Monday, July 31, 2006

If this one's not good enough

Many readers of this blog know (probably thanks to my speculation post after its season finale) that I'm a fan of the television show Lost. It's well done as a drama in that the characters and their interactions are actually interesting; it's well done as a suspense because the "what's going on on this island?" is genuinely something the viewers want to know. Unfortunately, summer = no Lost, so the producers et al. came up with the "half content, half marketing" gimmick called the Lost Experience.

The Experience is an "alternate reality game" that addresses some of the still-unresolved mysteries of the television show. I've been playing the game with sort of low to moderate involvement; I like to see the content as it comes up, but I'm rarely on the forefront of discovering that content. I just don't have time to scour the appropriate websites to find the clues. But some people do, and I'm grateful toward them so I can leech off their progress. Brief aside concerning that progress: the game is currently in Act 3 of either 3 or 5 (Holy Grail reference nonwithstanding). Right now, the point is to collect video fragments across the internet to form one supervideo that will "tear the Hanso foundation apart." As of now, I think Bearded Dude is Alvar Hanso, and that this Orientation video is concerning the Valenzetti equation. Mittlewerk is showing that same video to his savants, who are working with some unknown but urgent stimulus to solve the equation. Finally, the Numbers are either solutions or critical components of that same equation; that's why they keep showing up.

Anyway, one of those people who does a lot of everyone's work for them is a guy who calls himself Matt the Pale. Mr. Pale recently posted a long, scathing, and controversial rant saying how TLE was "not an alternate reality game" because too much was spoon-fed to the players, there were too many missed opportunities to impress the fanbase, etc. He said that his only motivation for continuing to play is a morbid curiosity. I think that's a load of crap, because if he really didn't care, then he'd sit back and watch the game from afar rather than continue to be its most prominent player. On the other hand, though, if anyone is entitled to make such a complaint, it would be him.

The point here is that he listed Perplex City as an example of what an alternate reality game is really supposed to be like. I checked it out... and I'm stunned. Puzzles, ranging from "match these dinosaur names to their skeletons" to "give a proof of the Riemann zeta function" lead the players to clues of who stole the Receda cube. There's a ton of backstory, characters, podcasts, and real-world events to back it all up. I'm really excited about playing this game, and I only wish that I could have discovered it before a year after it was released.

Currently listening: How to Save a Life, the Fray

Monday, July 24, 2006

Vast Improvements

Once you disregard that they both have cute girls in leading roles and that sailing is central to both, Wedding Crashers and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest really have nothing to do with each other, at least cinematically. I saw Pirates within a week of its release in theaters, and Wedding Crashers for the first time about a year after its release, and after seeing both, the one commonality between the two films is that they were both a lot better than I thought they would have been.

Review: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest

I did not see the first Pirates movie until the end of 2005, after it had been on DVD for quite a while. I associated the girly "Omigod, it's Johnny Depp! And Orlando Bloom!" mentality with that movie, and I expected it be sophomoric comedy. Turns out, I was wrong. It was actually a pretty decent movie. I wasn't blown away by it (though I should probably watch it again; a tiny screen and a DVD player with an identity crisis didn't help that movie's case) and I had no real drive to go see the second one in theaters. I figured I probably would see it, because many of my friends are inexplicably into the "let's go see everything in the theater as soon as it comes out" mentality. That's exactly what happened.

I was expecting something halfway between "decent" and "good" and I ended up with "excellent." This is seriously a great movie. Don't believe what you might hear about it being "incomprehensible." There are multiple plotlines. Deal with it. Just because there happens to be more than one thing going on at once in this movie does not make it hard to follow. It makes it interesting.

It probably helps that I'm a big fan of the historical/seafaring/colonial age genre. I mean, listening to the Decemberists, reading Neal Stephenson, and eating dinner at Dante's Down the Hatch is one thing (okay, three things) but to me, Pirates is the defining movie of that genre. Swashbuckling action, which might look cool but usually doesn't impress me cinematically, here has an actual purpose of defining the setting. A three-way sword fight? Pretty cool; I doubt that's ever been done before. The water wheel, the pendulum cage... these are what special effects ought to be; things that you can't see in everyday life but actually could exist and that you've never thought of.

The acting in this movie is noteworthy as well. For all the crap I heap on Johnny Depp's fanatical cult of "every teenage girl ever," the man knows how to act. He's taken Jack Sparrow from a simple pirate captain in an entertaining series of movies into a cultural icon. (Jack is an example of how a character is supposed to work, like I talked about a few months ago, with both a competent director to define the role and a competent actor to execute it.) He's charismatic and he possesses a humorously large vocabulary. Depp plays this character with just enough quirks to be entertaining, but not such antics that he's in Anchorman territory. His accent and personality are both flawless, never dropping either, greatly enhancing the credibility and enjoyment of the character.

Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom do very well in their respective roles as well. As one article I read put it, Knightles does well playing the "damsel doing just fine, thank you" as opposed to the damsel in distress. If this character type seems cliched at this point, it's only because Knightley herself made it so. If anything, Knightley seems less attractive than she used to, not quite sure why. I think she's a bit too skinny. And, though his role takes less finesse than Depp's, Bloom does a fine job as well. He's a great foil to Depp, courageous and serious to the self-interested and flippant Sparrow.

Now, a lot of people thought Gollum from Lord of the Rings was the coolest special effect achievement ever. I might be the only one who didn't much care about Gollum, and in that case I'm probably alone in not much caring about Davy Jones either. The character was good, and I guess the tentacles were cool if you're into that sort of thing, but it just didn't impress me. That said, Davy Jones is an excellent villain, a worthy followup to Barbossa, and I'm looking forward to seeing him again in the third installment.

As is easy to do in a pirate flick, Dead Man's Chest features great cinematography. How could those lovely, sweeping shots of a bustling port and majestic eighteenth century warships and vast open ocean really be omitted from this film? The cinematography reminded me of that from Master and Commander, which won an Oscar for its brilliant camera work. The music was awesome as well, enhancing the overall epic feel of the movie. This is actually the sort of movie that might entice one to become a "movie person" and randomly go to movies, expecting to get a great deal of entertainment value out of it. Unfortunately, Dead Man's Chest is so entertaining that you'd be sorely disappointed with virtually everything else out there.

Review: Wedding Crashers

Yep, I'm a year late on this review. This is one of those spur of the moment, "Hmm, I heard this was funny, so why not throw it in the Netflix queue?" ideas. Again, expectation pointed to "typical frat pack comedy, probably going to be a lot of gaggy humor" but whatever. As it turns out, the balance of "frat pack" comedy to romatic comedy was more stilted toward the "romantic comedy" direction. Usually, given two alternative styles, "romantic comedy" is not the direction you necessarily want to go. Compared to the sort of humor I was expecting, though, that was probably a pleasant surprise.

More of the pleasant surprise came from how witty Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn really were as the titular wedding crashers. One scene where Vaughn's character Jeremy provides Wilson's John with a copy of the Secretary of the Treasury's position paper on Micronesian economics, and the followup where John actually has a pseudo-intellectual discussion with the Secretary about Micronesian economics... genius. Some of the backstories they use to get into weddings are downright inspired, a far cry from the kind of stupidity I thought would surface.

But the best part of this movie is that is actually has a soul. At one wedding, John bumps into a girl who does not exist in real life. This girl combines "extremely attractive without being sleazy" with "playful and witty" with "sweet and charming" with "sophisticated but not arrogant." Now, if any male were to encounter a girl this incredibly ideal in the real world, he'd drop everything to pursue her. As it turns out, instead of pull some sort of eye-rolling immature stunt, this is exactly what John does. Thus, the movie has a real sort of likability that goes way beyond sophomoric jokes.

Likability, of course, doesn't imply perfection. We don't need to see what breasts look like. Nude scenes do not add to the cinematic value of a movie. They may get some single-minded guys in the door (and I of anyone realize that movie making is a business) but they simply are never cinematically justified. Also, the entire movie was extremely predictable. Of course Perfect But Nonexistent In The Real World Claire Cleary (a stunning Rachel McAdams) ends up dumping her loser boyfriend (and I wish the movie had been a bit less explicit as to his cheating on Claire, so it would have make John's achievement seem more impressive) so the Heroine and Hero can Reunite at the Triumphant Climax of the Film. Of course the Hero's Sidekick with No Moral Code but who has a Girl Proclaim Her Love to Him ends up actually loving her and another Happy Couple is born. We didn't need to watch past half of the movie to know what was going to happen at the end. But Vaughn and Wilson play such funny and compelling characters, and Rachel McAdams is so darn cute (and her character so darn amazing), that we want to watch it.

Currently listening: "To Zanarkand," Final Fantasy X, Nobuo Uematsu

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Evil Monkeys Abound

Review: Lady in the Water

First off, M. Night Shyamalan is a genius, because he recognizes that monkeys are evil.

Now that that's taken care of... almost every time you watch a movie, you know what you're getting yourself into. You thrust Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn into starring roles and you immediately know what kind of movie Wedding Crashers (see a future post) is going to be. Dead Man's Chest (also see that future post) is going to be exactly like Curse of the Black Pearl except later. With Lady in the Water, you're probably thinking "Okay, Shyamalan flick, a bit of creepiness, massive twist at the end." As it turns out, Lady in the Water has none of that. The movie is much less classic Shyamalan and much more Neil Gaiman.

If you haven't read anything by Gaiman, pick up American Gods right now and read it. Lady in the Water was less evocative of American Gods and more of Neverwhere, but either book will give you a much better idea what to expect out of Lady in the Water than any of Shyamalan's earlier films. In fact, I was thinking "holy crap, this is Neverwhere" through the entire movie. The comparison isn't entirely fair, especially since the book's mythology focuses on its setting, and the movie's mythology has much more to do with a sequence of events than where they take place. But once you take into account the "regular world guy" who gets visited in the regular world by the "magical mystical girl with special powers but who needs regular world guy to survive," which in turn slowly reveals the "fantastic subculture that affects humans but humans have no idea it exists"... the movie gets Gaiman-esque very quickly.

So that's the first caveat of Lady in the Water. If the premise of fantasy bothers or annoys you, don't bother seeing this movie. A corollary to the first caveat: Lady in the Water is indeed a fantasy movie; it is not scary in the least. (The movie does, however, make the same mistake that The Omen and so many other contemporary "horror" films do. That is, it confuses "startling" with "scary." A loud, unexpected noise that makes you jump is not scary.) But fantasy doesn't mean George RR Martin style sword and sorcery, in either Lady in the Water or Neil Gaiman's books' case. It means affinity toward the supernatural and a creative sense of mythology. And Lady in the Water certainly has both.

And really, that's the mark of a good fantasy setting: the permeability of the mtyhos into the setting. It's easy to say "I have set my story in quasi-medieval times, and there is magic." It's not much more difficult to add "My characters believe in this supernatural force that sometimes actually aids them." But to craft your characters and story so well that its gods seem like actual beings, its legends serve as actual sources of inspiration, and its included ethical debates are ones actually worth having in the real world, you've created something magnificent. This is why Final Fantasy X was such a powerful game: the Yevon mythos gave rise to a much deeper sense of realism to the setting. The mythology was so thorough that it became believable, and the player actually felt as if he were doing something important, sacred even, when he arrived at Zanarkand. And to bring things full circle, the Shyamalan-magnitude twist when the player finally reached Zanarkand was all the more incredible because the mythology was so ingrained. (Inversely, this is why Final Fantasy IX was such a dismal game, because you were playing through a story with no overarching mythology to lend it credence.) George RR Martin does this differently than Final Fantasy X, with central conflicts coming over the authenticity of some of the myths (which integrates nicely with his vague and blurry magic system), but he also does it well. And while not as masterfully as Final Fantasy X, as thoroughly as American Gods, or as intriguingly as something from Song of Ice and Fire, Lady in the Water holds its own when it comes to internal mythology.

This mythology starts simple, then grows more complex as the movie progresses. The audience is on a sort of "need to know" basis, which works just fine. We see pictographs at the start of the movie, giving a general outline of the legend, then a few specifics, then more precise details as they become important to the storyline. This works well because it's more the audience learning concepts than having a shovelful of mythology stuffed in its face at the beginning and being mandated to learn it all. Shyamalan uses the "story" device throughout the movie to acheive this effect. One of the recurring themes of the movie--painfully obvious by the fact that the titular Lady in the Water is a magical being named Story--is that there are a few universal "stories" that you have to learn to believe in. These may seem fantastic at first, but they have their validity. Shyamalan's characters aren't necessarily aware that they're in a movie, but there are plenty of self-aware references to plots and characterization (see below) that result in a sort of "translucent" fourth wall. As such, the mythology is able to be revealed gradually rather than with a shovel in the form of a few of the main characters discussing a bedtime story. I'm not sure if this is cheesy or clever--in truth, it's a little of both.

As the movie's best part comes from its mythology, its worst part comes from its attempts at commentary on the theater. I think Shyamalan speaks a bit too loudly as would befit his level of influence. Shakespeare, the greatest playwright of the last millennium, didn't venture to delve this deep into the murky water (my apologies for the bad pun) of "criticizing a genre from within a work of that genre" until Hamlet, about eleven years into his career as a playwright. After writing a couple of dozen plays, he's entitled to make those witticisms about "pastorical-comical, historical-pastoral" actors and how the art of the theater is not in the state it should be. After one movie with huge critical and commercial achievement, and a few further releases with dubious success, Shyamalan is not entitled to the same. While critics' viewpoints can diverge wildly from popular opinion of a film, the truth is that many moviegoers are going to listen to what the critics have to say before deciding to see a film. Therefore, it's important as a director to make a film that appeals to critics, not because you necessarily care what the critical opinion is, but because there are potential audience members that do care what that opinion is.

So is it not intuitively obvious that making a film critic the least immediately likable character in the entire movie is shooting yourself in the cinematic foot? Let me say that I actually like this guy, because his deadpan reviews of vapid artiness are grounded in a strong dose of realism. The movie's best line comes when Cleveland (the main character) is discussing a romance film the local paper had him see. The Critic complains that the climactic moment of the movie, when the characters finally profess their love for each other, was during an unnecessarily cliched rainfall. Cleveland suggests that maybe this was a metaphor for cleansing and rebirth, and the Critic answers simply, "No. It's not." After this clever attack on critics who think themselves wonderfully insightful for pointing overused metaphors to the filmgoing proletariat, it's no wonder that critics hate Lady in the Water: they all got their feelings hurt. The movie's weakest scene, still furthering the negative sentiment many critics have toward this film, when both the fourth wall and the credibility of the entire story are at their most fragile, is when the Critic makes a few predictions regarding the plot of the story he realizes he is in immediately before his death. At this point, the rest of the theater laughed the most--because hey! This is obviously meant to be funny, and I'm clever enough to have picked up on that intention, so I'm going to laugh! A bit of pointless comic relief, coupled with the decidedly negative portrayal of a film critic, accomplish nothing for the complex mythology that Shyamalan has built to this point in the movie, and probably in fact weaken his message.

What was that message? Now comes the third caveat about Lady in the Water (the second being, if you're a critic, this movie will probably feel like a personal attack). The movie, while doing a lot to criticize other movies for using tired out devices (like the rainbound kiss), doesn't have that much to say when it comes down to originality of theme. "Find yourself," it urges, "be open to all sources of inspiration." Guess what? Hamlet beat Lady in the Water to the punch there too.

Other elements of what make a movie either good or bad didn't really stand out in this one, as Lady in the Water is a concept- and plot-centric film. The acting didn't strike me as particularly excellent or horrible: Paul Giamatti as Cleveland was believable and sympathetic but not revolutionary; Bryce Dallas Howard carried a character that even the most self-absorbed high school drama kid could have pulled off. The cinematography and special effects were present and neither good nor bad. I have strong praise for the music, which was on the whole melodic and a welcome departure from the atonal "mood music" that seems to plague suspense movies.

In the end, Lady in the Water is a movie I don't feel all that strongly about either way. I certainly don't think that the film merits the scathing reviews that critics have delighted in saddling it with. On the other hand, with such an extraordinary creation of a setting and an urban-fantasy set of legends to color that setting, more attention could have been paid to what all of that mythology actually means, what the statement behind the concept actually says. Ultimately, King Kong hid a complete lack of meaning behind a sense of epic scale, huge special effects, and an over-the-top aesthetic-heavy visual experience... no matter how good those visuals may have been. If Lady in the Water hides a complete lack of meaning behind a complex mythology, no matter how good that mythology is, is there really a difference? The movie is undoubtedly entertaining, and not at all bad, but with a little extra thought could have been actually good. In other words, it's probably worth seeing, as long as you understand the caveats, but don't expect either The Sixth Sense (what you might think this movie should be like) or Final Fantasy X (what this movie really should have been).

Currently listening: "Jupiter, Bringer of Jollity," Gustav Holst (from The Planets)

Monday, July 10, 2006

It Never Seemed So Strange

These are the days, this is the time, where $20 an hour is to be made by watching some Korean students play 20 Questions. It is a good time to have a summer job.

Something I realized the other day: my generation does not care about Communism. We do not see communists as a threat, we think McCarthy and Nixon were somewhere between paranoid and lunatic. (Okay, so older people see Nixon as paranoid too.) We see communist ideology as more laughable than dangerous. We do not understand why the Vietnam War was fought, nor why "containment" was such a laudable goal. There was a time where "card-carrying member of the Communist Party" was a phrase that portended doom for whomever it was attached to. No longer; now the Red Menace merely seems like an empty threat.

I discovered this when a radio talk show host took a call who was virulently condemning a few members of Congress as those same "card-carrying members of the Communist Party." How would you have responded to this? My personal response would have been along the lines of "Who cares? So that member of Congress happens to believe differently than you and me." This host, however, decided to return with "Communism? That's a serious and dangerous charge." Misguided, certainly; even dead wrong, sure. Serious? Not really. And dangerous? Not at all.

I don't doubt that during the Cold War, the Soviet Union would have rather the United States been a communist nation. I also don't doubt that there were those in America that would have rather the United States been a communist nation. But would the American people have stood for that? And I recognize the superiority of the free market to the command economy. But does that mean the United States as we know it would have been shot to hell if a few more satellite countries had "fallen" to communism for a few decades?

The threat of communism, as the current generation sees it, does not exist. But radio demagogues and others continue to preach it as if the country once--and still does--lived or died based on the presence of a handful of communists in the government. And that threat just is not relevant anymore.

Stick another tack into the world map. I have now eaten Persian food, and I am impressed. This was the simplest of all ethnic meals I've eaten in my world tour of eating exotic stuff, and it was every bit as good as anything else. Main course: chunks of lamb, kabob-style; rice. Exactly two ingredients (plus whatever spices and seasonings made their way into the dish). Then there were some appetizers: Pita-like bread, and herbs, cheese, and nuts to eat with the bread. More rice (crispy this time) and some beef and bean stew. Nothing to it.

Currently listening: "Suddenly I See," KT Tunstall