Yup, that’s right; I’ve been critiquing games for six years by this point. In a normal post, this is where I’d wonder where time went, but it honestly feels like it has been a long time. Hope all of you are continuing to do well in the face of the pandemic.
Films watched in May 2020:
- Limelight (Charlie Chaplin, 1952)
- Harakiri (Masaki Kobayashi, 1962)
- Cemetery of Splendor (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2015)
- The Deer Hunter (Michael Cimino, 1978)
- Gate of Hell (Teinosuke Kinugasa, 1954)
- The 400 Blows (François Truffaut, 1959)
- Blowup (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966)
- Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927)
- The Souvenir (Joanna Hogg, 2019)
- Mirror (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1975)
- Bowfinger (Frank Oz, 1998)
Limelight isn’t the first film you think of when you mention Charlie Chaplin. It was boycotted because by then, Mr. Chaplin had the unfortunate displeasure of ending up on the Hollywood blacklist thanks to the influence Joseph McCarthy (the leading pioneer of the art of being unable to take any kind of criticism). It’s a shame that it took a long time for it to get recognition (and even now, it’s largely considered a cult classic), because it really is a wonderful film that demonstrates changing social trends in entertainment all while having two incredibly well-done character arcs.
Harakiri is one of those films that doesn’t sound as though it has too exciting of a premise, but when you’re invested, you will be amazed where the story goes. All I can say is that it is one of the few films to have 100% on Rotten Tomatoes for a reason.
Cemetery of Splendor is the first Thai film I’ve ever seen. I kind of got a Tarkovsky vibe from it in that it seems deliberately confusing at times. As a result, it’s kind of guilty of using its obtuse nature to compensate for a lack of substance. It’s not nearly as bad as The Witch or any given A24 film in that regard, but I do think it’s a bad sign when one of its proponents (Sheila O’Malley writing for Roger Ebert.com), claims that “to discuss its meaning would be to diminish it” – that was the exact mentality film critics were operating with when they praised The Last Jedi. Either way, I think you’ll like it if you’re an arthouse film buff, and even if you aren’t, I don’t get the same pretentious vibe from Mr. Weerasethakul as I do any given American auteur of the current generation, so seeing it may not be a terrible idea.
The Deer Hunter, with how it was initially given a limited release to get critics hyping up a darling of theirs, is probably the work most responsible for codifying the concept of Oscar Bait. While its effects on the medium weren’t apparent at first, the concept of Oscar Bait led to a real degree of artistic conservatism that consistently rewards films for doing the exact same things, thus shunning anyone who doesn’t adhere to the tropes thereof. Anything remotely lighthearted in tone may as well be populist propaganda; real auteurs make Very Serious Movies about Very Serious Things. It’s because of this mentality that auteurs started producing Art™ rather than art, which led to the current-day zeitgeist of them along with critics assuming that you succeeded when more than half of your audience leaves the theater in a state of rage. It doesn’t even make much sense in hindsight considering how Mr. Cimino himself would prove how badly such an approach can backfire just two years later with Heaven’s Gate.
It’s because of these factors that I think of The Deer Hunter as the film equivalent of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare inasmuch that they were quality works that had a negative impact on their respective mediums. Granted, it didn’t exactly result in Universal Pictures demanding Mr. Cimino make annual sequels to his work, but it did have a similar effect in that, in the grand scheme of things, it caused a dearth in creativity (albeit in different ways).
In any event, I can say the film is good despite the bad influence it probably had on future auteurs and critics. Some may be put off by the slow-paced beginning, I think it is incredibly effective for the kind of story it’s trying to tell. You see, this was back when film writers actually cared about character development, and starting things off as a slice-of-life story makes it incredibly effective when we see the characters callously ripped from the lives they once knew. It also totally has the Tetris theme play at one point, so it has that going for it as well.
Later that day, I saw Gate of Hell. I can’t help but think of it as the Avatar of its day in that it looks great – especially for its time, but the same can’t be said of the plot. Unlike Avatar, I can actually get behind the story; the problem is lies in its pacing. Though I may have criticized works such as Midsommer for their abysmally slow pacing, Gate of Hell has the exact opposite problem; it goes through its story beats way too fast, thus making the protagonist’s motivations come across less the result of their own agency and more because some higher power is forcing him to act a certain way for the sake of the plot. It’s not as bad as when authors do this to enforce their message, but the story nonetheless makes little sense from a diegetic standpoint. Not a bad effort, but there are plenty of other jidaigeki films that are worthier of your attention.
I then kicked off Memorial Day weekend by watching The 400 Blows. The way it shows schoolkids goofing off reminded me of Amarcord, though in tone, it is far more serious, showcasing a kid who just can’t catch a break. It was certainly quite the antithesis from American films starring child protagonists at the time (that weren’t named The Night of the Hunter) in that it is very gritty, and things don’t really get better. That’s not to say it’s completely hopeless, and the existence of lighter sequels certainly takes away some of the edge, though it does manage to be good on its own. Still, as far as French New Wave films go, I think I prefer Le Samouraï and Hiroshima mon amour.
The next day, I wound up seeing Blowup. I find it highly ironic that, after having seen this film, Alfred Hitchcock expressed that Michelangelo Antonioni and his peers were “a century ahead of [him] in terms of technique” because I feel a majority of his own filmography has aged better than Blowup. It comes across as the Gloria Bell of its day in that it’s a directionless slog that pretends it’s going somewhere interesting only to abort the idea because subversions are for cool kids. It does have a few things Gloria Bell doesn’t such as nude scenes and an unlikeable, misogynistic protagonist. The former are downright tame by today’s standards while the latter firmly cements it as, in the worst sense, a product of its time. As of this writing, it is easily the worst Palme d’Or winner I’ve ever seen. Guess the Cannes Film Festival’s track record wasn’t as impeccable as I thought, though to be fair, the 1960s was, by most standards, a fairly weak decade for the medium. Still, how it could beat Ingmar Bergman’s Persona for the Palme d’Or, I’ll never know. Don’t bother with this one – even Herbie Hancock couldn’t save it.
For the first time ever, I ended up seeing a silent film |(well, completely silent, that is)|. Yes, after being impressed with Fritz Lang’s M two years ago, I saw fit to see what many people consider to be his masterpiece. I think M edges it out, but Metropolis is quite a treat as well. As I was watching it, I couldn’t help but think if, being a gamer, I had an advantage over the average theatergoer. Reading text and inferring things through character actions are both things many gamers do as they progress through an interactive experience – not unlike reading the text slides in a silent film in between long, sped-up shots. Either way, I’m surprised how engrossing it is. This film ended up inspiring films such as Blade Runner and Star Wars, and while in most cases, it’s good enough to know of a progenitor work’s existence, Metropolis is essential watching for sci-fi fans. It’s actually a lot like Seven Samurai in that while it was doubtlessly influential, it does plenty of things derivative works didn’t copy endlessly |– particularly in how it ends with both major factions burying the hatchet and striving to make a better society|. With 25 minutes having been restored in 2010, it is even easier to appreciate its sheer ambition, and it is easily one of the best films of the 1920s.
Last year, I had the opportunity to see Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir. It was getting good reviews, but there were two things that discouraged me from seeing it. A) It was showing at a theater with terrible parking choices (being in a major metropolitan area) and B), it was distributed by A24. By this point, I had been burned out on A24 with First Reformed, High Life, and Gloria Bell having let me down earlier that year (along with Hereditary and Eighth Grade the previous year), so when I discovered that audiences didn’t like it, I found I wasn’t willing to make the effort to see it.
In all honesty, it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be, but it does have all the markings of a painfully stereotypical A24 feature with stilted dialogue that induces an Uncanny Valley effect by coming across as naturalistic and overly stylized at the same time and a degree of pretentiousness that denotes a distinct lack of self-awareness. It’s about an aspiring film student who forms a relationship with a young man. It’s supposed to be semi-autobiographical, but I feel it ultimately reinforces what I’ve expressed in the past; that A24 lending these auteurs a voice is like giving the microphone to a highly talkative person who has nothing interesting to say. Basically, if you took 8½ and sucked out all the humor, charisma, and chemistry between actors/actresses, you’d be left with The Souvenir. A24 is notorious for polarizing audiences, so if you have been burned out on their films in the past, this one has little chance of changing your mind.
Nostalghia is one of those films I didn’t particularly like when I first watched it. It makes for a difficult sit if you’re not expecting what it will throw at you. I have since grown a newfound appreciation for it considering how many present-day auteurs try (and largely fail) to shoot for that high-art standard Andrei Tarkovsky and the like established. I then decided to check out Mirror, which is arguably his most acclaimed work. And now I’m pretty much in the same position as when I saw Nostalghia. It’s kind of difficult to sum up the plot because of its freeform nature; it’s really more like visual poetry. There’s no denying that the cinematography is superb, and it doesn’t overstay its welcome, but does that make it worth your time? I’m not entirely sure. I can definitely see arthouse film fans liking it, but it’s not what I would use as an introduction to them (a better starting point would be either the Three Colors trilogy or Dekalog by Krzysztof Kieślowski). Will I grow an appreciation for this film in the future? Who knows!
Finally, at the end of the month, I decided to cap things off with Bowfinger. I had seen What About Bob?, which was also made by Frank Oz, quite a while ago, and this one is equally funny, providing a solid satire about the filmmaking process. It may not be as erudite as 8½, but if you’re looking for a smartly written comedy (understandable given the genre’s hit-or-miss track record in the 2010s), Bowfinger is worth the investment.
Games reviewed in May 2020:
In a lot of ways, I think of Wonder Boy III: The Dragons Trap and (to an even greater extent) Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom as the kind of games Altered Beast tried and failed to be. Altered Beast has a fairly novel premise on the face of things, giving the player character an entirely new set of abilities periodically, but it doesn’t go anywhere interesting with the idea. Meanwhile both Wonder Boy games actually incorporate the monster forms into the level design, giving them more of a purpose than just trying to wow audiences.
Even ignoring those two future games, Altered Beast itself is guilty of being far behind what Double Dragon accomplished a year prior. For that matter, one could argue Kung-Fu Master, released four years earlier, outshines it by virtue of having better controls. By lacking the kind of complexity Double Dragon had and placing all of its eggs in the style basket, Altered Beast makes the case that, regardless of the medium, putting all of your resources in presentation never works out in the long term.
New Super Mario Bros. Wii
As the second game in the New Super Mario Bros. subseries, New Super Mario Bros. Wii is definitely an improvement – even if the first game needed to exist to make this one happen, thereby ensuring that it has fewer innovations overall. I’ve described many games in the past as feeling like a Greatest Hits album (such as Wonder Boy in Monster World and Pokémon X and Y), and they all end up in the same place for me; I think they’re above average, but it’s difficult to get excited for them because, in many ways, everyone knows they will be good before they’re even greenlit; there’s no risk involved.
Granted, Nintendo has a bit more of an excuse to do that than most companies (unlike, say, Naughty Dog or Activision) because, while their celebrating the past can get gratuitous, said past accomplishments have had a far, reaching impact that I don’t think will ever be possible to match. Resting your laurels is more acceptable once you’ve well and truly earned it – especially if you continue to innovate on the side (Super Mario Galaxy 2 would be released a year later). Regardless, it was clear by this point that any further meaningful attempts at pushing the boundaries would henceforth mostly (if not, exclusively) occur in the 3D installments, and this is especially obvious to those going into this game immediately after Super Mario Galaxy.
It is impossible to overstate how shocking seeing the Sega logo on a Nintendo game was back in 2001. I was only vaguely aware of Sega’s existence and seeing their logo on the startup screen still hit me like a ton of bricks. Fittingly, because I had grown up exclusively with Nintendo consoles, Super Monkey Ball was the first Sega game I had ever played. It was a great introduction to the developer, showcasing that they had a lot of talent on their team. It seemed as though Sega’s transition to a third-party developer wouldn’t damage their brand.
And then they blew it.
The 2006 Sonic the Hedgehog is a popular choice when it comes to pinpointing Sega’s downfall, but I would say the downswing started with Sonic Heroes in 2003 – the first objectively bad mainline Sonic entry. It’s unfortunate they couldn’t make it work – especially after Monkey Ball suggested that they weren’t about to lose their momentum anytime soon. At least Toshihiro Nagoshi and Amusement Vision displayed a high amount of energy for this game along with its first sequel and F-Zero GX.
New Super Mario Bros. 2
I stand by my assessment that the independent critics’ accusations of Nintendo relying too much on nostalgia is overblown. Anyone who actually gives their mainstream releases the time of day can see that a lot of innovation goes into their work. However, Nintendo absolutely did not help challenge that (false) perception with New Super Mario Bros. 2. This third (?) entry in the New Super Mario Bros. subseries was very much the kind of pointless token sequel I would’ve expected out of whatever interchangeable, faceless developer Activision commissioned to create the newest Call of Duty game in a given year. Granted, a derivative Mario game is generally going to boast more energy than a derivative Call of Duty game, but I feel my point stands. Also, Nintendo really needs to come up with better names for these games.
The fall and rise of Star Wars – The Star Wars sequel trilogy sure has inspired a lot of articles, hasn’t it? Then again, considering how many of them try to pinpoint where things went wrong, I’m not so sure that’s a good thing. The Night Owl’s take on the debacle was definitely worth reading.
Eyes on Judgement – Aether has always been a fan of the Yakuza series, so reading his take on Judgment, a spinoff entry, was highly interesting. Hard to believe the series was started by the same guy who made Super Monkey Ball.
First Thoughts on Paper Mario: The Origami King – A new Paper Mario installment has been announced. My belief is that the series lost the plot with Super Paper Mario, which wasn’t bad, but was overly simplistic to a fault. It’s what happens when you take an already simplistic, yet intricate game and dial things back a little too far. Scott of The Wizard Dojo, unimpressed with the lack of good Mario RPGs available past 2009, writes his take on the reveal of The Origami King.
1917 – Though about as heavy-handed as one would expect a late-2010s Oscar Bait film to be, 1917 did deserve its nomination. Reading MiB’s take on the film reminds me of why I myself liked it.
Top 5 Games Still Coming out in 2020 – The Coronavirus may have wreaked havoc on most creative mediums, but games aren’t one of them. As Jacob of Books and Pixels points out, we still have stuff like Ghost of Tsushima and Cyberpunk 2077 to look forward to, though a remastered Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 and 2 is appreciated as well.
Celebrating The 40th Anniversary Of The Empire Strikes Back – The Empire Strikes Back, generally considered the best Star Wars film in the franchise is 40 years old now! Starloggers takes a look at just how much of an impact it had on pop culture.
YouTube channels to watch during the quarantine – Looking for some entertainment while we’re in quarantine? AK has a cavalcade of YouTube recommendations. Ashens and Fredrik Knudsen deserve special mention for providing quality content without succumbing to the trademark YouTube drama.
On Avery Island – I’ve noticed that with many bands that only issue two studio albums such as Fugees, Joy Division, and Slint, it’s the second one that tends to get more acclaim (although in Joy Division’s case, both of their LPs are neck and neck with each other and The Stone Roses inverts the trend). Neutral Milk Hotel is another case of this happening with On Avery Island being overshadowed completely by In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, which is a shame because it’s a perfectly solid debut (unlike those of Fugees or Slint). Matt of Hi-Fi Adventures gives the band’s debut its dues in his take on the record.
Super Mario Bros. (all versions) – Super Mario Bros. is a lot like Pokémon Red and Blue in that its original version is so iconic that the remakes lose a lot of the charm. Neppy, while reviewing the former, takes a look at all the versions of Nintendo’s pioneering effort.
Links to my articles: