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Literary Fantasy

Oct. 1st, 2008 | 04:48 pm

[Note: this was written in response to a forum thread but, bizarrely enough, I actually have found that I like composing things in livejournal, so I'm just going to post this here since it is already here.]

It's hard to think of a more outwardly preposterous term than "literary fiction." Using a strictly literal definition of literary, literary fiction is the epitome of redundant. Literary fiction is fiction that is ... like literature? Of or relating to literature? It seems that, unless you invent some new definitions of literary (practically speaking, it usually just means "literature that is pretty good"), you're stuck with a genre of literature that says absolutely nothing about its subjects besides "here be books!" And what kind of person browsing the book store actually needs to be reminded where the books are?

Answer: this guy, right here - because sometimes it's hard to distinguish stories that just happen to be told with words with honest to goodness writing.

If all of this sounds snooty, then good, because I want to be snooty. All too often I pick up a book and am met with prose that is poor, mediocre, or merely passable - prose that may describe scenes and advance a plot, but that does so in such a workmanlike way that I wonder if the writer chose to write simply because it was the cheapest way to tell his story. While I have nothing against books that are merely good, I read because I'm looking for something great. I assume any fan of literature (or movies or music or anything else) is the same way: our hobby is, ultimately, a quest for greatness.

All of this has come to my attention because in my quest for great literature, I have embarked on a sidequest for great fantasy literature. And, apologies in advance to fans of fantasy fiction, but the realm of fantasy looks mighty barren to me. I am sure there are great fantasy books out there (a few, obviously, are already well known), but my quest so far has not been terribly fruitful. And this is because fantasy authors are not very literary.

Two questions might emerge at this point. Someone might first ask, "How is fantasy different than any other genre? Every genre has its fair share of mediocre prose, and only a small fraction of any genre will be truly great." And, hell, this may even be true. As a fan of fantasy myself, I hope that at the end of my quest, I will have discovered enough books that the entire genre may be redeemed in the eyes of even the harshest critics. From where I stand, though, fantasy lacks the kind of pillars of greatness that prop up so many other genres of fiction.

The second question to be asked is, "What the hell does 'literary' even mean?" And I'm so glad you asked, because while there is no common consensus on what it means, I want to propose a definition that I feel is actually meaningful while not straying from the word's origins.

Let me just throw it out there: fiction is literary when it is impossible to envision it in another medium without fundamentally altering the work itself.

There is a simple test you can do here: take any work of fiction, and try to imagine a direct film adaptation of it. Imagine if a director wanted to adapt a book page by page, sticking as close to the source material as possible. Imagine that this director has an unlimited budget and the film would be as long as it needed to be. Would the work of fiction survive the transition wholly - or nearly wholly - intact? Or would the fiction lose something in the process? If the fiction would not lose anything or would lose very little, then the fiction is not literary.

I will provide some examples to illustrate my point, and I will pick them from fantasy works I believe are literary because, as a fan of fantasy, I'd like to defend the genre. I should point out that these are not the only ways that fiction can be literary; these are only a few examples out of many.

"Suddenly the king cried to Snowmane and the horse sprang away. Behind him his banner blew in the wind, white horse upon a field of green, but he outpaced it. After him thundered the knights of his house, but he was ever before them. Éomer rode there, the white horsetail on his helm floating in his speed, and the front of the first éored roared like a breaker foaming to the shore, but Théoden could not be overtaken. Fey he seemed, or the battle-fury of his fathers ran like new fire in his veins, and he was borne up on Snowmane like a god of old, even as Oromë the Great in the battle of the Valar when the world was young."

This passage, which you probably recognize, is from Tolkien's The Return of the King. I start with this example because we actually have an excellent film adaptation to compare it to. (Here is the scene in question, if you are unfamiliar.) I do not mean to do disservice to either Tolkien's prose or Peter Jackson's adaptation, because both are excellent in their own right, but when you read the fiction first and then watch the movie, elements are clearly missing. Merely on a superficial level, we lose some metaphors, and we lose the references to Tolkien's own mythology.

Beyond the superficial, we lose Tolkien's sense of mythology in general. Tolkien's prose is perhaps impossible to literally envision. The prose suggests something grander, more epic, more legendary than any "real" event could be. You'll notice in Peter Jackson's adaptation that he takes some focus away from Théoden and instead gives more attention to the grandeur of the battle iself and the courage of the greater charging army, presumably because the prose, when directly adapted to the screen, would not be nearly as effective.

In a larger sense, Tolkien's style has a power by itself. His writing style - his word choice, his syntax - evokes the mythological traditions that came before. A film adaptation could evoke these same things, but not in the way that Tolkien does. Even small touches like the accents on Théoden and Éomer, reflections of Tolkien's linguistic interests, are lost in the transition to another medium.

The following passage comes from a scene in Mervyn Peake's Titus Groan. The character Fuchsia is exploring an attic inside of a vast castle.

"An infiltration of the morning's sun gave the various objects a certain vague structure but in no way dispelled the darkness. Here and there a thin beam of light threaded the warm brooding dusk and was filled with slowly moving motes like an attenuate firmament of stars revolving in grave order.

One of these narrow beams lit Fuchsia's forehead and shoulder, and another plucked a note of crimson from her dress. To her right was an enormous crumbling organ. Its pipes were broken and the keyboard shattered. Across its front the labour of a decade of grey spiders had woven their webs into a shawl of lace. It needed but the ghost of an infanta to arise from the dust to gather it about her head and shoulders as the most fabulous of all mantillas."

I picked this passage nearly at random, for Peake consistently writes in this overwrought, indulgent way. I do not say this negatively, since this indulgence is what makes the book so enjoyable. He does not shy away from adverbs and adjectives and he freely uses such elaborate imagery.

Peake uses the language itself to evoke a certain mood. The selection of these words means just as much as the definitions of the words themselves. Even though Titus Groan is barely a work of fantasy in conventional senses (it takes place in a fictional world, though it is still vaguely European and there are no supernatural or inhuman forces), the language alone makes it feel otherworldly. I can envision "an attenuate firmament of stars revolving in grave order," but the intensity of the language used takes me out of my reality.

Readers of Peake could probably imagine how a film adaptation might look, and it's such an imaginative work that I would really like to see one myself. But the expression of that imagination would be different on film than it is on paper. You would lose the literary indulgence and the joy of the language.

The following passage comes from Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell.

Strange told a man to fetch a sharp knife and a clean bandage. When the knife was brought he took off his coat and rolled up the sleeve of his shirt. Then he began muttering to himself in Latin. He next made a long, deep cut in his arm, and when the he had got a good strong spurt of blood, he let it splash over the heads of the corpses, taking care to anoint the eyes, tongue, and nostril of each. After a moment the first corpse roused itself. There was a horrible rasping sound as its dried-out lungs filled with air and its limb shook in a way that was very dreadful to behold. Then one by one the corpses revived and began to speak in a guttural language which contained a much higher proportion of screams than any language known to the onlookers.

Even Wellington looked a little pale. Only Strange continued apparently without emotion.

"Dear God!" cried Fitzroy Somerset. "What language is that?"

"I believe it is one of the dialects of Hell," said Strange.

"Is it indeed?" said Somerset. "Well, that is remarkable."

I chose this passage not for the uniqueness of its prose (there would be many better examples), but for the mood that it sets for the book. Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is an alternate-history/fantasy set at the turn of the 19th century in England, around the time of the Napoleonic wars. Clarke, strangely enough, consciously recalls the style of Jane Austen (going so far as to use archaic spellings for some words), juxtaposing the bizarre, folklore-y magic with an English glibness in both the narration and the dialogue, as you can see above. The result, in contrast with Peake's ponderous prose, is an easier but no less literary read, noteworthy for its wit and a fresh expression of fantasy.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is also noteworthy (and literary!) for its use of footnotes. Much as Tolkien provided thick appendices to The Lord of the Rings the explain the history of Middle-Earth, Clarke provides us with scholarly footnotes - citing fictional histories and textbooks of magic - to give us a broader picture of her magical England. These footnotes, of course, would be impossible in any other medium.

Hopefully, the above examples have provide some genre-specific illustrations of what it means to be literary, but I want to make it clear that my understanding of the term literary carries with it no positive or negative connotations, no matter how others commonly use the term. Peake's indulgent writing style could have just as easily turned out disastrously, and it would still be just as literary. Susanna Clarke could have padded her novel with long, boring footnotes that were a chore to read, and they would be just as literary.

So why, when I look for fantasy fiction, do I want to specifically read "literary fantasy?" Because there is nothing more boring than a writer who doesn't dare to challenge himself. If you're a writer, do things with your writing that you can only do with writing. If I could get the same or a better experience in movies or, dare I say it, even video games, then what I am reading for? Why should I waste my time with an author who doesn't seem to really enjoy being a writer all that much?

I am not suggesting that every author needs to be as indulgent as Peake or use devices like Clarke's footnotes - authors like Hemingway have shown that you can do a lot with very little, in fact - but do something. Language is your tool, and to use it plainly while sprinkling a simile on the page every now and then is the height of dullness.

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On Criticism

Sep. 15th, 2008 | 07:04 pm

Let us agree that all lists of movies are nonsense. I have steadfastly refused to compose any list of films except for my annual Best 10 list, and the Sight & Sound poll--which has, after all, some real significance. Despite the entreaties of countless editors, authors and websites, I decline to make lists of the best comedies, horror films, Christmas films, family films, Westerns, musicals, political films, silent films, films about dogs, and so on. That way madness lies.

-Roger Ebert

It must be depressing to be a professional critic of any sort. Their job - and a worthy job it is - is to possess a knowledge and insight on a subject that many of their readers possess only an amateur (if that) understanding of. They are employed, presumably, because they are intelligent, cogent, and deeply informed. The best critics can raise our consciousness in a way that few others can: their commentary helps us understand and appreciate worthy subjects that might have otherwise remained misunderstood or simply unnoticed. Consider the great works of art that might have passed us by were it not for the vocal advocacy of a select few. And the very best critics, with a few choice words, can alter everything we thought we understood about a subject.

The depressing part comes in when critics inevitably notice that nobody actually cares about words, even choice ones. People care about numbers. It really doesn't matter what the number is or what it means - as long as a number is visible somewhere, people will focus on it and ignore everything surrounding it. These numbers might take the form of a ranking (one to four stars for a movie), they might take the form of a list (the top ten whatevers), they might even take the form of something suspiciously alphabetical but still essentially numerical (a letter grade, for instance). Regardless of form, the number will always be presented prominently, a simple translation of the many words floating obnoxiously around it.

I do not think it needs to be said just how important people consider these numbers, but it may need to be said just how dire the situation is. I point, first and foremost, to the website Metacritic and its numerous sister sites such as Rotten Tomatoes and Game Rankings, though if you use the internet you are probably already well aware of these sites and have probably used them at least once. The premise is simple: these sites take a large number of reviews for, say, film, take the numerical rankings from these reviews, and then average them together, giving you something that is supposed to represent a critical consensus.

The mere existence of these sites, to say nothing of their immense popularity, is one of the most damning things to be said about professional critics today. Think about what the thought process must have been when Rotten Tomatoes was originally conceived. "Moviegoers need a way to bypass a pesky reviewer's actual review and arrive only at the movie's score. In fact, what if there was a way to bypass not only a reviewer's review, but even his score, so that instead of facing a number of numerical scores, moviegoers could be presented with one single score that represented all of criticism." These review-aggregate sites operate under the premise that any given individual reviewer is worthless. It does not matter what a reviewer said nor why he said it; all that matters is how the reviewer would rank a movie on a numerical scale, and even that number is not important by itself, only as a small variable in a large cultural equation. That these review-aggregate sites are so popular only adds insult to injury.

The problem does not stop there, though. Numbers-based criticism is prominent in another, much more sinister form, which I introduced above: the list. Unless you have not actually been conceived yet and are reading this through the haze of some extradimensional ether, you have encountered many, many of these lists in your lifetime. One need only glance at a website dedicated to popular culture to find them. The A.V. Club routinely features lists (or "inventories") at the top of their front page, and the seven most popular features currently at Pitchfork are all Top X lists (top 100 albums of the 1990s, top 50 bands of 2007, etc.).

List-based criticism is especially vapid for several reasons, the most important being that the vast majority of it is not in the least bit interesting. Currently, the A.V. Club features a list titled "19 child actors who went on to successful, respectable careers," which I think speaks for itself. (If you actually care about that and wish to indulge in some meaningless celebrity biography, then I apologize for tying you up here.) I hesitate to even call it "criticism," because it is made apparent when you read it that it's not, but I am not sure what else to call it when the A.V. Club is otherwise a site clearly dedicated to pop culture criticism.

Lists, especially Top X lists, suffer because they commit the writer to writing about things that are presupposed, not confirmed, to be interesting. Presumably the A.V. Club had the idea of listing child actors who went on to successful, respectable careers before they started writing that list, and I can only imagine most lists work the same way: writers think up a theme and try to find content to match. Unfortunately, it usually doesn't work that way. Interest doesn't generate content; content generates interest. No matter how intriguing the title of the list, if the title was written first, it will be evident in the shallowness of the content.

Lists are also dangerous because they dictate a single, confining, and arbitrary form for the writer. If a writer writes about ten albums and frames them as a "top ten" article, then he is forced to discuss them in a linear, competitive progression, even if there are many better ways to discuss those albums. I struggle to think of many situations, in fact, where the Top X format is ideal or even appropriate. "Which of these is better" is so rarely a relevant or productive question in criticism, yet is the precept behind all Top X lists. Readers' love of numbers, though, has forced the hand of many critics: either write list-based criticism or envy the lists of others that get all of the attention.

So what can critics do? The problem seems insurmountable. Review-aggregate websites are steadily obsoleting individual reviewers, and those that survive do so by appealing to the public's base number-grubbing. The solution, I think, is two-fold, one side addressed to the critics and one side to the readers.

To the critics: write better, write more. I'm sorry, but gone are the days where you were any sort of authority on anything by virtue of your position. No longer can you pump out a 200-word review of the latest film release and give little more than a brief appraisal. "Good acting, suspenseful plot; three stars!" isn't going to cut it anymore. Reviews like those are little more than thumbs-up/thumbs-down consumer advice, and if all you offer is consumer advice then you are worthless. You have already been subsumed into Metacritic. For all we care, you could punch some numbers into a machine every week and you would accomplish the same thing. Unless you can provide some kind of unique insight, unless you can offer something that I can't get somewhere else, then you can't offer anything. There is so much information at my fingertips that I have no need to read a generic review, especially when review-aggregate sites have created the Frankenstein's monster of generic reviewers: bigger, stronger, and faster than any mere human.

To the readers: you've won. There exist sites that boil an entire critical community down to a number. You literally do not have to read a single word if you don't want to. But I want to remind you that critics do more than generate a number. Critics do more than declare something good or bad. Critics are much, much more than cultural gatekeepers and dispensers of consumer advice, and Metacritic will never obsolete a critic's ability to help you understand and appreciate what you did not before, and there is not a single one of us who would not benefit from being more understanding and appreciative.

I invite everybody to read this journal post by Roger Ebert, because he outlines exactly why he is a great and terrible critic all at once. He freely admits the weaknesses in his star-rating system. He freely admits that he favors certain genres. He freely admits he has given movies scores higher than most people would agree with. He freely admits that he is swayed by his political sympathies, his personal sympathies, and his personal history with film. He freely admits that his reviews are intensely subjective, and he cannot envision them any other way.

I respect Roger Ebert a great deal, and I do not think any less of him for what he wrote above (I already knew or suspected most of it anyway), but to many people, yes, this makes him a terrible critic, because when all you look for is a simple yes-or-no-should-I-see-this-or-not review, Roger Ebert is not the man you want to talk to.

But if you want to understand film more, or appreciate film more, then I cannot think of anyone better. Ebert obviously knows much more about film than any of us, and he has demonstrated a sharp intellect time and time again (they don't just give Pulitzers away), but he is also remarkably honest, intellectually and emotionally. He will never say something unless he fully believes it, and his passion for film is evident in everything he writes. If I want to know whether to see a film, I will explore other avenues; if I want to know more about a film, if I want to hear from someone who will aid my understanding and appreciation of film, then I will turn to Ebert first, because I can trust him to give me some honest insight. He is not interested in being a robotic, "objective" critic, nor am I interested in hearing from such a robo-critic.

Ebert concludes his post above with the following:

I cringe when people say, "How could you give that movie four stars?" I reply, "What in my review did you disagree with?" Invariably, they're stuck for an answer ... If you disagree with what I write, be my guest. If you disagree with how many stars I gave it, you can mail your opinion to where the sun don't shine.

How many times in Ebert's career has he encountered this situation? How many people have picked fights over some numbers while ignoring what Ebert actually spent time and effort writing? In short, how many people have ignored what is important and focused on what is not?

Being a good critic may be an uphill battle. Any critic, no matter their success, has to battle people who misunderstand or don't even read the criticism in question. Even Ebert, who has been in the business for decades and is as accomplished a critic as one can hope to be, still struggles with this. It must be immensely frustrating to deal with people who have nothing more to say than "there's something wrong with your numbers."

These people will never go away, and - if anything - the internet has expanded their ranks. But they may diminish, and criticism may thank them in the end. The internet has exposed some of criticism's greatest faults, and it is my hope that critics will strive to fix them and readers will come to embrace the good and reject the bad. In the meantime, though, all we can do is emulate Ebert: remain honest, remain passionate, and keep the discussion going. Ebert is not a math professor; criticism is not an equation. We are not solving for X.

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A Game That Actually Matters

Aug. 10th, 2008 | 04:20 pm

In August 2007, BioShock was released. It's a year later, and almost as if the gaming industry is establishing a pattern, we have another high-concept title that threatens to revolutionize how we think of video games. It's called Braid, and the creators of Penny-Arcade (who, for better or for worse, are some of gaming culture's most prominent spokespeople) have already dubbed Braid "a game that actually matters."

As other games have shown us (particularly BioShock), the gaming and mainstream media are willing to shower praise on those games which stand out from the crowd. And some of the statements about Braid seem almost an echo of what we heard twelve months ago. Reviewers have said it is "beautiful," "inspiring," "reimagining the way we look at the medium." Braid, being only a small XBox Live Arcade release, has not yet attracted the attention that bigger titles get, but among gaming journalists, Braid is as significant a game as any other. And considering Braid is currently sitting at a pretty 92 on Metacritic, and is in the top ten highest rated Xbox 360 games period, it might not take long for Braid to garner attention from more mainstream outlets.

If you take one look at the game, it is easy to see why it's considered such an achievement. The game is, at its core, a puzzle game, where you must manipulate time itself to access puzzle pieces scattered throughout the levels. This is hardly the first game to use time travel as a game mechanic, but no game has been so thoroughly built around time-based puzzles. Braid only gives you three buttons - jump, rewind time, and an all-purpose "use" button - but each world has a unique mechanic that makes time work in different ways. In the first world, for instance, time works as you would normally expect, save for the fact that you are able to rewind it. In another world, however, time moves forwards or backwards depending on whether you move forwards or backwards. In another world, you have access to a ring that makes time progress more slowly within a certain radius. It is difficult to describe how these puzzles work in text, but it's fair to say that some of them are truly mind-bending.

Braid is no slouch beyond the gameplay either. The graphics are a self-described painterly style, and the soundtrack is composed of high quality, atmospheric instrumental songs, such as "Maenam" here. Jonathan Blow, the game's developer, also attempts something rarely seen in games: metaphor. The story of the game is told through a series of dense prose paragraphs read before each stage, which detail the protagonist Tim's attempt to find his long-lost "princess." I am still not sure how effective the game is as an elaborate metaphor, but I will say that the end sequence is one of the more memorable endings to a game I've ever seen. It's clever and affecting in a way that can only be experienced in a video game.

But I'm not here to simply recommend the game. You'll find no shortage of critics and gamers willing to do that. I'm here because it is not every day you hear such a simple, declarative claim as "Braid is a game that actually matters." In a medium still struggling to define itself, suggesting that a relatively low budget indie game matters is, to say the least, a pretty bold statement - so bold, in fact, we have to ask ourselves why we should listen to what Jerry Holkins (Penny Arcade's "Tycho") has to say at all. The answer, I suggest, is because Jerry Holkins is sort of right.

"The reality," he says, "is that we can create the kind of culture we want ... We can be the people who find and nurture truly original ideas when they emerge, or we can lament the sorry state of the medium." I certainly don't disagree with him here that we ought to be supportive of those fresh ideas that come bubbling out of the otherwise murky depths of Xbox Live, but he adds, "We can be consumers, or we can be curators." Here is where things start getting a little presumptuous, and I am again reminded of BioShock's release last year, and the flood of praise from critics striving for legitimacy.

Braid may wind up being a landmark game. Perhaps in August next year we will be able to say that Braid was definitively important. I do not say this lightly, as I do think highly of the game. But right now, less than a week since its release, before many people have had time to even react to it, before many who bought it have even completed it, we can't make such claims. Holkins wants to take the newborn game and frame it and insist upon its worth, instead of letting it speak for itself, which is ultimately what any important work does. I can't blame Holkins (and others who have been so ready with praise) for being enthusiastic about a great work, but I do think game critics would benefit from a little more patience and perspective.

So that is where I disagree with Holkins, but like I said, he was sort of right, because Braid, in at least one way, does matter - not for what it is, but for what it represents. Braid represents a style of game development that we got a taste of last year with Portal: compact, tightly developed games that can be experienced in only a few hours - maybe even all at once, as one continuous, complete event. The front page of Braid's website actually proudly advertises these facts. "There is no filler," it boasts. "Braid treats your time and attention as precious." In an interview with 1UP.com, Jonathan Blow explains that Braid "is not a JRPG where you play the same battle five thousand times and then you get one new monster to fight." His goal, in fact, was making the game "as short as it could possibly be while having all of the stuff that it has in it." After playing Braid and going back to more familiar games, it's hard to disagree with Blow's design. There are plenty of games that ask you to complete a series of tasks that are only superficially different: slay a dozen orcs here and all you get is the privilege of slaying a dozen functionally identical orcs somewhere else. The question, Blow would ask, is why should I spend my time with developers who don't respect it?

Blow, despite his noble game design, has run into some problems; and those problems, as usual, are the consumers. If you read the Penny Arcade comic linked in the first paragraph, you'll have gathered that the problem is that some gamers aren't willing to spend the fifteen dollars Braid costs. Some, in fact, have been rather outspoken. A Destructoid writer claims that Microsoft is "nickel-and-diming" loyal fans, and he is "sickened" by the fifteen dollar price point. The 1UP.com interview linked above actually specifically asks Jonathan Blow to respond to criticisms of the game's price. Bizarrely, were Braid priced at ten dollars, only five dollars less, almost nobody would have any problems.

It is a shame that there are those out there who consider fifteen dollars an unacceptable price for Braid. It is a shame that there are still gamers who consider a game's length and its value to be directional proportional, especially in the wake of the incredibly popular Portal. it is a shame that a game designer has to deal with such trivial criticism of a work that gives us so much else to talk about.

This is how Braid will matter: it will tell other developers whether Blow's game design works. Braid will tell other developers whether gamers at large are willing to play something new, unfamiliar, and - yes - short, or are instead content with the tedious gameplay that pads out so many longer games (most of which are sequels). Braid will tell developers whether Portal was a fluke or not, whether people are actually interested in playing something that can be completed in one or two sittings. And just imagine what sorts of games we'll see when developers aren't forced to think, "how can I make this last twenty hours?"

The success or failure of Braid will say something about video games. If it fails? It will join the ranks of countless other critical darlings that nonetheless flopped commercially. If it succeeds? It will help pave the way for new styles of game development.

I am not asking you to buy Braid out of a sense of duty, nor am I saying it is some sort of last vanguard of game design that will shape the future of the medium. I am not asking you to take sides as either consumers or curators. I am, however, asking you to consider whether Braid represents the sort of game design you want to support, because here you have a chance to not only support that game design, but a stellar example of it. And if you're still hemming and hawing over the price tag, then I'll direct you to back to Jerry Holkins: "You're mad about five dollars? What? Shove your five dollars up your stupid ass."
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Fun with a Purpose

May. 31st, 2008 | 09:36 pm

I watched Delta Farce. That's the movie starring Larry the Cable Guy. That's the movie known for being an irredeemable collection of crude slapstick, bodily function gags, and gay stereotypes. It has a 3% on Rotten Tomatoes.

Not only that, I own Delta Farce. I spent a whole five dollars on it. I saw it sitting on the discount rack at Blockbuster and, giddy with the heady power of consumer choice, I purchased it.

Having now seen it, I think I can say with only a slight amount of disingenuousness that it's one of the most provocative films I've seen this year. The film does not, of course, provide enlightening discourse or set forth any new ideas. It does not shake the foundations of cinema or provide probing insight into the human condition. It is by any reasonable standard a terrible film, and I would be surprised if anybody remembered the movie in ten years - even myself, and I'm writing a fucking essay about it.

The film is, however, almost disturbingly meaningless. It is Absurd. There is no point, from conception to final product, that this film was justified. It is an artistic, critical, and financial failure. It's only arguable worth is as a film that is "so bad it's good," but even that claim is dubious as bad comedy is far less tolerable than bad drama. And so, having lost five dollars and 90 minutes of my time, I was left with the nagging question: why? Why did I watch that? What did I gain? What did I lose?

This is hardly the first bad movie I've ever seen, or even watched on purpose. I've seen the classic Plan 9 from Outer Space. I've seen both Dungeons & Dragons movies. I've seen Spider-Man 3. Most people at some point sit down to watch a bad movie, if only to participate in the millennia-old tradition of heckling. And, in the past, I could buy that. That was the only excuse I needed whenever I felt like feeling superior to something else. But Delta Farce, for whatever reason, defied that justification. I did not walk away feeling better about myself. I walked away feeling strangely unsettled. I found myself unable to reconcile my Delta Farce experience.

It felt like a waste of time in the truest sense, and it raised the larger question: are all such movies wastes of time? When I walk out of a theatre after a one-star experience, can I say that I have learned anything? Did the movie have any sort of value? Am I a better person having seen that? Or was it a couple of hours that I will never get back - hours that would have been more productive doing anything else, hours that I will regret on my deathbed, cursing God and saying, "If only I had spent more time with my family instead of watching In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale!"

Such is the existential crisis Delta Farce inflicted upon me. All of a sudden I found myself trying to justify the intentional viewing of the worst movies I've ever seen, something which nobody ought to have to do. Such viewings should be little more than the temporary lapse of judgment and taste - a brief excursion into the heart and mind of an antigenius. You shouldn't have to justify this; it should just happen. Afterwards, you do not wonder why that movie exists or how it exists - it just does. You accept it and move on.

Unable to move on, however, I tried to rationalize why an otherwise rational being would purchase and watch Delta Farce. Three answers immediately came to mind.

The first answer: comedy. It is fun to make fun of a bad movie. For most people, this might be all of the justification they need. But does this really answer any questions? Why am I watching this instead of a real comedy? What unique experience does Delta Farce bring to the table?

The second: morbid curiosity. One sees a film like Delta Farce and the mind boggles. What is this film? Where did it come from? What in this film could possibly occupy ninety minutes? Much as a young child learns that fire is hot by unknowingly approaching an open flame, so too was I entranced by this DVD case.

The third: perspective. One can't understand a critical scale without experiencing the one-star movies in addition to the five-stars. This seems the most rational answer so far, but also insincere. This never entered my mind when I bought the movie; it never entered my mind while I was watching; and now, afterwards, I cannot truly say that Delta Farce provided any sort of meaningful perspective. I don't know any more about film than I did before. Arguably, I know less.

In addition to the above three items, there is still the possibility that there is no "rational" explanation for why I would watch Delta Farce. Perhaps this is a problem without a solution. Perhaps we have to accept Delta Farce as nothing more than a great cinematic injustice: shameful and inexplicable. Of course, this could arguably be the film's value: as a primer in nihilism.

Thankfully, I was allowed to reject nihilism for the time being and instead embrace an answer brought to me by Highlights for Children. For those unfamiliar, Highlights is an educational magazine designed for boys and girls, and is perhaps most notably the birthplace of Goofus & Gallant. In particular, though, Highlights had a recurring feature where the back cover would be a near copy of the front cover, but with a number of small adjustments. Elements of the front cover would be twisted or changed and readers were encouraged to spot the differences. It was a puzzle of sorts, designed to give bored youths something to do while sitting in the waiting room at the dentist.

More than anything, this is what Delta Farce and other such movies are to me: they are cruel parodies of film. It is as if someone took a normal movie and shifted everything, tweaking dialogue, recasting key characters. Like the back of a Highlights magazine, we are invited to identify what is different and what has gone wrong. You are not supposed to judge this movie on its own merits; rather, it is a test designed to see whether you know what a real movie looks like, to see how well you can remember all of the elements of film that have been so grossly misused.

Consider this scene from Delta Farce: Larry and his pals are trying to sleep in a military plane headed for Iraq, but are having difficultly falling asleep amongst all of the other soldiers. They make their way to the rear of the plane and all squeeze into a Humvee, which appears to suit their needs. However, a moment later, one of them farts, and Larry the Cable Guy exclaims, "Who farted?"

End scene.

It hardly needs to be said that fart jokes are very, very rarely funny, but beyond that there is even something more fundamentally wrong with this scene: there is no joke. "Who farted?" is not a punchline. In fact, it is so not a punchline that I was genuinely confused when the scene ended. I thought, "Hold on! Surely that scene didn't end there? Nobody had even made a joke! This purports to be a comedy, right?" Unfortunately, I was left to conclude that the writers had actually gotten to that point in their writing and stopped. It was as if they had taken a fart joke from some other, slightly superior film, and merely snipped a bit of dialogue.

There are moments like that throughout the film, and throughout many such films, if "films" they can be called. I prefer the term "challenge," as that is I how I feel: challenged. Challenged first to endure the entire film, and challenged by any given scene to find out exactly what went wrong. And like the back of a Highlights, there is not just one thing wrong, there are many; and the more you can identify, the better, because it really is like a test, and this is a test you really, really want to pass.

Not to belabor the Highlights comparison, but I should mention that the magazine's slogan - "Fun with a purpose" - fits here too. Let's not forget that these movies are fun, if unintentionally. I certainly don't want to suck what enjoyment someone can actually find out of Delta Farce. But it also has a purpose. It's good to sit down and watch one of these movies every now and then. Treat it like a pop quiz, something to keep you on your toes, to make sure that all of that Truffaut hasn't made you lazy.
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Grand Theft Auto IV

May. 11th, 2008 | 02:27 am

The alarm on my cell phone goes off, reminding me that my job interview is scheduled for noon. It's a little past 11:30 right now, and I'm nearly at the office. "Perfect timing," I think as I exit the car and make my way to the front doors. I look over my clothes to make sure I'm dressed for the part, and I do not disappoint - I'm wearing a dark suit and a blue tie, conventional but sharp. But as I approach the front door, as my hand is inches away from the handle, I realize that I'm missing something. I forgot to buy new shoes. I'm still wearing my beat-up brown moccasins.

"How could I forget the shoes!"

I pull out my cell phone. It's 11:45. I know there's a designer clothing store a few blocks away. I turn and I run down the street, ignoring other pedestrians and weaving through traffic when I need to cross the street - dangerous, of course, as there's a very real chance I could get blindsided and seriously hurt. But there's no way I can attend this interview wearing shabby footwear; this is important.

This is Grand Theft Auto IV.

Maybe you've heard of it.

Few games are so massively popular and undeniably influential as the GTA series. Grand Theft Auto III brought us a brand new style of sandbox gameplay that has informed practically every single game developed since October of 2001. It almost seems as if the free-roaming urban action game has become a genre of its own. Mafia, Crackdown, Saints Row, Spider-Man, Superman, The Hulk, Assassin's Creed - there is no shortage of games that are very clearly inspired by the design of Grand Theft Auto, if they aren't outright knock-offs. These days, the idea of having linear, level-based design is seen as quaint, and while it is sometimes difficult to pin down what influences what, I think we can safely say that GTA III was the driving force behind the explosion of sandbox-style design.

And so we have to ask: why is Grand Theft Auto still important? How do the Rockstar employees continue to distinguish themselves in the face of so many competitors occupying the exact same niche?

The answer: detail. Passionate detail.

Walking the streets of the new Liberty City, one can't help but marvel at the amount of effort that went into making every square inch of the city feel alive. There are no cookie-cutter streets, no generic alleyways. The city can appear dusty and dingy at noon or the concrete can shine in the moonlight during a thunderstorm. Two pedestrians never look alike, and it seems as if you can bump into them all day and hear a brand new response every time. The Euphoria engine adds an infinite amount of variety to character animations, and there seems to be no end to the amount of conversations you can have with the various characters you meet throughout the game. The game very frequently feels not like an action game, or a racing game, or a prostitute-murder simulator, but rather like The Sims or Animal Crossing, like a game that does not want to be a game, but a model of life. Even when you fail a mission and have to replay it, you're often treated to different dialogue during the course of the mission, to keep the experience fresh and to maintain that precious illusion.

GTA games have always had a soul that similar games lack, and in Grand Theft Auto IV we're seeing some of the most painstaking, loving game design we've seen in a very long time. It seems almost futile to try and elaborate on the sheer amount of content in the game, not only because there is so much but because it seems unfair to the player to spoil any of it; in the context of the game, it feels so natural, like there's actually a tiny bustling city inside your TV. When you enter the subway and actually read the subway maps on the wall to try and figure out how to get to your destination, it's easy to forget that you're sitting in front of a TV holding a controller. At the very least, credit must be given to Rockstar for creating, arguably, the most impressive city simulation we've ever seen.

But Rockstar never forgets that there's an actual game underneath all of that. They've listened to the criticism of their previous games and ironed out nearly all of the kinks. Little needs to be said about this, but again, Rockstar needs to be credited for actually listening to criticism of their previous games and giving us a new, much more satisfying combat system, in addition to many other positive changes.

The most positive change, however, does not come with the gameplay, but with the writing. The GTA writers, Dan Houser and Rupert Humphries, have moved far away from the ridiculous plot of San Andreas and have given us a smaller, quieter narrative with Niko Bellic, a numb, war-weary Eastern European who has come to America to make his fortune with his cousin Roman. The story, while sprawling and digressive (such is the nature of a nonlinear game), is nonetheless thematically focused, exploring crime, war, family, loyalty, the American Dream, and Niko's philosophy that "life is complicated." And while San Andreas's Carl Johnson was an inconsistent, sometimes-good-guy-sometimes-violent-thug, Niko is a more appropriate GTA hero - hard and violent, but with a sense of humor and enough sympathy left in him that he feels more nuanced than Vice City's sociopathic Tommy Vercetti.

The supporting cast is, as always, varied and colorful. While seemingly every other game, spurred on by the likes of Half-Life 2 and its progeny, is moving away from static cutscenes and more towards interactive storytelling, Grand Theft Auto IV reminds us that there's nothing wrong with sitting back and watching the work of fine writers, voice actors, and animators. Some of the characters are funny, others tragic; some are mean and corrupt, others are Niko's genuine friend (or lover). And in between cutscenes and missions, you can talk to these characters by calling them on your cell phone and meeting up for a round of drinks, a game of darts, and more - or they might call you. During the course of the game, I formed my own personal attachments to these characters, calling some just to hear their voice and hang out. I cannot think of another game I've ever played where I've honestly wondered what characters have been up to while I've been busy elsewhere.

The Grand Theft Auto games have, since GTA III, been big events in the world of gaming - not because we look forward to playing these games, but because we look forward to living them. Grand Theft Auto IV exemplifies the kind of immersion and escapism that, all too often, is used to deride video games. But Rockstar proves that crafting a truly immersive, truly escapist game requires real talent and real art. Any individual gamer can get lost in any game, but Rockstar manages time and time again to captivate millions, to set the bar only to raise it again, and Grand Theft Auto IV is no exception.

5 stars out of 5
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Speed Racer

May. 9th, 2008 | 11:32 pm

It's the year 1999. A movie called The Matrix is released, and all of a sudden the word "Wachowski" means something in Hollywood.

It's the year 2003. The Matrix Revolutions is released, and all of a sudden the word "Wachowski" means a whole lot less.

I won't attempt to figure out what went wrong after The Matrix. This review isn't the place to try and explain how the Wachowskis managed to take all of the good will they got from The Matrix and have it slip through their fingers with their next two films. But I think it is important to remember what made The Matrix such a hit nine years ago. I think it is important to remember that the Wachowskis were once known as the team that brought us a fresh, thoughtful Sci-Fi flick.

I think it is important to remember this because Speed Racer is the kind of film that's easy to write off as anything but fresh or thoughtful. It's easy to look at this film as a project driven by vanity, as the product of vapid nostalgia, as a simplistic, special effects-driven cash grab. But, as I said, let's remember that the Wachowski brothers' first big hit was none of the above, and let's look at Speed Racer as something deserving of critical attention.

Of course, this proposition might seem absurd when I'm talking about a movie based on a cartoon that was never known for its quality. I'm sure plenty of people saw the trailer for Speed Racer and thought it was outright laughable, or at most something that could hope to be mildly entertaining. And to hear a synopsis of the film's plot (Speed Racer fights to stop an evil corporation from destroying his family) would only reinforce these beliefs. And, hell, I'll throw out this quote from the movie's main villain just to show you how awful the movie's dialogue appears out of context:

"It has nothing to do with cars or drivers," the head of Royalton Industries tells Speed, during a long explanation of what racing is really about, "just the unassailable power of money!"

When I got to that section of the movie, where Royalton goes to excruciating lengths to explain just how singularly greedy and evil and cynical he is, I had to make a choice: how am I going to interpret this movie? Is it simplistic? Ironic? Indulgent? Just bad writing? Am I supposed to take this seriously? Is this supposed to be dramatic? Comedic? Do any of these interpretations excuse the writing?

The hyper-stylized special effects don't seem to help. We're constantly being assaulted with bright, vibrant colors and psychedelic effects. The Wachowskis never make any attempt at realism. At times they do establish a world with a bizarre yet consistent visual appearance, and other times they do not, throwing Speed Racer into a blender and hoping the audience can sort it out. I'm hardly the first person to point out that Speed Racer is one of the most visually inventive blockbusters we've ever seen, but I'll point it out anyway because the visuals do make it hard to get a grasp on what the film is really about.

There is one scene, though, that made the film click for me. Speed Racer is (of course) participating in a race, and he is nearing the finish line. He's overcome the worst obstacles on the track and though he is not yet in first, it is obvious he's going to overtake the remaining competitors. The camera cuts between Speed and the crowd, particularly Speed's family. Again, he has not yet won the race, but his family is shouting nonetheless. They are not sitting with bated breath; they are not biting their nails, waiting for the final confirmation of victory; they are cheering, screaming, unbelievably excited to be witnessing Speed on the track.

This, to me, is what Speed Racer is. It is not a film - it is a celebration. It is a celebration of action, of color, of style. It is a celebration of animation, of our childhood cartoons, of family, of sports, of that intangible and irrational joy we feel when an athlete accomplishes something great. It is a celebration of the kind of black-and-white morality we can only experience in fiction.

This movie is not ironic. It is not brainless kitsch. The Wachowskis understand what makes every item above appeal to us. When the villain acts villainous, we're supposed to revel in his villainy because, well, we love to hate villains. When the heroes act heroic, we're supposed to revel in their heroism because we love it when the good guys win. And the Wachowskis throw in solid action and enough complications to the plot to keep us interested.

The film isn't perfect. The drama's a little thin, the humor tends to fall flat, and with a runtime of 135 minutes, Speed Racer wears at times. But this is a film you're supposed to enjoy, and it's a film with a real heart. The Wachowskis aren't trying to trick you; they're not trying to sell merchandise. They're trying to share with you the things they enjoy.

4 stars out of 5
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Looking Back on BioShock

Apr. 24th, 2008 | 02:41 pm

Last year's critical darling BioShock reminded us of an important fact: the words in a video game do not come from nowhere. They have to be thought up and written down by a shy, reclusive creature known commonly as a "writer," and good writers can make all of the difference in the world. In BioShock's case, that writer was (mostly) Ken Levine, who showed us that maybe, just maybe, video games can express ideas more sophisticated than "you need the red key to open this door."

Levine wasn't the first person to show us this, of course, nor was BioShock the only writerly game released in 2007 - nor was it even the best. Portal, the unexpected show-stealer from The Orange Box and my personal pick, made similar waves, and along with the rest of the high-profile releases in late 2007, almost made us forget that BioShock had ever been released. And really, in the wake of games like Mass Effect, Mario Galaxy, Halo 3, Call of Duty 4, Phantom Hourglass, and the second episode of Half-Life 2 (I could go on), can you blame us?

BioShock still deserves credit, though, not only for being a great game but for showcasing the power video games have as a creative and intellectual medium. For the brief month between BioShock and Halo 3, gamers and the gaming media had some time to reflect on the state of video games. Was BioShock the future of games? Had we finally arrived at the point where a game with an actual intellectual spark could sell millions of copies and rival the mindless shooters and titty-filled action games? Had we finally moved past the Lara Crofts and Duke Nukems and arrived at the point where Ayn Rand allusions were par for the course?

We knew the answer, of course, and had known it for a while. The '90s saw plenty of games with smart writing (see the LucasArts adventures games, such as the Monkey Island series, for some early examples), and you can find examples even earlier than that; fans of text adventures will tell you that they've played some pretty mind-blowing stuff. And even if these games weren't selling millions of copies, we still knew that there were developers out there willing to string together a few good sentences. Computer RPGs Fallout and Planescape: Torment later provided exemplary writing and story telling, and both are still held up as hallmarks of literary gaming. (The introductory video to Fallout, despite the now-dated graphics, is nothing short of masterful.)

Unfortunately, gamers have seen too many games with quality writing flop. "Underrated" is a word that fans of anything love to throw around, and gamers are no exception. Ask them to name a game that deserved more attention, and you'll undoubtedly be met with titles loved for the high level of writing. Many games, whether well written or badly written, fail - most, in fact - but the most disappointing failures usually named are the ones with good writing. In fact, frequently these games are noteworthy for almost nothing but their writing, as the gameplay itself is either mediocre, average, or (at best) pretty good. Beyond Good and Evil, Psychonauts, Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines - there is no shortage of beloved games never getting off the ground. Even the above mentioned RPGs, Fallout and Torment, didn't sell that well.

So we came to 2007 and the question still lingered: when will a developer step up and prove to everybody else that video games mean business? Ken Levine seemed to be that developer and BioShock that game. Critics were unloading praise as if they had been saving it for such an occasion. One 1UP.com critic said: "By the time [BioShock] ends, you'll likely feel quite different about how you interact with games, and more importantly, how they interact with you." IGN said, "There is art here, despite what many would say isn't possible with games." One New York Times reviewer said, "Anchored by its provocative, morality-based story line, sumptuous art direction and superb voice acting, BioShock can also hold its head high among the best games ever made."

The consensus was clear: BioShock was a game to play, and gamers responded in huge numbers. The game has sold over two million copies, won a variety of end of the year awards, and sequels are now being developed.

Since the release of the game, though, responses to the game have cooled, and I think it is clear that we went a little overboard in our praise. The wealth of games released in late 2007 gave us some perspective, and BioShock's flaws have become more pronounced: story elements left unexplored or underdeveloped, gameplay shallower than it ought to be, and a final act that falls flat. These flaws did not go unnoticed at release, but, under Rapture's spell, we looked over them and focused on what BioShock did well - and the game did many things well. I do not mean to discount the gameplay, its atmosphere, the voice acting, the art direction, and least of all Levine's writing, which is still very good. (The opening section of BioShock is indeed one of the greatest sections in any video game.)

Am I calling BioShock overrated? I suppose I am. It's still an excellent game, but looking back, the reviews are hyperbolic and I am sure many of those writers would rescind some of their comments, or at least tone them down. Looking at the Metacritic page for BioShock, it is telling that the reviews most gushing with praise come from sites dedicated to video games, while the handful of non-gaming sites (The New York Times, The A.V. Club) are more reserved in their praise and more critical of the game's flaws. Gamers were ready to pounce on a game like BioShock, ready to laud a game that seemed smart and sophisticated, especially one with the potential to be as popular as BioShock ultimately proved to be.

BioShock, however, did not single handedly legitimize video games, nor do I think it will prove to be all that influential in the long run. (Especially since it drew so heavily from its predecessor, System Shock 2, and the far more important Half-Life 2.) But I don't blame the gaming media for being so generous with its praise, because I know, despite the ever growing popularity of video games, gamers are still looking for something to rally around. We are looking for a single game to point to and say, "This is why video games are worthy of your attention." BioShock is not that game, but as I said, BioShock deserves credit for showing that we're ready for such a game. BioShock showed that gamers are ready to take something seriously, to discuss something intelligently, and to look at a game as something more than a game.
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The Forbidden Kingdom

Apr. 18th, 2008 | 11:27 pm

I'll be honest here: I don't "get" martial arts movies. I appreciate a good ass-kicking as much as the next person, but martial art buffs nerd out in a way that I'll probably never relate to. So when people talk about the momentous, long-awaited union of Jet Li and Jackie Chan, two names familiar even to those that don't spend their time watching bootleg Hong Kong action flicks, it doesn't register that much with me. All I expect is that at least they'll know what they're doing.

Still, it's obvious that those two are the main draw of The Forbidden Kingdom. The posters for the movie and even the opening title emphasizes their roles, excluding, funnily enough, the main character. Because for some reason, despite the presence of two likeable, talented martial arts stars, the creators of this film decided that they wanted to center the story on Lame White Dude extraordinaire, Michael Angarano. If this name isn't familiar to you, don't be surprised. Just picture an off-brand Shia LaBeouf.

The film begins with L.W.D. Jason Tripitikas, an awkward, nerdy adolescent patronizing a bizarre local store run by a kindly old Chinese man that seems to specialize in priceless Chinese artifacts and martial arts films. And as you can tell, writer John Fusco wastes no time in hitting every stereotype he can. Even the character's name seems to come from the standard formula: common first name, funny last name. (cf. Shia LaBeouf's Sam Witwicky in last year's Transformers or, for another movie involving weird Chinese stores, Randall Peltzer in Gremlins.) Jason is later beset upon by bullies that might as well have been digitally inserted from another film, and is forced to help them break into the old man's place. Long story short, Jason finds an ancient staff and is magically transported back to prehistoric China.

If this sounds familiar, that's because it is, but thankfully "long story short" is a creed that the film adheres to as well. It takes mere minutes for the film to move past the perfunctory modern day scenes, and when we get to ancient China, Jason meets Lu Yan (Jackie Chan) almost immediately, who begins explaining the significance of the ancient staff almost immediately, and it's not long before Jet Li joins the gang as a monk. Oh, and a girl with deadly throwing darts and a musical inclination shows up too.

The plot of The Forbidden Kingdom is based on the Chinese myth of the Monkey King, who (here, at least) was turned into stone by an evil warlord who currently rules evilly over the land, and the Monkey King can only be restored by the power of the previously mentioned ancient staff. Lu Yan and his party spend the movie journeying to the fortress where the Monkey King is held, battling minions of the evil warlord and training Jason in the ways of kung fu along the way.

Let me get this out of the way: this movie is not written well. Characters don't really develop, the story progresses too quickly and clumsily, and viewers will be able to see plot developments and even specific lines coming a mile away. If I wasn't feeling particularly nice, it would be easy to dismiss this film as a thin excuse for Jackie Chan and Jet Li to hang out and kick each other.

But you know what, I am feeling nice, because this film doesn't really do anything to offend. Sure, the main character is lame (really lame), but Jackie Chan and Jet Li are pretty much impossible to hate. They may not be the greatest actors (though that's mostly due to their slight difficulties with English), but they're more than capable and both are affable guys who manage to get in a genuinely funny joke every now and then - Jackie Chan with his goofy, drunken master stylings, and Jet Li with a more reserved, but nonetheless engaging, energy. Plus, they spend a lot of their time berating the Lame White Dude, including one scene where they "train" him by beating the shit out of him in tandem.

And you don't need to be a martial arts fan to enjoy the fight scenes. The fights were choreographed by Yuen Woo-ping, one of the most famous and influential Chinese martial arts choreographers, and Jackie Chan and Jet Li are great, as you would expect. They're both getting on in years, but you would never know it from the moves they pull off. Because the movie has a strong fantasy bent, the fight scenes are a satisfying mix of intense, up-close fist exchanges and more elaborate scenes involving any number of weapons, props, and a magic power or two. And these fights take place in plenty of lush, outdoor environments or elaborate indoor sets which may not get points for historical accuracy, but they sure are fun to see busted up.

The Forbidden Kingdom is not a great movie. It's not really a good movie. If someone asked me whether they ought to see it this weekend, I would ask them what else they're considering. But if you happen to find yourself in the theatre as the lights dim and this movie is about to start and you're prepared to enjoy it for what it is, then you should have a pretty good time.

3 stars out of 5
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Shoot 'Em Up

Apr. 17th, 2008 | 06:22 pm

Probably the most positive thing I can say about Shoot 'Em Up is that it reminded me a lot of Children of Men. Both are violent stories centered on babies, and both star Clive Owen as an almost inexplicably heroic man who either shoots guns a whole lot or never so much as squeezes a trigger. (Try to guess in which film he does which.) Sometimes I allowed myself the brief pleasure of drifting off and imagining that I was back in 2006 experiencing Children of Men for the first time. I took some comfort in Clive Owen's familiar, stubbly chin; and if I squinted, his black trench coat in this film looked an awful lot like the outfit he wore in the other. But as yet another half-baked witticism dropped out of Owen's mouth after dispatching yet another faceless goon, I was forced to confront an awful reality that runs, fortunately, only 86 minutes.

Shoot 'Em Up is the kind of film that nobody expects much of. (Just look at the title: I'm not even sure that ought to be italicized.) People watch a movie like this because they want a serviceable action/comedy flick with some good shoutouts and snappy one-liners delivered by enjoyable actors. Action films are loaded with traditions and conventions to poke fun at, and it's obvious by now that we're never going to get tired of people getting blasted away. But as much as Shoot 'Em Up makes fun of action movie conventions, writer/director Michael Davis fails to realize that parody films have established conventions of their own, and he never escapes those.

Clive Owen plays Smith, who does what you expect a parodic action hero to do. He spends most of his time getting involved in elaborate fire fights where he's ridiculously outnumbered, but survives because bullets don't hit him (can't, really). When he's not facing incredible odds, he runs around in an all-purpose dingy city trying to uncover why hitmen (and plenty of them) are after a newborn baby he managed to rescue before the mother was murdered. Monica Bellucci plays a prostitute whose only real jobs are to have sex with Smith and hold the baby when the hero needs to shoot someone. Paul Giamatti, in his best impression of an evil villain, attempts to hunt them down while doing everything you expect an evil villain to do. ("And let that be a reminder never to fail me again," he says after shooting a henchman who failed to capture Smith.)

The movie is not an overt parody in the same way that, say, Zucker brothers movies are. Instead, Davis plays the film relatively straight (though still over-the-top), and his strategy seems to be "be aggressively generic." Smith is the ultimate paint-by-numbers action hero, with his rugged good looks, his trench coat, and his stoicism. Even his name suggests that he's nobody in particular, and the movie emphasizes that we never know where he comes from. (Smith isn't even his real name.) It seems Davis hoped that audiences would find pleasure in merely recognizing what is being parodied ("Aha! A generic action hero!"), but that sort of parody is the laziest and weakest.

Davis also relies on action set pieces and mild humor to carry the film. The set pieces are the best parts of the film, though it's hard to be impressed by Smith's gun-fu when he's indestructable and might as well be playing a bloody version of whack-a-mole. The movie is most entertaining during some of its most preposterous fights, but they're so transparently choreographed that it's hard to find them all that satisfying. These scenes often end on a down note as well as Davis forces in a lame joke. (They're about as funny as you'd expect from the guy who brought us the Double Dragon movie.)

2007 brought us another action/comedy movie, Hot Fuzz, and the comparison does Shoot 'Em Up no favors. Simon Pegg and Edgar wright showed us with Hot Fuzz that it's possible to create a smart, funny parody that works both as a comedy and as an action film. Shoot 'Em Up definitely does not work as a comedy, and the action is middling with occasional bouts of "okay, that's kind of cool." Parody has never been a genre known for groundbreaking cinema, and even some of the classics wear with age (Airplane! will probably never be as funny as it was when I was fifteen), but the best parodies display a fondness for the subjects they lampoon. Hot Fuzz got that right; Shoot 'Em Up has no such heart.

1.5 out of 5 stars
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Apr. 13th, 2008 | 10:14 pm

I'm coming in late to this one. Amelie was released in 2001, and though it is seven years later and the film has since met with plenty of warm reviews, I didn't really know all that much about it. I did not know the plot; I did not know whether it was a drama or a comedy (though I had gotten the impression that it was a light hearted flick); all I knew was the name, that Amelie was a movie to see.

That, and I knew Audrey Tautou, who plays the lead role, was supposed to charm the socks off me.

She does, of course. Is anybody surprised? Film has a long, proud history of pretty actresses with short, dark hair who have made a career out of their ability to be as gosh-darned likeable as possible. (Well, and their acting talent.) Tautou recalls that other Audrey at times when her hair is arranged in a certain way, and I couldn't help but think of Shirley MacClaine. But I do not want to dwell on that tradition: the similarities are superficial, and Tautou quickly establishes herself as her own actress, and Amelie as her own character.

Amelie is the kind of fantasy real-world romp that, perhaps, we've gotten used to by now. The movie begins with a story book narration of Amelie's childhood, where we're introduced to a load of characters defined largely by their quirks. Amelie's father is distant and unsocial, Amelie's mother is a neurotic homeschooling mother who dies in a freak accident, and Amelie is the homeschooled daughter with a hyperactive imagination. Flash forward a few years, and Amelie is out on her own working as a waitress, though she doesn't have any real friends and seems to have inherited some of the unsocial tendencies of her father.

Everything changes forever (the narrator insists) when Amelie uncovers a box hidden away in her apartment from half a century ago. The box contains relics from some young boy's distant childhood, and Amelie vows to return the box to its owner. She does, though she never reveals herself to the now-middle-aged man - she only witnesses the happiness that it brings him. Amelie then decides her mission in life is to bring happiness (usually covertly) to those around her. She runs into trouble, however, when she falls in love with a man named Nino whose main hobby is collecting and piecing together scraps of photos left around instant photo booths. We find that Amelie is too shy to approach Nino directly, and instead leads him through an elaborate series of notes and false rendezvous.

The plot is almost immaterial. There is nothing serious happening. There is nothing at stake. The most "serious" elements come from Amelie's difficulties pursuing Nino, and even those she causes for herself, and we never once get the impression that their meeting is anything but inevitable. We watch Amelie, essentially, play around, and the director Jean-Pierre Jeunet matches that playfulness. The supporting cast is colorful, the settings are vibrant, the fourth wall is broken from time to time, and sound and special effects are used freely to reinforce (usually cleverly) the mood of a scene. (At one point, Amelie literally melts into a puddle of water.)

"Whimsical" is a word that, in the wake of directors like Michel Gondry and Wes Anderson, has become something of a catchphrase, but it describes Amelie perfectly. (And since Amelie was released before the bulk of these other directors' work, I don't feel bad about using it.) It's clear that this film was written from the ground up to be fun. I have a hard time imagining the kind of person who wouldn't enjoy this movie at least a little bit, if only because, like I said, Tautou is so gosh-darned likeable and Jeunet is working hard to make the film look and sound wonderful. I might not find much substance in a scene where Amelie skips rocks on the water, but I won't say I didn't like watching it.

The film's greatest problem, however, is that lack of substance. Whenever the film attempts any sort of drama, it's not especially compelling. Whenever the film asserts any sort of meaning, it's not especially meaningful. Amelie spends two hours splashing around in the shallow end of the pool, and in the film's defense, we have a good time down there. But there's not much to take away from the film, and I wish that we could have dipped our toes in the deep end a few times.

3.5 out of 5 stars
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