles (Liselotte Pulver). Here, the nuns behave almost as school girls, frolicking in the yards and attending informal gatherings in the mother superior’s quarters. The convent’s seeming openness, though, masks the cult of personality de Chelles fosters around her, which she exploits to seduce the young nuns.
Sexual control, like institutional violence, is exposed here as another form of oppression women face, but the film’s condemnation of this oppression doesn’t moralize either about homosexuality or religion per se. The problem is the institutionality of the church rather than its professed system of belief, and La Religieuse is rather remarkable for the way in which it codes de Chelles’s unwanted advances as the continued violation of Simonin’s right to self-determination rather than a trespass against a moral order.
An emotionally searing conclusion drives this point home, but as memorable as this finale is, the romantic individualism typical of the New Wave belies the spirit of collective rebellion implicit in Rivette’s Brechtian touches. The film presents us with groups of women who, through violence or sex, relay the patriarchal power of the church, but it’s unable to imagine an alternative sphere where bonds between women might foster a more positive society. Though it critiques and defies the pretenses of hierarchical religious community, neither La Religieuse nor its main character is ultimately able to see a way out of alienated individualism.
The transfer on this Blu-ray is from the gorgeous 4K restoration released in theaters last year, and it brings a renewed vitality to both the subtle color gradations of cinematographer Alain Levent’s muted gray-green palette throughout the scenes that depict Suzanne’s ascetic life, as well as the momentary flourishes of color—like the striking blue of her scarf early in La Religieuse—that point to the young woman’s desire for life outside the convent. The film, though, is at its most radical in its soundtrack, and the precise, often jarring use of off-screen sound and nondiegetic music is mixed evenly throughout the two channels.
Much of the extras here focus on the controversy surrounding La Religieuse. Indeed, while the featurette “Susanne Simonin, La Scandaleuse” is described as a “making-of documentary,” it’s much more a discussion about the film’s troubled release. Dennis Lim’s booklet essay, though short, provides a more wide-ranging account of the film’s making. A commentary track by film critic Nick Pinkerton covers much of the same ground as the featurette but includes a more thorough history of the story’s origins in the French Enlightenment.
Featuring a searing performance from Anna Karina, La Religieuse is much more than the scandal that made it famous in France. Kino Lorber’s release of the film’s recent 4K restoration is a service to a landmark film of the French New Wave.
Cast: Adilé David, Ginite Popote, Louise Labeque, Mackenson Bijou, Mathilde Riu, Ninon François, Patrick Boucheron, Saadia Bentaïeb, Sayyid El Alami, Wislanda Louimat Director: Jacque Rivette Screenwriter: Jean Gruault, Jacque Rivette Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 135 min Rating: NR Year: 1965 Release Date: May 28, 2019 Buy: Video
Review: Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke on Shout! Factory Blu-ray
There’s no doubt that this will remain, for many years to come, the definitive home-video release of the film.5
Hayao Miyazaki’s earliest films, from Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind to Porco Rosso, abound in characters driven by an insatiable desire for adventure, and to take to the skies—a pursuit that offers a temporary transcendence of everyday reality. With a broom and an airplane, respectively, the main characters from Kiki’s Delivery Service and Porco Rosso cast off from a world that refuses to accept them for who they are, while the young siblings at the center of My Neighbor Totoro use the eponymous creature to ascend into the clouds and forget the problems that afflict their ailing mother, if only for a while.
It’s a stark contrast from that recurring motif in Miyazaki’s animated worlds that the characters from his 1997 film Princess Mononoke never take flight. It’s as if Miyazaki, by keeping them earthbound, is trying to remind them of the greed, vengeance, and lust for power that’s led to the destruction of their world. Indeed, there’s no escaping the increasingly dire consequences that arise from the environmental annihilation that occurs in the film.
A parable of man versus nature, Princess Mononoke is a damning, pessimistic, and downright angry environmentalist screed. But in refusing to draw a line in the sand between good and evil, Miyazaki presents a thoughtful, intelligent mosaic of visual and thematic ideas that ignores neither the brutal elements inherent in nature nor the potential for courage and compassion that lies within mankind. In the film, humans and animals alike are full of contradictions, which serves to consistently complicate Miyazaki’s initially straightforward message of humanity’s thoughtless destruction of the natural world.
Set during Japan’s medieval Muromachi period, during “a time of gods and demons,” Princess Mononoke follows the exploits of an idealistic young man, Ashitaka (Billy Crudup), who sets out on a journey from his small, rural village to the enchanted forests out west after being poisoned by a demonic boar. In typical Miyazaki fashion, the beast is a feat of unbridled imagination, yet that blood-filled mouth and those dozens of red tentacles protruding from its body are far from fanciful, planting the creature firmly in the realm of body horror. Once the beast is slayed, the cause of its terrifying transformation is revealed to be an iron bullet lodged in its chest, which is taken by the villagers as a sign of an imbalance in the lands out west.
On the flipside of the ghastly boar is the legendary Deer God, a strange yet elegant creature who protects the vast forestlands and is rumored to have the powers to heal both man and nature. As Ashitaka tracks down this mystical animal, hoping it will cure his poisoned arm, he finds himself playing the part of mediator between two warring factions. On one side is Lady Eboshi (Minnie Driver), the rapacious ruler of a remote settlement named Irontown and owner of its iron factory, whose expansion necessitates the destruction of the nearby forest lands. And fighting to stop her are the wolves led by the wolf god Moro (Gillian Anderson), and the human she raised as her daughter, San (Claire Danes), also known as Princess Mononoke.
At first, there seems to be an ethical clarity to this conflict that makes it easy for the audience’s allegiances to turn in one direction and never waver, but moral certitude becomes increasingly muddied as Princess Mononoke progresses. While Lady Eboshi essentially functions as the film’s central villain, pumping her surroundings with weapons and pollution, she also shows a remarkable capacity for compassion, hiring and caring for a slew of lepers and prostitutes who shunned by society at large. Her workers are happy and faithful to her, and even the munitions she creates serve the greater good, as they’re used at one point to fend off a band of samurai robbers. And despite Ashitaka’s general desire to prevent warfare and save the wilderness, he’s driven by his own selfish goals of attaining the help of the Deer God. Even the natural world bares its teeth, as wolves, boars, and apes fight among themselves to establish dominance even as the world around them literally falls apart.
The film relishes in the beauties of the natural world, but Miyazaki doesn’t see nature as infallible or humans as irredeemable. The Deer God itself embodies the capacity for both creation and destruction, as grass and flowers grow beneath its feet wherever it steps, yet it can also kill living creatures with as little as a glance. Where Miyazaki lends the humans and animals in Princess Mononoke a sense of ambiguity, he’s unflinching in his belief that it’s our moral duty to seek a balance in the natural world that supports the whole in order to benefit all life cycles. For all of the film’s bloodshed, which by Miyazaki’s standards is quite shocking given the plethora of severed limbs and decapitations caused during battle, it’s the majestic and magical qualities of the untouched portions of the forest that linger strongest in one’s memory. From the kodama, the adorable and ghostly forest spirits who make strange clicking sounds as they shake their heads, to the Deer God, who at night transforms into The Night Walker, a translucent, shimmering giant who safeguards the forest from above, Miyazaki’s flair for embellishment makes clear his affection for the natural world.
After one too many human transgressions, The Night Walker turns into a black ooze that quickly spreads over the lands, destroying plants, wildlife, and humans in its wake. In an act of heroism, Ashitaka returns to the gargantuan creature its severed deer head, and in a particularly stunning sequence, Miyazaki shows the barren landscape slowly coming back to life. The innate power of nature is presented as a kind of magic trick, suggesting that even if humans drive through the Earth’s resources to the degree that the planet becomes uninhabitable, it will ultimately find a way to regenerate itself. Of course, Princess Mononoke also appears to believe that if humanity itself wants to stick around, it must seek a sustainable balance that doesn’t let things get too close to that point of no return.
Shout! Factory’s transfer of Princess Mononoke might just be the most stunning home-video presentation that any Hayao Miyazaki film has received to date. There’s an impressive clarity to the images that makes it impossible to not fixate on every textural dimension of the animation, from the film’s most elaborately conceived creatures such as the Deer God and possessed boar, to simpler elements like grass, flowers, trees, and animal fur. The colors are truly eye-popping, particularly the greens of the natural world and the bright, rich reds of blood and the fabrics of characters’ clothing. On the sound front, Joe Hisaishi’s dynamic, emotional score is beautifully layered throughout the dense, enveloping soundscape.
In place of a commentary track, Shout! has included the option to view Princess Mononoke with storyboard stills of every shot in place of the final animated frames. These sketches are often crude, but the presentation is fascinating for allowing us such a detailed glimpse of Miyazaki’s vision in its nascent stage. The very simplicity of the sketches offers a compelling contrast to the rich, fully materialized world of the finished film, highlighting the staggering amount of time, effort, and imagination that goes into constructing a hand-drawn animated film. The featurette “Princess Mononoke in the U.S.
Shout! Factory’s stunning transfer and superb packaging and extras ensure that this will remain, for many years to come, the definitive home-video release of Hayao Miyazaki’s film.
Cast: Billy Crudup, Billy Bob Thornton, Minnie Driver, John DiMaggio, Claire Danes, John DeMita, Jada Pinkett Smith, Gillian Anderson, Keith David, Tara Strong Director: Hayao Miyazaki Screenwriter: Hayao Miyazaki Distributor: Shout! Factory Running Time: 133 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 1997 Release Date: May 14, 2019 Buy: Video
Blu-ray Review: John Farrow’s The Big Clock Joins the Arrow Academy
The film receives a commendable high-def transfer and a handful of worthwhile extras from the Arrow Academy.4
John Farrow’s The Big Clock is a marvel of production design that also features rich, weirdly amusing performances from both Ray Milland and Charles Laughton, but it’s too slight in its contemplation of power dynamics to rank high in the pantheon of film noirs. Though the film opens grimly near the story’s end, with George (Milland) evading capture inside a publishing office where he works for a murder he didn’t commit, the actual series of events that leads up to that point is closer in tenor to Hawksian comedy, with Milland’s working man juggling the demands of family and work in almost screwball fashion.
As editor-in-chief of Crimeways, George answers to Janoth (Laughton), who owns and oversees multiple magazines and their offices inside a New York City skyscraper, which contains the eponymous object that displays time zones from around the world. The clock isn’t only a striking visual touchstone around which much of the film’s action revolves, it also provides a symbolic basis for Janoth’s controlling of his employees’ lives. Due to Janoth’s uncompromising demands, George and his wife, Georgette (Maureen O’Sullivan), didn’t get to have a honeymoon five years ago, and his workaholic tendencies have begun to alienate her since then. Thus, an upcoming vacation to West Virginia is George’s last-ditch effort to prove his commitment to Georgette and their young son (B.G. Norman). But when Janoth insists that George delay the trip again, it sends George into a defiant and drunken tailspin, placing him in a position to be framed for murder.
While this sequence of events has the potential to emphasize how the postwar American workforce is reoriented by inhuman demands for around-the-clock labor, the filmmakers are hesitant to grapple with these ideas to their fullest extent. Instead, George’s workplace predicament is treated as a prelude to an absurdist punchline. When Janoth, who’s trying to cover his murderous tracks, assigns George to hunt down an alleged killer for a story, he’s ironically tasked with pursuing himself, as George is the man with whom Janoth’s victim spent the previous evening. The convoluted nature of how George even becomes a murder suspect indicates how the expansive set design is ultimately used less as a thematic trait of modernist architecture’s intersection with corporate ambition than as a maze for George’s deferral of his positive identification by a host of eyewitnesses roaming in and around the large building.
The plot’s devolution into a basic game of cat and mouse sidesteps any concern for business practices and competition that’s suggested early on as Janoth, speaking to a group of his employees, implores them to “anticipate trends before they are trends.” Early on, one might expect The Big Clock to do the same—namely, to utilize its unique setting and intriguing set of circumstances to arrive at something weightier, more morally indignant. Or, if the film is opposed to Janoth’s promotion of constant innovation, reveal how the cold logic of corporate pursuits jeopardizes the American family’s livelihood. Instead, as Janoth’s comprehensive threat is rather easily dispatched once it’s realized by George, The Big Clock proves content to prevent its bubbling critique of capitalism from ever reaching a boiling point.
While The Big Clok hasn’t been given the 4K treatment that many films from the 1940s have received from various home-video publishers in recent years, this high-definition presentation is a considerable upgrade over Universal’s 2004 DVD release. Wide shots of the publication offices benefit most from the restoration work, as the finest of details, from elevator buttons to the patterns on walls, are readily visible. The close-ups are also quite impressive in their level of clarity. There are sporadic instances of light scratches or debris visible within the frame, but they’re by no means egregious. The monaural track is consistent, with the dialogue and Victor Young’s score registering quite strongly and clearly up in the front of the mix.
An audio commentary by film scholar Adrian Martin is full of insights about the film’s production history and John Farrow’s use of sequence shots. Martin gamely makes a case for Farrow as an unheralded artist of the period with a unique flair for detail, notably singling out an impressive early scene that necessitated set changes prior to the elevator doors of the high-rise office opening on various floors. Martin also points out where the film differs from the novel upon which it’s based, noting that certain tweaks were made to soften the premise of adultery in order to satisfy the production code. A featurette with critic Adrian Wootton fills in more details about the film’s pre-production history, including why Paramount was so keen to adapt the novel in the first place. Actor and writer Simon Callow chimes in with an appreciation of actor Charles Laughton, articulating what makes his performance in The Big Clock stand out. In addition to these excellent supplements, there’s an hour-long radio dramatization of the film performed in 1948 by the Lux Radio Theatre, the original theatrical trailer, and a gallery of original stills and promotional materials.
A minor film noir featuring top-shelf production design, The Big Clock receives a commendable high-def transfer and a handful of worthwhile extras from the Arrow Academy.
Cast: Ray Milland, Charles Laughton, Maureen O’Sullivan, George Macready, Rita Johnson, Elsa Lanchester, Harold Vermilyea Director: John Farrow Screenwriter: Jonathan Latimer Distributor: Arrow Academy Running Time: 95 min Rating: NR Year: 1948 Release Date: May 14, 2019 Buy: Video
Blu-ray Review: Jan Němec’s Diamonds of the Night on the Criterion Collection
Němec burst out of the gate with this stirring, unorthodox depiction of trauma set during the Holocaust.4
Reflecting on his novel Darkness Casts No Shadows in Jan Němec’s short tribute documentary Arnošt Lustig Through the Eyes of Jan Němec, Holocaust survivor Arnošt Lustig recalls how his harrowing account of life under constant Nazi siege originated from the feeling, as he entered his 60s, of suddenly being on the precipice of death. Diamonds of the Night, Němec’s startling debut feature, translates the author’s sense of imminent mortality into a vivid atmosphere of free-floating menace that whips up the novel’s mix of real-time experience, memories, and dreams into one heterogenous montage, eschewing any aesthetic cues to delineate the separate planes. Running at a concise 66 minutes, the film substitutes plot and character detail with an evocative, interiorized representation of the experience of fleeing fascism, entrusting the viewer to immediately comprehend the gravity of its narrative terms from the staggering opening dolly shot, when a pair of frail boys hurtle desperately for minutes on end up a frozen hill to the sound of shouting and gunfire off screen.
Arguably one of the greatest in medias res openings in film history, and a sequence on which Němec expended approximately a third of his budget, Diamonds of the Night’s nerve-wracking teaser doesn’t resolve on any comforting decrescendo. Rather, the nervous pace and sense of peril linger over through the rest of the film, which follows two unnamed concentration camp fugitives played by newcomers Ladislav Jánsky and Antonín Kumbera through a series—or is it a loop?—of imposing enemy landscapes, from foggy forests and jagged rock fields to desiccated farmland and cottages. Periodically offsetting the traumatic present-tense turmoil are alternately delirious and peaceful visions of life prior to escape and woozy hallucinations from whose headspace it’s left tantalizingly unclear. If reality is a bleak, horizonless crusade of exertion and starvation, the mind at least offers some kind of refuge, be it a memory of a stroll through a deserted side street in Prague or a traded glance with a girl on a train.
Němec’s ingenious gambit is to unify his multiple strands of narrative information under the same visual and sonic language, alleviating reality with fantasy without modifying the gloomy chiaroscuro patina of the footage or the stream of muffled ambient sound heard by the boys as they drift through their purgatory. In this morass of past, present, and imagination, context-less images, untethered from discernible logic or chronology, stick out like transmissions from the subconscious—their appearances less skeleton keys for meaning than acute flickerings of a mind when pushed to the limits. Emboldened by Jaroslav Kučera and Miroslav Ondříček’s cinematography, Němec’s compositional eye shines in such passages, drawing out resonance from domestic still lifes and urban panoramas, eerily plaintive shots that depart from the fluid handheld intimacy with which the boys’ frantic wanderings are captured.
Alongside his colleagues in the Czech New Wave, Němec’s compulsion to work well outside storytelling convention and hybridize different filmmaking styles marked him as something of an enfant terrible in his nation’s film industry, enervating funding partners and ultimately cutting his career short. Diamonds of the Night’s unstable brew of historical realism, poetic reverie, and even surrealism—look out for those Bunuelian ant swarms and lethal loaves of bread—offers something of a comprehensive unleashing of Němec’s artistic vitality before these pressures took hold, and still the film seems to crystallize the director’s antipathy toward authority and suppression even at this early stage.
In the film’s grueling penultimate sequence, a group of loathsome, toothless old hunters round up the heroes in the woods and take them home to humiliate them during a night of carousing—an act of incipient violence that gets dragged on and over-emphasized until it achieves a numbing effect. The scene epitomizes the neglect of human dignity that characterized this awful historical episode, but given the film’s reduction of context and specificity, it also points to a more timeless dynamic between the powerful and the powerless.
The silvery, high-contrast palette of Diamonds of the Night, which lends the film’s close-ups a shimmering clarity, has never looked richer on home video than it does on the Criterion Collection’s transfer. Shadows are about as black as black gets without becoming muddy, and the highlights, as seen in the glimmers in Ladislav Jánsky’s eyes, are positively ethereal. Most jaw-dropping are the lengthy handheld tracking shots through dimly lit woods, where the layers of skinny pine trees create striking vignette effects around the heroes as they trudge through the half-light. The film’s soundtrack is sparse and quiet, and Criterion has wisely kept the mix low and uncompressed so that the expressive sonic hierarchy—panting, for instance, is often louder than gunshots—is left intact.
Criterion has thankfully not skimped on the extras, offering three analytical supplements and two short films by Jan Němec. The two newly shot pieces include an interview with Irena Kovarova that takes a deep dive into Czech film history and a rewarding James Quandt video essay that explores the film’s quite pronounced roots in contemporaneous works by Alain Resnais, Robert Bresson, Ingmar Bergman, and Andrei Tarkovsky. Němec himself reminisces on the film’s production and its daunting opening tracking shot in an archival interview from 2009, while source novelist Arnošt Lustig digs into his own troubled past in the touching and intimate Arnošt Lustig Through the Eyes of Jan Němec. Best of all, however, is A Loaf of Bread, Němec’s award-winning college short film that plays, with its commanding use of handheld and ability to invest everyday objects into totems of life-or-death struggle, like a mature trial run for Diamonds of the Night. A Michael Atkinson essay rounds out the collection.
Czech radical Jan Němec burst out of the gate with this stirring, unorthodox depiction of trauma set during the Holocaust, and Criterion treats it as the watershed film that it is.
Cast: Ladislav Janský, Antonín Kumbera Director: Jan Němec Screenwriter: Jan Němec Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 66 min Rating: NR Year: 1964 Release Date: April 16, 2019 Buy: Video
Review: Jonathan Demme’s Melvin and Howard on Twilight Time Blu-ray
Demme’s film is a repository for his comic, aesthetic, and observational gifts, and it receives a solid Blu-ray from Twilight Time.3.5
Perhaps the closest that Jonathan Demme ever got to making a New Hollywood film, Melvin and Howard is set in the impoverished outskirts of the Nevada desert, a place where the ritzy neon and modern decadence of Las Vegas turns into graveyards of rusted, stripped car bodies surrounded by pockets of RV parks. The symbolism of Vegas as a shimmering mirage that offers the false hope of instantaneous wealth and instantaneous success to the struggling masses just outside the city forms the bedrock of the film’s story about a quixotic hustler, and the tone that the setting creates befits Hollywood’s most cynical era of moviemaking.
Even here, however, Demme’s capacity for warmth is unmistakable. The master filmmaker introduces eccentric mogul Howard Hughes (Jason Robards) with magic-hour incandescence and copious lens flares as the man races over the salt flats of the desert on his motorcycle. It’s as if the glowing images exist to suggest that Howard is the owner of this vast dominion. Compare that to the first shots of Melvin Dummar (Paul Le Mat), seen driving desert roads at night in a truck so rusty that you may wonder when was the last time he got a tetanus shot. Melvin, cooped up in this vehicle as he drives across pitch-black roads, looks utterly powerless, a peon drifting through a world that barely notices him.
Melvin stumbles across a crash-wounded Howard by chance when he stops to relieve himself, and he agrees to take the man to his hotel after Howard refuses medical treatment. Demme fully illuminates both characters in the uncomfortable ride that follows. Melvin, chipper and extroverted, immediately comes across as a man who’s devoted an immense amount of effort to getting rich without trying. Bragging about inane schemes, such as penning a Christmas novelty song, Melvin suggests a more benign than usual snake-oil salesman, harmless in his understanding of the American dream to mean that you can make enough money to do whatever you want. Of course, he’s sharing a car with the embodiment of that notion of wealth, and Howard scarcely looks like he’s on top of the world when not indulging his thrill-seeking. Gaunt and pale in close-up, Howard almost looks like he’s in Noh theater makeup, his withered, wide-eyed face not unlike Tatsuya Nakadai’s Lear figure in Akira Kurosawa’s Ran.
Apart from a recapitulation of this scene at the film’s conclusion, Howard doesn’t appear again after Melvin takes him back to Vegas, but his presence looms large over the film’s subsequent study of Melvin’s various get-rich schemes and blinkered dreaming. We see how Melvin’s reckless optimism drives his first wife, Lynda (Mary Steenburgen, in an Oscar-winning performance), to leave him, then take him back when he crashes her new gig as a stripper in order to demand her return. Demme’s mastery of neo-screwball mechanics plays out in a brief comedy of remarriage in which Melvin and a pregnant Lynda hastily renew their vows in a Vegas chapel, which leads to a scene in which the pair is forced to fill in as witnesses for other eloping couples. The subsequent montage of newlyweds smooching Melvin and Lynda is riotous in part for the way the grooms are so enthusiastic about kissing Lynda, and much to the chagrin of some of their brides. The scene is quintessential Demme, blatantly absurd on its face as couple after couple comes in for a kiss from Melvin and Lynda, but suffused with a giddy quality that strangely pulls the couple closer to each other in their shared affections.
Throughout the film, Demme never stoops to mocking Melvin, even as the filmmaker abundantly illustrates how divorced from reality the man is. The limitations of Melvin’s worldview is perhaps best exhibited by his love of game shows as a path to quick money and notoriety, and he even manages to book Lynda on a sleazy program in which contestants have to perform for a crowd to get a shot at playing games for cash. Demme could easily have lapsed into the cynicism that this kind of semi-fame embodies, and at first blush he seems to give into it when Lynda goes on stage to perform a tap-dancing number that initially earns catcalls and boos. Gradually, however, her sheer tenacity and charm wins over the audience, and by the end she gets a standing ovation. The good vibes are short-lived, though, as Melvin uses the cash Lynda wins to buy a boat despite living in the middle of the desert, cheerfully calling it an “investment” as Lynda finally snaps and leaves him for good.
Melvin’s refusal to take any of these twists and turns of life as a sign of defeat marks him as a quintessential early Demme protagonist, his sunny disposition and constant self-sabotage existing in strange harmony. Eventually, Melvin comes to appreciate the possibility of a less reckless life, and after a time lapse, we find him settled into honest work and a content marriage to his second wife, Bonnie (Pamela Reed). Of course, just as Melvin appears to have found his position in life, he receives a copy of Howard’s will, which names him a beneficiary and launches him into a media circus that ironically brings him the fame he always desired.
Melvin and Howard ends with Melvin defending himself from charges of forgery by lawyers determined not to let a little thing like Howard’s eccentricity split the spoils of his estate. Melvin’s aspirational hunger certainly gives him motive to lie, but the film takes the man’s claim of honestly receiving a copy of the will at face value, preferring to play up the oddity of this insignificant person going up against mirthless, high-priced lawyers. Demme never stoops to mocking Melvin. If anything, he finds in the man his archetypal protagonist: a weirdo who in truth has more in common with everyone around him than even he realizes.
Twilight Time’s Blu-ray presents a sturdy transfer of the film. The bleak but beautiful panoramas of the natural world exhibit impressive color balance and contrast, showing off Tak Fujimoto’s incredible gift for on-location cinematography. Color tones are stable throughout, with only a few nighttime scenes showing signs of crushing. The lossless mono track is clean as a whistle, nicely separating dialogue and Foley effects throughout.
An audio commentary with Jonathan Demme and production designer Toby Rafelson is essentially a detailed celebration of the former’s subtle eye for detail. One particularly revealing moment is the acknowledgement that the stylized handwriting of the film’s credits were modeled after the real Hughes’s handwriting. One also gets a sense that, at the time of this track’s recording, Deeme hadn’t seen the film some time, as he frequently expresses appreciation and even surprise at some of the small touches in the actors’ performances. At times, he almost sounds less like the maker of the film than a devoted fan.
Jonathan Demme’s film is a repository for his comic, aesthetic, and observational gifts, and it receives a solid Blu-ray from Twilight Time.
Cast: Paul Le Mat, Mary Steenburgen, Pamela Reed, Jason Robards, Michael J. Pollard, Jack Kehoe, Dabney Coleman Director: Jonathan Demme Screenwriter: Bo Goldman Distributor: Twilight Time Running Time: 95 min Rating: R Year: 1980 Buy: Video
Review: Anatole Litvak’s The Snake Pit on Twilight Time Blu-ray
Twilight Time’s sharp transfer wonderfully preserves Litvak’s long-ago groundbreaking melodrama.3.5
The release of Anatole Litvak’s The Snake Pit in 1948, on the heels of Mary Jane Ward’s semi-autobiographical book of the same name, ushered in a sea change—namely, the reform of state mental hospitals. And although it stands as Hollywood’s first peek into the horrors of mid-20th-century mental institutions, it’s now more fruitful to view it in tandem with the more psychologically elaborate women’s films of the 1940s, such as Rebecca, Gaslight, and My Name Is Julia Ross, than with the decidedly more raw and authentic depictions of psychiatric hospitals that came down the pipeline in subsequent decades.
That isn’t to suggest that The Snake Pit doesn’t lack for disturbing sequences, from Virginia’s (Olivia de Havilland) first electroshock treatment to the stretch of time she spends in a squalid, overcrowded ward reserved for the most severely mentally ill patients. There’s even an unsympathetic nurse (Helen Craig) who’s on hand to squelch any sense of agency that Virginia develops throughout her extended stay in the hospital, and whose sadistic authoritarianism foreshadows that of Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
But perhaps because the public in the late ‘40s was so oblivious to the realities of such institutions and the basic tenets of psychology, Litvak frequently defaults to an educational mode of filmmaking. From sympathetic Dr. Kik (Leo Genn) straining to explicitly lay out the various methodologies of psychoanalysis to de Havilland’s excessive voiceover, which laboriously spells out every aspect of Virginia’s turmoil, the film’s banal narrative strategies lead to purely descriptive passages that hold viewers’ hands every step of the way. Every ounce of nuance and ambiguity is sufficiently squeezed out of the film in such moments, which are geared toward explaining mental illness rather than plumbing its complexities.
Litvak’s sympathetic fixation on Virginia’s suffering does become more compelling when The Snake Pit navigates the myriad ways that the men in her life—from her manipulative, domineering former boyfriend, Gordon (Leif Erickson), to her emotionally absent father (Damian O’Flynn)—have mistreated her. Told in flashbacks, these scenes delve into the root causes of Virginia’s nervous breakdown and subsequent hospitalization, transforming her suppressed memories into living nightmares. And as she’s forced to relive these past tragedies, the film takes on a distinctly feminine, if not feminist, perspective, outlining how Virginia’s ambitions to transcend the prescribed limitations of gender, evidenced by her work as a writer, are placed in the vice grip of seemingly inescapable patriarchal pressures.
It’s all a bit Psych 101 in its approach, further reinforced by the portrait of Sigmund Freud on Dr. Kik’s wall that looms high in the middle of the frame, paternally gazing down upon the doctor and Virginia during each of their sessions. But de Havilland’s emotionally expressive performance is so tightly controlled that she carries the film through many of its weaker stretches. Her uncanny ability to subtly shift moods on a dime, and sometimes several times within the same shot, lends credence to Virginia’s unshakeable sense of paranoia, repressed guilt and creeping self-doubt, making her suffering feel genuine and heart-wrenching. As Virginia grapples with her inner demons, as well as a memory loss that leaves her disoriented and unsure of who she can trust, The Snake Pit periodically transcends its archaic psychological trappings to become an empathic examination of a woman battling both the internal and external forces that seek to fully erase her sense of self.
Twilight Time’s transfer is uniformly crisp and free of debris, boasting intricate details in both the interiors of the mental institution and in the actors’ faces. The blacks aren’t terribly deep, but the image contrast is still more than serviceable and consistent throughout. While the film consists primarily of interior close-ups and mid-shots, whenever Anatole Litvak opts for wider perspectives, such as in the overhead shot that reveals the meaning of the film’s title or the elaborate long shots during Virginia’s stay in the ward for the severely mentally ill, there’s an impressive clarity to the depth of field. The sound on the disc is also quite robust, enhancing the subtleties of both Alfred Newman’s wonderful score and the ambient background noise that fills out the soundtrack during scenes in the more overcrowded portions of the hospital.
A commentary track with film historian Aubrey Solomon is the lone substantial extra on this disc. Solomon provides the historical context surrounding the original theatrical release of The Snake Pit, describing the film as both of a piece with the sorts of socially relevant dramas producer Daryl Zanuck made throughout the ‘40s and an early example of Hollywood representations of psychoanalysis and mental institutions. Unfortunately, Solomon too often spends long stretches of time either completely silent, painstakingly listing out the credits of various actors and members of the production team, or reading direct quotes from critical reactions to the film around its 1948 release. His unpacking of the unsettling sequence in the ward for the severely mentally disturbed does finally touch upon the film’s intermittently expressive camerawork, but such deep, detailed scene dissections would have been welcomed earlier on. The disc also comes with an isolated music track, two vintage radio shows, and an essay by Julie Kirgo that delves into the backstory of how Mary Jane Ward’s novel was adapted to the screen and sings the praises of Olivia de Havilland’s performance.
Twilight Time’s sharp transfer of The Snake Pit wonderfully preserves Anatole Litvak’s long-ago groundbreaking melodrama.
Cast: Olivia de Havilland, Mark Stevens, Leo Genn, Celeste Holm, Glenn Langan, Helen Craig, Leif Erickson, Beulah Bondi, Lee Patrick, Howard Freeman, Natalie Schafer, Ruth Donnelly Director: Anatole Litvak Screenwriter: Frank Partos, Millen Brand Distributor: Twilight Time Running Time: 108 min Rating: NR Year: 1948 Release Date: April 16, 2019
Review: Jackie Chan’s Police Story and Police Story 2 on Criterion Blu-ray
Criterion has beautifully restored two glorious action epics, allowing Chan’s formal audacity to shine.5
For contemporary American audiences, action cinema generally comes in two flavors. There are superhero fantasias with wall-to-wall effects and interchangeably bloodless, consequence-free warfare, and the occasional hard-R slaughter-fest for those viewers who’ve grown nostalgic for the vigilante cop thrillers of the 1970s and ‘80s. In this climate, Jackie Chan’s Police Story and Police Story 2 remain distinctive for their balletic grace and aura of easygoing charm. These films are true action comedies, though they also have subtle grit and tension.
As the supplements included with this Criterion set remind us, Police Story stood out in 1985 as well, in Hong Kong, America, and everywhere else. The period Chinese martial arts extravaganzas were becoming passé, and American action cinema was ruled by brutes who killed first and asked questions never. When you see an Arnold Schwarzenegger film, even now, you expect him to kill someone—as an evitable release of energy and fulfillment of the functions for which that colossal body appears to be built.
By contrast, Chan’s character in Police Story and Police Story 2, Chan Ka-Kui, doesn’t appear to be looking for trouble. He has an affable, if blinkered, nature, making little money as a sergeant on the Royal Hong Kong Police Force and constantly bickering with his girlfriend, May (Maggie Cheung). As co-writer and director, Chan gives his character plenty of little humanizing anecdotes, and the action scenes, when they arrive, often peerlessly blend awkward portraiture with unrivaled physical precision.
In Police Story, an action sequence is built around Ka-Kui’s efforts to fool an uncooperative witness, Selina Fong (Brigitte Lin), by hiring a police officer to pretend to threaten her. When the woman proves quite able to defend herself against the aggressor, Ka-Kui engages in an extraordinary series of flips, kicks, and evasions in order to keep his co-worker’s body animate after the woman has knocked the man out. Ka-Kui dances with the man while pretending to attack him while resisting the woman’s own attacks, which is to say that Chan casually nests three conceits within one stanza of movement.
Chan places Ka-Kui’s moves in a farcical context, which has blossomed out of the hero’s reprehensible ethics. Ka-Kui has, after all, hired someone to stalk someone he’s supposed to be protecting, and this decision makes him into a fool and nearly undoes his operation. Vigilante tactics are often glorified in action movies, but Chan finds complicating wrinkles, giving his set pieces unexpected counterpoints in terms of character and, of course, in physicality. (The knife wielded by Ka-Kui’s friend functions as a kind of baton, which Chan masterfully uses to produce a variety of kinetic through lines.)
Much has been made of Chan’s relatability, and he grew cuddly once he became a superstar in America in the wake of the Rush Hour series. But the actor-filmmaker is surprisingly sassy in Police Story and Police Story 2, offering unexpectedly pointed parodies of police corruption and futility. In Police Story 2, a group of female detectives beat up a captured criminal, threatening to kill him unless he cooperates—a moment that Chan plays for lighthearted comedy. The casualness of this scene is more disturbing than the macho or preachy tonalities that American filmmakers have conditioned us to expect from such a moment.
Later in the same film, Ka-Kui justifies a failed mission to his superiors with empty generalities that they see right through, though they cynically repeat the sentiments up an increasingly gullible chain of command—a punchline that’s worthy of W.C. Fields. In Police Story, Chan stages an acrobatic bit of business in which Ka-Kui juggles several phones at a police station, balancing them on various parts of his body while utilizing other props to answer and cumulatively ignore every call, one of which is a reporting of a rape.
Chan expertly contextualizes his action scenes as releases of energy, which aren’t entirely dissimilar to the catharses of American action films, except that Chan understands his characters to be self-involved, chasing and fighting so as to fulfill an inner drive. Ka-Kui tries to stop bad guys because he’s a daredevil who needs to show his stuff and chase an adrenaline rush, though he often gets himself in predicaments that far outweigh his expectations. This irony is a source of comedy, and it also takes Chan’s melees into a transcendent stratosphere.
Police Story’s climax at a shopping mall, one of the greatest action sequences in cinema, feels inevitable because it finally allows Ka-Kui’s—and Chan’s—imagination and agility to reach the full bloom of their expression. Chan opens the scene with a wide shot of the mall, a labyrinth of glass cases with escalators that reflect the building’s various surfaces, creating a hall-of-mirrors effect. This image is loaded with promise, as Chan is teasing us with the astonishing amount of variables that he’s setting up for his disposal.
And he doesn’t disappoint, fashioning a symphony of tumbling bodies and shattering glass that’s beautiful, exhilarating, and weirdly poignant. Like Bruce Lee, Chan and his other brilliant stunt men move so fast that the eye can barely keep up with them, though Chan has his collaborators vary their speeds, fashioning rhythmic, syncopated escalations, with pauses that suggest the action-movie equivalent of a musical bridge, and props, with ever-shifting functions, that suggest weapons as well as dancer’s instruments. (One bit involving a coat rack is especially ingenious.) Occasional uses of slow-motion suggest orgasmic eruptions of emotion, recalling the films of Sam Peckinpah.
Police Story and Police Story 2 aren’t evenly matched. The first film is scrappy and energetic, with several other hall-of-fame moments in addition to the knife-fight number and the shopping mall climax. Meanwhile, the sequel has an unusual problem: Chan became a better conventional director in between the two productions, filming his non-action scenes with greater polish. Police Story 2 has a more luxurious color palette than Police Story, suggesting a comic book via Andy Warhol, and it has much more plot than its predecessor—far too much, in fact. Chan keeps Police Story 2 afloat on the force of his personality, but across a 122-minute running time, there’s only two standout set pieces.
A brawl that takes place in a playground is vintage Chan, exploring all the ways in which ladders, slides, and other children’s stuff can be weaponized, and the climatic showdown set inside a warehouse, which suggests a game of Donkey Kong, with bad guys throwing barrels at ascending heroes, is also a testament to the filmmaker’s virtuosity. But the film lacks the ecstatic propulsion of Police Story, in which Chan, frustrated with his failed attempts to break into Hollywood, raised a gauntlet and reinvented a genre.
These transfers are beautiful, yet they also preserve the grungy vitality of Jackie Chan’s spunky low-budget productions. Colors are vibrant—particularly in Police Story 2, in which Chan use bold yellows and reds to accentuate certain punchlines—and image clarity is magnificent, allowing one to savor Chan’s kinetic aesthetics. Plenty of grit and grain in both transfers, which is almost certainly appropriate to the source materials, but these qualities are also attractive. Various mono soundtracks in various languages have been included for both films, with new subtitle translations that emphasize Chan’s satirical sense of humor. The sound effects really pop in all the tracks, particularly the stylized punches and exploding glass, which contribute to all-around dynamic and immersive soundscapes.
This supplements package, a well-curated mixture of old and new features, offers a full and exciting history of Police Story and Police Story 2. A vintage television program from 1964 discusses Beijing-opera training, which is pivotal to Jackie Chan’s physical discipline and to his style of action cinema. While clearly serving a promotional purpose, Jackie Chan: My Stunts is a feature-length 1999 documentary that’s nearly as exhilarating as the filmmaker’s best productions. Chan takes the audience behind the scenes to his stunt lab, a warehouse in which he devices and works out routines with his team. This is a case in which knowledge of the mechanics of a magic trick only intensifies the spell, as Chan’s action choreography involves rigorous split-second timing and editing that stiches multiple takes together to offer an illusion of effortlessness. Most fascinatingly, we see many blown takes, which show how quickly a scene can go awry. Other vintage supplements include a 1989 episode of Son of the Incredibly Strange Film Show, featuring Chan and actress Maggie Cheung, which turned a young Edgar Wright into a Chan fanboy, a 2017 program with Chan and the original members of the Jackie Chan Stunt Team, and interviews with cast members.
The new supplements include an interview with Wright, who offers an appreciation of Chan’s aesthetic, and a piece with author and New York Asian Film Festival co-founder Grady Hendrix, who discusses the monumental effect Police Story had on Chan’s career, which was in an uncertain place after his frustrating experience on films such as The Protector. A newly restored alternate version of Police Story 2, running roughly 15 minutes shorter than the original film, has also been included, along with trailers, stunt reels, and a booklet including a rich and tactile essay by film critic Nick Pinkerton.
Criterion has beautifully restored two glorious action epics, allowing Jackie Chan’s formal audacity to shine.
Cast: Jackie Chan, Brigitte Lin, Maggie Cheung, Chor Yuen, Charlie Cho, Fung Hak-on, Lam Kwok-Hung, Bill Tung, Kam Hing Yin, Lau Chi-wing, Crystal Kwok, Anglie Leung Wan-Yui, Ann Mui, Candice Tai, John Cheung Director: Jackie Chan Screenwriter: Jackie Chan, Edward Tang Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 222 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 1985 - 1988 Release Date: April 30, 2019 Buy: Video
Blu-ray Review: Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd on the Criterion Collection
Criterion’s excellent Blu-ray transfer will allow this classic of American political critique to remain a topic of debate for years to come.3.5
The social problem film, as numerous critics and scholars have termed it, conventionally deals with an issue, ranging from alcoholism to racism, that necessitates citizens to arrive at a collaborative solution. Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront fits squarely within the subgenre by taking aim at mob-owned union officials who bleed their workers dry. In his initial collaboration with screenwriter Budd Schulberg, Elia Kazan utilized the working-class visage of Marlon Brando’s Terry Malloy to combat corruption. The arrangement of heroes and villains is essentially straightforward, with the longshoremen triumphing in the end over their crooked bosses.
In 1957’s A Face in the Crowd, Kazan and Schulberg’s follow-up vision of societal disarray, no such easy aligning of culprits exist. Released during the rise of television, the film, not unlike John Ford’s The Searchers from the year before, questions the longevity of previously foundational cultural myths—a tack that would come to define the ethos of New Hollywood with the release of The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde. However, unlike Ford’s seminal inscription of John Wayne’s character as a racist Confederate whose time has passed, Kazan and Schulberg appear caught between the impulse to dramatize or satirize the rise of demagoguery, creating a sometimes tonally confused, though often lucid, vision of the emergent threats to American democracy.
A Face in the Crowd confronts how TV is used by network execs and politicians to manipulate a working-class electorate into bending to the will of power. These gullible citizens believe they’re supporting one of their own, so to speak, in Lonesome Rhodes (Andy Griffith), an Arkansan drifter who transforms himself into something of a demagogic Svengali. Lonesome finds himself in a position of influence thanks to radio producer Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal), who hosts the program of the film’s title. She both finds the man and, seeing his potential to connect with audiences, gives him a platform to express himself.
The film initially considers Jeffries’s intentions with the same devoted interest as it does Rhodes’s meteoric rise up the ranks of political power. An early example is evident during the opening sequence, in which Jeffries enters an Arkansas jail and declares: “People are fascinating wherever you find them.” Such a nakedly ethnographic proclamation demonstrates how a statement of empathy often covers for the baser interests of exploitation. Indeed, Jeffries wants to leverage her relationship to everyone she meets for personal gain. As the film progresses, however, its focus shifts toward a simplistic takedown of Rhodes’s egomaniacal persona and away from the industry that allowed him such distinction in the first place.
A Face in the Crowd uses the ever-evolving relationship between Jeffries and Rhodes, who go from business partners to lovers to foes, as a counterbalance to how it envisions the American political process as being predicated on manipulation and deceit. Yet the film’s ideas about corruption, which raise a number of complicated questions, are often pushed aside in favor of going after an easier target. As Rhodes ascends to the role of image coach to an aspiring senator, Worthington Fuller (Marshall Neilan), instructing the man, in part, to stop pursing his lips because it makes him look like a “sissy,” A Face in the Crowd stokes its indictment of populism while letting certain faults of liberalism off the hook.
The film’s most intriguing perspective on Jeffries and Rhodes is how the former’s infatuation with the latter is a tangle of professional ambition and sexual feeling; Kazan often places Jeffries in close-up, eyes wide, taking in Rhodes’s face with an ambivalent, though palpable, sense of excitement. When Rhodes exclaims, per one of Schulberg’s several crackerjack, double entendres, that “a guitar beats a woman every time,” the moment foreshadows that Jeffries will become the victim of such misogynist logic. In fact, it’s only after Rhodes has taken a teenage wife in Betty Lou (Lee Remick) that Jeffries suffers a mental breakdown and aims to destroy Rhodes’s career by revealing his fraudulent act.
In the end, the filmmakers only conceive of Rhodes’s appeal in mostly rudimentary terms, as in the cutaways to audiences either nodding in approval or exclaiming their support of him. When Jeffries broadcasts Rhodes, who believes he’s off air, calling his supporters a herd of idiotic sheep, the film settles for the most obvious takedown of the man imaginable. The notion that audiences, who see Rhodes as a savior, could so quickly flip from affectionate to contemptuous feels too easy. Given the uncertainty about television as a platform that runs throughout A Face in the Crowd, the finale’s relegation of Rhodes to lunatic status, left to rant and rave alone in his high-rise penthouse, feels more like wishful thinking on behalf of the filmmakers than a consideration of the potential consequences of celebrity worship.
The image, sourced form a 4K digital transfer, boasts significantly more information than the 2005 DVD release of A Face in the Crowd from Warner Home Video. The climax set in Lonesome’s penthouse makes incredible use of depth of field, and the images are striking for their level of detail. Blacks and whites are well balanced throughout; especially impressive are the outdoor scenes of Lonesome being courted and corrupted by scheming politicians. While grit has been scrubbed from the image, nothing looks overly digitized or compromised by the restoration process. The monaural track is loud and impressive, meaning that each and every one of Lonesome’s guffaws and bellows comes through with necessary force. The dialogue and score are clearly audible throughout, with no signs of pops or hisses on the track.
In a new interview recorded for this release, film historian Ron Briley describes Elia Kazan’s career during the ‘50s, with particular attention given to the infamous HUAC hearings during which he named several writers and directors who were affiliated with the communist party. In fact, since both Kazan and screenwriter Budd Schulberg had previously been members of the party, it was their being on the same page about the aftermath of the hearings, according to Briley, that led them to work together on On the Waterfront and A Face in the Crowd. Another new interview presents Andy Griffith biographer Evan Dalton Smith discussing how the actor’s early career contains parallels with that of Lonesome Rhodes, absent the eventual turn into demagoguery. The other two extras have been carried over from the 2005 DVD: a 30-minute documentary, “Facing the Past,” which features cast, crew, and film historians variously explaining the film’s legacy in historical and personal terms, and a theatrical trailer. A booklet contains three separate pieces: an essay by critic April Wolfe, who assesses the film’s prescient vision of media-saturated politics, excerpts from Kazan’s introduction to the film’s published screenplay, and a 1957 New York Times Magazine profile of Griffith.
Whether you find the execution of A Face in the Crowd brilliant or simplistic, Criterion’s excellent Blu-ray transfer will allow this classic of American political critique to remain a topic of debate for years to come.
Cast: Andy Griffith, Patricia Neal, Walter Matthau, Lee Remick, Anthony Franciosa, Percy Waram, Marshall Neilan Director: Elia Kazan Screenwriter: Budd Schulberg Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 126 min Rating: NR Year: 1957 Release Date: April 23, 2019 Buy: Video
Review: Anthony Asquith’s Shooting Stars and Underground on Kino Lorber Blu-ray
In both films, Asquith shows a keen understanding of both the rules and roles of various genres.
Although British director Anthony Asquith is known primarily for such acclaimed stage-to-film adaptations as Pygmalion, The Browning Version, and The Importance of Being Earnest, the first two of his three silent films, Shooting Stars and Underground, display a fully formed and unique vision of the tragic consequences of love. Released at the tail end of the silent era in 1928, these films tap into the violent impulses often lurking beneath romantic obsession, starting off as lighthearted comedies before sliding into something far more nefarious when their main characters sour on love.
Shooting Stars begins as a meta-satire of the film industry, cleverly and amusingly pulling back the curtain to reveal the often-clunky machinery involved in creating cinematic magic. Asquith opens on a schmaltzy, softly lit close-up of a cowboy kissing a young woman sitting in a tree, but after the cowboy rides off, the woman picks up a nearby dove to snuggle, only for the bird to bite her lip. And in true diva form, she looks directly into the camera, shrieking and angrily cursing up a storm. The romantic illusion is even further shattered when we see the cowboy being wheeled off screen on a makeshift wooden horse and a stunning crane shot tracks the actress as she storms from one set to another on the floor above, capturing all of the ropes, ladders, backdrops, and lighting apparatus that go into making cinema gold.
Few films of the silent era so baldly lay bare the unflattering, factory-like nature of early movie-making. But it’s the film’s collisions between the idealistic romance of so many silent films and the rougher realities outside of the camera’s eye that Shooting Stars is ultimately more interested in. Despite the on-screen chemistry of the aforementioned actors—Mae (Annette Benson) and Julian (Brian Aherne), who also happen to be their studio’s de facto power couple—and the former’s loving praise of her husband during a puff-piece interview, the actress is desperately looking for a way out of her seemingly happy marriage.
In a particularly amusing bit, Mae stands in the high-rise apartment of her lover, the hacky slapstick comedian Andy Wilks (Donald Calthrop), as an advertisement for her and Julian’s new film hangs in the middle of the frame, slyly blinking the title in bright lights: My Man. Asquith doubles down on the irony by cutting to Julian inside a theater, cheering on his on-screen counterpart from one of his earlier films as the hero rushes to rescue his wife from a friend who’s forcing himself upon the helpless woman. Here, cinema has become pure wish-fulfillment, and in the case of Julian, he took the bait hook, line, and sinker.
Following Julian’s inevitable rude awakening to Mae’s unfaithfulness, the film further blurs the line between fiction and reality when a blank from a rifle used in the western the actors are shooting is replaced with a real bullet. The material’s wry humor gives way to a suspenseful sequence that lends Shooting Stars a genuine pathos and psychological complexity as the stakes turn deadly and the title of the film takes on a second, and ironic, resonance.
Underground replaces film sets with the more lower-class milieu of the London Underground, but the toxic nature of jealousy is just as pronounced here. As in the earlier film, Asquith begins on a light note, with a kindly ticket taker, Bill (Aherne), falling in love with a classy salesgirl, Nell (Elissa Landi). In a scene that evinces a bit of the elusive Lubitsch touch, shadows on a distant wall act out various forms of kissing and embracing as the two youngsters flirt. But the shadows in this film soon take on more foreboding, harshly angular shapes as the brutish, envious Bert (Cyril McLaglen) schemes to have Nell all to himself.
Like Shooting Stars, Underground cleverly upends audience expectations in its handling of a love triangle, avoiding focusing on which man Nell will choose and instead morphing into a shockingly dark “wrong man” thriller that anticipates noir in both its aesthetics and thematic concerns. In both films, Asquith shows a keen understanding of both the rules and roles of various genres, using that familiarity to his advantage as he injects romantic flights of fancy with a playfulness and hard-edged honesty that gives these otherwise humorous films an underlying psychosexual tension and emotional richness.
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