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.