Will It End?: Movies 2016 – January

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  1. Rumble in the Bronx (1995) – Dir. Stanley Tong
  2. Tiger House (2015) – Dir. Thomas Daley
  3. Shark (1969) – Dir. Samuel Fuller
  4. The Forest (2016) – Dir. Jason Zada
  5. Kill Me Three Times (2015) – Dir. Kriv Stenders
  6. Perfect Stranger (2007) – Dir. James Foley
  7. Wing Chun (1994) – Dir. Yuen Woo-ping
  8. Prince of Darkness (1987) – Dir. John Carpenter
  9. Congo (1995) – Dir. Frank Marshall
  10. Goodnight Mommy (2015) – Dir. Veronika Franz & Severin Fiala
  11. Everly (2015) – Dir. Joe Lynch
  12. Legend (1985) (Director’s Cut) – Dir. Ridley Scott
  13. Close Range (2015) – Dir. Isaac Florentine
  14. Zero Motivation (2014) – Dir. Talya Lavie
  15. Come Drink With Me (1966) – Dir. King Hu
  16. Prev Vis Action (2016) (short) – Dir. Gareth Evans
  17. Blackfish (2013) – Dir. Gabriela Cowperthwaite
  18. Shark Lake (2015) – Dir. Jerry Dugan
  19. The Living Want Me Dead (2010) (short) – Dir. Bill Palmer
  20. Zombieland (2009) – Dir. Ruben Fleischer
  21. The Dead Next Door (1989) – Dir. J.R. Bookwalter

Tharsis

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Struggle futilely in a dysfunctional ant farm with a pulsing synth soundtrack. That seems to be the core of space survival game Tharsis, from Choice Provisions (formerly Gaijin Games, of Bit.Trip fame). Ten weeks out from landing on Mars, the crew of the Iktomi are hit by a micrometeoroid cloud, killing two crew members and causing a series of catastrophic malfunctions. The remaining four astronauts are then directed to repair the ship and cultivate supplies needed to finish the journey any way they can. With an obliterated pantry, food becomes especially troublesome: you can harvest what’s left in the greenhouse, but become desperate enough and cannibalism starts to look tempting.

At its headiest, Tharsis becomes a rumination on our lack of control in the universe. A series of quasi-animated cutscenes propose an anomaly which turns the game itself into a recurring, darkly Absurdist, cosmic joke existing somewhere between Europa Report and Groundhog Day. For the guts of the thing, Choice take the Titan Souls approach to indie development: pumping the weaponized frustration of triple-A titles like Alien: Isolation and Dark Souls to NES-era levels of punishment to keep players discomforted. Crises are randomly generated, the means to quell them powered by the roll of dice (gained or lost based on individual circumstances, such as length of time without food), standing in for any number of variables. Gains are incremental, hard-fought, and likely to be swiftly undone. It’s not uncommon, for instance, to have a crew store up food and fully repair the ship, only for a fire to break out (and deal injury to anyone who rolls a five or six) that takes multiple turns to fix, chipping away at all your progress. Chaos, beautifully abstracted.

Congo

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Though making a number of divergences from the source novel, Congo does, at least, feel like an attempt to engage with Michael Crichton and his ideas. Chiefly, its central arc involves a collision between science, geopolitics, business and the natural world, framed as a rip-roaring serial adventure. Steve Guttenberg-lookalike Dylan Walsh plays a dorky primatologist, whose compassionate mission to return his gorilla prodigy to her homeland is hijacked; first, by a Romanian fortune hunter (Tim Curry) posed unconvincingly as a philanthropist, then by a telecom geek (Laura Linney) looking for a missing lover and the diamonds to power her boss’ latest tech toy. They’re joined by a relentlessly glib mercenary (Ernie Hudson) and his comrades, navigating a civil war and then the jungle on their way to an ancient mining city straight out of colonialist pulp–complete with killer gorillas for guards.

John Patrick Shanley’s screenplay is serviceable, sprinkling in asides about capitalist plundering and wildlife exploitation. Walsh and Linney, however, are lost, their characters given jarring personality/intelligence shifts and a series of heart-to-hearts which seem to steer them towards a studio-mandated romance. Walsh seems far more interested in Amy the gorilla, however: their dynamic is filled with so much shorthand and routine even casual observers note a resemblance to marriage (and to think people didn’t get hot and bothered until Peter Jackson’s King Kong, a decade later!). His teaching her to sign (and, through a Power Glove accessory with a grating voice feature, talk) features the film’s most Crichtonian moments, but they’re left as a sideshow distraction on the way to King Solomon’s Mines.

Dramatic leads firmly in the passenger seat, Congo functions best as a procession of solid bit actors collecting a paycheck. Besides the always game Hudson and Curry, there’s Bruce Campbell, Joe Don Baker, Mary Ellen Trainor, Joe Pantoliano, and (memorably) Delroy Lindo as a military officer extorting the expedition.

This would be fine if direction wasn’t so shoddy. Frank Marshall, more known as a producer for Steven Spielberg, shoots scenery as flat as possible, minimal camera movement and unremarkable staging his signatures. Threats human and animal roll along, lacking even the visceral thrill of a fairground ride (editing further de-emphasizes impact, cutting away from or blacking out violence). Combined with the remarkably stain-free costumes and actors, the impression is something of an antithesis to Predator: zero desperation, zero tension, zero excitement.

Other Stuff 2015

Some more things which were wonderful last year:

Music

John Carpenter – “Wraith”

On an album that’s all about pushing his signature sound to its breaking point, “Wraith” has Carpenter’s most coherent throughline. Like many of Lost Themes‘ tracks, it’s broken down into distinct movements–three for this one–which almost could be standalone pieces. The first builds to a nice, false crescendo, the second dies down, Pixies-style, to make way for a cacophony of synths and guitars crashing down on you in the finale.

Gabrielle Aplin – “Sweet Nothing”

Was there anything else this year as infectious as that chorus?

The Weeknd – “The Hills”

There’s a nice, relentless bass to this thing. It underscores the vocal rhythms, expressing a frustrated, single-minded pursuit, getting tangled in conflicting desires on its way to nowhere good.

Sheer Mag – “Fan the Flames”

Pure mosh pit music. Violent riffs echoing off some rickety metallic surfaces as everyone jams together to flail and scream about all the shit life hurled their way. It’s the bliss you can, if only for a moment, let out your frustrations with a room full of sweaty strangers.

Also Liked: Murder By Death – “Send Me Home”, Taylor Swift – “Style”, Ennio Morricone – “L’Ultima Diligenza di Red Rock, N, Rihanna (ft. Kanye West and Paul McCartney) (WoodysProduce Remix) – “FourFive Seconds”

Comics

Island (Various)

Brandon Graham, Emma Rios and friends got together to make a monthly anthology mag. Devoted mainly to day-to-day worries in various detailed, lived-in futures–from the intimate coffeeshop discussions of Rios’ “I.D.” (pictured above) to the spacious urban landscapes of Ludroe’s skater-themed “Dagger Proof Mummy” and beyond–Island works exceptionally as an example of where conversations within the comics world (specifically about what voices are heard) can take us. More importantly, it’s an outlet for several, distinct talents to show themselves raw and undiluted.

Copra: Round One and Round Two (Michel Fiffe)

Handsomely packaged reprints of Michel Fiffe’s love letter to 80s anti-hero comics. Fiffe’s relentless momentum and Steranko pop art touches match perfectly with his tale of black ops maniacs tangling with God Mode weaponry. The breadcrumb trail the squad follows in their revenge trip inevitably lead to collisions with henchmen, cyborg bounty hunters, aliens, and hyper-ambitious bureaucrats. Each confrontation driven by ulterior (if not, arcane) motives, resulting in chaotic violence punctuated by cosmos-altering madness, represented to human perception by warped proportions and abstract color smears.

Also Liked: Stray Bullets: Sunshine and Roses (David Lapham), Pretty Deadly (Emma Rios, Kelly Sue DeConnick), Providence (Jacen Burrows, Alan Moore), A Train Called Love (Mark Dos Santos, Garth Ennis), Ragnarok (Walter Simonson), Godzilla in Hell (Various), The Rook (Paul Gulacy, Steven Grant), Agent 8 (Katie Skelly)

Why Stop Now? – Movies 2015: November & December

November

  1. Harbinger Down (2015) – Dir. Alec Gillis
  2. Let Us Prey (2014) – Dir. Brian O’Malley
  3. The Monster Squad (1987) – Dir. Fred Dekker
  4. Wer (2013) – Dir. William Brent Bell

December

  1. Creed (2015) – Dir. Ryan Coogler
  2. Batman Returns (1992) – Dir. Tim Burton
  3. The Gift (2015) – Dir. Joel Edgerton
  4. Krampus (2015) – Dir. Michael Dougherty
  5. Stung (2015) – Dir. Benni Diez
  6. Trading Places (1983) – Dir. John Landis
  7. The Scribbler (2014) – Dir. John Suits
  8. Hidden Assassin (1995) – Dir. Ted Kotcheff
  9. National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989) – Dir. Jeremiah S. Chechik
  10. The Reconstruction of William Zero (2015) – Dir. Dan Bush
  11. Day of the Dead (1985) – Dir. George Romero
  12. Akira (1988) – Dir. Katsuhiro Otomo
  13. Results (2015) – Dir. Andrew Bujalski
  14. The Hateful Eight (2015) – Dir. Quentin Tarantino
  15. The Enforcer (1995) – Dir. Yuen Kwai
  16. Madame Bovary (2015) – Dir.Sophie Barthes
  17. Rabid (1977) – Dir. David Cronenberg

Total for Year: 225

Film 2015

 

7. Power/Rangers (Dir. Joseph Kahn)

Neither a film meant to be taken seriously nor really a spoof, Joseph Kahn’s entry in Adi Shankar’s line of fan videos is a perfect demonstration of what fucking about can accomplish. Where most grim-dark updates of children’s franchises skew cautious, to avoid locking out the under 13 demographic, Kahn disregards commercial prospects. Threesomes, head stabbings, bodies ripped apart by gunfire, Bulk and Skull ODing in a trailer, the Green Ranger as a growly, bloodthirsty hobo, no vulgarity goes overlooked. It’s a pit stop, but a delightful one.

6. Creed (Dir. Ryan Coogler)

A buzzy, nervously energetic retread of the first Rocky, Creed is a franchise handoff done right. Rather than try and reinvent the series, Ryan Coogler puts Stallone’s signature motifs–the trainer/fighter dynamic, montages, ‘going the distance’, etc.–into a dialogue with the new lead. Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan) struggles with his place in life: fathered by Apollo Creed from an extramarital affair, he gravitates towards the family business the way all the previously established children of Rocky boxers didn’t. He yearns for, but refuses to articulate, a connection to the old man he never got. Instead, he knuckles down and goes to work. Stallone gets a do-over for the awfulness of Rocky V, and comes away with an enjoyable performance, walking Adonis through the steps he’s already gone through. It’s more than obligation to an old, dead friend, or the fulfillment of a cycle: Balboa recognizes his own failings in the younger man, and lasers in on the enemy within.

5. It Follows (Dir. David Robert Mitchell)

An anxiety attack turned into a movie. It Follows is structured around contradictions about society’s attitudes towards sex and youth, most of all in how those attitudes shape the film’s teens despite a near-complete absence of authority. Adults, let alone parents, only serve two functions in the film: to barely acknowledge their young, and disregard their concerns. This aligns the kids with the audience, struggling to figure out what they’re seeing and having no simple answers.

4. Spy (Dir. Paul Feig)

Paul Feig finally puts Melissa McCarthy front and center, and lets her shred the scenery. Who could want anything else?

3. Run All Night (Dir. Jaume Collet-Serra)

Liam Neeson’s late period revival as an action star has, rather than attempt to hide or shrug off his age (i.e. Bruce Willis in the last two Die Hards), fully embraced that he’s a middle-aged man. Taken is a Dad Movie,  where Neeson gets to be macho and always right. However, his haggard eyes always belied something broken. Everything he’s headlined since has spun on this formula (aside from The Grey, an introspective glimpse into futility and grief). Run All Night expands on it, taking the idea of Neeson as the estranged patriarch to a bittersweet conclusion. Jimmy Conlon isn’t always right; if anything, he’s a deadbeat, destroying himself out of remorse. No one takes him seriously, let alone the son he abandoned years ago. Far more than Taken‘s put-upon CIA killer, Bryan Mills, Jimmy makes sense as a character. With nothing to lose but his son, he straightens himself out just enough for one last bloodbath. Things immediately go wrong, and he begins to pick up damage. A scratch here, a sprained ankle there. A series of punishments leading up to a gunshot wound, which Jaume Collet-Serra depicts with full-blown horror as Neeson struggles to move even his fingers. There could be another dozen of these movies, and none would be as satisfying as this.

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2. Maggie (Dir. Henry Hobson)

This is the opposite of Liam Neeson’s revival: a previously unstoppable machine faced with a situation he can’t make submit to his will. Arnold Schwarzenegger plays a dad losing his daughter to zombism. Unwilling to let her be whisked off by the government to rot in a cage, he instead keeps her home and pretends for as long as he can the inevitable isn’t coming. There is no bad guy to blow away, no horde to cut through, no cure to attain; the only victory is giving a child some semblance of dignity in dying too soon.

1. Mad Max: Fury Road (Dir. George Miller)

What can be said about this which hasn’t been a million times over? It’s a primal spectacle of a movie, built entirely around a single car chase where people do stupidly dangerous things for your entertainment. That it does those things with intelligence and care, that it creates a familial bond with its characters forged by propulsive action, that a lot of it is actual stunt work, isn’t icing on the cake, it’s why it all had so much impact. Witness it.

Also Liked: Furious 7, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, Blackhat, Ex Machina, Crimson Peak, The Fantastic Four, Hateful Eight

Video Games 2015

5. Until Dawn (Supermassive Games)

Pure nihilism masked as a cheeky slasher flick tribute. Until Dawn is the game which Heavy Rain and its million Choose Your Own Adventure-style knockoffs gesture at, where choice and consequence shape the experience, though it takes a few playthroughs to realize it. Scenarios, scripted by Larry Fessenden and Graham Reznick, rely less on  behavior-to-punishment motif than on a combination of skill and happenstance. Messing up a button prompt or giving the wrong character certain items or paths leads to death. The only consistent moral rule in Supermassive Games’ thriller, against animal cruelty, is indiscriminate, amorphous: harming critters simply causes retaliation, not always against the offender. Play it enough, and one grasps a world where a conventional understanding of right and wrong is hollow. The psycho killer at the center of it all is ultimately an angry child, lashing at things he doesn’t comprehend. A far more lethal force slithers around him.

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4. Fallout 4 (Bethesda)

Dreary, monomyth plotting aside, Bethesda’s return to the wastes remains compelling. Pockmarked with irony and tragedy, brimming with sense of history and activity, their radioactive Boston threatens to overwhelm players. There’s always a quest or some traveling weirdo or a turf war, a chance for you to interlope and see what you can walk away with; ideas too big for the box the game’s writers want to put it in.

3. Broken Age (Double Fine)/Wasteland 2: Director’s Cut (inXile)

Two throwbacks, repackaged for 2015. Broken Age‘s two acts got rolled together in time for a console release, giving a complete experience. Its mechanics are maddeningly old-fashioned (steeped in tangled, counter-intuitive puzzle solutions), while the plot is beach bum casual, no matter how much it stresses potential death. Tim Schafer keeps it endearing, though, with humor centered on the idea of insular communities, incapable of solving problems they don’t recognize as such, dotted with Henry Selick oddballs harboring deep-seated traumas. In an industry racing to wipe out what few auteurs it has, Broken Age represents something vital, personal.

Wasteland 2, meanwhile, got a shiny re-release. inXile bank their game on the thing Fallout‘s recent iterations shied away from: gathering a group of dysfunctional misfits playing cowboy and figuring out how to make them work together. Character stats and classes become shorthand for a group dynamic, allowing each to cycle in and out of the spotlight–whether in combat or dialogue. Experimentation is nothing less than rewarding. What it lacks in moments of awe it more than makes up for in this strong, considered core.

2. Batman: Arkham Knight (Rocksteady)

Across its three Batman games, Rocksteady has made it a point to balance out every power advancement with something crippling. Arkham Asylum saw the Dark Knight picking up visible battle scars and sinking into Scarecrow-induced paranoia, all while trapped on an island full of thugs and psychopaths out to get him. Arkham City drew this assault further inward, poisoned blood chipping away at his vitals while the very core of his mission begins to crack. For Arkham Knight, the environment seeps in, rain soaking Batman’s costume as he navigates a Gotham City which looked barely functional before it was under siege. The satisfying physicality of striking mercs from the shadows, beating down twenty-odd gang members, or demolishing drones with a tank is always offset by some debilitation. Yet, despite the accumulation of three games worth of insanity, the Bat does not yield, does not show his enemies the fear they crave. Instead, he subsumes the player, turns them into the instrument of his will. He keeps going because someone is there to push his buttons. In making a game which puts its audience in the mind of a psychotic vigilante, Rocksteady turned players from interactive spectators to the drivers of the plot.

1. Pillars of Eternity (Obsidian Entertainment)

The departure, earlier this year, of Chris Avellone from Obsidian can’t be understated. As a writer and designer, he is top notch. His role-playing games don’t merely present worlds, like art pieces to be admired, but smash them apart and examine what lurks within. Pillars of Eternity, his final project with the company, demonstrates this perfectly. Rather than invoking archetypal Chosen Ones and blank slates to project onto, it invites you into the internal life of its Watcher. You forge an identity, study him/her as much as you portray. How they interact with the Dyrwood and its diverse stories, fighting for a voice to tell them, is the drive.

Also Liked: The Escapists, Godzilla: The Game, Titan Souls

Fallout 4

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One thing which stands out in Fallout 4 is how hurried it is. Their last time around, Bethesda calmly, patiently reintroduced the series for the benefit of a wider audience; charting the growth of its Vault dweller in a mini-arc, culminating in his push out into the wasteland. Obsidian’s spinoff, Fallout: New Vegas, branched away from formula, putting players into the shoes of a lone gun whose spaghetti western revenge tale morphed gradually into a heist flick, with Nevada as the score. Setting established a console generation ago, Bethesda has opted now for the route of an impatient child, ready to show off its toys: Fallout 4 rams your Sole Survivor from the Fall of America into a cryo tube, murders a spouse and abducts the baby, then sets you off in post-nuke Massachusetts. Before the first hour, you’re already in power armor, punching out giant lizards and being hailed as the destined savior of Boston. Ugh.

Thankfully, Bethesda allows the option to politely tell the monomyth to fuck off after a few quests and get down to doing what Fallout does best: heading towards the general direction of a goal, with some distractions along the way. The Commonwealth is well-suited to this purpose, dotted with settlements and traveling weirdos to help or hurt, ruins to explore, enemy camps to obstruct your path. Progression from place to place becomes a series of exciting mini-stories, with rhythms all their own. The countryside and smaller towns offer deceptively serene vistas that can become long range gun battles or animal attacks. The metro area brims with escalating turf wars between raiders, mutants, feral ghouls, and more, forcing a cautious, block by block movement and counter-intuitive navigation around ruins. Each location packed with secrets, whether it’s a suspiciously cheery gated community, an underground shelter/science experiment run amok, or some abandoned flophouse and its skeletons. You’re left to sift through it all, figuring out what the wonders and horrors you witness mean. Bethesda may have sacrificed plotting and pacing, but their mise en scene has been sharpened to scalpel precision.

Fallout 4‘s biggest addition, a settlement-building side-quest that plays like Minecraft-lite, could easily have been a distracting, perfunctory experience which undercut the main portion. Yet, it’s treated as a natural outgrowth of exploration. Besides collecting scrap needed to build up their new home(s), players can begin to see the world in new ways: examining another community’s arrangement, what works and doesn’t, a subtle guide to how one should build their own. Changing, dismantling, building and rebuilding is complementary to the journey through the nuclear remains. How do you handle necessities? How much of the old world do you keep? Any of it?

In a series which, textually, has been asking those questions from day one, Fallout 4 feels the closest to addressing them interactively. It bristles with exciting possibility. Bethesda must’ve known this, too, as the other staples of the series–the skills and perks; the speech checks; the diverging quest-lines–have been streamlined into (at best) mundane functionality. As an iteration, it’s a growing pain; as an individual, it’s fascinating and eager. Either way, it stumbles towards greatness.

Krampus

Krampus posits a confrontation between what Americans want Christmas to be and the traditions which make it what it is. Michael Dougherty opens his film with a mob rush evoking Black Friday (though it’s set December 23) and some background noise about the so-called “War on Christmas”, then checks off a series of holiday film conflicts, mainly family squabbles over food and presents, parents growing apart and other bad history. Fed up with all of it, a boy shreds his note to Saint Nick, unfortunately drawing attention from  a goat-like, demonic opposite, the Krampus

Dougherty opts for a slow burn, tension and jokes arising more out of family dysfunction than the nasty creatures besieging them. The film’s bulk is devoted to arguments and gutter-sniping and weak attempts to bond when a snowstorm leaves them stranded. Once the attacks do come, Krampus skirts that line between PG-13 and R by making the nightmarish outlandish: cackling gingerbread men wielding candy canes like stilettos, evil angel dolls, and jack-in-the-boxes with three-way jaws (perfect for swallowing children whole). Their arrival puts the family in panic mode, but they divine a dramatic arc. They begin acting as a unit, then sacrificing themselves when their plans fall through. Their holiday mentality is a chimera of Christianity and capitalism born of Hallmark sentiment.  Each expects favorable outcomes (either for them or their loved ones) from conforming to certain behaviors. The pagan Krampus laughs at this, his only goal to equalize a situation.

It’s an approach similar to Sam Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell: bad actors, attempting to bargain or amend for their actions, being rebuffed by an absolutist, supernatural force. Krampus never quite lands the impact, though: too many characters, their growth happening in jumps. The climax is similarly quick, victim whisked away like they’re being crossed off a list. Laudable as its ideas are, they aren’t strong enough to support so weak a structure.

Disassembled

Liam Robertson focuses the latest “Unseen64” on the cancelled Avengers video game. The project, based off the Secret Invasion crossover (with a plot written by its primary author, Brian Michael Bendis), was a casualty of the demise of THQ–a downfall which, among other things, also delayed Obsidian’s South Park: The Stick of Truth. Robertson’s presentation is cut and dry, skimming the corporate pratfalls and economic downturn which made collateral damage of the game and its developers, but offers an in-depth look at what the surviving build was shaping towards.

Eschewing the now-standard “over the shoulder” dynamic in favor of first-person perspective, what’s shown is a series of wide-open maps littered with objectives and opportunities for super-powered mayhem. Co-op is emphasized in the video, showing off various buff effects characters can give and double-teaming combos against alien invaders: presumably, these would encourage the kind of coordinated maneuvers super-group books were built on. At the very least, this cancelled Avengers could’ve used the source material’s weaknesses (Secret Invasion had a notoriously thin plot, squandering a Body Snatchers premise in favor of what amounted to a single fight scene, diced up and spread over eight issues) to power a tights ‘n fights version of Counter-Strike.