Saturday, March 17, 2018

Beauty, Terror, and Making Sense of Annihilation

(BIG Spoilers for the movie obviously.)

Annihilation is a SciFi film that is as terrifying as it is beautiful. The film is something along the lines of Andrei Tarkovsky meets John Carpenter - The Thing meets Solaris*. It has all the trappings of a B-horror movie complete with expendable cast members and freaky monsters. But then it evolves into this surreal avant-garde showstopper of a finale. The movie has a folksy acoustic guitar soundtrack that slowly mutates into a bellowing synth nightmare. What you're left with is not the movie you started with. Annihilation is the kind of experience that shoves your brain into a blender and asks you to pull your mind back together again. It's weird on an awesome scale.

But what is Annihilation? That's... gonna take some writing. I can tell you up front that I love this movie. 2018 is still fairly young, but this is probably Movie of the Year already. However, I would not fault you for missing the message or maybe concluding that there isn't one at all. Annihilation doesn't have a villain with a goal or much of a shape. And unlike most SciFi films it doesn't have an easy morale like "robot slavery is bad" or "global warming will kill your children". Even a few critics like Inkoo Kang of Slate seemed totally lost at the end of Annihilation. She dismissed it as "just a mindscrew". Well, I think it's quite a bit more than mindscrew for mindscrew's own sake.

I imagine in a few decades, Annihilation is going to be one of those "pet theory" movies. The Shining is probably the best example of that kind of thing, as seen in the bizarre documentary, Room 234. The Shining is basically just a haunted hotel movie set around a badly dysfunctional family. But throw in some Stanley Kubrick touches and some details that don't add up and then you have legions of fans obsessing over it, seeing everything and anything. The Shining could be about Indian genocide or faking the Moon Landing or a really great flapjack recipe. Annihilation once its been dissected can also be about anything you want. The question is, what do I see in it?

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Celeste Is a Two-Faced Bitch of a Platformer

Celeste tries to be different from the usual ultra-hard platformer. Games like I Wanna Be the Guy or Kaizo Mario World are pure sadism. The developers went out of their way to be as unfair and cruel as possible. They're not games you're supposed to beat, they're games that are supposed to troll you. The devs aren't making an experience you see to the end, they're bullies making a practical joke. Every time the apples in I Wanna Be the Guy fly upward to kill me without warning, I can hear in my mind Nelson Muntz guffawing at my humiliation. Celeste, however, is the rare "splatformer" or Kaizu game that isn't laughing at you. Or so it seems.

For that reason, I think Celeste is the only one of these games I actually like. Things like the legendarily hard Mario Maker levels are all difficulty and nothing else. Celeste is only 70% gaming torture. The other 30% is a surprisingly contemplative and personal journey through a young woman's anxieties. No surprise it's friendly, this game is proudly Canadian. The main story mode is tough, but never merciless, and the atmosphere is inviting instead of mocking. The world is bright and the characters are all decent people. Also annoying buttrock music doesn't blare every time you die. Nobody paints the walls in your blood like Super Meat Boy does.

Celeste seems like it doesn't want to be cruel, it wants to be therapeutic. The main character, Madeline, is only climbing the titular Mt. Celeste to overcome her depression. There are many spikes and pits, but no enemies - that is other than the demons she brings with her. For that reason the game doesn't say "haha, fooled you" it says "come on, don't give up". Celeste even has an Assist Mode where you can slow down time, give yourself infinite boosts, and if you need, turn on invincibility. The devs wrote no shame into that mode - you even earn full Trophies like you would on Normal. All this makes for a hyper-challenging platformer that for once feels like it is on your side.

That is, until you reach the ultimate bonus stages, where the therapy aspect falls apart and the true evil reveals itself.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

The Last Jedi and The State of Star Wars

I recently wrote up a piece for Fandom which was actually positive of The Last Jedi. But I kept the scope limited and that was by no means a proper review. I didn't write a proper review because I was more confused than I came off in that piece. I stand by every word, but don't assume that because I liked what director Rian Johnson was going for that he actually succeeded.

The Last Jedi is a strange kind of movie for me. It's easy to praise a great movie and easy to mock a terrible one, it's much harder to review something that's in the middle. All around on an intellectual level I think The Last Jedi was doing the right thing. But in terms of execution? I don't want to watch this movie again.

Now because this is 2017 2018 and the entire universe has gone to shit, The Last Jedi has somehow ended up as yet another front of the endless culture wars that have taken over the entire internet. Men's "rights" "activists" recut the movie without women and random people on Twitter decided to share National Review articles to prove how I was wrong. (And if my take on Star Wars happens to put me on whatever side The National Review is not on, then all the better.) I care deeply about Star Wars but some care a lot more, I guess. It almost makes me want to like The Last Jedi more because a lot of the people who hate it are /r/KotakuInAction scum. But sadly, while those people are wrong, they're less wrong than they usually are. They just hate a mediocre movie for the wrong reasons.

The fact that The Last Jedi blew up into an exhausting GamerGate flamewar exactly the problem. Star Wars isn't fun anymore. It can't be. We won't let it be fun. I said that The Last Jedi might have given the series a chance to live again in my piece. A month later, I think I was wrong. Star Wars is dead and we killed it. Not just the fanboys who can't stand a female Jedi or losing Luke, but you and me. We all killed it. Disney makes The Force Awakens that is pure fanservice from top to bottom. Then we complain that it's too similar to the past. Then they make The Last Jedi which wants to radically remake the formula. Then fans hate it more. Star Wars is an unsolvable problem.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

The Best Movies of 2017

I'm only twenty-seven (as of just this Thursday) and yet I feel like I've already seen everything. Actually I feel like I've seen everything three times. 2017 was the I finally had enough of blockbusters. There was a new Fast and Furious last year, there was a new Transformers, there was a new Pirates of the Caribbean. And I just couldn't. It was not mere dislike, dislike takes emotion and effort. I was done. I had nothing left to give for huge Hollywood franchises. When Justice League came out my disinterest was so severe I skipped an episode of The Drew Reviews, a really great movie podcast produced by two colleagues of mine. I didn't even have morbid curiosity left to give.

Now, in 2017 a lot of good things happened in movies. Horror has never received more prestige. Get Out is going to be nominated for Best Picture. You can't call that movie a "thriller" or "psychological drama" like people did with Silence of the Lambs or Black Swan. Get Out is a dirty horror movie and nothing else. Critics used to be ashamed of horror and that time has passed. Meanwhile people highlight Wonder Woman as this huge progressive moment against the Harvey Weinsteins of the world. But all it showed me is that women can star in movies as bland and pointless as the boys. Yet there were intense, truly unique stories that were written with female protagonists (and often made by female directors) that actually make use of that diversity. Forget Wonder Woman, try The Beguiled or The Shape of Water or Ingrid Goes West or Raw or mother! or Lady Bird. Women have a voice in this industry and it doesn't need to be packaged to appeal to male nerds.

Every year I think I get closer and closer to the pretentious art critic I mocked back in the early years of this blog. The problem isn't that I love artsy movies. As a matter of fact I have a severe upper-limit to how much artsy I can take, thus why I refuse to see A Ghost Story. I like low-brow trashy shit. It's just that the traditional blockbuster has become so stale and repetitive. There was a new Spider-Man this year! Hasn't there been enough fucking Spider-Man already? People complain about too many sequels and lack of ideas in Hollywood, then give mother! an F on Cinemascore. This year, I hope I didn't just talk the talk, I walked the walk. If your movie wasn't special in some way, I couldn't be bothered. So I don't want to see The Post or The Darkest Hour, more boilerplate Oscarbait just as I don't want to see The Mummy or Ghost in the Shell, more bad wanna-be cinematic universes. I didn't see any of those. I saw better movies.

Here are fifteen movies that actually were special in some way:

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

The Best Games of 2017 (That Aren't Super Mario Odyssey)

I'm going to start my discussion of the best games of 2017 by talking about a game that isn't on the list. It's a game that never really got close to being on the list. In fact it's a game I still have not finished despite three or four serious attempts to get invested in it. And that game is Guerilla Games' open world post-apocalyptic robot dinosaur adventure, Horizon Zero Dawn. Horizon Zero Dawn is not a bad game. In other years this completely solid, very competent title easily fits in a top ten. In a bad year, Horizon Zero Dawn might be Game of the Year. But in 2017, Horizon Zero Dawn is mediocre. I love that Horizon Zero Dawn was forgettable this year.

In 2017 real progress happened in the games industry. I don't mean the usual standards of progress such as frame rates or how many triangles an engine can shove into a single frame. 4K doesn't impress me and I don't believe in VR yet. I mean games have never been better than they were in 2017. Most years have maybe four or five truly great video games in them. 2017 had probably close to twenty. A few games disappointed like Star Wars Battlefront II or truly sucked like Sonic Forces. But for the most part last year, every game was good. Look at the disposable drivel that comes to your local movie theater every week. 2017's gaming didn't have its equivalent of Pitch Perfect 3 or that Jumanji sequel that nobody wanted. It only had Baby Driver. Every single day, more Baby Driver. Masterpiece after masterpiece.

I feel bad for 2018. I don't know when I'm ever going to find the time to play "new" games. It will take me a whole year just to catch up with all the great 2017 games I didn't play. Not least of which because I never managed to accrue enough capital to buy a Switch (besides video games 2017 sucked). I still want to play about a dozen games: Resident Evil VII, Gravity Rush 2, Snipperclips, Yakuza 0, Nioh, Hellblade, Mario + Rabbids, Rime... and of course, Super Mario Odyssey. And because Super Mario Odyssey is absent, this list is completely worthless and I don't know why you're reading. Maybe you just like me.

Anyway, here's a meaningless and incomplete list of twelve truly great games from the best year in gaming history: