Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and The World's End

I recently finished reading the latest novel from one of my favourite authors, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami. Despite lacking the surrealist currents which run through my personal favourite of his works, this book connected with me deeply. Its meditation on loss and alienation was very moving and I was particularly taken with the notion that events from years in the past not only shaping who we are today but actively trapping us in an endless loop of retrospection and obsession with what could have been.

Then by complete accident, on the same day I finished the book, I also re-watched the third film in Edgar Wright’s “Three Colours Cornetto” trilogy - The World’s End. And what a surprisingly perfect match they were!

Both tell tales of lonely men, who during their school years were part of a close knit friendship group, a group that defined them and their sense of identity. And in both cases, these men were ejected from these groups. In the case of The World’s End Gary King was abandoned by his friends after causing a near fatal car accident, and in the case of Tsukuru Tazaki, he was thrust out of the group for unknown reasons which spur the events of the book. Both men then drift through life in a state of arrested development, obsessing about their childhood and the rift it has left in their lives. And ultimately both men must return and confront their pasts in order to mature as human beings. 

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage and The World’s End understand the power of memory and the immensely powerful grasp it can have on us. Sure one tale is of a quiet, mild mannered Japanese man living in Tokyo and the other is a hilarious, explosive genre film about an alien invasion, but the thematic similarities are striking. 

And they form a delightfully unexpected double bill.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Tomb Raider - Protecting Lara

When it was first revealed I was excited to play the new Tomb Raider reboot. I liked the idea of a realistic  protagonist who got bruised and cut throughout the course of the action. Unlike Marcus or Dom or any of their kin, characters who can take a full clip of bullets to the face and keep on walking, Tomb Raider promised to present players with a real person, a human hero. A person who bleeds when cut, hurts when falls and bruises when hit. Sign me up.

Then this happened. And much controversy ensued. Many people were understandably angered by the suggestion of sexual assault being presented in the game. Issues of sexism and gender politics exploded and Crystal Dynamics went into damage control, did a complete 180, and denied that the game would feature any themes involving rape and/or sexual assault.

But, is that really the issue?

Sexual assault is a undoubtedly serious matter. It's a subject that requires tactful handling and a degree of maturity perhaps not immediately associated with the Tomb Raider franchise. It certainly isn't something that should be thrown into a game as a convenient plot point or flashy cut scene. On the other hand however, no one has played the game yet so who's to say it's not handled in a deft and thoughtful manner? Thematically it seems to fit the tone and sense of realism Crystal Dynamics are shooting for. They seem hell bent on evoking a real sense of malice and danger, both when falling from trees and when captured by vile murderous thugs.Would the threat of sexual violence not naturally factor into the scenario presented by Tomb Raider?

However the real problem rears its head when when executive producer Ron Rosenberg says this:

"When people play Lara, they don't really project themselves into the character," Rosenberg told me at E3 last week when I asked if it was difficult to develop for a female protagonist. "They're more like 'I want to protect her.' There's this sort of dynamic of 'I'm going to this adventure with her and trying to protect her.'"

This is where the true issue lies, not in the fact that the game features mature content, but that its developers feel that because Lara Croft is female players "don't really project themselves into the character" and that instead they simply "want to protect her". This notion is not only incredibly sexist, but insulting players in general. Insinuating that players are incapable of "projecting themselves" into Lara is, in my view, either the product of a design flaw or an assumption that players lack the cognitive ability to project themselves into the female avatar. It also subsequently calls into question the motivations for making the game so brutal an realistic in the first place. If this is how Crystal Dynamics see Tomb Raider, is all the grunting, screaming and bleeding there to heighten the sense of realism and danger as the player traverses the game world? Is it there to pull them into the narrative, and engage with a real and disturbing danger? Or is it merely there for players to observe, detached from the character of Lara? Is it just designed to evoke pity? Is it simply a clinical attempt to make the player want to protect her?

Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Grey - Future hidden gem

I literally just finished watching the recent Liam Neeson film The Grey and I must say I was very impressed. The plot revolves around a group of men who survive a plane crash in Alaska and are then forced to defend themselves against a pack of ferocious wolves as they attempt to trek to survival. Think Alive... with less cannibalism... and more wolves.

There are a lot of things to like about this film, the performances are decent, the wolves (for the most part) look incredibly realistic, it's frightening, and it's exciting. It's simply a very enjoyable film. Sure, there are one or two nonsensical moments, and a handful of cringe-worthy lines of dialogue, but on the whole, it's a good film.

But what makes this any better than the run-of-the-mill action films that get churned out each year? I hear you ask. Well, there are a few aspects in particular that lift The Grey above your standard testosterone laced popcorn flick. It features a sprinkle of non-linear narrative structure, which keeps it from feeling stale. It also has a somewhat unconventional soundtrack, the score often emanating a real sense of sadness and loss. It does a great job at creating a somber mood which is very much at odds with the typical bombastic scores found in this type of action/thriller film. Similarly surprising is that the film ponders some weighty existential topics on the nature of life and death. This is no art house think-piece, but The Grey is peppered with enough thoughtful moments to give you something more to chew on than one would likely have expected. The Grey also cleverly uses the old trick of filling the entire cast, Neeson excepted, with relative unknowns. This creates a palpable and pervasive sense that no one is safe. And they're not.

The most successful aspect of the film, however, is its location. Or more specifically, how its location is shot. The majority of the film was shot, not in a studio, but out on location. And this makes all the difference. When the characters are out in the freezing conditions the suspension of disbelief is never once broken by obvious sets, fake snow, or CGI clouds of breath (I'm looking at you The Social Network). The Grey consistently feels cold. It feels as though the characters are actually out in the wilderness. Snow constantly falls, wind howls, hands shiver, plumes of steamy breath fill the screen. If these guys don't find shelter they die. The threat of succumbing to exposure feels very, very real. Without this, the film would have collapsed. If we could tell Neeson and his buddies were actually standing in a warm set full of Styrofoam snow, it wouldn't have mattered how real the wolves looked or how scary they were, the film would have lost its sense of realism, and the tension would have dissipated.  

So there you go, The Grey is a great little film. Not a masterpiece, but a really great little film. I have the feeling that in twenty or so years it will be one of those little known gems that people stumble across and discover. People will stumble onto it playing late at night on TV, or find it buried deep in their Netflix service. It's a film they will tell their friends about. Film geeks will talk about "that great film with Liam Neeson and the wolves". And I bet, one day, it will make for a great midnight screening at little cinema somewhere.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Raid - Violence as dance

Last week a friend and I headed to the movies to check out the new Indonesian action film film The Raid, we had heard good things and were keen to see if the praise was deserved or not. Upon emerging from the cinema we were both in agreement - it was very impressive and very brutal. Not very surprising. However, what made this viewing unique was that I am currently living in Jakarta and as such the film featured no subtitles.

I cannot speak Indonesian, so I literally cold not understand a single word anyone in the film said. All I could do was watch. This of course, as I later discovered, led to my misinterpretation of some of the events depicted in the film and basically meant that as I watched The Raid I ignored any semblance of story completely, instead I simply watched for the visceral action. Of which there is an abundance.

In doing so I found that I gleaned a unique appreciation for the film. As the spectacular fight scenes escalated I found myself engrossed not in why characters where fighting, but how. I marveled at the intricate choreography, the precise timing and the raw physical power on display. As the scenes progressed and the bodies piled up I found myself caring less and less about story, I stopped trying to piece things together in my head and instead just watched. The screen became all movement and flow. The camera dancing through a bloody and violent ballet of knees, fists and heads. And that's when it dawned on me - The Raid is perhaps one of the most beautifully choreographed dance films I have ever seen.

Rayman Origins - Platforming preconceptions

Rayman Origins is a beautiful, beautiful game. Perhaps one of the most gorgeous games I have ever had the pleasure of playing. So much so, in fact, that I am having a great deal of difficulty finding a screenshot from the game that does it any justice. Much of the game's beauty comes from the flowing, layered movement of the multiple 2D planes that make up each of the its levels. I guess you just need to play the game to appreciate it (please do!). However to put it simply - aesthetically, I love this game.

Though interestingly the visuals also had an unintended effect on the way I played the game. Or, more specifically, with which character I played the game. Basically when the player begins Rayman Origins they have four different characters available for them to play as. There is the titular hero Rayman, his frog-like buddy Globox and two variations of Teensie. Technically all these characters are identical, they posses exactly the same moves, speed and jumping ability. However, they don't feel the same.

The most notable example of this was when I attempted to play a level or two using the Globox character. As mentioned above, in terms of abilities he is an exact clone of the Rayman character, however he looks very different. He is presented as an overweight, dopey-looking frog creature. And this visual representation brought with it a whole load of preconceptions. Suddenly, even though I knew Globox was moving through the level with the same agility and precision as Rayman, it felt like he was slower. He felt cumbersome and unwieldy and ultimately less fun.

I figured this is due to two factors, firstly Globox's character design and animation simply and directly suggest that he should be slower. He is big and fat, logically he should not be able to move as fast as the slim (and limbless) Rayman. As soon as I look at him I automatically think "that guy looks slow". And secondly, years of video game experience has taught me that often when presented with a selection of characters they will have differing attributes. Conventionally the larger characters will be slower but will often be able to take more damage or perhaps deliver a more powerful attack in order to compensate for their lack of physical finesse.

Perhaps this happens all the time? Perhaps I am always misinterpreting the way a character behaves and moves though the game world based on appearance and it simply took that chiseled precision of a old school 2D platformer to bring it to my attention? Who knows. But one thing is for sure - despite all this food for thought, I still played through the rest of the levels as Rayman.

Monday, April 9, 2012

On why I dislike Call of Duty

I recently completed my first Xbox 360 game in over 8 months. For no reason in particular other than it's relatively short campaign length, that game was Call of Duty: Black Ops. I was interested in playing this game after the Guinness World Records voted it as having "the greatest video game ending of all time". Now, for the record I don't give the award any credence myself, but it did pique my interest in a game I would otherwise have overlooked.

Now having finished the game, I have come to two conclusions. One - the ending was pretty cool. And two - I really dislike Call of Duty games.

To be fair, I already knew COD games weren't my cup of tea, but it had been a while since I had actually played one and this just nailed that feeling home. The main issue I have with this series is its manufactured sense of chaos. COD never earns its mayhem, it simply drops the player into it. Typically I begin a mission with no knowledge of what is going on or what I am expected to do. All the information I am given is a "follow" marker over the head of one of my allies. This in itself is problematic and often counter intuitive as I typically must push forward past this AI character in order for the mission to progress. "Follow" indeed.

Then when the bullets begin to fly I more often than not have no idea what is happening. Superiors bark orders and commands at me which are only occasionally audible, they will tell me where to go, what gun to use or what vehicle to procure, mission critical objects will sometimes glow yellow to catch my attention, other times they will not. Sure it feels chaotic, but not because I'm a soldier out in the field with everything falling apart around me. No, instead it feels chaotic because I'm continually wrestling with the game, trying to figure out what it wants me to do or waiting to be told what to do. All the while avoiding the billions of bullets and grenades the fill my screen.

Call of Duty: Black Ops, and the COD series in general, have never made me feel like I'm a soldier. A man with his life on the line and everything at stake stuck in the chaotic hell of war. Instead they make me feel like a frustrated gamer, waiting for the next muffled instruction which I will need to decipher through multiple trial and error attempts. Not my cup of tea.

Having said that, the ending of Call of Duty: Black Ops is pretty rad.

Friday, March 16, 2012

The Prestige - Complexity and Symmetry

This post contains huge plot spoilers for The Prestige.

Last night I inexplicably had the urge to watch Christopher Nolan's follow up to Batman Begins, 2006s The Prestige. I had enjoyed the film immensely upon release but had not had a chance to revisit it since. I fired it up on my laptop and sat back in my hotel room to see if it was still as captivating as it was six years ago.

There were two things in particular that really stood out to me on this viewing. The first was how Nolan has the uncanny ability to tell an extremely complex tale in a way that never seems complex. If you actually break down the plot of The Prestige it is astounding how many layers deep it goes (a prelude to Inception no doubt). The film opens with the murder trial of Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) who has been accused of killing fellow magician Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman). While behind bars Borden is given the journal of Angier which he proceeds to read, it's content being played out on screen via flashback. In the journal Angier writes about having acquired Borden's journal which he is deciphering, and again we see the contents of that journal played out too. Essentially the film begins at the end and then we are unraveling the mystery via a flashback within a flashback. Then on top of this already mind-melting structure, Nolan also freely jumps around in time independently of the journal flashbacks (such as the opening shot of the top hats etc.). Phew. As you can see, saying that The Prestige has a complex structure is an understatement. Hell, I'm struggling to even describe the temporal nature of the plot in this post!

But this is where Nolan's genius lies. The Prestige is never hard to follow. Miraculously Nolan is able to weave a coherent and gripping tale all the while never alienating his audience. It would have been incredibly easy for this film to be an indecipherable mess. But somehow Nolan dodges that bullet and crafts a film the feels as though it is totally in control of it's structure. Sure, you need to pay attention. But it never makes the audience feel stupid or lost. This is an amazing feat, and one that should not be overlooked.

The other aspect of The Prestige that really struck me was the thematic symmetry that permeates throughout the film. Firstly, and most obviously, the film is itself is about doubles, Borden's twin brother and Angier's eventual clone. The majority of the plot revolves around Angeir's obsession with discovering the the secret behind the "Transported Man" illusion, one in which identical cupboards or doors are positioned at each end of the stage. There is also symmetry to be found in the lives of the characters. Angier's wife drowns then he himself drowns each night at the climax of his final performance. Borden's wife hangs herself then Borden himself is hanged. The whole diary, within a diary conceit has a beautiful symmetry too.

There is also symmetry in the construction of the film itself. The opening sequence features a scene in which Cutter (Michael Caine) performs a magic trick for a small girl. The illusion consists of a bird and a cage disappearing then the bird reappearing as if my magic. However what is actually occurring is that Cutter crushes both the bird and the cage (killing the bird) then presenting a new bird which the girl assumes is actually the old one. This trick perfectly mirrors the final reveal of the film in which we discover that Angier has essentially been performing the exact same trick using himself and a clone each night.

It is this structural mirroring and thematic symmetry that helps Nolan create a film that, despite its incredibly complex nature, is easy to follow and dramatically powerful. The Prestige is a remarkable film from a remarkable director. Nolan is often showered in praise for his Batman films, however looking beyond those (admittedly groundbreaking) films, I think it is worth taking note that there isn't another filmmaker working within Hollywood that consistently produces such complex and interesting work. I for one am looking forward to discovering what he has planned for us once his Batman trilogy is complete.