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.