Can't Stop the Movies - No One Can Stop The Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Goodnight Mommy (2015)

Bloodshot beyond measure

Elias and Lukas worry about their mommy.  Since the accident she's holed up in her bedroom, lashing out at the two when they're the slightest bit out of line, and peers back at them through blood-soaked bandages.  Mommy isn't who she used to be, and is she still mommy under those rags?  Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala co-wrote and directed Goodnight Mommy and stars Susanne Wuest, Elias Schwarz, and Lukas Schwarz.

Bloodshot beyond measureGoodnight Mommy has two different flavors of horror.  The first, fueling the effective first half, is a case-study in grief management between mother and child.  If this sounds familiar to the lingering terror of The Babadook, you wouldn't be far off.  The terrain of Goodnight Mommy is shifting from the first frame on, eliciting our protective instincts and immediate unease as two children play over a bubbling pile of quicksand before going to a desolate corn field in hand-crafted hunting masks.

This part of Goodnight Mommy showed promise - so much promise that the sudden shift into the extreme and violent territory is less a terrifying twist and more a disappointing detour.  Co-directors and screenwriters Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala hit many of the images which have become standard in this kind of torture horror.  There's bondage, unique applications of common tools to cause pain, a sort of love / hate relationship between tormentor and captive.  All playing out in a scenario which seems like a Madlibs version of torture horror, so instead of sadistic European we have a mom at the end of her rope or children in the midst of identity-shattering trauma.


Why Video Games: Sweet Home (1989)

Why Video Games is our ongoing look at the construction, reception, interpretation, and impact of important video games.  For the introduction to our series, please click here.

Ghost bustin' timeSeth, I have a sneaking suspicion that the topic of this edition of Why Video Games is a sort of "It's time to eat your vegetables." Sweet Home presents a number of challenges unique to it which haven't been present for other games. First off, it's the oldest game we've done so far, so the mechanics at play aren't going to be as refined as we're used to. Second, it's still not available commercially in the United States so the only way I could play it "pure" is by learning kanji and importing it to play on a Famicom, or one of those bargain stations which have the Famicom built in. Third, the only version we have to play is emulated and based on a translation which is now a few years old, so since this is a text-heavy RPG we're at the mercy of the translation skills to communicate the directions for us.

Keeping all this in mind, I decided to take a different approach to Sweet Home. Since the temptation to cheat thanks to emulator Game Genie's and save states is so great I tried to play it as "purely" as possible. This meant using only the in-game saving feature, not looking up any Game Genie codes, and on that note trying to play it without FAQs. After all, if 10-year old Andrew was able to find all the secrets of Final Fantasy VI without the use of the internet or other cheating utensils, surely 31-year old Andrew would be able to get through Sweet Home without relying on modern tools.

This, it turns out, was a foolish thing to think. Sweet Home implements a number of novel ideas which would go on to be used in better games and in this creates a convoluted nightmare of sorts to figure out. I had to restart the game twice because I couldn't figure out the system intuitively, and there weren't in-game queues to push me into finding out options which would have made each of my attempts much easier. For starters, I had no idea that you could send for your other party members to fight with you to share experience, or that there are limited healing items so having everyone with you is the only way to get the most of them, or that permadeath for some of the characters effectively stalls your progress in some ways as - depending on who dies - you may be without certain tools to help you decipher the game.

I wanted to preface our discussion with the limitations, both inherent to the game and self-imposed by myself, because I want to make sure our readers are clear on why I didn't like this at all. Of course, I eventually broke down and looked through some FAQs and Let's Plays, but as opposed to platformers or action games which can build in-game means of communicating just what the hell you're supposed to do - I was at a loss for much of Sweet Home. At the same time, this was the genesis for a lot of things we now take for granted in many RPGs. So tell me Seth, is this Sweet Home the carrot to Octodad's sweet fried calamari?Damn chairsGreat question. I'm not sure I can draw a direct line between Sweet Home and any game that can come out in the many years since. This game seems somewhat an anomaly to me. It's trying to do a lot of things. While the interface is exactly as problematic as you describe, it does manage to shove a lot of interaction into an 8-bit experience. On the surface, it borrows a lot of basic mechanics from the growing RPG genre of the era. Random encounters. Team of heroes pitted against the unknown. There's a power arc described by the level of each character and the associated power stats. All that is well established.

But where it gets interesting, is the experience I think they're trying approximate with this game- that of the Horror Movie. I say that as distinct from horror story or generally-scary video game theme. Everything they stack on top of the basic RPG framework seems to be putting me inside a classic horror flick where a team is sent into the haunted mansion setting and are faced when the tried-and-true tropes we all take for granted now. Stick together or split up? The mansion is in disrepair, therefore falling objects and creaky floorboards can give way at any time. I found myself submitting to the theme, allowing the house to consume my team mates gradually, feeling through my reactions to those events, and trying get a handle on how they could have designed such a game.


What We Do in the Shadows (2015)

The gang's all dead

A brave documentary crew, armed with crucifix necklaces and a pledge of protection, film a vampire quartet as they talk about their long lives and prepare for the Unholy Masquerade.  What We Do in the Shadows is co-written, co-directed, and co-stars Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi with additional performances by Jonathan Brugh and Ben Fransham.

The gang's all deadWith What We Do in the Shadows I can fret a bit less about the cinematic prospects of Jemaine Clement. I love Flight of the Conchords, be it in television or album forms, but Clement’s roles in front of the camera have had considerably less positive outcomes than former partner Bret McKenzie’s work behind-the-scenes. But his talent is so immense that even when the failures were robust, such as the horrid indie quirk-fest of Eagle vs. Shark or the painfully unfunny Gentlemen Broncos.

Of the latter of those two I wrote that it should be charged with conspiracy to commit murder, which was an admittedly over-harsh reaction to a terrible comedy. But it has frustrated me to see Clement waste his talents in the broadest quirky way.

This makes the success of What We Do in the Shadows a great twist. The fantastical elements, in this case the mockumentary about vampires preparing for an annual ball (the appropriately titled Unholy Masquerade), and the deadpan humor, popularized by his stint in Flight of the Conchords, aren’t that far from Clement’s previous work. But the bone-dry humor at the core of What We Do in the Shadows keeps the former from spinning out into unchecked quirkiness while the odd setting serves as a reminder to keep the jokes flowing.


Let’s Talk About Kevin: Part One

Smith ManWith the anniversary of Mallrats just a month away, Ryan enlists the aid of his friend Steve Sanders to talk about the career of Kevin Smith.

Smith rose from the ranks of independent film-maker with Clerks in 1994 and hit it big after Harvey Weinstein acquired Clerks for distribution because he couldn't stop laughing at the infamous "Wow, in a row?"  Since Clerks Smith has tried a bit of everything from his foray into animation with the network-mishandled Clerks: The Animated Series, acclaimed dramadies such as Chasing Amy, and written a comic book or two with successful runs on Daredevil and Green Arrow.

Join Ryan and Steve on this multi-part series with the humble beginnings before Smith became internet ubernerd extraordinaire.

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Claire Denis: Bastards (2013)

See me now

Marco's family needs him.  His brother-in-law committed suicide, a creditor holding his estranged family in debt may be to blame, and his niece was found after surviving a brutal sexual assault.  Marco returns home, sets his eye on the creditors wife, and begins to unravel what poison is killing his family.  Claire Denis directs Bastards from a screenplay co-written by Jean-Pol Fargeau and stars Vincent Lindon and Chiara Mastroianni.

See me nowIt didn’t strike me until halfway through Claire DenisBastards just what is the crowning achievement of her films. They’ve been rooted in different genres, ranging from horror with the hypnotic Trouble Every Day to the languid near-ethnographic work of White Material. With a skill I’ve rarely seen outside the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, Denis edits to emotional beats within the story instead of on specific actions. I think of the moment when her camera lingers on Protée long enough to see him weep under a shower, or when Dr. Brown stops to hungrily smell a woman’s hair as he stands too close to her in the train.

So it makes perfect sense that Denis would come to noir at some point. As the latest film in her work it also stands as one of the most narratively obscure, hiding the truth of the poisoned family history which plays out in those little emotional moments which propel the story. As an intellectual exercise I’m intrigued, especially since noir is defined as much by its evocative photography as it is by the characters who must insist to themselves or others they are doing the right thing.

Denis, who cowrote the screenplay with frequent partner Jean-Pol Fargeau, does not leave the characters of Bastards much room to explain themselves. This makes for wonderful imagery, and a stunning opening chapter which worked so well the rest was almost certain to be a disappointment. But the narrative cohesion is stretched to the limit, partly because of Denis’ editing style and also casting all the relevant women in the movie as slight variations on the same look. I was entranced by the visuals, but when I started thinking about where I was in the story I’d get lost.