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

The Great Wall (2017)

Commander Lin Mae prepares her forces as part of The Nameless Order to repel a monstrous threat which emerges every sixty years.  Another alien threat, led by the mercenary William Garin, raises suspicions about his motivations while retaining respect for his fighting skills.  Lin Mae must stay wary of William and ready her troops for battle if her Chinese countrymen are to remain safe.  Zhang Yimou directs The Great Wall, with the screenplay written by Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro, and Tony Gilroy, and stars Jing Tian, Matt Damon, and Pedro Pascal.

I'm disappointed that a movie as accomplished and quietly nuanced as The Great Wall has devolved into internet shouting matches over the presence of Matt Damon.  To make my feelings clear upfront - Damon, as mercenary William Garin, is unquestionably the worst aspect of The Great Wall.  His accent appears and disappears with unusual frequency for a performer as talented as Damon, with him doing a subpar gravely Liam Neeson-esque Irish tone at times and a generic Midwestern United States flat affectation at others.  Most unusually, he's not as precise and intriguing in the fights that he honed to near perfection with director Paul Greengrass in the Bourne movies.  Damon's tasked with a character whose conflict is more internal than external, and director Zhang Yimou's formal qualities don't create a situation where Damon is able to play to his strengths.

Focusing on Damon, as the conversation at-large has chosen to do, does a disservice to the tightly crafted action in The Great Wall.  This "East meets West" epic is heavy on the integrity of the former while calling into question the integrity of the latter.  This is Yimou's finest film since House of Flying Daggers, suffering neither from the bloat of Curse of the Golden Flower nor the self-conscious "prestige" aspects of The Flowers of War.  Yimou crafts another large-scale epic with personal philosophical stakes, characters making decisions that test their ethical codes, and battles that are as visceral as they are contemplative.


A Cure for Wellness (2017)

Lockhart is taking the long route to the same sickness that led his father to suicide.  After the board leading his company threatens to punish his work, he is given the task to retrieve a man they may be able to pin their crimes on.  Shortly after arriving at the mysterious wellness asylum, Lockhart finds that the "cure" might not be what it seems.  Gore Verbinski directs A Cure for Wellness, with the screenplay written by Justin Haythe, and stars Dane DeHaan and Jason Isaacs.

For a fun writing experiment, sit down after watching A Cure for Wellness (simply Wellness moving on) and write what you think the tone is.  What happens is straightforward as Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) deals with dueling worlds of corporate takeovers and sinister asylums.  Gore Verbinski's tone, and the associated visual language, is all over the damn map in comparison.  There's bits of creature feature, shadowy espionage, body horror, and pulp that would have made Samuel Fuller proud.

That's just for starters, and it's no wonder Wellness bombed so thoroughly when released earlier this year.  Things are tough now and we're seeing the worst of humanity paraded about in our leadership.  Asking audiences to sit through two and a half hours of near unrelenting torment is a tall order, and I'd be lying if I said Wellness succeeded at the intense mishmash of genre influences Verbinski takes mighty aim at.  I'd also be lying to myself if I said I didn't enjoy Wellness in the same sense that my skin feels refreshed in the sun after removing a bandage that's been welded to my body for far too long.


Oxenfree (2016)

If this is your first time reading Pixels in Praxis or are averse to spoilers, check out our FAQ before proceeding.

It wasn't until yesterday I realized I've developed an affinity for media centering around alienated young women dealing with some vague apocalyptic threat.  In movies there was Before I Fall, The Edge of Seventeen, in music I had Grimes, and in video games Life is Strange and, now, Oxenfree.  While varying in tone and presentation, to say nothing of being in different mediums, there's a liberating feeling throughout all these pieces of art.  Life is open to possibilities in a way media centering around men feels like it's on rails.

Oxenfree isn't as world-weary as any of those other artistic endeavors to its benefit and detriment.  It's nice exploring the world with Alex (Erin Yvette) and directing her conversations like a water spigot where I choose who gets told what as time marches on.  At the same time, Alex and her friends are on an island haunted by the spirits of an United States submarine sunk by American firepower, and by the time Ren (Aaron Kuban) and Jonas (Gavin Hammon) make the same joke about military figure "Dick Harden" I was wondering if any of them were aware the danger they were in.  There's a disconnect between the increasingly grave threats of the spirits compared to the joking tone the cast continues to use throughout Oxenfree.

Whatever reservations I have about Alex and co. treating the situation lightly are moved aside ever so slightly for a remarkable dialogue system.  Alex is free to select conversation topics as they slowly fade from view while walking around the environment may trigger other options to bring up.  No conversation flows with ease, characters talk over each other while Alex's interjections are just as likely to be ignored as they are to silence, and there's nothing stopping those characters from picking up their previous train of thought if interrupted.  This is the primary source for that feeling of spontaneity I felt in Life is Strange and so on, it also means that what the player puts into the game is likely what they'll get out of it.  Granted, that may be true of most art, but consistently engaging with background observations or taking the dead-end paths reveals more information that gives context to the characters' emotional state.


Before I Fall (2017)

Sam is ready for the night of her life.  She wants to lose her virginity to her boyfriend Rob, her best friends give her advice on how to do so, and they all meet to party a bit before Sam takes her leap.  But a fight during the party and accident afterward leave Sam without the experience she wanted, and trapped in a day that has no tomorrow.  Ry Russo-Young directs Before I Fall, with the screenplay written by Maria Maggenti, and stars Zoey Deutch, Halston Sage, Cynthy Wu, and Medalion Rahimi.

I wanted Before I Fall to nestle in my mind and heart for a bit before writing about it.  Usually I'll start my review barely an hour after I finish a movie but something inside me said I needed to wait on this one.  Now it's about two days later, with a lot happening in that time, and Before I Fall has created a space of warm reflection inside me.  I'm sure there's something I could critique here, but the growing sense of fellow-feeling in Before I Fall snuffs the nags in the corners of my mind before they have a chance to grow.

Before I Fall is a dark movie whose motives aren't immediately clear.  If you take a shallow glance over the cast and setting it seems to be a story of privilege.  Sam (Zoey Deutch) lives in a big house, dates the popular Rob (Kian Lawley), goes to a great school, and jets around in her best friend Lindsay's (Halston Sage) car.  The first thirty minutes or so of Before I Fall encourages a sort of passive viewing, reinforced by the cinematography heavy in shadows and darker shades of vibrant colors.  I saw privilege, but I felt weight, and when Samantha gets into her first accident the full weight of Before I Fall began to work its magic.


The Boy Who Stole The Sun – Devlog #3

Guardian Concept © Seth Gorden

Whew! July was rough. The tools update from last time has had some consequences in the clean up phase. While the tool for assembling terrain data was relatively simple to put together, the update to the loading code for maps that use this terrain data breaking a bunch of assumptions from the previous revision. Or rather, it would have been simple except that map data for the game and the editor are slightly different, and I have some work to do to make sure the terrain file loading goes smoothly in all cases.

As a brief aside, I have a little episode from the home life to share. It's part of the journey that things go poorly sometimes, and it's not always code that causes trouble. The problems revolve around getting a new roof put on our house. The positive side is that insurance is covering most of it. The downside is that it took WAY too long to complete the job by any reasonable standard. There were reasons given, and some of them were understandable, but the cumulative effect is that our house was under siege for a whole month. We didn't have access to our driveway or garage due to a giant dumpster parked there. We had some rain leaks due to portions roof being left in unsuitable conditions prior to stormy evenings. The workers often showed up late in the morning, and departed around lunch time or early afternoon. Many days they didn't show up at all. The worker team itself had a lot of arguments, and I'm pretty sure two workers quit as a result of all the yelling. After some calls to the company's owner, they applied some discounts to the project. That was nice, but there were continued communication and reliability problems all the way to the end.

Guardian Concept © Seth Gorden

Suffice it to say, this whole ordeal ended up triggering my anxiety pretty hard in the last week of July. The wife and I had navigated most of the upsets pretty well together in the first couple weeks, but that week was so full of disappointments that I buckled under the pressure and it got the better of me. Work was affected. Doing well again this week, but the recovery time is at least in part due to having support and accountability in place. I'm a pretty high-functioning anxious person, and a lot of the mental game of the condition is under control. But one of the sneakier side-effects is a hesitation that sticks around after these incidents. Which leads to getting stuck on decision making points. However... despite the stress, several important gameplay decisions got made last month... excited to share, and also excited to have a clearer plan for the player progress through the game.

One of the "Aha!" moments was deciding on having a series of guardians for boss encounters. From the early design, I only had one guardian encounter in mind, a giant bear, altered by uncanny magics to guard the Sun Stone which is our MacGuffin for the game. The Guardian at the end. When explaining this creature, and asking about how to mark out major challenges in areas between... my brother (kindly acting as a sounding board for ideas) asked me about the Guardian's origin. I explained that one of our major NPCs had created it. And his response was "If they can create one, they can create several. Just have a bunch of guardians." Seem so obvious  now. But at the time it felt like an epiphany. Of course there could be several. Sometimes when I'm bogged down in tools code, and wrangling things on a micro scale, some of the obvious choices for the macro scale elements can be missed.

Once this was decided, we went to work on figuring out how to make sure guardian encounters would be significant for both gameplay and narrative. The basics are that each guardian will be placed at the entrance to some area of exploration, rather than at the end. The choice to void violence as the primary language of interaction make boss design tricky. I don't think we can avoid violence entirely, but aiming for problem solving as the primary experience. We won't need to teach the player tools and weapons (Zelda-style) to lead up the boss fight at the end. Guardian encounters are instead going to block access to explorable areas. Each one will introduce basic gameplay and navigation concepts needed in the areas ahead, and will include a narrative-affecting choice during or afterward.

Guardian Concept © Seth Gorden

Specifics: each guardian has a power stone that it protects. The stone is not placed in a room. It is rather strapped to the animal itself and feeds power to the animal, distorting it from its natural state. These stones are essentially lesser versions of the Sun Stone we're after. These lesser stones will be necessary to unlock the path up the final mountain. When the stone is removed from a guardian, they will shrivel and be left in a state of suffering. The player can choose to move on from there, running off with the power stone and leaving the animal in such a state. I plan to include some audio of suffering noises (wailing, mewling, etc) that can be heard some distance off to play on the emotions and cue the player that the guardian encounter may not be quite done. They'll be free to ignore it, but I'll set up as much encouragement as possible to get them to investigate further.

Players who remain and explore will discover they can, mercifully or otherwise, kill a defeated guardian. But I wanted to dig into that further to see if it was possible to create a gameplay experience that hinged on the manner or attitude of killing a creature over which the protagonist suddenly has power. It's hard to distill abstracts into gameplay like that. But the idea that surfaced from discussion was the potential of setting the creature at peace before killing it, and that doing so would alter the dialog and story in a few controlled ways. It essentially amounts to an optional side-quest for the completionists. There'll be some backstory and details available to those who figure it out. We talked through several mini-game ideas, including some Ocarina-like song or rhythm elements. But ultimately decided upon some light interactivity and narrative feedback.

The game revolves around the idea of making murky choices without enough information, and letting the player feel their way through the narrative feedback they receive. I'm planning for replay value and I hope each of the paths being offered will have enough ups and downs to be a rich experience no matter what personality the player brings to the game. Easier said than done, but taking it a step at a time. The main thing is that now I have a map of encounters and a layout for the how the player will mark progress.