The Dark Souls Conundrum

Screenshot courtesy of Neogaf user neoenigma

So, as it turns out, I’ve been spending all my time with From Software’s Dark Souls in the last few weeks, which is rather surprising, because that particular game was released quite a while ago (in 2011) and, until now, I haven’t been able to get into it at all. Just couldn’t get myself to like it. And not for lack of trying either. I must have attempted to get somewhere with that game for six or seven times over the last few years (if I include the original Demon’s Souls that was released in 2009), but I quit in frustration every single time. The game seemed plain impenetrable and I was almost willing to leave it at that. Though deep down, I knew – I fucking knew – there was something about Dark Souls that I was simply not seeing yet. And it seems as if there’s a substance in the air that’s conducive to people standing up and saying ‘Goddamnit, I’ve had it with this shit! I’m playing this game whether I like it or not’, because I see a veritable truckload of forum posts from people with similar experiences, along with Patrick Klepek (from Giantbomb), who wrote his formal apology to both Dark Souls and himself for not playing the damn thing earlier and Ben Croshaw (from the Escapist), who finally got around to doing one his Zero Punctuation reviews of Dark Souls, even though he’s a full two years late to the party (still a damn funny review). Perhaps it has something to do with the imminent release of Dark Souls II.

All those people have expressed the same thing however: relief. They are simply glad not to have missed a game like this when they came frighteningly close to doing so. Better late than never they say. And my own feelings are no different. It’s been a little over a month since I declared A Link Between Worlds 2013’s Game of the Year, so it feels a bit odd to heap even bigger praise on something else just a few short weeks later. However, I hadn’t yet decided what the best game of the entire last console generation was, right? That would be the one that lasted from 2005 till 2013. Eight full years. The one that included Gears of War, Uncharted 2 and Red Dead Redemption. That generation. And I think I’m ready.

You guys probably remember how I always ramble on about the fundamental differences between films and videogames and why it makes me so fucking mad that most big budget games are convinced they should be cinematic experiences instead of embracing the essence of what defined them in the first place? Well, Dark Souls is the answer to that issue. Unlike games that have more similarities to roller coaster rides, Dark Souls isn’t afraid not to tell you anything about its mechanics. It doesn’t have hours worth of voiced characters meticulously explaining the game’s story. It doesn’t make absolutely sure you see everything the game’s developers have worked on. It’s not afraid to kill you over and over again – for hours – until you understand what it is you are doing wrong. And perhaps most importantly: it isn’t afraid not to tell you whether you should go a simple left or right.

The results are undeniable however. The sense of accomplishment you feel when you finally do understand something new about Dark Souls is unlike anything I have experienced in any videogame for a really long time. Of course, you might say it’s high time I get that sense of accomplishment somewhere other than fucking videogames, but that’s not what we’re about here on Additionally, the game tells it story exactly how I think all videogames should tell their stories from now on: by shutting the fuck up about it. It’s there for you to glean from the background, from the empty world, from the forgotten ruins, from the stinking depths, from the abandoned castles and the deliciously desperate atmosphere that makes it seem as if someone has turned the first installment of Diablo into the game of my wildest, wettest dreams.

Out of the Furnace

Christian Bale in Out of the Furnace

After about six or seven years of larger than life films like the Nolan Batman trilogy and Terminator Salvation, I had nearly forgotten that I used to really like Christian Bale as an actor. Providing depth to a character with no soul in American Psycho mustn’t have been easy and he was an equally great fit for 2005’s Harsh Times (which chronicles a soldier of the Apocalypse’s – how Bale’s character describes himself – journey down the Los Angeles spiral). It’s a shame that he didn’t seem to have as much room to breathe in the ‘bigger’ pictures. Like those earlier Bale films though, Out of the Furnace relies more on its actors to provide the entertainment. And fortunately for Bale, he’s still pretty good at it.

Out of the Furnace, in essence, is a ‘simple’ revenge film. Not that there’s anything wrong with enjoying one of those every now and then, but you might get the idea that this genre and genuinely ‘good’ or moving films are mutually exclusive, which is not necessarily so. One moment of rejection by way of ‘I’m pregnant and it’s not yours’ shared between Bale and former lover Saldana deserves special mention in that regard (brutal stuff and it was that scene where you see some of that early Bale brilliance I mentioned). Moreover, Out of the Furnace manages to obfuscate its inner (revenge) workings quite well through setting its story amongst the ruins of America’s former glory. Namely, closed down and rusted through factories and steel mills. The (sort of titular) mill that still employs Bale’s character is also about to lose most of its business to China. Some critics have noted that this part of Out of the Furnace is merely cosmetic and that it didn’t have any real comment on the economic situation of its characters. I don’t really see that as a problem, since it’s such an excellent thing to just have in the background as a sort of brooding undercurrent for that other story you’re trying to tell. Though maybe that’s the other way around… but even then I’d say they picked the right way to do it.

The film opens by establishing just how much of a vile and despicable piece of trash Out of the Furnace‘s villain is. Woody Harrelson, another actor who’s going through a bit of a renaissance later in his career (holy shit, True Detective is so very good), plays the part of Harlan DeGroat and he is introduced just as he’s literally stuffing a hotdog down his girlfriends throat and beating the guy who dares to speak up about it to a bloody pulp. It’s probably just a minor coincidence but, like that other film starring Casey Affleck (which this film also does), Out of the Furnace seems to achieve not the usual aestheticized depiction of violence, but something that’s rather more revolting (much like the character that inflicts it). Though that’s a good thing when you consider where the film is bound to end up. Added to the mix is an excellent rendition of Pearl Jam’s ‘release me’ that bookends and fits the feature very well. Just ignore Whitaker‘s somewhat unnecessary intrusion during the film’s finale and you have a recipe for something that is entirely competent.

The Banshee Chapter – Hunter S. Thompson meets Lovecraft

The Banshee Chapter Review Time to Waste

Switching it up a little this week, I watched a 2013 horror movie called The Banshee Chapter, by first time writer and director Blair Erickson. I tend to scare pretty easily, especially when jump scares are involved, and this definitely had plenty of that. It being part found footage film, there were a few of those nasty moments where the handheld camera ‘pans’ around wildly showing nothing, nothing, nothing and then *wham* loud noise and a brief glimpse of something extremely unpleasant. It’s cheap, I dislike it immensely, but it gets me every single time. It’s also an effective way of making your film scarier by having the audience expect similarly unpleasant surprises in otherwise harmless scenes. You could say that’s cheating and you’d have a point. I prefer horror movies or games that build tension by other means, which is why I have such admiration for Silent Hill 2 (a 2001 survival horror videogame by Konami). No jump scares, yet still so terrifying I could barely bring myself to finish it. Sadly, Erickson couldn’t quite figure out how to earn that kind of tension. He also couldn’t figure out whether he wanted to stick with the found footage angle. In the beginning there are a number of scenes where the shot has a battery level indicator and some other stuff plastered over it, but that’s dropped rather quickly for a more conventional approach. Inconsistent, yes, but not irredeemably so.

The Banshee Chapter stars Katia Winter and Ted Levine. Personally I would have gone for more Levine and less Winter had it been my film. But the two have a couple of entertaining exchanges once their paths cross about halfway in. Levine plays the role of writer Thomas Blackburn, which might be a reference to a writer or a poet by that name, but seems to be modeled mostly on Hunter S. Thompson. Like Thompson, Blackburn has a similar interest in firearms, alcohol, psychoactive drugs, lives way out in the desert and also (accidentally) shot his assistant at one point. Winter plays the part of investigative journalist Anne Roland. Roland is looking into the disappearance of James Hirsch (a friend from college) and while doing so, stumbles on the lingering effects of the now defunct government experiments with something called DMT19. The experiments were part of the MKULTRA project that researched behavioral engineering, through drugs and other chemicals, on (sometimes) unwitting US and Canadian citizens. (That also really happened apparently.) The Banshee Chapter just expands those events somewhat by including a Lovecraftian influence in the form of said author’s short story From Beyond, where a scientist’s manipulation of a human subject’s pineal gland allows those subjects to perceive other planes of existence. The only problem is, those planes can now also perceive you. Which is what Roland and Blackburn discover when they start dropping some of that special government grade acid.

Perhaps being under the influence also excuses them from doing utterly dumb shit like splitting up to have Roland go digging through a gloomy basement all by herself. They keep in radio contact though and when she’s looking at the footage from the security camera she goes: ‘Hey Thomas, I’m looking at the footage from the security camera and there’s this creepy looking chick limping down the stairs of the basement I’m in right now.’ It was then I thought to myself: ‘yeah no shit lady, if you look at the time stamp on the video there you’ll see that was a mere five minutes ago.’ Made for a fun scene though, I have to admit. Other than that, Levine and the Lovecraft angle are the main reasons you might want to see this. Otherwise it’s not quite that smart low budget horror film you’ve been looking for.

Redford on a boat – The ‘All is Lost’ review

Before J.C. Chandor would go on to direct All is Lost, he made Margin Callhis first film. At first glance, the films seem entirely dissimilar, though it’s possible there is a certain degree of thematic overlap in the two films. Margin Call is a very ‘talky’ picture that deals with some of the events leading up to the great (and ongoing?) financial crisis of 2008. It doesn’t really get into the specifics of how all that stuff actually went down, but it does illustrate, conveyed through Paul Bettany who makes the point from the leather driver’s seat of his Aston Martin, that we are all very much complicit in the quest for wealth and its consequences. I guess he simultaneously makes the point that it’s not that bad when you’re managing very well to stay on the right side of that equation. All is Lost, on the other hand, has a completely silent Robert Redford at the helm of a sailboat, somewhere in the Indian Ocean, trying to survive a series of disastrous events. Over at Quarter to Three, they jokingly posited the theory that both films were part of the same ‘universe’ or ‘story’ and Redford was one of the stockbrokers who is now trying to get away from it all by sailing his vessel around the world.

Interesting theory. Though it has two holes in my opinion. First, his boat looks just a little too beat up and old for it to belong to an extraordinarily wealthy individual. And second, Redford is altogether too stand-up a guy to be selling bullshit stock over the phone. But, the theory has merit and Redford is enough of a mystery to have you guessing at his origins. Especially given the message he writes (and bottles) when he’s at the end of his rope:

13th of July 4:50 p.m. I’m sorry. I know that means little at this point, but I am. I tried. I think that you would all agree that I tried. To be true. To be strong. To be kind. To love. To be right. But I wasn’t. And I know you knew this in each of your ways and I am sorry. All is lost here, except for soul and body. That is, what’s left of them, and a half day’s ration. It’s inexcusable really, I know that now. How I could have taken this long to admit that, I’m not sure, but it did. I fought till the end, I’m not sure what that is worth, but know that I did. I always hoped for more for you all, I will miss you. I’m sorry.

Think of that moment in First Blood, where Stallone treats his own gunshot wound in the middle of a forest. And Brosnan, setting all sorts of traps for his pursuers using nothing but a simple bowie knife in Seraphim Falls. Or that scene in No Country for Old Men where Brolin just manages to blow all the water out of his pistol before shooting a dog that chases him. This is like one hundred minutes of that and it’s fascinating. A capable individual figuring out how to stay alive in thoroughly sticky situations. And it’s easy to view Redford’s message in light of his nautical nightmare. It’s like the man said, he ‘tried’. However, there’s expressions in that message that carry different connotations. And I guess that’s where comparisons to Margin Call come into play. Both films are about sinking ships after all. Albeit one in a more literal sense than the other.