Secret Files

secret files ds

 

Video game, 2010

This is the video game that finally made me realize that I have no interest in traditional adventure games of the mystery solving variety. This is a genre that I had been intimidated by what I perceived to be an intimidating amount of complexity and depth. After playing two of the genre’s most beloved classics, Broken Sword and now Secret Files (both in the form of their DS ports), I can now rest easy with the revelation that these games are shallower than a puddle. They’re boring, bland affairs, devoid of any intrigue, insight, or excitement. Secret Files in particular is unintuitive in every way. The interface is garbage, requiring up to three click to simply look at something. The puzzles make no sense, requiring near constant trips to a walkthrough. And the story reads like Indiana Jones fan fiction. I will say that Secret Files brushes right up against being fun in its incompetence, but not to an extent that is capable of holding your interest for more than a couple of chapters.


Ghost Trick

Video game, 2010

As a big fan of the Ace Attorney series of games, I’ve looked forward to playing Ghost Trick, a new property by Ace Attorney creator Shu Takumi, for a long time. And it was quite a while into playing Ghost Trick that I was still viewing it through the prism of Ace Attorney. There are a lot of reasons for this beyond the fact that they have the same creator. Not the least of which is because they are both the same type of unique game. A “visual novel” (which is, let’s be honest, just another way of saying “comic book”). What this means is that for the vast majority of the time you’re playing Ghost Trick, you’re simply reading. The beauty of this genre, or perhaps just the way Takimi treats it, is the way it marries story and gameplay. Only by paying attention to the story, and anticipating the story, can you determine the correct course of action. Many people find this unappealing, preferring the arcade style thrills of Mario Kart, Fruit Ninja, or Call of Duty. That’s fine. Although those things make a fine distraction, there’s nothing like a good story. And that’s not to say that there’s nothing visceral about Takumi’s games. The man knows how to dole out clues to a mystery better than JJ Abrams ever will. The answers, and new questions, you’re given are paced out at near perfect intervals. Close enough in proximity to each other to be rewarding, and not so far apart that it feels artificially lengthened. Okay, the third act may be guilty of that. And the beginning of the game holds your hand for way too long. But! For the most part you’re following a loose trail of crumbs, realizing where it leads right along with the protagonist. This, combined with crazy characters and unique dialogue-centered sound effects, are the tantalizing special sauce on Takumi’s works. (Sample dialogue: “Fool! Don’t you know women are can make themselves appear thin through fashion! To this day I still don’t know how much my wife really weighs!”)

But all of this could be said about Ace Attorney as well. And while Ghost Trick doesn’t have the “crazy Japanese lawyer” weapon in its arsenal (a tough gimmick to top, to be sure), it does have a number of strong qualities that has me seriously considering if it’s even better. Most notable is the art. The totally unique, lush animation is striking from the moment you see it, and a pleasure to drink in for the entire length of the game.

In addition to differentiating itself from Ace Attorney, Ghost Trick actually improves on its predecessor’s formula in a number of ways. One shift that I really appreciated is from the court room to the scene of the crime itself, and in progress at that. The fact that you’re present at the time the crime itself is being committed gives the proceedings a sense of urgency, excitement, and danger that Ace Attorney’s sterile courtroom setting just can’t compete with. Ghost Trick also magnifies Ace Attorney’s dichotomy of dark themes wrapped in a silly package. Death, although it rarely ends up sticking, is a real thing in Ghost Trick. The fact that you’re seeing it happen to excitable, talking Pomeranians and big, chicken-loving galoots only makes it more disturbing.

Ghost Trick’s biggest problem is the video game cardinal sin of making players sit through the same dialogue tree multiple times, although its interface attempts to circumvent this. Tough to avoid for a video game that most of what you do is read and involves time travel. This is likely to make it even less appealing to people turned off by its basic mechanics.

I’m most interested in Ghost Trick as a feat of storytelling. Regardless of the story itself, which is practically beside the point, I’m interested in the ways it tells its story. I think Takumi is a master of finding fresh, vital ways to make his stories engaging, and I’m endlessly entertained by them.


Searching For Sugar Man

Film, 2012

What is the appeal of a story like this, of someone suddenly discovering they’re “bigger than Elvis” in another part of the world? Of long overdue recognition being paid? Is the thrill similar to that of a revenge story? Do we, as one interviewee in this documentary suggests, connect it to our own fantasies of having fame suddenly thrust upon us? Might we even fantasize about being the person who makes the discovery that such attention is warranted? The answers to these questions in relation to the musician Rodriguez, his work, his story, and his personality, don’t mean a fucking thing, because every dollop of absurdly grandiose praise heaped upon him in this movie is totally warranted. His music is phenomenal, rich with emotion and meaning, and fully capable of living up to its self-made claims of altering minds (a claim backed up by its role in the fight against apartheid in South Africa). You’d have to be a pretty terrible filmmaker to flub this story. And since most filmmakers are in fact terrible, we’re lucky this story ended up with ones who aren’t. The film is certainly too stylistic and emotionally manipulative, to the point of eliciting laughter from the theater audience I viewed it with during a few earnest scenes, but these popcorn qualities have brought it to a wider audience. And that audience gets to see this incredible story fairly intact. So enjoy it world. The internet has made it all but impossible for anything like this to happen by accident again.


Cable #105

Comic book, 2002

I was lucky enough to find a full run of Igor Kordey’s issues of Cable in the dollar bin the other day. It had been on my radar because I had noticed a number of think pieces online about it, which is especially unusual to see based around a character like Cable, who is one of the poster boys for early 90’s, Rob Liefeld-styled comics dreck. My only familiarity with Kordey was his issues of New X-Men, and my only thought about his work at the time was taking quick note of how distinctive it was (think 80% Richard Corben, 20% Peter Chung). The book as a whole is one of those things that merits more thought than something of its quality might normally merit, due in large part to its distinctiveness in its field and its ambition. To that end, it’s probably mostly only noteworthy to people who would have an interest in seeing superhero comics feature a broader range of themes and topics. Kordey’s issues of Cable were a part of a small group of Marvel comics at the turn of the century doing just that, including Milligan and Allred’s X-Statix and Morrison’s New X-Men. Out of that group, Cable was probably the hardest for traditional superhero fans to stomach. It takes a superhero, there’s little reason for it to have been Cable, and inserts him, somewhat awkwardly (especially in the early issues), into the World News section of the New York Times. I imagine it could be hard for some people to not get self righteous about being presented this type of material wrapped in a superhero comic, and I wouldn’t hold that against them. But if you’re capable of taking such a concept at face value, Cable is an interesting, strange little comic. I picked issue #105 in particular, as its the run’s first stand alone story, and also the first to be written by Darko Macan, who was replacing David Tischman. Tischman’s pitch at the end of issue #100 implies that he’s the person who got the ball rolling on this take on the character, but it’s all but impossible to imagine it without Kordey, both because of his distinctive visual style and because of his connection to the material as an ex-Croation soldier. (Macan, as we learn in the letters column, was as well.) This perspective seems to have done a lot to inform the book. There’s are no cliches, but many hard truths, and nothing is black and white. More often than not, all parties involved have dirty hands, not the least of all Cable himself. Cable features a bunch of tangled messes of situations that are not untangled in the least once a superhero is plopped in the middle of them. If you broaden your perspective on this material to include narrative fiction at large, it’s probably passable at best, possibly not even that. But I was thrilled to find this new-to-me product of this interesting creative period at Marvel (frequently referred to as “Nu-Marvel”), and I’m secretly optimistic that there’s more waiting out there for me to discover. In the meantime, I’m off to eBay to get the continuation of this series, Soldier X, which I’m told ratchets up the weirdness a bit.


The Avengers (2012)

Film, 2012

  • This is a movie that, to both its credit and its disadvantage, comes with a lot of baggage. It’s the latest in a series of films that, despite incremental cosmetic changes, are all firing with the same cylinders. Whatever your feelings are about those films, you’re bringing them to this one. Although I love talking and thinking about the Marvel superhero films, I’m pretty ambivalent toward them. I compare my feelings to someone who loves sports stats, having an opinion on who got traded to what team and speculating about why that is or isn’t a good choice, but has little to no interest in actually watching sports. I find myself spending most of these movies being distracted by their murky narrative structure and being mortified by terrible, terrible jokes (Captain America being the biggest exception thus far). So how did The Avengers stack up for me? It was bad in the same ways as the previous films, but not as bad. I focused really hard on the narrative and was able to decipher what was going on, but I could see how someone watching more casually could have easily gotten lost, and the jokes more often than not triggered only moderate eye rolls. Overall I think The Avengers actually benefits from a general lack of ambition, perhaps having used all of its ambition on the massive amounts of money and coordination the film must have required, and hedging its bets when it came to things like jokes that consist of more than a cliche and a nod or villains that aren’t squarely generic. Because what happens as a result is this weird thing where, because they didn’t try and fail to do anything risky, and the spectacle was so smooth, I found watching the movie to be very, very easy. It would have been harder to stop watching it than it was to continue watching it, if that makes any sense, and all the complaints I might have had about the storytelling or jokes just kind of floated away. The end result, upon reflection, is a movie I feel pretty neutrally about. I found myself comparing it to Spider-Man 2, my favorite one of these. Spider-Man 2’s low points are far lower than anything in The Avengers, but it’s much more ambitious, and my favorite parts of Spider-Man 2 mean much more to me than anything about The Avengers.
  • One thing that I thought was really interesting about this movie was its big standout moment, when The Hulk beats the tar out of Loki. What we’re cheering at here is The Hulk, a big dumb brute, pummeling Loki, a literate Shakespearian figure. In the world we’re living in, where popular culture is all but dictated by the taste of nerds, the jock is the underdog we’re rooting to victory.
  • The Avengers is a really paint by numbers superhero affair. Superhero comic book readers will recognize it as a bare-bones presentation of the archetypical big superhero crossover story. It made me wonder if these films are going to follow the same evolutionary path that their comic book counterparts did. This trick is only going to work so many times, and I wonder where they’re going to turn when it loses its magic. Will people be ready for a big superhero deconstruction piece in a few years? I bet someone’s realizing that they should have held off on making that Watchmen adaptation just a little bit longer.

Beyond the Black Rainbow

Film, 2010

So there are a few hurdles the audience has to clear in order to enjoy this movie, but you couldn’t fault anyone for not being willing to clear them. The most predominant issue is that Beyond the Black Rainbow is all style, no substance. There’s no shortage of stunning photography on display here, and the filmmakers have absolutely nailed their chosen aesthetic and vague storytelling technique, but there’s no significant intellectual component to this that I was able to detect.

But if the style is gripping enough, a lack of content can sometimes be compensated for, at least somewhat. To that end, Beyond the Black Rainbow was, for me, mostly passable. The photography is stunning, with no shortage of tricks utilized and no subtlety left on the table. The compositions are striking, the color is bold, and the soundscape is like a rich painting. All of these things serve an aesthetic meant to resemble late 70’s/ early 80’s genre work, especially Kubrick’s.

But this type of extravagance is most effective when bolstering your investment in story, and I was left pretty cold here in that regard. I had trouble finding anything to invest myself in. The lead character is a distant mystery full of repressed fury who I was unable to identify with. The story surrounding him, revolving around a conceptually generic, menacing science institute, left little to wonder about. It’s seemingly sole subject, a young girl, might have been a good place to let the audience find their footing, but she has relatively little screen time. Only once she makes her escape did I start to become invested in the story, but it was too little too late.

Mostly, you are in awe of the filmmaking, but only in a way you can look at and respect, not in a way that is emotionally effective. There are a few powerful scenes, but they mostly work on a purely sensory level, triggering our instincts to tell us to be scared or disturbed. Only once does the movie manage to link the two, when the test subject learns the identity of the facility’s macabre guardian, and a connection is made. Other than that, this movie is for photography and 80’s genre film fetishists only, but they are bound to appreciate it.


The Innkeepers

Film, 2011

  • I liked this movie a lot. The biggest reason, I think, are the performances of the two leads. Especially the female lead, Sarah Paxton. Her character is completely real, an actual person who has strengths and weaknesses and a distinct personality instantly recognizable as genuine. The whole movie is hangs on enjoying watching her, and it hangs well.
  • The filmmaking is strong, and mostly of the “when you do a good job, no one will ever know you did anything at all” variety. There is one distinct quality however- long, anticipation building pauses. The filmmakers seem to take special glee in letting you know something’s coming, but putting it in an unexpected place that scares you anyway. If you’re in the appropriate atmosphere to get caught up in these moments, they’re a lot of fun.
  • My one complaint about The Innkeepers is that it’s too linear. There’s nothing unknowable for us to cast our imagination into.
  • It would be hard for someone who doesn’t watch a lot of horror movies to see why this is a good one. In a genre where rote filmmaking and general tastelessness are the default, it’s a rare treat to see a well crafted and well acted horror movie actually capable of freaking you out and making you jump.

The Next Nexus #4

Comic book, 1989

Nexus isn’t an especially emotional comic for me, and I say that as someone who just gleefully devoured sixty plus issues of the series over the last couple of weeks. I don’t suspect it’s an especially emotional comic for many of its biggest fans. Nexus‘s true strength lies in the unique flavor resulting from the juxtaposition of two of its most considerable strengths- its fun, vibrant design and its dark, brooding themes. But there’s a moment in this issue that almost brought me to tears. In it, a depowered Nexus has just had his life saved by his estranged, immensely powerful adolescent daughters Sheena and Scarlett. They are joined by Claude, the good-hearted, if ineffective, vice president of Nexus’s planet Ylum. Nexus: “Girls, say hello to your Uncle Claude!” Claude: “I remember when you girls were knee-high to a gnat!” Sheena: “Hello, Uncle Claude.” It’s the kind of small, reflective moment, rarely allowed in a book as grandiose as Nexus, that immediately brings into focus the full, immense history of these characters. We, like Claude, also remember the girls when they were infants, and are also delighted to see what precocious young women they’ve turned out to be. This small moment is especially powerful in comparison to the huge, dark developments that occurred moments before it. It’s the kind of moment that only works the way it does because it’s a long form story, because of the particular bond you form with characters whose lives unfold over a period of many years, parallel to your own. Are there even any other comics that can fit in this category besides Nexus and Love and Rockets?


My Appointment Comic Book Reading

This is a list of comics and comics makers whose new editions I buy as soon as I find out about them.

Alan-Moore-Neonomicon-9781592911301-JPEG1

Alan Moore’s Lovecraft pastiche comics

B.P.R.D.

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Future Shock

happinesscover

Happiness Comix

Hellboy

jinandjamHellen Jo

ojitos2

Inés Estrada

love and rockets 31

Jaime Hernandez’s Love and Rockets stories

Bone-One-Volume-EditionJeff Smith

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Julia Gfrörer

alieninva3_lg

Lala Albert

rav

Mickey Zacchilli

Nexus-10

Nexus

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Noel Freibert/ Weird Magazine

AD.POPEHATS2.CVR.72

Pope Hats

prophet23_cover

Brandon Graham’s run of Prophet

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Ryan Cecil Smith’s SF

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Uptight


Awesome Weird 80’s Genre Movies on Netflix

I heartily endorse all of the following films as standout ways of spending an evening being enthralled by an overabundance of dark, strange imagination and also wtfing.

Cherry 2000

Dead End Drive-In

Encounter at Raven’s Gate (It bears stipulating that this is actually a very good film.)

Lifeforce

Mom

Nightwish

Parents

She

TerrorVision

Vamp

Vicious Lips