Metro: Exodus

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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 Worse still, it could have gone the route of Bethesda’s Fallout installments, adding more and more mechanics onto outdated engines unsuited to them.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.

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Child’s Play 2

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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). Introduced 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 for him to get out of her house. It’s Kyle who first comforts and encourages the boy, then puts herself into 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

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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

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Upgrade

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Glass

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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.

Equalizer 2

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The opening hour of The Equalizer 2 promises a messier film than its predecessor. Where before Antoine Fuqua tracked a singular conflict to unveil the monster within affable loner (and ex-assassin) Robert McCall (Denzel Washington), his followup sees McCall through multiple, diverging plotlines before settling on avenging the murder of a State Department ally (Melissa Leo). Fuqua and screenwriter Richard Wenk spend the bulk of the first act not only setting this up, but also incorporating McCall’s newfound calling to equalize into his previously monastic lifestyle. When not brutalizing kidnappers and rapist yuppies, he operates a ride-share, reads Proust, and life coaches a teenage artist caught up in gang crime. Each of these is delivered in the kind of episodic drip betraying the series’ TV origins.

While shapeless, the choice does offer some opportunity to explore McCall’s psyche. Washington’s effortless ability to turn on the charm is woven more intricately with the previously dead-eyed Michael Myers facial tics deployed before. Appraising head-tilts now pair with eye-rolls, knowing grimaces, even the occasional smirk, a distinct personality emerging out of inflicting pain and imparting wisdom. If Equalizer 1 was about a broken man finding new purpose–much in the manner of the John Wick films and the better installments of Liam Neeson’s Dad Revenge cycle–the sequel finds an effort to make himself whole again. A shame, then, how effortless Equalizer 2 makes this. On paper, the escalation is there, beginning with wealth elites assuming victory to gangbangers to, finally, a more lethal threat tied with McCall’s wetwork past. In practice, each is a breeze, characterized in the broadest of archetypes and completely dominated in every interaction. Even when surrounded, or enclosed in a car, Fuqua never frames Washington as anything other than the dominant center of the screen, nosediving any tension–or even any need for the creative violence of The Equalizer‘s box store, slasher movie finale. The result is a boring examination of one man always being right.

Red Sparrow

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The idea of Jennifer Lawrence poker-facing through kompromat-fueled intrigue has a sleazy appeal to it. Take the persistent news cycle reportage of pee tapes and election meddling, pick an espionage novel to adapt, and populate it with movie stars. Titillation for an audience wanting international conspiracies more exciting than what the pundit class has too much shame to do more than gesture at. Red Sparrow, however, plays things a little staid. Every aspect of prima ballerina Dominika’s (Lawrence) transformation from uncertain waif to femme fatale is portrayed at a medium distance and waist high. The approach vaguely resembles the voyeurism of David Cronenberg or Paul Verhoeven, but director Francis Lawrence and editor Alan Edward Bell are too bashful. In training, when Dominika is ordered to seduce and copulate with a fellow cadet in front of their entire class, everything is cut for the briefest of glimpses before we’re whisked to convenient blocking. This is matched by Lawrence’s performance, her unchanging demeanor as she gropes and grinds the men around neither elicits disgust at Dominika’s exploitation nor finds thrill in turning the tables. When she quadruple crosses and American counterpart (Joel Edgerton) into revealing a mole within the Russian government, we’re not visualizing a system, merely dashing off genre tropes with the blush of Serious Film Aesthetic. Ironically, Red Sparrow best succeeds when it avoids this core: digressions present would-be handlers, both Russian and American, talking about their plans for (and speculations about) Dominika, diced with brief cutaways of the spy going about some task they’ve assigned her. Sometimes it’s reinforcing these dialogues, other times undermining, regularly uncertain as to which until the consequences of her actions are revealed. Rather than the expert seductress the text insists on, Dominika zeroes in how everyone underestimates her, exploiting their certainty in the leverage they have over her.

The Death Cure

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More than anything else, the Maze Runner film trilogy has felt like an expensive demo reel. Plot and theme are all over the place, James Dashner’s source novels junking a perfectly fine, Kafkaesque premise so we could get sequels akin to kid versions of the Resident Evil movies. Perhaps this is why they are so much more fun than Divergent, The 5th Wave, or even mega-hit The Hunger Games. Wes Ball–the only director of any of these franchises to actually steward the entire thing–seems less interested in articulating any sort of triumphant rebellion against tyranny than he is in dropping his cast in a series of incidents to either run towards or from.

The Death Cure makes the most of this. Two films of setup, including a double-cross from the primary romantic interest (Kaya Scoledario), arrive at determined Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) plotting a suicide mission into a gentrified fortress city to rescue his buddy Minho (Ki Hong Lee) from perpetual torture/harvesting at the hands of corporate lab coats. Like any heist or breakout flick, the plot unfolds along the group’s prep work and a smooth infiltration, before watching slip-ups and coincidences threaten calamity. Thomas’ crew then fragments into no less than five distinct threads, each built around a different genre conceit: car and foot chases, gunfights, even a Terminator-esque sequence built around avoiding a murderer with a gun. Nothing ever gets lost in the shuffle, each of the players getting their moment to shine, the film daring you to pick favorites. Two obvious choices: Lee as Minho and Rosa Salazar as rebel (and the thankless task of secondary love interest) Brenda. Minho is lithe and assured–when he finally breaks free, he moves like a bullet at his captors before throttling them like a track star Schwarzenegger; Brenda, meanwhile, plots an entire escape route from dystopian cops, ramming their cars with a bus before trudging out to face a blockade with only a flare gun. Ball ropes the audience in with pans and tracking shots putting you in a moment where you go from watching the Runners, to even pursuing them as they leap out a 30-story window, plummeting into a pool far below. Long after the post-apocalyptic details fade from memory, it’s the thrill of watching young people endangering themselves for survival that sticks.

Rampage

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As far as gaming adaptations go, Rampage is easy enough. Already borrowing from Atomic Age horror and kaiju smash-’em-ups, the games are relentless id. Pick a monster, wreck a city, fight the military, gobble up the populace. Rinse, repeat. Tapped for a pre-summer release meant to tide moviegoers before the blockbusters arrive, Brad Peyton’s movie comes alive most when it leans in to this gleeful misanthropy. Even saddled with a focus-grouped script which reiterates the close bond of Special Forces-turned-primatologist Davis (Dwayne Johnson) and mutating, rapidly-growing albino gorilla George for the attention-addled, there’s an impression no one involved likes people very much. Davis is protective, occasionally kind towards pupils and associates, bystanders, basically anyone he has an obligation to. Stripped of that, he spits invective at horndogs, feds, even the troops. A second act built around maneuvering George and two other monsters to disaster flick-friendly Chicago is capped with Davis articulating his distaste. In flashback, Davis describes George’s mother being butchered so her parts could be used for ashtrays and how he guns down the poachers responsible. Even at his most puppy dog loveable and charming, the Rock can’t seem to shake a casual contempt for his fellow man. He’s only along on this nonsense for his CGI animal companion.

With that as their emotional core, Peyton and his writer’s room seem to take cues from the more glib, knowing end of 80s horror scripts. An early fight between a team of black ops heavies (led by quasi-star Joe Manganiello, an anti-Johnson) and a massive wolf could easily have been inspired by Chuck Russell and Frank Darabont’s The Blob remake. It sets up, then flippantly pulps, an antagonist to establish the stakes, not giving a fuck about formula. Rampage then spends the bulk of its time–when it’s not hiding the budget behind grainy night-vision or tracking its stars avoiding the monsters–escalating this kind of Michael Bay callousness. Man and beast alike are ripped apart, impaled, devoured, even squashed under debris in a brazen subversion of  MPAA ratings.