Scott Pilgrim vs. The World Review

Image result for scott pilgrim vs the world movie poster

There’s almost too much of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World to handle. Perhaps it’s the inevitable result of compressing an entire graphic novel series into a single film. Perhaps it’s the unavoidable pitfall of choosing an aesthetic so overwhelming that advil might be an acceptable substitute for popcorn. But only one thing is for certain: Scott Pilgrim vs. The World does not know how to handle itself. It’s too ambitious, too creative, and too dedicated to its aesthetic to remember to follow basic rules of narrative and pacing. As a result, Scott Pilgrim is consistently ingenious and original only in terms of its moment-to-moment filmmaking craft. It’s a great series of clips, but it can’t tie itself down to become a great movie.

That’s not to say it isn’t worth watching; Scott Pilgrim is absolutely saturated with style, at times resembling a fighting game, an anime, and a martial-arts extravaganza all at once. Most every moment contains some sort of expressive vignette (ie, sounds often appear spelled out within the frame, 1960s-Batman style) or a bizarre (yet almost universally effective) editing trick that never would have been considered in film school. It shines with a neon sheen, and the crowded fast-paced effects-filled action is chaotic while still somehow remaining (unlike most American action scenes) easy to understand. Its dorky titular protagonist defies gravity as he flies across the screen like a superhero, encapsulating the fantasies that all nerds have of transforming their (or rather, our) average bodies into the champions of our media.

The sense of empowerment is thrilling, but all too often it ends up drowned out by confusion. Scott Pilgrim’s story is almost incomprehensible, despite its simplicity, and it alternately moves too slowly (almost nothing happens for the first half hour) and too quickly (the last 45 minutes are fight scene after fight scene, all of which are well put together, but none of which significantly stand out from the rest). Pilgrim is tasked with eliminating the seven evil exes (not necessarily ex-boyfriends, as he is often corrected) of his new girlfriend, an aloof girl with brightly colored hair named Ramona. Scott Pilgrim makes a joke out of the fact that it doesn’t actually explain this motivation until well after the movie is running full force, but the joke certainly isn’t funny. The first time an “ex” appears, and the movie leaps out of the relative normalcy of its first half into utterly surreal retro-game-style action, it feels like being thrown into the deep end of a pool without ever being taught how to swim. Scott Pilgrim is one of those films that you simply have to accept at face value because its internal logic is so nutty it becomes impossible to follow. That itself is fine, but it would have been better if the film actually signposted for us that this was how it was going to be, instead of expecting us to adjust for ourselves after a somewhat lackluster first act.

The film is lifted by its casting, which uses the typecast-reputations of big names to embody the cartoony, exaggerated roles of its comic-book world. We can tell that the Aubrey Plaza character is going to be dryly sarcastic, because that’s who Aubrey Plaza is. We can tell that the Chris Evans character will be a confident action-packed he-man, because that’s who Chris Evans is. Despite the fact that so many characters are packed into so short a film with such few introductions, this phenomenon demystifies each character and allows the audience a chance to orient themselves. Michael Cera in particular is an absolutely perfect Scott Pilgrim, bringing a shy sincerity and a reserved sense of humor to the character.

I have to confess to the nerd-crime of having never read the Scott Pilgrim comics, but given their relative obscurity outside of a certain fandom, that likely gives me the same perspective as most potential viewers of Scott Pilgrim vs The World. The people who’ve read the comics (excuse me, graphic novels) seem to think that the film is a loyal representation. But there may be something in saying that this was an adaptation that either shouldn’t have happened or should have happened over a series of films rather than a single one. Its originality makes it worth seeing, and its flashy action certainly keeps it enjoyable, but taken as a film rather than as a series of scenes it’s an overstuffed mess, dull near the beginning, preachy near the end, and relentless in the middle. Director Edgar Wright has never made a more creative film, but he’s certainly made better ones.

Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End Review

Image result for uncharted 4

The majority of the previous console generation focused on developing the concept of the “cinematic game,” attempting to communicate to the player a feeling of being in a movie. As console power has increased and game development theory has advanced the industry has moved more and more towards open worlds; even series that were once linear, like Metal Gear and The Witcher, have made the leap from movie-like storytelling to sprawling epic. It’s a shame, then, that Uncharted 4 has to exist, as it represents the pinnacle of the cinematic species. It’s not only a bittersweet farewell to one of the most beloved characters in gaming, but also to a dying breed of interactive storytelling.

With Uncharted 4 developer Naughty Dog has solidified its position as one of the most talented studios working today. Uncharted 4 is a meticulously crafted game, not only in the spectacular graphics (arguably the best on any console) but in the ingenious design that remains controlled and linear without ever seeming so. Playing Uncharted 4 often feels like an open world, as the environments use subconscious visual cues more subtle and ingenious than even Half-Life 2 to pull the player along invisible strings. Never before has a puppet-player been able to feel so free.

But while the player revels in false freedom, Nathan Drake himself, long-time protagonist of the Uncharted series, is feeling tied down. At the beginning of Uncharted 4 the wisecracking hero has managed to settle into some semblance of a normal life with his wife Elena. His most grand adventures consist of diving for sunken cargo crates and stamping papers late into the night. The years show on Nate’s face, and his nostalgia for his old escapades is masterfully woven in with the player’s own nostalgia for the series that started almost ten years ago (especially in one section where Nate reenacts his classic firefights with a dart gun and some targets). Though the initial hours are heavy on non-interactive cutscenes, Uncharted 4 mitigates boredom by both sprinkling in action-filled flashbacks as well as using crowded environmental storytelling to minimize any necessary exposition.

Nathan’s life is suddenly interrupted when Sam, Nate’s yet-unmentioned brother, seems to come back from the dead, and lures Nate back into another pulp-fiction adventure in hunt for the legendary treasure of pirate Captain Avery.

But Uncharted 4 makes it clear that, as much as Nathan craves his previous life, he’s truly a changed man without the appetite for the excitement. Without spoiling anything, Nathan’s motivations are a far cry from the glory and riches that drove him in previous titles.

The same can be said for the rest of the characters, who are flawlessly written and acted beyond the high bar of previous Uncharted games. They’re not only older and more quiet; they’re more human, and it’s clear that the lessons about creating companionship and meaningful relationships in games that Naughty Dog learned from The Last of Us is shining through. As exquisite as the action is, Uncharted 4’s real draw is its thorough exploration of its characters that plucks more heartstrings over the course of the 15 hour story than almost any other action game has been able to touch.

In fact the entirety of Uncharted 4 seems deliberately designed to match Nate’s struggle with the disillusionment of adventure. Combat encounters are far less frequent, and most can be approached by a simple yet effective stealth system instead of guns blazing. Though the snappy variety of firearms makes the loud approach more fun, the quiet route does a better job of reducing the ludonarrative dissonance that has plagued Uncharted for so long.

This creates some problems with level design in combat sections; sometimes in an attempt to work for both stealth and shooting enemy encounters get caught in an awkward middle ground between the two. But in general, the game has shifted focus away from moment-to-moment combat to focus on climbing, set-pieces, and emptier chapters that allows the game to show off its unbelievably detailed world and develop its characters through passive dialogue.

Everything that Uncharted 4 attempts is the best the series has ever accomplished. Naughty Dog has finally figured out how to create a decent melee system that perfectly captures the fisticuff-tussles of Indiana Jones, and has also successfully created legitimate boss fights-highly scripted hand-to-hand fight sequences that are far more flowing and satisfying than the bullet-sponges that Uncharted has used in the past. Though Uncharted 4 doesn’t have a “flagship” set piece like Uncharted 2’s train or Uncharted 3’s airplane, it still imparts its share of ludicrously over-the-top action. Nevertheless it’s a shame that the car chase sequence, likely the game’s best action scene, was given away at E3.

There’s infinitely more delve into here, from the addition of a jaw-snapping air punch to combat and to a rope that encourages a feeling of smooth freedom throughout both climbing and fighting, but suffice it to say, Naughty Dog has made a masterpiece. Uncharted 4 ends with a tidy sense of closure, and though the Uncharted series could make a return, Nathan Drake and his band of thieves definitely won’t. Nevertheless, it may be better for Uncharted to die here and stay dead, not only to avoid the overdone prequel/sequel trap that Gears of War and Mass Effect are dangerously close to falling into, but also to see what else Naughty Dog is capable of accomplishing. They’ve checked the box on the cinematic game; it’s time they move into uncharted territory.

Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst Review


Image result for mirror's edge catalyst

Mirror’s Edge Catalyst should have been a simpler game. It should have focused on what it does even better than its excellent predecessor. It should have cut down on the find-and-gather side missions that seem obligatory in open worlds. It should have gone with an entirely different story that does a better job of complementing its fascinating sci-fi future.

But it did not. Catalyst is so wrapped up in being bigger and better than the original Mirror’s Edge that it ends up only being bigger. That’s not inherently a bad thing; the first Mirror’s Edge was far too short to fully enjoy its refreshing, flowing parkour system. But Catalyst, at times, worries more about if you have something to do than whether or not what you’re doing works in its own context.

But I digress: Mirror’s Edge Catalyst takes place in the City of Glass, the capital of a futuristic nation overrun by a dystopian version of extreme capitalism. There is no government, only ruling corporations and the families that lead them. You play as Faith, a “runner” that acts as part of an illicit organized courier system across the rooftops of Glass. Catalyst thankfully wastes no time throwing you right into her bright-red running shoes and whisking you off to leap and climb across the tops of soaring skyscrapers.

In these simple moments of running from place to place, Catalyst is a magical experience. The Mirror’s Edge series remains the only legitimate example of good first-person platforming, and as you fall into the rhythm of jumps, slides, and wall-runs, Catalyst feels like playing water. It’s smooth, it’s crisp and easy and clear, and it is immensely satisfying. In a generation where design trends have moved further and further towards complicated three-dimensional movement, Catalyst carries on the original Mirror’s Edge’s mastery.

The core mechanics are strong enough to make Catalyst worth playing from beginning to end and then some, but Catalyst sets such a strong base that it becomes unable to proceed from its foundation. A few essential mechanics are locked within Catalyst’s simplistic and unexciting skill trees, but they become available within an hour or so. A rope that allows you to swing and grapple becomes available near the halfway point, but it can only be used at certain pre-designated points that are painfully rare throughout the world.

But just as Catalyst succeeds where the original succeeds, it also fails where the original fails. Thankfully there are no more awkward shooting mechanics, but instead,they’ve been replaced by a clunky martial arts system that feels at odds with the game’s emphasis on movement. Fights often fall into a pattern of kick, different kick, dodge, repeat until everyone is down, and ideas like knocking enemies into each other or off of ledges seem both silly and against Faith’s character (“I’m not an assassin!” she says at one point, but then proceeds to push dozens of policemen over railings to their doom). Catalyst tries to encourage you to use movement and the environment to your advantage, but this too quickly becomes cyclical. Enemies stupidly chase after you in your direct trail, which allows for a pattern of running in circles and leaping off of the same obstacles to score a downward kick before starting again to run away.

In fact every time Catalyst throws you into its parkour flow, it puts up a dam to block your way. Maybe it throws an enemy directly in your path that you have to fight or awkwardly push away to continue. Maybe it tempts you with one of the many collectibles that require you to come to a full stop to gather.

Not all diversions are so antithetical to Catalyst’s premise. Deliveries offer thrilling timed runs for modest EXP gain. GridNodes (which must be completed to unlock fast travel) offer interesting climbing challenges that require a large amount of vertical thinking. The rare side missions that the game offers usually succeed at introducing and testing some of Catalyst’s more obscure mechanics (like enemy alert levels and how to reduce them).

Missions themselves are usually a solid length and end before becoming tiring. They bring you on a tour of Catalyst’s gorgeous city, from underground tunnels to soaring sky-needles. Although low-quality textures can often make for a blocky horizon and rough detail, Catalyst’s minimalistic, vibrant color pallet and clean, modern architecture make it a visual joy. It’s a shame that the journey through such locales has next to nothing but a techno-babble story to tie it together. The campaign is barely coherent until almost three-quarters of the way through, and the game expects you to already know information and motivations that it won’t actually tell you until later on. The whole ordeal, the plot, the characters, the action, all feels written and acted by a group of rebellious teenagers. Only one personality, a hacker named “Plastic” ever succeeds at being entertaining. The rest of the cast, Faith included, either trudges along with no clear motivations or is dropped from the story entirely after just a few short hours.

All of this is baggage on what is at its core an improvement over its predecessor. Despite its apparent misunderstanding of itself, Mirror’s Edge Catalyst’s core gameplay mechanics still pull through to make it a wildly fun, if deeply flawed, experience.

When Marnie Was There Review

     When Marnie Was There is a film of goodbyes. To say exactly when or how would be a spoiler, but the most prominent farewell is to Studio Ghibli itself. Marnie was their last movie, the bookend to the most beloved and influential animation studio since Disney. Absent here is the bombast and fantasy of Ghibli’s past. Rather, Marnie communicates a sense of quiet reflection that makes it one of Ghibli’s most special films, even if it is far from its best. 

    Marnie is, at its core, a ghost and mystery story. 12-year old Anna is sent to the countryside to let the fresh air treat a serious ailment. The doctor says asthma. The audience knows severe depression. Anna hates herself, hates that she’s a burden to her foster parents, and hates the unnecessary interactions of people that she must so often be forced to deal with at parties and other social events. She takes refuge in her sketches, private drawings of the world around her that she refuses to show anyone on the grounds that they’re “not very good.” Her art is her happiness, until, of course, she meets Marnie, an energetic young girl that lives in an abandoned mansion cut off from reality by a small lagoon.

    The relationship between Marnie and Anna is the focus of When Marnie Was There, burgeoning into a solid friendship after just the first meeting. Marnie is a quiet film, so every one of the limited lines carries developmental weight, and director Hiromasa Yonebayashi (whose only previous directing credit was the beautiful yet formulaic Secret World of Arrietty) keeps the film plodding along at a pace that never sacrifices either the love between the two or the supernatural, surreal mystery that pulls Marnie along (although it will be considerably too slow for younger children).

    Nevertheless, that mystery itself is simplistic at best, sprinkling out only a few clues before the final climactic reveal. Blink, and you can miss them.

    But the bare-bones mystery is not the only reason to widen your eyes. Ghibli has crafted each frame of Marnie with more care than mother would give a child. Every image is strikingly beautiful and compositionally perfect, and Ghibli’s trademark attention to detail is as strong here as ever before. The character design and animation of Anna and Marnie have been meticulously formed, allowing them to move and express in a way that creates remarkably real chemisty between two sets of lines on paper.

    Yet Marnie is far from perfect. A cast of secondary characters are introduced and quickly dropped, potentially out of regard to give more screen time to Anna and Marnie, potentially out of script-writing laziness. For most of these characters this amounts to little more than wasted potential, but one relationship in particular, between Anna and her foster mother, feels like a terrible failure. Anna’s mother plays an integral role in every aspect of Marnie, yet she’s given under ten minutes of time to interact with Anna in any way. This oversight thematically damages the movie, reducing what could’ve been a life-changing emotional-gutpunch near Marnie’s end to simply a series of powerful moments.

Despite its PG rating, this is not a film for children. It is too slow, too sad, and too sincere for a child to tolerate. Yet despite its script’s shortcomings, When Marnie Was There is a tear-jerking, bittersweet, and visually stunning portrait of two characters that feel more real and grounded than any Ghibli has produced in the past. We know that Ghibli can do better, but I’m unsure that it needed to. When Marnie Was There is an unfiltered act of love, the dying whisper of a studio that the world is forced to see fade away.

Deadpool Review

    To look at a static image of one of Deadpool’s katanas is to watch the film itself. Deadpool is a shiny, violent, perfectly sharp but also completely flat film that seems annoyed at itself for requiring such petty things as “story” or “a villain.” Deadpool treats traditional movie concepts as “characters” or “the fourth wall” as paltry trivialities, aiming instead to be what results in one long admittedly clever dick joke.

    Deadpool revels in the freedom afforded by its R-rating. Freed from prepubescent eyes, cartoony gore gleefully splatters the screen while constant references to asses and blowjobs abound. Even the credits don’t escape, depicting a little cartoon Deadpool whose erection grows like a Pinocchio nose upon the increasing “hot”-ness of each successive actor. Yet despite the lack of mature humor, Deadpool the film is just as often smart as it is smart-ass. It openly mocks both the conventions of superhero movies and its own creators. At one point Deadpool insults the studio for not granting the film enough money to get any better X-Men, a quip that may or may not be related to the film’s last minute budget-cuts.

    But all this humor stands on shaky legs. Deadpool’s story is as thin as it can get. Wayd Wilson, portrayed with sass by Ryan Reynolds, is a hitman with a heart of gold, “standing up for the little guy” even as he intimidates and threatens a pizza delivery boy because some blond girl accused him of being a stalker. Reynolds stands out as the only lady-killer (not literally…except once) among his crowd of hitman-buddies, one of whom is called “fat Gandalf” by a sex worker (Morena Baccarin, who, with both this and Firefly under her belt, is dangerously close to becoming the strangely specific typecast of “prostitute in a sci-fi movie”) who later turns out to be the main love-interest/damsel in distress. Wilson gets cancer, decides to run away so that his girlfriend “will remember him how he is” and yadda, yadda, yadda. The drama is so thin the film seems to be aware of it, sneaking in more and more one-liners and pop-culture references to break up scenes that contain only empty shells of emotions. The romance is barely developed; all we know about the couple is that they connect over their mutual crappy childhoods and over constant sex. 

    Once Wilson escapes he ends up in the hands of a shady organization that aims to cure him by unlocking his repressed mutant genes. And the only way to do this is to torture him because, reasons. And his final mutation makes him look like a monster because…other reasons. It’s all facilitated by a bald British man with a pair of the worst, least threatening superpowers ever to grace a Marvel film. He: 1) can’t feel pain, but no-one in any action/superhero movie can ever feel pain anyway, and 2) has really good reflexes so he can get a high score in the Deadpool videogame. This man’s unthreatening name quickly becomes the crux of an over repeated, annoying joke that’s only funny once.

    All of this is delivered in a back-and-forth flashback structure that quickly becomes tiresome. Though the attempt at telling the obligatory origin story in a different way is admirable, it stalls any sort of cohesive narrative from evolving until almost halfway through, making Deadpool appear wholly without structure.

    Eventually, other “characters” become involved, like the recognizable Colossus and a teenage X-man with a name like “super teenage atomic bomb” or something along those lines. The former has a mildly entertaining fight scene that mostly just steels screentime from Deadpool. Colossus serves as the necessary “reaction” character to Deadpool’s slapstick. The other X-man is a teenage stereotype, with few lines and little purpose other than to trigger the final action-set-piece.

Deadpool only has two “big superhero-y” scenes, and if you’ve seen the trailers, one has already been given away almost in its entirety. Despite the relatively low amount of fighting, Deadpool goes to Jackie Chan levels of mixing comedy and combat. First-time director Tim Miller gives us battles that are refreshing both in style and content, unafraid to give the occasional long-held-shot to fully show the on-screen acrobatics or casually introduce a (often brutal and bloody) visual gag. 

    Ultimately Deadpool is a one-trick pony. It’s a dumb, funny film with nothing else to offer. It’s as two-dimensional as the original comics (in all meanings of the word “two-dimensional”) and its story and relationships are nothing but an absolute waste of time. I became bored near the end once my dick-joke tolerance became a bit too flaccid, and I suspect most moviegoers will be turned away by the pointless story and constant, constant lack of maturity. But Deadpool does not want to entertain most moviegoers. It wants to entertain the man-child craving to see on the screen the equivalent of a two-hour middle-school sleepover. And that, it achieves perfectly.

Kingsman: The Secret Service Review

Kingsman: The Secret Service is a film that understands how nostalgia gilds memories, how what we remember about a particular pleasurable experience is often better than the experience itself. Such can be said for the glory days of James Bond films, when Sean Connery pranced around in a stylish suit spouting one liners and taking down the most devious of villains. From a modern perspective, these films have not aged particularly well. They remain classic because of their influence in popular culture, not because they’re able to compete with some of the best action films that came out before or since.

Yet we remember these films as cornerstones of our childhoods, capturing our imaginations and causing us to dream of our own suave futures as 007-esque agents. Kingsman aims to recreate the feeling of those films, not as they exist, but as they exist in our memories. As a result, it’s forced to turn the Bond-ness level up to eleven, going over the top in every way possible without losing the charm that made the originals so special. We don’t have a James Bond; we have a team of them. They don’t fight to save the government or to save Fort Knox; they fight to save the planet. And they do it all amidst London bars and disco balls, moving with such smooth acrobatics as to put Mr. Connery to shame.  

But as much as Kingsman understands what made the original Bond films great, it also understands what pulled (and continues to pull) them down. Never has a serious action movie been so self-aware of the tropes of its own genre, and never has it gone to such lengths to let the audience know how it avoids them. One of the best scene of the film involves the agent Harry Hart (Colin Firth) having a conversation with the villain Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) about how they both dreamed of playing roles like the ones they saw in spy movies as children. Jackson concludes with “This is not that kind of movie.”

To backtrack: The Kingsmen are a non-governmental intelligence agency with the mission of…doing spy stuff. “Keeping the world at peace,” one character describes it as. It doesn’t make a lot of sense, and it’s not supposed to. Kingsman glosses over the details of funding and logistics for an elite international organization that seems only to hire British people to do its dirty work. Instead, it wants to show you a dressing room full of lighter-hand-grenades and umbrellas that act as bullet shields. “Eggsy” (Taron Egerton)is a poor kid who ends up recruited by Hart to join the Kingsmen, and who, of course, gets tangled up in a plot involving a tech mogul with a very Agent Smith view on the human race.

The ultimate plot of Jackson’s character is far too apocalyptic to be believable, but it works on a base level where most other modern spy movies fail: it’s simple, easy to understand. The unfortunate trend in recent entries in the espionage genre is to get so wrapped up in an incomprehensible, overly complex plot that the film spends most of its time trying to explain what’s going on and far less time giving the audience what it wants: the action (we’re looking at you, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation). At least this comic-book villain gives clear and uncomplicated motivation to every action and every fight scene without the audience having to pull out a notebook and diagram what’s going on.

In fact believability is the film’s only major problem. It’s hard to buy into Eggsy’s backstory of a tough life growing up on the street when he can leap and jump across rooftops like a ninja (we’re told that he did some gymnastics in elementary school, but I’ve never seen such fluid parkour taught at “Fliptastic” down the street). But at the same time the energetic, exaggerated nature of the rest of the film goes far enough so that believability can easily be forgotten.

The forgetfulness applies to the one female character, Roxy (Sophie Cookson), who starts off strong and appears as if she’s going to play a leading role alongside Eggsy for the entire rest of the film. She’s made interesting from the outright, breaking conventions of the sexy lady spy by showing cracks and fears that humanize her beyond the level of the other agents. Nevertheless after the lengthy agent-training section she seems to vanish, taking part in only one comparatively menial task that ends up having no impact upon the story anyway. It’s a shame. As much as Kingsman embraces its spy movie stereotypes, Roxy was the one character with the potential to break things up and add some variety to the cast.

Nevertheless, Kingsman’s fluid combat pulls the film up from the pit. Director Matthew Vaughn creates some of the best fight scenes in recent memory, moving the camera quickly but never falling into the trap of the shaky-cam. Every hit is clearly shown, and Vaughn makes excellent use of Snyder-esque slow motion and quick in-and-out zooms to dramatize and emphasize the most stylish parts of the action. In between the action scenes (of which there are many, far more than most blockbusters of this type care to insert)  writers Vaughn and Jane Goldman throw in enough humor to stave off the boredom, and develops the characters enough so that we actually care about the fight scenes because we care about the people in them.

If you didn’t like and never liked the original Bond films, than it goes without saying that you won’t like this either. Kingsman is not a different beast; it just has more teeth. If the prospect of colorfully exploding heads and a legless acrobat with swords for prosthetics makes you cringe with stupidity, then I suggest you go read a book for something more intelligent. For everyone else however, Kingsman: The Secret Service is one of the most memorable big-screen blowhards in the last decade. Let’s raise a martini (shaken, not stirred) to the sequel, in hope that we see far more of the Kingsmen in the future.


One last thing: I’ll concede to the criticism that the scene in which an agent smoothly slaughters every congregant in a church amid a background of rock-and-roll music may have been out of taste. Then again, it was a fictional version of Westboro Baptist, so you have to admit that, at least a tiny bit, it’s a fantasy we’ve all had.

The Tale of Princess Kaguya Review

The Tale of Princess Kaguya was robbed. It was robbed by a team of colorful superheroes taking on a he’s-not-really-so-bad villain. It was robbed by a big fluffy robot that said “hairrryyyyy baby!” to the delight of children everywhere. It was robbed by an academy who prefered the cutesy mass-marketability of Big Hero 6 to the sublime artistry of Princess Kaguya. We already gave one Best Animated Feature Oscar to Studio Ghibli with Spirited Away in 2003. Apparently two was one too many to ask.

That’s because The Tale of Princess Kaguya is the type of movie that everyone in the film industry says they want made before failing to turn up to the theater. Director Isao Takahata’s movie retains Ghibli’s trademark meticulous attention to detail that’s wowed critics and animators from all over the world ever since the chimerical and inspirational Castle in the Sky. However, it does so in a style that can only be described as calligraphic. Lines flow across the screen as if refusing to be held down by the meager physical barriers of paper. Brushstrokes are loose and flowing, throwing even still and quiet scenes (of which they are many) into a sort of subtle yet perpetual motion. All the while, a watercolor palette stays muted and calm. It never attempts to match the level of energy, color, or depth of the “classic” Ghibli style, but its unique aesthetics are just as beautiful, and far more expressive. It’s as artsy and off-the-beat as you can get, riddled with visual touches that people might think they’ll find annoying and pretentious, but that they’d stop noticing within minutes if they sat down to watch the film.

The Tale of Princess Kaguya follows the titular “Princess” (her name, not a title), a country farm girl borne of a bamboo stalk. Her father, an old bamboo cutter, chops her free of a glowing stem and raises her, along with his wife, as their own. She grows so quickly that she earns the nickname “Li’l Bamboo” from her peers. She lives happily in the countryside, singing songs, frolicking with friends, and, most importantly, soaking in and appreciating the beauty around her. Then the inevitable: her father, acting on messages from heaven, moves her to the big capital city using a stash of gold bestowed upon him by another glowing bamboo stem. There she is treated like her royal namesake, and given the additional name “Kaguya” (meaning “radiant moon”) by an aged noble awestruck by her beauty.

You can guess what comes next. The country girl stuck in the big city slowly descends into misery as she quickly grows up. The social formalities and constant flow of suitors exacerbate her depression almost as much of her ignorant, greedy father. She does not want to belong to anyone, but cannot escape the possession of the gilded cage that surrounds her.

There is no “plot” so to speak. Rather, The Tale of Princess Kaguya draws out as a series of linear events taking place over multiple years. Pacing is effective but slow, best exemplified by the fact that there is no or very little conflict at all until more than half an hour into the movie. This fairy tale has its lighthearted moments, but is altogether too downtrodden, stylized, and sluggish to appeal to a young audience.

This is an animated movie made for adults. That’s not to say it’s inappropriate (Common Sense Media gives it a 9+); it’s just that only adults will be able to fully appreciate the growing-up narrative, the flow of the aesthetics, and the bittersweet nuances of the film’s final fifteen minutes. In the end, Takahata’s eight years of work have paid off. This is by far his best movie ever.

The Perfect Dictatorship Review

The Perfect Dictatorship one of the few far-from-perfect movies that everyone should see. Director Luis Estrada’s fourth film is a political satire that hardly diverges from his previous work. Funny? It tries every once in awhile, but fails at every attempt. Long? You betcha. This 140 minute movie probably could’ve worked just as well, if not better, with about 60 minutes cut out. Impactful? Oh, like a meteorite.

That’s because Estrada’s film works on a basic level. It knows exactly what it’s trying to accomplish and accomplishes it majestically, but then proceeds to throw a bunch of pointless details in the way. Case in point, the film’s final shot is beautiful and dark, a grim visual metaphor that summarizes The Perfect Dictatorship’s entire runtime. A perfect way to end a film…until an utterly unneeded epilogue concludes with more of a whiz than a bang.

The Perfect Dictatorship follows Carlos Rojo, a young producer at the fictional station TV MX, and his reporter/partner, Ricardo Diaz. After an incriminating video of a governor named Carmelo Vargas is aired on their station, the two are hired by Vargas to save his reputation (and possibly even improve it). Vargas is depicted as a vile, corrupt pig, killing on a whim and indulging himself in every imaginable earthly desire (even if he has to work with the criminal underworld to get it). Surprisingly, he’s the only one-dimensional caricature in a genre of film (political satire) that often relies on one-dimensional caricatures. Carlos and Ricardo are never depicted in a positive light, or even in a morally conflicted one, but their collectedness and know-how make them likable protagonist-villains.

Damian Alcanzar as Vargas is perfectly cast, balancing charismatic and disgusting in a role that, in other hands, would’ve been uninteresting. The rest of the cast, including Alfonso Herrera as Carlos and Osvaldo Benavides as Ricardo, aren’t quite as strong. That’s partially because of some weak writing and some out-of-place character-specific scenes, but mostly a result of the characters possessing a relatively slim emotional range.

The main plot is gripping in the best possible way, sprinkling in new developments as much as needed to keep a potentially dull concept engaging. But along with that sprinkling come a number of subplots that seem like filler at best and attempts at unnecessary complexity at worst. Only one, a story about what appears to be the only honest character in the entire movie, amounts to anything. And even it gets dropped about mid-way through the film, leaving other pointless scenes (such as those that cover an uninteresting group of criminals) to drag out an hour or so of additional runtime.

The camerawork, though usually standard, occasionally shows traces of genius. Scenes in tight spaces retain a claustrophobic feel without ever feeling crowded, and important shots are highlighted with a beautiful sense of shadow, reminding the viewers about the film’s dark message in contrast to its usually light tone.

Now, I don’t pretend to know Mexican politics. I especially don’t pretend to know the intricacies of Mexican media. But if this film is any sort of representation of the way Mexicans view the powers of their oftentimes chaotic country (and I think it does, considering what I’ve read online), then it’s something that we as US citizens should be aware of. With all the talk in the Middle East and Far East, we usually give little thought to our neighbors to the south. It’s time that we realize how many problems our next door neighbor still has. The Perfect Dictatorship is perfect for accomplishing just that, even if it achieves little else.

Infamous: Second Son Review

Infamous: Second Son is stuck with a concept too exciting for its own good. It aims to tell a more grounded, less unbelievably wild story than its predecessors, while at the same time imbuing the player with more wild powers than ever before. The amazing movesets bestowed upon you make you feel like a god whose aspirations and duties should be going far beyond the repetitive sidequests, short main campaign, and black-and-white karma system that that drags you down to the role of an explosive street detective. When it clicks, it clicks, and Second Son becomes the most fun Infamous game yet, but when it does work, it’s simply because flying around a gorgeous Seattle as a smoke/neon/video vigilante (or terrorist) is something that’s almost impossible to make boring. Second Son seems like it put all of its efforts into constructing a flawless recipe that developer Sucker Punch didn’t give enough time to cook.

You play as Delsin Rowe, a delinquent street artist who spends his days causing harmless mischief, much to the chagrin of his police officer brother. Delsin is a Native American, part of the fictional Akomish tribe, who graffitis his longhouse and routinely disappoints the elderly woman who raised him. The attempt at racial diversity by Sucker Punch is a valiant one, imbuing triple-A games with the rare non-White protagonist. Unfortunately, after the prologue, Delsin’s Native American heritage is all but forgotten about. You never visit the Akomish reservation again in the game (until the ending cutscene), and Delsin’s motivation, to gain the power necessary to heal members of his tribe injured by the villainous Augustine, quickly becomes forgotten.

The focus instead rapidly shifts to near-future Seattle’s unfortunate plight. After the ending of Infamous 2, the world became afraid of Conduits (people with super powers; think mutants from X-Men), and the government set up the Department of Unified Protection to systematically hunt them down and lock them up. Conduits, they say, are really a group of “bio-terrorists.” Seattle lives under the total control of the DUP, subjected to a military occupation under the guise of safety. Augustine, head of the DUP and ironically a “bio-terrorist” herself, rules with an iron fist, her monumental towers of concrete casting a shadow over the otherwise beautiful and sunny (the city is conspicuously devoid of rain) Seattle. Delsin only first discovers his Conduit power, to absorb the power of other Conduits, when a crashed DUP vehicle lets a smoke-wielding criminal free. The escapee, Henry, becomes the first of four conduits from which you will absorb your powers. Every one of the four becomes a significant, recurring character, but Second Son’s writing is so awkward and unflowing that only one character during the entire game, the Bronxite ex-drug addict Fetch, is at all believable.

Second Son’s story does almost nothing right. Augustine is generic, Delsin is unlikable, and Delsin’s brother seems pulled out of a late-night cop show. But Second Son is not a story oriented game. The campaign is over quickly (too quickly), and the game encourages you to explore the Seattle and systematically liberate each neighborhood from DUP control. You’ll want to see as much of Seattle as possible. Not only is it a gorgeous and culturally rich city in real life, it’s been meticulously recreated to capture the feel of the city to a higher degree than either Infamous or Infamous 2 was able to. Second Son’s Seattle is arguably one of the best looking open worlds in video games.

It’s a shame there’s so little to do. Side quests are painfully boring, usually requiring you to look for hidden cameras, look for hidden messages, look for hidden DUP agents, and…that’s about it. Seattle should’ve been a playground full of exciting opportunities to use your powers in creative ways. The only side missions that even require combat are the good or evil mini-missions, where you’ll either be beating up drug dealers or killing anti-conduit protesters. The most fun you’ll have outside of the campaign is assaulting the DUP mobile command centers in each neighborhood, mostly because they’re the only part of the game that provides a significant challenge.

That being said, every power you receive is incredibly fun to use and plays so differently each could be given its own game. However, after just a few upgrades, you become absolutely unstoppable. Few things in Second Son will provide any sort of real challenge, even on the highest difficulty.

So Infamous: Second Son, is nothing more than another one of those pervasive power-fantasies that dominates triple A development, but it reminds us why power fantasies are so popular in the first place. No matter how unbalanced the gameplay or how stiff the writing, nothing in Infamous: Second Son can put a serious dent in the fact that Second Son is just plain fun (having superpowers is having superpowers). Even something as simple as navigation is endlessly entertaining and completely satisfying. Every Infamous has had some sort of gliding, but in Second Son, the gliding is so lenient that you can basically fly. The freedom of leaping gracefully from rooftop to rooftop as you sail through the air is perfectly captured, as is the sadistic pleasure of landing a perfect headshot from a glowing beam emanating from your palm. This is a 6 year-old’s superhero dream, encapsulated.

Second Son has a few interesting ideas. Some side missions have you holding the controller like a spraypaint can to create street art. It’s at its best in the the free post-campaign DLC, “Paper Trail”, which integrates gameplay across PC and PS4. Paper Trail uses fake websites, interactive puzzles, fake news broadcasts, and even some real-life origami folding to create a PC experience that make you feel more like a detective than anything in gaming before, even if its PS4 missions contain no creativity or variety.

Infamous: Second Son is by no means a great game. In fact, it could be considered only slightly above mediocre. At the same time, Infamous: Second Son is a pure game, unconcerned with trying to engage the mind of the player and satisfying itself by being more raw fun than anything seen so far on this generation of consoles. As much as the gaming industry likes to talk about art, atmosphere, and serious storytelling, Second Son reminds us why we started playing games in the first place.

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.