Friday, December 21, 2012


Best video game of my life.

It's okay if you don't understand, but I wish you did.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Dishonored: Spoiled by Choice

Dishonored is probably my favorite non-sequel video game of 2012, although this is coming from the perspective of someone who doesn't have the time to plumb the depths for indie games anymore. Though this shortcoming is largely a product of my own lack of diligence, there's also a noticeable lack of original, quality AAA titles on the market these days. What else came close? Sleeping Dogs was solid, but ultimately it carried the sensation of being less than the sum of its borrowed parts: vehicle mechanics and general approach from Grand Theft Auto, distilled Arkham Asylum/City combat, crushingly cut-and-paste sidequests from basically every third person action-adventure game released in the last couple of years. Also, Jesus, Wei Shen was lame as hell. Forcing your voice half an octave deeper than normal and shouting "motherfucker" a lot does not an interesting character make.

But then I look at Dishonored, which doesn't have a main character at all. It has silent killer Corvo Attano, disgraced Lord Protector to the recently assassinated Empress. Corvo has no dialogue, and while this approach has served many video game protagonists well over the years, it's starting to feel more and more out of place as immersive world-building becomes a developmental priority.

Monday, December 3, 2012

The Walking Dead's Woman Problem

Spoilers for the whole season, up to last Sunday's (12/2) episode. Also, here, have some Michonne blackface.

In a series where the major dramatic impetus nearly every episode is a character doing something really stupid, The Walking Dead's first two seasons rarely allowed its female characters any sort of redemptive moments for their follies. And if they're not botching things royally and then eating shit for them, then they're window dressing, meant to deliver a few lines where needed and fade into the background. Halfway into the third season, and with a writing team that's really stepped up their game, has it gotten better? Sure, a little. Could it get better still? Yeah. And I understand that characterization has never been the strong point of this little undead yarn, but when you compare any of the women to Rick or Daryl or even Carl, their developmental trajectories are either radically thinner or almost non-existent. But for the most part they're trying, and here's how:

Sunday, November 25, 2012

One 24-Year-Old, Five Twilight Movies

Spoilers for the last two Twilight movies.

As of twenty-four hours ago, I have seen every single movie in the Twilight saga. Offering comprehensive criticism would be both redundant, in light of the fact that Twilight has been the Internet's punching bag for the last five years, and impossible. I really don't know how I feel about the films at all. They're so dramatically inert that they are rarely fun to mock, and even when the craftsmanship is decent (Eclipse, Breaking Dawn Part 2), it amounts merely to a streamlining or beautification of total uneventfulness. I don't relate to any of the characters or situations, and the saga isn't exactly a must-see cultural phenomenon since the majority of people will likely turn against it or forget about it within the decade.

And yet I watched all of them. I even paid ten dollars to see the final installment in theaters, which I regretted just like I knew I would. Just like the previous four, it was 20% moderate schadenfreude, 80% tedious moping. So the odyssey came to a close and I found myself no more aware of why I stuck through it all.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Lincoln: Anatomy of a Rottentomatoes Capsule

"Daniel Day-Lewis characteristically delivers in this witty, dignified portrait that immerses the audience in its world and entertains even as it informs."

-'s summation of the 90% positive critical response to Lincoln

a) "Daniel Day-Lewis characteristically delivers"

Oh, yes. Coming in as a shocker to absolutely no one, DDL knocks another one out of the park. What's that "one" exactly? Over a dozen weighty, metaphorical monologues, most of which are underscored by a typical John Williams orchestra wank in order to remind us to be moved or stimulated or wryly entertained. He's the smartest, saintliest man in every room he enters, which ultimately grows weary because we already know he's right and we already know that the 13th Amendment will be ratified. It's like trying to convince an audience that Hitler was evil. Lincoln's hollow racial motives are handwaved away via one conversation with a tearful black maid, and what few personal demons we are privy to are teased out by - surprise! - his wife. Using a woman to peer into the troubles of a venerable public figure feels cheap and common. And sure, Lincoln was a great man, but Amelia Earhart was a great woman and that didn't stop critics from crashing that plane. That film had its problems, but it's not like Lincoln doesn't either. Biographical sanctification, long decried as a major flaw for any biopic, is apparently excusable here through the efforts of DDL alone. He's great. Of course. But the Lincoln he portrays is shallow, made to sound deep through densely worded politicking and a surfeit of three-minute tangents (also given an attempted handwave by a character attempting to make Lincoln sound like he isn't the best storyteller in the world). The entire movie is a gift from him to Spielberg, a two-point-five hour long Oscar reel for a man that hardly needs it.

b) "in this witty, dignified portrait"

Counterpoint to "witty": how about babbling? Again, the movie is so enamored with its own wordiness that anything that could be remotely construed as wit becomes agonizingly protracted. Not that I expect Tony Kushner, an awfully long way from Angels in America, to Sorkinize 1865 political parlance, but every single scene and dialogue has the same rhythm: slooooow. The only change from line to line is volume, because even with the linguistic evolutions that have transpired over the last century and a half, people still used to shout when they got angry.

Counterpoint to "dignified": any scene with James Spader's woeful political buttonpusher W.N. Bilbo. The movie's most gruesome scene, involving a wheelbarrow full of limbs, paired with its refusal to show the assassination of the president under the insinuation of "dignity." The very idea that a film that contains at least half an hour of gale force monologuing has any grasp of the kind of restraint necessary for aforementioned "dignity".

c) "that immerses the audience in its world"

The movie looks beautiful; top shelf Janusz Kaminski, reverently lighting and shooting the film like a collection of Old Hollywood portraits. That's basically where my praise for the movie ends. Immersion is awfully difficult to reach when the only noteworthy characters you've got to guide you through this Congressional marshland are DDL, a serviceable Tommy Lee Jones, Sally Field doing a pretty unremarkable Long-Suffering Wife, and about five useless minutes of Joseph Gordon-Levitt. This movie doesn't skimp on its casting, with a gallery of fresh and familiar faces alike, but it suffers a similar fate to last year's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy in that nearly all of these faces are used to push a point of view or political stance rather than do anything vaguely human. They are not, nor does the movie ever even pretend to care that they should be, people. The only differentiation between a majority of this movie's hugely overstuffed cast is what kind of Muppet they look like. Forget any hopes for a notable African-American presence in the film, by the way: their sole purpose is to remind us, by standing in silent solidarity while their light-skinned oppressors propel all the action forward, that this was a very good thing to happen for black people.

d) "and entertains even as it informs."

Ugh, but only in the most insulting way possible. Spielberg wants us to remember that history can be fun too! So what better way than to break the flow of a movie that's already excruciatingly long and boring by inserting scenes where James Spader is really wacky? Did you guys know that people said fuck back then? Did you know that they made jokes about poop? They really are just like us! There hasn't been such an ill-conceived marriage of drama and comedy since...well, Cloud Atlas. Call this the year of ponderous, overreaching bullshit.


Sunday, November 11, 2012

Skyfall: The Bond Brand

Skyfall is a good, solid Bond movie. Not without its problems, if you choose to disregard the predictably hyperbolic BOND IS BACKers: the third act is a pretty thorough wash, squandering a handful of intriguing ideas laid out by the first two; not every action scene lands; and the normally reliable Naomie Harris is terrible in ways that bode ill for future films in the franchise. For the most part, though, the movie is an exciting, beautifully shot, intuitively paced entry in the canon, an effort that buries the forgettable Quantum of Solace and restores its flagbearer to nearly full vitality.

What caught my attention, however, was Skyfall's frequent self-reference and its acknowledgement of Bond as an indelible cultural standing stone. The film is peppered with inside jokes, many of which I'm sure I didn't catch because of my lack of comprehensive Bond knowledge; it also focuses on the perceived obsolescence of England's beloved old guard, Bond and M, and how there's no room for their clandestine methods in a world "without shadows." Bond may be Bond, sure, but is Bond enough these days? Can the world still rely on this aging, lecherous old boozehound? The answer is yes, of course, but the film constructs itself around the incomprehensible possibility that it can't. Skyfall is obsessed with its roots and using them to entertain, raise thematic questions, and perhaps redundantly in the face of its 50th anniversary, celebrate itself.

But does it earn that right? Preying on nostalgia is dangerous, and though it typically pays out considerable financial and popular dividends, it can also make the work in question seem opportunistic or manipulative. This has become an exceptionally popular tactic in the last decade, with remakes and reboots and reimaginings galore. What makes Skyfall's frequent callbacks to its lineage problematic, however, is that the Bond franchise has been transformed so radically in those 50 years that Craig's recent iterations hardly feel like Bonds at all. Sure, there's goofy humor and intermittent camp to be found, most of which is provided by Javier Bardem's hilarious turn as a bottle-blond M-hating ponce with some icky secrets. Skyfall is careful to parcel these Silly Scenes separately from its Serious Scenes, and a majority of the film gives way to a granite Bond deftly maneuvering through action setpieces of desperate urgency. Certainly a far cry from the likes of the Connery Bond films, where he would rarely even take cover during firefights, or especially the iconic-in-a-bad-way intro to Thunderball where he flies away on a jetpack George Jetson-style. Somewhere along the way, probably after Die Another Day came out and was pilloried by the public, some suit at MGM realized that Bond was going to have to start pulling his weight in order to justify his blockbuster status. No more of this hokey claptrap, unless the script specifically calls for a calculably groan-worthy pun or some "witty" "banter." (Side eye to Harris.)

Overriding any concerns of tone, however, is that Bond has always been a commercial icon. Universal consistency be damned: the Broccolis, MGM, and their superspy lovechild have always answered to the dollar before all else, reaching waaaaay back to those conspicuous crates of Red Stripe in Dr. No. These movies have never been shy about embracing shiny, shiny capitalism, what with the cool brand-name cars and the increasing prevalence of recognizable corporate logos on fancy gadgets. Skyfall itself features plugs for Heineken, Omega Watches, a whole bunch of Sony shit, a resuscitation of the classic Aston Martin, a theme song by ostensibly the year's most popular singer, and a bevy of other goodies for us to subconsciously assimilate. Though Phil Rosenthal's "Forming a Bond with Brands" does a good job at delineating the science of restrained yet overt product placement, it misses the rather obvious fact that commercial restraint is not really necessary in a film franchise twenty-three entries strong. The supposed evils of product placement should hardly be a concern when the franchise's most lucrative product is, has been, and always will be Bond himself. So long as his name remains, these films can be changed and warped beyond familiarity, fluctuate in quality, fellate themselves shamelessly, shovel in wares from every gadget-peddler in the world, and people will still go to see them in droves. The Bond brand is unstoppable. Everything else should feel lucky to share the screen with him.

B (is for Bond)

Friday, October 26, 2012

66 Things I Hate About Cloud Atlas

It is as it says.


1) Cloud Atlas is a crushing 164 minutes long. I have absolutely no problem with long movies, but this is the cruelty that makes these other sixty-five abuses of the cinematic form possible. If you're going to bind your audience to their seats for nearly three hours, you'd better at least have something of substance to sustain that kind of runtime.

2) So what does Cloud Atlas attempt in this generous frame, exactly? Everything. It's less a movie and more a shameless, pearl-clutching missive on the ills of the world. There is a desperate lack of focus to its sociological ranting - the class system, "natural order," human bondage, identity and cloning, race, homophobia, nuclear power, capitalism, greed both private and corporate. It never ends. And that doesn't even include the porridge of grander philosophical concepts bubbling under all this...

3)...reincarnation, predestination, the infinite rippling of causality, the existence of a soul, religion and belief. On their own, all of these things are interesting, which is why movies are made about them. When they're all crammed together, dispersed over six different narratives, and then delivered with all the grace and subtlety you'd come to expect from the folks who made The Matrix, it turns into a giant, unwieldy, overstuffed sack of hot nonsense. 

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The 2012 Horror Digest, Part 3: Twixts and Turns

The Tall Man

(Why does it feel like half of the pictures I select for this feature are people lying down and looking upset?)

You can catch this one on Netflix Instant, and it's quite the strange movie (if not often troubled), so I would recommend it.

The Tall Man is the most recent of Jessica Biel's many, many, many feints at serious acting, and to her credit, she is very good in it. The role is a challenging and unhinged one, and a committed performance is required for the film's insane plot to actually work. She doesn't fail director Pascal Laugier, best known for the absolutely fucked-up Martyrs, but his continued commitment to the horror genre does. The Tall Man has a complex, unpredictable plot, which makes for a pretty delightful first hour. Unfortunately, certain efforts must be made to keep the film planted in the realm of horror, which means preserving its titular "tall man" conceit and thus obscuring important details until much later in the story. Events unwind in a very confusing fashion, and though it did keep me guessing, eventually all the guessing led to frustration. The mysteries just weren't paying off with enough frequency or quality to justify all of the narrative face-heel turns. As the movie finally morphs from a kidnapping horror film into a social polemic, any sense of rhythm or clarity is lost, and you're left with little more than an awesomely feverish Biel monologue and a really pretentious ending. It crumbles under its own weight pretty spectacularly, but it is unique and impressive in its own strange ways. C+


Why are Japanese movie posters always so awesome? I don't know what it is. Maybe I'm just a sucker for pink fonts and girls looking wistful. Anyway, I used this image because a) the poster is cool and b) the movie is visually a complete piece of dogshit, which is horrifying because FRANCIS FORD FUCKING COPPOLA directed it. You know, the guy responsible for a few Godfathers. Apocalypse Now. Dracula, if you're into the whole "style over substance" dealio. But one must remember that Coppola's done some serious garbage, and he's hit an especially awful slump lately, of which Twixt is the absolute nadir. The man seems to have forgotten everything he's ever known about lighting, framing, editing, and cinematography in general. Shot on dirt-cheap digital near Coppola's house, the movie looks about six million dollars shabbier than its $7 million budget, almost to the point of unwatchability. If that doesn't kill it enough for you, please also note: the atrocious acting, led by an obese ponytailed frog that bears a suspicious similarity to Val Kilmer; the senseless editing; the complete lack of scares; the lousy goofy plot, limned with a dash of autobiographical detail that's somehow meant to justify all the cheeky self-reflexivity; and an ending that renders the whole bloody affair a wash. Occasionally the movie actually looks kind of cool in still shot, and you remember why Coppola became successful in the first place, but it left me wondering why he didn't just make a graphic novel out of his dream-inspired ideas and call it quits. This is just an embarrassment, a further sullying of an already questionable auteurial empire. D

Silent House

Cheers to Elizabeth Olsen, whose meteoric rise to critical fawning is entirely deserved. Getting all of this right in "one take," which is actually anywhere between three and seven takes poorly disguised as one, surely took an enormous amount of focus. Even aside from the fact that she pulls off a fairly lofty technical feat, she's also excellent in her own right, expertly conveying delirious fear. Shame about what she's stranded in. The setting, which we're led to believe is important because it's the name of the fucking movie, is treated like dirt by Silent House's all-in-one-shot concept. An intuitive sense of space is never established, which undoes the movie on a plethora of levels. The scares are sluggish because the camera, without the benefit of editing, rarely moves quickly enough to capture a sense of energy, and Olsen often finds herself moving awkwardly to accommodate the cameraman, like closing the door slowly enough to let him in even though she's being chased. Olsen's performance is also threatened by both her costars, who are uniformly amateurish and clearly uncomfortable, and the ridiculous ending, where even her unerring commitment wobbles a little bit. There's a great deal of compositional accomplishment to be admired here, but it's ultimately a gimmick and it doesn't work and that buries Silent House right out of the gate. C-

Killer Joe

Okay, this isn't a horror movie, but it's liable to make you feel more nauseated than anything else on this list. William Friedkin has a gift for tactical provocation, which he brings out in rare form in Killer Joe. A trailer park Greek tragedy, no man, woman or child escapes Matthew McConaughey's dark grasp unscathed. The film is a torrid NC-17 trip into a family conspiring to kill their estranged mother for her $50,000 insurance premium, all with the help of crooked cop Joe Cooper, and naturally things don't go exactly as planned. It plays out like a morbidly violent, sexual Coen Brothers film, although it trades in their dry ingenuity for a dollop of unashamed trashiness. Killer Joe is a heap of raunchy trash given shape by both an expert filmmaker, whose lensing is thoughtful and gritty, and his universally stellar cast. This makes a hell of a one-two punch for McConaughey, who exploits a sort of warped charisma that we saw only in small doses in Magic Mike but which he plays to the nasty hilt here; Juno Temple, playing opposite him, is also hypnotically good as a sort of spaced-out Lolita. There are certain suggestions of seriousness here, a department where the film doesn't particularly excel; it's at its best when it's reveling in gnarly grodiness, rather than affecting depth with cryptic conversations. Too much joy, though, and the film would have pushed too far across the already dizzyingly thin line between exploitation and pitch-black humor. It's a tough watch, but worth it to watch an actor of disposable beefcake status like McConaughey plumb through some seriously dark material. B

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

I've Fallen and I Can't Wake Up: Daymare Town 3

Every year, when summer turns to fall and the weather gets cloudier, I set aside a few hours for myself and run through Daymare Town 3. I can't remember how or where I learned of it (as is common with these apocryphal little Flash games), only that I found it at some obscene hour of the night and played it until I couldn't keep my eyes open anymore.

It's the sort of game that lends itself to obsessive, almost hypnotic play. Your objective seems straightforward enough: you've crash-landed your hot air balloon in a surreal village and need to escape. But the game is shot through with the logic of its titular daymare. Characters speak cryptically and issue indecipherable demands. There's a slew of items, many useless, most bizarre. Puzzles have elements that make sense on a pragmatic basis, but cohere in especially unusual ways. One notable example: feeding the captain of the guard a sleeping pill in order to steal his hat and fool his lackeys into letting you through a gate. Sure, but why did he accept medication from a stranger so readily, and why would you have known to steal the hat, and why are his guards stupid enough to forget what their superior looks like? Convoluted causal dynamics are no new thing to pixel-hunting adventure games, but only in this daymare do they feel acceptable, even organic. The puzzles never feel like cheats, but merely require some unconventional thinking, which leaves the solutions enormously satisfying. There's also a handful of achievements to unlock, and a unintuitive economic system, but they both feel like window dressing thrown in to disguise the game's true roots.

The mechanics and design of Daymare Town 3's gameplay work in exceptional tandem with its aesthetic. Daymare Town is ripe with heavily stylized Expressionist angles, rendering the interiors impossible and menacing. A kindergarten seems a hundred feet tall, and one ray of light illuminates next to none of a pitch-dark basement. Most of the lines are uneven, drawn freehand and with little regard to symmetry - every building looks off-kilter, groaning at its foundations. Music is almost entirely piano, with muted percussion thrown in on a couple of tracks, and a vast majority of the time you spend in the town is soundtracked by howling wind. Sound effects can be slightly jarring, notably the low electronic tones that sound every time you pick up an item or move from location to location. The game gives you the option to turn them off, which I would recommend. Daymare Town 3 lives and dies by its composition; without its schizoid images and minimal, minor-key sound, most of its impact would dissipate. The Submachine games, which strive for a similar atmosphere but fail to reach it because of undistinguished, unfocused art, are good examples of this.

This is not to marginalize the writing of the game. Mateusz Skutnik is careful to paint Daymare Town as an unusual place, but not aggressively so. Much of the quirk in the game is subtle, and the game approaches a wide variety of tones: humorous, sinister, ominous, even a bit melancholy. There's an undercurrent of dry wit to Skutnik's presentation, between locations (a populous graveyard is called a "memorial park"), items (a catheter bag becomes "some liquid"), and dialogue (The Nurse: "Do not try anything stupid. I will put you down."). If this slightly daffy composure appears to stand at odds with the game's more human moments, like when you return an old widow's baby to her, they actually come together with surprising grace. All of these voices are reasonably accommodated by a world so foreign that the player is not entirely sure how to feel while exploring it. 

Daymare Town 3, customary of its medium, is fairly slight. If you're not a naughty cheater you'll probably finish your first play in about five hours. There's a pronounced mystery about it, however, that has kept me compelled even during my third trip through the village. Every consecutive replay feels fresh, rewarding, intriguing. With each new session, I find myself surprised by how few of the puzzles I remember, or how eerie the music actually is, or the double entendre tucked into a line of dialogue that once seemed like a toss-off. The details melt away over the course of a year, which is a quality to any linear adventure game's credit, but the feelings linger.


Sunday, October 7, 2012

The 2012 Horror Digest, Part 2: Whatchoo Know About the Ladies?


For those unfamiliar with this odd little bauble of a horror film, V/H/S is a horror anthology shot entirely through lo-fi recording devices: handheld cameras, miniature cameras stuffed into inconspicuous places, webcams, and the like. If this sounds exhausting to you, it occasionally can be, and I must admit that the last half hour or so felt to me like the longest, most hellish Skype session in the world. Also disappointing is the movie's terrible treatment of women, each one of whom becomes a slut, an idiot, a depraved murderess, or all three. If you can hurdle past these admittedly damning issues in ideology and construction, however, there's a lot of V/H/S that actually works really well. The cryptic, muddled nature of the visuals often makes what's happening on screen indecipherable and, in pairing with the strong sound mixing, quite frightening. Terrible things are constantly lurking where these obsolete, low-end cameras just can't seem to capture them, and that spirit of suggestion is deceptively powerful. Most of these stories, each assembled by a different director, are pretty compelling, and despite a tendency for them to end with resolutions as unsurprising as "and then the evil killed them," they held my attention consistently (short of a couple of dogs). Recommended with hesitations; it leaves a bad aftertaste. B-

The Woman in Black

There's a really excellent period in the middle of The Woman in Black where Daniel Radcliffe, staying the night in a spooky house while examining some sort of important legal document, is besieged by a series of supernatural occurrences. The scene takes place over the course of about five minutes, but in almost complete silence - no music, no dialogue, just the creaking of the house and whatever cackling apparitions fall upon him. Five minutes doesn't sound particularly impressive, but the scene's impressive momentum packs more horror content into those five minutes than probably any other period in the movie. I have long loved haunted house movies like a child, and that's probably why I stuck with this otherwise fairly cut-and-dried genre effort as long as I did. It's not that the movie is bad at all, but there's very little here to get excited about. Radcliffe offers little as a sad lawyer-dad with mutton chops, the plot came from The Innocents' fifty-year-old ghost matron afterbirth, and a majority of the scares are admirable for their reservation but typically fall flat. Nothing here is offensive or incompetent, but in an almost totally undistinguished Gothic horror, it might have given me something to talk about if there was. C+

The Loved Ones

Australian horror is a blip of a subgenre, but one that I feel deserves more attention. My experience with it, admittedly minimal, extends to the harrowing Wolf Creek, the mournful yet potent Lake Mungo, and this bizarre little teen movie. (Also Black Water, but the less said about that bullshit the better.) The Loved Ones is at once a dysfunctional family story, a teen film replete with rejection and angst, and a nasty, inventive horror/torture film with some really fun campy acting. The film embraces both its brutality and its slight goofiness, creating a satisfying middle ground where it's both in on the joke and taking it to unexpected places that make you feel a bit uncomfortable. The music and its uses thereof are especially interesting - music in teenage-centric films is often underutilized or ignored as an expressive tool, but The Loved Ones employs it exceptionally well. The only real problem here is that the ending is bunk, an unfortunately predictable note that doesn't offer anything particularly new or insightful to the film. Kudos for showing the restraint to not write an over-the-top twist ending, but a little bit more would have gone a long way, you know? B

Mother's Day

This is nasty schlock, the sort of controlled and quietly self-aware dumbness that I feel the overwhelming need for every once in a while. I can't really claim this as anything other than a gratuitous, violent, kind of shitty "and then there were none" body count flick, but the execution and cast are committed and the gore is great. It runs for nearly two hours, which is absolutely unnecessary and by far the biggest problem with the movie; you could trim twenty minutes off easily when you take the redundancy of certain scenes into account. Pitting two friends against each other in a duel to the death is intense, sure, but definitely loses a lot of the punch the second time you see it. Kind of diminishes the creativity of the villains, you know? Not that they have much: three of the main baddies are brainless lackeys, barking like dogs and flexing ruthless authority without the aid of the titular Mother herself, played to the hilt by Rebecca de Mornay. She's MIA for the first half hour of the movie, and upon her arrival, it changes from a conventional prisoners-in-their-own-home horror story to a psychological, neurotic, gendered power game. The sexist implications of the monster mom trope are present and arguable, but Mother's Day at least attempts to say something interesting about them. Whether or not it succeeds, though, is ultimately auxiliary to the trope's role as a conduit for carnage. And carnage there is. B

The Hole

Joe Dante has been making odd, fun, mostly youth-oriented films for the better part of three decades now, but nearly all of his output remains firmly rooted in horror. The Hole, his first theatrical release in nearly ten years, was finished in 2009, trapped in very limited circulation, and finally dumped into cinemas with minimal fanfare or attention. It's easy to see why it received this treatment, as the movie is low-budget, the effects are cheap, and the movie is too tame for adults yet too menacing for younger children. It hits a really satisfying spot for young adults, though. What separates it from the similarly intentioned but far less competent The Moth Diaries is its careful synchronization of theme and character. Manifestation of latent fear is by no means an original horror concept, but The Hole demonstrates a surprising amount of restraint about it by exploring the most superficial one at first (the youngest character's fear of clowns) and then slowly layering on elements that point toward each other character's fears until the time comes to actually implement them. The movie is paced with pinpoint accuracy, and handsomely crafted despite its obvious budgetary limitations. This is personally not for me, but it might have been eight years ago, and if you have any younger siblings with an interest in horror this will definitely hit the spot more satisfyingly than The Moth Diaries. B-

Monday, October 1, 2012

SHOCKtober 2012, Day 1: Sunshine

This is an entry for Final Girl's SHOCKtober 2012 blog event. As always, thanks to Stacie Ponder for being such a creative inspiration/badass! 

Minor spoilers. 

It can sometimes be hard to be a science fiction fan when you know so little about science. I love when sci-fi explores setting, and character, and ethical ramifications through the prism of ever-expanding scientific knowledge, but when it comes to actually analyzing the veracity of the material itself I am hopelessly lost. Maybe someday I'll teach myself enough to crawl through a movie like Sunshine and either be able to validate the basis of its plot or find myself horrifically disappointed by it, like this guy.

I was gearing up to write a gushing, effusive piece about the movie, mostly because I really do enjoy it and I think it remains criminally underseen and mismarketed. And then I went ahead and read that, which is so detail-oriented and thorough to be nearly psychotic, and all of a sudden the seeds of doubt have been planted in my timid little soul. Not that I need the validation of some angry man on the Internet to like or dislike something - the hive-mind mentality of popular criticism is awful enough as it is - but Sunshine repeatedly employs fact as a scaffold for narrative and to be told that those facts do not hold water makes me a little nervous. And though I don't agree with all of his myriad complaints, I have to give him credit for some pretty keen-eyed speculation on the contradictory nature of the technological future the film creates. His analysis of the film's internal logic, predictive though it might be, cannot be reasonably challenged by someone like me who just doesn't know these things. Ignorance is bliss, after all.

If you're science-oriented, and you have the wherewithal to really dismantle what you see in this terminal voyage to the sun, I recommend viewing the film as a sort of cautionary parable. "What Can Go Wrong in Space?" or "Don't Let the Crazy Dude Be Your Navigator." The crew of eight that Danny Boyle puts together is a doomed lot, and befall them doom does; shield malfunctions, inopportune fires, inter-crew drama, and then a completely unexpected wrench thrown in during the last half hour. The movie takes a hard left into science fiction horror at this point, like a competent version of Event Horizon, and a vast majority of the people who watch it are dissatisfied with this. I think it represents a logical capstone to a journey where not only does everything that could go wrong manages to, but things that could never have conceivably happened at all still manage to happen and fuck them the hell up. It is horror at its essence: being confronted with the incomprehensible. I don't expect everyone to buy this justification, but it works for me. 

Even if the film ends up disappointing you in its final act, the first hour is taut, eventful, and full of beautiful imagery and sound. Made on a relatively modest budget ($40 million, which it couldn't even make back internationally), Sunshine nonetheless looks and sounds fantastic, embracing its slightly over-the-top space opera status with booming orchestral music and blown out golden light infused into nearly every scene. If self-importance is detrimental in the face of incompetence, then I suppose Sunshine would be a grievous offender to reviewers like the above: the movie does, indeed, make itself feel important. I can't even say that I consider it particularly important, despite being a fan. It is a flashy, engaging little trip down the mortality rabbit hole, however, and ninety minutes of that will satisfy more than its share of sci-fi fans. 



Friday, September 28, 2012

The Master: Bring Your Own Paint Thinner

There Will Be Blood was the first P.T. Anderson film I'd ever seen, way back in 2007, and it knocked me on my ass. I was enraptured. Five years and six views later, the film shows a little wear and tear: as if he lost faith in his audience and their ability to capture his themes, Anderson hamstrings the film's subtle thematic buildup with a few bloated expository passages, but by and large, it is an experiment whose vibrancy and darkness and insanity I cannot help but surrender to every time. In that regard, I have to wonder if the critical reaction to The Master serves as a publicly visible inflation of my own experience. Perhaps it's all the collective gushing of a group of neophyte movie reviewers who saw There Will Be Blood and loved it and are trying to prove as fast as they can that PTA's newest work is, yes folks, a masterpiece, you read it here first. Probably this is lazy conjecture.

It would be unfair to compare The Master to There Will Be Blood, but only on the basis that I am a biased party. The films don't seem particularly similar at a superficial level, but Anderson seems to be operating on a newfound template, which is sort of an unpleasant discovery. Lush, shadowy set design and lighting, courtesy of Mihai Malaimare Jr.'s best Robert Elswit impression. (The film is gorgeous, its art direction likely its sole inarguable asset.) Discordant Jonny Greenwood score. Brutal runtime. Exploration of two perverse, wretched human souls in combative waltz with one another. Operatic acting, pitch black comedy, inscrutable behavior, the religious-industrial complex, all forced down with a chaser of extreme nihilism. The primary difference between the two is The Master's increased presence of women, though with the exception of Amy Adams they're mostly sex objects for the depraved protagonist. I would swear up and down that these are sister films, or perhaps the first two parts of a "Broken Man Trilogy," and there's nothing wrong with either of those possibilities. It just seems a shame that a director who has spent the better part of two decades cultivating a wildly diverse, bizarre filmography would then spend five more years reining himself into a relatively constrictive aesthetic box, taking two different approaches to fundamentally similar thematic material and then homogenizing them.

Our guide for Anderson's next plunge into the depths is Joaquin Phoenix as Freddy Quell, a man in his darkest hour. He drinks paint thinner, chokes rich white dudes, and sleeps indiscriminately with woman after woman until he meets The silver-tongued sociopath Master himself, Lancaster Dodd. Dodd, embodied by the perfectly cast and thus somewhat predictable Philip Seymour Hoffman, spearheads a pseudoscientific system of belief called The Cause, which is aimed at using hypnotherapy to induce a sort of time-traveling euphoria in its charges and cure them of "past traumas." The mechanics of this are repeatedly debunked throughout the film by skeptic and believer alike, to which Dodd reacts with manic rage and tips his hand as A Very Irrational Cult Leader. Not that I'd want to deny anyone the visceral thrill of watching ol' PSH spit "pig fuck" at someone, but it's a pretty lazy way to connect the dots. Quell and Dodd are both men of extremes, men who lash out at everyone around them when their backs are to the wall, which we are shown again and again to decidedly diminishing returns. The execution is on point, as always, but this is the first time I've ever watched a PTA movie and found myself wishing for a less lenient editor. Assault me once, shame on you, assault me twice, shame on me, assault me thrice, cut it out already...

This urges the question of what I would have preferred to see in the place of all this excess, and honestly, I don't know. The film is spare despite its length, and ultimately all it says about religion is that it fulminates in damaged souls and simply leaves them as damaged souls trapped in a dogmatic hivemind. If you're looking for a scathing anti-Scientology screed, something to fulfill all those Internet rumors of its troubled production, the film issues no direct attacks on the religion itself and simply makes a few metaphorical feints at generalized cult practices. Sure, you have the insane "applications," and Dodd's raving inconsistency, and the repeated pittance of The Cause against any sort of rational thought, but these are all things that anyone watching this movie likely knew about cult belief in the first place. 

The argument could be made that P. T. Anderson was aware of all this when he made the movie - how couldn't he be? - and that the movie is not about what it is, but what it is not. That's a tough justification for something as aesthetically charged and zealously acted and SIGNIFICANT as The Master, though. Sure, it's a character study of two men caught in behavioral, psychic, ideological circles. But two and a half hours of beautiful, weighty nothingness, whether intentional or not, is going to come with its advantages and its caveats. The movie casts an obfuscating haze about itself and its motives, offering plenty of opportunity for continued study and appreciation, but also rendering what it really wants to say indeterminate. I don't know what it is; I wrote this review hoping I could decipher it in the process but I didn't. I would recommend seeing The Master, but for selfish reasons, because I just want people to talk with about it. To see if there's something buried deeper that I haven't found yet or if it's just hot air.

B- (?)

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The 2012 Horror Digest, Part 1

Horror is a genre that has seen varying levels of success over the last forty years. Action films can always be counted on to make a pretty penny, short of the occasional bomb (though to be fair, they haven't been so occasional this year), and comedies often turn decent grosses on much smaller budgets. Horror has never been so reliable. It's difficult to track what audiences find scary at any given point in time, and even if some studio has tapped into the zeitgeist, they can't always translate that into a good movie. This decade has proved to be one of the rougher patches for horror, save for new installments in the Saw or Paranormal Activity franchises. 2012 hasn't seen either of these come back around yet, and much of everything else that has come out so far this year has been low-profile and fiscally disappointing. Cabin in the Woods did okay, but the only two breakout successes were The Woman In Black (surprising but not totally undeserved) and The Devil Inside (ugh, fucking kill me).

No matter how poorly it does, though, I love horror. I love it at its best and worst, at its most brainlessly shitty and at the height of innovation. No other genre is as compulsively watchable to me, and since I've seen so few movies overall this year, I want this set of posts to act as both a catch-up for myself and a series of capsule reviews in case y'all are looking for something scary to watch. There's no real connection between whatever I review at any given time, just the ones that are itching to get out of my brain and onto the empty Blogger page. With that:

Cabin in the Woods

Easily the best horror film of the year so far, if not the best film period. Its role as a conventional teenagers-adrift slasher is questionable since there's very little conventional about the movie at all; some may find it a disappointment in that it simply isn't very scary. The film completely subs out fear, not really its strong point, for a pervasive sense of dread by the third act, which ends up being a much better fit for its nihilistic message. Likewise, the humor operates at a comfortable 70:30 hit to miss ratio, as it has in everything good ol' Joss has ever laid his hands on. Cabin in the Woods earns its keep with a thoughtful, confidently asserted premise, rich with an understanding of the horror genre that positions writer Drew Goddard as both scathing critic and diehard fan. Superb pacing, anarchic fun, and a surprising undercurrent of sadness make this an exceptionally unique offering to the genre canon. A-

Sunday, August 12, 2012

The Batshit Charms of Deadly Blessing

This entry was written for the superlative Final Girl's August Film Club. Thanks, Stacie! Spoilers for low-budget thirty-year-old horror ahoy!

Deadly Blessing is Wes Craven's fourth film - or his fifth, if you count Angela the Fireworks Woman, an incest porno he wrote and directed under a pseudonym. I don't, but brought it up anyway because this is intriguing trivia that you can now share with friends and...well, maybe not family. The movie is ostensibly about a woman fighting off some unseen evil forces and the judgment of the mysterious Hittites (???) after her husband is killed by his own magically animated tractor, but the story flies totally off the rails after half an hour so I'm not terribly concerned with discussing it. Rather, there are three things Deadly Blessing is obsessed with that are much more interesting:

1) Ernest Borgnine looking creepy

Monday, August 6, 2012

Breaking Bad: Is There a Right or Wrong Way to Watch Something?

Spoilers for the most recent episode.

After one year spent in the universe of Breaking Bad, who thinks that Walter White has become the most awful person on the show?
Vince Gilligan: "As unpleasant as some of these tasks he has taken upon himself have been, there is something else that drives him. And that is this need for power. This need for feeling potent and feeling important in this little world he lives in.  And to that end, he does what he would probably describe as a lot of unpleasant things. He rationalizes his behavior, and says that what he does, he does for his family. But, in fact, he does what he does for self-aggrandizement, to make himself feel important. So as the killings progress, they take more out of Jessie [sic]. They seem to bother Walt less and less."
Bryan Cranston: "Cranston adds that he understands some of the character's impulse, but only to a point. 'It's not so hard for me as a man to get into that survival instinct, or protecting your family,' he says. 'Most men take on that responsibility. But the thing that is difficult for me to accept is his whole ego. His hubris and greed and avaricious nature are foreign to me. I have to allow myself to go there and have him become the peacock that he is.'"
Jonathan Banks: "I don't think he loves Jesse at all. You're talking about Walt? I don't think Walt cares for anybody...A sociopath feels no guilt in their actions and what they do...I think he's been a sociopath since the time in the gym when he justifies the airplane crash - with 'Well, there have been worse crashes. More people have died.' That is the classic sociopath."
Aaron Paul: "I think he's definitely taking us down...and he just knows how to manipulate everybody. He has everybody on his little strings...he just wants to be the king. That's it. It's just a power trip."
The critical pulse: He's a controlling megalomaniac, a monster underneath a regular suburban dad mask, relentlessly badgering and mocking, someone Gilligan is unbelievably committed to [making us] hate, and a mix of arrogance, greed, intellectual vanity, and male insecurity that drove him to kill the old Walt and replace him with Heisenberg.
Who doesn't? I dunno, maybe take a quick trip through Twitter and see who's least popular there? (Or skim this poorly argued Slate article, which totally misreads the last four episodes.)

I'm framing this discussion through Skyler because she acts as a mirror to what Walt's plan was from the very first episode. He started cooking meth as a way to provide for his family after his death; in his eyes, it was a market he could easily assimilate into and slip out of once he'd pulled down enough money to allow them a comfortable post-Walt life. Skyler is the only person in the cast who is able to put this into perspective, since Walt Jr. remains obliviously enthralled by his father and Holly is a dumb baby. She is the only character who takes Breaking Bad back to its first seed, morally questionable action in defense of loved ones, and her presence serves as a painful reminder of how far Walt has strayed from this goal. She has her own goal now, explicitly announced - she's taking morally questionable action in defense of loved ones - and that puts her in direct opposition to Walt. The most recent episode portrays her as her childrens' most staunch defender, which earns her Walt's fury and scorn and promises of greater trouble down the line. How odd.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Ain't no friends of mine

Friends With Kids, the directorial debut of Kissing Jessica Stein writer Jennifer Westfeldt, would be nothing special if it wasn't so fucking annoying. Its crimes against palatable film making are numerous, most of them stemming from a screenplay that presents us with a predictable upper-class white dilemma and feeds it through the mouths of six exceptionally irritating human beings. It takes a special kind of incompetence to waste the gifts of Adam Scott, Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, Chris O'Dowd, and Jon Hamm, rendering them all either indistinct or unlikable. More disappointing still is that, in a cinematic landscape where so few women are allowed to write AND direct, Westfeldt felt it appropriate to create a story where all of the female characters are shrewish, neurotic, over-emotional caricatures. The type of women you see in ugly sexist romcoms, scribed by thirty-something men with mommy issues, are the only type you see here, for reasons I just can't understand.

So what's the best way to make an annoying person even more annoying? Have them talk to a baby, of course! People in this movie are constantly talking, as Westfeldt's attempt to create a warm group atmosphere boils down to having every character speak very loudly at the same time while sweltering under hideous orange lighting, but their true colors shine through when she puts them in front of an infant. In order to demonstrate how the movie made me feel, I've assembled a soundboard representative of every awful base this movie covers: entitlement, snobbery, shrieking, crying, obliviousness, abrasion, breathless cooing baby talk, poor word choice. And this is, for the most part, AFTER excluding the baby sounds. You're welcome.

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Thursday, July 26, 2012

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Pieces Form the Whole: The Dark Knight Rises

Major spoilers for basically the whole movie.

The Internet has engineered a brutal, stupid feedback loop between film writer and film consumer, one that only seems to precipitate with each high-profile release that garners some degree of negative critical attention. I first became aware of the problem with Toy Story 3, a fine and warm movie that earned its tiny pool of detractors hatred that Pixar could never have imagined; this vitriol has only snowballed with each major studio release that has Rotten Tomatoes on its side early enough to earn it the adoration of raving, faceless idiots. The Avengers is an earlier example from this year, but The Dark Knight Rises got people mad enough to send death threats to critics audacious enough to speak ill of it.

Attitudes like this, obviously, are detrimental to film criticism and the improvement of the form as a whole. Glenn Kenny wrote an interesting, if not slightly overgeneralized, piece about how nerd culture and fanboyism tend to omit alternate interpretations of what constitutes "art." Yes, hivemind thought has always existed, and yes, relegating it to a scope as comparatively small as film discussion is a little bit frivolous when it led to things like the ascendancy of the Nazi party. But this is all emblematic of the Internet's democratization of voice, a process that both giveth and taketh away. We have access to voices of staggering breadth and diversity, all of which are privy to shitty comments posted by indignant 14-year-olds.

So essentially what this all amounts to is the eternal lash, backlash, back-backlash that the Internet permits, amplified to a degree that only the biggest movie of the year could possibly reach. I am joining the fray because, well, that's what I like to do. I enjoy the opportunity to organize my thoughts on movies, especially ones that are as grandiose and ambitious as The Dark Knight Rises. It's a three-hour long comic book magnum opus, something that I would never have thought possible a decade ago were it not for its overwhelmingly successful predecessor, and as such it has its share of problems. Because the film attempts so much, I feel it's best examined by looking at each of its major elements and figuring out how they contribute to or detract from the film at large. Maybe it seems picky, but such is the aforementioned power of the Internet.

Monday, July 16, 2012

The Dark Expressions of Breaking Bad

Spoilers for the most recent episode.

I've wanted to write about Breaking Bad for a while now, an urge reinvigorated by its excellent fifth season debut (made even more encouraging by its strongest ratings ever, so Dish Network can suck it). Whenever I rack my brain for something about it to focus on, I always return to the imagery: potent, subtle, dark, occasionally surreal. The visuals of the show exemplify its unique qualities, serving as the grim scaffolding upon which its writing and acting and sound rest. This is a collection of scenes from last night's episode that I think drive home what makes this show so special.

A quiet call-back to happier times. Walt is teetering constantly on the verge of personal apocalypse, so it comes as a surprise that this isn't a secret signal or mushroom cloud but instead a way to remind himself that it's his 52nd birthday. (This comparison could also be read as Walt emancipating himself from Skyler's nasty-ass veggie bacon. Walt Jr. says it smells like Band-Aids, but it looks like dog jerky and that's all I need to know.)

Toasting himself in the mirror with a glass of scotch while watching over his daughter. He's just secured a major victory, but who is there to celebrate with anymore? This is the most paternal, warm thing we see from Walt this episode, a phantom of the loving father he was a year ago - and it's punctuated by his immediate realization that oops, he's still in deep shit. No rest for the wicked.

Hank Schrader is a beast. Ambling through the burned-out meth factory, cane in hand, we know without so much as a word that he's going to figure this out before anyone else does. Much like Walt, he has undergone significant personal change by means of traumatic event after traumatic event. Once an embarrassing caricature of threatened masculinity, he's now an astute DEA superstar. All it took was the constant derision of his colleagues, a look into the brutality of the cartels, repeated gunshot wounds, paralysis, and Marie giving him a handjob in the hospital.

"C'mon, c'mon. Be nice. Let Gwendolyn in there. Gwendolyn don't eat, nobody eats."

Vince Gilligan has this odd way of making New Mexico look like an alien planet. The show and its characters are often locked into interchangeable suburban monotony, but shots like this give character to the stage for all this drama. It isn't Weeds or Law and Order, but something far more harsh, barren.

This is a nauseating follow-up to one of Season Four's most darkly comic images: Ted Beneke sliding headfirst into a counter and, presumably, dying. Except he didn't. Breaking Bad has an unmatched penchant for deriving horror from humor and humor from horror. The first exchange is demonstrated by the reveal of a completely ruined man, stuffed with metal and hooked up to machines...

...and the second exchange, by this sequence. You get about two seconds to laugh at this ridiculous turn of events before you realize how screwed Walt and Jesse actually are. The show derives absurdity from misfortune regularly, to the point where control simply becomes an illusion. The life of each character is ruled by chaos, a reality that none of them can confront. What do you think made Walt laugh so hard at the end of Crawl Space?

The superimposition of dark secrets on happy exteriors. This probably drives the "IS GUS GAY?!" question home a bit too hard, but it serves a more important purpose. Like Walt, Gustavo Fring was a man toying with forces that proved far greater than himself, and they devoured both him and the things that he cared for. It's a microcosmic representation of truths that Walt has spent five seasons learning the hard way.

And this isn't from last episode, but just because I love it, here's the opening to Fly from the fourth season.