Saturday, November 28, 2009

Getting Past the Past: Memento

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Title Suggests Inherent Dimness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 21, 2009

London Lurking: Following

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Flashbacks, Flashforwards and Flashes of Cleavage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 13, 2009

In Boston, Wrongdoing Done Right

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now, back to your regularly scheduled movie review.

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

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

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

In War, There Are No Winners

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Another Angry Expat: Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent

A few weeks back, I looked at Fritz Lang's film, Man Hunt, an anti-Nazi film Lang made after World War II started but before Pearl Harbor. Like Lang, Hitchcock was a European director who had come to the States; like Lang, he hadn't left his political convictions behind. Foreign Correspondent (1940) was Hitchcock's second American film; Rebecca came out just four months before. Hitchcock, it would seem, adjusted to Hollywood quickly.

Man Hunt is an anti-Nazi film, while Foreign Correspondent is a pro-British one. Lang's film, for all its praise of England, is at heart a denunciation of fascism. Hitchcock's is a celebration of England and a call to America. The penultimate scene pokes fun at American neutrality, while the final scene is a call to defend America. The bombs are falling on London and the protagonist, John Jones (Joel McCrea), knows the States, for all their isolation, are not safe.

Foreign Correspondent seems a sort of transition film for Hitchcock; though his stars are American, his scene is Europe. About a third of the film takes place in Holland; another half of the film is set in London. Hitchcock obviously couldn't shoot on location; one wonders what he thought as he recreated the streets of his beleaguered hometown on some California soundstage. Interestingly enough, Hitchcock finished shooting the film before the Blitz proper began – the final bombing raid address is a prediction of what London would be like... just five days after Hitchcock shot the scene.

Though a German directed the movie, Man Hunt's Germans seemed to lack all redeeming traits. They were vicious, cruel, treacherous, and sadistic. Foreign Correspondent, interestingly enough, attempts to humanize its villains. They use a peace organization as a front for espionage. They murder, they lie, and they torture. Yet the script also brings repeated attention to the head villain's patriotism – and to his conflicted feelings about his methods. In the end he even manages to redeem himself at the cost of his life.

I suppose I could talk about the movie's suspense set pieces, but it seems somehow redundant. Foreign Correspondent is a Hitchcock film, so of course the movie gets suspense right. And need I say that the film is extremely well-shot? There are no scenes quite so iconic as the crop duster sequence in North by Northwest or the shower in Psycho, but windmill, hotel, and plane crash sequences are all very fine. The last is especially impressive given 1940's technology – it's far less fake than similar scenes from the era. Even a rear-projection car chase somehow manages to look creditable. There's also a surprisingly bloody assassination; the censors must have been blinking, because there's quite a lot of blood about the victim's head.

I don't have too much to say about Foreign Correspondent's plot; it's twisty, it's good, and it's best experienced by watching the movie. The cast is also extremely good, and, as usual for Hitchcock's early work, very funny. There are far more innuendos than some might expect, though nothing quite so scandalously funny as North by Northwest's Freudian final shot. As in The Lady Vanishes, Hitchcock inserts a few stage Englishmen with funny accents and goofy names. One is a Cockney villain who meets a bad end, but the other, Scott ffolliott (sic!) manages to hide a stiff upper lip under his goofiness and "old boys." He's a fine counterpart to Caldicott and Charters, the cricket-obsessed comic relief of The Lady Vanishes – they too were far tougher than they looked. Ironically enough, George Sanders, who plays the most wicked of the Nazis in Man Hunt, here stars as a quintessentially English hero.

Though Foreign Correspondent is something of a propaganda film, it doesn't suffer from politics. The US wasn't in the war when the film came out, so there's less flag-waving than in some other Hitchcock films. Yes, America is great in Foreign Correspondent – "The Star-Spangled Banner" even plays over the credits – but most of the film is far more subtle than later Hitchcock productions like the tediously American Saboteur. Hitchcock trusts that his audience can figure out who the good guys are. Given the quality of the script, the direction, and the acting, it's not surprising to learn that Foreign Correspondent received an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. It lost, but I doubt Hitchcock was too disappointed. The winning film, after all, was his own Rebecca.

Foreign Correspondent isn't my favorite Hitchcock film – that's North by Northwest – but it remains one of his best and has aged extremely well. Or, rather, it has hardly aged at all.

And now, review done, a technological digression.

I watched Foreign Correspondent through Netflix's new PS3 streaming feature. I was quite impressed with the Netflix program; the image quality, if not perfect, was never distractingly bad, and the film never hiccuped or stalled. The movie cut out before the end of the credits, however, which was a bit odd. My main problem with the Netflix PS3 disc is the interface. You can view your "instant queue," watch movies from it, and even take movies off of it, but you can't search for the films to add to it. Besides your instant queue, Netflix offers a list of "Movies You'll Love" and a whole set of genre categories. The "Movies You'll Love" section is nice, but the genre categories are a mess. They're not organized alphabetically, or, as far as I can tell, by expected interest. You will find gems (Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes!), but there are literally hundreds of bad movies that get just as much ad space. Do we really need to stream Chained Heat 2? Despite my quibbles, however, the Netflix PS3 disc is pretty wonderful. I look forward to spending a lot of time with it.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

"Paranormal Activity," Paranormal Success

Take that, Hollywood.

You've been content to (almost) exclusively crank out pale, regurgitated horror fare for years and it has finally crept up and bit you. Some guy from Rancho Peñasquitos got two actors and $15,000 together and managed to make the best horror movie in years, possibly decades. Furthermore, he took a filmmaking gimmick that you have repeatedly failed to make functional – the "found footage" conceit – and made it look easy. Now, I suppose some credit is due to you here; you were smart enough to buy up the distribution rights and give the film wide enough exposure to make it the most profitable independent film ever. Then again, that was all at the behest of one of your reigning oligarchs, Steven Spielberg, who believed his copy of the movie was haunted. Perhaps you still have quite a bit to worry about.

Oren Peli's "Paranormal Activity" is meat and potatoes filmmaking. It is very easy to forget that less is generally more, and that this maxim holds particularly true for the horror genre. Yet, every aspect of this film benefits from precisely this sort of simplicity. Sure, many of the constraints that this film had were not necessarily Peli's choice, but many people would see his circumstances as an excuse to never even try. Thankfully, he did try and he was wildly successful.

"Paranormal Activity" presents the videotaped account of a San Diego couple's brush with the, ahem, paranormal over the course of a few weeks. The film begins when Micah (Micah Sloat), a day trader and technophile, switches on his new video camera. His girlfriend, Katie (Katie Featherston) claims to have been experiencing the presence of supernatural beings for the better part of her life. Thing is, most of the encounters occur when Micah is sleeping. He sees the camera as a way to have a bit of fun with it all and, hell, maybe even shed light on the situation. So, he proceeds to film just about every moment of their lives, even going so far as to leave a light on in their bedroom, so he can put the camera onto a tripod and capture them sleeping. Katie is cautiously complicit in the experiment. She is not a big fan of the camera (or Micah's lighthearted attempts at filming their more intimate moments) but she welcomes the opportunity for some vindication.

Needless to say, that vindication comes – in due time. Peli's script proceeds at a meticulous pace, always laying its next card on the table with devilish protraction. The film's overnight scenes are where the vast majority of the action takes place and their intensity is ratcheted up one, and only one, notch each time they roll around. What begins as a faint rumbling sound on the first night slowly evolves over the course of the film into the mayhem of the final night. So precise is this progression that each time the next night comes around, and the film returns to that static, blue-tinged, wide shot of the couple lying in bed, the shiver that runs down your spine multiplies in its intensity.

Perhaps an even larger surprise is that the intervening scenes do not drag. In fact, they keep the pace perfectly. Micah and Katie's relationship is obviously put through the ringer during the course of the film, but they have a genuine affection for each other, which makes the drama between them involving and sympathetic. Micah can be a bit smug, and it causes more than one hurtful moment for Katie, but he never fails to do the right thing when the chips are down. Similarly, she never fails to recognize his fundamental decency. This is one of the less obvious areas where the film benefits from its independent status; the characters never stop exhibiting a basic three-dimensionality, no matter how expedient the alternative may have become. With the result being a movie where people you actually care about are in danger, it pays off.

Peli's apparent genius, however, does not end with the script. Films like "Cloverfield" have proven that the on-the-scene-camcorder-footage approach to shooting a horror film can bear downright disastrous results. Yet, the moment they see Micah unfolding his tripod, skeptics will breathe a sigh of relief. Peli's cinematography is certainly convincing as amateur camcorder footage, with much practical lighting (as in, free of professional equipment) and the requisite shakiness. Thing is, whoever is holding the camera at any given point knows better than to swing the damn thing about or hold it at odd angles. Horrendous camerawork may be realistic in some circumstances, but that does not make a movie any more watchable.

Characters will even put the camera down at times, creating some amazing results. This includes scenes where we are left to marinate in the tension of an empty room or where our skewed perspective creates claustrophobic compositions. At one point, Micah finds Katie sitting on the floor, shaking. He places the camera on the floor and embraces her. We can only see the floor and, at the very top of the frame, Katie's quivering legs. Touching and unsettling at the same time, it is one of many moments of simple brilliance.

Any good horror director borrows from Hitchcock and Peli is no exception. Much of the claustrophobic tension in "Paranormal Activity" can be attributed to the camera being confined to Micah and Katie's two-story house, much like James Stewart's apartment in "Rear Window." The fact that Micah works from home and that the couple descends into a state of drowsy exasperation over the course of the film essentially prevents them from leaving the house. It makes the sole, significant outdoor scene all the more surreal.

So limited is the scenery in this film that roughly a quarter of it is one setup – the overnight shot of Micah and Katie in bed. I have never seen a movie that milked so much drama out of a single angle. For most who have seen "Paranormal Activity," one look at the murky interior of the bedroom will be enough to recall much of the film's terrors. Peli devises a number of memorable scenarios that take place in these scenes. Some are a bit unoriginal but many are quite fresh, and all of them are genuinely effective within the context of the film. His use of the bedroom door is nothing we have not seen before, but the events involving the door happen at such long intervals and with such delicate escalation that he manages to reinvigorate this tired device. By the film's halfway point, the audience begins to dread nightfall as much as Micah and Katie do.

My analysis of the bedroom door in the movie should make this clear: "Paranormal Activity" has no pretensions. It is content to utilize the simplest means to build tension and elicit scares. Consequently, the film is a revelation – a reminder of what truly good horror filmmaking looks like. The film largely deserves all of the buzz it has received. Which is, of course, a double-edged sword; Paramount has already snatched up the rights to "Paranormal Activity 2." Now that is horrifying.

On a broader note...

I have run into a few people who insist that this movie is rather terrible. Now, this is par for the course with sleeper horror hits (see: "The Blair Witch Project"), but I think part of it can be blamed on the fact that people have forgotten how to watch movies. One person I spoke to, I believe, watched a bootleg of the film on his laptop. Hear that? That is the sound of palm-to-forehead contact.

Film requires immersion in order to be effective and this is especially true for horror film; of course the movie will seem largely ineffective if you are watching it on your cell phone as you drive to work in broad daylight with the radio on! That is not the movie's fault. If you at all intend to enjoy a film – and I assume most people put on a movie with this intention – you have to do everything within reason to remove yourself from the outside world for those few minutes. That means shutting off the lights, watching it on a screen that's bigger than your forearm and, for the love of all that is Good, turning off your shitting cell phone. Until people do that, I will have a great deal of trouble sympathizing with any gripes they may have with a film.

Also, stealing movies is wrong, kids. Especially when it is a movie with a $15,000 budget. Come on!