Monthly Archives: March 2014

About That Noah Movie

So. Noah. That new Darren Aronofsky movie. Let’s talk about it.

It’s an adaption, obviously. And it hits all the main beats of the biblical narrative. Noah’s told to build an ark, he builds an ark, animals, dove with the olive branch, landfall, the wine incident we don’t talk about at church, and the rainbow. That’s all there.

What Aronofsky and crew do is build on that, and for good reason. The account in the Bible is short and not terribly cinematic. Noah, too, is a terribly uninteresting character. He builds the ark and all that happens. There’s little explicit characterization in the Bible. Noah asks how someone copes with being told that the earth will be destroyed; how someone lives with being told that YOU are one tasked with saving the innocent; how someone deals with the notion that God is displeased enough with mankind to wipe them from the face of the earth. How does someone take this?

To that, Noah is presented as a sort of a proto-superhero. Like any superhero, he’s given a a purpose and an exceptional means with which to do it (in lieu of a Batmobile he builds an ark). Also like many recent superheroes, though, Noah is grounded and made very human. Which is cool because biblically he’s, y’know, human. Aronofsky’s answer to those questions listed in the prior paragraph is a man who comes to embody the concept of justice.

And here is where the film is strongest. Noah deconstructs the role of justice in society. What’s fair? What do people deserve? How far must Noah go to carry out what he believes to be God’s will? Noah wrestles with the interplay of justice and mercy, something amplified by the whole flood thing. We see justice in the judgment of the flood, mercy in the ark. Then with all that we see the effect of embodying the concept of justice on a person.

So is Noah a perfect movie? By no means, no. The pacing’s a little off and it drags at times. I’m not a huge fan of the presentation of the opening, but it serves its purpose. Some other bits here and there don’t quite work, a certain external conflict in the third act feels unnecessary and distracts from the justice/mercy dichotomy. That said, the movie succeeds for what it is, and what’s cool is that it explores ideas of the biblical Noah story that most adaptions don’t.

This is where Aronofsky as director really comes in to play. Noah isn’t what you’d call a ‘Christian movie‘ — and all the better for it. Noah here isn’t held up as being some perfect saintly hero, instead he’s treated as a very human character, allowing for an interesting story. More importantly, unlike many ‘Christian movies,’ Noah didn’t seem like it was trying to sell me something. It didn’t feel like a propaganda tract, instead it was an honest story about justice, mercy, and love.

Noah is an adaption of a very familiar story in a very different way. It’s different and mildly surreal (as you’d expect a movie by the director of Black Swan to be). As a whole, Noah isn’t one of the best movie of 2014 thus far (that’d be The Lego Movie), but it is a successful adaption of the Noah story.

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Nerd Culture, The Big Bang Theory, and Chuck

I stopped watching The Big Bang Theory a couple years ago. Part of the reason was because I was growing tired of it, other part was I simply couldn’t be bothered to keep up with it. For a class, though, I have to write a scene for The Big Bang Theory. This means watching episodes of the show to get a hold of the rhythm and voices of the show.

I started watching Big Bang during its second season and enjoyed it for what it was; a sitcom about a bunch of nerds. I got the references they threw around, had or wanted some of the memorabilia in their rooms, and remembered when that Rebellion poster in Leonard’s room was announced. This show speaks my language.

So did Chuck, another show I began watching around the same time, although it spoke it differently than Big Bang did. In Chuck the nerd shout outs came as frequently and as accurately as in Big Bang, but in this show they felt more a part of the plot. Maybe it’d be meta gags like an entire episode following the structure of Die Hard or guest stars quoting characters they’d played in Terminator or Firefly. Other times the show would work it into the story: Chuck and Bryce speaking Klingon so they won’t be understood or Casey telling Morgan there are only three Indiana Jones movies. Chuck used nerd culture to enhance the story, partially because the protagonist himself is a nerd, partially because it’s that sort of show.

The protagonists of Big Bang are caricatures more than characters; Sheldon the insufferable genius, Raj the funny foreigner, Penny the clueless blonde, and so on. The entire premise of the show stems from their nerdiness and inability to mesh with the ‘real’ world.

Chuck of the eponymous show, is a far more rounded character. Yes, we’re told he can quote Wrath of Khan word for word and he does employ the Wookie prisoner trick on a mission, but it’s all part of who he is rather than who he is.The show’s about a normal, nerdy guy who gets brought into a world of spies and intrigue, and sometimes it’s his nerdiness that saves the day, other times it can be his sheer gumption. Chuck’s identity goes beyond his nerdy traits.

This yields different treatments of the characters and their nerdiness. Take gaming as an example. Rock Band is played for laughs in Big Bang, whereas Chuck brokenheartedly playing Guitar Hero while drinking whiskey leads to one of Season 3’s most heartfelt moments. Halo Night in Big Bang is often used as a gag or an opportunity to show how unchanging Sheldon is, even if the other guys would rather be doing something else. Early in Chuck’s first season, Chuck and Morgan are discussing something while playing Halo. The former presents Halo as being a gag in and of itself, whereas Chuck presents it as just something guys do.

And there’s the central conceit of the nerdy humor in The Big Bang Theory: It’s funny because they’re nerds. The characters playing Dungeons and Dragons or reading comics is funny in and of itself, not because of anything they do with it.

Compare Community, which just aired their second Dungeons and Dragon episode. Once again it features the characters playing a relatively realistic game of D&D. It’s funny, not because they’re playing D&D, but because of what they bring to it. Hickey using his ex-cop interrogation techniques on a hobgoblin or Dean Pelton’s overcommitment to his character’s relationship with his father. It wasn’t funny because they were playing D&D, but what they did while playing it.

Now, Chuck ended in early 2012 and I stopped watching Big Bang shortly after. In the years since I started watching these shows nerd culture has, as a whole, become far more mainstream. The Avengers happened, superhero movies are topping the box office, suddenly it seems like everyone’s watching shows like Game of Thrones or Doctor Who. Nerd culture and pop culture are overlapping more and more. Big Bang is steadily becoming out of touch with where things are headed. A recent episode has a gag about how girls don’t play D&D though I know more than a handful who play tabletop off the top of my head.

What I love about Chuck and Community is their willingness to embrace nerd culture for all that it is. For someone like me, someone who’s been neck-deep in nerd culture and general geekiness since before Iron Man became a household name, it’s great to see shows who love this and celebrate the fun of being a nerd. With regards to Big Bang, well, I’ll quote Penny Arcade: “In Big Bang being like me is the punchline.”

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Top Nine Movies of 2013

I have weird taste. I love pulp, but I love heart, and I love a movie well done. In light of that, here are my top nine movies of 2013. Some movies didn’t make the cut. I really liked 12 Years a Slave for what it managed to do, that is create a story about slavery was genuinely moving yet not a white guilt tract. And I thought Her was fantastic as I did Star Trek Into Darkness, but all those aren’t on this list.

So what movies are? These are the ones I loved and the ones that stood out. They may not objectively be the best films of the year, but to me, they are.

(Wait, why nine movies? There are a bunch of movies I haven’t seen yet [Fruitvale Station, Desolation of Smaug, Dallas Buyers Club, etc] so there’ll be a tenth spot open should something else really stick out)

9. Rush
This movie will surprise you. It seems like an über macho racing flick. What it is is a slick drama, with more time spent on the emotional lives of the drivers than the race track. What we end up with is an engaging, beautifully shot film. And c’mon man, F1 cars are great.

8. Drinking Buddies
There’s a lot to be said about this movie, especially because it says so little. It’s a quiet film about relationships that’s gorgeously shot. It sticks to you not because a lot happens, but because it feels so true to life.

7. Much Ado About Nothing
I like Shakespeare. I like Joss Whedon. That combined with a fantastic cast (Clark Gregg and Amy Acker and Nathan Fillion and Sean Maher and Ashley Johnson and BriTANick!?) yields a really fun interpretation of the play.

6. Iron Man 3
Yeah, Iron Man 3 had to be here somewhere. I wrote a bunch on it when it came out and I stand by everything I said. It’s a blindingly fast paced movie that takes Tony Stark’s arc to a brilliant conclusion.

5. The Spectacular Now
Here’s a movie by the guys who wrote (500) Days of Summer and it feels a lot like said movie. Which is a good thing. It’s a coming-of-age story that discards a lot of the usual tropes of the genre in favor of a far more compelling, quiet story that rings of Say Anything… It’s great.

4. The Way Way Back
Yeah, another coming-of-age film. What The Way Way Back does so well is layer its film in charm and sweet without ever coming as trite and saccharine. We’ve got great performances (Sam Rockwell never disappoints) and a beautiful score that serves to create a story that feels very true.

3. The World’s End
This one could be classified as a coming-of-age story too, seeing as it’s about Gary King dealing with having to grow up. Only because this is Edgar Wright it’s a lot more than that. What we have is a moving story that’s part about friendship, part about old dreams, and part about the end of the world. It’s all balanced beautifully between drama and comedy with enough heart sprinkled throughout.

2. Gravity
As I touched on before, Gravity is what science fiction does best. It’s a story about reality, about people, set against a backdrop that heightens the entire affair. A brilliant performance by Sandra Bullock adds to the intensity of the film that really should have won Best Picture.

1. Pacific Rim
Yes. Pacific Rim. I’ve written a lot on this film since it came out and I stand by all of it. What could have easily been a big, dumb, testosterone fueled movie is instead a much more nuanced film that’s still about giant robots beating the crap out of giant monsters. Amidst all the spectacle there’s a strong emotional core about friendship and family. It’s an unusual movie rife with heart and a touch of social commentary.
There are so many reasons I’d enjoy this movie even if it was big and dumb, but because it’s so much more, because there’s so much behind the spectacle, it’s my favorite film of 2013.

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Why The Last of Us Should and Shouldn’t Be a Movie

Big news broke on Thursday: The Last of Us is becoming a live action movie. Now, you have to understand, I love The Last of Us. I wrote a final paper on it (see notes here), I wrote about its characters and convictions, and I wrote on how it’s a grownup video game.

I’ve said before that The Last of Us is an incredible game that deserves to be seen in a more literary light. And now it is, it’s being made into a movie so more people can experience it.

At least that’s Screen Gems president Clint Culpepper’s idea. Honestly, I have to agree. The Last of Us is a phenomenal piece of storytelling period. Video games remain something of a niche market; one sometimes deemed inaccessible. For good reason too: movies don’t require viewers to buy a $300 piece of equipment to watch them and then force them to complete challenges to see what happens next. A cinematic adaptation of The Last of Us would nullify this and allow anyone to experience Joel and Ellie’s story.

Thing is, The Last of Us is an incredibly visceral story, due in no small part to the fact that you’re playing as Joel. The tension in battles with the Infected and other people and the relief of those long quiet moments in between are all heightened because it’s you fighting the Infected and you initiating conversations with Ellie about football mascots. This is what gaming does best; making you feel truly involved in the action. A film wouldn’t be able to capture the same kind of rush of the battle and emotional bond with the characters.

With that, casting presents another obstacle. Voice actors Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson are intrinsically inseparable from Joel and Ellie. Their performances are incredible, bringing life to fantastic characters. Whoever plays them in the movie would have to be wonderfully cast, else much of their dynamic — that blend of tension and affection — would be lost. And it’s the bond between Joel and Ellie —not the Infected or the American wastes— that makes The Last of Us.

But then, Neil Druckmann, writer and Creative Director of the game, is confirmed to be writing the film. Druckmann has more than proved himself a competent writer with The Last of Us and Left Behind. And who better to write a film adaptation than the original writer? He knows what’s at the heart of the game and how to keep it in a film.

I have hope for this, mostly because Druckmann is writing but also because Bruce Straley, The Last of Us’ Game Director, is producing the film with Naughty Dog’s co-presidents and Sam Raimi. The creative core of the game is on the film too.

There are things they’ll have to do for it to work One would be keeping the extreme violence and consistent swearing that built game’s tone (and thereby earning a hard R-rating). A second would be casting two leads who would be able to match Baker and Johnson’s nuance and chemistry. Most importantly, Druckmann and team will have to adapt The Last of Us not as a game but as a story. We don’t need scenes of Joel crouching down and listening or incessant crafting; what we need are those quiet moments of conversation between the two protagonists.

Do I think The Last of Us needed to be made into a movie? No. It’s one of the best video games of not just its generation but of all times. It used its medium to great effect, telling a story unlike any other.

But now that it is do I want it to be a good one? Of course. Stripped of the experience of the game it remains a phenomenal story one that, rightly, deserves a wider non-gaming audience.

One thing’s for sure, though, they need Gustavo Santaolalla’s score.

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Je Ne Sais Quoi

I have an indie band crush. Well, I have a couple. One of them, Run River North, just released their first album this past Tuesday. Now, I have their demo back from July ’12, so I’ve been pumped to get this. Yes, I know, I know, but I go to NYU; most all of us are at least a little hipster.

Anyway. I am in love with their debut album, Run River North, but I can’t really say why. See, I can talk at length about movies, books, video games, television, and stuff, but music?

I can tell you that the occasional strums of electric guitar in ‘Foxbeard’ sound fantastic and that the violin in ‘Beetle’ adds so much to the song, but I can’t tell you how. I know that the music makes you feel something, and I know there’s a method to it, but I can’t put it in words.

I write; I use words and images to do my dirty work. But images, especially of the moving variety, gain another level of impact with music.

Look at Paperman, that gorgeous short from Disney. Sure, it’s pretty enough as it is, but Christophe Beck’s gorgeous score gives it that sort of magic I mentioned a year ago. The score powers the short, matches the emotions of the protagonist gives cues for audience’s investment. Emotion is expressed (somehow) through the music, enhancing the story and adding layers to it. Because music can do it.

But those are scores written specifically for a movie. When it comes to ‘normal’ songs, Chuck is unquestionably one of the best. The TV show’s sound track (which one can find with some googling) runs the gamut; there’s everything on it; big acts like Pitbull and bands without wikipedia pages like Aushua.

What makes Chuck’s selection of music great is how it’s used. Sometimes it can be used as a sort of pun, like playing ‘Toxic’ while the characters are scrambling around poisoned or a snippet of ‘The Imperial March’ when Morgan’s impersonating a villain.

For the most part, however, the songs are used to inform tone. The people behind the show are plenty aware of that inexplicable effect music can have and they use this. Need to establish the feeling of a bunch of guys driving to Las Vegas for a bachelor party? Throw on some Ke$ha*. Trying to create a sense of intimacy? Slow Club works wonders.

*this is the only time I condone listening to Ke$ha. It hurts to write that dollar symbol.

It gets better. There’s a scene towards the end of season three where someone dear to Chuck gets shot. In lieu of some Hans Zimmerian tragic score, Nico Stai’s ‘One October Song’ begins playing. The song, primary featuring just an acoustic guitar and Stai’s voice, carries the sort of quiet, almost helpless desperation that mirrors Chuck’s mental state.

Can I explain on a technical level makes ‘One October Song’ such a beautiful piece? I could mention his shouts in the song and the raw lyrics, sure; but how it all intertwines together with the music and what the chords and notes do? Nah, you got me.

But Chuck uses these songs, especially the ones from indie acts like Nico Stai, In-Flight Safety, and Frightened Rabbit to add emotional heft to crucial scenes. It works, man.

Run River North’s music is in a similar vein. There’s raw passion and emotion to the music; sometimes it’s desperate, sometimes resigned, sometimes happy. It’s a great album that has a, well, I don’t know what to it that does wonders.

Basically I’m saying if Chuck was still on Run River North would have a song in the show.

And you should buy their album.

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