Games

I'd Rather Be Stealing Gold

The men of B-Company are those rare kinds of anti-heroes that are extremely likable, completely selfish, and show zero desire to ever change.

In so many games, we’re always tasked with saving the world, sometimes the universe, or at the very least, the day. It can get tiring after a while, so I find it refreshing when a game gives me a different kind of objective, something selfish and un-heroic. The first Battlefield: Bad Company did just that. It put me in a squad of likable, selfish soldiers who would rather go chasing gold than follow orders. It was a fun adventure, but in creating these anti-heroes the game walked a very fine line.

Anti-heroes are nothing new in games, but creating a likable anti-hero is a challenge in any medium. Kratos from the God of War games has always been held up as the epitome of the anti-hero: violent, seemingly without morals, and uninterested in any conversation that doesn’t further his quest for revenge. Yet, despite these traits (or because of them?), he remains a very popular character. However, one of the more common criticisms against God of War 3 is that Kratos has gone over the edge. The level of violence that he inflicts on others is excessive to the point where he seems more like a villain than an anti-hero, and so picking a side in this battle between Kratos and Zeus is really just picking the lesser of two evils.

Then you have a character like Nathan Drake. For the first several hours of Uncharted 2, he’s acting in his own self-interest. He’s looking for the Lost Fleet of Marco Polo because of the possible fortune it represents and because he wants to steal the discovery away from a former friend. Then when the war criminal Lazaravic goes rampaging through a Nepalese city, Drake doesn’t go around helping people, he continues looking for treasure. However, despite this selfish streak he’s not really an anti-hero, he’s more of a lazy hero who doesn’t act until the last possible moment. He hops on a train to rescue Chloe after she’s taken onboard and it drives away, and he does eventually confront Lazaravic at the very end. Drake always steps up to save the day, he just needs more of a push than most video game heroes.

Then you have the men of Bad Company -- Preston, Haggard, Sweetwater, and Sarge -- who are motivated purely by gold. While the U.S. deals with Russia, they chase a group of mercenaries who are paid in gold bars with the intention of stealing that payment. Over the course of the game, they invade a neutral country, go AWOL, befriend a dictator, and finally abandon said dictator on a small island. There’s nothing remotely noble or heroic about any of their actions, and yet, they’re some of the more likable characters in gaming, a little clumsy, a little dimwitted, easily distracted, but reliable in a fight. They’re also sympathetic, since we see multiple instances where the military jerks them around: They’re sent to secure a harbor far behind enemy lines and Sweetwater asks, “Haven’t they got guys specially trained for that?” Sarge answers, “Yeah, but they’re too expensive to waste.” After the “invasion,” the military encourages them to find the dictator, then cuts them loose once they report in. This kind of manipulation helps us relate to their frustration and willingness to chase the gold.

Their actions are selfish but not violent like Kratos. B-Company is friendly like Drake but never act for the greater good. These traits create a rare kind of anti-hero that is both extremely likable and completely un-heroic and who shows zero desire to ever change.

But they do change. In the sequel, B-Company is back in the military, back following orders, and back on military approved missions. They’re not AWOL, and they’re not acting on their own. Haggard, who was so recklessly nonchalant beforehand that he invaded a neutral country on a whim, now seems to be constantly on edge and angry. His new personality is representative of the new tone of the campaign. As is typical of sequels, the story tries to be “bigger and badder” than the original by upping the stakes at every turn: No longer is B-Company just out to get rich, they’re out to save the day. In following this tradition, the game becomes more serious and loses the lighthearted appeal of the original. These once jovial anti-heroes becomes normal heroes with all the stress that role entails.

Bad Company 2 constantly pokes fun at Modern Warfare 2, both in game and in its marketing. It’s obvious that the developer and publisher want the world to see these two games as rivals, but in their desire to compete with Infinity Ward’s behemoth, I feel like the most unique aspect of the game, the comedy, was left behind. One look at the packaging confirms this. Gone is the grenade with the smiley face pin. In its place is a shadowy figure surrounded by heavy vehicles. Never mind the hovering names that suggest this is a snapshot of multiplayer play, the darkened man alone suggests a less lighthearted experience than what the first game offered, which is a shame because while I love the multiplayer and have nothing against saving the day every now and then, when I kick back with B-Company I’d rather be stealing gold.

Music

The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

There are several ways to write about the Spanish Civil War, that sorry three-year prelude to World War II which saw a struggling leftist democracy challenged and ultimately defeated by a fascist military coup.

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8

Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)


In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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