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Fall 2023 – Week 6 in Review

Hello folks, and welcome back to Wrong Every Time. Today I am chronicling my weekly exploits from a sun-drenched seat in a brand new apartment, having spent the last week lugging bureaus, beds, and copious electronics out from storage and into our new house. I’m still obviously in the midst of an adjustment period here; I’m not used to sleeping on the same floor where Eevee rests, meaning I’m still getting acquainted with her habit of demanding first In and then Out all throughout the morning. Nonetheless, it feels absolutely wonderful to at last have some space of my own. I frankly hadn’t realized how much day-to-day anxiety I’d been carrying around for the last several months, until I at last had a chance to slump back in my chair with full certainty that this is my space, not some room I was being briefly and conditionally granted. And of course, my viewing party has obviously seized this opportunity to get back into our regularly scheduled screenings, so I’ve got a healthy dollop of film reflections to share with you all. Let’s sit back and settle in for the Week in Review!

First up this week was Unleashed, a Jet Li feature wherein he plays a young man who was taken in as a child by an ambiguously defined crime lord, who proceeded to raise him as a trained attack dog. Knowing neither language nor friendship, “Danny” lives a life of violence until he happens across a blind pianist named Sam (Morgan Freeman) during the course of another loan extraction. Inspired by Sam’s kindness and the beauty of music, Danny seeks to escape his painful existence, but eventually his past comes to collect.

Unleashed is a truly odd duck, its crime drama and found family halves never really congealing into a coherent whole. It’s clear that director Louis Leterrier (The Transporter, Fast X) is attempting to echo the poignant contradictions of his mentor Luc Besson (who also wrote this film)’s Leon: The Professional. But the discordant tone presented by Danny’s two lives, as well as the lack of narrative tissue connecting them, means the film is more prone to swerving than escalating, an issue further exacerbated by the underwritten ambiguity of Unleashed’s criminal underworld.

As a result, what we are left with is mostly a series of found family scenes and a series of Jet Li ass-kicking scenes. Fortunately, Jet Li is a machine of violent grace and Morgan Freeman is a bedtime story in human form, so each of the film’s halves recommend themselves well in spite of not really pulling together. I had a reasonable enough time, but would ultimately just recommend Unleashed to Jet Li completionists.

We then checked out The Field Guide to Evil, a horror anthology with the novel twist of each segment being filmed in and focused on folk horror tales from different countries. Like most such anthologies the end result is somewhat uneven, but with its combination of unique mythologies and generally positive hit rate, it’s still well worth a viewing.

With such a loose conceptual mandate binding them, The Field Guide to Evil succeeds in large part because of its variability, and the different aspects of horror each short prioritizes. Some of the shorts offer interesting experiments in form, like Can Evrenol’s practically wordless “The Childbirth Djinn,” or Peter Strickland’s silent film “Cobbler’s Lot.” Some offer regionally grounded spins on classic formulas, like the clearly Lovecraft-indebted “The Palace of Horrors,” or the uniquely terrifying monster of “The Sinful Women of Hollfall.” And the best of them, “Whatever Happened to Panagas the Pagan,” plays out like a weird fiction fever dream, maintaining absolute confidence in its winding mythology. In spite of a couple clunkers, the best parts of this collection make it an easy recommendation for any folk horror enthusiasts.

Next up was Identity, an ‘03 thriller loosely based on Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, wherein John Cusack, Ray Liotta, Amanda Peet, and a variety of other strangers are all trapped at a roadside inn by a storm, after which bodies start promptly piling up. The film is unremarkable in its camera work and somewhat clumsily scripted, making uneven use of a time-jumping conceit to keep its various players’ motives mysterious. It’s basically just a functional murder mystery until the two-thirds point, after which it reveals one of those twists that are pretty much tailor-made to infuriate me. I’m not sure any of you are chomping at the bit to see a middling thriller with no remaining cultural footprint, but nonetheless, spoilers ahead:

Yep, it’s all a dream, or in this case the multiple personalities of one serial killer all warring in his head. While completely invalidating all the backstories and relationships that had been built up over the first two thirds, I at least appreciated that this twist was taken in a novel direction: the remaining personalities must work to uncover and destroy the identity that actually committed the host’s serial killing, lest that host be put to death. This concept is indeed absurd, but it’s at least unique, and manages to lend this generally investment-obliterating twist more legs than usual. Not a film I’d actively recommend, but a reasonable background watch.

Alongside our film viewings, I’ve also been hacking my way through the recent Tails of Iron, wherein you play as the young rat king Redgi, who must defend his kingdom from all manner of encroaching monstrosities. The game falls neatly into the Hollow Knight/Blasphemous/Metroidvania genre space I so adore, and has so far proven an altogether satisfying adventure. Of course, I’m an irrepressible critic, so “I’m having a fine time” won’t quite cut it. So what exactly makes Tails of Iron tick?

First off, the game has commendably distinctive art design, succeeding in its goal of evoking an illustrated fairy tale brought to life. This aesthetic is further buoyed by the presence of Doug Cockle (The Witcher’s Geralt) as narrator, whose voice lends a gruff air of whimsy and authority to the proceedings. I also appreciate the game’s simple-yet-robust system of blocks, parries, and dodges, which collectively offer a distinctive rhythm for each of the game’s principle enemy types.

Unfortunately, the game’s moment-to-moment combat isn’t nearly as clean as the genre’s superior entries. The biggest problem is your character is simply too slow for the enemies you encounter. There is no way to cancel attack animations, and your attacks are significantly slower than the enemies’ ability to transition into must-parry stances, meaning the “correct” play pattern is frequently to just wait and block until the enemy uses a move you can respond to with a parry. This, combined with your slow rolls relative to your opponents’ mobility and size, means you can rarely outmaneuver or truly “outplay” your opponents – there is a clear ceiling on your agility, demanding you prioritize the game’s rock-paper-scissors dynamics rather than improving your mechanical control of the character. Compared to something like Hollow Knight or Dead Cells, your movements feel clunky and limited, and many enemy attacks feel like they’re designed for a more mobile character than you actually possess.

Additionally, while I quite enjoyed the game’s ability to build an evolving story across a limited physical map, Tails of Iron too often asks you to backtrack and repeat fights against similar opponents, sometimes just for the sake of completing arbitrary bounties. When combined with the game’s refusal to let you accept multiple quests at once, as well as its largely vestigial upgrade economy, it’s hard to avoid the feeling that much of your playtime is dedicated to make-work, rather than the sense of discovery and mastery that make this genre so appealing. The variety of vendors and collectibles initially had me thinking I was in for an upgrade system reminiscent of Rogue Legacy; as it turns out, there’s only about four things you can upgrade, and those are directly tied to your main story progression.

Nonetheless, the game’s wide array of armors and weapons ensures you always feel like you’re gaining something of value, and that there’s just enough room to define your own approach to combat. The difficulty level is also generally satisfying, consistently hitting that sweet spot of bosses that start out feeling impossible and conclude with a sense of total mastery. If not for the clumsy interplay of your non-cancelable attacks and enemies’ must-parry or must-dodge maneuvers, I’d consider it an easy recommendation; as-is, it’s a fine pick for dedicated genre fans, but more casual players should likely start with Hollow Knight, Salt & Sanctuary, or one of the actual Metroids.

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