The Autopsy of Jane Doe: A Smart, Creepy and Intelligent Horror Film (Blu-Ray Review))

 

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For me, horror in the last couple of years has been all about the smaller, obscure films.

That isn’t meant to come off as snobbish or exclusive-minded. Truthfully, I look forward to every horror movie as a chance to experience something original, poignant, or just plain terrifying. I’m a hopeless optimist when it comes to new and emerging horror. I have also adopted a broader definition of the genre to allow excellent films like Don’t Breathe and The Green Room, often considered merely thrillers, to be included. Unfortunately, far too many of the horror films being churned out right now – even those coming out of smaller studios at lower budgets – haven’t been particularly inventive. When I reflect on the absolute best stuff I’ve seen – flicks like It Follows, Southbound and The Void – it seems as if the best of the genre is being regulated to the margins of filmmaking and production, as if the studio heads cannot wrap their minds around more abstract, inventive horror.

The Autopsy of Jane Doe is one of those smaller films that has the potential to fall through the cracks. Hopefully however, through strong word of mouth, it can rightfully become a cult classic as it is a clear and shining example of what more imaginative, intriguing horror can accomplish, even when its creators are operating on a relatively modest budget.

Directed by Norwegian filmmaker André Øvredal, whose previous credits include the interesting faux-documentary Troll Hunter, The Autopsy of Jane Doe is minimalist horror at its most effective. The entirety of the film takes place in a family-owned morgue run by Tommy Tilden (played by the always reliably superb Brian Cox) and his son Austin (Emile Hirsch). Tommy is portrayed as an unwavering professional, intently serious about the coroner work he performs. By contrast Austin, while competent, clearly has doubts about continuing the family business and this unspoken tension hangs in the air between father and son. Amidst this subdued family drama, the delivery of an unidentified woman’s body by the local sheriff – recovered from a gruesome and mysterious crime scene – requires their immediate attention and both men begin a late-night autopsy to determine the cause of death.

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As they progress, they rapidly discover various physical anomalies about Jane Doe that would seem to belie her expired state. It isn’t long before they uncover increasingly bizarre evidence that the nameless woman on their table is something more than an inert cadaver.

It’s difficult to go into more detail without spoiling the well-crafted tension of the narrative and ruin the various twists and intrigue. What I can comfortably state is that The Autopsy of Jane Doe is an effectively creepy and taut horror film that gets considerable mileage from an interesting premise. Most notably, the decision to have strange, frightening and potentially paranormal commotion occurring amidst two men whose job it is to dissect the dead is an interesting conceit. Clearly, neither of these characters – especially Tommy – are queasy or easily rattled, yet their stoic, clinical demeanors dissipate in the presence of something they cannot fully explain or account for. Eventually, these men of science and logic are forced to confront something that exists well outside their scope and understanding. The result is that Autopsy is an especially fantastic example of character-driven horror.

Another aspect that impressed me about this film was – unlike so many contemporary horror movies that feel the need to unleash a hefty torrent of exposition – The Autopsy of Jane Doe has enough respect for the intelligence of the viewer to keep things ambiguous and, subsequently, mysterious. Although the viewer has a solid idea as to what has happened at the conclusion of the film and why, there is room for the unexplained to tickle the back of the brain and give us a sense of broader, unseen machinations. And that is much creepier than a lengthy, laborious explanation of the sort so often foisted onto viewers of these types of genre films.

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Ultimately, The Autopsy of Jane Doe succeeds because it is a smart, tightly constructed and genuinely scary film buoyed by a small but talented cast and an intelligent script that assumes its audience is equally bright. In many ways, this film is the antithesis if not an outright refutation of the current pool of mainstream horror films, many of which focus on only on spectacle, shamelessly recycle predictable and well-worn tropes, and are often shameless derivative. By contrast, The Autopsy of Jane Doe is starkly original and manages to evoke fear and dread by venturing into new territory in both subtle and inventive ways.

The Blu-ray transfer, done by the always reliably excellent Shout Factory!,  is gorgeous, with sharp, poignant colors and an overall excellent picture quality. The only complaint is that the disc is incredibly barebones; the only extras are a handful of promotional trailers which is disappointing considering the quality of the film. At the very least I would have appreciated a commentary track from the director on how he pieced the film together. Here’s hoping we’ll get a more robust edition of this film down the line. Regardless, The Autopsy of Jane Doe is worth your time and money and I cannot recommend it enough, especially to those horror aficionados dissatisfied with the endless glut of mediocre zombie flicks and puerile, PG-13 horror.

 

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The Top Five Star Wars Games We All Want (Even If We Didn’t Know It)

 

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I don’t think there has ever been a film franchise that lends itself more appropriately to the gaming medium than Star Wars.

From its expansive universe to its wild assortment of intriguing villains and heroic archetypes, videogames and Star Wars go together with the ease of chocolate and peanut butter. Since the original Star Wars debuted in 1977, there has been a plethora of videogames based on the franchise, yet even today, on the cusp of this medium’s technological apex, there are plenty of SW games that have yet to come to fruition; experiences still waiting to be molded and wrought by developers.

Here’s my short list of five Star Wars games we should all want.

And if you don’t like mine, come up with your own.

(Seriously though, my choices are pretty cool.)

Errant Knight: Obi Wan Kenobi  

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“It might look cool, but having two suns suuuucks.”

 

Dream Developer: CD Project Red

Genre: Action/Adventure/Open-World

After being exiled and placed on extended babysitting duty, Obi Wan Kenobi had thirty years to kill before the events in A New Hope and I rather doubt he spent all of them messing with Sand People and stroking his beard thoughtfully.

I envision Errant Knight as an open world construct set on the barren but expansive planet of Tatooine. Here, a player would assume a now middle-aged Obi Wan as he quietly avoids detection yet ultimately becomes ensnared in local conflicts, unable to turn a blind eye to injustice. Be it freeing slaves or staving off bounty hunters and Imperial spies who get too close to young Skywalker, Errant Knight would offer an opportunity to play as a rogue, exiled Jedi, balancing duty with survival and featuring numerous locales and familiar faces and buoyed by a robust combat engine replete with various non-lethal options, including mind-control and disarming (literally) antagonists.

Duality

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“I am your father. Also, sorry about the hand.”

Dream Developer: Namco-Bandai or NetherRealm Studios

Genre: Fighting

It’s difficult to fathom that there hasn’t been a dedicated lightsaber fighting game based on the visually appealing, cinematic ballet of the lightsaber duel. (And no, Masters of Teras Kasi doesn’t count)

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Yeah, this was a thing.

Duality would be a fighting game designed specifically to emulate the look and feel of the combat as seen in the films, with a wide offering of playable Jedi, Sith and even a few Expanded Universe additions like Mara Jade and Revan to round out the roster. Instead of merely being the equivalent of Soul Calibur with laser swords, Duality would have a combat engine where deeper techniques, including deflection, parrying, the utilization of stance, along with footwork and maneuverability, would form a unique experience similar to something like Ubi Soft’s For Honor, but with a faster pace and verticality built into the level design.

Han Solo: Enemy of the Empire

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“Lucas wasn’t there. I was. I shot that green bastard first and I regret nothing.”

Dream Developer: Remedy or Naughty Dog

Genre: Third Person Shooter

Before he was a hero of the rebellion, husband of Princess Leia and a kabob on the end of his angsty son’s lightsaber, Han Solo was a top-notch smuggler and man of fortune.

Han Solo: EOTE would chronicle a pre-New Hope smuggling mission gone awry. When a job he takes on inadvertently intersects with a covert Imperial assignment, Han is placed in the crosshairs of the Empire and an elite, clandestine squad set on silencing the notorious rogue forever. A fast-paced, visually gorgeous shooter, (think Uncharted meets Star Wars) Han Solo would give us a glimpse at the darker side of our hero and the many exploits for which he became a reputable and feared member of the underworld.

Rogue Squadron: Ghosts

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“It’s been a long day. This planet better have an In-and-Out.”

Dream Developer: Factor 5

Genre: Flight/Combat

A belated but welcome addition to the Rogue Squadron franchise set after the events of Return of the Jedi. Wedge Antilles and company battle the remnants of the shattered Empire and chronicle the years leading up to The Force Awakens, including the eventual recruitment of Poe Dameron into their fold.

Or just let us blow up shit with Tie Fighters and X-wings.

We’re easy.

The Crucible of Darth Vader

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“I was only playable in one level of The Force Unleashed. This displeases me.”

Dream Developer: Platinum Games

Genre: Third person action/combat/adventure

Sent by Palpatine to negotiate the dismantling of the criminal organization known as Black Sun, Darth Vader’s convoy is attacked and the Sith Lord is left stranded on a hostile planet with no backup. Surrounded by a legion of mercenaries and bounty hunters, all vying for a hefty bounty placed on his helmeted head , Vader must fight his way to the very heart of the galaxy’s most prominent criminal underworld and destroy its leadership, facing insurmountable odds and generally kicking all sorts of alien ass.

Utilizing a frenetic but deep combat engine that includes melee lightsaber use and force wielding, The Crucible of Darth Vader’s gameplay can best be described as a playable version of the last five minute of Rogue One.

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Yep, you’re basically f***-ed.

So that’s my list.

Most of this probably won’t happen but I can dream, right?

Let me know what you think of my list or better yet, post one of your own.

 

Will Nintendo Screw Up a Good Thing Again?

 

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The internet is aflame with buzz over the official announcement and launch date of the Super NES Classic Edition (Sept. 29), Nintendo’s predictable follow-up to their massively popular but scarce NES Classic, which was released last holiday season but was more difficult to find than a pristine copy of Earthbound. (Not really but you get my point)

The retro micro-console, like its predecessor, will come pre-loaded with a smattering of titles, most of which are genuine 16-bit classics guaranteed to make vintage and retro enthusiasts drool like Homer Simpson in a donut shop. The packed-in software includes:

  •  Contra III: The Alien Wars
  • Donkey Kong Country
  • EarthBound
  • Final Fantasy III
  • F-ZERO
  • Kirby Super Star
  • Kirby’s Dream Course
  • The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past
  • Mega Man® X
  • Secret of Mana
  • Star Fox
  • Star Fox 2
  • Street Fighter® II Turbo: Hyper Fighting
  • Super Castlevania IV
  • Super Ghouls ’n Ghosts®
  • Super Mario Kart
  • Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars
  • Super Mario World
  • Super Metroid
  • Super Punch-Out!! ™
  • Yoshi’s Island

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There’s really no overstating just how ridiculously amazing that lineup of software is. Truthfully, there isn’t a bad game on that list and most are legitimate masterpieces representing the very best of the era. To further compound the awesomeness, Nintendo is including Star Fox 2, which was never released in any market, foreign or domestic, during the SNES’s storied run. (Leave it to Nintendo to debut a 22-year-old exclusive)

This is of course fantastic news. Yet, as we all move outside to dance in the streets and usher in the launch of one of the best entertainment-related values of the fiscal year, storm clouds are forming, threatening to rain on our parade. Ironically, the source of this potential torrent of negativity is the very same entity that first brought us the sun: Nintendo.

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IGN reports that Nintendo released the following statement regarding the production of the SNES Classic:

“Super Nintendo Entertainment System: Super NES Classic Edition is currently planned to ship from Sept. 29 until the end of calendar year 2017. At this time, we have nothing to announce regarding any possible shipments beyond this year…”

As you might know, the NES Classic was a HUGE seller for Nintendo and its success caught the company entirely off guard, selling out consistently. I personally never saw a single unit on a retail shelf. At the same time, the micro-consoles were consistently being sold far above market value on sites like eBay. Nintendo, in response to this overwhelming success, did what any smart company would do when they have a hit product on their hands: discontinue it entirely while also giving scalpers the greenlight to start charging people the equivalent of a small nation’s GNP for a newly rarified product.

Nintendo clearly viewed the NES Classic as a one-and-done product but regardless, a considerable amount of money was left on the table when they cut the production run short and bizarrely, it looks like they intend to do the same thing with its successor.

To be fair, Nintendo has insisted they are going to ramp up production in contrast to the NES Classic but what mystifies me is their decision – at least tentatively – to publicly announce limited production on a product that clearly enjoys mass appeal. As slick and neat as the NES Classic was, the SNES Classic is infinitely better because of the software alone; precisely the type of product that could dominate the sales charts this holiday season because it possesses that truly alchemic combination of affordability, nostalgia and branding.

Yet Nintendo – simultaneously brilliant and stupid – seems ready and willing to once again snatch defeat from the jaws of an easy victory.

Nintendo has always been odd and surprisingly inept in regards to how they handle their older but still incredibly well-loved and valuable IP’s. When the Wii launched back in 2006, it carried with it the promise of the Virtual Console – an Apple Store type e-shop that would offer gamers a robust catalog of Nintendo classics running the full spectrum of their consoles in a centralized, easy-to-access hub. Unfortunately, Nintendo released those games at a trickle and the original promise of the Virtual Console never fully materialized on either the Wii or its successor, the Wii U.

Broken

 

And it’s currently conspicuously absent on the Switch.

Sincerely, the NES and SNES Classics – like the Virtual Console – is a no-brainer. There’s a frothing, rapid market for this software, even with most of these games widely available as illegal ROMS that can be easily accessed on free, legal emulation software and run on practically anything that draws amperage. Clearly, people want to play these games and they want to experience them on a console that looks like a SNES so the obvious question is this:

Why is Nintendo getting in their own way in regards to selling these products?

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A concise summation of Nintendo’s current business strategy.

What’s maddening is that this decision is entirely the opposite to what Nintendo needs to be doing on the heels of the successful debut and ongoing popularity of the Switch, which has been a resounding hit both critically and commercially. After stumbling with the Wii U, the Switch has put Nintendo back at the forefront, with a console people want and software that has the masses – both casual and hardcore alike – buzzing with interest. Even when acknowledging that the SNES Classic isn’t the primary thrust of the company, it nonetheless is the equivalent of a goodwill ambassador; a modestly priced, well-intentioned device that seems downright generous in what it delivers to the consumer.

The problem is, when those consumers can’t reliably get the product, goodwill sours and “rare” becomes a synonym for “annoying.” Even if Nintendo can somehow justify this short window of product availability, announcing that the SNES Classic is, essentially, limited-time merchandise merely ensures scalpers will clog physical and online retailers, lapping up every preorder they can scavenge in hopes of selling these little machines for triple the value. The whole thing feels like a tease and I can only speculate on just how many people are once again going to be left out in the proverbial cold when the bulk of the stock evaporates before it has a chance to hit the shelves.

Of course, this is all speculative. If Nintendo produces a larger volume of inventory this time around, the saturation of product could drive down grey market prices and ensure all of us get one for the SRP, which would be a refreshing change of pace. However, Nintendo has always played it conservatively when it comes to manufacturing and it seems more likely that by the time they wind down SNES Classic production, plenty of us will still be looking to buy one and will either have to settle for inflated, egregious prices or go without.

Nintendo has done so much right these last few months that it’s a shame to see them revert back to the type of behavior that leads to an unsatisfied consumer base. The SNES Classic looks to be a great product and an exceptional value and if Nintendo doesn’t have enough sense to get one into the hands of every consumer who wants it, that’s on them.

I hope they get it right this time.

(And I really hope I can get one.)

Happy Hunting.

A Gorgeous, Generous Slice of Nostalgia: A Review of The Unofficial NES/Famicon: A Visual Compendium

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[The following is not a paid endorsement nor is it something written for or at the behest of the company that sells this product. I recently purchased this book as an enthusiast and merely wanted to share my response to an exceptional product.]

For those of us who grew up during the heyday of Nintendo’s popularity, specifically the advent and widespread success of the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), there is an almost immediate, emotional response to the images of classic, 8-bit videogames. These pictures conjure and evoke a warm cascade of emotions, harkening back to adolescence and transporting us to another place and time, when gaming was a young and simpler medium.

Personally, when I come across such imagery, I immediately think of blowing air into grey cartridges to remove dust, bombastic, often bizarre cover art, and pixelated visuals that were – almost miraculously – able to convey a bevy of actions, stories and characters using only a simple, plain and artful aesthetic.

In the decades since the NES debuted, the graphical fidelity of videogames has progressed rapidly, giving us playable experiences that rival the best CG-animation while gradually moving us towards genuine photorealism. And while such technology is exciting, the 8-bit aesthetic, instead of evaporating into irrelevancy, has emerged as something of a counterculture; a direct resistance to the cinematic and visually complex composition of modern software. In that sense, there is something very fitting about Bitmap Book’s wonderful NES/Famicon: A Visual Compendium, an endeavor that requires the reader to flip through its pages at a slow, deliberate pace and appreciate images that were initially designed to dart across the eyes at dozens of frames per second.

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Bitmap Books is a small, independent UK publisher that is largely funded by Kickstarter but don’t let that fact dissuade you from checking out their website and ordering a book (or two) as their products are of the highest quality and caliber, evidenced by the NES Compendium (the first of many books I plan to buy from them) which is a slick, softback volume encased in a hardback sleeve and embossed with a holographic replication of the cover art. At over 500 pages, this is a hefty volume but what surprised me the most about the book was its paper quality and binding, especially given the relatively modest price tag of £24.99 GBP. (31.70 US)

The book is a sumptuous visual treat, containing a robust smattering of classic NES games ranging from Nintendo-made exclusives to third party offerings, each with a brief but interesting bit of unobtrusively placed expository text detailing each game. With nearly 200 titles mentioned, this compendium doesn’t include every NES game within the console’s massive catalog but does highlight the majority of essential software with a few notable exceptions. Each game enjoys an attractive, two-page spread that displays – with a motionless clarity – the pixelated art and effectively makes each of these selected images worthy of being individually framed. A handful of games enjoy a larger, four-page fold-out display and while the titles that receive this extra-special treatment seem arbitrarily chosen, they are a welcome addition nevertheless.

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Impressively, despite being touted as a visual resource, this book also contains a bevy of interesting, well-written information, including a preface that gives a detailed account on the history of the NES/Famicon and several key interviews with designers, programmers, and artists in regards to their experiences working on games for the console. It also includes a segment where numerous, brief testimonials from every day people share their passion for the NES and its software. Additional segments include fan artwork, a sampling of various box art, and an addendum that contains images from unreleased games, many of which I didn’t know existed. (The Superman game looked exceptionally cool)

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Ultimately, it reads like a slick combination of a coffee table book and an encyclopedia and I’d say that no genre enthusiast – especially those who love this particular era of gaming – should be without it. The Unofficial NES/Famicon: A Visual Compendium is a well-crafted, hearty bit of nostalgic fun and a comforting reminder that while you can’t go home again, you can certainly visit.

My kudos to Bitmap Books and all the people involved in the construction of this excellent and enjoyable resource. You can order this and other similar books at their website: https://www.bitmapbooks.co.uk/

  • Bill R. Boggess