Saturday, October 31, 2009

Catholic Camp in Toronto... I mean Boston

On some days and with some movies, blogging is an act of masochism. Today is one of those days and Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day is one of those movies. Why, oh why, did they ever let Troy Duffy make another movie?

In an earlier piece on Martin McDonagh, I talked about In Bruges as a sort of revisionist Tarantino film – it had humor and ultraviolence and odd conversations, but it had depths utterly lacking in QT's mostly superficial work. Troy Duffy's first film occasionally pretended to mean something, though his dialogue, his cinematography, and his plot were all far weaker than Tarantino "classics" like Pulp Fiction. In the ten years since Duffy made The Boondock Saints – and alienated half of Hollywood – he hasn't improved. If anything, he's moved backwards. The action sequences remain weak, the dialogue is still thoroughly unfunny, and Duffy has removed all the first film's (barely perceptible) nods to moral ambiguity.

There's not all that much to distinguish the second Boondock film from the first, aside from a substantially more ridiculous plot, which is sporadically interrupted by sepia flashbacks to Billy Connolly's character's youth. These flashbacks – ostensibly to the sixties – look like they're taking place in the twenties or thirties. We may be supposed to feel something – the flashbacks tell of the making of an assassin – but they're awkwardly staged, lit, and shot. At least they make more sense than the entirely random dream sequence pep talk Duffy introduces solely so he can bring back a dead character from the first film. But the film's worst moment comes in its final twist and revelation. It involves Catholic assassins (maybe like this?), a celebrity cameo, and a sequel hook. The implied follow-up looks to be even worse than this film.

There are a lot of things to hate in Boondock Saints II, but I think its most galling trait is its fundamental dishonesty. The film's two main "characters" are supposed to be quintessential Boston Irish, but we can only tell because a) they have Latin- and Catholic-themed tattoos, b) they drink a lot, and c) they spend some time as shepherds in Ireland. Troy Duffy tries hard to give the film a Boston identity, but it simply won't happen; he shot in Toronto, and it shows. His cinematic "Boston" consists of stock footage of downtown and a generic skyscraper that stands in for the Prudential Tower. And, to be fair, there's about two seconds of a news report that shows an actual MBTA train. But at least Duffy knows his Boston slang, right? When the film makes a character speak of "Beantown," it's so shoehorned, unnatural, and poorly-delivered that it becomes unintentionally funny. Sorry Troy, but all the spokes have fallen off from your Hub.

As atrocious as Duffy's portrayal of Boston is, his take on Catholicism is far worse. One gets the sense that in Duffyland, murder is some sort of eighth sacrament. All the priests collude in the protagonists' rampages. According to the film's ending, the titular Saints are somehow following the Catholic party line by ventilating mobsters. Damn, I never knew the catechism was so bloodthirsty. Duffy fills his movie with shots (often slow-motion close-ups) of clerics, collars, crucifixes, and confessionals, but it doesn't mean anything. Then again, what does have meaning in this utterly empty film?

Boondock Saints II is, in theory, an action movie. Unfortunately, the action is pretty awful. There're a lot of slow motion shots, but none of them are graceful or interesting enough to justify the slowdown. Most of the the movie's bullets are aimed at the camera; the average shootout is a few shots of the Saints yelling and shooting in silent slow-mo interspersed with reaction shots of mobsters and criminals falling backward. Only rarely do shooters and shot share a frame. There's nothing inventive or intense about the movie's shootouts. They would be far better if Duffy had dropped his slow-motion gimmick – at least then the pain would be over more quickly.

There's plenty more to complain about in Boondock Saints II. Troy Duffy has quite a few misguided beliefs. He seems to think we care about his protagonists' backgrounds. We don't. He believes we have never watched The Closer on TNT, so we won't notice how much Julie Benz (as an FBI agent) rips off Kyra Sedgwick's role in that show. He thinks gross-out humor to make 90's Adam Sandler blush is funny. And worst of all, he somehow imagines that people will want to see a sequel to this film. Saints preserve us.

In one of my first reviews here, I called Taken a "good bad movie." This is a bad bad movie. Perhaps a discerning viewer could enjoy it inebriated or ironically; it could be a midnight double-feature with The Room or the first Boondock Saints. But instead let us hope that the world forgets this film. Somehow, though, I doubt it will. The audience I watched the movie with seemed to really and honestly enjoy it. What ever will become of us?

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

High Honors Among Thieves

If "Uncharted: Drake's Fortune" marked the opening shots of a revolution, "Uncharted 2: Among Thieves" will prove to mark the moment when the war became winnable. The original game had an emphasis on narrative that changed the standards for video games as a storytelling medium. The sequel does not necessarily change the standards again, it just ensures that future games will have no choice but to meet them. Everything, absolutely everything, that worked in the first game (and everything that did not) has been polished to perfection in "Among Thieves," instantly elevating the series into the pantheon of seminal gaming franchises.

There was a moment while I was playing the gripping single-player campaign in "Uncharted 2" when I stopped and thought, "This game is going to have other video game developers throwing themselves off of buildings." Before I get too exalting, however, let me concede that there remains room for improvement (the game's final third cannot maintain the perfect pace of the previous sections – it all degrades into mere greatness, in lieu of excellence). So, at the very least, let us hope that no one at Naughty Dog will be defenestrating themselves over the prospect of the inevitable "Uncharted 3."

Now, Mr. Keeley has already discussed the game's myriad improvements in his two posts, so I will look closely at a specific segment of the game that I believe best illustrates its strengths: Chapter One.

We find Nathan Drake sitting in a train car, stunned. He quickly realizes that he is bleeding heavily, then he slowly realizes that the train car is dangling off of the side of a snowy cliff. Debris comes tumbling down onto him, knocking him out of the car and leaving only the car's back handrail from which to hang. With this, gameplay begins. Scaling the car is every bit as nerve-wracking as it should be. The cliffside is crumbing, the train is pulling apart, winds are blowing and Drake is dying. All of these factors inform the gameplay. Progress is slow, as falling boulders set Drake back, unreliable footholds nearly throw him to his death, and his injuries keep him in nearly palpable pain.

This one train car proves to be a marvel of level design, as the changing state and position of the car force the player to traverse every side of the car's exterior, as well as its vertical interior. First time players will find a number of small, yet thrilling surprises in the gameplay, simply during the course of the minute or two spent climbing the car. No average person could look at a train car and see so much potential for challenging, dynamic platforming; this is the work of true artists. Furthermore, it serves as a wonderful refresher on Drake's abilities. Almost every aspect of the climbing mechanic is utilized here, but with a stilted speed that both heightens the tension and allows players to ease back into the controls.

Reaching the top of the train car brings a second car, this one horizontal (for the moment). This triggers the first of many harrowing, scripted sequences in the game. The second car begins to slip off of the cliff as Drake is walking through it and he must to run for his life. This is not, however, a cutscene. Like so many moments like this throughout the game, the player remains in full control, forcing him or her to frantically work to reach safety; as Drake finally scampers onto solid ground, he is not the only one breathing a sigh of relief. For far too long, video games have featured gameplay that fails to reflect the circumstances within which they are set. Throughout "Uncharted 2," however, contextual handicaps to the controls, dynamic level design, dramatic camera positioning and, of course, excellent voice acting ensure that the emotion of a situation is always brought home to the viewer.

What follows the collapse of the two train cars exemplifies this, too, as the game's narrative enters the mix. Drake must stumble through a dangerous wreckage of about a dozen other cars. He receives some very serious blows here, as other parts of the wreckage explode or collapse, and many of them trigger flashbacks. In these flashbacks, players watch and play through the events that lead up to the train wreck. The trickle of information has a bewildering effect that only brings the player even closer to Drake's stunned state. The final flashback lasts a few hours, as the story circles back around to the wreck.

If one were to look at the elements that compose this sequence, he or she would find very little in the way of new things. Predetermined camera angles, quick-time events, cutscenes, scripted musical cues – all of these things have been used (and, often, overused) for years, but never before to this effect. Games of the past dreamed of an experience that combined all of these elements into something truly seamless and immersive. "Uncharted 2" is brimming with sequences that are wildly successful at it. Time and again, the game leaps two or three steps ahead of the player, sparing him or her those all-to-familiar thoughts of, "Wouldn't it be awesome if I could..." In other words, "Uncharted 2" is the game that players have been unconsciously wishing for over the past few years, but never received.

Again, there is little in the way of apparent innovation in "Uncharted 2" – and that is what will undoubtedly make it so scary for other developers to see. What Naughty Dog has achieved with this game cannot be easily replicated because, on some level, it cannot be attributed to anything other than unadulterated talent. It is difficult to believe that this game was crafted in two years. So many developers devote more time to games that do not feature anything approaching the minute level of polish that this game does (not to mention its incorrigible personality). The past few years have been great for video games, without a doubt, but Naughty Dog has ensured that no one in the industry will be allowed to rest on their laurels any time soon.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Praising with Faint Damns: Uncharted 2 Multiplayer

As I hope Tuesday's review made clear, the singe-player mode alone made Uncharted 2 one of the best games that I've ever had the pleasure of playing. The game didn't need a multiplayer mode, and I don't think many fans of the first game expected one. For one thing, Naughty Dog has never been known for crafting competitive games. In the past, they've made very very good games designed for single players. The last game they made with multiplayer was the PS2 racer Jak X. Still, when Naughty Dog announced that Among Thieves would contain a robust online multiplayer feature, I was optimistic. Few companies have as consistently successful a track record as Naughty Dog and I believed their first venture into online multiplayer would work. I was right.

I should make it clear that Uncharted's multiplayer isn't quite as good as its single-player. It's nearly as good, however, and that is high praise indeed. The game features most of the classic shooter game modes, including Deathmatch, variations on Capture the Flag and Zones, and an Elimination mode. In addition, there are a few co-op modes pitting you and your teammates against the same sort of AI opponents you encounter in story mode. And while there are more than enough modes to satisfy, there are a few odd omissions. For one thing, there's no traditional Capture the Flag. The closest equivalent, Plunder, has two teams rushing for one golden idol (the "flag") placed in neutral territory. There's no need to guard your own flag, as you don't have one. I tend to think Plunder is more enjoyable than CTF would have been – CTF works best if there are a lot of players, and Uncharted only supports ten at a time – but some shooter devotees might grumble. Somewhat more irritating is the lack of splitscreen play. I get the impression that even the most talented development team would be hard-pressed to have multiple players running off the same Playstation, so I can't fault the game too much. It's disappointing, but hardly a deal breaker.

Each and every multiplayer map in Uncharted 2 is well-planned, subtly-detailed, and enjoyable to play on. Alas, there are only a very few maps: There are seven "normal" maps and three levels of "story lite" co-op. The multiplayer arenas are every bit as pretty as the single-player levels they derive from, though I was somewhat surprised that there were no maps based off the jungle or museum levels of the single-player mode, as both seem appropriate deathmatch settings. What Uncharted's maps lack in quantity they make up with quality. In most matches you will have opportunities to use all your various Uncharted skills: gun combat, fistfighting, stealth, and platforming. Though Uncharted lacks the vehicles of the Halo or Battlefield games, combat is far more varied than in many other shooters.

Uncharted players don't have character classes like medic or infantry, but there's still room for customization. In all competitive modes, you get to equip two "boosters" that do things like improve your pistol accuracy or let you carry more grenades. Though most of the boosters are useful, none, as far as I've seen, are game-breaking. An "unboostered" novice, if good or lucky enough, can take down an old hand. When you first start playing multiplayer, you don't have access to any boosters – you get them as you gain experience in the game and increase your multiplayer level. Thankfully, many of the best boosters become available at relatively low levels – Uncharted, unlike Killzone 2, is friendly to its new players.

In addition to the money you earn just for playing and making kills, Uncharted gives "medals" and "cash" for accomplishing various feats, such as throwing an enemy off a ledge, killing multiple enemies in short succession, killing someone by blowing up a propane tank, etc. The medals, for the most part, are very well thought-out. In Plunder, for example, the entire team gets points for getting a treasure to the base. It's almost as if Naughty Dog wanted to encourage teamwork! In addition to new boosters, gaining levels allows players to select new multiplayer avatars: If you see someone playing as gag character, Skelzor or the bearded Lt. Draza, you know they're dedicated players.

In addition to the leveling system, Uncharted has a very easy-to-use Party system. If you wish to play multiple matches with the same group of friends, it's very easy. I hardly ever play "alone," as fun as that might be. I'm usually in a group with the co-runner of this blog or with people I know from the Internet. Uncharted 2 does socialization extremely well; though seemingly minor, I think it's one of the best features of the Among Thieves multiplayer package.

As much as I enjoy the competitive aspects of Uncharted 2's multiplayer, I think I prefer co-op. So much of the single-player story of the Uncharted games is about camaraderie and derring-do in the face of uneven odds; co-op brings story mode's ethos to multiplayer. I'm especially fond of survival mode, which pits you against increasingly brutal AI foes, often far more intimidating and clever than they are in story mode. It's tough, certainly, but addictive.

I have nothing but praise for Uncharted 2's single player campaign; my feelings on multiplayer are slightly more mixed. I wish there were a few more levels available – though I imagine the downloadable content due before year's end will rectify this – and I wouldn't mind the addition of a more traditional CTF mode. Still, Uncharted 2's multiplayer has given me some of the most fun I've had all year. On its own, Among Thieves' multiplayer is absolutely brilliant. It only falls short when compared to the main game.

To sum up my two-part review: If you have a PS3, you should buy this game.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Drake's Progress: Uncharted 2 Single-Player

Uncharted: Drake's Fortune was a wonderful game. It was balanced, well-written, and player-friendly; it had a great story and high replayability. But, after playing Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, I never want to touch Drake's Fortune again. Nathan Drake is back and in great form.

Among Thieves' basic gameplay isn't much different from Drake's Fortune's, but the accumulation of small tweaks and changes has made the second game far superior to the first. As Mr. Hollis-Lima mentioned, the combat in the original Uncharted was comparatively basic: Duck, cover, shoot, repeat. It was fun – and later levels did mix it up a little – but it was also the least compelling part of the Uncharted package. Among Thieves has just as many gun fights as its predecessor, but these battles are far more interesting. In Drake's Fortune, strategy often came down to selecting which rock, piece of masonry, or log you would hide behind for the duration of the violence. Enemies always knew where you were – Drake would enter a room and immediately the bullets would begin to fly. In the new game, however, Drake often manages to enter rooms undetected, allowing the player to pick off a few enemies with stealth moves. Though the first Uncharted featured a rudimentary stealth system, I used it maybe three times in the course of the adventure. Here it's vital. Hand-to-hand combat has also been improved, though not quite so dramatically as the stealth.

The improvements to combat don't stem just from the changes in mechanics; equally important are the changes in combat environments. The areas in which Drake fights are now far larger and more sophisticated than they were in Drake's Fortune. In most battles, there are several viable strategies, from stealth to sniping to rushing the foe. In addition to the "normal" scuffles, Uncharted 2 has several wonderful action set pieces. Though the events are quite scripted, the player still has a degree of freedom within the madness of (say) a fight in a collapsing building. Where many developers would put in a cutscene or a QTE (i.e. an exercise in timed button-pressing), Naughty Dog trusts players with full control.

One of the best things about Uncharted 2 is its remarkable attention to detail. In one early mission, for example, Drake has to sneak into a museum without killing anyone. When he attacks a guard from behind, he does one of several special non-lethal attacks that appear for that level only. Later in the same mission, the game forces you to throw a hapless guard off a roof and into the water thirty-odd feet below. I doubt most players will particularly care about the fate of their innocent victim, but someone at Naughty Dog thought about him. If you look down from the roof, you can see the unlucky man swim to safety. There are plenty of similar details in Among Thieves. Several puzzles require the player to flip through Drake's notebook for hints; if you look at earlier pages in the book, you'll find several funny jokes and a few callbacks to the first game, plus Drake's list of past girlfriends.

I don't want to speak too much about the plot of Among Thieves, as the game doesn't deserve to be spoiled. I thought the artifact du jour wasn't quite as interesting as its Fortune counterpart, but that character development was extremely well-done. The first game's plot had Drake fighting mostly Asian or African pirates; in this game there's a bit more ethnic diversity. Most of the villains are (gasp!) white.

More than one Uncharted player has commented on the disconnect between Drake the Everyman and Drake the Videogame Hero. Yes, Drake kills hundreds of trained soldiers in his adventure. This is, after all, a shooter. Yet, somehow, Nate still seems fallible and human. Nolan North's voice acting has a lot to do with this – if a grenade comes towards Drake, he is going to yell or curse, not just coolly evade – but so does the gameplay. You spend a good portion of the game scrambling away from more powerful enemies, including tanks and helicopters. And surviving the game's final fight requires much frantic dodging of a faster and stronger enemy.

I suppose I should talk about graphics. They're gorgeous. All the characters look, if not realistic, then plausible. It's very easy to believe in Drake and Company. Especially impressive is the game's train level, as the jungle, villages, and lakes you so quickly pass by look as good as everything else in the game. I have never before been so impressed with a game's appearance. Most of Drake's Fortune took place in the jungles and ruins of an uninhabited Pacific island, allowing Naughty Dog to showcase their beautiful tree and water effects. Among Thieves doesn't entirely dispense with the wet jungles, but Naughty Dog has new graphical toys to show off. Much of Among Thieves takes place on the heights of cold mountains and the snow effects are incredible. Drake and his companions get believably dusted with snow, the footprints left behind look realistic, and the mountain weather varies from clear skies to whiteouts. Uncharted's world, for all its concessions to jumping and shooting, feels real.

Uncharted 2 took me about twelve hours to beat, but it seems to have excellent replayability. There's a level select (Thank you!) and 100 well-hidden treasures to find. I'm at sixty-six right now and enjoying myself – treasures aren't just scattered about; you have to think like a game designer to find them. In addition to the treasures, you can also change your hero's appearance: If you want to go through the game as Francis Drake's skeleton or one of the female leads, you can do that. Even better, you can give yourself (almost) any weapon you want. If ever you want a minigun, you can have it. I beat Uncharted 2 almost a week ago, but it's still all I want to play.

Were Uncharted 2 "merely" a single-player game, it would remain the best game I've played on the PS3. But Among Thieves is not just a one-person experience, it has an extremely good multiplayer component as well. My multiplayer review arrives Friday.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Charting the Untold Potential of Video Games

Before Mr. Keeley posts his (appropriately) epic, two-post review of the anxiously awaited "Uncharted 2: Among Thieves" next week, I feel that we should take a look back at the game's predecessor, "Uncharted: Drake's Fortune."

Back in 2007, calling yourself a Playstation 3 owner was not saying much. The console's price was through the roof and its game library did little to make it more attractive. Those who had owned previous Sony consoles, however, knew that one bright spot was guaranteed to appear: the next franchise from game developer, Naughty Dog. Ever since the mid-nineties, this company has consistently created franchises that were brilliant, fresh and thoroughly well-made. The launch of "Uncharted" not only turned things around for the PS3, but history will likely prove that its innovations marked a shift in the way video games are made.

Naturally, a lot of the buzz "Uncharted" had at the time was based on its graphics. Any gamer knows that this is damning with faint praise, as good graphics only make good games great; if the game was a mess, pretty pictures would not save it. Still, this was to be expected, as the PS3's big selling point was its power. "Uncharted" did not disappoint in the visuals, either. In fact, approaching this topic with a purely technical mindset will lead one to underestimate just how much Naughty Dog achieved with the graphics in "Uncharted."

Anyone who has played an older game set in a jungle knows how hard it is create one. Video game environments work like film sets – they are not so much concerned with being realistic as they are with seeming realistic. With video game jungles, this generally results in optical illusions, backdrops and conspicuously solid walls of trees, designed to suggest the density of a real forest. It rarely works. With "Uncharted," however, a key innovation was made: the chaotic layout of a forest directly influenced the gameplay. Jagged rock walls, fallen trees and ruins all became platforming puzzles, not merely scenery. This way, the game often benefited from what inhibited past games. Of course, the PS3's power did not hurt; one promotional video boasted that each leaf on each tree cast its own glossy reflection of sunlight. Significant? Hardly. Impressive? Definitely.

Naughty Dog's art design must be praised, as well. The team did not take the PS3's power, then naively pursue photorealism, like so many do. "Uncharted," in all its facets, is punctuated by wonderfully heightened realism. When a bad guy gets blown up, the physical reaction is not entirely realistic; he fires high into the air, then seemingly hangs there as his animation ever so briefly enters slow motion, then he abruptly slams into the ground. Would a real grenade victim do this? Hell no. Do you wish a real grenade victim would do this? Hell yes. This applies to areas beyond animation. The color palette in "Uncharted" is bursting with bright greens, blues and, in the later acts, reds. Even an abandoned Nazi compound is punctuated with subtle hints of color, reminding the player that they are most certainly not playing "Gears of War."

Nothing, however, was aided by Naughty Dog's technical prowess more so than that one element that just about every game sorely overlooks: story. The story is the heart and soul of "Uncharted." Like "Metal Gear Solid 4," which came shorty after it, this game sought to use next generation technology to blur the lines between story and gameplay more so than ever. This is the greatest innovation in "Uncharted" – a quality so elusive and intangible that it often gets overlooked. After all, publisher cannot put "Oh yeah, and this game has a story that actually bothers to try," on the back of the box, no matter how truthful it may be.

"Uncharted: Drake's Fortune" tells the story of Nathan Drake (Nolan North). He is a treasure hunter that claims to be the descendant of Sir Francis Drake. He heads to a remote Caribbean island, on a tip that the lost treasure of El Dorado is there, courtesy of documents attributed to his supposed ancestor. Once there, hoards of pirates, greedy businessmen, bounty hunters and questionable friends stand between him and the treasure (which is not all it seems, either). To add to the fun, the snarky Elena Fisher (Emily Rose), a TV host, is brought along for the ride.

It may not sound like Oscar bait, but this story is all you want it to be: full of twists, turns, narrow escapes, tense standoffs and sharp dialogue. The story is everything the latest "Indiana Jones" should have been yet, somehow, these video game developers easily bested George Lucas; they resisted the urge to let their technology get in the way of the story. Here, the technology allowed the story to flourish – to be told with a striking, new level of personality and cinematic flair. If any one work represents video games' succession of film as the next great storytelling medium, it very well could be this one.

So many things are done correctly here. First, the game's writer (Amy Hennig) was the project's director, top to bottom. This means that the person who is responsible for the story saw its creation through to the final product. Failure to keep the writer involved throughout the process is a fatal flaw for many video games' stories. Second, the actors reportedly enjoyed a privilege unheard of in the game world: an openly collaborative role in the game's production. Many of Drake's in-game comments, for example, were ad-libbed by North. Making actors actively engage with the material is a vital step toward creating convincing characters, and the final product bears proof of this. Third, the Naughty Dog team had the wisdom to supplement motion capture data with animation. I am not sure how typical this is, to be honest, but that obnoxious, "floaty" quality that so many games' mo-cap performances suffer from is absent in this one. The characters move with genuine weight and astonishing fluidity, facilitating the wonderful performances from North, Rose and their castmates.

Video games may yet become an actors' medium, if "Uncharted" is any indication.

Some readers may notice that I have discussed little about the gameplay thus far. "Uncharted" has its weaknesses in this area. The duck-and-cover gunplay mechanics are ripped straight from "Gears of War" and, many times, the player finds him or herself trapped in an area, fighting off seemingly endless hordes of enemies. (Incidentally, the enemies are every race but White. It makes the game feel a bit strange, once one notices this...) Yet, it is difficult to fault Naughty Dog here. The gunplay may be unoriginal, but it is extremely polished and, often, quite fun. "Uncharted" blows "Gears" away in terms of personality, and discounting personality's affect on gameplay would be unfair. Also, the copious platforming sections suffer from no such deficiencies; they are wonderful feats of subtle and entertaining level design. With the aid of some very adept in-game camerawork, the game makes scaling ruins and rock walls challenging, tense, visceral and satisfying.

Ultimately, the gameplay in "Uncharted" tends to get sold short because it borrows so heavily from other games for inspiration. Yet, one would be hard-pressed to find many games that execute these gameplay mechanics so incredibly well as Naughty Dog's. It is another instance of a sort of quality that is not tangible enough to be boiled down to a bullet point; "Uncharted" truly must be played to be loved (or, at least, seen in person). It does not help that your typical, jaded gamer will roll his or her eyes at the suggestion of playing a game for its plot, either.

Two years later, however, the release of the game's sequel seems to have garnered quite a bit of excitement. This has manifested itself in surprising ways (surprising to those who do not know the game, at least). The game's cast is beloved, as their packed Comic-Con panel earlier this year proves and, when the gaming press interviews Amy Hennig, something interesting happens, as well: she is asked the sort of in-depth, script-related questions usually reserved for film directors.

"Uncharted" may utilize time-tested gameplay mechanics and storylines but, through incredible digital alchemy, the developers create a truly unique entertainment experience of unquestionable quality. The men and women at Naughty Dog are easily some of the biggest talents in their field and the work that they are doing is not only a feather in Sony's cap, but it is the stuff of creative revolutions. Games like "Uncharted" are forcing people to reassess where games stand in the ranks of storytelling media and, with the sequel releasing this week, the revolution is surely just beginning.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Come to "Zombieland" and Feel Alright

Zombie apocalypses are misrepresented in modern media far too often. Sure, everyone you know will probably die, but there are plenty of upsides if you do manage to survive. You will never find yourself wanting for any material possessions again; every store in the world is free for your scavenging. You will never have to work again, apart from dealing with the occasional, flesh-eating nuisance. Most importantly, you will finally have time to enjoy the little things. "Zombieland" drives this point home in its giddy final battle, easily the high point of the movie – one that promised to combine the sincere, loserly romance of "Superbad" with the zombie genre subversion of "Shaun of the Dead." It never quite beats either of those films at their own game but, by the end of the film, "Zombieland" has managed to gain a simpler purpose, as well as provide quite a bit of fun.

Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) was a bit hopeless prior to the invasion of the zombies, but he has managed to survive the onslaught by adhering to a short list of rules. He is now traveling from his college dorm to his hometown of Columbus, Ohio. En route, he happens to run into Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson). (Sensing a pattern? The characters are named for their hometowns.) Tallahassee is considerably less tentative and practical than Columbus. He is, in fact, a bit nuts, submitting to no survival strategy and focusing on his search for a Twinkie – ironically elusive confections in the post-human world. The two travel in typical, odd-couple fashion until they run into two con-artist sisters, the young Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) and the older Wichita (Emma Stone). They take Tallahassee's precious Cadillac and head for the west coast, but that is obviously not their final encounter.

"Zombieland" is a road movie, but the destination is not revealed very quickly, as Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick's script is more concerned with mining the setting for jokes and developing the characters than anything else. Columbus' list, for example, is explained in the film's first sequence, but is constantly referenced throughout the film. Three-dimensional titles inserted into the scenes remind of us pertinent rules to, often, amusing effect. (We are reminded to "limber up" when Tallahassee pulls a muscle.) Personally, I found the titles to be a bit too flashy and jarring for a movie that is clearly seeking to bring the zombie movie down to Earth, but their use tapered off as the film progressed, and they were often funny enough to overcome this gripe.

The titles, however, are indicative of a larger issue that is easily the biggest problem in "Zombieland" – Alan Baumgarten's editing. From the moment Jesse Eisenberg's timid narration kicks in, the film makes its intentions clear: this is not going to be a glossy, action-fueled movie; this is low-key, character-driven comedy. Sure, the opening credits are a slow-motion ballet of firey explosions and splattering bodily fluids, but they are just background – the plot of "Zombieland" takes place after much of the action has already happened. Nevertheless, the film's early moments, in particular, are edited with a slick, snappy pace. The largely unnecessary narration that crowds into many scenes does not help, either. It all undermines the subdued tone that both the writers and the director clearly sought earlier in the process. Ruben Fleischer directed this movie without falling into any of the typical zombie movie trappings; his "Zombieland" is rightfully devoid of dread and horror.

Thankfully, things do slow down later in the film, in order to let the romance breathe and the characters grow. Yet, even here, the editing seriously stumbles over an emotional revelation about Tallahassee and the movie grinds to a halt when a potentially brilliant cameo takes way too long to get to its payoff. Even so, the slow build in the film's third act is beneficial, as the climactic amusement park showdown ramps the pace back up but, this time, with a wonderfully understated sense of whimsical fun.

The film's main cast only helps. These are versatile actors and they each navigate the surprising range of tones in "Zombieland" deftly, despite the fact that they are four out of a cast of seven. Jesse Eisenberg showed us his ability to carry a film in "Adventureland," suggesting that he can be a bit more than just a typical, loser protagonist. The beauty of his performance here is that Columbus is ever so slightly bolder in the face of fear that you would expect, whether it be at the hands of a girl, a zombie or even a zombie girl. He may occasionally show open fear, but he never resorts to predictable, panicky antics. Emma Stone, who had a small, but strong role in "Superbad," once again shows a surprising maturity. She is quite nuanced, as her character is genuinely strong and self-sufficient but never decidedly cold. Abigail Breslin defends her title as possibly the least annoying child star ever, too. Her mix of precociousness with just the right amount of naivete ensures that the girl from "Little Miss Sunshine" does not stick out in a gory zombie movie.

Woody Harrelson, of course, steals the show as Tallahasse. The guy is nuts and Harrelson sells it. The Twinkie thing makes complete sense to him, if no one else, and he makes that reason enough to root for him. Still, Tallahasse is decidedly human and, despite the editor's best efforts, his genuine moments never feel contrived. His somber handling of an ugly dilemma early in the film reminds us that he is the only veteran actor in the gang; he may be the most comical character in the film, but he does not simply disappear when things get emotional.

Columbus may be doing the narrating, but his favorite subject is Tallahasse. This man is the core of this film. He, after all, coins the rule that comes to define the film: "Enjoy the little things." "Zombieland" begins with turns in the direction of slacker romance and satire but, ultimately, Tallahasse steers the film away from any easy comparisons to its kin. This may render the film a bit slow in finding its purpose but, by the end, its simple mantra proves quite potent. It makes "Zombieland" the first horror movie that I ever walked away from wishing to be right there, with the characters.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Lang Stalks the Dictator: Man Hunt and Rogue Male

There's a legend that Joseph Goebbels offered Fritz Lang an official propaganda position in the Nazi Party and that Lang fled Germany the very night of the proposal. Film historians have cast doubts on this fine story, though parts of it remain plausible. The Nazis, ironically enough, really liked Lang's great anti-totalitarian film Metropolis; Hitler himself was a fan. Lang, unlike other brilliant directors, never did sell out to evil. Lang made propaganda films, it's true, but he made them for the right side.

Lang's 1941 film Man Hunt was apparently somewhat controversial at Fox. Lang made the film after the Second World War began, but before the US entered. Filmmakers were supposed to be, if not neutral, then at least not stridently anti-Nazi. Lang, however, knew the Nazis too well to bow to Fox's political correctness. Man Hunt is an angry, even furious, film, and all the better for it.

The protagonist of Man Hunt is Alan Thorndike (Walter Pidgeon), a British aristocrat and famous hunter. Thorndike, though a great shot and a brilliant stalker of prey, has sworn off violence. When he gets an animal in his sights, he doesn't pull the trigger; he knows he's won. The film opens with Thorndike in Germany, "hunting" a wicked and well-guarded man: Hitler. Thorndike gets the dictator in his sights, but is rudely interrupted by a Nazi soldier. The German villains beat and torture Thorndike and then throw him off a cliff so his death will appear an accident. Surprising no one save the inept fascists, he lives. Thorndike escapes Germany in a few short scenes, then returns to London to romance a whore with a (surprise!) heart of gold (Joan Bennett) and evade vengeful German agents played by George Sanders and John Carradine.

Man Hunt is an adaptation of Geoffrey Household's classic thriller Rogue Male. Though the plot of the film is quite close to that of the book, Lang's adaptation of the story still seems somewhat loose. Some aspects of the film surpass the novel; the ending's melodramatic plot twist is far, far more effective in Man Hunt than in Rogue Male. Inevitably, however, Man Hunt lacks the solitary feel of Rogue Male. In Household's novel, the unnamed hero spends much of his time alone and in hiding; though not surrounded by colorful supporting characters, his tale is nonetheless enthralling. Given the nature of the cinematic medium – and the desires of the 1941 movie audience – Lang had to make huge changes to the source material.

This post is really about Man Hunt, but I figure I should briefly "review" Rogue Male. Though it's shorter and slower-paced than most modern thrillers, I found it more compelling than most anything produced today. I read it in a day and liked it enough that I plan to hunt down used copies of other Household novels. Whatever faults it might have, especially regarding the narrator's psychology, Rogue Male has become one of my favorite books of its genre.

Rogue Male delights in the minutiae of the unnamed protagonist's escape to England: We learn how he evaded hunters and dogs, how he stole new clothes to replace his ruined ones, how he recuperated hidden on a river island, how he disguised himself to rent a boat, etc. It's all very interesting and suspenseful, but not traditionally cinematic. In the film, Thorndike stumbles away from the Nazi hunting party... and the film cuts to him rowing into a harbor and seeking out an England-bound boat. Later in the movie, Thorndike hides out in the countryside and outfits a cave with food, a slat-and-straw bed, and a concealed entrance. The film doesn't delve into the dwelling's construction and, more importantly, doesn't properly convey its claustrophobia. In Rogue Male, when the villainous faux-gentleman who calls himself "Quive-Smith" seals up the cave, it's horrific. The narrator-protagonist describes the dirt, grime, stench, and general horridness of the situation so well that I shuddered. Lang's cinematic take on the ordeal is far less harrowing – Lang's cave seems far larger and far cleaner than Household's. Household's cave scene – forty pages and a tour de force – occupies maybe ten minutes in the movie. Both film and novel, however, make Quive-Smith and his cronies thoroughly loathsome; the hero's eventual revenge is a triumphant moment in both. Once Thorndike scrupled to kill the animals he hunted, but he comes to realize that violence is sometimes a necessary evil. Appeasement and neutrality are no shield against radical evil.

Man Hunt's biggest departure from Rogue Male comes with the introduction of Joan Bennett's character, Jerry. There is a small romantic plot in Rogue Male, but it takes place before the main action of the book; it's more a sketch than a story. For large portions of its running time, Man Hunt stops being a thriller and turns into a romantic comedy. It's a trifle awkward; Thorndike's paternalistic speeches ("My child") to Jerry are especially cringeworthy. And while the Jerry plot initially seems shoehorned in, it has a very good payoff. One question remains: Why is the female lead in a film so full of wicked Germans named "Jerry"? Aren't the jerries the villains of the piece?

As he demonstrated earlier in his career, Lang could do both gleamy and gritty, both shiny and seedy. In Man Hunt, Lang emphasizes the physicality of his characters and settings. Though we're introduced to Thorndike as a carefree Brit abroad, he's shortly beaten and scarred; when he flees the Germans after his cliff fall, he's entirely covered in marsh filth. When his pursuers come across his abandoned boot, Lang fills the screen with its muddy decrepitude. Instead of making a star-studded trifle, Lang chose to emphasize the cruel reality of the Nazi threat. These are real people, the camerawork suggests, and they're after you. It's no surprise that the last scene includes newsreel footage of the Battle of Britain. Lang is angry and wishes his audience to feel as he does.

Some films, like Casablanca, can entirely transcend their propagandistic histories. Man Hunt isn't quite on that level, but it remains both thoroughly watchable and (generally) exciting in late 2009. Given that Fritz Lang directed, I can't say that I am too taken aback. The romantic scenes may seem forced, the special effects old-fashioned, and the violence tame, but Man Hunt shows its age far less than most of the era's films. There are a lot of bad political films being made today. Skip them and watch Man Hunt, a political movie and a minor classic.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

"Modern Family": The Future is Now

It is now safe to say that, with the exception of a few CBS laggards, the laugh track is dead.

Let us pause for a moment, in order to spit on its grave. Sure, we have all spent many hours enjoying such shows; some were, indeed, quite good. They say that limitation breeds creativity, after all, and the typical sitcom had many limitations. Was this, however, really fair? Would you ever watch a live, studio drama? Imagine every plot twist being punctuated by an emphatic, "Ooooh!" from an audience. Imagine detectives being confined to one office in the police station, with cops running in, talking of the amazing clues they found off camera. It would be laughable, and not in a good way.

Countless recent sitcoms have proven that comedy deserves the same level of production value that dramas do. "The Office" regularly features some of the sharpest directing on TV. Any given episode of the late "Arrested Development" relied more on breakneck editing than an entire season of "24" does. "30 Rock" capitalizes on its New York City setting in a way that only "Law & Order" ever did in past years. So, when "Modern Family" comes onto the scene, looking to tackle the same, exact subject matter that the family-centric sitcoms of yore did, only emboldened by comedy's recent liberation from the studio audience, let us not underestimate its level of importance.

Right out of the gate, "Modern Family" ups the ante by featuring not one, but three families. It is a shrewd acknowledgment of the fact that the American family can no longer be boiled down to one unit of five characters. Our definitions of family are changing, and the show embraces this fact by featuring three of them.

First, and most typical, are the Dunphys. Their problems tend to be familiar sitcom fodder – the daughter inviting boys over, the father grappling with his attraction to a divorcée neighbor, the son getting his head stuck in a banister – but there is a fresh coat of incisiveness here. Phil (Ty Burrell), the father, is aware of just how dated he can seem and is constantly making attempts to seem younger ("High School Musical" factors in). Phil is an ass, and tends to bungle these attempts. He may sound like an archetypal sitcom dad on paper but, in practice, he has none of the values that always redeem the sitcom dad by the time the episode ends. In "Modern Family," the credits roll over footage of him beating his young son at basketball, then bragging about it. His wife, Claire (Julie Bowen), marks a subtle subversion of her role, as well. She finds his antics shameful and obnoxious, freely admitting that he does little to help with parenting and that she enjoys his fearing her, but never pulling out the "I love you, anyway" speech.

Second, comes the Delgado-Pritchetts. Jay (Ed O'Neill), Claire's father, is well into his midlife crisis, but he has recently married a young, Columbian woman, Gloria (Sofía Vergara). She, along with her son from another marriage, throws quite a wrench into the lifestyle he desires. The son, Manny (Rico Rodriguez), is particularly problematic, as he is quite sensitive and has little in common with the blunt Jay. Like with the Dunphys, resolutions are never predictable. Jay, however, has a very genuine desire to connect with his child and the circumstances are far more complicated. He is often a surprising source of serious moments for the show and Ed O'Neill has the range to pull them off – the first episode concludes with a beautifully deceptive speech that encapsulates this balance.

Finally, there are Mitchell Pritchett (Jesse Ferguson) and Cameron Tucker (Eric Stonestreet), years-long boyfriends who have just adopted a baby girl. Mitchell is a bit of a self-hating gay and Cameron, on the other hand, is quite flamboyant. It leads to much of their screen time being devoted to their ongoing struggle with how they wish to present themselves to a world that still does not fully accept them. Much of Mitchell's issues seem to be rooted in insecurities relating to his father, Jay, though; he and Cameron both have enough depth to suggest that later plotlines will go beyond the fact that they are gay. The second episode, for example, features a fairly familiar plotline about them joining a daycare center, although a large aspect of it is about Mitchell accepting that many will see him and Cameron as "the gay couple."

Filling a half hour comedy with plotlines involving three families may seem like overload, but this is far from the truth. The series' first two episodes have been very well paced and feature strong themes that intertwine the threads quite well. The second episode is entitled "The Bicycle Thief" and makes the most of its allusion to the classic, Italian neo-realist film by dealing with fatherhood (and petty larceny). Borrowing the vérité style of shows like "Arrested Development," this show is also able to move at a rapid clip, making multiple viewings pay off with previously unheard jokes and ensuring that the comedy remains understated.

The casting of Ed O'Neill is no mistake. He was made famous by "Married with Children," a show that openly attempted to blow sitcom conventions out of the water in the late 1980's. Quality comedies like "Malcolm in the Middle" and "The Bernie Mac Show" followed years later with similar intentions, but they wore them on their sleeves, as well. "Modern Family" has no such aspirations. It is past trying to rock the boat; it is, instead, an evolutionary step for TV comedy.

Time Magazine's James Poniewozik marks the end of the sitcom revolution with the "Seinfeld" reunion on "Curb Your Enthusiasm." It is a valid viewpoint, but "Seinfeld" was always audacious, so it hardly brings TV comedy's rebirth full circle the way that "Modern Family" does. This show is, at once, entirely familiar and completely unique; it is the final step away from an archaic form of situation comedy. It acknowledges the value that many of its precursors had by tackling the age-old subject of the family unit with no aspirations to edginess but, for the first time ever, it pays these themes the respect of executing them with legitimate filmmaking.

"Modern Family" is, in short, the very best show that you have seen a million times before – only, now, you can choose when to laugh. By the looks of it, that will be very often.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Matt Damon! With a Mustache! Exclamation Point!

If one were to read only a short synopsis of it, Steven Soderbergh's new film The Informant! might sound like just another corporate whistleblower film. As IMDB puts it: "The U.S. government decides to go after an agri-business giant with a price-fixing accusation, based on the evidence submitted by their star witness, vice president turned informant Mark Whitacre." Perhaps Soderbergh is challenging himself, trying to remake his earlier Erin Brockovich without benefit of Julia Roberts' breasts? One look at the film's poster, however, shows that The Informant! is a very different film. Matt Damon, with glasses, a mustache, and a look of wondering stupidity, captioned with the word "Un-believ-able!" Yes, The Informant! is a comedy. Alas, it's not all that great of one.

I hadn't heard much about this film before seeing it, about all I knew was that it was a film that one should watch "unspoiled." While the film contains no plot twists to match Psycho or Witness for the Prosecution, I'm not going to spend much time discussing the twists, turns, and dodges of The Informant!. If you want to watch this film, you will enjoy it far more if you don't know what's coming. Suffice to say that Soderbergh's film departs very far from the Brockovich template.

If The Informant! fails, it's due to no fault of Matt Damon, who is wonderful as title character Mark Whitacre. Had I seen The Informant! before the Bourne films, I would be hard-pressed to believe Damon could ever play an action hero; here he looks like a younger William Macy. Damon's Whitacre is delusive, goofy, and, at least initially, endearing. Awkward and unwary, he's not the FBI's ideal "mole" for its investigation into biochem company ADM. There's a lot of implied depth to Damon's character, but the film doesn't do a terribly good job delving into it – we see Whitacre make mistakes, but never really learn why he does. We hear other characters discuss his issues, but we never see Whitacre grapple with them himself. The film offers one or two potential explanations for Whitacre, but the film's conclusion suggests that none of the "solutions" work. Ambiguity is all well and good, but the script doesn't give viewers enough fodder to chew over. Perhaps we are supposed to conclude that Whitacre is merely a Foolish American Dreamer? That's all very well and good, but it's hardly fresh. One expects more of a director with Soderbergh's reputation. Comedy, good sir, can also do psychological portraiture.

There are serious moments in The Informant!, but most of the film seems rather light and fluffy. And yet I wish that Soderbergh had enhanced the comic aspects of the story and situations. While it has a few laugh-out-loud moments, The Informant! is neither sufficiently funny nor sufficiently dramatic to be memorable. Damon's comic performance is wonderful, but he needs a script that either lets him be really funny or lets him show Whitacre's pathos and weakness. As it stands, The Informant! tries and fails to be two different films at once.

Genre indecision aside, The Informant!'s script has a number of problems. The executives being informed upon are obnoxiously funny; you can understand why Whitacre would want to turn the tables on them. Alas, they receive very little screen time. Whitacre's wife is a major character, but the rest of his family is almost nonexistent. We're introduced to two of his children, but they vanish fairly early in the film. After the midway point of the movie, Whitacre's wife Ginger seems to be the only other member of the family unit. Whitacre's children are fairly prominent at the beginning of the film; one could be forgiven for thinking they were important.

Soderbergh, whatever faults he might have, always makes his films look interesting. Here he emphasizes the "old-fashioned" period of the story. New locations are signaled with a sixties-looking font; ancient cellphones make a few appearances, but Soderbergh can't resist showing us pay phones again and again. When computers appear, they have green and black screens. Whitacre records incriminating conversations on reel-to-reel tapes. Damon has a mustache that would have looked unfashionable in the forties. Though the story takes place in the nineties, Soderbergh has contrived to make everything in the film seem antiquated. It's a device that wouldn't work for most "serious" films, but it works wonders for The Informant!'s comedy of errors. The retro look may undercut the film's points about corporate greed and its effect on the "little man," but I think it's worth the sacrifice of topicality. I, for one, would rather watch an enjoyable film than a "relevant" one.

There's not too much too say about non-Damon actors in The Informant!, as he is very much the center of the film. Melanie Lynskey is good as Whitacre's wife, the too-often-quiet voice of his conscience. And the film's long-suffering FBI agents are quite good. Scott Bakula plays the lead agent on the ADM case; his Agent Shepard vacillates between friendliness towards and frustration with Whitacre. He seems to spend half of his life in cramped hotel rooms, trying to run his mole without losing his mind. Like most of the movie's cast, he's an essentially comic figure, but Bakula still manages to show a deep seriousness and dedication in his scenes.

I enjoyed The Informant!, but I'm not sure I can recommend it. As good as Damon is and as nice as Soderbergh has made the movie look, I can't help but think that this production is less than the sum of its parts. The Informant! is a good movie, and I wouldn't be surprised if Damon got an award or two for Whitacre. But I can't in good conscience recommend paying ten bucks to go see this on the big screen. It's a shame, as a few tweaks to the script could have made a fantastic film.