January 02, 2016

The Hateful Eight

Going to be spoiling this one too,a bit, as I will in most of my film writing this year; mostly I'm looking at the beginning. I won't necessarily feel the need to disclose this all the time, when I talk about older movies, but in new films I think I will.

The film-making is fantastic. The landscapes of the opening scenes are beautiful, and that beauty extends to the interior where much of the film takes place. The choices of camera placement and shot are wonderful. It makes me long for more opportunities to see more films in the 70mm format (as did The Master before it).

The acting is terrific, from Kurt Russell's channeling of John Wayne to Samuel L. Jackson's balding bounty hunter to Tim Roth's foppish hangman to Jennifer Jason Leigh's unrepentant criminal to Bruce Dern's old Southern general, sitting bitterly by the fire. Nearly every performance completely crackles just as that fireplace does.

The script is clever and taut and tense and replete with both the casual racial and gendered slurs we expect from Tarantino and also the falsely elevated almost Shakespearean speech of something like True Grit that makes a certain breed of Western stand apart. The cadences, the puffery, the storytelling that'll just bring you to the edge of your seat. The script has all of this.

And in the end, it's all in service of what feels like the most artful "fuck you" to an audience from a writer-director I've ever seen. I couldn't like this movie, even though I've managed to quite enjoy his last couple (and loved his earliest work), which have further extended the violence that has always been his hallmark.

This is really a shame for me. I can see what Tarantino is doing from the very opening moments. In a series of opening shots, we see a stagecoach tearing across a snow-covered landscape. It's all slopes, criss-crossing the wide frame and each other. For minutes, there isn't a single straight line: there's the bowed outward wood of the stagecoach doors, the curves of the horses' backs, the drooping reins, hell, even the fences through the woods are crooked, zigzagging as they poke through the piled snow. We come prepared for everything being false. In the literal opening shot, Tarantino even gives us a close-up of a Crucifix -- invoking Fellini both by having that be the first image we see after reading "The 8th Film from Quentin Tarantino" simultaneously calling bits of the opening to both La Dolce Vita and 8 1/2.

I'm a film nerd and boy howdy do I love this stuff. The image of a snowed over Christ carved out of an unvarnished and aging wood, suffering on a stone cross, amongst all of these images out of true point us directly in the direction of just how little traditional senses of morality or ethics are going to figure in this film. It's everywhere in these early scenes: in the wave of Russell's mustaches to the curved hem of Jackson's cape.

If only the story and the interactions between these characters weren't so ugly.

I mean, I realize, this is sort of the point. There's something of a corrective at work here, both in how ugly the West really was and not the mythological frontier of Western movies two generations ago, of just how deep a scar our nation's founding sin of slavery has left in us, and how powerfully it and the Civil War to attempt to end that sin drove us all apart. In a time where nationalism again is center-stage in America, with an election coming up, it's probably a good idea to shine some bright light in the corners of our national identity. Sadly, it sometimes feels like we haven't learned anything.

He establishes these as the themes; Jackson's Marquis Warren is able to enter the stagecoach with Kurt Russell's John Ruth in part on the strength of a letter from President Lincoln that Warren carries in his pocket. It's a totem, and it carries the power of a totem, and so naturally soon thereafter Leigh's character spits on it. No symbol is safe. The war is over, but it'll be a long time before the wounds are healed. If ever.

Leigh's Daisy Demorgue is the fulcrum on which the drama rests -- John Ruth is bringing her in for the bounty on her head, and it is a quirk of his that he prefers to bring in his bounties alive. Russell's old and weary John Wayne impersonation is spot-on; his populist motivation is that he likes to keep everyone employed, even the executioner. But having Demorgue chained to him for days is like putting a wolverine on a leash and constantly poking it with a stick. She bites back as often as she can, and he does what little he can to tame her, elbowing her in the face or throwing hot stew all over her.

They pick up another straggler and make their way for shelter, Minnie's Haberdashery, a sort of inn and store and home all in one, and with the blizzard hard on them they put away the horses and run a line out to the barn and the outhouse, before settling in for good to wait it out. And here they meet four more who will make up the rest of the Hateful Eight, and the drama and mystery will ratchet up considerably.

Although there's a bit of violence in the stagecoach, accompanied with both verbal and slapstick comedy, Tarantino really starts to unwind once he gathers all his characters together. Ruth knows right off that something isn't right, and he enlists Warren's help in keeping guns trained on the large single-room cabin's occupants. There have been enough doubts sowed along the way -- the missing Minnie and Sweet Dave, the normal proprietors, and the Mexican who is watching the place in the meantime. The mystery and tension are palpable -- just how is all this going to shake out?

What follows is where Tarantino loses me, tonally, and he never gets me back. Having deprived the occupants of their weapons, Warren puts one of his own close at hand to Bruce Dern's General Smithers, late of the Confederate Army, come out to Wyoming to try and find out what happened to his son. Warren hypnotically weaves a tale of that son's death, which I won't repeat, but whether it's even true isn't the point -- it's to goad Smithers into reaching for that gun so that Warren will be justified in shooting him.

The Intermission comes up right then and following it there are more revelations than one can count and a level of gore that wouldn't be out of place in an Evil Dead movie. Everyone is made out to be a snarling beast, and if it weren't clear how much Tarantino was relishing this I might have had a different reaction. In Inglourious Basterds, I could kind of get behind it, because the animating spirit seemed to be that Melanie Laurent figure in the smoke of her theater, getting her revenge on the evil men who had taken her family and the life that should have been hers. Art and film with its beautiful lies triumph there. In Django Unchained, I similarly could give way to the underlying animating force -- Django's love for his wife driving him to track her down and rescue her. Love conquers even the worst of what our country has had to offer.

Here? Here there's nothing but a sneering, laughing, mocking nihilism. Nothing: not law, not religion, not family, not even that greatest of Presidents, but nothing counters the beasts inside these characters. If Tarantino could have shown a little less glee while gazing into that abyss, I might have found more to like here amongst the beauty of its craft. It's the most wonderfully made movie I've ever hated. I guess that means it does what it says on the tin.

Posted by Brett Douville at 02:08 PM | Comments (0)

January 01, 2016

2015: My Year in Books, Films, and Games

Every year I like to look back and muse a bit about how I was feeding my brain, media-wise, and evaluate that against prior years. It's mostly navel-gazing, but I do it anyway.

The big thing about 2015 was that I was going to read more women, and I certainly did that -- everything I read this past year had a woman author (though in a few cases, there was a male illustrator, in some graphic novels). This was quite rewarding for me, though in all I read fewer books than in 2014. I read about 120 books, with a few interesting trends:

  1. I read quite a few ghost stories. I didn't set out to do this, but it kind of just happened -- there were some terrific novels by women that turned out to be ghost stories (and often I didn't even know this going in). Siobhan Abcock, who wrote one of them (The Barter), also wrote a pretty good essay about Why Every First Novel Should be a Ghost Story. I don't know if every one should, but certainly the conceit affords the author a way of examining some kind of trauma or misdeed or lost hope. In addition to Abcock, there was The Orphan Choir, Lake of Dreams, The Telling, The Little Stranger, and one I haven't quite finished yet. That's to say nothing of Sarah Lotz's two horror novels that weren't quite about ghosts.

  2. I read a ton of genre books generally. Way more than I usually do, and this was in part because I was reading or re-reading Rendell (a tad) and Christie (a bunch) but also encountered authors like Jo Walton and Lois McMaster Bujold (whose oeuvre is so large it has been daunting to know where to start) as well as Octavia Butler and James Tiptree Jr/Alice Sheldon. Surprisingly, I didn't actually get around to Ursula K. LeGuin, who I expressly wanted to re-read. No idea why. I finished up reading everything Sharon/SJ Bolton has published, including her newest. I tend to plow through books like these pretty quickly (and Christie's books, in particular, are brief). But in terms of genre, I definitely appreciated and enjoyed the difference in authorial voice of a woman writer, mostly. Whether it was a greater focus on romance (Outlander) or class relationships (Christie) or what-have-you, they felt different and enriching for it.

  3. Elana Ferrante is great as they come. I read the four Neapolitan novels this year and they were probably the most pleasurable sustained reading experiences I had all year. I want to read them all again. There's an honesty and a frankness and an exploration of the complexity at the heart of this friendship that is just so engrossing. The runner-up for a series of non-genre books would probably be the Regeneration trilogy, by Pat Barker -- those are also fantastic books, and it's interesting to read a woman mostly writing about male relationships (though admittedly, under the strain of wartime). Fascinating stuff.

I could go on and on about the books I read this year but those are a few trends. In the end, what's going to last this year is going to be maintaining more of a balance between men and women in my reading; in the short term, particularly, I'll probably still be reading mostly women because I'll be getting to the end of all those Poirot stories and probably reading more Rendell and yes, I do want to get to Morrison. Plus I've got a few still checked out from the library. I'm also champing at the bit to get to a few Stephen King novels that I haven't read yet, so those will probably appear in the next few weeks.

The big reason I read fewer books than the previous year was just how much time I spent on films and games. But looking over the more than 200 films I watched, it's hard to detect any real trends, and that's because I had no real goals for my film viewing this year. Sure, I watched quite a few Asian crime dramas, and a fair amount of horror and action pictures (mostly to watch with my son, particularly all the Fast and Furious franchise but a handful of other stuff). I didn't see much in the theater, really, at just nine -- nine! -- that is not many.

This year, though, I'm planning on spending more time writing for this blog about the films I watch, with a specific goal in mind. I've picked up the Pauline Kael collection For Keeps and I'm going to make my way through it, perhaps one or two films a week, and write up my thoughts both of the films and her writing about them. I love film and I'd like to learn to think more critically about it, both from a narrative perspective but also from the perspective of visual language. I feel like I have a good handle on the former, and not so much on the latter. Whether those thoughts appear here or elsewhere is yet to be decided; I kind of like the idea of making it its own thing. (I'll repost the Star Wars essay there if I do. That kind of kicked it all off.)

I also played more games! I finished what is probably a lifetime high of 42 games in the past year -- substantially more than in previous years. Part of this was down to having a fair period of bed rest in the middle of the year, and part of it was just feeling like playing games, which I take as a good sign considering the career I've been in for 18 years now.

Not only did I play more games, but I invested more in those that I played -- I know it's not interesting to talk about trophies/achievements/what-have-you, but I achieved the platinum trophy in several games this year: Infamous: Second Son, CounterSpy, Valiant Hearts: The Great War, Everyone's Gone to the Rapture, 4 (4!) Ratchet and Clank games, and The Swapper, Volume, and Guacamelee. So there were quite a few games where I was very invested.

If I had to pick a favorite of the past year, it'd probably be Guacamelee, which completely captivated me. I spent a fair amount of time in the world of Far Cry 4, and really enjoyed both Dragon Age: Inquisition and the heart-poundingly frightening Alien: Isolation. I finally finished Wolfenstein: The New Order which I also quite loved, but for me, the balance of player skill acquisition, Metroid-y level exploration, and aesthetic freshness of Guacamelee really won me over. Although I haven't finished it yet, and therefore it doesn't appear here, I have been completely loving Persona 4: Golden, and it would probably edge out Guacamelee had I finished it.

I don't really care whether I'm part of the up-to-the-moment discussion of games, but in the next year I'd like to write more about them. I had thoughts about Beyond: Two Souls and what I felt were some of its biggest missteps in gameplay and narrative structure that I never jotted down. I had things to say about Far Cry 4 that I didn't get to either. I should get in a better habit of publicly sharing my thoughts -- I do write down my critical thoughts, often, but don't polish them up to some sort of publishable form, and I'd like to do more of that.

So, there's my thinking. Going forward, I'd simply like to write more -- about film, about games, and maybe even about books. Check this space for some of that in the future.

Cheers, and a happy 2016 to you.

Posted by Brett Douville at 11:16 AM | Comments (0)

December 31, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Yup, I'm going to spoil it. If you haven't seen the film, I recommend you do so and come back to this later.

I've decided in 2016 to spend more time writing up the films I see, and I see a lot of them. In particular, my project is to spend some time familiarizing myself with the criticism of Pauline Kael, who is widely considered to be one of film criticism's best writers, even if people are often split on her opinions of the films themselves. Look for more about that in the near future.

It's perhaps fitting to start with Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which is a sequel to the film I can first remember seeing. When I was six years old, my father took my four-year-old sister and I to see it in a theater just off the boardwalk of Hampton Beach, New Hampshire. Somewhere in the middle, and somewhat anticlimactically, I nodded off, though I was awake again for the thrilling climax. I blame the sun and salt and being six.

It is, however, a film series that has been a part of my life more than most. I've seen the original trilogy many times, particularly Star Wars and Empire, and I worked for the better part of a decade making films in that same universe set in that long-ago far away galaxy. The first film was shown multiple times in my middle school, as a treat -- it wasn't cool to admit you loved it, but I was excited each and every time they showed it to us. I remember fondly introducing it to my kids about ten years ago, and wondering if I had started them too young when they weren't as captivated by the thrilling revelations of Empire as I was. My younger son surprised me a little over a year ago when he wanted to watch them again, and we spent three nights running rewatching old VHS tapes.

I joked on Twitter, before sitting down to write this, that The Force Awakens is the third best of the four films in the Star Wars series -- to a degree it's a stance I feel I can stand by. I saw The Phantom Menace with hundreds of other Star Wars fans and Lucas employees shortly before it debuted, in a beautiful theater in Corte Madera, California. I was not so hyperbolic to say that it ruined my childhood, though many fans angrily said that -- I still love those original films and feel deep nostalgia for my enjoyment of them as a child. It didn't ruin Star Wars for me in the least; but it did drain me of any interest in seeing more of what George Lucas had to say about that world. It was not, in my eyes, a Star Wars film at all -- squabbling about trade is boring when politicians do it and not at all improved by being blown up to enormous scale on a big screen.

It's strange, then, to think that my major complaint with this latest film is that is maybe a little bit too much Star Wars and not enough its own thing. After seeing it, I immediately remarked to my son that I looked forward to Rey carrying Luke Skywalker around in a backpack in the next film, because there are so many elements lifted from the original trilogy here that it would be an impossible task to list them all. I also told my father that they managed to squeeze an awful lot of Star Wars into it. It is more a remix than an original film; there is nothing wrong with that, and it certainly appeals to viewers, but it does make me rate those originals that much higher.

Some of the new elements are particularly welcome: a racially and gender diverse cast most of all, but second to that are the new heroes Rey and Finn, who carry great chemistry behind their interactions. Rey particularly carries the scenes in which she appears for her massive competence and confidence, showing up the former storm trooper -- storm troopers have never been known for their grace. We come to admire so much of what she can do that when she is finally confronted with something that truly overwhelms her, the audience feels the fear that leads to flight. I was perhaps a little disappointed by Oscar Isaac here -- I'm an enormous fan of his work, particularly in another science fiction film this year (the terrific Ex Machina, which I very highly recommend). His Poe Dameron is established as competent but although I found him charming, many of his scenes left me frankly a little bored in spite of myself, even the return to the trench run. I know we'll see more from him in future films, and I can only hope that I'll come to see him as something more than he appears here.

Where the film especially falls down is in its villains. Kylo Ren stands almost literally in the shadow of Darth Vader, or of his mask, and though we initially see him striking down Max von Sydow (himself a shadow of Alec Guinness's Kenobi), his tirades and rage show him to be not just a child but childish. He inspires so little of the awe I can still feel for a Darth Vader, whose calm and deep voice carry an authority Adam Driver simply can't match. He is altogether too whiny to believably carry the mantle -- everything he does seems to be the grasping of an angry and emo teen for respect from those around him. Similarly, Domhnall Gleeson as General Hux can't carry the bureaucratic menace that underlies a Grand Moff Tarkin, though he's clearly a stand-in for the same. And Snoke struck me as laughable as well -- a character who is so apparently uncertain of his power that he must project himself to be several times the size of his underlings. An idol who must present himself as that large must indeed have feet of clay.

I did appreciate, however, the inversion of the central conflict of the original three films -- here it is a son who has turned on his parents and all they represent, and Han's failed bid to redeem him has a kind of poignance for me, a father of two teen sons. In Jedi, I recognize how watching the pain of a child can overwhelm a parent; in The Force Awakens, I recognize how only a child can only rebel so strongly against a parent and how hard it can be for a parent to reach through that wall. Even if I found Kylo Ren a bit much, his cruelty in leading his father to believe in his potential for redemption is closely observed and struck home with me more than any other scene of his. If only Darth Vader could be so bold, only Kylo Ren could be so cruel. As a father, I could almost believe that Han knew at that moment what was in store for himself, and yet willingly supported his son anyway. It felt like one of a very few moments that were true unto themselves -- not just true to a previous installment of the franchise -- despite being surrounded by the trappings of the earlier films. (Han and Chewie are there, after all, to fulfill the same need as Obi-Wan in the original -- to disable a bit of tech in the Death Star to forward the story along.)

I have other minor quibbles: there's a bit of a comedic bit where Rey uses The Force to convince a Storm Trooper to release her, and then drop his gun on the way out. It comes right after her first fearful encounter with that mystical force that surrounds us and binds us and all that, and it seems really out of place as a result. Indeed, it comes right on the heels of a mental battle between her and Ren that made me wince with its silly back and forth of close-ups that wouldn't have been out of place in Seinfeld or Curb Your Enthusiasm. So, some wrong notes.

In the end, what I have to remind myself of is that this film is not really for me, and that's entirely okay. If I were six or 12 or even in my early twenties, I'm sure I'd love this film entirely and unreservedly. For someone encountering the series for the first time, it makes sense to include a scene to show just how evil the Empire First Order is -- by blowing up some planets with their planet-sized cannon. It's the biggest Chekhov's gun yet, and so it would be a shame not to have it go off. All the echoes and retelling are entirely appropriate for a new generation of viewers. These are myths, and myths are made to be mixed up and retold in different forms.

When you take into consideration that this is fundamentally a film for children, the virtues I mention earlier -- about representation -- make this the absolute best film in the franchise. I've been hoping for films that offer positive role models to kids across the spectrum of race and gender, and this is a firm and definitive step forward. Sure, I've sort of grown out of this sort of thing. But its best audience will be encountering these myths for the first time, and it's to Abrams's and Disney's credit that more kids will be able to see themselves in the heroes. I can't really ask for more than that; it retreads the same mythology, mixing and matching the pieces into a slightly new pattern, but in this one way it strides ahead, and I'm plenty happy about that.

I look forward to the next film in part because it'll be helmed and written by Rian Johnson -- I've loved his films so far and think he is a genuinely fascinating filmmaker with his own things to say, though I would prefer that he work on something original. And I genuinely would like to see the ways in which Ridley and Boyega's characters grow -- they are exciting and interesting. I hope they aren't thrown again into a Star Wars blender simply to rehash stories we already know we love... but even if they do, if they keep making heroes that more kids can love and identify with, I can be happy with that.

Posted by Brett Douville at 09:04 AM | Comments (1)

December 10, 2015

How it feels: Guacamelee

In the toughest bits of Guacamelee, my hands sweat, and I feel myself gripping the controller, and my heart races, something I don't even notice until I step away for a minute to attend to lunch. This happens in the El Infierno challenges, say, or doing the longest of Poncho's combo challenges, or in the distractingly difficult Cueva de la Locura, or the treetops above Tule. I felt the same way doing the hardest challenges in Super Mario Galaxy -- the one in the play room galaxy with a pixel art version of Mario or Luigi where everywhere you stepped meant the platform would start to disappear, that was incredibly difficult, and you felt like you had to put all kinds of skills you had learned throughout play just to have a chance at completing it.

These level designs are fiendish, and yet I love the feeling I have when I complete one, even if it's frustrating getting there. It's not mastery, really -- I know I haven't mastered this game. It's more a feeling like I overcame my body, somehow. I'm in my 40s, and my reaction times are not what they once were. Mastery is out of my grasp; when I start playing, it takes me minutes before I can even execute the basic stuff with any fluidity. There was a point where I thought I'd just give up on getting the platinum trophy because I couldn't imagine being able to execute the combos that Pollo Poncho threw at me. Mastery suggests that I might be able to do it again, perhaps on demand; this is absolutely not that. Instead, it's sort of a meeting of persistence and luck. I persist long enough that some of the movements become rote, and if I'm lucky, my hands execute everything near enough to perfect to succeed.

Take Cueva de la Locura. It tests me by making me have to do two things at once -- I have to be in the moment, executing a precise set of jumps and "power" moves, but at the same time, I need to be doing it in the game's rhythm, looking ahead one step and keeping it in mind so that I can arrive in a place right when a supporting block reappears. I need to jump precisely to a place where there is nothing right now, but where something will appear by the time I get there. There's no visual indication of where it will be, so I have to remember from when it last appeared, when I was landing on another block as it appeared earlier; half the blocks are present at any given time, and I have to maintain a rhythm of progression.

If I'm to have a chance, I have to fight the frustration, make it not dominate, calm the heartrate, breathe, live entirely in the moment. This forces me to relax -- I can't do much about the sweating palms, I think, because my body is feeling this tension -- but if I can relax my hands enough, I might be able to get through it. And so, after every few failures, I'll stop, breathe deeply, try to relax my hands, dry those palms on my jeans.

What urges you on is when you get appreciably closer -- though not successful -- in a particular goal. When you *almost* get it but have just a couple of jumps or combos or whatever before you can get there. It spurs you on. It's the best kind of tease, like a day where there's cloud cover but the sun breaks through now and again, and you think there's a chance it might be beautiful and sunny if you just stick with it. The hardest part of Cueva de la Locura was not knowing, for a while, just how long I'd have to keep pulling these tricks off; the next stable spot wasn't visible from where I'd start off, and so for a long time I don't even have the encouragement of having a sense of when it will end. When I finally catch sight of it, in my excitement I actually fail immediately because my pulse spikes again, and I lose track of my next jump spot.

It was different in difficulty for me than another hard spot, at the top of a very tall tree, because there are no spots for rest. In many of the game's challenges, there are spots where you can stop, hold the controller, and pause for a moment of reflection as to what you want to do next. This area of this level, while really relatively brief in comparison, had no such breaks. You could not get half-way, and plan out the next bit. You simply had to do it all in one go.

There are lots of reasons to like Guacamelee -- it features a non-white protagonist (although he's still pursuing the same goal as Mario, with an endangered princess). The art is fantastic and the animation is fluid. There are lots of humorous moments and gleeful absurdity (such as being able to change into a partially hatched chicken egg). I could happily listen to the music for hours and have. All of that would be enough to keep me coming back, I'm certain. But these moments, when I have to still myself to be able to be strong enough to face its challenges down... those are sublime.

Posted by Brett Douville at 11:09 AM