Friday, July 31, 2009

The Hunter and Point Blank

Donald E. Westlake was an extremely prolific writer; he wrote something like eighty-eight books, not counting juvenilia and "paperback original trash" like Campus Doll. There have been many writers more proficient than Westlake - Georges Simenon, for example, wrote two hundred books and had time to sleep with Josephine Baker (amongst dozens of other women). What's notable about Westlake is that, like Simenon, he was actually a very good writer. Though he could be very funny, many Westlake fans say his best books are the Parker novels, which he wrote under the pseudonym Richard Stark. Parker is a criminal, thief, murderer, and possibly sociopath. He's very good at what he does, but what he does is rarely good. In The Hunter, the first Parker book, our protagonist is out for revenge against his wife and her lover, who stole his (ill-gotten) money and left him for dead in a burning house. Parker, despite killing one cop, an innocent woman, and a few mob types, somehow manages to get his revenge and get away. He never gets caught for long, and since Westlake died on the last day of last year, he'll never stay caught.

The Hunter has been in the news again lately. The University of Chicago Press has begun to reissue the Parker novels; they're up to book nine (The Rare Coin Score) as I write. Slightly more high-profile, acclaimed comics writer and illustrator Darwyn Cooke has released a graphic adaptation of The Hunter; he plans to adapt three more Parker stories. I have not read Cooke's Hunter yet - it came out jut a few days back - but it is apparently fantastic. A longish preview (twenty pages) is available online. Cooke is a very talented man, and the Parker novels offer so much noirish atmosphere and violence that I can't imagine Cooke's adaptation being anything short of great. Still, The Hunter graphic novel is hardly the first adaptation of the original Parker novel, which has been filmed twice, once with Lee Marvin as Point Blank and once with Mel Gibson as Payback. The latter film shows up on cable all the time, but it's the first movie I want to talk about here. It's a minor masterpiece of crime cinema.

Aside from introducing a love interest and adding an ambiguous ending, Point Blank follows The Hunter's plot fairly closely, yet the film and the book have entirely different styles. The New York of The Hunter could be the city in any decade from the forties to the early sixties (when the book was written). The film relocates the action to Los Angeles and has a very sixties look, with psychedelic night clubs, kitschy billboards, and all the era's signature couture. And where The Hunter is fast-paced, Point Blank often seems meditative - there are lots of very short flashbacks in the film, such that one gunshot will be followed by a shot of an earlier gunshot or one woman lying in bed will lead to another (this time dead) woman lying in bed. There are also a few touches of surrealism, especially near the beginning of the film. The DVD case mentions the movie's "New Wave" technique, but for all its technical finesse and directorial oddities, Point Blank doesn't share the New Wave interest in subverting its genre. Point Blank, for all its affectations, remains a crime film, not a parody of one. The movie's title might sound a trifle cliche and generic, but the finale of the film fully justifies the title. What seems lazy at the beginning of the movie seems brilliant at the end.

Lee Marvin is perfect as Parker, though he's actually called Walker in the film, as Westlake would only let a filmmaker use the Parker name if they planned to make a series. Marvin doesn't talk much, though his silence can - and does - speak volumes. Walker is not a good person by any stretch of the imagination, but the film cuts some of his more brutal crimes, most notably the murder of a policeman and the inadvertent killing of a sickly hostage. And while the book has a few morbidly funny moments, Point Blank thrives on understated black humor - Walker's foes tend to die in embarrassing ways, not that our (anti)hero ever laughs. He's too much of a professional to do that, the bastard.

I mentioned Point Blank's surrealism earlier; I think it's 0ne of the films strongest points. In an early scene, Walker has a fistfight behind the scenes at a jazz club. There's a singer, but the song he sings doesn't have much in the way of lyrics. In fact, it's almost all screams. In another scene, Walker throws several bottles of perfumes, oils, and soaps into a bathtub. The camera lingers on the shattered glass and the mixing red and green fluids. Shortly thereafter, Walker leaves the room and enters a living room from which all the furniture (which we have seen earlier) has vanished. Walker, the hard man, sits down in the corner of the room and holds his head. It's a small moment that says a great deal about our protagonist's mental state - Whether or not the furniture has really vanished from the room, Walker is desolated by (small spoiler) the death of his wife, who lived in the apartment. He is a bad man and a cold one, but he's still (mostly) human.

My friends know I generally prefer books to films, but in the case of Parker, I think the movie is better than the book. The book may be more hardboiled and brutal, but it (intentionally) lacks the style and humor of Point Blank. If you can, read the book, then watch the movie. You'll get two very different, if complementary, takes on the same story. The Hunter is short and action-packed; it will take you about two hours to read it - you could easily read the book and watch the film in the same day. I'm not sure I would recommend that particular course of action, but if you have any interest in stories of crime, you should really experience both Point Blank and The Hunter. Hell, if you find you really like Parker, you could even watch the Mel Gibson version. It has its moments.

And now I discuss the most important difference between Point Blank and The Hunter. Major spoilers ahead.

The Hunter ends with Parker escaping from the police and the mob and New York; the book ends with Parker taking part in a new heist. Point Blank ends where it began, on Alcatraz Island, site of Walker's betrayal by his wife. Everything has come full circle; Walker has returned with a coerced and threatened mob leader, who guides Walker to the money he is owed. There's some violence, but Walker escapes. The camera then pans up from Alcatraz and in the distance we see... Alcatraz. The implication is (as Walker's girlfriend puts it after an especially cold act) "You really did die on Alcatraz!" If the entire movie is just Walker's wish-fulfillment dream of revenge, all those surrealistic touches and flashbacks make sense: we are watching the hallucinations of a dying man. We no longer have to suspend our disbelief that Walker, shot multiple times, could swim away from Alcatraz. It's a pretty neat ending, and one that was probably more original in 1967.

On the other hand, there are quite a few problems with this ending. For one thing, it rather rules out a sequel. This is a shame, as Marvin does a wonderful job with his character, and we'd like to see further adventures. Furthermore, there are several parts in the movie where the point of view doesn't belong to Parker. It already stretches belief that Walker would have such a detailed and coherent dream; belief breaks when you begin to consider all the scenes where Walker is not present. If I were dying on Alcatraz, I don't think I would dream of long meetings between mobsters. The ending of Point Blank, in short, is really cool until you begin to think about it. It's a shame the film stumbles at the end, because most of it is so good.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Just in Case You Want to Support a Company Other Than Hasbro This Summer...

I feel like a bit of a sellout. I have seen a number of solid indie movies this summer and I have completely failed to give them any attention here on the blog. So, in an overdue attempt to make up for it, I have written up brief reviews of four small films that are worth your money this summer.

Away We Go

Maya Rudolph is pregnant with boyfriend, John Krasinski's child. Let the self-consciously indie rumination begin! This one is from director, Sam Mendes, but rest assured, it is not "Revolutionary Road." In fact, this far less a portentous Oscar contender than it is a warm, light cup of Alexi Murdoch-flavored tea.

While the film may be far too eager to woo its target audience (people with beards and army surplus jackets, or people who date people with beards and army surplus jackets), it just barely succeeds. Thank the leads. The two performances are not revelations on the level of, say, Bill Murray's rebirth a few years ago, but they are solid. Rudolph, in particular, is incredibly endearing whilst buried behind her giant belly. (Her talents are wasted on SNL. Get out while you still can!) Krasinski still lacks some range, in my opinion, but its hard to lay a great deal of blame on any of the actors in this film, because the script tends to be quite wonky.

The film is composed of four or five chapters, each devoted to a certain city. Our couple, you see, is searching for the best place to raise their little surprise. The chapters, while they are certainly unique, come together to create a rather uneven film. The Phoenix chapter is the biggest offender of all, featuring an annoying appearance from Allison Janney. It, thankfully, comes early on, though. The subsequent chapters consistently improve, as various friends and relatives show us their unique brands of family. The Toronto segment stands out, as the portrayal of a warm, happy family with adopted children develops a strikingly melancholic tone.

Even as each chapter becomes more poignant, however, it's impact on the leads is not well-developed, especially given the inevitable conclusion that they must build their own kind of family in their own town. Still, earnest performances and rustic cinematography glaze over these rough edges enough to make the film go down easy.


Science fiction has not exactly been doing well lately. "Moon" has come to the rescue, assuring us that there is still some life yet in the the genre. Even the makers of "Away We Go" should take note of this one, as it is a decidedly "indie" film, but it has no interest in flaunting that fact. Sam Rockwell plays a guy named Sam Bell who has been hired to keep an eye on a power company's moon-based mining operation for a period of three years. His stint is almost over and he is looking forward to rejoining his wife and kid at home.

Sam is alone, save for an AI named GERTY (conspicuously voiced by Kevin Spacey). Director, Duncan Jones takes his time developing Sam's daily routine and his relationship with GERTY. The isolation is apparent, but it never becomes tedious. Few actors could pull off the tall order that this film entails, but Rockwell easily conveys Sam's weariness, boredom and loneliness while still being quite likable. Furthermore, GERTY is never quite as menacing as sci-fi filmgoers will expect. It sounds like a car commercial and knows more than it lets on, but its role in the film is more complex than your typical malevolent AI, even beyond the emoticons it sports.

Things do get weird, though. After Sam crashes a truck into a harvesting vehicle and reawakens inside the base, he seems to think there is another version of himself walking around the base. It turns out to be a clone (not a huge spoiler, I swear). The way the Sams' relationship develops is beautifully restrained and surreal. The injured Sam slowly comes to accept the presence of his clone and Jones, once again, knows not to rush this process on screen. Once the two begin to converse and question the situation, the mystery begins to unravel. Rockwell rises to this second major challenge ably, never overplaying the subtly varying personalities of the two Sams. Look for weird split-screen effects all you want; the interaction between the clones almost never feels fabricated – a credit to everyone involved.

"Moon" takes what could have been a weighty epic and makes it an understated, character-driven film. Its small budget does nothing to subtract from the experience (having one main set and one major character probably helped in that area) – in fact, it probably benefitted the film. GERTY chugs around like it has seen a few years' action and the director never gets carried away with the outdoor scenes, allowing the moon's spare drabness to come through. Rockwell will get a lot of attention for this film, and he certainly deserves it, but "Moon" is solid through and through. Sci-fi fans: rejoice.

500 Days of Summer

"500 Days of Summer" will see "Away We Go" its Alexi Murdoch and raise them a Regina Spektor. Even setting aside the indie soundtrack arms race, however, this one is a knockout. As lovable as the cast of "Away We Go" may be, they cannot hold a candle to Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. This one has a great script and some downright lyrical visuals to boot.

I cringed the moment I realized that the movie's title is actually its central means of organizing the narrative. We are treated to a literal, on-screen counter each time the film bounces from one point to another in this couple's 500 day-long romance. While an out-of-sequence narrative is a very easy way to lend some artificial complexity to a film, Marc Webb's sharp directing, along with the witty script, wrings every last ounce of humor and emotion from the idea.

Telling the story from the woefully earnest perspective of Gordon-Levitt's character, Tom, the film is rife with other little gimmicks that (downright confoundingly) work more often than not. A sequence where Tom's expectations for a party play out on one side of the screen while reality does on the other may seem like mere busy work for your eye. Yet, the respective scenes play out with unexpected subtlety and it builds a great deal of tension, leading up to a big revelation. A series of seemingly random images from various scenes in the film repeat throughout the story, each time gaining a bit more meaning. It provides a uniquely skewed perspective on the film's events as we, along with Tom, attempt to make sense of his love interest's apparently confounding behavior.

Even amid all of this conspicuous narrative machinery, there is a genuine soul to the film. Tom's obsession may often be the butt of jokes in the film, but it is still undeniably earnest and tender. The banter Deschanel and Gordon-Levitt share is witty enough to sell its cuteness and there are a few moments where the narrative gives way to passages of romantic bliss that are genuinely beautiful. This really is a good romantic comedy. One does not get to say that very often.

The Hurt Locker

Chalk this one up as another unlikely success. Movies about the war in Iraq are few and far between. Good ones are virtually nonexistent. Good ones directed by a woman... well, you get my point. (It may sound strange to point out the director's gender but this film almost exclusively features male characters. Oh, and when was the last time you saw any movie directed by a woman? Probably not recently... if ever. That's a crime, if Kathryn Bigelow is any indication.)

Jeremy Renner plays Staff Sergeant William James. Staff Sergeant James defuses IEDs (improvised explosive devices). He is also insane. The film opens with the team losing its original bomb technician in a gruesome display of the power of these crude devices. It explains why, throughout the film, James and his men find other soldiers cowering at the sight of the telling garbage piles that tend to hide them. When James joins the team, his reckless approach scares and angers his men. He quickly proves his abilities but consequences do come – in some ways that are less obvious than others.

This is the strength of "The Hurt Locker" – there is hardly a single note of certainty in the film. From the characterizations of the men to each bomb sequence, nothing is clear-cut. Dull tension is pervasive. Even when a bomb is finally defused, the anxiety relents in a way that is so minute it is difficult to perceive. One standoff even ends with a tentative, "I think we're done," after hours of silence. Bigelow's assured directing is to thank. Each bomb scenario James faces builds slowly and surely, without ever resorting to melodramatic performances or heavy handed musical cues. The camerawork has a typically gritty texture, but Bigelow never throws the camera around in order to fabricate drama.

It is easy to want "The Hurt Locker" to have some sort of arc – some sort of progression to the situations James and his team faces. While one could say that each is more stomach-turning than the next (the later events are, indeed, particularly disturbing), writer, Mark Boal knows better than to force any clear meaning onto the film's events. Even when one incident manages to get under James' skin, his attempt to assert some sort of justice is painfully inadequate and, ultimately, pointless. Anything more would have made "The Hurt Locker" a lesser film. As it stands, however, this is the first great war film in years – a striking fact, considering just how long we have been at war.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Duck and Cover: Killzone 2

At last, I have a PS3. Here is the first of many future reviews.

After I finished the first level of Killzone 2, I began thinking about ways to begin my pan of this tedious, repetitive, and generally boring game. I would denounce Killzone 2's grey and brown aesthetics, its uninspiring weapons, unoriginal enemies, and "duck, cover, and repeat" gameplay. I would mock its 91 Metacritic score, denounce its huge sales, and denigrate the industry hype machine that made this into a Big Game.

Alas, the planned pan will not come to pass; Killzone 2 actually gets very good after its mediocre first level. Killzone 2 starts with an invasion of the ominously-named planet Helghan by the brave soldiers of the ISA. I don't know that the game ever explains "ISA" stands for; perhaps I needed to play the previous Killzone. If you hadn't guessed, plot is not Killzone's strong point. In any case, the first level of Killzone is basically a rehash of Normandy Beach an extra-dark sky and extra-intimidating alien Nazis with scary redeyed helmets. Killzone's graphics are technically remarkable, but they don't portray anything you especially care to see. While Killzone is very Halo-esque in many ways, the developers at Guerilla Games don't follow Halo's example and let us shoot our enemies in appealing settings. Grim, gritty, and grey have their places, but they quickly grow tedious. The game's aesthetics don't improve much after the first level, yet the gameplay begins to click, the weapons and scenarios become more interesting, and Killzone stops being "WWII... In Space!"

Still, I wish Guerilla Games had been a trifle more creative in their plot and setting. Though most of the game takes place in Helghan's capital city, we only encounter one civilian in the entire game, a miner and engineer who drives a train. More comically, Killzone 2 has a grand total of one female character. And did the space fascists really have to speak with British accents like some cut-rate Star Wars villains? Still, the game's plot is pretty good, provided you don't expect it to be more than a testosterone-filled war story. I think someone at Guerilla may have greater ambitions than writing for games; the game subtly references a novel by Gene Wolfe and hits you over the head with a Cormac McCarthy allusion. Neither "cameo" is particularly apposite, yet it's still nice to see them.

After the train wreck of a first level, Killzone 2 has some pretty great sequences, involving tanks, mechs, trains, explosions, and other fun things. It's a shame, then, that the developers completely forgot to playtest the last portion of the final level. The final boss is so ridiculous as to cast a pall over the rest of the game. Colonel Radec has a cloaking device, something that no one else in the game has. This alone would be OK, though it would still seem a bit cheap to introduce this new technology so late in the game. Colonel Radec can also teleport, though nothing prior to this fight has suggested that teleportation technology exists in the Killzone universe. Radec is also extremely fast, and kills you with one knife slash. These three aspects of the final boss fight are bad on their own, but Guerilla Games also decided it would be fun to make Radec nigh-immortal. Even the heaviest-armored enemies in the game should notice when they take damage; Radec can shrug off direct rocket hits, flamethrowers (he burns and complains but doesn't die), and multiple point-blank shotgun blasts to the face. After the tenth shotgun and third grenade, one begins to wonder if you've missed some secret way to kill the bastard. You haven't. The developers just hate you.

I wouldn't mind the Radec fight so much if it had occurred earlier in the game, but it appears when players have already learned - or so they think - what to expect from Killzone. In a game like Metal Gear Solid 4, one expects the bosses to take dozens of bullets to kill; the bosses are, after all, generally armored and nanomachine-enhanced. Besides, the player character can take a lot of abuse himself; he won't succumb to a single knife thrust. Though the durability of the characters in Metal Gear is ludicrous, the game is internally consistent. The small and quick Radec, on the other hand, is harder to kill than any armored tank, flying robot, or "Heavy" armored berserker in the game. It's as if Guerilla wants you to forget all the thrilling scenarios and satsfying gunfights they have lately given you.

Perhaps in my complaints about Killzone's failures, I've failed to sufficiently praise the game for what it does well. There are several wonderful set pieces, and the game is generally well-paced. Furthermore, there are a few wonderful innovations. Anyone who has ever spent time with a shooter has had the maddening experience of getting lost amongst already-conquered corridors strewn with dead foes; few things are more maddening than spending five minutes just looking for a the doorway you need to find to advance. Killzone 2's levels are designed to minimize this sort of confusion, but you can also press the Up button on the d-pad to display an arrow that will show you the way you need to go. Unlike some games (ahem, Mirror's Edge), Killzone 2 is very good with checkpoints; if you die (and you will), you generally won't have to repeat long sections of the game you've already beaten. Convenient features like this are small, but they make the bad portions of the game all the more mystifying; someone on the development team had some really good ideas.

I haven't yet played Killzone 2's multiplayer, which is apparently remarkable. I plan to devote some time to it this weekend; I understand Radec does not appear. This is a relief. And I must applaud the developers for including what is basically a single-player multiplayer feature where you can fight computer-controlled "bots" in the multiplayer arenas. While this was once a common feature in first-person shooters (See: Perfect Dark on the N64), many developers have skimped on this, assuming that everyone will play their game online. None of the Halo games, for example, feature bots, though the game's gigantic levels seem to call for them. Killzone 2 multiplayer is intended to be played online, but Guerilla Games knows that not everyone has a broadband connection and that not everyone likes playing with real people, as the real people playing an FPS online tend to be obnoxious teenagers.

I liked Killzone 2, I really did. But I couldn't help but wonder what the developers were doing in a few places - Most of the game is fantastic, but a game with a four-year development cycle should never be as cheap or as tedious as Killzone sometimes allows itself to be. Killzone 2 is an extremely good single-player game, but it should have been great.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

You Will Never Be Cool If You Let People See You Try

It seems like the folks behind the Oscars simply cannot win. They stick to their guns, leaving the telecast in its traditional state, and they are deemed "out of touch." Then, they make changes and they step on everyone's toes while doing it. (It's hard out there for a self-congratulating Hollywood aristocrat, is it not?) The threat of irrelevance, however, is a very real one in an industry that needs attention to live. Ratings are sinking for the annual broadcast, once a major television event. If they sink too low, who knows what would happen? (The awards might be moved to a local high school auditorium, where they would only have their integrity to ride on. Ha.) With that scenario in mind, the Academy has made some of the most significant changes to the Oscars that it has made in decades.

...Of course, the changes it made last time were also some of the most significant changes it had made in decades. I guess they were not significant enough the first time. Personally, presenters standing in a semicircle for the acting awards was positively earth-shattering. I mean, if the traditional Oscar blocking goes, what will they change next? The idiotic banter? The bastardized performances of the winning films' scores? The nipple slips? Thankfully, none of the above. The Academy continues to prove that they are, indeed, out of touch but, at the same time, willing to sell out in a vain attempt to mitigate it.

February's Oscar broadcast was a sorry attempt at reinvention. More often than not, it felt like the Tonys, as it was riddled with musical numbers that ranged from bland to excruciating. Attempts at streamlining the show seemed to backfire. How would making five people present each acting award make things move faster? Even the predictable effort at burning through the technical awards in one segment dragged more than it has in the past. The most troubling innovation was the "Hollywood Yearbook" montage. These consisted of clips from an arbitrary selection of films from a given genre. Well, they were arbitrarily selected from the mainstream films of the past year. If this is not already obvious, the intention of these montages was clearly to bring in a broader audience by devoting time to films that are well known, but not necessarily good enough to be nominated. (Yes, I've always thought that awards shows were far too exclusive toward shitty films. Thank you, Academy!) There is so much to celebrate about the films that compose the Oscars' heritage but, instead of focusing on them, they chose to remind us of how many talking animal movies came out last year.

Seemingly emerging from this maelstrom of horrible ideas is the biggest announcement of the past few weeks: the Best Picture category will now have ten nominations. The Academy claims this will finally allow all of those criminally under-appreciated films to get a chance. One cannot blame them for wanting to change; this past year's Best Picture nominees were astonishingly mediocre and showed a concerted effort to exclude certain films. (Do not try to claim that "Benjamin Button" was better than "The Dark Knight" or "Wall-E." It requires more thick-headed pretension than any one human can possess.) This change, however, does absolutely nothing to fix the problem. If the Academy voters are only interested in being pandered to and refuse to recognize quality, how will giving them more slots to fill remedy such a problem? I suppose that, by sheer odds, it will improve films' chances of getting nominated, but the value of a nomination will go down proportionately. Ultimately, I view this as mere trickery. With this setup, unconventional contenders like the "The Dark Knight" may get a nomination, thereby drawing viewers, but it will not necessarily have a real shot at winning.

The two other recent announcements are equally troublesome. One says that the Best Original Song category will no longer happen if there are not enough good songs submitted that year. (Less music? That is quite a reversal. Looks like Hugh Jackman's musical numbers did not grab ratings.) The quality of a song will be determined by a vote in which members view a clip of the film, wherein the song was featured, and then rate it. If fewer than three of the songs average over a certain score, the category is shelved that year. It is nice that they want to recognize how the song does its job in the context of the film (it is the point of the category, after all), but can a short clip really convey its effectiveness in that regard? Absolutely not. At least voters are required to watch all of the eligible clips for this category; it is not usually the case.

Let me reiterate that: Voters are not required to watch all films that were accepted into competition when choosing nominees for most categories. That includes Best Picture.

One would think that detail would need to be tweaked.

An example of a category that does require viewing of all accepted films is Best Foreign Language Feature. The effectiveness of that approach was made apparent this past year with the surprise victory of Japan's "Departures." It beat out the overrated favorite "Waltz with Bashir."

The other announced change is that the honorary awards will no longer be part of the telecast. Those are those awards that do not have nominees, only unfamiliar old men who stand up and talk for ten minutes. These people have supposedly had long careers that deserve a moment of recognition on the world stage and, more importantly, a moment for educating those who are ignorant of their importance, but the Academy does not seem to care. Old men do not sell ad time. Like the "Yearbooks," it is another decisive step away from valuing recognition of true achievement.

Yet, I refuse to abandon hope. Billions attend movies each year, but the Oscars seem like the only opportunity they are afforded each year to celebrate the art of film. There have been some moments of greatness in the past few years (The 2007 Foreign Language Film retrospective was downright beautiful. "Once" beating the odds to win Best Original Song in 2008 was a rare moment of true justice.) and they make me sure that things have not degraded beyond the point of no rescue. It is clear that, with every attempt to reinvigorate the Oscars, however, the Academy takes another step away from credibility. That the Oscars are seriously flawed is no secret, but continued attempts at a slick, crowd-pleasing broadcast will likely yield some pale MTV Movie Award clone. That may sound like an extreme statement, but prestige is the only fundamental quality that differentiates the Oscars from any other movie awards show. The Academy should not be so quick to squander it. They certainly will not be able to beat MTV at its own game.

Friday, July 17, 2009

In Bruges and Six Shooter: The Films of Martin McDonagh

At times, Martin McDonagh's films are very easy to confuse with Quentin Tarantino's. Thankfully, McDonagh is not the Irish Tarantino - Though both directors love long, humorous conversations between violent and brutal men and though neither is reluctant to show extremely graphic, if sometimes darkly comic, violence, McDonagh doesn't have Tarantino's penchant for rip-off, pastiche, and "homage." More importantly, McDonagh's films are about something, while most of Tarantino's films really concern their director's past as a video store clerk who loved trashy exploitation films. McDonagh's characters may allude to art (especially Bosch) or movies (especially Don't Look Now), he doesn't let his references completely dominate his movies. The ending scene of In Bruges does seem a little too allusive, yet it still works, especially the last shot.

Perhaps I should elaborate on what's wrong with Tarantino these days; it might help make clear what's so good about McDonagh. Tarantino's most recent film, Inglorious Basterds, has yet to debut in the States. The reports from Cannes were decidedly mixed: Apparently the film is less a rousing story of Nazi-killing than a homage to the Conquering Power of Film. So, an ultraviolent period remake of Cinema Paradiso? Sign me up. Tarantino's early films featured ambiguous characters and left audiences theorizing and pondering. Consider the unanswered questions in Reservoir Dogs or the moral choices Bruce Willis' character makes in Pulp Fiction. By the time we get to the Kill Bill films, however, the only remaining "ambiguity" comes from the unimportant shuffling of chronology. Indeed, I think Tarantino has traded ambiguity for "authenticity." If Real Exploitation Films did blood splatter by filling condoms with red paint, Tarantino is damn well going to follow suit. If he's doing a kung fu movie, Tarantino is damn well going to cast the (late, lamented) David Carradine and write a cameo for Sonny Chiba. At times it's funny - The missing reel and scratched film in Deathproof - but at other times it's just a bit obsessive. Tarantino lets the little things distract him so much that his films seem to lack a big picture. McDonagh, on the other hand, has the ability to make seemingly-unimportant characters into vital parts of his movies. The comic drug-addled midget (who prefers to be called a dwarf) in In Bruges might seem like a gag character. He's not.

Six Shooter was McDonagh's first film; in 2006 it won an Oscar for Best Live Action Short Film. I won't spoil the film's plot here, though I will mention it includes murder, suicide, a shootout, and a bovine explosion. The film at times seems like a collaboration between Flannery O'Connor and Monty Python's Flying Circus - It's funny, it's disturbing, and it will leave you thinking. Six Shooter is available for $1.98 on iTunes. It's a great price for an extremely good film.

Six Shooter's star Brendan Gleeson appears again in McDonagh's second (and first feature-length) film, In Bruges, though he plays a very different role. Whereas in Six Shooter Gleeson was a somewhat-ineffectual widower, here he's an aging hitman named Ken who works aside a younger killer named Ray (Colin Farrell). Harry (Ralph Fiennes), Ken and Ray's boss, has sent his employees to the "fairy tale" Belgian city of Bruges after a hit on a priest went wrong. Though Ray managed to kill his target, he also put a bullet in the head of a small child who had been praying in the church where the killing took place. Harry eventually asks Ken to kill Ray, as "if I had killed a little kid, accidentally or otherwise, I wouldn't have thought twice. I'd killed myself on the fucking spot. On the fucking spot. I would've stuck the gun in me mouth." Ken can't bring himself to kill his friend; violence ensues. While In Bruges features many "audience-friendly" elements (Hitmen! Pretty European locales! Violence! Light Irish accents! More violence! Colin Farrell!), it never stoops to pandering. McDonagh entertains without sacrificing his artistic intent.

One of McDonagh's great virtues is his honesty: He doesn't go in for trite resolutions and laughably happy endings. In Bruges doesn't end with Ray learning that the kid he shot got better. Characters we like die, sometimes unnecessarily, and the film ends with a major character's fate unresolved. While Ken, Ray, and even Harry all commit actions that might seem atoning, McDonagh never lets us forget the various evils that all three men have been responsible for.

In Bruges asks big questions about guilt and atonement, but it generally avoids solemnity. There are a few overly-portentous moments, especially in the film's Hieronymus Bosch-influenced ending. McDonagh also seems too drawn to easy stereotypes - Snooty Europeans, overweight Ugly Americans, Irishmen who say "fuck" a lot. The caricatures, while entertaining, detract from the characters. Yet it's easy to forgive McDonagh a few moments of artistic failure in a film that's so funny, entertaining, and quotable. ends suddenly and ambiguously - Instead of shoving a moralistic ending down our throats, McDonagh trusts his audience to interpret his work and his characters. In this day and age, that is a remarkable virtue, and one that makes up for many failings. I hope McDonagh keeps directing - Both of his films impressed me; he seems almost to be what Tarantino should have been.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Yes, Bruno Is Indeed Gay

Funny, shocking, absurd, blah, blah, blah... like every film these days, reviewers have buried "Bruno" in punchy adjectives that are primed to make their way into TV ads and onto DVD covers. Few of these assessments are off base, but I have not seen anyone append what I think is the most appropriate adjective of all: loaded – as in, really loaded. "Bruno" is a film that so heavily hinges on the opinions of the viewer that it is impossible to assess objectively.

At the same time, the film's sole purpose is to elicit a reaction – a strong one. It cannot help but lead to passionate discussion. Anyone and everyone will potentially be offended by this film. What the MPAA loves to call "graphic nudity" is definitely present here. (You have to love that term. Is it like nudity... only more so?) So are a myriad of sexual acts that range from tasteless to downright campy. Sacha Baron Cohen's character is a shameless stereotype, and not a frame of the film makes any apologies for it. Thing is, the stereotyping is self-conscious. There is little doubt that "Bruno" comes from a decidedly pro-gay rights stance. Yet, I have come to realize that this movie will undoubtedly serve as a call to action for those who are of a different persuasion.

The film is so relentless that it is bound to elicit anger from those who are not down with the whole gay thing. The group of guys behind me in the theater are a good example. For the first hour, they repeated, "He is so gay," on a minute-by-minute basis, in a vain attempt to process what they were seeing. By the end of the film, they were slinging epithets at the screen with such seething anger that my friend and I were genuinely unsettled. It is hard to say if there is a better approach to take with such audience members as these; something tells me that calm reason may be equally ineffective.

For better or for worse, therein lies the appeal for the more tolerant members of the audience. The stereotypical nature of the main character is so absurdly over-the-top that it is clearly meant to turn the stereotype back onto those who cleave to it. Bruno is designed to push these prejudices to such an extreme that they are laughable for those who know better and downright horrifying for those who do not.

Given the reaction of my neighbors, it worked.

By the time the film reaches its astonishing climax, it is hard to decide whether Cohen is targeting the people on the screen, or if he is assaulting the detractors in the audience. It makes the film a very potent experience; one almost feels that the violent, drunken wrestling fans in the film are spilling over into the theater. Even so, I would be lying if I claimed that I did not enjoy listening to the guys behind me resort to frantic anger in an attempt to hide their fear. The climactic scene, after all, sums up the intended effect of the film: to ensnare the intolerant, then berate them.

It may not make the film as noble of an endeavor as it could have been, but it makes it damn funny at times. Bruno getting chased around an Israeli street because of his unusual fashion choice must be seen to believed. His attempts at likening a group of hunters to the girls of "Sex and the City" gets a beautifully rigid response from the men. Watching Bruno attend a swingers' party where he is forced to make a hasty escape (for which no man, gay or straight, would blame him) is quite memorable. Other moments do feel a bit cheap, relying on shock value more so than satire. I do not think it makes a hotel manager intolerant if he is rendered speechless by finding a room's walls covered in human excrement; it just makes him sane. Even that bit, however, segues into something better: Bruno tackling Westboro Baptist Church foot-soldiers while wearing bondage gear. No amount of bad taste is going to make that less satisfying.

"Bruno" does not devote all of its time to satirizing gay-straight tensions. The film's plot is driven by Bruno's desire to achieve fame, and it yields some great results. He travels to the Middle East (he wants to fix it), where one terrorist's sense of humor makes the aforementioned hunters look positively genial. There is also a plotline involving his adoption of an African baby, in an attempt to be chic. Cohen, as with all other things, takes this bit as far as he possibly can but, unlike the sexuality-related humor, this bit of satire is pitch-perfect throughout. Just wait until you see how the baby travels to the United States. It's funny (read: horrifying) because it's true.

Cohen's talent as a performer, above all else, is difficult to question. There is not a second where he breaks character in this film. His life is, without hyperbole, in genuine danger at a number of points in this film and, even so, he does not lose a beat. His abandon is, perhaps, the most powerful statement the film has to make: Bruno will never change, much less apologize for who he is.

The film, however, is ultimately a blunt tool for a delicate job. Where the job need not be done (in other words, where viewers are already comfortable with gay culture and are smart enough to identify stereotypes), there are a lot of laughs to be had. For those who land at the opposite end of the spectrum, "Transformers 2" would be a much more suitable choice. Finally, for those who are ambivalent (undoubtedly the vast majority), the film will only be effective where it finds an eye for satire and a suspended sense of decorum.

Larry Charles, the film's director, seems to be making a career out of brash, satirical documentaries. His previous film, "Religulous" took an equally volatile topic by the horns, but it benefitted from the decidedly intellectual approach of its star, Bill Maher. That film had the precision "Bruno" occasionally lacks and it prioritized being honest with its detractors over inflaming them. Of course, it was still really loaded.

UPDATE (8/4/09): The "terrorist" mentioned above is now claiming to have been misrepresented. This report, from Britain's SkyNews, contains some pretty damning evidence to back that up, even if you ignore the sensationalist title of the clip. One doubts that this will be the only allegation of this sort against the film.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Mirror's Edge: The In-Depth Game Autopsy (Part Three - The Closing)

This post is preceded by Part One and Part Two of the feature on Mirror's Edge. Mr. Keeley's contributions will, yet again, be presented in italics and mine in traditional font.

There are a lot of bad games, but I don't think many will receive the treatment we've given Mirror's Edge. Matt and I have devoted three quite long blog posts to this game because it could have been so much more. We both played the demo to death; if only the rest of the game had lived up to the first half an hour or so, Mirror's Edge would have been one of the very best games of 2008. But there's hope:
EA is working on a sequel to the game. So, how could DICE make Mirror's Edge 2 worth playing? Well...
  • Improve the story - Make us care. Some view EA as an Evil Corporation, but its first advertisement ever asked "Can a Computer Make You Cry?" Give it a shot.
  • Aesthetics aren't everything - Yes, the City in Mirror's Edge is supposed to look so clean it's sterile. But a little more variety in the setting wouldn't hurt - Many of the game's levels are virtually indistinguishable from each other.
  • The empty city - Isn't it odd that you never run into civilians in this game? Even when running through plazas, office buildings, and subway stations? I don't want the sequel to turn into Assassin's Creed, but I think having civilians crowding, running for cover, denouncing Faith for breaking into their buildings, etc. could really liven up the next game's action. A parkour chase through a crowded market could be pretty neat.
  • Combat - Give Faith a weapon. Maybe not even a lethal weapon - maybe she has some Super Runner Taser or something. Also, make the enemies a trifle less lethal. Your enemies should not have near-perfect aiming.
  • Level design - First, get rid of the slow parts - Climbing up a pipe, then jumping to another pipe, then jumping to a ledge from which you shimmy until you reach a duct... The idealized parkour of Mirror's Edge doesn't need this tedium. Try and cut down on the elevators, too. Second, improve the checkpoint system - Put checkpoints before especially difficult jumps, not before the easy parts before those hard parts. Third, be more consistent with runner vision implementation.
Believe it or not, there are many things about Mirror's Edge that we do not think should be changed. The game was audacious, innovative and unique. An improved sequel has no need to abandon many of the qualities that made it that way.
  • Do not make it third person - I really hope that we have conveyed this already: the core running system is a massive achievement. The platforming, despite all of the skepticism surrounding it, is fluid and intuitive; the only reason it did not always work in Mirror's Edge is that the level design was not up to speed. The first person perspective adds an incredibly visceral feel that no other platformer can boast. Just try to leap between skyscrapers without holding your breath.
  • Do not make it a shooter - Faith is a runner, not a space marine. She should continue to use guns with disdain. The fact that she used them at all in Mirror's Edge felt a bit incongruous. Leave the fire sticks to the bad guys; Faith should have a melee weapon or some physical attack that does not compromise momentum too heavily.
  • Do not make Faith into Marcus Fenix - Despite what one may glean from gaming message boards and comment threads, making Faith a woman of Asian descent who was not a ninja or a blatant sex object was a smart move. The makeup of the typical game protagonist (straight, white, male, unshaven...) is achingly predictable, and the number of stereotypes that fill out the rest of a typical game's cast is astonishing. The gaming industry is, frankly, a bit backwards. It is high time for it to catch up with the growing intellect and diversity of its customers.
  • Do not turn the City into Helghan - Almost as predictable as a protagonist's appearance is the typical game's setting. Grey and steel punctuated with the occasional brown... do I even need to explain how ubiquitous such art design is? From the menu screen to the opening shot of the final level, Mirror's Edge is an absolute triumph of art design. Its bold, unique art style need not be compromised in the sequel, even if the level design sorely needs to be diversified.
  • Do not fire the guy who is responsible for the music - Enough said.
  • Do not try to tack on multiplayer or co-op - Adding new modes will not hide the fact that the level design may still suck. In fact, it will probably exacerbate such problems. (The Time Trials in the original often did.) Gamers want a well-crafted, rewarding single player experience. Give it to them. Any multiplayer that is included needs to be nothing less than a stroke of genius; the old standbys will not fly in such a unique game.
Well, there it is: Mirror's Edge picked apart and analyzed until there is nothing left. Hopefully, it served as more than mere catharsis for the writers. The game had, perhaps, more potential than any other last year, making both its failures and its successes important for the industry. Understanding what went wrong illustrated what made it so disappointing and why hope springs anew for the sequel. So, EA DICE: All eyes are on you...

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Revolutionizing Video Games at Sonic Speed

Looking back at the early 90's, it seems like households were divided into two groups: Sega or Nintendo. Now, time has rather decisively told the winner of that one-time battle, but stepping into that moment in video game history, things are hardly as clear cut. I knew a hell of a lot more Genesis owners than I did SNES owners and, with my critical nature coming to light early on, I was one of the many that thought Mario struck an impressive balance between bizarre and bland. For me, and millions of other kids, the fat Italian and his withholding girlfriend could never hold a candle to the visceral thrill and self-conscious attitude of Sonic the Hedgehog.

I recently picked up Sonic's Ultimate Genesis Collection as a very reasonably priced means for reliving those days. I noted a couple of things very quickly after putting in the game: 1) I did not play 90% of what the Genesis had to offer in its heyday, and 2) I did not not care; I wanted Sonic. He, as the title suggests, is the main feature, with essentially every Genesis Sonic game available to play in its untainted, 16-bit glory, but there are many other games to be discovered. Vectorman's brutal difficulty illustrates how classic games' longevity hinged on them being nigh unbeatable. Comix Zone's bold premise that literally puts players into a comic book proves that video games were bursting with artistic innovation long before anyone cared to notice. Ecco the Dolphin shows that video games have never been limited to violent, male-centric fare. Most importantly, Streets of Rage proves that there is nothing more fun than beating a dominatrix to death with a pipe while playing as a thirteen year old kid.

That last point is indicative of Sega's overall approach to marketing the Genesis, as well as the idea that fueled Sonic's birth: edginess. Nintendo has always insisted on being family friendly and, perhaps as a result, a bit boring. It created an opportunity for Sega – one that they occasionally seized on shamelessly, but often used to push boundaries creatively. When one holds Sonic up against Mario, it is clear which one had something to prove. Even in his mediocre debut, Sonic made it no secret that he wanted to leave Mario in the dust. Dynamic visuals, a protagonist who flaunted his attitude with every opportunity, music with clear hip hop and rock influences and, of course, speed set Sonic apart. Being able to play each of the four games in the classic series back to back provided a unique chance to see how the hedgehog grew into his role as Sega's answer to Mario.

His 1991 debut, entitled "Sonic the Hedgehog" has not aged well. While Sonic's defining attributes are established here, they are presented in an unrefined package that proves more frustrating than anything else. The art style, despite already showcasing the Genesis' increased ability to fill the screen with active backgrounds and foregrounds, was not consistently unique. (The Marble Zone feels like it is ripped straight from a Mario game.) Gameplay is occasionally fast but players of the later games will find that Sonic's spin dash, a key tool for gaining speed, is frustratingly absent. The cruel level of difficulty is most frustrating of all. There are countless instances of level design that punishes players unfairly, leading to a great deal of trial and error. The later stages of the game are particularly painful because they often take place underwater. Every Sonic game has its underwater stages (an apparent attempt to trump Mario's susceptibility to the substance), but they are only tolerable in small doses. They slow Sonic down considerably, after all, and force one to manage oxygen, lest the player be subjected to the incomparably stressful drowning song. Speaking of music, the melodies in this game are often far too giddy to fit Sonic's persona.

Sonic 2, released only a year later, found him coming into his own. Gameplay properly showcased the visceral thrill that only he could provide. Levels are full of loops and springs that keep Sonic moving at breakneck pace. Gone are the tedious traps and platforming challenges that plagued the first game. The introduction of Tails adds little to gameplay, but expanded the universe and would later lead to more diversity in the cast. Most importantly, the style of the levels blossomed into something unique. No one would mistake the Chemical Plant Zone, with its giant metallic structures and driving, jazzy soundtrack for anything in a Mario game. Levels like Hill Top Zone showed a self-conscious bizarreness that Mario would never gain. The closing levels built dramatically and in terms of difficulty with the massive Metropolis zone and Sonic's airborne pursuit of Robotnik over the course of the final three levels. It culminates in the final zone, where Sonic beats Mario into space by over a decade. The special stages also deserve mention, being an early use of 3D that was something more than giant polygons being thrown at the screen.

Sonic's golden age was capped off with a two-game epic that solidified him as one of the greatest characters in gaming history. Both released in 1994, Sonic 3 and Sonic & Kunckles combined to create one massive game that introduced countless innovations.

The moment players begin Sonic 3, the evolutionary strides are apparent. Sonic does not start the game standing in an arbitrary spot; he soars down from the sky, straight out of the climax of the previous game. It is a subtle touch that reoccurs consistently throughout the game. Never does Sonic simply materialize at the beginning of a level; there is always a clear transition between locations and, furthermore, acts flow straight into each other, only broken up by a moment for score tallying. At the beginning of the first level, Sonic runs into Knuckles, the rival that will lend a new degree of complexity to the series, both in terms of story and gameplay. The pantomime story these games tell is certainly simplistic, but is told with surprising effectiveness for a 16-bit platformer.

Nowhere is this dramatic punch made more apparent than in the mid-level boss that appears shortly thereafter. As a result of Sonic's battle with the robot, the beautiful, tropical forest setting bursts into flames. Twists such as this come throughout the game and set Sonic 3 apart from its predecessors, as well as its contemporaries. Significantly bolstering this leap is the relentlessly infectious music, which many believe is the work of Michael Jackson. It parallels the evolution of each level, as each zone's second act features a remix of the first's song. Mario's music may be more famous today, but that is quite baffling when playing Sonic 3.

Sonic & Knuckles continues with similar strengths, but brings the obvious addition of the second playable character. While there aren't two completely different sets of levels to complete, they do branch, based on which character is being played. Furthermore, Knuckles could be brought into Sonic 2 and Sonic 3, by way of the heavily-touted "Lock-On Technology" that allowed players to connect the game with others. Knuckles can glide and climb, giving the game a more vertical focus than it has with Sonic, a significant, but not revolutionary addition. Knuckles adds most to the game when he's driving the plot forward. Sonic's final confrontation with the character is striking, being the only hand-to-hand confrontation of the series. It leads to a silent reconciliation between the characters. This may not be Shakespeare, but it brings a degree of complexity to the simple "good versus bad" dynamic that defined most video games of the time (including Mario).

Level design remains strong in this game, with memorable moments abound. The Sandopolis Zone introduces interesting, new mechanics that force Sonic to fight off darkness and a constantly rising tide of sand. The Sky Sanctuary Zone builds the game to a dramatic climax as Sonic allies with Knuckles to catch up to Robotnick and fight off a mechanical version of himself. The large-scale space battle that concludes the game illustrates just how effective Sonic had become at carving out a unique image for himself. You will never see Mario leaping out of an exploding space fortress, after fighting a mech that is fifty times his size.

Perhaps this look back at Sonic's heyday proves, most of all, how brief it was. His reign lasted less than four years and it was filled with quality games that consistently improved on their predecessors and gave Mario a run for his money. Yet, it was a pace that could not continue. Ask any Sonic fan about Sonic 3D Blast, the game that followed and they will undoubtedly cringe. If nothing else, the fleeting amount of time Sonic needed to make his impact was a testament to the greatness of his games. Oddly fitting, is it not?

A Response from Matt Keeley: "Late Sega Decline"

Matt rightly points out the important differences between the kids who grew up on Mario and Nintendo games and those who grew up on Sonic and Sega. I've always been a Nintendo fan, though I was never averse to playing the Genesises of my friends and of my cousins.

And yet Sonic has never done much for me. I admit that the games had fantastic music and that they were very technically proficient, but I always felt that Sonic's speed masked a lack of compelling gameplay - The games sometimes felt more like playable tech demoes than full-fledged games. The Mario games, I always found, had fewer cheap deaths and controller-throwing moments. Of course, even Mario had his moments of poorly-conceived "innovation." The Ghost Houses in Super Mario World were remarkably tedious exercises in trial-and-error, while the 3D games have always focused a little too much on McGuffin collecting over simple and pleasing platforming goodness.

Perhaps some of my frustration with the Sonic franchise is oddly retroactive - My memories of those rare youthful days with a Genesis controller in my hands have been tarnished by Sega's descent in the years since the Genesis. Matt called Sonic a "self-conscious" mascot. Perhaps he once was, but in recent years the Sonic games have degenerated into parodies of what they once were. The fine people at Sega have proliferated irritating side characters, given hedgehogsguns, and generally done everything they could to make sure that the only dedicated Sonic fans are emo furry seventh-graders. Sega has tried to reboot the series, but the simply-titled PS3 and 360 game Sonic the Hedgehog received a 4.2 of 10 at IGN, while the recent Wii games were damned with faint praise. Yes, the reviewers said, the Wii games weren't that great. But at least they got rid of the damn side characters.

Sonic is hardly the only series suffering in this era of Late Sega Decline (LSD). Sega still makes good games - Valkyria Chronicles is apparently one of the best PS3 games available - but they no longer know what to do with their franchises. No one pays attention to Phantasy Star anymore, though the series once competed with Final Fantasy. Streets of Rage has vanished.No one cared about the PS2 Shinobi games; I doubt we'll ever see a PS3 sequel. There hasn't been a new Panzer Dragoon in ages, nor has Sega ever re-released Panzer Dragoon Saga, which generally goes for over a hundred dollars on eBay. Worse, other games never get the chance to turn into series. Skies of Arcadia was one of the best games of the previous console cycle, but it never got a sequel, though a few characters from the game showed up in Valkyria Chronicles. One hopes that Sega can turn things around, but it's going to be quite the challenge for them. LSD is a hard habit to kick, and Sega's had an awful trip of late.

Matt mentioned Michael Jackson's involvement in Sonic 3. Sad to say, I think Sonic followed MJ's career path: Brilliance followed by breakdown. I hope that Sonic can make the comeback that Jackson never did. As the early games prove, he deserves a second chance.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Go See "Transformers 2"

"Transformers 2" is a horrible movie... but you already know that.

So, why should you go see it?

If your idea of escapism is heavy-handed allusions to September 11th, go see it.
If you do not mind Blacks invariably being portrayed as bucktoothed illiterates, go see it.
If your idea of a punchline is two dogs repeatedly fucking, go see it.
If you believe that women should be nothing more than sweaty, cross-eyed porn stars, go see it.
If you think asking for a plot line that explains why one scene follows another is pretentious, go see it.
If you think knowing who is fighting whom in an action sequence is irrelevant, go see it.
If you do not care that a movie marketed to children is filled with words like "shit," "fuck" and "pussy," go see it.
If you enjoy a film that seemingly took less time to think up than it does for you to watch it, go see it.
If you want to stand up and proudly proclaim that "I have no problem with being sold a regressive, half-assed product that treats me like a mindless cash source who cannot be offended by even the most cynical, bold-faced marketing ploys," then what are you waiting for? Go see it!

Go do the United States of America proud and fork over your hard earned money so you can be violently rid of whatever brains you have left!

Congratulations on finding the perfect movie for yourself. All of your lowbrow, bigoted, money-wasting and generally lazy sensibilities will be satisfied. Most importantly of all, you will be setting a great precedent for America's children. Transformers, after all, is a toy franchise (the kids are where the real money is at), so the movie's success benefits them, too!

Step up and tell Paramount Pictures that we will not merely submit to their attempt to mug us and our children alone; we will do it by the millions!

Go see "Transformers 2!"

Mirror's Edge: The In-Depth Game Autopsy (Part Two)

This post is preceded by Part One of the feature on Mirror's Edge. Mr. Keeley's contributions will again be presented in italics and mine in traditional font.

Chapter Five: New Eden

Near the beginning of this level, Faith has to run across yet another set of tracks. Her friend Merc, who provides audio advice to Faith throughout the game, suggests that Our Heroine look for a particular access stairway that she might "get back on to the roofs where [she] belongs." If only the developers understood Mirror's Edge as much as their characters do. While there are some good non-roof portions of the game, Mirror's Edge is at its best when the player is doing open-air acrobatics. While I have no doubt that there is potential for good "ground-based" parkour gameplay, there's precious little of it in this game. Hallways and elevators are not good.

Chapter Five actually features some very good platforming and freerunning in its early stages; alas, it also has what may be the most frustrating and ill-conceived setpiece in the whole game. Parkour in a mall is potentially interesting and fun. Parkour in a mall is markedly less fun when said mall is a) empty of civilians and b) full of heavily armed policemen. Despite what speedrun videos may show you, it is next to impossible to escape without "neutralizing" all the enemies, especially if you don't already know the level like the back of your hand. Though the enemies may be standing thirty feet below Faith's leap to a ventilation duct and safety, these cops have incredible aim; they will kill you many times. It was during the mall sequence that I decided to stop playing as a pacifist - I shot the cops and I liked it. Or, if I didn't like it, I at least preferred it to engaging in the game's awful hand-to-hand combat. The police in Mirror's Edge can take a flying kick without flinching, provided they lift their guns to their chest to shield themselves. If Faith's foot hits this gun, Faith loses half her health. The guards are very quick with their gun-blocking.

I should perhaps point out that the level is called "New Eden" because the mall is. Naming a shopping center "New Eden" - What a brilliant and scathing critique of consumerism.

In one portion of the mall, Faith has to turn off a deadly fan blocking the entrance to a duct. These fans are great - You have to wait until they are entirely stopped, or touching them will instantly kill you. In another level, I made the mistake of stepping into one that was down to about one rotation every five seconds. It killed me. Sweet Mirror's Edge logic.

Chapter Six: Pirandello Kruger

I'll kick this segment off with another nugget that comes courtesy of the loading screen: The game urges players to isolate individual enemies, making them easier to dispatch. This concept stuck with me as I traversed the level – in an amazed, negative sort of way, of course. Not only is Faith put in a number of situations where she has multiple enemies with clear shots on her, but those enemies often refuse to move an inch. Perhaps it is just me, but attempting to isolate armed, immobile enemies who happen to be in wide open spaces seems counterintuitive. Thanks, loading screen!

This level kicks off with some solid rooftop action but, as so many of them have thus far, it stumbles quickly. The first enemy Faith encounters is distracted by some mundane conversation over his radio. (They try to give these guys personality six levels in? Let's cut our losses and stick to "Go! Go! Go!" and "Move! Move! Move!" please.) This provides an opportunity for an easy disarm, and a moment for Faith to realize that she is now the target of two other snipers who stand across the way. They, and their cohorts on the ground, can all be dealt with by way of the rifle Faith has just acquired, assuming the player had enough time to figure out its controls. Thankfully, all enemies seem to slump to the ground when shot by this gun, regardless of where they are hit. If the player is profoundly stupid and is attempting to beat the game without the aid of firearms, this area is quite the bitch. Needless to say, trial and error is the only solution.

What makes this area truly rant-worthy, however, is yet another "runner vision" mishap. (I am beginning to think that Faith may need an optometrist.) There is a red door on the building that is directly across from Faith's sniper nest. It is very high up, but not so high that all players will declare it unreachable. Predictably, there is another red door tucked away at ground level, but that's hard to see when the area is teeming with enemies. This, more than anything else in the game, cannot be anything other than a sadistic joke. That high door is unreachable, and Faith never ends up there later in the level. It need not exist, but it does. My conclusion is that its only purpose can be the torture of players.

It will not take one long after entering the building before they realize that Faith has entered (wait for it) the obligatory Factory Level. So much for breaking new ground. They were doing so well, otherwise... Sharp-eyed players will notice that the entrance is filled with the nondescript "Mr. Tronik" boxes that litter the game. Apparently, they manufacture generic video game assets here. Wait, but it is actually the home of Pirandello Kruger, the crooked security company that has way too much power. ...So, why do they need a labyrinthine factory filled with armed soldiers? Maybe, like the person who placed that door on the roof, they are just assholes like that.

A few minutes into the factory, another headache-inducing room full of enemies comes along. This time, they populate catwalks above a stockroom. The most comical aspect of this setup is the fact that the men tend to open fire on Faith before she enters the room. As if this were not unfair enough, Faith must vault up to the catwalks before she can lay a hand on any of them. With their godlike aim undaunted, Faith must make an absolutely flawless climb for and disarm of the first enemy for any chance at survival. With the proper exit again proving elusive, the remaining pair of enemies must be dealt with as well. Their refusal to move from their initial position makes both charging them and shooting them from any reasonable distance impossible. Arbitrarily throw in the game's first exploding barrels, and we have another classic Mirror's Edge stonewall.

On, however, presses Faith. After some solid platforming, she comes across a confounding room where hitting an elevator switch creates no apparent results. There is an unmarked hole hidden at the bottom of the shaft. (Your constant failures are beginning to bore me, "runner vision.") The hole drops Faith into some particularly clandestine-looking hallways. I smell a plot point! She finds a slick room full of LCD screens. Tap-tap on the keyboard and... apparently, someone wants to kill the runners.

Uh, okay. Thanks for the heads up.

Out bursts a bunch of cops who seem far fonder of motion than their predecessors. They chase Faith through a giant gymnasium and back onto the city's roofs. (Thank God.) It is all pretty fun. Punching out windows and jumping between buildings is certainly a welcome twist, too. Suddenly, Faith hits a dead end; she is cornered at the end of a building with only elevated train tracks before her, a few stories down. It is clearly not a safe jump, but Merc pushes you: "Hitch a ride, girl." So, Faith lands, ass first, on the roof of a moving train that is passing by about fifty feet down. I am not sure if this moment is a result of one, bad idea or a lack of ideas, but either way, it seems a bit insulting. Why, at this singular point in the game, is this a safe jump? Forget what reality dictates; what about the rules within the game? Trains have been established as safe to ride, yes, but fifty-foot leaps? Eh, I suppose that complaining about the contrivances of contextual events in this game is not really fair when the general rules of the game are inconsistent to begin with.

Chapter Seven: The Boat

Short Version:
Faith sneaks a ride onto a plot-significant boat. Gamers regret it.

Long Version:
I suppose it was nice of the developers to try and mix up the environments a bit, to offer some variety. Unfortunately, this is a pretty miserable level. Mirror's Edge should be about speed and grace, not gunfights in dank ships. I especially like the doors that take forever to open - these doors force you to fight your pursuers. Who are more heavily-armed than usual. Yes!

Victory over your foes brings you a long and slow bout of duct-crawling, pipe-climbing, and ledge-shimmying. Also more entirely unnecessary slow doors. Because speed, interest, and half-decent level design are overrated.

Once you get on the boat's deck, you have to avoid attacks from a sniper. This is actually fairly interesting, though it doesn't make up for the utter tedium of the rest of the level. The fight with your attacker also brings home just how ridiculously bad this game's combat system is - Your attacks are limited, the physics are unrealistic, and your enemies show very little sign of taking damage. Once you beat your attacker and they flee, you get a half-decent chase through the boat. It's actually kind of neat. Too bad the level ends with another fist fight, after which your foe is revealed as Someone You Know. Considering that this character has little to no prior purpose in the game, it's hardly shocking that she betrays you.

"The Boat" may not be the most irritating level in the game, but it may be the most tedious. Who greenlit this waste of everyone's time?

Chapter Eight: Kate

Another bit of quality platforming kicks off this level, and the incessant hail of gunfire that follows Faith has a welcome replacement here: the soft footsteps of three runner-cops on her tail. It makes the platforming legitimately urgent and generally fun, although the tazer attack that they use when in close range is more annoying than anything else. Once the enemies are left behind, traversing an exterior elevator shaft and some hanging crates is a bit more of a pain than it should be, but the sequence is not prolonged.

It leads to an impressive indoor segment that is easily the level designers' proudest achievement. Faith enters a giant atrium that must be at least a half-dozen stories high. The hint button points her to the top. She must traverse a maze of scaffolds and walkways to reach her goal. If it sounds tedious, let me clarify: this is the strength of Mirror's Edge in its purest form; it is the rock-solid core that could have made the game great – unadulterated first person platforming, without convolution or misdirection. Every step of the way, the path is made clear, yet it is consistently challenging. Reaching the top of the massive room feels like a genuine achievement and, while there may be hang-ups along the way, the game does its best to refrain from punishment with frequent checkpoints. Throughout this segment, subtle, environmental cues guide Faith, allowing the broken "runner vision" system to take a back seat. For the first time, the game returns to the organic cohesion that made its opening moments so compelling.

This section contains a musical track that will be strangely familiar to those playing on the Playstation 3. That is because it is the song that plays in the system's main menu when the disc is inserted. To me, this indicates that the game's music producer believes that the song represents the game well. It is not a surprise, then, that it should also be used in this area of the game. This is not the only moment, however, where the soundtrack elevates the game. Through and through, the music lends a tense, modern beauty to the game. I may know very little about music but, in my humble opinion, this is one of the best video game soundtracks in recent years.

It should not be a surprise that reaching the top of the atrium sets off the game's return to its old tricks. A scripted sequence where Faith must shoot out the truck carrying her sister is unintuitive and uninteresting. This scene is followed by a lobby full of enemies that make one of the most frustrating sequences in the game. Fighting a path down to the bottom floor invariably requires many repeated attempts, for reasons that one can extrapolate from the complaints Mr. Keeley and I have made above. It is a sad fall back to Earth for players coming off of a segment so strong that it briefly rekindles hope in the game.

Chapter Nine: The Shard

In this level we finally see the City at night. Shame we see so little of it, as it's so pretty and enjoyable to traverse. No, most of this level is spent indoors, and much of "The Shard" is devoted to (shock) gunfights with cops. Near the start of the level, we get the game's one instance of environmental destruction: You have to turn on the gas in a hallway to start an explosion that blows an inconvenient door off of its hinges. Unfortunately, this door leads to a parking garage full of cops. Which is followed by a lobby full of even deadlier cops. Which is followed by another bit of climbing through an elevator shaft - You will most likely die several times here, especially as there's little warning when other elevator cars come. You'd think the cops would have stopped the elevators while Our Heroine infiltrates the building? Who is on those elevators? To no one's surprise, the elevators lead to ducts. And crawling.

After the ducts, however, you find one of the game's best portions, as Faith must move from rooftop to rooftop while dodging snipers. You can see the laser pointers the snipers use, so you can actually determine when you're in danger. It's nice. Plus the nighttime setting is lovely. Shame more of the game's combat wasn't like this. After this, Faith takes an elevator to the city's surveillance server room and the last miserable gunfight of this game's innumerable miserable gunfights.

When Faith reaches the roof, she confronts Jackknife (Remember him? Me neither.) and a group of guards. Instead of engaging in a firefight, you leap on to the helicopter in which Jackknife is departing (Didn't we do something like this at the beginning of the game), kick him out of the helicopter's open door, and watch the game's ending. Oh, and Faith saves her sister. Things look bad for Faith and Kate, as they're on top of a skyscraper absolutely crawling with trigger-happy cops. Did I mention that some of these cops are standing on the roof? The ending, of course, does not address this minor issue. Doubtless Faith's runner skills save her. And her sister.

The ending, in fact, resolves very little. I guess this means there will be a sequel. I'm both hopeful and afraid.

This feature will be concluded in Part Three.