Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Tiring the Masses One Waggle at a Time

This is Part One of a two-part series wherein we will discuss the successes and failures of Nintendo's Wii console as it enters its fourth year on the market. Mr. Keeley's contribution will discuss the console from a Nintendo fan's perspective.

As difficult as it may be for some hardcore gamers to admit, the Nintendo Wii has been a massive success in one regard – sales. In fact, the Wii's sales are far higher than they should be for a game console. Sales charts clearly indicate that the system is in its own class, with numbers that generally remain untouchable for the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360. This is often attributed to the idea that the Wii is aimed at a broader, more casual audience – people who are not traditionally considered gamers.

Nintendo maintains that the system's high sales are a blessing for the industry, theoretically introducing more new people to video games than any other system. Yet, the Wii's success as a "casual gamer" system may not prove as beneficial for the whole of video games as one might think.

Many gamers backhandedly comment that the best game on the Wii comes packed in with the system – Wii Sports. While its status as the best game on the system is arguable, its status as the most popular is not. According to VGChartz, Wii Sports has sold more than twice as many copies as the system's second best selling game. Lest people attribute the game's sales to its status as a pack-in, a similar game, Wii Play, is the second best selling. In fact, four of the top five games are in the same vein as Wii Sports – minigame collections designed to showcase one peripheral or another. While the fun factor in these games varies, one point is unavoidable: These games are shallow. As fun as it is to golf with the Wiimote, the novelty wears off rather quickly and, once it does, there is little incentive to keep playing. Basic features like unlockables, medals and leaderboards are missing, as well as any innovations to this end. Wii Sports and its ilk are far more tech demo than full-fledged video game, but they dominate the sales charts.

What is the result? If you suspect that most Wiis in the world today are languishing in a dusty, shadowy corner of their owners' entertainment center, you are correct. Nielsen statistics show that Wii owners play their system far less often than owners of the PS3 or 360. Even extinct systems like the Xbox and GameCube get more playtime than the Wii does. In other words, many people own a Wii, but few of them like the thing enough to play it often.

The shallowness of the average Wii game, however, is not entirely to blame. The quality plays a role as well. A recent Metacritic feature ranked the Wii dead last in terms of average game quality, despite the fact that more new games are released for the system than any other. There are certainly good games for the Wii (Mario Galaxy, Zelda: The Twilight Princess, Okami), but there are hardly enough good games for a system that is three years old (and, hell, two of the games I listed are available on other systems).

The vast majority of Wii games are what is called "shovelware" – software that borders on unplayable. For every quality Mario game, there are a few dozen shameless marketing tie-ins, lazy minigame collections and wildly overpriced puzzle games. It makes browsing the Wii shelf at the electronics store akin to shuffling through the DVD rack at the supermarket – even marked down, none of it is worth the money. This year has been particularly disappointing, with the Wii's only major holiday release being New Super Mario Bros. – a rehash of the same game Nintendo has been making for over twenty years and something that would probably only qualify as a $15 downloadable game on any other console.

Even setting aside the lack of quality games, the fact remains that calling something a "good Wii game" means something very different than calling a game "good" in general. The strides video games have made in terms of artistry, technology and social networking over the past few years simply do not apply to the Wii. A system that contains eight year old hardware, a nonexistent online community and little earnest input from third-party developers cannot hope to convey to the uninitiated what modern gaming is about. The nuanced setting of Assassin's Creed II, the cinematic immersion of Uncharted 2 and the addictive competition of Modern Warfare 2 would literally be impossible to create on the Wii.

Worst of all, Nintendo's stubborn inclination to rely on the same, tired franchises means that there are few feasible ways for Wii owners to grow out of those games and into something better. Motion control may yet be the way to draw inexperienced gamers to the table; upcoming devices from Sony and Microsoft could be far more successful because they will draw people to systems that have the capacity to support gamers who tire of or outgrow such gimmicks. The Wii, on the other hand, is nothing more than a dead end for a budding gamer and, perhaps even worse, it perpetuates the conceptions of those who view video games as a pointless, expensive diversion. Yes, Wii sales remain high for now, and that increases the profile of the game industry, but when one considers this fact closely, it becomes clear that the Wii will not grow the game industry; the Wii may just strangle it.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Do Not Panic, Dear Readers

Mr. Keeley and I are taking off this week for the holidays. Rest assured, however, that we will be back next week. In fact, we will return with a special, two-post feature on the Nintendo Wii. (You know; it is that video game console that grandma and grandpa are always playing in Wal-Mart commercials.) We will discuss the system's successes and failures three years on, as well its effect on the "casual gamers" it so openly pursues.

Until then, I wish you and yours the happiest of nondenominational winter tidings.

Love,
Matt

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Radical Evil (Evil Perpetrated by Radicals)

I missed the short theatrical run of The Baader Meinhof Complex. For some reason, I couldn't convince any of my friends to come and watch a two-and-a-half-hour foreign film about an obscure (in this country) German terrorist organization. It's a shame I wasn't able to shanghai anyone into watching it with me, because The Baader Meinhof Complex is one of the best films I've seen all year.

The two most famous members of the left-wing terrorist Baader Meinhof group were, unsurprisingly, Baader and Meinhof. The film portrays journalist-turned-criminal Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck) as an idealist who ends up selling her soul to advance her dubious cause. She reaches an epiphany of sorts during her trial and imprisonment, but it comes far too late for it to do anyone any good – she's already thrown away her life and freedom, demolished her family, and participated in a number of murders. Andreas Baader and his girlfriend Gudrun (Johanna Wokalek) call her an intellectual "jerk off", not realizing that writing angry screeds and newspaper columns is a far better occupation than actually murdering the bourgeoisie.

Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu) comes across as a sociopath, the bastard child of Che Guevara and the Joker. For Meinhof, the bombings and shootings are the means to the end of revolution. Baader, one senses, believes in revolution because it will let him destroy things. In one memorable scene, he drives along the autobahn at night, firing pistol shots at random into the darkness around him. He's a faux intellectual and a genuine monster.

As with so many other foreign films, it's hard for an American to watch The Baader Meinhof Complex in the way it was intended. The true story of the Baader Meinhof group, which called itself the RAF, is doubtless quite familiar in Germany. A reasonably informed German audience already knows how everything turns out and what to look for in the film. American audiences, on the other hand, will find the film both more suspenseful and more frustrating than it's supposed to be. In one scene, for example, we see a girl, a bystander to a shootout, calmly take a number of photographs. Did these photos become iconic? Doubtless we are supposed to know. More importantly, the film ends without telling us what happens to a number of major characters. The film even dispenses with the traditional "What Happened to X?" captions that follow most docudramas. We have to do a little research to find, for example, that one of the group's major supporters eventually became one of the most notorious of Holocaust deniers. The movie suggests that if you go far enough left, you eventually find yourself on the far right. "Fascist" is one of the most common words in the movie's script, as it is the preferred insult of the Baader Meinhofs. The great irony of the film, of course, is that the Baader Meinhof group was far more fascistic than the West German state it denounced. The socialist / communist student summit at the beginning of the film looks like a Red version of the 1934 Nuremberg rally, though the irony is lost on all of its attendees.

Life is messy, so dramatic filmmakers tend to combine many real people into one fictional one. Uli Edel, director of The Baader Meinhof Complex, however, wanted to create a truly realistic version of the Baader Meinhof group's crimes. As a result, there's an extremely large cast of characters, some of whom appear at the beginning of the film and then vanish until the last half-hour or so. It's hard to keep track of everyone, especially since so many characters spend large portions of the movie in disguise. The film as a whole isn't difficult to follow, but a few parts of it are rather confusing.

Months before I saw the film, I'd read criticism stating that the movie was far too sympathetic to the terrorists it portrays. I'm afraid I must disagree. It's true that many of the bombers, shooters, and assassins in the movie are telegenic, charming, attractive, and brave. And yes, there is quite a lot of attractive terrorist nudity. And it's true that Edel portrays some members the West German government behaving in reprehensible fashion – police brutality, neglect of prisoners, etc. The Baader Meinhof members are not cartoons; they're real human beings, and this makes their various crimes appear all the worse. They abandon their children, conspire against each other, murder civilians, soldiers, and police officers, and then have the gall to call the people who fight them fascists. Edel is a merciless inquisitor. Some of the prison scenes in The Baader Meinhof Complex that reminded me of Hunger, the 2008 film about IRA members on hunger strike in the early nineteen-eighties. Because that film's characters suffered, they were portrayed as noble, whatever violence and evil they may have committed outside the prison. The Baader Meinhof Complex, on the other hand, never lets us forget the crimes that the Baader Meinhof gang committed.

Though the movie doesn't drag, it's hard to believe that The Baader Meinhof Complex is "only" two-and-a-half hours long. It covers ten years, dozens of characters, three continents, and half a dozen countries. It's an epic, and one that remains enthralling all the way through to its bleak and inevitable ending. Morally serious, suspenseful, realistic, and expertly acted and shot, The Baader Meinhof Complex is one of the very best movies I have seen this year.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Millions of Americans Suffer from It, and Now There Is Help

If you are like me, you often find our culture a bit overwhelming. From the hundreds of magazines clamoring for your attention, to the thousands of cable channels fighting for your screentime, to the millions of websites begging for your clickthroughs, information overload is an unavoidable side effect of being a modern American. This is a condition called infomania, and thankfully, there is a cure. Targeting the media for laughs is exactly what one needs after a long week of being targeted by the media.

infoMania – the TV show – is not entirely unique. This half-hour, weekly show, on a little cable network called Current TV, bears a considerable resemblance to The Soup; it features a snarky, young guy with a skinny tie, standing in front of a green screen, riffing on pop culture. The show was also created by one of the original Daily Show creators. Make no mistake, though: it is far more incisive than The Soup and it bears none of the political pretensions that The Daily Show does. infoMania is committed to exposing the absurdity in modern pop culture, not becoming complicit in it.

The show is composed of a number of segments, most of which are presented by host, Conor Knighton. He may seem like a typical twenty/thirtysomething cable host, but his talents reveal themselves quickly. His comments are far sharper and quicker than Joel McHale's or Jon Stewart's, and he manages to deliver scathing criticism without ever approaching pretentiousness. His biggest advantage is the lack of a live audience. No comic ever got funnier while smirking at his audience's laughter. This omission also frees the show to move very quickly through its consistently hilarious segments.



Knighton always leads off with what he calls "The Big Stories," but he is not playing newsman; what he considers a story is how everyone else handles a story. Last week, the segment consisted of a cringe-inducing round-up of cable news puns on Tiger Woods' name ("Woods isn't out of the woods yet!"), clips of MSNBC interrupting serious news stories for meaningless, new details on the Woods scandal (New pictures of the fabled fire hydrant!) and all of the best scenes from TLC's I Didn't Know I Was Pregnant (tip: if you get off of the toilet, only to find an infant staring up at you, the infant should be removed from the toilet immediately). It may sound quite a bit like The Soup, but where Joel McHale takes potshots at a reality TV stars – and thereby plays into their attention whoring – Knighton and his writers are more interested in making larger points about our culture. (Did you know that there's a war going on?) It is nice to be able to laugh without turning off your brain.

Knighton presents a number of other segments, such as "We've Got You Covered," where he burns through the week in magazines, but he is also backed up by an extremely strong group of co-hosts. Sergio Cilli handles "The White-Hot Top 5," where he counts down current music hits with all of the bone-dry sarcasm of a college radio station employee – but with a vital touch of self-consciousness.


Sarah Haskins hosts "Target: Women," where she mocks all of the shameless manipulation that ads utilize to, well, target women. Bryan Safi gleefully picks apart the media's portrayal of gays in "That's Gay." Ben Hoffman lethargically reviews all of the week's new, useless gadgets in "Tech Report." And Brett Erlich hosts "Viral Video Film School," where he provides instructions on how to become part of YouTube's more bizarre and disturbing trends.



The result is a program that digests seven days' worth of media and pop culture dreck into something tolerable, fun, and even thought-provoking. By the time the end credits roll, I feel as if I have ever-so-briefly gotten my head above the ever-rising tide of information, thankful that someone else realizes how ridiculous it all is. Even better, there is no built-in hypocrisy to be found. Unlike Joel McHale, Conor Knighton is not employed by the very people he is mocking; Current TV is independent and infoMania is widely available online. Hulu, YouTube and iTunes all have every episode of the series available for free. For victims of infomania, it looks like quality healthcare is affordable.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Are You Watching Closely?: The Prestige

Originally, my Christopher Nolan retrospective was going to cover Nolan's films in order. Alas, Netflix sent me The Prestige (2006) before Insomnia (2002), so I've decided to cover the later film before the earlier. Somehow it seems appropriate, given the director's penchant for telling stories out of order.

I don't know that The Prestige is Christopher Nolan's best movie, but – unless Insomnia is far better than I've heard – it's his best trick. At first, The Prestige would seem to have very little in common with the gritty neo-noirs Memento and Following. The Prestige, after all, is a period film, the story of two British stage magicians and their attempts to variously upstage, harass, embarrass, and kill each other. The gaslights, horse-drawn carriages, and other turn-of-the-century trappings, however, don't do too much to disguise the story's essential darkness. The Prestige is another story about murder, duplicity, cruelty, and obsession.

The film starts very near its story's end, with Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) on trial for the murder of rival magician Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman). We witness the apparent crime, but we don't gather its full significance until very close to the end of the film and we don't get full and horrifying confirmation of our suspicions until the very last shot. While the movie's final revelations are shocking, Nolan has provided subtle clues to them throughout the film. From the cryptic opening shot onwards, the script has readied the audience to accept some truly bizarre twists. Very few viewers will predict the plot's course, but all must admit that the clues are present and – in retrospect – almost shockingly obvious. Twist endings and shocking revelations have ruined many an otherwise decent film, but they serve The Prestige very well indeed.

Like Following, The Prestige often feels like a film without a hero. Neither of the film's two magicians is anything like a moral exemplar; we end up rooting for the one who happens to be less evil than his counterpart. Both protagonists hurt friends and family and commit innumerable acts of cruelty. Near the beginning of the film, Borden performs an illusion where he makes a bird and a cage disappear. The bird reappears and flies away and the audience applauds. We're impressed, until we see the secret to the trick: There are in fact two birds. One flies away at the end of the illusion. The other stays in the cage, which collapses and kills the bird. Before Borden and Angier's story ends, "magic" will have destroyed not just birds but people too.

Like the Batman films and Insomnia, The Prestige is an adaptation. Christopher Priest's original novel is an extremely good book, but not, I would think, great material for a film. Jonathan and Christopher Nolan have done a wonderful job turning the original material into something appropriate for a two-hour film. They've dropped the book's frame story, changed the relationship between the two protagonists, merged supporting characters, played up the romantic aspects of the story, and made crucial alterations to the ending. One plot change in particular – I can't divulge it without spoiling the film – makes the story far more horrific. The book and movie diverge in any number of places, yet their spirits remain the same. A more faithful film would have been a lesser one; the brothers Nolan understand that the story must be a creature of its medium. The cinematic Prestige is tighter and twistier than its literary counterpart; unlike so many adaptations, it can stand alone, without comparison to its precursor.

As much as I liked the adaptation of The Prestige, the script does have a few important flaws. I think that one character appears just a little too heroic at the conclusion of the story; we know he's a monster (sometimes), but the film lets us forget for just a few crucial (and sentimental) moments. Another character acts a little too villainously; I wish we had had just a few more scenes showing his moral decay. The plot fits together slightly better than the characters who act it out. There's nothing unbelievable in the context of the film, but one wishes there were more elaboration of motivation.

Of all Nolan's films, I think The Prestige may have the most interesting cast. Michael Caine, it's true, plays a role very similar to the one he plays in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. And yes, I suppose that Scarlett Johansson doesn't have that much to do besides look conflicted and fetching. Hugh Jackman plays Angier, the more refined of the two magicians; Bale's Alfred Borden is earthier and angrier. In some ways, it's casting against type: in most films, one thinks Bale would play the restrained protagonist and Jackman the looser cannon. Had Jackman and Bale switched their roles, I have no doubt that The Prestige would have been a fine and enjoyable movie. Yet the surprising casting works so well that I had to reevaluate the two actors – I was happily surprised. Despite its historical setting, only one real-life figure appears in The Prestige, the famous scientist Nikola Tesla, played by David Bowie, who gives a surprisingly low-key performance. Given all the crazy stories about Tesla – and his "wizard" role in the movie – Bowie could have been far more flamboyant and surreal. Bowie doesn't oversell his role, but he does bestow Tesla with the glamor and weirdness he doubtless possessed in real life. Bowie's Tesla isn't an unbelievable steampunk hero, but he's very clearly the possessor of arcane wisdom.

The Prestige is one of my favorite Nolan films. Here at last he's perfected his non-linear storytelling and his tricky plots. Nolan, a great believer in misdirecting the audience; doubtless, he feels kinship with his magicians. In their years-long fight, Borden and Angier, after all, employ just the sort of ploys that Nolan loves. Rarely have I seen a director so well-matched with his subject. Memento, Batman Begins, and The Dark Knight remain the best-known of Nolan's films; it's a shame this movie doesn't share their fame. It's better, I think, than two of those three movies.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Wes Anderson Gets a Little Wild

Now that Fantastic Mr. Fox has hit theaters, it is clear where Wes Anderson's career has been headed. His dry comedies have always been filled with characters who are somewhere between abstract caricatures and everyday people. His visual style is similar in its ironies: wholly stylized and modern – with conspicuously storyboarded shots, bold color palettes and mechanical manipulations of space – but always striving for a simple familiarity. Thus far, he has only used live action, often bearing mixed results. When these qualities are considered together, though, it becomes quite clear that Wes Anderson has been making animated films for his entire career – only he never before used animation to do so.

Mr. Fox (George Clooney) is a middle-aged newspaper columnist. He lives, humbly, in his foxhole with his pragmatic wife, Felicity (Meryl Streep) and his ill-tempered son, Ash (Jason Schwartzman). His life was not always so mundane. He once had thrilling adventures, doing what foxes do: pulling off clever heists at local farms. Under the guise of vaulting ambition, Mr. Fox decides to relocate his family to a high-class apartment in a tree – a tree that just so happens to overlook the three biggest farms in the area. With the help of his opossum building superintendent, Kylie (Wallace Wolodarsky), he begins perpetrating small heists. All of the distraction is taking a toll on his son, who only becomes more surly when his prodigy cousin, Kristofferson (Eric Chase Anderson) comes to stay with the family. As Mr. Fox becomes more audacious, Ash becomes more desperate for his approval and the local farmers step up their efforts to stop Mr. Fox, making things more and more dangerous for the entire animal community.

Despite the fact that this is an adaptation of a Roald Dahl story that he co-wrote with Noah Baumbach, all of the typical Wes Anderson themes are present: The father in the midst of a midlife crisis, the alienated son, the absurd predicament that brings everyone together and, of course, Bill Murray playing a badger. In fact, what may be most striking to Anderson fans is just how familiar it all feels; the story plays like any other Wes Anderson movie, despite the fact that all of the characters are now stop-motion-animated animals. Fortunately, while all of these characteristics were growing quite stale by the time The Darjeeling Limited came out in 2007, the move to animation has given them new life.

Anderson's past films worked very hard to convince us that his characters were larger than life – Steve Zissou in The Life Aquatic was a famous adventurer and documentarian; The Royal Tenenbaums was framed as a children's book – but such an effect is built directly into the medium of animation. Animated characters' appearances are inherently more simplistic than any real human's (or fox's), so it is far easier for us to view them as representative of something more than just one character. As such, much of what usually seems forced in other Wes Anderson movies works naturally in this film. This is most obvious in the film's later, more emotional scenes. Mr. Fox's behavior puts his family in danger. In a live action film, this would be difficult to forgive, but in a medium where the character can literally embody sly ambition, it is endearing.

Just as divisive as his writing, Anderson's visual style can be an acquired taste, but it can also grow rather tiresome. Thankfully, the rustic, stop-motion animation in this film allows him to create something that looks completely fresh, without compromising his trademark style. Anderson still shoots his environments as if they were a series of dioramas, only to be viewed from one, wide shot at one angle, but this is a perfect fit for a form of animation that is produced this way by its very nature. This exemplifies how this film's aesthetic can be described in a way that his previous films' cannot: organic. Tristan Oliver's cinematography even has a subtler color palette than other Anderson films do, bathing most of the film in warm oranges and browns.

Anderson and his art department do great work across the board, creating expressive characters with decidedly unique designs, as well as very believable sets. (I had never considered what a badger lawyer's office would look like before seeing this film but, while I was watching, I completely bought their take on it.) His inclination to keep production design with one foot in the Sixties also fits nicely here, as telling a story about animals on a farm benefits from a sense of timelessness. The puppets make a strong argument for the choice of animation style, since it's doubtful that any other type of animation could give the furry characters the same, tangible quality that this one does.

The animation itself is generally quite good, too, rarely distracting but never letting the audience forget what they are watching; puffs of smoke are produced with cotton balls and the fur on characters in close-up moves between each frame. Memorable moments include encounters with a deceitful rat that fights with the theatricality of a West Side Story dancer and Kristofferson's absurdly skillful first try at "whack-bat," an animal sport.

The voice cast skillfully completes the process of bringing the characters to life. Anderson did not use a recording studio to capture the performances of Clooney and company, instead taking the actors to a location similar to that of the given scene. The trick pays off, as the star-studded cast provides performances devoid of that lazy, wooden quality that is often found when actors believe they are slumming it in animation. (Willem Dafoe's cameo is a highlight.) The witty, rapid-fire dialogue is delivered with the same understatement and tight timing that much of the cast has provided in past, live action Anderson films, and scenes between Clooney and Streep are probably more genuine than anything we saw in those films.

Accordingly, my feelings as I was walking out of this film were quite genuine, as well. I have been ambivalent about Wes Anderson in the past, but Fantastic Mr. Fox is the work of a filmmaker who has finally found what works for him. All of his predilections easily made the transition into animation, finding a medium that suits them far more naturally. For the first time, he has created a film that the uninitiated can walk into and easily enjoy. It also means that, for the first time, I am looking forward to seeing what he does next.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Revenge: A Dish Served Cold and Well-Garnished

I take a somewhat guilty pleasure in revenge stories. I imagine the moviegoing public shares my fascination, else there would be far fewer filmed vendettas. The simplest revenge movies offer the audience opportunities for guilt-free sadism. At other times, the genre can be intellectual, ironic, and even funny. Today's movie is an odd beast – a marriage between a revenge film and an art film. I am happy to report that it does both genres justice.

The Korean director Chan-wook Park is most famous for his 2003 film Oldboy, which may or may not receive an American remake. Oldboy is in fact the second film in Park's "Vengeance Trilogy". Though the three films share themes, each has a unique plot and characters and can stand alone. I decided to watch Lady Vengeance (called Sympathy for Lady Vengeance in some markets), the final film in the trilogy and a critical favorite.

Lady Vengeance's basic premise is simple, but the film tells its story in a highly unconventional way. Words appear from the clouds; our viewpoint suddenly turns upside-down; a character's face shines with intentionally comic CGI light; people in pictures come to life; dreams blend into reality and past merges with present. The camerawork is surreal, funny, and somehow easy to follow. All too often, such elaborate cinematography goes hand-in-hand with poor storytelling. In Lady Vengeance, however,the film's mode harmonizes with the plot's motion.

The success of the classical revenge story depends on establishing a visceral connection with its audience. For Park, however, thrills are subsidiary to thought. His elaborate staging and cold classical soundtrack distance us from the action without distracting us; we are given room to ponder, analyze, and perhaps judge the characters and their actions. The film's aesthetic framework keeps us from ever fully identifying with anyone in it. I understand that there are in fact two versions of Lady Vengeance; the less popular of the two is even more artistically daring than the "normal" cut. The second version of the film begins in color, but eventually fades to black and white. I would have liked to have seen this take on the film, as several scenes – particularly the last - seem written for the purposes of this device.

Once again, I've managed to write several paragraphs on a film without once describing its plot. Lady Vengeance's eponym is Geum-ja Lee, a thirty-two year old woman recently from thirteen years' imprisonment for her murder of a five-year-old boy. Though Geum-ja confessed to the crime, she was in fact (mostly) innocent. In prison, Geum-ja spent much of her time formulating a plan for her vengeance against the true killer. Like so much else in this film, Geum-ja's wrath takes on a thoroughly unconventional form...

Young-ae Lee plays Geum-ja; her cool beauty and suppressed emotions carry the film. She's quiet, sad, and painfully aware of her sins. She's clearly a sort of monster, but she's nonetheless sympathetic. We don't expect her to take any lasting pleasure from her retribution, but we understand why she could never give it up. The other actors in the film are fine, but the movie would have failed without such a successful lead.

As much as I enjoyed and appreciated Lady Vengeance, the film is not without its problems. The movie spends a great deal of its time establishing the characters of Geum-ja's prison friends, yet most of them vanish from the second half of the film. A police detective collaborates in Geum-ja's highly-illegal revenge, but we never learn enough about him to understand why he behaves as he does. And though this is hardly a major failure, one vital character, though supposed to be a native English speaker, does not sound the part at all.

I was highly impressed with Lady Vengeance; whether or not I blog about them, I shall certainly watch the other two films in Park's trilogy. And perhaps Mr. Hollis-Lima would like to watch his vampire film, Thirst. I have no doubt it would wash the Twilight aftertaste right out of his mouth. Lady Vengeance is a fine fine film.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Indecent Exposure, or How to Mention both Adam Lambert and the Supreme Court in the Same Breath

Some things never change. Way back in 1956 – the days of television's childhood – Elvis Presley's hip gyrations had a way of stirring up controversy. Ed Sullivan, a famous broadcaster, vowed to never allow such a vulgar act on his show. Once the ratings for Presley's appearance on rival, Steve Allen's show came in, however, he suddenly had a change of heart. Presley's performance on The Ed Sullivan Show has since become one of pop music's greatest triumphs over the supposed squeamishness of the American television viewing public.

Here, in 2009, another bizarre parallel with the middle of last century has emerged: the resurgence of the Red Tide. With the Great Healthcare Debate raging, cable news has overflowed with activists passionately expressing their fears that this country has fallen into the hands of communists. It is funny, then, that most of the politicians who stand firmly against government-run health care strongly advocate another trademark of communist government: censorship. When the country was suddenly, and violently, forced to witness the disturbing reality of human anatomy during 2004's Super Bowl Halftime Show, more political demand for censorship of broadcast television and radio emerged than ever before.

A number of CBS stations were fined for the incident – not because they had creative input in the performance, not because they hired the producers who did have such input and not even because they were part of the network that hired those producers. These individual stations were fined because they, ultimately, were the messengers; with very little awareness of what CBS was providing to them (and certainly no idea what liberties Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson would take), they merely handled the last leg, bringing the show to the screens of Americans. Suddenly, television stations were like turkeys on Thanksgiving – ready to fall victim to spurious government fines at any time.

The folks at the Fox network were clearly feeling the heat from their station managers when they decided to take the government to court over an incident of their own. (Cher decided to say "fuck" while accepting an award at the Billboard Music Awards.) The case made it all the way to the Supreme Court, where earlier this year, the fines were ruled legitimate on the grounds that "even isolated utterances can be made in… a vulgar and shocking manner, and can constitute harmful first blows to children." In other words, the government can censor television and radio broadcasts because of the children.

Apparently, some things do change... such as the validity of the First Amendment.

What is the result? Broadcast TV has become a grotesque patchwork of arbitrary taboos and shocking lapses in standards. The government has never prosecuted a network for showing violent fare; the old adage that you can show a man severing a woman's breast before you can actually show a breast has only become more accurate. Any number of weekly crime dramas revel in the graphic details of heinous crimes, but only one has faced a fine: Without a Trace featured a (contrived) orgy scene, without a trace of nudity or violence, that led to fines. Ironically, the government's clear admonition of any and all nudity has come alongside a notable increase in network television sex scenes.

So, while it is true that television networks rarely balk at catering to the lowest common denominator, they remain victims of the government's arbitrary regulations. The Federal Communications Commission only has one written guideline for networks to follow: Do not show anything "indecent" between 6AM and 10PM and never show anything "obscene." No further detail is provided and only the latter part has any basis in the Constitution.

Out of this maelstrom emerges the latest chapter in the saga: Adam Lambert at last weekend's American Music Awards. Lambert's performance featured an overt, S&M theme. During the course of the song, he was surrounded by scantily clad men and women, wrapping their limbs around him. Early on, one of them – a man – crawled up to him and simulated oral sex. A minute or two later, Lambert stuck his fingers into a female dancer's crotch. At the end of the number, Lambert kissed a male member of his band. ABC, the show's broadcaster, was quick to claim that Lambert's rehearsals suggested that a slightly less risqué performance would take place. ABC also, promptly, cancelled Lambert's scheduled appearance the next morning on Good Morning, America, for fear of him doing something else unexpected.

The media has largely focused on Lambert's allegations of double standards. He claims that female performers often do such suggestive performances, including same-sex kissing, without any complaints. (His point was effectively proven when a CBS News report on the incident blurred his kiss, but showed Madonna and Britney Spears kissing uncensored.) Yet, it is unlikely that ABC reacted the way it did due to any double standard, especially given that it is considered friendly to the gay community by activist groups. Instead, it is obvious that ABC fears fines in a territory that, time and again, government regulators love to tread: live music performances.

Still, ABC is hardly an unwitting victim. The theme of the number, including the costumes and most of the choreography, was clearly approved by the network. They knew exactly what they were getting into; they were simply trying to walk the line and they tripped. Similarly, most of the blame fell on Janet Jackson back in 2004 when, in reality, the network approved a song that included lyrics such as, "I gotta have you naked by the end of this song." Can CBS really blame Justin Timberlake for delivering on a promise that they knew he would make?

Network TV is not a cesspool because of a "fuck" here and a boob there. (It is not really a cesspool at all; that is cable's honor.) What plagues broadcast television is the pursuit of profit – the constant catering to the masses at the expense of social responsibility and artistic ambition. No amount of regulation will ever fix that problem; it runs far too deeply. This fact applies to the government, as well. If politicians genuinely wanted to crusade against "indecency," they would tackle television's obvious scourge: rampant, graphic, cynical displays of violence. They would also probably do so without compromising constitutional rights. There are no powerful political contingencies, however, pushing for such things, so politicians have no motivation to pursue them.

Ultimately, the best we can ask for is letting free speech be truly free, letting parents do the parenting and reminding those who dislike network TV that they can always (gasp!) turn off the fucking TV.

There is one glimmer of hope that suggests things are heading this way. Fox's case was limited to judging whether or not the Billboard Music Awards incident violated the FCC's guidelines. A number of Supreme Court justices made it clear that their decisions stood within this narrow scope and that, if allowed to consider the larger issue of those guidelines' legality, the justices would likely declare them unconstitutional. Here is hoping that the First Amendment turns out to be one of those things that never changes.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Getting Past the Past: Memento

Last week I took a look at Christopher Nolan's first film; this week I'm looking at his second. Sometime in the next few weeks, expect looks at Insomnia and The Prestige.

Following may have played the independent theater circuit, but Christopher Nolan didn't enter the mainstream until the release of his second film, Memento. Nolan's second feature film uses many of the same tricks and teases that Following did, but here they're far better integrated into the film's plot. Furthermore, Memento is forty-five minutes longer than Following; Nolan has far more canvas on which to paint. Memento may not be as original as some critics think – it borrows a lot from its predecessor – but it remains one of the best thrillers I have ever seen.

The film's protagonist, Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) lost his ability to create short-term memories on the night that his wife was raped and murdered by the mysterious "John G." Lest he forget his enemy's name and crimes, Leonard has tattooed his body with various details about the murder. He supplements his body-writing with an assortment of notes to himself, annotated Polaroids, and a map of the unnamed city he's staying in. But how can Leonard hope to catch his wife's killer when he doesn't even know how long it's been since the night of the crime? Besides, Leonard freely admits that he won't even remember taking his long-delayed (?) vengeance...

As does Following, Memento unfolds its story out of chronological order. In Nolan's first film, the protagonist always thinks he knows what's going on around him; the shuffling confuses the audience, but doesn't reflect his mental state. One of the few things that Memento's protagonists knows for sure is how much he does not know; the viewers share his bewilderment and confusion. Following's structural games are entertaining and intriguing, but the story would have functioned perfectly well with a more straightforward plot progression. Memento, on the other hand, would lose most of its poignancy and much of its suspense were it arranged in chronological order.

This is an odd sort of admission, but some of the best parts of Memento are the parts that aren't there. Following has an almost airtight plot; once you've seen everything, you can put all the story's pieces together and form a coherent story. Memento's story isn't entirely inscrutable, but there are several important events that we never see. The audience has far more interpretative freedom. Great mystery films have left out crucial information before – consider the general's chauffeur in The Big Sleep – but rarely in a manner so well-considered and clever as this film.

Nolan's films tend to be far more philosophically engaged than today's typical film. To be terribly reductive, Following discusses the seductive nature of evil, Batman Begins is about fear, The Dark Knight is about ends and means. Memento is about subjectivity and the nature of reality. As Leonard puts it early in the film: "Just because there are things I don't remember doesn't make my actions meaningless. The world doesn't just disappear when you close your eyes, does it?" Leonard recognizes solipsism as a peril; he knows that time passes, even if he doesn't remember it.

I'm not sure if Memento is Christopher Nolan's best film – I haven't seen Insomnia or The Prestige, for one thing, and The Dark Knight is one of my all-time favorite films. To say that Memento may be Nolan's greatest film is to give it a great deal of praise.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Title Suggests Inherent Dimness

Full disclosure: I kind of liked the first Twilight film. It had a long list of flaws, most of which could be blamed on Melissa Rosenberg's crappy screenplay, but despite them, the film managed to convey something authentic. That now-somewhat-famous shot of Edward and Bella lying in a bed of flowers is an undeniably potent representation of two teens lost in the throes of hormonal love. Thanks, in most part, to some surprisingly beautiful cinematography (courtesy of Elliot Davis) and an eerie score (from Carter Burwell), the film's flaws were smothered in its striking, ethereal atmosphere. Twilight can be written off as cheesy, but it made the thirteen year-old girl in me swoon.

Consider my heart broken. None of the crew from the original film returns for New Moon – neither the music nor the cinematography are anything to write home about – but Summit Entertainment did hold on to Rosenberg. This ensured that New Moon retains all of the flaws of the original, while shedding most of its redeeming value.

Even if one was somehow unaware of Stephenie Meyer's book series going into New Moon, it would not be long before he or she would identify the movie as an adaptation of a novel. All of the pitfalls are present here: A meandering plot, half-baked character progression, a lack of identifiable themes and, of course, a rather unsatisfying ending. (The Writers' Guild of America sorely needs to hold a seminar on how to adapt a novel into a screenplay. Hollywood seems to fail at this task more consistently than almost anything else.) I have no idea how good Meyer's books are, or if the source material can partly be to blame, but it is safe to say that Rosenberg is taking the painfully short-sighted "stay as close to the source material as possible" route with her scripts – and moviegoers are paying the price.

As we rejoin our pasty couple, Bella (Kristen Stewart) and Edward (Robert Pattinson) are in a stable relationship, but are beginning to run up against the inherent weirdness of vampire-human dating – she is worried about aging, and he is worried about eating her. Way too many allusions to Romeo and Juliet suggest where this is heading. After a bit of (extra?) brooding, he decides to cut her loose and move out of town. This sends Bella into a nigh-suicidal phase, complete with misguided thrill seeking and night terrors. She eventually turns to her old friend, who is newly hot, Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner) and their relationship grows quickly. Still, Bella has no intention of getting over Edward. This leaves Jacob with growing frustration, particularly as his involvement with his Native American tribe's fight against vampires deepens and he is forced to protect Bella from her own wild behavior. Eh, the Shakespeare connection left off at some point back there but, rest assured, the parallels return for the ending, albeit not as closely as some viewers might wish.

None of these developments are nearly as engrossing as they could have been, since the film only devotes a few minutes to a given thread before wandering off in a different direction. A fifth-wheel date between Bella, Jacob and a boy from school, for example, is played for all of the awkward laughs it can be until Jacob arbitrarily, and comically, goes into a fit of rage. The boy from school disappears from the rest of the film, taking the cheeky sense of humor that drove the previous few scenes with him. I would also be remiss if I did not mention that the film has a jarring, third act change of scenery to rival that of Transformers 2. It makes a vague sort of sense within the film's plot but, being the umpteenth hard turn the script takes, I had trouble caring enough to pay attention by this point.

Director, Chris Weitz does little to mitigate the shortcomings of the script. This is no surprise, considering that his last film was the debacle known as The Golden Compass. There are one or two moments of flair: Bella sulks away three months of her life in one shot and a dive off of a cliff has a nice, surreal bent. His best known work, however, is American Pie. Like his predecessor, Catherine Hardwicke, he seems to have been chosen for his experience with teen movies. As such, he is only marginally capable of shooting an action sequence.

Yet, the true problems arise elsewhere. Weitz proves unable to finesse the melodrama into something palatable – an achievement Hardwicke managed to eke out in Twilight by putting more dramatic emphasis on Bella's down-to-earth interactions with her father. In New Moon, the man simply shuffles into her room every few scenes in order to do some perfunctory parenting. As evidenced by my description of the movie date midway through the film, Weitz also occasionally fails to subdue the film's comedic aspects sufficiently. In the midst of all of the melodrama, it just leads one to wonder how much of the film is a joke.

The cast bears much of the blame here, as well. Stewart does not have much range. Her dry, basket case schtick gets her through most of the movie, but it wears thin, and the higher the drama gets, the more grating it becomes. When Edward's life is in danger, and the best she can do is stutter loudly, it saps all of the drama out of the scene. Pattinson underplays about as much as she does, but he can at least get through an entire sentence with relative ease. By far the biggest problem is Lautner. He may have been able to step up to the role physically, but he fails miserably in every other respect. As a meek, ancillary character in the first film, he did well enough, but he is simply not capable of portraying his character's growing intensity. Despite his six pack, he still sounds like the kid who gets beaten up in gym class. One of the worst scenes I have witnessed this year is his rain-drenched argument with Bella; Lautner does not sell a single frame of it.

The honeymoon is over, and the reality of the situation is grim. Summit has proven that its priority is to squeeze these films out as quickly as it can before the fad wanes. Accordingly, Eclipse is due out next summer. Most frustrating of all, the new crew is intriguing; David Slade, director of Hard Candy and 30 Days of Night will take the helm. Melissa Rosenberg, though, remains the writer. I continue to see potential in the series, but something tells me that Twilight and I are star-crossed lovers. You know, like Romeo and Juliet.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

London Lurking: Following

As some of you may know, The Dark Knight was by far my favorite film of 2008. Mr. Hollis-Lima liked it, too. Earlier this year, I blogged about the trailer for Nolan's next film, a science fiction thriller called Inception. Nolan's second Batman seems to have overshadowed all his previous work, even the much-praised Memento. I thought it would be entertaining to do a Me and Matt on Media retrospective of all Nolan's earlier films, starting with his debut movie, Following.

Memento was praised for its shuffling of scenes and timelines; Following does much the same thing, though it lacks the narrative justification (i.e. Guy Pearce's brain injury) for the confusion. There's a frame story – the protagonist in a police station, telling a detective his story – but I don't think the audience is supposed to assume that he's telling it in this disjointed fashion, especially since there are a few important scenes that our protagonist doesn't even witness. The plot would be extremely interesting even without the rearranged scenes, but the conceit generally works. Though a tad pretentious and slightly nonsensical, putting the plot's puzzle together is extremely satisfying.

Following's plot is highly and self-consciously noirish; it's a psychological thriller shot in black-and-white. With one exception, the thief Cobb (Alex Haw), the cast list doesn't even give character names. Instead, Jeremy Theobald is "The Young Man," Lucy Russell is "The Blonde," and John Nolan (the director's uncle) is "The Policeman." The archetypical character descriptions suggest a pastiche or homage, but Following hardly lacks for originality. The protagonist, though a fool, is far less an everyman than the typical noir sap. "The Young Man" is a struggling and unemployed would-be writer who has found a new way of gathering material: tailing random people through London's streets.

It's damn creepy, but he doesn't harm anyone until the day he tails a well-dressed gentleman carrying a mysterious duffel bag. As it turns out, this man is a burglar named Cobb; he's in the market for a partner-in-crime. Following is all well and good, he explains, but it's nothing to match the transgressive thrill of breaking and entering. The young man isn't terribly intelligent, so he follows Cobb into his life of crime. Soon he's dating one of his past break-in victims, a beautiful blonde with a mysterious connection to a very bad man... Given that the film opens in a police station, one can't expect things to end well for our poor following fool.

It's rather sad to look at Following's cast on IMDB. All the film's actors are very good, but very few of them have appeared in much else, though Nolan gave several of them cameos in Batman Begins. Lucy Russell's role is by far the most traditional – her character is a classic femme fatale. Alex Haw as Cobb is simultaneously charming, dapper, and threatening; he's by far the most energetic actor on the screen. Jeremy Theobald plays the lead, a sucker, a follower (in every sense of the word), and a pervert with an odd mix of meekness occasional confidence. He's likable, but his downfall is darkly comic, not tragic.

I can't finish my review of Following without mentioning its budget. Nolan had very little money to make this film, but he did a phenomenal job working around his lack of funding. Most of the film takes place inside the same few rooms, but this makes sense for the story. According to IMDB, the director and stars were only able to shoot on Saturdays, as they all worked the rest of the week. Films shot under such conditions should not be as good as this one.

Much of Following seems to prefigure Nolan's later work – the magnetic villains reappear in The Dark Knight, while the plot convolutions show up in Memento and (if the film is at all like the book) The Prestige. There's also one wonderful inadvertent "premonition" of later Nolan in the film, but I'll leave that for viewers to discover on their own. For all its affinities with the director's later work, Following seems to stand apart from the rest of the Nolan canon. For one thing, it's extremely quiet and low-key, hardly words one would associate with today's Nolan. In addition, Following is a very short movie, only seventy minutes long. Nolan's last movie was almost twice as long as his first.

Following is available on DVD and on Netflix Watch Instantly. It's worth your time.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Flashbacks, Flashforwards and Flashes of Cleavage

Now that Dollhouse has been sent to the attic, the options for sci-fi fans who watch network television are fewer than ever. Even Fringe, the only other sci-fi show that Fox has, spent some time on the chopping block. Surprisingly, it seems that ABC is looking to fill this void. This September, one of the network's major premieres was a show called FlashForward. Now, in the thick of November sweeps, ABC has pulled out another big-budget, sci-fi project: V. It places ABC in the unlikely position of being sci-fi's last network television hope. (Cable is not looking much better.) So, should sci-fi fans place their hopes in the network best known for Dancing with the Stars and Grey's Anatomy?

Immediately, it is clear that ABC's concept of what sci-fi can be is defined with one word: Lost. (If we ignore Defying Gravity, which we certainly will.) Both FlashForward and V obviously borrow their general formulas from J.J. Abrams' popular show. For those of you who do not have electricity, Lost is about a group of people who are stranded on a remote, Pacific island after their plane mysteriously crashes. The crash occurs in the first episode and, from that point on, we watch as the passengers slowly piece together what happened to them, both through scenes on the island and through flashbacks.

Now, FlashForward is a show where, instead of flashbacks, the characters must grapple with (wait for it) flashforwards. The central mystery here is why everyone in the world saw two minutes and seventeen seconds of what could very well be their future. On paper, it is essentially Lost, but the people can shave and buy a hamburger whenever they want.

V is not quite so overtly derivative. Alien spaceships appear over a number of major cities around the world, equipped with giant LCD screens. The aliens use these screens to ensure the humans that they are "of peace. Always." Moral complexity ostensibly ensues as the ensemble of characters struggles to figure out just what the aliens intend to do. To the credit of creator, Kenneth Johnson, V leaves the plot's timeline largely un-screwed with. Yet, V still largely focuses on how the numerous characters react to the circumstances, like the other two shows and, like FlashForward, V even does this in the face of a very large-scale premise. I am not, by any means, saying that sci-fi cannot be character-driven. The problem with these two shows is that the character development seems to enable a phobia of genuine science fiction among their producers.

FlashForward actually did quite a bit with its premise over its first few episodes. The writers quickly set about exploring the endless repercussions of a global catastrophe, from the immediate chaos that results from everyone passing out for two minutes to the twisted playground games children play once school resumes. Furthermore, the numerous characters in the show are each affected by unique problems arising from their glimpses into the future. One character sees himself speaking to his dead daughter, another sees herself cheating on her husband and one even sees nothing at all. It results in some protracted melodrama, yes, but quite a bit of genuine pathos, as well.

Yet, the fact remains that the major hook in FlashForward is an epic, sci-fi mystery. It is in the execution of this aspect that the show falls on its face. I groaned the moment I learned that the lead character is an FBI agent and my reaction has proven justified. Much of the show is devoted to procedural water-treading, as the agent and his cohorts run from one contrived clue to another, struggling to understand the flashforwards. It renders the show a thinly veiled cop drama. This show's writers may be smart, but they shot themselves in the foot; FlashForward's hook is far more exciting than anything the show can offer on a weekly basis. The saving grace? The flashforwards all showed what would happen on a certain day in spring, 2010, meaning that the show has a guaranteed payoff by the end of the season. It is hard to deny that such a commitment took guts on the writers' part.

V, on the other hand, has no saving grace. By the end of the 47 minute pilot episode, there is little question that this show is DOA. It begins much like FlashForward, showing the large cast of characters being caught off guard by a shocking incident. Thing is, this show's "shocking incident" is a vaguely creepy lady on a TV screen. What V's writers wish to do with their concept (or the concept they stole from the 1980's series by the same name) is largely unclear. Sure, there are characters running around, getting agitated for various reasons, but this show has no themes to tie the rambling plot together.

It is immediately obvious that the aliens are up to no good, so the controversy among the humans as to the aliens' motives seems downright idiotic. There are a few good aliens, but it is tough to care about their subversive efforts because we have no idea what, exactly, makes the bad aliens bad, apart from their hair. Much of the first two episodes is devoted to a teenage character's attempts to bed a sexy alien girl who often fails to fully zip up her top. Finally, (did you see this coming?) the main character is an FBI agent who is struggling to uncover the true nature of the aliens by way of a series of vague clues. So much time is devoted to the trifling exploits of these flat characters that the science fiction is often limited to the occasional shot of the space ship over Manhattan.

Circumstances are neither mitigated by the often laughable dialogue, (Teenage guy's sidekick goes, "Two words: Awe-some!" when he gets hit on. An interrogation scene begins with the line, "I want answers!") nor by the hokey production design that uses stock TV apartments and FBI offices that are shot with about as much menace as an episode of Private Practice. V may not rely on the storytelling gimmicks that ABC's other two sci-fi dramas do, but it is victimized by many of the same pitfalls, and to a far greater extent. It is impressive how bland and familiar a show featuring reptile people can feel.

While ABC's narrow approach to sci-fi does not completely undermine their efforts, it is undeniable that, by the time they got around to airing V, the well had run dry. If the network wants to be science fiction's savior, it is going to have to take some chances. FlashForward may yet prove worthwhile, but V has no chance of doing so. Considering that both of the shows' ratings are sinking, however, neither may have a future. Is it too early to ask what Joss Whedon is working on next?

Friday, November 13, 2009

In Boston, Wrongdoing Done Right

After suffering through The Boondock Saints II, I started thinking about better Boston-themed crime movies. Most modern movie viewers would cite The Departed as the great Boston crime movie, except that a) it's not that great and b) it's a remake of a Hong Kong film. If only Bostonians had better memories, they would say that 1973's The Friends of Eddie Coyle is the best of all the films of life in the Hub's underworld. Indeed, it may well be the best of all Boston movies. Alas, it's very little known. Though Quentin Tarantino references it in Jackie Brown and Criterion recently put the film out on DVD, The Friends of Eddie Coyle remains sorely under-appreciated.

Director Peter Yates elected to shoot Eddie Coyle entirely on location, even though very few scenes feature famous Boston landmarks – we see some the Government Center T stop and the old Garden, but there aren't any car chases through the North End or shootouts in Kenmore Square. Unlike so many "location" films, Eddie Coyle doesn't treat the audience like tourists. The characters are all at home in Boston; we see their world as they see it – humdrum and seedy and boozy – instead of witnessing it from a tour bus.

The cinematography in The Friends of Eddie Coyle is rarely as fancy as in other seventies crime films, but this unobtrusiveness fits. The criminals in this story are not glamorous or even particularly threatening; the title character lives in Quincy and his family is almost on welfare. Don Corleone's office in The Godfather seems a temple or sanctum; the criminal decisions made there seem solemn and momentous. In Eddie Coyle, the lawbreakers spend most of their time in uncrowded bars and cheap restaurants that are shot to look like uncrowded bars and cheap restaurants. Though it's a story of treachery, violence, and betrayal, The Friends of Eddie Coyle lacks the style generally associated with noir. Everything's seedy, but nothing's sexy.

At times, The Friends of Eddie Coyle seems almost like a play. Though the film is compellingly shot, most of it consists of long conversations between various criminals, cops, and hangers-on. Thankfully, the script is fantastic – believable, funny, and intelligent. While there are several policemen in the film, in some ways the viewer has to play detective, figuring out the complex interrelationships and machinations of several unscrupulous characters. The plot isn't terribly complicated or twisty, but never does anyone lay it all out straight for the audience's consideration. It's just as well, as there's only – as far as I can tell – one character who could tell the whole story, and he has very good reasons to stay quiet.

Robert Mitchum plays the film's title character, a worn-out Irish criminal awaiting sentencing for a crime he committed in New Hampshire. Peter Boyle plays his friend and bartender Dillon, Steven Keats plays a gunrunner, and Richard Jordan plays a Treasury detective. Plus there are some student radicals who want machine guns, a group of bank robbers, and – mostly unseen – the Mafia. Eddie Coyle wants to avoid jail time; to do so, he's willing to betray friends and talk to cops, all the while selling guns to some other acquaintances. Things get messy, though the movie's body count is actually quite low.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle has a very good cast, if not a famous one. There are only two "stars" in the movie, and Peter Boyle's role is comparatively small. Mitchum's Coyle is far more likable than a gun dealer and felon should be; he's a working-class stiff with an unconventional job. Even at his worst, there's something in his tired expression that makes you root for Coyle. I wish that Peter Boyle's seemingly-ineffectual Dillon got more screen time; he's quite compelling, especially after some late-movie revelations. He's awkward and balding and cringing, but he's dangerous for all of that. Like most of the film's characters, he's a hypocrite.

I'd praise the script for Eddie Coyle, but screenwriter Paul Monash didn't have all that much to do, as most of the dialogue is lifted from George V. Higgins' very novel. Yes, fans, this is another tandem book/movie review. Elmore Leonard – considered one of the world's best crime writers – has referred to The Friends of Eddie Coyle as "the greatest crime novel ever written." Norman Mailer provided a memorable blurb to Higgins, then a US Attorney in Boston: "What I can't get over is that so good a first novel was written by the fuzz." The novel's plot is slightly more convoluted than the film's; sorting out the plot requires just a little more dedication. If I don't praise it quite so highly as Leonard does, I think it's one of the ten best crime novels that I've ever read. I should, perhaps, admit that I'm a trifle biased towards Higgins, as we share an alma mater.

And now, back to your regularly scheduled movie review.

As much as I enjoyed The Friends of Eddie Coyle, there are a few problems. The Criterion DVD doesn't offer any deleted scenes, though it does provide some stills from them. Presumably the full scenes have vanished. In any case, I get the impression that a slightly longer movie would have been a slightly better one. One major character vanishes after his arrest near the end of the film; I'm not sure that he's ever mentioned again, though he featured in some missing scenes. One later scene originally featured a shootout; I was surprised that such an action-light movie would cut it, though I think Yates made the right choice. He also cut a fairly graphic sex scene, thus showing his commitment to people over sex and spectacle.

Though later films borrow some from Eddie Coyle – Dillon's pigeon monologue wouldn't be out of place in Pulp Fiction – I've never seen anything quite like it. It has a profound sense of place, it avoids most crime movie cliches, it's funny, and it's well-acted. You should watch it.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

In War, There Are No Winners

It is the policy of this blog's editor that slurs against any group of people will not be displayed, unless part of a decidedly relevant quote. Accordingly, any potentially offensive language herein is presented for the sole purpose of cogent discussion. Any user comments that do not also meet this criterion will be deleted immediately.

Just over a week ago, the video game world found itself in an unfamiliar situation: Embroiled in criticism over social responsibility, not at the hands of an activist parents' group or an overzealous Florida attorney, but from within.

In an attempt to hype the imminent release of its Modern Warfare 2, developer, Infinity Ward released this promotional video:



What followed was widespread criticism in the video game press and extremely heated controversy among their readers, as evidenced by the comments sections in those respective links. (For those who did not notice, the acronym for the activist group at the end of the video happens to spell out a slur against homosexuals.) This entire incident has raised a number of questions about where the video game community stands in relation to the rest of our culture, when it comes to acceptance of gays. It is, obviously, a tough question to tackle, but comparing video games to the two other media that this blog covers – film and television – may, at least, provide some perspective.

Film typically enjoys more creative freedom than the other two media – a fact that can likely be attributed to it being the oldest of the three. The critical and popular success of Brokeback Mountain in 2005 said a lot about where the film industry stands on the gay rights issue. Despite the fact that I, too, consider the film to be quite good, it is difficult to be convinced of Hollywood's sincerity on an issue that is often wrapped up in petty political squabbles; Brokeback may have merely been embraced on grounds of single-minded political predilections.

Last year's Milk is a great example of this phenomenon. I never stopped wondering at all of the adulation such a mediocre film received, especially when two of its weaker aspects, its screenplay and its lead, were the objects of much of that praise. Anyone who has seen Rob Epstein's well-loved documentary, The Times of Harvey Milk knows how fascinating Harvey Milk's life was. I was astonished to find that Dustin Lance Black's screenplay for Milk, however, hit each bullet point in the man's history with only the most perfunctory concern for character or plot. Furthermore, anyone who has seen real-life footage of Harvey Milk knows that he did not display many stereotypically gay characteristics. Yet, Sean Penn, in his Oscar-winning role, saw fit to give the man limp wrists and a highly mannered style of speech.

If the Oscars' handling of high-profile gay films is any indication, the film industry's concern for gay rights remains rather superficial. Nevertheless, it is hard to ignore the industry's continued interest in tackling the gay rights issue head-on. Even if it is unintentional, such behavior prevents the industry from alienating the GLBT community. When even crude, inflammatory fare like "Bruno" is careful to make its pro-gay stance clear, it is apparent that Hollywood is making conscious efforts to this end.

Television networks have made equally conscious efforts in this area – in fact, many have called them contrived in certain instances. When a study by the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) stated that SyFy was one of the lowest-rated networks, in terms of portraying homosexual characters, the network took swift action. It assured the public that it would make a conscious effort to include more gay characters in future programming. Many, like myself, found this concerning, as it implied that the network intended to intervene in the writing of their shows, in order to impose this initiative. Obviously, I fully advocate efforts to diversify a television landscape that is still ruled by rich, white, straight characters, but those efforts should really originate at the creative level, not the executive; forcing writers to comply will likely result in a proliferation of shallow, token characters – not to mention bad storylines.

Still, SyFy's approach is doubtlessly typical. It is difficult not to notice the sudden abundance of gay (supporting) characters on network television. Glee, FlashForward, Modern Family, Mercy and surely a number of other new, fall '09 shows featured gay characters in their casts – a phenomenon that did not seem to occur last year. It looks like the television industry's embracing of the gay community has happened even more abruptly than the film industry's.

There are, of course, exceptions. A recent episode of South Park tackled gay rights issues with predictable bravado. When an obnoxious gang of bikers begins plaguing the town, they are heckled with the word, "fag." It ultimately ignites a debate over the word's meaning, as the kids maintain that it is merely a pejorative for inconsiderate, obnoxious people, not gays. Ultimately, the town chooses to officially redefine the term, in order to line it up with the kids' understanding of it. A particularly interesting moment has the bikers list the etymological history of the word, exposing its constantly shifting meaning.

Yet, Trey Parker and Matt Stone seem to be employing some willful ignorance here. Yes, younger people have rendered the word nigh-meaningless through constant use but the writers seem to believe that the gay rights debate is over. Gay marriage is still an extremely contentious debate and, while one could argue that younger generations use the word differently, that idea hardly applies to today's adults. After all, when the Westboro Baptist Church waves around signs proclaiming, "God Hates Fags," I doubt anyone thinks they are merely condemning inconsiderate jerks. Similarly, Parker and Stone seem to be forgetting that words like, "gay" "homo" and "queer" have also become all-purpose pejoratives. There is an obvious trend there – it is hard to ignore that, but Parker and Stone do. As usual, I admire their willingness to tackle controversial issues without being overly concerned with delicacy, but their opinions are really stretching with this one.

South Park is not the norm for television. In fact, Parker and Stone's ideas more closely resemble the thinking behind Infinity Ward's video than anything else I have discussed thus far; many of the commenters mentioned above, after all, hold up this episode in the ad's defense. While it is obvious that Hollywood's sympathy for gay rights can be forced and superficial, it still appears to be far ahead that of the video game industry.

The timing of the video's release was interesting, as it came a few days after Rockstar Games' release of Grand Theft Auto IV: The Ballad of Gay Tony. Now, I have not been lucky enough to play this game yet, but the core GTA IV release already featured a couple of gay characters and it was likely indicative of the treatment such characters will receive in this release. Rockstar's franchise has always dealt in caricatures but, at the same time, featured unusually well-developed characters. It is true that the gay characters in GTA IV were decidedly stereotypical. Yet, one of them was an old friend of the main character's and he eventually gained a decent amount of depth. A later mission even has you protecting him from a gay basher that has been harassing him. Is it treating the issue with the same level of maturity that Hollywood attempts to? Not quite. But, hey, at least Rockstar tried.

The same cannot be said for the rest of the game industry. Gay characters are incredibly rare in video games (hell, female characters are still hard to come by); it is an understatement to say that homosexuals are underrepresented in the gaming world. So, when the first time in months that gays and games can be mentioned in the same breath is due to a punchline in an ad, things are already looking grim.

Many seem to believe that the joke may have been unintentional, since the word is never explicitly used. Yet, this is a non-issue, as Infinity Ward immediately conceded that it was part of their joke; according to their own Robert Bowling, "I think the core gag is great, the end is a bit too far from the intent of the joke & [I] can appreciate the concerns." This only leaves the question of Infinity Ward's intent in using the word. As argued above, this is largely irrelevant. There is no mistaking the root of this term's offensiveness. The word is used to insult a person's masculinity (this intent is apparent in the video, considering that those players are also called "pussies") and just about every synonym for the word "gay" is often used in the same, exact way.

Are Infinity Ward bigots? I seriously doubt it. Does that really change the fact that the word, however passively it may do so, denigrates homosexuals? No.

Gays are already pariahs in the gaming community – not merely because they are underrepresented in games, but because the online community throws around sexual slurs freely. Anyone who has ever played a competitive, online game knows what I am talking about. Obviously, there is little that we can expect Infinity Ward, or any other developers, to do about that. Yet, it is hardly a justification for Infinity Ward being complicit in it. To use an expression, Infinity Ward are mafia wives. They do nothing to perpetrate these misdeeds, but they are consciously and willfully enabling them.

I fully intend to play Modern Warfare 2; this post is not a call to action, or even an expression of outrage. Instead, my goal here is merely to convey my disappointment. In a popular culture that, at best, seems to acknowledge members of the LGBT community solely for their political value, any group that contributes to their alienation is, unequivocally, part of the problem. The video game community has exploded with diversity over the past few years and it is a damn shame that most developers remain so woefully out of touch that they still fail to recognize it (in all of its forms – not just homosexuality). Proof of this lies in the fact that all of the criticism leveled at this video came from within the community, not from outside groups.

Many gamers, Mr. Keeley and myself included, are proud to preach games' growth as a valuable pillar of our modern culture. Until game publishers and developers are able to recognize the value of our society's diversity and the responsibility for tolerance that comes with it, however, they can never hope for the same respect that other media receive.