Sicario Review


Early on into Sicario, a group of police officers heave and puke upon discovering a tomb of drug cartel victims stuffed into the walls of a suburban house. But even though these warriors-on-drugs lose their lunch, they never lose their heads. The same can be said about Sicario, a blood-soaked, hollywoodized yet still-grounded police flick that maintains a strong sense of direction.

That’s especially important in what is, for the first hour and a half of the film, a fairly slow jog through names and places, constructing a tower of a situation that the final half hour of the film then proceeds to completely knock down. Despite the complexity of the War on Drugs and the confusion of the various cartels of Mexico, Sicario skillfully presents all aspects of its small (fictional) subsection of the War on Drugs story in a way that is never for a moment confusing or hard to swallow. Confusion and constant unexplained name-dropping has been the death and downfall of too many police/espionage/military films, but Sicario avoids this deadly trap, even while its characters often fall into others.

Sicario follows Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), an FBI SWAT team member who tires of fighting drugs in the outskirts of Arizona and accepts an opportunity to plunge into the violent mix near the Mexico-US border. Instead of targeting low-level hit men, she, along with her partner (Daniel Kaluuya), joins up with a Department of Defense advisor (Josh Brolin), a scorned Mexican ex-prosecutor (Benicio del Toro), and a squad of gruff soldiers to form a plan to draw out the cartel’s leadership.

Blunt as a level-headed yet idealistic officer delivers the best performance of her career. Yet despite her intense facade that cracks just enough to let the audience in, she never steals any scenes from del Toro, who plays the role of the dark, mysterious antihero in a way that dodges cliche and stays grounded throughout. Blunt and del Toro combine and clash in the numerous sections of verbally combative dialogue, creating some of the strongest overall scenes, from both an acting perspective and a writing perspective, between two characters that we’ve seen this year. The rest of the cast holds its own, doing all it can to keep up with its stellar leads, but as time goes on their performances will likely fade into the background of their careers, just as they fade into the background of the film.

Director Denis Villeneuve shoots with precision and creates geometrically interesting shots with finesse, mixing up his style in sometimes dramatic ways (like a scene shot almost entirely through thermal and night vision) to compliment Sicario’s rapid shifts from crime drama, to action flick, to realistic war movie, to Bond-ish espionage.

In regards to accuracy in depiction of the War on Drugs? I’m hardly qualified to say, but I can at least vouch for the honesty and authenticity that appear to come through in the decent (although by no means outstanding) screenplay and the robust (but not too action-oriented) pacing.

Sicario should be seen by everyone who enjoys action, everyone who enjoys war films (or doesn’t enjoy them, as is often the goal of the war film genre), and by everyone who wishes to show off their 2015 astuteness at the Oscars in just a few months.

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain Review

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MGSV: The Phantom Pain is the best Playstation 2 game ever made. True, it came out barely two months ago and only for modern machines, but it has controls that are sufficiently complicated, trying to command too many actions onto too few buttons, so as to resemble in feel games of previous decade. This is not an insult. The Metal Gear games have always had odd, complex control schemes, and V is the best of the bunch. It puts more actions onto fewer buttons with more success than any PS2, I mean, err, Metal Gear, game has been able to accomplish.

But what am I doing, jumping right into a game by talking about the controls? No, I should start in a hospital, where, conveniently, the game starts as well. It throws you right into the hazy, first-person perspective of someone slowly waking up from a coma, tended to by a kindly, nearly photorealistic eastern European doctor. Of course it only remains peaceful for so long, before heavily armored soldiers bust in and start shooting, a hulking fiery Frankenstein starts to fling flame indiscriminately, and a mysterious man called Ishmael shows up to help you through it all (Ishmael really needs to tighten up his scrubs in the back). You learn the ropes piece-by-piece, as your body slowly awakens from the nine-year sleep it has been succumbed to. It is an ingenious hiding place for a contextual tutorial that not only acclimates the player to the odd feel of the controls, but introduces those unfamiliar with Metal Gear to the overall climate, the conspiracies, the bad guys (hint: they’re the ones shooting at you), and the strange supernatural twists. It is, hands down, the best introduction a videogame has ever had.

No game can possibly live up to such a strong start, and Phantom Pain is no exception. After its explosive inception it resorts to fairly standard Metal Gear gameplay. Both stealth and Rambo are valid approaches to almost every mission, but unlike most games that give you such a choice, MGSV gives you legitimate incentive to go the sneaky route. See, Mother Base, the home fort of your non-national military organization Diamond Dogs, was destroyed nine years ago. You have to rebuild it, and take revenge on the pale-skinned cowboy who caused the disaster. How to rebuild it? By attaching soldiers to…balloons.

The “fulton recovery device” mechanic is tonally inconsistent with the rest of this serious tale, but it’s an inspired design move. It allows you to capture soldiers (and later, equipment) that you come across during missions, and add them to your Diamond Dogs army to deploy, help you with research, etc. While it is silly to watch dazed soldiers whisked into the air via small black party decoration, and while it’s never explained just how they become convinced to loyally join your side, it encourages the player to play aggressively yet non-lethally. That elite soldier might be dangerous, but you don’t want him dead. You want him for yourself.

Undoubtedly, this objectifies the soldiers on the battlefield, turning them into stats and skills. This isn’t by itself a problem, because Phantom Pain already goes 90% farther into humanizing its enemies simply by giving each soldier a name, but it does diminish the impact of an otherwise harrowing late-game plot twist.

But over the course of about 40 or so core story mission, Phantom Pain packs in enough shocking turns to make up for this slight diminution in impact. True, a few “big” reveals will be lost on those who haven’t played (or simply don’t remember; it is from 2004) Metal Gear Solid 3, but in general Phantom Pain’s story accomplished something that no other game in the series has yet achieved: you can actually understand it.

Indeed, it is finally true. A Metal Gear game…that can actually be understood. Don’t get me wrong; the plot is still the complex mix of various conspiratorial organizations and sci-fi mumbo-jumbo that has always been present, but it doles it out in such manageable portions that it never overwhelms. In fact, I didn’t start banging my head against the wall in confusion until what were literally the last few minutes of the game, something that I spent the entirety of MGS4 doing.

Where Phantom Pain’s story soares is in its characters. It never lives up to, say, The Witcher 3, but the incredible writing, voice acting, and facial capture lend humanity to both the black-horse scheming villain and the macho-man main character. This is especially true for Quiet, the controversial sniper who wears less clothing than a Victoria’s Secret model. Body language is, obviously, an essential part of her character (no, not because of her nakedness, but because she doesn’t talk), and underneath all that…nothing, there is a surprisingly deep character buried within her. It’s a pity she’s so shamelessly sexualized (there’s a story reason why she wears few clothes, but it’s a pathetic excuse), because had she actually been clothed, I would go as far to call her a “strong female character.”

Quiet is part of the buddy system, a new addition to the series that lets you take one of a four sidekicks (one of which is technically a vehicle) alongside you on missions. It’s a fantastic idea that adds an extra layer of depth and strategy to gameplay, but ultimately it’s terribly balanced. As soon as you get the ability to drop in vehicles, the horse loses all function. The walker is great for all-out attacks, but if you desire stealth, it serves no purpose. The dog (wolf, really) is useful for distractions and scouting, but almost anything the dog can do Quiet can do far better.

Quiet is incredibly overpowered. She can scout outposts and give you a near-complete map of enemy activity before ever nearing the base. She can wipe out entire battalions, both lethally and non-lethally, with almost no help from you. If you order her to start firing, enemies will immediately target her, conveniently turning all of their backs in the same direction and leaving themselves wide open for stealth-takedowns. She’s a good failsafe for if you get spotted, but she takes almost as much skill out of the game as does the “chicken hat”, Phantom Pain’s toggle-able version of an easy mode.

But these are minor gripes. The Phantom Pain only falls flat on its face in one area. Though I can hardly say the game is shallow; numerous essays have already been written concerning its symbolic and philosophical implications, Metal Gear Solid V handles the theme of child soldiers in a tangential way, lacking in depth or any real feeling of sensitivity. There are the occasional scenes where adult characters will offer some sweet, heroic, or sentimental gesture towards the abused children you encounter over the course of the game, but MGSV finds it sufficient to ultimately turn the children into just another type of enemy. Their storyline isn’t tragic; it’s cold and undeveloped. The only real “character” among the children hardly seems like a child at all, but is written and acted just like a shorter version of another soldier. Some may argue that that’s the point, to depict how war changes a child. But MGSV provides no solvency for this dilemma besides dramatized spankings (that sometimes involve limb dislocation) and suppressed revolutions.

This problem is ultimately derived from overextension. It’s been known for a while now that director Hideo Kojima didn’t actually get to finish the game anywhere near what he had wanted. Nevertheless, his style and direction remains as sharp and stylish as ever; he’s cut the half-hour cutscenes and replaced them with concise, expressive segments and numerous audio logs that flesh out the story more than his previous mini-movies ever could. Here you’ll find some of the best camerawork, framing, and lighting ever seen in a game; Kojima’s experiences working on Silent Hills clearly show through.

Whatever you think of Hideo Kojima’s personality (I personally think he’s a narcissistic creep), you cannot deny that he makes great videogames. This is his best yet; it represents the perfect combination of beautiful filmmaking and storytelling and fantastic situation-based gameplay that he’s always aimed for but never quite gotten ahold of. It stretches itself a bit too thin, but what remains is still an incredible whole experience full of unforgettable moments. With the time and money Kojima was expecting we may have easily gotten one of the best games of all time. Right now? We’ll simply have to settle with “incredible,” and dream about what might have been: the loss of Kojima’s final chapters will forever remain a phantom pain within gamers’ minds.

DMC: Devil May Cry Review

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DMC: Devil May Cry is devilishly stylish, angelically designed, and ridiculous in every sense of the word. It traps you in a warped world where gravity has no meaning and where soft drinks are manufactured by giant, ancient, pupae. Where security cameras become disembodied eyes, and where architecture bends and twists as if folded by an origami artist. And it is populated with every manner of broken-doll-faced, slashing, gnashing modernised demons within and outside of the realm of imagination. It feels like angst incarnate, and it is glorious.

Unfortunately, it’s set up on the back of a mediocre story that attempts, and fails, to deliver a strong message about the degree of control over our modern lives. A suave businessman demon named Mundus has conquered the world’s leaders through debt. He spies on humans through CCTV networks, controls their thoughts through the media, and keeps them docile on a diet of heavily-advertised sodas. When not farming human souls for the consumption of demonkind, he reclines with girlfriend/wife Lilith, a monstrous woman more artificially tucked and stretched than the mother from Brazil (the obvious metaphor for society’s emphasis on looks does not go unnoticed). The attempt at a morale is valiant, and relatively rare in gaming, but the story eventually falls back on good ol’ demon killing and an uninteresting terrorist group as its main crutch plot points. It’s not as if cautionary tales of establishment power are new or original; DMC just seems to be lazy in its attempts to highlight an already saturated theme.

The task of freeing humanity falls upon the half-angel half-demon Dante, a booze-infused and rock-skulled punk who spends his days “killing demons and getting laid”, as he puts it. He’s found by his brother, a computer genius named Virgil, and a young witch named Kat, who has the ability to see and create portals to the demonic realm of Limbo. The story remains fairly straightforward, with simple objectives about how to weaken and ultimately destroy Mundus providing context to an entirely linear story. The writing is excellent, sprinkled with witty and sarcastic one-liners from Dante. Yet the voice acting, which is rushed at best and dry at worst, turns an otherwise simple-but-engaging script into something hard to take seriously (or hard to take humorously, for that matter). It’s not terrible, but when such excellent lines are delivered to barely half of their potential, it can be hard not to wince.

That being said, Dante’s obnoxious yet likable nature helps to contribute to DMC’s overall sense of style. Every move is flashy, most of them literally so, and environments are some of the most dementedly beautiful seen in gaming. The world itself wants to kill you, and it makes this known. Huge neon letters flashing “Kill Dante” or “Destroy” will appear around arenas as a sort of cheerleader encouragement to the demons surrounding you. Floating bits and pieces emanate from buildings sometimes more twisted than those of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Everything is highlighted by a grinding soundtrack that alternates between intense techno and heavy (and I mean heavy) metal. One of the best levels puts this music at the forefront, surrounding the player with walls of digitized airwaves and silhouettes of nightclub goers and strippers. The gothic style of previous Devil May Cry titles has been trashed to make way for a bold, modern, rebellious aesthetic that overloads the senses and makes demon slaying feel genuinely “cool.”

The slaying itself occupies 90% of DMC’s core gameplay (outside of some simple yet satisfying platforming). Each of the five main weapons (plus the three different types of firearm) feels so distinct that skills learned with one cannot easily be translated to another. Two weapons are “angel,” fast, wide, and perfect for crowd control. Two others are “demon”, centralized, sluggish, and used to deliver high damage to small areas or individual enemies. The all-around default sword, aptly named “Rebellion,” serves as a simple compliment to its brighter, more specialized counterparts. Stringing together attacks into combinations is fluid and satisfying, especially because the game keeps track of points and letter-grades you in real-time. Beautiful combos are simple to pull off with responsive controls (even combos that involve quickly switching between weapons), and the constant blue-red-black-yellow hues of every battle make them a sight to behold. It’s too bad the upgrade tree becomes almost complete after just one playthrough. Seeking out new moves and improvements would’ve made for the perfect motivation to explore DMC’s wealth of modes, difficulty levels, and replayable content.

Everything tends to fall apart in the last few missions, as DMC’s sense of flippant action starts to diminish and we’re met with a final boss fight that feels more like a QTE than the cinematic, epic, and visually creative bosses that come before. But by that time, you’ll be on such a DMC-high that you won’t care if the last hour or so flounders. You’ve chopped, sliced, and clubbed your way through a beautiful world that knows exactly when to introduce a new enemy, and exactly when to introduce a new weapon. Maybe you didn’t get laid, but you sure as hell killed demons.

Battle Royale Review

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There’s a moment near the end of Battle Royale when the main character, Shuya, overlooks a cliff to rest his eyes upon the crumpled body of a dead classmate, and shouts, “What is the point of all this? Why?” Ok, that’s not an exact quote; I’ve inevitably mixed it with my own words because the same question was running through my head for the entirety of Battle Royale. Shuya does not know the answer. I do not know the answer. And I’m wholly convinced that no-one, not the director, not the screenwriter, probably not even the writers of the original novel or of the following manga, knows the answer.

Battle Royale is a shameless film, one of the few examples of “torture porn” to be seen outside of the B-horror genre. Known mostly for being a predecessor of the wildly popular Hunger Games franchise, it’s no wonder that this unrated film comes with a viewer discretion warning.

See, the Hunger Games and Battle Royale are both films about kids forced to kill each other. But Hunger Games has a point. Among other things, it is cleverly self-reflective and savagely critical of its audience, condemning brutal child-gladiator-fights as entertainment for a world of excess, while drawing real-life audience members and readers attracted to little more than the premise of said battles. The Hunger Games hates you for enjoying it, even as it entertains you with a completely realized sci-fi world and complex characters that endure realistic pain and realistic arcs.

Battle Royale has…none of that. It is a film almost as soulless as some of its characters, students from the same class forced to fight to the death because of, um, unemployment? If memory serves, the US during the Great Depression had an unemployment rate considerably higher than near-future Japan’s 15%, yet dystopian mass kidnap/forced murder seemed to have been kept to a minimum.

Battle Royale tells us nothing of its world apart from a short exposition. Within minutes the class is set loose on an abandoned island and within hours they start deliberately killing each other. Shuya and his crush hobble helplessly around the battlefield, equipped only with binoculars and a pot lid for protection. The more barbaric and well-armed of the students stay conveniently away from our heroes, that is, until they stumble across a benevolent protector that seems perfectly willing to do all the fighting for them.

Battle Royale switches between characters and plot lines frequently and sporadically, yet it somehow fails to provide any of its characters with meaningful change or development. The fact that the fight can only last three days is a poor excuse for why so many normal middle-schoolers have worked up the guts to become mass-killers so quickly, somehow digging so deep into their melodramatic angst that they were able to pull out a bit of Freddy Kruger.

Of course, many try to resist the violence, to make peace with fellow classmates, to act with honor. But the honor usually reduces itself to a series of valiant knights in shining armor; boys ready to take a chest full of bullets to save a girl they think is “cute.” And that peace? That resistance to violence? Even the most pacifistic of teenagers seem to become unusually blood-thirsty on a moment’s notice, attacking classmates with guns or switchblades or hatchets only moments after talking about how they’re not killers.

The violence in Battle Royale earns its parental advisory. Blood spurts in an exaggerated fashion, but not exaggerated enough to summon up a feeling of style, as in the Kill Bill movies. Teenagers die with over-the-top reactions, but not over-the-top enough so that their sobbing and begging in their final moments fails to disturb. Combat is too savage to be fun and too brutal to be morbidly entertaining. It is utterly pointless, and, frankly, quite boring. Battle Royale is two-hour film that amounts to little more than a countdown from forty-something to zero. Every time a kid dies (which is basically every scene), the film almost literally checks off a box. One more down, and this many to go. Meanwhile, the audience checks off one more minute until the credits roll.

Throughout all of Battle Royale I was hoping for an eventual First-Blood, a sudden revelation at the end that sheds light on “what it was all about.” But there was none. The “villain” characters remain absent of any motivation, and with the exception of a single character the “good guys” that the movie follows (until it spontaneously decides to jump somewhere else) are all basically one-dimensional. Battle Royale sort of just ends when the fight ends, giving little explanation on how the characters’ lives were affected by being thrust into a war zone for three days. When the blood stops flowing, the camera starts rolling. Let’s hope that the audience has already left.