January 30, 2005
Review: Capturing the Friedmans
In 1988 two men, a father and a son, were accused of and pled guilty to hundreds of counts of very heinous crimes. Both went to prison; one died there, and the other was released quite some time later. These are the facts that we can agree upon; the truth beyond these facts, even as to the guilt of the charged, is unclear.
Capturing the Friedmans is an extraordinary documentary because it seeks to make us challenge our assumptions about what our judicial process can deliver. We come away from the film completely uncertain about anything but the base facts as I've outlined them above. We are uncertain about the people who took and are taking part of this drama -- is Elaine Friedman really the harridan she is made out to be by her sons, or is she perhaps a woman who knows more than she says, or is she a woman who broke under the very real strain of having a husband and son accused of child molestation? Is Dave Friedman a son who was hoodwinked by his belief in his father as a hero, or is he a man who knows the truth and has been doggedly pursuing it these many years? Who was Arnold Friedman? Who is Jesse Freidman, really? Were these men guilty of the crimes to which they pled guilt, or were they targets of mass hysteria¹? These are truths we can't know -- all we can have is the facts as we know them.
I think I've been wrongly calibrated to think of our justice system as being about getting to the bottom of things, getting to the truth of the matter². After all, isn't that what we see week-in, week-out on Law & Order and its various spawn? Sure, Sam Waterston plays all sorts of tricks to win, but don't they ultimately get to the truth? Aren't we surprised on those rare occasions that he is hoodwinked?
It's a sobering thought, to consider that we don't really ever know the truth of the matter when it comes to what went on before the matter came into the courthouse. What goes on in the courthouse we document in myriad ways -- we stenograph, we draw pictures, we can even film in there these days -- but as to what came before, what brought us there, we can't really know. Fiction has told us this -- but isn't documentary about the truth?
The materials that capture this story range from the ordinary and familiar -- photographs, post facto interviews -- to the extraordinary and yet still familiar -- home video captured by the family during the preparation for trial. I don't know that I would want to do that if ever I found myself or my loved ones in this sort of situation; yet, I am glad that this family did.
These are the facts as we know them: In 1988 two men, a father and a son, were accused of and pled guilty to hundreds of counts of very heinous crimes. Both went to prison; one died there, and the other was released quite some time later. I thank Director Andrew Jarecki for reminding me that the rest can only be supposition and guesswork.
***½ (out of four)
¹I admit, I am aware that mass hysteria ruined a few perfectly normal daycare centers in the early 80s, when a rash of concern that satanic rituals were being practiced there overcame common sense and decency. There were a number of people improperly incarcerated in those cases -- this we know.
²Not entirely, I admit. Last year, I watched the documentary Deadline when it aired in its entirety on televison.
January 29, 2005
Review: Nine Queens
Every heist movie has its equivalent to the romantic comedy "meet-cute" -- that moment when a mark meets up with the con man who will be his ultimate undoing. The "meet-cute" here is truly excellent when you first watch it, it completely draws you in and establishes the framework of the movie you think you're about to see. But ultimately unsatisfying when you reflect back on it, having watched the whole film -- the "meet-cute" doesn't seem like it fits anymore. It's as if you suspend belief in one way, when the movie really needs you to have suspended belief in another way, without telling you.
I didn't like that about the movie, but other than that, the tale was well-told. As with any heist movie, you're waiting for the shoe to drop. You're on tenterhooks waiting to see how the mark will be separated from his money; you read more into characters and situations than are there on the screen. It's skillfully done, and no wonder someone wanted to remake it, but it doesn't ascend to Mamet's level of genius.
The performances are very good, at least, in translation. This is an Argentinian film, so I was reading subtitles while watching. Gastón Pauls, a fresh-faced and honest-looking crook, is thoroughly convincing as the apprentice to Ricardo Darín's equally appropriate master con-man. The interplay between the two men is the best part of the film, like a buddy movie but where the buddies don't trust each other at all.
It's rare that a movie can pull the wool over my eyes -- I knew who was Kaiser Sozei in the first fifteen minutes of The Usual Suspects¹ -- but then, I don't think that this was achieved honestly in this case. And that just left a bad taste in my mouth.
**½ (out of four)
¹Admittedly, not by name -- his name wasn't revealed until some time later -- but I knew who was doing all that killing revealed in the opening scenes.
January 27, 2005
Review: Murder on the Leviathan
Boris Akunin is currently one of the most popular authors in Russia, if the dust jackets of his recently translated Erast Fandorin novels are to be believed. Even were they not, they should be, for in Erast Fandorin, Akunin has created a Russian diplomat very much in the image of Sherlock Holmes, albeit without the benefit of a Dr. Watson.
Last year, I read The Winter Queen, the first of the Fandorin novels and the first translated into English. Since then, at least two more have been translated into English, the second of which is Murder on the Leviathan. The translator is once again Andrew Bromfield; I cannot say whether he accurately translates from the Russian, but the style of his translation is very much in the spirit of a Victorian writer, so it exactly matches my expectations.
Though The Winter Queen is a finer book, Leviathan is not completely a sophomore slump -- it is entertaining and reminds one of a cross between a cozy and a Holmes pastiche¹. Akunin is a bit fairer in his presentation of detail -- unlike in Doyle's stories, you have every bit of information to solve this mystery well in advance of the final pages, which was not always the case with a Holmesian story. I confess that there was little in the way of surprise about "whodunnit", though there was far more supporting detail to the mystery than I had gathered together.
The setting for the plot is as follows: having found evidence at the scene of a horrific crime which incriminates either a passenger or a crewman of a cruise ship, a French Inspector is purchased a first-class ticket by the gendarmerie and boards to find the killer. Among the suspects is our hero, Erast Fandorin, who joins with the rest of the suspects in an on-board salon for meals and conversation over a period of several weeks while Inspector Gauche² seeks out his killer.
The particulars of the murders which start off the novel are suitably horrible as to excite our attention, and events on-board escalate suitably -- at points this is quite an adventure. Occasionally I need a good murder mystery, and this certainly fit the bill.
¹There is even a section wherein Fandorin identifies details about fellow passengers only via his observations of them. And the setting: pure Christie, see Death on the Nile.
²A perfect name for this policeman, who is a bit of a buffoon -- every great sleuth needs his foil.
January 26, 2005
Review: Throne of Blood
Over the past few years, the Criterion Collection has been quietly reissuing restored DVDs of (mostly foreign) classics; I had the pleasure of taking in their Rashomon and Ran last year, and I intend to watch Ikiru and Les Enfants du Paradis as well some time this year. The remastering in this case is pretty good -- I imagine it's difficult to find really clean copies of forty-some-odd-year-old movies, so I forgive them the rare stutter or bit of dirt. Overall, it's very clear, and the subtitling is solid.
Now, to the film itself. This is Akira Kurosawa's Macbeth, just as Ran is his King Lear. The staging, cinematography, and overall direction of this black-and-white samurai adaptation is wonderful. Consider in particular the slightly off-kilter filming of a mad Toshiro Mifune when he encounters a ghost. Kurosawa was a master.
All of the elements of Shakespeare's original play are here, though made appropriate to the time and place (and dropping the iambic pentameter, of course¹). I was particularly surprised to see the "moving forest" towards the end of the movie -- the filming here was particularly interesting, allowing us to see through Mifune's restricted viewpoint, before later revealing what's really going on. Terrific stuff.
Mifune's performance is extraordinarily expressive -- he carries himself as we imagine a samurai might, and his face is drawn out in amazing grimaces that make us think of some sort of primitive masks, fierce revelations of his bottom teeth, or long, drawn out snarls. A lot of the filming of his character is at mid- or far- distance, typically taking in more than half of his body, and the way he clearly conveys his emotions in that framing is truly remarkable, and not something you see much in modern Hollywood cinema, with its constant close-ups. You feel his shock when his friend's head is brought to him -- and yet, you still feel the ambiguity that perhaps he knew it was coming. A great, great performance.
Also of special note, though she has relatively few lines, is the portrayal of the Lady Macbeth character by Isuzu Yamada. It's been a long time since I've seen Yojimbo, the only other movie I've seen in which she appears. Here she plays the role very subtly, and yet she really puts across the scheming nature of the character. Even not understanding Japanese, the intonation in her words comes across well, and you feel that she is filled with greed and ambition, but doesn't want to display those emotions to baldly in front of her husband.
All in all, a superb film from a superb director and cast.
**** (out of four)
¹Although, I confess it might be interesting to subtitle it using the lines from the play. Some would necessarily be left out, and the names are changed, but it might be an interesting experiment. It hews closely to the original.
January 25, 2005
Review: Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence
Writer-director Mamoru Oshii returns to the world and ideas of his 1995 Ghost in the Shell with a new tale which picks up at some point perhaps not too long after the original.¹
The most compelling aspect of this new film is not the story, nor really the animation, but instead some very interesting environmental artwork by the production house, Production I.G. Best known here in the States for their recent work in Volume 1 of Kill Bill², they present a few environments here which really stuck with me. The cyborg forensics room was presented in a very stark white almost bleaching out all detail of the room, really accentuating the apparent chill in the air -- indeed, it caused me to shiver. The other truly compelling environment was that of a hacker's home-cum-castle, with an ethereal shifting moat and a series of surprising (if repetitive) occurrences within. I imagine these were adapted from the manga upon which the film is based, but they really pull it off.
The story contains the same sort of pseudo-philosophical questions involved in the last one, directed at what becomes of humanity when humans become more machine than flesh. Wrap those questions together with a plot which could have easily been dispensed with in far less time, and a number of obscure quotations by the characters, and you get a mix which for some people will be quite heady. At times, however, I felt myself identifying with the young cop constantly asking, "Can we get back down to business?"
The overall approach taken in the movie appears to be a mix of 3D, for some of the environment and particularly for some particle effects which I find hard to imagine being hand-drawn, and traditional cell techniques for everything else, particularly the characters. The ways in which the two are melded are frequently to good effect, but can be jarring -- at times, the perspective on the characters and the speed at which they appear to be moving does not match the environment they are in. I'm not sure that this isn't intentional, but it was at times quite distracting.
Overall, I confess to missing the main character from the first movie, whose partner takes the lead in this one. She was both more compelling and more fun to watch than her hulking partner.
One final note on the subtitles. I flipped through the various subtitling modes but could not find one which included only the dialog, and not things like "[gunshot]" or "[noise of crowd]". These were completely unnecessary and marred the experience, occurring as they would at random times. What were they thinking?
**½ (out of four)
¹Note: I haven't seen any of the recently released (on DVD) series, Ghost in the Shell: Standalone Complex, which may put to rest some questions.
²Apparently they also did some work in last year's Gamecube RPG, Tales of Symphonia, though I've not played that.
January 24, 2005
Review: The Perfect Storm
Wolfgang Petersen's achievement in this film is stunning: to take a thoroughly engaging, harrowing, short little book and turn it into an overlong, boring, and ultimately unfulfilling movie.
It's not that any single element shouldn't add up -- the performances are actually not too bad. George Clooney, who I confess to have underestimating some years ago¹, turns in a solid performance as the doomed Andrea Gail's captain. Mark Wahlburg does well enough as a doomed crew member, and the interactions of other members of the crew are well done. Other elements that were particularly strong in the book are the descriptions of the storm's intensity and the size of waves -- ably represented by the special effects -- and the plight of the modern small fisherman, more on which in a minute.
The performances of those left on land fare less well than their seagoing counterparts -- Diane Lane makes the most of what little material she's given, but there's not much beyond the cliché to work with, nor for any of the others left behind. Indeed, most of what happens on shore could have been left on the cutting room floor to overall better effect. By the time we get to the final moments of the Gail's crew, which should be thrilling and terrifying, we're worn out and unable to engage our imaginations.
The film does touch a bit on the plight of the modern fisherman, squeezed by two consequences of overfishing: market prices being driven lower, and the need to steam further out to find enough fish worth bringing home. Partly representing the greed in this conflict, Michael Ironside feels entirely like a cardboard cutout in playing the boat's owner -- his talents as a generally stable character actor feel feeble in this film.
In the end, the most thrilling tale the movie has to tell is not about the events on the Andrea Gail, but instead on a little sailboat called the Mistral, which found itself in the midst of a horrible storm and required the Coast Guard's aid. It may be because we actually know what happened to these people, or because of the heroic actions mounted by one helicopter rescue crew to save them, but in the end their story is more satisfying, even though we know far less about the characters. And that's a shame.
** (out of four)
¹I.e., back in the days of "One Fine Day", "The Peacemaker", and, of course, the execrable "Batman and Robin".
January 23, 2005
It seems like not a lot can happen in four minutes. After all, four minutes is all it takes to steep a pot of french pressed coffee¹.
But in four minutes in Half-Life 2, you can
- Learn to play catch with the gravity gun...
- Overtake a heavily fortified position with the help of ant lions...
- Pull into a friendly outpost on your dune buggy and prepare to defend it...
- Make your way from basement to rooftop of an enemy-held building...
This last week, I've been playing Half-Life 2 in the mornings before I head upstairs to paint my sons' bedrooms. Typically I'll have a pot of coffee or two while I play, which stretches out into a couple of hours on most days.
Brewing a pot of coffee once the water's all boiled takes about four minutes in a french press, as I mentioned. But that time passes in an instant while I'm playing Half-Life 2. No sooner have I sat down and done something extraordinary than I'm up at the request of the kitchen timer to finish brewing. It is a mark of the game's genius that real time can flow so quickly while you're playing.
This genius isn't necessarily easily achieved, though Valve certainly makes it look easy. Having played through once for fun, I feel like I should go back and play through again, taking careful note of just how they do it. There's the story-telling, which is accomplished by methods both direct (moderately interactive cutscenes) and indirect (background). There's the million little audio touches, from the myriad sounds of each of your guns to the death throes of your enemies. There's the little graphical touches -- a bit of light on each of your guns, the motion of a character's skin as he walks away from you.
Each medium has its crucial elements, those building blocks that, properly executed, drives the work forward. In television, for example, it's the scene, usually no more than a couple of minutes in length. The first season of The Sopranos expertly delivered on each scene, which caused me to burn through those fifteen or so hours in just a week of watching. In music it might be the melodic line, or a recurrent theme (think opera).
I think that games have many crucial building blocks, from a micro level to a macro level -- and that's part of what makes producing a truly superior product really really hard.
One of the crucial elements for a first person shooter like Half-Life 2 is to deliver a compelling experience from the beginning of an enemy encounter to the end -- from enemy introduction to enemy death. If everything that's a part of that experience is great, that shooter has achieved that building block. On this reasonably micro level, Half-Life 2 does very well -- weapons are satisfying, the interface provides the required information with a minimum of fuss, enemies die well (with nice physics provided by Havok).
But with games, we need to take it a bit further -- that single element, repeated for hours and hours, can grow stale without something to drive you on. That's where the macro level can come in.
In Half-Life 2, there are a few things going on at the macro level. There's a storyline evolving, which drives you on if you're the sort of person who really enjoys storytelling in games. But there's also a good deal of gameplay variety -- vehicles, simple squad play, ant-lion control, in-engine cutscenes -- that keep it fresh from section to section.
I may come back and review Half-Life 2 again: the game developer in me wants to take this apart bit by bit and really understand what's going on from moment to moment. The player in me just wants to play it through again. Four minutes at a time.
¹I recommend the Bodum double wall press (called the "Columbia"), myself, in chrome. Keeps the coffee hot long enough to drink the pot.
January 22, 2005
Here goes... something...
So, I'm off and blogging. Many thanks to my fine friend Loren's fine hosting service, I couldn't have done it without you.
My blog is intended to reflect my thoughts and opinions about a number of things, including games, books, and movies. I'm an avid consumer of all three, but a developer of the first. So, occasionally I may spend a little time talking about game development, like Jamie does, but mostly it will be more along the lines of reviews and such.
Expect the look of the site to be unstable for a little while as I figure out how I want it to look.
Cheers, thanks for reading.