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Mother 3 (2006)

"I’ve got good news and I’ve got bad news."

In the moment you see in the picture above, Mother 3 is the greatest video game ever made. Never before has such brutal tragedy (which I would be loathe to spoil; even though this is an eight-year-old game, the gut punch this moment delivers is like nothing I’ve ever experienced) been so exquisitely wrought. This scene signals a sea change in the direction the game has taken thus far. Up until this point, Mother 3, like Mother 1 and EarthBound before it, has been a quirky, hilarious deconstruction of North American living. After this moment, though, there’s a whole slate of new emotional timbres brought to light in not only this game, but the series as a whole - a sense of loss, of melancholy, of utter, impossible defeat. And it’s all done with simple GBA sprites.

The game as a whole, unfortunately, doesn’t live up to this moment, but what game could? Mother 3 splinters off in a whole bunch of directions after this point - you play as an indentured monkey slave for a chapter, you explore “New Pork City,” your perspective switches between a whole number of characters as you attempt to stop the encroaching influence of pernicious technology in your quaint seaside village - and yet, there’s just a sense of something lacking. Mother 3 is probably one of the best games ever made, and even that feels like a disappointment when the complete and utter brilliance that it’s capable of isn’t sustained as fully as it could be.

Then again, maybe that kind of sombre, depressing tone wouldn’t fit a game that has this many ideas going on. Mother 3, in a way, kind of feels like the video game equivalent of the movie Up; the tragedy and the heartbreak feel that much more potent considering the more triumphant tone that peeks its head out afterwards. None of this is to say that Mother 3 is glib or indelicate - it’s just that the bigger conflict perhaps doesn’t resonate to quite the same degree as the more intimate ones.

Like its predecessors, Mother 3 is built on a nigh-impeachable JRPG template that at once simply works and simultaneously questions and deconstructs JRPG tropes and mechanics. You still play as a psychic youth destined to save the world (in this case, the “crybaby” Lucas), but there’s an extra layer of shading to his character that was absent in Ninten or Ness. The plot, while thematically interesting (an army of invading Pigmasks work not to enslave society, but to foist their technological creations upon a group of people who have consciously moved towards intentional ludditism), does eventually boil down to a “collect these seven plot coupons to potentially save the world” scenario.

All of this is intentional in the hands of the best storyteller to ever work in games, Shigesato Itoi, whose impish sense of humour and self-awareness creates a game that is both a hilariously askew look at JPRGs while also being legitimately fascinating in its construction as a singular work of art. Mother 3, in my estimation, works best out of the entire Mother series because it’s not afraid to be just a little bit earnest. Whether it’s in its music-based combat (offering up a refreshingly modern take on standard turn-based JRPG battling), its surprisingly thoughtful story or its many risky scenarios, you get the sense that Mother 3 is less of a parody and more its own thing, and that’s something that suits Itoi’s style to a T.

It has also freed up HAL and Brownie Brown to pull out some pretty fantastic presentation for this game, demonstrating the power of 2D animation and simple graphics to be able to tell legitimately well-woven stories. Some scenes - the aforementioned one up top, and a late-game return of a major character - feature some of the best 2D sprite characterization that I’ve ever seen, and the game is so aesthetically complete that it puts the majority of video gaming to shame. Likewise, with a motif for nearly every character, enemy and new location, the soundtrack is a thing of peerless beauty, and given just how integral it is to the experience, the fact that it remains so catchy, haunting and elegiac in equal measure is an unbelievable accomplishment.

Yet, there’s also the sense that Mother 3 isn’t all it could have been. A weird complaint to make about a bona fide masterpiece, I know, but I couldn’t help but feel as though there was even more untapped potential within the game. A number of the characters, including Kumatora, Duster and even the protagonist, don’t really get developed very far, to the point that I was even unsure why they were necessary within the plot in the first place. As well, while the chapter system provides a very literary structure to the proceedings and allows for self-contained “adventures” (like the somewhat harrowing “tripping out on tropical mushrooms” sequence) to occur a bit more naturally, I’ve always been a fan of JRPGs because of their sense of place and geography. You get that on a small scale in Mother 3, but not in a connected sense like the games that nail this aspect so well.

In a game as generous and deep and wonderful as Mother 3, these are trifling concerns. Sure, maybe Mother 3 could have been even more successful, but the fact remains that it’s in a class all its own.

(A quick note on the fan translation, which is so good, so thorough, that calling it a fan translation seems like a slap in the face. The reason why Mother 3 works half as well as it does is because of this fascinating, dense, multilayered work that fans have done to translate Mother 3. My hat goes off to them, and I hope that one day Nintendo comes knocking and they finally release this game to a broader audience)

Her (2013)

Crafting a film masterpiece must be akin to spinning a dozen or more plates, or peeling back the layers of an onion, or a thousand or so other slightly inapt metaphors. Her, the newest film from Spike Jonze, represents the clearest intent yet from that sometimes-auteur. The film is a swooning love story, a Lost in Translation-esque tone poem (that could coincidentally be read as Jonze’s response to his former wife’s earlier film), a philosophical treatise on what it means to be human, a near-future science-fiction exploration of Ray Kurzweil-esque artificial intelligence theories, and nothing less than a Grand Statement about Love in the 21st Century. That it manages to do all those things - keep all those plates spinning, all those onion layers, uh, onioning - well is miraculous. The fact that it commits to all of those ideas fully, while never losing sight of the human beings at the centre of the film, is unbelievable.

Her is anchored by an extraordinary performance from Joaquin Phoenix, who is asked to carry a movie like few actors before him. His character, Theodore Twombly, could have become almost too twee for words in the hands of a different actor - his job involves writing handwritten notes for people who don’t have the time to communicate anymore, which is (shocker!) a bit too on the nose considering the themes of the film; he also has a predilection for playing the ukelele - but Phoenix manages to sneak in a bit of his specialty (obsessive types who self-implode) into a character of staggering warmth and personality. 

Given just how precarious the whole absurd situation of the film is, that Phoenix makes his character so deeply felt is a triumph. Her is, ultimately, a story of a man falling in love with his phone, even if that phone is inhabited by an artificial intelligence that has the capability to grow and learn, to be in most (though, obviously, and painfully, not all) ways “human,” and is voiced by Scarlett Johansson (who, even as a disembodied voice, turns in one of her all-time greatest performances). There’s ultimately the danger of this turning into a rueful examination of yet another sad, upper-middle class white dude, but it’s ultimately to the credit of Phoenix and Johansson’s grounding performances, and Jonze’s utterly sincere treatment of this material, that the film is able to generate the kind of deep wells of feeling that it does.

Jonze’s script, as well, is incredibly adept at smoothing out numerous narrative and tonal shifts so well that they are essentially seamless. The film moves from wry comedy generated out of the absurdity of the situation (there’s a “morning after” conversation between Samantha and Theodore that is hilarious simply because of how utterly normal it feels), to deeply-felt romance, to a science-fiction-y ending that, without spoiling anything, takes some of the concerns with artificial intelligence to their logical conclusions, turning the earlier comedy into something vaguely horrifying in its intimacy, and finally to a surprisingly uplifting ending that reasserts the need for humans to be connected to one another - a hoary theme that has been explored, in essentially the same way, by countless other films, notably (again) Lost in Translation, but goshdarnit if Jonze doesn’t just make it work. Managing to balance a critique of our move away from privacy and towards becoming a cog in a particularly-identity-free future (where everyone is kept in line because they’re made to feel like unique little snowflakes), AND making big statements about romance in the most humanistic and personal way, successfully, probably has a big part in that.

All the while, Jonze, his cinematographer, the inimitable Lance Acord (who is likely the most brilliant cinematographer working today at capturing and sustaining an intimate tone and scale) and his team of production designers create a Los Angeles of the near future that, optimism about the world economy aside, feels incredibly true. Jonze essentially works from the idea that our current obsession with clean lines and aesthetics, as seen in our mobile devices, as well as our need to feel that everything has been delicately prepared Pinterest style, will only become more intensified in twenty or thirty years. Everything in the film, from Theodore’s wardrobe to his apartment to the city scape (with Shanghai standing in for Los Angeles because, well, so many modern Asian megacities really are designed like bastions from the future), feels extraordinarily tasteful and beautiful, but also slightly antiseptic and infantile. Few films use their environment so well, to suggest such thematically appropriate ideas.

At the end of the film, it’s not the big ideas that stick with you, despite how intellectually rewarding it can be to consider them (and, true, if one were to make a legitimate criticism of the film, it’s that a healthy number of the themes of the film are spelled out a little too unsubtly at times). No, it’s that sense of ache, at having watched a film that conjures up a tone and creates characters and a world that engenders emotions so deeply felt without needing to resort to any sort of melodramatic histrionics. Her might capture a particular subset of the zeitgeist extraordinarily well, but that achievement will fade over time; Her will hopefully be remembered for so much more than that.

The Best Picture Rankings No One Asked For

Apologies for the lack of posts on here lately. I’m still watching movies and playing video games and the like but fitting in time to review them all has been… challenging, to say the least. My real life job keeps kicking me in the ass, so I don’t know how often this blog will get updated for the next couple of months.

In any case, I’ve now seen every film nominated for Best Picture and I’m ready to rank them. Here goes:

9. American Hustle
8. Philomena
7. Dallas Buyers Club
6. 12 Years a Slave
5. Nebraska
4. Captain Phillips
3. The Wolf of Wall Street
2. Gravity
1. Her

I’d also like to point out that the margin between #1 and #6 is incredibly small. This has been a good year for movies. If Inside Llewyn Davis had been nominated (which, I mean, come on. You can nominate 10 movies and you leave out a straight-up classic?), it would have been #2. Her is just a monumental movie and probably my favourite film of the year, so I’m hoping to have a review of it as soon as I can.

American Hustle (2013)

American Hustle is a great big tangle of contradictions that, untangled, don’t really add up to a whole lot. This is a movie dedicated to giving its actors the space to create intriguing, fully-formed characters but then sticking them in a slack-paced plot that often leaves them spinning their tires. This is a paean to the kind of gaudiness, empty spectacle and superficiality that dominated the 1970s, and even has a reasonably thematic reason for including most of these rather outre elements (including, but not limited to, the kinds of ridiculous clothes and hair you see in the image above), but then has some of the most unbelievably pedestrian stylization in the film itself, with David O. Russell and his cinematographer, Linus Sandgren, doing absolutely nothing interesting beyond a C-Grade Martin Scorsese impression. This is the sort of film that wants to be taken as slick, sometimes daffy entertainment, but that also wants to be treated as a serious character study and a “deep” examination of America and American values. In reality, though, American Hustle is too in love with its own excesses - in pretty much every way - to end up saying anything all that meaningful.

At first, it’s hard not to respond to the kind of pilfering bravado that David O. Russell attacks this material. The first few minutes make an awfully good impression, with Christian Bale’s Irving Rosenfeld character, a two-bit con artist, meticulously grafting his asinine swirl of a toupee to his head as the camera looks on with no small amount of ironic distance. Then, we’re dropped in medias res into some sort of deal gone horribly wrong, before the film then commits the first of its many blunders - jumping back to when Irving was a kid who broke windows for fun, and then sold windows for a living, as Christian Bale narrates it all with a cod-Brooklyn accent and… oh god, we’re watching a GoodFellas knockoff, aren’t we?

Not that there’s anything particularly wrong with ripping off Martin Scorsese - I mean, if you’re going to rip someone off, why not make it the best living director in America? - but if you’re going to try to go toe to toe with someone who is noted as a stylistic master, you had best have some chops in that area. And outside of Three Kings (still Russell’s best film), nothing in his pantheon of films has demonstrated a particularly keen eye for the camera as a method of storytelling. He’s pretty talented at getting good performances out of his actors (while simultaneously berating them to the point of a psychotic break, which is… less than ideal), but American Hustle is overeager to be seen in the same light as GoodFellas, which it just isn’t.

After the film settles down into its rhythm, it’s at least a little bit less terrible than the blatant Scorsese-esque stuff and doesn’t feel so outlandishly derivative, but it doesn’t really get great either. The film follows Irving and his fake British girlfriend Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) as they fleece rubes through some sort of banking scheme that doesn’t seem like it would work as well as it does here… besides the point. The two are finally arrested by Richie DiMaso, a young, puppy-like FBI agent who gives them a deal - they can avoid serious jail time by agreeing to help catch corrupt politicians. This leads to the real-life Abscam scandal, where Rosenfeld and Prosser use a fake Saudi Arabian sheikh promising cash for money-strapped New Jersey cities (including money for the mayor of Atlantic City, played here by Jeremy Renner in probably the most modulated and therefore one of the only not-entirely problematic roles), straddling the line between entrapment and genuine corruption in American politics.

That sounds straightforward enough, I think, but American Hustle isn’t really interested in investigating the ins-and-outs of this con operation. Instead, it plays like a series of quasi-improvised scenes, replete with go-nowhere subplots and characters that are given equal heft as compared to the main story. Jennifer Lawrence, for instance, plays Irving’s wife, all scenery chomping and trashiness (though Lawrence can’t seem to nail the accent that her character is calling out for, and is at least ten years too young to be playing the part). We’re repeatedly warned about her destabilizing influence in the film and then it turns out that she does… basically nothing. Likewise, Louis C.K., while very funny in a straight man role, is in the movie for… no reason that I can really decipher? There’s also several love triangles, most prominently between DiMaso and Prosser and Rosenfeld, which adds next to nothing to the film. Russell is clearly in love with his actors, but hasn’t given them characters or situations worthy of his attention.

Scenes in the film have a tendency to drag on far further than is absolutely necessary, too. At two and a half hours, American Hustle is already stretched pretty thin (it would take a far more incisive script to justify that running time), but the fact that Russell lets his actors talk circles around the plot of the film, never actually landing on the actual topic COULD theoretically have been an interesting decision. These are, after all, high-end con artists. It just doesn’t feel like a decision was made here at all, though, and instead just feels like sloppy direction and editing. That, in turn, makes all of these characters feel a bit like grotesques, especially given their ridiculous hair and makeup and clothes and such - they’re there to give entertaining performances, not to be at the service of the film or the writing.

American Hustle just feels pace-y and boring a lot of the time too. Part of that comes down to the film’s superficiality, an aspect that could have been played up more or deepened but is instead just left fully intact. The central idea of the film is that people adopt personas to survive. Hopefully you forget that idea every five minutes, though, because another character will remind you by basically saying that same thing, verbatim, over and over again. There’s a sense of disconnect between the scenes, as if they’re not really all part of the same propulsive forward momentum of the film, but are just detours to allow the maximum amount of posturing for the actors so that they can get their requisite award nominations. Lawrence is probably the worst of the bunch (despite a pretty fantastic sequence where she sings along to “Live and Let Die” and which is probably the only kind-of iconic part of the film), but Christian Bale gives her a run for her money as well. Not that he’s particularly bad, but he’s kind of forgotten about by the film and disappears in a story ostensibly about him. Plus, Bale is woefully miscast and despite his best efforts to physically transform himself, he never fully convinces as his character.

Amy Adams and Bradley Cooper fare a bit better (though Adams is basically fondled by Russell’s leering, male gaze-y camera, and it’s kind of repulsive), but again, that aspect of archness and superficiality that is supposedly being used at the service of the themes gets in the way, mainly because the themes aren’t all that interesting and it just leaves the characters as superficial. I never once got the sense of a rich internal life for either of these characters, and so while they’re both impressive on a technical level (Cooper with his manic, likeable performance and Adams with her ridiculous, seemingly intentional accent and sheer acting chops), you never connect to them as characters. They’re just actors doing their acting thing.

American Hustle, then, is kind of the film equivalent of a “singles album.” You know the kind - where you have a bunch of good one-off songs, a few filler songs, and at the end, the album as a whole suffers because of it. The movie just doesn’t add up to anything, and while it might be custom made to win awards, that doesn’t mean that it has a whole lot of merit outside of a few good scenes and a few decent performances.

Picross 3D (2010)

There’s a lot of focus put on the ability for video games’ ability to fundamentally alter the way that we look at narratives by virtue of putting the player at the centre of a story. It’s understandable why that would be a major focus of video games writing and criticism: human beings are essentially drawn to storytelling.

Less often, or at least less often now, do we talk about the ability for video games to enhance or significantly alter the way we think about more classical “play” forms, specifically board games and puzzles, both of which have been around for centuries. Sure, we have straight-up digital versions of both, but the games that make the biggest impact and that have the most meaning as, effectively, toys, are the ones that wouldn’t be possible without the technology behind it. Take Tetris, for example. That’s a game with a brilliant conceit, an incredible, elegant set of rules and an unbelievably satisfying design that just couldn’t happen anywhere beyond the sphere of video games (that’s also, coincidentally, why Tetris is one of the best and most important video games of all time).

Picross, or nonograms as they’re sometimes called, can and have existed outside of the realm of video games since the late 1980s. Nonogram puzzles are, essentially, a mix between paint-by-numbers and sudoku: on the two axes of a grid of squares, numbers are listed, letting the player know how many squares are supposed to be filled in and whether they are supposed to be leaving any gaps or filling them in in a row. Using a logical progression, the player fills in or eliminates squares until they’re left with a picture that was otherwise hidden.

Nintendo has been attempting, with varying degrees of success, to turn nonograms into a Tetris-like video game phenomenon, beginning with Mario’s Picross on the Game Boy. While their series of Picross games have brought over the game to the digital realm quite well and have added little bonuses like the ability for the computer to recognize “strikes” (when you accidentally fill in a square when you shouldn’t have) and time limits and the like, it wasn’t until 2010’s Picross 3D that the series became something only realistically feasible in digital form (in this case, on the DS), and consequently became something totally brilliant.

As opposed to a normal nonogram, Picross 3D gives you a slab of three dimensional squares to work with, with numbers representing 3D space - that is, columns, rows, and the depth of the slab. Your job, just like a sculptor, is to “chisel” away the unnecessary bricks until you finally have a simplistic 3D form that could represent anything from letters and numbers to fruit, fish, and Cossack dancers. The rules are simple: five strikes, or going over the time limit, and you’re out.

The Nintendo difference shines through in this game. Navigating 3D space with these sorts of puzzles could have been excruciatingly difficult, but the way that the game teaches you to understand the puzzles and to come up with your own strategy for tackling these sometimes extraordinarily complex puzzles is incredible, and leaves the player with a sense of satisfaction seen in very few other video games. As well, the whole enterprise would fall apart if the controls weren’t spot on, but through a combination of intuitive and slick touch screen controls coupled with some simple button presses, I found I was exploring and conquering these many, many puzzles (around 350 are included off the bat, with more to download and a puzzle creator included) right away. Picross 3D makes you feel like a genius.

It also accomplishes something that few video games are able to, which is that it actually teaches you something about the world around you. If you want to learn the fundamentals behind sculpture, for example, I can’t think of any other video game that would teach you the ideas behind starting with a block of material and whittling it away methodically to reveal something beautiful underneath. I’m not saying that Picross 3D will make you an artist, but it certainly doesn’t hurt either.

I think there’s an unfortunate tendency to shrug off puzzle games, even really accomplished ones, as mere toys, not worthy to be discussed in the same breath as the “emotional experiences” that are often held up as the best of our medium. The thing is that video games ARE toys, whether they obfuscate that fact or revel in it. And Picross 3D is easily one of the best video game toys in years.

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

The Academy isn’t exactly noted for their commitment to honouring daring films at the end of the year, but man, does the absence of Inside Llewyn Davis on that Best Picture list bum me out. I know, I know: you’re not supposed to put too much stock in a competition that pits art against art for no real reason, but Inside Llewyn Davis is, in my estimation, one of the very best films from Joel and Ethan Coen, which automatically should make it one of the best films of the year.

And yet, on the other hand, I get it. The movie looks like an ode to folk music, and it features some delicately gorgeous Bruno Delbonnel cinematography, and so I think the temptation is to expect a straightforward, possibly even “twee” experience. Thankfully, Inside Llewyn Davis is far more interesting than that, offering up a structurally unique film that has far more in common with the Coens’ A Serious Man than I think anyone was expecting. This isn’t a fuzzy, feel-good film, nor is it the kind of comedy that the Coens usually produce - it’s funny, true, but there’s also a new wrinkle to their usual style that I can only described as “subdued ruefulness.”

Set in the 1960s, Inside Llewyn Davis is all about its titular character (played exquisitely by relative newcomer Oscar Isaac) and his attempts to make it as a folk artist in Greenwich Village. The problem is that he’s a bit of a noxious asshole (and kudos must be given to the Coens for refusing to sand this aspect of the character off), given to bouts of self-defeatism and self-loathing in the face of a variety setbacks: the loss of his musical partner, the fact that he got another man’s girlfriend (Carey Mulligan, all barely-concealed rage, and one of the most fun performances in a film not lacking in them) pregnant, and a record label that is seemingly unable to further his career in any meaningful way.

This leads Davis to sleep on people’s couches and abuse their hospitality just to get by, but it’s shown repeatedly that for all of the obstacles that are outside of Llewyn’s control, there’s a streak of self-defeatism that he returns to over and over again, because the comfort of failure is more inviting than the danger of true risk.

This pattern of self-defeat is captured brilliantly by the Coens’ script, which is typically hilarious and insightful, while also capturing a sense of real, bitter disappointment. The film plays out half-episodically (Llewyn has what would be described as “adventures” in any other film, notably with John Goodman’s imperious jazz snob character in basically a nested short roadtrip film), with a series of potential breakthroughs for the character inevitably resulting in bitter defeat, most times at the hands of Llewyn himself.

What the film captures brilliantly, outside of its particular milieu and its incredible characterization (things that pretty much can be taken for granted in any Coen brothers movie) is a heartbreakingly real portrayal of failed artists, and as, basically, a failed musician myself, the insight with which the Coen brothers look at Llewyn at times felt uncomfortably close to real life. That sense of being “above” the necessary evils of producing a commercially viable piece of art (Llewyn has a mid-film screed against “consumerists” that felt awfully familiar…) while simultaneously torpedoing your own future felt incredibly true and honest.

The film could, I suppose, be read as the Coens exerting their superiority over their main character (a criticism that seems to arise with each new film from them) but I don’t think that just because a film sees fit to make its protagonist not immediately equal “hero” doesn’t mean that the film’s treatment of said protagonist doesn’t have any merit. There’s a distinct difference between a portrayal and a condemnation, after all, and the film’s tone just doesn’t support a nihilistic reading of these characters. It’s heartfelt, is what I’m trying to say, even if Llewyn is indeed the exact kind of asshole that Carey Mulligan’s Jean character accuses him of being. Besides, I don’t think that a film would give its character such a delightful cat friend as Llewyn has and make him into a totally worthless human being.

This sharply written character study is also propped up by some incredible music. Llewyn is undoubtedly a talented singer and songwriter, which ultimately makes his self-destruction that much harder to handle. The soundtrack, put together perfectly by T. Bone Burnett (who previously collaborated with the Coens on their other big “music movie,” O Brother Where Art Thou?), does an impeccable job of matching not just the context of the film but enhancing the tone as well. Inside Llewyn Davis isn’t a screwball comedy; it’s far more haunting and wistful than that, and the music and the many full performances in the movie have a lot to do with that.

With an episodic, disjointed structure and a largely unlikable character (as well as a sucker punch ending that offers pretty much nothing in the way of resolution, but everything in the way of hammering home the themes of the movie), Inside Llewyn Davis wasn’t really the movie I was expecting when I walked into the theatre. It’s been rolling around inside my brain for a long time now, though. Kind of like a dream, it’s difficult to process in the moment, but everything just becomes clear when you wake up. That makes Inside Llewyn Davis a not-entirely accessible film, but it feels like the kind of movie that will get a grand critical reappraisal in five or ten years. And when that happens, we won’t just be talking about a great movie; we’ll be talking about a stone-cold classic.

TimeSplitters 2 (2002)

Put a gun in the hand of your main character and demand that shooting stuff is the main form of interaction and I’m pretty much bound to shut down. There’s so much more that video gaming can do that to assume that the only possible solution for any given obstacle is to shoot it until it’s dead is reductive and, as I think I’ve said on several occasions, detrimental to the medium as a whole, and especially for the idea that big budgets could possibly go towards any type of game that has grander ambitions than this.

With that disclaimer out of the way, let me just say that in its own big, dumb, profoundly silly way, TimeSplitters 2 is kind of awesome. Yeah, it does represent pretty much everything I just said up top (on the surface, anyways), but let’s put it this way: there’s a big gulf separating, say, GoldenEye from Battlefield 4, and TimeSplitters 2 banks hard towards the former.

If anything, TimeSplitters 2 reminded me of another seminal N64 shooter, the much-beloved Perfect Dark (and no wonder - Free Radical is basically Rare with a different name), in that both represent the fundamental shift that has taken place within the first-person shooter genre. While something like Perfect Dark is considerably more violent than the usual Nintendo output, it at least belongs in the same conversation as games like Mario 64 or the like. The action is cartoony and the design of the game is all about the levels, not the “experience.”

TimeSplitters 2 takes that same idea and runs wild with it. There’s some nonsense story about aliens stealing time crystals and you, the player, jumping into the bodies of a variety of heroes throughout time having to stop them, but let’s be real here: the point is that Free Radical gets to craft a bunch of homages to favourite genres, pop culture artifacts, and other such things, all in the pursuit of impressing the player with cool locations and guns. Sure, there’s basically no cohesion, but when a game can jump from a GoldenEye-inspired Siberian dam in 1990 to a mobster-filled 1940s Chicago to an 1800s Notre Dam to a Blade Runner-esque “Neo Tokyo” in the span of just a few short levels, that’s a kind of ADHD in gaming design that I can get behind.

While there are certain video game weapon standbys that populate the game (silenced handguns, shotguns, the like), the setup for TimeSplitters 2 also ensures that there’s a good deal of more off-the-wall creations as well. Couple that with three different difficulty settings (which, like GoldenEye, actually change your objectives rather than just making the enemies more sponge-like - what a concept!), a level creator and one of the most robust and fun local multiplayer experiences ever, and TimeSplitters 2 definitely represents a “taking up the mantle” for the FPS genre…

… except, then the whole genre changed, and now TimeSplitters 2 feels like a weird relic rather than the progenitor it should have become. It’s not just the tone or the setup either - video gaming in general moved away from the kind of surreal weirdness and “fuck it” attitude that used to define the medium (and made me fall in love with it in the first place, but that’s neither here nor there), and so TimeSplitters 2 just feels like an old game. But mechanically, too, this game just feels dated, and in this particular case, not for the better.

Players have gotten used to a certain codified set of mechanics for shooters. Looking, aiming, and shooting have all been mapped so faithfully the same for the last ten years that something as different as TimeSplitters is bound to feel weird. In terms of aiming, unfortunately, TimeSplitters 2 just feels wrong, rather than simply unique.

Still, as big of a deal as that might be for fans of FPS games, it’s the world and the design of TimeSplitters 2 that makes me a fan, not its merits as a shooter or as a multiplayer game (though it must be said that the somewhat broken controls make playing multiplayer so much more fun than it has any right to be - given just how thorough the design package is, the controls have the effect of equalizing the playing field in an organic way without making the game feel broken itself). I long for a return to the kind of unselfconscious goofiness that this game so effortlessly conveys. And in a genre that is increasingly becoming wholly homogeneous, anything that dares to stand out - even if it’s ultimately just a simple trifle, as so many games are - deserves to be championed.

Faxanadu (1989)

Having been a near-lifelong fan of The Legend of Zelda series, I had always regarded Zelda II: The Adventure of Link as an oddball one-off in the series (and apparently, so did Nintendo). The combination of sidescrolling action and crude RPG elements was never repeated in the series, and only cursorily similar to anything else Nintendo ever created (I guess Metroid comes close, but still seems significantly different from Adventure of Link and clearly represents its own thing).

Twenty years on now from having first played The Adventure of Link, I’ve now discovered that that game isn’t entirely alone. It would be improper to say that there’s a subgenre of games that have a similar design philosophy, but there are certainly a nice little subset of games that do essentially the same thing as Adventure of Link, and in most cases, better too. 2012’s Adventure Time game was a clear homage to Adventure of Link, but to get to the true essence of this design formula, you have to look outside of The Legend of Zelda series entirely, and take a look at a fairly obscure Hudson game called Faxanadu.

While I think there’s certainly some merit to this 2D, sidescrolling RPG template (one that I think would be fantastic in HD and with some more modern design sensibilities), and that Faxanadu definitely represents one of the best examples of it that I’ve seen, modern gamers may be baffled by Faxanadu. For an RPG, and even for an early NES RPG, the story in Faxanadu is pretty much non-existent: you play as a hero who has found his hometown destroyed, and sets out to slay the evil dwarves responsible for it, who have been locked in eternal battle with the elves of the titular land. The NPCs you run into, of course, repeat the same poorly translated bits of dialog (though nothing as poorly translated as “I am Error” or the like). And while some of the sprite art is rather charming - a good deal of the game looks like it sprung straight from the doodles on the back pages of some metal kid’s notebook - the colour scheme and the overall design is kind of ugly.

The game is, of course, also really fucking hard, though once you become accustomed to the idiosyncracies of its design (and also get more powerful weapons and magic) it’s not so bad. When all you have is a tiny dagger and the enemies move around the screen with surprising quickness and with seemingly random movements, you’ll be dying a lot. Thankfully, there’s a password system and a surprisingly liberal use of checkpoints, so dying isn’t quite the same as in many NES games. Sometimes the difficulty is refreshing compared to the generally same-y power fantasy romps that dominate the gaming landscape nowadays, but sometimes it’s just frustrating.

All of that comes with the territory with generally any NES game that you might play to this day, and especially RPGs. It’s just a genre that has evolved quite a bit more than, say, platformers. A failure to look past the issues in Faxanadu, or really, any retro game, outside of failures of design within the context of the system itself, is just being pedantic. So if you can put yourself in the right frame of mind, Faxanadu is kind of wonderful.

The combination of RPG and action-platforming, stiff as it is, is really satisfying. There’s a simplicity of mechanics that makes this easily one of the most fun-to-play of all action RPGs, and the way that you progress through the world, while highly schematic (open area, town, dungeon, repeat repeat repeat) gives a sense of scope like few games of this ilk. That sense of interconnectedness is something I really appreciate in an RPG, and primitive though it is, the world building in Faxanadu is really quite the accomplishment.

Yeah, it’s probably about as niche a game as they come, and if you’re not pre-disposed to the charms of a game like this, you’re not likely to get a whole lot out of Faxanadu. But give the game a shot - if you’re of an open mind and (probably) of a certain age, Faxanadu is probably the best example of an underserved genre that you’re likely to see.

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

Most of my favourite films require a rather involved approach to deciphering their themes. Films like Vertigo or Mulholland Drive have the uncanny ability to bury their themes under several dense layers of symbolism and coded colour schemes and the like. So what am I to make of a film that just blurts its themes and its aims out right there in the trailers and, heck, even in the freaking title?

Yeah, this is a film that aims to take a darkly satirical look at predatory capitalism (which is, quite frankly, all capitalism, or so it would seem in the cutting script by Terence Winter) and is overt enough about it to have our “hero” Jordan Belfort (played with near-Nicolas Cage-like intensity by Leonardo DiCaprio) do things like snort cocaine out of a hooker’s ass or have sex on top of a literal pile of money. The Wolf of Wall Street is a lot of things, but subtle it certainly isn’t.

And perhaps that makes sense for Martin Scorsese’s three-hour epic of depravity and disgust. This is a film that is entirely in tune with its protagonist’s sensibilities, and heck, if we had a subtle, wistful portrayal of Jordan Belfort, maybe those themes wouldn’t hit home the way they do. A cursory look at Twitter reveals that a lot of people see Jordan Belfort’s life as desirable, even in the context of this film, so maybe it’s not as obvious as I think.

For all of the filmmaking nerve and newly-restored insane bravado that Scorsese brings to this film (it is, as others have noted, essentially GoodFellas on Wall Street, and it’s the fact of this earlier film that makes The Wolf of Wall Street's satire that much more bruising, given that an implicit comparison between mobsters and stock brokers is being made by association), the way that the movie punctures and deflates nothing less than the “American Dream” and all that could possibly stand for, while simultaneously avoiding any thundering “from on high” moralizing is pretty wonderful. Yeah, it was obvious to me that Jordan Belfort and his band of cronies are meant to be seen as social pariahs capable of demolishing every good thing that America used to stand for, but Scorsese is too smart of a filmmaker to make watching that dissolution anything less than a joy to watch.

The Wolf of Wall Street is, I guess, kind of a biopic of Jordan Belfort, but makes no attempt to give him a real arc or redemption - he’s a scumbag at the beginning and a scumbag at the end, and that lack of growth is precisely the point. The film starts of by following a young Belfort who’s making his way into Wall Street, picking up “valuable” life lessons from a senior stockbroker played in an electric five minute cameo by Matthew McConaughey. When the stock market takes a huge dive in the late ’80s, Belfort is jobless, with only one possible career path. This takes him out to a sketchy penny stock company out in Long Island, where Belfort quickly moves up the ranks selling dubious stocks to unsuspecting rubes, keeping half the profits as commission for himself.

Having already developed a not-insubstantial drug addiction, Belfort surrounds himself with a variety of lowlife drug dealers and drug users as the employees of his new company, Stratton Oakmont, and quickly establishes his company on Wall Street, preying on wealthy investors this time instead of blue collar workers.

From there, we essentially watch as Belfort and his main compatriot, Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) self-destruct while simultaneously living in ridiculous luxury. These are people with so much money that they retract into, essentially, a hedonistic, perpetual adolescence. Nothing is ever good enough for Belfort, which leads him to dumping his first wife and shacking up with the supermodel-gorgeous Naomi (Margot Robbie), losing himself in a haze of drugs (including a super rare variety of Quaaludes that leads to one of the funniest and most horrifying sequences in the film) and pushing himself ever closer to the edge of total collapse.

Most films that situate themselves so firmly within the perspective of someone like Belfort would attempt to, if not forgive, at the very least soften the audience’s perception of the man. But not The Wolf of Wall Street. No, this film does some pretty wonderful things to totally destroy our idea of Belfort by routinely casting him as an unreliable narrator. DiCaprio’s Belfort regularly gets details wrong, and we’re constantly shown that despite Belfort’s self-aggrandizing nature, there’s really just a hollow, empty shell of a man underneath. That kind of portrayal only works with the kind of synchronicity that DiCaprio and Scorsese seem to have, especially here, the most fruitful of their five collaborations.

As well, I absolutely loved how the film makes so many other statements about a variety of rather important social concerns - gender inequality, race inequality; it even has a rather horrible-in-the-context discussion of little people’s place in the world that gets right to the heart of people’s awfulness in that regard - without ever explicitly commenting on them. It’s just clear in the many wonderfully Scorsese-esque tracking shots through crowds of braying, animalistic white frat dudes that the American Dream certainly leaves a good portion of the population of America excluded.

The film is even smart enough to address concerns that the audience might have right in the middle of the film. When Kyle Chandler’s FBI agent character begins investigating Belfort and getting closer to the truth, I was worried that the film was going to end with the re-establishment of law and order and the imprisonment of Belfort and crew. I realize that this IS a film based on a true story, but still - given the film’s implicit condemnation of even “legitimate” Wall Street businesses, like Goldman Sachs, Lehman Bros., etc., it seemed to me that the film was heading somewhere far less scathing than it does. I don’t want to ruin it, but suffice to say that the film makes it very clear that in the end, the bad guys win.

Is the film perfect? Of course not; I don’t think any film as in tune with its protagonist like this one could be, and at three hours, it does feel a little indulgent, despite it giving the film such a unique and spectacularly interesting narrative feel. But to me, even the sometimes halting narrative momentum can be forgiven because of Scorsese’s unwavering commitment to doing this story properly. Maybe there’s a slicker version of The Wolf of Wall Street to be made, but there’s certainly not a more brilliantly idiosyncratic one. This is, without a doubt, one of the best films of  the year, but more importantly than that, it’s one that can stand shoulder to shoulder with Scorsese’s best work.

Oh yeah, and also, it’s really, really fucking funny.

Angel: Season 5 (2004)

Angel's fourth season sucked pretty much from top to bottom. I'd easily name it the worst season of any Joss Whedon-affiliated television show, hands down. That's one mighty mountain to climb, as I was pretty much ready to end my Joss Whedon retrospective a season early, toss in the towel and never look at another Buffyverse show ever again.

It might be that season 4’s awfulness could make anything else look better by comparison, but season 5 of Angel, in stark contrast, feels like Whedon and crew putting their full creative energies behind creating a remarkably solid season of television. In the midst of the giddiness I felt seeing these characters who I’d grown to love and cherish nearly as much as any other crew of misfits on television, I was ready to hail this as the best season of Whedon television out there (I’ve tempered a bit on that, obviously), and even if that’s not entirely the case, it is a damned impressive return to form for the series.

Part of what makes season 5 go down so smoothly is the fact that Whedon was so anxious to simply blow up everything that didn’t work about season 4, while avoiding the urge to retreat to former glories. While this is indeed a season where the characters are finally back on speaking terms and a lot of the joy of the show comes from hanging out with these characters, there’s also a much grander design in place here than almost any other show that Whedon’s been involved in. The season skillfully runs the gamut, then, from the more low-key monster-of-the-week episodes of the first half of the season, to the most heartbreaking gutpunch this side of “The Body,” to an epic-scaled showdown between good and evil that gets the pulse pounding like nearly nothing else on television, and does about as good a job as anything I’ve ever seen of navigating those various twists and turns.

A large part of that success can be chalked up to the overarching plot to which these episodes are yoked. In a surprise move, Angel and his team of “investigators” have been given the keys to Wolfram and Hart, the evil lawyer organization that has served as the main antagonists for the series thus far. Angel, then, has kind of struck the ultimate devil’s bargain: it’s true that he now has the resources to fight evil on a much larger scale than was ever possible before, but at what cost, especially when has to simultaneously mollify the evil within Wolfram and Hart itself?

True, the main theme of this season - whether the ends justify the means - had been explored before on the show, and probably a bit (a lot) more subtly, and the hand-wringing that the characters (with the exception of the most recently-added cast member, Spike, brought back from the grave and made far less shitty than when we last saw him in Buffy) engage in over this moral dilemma can get a little histrionic and over-the-top. *SPOILERS* But once the season reaches the Illyria plotline, where Amy Acker’s Fred character is killed off - like, forever - and has her body inhabited by the aforementioned demon, the show goes to some radically different, new places, bringing with it a kind of apocalyptic darkness that hits home that main theme so much harder and better than I could have possibly expected.

Indeed, it can be tempting to talk about this season of Angel in terms of “A Hole in the World” B.C. and “A Hole in the World” A.D., as that episode - a real contender for the best, or at the very least the most completely heartbreaking - fundamentally changes the very structure upon which Angel is based. It could be written off as Whedon being, again, too exceptionally cruel to his characters - Fred does die right after finally admitting her love for Wesley - but the depth of feeling and the utter strangeness that emerges because of this plot decision, not to mention the fact that the Angel crew’s choices throughout the season come back to haunt them in the most soul-crushing way possible, makes it impossible not to consider “A Hole in the World” the defining season 5 episode.

The arc that follows isn’t half-bad either. Every actor - especially, but not limited to, J. August Richards, Alexis Denisof and good Christ, Amy Acker - step up their game to unheard-of levels on this show, and the momentum and the tone and the direction and the pace and all of that comes together to create a ridiculously entertaining, edge of your seat viewing experience. Whedon has essentially just tossed all of his creations into the crucible at this point and the season, and that kind of pulse-pounding intensity is extraordinary to watch.

The other part of the season? Well, it’s certainly not bad in any specific way. The fact that Whedon seemingly went out of his way to ensure that previously-loved characters like Wesley, Spike, Gunn, heck, even Cordelia and Connor got their chance to shine and have one last awesome moment on the show was a great choice, and very nearly wipes away the disappointment of the previous season. Elsewhere, there are a ton of fun one-off episodes in the opening stretch (and any show that has a murderous puppet episode as awesome as “Smile Time” is doing something right), with a few bum notes being hit here and there, like “Life of the Party,” “The Cautionary Tale of Numero Cinco,” and the oddly placed, poorly planned imaginary Angel/Buffy crossover episode “The Girl in Question” (the only truly bad episode in the mix, not necessarily because of the episode itself, which is only mediocre, but because it’s the third-last episode, sticking out like a sore thumb in the middle of the propulsive Illyria plotline), but it can’t be stressed how much these episodes are still pleasant-enough and watchable because they stand on their own, rather than adding up to a shitty fucking symphony as in season 4.

A truly outstanding back half, though, makes one forget a lot of these things, and when Angel gets to its open-ended climax/cliffhanger “Not Fade Away,” the show has earned the right to be considered one of the greatest television achievements of the 21st century. Aye, it’s a bumpy ride, but which Joss Whedon show isn’t? The characters and the plots and the world-building: that’s what you come here for, and there are few shows that are so often brilliant at doing those things as Angel was.

MATTHEW BLACKWELL’S NON-BINDING INSTA-RANKINGS OF ANGEL SEASONS:

Season 5
Season 3
Season 1
Season 2
Season 4

Best episodes, in rough chronological order:

"City Of," "Rm w/a Vu," "I Will Remember You," "Hero," "Five By Five/Sanctuary," "To Shanshu in L.A.," "Are You Now or Have You Ever Been," "Darla," "Reunion," "There’s No Place like Plrtz Glrb," "Heartthrob," "Quickening," "Lullaby," "Birthday," "Waiting in the Wings," "Sleep Tight," "Tomorrow," "Orpheus," "Home," "Conviction/Just Rewards," "You’re Welcome," "Why We Fight," "Smile Time," "A Hole in the World," "Shells," "Underneath," "Not Fade Away"