Monthly Archives: June 2014

Unflinching

I finally got a chance to see Fruitvale Station on a flight last week. In short, it’s a movie that definitely deserves upping my Top Nine Movies of 2013 to a list of the Top Ten Movies of 2013 (though which spot it deserves I can’t decide). The initial expectation for why it’s a great movie is obvious: it’s topical! A movie dealing with race and prejudice in the contemporary USA? If you’ll like this you’ll seem cultured, yes!

 
But to describe it as such not only does it a great injustice but also hardly describes the movie in full. Fruitvale Station is not a tract. Rather, it presents a sequence of events without actively telling the audience whether what’s happening is right or wrong. Rather the film presents the events leading up to the shooting of Oscar Grant as scenes in everyday life.
Here’s where Fruitvale sets itself apart from similar movies like They Help or 12 Years a Slave. There’s no heroizing of Oscar. He’s presented as, well, as a person.In the film Oscar is, unflinchingly, neither clearly morally good or bad; instead he, like people in general, fluctuates between the two. Sure, he helps a stranger at a grocery store, going so far as to call his grandmother for help, but he also lies to his mother and girlfriend about being unemployed. Shortly after we first see Oscar we see him stashing a big bag of weed in his closet, yet he’s also someone who’s willing to spend what little cash he has on his mother for her birthday. Oscar’s complex, a man of dualities.

 
It’s rare that we see a character this morally gray. Malcolm Reynolds, of Firefly, almost reaches the same heights of Oscar. Mal too is a man comprised of a duality: he’s rude and borderline mean to Book and Inara, yet he’s quick to defend them should anyone else threaten them. He’s someone who will return stolen goods to a sickly town but soon after unhesitatingly kick an unarmed man into an engine intake. He’s hardly someone who follows the straight and narrow.
Malcolm Reynolds, however, remains fundamentally heroic. He may not be the goodest of the good, but he’s still someone who not only tends to do the right thing but also usually comes out on the heroic side. He robs an Alliance hospital to help two members of his crew and only because the hospital will be restocked in no time. Mal, unlike Oscar, has a moral code. It may not be the most righteous one, but it’s there all the same. Oscar, like ‘normal’ people, has no such clear moral compass. Instead he’s just a guy.

 
If anything, Oscar is a man with the potential to be good. Yes, he’s an ex-con, but he’s trying to turn his life around. Rather than having the audience invest in Oscar because he’s the ‘good guy,’ like 12 Years a Slave did with Solomon Northup, we invest in him because we see ourselves reflected in him. Oscar’s a guy trying to make his way in the world, trying to do right by the people he loves.

 
Along with that, Fruitvale Station asks us to empathize with people we may not like in real life. When Oscar drives he blares rap music, like those degenerates who woke you up when they drove through your neighborhood last night. The film has us look beyond first impressions and see the people underneath. Furthermore, Fruitvale Station never tries to tell us to like Oscar, rather it shows us who they are and thereby get to know them.

 
Which is what makes the shooting all the more tragic. It’s not presented as a case of “look how awful racial prejudice is,” instead the tragedy stems from seeing the life of a young man trying to better himself and beloved by his family cut short. Oscar’s death is the loss of a person full of hopes and flaws. That it comes as a result of prejudice only serves to deepen the tragedy and illuminate problems of the system.

 
So yes, Fruitvale Station is topical, far more so than film like 12 Years a Slave. This relevance, however, never gets in the way of the characters and plot. It’s a slice of the life of a twenty-two year old man, albeit one which ends in his murder.

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The Dynamics of the Buddy Movie

I’m on vacation. As such, here’s an essay I wrote for class during my Spring semester. We were assigned seven movies and had to compare the lot of them. Hence writing about The Parent Trap. Enjoy.

The buddy movie is one of the most prolific genres in cinema. With movies as diverse as the classic Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, recent blockbusters like The Avengers, and animated films such as Toy Story; chances are everyone’s seen some variation of a buddy movie. One of the things that keeps the genre timeless is the myriad of buddies they can feature. We could have four characters who start out as friends and have their friendship tested, or they could be rivals who learn to work together. Alternately it could feature a pair of old friends who decide to roam the world together, possibly saving it in the progress; or two people with opposite personalities and a common goal. Point is, these different character dynamics are what make the genre unique.

At its basest the buddy movie genre allows for two characters to work together towards a similar goal. Such is the case with The Parent Trap. Annie and Hallie, the long-lost twins, are essentially the same character, though in English and American forms. The first portion of the film focus on them meeting, disagreeing, and coming to terms with each other whereas the remainder of the film follows them as they strive to reunite their parents. Here the characters compliment each other, their shared goal and similar personalities allow them to work together perfectly to achieve this goal.

Of course, that’s just one personality. Things get more interesting when more personalities are in play. The ancient Greeks put forth the theory of the four humors; that is that personalities could be divided into four temperaments: sanguine, choleric, melancholic, and phlegmatic. The definition of these fall on different ranges, being extroverted and people-orientated, extroverted and task-orientated, introverted and task-orientated, and introverted and people-orientated; respectively. Writers — and viewers — can use these to identify the roles characters have in a group. Take Sex and the City as a key example. Carrie, the main character, tends to be introverted and focused on her work (within the film she’s not seen as being terribly outgoing). Samantha on the other hand, is much more extroverted and focused on the people around her, as seen by her frequent flying from California to New York to visit her friends as well as her constant interest in the people (particularly men) around her. Miranda and Charlotte fall between choleric and phlegmatic respectively. When the buddy movie features an ensemble of four, each character will usually embody one of these temperaments. These contrasts allow for tension to build between the characters and conflict among them which, in addition to the central conflict, makes for an interesting story.

The titular foursome of Fantastic Four fit these roles with near perfection. Reed Richards is the cool, collected, melancholic leader of the group; he wants to create a machine to reverse their transformation. Ben Grimm too is task-orientated, though tends to be more outgoing and fulfills the role of the choleric. Johnny Storm is even more extroverted than Ben and lives for the attention of people around him so he clearly is the sanguine member. Lastly, Sue Storm is the mediator of the three focused more on the team themselves and falls under the heading of the phlegmatic. The Fantastic Four fit the temperaments and with it conflict is born.

Johnny, the sanguine, is eager to embrace his powers and go public with them. Reed, however, wants to not only make sure they’re safe but to reverse them. Here we see the tension between Johnny’s people-orientated nature and Reed’s tendency to pursue tasks. This same dichotomy is where a measure of the romantic tension between Reed and Sue stems from: his want to finish his machine and undo the effects of the cosmic storm and her want for him. It’s when Reed pursues her — and momentarily abandons his focus on the task on hand — that strain between him and Ben develops. Many of the film’s key moments, the incident on the Brooklyn Bridge and the fight outside the stadium, for example, are born out of the tension between these personality types. It’s only when they learn to work together that they are able to beat the villainous Victor von Doom and truly become heroes.

Removing one character from the foursome creates a different dynamic, one which website TV Tropes dubs the Power Trio. In this set up the three characters contrast and compliment each other, often (but not necessarily) with each one embodying one aspect of the Freudian ideas of the id, ego, and superego. The id is wild and impetuous, frequently jumping headfirst into situations; the superego is the id’s foil, rational and willing to look before leaping. The ego exists between them, balancing out their extremes. It can be seen in the original Star Trek TV show, with Kirk balancing out the hyper-rational Spock and the instinctive McCoy.

This also serves as a lens to look at Harry, Ron, and Hermione’s relationship in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Harry is clearly the id of the trio; when he accidentally makes Aunt Marge float he doesn’t think twice about leaving home and charging out into the night. We see this aspect of him again later when, upon hearing that Sirius Black betrayed his parents, he adamantly declares that he will kill the convict. On the opposite end of the spectrum, assuming the role of the superego, is Hermione. She is heavily focused on her studies, going so far as to have one of her professors procure her a time-turner so she can take a large number of classes. Furthermore, she is also the most sensible of the group, often exhorting the other two to calm down and listen to reason lest they get themselves hurt or in trouble at school. Ron stands between them as the ego. Sometimes he’ll be as headstrong as Harry, other times he’s with Hermione trying to talk down Harry from doing something reckless.

Though there’s little infighting amongst the threesome (especially compared to, say, the Fantastic Four), their differing personalities still serve to accentuate each other’s traits. Harry and Ron’s laid back attitudes sharpen Hermione’s studious nature, just as Hermione’s tendency to sit back and figure things out contrasts against Harry’s impulsiveness. The different views that Harry, Ron, and Hermione bring to the table enhance the characters and give their interactions — and by proxy their adventure — a great dynamic. It can also be seen in the key adults at the end of the film, with wild Sirius Black as the id, the mediating Remus Lupin as ego, and calculating Severus Snape the superego.

Narrowing the number of characters further results in foils; two characters who may share a similar goal but contrast sharply with each other. In Kinky Boots the tight-laced, somewhat-sheltered Charlie Price is paired up with the vivacious drag queen Lola. Their differing personalities clash on occasion, primarily over the subject of Lola’s identity. Charlie wants her to hide who she is in Northampton for fear that people will think ill of him, whereas she’s proud of her identity. The tension between their points of view and what they represent colors much of the film’s tension and the themes of acceptance and coming to terms with your identity.

Alternately, one character can influence the other. In Fried Green Tomatoes, the straight-laced Ruth becomes friends with the wild Idgie when asked to by the latter’s family. Over time, Ruth opens up to Idgie’s adventurous life and their friendship grows. Their differences help each other: it’s Idgie’s feisty boisterousness that causes her to get Ruth out of her abusive relationship with Frank; and it’s Ruth’s levelheadedness and warmth that help give Idgie a home. They’re opposites, yes, but their personalities compliment and strengthen each other, making for a compelling dynamic.

Another common incarnation of the buddy movie is the buddy cop movie. The conceit usually incorporates two police officers of contrasting personalities and, frequently, different races who have been ordered to work together. Films like Rush Hour, Men in Black, and End of Watch have done this to great commercial success. Lethal Weapon too was a commercial success and is unquestionably the quintessential example of a typical buddy cop movie.

Like other buddy twosomes, Martin Riggs and Roger Murtagh are opposites. Riggs is young, white, impulsive, and somewhat suicidal. Murtagh is middle-aged, black, reserved, and has a wife and kids to worry about. What Lethal Weapon, and other buddy cop movies, does is accentuate these differences to near extremes and forces them, by virtue of orders from their chief, to work together. This handy trope explains why the two opposites have to be together and provides the catalyst for the inevitable fights between the two.

And fight they do. From their initial meeting, Riggs and Murtagh find themselves at odds with each other. Something as non-dangerous as dealing with a jumper displays their different approaches: Murtagh stays near the car and tries to talk him down whereas Riggs climbs up to the jumper, cuffs themselves together, and jumps off onto the inflatable bag with him. This conflict amongst the cops compliments their struggle against the antagonists. It’s only when they are finally able to reconcile their differences and work as a team that they are able to defeat the bad guys, as we see in the iconic moment when Riggs and Murtagh shoot the villain Joshua together.

The buddy movie is a genre as diverse as its characters. Different combinations, be they based off the four temperaments, embodiments of Freudian ideas, or plain old opposites provide interesting dynamics that add an additional layer to the conflict and tension not usually found in other, single protagonist films.

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In Defense of Michael Bay

Michael Bay gets a bad rap. His movies are criticized as being low on plot and depth with anything worthwhile being substituted with mindless explosions. His characters are either terribly dull or more resemble caricatures than actual people. Also, sometimes they’re Megan Fox. Michael Bay makes movies that, when boiled down to it, are just excuses for big action set pieces that feel ripped from a crappy Saturday morning cartoon.

And, way I see it, most of those are reasons Michael Bay is excellent at what he does.
Some storytellers are known for having very particular styles. Joss Whedon is known for badass women and witty banter. Chris Nolan’s films are often told in a non-chronological fashion. M. Night Shymalan has his twists. If you watch one of their movies, you know what you’re in for. A Quentin Tarantino film is going to be ridiculously violent and have women’s bare feet. A Tarantino movie isn’t bad whether or not you like his over the top violence, rather it’s a vital part of what he does.

This goes for Michael Bay too. Transformers never claimed to be more than a story about giant robots beating up other giant robots, though some humans got in the way. This issue was rectified in the third one where the human-to-robot-action ratio is much better and, way I see it, Transformers Dark of the Moon was all the better for it.

See, Michael Bay, like Whedon, Nolan, and the others, has his trademarks: explosions, ‘Murica, and butts. You know what you’re getting into when you watch one of his movies. Pain and Gainwas a mess of storytelling. However, it had everything you’d expect from a Michael Bay film: things explode, there are American flags a plenty, and lots of poolside shots. Pain and Gain’s failure wasn’t inherently in any of those three things, it was in it trying to be more than what it was. It’s hard to fit a moral conundrum and a descent into darkness in a movie that feels plain goofy.

Most of Michael Bay’s movies — particularly the often derided Transformers series — never try to be more than what they were. The first Transformers was a typical coming-of-age film (which it pulled off alright) with giant robots (which it pulled off better). It had its off beats, but when it came time to do what it set out to do (giant robots) it excelled. Revenge of the Fallen had a ridiculous story, but great actions scenes. Dark of the Moon was overwrought but, again, I saw it because I wanted to see giant robots beating the crap out of other giant robots while laying waste to Chicago. That’s all I wanted.

I don’t go into a Michael Bay movie expecting a deep plot and to have something to stick with me afterwards. I go into a Michael Bay movie to turn off my brain and see flashy colors (which are often explosions and, lately, giant robots). If I want both, I’d watch Pacific Rim, which layers its Saturday-morning action with much deeper character and subtext. But, if I want to see Optimus Prime charging into battle on top of a robot dinosaur while brandishing a broadsword, well, Age of Extinction seems the right choice.

Some movies aim high and succeed (The Avengers), others aim high and fail horribly (Hereafter). Then there are some movies that have no idea what sort of movie they are (Need for Speed). Then there’s most of Michael Bay’s filmography: his films have no illusions about what kind of movie they are. His movies are big, dumb action movies. And all the better for it.

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Feels Like It

Ever played Star Wars? No, not Force Unlesahed or Rogue Squadron, we’re talking the Star Wars game, the original 1983 arcade game from Atari. It’s not the most complex game out there. In lieu of sprites the game uses crude vector graphics to give you an outline of TIE Fighters (that shoot fireballs), laser turrets, and the classic trench run. Using the yoke you fly through space, attack TIE Fighters and dodge obstacles. Like the Millennium Falcon, the game may not look like much but it’s got it where it counts. Star Wars the game feels like Star Wars the movie. You get to fly a freaking X-Wing, zipping around the Death Star and firing lasers. It controls smooth and, yes, you can also fire a proton torpedo into the exhaust port.

his ‘feel,’ that an adaption must capture the spirit of whatever it’s adapting, is terribly important. A movie-from-a-book has to provoke the feeling of the book, as does a sequel. The Hunger Games needs to carry over the books’ feeling of desperate insurrection, Star Wars Episode VII has to have that sense of wonder and high adventure the Holy Trilogy had.

It’s equally important in video games, which adapt reality (or semi-reality, or fantasy, or abstract ideas) into an interactive medium. While developing Super Mario 64, Shigeru Miyamoto wanted to make sure that just controlling Mario was fun, regardless of the environment. Game feel, as this is called, is crucial to gaming. Pac-Man has to respond to quick changes in the joystick and the car you’re driving should move like one too. If it doesn’t, it breaks the connection between the player and the game. That’s game feel which, important as it is, isn’t quite what I’m talking about.

When you’re playing a game, particularly one adapting an established work, gameplay has to reflect that work. Like I said before, flying that X-Wing in the arcade feels like how you’d imagine flying an X-Wing would. If a game about flying an X-Wing wouldn’t let you fire proton torpedoes or make those wonderful sound effects, it wouldn’t be as good.

A game that does this really well is Spider-Man that came out for the PS1 in 2000. Sure, it’s not the most graphically advanced (or even feature rich) game by today’s standards, but it feels like Spider-Man. You can swing around levels, stick to the ceiling and climb along the walls. Spidey doles out wisecracks and quips along the way as you beat up thugs and villains like Mysterio and Rhino. For all intents and purposes, you are Spider-Man. And thus the game is an absolute joy to play. Newer Spider-Man games, for all their open world New Yorks, longer playtimes, and additional features, can get bogged down in trying to find a special gimmick when, really, being Spider-Man is the biggest feature the game needs, so long as it feels like a Spider-Man game through gameplay and story.

he game LEGO Marvel Super Heroes is another great example of a game that gets it right. There’s an open world New York City to explore between missions that, well, isn’t exactly accurate (the Empire State Building is not that close to the Brooklyn Bridge!), but hey, it seems like it well enough. More importantly, the super heroes feel like the super heroes.

Let’s start with Iron Man. In the Mark VI, Tony can fly around (and double tapping X speeds him up with a spiffy sonic boom effect). Fighting mooks has him firing repulsors or punching aided by his repulsors. Alternately he can fire a charged blast from his chest or aim at a bunch of targets and he’ll fire rockets (y’know, like in that scene). This wonderful. Playing as Iron Man feels like Iron Man. Just flying around New York and destroying street lamps with your rockets is a pleasure.

The team behind LEGO Marvel Superheroes show that they love the source material throughout the game. Fighting as Black Widow can trigger finishing moves ripped straight from the films. Playable characters include all of the Sinister Six, Ms Marvel, Deadpool, and even Howard the Duck. The game is interactive fanservice, and it is wonderful. Playing the game evokes the same sense that the movies, comics, or even the culture around the Marvel property does.

Games like this are great because they capture the escapism that makes the concept so great. The Arkham series lets you beat up thugs and supervillains with the smooth, restrained brutality you’d expect from Batman. Halo allows you to be an unstoppable supersoldier. Burnout Paradise gives you the thrill of racing through a city. Basically, what I’m saying is if a game’s gonna let you fly an X-Wing or be a superhero, it had darn well better let you.

Further Reading: Henry Jenkins’ article on Narrative Architecture, particularly the section Evocative Spaces beginning on page 5. I may not completely agree with him, but he makes valid points that had a bearing of influence on this essay.

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