Archive for movie review

Cutting Commentary in Velvet Buzzsaw

Posted in All the Things, Movie Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 4, 2019 by trivialpunk

I never said I was consistent. The horror aesthetic is in right now, and creeping doom is on every horizon, but that’s more the state of the gaming industry than its content. Perpetual experiences and micro-transactions don’t lend themselves well to producing horror games, even if they do inspire dread. So, it was either ride the Dark Souls wave or write about the only thing more horrifying than creeping existential horror: politics.

Not here, though. No, the personal is political, so I can excuse the evening off from charting our winding path into a coiling snare. There are so many things in this world that would bind us and use us that one can hardly keep track. Sorry, got kinky there for a second, but it speaks to the question that faces most artists in today’s market.

Capture.PNG

There are many ways to read Velvet Buzzsaw, and I’ve spent a lot of time avoiding outside interpretations of the movie, except the initial review that led me to it. I wanted to remain surprised, because I was promised a character-focused horror movie with great cinematography and a twist. I got a lot more than that, though, and I want to give you the same opportunity I had to enjoy it. So, here’s your spoiler-warning. From here on out, I’m going to be spoiling major plot-points and the central gimmick of the twist, as well as dissecting what I see as the ethos of the film. There will be no coming back from these spoilers, soo…

SPOILER WARNING!!!!

That being said, let’s start with the exploiters of artists and the gate-keepers that enable the scarcity they profit off of. I mean, the cast. Morf Vandewalt is a renowned art critic that is insulated by pride, pretence and pomp. He acts as a gate-keeper of value in the artistic world that “assesses out of adoration,” but the film goes out of its way to demonstrate his profound naivety towards the powerful people and institutions that profit off his work. This is a great example of the lighting direction and framing coalescing with the narrative at the perfect moment for a story beat.

Capture2

Up until this moment, Morf has been framed as a suave, sophisticated socialite whose words can move mountains. But here, for one moment, his hair is under-lit to make it look like a bowlcut, as Morf is saying something that we know isn’t accurate with absolute confidence. He is, in truth, incredibly childish. You can see it in his demands and complaints. As a critic, Morf is being used to promote dangerous items for dishonest people, as well as destroying the careers and lives of countless artists to further his cachet. He excuses his actions by claiming that his opinions are honest, and they do seem very genuine, but he does tear down Ricky for Josephina. He knows it is wrong, though, and he even gets moments of moral indignation by refusing to sell out his personal beliefs. Morf is not morally corrupt, but he’s not overtly critical of the systems off of which he profits.

You know who is morally corrupt, though? Rhodora Haze, former punk artist turned wealthy socialite. As the owner of the Haze Gallery, she deals in modern art and Machiavellian politics. She’s manipulating Morf behind the scenes, holding contracts like switch-blades under the throats of other characters and stage managing the launch of the Vetril Dease Collection: a series of paintings that were discovered after the artist’s death. Since the artist is dead and the owner of the art is under her thumb, she is free to lie about the paintings at will. She squirrels half of them away to increase their scarcity value.

Rhodora’s mirror-mirror doppelganger is Gretchen. As a newly-minted art advisor/gate-keeper, she’s trying to survive in the same world of money and perception as Rhodora, but she’s nooot as good at it. In her stumbles, we see the ugly seams of their art scene come blatantly to the surface. She tries to bribe Morf to point her to “under-valued, pre-review art,” because she sees Rhodora profiting by buying pieces before Morf’s favourable reivews go live and increase their value. Of course, Rhodora isn’t bribing him; she’s spying on him. Despite Morf’s integrity, he exists in a system where his favourable reviews can be fore-casted by the people who profit off of them. An uncomfortable reflection of the game review space I left all those years ago? Maybe that’s why we’re here…

Let’s not get TOO meta, TOO fast. Where were we? Josephina is another inductee into the world of power and politics. As an employee of Rhodora, she stumbles across the paintings of Vetril Dease on the evening of his death. Recognising his brilliance and claiming them for herself, Josephina empties the man’s apartment of his life’s work. It’s clear that Rhodora took her under her wing as a employee, but is in the process of demoting her when she’s tipped off to the existence of the Dease collection. Josephina is strong-armed by Rhodora, under threat of contractual litigation, into handing over management rights for the Dease Collection in exchange for wealth and prestige. She agrees, because she has no choice.

Jon Dondon is a competing art dealer that learned well from Rhodora. He spends his days trying to poach artists from the Haze Gallery and sabotaging their stars. Jon Dondon puts considerable effort into undermining the reputation of the Dease Collection before meeting his bitter end. His body is discovered by Coco.

Coco is the mirror-mirror opposite of Josephina. She’s working an entry-level position at the Haze Gallery and learning how to navigate the choppy waters of a cut-throat industry. I have a fan-theory about her. I think she sabotaged Josephina in the opening act of the movie by calling her Right before work to tell her about her cheating ex. When Josephina was moved off the front line, Coco got her job. A job she immediately lost, because Rhodora uses and discards people at will, but it’s clear that she’s learned how to undermine people in order to advance her interests. Yet, the film doesn’t totally condemn her for her actions. Coco’s trying to survive in a harsh market, and it’s causing her to compromise her integrity. At the mid-point of the film, she reveals that she’s been spying on Rhodora, and the information she gleaned gets her a new job. So, she’s dishonest, buut…

Capture3.PNG

Which is really more of a condemnation of the system she wants to profit off of than her as a character. At least, in relation to the other characters in this little psychodrama. She keeps losing her job, because her employers keep dying for their sins, but she survives, even if her dream is broken.

That’s most of the main cast. There’s the blue-collar Bryson, who exists as a stereotype both so broadly drawn and utterly eclectic that I can only call him a douche-hipster. Piers is an established artist that is struggling to find creative truth in a system that values constant exploitable productivity. Damrish is an emerging artist from the streets that wants to find a place where his work can mean something, caught between financial success and cultural relevance.

The last two members of the important players are almost uncredited. They are the representatives of the Museum of Modern Art, and only one of them gets a name. It’s Jim, and his unnamed partner says one of the most important lines in the film to Gretchen: “…If you wanted to ram more of your collector’s hoard down our throat to increase their value, you should have done so before the Dease deal was locked…” You see, there’s only so much room in a gallery to show off cultural artefacts, so curators have to be careful with their space. As an artistic institution, the museum has a responsibility to the integrity of the art world, but the leverage provided to Gretchen by the inflated value of the Dease Collection gives her power over their investors. The wealthy gate-keepers of the art world have lent her the pictures and capital necessary to dictate what cultural artefacts will be displayed as valuable in the museum. She does to them what Rhodora did to her by packaging Dease with another artist named Minkins. In this scene, the film is saying that the power structures that profit off of exploiting artists do not elevate art based on its cultural value but on its ability to be exploited for profit. Therefore, the exemplars of this cultural space did not gain ascendancy through cultural relevance, but  through systems of power. Even if the art is only valuable for the moment:

Capture4.PNG

From EA to Disney, this is the relationship that most artists find themselves in today. The gate-keepers of artistic value are propped up by towers of money, and it seems like the only way forward is to sell-out for profit. As Gretchen says, “Look, I came to the museum, because I wanted to change the world through art. But, the wealthy vacuum up everything, except crumbs. The best work is only enjoyed by a tiny few. And they buy what they’re told. So why not join the party?” These are not evil people, but they’re still profiting off of a system that locks culture and the ascendancy of artistic vision behind pay-walls and monetary access. So, what should an artist do in this environment? What is the point of art if nobody sees it?

It turns out that the film has really optimistic answers to both those questions, but I want to address two very important aspects before we get to those answers. The first is that the paintings are haunted by the ghost of Vetril Dease, because he literally put his blood, sweat and tears into his work. His pain and madness are seared into his tormented works, and their raw manifestation is what ensorcells both critics and artists alike. This life of misery, “A howl for answers and a resolution that never comes,” is the fascination point off which the galleries will profit. They’re capitalising on the dead man’s pain.

The second aspect is the way in which Dease’s media is altered for consumption. Not a single stroke on his paintings is changed, but when they are removed from the context of his tiny, ramshackle house, they lose their connection to their meaning. Dease faced serious abuse, and his work was a means of processing that trauma. His howl for answers reveals the depth of that pain, but that depth is completely removed by transplanting it to a gallery space for safe consumption. In a gallery, people see the brilliance and clarity of the emotion, but they are insulated from its impact. Capitalism sanitizes media and removes it from the consequences of its context, a point which the film makes extremely explicit:

Capture5.PNG

Everyone thinks that Gretchen’s death is part of the exhibit, so they’re removed from the reality of the situation. The children in this scene think it’s fake blood; they assume that everything in the gallery is safe for consumption, so they are protected from its implications. The paintings and sculptures in this movie could stand in for any form of media. By removing media from its context and making it safe for capitalistic consumption, we are insulated from its true meaning, thereby allowing the framers of that information the power to control our perception of it. Which gets even more interesting when you consider that Damrish is a culturally-relevant Black artist being tugged away from his artist’s collective to pursue success in a mainstream gallery

Capture6.PNG

It should not be ignored that the history of African Americans in most artistic mediums includes a long history of exploitation. That the gate-keepers of power in this movie are primarily white, and that systemic socioeconomic differences are of key importance in relation to their access to power. No one in this movie is anything close to racist, but they are unquestioningly profiting off systems of exploitation built on inequality. You could not have an honest psychodrama about the flaws inherent in media exploitation without bringing up the rotten foundation on which it is built. This applies to all vulnerable populations across the media landscape, from Freddy Mercury to the Jackson 5. While naming those two makes it seem like these were relationships of mutual profit, we’d do well to remember the barriers they faced and the artists of all stripes and orientations who see nothing for their life-times of work. The more vulnerable you are, the easier you are to exploit, which is why some populations are targeted more explicitly than others.

Everyone in this movie is duplicitous to some degree. They’re all stage-managing personas and stabbing each other in the back behind warm smiles and “Kisses!” They are the perpetual manifestations of this psychodrama, profiting with cold brutality as they devour warm bodies with neat, sanitized pretence. It’s the same cheerful nihilism on display when the News feeds us justifications for murdering people and presents the deaths of thousands as an engaging tragedy. There is no human way to easily digest the deaths of that many people, but when it scrolls by on your news feed, it feels like one more point in a burning world. Something you can accept and “deal with.”

The personal is political, and the most important point of conflict in the daily lives of most people watching this movie will be fighting the apathy bred by comfort. The most important weapon against action is the idea that everything will be okay. By making things safe and digestible, we never feel the true weight of the tragedies happening around us. There is an art to insulating us into inaction, while at the same time justifying murder. It is the howling storm into which we all must scream.

That brings me back to the haunted paintings and my two final questions. What is the point of art if nobody sees it? I think the film answers that rather handily on multiple occasions. An artist’s primary concern should be the act of creation. “All art is dangerous,” which is to say that all art is powerful. Dease created otherworldly paintings as a byproduct of using art as a tool for exploring his trauma and grief. He survived a life of torment through art, even while definitely committing some murders along the way.

At the end of the film, we have an extremely human moment with Rhodora as she hands the keys of her beach house to Piers. Piers has been struggling with alcoholism and the media-driven idea that artists flourish by sacrificing their sanity to addiction and mental illness. Grappling with the raw honesty on display in Dease’s work, he wants to keep the “easy answer” at arm’s length, while he “tries to get back to creation.” The art world only values him as long as he’s creating work that they can sell, and it seems like the only answer to creating that work is sacrificing his mental well-being. Which is when the ghost of another dead artist steps in. Rhodora’s old girlfriend Poly -who was killed by a similar life- whispers a quote into the chill winds of history that saves Piers, “Dependency murders creativity. Creativity plays with the unknown, No strategies exist that can enclose the endless realm of the new. Only trust in yourself can carry you past your fears and the already known.”

Dependency on liquor and the financial approval of others is murdering Piers’ creativity, while the addiction slowly kills him. Rhodora tells him to take a break from the art scene, because she’s aware of its potential for toxicity. He needs to heal. She tells him to go somewhere and do something for nobody but himself. Because, at the end of the day, You always see your art. What is the point of art if nobody sees it? None, but the artist always sees their work. Art is a tool for expression and self-discovery. The finished product has inherent value to the artist and naturally reflects the time-period of its creation. At the beginning of the film, Rhodora posits that her art world has been thriving since a caveman charged a “bone to see the first cave painting,” tacitly suggesting that art and capitalism are inherently intertwined. Which perfectly reflects her world-view, but it has nothing to do with reality.

While it’s true that pretty shells and intricate carvings have always been traded as valuable, the drive to create is inherent to the human experience. Whether it’s ancient, crumbling paintings or lines in the sand swept away by the tide, the act of creation is inherently valuable. When we place importance on the exploitability of the finished product, rather than the act of creation, we murder creativity. So, what should an artist do in this environment?

Damrish’s story-line follows this logic to its fruition. The personal is political, so we should create for each other in an accessible space. Instead of allowing ourselves to be exploited for personal economic gain, we should look to the good we can do in our community as artists. If you have a voice, then we should use it with thoughtful purpose. At the same time, the collective in the film suggests that if this is the case, then the community needs to be there to support these artists. As someone who wrote free articles for years, I can tell you that you can’t dine on artistic integrity. We need to respect each other and our art, because our creations hold value. Both for ourselves and the future generations that will try to understand us through the exemplars of our culture.

Then, there is the other artist: Vetril Dease. The vengeful spirit left to toil in obscurity, exploited after death without the consent of his personal demons or consideration for the private pain it would unearth. His flesh was sold at auction with each painting, his literal body of work was violated for profit. Artists often sign away the right to control their work in exchange for the ability to create it, especially in the gaming space. Their legacy as creators is controlled as if they were a meaningless incident of its creation. The sole reason I’m writing this review, now, is that I kept asking myself one question: “What is the motivation of the paintings in this movie?” What injustice do the demons locked away behind Dease’s rage seek to correct? In looking for this answer, I came to my thesis for the film: “By making media fit for consumption by cultural institutions propped up by capitalist markets, we sanitize pain and profit off of death. Art that is both personal and culturally relevant/transgressive will/should undermine the power structures that enable the exploitation of art and humans, so that no more people must die in painful obscurity while the rich profit off their work.”

Each death in the movie reflects this motivation. Bryson was supposed to take the Dease paintings to be locked away in a warehouse, but he clearly died on a country road in the middle of stealing them. Rhodora kept Dease behind lock and key, both preserving the paintings he wanted destroyed and setting his work up to be exploited. Josephina stole his work and sold it, despite his wish that it be destroyed. John Dondon dug up Dease’s tragic past, but he was killed before he could use it to undermine the value of the work and profit off the destruction of his competitors through it. Gretchen was killed moments after threatening to use Dease’s work to destroy the hopes of emerging artists, keeping undiscovered artists like Dease in the dark forever to profit off the increased the value of Dease’s posthumous work. Morf kept emerging artists from the public’s eyes by judging their work to be valueless, profiting off their destruction to the point that one of his targets killed himself. Further, Morf stood to make millions from an exclusive Dease book-deal. Before dying, he publishes a tell-all article on Dease’s tragedies and the deaths connected to his work. It is telling that Morf was assumed to be corrupt by people like Gretchen, and that his credibility was only ever destroyed when he told them a bizarre, uncomfortable truth.

Damrish and Piers don’t die, because despite their exposure to the work, they never exploited it. Coco kept losing her job, so she never made a dime off it, either. She lost her dream but not her life. She’ll return home and find something new. And Dease’s art? It’s still out there, circulating out of stolen crates. Which makes me wonder… out of the context of these exploitative systems, will his art still be dangerous, Or was his art most impactful/destructive within this system, because it sought to tear down the power structures that exploited it? Am I reading too much into this? Possibly.

These paintings reflect a dark theme that stretches all the way back to “The King in Yellow.” A terrifying work that inspires heights of artistic excess or the lows of human suffering. Artists often see in works of this amorphous, eldritch nature a kind of creeping wonder. Am I divining something that exists or creating an idea from whole cloth? Kind of meta in a sense, because it comes back to why I’m here and often not here.

I created this blog to “forward the realm I analyze,” as Morf would say, but I found myself in the same position a lot of the time. Discussing gaming at this moment is putting support behind companies that are busily exploiting and destroying the works and artists that I admire. I couldn’t allow myself to be part of that anymore, even if the encroachment of larger investors opened the doors for greater profit. I have zero desire to be chewed up and spit out by an ungrateful industry, but I will always love gaming.

Yet, in my absence, I’ve seen the work of people like Jim Sterling and others pushing back against the glorification of exploitative excess, and I see in that movement a future for gaming. We’ve been here before, so maybe it’s better to stand and fight. These exact same historical beats have been playing out over time, from 3-D to the syphilitic collapse of the AAA Industry from its moulding throne. As we know, from the ashes of failure rise the Embers of a new age, and I’ve been heartened by the growth of the indie scene on Steam. Its gluttonous collapse after Steam Greenlight seemed to me the absolute excesses of Dark Souls’ Humanity. Even I’m back here, writing about the revolutionary potential of an above-average horror movie churned out by a corporate mechanism designed to respond to Disney’s global I.P. Power Grab.

Still, we must shout into the howling gale. We must not place the value of creation on the exploitability of the finished product. In this life, we must live and create, finding joy and integrity where we can make it. I have no mouth and I MUST scream.

Also, I wanted the opportunity to clear up a misinterpretation of my earlier assertion that reaction-time was an important consideration in relation to tank-controls on early survival horror games. Yeah, the tension-and-release cycles are still effective, even when the controls are fluid, because they speed up the monsters, too. The point isn’t the movement of the characters on the screen. The point is the experience of the individual reacting to them. So, if both characters are slow, then tension rises as the character prepares to react, then executes and experiences the results of those actions. The timing of that cycle is the important thing, not the speed of the pixels on the screen. When you’re running away from Pyramid Head’s attack in Silent Hill 2, you have a fraction of a second to react, then pick a direction and run. The tension exists in the execution of the maneuver, even if success or failure are decided at the beginning of the reaction when the startle reflex kicks in. It doesn’t matter if you get hit; it matters that you panicked for a second while you tried to react. That’s part of the build-up of physical tension that accompanies the game’s psychological anxiety.

The Hunters in Resident Evil are the same way. They cross vast distances in one jump, but your reaction to them is hurriedly finding a horizontal axis to safely cross their straight leap. This allows you the time to turn around and launch grenades at them. The controls were slow, so the tension came from thinking quickly. Now, you can react more quickly, but the startle reaction is still there, so more of the mechanical tension has to come from the staging of the game-play sequence.

So, yeah, Velvet Buzzsaw is a psychological revenge-drama where art goes on a killing spree to avenge an exploited artist. Give it a look if you’re still interested. Even with everything spoiled, it’s worth watching. Hell, maybe I’ve been over-analyzing things this whole time, and you’ll find something different in viewing it. That’s the nice thing about art: we each get to decide its value to us. I’ll be back if I feel like I have something else worth saying. Until then, I’ll just be enjoying things for their own value, because…

Capture7.PNG

The Hobbit: TDoS – Spoiler-Lite Brand Review

Posted in All the Things, Everything Else, Movie Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , on December 16, 2013 by trivialpunk

Well, look at me all posting twice in the same week. I just watched the new Hobbit movie: The Desolation of Smaug and I had to weigh in on it while it was still fresh in my mind. I had a couple of problems with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. To this day, it’s still hard to nail down what they were. Something about the cinematography reminded me too much of the LotR series. I mean, it makes sense, because they were in the same world and created by the same director. But, it felt like the style clashed with the narrative.

The Hobbit has always felt like a pretty personal story to me; it’s much smaller in scale than The Trilogy, even though it’s epic in its own right. So, the panoramic vistas and huge tracking shots felt weird. That’s the closest I can get to articulating my feelings towards the film. It’s not even 100% accurate, because, upon re-watching it, I can’t rightly say one way or the other if that’s a fair assessment. Whatever the issue was, it was completely gone by the time of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. I don’t know if it was the relative size of the film or if the cinematography was different or if I’d swallowed some unusual mushrooms before viewing the original, but TDoS just felt right.

MV5BMzU0NDY0NDEzNV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwOTIxNDU1MDE@._V1._SX640_SY947_

I don’t know if it was because the story was a little more cut up, so there were plenty of cut-aways, or if the film itself just came into its own, but this instalment in The Hobbit trilogy is definitely worth seeing. If you were on the fence at all, then this is my textual shove in the “watch” direction. I’m not going to spoil anything here, because I want you to go check it out, but I will point out a few things I noticed that aren’t exactly plot-relevant.

First of all, let’s get this out of the way: this isn’t the book. People going in and expecting to see the book are going to be a little disappointed. It doesn’t deviate wildly, but they added some things and changed the pacing a bit to make it more viewer-friendly. And I think that’s great. Too many book-movies will spend time trying to be exactly faithful to the original incarnation, oblivious to the fact that you can’t expect one medium to translate perfectly into another without an awareness of what the mediums do best and how the audience experiences them.

They added a couple of sub-plots in just the right places. The dwarves split up in Lake Town for an unspecified-here reason, which is appropriate, because it gives each dwarf a little more personality. They’re helping to hold up three movies, so you have to hope that they each get a little personal development. A heady task when your cast is 13 dwarves and a burglar.

Legolas makes his contractual appearance, but it’s not really obnoxious. It feels… right? Maybe that’s not the word, but it flows into the narrative pretty damn well. They put him opposite a female elf that gave me Brave vibes the entire movie. I can’t unsee it.

download (4)

I mean, am I crazy, or does anyone else see it?

HBT2-fs-140204.DNG

Green dress, red hair, bow and arrow, liberal attitude towards established authority, heart of gold, total bad-ass… Either way, she was a welcome addition to the cast. The fight-scenes with her and Legolas are sublime. The combat, in general, maintains its choreography par excellence status. It’s serious sword-play interspersed with some high-level ranger action and a little intense slap-stick.

Some effort is put into making the dwarves more sympathetic by making them fight for their homeland a bit more stringently. In the book, they just kind of show up and piss off the dragon, then let the lake-dwellers clean up the mess. Here, well, let’s just say the fight that caps the movie is cinematic gold.

I saw the film in 3D AVX, so the theatre could take advantage of the greater FPS of the cameras used to film The Hobbit trilogy. You might not notice it if you saw it in the standard theatre, because only some theatres are set up to take advantage of the increased frames-per-second, but the footage was super smooth. It was honestly a bit weird, at first, but, as I settled in, I started to appreciate the added fluidity, especially during the dragon sequences. Even the 3D was used to great effect, notably in… Mirkwood. uuugh… I don’t like things with 8 legs that move with hydraulic motion outside of water. I hid my eyes like a child for a few seconds at one or two particularly disturbing scenes. It helps that I’ve got a bit of a phobia of giant spiders.

But, even the portion with the bee on the screen was effective in 3D. Even so, I do have one particular request to make of film-makers: can you please stop doing the “thing stabs out of screen” shtick? It doesn’t look real. It doesn’t catch me off-guard. It just reminds me that I’m watching a film. Sure, drop something on the screen or have something hover in front of it: that gives us time to appreciate the detail or get caught off-guard by the impact, but nothing looks real -stabbing- out of a screen. I thought we figured this out in My Bloody Valentine 3D. That’s a tiny, irrelevant complaint, though, because the rest is done so well that I’ll forgive the occasional jolt out of the action.

The acting is on par with the rest of the series. Everyone possesses exactly the right amount of gravity and Gandalf is always appreciated. Thorin in particular carried his role very well. And Martin. Let me stop for a second and talk about Martin, because he sold it for me. Somewhere between awkward English slapstick and sheer determined Hobbitness sits Martin’s Bilbo. His scenes in the Dragon’s Hoard are particularly lauwkward (laughably awkward), and his moments as the burglar and the invisible sting are The Hobbit manifest. He’s not MY Hobbit in MY imagination, but he’s a damn good real-world equivalent, and I enjoyed every minute of it.

Boondonoddle Cambridge-mat was a believable Smaug, and I have to wonder if those two are ever going to be in a movie where Benzedrine Cabbage-patch plays subordinate to Mr. Freeman (I guess we’ll have to wait for the new Sherlock to find out). In any event, I love their chemistry. Even if, well, the movie takes a very interesting approach to the heat that comes off of flames. And it never bothered me before, but I remember noticing that the ancient races of Middle Earth have a complete and reckless disregard for railings. I have to wonder how many more members of the Old Races fell to clumsiness before hubris. I guess that’s why the elves that remain are so nimble and the dwarves are so stout. Low center of gravity, ya see?

For a two and a half hour movie, it went by pretty quick. The only time it lags a bit is towards the end, but, by then, well… you’ll get it. The Hobbit’s approach to politics is pretty interesting, too. No one is portrayed as simply in the right. Greed is used as a powerful tool for good in the right hands, but it’s also an extremely destructive force. Just like real life! Speaking of politics, there’s a greater depth to the whole situation than there was in The Hobbit the book. Effort is made to tie the franchise to the LotR Trilogy and it succeeds to an admirable degree. Shhh… spoilers.

Also, the whole thing looks awesome, but you knew it would going into this. I’m not sure what they’re working with over in Hollywood, but it’s deep Magick. On that note, they cut out the fairies in Mirkwood, but, overall, the set is fantastic and largely excuses the lack of Fairy-folk. I’m guessing that the fairy dinner would have been a bit difficult to sew into the tone of the rest of the piece, but the manner in which they write it out is totally believable.

The final surprise of TDoS was Stephen Fucking Fry. I love this man in everything he’s in, and he played a right brilliant bastard this time around. I don’t know what your feelings towards the guy are, but he’s a treat in this film. Even comes with his own Wormtongue. In closing, go see TDoS and keep an eye on the number of barrels for me.

TDoS.
TDoS Run.
…RUN!!…

Pacific Rimshot – Taking the Good with the Not Quite as Good

Posted in All the Things, Movie Reviews with tags , , , , , , , on July 14, 2013 by trivialpunk

Okay, I didn’t want to write this. I really didn’t. I look at horror games, and I can really only justify stretching to horror movies for this blog, because they’re related. Also, movies with zombies in them. Or, alternatively, just games I like. Okay, so I’ve got plenty of precedence for a pop-culture romp. I mean, pop-culture is pretty much what I do. And yeah, some of the monsters were a little scary. But, still, I didn’t want to write it. Pacific Rim is getting enough attention without me sticking my nose in. However, it has gotten so much positive attention that I feel I’m justified here. Enough of that, let’s sink our teeth into…

pacific-rim-movie-banner-striker-eureka-jaeger-vs-kaiju
The reason I felt like I had to write this was because every time I recommended it, I wanted to put an asterisk on the end of my recommendation. I’ve told people over and over that it’s awesome, and it is. However, for some people (The pop-culture obsessed psychotics like me), there are going to be some issues. That’s why I’m here to warn you about them now, so that you can just sit back, relax, and enjoy the robots. I probably shouldn’t have to tell you that I’m going to be unleashing a spoiler-cane here, but I will any ways.

Not that there’s much to spoil. Pacific Rim is a largely visual movie. Stunningly visual, actually. I felt like my eyes were going to melt out with joy when it fired up. It didn’t hurt that the theatre was mostly empty, because it was a Thursday night, so it was as silent as I could have wanted. I got totally absorbed in the film. Well, mostly. You see, there are still going to be plot-holes to fall into. Huge ones. That’s what I’m talking about. I fell into them, and it interrupted my enjoyment of the film. I don’t want this to happen to you. Before we get to that, though, we’re going to talk a bit about culture. I know, right?

It’s debatable pop-culture wisdom that some of the primary differences between American and Japanese video games is the approach these cultures have to weapons and combat. Bushido (I’m not kidding with the reference) tends to stress responsibility and wholeness. As that approach to combat trickled down through the ages and culture, it manifested in games, representing a bond with one’s weapon during combat. The power lies within-without. Conveniently enough, there’s an Extra Credits video that explains the concept better than I could. Conversely, the idea of the citizen soldier, of great individuality, manifests in the American Zeitgeist and, consequently, its video games.

This was easier to parse out early on, before the world became so globalized. If you want video game examples of this, then, for Japan, think Megaman and Vanquish (Gundam Wing, Evangelion). For America, on the other hand, think of Doom or Duke Nukem (Independence Day, Die Hard). That’s what makes Pacific Rim so interesting as a study of culture. It’s about the bond between people. In this movie, strong connections are the pre-requisites to stopping the end of the world. Stop me if this gets a little too “real.” To me, this represents something that today’s movies are approaching again and again: we need to work together as a world to survive. It happened in World War Z. It’s happening again here. It’s actually a trend that I love. The internet should bring people together.

That mush aside, Pacific Rim’s pilots connect deeply to one another, while also melding with their machine. It’s a perfect blend of the two concepts. The deep connections between the Jaeger (giant robot) pilots enables them to fight the Kaiju (giant monsters).

One of the things that has bothered me so much about this movie is that people are calling it totally original. I know the idea of originality is fluid, at best, but I didn’t make the references to Evangelion and Independence Day lightly. If you mashed those two movies together and added revolutionary special effects, then you’d get Pacific Rim. That’s not a bad thing; they’re fantastic and so is this. Once you think about it, you won’t be able to unsee it, though. The speech by the commander. “Today, we’re cancelling the Apocalypse.” … “Today, we celebrate our Independence Day.” It’s spooky.

Okay, that all aside, let’s talk plot-holes, because they’re going to bug you. So, let them bother you now. That way you can just enjoy the movie. Okay, if the Jaeger program is a failure, then why are the coastal cities surrounding the rift so unusually intact? Why cancel it at all, especially in favour of that wall. Oh yeah, their big plan to replace the Jaegers is to build a big wall from California to Alaska. Aside from the fact that that won’t cover anything, it’s a dumb idea. I mean, we get to see a Kaiju rip right through the wall in the middle of the movie. We’re also made privy to a flying Kaiju (hereafter known as a Fly-ju). So, who approved this plan?! To me, it evokes the image of a bunch of tired, old bureaucrats sitting around a table, looking at financial charts, when one throws up his hands and says, “Fuck it! We’ll just build a big wall!” Right, because anyone that served on the Maginot Line can tell you what a great idea that is. On the car-ride home, we came to the conclusion that the only way to think around this glaring plot-hole was to assume that said bureaucrats had the same agenda in implementing it as the movie-makers had in putting it in the movie: to raise the stakes. It doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it makes more sense than the wall. There were trying to push humanity into coming up with an actual solution.

Near the end of the movie, they discover that the reason they haven’t been able to get a nuke through the rift between worlds, where the Kaiju are coming out of, is because it’s only a semi-permeable membrane. Like a cell, it reads an incoming object and decides to accept or reject it. This is a perfectly serviceable analogy, because it certainly looks like a cell on the inside. *Double Spoiler Alert* Once they get the explosive through, one of them ejects to escape. This makes sense, since the rift hasn’t closed. However, once the other once ejects, the rift is collapsing, and it’s safe to assume the other side of the rift closed. So, how the hell did he get through? Oh well, think your way around it again!

You see, the aliens are “colonists.” They come to other worlds to strip them of their resources. However, given how many resources are available in a single solar system, let alone a galaxy, for a resource-rich society like theirs, why wouldn’t they be flying around the galaxy gathering resources instead? Well, if you think about it, it might be easier to rip a rift between adjoining dimensions than to develop fast-than-light capabilities. Maybe the rift was already there, or even weakened. Otherwise, I think they’ll be back. Even a thermo-nuclear device isn’t going to put a scratch on the kind of resources it would require to create and sustain the Kaiju. Back to Independence Day again, the scene where the explosion goes off in the alien’s face is almost the exact mirror of the nuke-the-mothership scene from Independence Day. Only now, it has four eyes.

Further assisting us is a pair of comedy-scientists that are competing to solve the Kaiju problem. One clearly representing Biology and the other repping Physics. Sort of. In the end, they learn to work together, Jaeger-style. Woot. (Aww, if the sciences cooperate, then everyone wins. It’s a good message.) The reason I bring this us is because the physicist discovers a pattern: a count-down (No, I’m not making another Independence Day reference). That count-down is leading to an unleashing of Kaiju like we’ve never seen before. The time between emergences has been shortening by a predictable factor. He uses that model to predict a double-emergence. Now, why does this make sense? Time-dilation, of a sorts. As the universes move closer together, the time it takes to travel between them, relative to each world, shortens. On this side, we see them coming out slowly. However, I have a feeling that on the alien’s side, they’ve been just pumping them in one after another. That’s why it takes them so long to adapt. They don’t realize that they need to re-adjust their tactics until they’ve sent a few through, because it’s happening immediately for them.

This also explains why the gate lets our hero through. On the human side, the gate may have been closing immediately, but, because of his direction of travel, the human side to the alien side, he arrives on the alien side, drops off the nuke, then comes back before it ever closed. Remember, the time between each emergence was shortening, suggesting that it’s now faster in this direction. So, that explains that.

The troubling thing is that if this is true, then there should still be Kaiju en-route, unless they were caught in the collapse of the rift, which seems likely. Also, and you won’t understand now what this means as a plot-hole, but eagles can lift some deer. You’ll understand.

Things move a bit fast, but that’s okay. We’re trying to tell an epic tale of robot smash-ups in a limited amount of time. The entire tale is actually quite expansive, and I’m thoroughly impressed with how they brought it across. The one thing I’m still divided on is the ending. Dude-buddy-pilot pops to the surface (with a wicked case of the Bends, I assume) and embraces his lady-love. Everything’s good! Saccharine and happy. I was kind of hoping a shark would eat him, because mundane threats still exist, but oh well.

On the one hand, I believe you should trust your audience enough to deliver them a sad ending. A dose of reality. On the other hand, I’m on-board for a happy ending. It would be a grievous shift of tone at best for our hero to just die at the end, especially after all the crap he went through. “Save the world and die” is a pretty anime thing. Sacrifice for the good of the whole is a decent message. However, if Halo has taught us anything, it’s that we don’t like our armoured heroes to stay down. And, if this movie showed us anything, it’s that you can still sacrifice a lot and live to tell the tale. It’s a nice fusion between the concepts.

So yeah, go see Pacific Rim. It’s a great film. I’ve heard it’s even alright in 3-D. You may come across some plot-holes or things in the movie you didn’t like that I didn’t cover here. I only wanted to go on so long. Just ignore them or make a game out of explaining them. Often-times, movies ask us to suspend our disbelief. To look past their flaws at the diamond underneath. I’m not always willing to; a movie has to earn that. It has to give me something worth looking past the crap to see. Well, Pacific Rim has my respect. It’s fantastic. Go see it.

One last question remains: what is a Jaeger’s feet made out of?!? Do you know how much impact it’s handling? It’s insane! Also, look for cameos from GLaDOS.

Addendum: In many areas, it’s also quite a clever film. It respects you enough to not have to explain every little detail of itself. Just another thing that makes it great.

World War Z: The Movie – One Goal, No Soul

Posted in All the Things, Movie Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 30, 2013 by trivialpunk

Alright, I wrote a really long pre-amble to this post, but then it went on a little too long, so I posted it as its own thing. So, for this one, we’re getting right down to business!

world_war_z-wide

If you want to see a zombie movie, then don’t go see World War Z. If you’re a fan of the book and want something equally as intelligent, then don’t go see World War Z. This is not the utter condemnation it sounds like. It’s a recognition of what World War Z is; in many ways, it’s not your traditional zombie movie. There are things it does right and things it does wrong. So, by now, you’re waiting for me to do my “I know it’s not horror, but it has zombies, so swiggity-swool, I think it’s cool,” but no, we’ve got to get right down to it. Right now. Now. …

Contemporary pop-culture wisdom states that zombie movies are not about zombies. You could replace the zombies with anything (flood, bandits, slow-moving, overly-aggressive girl-scouts), and it would still ring as a zombie movie. Zombie movies are, at their core, about the walls of society breaking down. That’s a bit trite, so let’s elaborate. They’re about the decisions people make when no decision looks good. They’re about selfishness, avarice, hope and courage. The outside world is hostile and bursting to get in, but you do everything you can to keep it out. Meanwhile, your society is rotting away from the inside. Think “The Divide.” That’s a zombie movie that includes absolutely no zombies. I’m not recommending that you watch it, because it’s incredibly depressing and so focused on delivering a message that it skips right over character depth. It explores interesting portions of the human psyche, but it does not explore gestalt humans. The complexity that the characters do have isn’t complemented by much. It’s just all bad, all the time. Even the light that manages to squeak through is yellowed with grime and fly corpses. Then again, terrifying situations do tend to focus your priorities a bit. I’m just not sure it’s as black and white as all that.

That’s the freedom that zombie movies give us. They let us take people to the edge and comment on what they find there. World War Z is a bit… unusual, in this respect. First of all (and SPOILERS, btw), it’s all about Brad Pitt flying around the world looking for a cure and appreciating different set-pieces. Its schizophrenic presentation is a bit reminiscent of Modern Warfare, which isn’t necessarily bad, and it’s helped by a fairly decent framing mechanism. The problem is that World War Z, the book, is told in vignettes. They’re small pieces of exposition, told within a larger short story, that combine together to form their own story. Making a movie out of this chaotic approach would be impossible, unless you went full-on mockumentary (truth be told, I wanted THAT movie, but…). They did the best they could. They wove in references and set-pieces fairly competently, even if the driving plot is a bit absurd. I mean, that’s a lot of resources to be spending on one man, especially one without the means to posit a solution.

Speaking of plots, they stripped out references to the Redeker Plan. I think it’s because it didn’t fit in to the world they were trying to create. If you’re familiar with the book, then you know that the Redeker Plan is the extremely pragmatic, controversial solution to the zombie apocalypse and that it was implemented during World War Z. Essentially, it talks about who to save, why, and how. Then, it talks about who should be sacrificed and why. It’s about the greater survival of the species, even if the survival of our humanity is a bit more questionable. The book was an indictment of popularity and policy. It was a harsh criticism and a noble celebration of our greatest endeavour: politics. You can laugh at that statement all you want, but working on the level of “society” is incredibly complicated. It’s like House on Haunted Hill with a room full of socio-paths, and the occasional psychopath. However, this approach would have been a little too dark for the movie we got.

The World War Z movie, as it stands, is about the hope and bravery inherent in the individuals working to make society run again. It’s about the small acts of kindness that can mean everything to someone. It’s about what we can accomplish when the world bands together. (If you’re familiar with the book, then it’s one of the two versions of The Hero City movie.) It’s incredibly saccharine, but that’s not a bad thing. I’ve got loads of movies about how people suck and only your best friends will help you kill a werewolf, but in the serious AAA world of adult zombitainment, I haven’t seen anything like World War Z in a while. Once in a moon, it’s nice to have someone rip off the cowl of cynicism and talk about how good people can be. When we approach the apocalypse, we often talk about how shit humans are going to be to each other. Maybe that’s true, but it’s nice to see a little something from the other side. (Maybe we won’t be the architects of our destruction. Maybe there are things larger than us) Yeah, it’s tragic and all, but it’s sparkled with so much bravery and magical realism that I can’t help but feel that the events of the movie are being held at arm’s length. It’s like I’m literally watching a baby eat his mother’s face, while she holds him close and smiles, and all I can think is, “Aww, wook at his wittle teef!”

So, that would be a bit detrimental to any oppressive atmosphere it could try and build, but there’s more than that. The movie goes about itself with a sense of camp that’s charming, despite being occasionally cringe-worthy. There was some brilliant advertising, as well, that pulled me out of it still more. For me, though, the zombies killed the feature more than anything. They don’t make sense within the book’s own universe, or ours. If you read my post on realism and its uses, then you’ll be familiar with this, but offering an explanation is always a huge risk. It’s extremely important that you do it right, because, otherwise, you risk breaking the covenant you made with your viewers. Let’s look at a small scene from the movie…

hqdefault

The Israeli wall scene. Visually, it’s quite striking. Even in the movie, this scene is pretty well executed. For those of you worried about CG zombies (like me), then be happy that they actually used it to do some good. They didn’t use CG because they were lazy (in terms of production costs, that doesn’t even make sense) or totally technophilic. They did it because scenes like this one would be impossible without CG. To put your mind at ease a bit more, they used practical special effects whenever they could. As you would expect from the budget and talent on the project, they did a great job. Most movie extras ever, I think? Any ways, the reason this pile doesn’t make sense, and another reason I don’t think this qualifies as a zombie movie, is because it’s not zombie behaviour. It’s hive behaviour. The zombie behaviour in this movie was modelled after locusts. It’s pretty cool watching the tides of humans race around like insects, but, zombies, they are not.

Each individual zombie, according to the canon I’m familiar with, is a unit onto itself. However, all zombies have exactly the same desires and response-patterns, so you’ll always get predictable, centralized behaviour. It’s kind of like how fan-site message boards work. For this scene to make sense, the zombies would have to all be drawn to one spot on the wall. Fair enough, but these zombies are climbing in a controlled fashion. Sure, maybe they’re following a single stream of least resistance, like water, but that’s not really very zombie. Zombies are stupid, mindless drones. These drones are quite intelligent. In fact, and I’m about the spoil the end of the movie, so be wary, they’re intelligent enough to surge, in a coordinated manner, around sick children, so that they don’t run into them. That’s right, zombies won’t bite terminally ill people, because that would weaken the strain. What terminally ill means here, and how the zombies know you’re terminally ill, is tactfully avoided. We’ll get back to that in a second…

Why is this important? It implies an awareness on the zombie’s part that doesn’t make a lot of sense. Water behaves in patterns because of the rules governing it. Locusts communicate and behave in tandem because of an awareness of their surroundings. Zombies, on the other hand, walk off the edges of buildings. This scene right here is problem solving. It’s an efficient path. So, that doesn’t make much sense. The zombies that surged around the crouching child, ostensibly, did so to avoid being slowed down or hurt by him. Earlier, I saw a zombie leap – catapult, really – through the air to catch a helicopter. Continuity would be nice.

That’s the risk we run when we explain ourselves. You have to, otherwise you’re not really saying much, but it’s a careful, treacherous undertaking. World War Z shows how tactful it can be by not getting into the specifics of how zombies sense the terminally ill or what terminally ill means. That would have been a clusterfuck, especially since the pretense didn’t make much sense to begin with. The zombie virus kills them. No heart-beat, no infection. That’s almost a direct quote from the movie. So… yeah… science and continuity aren’t the movie’s strongest points, but, in the post-apocalypse, at least zombies will be able to become part of the triage process.

These aren’t haphazard changes by lazy artists, though. The book was an epic tale about humans in the zombie apocalypse. It represented the looming dread of a coming menace and our inadequate ability to face it, initially. It’s about growing. It’s about keeping the outside at bay while your society rots from within. In short, it’s a zombie story on a global scale. The movie is NOT that. So, the rest of the movie had to change to reflect the differences in pace and scale. Fast zombies kept the action and the infection-spread intense. When you’re trying to explore a world as large as that of World War Z, there’s not a lot of time to wait at the gates for the zombies to surge in. In many ways, it’s difficult to imagine a slow-moving swarm taking out a city in the time it would take to read the book, let alone the world, in the span of the movie.

Let’s put ourselves in their shoes. You can’t make the movie about Redeker because of the tone you want to set, the themes you want to explore and the amount of time you have to express it. So, you have to find something new. It’s the beginning of a proposed trilogy, so you can’t solve the whole thing, either. However, you’re only making another one if there’s interest and you (blessedly) don’t want to leave anyone hanging, so you need something vaguely end-worthy. Medical research is an arduous process, and you want to depict it with some respect, so you don’t make Brad Pitt a researcher.  There would be no reason for him to be out in the field. They even kill off the crazy guy whose idea it was to find patient zero, like you could actually do that in the zombie apocalypse. Like it would actually matter in this case. His death is pretty silly, look for it. What do you do? You glom on to something that sounds sort of scientific and has a background that makes sense, even if it’s mechanically ridiculous. You don’t explain that, though. You just run with it.

And why not? We don’t berate Frankenstein for the weakness of the science in it. We don’t roll our eyes at Osmosis Jones too much. Yes, the movie was about science and relied on science for an explanation that didn’t make sense; and that’s grating, but let’s allow them some creative license.

It’s politically correct as butts. It’s saccharin, wholesome and scientifically inaccurate to a startling degree, but it’s a good movie. We can’t look at things and just judge them by the standards that we have. Sometimes, we have to create new standards with new labels to discuss them properly. Meet them half-way. I don’t have a new label for this, but I’ll reiterate one thing, World War Z is not a traditional zombie movie.

Addendum: …but that’s okay; it’s still awesome.