‘Life is Strange’: Franchise Highlight

While stuck in quarantine, I decided to regress a bit and play a few videogames to pass the time.  In the past three months, I have completed all the games from Dontnod Entertainment’s Life is Strange franchise, and will be highlighting them below.

People’s opinions of story-heavy, choice-based games vary wildly, particularly among the “gamer” gamers.  Since this specific genre can be seen as playable movies, they receive criticism for not being “active” enough.  Luckily for me, the cinematic and thematic qualities of videogames are what interest me most, so it follows that I find them fascinating.

This franchise in particular does not simply draw its own world and rules, but incorporates real-life social issues into its themes: depression, personal guilt, bullying, the bonds between people, taking responsibility for one’s actions, loss, and the acceptance of that loss.  When I started playing them, I was far from ready for the emotional roller-coaster that was to befall me.

With that, let’s get to it.

Life is Strange (2015)

In this game you play as Max Caulfield, a quiet and reserved photography student who has moved back to her hometown of Arcadia Bay, Oregon.  One day, she discovers that she has the ability to reverse time, and manages to save her childhood best friend, Chloe, from getting shot by a fellow student.

Throughout the game, Max and Chloe try and solve the disappearance of Rachel Amber, a student who has been missing for 6 months.  Things get stranger and stranger as Max’s journey gets more dire and intense; for a game that at first appears as just another high-school drama saga, the circumstances that the player eventually finds themselves in are incredibly somber and soul-wrenching. It has us ask ourselves:  How far would we go to save those we care about?  If we could change the past, would we?  If so, we better be ready for the consequences that come with that power.

A mixture of Twin Peaks, Final Destination, and The Butterfly Effect, Life is Strange is one of the best stories I’ve experienced in gaming, and perhaps even in all media.

Life is Strange: Before the Storm (2017)

Serving as a prequel to Life is Strange, this game puts you in control of 16-year-old Chloe Price and allows you to relive those awkward, angsty teenage years.  From dealing with her hard-ass stepfather, to navigating her intense and turbulent friendship with Rachel Amber (whose disappearance blanketed the first game with mystery and dread), to trying to come to terms with her father’s tragic death two years prior, the player gains insight into Chloe and her various struggles; in short, why she is the way she is.  That said, this entry serves as a great character study into what arguably is one of the most well-crafted queer female protagonists in gaming.

The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit (2018)

You play as Chris Eriksen, a nine-year-old  whose alter ego is the superhero, Captain Spirit.  Chris lives with his dad Charles who, after the death of Chris’ mother, has become an alcoholic.

It’s a very short venture, as it mainly serves as a type of prequel to Life is Strange 2, but in that hour that is spent playing, the player can feel the dreariness that accompanies the months and years that follow loss, along with the child-like naivety and innocence in trying to make sense of that loss.

Life is Strange 2 (2018)

Sean and Daniel, ages 16 and 9, are two Mexican brothers from Seattle whose father gets shot by police.  During the incident, Sean discovers that Daniel has telekinesis (which results in the death of a cop), and decides that they need to book it out of the country.  They set out to travel to Mexico, to return to their father’s homeland, Puerto Lobos.  Along the way, they meet some really cool people (and trim weed in Humboldt), and ones that are not so cool (people that label them criminals simply by looking at their skin color).

It was definitely a change of pace, to have the player not be in control of the character with the supernatural ability.  As Sean, you become a pseudo-father figure to Daniel, and are solely responsible for teaching him morals while advising him on when and how he should use his new-found telekinetic ability.

The game might not be as good as the others, but it does a very good job in placing the player in the shoes of a minority that has to endure racism and bigotry, therefore evoking a type of empathy that videogames rarely develop.

Tell Me Why (2020)

While this game isn’t technically considered part of the Life is Strange franchise, I chose to include it, as I think its themes and atmosphere largely encompass what the other entries strive to do.

You get to play as both Alyson and Tyler Ronan, two twins that reunite in their hometown in Delos Crossing, Alaska;  they suffered a horrific childhood trauma that ended with their mom being killed and them being separated for 10 years. Now, as they prepare to sell their old house, they seek to find the truth about what really happened that night, and figure out how to come to terms with the past.

When the player isn’t consumed in the mystery at hand, they find themselves taken aback by the scenery, as this game is seriously so pretty. Aside from being simply gorgeous to look at, the game makes history as being the first to feature a main character who is transgender.

With the themes of memory and sibling bonds, the journey is a special one.  The core trauma of the game is admittedly very dark, and at times feels a little too depressing.  But, as we have probably all learned, life is not cheese and wine and roses, but a series of challenges and pitfalls where a happy ending is hard to find.  Tell Me Why, along with all the other games in the franchise, embrace this truth with honesty that is bleak, but that still contains threads of hope.

Choice-based games were never really my cup of tea, but after giving these pieces a shot, I have since reconsidered their place on the videgame totem pole.

The pain of memories, the death of our parents and guardians, the exploration of sexuality, the bonds of friendship and of siblings, perseverance in the face of adversity – all of these are taken up by Dontnod, one of the few game developers out there that consistently release thoughtful, emotional, and pro-minority pieces.

While games and media can be great entertainment, they can also be great teachers, and conduits that allow for a cathartic and therapeutic experience that help us make sense of the world, our relationships, and ourselves.

People can take away a variety of values and ideals from these games, as they have the propensity to mean a bunch of different things to different people.  But one common theme remains certain:  no matter how we navigate our lives and which paths we choose to take, we must not forget that those choices and actions always have consequences.

Ranked: The ‘Silent Hill’ Franchise

Back in 1999, Konami wanted to develop a game that answered back to 1996’s huge hit, Resident Evil.  They entrusted this to a small group of developers, a sort of rag-tag group that weren’t considered the top performers at the development company.  What resulted was the psychological counterpart to the survival horror that Resident Evil helped solidify.  With Resident Evil leaning more toward action-horror, I found my preference in Silent Hill, as it chose to focus on the more subtle, inward forms of horror and terror.

Being as the anniversary of the release of the first Silent Hill game is approaching, I thought it was high time to share some thoughts and rankings of the games in the series.  Not only does the collection adequately wear the cloak of “survival horror”, but, perhaps more importantly, the one of psychological horror.  Stemming from this genre, the game further delves into multiple subgenres, including body horror, family horror, and personal horror – when repressed memories and actions are illuminated, and our dark halves are turned inside out.

I cannot say that I dislike any games in the series, as each one has something to offer (or so I’ve found, anyway…);  the ones that rank lower do have their own respective flaws, certainly, but if one can look past wonky controls or a frustrating camera set-up, they will be thankful, as the pros vastly outweigh the cons.  The thematic material, the darkly tragic stories, and the opportunity for introspection that the series has to offer make this collection of media some of the most profound and emotional pieces of narrative that I have found in any medium.

Welcome to Silent Hill (and my rankings of the main games)

<<Keep in mind – these are not ranked from Worst to Best, but my Least Favorite to Favorite>>

 

#8 – Silent Hill: Origins (2007)

This was the last Silent Hill game that I played, and oddly enough it’s the last on the list.  While the music and atmosphere was great and unsettling, it really didn’t add anything of value in terms of lore, or even visuals – it was mostly more of what we had already seen.  I understand the allure of origin stories, however the attempt to tie ties with the first installment wasn’t as good as it could have been.  That said, the game had some decently frightening moments, and Travis the protagonist has arguably one of the most messed up backstories of the franchise.

 

#7 – Silent Hill: Shattered Memories (2009)

Shattered Memories serves as a loose remake (some call it a re-imagining) of the first game.  I was a bit skeptical of this one, as it was made for the Wii console (honestly, how good could a survival horror for the Wii actually be?).  Shattered Memories takes the series in a drastic different direction control-wise and concept-wise;  part of the game has you playing Harry Mason as he searches for his daughter, but it also has you engage in a therapy session with a psychologist.  From guilt to family to death, the game tracks your answers in the therapy session, as well as how you play as Harry, with the psychologist’s notes regarding your personality being shown after you complete the game as the credits roll.  This game and its thematic implications bothered and stuck with me for a long time after I played it, truly making fear personal.

 

#6 – Silent Hill: Downpour (2012)

A lot of “firsts” for the series came with this game.  I would say Downpour is the most expansive of them all, and relies the heaviest on exploration.  The first SH game that is slightly “open-world”, it really had a lot of neat things in it, with the addition of side quests offering more backstory regarding the dark secrets that reside in the homes of other Silent Hill citizens.  The biggest downside to Downpour was its monster design;  the series is known for its menacing and symbolic monsters, but in this game…the monsters (save for the main boss and the mannequins) were very blah.  Aside from that, this game was solid.  The plot was well-executed, the characters were well-written, and the puzzles were among the best.

 

#5 – Silent Hill: Homecoming (2008)

Homecoming is, by a large amount of Silent Hill fans, considered to be the worst game in the series.  Okay, so yes it is more action-based than any other, and yes, it does kind of feel like Saw 3 had a love child with Hostel, but I actually really enjoyed playing it.  While some of it takes place in the neighboring town of Shepherd’s Glen, it demonstrates the pervasiveness of the Order, the cult behind all the humanly evil shenanigans in the town (the plot is supremely twisted, and centers on ritualistic filicide).  Homecoming can be way over-the-top at times with its gore and script, but that’s what made it fun, almost campy;  plus, it contains the most intimidating boss battle I’ve ever battled – Scarlet, a tall, skinny, domineering doll monster that is made of flesh underneath.  Oh yea, and in her second phase she turns into a spider.

 

#4 – Silent Hill (1999)

The original game is so bizarre and off-putting, one really does feel like they are in an alternate reality while playing.  As Harry Mason, an average, run-of-the-mill dad, you have to search for your missing daughter after a car crash – in the town of Silent Hill.  The fog/ash is oppressive, the sound assaults you, and the dread that you encounter is so real.  There were times when I was playing that I was literally frozen with fear, unable to carry on.  And I’m talking like at 11 am on a sunny day – I’d be terrified and have to quit.  It is a living nightmare-scape where you have no choice but  to move onward (literally, by playing).  If you are interested in beginning your foray into survival horror and want to understand how this specific genre came to be, this game is an absolute must.

 

#3 – Silent Hill 4: The Room (2004)

Definitely the most abstract of the games, SH4 was largely experimental, a chance for Team Silent to try new things.  Consequently, this has led it to be the most polarizing entry in the series:  you will either really like it, or really, really hate it.  And I will say this: the game is not a fun one to play – it’s hard, frustrating, and sometimes straight up insufferable.  It violates many rules of gaming:  the mandatory repeating of levels, the extensive escort mission, and the “unsafe-ing” of the player’s Safe Room, to name a few big ones.  That said, it is because of these violations that it had such an impact;  the player never feels safe in this game, and never feels sure about what they heard, what they’re looking at, or even what exactly is going on.  All you know is something very bad is happening, your apartment that you thought was a safe haven is slowly becoming haunted, and you have the unkillable ghost of a serial killer chasing you.  For me, SH4 remains the scariest game in the series, and arguably contains the best story.

 

#2 – Silent Hill 2 (2001)

The eminence of SH2 almost goes without saying.  Considered as the de-facto “best” in the series, and one of the greatest games of all time, I too believe it to be the objective best entry.  The music, pacing, tone, storytelling – everything about this game is perfect.  James Sunderland lost his wife three years ago.  However, he recently received a letter — from his dead wife.  She says that she’s waiting for him in Silent Hill –  he travels there to find out the truth, a truth that might be a hard and bitter pill to swallow.  Before SH2, I had never experienced such an emotional reaction to a video game when the final twist came.  It is a shame that video games as a whole are a tad more difficult to recommend and consume than movies or music, but if I could somehow force everyone to play this one, I would.

 

#1 – Silent Hill 3 (2003)

Part of my placement of this one at the top is attributed to nostalgia.  Being the first Silent Hill I played, I was not quite ready for what was to follow in terms of the amount of affect that could be experienced from a video game.  It serves as a direct sequel to #1, and delves deep into the town’s lore – it incorporates themes of maternity and unwanted pregnancy, along with fanatical religion and ritualism.  The whole thing is red, gory, grimy, and disturbing.  The player encounters all this, as they play as Heather (Harry Mason’s adopted daughter), a smart and sarcastic 17-year-old who has no idea why any of this crazy shit is happening to her.  With the strongest protagonist, the most dynamic soundtrack, the most visceral visuals, and overall the best playing experience, Silent Hill 3 is not only my top SH pick, but my favorite video game period.

Review – Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

A Good Scary Movie to Watch in the Dark

CBS Films

When I was a kid, I remember reading R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps books and getting decently creeped out.  They were freaky, fun, supernatural little ditties that were very entertaining to read, but whose horror elements did not last long too much afterward.

I also remember reading the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books.  The collections were written by Alvin Schwartz, and included illustrations by Stephen Gammell.  What these sets of books lacked in quantity, they more than made up for in disquiet and lasting impressions.

I actually remember being freaked out so much while reading these that I attempted to “lock” the book in my backpack one night before going to bed.  However, I laid there a good while, not being able to sleep, afraid that the monsters that I had just read about were going to find their way toward me.  Many, many anxiety-ridden nights I owe to these stories as, while they are marketed towards a younger audience and are technically children’s books, the stories and (arguably moreso) the illustrations were able to enter and scar my psyche with nightmarish visions that I will never to able to purge.

Needless to say, I was ecstatic when I heard that they were adapting it, and that Guillermo del Toro was going to produce and write the screen story.

It borrows from a handful of Schwartz’s stories and formulates an anthology of sorts, with all the mini-tales remaining part of the larger film.  The group of kids they cast were almost as good as the It kids, and almost as likeable: when one of the main characters was about to get assailed by a creeper, I found myself not wanting them to get hurt, but at the same time wanting really badly to see the next monstrosity that was gonna crawl on-screen.  And boy, when they do, it’s hard to take your eyes away.

That brings us the the monster design.  I do not know how much del Toro had a hand in the aesthetics of these things, but the ghosts/apparitions/monsters looked like they literally walked out of the books and into the film.  And that’s how it should have been – being precise and giving form to what made the Scary Stories books so memorable (Gammell’s illustrations) was really the make-or-break point.  The overall plot is not THAT great, and the writing still doesn’t manage to avoid certain horror movie tropes and misfires (seriously, if something is chasing a character in a house, why do they never jump out a window??).  It could have also continued to explore specific themes that were only lightly touched on throughout the film such as racism, maternal abandonment, war anxiety, etc.

While it does have its pitfalls, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark works in more ways than it does not.  By incorporating an equal amount of body horror and supernatural terror that appeals to both younger and older audiences, it succeeds on the same grounds as its literature counterparts did, and is further proof that you do not need to have an “R” rating to get the ultimate heebie-jeebies.

**Rating: 83/100**

>> Person to see this movie with: Someone who will appreciate “The Red Spot”

Review – ‘Us’: A Social Horror Film

Monkeypaw Productions

Jordan Peele is proving to be quite the horror movie master.

His new film, Us, follows a family on vacation in Santa Cruz who begin to be stalked by what appear to be clones of themselves.  And yes, these clones turn out to be murderous.

Great acting, a sharp script, and an unpleasantly uneasy tone all make this film proof that Peele knows what he’s doing when it comes to horror, more specifically: social horror.

Without giving too much away, the film deals with themes such as memory, “the other”, and also, memory of “the other”.  We all have our lives that we live, and not much thought is given to how much that is taken for granted.  But if not for pure chance, things could have been different: we could have been born without arms, born in another country, born a different skin color, or all of the above.  Where do *those* beings, shades of our existence, exist, if anywhere?  Well, Mr. Peele’s got some theories.

What makes his films so disturbing is how visually blatant they are, while still remaining prominently metaphorical:  Walls and walls of caged rabbits; large pairs of scissors; the killing of one’s clone – all visual cues that are both noticed on the surface and below, consciously and subconsciously.  Some directors can do one well, some can do the other;  Peele manages to do both without many flaws.

**Rating: 92/100**

>>Person to see this movie with:  Your evil twin

Review – Love, Simon

20th Century Fox

Everybody knows that most LGBT films suck  – and if you don’t know…well, they do.

When watching 99% of the films, you can count on at least one of the following to apply: either A) the quality of the film is sub-subpar, B) the main character goes back to being straight, or C) somebody gets thrown in jail/dies, or faces some other horrible fate.

For some reason, films in this genre have been plagued with multiple tropes and stoylines that are not meant to accurately portray the “gay experience”, but moreso embellish the fears that are aimed the respective group.  Furthermore, when an LGBT movie *does* break free of those pitfalls, it is often the case that the quality was so low (acting, writing, etc.), it barely even counts as a serious, watchable film.

From The Children’s Hour to Loving Annabelle, it seems like the audience is faced with a downright crappy movie, or an ending that does not contain a happy resolution, and even sometimes they get both.  This certainly is not to say that a “happy” ending is needed to be deemed a decent film;  in fact, I usually find the opposite to be true.  However, when it comes to a subgenre that centers on a minority group, and the bulk of their stories/films that have been produced thus far have seen more negative outcomes, over time it gets to be very disheartening;  even though there are a lot of stories that involve intense heartache and struggle, we need to remember that sometimes there are good endings to look forward to, too.

Thanks to Love, Simon, we can add another entry to the group of LGBT films that doesn’t end in complete and utter tragedy, AND is decently well-made.  The film, based on Becky Albertalli’s 2015 book, Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, tells the story of Simon, a high school senior who enters his coming-out journey when he develops a bond with an anonymous classmate online.

Simon is extremely likable, and equally relatable as far as LGBT characters go, which is one of the strongest traits of the film.  Its script is also very smart and, at times, extremely touching.  Jennifer Garner and Josh Duhamel play Simon’s parents, and if I ever doubted that Tad Hamilton(!) could move me to tears, those doubts were put to rest in this film.

The movie does contain a much lighter theme than other films that center on a gay character, but it was welcomed, as both types of films are necessary:  the more gritty, realistic view, as was seen in Blue is the Warmest Color, and also the positive, inspiring kind, like Simon.

In the same vein as Wonder Woman and Black Panther, the director at the helm of Love, Simon also belongs to the group of its protagonist, a theme that hopefully continues to propel through the Hollywood and Indie film scene, and also the creative world at large.  And also, many kudos goes to 20th Century Fox – the first major film studio to bring a gay teen romance to the big screen.  While this has been a long time coming, I’m currently more grateful than resentful.

One of the taglines for Love, Simon is: “Everyone deserves a great love story”.  True, everyone does deserve that, and while we don’t know what Simon’s life will look like when he’s 40, for now, he does get his happy ending.

 

**Rating: 91/100**

 

>>Person to see this movie with: Your gay aunt Sally

Black Mirror

Netflix

Called The Twilight Zone of our age, Black Mirror is a television series that explores the possibilities of technology – more importantly, what can happen when that technology takes on a sinister element.  I believe that the show, albeit very dark and depressing, is an important watch, as it delves into the deep recesses that increased AI and social media prowess have uncovered within ourselves as a species.  Inventions and innovations make our lives easier – or have they?  And if so, at what cost?

In this post, I lay out a brief synopsis of each and attempt to rank them.  Due to each episode’s stand-alone qualities, I found it impossible to individually rank each episode, from 1 to 19.  Instead, I put them in four separate categories:  Fantastic,  Great,  Really Good,  and Good.  Virtually all of the episodes are extremely well-done –  writing, acting, cinematography, and so on.  However, in certain regards, particular episodes pack more of an emotional punch, or more of a disturbing mindfuck, thus sticking with you for a longer period than others.  That is mostly what I based my ratings on: how impactful and thought-provoking the episodes are.

Along with the rankings, I will describe the technology that the episode features along with the respective human need that that technology is used to fulfill (and, in most of the cases, it is that exact need that brings about the downfall of the main character(s) ).

Starting with the best, here are my ratings of the Black Mirror episodes, through season 4.

-Warning: while I try not to reveal too much, there are definitely some spoilers here!

 

****Fantastic****

 

Netflix

San Junipero

This is the best of the best, and while it might be cliche to have this as my favorite episode, I really haven’t a choice, it is that good.  The most lauded episode to date (Emmy award-winning), San Junipero is an extremely heart-felt love story that raises a lot of questions regarding the possibility of a heaven (real or simulated), and if choosing to live there when our time is out is the right choice.

The tech: a program that allows individuals to live in an alternate reality

The need: to relive our glory days; to cope with the finality of death

The Entire History of You

If you have ever obsessed over a failed opportunity, or a time when you said something stupid or horrible, or even…your significant other’s fidelity, this episode will definitely hit a nerve.  Do we want to be able to replay all the moments of our lives?

The tech: small “grains” that are implanted in people’s heads that record everything they see, and makes it available to replay (on tv screens, in our heads, etc.)

The need: to replay all our memories

White Bear

This episode will probably leave you going, “I’m not sure how I feel about this…”  One of the best twists in the series, it concerns multiple cultural plagues including the bystander effect, apathy, and the need to film everything.  But, it doesn’t stop there.

The tech: Memory-wiper, “Justice Parks”

The need: to film; to punish criminals via their own methods

USS Callister

Imagine if Captain Kirk or Jean Luc-Picard were evil dicks, and you were on their crew.  What a horrible premise, right?  Now, imagine that you had no choice but to play along with their “conquests”, day after day, while they threatened and berated you.  This episode is “bullied nerd turns horrible video-game despot”.  Star Trek and Breaking Bad fans will definitely appreciate.

The tech: digital copies of people are generated, then uploaded to a video-game

The need: the male authority’s grasp for control, even in an alternate reality

Nosedive

One of the things that makes this series to scary is the fact that a lot of the technology that it chronicles is actually feasible;  this episode excels in this field.  Bryce Dallas Howard is amazing as Lacie, a girl who is desperate to make her rating go up, and…let’s face it: we would all be hard-pressed to find someone we know that is NOT consumed by some degree with regards to their social media presence.

The tech: Smartphones allow you to rate everything, from photos to personal interactions.  Similar to Yelp – but for people.

The need: addiction to “Likes”


***Great***

 

Netflix

White Christmas

Christmas, Black Mirror edition.  The episode contains three interlocking stories that center around Matt and Joe, two men stationed at an outpost.  They begin telling stories of why and how they ended up at the outpost…and things get really bizarre and horrible from there.

The tech: digital copies of people’s consciousness, aka “cookies”; Smart houses; the ability to “block” someone

The need: personal assistants

 

The National Anthem

It’s the one where a member of the royal family is kidnapped, and will be killed unless the Prime Minister has sex with a pig.  If you can get past that synopsis, the episode is excellent.  Eye-opening and mind-opening, it’s a sobering comment on our capacity to turn our attention to the vile, just so long as it is entertaining.

The tech: today’s internet/social media

The need: distraction, sensationalism

Metalhead

A deadly cat-and-mouse game, only the cat is a robotic dog and the mouse is a woman who has survived some type of apocalypse.  This is what could happen when the robots decide to turn on us and enter “Seek and Destroy” mode.

The tech: robotic dogs that hunt anything that lives

The need: to invent

Shut Up and Dance

Multiple people are the targets of hackers and are forced to do the bidding of the anonymous antagonists.  This episode’s twist is excruciating, one of Black Mirror’s darkest moments.

The tech: a hacker’s sophisticated blackmailing scheme

The need: digital blackmail

15 Million Merits

What the character’s lives are comprised of: ride a stationary bike all day to collect “merits”, then head to their room where they are forced to watch commercials.  It is possible to get out of this life, but the powers that be have more sinister plans in mind.  Kind of like our own lives, to a certain extent, what with all the reality television shows and the seemingly inescapable advertisements that encircle us.  This episode had the most negative and depressive effect on me, out of all.

The tech: people ride bikes to earn merits, which allows them to compete on a reality show

The need: reality shows, consumerism


**Really Good**

 

Netflix

Playtest

The scariest episode of Black Mirror in terms of haunted house/horror movie standards, it tells the tale of Cooper, a guy who participates in an unreleased virtual reality game. Let’s just say the developers still have a lot of kinks to work out.

The tech: VR gaming gone to the extreme

The need: to submerse ourselves into anything but our true reality

 

Hated in the Nation

A mystery-thriller of sorts, the episode actually plays as a mini-movie due to its length (89 minutes).  The power of public opinion and the mob mentality is featured in this one. Oh, and also killer bees.

The tech: robotic bees that pollinate the globe…and other tasks

The need: public shaming

Black Museum

The second anthology episode of the series, Black Museum is set in a tourist trap outside Las Vegas.  The museum houses many of the tech items from previous episodes, plus some new ones that are presented by the malignant museum owner, Rolo Haynes.  Some of the most sinister technological traps are in this episode.

The tech: various forms of digital copies and “cookies”

The need: various – pleasure, entertainment, sadism

Be Right Back

This episode is frequently mentioned as the series’ best.  A woman loses her boyfriend, and signs up for a service that allows her to contact him again – first through instant messaging, then calling, then eventually through a complete physical replica of him.  What follows is a gradual realization that we can never completely recover those we have lost, no matter how hard we try.

The tech: androids that resemble deceased loved ones

The need: to hang on to those we have lost

The Waldo Moment

A cartoon character that runs for political office.  A lot less dystopian than anyone could have thought, post-2016.

The tech: a comedian voices a popular cartoon character via a remote manipulator

The need: to see politics and politicians as a bad joke


*Good*

 

Netflix

Men Against Fire

What better way to have the military perform better than to turn their enemies into monsters?  Stripe, a new recruit, starts experiencing shorts in his military implant, called Mass.  I’m actually surprised this kind of technology hasn’t been developed and utilized yet.

The tech: military implants that alter an officer’s senses

The need: to allow soldiers to kill more easily; otherness

 

Hang the DJ

Also a love story, and one of the episodes that contains a happy ending.  The concept and the methods used by “The System” are interesting to ponder, however, this episode did feel a little too light for me.

The tech: a dating application that sets people up and affixes time limits to relationships

The need: to find “The One”

Arkangel

The ultimate helicopter mom’s dream.  This episode balances a parent’s desire to protect their kids from harm with the downside of sheltering them, thus producing an inept and naive adult.

The tech: a program that allows parents to track their children, and to see what they see

The need: to keep close tabs on your kids

Crocodile

This episode has been described as way too bleak, and rightly so.  A woman tries to cover up her murderous tracks, and when an insurance investigator seeks to retrieve her memory using a device called a Recaller, the direst of measures are taken.

The tech: a device that allows someone access to another’s memories

The need: to uncover (and cover up) crimes and legal disputes

 

Review – I, Tonya

Sympathy is a strange and complex emotion, especially when it involves criminality.

It is difficult to find sympathy for the pharmaceutical companies when they are sentenced to pay billions of dollars by juries when they have strayed from the lawful and moral path, and while some may eyeball the monetary figures with gaping eyes, the sentence is justifiable:  if we punish them enough, then they will be disinclined to do the same in the future.  The same mindset can lead one to think of Germany’s war reparations after World War I (except, oops, they did it again a few decades later).

The question of crime and punishment, the specifics of: “Okay, they did this very bad thing, so we’re gonna make them pay…but how much?” is sometimes clear, but sometimes not;  if one does not wish to dwell on the grand complexities of Germany’s war debt, or what Merck and Pfizer are really up to, and instead wants to focus on a more tabloid-esque topic, one only need to watch I, Tonya.

Warning: if you find that you are unwilling to listen to her and her side of the story…then that is all the more reason to see the film.

It is a mockumentary of a crime story that is inspired by true (??) events;  I like to think of it as Goodfellas meets Best In Show with a little Thin Blue Line mixed in.  It is fully aware that you cannot know the “true” truth, since it varies from person to person, and almost to extreme lengths (such as in this bizarre case).  Right from the start, it alerts the audience that they will be watching “wildly contradictory” interviews from Tonya and the other important players in her story.

While the film’s approach to telling the story is unique, it also demonstrates some of the most creative 4th wall breakings I’ve ever seen in cinema;  the characters are given the opportunity to comment on their storylines, and while this allows them to speak their mind even while the film keeps rolling, it still confines them within it, rendering them essentially powerless – not unlike Harding and the subsequent media firestorm that followed her, even years after her skating career was ended.

Allison Janney can steal the show with the roll of an eye and the gesture of a hand, and she does.  Margot Robbie, though she might look more like Nancy Kerrigan than she does Tonya Harding, is excellent at bringing the certain grittiness that the role needed.  Grittiness, and desperation.

Some scenes are difficult to watch – regardless of what one’s personal feelings are toward the real Harding, Robbie truly knows how to invoke sympathy in Harding’s most embarrassing and trying moments.

But, of course, there is the possibility of the entire story being completely 100% fallible!  Do we believe her?  Do we believe him?  How do we know what we know?  The answer is: there is no answer.

What IS certain is this: it’s a fun film –  one that doesn’t bore, and will test your openness to hear another side to a story – the antagonist’s side.  Plus, if you happen to be one of the Harding haters, rest assured:  Janney treats her like the ultimate red-headed stepchild.

 

**Rating: 94/100**

>>Person to see this movie with: Nancy Kerrigan.

Review – Jigsaw

Twisted Pictures

After seven years of Halloween going by without a Saw film to accompany it, I deemed it appropriate to indulge this year and went to see the latest entry on All Hallow’s Eve.  I was excited to see how the “revamp” of the series turned out, and also was looking forward to watching an actress whom this was her first high-profile film.  While that actress regrettably died five minutes in (damn that hydrofluoric acid!), the movie itself landed near the middle of the Saw pile.

The first film is a classic, and allowed James Wan to introduce himself to the world via some chains, a small room, and a hacksaw.  The second, while it has its incredulous moments and corny dialogue bits, is pretty good as well.  The third movie and all that have come after it — virtually indistinguishable from one another.

The third film stands out for me, only as being the most gruesome of them all, and was when the series went from focusing on the ambiguity of John Kramer’s (Jigsaw’s) morality, to seeing how extreme a death scene can be and how mangled the human body can become.  After that shift, the films have been injected with the same formula:  an over-the-top plot that is interspersed with over-the-top torture scenes of characters who are too icky to like anyways.  But, despite the thinness of the latter movies, it’s been a winning formula, monetary-wise.

Jigsaw, while it can be considered a stand-alone film, continues this formula instead of hearkening back to the origins.  Not as grotesque as the ones before it, but still very much wince-inducing.    If you’ve seen any of the other films, you’ll know what to expect from this one:  people get trapped, detectives try to solve the mystery, and once that mystery gets solved, the “killer” explains everything while the film flashes back to everything in the last 2-3 minutes, a severe lashing of information that leaves one astounded that they could soak up all the revealing.

I would rank Jigsaw as maybe the fourth best film in the series, as it’s not terrible;  being a fan of the series will definitely aid in taking it for what it’s worth.  And, lest ye not forget…even though John Kramer died 5 movies ago, Tobin Bell still graces us with his seemingly eternal presence!  As long as that man continues to be in the films, I will have to continue to see them.

**Rating: 61/100**

>> Person to see this movie with:  Your friendly, neighborhood sadist.

Review – Jeepers Creepers 3

American Zoetrope

When it comes to Jeepers Creepers 3, there is good news and bad news. The good news: it, thank god, was better than the second installment. The bad news: if you were hoping that the Creeper and his story will be explained, those hopes will be dashed and your curiosity will either inflate with anticipation for the next film, or deflate from all the mystery and confusion.

Starting immediately where the first film left off, this one features Sargent Tubbs teaming up with a “Kill the Creeper” squad led by Sheriff Tashtego. A lot of focus is concentrated on the Creeper’s origins, but nothing concrete is explained, nothing that we didn’t already know, anyway. Yes, we knew that he is ancient, and yes we knew that he’s been chillin’ and killin’ for thousands of years.

What we didn’t know before this film is how badass and resourceful BEATNGU actually is. The Batmobile from Hell, this thing was one of my favorite parts of the film as we get to see the different deadly gadgets that is at the Creepers disposal. Which, if the Creeper spends his days ripping and eating people’s limbs and body parts, it would make sense that his car would, as a character unwittingly speculates, be a “Frankenstein car”. And what happens when you try to kill Frankenstein’s monster? Don’t ask me, just look in the tailpipe.

The script is not that strong, and while Derry and Trish were memorable and likable, Salva sadly hasn’t been able to achieve that same characterization since. Most of the characters in #3 are throw-away, their deaths being more of a spectacle to which the Creeper can demonstrate his hyper-predatory instincts. Also, the use of slow-motion left a lot to be desired: mostly, less slow motion.

The Creeper might be at his most menacing in this film, however. His black, demonic face contrasting sharply with his newly-dawned blood red shirt – this guy has nothing to hide and, knowing that everyone is basically helpless (a gatling gun doesn’t even phase him an inch), literally takes who and what it wants at any time. If one were to ever be able to choose a demonic/alien/mutated dragon thing to be for a day, the Creeper would surely be a fine choice.

So, even though the film brought brought up (WAY) more questions than answers, it serves as a nice stepping stone to the next, and possibly last film where the Creeper might eventually meet his proverbial maker.

**Rating: 73/100**

>>Person to see this movie with:  Someone who owns a BEATNGU license plate.

Review – IT

Why do kids like clowns?  Why do parents hire them for birthday parties?  Why do kids flock to them and ask them to make a balloon of the Milky Way galaxy?  I have never understood it, and I probably never will.

Clowns cannot be trusted.  Their faces are literally a façade that masks their real emotions and intentions, which, let’s face it, can sometimes be murderous (See:  John Wayne Gacy).

Hopefully, with the popularity and success of Stephen King’s IT reaching record-breaking heights, what I like to call Clown Danger Awareness will be more appreciated and widespread.

The director is Andy Muschietti, who also directed and co-wrote the film Mama.  The editing in Muschietti’s movies  provokes fear in a way that is atypical of today’s horror movies: by movement of the malevolent objects on the screen.  Instead of reverting to the fast-cutting technique to amp up the shock like we see in almost every horror film now, he leaves the camera on Pennywise as he slinks like a slug offscreen, or when Pennywise uncontorts himself and menacingly approaches the camera.  It’s scary enough seeing something that’s not supposed to be there, but it’s another to have it chase you.  And, when it comes to a story about your biggest fear finding YOU, it’s much more frightening having it both mentally *and* physically pursue and unhinge you.

The kid actors were exceptional, with group chemistry and individual likability that leaves the viewer sympathetic to their supernatural and not-so-supernatural plights.   Even little Georgie, who has only a small amount of screen time, is the epitome of childhood innocence and naivety;  this is why, despite the hope that maybe he will be smart enough to run when he sees a clown in the sewer, that he cannot survive.  Innocence, however pure and good, sometimes is no match for pure evil.

One of the things that sets this horror film apart is the fact that child murders and child exploitation are at the forefront of the plot – not something that is very popular in mainstream media.  You never see it, and even if the story requires it, you rarely ever get to actually SEE it onscreen.  When it comes to cinema, child killings have been a taboo subject since its inception.

Not the case for this film.  IT strays from the norm and stays true to its source material and includes extremely ruthless scenes that had me think “Wow, they just did that”.  But, if you are going to brutalize children, you should go all the way with it.

From flying to the back of your seat and almost defecating yourself, to almost being moved to tears when Bill is confronted by Pennywise posing as little Georgie in a heart-wrenching battle of wills, IT hits all the points on the horror film spectrum.

Beep Beep, Richie!

**Rating: 94/100**

>> Person to see this movie with:  Your uncle who used to be a rodeo clown.