Also known as the one in which Persona 4: Golden gets a Steam release! That is clearly the best piece of gaming news the medium this month, so if you were curious to check out the game after reading my 18,000-word review, that’s the place to get it.
Films watched in June 2020:
- Dersu Uzala (Akira Kurosawa, 1975)
- The Rules of the Game (Jean Renoir, 1939)
- A Better Tomorrow (John Woo, 1986)
- Underground (Emir Kusturica, 1995)
- Mean Streets (Martin Scorsese, 1973)
- National Lampoon’s Vacation (Harold Ramis, 1983)
- Masquerade (Choo Chang-min, 2012)
- Just Mercy (Destin Daniel Cretton, 2019)
- Le Grande Illusion (Jean Renoir, 1937)
- The Big Heat (Fritz Lang, 1953)
- Good Morning (Yasujirō Ozu, 1959)
I started the month off by watching Dersu Uzala. This film notably won an Academy Award back in 1976, which is what compelled me to see it in the first place. This film really gives you an appreciation for the grueling experience Russian explorers had traversing the Siberian wilderness back in the early twentieth century. It is notably the only non-Japanese language film Akira Kurosawa ever directed, and while it isn’t usually mentioned in discussions regarding his best films, I can say it is worth looking into.
The Rules of the Game is frequently considered one of the greatest films ever made. It’s hard to believe, given its stature, that when it was released back in 1939, it got booed off the stage – at the Cannes Film Festival no less. Guess their track record was marred well before they gave Blowup a Palme d’Or. Then again, given that it criticizes the practices of the bourgeoisie for becoming complacent with the flames of war having ignited in their backyard, it’s not difficult to see why they didn’t like it. If you believed Joker directly challenging critical sensibilities and getting a middling reception for its trouble was a new thing, this demonstrates it isn’t a new trend. The film was notably a major influence on Robert Altman, and I definitely see a parallel between it and Nashville – particularly in how they both end. I did like this film, though I think I’d have to give it another viewing before I could fully gather my thoughts about it.
Later that day, I saw John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow. Like Mr. Kurosawa, John Woo is one of those directors I’ve been consistently impressed by, having seen Red Cliff and Face/Off two years ago. A Better Tomorrow is generally considered to be not only one of his greatest films, but also one of the best Chinese films of all time. Having seen it, I can certainly see why. The subtitles on the version I saw were horrible, but once I managed to get a better translation, I realized just how intriguing the story was. With a great soundtrack and some seriously excellent action sequences, you really can’t go wrong with this one. Now, if only it would receive a Criterion release…
After that, I saw fit to watch a Serbian film. Unlike a certain other Serbian film you may have heard of, this one, Emir Kusturica’s Underground, can actually be enjoyed by those who aren’t insufferably pretentious critics who read too much into things in an attempt to justify enjoying garbage. It won the Palme d’Or in 1995, and I can see why it did, as it is definitely one of the most creative films I’ve seen in quite some time. It puts a strange spin on the comedy-drama format by starting off as a pure Animal House-esque comedy before getting increasingly dramatic the further you get into the story. It begins as a story about the Nazi’s invasion of Eastern Europe from the perspective of the Yugoslavians, and things only escalate from there. If you’re looking for a historical drama from that region of the world, Underground is well worth looking into.
I feel it is worth reiterating that I really do like Martin Scorsese. Many consider him one of the best directors of all time, and that he is still making good films this many decades into his career is nothing to sneeze at. That said, I found Mean Streets, which was arguably the film that put him on the map, to be fairly unimpressive. It’s actually a lot like Breathless in that it’s fairly plotless and random, though I would say it’s better by virtue of having a better soundtrack and not having painfully amateurish editing. That said, it is very much the kind of film where you need to be a fan of that particular style. If not, it’s probably going to lose you.
The next film I saw was Harold Ramis’s National Lampoon’s Vacation. I greatly enjoyed Animal House, another film bearing the National Lampoon title, and I was hoping Vacation would provide more of the same wackiness. Unfortunately, I have come down to the conclusion that the film hasn’t held up particularly well. Animal House was so audacious and raunchy that even its dated elements have paradoxically held up with time as pieces of unintentional black comedy. Vacation doesn’t quite go that far, which makes its own dated elements stick out like a sore thumb. One scene early on was especially cringeworthy, and for what it’s worth, Mr. Ramis himself would later regret shooting it. Even ignoring that, I just don’t think the jokes landed as well as those of Animal House or Caddyshack. The 1980s was a great decade for comedy, but I find the films from that decade that haven’t aged well really haven’t aged well, and while I can see someone popping in this film and having a good time with it, there are better ones out there.
South Korea has really become an artistic tour de force in the 2010s, haven’t they? After hearing at least one person consider Masquerade their favorite film, I decided to see it for myself. This film takes place during Korea’s Joseon Dynasty, and while I have seen many historical dramas set in China and Japan, I hadn’t seen any from Korea up until now. It’s a film about an ordinary peasant who is forced to stand in for the tyrannical King Gwanghae. This is a dynamic story that grips you right away and has a wide variety of emotions to offer its audience. Definitely worth a watch.
One of the films being offered for free rentals was Destin Daniel Cretton’s Just Mercy. I have a bit of a strange history with this film because I saw its preview several times, and I thought it was good. Yet it managed to completely slip beneath my radar. I can’t say exactly why I didn’t see this film last year, but I’m glad I got a chance to see it now because it is really good. It’s about the crusading lawyer Bryan Stevenson and his efforts to reverse a wrongful guilty conviction for murder and remove his client from death row. From there, he and his firm would save many people from being executed unjustly. The late 2010s had many films tackle race relations, and this one is definitely worth checking out.
Inspired by my watching of The Rules of the Game, I decided to see the other film of Jean Renoir’s frequently considered one of the all-time greats: Le Grande Illusion. Like The Rules of the Game after it, it was quite the ambitious film for its time, seamlessly blending multiple genres in a time when such a thing was unthinkable. Not content with codifying the concept of a prison escape film with a World War One backdrop, it also becomes a romantic drama in the third act. Coupled with a very forward-looking approach to characterization, and you’ve got yourself a true classic.
The Big Heat is arguably the most lauded of Fritz Lang’s Hollywood canon. He is one of those directors I’ve been consistently impressed by, and while I don’t think The Big Heat quite reaches the heights of Metropolis or M, it is a classic film itself that is sure to please noir fans (or even those who aren’t). Lee Marvin had a real knack for playing total scumbags, and he certainly delivered on that front in this film. His character in this film makes his future role Liberty Valance look downright amicable by comparison.
Good Morning isn’t one of the films that immediately springs to mind when you mention Yasujirō Ozu. It’s a bit of a shame it isn’t discussed more often because I believe it to be an underrated gem in his canon. It might be because, while Ozu’s typical fare is melancholic and ponders modern society from the perspective of an elder, Good Morning is a straight-up comedy about two young brothers who resort to taking a vow of silence after their parents refuse to buy a television set. Critics tend to be biased against comedies in general, but I would go as far as saying Good Morning is every bit as of a classic as, say, Late Spring or Tokyo Story.
Games reviewed in June 2020:
Super Monkey Ball 2
I actually came very close to not picking up Super Monkey Ball 2 back in 2002, reasoning that it seemed too similar to the original game. That would have been a terrible mistake, as Super Monkey Ball 2 is a great example of a sequel that doesn’t reinvent the wheel, yet polishes what made the original so great without straying too far from it. I find that token sequels are a bit more forgivable if the experience the original installment provides is unique enough. It’s the reason I tend to be harsher on, say, Uncharted or Call of Duty than I am series such as Super Monkey Ball. After all, how many cover-based third or first-person-shooters are there? Now how many series involve navigating a character in a sphere to a goal? My guess is that the former number far surpasses the latter. Now, if only Sega would give a proper rerelease to these games.
New Super Mario Bros. U
As my good friend Aether pointed out in the comments section of this review, it is a real shame that the New Super Mario Bros. subseries denotes a serious waste of potential. It’s easy to dismiss the success of Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World as Mr. Miyamoto and company capturing lightning in a bottle, and that once 3D took off, developers simply lacked the context with which to create a quality 2D experience. However, in practice, there were plenty of good – even great – 2D experiences made well into the 2010s if Axiom Verge, Ori and the Blind Forest, and Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom are anything to go by. As it stands, it was clear by 2012 that any transcendently incredible Mario experience would be in 3D. Just comparing this game to Super Mario Galaxy 2 is like night and day.
I know this assessment sounds harsh, but in all fairness, New Super Mario Bros. U is a perfectly good game. In fact, I would go as far as saying it was slightly underrated when it was first released in 2012, so it’s nice that it has received its dues since then. You do have to contend with the fact that the you’re basically playing the same game four times in a row if you choose to experience the entire subseries, and with no real plot to speak of, this one stands out as the essential play if you’re going to give any of them a shot.
Mega Man 5
Okay, I’ll admit it. This was a boring month given that, for three games in a row, I’ve been reviewing sequels with highly similar gameplay to their respective direct predecessors. At the risk of tipping my hand slightly, I will say that one game I intend to review next month should give me much more to talk about – even if it too is a sequel.
Anyway, Mega Man 5 is considered a bland entry by many fans. I do think there is more to this game than many give it credit for. In fact, I could feel much more creative energy from this game than with Mega Man 4. However, I cannot deny that Mega Man 5 is a very safe sequel. I still think it’s worth playing if you’re looking for a game to scratch the specific itch for this series and you’ve played through the actual highlights several times, but otherwise, yeah, it’s not terribly exciting.
Does fun belong in “serious” video games? – The release of The Last of Us Part II stirred up yet another discussion courtesy of the hyperbolic statements issued by one Jeff Cannata. Following the lead of Jonathan McIntosh, journalists seem to be treating fun as something that needs to be extracted from the medium. And they wonder why their audience keeps saying they’re out of touch. Either way, AK’s take on the debacle was interesting considering that he provides examples that directly contradict Mr. Cannata’s thesis.
Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson – Calvin and Hobbes occupies a strange place with me. Like South Park, I haven’t experienced much of it, yet what little I have experienced of it, I have greatly enjoyed. It’s often considered one of the best comic strips of all time and reading Mr. Wapojif’s article of it was very enlightening.
Project G-Destroy All Monsters (1968) – Continuing his epic Godzilla retrospective, Aether reviews Destroy All Monsters. In general, I find that the 1960s was a hit-or-miss decade for films. In a lot of ways, it was like the 2010s in that it had an inordinate number of films that absolutely did not live up to the universal acclaim they received from critics (e.g. Blowup, Breathless, or Tokyo Drifer), though I will admit the decade’s best films were better than nearly everything that came out in the 2010s (e.g. High and Low, Yojimbo, or Memories of Underdevelopment). In light of this, it’s interesting how one of the Godzilla franchise’s hallmarks would be released during that time. In a lot of ways, it was the 1960s equivalent of The Avengers in how it took kaiju from various other films and put them all together in one epic film. It’s generally considered one of the high points of the Showa era, and reading Aether’s take was a lot of fun.
Artemis Fowl Review – One would think the Coronavirus pandemic would halt the creation of cinematic turkeys, but Disney apparently wanted to go the extra mile, giving the decade its first legendarily bad film. Artemis Fowl came out when I was in elementary school and I remember other kids reading it, but I never read it myself. Given how fans didn’t like this film any more than critics (10% of critics liked it as opposed to 20% of the audience), I’m guessing it is not exactly a good adaptation. Whatever it was, Scott of the Wizard Dojo didn’t like it either.
Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones – Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones, in hindsight, comes across a rough draft for both Awakening and Fates. It was released before the series broke into the mainstream with Awakening, so it’s interesting reading Matt’s take on it.
Xenoblade Chronicles Definitive Edition: First impressions – Xenoblade Chronicles is one of those games I tried to get into back in 2012, but for some reason I couldn’t. I couldn’t tell you why; maybe I just wasn’t used to open-world games, but reading the take over at Fanfiction Anime World made me want to check out the Definitive Version that was released on the Switch recently.
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