July 2020 in Summary: Drought

Also known as the one where practically nothing happens. I’ve been pretty busy lately, so I apologize for not getting more articles done. I’ll try to get more done next month.

Films watched in July 2020:

In theaters:

  • <None>

At home:

  • Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (F. W. Murnau, 1927)
  • Barton Fink (Joel Coen & Ethan Coen, 1991)
  • Kagemusha (Akira Kurosawa, 1980)
  • A Touch of Zen (King Hu, 1971)
  • La Dolce Vita (Federico Fellini, 1960)
  • Blood Simple (Joel Coen & Ethan Coen, 1984)
  • Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper, 1969)
  • Sansho the Bailiff (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1954)
  • The Graduate (Mike Nichols, 1967)
  • Chernobyl (Craig Mazin, 2019)

Inspired by how much I liked Metropolis, I started off the month by watching another silent film – Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans. The 1920s is an interesting period for United States history, so seeing a film that was a product from that time was quite a treat. Amazingly, the film didn’t do so well when it was first released, which is a shame because it is good. I didn’t like it as much as Metropolis, but to be fair, that is some pretty tough competition.

As a creative team, the Coen Brothers are a strange duo. Of all the films of theirs I’ve seen, I wouldn’t describe a single one of them as good. To be clear, this means if I were to review all of the films they’ve made, I get the feeling I would award them very few (if any) 7/10s. They are an incredibly ambitious duo who shoot for the stars each and every time they get behind a camera. When they succeed, they can spin straw into gold, but when they don’t, the results can be difficult to recommend. Unfortunately, Barton Fink falls in the latter category. The 1990s was arguably the Coen Brothers’ best decade, but I don’t think they put their best foot forward with Barton Fink. It’s okay, but it does take a little too much refuge in their trademark quirkiness to the extent that I couldn’t really recommend it to non-fans.

Have you ever imagined an idol of yours being in distress only for you to swoop in and save them? George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola got to live that dream when Akira Kurosawa ran into trouble getting funding for his 1980 film Kagemusha. The two acclaimed directors came to the rescue and got the project funded. The result won the Palme d’Or that year. As far as Kurosawa films go, I probably wouldn’t mention Kagemusha in any discussion regarding his best work, but there is no question it is a solid effort. It was interesting seeing Kagemusha after Masquerade because they both have a similar premise with a commoner filling in for a lord. Both even have an actor convincingly playing two different characters, though the plots develop in vastly different fashions from each other. It may be slight heresy, but I would say I actually prefer Masquerade over Kagemusha, but, hey, it’s Kurosawa, and you can’t really go wrong with him (The Bad Sleep Well notwithstanding).

Two years ago, I ended up watching King Hu’s Dragon Inn, which is frequently considered one of the best Chinese films out there. A Touch of Zen, made by the same director, is almost guaranteed to be on those same lists, and having now watched both, I can say they are indeed incredible films. If you’re looking for a vintage wuxia film, A Touch of Zen delivers. It’s surprisingly forward-looking in how it features a major male character who is pointedly not a fighter, yet is portrayed as no less competent or less of a man than his peers. This is the kind of film modern filmmakers need to study because I find even when (or possibly because) they’re trying to be progressive in this regard, they end up tripping over themselves.

La Dolce Vita is notably the very first film that Roger Ebert reviewed. It is also notable for being one of the many entries on his “Great films” list. In all honesty, I find I can’t really muster the same enthusiasm for the film. It’s certainly well-made, and it does a great job deconstructing the celebrity lifestyle as vapid and hollow, but it lacks that certain something Mr. Fellini would show when making or Amarcord. It might be the underwhelming ending, but I think this was before he started injecting humor into his work, which made his arthouse films stand out from those of his peers.

Remember back when indie filmmakers used to be ambitious? I don’t. That’s why I decided to check out the Coen Brothers’ debut film. Blood Simple actually reminds me a lot of Memento in how it eschews very basic storytelling tropes, and creates something new. While it’s not quite as complicated as Memento, what it instead does is spin several different narratives based on a single through line. This isn’t a film in which characters draw the correct conclusion from partial evidence, and seeing what motivates all the players is fascinating to watch unfold.

I’ve remarked in the past that the 1960s was a lot like the 2010s when it comes to film quality, which is to say horribly inconsistent, and spawned a lot of critically acclaimed turkeys. Granted, one of my absolute favorite films of all time, High and Low, was released in that decade (so, if nothing else, it comes out slightly ahead of the 2010s for that reason alone), but when it wasn’t on point, the results were off-putting at best and outright terrible at worst. I think it’s because it was a rather unfortunate intersection between the Golden Age of Hollywood running out of steam while the New Hollywood movement was just starting to get its bearings, which might explain why the most lauded films from that decade were made by non-Americans. It was also the decade the Hays Code expired, allowing for all kinds of creative freedom, but filmmakers seldom realized that just because you can do something, it doesn’t mean you should. This brings us to Easy Rider. While it’s hailed as one of the best films of the 1960s, and certainly has a great soundtrack, it’s a prime example of a great work ruined by a terrible ending. I can understand wanting to go the subversive route, and I can see its ending shocking audiences at the time, but I don’t think it has aged especially well.

Watching Sansho the Bailiff was an interesting experience. It’s based on a Japanese folk tale, and when I saw the plot unfold, I realized I had essentially seen it unfold in another work – a certain video game, to be precise. That video game happens to be one of my all-time favorites, though talking about it in this context would be a minor spoiler |(it’s Dragon Quest V, in case you’re wondering)|. I didn’t actually include that information in my review because I couldn’t find a definite connection between the two works, and even after watching this film, I still couldn’t find anything online. I do wonder if that game drew inspiration from this film. If so, it was interesting seeing the source of inspiration. Sansho the Baliff is generally considered one of Kenji Mizoguchi’s best films, and while I don’t like it quite as much as Ugetsu, it’s a classic to be sure – and a hard-hitting one at that; the eponymous character ranks as one of the most despicable villains ever displayed on film, which is impressive given his limited screentime.

Continuing my unintentional journey through classic 1960s films, I saw fit to watch The Graduate. Now, unlike La Dolce Vita or Easy Rider, I actually think this one has held up. It’s not quite what I would call one of the all-time greats, but it stands out as an interesting period piece that perfectly captures the zeitgeist of its era. Also, Simon and Garfunkel.

I find it interesting how Chernobyl was released in the same year as Dark Waters because I feel the two works to be highly effective counterparts to each other. Dark Waters was a film that made a very convincing argument as to why corporations need to be held responsible for the ecological damage they cause whereas Chernobyl makes a case as to why governments need to be as transparent as possible. The DuPont scandal is a byproduct of unchecked capitalism while the Chernobyl incident is what happens when an all-powerful communist government is to blame. I can imagine it would be difficult for some people to watch, and there are some creative liberties taken with the history books, but I still found the miniseries to be a great watch.

Games reviewed in July 2020:

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare (2019)

Speaking with Aether about this game really got me thinking about the state of mainstream criticism. I’ve discussed at length the myriad shortcomings of gaming journalism, but I feel the release of the 2019 Modern Warfare demonstrated one I hadn’t really considered until he commented on my review: they seem to have a very short-term memory. Perhaps it’s the result of the medium being so tethered to technological advancements, but if you were to take certain gaming critics at face value, you’d get the feeling the medium didn’t exist five minutes ago, let alone nearly five decades as of this writing. Gaming is a more demanding medium than most, but you’d think that someone getting paid to write about games would, you know, do some research, and acknowledge a great, historical accomplishment or two. Non-mainstream releases especially suffer in this regard.

The 2019 Modern Warfare was a beneficiary of this tendency, as many journalists felt it to be a watershed moment for the series wherein it managed to recapture the relevance it spent a greater portion of the 2010s hemorrhaging. That is absolutely not the case; it’s every bit of a token sequel as Ghosts. Its story may not be as backwards-looking and the gameplay is better, but one step forward after having taken several-hundred back does not innovation make. It’s entirely serviceable as a multiplayer game, but if you’re seeking out a pensive, single-player experience, you won’t find it here.

Featured articles:

Celeste – In a lot of ways, gaming is where films were back in the 1980s wherein the draconian, risk-adverse studio system (or draconian, risk-adverse AAA developers in the case of gaming) drove away the talent. Before, indie efforts were used as a springboard for the big leagues whereas now, they remain independent and are universally better off for it. Celeste is one of the hallmarks of gaming’s late-2010s indie scene, and reading Neppy’s take on the game was definitely worthwhile.

Bug Fables: The Everlasting Sapling Review – Speaking of indie games, Scott of the Wizard Dojo takes a look at Bug Fables: The Everlasting Sapling. It’s been awhile since Nintendo has made a Paper Mario game in the style of the original, so hearing what he has to say about this game has piqued my interest.

Call of Duty Campaign Round-Up – I’m not the only one talking about Call of Duty, it seems. The Night Owl takes a look at various campaigns for the series. A lot of people consider Infinite Warfare a low point, but I find myself giving more credit to that game for at least trying to introduce new ideas to the franchise (even if “new ideas” is Activision shorthand for “ideas someone else proved could work first so we’re not really taking any chances”), so I found it interesting that someone agreed.

Summer cleaning game review special #3: Radical Solitaire – AK brings attention to this recently-released effort that looks exactly like an obscure early 1980s computer game that combines Klondike Solitaire with Breakout. That’s something more card games need to do. Don’t like your hand? Just hit it with a ball until it either breaks or becomes another card you can use.

The Persona 3 Retrospective Part 5 – Plot and Themes – Continuing with his extensive Persona 3 review, Aether dives into the themes of the game. I’ve never gotten around to playing it, but I’ve always been intrigued by the Tarot motifs of Persona 4, and they come about in a much different way in its direct predecessor as well.

Text Adventures: A Brief History of Interactive Fiction Games – Remember back when you had to type words into text parsers only for the game to completely disregard your command?

For those who don’t, it usually went something like this.

Mr. Wapojif does, and reading his summation of text adventures, including Colossal Cave Adventure, is well worth checking out.

A Foreign Affair – I haven’t seen many of Billy Wilder’s films, but reading the ManInBlack’s review of A Foreign Affair makes me want to seek it out. Mr. Wilder seems to be a lot like Akira Kurosawa in that, as a result of having such an extensive filmography, crafted several gems that aren’t well-known, yet just are as good as his hallmarks.

Links to my articles:

Game reviews:

26 thoughts on “July 2020 in Summary: Drought

    • You’re welcome! That Billy Wilder was certainly a talented one, wasn’t he? I find it interesting how he was able to dabble in various genres very well. Most modern-day filmmakers can’t even get one genre right.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Thanks for the link! It’s a bit confusing considering the fact that they put a “copyright 1982” on the title screen, but Radical Solitaire was put out early this year by an indie developer. It seems like they really wanted to make an 80s-style game, so I guess that’s the reason for the fake copyright notice.

    The short memory of game journalists amazes me, especially since as you’ve mentioned, part of their job is to know about games. They get paid for that, but then they largely get a pass for acclaiming a Modern Warfare or another title as innovative when other games were achieving the same results more effectively as far back as the 90s. I have to guess a part of it comes from their need to hype up certain games, so they build narratives about them being “innovative” or “mature” or whatever they’re going for without regard for history. Yet another reason not to rely on their opinions too much.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh, was it? I could really see that game having existed back then, so the copyright did indeed throw me off. It’s fixed now.

      The current wave of film critics seem to be making the same mistake, albeit for different reasons. Many of them seem to have trouble reconciling older films having been made by people with a different set of values, so they condemn them rather than acknowledge that discrepancy and focus on the more objective qualities. There is a case to be made that certain films considered the best of all time haven’t aged well (I myself would argue Breathless and Blowup in particular have aged very poorly), but to assume new efforts are automatically better than old ones is nonsense.

      Game journalists are probably worse in that regard because I’m not convinced they actually like video games. They were awfully quick to latch onto the environmental narrative game and the cinematic games Naughty Dog produces, which is to say, experiences that downplay the game aspect of these works as much as possible. And you’re right, the 2019 Modern Warfare and other games the American AAA industry has been doling out lately is miles behind what big-name developers were doling out back in the 1990s or 2000s. In terms of content, the 2019 Modern Warfare has much less to offer than something such as Half-Life, which proved in 1998 that games didn’t need cutscenes at all to tell a good story. Not only that, but mature stories have been around as early as 1985 as exemplified by Ultima IV featuring a plot that doesn’t have a bad guy, leaving the player to wonder how they can be a force of good with no evil to fight. I yield it hasn’t aged well either, but that’s very impressive for 1985.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I know we’ve talked about this, but it’s definitely irritating to see critics, both in the game and film worlds, talk up or put down works just on the basis of the message without regard for its other qualities. Especially when they’re taking a simplistic view of those works.

        As far as game journalism goes, I think you’re right. Some of them seem to have a feeling of inferiority that they hope to get rid of by talking up games that “elevate the medium” to make it more mature. But then the things that are supposed to elevate the medium they harp on are mainly surface-level, having to do with how the story is told rather than the content of the story. So they’ve ignored innovative, interesting games that use interactivity to tell their stories in ways that novels or films never could. They put way too much emphasis on that American AAA industry, and at a time when more gamers are turning away from it (though I’m sure they still sell a ton of copies.)

        I’ve never seen Barton Fink, but I do remember a bit from The Simpsons where some of the kids are excited about sneaking into an R-rated movie, and that’s the one they’re going to see. I liked the few Coen Brothers movies I’ve seen, but I can see how their style could get too over the top and weird for a movie’s good.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Yeah, I definitely think it bears repeating because whatever their review process is right now, it is clearly not working, and it’s really unfortunate that they lack the capacity for serious self-reflection. They should be focused on repairing the bridges they’ve burned between them and their audience if they want even the remote chance of ever being taken seriously ever again. As it is, their unmitigated praise of works that echo their own viewpoints back at them has resulted in a lot of middling (or even bad) art to get promoted and praised.

          And it is indeed painstakingly obvious that the game journalists’ attempts to elevate the medium are a result of them failing time and again to see the forest for the trees. I get the feeling that if The Last of Us was told entirely through scripted events in a show-don’t-tell manner a la Half-Life or Metroid, they’d miss half or more of the story beats. I think Undertale was the game that demonstrated this weakness on a mass scale because, when you get right down to it, its success wasn’t a triumph for journalism, but the gamers themselves. Polygon issued an article giving Gone Home a 10/10, calling it a quiet triumph in video-game storytelling, yet completely failed to write a review of Undertale (or OneShot, for that matter). I think the problem is that both of those games managed to prove the medium’s artistic value, but they did so in a way that went completely against how journalists felt it should have happened. Sure, they didn’t go full Joker on those games, but that’s almost worse because at least then, more people would have known about them. As it stands, the gamers were the ones who gave them their dues – not the journalists.

          Also, their shilling of the American AAA industry is just sad at this point. I have no doubt American AAA developers are still successful, as they’re still making enough money to stay afloat (for now). What they don’t have, however, is relevance. Thanks to the innumerable scandals the industry faced in the 2010s, it’s pretty clear those in the know have very little respect for them, and as long as the most visible figureheads continue to assume that those offering constructive criticism must be toxic, they’ll never improve. It’s a major reason why I think a lot of works being praised now are really not going to age well.

          Barton Fink is a strange beast. It is probably my least favorite Coen Brothers film of the ones I’ve seen, but I still don’t think it’s bad, and I can certainly see someone else getting a lot out of it. And The Simpsons is indeed how I learned of the film myself, though nearly sixteen years passed between when I first heard of it and when I actually saw it. I think the Coen Brothers get in their own way at times, which is to say, their style does ensure that when their ideas don’t land, they shatter into a million pieces. Granted, they’re hardly the worst example of that because even when it doesn’t work out for them, you can appreciate that their failed ideas come from a place of genuine creativity (unlike, say, Rian Johnson, Neil Druckmann, or Phil Fish, whose egos far eclipse their level of talent, thus making their failures much less sympathetic).

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Chernobyl was definitely one of the most engrossing things I’ve seen. I saw it when it first came out, and I gobbled up those episodes as soon as they released. They actually made me incredibly curious about the actual historical accident, so I did a lot of research during my downtime, after the credits rolled.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s really good, alright. I myself approached it from the opposite angle. That is to say, I knew details about the incident beforehand, so I was interested to see a well-made dramatization. It certainly delivered, and I can see why it managed to be as acclaimed as it is.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you for the tag! I’m glad you enjoyed my review of Celeste, it truly was one of the better indie games to come out at the latter half of this decade for me, and also shows the unique power that indie developers have: the freedom to talk about themes in their own and creative ways.

    Liked by 1 person

    • No problem! I really enjoyed playing Celeste myself. It was really interesting experiencing it after Jumper and Jumper Two because I can totally see the progression between those works. And indie game developers have been killing it as of late – certainly more so than indie filmmakers. I think the latter faction is still held back by critical expectations whereas the former faction just does whatever they want, and they’re a far more creative scene for it.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. That’s kind of been the coronavirus lifestyle, I think. Busy, busy, busy all the time, but little of that can develop into the apparent things or the stuff that connects with others. Good luck in getting through all this. Glad you’ve still got the time to do some of the things you enjoy, at least!

    And as always, thanks for the shout out! Here’s to easier times.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sounds about right. It is nice to be able to connect online seeing as how mingling in person is such a gamble right now, though part of my lack of activity can be blamed on me trying to get through The Last of Us Part II as quickly as possible.

      You’re welcome! And here’s to pulling through these tough circumstances!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I started playing the Modern Warfare reboot a while back and it plays as good as any CoD game and as you mentioned, feels like a very Activision(financially safe) reboot of the series. Both the campaign and multiplayer I noted how they played well, but just didn’t grab me as much as other games.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, it talks a big game, but it’s a pretty toothless, bare-bones experience. But that’s the thing about Call of Duty; it’s very manufactured and sterile. I guess after Ghosts and Infinite Warfare, one could frame the 2019 Modern Warfare as an improvement, but considering the low bar its predecessors set, I’m not impressed.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I have conflicted feelings about Barton Fink. I like that it’s Old Hollywood and it’s a dark twist on having writer’s block, and yes, Barton is an excellent riff of Clifford Odets, but I somehow feel Ripped Off by it, despite the terrific casting. I just didn’t find it a satisfying movie experience. Perhaps if the Cohen Brothers had reigned it in a bit, it would have a more meaningful impact.

    Liked what you said about the similarities between the 1960s and the 2010s in terms of film consistency. Some terrific films from that decade… but others, well…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ah, good. I’m glad I’m not the only one who felt that way. As I said, I do admire the Coen brothers because they really do everything 110%, but that unfortunately extends to their flaws as well, which, if they don’t keep in check, can damper what would otherwise be a great experience. I’ve heard some people call them the American equivalent of Lars von Trier, though I find the latter outright fails when he’s not on point as opposed to merely ending up mediocre.

      And I kind of wonder if bad/middling films from the 1960s and 2010s were being praised because they didn’t have much in the way of competition. I didn’t like Lady Bird or Eighth Grade all that much, but I can see why critics would consider the latter “a gift from the cinema gods” given it was released merely a year after The Emoji Movie and the rebooted Flatliners. I think both decades saw artists become very experimental; the problem is that they lacked a filter to prevent them from implementing blatantly bad ideas. Either way, while I don’t think the 2010s was an especially good decade for films (quite the opposite, in fact), the 1960s was pretty dire itself, though the latter did have some gems in spite of itself.

      Liked by 1 person

    • As hard as it may seem to believe, Kagemusha was the only Kurosawa film to win the Palme d’Or. I kind of think it was one of those “Darn, we should’ve given this guy an award earlier” deals, but it was still a good film worth watching. And yeah, George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola swooped in to save the project (the latter even starred in Suntory commercials with Kurosawa). I can imagine many kids dream of the day where they get to save their idols from a bad situation, and those two got to live it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • No way! I thought Kurosawa would’ve won at least one other Palme d’Or prior to that film. That certainly sounds like it. Weird how some acclaimed directors don’t get certain awards until a certain point of their career. That is so fascinating with the connection and what came out of it.

        Liked by 1 person

        • To be completely fair, because Cannes accepts efforts from all over the world and given that Kurosawa was around when the talent level in cinema was much higher than it is now, I can accept that he had some pretty stiff competition. That said, there was no excuse for Gate of Hell winning out over Seven Samurai in 1954 (from what research I just did, it doesn’t appear as that Seven Samurai was even nominated).

          Liked by 1 person

          • Of course. You had so many top-tier directors decades ago, so it does make sense why there would be tougher competition. If Kurosawa was around today, I could easily see him win more awards at Cannes, Tribeca, etc.

            Wait, WHAT?! I didn’t even know that about those movies. WOW! Just…wow…

            Liked by 1 person

            • Oh, if Kurosawa were around today and bringing his A-game, he’d steamroll today’s auteurs in his sleep.

              And yes, that is indeed the case. I forgot that Gate of Hell won the Palme d’Or, but it, along with Blowup, are definitely in the lower echelons when it comes to the quality of the Palme d’Or winners. For that matter, both are some of the weaker inductees into the Criterion Collection.

              Liked by 1 person

              • Easily. Kurosawa would curb stomp so many of the modern directors in some kind of award show or major film festival circuit.

                That just boggles my mind. Then again, just because something didn’t win awards or considered a “blockbuster” it doesn’t mean there’s no legacy or influence. Just look at The Magnificent Seven or even A Bug’s Life when it comes to Kurosawa’s most famous film. I rest my case. Those other movies got the TCC treatment as well, eh? Huh. Then again, I’ve seen weirder choices get distribution and re-licensed like Fantastic Mr. Fox…Oh, wait. Wes Anderson directed that one. Why am I surprised?

                Liked by 1 person

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