2016 Archives - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

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.


Layers of Fear (2016) and Inheritance (2016)

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

There was reassurance, darkness, and - finally - pain.  My doctor assured me the stint did not need to stay in for long, it only needed to be installed as long as it took for my body to finally expel the stones it carried around.  I was taken care of for a bit then I was alone.  At some point in the night I developed a fever, the pain medications barely kept the needles digging through my crotch at bay, I couldn't lay down and could barely walk but the fever and pain kept me moving.  Eventually I found my notebook.  I'd been writing poetry before the surgery.  In between my screams, stomping, and falling I scribbled whatever thoughts came to my mind.  The trips between the bathroom, my bedroom, and living room where I insisted on keeping my notebook bled together.  When it finally ended my scribbles were useless, the words were barely coherent, and whatever usable prose remained tied too strongly with the feverish pain from previous nights.

My madness felt like it had no end and when it finally caved to the pain meds as the fever broke I don't remember what happened to me afterward.  Any time I read a video game managed to create a feeling of madness I left disappointed.  Not that it's a sensation I have any wish to return to, but that developers are unable to grasp the tenuous balance between being in control and at the mercy of my worst impulses.  Layers of Fear, despite an intriguing premise, led me to think I'd be entering another video game experience where madness equates to hallucinations out of the corner of the game's vision or my save file refusing to chart my progress.  Those are the sorts of design choices that may lead a player to frustration - not madness.


The Salesman (2016)

Late night destruction throws Emad and Rana from their home.  Emad grows distracted from Rana as he has to help find a new place to live, continue his job teaching, and star in a production of The Death of a Salesman.  After Rana is attacked, Emad's scattered focus becomes more violently intense, and creates a rift between him and his wife.  Asghar Farhadi wrote the screenplay for and directs The Salesman, and stars Shahab Hosseini and Taraneh Alidoosti.

The Salesman embarks on a series of firsts for Iranian master writer/director Asghar Farhadi.  It's the first of his movies I've seen where the complex sprawl of characters with their own ethical spaces pared down to primarily focus on one.  That one, Emad (Shahab Hosseini), works hard as a teacher and lead performer in a production of Death of a Salesman.  This leads to another first where the pressures of life on Emad, and his wife Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti), have a tidy in-universe parallel between Farhadi's look at Emad's anxiety and Emad's role as the titular salesman.

A bit too tidy for my taste.  Farhadi's earlier movies have a unique propulsion as we get fly on the wall glimpses into the lives of each player on his board and watch as their private impulses staggered out into unavoidable conflict.  Grounding The Salesman so thoroughly into Emad's internal ethical conflict does make things a bit "easier" to follow compared to Farhadi's other work.  It also means that the universal conflicts of faith, culture, and class winnowed to a parallel with one of the most overused fictional works of all time.


Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2016)

Billy enlisted in the army after getting into trouble protecting his sister - now he's coming back a hero.  He was caught on-camera in a suicidal attempt to save his wounded sergeant and now everyone wants a piece of the heroism they think he embodies.  Ang Lee directs Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, with the screenplay written by Jean-Christophe Castelli, and stars Joe Alwyn, Kristen Stewart, and Garrett Hedlund.

A little over halfway through Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk (Billy Lynn moving forward), after Billy (Joe Alwyn) has taken the titular walk, his unit sits in different degrees of shock on the bleachers.  Some joke, one is shaking and crying uncontrollably, and Billy watches in silence.  A member of the maintenance crew tells Billy's unit to leave in a crude way, which prompts the floor security to show up and tell both the maintenance crew and the soldiers about his disappointment, and finally the Dallas cheerleaders make an unlikely save to defuse the tension and lead the soldiers away arm-in-arm.

Watch this scene, and tell me who's in "the right."  Everyone - from the soldiers on to the cheerleaders - has a job and someone they have to answer to.  No one is "free" to make their own decisions because they're all trapped by the same need for money and acceptance.  The soldiers are barely in their teens and traumatized by war, but the maintenance crew has to pick up after wannabe prima donnas all the time, the security guards keeping the garish entertainment running, and the cheerleaders part of the spectacle.  When the sparklers die out someone has to pick up the pieces.  Everyone carries the weight of society's expectations on them, and what was heroism two weeks ago is a fading memory for the history books today.

Ang Lee's Billy Lynn is a spectacle with frighteningly clear vision into PTSD and the partisan divide over the second war in Iraq.  By avoiding a clear political stance and focusing so specifically on Billy's deployment nightmare playing out in his mind at home, Lee makes a broader emotional case.  The poor fight our wars, clean our mess, keep the peace, and expose themselves.  The rest of us are free to shoot fireworks, listen to Destiny's Child, argue loudly about the second Iraq war, and ignore the needs of those that keep the debris of our excess from cluttering up the next spectacle.


Final Fantasy XV (2016)

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

I treasured my earliest moments with Final Fantasy XV (FFXV moving on).  Noctis has to get out of his car, which ran out of gas, and help his three friends push the now-useless hunk of metal to the closest gas station.  The friends gently rib on each other as the soundtrack swells to a charming cover of Ben E. King's "Stand By Me" performed by Florence + The Machine.  "This is how it should be," I thought as warmth overtook my heart, "a silly road trip with the occasional monster clash is just what these anxiety-filled times need."

It was barely a couple of hours later until cracks formed in the charming facade, and it was over something as simple as getting into the car.  Driving around with your buddies was one of the focal points of the advertising and is the player's primary mode of getting around the world.  After parking my car for gas while getting some quests I returned to the car and pressed X to enter.  Noctis had his own ideas, and jumped instead of entering the car.  I waited for the prompt to enter and hit X again.  Noctis, once more, displayed some fine cardio instead of doing the thing I wanted him to do - get in the car.  I walked back a bit, slowly approached the car, and pressed X for a third time.  This time a cutscene started for a quest that was sharing the same space as the car I wanted to enter.