Thursday, April 28, 2011

Read The Book First

For all the visceral horror films I subject myself to, sometimes something quieter is in order, and often all the more disturbing. See The (original) Haunting or The Last Wave.

Months and months ago, I read Kazuo Ishiguro's dystopian fable Never Let Me Go. It was an incredibly good read. In the writing of this blog entry I'm going to be really vague, because the growing horror of the premise is a key part of the book. Ishiguro writes stories of longing and loss, sedate and melancholic. Never Let Me Go doesn't break with tradition. BUT. There are additional threads of mystery (at first) and then genuine horror (later) that I found gripping even long after I'd turned the last page.

A very English setting (and how the English love their messed-up-government-run-future-society stories) seen through a Japanese lens of melacholy pretty much sums up the aesthetic of the novel and British/Japanese Ishiguro himself.

The movie does a pretty good, though inferior, job of presenting the story. The settings look correct, the actors are all great, and the soundtrack, atmosphere and act cards all 'feel' like the book. But the film makes the INCREDIBLE misstep of revealing the mystery from the get-go. Having seen the film all the way through and digested it, I can understand why it was done this way... the first act is much shorter and less detailed in the film because the filmmakers want to spend more of the film's standard running time in the other acts. That was THEIR emphasis and I get it. I just think it was a huge mistake. And more than one reviewer agreed with me.

So, here's the deal. READ THE BOOK FIRST. Do not look up any summaries on the internet. Do not read any reviews of book or movie. Do not read the blurb on the back of the novel. Do not allow yourself the chance to have anything given away. The mystery is NOT the only aspect with teeth in the story, but it adds GREATLY to the atmosphere (and the book and movie are big on the atmosphere) if you go in ignorant. Here's all you need to know:

Alternate late-20th century history, so don't find seemingly glaring differences from our reality all that strange. English boarding school/drawing room type drama (like Ishiguro's Remains of the Day). Slow, melancholic pace, but atmosphere of foreboding and menace builds like a J-horror film. Coming of age story in some ways, though nominally science fiction.

If any of that sounds interesting at all do yourself a huge favor and read the novel first. I CAN recommend the movie... but the film loses little of its mystery if you've read the book because it is just going to tip its hand in the first quarter hour anyway.

Nolan's Mind Games

I'm a real latecomer to the herd of people who've seen Christopher Nolan's epic mind-bender Inception. I thought it'd be beneficial to take in Memento right before that too, since for some reason THAT film eluded me on release as well.

Both of these films have been hyped to heaven by my friends and people online. While I think both films were fine compelling experiences, I don't think they deserve all the accolades, in particular Inception which I have on friendly authority is 'the best film ever made'.

Nolan's direction in both movies is fine. I think he strikes a great balance between confusing viewers and leading you to formulating your own conclusions, important particularly in Memento where the protagonist is just as unknowing as the viewer.

Also in Memento he twist ending isn't shocking because you come into it almost gradually (which Nolan intended) and many probably guessed most of what the climax contained before then. The mind-bending part is how the movie conveys memory and context and keeping you watching on two levels the whole time. I found some aspects rather unbelievable (the tatooing, that he'd have time to reacqauint with the notes every day, etc), but this is the kinda shit more considered in hindsight than jerking me out of the movie while I was watching it. I don't know enough about the real-life memory disorder to have been analysing it at the time. But here's the thing: this movie was hyped to death. If I'd just watched it on its own it'd have been an above average movie with a remarkable way of conveying chronology-- only Irreversible really comes to mind as similar. But everyone was 'oh you gotta see it, the ending is just unbelievable!' or 'you'll be blown away by the twists and turns'. Well, I wasn't. I guess maybe my imagination went the wrong way when I heard 'unbelievable ending' and 'twists' to where I was expecting a film as wrenching as Se7en.

Then Inception. Again with the hype only on a monumental scale culminating in eight Oscar nominations. With this movie, Nolan also does nothing really wrong, but it just doesn't go anywhere particularly affecting for me. Like Memento, you are challenged to keep track of what's what (this time perception as opposed to memory), and I think it is great that a film, especially a mega-budget one challenges the audience to do more than just sit there and take it in. But again, it's a thinker that after it is over didn't leave me pondering it. Not even the fabled spinning top at the end. Nolan says he's had so many people ask him about this, but for me, I saw it, noted the ambiguity, made my decision about what it meant right then and there, and moved on. I guess it wasn't ambiguous to me REALLY at all. In the case of Inception I think all the hype led me to believe it was 2010's The Matrix. For me, it wasn't. The Matrix had a 'twist' that was affecting (and thank heavens I saw it opening night). When Lawrence Fishburne finally holds that battery up to Keanu Reeves, that one scene was stronger to me than anything in the entirety of Inception. I think Inception is tighter and 'smarter' in a lot of ways than The Matrix is... but that wasn't enough. Not for all the 'best thing ever' shit I've been hearing about it. Like some reviewers I really wish the dream sequences had been a bit more 'out there'. I realise remembering dreams is tricky, but it is pretty well established that logic in dreams is different or non-existent. The dreams in Inception are incredibly consistent and well-ordered, however much common physical laws seem to bend at times. I think more 'insanity' was probably in order.

Neither film has anything really incompetent about it. Nolan's done good. These movies are just victims, to me, of the hype machine. But if I'd seen them when they first came out (and I think seeing Inception on the small screen for the first time really did it a disservice) I think I would've been dismayed by all the hype to come out subsequently.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Days of Yore, I Mean Gore

The game that almost singlehandedly started video games down the road of intense-scrutiny-for-content and provoked the creation of an industry rating system, is back and bloodier than ever.

Released in the heyday of arcades, MK was the major American contribution to the fighting game scene. Not as technical as Street Fighter (Japanese) and not as cutting edge as Killer Instinct (UK), Mortal Kombat relied on players wanting to return to it time and again to see all the wild stages, catch up on the cheesy story line, and indulge in all the characters’ ‘fatality’ possibilities.

If any fan is completely honest the fatalities (and their offshoot ‘babality’ and ‘friendship’ finishing moves) are the main draw. For everyone. Don’t pretend the story or depth of mechanics was the reason you were there. The graphics, digitized photos of actors mostly, were something of an eyesore even back then. Nope. You came for the gore. And since MK was an equal opportunity offender it was one of the few places where you’d see buxom female characters eviscerated or decapitated with the same aplomb accorded the macho males. Boobs and blood. An American exploitation tradition!

For those that bothered to pay attention, Mortal Kombat did have a back story that was more than ‘buncha people fighting to be the best’. See original MK movie. It was a corny tale of interdimensional overlords and ancient deities. Martial Arts temples, assassins and prophecies. As the series went on, the designers tried to flesh out the story line further to give nerds a high road to hang on to when they attempted to justify playing in all the boobs and blood. But up to now with eight episodes under its belt (and some non-fighting game offshoots) the plot has gotten so convoluted and repetitious that only the most diehard adherents have still kept track of who is who and who does what.

I gave up after Mortal Kombat 3. I was never a REAL Mortal Kombat player. I already had Street Fighter and Samurai Shodown. I checked in with Mortal Kombat to see what the controversy was about and dork around with the fatalities. I kinda knew the story from watching serious players play. Then when the next two sequels came out, I dallied enough to see new characters and note where the ideas were going. I might’ve bought MK2 and/or MK3 for my Genesis. All this stuff was ‘okay’ to me. I think I exclaimed ‘oh shit’ just like everyone else the first time I saw a head get popped off in a welter of gore. But after that, the ugly characters and unorthodox input methods (kudos for not copying Street Fighter but still weird) just turned me off. Along with the story line getting too dense for its own good, I guess the edginess kinda bled out of the games too. The DC versus MK game from not too long ago is supposedly pretty flaccid.

I haven’t bothered with it in years other than to note ‘oh, they’re still doing Mortal Kombat’ whenever the series was milked again on another console. But in 2010, folks seemed to be getting pretty excited about the new installment titled simply Mortal Kombat, but tagged MK9 in gaming circles to distinguish it from the 1992 original. The promo materials and statements made by the developers showed a return to what made the first three games, uh, ‘great’. Blood, boobs, and the original storyline—revisited through a timeline alteration plot hook analogous to the one in JJ Abrams recent Star Trek reboot.

Oddly, I found all this news to be kind of boner-inducing to me too. The things that made me NOT stick with MK back in dinosaur days were still in place. Same characters, same control scheme. But the speed and power of today’s consoles has given the character (and by that I mean the atmosphere and bloodshed) a new lease on life. Additional ways of dealing gory mayhem have been added along with a lot of nods to the first three games. I was really surprised by how much I recognized considering my limited time with Mortal Kombat in the first place. And wisely (just as Street Fighter IV has done) they kept the 3D characters fighting in a 2D plane.

So now having bought the game (released yesterday), it is pretty much everything I’d hoped for. The new polygonal character models, while still kind of stiff and unattractive, are way easier to look at than the old sprites… and that’s saying something considering how much I love the sprite art in old games. With the new Street Fighter releases, the characters look fine, but they aren’t literally better than a lot of the earlier generations. SF3 and SFAlpha’s fighters are well-drawn cel-animation-style 2D sprites. Their 3D polygon versions on current machines are also high-quality and recognizable… but kind of like comparing apples and oranges if you try to decide which is better. With Mortal Kombat there’s no real debate… at least not if you look back at the old games that this new iteration is referencing. The original sprites were photos of actors in not-good costumes, incredibly crude and not having aged well at all. The new characters, stages, menu screens, everything is very detailed and just drips with menace and hellish atmosphere. It’s like what the designers of the originals were trying to convey, but the tools were so crude players had to dig down pretty deep in the imagination to fill it out. The stages are awesome looking, with a lot of disturbing background imagery and updates to old stage themes. The in-game character art (like on the matchup screens) is decidedly amateurish though… looking quite a bit worse than many of the fighters’ polygonal models. Okay, the Raiden polygon model IS uglier than the matchup screen drawing. Sorry, Raiden actor!

The input method is still really hard to get used to. For someone to whom the Street Fighter method of blocking and inputting specials is second nature, this game is a pretty drastic change. But the fatalities, new x-ray attacks, and general weirdness compel me to stick with it. At least to get through story mode, see all the bloodshed, and tackle most of the challenges. With all the bizarre moves (lots of projectiles, teleports, distant grapples) and overpowered x-ray attacks I’ll probably never really jam on this online the way I’m currently doing with Street Fighter. It just doesn’t seem serious enough… an odd thing to say considering the mature nature of the game, but it definitely revels in its over-the-top B-movie props with considerable macabre humor. But I mean ‘serious’ in mechanics and balance. I guess time will tell whether the tournament players get a functioning, competitive fighting game out of it.

Perversely, this may be the game that sells the fighting genre to my son. I’ve had some serious reservations about allowing him access to this game—this iteration doing absolutely nothing to dispel MK’s rep for excess. But, I’ve been gradually allowing him to watch more mature movies (with relevant content discussions) like the Terminator, Matrix and Aliens series. Stuff with more cultural ‘weight’ than just any old film with a lot of head shots and sex scenes. So while this game is rife with even more violence than any ten movies put together, it is also decidedly more unrealistic or immersive.

That’s probably the key. Mortal Kombat is kinda cool now… but not very immersive. My kid has never really gotten into fighting games because for one, as far as his friends are concerned, it is a dead genre. And two, he had a lot of trouble with the command inputs. Fighters are traditionally joystick-friendly with their quarter-circle and dragon punch inputs. They are not so easy on a standard controller. And my kid is a controller (or wiimote) kid. With MK’s tap-tap input method, he has found a scheme that will work for him.

And he’s loving it. He loves the fact that he CAN do the moves, apart from the most complicated—the fatalities, but he’ll get ‘em. He’s just intimidated. And of course there’s the not-so-secret glee of all the bones cracking and ogling all the scantily-clad polygonal breasts.

He MAY just go to a joystick for this game eventually, and then I’ll have him! Brainwashed! Maybe he’ll migrate to my fighting games before too long and then I can kick my kid around the room in a way the law won’t frown upon!

By the way, hope you get to play this before too long, Australia!

Trilogy of Swedes

Finished up watching the trilogy of movies based on author Stieg Larsson's so-called 'Millenium Trilogy'. I have not read the books, but my understanding is that the movies are a close adaptation.

These are good films. Their popularity in Sweden (and elsewhere) is understandable and warranted. The unlikely duo of characters Blomqvist and Salander is pretty compelling. And the films have enough of a european sensibility that they go places and emphasize things a Hollywood film... at least one that had a big budget and A-list stars... probably wouldn't. I don't envy the American remake's task of living up to this series.

The remake has a number of things going for it: if David Fincher stays on as director he is probably EXACTLY the guy for this material. Most of the cast (Daniel Craig as Blomqvist, yay!) attached seems suitable. Choices like keeping the location in Sweden, and getting Trent Reznor for the soundtrack... that's what I'd do! The first film (and book) The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo probably has the most disturbing material in it. Not to the levels of Fincher's Se7en, but pretty strong. So duplicating the assets of that groundbreaking modern noire might be a really good idea. Most controversy around the remake centers on Rooney Mara cast as Lisbeth Sandler. I have no experience with Mara's acting chops, but she will have her work cut out for her. Sandler in the books and Swedish films is a hardbitten cypher of a character. And while naive (austistic/Asperger's), she's a tough, capable protagonist with both computer-savvy skills and potent physicality. She can hack your files and kick your ass.

On the one hand, I'd prefer not to blow the twists and turns in Fincher's movie, but now that I've seen the originals I think thriller fans probably need to watch them now: The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played With Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest.

Monday, April 18, 2011

This Bastard

The stage four boss for the XBLA shooter game, Strania: The Stella Machina. I want to kick this guy in the ding-ding.

I died more times trying to work out how to get past him. Holy crap. The levels and boss fights past him are easier... including his giganto form in stage six, fifty times the size of your robot.

I have sort of learned the knack for beating him now. That pic showing the lasers filling the screen isn't even the hardest attack of his to avoid.

THEN. I get past him, eventually finishing the game and get... nothing. You have to play on 'hard' or 'expert' in order to activate stage seven, the REAL last boss fight, AND THEN if you beat that you get the ending and credits. But if you die during stage seven, its game over, no continues, no second chances, nothing.

Needless to say I haven't managed it quite yet. The game lets you train on any level you've reached so I have managed to figure out how to get through stage seven, but I've haven't done it in an actual game turn.

But I will. Despite some of the nightmarish choices made in the name of challenge (evil stage seven, restart checkpoints for bosses, must play on hard/expert to win) by those sadistic jerks at G.Rev, the game is really fun. Spectacular visuals (despite being kinda budget), cool soundtrack, good (if somewhat coarse) controls, and really fast pace. It is NOT a danmaku in the tradition of Cave games, but it still manages to have a lot going onscreen. About the only criticism I have about the game is it being a little too easy to wind up with a weapon you don't want, but they have a way around that too (swing your sword as you pass through).

The game is short, but that's in the nature of the STG genre. Well worth the MS points it costs to download.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Rotten Ol' Kids

One night earlier this week I told my kids they needed to hit the showers before bed time for sure. When they groused about it I reminded them they had been in intramural basketball games and had gotten sweaty.

Upon further reluctance from them I termed it this way:

'YOU smell like the inside of a hyena's butthole. And YOU smell like a steaming pile of vulture barf.'

Because when you are telling children to clean themselves up you really must reference carrion-eaters.

They didn't really smell bad but y'know, whatever it takes to get the point across.

Faded Old Biker

Even if you’re a biker film fan from way back, I’d recommend staying away from Larry Bishop’s Hell Ride.

The story is that Quentin Tarantino, director and frother for all things in genre cinema, was introduced to Larry Bishop by an actress of mutual acquaintance. Larry is the son of comedian Joey Bishop and has an acting history prominent in biker gang films during their heyday, later appearing in other films as a character actor, and directing a mob film that is considered one of the worst ever made.

But Tarantino loves him for his biker filmography, particularly Savage 7. So after a home screening, he tells Larry that he (Larry Bishop) is destined to make the ‘greatest biker film of all time!’. So Larry rounds up some actors he likes, gets a few of Tarantino’s regulars, and some wannabe porn actresses and cranks out a film with himself as the star.

I think it has fallen well short of that ‘greatest’ thing.

Biker films are one of the few ‘genre film’ genres that I have almost no real experience with. I’ve seen Easy Rider and Hell’s Angels On Wheels, so I’ve had my brush with the royal triumvirate Hopper/Fonda/Nicholson, but that was a long time ago.

And the whole biker gang ethos (uh, actually the cinematic version of it, I guess) never really grabbed me. I just can’t identify with it, even though metalhead fashion (and therefore MY dress sense) is influenced heavily by biker culture. I don’t really know how authentic or relevant those old films were, I just knew when I saw them that they were a product of their times and I got reasonable enjoyment from the nihilistic attitudes and scenery-chewing on display.

Hell Ride has nihilism with a weird sense of honor in the protagonist, and just plain boring bad acting in place of scenery-chewing. Dennis Hopper and David Carradine are both in the film and are probably the best part about it, though neither is brilliant… Carradine only getting about two minutes of screen time. Dennis actually gets some of the best lines in the movie, but he is basically playing himself… so there you go. He’s just as funny in the DVD extras.

Director Bishop is probably trying to tap into some of… whatever it was that Tarantino liked so much in Savage 7, but he just didn’t do it for me. Scratchy voice, fake tan, weird sideburns. It is a fair difference from the real Bishop, who you can see in the extras, but I wouldn’t call any of his performance good.

Tarantino regular Michael Madsen is in the film and was probably my main draw for ordering it up on my NetFlix queue. The reality having watched the film is decidedly mixed.

I think Madsen CAN be really good, but he requires direction. From an ‘real director’. So you get these cool things from him in Tarantino movies or Tony Scott’s True Romance (dialogue by Tarantino). The film is also thick with speech that tries to emulate Quentin’s wordy cleverness, but fails miserably most of the time… and the few times it does work it's typically Hopper or Madsen delivering. But Madsen is really inconsistent. I was alternating between ‘cool’ and ‘yeesh’ practically every other line he uttered. Quentin’s dialogue in movies is usually hip upon a film’s release, but kind of ages badly upon subsequent viewings. The lines in this movie have that spent hipness from the onset. Like your listening to shit that would’ve been clever 20 years ago.

That might be the problem with a lot of the movie. On the one hand it is trying to tap into an attitude and an ethos from the past. On the other it is trying to marry them to present-day trappings and sensibilities. The movie is set in 2008, though you don’t see cell phones, computers, or soap-shaped automobiles. All this is mushed together with some artistic choices taken from the grindhouse cinema of the 70s. I don’t really know if biker films were a staple in grindhouses. You’d think it’d be a great fit.

But in Bishop’s hands it is just awkward. Not nearly as enjoyable as similar excursions Death Proof (Tarantino) or Machete (Robert Rodriquez). In the Special Features section Bishop talks about how he could and did take the movie to extreme places that a release in the 60s could never go, but the violence and sex aren’t particularly graphic or shocking even for a grindhouse feature from the following decade. The only thing I noticed was all that extreme compared to its inspirations was the number of times the f-bomb was dropped.

Grindhouse cinema attracted moviegoers because the audience thought they’d be seeing something you couldn’t see in films shown in mainstream theaters. Being so low budget you weren’t going to get exotic settings, great actors, or eye-popping special effects.

Usually it was exploitative subject matter, frequently coupled with bouncing nudity. If you were particularly lucky there might actually be an act of graphic violence shown that no big budget picture would stomach. Getting all of that together (untouchable subject, nudity, uber-violence) as in I Spit On Your Grave, you basically got the trifecta of grindhouse and would probably leave the theater genuinely shocked or affected.

When Robert Rodriquez made Planet Terror a few years ago, he knew that audiences were going to want an experience that made them feel like an audience felt in the grindhouse era, but that the ACTUAL grindhouse material would not be enough. There’s material on broadcast television now that is sleazier and a bigger train wreck than 90% of what appeared corner theaters. All the tropes, stereotypes, film tricks, etc from seedy grindhouses can be in place but if you don’t take into account all the sensory and information overload that has taken place since then… your film will be dull and underwhelming.

And that’s basically what happened with Hell Ride. It is kind of struggling to catch up and BE a shocking, impactful picture. There are a few good moments in it. Hell, I’ll even say making a biker gang movie that isn’t a period picture is probably pretty daring. I’m not even sure the characters in the movie have real-world equivalents on any level. I’ve seen bikers, but are there still ‘gangs’? Do they still carry on their anarchic criminal pursuits? I dunno!

If the movie was entertaining or even shocking in any way, I might want to Google around and find out. But it wasn’t and I don’t.

RIP David Carradine and Dennis Hopper.

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Lonely Sucker

I think I'm the only person in the world who liked the new Zach Snyder film SuckerPunch.

I've read line after line (AFTER I saw the film) about how sexist or misogynist this film is, and I just don't see that. I didn't feel it at all watching it. Its lurid, and kind of fetishistic for sure, but I don't think the women-in-peril setting was any worse than many films. No film about women under duress from headmasters, prison guards, or leering bosses is free from 'depicted' misogyny is it?

I think reviewers just couldn't get past all bustiers and thigh-highs on display while the girls were cutting and shooting. After five minutes of the fantasy battle sequences I barely noticed what they had on.

Maybe I'm just getting too thick and insensitive to this shit.