review

Is Tropic Thunder the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

Space Ghost Coast to Coast is a TV show that needs a lot of explaining. The original Space Ghost was a Hanna-Barbera cartoon from the 60s that came and went. In the 90s, Mike Lazzo and Williams Street used the characters and settings from Space Ghost to create a faux late-night talk show where these ridiculous characters hosted an otherwise normal interview show. That version is Space Ghost Coast to Coast, which aired for years on Cartoon Network and eventually became part of Adult Swim, the nighttime block of “adult” programming that arguably gave way to what animation on television has become for the last several decades.

If you’re completely unfamiliar with it, all of that introduction probably still doesn’t help. Space Ghost the character is a bombastic idiot, a Falstaff figure if you really want to stretch the importance of a silly double-joke cartoon from the 90s, and his crew are all villains he’s imprisoned to work on this talk show. The internal reality of the show is ridiculous, but it is complete. Some of the guests (all real celebrities or cult figures) engage with it straight and some seem to have not been briefed on the premise at all. It works because both versions are consistent. It’s not “random,” a word that dogs comedy that had the guts to be anything other than the primary form at the time, but it is unexpected. In one episode Bjork plays Space Ghost’s wife, but it’s not clear how much she is in on the joke. It doesn’t really matter, they write the show around what the guest does, which allows for it all to spiral out.

I mention all of this because I was thinking of these several lenses you need to view that show through to even start to like it when I watched Tropic Thunder recently. I certainly think Ben Stiller’s war movie parody is more approachable than Space Ghost Coast to Coast, but the quality of both pieces of media is almost secondary. First, you have to buy in to the premise. You have to be willing to say “okay, it’s a talk show in space with cartoons, but everyone pretends they’re real” or “it’s a fake movie about a fake movie that’s mocking real movies that sometimes were also premised on real things that were misunderstood by real people.” The war in Vietnam was already complicated, that’s the premise that the original media about it always took, anyway, so abstracting it three more times is a hard place to start.

Tropic Thunder is about the filming of a movie called Tropic Thunder, where a cast of actor stereotypes goes to the jungle to film a serious war movie. Jack Black, Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Jr., and others play as types that you’ll recognize even if the exact source material isn’t always all that important. We see Jack Black’s character’s success in The Fatties: Fart 2 and you know what, you get it. Ben Stiller’s character runs towards the camera and is shot in the back in slow motion several times as he extends his arms and yes, that’s Platoon. It’s all Apocalypse Now. I don’t think we need to run down where everything is “from” to appreciate this. It’s a broad parody but also has specific jokes. That part all lands and I am not going to spend any more time explaining why the funny movie is funny.

Roger Ebert said Tropic Thunder is “the kind of summer comedy that rolls in, makes a lot of people laugh and rolls on to video.” Obvious the “video” reference there dates this a little bit, but it’s as relevant a commentary overall today as it was in 2008. Comedy can feel disposable as it often requires you to understand cultural subtext that changes over time. Shakespeare feels inaccessible at times because the jokes are about a society that’s very different than our own. People call some comedy “timeless” but at the very least, the meaning changes even if it doesn’t diminish. Things that are funny will remain funny, but if you watch a comedy from more than fifty years ago today, you will hear at least one reference that you have no chance of understanding. There are so many of these examples in old Hollywood, where an aside from Cary Grant about a specific cigarette ad or a bon mot about a political figure of the time just sails over the viewer’s head. It’s just how this stuff works.

Tropic Thunder bridges enough gaps that it’s not exactly like that, but a lot of it is definitely “of the moment.” It’s still very funny over a decade later, and it’s especially crazy that this seemed like the peak of Robert Downey Jr. but absolutely was not. He was nominated for an Oscar for this, which really seems wild now, and was just a few months into his forever-job as Iron Man. That seemed big then, of course, but who could have possibly predicted that it would essentially alter popular film entirely from the ground up. I think arguments about that being good or bad are something else entirely, but imagine how much bigger a deal all this is now than in 2008.

Robert Downey Jr. plays his role in blackface as a character who is so oblivious he doesn’t see why that would be offensive. IndieWire wrote what appears to be a summary of a podcast appearance here where Downey said recently that he doesn’t regret the choice. Ben Stiller’s character in the film recently made an Oscar-bait film called Simple Jack which involves all of the characters repeatedly using a slur to discuss his character’s condition. The sum of these two parts, and a lot of other details, really, should add up to a movie that’s impossible to watch even a few years later, but that’s not the case. Ben Stiller said at the time that none of it needed defending because it’s all in service of mocking an industry that does this stuff all the time. Your views on that defense are your own, but I think it mostly holds up. You don’t have a movie here if you cut back on the envelope pushing, but I wouldn’t blame anyone who felt like it was all too much.

I didn’t know how I’d feel about revisiting this one, but I expected it to age poorly and it mostly hasn’t. The movie industry is still self-important and all of the “heightened” fake films still honestly feel like things you could see happen today. It’s not timeless comedy, but it’s at least comedy that sticks around. Maybe that’s more of a commentary on how little the industry and war films have changed, but even so, all the more credit to the film for knowing not just how it was in 2008 but how it would remain.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? The one bit of Tropic Thunder that has changed meaning in the last decade is the central slimy, evil executive character. It’s supposedly a parody of Scott Rudin, who at the time most of the audience may not have recognized. A few months ago his life exploded when several prominent stars came out with stories of his abusive behavior. The parody is still funny, but it’s a different kind of funny now. Things like that make this feel like a movie you can keep coming back to, which I think I can’t necessarily say of Weathering With You.

Is it the best movie of all time? No, but can a comedy be the best movie? My favorite comedy is Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, but even that requires so much cultural understanding that it feels like a tough sell as a universal best movie. This will stay Persona for now, but then again, there are different situations for a war movie parody and a complex, terrifying look at identity and the soul. You might want Tropic Thunder most nights.

You can watch Tropic Thunder on Amazon Prime (subscription required). You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

Is The Seventh Seal the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

A few weeks ago after I watched Last Year at Marienbad, I sat with the experience after I finished it. I didn’t like the movie, but I got the sense that maybe you weren’t supposed to like it. “Challenging” is a word that gets thrown around a lot for movies like that, as is “experimental.” It’s certainly the former, with very little narrative structure, frequent inconsistency, and a constantly overwriting central truth. You are supposed to turn it over in your mind and try to solve it for yourself. At least, I think you’re supposed to do that. It’s the only way that movie makes sense to me.

I expected the same to be true of Persona, given the way people talk about the experience of watching it for the first time. People seem to be split on Last Year at Marienbad in a way they are not split on Persona, but both movies really demand a lot of the viewer in a way that a traditional story does not. Typically you see characters grow and change and your experience is determined by how you feel about what they experienced. We don’t interrogate this much because on a basic level it seems to be a stupid question. Asking yourself why you watch movies or read stories isn’t something you feel a need to do because you aren’t “buying into” an idea, it’s just what you do. Persona has a narrative, and arguably the core of it is just a look at personal identity and how we define ourselves. It spirals out from there and it compounds it with a structure that, yes, challenges you, and that’s why I find it so much more interesting.

It’s maybe a given that Ingmar Bergman’s masterpiece is a better movie than Last Year at Marienbad, but this intro isn’t just to provide space for me to dunk on a movie I didn’t like or to praise a movie I did. Today we’re talking about The Seventh Seal, a movie that really doesn’t need an introduction. It’s Bergman’s first masterpiece, to reuse the term, and it’s the one where the guy plays chess with death. You are aware of it even if you can’t place it or haven’t seen it. It’s a scene that’s been redone so many times so explicitly that it transcends any space where you’d talk about classic film.

The Seventh Seal is the kind of movie that makes you think about film class. This is one of the starting points, where you go deeper than Pulp Fiction and you get your mind blown about what film can do. I expected the experience to be closer to Last Year at Marienbad than Persona, even though it’s Bergman. There are a lot of films on the lists of great films that are difficult, sometimes nearly impossible, to watch today. A true galaxy brain exploration of death including a literal chess match for your life never seemed like Monday night viewing. Even when you concede something is important or influential, it is sometimes a big ask to sit down and actually take it in. Whether it’s intimidating or you’re just worried you won’t like the original because you’ve seen so many derivatives, if you’re anything like me you put off eating your proverbial vegetables.

It’s not what I thought it was. I considered a few ways to present this information and I’ve decided it’s fine to look stupid. I expected this to be boring and to feel “important,” but not necessarily engaging. It’s anything but, much closer to a true narrative than the reputation suggests. Max von Sydow plays Antonius Block, a knight on his way back from the Crusades. He meets death and decides to play chess with him to delay the inevitable. He makes a bet as a play for his life, but there’s a sense that this isn’t really serious. We don’t know a single thing about Block when he sits down to play chess.

Block’s life becomes somewhat clear as he and his squire Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand) wander the countryside and experience what this land is like. They see horrible, unspeakable misery and a world ruined by plague and futile response to plague. We really only see the plague once, as a character screams and dies while other characters remark on being unable to even provide respite. The real tragedy is what happens in response, which feels a little close to home in 2021. In one town, the duo see an extended caravan of characters whipping themselves, dragging crosses, and moaning as they shamble into a ruined town. The message could not be clearer about what degree of hope exists.

I encourage you to experience it for yourself. That’s a simple thing to say about any movie, but I found it remarkable to watch Block’s journey and constant, seemingly reasonable demands for a sign. Christianity is often about resisting this impulse and the reality that the need for a sign is part of the journey, but the acceptance that none will come is part of the destination. Block asks a woman condemned to death due to belief that she has interacted with a demon if she can summon Satan. He is willing to tempt the darkness just to ask about the light. The Seventh Seal is undeniably a complicated story, but scenes like this are very clear. Block is the extreme version of the doubt and uncertainty about forces larger than our world that we all experience.

It’s not really about what it builds to, but I still will try my best to not spoil it. Block’s conversations with death are what remain in the public understanding, but it’s really about how Block sees himself and what he thinks he can do about it. The Crusades brought him only disillusionment and further proof that this world is a dark place. The world after this one eludes him, as it eludes everyone, and that’s not a story that has an ending other than the ending we’re all going towards. It’s not as bleak as all that, really, but it’s about finding the one thing you can control in a world where so much is chosen for you.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? Yeah, I’d say it’s better than Rian Johnson’s modern noir Brick. I was genuinely surprised by how watchable I found it. I said in the main section that I’m okay sounding stupid and I think that’s just a risk you need to be willing to take when you barely scratch the surface of something that’s this huge. Brick is a movie I’ll come back to more often, but I’ll really sit with The Seventh Seal for quite some time.

Is it the best movie of all time? No, I prefer Bergman’s examination of identity in Persona more than The Seventh Seal. I think that’s probably a universal opinion, but this is the first time we’ve compared two films by the same director in this section. Obviously The Seventh Seal, and all of the other films, inform what Persona says about who is coming to save you and what you should do about it, but the setting alone of Persona makes it more relatable. The choice to set this examination in the Middle Ages and the set piece of a real chess game with the real, actual figure of death is an enormous swing, but it’s a testament to Bergman that is doesn’t feel pretentious or absurd. It’s a movie about asking questions that everyone will always be asking, so it’s timeless even with that abstraction.

You can watch The Seventh Seal on The Criterion Channel (subscription required). You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

The Heaven of Enough: Black Mirror, Season 3, Episode 1 “Nosedive”

one full point

Jonathan May

“Nosedive” explores an unforgiving world built on an ethic principle of personal and social perfection. Lacie, played deftly by Bryce Dallas Howard, smiles at every availing opportunity. She performs her smile for her ultimate audience: herself. Her main foible is her inability to discover an objective audience outside of herself because she confuses objectivity with authenticity. In a world where courtesy is social currency, Lacie hinges her self-worth on her proximity to enough, a concept explored later in the episode with the always-brilliant Cherry Jones, who plays the truck-driving Susan, dispenser of sagacity and rough charm in equal measure. Lacie’s inevitable fall into self-destruction plays out so horrifically because every action she chose in relation to self-regard. The solipsism she so closely builds dissolves at the episode’s end, to surprising and delightful effect. That the episode can be so disarming and yet end so coyly celebrates the talents of the writing team, Rashida Jones and Michael Schur, who initially wrote different halves of the script which they then coalesced into a gestalt. “Nosedive” triumphs as an existential drama of the soul, wherein Lacie redeems herself through positive disintegration. She must fall apart in order to escape herself and the perfect heaven of her creation.

Jonathan May watches too much television, but he’s just playing catch-up from a childhood spent in Zimbabwe. You can read his poetry at owenmay.com, follow him on Twitter at @jonowenmay, or email him at owen.may@gmail.com.

Dracula Untold: Should You See It?

image source: ign

image source: ign

Brent Hopkins

In our rarely-running kinda-series Should You See It? we talk about movies that just came out. You can figure out the rest of the premise from the title of the series. That’s right: We talk recipes. Should you see Dracula Untold?

October has finally rolled around and with it comes the ghouls and ghosts of the season in movie form. Living out in South Korea, I rarely have information about new releases beyond “Oh, this is in English, so I can watch it.” That being the case, I had been itching to see something in theaters for about a week and this looked like it would be a passable movie to quell that urge. The movie follows Vlad the Impaler, who was taken by the Turkish as a boy and then rose back to power in his hometown of Transylvania to resist their power. Vlad is well-known as a badass in this universe for his ruthless habit of impaling folks in fields. The story picks up with Vlad having retired from the shish kebab business and becoming a family man. The Dracula element is kinda thrown in as the Turkish legion wants 1,000 boys to join the Turkish army, including Vlad’s son. Vlad obviously says “eff dat noise” and decides to make a deal with a vampire. This vampire has been chilling in a cave for a long time and a trade is made where Vlad gets the vampire’s powers for three days but if he drinks human blood he becomes a permanent vampire and “something” happens with the original vampire. I know that last part is vague, but for the life of me I did not understand what the point of the cave vampire was other than the magical element. He gives up the powers and then is a complete non-factor for the remainder of the movie.

image source: bloody-disgusting.com

image source: bloody-disgusting.com

“I am a power piñata”

The movie itself is a complete mess. There are a ton of characters that get no explanation and seem to serve no point other than to patch plot holes. Vlad has decently cool powers, but it is a bit boring watching a one man army destroy normal people (Superman syndrome). The pacing is also a big issue in this movie as there just seems to be too much information to relay to the audience while also trying to be an action movie.

My biggest issues are the action sequences towards the end of the film. Things get ridiculous in a hurry and they stay that way for around 35 minutes. At one point, I turned to my date with my mouth agape at how stupid this all felt and she pushed my head back forward only for us both to see a scene that was even more ridiculous than before. She quietly shook her head and I went from muffled laughter to head-shaking disgust until the credits rolled. We both apologized for the film afterwards and vowed to do a little research before going to see the next movie.

Should You See It?

This movie has the framework of a potential blockbuster but it felt like the screenplay was written by a 10-year old, on set. I do respect it for getting so insanely bad that I wanted to see if it could maintain this level of failure, because it isn’t just mediocre throughout, it gets exponentially worse from start to finish. Watch it if you like films that are unaware that they are terrible, but otherwise steer clear.

Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe: Leos Carax’s Holy Motors

holy motors

Andrew Findlay

In Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe, we take a look at science fiction and fantasy, why they’re great, and what they say about where our species has been and where it’s going.

French film occupies a deserved and jealously defended place in the international consciousness. French film is where you go to see beautiful acting, dialogue, and cinematography fuse to communicate An Important Message. I’m not exactly sure what the message of Holy Motors is, but it is certainly filled with beauty. It might be my favorite movie of all time. It’s so bizarre and different from anything else I’ve seen. This is the part where I give you a general idea what it is, but I don’t even. Alright, the movie starts with you, the audience, watching another audience in a movie theater. A man in a room finds a secret door and enters the movie theater. A little girl and a giant dog are walking down the aisles. After that, the movie switches to the main flow of narrative. This movie’s goal is not linearity or understandable occurrences, but as far as there is any organization, here it is: the main character, Monsieur Oscar, has a job that involves getting in the back of a big white limousine and going from appointment to appointment throughout the day. Each of these appointments requires him to become something different. He leaves his family in a big white house in the suburbs of Paris and talks business on his cell phone on his commute into the city, fulfilling his role as a high-powered banker. As he approaches the city, he pulls a mirror to him, pulls a costume and makeup from the other side of the limo, and starts changing. When he leaves the limousine, he is a crumpled old woman, begging on the streets, caning her way up and down and muttering about how everyone she loves is dead, and how she’s gotten so old that she’s begun to fear she will never die. He goes through many different appointments: gangster with a vendetta, insane violent person running through a graveyard, old man on his deathbed, sharing a final, teary embrace with his niece. The film never explains how these appointments connect, who sets them, or what Oscar’s profession is. As an audience member, you need to just sit back, absorb without question, and enjoy the many benefits of the movie (although not plot. If you want to enjoy plot, you are out of luck).

This trailer makes about as much sense as the movie, but it’s not about making sense, philistine!

The film is a beautiful, kaleidoscopic, metafictional paean to the art of cinema. There are little interludes between some of the appointments, during one of which (the only part of the movie that even comes close to explaining what is happening) an old man visits Monsieur Oscar and talks to him about how good a job he’s doing, but he looks a little tired and is he sure he wants to go on? To which he answers, “Je continue comme j’ai commencé, pour la beauté du geste” [I’ll go on as I started: for the sake of beauty (more literally, for the beauty of the gesture)]. The only other tidbit this exchange gives, other than the motivation of the main character, is also the reason this is nominally a science fiction movie. Monsieur Oscar is a little tired and a little nostalgic for the good old days. He talks with the old pro who visits him about how cameras used to weigh more than the actors did, then they were the size of their heads, and now they’re so small you can’t even see them. Does this mean cameras are everywhere, invisible, and this is the future? Does Monsieur Oscar belong to some type of commune, creating art for popular consumption? Is this bizarre semi-scripted reality TV? Impossible to know – it is only possible to theorize. The structure of the film allows it to explore a rich mix of artistic themes without having to pin anything down to plot like a dead butterfly in a collector’s box. Parental disapproval, the intrusion of the bizarre into the everyday, the irretrievability of lost love, resignation in the face of duty, the nature of beauty and art, all swirl together onscreen in a beautiful, unhinged hurricane of creativity.

You’re going to want to buy a bottle of French wine (maybe make it a magnum) and enjoy this as part of a cultural night. Some French might take issue with this, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a more French movie. Screw the audience, screw the narrative, let’s see what we can cobble together as a deep exploration of the methods and techniques of cinema and humanity’s impulse to observe. The result is a resounding success. The lack of explanation might infuriate you, but if you can enjoy the movie simply for la beauté du geste, you will not be disappointed.

Andrew Findlay has strong opinions about things (mostly literature) and will share them with you loudly and confidently. You can email him at afindlay.recess@gmail.com.

Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe: Batman: The Animated Series

batman

Andrew Findlay

In Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe, we take a look at science fiction and fantasy, why they’re great, and what they say about where our species has been and where it’s going.

One of the perennial Batman questions is, “Who played him best?” Do you like Adam West’s camp and goofiness? Maybe Michael Keaton’s slightly nerdy turn did it for you. Perhaps, for some reason, you liked George Clooney and his suit nipples. A lot of people prefer Christian Bale’s elegant Wayne and imposing Batman, but no one has done it better than Kevin Conroy. Pretty much any time you’ve seen a Batman cartoon, Conroy’s been the one doing Bruce Wayne. His stellar voice acting is one of the reasons that Batman: The Animated Series is the best screen interpretation of the Bat. It is an amazing show: beautiful, well-acted, philosophically deep, and highly artistic.

The list of things TAS has done for Batman is long, but foremost among them is steer the public consciousness of Batman away from Adam West’s sunny, hippy, bat-tastic version into the grim persona most are familiar with today. Frank Miller returned grim to the Caped Crusader, but TAS cemented it. Mostly through its action, we went from the hokey, paunchy sixties Batman to the Bale batman who tortures people to get answers and deals with major antagonists by leaving them to die. He didn’t kill people and he didn’t curse (kids show), but he did deal with identity crises, betrayal, and loss, and the art and direction of the show has almost every frame oppressively shadowy.

This is the best intro of all time. It also gives you an idea of the show’s aesthetics.

The art direction of this show is one of the main draws. A lot of cartoons are unimaginative, and the art is just something to throw on the screen to support the sound. Each frame of TAS is original, distinctive, and iconic. Imposing buildings stretch into skylines splashed in ocher and black, the lines are angular and threatening, art deco caught in a Lovecraftian nightmare. The voice acting is another impressive bit of this show. One of the main criticisms of Christian Bale’s interpretation is that his actual Batman voice sounds like a mix between an old bear caught in a trap and the raptor cry from Jurassic Park. It is over the top and ridiculous. Conroy’s Batman voice is deep and threatening, but still within the realm of what humans should sound like. His Bruce Wayne voice is noticeably higher and more friendly. The beautiful thing about Conroy’s Dark Knight is that the Batman voice is the one he uses all the time, with all those close to him, mask on or off. The Wayne voice only comes out if he has to talk to shareholders or reporters, which underlines one of the main keys to Batman’s identity: Bruce Wayne is the mask.

Bruce Wayne’s voice. Chummy and nonthreatening.

Batman’s voice. Small, subtle shift that makes it about 10 times more menacing. Also, as a sidenote for the this-show-is-super-deep-for-kids argument, Batman is dosed with fear toxin, and his biggest phobia is not spiders or heights, but his dead father’s disapproval.

What Faulkner said of whiskey applies to this show. There’s no such thing as a bad episode of Batman: The Animated Series, some episodes just happen to be better than others. There are three key episodes you should watch. “Almost Got ‘Im,” in which many of Batman’s adversaries sit around playing cards and talking about how close they came to finally beating the Caped Crusader. The structure allows for a handful of Batman-kicking-ass vignettes, and the poker game narrative itself is a vital part of the episode. This is a masterful use of frame narrative. You know what else uses frame narrative? The Odyssey, Heart of Darkness, and The Canterbury Tales. I wasn’t kidding around when I called it artistic: it shares some techniques with a Greek epic and a foundational text of English literature. Another good one is “I Am the Night,” which starts with a grimmer-than-usual Batman reading an article about yet another criminal’s release from jail. It sends him on a spiral of self-pity and self-doubt, and the focus of the episode is the Bat regaining his confidence and his sense of purpose. This is surprisingly heavy stuff for a children’s cartoon. In this episode, he quotes Santayana, for chrissakes. The last one that I’m listing here, just because it really stuck with me from the time I watched it when I was 12, is “His Silicon Soul.” An impostor Batman is found running around on the rooftops, and of course, an angered Batman explores. The answer to the mystery involves AI, 1950s robotics, and a wonderfully pulpy, flashy plot.

I rewatch these all the time, and they never get old. Watching these is not just about Batman’s gruffness and karate taking you through a rollicking good time. It certainly has that, but it is also visually stimulating and filled with philosophical dissections of who Batman is and what the point of his mission is. The art direction, acting, and intellectual content is much more highbrow than a lot of what is on offer to adults today. It is, always and forever, one of the best things ever to be on television, and now the whole thing is free to stream if you have an Amazon Prime account. Worst case scenario, you will enjoy your nostalgic interaction with a classic 90s afternoon cartoon, but it’s very likely you will be blown away by just how sophisticated it is.

Andrew Findlay has strong opinions about things (mostly literature) and will share them with you loudly and confidently. You can email him at afindlay.recess@gmail.com.

Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe: Hidetaka Miyazaki’s Dark Souls

dark souls

Andrew Findlay

In Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe, we take a look at science fiction and fantasy, why they’re great, and what they say about where our species has been and where it’s going.

My wife is out of the country on a business trip, and I bought Dark Souls to help fill the time I spend waiting for her to come back. It’s been on my radar for at least a couple years, but I’ve put off actually giving it a try due to one factor: every time I gave any thought to it, a companion thought came along and said, “Yeah, but do you really want to suffer that much? It’s like the hardest game of all time.” I beat it in six days, and it is actually not that bad. I’m writing about it here partially because it is fantasy, but mostly because it has dominated my life for the past week.

The main piece of buzz the uninitiated know about the game is its overwhelming difficulty. This is a positive feature – it was probably part of the marketing team’s campaign for the game. The problem is that so many people avoid it because they do not want to be punished in their leisure time. Here’s the thing: Dark Souls is not really that much harder than something like Halo or Halo 2 on Legendary. Sure, I died like 983 times, but that’s not as frustrating as it sounds. Death in this game is like jumping in Mario: it is the protagonist’s defining superpower. You are the Chosen Undead, a zombie selected to play a part in the ending or renewal of the world. When you die, you resurrect at the last checkpoint with all items, abilities, and stats intact (the penalty is that you lose all XP accrued since the last checkpoint). Dying and inexplicably resurrecting is a part of almost every video game. When Harbinger eviscerates Commander Shepard in Mass Effect, nobody explains how he’s alive and well after the next load screen. In Dead Souls, resurrection is a game mechanic. The main character is unkillable and will always resurrect at the last place he rested. From that point, the player can move through the level again and learn to avoid the things that murdered him last time. For example, I was fighting a difficult enemy on a stairwell. I rolled backwards to avoid his swing and fell to my death (the first time I met him, I did not avoid his swing and died immediately). On the third try, I got his attention and ran away until I was on solid, cliffless ground. Modifying my strategy slightly with each new attempt led to success, and that’s how it works with every challenge of this game. Die, die, die, succeed. By the time you’ve made all the necessary incremental adjustments, it’s baffling how you could ever have struggled as much as you did – when you finally move past, it seems like the easiest thing in the world. There were only three points in the game where I felt real despair: a ridiculous final boss of one level (Ornstein and Smough, the bastards), an absurd puzzle dungeon where it took me four hours to learn how to not get knocked into a pit by swinging blades over narrow bridges, and one of the very first levels where two zombies and three rats murdered my dagger-wielding, unleveled sorcerer continuously. The beginning of this game is absolutely brutal: you do not know the rules, you do not know how to move, and you do not have the skill points necessary to keep common vermin from destroying you. The great thing here is that it’s an RPG, so after the first 10 hours of pain, you start getting some real power. There is nothing in an RPG that cannot be solved by more experience points, and it is extremely gratifying when enemies who used to laugh at you as you hit them with a piece of blunt metal start disintegrating with an idle wave of your hand and a flash of blue light.

small-undead-rat-large

Dark-souls-gravelord-nito

The thing on the top killed me 23 times straight at the start of the game. Towards the end of the game, I killed the thing on the bottom effortlessly in a giant explosion of ethereal flame.

As far as the fantasy storytelling, I still can’t decide if its brilliant or if the game designers couldn’t be bothered. In the beginning, four Lords came out of the darkness, grabbed the power of the First Flame, and started killing the everlasting dragons. As long as the flame burns, the age lasts. At the beginning of the game, the flame is guttering, the world is ending, and people with the curse of the undead are popping up and being locked away. You escape and go to the world of the gods in order to pursue the power necessary to either save the world or help speed along its end. As far as explicit storytelling, that’s pretty much it, but the designers spend so much time giving weight and texture to every location that the setting ends up telling a lot of the story. It is the end of an age, and everything is rundown and crumbling, so drooping and rusted with age that it’s oppressive. NPC comments, item descriptions, and the setting itself give some hints as to how everything capsized, but mostly you just wander around dealing with the consequences and guessing at the causes. It’s refreshing. In Mario games, you know you have to save the princess. In  Mass Effect, you know you need to save the galaxy from terrifying, enslaving ship-bugs. In Dark Souls, the only thing that is clear is that everything is trying to kill you. I finished the game, and I chose the “good” path, but I’m still not sure if I made the right choice. Whose interests did I serve? Was I just a pawn of the gods? Did I really save anything at all, or did I perform what is at best a holding action against the encroaching dark? I still don’t know, but it was a joy to move through that world.

This game is three years old, a lot of people have played it, and a lot of people have avoided it. If you are avoiding it because of the reported difficulty, please give it a chance, especially if you’re the sort of gamer that doesn’t feel like a game is “finished” until you’ve beaten it on the hardest difficulty setting. The difficulty is bad, but it’s not that bad. Besides, in a gaming environment where difficulty is a constantly lowering bar, it is good to see a game that offers a challenge instead of just an experience. The worst gaming of my life was in Fable II when an entire dungeon consisted of hitting a floating, colored ball through a certain pattern. Here’s the twist: it changed colors, and you had to figure out to use an arrow, magic, or a sword to move it to the next location. It was insultingly easy, and it is important to have games like Dark Souls on the other side of the spectrum.

Andrew Findlay has strong opinions about things (mostly literature) and will share them with you loudly and confidently. You can email him at afindlay.recess@gmail.com.

Game Review: Guacamelee Gold Edition

image source: punkandlizard.com

image source: punkandlizard.com

Brent Hopkins

Guacamelee is a game that has gotten plenty of acclaim across every platform it has been released on (so, all of them, since it has been released on all of them). The game is a typical “Metroidvania” style game where you explore different levels that can’t be completely finished until you get all of the different abilities. The initial release was in 2013, but the definitive version titled  Guacamelee! Super Turbo Championship Edition, came out this past July for the new generation of consoles and Steam. This review covers the stopgap Gold edition of the game, which isn’t missing too much.

First, I will have to admit I have never beaten a Metroid or Castlevania game, so I understand the concept, but I don’t actually have a frame of reference for the Metroidvania style.

Guacamelee looks really nice. The characters are bright and colorful and the environments match perfectly. The feeling I got while playing was a movie or Looney Tunes depiction of a Mexican village, which completely sucks the player in. The game follows a luchador named Juan who has to stop the villain, Calaca, from merging the land of the living and the land of the dead by saving his childhood love. This is not a story that will change the way you see games, but it is sufficient.

The whole game looks like this.

The gameplay is simple, but equally solid. The combat is your basic beat-em-up-and-dodge but when the game begins spawning multiple enemies that have special shields that require you to use certain attacks to break, battles can get extremely hectic. There is also a combo system which requires you to chain attacks without getting hit or taking lengthy breaks between attacks. The higher your chain, the more money you make. The money can be used to upgrade your character in basic ways like health and power but also you can unlock costumes. Each costume has its pros and cons and can be switched out at any save point. This is a cool little addition but some costumes make combat a complete joke on Normal difficulty.

The other gameplay aspect is the platforming. This is where the game gets hard. Juan can switch between the land of the living and the dead at the press of a button and the game often requires you to do this and use abilities to clear rooms. This can be tricky — but never unfair — so I commend Drinkbox Studios for doing platforming right.

The game is a solid 15-hour game if you do everything. Rushing through the game, you can easily complete it in four or five hours, which is a bit disappointing for a $14.99 game, but that would be a disservice to yourself to play it that way.

This game lived up to the hype and I highly recommend picking it up, if this is your type of game.

Brent Hopkins considers himself jack-o-all-trades and a great listener. Chat with him about his articles or anything in general at brentahopkins@gmail.com.

Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe: Simon Barry’s Continuum

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Andrew Findlay

In Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe, we take a look at science fiction and fantasy, why they’re great, and what they say about where our species has been and where it’s going.

A few years ago, everyone was bemoaning the loss of quality SF programming on television. Lost had delivered one of the most reviled endings of all time, Battlestar Galactica had wrapped up, the Sci-Fi Channel had just been bought out by Swedish media conglomerate Syfy, which for some reason thought Americans only cared about ghosts and those who hunt them. There was a bit of a dry spell there for a minute, but in the past couple of years TV producers have looked at the success of shows like Battlestar and Lost and threw SF into a lot of their primetime fare with a gleeful what-will-stick-to-the-wall type attitude. The majority of these shows are major flops (I do not know first hand, but I hear Extant is terrible), but in defense of the television executives, a lot does actually stick to the wall. One such show is Continuum.

The_Swedish_Chef

Pictured: the man in charge of all Syfy programming.

Its premise hooked me quick. In the year 2077, governments across North America have defaulted, and corporations bailed them out. State sovereignty no longer exists, and the North American Union is administered by a Corporate Congress, where the most powerful corporations run everything. So what’s different, you may ask. Fair enough. Today, if a corporation does not like an organization, they will take a senator out to a very nice lunch and talk to them about all the nice lunches and campaign contributions to come in the future if they sponsor legislation against the interests of said organization. In the future of Continuum, corporations own the police, which is now a private security force, and they would simply pay these security professionals to kill literally everyone involved in any way with this organization. Ah, the invisible and silenced gun of the free market! The show opens with the apprehension of the leaders of a terrorist organization that bombed the Corporate Congress and killed thousands of people. They are going to be mass-executed in a weird future electric-dais thingy, but when the machine activates, the terrorists throw a device into it. Kiera, our hero, is a cop guarding the detainees. She sprints towards the machine to see what’s going on, and then all people anywhere near it disappear in a massive blast. Kiera wakes up in Vancouver in 2012. All the terrorists went back in time as well, and she has to singlehandedly stop them, relying on nothing more than her pluck, determination, and highly advanced bio-implants and supersuit.

The show is hybrid organism, SF-time-travel tissue over a procedural cop drama endoskeleton. The presence of technology in the show is appealing. Kiera is sent back in time solo, but she has many implants (for example, a communications suite implanted directly into her brain/ears, and an eye implant that provides a super-soldier style HUD, can take fingerprints, record evidence, etc) and a standard-issue supercop suit, which is bulletproof in addition to giving her enhanced stamina and strength, cloaking abilities, and a built-in taser. Aside from this, and the advanced technology sometimes employed by the terrorists, most of the show stays in 2012 as far as equipment goes. The technology is central to the narrative, but it is non-intrusive. Kiera’s main weapon is not her suit, but her ability to insinuate herself into the Vancouver Police Department and use police strategies to track down her targets. The story definitely relies on the tropes of future-tech, but it’s not overused, nor is it ever the source of some goofy deus-ex-machina. Kiera herself is the center of the show – torn away from her family (a husband and a little boy), unable to get back, knowing that any change made by her or the terrorists could mean her son will never exist (like Back to the Future, but with less Chuck Berry and more complete isolation and existential terror). The show also does well by not simplifying the terrorists – sure, these are mass-murdering monsters, but the system they want to bring down is horrifying. Kiera wants to take them out to preserve her way of life, which her and many people in 2077 enjoy. Fine, woohoo, let’s root for Kiera! On the other hand, if you go into debt in that world, they implant you with a chip that turns you into a hindbrain-using meatpuppet building microchips in a dark factory forever, so the goals of the terrorists, if not their methods, are eminently understandable. There is a delicious complexity around this issue – as an audience member, do you root for the good person supporting a corrupt system, or for the bad people trying to take down that system?

The season one trailer, to get a basic feel for the actiony parts of the show

The most high-minded trope of the show is time travel. None of the big players fully understand how it works – they work under the assumption that present actions will change future consequences, but they don’t really know anything. The show draws a lot of water from this well, but it’s okay because the well is very deep. Some questions raised are how can the terrorists even know their actions will have the outcomes they want, how can Kiera ever return to her actual future now that her very presence in the past is changing it, and how, over the course of time, people become what they are. This last question is explored mainly through Alec Sadler, Kiera’s hacker buddy (no timewrecked futurecop ever goes long without finding a hacker friend). He meets Kiera because the rig he built in his parent’s barn can access her military-encoded communications chip. This is because he built that chip, or will build it – Alec Sadler is the CEO of the biggest corporation in the North American Union, which makes him de facto leader of the world. He is the one behind many of the evils of 2077, but in 2012, he’s just a shy, geeky tech dude. In a standard cop drama, seeing the hacker buddy becoming ever more competent, more self-confident, seeing him get the girl and outwit the competition, would be a positive thing. In Continuum, there is always an ominous shadow over his character development, as it is taking him ever closer to becoming basically King Bowser.

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Pictured: Alec Sadler. He wouldn’t hurt a fly. Of course, in the future, he feeds them with the blood of his enemies, so.

The show uses some tired cop-drama tropes, but it is concept-driven, entertaining, and while it’s not quite as cerebral as Primer, it explores the intricacies and implications of time travel with honesty and detail. You should watch it, and the following five words are the most convincing part of my (or really anyone’s) argument to watch Continuum (or really any show): every episode is on Netflix.

Andrew Findlay has strong opinions about things (mostly literature) and will share them with you loudly and confidently. You can email him at afindlay.recess@gmail.com.

Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe: David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks

image source: NPR

image source: NPR

Andrew Findlay

In Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe, we take a look at science fiction and fantasy, why they’re great, and what they say about where our species has been and where it’s going.

As soon as I heard about David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks, released September 2nd, I bought a copy on the strength of two of his previous novels, Cloud Atlas and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. He’s got a few more books out there, but those were the two I’d read, and both of them are in my personal top 50. Cloud Atlas consists of six nested stories all intimately connected to each other and spanning a cycle of reincarnation that stretches from an 1850s sea voyage to a far-future post-apocalypse society. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet plays like an exhaustively researched and excellently penned historical novel about Dejima, a Dutch trading post in 1800s Japan, but it takes a really weird and delicious turn about three-fourths of the way through. Mitchell’s ability to move in established literary circles while cultivating and applying his high-octane imagination makes him one of my favorite authors. He releases books with prose like cut gems and imaginative mythos like the sea in storm, and the juxtaposition is sumptuous and rewarding.

Cloud atlas

The Bone Clocks is organized similarly to Cloud Atlas, in that it consists of six interconnected novellas as opposed to one homogeneous narrative. The first one is the story of 15-year-old Holly Sykes, living in Gravesend in 1984. Holly is the key character in the book. She is at least a supporting character in each section, and she is the POV character in the beginning 1984 section and the final 2043 section. Mitchell sets her up as an extremely identifiable and appealing character from the get-go by tapping into an emotion and life-situation with which everyone is intimately familiar: helpless teenage angst. Holly is dating a skeezy older boyfriend, Vinny, her mom finds out, and the massive fight between the two leads to Holly running away. She runs to her boyfriend’s house and finds him in bed with her best friend, the poor girl. Really freaked out by this point, she sets off on a walking tour of all of bloody Kent. She ends up picking strawberries at a farm to make enough money to extend her time away from home enough to really make sure her mom feels bad, but then one of her friends finds her at the farm and tells her her little brother is missing, so she comes home. This section introduces Holly as a naive young girl and gets the reader to identify with her, but it also starts setting up some of the weirdness of the novel. Mitchell’s modus operandi is to write a completely standard narrative that could stand all on its own, then fill it with the bizarre. Holly, while internally monologuing, talks about hearing voices, which she refers to as “The Radio People,” while she was young. She is taken to a doctor who touches her forehead and appears to cure her. Before she was cured, she was hallucinating a woman named Miss Constantin, who would visit her in her bedroom. Other weird stuff happens in this section, but I do not want to spoil the mythos for you. This part introduces Holly, shows her making a dumb mistake, and explores her heartbreak deeply enough to get the reader to root for her throughout the remaining 60 years of her life that this book covers. In each future section, Holly is powerful, no-nonsense, and able to detect bullshit from a distance of about one AU, probably due to her earlier experience with the lying, smarmy Vinny. The next section follows the charming, driven, and borderline sociopathic Cambridge scholarship student Hugo Lamb as he poses, lies, and cheats his way through the 1990s to make sure he gets to where he wants in life. He meets Holly during a ski trip to Switzerland, during which they spend one night together. The third section follows Ed Brubeck, a war reporter addicted to adrenaline who has to choose between risking his life reporting on the Iraq War in 2004 and dedicating himself to his young daughter Aoife, the mother of whom is Holly Sykes. The fourth section, set in 2015, follows a past-his-prime English novelist as he deals with various failures in his personal and professional life. He becomes friends with Holly because she has published a book about her paranormal experiences, and they run into each other on various book tours. The fifth section gets its own paragraph — I’ll come back to it. In the sixth section, 2043, the narrative follows a very aged Holly Sykes as she putters about her farm on Sheep’s Head Ireland and attempts to survive and raise her granddaughter and an orphan in a post-Fall society. Some unnamed cataclysm occurred, electricity is hard to come by, the internet is falling apart, and since we relied on it so heavily, so is civilization.

What's up pussy cat? Whoa-oh-oh!

Wikipedia and cat pictures are the lifeblood of civilization.

My two favorite sections are with Ed Brubeck in 2004, because it flawlessly interweaves the conflict and tragedy of the Iraq War with the trials and travails of satisfying the people you love. I also very much liked the final section, with Holly scraping together a living in a post-apocalyptic setting, which allowed Mitchell to bring his full extrapolative powers to bear. Section five gets its own analysis because it is paradoxically the coolest and least successful section. The Bone Clocks is a fantasy novel, but for most of the book, the fantasy lives on the margins. Inexplicable events which range from terrifyingly violent to mildly head-scratching occur to each and every main character, but they are not the main focus and they come off with a subtle touch. I avoided talking about it mostly because I did not want to spoil any big reveals for you, and if you do not want to be spoiled, skip the rest of this paragraph. So, here’s the framing narrative that links all six sections: immortality is real, and there are two main types: the type people who reincarnate naturally enjoy (very rare), and the type people who use artifacts to eat the souls of others enjoy (yep, soul vampires). Miss Constantin from the first section is a member of The Anchorites of the Dusk Chapel of the Blind Cathar. Said chapel has a painting of the Blind Cathar in it who, if its devotees bring a psychically gifted child before it, will distill that child’s soul into Black Wine, the life-extending elixir of the soul vampires. They also have magic powers — they study the Shaded Way, which gives them the ability to fire psychic bolts and control matter with funny hand gestures. On the “Good Guys” side of the field, we have the Horologists, who naturally reincarnate, also have psychic powers (from studying the Deep Stream, none of that nasty Shaded Way magic thank you very much), and some of whom have been around since pretty much the start of civilization. The protagonist of this section is Marinus, one of the Horologists. He is living as Dr. Iris Fenby at the time of his section, but was child psychologist Dr. Yu Leon Marinus when he “cured” Holly of the Radio People (going back a bit, Constantin was appearing to Holly in order to harvest her psychically powerful soul, and Marinus stopped this by closing her third eye by touching her forehead).  This name struck a bell, and I had to think for a while before I realized that one of the main characters from The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet was this immortal bastard, then going by Lucas Marinus. There is nothing, absolutely nothing that happens in de Zoet which indicates Marinus is in any way supernatural. He is a doctor who befriends the main character. He dies late in the book, and he refers to his passing as a snake shedding his skin. The reader assumes he is just being a stoic 19th-century scientist trying to comfort his friend, but nope, he really was just shedding one body for another. All of Mitchell’s books are interconnected, but a b-character from another novel actually being a member of a secret society of immortals is a joyful Mitchellian flourish. The sixth section serves as a coda to the narrative streams of the other parts of the novel, but the fifth section is where the main conflict is resolved. All the little hints and strangenesses of the previous sections, that prowled outside the main narrative like hungry wolves outside the city walls, end up front and center in this here. The horologists launch a plan to invade the Dark Chapel, engage in psychovoltaic (Mitchell’s neologism) battles, and end the reign of these carnivores. This section is full of people beating each other up with their brains, casting psychic shields and throwing bolts from their hands. The fight itself, the final maneuver of the Horologists against the Anchorites, is the main focus, and the book suffers from the shift from realistic, character-driven plotting tinged with the supernatural to all-out fantasy warfare. Mitchell’s gift is in fusing the fantastic with the real, and he leans too far over into fantasy here. It is still rewarding and fun to read, but this section seems somehow cheap compared with the others. It also suffers because it serves as an info-dump – after the delicious anticipation of the previous sections as the reader wonders what the hell is going on, the reader is strapped to a chair with their eyes taped open and bombarded with all the answers at once.

clockwork orange

I mean, it was extremely satisfying getting all the answers, but this is how it happened.

This novel is triumphant and amazing. It is not flawless, but who cares? First-rate imagination melded with first-rate character building and prose results in a product anyone and everyone should read. It gets a little ridiculous in the final battle of section five, but that type of failing is a lot better than being subjected to a novelist whose books all “deal with contemporary Londoners whose upper-middle-class lives have their organs ripped out by catastrophe or scandal” (quote from the past-his-prime English novelist). At this point, Mitchell has more than proven himself, and I will continue reading whatever he continues writing.

Andrew Findlay has strong opinions about things (mostly literature) and will share them with you loudly and confidently. You can email him at afindlay.recess@gmail.com.