Monday, August 25, 2008

Simple Is As Simple Does, Jack

The suits over at DreamWorks must have been floored when they found out just who had decided to protest "Tropic Thunder." When being pitched a film that features a white man playing a black man, they probably foresaw controversy, but certainly not from advocates for the mentally impaired. "Tropic Thunder" explores the diverse careers of its fictional Hollywood actors, and this controversy has arisen from one film within this film. Writer/director/star, Ben Stiller's character, Tugg Speedman has hit a rough patch. His last film, "Simple Jack" was the worst of the exploitative, Oscar-pandering worst. About a mentally retarded farmhand, "Simple Jack" is clearly Stiller's attempt at criticizing Hollywood for such shameless exploitation.

There is certainly nothing wrong with this idea in and of itself. When juxtaposed with the film's handling of Robert Downey Jr.'s performance as an Australian playing a black man, however, things become more suspect. Stiller treads very delicately with this potentially hilarious, potentially offensive premise. Every step of the way, Downey's character is put in his place by Brandon T. Jackson's character, a real black man. Consequently, the audience is never given a moment to become even slightly uncomfortable with the fact that it's watching a white man in blackface. The film is so careful condemn it at every turn that it is easy to forget that blackface can even be a bad thing. This all adds up to a running joke that is considerably less edgy than it may initially seem.

When Stiller is so cautious about potentially offending Blacks, it leaves me to wonder why he felt that he could be more lazy when it came to the mentally handicapped, and even Asians. At no point do any characters stand up and question the nature of "Simple Jack" as overtly as Jackson's character does the use of blackface. Similarly, the film's antagonists are a collection of savage, backwater Southeast Asians who are never given any depth and are never offset by a single sympathetic Southeast Asian character. Perhaps these details would not be so hard to overlook if the script had not been so excessively careful in other places. It leaves me wondering if Stiller is that much better than the people he is criticizing.

All of the controversy casts a bit of a pall over the film. There are, however, some truly hilarious moments. The set of fake trailers that precedes the film is dead-on satire and a true highlight. There is certainly fun to be had thereafter, but the plot lacks any real weight. Obviously, this isn't "Schindler's List," but there needs to be some sort of dramatic pull that gets viewers from one scene to another. Instead, the film rushes to get the actors stranded in the Vietnamese jungle and then doesn't know what to do from there. The finale is amusing, but rather forgettable. Shockingly, a cameo by a certain well-known Scientologist may be the film's biggest highlight. I'm no fan of his acting but, with a bit of makeup, he makes quite the bizarre, sleazy Hollywood executive.

Much has been made of the film's large budget. "Tropic Thunder" certainly looks like an expensive war movie, but I wonder how much that contributes to the comedy movie that we're supposed to be seeing. The opening sequence, which takes place within the movie these actors are making, is very convincing as a melodramatic, big-budget war movie. Thereafter, "Tropic Thunder" is a behind-the-scenes comedy. If this had been a straight parody, dramatic helicopter shots would have added to the experience. Here, however, such grandeur seems misplaced. Only occasionally does Stiller show any flare as a director or put his money to any comedic use. The ultimate fate of the film-within-the-film's director is very memorable, but it also looks like it was the cheapest effect in the film (and was all the funnier for it). Meanwhile, the pyrotechnics-laden finale certainly cost a few bucks, but only elicits a slight grin.

Ultimately, the film certainly could have done without all of the controversy but, even then, it would hardly have been remarkable. Like Stiller's last effort ("Zoolander"), this film will most likely hit the spot on lazy Sunday afternoons in cable replays, but it struggles to stand out in one of the best summer movie seasons in recent memory.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Fear and Trembling at the Multiplex

If, at any point during "The Dark Knight," you feel yourself shaking in your seat, make no mistake: you should be. This isn't just a comic book movie; "The Dark Knight" isn't here to lull us into the daze of familiarity. Voice running hoarse and fists slamming on the podium, this film stands before us intending to lead a great awakening.

Looking at writer/director Christopher Nolan, the film's success isn't hard to see. This is only his second major motion picture and he has already broken virtually every box office record there is. This is baffling in more ways than one. Yes, he came out of relative obscurity, but in his newfound fame, he has also managed to grow as an artist. The fractured plot of "Memento" seems almost a blueprint for the masterfully orchestrated chaos of "The Dark Knight."

The importance of the film's screenplay cannot be understated. For the first time in the history of comic book films, we find ourselves with characters who are truly human, ideas that are thoroughly developed, and plotlines that are shockingly relevant. It's hard to say if Nolan set out to tear down our preconceptions of what a comic book movie should be or if he was looking to do something greater. In any case, his audacity is apparent. "The Dark Knight" leaves its audience so unclear on what is truly right and good that all of the other films we have seen this summer seem laughably idealistic in hindsight.

This is inescapable thanks to Nolan's direction and the photography of Wally Pfister. Here, the film receives it's most obvious upgrade over the murky, more traditionally gothic tone of its predecessor. Batman's battles now take place before a backdrop that is cleaner and more realistic, and all the more insidious for it. This city may not be called Chicago, but it certainly lies within our country's boarders, located somewhere between Michael Mann and Raymond Chandler. Gotham's glass and steel stretches high, and Bruce Wayne always seems to be perched atop it. One of the film's most memorable shots has star, Christian Bale standing on a corner of the Sears Tower's rooftop. He peers out into the foggy city far below him. It's hard to say what is more unsettling: the dizzying height, or the question of what lies at the bottom.

The answer to that question is The Joker, a force of nature that washes over Gotham and cuts the tiny thread from which its stability hangs. There is no need to expound upon the praise already given to Heath Ledger's work in this film. Every frame of it is the work of an artist at the height of his ability. It is hard stop wondering if he will turn to you next and launch into a soliloquy on origin of his horrific scar, dividing his attention between you and the mangled face reflected in his own knife. Ledger's character alone resets the bar for future movie villains to absurd heights. Nolan crafted a character that is not pure evil, but pure danger, and Ledger plays it for everything it is worth.

Batman is only one of the three heroes with which The Joker will come to trade blows. Aaron Eckhart's development as the prominently chinned district attorney, Harvey Dent is as deep and fascinating to watch as Bruce Wayne's own origin story in the first film. Gary Oldman returns as Lieutenant Gordon in the film's most grounding performance. We see a great deal of him, and still, he is the only character who seems to get a cheer at every showing. Oldman reinvigorates the tired role of world worn cop in "The Dark Knight," carrying the weight of the city on his back and only betraying his agony in the smallest wrinkles of his weary face.

Nolan's ability to juggle so many characters and plot lines so deftly is truly impressive. Never does Nolan's direction feel as if it is dragging us from action sequence to action sequence. It has been a good while since action movies have been elevated to this dramatic level, so understand that I mean it in the most positive way when I say that the presence of action in the film is almost jarring. When Bruce Wayne becomes Batman and things start exploding, it is almost shocking to be reminded that "The Dark Knight" is an action film. When was the last time you saw a movie that made character development as thrilling as flipping a tractor trailer end-over-end?

It is hardly rare for me to feel that I am wasting my breath in praising a film. Thankfully, however, this is one situation where it is a good thing. "The Dark Knight" set out to reposition comic book action movies as legitimate film -- as something more than mere diversion. This film has succeeded in ways many could hardly imagine. It has awoken its audience to something far greater than anything of its kind that has come before. For once, I can proudly say that this is a film that reduces all moviegoers, both the average and the aloof, into giddy faithfuls.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Fighting the Man, Barefisted

The internet tends to be rather excitable. For bloggers (myself not included, of course), rumor is often treated as fact and trailers receive such heavy scrutiny that, by the time the actual film or game releases, the hype has peaked long ago. I try to stay out of such ridiculous, speculative criticism, but sometimes it is impossible to resist. Sometimes this is a good thing. The "Watchmen" trailer that debuted before "The Dark Knight" drove me to go out and pick up the incredible graphic novel that spawned the upcoming film. Trailers can even have a deeper effect. It may just be me, but every once in a while, a trailer comes along and makes me think, "This is what I've been waiting for, and I didn't even know it."

Case in point: "Mirror's Edge."

Call me naive, but I still get excited when I see that trite "The Following Is All In-Game Footage" disclaimer. These days, pretty much every video game trailer touts this, for better or for worse. In this case, my excitement was justified. If this disclaimer had not been shown, I think that a lot of viewers would have assumed that this was some sort of experiment or an overly audacious proposition from the developers.

Why, do you ask, is it so hard to believe that this game does indeed exist? For a number of reasons -- each of which contribute to my excitement. First is the perspective: first person. For years, the first person perspective has been essentially confined to the genre of shooters. (I compare video games' first person shooters to TV's crime dramas -- there is certainly a great deal of potential in the genre, but that potential can never be realized when it is being crippled by a glut of generic fare.) "Mirror's Edge" looks as if it may put an end to the glut. The gameplay is striking. There are few guns, and most are wielded by enemies; most of the gameplay is platforming, not combat. One would think that many gamers would be skeptical, but the game has actually been received with excitement to match my own. It has long been thought that platforming would be impossible in a genre that only recently allowed players the freedom to jump. Here, we see that platforming is not only possible, but it can be both exciting and intuitive. But, this departure doesn't only change the gameplay.

Personally, I'm sick of the compulsive violence we see in most video games today. There is something deeply unsettling about a game that places a gun in your hand without having to answer for itself. You assume a person's identity and are given a certain degree of freedom, but you are ultimately only given one option: kill. Slowly, games are becoming more self conscious, and there have always been the few exceptions ("Metal Gear Solid" is the most notable), but "Mirror's Edge" seems more pronounced in its aversion toward violence. You seem at a distinct disadvantage, going up against heavily armored, shotgun wielding sentries with your bare hands. Yet, this is how the game is intended to be played.

What solidifies this idealistic approach to combat is my second point: the art design. I need not point out the gloom and doom that pervades video games today, just as I need not point out how startlingly unique "Mirror's Edge" looks. The bright, almost sterile city is matched with clean, commercial architecture. The music seems intent on uplifting the player, even with death's constant threat present. Even the sound of the rooftop air brushing past the player's ear seems to give a thrilling sense of freedom.

The city is apparently a bit too perfect, something that is subtly indicated by the presence of police and the uniform nature of the buildings. This is what really sets "Mirror's Edge" apart. Where the average game might consider a dead body its best tool for foreshadowing, details like these create a sense of danger in this game. With an atmosphere that is decidedly bright, hitting an occasional ominous note gives the game's tone an unusual amount of dimension. This is what, I think, made the game really capture peoples' attention when the trailer came out.

Finally, I must point out the makeup of Faith, the main character: she's a woman and she's Asian. It goes absolutely without question in the gaming industry that if you're going to make a video game, and you want to make a cent on it, your main character has to be white and male. There is the occasional exception for buxom, white females, but even that one is surprisingly rare when you think about it. I was thrilled to find that this game will finally have someone different on the front cover. Racism is everywhere in video games, perhaps more so than in any other major medium. This game, for once, is taking a step in the right direction.

We have a few months to go before "Mirror's Edge" hits shelves, but I doubt this particular game will suffer from hype burnout. EA has been brilliant in its marketing of the title. It realized that the title had gameplay and art design striking enough to speak for itself, and in making such a simple ad campaign, it has left room for more traditional, story-centric marketing in the months to come. Indeed, we know little about the plot for "Mirror's Edge," beyond its setting in a near-future dystopia and the kidnapping of Faith's sister. There is no doubt that gamers will be waiting restlessly for more.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Sackboy: He's Kind of a LittleBigDeal

Who would have thought that something as humbly named as Sackboy would be poised to turn the gaming world on its ear? Media Molecule and Sony Computer Entertainment's new game, "LittleBigPlanet" has been receiving almost boundless praise from the gaming media since it was announced roughly one year ago. The game's full impact, however, cannot be gauged until it is loosed into the wilds of pop culture at large. Once that happens, mark my words, it will become a phenomenon.

At first glance, "LittleBigPlanet" seems quaint. It features a bunch of top-heavy little characters flopping around what looks like a carnival attraction. The objectives are simple: find this, go here, avoid this, fight that -- time tested mechanics of 2D platforming games, such as Mario and Sonic. Obviously, there is a new sheen of warmly lit, high definition graphics, but the simplicity is still apparent.

This simplicity is both central to the game's appeal and highly deceptive. It is deceptive because it belies a staggering amount of complexity. Media Molecule touts three words that will define gamers' experience with "LittleBigPlanet": create, share and play. Playing through the dozens of levels contained on the game disc is certainly part of the fun. The game has striking art design and seems to have solid gameplay, but this is only one aspect of the experience. Users have a staggering array of tools at their disposal, allowing them to create levels of their own and then, perhaps most significantly, share them with the world. "LittleBigPlanet" is essentially going to do for games what YouTube did for video. Suddenly, it does not require tons of software, education or (for better or worse) effort to share your creations with the world.

The level of creative freedom players have in the game is hard to convey. The full breadth of options, after all, is still not known, as the game will not be released until October. Examples of what has already been done, however, show much more than any list of bullet points ever could. The possibilities as far as art design, gameplay, and even storytelling are boundless.

Keep in mind that everything you see in these clips was created with the same tools gamers will have at their disposal.

There are countless other videos on YouTube that show the actual creation process, and it is apparent that its depth does not come at the expense of accessibility. The interface and controls are extremely intuitive, ensuring that players are only bound by the limits of their creativity.

By and large, there is nothing like "LittleBigPlanet." Microsoft does provide low-level development software for users to create Xbox Live games, but it is aimed at aspiring game designers and not the masses. The game's focus on community and its nostalgic aesthetic are what really bring the experience together and raise it far above any other gaming experience.

Whether you are creating a level, playing one of the pre-designed levels or playing another user's level online, you can be joined by up to three friends at any time, both those sitting on the couch next to you or those across the ocean -- and it's all seamless. Users' levels will be regulated with a star-based rating system and organized geographically, based on the creator's location.

Every step of the way, the game maintains its striking aesthetic. The main menu is a Sackboy navigating a paper maché solar system in a cardboard box that has been fashioned into a spaceship. Levels are set in the grass or dirt of a backyard. The Sackpeople have visible stitches and wear outfits of construction paper and yarn. It is simply impossible to lay eyes on the goofy expressions of these simple, little characters and not be overcome with a childish spirit of whimsical imagination.

This all may be very high praise for a game that has yet to be released, but the if the universal excitement this game has received thus far is any indication, the gaming community is only the first group of people that is going to fall in love with "LittleBigPlanet." Picasso once said it took him his entire life to learn to paint like a child. With "LittleBigPlanet," it seems that people the world over are going to take one big step in that direction.

Monday, July 28, 2008

I Guess I'll Just Have to Order Another Milkshake

I'll admit it. Some movies scare me. No, I'm not talking about the kind of scare horror movies are supposed to give you. (Well, the "Saw" movies scare me on a certain level, but that's a rant for another day.) What I'm talking about is the kind of scare that comes from having your ego threatened; the kind of scare that I feel when I walk out of a movie thinking, "Damn, I'm happy I don't have to review that one." The best recent example of this sort of film is "There Will Be Blood." It is rare to see a film that is so wildly ambitious, but also widely praised by critics and embraced by pop culture as a whole. Going in, such a film can be rather intimidating for a young film snob. One wonders, "Will I get it?" or, "Will I see what others see in it? And if so, will I be able to build a righteous hatred for it that will allow me to rant for weeks on end about how overrated it is?"

After seeing the Paul Thomas Anderson's "There Will Be Blood" in theaters, I walked away impressed, but baffled. In other words, the answer to all of my aforementioned questions was pretty much, "No." I felt like the film's main character had just sauntered up and delivered on his threats; Daniel Plainview had drunk my milkshake -- drunk it right up -- and I didn't know what to make of the situation. This perturbation has persisted ever since and only last night did I finally get the opportunity to sit down and give the film another go.

Initially, this had an effect that may only surprise me: I found myself understanding the film both more and less. My first reaction was to consider ejecting the disc and throwing it across the room. (Blu-ray discs fly quite well. I suggest trying it with a copy of "Fool's Gold.") After that impulse was repressed, however, I sat down and really thought about why I had ever liked the film at all, and some things finally came together in my head. One of the film's most striking qualities, in my mind, is its similarity to Stanley Kubrick's work. I consider him to be one of the greatest artists of the last century, so seeing flashes of his work in other films always excites me. From the beautifully deliberate pans and zooms of the camera, to the unflinchingly bleak characterization of Plainview, "There Will Be Blood" shows that Paul Thomas Anderson has a cinematic bravado that is only comparable to Kubrick's.

What has always defined Kubrick in my eyes is the fact that his films are, on one level, very simple but astoundingly complex on just about every other. "The Shining" is about a guy who kills his family. "Eyes Wide Shut" is about a guy who is considering cheating on his wife. "2001" is about a ship that travels throughout the solar system to find a giant monolith that -- okay, that one is a bad example. Looking back on "There Will Be Blood," I can see a similar dichotomy revealed when Plainview blithely comments on his inner sense of competition. I was surprised to realize that, on one level, the film is that simple: He is just a selfish, jealous son of a bitch, inside and out.

Obviously, that is not all there is to him, but knowing that there is such a simple framework for the entire film makes it easier for me to accept just how inscrutable the rest of it can be. Daniel's relationships with religion, his son, and even the oil he drills are complex and often seemingly contradictory. Much of the film seems to revel in a murky sort of complexity that only dares to you try and illuminate it. This is what makes films like "There Will Be Blood" so important: they challenge us in new ways. Now I feel a certain sort of comfort in my fear, like that uneasy laughter that washes over an audience after a particularly big scare in a horror movie. This is because I now realize that all great films, regardless of their purported genre, are horror films. They force us to venture into unexplored depths of our own minds. Now that's something of which we can all be afraid.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Dreaming in a City that Never Sleeps

The beach is deserted. Only the fleeting piece of airborne trash catches the moonlight at this hour. All you can hear is the open air of the distant city. It's deafening, yet soothing at the same time. Across the black river stands the light speckled glass and steel of Algonquin island -- the imposing, cold and beautiful symbol of the American dream.

I was merely an hour or two into the infamous "Grand Theft Auto IV" at this point. Yet, I found myself utterly lost in the vista before me. Immigrant, Niko Bellic, wearing his world-weary stance and early 90's wardrobe, is nothing like me, but at that moment, I completely understood the man. The thought that countless activists were campaigning against this game, as if it were some sort of social ill or anything less than art felt like a personal attack. Moments this visceral are admittedly rare in the game, but that's irrelevant; they are there. In a medium that is eyeball deep in puberty (both in terms of size and intellectual development), one needs moments like these to be reassured that video games' full maturity is indeed coming.

In case you've been living under a rock (or only playing the Nintendo Wii), I'll briefly explain how Grand Theft Auto works. Free to go whereever you desire, within the bounds of the game's (semi)fictional city, you fulfill tasks for various characters. Success may require driving adeptly, shooting accurately, or even having good taste in restaurants. Grand Theft Auto is not simply unparalleled because of its freedom, but also its scope. Sure, the main plot is a crime story filled with violent M-rated action and language, but neither the game's back cover nor it's vocal critics will tell you that much of the game is spent doing fairly mundane tasks, like shopping, eating, dating and (most importantly) commuting.

Each mission you perform is tied together with cutscenes (non-playable "movie" sequences), as well as dialogue that occurs while traveling with others. These story-based aspects are well done. Games are often plagued by lackluster acting, writing, and (as far as cutscenes are concerned) filmmaking. This, however, is decidedly not the case for "Grand Theft Auto IV." The cutscenes often hit all the right dramatic beats. Dialogue is both written and delivered sharply. In fact, Liberty City could be made of paper maché, insofar as every inch of it is built out of excellent writing. From the chatter on the game's dozen radio stations, to the pervasive fictional ads, to the quips of pedestrians, the setting is cohesive, replete and bitingly satirical. There are moments when the city's pulse is so palpable that the experience becomes nothing short of breathtaking. In short, Liberty City is a vivid portrait of the American dream going horribly wrong.

The game blames no one and everyone for this failure and, while this may be only fair way to play it, it's also a near-fatal flaw. We pilot Niko through a plot that is decidedly more serious than the backdrop it plays out before. This plot certainly has its relevance and depth, but it is ultimately impotent. Niko is the game's voice, after all. He is certainly likable, but he seems to trade almost exclusively in his snarky and disillusioned brand of platitude. Because of this, we have to rely on the countless characters he meets to add color and dimension to the world. Yet, Niko is always right next to them, ready to disapprove of their mistakes, while carefully withholding any real judgement, lest he condemn his own lifestyle.

Niko is obviously the result of publisher, Rockstar Games' attempt to add a more serious and mature tone to the series -- certainly an admirable effort. If the series was to grow, it's trademark mayhem and vulgarity would have to be checked with brains at some point. This doesn't only make the proceedings flat, though. It makes them disjointed. Gameplay still boils down to cartoonish driving and violent gunplay. There is the occasional moral choice that the game allows the player to make, but does it really matter if you spare one gangster's life when you drove over sixteen anonymous citizens getting to his hideout?

The gameplay in and of itself is certainly fun. Said mayhem and violence is endlessly entertaining, especially when it takes place in this massive world that, as I mentioned, is often hilarious, even without your intervention. Thing is, most of this rarely ever coalesces with the serious deconstruction of the American dream that Niko's story is supposed to be. By the second half of the game, this dichotomy has proven fatal, as you plod through missions that are increasingly meaningless, only with the exception of a few bright spots in the game's long final act.

Maybe the fact that I no longer linger on the beautiful nighttime vistas of Liberty City is indicative of just how effective the game is at what it sets out to do. After seeing all of the violence and hypocrisy of life in the city, none of it has real meaning to me or to Niko. The American dream really just amounts to a punchline in the joke of a world he inhabits.

Rockstar Games' decision to make "Grand Theft Auto IV" the last in the series is a very wise one. While the franchise's impact on games and our culture at large has been extensive, it is clear by the end of "IV" that it has done everything it can. Now that video games (or the "interactive arts," as you will increasingly hear them called) are, by some measures, bigger than movies and music, it's time for them to leave behind the confusion of adolescence and seek something more -- something as cohesive as it is ambitious.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Eat My Lederhosen, Peter Jackson

It may be hard to believe that today's bombastic, special effects-laden spectacles have bloodlines that go back any further than, oh, 1999, but I can assure you that they certainly do. That's why certain film snobs (like me) sit back and watch Peter Jackson's work, amused at the awe it inspires. Everyone knows that "King Kong" was a remake, but do they really let that idea set in? It was 1933 and we already had giant apes climbing skyscrapers to fight off biplanes. I'm sure that people at the time wondered, just as we do today, how things could get much more over the top.

I must admit that I've never seen the original "King Kong," but I have seen plenty of epics that are of equal or greater age. The thing with most, if not all, of these classic films is the fact that they feel like classic epics; they've aged like any state-of-the-art film would. There is one film, however, that draws rave reviews today, even from those who would otherwise laugh at the prospect of watching a silent, German film.

Fritz Lang was already well known when he released "Metropolis" in 1927, but that didn't spare him the ire of contemporary audiences. His film was thought to be overlong and was watered down for its release abroad. Some of the criticisms are warranted. The film's simplistic thesis on politics is laughably earnest. Yet melodrama was par for the course in much of silent film, and "Metropolis" is hardly dumb. It communicated the repercussions of unchecked national wealth and power more vividly than any film that has followed it. The truths "Metropolis" brings to light are what has ensured that it will always remain relevant.

That, and the absolutely incredible visuals. It's a silent film and, although this may seem obvious, I feel the need to point out that the visuals are what really tell the story here. Silent film, because it is deprived of such luxuries as extensive dialogue and ongoing narration, is inherently more abstract than sound film. Critics often say that the introduction of sound set the art of film back by decades, and watching "Metropolis," one can see why. Concepts that would otherwise be fleshed out with long-winded verbal debates are expressed here with shocking brevity through visuals. Even today, most filmmakers' visual vocabularies pale in comparison to Lang's, undoubtedly because it is easier to say than to show. Thing is, if a filmmaker is saying everything and showing nothing, why is he or she a filmmaker at all? I suppose it's because there is no longer any money in radio.

I digress. Perhaps I should heed my own rantings and simply show you the technically and artistically powerful visuals of "Metropolis." Check out a trailer for the film below.

"Metropolis" was made at the height of the German Expressionist movement, meaning that it used very exaggerated images to convey its ideas. Todays epics are generally exaggerated, to be sure, but few have such solid ideas at their heart. It doesn't help today's films that the special effects in "Metropolis" still hold up extremely well.

The actual, physical film, however, did not hold up. For decades now, the only remaining copies of the film have been the heavily cut international versions. Because of this, we have been left to parse through an incomplete masterpiece. The reason I write about this film today is that I, along with many others, was surprised and elated to hear that the complete, original version has recently been rediscovered.

It may be years before the complete film is restored and released to the public, but there is no need to wait to see "Metropolis." Kino Video has an excellent DVD featuring the theretofore most complete version of the film and the epic 1927 orchestral score. I understand that the film may still not be on top of your "What to Watch" list, but I assure you that it is worth it. At the very least, you could come away bragging that you know what the term, "German Expressionism" means.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Resisting the Urge to Compare Walt Disney to the Ayatollah

One reviewer said of the recent French film, "Persepolis" that it was sad it took an animated film to honestly convey Iran's recent history. This statement left me wondering if any other artistic medium is treated with such condescension these days, much less one that was so undeserving of it. Then again, that question seems silly when one skims the glowing reviews for Pixar's latest film, "Wall-E." That film has plenty to say, even if it does so within the bounds of the G rating. So where does animation stand in this country? In short, at the head of the kids' table.

Obviously, that one aforementioned review is not necessarily indicative of our culture's views on animation as whole. (The review is from, an obscure source, to say the least.) The indicators, however, of our low opinion of animation are everywhere. All you have to do is look at the dearth of primetime animated television, or the Oscars' relegation of animation to its own category -- a move that simultaneously ensured that animated films would be recognized each year, and that they would never again get a shot at other, more prestigious awards like Best Picture. Animation is clearly second-class filmmaking in the general public's opinion. So, why is it that, looking back on the first half of this year, two of the best new films I've seen are animated?

Well, there isn't one, single answer to that question. Pixar's "Wall-E," however, is a good case study in the American school of animation. When I walked out of the film, I was struggling not to grin, feeling quite moved, and thinking that it was the best film I've seen in a while -- three rare occurrences for me, to be sure. On the ride home, that feeling faded, and by the time I had reached my destination, I realized that I had little else to say about it. "Wall-E" starts out sporting a shocking attribute: silence. There is very little dialogue in the first third of director, Andrew Stanton's the film. This is the sign of a filmmaker that is confident in both his material and his vision. His confidence is not misplaced, either. I defy you not to fall in love with the eponymous character and his touching story.

Thing is, you've probably heard similar praise given to any number of Disney movies (apart from the use of silence). In the quality of its direction and the sharpness of its satire, "Wall-E" easily outclasses anything Disney proper has done in decades. But, that's not saying much. Once the film's ideas on our mistreatment of our planet, as well as our own bodies, solidify, there's very little to parse here. There is something to be said about the fact that a robot is the only truly human character in the film, but this is merely an undertone -- something on which a more ambitious film would have followed through. (Perhaps by way of an ending that isn't so neat as this one's.) Ultimately, "Wall-E" is still clean, family-oriented entertainment that puts accessibility before ambition.

Before I move on, I have to reiterate that "Wall-E" is one of the best movies made so far this year. There is absolutely NO reason to pass up an opportunity to see this film. Let me explain, however, why France's "Persepolis" is even more deserving of your attention.

When I walked out of "Persepolis," I wasn't quite so sure what to feel. Graphic novelist, Marjane Satrapi's story about her growth from a troublemaking Iranian girl to a, well, troublemaking Iranian woman is long, winding and, overall, exhausting. It isn't the kind of film that you walk out of feeling fulfilled -- not on the first viewing, at least. The complexity and sensitivity of its subject matter is self-evident, but nevertheless could have been made easier to swallow. Thankfully, Satrapi and co-writer/director, Vincent Paronnaud understood that doing so would have made the film utterly pointless. Iran has not changed a great deal in the years since Satrapi's youth, and time has not made this any easier for her to grapple with.

While all of this means that the screenplay gives its audience much more credit than the majority of American animation, I must not ignore the animation itself. The film stays very faithful to the visual style of her graphic novels, and is all the more breathtaking for it. The lack of color and extensive use of clean lines creates a bold look that never lets you forget you're watching animation, but only in the best way possible. Pixar's artistic prowess is not to be understated, but their films' technical mastery has always served create to create something ostensibly realistic. (There is even fleeting use of live action actors in "Wall-E.") "Persepolis" uses its inescapable unreality to convey the emotional truths behind the facts. In a sense, this is what all art is meant to do. Who, after all, walks away from "Casablanca" or "The Godfather" saying, "That was so realistic!"?

I was saddened to watch Pixar's previous film, "Ratatouille" beat "Persepolis" for last year's Best Animated Feature award. ("Persepolis" was entered into last year's Oscars, but widely released months later.) "Ratatouille" was, again, by no stretch of the imagination a bad film, but shared many of the flaws "Wall-E" suffers from (and more). This shows that Americans are still not quite ready to embrace animation as the boundless, unexplored creative palate that it is. The major studios continue to crank out computer animated pictures aimed at preschoolers and their overworked parents -- most paling in comparison to even Pixar's work. The burgeoning popularity of "Persepolis" in the States, however, provides hope for the future. Maybe, one day, we'll look back and see that little Marjane wasn't only calling for a political revolution, but a creative one, as well.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

If You're Only Seeing Red, "Speed" is More than Meets the Eye

It's safe to assume that you missed "Speed Racer." Waiting for the DVD, are you? Right, and you probably already have the laserdisc on pre-order, too. It's okay; I get it. It had a monkey in it -- a perfectly justifiable gripe. I mean, it's not even a CG monkey and it's not voiced by Bruce Willis. Wake up, Wachowski brothers! Americans demand a certain level of integrity!

Sorry. False start. I'll try and control myself this time around...

"Speed Racer" got a bad rap. It's not that I don't understand why -- I do. But, unsurprisingly to those who know me, I think the fact that everyone seems to hate it only bolsters my argument. First, let's get the concessions out of the way. I freely admit that a monkey is part of the principle cast. The number of scenes featuring the monkey (its name is Chim-chim, but I'll stick with the improper noun) is indeed distressing, and an indicator of perhaps the movie's greatest flaw: someone thought this should be a kids' movie. I don't know if it was the Wachowski brothers' idea or the studio's, but either way, it was a big miscalculation. Nevertheless, it was largely a marketing miscalculation, because the scenes in the actual film that are meant to hook the kids in are mostly isolated and somewhat rare. The rest of the film's two-plus hours are filled with violence, language, tongue in cheek humor and action sequences that are so kinetic they'd probably send an eight year old into seizures. In other words, this isn't really a kids' movie, even if the cereal boxes tell you so.

Those points aside, the film is still anything but perfect. In typical Wachowski style, characters seem to love the sound of their own voice. I would suggest that, in the future, studios bring in someone to edit these guys' screenplays, but it's hard to say if their signature meta-philosophical hokeyness would still come through. The brothers may be self-indulgent, but they're also pretty self conscious. An early scene where Trixie tries to coax a kiss from Speed illustrates this well. The scene becomes tedious rather quickly, but only by design, as you'll probably laughing at the couple's absurd level of chastity long before the obligatory interruption of Speed's little brother and his... monkey. Of course, there are other scenes where the only thing that's funny is the lack of self-consciousness. Who knew discussions of racing could be so plodding?

I have already said far too much about the script, however, because the true strength of the film is in its visuals. Critics complained about them, too, but here's where I think they couldn't be more wrong. They had a field day tearing down what they perceived as an incoherent blur of Warholian "car-fu." (Yeah, I just used that phrase.) Now, you would think with all the invocations of Warhol's name, critics would have some idea of the importance of thinking outside the box, but it's not evident in their closed-minded perception of the film. The Wachowski brothers, for all their flamboyant style, are very adept filmmakers. Where other directors ignore or undervalue the fundamentals (continuity, camerawork, cutting, composition, etc.) for the sake of style, the Wachowskis build upon them.

In some ways, the film may look very similar to other current (genuinely bad) action movies, with its extreme stylization and quick pace. Michael Bay's "Transformers," for example, is all about constant cutting. "Speed Racer" is just as quickly paced, but cuts less often. Ths is indicative of much more succinct direction. More importantly, though, when it does cut in "Speed," it is made blatantly obvious where we are cutting to. You may wonder why this matters, but anyone who has studied film knows that this is absolutely integral to the cohesiveness of a film. When you see someone walk out of a door on the right side of a shot, you expect them to walk into the next room on the left side. Otherwise, it looks like they've just entered the Twilight Zone. Granted, Michael Bay probably knows enough to handle that scenario, but when you have hyperkinetic battle sequences taking place, there is a lot more action to keep track of. When the director fails at maintaining such continuity, it goes from kinetic to chaotic. While the directors of "Speed Racer" may send their camera rocketing throughout the space of the scene, they always avoid such chaos. Thus, they have a very stylized look, but it's not at the expense of cohesiveness.

I could go on all day explaining similar details that speak to the fundamentally adept directing of the Wachowskis versus directors like Bay, but I'll resist. Your average critic is smart enough to notice these things, and accordingly, most recognize Bay as all sound and fury. Some of them may not see what I see in the Wachowskis, however, and this is magnified by one final feature of the style of "Speed Racer": a unique treatment of time. Those who have seen the Wachowskis' "Matrix" films know that they like their slow motion, and employ it not as a dramatic flourish, but as a basic weapon in their directing arsenal. It's simply part of their style -- something borne of the directors' roots in anime. In "Speed," we see a similar fluidity of time's treatment on a larger scale. There are seamless transitions from past to present, a technique that only becomes more prominent as the film progresses. The fluidity exists for a reason, though. Speed's brother, for example, is surely on his mind whenever he returns to the track where his brother died, so memories of a time they spent there together would creep in as Speed is racing in the present. The Wachowskis organize their scenes thematically, not chronologically.

With both time and space being treated in such unique ways, it is easy to see how many viewers will be put off by the film's style. With the brothers doing their basic duties as directors, however, it is clear that it is more a question of taste than it is one of quality. The Wachowskis are delivering something very unique with "Speed Racer" and something, I believe, that is ahead of its time. Just as "The Matrix" is still being echoed throughout modern action films ("Wanted," anyone?), I believe the Wachowski brothers are once again at the bleeding edge with this film. It's hard to see behind the marketing misfires and monkey antics, but I wouldn't be surprised if this film has gained a bit more respect when we look back a few years from now. A few critics noted that "Speed" may indeed be the most expensive art house film ever made. They should have put that on the cereal boxes.

Oh, and it's never too late to order that laserdisc.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

"Sex" Is Better when Everyone's Doing It

It probably won't be long before I deviate from my focus on film here, but suffice it to say that any rant you read on this blog will be coming from a mind that runs at 24 frames per second. Anyway, enough with the introductions. Let's get to the good stuff -- the "Sex," naturally.

What is it about Carrie, Samantha, Miranda, and Charlotte that get women so excited? I have no clue. At some level, the four of them seem like any other chick flick/chick show protagonists: their many romantic tribulations only surpassed by the amount of words they use to reflect on them. Yet, "Maid of Honor" didn't make over $50 million in its first weekend and I'm pretty sure few would have paid premium cable prices to see about a half dozen episodes of "Gilmore Girls" each year. I can't comment on how the franchise has become such a hit among women, but maybe I can shed some light on it when I explain just why I like it so much.

For a guy like myself (hopelessly dense, that is), women seem to be something short of godlike. This power is not shown in their action, mind you, but in their inaction. For me, it is common to say and do things that clearly should never have gotten off of the drawing board. Just as common as these indiscretions are the women who look on in disapproval. It's almost as if they, in their perfection, possess some faculty that I do not. I doubt that the women in "Sex and the City" make the men in their lives feel any differently. What makes them different for me, however, is that while most of what I see (both in life and film) ends with that reaction, "Sex" begins there; it shows the idiosyncrasies behind the exterior.

Now you're thinking, "Well, the internet's lack of standards rears its head again; Matt thinks it's a revelation that 'Sex and the City' is from a woman's point of view." To that I say, "Screw off... and let me elaborate." Sure, Kate Hudson plays a woman and is, by all accounts, a woman, but when was the last time she gave you any real insight into the mind of a woman? I admit that I missed "Fool's Gold," but I'm just going to assume that she does about as much for women as Matthew McConaughey does for shirtless fucking idiots. The women of "Sex and the City" don't just run around, yelling about their problems; they over think their problems, try to make sense of the world around them and struggle to maintain a sense of individuality. In short: they are real characters, and it's sad but that's a revelation for Hollywood.

Now, I walked out of the film with mixed feelings. It was a bit too long, even if it never really dragged. I just feel as if writer/director Michael Patrick King didn't really have anything concrete in mind when he set out to make the film. He basically shakes some plotlines from the show loose enough that it takes 145 minutes to retie them. That may sound like a harsh criticism, but it's really pretty mild considering the level of quality with which he's starting. Also, the introduction of a new secondary character does feel forced and pointless. Still, something tells me that they would have to wear the franchise pretty thin before it stopped being the best of its kind. And until that happens, I can assure any disapproving woman that the vulgar, inappropriate comment I just made is one that would make Samantha proud.