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:
- 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 8½ 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 creatively 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. 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.
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?
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.
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