April 2020 in Summary: The Exterminating Red Metal

Also known as the one in which Naughty Dog lost the plot – literally. I won’t go into further detail because I don’t wish to spoil it for those interested, and I insist on not judging a work until I experience it regardless of how much the odds are against it. Seriously, if you are interested in playing The Last of Us: Part II, try to refrain from using social media until it’s released next month.

Films watched in April 2020:

In theaters:

  • <None>

At home:

  • The African Queen (John Huston, 1951)
  • Zombieland: Double Tap (Ruben Fleischer, 2019)
  • Odd Man Out (Carol Reed, 1947)
  • The Wild Bunch (Sam Peckinpah, 1969)
  • Blue Velvet (David Lynch, 1986)
  • Memories of Underdevelopment (Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, 1968)

The African Queen actually came bundled with my copy of Casablanca, which I watched awhile back. It’s considered a classic itself, though I don’t think it quite measures up to Casablanca. Still, it was a fun adventure film that holds up reasonably well.

I’ve joked in the past that Zombieland was the only good zombie apocalypse work to emerge in the past twelve years or so, but in truth, I’m only half-joking. When you get right down to it, it’s a pretty campy premise, and no amount of “the real monsters are humans” platitudes will change my mind. Zombieland succeeded because it owned how silly the idea is, and just had fun with it. The sequel isn’t quite as good, but it was itself fun, and I can see people who enjoyed the original getting a kick out of it.

After seeing The Third Man, I decided to give Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out a shot. I wish I hadn’t read that it is Roman Polanski’s favorite film because it kinda spoiled how the film would end. Regardless, I felt it was decent, though not as good as The Third Man.

The next day, I saw The Wild Bunch. Many cinephiles consider it one of the best films of the 1960s. It was good, though to be honest, I think I would have to watch it again before I know where, exactly, I stand.

Next, I saw Blue Velvet. David Lynch is a favorite with intellectuals, but I hadn’t actually seen any of his films until now. It was definitely worth watching. It has a “show, don’t tell” quality to it that the current wave of filmmakers really needs to pick up on. Dennis Hopper’s performance is one of those things that needs to be seen to be believed. It was also nice to see Laura Dern not play the single most unlikable/poorly written character in the film. Like Oscar Isaac (and to a lesser extent, Adam Driver), she really needs an agent who can find her better roles.

Finally, at the end of the month, I watched Memories of Underdevelopment. Considered the single greatest Cuban film of all time, watching it was definitely a treat. It was interesting seeing the Bay of Pigs invasion pan out from the other side, and the film manages to tackle a lot of difficult subjects – all incredibly well.

Films reviewed, but not watched in April 2020:

Annihilation (Alex Garland, 2018)

I’ll admit it; I actually liked Annihilation when I first saw it. Where Annihilation stands in comparison to Ex Machina is interesting because, while it is the better of the two films, its flaws are way more obvious and multifaceted. Ex Machina, as a direct result of its minimalistic setup, had much less of an opportunity to create plot holes. Where it instead fell apart was in its underlying implications, which espoused a subtle, yet very real anti-intellectual philosophy. Annihilation, on the other hand, is an example of a film that constantly creates plot holes in its endeavors to resolve discrepancies. The result is a film that seems so cool when in the moment, yet shatters like glass when you take a second or two to reflect upon it. I do give Mr. Garland credit for being ambitious, but, like George Lucas, he is the kind of creator who can’t handle having complete creative control; he really needs someone to bounce ideas off of if he is to realize his potential.

Games reviewed in April 2020:

Dear Esther

In hindsight, I kind of liken the environmental narrative game to the late-1970s/early-1980s no wave movement in that both scenes were highly experimental, but in ways that didn’t leave themselves much room to grow. When you’re creating art, you have to realize that there is a fine line between minimalism and insularism. If you’re to the point where adding things to a genre immediately destroys its foundation, it can’t help but be short-lived – regardless of how much attention it may receive. I have to give the no wavers way more credit; at least they were trying to push the envelope, and while it was short-lived, it did inspire future artists – Kurt Cobain’s fondness of Swans’ Young God EP being proof of that. Plus, whether you like the music from that scene or not, you can’t deny the artists’ hutzpah, and you certainly won’t find sounds quite like it anywhere else (in fact, if you’re really interested, try to seek out the DNA on DNA compilation album and Filth and Cop by Swans).

Otherwise, Dear Esther is to video games what District 9 was to films in that they both taught critics all the wrong lessons about what to look for in art (granted, Dear Esther isn’t nearly as heavy-handed as District 9). While it isn’t an apples-to-apples comparison, I find I actually have slightly more respect for District 9. As much as I dislike District 9 for foreshadowing (and possibly contributing to) the wave of anti-intellectualism currently permeating critical discourse, I didn’t walk away feeling that it was ashamed to be a film. The same can’t be said about Dear Esther; for whatever good intentions its creator may have had, it only succeeded in fueling the idea that the medium is in need of games that aren’t fun. It’s true that I have played games such as Planescape: Torment, OneShot, and the Zero Escape trilogy which aren’t exactly what I would call fun, but they had a level of engagement that the environmental narrative game fundamentally and consistently fails to deliver. Dear Esther itself is quite guilty of depriving both the player and the player character of anything resembling agency.

While the original mod was made before Roger Ebert’s infamous “Games can’t be art” declaration, I can’t escape the premise that its commercial release benefitted from that overwhelming desire to prove the naysayers wrong – especially when Braid, which was definitely a game (pretentiousness notwithstanding), failed to win him over. Suddenly, games couldn’t be games anymore, and this line of thinking caused critics to dismiss a lot of creative titles in the coming years. Because the movement didn’t have faith in its own medium, discouraged creators from exercising their imagination, and left itself no room to grow, it burned itself out quickly, being considered old hat before the decade even ended.

Featured articles:

Why aren’t visual novels more popular in the West? – I have to admit I haven’t played that many visual novels, but the ones I have played seem to reach that standard the environmental narrative game fails to grasp. AK’s take on why they aren’t popular in the West is especially interesting.

Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker (2019) – By most accounts, the Star Wars sequel was a failure. The only real question concerned which installment dropped the ball (my answer: yes). Watching Ola and Piotrek go back and forth about the film was highly enlightening, as they touch upon the many, many problems present in the canon.

Top 5 Tuesday: Things I’m Doing in Isolation – The self-isolation we’ve imposed upon ourselves has given plenty of us an opportunity to do things I don’t think we would’ve have had the time to do otherwise. Bookbeachbunny lists five of them.

Monster Boy And The Cursed Kingdom – As a critic, it’s nice to know you’re exposing people to works they otherwise wouldn’t have noticed. Matt of Nintendobound gives his two cents on Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom.

Doom Eternal – I have to admit I wasn’t won over by 2016 Doom, but reading Gaming Omnivore’s take on its sequel, Doom Eternal, does make me interested in giving it another shot somewhere down the line.

To Live (Huo zhe)To Live is an incredible film that shows just how horrible life was for peasants in China during the reign of Chairman Mao. So, naturally, it got banned in China seeing as how the government isn’t exactly big on the whole “taking criticism” thing. ManInBlack’s review of it reminded me of what made it so great.

My Most Disappointing/Unenjoyable Reads of the Past Few Years – I think we’ve all had that one work we were looking forward to only for it to be a disappointment. Aaron over at Swords & Specters takes a look at five of them.

64DD: Nintendo’s Heavily Delayed Magnetic Disk Drive Add-On – The 64DD is something that has come up in several of my reviews (such as Mother 3 and Dragon Quest VII). I remember hearing advertisements for it, so reading Mr. Wapojif’s summary of its release was very nostalgic.

Top Ten Tuesday: Titles That Would Make Good Band Names – I’ve occasionally remarked when hearing of certain organizations or concepts that they would make good band names. Jocelyn of A Little Nerd Told Me thought similarly, as she highlighted ten such instances.

Links to my articles:

Film reviews:

Game reviews:

Other posts:

19 thoughts on “April 2020 in Summary: The Exterminating Red Metal

  1. Thanks for the link again! Writing that post helped me adjust my way of thinking a bit, because I believe now that my read on visual novel popularity was a bit off — apparently there’s a vibrant otome VN scene in the West that I had no idea about. I also have no interest in it, but that’s just an issue with personal taste and me not being in the target audience, not with the quality of the games. And there are certainly many more VNs available in English now than there were five or ten years ago. But I still think they still haven’t broken through to any mainstream popularity yet over here.

    I’ve never heard of Memories of Underdevelopment, but I’d like to see it now. Historical dramas that show a side I’ve never seen before are interesting.

    We’ve talked about it before, but I’m happy that games have moved past that obsession with being “real art” and treating their works as if they had to be deadly serious to be taken seriously. It seems to me that the best artists in history weren’t that concerned with what the established artistic authorities thought and instead did their own thing, what came naturally to them. Not that all the environmental narrative guys were necessarily thinking “this has to be ART” every second, but it feels like it looking back.

    Liked by 2 people

    • You’re welcome! And it happens. Sometimes, even if you do research, you still end up making wild extrapolations when an obscure piece of information comes to light. However, I don’t think that’s your fault; the press barely talks about visual novels, so it’s not terribly surprising that the one you speak of slipped beneath your radar, though that particular genre was definitely made for a specific demographic. It’s still a shame that they haven’t broken into mainstream popularity because, at their best, they utterly demolish anything the American AAA industry has put out in the last ten years in terms of storytelling.

      And yes, I highly recommend seeing Memories of Underdevelopment if you’re interested in those kinds of dramas. This one managed to go in many interesting directions with its ideas, and it grabs your attention right away.

      I’m also glad that games have moved past that “real art” obsession for that exact reason. We still have a few holdouts in the journalists’ sphere, but for the most part, we’re to the point where developers (outside of American AAA companies) are creating stuff for its own sake rather than chase after some nebulous standard. Indeed, part of the reason why the current indie scene in films has been turning away so many people is partially because, at the end of the day, it’s not rebellious or particularly interesting, and when they do succeed it is almost always in spite of themselves. They’re still stuck in their own environmental narrative game phase, and are worse off for it. It’s pretty damning when you realize that today’s indie films consist of stuff like Lady Bird, Ex Machina, and Hereditary whereas the indie scene’s heyday in the 1980s/1990s gave us stuff like Repo Man, Pulp Fiction, and (no joke) The Terminator. I think that says it all right there.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for the shout-out! 🙂
    As for Lynch, if you liked Blue Velvet, I’d suggest trying both his wonderful and slightly un-Lynch movies, such as The Elephant Man or my favorite, The Straight Story, and his trademark oneiric weirdness beloved by critics, such as Mulholland Drive and Wild at Heart.

    Liked by 2 people

    • You’re welcome! The sequel trilogy was quite the depressing failure, wasn’t it?

      And I actually have a copy of Eraserhead lying around, but those are films I will definitely look out for as well. Blue Velvet was good itself.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Oh, don’t get me started! 😀 I heard Disney went back to beg Lucas to return to Star Wars and find a way out of the horrible mess they made of it… 😉

        Eraserhead is Lynch at his weirdest 😉 I do wonder what you’ll think of it!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Well, his catalogue is quite varied. His early stuff is in a similar vein to To Live in covering social issues and slice-of-life parables, then his 2000 and beyond output is a mix of big budget and visually ambitious wu xia movies like Hero & House Of Flying Daggers, as well as the occasional drama harking back to his older style.

        Aside from a few misfires Yimou is top tier filmmaker for me. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for the link! When previously mentioning Oscar Isaac’s choice of roles in movies, I meant to ask if you’ve ever watched Inside Llewyn Davis? Both Oscar Isaac and Adam Driver are in the movie, coincidentally. I remember going seeing it in the theater back in 2013 and really enjoying it. It may be my favorite later-era Coen Brothers movie, though that may not be as high of a bar as their 90’s films.

    Liked by 2 people

    • You’re welcome! Actually, I have seen Inside Llewyn Davis. In all honesty, I just thought it was okay. It had a few interesting ideas here and there, but the plot didn’t really go anywhere. While that was technically true of The Big Lebowski, there was a bit more charisma in that film to make the plotless structure tolerable (not to mention being far more quotable). As it stands, the only films I’ve seen him in that I thought were good were Drive and Spider-Man into the Spider Verse in which he played only very minor roles. Adam Driver has fared better, playing a main character in Logan Lucky and Marriage Story. The former especially stands out as one of the better films of 2017.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I really liked the original Zombieland. It was a decently well done comedy thing and came at a time that zombie films really needed something that didn’t take itself so seriously. Didn’t like it enough to pick up the sequel, but I enjoyed the original.

    I’ve been kind of passively brewing an article about how games don’t always need to be fun. I had myself a good time with a horror game recently, and I would never describe the game as fun by any means, but it brought me a good amount of tension and stress in just the right way I needed there. So yeah, I’d push back on the thought that that’s what games really need, but if you do have a game that’s not focused on fun, it does need to deliver some other sort of emotion through the experience. I’ve played plenty of environmental narratives that don’t approach that. They may try, but, well, games aren’t the best medium for every story, and some things are just in the wrong medium, or don’t approach it the right way.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I agree and considering the zombie-themed stuff that came afterwards, I feel it has aged very well. Now, zombie-themed media is basically “second verse, same as the first” (first verse being The Walking Dead).

      That Tweet of Jonathan McIntosh’s about us being in need of games that aren’t fun has gathered a bit of infamy alongside David Cage’s “‘game over’ is a state of failure for the game designer” quote. They’re interesting because in both cases, I don’t think they’re inherently wrong. As you brought up with that horror game, games can absolutely be something other than fun, but they have to illicit some kind of emotion that ensures engagement – every time, no exceptions. And excessive game overs can ruin the suspension of disbelief if you stop providing any kind of diegetic logic to the player character’s survival skills. The problem is the way they phrase their arguments makes it seem as though they don’t understand that this medium, like others, has its own unique strengths and weaknesses. Certain storytelling techniques just don’t work as well in video games as in more established (typically non-interactive) mediums, and those sentiments come from a place that fails to grasp that reality. The same goes for many environmental narrative games as well. Dear Esther, even if it is well respected, should be studied as an example of what not to do when conceiving an interactive story because the utter lack of both interactivity and player-character agency really detracts from the experience.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I agree The African Queen doesn’t have the same cachet as Casablanca, but like you said, it’s an enjoyable enough film. You also reminded me to make a serious effort to watch The Wild Bunch, since so many people talk about it.

    Thanks for the link re: disappointing reads. I’m headed there next. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yeah, it’s one of those “once is enough” films, I feel. Casablanca, on the other hand, is something I can easily envision myself revisiting somewhere down the line. My guess is that the Red Dead Redemption games really revived interest in the Western in the current generation, so I can easily see stuff like The Wild Bunch getting a new lease on life as a result alongside classic Spaghetti Westerns.

      Hope you enjoy reading that article as well.


  6. I still need to see Zombieland: Double Tap. I guess I just haven’t been in a rush though because the other people I know who have seen it pretty much had the same thoughts on it that you expressed, it being fun, but not as good as the original. I’m sure I’ll still end up watching it sooner or later, though. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

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