Mother Russia Bleeds: A Wonderfully Dark Beat ‘Em Up

      “Mother Russia Bleeds” might be my favorite Beat ‘Em Up of all time. This is a game full of rich lore, fun gameplay and really brutal and beautiful design. What helped was playing it with my wife and one of my closest friends. Just the experience of us working together to figure out the pattern of the boss fights as we advanced through Russia really was such an amazingly fun experience. Before I get into details about the game itself and spoilers, I definitely recommend checking it out if you are a fan of Beat ‘Em Up style games.

“Mother Russia Bleeds” is an indie game created by the France based studio Le Cartel Studio and was published by Devolver Digital. Frédéric Coispeau designed the game with Alexandre Muttoni being the artist and director. The game itself was released in 2016.

The premise of the game is that you are four Roma who are used in street fights to make money in the slums. After your friend betrays you to the government you find yourself experimented on. After escaping the lab, you seek revenge against all those who wronged you.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

The Graphics – This is a beautiful 8-bit game. The game is dark and gritty while at the same time giving color where it is appropriate. Whenever you are fighting mafia or are in club, the colors stand out. The game becomes progressively more colorful until you get to the end where red and black are the main contrasts. This is a beautifully brutal game and I love the artistic choices the artists made when designing bosses (military generals, butchers, mad scientists) as you advance through the game as you unravel the conspiracy.

Difficulty – This was a difficult game. I’m glad that I didn’t play this alone. There are a few boss battles and fight sequences where having more than one person helps you figure out and learn the patterns. The greatest example of this is the helicopter attacking through a window as you fight oncoming goons. It is stressful and that was one point where the three of us took a break. Same went for the final boss too. He had 3 phases and each phase was harder than the last. This is a game where the build up in difficulty is progressive and challenging. Suffice to say, I enjoyed it. A game should make you better at it, and that can only come through challenge.

The Gameplay – Beat ‘Em Ups are a fun style of game. In this case it is also a side scroller too, so you can’t go back to where you were before. This provides a good challenge as when you knock enemies off screen you can’t attack them again until they’ve returned to the window of the fight. I really enjoyed the gameplay. You have Nekro which lets you heal up but also powers you up for a super move as well. There are also isn’t healing everywhere and you can only get Nekro from certain enemies you’ve killed at a certain time. This keeps the tension up as you advance through the levels. There is also a great enemy variety. You fight gangsters, zombies, soldiers, mob bosses, masochists in pig masks and quite a few others. The enemies all have different attack styles as well. This is a game that you have to learn. It isn’t easy and that makes all the more amazing. The final boss is another great example of this. The incarnation of Nekro is the punk rock skeleton who has three phases. One phase is fighting copies of yourself and a closing in wall that you throw syringes at, phase two are living syringes and muscle dropping down and the final phase is the boss itself in 2 forms. It is hard and so very rewarding.

The World and Story – The game takes place just before the Russian Revolution. You are Four Roma (Sergei, Ivan, Natasha and Boris) who are betrayed by your friend Mikhail and given to the government to be experimented on. You survive but become addicted to Nekro in the process. From here you are seeking revenge against your former friend and end up helping another friend as the revolution begins. It is a dark, violent and twisted world as you are the lowest rung in society and everyone wants you dead. You end up in some fascinating environments too on your quest for revenge. You fight in a sex club where you fight people in pig masks and battle against a giant butcher at the end, you fight on a train, against military officers and police and finally against a living embodiment of the drug itself. It is in the final fight where my wife and our friend ended up getting the bad ending. If you use the drug to defeat the final boss than you die of an overdose and are remembered by the revolution. If you succeed without using the drug than a statue is made to honor you in how you helped the revolution. We got the bad ending, which I honestly thought was more realistic to the world the story takes places in and was the better story.

As you can tell, I loved this game. This is a Beat ‘Em Up better than “X-Men” or the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” games. I enjoyed both of those games but this one built on the core fun base game they had. The fact that the story has a point gives even more power to it. It is a tragedy about addiction as well as just how costly revolutions are on the people, while also recognizing the importance of fighting corruption. Our protagonists are the lowest within society and them grabbing their own agency lends power to the narrative as they seek revenge against those who wronged them. This was a really fun game and I definitely plan to check out more games from this studio.

Final Score: 10 / 10 This is the perfect Beat ‘Em Up.

 

Persepolis (2007): A Masterpiece on Revolution, Family and Identity

Persepolis Poster

“Persepolis” is one of my favorite graphic novels of all time. It captures Marjane Satrapi’s experiences of the Revolution in Iran and growing up abroad so powerfully while at the same time remaining a powerful story. The film is not as good as the graphic novel, which might have been due to time constraints, but it does captures the essence and the major arcs really well, as well as the important characters who were a part of Marjane’s life. Suffice to say, I really liked this film and will explain in more detail further down. The film itself is a French-Iranian animated film that takes inspiration and story from the Graphic Novel of the same name.

“Persepolis” was directed by Marjane Satrapi who also co-wrote the screenplay and of course the original novel. The other director was Vincent Parannaud who also co-wrote the screenplay. The producers were Xavier Rigault, Marc-Antione Robert and Kathleen Kennedy.

The story begins with an older Marjane waiting at the airport and remembering her childhood in Iran.  From here we have a flashback and see young Marjane’s childhood as the Revolution is occurring in Iran to overthrow the Shah. From here the story unfolds as her family is filled with hope and promise that soon turns to fear when the religious take over and begin instituting harsh laws. The story follows the rebellious Marjane and her story in Iran and her reasons for leaving and later returning. r

The Pros: The Premise – Marjane’s story is fascinating at it covers a country in transition (Iran during the Shah and after under the Ayatollah) and it’s from the perspective of a little girl all the way to adulthood. From this we get the experience of a new view of the west from her time in Austria and also of Iran after she returns as an adult. There is so much here that is amazing, just like the graphic novel and most of it exists in the premise, her story and autobiography.

The Soundtrack – The soundtrack is minimalist and is all the stronger for it as emotions are conveyed in perfect timing as the music matches up with the animation. Olivier Bernet is fantastic!

The Animation – The animation is all hand drawn and is some of the best animation I have ever seen. It looks like the graphic novel while still holding a unique style all it’s own. Even if the story wasn’t as great as it is, I would recommend this movie for the soundtrack and art alone.  Je Suis Bein Content, Pumpkin 3D and what they created in Perseprod Studio, who was behind the animation.

Revolution – We see prisoners freed at the fall of the Shah and the hope for a new tomorrow, and also the rise of the Ayatollah and how the revolution is lost in how a new oppressive regime arises. It’s powerfully executed through Marjane and her family’s eyes.

The Iran-Iraq War – We see the cost of war in this as Marjane returns to her old home and sees a hand of a person crushed beneath and building, the building her parents could have been in. The human cost is a constant reminder in this, from a childhood friend who lost the use of his arm and leg, to the fear of trying to change the current regime because the country is tired of war and fighting. War breaks people and nations. We also see the corruption of the Western nations who funded both sides in the conflict.

The Characters – Most of the named characters, especially Marjane’s family members have fascinating back-stories and characterizations. I’ll get into the reasons why next.

God – The best minor character who isn’t a family member is God who is portrayed as a great bearded man who talks to Marjane as Marjane is his prophet. He is a very Deistic God as he points out that the sufferings that were caused were humanity and not him. In that way he is there to comfort but never to do anything, beyond sending Marjane back from depression to face the world.

Uncle Anouche – Uncle Anouche is the communist who was arrested by the Shah when he tried to return to see his family again after hiding in the Soviet Union. He was in prison and tortured for 9 years and after being freed connects with Marjane and gives her hope of the world that could be. He’s the idealist which makes the rise of the Ayatollah and loss of an actual Republic all the sadder as he tries to justify it as “The common folk need religion, they’ll come around, this regime won’t be corrupt.” Only to find himself executed later. He represents the loss of freedom best as he was the one who was always struggling for it. Iggy Pop played him in the English version of the film and did a good job in the role. In the story he is the reminder of the work still to be done and the willingness to stand up to tyranny for liberty and freedom, which Marjane does on a few occasions.

Father – Sean Penn voices the Father, who at the core is the man also hoping for a brighter future, but also aware of the past and how his ancestor was executed for being a rival to the Shah before the British put the Shah in power. The Father is aware of both his own nation’s corruption and how the west has been a part of it…whether providing weapons to Iran and Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War or hoisting up the Shah. It is thanks to him that Marjane has skepticism in Europe, which is healthy. One of the themes is to always doubt and question.

Mother – Mother is voiced by Catherine Deneuve and is the voice of practicality. For her there isn’t’ time to resist oppression. The most a person can do is put their head down and get out if they can and have a chance to live elsewhere. She doesn’t like the status quo but feels powerless to stop it as she has lost family to both the Shah and the Ayatollah. This keeps her with so much sadness and why at the end she asks Marjane to leave Iran and never return until they are free. Her story is one of tragedy that she never truly gets to be with her daughter for any extended period of time, thanks to the oppression that she experiences.

Grandmother – Grandmother is one of the best characters in the film. She’s been divorced and remarried and expresses her perspective no matter who it may turn others off. She calls out Marjane for throwing a stranger under the bus so the police wouldn’t do anything to her, she reminds Marjane to stay true to herself and to live with integrity and she supports Marjane’s childhood dream of being a Prophet of God. She is one of the most revolutionary characters because she lost her husband to the Shah and about as far from Fundamentalist Muslim as you can get. She drinks, she has fun and she speaks truth to power. I completely get why Marjane idealizes her and I think she is a character worthy of that. The film ends with her death, again showing the tragedy and how oppression kept her from her hero and that in Grandmother’s lifetime she was never able to live in a free country. Gena Rowlands is fantastic!

Marjane – This is Marjane’s story and it is powerful as it explores all of her struggles. From her experiencing the Iran-Iraq War and the fall of the Shah, to the rise of the Ayatollah’s fundamentalist religious regime and all the religious laws that were brought about to her experience in Europe where she lost her homes because of how she resisted and because of how lost she was in trying to find her identity as an Iranian and also as someone who had spent so much time growing up outside of Iran without her parents. “Persepolis” is her answer to that and in it we see first hand her finding and accepting all the different parts of her identity and in turn becoming whole even after losing her home (Iran), family and husband in a divorce. She is able to accept herself and grow and the film shows this beautifully. Chiara Mastroianni does a wonderful job as grown up Marjane while Amethyste Frezignac does a great job as her childhood self.

The Messages – The Messages are powerful in this film, just like the Graphic novel, with the strongest being “Be true to yourself.” There are also the themes of “Remember where you came from,” and that oppression everywhere is unjust.

Marjane leaves Iran again because Iran is not free and her parents are still trapped there at the end, but want her to go after everyone she has lost to the oppressive regime. This sadness is a call for reform…the ending has a broken people waiting for change who are tired of the fighting after the Iran-Iraq war and all the political dissidents the Ayatollah’s Regime has killed. No excuses are made for tyranny ever…whether it’s the Shah or the Ayatollah, the forms of oppression as witnessed through Marjane’s eyes are obvious and stark. Another theme is to always doubt and questions which Uncle Anouche died doing until the end.

This ties into the theme of resistance which we see Marjane do on multiple occasions…from the Hijab being a double standard since guys can where whatever they want, to the nuns who got on her case for eating alone or her European classmates gossiping about her behind her back and her calling them out. Resistance is a huge theme of this film.

Okay: The Punks – They are all nihilists and we don’t get to know them like we do in the graphic novel. One of them was also from the Middle East and she never made an appearance leaving only the Western Punks who just hang around and are there to show that apathy is pointless since that is all they are.

The Boyfriends and Husband – The boyfriends and husbands don’t really get explored. They are moments pretty much but we mostly see her reaction to things not working, we don’t get to know them as characters like in the novel.

The Cons: Things Left Out and New Additions – Biggest issue was how some character stories were left out and some reactions to breakups went on a little long.

The animation style is beautiful and dreamlike and the soundtrack contributes to that. I completely get why it was nominated for an Academy Award. This is a film that is timeless and shows such a rich perspective on identity, integrity, justice, war, oppression and family. All these are a part of Marjane and her experiences and she tells her story so beautifully here, even if it isn’t done as well as the Graphic Novel, which you should read by the way. Also, see this film too. Chances are you will learn so much watching this and experience a beautiful story with some of the best music and animation in any film.

Final Score: 9.6 / 10. Not perfect but a favorite by far.

The Razor’s Edge (1984): The Quest for Enlightenment

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“The Razor’s Edge,” this version at least, is one of my Grandfather’s favorite movies. I had the chance to watch it with him today and I must say I was impressed. It’s a powerful film that reminded me a lot of the book Remains of the Day and One Hundred Years of Solitude. Both of which are favorites of mine. Suffice to say this became a favorite movie, I’ll get into the reason for this in the assessment of the film.

“The Razor’s Edge” is based off the novel of the same by W, Somerset Maughman’s book published in 1944 of the same name and the original 1946 film that came out of it. Which I’ll be reviewing at some point to contrast with this version and the book.

This version was directed by John Byrum, written by John Byrum and Bill Murray and produced by Rob Cohen.

The story involves a man named Larry (Bill Murray) from high society who is sent with his friend Gray (James Keach) who will be going abroad to Europe to serve as ambulance drivers on the front lines for France and England. He is looking forward to marrying his love Isabel (Catherine Hicks) but things change when he loses his mentor and friend Piedmont in the War from a bayonet from an enemy soldier, and returns lost. From here the story unfold as he seeks meaning behind all the needless loss and suffering he’s gone through and how his and his friend’s relationships play out.

Here is the assessment of the film:

The Pros: The Cinematography – The cinematography in this film is fantastic! Given how many places that Larry goes (America, France, India) it does a good job of capturing these places through his eyes…whether he’s distant and detached, or in the thick of it working.

How the War Changed Larry – Larry watches his friend die from a gunshot in the trenches after he’s been shot and he weeps as he insults him the way their commander insulted the rich guys from Harvard who were serving since he in fact did care for them and distancing was the only way to deal. Before this Larry is happy go lucky, he is connecting with the two women he loves (Sophie and Isabel) and is happy with the promise he gets from his position as a wealthy aristocrat. The war changes him when he sees how fleeting life can be and how purposeless death is.

Finding Enlightenment – It’s weird that this isn’t the end since most movies would have this as the end. The main character realizes it’s all about the purpose in actions, or using the meaning from books in the world to make a difference. Larry goes with a dishwasher in India to visit a Lama high up in a Temple. It is there he climbs the highest peak and realizes that words are meaningless without action and to live with purpose behind all he does. The thing is though, he has to actually do that in the world and enter back into the relationships in his life that caused him so much pain. Just because he realized that didn’t mean his suffering or work stopped. So many books and stories stop at this point, they never answer, what after? That’s one of the issues I have with Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha even though it is a favorite book. This story doesn’t end there. He has to keep living.

Everything Changes – Sophie loses her husband and son in a car crash, before Larry heads to India Isabel has a one night stand and leaves him when living in poverty is too much and she marries Gray, Gray is a stock broker who loses all his money in the Depression and his father commits suicide and they stay with Uncle Elliot in France, Sophie is also there and has become an addict and prostitute. Things change and continue to change throughout the film.

The Characters – I’ve already gone into some of the rich dynamic of the characters above. Suffice to say this is the best Bill Murray film I’ve ever watched, but the others do a great job too.

Uncle Elliot – Played by Denholm Elliot of “Indiana Jones” fame (the professor who got lost in his own museum). He owns this role as the high society man who wants to be a part of the big wigs but is always on the outside because of how odd he is. He always accepts Larry even when Larry destroys his things and lets characters make their own choices even if he disproves. For these reasons his death at the end means something as it reveals characters intentions and relationships are resolved.

Piedmont – This guy is gruff but good hearted and the actor Brian Doyle-Murray does a fantastic job! We see him try and teach the rich students who came over by destroying muddying their ambulance so it wouldn’t hinder them but only Larry gets it. He later shares their loss with Larry and after Larry is the one who truly feels the loss of Piedmont who had become his friend and mentor by this time and the reason he survived the War.

Sophie – Loses her husband and son, becomes a prostitute in France after losing everything and all support and is building a life with Larry when Isabel turns her fears on her and manipulates her into drinking again which brings back all her self hatred. Her story is a tragedy that shows how staying strong is being at the razor’s edge…which the Lama expresses to Larry. She also has things going against her from the beginning as Robby and her marry when she gets pregnant…which everyone looks down upon. Theresa Russell is great in this role.

Gray – Gray is the well meaning socialite who escapes the experiences of the War by embracing work and the role everyone wants him to play, which leads to him and Isabel getting married and having two kids. His friendship with Larry feels real though he never fully gets over losing his position of power which is why he and Isabel end up living with Uncle Elliot in France, it’s a shame that they never learn empathy from that. Regardless he has a great moment at the end where he tells Larry that Larry is one of his best friends and Larry tells him Isabel will explain all that’s been going on.

Larry – This is Bill Murray’s best role I’ve seen him in. He’s got comedy, drama, the quest for enlightenment and experiencing so much suffering. He co-wrote the Screenplay and put his character through Hell. You think things are going to work out with Sophie but after Isabel sabotages her and one of the pimps kill her we are left with a Larry that could be very desolate. Instead he accepts the suffering, like he did when he was in India and knows he’s got to go back to America. That’s he’s been away too long. Bill Murray owned this role and his actions of empathy…from telling the truth Isabel and Gray, to building a life with Sophie when she was in the lowest place and pretending the Princess sent a telegram to Uncle Elliot since it was all he wanted in the end.

Okay: Isabel – Catherine Hicks is a little over dramatic at times but she’s not a bad character. She’s written primarily as an adversary to Larry which is a shame though, we never get her point of view and her shaming and destroying of Sophie was unforgivable. For these reason I can’t put her in the pro. Not when all the other characters are fully fleshed out.

The Beginning – When we’re in Illinois in high society it’s really slow and you can’t help feeling detached. For this reason I can’t put it as a pro, since more could have been done to build and establish relationships here.

This is one of my favorite films and one I’d highly recommend. I can’t wait to see the first version and read the Novel. This film had a great cinematography, writing and cast and I can fully understand appreciate why it is one of my Grandfather’s favorite films. If you are looking for a film with complex characters and depth, this is the film for you.

Final Score: 9.8 / 10. Nearly perfect.