The world of The Hunger Games - the thing that is so often pointed to as being its defining feature, its raison d’etre in the face of a thousand or more YA “soft” stories - is a liability. That’s perhaps not a popular opinion, but it’s one that I happen to have, and one that was only intensified in the face of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (as daft a name for a film as there ever was, though how could we possibly know that something is a sequel without a colon?).
The reason I bring this up is because in pretty much every other conceivable way, this is a massive improvement over the original Hunger Games film. Every actor - even the reliable ones, like Jennifer Lawrence and Stanley Tucci - has found a way to build upon the foundations set by their performances in the first film, even poor little Josh Hutcherson, whose blandness very nearly sunk the first film. The direction, despite not featuring in any way a more accomplished or talented director than Gary Ross, has still found a way to get better through Francis Lawrence (of Constantine “fame”). It’s still, essentially, hackwork, but it’s hackwork done with a minimum of fuss and, more importantly, with a minimum of eye-shattering handheld camera.
None of this is to say that Catching Fire is all of a sudden some kind of essential cinema. It still feels too much like a bulletpoint list of events happen, rather than a story being told organically and flowing outwards like, oh, any film not adapted from a series of highly popular young adult novels (remember THOSE days?). The first hour of Catching Fire in particular is a lumpy, almost misbegotten affair. I appreciate the idea behind Michael Arndt’s and Simon Beaufoy’s script of essentially dropping the audience back into the thick of things, but then we spend an hour or so watching Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) touring the countryside, seeing the various districts, subtly kickstarting the Panem revolution, and sowing the seeds for future developments. That doesn’t sound so bad when it’s written like that, but the pacing just feels off, like the movie is blasting through huge swathes of the novel but not generating a consistent momentum of its own at the same time.
Thankfully, the film upgrades in another key way, trading Wes Bentley and his ridiculous facial hair for a particularly brilliant performance from Philip Seymour Hoffman as the new Gamesmaster. Nobody does barely-concealed hostility better than Hoffman, and while his character is really at the service of the plot, Hoffman is able to imbue his character with so much raw awesomeness that it’s not even fair to the rest of the actors.
In a lot of ways, plot structure-wise, Catching Fire almost feels like a bit of do-over for the Hunger Games film franchise. Nowhere is that more evident than in the long stretch that makes up the back half of the film, neatly inverting the conventional wisdom of the first film: the Panem stuff kind of sucks in this one, but the new Hunger Games (featuring alumni from previous Hunger Games) are easily the most entertaining part of the film. Part of this is due, again, to the improved casting: by introducing older characters into the Hunger Games (and having them played by Jeffrey Wright and Jena Malone, among others), the threat to the main characters feels a lot more heightened and real, and the film doesn’t have to grind up against its mandatory PG-13 rating so noticeably. Mostly, though, it succeeds because the film is just so much more assured with these scenes than they were in The Hunger Games. Lawrence makes everything clear, propulsive and occasionally beautiful, and the new design of the Hunger Games arena - a gigantic spiral with different events that occur at different times - feels like a great, grand movie invention of the highest order.
So on the level of being just a fine, entertaining film product, Catching Fire really is a success. Despite my issues with the pacing of the film, and not feeling so certain about the success of the film’s ending (it’s either a bold or a daft move to tell and not show in this case), the film does trot fairly well along. It’s only ion those moments where you stop to think about what any of this actually means that Catching Fire - and indeed, the entirety of the Hunger Games trilogy - begins to fall apart.
The Hunger Games is given a place of privilege amongst similar-seeming YA novels for its daring, its willingness to be seen as a political object rather than “just a story for kids.” Yet the books, and by extension the films, seemingly have no basis with which to genuinely engage with the systems they seem to be decrying. The idea of Panem or of the kind of outright dictatorship that President Snow’s administration seems to represent have little to do with our current political reality, nor with any sort of future political reality in North America. With politicians able to pretty well manage and control the entire population through much more subtle means than “annual child culling,” why would America ever need to turn away from what is currently working?
Moreover, the entire point of the “Victory Tour” that makes up the first half of Catching Fire seems to be that winning the Hunger Games and doing a feel-good tour of the countryside is a thinly-veiled attempt to mollify the citizens of Panem, to keep them in their naive and pliable state. But by constructing a world so flagrantly different from our own reality - replete with French courtesan-inspired signifiers for ungodly wealth, and an over-the-top dictatorship that would make Robert Mugabe weep with pride - and then stocking that world full of pretty, (and in the case especially with Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth) unthreatening people, and then passing that off as mass-consumption entertainment, doesn’t the Hunger Games kind of do exactly what it’s criticizing? Creating a mass entertainment that redirects anger from its actual sources?
So despite every way in which Catching Fire is superior entertainment to its forebear, it still has the same essential problem: it’s just not dangerous or transgressive enough. That wouldn’t be a problem for most films, but when a film invites that sort of investigation, that’s death for that film’s ability to be treated as anything meaningful. Maybe Catching Fire, then, is dangerous - just not in the way it should be.
Discussing a sports game as a unit of art worthy of critical appraisal can be difficult, given just how thoroughly most sports games wish to be seen as a completely different entity from the video games around them. There’s really not that much separating a sports game from a Mario game, for instance: both are all about the experimentation with mechanics, at the expense of a particularly coherent narrative. But sports games, and football games in particular, aim to be something else. These aren’t just mere playthings: these are simulations.
Second perhaps only to JRPGs, sports games have suffered the most in the inexorable march towards total graphical and mechanical “realism” in video gaming. The Madden series, for instance, releases every year, and theoretically gets the chance to recharge and to come up with ever-better mechanics. Instead, because the developers are beholden to the behemoth that is EA, a completely new title releases every year. Rather than simply updating the roster and maintaining mechanics that are proven, there are constant additions to the mechanical formula, creating games that might become incrementally more similar to the real-life sport that inspires it, while also becoming a nigh-unplayable mess. Worse, Madden and its modern sports game ilk forget to be compelling video games in their own right, making endless tutorials and the kind of practicing reserved for - well, for real sports if we’re being honest - a necessary component of their design.
That’s why it’s so refreshing to go back to sports games of an earlier era. In very nearly every case, a particular sport’s game topped out several generations ago: baseball did it with Bases Loaded (or Ken Griffey Jr. if you swing that way), hockey did it with the best sports game of all time, NHL ‘94, and in my opinion, football on a gaming console has never been better than in the Tecmo Bowl series on the NES.
If you’re looking for strict realism, this isn’t the place to go. Not just because the game is rendered entirely using barely-animated, tiny (and hella charming) sprites, but because this is an arcade-style game through and through. Offense is a matter of choosing between four plays. Defense is a matter of guessing what the other team is going to do, and then trying to cover a single player that might have broken free from your coverage. Interceptions and blocked field goals and points after are the norm, not the exception. There are no penalties. Quarters last for a minute and a half. And certain players can break tackles with ease.
It’s about the furthest thing from simulation. And yet, in the abstract, Tecmo Bowl captures the essence of football better than almost any Madden game. The feeling of football - the elation at a perfectly-pulled-off defensive stratagem, the despair engendered by a broken play, the emotional roller coaster of a back-and-forth struggle - all of these things are more accurately brought to life in Tecmo Bowl than almost any other football game I can think of.
And like so many of the best video games, Tecmo Bowl benefits from mechanical simplicity. With just two buttons and four directions, you’re able to make magic happen on the field, and it never feels less than perfect in your hand. As well, the AI of the computer, while slightly cheat-y feeling, is surprisingly nuanced for a sports game in 1989, and when Tecmo Bowl is played against other real-life human beings, it becomes quite simply one of the best multiplayer games on the NES.
Football is such a satisfying sport to watch, simply because it feeds into a desire for perfect execution. It’s not all about reaction - it’s about plans. That aspect of the game can be taken care of with the kind of small mechanics that defined the NES era, and Tecmo Bowl proves it. Maybe there are “better” representations of football out there, but I doubt there are any that are as good at being great video games at the same time.
Cripes, what a mess. When I watched all of Buffy, there were more than a few rough stretches - Willow getting “addicted” to “the magics;” anything involving The Potentials; “Beer Bad” - but somehow I was able to shrug that off and just keep rolling ahead. Buffy's failures somehow seemed like mere misjudgments, or something that worked in theory but didn't quite work out in practice.
In practice, in theory, whatever: Angel's fourth season pretty much just doesn't work at all. It's marginally better than the concurrently-running seventh season of Buffy (that’s a low bar to clear), but given the fact that it squanders so much of the good work that had been done with its characters in season 3, it feels like so much more of a slog. Angel's supposed to be better than this, man!
For how awesome and wonderfully dramatic the third season’s finale was, it did undoubtedly leave the Angel writing team in a bit of a tough spot. (Spoilers follow, obviously.) With Angel sunk to the bottom of the ocean to live out his days in complete isolation forever, and with Cordelia having ascended to a “higher plane,” and with Wesley broken and bitter and cut off from the Angel group, and with Connor reveling in his snotty shittiness… that’s a lot of spinning plates that aren’t necessarily overly filmable, and we haven’t even talked about the rest of this now decidedly over-large ensemble yet.
Like the second season, but with little of that season’s playfulness or goofiness, the fourth season suffers from a surfeit of arcs that don’t connect together or make for a coherent season of television. There’s the “Angel is pissed at Connor and Wesley is pissed at everyone and Cordelia’s hanging out, being all spectral and barely contributing to the plot” arc, which is dissatisfying. There’s the “an indefatigable hell-beast named, coincidentally, The Beast, rains fire and destruction down on Los Angeles, essentially rendering it a post-apocalyptic wasteland, except, whoops! We don’t actually have the budget to show that and conveniently forget about it later” arc, which is really just poor storytelling. We have the incredible ick factor of Cordelia, freshly (and essentially unexplained) returned from her time as an angel-type-deal shacking up with Connor (I mean, their ages on the show aren’t so different, but Charisma Carpenter was like fifteen years older than Vincent Kartheiser in real life, and besides, Mad Men has effectively killed all possible affections for characters that Kartheiser plays) and getting pregnant…
Wait, let’s get this out of the way. Having seen Charisma Carpenter speak to a crowd of people at a comic expo and having read interviews and reviews from the time, there’s I guess a real possibility that season 4 wouldn’t have been so terrible if she hadn’t gotten pregnant, supposedly killing off the grand plan that Whedon and Co. had at the last minute. Angel's fourth season is apparently the ad hoc solution to Carpenter's pregnancy - at first, hiding it (the picture up above is a rather common one in the season, as she's usually filmed from the chest up), and then making it a plot point.
And good Christ almighty, the “Cordelia gets pregnant with the ultimate evil” (and hey, conveniently forget about the other ultimate evil who apparently kickstarted an apocalypse a few episodes earlier, dear viewer) while also having Cordelia apparently be that ultimate evil in some way just flat out sucks. For one, it reeks of misogyny in a really uncomfortable way, punishing the actor for having the temerity to get pregnant. As well, it gives Charisma Carpenter approximately nothing interesting to do as an actor - whether the failings are in the writing or the acting, it’s hard to tell, but the flat, affect-less line readings given by her kill all sense of danger that we’re supposed to feel. Plus, the Angel team had returned to the “ultimate evil resides in a womb” well a few too many times by this point, and the series of episodes that chronicle Cordelia’s pregnancy are just straight-up hard to watch, to the point that it took me literal months just to get through this season.
Add to all of that some major issues with Connor’s character, with Wesley engaging in that old Buffy standby - hate sex with a sworn enemy (although it must be said that Alexis Denisof deserves some serious credit here for not totally torpedoing Wesley’s character throughout all of this) - and the season having even less for three of the show’s most delightful characters - Fred, Gunn and Lorne - and season 4, despite its baked-in charms (including a pretty great season of acting for David Boreanaz) is just difficult to wade through.
Having said all of that, though, the season does pick up speed and build towards something resembling an interesting theme (themes being not nearly of the same importance on Angel as they are on Buffy, outside of the “redemption” bit that kind of got dropped by about the end of season 2) with the shluffing-off of Cordelia to “convenient television coma land” and the introduction of, finally, a convincing villain in the form of the recently-released-from-Firefly Gina Torres, as Jasmine. Jasmine, like Nathan Fillion’s Caleb character on Buffy, comes perhaps a smidge too late to make a real difference (and boy, do those two characters ever prove that Whedon was far too wrapped up in Firefly to serve as a competent showrunner for three concurrently-running shows), but her presence brings a new edge to the show.
Jasmine’s schtick is that she is some sort of God who doesn’t want to bring about total destruction - she wants control of humanity’s minds, in a relatively-scathing look at the pernicious influence of religion. I mean, barring the fact that Jasmine was apparently the evil born out of Cordelia, this all comes way the fuck out of nowhere given the shape of the season as a whole, but it at least finally provides a satisfying arc that utilizes the strengths of this stable of characters.
Credit where credit’s due, as well: the season finale, while not necessarily great television on its own merits, does a great deal to undo a lot of this by essentially sacrificing every poor element of the season in the service of setting up season 5’s unmitigated brilliance. With Angel and Crew being given the keys to Wolfram and Hart, Shitty Cordelia (I refuse to believe that season 4 Cordelia could possibly be even tangentially related to the Awesome Cordelia of season 3) stuck apparently in a permanent coma, and Connor living a stereotypically fabulous suburban life with the aid of a mind wipe, Angel put itself, somewhat baldly (though obviously SOMETHING had to be done), in a good place for its future.
That kind of corrective approach must have been awfully refreshing for people who stuck with the show as it aired; but taken as a single unit of artistic product, and with the benefit of hindsight, season 4 is easily the nadir of Angel's run.
Escape Plan is desperate, crude, ridiculous, daft; it’s also some of the most fun I’ve had in a theater this year, largely because of those qualities. This is a delirious fever dream of a movie for anybody who grew up in the late 80s/early 90s. I mean, Christ, it’s Stallone AND Schwarzenegger!
Even with those two names headlining the film, it’s really no surprise why Escape Plan died an ignominious death at the cinemas. Despite the not-inconsiderable marketing push behind the film, nothing can be done to hide the fact that these two stars’ opinions of themselves and their importance to modern cinema is considerably greater than the public’s. A team up of Stallone and Schwarzenegger in their prime (especially around the time when Schwarzenegger was the biggest star on the planet, working with directors like James Cameron and Paul Verhoeven in some of their best films) would have quite possibly literally blown people’s minds; now, it can’t help but feel like a sort of offshoot of the Expendables brand, where the quality of the actors involved doesn’t matter so much as the fact that there are SO MANY of them.
It also doesn’t help that Escape Plan looks like absolute dogshit, especially in the trailers. The director, Michael Hafstrom, of 1408 “fame,” brings his usual level of bland competence to the material, and as always with these two actors (especially in their later “celebrations of mindless ’80s action, which was really only a Stallone thing), attempts to bring back a particular brand of testosterone fueled macho posturing crossed with guns-a’blazin’ action sequences (which, not incidentally, feel just a little bit sad given the ages of these actors) can’t help but feel woefully out of step with current sensibilities.
And yet… maybe that’s the secret ingredient that Escape Plan has. Yes, this does feature two of the most prominent action stars in history, but it also feels like a weird dispatch from the grimy direct-to-VHS action stable that kept people like Jean Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal employed well into their later lives. Those sorts of films are never great, sure, but they can be a lot of fun in their downtrodden glory. And as opposed to the aforementioned Expendables series, Escape Plan is pulled off with only a bare minimum of winking in-jokes and barely concealed nostalgia. It may be the kind of movie that could have been pulled off with basically any actors over the age of 25, but damned if having Schwarzenegger (especially) mumble his way through cheesy dialogue isn’t exactly the thing that action movies need right now: a simple pleasure amidst an endless parade of spectacle and grim chaos (I mean, I’m sure that with a cavalcade of Escape Plan knockoffs, I’d get tired of the “white male power fantasy” as movie template, but it seems oddly quaint here. DON’T JUDGE ME). Escape Plan keeps its action low-key, its premise simple, and its aims rather low, and it’s incredibly refreshing and actually enjoyable because of it. Would I rather watch Escape Plan two or three more times than ever see Man of Steel, for instance, ever again? Obviously.
Part of the charm of the film is seeing just how far the writing can stretch the credulity of the casting. Stallone plays Ray Breslin, a “supergenius” (who apparently has only the most cursory handle on, you know, articulation) who is hired by prisons to break out of them, in the process exposing the prison’s flaws (in a film full of plot holes, this one is minor, but: if it requires the kind of planning and intricate knowledge of a prison to break out of one as Ray does, don’t you think the prisoner either: a) wouldn’t get caught in the first place, or b) just deserves at that point to get out?). He’s joined on his team of ill-defined sidekicks by 50 Cent as a “techno-thug” (with Messrs. Cent, Stallone and Schwarzenegger, this is the most mush-mouthed movie in history by a country mile), the woman who plays Holly on The Office as, I don’t know, a love interest or something, and Vincent D’Onofrio as a hand sanitizer-abusing weirdo who is Ray’s business partner.
After a theoretically-nifty prison escape that is designed to demonstrate Ray’s methods to the audiences (theoretically only because Hafstrom illustrates it in a remarkably tedious and pace-killing way), Ray and Co. are contacted by the CIA to test out a new, hyper-secure prison that was designed according to Breslin’s theories. The only catch is that to truly test it out, there can be no contact between Ray and his team (thereby also severing their dramatic purpose from the core of the film), and he can’t know where the prison is. With millions of dollars on the line, Ray agrees - and is subsequently knocked unconscious on the way to the prison.
Upon arrival, Ray finds himself locked up in a glass box, overseen by the OTHER weirdo villain, the prison warden played by Jim Caviezel (this movie has uses only for two types of acting - the barely competent style of our heroes, and the misplaced, irritatingly show-off-y “tics make a character” style of D’Onofrio and Caviezel), and it becomes clear that the prison is not what it seems - off the grid and run by Blackwater rejects, Ray has been set up and sent there for good. It’s only through the help of Schwarzenegger (who has a character name, but who gives a shit?) that Ray has a chance of creating AN ESCAPE PLAN.
One could never say that Stallone or Schwarzenegger are great actors, but man, can they hold an audience’s attention on screen. Schwarzenegger gets a chance to just be straight-up funny in this movie, and not always unintentionally. Stallone proves himself capable of, if not selling his character, at least giving us somebody to root for. And before the requisite “blow shit up” finale (which is still so much smaller scale than what passes for action in most movies these days, and is so much better off for it), it is just ridiculously entertaining seeing these actors interact with each other and test the limits of the seemingly impossible situation they’ve been put in. Plus, you know someone like Schwarzenegger has star power when the audience literally cheers when he picks up a machine gun.
There’s a way to make Escape Plan better, but only a different kind of “better.” The chief joys of the film come from just how thoroughly ridiculous the film is. I think everyone could agree that the film would benefit from a more sure-footed director - the film succeeds in spite of Hafstrom’s directing, not because of it, and while the film doesn’t need to be stylish or all that visually interesting, it’d be nice to have a director who at least has some fun with the visual sensibilities of the film rather than simply getting it all on the screen in the most bland way possible.
But when it comes to the acting, or my god, the absolutely boneheaded script? I wouldn’t change a thing. I mean, there are plot holes so huge that they threaten to eat themselves, Ourobouros-style (chief amongst them the very reasoning for putting someone away for life that you want to get rid of but, um, don’t want to kill?), but a smarter movie just wouldn’t work with Stallone and Schwarzenegger. This is a dumb movie on purpose, and its dumbness becomes a pleasure all its own. The movie almost seems to invite you to laugh with it rather than at it, and that’s charming in a way that’s hard to describe.
At the end of the day, though, it comes down to Stallone and Schwarzenegger. There could have been a “better” movie without a couple of people my parents’ age anchoring it, but I doubt there could be a more fun, more ridiculous movie. And even though it seems like 95% of the people North America disagree with me, I long for the days of simpler action movies, and if it takes our elder statesmen of action films to amp up the stupidity rather than anyone under the age of forty, then that’s just the way it has to be then. Escape Plan, you’re truly the best, worst movie I’ve seen this year.
Shin Megami Tensei is a long-running series with impeccable pedigree - it’s the flagship Atlus title, after all, and often considered the “third pillar” of JRPGs, after Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest. And yet, maybe it’s the hard-Japanese title or the fact that, even with me barely paying attention, I knew that these were ridiculously difficult games with nigh-obnoxious playtimes (Nocturne is supposed to take about 80 hours?) that kept me out.
Am I ever glad that the fourth game in the main series was the one to get its claws into me, though. True, the game is certainly a lot harder-edged than your standard “Hero’s Journey” RPG, and the depth of its various systems requires a fastidiousness that is almost completely at odds with modern video game convention, but perhaps it’s the fact that those very things make Shin Megami Tensei IV feel so fresh that made me enjoy this game so very much.
In its first outing on a handheld console (Strange Journey doesn’t count, apparently, despite its original title being, surprise, Shin Megami Tensei IV), SMTIV makes some really smart adjustments and concessions while still maintaining that niche sensibility that makes this series so very different from its contemporaries. While things like offering an “easy” difficulty and making death more of an inconvenience than a consequence are usually the signs of a series attempting to court particularly undiscerning gamers, in SMT's case, this is a smart move to ensure that not just the most time-rich players get to enjoy this game. As well, no mechanic is ever left unexplained; but simultaneously, the game doesn't hold the player's hand or compromise the integrity of those mechanics. This encourages a great deal of experimentation, a nice touch in a genre that is generally noted for its linearity.
In a gameplay sense, SMTIV boils down to a few things, as all JRPGs do - talking to NPCs, exploring towns (here, unfortunately, presented generally as static images), combing dungeons, battling, collecting things, selling things, getting better equipment, etc. What makes Shin Megami Tensei different from, say, Dragon Quest, is twofold - first, the battling is handled in a “mature Pokemon" sort of way, where you woo demons to your side by flattering them, offering them gifts or straight-up paying them. These conversations are all about attempting to read the personalities of the demons you come across, and the fact that they have distinct personalities at all means that the writing and translation in these sections is spot-on.
The other thing that sets SMT apart is the context. This is a game especially prone to spoiling, unfortunately, and since I didn’t have the game’s first, killer plot twist spoiled for me, I won’t spoil it for you. Allow me to say that, simply, the idyllic setting of the Eastern Kingdom of Mikado (which seems to me to be almost a satire of such places in traditional JRPGs, replete with vaguely medieval/Japanese architecture and somewhat awkward-sounding labels for its citizens) is not what it seems. Like all SMT games, Shin Megami Tensei IV turns out to be about nothing less than a struggle between order and chaos, and the game isn’t afraid to toss in some potent Christian imagery to accomplish it.
While the actual gameplay is pretty great, and the game’s environments are given a sheen of polish that makes this one of the best-looking 3DS games to date (seriously, with the 3D on, and some of your artificial intelligence’s modified reality programs running, this is also one of the coolest-looking games of the year), the real attraction of any SMT game is its story, or more accurately, how the story is used to explore the themes of the game. Criticisms have been leveled at SMTIV for having a “bad story” and “paper-thin characters,” and while the latter is definitely true, the former I’m not so sure about. Yes, your main character Flynn is a complete blank slate who never speaks, and yes, your companions, Walter, Isabeau and Jonathan are nothing more than barely-concealed symbols for the various alignments you can take in the game (Walter represents chaos; Isabeau is neutrality; Jonathan is order), but by god, if the plot is considered “boring” by critics, they must be spoiled by much better games than I see getting released year after year.
In essence, Shin Megami Tensei utilizes dichotomies to explore this eternal struggle between order and chaos, and brilliantly uses the various conflicts - between Mikado and its, um, neighbours; between the different castes in Mikado; heck, even between the main characters - to force the player to examine their own leanings. Then, late in the game, it becomes clear just how nihilistic and cynical the game truly is, suggesting that neither order nor chaos leads to anything resembling a fulfilling life. Only the more difficult path of neutrality leads to anything resembling a “positive” ending (I ended up going hard-Chaotic, which is unusual for me in a game that offers such a choice, but I was glad I did, since Walter is far more interesting than Jonathan).
The plot doesn’t offer much in the way of emotional attachment, true, and the characters could have been made to be more than just containers for philosophical positions, but how many games dare to be this intellectual, this meaty? It’s highly schematic, but I’ll take schematic over formulaic any day of the week. And if the fact that I’ve not even really talked about what even happens in the game is an indication, I do have a great deal of respect for this plot.
This is most definitely not a game for everyone, though. Even with the concessions made in the design of the game, I don’t suspect that massive crowds of people waited outside of game shops to pick up Shin Megami Tensei IV. This game is frankly too strange for that kind of reception. I honestly couldn’t say for certain whether any given person that I know personally would like this game or not. That being said, despite its flaws - it does get to be a little bit grindingly repetitious in the back half of the game, and the ending is a bit of a disappointment, since it doesn’t let you actually see the consequences of your actions - I certainly enjoyed SMTIV just for its willingness to be so very different from the JRPGs I normally play. Maybe it’s series convention that you eventually get to kill God if you want, but that kind of extremity is far too rare in a gaming climate that would very much prefer if every game played it safe. In Shin Megami Tensei IV, playing it safe isn’t just boring - it gets you killed.
When we last left off with The Newsroom, I felt like I was more positive than a good deal of critics while essentially still disliking the show. An overreliance on bullshit relationship drama, some absolutely terrible character development for its female characters, a complete absence of genuine conflict, a self-aggrandizing position of moral superiority, and the combination of boredom and absolute batshit insanity - oh, and don’t forget the “get off my lawn”-isms of series creator Aaron Sorkin, especially as it relates to 21st century technology - and yet, I still claimed that there was a fundamentally solid base from which to build a compelling second season.
So when Sorkin made the rounds, talking about just how much better season 2 of The Newsroom would be, it sounded to me like he listened to his critics and was ready to make some serious changes. But despite the presence of a few pretty good episodes and the inherent potential of something like season 2’s “Genoa” storyline (wherein the News Night team completely fucks up a story, for once), this is The Newsroom we know and “love,” right down to some of the most self-congratulatory, masturbatory television sequences I’ve ever witnessed.
Let’s talk about the good stuff first though. The season’s fifth episode, “News Night with Will McAvoy,” is hands-down the show’s best episode, and actually a pretty damned good episode of television in any context. It demonstrates just what The Newsroom could be if Sorkin wasn’t so interested in haranguing and posturing. The setup is simple: the episode follows a nearly self-contained hour of News Night on an evening where nothing too Important and Serious is happening. By doing so, it allows the viewer to simply see the nuts and bolts of how putting on a news broadcast would work, while having the characterization build organically out of this shared situation. It’s low key, propulsive and effective at putting the show’s barely-concealed politicking on the sideline for once, and it’s some compelling television.
Elsewhere, and especially in the first half of the series, the Genoa storyline shows quite a bit of promise. Loosely based on a similar situation that CNN faced in the ’90s, “Genoa” is a codename given by the military for an operation where American citizens were to be airlifted out of a danger zone. The story here is that, apparently, the military may have used sarin gas on the enemies (and citizens) below, which is clearly a war crime.
This storyline, which is supposed to be the central, propulsive storyline of the series, fizzles out for a number of reasons that all circle back to one essential truth about Aaron Sorkin, especially as it relates to this show: he is incapable of doing anything to his characters that would truly change them, which inevitably leads to plot stasis. First off, the Genoa storyline has a frankly unnecessary framing device: the News Night team is under investigation for misconduct of some sort (I won’t spoil it further), which leads to each character flashing back to earlier parts in the story. Even if this does introduce Marcia Gay Harden as the investigator (an actor incredibly well-suited to Sorkinese), it’s needlessly circumscript.
More problematic than that, though, is how the Genoa storyline is revealed to have been falsified later on in the season (and spoiler warnings are in effect here, obviously). See, the News Night team is basically faultless, as they doggedly suss out seemingly incontrovertible facts from a variety of sources. No, it’s not Will or Mackenzie or Jim or Maggie who fuck up - it’s Jim’s replacement (Jim is on assignment with the Mitt Romney campaign - a wholly ineffective storyline that also introduces the completely bland Hallie as like the seventh point on the “Jim Harper Love Polygon,” but I think I’m going to kick this show while it’s down enough as it is without going into too much detail about this asinine side story), Jerry Dantana (Hamish Linklater), who becomes so obsessed with breaking this story that he re-edits an interview with a military general to state that “We used sarin gas” instead of “If we used sarin gas…”
The problems with this storyline are so clear to me that it baffles me that Sorkin, a far more talented writer than I, couldn’t see them. By introducing a new character this season whose sole purpose seems to be to be the “bad guy” in the Genoa storyline, it completely abdicates the News Night team and clearly sets up Dantana as just grist to the plot mill, not a real, believable character in his own right (despite Linklater being a pretty damned good actor and all).
This isn’t the only issue with characterization this year, though. Despite the welcome toning-down of “Papa Sorkin’s sermons from up on high,” Sorkin seemingly ramped up nearly every undesirable character trait that made season 1 so problematic without asking the audience to ever dislike these characters. In fact, we’re supposed to see them, I think, as noble crusaders, which ends up just being laughable. Will is still a pompous asshole with “roguish charm”; Mackenzie, while somewhat more competent, is given way too much of the heavy lifting in the “Will + Mackenzie” ‘ship that I, for one, stopped caring about approximately as soon as it was introduced; Jim is a mansplaining asshat who is designed to somehow be Sorkin’s version of a dreamboat; Sloane, despite being played way above pay grade by Olivia Munn, is still written as being almost too stupid to live, despite possessing a doctorate in economics; Neil is still Sorkin’s “fuck you and your Tweeters” whipping boy.
Oh, but none of them have a stitch on Maggie, whose storyline - she witnesses some atrocities in Africa and comes back and has a Meaningful Haircut of Sadness - is a holy fucking shitstorm of terrible characterization, barely-concealed quasi-misogyny and just plain awful writing. Maybe “News Night with Will McAvoy” feels like such a good episode because it comes one episode after Maggie’s showcase episode, “Unintended Consequences,” my vote for worst episode of television that I watched this year (and also my vote for “television episode that most resembled those shitty World Vision ads”).
Worst of all, season 2 seems to be making some strides to tone down some of the aspects that sunk season 1, including an overreliance on relationship drama to drive forward a plot that can, by its very nature, not be driven forward. As well, it finally gives underutilized or misutilized actors like Jane Fonda, Emily Mortimer and Dev Patel SOMETHING to do. It does all of this, and then it just takes a big dump all over the audience’s face with “Election Night Part II,” Sorkin’s most self-congratulatory bit of writing ever.
The Newsroom turns into a completely unearned victory lap in this episode. Every bit of relationship drama is brought to the forefront; every ounce of Sorkin’s belief in his own rightness is splashed across the scene; for christ’s sake, there’s a goddamned victory montage set to a Christian band’s cover of a Who song that is every bit as terrible as it sounds. So, yeah, “Election Night Part II” would be the worst episode of The Newsroom if there wasn’t a worse episode this very season, and if that’s not a ringing endorsement, I don’t know what is!
I’m bitter because The Newsroom's second season IS better than the first, generally speaking. But given just how simple it would be to have a good version of this show, the fact that it's still this bad is all the more stinging. I don't give a shit about Jim and his many women; I don't give a shit about Neil “accidentally” discovering Occupy Wall Street. And I sure don't give a shit about The Newsroom anymore.
Extending a discussion of a film to include its marketing or any other outside factors always feels a little bit wrong to me; but good god, can we talk about Captain Phillips' marketing for a second?
This is a film with Tom Hanks, directed by the near-unassailable Paul Greengrass (OK, people assail him for his use of shaky-cam, but there’s no one better in that style than him) based on a politically-loaded real-world event - the spate of Somali piracies that have occurred around the horn of Africa, most notably with Richard Phillips, who was taken hostage for three days in a tiny lifeboat. Despite all of that, the marketing team behind this film has taken it upon themselves to pretty well ruin an intellectual reading of the film ahead of time.
When Barkhad Abdi’s character, Muse, shows up in the trailer speaking the now-famous “I’m the Captain now” line, he is in that moment everything “scary” to white middle America - a gun toting, ugly, terrifying black man. Tom Hanks, the biggest movie star capable of playing the “affable everyman” is cast as the victim-hero. We never get a sense of who these people are or why they’re attacking this boat, just that our favourite famous man is in trouble. Look even at the title - Captain Phillips, as if he himself were some sort of monolithic, noble totem pole of a man.
This is wildly misleading, though. Captain Phillips, a sketchy trailer and a terrible title notwithstanding, is about as close to being perfectly conceived as this movie, with this story, could get. With the only qualifier being that Greengrass had to dramatize a recent historical event, he instead crafts an incredible, white-knuckle thriller that refuses to offer easy answers or solutions, or even to pit either Phillips or Muse as a hero or villain; they’re instead just a couple of men confined by their circumstances.
I must take some time to acknowledge just how good the casting is in this film. With Hanks as, essentially, the only marquee name, and a whole host of complete unknowns, the fact that Greengrass and his screenwriter, Billy Ray, were able to craft a story that constantly draws parallels between Phillips and Muse and have those parallels stick is a testament to the quality of acting on display in this film. Hanks is at the top of his game, fully disappearing into the role of a calm, collected individual just trying to survive his situation and get back to his family (his ending scene, as he starts to recover from the shock of his situation, is my pick for the most raw and honest moment in all of Hanks’ career). The real find, though, is Abdi, who goes toe to toe with Hanks and very nearly steals the film. His intensity is one thing, but the hidden layers and depths that he is able to convey are extraordinary - I hope this man has a long and fruitful acting career.
Captain Phillips is also helped along by one of the tightest and smartest scripts this year. Ray wisely keeps the focus on the actual piracy event, rather than taking the easy way out and cutting to the White House, or cutting to Phillips’ worried wife (played in one short scene at the start by Catherine Keener). By focusing on the nuts and bolts of Muse and his crew’s takeover of the Maersk Alabama, the incredibly fertile geopolitical connections of this story hit all the harder than they would if the movie was more explicit about them. When Muse brags to Phillips about having pirated a Greek ship for $6 million, and Phillips asks him, “if you have $6 million, why are you here?,” that moment neatly sums up the desperate situation that these pirates find themselves in, the stranglehold that the money-obsessed Somali warlords who control these “poor fishermen” have, the differences in socio-economic standing between these two men, the privilege that Phillips generally enjoys, the horrible grind of daily living that people like Muse face, all neatly wrapped in a moment that develops both of these characters beautifully. And best of all, the film is almost made up entirely of moments like this, humanizing nearly every character to a degree that seems positively unthinkable after having seen the film’s early trailers.
And perhaps these moments stick with the viewer, too, because of Greengrass’s breathless, claustrophobic and intense style. Given that the outcome of the film was well-known for the past four years, the fact that Greengrass is able to wring so much tension out of, first, the raid on the Maersk Alabama (with some ridiculously nerve-wracking sequences where Phillips attempts to subtly sabotage the captors’ plans, while Muse sees through all of them and continues his single-minded pursuit of the hostages), and then the long passages within the lifeboat, as Phillips is held hostage for a $10 million ransom and the US Navy SEALs attempt to get him out, is electrifying. The combination of the “you are there” documentary-cinema-verite style and the film’s incredibly tight editing result in a truly thrilling film. Married to the smart sensibilities of the script, this is truly one of the most rewarding experiences in cinema this year.
Scarily smart, brilliantly well-acted, impeccably crafted and shot: Captain Phillips is a film that lingers in the mind for a long time after the credits roll.
For all the strides made in film criticism, like most academic writing, film critics tend to overvalue the intellectual and undervalue the body. I’m as guilty as anyone. A rigorous mental workout in the vein of Vertigo or Mulholland Drive tends to make me feel giddy at the possibility of this medium; an exceptionally scary horror movie makes me feel all sorts of feelings in places other than my head, and while it might be a great experiential moment, I tend to forget about these momentary pleasures when I’ve left the cinema.
But getting a film to reside in the pit of your gut, in the bottom of your spine, in your ceaselessly shaking knees or your clenched fists - that takes real skill and talent, the kind of skill and talent that shouldn’t be shluffed off so casually. And Gravity, a free-floating masterwork by Alfonso Cuaron, is the greatest “body movie” I can think of, a film of such staggeringly raw and primal power that I had to sit, alone, quietly, for about twenty minutes, before I could even think about walking to my car.
And yet, for all that the film can be summed up as a “thrill ride” in the most literal sense, it is also a sheer monolith of formalism in cinema. That’s the sort of thing you’re almost guaranteed when you have craftsmen as unbelievably skilled as Cuaron, the god-like cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, the composer Steven Price (turning in a score that is at once nerve-wracking, abstract, ethereal and rousing) and some of the best production design in filmmaking. Really, this is a masterclass in the sort of achievements that can be made by exploiting every tool at a filmmaker’s disposal in the year 2013. Gravity is, above all else, even its worth as a story, an incredible redefinition of so many elements of filmmaking that have pervaded and in most cases, ruined filmgoing. Naming a film with a better, more diegetically enforced use of 3D, IMAX aspect ratio, sound design, CGI, or digitally-composited long takes (OK, Lubezki and Cuaron have had that last category nailed down since at least 2006’s Children of Men) is going to be impossible for a long, long time.
Discussing things like Lubezki’s roaming, freefalling camera and things like the epic-lengthed seventeen minute opening shot could devolve into fanboy-esque squeeing over mere technical accomplishments (and just to be clear, I am one of those fanboys. Squee.), but the amazing part of Cuaron’s accomplishment is that all of the showing off is at the service of the film’s story. The camera floats around space as a means of both delineating the space between characters and objects and, more often than not, to put us in the shoes (sometimes literally, in the film’s prodigious use of first-person shots) of Sandra Bullock’s Ryan Stone, an astronaut who has to survive in the crushing silence of outer space after a series of collisions in her orbit send her flying from her partner, Matt Kowalski (George Clooney).
The story may be a simple survival tale (with an added bit of admittedly-heavy-handed emotion in the form of Stone’s dead daughter [though I have to admit that my mind was changed about the success of this subplot by a recent Roundtable on The Dissolve]), but it would be a disservice to the movie to discount it on the basis of its apparent simplicity. The theme of overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds is as old as literature itself, but perhaps even MORE credit is due to Cuaron and his team for finding a way to make this theme fresh and relevant, and given a completely, extraordinarily new feeling by sheer dint of the filmmaking acumen behind Gravity. If the most noble goal of a film is to suck us into their world, then Gravity is amongst the most noble of all.
It’s also not just a technical spectacle, a giant cartoon given somewhat realistic depth and heft. Of all people, Sandra Bullock gives an incredibly moving performance, doing work just a half-step below someone like Andy Serkis and completely and believably selling her character’s emotional state in the face of these seeming impossibilities. The film announces that human life should not exist in outer space right at the beginning (way to tip your thematic hand, guys!), but it’s mostly due to Bullock (and a lesser extent, Clooney, whose womanizing charmer is successful mainly because Clooney is always so damned charming in those roles) that Gravity exists in the memory as such a human-focused thriller. CGI has the unfortunate tendency to immediately pull the audience out of a film, and while the CGI is extraordinary on its own, it’s Bullock who keeps the audience grounded (ba-dum-chhhhhhhhhh!).
I can feel the backlash against Gravity growing, as the film continues its nigh-unprecedented run at the box office. The temptation is to retroactively brand this as empty, big budget spectacle. Putting Gravity in that light is a disservice to the possibilities of this medium. Maybe the film isn’t the grand, intellectual film that is so often the template for a “classic” film (I’ve seen more than a few sneering “this movie pales compared to 2001" tweets, and let me go on record as saying that I prefer Gravity to that overblown, overhyped “classic”), but maybe it’s something better than that: it’s an affirmation that cinema, with all of its bells and whistles, can still have the power to do things that we hadn’t thought of before. Gravity may not end up being the best movie of the year for me, but it is undoubtedly the most important because of that.
Does form follow function? Or is it the other way around? Whichever one is correct, Asterios Polyp is doing it. This is a hugely ambitious, massively complex, and hyperbolically incredible graphic novel from the former superhero-wunderkind David Mazzuchelli, the kind of graphic novel that at once validates and elevates the entire medium.
Explaining what it’s about? That’s a bit more difficult. Asterios Polyp follows its titular “hero,” (I wouldn’t call him that, but he frequently refers to himself as “the hero of his own story,” so who am I to argue with that?) a renowned professor of architecture who has never once had any of his designs built in the real world - a loaded symbol for Asterios’ own failings and his inability to see them as failings for the most part. Moving seamlessly backwards and forwards in time, the book essentially charts Asterios’ downfall due to his inability to break free of binary thinking, while simultaneously fucking up the lives of the people around him (including the near-saintly Hana, his wife, who exists as Asterios’ diametric opposite in almost every way) and concealing a barely-bottled rage at the perceived lunacy around him.
That is, until a lightning bolt hits his house, causing a sudden epiphany where Asterios gets out of dodge, abandons his possessions and his academic ideals, and begins working for a small-town mechanic named Stiff Major, while engaging in a series of perception-changing conversations with his wife (named, ha ha, Ursula) and generally trying to climb his way back to a life with actual meaning.
This description makes it sound as if Asterios Polyp is nothing more than a detailed character study; it is, but it’s also about a hundred other things. Chiefly, a treatise on deconstruction that would make Derrida proud; an allusion-heavy riff on The Odyssey (one of the primary themes of the book is an age old one: whether our lives are pre-destined or whether we have free choice. The book takes great pleasure in tying these ideas to really classical imagery of gods throwing down meteors and even a halfway-hallucinatory trip through a figurative River Styx); and a heartbreaking examination of regret and the choices not made, brought home by Mazzuchelli’s decision to have Asterios’ dead-in-the-womb twin brother Ignazio narrate the story.
And yet, I still haven’t even scratched the surface of Asterios Polyp. This is one of the most ambitious literary tightrope acts that I’ve ever read, as every single element balances just so, amazingly creating a narrative that somehow doesn’t topple over. This is the sort of book that I imagine you could read a hundred times and find some new aspect to pull apart - heck, you could do that with individual frames.
In one fell swoop, Asterios Polyp also ends up justifying the entire graphic novel medium as well. Not to say that things like Watchmen or Blankets or even the Mazzuchelli-penned Batman: Year One didn’t do a lot of heavy lifting in this regard; but in my experience, I have never come across a graphic novel that puts so much loaded meaning into every single frame, utilizing the generic elements of the graphic novel in such a way that I can’t imagine this as a straight-up novel or as a movie, as one can with most graphic novels.
Mazzuchelli makes every detail matter. The typography alone is masterful, as he uses a variety of fonts and sizes to do an insane amount of character building. The frames are incredibly composed, either to generate a multitude of perspectives, to comment on thematic elements (a conversation with a music composer layers frame upon frame in way that mimics his artistic ideals), to reveal character depths (Asterios is only ever seen with one eye facing towards the reader - an apt image for a man confined by duality), or simply to demonstrate a complete mastery over the graphic novel form (there’s a frame that gets repeated from one page to the next, with a slight change in position, creating a subtle animation effect that had me literally gasp out loud). There are no throwaway details. Everything from the bright, poppy colour coding to the many shifting art styles is used for a thematic purpose.
Mazzuchelli’s labour of love (he took nearly nine years to write the damned thing) is an intimidatingly perfect book. Yes, perfect: I cannot fathom of improving upon Asterios Polyp as a graphic novel in any way. The novel is dense and challenging and wonderful: it’s not just a graphic novel. It’s The Graphic Novel.
I apologize for the dearth of content on here lately. Being a full time teacher means that I both have a lot less time to write and a lot fewer things to write about.
But I just wrote a review of David Mazzuchelli’s Asterios Polyp for you… and then I fucked up and lost it. I’m kind of sad about it.
I’ll try again on Thursday.