Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Kick-Ass? Eh, Maybe Next Time

Maybe I am over-thinking this. I mean, the movie's title is Kick-Ass, and I am sitting here trying to figure out what the point of it all was.

Sure, there are moments when Kick-Ass is fairly kick-ass, but I cannot bring myself to stop thinking there. This film's premise is so post-modern that I feel obligated to look for some sort of examination of heroism or violence in our society or, hell, even high school. Yet, looking back on the film, I find little to nothing. In its first act, Kick-Ass does a lot to turn our idea of what a superhero is on its head. Then, after all that, it just wraps up the plot and goes home.

Dave (Aaron Johnson) is an average teenager with an above-average sense of moral duty. His life is trite and mundane but, one day, he decides to buy a wetsuit online. That, and a MySpace page, is the extent of his plan for becoming Kick-Ass, the everyman superhero. The results are not pretty. While attempting to stop a couple of would-be carjackers, he promptly gets stabbed and hit by a car. He wakes up with countless metal pins in his skeleton and almost total numbness. Instead of giving up, he turns this into his greatest asset – he can now take one hell of a beating. In short order, he becomes a full-blown YouTube phenomenon.

Damon (Nicolas Cage) and Mindy (Chloe Moretz) are a bit more professional. They are a father-daughter team that has been training to fight crime since Mindy was about five. Now that she is a few years older, she goes by the name Hit Girl, crusading with the support of her father's alter ego, Big Daddy. Unlike Kick-Ass, the two work in secret and are hot on the trail of Frank D'Amico (Mark Strong), a crime boss. They do, however, cross paths with Kick-Ass and ultimately join forces to take D'Amico down.

There is not much else to discuss about the plot because Kick-Ass contains few surprises that are not in the commercials. The bad guys are occasionally funny, but shallow as hell. D'Amico has a son named Chris (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), who adds a bit of moral complexity to the plot, but he is little more than a secondary character. The script, by Jane Goldman and director Matthew Vaughn (based on a comic by Mark Millar and John Romita Jr.) also fails to make the protagonist particularly interesting. Dave's high school tribulations are supposed to be typical, but there are precious few moments where any of it is presented in an atypical way. He cannot get a girl. How do we find this out? He thinks the hot girl at school is greeting him, so he greets her back, only to realize that she was greeting the girl behind him. How zany.

Dave does provide a few laughs. People stare in confusion as Kick-Ass walks across town to his next crime fighting adventure. A flashback of his mother's death is hilariously brief. Nevertheless, much of the teen comedy is stale.

Damon and Mindy, though, have a wonderfully twisted relationship. (Cage's bizarre performance really sells it.) They regularly discuss violence and the necessary accoutrements (she wants butterfly knives for her birthday), but their interactions are as saccharine as those between Beaver Cleaver and his parents. As such, they go much further on their inherent entertainment value than Dave does.

In fact, the concept of Hit Girl is probably the most fascinating aspect of the movie. The character hardly develops much as the film goes on, but she's a gleefully horrifying contradiction. One can feel a ton of latent commentary about the way American children are being raised today lurking within this character. This film never digs into it, but another could. Sure, being Big Daddy's little killer is ironic, but the idea of watching her having to grow up (and perhaps trudge through some of Dave's social territory), with all of the baggage she's undoubtedly gained, seems far more interesting than what we get here. I could not care less about Kick-Ass 2. Give me Hit Girl Goes to High School.

Anyway, since all I have to review at the moment is Kick-Ass, some of the controversy surrounding Hit Girl is founded. Her fight scenes are extremely violent. I did not initially find this problematic, as they are quite over-the-top, they are never sadistic and the girl slaughters so deftly that she never seems to be in danger. Only at the end, when a few notable shifts occurred, did it begin to bother me. First, her final fight begins with her emulating Gogo from Kill Bill. In Tarantino's film, this is a cheeky twist on the Japanese schoolgirl fetish, as performed by an eighteen year-old. Doing the same – even subtly – with a tween is taking it too far. Second, this is the first time in the movie that she takes a hit. Watching a full-grown man kick a little girl in the face is far less fun than watching the inverse. Third, she abruptly turns into a damsel in distress. She is decidedly the best fighter in the whole movie until the end, when the titular hero must save her. Twice. Gotta love Girl Power*.
*Girl Power only applies in Acts One through Two. All rights to let person with penis save girl in Act Three reserved.

That being said, it is usually good fun watching the ass kicking in Kick-Ass. Vaughn's directing may be a tad too slick to really make us care about the characters, but it creates some great mayhem. It is difficult to describe much of the acrobatics Hit Girl performs, probably because of all of the flipping and the grappling hooks and the like, but it all makes perfect visual sense. It is even more impressive when one considers the relatively tight budget he had. Vaughn also (at least occasionally) knows how to dial down the style. Kick-Ass's first few tussles are a disaster, and the directing lets that come through by keeping things realistic.

Otherwise, the directing is unexceptional. Kick-Ass's New York is mostly green screen and nondescript back alleys. It is difficult to tell if it is going for an exaggerated look (like the Watchmen film) or if it is trying to be down-to-earth. Comic book-style titles ("Meanwhile...") occasionally appear, but they also send an unclear message; are we supposed to be inside a comic book, here? This is not suggested anywhere else. Also, Vaughn got a bit carried away with the iTunes playlist; there are a number of moments where the soundtrack distracts from the action on screen.

It is a disappointing result for a movie that initially works so hard to set itself apart. Kick-Ass is neither as offensive as many people feared it would be or as audacious as many others hoped for it to be. The ending suggests that the filmmakers hope to make a sequel. There are definitely concepts in this film that deserve exploration, so I cannot say that I dread the idea of a sequel. I simply hope that the filmmakers' next effort will be a bit more inspired, and that all of the flair shown here can run deeper.

Or they could just make Hit Girl Goes to High School.

Monday, April 26, 2010

In Boston or San Fran, You Should Watch Peter Yates

A few months back, I reviewed Peter Yates' underrated Boston crime film, The Friends of Eddie Coyle. I was full of praise for that film; I was especially taken with the film's evocation of seventies' Boston. Whereas most cinematic Bostons are less than convincing, Yates shot on location and made his bleak and gritty Hub believable to old Boston hands like me. Yates' brilliant use of setting in Eddie Coyle was hardly a fluke for the director – five years before, he made Bullitt, a wonderful evocation of San Francisco and another crime masterpiece.

Though most remember Bullitt for Steve McQueen's performance in the title role, Det. Frank Bullitt doesn't appear on the scene until ten minutes or so of screen time have elapsed. The movie begins with a mysterious shootout and escape in Chicago; it then follows fleeing mafioso Johnny Ross (Felice Orlandi) as he arrives in San Francisco, drives about, and seeks police protection. Ross, it seems, has offered to testify for oily local politician Chalmers (Robert Vaughn) in an upcoming hearing. Chalmers enlists Bullitt to guard Ross. Things go wrong; Chalmers designates Bullitt the scapegoat. The detective, however, has his own ideas. Cue car chases, foot chases, suspense, and very occasional violence.

Midway through the film, our hero, driving his '68 Mustang, finds himself trailed by two hitmen driving the same model car. The ensuing chase up and down San Francisco's streets was one of the film's major selling points in 1968. More than forty years on, Bullitt's most famous scene continues to impress. Few directors today could pull off such a scene without the use of CGI; the cars careen, crash, and awe the viewers. While the pursuit does end in an explosion, the auto duel lacks the contrivances and silliness of most cinematic car chases.

This, I couldn't help but believe, is what a high speed pursuit really looks like. McQueen, an expert driver, did most of the stuntwork himself, allowing Yates to shoot most of the chase without concern about hiding a stunt double. The soundtrack cuts out for the sequence; all we hear is the rumble of the engines, the squeal of the tires, and the occasional crash or gunshot. Had Yates inserted traditionally "thrilling" music, he would have robbed Bullitt's set piece of its visceral impact.

The Charger race lasts ten minutes, and includes little dialogue or music, yet it neither drags nor bores. Unfortunately, other sections of Bullitt suffer from pacing problems. The final scene at SFO begins and ends extremely well, but has an overly prolonged and poorly lit middle that had me wanting Yates and Co. to just get on with it. And though Jacqueline Bisset's character is clearly important to Bullitt, there's not much effort expended to make her important to the audience. She's a very pretty face, but her scenes often seem shoehorned into the rest of the film. While the gap between Bullitt's professional and domestic lives serves as a principal theme of the film, the script often seems awkward switching between home and work.

When one sits down and watches Bullitt, it's impossible not to think of the films it influenced, especially Dirty Harry, another San Francisco cop drama. Steve McQueen's Frank Bullitt may be a hard case and a laconic badass, but he lacks the nastier edges of Harry Callahan's personality. He never taunts his fleeing enemies, nor does he speechify on his gun's virtues. In Dirty Harry, the hero tapes a knife to his ankle; in Bullitt, that's a hitman's stratagem. When Bullitt has to kill a man in a public setting, he throws his jacket over the bloody corpse, to preserve its dignity and spare the witnesses. Perhaps Hollywood grew more jaundiced in the three years between Bullitt and Dirty Harry? Consider our heroes' love lives. Bullitt lives with the lovely Cathy (Bisset), while Harry's wife died in a drunken hit-and-run.

I'm not sure that I can pick between Bullitt and The Friends of Eddie Coyle. With McQueen in San Francisco, Yates tells the story of a stylish yet suffering hero. In Boston with Mitchum, he retains the suffering, but drops the heroism and style. McQueen is laconic; Mitchum is verbose. Like The Friends of Eddie Coyle, Bullitt has aged very well. You should watch it, and if you're not familiar with Eddie Coyle, you should make it a double feature.

Friday, April 23, 2010

How to Make Your 3D Kids' Movie

How to Train Your Dragon: An IMAX 3D Experience.

A positively nauseating title, right? When I noticed the first advertisements for this film, I did not even bother to roll my eyes. We are currently in the midst of a full-fledged deluge of 3D movies, and one more crappy kids' movie about animals and fart jokes was not going to make things any better. Thank the movie gods, then, that How to Train Your Dragon is not your average kids' movie. Hell, it is not even your average 3D movie. Against all odds, this film changed my preconceptions about what a Dreamworks Animation movie can be, as well as the value of 3D.

Based on a children's book by Cressida Cowell, the film tells the story of Hiccup (Jay Baruchel). Hiccup is a screw up. He lives in a stereotypical Viking society, where anyone worth anything is a great warrior – even the tweens. Naturally, his father, Stoick (Gerard Butler), is the Chief of the town and is more disappointed in him than anyone else. This is not without cause; every time the kid leaves his post at the blacksmith's shop and attempts to enter battle, he does more damage than good.

The battles (as you can probably guess) are not of the human vs. human variety. The film's opening sequence depicts a swarm of dragons laying siege to the Vikings' town, and the Vikings desperately attempting to ward them off. With this battle, directors Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders immediately subvert expectations. It is an intense sequence, focusing more on mayhem and destruction than the cutesy comedy and friendship for which the title sets us up. There is comedy but it is of the dry variety – Hiccup's sarcasm is largely the source of the film's jokes. As such, the scene does two important things: It establishes Hiccup as more than just a loser – he thinks differently from those around him – and it shows that this movie is going to take its dramatic elements seriously.

That is not to say things remain consistently heavy. In the midst of this first battle, Hiccup manages to hit a rare, exceptionally powerful dragon with a catapult shot. Of course, no one sees it happen, and he must go search for the downed creature alone. The dragon is first seen as a heaving pile of black, scaly flesh; Hiccup is terrified of even touching it. In fact, he attempts to do what any other viking would do: Kill it. As he prepares to do so, however, it raises its eyes to the boy and we see a marked look of fear. Hiccup drops his knife.

Over the course of the next few scenes, their relationship grows in the venerable tradition of Hayao Miyazaki's child-animal friendships. The moment where the two first make physical contact is arresting: Hiccup puts his back to the dragon and, with a humility and confidence that we have yet to see from him, blindly places his hand on its face. The film's score becomes silent, the camera becomes static, and the bond becomes palpable. This moment was the first time I had ever felt something from a Dreamworks Animation film. Pixar has moved me countless times in the past – the excruciatingly tender start to Up, the tragic loneliness of WALL-E but, with this film, they lose their monopoly on emotionally resonant computer animation.

It is great animation, as well. Hiccup's timid body language accurately and endearingly characterizes him without ever veering into caricature. While the adults' character designs are a bit too exaggerated to take seriously, Hiccup's (along with the other kids') is far more grounded and conveys his unique characteristics nicely.

Most of the dragons are trite or comical in appearance, but Toothless, as Hiccup comes to call his friend, is distinctive – sleek and powerful looking, but endearing, as well. Its face is extremely expressive; the dragon never says a single word, but it has genuine personality. (The moment where it attempts to emulate Hiccup's smile is adorable and quite reminiscent of Totoro.) Perhaps most impressive of all is Toothless in flight. If you have ever watched a Miyazaki film, you know that great animated flight sequences require an intuitive understanding of the physics of flight. When Toothless climbs into the atmosphere, Hiccup clings to his back, being lifted by the dragon. When Toothless dives, Hiccup lifts off of his back and scrambles for a hand hold. It results in flight sequences that are harrowing, thrilling and majestic.

It also results in the single best 3D shot I have ever seen. Toothless dives straight down from the stratosphere, only to bank and fly parallel to the ground. This is all shown with one, continuous shot, following Toothless at its tail. As the dragon's speed picks up, clouds shoot by and the whipping of the wind becomes more intense, then it turns to narrowly dodge rock formations at breakneck speed. The 3D creates a genuine roller coaster feeling; the sense of speed in a film has never, ever before been this real. This must be what the people viewing that mythic first projection of filmed train footage felt when they ran from the theater for fear of being hit.

I do not suddenly think everything should be in 3D, but this film has reminded me of the obvious fact that a talented filmmaker can make any gimmick worthwhile... and that watching things on a huge IMAX screen is awesome. (By comparison, it also illustrates how ineffectual James Cameron's use of the technology was in Avatar.)

Of course, Hiccup's friendship with a dragon flies in the face of his community's ideals. At first, however, it seems to help him. As he becomes closer to Toothless and, as a result, gains better understanding of dragons' behavior, he quickly progresses through dragon fighting classes at home. With his sudden, perceived growth as a warrior, Hiccup gains fame from the townspeople, disdain from his classmates – particularly the hardworking Astrid (America Ferrera) – and praise from his father.

Like so much of this film, Hiccup's relationship with his father gains a surprising level of resonance. Yes, Stoick is a tradition-minded man's man, but he is burdened by his distance from his son and does not relish admonishing him for his atypical ideas. When Hiccup finally seems to be meeting his expectations as a warrior, Stoick quickly realizes that his son's supposed failures were not the simple explanation for their relationship's shortcomings. Similarly, Astrid is just as frustrated with herself for falling behind Hiccup in class as she is with him.

The script's depth does not stop with its characters, either. Hiccup refuses to complete his course of study – the final test is killing a dragon – and, his questioning of the Vikings' ongoing war with the dragons creates some notable thematic depth. The Vikings are single-minded and fail to truly understand their enemy. Even so, their motivations are understandable. The film's opening essentially depicts a slaughter; the dragons seem to be the aggressors. Hiccup's experiences, coupled with his unique perspective, expose the true complexity of their world, but enlightening his peers is not easy. Stoick, Astrid and the community at large are deeply committed to their fight. As reasonable and intelligent as they are, they know nothing else. Such a fundamental sympathy for both sides is vital for good drama. (Avatar's script never came close to understanding this.)

Still, the film does make a few disappointing concessions for the sake of its target demographic. A twist explanation of the dragons' motivations is interesting but ultimately a bit too convenient. It prevents the film from maintaining its full complexity to the end. Furthermore, justice prevails – only those who deserve it die. In fact, I only noticed one on-screen death. (Spoiler: It wasn't a human.) For all the talk of war and barbarism and all the explosions and brandishing of weapons, there is next to no actual violence in this film.

I understand that no one wanted to scar children's psyches, but there comes a point where hiding the violence detracts from the film's ideas. Is the fighting really all that bad if it only results in property damage? Is the killing really all that bad if, well, they only talk about doing it? The film so beautifully illustrates many effects of ignorance on the characters and their society, but it shies away from showing the most serious ones, and the film suffers for it. They had a PG rating. They probably could have done more with it.

That being said, this movie very rarely pulls its punches in any other sense. It is a hundred times smarter than its idiotic name suggests. Even the obligatory "3D" appendage is misleading, as this film contains some excellent use of the technology. If Dreamworks – the lesser Hollywood animation studio – continues to make animated films as good as How to Train Your Dragon, things are really looking up for American animation.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Uncharted 2: I'm Still Playing

Way back in October, Me and Matt on Media devoted several posts to Uncharted 2, then the hot new thing on the Playstation 3. I claimed that the single player was a masterpiece, but was slightly less taken with the multiplayer. In this Tuesday's post on patches, Mr. Hollis-Lima criticized some of the changes that Naughty Dog made to their game's multiplayer, though he acknowledged that the developers at least had their hearts in the right places. That the recent patches discouraged us is, in an odd way, a triumph of sorts for Uncharted 2. Neither Mr. Hollis-Lima nor myself expected to be playing Among Thieves online seven months after launch. This multiplayer game, for all its flaws, still has legs.

When Uncharted 2 launched, I found that its multiplayer was enjoyable, but I felt that, amongst other things, there were not enough maps wherein to slay your foes in competitive modes and too few levels for cooperative play. Naughty Dog very quickly began fixing the first of these problems. About a month after the game appeared, a new map, The Fort, appeared as free downloadable content. Alas, this free level was the last substantive addition to Uncharted until the end of February, when two new maps debuted (though this time we had to pay for the new content). Next week another two maps, The Museum and Highrise, should show up on the Playstation Store. Naughty Dog has also stated that they will once again "subtly" rebalance the game – let us hope that these changes will be better-conceived than some past adjustments. Unless the forthcoming 1.07 update utterly ruins the game's balance, I believe Uncharted 2's competitive modes will remain viable for quite some time.

Unfortunately, Naughty Dog has not given Uncharted's cooperative modes enough attention. The game shipped with three great "narrative-lite" levels wherein two to three players fought enemy soldiers, platformed, took on helicopters and tanks, and generally relived the high points of a single-player campaign. The cooperative campaigns were difficult without being unfair, and Naughty Dog employed a number of mechanisms to ensure true cooperative play. I've played through all these scenarios several times, but they eventually seem tired. It's a shame that Naughty Dog has announced there will be no more new story co-op levels until their next game; apparently co-op missions are too resource-intensive to develop.

In addition to the mini-story missions, Uncharted 2 features Gold Rush and Survival modes, cooperative challenges set within the normal multiplayer maps. These are fun, but feel somewhat constrained; to break into cinematic parlance, they lack set pieces and scenery changes. I was glad to hear that next week's update will include Siege, a new cooperative mode in this vein, but I will be shocked if I find the new mode particularly enthralling. I'll doubtless play several Siege matches, but I don't expect to become a habitual user.

I've already discussed my quibbles and frustrations with the Uncharted multiplayer experience; it's somewhat harder to explain why the game still interests me, seven matches and hundreds of matches on. I suppose that the game's greatest strength is its use of space and the game's consequent variety. Uncharted allows the player to roll, clamber, and climb around its environments with far greater freedom than most multiplayer shooters. The map isn't just a backdrop for blood and violence, it's an active participant in the apparent chaos.

It doesn't hurt, of course, that Uncharted 2's various arenas are all beautifully rendered and ornately detailed. The majority of the Facility, for example, is generic industrial chic, but the designers have added small touches of color and beauty throughout: the lovely jungle and blue sky seen through the window, the detailed topographic maps spread over tables and walls, the WWII sub sitting in (mostly) dry dock at the level's center. Every time I play I seem to notice something new, unnecessary, and appreciated.

Since the introduction of multiplayer trophies in February, Naughty Dog has tried to increase Uncharted's variety by incentivizing it. Too few players using those nice explosive propane tanks? Now there's a Trophy for getting twenty separate "BBQ" kills. Too few players using pistols? Come Thursday, there's a Trophy that requires pistol use. Trophies may be silly, but I'm glad to see Naughty Dog using them to make all those rounds of Uncharted fresher and more surprising.

While some of Uncharted 2's failings stem from a lack of content, others derive from technical issues. The matchmaking system is still extremely slow and continues to suffer from occasional crashes. Even worse, the game seems to put matches together without giving much consideration to player level. In your first online game, you might well face a group of people who have spent hundreds of hours mastering every level. I can't imagine starting to play Uncharted today; the learning curve would be far too steep. Once in a match, there's a small chance that you will encounter cheaters; while Naughty Dog has fixed many exploits, enough remain to occasionally make games extremely frustrating.

In the more than a half a year since my last blog post on Uncharted, my feelings about the single player haven't changed one jot. Had the game lacked all its multiplayer modes, it would have remained the best game of 2009. My feelings on the multiplayer, however, have become far more complex than I would have expected in October. Uncharted 2 has a great multiplayer modes, but its shortcomings constantly remind me of how far Naughty Dog still has to go. I don't know how they will ever top the single-player, but the ways of improving the multiplayer are both myriad and obvious.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

There Isn't a Patch for Everything

Back in the days before online gaming, there was one feeling that gamers loathed above all others. It was a vague but potent mix of anger, disappointment and victimization – it was the feeling that the game you had just bought was crappy. This was nothing like going to see a bad movie or eating at a bad restaurant; the consequences of these misfortunes are generally limited to a couple hours' time. A game, however, is an investment – a $40-$60 bet that a piece of software will keep you enthralled for dozens of hours. When this bet is lost, it can leave a gamer in a vulnerable state.

That is why I suggest that online gaming has changed this grieving process. Today, when a gamer finds him- or herself in this situation, there is a source of hope: The patch. The constant potential for a downloadable game update allows many of us to hang our hopes on the possibility that those issues stifling our enjoyment of a game will be rectified. It has caused a subtle change in the way we assess games, as even professional reviewers often give developers the benefit of the doubt and assume that broken features will eventually be mended. Is this merely blind faith, though? It obviously varies from game to game and, thus far this generation, the results have been mixed.

Widely considered the best game of 2009 (and heartily praised on this blog), Naughty Dog's Uncharted 2 was a decided success. One of the jewels in its crown was a fun expansion over the original game's feature set: Multiplayer. The experience was amazingly polished for the work of a developer that had never before tackled an online shooter. Yet even the greatest developer cannot foresee the issues that will arise when hundreds of thousands of gamers descend on their servers. Accordingly, issues arose at launch. Among them, players constantly bailing on their teammates mid-game, a lack of community features and a number of physics glitches. Many of these tiny issues proved very frustrating over time. Thanks to patches, though, they have mostly been rectified in the six months since the game's release.

Thus far, this seems to be a case of patches making a good game better, and it certainly was for a time. This all changed when Naughty Dog sought to make tweaks to the fundamentals of the gameplay. They revised the amount of damage various guns dealt and the amount of health a player had, supposedly to a subtle degree, in hopes of making the game flow a bit more quickly. Yet players had fallen in love with the game they already knew; fans responded with widespread disapproval. Many say that, even since some of the changes have been scaled back, the game has never been the same. Uncharted serves as a cautionary tale for game developers: Patches are a great tool, but they can tempt programmers to fix what ain't broke.

Still, one can hardly condemn Naughty Dog for trying their best to please their fans and improve their game. EA DICE's Battlefield 1943 is a very different example. The $15 game was one of the most surprising hits of 2009. Its unprecedented, arcade-style approach to online war shooters was embraced by gamers and critics as a fun summer diversion. Yet the game's low-budget, experimental nature came with an unforeseen caveat: There would be no patches.

This game was plagued with issues that were far more serious that anything Uncharted ever faced, too. Battlefield is a squad-based shooter, meaning that joining a small group of teammates and orchestrating strategies is central to the gameplay. Unfortunately, Battlefield 1943 was released with a broken squad system. Players could only join a random, open squad; there was no way to select a specific squad or create a private one for friends only (even though the option was present in the menu). Furthermore, squads would usually get split up between games. There was the ability to enter a game with friends, but they would often end up in different squads or even different teams. Also, voice chat was bug-ridden, ensuring that one could rarely speak with their friends or anyone in their squad. There were a number of other graphical and sound glitches, but they were far less pressing than the squad issues, which undermined one of the game's major selling points.

EA DICE suggested that the game may be patched at some point, but this never came to fruition. It took a few weeks, but gamers soon realized that it would never quite prove to be the incredible value it should have. This cast a shadow over the initial perception that 1943 would show how developers could make a polished, large-scale game at a low price point. It is also a concerning example of how a game that ships with flawed features can trick reviewers into praising something that may never be fully delivered – often leaving even the savviest consumer to his or her own devices when vetting a game for purchase.

It seems that game patches have not really changed the experience of buying games as much as one may think. Yes, there is now the hope (or even the expectation) that a flawed game may be redeemed in the future, but all this really does is open up a new set of dangers for gamers: Faith in developers' commitment to their customers can be misplaced, and a patch can always change a game for the worse. Besides, no amount of patches is going to make a fundamentally bad game good. For better or for worse, all patches really provide is a new level of fluidity to how we play – and pick – our games.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Waiter, Pass the Czech

Hundreds, if not thousands, of films have attempted to address the various horrors of the twentieth century, from fascism and the Holocaust to communism and Stalinism. These movies tend to alternate between the ponderous and the campy, so it's a pleasure to find a production that deals seriously with these matters while remaining charming and even funny. The 2006 Czech film, I Served the King of England, came to American theaters for a few weeks in late 2008. If only it had received more attention here.

I Served the King of England opens with its "hero," the diminutive convict Jan Dite (Oldrich Kaiser), leaving a dreary Prague prison, where he has served fifteen years for an as-yet-undisclosed crime. The communist authorities relocate Dite to the border, where he works at renovating an abandoned and collapsing bar. As Dite works in the bar, he ponders his life and his long history as a waiter – most of the film consists of flashbacks to the life of a younger and more amoral Jan Dite (Ivan Barnev).

The first flashback begins as a faux silent film – young Dite, in black and white, selling frankfurters at a train station and speaking in title cards. Soon, however, the story of Dite's adventures in pre-WWII Czechoslovakia turns to color and sound. Dite gets a job at a bar, meets a fabulously rich industrialist, and manages to charm seemingly dozens of girls into bed. The young man seems to lead a charmed life, even if he can be just a tad unscrupulous, as when he trips up a waiter he despises and then takes his victim's job. Dite seems the classic picaresque rogue, at least until history intervenes.

In most stories of WWII, the hero is a brave foe of the Nazis – a soldier, a guerilla, a simple underground informant. Dite, however, manages to fall in love with a German schoolteacher (the only woman he has ever met shorter than he is), and ends up a collaborator – the sole waiter at a "scientific facility" (an elevated brothel) where the Germans hope to breed a new master race. In practice, this means Dite loiters with drink trays while a bevy of "Aryan" women frolic naked. Around this time, we start to notice just how Hitler-esque Dite's new mustache has grown. It seems our picaro has sold his soul.

After the war, Dite makes all the money he ever dreamed of – albeit in a shockingly nasty way – and founds his own hotel before karma, in the form of the communist authorities, catches up with him. The film returns to the "present" with Dite a poorer, but wiser and better, man. He's survived it all despite himself.

I Served the King of England is one of the funniest films I've seen of late. While most of the humor is sex-related or raunchy, the movie rarely veers into the vulgar. Much of the film parodies the rich and decadent of prewar Czech society, yet the satire is so gentle that we smile instead of clenching fists. There are moments, especially late in the film, of tragedy and horror, but young Dite's joie de vivre so dominates the film that we almost forget about them.

The silent sequence near the opening is hardly the only "unique" touch in, director, Jirí Menzel's film. While the film is rarely outright surreal, everything, from character tics to settings, is exaggerated just enough to seem unreal. The waiters are all perfectly strait-laced, the royalty unbelievably regal, the nudes quintessentially frolicsome, and the soldiers all complete automatons. The result is a highly mannered film, but one that, oddly enough, feels lighter than the sum of its affectations. The small exaggerations and distortions prepare the audience for the larger, more eyebrow-raising ones.

As much as I liked I Served the King of England, there are two technical problems I feel I must address. The first is the frequent use of crummy CGI. Now, I don't expect Weta-level effects from an Eastern European production, but the computer-generated scenes are often shoddy enough to distract the viewer and break the suspension of disbelief. Especially frustrating is the fact that several CG shots could have been done the old-fashioned way, without electronics. My second gripe concerns the subtitles, which no one seems to have proofread. Words are misused and misspelled and too often the syntax tends towards the inscrutable.

I Served the King of England is hardly a masterpiece, and it loses something in translation. Yet it has something to say about history and humanity, and it never loses its message in its persistent levity. I'm glad I saw the film; it's well-made, refreshing, funny, and surprising. What it may not be is enduring.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Dropping the Net

I am sure that you have seen the term "net neutrality" in passing. You probably skimmed right past it or made a brief and unsuccessful effort to grasp its significance. It is a vague and bland term that belies its own importance.

Make no mistake: It is one of the most important civil rights issues of the 21st century.

Now, I am no law student and I do not claim to know the history of media law particularly well. I believe, however, that lay people can easily understand what is at stake here. They must, as it affects the way every American consumes information in the Internet Age. Net neutrality is a movement designed to ensure that the internet remains an unadulterated resource, giving an equal voice to lone citizens and huge multinationals alike. Such a subject may seem slightly beyond the scope of this blog, but it directly affects every industry this blog covers, as well as the blog itself.

In the United States, today's internet is an aberration. It is the only media service that we receive completely unfiltered. We pay a flat fee and we get access to the entirety of the internet at a set speed. Providers have no control over how we access their service or what we use their service to access, as long as we are not breaking any laws. This can make life hard for them. Modern uses of the internet, such as streaming video, peer-to-peer sharing and online gaming, are putting increasing strain on their networks. Companies like Comcast, AT&T and Verizon do not understand why a person who pushes gigabytes of information through BitTorrent or Limewire should get to pay the same amount of money as someone who simply checks their e-mail a few times a week. It costs them more, so why should it not cost us more?

It sounds like a perfectly innocent gripe. Allowing companies to take away a bit of our freedom for the sake of a little common business sense is not without precedent, either. We get charged extra for calling certain people. We have to pay extra to see certain television channels. Why should we not pay extra for using specific aspects of the internet?

This is why:

This is tiered internet – an internet where access to sites is purchased like access to cable channels. Like Facebook? Buy the Social Network package for just $5 per month! Want to watch your favorite network shows for free (with ads)? Get the Hollywood package! Want to use the file sharing networks you love? We're sorry, but Telco has discontinued this service due to lack of popularity! This image (courtesy of Gizmodo) is merely a hypothetical – a worst-case scenario – but, with internet providers chipping away at net neutrality, it is only becoming more plausible. Not bothered by this image? It is easy to get distracted by what is on this list and forget what is not: Namely, every other site on the internet.

Sure, they would make the cut now, but twenty years ago, upstarts like Yahoo and Google would have no chance of gaining the popularity necessary to become part of an internet provider's tiered service. How could they become well known if they could not be widely accessed from their birth? Tiered internet would destroy the level playing field that is today's internet. No conglomerate is going to think up the next Twitter, Facebook or Netflix. Under such a structure, the internet would quickly become the sort of bland landscape of corporately-managed mediocrity that is basic cable.

Tiered internet seems like a far cry from slapping bandwith gluttons with surcharges, but one look at Comcast makes this all too plausible. In the next few months, this internet provider will come into majority ownership of NBC Universal. Comcast is traditionally a cable company and, now, it will own a massive media company. In other words, Comcast will own companies that make content, own companies that sell the content to networks, own networks that air the content and own the company that brings those networks to your home.

If that sounds like some horrible excerpt from the pages of 1984, congratulations – you are still sane. This, however, is nothing new. After all, NBC Universal had the first three pieces of that puzzle before Comcast even came to the table; media companies have been consolidating their power for years. Robert Smigel's Saturday TV Funhouse segment of Saturday Night Live once parodied this, but the sketch was never reaired and is nigh impossible to find on major video sites:

The video's harshest accusations are tough to prove, but its broader point is not. When a company can pursue its vested interests without losing money, it has no reason to consider anyone else's interests, including the public's. Arguably, Comcast is about to gain more control over the ideas to which this country is exposed than any single entity has ever had. What if there is something they do not want us to know? Will we ever have a chance at hearing about it? Right now, the internet ensures that we would.

The internet is one of the few (or possibly the only) facet of modern media that is too large for any media company to comfortably wrap its tentacle around. It is the product of total anarchy, not the oligarchy that dominates all other media. Yet Comcast is attempting to impose order. The company recently won a federal court case wherein they claimed that the FCC had no right to prevent them from blocking users' access to peer-to-peer sharing sites.

In 2005, the FCC publicly adopted policy that was designed to protect net neutrality. This policy was defined with four points:
  • Consumers are entitled to access the lawful Internet content of their choice;
  • Consumers are entitled to run applications and services of their choice, subject to the needs of law enforcement;
  • Consumers are entitled to connect their choice of legal devices that do not harm the network; and
  • Consumers are entitled to competition among network providers, application and service providers, and content providers.
It failed to address the possibility that providers could simply bring traffic to certain sites to a crawl, but it was a good start. Yet there was no legal basis for this policy. As a result, when the FCC attempted to impose the policy upon Comcast, it failed.

The fact of the matter is that, in recent years, Washington has struggled to regulate the internet with laws that predate it. The few laws that have been passed seem to only hinder the rights of the average citizen. Currently, internet services are regulated by the same lax regulations that cable services are. Numerous attempts at legislating net neutrality over the past five years have proven fruitless. President Obama has claimed that net neutrality is a priority for him, but a bill has yet to be introduced under his administration.

Current laws will likely fail to stand between companies like Comcast and tiered internet, but new laws seem very far off.

If you look back up at that fictional price list, you will see the popular video streaming site Hulu. It is partly owned by NBC and therefore, will be partly owned by Comcast in short order. If Comcast were to introduce a tiered pricing structure like the one above, you can be sure that Hulu would be front and center and that any video site that they do not like would disappear from 15 million computers.

For Comcast, it would mean their tightly controlled media pipeline would now encompass the internet, as well. For us, it would mean the death of an equal-opportunity internet. The internet is the best thing that has ever happened to free speech, as well as free enterprise. Thus far, few entities have encroached on this most important of resources. If Comcast and similar companies continue to make progress, you can be sure that this resource will quickly dry up. Only an educated electorate can stand in their way.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

A Room with a View

As a young, aspiring filmmaker, hope can be in short supply. Steady, fulfilling work often seems like a mere pipe dream. That is why, once in a while, I need to see a film that gives me hope – a film that proves how no lack of funds or experience can stop a great filmmaker from succeeding. That is why I need to see films like The Room.

Tommy Wiseau's story is an unequivocal manifestation of the American Dream. The man came to this country with only a check he could not cash because it was from out of state, the clothes on his back, and a story to tell. While Wiseau already had a formidable body of work – a 500-page novel version of The Room, as well as a stage adaptation – he clearly felt that the story was best suited for the screen. Yet the Hollywood studios shunned him, predictably overlooking the value of his incisive vision. Here, many of us would have given up, but Wiseau never relented, starting a lucrative leather jacket import business and, slowly but surely, acquiring every dollar he needed to fund his film.

It may be surprising, then, that The Room is a tragic story. Wiseau plays Johnny, a kind-hearted computer technician/banker. The first few moments of the film frame Johnny's life as idyllic. He lives in a comfortable walk-up in the heart of beautiful San Francisco. He lives with Lisa (Juliette Danielle), his girlfriend, who is also very beautiful. Johnny has given Lisa everything and, at first, she could not seem happier.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the passionate, three minute-long love scene that comes early in the film. Here, Wiseau ably communicates every drop of earnest adoration Johnny has for Lisa. Where other filmmakers may settle for something more tawdry – rushing to shots of partial nudity, then getting on with the plot – Wiseau allows us to peer through Johnny's eyes and languish in the bliss of his romance with Lisa. It is a vital, calculated choice on Wiseau's part because it sets the audience up for the very same fall that Johnny is about to suffer.

Johnny is woefully ignorant of Lisa's true nature. She is, in fact, a femme fatale in the grand tradition of Phyllis Dietrichson and Brigid O'Shaughnessy. Lisa is deeply discontented with the life Johnny has provided for her, and she is actively plotting her escape from their engagement. The centerpiece of her plan is the seduction of Johnny's best friend, Mark (Greg Sestero), but she hardly intends to stop there. Through conversations with her miserly mother, Claudette (Carolyn Minnott), Lisa slowly reveals her petulance, and the audience must watch helplessly as she goes about methodically tearing Johnny apart.

Resurrecting a sexist archetype from the 1940's may sound unseemly, but Wiseau's script is not afraid to address the inscrutable nature of women head-on. In addition, the sexual politics of The Room are explored with penetrating visual conceit. Wiseau makes inventive use of mis-en-scène to create Lisa's surreal landscape of lust and deceit.

The film is never so heavy handed as to overtly explain the meaning of the title; there are numerous fascinating readings that Wiseau leaves open to the viewer. Literally speaking, though, much of the film takes place in one room – Johnny's living room – and not since Rear Window has a director made such potent use of a single set. The overwhelming red of its walls suggest not only passion, but blood – perhaps borne of violence, perhaps menstruation. Subtle expressionistic touches, such as the bizarre artwork and furniture placed at odd (even illogical) angles, create an impressive amount of visual tension.

The spatial qualities of the room also appear fluid – chairs seem to move between shots, characters' eyelines do not meet up and drinks will enter and leave characters' hands without cause. With such techniques, Wiseau slyly plays with viewers' unconscious minds. They allow us to enter the psychological environment that the eponymous room symbolizes.

As the room exerts its power ever more effectively, the characters' morality becomes mercurial. Watching Lisa seduce Mark is a sickening experience. One moment, Mark is resolute in his loyalty to his friend. The next, he is openly accepting Lisa's advances. He seems to have a limited grasp on his own desires, hopelessly tangled in Lisa's web.

Yet its influence is even present in her absence. Characters seem to enter and exit the room at random with vague intentions, as if they are each plotting their own scheme. A scene midway through the film finds two strangers slinking into the room for an afternoon tryst, too overwhelmed by desire to consider any potential ramifications. Even the film's most innocent character, Denny (Philip Haldiman), falls victim the very first moment he steps into the room. He lifts an apple to his mouth and, with the most fleeting flash of menace in his eyes, sinks in his teeth.

With extensive ability on display as both a writer and director, Wiseau astonishes by excelling most of all in his portrayal of Johnny. His craggy exterior and harsh accent may not make him the predictable choice for such a role, but this was undoubtedly calculated. Wiseau is an average man and he is uniquely suited to play Johnny as such. His harsh exterior only betrays Johnny's inner pain in small, almost imperceptible, nuances. Not one line goes by where he does not elicit cringes with Johnny's tragic naivety, but he only succeeds at this by underplaying as much as possible.

Midway through the film, in a fit of exasperation, Johnny asks Lisa, "Do you understand life?" It's an incredibly telling line on Johnny's part, exposing that he still believes Lisa is the one who is lost. Make no mistake, though: This line is coming straight from Wiseau's mouth to the audience's ears. The Room may choose to focus on sexuality, but its lessons are relevant to every aspect of life. Subjectivity is an immensely powerful force. The Room illustrates its dangers well, but Wiseau also knows its benefits. When everyone in Hollywood was telling him that his film could not be made, he stuck to his guns, insisting on getting it made. Looking back, it's a saddening and ironic thought: Without delusion, The Room may never have been made.