Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Tiring the Masses One Waggle at a Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Do Not Panic, Dear Readers

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

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


Saturday, December 19, 2009

Radical Evil (Evil Perpetrated by Radicals)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 11, 2009

Are You Watching Closely?: The Prestige

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Wes Anderson Gets a Little Wild

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Revenge: A Dish Served Cold and Well-Garnished

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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