Monday, April 8, 2013

Hit 'n Strum: A Little Piece of Canadian Indie Magic

In the Q & A after the screening I attended Saturday night, the filmmaker, Kirk Caouette revealed that Hit 'n Strum was a "two credit card movie."  In industry terms this is lower than a shoestring budget and implies that the filmmaker financed the movie himself.  For Caouette, the Vancouver stunt man, who wrote, directed, produced and starred in the picture this was clearly a labour of love and that passion has translated into a rewarding movie experience.  Hit 'n Strum is simple, moving and true.

The story of a high-powered executive (Michelle Harrison) who hits a homeless man (Caouette) with her car and is driven by guilt to seek him out and make amends, could have easily been maudlin and manipulative but Caouette choses a more subtle course.  When Stephanie, the executive, learns that Mike, her victim, is a "busker" in downtown Vancouver, and that he actually plays street music right outside her office every day, she initiates a partnership whereby she becomes his manager and tries to sell his album to a record producer in Toronto.  Their unlikely friendship builds slowly and tenuously.

In it we see a woman who is lonelier than appearances would suggest and a man who is a loner with
a small but supportive community at his disposal.  As ponderous as this may sound, the central relationship is compelling and authentic thanks to the leads and their natural chemistry.  Harrison is attractive and charismatic and Caouette is outstanding in the central role.

Watching the film I admired the measured distance that is kept from the characters without spoon-feeding emotions to the audience or telling us what to think.  In one particularly poignant scene, Mike is reunited with his father but they are unable to reconcile over a past trauma that is conspicuously left un-described.  Likewise, the potential romance that is set up between Mike and Stephanie is handled in a tactful and believable way.

At times the story feels a little rushed; although this could be a function of budget and pressure from producers or distributors.  I would love to see a cut of the film where things are opened up further and key moments between characters were given an extra beat to breathe, but the overall effect of the film is memorable and there are many great moments handled just right.

Films that are this intimate and are produced in this budget range often feel like a confessional for the filmmaker.  When I left the theatre afterwards I felt that I had been let in on something personal and unique.  Every frame of Hit 'n Strum is full of life; and all the more amazing knowing that much of the atmosphere and background traffic in the film wasn't staged.  For anyone who has burnt out on Hollywood and would like to own a little piece of Canadian Indie magic, this is a film worth checking out.

Hit 'N Strum is playing at the Cineplex Yonge/Dundas theatre from now until Thursday April 18.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

The Hunger Games

When I read Suzanne Collins' runaway best-seller I was sucked in by the relentless force of the narrative, but when all was said and done I was undecided on whether I could actually advocate it as either literature or pop entertainment.  That was several years ago before I knew it would be turned into a movie.  Now that I've seen the movie I have come to the conclusion that I like it about as much as I like burning the roof of my mouth on steaming hot mozzarella cheese.

There was a reason I didn't choose to read the final books in the trilogy, but it wasn't apparent until after seeing the movie when I realized that there is a flaw in the central premise itself.  Collins and the filmmakers ask us to look on with guilty excitement while the continent formerly known as North America (now a fascist state named after PanAm's distant cousin Panem) forces 24 youths to kill each other on National television.  What follows is a cautionary tale about the perils of dictatorship and the possible fate of our future society.  The Hunger Games are a thinly veiled allegory for willful consumption.  Many of the "tributes" competing in the death match willfully slaughter one another to survive while we are treated to glimpses of the hungry masses eating it all up as if it were an episode of The Amazing Race.

The flaw is in the way the movie is engineered to generate grim excitement around the carnage.  In spite of its blatant moral agenda, the message is confused.  For every minute of screen time that's devoted to lamenting the cruelty of the audience that applauds the competition, there are 20 equal minutes of slick soulless shaky-cam suspense dedicated to immersing us in the games.  The movie encourages us to pick favorites in the battle (and there's no real contest there), but it never really demands that we think about what the spectacle of death actually means.  The ideal movie adaptation would seize on the irony of this contradiction to tell a story that is morbidly fun, kind of like A Clockwork Orange with minors.  This film plays it straight without so much as a wink and consequently fails as both allegory and entertainment.

The plight of Panem's citizens deliberately evokes the atmosphere of a concentration camp and the buildup to the games is constructed with such solemnity and rigor that I thought I had accidentally wandered into a screening at the Simon Weisenthal Center.  Any and all flashes of character development that may have existed in the book have been traded for shallow thrills.  The movie is suspenseful, but it falls apart any time the characters attempt to express any recognizable human emotion.  All of this only underscores how inadequately the premise is executed by director Gary Ross and company.   Ross has returned to the director's chair nine years after having directed Seabiscuit and 14 years after directing Pleasantville.  Both are thoughtful films, but here he asks us to check our brains at the door.  He applies all his efforts to making the proceedings more 'real' by virtue of his hand-held camera, but the effect is distancing and drains the movie of all its guilty fun.  The movie is manufactured as crassly as the games are manufactured by the Panem media and the result is so indulgent that I was tempted to rise out of my seat in protest and plead for a revival of The Running Man...or Gladiator...or The Most Dangerous Game...or especially Battle Royale.  The list goes on.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

War Horse

Steven Spielberg's War Horse, bears the distinction of being the only film this year to bring me to the brink of mean, ugly, sissy tears.  In the first 30 minutes I began to dread the climax and how it might shatter my masculine front amidst my fellow theater-goers.  With mounting anxiety I found my eyes (particularly my left) filling with a clear salty discharge that could only be one thing.  For much of the movie I succeeded in masking my tears with an infrequent dab of my finger but by the end I had come undone like a patient who had undergone an appendectomy without the use of anesthetic.  The frequency with which I was wiping my eyes had betrayed me to everyone including my wife, but thankfully I wasn't alone.

The story based on the acclaimed novel and pulitzer prize winning play concerns a teenaged boy Albert, who is separated from his horse with the arrival of World War 1 and ultimately enlists in the hopes of both serving his country and reuniting with his equine best friend.  Although this makes it sound impossibly maudlin, this is vintage Spielberg filled with un-jaded optimism, sincerity and imagination.  The fact that it works is a testament to his supreme artistry.  The movie itself is an affirmation of the classic Eisensteinian theory of montage, which states that two disparate pieces of film can give birth to a powerful idea when they are put together in appropriate sequence.  Nobody can so blatantly play to the heart-strings and get away with it like Spielberg for the simple reason that the details ring true.  War Horse doesn't illustrate the horrors of war the way Saving Private Ryan does, nor does it attempt to reduce war to adventure film heroics like the Indiana Jones films.

War Horse approaches the surreal and fantastical aspects of war from the point of view of an inhuman being; a point of view which is alternately humbling, disorienting and disquieting as the horse changes sides (its gifts appropriated by both the Allied and Axis powers).  The fact that individuals on all sides have the empathy to recognize the value of the horse's life and to care for it it is one of the film's many inspirations.  It is indeed bold to tell a story so hopeful and unabashedly sentimental in an age of such pervasive irony and intellectual posturing, but Spielberg pulls it off because he believes in what he's saying and he is remarkably clear-minded in the telling.

The movie unites two of the central themes in Spielberg: the wonder of communication between humans and non-humans and the clash between blind hope and worldly obstacles.  In doing so, Spielberg dares us to accept the quaint idea that each and every living being (including the horse) understands the intrinsic value of a life.  Spielberg is a believer in hope as he has demonstrated countless times.  In War Horse hope is pure.  It is instantly felt when Albert first succeeds in passing a plough harness from around his own neck to that of his horse.  Hope is embodied by the horse himself as he is rescued and cared for by his various benefactors, wisely navigating their various loyalties.  Hope is embodied by the scene in which the wounded horse lies docile as he is rescued from a tangle of barbed wire by an English and German soldier working together.

Technically, the movie is without peer this year.  The images are photographed with astonishing beauty and the use of sound is subtle and immersive.   In evoking the classic films of John Ford and Victor Fleming, War Horse transports the willing and uncynical to a place no brighter than our own where we follow characters who are perhaps more idealistic than we commonly find in our daily lives.  Although the picture is sometimes externally implausible, it achieves a measure of truth through the honest interplay of the characters and the actors who portray them.  Spielberg is a master of the epic because of his ability to contrast such a sweeping backdrop against a keenly observed succession of intimate gestures.  The movie is unashamedly sentimental but I've never believed that sentiment should be a bad thing so long as it is true.  War Horse is one of the best pictures of the year.

Friday, December 16, 2011


Martin Scorsese's Hugo, based on the book by Brian Selznick and adapted for the screen by John Logan, has been hailed as one of the best films of the year by a multitude of critics and cinephiles.  It was selected as the number one picture by the National Board of Review, it has been nominated for Golden Globes and it will no doubt be nominated for the Oscar.  I like the film a lot.  It's a feast for the senses.  It's a master-class in film craft.  It has moments that are arguably more moving than anything else I have seen this year.  When we left the theater my wife exclaimed: that movie was made for you! And yet, although I don't want to be persnickety, I couldn't quite let go of these nagging questions.  Oftentimes critics tear into a film for no other reason than to prove that they can.  The tiresome assumption that a critic must always be critical irks me to no end and often sends me stomping my feet like Paul Reubens in Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, shouting: "But but but!  Why does everybody have a big but?"  But still I have a but.  I have a few buts, because I can't help but feel there's something mildly dispiriting about a filmmaker like Martin Scorsese making a children's film like this.

Peter Bogdanovich has noted that b-movies have become the new a-pictures and through this lens one simply can't compare a movie like Hugo to great Scorsese classics like Taxi Driver, Raging Bull or Goodfellas.  The press kits all insist that this is Scorsese's most 'personal' film yet, but I find that about as easy to swallow as I did when they said it a few years ago about Gangs of New York.  The story is the utterly charming saga of an orphan boy living in a train station, who inadvertently discovers a shopkeeper's secret, and, together with the shopkeeper's niece sets out to redeem one of the great forgotten silent-era filmmakers: George Méliès.  We know Scorsese himself 'survived' his childhood by escaping into the movies and discovering a lifelong passion for film history and preservation.  But, did the same filmmaker who used to record neighborhood conversations on his tape deck and play them back for co-writer Mardik Martin (to meticulously capture the real voice of his characters as research for Mean Streets) really overlook the fact that everyone in his 1930s Parisian fantasia speaks English in an English accent? Like I said: persnickety, but it's there just dangling in front of us.

On the other hand, the movie isn't really about reality, it's about the dream world of the movies.  Seen through this lens, the production recalls the Dickension world of David Lean's Oliver Twist as much as it evokes the work of its ultimate subject George Méliès.   As I discussed in my profile on De Palma, there are filmmakers who work hard to remain invisible in the telling of their story and there are filmmakers who constantly want to remind you that you're watching a movie.  Scorsese has always been the latter type, but I've also felt that his attention to detail in recreating the reality of his stories was what gave his best films their electricity.  More than any other filmmaker in history (excepting Bergman and maybe Fellini), the pull between documentary realism and cinematic wizardry is what gives a Scorsese picture its resonance. Here he discards that realism and the result is a pseudo-chilren's film.

It has the look and feel of a family film and it embraces the gentler emotions that allowed a young Steven Spielberg to win over a major audience, but its deliberate pacing and slow-growing mystery may prove too demanding for attention-challenged younger viewers.  Although it evokes the wonder of youth, Hugo is really a lovingly-crafted ode to the founders of cinema. The movie is often wondrous and it is easy to become transfixed by the remarkable craft on display.  The 3D storytelling is arguably the best I've seen and those less persnickety than me will argue that the form fits the content; because the film's real subject is a filmmaker/illusionist who was a pioneer of early special-effects, the use of modern special-effects and technology to tell the story seems uniquely justified.  I still find 3D distracting.  No matter how good Scorsese is at immersing us in his story, the 3D yanks me out.  But, perhaps it's unfair to demand perfection from a man who has delivered so many spectacularly brilliant movies.  Perhaps, his true intention in working on such a large canvas is to preserve both the memory of auteurs like Melies and the movie theater experience itself  -- which is currently being threatened by the sophistication and relative low-cost of modern home theater technology.  Hugo is a big-screen movie and the paradox is that even though I'm burdened by these modest apprehensions, I can't wait to see it again.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Descendants

The Descendants is a charming little movie that touches on some pretty lofty themes and shrugs them off with breezy savoir faire.  It's tactful, but a movie about a man who learns his wife had an affair before she slipped into a coma arguably shouldn't be so tactful.  The particulars of performance, characterization and plot all converge quite nicely, but the story builds to several climactic moments of confrontation and reconciliation that aren't fully satisfying.  There is something inspired about the Hawaiian locale which often engulfs the characters and stresses their relative smallness in the universe.  Tragedy often makes one feel small, and The Descendants taps into this aesthetically.  Unfortunately, the movie never fully breaks the surface.  It doesn't break free from its elegant understatement to deliver the messy emotional payoff it seeks to build to.

The writer/director Alexander Payne has pulled off a neat trick.  His leisurely tempo and light touch have given us a take on adultery and death that feels almost cozy.  The heart of the story is a genuinely touching tale of a man (played by George Clooney) struggling to gain the acceptance of his two confused daughters.  Clooney's performance is characteristically sober and likable, but the real standout from an acting perspective is Shailene Woodley, who plays his eldest daughter as a girl whose seemingly self-destructive behavior proves to be a front for a very grounded intellect.  Ultimately, The Descendants is solid entertainment; the kind of movie that would be fun to discover while flipping the channels on a Sunday afternoon.  Whether it is truly worthy of the kudos it's receiving would seem to be a function of the current state of movies rather than any legitimate claims it has to greatness.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Mister De Palma

Is Brian De Palma the genuine article?  As a huge devotee of Hitchcock's and a glutton for the thriller genre in general: I have asked myself this question on more than one occasion.  I love movies and if you love movies as much as I do, you will understand when I say that the question of De Palma's legitimacy as a 'major filmmaker' has (at times) consumed me as profoundly as Einstein must have been consumed by his theory of relativity.  Trying to reconcile warring personal views on a controversial figure like Brian De Palma can be a remarkably frustrating exercise marked by late-night screenings and reassessments, the deepest kind of soul searching and occasional negotiation with one's own values.  Having grown up watching and studying the films of Hitchcock for example: I had always admired his restraint in the treatment of violence and sexuality.  In my view Hitchcock's restraint was representative of the class and good judgment that set him apart from the modern breed of filmmakers who throw everything up on the screen (among whom De Palma is one of cinema's most "arch" perpetrators).  On the other hand, a late Hitchcock retrospective reveals good old Hitch pushing boundaries of decorum like never before with the graphic sexual violence of Frenzy and the baroque excess of Family Plot, which reads almost like a queasy self-reflexive spoof of his earlier work.  Given the liberty, it seems that even the master was not beyond indulgences of a more reckless nature.  I use this of course to rationalize some of De Palma's more infamous sequences in which a chainsaw, a straight razor and yes, even a power drill are used in ways that Black & Decker likely never imagined.  

Amidst the changing tides of taste, and a movie audience that seems to demand more extreme thrills with each passing year, was it inevitable that De Palma would become the heir apparent to Hitchcock's legacy?  If Hitchcock had lived another twenty years, would we have found him competing with or even borrowing from De Palma to deliver against audience expectations?  This much is clear: just as Hitchcock defined the thriller genre by refining its themes and techniques, De Palma has done more to bring prominence to the genre in the ensuing years than any other mainstream director.  In his interview with Marcia Pally in Film Comment circa 1984, he was unapologetic about his methods.  "The content of my films is a secondary issue...I don't start with an idea about content.  I start with a VISUAL IMAGE."  Eight years later, his viewpoint hadn't changed, but there was a sense that De Palma had grown more indignant of his critics.  "I could take a script out and photograph it and I can be called a director," he rhapsodized to Peter Keough of Sight and Sound, "the story's all there, they walk in the door, they sit down, then they get in the car and there's a car chase.  But to me, that's not directing, it's being asleep at the switch."  

Add to this attitude the fact that the thriller genre seems to invite the hyper-stylized visual flourishes of a De Palma like no other genre and we begin to grasp a complete picture of the man.  There is scarcely a thriller that doesn't represent a 'heightened reality' by amplifying one of the following: the intrusion of violence into every day life, the effort to conceal hidden truths, the duplicity of heroes and villains and other such familiar tropes and yet the appeal of these themes when handled smartly is virtually inexhaustible.    Thrillers remain one of cinema's most popular international currencies and it is surely no coincidence that Hitchcock and his thrillers made him the most popular filmmaker of his generation.  So, what does this tell us about the less popular De Palma being the genuine article?  My hope is that we can start by agreeing on these points: 

(1) Restraint in and of itself has no greater intrinsic artistic value than excess, provided it has a purpose -- although some would argue for a narrower view of restraint as the only technique that heralds ambiguity and truth in art.  

(2) If it is artistically valid and even preferable for form to reflect content in a film, the thriller genre would seem to validate the giddy operatic excess of a filmmaker like De Palma.  

The question that remains has dogged him for most of his career.  Does Brian De Palma have an authentic point-of-view or is he little more than a derivative knock-off artist?  I believe that De Palma is trying to do more than simply re-think and pay homage to existing cinematic material.  I also agree with his claim that there is a cinematic language (developed by Hitchcock) which makes sense for storytellers; particularly in the thriller genre.  Seen through this lens, it isn't so much a question of what the director is doing but how he/she is doing it.  Is he/she using the devices of cinema appropriately and authentically? In the case of Brian De Palma, I believe the answer is yes.  

Admittedly, this is a more academic discussion than I typically choose to entertain on my blog.  I can't help feeling ambivalent about admitting that I take movies as seriously as I do.  I know that it's much  hipper to feign irony and cool detachment, but I'm willing to confess that I believe De Palma embodies what the French would call an artiste.  There, I finally said it.  More than almost any other modern mainstream filmmaker, De Palma has been criticized for his methods and he has balked at his detractors by continuing to practice in much the same fashion.  Rather than silence his critics, his success has only incited a deeper level of scrutiny. 

Nevertheless, his maverick aesthetic, his painstaking re-working of classical cinematic themes and his propensity to go over the top posits a world in which anything can happen.  Even when you recognize the language being used, De Palma is capable of shaking you up because he's willing to break all the rules.  With movies like: Sisters, Carrie, Obsession, Dressed To Kill, Blow Out, Scarface, Body Double, The Untouchables, Casualties of War and Carlito's Way, De Palma digests the tropes of classic film storytelling and re-engineers them to make an overt and deliberate comment on the way we watch movies.  Why else would the man repeatedly employ devices like split-diopter cinematography and split screen editing, if not to focus our attention on the way we watch his films?  His use of fluid crane shots, slow motion and steadicam, his stubborn insistence on a dizzying camera spiraling around two figures (often dancing), and his tightly edited montages (usually triggered by an outbreak of violence) are just further examples of a style that is both immersive and distancing.  

I believe De Palma's body of work is more than mere homage.  It is also an attempt to test how far audiences are willing to be sucked into a film while still aware that they are watching something manufactured.  De Palma himself has been vocal about this creative strategy since the beginning of his career, as evidenced by comments he provided in a 1973 interview in Filmmakers Newsletter, where he told Richard Rubenstein: "I am constantly standing outside and making people aware that they are watching a film....There is a kind of Brechtian alienation idea here: you are aware of what you are watching at the same time that you are emotionally involved in it."  These contradictory intentions are what lends a De Palma film such palpable tension.  The world of his films is both visceral and self-reflexive.  His post-modern sensibility lies at the height of his fascination and it accounts for the misguided rancor he's incurred from the critics for "borrowing" so liberally from the old masters.  But before you accuse me of going off the rails, let me just say that I recognize there are holes in the argument.  Although De Palma's films embody a virtuosic command of cinematic craft, his stories often shun conventional logic and at times eschew narrative coherence altogether.  It is difficult to determine if this is laziness on his part, or merely part of his experiment to test what audiences are willing to accept.  

If his sometimes laughable plots are in fact conceived as cinematic jokes by the self-proclaimed "gallows humorist," I find it is easier to subscribe to the theory of the man as a surrealist genius.  It is a fact that he uses the 'film-within-a-film' motif throughout his body of work.  In Hi Mom it appears as the faux-documentary sequence.  In Sisters it is both a fictional game show and a shocking newsreel detailing the tragic life of two siamese twins.  In Blow Out it is the slasher film spoof that opens the movie and the flip-book of images that Travolta matches to his sound recording.  In Body Double it is the staged porn footage -- a satiric retort conceived to dispute the theory that De Palma himself was a purveyor of smut.  The most current example is Redacted an entire film in which the manner with which it is made calls into question conventional notions of reality.  Sometimes the result is so over-the-top that it's hard to know whether De Palma is in on the joke, but an examination of his anarchic early films demonstrates an outrageous counter-culture sensibility that bears resemblance to his modern period not by way of genre but of risk taking.  

De Palma's use of meta-fiction in his films is so consistent that it can be seen as a key to his unique working method.   His "meta" approach to telling stories affords him incredible latitude with respect to credibility, allowing him to tow the line between dream and reality -- a distinction he seems to relish playing with, given the number of dream sequences in his films (Carrie, Obsession, Dressed To Kill, Femme Fatale, etc).  His use of the film-within-a-film and the dream sequence forces us to accept the events 'outside the dream' as truth, even if that truth is absurdly lurid or melodramatic.  We are compelled, even as we laugh at the dream logic of his plot or his overcooked visuals. His protagonists complete the effect by embodying the themes that fascinate him.  In most cases De Palma's leads are either voyeurs who are forcibly transformed into participants (Irving in Carrie, Travolta in Blow Out, Wasson in Body Double, Allen in Dressed To Kill, Fox in Casualties of War, Banderas in Femme Fatale) or individuals at odds with their own public image (Pacino in both Scarface and Carlito's Way, Cruise in Mission Impossible, etc).  Always the protagonist is forced to enter a world that he/she was once outside of as a spectator, only to find their worst fears realized.  

Many of the early objections to De Palma were propagated by moralists who failed to correctly identify his position on his own films.  The prevalence of freudian and feminist film theory painted a picture of De Palma the sadist and misogynist which is now ludicrous after witnessing his four decades in pictures, but still clings to him like freshly dried linens.  Although the stigma still haunts him today, De Palma has become (like Hitchcock before him) a model of taste compared to current trend-setters such as Eli Roth (Hostel) or Rob Zombie (The Devil's Rejects).  After all, even his most seemingly gruesome scenes cut away from the action at the crucial moment, leaving the results to our collective imagination.  I don't know if any of this will have any impact on you or the way you view the man, but hopefully it will at least get you thinking.   There are many ways to look at a film and De Palma has made a career of exploiting these distinctions.  Is he the genuine article?  I say yes.  Now, if you'll excuse me I need to go find a padded room to thrash around in after the public embarrassment of taking his side in the debate.  

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Batman: Arkham City - Initial Impressions

The following is a guest blog written by Bill Gienapp, a Hollywood screenwriter and story editor currently employed by SEP in Beverly Hills.  He is a Harvard and USC alumnus and one of the smartest cats I know:

In case you haven’t noticed, video game storytelling has evolved over the past decade to a point in which it rivals - if not outright trumps - much of today’s cinema. Those of us who grew up playing the likes of Super Mario Bros. and Duck Hunt probably never envisioned the day when a game like Bioshock would double as a philosophical rebuttal to the works of Ayn Rand or LA Noire would spin a hard-boiled yarn with a narrative complexity worthy of Raymond Chandler. I’ll leave the tiresome argument of whether a video game can ever truly be “art” for others to debate… all I know is that a prospective screenwriter can learn a heck of a lot more about constructing a first-class adventure by studying the nuances of character, plot and pacing in the Uncharted series than 90% of the supposed crowd-pleasing blockbusters Hollywood trots out every summer.

One of the very best games this generation to date has been Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham Asylum, which was rightfully acclaimed for translating the world of its titular hero to a degree never before seen in the medium. However, as great an experience as Arkham Asylum was, I couldn’t help but feel a certain nagging disappointment that, for a game literally set in Gotham’s fabled prison for the criminally insane, it took only minimal advantage of Batman’s unparalleled (and I do mean unparalleled) stable of villains. While there was little doubt of a sequel, presumably it would be a different breed of adventure, leaving one to conclude that the developers squandered their one and only chance to produce a game with a built-in excuse to congregate the entire rogue’s gallery.

Well, I’m happy to report that Rocksteady proved me decidedly wrong on that last count with its just-released follow-up Batman: Arkham City, which, after just a few hours of gameplay, appears to offer everything one could possibly want in a game dedicated to the exploits of the Caped Crusader. From a conceptual standpoint, the premise, in which a sizable chunk of Gotham is sectioned off into an Escape From New York-style prison complex dubbed “Arkham City,” is nothing short of brilliant. It offers a contained environment - like a powder keg into which Batman is dropped like a lit match - but still affords its robust lineup of villains the sort of autonomy that wouldn’t have been feasible in the Asylum. The basic setup thrusts you into the middle of an ongoing power struggle between the Joker, Two-Face and the Penguin, while Arkham’s newly appointed warden, Hugo Strange (who appears to have - (uh-oh) - ascertained Batman’s secret identity), plots sinisterly behind-the-scenes and speaks ominously of something known simply as “Protocol 10.” The initial burst of giddiness only grows more pronounced as Batman ping-pongs tirelessly from one crisis to the next, hunted all the while by Strange’s army of private mercenaries. With all due respect to Christopher Nolan, this is superhero storytelling at its finest.

To be honest, Arkham City doesn’t differ all that noticeably from its predecessor in terms of the core gameplay, employing the same fundamental balance of hand-to-hand combat, stealth and basic detective work. The one key difference is that Arkham Asylum offered the mere illusion of open-world gameplay when, for the most part, it was a rigorously linear experience. No one much complained, given how superbly paced and executed its campaign was, but Arkham City truly makes you feel as if you’ve been immersed in an interconnected, fully realized comic book world. Early on, you overhear Harley Quinn dispatching a handful of thugs to track down Mr. Freeze, telling them “You find the Snowman and remind him what happens when you double-cross Mr. J!” Later, you’re shaken by a distant explosion, with radio chatter indicating that the Penguin has blown up the bridge to the industrial sector, in an effort to cut off the Joker from the rest of the prison. These moments are scripted, of course, yet they reinforce the idea that Arkham City is a living, breathing environment, in which literally dozens of events are occurring at any given time. Exploration, meanwhile, is rewarded with a bounty of side quests that range from forming a tenuous alliance with Bane to destroy barrels of Titan formula, to investigating a series of executions perpetrated by Deadshot, to racing against the clock to prevent Victor Zsasz from claiming another victim. Had there been time limits imposed on these missions - or on the central storyline - the game might have swiftly devolved into a muddled frenzy, but thankfully the developers allow you to proceed at your own pace (a good thing, as I realized I’d nearly burned an hour just chasing down Riddler trophies).

A special point also must be made to quickly commend Rocksteady’s bold decision to weave Catwoman into the proceedings, not only as a narrative wild card, but as an actual playable character. Her sequences serve more as the figurative cherry on top, but are such an entertaining change of pace (“I don’t suppose Red’s still ticked off at me,” she asks, before making the dubious decision to try and recruit Poison Ivy to her cause) I would wholeheartedly support a future game dedicated entirely to her exploits.

If there’s any criticism to be had of Arkham City in the early going, it’s the fact that the game is so jam-packed with content, it can feel a little overwhelming at first. The opening sequence is intensely cinematic but light on exposition, and players who haven’t cut their teeth on Arkham Asylum are apt to find their heads spinning. Still, to quote Catwoman, upon narrowly escaping execution at the hands of Two-Face and a sniper’s bullet courtesy of the Joker - “This place is dangerous. I like it.”