Child’s Play (2019)


Set in a hellworld where everyone’s buried in all-consuming apps, the Child’s Play reboot re-examines the series on a purely iconographic level. Instead of a convoluted setup involving voodoo and an undead serial killer, the killer toy is simply that. The product of a disgruntled programmer’s coding, this version of Chucky is a lobotomized AI whose learned social cues come from (in order) the whines of a lonely prepubescent, the id-fueled edgelords he befriends, and a creepy, leering janitor who spies on young mother Aubrey Plaza. Much of the movie’s delight is hearing new Chucky (Mark Hamill, taking the spot from long-running Brad Dourif) sing a creepy friendship song to his imprinted friend Andy or utter non-sequiturs as he gruesomely murders people.

If anything, Lars Klevberg’s direction of Tyler Burton Smith’s script is intentionally following Neill Blomkamp’s Chappie. Both riff on Short Circuit, detailing a manufactured innocent dropped into an environment poisonous to healthy emotional growth. People are shot as both ravenous consumers and socially indifferent, zapped out while staring into their latest gadgets. Andy’s loner nature isn’t because of shyness or some outcast marker (his deafness barely warrants mention), but because society has been stripped and atomized to what can be patented and sold. The only figures in his life before Chucky are his mom and her adulterer boyfriend, who only hangs around for booze and a fuck. This gives the early parts of Child’s Play 2019 a conspiratorial edge, Chucky interpreting Andy’s angst as subtle kill prompts to keep the boy happy. When that doesn’t get the desired response, he uses his recording capabilities to force Andy’s complicity. These early acts hint Andy, becoming codependent, will go from simply covering Chucky’s crimes to partaking, but such a dark route is squashed as soon as the prospect rears its head. Andy tidies the doll away, moving towards an unconvincing cat-and-mouse scenario between Chucky, Andy, and the extended, It: Chapter One -style cast around them.

The Sinking City


Oakmont, MA. is an intriguing setting. Its circular layout and clashing architectural styles tells us the city’s history of migration, expansion, and conflict. Old-money plutocrats hunker down in suburbs, obsessing over tradition and bloodline, while the poor and fish-faced refugees from H.P. Lovecraft’s The Shadow Over Innsmouth make do in shacks and hovels, eking out a living. Add a looming climate disaster into the mix–an unnatural flood that makes Oakmont akin to a ruined Venice–along with incursions from lumpy, flesh-colored monsters dubbed “Wylebeasts”, and the underlying tensions have boiled over. Cut off from the rest of America, we find society here reverted to a semi-lawless state where bullets are currency and police barely register a little B&E. It’s this setting where The Sinking City feels the most thought out.

Though its disappointing, ramshackle plot is a direct facelift of last year’s Call of Cthulhu (right down to the WWI-vet-turned-gumshoe and pick-your-own ending that flies in the face of its cosmic horror ambitions), Frogwares’ effort sidelines stat-based mechanics for an updated, streamlined version of moon logic. Cases revolve around hoofing your way through the labyrinthine streets, hunting down leads in the rain for clues at crime scenes or various archives, then piecing together events via “Detective Mode”-esque visions and menu-input deductions (sometimes having to piece together what connections you’re supposed to make through trial and error). To help navigate Oakmont’s streets, players can even pin clue markers to locations they need to go, along with laying out markers for dangerous and blocked areas, or anyplace they find interesting. Effectively, this calls back and modernizes all the annotating and note-taking players often had to do in older adventure games and RPGs. A recurring fixation on knowing exact street locations reminded me specifically of Yu Suzuki’s Shenmue series. It also gives a sense of intimacy between the player and the environment. Wander Oakmont enough, and you notice landmarks and people: the cultists openly intermingling with fishermen on the docks on submerged roads; citizens fist-fighting over scraps; the signs of reality-warping madness seeping into the population. The mechanics wear thin only due to the game’s length and poor pacing (there’s about six subplots, related to factions within Oakmont, that are ditched/forgotten about?). In something tighter, though (maybe less interested in scavenging or half-baked combat), this presents a nice alternative for the slew of open-world games we expect.

Child’s Play 3


Three movies in, the problem of Chucky wears down this franchise. Brad Dourif’s vocals and some impressive animatronic work aside, the character doesn’t have any pop: his size dismisses him as a serious physical threat, while the element of surprise and the uncanny aren’t enough of a creep factor when he’s constantly bested by children. Even his kills aren’t inventive or spectacular: his big moments in Child’s Play 3 involve slashing a barber’s throat and getting a put-upon teenager to frag himself on a grenade. He does soak up damage, with the effects crew delighting in various, wounded permutations (this installment culminating in a horrifying face-ripped version, oozing blood and plastic). Chucky is, essentially, Wile E. Coyote, cooking up plots that get immediately undone.

Its central character rendered impotent, Child’s Play 3 fumbles a seemingly can’t-lose premise: Stripes but a slasher. A now-teenaged Andy (Justin Whalin) is sent off to boot camp years after pulping his tormentor. Here, he contends with a stern (if vaguely sympathetic) headmaster and a sociopathic drill sergeant, only for a revived Chucky to track him down again. Don Mancini and Jack Bender position the strict masculinity of a military academy as obstacles. Andy skulks and plans, only to butt heads with authority figures, receiving physical and social punishment for minor infractions. The early goings suggest a sort of precursor to Final Destination: Chucky orchestrating deaths that are quickly ruled accidents. The killer doll even swaps in live rounds leading up to the school’s annual wargame (which no one bothers to check as a safety precaution. An absence intended as a damning statement on the setting?) . Unfortunately, this setup barely follows through. The prospect of bloody carnage inflicted by administrative indifference is squandered on dull cat-and-mouse games limply retreading the previous installment.

The Valley of Gwangi


Broad strokes, Valley of Gwangi shares the bones of King Kong and the 1925 adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World. Like both those prior works, Gwangi involves an expedition into a prehistoric realm, which returns with a unique specimen to show off as an attraction (with said creature breaking free and wreaking havoc). All three also have connections with stop motion animator Willis O’Brien–Kong and Lost World being projects he worked directly on, Gwangi one he devised the story for, dying before it could go in production (Ray Harryhausen would help see it to completion, with impressive integration of stop-motion with the actors and the sets). Gwangi distinguishes itself with a setup more explicitly built on exploitation and reptilian greed.

Where Kong and Lost World had leads nominally interested in rescuing damsels or pursuing scientific ends, Gwangi‘s first act tracks an ensemble where the individuals are working at cross-purposes: T.J. (Gila Golan) wants to revitalize her struggling rodeo, her slick conman ex Tuck (James Franciscus) wants her to sell the show and get back together with him. Into this dynamic, one of the cowhands has snatched a prehistoric pygmy horse from a valley the locals shy away from, bringing it to T.J. After some initial wonder at the creature’s existence, everyone immediately thinks of monetizing it, resulting in an abduction that brings the cast into the creature’s closed-off habitat. There, it’s discovered the valley has dinosaurs–including the titular Gwangi, a purple Allosaurus happy to snap at his prey, taunting before going for the kill. Notably, once this bigger, more exotic prize has entered the fray, everyone forgets about the equine they pursued. This sort of capriciousness oozes through the film, the characters’ passions changing course based on circumstance. Pre-capture, T.J. balks, then considers Tuck’s offer, happily reconciling; post-capture, she only thinks of the world tour she can take her troupe on, Gwangi the star attraction. Tuck, likewise, goes from chasing a payday to infatuation for a dreamy domestic life, only to be disgusted at T.J.’s newfound ambition. Gwangi stops short of allowing this mania to play out, though the creature’s third act escape from captivity does bring those conflicts to a bitter, Absurd head.

Metro: Exodus


4A has shown a knack for iteration other developers should be envious of. A series like Metro could easily have fallen into the copy-paste sensibilities that drive Ubisoft’s million open-world sandboxes or the yearly stat-tweaking of your average sports title. Worse still, it could have gone the route of Bethesda’s Fallout installments, adding more and more mechanics onto outdated engines unsuited to them. Instead, each successive installment has not only satisfied as an isolated work, but addressed failings in its predecessor. Last Light refined the gameplay of Metro: 2033 to build satisfying encounters out of stealth and shooting, while also addressing the tragic context of Dmitry Glukhovsky’s novel (which the prior game divorced into two disparate endings).

Likewise, Metro: Exodus expands on Last Light‘s stealth mechanics, using an open sandbox structure in each of its levels to bypass a minor fault. While Last Light allowed a greater freedom in stealth, where discovery didn’t automatically bring everyone down upon you, it traded this off with enemy awareness resetting room to room. Fuck up and you’d have to slaughter your way out, but your victims’ comrades next door would be none the wiser. Player character Artyom and his makeshift hazard suit have enough vulnerability to gunfire and mauling, sneaking becomes the default state, but the loophole was there for the impatient. Since spawn points can’t be hidden behind doors in these larger environments, 4A opt instead for a more robust AI. Exodus gives you the grace period to avoid discovery, and the ability to clamber away, but counters with enemies maintaining awareness of your existence. Escape their immediate pursuit, and anyone left standing falls into tightly knit search parties, ramping up the pressure rather than resetting. The result makes no-detection, or even no/low bodycount runs all the more thrilling, since one can’t rely on goldfish memory and situational deafness.

Child’s Play 2


One year on from the events of its predecessor, Child’s Play 2 feels like a corrective. Despite four eyewitnesses left breathing from the ending, Chucky’s existence is swept under the rug: Andy Barclay (Alex Vincent) is put in foster care as “troubled”; his mother locked up in a mental hospital. Presumably, Detective Norris and his partner were pressured into silence by their department (and some corporate interference). Chucky himself is pieced back together by the makers of the Good Guy dolls, in a bid to save face. Naturally, he returns the favor by snuffing the executive lackey that greenlit the move, then sets about trying to find Andy and transfer his soul into the boy’s body.

No longer bound to any need to tease Andy being insane, Child’s Play 2‘s approach to the character is much more sympathetic. Upon arriving at his new home, Andy is given a tour of what may as well be a gothic mansion. The Simpson home is wallpapered in cold, inhospitable blue and white. Tables and chairs compulsively lacquered. There’s no joy here. For this sequence, director John Lafia and DP Stefan Czapsky block low and wide, lending a more empty space to the house. Rather than kept at arm’s length, like in Tom Holland’s installment, here we’re locked in with Andy’s unease.

Don Mancini’s script reflects the microaggression. The Simpson couple, while pitying Andy’s story, are more interested in filling their own needs than that of their charge. Joanne is happy to slot into a motherly role, but there’s an insinuation she’s infertile, and the discovery of this has devastated her. She wants a child to fulfill a fantasy of family. Joanne’s husband, Phil, indulges her, but is openly hostile to Andy’s trauma. He isn’t a father, nor does he want to be. Ironically, the best parent in the movie is Andy’s teenage foster sister, Kyle (Christine Elise). She’s introduced as a typical moody, rebellious teen: alone, sulking in her room, dismissive of Andy and the Simpsons’ artificial conception of home. Nonetheless, she offers Andy advice and more natural, friendly interaction. The Simpsons view Andy as a prop at best, a broken toy at worst. Kyle, however, talks to him as a person. Tellingly, when Chucky’s violence intrudes on the home, Joanne drops her motherly facade, screaming at Andy to get out of her house. It’s Kyle who first comforts and encourages the boy, then puts herself in danger willingly, once she discovers Chucky’s existence. This is a cue Child’s Play 2 shares with James Cameron’s Aliens: parenthood not as a function of biology or ingrained social status, but of willingness to put a child’s needs before your own.

Cameron’s film is also evoked in the portrayal of Andy himself. No longer the passive, stock figure required for plot, he’s now active. Surviving Chucky’s first rampage has harmed his mental state, but Andy’s also learned to plan and anticipate. Andy and Chucky’s relationship takes on a cat-and-mouse texture lacking in their last encounter, where they each anticipate the other’s maneuvers and counteract them  (Brad Dourif’s taunting, cackling vocal performance as Chucky fleshes this out). Like Ripley, Andy is handled as a survivor, his prior knowledge putting him above the new characters, at the cost of a trauma which needs overcome. It’s a great (and surprising) progression for a premise so one-note.

Child’s Play


Neither sleazy nor tense, Child’s Play is unbound from any perspective. Opening three-fourths of the way through a foot chase involving Chris Sarandon’s Detective Norris and Brad Dourif’s serial killer Charles Lee Ray–resulting in the latter’s death and the transfer of his spirit into a horrific Good Guy doll–the film struggles to find any coherent idea of its characters and their situation. As we cycle through to the Barclays, Karen (Catherine Hicks) and her son Andy (Alex Vincent), how the now-christened Chucky enters their home, and the resulting murder spree that implicates the child, it’s never certain what the audience’s intended reaction is.

The script leans in its first act towards whodunit, questioning Andy’s grip on reality (a holdover from Don Mancini’s earliest drafts, apparently). Given the supernatural prologue, Tom Holland’s direction clearly separating Andy from the action during Chucky’s second on-screen kill, and even the promotion,  it doesn’t seem this is the case. Instead, the movie clues the audience in early, waiting for the adults to slowly figure out what’s going on, but still plays coy, holding back the reveal. This balancing act is unconvincing, the movie twiddling its thumbs until we get to the real star: Chucky himself. Brought to life with animatronics and puppetry, the killer doll’s sadistic, boorish personality shines through its convincing scowls, grins, and roars. Complementing this effects work is Dourif’s vocal register: eerily similar to Jack Nicholson’s in The Shining, he goes from low-key nasally when Chucky feels in control to inchoate, bellowing rage as the Barclays outwit and even damage him. As a character, there’s the sense Chucky’s always barely composed, able to keep his reptilian urges suppressed when absolutely necessary, but more than willing to risk exposure at the slightest grievance (as Karen’s friend Maggie unfortunately discovers when she babysits Andy).

This instantly marks him apart from other slasher villains. Michael and Jason are silent voyeurs; Freddy Krueger taunts his victims, savoring the moment before the kill. Chucky has no patience for this, he only gets off on the physical suffering of his victims, which makes him being trapped in a sexless, plastic body an ironic torture. From the moment he springs to life, biting and screaming obscenities at a startled Karen, his desires to kill and escape to lend some purpose and excitement to the narrative. All the more disappointing it takes halfway through the runtime to get there.

2018: Film



A movie that looks made for the square, 4:3 format of pan and scan VHS, Leigh Whannell’s Upgrade oozes paranoia. Logan Marshall-Green’s Grey Trace is a Luddite in a wireless, hands-free near-future, fixing up vintage muscle cars for the rich while rebuffing his smiley wife’s pleas for him to go modern. When he’s crippled by thugs who kill his wife, he’s enticed by a creepy Elon Musk-type into having a chip implanted that helps him walk again–the catch being it comes with a chatty A.I., STEM, that urges him towards revenge. Where the similar one-body buddy dynamic of Venom steers towards affable, scenery-chewing hijinks, the relationship between STEM and Grey is one at arm’s length. The voice in Grey’s head is calm, logical, insisting the path they take is the correct one. It breaks down his apprehension, eventually gets him to enjoy the privilege of superhuman mobility and the capacity to rend apart lesser beings, before pulling the rug out. By then, the power dynamic has shifted, Grey’s dependence exposing him to the exact nightmare his previous low-tech worldview was intended to protect him from.


Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Despite suffering the same third act, glowing MacGuffin finale as its live-action brethren, Spider-Verse‘s approach to superheroes is far more exciting. Origins are communicated in punchy shorts riffing on Spider-Man’s stock imagery, a community built out of a shared sense of alienation. Action and comedy, similarly, flesh out the personalities of the movie’s various Spider-People, their enemies, allies, and civilians through movement, their stories and motivations crystal clear even when the slick, glossy mashup of graffiti and comics explodes across the screen. Directors Peter Ramsey, Bob Perischetti, and Rodney Rothman have constructed something special. You almost regret the inevitable attempts to replicate it.


Assassination Nation

Assassination Nation excels at winding up tension. Small town America is hacked, its secrets leaked out for all to see, resulting in its people losing their goddamn minds. Crucially, every ugly, hateful thought crossing their minds is let off the leash, justified as reclaiming their dignity. Naturally, this culminates with all the boys targeting women. Specifically, Odessa Young’s Lily Colson. Lily–outspoken, creative, passionate, and intelligent, though tormented by her own demons–is first a spectator to this madness, her sober thoughts on the unfolding events dismissed by everyone caught up in a witch hunt; then a subject, as her own secret affair with an older man becomes fodder for the same people to project their personal brands of misogyny on her: an on/off boyfriend attempts to regain ownership of her through ruining her life; random men catcall and assault her; her own parents cast her out in the streets, unconcerned with her well-being until (hypocritically) the film’s close. Then, they all come to kill her and her friends. Sam Levinson captures the sickening realization of watching people you loved, and thought loved you, call for your blood. When Lily takes up an assault rifle and turns on her would-be killers, you’re right there with her. This is America: burn it to the fucking ground.


Sorry to Bother You

Boots Riley’s movie debut shares a key quality with Shane Black’s The Nice Guys. Both films take a standard film plot, twist and tangle it until it’s barely recognizable, then pull it all back together for a satisfying conclusion. The rabbit holes Sorry to Bother You wanders down, however, are more expansive, more brazen in mixing sci-fi and magical realism with a subverted rags to riches story. Cash (Lakeith Stanfield) is able to rise the corporate ladder at his telemarketing firm off his ability to mimic a nasally white man’s voice, but rather than freeing him, it only traps him further. He cuts himself off from his fellow workers, and discovers the bourgeoisie he interacts with regard him only as a commodity to exploit in a growing class war. The movie not only diagnoses the problem of capitalism, it posits a militant solution with equally biting humor.


First Reformed

Most of the time, crises of faith in movies are centered around the question of God’s existence or why He allows evil. Usually some tragedy befalls the central character that shakes their belief, which the subsequent three acts will resolve with renewed faith. First Reformed isn’t interested in such routine. Father Toller’s (Ethan Hawke) discovery of the corporate polluters behind the megachurch he is adjunct to, and the celebrations of the historical church he presides over, doesn’t shatter his beliefs. Instead, his crisis becomes one of his actions, as a Christian, in a world on the brink of environmental collapse. Paul Schrader connects this physical sickness (both the earth and Toller himself, suffering cancer) with a kind of spiritual rot: in addition to the moneyed interests he is in conflict with, Toller finds himself against people who regard religion as a product to consume. He gives tours of the church ending in a gift shop, for which he is tipped in one insulting moment. The faith he uses to understand the world and uplift humanity is in danger of becoming a mere possession. Schrader, ultimately, is asking if there’s any return from this kind of brink.

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At times, M. Night Shyamalan’s conclusion to his superhero trilogy excites. Glass‘ two fight scenes, surprisingly, crackle with tight closeups of throttles and body blows, punctuated with terrified, bystander’s-eye views for big money effects shots of metal rending or heavy objects flung. The slowed-down, supers-vs.-psychiatry second act, however, finds delight in Samuel L. Jackson’s performance as Elijah Price (the titular Mr. Glass). Oozing calculation, even when playing sedate, he orchestrates a tussle between his reluctantly heroic Unbreakable co-star David Dunn (Bruce Willis) and Split‘s multiple-personality serial killer Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy), breaking out from the mental facility containing them. It’s here Shyamalan’s arguably weakest tendencies–the leaden, Wikipedia dialogue; the portent closeups of objects foreshadowing the twist ending–become strengths. Elijah, who stood revealed at Unbreakable‘s end a mass-murderer, is a comic fan afflicted with an illness that makes his bones easily broken. His elderly mother (Charlayne Woodard) encourages his intellect, referring to him often as special. Both discuss events unfolding around them in comic book vernacular, some of it their own. It speaks to a lifetime molding a frail child into a man who views everything a puzzle to solve and art to interpret. These elements are honed by Jackson, the way his cold gaze barely masks contempt for the psych hospital staff, or the rattling off of trivia without sounding like a clunky, bland know-it-all (the way background characters do in one frequently-visited comic shop). There is no interaction he’s not in control of, no outcome he doesn’t anticipate, no detail too minor for his scheme. Elijah’s more dangerous than the bruisers he’s locked up with, because he can and will use calamity to prove he’s smarter, better than everyone else. Glass‘ function, and success, is locking us inside his gleeful, nihilistic head.

Wrangled and Rambled



Obsidian’s new reveal trailer can’t help but feel like a diss track. The obvious cues–kitschy Americana aesthetic, a cryogenic origin story, and the explicit namedrop of Fallout–are aimed at Bethesda, right on the heels of Fallout 76‘s botched rollout. The Outer Worlds also implies a direct challenge to two other forthcoming space RPGs: Bethesda’s Starfield, and Bioware’s Anthem. Where both developers lean on shiny happy sci-fi adventure and Campbellian monomyth (as creaky as Bethesda’s ubiquitous, barely-disguised Gamebryo engine), Obsidian teases societal dregs and scrappy wild cards, running roughshod over interstellar shenanigans.