Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Continuum Shifts; Quality Doesn't

This time last year I gave a rave review to BlazBlue: Calamity Trigger, the new fighting game from the developers of the Guilty Gear series. I didn't expect that I would be back this year to review a new installment in the BlazBlue series, yet here I am, once again delivering a thoroughly positive take on Arc System Works' latest production.

I was slightly disappointed when BlazBlue: Continuum Shift was announced. Though I was glad to see a great game get a sequel, it initially appeared that the "new" game would include relatively little new content. There were four new characters, a few new stages, and adjustments to existing characters, but I worried this would be as disappointing an upgrade as the reiterations of Guilty Gear X2. Given Arc System Works's history, I wasn't wrong to worry, but I'm glad to say that Arc has come through this time. BlazBlue: Continuum Shift is so chock-full of new content that it makes its predecessor's abundance seem paltry.

Though there are several very obvious differences between Continuum Shift and Calamity Trigger, Arc System Works have also demonstrated admirable attention to detail with a whole slew of small changes. The first game's slapdash menus have made way for a more elegant setup. If the short load times bother you, you can now shorten them still further by installing the game, which takes about five gigabytes on the hard drive. All the new characters have new portraits, the art gallery has twice as many unlockables, and the in-battle "HUD" has been redesigned.

When the Guilty Gear games first appeared, they were praised for their beautiful sprite graphics and smooth animation, which made most 2D and many 3D fighting games appear dowdy and outdated. The BlazBlue franchise's HD sprites surpass their Guilty Gear precursors, though I admit I rather miss the old games' sprite backgrounds. The 3D backgrounds in Continuum Shift are lively, detailed, and full of spectators and moving parts, but Arc System Works' 3D output never approaches the beauty of their 2D work. The stages, though not unsightly, represent a missed opportunity.

In an interview from 2008, Daisuke Ishiwatari of Arc Systems Works compared his games with games like Street Fighter IV, which claim to be user-friendly but which are impenetrable to those unfamiliar with fighting games, their history, and their terminology. As he put it: "In my own opinion, no matter what the game, it's important to make sure that beginners and non-gamers can pick it up, and have fun just mashing the buttons." Calamity Trigger, with its Drive (i.e. X Button/A button) attacks and right-stick special attacks, achieved this goal quite well, but Continuum Shift manages to be even more user-friendly. Though you no longer have the option to perform special attacks with the right joystick, Arc System Works instituted a new Beginner Mode which remaps buttons, removes certain of the more arcane techniques, and generally accommodates new players and button mashers. If you'd like to learn the game in-depth, there's also a Tutorial mode that explains the game's various rules, systems, and terminology in a reasonably comprehensible manner. If you're really dedicated, there's also Challenge Mode, which teaches you some very difficult combos. Continuum Shift is as accessible as this sort of game can ever be.

Calamity Trigger featured a Story "campaign" for each character, fully-voiced with multiple endings. The plot features various warring factions, mysterious entities, cat people, squirrel people, two psychotic children, time paradoxes and loops, cursed weapons, damned warriors, flashbacks, violent sibling rivalry, vampires, and ninjas. The characters talk a great deal without explaining very much, and the multiple endings and the characters' tendency to make every meeting end in violent conflict help make the developments even more opaque. Even so, Continuum Shift's Story mode is a great improvement over Calamity Trigger's. Aside from the increase in anime sequences and set piece battles, seeing all the story paths requires significantly less tedium.

Though Continuum Shift is advertised as having four new characters, it would be more fair to say that it has three-and-a-half. New fighter Lamba replaces Nu from the first game; the two characters look and play very similar, though Lambda is all in all less dangerous than Nu, who was after all a boss character. Continuum Shift's one hidden character, Mu, somewhat resembles Lambda, but plays quite differently. Hazama, the villain of the piece, seems like a very difficult character to learn. He can summon green energy chains to bind opponents, jet around the arena, etc. His special and super moves are among the most impressive in the game. The final new character, Tsubaki, is a conservatively-dressed (!!!) female with very easy to perform special attacks. Each of her attacks has four variations; her Drive move charges up a gauge that lets Tsubaki perform especially powerful takes on her moves. She's not a very flashy character, but I've found her a lot of fun to play.

The first BlazBlue received much praise for its "net code". Online matches flowed well and rarely suffered from noticeable slowdown. I've only played a few online opponents in Continuum Shift, but I've already noticed and appreciated a few changes to network play. You now have the opportunity to play Training or Arcade while waiting for a fellow human to come online and interrupt. Match observation has also been improved; you can now join as an observer mid-match instead of waiting at the "Connecting..." screen. Online play as a whole is far better than before; I doubt I shall be able to return to Calamity Trigger.

As happy as I am with Continuum Shift, I still have a few complaints. The enemy AI can be fairly cheap, especially with overpowered characters. Unlimited Hazama, the boss of Arcade, is the case in point: He seems to block everything, has three times your health, can poison you, and regenerates. As you might imagine, fighting him is an exercise in frustration. My other complaint concerns DLC – as I write, one new character is available on the Playstation Store. Two more will appear in the coming months. Each character costs $7.99. This seems exorbitant to me, especially since Story mode is plastered with "ads" for the new characters, all of whom have speaking (but not fighting) roles. At least the game itself is cheap; Continuum Shift launched with an MSRP of $39.99.

Continuum Shift is a fine step forward for the BlazBlue franchise, whatever minor quibbles I might have with it. I look forward to spending more time with it – I've played it a lot already, but I know that I've only scratched the surface. Well-worth the money for those already fans of the series, Continuum Shift is also a fine jumping-on point. Don't worry what you've missed – you still wouldn't understand that plot...

Monday, August 9, 2010

Kick Me: Why Inception's Complexity Is So Unnecessary

I don't like my first review of Inception. I had nagging gripes with the movie the first time I saw it, but I couldn't nail them down. So, I saw it again, and I now wish to clarify what I find so frustrating about the film. Again, it must be said that Inception is not bad. It contains some fascinating ideas and thrilling moments. (If you don't want any of those moments spoiled, stick with my first review. This one will assume you've seen the movie and more or less grasp its plot.) Nevertheless, aspects of the film drive me nuts, and I have not been able to satisfyingly explain why until now.

Someone should sit through this movie with a stopwatch and determine exactly how much of the running time is devoted to explaining stuff. Textbook screenwriting says that your characters should verbally explain things as rarely as possible (meaning, as much should be shown as possible – this isn't radio!), and when your characters absolutely must be explaining things, you should camouflage it. Inception's main tool for camouflage is the old "we have a new recruit" trick. Cobb dumping info on Ariadne is tolerable for the early moments of the film because she's wet behind the ears, but stuff is still getting explained to her two thirds of the way into the film and, in the last third, Ariadne jumps in and starts explaining stuff herself. ("Wait! We can jump down into limbo and then Kick X will knock us into Level C, bringing Character P back to life... homefry!") The relentless barrage of information is not particularly involving. It's more headache-inducing than anything else.

Technically speaking, this isn't great writing, but whatever best serves the story, right? Thing is, I cannot figure out what this babbling adds to our experience. The consensus seems to be that Inception is about Cobb's journey toward realizing that existence is what you make of it – that whether you're dreaming or awake isn't terribly important. If this is the core of the film, all of this exposition only serves the film by showing that, in searching for reality, Cobb is making his life more complicated than it needs to be. So, yes, Cobb's plans should be complicated. Yet 90% of the explaining in this film is not devoted to Cobb's plans; most of it is devoted to the fundamentals of dream navigation. In other words, all of these complicated rules are only there because Christopher Nolan purposelessly made them up.

At the moment, the ability to follow Inception's plot seems to be our popular culture's litmus test for basic intelligence, but, since little of the film's complexity contributes to its ultimate meaning, this movie is not as intellectually engaging as it may seem. Cobb and Mal could have gone into one layer of one dream, gotten lost in the recesses of their own minds, and she could have been driven mad right then and there. There is no need for dozens of arbitrary rules to tell this story; they are needless mental busywork.

Not only would paring things down rid the film of tons of exposition, but it would create room for the characters to experience things together. This would allow the film to explore how these characters lost their grip on reality and why it happened. As the film is, what do we actually see Mal and Cobb do together? They briefly gawk at all of the buildings they made and then they take a train to the face. It conveys the events that took place, yes, but does it demand that we grapple with them?

I think this detached, clinical approach seriously harms the scenes following Mal and Cobb's return to (supposed) reality. We see her ignoring the kids and screaming at Cobb. These moments are obviously charged with emotion, and seem to be the most human way to convey the damage dream-hopping does. Yet we are not allowed to feel any of the emotion from these scenes because they are being conveyed through Cobb's narration.

Relegating such scenes to short flashbacks is presumably used as a way to speed things along so we can get back to the heist plot line. Even this side of the story, however, is not told in the most effective manner. Inception really wants to be a heist movie, but it does not properly execute the most fundamental heist movie device: Show us the plan so we know what can (and will) go wrong. Inception never really shows us the plan. It spends tons of time explaining the metaphysical context for the plan and the tools for manipulating this context (levels, kicks, architecture, etc.), but it never provides sufficient detail about who's going to do what and why. So, when the plan rolls into action and immediately falls apart, Nolan is wasting his time. We don't care because we didn't know what was supposed to happen. Then, the rest of the movie is a mix of improvisation and the original plan, meaning that the audience continues to be stuck trying to understand what the plan is, never getting a moment to react to what's happening. There is no room for investment on the audience's part. This is only storytelling in the most literal sense.

All of the misfiring heist movie mechanics also trample over the only remotely important characters: Mal and Cobb. Strangling the depth out of all of the characters is an impressive achievement for a film that mostly takes place within their minds.

Nolan's misuse of dreams, after all, is Inception's greatest problem. The lynchpin of every plan Cobb makes is avoiding "unconstructed dreamspace." He does this by using architects like Ariadne to make sandboxes within which Cobb and his team can safely play. The failure of one of those sandboxes is the worst thing that can possibly happen and, yet, it never does; the device with the greatest potential for drama is never utilized. No character ever wanders out of a building and into a void, and no collapsing dream ever reveals some untold anarchy beyond its bounds. Even when Nolan takes us into the limbo level – which, by his own description, is largely composed of "unconstructed dreamspace" – he goes against all likelihood and throws the characters into two pieces of constructed real estate.

This gutless move deprives the audience of the story's greatest potential spectacle and its best opportunity to explore the characters' minds. The bland mountain base shootout was painful to watch because I knew every moment we spent watching it was a moment we could have spent watching a cross between the film's hallway fight and the final act of 2001: A Space Odyssey. The film does broach the potential for dreams' character development when Ariadne sneaks her way into Cobb's dream, but even that fairly intense sequence had only a fraction of the raw emotion we could have experienced if we had entered Cobb's unconstructed subconscious.

Such scenes would necessitate a bit of abstraction, but that is exactly what Inception lacks. Dreams are abstract, but Nolan insists on trying to reduce them to tangible, practical chunks. It's an impossible task and Nolan's failure to complete it renders this a cluttered, breathless film. The irony is that something much simpler could have yielded far more depth.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

You Might Say It "Eclipses" the Other Movies

From the very first scene, Eclipse feels less like a scam than the last two Twilight movies. New Moon, in particular, seemed like a movie-shaped placeholder – a $50 millon "OUT TO LUNCH. BE BACK IN JUNE." sign from the producers. While Twilight, the original, managed to succeed as entertainment, it wasn't because of any brilliance on the filmmakers' part – the movie felt as if someone had dropped their latte on the keyboard in the editing room and, by providence, all of its ill-conceived pieces congealed into something idiosyncratic but enjoyable.

Eclipse is an entirely different experience. David Slade delivers assured work – a movie with purpose and a shred of personality. It doesn't cover much new ground – Stephenie Meyer's Twilight Saga is still a pamphlet fluffed into a phonebook – but this is actually a strength. Newcomers really have no need to look back at the previous films. They can infer anything consequential that happened prior to this story, and will altogether avoid the narrative water treading of the previous films.

I dumped on the screenwriter, Melissa Rosenberg, in my New Moon review. She has been one of the glaring weaknesses in each Twilight film, but she returns once again for Eclipse. It's hard to say that she's learned from her mistakes here. Instead, she's become better at sliding them under the rug. Eclipse has more of a structure than the first two films, but no one's going to be awed by this writing. Plot lines still appear and disappear with an incoherence typical of mediocre book-to-movie adaptations, but this time Rosenberg at least picks a few threads to string consistently through the film.

A group of young vampires is travelling throughout the Northwest, brutally attacking anything in its path. This insatiable hunger for violence is typical of new vampires, but this level of organization is not. Both Edward's family and the local Quileute tribe are concerned by these events and must consider taking action against the gang. This inevitable battle guarantees that the film will have a climax – something I appreciated coming from a movie for which I had such low expectations. This plot line also has some relevance for Bella (Kristen Stewart). She's resolute in her choice of Edward (Robert Pattinson) over Jacob (Taylor Lautner), so she spends most of her time mulling over her impending entrance into the ranks of vampires. These attacks serve as a reminder of what she's bound to experience once she takes the plunge.

Otherwise, Edward and Bella still struggle with the complications of human-vampire romance, Jacob still refuses to accept Bella's decision to marry Edward, her relationship with her father is still strained, and the vampires still have a tense relationship with Jacob's tribe. None of these plot lines are turned on their head in this film, but they are approached from fresh angles and with new levels of filmmaking competence, ensuring that they are moderately engaging. (Hell, the existence of sex is even acknowledged!) Other threads are dead on arrival. Jacob repeatedly mentions a love triangle among three of his friends. We have no idea who these people are; we only know that this is a heavy-handed parallel to Jacob, Bella and Edward's predicament. I'm not sure how we were supposed to gain greater understanding about the protagonists' love triangle by hearing about an identical one. There is also some chatter about a kid from Bella's town who may have been taken by the gang, but this personal connection never gains any significance.

Thankfully, while Rosenberg only improves marginally, the director executing her script has been significantly upgraded. The film opens on Bella and Edward sitting in a field of flowers for the umpteenth time and, instantly, the difference is obvious: The actors are acting. For the first time, the two have chemistry. They are joking in ways that are funny. They are flirting in ways that are romantic. They are fretting in ways that are involving. If one ever needs an example of how vital a director is in ensuring actors do their jobs well, compare Eclipse and New Moon. The difference is night and day.

In fact, there is not a single terrible performance in this movie – something I never thought I'd be able to say in reference to Twilight. Now, there are no Oscars in these actors' immediate futures, but even the cast's weak link (Lautner) seems considerably more comfortable in his role than he has in the past. Perhaps most notable, however, is Stewart's newfound ability to get through a sentence without pausing. In fact, she has shed much of her idiosyncratic behavior, and that goes a long way toward making Bella relatable.

A speech of hers near the end of the movie also helps a great deal. I wish I knew who was responsible for it (whether it be Meyer, Slade, Rosenberg or maybe even Stewart), so I could give praise where it is due. Bella finally stands up and explains that her motivations are not entirely derived from her romance with Edward; part of the reason she wants to become a vampire is that she simply never fit in as a human. She has spent two entire films being a horrendously submissive, impotent female lead who is defined entirely by the men in her life and now (better late than never) she finally asserts a bit of independence. Slade places a fair bit of importance on this moment, shrewdly realizing that it may just be the true climax of the film.

In fact, there are many reasons why David Slade will go down in history as the first director to make Twilight self-conscious. There was more than one scene in this film that made me want to scream "Thank you!" as aspects of the series that were always frustrating get rectified. I said that there are jokes here – not stumbles that are amusing, but real jokes. Jacob dryly sneers to Edward at one point, "I'm hotter than you." Taking a moment to show that these characters are not always serious humanizes them, and acknowledges that this movie is quite silly. He probably didn't write the joke, but Slade could have played that moment many different ways. He chose to let us laugh at the movie as much as we were laughing with it. Ironically, this sort of winking makes it far easier to take the movie seriously.

Slade is also the first director to do Twilight's action scenes justice. Fights are grisly and intense. They have a vital feeling of peril, too. There is no more prancing from tree to tree, growling at a distance. Slade never shies away from showing exactly how a vampire kills and how a vampire dies. In fact, this film pushes the PG-13 rating pretty hard, plainly depicting decapitation, dismemberment, impalement and other assorted forms of gore. An R rating is only avoided because of vampires' tendency shatter into glass-like pieces. It sounds absurd, but it's actually quite brutal. Depicting the battles' violence honestly drives home the point that Bella is about to give up her humanity in more ways than one.

Okay: Twilight's still no high art. Thanks to Slade, however, Eclipse's summer release is not a delusion; this is legitimate entertainment that stands up well against the stuff that the big studios are peddling this year, and it's a pleasantly surprising upgrade over its predecessor.

That is not to say that Twilight is guaranteed the consistent improvement of, say, the Harry Potter series. The next, final book in the series, Breaking Dawn, will be split into two movies and will be directed by Bill Condon, the guy brought us Dreamgirls. The closing moments of Eclipse do represent the first time that I have looked forward to more of this story, but I still do not see enough plot to justify two movies. Ditching Slade is an equally baffling decision, especially when its done in favor of a director who gained notoriety for his work on a musical. Do these producers want to make watchable movies, or are they too busy looking forward to their next lunch break?

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Does the Road to Vienna Pass through Munich?

Night Train to Munich is an obscure movie; an early Carol Reed film made at the start of World War II. It's hardly the best film of Reed's career, but it more than deserves its recent Criterion Collection reissue.

Philip Kemp's fine essay introducing the Criterion edition of Night Train to Munich concludes by calling the 1940 film a "preparatory sketch" for Reed's later masterpiece, The Third Man. As much as I enjoyed reading Kemp's thoughts on the film, I'm not entirely sure that I can subscribe to his last words on it. For Night Train to Munich lacks most of The Third Man's defining characteristics. One could compare Night Train's conventional score with The Third Man's zither music; or one could compare the two film's senses of humor – recall that the two funniest characters in The Third Man die in a sewer; or perhaps we could contrast movies' attitudes toward romance; but the most noticeable difference, to me at least, lies in the movie's settings. Reed shot almost all of his 1949 production location in Vienna, but in 1940 he had no choice but to film Night Train to Munich on sets.

Some months ago I reviewed another WWII "propaganda" film, Fritz Lang's Man Hunt. It was far more angry and violent than most films of the period. Lang, a German refugee, had a fine sense of the Nazi's radical evil; Reed, at least in 1940, did not. Kemp's Criterion introduction apologizes for the film's comic take on the Nazis and their concentration camps, rightly pleading that the the director had no way of knowing just what horrors Hitler was perpetrating. It's true that the heroine makes light of her concentration camp experience, but Reed also shows the Nazi penchant for torture, cruelty, and murder.

Night Train to Munich has been ill-served by its title. Though the film indeed contains a Munich-bound locomotive, the film ranges far outside of it, encompassing Czechoslovakia, England, Germany, and Switzerland. Including "train" in the title also reminds audiences of the similarities between Reed's film and Hitchcock's train-set The Lady Vanishes. Margaret Lockwood returns from the previous film in a new, less-lively role as a scientist's daughter. Far more memorable are Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne as Charters and Caldicott, The Lady Vanishes' cricket-fixated comic relief. One really must marvel at their poor luck – twice in three years their European vacations have dissolved into violence and gunplay! One would expect them to be more struck by the coincidence, but the script is as stolid and unflappable as Charters and Caldicott wish they were.

There's one remarkable plot twist in this film, and I'm about to spoil it. Fifteen minutes in, the audience discovers that the competent and charming concentration camp escapee Karl Marsen's true occupation: Gestapo spy. The revelation would be surprising enough on its own, but the casting provides an additional frisson for film fans; Paul Henreid, famous as the Resistance hero of Casablanca, plays Marsen. Henreid's villainy seems more sinister and threatening in light of his later iconic performance. For two-thirds of the movie I half-expected Marsen to turn out a triple agent.

Though Margaret Lockwood received top billing, she's outshone by Henreid and by Rex Harrison as the jaunty (and campy) British spy Dicky Randall. Randall's espionage capabilities vary wildly from scene to scene – he doesn't seem a very good shot and falls victim to obvious traps – yet Harrison never disappoints. Still, my favorite performances in the movie come from Radford and Wayne. Charters and Caldicott were hilarious in The Lady Vanishes, and they're equally good fun here. I understand the characters recur in several other films, and I'm afraid I may have to track some of those down. They're funny enough that I can't imagine any film with the two of them could be a total loss.

Night Train to Munich is one of the best films I've watched this year. It's well-paced, surprising, and funny. It's not as artistically accomplished as The Third Man, but it has more than enough panache to make up for its shortcomings.

Monday, July 26, 2010

If You're Going to Dream, Dream Big

In spite of its travels to the depths of the human mind, Inception may be most interesting as an expression of the limits of Christopher Nolan's ambition. His film is by no means a failure, but it balks at taking big risks; Inception rarely feels like the unfettered roller coaster that it should be. Instead, it is a neat film – one that mostly challenges on the superficial level of plot and hesitates to unsettle the audience on a more meaningful level.

The premise, however, is irresistible. Dominic Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is an extractor. He, along with his team, enters people's dreams and steals their ideas. Saito (Ken Watanabe), a businessman, approaches him with a unique challenge: He wants Cobb to plant an idea in a competitor's head. The process, known as "inception," is largely untested and very risky. Nolan's script spends roughly the first hour of the movie establishing these risks and the complexities that go into mitigating them. It makes these early minutes slower than one would expect, but it's necessary; when the shit heads for the fan, it's much more fun if we know what's at stake.

Whether it be extraction or inception, Cobb's plans are meticulous. For example, the dream world that the thieves enter is never that of the victim. Instead, one of the thieves constructs a dream world in his or her own mind, then the victim is slipped into it. It ensures that the situation is as tightly controlled as possible. The variable? The imagined people inhabiting the dream are created by the person entering it. This means that your average heist must be pulled off in a setting filled with projections of the victim's subconscious – crowds of people keeping a suspicious eye on foreigners at all times.

Cobb brings a problem of his own into the equation: He's a little hung up on his dead wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard). As a result, she occasionally pries her way into a dream and wreaks havoc. Cobb's baggage is ostensibly the core of the movie. Nolan works hard to give the film a strong emotional thread, but it never quite resonates; Mal's scenes are often intense, but never moving. This is likely due to Cobb's impenetrable, sullen attitude. (Yet even the great supporting actors struggle to achieve some sort of presence amid all of the plot machinery.)

Mal serves the film a bit better on a plot level. With Cobb's plans keeping the dreams as tame as possible, she is the wildcard that is guaranteed to make things interesting. The moment Saito's heist begins, she delivers. I don't wish to spoil anything, but the action sequence that ensues makes surprising and harrowing use of a freight train, and it fully benefits from Nolan's disdain for computer-generated fakery. For the most part, however, Mal is content to simply tease Cobb.

Likewise, the main heist (which takes up the back hour and a half) tends to play out more through tense dialogue than surreal visuals. By the time Cobb & Co. have ventured into a dream within a dream within a dream, this has begun to ring false. How can a journey into the sub-sub-subconscious play out so smoothly? Maybe this is just me, but I always envisioned my subconscious as a circus of id-fueled madness. Sure, it makes sense that Cobb would try to control it, but I figured complete failure was inevitable. Things certainly go wrong, and Cobb's story reveals greater complexities during the course of the movie, but the dreamscapes never fully unhinge – they never quite feel dreamlike.

That's where this movie pisses me off.

That amazing shot of Paris folding over itself (heavily featured in trailers) is shortly followed by Cobb's admonishment. Manipulating the scenery in such a way is too flashy, he tells Ariadane (Ellen Page), the latest recruit to his team. Cobb would say this; he's running from his subconscious. But Nolan? Why does he seem to feel the same way? One of the deepest dream levels comes in the form of a bland mountain base shootout – for no good reason – and the film's climax takes place in Cobb's old house, in the midst of a decrepit city. It's slightly surreal but, at this point, we're four dreams deep, in an unplanned face-off with his darkest fears. It's downright lame that the setting is anything short of a mindfuck. What happened? It's not like the budget was running short.

Nolan's execution of his ideas is not a complete letdown thanks to a few strong sequences. The aforementioned training sequence with Cobb and Ariadane is quite fun. She serves as the audience's proxy for most of the movie and the role pays off in this scene. She runs through a city, manipulating every structure conceivable – a brief moment where whimsy overcomes the film's portentousness.

The other highlight is an excellent action scene. Joseph Gordon-Levitt (who is otherwise criminally underused) has to fight off a few guards in a hallway. Thing is, outside of the dream he is in, he is strapped into a tumbling van. The turning feeling has a direct impact on his experience in the dream. So, he must scamper up walls and and across ceilings as the hallway spins around him. The sequence is almost lyrical as it cuts between Gordon-Levitt scrambling to stay upright and slow-motion images of his unconscious body swaying inside the vehicle.

That scene, as well as the zero-gravity scenes that follow, is a marvel of special effects. I have absolutely no idea how Nolan and his team achieved these effects and, frankly, I do not want to know. Especially when one studies film, moments of genuine movie magic become very rare. This film provides a few such moments.

But, god damnit, those moments are just too few and far between to elevate Inception to greatness. Other than a devilish cutaway at the very end that leaves one major question unanswered, Inception leaves little of consequence to ponder. Nolan seems unable or unwilling to fully explore his biggest ideas; they are, instead, confined to the conceptual stage. Consequently, what could have been a landmark sci-fi epic is little more than a solid thriller.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Inception That Proves the Rule

Inception is not Christopher Nolan's best film, but it may be the most representative film he has yet directed, a summation of his career thus far. With its twisty plot, its awe-inspiring visions, and its ambiguity, it seems the quintessential Christopher Nolan film. It's a shame that it also suffers from Nolan's few, but vexing, bad habits.

(I'll try and avoid explicit spoilers, but some plot twists will be implicit in my review.)

Inception is Nolan's most "high concept" film yet, a mixture of crime drama, thriller, science fiction, and psychological study. The film's title refers to the feat of entering a person's mind, manipulating their dreams, and planting a new, potentially all-consuming, idea. Unfortunately for our protagonists – I'm loathe to call them heroes – inception is nigh-impossible to pull off, and its practitioners run the risk of losing themselves in their own minds.

Nolan manages to make the plot of Inception plausible, and there may rest his greatest triumph in the film. The infiltration and manufacture of dreams are, of course, utterly fantastic ideas. Yet by showing how it's done in his world – and by having his characters raise objection to the concept – he successfully coaxes the audience past their disbelief. Based off my first viewing, the rules of the dream world are internally consistent; we understand (more or less) the dream technology and its limitations. Nolan's dreams have more rules and regulations than do our dreams; there's no gap for deus ex machinae to come through.

Inception's surprisingly wide-ranging plots allows Nolan to introduce a number of themes and motifs from his earlier work. As with Memento and The Prestige, the new movie begins near the story's chronological end. The relationship between the "hero" Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) seems a direct lift from Memento. One can take the central dream caper as an expanded and deepened take on the Joker's bank robbery in The Dark Knight, while the extended planning scenes bring to mind The Prestige's interest in process and preparation. Ellen Page's Ariadne has an obviously symbolic name, just Al Pacino's Dormer did in Insomnia. The ending too reminds me of earlier Nolan films; more than that I shall not say.

Ever since Batman Begins, Christopher Nolan has had the reputation of being a bad director of action scenes, though I think several of The Dark Knight's sequences are brilliant. The action and chase pieces of Inception, however, suffers from poor choreography and planning. One dream sequence involves a gun fight in a crowded city, yet it's very difficult to determine who's who and who we ought be rooting for. A later sequence in a snow field has similar problems: heroes and "villains" dress so similarly as to make identification impossible. At least you could tell Batman and the Joker apart. The dream sequences don't lack for visual interest, but the most compelling dreams – folding and mirrored cities, M.C. Escher staircases, the dark heart of Cobb's subconscious – all seem to occur within the first hour of the film. With all the gunplay and explosions, there's precious little room for beauty.

While Inception has a large cast of big names, I was rather surprised at how little screen time certain actors get. Michael Caine in particular felt underused, having at most five minutes of screen time in a two hour movie; his role seems little more than a charming cameo. Though the story belongs to Cobb, Mal, and Ariadne, I was generally impressed by Nolan's efforts in fleshing out the minor characters. Ken Watanabe and Cillian Murphy, who held small roles in previous Nolan films, both acquit themselves well of their increased screen time.

I was hoping that I would love Inception as much as I do The Dark Knight, that the film would be a science fiction masterpiece. The new movie isn't as good as The Dark Knight, but I think it's one of Nolan's better films, and hardly a misstep for the director. It's beautiful and surprising, but the pacing and some of the extended action scenes really damage the film's impact. Inception may not the best film in Nolan's fine career, but I'm already looking forward to rewatching it.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Inception Incoming


Mere hours from now, Christopher Nolan's Inception will open nationwide. If you have been following Mr. Keeley and me long enough, you'll know that we've been ceaselessly anticipating the film for a year now. I could joke, as I have in past editor's notes, but I have not a single drop of insincerity to share on this topic; I'm shitting myself with excitement.

Mr. Keeley had enough foresight to prepare a Christopher Nolan retrospective over the past months, and it serves as a great warm-up for tomorrow's debut. Nolan's career thus far has been fascinating and varied, yet Inception looks like it brings things full circle. It is the most conspicuous melding yet of his undying fascination with fractured, psychological storylines and his recent assent to mega-budget summer blockbusters. So, take part in Mr. Keeley's look back. It will only deepen your appreciation of Nolan's latest.

Following (1998): "London Lurking"
Memento (2000): "Getting Past the Past"
The Prestige (2006): "Are You Watching Closely?"

As a bonus, here's my review of The Dark Knight (2008), "Fear and Trembling at the Multiplex". Also check out Mr. Keeley's comparison of the trailers for Avatar and Inception from last summer, "Two Trailers" – I think that time has proven it to be dead on.

These six posts should be more than enough to get you as excited as we are but, in case you need further insight into whether or not Inception is worth the ticket price, both Mr. Keeley and I will be posting our reviews of the film in the next week.

See you then, and remember: BRRRM.

- Matt

P.S. I have not forgotten about Twilight. My Eclipse review is forthcoming. If you have read my New Moon review, you know that I absolutely loathe the fact that I'm excited for the third installment.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

A View to a Bad Pun

About two years ago, my uncle presented me with a large cardboard box full of books, mostly mysteries and thrillers. Prominent among these books was the complete six-book run of Simon Quinn's "The Inquisitor" series, about Francis Xavier Killy, the Vatican secret agent/assassin who serves fifteen days' penance in a Roman catacomb each time he kills a man. Despite the out-there concept, the kitschy cover art, and my uncle's recommendation, I didn't read any of the books until this week. The Devil in Kansas was a fine entertainment; I regret there are only five more books in the series.

Given the series' absurd premise, I was glad to find that Quinn doesn't strive too hard for plausibility. In less than two hundred pages, F.X. Killy manages a number of feats that would defeat a lesser pulp hero. Let us consider what The Devil in Kansas offers us: There's the motorcycle jump off the enemy tank, the skate chase through the trees, the improbably-piloted drone, and the sabotage of the Chinese rocket, not to mention the Moscow burglary, the two treacherous women, and the foiled plot to assassinate the Pope. What Mr. Killy's adventures lack in plausibility they make up in incident.

Thanks to Tarantino, Rodriguez, et al. today we expect our pulp entertainment to be sexy, violent, crass, and ironic. The Devil in Kansas delivers the blood and sex, but mostly avoids the postmodern trappings of modern pseudo-pulp. The initial premise, it's true, is absurd and perverse, but Quinn's primary audience isn't reading for arch chuckles and raised eyebrows. Quinn plays the numerous sex scenes for titillation, and Killy never does stop to consider the unlikeliness of his various scrapes with death. Characterization doesn't extend very far: Killy is from Boston, dislikes killing, likes women and Jesuits. Yet Killy, suggestive name aside, doesn't murder terribly frequently; in the later stages of the book, his avoidance of violence seems less a moral stance than an obsessive tic. He doesn't mind when his allies gun down Commies and killers, but he scruples to pull the trigger himself. It comes across a bit limp-wristed; one almost imagines our ultra-masculine hero vigorously washing his hands after each regrettable act of murder.

As far as I can tell, the Inquisitor books were never much of a success. There were six books in two years, and then F.X. Killy vanished. Simon Quinn disappeared too, but he's had a better luck than his creation; he was actually Martin Cruz Smith, who went on to fame as the author of Gorky Park, which sold millions of copies and became a major film. One sees a few hints of Smith's later work in The Devil in Kansas; the book's most lively and convincing chapters have Russian locales, and Killy has one of his near-death experiences in Gorky Park.

I'm not going to label The Devil in Kansas a forgotten classic, a pulp masterpiece, or the best thriller of 1974. It's none of these things, which isn't to say that it deserves its obscurity. It has its passages of unfortunate writing – never before have I seen a small group of trees compared to pubic hair, much less read such a description in an action scene – and plausibility has only the smallest of walk-on roles. But it's a hell of a lot of fun and the concept is to die for. I'm looking forward to the sequels. Surely one cannot go wrong with His Eminence, Death or The Last Time I Saw Hell? The first page of each book provides a list of "The Questions" that the following pages will answer. I don't think there's a better way to close this review than an excerpt from these Questions in Last Rites for the Vulture, Killy's final adventure: "Why did the ferociously sexy granddaughter of a would-be saint make love to the Inquisitor in a submerged, shark-infested Cadillac?"

Why the hell not?

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Dusting off the Old Toys

I don't think I was the only one who cringed upon hearing that a third Toy Story was in production. Especially concerning were the early stages of this film's life; there was a time when Disney had decided to produce the film without the involvement of its creators at Pixar. Thankfully, fate intervened and allowed Pixar to regain full control of the film. While I still worried that making a sequel to a sequel set a bad precedent for such an talented studio, I was sure it would be of high quality.

I wasn't wrong. Pixar isn't capable of making a bad movie; even making a mediocre one would be a big stretch for them. Yet they seem to be stretching a bit with Toy Story 3. There is very little that's wrong with this film but, goddamn it, I can't sit back and dub it another masterpiece. This is nothing more than a solid sequel and, while that would be a victory for just about anyone else, it's a concerning development for The Studio That Can Do No Wrong.

A bit more than ten years have passed since the release of Toy Story 2, and roughly that much time has passed within the movie's world. Andy, the owner of the eponymous toys, is going to college soon, and will likely leave the toys behind. This has left Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz (Tim Allen), and the others desperate. They engineer complex plans, making vain attempts to trick their owner into playing with them. Nevertheless, the day arrives when Andy's mother forces him to clean out his room. The teenager opts to put most of his toys into the attic but, through a misunderstanding, all of them end up being donated to Sunnyside Daycare Center. Initially optimistic about all of the new attention they are bound to receive, the toys get a harsh surprise when they find Sunnyside is ruled by a despotic teddy bear named Lotso. Now they must navigate some tense toy politics, not to mention a few dozen insane toddlers.

While Toy Story 3 focuses on the relatively lighthearted events at Sunnyside, the story is framed by some fairly touching themes involving loss and abandonment. I was eight years old when the original film came out, so a brief scene showing home video footage of a young Andy playing with his toys, complete with the indelible "You've Got a Friend in Me" playing in the background, is enough to overwhelm me with a sense of nostalgia. Woody's character arcs nicely, too, as he learns to abandon his unwavering devotion to Andy for something a bit more realistic. None of this quite reaches the emotional heights of WALL-E or Up, but it's still pretty meaty stuff for a movie about toys.

Yet far too much of this film is removed from these themes. The scenes at Sunnyside are consistently entertaining and often funny (especially those with Barbie's boyfriend, Ken), but their relationship with Woody and company's larger plight is not particularly organic. WALL-E led a lonely, repetitive life, so a wild space adventure filled with memorable characters is exactly what he needed. The toys in Toy Story already have each other, so throwing them into a setting with dozens of other characters doesn't have the same resonance. None of the toys (other than Woody) have much importance, either; even Buzz fails to do much beyond adhering to his usual schtick, albeit occasionally en español. While Lotso's history ultimately adds some relevance, this revelation comes too late; much of the time spent at Sunnyside still seems inconsequential – fun, but inconsequential.

Also, the screenplay relies on the same central plot device that the first two movies did: Woody and the toys are taken from Andy's home and must find their way back. Pixar may have grown by leaps and bounds in the past fifteen years, but this film's story doesn't represent that growth as well as it should. On the bright side, it doesn't look like there will be another sequel (unless corporate restructuring rears its ugly head again).

Visually, the film fares a bit better. Director, Lee Unkrich, resists the urge to abandon the original films' visual style, so this may not be the most eye-popping Pixar film in recent years, but anything else would have betrayed the Toy Story universe. The toys still feature excellent animation, moving just enough to convey emotion but being defined by their endearing limitations: Woody's arms flop around behind him when he runs; Barbie and Ken cannot move their fingers; and Lotso's cane sticks to his paw. This movie does sport that troublesome third dimension that wasn't so popular back in 1995, but Unkrich makes the subtlest use of the technology I've seen yet, solely employing it to convey depth of field. The director uses some relatively modern flourishes in the lighting department, too – especially when Lotso's schemes get dirty. Some of these moments feel too cinematic, though, looking so evocative that they uncomfortably hover between parody and earnest drama.

The voice acting, on the other hand, is unequivocally good. Hanks and Allen slip back into their roles easily, as do most of the supporting characters. Michael Keaton and Jodi Benson are hilarious as Ken and Barbie, respectively. There are fun cameos from the likes of Whoopi Goldberg, Timothy Dalton, Jeff Garlin and others. (Although my favorite cameo is a mute Totoro doll.)

Honestly, I think that I've documented here every conceivable complaint one could level against Toy Story 3. This is not a bad film by any measure, but it is neither particularly well-conceived nor audacious. While it does give a beloved series a fond farewell, it does not elevate it to new heights or provide any new perspective on the characters; it's trivial.

It's also a harbinger of movies to come. Sequels to Cars and Monsters, Inc. are in the works at Pixar. I love both of those films, but I never saw any need to continue their stories. This suggests that the future holds more decent fare like Toy Story 3 than it does masterpieces like WALL-E. Only an alarmist would say that Pixar is falling from grace, but maybe they've finally plateaued.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Nobody Does It Better, But Many Have Tried

I only occasionally discuss books on Me and Matt on Media; when I do, it's usually in thecontext of an adaptation like Point Blank or The Prestige. This has never been a literary blog, and I don't intend to make it one. I'm discussing a series of books today, but I'm not going to pronounce on Great Literature. Nope, I'm going to be talking about James Bond novels. More specifically, I'm going to talk about one of my great vices – the 007 continuation novels.

Before I address Bond post-Fleming, I must speak a little of the original Bond stories. When I started reading Casino Royale, I expected to find the Bond of 1953 archaic, campy, and / or dry. I'd read one or two of the novels, then return to more serious endeavors. Her Majesty's Secret Service wouldn't distract me for long. Like so many before me, I underestimated Mr. Bond. Very soon I ran out of books to read – twelve novels and two story collections just weren't enough. The twenty-two movies are all well and good, but only four or five of them satisfy the Fleming fan. If the continuation novels could provide even half the enjoyment of an authentic Fleming, I figured they would be worth a shot.

(This post isn't intended to be comprehensive. I have my standards, however low, and some of the continuation novels are evidently so poorly-written and ill-conceived that I shall never read them. I've glanced at Raymond Benson's Bond novels, for example. A page of that prose was more than enough to scare me off.)

Though the first Bond continuation novel is probably the best, I can't help but think it should have been better, given its pedigree. By 1968, the year Colonel Sun appeared, Kingsley Amis had been one of Britain's most acclaimed novelists for over a decade. As far as I can tell, his first novel, Lucky Jim, has never been out of print. Not only was Amis a fine prose stylist, he was a friend of Fleming and the author of The James Bond Dossier, a hundred-and-twenty page monograph on Bond and his literary value. As ever with Amis, the Dossier is funny, well-written, and insightful. He was a fine critic; many "serious" writers never receive critiques half so satisfying.

Colonel Sun strikes me as the least disposable of the Bond continuations. Amis preferred a Fleming novel to an EON film, so his story doesn't read like a disappointed screenplay. There's moral ambiguity, but no passages of le Carré pastiche. The villains' plot is sufficiently outré to surprise us, but it never strains our credulity as much as late-period Fleming so often did. There's something missing from Colonel Sun – I'm not sure quite what – but Fleming fans should seek it out. The book may be out of print, but used copies are fairly cheap. Had Amis written a few more adventures, I think he might have equalled 007's creator as a thriller writer. Amis' mainstream fiction is far better than Colonel Sun– I could write a column or two about it – but MaMoM isn't the venue for me to tell you about it.

After Colonel Sun, there wasn't a "proper" Bond novel until 1981, when John E. Gardner published Licence Renewed, the first of his fourteen sequels. Thus far I've read four of Gardner's stories, which are enjoyable but far too filmic and convoluted. Gardner imports Q's improbable gadgets, ups the number of Bond's lady friends, and sets his stories in the eighties. Bond acquires a photographic memory, an encyclopedic knowledge of literature, and a library of quips. He's closer to Timothy Dalton than he is to Roger Moore, but I wish that Gardner's hero more closely resembled Fleming's agent. Gardner also has the lamentable tendency to over-complicate his plots, often at the expense of believability. Licence Renewed has M seeming to operate at third-grade intelligence level, while Icebreaker features several double crosses, a triple cross, and – crowning absurdity – a Nazi infiltration of Mossad. Gardner has some fine moments, but he has just as many stumbles. He's a lot of fun, but I don't see myself rereading him anytime soon. Before I leave Gardner, I must acknowledge his knack for titles: Win, Lose or Die, Never Send Flowers, Nobody Lives for Ever [sic], For Special Services.

In 2008, the Fleming Estate once again decided to give Bond to a "literary" novelist like Amis. Sebastian Faulks' Devil May Care has a fine title and a few well-done fight scenes, but is otherwise a disappointment. I was pleased to see Bond return to the sixties; I was less enamored of the bland villain and forgettable girl. Bond dispatches the Oddjob-esque henchmen and the Dr. No-lite villain in almost exactly the same manner. It's a failure of ingenuity that has no place in a well-made thriller.

I don't see myself running out of Bond novels anytime soon; there's a new Bond novel coming out next year from Jeffery Deaver, though I'm somewhat wary of its prospects. The yet-untitled "Project X" features a thirty-year-old Bond operating in 2010. I'm looking forward to it, but I'm somehow more excited about rereading the original novels.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Forgetting Jason Segel

Only on the rarest occasions do I walk out of a movie surprised by how good it was. The night I saw Forgetting Sarah Marshall was one of those instances. Jason Segel's feature writing debut was filled with warm, hilarious, well-drawn characters. Yet as much as I enjoyed the characters, I never expected to see them again. Nevertheless, here we are, discussing Get Him to the Greek, a spinoff written and directed by Nicholas Stoller, the man who directed Sarah Marshall.

Sadly, Stoller's no Segel. Get Him to the Greek is not completely ill-concieved or devoid of fun moments, but it takes a mediocre script and executes it with minimal ability.

Russell Brand's character, Aldous Snow, was quite memorable in Sarah Marshall, and this film seeks to capitalize on that by placing him at the center of the action. A young record label employee named Aaron (Jonah Hill) is enlisted to corral the wild, fading star in order to ensure that he attends a comeback concert. Aaron is a big fan, but he is distracted by a strained relationship with his girlfriend, Daphne (Elisabeth Moss). Upon meeting Snow, he learns that the rocker has relationship issues of his own – issues he'd rather nurse instead of following Aaron's orders.

It's a simple premise that has plenty of built-in potential for satirizing rockers' wild lifestyles and the larger music industry. Some of that comes through, too. The single that put the brakes on Snow's career, "African Child (Trapped in Me)" is an amusing sendup of stars' ignorant, feigned concern for the Third World; Sean Combs's Sergio Roma is bizarrely comical when he goes to extreme lengths to fulfill his duties as a label executive; and even some of the partying sequences manage to be funny. (Of course, the presence of actors like Hill and Brand also ensures that there will be plenty of improvised ranting on the parts of the main characters.)

Yet Stoller's script is extremely weak in places. While the device that drives the plot forward is stated in the title, a major thread in the film is Snow's inner turmoil. He is estranged from his exploitative father, as well as the mother of his child. While I certainly respect Stoller for seeking dramatic depth, both of these plot threads fail to resonate. In Sarah Marshall, Snow was an aloof, new-agey jerk who only betrayed the most distant echos of humanity. In Get Him to the Greek, one of his first scenes shows him casually discussing his daddy issues with his mother and resolving to handle those issues by visiting the man; from the get-go, Snow is far too conscious of his own issues.

This is even evident in Brand's performance. He bears less glassy-eyed rudeness that he did in Sarah Marshall. Here, he seems more inclined to wallow. Even in scenes where he's supposed to be cutting loose, Aaron seems better at doing so. If Snow is really as burdened as the movie tells us he is, he should be partying harder than we expect, not standing there, silently feeling sorry for himself.

This makes the film seem oddly flat. The wild moments feel more jarring than shocking, the emotional ones feel diluted, and the obligatory glitz just glides on by behind it all. Aaron doesn't add much to the proceedings, either. I was happy to see Hill finally step away from his usual asshole archetype and equally happy to see Moss do something a bit lighter than her usual work on Mad Men, but this cute couple's mundane relationship problems never become particularly interesting. I suppose Stoller was trying to contrast it with Snow's life but, in order for that to work, he would've had to effectively convey the madness of Snow's life. Little of what the script tries is a complete failure, but none of it as nearly as effective as it should have been.

Not everything went wrong at the writing stage, though. Stoller's direction is what saps most of the life from this film. He seems to have two settings: Close-up and Other. He relies constantly on tight shots, even in the most inconsequential moments, ensuring that he has no effective way to emphasize the real drama when it comes along. It also results in some disorienting scenes; when all the visual information we're getting is two or three heads conversing with each other, we have no physical context for the action. Stoller's poor direction may also be to blame for some shoddy editing. Characters awkwardly enter a scene with a close-up, and partying montages try to up the comedy with quick cuts that bungle the timing and leave the audience silent.

Stoller does have his moments – particularly a climactic melee in Las Vegas that involves drugs, furry walls, and a deranged Sean Combs. As lame as the script is, there isn't anything glaringly inept or offensive about it. (If only I could say that about all movies.) While the approaches that Brand and Hill take don't exactly make the characters leap off of the screen, these are still talented actors. Also, Brand is very good when singing, helping to create some good music and a shockingly deep soundtrack featuring all of the fictional artists from the film.

These few strengths, however, are not enough to rescue the movie from mediocrity. Forgetting Sarah Marshall may have been a pleasant surprise, but Get Him to the Greek is a proportionate letdown. Segel and Stoller are supposedly reteaming for an upcoming Muppet movie. Hopefully, with Segel's input, we won't be in for another disappointment.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Scandal Minus Sensationalism: The Girl on the Train

A few months ago, I panned The Headless Woman, a quiet, compact foreign film about a woman, her psychology, and a crime that might or might not have happened. Today I'm here to praise The Girl on the Train, a film with a similar concept, but superior execution. This 2009 French production may derive from a 2004 scandal but, director, André Téchiné, has produced neither a Law and Order, "ripped from the headlines" entertainment nor an over-earnest issue picture. The Girl on the Train may tell us something about the ills of modern French society, but it's far more eloquent about individual problems.

Jeanne Fabre (Émilie Dequenne) lives in a Parisian suburb with her mother, Louise (Catherine Deneuve). For all her efforts – hours pounding pavement, enduring interviews, and scouring job listings – she can't find a job. She cuts an appealing figure with her roller blades, headphones, and casual clothes, but Jeanne's not a terribly happy girl. Nor is she very smart. When she's with her shady wrestler boyfriend, Franck (Nicolas Duvauchelle), she tells obvious lies, but manages to avoid noticing her beau's sideline in drugs. An hour into the film, Jeanne tells the police – and through them, the whole of France – a very big lie.

After Jeanne fibs her way into the national consciousness, one of the film's main subplots almost entirely vanishes. For the first fifty minutes, the film seems to be about Jeanne's relationship with Franck. The surprising end of the relationship appears to be a major catalyst for Jeanne's breakdown, but Franck is almost entirely absent in the film's second part. He has perhaps forty-five seconds of screen time. Those forty-five seconds are very affecting, but I can't help but wish The Girl on the Train had a slightly more elegant structure.

Though the movie's story belongs to Jeanne, The Girl on the Train devotes a fair portion of its running time to lawyer, Samuel Bleistein (Michel Blanc), and his family. Though Blanc is a fine actor, the film's portrayal of Bleistein's dysfunctional family never quite convinces. Bleistein's indefatigable assistant, Judith (Ronit Elkabetz), is his son's ex-wife. Said son has an awful beard and a gruff manner; he's touchy, funny, irresponsible, and hard to accept as Judith's lover. Bleistein's thirteen-year-old grandson, Nathan (Jérémie Quaegebeur), alternates between callow and preternaturally wise; Quaegebeur acquits himself well, however, and surpasses the script's inconsistencies.

Midway through the film, The Girl on the Train tells us that Jeanne's claims have shocked the country and frenzied the media. Where a lesser film might give us shots of rallies, protests, and policemen, this one remains focused on the characters, not the crowds. If anything, the film becomes more sedate in its second act, which moves from Paris and the suburbs to Bleistein's country estate. If the manner of Jeanne's final epiphany feels slightly forced, we never doubt that she would eventually own up to her deception. Her "composition" of her apology/confession is an effective scene, as is her bleakly minimal entrance into a jail cell, though I'm not sure about Téchiné's decision to intercut the latter scene with Nathan's Bar Mitzvah.

Some might complain that The Girl on the Train is too oblique; we hear, but never see, Jeanne's false accusation and the director neglects to film several potentially dramatic scenes. I, however, was much taken with the movie's preference for psychology over spectacle and its way of showing the political as personal. Jeanne might seem to represent a nationwide "pathology," but we never forget that her problems, in the end, are her own. Téchiné never overreaches with grand statements or sententious proclamations. He lets the story speak and leaves interpretation to the audience.

Throughout this review, I've tried to avoid mentioning what exactly Jeanne lies about – what exactly (didn't) happen(ed) to "the girl on the train." Perhaps my reticence is unnecessary; anyone in the movie's French audience would know what to expect from Jeanne's quixotic crime. There's a fair deal of foreshadowing throughout the film's first hour, but I prefer not to divulge the movie's (open) secret. In my mind, the film becomes more interesting if you don't know quite what to expect. Even if one does have a general idea of the plot, Jeanne's crime, and her incompetence in staging it, remain stunning.

The Girl on the Train is neither a great nor an ambitious film; it is well-made, well-acted, and thought-provoking. It stands on the line between art house and popular cinema, and should please partisans of both styles.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Sex Just Isn't What It Used to Be

There is a moment somewhere in hour twenty-six of Sex and the City 2 when Carrie, accepting an invitation to Abu Dhabi, says something to the effect of, "Finally some glamour in my life." With this embarrassingly earnest statement, her transformation into a petulant, unrelatable asshole is complete.

Way back in 2008, Sex and the City: The Movie was the subject of this blog's inaugural post. (Read it if you must, but I warn you: It sucks.) In it, I explained my convoluted reasons for enjoying a franchise that seemingly has no interest in entertaining me, a hopelessly male human being. Sure, the girls are talky, superficial and, in Carrie's case, inclined to make puns, but I have always embraced its fierce commitment to providing a different perspective on womanhood. The characters were surprisingly likable and human (even the men); the plot lines were insightful and unpredictable; and the overall product was (and remains) unlike anything else on television. Even the first movie toed the line well enough to avoid being an embarrassment.

No such luck the second time around.

The first film suffered from the fact that the characters' stories had already been told; writer/director Michael Patrick King had no new ideas and it took him nearly two and a half hours to prove it. The second film has the exact, same problem, but it also represents the series' degradation into a parody of itself. Where the characters were once human, they are now repellant stereotypes. Where the plot lines were once engaging and honest, they are now tedious and forced. Where the show's overarching and vital wit once was, there is now nothing.

Surely, King had no choice in the matter; a sequel was coming whether he liked it or not. I can forgive him for making an unnecessary movie, but I cannot forgive him for making all of the wrong choices in creating that unnecessary movie. On paper, this movie seems to be about the girls adjusting to new chapters in their lives: Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker) is married, Charlotte (Kristin Davis) is a full-on mom, Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) is struggling to prioritize her family and Samantha (Kim Cattrall) is back to single life. Most of the characters, in other words, are hitting the doldrums of midlife. To me, this seems like a great opportunity to turn the page – to give the series a proper goodbye – by having the characters let go of their old lifestyle.

Instead, this movie glorifies denial. For the first hour, the girls' fairly obvious midlife crises are convoluted by Kings' horrible screenwriting and direction. One would expect Carrie, for example, to have trouble adjusting to married life. In this movie, good luck figuring out why. She rudely rejects a sweet, but misguided, gift from her husband, "Mr. Big" (Chris Noth), bemoans the mundanity of her life upon returning to her super-chic apartment, and moves out but panics when Big supports the choice. Big, along with the audience, can only stare in awe as Carrie mutates into a caricature of an irrational, moody woman – the very caricature that ignorant critics have always claimed the show glorified. What is the solution to her problems? What is the solution to the other girls' equally ill-defined problems? Naturally, it is escaping to a mysterious, foreign land full of palaces, servants, and strange moral codes.

Yes, our beloved girls travel to Connecticut. In what must be one of the most unnecessary and unfortunate digressions in film history, at least twenty minutes of the movie are devoted to the wedding of the series' two gay characters, Stanford (Willie Garson) and Anthony (Mario Cantone). During this time, every obvious gay joke and stereotype conceivable is mashed together to create one of the most disturbing monuments to ignorance since The Birth of a Nation. I have been told that Michael Patrick King is a gay man himself, but I really do not care; this is some of the most regressive crap I've seen since Michael Bay had his last cinematic bowel movement. The climax of this disaster? A cameo by Liza Minnelli, wherein she dances to her own rendition of Beyoncé's "Single Ladies." The last time I found it this hard to look at the screen, I was being shown Sacha Baron Cohen's anus.

That, however, was a digression of my own, as well. The girls' actual escape is to Abu Dhabi. What follows has best been described as "consumerist porn" – minutes upon minutes of the girls brainlessly running from one absurd show of opulence to the next. Personal limousines! Personal servants! Personal massagers! Next to nothing in the way of plot, theme or character advances during this stretch of time. It seems that King was given a blank check for this film and wanted to take full advantage of it, even if it meant clearing the theater.

Also, the film's representation of Abu Dhabi is suspect at best. I heartily doubt that anyone involved in Sex and the City 2 has ever been to the place. Granted, many UAE resorts are over-the-top in real life, but these scenes practically seemed torn from Aladdin. (Perhaps this is too narrow a criticism, though; the film's New York City rings false, as well. It seems to be a labyrinth of upscale boutiques, restaurants and high rises, devoid of connecting streets and sidewalks. This is just all-around production design diarrhea.)

The movie doesn't merely bungle the physical landscape, though. Under the guise of feminism, Sex and the City 2 takes it upon itself to criticize Arab social mores. None of this struck me as offensive, per se, but it did feel beyond the abilities of this moronic script. Miranda occasionally nags Samantha about showing too much skin but, in reality, none of the girls' appearances would pass muster under Sharia law. Besides, they spend most of their time in a resort where, one assumes, such rules would not apply. With this film perpetuating more stereotypes about American women than it breaks down, perhaps the cultural condescension should be left to better movies.

Worst of all, King manages to give us fleeting reminders of better times with these characters. When Charlotte and Miranda finally settle down long enough to discuss their frustrations, the conversation is funny, endearing and honest. Unfortunately, King is utterly ignorant of his own strengths; simple conversations are rare in a film that prefers close-up shots of bouncing body parts (female and otherwise), blunt-as-hell musical cues, and other assorted histrionics.

And Carrie? Never redeemed. The film just rolls over and dies at some point near the three hour mark. None of the foggy plot lines are given interesting conclusions, and none of the characters seem to have grown. As the film announces "The End," Carrie narrates some meaningless metaphor about colors and relationships, and I am left hating a character I once respected.

This is a husk of what Sex and the City once was. If anyone involved has common sense, they will stop driving this series into the ground. If the mentalities of excess and delusion that fuel this movie are any indication, however, we're in for many more sequels.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

This "Dead" Franchise Was Just Playing Possum

Rocket Knight is a strange little game but a good one. Like Mega Man 10, it's a platforming throwback – a homage to old games on early systems. Unlike Mega Man, however, the Rocket Knight/Sparkster franchise was, until this year, almost forgotten. Though the series had a few partisans, mostly connoisseurs of mid-nineties games, very few gamers ever expected a fourth Rocket Knight adventure. After all, the last games in the series appeared in 1994. Thus this new game is a windfall for both old Sparkster fans and those, like me, who never had a chance to try the original games.

Despite Rocket Knight's 3D graphics, online functionality, and download-only release, it's hard to miss the fact that the game has roots in the nineties. Today, after all, no company would ever launch an IP about a sword-wielding, jetpacking, steampunk possum. Modern steampunk jetpacking requires Tesla cameos, clunky controls, and Nolan North. Rocket Knight lacks all three and still manages to be a fine game.

The controls are simple – one needs never touch shoulder buttons, adjust the camera, or depress the thumbsticks – yet give Sparkster a wide range of abilities and attacks. The game does a fine job teaching the player all the hero's tricks with unobtrusive tutorial signs in the backdrops of early levels. First-time players can stop, read, and learn, while returning fans can ignore relearning the controls and concentrate on speed runs and shots for the leaderboards– Rocket Knight may be a short game, but it's designed with replayability in mind.

The first few platform sequences in Rocket Knight are fairly simple; environmental hazards are rare and enemies unthreatening. Very shortly, however, Sparkster comes across some truly difficult platforming challenges. The game's third world contains some of the most cunning traps I have seen in recent years. A lesser game might frustrate with instant death spikes, bottomless pits, and scarce check points, but Rocket Knight is relatively forgiving – one mistake won't kill Sparkster, and each level has several checkpoints. Die too many times in Arcade mode and you will have to start again from the game's beginning, but there's also Free Play mode, which, in addition to a level select feature, allows you to play through the game without possibility of permanent loss.

I was very taken with Rocket Knight's platforming segments, but less impressed with the occasional side scrolling shooter levels. While they do offer a change of pace, Sparkster is far less nimble when flying than he is while earthbound. There's only one way to attack your foes, and there's no way to attack any villains who have managed to maneuver behind you. Sparkster can "air dash" with the circle (or B) button, but the trick doesn't satisfy – I think that the dash ought move our hero faster and further. Finally, the level designers have littered the air with far too many floating minefields. Those intricately arrayed clusters of bright bombs don't offer much challenge, and their ubiquity occasionally makes an exciting game feel lazy. Rocket Knight's flight levels aren't terrible or unenjoyable, but I wish that the flying was as well-conceived as the rest of the game.

Rocket Knight is a 2D platformer that uses 3D graphics, and the game sometimes suffers for it. Ninety-five percent of the time everything runs smoothly, but every once in a while it becomes difficult to distinguish between foreground and background. Aside from these moments of confusion, the graphics serve their game well. A few assets repeat too often, but the gameplay variety more than compensates for a little graphical repetition. Though the graphics have slight flaws, the game has a coherent, consistent, and charming aesthetic. Games with far larger budgets and longer development cycles often feel slapped-together and messy; Rocket Knight never does.

Before I close this review, I should mention that I have had intermittent Internet conversations with Rocket Knight's producer. I admit that I expected to like this game but, even so, I was taken aback by how good it is. If you like 2D platforming, chances are you shall like this. I fervently hope that Sparkster doesn't take another decades-long hiatus; I'm already hoping for a sequel. Meanwhile, I think I may have to look up the other games in the series. If they're as good as this game is, they deserve a rerelease.