Monthly Archives: August 2014

Of Boyhood

I was finally able to see Boyhood this week. It came out over the summer when I was in South Carolina, which is not a good place to be if you want to see the latest indie film (I have yet to see Snowpiercer too).

But I did see Boyhood this week and in some respects it’s a frustrating movie. There’s little structure, if any, to the film. Which makes sense; a movie filmed over twelve years would be hard pressed to tell a single story. A strong narrative usually takes place over a relatively small amount of time, it keeps it brisk and gives urgency to the proceedings. It’d be far less interesting if Luke, Han, and Leia arrived at Yavin 4 while the Death Star was a week away. Boyhood disagrees with that philosophy.

Like I said, it’s frustrating. Structure should be what makes a story work and, yes, Boyhood is still a story. And, yes, it does still work. But why, and how? There’s no grand journey that the ‘hero’ Mason embarks on; there’s no inciting incident, midpoint, or climax. See, Boyhood’s story is a slice of life, very much in the way that something like Seinfeld purports to be. Except more so. In the long run, though, Boyhood is incomparable and stands out as being unlike anything else in cinemas today. It’s a singular movie that demands to be met on its own terms.

So what are those terms? Boyhood feels in some ways like a period piece, the period in question being from May 2002 to late 2013. The film opens to the sound of Coldplay’s “Yellow” and various other songs show up throughout the film that serve primarily to date certain scenes but also managing to show a sort of evolution of what’s been on the radio for the last decade and a bit. In early scenes we see Dragonball Z on TV, later on we hear the kids discussing Revenge of the Sith, and still later on The Dark Knight is mentioned as being a favorite movie of the year. Pop culture landmarks like Halo 2, a song from High School Musical, and even Funny or Die’s “The Landlord” make appearances. It’s half winking at the audience, and yet also saying “remember when this happened?” To people my age, it’s reminding us of what it was like growing up.

But Boyhood does not run on nostalgia alone. It also focuses on the impermanence of life. Mason and his sister Samantha’s friends don’t stick around; the friends they’re hanging out with and even significant others change from time jump to time jump. The only ones who are always there are their mother Olivia and their father, Mason Sr. Natures of relationships change too; early on Olivia is distant towards her children’s father, but later on she becomes much more cordial. We never see the incidents that catalyzed the change, but are instead left with the feeling that time itself is what changes them.

Here lies another interesting choice taken by director Richard Linklater and crew: with very few exceptions Boyhood skips the highs of life in favor of the in-betweens. We don’t see important events like Mason’s first day of middle school or his prom, events that crop up in what seems like every movie about youth ever. Instead the film will look at moments before or after, instead our information of prom comes from a terse post-breakup talk between him and a girl he was dating; we see Mason coming home from graduation rather than him throwing his cap in the air. There’s restraint on the part of the filmmakers, and it’s this restraint that makes the film feel so much like life.

As the movie draws to its close we see a now-adult Mason saying goodbye to his mother as he prepares to go to college. Tearfully, she says “I thought there would be more.” It’s a summarizing look at life and the film; people come and people go and things end. At the film’s close, Mason and some new friends are trekking through a park and Mason is asked if people seize moments or if they’re seized by moments. His response — a statement so incredibly on-the-nose it almost breaks the fourth wall —is that they’re always in the moment. On-the-nose or not, it is what life is: a series of moments we’re stuck in — and Boyhood captures that splendidly.

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The Ballsy Ending

I feel like Edge of Tomorrow has been out long enough that it’s safe to talk about the ending. And honestly, I feel like I could have discussed the ending much closer to when it came out because, well, it kinda just was. There wasn’t a big shocker at the ending, no moment that left you going “woah.”

Edge of Tomorrow ends with breaking the loop, as one would expect from a movie that’s essentially Groundhog Day with aliens and guns. But unlike Groundhog Day which ended with the next day, Edge of Tomorrow ends with a reset. To the day before, only this time the aliens are defeated and such. So yay, there’s a happy ending, everyone’s alive despite the heroic sacrifices made by Will Cage and Rita Vrataski. It’s a happy ending and there’s the hint that that undercurrent of romantic tension is free to blossom. Woohoo.

But it’s the easy ending. Everything’s tidy and neat and somehow destroying the alien Omega hive mind meant time/Cage’s consciousness being shot back to the morning before — the loop is reset. Which makes sense (kinda), but, again, it’s so typical. It was a great movie up till then; really pushing the concept for all it was worth. There was also some build up as to what they would have to do to destroy the Omega. Maybe by destroying the Omega Cage would becomes the new Omega and control the aliens. There were hints that in order to end the loop Cage would have to be willing to sacrifice himself and Rita. Ultimately he does, but it’s cushioned because he’s back to the start at the end.

I’m told the manga the film is based on, All You Need Is Kill, has a much ballsier ending. In it Rita never lost her reset ability, so both would ‘wake up’ after they died. At the end, however, they turn against each other since they’ve become antennae for the hive mind themselves and, thus, one of them has to die. That’s a cool ending and it’s one that plays all its cards. The film, well, played it safe.

I like ballsy endings when done right. District 9, for example, didn’t end with Wikus reuniting with his wife but rather, well, he become one of the prawns himself. It’s a weird ending, but one that’s appropriate given the gritty tone of the film. For it to end happier would be untrue to the narrative that had been presented. Furthermore, it’s one that sticks with you long after the movie came out

The Last of Us is another story that had to be ballsy. Given how the game progressed, it couldn’t have a bright happy ending — to do so, in the words of writer/game director Neil Druckmann “…didn’t feel honest anymore. After everything they’ve done and everything they’ve been through, that was letting them off a little too easy – especially for Joel.” The honest ending was the ballsy one. The one that left you a little uncomfortable and questioning all that had come before. It worked, and the game is all the better for it.

Now, there’s a time and place for the ballsy ending, just as there is for the safer one. The recent film What If ends much happier than I expected, though part of me did want it to step up and be the romcom that ended melancholically. But hey, it didn’t feel nearly as schizophrenic as Edge of Tomorrow did. I’m just fine with movies like The Guardians of the Galaxy or The LEGO Movie ending with an optimistic note. The ballsy ending is the one that defies conventions and provides a resolution that, though not necessarily unexpected, is one that’s unusual. Like having your two main characters turn on each other.

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Antisocial Gaming

My brother recently got Titanfall which means that I got to go a few rounds at it. That game is fun. It’s also unique in that there’s no traditional single player mode; the only way to play is competitive online multiplayer. It makes sense. There are plenty of games out there where the single player campaign is often passed over in favor of the far more popular multiplayer. But here’s the thing aboutTitanfall: only one person can play per console. If you want to play with a friend, they’ll need their own copy of the game and their own console and tv to play.

What strikes me as odd is how opposed this is to what gaming used to be. When video games first went mainstream with Pong back in the ‘70s, the arcade cabinet was designed so that when people were playing it they’d be forced to be almost shoulder to shoulder. In this brave new world of digital gaming there would still be interaction with other people. Sure, single player games against AIs were there too, but there was always the option to play a game with someone.

I’ve always loved playing video games with someone else. Sometimes this would mean scrambling to find my cable so I could battle that kid’s Pokémon team with my own. I have many fond memories of hours spent playing Crash Team Racing and Bomberman Party Edition while growing up. Heck, we even found ways to make single player games in the Mega Man series multiplayer by taking turns every game over/level.

In recent years this could be four of us yelling and taunting each other while playing Fifa or the hilarity that inevitably ensues when playing Super Smash Bros at four in the morning. Then there are the hours spent playing Halo in one form or another, or running around Lego New York with a friend in LEGO Marvel Super Heroes. Sure, these games can be played alone and you don’t necessarily even need to be in the same room as someone else to play with them, but there’s something special about sitting on the couch and playing against or with those around you. There’s a shared enjoyment for the comedy of what can play out on screen, or even the simple knowledge that someone saw that awesome move you just pulled.

Social-on-the-couch-with-your-friends-gaming probably hit its peak with Guitar Hero and Rock Band. Those games let you live out your rockstar fantasies and were that much more fun when you have some friends playing members of your band. You could play on your own, and it was still fun, but the experience was enhanced by having people with you. These games were designed around sociality. By having the controllers be plastic instruments rather than tapping buttons on a gamepad, players were encouraged to really immerse themselves not only in the game, but in the fantasy of being in a band on stage. And c’mon, if you’re gonna play a cover of “Livin’ On A Prayer” you can’t do it alone.

But as those plastic controllers have gotten dustier it seems that less and less games are aiming for that on-the-couch interaction. No, not all games need to have local multiplayer. Some do very well without it: The Last Of Us’ incredible atmosphere works best when it’s only one person using the television. But even then, when racing games with local multiplayer are becoming less and less common, it’s worrisome.

Don’t get me wrong, I think some of the stuff that’s happening in games is great. Titanfall making the campaign a competitive multiplayer is a cool idea and Destiny’s amalgamation of the FPS and MMO genres is not only unique but a hell of a lot of fun. Destiny in particular fosters a sense of togetherness by letting you team up with other Guardians roaming the wastes. It’s fun, especially if players have other friends with the same game and console. I just want there to always be games for those of us on the couch.

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The Reels Are Alive With The Sound Of Diegetic Music

Here’s a word that no one uses unless they want to sound smarter than you: diegesis, that is the type of story that’s told by a narrator. Which means what, exactly? Well, in The Princess Bride the Grandfather is performing an act of diegesis when he tells the Grandson the story. The interactions he has with the Grandson are thus non-diegetic. Of course, it’s all a narrative being told to us, the audience, by the filmmakers in turn carrying out diegesis. In film criticism it gets a little more specific, referring to what happens in the film in and of itself.

Anyway.

Diegetic music is when music is played in the narrative itself. The band playing when Han and Obi Wan walk into the cantina in Star Wars is an example of diegetic music. The characters hear it, and so do we. As a bonus it adds texture to the world. It helps that it’s iconic enough that you’ve probably got it going in your head now.

It doesn’t have to be that big, though. (500) Days of Summer uses diegetic music as plot points; it’s Tom listening to The Smiths that helps strike up a conversation with Summer. No, it’s not a grand epic sequence (compare the Fairy Godmother singing “Holding Out For a Hero” during the climax of Shrek 2), but it serves the plot’s development and also provides an important touchstone of Tom and Summer’s relationship. We, the audience, are allowed to share in what brings Tom and Summer together. The film is not just telling us but showing us too, making the whole thing more immersive and more intimate.

And now I’m going to talk about Guardians of the Galaxy.

Diegetic music plays a huge role in Guardians, but not in the way it does in Star Wars. We’re not treated to a band playing local alien music as one would expect from a piece of fantastic science fiction. Instead, well, it’s pop music from the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. As in Earth’s ‘60s and ‘70s. And it makes perfect sense.

Peter Quill, the protagonist of the film, was taken from earth in ’88, his only belongings what he had in his backpack, the most important of which is a mixtape of songs his mom made him before she passed away. It’s very much Quill’s only physical and emotional tie to Earth as he gallivants around the galaxy under the name of Star-Lord. There’s a good reason for the parachronistic anatopism that is his music. Furthermore, the placement of some of these songs is often key. Hearing a prison guard manhandle his Walkman and listen to “Hooked One a Feeling” provokes him into a fight, for example. The songs are personal for Quill.
They can be personal for the audience too. Guardians of the Galaxy is outlandish on a Star Wars level, which is odd for any movie, let alone one that shares its world with Tony Stark and Steve Rogers. Having Star-Lord listen to “Come And Get Your Love” while exploring a ruin on Morag immediately clues the audience in that, yes, we’re still in the same world of the 1988-set prologue.Having the characters listen to it also gives us a connection to them. Look at the spectators stomping and chanting “We Will Rock You” during the opening joust of A Knight’s Tale. Like inGuardians, it gives the audience something in common with the characters. We’re all listening to the same music.

Diegetic music can be used to great effect. Film critics love to cite the infamous patricidal mambo from Douglas Sirk’s Written on the Wind as a prime example, but I’m gonna throw in Guardians of the Galaxy too. Diegetic music done right can do wonders to a film, be it through adding texture, granting intimacy to the audience, or serving as a character’s emotional touchstone. That and it’s pure fun to see Star Lord fly through space to “The Piña Colada Song.”

And yes, a lot of the music in The Sound of Music is diegetic, what with it being a musical and all.

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Leslie Knope: Friends, Family, Feminism

I’ve recently begun watching Parks and Recreation, and by recently begun I mean about five seasons in two weeks. The miracle of Netflix.

In any case, the show’s fantastic and I lack any sort of Netflix Binger’s Remorse (and wanna get caught up as soon as I can). One of the reasons it’s so great is its bucking of typical sitcom trends.Parks and Rec isn’t a mean show. Whereas a lot of other sitcoms, including the prior one with Greg Daniel’s name attached: The Office, create their comedic situations through conflict between the main characters, much of Parks’ humor comes from the outside. Thus in The Office you’d have one character trying to con over the other, to much amusement. The Big Bang Theory thrives on the rest of the group trying to get one over Sheldon. The Parks Department, however, is always a team. Sure, there will be parts where they compete, but it’s never malicious. They’re a team, a team against the frustrating citizens of Pawnee, the snooty residents of Eagleton, and other departments in their government.

This teamwork lends the characters a strong sense of family. Now, this isn’t there from the beginning, rather they grow into it — and their roles in said makeshift family — over the seasons. And here’s another thing Parks does that most sitcoms don’t: they let their characters change and develop. All of the main cast is surprisingly well rounded. Sure, some seem one note at first, but as the show progresses we get to know them more and find facets of them we would never have expected. When the gruff Ron shows that he cares, or as Chris grows less self-obsessed they feel more rounded and we can really watch their bonds form. It makes them feel more real.

Neither are the characters forced to remain professionally stagnant. Leslie doesn’t stay the deputy director of the Parks Department, instead the writers let her career progress. See, it’s a risky move, they’ve proved that the bunch of co-workers interacting works, but they’re willing to go past that formula (which also shows in the developing characters). Tom too ends up leaving the Parks Department and tries his hand at entrepreneurship. It’d be easy for a recurring joke to be his constant failures. Instead, we see Tom try his hand, and yes, we do see Tom fail, but we also see Tom make changes to his approach and outlook in order to eventually succeed. It’s refreshing and really cool to see happen in a sitcom.

Parks and Recreation is an inherently political show, albeit on the scale of the local city government of a small town in Indiana. Leslie Knope is very obviously a feminist. Yet the show doesn’t preach it at you. Rather, we see Leslie combatting sexism in the often very out of date systems of Pawnee. For example, Leslie’s approach to the very male gallery of councilmen isn’t to become disheartened renounce it as an Evil Symbol of The Patriarchy, rather she wants to change things by being the first woman on the board. Feminism in Parks is an active thing. There’s no lecturing and posturing about feminism about it, instead we see why we need it and what can be done. Furthermore, the show doesn’t get caught up in its hubris: Leslie may spout rhetoric on occasion, but she isn’t on some sort of a pedestal. She’s not perfect because of her beliefs, rather, she’s a relatively normal, multifaceted human being.

So yes, Parks and Recreation is such a refreshing show. I’d seen bits of it prior, but now I’m finally sitting down and blasting through it. It’s a great show, and I want more shows like it.

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