Murder On The Orient Express (2017) Review: An Old Timey Mediocre Murder Mystery

Murder On The Orient Express (2017) Review: An Old Timey Mediocre Murder Mystery

On a certain level, you can’t help but wonder how yet another production of Murder On The Orient Express even exists in 2017. It’s not as if audiences have been begging for more Agatha Christie content in recent years or that there’s suddenly been a massive revival in drawing room mysteries to explain why a studio would want to make a blockbuster version of Christie potboiler. It likely exists as a big expensive Kenneth Branagh ego trip, surrounded by a bunch of famous friends as cover. This thing shouldn’t have made it through the studio system at all, especially as a grand and expensive studio release.

Murder On The Orient Express (2017) Review: An Old Timey Mediocre Murder Mystery 4
Johnny Depp in Murder on the Orient Express (2017) – image via 21st Century Fox

Yet on another level, it kind of makes sense. After all, many moons ago the paperback murder mysteries that Christie specialized in had a similar level of cultural cache and success as comic books. Plus, this famous property is also technically part of a larger franchise linked by Christie’s super detective Hercule Poirot. Fox likely looked at the star-packed project and saw the potential for a blockbuster franchise with just enough period prestige to qualify as awards bait and bring in a bundle from older audiences. Sure, there’s a certain desperation involved to stretch Agatha Christie into a potential repeatable Hollywood franchise. But hey! Maybe it could work.

Well, sadly, that seems unlikely when you actually shove Branagh’s big safe gamble into your eyeholes.

That’s not to say that Murder on the Orient Express is a particularly bad movie—because it’s not. It’s fine. It’s perfectly decent and totally watchable. It’s just not particularly exciting despite all the famous faces and blockbuster razzmatazz. There’s very little here that didn’t work better in the 1974 cinematic adaptation of this story and not only will viewers who remember that version likely shrug off the new one, but the creaky old conventions in play are unlikely to bring in many new viewers. Sure, murder and intrigue and famous and big ol’ set pieces all pop up in the flick on the regular, just in ways that feel awkwardly out of date and forced into contemporary mainstream filmmaking styles at once.

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Kenneth Branagh and Daisy Ridley in Murder on the Orient Express (2017) – image via 21st Century Fox

At the centre of it all is Kenneth Branagh, not just over-directing the hell out of the movie so that every camera angle is a canted show off shot filled with unnecessary CGI effects to needlessly expand the scale, but also overacting as a Belgian super detective who is a cross between a less funny Inspector Clouseau and a less exciting Sherlock Holmes. The guy goes big as both director and actor, chewing scenery and whipping the camera around like a Michael Bay oddly obsessed with gentle early 20th century mysteries. It can get a bit overbearing, but it’s also frequently fun. There are few blockbuster specialists in history as unexpected as Branagh and he’s gotten good at what he does. Sure the focus is middlebrow and dated, but that’s to be expected from the Branagh at this point. Mugging overacting isn’t always a given with the guy, but that’s fine. After all, he’s got a hell of a cast to try and overshadow at the centre.

Indeed, there’s virtually no one in this sprawling list of murder suspects who isn’t super famous or at least instantly recognizable. The big name is Johnny Depp, playing a dastardly jerk pretty much destined to be murdered from the second he opens his mouth and spits out a vulgar old timey criminal accent in a distinctly British tale. After Depp’s role is reduced to a bloody corpse, it’s up to the likes of Judi Dench, Daisy Ridley, Willem Dafoe, Josh Gad, Penelope Cruz, and Michelle Pfeiffer to act super suspicious as Branagh runs through the suspects. Some of the performers are wasted, some are overused, some are awkwardly out of place, and exactly one of them shines brightly. That’d be Michelle Pfeiffer, who does so much with so little you can’t help but hope that she’s primed for a comeback. Other than that, it’s fun to see these famous faces do shifty-eyed acting. But ultimately, this type of mystery writing and characterization has been around for so long that little of it surprises. The story is still well told and lands on a pretty great solution to all the parlour games, but it ultimately feels old fashioned rather than nostalgic. The type of story best suited to BBC broadcast, no many how many famous faces, special effects, and show-off camera moves Branagh lavishes all over the material.

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Judi Dench and Olivia Colman in Murder on the Orient Express (2017) – image via 21st Century Fox

That’s ultimately the biggest problem with Murder On The Orient Express; we’ve been here before and enough times that there’s little need to do it again. Sure, it’s kind of fun to watch a clearly amused Kenneth Branagh get to play with one of the most expensive train sets ever constructed while sharing the stage with a bunch of famous friends. It’s just also a bit rich to think that Branagh and the studio seem so cockily convinced that they can stretch this thing into a blockbuster franchise for grownups. This is a passable bit of light entertainment, but hardly something worthy of a multi-year and film investment. Fortunately, it’s highly unlikely enough people will show up for this stagey bit of faux blockbusterdom to imagine it all leading to an Agatha Christie Cinematic Universe. It’ll likely be a quickly dismissed and forgotten experiment. But hey, at least Branagh and a bunch of his famous friends had a bunch of fun making a movie, right? Sure, it would have been better if audiences had even half as much fun watching the results. But hey, you can’t have everything, right?


Liked this article and want to read more like it? Check out Phil’s take on Blade Runner 2049, Happy Death Day, and It! He also had a chance to sit down with Guillermo Del Toro. Check out his interview here!

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Kojima Productions Icon, LUDENS, Fully Revealed

Kojima Productions Icon, LUDENS, Fully Revealed

For the past couple of days, Kojima Productions has been hyping up the fact that their studio logo means more than it’s letting on. First they teased that it’s not complete, then they teased it’s name and finally, LUDENS, has been fully revealed in all of his absurdly cool ,space knight, glory.

Kojima Productions Icon, LUDENS, Fully Revealed

In a barrage of recent tweets made by Hideo Kojima, the infamous game developer has said that LUDENS is wearing the extra-vehicular activity (EVA) creative suit. He also tweeted that his new studio plans to “deliver THE NEW PLAY in THE NEW FUTURE with the cutting-edge equipment, technology, & the frontier spirit.” What these new details mean and if they’re even connected to a new game are still part of the mystery that Kojima continues to unravel before our very eyes.

Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth (PS4) Review

Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth (PS4) Review

Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth is something that manages to check off pretty much every box to be a generic low-budget JRPG. While the game tries its best to be charming, thanks to the colourful localization, the environments around you lack any kind of liveliness.

The game uses a bright palette, with a lot of electric blues, yellows and reds and the characters have a decent level of detail to them. Most aren’t overly designed, save for a few eccentric characters where it fits. Regardless, the most important thing to get right here are the Digimon, and those they did. Each Digimon included here, about 242 in total, looks fantastic. They’re animated well and the three in your party follow closely behind you as you explore dungeons.

When they’re not trailing behind you, they’re plodding away in the Digifarm, something like the Pokémon day care center, except without all that price gouging. Digimon on the farm are able to train themselves, search for more detective work or produce items for you to use in battle, provided you toss them some yen—because obviously Digimon don’t work for free.

What I really enjoyed about Cyber Sleuth was that catching Digimon wasn’t done by weakening them. Instead, it’s all based on encountering the same one and scanning them bit-by-bit until you hatch one at the Digi Lab. From there you can pop them into the farm, level them up while you’re out completing the story and side missions then pop back in to Digivolve them to make them more powerful.

The levelling system in this game is crazy fast, which is great because Digimon have so many different evolutionary branches to reach it would be agonizing otherwise. You can also combine Digimon together to make stronger ones, in fact the Digi Lab, for all intents and purposes, is basically the velvet room from Persona.

Where combat is concerned, it’s the usual routine of menu, turn-based combat. Where Cyber Sleuth tries to get interesting is the way in which you exploit weaknesses. There are the typical elemental weaknesses, much like Pokémon, but it’s actually a layered system. First, there’s the actual type of Digimon, which can be a virus, data or vaccine type, and you’ll do extra or less damage depending on which type of Digimon is attacking, and then elements come into play. It’s going to take time to remember how the symbols relate to each other, but it’s great when you get it to work for you.

Worry not, because you’re not going to have to get that system down—at least not for the first ten hours or so of the game because it’s just so easy. You’ll most likely find yourself using the auto-battle system as you go back through the first dungeon over and over for side quests. When a challenge shows up it cranks up the difficulty real fast, but typically only for that fight. Outside of doing boss battles with other Digimon trainers though, the game resumes throwing easy enemies at you.

Where the narrative is concerned, it’s extremely light on story beats in the beginning, despite using such an interesting hook. The concerns of said hook are promptly swept to the side though, because you’ve got side quests to do! As a result of joining a detective agency, your main task is to help clear the job board in the office by taking on clients.

What’s most misleading is that I found most of the quests that actually trigger the plot aren’t in your office, but out hiding somewhere in the real world or the digital one. You’ll have to actively search the same places over and over until you find the right person to move you ahead in the story. What makes this most annoying, is that the world feels empty and boring despite being teeming with life. The act of having to find the one person with an exclamation point above their head just feels like a hollow and contrived way to drag out time.

Now, Kuremi, your boss, as well as the lady running the Digi Lab will give you hints, but if you put down Cyber Sleuth after starting a quest, it can be easy to lose where you were. There isn’t a recap and the hint given to you by your boss or within your menu isn’t helpful after you started the quest; it gives no direction or location.

Perhaps this is an attempt to make you feel more like a detective in hunting down clues, except the game only spoon feeds “clues” bit by bit when it wants to give them to you. There’s no deduction or thought process needed to actually complete any of this. Only the narrative is treated as a mystery, the actual gameplay is just going to where characters tell you where to go and doesn’t involve the player actually solving anything.

To be fair, the side quests try to do something interesting with the Digimon in some way. A large chunk of the story revolves around how the Digital World and our world can merge in places. It looks at the effects of Digimon interacting with and being susceptible to human emotions. However none of these side quests managed to really dig deep, instead, they opted to merely present the concept and allow the player to think on it.

Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth (PS4) Review 8One of the most grating issues with the game is the constant use of technobabble. It pours out of every character’s mouth like water from a burst dam. The problem is compounded when some characters try to rename or use a different term for the same thing. More often than not I found myself sitting through dialogue that I could barely make sense of because every other word was jargon.

While the story can be an absolute bore in the beginning stretches of the game and doesn’t offer much until it picks up speed, it’s still a halfway entertaining game and one of the better uses of the license.

If you’re a Digimon fan and looking for something to tie you over until the next Digimon Tri film, then this should do nicely.

The Most Disturbing Game of the Year Isn’t Available Anymore

The Most Disturbing Game of the Year Isn’t Available Anymore

Internet 101: The Deep Web, AKA the Dark Net is to be avoided. It’s said to be much, much larger than what is easily accessed through computers (it can only be accessed through special services like Tor). People are told to avoid it at all costs because of what it contains. Cannibals, hit men, drugs, and guns are among the more well-known services and items available. One thing that hasn’t been found on the Deep Web: video games.

At least, until now.

Earlier this week, Kotaku reported on the game Sad Satan. The origins of it are unclear, but what is known is that Youtuber Jamie of Obscure Horror Corner was given a link to download the game from a subscriber. Jamie said he did a malware check on it, but found it was okay, so he started up the game and recorded his gameplay. The subscriber said he found it on a forum on the Dark Net posted by someone who went by the initials ZK.

Kotaku found the subscriber and was able to interview them in an article on how they found the game. The reason he shared it with Jamie was because it didn’t work on his own computer, so he sent it to Jamie to see what it was about.

For the most part, the game is set in a series of hallways, and the only real audio starts out as footsteps from the player’s character. Occasionally there will be flashes of black and white photography, like of Jimmy Savile with Margaret Thatcher, and Franz Joseph, the nineth Prince of Thurn at Konopiště in the Czech Republic. Later on, the audio turns into slowed-down speech, including that of Charles Manson’s interview.

There is also footage of child-like beings in the hallways with you in these creepy black and white halls. Every so often, a white screen will flash with little black wingdings. They’ve been translated into threatening messages like “I can track you” and “U are on my list”.

Jamie said he deleted the game off his computer after a while, not because it was too creepy, but because it kept spawning a notepad file on his desktop whenever he opened the game. The file was said to contain gibberish made of letters and numbers (although, he did notice 666 appear often). Jamie never took any screenshots of it though, so there’s no way to try to decipher it.

There is now a Reddit thread where a user is trying to decipher the meaning of the game and label all visual and audio elements of it. So far, there is a huge list of sources. The theory is that the game is about child abuse, seeing as how many of the people in the game have been accused of or are guilty of child abuse.

The game is no longer available for download. It was taken down after Jamie got a hold of it, so there’s no way to tell for sure if it’s real, who the source is, or what the gibberish means.

Personally, even if the game was still available, I wouldn’t download it. I’m still nervous about watching the video myself. Sad Satan is probably going to be one of those internet mysteries that people will be curious about for months, or will be labeled as a well done Creepypasta.

Would you risk it to play the game if it was available? Why or Why not? Comment below and tell us why.

 

Can Twin Peaks Go On Without David Lynch?

Can Twin Peaks Go On Without David Lynch?

A few months ago my cold and bitter heart grew four sizes one day (one more than that slacker The Grinch managed). The reason? Against all odds it was announced that the beloved, ground-breaking, and beautifully bizarre Twin Peaks would be returning to television thanks to Showtime. To use the parlance of our times, the internet exploded with the news. The show was a legitimate phenomenon when it premiered on ABC as the 80s turned into the 90s. It revolutionized what we thought the little picture box in our homes could do, not just prefiguring the explosion of adult TV drama that we all enjoy today, but thanks to the mystical mind of David Lynch it stretched television into the avant-garde. Last weekend, my heart broke into a million little pieces when Lynch announced he was leaving the project after budget negotiations went sour with Showtime. It was heartbreaking, but here’s the thing: Showtime never announced the cancellation of the project. It is the most discussed show the network has put out…well…ever and they have the rights to go on as well as the scripts and the cast. It’s entirely possible that we will still get to return to that strange little Pacific northwestern town, but should that happen without a certain transcendental meditation, coffee, and cigarette advocate in charge?

(Photograph: Richard Beymer)
(Photograph: Richard Beymer)

The answer according to the internet and the original cast (who put out this charming little video) is a resounding, “no!” But unfortunately it’s not their call. Based purely on Lynch’s vague description of his drop out, the reason appears to be financial. It’s unlikely that’s the result of Lynch demanding too much money. Granted, the continued success of the series is likely a big cash cow for him, but he’s never been a guy inclined to value money over art. No the culprit is likely the fact that Lynch adamantly wants to shoot the comeback series on film, just like the original Twin Peaks run. In an HD dominant age, it’s rare for major movies to spend the cash on film over video. In television, it’s completely unheard of. Given that Showtime can’t accurately predict how much internet hype will translate to revenue with this risky venture, it’s not surprising that they wouldn’t want to spring for film. So, that’s likely what’s gone wrong and it’s easy to see the point of view of both sides. Showtime needs to be careful about spending given that they are hardly a powerhouse network, while Lynch knows how to craft beautifully haunting images on film like few other artists and it’s unlikely he could pull of the same tricks on video.

Regardless of whatever the issue is between Lynch and the network (it’s safe to say that he’s got some wacky ideas in store that aren’t exactly commercial), the fact is that Showtime can keep this series going without him. They have the scripts. They have the cast. They have the rights. It could still happen. While it’s hard to imagine a Twin Peaks comeback without David Lynch, it’s not exactly impossible to imagine Twin Peaks without him. Sure, Lynch’s fingerprints are all over the series and without him the show simply wouldn’t be what it is. However, of the 30 episodes of Twin Peaks that exist, the fact is that Lynch only personally directed six. Sure, he was involved as a guiding hand over much of the series, but he only ever called the shots on the set in less than 1/3 of the episodes. More than that, he’s already written all of the scripts for the series with his co-creator Mark Frost. He was only a credited writer on 4 episodes of the original series. So even if he doesn’t direct a single shot of this follow up series, he’s already more directly involved than he was on the bulk of the show that’s forever tied to his name.

[quote_center]Much of the success of the most famous season of Twin Peaks can be attributed more to Frost than Lynch.[/quote_center]

More than that, co-creator Mark Frost hasn’t dropped out. He still would be in charge and it’s worth noting that Lynch was absent for the bulk of the first season of Twin Peaks that’s easily the highlight of the series. After directing the pilot, co-writing the first three episodes, and directing the third episode, Lynch left the first season of Twin Peaks in Mark Frost’s hands so that he could make his film Wild At Heart. Granted, he was still involved with the edit and had worked out the general plots of the episodes with Frost before he left, but much of the success of the most famous season of the series can be attributed more to Frost than Lynch. Whatever is planned for this potential Twin Peaks comeback, Lynch was substantially involved with its conception and his personal aesthetic is so tied to the series that it would be possible to recreate in the hands of talented artists under Frost’s supervision. That’s how some of the greatest episodes of Twin Peaks already came to be. It’s possible that this thing could still work.

(Photograph: Richard Beymer)
(Photograph: Richard Beymer)

Of course, Lynch also dropped out for most of the second season after being forced by the network to reveal Laura Palmer’s killer too early (as did Frost for that matter) and at that point the show went straight down the toilet leading to cancellation before Lynch and Frost returned to steady the ship at the end of the year, when it was too little too late. There are many hours of bad Twin Peaks episodes out there and after so much time without this beloved slice of small town surrealism, it would be a shame if any new additions proved to shovel more crap onto the legacy. It’s been proven that Twin Peaks can both thrive and fail without Lynch’s guiding hand, so it’s impossible to predict exactly what would happen if Showtime moved forward with the series without his involvement. However, one thing is for sure: the very best episodes of Twin Peaks transcended television conventions because Lynch was fully in charge.

Personally, I’m deeply conflicted about what should happen next. Even though I never dreamed it would be a possibility until a few months ago, I desperately want the new Twin Peaks that I was promised and I want it right away. Good or bad, with Lynch directing, the revival would be must see television. Even when Lynch fails, he does so fascinatingly. Obviously having him in charge makes the prospects of this comeback incredibly exciting. However, there’s no denying that the series has worked without his directorial input before and he’s already put in enough work on the project that his vision and fingerprints will be a substantial part of anything that gets made. Showtime continuing this project with Mark Frost as top dog is hardly an ideal scenario, but that doesn’t in and of itself mean it will be a disaster. At least we’ll still get one more blast of damn fine coffee, pie, and red room insanity. As someone who has been starved in a desert of Twin Peaks-free television for decades, I’ll take a sip of anything I can get. I might regret it, but I can’t pretend I won’t be curious. So, let’s hope that whatever conflict led to Lynch leaving the show and setting the internet on fire last weekend gets resolved and dreams can come true. But if not, let’s not jump so quickly to the conclusion that this whole project has to be shut down immediately. Right now, there is a series of new Twin Peaks scripts written by David Lynch and Mark Frost with the entire original cast confirmed to come back. That’s a miracle in and of itself. Maybe we should just be happy to take what we can get if Showtime decides to keep this train moving forward….

Sherlock Holmes: Crimes & Punishments (PS4) Review

Sherlock Holmes: Crimes & Punishments (PS4) Review

The Game Is Afoot

The mystery genre has had a tough time of it in the AAA gaming landscape. Whereas the first person shooter can count on a least a dozen titles every year, in the last four years, we’ve been lucky to have a one game per year schedule, with the likes of Heavy Rain, L.A. Noire and Murdered: Soul Suspect to scratch the “Whodunit” itch. Enter Frogwares, a small European studio that has, up until now, been cranking out Sherlock games since 2002 that have been quietly ignored. They had a chance with this new console generation to finally get some attention while gamers are still relatively starved for new content. Incredibly, they have succeeded.

It’s Elementary

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At this point anyone who hasn’t at least heard the name Sherlock Holmes is probably also living in the Amazon jungle and thinks a fun time is sleeping in a tree and not getting killed by a jaguar. Sherlock is an icon of Western fiction, the ultimate detective against which all other detectives are measured. Here, players are confronted with a Sherlock Holmes that retains much of the original Sir Arthur Conan Doyle spirit; he’s brilliant, arrogant, manipulative and far more interested in the difficulty of a case than its legal or moral implications. Without spoiling anything (this is a mystery game after all) Sherlock Holmes takes on six very different cases, one of which originally appeared as a short story in 1904. These are self-contained “episodes,” so there’s no need to marathon this game, and, in fact, it’s strongly discouraged. Like a mystery novel, or television series, it’s better to experience each case one at a time, rather than simply try to solve all of them as quickly as possible.

On the presentation-side of things, Crimes & Punishments is a cross-generational title, but its use of the Unreal engine manages to keep the game graphically competitive with AAA games on the PS4 and Xbox One. No, doesn’t look as good as Infamous: Second Son or Ryse, but it looks better than typical indie games, and the art team at Frogwares has done a fantastic job of recreating early 20th century London. Environments are small, and thus detailed, giving a real sense of location to everything from parlours in British manors to train stations and turn of the century botanical preserves. The audio is similarly competent with the kind of effete, snooty British voice acting one would expect from the period. Holmes is portrayed as a jerk, but he gets away with it since he’s a legitimately brilliant jerk, while the other characters could have stepped out of the pages of any 19th /20th century fiction, or even pastoral British mystery shows like Midsomer Murders. For a game with smaller budget, Frogware has done a lot right in terms of sight, sound and feel.

Getting into the actual game, what we have here is the first, full-on, legitimate mystery game for the current generation. Murdered: Soul Suspect tried to fill in the hole with a supernatural, find-your-killer angle, but the integration between ghost mechanics an actual detective work was uneasy. For Crimes & Punishments however, Frogware has achieved a nice balance between converting investigative work into game mechanics, and giving enough space to players to draw their own conclusions, right or wrong.

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The game is essentially an interactive whodunit, with a few QTE based action sequences scattered here and there for variety, but it is NOT an action game. Anyone looking for that should stay far, far away, the primary mechanics in this game are exploration, puzzle solving and deduction. Six very different cases take Holmes through a wide variety of different activities, with expected crime scene investigation and autopsies, as well as more unconventional fare like botany experimentation and disguises for spy work.

The actual mechanics fall in the realm of adventure game conventions. Players can switch between first and third person views, examining evidence, interviewing suspects and witness, and occasionally solving puzzles such as lock picking or crime re-enactment. As information is gathered, Holmes unlocks choices on which to base his deductions and, when enough evidence is gathered, the deductions can be connected to make a final conclusion that wraps up the case. The most interesting aspect of the deduction system is that while there is a canon, “right” answer, the game does not require that answer in order to wrap up the case; players can solve cases half-way through based on evidence acquired and conclusions drawn, though it may not necessarily be the right culprit. It’s similar to the option to arrest the wrong suspect that L.A. Noire featured a few years ago. It makes for an open game that challenges players with a few credible theories, and leaves it up to them to decide which choice makes the most sense to them. And it’s a lot of fun. Few games these days allow players the less popular luxury of exercising their mystery game prowess, and fewer still make it possible for players to draw their own conclusions and pursue them to the end. Crimes & Punishments does both these things and even gives players the option of simply accepting their own answer as the “right” one, or checking against the game to see if they selected the wrong suspect, and trying to understand where their logic failed. Crimes & Punishments succeeds because it manages to combine a surprisingly open deduction system with a wide variety of different investigation activities, eliminating the feeling of repetitiveness that can sink in if one central mechanic carries on for too long.

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If any real complaint can be leveled at Crimes & Punishments, it’s that it might be too logical for its own good. Hardcore fans of whodunits are used to convoluted logic, where the most likely suspect isn’t the murderer because of a lot of acrobatic acts of plotting used to keep the mystery going. With Crimes & Punishments, methodical thinking will often be rewarded with the right suspect, as the game doesn’t feel the need to throw out too many red herrings or other distractions to hide the true culprit. Those new to mysteries will probably find this gratifying, as it means they’re suspicions make sense, but the devoted may find this too easy.

In the end Crimes & Punishments lands on consoles with some pretty good timing. The flood of November games is still a ways off, and the Xbox One and PS4 are still badly in need of quality games. Crimes & Punishments may not be a top ranking game in terms of AAA polish, but it’s a surprisingly fun, intelligent whodunit romp through the world of Sherlock Holmes. Anyone not afraid to use their noggin is going to enjoy this, though the $60 price tag may put some off. Price aside, this is a thoroughly enjoyable mystery game, and currently the best one to play on current generation consoles.

Gone Girl Movie Review

Gone Girl Movie Review

David Fincher emerged into the filmmaking out of the cesspool of music videos when MTV was at its peak. At the time, so many music video directors delivered empty, flashy fluff when they got into movies that he was a rare exception to rule who gave his promo compatriots a good name. Over the years, he’s become one of the most influential directors of his generation. The meticulous style, grit, filth, and lurid thrills he brought to movies like Se7en, The Game, and Zodiac redefined the aesthetic of the genre. While the decade defining vicious social satire he brought to Fight Club and The Social Network struck a deep cord with moviegoers. Now he’s returned with Gone Girl, an adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s ridiculously successful novel that comes to screens facing Twilight or Harry Potter level expectations from the book’s legion of adult fans who should probably know better. On it’s very pretty surface, the film is lurid airport reading trash. Thankfully, it’s lurid airport reading trash from a filmmaker and author who know exactly what they are doing and are not only game to subvert expectations, but also poke fun at their lovingly ludicrous thriller through a morbid streak of sneaky humor. Gone Girl is secretly a deeply dark comedy and a pretty great one.

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Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike (Shaun Of The Dead) star as a seemingly perfect couple who have just crossed the five year mark in their relationship. Through flashbacks (amusingly written in a pink frilly pen that only Fincher could make ominous) we see that they met cute and engaged in the type of endless flirty banter and constant spontaneous sex that only happens in fiction. However, when Fincher points his probing cameras on them at the start of the movie, they are far from happy. In fact shortly after things kick off, Affleck returns home to find his wife missing and mysterious signs of struggle. He reports her missing. Her wealthy parents fund a manhunt. It’s all very odd and cryptic, yet as the flashbacks and contemporary twists pile up it starts to become clear that Affleck just might be the prime suspect. To say anything more would be deeply unfair. As anyone would read the book will tell you and anyone who sees this movie will continue to preach, the story is a wild ride of unexpected twists and turns that simply shouldn’t be spoiled. It’s incredibly difficult to take a premise this common and find fresh surprises, so I wouldn’t dare to ruin the hows, whys, and what have yous

The film is so well made and the actors play their roles so straight that most viewers likely won’t notice their watching a nasty, dark comedy.

However, I will flat out acknowledge that must of the narrative is completely nuts and ridiculous. Thankfully, both Flynn (who adapted her own book into the screenplay) and Fincher are acutely aware of this fact and have pitched their movie to play on two levels. For much of the first half hour, things play out fairly straight with a few pitch black laughs to single what’s to come. When the biggest and wildest twist arrives, all bets are off. The film is so well made and the actors play their roles so straight that most viewers likely won’t notice they’re watching a nasty, dark comedy. That’s fine. This is a movie that Brian DePalma might have made in the 80s and Paul Verhoeven would have made in the 90s that operates as both an exquisitely crafted adult thriller and a tongue-in-cheek mockery of the form. Fincher’s sense of humor isn’t nearly as goofy or campy DePalma and Verhoeven though, so neither is his movie. Nope, Fincher’s always had a dry, cynical, harsh, satirical streak of humor in his work that fits Gone Girl perfectly. I’m certain Fincher intended to make a bleak comedy, just one so dryly pitched that people who don’t like such things will simply consider it a thriller. Even better, Flynn’s script lends it’s self not just to genre games, but also slick satire of media exploitation and gender roles, which Fincher gleefully dives into, and emerges with a movie far more rich and intelligent than it has any right to be, while still feeling just as lurid, exciting, and pulpy as it needs to be.

That’s a tough balancing act, but one that the expert filmmaker pulls off with ease. You have to be a master of a genre to play with it so freely and Fincher is exactly that. The film is beautifully shot in a way that guides and toys with the audience through all the suspenseful ups and downs, while still holding back with just enough cynical detachment for the satirical intent. The score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (who previously teamed with Fincher on both The Social Network and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo) is deeply atmospheric without ever drawing attention to itself. Just like the movie, the music sneaks under your skin without you even noticing. The film is also stunt cast to perfection with Affleck cheekily mocking his own relationship with media manipulation, Rosamund Pike delivering a star-making turn I can’t describe in good conscience, and both Tyler Perry and Neil Patrick Harris signaling the movie’s comedic intent with their mere presence (only one of those two gets the joke of their casting and it’s not a coincidence that he also got the joke in Starship Troopers).

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What’s special about Gone Girl is how it operates on a few different levels without ever feeling stretched by ambition. At no time do Fincher or Flynn ever forget the brand of pulpy trash for adults they’re crafting. They deliver fully on every promise of the genre. They’ve just also sneakily made their film something that knowing viewers can appreciate for its acidic wit as much as it’s masterful manipulation. If you get the joke, Gone Girl is one of the funniest films of the year in its own nasty little way. If you don’t, it’s easily the most enjoyable thriller of the year in its own nasty little way. Either way, it’s a movie designed to set low expectations simply to surpass them and let audiences stumble out of the theater knowing they got more than they signed up for. Now that’s good genre filmmaking. More of these please Mr. Fincher and less Girl With The Dragon Tattoos.

Twin Peaks: The Entire Mystery Review

Twin Peaks: The Entire Mystery Review

In hindsight, it’s nearly impossible to explain how Twin Peaks got on TV in 1990, let alone how it became a phenomenon. What network executive would ever put a TV show in the hands of someone like David Lynch whose cult films like Eraserhead and Blue Velvet might have been brilliant, but were about as far from cozy pop culture entertainment as possible. Even when Lynch partnered with TV vet Mark Frost (Hill Street Blues), it’s not like they would ever deliver something resembling cozy primetime entertainment. Yet, somehow Lynch/Frost were granted the chance to make a pilot for Twin Peaks and even less likely, it was picked up for a series. Watching Twin Peaks now, it still feels like avant garde television and oddly it’s most familiar elements were unconventional at the time, they just caught on and changed television. The Twin Peaks light may have burned out within three years, but the legacy lives on and the original series remains just as compulsively watchable, beautiful, strange, and terrifying as it did 20 years ago. After months of hype, the show has finally debuted on Blu-ray and to say the results are stunning is an understatement. This isn’t just one of the best Blu-ray box sets of the year, it’s one of the best ever made.

The key to Twin Peaks becoming a pop culture phenomenon was mystery and sequential storytelling. Mystery is of course the key element to all of David Lynch’s work, while answers tend to be absent. The goal of his series was to introduce that style to television.  The concept involved a strange small town in which the body of the prom queen Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) washed up on the shore one morning, murdered and wrapped in plastic. The murder prompted nutball/genius FBI Agent Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) to come to town and attempt to solve the crime. The audience would follow Cooper as an outsider in a strange land. The mystery would spark the series, but the answer was never meant to be revealed. Instead it would give Lynch and Frost the opportunity to explore a strange town in which one mystery would open up many others. Even Cooper himself would add layers to the onion, working from intuition rather than investigation and taking cues from dreams involving a backwards talking dwarf who might signal the presence of eternal evil in the town. So, yeah, it’s weird TV.

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Though it might not seem so groundbreaking today, the concept of basing a TV drama around a mystery was something that viewers had never seen before in 1990 (sure, there was The Fugitive, but it was more of a mystery wrapped around episodic storytelling rather than a single continuous narrative). America became obsessed with the mystery of Twin Peaks and even just the concept of a serial drama in which every episode had to be watched and questioned was fresh (sure soap operas existed, but come on!). It was a hit. The trouble is that audiences didn’t just expect answers to all the darkness and strangeness on display, they demanded it. By the time the second season rolled around and Lynch began expanding his questions and deepening his sense of pop surrealism, viewers grew frustrated and ratings dropped. Network executives demanded that Lynch/Frost finally the answer the question of “who killed Laura Palmer” to save the series. They did. The answer was dark and devastating. It should have ended the show. It would have been beautiful. Unfortunately, there were still 13 episodes left in the season and no one involved in the series had plans for how to fill them. The show fell apart until Lynch returned to deliver a wacko season finale, but by then the damage was done and the show was cancelled. It was a shame, yet almost appropriate. If the goal of the series was to build a web of mysteries surrounded in small town surrealism, then when the mysteries are solved it was all over. Yes, more bizarre characters and plot twists were introduced, but they felt forced. In a strange way, the abrupt cancellation of the series was almost appropriate. It allowed the show to conclude on the note of the unknown that Lynch always wanted. Of course, he wasn’t done with Twin Peaks yet. He had more story to tell, just not in a way that would come close to wrapping up the series like mainstream fans wanted.

“Filtered through Lynch’s surrealist lens, Twin Peaks has a perverse beauty in its bleakness and is undeniably powerful.”

A year after the end of the series, David Lynch made the film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. Rather than picking up on the cliffhanger ending of his finale, he went backwards and made a prequel. Lynch’s film depicted the case that brought Agent Cooper to Twin Peaks and the last tragic days of Laura Palmer’s life. While the series was beloved for its quirky humor and characters in addition to the all the mysterious darkness, the film was a headfirst dive into incest, drugs, murder, and the destruction of a teenage girl. Filtered through Lynch’s surrealist lens, the film has a perverse beauty in its bleakness and is undeniably powerful. It’s far too episodic and oblique to qualify as his greatest film, but it did not deserve the vicious reception it received in 1992. Critics despised the film, while the few audiences who showed up felt betrayed by Lynch who not only didn’t answer their questions, but offered a horrific and all too real nightmare in favor of the quirky/cool tone they loved. However, over the years fans have come to embrace the film and many even consider it the highlight of the whole franchise. Sure, it didn’t wrap up Twin Peaks in a tidy bow, but it did reveal the dark heart of the pop phenomenon that many viewers were too scared to confront in the series.

Since Twin Peaks has become possibly the most beloved cult series in the history of television over the last 20 years, it’s no surprise to see it come to Blu-ray. However, the fact that it debuted in HD in such a stunning package was a genuine treat. CBS/Paramount managed to clear up age-old rights disputes to combine not only the entire Twin Peaks series on Blu-ray, but also Fire Walk With Me. The technical presentation is simply astounding. The always beautiful series has been meticulously restored frame by frame by David Lynch. Details are almost painfully clear, the colors glow hypnotically, and the remixed 7.1 audio provides an enveloping atmosphere that 90s TV viewers could never dream of. Fire Walk With Me looks and sounds even better thanks to a more leisurely shooting schedule and a theatrical sound mix. Watching Twin Peaks on Blu-ray is almost like watching it for the first time again. Paramount did an astounding restoration and given that what a stylish and atmospheric franchise it is, that only makes it better.

Everything about the disc has been lovingly crafted. Even the box feels like a work of art, but I won’t say how because nothing compares to the joy of discovering it in your hands (just make sure to dig all the way to the bottom for a hidden surprise). Hours upon hours of archival footage and special features from previous DVD releases all appear, while new features include a deeply strange interview between Lynch and a few collaborators in which they appear to Lynch in a coffee fueled vision and another interview between Lynch and the actors who played the Palmer family (both in and out of character and that first bit needs to be seen to be believed). However, for Twin Peaks obsessives the gold in the box set are the 90 minutes of deleted scenes from Fire Walk With Me that have been cleaned up and freshly scored by Lynch. These scenes have been rumored for decades and taken on legendary status. Though they are ultimately little more than odds and ends, as a fan they are almost magical to watch. You’ll see David Bowie’s expanded role, terrifying moments of atmosphere, goofy comedy from all of the characters missing in the theatrical cut, and even a few minutes of scenes that take place after the series finale. It’s incredible to see all the footage and watch the long lost Twin Peaks world live again. However, anyone expecting the series to finally be explained through the missing footage just doesn’t understand Twin Peaks. If anything the new footages only deepens the mystery of Twin Peaks, offering further exploration of an eccentric and enigmatic world. It’s a great place to visit and this Blu-ray is the perfect way to wander back into the town of damn fine coffee and even better pie. Just don’t expect any answers. Twin Peaks is one of pop culture’s greatest mysteries because it will always remain one.

 

Tesla Effect: A Tex Murphy Adventure (PC) Review

Tesla Effect: A Tex Murphy Adventure (PC) Review

Discovering a decapitated body shouldn’t be funny.

It should be macabre, shocking, maybe even a tad bit sobering. But when I discovered it, I laughed. I laughed hard.

Because when the intrepid P.I. (and sometimes Dance Instructor) Tex Murphy pulls back the curtain to reveal the horror, he instantly emits a girlish shriek of terror. It’s silly, it’s cheesy, and it’s the perfect response to break up the actual seriousness of the situation.

That alone demonstrates the great balance in tone achieved in Tesla Effect, the sixth installment in the long-running Tex Murphy adventure game series. It’s a wonderful blend of dark comedy and clever storytelling that lends itself well to virtually anyone.

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One might say that Tex is having some issues. On the first day of our adventure, he awakens to a horrible headache, a nasty gash on his head, and an injection mark on his arm. Once he gathers his wits and begins talking to his neighbors, Tex discovers that his memory of the past seven years has all vanished. Determined to regain his memory, Tex stumbles- sometimes literally – across a much bigger and more diabolical plot involving the great inventor Nicola Tesla and those who would harness his creations for their own nefarious purposes.

Staying true to the FMV (full motion video) format, all of the cut scenes feature live actors delivering lines on camera. While there are moments that hint at some of the limitations creators had to work with, the FMV is seamlessly integrated and is a massive part of Tesla Effect’s overall charm. It’s clear from the start that everyone in the cast is having fun with their individual roles, and even the more eccentric characters own their quirks with such bravado that it’s a joy to watch unfold.

Tex himself is a charming enigma. He’s part Deckard Cain, part Frank Drebin from The Naked Gun; hardened, tough, and susceptible to moments of buffoonery. This too, is part of the great tonal balance found in Tesla Effect; never does Tex come off as annoying or off-putting. Rather, his sarcastic quips and dramatic physical comedy have great timing that help to ease the tension and keep the darkly comedic edge strong.

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This is an adventure game, and thus does require a fair amount of puzzle solving, item retrieval, and crafting. While conventions like these can often lead to frustrations, the game has included helpful mechanics such as an item finder and the ability to skip puzzles that make the game accessible to those who lack experience with the genre. Really, the only annoyance I encountered was with the interactive dialogue. Like other games that allow players to select responses in conversation, many of the options were so vague that many of my selections led to some conversations that felt a bit disjointed, as Tex would oscillate from being sarcastic to serious without any logical transitions. It’s a mostly minor frustration, but a strong story and good characterization made it stand out all the more.

Small dialogue annoyances aside, Tesla Effect has a fantastic narrative and succeeds in not only seamlessly integrating FMV into a modern adventure game, but also in mastering tone and using comedy to great effect. It’s a bold experience; one that takes itself seriously enough to present the player with often-mature subject matter, but subverts its heavy themes with well-timed dark comedy. Tone is often a difficult thing for a game to pin down, but Tesla Effect does so while brilliantly pulling you into its mystery and leaving you laughing in the wake of its joyous absurdity.

 

The Black Beetle in Night Shift #0 Review

The Black Beetle in Night Shift #0 Review

 Francesco Francavilla’s art is so great. A noir sensibility with a heavy dose of Mazzucchelli style line/shadow work, his covers look straight out of 60’s film posters and pulp novels. This is the first dedicated title for The Black Beetle, a character created by Francavilla. He handles all aspects– writing, directing, artwork, colouring– only lettering is done by someone else. It’s an impressive undertaking previously showcased on his Pulp Sunday blog and in issues 11-13 of Dark Horse Presents. His approach is retro but refreshing as evidenced by the cover credits: The Black Beetle in Night Shift, A Mystery Novellette by Francesco Francavilla. It’s a comic book spin on classic pulp stories and the first issue delivers murder, intrigue and over the top villainous deeds.

The Black Beetle is a shadowy hero with a pretty awesome costume. It’s simple but unique in the comic world where there are only so many different tights and capes to go around. It has a really great silhouette, which not many heroes can boast. Just like how you always know it’s Batman by his silhouette, the same is true of the Black Beetle. The outfit also matches the time period, 1941 in Colt City, where Hitler is still a very real and ever encroaching threat. It may be cliché to fall back on one of history’s vilest villains as the antagonist but that’s just how the book approaches it; historically, but with a twist. It’s a fact of the Black Beetle’s world without being a cheesy punch line. Similar to how Hellboy’s world includes Herr Hitler as a character fascinated by black magic and mythology, The Black Beetle is looking into a specific artifact that’s guaranteed to catch Hitler’s eye, which recently became part of the Colt City Natural Museum of History’s collection. Of course, once he starts to investigate, evildoers appear.
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It’s an unabashed debut, setting up Black Beetle’s world without spilling all the beans. He’s a mysterious character whose intentions aren’t totally clear yet, especially with a surprising scene at the end of the issue that certainly makes it seem like he’s not completely a good guy. There’s something really iconic about every aspect of this book, from the title to his character to the artwork and more. The visuals are superb, heavy shadows and a very simple colour palette. There are rarely more then three colours used on each page, achieving the noir tone without difficulty. One of my favourite parts is how he’s even themed the letters section as WCCR Colt City Radio. It’s a meticulously created mythos and I’m excited to read the rest.