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Review: Infamous 2

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

4.5

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Infamous 2

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

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

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

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

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Review: Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity Is Addictive in Spite of a Shaky Engine

It’s an addictive, delightfully rowdy experience in spite of the creaky, decrypt gameplay and engine.

3.5

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Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity
Photo: Nintendo

When Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild launched alongside the Nintendo Switch in March 2017, it felt like a wake-up call to developers the world over, showing that with enough creativity, a game’s horsepower scarcely mattered. Now, Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity has arrived on the scene as if to further test that premise. It’s rare that a first-party Nintendo game feels like it’s rubbing up against the upper limits of what the Switch can do, but that’s exactly the kind of judder you can feel the second the playing field in Age of Calamity gets remotely busy. Lucky for us, the experience of playing it remains addictive and delightfully rowdy in spite of the creaky gameplay and engine.

Age of Calamity, a pseudo-prequel to Breath of the Wild, shows us the last optimistic days of the Hyrule that was. As Calamity Ganon lays waste to Hyrule, a stray Guardian robot manages to open a portal and travel back in time to warn Link, Princess Zelda, and King Rhoam of the coming catastrophe. Creating an alternate timeline, the king orders Link and Zelda to travel around the world, getting the greatest champions of each of Hyrule’s tribes to pilot the massive Divine Beasts who can defend Hyrule from the apocalypse.

Here, massive armies of beasts, knights, and wizards are looking to burn Hyrule to the ground in Ganon’s name. And, of course, this being a Warriors game at heart, annihilating those armies is much easier than it is in Breath of the Wild. Arguably too easy. The sporadically winning formula from the Warriors series hasn’t changed much, as the vast majority of enemies our heroes will face are hapless cannon fodder that you can either run past to reach your goal on the map or slay en masse with three presses of the Y button. You can count on one hand the number of times that any of them will take a swing at you, let alone have it connect, during an entire playthrough. Still, this formula persists for a reason, as there’s undeniable satisfaction and glee to obliterating whole armies in a matter of minutes.

What Age of Calamity lacks in difficulty it makes up for in variety. The game’s greatest success is its huge roster of characters—the forebears of known characters from Breath of the Wild—and how wildly different they play as they dazzlingly wield the magic powers from the prior game’s Sheikah Slate. It’s easy to button-mash through Age of Calamity, but more satisfying is trying to figure out the exact Sheikah Slate power to stun your enemies with, then experiment with how to chain melee attacks into elemental barrages, arrow storms, and spectacular feats of swordplay. Just as the original Hyrule Warriors meshed Dynasty Warriors’s mechanics with Twilight Princess’s aesthetic and gameplay extremely well, it’s impressive how seamlessly Breath of the Wild adopts this combat system, possibly more so here given how much this game kicks Breath of the Wild’s less popular features—like breakable weapons—to the curb.

Here, advancement is handled by turning the various items and currencies you find on the battlefield into money or ingredients to open up new item shops, craft new items, and complete random challenge stages. While it’s possible to build characters up into overpowered invincible juggernauts with surprisingly little effort, you also don’t necessarily need to in order to do well here. Aside from leveling up your weapons at a blacksmith, you could get along perfectly fine without every other crafting system in the game. The various missions that involve actual gameplay are far more rewarding of the player’s time and efforts.

There’s nothing wrong with another Warriors game providing a familiar experience, but all that’s dependent on this particular game being enjoyable to look at and play comes up incredibly short. At its best, Age of Calamity keeps a weak grip on 30 frames a second, and at its most visually chaotic, the game effectively becomes a slideshow. And it’s at its absolute worst when it puts you behind the controls of one of Hyrule’s Guardian Beasts, massive stone-and-metal kaiju that wreak havoc on hordes of enemies. These segments should be wicked displays of payback. Instead, they’re smudgy, indecipherable nonsense, given that the camera can’t figure out where to go, enemies are too small to stand out against the various smoke and light effects, and the explosions from destroying them tank the framerate.

Age of Calamity isn’t a game that’s likely to stay with you too long after the credits roll, even if it hurts the eyes from time to time. But Warriors games have always been there to scratch a very particular itch, and Age of Calamity still manages to deliver on that front, while also letting Legend of Zelda fans spend some quality time with some familiar faces. It’s a somewhat broken experience, but it’s scarcely a heartless or empty one.

The game was reviewed using a review code provided by Golin on November 20.

Developer: Omega Force Publisher: Nintendo Platform: Switch Release Date: November 20, 2020 ESRB: T ESRB Descriptions: Fantasy Violence Buy: Game

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Review: Assassin’s Creed Valhalla Brings the Fun, but It May Leave You Uneasy

The game is fairly dedicated to correcting many of the worst creative decisions made across the lifespan of the Assassin’s Creed series.

3.5

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Assassin’s Creed Valhalla
Photo: Ubisoft

Fun comes through more effortlessly in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla than it has in years for Assassin’s Creed. Where Origins and Odyssey took more than a few cues from The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, Valhalla embraces the things that, once upon a time, made Assassin’s Creed unique. Here, there’s renewed emphasis on actual assassination, but also more focus on showing how each of your targets connect, how they affect the world at large, and the direct result of their elimination. You get to see the ways your actions make the world a better place, at least in the short term. That, in turn, provides plenty of motivation to do all the extra non-essential stuff that Origins and Odyssey kept trying to foist upon the player.

It does, though, take a few hours—after an introductory sandbox in Norway provides a bleak and uninspiring bit of setup—for the game to get to that point. You play as Eivor, a Viking who finds themselves tagging along on the first exodus out of Norway with their hot-blooded brother, Sigurd, when their father bends the knee to a new king without consulting the rest of his family. The journey leads Eivor and Sigurd to seek out their Norwegian brethren in England, where the game blooms from a set of linear plot points to a much looser structure.

The next main story mission is always out there waiting for you to tackle it, but with enough time, effort, and honest detective work, visiting a diverse array of well-written and amiable NPCs will be a great opportunity to tame the hostile English terrain. That work will also lead you to the two dozen or so assassination targets that will make settling down in England easier in the long run. There are still plenty of mindless sidequests, minigames, and timewasters to blow a 40-to-50-hour game out into something closer to 90, and a plethora of fascinating little nooks and crannies to explore for treasure, customizable items, and random secluded hermits with grand stories to tell. But blessedly, these are truly optional, instead of a required grind. Now, just about anything you do in game can help improve your equipment, or provide enough XP to unlock new tricks, better attacks, defends, and the like.

Raids are the backbone of Valhalla, at once the main source of its enjoyment and its most problematic component. On its face, a raid will find you blowing a horn and charging alongside 30 of your best CPU allies into battle against the Saxon dogs who choke the life from the land, burning their villages to the ground. It feels as if, in the thankful absence of rape, there’s triple the amount of pillaging to be done. At its best, the film’s combat strikes that happy medium between patient, Souls-like sword-and-shieldplay and easy, effective button-mashing that usually ends with your enemies finding out what your favorite axe tastes like.

The quests as part of the main story go even further, turning into full-on Lord of the Rings-scale melees. Aside from the rock-solid frame rate, if there’s anything that truly shows off the power of the next-gen consoles, it’s the way these battles, such beautiful displays of chaos, never skip a single frame—something that can’t be said about the stuttery previous gen port.

Stop for even a moment to consider the implications of all the looting and burning, though, and Valhalla starts to unravel. You spend much of the initial boat trip into England talking about how you intend to take the land from the Saxons, who had to take it from the Romans, who had to take it from others before them. But the option to take a different path, one toward coexistence, isn’t an option. And why not? A dialogue system has been built into this game that takes some rather intriguing twists and turns with the story, where enemies can become friends, innocent people can die as a consequence of your actions, and Eivor can try to find diplomatic solutions before things escalate into war. But bloodthirst is always the first option.

Granted, Valhalla is a game about a Viking assassin, so it’s difficult to imagine peace as a possibility within that premise. But the violence you bring about in prior Assassin’s Creed titles has a different flavor. You’re meant to revel in the good you’ve done in the other games, while chaos is your guiding principle here, as it’s considerably easier to progress with fury than it is with grace, which nearly every other game in this series makes a point to lean into.

There are a few motions toward grace later in Valhalla, especially when some of the more despicably bloodthirsty Vikings start to play a role in the game’s narrative, betrayals start to pile up, and named innocents start dropping like flies. Eivor begins to develop a wider, empathetic view of the world around the Vikings as the narrative progresses. There are more than just Danes trying to carve a small piece of England for their own, and Eivor is able to recognize that same settler struggle in others as time goes on. Given that everyone has lost friends and family trying to make England their home, and Eivor is often tasked with being an emotional bedrock for them as they build and rebuild. At the same time, you can’t help but wonder why Eivor is meant to feel so uneasy about the way their people operate now. Why wasn’t it a problem decapitating the men whose primary crime was defending their village?

Of course, you know the answer to that: Because it’s fun. Admittedly, lots of fun. Indeed, Valhalla surrounds you with people, places, and activities that make spending time in a bloody Assassin’s Creed open world the most enjoyable it’s been since Syndicate. A golden sunrise greets you every few hours in the game to bless a journey you take. You get the sense that you’re not supposed to think about the implications of your actions, that you’re supposed to kill and pillage at your leisure, which doesn’t make the game much different from most others, except that it makes such a point of bringing frightened terrorized bystanders into the mix.

Valhalla is fairly dedicated to correcting many of the worst creative decisions made across the lifespan of the Assassin’s Creed series. Most notably, it empowers its female characters and puts them on equal footing with the male characters. But there’s a cost, as the force of colonialism is front and center here in ways it never has been before in an Assassin’s Creed game: You’re meant to take anything that’s not freely given in England, and not nearly enough nuance has been baked into the story to say that your enemies deserve what your Vikings have come to bring. That makes the primary mode of advancement in the game rest a bit uneasy with where the narrative ends up going. Arguably, that uneasiness is the point, but it’s not enough to support how much fun the game wants you to have throughout.

The game was reviewed using a review code provided by 160over90.

Developer: Ubisoft Montreal Publisher: Ubisoft Platform: Xbox Series X ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Partial Nudity, Sexual Themes, Strong Language, Use of Drugs and Alcohol Buy: Game

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Review: The Pathless Grasps for Profundity in the Shadow of the Familiar

The Pathless ultimately buries anything it might have to say in a stupefying level of cliché.

3

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The Pathless
Photo: Annapurna Interactive

There’s something almost defiant about how prototypical and familiar The Pathless is, treading as it does territory worn not only by Shadow of the Colossus and The Legend of Zelda, but the countless other media they’ve likewise inspired, to say nothing of further forbearers like Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke. That familiarity suggests an intent to transcend the thick muck of video game cliché in which The Pathless stands, and what’s most disappointing is that the game almost manages to do so.

The forces of light and darkness are at it again in Giant Squid’s open-world game. The Hunter has traveled to a distant land where the requisite giant animal deities have been cursed and struck down. To put things right again with nature and the world at large, she must cleanse the cursed gods and switch off the radiating red towers that look like the Eye of Sauron.

The game’s unique movement system provides a magnificent sense of momentum. Armed with a bow, the Hunter sprints across the world while shooting floating talismans that replenish an ever-draining dash meter. Aiming is more or less automatic; all you have to do is look in the direction of a talisman and hold down the trigger for a brief lock-on period. As you get a feel for how long it takes to shoot and how quickly arrows reach their targets, navigation becomes a captivating rhythm that frees space for you to experiment with different maneuvers, weaving through trees or hopping over rocks and rivers while expertly aiming without a hitch.

Complementing this freedom of movement is your eagle companion, who can soar to great heights or carry you across gaps and long distances. Sometimes a river is a little wider than your jump distance, so the eagle can carry you the rest of the way. But some of The Pathless’s most thrilling moments occur when you cross areas without the eagle’s aid. For one, if you hit a talisman in midair, the boost keeps you aloft and provides just enough push to jump a wide river. Mastering the navigation means blazing through the world at high speed, able to propel yourself across the landscape while scarcely touching the ground.

Otherwise, the bow tends to be used in the puzzles that dot the landscape. And, unfortunately, those puzzles are pretty standard stuff, from lighting a torch by shooting an arrow through some fire, to hitting a switch from a distance, to, if you really want to get wild, weighing down a pressure plate. But what the puzzles lack in distinction they make up for in a fulfilling sense of discovery when you find them on your own. They’re nestled inside the trees and the ruins that might catch your eye from a distance, rewarding you with light orbs that are used for markedly less inspiring means: turning off the video game towers to unlock the boss battle.

In each area, a cursed god roams the land within an enormous storm, a swirling cloud of ominous red that occasionally expands to pull you inside for rather tedious stealth segments. While it’s possible to outrun these storms, they tend to interrupt puzzles and exemplify the odd identity crisis at the core of The Pathless. The game visibly aches to be more traditionally dramatic, which manifests in more guided stretches like the stealth sections and boss battles.

And when The Pathless doesn’t lean on the sense of discovery that so few games trust the player with, its most familiar attributes become almost laughable because there’s no longer anything to differentiate them from those of countless other games. It’s then that it becomes yet another game where you have to shoot giant eyeballs, light torches, and look around in bog-standard blue vision to highlight relevant objects while making dark clouds go away. In the wrong hands, the wonder-of-nature, light-in-the-darkness archetypes merely become another flavor of generic. The Pathless ultimately buries anything it might have to say in a stupefying level of cliché, grasping for profundity in the shadow of the things that inspired it.

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

Developer: Giant Squid Publisher: Annapurna Interactive Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: November 12, 2020 ESRB: E10+ ESRB Descriptions: Fantasy Violence Buy: Game

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PlayStation 5 Roundup: Devil May Cry 5, Spider-Man Remastered, & Demon’s Souls

Even the PS5’s most grandiose examples of a remake still pay more tribute to the past than they provide a window to the future.

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Devil May Cry 5
Photo: Capcom

The PlayStation 5’s exterior design feels sprung from the imagination of Björk, as if capable at any moment of releasing a bloom of black smoke that will eventually transform into a flurry of butterflies. Which makes it somewhat disappointing that actually playing games on the PS5 feels, well, just like playing them on the last generation. Mostly. But we can see strands of the future laid out in its handling of the past, and three games in particular provide the most intriguing taste of things to come.

The least ambitious of these visions is Devil May Cry 5, a fantastic game on the previous gen that’s been given the “special edition” treatment. In this case, that means the inclusion of all the previously gated bonus content from the deluxe versions available on the PS4—most notably new costumes for the main cast, and a delightful feature allowing players to see live-action pre-viz footage of select cutscenes—alongside a massive cache of starting currency and the addition of series antagonist Vergil and a new Legendary Dark Knight mode that drops insane hordes of enemies on the battlefield at any given moment.

The cherry on top is a next-gen spit shine, almost completely eliminating load times but adding a high frame rate mode, ray tracing, and an extra bump in detail to what was already an extremely pretty game. The most anyone can really say is, yep, that’s Devil May Cry 5 all right, and the visual uptick is certainly nothing to sneeze at, especially given the manner in which light plays off the world in ways that pop off the screen. In a game that often devolves into chaos, there’s a newfound clarity that really drags you into the world just a bit more. Fundamentally, though, it’s still the same game folks may already own.

The same can mostly be said of the remastered Spider-Man, included in the Ultimate Edition of its semi-sequel, Spider-Man: Miles Morales. It’s a prettier, more detailed game now (the frame rate can be kicked up to a solid 60), but the PS5 adds a lot more to the fundamental experience here. Two of the bigger flaws of the original game were a virtual New York City that was less effective at invoking the real thing the closer you got to the ground, and rather extensive load times that made any segment where you had to go indoors feel entirely separate from the rest of the world. Both of those problems have been solved on the PS5.

Spider-Man Remastered

A scene from Marvel’s Spider-Man Remastered. © Sony Interactive Entertainment

While it’s not a one-to-one reflection of the real deal, the New York of the game absolutely bustles with life now, brimming with new details, vendors, and NPCs interacting with each other—and it does so for full city blocks ahead of your field of vision. But more than this, the world is absolutely seamless, only breaking immersion for cutscenes, which have also been given a nice new level of detail and photorealism. That realism has, however, led to probably the most notable change to the game: A new face model for Peter Parker who, for unquestionable reasons of synergy, looks a hell of a lot like the MCU’s Tom Holland.

The kid looks great, but there’s a small dissonance cost, as his is a rather young face for a Spider-Man who, in the game, is an old hand at the superhero gig, and is already feeling its fatigue. That older, frazzled voice (Yuri Lowenthal’s) doesn’t quite synch up with the fresh face, but there’s an impressive new level of earnestness in the physical performance now that captures more actorly decisions and expressiveness. All in all, the change is worthwhile, and it’s certainly a strong reason to revisit the game before jumping into Miles Morales.

The real main event on the PS5 right now, though, is the Demon’s Souls remake, a top-to-bottom makeover that brings the eldritch grandfather of Souls games rocketing into the future. I was there back when the original Demons’ Souls was an evil secret, a dare for those who had the belly for a true challenge during one of the least challenging generations of games. But unlike the worlds offered up by its wicked spawn—Dark Souls, Bloodborne, and Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice—it never felt like a place you wanted to get lost in or held wonder. It was a grim, grisly labyrinth of torments that seemed to revel in your failures, with nothing but cold, unyielding, nicotine-yellow brickwork to bear witness, even if its enthralling representations of death and decay made it difficult to turn away from it.

Perhaps the perfect example of everything special and different about Demons’ Souls is its hub area, the Nexus. It was always a dead place, with the mood of an abandoned church—dim, bleak, and yawning, whose main purpose is to get you away from it. Its guardian was a ragged banshee barely discernible against the darkness. Conversely, the Nexus on the PS5 is a true sanctuary. It’s a palace bathed in the gentle amber of candlelight, where the floor is a clockwork mechanism protected by a membrane that ripples like water. It’s a place where choral voices soothe in all directions—probably the best example of the PS5’s 3D audio feature hard at work—where the faces of the damned are easy to read and commiserate with. It’s a place of respite, creating a powerful contrast between you and the endless agony to come.

Yes, the look, feel, and sound of Demons’ Souls is absolutely a next-level experience. The irony, however, is that the game is otherwise a carbon copy of the game that dropped on the PS3 back in 2009. Every strategy, every secret, every bit of balancing feels as warm and familiar as a hug from an old friend—that is, a friend who’s ready to kill you within 10 seconds if you don’t watch your step. It doesn’t feel old per se; every FromSoftware game that comes out is a reminder that Hidetaka Miyazaki has insight on how to build worlds and experiences that even the best Souls copycats haven’t been able to touch. But it does feel oddly safe in 2020. We’ve seen this brand of game one-upped in various ways over the years, and Demons’ Souls, as excellent as it often is, is still playing with a mood and mechanical language that’s very well tread at this point. Funnily, one of the other PS5 launch titles, Godfall, is riffing on many of the design tenets set forth by Demons’ Souls, and while it’s a more repetitive experience, it also feels like it’s reaching toward something more ambitious in concept.

Demon’s Souls

A scene from Demon’s Souls. © Sony Interactive Entertainment

Of course, we don’t expect launch titles to answer the question of what the next generation of video games will look like. The experiences that have come to define the last seven years of video games were absolutely inconceivable way back in 2013, when the PS4 and Xbox One arrived on the scene. We know how good it can look, at the very least, and we know it can make games engulf our senses like never before. But as beautifully lavish and deserving of reverence the old may be, even the PS5’s most grandiose examples of a remake still pay more tribute to the past than they provide a window to the future.

These games were reviewed using retail copies purchased by the reviewer.

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Review: Tetris Effect: Connected Will Leave You Wanting for VR Support

Tetris Effect is one of the best VR titles on the market, so without the feature Connected feels, well, disconnected.

3.5

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Tetris Effect: Connected
Photo: Enhance

There are few among us who haven’t heard of Tetris, the addictive tile-matching video game created in 1984 by Alexey Pajitnov in which players must move and rotate tetromino pieces in order to form and clear horizontal lines. For years, developers have been crafting their own iterations on this familiar formula, and they almost all feel largely the same. Perhaps that’s why Tetsuya Mizuguchi, the creator of trippy games such as Rez and Lumines, puts so much of the focus of Tetris Effect on literally changing the way people feel, using a variety of audiovisual effects to present an artistic, emotional spin on Tetris.

And yet, the successes of Tetris Effect, named for a condition where people spend so much time doing a particular activity that it begins to pattern their thoughts, come not from such ultimately superficial and distracting bells and whistles, but from the introduction of a brand new ability. As players clear lines, they’re also charging their Zone gauge, which, when it’s completely filled, will allow you to significantly slow down time. It’s a game-changing mechanic that shakes the foundation of the Tetris experience, allowing masters to massively boost their scores by clearing as many as 20 lines while also re-balancing the game for amateurs who may need an extra advantage to puzzle their way out of a tight spot.

Tetris Effect offers the most responsive Tetris experience to date, in part due to the best improvements in the series’s history, such as the ability to store a single tetromino in a queue and to T-spin shapes into awkward gaps before they lock into place. An Effects mode offers a wide variety of modifiers to the basic game, from standard speed runs and score attacks to skill-training puzzles that test your ability to quickly All Clear a board or combo together line clears. And the Master mode, which all but instantaneously drops pieces, makes a return here, but now there’s also a Relax setting, which offers up different themed levels, like Sea or Wind, but without the risk of a dreaded Game Over. And for those who have mastered every aspect of Tetris, there’s the Mystery setting, which throws weird and random rule modifications into the mix. It’s one thing to play on an invisible board, and quite another when that board is flipped upside down, or when the tetrominos take on new and unwieldy or massive shapes.

Pity, then, that the game’s emotional resonance is rather lackluster. The Journey mode, self-billed as “a journey of discovery and emotion,” more closely resembles a Couch to 5K-like training program, one that hides the repetitious work of building Tetrises beneath 27 increasingly challenging levels. Abrupt shifts between high-intensity havoc and slower, soothing tempos give players a chance to recover from the more taxing speeds, just as the varying visual styles—not just for backgrounds, but for pieces—helps with training.

Tetris Effect is staggeringly immersive, but it falls short of justifying its audiovisual ambition as anything more than a novelty, a way to resell one of the oldest video games in the world, now gussied up with high-definition colors and graphical bloom. There’s Tetris, better than ever, in the foreground, but then there’s all these other effects going on in the background.

Now, Connected brings a multiplayer component to the Tetris Effect experience. In addition to PVP modes (the same that have been available in other Tetris compilations over the years), the strongest multiplayer mode is its namesake, Connected, wherein three players unite online to take on a series of astrology-themed AI-controlled bosses. The player starts a game alongside two co-operative partners while the bosses play their own game, firing attacks back and forth as lines are created. Occasionally, all three games link up so that players can take turns dropping pieces onto a play area that’s three times the size of the standard area, making longer lines that do devastating damage against the zodiac bosses. It’s suitably epic and engaging, and boasts the same kind of thrilling immersion as the core Tetris Effect campaign.

But just as the Tetromino Lord giveth, the Tetromino Lord taketh away. The multiplayer additions, while compelling, don’t make up for the absence of a virtual reality mode, which is unfortunately unsupported by the Xbox One platform. After all, the complete audio-visual immersion of virtual reality is where Tetris Effect really shines: Beyond the stellar visuals, the sound effects of the gameplay synchronizes to the beat of the soundtrack, and when the engaging gameplay is in lockstep with the music with the gorgeous graphics surrounding the player, Tetris Effect generates a feeling of transcendence. Tetris Effect is one of the best VR titles on the market, so without the feature Connected feels, well, disconnected.

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

Developer: Resonair, Monstars, Stage Games Publisher: Enhance Platform: Xbox One Release Date: November 10, 2020 ESRB: E Buy: Game

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Review: With Melody of Memory, Kingdom Hearts Takes an Undeserved Victory Lap

In the end, Melody of Memory is very much a fans-only affair.

2.5

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Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory
Photo: Square Enix

The franchise equivalency of auto-fellatio, Kingdom Hearts features Disney and Final Fantasy characters as bit players in a contrived, bloated narrative revolving around saving the world through the power of friendship, pureness of heart, or some other nonsense. The common element between each game is that Kingdom Hearts is the greatest and you’d be a fool to think otherwise. In fact, the last thing the series wants players to do is think at all, lest they see it for the shallow, juvenile, incoherent blather that it is. And after last year’s disappointing Kingdom Hearts III, Melody of Memory serves as a wholly undeserved victory lap, a recap of the series’s major narrative beats baked into a mediocre rhythm game.

Melody of Memory features three types of levels across its World Tour campaign, all requiring you to press buttons when prompts appear: Field Battles, wherein a trio of characters (most commonly series protagonists Sora, Goofy, and Donald Duck) run down a floating path through a level from past Kingdom Hearts games and fight enemies; Memory Dives, a kind of interactive music video where the characters fly in the air as video clips from the prior games play in the background; and Boss Battles, wherein your trio circles a boss and attacks and defends until the fight ends, often unceremoniously. Completing levels unlocks cutscenes from each game, moving through the narrative of both the main numbered titles and its spin-offs.

After a bewildering interactive opening that Melody of Memory doesn’t make clear that you can even play, you’re introduced to the serviceable but unexciting basics of its gameplay—attack, jump, fly, and multiple attack—little of which changes or evolves from the start to the end of the campaign. But the game’s lack of variety is only part of its problem. The difficulty swings wildly throughout Melody of Memory, with the most difficult option, Proud, providing the most comprehensive experience, wherein the player has to press buttons in time to all of the beats in a song and misses are punished severely. Conversely, Beginner gives the player significantly fewer button prompts and frustratingly little to do, as playing the game this way doesn’t allow one to really maintain any sort of rhythm or even enjoy the music.

Better examples of this genre of game, like Harmonix’s Rock Band series, have found ways to not only give beginners a fun experience, but teach them how to improve, by, say, enlarging the timing window to hit beats instead of reducing the number of beats that you have to hit. Alas, Melody of Memory doesn’t even provide adequate feedback as to how the player isn’t hitting specific beats, making progress arduous. And while the game boasts a tracklist of over 140 songs, the arrangements often disappoint, with few orchestral versions of popular tracks and some notable soundtrack omissions from past games in the series, like “Scythe of Petals.” Surprisingly, the game also contains few licensed Disney songs, as more of them would have given Melody of Memory the opportunity for broader reach and appeal.

In the end, Melody of Memory is very much a fans-only affair. You will find no better proof of this than the banal narrative, which plays out as a “greatest hits” edit of the series’s overarching story, and in such patchy fashion that only those intimately familiar with the games will be able to make heads or tails of any it. Like Eiichiro Oda’s One Piece and its awful video-game adaptation series Pirate Warriors, truncating Kingdom Hearts’s overcomplicated narrative into fragmentary clips somehow makes the whole thing seem more incoherent. But the more cultish, nostalgia-fueled fans of the series will remain undeterred, which is ironic given that the more dedicated among them are the ones who should be the most frustrated with this gimmicky, transparently pandering product. (Imagine the backlash to a Just Dance: Dark Souls, or, heaven forbid, a Silent Hill pachinko machine.) Melody of Memory is less than the sum of its parts, a judgment one can fairly cast over the entire Kingdom Hearts franchise.

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

Developer: Square Enix Publisher: Square Enix Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: November 13, 2020 ESRB: E10+ ESRB Descriptions: Fantasy Violence, Mild Language Buy: Game

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Review: Bugsnax Is Excitingly Weird but Clumsy When It Has Something to Say

The game noticeably stumbles as it attempts to more overtly address the darkness beneath its concept.

3

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Bugsnax
Photo: Young Horses

The eponymous creatures of Bugsnax—sentient food with googly eyes—live within their environments in much the same way that regular animals do. A Bunger, a hamburger with curly fries for legs, roams its terrain, charging at anything slathered in ketchup. A pineapple spider, naturally called a Pineantula, remains buried in the sand until a crab made from apple slices—a Crapple, of course—can be coaxed to dig it out.

And those are just a few of the strange creatures that fill the delightfully odd world of Bugsnax, including anthropomorphic walrus-looking thingamabobs called Grumpuses, some of whom have built a settlement on the illustrious Bugsnak domain of Snaktook Island. As a desperate Grumpus reporter from the city, you make your way to the island to investigate the rumors of things that are, per the game’s theme song by Kero Kero Bonito, “kinda bug and kinda snack” in a comedic adventure that flounders as it reaches its climax.

With Grumpus names like Beffica Winklesnoot and Wambus Troubleham, the game can often feel like an elaborate ploy to make voice actors recite ridiculous words, given that the Bugsnax don’t grunt or growl so much as say their own names aloud like Pokémon. But unlike the Pokémon games, Bugsnax seems to be much more consciously in touch with its darker side. Upon devouring a Bugsnak, a Grumpus will transform accordingly and horrifically—though not, it appears, painfully: a leg becomes a carrot, an arm becomes a shish kebab, a nose becomes a pickle. And not long after you does this for the first time, the player meets a Grumpus who’s morally opposed to the idea of eating Bugsnax in the first place, preferring to keep them as pets on a ranch that other Grumpuses view more as an auxiliary food source.

The game is most disturbing at its most overtly whimsical, when no one seems bothered by the fact that these characters blundered onto a remote island and are gradually becoming grotesque food chimeras by eating the wildlife raw. Most of the game functions in that mode of comedic ignorance, where a Grumpus has some request and you run off to capture the corresponding Bugsnak through some combination of sauce packets that grow like plants and the gadgets you’ve accumulated, like a launchpad or a tripwire. Light on challenge, the game works best as a procession of weird characters among even weirder fauna, the Bugsnak interactions more like momentary puzzles than particularly in-depth systems.

Which isn’t to say the game is incapable of surprising you with the way the Bugsnax behave even without your interference; sometimes you’ll see them attack each other while moving along their predetermined paths. But in its breezy nature, the game ends up living and dying by its storytelling, which noticeably stumbles as it attempts to more overtly address the darkness beneath its concept. If the game is funniest and strangest while playing dumb, it becomes tedious and wholly predictable once the time finally comes to say into the camera that all the Grumpuses have done on Snaktooth Island might actually be bad. Bugsnax is so much more inventive when it’s pretending everything is okay, even when it clearly isn’t.

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

Developer: Young Horses Publisher: Young Horses Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: November 12, 2020 ESRB: E10+ ESRB Descriptions: Crude Humor, Fantasy Violence

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Indie Roundup: Carto, I Am Dead, and Noita

Carto gets a lot of brain-bending mileage from its central mechanic.

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Carto
Photo: Humble Games

The layout of the world in Carto (Humble Games) is subjective, but only up to a point. The latest from Taiwanese developer Sunhead Games finds the title character collecting pieces of her magic map to make terrain appear in the world. Place, say, a patch of forest to her east and what was once a blank void transforms into a very real forest for Carto to explore. If you pick up that same map piece and place it to her north, the forest moves to the north instead. As long as the edges match up—forest to forest, grassland to grassland—the beautiful, storybook-esque world of the game is totally within Carto’s power.

Other people also live in Carto’s world. In addition to the grandmother who she’s been separated from, there are the various tribes that have settled in different environments according to their own customs. And they’re already familiar with the land; if one character says that his hut is by the sea to the east of another hut, his home won’t appear until the player sets the map piece down in the proper place. And even if the map piece fits just fine to the north, south, or west, he knows where his home is.

Though the more complex, and occasionally obtuse, puzzles can make your constant opening and closing of the map feel a little tedious, Carto gets a lot of brain-bending mileage from its central mechanic. Each area introduces some pleasant new wrinkle, like moving big chunks of the map at once, connecting the path of an earthworm, or rotating a map tile to open a safe before moving on again, one more stop on a lovely journey about getting to know different cultures and how they survive in so many different conditions.


Death, as it turns out, isn’t the end. Deceased museum curator Morris Lupton is now a rather nosy ghost, capable of supernaturally peeking inside objects around the small island of Shelmerston in I Am Dead (Annapurna Interactive), the latest from the creators of Hohokum and Wilmot’s Warehous. The outsides melt away on command, letting him look inside of a grapefruit, the circuits of a walkie talkie, or the gears of a clock. But Morris finds himself without purpose, until the ghost of his dog informs him that they need to find a replacement spirit for the island to keep its long-dormant volcano from exploding.

What follows is a rather simple game where you seek out mementos of the dead that tend to be hidden in unexpected containers like a fox hole in a sculpture park or an armchair at the lighthouse turned yoga retreat. I Am Dead places its objects among scenes of such vibrant life and history, bursting with strange details and memories tackling a range of emotions that’s all the more surprising for the cutesy exterior. There’s pleasure, charm, and sadness here, rummaging through mementos seeing how our touch on the world persists, however brief it may seem, through the people and objects we leave behind.


Though so many games call themselves sandboxes, few can claim the depth and variety of the pixelated playground of Noita, the latest from the self-proclaimed nerds at the Finland-based Nolla Games. The simple art style belies an enormous spiderweb of systems upon systems, actions and reactions. When your magician character lights something on fire, the fire spreads and takes the terrain with it, pieces of it crumbling off into the cave network below. Smoke rises, collecting in pockets of the cavern to drain oxygen from you or the hostile creatures lurking in the dark. You can douse the fire in water or blood, or you can feed it with oil or alcohol and watch from a distance as it consumes the monsters in your way.

And fire is just one of the many potential variables on your journey, something that might crop up because you knock over a lantern or manifest it as an unexpected side effect of your spells. Acid melts terrain, electricity surges through water, and parasitic plants block your path as they grow unchecked. Even with just a handful of basic spells, Noita is an astonishing, reactive, and chaotic achievement. But as you progress, starting from scratch upon death, as it is customary in roguelikes, even the spells grow in complexity. You can bolt on additional effects, change trajectories, and tweak their potency until, say, you’re obliterating ground as far as the eye can see in a flash of red fireworks, probably killing yourself by accident in the process.

Death will come often in Noita as you puzzle out the secrets of its merciless systems, and to the game’s occasional detriment. Without a safe, reliable place to experiment, you’ll often find yourself dealing with powers and enemies that you’re unaccustomed to, scrambling for footholds and bottlenecks that might crumble at any moment. The desperation can be exciting to be sure, but Noita’s systems are so fascinating on their own that it’s difficult not to long for an option to make its wondrous sandbox just a little less dangerous.

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Review: The Dark Pictures Anthology: Little Hope Puts Scary Ideas in a Safe Package

The gameplay blunts the effectiveness of the game’s aesthetic, because there’s no real danger to exploring the environments here.

3

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The Dark Pictures Anthology: Little Hope
Photo: Bandai Namco Entertainment

Right out of the gate in Little Hope, the second game in The Dark Pictures Anthology, the so-called Curator (Pip Torrens), a Rod Serling-like master of ceremonies, makes promises that this modest thriller can’t keep. This will be a “confusing” and “disturbing” tale, he promises, one filled with “infinite” possibilities. What follows is a decent enough thrill ride with some especially well-conceived monsters, but it’s little more than a gamified ghost tour of the fictitious Salem-adjacent abandoned town of Little Hope.

A stubborn professor, John (Alex Ivanovici), attempts to shepherd his four students to a working phone after their bus crashes along the road to Little Hope. Each student is a distinct type: cynical and guarded Taylor (Caitlyn Sponheimer); her jock-y, earnest boyfriend, Daniel (Kyle Bailey); the older Angela (Ellen Davis), who’s quick to disdain; and Andrew (Will Poulter), who’s a bit of a frightened cypher on account of the head injury he sustained that’s given him temporary amnesia, though the other four all recognize him as their classmate.

If you’re playing alone, Little Hope chooses which character you control, supplying responses from the others that fit whatever character traits you’ve leaned toward in prior scenes. And if you’re playing with a co-op partner online, you’ll each concurrently take control of a character, meaning that you might see completely different scenes. The latter option is the better, faster mode that best emulates a horror movie—or, at least, it is if you’ve got some way to hastily talk things through with your partner, sharing your nuggets of the plot with theirs.

Little Hope’s quintet of bus crash survivors don’t have any real freedom, emphasized here by a disorienting fog that only lets them proceed in one direction. The mostly binary choose-your-own adventure selections you make might change the dialogue and personalities of these characters, but they don’t seem to impact where you go or what you experience there. Dario Poloni’s script neatly evokes parallels between a witch trial in 1692 and a tragic house fire in 1972, but by doing so it proves itself to be too tightly tethered to them, with a clear and correct way to “save” everyone in the present day from similar fates.

Little Hope is more ambitious than Man of Medan, thanks in no small part to its more expansive setting. It helps, too, that you aren’t just stumbling through nightmares, as the monsters here are thematically associated with the main characters. Periodically, your survivors snap back in time to 1692, long enough to see their doubles being accused of witchcraft. Joseph was once weighed down by stones cast by his fellow Puritans, and James, the drunk patriarch of the 1972 prologue, was crushed by a collapsing roof. And modern-day John finds himself pursued by a shambling, half-flattened grotesquerie, just as his students are chased through the town’s abandoned factory, sewers, woods, and church by the mangled corpses of their past selves. Such specific details and parallels go a long way toward elevating by-the-books scares that are at times undermined by some odd design choices. For instance, though these characters are reflexively aware that what they’re experiencing is “exactly what happens in horror movies,” they all move at the same plodding pace, regardless of their age. In fact, Little Hope only shows them running during quick-time-event-filled cutscenes.

The game’s aesthetic enhances the horror, with your crew’s flashlights rarely being much of a match for the overwhelming fog and darkness, and the monsters reflecting the full ugliness of witchcraft murder techniques like drowning, burning, and pressing. But the gameplay blunts the effectiveness of that aesthetic, because there’s no real danger to exploring the environments here. There might be the occasional jump scare upon opening a window or door, but nothing’s actively chasing you as it would in something like Resident Evil. It’s the weirdest sort of plot armor to be found in a horror game, in that your characters are completely safe in Little Hope so long as you control them, and at risk only when a cut scene takes over.

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

Developer: Supermassive Games Publisher: Bandai Namco Entertainment Platform: PlayStation 4 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood, Intense Violence, Strong Language Buy: Game

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Review: In Watch Dogs: Legion, Revolution Is the Stuff of Brand Aspirations

It’s difficult to escape a sense that the game’s ambition far outstrips the number of unique people it can plausibly render.

2.5

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Watch Dogs: Legion
Photo: Ubisoft

True to its name, Watch Dogs: Legion has no one protagonist. Early on, the game presents a list of random, regular Joes, asking you to choose one to restart hacktivist group DedSec. From there, you quite literally recruit characters off the street. Where prior Watch Dogs games let you pull up the personal data of any bystander, like their jobs and interests, Legion also lists what the people you encounter can bring to the table: their vehicles, weapons, and skills, like calling allies or knowing how to take a punch. Once you complete a mission to convince a chosen person to join the ranks of DedSec, they become totally, fully playable throughout the game—one more out of a potential many to join the fight.

It’s a premise that bursts with potential but is immediately poured into the familiar mold of Ubisoft open-world video gaming, right down to its toothless conception of near-future London as a dystopic police state. Like so many video games (and like many other Ubisoft games, for that matter), Legion employs a setting of unrest and political upheaval, selling itself on fashionable, exciting imagery of conflict and revolution. But such settings are often designed less for commentary than simple narrative convenience: as environments within which to take on hordes of designated enemies, and with zero qualms.

Most glaringly, the police state in Legion isn’t run by the regular police. In the aftermath of terrorist bombings falsely attributed to DedSec, the private military corporation Albion has been given free reign over Britain. They set up checkpoints, administer beatings in the streets, accost passersby for random ID checks, and openly carry lethal weapons. This allows the game to trade on what is, at a glance, the sight of people resisting the police and military while giving fascist goons a degree of remove from any recognizable institutions, obfuscating the chain of command to the point where the most visible bad guy is just the head of the PMC. DedSec’s goal is to restore a largely unexamined status quo, as characters do things like deride Albion for plastering holographic propaganda over, horror of horrors, Buckingham Palace.

Though some characters specify how Albion often specifically targets immigrants, Legion broadens the question of oppression to a point that becomes meaningless. You can recruit anyone because everyone is under Albion’s boot, and with the finger pointed so consistently at DedSec, the game’s conception of a repressed class essentially becomes DedSec hackers in particular, as you’re less targeted for your gender, skin color, or immigration status than for your ability to do cool hacker shit like hijack security cameras or make cars move on their own.

And yet, the bald appropriation of struggle and revolutionary iconography is hardly surprising. With so many millions of dollars at stake, how can a corporation afford to co-opt social justice in anything but the most brainless, superficial fashion? After many, many, many hours of playing Legion, the story doesn’t provoke ire so much as a feeling of resignation, given how it settles into a dull hum of mediocrity as it blunders through the obligatory topics of extra-judicial drone strikes and human consciousness beyond bodies.

What softens the blow, at least, is Legion’s undercurrent of absurdity. With so much of its cast at the mercy of character randomization, you spend a lot of time staring at a growing array of unfortunate haircuts, inexplicable ages, and ill-fitting voices. Though there’s a decent amount of diversity in terms of ethnicity, many of the faces (particularly the women) look so similar that they wouldn’t seem out of place in a family portrait, while everyone exhibits little meaningful variation in body type beyond being elderly or not-elderly.

It’s difficult to escape a sense that the game’s ambition far outstrips the number of unique people it can plausibly render. There’s also amusingly little pretense about characters summoning vehicles, drones, and allies out of thin air; if you’re playing as a spy, her car with a cloaking device and missiles is only ever a few button presses away. These weird, messy parts of Legion are far and away its most distinctive, such as the way a middle-aged construction worker with a baffling granny voice to hop aboard the flying cargo drone she can pluck from the ether and ride straight to the upper levels of a restricted area.

But like the initially appalling story, you soon grow accustomed to the same few displays of absurdity because there’s little variety to be had in Legion’s version of London. Each mission is a similar, stealth-viable map of cameras to jump between and vents to infiltrate with a small, discrete spider robot. Though you can commit to engaging with the clumsy, unsatisfying combat system every so often for variety’s sake, the game is so long that it runs out of different approaches long before the locations begin to repeat and the mission design begins to favor hordes of hostile enemies regardless of how stealthy you’ve been.

Worse, the characters have no meaningful sense of progression. Operatives don’t develop skills through repeated use, which may ensure that new recruits are viable from the jump but also prevents people with less immediately applicable skills from bridging the gap. If one guy only has a police contact for reduced arrest times, he’ll never grow to do more damage, carry more gadgets, or hack more quickly; he will always be less useful than, say, the construction worker or spy—good only to keep in reserve if you somehow manage to get every other operative arrested, hospitalized, or (with the permadeath option on) killed. What upgrades you earn are cross-character abilities like jamming enemy guns or more ammo for the nonlethal shotgun.

Sometimes characters have hard-wired flaws like taking more damage or hiccupping to alert guards or even spontaneously (and inexplicably) dying, but the game rarely forces players to deal with such flaws. There’s no calling for help from anyone nearby and being stuck with the drone expert who’s useless in a fight or the clerk who hacks slowly, while missions often have drones and spiderbots on site in case you didn’t bring your own. And while the game simulates what your operatives are doing when you’re not playing them, the fast-travel system and ability to swap out characters with no consequence mean there’s no incentive to just use who you have; even if you want to try and exclusively hop between nearby characters, the cumbersome process to display individual operatives on the map seems to discourage it.

Perhaps there’s some other take on Legion that lives up to its potential, if not for salient commentary then for player-authored mayhem as you juggle random variables. But as is, the game takes care to sand down its roughest edges, ensuring that no future police state can truly hinder the progress of a growing #rebellion. To turn London boroughs defiant against Albion, one of the tasks you must complete is to find a particularly prominent piece of their holographic propaganda and switch it to instead display the ever-marketable DedSec iconograph, firing up onlookers with that most powerful tool of all: a good brand.

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

Developer: Ubisoft Toronto Publisher: Ubisoft Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: October 29, 2020 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood and Gore, Drug Reference, Intense Violence, Sexual Themes, Strong Language, Use of Alcohol Buy: Game

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DVD Review: Infamous

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

3.0

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Infamous

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image/Sound

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

Extras

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

Overall

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

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

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Review: George Miller’s Action Classic Mad Max Gets 4K UHD Edition from Kino

Now on 4K Ultra HD, Mad Max reminds us anew that few contemporary action films match its appetite for risk.

3.5

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Mad Max

The apocalypse, whatever may have caused it, wasn’t particularly devastating to the Melbourne landscape that George Miller’s Mad Max takes as its setting. Green grass and blue skies are intact, and seeing as groceries and food are still readily available for purchase, it can be assumed that capitalism survived as well. But chaos still reigns, as the roads are rife with motorcycle gangs, addled speedsters, perverts, thieves, and a myriad of other criminals who take what they like from others and kill without fear of reprisal. The chief reason for their cavalier attitudes is that the ranks of the Main Force Patrol (MFP), the remnants of Australia’s highway patrol, have been pared down to a ragtag gang of leather-clad lawmen who drive around in refitted Melbourne police cars.

The most feared of these automobiles carries the name “Interceptor,” driven by the most trusted and skilled of MFP men, Max Rockatansky, played by a young Mel Gibson. In the fantastic opening scene, the MFP’s pursuit of a crazed speedster, nicknamed the Nightrider, are carefully punctuated by shots of Max’s slow preparation for the last leg of the chase. As expected, the Nightrider meets his end in a blaze, but even as Max goes home to see his family and receives congratulations from Goose (Steve Bisley), his partner, a more wild and treacherous force, a motorcycle gang, takes up the Nightrider’s cause and begins a campaign of bedlam on his behalf. Led by a tyrannical madman known as the Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne), the gangsters take responsibility for several heinous acts before they decide to target Goose, Max, and, toward the end, Max’s family.

Often hailed as one of the chief cinematic exports of the Ozploitation era, Mad Max should be noted more as a miracle of economic filmmaking than as a narrative landmark of Australian cinema. Budgeted somewhere slightly north of $300,000, the film is exciting, fleet-footed, and beautifully, ominously shot by then first-time cinematographer David Eggby. In comparison, Smokey and the Bandit II, a film built on similar facets and released in the same year as Mad Max, though wholly different in tone, was given an immense budget and failed to illicit anything but a few ironic guffaws at unintended moments and a chorus of yawns. The lean budget ultimately works to Mad Max’s advantage: The Australian landscape conveys dissolution and ruin far better than any stylized future world could and Miller builds remarkable tension from scaled-back action sequences and some superb car chases.

Much of this action lands in the final 30 minutes, making the film a bit back-loaded and even a bit anticlimactic. Max’s inevitable showdown with Toecutter comes early and ends too easily, but the film’s final scene, which inspired James Wan and Leigh Whannell to write the first Saw film, thrusts a stake deep into Max’s belief in balanced justice. Politically, Mad Max is about as barebones as action films come: The good guy is a family man who gives justice a chance while the villains are without morals, conscience, sanity, or even a spec of humanity. Art director Jon Dowding once likened Toecutter’s regalia to that of Genghis Khan, while Max wears a near-tailor-fitted, sufficiently badass leather outfit and a pair of aviator shades.

Peter Weir’s Gallipoli is credited for showing Gibson in a more romantic light, leading him to his most popular performance as Riggs in the Lethal Weapon series. Looking back, Gallipoli hardly carries the same specialized importance given to Mad Max and is, at the end of the day, generally overrated. One could say plenty about what’s happened in the subsequent years with Gibson, but his charisma and sheer presence in Mad Max is undeniable. Roaming the asphalt with a sawed-off shotgun, Gibson plays the last snapped sinew of true justice in a world gone wrong, a role he would return to in several other forms. In fact, Mad Max can now be seen as setting the political tenor of Gibson’s career. One could only wish it had also set the bar for his creativity as well: Braveheart made on a budget of $300,000 would be quite the sight.

Image/Sound

Intel is scarce online regarding whether this Ultra HD edition of Mad Max is in fact the result of a new 4K remaster, but this much is clear: The image on the disc leaves prior home-video incarnations of the film in the dust. Certainly, given the luxuriously sturdy grain resolution, Mad Max has never looked so film-like on the small screen as it does here. Additionally, skin tones are warm and natural, and beyond a few yellows and reds that take on an almost neon quality in the light of day, the range of colors is deep and rich. (Pop in the accompanying Blu-ray disc and you may do a double take when you notice how much darker the image there is in comparison.) The audio hasn’t gotten the same facelift, as we get the same DTS-HD Master Audio tracks here that we’ve heard before, but if you’ve seen Mad Max, and as such are familiar with its low-budget origins, then you know that there isn’t much that can be done to make the dialogue during the many action sequences sound as if its competing to be heard over the din of the carnage that plays out on Melbourne’s highways. Nonetheless, there’s still a lot of dynamism in the mid-range, and the action sequences are suitably immersive.

Extras

Most of the extras, which, for better and worse, are only available on the accompanying Blu-ray disc, have been ported over from prior editions of the film. The chummy commentary track, moderated by filmmaker Tim Ridge, features cinematographer David Eggby, art director Jon Dowding, and special effects artist Chris Murray, and it’s a wellspring of anecdotes about this galvanizing film’s making. The only new feature is a 30-minute interview with George Miller recorded during the pandemic via Zoom that finds the auteur reminiscing about the film’s production and coolly showing off his cinephile bona fides by referencing filmmakers, including Charlie Chaplin and John Ford, whose cinematic triumphs paved the way for Mad Max. Rounding out the disc is a series of interviews, a featurette on Mel Gibson and his breakout role in the film, and a series of trailers and TV and radio spots.

Overall

Mad Max makes its 4K Ultra HD debut with an impressive image presentation, reminding us anew that few contemporary action films match its appetite for risk.

Cast: Mel Gibson, Joanne Samuel, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Steve Bisley, Tim Burns, Roger Ward, Vince Gil Director: George Miller Screenwriter: George Miller, James McCausland Distributor: KL Studio Classics Running Time: 93 min Rating: R Year: 1979 Release Date: November 24, 2020 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: 15-Disc Essential Fellini Box Set on the Criterion Collection

Essential Fellini is one of the most elegantly designed and supplement-packed sets that Criterion has ever released.

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Essential Fellini
Photo: The Criterion Collection

Though there are a handful of themes and images that recur throughout his work, Federico Fellini’s style underwent a drastic change at the cusp of the 1960s, shifting from the predominant neorealist aesthetic to a heady, surrealistic brew of “memories, dreams, and reflections” (to quote the title of Carl Jung’s partially autobiographical book, which Fellini greatly admired). The Criterion Collection’s lavish Essential Fellini box set just about evenly splits the difference between the two periods. The set contains 14 of Federico Fellini’s films, from his 1950 debut, Variety Lights, co-directed with Alberto Lattuada, to 1987’s Intervista, a fascinatingly recursive paean to the golden days of studio filmmaking that wasn’t his swan song (he would go on to make The Voice of the Moon in 1990).

With its tale of a peripatetic band of low-rent theater types, Variety Lights incorporates many, if not most, of Fellini’s signature themes. La Strada, from 1954, takes the light-hearted comedy of the earlier film into a starker, more existentially tragic direction. By the ‘60s and into the ‘70s, the promise of the open road has curdled into an impasse: Witness the famous traffic jam that opens 1963’s , which is in turn echoed in the openings scene of 1972’s Roma. About idle youth in rural Italy, and a recounting of Fellini’s own departure for Rome at the age of 18, I Vitelloni establishes the vein of nostalgia that runs throughout many of the Italian auteur’s later works, though here it’s a bit more clear-eyed and unsentimental.

The specter of self-destruction haunts Fellini’s work throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s. Giulietta Masina’s character in both La Strada and 1957’s Nights of Cabiria loses all will to live due to the brutality and indifference of the men in her life. In 1965’s Juliet of the Spirits, it’s the knowledge of her husband’s infidelity and the memory of a classmate’s suicide that brings Masina’s characters, named Giulietta, to the brink of oblivion. Which isn’t to say that Fellini’s male characters aren’t similarly haunted: For one, Marcello Mastroianni’s Guido in , feeling creatively bankrupt, comes close to turning a gun on himself. In fact, Fellini at the last minute changed out the original ending, which hinted more strongly that Guido had actually gone through with the act, for the comparatively celebratory, if still ambiguous, one we now have.

Given the darkness at the heart of these works, it’s hardly surprising that Fellini flirted at times with the horror genre, a trend that culminated in Toby Dammit, his contribution to 1968’s Poe-themed anthology film Spirits of the Dead. In La Dolce Vita, from 1960, Marcello (Mastroianni) attends a séance at a remote villa, then participates in a tenebrous ghost hunt around its grounds, an extended sequence that Fellini imbues with a suitably gothic atmosphere. Juliet of the Spirits includes fantasy sequences featuring a blond-haired demon child and a group of sexually uninhibited women who may or may not be vampires. In Toby Dammit, the devil is another towheaded girl (an image Fellini may have lifted straight from Mario Bava’s Kill, Baby…Kill!) who lures Toby (Terence Stamp) to his doom.

In his later films, Fellini inclined toward nostalgia or abstraction, sometimes both, while remaining grounded to a certain extent by the bawdy, earthy humor that he learned during his apprentice days writing scripts in the commedia all’italiana vein. Roma takes the episodic nature of the Felliniesque road movie to its logical conclusion, eschewing even the slight connective tissue of the recurring characters who hold together an otherwise fragmented, Brechtian work like 1969’s Fellini Satyricon, his free adaptation of a first-century novel by Roman courtier Petronius. Set in the 1930s, 1973’s Amarcord is a record of one year in the life of a coastal city, much like the Rimini of Fellini’s youth, free associatively combining the director’s boyhood memories with the daily life of a childhood friend. And the Ship Sailed On, from 1983, is a study in art and artificiality, ending with that arch cinematic sleight of hand: the pulling of the camera back to reveal the very process of its own creation.

Though not Fellini’s final film, Intervista can stand as a capstone to his career. The film’s multiple layers include a depiction of Fellini’s first visit to the Cinecittá Studios in Rome in 1940, his attempt to direct an adaptation of Franz Kafka’s Amerika, and an interview with Fellini by a Japanese television crew that encompasses a tour of the studio’s present-day facilities. Here, Fellini effortlessly weaves together various registers, aesthetic and otherwise, continually undercutting whatever level of “reality” seems to be in front of the camera(s) at any given time. Far from coming across as pretentious, it’s all done with a wry humor, thus serving not only as an ideal valedictory for one of cinema’s greatest directors, but also as the perfect film to close out Criterion’s collection of his essential films.

Image/Sound

Eleven of the films in Essential Fellini are presented in new 4K restorations (the others are sourced from recent Blu-ray releases of individual films). In addition, there are new digital restorations of the short film Toby Dammit and the made-for-TV Fellini: A Director’s Notebook. Across the board, the transfers look superb. The early black-and-white films present gorgeous high-contrast images with deeply compressed blacks. The color films are truly eye-popping, especially Juliet of the Spirits, some of whose Technicolor imagery seems to prefigure the candy-colored nightmares of Dario Argento’s Suspiria. The Italian LPCM mono tracks are uniformly first-rate, presenting dialogue clearly and cleanly, and giving plenty of presence to frequent Fellini composer Nino Rota’s elegant, often carnivalesque scores.

Extras

The films included in Essential Fellini come packaged in a gorgeously decorated case whose front lifts off like a deluxe LP box set. The 15 discs, including one devoted to the 193-minute cut of the documentary Marcello Mastroianni: I Remember, are housed in a flipbook that suggests a photo album. Beneath that, two books nestle in their own pigeonholes: a lavishly illustrated guide to the films, complete with lists of extras and information on the restorations, and a thick (and thickly illustrated) book of essays from filmmakers and film critics.

Notable among the set’s wealth of extras are six commentary tracks, an appreciative documentary about Fellini’s wife and frequent collaborator, Giulietta Masina, and archival interviews with a number of actors who worked on more than one Fellini film, including Marcello Mastroianni, Sandra Milo, and Anouk Aimée. Damian Pettigrew’s feature-length documentary Fellini: I’m a Born Liar from 2002 is an excellent place to start, as it not only provides a career-spanning over of Fellini’s life and career but is also based on his last confessions and includes recollections from Donald Sutherland and Terence Stamp. (Speaking of Stamp, there’s a newly restored version of Toby Dammit to be found on the Juliet of the Spirits disc.) Also of note is a four-part interview with Fellini from 1960 that’s spread across four discs, as well as four hour-long behind-the-scenes documentaries and a retrospective that features a number of late-life interviews with Fellini looking back over his career.

Overall

Essential Fellini is one of the most elegantly designed and supplement-packed sets that the Criterion Collection has ever released.

Cast: Peppino De Filippo, Carla Del Poggio, Giulietta Masina, John Kitzmiller, Dante Maggio, Alberto Sordi, Brunella Bovo, Leopoldo Trieste, Franco Interlenghi, Franco Fabrizi, Riccardo Fellini, Leonora Ruffo, Jean Brochard, Claude Farell, Anthony Quinn, Richard Basehart, Aldo Silvani, Livia Venturini, Broderick Crawford, Sue Ellen, Irene Cefaro, François Périer, Franca Marzi, Dorian Gray, Amedeo Nazzari, Marcello Mastroianni, Anita Ekberg, Anouk Aimée, Yvonne Furneaux, Magali Noël, Alain Cuny, Annibale Ninchi, Walter Santesso, Bruno Agostini, Sandra Milo, Barbara Steele, Caterina Boratto, Claudia Cardinale, Mario Pisu, Valeska Gert, Sylva Koscina, Frederick Ledebur, Valentina Cortese, Martin Potter, Hiram Keller, Max Born, Salvo Randone, Il Moro, Magali Noël, Capucine, Alain Cuny Fanfulla, Danica la Loggia, Lucia Bosé, Peter Gonzales, Fiona Florence, Pia De Doses, Renato Giovannoli, Dennis Christopher, Feodor Chaliapin Jr., Elliott Murphy, Anna Magnani, Gore Vidal, John Francis Lane, Federico Fellini, Pupella Maggio, Armando Brancia, Ciccio Ingrassia, Nando Orfei, Luigi Rossi, Bruno Zanin, Gianfilippo Carcano, Josiane Tanzilli, Freddie Jones, Barbara Jefford, Victor Poletti, Peter Cellier, Elisa Mainardi, Norma West, Paolo Paoloni, Sarah Jane Varley, Sergio Rubini, Antonella Ponziani, Maurizio Mein, Paola Liguori, Lara Wendel, Antonio Cantafora, Nadia Ottaviani Director: Federico Fellini, Alberto Lattuada Screenwriter: Federico Fellini, Alberto Lattuada, Tullio Pinelli, Ennio Flaiano, Brunello Rondi, Bernardino Zapponi, Tonino Guerra Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 1692 min Rating: NR Year: 1950 - 1987 Release Date: November 24, 2020 Buy: Video

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Review: Robert Altman’s Popeye Get’s 40th Anniversary Blu-ray Edition

This undervalued film receives a beautiful transfer for its Blu-ray debut, but the dearth of extras leaves much to be desired.

3

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Popeye

Robert Altman’s fans have all but written off 1980’s Popeye as another charred remnant of the auteur’s spectacular burnout at the close of the 1970s—virtually indistinguishable from the equally underrated Health, A Wedding, and Quintet. But Popeye is in need of a serious critical rediscovery, because virtually every one of Altman’s signature hallmarks—that teeming sense of community gathering habits, concern for social inequalities, and fondness for earnest, country-fried comic bits—are very much alive here.

Anyone new to Altman is likely to be put off by the film’s unique worldview. Known for building American communities from the bottom up, the director took a well-established slice of Americana and seemingly refused to distance himself through irony or radical departures—like, say, having Popeye on the front lines in the Korean War. Popeye (Robin Williams), Bluto (Paul L. Smith), and Olive Oyl (Shelley Duvall) trip and mumble their way through exaggerated love triangles just like they did in the original serial comics and short films. But if you strip away the film’s loyalty to the E.C. Segar source material, it’s not difficult to see that, in many ways, Popeye is Altman’s comic spin on McCabe & Mrs. Miller, even substituting that film’s whore house with a floating gambling house and brothel. Like Warren Beatty’s John McCabe, Williams’s Popeye has a habit of vocalizing his inner dialogues.

For a film often dismissed as kiddie fare, there are a surprising number of Altman concepts that are likely to fly right over the heads of youngins. The town of Sweethaven, where Popeye lands in search of his Pap, is cheerfully oblivious to the fact that they’re in a state of severe economic and social oppression. Bluto represents the strong arm of the law (the beanpole constable jumps out of windows whenever the man-mountain enters the room) and the noodly taxman represents its sticky fingers. Both work for a shadowy dictatorial menace known as the Commodore. “Next to Wimpy, I hate him best,” the Topol-like Mr. Geezil privately bellows. The hints of a far more menacing political situation undercut most of the jokes. Wimpy’s (Paul Dooley) immortal “I will gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today” sounds like it’s coming from a man blissfully ignorant of his severe dependency on credit currency.

To kids, Wimpy is a hamburgler. To adults, he’s the recently laid-off neighbor. Also, most kids probably can’t grasp what Olive Oyl’s arpeggio-ridden ballad to Bluto’s “large” qualities is really about. Throughout Popeye, Altman directs the complex web of social interactions with a frame that’s both inclusive and prying. And the actors he collected and dropped in Malta’s simulated community help evoke an atmosphere that is genial yet guarded. Duvall couldn’t possibly have played Olive Oyl badly, and to watch Williams’s sweet interpretation of the hyper-violent original character here is to mourn what we lost when the actor bamboozled his way into the hearts of Oscar prognosticators looking for an easy dark horse with roles in such films as Patch Adams, Bicentennial Man, and Jakob the Liar.

Image/Sound

This is the first time Popeye has been released on Blu-ray and Paramount’s 1080p transfer really does wonders for the film. The image is consistently sharp, with the high dynamic range allowing the stunning Malta setting and the vibrant colors of the costumes to really pop, especially against the brown hues that dominate the film’s elaborate set. Grain levels are even, albeit a bit slight at times, and the black levels are strong, rendering minute details visible even during the darkest nighttime sequences. As for the audio, Robert Altman’s typically layered sound design and the film’s many songs are given a robust mix that nicely separates all of the overlapping dialogue and deluge of various sound effects.

Extras

“Return to Sweethaven: A Look Back with Robin and the Altmans” looks at some of the insanity of the film’s shoot in Malta, but while the stories about the efforts made to create the Sweethaven set and the studio’s responses to the production going long and over budget are interesting, 13 minutes is barely enough time to scratch the surface. Considering the perceived failure of the film and its effect on the next decade of Altman’s career, this subject matter begs for a more comprehensive treatment. The other featurette on the disc, “The Popeye Company Players,” is even more perfunctory, running down the major actors in the film and providing brief behind-the-scenes anecdotes, such as Robin Williams learning to dance for the film and Altman’s insistence on Shelley Duvall for the part of Olive Oyl. The disc is rounded out with a very short slideshow of pictures from the film’s debut in 1980 and a feature that lets you watch only the songs from the film, both separately or all in a row.

Overall

Robert Altman’s idiosyncratic, undervalued musical comedy receives a beautiful transfer for its Blu-ray debut, but the dearth of extras leaves much to be desired.

Cast: Robin Williams, Shelley Duvall, Ray Walston, Paul Dooley, Richard Libertini, Donald Moffat, Paul L. Smith, Linda Hunt Director: Robert Altman Screenwriter: Jules Feiffer Distributor: Paramount Home Entertainment Running Time: 113 min Rating: PG Year: 1980 Release Date: November 24, 2020 Buy: Video, Soundtrack

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Blu-ray Review: Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman on the Criterion Collection

Criterion’s exacting presentation of Scorsese’s late-inning masterpiece is a testament to the enduring value of physical media.

4

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The Irishman

With The Irishman, Martin Scorsese proves to be in an alluringly funereal mood. Appropriately, his latest film opens in a kind of purgatory, with a slow, serpentine tracking shot through a nursing home. The Five Satins’s “In the Still of the Night” acts as murmuring accompaniment, and the doo-wop classic, repeated several times throughout the film, is as pivotal and hauntingly autumnal a needle drop as the Platters’s “My Prayer” in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return. Rodrigo Prieto’s camera eventually settles on the elderly, wheelchair-bound labor union official and mobster Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran (Robert De Niro), who’s lost in thought but also ready to talk a blue streak about what he believes to have been a very eventful existence.

In reality, Sheeran told his life story to author and former investigator Charles Brandt for the 2004 memoir I Heard You Paint Houses, which is the basis for the film’s screenplay by Steven Zaillian. (The book’s title is mob code for blood splattering the walls during a contract killing.) In The Irishman, which spans the mid-1940s to the early aughts, Sheeran is effectively chatting with the audience about his rise from a low-level hood to the right-hand man to labor union leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), who he also claims to have killed in 1975. Yet the degree to which Sheeran is an unreliable narrator, perhaps even to himself, is always debatable in the film, and not just because the Hoffa case has never been officially closed.

More so than Goodfellas or Casino, Scorsese’s two other told-in-retrospect gangster films, The Irishman—at least for the first two hours of its riveting three-and-a-half-hour runtime—feels composed of burnished, often blackly funny, fragments of erratic memory. Sheeran glosses over the truth even when he’s telling it, recalling the past, even at its most violent, with a propulsive, rosy cheer that plays at a cursory glance like Goodfellas-lite. A comical aside about two gangsters named “Whispers” (“the other one,” Sheeran keeps repeating as if he were in an Abbott and Costello routine) would slot quite comfortably into that earlier film.

Yet there are narrative and aesthetic tells in The Irishman that hint at the much darker undercurrents that will eventually come to the fore. Sheeran often speaks of himself as a devoted family man, though his two wives and children occupy a mostly peripheral place on screen. Anna Paquin makes the most of a largely dialogue-free role as Sheeran’s daughter, Peggy, whose disapproval of her father’s criminal life leads to estrangement. Then there’s the recurring superimposed text that notes the eventual date and manner of death of a number of peripheral characters, even as they’re standing flush before us. (Another older statesman, Marco Bellocchio, did something similar in this year’s The Traitor, the filmmaker’s terrific biopic about Sicilian mafioso turned informant Tommaso Buscetta.)

Scorsese’s choice, in many of these early scenes, to expensively and time-consumingly de-age his principal cast members with digital technology has the strange effect of making Sheeran’s recollections seem that much more like an idealized fantasy that cannot hold. The technical showboating—softening and erasing wrinkles, making flaccid skin seem taut—is subtle enough to not be mortifying, yet apparent enough that the CGI stitching tends to show, especially in brighter scenes. It also plays rather potently meta, since The Irishman gathers a murderer’s row of American acting elites—not only De Niro and Pacino, but Joe Pesci (as Sheeran’s mentor Russell Bufalino) and Harvey Keitel (as Philadelphia-based don Angelo Bruno)—three of whom Scorsese has worked with multiple times over his very long career.

De Niro and Pacino, meanwhile, have a titan-like history that includes just a few on-screen collaborations, some epochal (Heat), some decidedly not (Righteous Kill). The two actors have additionally reached a point where bellowing self-parody and resting on laurels is de rigueur, the hope of a blazing last hurrah dissipating with every humdrum SNL appearance or cringe-inducing travesty like the “Dunkaccino” segment from Jack and Jill.

Scorsese knows what his audience is hoping for: glory days, resurrected. But he also understands the impossibility of anyone being exactly as they once were. So he weaves that longing into both The Irishman’s text and its technique, presenting Sheeran’s youthful recollections—his rise in rank with Bufalino’s crew, his work with a beleaguered Hoffa during the era when Attorney General Robert Kennedy (Jack Huston) worked hard to bring down organized crime—as augmented hoodlum reveries that will soon catch up with the character’s spiritually impoverished present. And this eventual shift is hinted at by a parallel narrative, snippets of which we see throughout the film’s first two hours, in which a much older Sheeran and Bufalino take a hilariously roundabout road trip, chain-smoking wives in tow, to a wedding that’s being used as cover for Hoffa’s murder.

This becomes the main story thread in hour three, and it features what should rank among Scorsese’s greatest set pieces as Sheeran comes to terms with and carries out Hoffa’s killing. It’s a sequence that’s austere in tone and approach (with one swaggering segue into goofball, semi-improvisatory humor), yet also unbearably tense and emotionally devastating. De Niro expertly sketches the moral bottoming out of an immoral man (his mumbly, halting call with Hoffa’s wife after the deed is done is a particular highlight), and it’s thrilling to see him so engaged. Pacino is no less impressive as the volatile Hoffa , so stubborn in his need to hold onto the presidency of the union that he built from the ground up that he’ll heed no warnings to the contrary about the degree to which his conduct may court disaster or death.

To Sheeran, Hoffa is like a king with his head in the clouds, or a spouse who just won’t listen to reason. The platonic romanticism of their relationship—sharing the same hotel rooms, exchanging yearning glances or gentle compliments even in their most explosive moments—is one of The Irishman’s most intriguing facets. Scorsese is no stranger to chaste, if still devout, love stories between men, and when Hoffa exits the film, Sheeran becomes like Orpheus minus Eurydice, mourning his beloved and yearning for the inevitable—though, of course, he’d never admit that his feelings were anything beyond strictly professional.

The ultimate tragedy of The Irishman is that Sheeran is incapable of singing his song of self with the kind of unblinking honesty that might lead him through regret and toward redemption. Near the end of the film, Sheeran asks that his door be left slightly ajar, a mirror of something that occurs in an earlier scene between him and Hoffa. The way Scorsese photographs Sheeran through the opening reveals a man drained of all his perceived power, and distressingly content with the unholy mess he’s left behind.

Image/Sound

The 4K transfer of The Irishman looks and sounds incredible, with a greater wealth of texture than Netflix’s presentation—a contrast that speaks to the continued value of physical media. Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography is ravishing, a feast of subtly varied autumnal hues that are occasionally punctuated by the bright, primal color of, say, a street sign or an ice cream sundae. (The visual differentiations between the decades are also more prominent here.) Clothing textures, and there are thousands of intricate, memorable costumes in the film, practically burst from the screen here, and facial details, especially those that haven’t been de-aged, are equally vivid. The Dolby Atmos track is a show pony, as this epic film is a tapestry of song cues, violence, and, most importantly, of the small vocal inflections of men of violence who speak in innuendo. The Irishman is, above all, a chamber piece, and every nuance of speech resounds with crystal clarity, transforming the audience into voyeurs and detectives.

Extras

The highlights here are “Gangsters’ Requiem,” a visual essay by critic Farran Smith Nehme, and the “The Wages of Loyalty” liner-notes essay by critic Geoffrey O’Brien. Nehme examines The Irishman as a thoughtful culmination of Martin Scorsese’s gangster cycle, while O’Brien likens the film to a poem, describing its intricate grasp of character portraiture and behavior, as well as its incredibly assured time-hopping structure. The other featurettes tend to repeat themselves, though none of them are without interest. “Making The Irishman” is superior to most such promotional items because the filmmakers and actors discuss the production with refreshing specificity. It’s said, for instance, that Scorsese wanted the film to “look like nothing,” a mysterious request that hints at The Irishman’s deceptively austere compositions.

A roundtable conversation over drinks with Scorsese, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci, which was available on Netflix last year, is mostly predicated on the correct assumption that audiences want to hang out with these legends, offering little new information about the making of The Irishman. Though it’s only six minutes long, “Anatomy of a Scene: The Irishman,” part of a series shepherded by New York Times staff editor Mekado Murphy, is more illuminating, offering a glimpse into the motivations behind the Frank Sheeran “appreciation night” scene. Rounding out the package is a featurette (also produced by Netflix) on The Irishman’s controversial de-aging effects, a few trailers, and archive footage of the real Sheeran and Jimmy Hoffa, which directly informed certain scenes in the film.

Overall

Criterion’s exacting presentation of Martin Scorsese’s late-inning masterpiece is a testament to the enduring value of physical media, ironically given that the film is a Netflix title.

Cast: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel, Ray Romano, Bobby Cannavale, Anna Paquin, Stephen Graham, Stephanie Kurtzuba, Jack Huston, Kathrine Narducci, Jesse Plemons, Domenick Lombardozzi, Paul Herman, Gary Basaraba, Marin Ireland, Lucy Gallina, Jonathan Morris, Dascha Polanco, Welker White, Louis Cancelmi, Bo Dietl, Sebastian Maniscalco, Aleksa Palladino, Steven Van Zandt, Jim Norton Director: Martin Scorsese Screenwriter: Steven Zaillian Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 209 min Rating: R Year: 2020 Buy: Video

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Review: Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend on KL Studio Classics Blu-ray

Kino outfits the despairing, pioneering film with a beautiful transfer and one of the best audio commentaries of the year.

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The Lost Weekend

Famous as one of Hollywood’s earliest explorations of the realities of alcoholism, Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend has attained a reputation as a trailblazer that’s grown stodgy over time. The Oscar-winning film does feel self-consciously presentational at times, such as in the way that Don Birnam (Ray Milland) loudly describes the contours of his lusts and fears, though alcoholics are prone to doing exactly that. Part of the insidious pull of addiction—especially alcoholism, which is enabled by society on a scale that’s unparalleled by most other vices—is the way it allows addicts to sustain their personal mythologies. Don may voice subtexts that are already evident in Wilder and Charles Brackett’s screenplay, but when he talks obviously and theatrically about his struggles with the bottle, he’s understood by the filmmakers to be performing. And this performance props up Don’s drinking and vice versa, allowing him to glamorize himself as a grand struggling writer and boozer, rather than just a boozer.

The film opens with an aerial shot of Manhattan that would almost certainly inform the first image of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, similarly suggesting that we’re randomly homing in on merely one of countless stories playing out in the city. Don’s been dry for 10 days and is set to travel into the country with his brother, Wick (Phillip Terry), so that he may rest and recover. It’s clear from the outset, given Don’s brittle, angry demeanor, that he isn’t yet interested in recovery—a suspicion that’s boldly confirmed when he pulls a string dangling out of the apartment window to reveal a quart of rye, which he attempts to drink behind his brother’s back. Don’s caught, though he’s granted a reprieve when his girlfriend, Helen (Jane Wyman), drops by. Astonishingly, even after the rye has been discovered, Don convinces Wick to go to the opera with Helen and leave him alone in the apartment until they’re to reconvene and depart for the country in a few hours. Meanwhile, Don falls off the wagon and stays drunk for several days, while Wick, disgusted with Don’s relapses, leaves the city anyway.

The notion of Wick and Helen irrationally leaving Don this golden opportunity to drink is brutally believable. Such indulgence springs from a certain naïveté—that this time Don will master himself—as well as from simple exhaustion with fighting a seemingly unwinnable fight. It’s easier to let the drinker drink, especially in a society that sees teetotaling as a little unnatural. Wilder and Brackett are wickedly aware of society as a kind of contemptuous enabler, and this awareness imbues The Lost Weekend with an untarnished power. Besides Wick and Helen, there’s Don’s regular bartender, Nat (Howard Da Silva), who castigates him for his drinking yet continues to serve him, sometimes criticizing him while in the very act of pouring a shot. Of course, only Don can stop Don from drinking, and such sequences capture the weird comfort for those with lives out of balance of entombing oneself in a bar, with everyone implicitly understanding that you are enslaving yourself to a potentially fatal yet reassuringly predictable routine, which is glossed over with in-jokes, gossip, and shtick.

Wilder doesn’t entirely go for the preaching of many “issues” productions in The Lost Weekend, informing it instead with the lurid style and tone of his prior Double Indemnity. The dialogue here is hard, terse, and occasionally floridly comic, and noir-esque images vividly embody the pain and double life of Don’s sickness, such as the growing water rings on the bar from his endless shots, or the row of upturned stools and chairs that resembles the fence of a prison while establishing that Don’s getting a drink as early as possible, or a hallucination scene, symbolizing a case of the “DTs,” that suggests a moment from a gothic horror film.

Most unforgettable, and famous, is Don’s neorealistic trudge throughout the streets of lower Manhattan to pawn his typewriter for drinking money. Every pawn shop is closed, and his hungover roasting under the sunlight suggests the ultimate physicalizing of the anguish of thirst. Wilder even generates a perverse kind of suspense from empathetically linking us with Don’s enablers. As Don scurries from one embarrassment to the next, desperate for booze, we come to root for him to have it so as to grant us reprieve from the film’s modulated tension. Such manipulation is especially notable when Don remembers where he hid a bottle: within a ceiling light, its silhouette inadvertently outlined from above like an ironic gift from heaven.

The Lost Weekend is nevertheless inhibited by certain concessions. Lost amid Wilder’s baroque touches—most regrettably the theremin sound that often accompanies shots of tempting alcohol—is the casualness of Charles Jackson’s autobiographical novel, which dramatizes a bender with a matter-of-factness that’s truly terrifying. Wilder and Brackett also elide Jackson’s implications that Don is gay, as well as the author’s uncompromising “no exit” finale, though the film’s ending is less conclusive than is generally acknowledged. While these failures of nerve signify the constraints of American filmmaking during the reign of the Hays Code, The Lost Weekend remains a haunting tour of a very real kind of hell.

Image/Sound

This new 4K restoration of The Lost Weekend boasts an image with exceptional depth and clarity, emphasizing the gritty details of the film’s New York City locations, and the vastness of deep focus imagery that conveys the protagonist’s addled state of mind. Blacks are rich, whites are sharp, and the film’s intricate use of light and shadow is vividly preserved. The sound mix is clean and sturdy, particularly underscoring the diegetic sounds of booze as it’s poured and consumed, as well as the dimensions of Miklós Rózsa’s rather insistent score.

Extras

The audio commentary by Joseph McBride is unusually personal, given that the film historian is a recovering alcoholic. An expert on Billy Wilder, McBride is somewhat leery of The Lost Weekend, given its reverberations for him and some of the fashions in which it feels “distanced from” its subject. Riffing on a review written by the great novelist and critic James Agee (who was also an alcoholic), McBride says that he believes the film doesn’t capture the “euphoria” of alcoholism, concentrating instead on its humiliating, hungover lows. McBride also contextualizes the film within Wilder’s career and discusses the director’s somewhat tempestuous relationship with Charles Brackett, whose wife was an alcoholic. Perhaps most profoundly, McBride eventually suggests that The Lost Weekend was partially Wilder’s act of working through his feelings on the Holocaust, from which he fled and to which he lost his mother. This supplements set is otherwise slim, including a radio adaptation of the film as well as several trailers, though this commentary elevates this package considerably.

Overall

Kino outfits the despairing, pioneering The Lost Weekend with a beautiful transfer and one of the best audio commentaries of the year.

Cast: Ray Milland, Jane Wyman, Phillip Terry, Howard Da Silva, Doris Dowling, Frank Faylen, Mary Young, Anita Bolster, Lilian Fontaine Director: Billy Wilder Screenwriter: Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 101 min Rating: NR Year: 1945 Release Date: November 24, 2020 Buy: Video

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Review: Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai on Criterion Blu-ray

Criterion’s stacked release helps make the case that the film is more than just an interesting curio in Jarmusch’s canon.

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Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai

Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai is informed by an eccentric mélange of cultural touchstones and film genres, blending together allusions to everything from samurai and mafia codes to ‘90s hip-hop culture and mid-century TV cartoons. Its transporting of the traditional samurai mythology and way of life into a 20th-century urban landscape recalls Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1967 neo-noir crime drama Le Samouraï, but Forest Whitaker’s Ghost Dog is of an entirely different breed of modern samurai hitman than Jef Costello, Alain Delon’s steely-eyed, trench coat- and fedora-donning throwback.

Not that Ghost Dog is any less implacable when carrying out his own hits, but he’s almost singularly defined by his myriad idiosyncrasies and paradoxical qualities. Like Jarmusch’s film itself, Ghost Dog is an uncanny fusion, sporting corn rows and blasting the hypnotic beats of RZA’s score through the speakers of each of the many cars he steals, all the while adhering to the strict codes of the samurai to feed his soul and shape his behavior.

The first time we see Ghost Dog, he’s reading from Yamamoto Tsunetomo’s Hagakure, a spiritual guide for samurai warriors. Quotes from this text appear on screen throughout the film—each time, except the last, narrated by Whitaker, and every line a minimalist slice of slyly perceptive poetry, not unlike that of the working-class poet from Jarmusch’s Paterson. Serving as both chapter breaks and philosophical ruminations on the filmic action, these interludes also offer a window into the way Ghost Dog views the world. We learn the reasons behind his dangerously blind allegiance to an Italian mafioso, Louie (John Tormey), who once saved his life, as well as the mindset that allows him to carry himself in a cool, collected manner in even the most dangerous situations, since he accepts his own death as imminent.

Some lines from Hagakure even seem to speak to Jarmusch’s own approach to filmmaking, most notably: “Matters of great concern should be treated lightly. Matters of small concern should be treated seriously.” Jarmusch’s typically heightened attention to the beauty in quotidian life is very much on display throughout Ghost Dog. A small gesture that Ghost Dog makes toward a cemetery as he walks by speaks volumes about his reverence for the dead, while other moments, as when he moves his scope off a target to zoom in on a woodpecker, evince Jarmusch’s singular fusion of utter sincerity and deadpan humor. In conversations with a young, neighborhood kid, Pearline (Camille Winbush), Ghost Dog shares his affinity for the novels she’s carrying with her, and in handing her a copy of Ryūnosuke Akutagawa’s Rashomon and Other Stories, he eventually enlists his spiritual successor.

Other scenes are completely digressive, such as a poignant moment where Ghost Dog’s only friend, a French-speaking ice cream truck owner named Raymond (Isaach De Bankolé), takes him to the roof of his apartment building to admire a man on a nearby roof constructing a boat that he seemingly will never be able to get down. Despite the fact that neither Ghost Dog nor Raymond speaks the other’s language, Jarmusch highlights how life’s beautiful mysteries can be shared without the need for words—something crucial to Ghost Dog, who carries himself with a quiet, contemplative demeanor as he moves about the world like a Zen phantom.

The film’s perfunctory plot involves a hit that Ghost Dog must perform on a made man for his retainer, Louie, and the fallout that unfolds when the hitman is marked as a sacrificial lamb through which mob boss Ray Vargo (Henry Silva) covers his own tracks. Jarmusch uses this narrative not as a means to revise or comment on the mafia crime drama, but rather to bring yet another urban culture into the film’s playful assortment of pop-culture references.

The mobsters depicted in the film, with their loose morality and ineffectual management, are a stark contrast to the highly principled Ghost Dog, even if their old-school brand of criminality is understood to be as retrograde as his samurai mores. There’s a hint of melancholy to the mafia’s uncouthness as it tries to stay afloat, suggesting great athletes past their prime. But Jarmusch mainly uses the group as comic relief, infusing deadpan humor into their interactions, be it when one mobster kowtows to the landlord of the Chinese restaurant their shacked up in because they’re three months late on rent or when another mafioso confesses to his own love of hip-hop, and later dances vigorously along to Flavor Flav’s “Cold Lampin’ with Flavor.” These respites of comedy add a much-needed levity and balance to a film that’s occasionally too self-serious by half as it utilizes stillness, silence, and shot duration to emphasize the serene and restrained manner in which Ghost Dog exists in the world.

Robby Müller’s densely atmospheric and highly textured cinematography gives the film an appropriately dreamlike feel that, with its eerie blue and green hues, beautifully evokes the liminal space between life and death that Ghost Dog navigates throughout. Appropriately enough, Ghost Dog’s journey ends in a way that adds another distinct trope into the film’s mix—an old-fashioned shoot-out straight out of a western, only here between a samurai and a mobster. It’s a fitting ending, not only in its cultural mash-up and the way it foregrounds Ghost Dog’s willingness to hold true to the most burdensome of samurai codes—of being willing to die by the hands of one’s master—but in encapsulating one of the hitman’s most essential maxims: “Sometimes you got to stick to the ancient ways, the old school ways.” Even in death, Ghost Dog ensures that those ways are passed down to a younger generation, looking on and seeing their value in a world that’s mostly left them behind.

Image/Sound

Criterion’s Blu-ray sources a new 4K digital restoration that was supervised and approved by director Jim Jarmusch. The transfer is lush, boasting a significantly sharper and more detailed image than the ones found on prior home-video releases of the film. The cool blues, greens, and grays of Robbie Muller’s deliriously moody cinematography are beautifully preserved here, as are the dilapidated textures of a late-‘90s Jersey City that harkens back to the half-abandoned, early-‘80s Manhattan in which Jarmusch began his career. The numerous night-time scenes benefit largely from superior black levels and a strong contrast ratio that allows for the minutest of details and a wide range of colors to remain visible in even the darkest scenes. The 5.1 surround DTS-HD master audio soundtrack is also quite impressive, with clean dialogue and a particularly robust, well-balanced mix of RZA’s music.

Extras

Criterion typically go all out on their releases of Jarmusch’s films, and this one is no exception. Jarmusch doesn’t “do” commentary tracks, and in lieu of one here, he spends nearly 90 minutes, in an audio-only Q&A, answering questions sent in by fans. Unsurprisingly, the questions vary largely in quality, but Jarmusch is quite open and direct in his responses, detailing his late-night meet-ups with RZA, strange stories from life in ‘80s New York that made their way into the film, and his fondness for old cartoons. The next beefiest extra is a Zoom conversation between Forest Whitaker, Isaach De Bankolé, and film scholar Michael B. Gillespie, which focuses primarily on how the film confronts cultural clashes and develops the oddly moving friendship between Whitaker and De Bankolé’s characters.

Daniel Raim’s video essay “Flying Birds: The Music of Ghost Dog” gives RZA ample time to muse on his approach to composing his first film score and compiling a diverse range of musicians for the soundtrack. The two archival videos—one a 20-minute promo for BET, and the other an interview with Jarmusch, RZA, and Whitaker—primarily touch on things more comprehensively covered in other features. An interview with casting director Ellen Lewis is more successful in shedding light on an aspect of the film not touched upon in other supplements on the disc. Her outlining of her primarily instinctual method to casting helps to demonstrate the importance of this oft-overlooked aspect of pre-production.

The disc also comes with a brief interview with Shifu Shi Yan Ming, founder of the USA Shaolin Temple, five minutes of deleted scenes, and, most notably, the alternate isolated stereo music track, which allows viewers to listen to RZA’s still-unreleased score to the film. The package is nicely rounded out by a small booklet of quotes from Yamamoto Tsunetomo’s Hagakure and a handsome 40-page bound booklet with essays by Jonathan Rosenbaum and Greg Tate, an interview with Jarmusch, and an abundance of black-and-white stills from the film.

Overall

Criterion’s stacked release helps make the case that Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai is more than just an interesting curio in the career of Jim Jarmusch.

Cast: Forest Whitaker, John Tormey, Cliff Gorman, Henry Silva, Isaach De Bankolé, Tricia Vessey, Victor Argo, Gene Ruffini, Richard Portnow, Camille Winbush, Gary Farmer Director: Jim Jarmusch Screenwriter: Jim Jarmusch Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 116 min Rating: R Year: 1999 Release Date: November 17, 2020 Buy: Video

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Review: Sogo Ishii’s Cyberpunk Classic Burst City on Arrow Blu-ray

Burst City is a defiantly raised fist in the face of conventional society.

3.5

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Burst City

Sogo Ishii’s Burst City resolutely puts the punk into the Japanese cyberpunk movement that emerged in the early 1980s. Where the American version of cyberpunk dwells at the intersection of “high tech and low lives,” Burst City (and the movement that emerged out of it) focuses more obsessively on repurposed and recycled elements set against the backdrop of a post-industrial wasteland, and thus comes closer to Mad Max than, say, Blade Runner. This aesthetic clearly paved the way for subsequent films like Shinya Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo: The Iron Man and its sequels.

The storyline isn’t complicated, but it’s told in a such a crazy-quilt manner, with much of the connective tissue left out, that it often takes some doing to properly situate yourself. Further adding to the confusion is Ishii’s frenetic visual style, all fast cuts and disorienting angles, sometimes bordering on pure abstraction. What slowly emerges is the depiction of a fractured and fractious society dwelling on the fringes of near-future Tokyo in a shantytown slum. Various bands of punk rockers, chief among them the Battle Rockers, spend their time offstage drag racing, partying, and thumbing their noses at conventional society. A horde of mutants and quasi-cyborgs work as day laborers for a yakuza clan whose plan to construct a nuclear power plant nearby kicks in what little plot there is in Burst City.

Entangled in all this is the plight of a young prostitute whose pimp allows yakuza higher-ups to use her however they please, initiating a downward spiral of abuse and ultimately violence. The pimp’s desire to get ahead (not to mention get out) overrides his true feelings for the woman, which we only sense in a late scene where he lovingly tends to her wounds. The visual payoff to this narrative thread, a high-angle overhead shot that gazes impassively down on the emotionally wrought aftermath, is likely to linger in viewers’ minds.

In a narrative conceit that has its counterpart in postwar Japanese history, the yakuza and the police force actually conspire to implement the desires of the authorities in power: the government and fat-cat capitalists whom we never actually see represented within Burst City. In various ways, the denizens of the slum work against their own best interests. The “mutants” and cyborgs work for the yakuza. The punk rockers don’t work at all, because, in the end, work is exploitation. But opting out of the system isn’t always so easy, especially when it results in a bulldozer plowing under your favorite local music venue.

Burst City culminates with the various factions coming together in a protracted battle royale. This is easily the hardest-to-follow stretch of the film, as the most basic tenets of continuity editing go right out the window. But what it lacks in clarity, it more than makes up for in sheer bravado. At one point, the fracas literally morphs into a battle of the bands, when the Stalin (all duded up in shades of red) invade the proceedings, their lead singer lobbing pigs’ heads at the “battle police” in the audience. The resultant amalgamation of punk music, performance art, and agit-prop theatrical production is a heady mix. Burst City provides its own altogether apt full-stop punctuation: a defiantly raised fist and the rallying cry “Don’t fuck with me!”

Image/Sound

Arrow presents Burst City in a new HD transfer prepared by Toei Studios that’s largely impressive. The film betrays its shot-on-16mm origins when it comes to managing grain levels, which can get pretty blocky in some of the nighttime and low-light settings, and there’s some intermittent speckling as well. Delineation of fine details is typically fair to middling. On the other hand, the vibrant colors and hot neon lighting in other scenes really stand out. The Japanese LPCM mono track is surprisingly effective, booming out the bass tones and ambient effects, and shoving the raucous punk-rock soundtrack right under your nose.

Extras

Japanese film expert Tom Mes delivers another laidback yet information-packed commentary. He has a lot to say about Burst City’s inception and influences (including, surprisingly enough, Bruce Springsteen), the careers of the cast and crew, and the film’s place in Sogo Ishii’s body of work. There’s also a fascinating excursus on the differences between Japanese and American varieties of cyberpunk. The half-hour interview with Yoshiharu Tezuka, who worked as lighting director on Burst City and is now a film scholar, lays out the distinction in the Japanese film industry between independent cinema (still affiliated with the studio system) and jishu eiga or “amateur films” of the late ‘70s/early ‘80s that wholeheartedly embraced the DIY aesthetic of punk rock, which sometimes entailed certain risks to life and limb. The hourlong interview with director Ishii delves into his days as a film student, how he landed a studio connection by effectively remaking his earlier film Panic High School, the financing and production history of Burst City, and his thoughts on the film today.

Overall

Sogo Ishii’s Burst City is a defiantly raised fist in the face of conventional society.

Cast: Michirô Endô, Shigeru Izumiya, Takanori Jinnai, Kou Machida, Shigeru Muroi, Shinya Ohe, Yasuto Sugawara, Jûgatsu Toi, Umanosuke Ueda, Genki Yoshimura, Mayumi Ômura Director: Sogo Ishii Screenwriter: Jûgatsu Toi Distributor: Arrow Video Running Time: 115 min Rating: NR Year: 1982 Release Date: November 10, 2020 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: Norman Jewison’s Moonstruck on the Criterion Collection

Jewison’s sublime romantic comedy gets a handsome home-video package from Criterion.

4

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Moonstruck

Norman Jewison’s Moonstruck takes place in a dreamy, hyperreal version of New York City where everyone is at once bizarre and utterly relatable. It could perhaps best be described as a screwball comedy in which the characters have to confront the emotional fallout of their amorous antics. Imagine if Leo McCarey, instead of making the tonally opposite Make Way for Tomorrow and The Awful Truth in the same year, somehow managed to create one film that combined their unique sensibilities into a busy farce grounded by a poignant, almost unbearable earnestness.

Moonstruck tracks several romantic entanglements centered around Loretta (Cher), a 37-year-old widow living in Brooklyn Heights who blames her husband’s untimely death on the bad luck brought on by her decision to defy the customs of marriage. Her particular kind of anxiety is established early when her boyfriend, Johnny (Danny Aiello), proposes to her in a restaurant. Attempting passionately to talk him out of it due to her perceived ill fortune, Loretta nonetheless makes him get down on one knee, and both she and the other patrons look put out that he didn’t think ahead to get a ring.

Playwright John Patrick Shanley, then a rising star in the theater world, wrote the film on spec, and his script rings with a curiosity for his characters that goes beyond merely establishing and resolving their conflicts. He plays up Loretta’s self-defeating neuroticism, but both he and Cher make abundantly clear that the woman is no one’s fool; Cher immediately communicates how Loretta is the controlling force in her relationship with Johnny, and in general the character exudes a competence and self-sufficiency that clarifies her crippling superstition as amusingly incongruous rather than a sign of emotional weakness. When Johnny leaves for Sicily soon after proposing to be with his terminally ill mother, we see how little the relationship matters to Loretta when he calls and announces, “I’m calling from the deathbed of my mother,” and all that she can say to him is: “Well, how was your plane ride?”

Surrounding Loretta are figures facing their own romantic pangs and troubles. Her father, Cosmo (Vincent Gardenia), also believes in his daughter’s bad luck and warns her against marriage, which probably explains why he’s having an affair. His animated flippancy contrasts sharply with the sullen, withdrawn nature of Loretta’s mother, Rose (Olympia Dukakis), who knows of her husband’s infidelity and is nearly catatonic from sorrow over it. She approves of her child’s marriage to a man she likes but doesn’t love precisely because it lowers Loretta’s chances of having her heart broken. Even peripheral figures in the film, like an old Italian woman who curses the plane Johnny takes to Sicily because it’s carrying the woman who stole her lover 50 years ago, come to feel like reflections of Loretta’s anxieties and desires.

Things take a turn when Loretta decides to invite Johnny’s estranged brother, Ronny (Nicolas Cage), to her wedding. Arguably, no role has ever benefited more from Cage’s full-throated commitment to his work than Ronny. On paper, the character, a one-handed baker who blames his brother for his affliction and who harbors a love for opera that contrasts with his almost Dickensian working-class image, is so wild that he practically demands to be played with quirky self-awareness. But Cage meets the character on his emotional wavelength, rendering the man’s pain with such melodramatic anguish that the walls between tragedy and comedy break down, and it’s a small wonder that the man’s passion so rattles Loretta’s carefully maintained sense of order that she very quickly ends up in bed with him.

The remainder of the film traces the various trysts of the major characters, leading to a bravura sequence in which Loretta, after accompanying Ronny to a performance of La Bohème at the Met, is moved to tears by the performance, only to run into her father on a date with his mistress (Anita Gillette), while far away, Rose contemplates an affair of her own with a professor (John Mahoney). Characters conducting their illicit activities keep running into people they know, as if even a city as vast as New York were too small to hide secrets. Though shot on location throughout the city, the film sometimes resembles the fake, soundstage vision of New York that Stanley Kubrick crafted for Eyes Wide Shut, albeit one defined not by erotic paranoia but a more relatable sense of longing and apprehension.

Ultimately, Moonstruck is a comedy of remarriage, for some parties more literally than others. Rooted in a fear of mortality and growing apart, it finds affirmation in the relationships that seem most strained. The film is perhaps most succinctly summarized in an early scene where Loretta witnesses an argument between an old couple who run a liquor store. The woman, accusing her husband of ogling other ladies, calls him a wolf, badgering him at length for his wandering eye. Just when it seems she might lunge for the man’s throat, he calmly replies, “You know what I see in you? The woman I married,” which causes her to melt, and the energy of the moment is so contagious that Loretta leaves the store with a wide smile on her face.

Image/Sound

Criterion’s Blu-ray boasts a transfer from a 4K restoration that highlights the film’s subtle beauty. Nighttime shots show no visible crushing artifacts, while the neon lights of shops and restaurants glow intensely. Grain is visible and balanced throughout, and skin tones are natural and textured. The soundtrack deftly separates the bustle of New York from the dialogue, preserving the clarity of the latter while adding to the film’s sense of intensity.

Extras

Contemporary interviews with the cast and crew hammer home what a sensation Moonstruck was upon its release, while retrospective interviews with John Patrick Shanley and Danny Aiello attest to its enduring relevance. Two documentaries from 2006, the making-of program “At the Heart of an Italian Family” and the more focused “The Music of Moonstruck,” delve further into the production and how the film’s grounded yet melodramatic atmosphere was achieved. Scholar Stefano Albertini talks more about the use of opera as a thematic and stylistic backdrop, while the most significant extra is a 1998 commentary with Cher, Norman Jewison, and Shanley that covers a range of topics, from how the opening montage was originally set to La Bohème instead of “That’s Amore” and gave the film a too-“artsy” feel, to amusing anecdotes about Cher getting legitimately drunk in one scene because they used real champagne. Critic Emily VanDerWerff also contributes a wide-ranging essay that touches upon the careers of Moonstruck’s principal cast and crew as well as the many overt and subtle flourishes that make the film so unique.

Overall

Norman Jewison’s sublime romantic comedy gets a handsome home-video package from Criterion, boasting an excellent transfer and a meaty collection of new and old extras.

Cast: Cher, Nicolas Cage, Vincent Gardenia, Olympia Dukakis, Danny Aiello, Julie Bovasso, John Mahoney, Louis Guss, Feodor Chaliapin Jr., Anita Gillette Director: Norman Jewison Screenwriter: John Patrick Shanley Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 104 min Rating: PG Year: 1987 Release Date: November 17, 2020 Buy: Video, Soundtrack

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Blu-ray Review: Don Siegel’s The Beguiled on KL Studio Classics

Kino outfits Siegel’s underrated gothic masterpiece with an appropriately luscious restoration.

4

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The Beguiled

Given the general timidity of modern cinema, Don Siegel’s The Beguiled probably feels more shocking today than it did in 1971. Siegel and screenwriters Albert Matlz and Irene Camp play with many uncomfortable aspects of contemporary American society, piercing taboos in a bold, lurid manner that suggests a clearing of the air. The narrative is set on a Mississippi plantation during the Civil War where Martha Farnsworth (Geraldine Page) runs a fading girls’ seminary. In one of the film’s best jokes, which subtly embodies its entire theme, Martha teaches a handful of girls and young women etiquette while men blow each other to pieces a few miles away. As society succumbs to its roiling hatred of itself, the girls learn how to wipe their faces with napkins the right way during dinner. This juxtaposition is a brilliant metaphor for the way people, especially now, sanitize truth with platitude.

The films’ young women are going nuts with suppressed instincts—so horny that they’re ready to scratch one another’s eyes out. Entering into this caldron is Corporal John McBurney, or McBee (Clint Eastwood), a shot-up Union soldier on the brink of death who’s discovered by one of the girls, Amy (Pamelyn Ferdin), while she’s gathering mushrooms outside the plantation. Amy and McBee hide in the bushes while Confederate soldiers ride by, and the delirious fortysomething-ish man gives the 12-year-old girl a lingering kiss on the lips. This purposefully jolting moment is amplified by Siegel’s casual staging and, particularly, by his refusal to shirk away from Amy’s own reaction, which is stunned though not without an element of disbelieving pleasure. This is one of many examples of The Beguiled’s refusal to take the easy way out, homing in instead on queasy dimensions of human desire.

Amy brings McBee back to the plantation, which he instantly destabilizes. The women, of course, are Confederates, and they talk of alerting nearby units so that McBee may be taken to a prison, though they clearly want this handsome man to themselves, and they use his injuries as a rationalization for doing just that. If he were to go to prison now, they insist, he would die from his wounds. It would be more Christian to treat him first and then let him rot away in prison—a logic that serves as an instance of sanitizing need, and eventual atrocity, with bullshit. As McBee gradually heals, he comes into his own and sets about sexually manipulating four of the women. In short, he’s a rooster in a hen house—a notion that’s almost literalized by one of the film’s many sexual symbols and innuendos: Once McBee arrives, the hens in the farm out back start laying eggs.

The women want to eat McBee alive, but they’re tormented by ideas of what’s ladylike, as well as by McBee’s enemy alliance, and these conflicts forge a latticework of neuroses. In the film’s most daring scenes, McBee hits on Hallie (Mae Mercer), the slave of the plantation. As Hallie disparages McBee as “Mr. Yank,” the filmmakers have the nerve to allow him to say what many people in the audience are thinking: “We should be on the same side.” Hallie’s response—devastating, practical, dependent on the use of a forbidden word—detonates homilies about the Civil War. Hallie’s loyalty to the women, and the unusual authority she enjoys at the plantation, trump political ideas that strike her as justifying abstractions. Such a scene, complicated further by the profound sexual chemistry between Mercer and Eastwood, and by the ever-present potentialities for violence existing between Hallie and McBee, shames the hindsight sermonizing of many contemporary “issues” movies.

The compulsory timidity of so many modern movies is encapsulated by Sofia Coppola’s 2017 remake of The Beguiled. Coppola, probably correctly intuiting that Hallie would be “problematic” for modern audiences, omitted the character in an act of artistic cowardice. With Hallie, who most painfully embodies the narrative’s obsession with the chasm between personal wants and social demands, gone, the new film feels neutered. The glossy production values and use of celebrities in many of the female roles further sanitize Coppola’s film. By contrast, Siegel’s production values are feverish, dirty, raw—the soldiers here don’t appear to come from central casting—and his claustrophobic, hallucinatory setups heighten our understanding of the yearning of the women, who’re mostly played by unknowns who exhibit a naturalness that only further explodes the film’s gloriously disreputable eroticism.

The Beguiled features one of Eastwood’s best and riskiest performances, which served as a turning point from his (also unsentimental) action heroes of the ‘60s into more ambiguous characters and films. As McBee, Eastwood really leans into his mercenary sexuality, intensifying one of the narrative’s chief pleasures: the mystery as to how much of McBee’s manipulations are driven by an urge to survive versus horny male opportunism. In the extremism of war, these urges are essentially understood to be one in the same, as social chaos enables the indulgence of individual gluttony. Yet Eastwood doesn’t just do a cock-of-the-walk routine, as he’s intimately receptive to all of his female costars, little girls and older women alike. In fact, Eastwood has rarely had the sort of kinship with other performers that he has here. It’s a shame that The Beguiled is generally considered as an also-ran entry in Eastwood’s career, though this oversight is also perhaps a sign of the skittishness of modern cinema.

Image/Sound

The Beguiled abounds in candlelit scenes and brown hues that have often come across as indistinct on prior home-video editions, which this new 4K restoration beautifully corrects. The colors here are quite lucid; the blacks are especially luscious, and the browns are sharp and well-differentiated. Facial and clothing textures are also very prominent, while grain is healthy and attractive. The soundtrack is sharp and balanced, which is especially evident in the vivacious presentation of Lalo Schifrin’s moody and self-consciously melodramatic score.

Extras

In a new audio commentary, film historian Kat Ellinger riffs in erudite, free-associative fashion on a variety of subjects pertaining to The Beguiled. Ellinger reads from Don Siegel’s autobiography to offer insights into the making of the film, which was a passion project for him and Clint Eastwood, and she connects its female-centric narrative to ‘70s-era horror films at large that pivoted on violations of women and their aftermath. Ellinger is also persuasive when discussing the film’s gothic atmosphere and its stubborn, intriguing singularity. In a new interview, actress Melody Scott Thomas, who plays Abigail, elaborates on how she met Siegel and what it was like to work with Eastwood and all the women in an intense film as a relative newcomer. Meanwhile, an archive featurette, “The Beguiled, Misty, Don, and Clint,” provides a very brief overview of the formative year that Siegel and Eastwood had in 1971 with the release of The Beguiled, Dirty Harry, and Play Misty for Me. A “Trailers from Hell” segment with John Landis and a smorgasbord of other trailers round out a slim-ish package.

Overall

Kino outfits Don Siegel’s underrated gothic masterpiece, a pivotal work in his and Clint Eastwood’s careers, with an appropriately luscious restoration.

Cast: Clint Eastwood, Geraldine Page, Elizabeth Hartman, Jo Ann Harris, Darleen Carr, Mae Mercer, Pamelyn Ferdin, Melody Thomas, Peggy Drier, Pattye Mattick Director: Don Siegel Screenwriter: Albert Maltz, Irene Kamp Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 105 min Rating: R Year: 1971 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: Clint Eastwood’s Play Misty for Me on KL Studio Classics

Eastwood’s directorial debut is a thriller with the loose, impressionistic swing and free-floating sting of a midnight jazz song.

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Play Misty for Me

Modern horror thrillers often underrate the value of location, existing in generic big cities and small towns that detach us from the reality of their narratives. Detaching us further is the sledgehammer approach that filmmakers often take to telegraphing and delivering scares, which keeps us on guard for an onslaught of genre clichés. By contrast, the thrillers of the 1960s and ‘70s used to be gnarlier and more casual, appearing to be set in places outside of sets and backdrops and featuring real human beings. Think of the astonishing sense of place that Sam Peckinpah conjured in Straw Dogs or that Steven Spielberg offered in every film he directed from the early ‘70s to the early ‘80s. Clint Eastwood’s 1971 directorial debut, Play Misty for Me, hails from a similar tradition, as he has the confidence to mount a vividly atmospheric character study that morphs into something resonantly scary.

Eastwood transports Play Misty for Me from Los Angeles, the original setting of Jo Helms and Dean Reisner’s script, to Monterey, California, more specifically Carmel-by-the-Sea, where the multi-hyphenate has lived since the late ‘60s and even served as mayor. His love for the Monterey peninsula is immediately apparent in the film, which opens on a bold aerial view of the rocky cliffs along the coast, with the camera gradually zooming in toward a cabin in a secluded wooded area, where a man (Eastwood) walks along a porch, scrutinizing a portrait of himself in a window. This is a strikingly quiet sequence that’s gradually overtaken by the sounds of the nearby ocean, which intensify a sense of loneliness and isolation that this man appears to be experiencing. Eastwood doesn’t milk the scene though, cutting to shots of this man driving along the coast in his sports car as Dee Barton’s jaunty score lightens the mood.

This unceremonious juxtaposition between matter-of-fact melancholia (the cabin wandering) and idle pleasure (grooving in the car) resembles people’s actual emotional oscillations, and is characteristic of Eastwood’s direction of Play Misty for Me. The man is revealed to be Dave Garver, a local celebrity DJ for KRML (a real radio station) who’s a jazz aficionado like Eastwood himself. It’s quickly established that Dave has carved out a life for himself that would be the envy of macho art-minded types, hosting a jazz show at night, which is followed by drinks at the Sardine Factory (a real restaurant), where he kids around with the bartender, Murphy (Don Siegel), an aging eccentric who vicariously enjoys Dave’s womanizing, which he assists on occasion. Jocular, somewhat sexist dialogue—composed of the sort of rude jokes American movies rarely allow anymore, even if some people still talk this way—unsentimentally establish Dave as a sensitive, funny, charismatic yet selfish and manipulative cocksman who’s used to getting what he wants. Dave suggests a more likeable, though less memorable, version of the horndog Eastwood played the same year for Siegel in The Beguiled.

The coziness of these early scenes—the buddy-buddy bonhomie, the precise establishing of a real and comfortable-looking setting, the wish-fulfilment factor of Dave’s dream job and sexual virility—are paradoxically more anxiety-riven than the foreshadowing of conventional thrillers. Eastwood establishes what’s at stake to be lost, and his patience and spontaneity may inspire the viewer to wish that Play Misty for Me was simply a character study. Consequentially, we truly feel the violation that a stalker, Evelyn (Jessica Walter), represents, even if she’s also a form of poetic justice for a man who keeps women at arm’s length. But Dave isn’t made out to be an easy cartoon of male entitlement either, as he shoots straight with Evelyn, who refuses to see their first night together as the one-off that Dave assumes it to be, even if he nevertheless enjoys some of her subsequent attention.

The melancholia expressed by the opening shot gradually deepens across the film’s running time, and the ocean becomes a signpost of the fear of solitude that grows pronounced in middle age (a signpost that’s complemented by the jazz tunes on the soundtrack, especially the yearning for connection that Errol Garner’s “Misty” embodies). Play Misty for Me returns again and again to the coast throughout the narrative, sometimes allowing it to eclipse the characters, such as when Dave and the woman he loves, Tobie (Donna Mills), stroll the beach. Eastwood often doesn’t show them directly speaking, transporting their dialogue to voiceover while they walk, together yet somehow not quite together as the ocean crests on the soundtrack, seemingly articulating their longings and resentments.

The ocean motif is rendered even more explicit by Evelyn, who talks of a nightmare of drowning while Dave watches unhelpfully, which is proven at the film’s end to be a perverse sort of prophecy. Unforgettably played by Walters, Evelyn is less a monster than a ferocious manifestation of the terror of estrangement—a brunette inverse of the blond, hopeful agent of domesticity that Tobie embodies, and which Dave might be able to have if he can keep his dick in his pants. Play Misty for Me is a confident and evocative first film for Eastwood, a thriller with the loose, impressionistic swing and free-floating sting of a midnight jazz song.

Image/Sound

The image is somewhat soft, per the original theatrical presentation. There’s plenty of attractive, fine grain, and the colors are robustly varied, from the bright ocean blues to the earthy hues of the rocks and the woods. Flesh tones are also well-detailed, though the blacks are a little murky. The sound mix was never meant to be a show pony, but the jazz standards have a lovely delicacy here, and diegetic sounds are mercilessly precise, especially in the film’s violent scenes, and in the roar of the ocean. Overall, a sturdy transfer.

Extras

A new audio commentary by film scholar Tim Lucas offers a deep dive into Play Misty for Me, abounding in the sort of contextual production details that critics usually ignore. Lucas goes into the location scouting and even the general real estate of Monterey, California, for instance, and discusses how Eastwood’s interest in jazz influenced the film, while also astutely covering more traditional critical ground such as Eastwood’s subtle compositional framing. A new visual essay by film historian Howard S. Berger is nearly as painstaking, placing Play Misty for Me in the context of Eastwood’s career, while a new interview with Donna Mills covers the film’s making from an actor’s perspective. Several archive supplements have been ported over as well from past home video editions, most notably a making-of documentary from 2001 by Laurent Bouzereau that covers how Eastwood cannily brokered a deal to direct his first film (material which Lucas also covers). A “Trailer from Hell” segment by Adam Rifkin, a few other featurettes, photo galleries, TV spots, and trailers round out a solid package.

Overall

Kino Lorber outfits Clint Eastwood’s resonant, intuitive, weirdly moving directorial debut with a sturdy transfer and a few hearty new supplements.

Cast: Clint Eastwood, Jessica Walter, Donna Mills, John Larch, Jack Ging, Irene Harvey, James McEachin, Clarice Taylor, Don Siegel Director: Clint Eastwood Screenwriter: Jo Heims, Dean Riesner Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 102 min Rating: R Year: 1971 Release Date: November 10, 2020 Buy: Video

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