Strange Vistas

Movies, anime, books, and games

Planetes book cover

It's easy to imagine space having a meditative quality. You, inside a metal tube, floating in the void, weightless, with no extraneous sounds for a few dozen thousand kilometers. The tin can keeping you alive doubles as an isolation chamber. With nothing to see, anywhere else, you look inward.

Nothing helps you focus like having nothing all around you.

Planetes is a manga set in a future where space travel – at least between the Earth and the Moon – has become commonplace. So commonplace there are blue-collar jobs. The main characters are a crew of garbage collectors, working in space picking up the debris that could threaten other ships.

There's Yuri, the stoic, inwards Russian dealing his wife's death. Fee, a brash American pilot chainsmoker who takes no crap from anyone (almost). And Hachimaki, a Japanese full of dreams who says he'll get his own ship one day, as soon as he jettisons the dead-end gig he's using to pick up some cash.

There are shenanigans involved, as author Yukimura Makoto feels his way through the format. Mostly, it's a book of low-key emotions. The crew deals with vast emptiness and cramped quarters, their world reduced to the 2 or 3 people they share a ship with.

It creates a tension in the narrative dynamic. The story can have fun but doesn't goof around too much. There is adventure and some action interludes, but they never become the point. It's alternatively about people doing their job, world-affecting conspiracies, and quiet introspection.

As a story, it keeps you wondering what's going to come next.

For the characters, though, it's about loss, and acceptance, and change. With all that empty space, the nothingness threatening to suck you away, you're going to have to find your own footholds. Lacking external stand-ins for meaning anywhere around you, you have to provide them yourself.

Boy, is that hard, and Yukimura can make it all feel painfully human.

He concocts the conspiracies the crew get dragged into with the same ease as he presents the strife of a kid trying to live up to his elders. He can put a multi-page chase sequence or make you feel loss in three panels.

You can get what you want as long as you are a crazy, selfish prick of a dreamer, but it might consume you. Reaching for the stars, you may need to leave your loved ones behind.

Expressions. Body language. Walking away. Sorrow. It all comes through.

And then it sort of ... just ends. The story wraps without being able to top itself. But by then it’s done enough.

Having achieved what you aimed for, you realize that there’s peace in just getting on with the job.

#manga #planetes #yukimuramakoto #sliceoflife

Aloy standing on a dead machine

There's a character you meet early in Horizon: Zero Dawn called Teb. He is a boy, just a teenager, who slipped off a cliff and fell into a valley full of animalistic machines. The machines are calm, because they haven't noticed him, but will turn savage and attack the moment they sense a human.

Your character, Aloy, wants to help. Rost, her mentor and surrogate father, stops her. She's just a child, he says, not even as old as the boy she's trying to save. The boy has only a hurt leg, but there are too many machines around. Soon one of them will notice him and they'll trample him to death. There's nothing she can do.

Aloy runs off and you get to rescue him, of course. It's the sort of thing one expects the heroine would do.

The story skips ahead a few years shortly thereafter. The next time we see Alloy she is a young woman, in her teens herself, eager to prove her worth at a tribal contest.

You've played enough of these things. You know where that's going. Teb is going to show up again. He'll be the Designated Older Male, inspired by Aloy to become a better warrior, who will trail her through her quest to repay the favor of saving his life, who will become the Requisite Love Interest.

It's a trivial spoiler to say that he is not. His experience with the machines and Aloy taught him that he was no warrior material. He is a tailor, making clothes and keeping close to home while supporting others with the leatherwear he makes.

Over and over, Horizon: Zero Dawn's story upends narrative expectations. Turning around tropes is easy enough – you just figure out whatever the majority would expect and go the opposite way. Horizon does it the hard way: making its secondary characters feel like actual people instead of being anthropomorphic plot dispensers. You deal with sexism and racism and xenophobia. You meet an Empire that is trying to get above its bloody past, climb the ruins of the old world, hear about it from the (recorded) mouth of some people who lived in it. It's a gorgeous world which feels like a living place, an ecosystem populated by fiberglass and metal instead of fur and feather.

It's a lovely story, but you need to spend most of your time in the repetitive game.

Horizon: Zero Dawn's core gameplay hamster wheel is so polished that it takes a while to notice that you spend most of your time running in place. You fight machines, get parts, craft munitions out of them, fight machines in corrupted zones so that an area is safer, trade parts for better weapons, climb a stunning walking tower to scan the area so you can find more machines to fight. The core game quests tell you Aloy's story, the side quests flesh out the world, and the fact there's a section named “Errands” tells you everything you need to know about its third category. Its dialogue is delicious, its writing on par (and often above) that of The Witcher 3. The core game loop can give off whiffs of Dragon Age: Inquisition tedium.

The game is still a delight. It holds up a mirror to our own society's tribal thinking and sectarian squabbles. It features a strong, smart woman who keeps teaching those who judge her by her genitals how far they are from the point. It's a perfect showcase of gaming best and worst traits, and how we can both entertain and set an example, without preaching or forcing the player to agree with your politics. Its bushels of errands are worth putting up with, so you can get to the places they lead.

#games #ps4 #guerrillagames

Get Out's main character, screaming

Catherine Keener, wearing her best shark face, is the scariest thing about Get Out. She looks just like my mother.

Trust a white guy to make a black horror movie write-up all about him.

Here's the issue, though. There's cultural and personal nerves I feel comfortable playing for fiddles. I am all for expounding about what writing says about the writer. But it should tell you how clearly Get Out comes from a place of being black in the U.S. that I don't feel like talking about that aspect of it at all.

Chris Washington and his girlfriend Rose travel to her family's countryside estate. She's white. He's not. Even as an educated black man who – by all appearances – can make a decent living out of art, he's self-conscious about that difference. They have to call a cop to report an accident and there's a defensiveness to him, a desire to comply, that Rose tries to shake him out of.

Then they meet her parents. Wealthy, successful, old money on top of everything else. They doth protest too much about being hip with their daughter dating a black guy. I mean, how could you think they mind? Look at them. They even treat their (too agreeable) black servants like family.

And then there's the social event. Rich family friends stopping by for barbecue. More old white people who just want to talk to Chris, explain how they are fine with there being a black guy among them, curious about what being black in America is like.

It's enough to make a brother want to disappear into the furniture.

So is Get Out a horror movie first and a social message second? Is it an argument against racial discrimination put together in a suspenseful way? Is it a black writer-director following the dictum of writing what you know?

All of the above and then some. It's a story born out of the horror of being treated differently because of a cosmetic difference, the tendency to agree with your abuser to avoid triggering even worse treatment, the knowledge that you aren't welcomed (or possibly even considered human) in your own country. I would never have expected this skill for terror to lurk under Jordan Peele's comedy. It touches a cultural nerve. It is suspenseful and tense on its own right, but if you're black in America, it's probably horrifying.

#horror #jordanpeele

Princess, the hotel woman, in yellow and red

Sion Sono's Tokyo Vampire Hotel is the definition of a guilty pleasure: I cackled my way through it, but also see all the hastily-thrown together bits, amateur acting and bipolar pacing, and would have the damnedest time finding someone to recommend it to.

Not that Sono gives a single Kamurocho fuck about it. He did exactly what he wanted to do. He came up with Tokyo Vampire Hotel when he went to the Transylvanian film festival in 2016, fell in love with the area around Cluj-Napoca, and decided he would set his next project there.

What he came up with is an elaborate mythology about how the Draculas (plural, it's a family) were driven underground by the Corvins (different type of vampire), who then took over the world from the shadows. But there's a prophecy that a child born under a certain date will release them, so centuries later the Draculas steal three Japanese children, feed them with special blood, and wait for the 21st birthday when they'll come into their powers.

Yes, Japanese children.

Cut from Romanian-speaking non-actors in white robes who stare directly at the camera to a panning shot of a Shinjuku yakitori place, 20 years later, filled with giggling young women and a few salarymen who will soon end up dead.

Massacre at the izakaya

Which makes perfect sense since Cluj in Romania and Shinjuku in Tokyo are connected through the Salina Turda, a salt mine just outside of Cluj which (if I understood it right) leads to everywhere in the world.

Of course, there's a struggle between clans to control the Chosen One. Of course, this means gunfights and swordfights and all sorts of murder and dismemberment. Of course, this involves spending half the movie's budget in fake blood. Of course, keeping the momentum for this type of movie is hard, so Sono doubles down on the mythology and comes up with byzantine plot covering a large group of characters and their twisting allegiances.

Yamada, the ancient hip-hop vampire kingpin with daddy issues. K, a grim Japanese terminator who (sort of) speaks Romanian and refuses to die. Japanese Elizabeth Báthory, played by former gravure model Megumi Kagurazaka, perennially on the verge of bursting out of her corset. The unmovable Princess, sitting somewhere in the bowels of the hotel, all toothy smiles and veiled eyes. Poor, confused Manami, the Chosen One with the least agency in the history of cinema.

Not to mention the dozens of young Japanese men and women who Yamada has gathered at the hotel, who all think are coming for a night of exclusive partying but are there to watch the end of the world.

K in an alley covered in blood

Yes, it's absurd and it's baroque and it goes on for too long. But it's so much fun.

It can be incoherent. But the good kind. The kind where Sono kept asking himself “what is the silliest left turn the plot could take here?” and then did that. Every 10 or 15 minutes.

I can't tell if it's always intentionally funny. Some of the fun comes from the dedication with which the actors throw themselves at their preposterous roles. Some comes from understanding a tiny bit of Japanese, enough Romanian to get around, and hearing people from each country try some gooey Brundlefly of a diction. Some is just from the random mix of violence and soliloquies, wordplay and decapitation, silly situations played straightfaced.

Hence, hard to recommend. I'm in a narrow audience segment. I also happened to see it at an open-air screening at Bánffy Castle, in the same area that inspired Sono, the 15th-century construction and dark Transylvanian sky right behind the screen.

There's a resonance from having a restored castle shield you from the wind while you laugh at the exuberance of a bloody vampire movie.

If I were complaining, I'd say it goes on for too long. It was originally an Amazon TV series which got repurposed as a movie. The script seems to have changed (maybe Sono decided to use scenes that didn't make it into the series or alternate endings) and the various elements don't always gel.

But one can hardly relish the abandon with which Sono created this deranged, blood-soaked microcosm and then complain that he doesn't exercise restraint in the editing room. Stupid as the movie can get, the glee with which they made it comes through, and that's enough for someone to have fun.

Elizabeth Bathory and Yamada

#horror #stupidweek #sionsono

Kyriu standing at the entrance of Kamurocho

Yakuza Kiwami understands what makes games work. There's too much in it that would fall on its face if it didn't.

The narration is byzantine. At the start of the game you go from a cold open in media res, with your character towering over a dead body while holding the murder weapon, to a flashback, to another flashback some years prior, to yet another flashback of all those involved as kids, to a fast-forward through the narrative stack.

The characters oscillate between grim, murderous determination and childish glee. Their entire world is a single neighborhood, a bipolar microcosm of violence and absurdity. It's populated with a mixture of blood feuds and game arcades, dangerous conmen and earnest ingenues, hired would-be murderers and collectible cards, smart children and not-too-sharp hostesses, drug-addicted homelessness and barkeeps fawning over whiskey types, social corrosion and toy car racing, young women threatened by thugs while ignored by everyone around them and white-knighting judo champions. There's even a giggling psychopath who idolizes and helps you yet tries to murder you over and over to prove a point.

As a movie, it would be incoherent. As a TV series, you'd have expected the writer's room to be a coked-up cartload of chimpanzees creating cut-ups of crime cinema and cartoons. As a game, with you in the driver's seat, it's fun and silly and unexpected and engaging and sometimes surprising.

You play Kiryu Kazuma, the dreaded Dragon of Dojima. He's a respected lieutenant in a yakuza family who, on the eve of getting his own branch of the family, decides to take the fall for a murder. Leaving prison after spending 10 years in jail, he comes straight back to his old territory of out Kamurocho (a not-even disguised Kabukicho) to look for an old friend who disappeared.

Kamurocho is a dangerous town, full of small streets and back alleys, where – this being a brawling game – everyone wants to fight you. Some people want to rob you. Some people want revenge. Some think you're still a yakuza, some that you're an easy mark. Some are trying to con you and unhappy you see through their transparent ploys. Some get angry that you're asking questions, digging around in areas which don't concern you. Some just want to try themselves against the former Dragon of Dojima.

Kyriu scowling in an alley

Former being the key word. Even if you start the game being a one-man thug-wrecking crew, the time in prison softened Kiryu. You'll need to regain the skills that you had in your prime, or you'll never survive the tsunami of henchmen and mooks the story will throw your way.

Or stories. There's the main plot, about what happened in the decade you were away and where your friends are, and then there's the myriad of small side stories, some connected to you and your friends and some just fleshing out the fauna of Kamurocho. You could try and just go for the main plot, raging ahead like the bull Kiryu can resemble, but the wise path would be taking the side streets.

First, the side quests help you gain enough experience to get your skills back, which will be fundamental with the tough battles you'll have to deal with. This doesn't just mean experience points – different enemies have their own combat styles and, just when you're getting too comfortable, the game throws a different combination of thugs at you and forces you to reconsider your approach. Practice is fundamental for surviving Kamurocho.

But second, Yakuza isn't just about the main plot. It's about the rollercoaster of small stories you find on every corner. Silly situations and contrived circumstances like the wannabe-yakuza who sticks to Kiryu to “help” and only gets in trouble, or the group of thugs who keep trying to run the same “accident reparations” scam on you, or a fetch quest involving toilet paper for a man in need. Stories where you help a girl sell the matches her family makes on their small atelier, or find a replacement for an aging kid's game host so he can move on, or rush around Kamurocho trying to find a doctor for a child who might be dying.

It's also about figuring out where the chips are going to fall. Some of these quests look like you can help a person in need and devolve into a scam, some look like obvious cons yet end up either being about honest people in dire straits or straight-up restoring your faith in humanity. Some are just funny.

Not that the writing is wearing any sort of high hat. If this was D&D, the writer's alignment would be Lawful Absurd. It's honest and earnest, sticks to its guns, but even when it's playing it serious it goes over the top.

Why have a simple small-potatoes murder when you could have a far-reaching conspiracy?

Why have a side quest where you need to recover an item when you could start a chain of swaps and retrievals which spans the whole of Kamurocho?

Why just fight a boss when you can also fight his henchmen, some of whom are shooting at you, with mooks who stream from the second story carrying blades, in a Chinese restaurant, while you're using the furniture as improvised weapons?

Why just train to regain your skills when you could be hounded in random alleys by Majima, a deranged yakuza who alternates between nemesis and savior, and who may try to attack you from behind a corner, or coming out of a manhole, or charging with an entire gang wielding baseball bats, or interrupting a completely different fight?

Yes, there are fetch quests, but they help you learn the lay of the land. Yes, some of this can get repetitive, but it's so entertaining that when I got suckered into a minigame where you spend time chatting up a club hostess, I found myself wondering “why am I doing this? I could be fighting Majima on the street”.

And yes, you know how the story is going to play out the moment some elements pop up. But that doesn't matter. Kamurocho is a big amusement park, filled with fights and collectible games and deadly frenemies and toy car races and murder. The main plot, with all the dopey insanity it brings, is just the vehicle carrying you through its attractions.

Kyriu and Majima

#games #yakuza #stupidweek

Screenshot of Ellen Page in Beyond Two Souls

Here's a tip, everyone: it's not a game just because you use a controller to get through it. I use a PS/4 controller to get around Netflix, that doesn't make it an “interactive movie”.

Why am I bringing that up? David Cage's “games” give the player so little agency that I always wondered why he didn't just up and make a miniseries in the first place.

Beyond Two Souls answers that conclusively: it's because his writing is ludicrous, even by late 90s TV standards. If I wasn't a strong believer in personal freedom, I'd say he shouldn't be allowed anywhere near a keyboard.

So this girl Jodie grows up in a military base somewhere in the U.S. It's a covert research facility where you don't want anyone to know what's going on. The secretive type, where you emblazon the name United States Department of Paranormal Activity in a gigantic seal covering the entire lobby. She has a connection with “an entity” which, effectively, means that as a player you get to play through out of body experiences and push things around.

But it's a government project, so of course they intend to use her as a spy/weapon. She goes straight from her child/teenage years at the base, to CIA training montage as an adult, to covert ops where of course the CIA lies to her, to wandering the Earth before she needs to come back and clean up the military's mess.

By “goes” I mean “you have to push her slow-moving stiff automaton of a character around”. Her body is a crawling cursor that you need to use in 3D space to get to the next action prompt. It's as if David Cage had looked at visual novels and thought “that's OK, but wouldn't it be more fun if it took a few minutes of geometry-bumping and camera-wrestling before you could continue the scene?”

And that dialogue. By Tarantino, that dialogue. It takes a special kind of writer/director to make Willem Dafoe come across as a bumbling daytime TV soap-opera star. Imagine a kid who grew up thinking his crayon scribblings were high art because mom kept sticking them on the fridge, so he never tried to improve. That's David Cage's writing.

It has a couple of moments. The story is all vignettes from Jodie's life and there are exactly two in them that actually work as a game, with decision points which have you ask what kind of person you are. The game also still tells you a story if you fail at a task, instead of having you restart a scene.

These are wallpaper trying to hold together a termite-chewed, badly-hammered-together structure. The vignettes don't disguise how disconnected the tale is from your actions or how little effect you have on her actual story. Continuing the scene even if you fumble an event doesn't ameliorate how obtuse the game can be at what it expects you to do at critical moments.

Most story choices, though? They're of the “should I do a wailing teenage guitar riff or just throw a different type of hissy-fit?” variety.

Most game sections? You're on rails, with your actions having zero impact on the story at large, the scene itself, or Jodie specifically.

David Cage doesn't get how either of those things work.

#games #beyondtwosouls #stupidweek #willemdafoe #ellenpage

Nocturnal Animals poster






The language Nocturnal Animals' characters throw around is one of violence, abuse, coiled rage pushing against a barely closed lid. Decades of literal films have us conditioned to expect this anger to build up until it explodes, sharp tendrils lashing out at those around it.

It's not so easy.

Susan, an unhappy gallery owner in a decaying marriage receives a novel manuscript from her ex-husband Edward, who she left 19 years before in a way that she feels guilty about. She doesn't need to say it outright. You can feel it on Amy Adams' face, Susan's choice of words. Edward will be in town and wants to meet for dinner. She hesitates, wavers, while she reads the novel.

It's a grim story, about a man who can't defend his family. It touches her, pulls her in. All around her, the environment itself makes her think of retribution.

We wait for Chekov's gun to fire.

Tom Ford's movie, on the other hand, is more literary than literal. It feels like reading a novel, turning pages at your own pace, savoring the long tension between setup and resolution.

We get to see the novel itself, too. Shared actors between the novel and the real world leave no doubt about how thinly disguised the characters might be, how close they feel to those who knew their source material. We're seeing these people in Susan's head. Others join them soon. A feral Aaron Taylor-Johnson, his behavior unrecognizable as Ray Marcus, is the perfect wandering monster. Michael Shannon's Bobby Andes, a wax figure of a police detective, hungers.

And we wait for both threads to collapse into one. We expect them to materialize in the real world as agents of fate.

The blend is harrowing and hypnotic. Characters let the plot drag them along, put them through those meat-grinder defining moments because they know that whatever they choose to do will define who they are. So they plow through, reading to the end to figure out who they could have been had they made different choices, hoping there's a second chance waiting for them there.

#suspense #drama #tomford #jakegyllenhaal #amyadams

Kenneth Branagh turned down the chance to return to Thor: Ragnarok so he could go star and direct on an Agatha Christie remake.


It's better off for it.

The result is hilarious. Particularly for a movie that starts with an elderly father dying of neglect, then moves straight on to a military purge.

I don't think Branagh could have pulled it off. It would have been one of his over-designed mixes of too many ingredients which ends up tasting like nothing in particular.

But on Taika Waititi's hands... It's such a breezy cocktail.

How much of it did they improvise? Because for a special effects-heavy movie costing almost a fifth of a billion dollars, it sure feels like a bunch of friends hanging around in costumes and shooting the shit.

Cate Blanchett's oozes all over the scenery with her luscious turn as Hela, playing one of the very few memorable villains in the entire Marvel series. Jeff Goldblum's Fussy Evil Bureaucrat, The Grandmaster, is delightful. Tessa Thompson manages drunken ultra-violent slapstick as Vaklyrie. Karl Urban juggles comedy and conflict as a cowardly Asgardian crony. Tom Hiddleston does the Loki shtick he can do while hungover and suffering from migraine. Chris Hemsworth's Thor is an overgrown puppy in a room full of your crystal, with Mark Ruffalo's Hulk being an indestructible straight man. Clancy Brown's self-importance as the voice or Surtur got more laughs out of me than entire other comedies, even though his part is an overgrown cameo.

This is the Marvel Universe's The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension. If only they could have fit in Peter Weller too.

#thor #marvel

The Knick - Promotional image

Coming to in the opium den. Injecting cocaine to wake up. Zipping through operations high on liquid lightning. Infectious energy lifting everyone else around. Dignified walk out of the hospital. Opium at night to sleep.

White shoes. Red hands. Gray soul.

Immigrants, trying to make do against a xenophobic populace, the previous wave of imported labor concerned that the current batch is taking their jobs.

Racism. Pragmatism. Subversion.

Is this period piece a commentary on current day America? Race? Healthcare? People avoid going to a doctor at all costs, can't afford to convalesce, don't want to be treated by a “dusky coon”.

The Knick was a couple-three years before its time. Now, when half the country has stopped pretending there has been much social progress, and the other half that they wanted any, it would be incendiary.

Its procedures are barbaric, more guesswork than medicine. The best you can hope for is to get the patients to die slower, so you can have time to sew them up. Drugs, corruption, rampant.

Death. Commonplace, quotidian.

Whores and syringes. Alcohol and anger. Greed and malfeasance.

Introduce noise into your environment so that it distracts you, turns off the bickering voices, lets the inner you speak. Consume yourself for inspiration. Burn at your own pyre.

Watching someone invent the future. Flying too close to your heroes. Guilt, the great brain scrambler.

This is it. This is all that we are. All blood and guts, exposed for your entertainment. Playing brinkmanship with ourselves, trying to scrape away as much of the system 2 as we can so that the system 1 can do its thing. Surrendering to our worst selves so we can become someone else.

Release. Frustration. Self-immolation.

Defeat. Again.

#theknick #tvseries #stevesoderberg #cliveowen #andreholland #caraseymor #evehewson #addiction

Under the Sun - poster

Under the Sun is a documentary with a script. The script was assigned by the North Korean government to filmmaker Vitaly Mansky. It was meant to represent “an average day” in the life of a girl about to join the Korean Children's Union.

I love my country.

It's winter, but everybody wears a new coat. Their fluffy, white collars are spotless. It's as if they just came out of a container.

I feel happier about being North Korean already.

We eat so well. Our houses are so white and freshly painted. We should sit in our perfectly empty living rooms and have some banter about kimchi, while our black-clad handlers watch from the kitchen. Hahahaha. Haha.

When there's an activity, everybody claps for the exact prescribed number of seconds.

My dad is an engineer at an exemplary factory, where people work so hard that they strive to fill their quotas even through the multiple re-shoots of our documentary scenes. It's like their life depended on it. My mom works at an exemplary soy milk factory. When somebody gets sick, they get sent to an exemplary hospital. With its construction supervised by our glorious Kim Jong-Un, how could it be anything but?

I'm going to go out and grow a large, exemplary Kimjongilia. I am sure no harm will come to me as I live in an exemplary country and have behaved in an exemplary manner.

#documentary #northkorea #vitalymansky