Monday, June 21, 2010

Nobody Does It Better, But Many Have Tried

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Forgetting Jason Segel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Scandal Minus Sensationalism: The Girl on the Train

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Sex Just Isn't What It Used to Be

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

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

No such luck the second time around.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, June 6, 2010

This "Dead" Franchise Was Just Playing Possum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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