What’s (not) on TV? News August 2022

Have you been having a good summer, tonstant weader? I have. Not. To various degrees. Let’s talk about being busy.

I have a couple of announcements. A short story I wrote ran at the online zine Primeval Monster (in the spring? Lawd I’m slow). It’s called “Agnosia,” and it’s about a young woman weekending at her uncle’s farm in the country. It’s a thriller, of course, with hopefully a hint of Rod Serling and a little Southwest mythos tossed in for good measure. Either way, with any luck you’ll never look at sunflowers the same way again.

As usual, I’m pretty bad at self-promotion. Which brings me to my other bit of news: This blog has a recently launched a Buy Me a Coffee page. In case you don’t know, Buy Me a Coffee platform is one of the lowest key ways to support content creators.

Have I really been doing this since 2015?

Basically, if you like what we do, you can throw us enough money to make a down payment on a cup of coffee at insert your-favorite-overpriced-coffee-house here. Whatever you give is much appreciated, and it helps to offset some of the time and energy I place toward posting. There are a couple of other ways you can support us though, which I’ve tried to outline at the creatively named Support This Blog page. So read the content, share the links, tell your friends – and do it soon, before I start attaching an obnoxious boilerplate to the bottom of every news post…

Either way, as far as the weeks ahead, there will be a couple of reviews of streaming shows. After that, I’m feeling like veering into film. Maybe games for a minute too. Everything will be a little retro and, hopefully, a little weird. Clock in accordingly.

Utterly disarmed: A critical review of “EX-ARM” (2021)

On the flip side, Tonstant Weader, there are also some pretty awful anime from 2021 this blog didn’t see either. “Tesla Note” took some heat. I never did finish “Redo of Healer,” partly because tracking down individual episodes became tricky for… some reason.

However, the first anime to catch my attention last year was actually “EX-ARM.” And, in case the above paragraph did not clue you in, it was for all the wrong reasons. The trailer proudly declared it was “declaring war against all of the SF series around the world!!” If by “SF series” they meant “narrative common sense and visual consistency,” then it was a war that was won, as those traditional notions of quality have been buried under a mountain of bodies.

Like many good tales, “EX-ARM” begins at the ending, specifically of main character Akira Natsume’s analogue life. After a delightfully embarrassing death, Akira reawakens some 16 years later as the digital brain of a superweapon: the EX-ARM. Said weapon is picked up by a future policewoman/skater girl poser Minami Uezono and her pants-less gynoid partner Alma. From there on, Akira’s intelligence and personality lives on as a naked dude in a squawking box that can occasionally take control of Alma when duty calls (and when Minami maybe makes out with Alma in a fairly awkward flash of not-so-special effects, but more on that later). While the gang fights future crimes involving other superweapons, a conspiracy bubbles in the background, but… we already said more on that later, didn’t we? But that’s the nature of this series. It always seems like there’s something more, but you’ll need all the later you can get to wade through it.

This blog frequently likes to start with something good when critiquing the bad, and it’s pretty easy to get it out of the way with this series. The opening and closing songs are well produced pop punk tracks, and, if you like that sorta thing, they both get the job done in a rousing “I too listened to Hoobastank/Lifehouse/The Ataris back in the day” way. In fact, there is something rather charming about the straightforward unselfconsciousness of the ceaseless power chord guitars in the ED (“Diamonds Shine” by Dizzy Sunfist). The song is accompanied by a poster-ready manga-style image of the cast, which looks like a different anime that I’d rather be watching instead. So, yes, this blog’s favorite part of “EX-ARM” was its ending.

After that, there is so much that is “not good” to list it’s hard even to qualify how much of it is bad and how much is just unintentionally bizarre. In fact, reviewing my notes was like trying to remember the details of a half-baked acid trip. Was all of this true? Is any of this exaggeration or misunderstanding? Where even to begin? Most people start with the animation, so let’s follow suit.

Still, if you were paying attention to any sort of anime news at the top of 2021, you don’t need me to tell you how messed up this show looked. “EX-ARM” rapidly became notorious for its ugly and awkward CGI. The character design looks as if everyone’s limbs are made of rolling pins. The painfully stiff animation comes across at best goofy at best, and at worst like an insult to organic life. Everyone’s face seems to be locked into a single expression, a shell-shocked grimace, forcing each character to react to every bit of news with the same overblown-yet-disinterested melodrama.

As a side not, the design of Minami reminds me of a more kawaii attempt at Captain’s Daughter from “The Drinky Crow Show,” except I’m pretty sure that one was supposed to look like a jerky marionette. Y’know. Irony and the like.

Everything tries to come together during the fight scenes, which one would think are important in an action sci fi anime, but the choreography is beyond basic and the fight physics show a lack of understanding of what it means to be a human being. You’d get more realistic combat effects out of smashing your fingers with a hammer.

The awkwardness of “EX-ARM” is further aided by the fact that, while all the main characters are CGI, the background characters are 2D for some reason. Why? That’s just bad faith. Initially this feels like another goofball element, but once viewers are numb to that sort of thing, a slow realization creeps in: While the 2D characters are still pretty stiff, they are also kind of decently designed, distinct and pleasantly retro, and why the hell wasn’t everything animated this way? Or at least why were the background characters the ones relegated to the tolerable, even interesting, designs? I liked the tiny 2D trench coat cop. I would have gladly watched a poorly animated show about him instead, but I guess we already had “Cop Craft.”

Some media tried to pin the poor quality of the show on it being made by a studio that had only handled live action before and didn’t bother to tap any experienced animators, but that wouldn’t excuse the laughable attempt at narrative elements. There are some elements of narrative that transcend medium. For example, I can see how “characters should not float over other characters” could be a problem for the art department, but it seems like “characters should not vanish from shot to continuous shot” is an issue for common sense to correct.

But even if there is some quirk that I – not being an animator – do no grasp, I still fail to see why having a staff experienced in live action versus CGI or animation or anything else would be a reasonable excuse for the script. Blame bad translation all you want, likely fictional defender of “EX-ARM,” but those words had to come from somewhere.

The series starter is such a bizarre mash of cliches and non sequiturs. There’s a bit of suspiciously-similar-to-“Neon Genesis Evangelion” prophecy, but then we get to present day Akri, who is down on phones and chicks, but CGI stunned at his own ability to cook noodles. His inexplicably 2D brother comes in and gives him some motivational lecture. He leaves the apartment, immediately sees a woman about to be assaulted, decides to save her, and is conveniently hit by a truck, which is how he comes future Akira. So did the woman get assaulted? Did the show clear that up? I don’t remember.

What was your favorite episode? This blog sort of liked the second episode, where a cartoonishly evil priest is trying to blow up future Tokyo with his poorly defined cult that uses pillowcases for masks. I guess religion is on the table, because at one point, while scouring the city for remote control suicide bombers, one of the doll-faced CGI cops asks another out of the blue about the nature of heaven. Likely not the spot for theological discussion.

Later episodes have such original ideas as casino tournaments and combat robot French maids. Was “EX-ARM” taking cues from “Cowboy Bebop” as well as “Eva”? How about “Ghost in the Shell: SAC _2045”? Was it all coincidence? Or, more troubling, is “2045” starting to look good by comparison?

None of this is mentioning the childish scene transitions, the reliance on stock footage and reused assets during brainless expositions, the comically impractical sci fi tech, or the fact that the “Japanese police” – which presumably patrols the entire country – has to get permission to shoot at, uh, UN soldiers. And while they’re waiting for that permission to come in, tension is allegedly mounting. Man, the future’s rough. And whose idea was it to have the leading ladies kiss to activate Akira’s EX-ARM powers when they couldn’t even animate lips? Why wasn’t that swapped at some point? The studio used a glaring ball of light to mask the uncanny valley of it all, leaving the Internet to wonder whether it was homophobia or more crappy animation.

I haven’t haven’t even mentioned the high school episode yet. That’s where protagonist Akira’s consciousness is pulled back to high school like this is… was it “Bananas”? Is that the Woody Allen film where he regresses to awkward adolescence, and Diane Keaton does a killer Marlon Brando impersonation? Why am I bringing up Diane Keaton in an “EX-ARM” review? Anyway, he’s there and the CGI future cops have to pretend to be students to get him through it. It’s doesn’t make sense. It’s not thoughtful. It’s not even full of school uniform fan service since, honestly, the fan service in this show wouldn’t shock or intrigue anyone who wasn’t born on an Amish homestead.

You may say, but didn’t “Neon Genesis Evangelion” have a what-if style high school moment? It did. But it was only a moment, and it managed to be more lucid and thoughtful in that moment than this entire episode. “EX-ARM” not only fails to use its tropes to do something interesting; it fails to understand them. As previously said, the show takes a few cues from “Eva.” But while it’s not hard to find shows that have some “Eva” inspiration, it is odd to find their interpretation so clueless. It would almost be weirder if the creators said they weren’t influenced by “Eva,” that this all came about accidentally, but no weirder than anything else about this show’s production.

What’s left? The voice acting could be better. It’s at least energetic, which typically beats disinterested at faking engagement for the first few minutes, but that can only hold so long. Akira screams a lot. The sound sometimes mixes poorly. There’s a moment in episode seven where all the spoken voice and audio effects (intentionally) cut out, and the show had the unfiltered guts – or just lack of budget – to not play music either. Episode nine is called “Fallen Messiah.” Who is this messiah? From whence did they fall? I’m still not sure. There is a moment – I forget which episode – where a character confronts his mirror image, and the mouth animation is so poor it becomes frustrating to figure out which “him” is talking.

The final message of “EX-ARM” is to – I kid you not – live your best life. Which isn’t quite how things work out for Akira, as I recall. You too must decide if it is in your best interest to sink six or seven hours of your life into this thing. There is an undeniable fascination to how many things it fails to do. And there are moments when, if one is in the right mindset, it can be highly entertaining.

There are a handful of series this blog has considered giving the episode-by-episode analysis we gave to “Serial Experiments Lain” and “Boogiepop Phantom.” However, while we have typically considered them for their philosophical depth or artist merit, this show has recently entered the intellectual running for those sorts of metrics.

Don’t tempt me, tonstant weader. I might just do it.

Greener grass: Critical reviews of “Wonder Egg Priority” and “Otherside Picnic” (2021)

This blog would be generous to say “despite my best efforts” in describing our failure to watch enough anime in 2021, but then I’d be apologizing for not being a big enough weeb, and why would I do that? There are a few anime I wanted to watch last year that I haven’t gotten around to: “Sonny Boy,” “86,” maybe that one with all the ghosts and fan service, or the one where the detective is already dead.

Still, in the interest of pretending to round out the best/worst of the year, here are a couple of anime I watched that were, at least, pretty good. They have the added bonus of a kind of thematic synchronicity: cute girls doing things in other worlds. Intriguingly, the two shows reflect different approaches to presentation: one illustrating the highs and lows of ambition; the other illustrating the quality of consistency.

“Wonder Egg Priority” was the first anime of the year to really catch my attention (in a positive way – more on that later). It begins with Ai, a withdrawn heterochromatic (I learned that word because of this show – who says anime ain’t educational?) girl, following – as I recall – a talking firefly to a secluded garden. There, she receives an egg that takes her to a dream realm where she can battle fantastic creatures to defend the holdover souls of young women who have committed suicide.

Ai later learns that she is one of a group of girls buying eggs from the garden’s dream egg vending machine. As the girls each pursue a particular wrong they seek to right, they will grow closer, explore dark spaces in their lives and learn more about the mysterious mannequins that oversee the garden. The show has a few twists to pull before its conclusion, which was… we’ll get there.

But before we do, there is much to recommend about “Wonder Egg Priority.” The show is gorgeously presented, with detailed, smooth animation and stylish design, particularly during the technicolor, almost psychedelic, dream world battle sequences. Monster design is typically fantastic and logical within the narrative, with the creatures suggesting the regrets and jaundiced worldviews of the suicidal girls.

It helps that the script is usually smart and often fearless. It tackles taboo topics like suicide, depression, abuse, relationships, sexuality, legacy, guilt and purpose, and it does so in a way that makes sense for its youthful cast without ever being overly simplistic. There are consequences to the girls’ actions. Characters can get scared, quit or die. Between that and the show’s intense visual design, it’s easy to see why it was compared to “Puella Magi Madoka Magica” upon release. It even has contrasting opening and closing themes: a stately choral piece for the opening, which received much praise, and J-power-pop sung by the various leads for the closer, which feels odd after some of the episodes given its intense upbeatness but kicks all the same if you’re in the mood.

It’s not quite as tight as “Madoka,” with some of the late game revelations so dark they threaten exaggeration, but at least it builds to them. Regardless, “Wonder Egg” is easy to recommend to “Madoka” fans. It’s a thoughtful, stylish and satisfying 12-episode anime, that… wait, it concludes with a 13th episode, a double-length special that was released three months after the show proper? Well, I don’t see how that could leave a bad taste in anyone’s mouth.

But of course it could. It’s really a pity because the 12th episode was a decent conclusion. It was a little incomplete, but not more than any show that’s hoping for a second season, so the special already unnecessary to this blog. Still, there are some decent moments in the special, ones with a maturity, acceptance and release that fit the atmosphere of the series well. It was on track to end with neither a bang nor a whimper, but a world-weary sigh.

Such sighing was undermined by a couple of things that cannot be ignored. First, half the special is a recap. That wouldn’t be the worst, especially after a break, but the series already had a recap – one that the Internet speculates was giving the writers a minute to catch their breath, especially given how it’s an entire episode and not a halfway point-five. One recap in a season of anime is not unheard of; devoting a fully numbered episode to it stands out; having a second one is strange to say the least.

There is also a revelation about the identity of one particular character that is utter left field sci fi bullshit. There was no setup for it. It just happened. Worse, it was unnecessary (there’s that word again). Said character already had a singular backstory to set them apart from the rest of the cast. A last minute attitude change could have been baked in, but instead, we get a complete overhaul.

Then there’s the final moments of the show, when the atmosphere of thoughtful resignation the episode had been building since the recap ended is cast on the rocks of fist pumping “to be continued.” Why? If the producers wanted a second season, why not stop at the more organic conclusion of the 12th episode? Or, if they felt that wasn’t enough, why lace such a melancholy mood into a special only to subvert it in the last 30 seconds?

Throughout its run, “Wonder Egg” always had a kitchen sink attitude toward piling elements on top of elements, building a massive tower to strain at the infinite, but it was always smart and stylish enough that it worked despite threatening to topple over… right up until it didn’t. In the end it finally went too far, but the show certainly had a hell of a time going there.

In a different parallel reality, we have our second show, “Otherside Picnic” The series follows Sorawo and Toriko, two college students (not high schoolers!) who have random access to the otherside, a dangerous shadow world that resembles a bombed out version of our own populated with misshapen monsters and psychic traps that ensnare unwary explorers. Enigmatic Toriko is searching for her missing friend; downcast Sorawo is along for the ride, frequently to her own chagrin.

Much of “Otherside Picnic” is familiar, and I’m not just talking about the homages to Russian sci fi in the title and premise. The show is based on a light novel series; has a boilerplate J-rock opening and closing; has some not-so-subtle hints of queer relationships; sports a beach episode; features a goofy “on the next episode of” sequence at the end of each episode. Across the board, it’s a very anime anime.

Luckily for us, it also happens to be a pretty decent horror anime. It doesn’t get under your skin like the best of them, but it is smart enough in its presentation to engage on atmosphere alone, like a junior Silent Hill. A few early episodes stand out. The season’s second half starts verging more into fantasy and less into straight horror, but the monster designs continue to hold up. Even a couple of goofy ones can be explained by the narrative’s link to urban legends and web conspiracies.

Regardless, the show presents itself throughout like a relationship driven drama. The two leads are pretty standard character types – the ditzy Toriko and the nervous Sorawo – but their oil and water interactions are watchable, and there are enough suggestions of darkness and intrigue to keep things moving. Better than either the girl-on-girl comedy or the low Gothic horror is how easily they both gel. The two genres feel genuinely complimentary rather than one just an excuse for the other. It’s fairly seamless and so pleasantly surprising when one realizes it. If there was anything in the anime that this blog had not seen before, it was that.

So which show is better? Naturally that requires some context. If you want is a show to recommend, then “Otherside Picnic” is the clear victor. “Wonder Egg Priority” is by far the more offbeat choice, and both its quirks and inconsistencies make it the harder sell. On the other hand, “Roadside Picnic” does not feature any of that anime’s fascinating highs or frustrating lows. For better or worse, “Wonder Egg Priority” is the show that will stick with me.

Paradox revisited: A critical review of “The Time Machine” (2002)

One of the neat things about doing this for an occupation is the opportunity to go back in time, if you’ll allow the metaphorical indulgence, to reevaluate old pieces of media. That includes both classics to see how good they were and stinkers to see how bad they actually smelled.

“The Time Machine” turns 20 this year (give or take a couple months, thanks to this blog’s lax posting schedule… I mean, thanks to the quirks of temporal travel), and it is still remembered as a splashy sci fi bomb, which didn’t break even in its native land and fell far short of expectations abroad. Compare that to 2003’s steampunker “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” which also underwhelmed but later found a playfully appreciative audience on DVD. Why didn’t “The Time Machine” get the same treatment?

Probably because it’s a different kind of picture, one that is both better and worse. This “Time Machine” is the story of Dr. Alexander Hartdegan (Guy Pearce), who proposes to his galpal (Sienna Guillory) only to watch her get killed the very same night (this should be troubling because it indicates a lot of what will make this time machine tick: convenience). Since Alexander is a Victorian-era gentleman scientist, he figures time travel is the best coping mechanism. His eventual invention and subsequent attempt to prevent her death in the past fails, so he travels into the future to search for answers. What he finds is the human civilization he knew destroyed, replaced by a symbiotic war between two humanoid races: the playful, naive Eloi and the sinister, secretive Morlocks.

The original “Time Machine” novel was a critique of class structure, and the 1960 film was a timely antiwar tale. This “Time Machine” distinguishes itself by being based on a question instead: What if? The discussion is carried on over the centuries by Alexander himself, engaging with equally offbeat thinkers like an eccentric public library AI (Orlando Jones) and the melancholy chief Morlock (Jeremy Irons). This is probably the film’s strongest element, partly because Pearce, Jones and Irons are the film’s most charismatic performers, and partly because it actually covers some interesting territory, getting into things like metaphysics, cause and effect, how tragedy creates identity and destiny, and the morality of evolution.

Beyond that, there’s not much else to hang onto. Any part of the script that is not light philosophical debate is painfully contrived. As previously mentioned, Alexander proposes to his 19th century waifu and watches her die in the same night, thus setting off the whole thing. When he travels to the future, every single time he stops he’s next to something significant – the info dump that is the New York Public Library, the moon exploding, whatever – and he’s always in and out so quick. Alexander’s future waifu (Samantha Mumba, occasionally lapsing into an Irish accent) tells him he has to get her brother back to the past. The second he asks why, Morlocks attack, almost like the script is answering his question. In the ensuing scuffle, a 19th century engineer proves to be an effective fighter in a future war. Later, a burst of… time energy stuff from the time machine only kills Morlocks and leaves Alexander and his pals unharmed.

At least the explosion looks OK, as OK as 2002 could look. The special effects were called a mixed bag even at the time. It’s true that not everything lands, but this blog feels that’s because the movie tried everything it could think of to make things pop. Both Stan Winston Studio and Industrial Light & Magic worked on the practical and CGI effects respectively, so it’s not there was a lack of talent. There are time lapses (natch), explosions, Morlocks bursting from the ground and bounding over things, skeletal ironwork monuments that belch smoke and fire. It is a bit much, and the film never quite finds an individual visual identity – you can tell we’re going farther into the future because everything is more orange each time – but again, it’s OK. Do you like steampunk and Predator? You’ll probably appreciate what’s onscreen.

It feels like contemporary critics picked on the explode-y parts because they were so prominent. Almost every part of the film seems to be in service of selling it as an action-adventure extravaganza, and a shallow one at that. The rushed performances, the convenient plot, the time traveler as a shoot-first-ask-questions-later hero, everything orange. Not only does it leave the film out of breath, it leaves the audience out of a serious reason to be here. Roll up and see the time machine! Even the action-packed poster asks: “Where would you go?”

You know where I’d go? To a movie that kept some of the steampunk Predator style but pushed the philosophical debate more. Don’t get rid of the spooky Morlocks and pretty time lapses, just give me more carefully spaced conversations about guilt and causality. Amp up the Morlocks as utilitarians. Play up the Eloi as Daoists. They accept fate. Is that so bad? Maybe it is, but since the movie never got into it, I’ll never know. It would have been more interesting than “Avatar,” that’s for sure.

The problem there is that no one probably would have funded a movie like that. The film itself is a paradox. It’s a big budget sci fi flick that occasionally makes some intriguing observations. Those observations can get lost in the budget, but the only reason it had the budget it did is because it sold itself as a slick, and ultimately soulless, sci fi adventure flick. Remove the slick soullessness, and you risk losing the budget that got you Stan Winston and Guy Pearce. But lose them to focus on a quieter movie, and the film becomes less financed, so likely less talented and less interesting to look at.

There is a somewhat infamous moment in the film when Alexander is briefly detained by 22nd century rent-a-cops trying to get him into a shelter. New York City is in stereotypical apocalyptic ruins, and klaxons abound. When Alexander demands to know what’s going on, one of the cops asks if he’s been living on a rock. “Yes,” he cries. “I’ve been living under a rock.” The cop looks to his partner, then calmly explains that the moon has exploded.

That scene took some Internet flak for its “bad science” (check out the artistic license entries on the film’s TVTropes page – moons don’t explode that way!). While that seems like an odd hill to die on – we’re dealing with the paradoxes of time travel and the limitations of Victorian technology, and you’re really complaining about six seconds of burst moon? – it misses the point. The vehicle by which we get this information is another convenience, but it’s also arguably the most human moment in the film. Who else but a human being would be foolish and curious enough to ask a question in the middle of catastrophe? Who else but another human being would be foolish and kind enough to indulge them with an answer? The charm of this film is that it also stops to ask these questions; the pity is that it doesn’t do it often enough.

I don’t love sand planet: Best/worst films of 2021

Another year, another awards season that has passed this blog by. Oh well. I doubt there was anything particularly important to comment on that happened. Even if there was, you likely wouldn’t want to hear my thoughts on it, tonstant weader. Let’s get slapping.

I think this blog did both better and worse than expected on movies the last year. There are some holes both as a general moviegoer (“Spider-Man: No Way Home”; “The French Dispatch”; “Godzilla vs. Kong”) and a thriller fan (“In the Earth”; The Night House”; “The Little Things”; “Antlers”). I haven’t seen “Nobody,” a film that would complete a triptych of alternative views on the John Wick narrative this year (the other two are obviously below). I also started but did not finish – due to unforeseen circumstances – the Danish black comedy “Another Round.” So far, it seemed to be a very indie affair, from the delightfully inappropriate sense of humor and hints at emotional complexity, to the earnest performances (including Mads Mikkelsen) and crappy handheld camerawork. Ya get whatcha pay for.

Still, in reviewing my list, I was surprised by how much and what I’d watched. Find that list below. As always, the better films are at the top, and the order was gauged by both perceived quality, narrative and visual, and whether I’d watch them again:

Dune – Two quick caveats: I did not see this on a big screen, and I watched it in two rounds, so make of that what you will. And yet, absurdly well photographed, engagingly scored, sumptuously costumed, wondrously designed, smartly written and smoothly acted, “Dune” is likely my favorite film of the year. Is it half an hour too long? Possibly. But even its moments of downtime usually felt important and typically had some kind of payoff. The film does not shy away from the heady themes of the franchise: destiny, duty, identity, the role of mysticism in society, the paradox of the sacred the violent. Even small flourishes, like House Atreides bull imagery, felt organic and world building. Denis Villeneuve’s theatrical, sprawling sci fi epic of space intrigue, monochrome lighting and sand worms feels very worthy, and I am looking forward to its baked in sequel.

A Quiet Place Part II – “A Quiet Place” was an unexpected horror hit about monsters that hunted by sound and the family that had to silently sneak around them, and the sequel is little different. That’s a good thing, since it picks up its predecessor’s gorgeous photography, excellent score and earthy acting. It also picks up a few of its narrative conveniences – the film goes a little nutty with parallelisms sometimes, particularly in the climax – but it’s a small price to pay. The CGI critters look pretty good, and there’s some solid tension and genuine shocks. Plus, can you believe that’s Cillian Murphy as a survivalist? I couldn’t at first.

Riders of Justice – This is a fairly successful action dark comedy flick about an off-the-clock soldier on the hunt in modern Denmark for the radicals who blew up his wife, the nerds that are helping him, and his traumatized daughter who is trying to make sense of it all. The humor is cottonmouth dry, but it works well for those who don’t mind. The film is also surprisingly thoughtful, although it never forgets to have some cool explosions along with its musing about loss, culpability and comprehension. Performances are strong across the board, with Mads Mikkelsen taking the lead (the man could elevate a KFC commercial to art).

Coming Home in the Dark – You know the drill: Drifters come out of the New Zealand brush and take a family of school teachers hostage. They go for a road trip. They’re not going anywhere good. The constantly bleak mood will no doubt be called gritty and real by some, and a chore to watch by others; still, you can’t ignore how uncompromising it all is. If you can stomach it, you’ll find sensitive photography, some great acting, thoughtful editing and pacing, and a literate script.

Pig – This is listed as an unconventional thriller, which is accurate, although it’s more unconventional than thrilling. Nevertheless, the story of angry backwoods truffle hunter stalking modern Portland to find his prized pig has some moment that will likely leave you thinking about purpose, possession and what it means to let go. It’s grittily shot, and not always easy on the eyes or narratively sensible, but it’s sensitively performed, particularly by lead Nicolas Cage.

The Delivered – Imagine a movie that’s one half home invasion thriller and one half conversation about the role of religion, particularly regarding homelife and gender politics. Now imagine it’s set in the aftermath of the English Civil War. “The Delivered” (original title “Fanny Lye Deliver’d”) sports intriguing camerawork, an always appropriate soundtrack and a dream-like atmosphere (the solid presence of Charles Dance don’t hurt neither). It feels a bit long at nearly two hours and finishes with a slightly unearned ending, but whatever. Maybe a brisker pace would have helped.

Willy’s Wonderland – I made my review, and I’m sticking to it. This pulp horror comedy featuring Nic Cage duking it out with animatronic pizza parlor creatures is pretty much what it says on the tin. If you want a thoughtful narrative, you’d be far better off looking somewhere yonder. If you want goofball action, all in a stylish somewhat 1980s sheen, it’ll get the job done. Cage is great, obvs, as is the supporting cast. Just don’t expect too much from the script, slasher-ready teens or photography in general.

Nightmare Alley – I should honestly love this movie, but I don’t. It’s a gritty period crime drama, perfectly cast and wonderful to look upon. Guillermo del Toro is a great choice for a noir director, since he so effectively captures the grotesque that lurks under much genre. He doesn’t shy away from carnivals, mind readers and all manner of the strange that lurks just outside of normal society. Still, it definitely feels like it’s based on a novel, with a certain meandering nature that would be more comfortable in a episodic format. Perhaps that length and pacing combined with characters that are hard to root for and a classic plot make this feel less than rewarding.

Censor – A sorta meta media mystery about a woman who cuts horror flicks for a living and thinks she sees clues to her sister’s disappearance in the latest project. Cleverly lit and shot, it’s fine for genre fans. Performances are smooth across the board, with Niamh Algar believable as the lead and Michael Smiley having fun as a sleazy producer. The film is not shy about asking whether horror flicks make us crazy or moral guardians keep us safe – it could be a little shier, honestly – but it’s an organic vehicle for that conversation. I’m not actually English, so I can’t speak as to how well the film captures the video nasty era, but titles like “Don’t Go in the Church” sound right. The gore gets a little goofy at the end. Maybe that was the point.

Boss Level- You could do worse with a pulpy sci fi action thriller, but you could do better as well. It’s actually pretty fun when it focuses on the crazy killers stalking a downtrodden ex-solider who’s caught in a “Groundhog Day” loop. It’s violent and eccentric and has a dark sense of humor, exciting in its pacing and making good use of a bright cast. Then it slows down and tries to get serious with some bits about making time for family. A lower key film probably could have pulled it off, but the mood whiplash is a bit too much for this blog.

The Vault – A pretty boilerplate heist thriller about cracking into the secret illuminati vault of the Bank of Spain. You’ve got your Sir Francis Drake treasure, your putting-the-team-together montage, your old-dude-young-dude dynamic, a third act betrayal. The very capable cast is likely the film’s strongest element, with the presumed highlight Freddie Highmore playing the same quasi-intellectual weirdo he’s been playing since at least “Bates Motel.” I mean, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right?

Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City- It’s been established that this blog was quietly a fan of the loud Milla Jovovich led/Paul W. S. Anderson helmed Resident Evil films, so it was with both concern and intrigue that we watched the reboot. The plot is trying to splice together the first two games: Special forces types investigate a haunted house while the Umbrella Corporation’s microwavable zombies stalk the city nearby. There’s an interesting moment at the start of this film where it looks like it might be taking more cues from psychological horror than body horror, but that’s out pretty quick. Despite shades of John Carpenter in the photography and pacing, the film betrays the atmosphere it builds with a cartoonish script, unfocused direction and odd stylistic flourishes. I don’t mind the video game Easter eggs scattered around, but the speech that tries to cram as many 90s references as possible? Jennifer Paige? It’s an odd mix. The cast is mostly dull, although Donal Logue seems to be having fun as Chief Irons and Neal McDonough was almost sympathetic before he turned into hamburger. Focus on Mark Korven’s punching-above-its-weight score rather than the inconsistent sound mixing.

Spiral: From the Book of Saw – I had high hopes for this film, although I don’t know why. It was a sort of soft reboot of the series, a not quite but still distinct cutting off from the source material. I’m not the biggest Saw fan, but if you’re gonna reboot, the way I see it is this: Either lean into the pulp detective stuff, and make it gritty and low-key, or lean into the murder traps and make them over-the-top. This film tried to have both ways and backwards: low-key traps and over-the-top detective action. The traps are all acceptable, if not particularly creative, and will sometimes satisfy the gore hounds. The detective stuff comes courtesy of a script that relies on cliches and conveniences, and is delivered by a cast that need a little reeling in (Rock in particular, who is enthusiastic to an alarming degree). I understand that franchise fans conclude this film is not good but at least better than what came immediately before; for my own part, I’m still looking for the right scratch to satisfy my horror/detective itch.

The Deep House – It’s an interesting concept – YouTuber haunted house explorers investigate a property that’s completely underwater – but there’s a little too much going on for its own good. Lovecraft, found footage, Nosferatu, plague doctors. Make up your mind, movie. Too bad. The result is a muddled narrative and an unsatisfying conclusion. Some pretty water and landscape shots, and a few moments of claustrophobia, but I don’t care enough about the characters on screen to feel any real dread.

A House on the Bayou – Urban family undergoing a crisis of marriage takes a week at a swamp mansion to unwind, cos that makes sense, where they encounter a boy and his pappy who are more than they seem. A perfectly fine murder thriller with supernatural suggestions that leans pretty hard on the supernatural, then tries to backtrack and have it both ways. It can’t. The film blows its credibility on its premise and remains unfocused throughout, leading up to its unsatisfying ending. The cast is pretty meh, but Angela Sarafyan is always watchable and I’d like to see more thrillers with her.

H. P. Lovecraft’s The Deep Ones – “Shadow Over Innsmouth” by way of “Rosemary’s Baby,” this is certainly an intriguing setup. It’s too bad the result is illogical and unattractive. I’m not even blaming the budget. The film gets away with a couple of interesting effects – the sequence at the end with the expectant mother is fine, even if the atmosphere is spoiled by the appearance of the father. To call the acting over-the-top would be assuming that was intentional. To say the script lacks subtlety would be generous. There’s a cool fire dancer scene in the center of the film. Focus on that instead.

Chaos Walking – Based on a novel, and boy does it feel it, since there are a ton of questions I never felt were satisfactorily answered. It’s a story of man-can-hear-man’s-thoughts-on-hostile-colony-world, but few of those components ever feel particularly necessary. Maybe the ever-present CGI effects and sprawling forest locations are meant to impress, but they kind of blurred together around a lackluster coming of age story at the center. At least we have Mads, again, riding around in a sweet hat and furry jacket. Maybe not the worst film of the year, but I always like circular framing. Start with an overproduced sci fi flick, end with… well, you get the idea.

Did the games begin?: Best/worst games of 2021

I think this blog did OK on games of last year. Not great, but better than I expected, given that there was nothing debuting I was particularly excited about. Looking over some of the “best of” lists from more reputable sources didn’t help, although I did notice that “Groundhog Day”-style time mechanics were pretty popular. As of this posting, this blog only has “The Forgotten City” to meet that requirement, and since I haven’t actually started playing it yet, it will not appear on this list.

The new incarnation of “Doki Doki Literature Club!” won’t be on this list either, but I have my reasons, which you can no doubt divine if you read my review.

Anyway, here’s what is on the list:

Hades – This is technically a 2020 release, but I’m playing the Xbox physical release version, so I’ll count it as 2021. Because it’s been out for a while, you might know all the praise already, and this blog is happy to report it’s all well placed. There is so much to recommend about “Hades” for anyone who likes roguelikes: the setup is easy to learn but interesting to master; the per-arena risks and rewards are interesting to play with; the enemies are varied and just the right amount of irritating. In fact, “Hades” is more challenging than punishing, so even non-roguelike fans can approach it. Those that do will find smooth controls, excellent presentation, stylish in-game graphics and stylish portrait art, with a script that is smart and lucid. It’s really hard not to recommend.

Blasphemous – Technically a 2019 game this time, but again, I’m playing a new physical release. You know what that means? The physical release came with all these cute little extras, like maps and stickers. The same thing with “Hades,” actually. Indie games. They got heart (and stuff). In case you haven’t heard, “Blasphemous” is one of those metroidvania titles, very Dark Souls – downbeat atmosphere, high difficulty, an obscure story, a parry mechanic, a gradually expanding map made navigable by shortcuts. It’s also a 2D platformer with a retro look, which is fine, I guess. I typically like the retro look to have a purpose. The game definitely has visual style. Everything is very medieval Spain, so perhaps the pixel art gives it an Old World feel? Either way, combat is intricate, exploring is rewarding and, while it doesn’t quite seem to be asking any big questions, it is a novel presentation that’s taken seriously by the developers. The game has that operatic feel nailed down, and that’s all I ask for.

Aliens: Fireteam Elite – Calling it underrated is probably an overstep, but I thought this Alien franchise third-person shooter was nice. The music is strong, the visuals less so. The story is pretty boilerplate for the franchise, and the game’s efforts at humorous dialogue are, um, admirable? There are a few different dressings for the corridors. The game tries to build atmosphere, and it does work from time to time, since a fight doesn’t break out every minute (sometimes the drip-drip-driping is just a leak; other times, not so much). It’s just that when the fights do start, they tend to boil down to the same thing: sprinty cover shooting. For the most part, that shooting looked and felt good, even if the strategy rarely evolved beyond point and pull the trigger. Playing with people is usually a quicker affair, so you get through the routine faster at the cost of atmosphere. Feel free to kick this down a space if you’re not a fan of the franchise.

Curse of the Dead Gods – Maybe this is the best game of the year… or maybe I just never realized how much I like roguelikes. It must be because I learned how to game on the Xbox Ninja Gaiden franchise, which is what masochists played before Dark Souls. I digress. “Curse” is one of them procedurally generated dungeon crawlers, this time set in the subterranean ruins of an Aztec temple. It has an atmosphere rather than a plot, but it’s decently executed and fitting for something that’s Lovecraftian in flavor – more Mike Mignola-style graphics; gloomy and crumbling environments; a decent light/dark mechanic. There’s a kind of “greed corrupts” theme too. It all gels. Rewards from the hack and slash combat are offset by an in-game curse mechanic that ensures each run is a little different. Controls felt a little sticky, but overall things were manageable. It probably won’t convert anyone to roguelikes – that’d still be “Hades” – but it’s a stylish distraction for the choir.

Halo Infinite – Look, did you want this to be the game of the year? It’s a new Halo game, and I abandoned the franchise around “Halo 3,” if memory serves, so I guess I lot of stuff I had no idea about happened in the meantime. I get the feeling that even if I did know what was going on, the story would still be as weak as gas station coffee. It was always “go to the next waypoint location and stomp on some more aliens,” all set in a samey-looking and somewhat empty open world. The combat itself is undeniably fun though. Can’t argue with a grappling hook – I never used any of the other tools, outside of an elite fight or two where I tried the cloaking one – and there is something beautiful about being able to hurl explosive barrels of plasma at yelping enemies. That said, it never felt particularly challenging, and even when it did I never felt like I was doing anything different. I played through most the campaign to figure out less what was going on and more whether it had been worth it. I also sunk about an hour into multiplayer, which is still frantic, frustrating and full occasionally angry people.

Scarlet Nexus – This blog is hardly an expert on these relationship driven JRPGs (I’ve really only also played “Code Vein”) and probably didn’t play enough of this to get the full picture (aren’t games in this genre infamously long?), but we feel it’s safe to stick this comfortably in the middle. Ya done OK, game. The plot seemed pretty generic anime: a maybe shady government organization uses pretty people to fight weird monsters. Perhaps it was an accurate translation, but couldn’t we have found a more colorful name than “Others” for said monsters? The visuals are pretty generic anime too, quite safe and unremarkable (some of the monster designs recalled “Madoka” witches, so that was appreciated). The cutscenes are pretty flat. They looked fine when they were comic book-style static; they looked less fine when the characters’ mouths were doing a chewing motion in an attempt to sync with the dialogue. Gameplay was fun and featured a little bit of strategy. I played the waifu, natch, and found her controls to be a little slippery, like I was playing on roller skates. No word on whether the husbando feels the same. I do like the new game screen though, with the two of them looking moodily into the distance. Too bad that wasn’t quite the feel of the rest of the game.

Back 4 Blood – This is considered a spiritual sequel to “Left 4 Dead,” right down to the numeral in the title, but I’ve never played “Left 4 Dead.” I have played “Vermintide”a lot – and that’s considered “Left 4 Dead” with rats; I can safely say that “Back 4 Blood” does seem like “Vermintide” with zombies. Everything looks OK, all “Fortnite” smooth, but I’m not sure I’ve ever felt that the pacing of a game was its most punishing quality. It’s also hard to build an atmosphere when nothing ever shuts off. The zombie designs are cool and all – pustule popping elite zombies swimming with arms and teeth bound around as their flesh drips off their bodies – but I can’t appreciate any of it when everything moves at a million miles a second. Playing with bots slowed things down, but then it felt like there wasn’t much to engage with outside of the brutal pacing. Everything from ambiance to dialogue to feedback from shootin’ things felt forced at best and murky at worst. This feels like a very safe Halloween third-person shooter. Play at your own desire for another one of those.

Werewolf: The Apocalypse Earthblood – Depending on where you look online, the title of this game is punctuated in all sorts of novel ways. I picked the one that looks best on this list, but that alone should tell you something. There’s obviously some expansive lore behind “Earthblood,” and the developers likely appreciate that lore, but there is so much missing from this as a game. It’s a third-person action/stealth game with mild RPG elements, but all of it feels underwhelming. The stealth is poorly developed, with bad feedback from enemies and few mechanics, ultimately feeling unnecessary. Everything turns into a fistfight, which is a little better – at least it can almost function like a werewolf power fantasy – but that also lacks smoothness, and frustrating attempts at using the combat options typically devolve into button mashing. Outside of combat, exploring the hub world is what this blog found the most satisfying. It’s bigger than expected, which is still not that big. In fact, everything about this game feels unwieldy. Not just the mechanics, but the presentation too. The story is cartoonish and, presumably if you’re as unfamiliar with the lore as I am, convoluted. The voice acting is stiff. The animation is awkward; no one knows what to do with their arms. The main character’s biceps look like rubber. I like how his tiny wolf form leaps like a thrown rag doll, but I doubt that was the developer’s intention.

So that’s it, tonstant weader. What did I miss? Also, should I do a month-or-so of Halo franchise reviews? It might be smart for traffic, given that Paramount Plus series that recently debuted. Whatever. I’m not good at this. Tell me what to do in the comments below, &c.

Something’s not lining up: A critical review of “Intersect” (2020)

We’ve been through a lot lately, haven’t we? Weird old Chinese cartoons, not quite cult classics, Sig Haig. But after watching those somewhat awful cosmic horror films, upon returning to the one that I initially thought was the worst of the worst, it did not seem quite as bad. Maybe that’s maturing, tonstant Weader. Alternatively, maybe my brain is starting to rot. Still, 2020’s “Intersect” feels to e like it still has a unique place in the halls cosmic horror, science thriller and tales of time travel, if only for how many half-baked ideas it manages to cram into its span.

“Intersect” is sort of a story about three childhood friends turned Miskatonic University scientists trying to unlock the secrets of time. They’ve got it pretty good when it comes to launching jars of marbles approximately 40 seconds into the future (I’m not sure how they’re gauging that the marbles have gone through time, actually; are they older than when they started?); however, all the mice they send through the Stargate-style time machine keep vomiting blood and melting. It’s probably not a good sign that the temporal portal looks like a angry cloud of black sick. In addition to figuring that out, they’ll also ponder the motivations of a mob of religious protesters; one of the scientist’s mysterious childhood; the similarly mysterious death of another; the nature of strange creatures that may or may not be connected to their experiments; a pendant, I think; that little box with the brown paper and string. There are so many dangling threads that the film has no interest in tying up, so neither do I.

I think I know what’s wrong, though. Writer-producer-director Gus Holwerda likes a bunch of trippy thrillers – “12 Monkeys,” “The Time Machine,” “Memento,” “Call of Cthulhu,” “Event Horizon,” maybe even “Vertigo” and “The Fountain.” I get it. I like all of those too. The problem is, I don’t think they should all be crammed into the same movie.

You can’t keep excitedly adding random plot elements into a script and, instead of completing, explaining or linking any of them together, just call it “nonlinear storytelling”… I mean, you can, clearly, this film exists, but it’s not good. There is no sense of togetherness to “Intersect.” Nothing ever gets done. Watching it is a chore.

Maybe it wouldn’t be so tough if the film was intelligently shot or performed by a talented cast, but none of that exists here either. The camerawork is nothing to write home about. It’s very jumpy, with a fondness for wandering, bobbing up and down and close-ups. Sometimes it’s almost interesting; other times it’s jarring; usually it’s just annoying. There’s also something curiously unnerving about the look and sound of the film, as if everything was photographed in front of a green screen, dubbed in post, or both.

As for the actors, they aren’t even up to being a mixed bag. They either look bored or are behaving so broadly they border on parody. One scientist with a penchant for the drink constantly acts like a teenager getting plastered for the first time. Later, when paranormal phenomena start popping up, the collective response is a barely concerned shrug. I don’t know. Maybe the actors couldn’t understand the script either. Curiously, the children (in the time travel flashbacks) tend to be more convincing, possibly because one expects kids to be sulky or enthusiastic to the point of irritation.

I don’t want to sound like I’m bashing indie horror. This kind of thing can be done in a satisfying way. Two auteur driven no budget thrillers are the early Mike Flanagan effort “Absentia” and Shawn Linden’s “Nobody” (which this blog raved about not too long ago). Both of those films have loopy grasps on time and attempted something mythic. They are both arguably as ambitious as “Intersect.” What they have that it lacks is an attention span.

Still, if you’re into that sort of thing, “Intersect’s” lack of focus can lead to some unintentionally comic moments. My favorite was a schoolyard bully who is heard grunting in awful pain off camera, like he’s passing a kidney stone. We cut to him to see him standing up. Is his back out? He’s pretty young for it, but it can happen.

Elsewhere, scientist Nate stumbles into the lab after a night on the town. A coupe of lab techs are still working. They seem surprised. “It’s late,” one says. It is, so why are they there too? I also notice the science gentlemen tend to have casual wear under their white coats, but the science ladies tend to have heels and above the knee skirts. Is that industry standard? I’m not a science lady, so I’m the wrong person to ask. None of this is mentioning the characters that are brought up like we’ve always known them, the blended family drama that appears halfway through the narrative, the last second twist that’s so disconnected I don’t even think it qualifies as a twist…

In fact, “Intersect” is so distracted and irrational, I would heartily recommend it to people who like bad thrillers except for its two hour run time. That’s a tall commitment. This blog is willing to take that hit for the team, but it’s understandable if you aren’t.

Don’t worry though. Someone does watch the original “Night of the Living Dead” on screen, so we’ve got that indie horror trope covered. I don’t know why they’re never watching one of the myriad other public domain thrillers, but whatever. At least that film is only 96 minutes long.

Darksided: A critical review of “Black Mountain Side” (2014)

On paper, “Black Mountain Side” sounds like a movie this blog would love. Taking inspiration from “The Thing” and “The Shining,” the Canadian 2014 indie horror promises psychological and cosmic thrills with heaping helpings of isolation, paranoia, out of place archaeology, hallucinatory experiences and snow.

There’s one problem. “Black Mountain Side” is aggressively boring, which sort of hurts my chances of appreciating much of it.

“Black Mountain” tells the not unfamiliar tale of a team of researchers dicking around in a particularly chilly patch of British Columbia looking for remnants of the local prehistoric culture. When they uncover an out of place artifact – a carved slab that looks like it fell off a Mesoamerican temple – they call in an expert to take a look. But before he can offer an opinion, weird things start to happen. The team’s native workers leave inexplicably. Radio contact with the outside world goes dark. Team members start to exhibit a host of unsettling psychological and nightmarish physiological symptoms. Are the events the result of mental weakness? The unleashing of an ancient bacteria from beneath the ice? Or something far darker, older and unearthly?

The intention of “Black Mountain” is its influences, and its influences are pretty clear. Writer-director-producer Nick Szostakiwskyj takes the slow burning madness and title cards stating the date from “The Shining” and pretty much everything else from “The Thing.” There’s enough similarities to start a running tab. We’ve got an opening scene featuring a helicopter landing and a team member playing a computer game; an all-male team; a radio operator trying to raise someone on an unresponsive system; people running around at night in parkas; an unexpected amputation; a couple of autopsies; a late game conversation about trust; and a climax that utilizes dynamite and the f-word.

Don’t worry, “Black Mountain” doesn’t feel quite as blatant a rip-off as “Lily C.A.T.,” or as goofy a stew of influences as “Breach.” The movie tries to use its many references in the service of its Canadian setting and mythology, and it mostly succeeds. If anything, there could have been a little Algernon Blackwood. I wouldn’t have complained. Probably.

I will complain about how boring everything is though. I have no problem with horror that takes its time. I do have a problem with horror that doesn’t go anywhere. Horror can be low key, thoughtful or formalistic, but then it typically involves psychologically interesting characters, philosophical musing or artistic expression. “Black Mountain” has none of that. It has characters that are not people, but rather things the plot can push around and occasionally murder.

There’s no delineation between these characters. They aren’t even stereotypes. They’re just bodies. Can you reasonably tell one from the other? I can’t. I know there’s outside science man; he’s an archaeologist and someone whose camp noob status gives the audience a useful cipher for exposition. I know there’s a doctor guy. You know he’s a doctor because he gives everyone sleeping pills for their various neuroses and infections. Seriously. There’s a point where he starts just carrying them around in his pockets for when anyone brings up any kind of symptom. There’s also another guy who hangs out in the radio room sometimes. I don’t know any of their names. When someone starts hearing voices in the after-hours, or someone else goes nuts and hacks off their own hand, I have no idea who that is compared to the other half a dozen-ish guys. I’m not even sure who camp leader is.

I hate to do this, but the movie brought it upon itself. Compare the characters in “Black Mountain” to those in “The Thing.” In John Carpenter’s film, the men at Outpost 31 feel distinct, with individual quirks and varying responses to the unimaginable situation they’ve been thrust into. There’s also a question about who the camp leader is, but it’s one of the primary sources of tension in the film. Garry is officially the leader, but his authority crumbles due to his age and uncertainty, allowing more charismatic figures like MacReady and Childs to start bickering their way to the top. Childs clearly wants authority; MacReady says he doesn’t want it, but he’s awfully good at assuming it. Garry pouts and lamely steps aside. In a film about figuring out who’s inhuman, it’s a very human dynamic, and it’s arguably one of thriller cinema’s most fascinating dynamics because it’s made up of such distinct individuals.

On the other hand, at one point in “Black Mountain Side,” one dude tells another dude to “look into” all the crazy shit. Why that particular dude? I dunno. Reasons, I suppose.

It doesn’t help that none of the actors are very good. The quality of perforancehovers between stale cold reads and overeager community theater players, with the dividing line typically between whether the character is still sane or has gone crazy. Accordingly, there’s no sense of people slowly going insane. They’re just kinda suspicious one minute, then a scene later they’re giggling about how they haven’t slept in days and no one’s leaving the camp alive.

A certain amount of blame can be placed on the plot, which doesn’t bother to establish a consistent reality any more than the characters do. Again, I don’t mind if a world is weird or features unexplained elements, but it has to sport some internal logic so that when crazy stuff happens, it actually feels crazy. “Black Mountain” doesn’t establish that logic. It isn’t surreal. It just doesn’t seem to care.

There are a number of unresolved issues. I’m not talking about the nature of the alien entity haunting the camp. I think the film walks a nice line between whether the threat is supernatural or bacterial, admirably resisting the urge to take sides. I’m talking about the myriad little issues that pile up. How did the native workers leave, given everyone says the ice is unassailable this time of year? Did they actually leave? Are they dead or in hiding? Don’t know. What about the dudes who stay in the camp? Were there any hints of paranoia from before? If so, we don’t hear about it. There is a dead cat everyone forgets about. What’s up with that? What about the camp itself? Is this dig really so profitable? No one seems that upset when the scheduled supply drop doesn’t happen. Why should anyone care about any of this before before the space crazies set in?

The most painful example is a throwaway observation that the invading parasite seems to be turning its host’s cells into those of an octopus, another reference to “The Thing” and, presumably, everyone’s favorite elder god. An entire scene is spent on it. There’s a one-liner about aquariums. Then it’s all forgotten. Even the film’s more generous defenders note that this does nothing for the story. At best it’s an inside Cthulhu joke that isn’t particularly funny; at worst it’s an attempt at spooky weirdness that’s just another frustratingly unanswered question.

Curiously for a film that tries to be cryptic, there is very little atmosphere in “Black Mountain Side.” That is no fault of the visuals, which are bleak and beautiful and sometimes quite interesting. Two men smoking outside, a tennis ball hitting a wall, the last sane person in camp confronting a madman next to a mirror – these are compelling images, well blocked and framed, that take full advantage of the location’s foggy forests, pine-knotty cabins and blank snowbanks.

The sound is far less effective. The audio is mostly OK, although sometimes things are obviously recorded in another room on a later date. I cannot remember a note of the score. Given how little there is happening onscreen, it would have been nice to have some jarring sound cues or moody ambient tracks, but instead there is, like the rest of the film, nothing. And I hate to bring up “The Thing” again – kind of – but Ennio Morricone’s ominous score was an integral part of the tension and atmosphere of that film. Perhaps the lack of soundtrack here was a conscious choice at setting the bleak tone, but with little else to hold onto, it was a choice I find it hard to get behind.

The final disappointment is the monster, whose presence is intriguingly doled out for much of the film. It’s all a gutteral voice, a hoarse and harsh whisper, maybe in the head of whatever unfortunate character is onscreen. That voice, provided by Nathaniel Gordon, is easily the best performance in the film. Then they had to show the thing, and it becomes much less effective. It’s not even a bad effect. It’s just… unremarkable. A Val Lewton show-don’t-tell apporach would have been far more effective, harmonizing with the film’s ambiguous efforts and atmospheric intentions. Instead we get a poorly telegraphed hunting trophy (earlier in the film, the archaeologist states that its clear certain images of a deer on the Mesoamerican-style slab are “god-like.” How’s it clear? The film never bothers to explain).

Even if we just accept the creature as a budgetary constraint and cut the film some slack, the movie still doesn’t know what to do with its own cosmic horror musing. Probably the most powerful point of the film is undercut by its lack of purpose. At the climax, the entity – which is still (conceptually) hovering between alien god and hallucination – echoes the book of Job, stating in that awesome voice: “When an animal looks up at the night sky, what does it see? Thousands and thousands of tiny points. Then a man looks up at the same points and sees millions of stars, galaxies, within which are billions of planets. Do you want to know what I see? Were you there when I created the stars?”

“No,” responds the human it has cornered, in the tone of a petulant child. Later, that same human asks why the entity killed so many people. It replies: “I have to go.” Huh? Is it late for an appointment?

I have spent way too much time on this, but not since we began the “worst cosmic horror movie” project last November have I felt so disappointed by a film. “Black Mountain Side” has a great premise – an isolated setting, out of place archaeology, ancient bacteria, maybe metaphysics maybe mundane – that it effectively wastes. Some pretty photography and a cool voice for the creature cannot make up for the lack of characters, continuity, pacing, soundtrack and purpose. The film is also quite bleak, but that’s par for the course in the genre. I don’t know if it was the filmmaker’s intention, but the conclusion had me laughing out loud. I guess that’s worth something.

Familiar scratches: A critical review of “Lily C.A.T.” (1987)

Is it just me, or does the idea of sleeper ships seems like a monetary sinkhole? The corporation funding the operation has to be pretty confident they’ll be around in the 20 years it takes to get to the salvage site or mining world or whatever. The crew members, meanwhile, have to hope that their hazard pay will keep up with inflation. That’s 20 years both ways, remember. I can’t imagine Adam Smith would approve.

Still, that sort of value was probably not in the heads of the producers of 1987 OVA “Lily C.A.T.” They did have another value in mind, which was a kind of economy of narrative. When it comes to bad cosmic horror flicks, “C.A.T.” is another example of a mediocre film brought low by blatantly borrowing from other media.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A motley crew of blue-collar workers, space jockeys and company wage slaves is pulled out of suspended animation to explore a mining world, somewhere and when in the distant future. Naturally people start disappearing, their bodies later found contorted in terror and dripping with alien bacteria, while other times only their discarded clothes remain. To figure out what’s going on, the dwindling crew has to investigate the connection between the disappearances and deaths, a monstrous presence on board, and an all too human murderer in their midst.

“C.A.T.” could establish some interesting mystery except for two things. The first is that it reveals some of its mysteries right off the bat – as in, during the title sequence. We see a prehistoric space rock strike the ship, so there’s nothing to discover with the crew when they start freaking out about a damaged hull and alien bacteria. They’re just catching up with us, and that’s no fun.

To be fair, the intro theme that plays under the credits is pretty good. It’s a combination of stirring orchestral cues and sinister electronic flourishes. And the animation – sweeping robot arms and hurtling space junk – is detailed and smooth. It’s a pity that’s about as good as audio or visuals will ever get. The soundtrack mostly utilizes boilerplate thriller synthesizers – not bad but not outstanding – and the visuals… we’ll get there.

The other reason there’s no real mystery here is because “C.A.T.” is painfully obvious about its influences. There’s no question the OVA lacks originality; the only question is what it’s ripping off more: “Alien” or “The Thing”? And the answer is: “yes.”

On one hand you have: the cargo ship of a ruthless corporation for the setting; an alien entity bothering the ship’s cat; an AI called Mother; robotic revelations; a tense moment when the hanger door blows open; blocky white sci fi furniture; geometric hallways lined with ropy braids of wires and lit by slatted windows; space chains.

On the other hand you have: an alien organism that appears to infect via blood; a forensic hunt for someone who is not what they appear to be; civilian scientists in an isolated setting with more curiosity than sense; a computer flashing cryptic messages about an invasive life-form taking over Earth; a human face splitting in half; a dead body on a gurney that subtly moves when no one’s looking; tentacles.

There’s also flamethrowers, cos while one can probably have cosmic horror with them, do we really want to take that chance?

Perhaps I’m being a little unfair, and we should think of “C.A.T.” as a really, really slavish homage rather than a straight-up rip-off. The problem is that if we tear out all that, uh, adoration, we’re left with a second-rate slice of sci fi horror. The OVA needs to have both a large enough cast to properly murder and to tell its story in less than 70 minutes, so no character is given any breathing room to become interesting. That does explain why no one seems particularly upset about the rapidly growing pile of dead bodies on the ship. No one in the cast – or audience – cares about anyone on board.

Thematically there are some admirable attempts at philosophizing, with the most attention on considering what kinds of people would lose decades of their lives to long-distance space travel. There’s also some musing on the theme of “live life,” which could have been an opportunity for an interesting consideration of how both man and parasite just want to survive. Instead, that’s ignored in favor of a closing speech that shoots for rousing but hits “budget motivational speaker” instead – not to mention it’s delivered during the film’s most awkward editing. You might find it charming or mawkish depending on your mood, but it’s clumsy and goofy either way.

As previously discussed, if we’re skipping the borrowed aspects of design, we have to ignore spaceships and most of the creatures featured – even when it’s not overly familiar, the space critter ends up being a fairly unimaginative mass of tentacles. Not hentai tentacles though. Well, for the most part… How do the humans look? Ugly, like anemic playing cards rather than people. Surprisingly, creature designs were by Yoshitaka Amano and character designs were by Yasuomi Umetsu, who respectively worked on the inventive “Twilight of the Cockroaches” and the stunning “Robot Carnival” around this time.

There are some atmospheric lighting choices during the hallway crawls, and there is a kinda gory shot of a cat evisceration, so that’ll please old school anime weirdos. There’s even a flash of something that looks like early computer assisted animation, but I ain’t no expert on that. The film at least answers what looked like a big old plot hole at the beginning about a message from corporate HQ. Even the size of the cat, which changes depending on the shot, might have an in-universe explanation… or else someone in continuity just wasn’t doing their job. But that’s “Lily C.A.T.” in a nutshell. Between its influences and its quality, it’s a film that paradoxically tries too hard and doesn’t care at all.

Light my fire: A critical review of “Aliens: Fireteam Elite” (2021)

This blog is making its mad scramble to view enough media so we can put together some best of 2021 lists, and games is one space where we’re making the attempt. There are a few games we’re either trying to finish or trying to start: some we really like; some we’re really curious about; even a couple that are consistently featured on other, actually authoritative, “best of 2021” lists. However, there is only one game that is calling out for us to talk about: “Genshin Impact,” now free-to-play on Android and iOS.

Wait. Shoot. Hold on.

The clumsily named “Aliens: Fireteam Elite” is a third-person cover shooter set in the universe of xenomorphs and androids that bleed milk. Gameplay is mission-driven, and the co-op setup is similar to “Left 4 Dead” (but take note online-only skeptics: there is an offline mode). The plot shouldn’t surprise any familiar with the franchise: Colonial marines answer a distress call from a mothballed Weyland-Yutani ship. That leads them to investigate some suspicious research on a terraformed planet or whatnot. The point is, there will be aliens, rogue androids and maybe something else, all of it trying to kill you in waves. If there’s someone who works for the company and is definitely not a robot, they’re probably a robot. If you are told there’s no way you’ll encounter the hive queen, you’re going to see the queen.

“Fireteam” is not great by any metric. Its combat is repetitive, and its play options start to look somewhat shallow as the game grinds on. But it has a curious amount of heart, courtesy of solid voice acting and a respect for the source material. Even if it’s not great, it feels good, and fans of the franchise will likely cut it the slack it needs to come off as a fun experience.

One plays on a three-person team – an odd number in more ways than one – comprised of either bots, friends or randos online. There are four to six mildly upgradable/customizable character classes, depending on which version you’re playing, all somewhat distinct. The gunner is a well-rounded shooter; the technician plays more defense with turrets and mines; the demolisher offers crowd control with a weapons set that screams “run into battle and pull the trigger regardless of my teammate’s needs”; and the doc distinguishes itself by sucking. Individual guns aren’t especially distinct, but gun classes are distinguishable enough, with assault rifles more than glorified machine guns, and flamethrowers a colorful but messy option.

What you’ll be shooting with those guns is mostly xenomorphs, and again, they come in varieties that are sort of but not quite different. There are runners to bum-rush the players, spitters to hock neon loogies, and prowlers to hide around corners and provide occasional jump scares. I found drones provided the most variety. A little more than just runners with extra hit points, they had a pattern of taking damage, running into a vent, then reappearing and incapacitating players who were distracted by the horde. Even they weren’t particularly different in appearance or combat, they allowed for a touch of tension. Other than that, pretty much everyone charges at you in a conga line. If you’re observant, you can find a spawn point and pick enemies off as they exit the virtual clown car. At least there’s good feedback on shooting things in the head.

One element that does feel fairly distinct is level design. There are four missions, each one in a unique environment: an abandoned space station, the only jungle planet not to have Predators, an H. R. Giger designed “Ancient Aliens” set, and another abandoned space station except the xenomorphs have been playing decorator.

While third-person shooting does not typically lend itself to horror, “Fireteam” at least does OK as a thriller because it bothers to build an atmosphere. In most of those settings, there’s tricky lighting and small environmental cues to suggest tension. Was that the hiss of a xeno or just a leaky pipe? Things build. Even within the abandoned space station we end up in a waterlogged reactor, and the game doesn’t throw Giger wallpaper at us from the beginning, unlike another title I could mention. So when those jump scares do come, they feel at least earned.

The standout for most people is the voice acting, and I concur. It’s all quite good, with NPC line delivery both enthusiastic and good-humored. Some people complained about the limited character animation and lack of mouth movement, but that never bothered me. I prefer a quality character portrait with next to no facial animation to a poorly mapped effort. I was more bummed by the dialogue. Some of the attempts at comedy fall flat, and not due to delivery. There are interesting moments though. At one point, the ship’s resident robot made an observation about utilitarian philosophy. It wasn’t the most profound observation, but it was done for its own sake while still feeling organic. Not bad at all. Franchise fans might be more impressed by the thoughtful way Alien lore is woven into the script. And, naturally, there are also nods to grand Gothic standbys like the Bible and Greek mythology. Is the xenomorph called Monica a reference to “Doki Doki Literature Club”? Almost certainly not. There’s no K.

There are flaws. Sometimes scripted dialogue will start up when you’re shooting random aliens, so the words are lost under the chatter of gunfire and drooling jaws. Worse is when you trigger some sweeping music while a line of likewise triggered dialogue starts to play. Is it a significant plot point? Who knows? You won’t, at least not until you play the level again, hopefully without the soundtrack cue. At least the soundtrack’s good.

Still, most of the problems with the game aren’t flaws but places where it could be more. It could be scarier, have more Lewton buses and spooky visual effects, sport more varied enemies and boss encounters, and throw more challenges than press X and defend a choke point at the player. The game is fine at what it does; it just needs to do more.

I am starting to develop a criteria for how to judge these sorts of games, and I think “Fireteam” passes enough to be recommended. Combat feedback is good. Atmosphere is good. The sense of humor is mostly there. The slog is satisfying enough. Enemies… are. Classes feel different, and playing with humans versus bots is distinct, with bots dependable but unimaginative compared to the versatility and capacity for chaos offered by humans. Bot AI lags on later levels, which segues into an unfortunate point.

A glance through reviews suggests the “Fireteam” community is spotty. In this blog’s experience, getting matched with humans was pretty hit-or-miss. That strikes me as a little unfair.I don’t think “Fireteam” needs me to be its champion – I’m just a little guy, and the game presumably has the power of 20th Century Fox (technically Disney now) and the entire Alien franchise behind it. It also has received positive attention from Angry Joe, and what could be better than that?

As a sci fi action thriller, “Fireteam” has been rightly hailed as better than “Aliens: Colonial Marines.” Coupled with the game’s obvious reverence for the franchise, it feels bad to sleep on this one, even if it’s not perfect. Perhaps a solid community could uplift it just enough to get it the attention it deserves.

If I had to sum up “Fireteam” in a single piece of its design, it would not be its drone-haunted hallways, or the one-liners of Sergeant Herrera or Lieutenant Ko. It would be how runner xenomorphs stumble a bit, like overexcited dogs, when you graze them with gunfire. It’s a cute touch. Off balance, and not enough to make a game, but cute nevertheless.