Friday, January 29, 2010

Nasty, Brutish, Short, and Far Too Fun

Edge of Darkness is not by any stretch of the imagination an original film. It's a revenge film. About an angry father. Who faces an evil corporation. And kills a lot of people. All on a Boston-and-Berkshires backdrop. This film may not win any awards for screenplay, acting, or cinematography, but at least it's an enjoyable thrill ride.

The long-absent Mel Gibson plays Thomas Craven, a lonely Boston cop with a sole daughter, Emma (Bojana Novakovic). Craven lives by himself and is elated when the mysteriously-sick Emma comes to visit him. His daughter has something to tell her parent, but a masked thug with a shotgun interrupts her revelation. Craven, being a Mel Gibson character, begins to investigate the murder with the help of a mysterious British "security consultant" (Ray Winstone). Craven's journey brings him to the mysterious Northmoor Corporation, its chief Bennett (Danny Huston), and a slew of gunfights.

Gibson knows he has a lot to do in Edge of Darkness. Not only does he have to convince the audience he's still young enough to carry an action movie, he also has to make them forget some of his less-laudable off-screen behavior. I thought there were several moments in the script that alluded to Gibson's personal beliefs and habits, though perhaps I'm reading too much into innocuous bits of the film. Most significantly, one of Craven's fellow Boston cops says that he knows his colleague keeps liquor in his cabinet... but it's dusty. Later in the film, Winstone's character pours Craven a drink. The bereaved officer doesn't take a single sip. Gibson wants us to trust him again; he's gotten responsible on us. I found that I still like Mel Gibson. Others may have harsher judgments.

I get the impression that Edge of Darkness was a somewhat troubled production. The film is a remake of a British miniseries from the eighties, also directed by Martin Campbell. The original series apparently featured quite a lot of New Age-y mysticism, apparently quite well-integrated. Campbell's remake has dropped this aspect of the story; though Craven sometimes sees his daughter's spirit, there's no indication that his visions are at all supernatural. He's just a grieving man; the various visitations come across as awkwardly contrived to remind the audience that Craven is a very sad and broken man. Unlike what he did in the miniseries, Campbell doesn't work very hard to provide a supernatural framework, so Emma's posthumous presence fails to impress.

The opening scenes of Edge of Darkness are character studies; it's quite some time before the action scenes begin. Nevertheless, Edge of Darkness had reshoots to add more mayhem. I would have preferred more time spent building up the characters. At least two thrill scenes have very little to do with the plot; they're entertaining but gratuitous. Still, the action sequences are quite good. Campbell, director of Casino Royale and GoldenEye, never lets a shootout or car chase go on too long; he understands just how far one can push suspension of disbelief. As with Casino Royale – a far better film – the action is always well-choreographed and easy to follow. The violence in Edge of Darkness is as brutal as it is rapid. There are several extremely jarring acts of sudden violence, all quite gory. Blood gushes, heads bleed profusely, and Gibson keeps reloading.

The basic plot of Edge of Darkness is absurd; it's hard to fathom how the perfidious Northmoor Corporation, so cavalier with its killing, fails to eliminate Gibson's character. The individual action scenes, however, are all more or less plausible.

Though some portions of the movie seem excessive, the script does, from time to time, remind us of the costs of violence. Gibson's Craven is a broken man, of course, but we also learn some poignant facts about the Evil Corporation's victims. Edge of Darkness doesn't abstain from the revenge flick tradition of righteous sadism; when Craven (spoiler!) shoots the movie's villain, the camera lingers on the blood bubbling from the foe's neck. This movie, for all its occasional pretensions, hopes for a bloodthirsty audience.

Edge of Darkness was an enjoyable movie, and a few segments brought cheers and hurrahs from the small audience in the theater. Gibson's exit-line to the villain is particularly fine – nasty yet true moralizing. Would that the rest of Edge of Darkness were so good. This movie may be a generic artistic failure, but it's also a satisfying, if not memorable, crowd-pleaser. Campbell and Gibson can both do better – neither will count the Edge of Darkness remake as a highlight of his career – but they could do worse.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

You Can't Go Home Again

This time last year, I was thrilled with Playstation Home. Much to the frustration of my friends and girlfriend, I would spend hours each week jogging around this virtual neighborhood of dead-eyed mutes. Yet even then, I knew it was more in anticipation of what was to come than it was because of the experience it offered at the time. Playstation Home has been in its "open beta" phase for just over thirteen months now, and it is hard to deny that it has grown, but has it really delivered on any of the promise it once had?

I think that depends on who you ask. PS3 fans at the time (the few that there were) had visions of a slick, virtual world where users would be able to seamlessly socialize and access their system's many media functions at the same time. Some even thought that it would supplant the PS3's main menu as the primary means of accessing content, providing something far more engaging and dynamic than any other system could. Sony fueled many of these fantasies but, in hindsight, it clearly had different plans.

As I look back, I now see that the amount of time I spent in Home gradually decreased throughout 2009. Today, not even a biweekly content update can be sure to lure me. Sure, there have been various small successes: The "Xi" alternate reality game was sufficiently deep to keep me coming back, even if I was too impatient to refrain from cheating my way through it. The Ratchet and Clank space had a fun minigame that not only hooked me for a brief time but also forced me to cooperate with other users to win. Even the recent "Sodium One Hub" surprised me by showing how pretty Home can look.

All of these spaces, however, are really just elaborate packaging for one or two stilted, shallow minigames which, in turn, are really just elaborate ads for whatever real game they represent. This is neither what initially drew me to Home nor is it what keeps me coming back; I can get many more games of far higher quality by visiting the Playstation Store or (!) by putting in an actual game.

None of this ever managed to distract me from the fact that Home is failing to perform many of its perceived roles. A year later, I still wonder how I am supposed to use this application as a social network. What is so personal about Home? Avatars and personal spaces should, in theory, fit the bill. In practice, though, they only serve to show how much money I am willing to spend on virtual items. Even if the monetary issue is removed, there is still an extremely limited amount of items from which I can choose. (The amount of apartments available only recently became greater than ten. Who, exactly, was begging for a bobsledder outfit?)

Of course, personalization is not even half of the social networking experience. The majority of it is (wait for it...) socialization. Playstation Home is designed to make this nearly impossible. Not more than a few weeks into the life of Home, public voice chat was disabled, limiting audio communication to personal spaces and user-to-user "phone calls." This left most of the communication to text messaging, whereby messages appear in a bubble above the user's avatar. Simple enough, if all you want to do is say "hi" or yell a racial epithet then flee. Having a conversation is another story. Considering that most of us do not have a Bluetooth keyboard lying around, the text messages require the use of the clunky onscreen keyboard. It makes conversation an excruciatingly slow process.

Even when voice chat can be used, the experience is crippled by bugs and connection issues. Often, inviting more than one other user into my personal space resulted in one of us being unable to speak or hear the conversation. Not that there is much to talk about when visitng a personal space. Early promises of being able to stream video and music to virtual entertainment systems quickly faded into myth. So, after about 60 seconds, visitors will have seen all that any given apartment has to offer (that is, if they do not own that space themselves). Meeting up with friends in public spaces may sound more promising, but this process is quite tedious. Users may only engage in a phone call with one other user at a time. It does work regardless of the users' respective locations in Home, but the limitations of this feature are still downright pathetic. The soon-to-be-released game, MAG will allow dozens of users to chat simultaneously, but Home, an application that is specifically designed for socializing, cannot handle me speaking to two other people at a time? There is no question that the PS3's dedicated chat application is far simpler, faster, more feature-rich.

Even if one only has a single friend, getting to the same location will take some time. Moving between each tiny location in Home is a grind. Each space must be downloaded on the first visit (some spaces are as big as 50MB) and whenever that space receives an update (it is often), another download is required. Once the space is downloaded and installed, connecting to it and loading it can take a good 30 seconds. Once again, I can point to a number of games that handle similar tasks on a far larger scale much quicker. Needless to say, this ensures that Home is in no way more pleasant, intuitive or practical than the the PS3's main menu; Home will never replace it. Home's long stretches of downtime have only served well as moments for introspective questioning like, "Did I really buy this $600 machine so I could do this?" or, "What am I doing with my life?"

That, after all, is what repels me so consistently from Home today. As I am shuffling around the Home Mall, traveling through small crowds of improperly rendered avatars, who congregate for no apparent reason beyond it looking more natural than standing apart, I get a sinking feeling. It becomes undeniable: If I spend any more time scrolling through a clunky menu, looking for a vaguely interesting virtual t-shirt for an avatar that few people will ever give a second look, I am wasting my life.

Playstation Home is a consumerist culture low point – a collection of people willfully submitting themselves to advertisements, not for any real enjoyment, but largely out of a sense of brand loyalty. A year ago, I started using Playstation Home because I was a proud PS3 owner. Today, I have stopped using Playstation Home for that same reason – because there are simply too many better things to be doing with this machine.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Good Steampunk Fun, Until the Plot Gets the Sack

I suppose I should begin this post with a clarification. I am reviewing 9, the 2009 CGI film about doll-like creatures in a post-apocalyptic world. I am not reviewing Nine, the 2009 remake of 8 1/2 that features Penelope Cruz dancing and singing in her underwear. The latter movie is apparently quite a disappointment, while the subject of my review was in fact quite a good movie.

9 is the story of a group of numerically-named... well, it's hard to decide what to call them. Dolls? Living puppets? Homunculi? In any case, the protagonists look as if they're refugees from a gritty steampunk reboot of LittleBigPlanet; there are indeed a few scenes that appear far too videogame-y. The diminutive protagonists wander a destroyed Earth; judging from the state of ruined technology we see, this world died in some even-bloodier alternate 1940's. Human corpses still litter streets and bombed-out buildings, though the discreet camera rarely focuses on them.

Tim Burton was one of the producers for 9, though director Shane Acker apparently conceived the story and characters. This is Acker's first full-length film, and I'm afraid he wears all his influences on his sleeve. The general aesthetic is Burton-esque, though the film lacks the real nastiness that often mars Burton's films. The stronghold of the evil machines resembles Mordor in The Lord of the Rings films – for which Acker contributed some digital effects – while another shambling machine clearly has relatives in The Matrix. While 9 doesn't lack for derivative moments, it also features a number of wonderfully original creations. I especially like the "Serpent" monster that attacks our heroes; it's a creature of metal, porcelain, and yarn that bears a dead homunculus as the rattle of its tail. It's a very impressive beast, and one almost feels bad when the intrepid 9 destroys it.

Like most big-budget CGI films, 9 has several major stars providing voiceovers. Elijah Wood plays 9 (The Lord of the Rings influence again), Jennifer Connelly plays platonic love interest 7, and Christopher Plummer plays the mildly despotic ruler 1. All the actors provide good performances, and none makes the error of trying to steal the show from the apocalyptic setting and the mechanical beasts.

Like most non-Disney animation, this is not an actor's film. The CGI is good, though I can't say it blew me away. The backgrounds sometimes seem a trifle static; the last war seems to have killed off not just the humans but also the cockroaches. The quiet dead world fits 9's stories, but it doesn't provide the animators much room for grace notes and flourishes.

Before I saw 9, I'd read some speculation that the writers might originally have intended to resolve the plot in a different manner. Certainly there are artifacts of a different – and better – story in 9, and I think the film's last act is rather weak. For most of the film's running time, 9's world seems to operate on movie-science-steampunk rules, but the film's ending both fails to resolve much of anything and introduces unnecessary mysticism. 9 ends with an image of renewal – rain once again falling on the ruined Earth – but there's little sense that anything has really changed. To be perfectly frank, I don't think the story ever had all that much room to breathe; 9 runs only an hour and twenty minutes. I wouldn't have minded further explorations of the film's world and characters; perhaps the budget didn't allow for it. Perhaps the producers realized that 9 has a demographic problem: It's a comparatively dark computer-animated film rated PG-13 and not exactly likely to set the box office afire.

9 is a pretty, entertaining film, but I can't help but think it could have been much more. It's terribly short and the initially compelling story falls apart near the end. Still, 9's world, its creatures, and its action won me over in the end. In a better world, 9 would have been a great film. I hope Acker gets the chance to make some more movies; I'm very curious to see what else he can do.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Conan and the Comic Misadventures of the NBC Executives

These days, watching NBC is like watching a lost hiker gnawing at his arm in a desperate attempt to stave off starvation. Moving Jay Leno to ten o'clock has done far more damage to the network than even the biggest skeptics probably expected, digging the deep hole NBC had in its primetime schedule even deeper. Now, as the network struggles to rectify the situation, Conan O'Brien has effectively received a slap in the face and a kick in the butt. It was a short-sighted response on the part of NBC executives, and O'Brien has made them pay with constant on-air heckling in the lead-up to his departure. (Like this masterpiece of schadenfreude.) The saga that led up to all of this makes for some good drama, but it also reveals how Conan O'Brien has already come out on top.

It did not take long for Jay Leno to prove himself unworthy of primetime. The moment he walked out onto his new set, it was apparent that The Jay Leno Show was essentially The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, plus some superficial gimmicks. The elimination of the time-tested hosts' desk in favor of two unadorned chairs could have signaled a greater focus on in-depth interviews. It did not. Stunt guests quickly wore thin, making the show feel even more tawdry than the typical late night plug-fest. Leno capitalized on the Kanye West "Imma let you finish" controversy by interviewing the rapper soon after the incident. Leno brought the man to tears by asking if he thought his recently deceased mother would approve of his actions. It was the sort of vicious moral condescension that any decent person would reserve for the likes of Roman Polanski, but Leno saw fit to utilize it for a person who merely displayed bad manners on MTV. It was pure, ratings-grabbing exploitation and there was no way it would work for long.

It is not that this sort of material is beneath prime time television, per se (sinking this low is the bread and butter of reality TV, after all). It, however, was not markedly different from what has been on late night TV for years – and what constitutes ratings success in late night is very different from what constitutes success in prime time. It does not take a programming executive to see how ill-conceived the whole show was.

The best that can be said about the plan is that NBC marshaled its forces and transitioned their existing late night block quite smoothly. Conan O'Brien took over Leno's old role as host of the venerable Tonight Show franchise and Jimmy Fallon became the host of O'Brien's old Late Night program. Both new shows launched months before Leno's did and competed with their rivals on CBS ably. This was no small feat as, historically, new late night hosts have taken months, if not years, to build a stable audience.

The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien took on a fairly familiar form – featuring O'Brien's manic, self-deprecating style with the glossy sheen of a bigger budget and a move to the west coast. The host eased into the bigger spotlight slowly, but surely. These days, he is just as wild and digressive as ever, but he shows a keener sense of pacing than he once did. O'Brien seems to understand that his new job is the opposite of Leno's: Putting on the best show he can without reinventing the wheel. (When I look back at the 2008 writers' strike, I cannot help but wonder if the two should have switched roles. Conan's efforts at putting on a writer-less show displayed far greater capacity for innovation than Leno's ever did.)

Since their new shows' debuts, however, ratings have bottomed out for both Leno and O'Brien. NBC has responded with panic. Their actions seem to contradict their previous rationale for withholding quick judgement – having once acknowledged that Leno would only flourish in the less competitive spring and summer seasons and that this would help O'Brien build his own audience. Obviously, not nearly enough time has passed for either of these things to happen and NBC has now assured that neither ever will.

Even if NBC had low expectations for Leno's performance, he obviously failed to live up to even those expectations because "Jay at 10" is as good as dead. Yet, they still insist on putting him front-and-center in their proposed new lineup, while punishing Conan, who has carefully settled in for a slow build. Leno would be moved back to the first half of The Tonight Show's old time slot at 11:35 and then The Tonight Show would air at 12:05. Frantically trying to recapture Leno's old popularity in a half-hour show would be a jarring move in a daypart that thrives on consistency. Pushing O'Brien back in order to accommodate the show would only ensure O'Brien's failure, as well; few struggling shows have ever been aided by a scheduling shuffle.

NBC has painted itself into a corner and, ironically, only the hosts themselves can save it. There is clearly only enough room for two hosts on NBC late night and, with Fallon enjoying success, it comes down to either Leno or O'Brien. This is where Conan O'Brien has shown his worth. He understands that moving the decades-old Tonight Show from its longtime home at 11:35 would be the beginning of the end of a television institution. Meanwhile, it is apparent that NBC is willing to keep Leno at all costs, and that Leno is willing to let NBC kick him around as much as they would like – a combination that hardly promises stability in the face of future ratings declines.

In short, there are few reasons for Conan to stay. There are plenty of networks that want him and would be perfectly happy with the ratings he already gets. At the moment, it may look like Conan is the one who has gotten the shaft, but being loosed from the grasp of the seemingly suicidal NBC management may prove to be quite the blessing.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Something Nasty in the Canal?

I like to think I'm fairly knowledgeable about cinematic matters, but I have to admit that I know absolutely nothing about Argentinean film. As such, I had very few real expectations going into Lucrecia Martel's 2008 film The Headless Woman, which showed in a few American theaters late last year. I admired the film more than I liked it; it's clever and difficult without being especially interesting.

The Headless Woman doesn't tell a story so much as suggest it. Forty-something dentist Vero (Maria Onetto) attempts to answer her cell phone while driving. She leans over her purse, takes her eyes off the road, and hits something or somethings. Certainly she kills a dog, but she has a suspicion she may have done something far worse. The road is dusty and empty and sits by an empty canal. There were no witnesses and nothing in the canal would be seen by a casual observer. Vero drives away from her accident; she sees the dead dog in her mirror, but doesn't investigate further. Soon after Vero's accident there's a great rainstorm and the canal fills up. Soon enough, firemen are dredging to remove a mysterious blockage in one of the canal's drains...

A short synopsis like the above makes The Headless Woman sound like a fairly conventional thriller. It's not. The movie is in fact a very slow-moving and generally un-suspenseful character study of Vero and her life. We meet her extended family (ailing aunt, busy sister, daughters and nieces), her coworkers, her husband, her lover. At times these characters seem to blend together; they're never clearly introduced to us, and the cinematography often obscures our understanding. Especially in the film's early parts, many shots are so dark as to be cryptic. We see people through tinted glass or rain-streaked windows; people that are not Vero have a disconcerting tendency to be out-of-focus. Most of the conversations we hear are banal; dialogue often takes place off-camera as the camera lingers on Vero's face. It's disconcerting and often frustrating, though undeniably well-done. The Netflix description of the film suggests that Vero can no longer distinguish between her various friends and acquaintances. The film never says this outright, but the explanation makes a good deal of sense.

There are indeed many things that The Headless Woman never says. Plot twists are hinted at, but remain just out-of-sight. We never see a corpse, nor can we know for sure that Vero was responsible for one. Two fascinating clues to the story appear at the end, but neither leads to a dramatic onscreen revelation. And even if Vero did kill someone, it wasn't a woman, so the title remains ambiguous. I assume it refers to Vero and her lack of moral (and perhaps) mental sense, though it may also allude to a 1940's Argentinean shocker of the same name. And of course there are several shots, including one right before the film's title appears, where Vero's on camera but her head is out of the frame.

This is a film full of mysteries. There's that car accident, of course, but also a whole bevy of little enigmas. What, exactly, was originally built on the site of Vero's garden? And how did that one relative die? Still, for all its puzzles, The Headless Woman is sometimes too quiet for its own good. Its commentary on modern society is not always especially enthralling.

At times it seems as if half of The Headless Woman's running time consists of close-ups on Vero's silently anguished face. Maria Onetto does a wonderful job portraying Vero; her eyes and the lines on her face coney what her generally-uninteresting dialogue does not. Vero is sad, stoic, and somewhat acerbic; the film suggests she was little different before the accident. Very few of the people around Vero could guess she has undergone a life-changing, epochal event. Only the audience, after all, witnesses the accident. As we see several times throughout the film, Vero's friends and family are more likely to comment on her changed hair color than on her changed life.

I imagine a second viewing of The Headless Woman would make a number of details about the film clearer; for one thing, I'd know which little things to watch for. Other things, I suppose, have no explanation. The Headless Woman is not a bad film, though it feels longer than its eighty-seven minutes. I'd like to see more from Martel, but The Headless Woman didn't impress me as much as I hoped it would.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Gone, but Not Forgettable

With Avatar suddenly being called the frontrunner for this year's Best Picture Oscar, there are a number of small movies that are almost guaranteed to be sold short. One of them is A Single Man. The film may very well snag a nomination but, as we have previously discussed on this blog, that does not mean what it used to mean. The sad fact is that this introspective, character-driven movie is far too easy to overlook this award season – even if it is one of the best movies I saw in 2009.

A Single Man is Tom Ford's first film and, with it, the successful fashion designer has proven that his talents have a wide breadth. He has created an adaptation of Christopher Isherwood's novel that is mature both emotionally and technically.

George Falconer (Colin Firth) is a middle-aged college professor living in early ninteen-sixties California. Lost in the wake of the sudden death of his longtime partner, Jim (Matthew Goode), he has been floating through his life in a stupor. So, on this day in late November, he plans to kill himself. Ford's script, written along with David Scearce, leads us through the day slowly, intermittently providing flashbacks to George's past with Jim, but focusing on a number of encounters with other characters. There is the booze-addled Charley (Julianne Moore), an old friend of George's. There is the vanilla family that lives across the street. There is the young prostitute (Jon Kortajarena) that George encounters outside of a liquor store. Most predictably, there is also the student (Nicholas Hoult) who is fascinated by George. Each encounter serves to illustrate George's detachment, but also his desire to connect with another person.

It may all sound trite, but each relationship has its complexities and George is never quite as sullen as one would expect him to be. He is strangely fascinated with the people around him. He pores over every physical detail of the women he meets, seemingly searching for a crack in their thick armor of make-up, hair and couture. He buys time with the prostitute simply to have a conversation with him and coyly accepts a joking gift from the student. Charley seems to suit him best, though. She wears her armor ineffectually, letting her true self hang out – something a man who must remain mostly closeted has to admire. Yet, George is forced to maintain a certain distance from Charley, as her feelings for him run far deeper than they should. He is truly a man suspended in the world around him.

Ford's direction, aided by Eduard Grau's cinematography, conveys this surrealism ably. George lives in a house that features many, large windows, but when he is inside, the camera never sees past the walls of shrubbery surrounding it. When George peers outside to spy on his neighbors, he never shares the frame with them, creating such a disconnect that one almost wonders if the two scenes are taking place on the same planet. When he enters the outside world, its colors are noticeably desaturated, only fading in at certain moments. The technique is a bit conspicuous, but it is also beautifully cryptic. The blood suddenly returns to characters' faces and the world around them comes to life, creating fleeting moments that have no obvious connection to each other beyond providing a hint of what George is searching for.

At the core of it all, however, is a performance that is surprisingly honest. Colin Firth may play George as a reserved man, but he never lets the humanity leave the character. Even as he retreats to the furthest corners of George's mind, distant emotions play across his face. He is not afraid to let George be warm and lighthearted at moments and he does so without compromising the tragic nature of the character.

Yet, calling Firth's performance a highlight would be selling the rest of the film short. Tom Ford has created an entrancing film that uses images of considerable beauty to explore the depths of one man's grief. Always vivid but never contrived, this is one of those films that will leave you sitting through the credits, pondering its many emotional truths.

In the past few years, the Academy has made a point of giving recognition to films about gay characters. Brokeback Mountain and Milk made the orientation of their protagonists the overt source of the films' drama. A Single Man, however, has matured beyond that point. Being closeted is simply a fact of life for George, only underlying a greater sense of grief. Ford's film is far more interested in telling a story about one man than it is in distilling the struggles of an entire group of people. Because of this, I doubt that the Academy will be as quick to recognize the quality of the film. For many, that would be proof enough that this is a truly good film. They would be right.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Sleeplessness of the Unjust

A few weeks back I promised I would write a post on Christopher Nolan's Insomnia. Here it is, slightly delayed.

I've now watched all of Christopher Nolan's currently-released films with the exception of his student work. So I can say with some certainty that Insomnia represents a break from the rest of his oeuvre and – perhaps – hints towards his future artistic development.

Like its two predecessors, Following and Memento, Insomnia is a noirish psychological thriller. Following took place in a seedy London, while Memento occurs in an unnamed and rundown western American town. Both films are gritty and often filmed from street level. Insomnia retains a somewhat squalid setting – the town of Nightmute, Alaska is hardly a pleasant place – but juxtaposes the story's human crimes and cruelties with the grandeur and bleak beauty of Alaska (or, rather, northwestern Canada where the movie was filmed). In the movie's northern panoramas, we can see the first hints of Nolan's love of spectacle, so apparent in The Prestige and The Dark Knight. Insomnia isn't Nolan's best movie by any means, yet it nonetheless feels like an expansion of his abilities.

Al Pacino stars as the not-at-all-symbolically-named Will Dormer, an LA detective and "hero cop." He and his partner, Hap (Martin Donovan), wouldn't normally lend themselves to an Alaska murder, but both want to be out of the way of an Internal Affairs investigation in LA. Neither cop, as we find out, has an entirely perfect record, however many psychopaths they may have put away in the past. The local detectives aren't exactly bumpkins, yet they have little experience of murder and are glad to have the celebrity experts help them investigate the murder of a seventeen-year-old girl. Especially glad to work with the legendary Dormer is Ellie Burr (Hilary Swank), who has studied the great detective's past cases.

Of course everything goes wrong. Dormer finds he can't sleep in Nightmute, where the sun stays up for days; he ends up making a horrible mistake, then covering up his crime. Then the killer he's been hunting starts playing games with Dormer's addled head and confused heart. Like Memento, Insomnia is, at heart, a study of a single character. The straightforward and relatively simple plot helps us keep the important thing – Dormer's soul – at the front of our mind. Of course it doesn't hurt that Al Pacino plays the insomniac cop. Throughout the week over which Insomnia takes place, we watch Dormer break down. At first he's the quintessential big city cop, gruff, cynical, and scarred. By the end, he's a slurring wreck; several times he almost totals his car.

Dormer's insomniac hallucinations are interesting, but they're not as disruptive as they perhaps should be. In Memento, we're constantly reminded of Leonard's unique mental state; it's the prism through which we must view his actions. In Insomnia, however, it's far too easy to forget how tired Dormer must be. His physical and mental states are vital to the plot, but they can easily slip away from the audience. Nolan and Pacino often remind us of the insomnia – near car crashes, scenes of Pacino failing to sleep, etc. – and yet the effect doesn't quite stick.

Insomnia is a strange film. The opening scenes make us think we are watching a crime thriller, and there are indeed a few shootouts, plus several scenes of sleuthing. Yet, as the film wears on, the "central" murder mystery loses importance. We realize that we're watching a moral-psychological thriller, not a criminal-psychological one – we find out the identity of the perpetrator halfway through the film. I kept expecting a further plot twist, but none ever came. I suppose watching all of Nolan's other films trained me to expect deviousness where there is none.

Of all Nolan's films, Insomnia is probably the one I like least. For all its many virtues – the setting, the cinematography, the Pacino – it seems to lack something. It's nowhere near as tense or disconcerting as most of Nolan's films, and the plot is somewhat too predictable. In theory, I admire its elevation of character over plot, but nothing quite gels together here. Like all of Nolan's films, it's worth watching. It is also, however, the one I am least likely to rewatch.

Monday, January 4, 2010

The Most Expensive "Smurfs" Reboot Yet

Did you see Titanic? Of course you did. Years later, do you look back on it with particular fondness? I doubt it. When you join the rest of the world in shelling out $11.50 to see Avatar, you are signing up for a very similar deal.

James Cameron's latest siege on Hollywood's bank accounts, after all, is about as shallow as a movie experience can get. Despite being heralded as "revolutionary," Avatar is really a $300 million coat of paint on a story that is so ancient it would have bored nineteenth century audiences. The highest praise that can be bestowed on the film is that every dollar spent shows on screen (apart from the $150 million Fox spent on marketing, that is). It makes Avatar a decent spectacle, but only in the most fleeting way, as not one facet of this movie is emotional, thought-provoking or innovative enough to remain in the viewer's mind long after viewing.

When Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) takes the first push out of his cryogenic casket and floats into the huge spaceship surrounding it, the audience in the theater will likely let out a few gasps from behind their 3D glasses. This is with good reason, too – the shot is stunning, as it reveals a bustling, immersive world of technology. What is truly stunning, however, is how quickly that sense of awe wanes. This, a film that was supposed to be the best argument for the return of 3D yet, exposes the technology as an absolute gimmick.

Avatar's first couple of shots set the expectation that the entire film will be this impressive when, in reality, only a few shots in every scene display considerable dimensionality. The audience is left searching for these shots, being disappointed when they fail to appear and distracted when they do appear. Of course, making every shot conspicuously 3D would have been equally distracting. I have only seen two films in 3D (Coraline was much better, by the way), but I am already convinced that the technology is useless outside of theme parks.

Granted, the film can always be seen in good ol' 2D. Besides, the distractions of 3D would not really matter if the visuals stood up well on their own. The quality of Avatar's art design is debatable. The human military base that figures heavily into the early scenes makes for the least interesting visuals of the film – stealing its metal-on-metal aesthetic from countless recent video games, such as Gears of War and Killzone. The natural settings of the planet, Pandora, are far more diverse and certainly display a certain beauty. I would stop short of calling its design original, as much of it looks like Ferngully by way of Roland Emmerich, but Cameron's art department clearly made it all as pretty as they could, even if they did not make it terribly interesting.

Populating this environment is the Na'vi, a race of big, blue, bipedal creatures and easily the film's greatest achievement. While Avatar's motion capture work may not be as earth-shattering as advertised (Seriously, have some people not seen a video game in the past ten years, or The Lord of the Rings?), this film easily achieves a level of quality not previously seen with the technology. The computer-generated creatures convey performances from Worthington and company with striking nuance and, had the script called for it, would have communicated considerable emotion.

Cameron obviously sank a lot of time into conceptualizing the visuals and their accompanying technology. Perhaps, then, it will be surprising to hear that his directing is nothing special. Action sequences play out with considerable scale, but they never quite thrill. Nothing so harrowing as T-1000 clawing his way up the back of a moving car in Terminator 2 or even the tipping deck of the Titanic is to be found in Avatar. Cameron certainly does not do much between action scenes, either, mainly flaunting the scenery and carefully maintaining the mystery of whether or not the female Na'vi have nipples.

Naturally, the action scenes would have enjoyed more dramatic weight had they been aided by a decent script. That a 160 minute film, fifteen years in the making can be so horribly underwrought is a sad irony. Main "character" Jake Sully is really just the weight that drags the plot forward – not that it is much of a plot to begin with. Briefly: Boy is hired to spy on natives. Boy infiltrates natives. Boy beds girl native. Boy changes sides. Boy fights against civilized folk. It is all so predictable that Cameron even seems bored with it. What should be a major plot point – boy changing sides – is never even shown on screen. Instead, we see him feeding intel to the human military over many weeks then, after some dicking around with his inevitable love interest, he is suddenly warning the Na'vi that they will be exterminated in a matter of minutes.

The aforementioned love interest – Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) – also jerks through her development, disapproving and cold one moment, then hopping into Jake's lap and proclaiming her love the next. There are, of course, stoic elders on one side and a battle-hardened military man on the other, but these characters are written and performed with such incredible banality that their presence drags the movie into tedium. Even the champion of the middle ground, Dr. Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), who is initially quite promising, never gets a chance to do anything more than smoke and complain.

The greatest irony of Avatar, however, is not its shallowness. It is that a film produced with such modern techniques can be so woefully archaic in its ideas. The concept of the "noble savage" is one that was already being mocked back in Charles Dickens' time. That James Cameron sees fit to lecture us spoiled ignoramuses with a story about simple natives and their untainted wisdom is laughable. The hypocrisy of the concept is totally lost on him, as he casually mashes Native American spirituality together with Hinduism, and has it all performed by black actors, portraying them as a patently undeveloped society and then telling us that they are righteous, even after they slaughter hordes of human soldiers.

There are a few interesting concepts raised by this script, such as a natural internet linking all of the living things on Pandora and Jake's fading sense of identity as he moves between the two races, but very little is done with these ideas. They are quickly abandoned for the more predictable aspects of the plot, and they create innumerable plot holes, anyway. (The Na'vi can see the future by way of their ancestors and this internet. Was their connection down when they were supposed to be informed of their impending slaughter? ...I could list many more, but I will refrain.)

Avatar never manages to be as socially irresponsible as Transformers 2 was and it does not exist solely to sell a sequel, like Star Trek did. It is apparent that Cameron still wishes to entertain the audience, so it is difficult to hate him for this film. Still, his naive ideas, absurd budget and obsession with digital effects do a great deal to undercut this film's entertainment value. This is simply not the James Cameron that brought us the gritty, character-driven brilliance of The Terminator. Like the millions of dollars Fox spent on the film, as well as the income moviegoers are providing in return, it is all so very, very disposable.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Growing Wiiry: A Nintendo Fan's Perspective

This is Part Two of a two-part series wherein we discuss the successes and failures of Nintendo's Wii console as it enters its fourth year on the market. Mr. Hollis-Lima's analysis of the console as a draw to casual gamers was posted earlier this week.

I spent the morning of the Wii launch – November 19, 2006 – scouring Boston for the system. I bypassed Best Buy and other big box retailers and stood for an hour waiting for the Downtown Crossing F.Y.E. to open. They didn't have any Wiis, and neither did any of the other stores I checked that day. I walked back to school almost empty-handed; I carried the new Zelda game, but I had nothing to play it on. I was a sorry sight.

I got my Wii a week or so later, at Gamestop on Black Friday. I hope that I never again have to wake myself up at three in the morning in order to go shopping. Still, I thought my trip to consumerist hell had been worthwhile: I could finally play my lonely copy of Zelda, for one thing, and I could now happily look forward to new Metroids, Smash Bros.', and Marios. Back then, it seemed like there was a lot to look forward to.

As I was writing this article, I took out my collection of Wii games. It's rather a disheartening sight, as it consists of only six games, including the packed-in Wii Sports. Only one game is a third-party (i.e. non-Nintendo) production. I've had the system for more than three years, but I only own a handful of games. I've owned my PS3 since July, but I already have eight games, all but one of which I enjoy and admire. What happened to the Wii? I'll get to that, but first I want to address one thing that Nintendo did right, at least at first.

Nintendo's Internet strategy is the object of much justified derision, but when the system came out, things looked far better than they do now. For one thing, the Wii, like the PS3, comes with a built-in wireless receiver – if you have access to wireless Internet, connecting the Wii is quite simple. If you want to take your Xbox 360 wireless, you will have to pay painfully high prices. As nice as the Wi-Fi is, the Wii's lack of an ethernet jack is vexing, and, in retrospect, an early warning. Once I managed to get my Wii online – shortly after launch – I had access to what should be one of the Wii's selling points, the Virtual Console. All three current-generation game systems offer game download services, but only the Wii can offer Nintendo games. There are dozens of great games in the back catalog, and there was a fairly good selection of them available at launch. Even better, there would be Sega games available too! Monday Virtual Console updates, it was clear, would destroy my wallet.

It's a shame then what's happened to the Virtual Console. Nintendo never tells us when or if they will release a particular game; some of the best and most-wanted games are still absent. I'm glad that Sin & Punishment finally got a US release and that Super Mario RPG and Ogre Battle are magically cheap again, but such laudable releases are few and far between. The Virtual Console promised a consistent flow of quality classic games; it should be an antidote to all of the Wii's disc-based shovelware. Unfortunately, most of the games that Nintendo deigns to release are not exactly worth the download. What, pray tell, is the market for Donkey Kong Jr. Math? Surely no one will play that aside from unlucky game reviewers and masochistic devotees of electronic camp.

Mr. Hollis-Lima and I have both alluded to the Wii's lamentable shovelware problem. I sometimes think that almost all the Wii's third-party developers have colluded to provide a proof of Sturgeon's Law; how else can any sane person justify the existence of Cold Stone Creamery: Scoop It Up? Twenty-five different flavors of virtual ice cream! Corporate drudgery, now available on the Wii! Or maybe I should play Jenga: World Tour! For every fine game like Super Smash Bros. Brawl or Mario Galaxy, there're a couple dozen minor abominations. Many games are more fun to pan than to play.

I shouldn't paint the Wii's current situation as blacker than it really is. There are a number of fantastic first-party games, including Mario Galaxy and Super Smash Bros. Brawl. It's true that I thought the latter wasn't quite as good as it should have been, but it's still a fine game and one I wish I had spent more time playing with friends. Mr. Hollis-Lima decried the pricing of New Super Mario Bros. Wii, saying that on most systems a simple 2D platformer would be a $15 download. This may be the case, but it makes me happy to see such games get full disc-based release. They may be old-fashioned, but that doesn't mean they shouldn't be big deals. Besides, some dedicated gamers tend to forget that not everyone can get their consoles online and download games.

Earlier in this article I mocked the Wii's lack of third-party support, but there are a few developers doing very good work on the system. No More Heroes is awkward, vulgar, and somewhat perverse; it took a good while for me to get into the game's rhythm. Once it clicked, however, the game enthralled me. I'm very much looking forward to playing the sequel, which looks much improved. Atlus has released a number of good-looking niche games, as has XSEED. Finally, I've heard nothing but good things about Konami's recent Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, which psych profiles its players and changes the game and its characters accordingly. While Shattered Memories was designed for the Wii, however, it's a bit disconcerting to see that it was ported to both the PS2 and the PSP. Wii games, it seems, are easy to translate to older hardware.

I won't write the Wii off quite so easily as Mr. Hollis-Lima has, but Nintendo has disappointed me. Some months ago, my sole Wii remote broke, rendering most games more or less unplayable. I'd like to continue playing the system, but I've yet to shell out $40 for a new controller. At the moment, it just doesn't seem worth it.