THE UNBEARABLE WEIGHT OF MASSIVE TALENT (2022)

Making a meta film like THE UNBEARABLE WEIGHT OF MASSIVE TALENT, which centers around Nicolas Cage playing himself struggling with his acting career, can’t be an easy task. With such a long legacy of films, such a wide breadth of performances, not to mention Cage’s real-life idiosyncrasies and quirks, it seems foolhardy to try to convey the essence of Cage in under two hours. A serious-minded theme park might be more fitting.

If Tom Gormican and Kevin Etten, director and co-writers of UNBEARABLE WEIGHT were daunted by Cage’s oeuvre, it doesn’t show on the screen. Nicolas Cage is ‘Nick Cage’ who, apart from the name, barely deviates from his real-life counterpart as a quirky, intense, occasionally explosive, but extraordinarily compelling actor, known for his dedication to his craft.

‘Nick’ hits rock bottom after he fails to garner a meaty award-contending role and he declares to his agent (Neil Patrick Harris) that he’s quitting acting, but not before he takes a million dollar gig to make an appearance at an overseas birthday party. Unbeknownst to Nick, the party is a ruse by rich drug lord Javi Gutierrez (the always delightful Pedro Pascal), a Nick Cage superfan who has penned a script just for him, and hopes that by the end of the party Nick will attach himself to the film, and maybe — just maybe — Nick will also become his best friend along the way.

What follows is a pleasurable, occasionally visually kinetic, but very over-stuffed romp across the broader beats of action films that would have featured Nic Cage front-and-center. There’s a lot of sun, surf, sports cars, and high-speed shoot-outs, all peppered with riffs on Cage’s more off-beat roles, such as a few ADAPTATION-esque combative discussions with ‘Nicky’, his wild at heart younger self.

There’s an effortless charm to UNBEARABLE WEIGHT, partially because of the drugged-up interplay between Nick and Javi, but also because of how hard the film leans into Gormican and Etten’s favorite Cage films, adroitly adapting the beats of the likes of THE ROCK and CON AIR to a somewhat sweet bromance (and includes a slightly more problematic, but still very 90s ‘reconnect with my estranged ex via violent set-pieces’ subplot).

Some may be disappointed that UNBEARABLE WEIGHT doesn’t zig or zag as much as it could, or that it doesn’t subvert Cage’s persona say, in the way that JCVD (2008) lifted the curtain on the ennui of a similarly fictionalized ‘Jean-Claude Van Damne’. However, Gormican and Kevin Etten made this film to extoll Cage and recreate the glow his films exuded, and their script — plus the earnestness that Cage brings to the role of err, himself — sees them warmly meeting that goal.

Official trailer:

Red band trailer:

Favorites of 2021: Video Games

Despite having acquired a PlayStation 5 in 2021, I played far fewer games than normal this year, opting instead to mindlessly whittle away at long-haul interactive experiences as opposed to short-form works. Nonetheless, here are my favorite gameplay experiences of 2021!

ASSASSIN’S CREED VALHALLA

Thanks to the pandemic, the Assassin’s Creed series has been my interactive comfort food. I’ve sunk way too many hours into AC: ORIGINS, AC: ODYSSEY, and now AC: VALHALLA — as these series have been relatively non-taxing, rarely frustrating fare that allows me to routinely press buttons in order to check out of the hellscape of the last few years, which feature some surprisingly well-penned characters and situations, a far cry from the prior franchise games.

One of the great things about major franchise games like Assassin’s Creed are: you can play one of the entries when it launches, then wait a year or so and it’s a completely different experience, especially if you’ve purchased a season pass.

While I completed VALHALLA in 2020, I returned to it in 2021 for the two extremely generous DLC packages, which allows you to travel to both Dublin and Paris. The mission types are nothing new — really, very little has changed about the ASSASSIN’S CREED gameplay since the days of ASSASSIN’S CREED II — but the writing and character work has become far sharper and, it must be said, hornier.

These are games you can spend hours and hours and hours playing, especially if you’re like me and wants to clean the world maps of any unfinished tasks. While VALHALLA’s DLC isn’t terribly memorable — there were a number of missions where I explicitly uttered to no one: “Well, this mission is absolutely no fun.” — it works as the distraction toy that I needed for the end of 2021.

DEATHLOOP

An hour or two into DEATHLOOP, I questioned whether this was a game for me, as it was maddeningly difficult and, while it featured Arkane’s signature reliance on stylish vertical level design, I was turned off by the sweaty dialogue; it felt like it was trying too hard to appeal to youths.

By the time I made it to the third or fourth hour, I’d found a groove and realized how the game wanted you to play it. Really, it’s far simpler than you’d expect — although I admit I have yet to complete the game — so far this isn’t the roguelike loop that one might expect.

Additionally, the combative dialogue? The overly agressive landscape? It grows on you. It still feels slightly performative, at least at the point I’m at in the game, but it’s a game that gets to have its cake and eat it too: slyly smart while being stylish enough to sell.

FAMICOM DETECTIVE CLUB: THE MISSING HEIR

A completely unexpected, but very welcome remake of an adventure game/visual novel few of those in the US were even aware of. Oh, and it’s from Satoru Okada: the director of KID ICARUS and METROID, and the brains behind the Game Boy.

More here:

https://mediaclature.com/2021/06/10/famicom-detective-club-the-missing-heir-1988-2021/

PSYCHONAUTS 2

“15+ years later, is PSYCHONAUTS 2 the sequel I wanted? Yes and no. It leans far more on spectacle and less on cognitive/character visual motifs than I would have liked. It’s certainly not as idiosyncratic as the first game. However, it […] does such a great job at detailing how flawed we can be, but how we can learn to be better with some help, and how we need to accept each other on these journeys.”

More here:

https://mediaclature.com/2021/12/28/psychonauts-2-2021-pc-macos-ps4-xboxes/

RESIDENT EVIL VILLAGE

While RESIDENT EVIL VILLAGE has — rightfully — gained a lot of attention due to the very tall Lady Dimitrescu, it’s also a thrillingly executed bit of action-horror that only falters in the final act. It’s immensely playable, and I can’t wait for the upcoming DLC.

More here:

https://mediaclature.com/2021/06/02/resident-evil-village-2021/

In my queue:

  • THE ARTFUL ESCAPE
  • CHICORY: A COLORFUL TALE
  • THE GREAT ACE ATTORNEY CHRONICLES
  • LIFE IS STRANGE: TRUE COLORS
  • METROID DREAD
  • OVERBOARD!
  • SABLE

STAR TREK: DISCOVERY (Season Three, 2020)

(Paramount+/VOD) Apologies in advance for the massive preamble here, and the general length of the piece! I actually did whittle it down, but still …it’s STAR TREK.

Both my wife and I have been huge STAR TREK nerds since we were young. I watched the original series while it was in syndication before my family had cable, read all of the novelizations and extended universe books that my school and local library stocked, subscribed to The Official Star Trek: The Next Generation magazine, and even cried when my hairdresser botched my Spock haircut. (She was probably just looking out for my best interests, so thanks?)

At some point, I simply lost interest. I watched a few eps of every post-TNG series over the years, fell asleep during FIRST CONTACT (or was it NEMESIS?), but ultimately I was hard-pressed to care.

During lockdown, my wife and I figured it was as good a time as any to dive back in. We’ve been happily working our way through DEEP SPACE NINE together, and she started binging DISCOVERY on her own. Every time I’d walk through the room while she was watching, I’d witness some humanoids in a lift, talking at each other via overly-complicated and unnecessary camerawork. I was not impressed.

She indulged my optimism for PICARD, based on my prior love of TNG and the fact that the show runner was Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Chabon (THE ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER & CLAY). In the interest of brevity, I’ll simply state that was a mistake.

Once we hit the end of DS9’s third season, she implored me to watch DISCOVERY’s third season — which she had already seen — noting that I could get up to speed pretty quickly, and she wasn’t wrong. The opening recap lays out most of what you need to know: DISCOVERY takes place around the time of Captain Pike’s heyday, a bit before the original series. Michael Burnham (played by Sonequa Martin-Green) is an orphaned Black human woman — Michael’s name is a signifier that DISCOVERY started as a Bryan Fuller show, showcasing his love for masculine-named women * — who was adopted by Spock’s family, grew up on Vulcan, and has become a swashbuckling heroic-but-flawed Federation member serving on the USS Discovery.

The USS Discovery is a Federation starship with an experimental ‘spore drive’ which allows them to speedily navigate space without the need for dilithium crystals, however, someone has to be able to interface with them for …reasons. Thankfully, USS Discovery has brilliant-but-prickly Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp) to physically interface with the drive. Stamets’ husband is Hugh Culber (MY SO-CALLED LIFE’s Wilson Cruz) who is USS Discovery’s Lieutenant Commander. Rounding out the ensemble is: Philippa Georgiou (a charismatically chilly Michelle Yeoh) who is there for …reasons, and she is complex, captivating, and knows how to verbally eviscerate anyone; Saru (an unsurprisingly heavily made-up Doug Jones) as a measured, by-the-book officer and newly-introduced species called the Kelpien; Ensign Tilly (Mary Wiseman) as the overly chatty, but intelligent and warm-hearted foil to Stamets, and Lieutenant Keyla Detmer (Emily Coutts) who serves as a steadfast helmsman.

Oh, and they have Tig Notoro and David Cronenberg as occasional cast members! Granted, both are rather under-utilized, but it’s always thrilling when they show up.

I won’t touch on any particulars of the third season’s plot, as doing so would certainly spoil matters for the first two seasons. Again, I haven’t seen the first two seasons, but based on the critical and fan reactions I’ve heard, the third season course-corrects quite a bit. I found it to be a very enjoyable, very satisfying self-contained season of STAR TREK, although I was initially hesitant as the opening eps primarily focus on Michael’s journey — STAR TREK has always excelled at ensemble work — and I had a number of quibbles with some of the retrofitting and a lot of the details concerning the ship interfaces, but they explained enough of it that made me happy. (This seems to be an unpopular opinion.)

Unlike PICARD, there were a number of times where I exclaimed: “This is my kind of STAR TREK!” as there were more than a few eps that focused on discovering new worlds with kind intent, recreating the wonder that drew me into the STAR TREK universe in the first place. While not all of the characters are terribly complex, their motives and Federation-centric willfulness to be as helpful as they can be was refreshing, comforting, and familiar. It felt like the show realized what it needed to do to recapture the original series’ magic, all while gamely moving matters forward.

When I stated that the season feels self-contained, I meant it. This season starts with a breaking point and ends with a two-parter that comes across like a spectacle-laden STAR TREK film (albeit an even-numbered one) with -huge- stakes and an extremely memorable and intriguing villain in Orion Minister Osyraa (an exceptional Janet Kidder) and, when the last episode fades to black, it feels like a chapter has ended; it feels like a series finale. A fourth season has been confirmed, and it appears that it’ll be a season that isn’t so Kurtzman-fueled but, instead, a STAR TREK show more like the ones I watched with awe as a youth: a show based on optimism, empathy, wonder for the unknown and, well, discovery.

I’ve included a STAR TREK: DISCOVERY S3 trailer below. Do not watch if you have plans to watch S1 or S2:

SPIDER-MAN: MILES MORALES (2020)

Oh, I loved this. I wrung every bit of web-slinging joy from Insomniac’s prior Spider-Man game, but never quite loved the story, given that Peter Parker was basically re-enforcing a New York City police state.

SPIDER-MAN: MILES MORALES takes everything that’s great about Insomniac’s prior SPIDER-MAN game and improves on almost every facet of it. The mechanics are just as silky-smooth, if not better, than the prior game. However, what really makes the game shine is the writing which, for a triple A blockbuster superhero game is a minor miracle.

(I’ll quickly note that I’m not at all familiar with Miles Morales apart from INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE. I’ve read zero of the Marvel Ultimate comics.)

Miles (now a younger Spider-Man) and his childhood friend Phin are teenage nerds. Not contemporary nerds, but old-school smart nerds who get excited about science and space and tinker on projects together! They’re still struggling with finding their space in the world — as teens do — but they’re not too terribly awkward, and they have a very tight brother/sister dynamic. But really, these two are unapologetic brilliant nerds, it’s the springboard for the game’s arc, and I love it.

There’s also an earnestness and idealism that I adore about the game. Yeah, there’s a lot of overwrought conflict that wouldn’t feel out-of-place in a J.J. Abrams work, you have to suspend disbelief for the sheer amount of tech created within such a short period of time, and I’m a bit shocked at how some of Miles’ moves would -definitely- induce death — for example: you can turn human bodies into bombs — but overall it’s an extremely playable game about biological and adopted family and the love for your original and adopted boroughs.

Did I mention that the game is goddamn gorgeous?! Insomniac also lets you tweak what you prefer from your visuals. Want high-end visual fidelity? You’ve got it, locked at 30fps! You demand 60fps? You can have it with a few downgrades you’ll never notice! Want it to look like INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE? No problem, just make sure to bank some activity tokens first.

If there’s one flaw, it’s that Miles’ powers seem far too powerful, and the game occasionally tries to course-correct this with power-negating guns and/or throwing waves and waves of criminals at you, invoking occasional frustration, but that doesn’t last long. Eventually you’ll suss the proper rhythm.

This is blockbuster gaming done right and I hope other studios learn from it, and I’m very happy that I waited for a PS5 to play it. In fact, I’m still playing it, because I love the bodega cat costume so much, which is only available after starting New Game+.

RESIDENT EVIL VILLAGE (2021)

Yes, I mostly played RESIDENT EVIL VILLAGE to partake in the cultural conversation as, apart from RESIDENT EVIL 4, I don’t care much for the series’ trademark blend of jump scares and camp. (Although I am now very tempted to dive into RESIDENT EVIL 7, which I initially wrote off as an interactive facsimile of THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE.)

VILLAGE severely overtaxed my ailing PS4 — my poor console’s fan was working so hard that it trampled over any aural atmosphere Village may have — but it’s undeniably a triumph of tech and scenic design. The attention to details is astounding, mesmerizing even. That said, it feels like it’s design-by-commitee that succeeds in spite of itself. If it reminds me of anything, it’s HALF-LIFE 2 with its regimented and sectional use of mechanics. Hell, Heisenberg’s factory feels like a whole-cloth rip of HALF-LIFE 2’s final chapter, sans gravity gun. (That said, HALF-LIFE 2 doesn’t hate hands nearly as much as RESIDENT EVIL VILLAGE.

Still, it’s a fun time! As you’d expect from Resident Evil, the characters are all half-baked, even though they’re clearly cribbing from Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid boss book, so it’s a bit sad to see characters that could have been interesting reduced to caricatures, but it’s Capcom and it’s RESIDENT EVIL and to expect anything more would be wishful thinking.

SOUND OF NOISE (2010)

(kanopy/Plex/Pluto/tubi/Vudu/VOD) SOUND OF NOISE is a Swedish feature film that’s based on the short film MUSIC FOR ONE APARTMENT AND SIX DRUMMERS about a collective of musicians who break into an apartment and make music solely with whatever exists in the apartment. There’s a lot of clanging on ceramics and glasses, rhythms created via vacuum suction, books thrown to the floor and the like.

“How can that possibly be turned into a feature film?” you might ask. The answer is: in a very cartoonish way. The troupe is sheer anarchy as they break into hospitals and banks to realize their musical works, progressing to one ultimate performance, all while being pursued by a tone-deaf cop. It’s funny and infectious, and the musical pieces stand on their own. (Well, they do if you’re a fan of say, avant-garde, percussive works.)

While there is an attempt to give an emotional, romantic core to the film, it falls a bit flat, but it’s not entirely unwelcome. Really, the set-pieces are the allure here.

One of my favorite pieces is a skillfully edited highway driving scene — it features co-director/co-writer Ola Simonsson and is a bit more liberal with its use of sound sources — as it vaguely reminds me of the experimental electronic band SHINJUKU FILTH:

-Music for One Highway-:

SHINJUKU FILTH – The Art-:

(Also, check out the companion track, -The Sale- if you can.)

MUSIC FOR ONE APARTMENT AND SIX DRUMMERS:

Trailer:

SWITCHBLADE SISTERS (1975)

(Arrow/VOD/Blu-Ray) ‘Girl gang’ exploitation films are a big blind spot for me, one I’ve been trying to rectify for a while now. While I dearly love the SWITCHBLADE SISTERS podcast (RIP), I knew absolutely nothing about the film going in apart from the fact that Tarantino featured it in his short-lived Rolling Thunder VHS series. I assumed it was a bit of an insensitive gender swap on male gang films of the early 60s, and, boy, was I wrong, because this film is gonzo.

While it does have several unfortunate exploitation hallmarks — easy nudity and a rape scene — ultimately director Jack Hill (SPIDER-BABY, FOXY BROWN) does these girls right by portraying them as hardened, take-no-shit folks, literally constantly circled by the patriarchy, willing to wage a fucking war when the time comes, and oh yeah, they rain holy hell down in the third act.

This is a film that’d be celebrated for its vibrant anger if it were made today. So many thinkpieces would be penned about how Lace talks through her teeth!

Arrow recently released a pristine Blu-Ray, which I highly recommend. However, while I love the cover art, I can’t help but point out that the rendition of Patch has her eyepatch on the wrong eye and it’s irked me ever since I noticed the discrepancy, even though it has to be intentional but I can’t imagine why. That said, Arrow thoughtfully included the original artwork as a reversible cover!

Arrow’s trailer:

Original trailer (NSFW):

AD ASTRA (2019)

(VOD) AD ASTRA is another dude with daddy issues film from James Gray (LOST CITY OF Z) that tries to be a lot of things: action-packed space-faring spectacle, colonialism, existential horror, and a meditation on journeymen, to name a few, and while it doesn’t quite succeed at any of them, it’s certainly the sort of big swing I appreciate.

However, I’m mentioning AD ASTRA to reflect on my initial viewing experience. You may have heard that all Pacific and ArcLight theaters are going to be shuttered permanently, including the previously mentioned Cinerama Dome in L.A. as well as the Chicago ArcLight location.

If a film wasn’t playing at one of the indie theaters in Chicago — such as the Davis Theater, The New 400, The Music Box, or the Siskel Film Center — I’d normally head north to Evanston’s Century 12 (which has also permanently closed, but will almost certainly re-open as a new theater) or head south to the ArcLight. In the case of AD ASTRA, I ventured to the ArcLight for a weekday double-feature of Sad Son in Space and the Chicago premiere of PARASITE.

When I walked into the ArcLight that afternoon, there wasn’t a single employee in sight. No one helming the bar, no one doling out popcorn, no one taking tickets. It was eerily silent, especially as I meandered down the halls to locate the screen, which felt like a perfect prelude to a film in which Brad Pitt spends a fair amount of time alone.

It’s worth noting that the evening screening of PARASITE was a sold-out delight. Seeing that film for the first time with an energetic crowd prone to gasping and belly-laughing was incredible. We figured we were in for something special, but we were not fully prepared for it.

There’s one more screening I’d like to mention, which could have happened in any other theater, but happened to occur at the ArcLight: I was attending a late-night screening of BLACK CHRISTMAS (2019), populated by a handful of bored teens and two older goths. I kept hearing a chain rattling, and I couldn’t quite figure out whether it was a diegetic sound or what, but it kept occurring throughout the film. Turns out, it was the leash and collar of a very large, very well-behaved dog keeping the goths company. Simply put, that’s not a sound you expect to hear in a theater!

I don’t want to oversell the Chicago ArcLight. It’s hardly the Austin Alamo Drafthouse (RIP, even though the Alamo Drafthouse certainly has issues), but it was a fine theater that was nicely kept, comfortable, and you could grab some above-average food and a local draft beer before your film, and I will miss it.

WYNONNA EARP (2016-2021)

(fubo/Netflix/SyFy/VOD) In the days around SyFy’s rebranding in 2010, they were airing LOST GIRL, an irreverent, pan-sexual Canadian show about a succubus trying to get by in a world full of crazy mythical beasts. LOST GIRL went through a number of showrunners but finally found a constant in Emily Andreas until its end. Once LOST GIRL wrapped up, I knew I’d follow her to whatever she would do next.

Andreas ended up adapting the IDW comic book WYNONNA EARP, a high-concept story about Wyonna Earp (Melanie Scrofano) being a fuckup female hier to the Wyatt Earp legacy in a town of monsters. Andreas turned what could have been a rather routine TV comic book adaptation into the most gleefully slapstick action/comedy queer show ever.

Andreas has been unapologetic about how this is her BUFFY: THE VAMPIRE SLAYER (although there’s a specific turn in the show that I believe marks a pivot to ANGEL) but more importantly, this is a show about family and acceptance. It’s also really fucking funny while also being delightfully filthy. Part of that’s because they severely lean on Melanie Scrofano’s gift for physical and verbal comedy, to the point where the last season of the show has a higher quip count than most network sitcoms.

While the show is unabashedly female-forward, one facet I love about it is that the core men are just as interesting, complicated, and often empathetic, epitomized by the show’s 150+ year-old (but still very handsome) Doc Holiday (Tim Rozon).

If you take a passing glance at Andreas’ Twitter account, or check out any interview with any member of the cast or crew, this was clearly a fun labor of love. Everyone clearly enjoyed showing up to work every day, and you can see the show improve over time because of those bonds.

Sadly, SyFy recently canceled the show, and aired what became the series finale on April 9th. I will miss it, but I can’t wait to see what Emily Andreas does next.

LOST GIRL S1 Trailer:

WYNONNA EARP S1 Trailer: