Posts filed under ‘film’

Review: Black Dynamite

Let’s get this out of the way: if you haven’t seen Black Dynamite, you need to remedy that as soon as possible.  This is seriously one of the funniest movies I’ve seen in a long time.  A parody of poorly-executed blaxploitation flicks of the 70’s, it purposefully contains misspoken lines, gaping plot holes, and camera crew errors all in spades.  Much like the Grindhouse films, it sends you back in time with loving nostalgia, and it gets away with its altogether not-PC content by delivering it with a self-conscious wink and a nudge.  Also like these movies, it is completely and utterly over-the-top, abandoning any reasonable premise about halfway through (dismissing the heretofore main villain in a wonderfully off-the-cuff manner) and escalating the action and double-crossing “intrigue” to absurd heights.  After a while this does begin to wear a bit thin, but trust me – it’s all worth it for the final scene.
The writing is clever and hilarious, and the overt inconsistencies are believable enough that you might forget that they are intentional.  Taken with the theme-perfect production values and music it’s easy to believe that this is a lost relic of the 70’s.  Outside of these errors, the dialogue is wonderful – taking the slang and swagger of the source material just a bit further into the realm of absurdity.  It plays, for the most part, like the most enjoyably bad movie you’ve ever seen.  My only qualm is that at points the writing devolves into puerile dick jokes and visual gags – not only are these moments not as funny as the parodic humor that surrounds them, but they remind you that there are people behind the scenes deliberately trying to be funny, and this takes you out of the experience.

On a lighter note, Michael Jai White plays his role as the titular Black Dynamite perfectly and with excellent comedic timing.  Other characters have their moments of glory as well, but it’s really White’s show.  Whether he’s bemoaning “kung fu treachery” or trying to “shake the crackhead” out of an orphan, he delivers his lines with an over-the-top zeal that captures the spirit of the project perfectly.  I just don’t know how he keeps a straight face at certain moments, and that’s to his credit.  Bottom line: unless you’re easily offended (and again, the whole thing is in good-natured jest), and as long as you know what to expect, anyone with a pulse should be able to find something to like about this movie.  There have been other movies to try their hand at parodies of the genre, but none come close to… Black Dynamite!

May 21, 2010 at 2:16 am Leave a comment

Games are Art – But What Does That Mean?

So I’m sure everyone’s heard by now that Roger Ebert stirred the hornet’s nest recently and brought the “Are Games Art?” argument back into the spotlight.  His proclamation against games as art has been dissected to hell and back elsewhere on the web – Tycho of Penny Arcade perhaps summed it up best: it’s really just a generational thing.  Now, I’m not dredging this back up just to toss more stones at the film critic.  Rather, I’d like to assume that Kellee Santiago’s claim (that games are art, albeit still at the primitive end of the spectrum) is correct, and explore some of its implications.

To me, it seems that games strive to be artistic in two distinct ways: through both filmic and immersive methods.  The former approach presents a story to its audience, which players must fulfill tasks in order to progress through (e.g. Heavy Rain or Uncharted).  The latter presents an immersive environment, through sound and visuals, that the player is free to manipulate in certain ways (e.g. Flower).  The former method is more prevalent, and tends to wear its silver-screen influence on its sleeve.  Heavy Rain is very reminiscent of a film noir mystery, and Uncharted is only a half-step away from being Raiders of the Lost Ark.  This influence makes a lot of sense, as cinema has been manipulating our televisions in the name of entertainment and art long before video games were conceived, but it also presents a few problems.  The first is that when a game is too cinematic, it tends to estrange its players and lose touch with the interactivity that defines the medium (see: Metal Gear Solid 4’s overly long cut scenes).  Second, not all cinema constitutes art.  There’s an important distinction between movies and films – the former being entertainment and the latter being artistic – and games have been overwhelmingly drawing from the “movie” end of the spectrum.  Storytelling in games has come a long way since the days of the original Final Fantasy, but in most cases it is still more simplistic and puerile than its televisual counterparts.

The “Flower” approach does not bother with any of this, however, leaning more on the side of the visual arts.  These games feel more like interactive painting or sculpture.  You are given a (usually gorgeous) environment and a way in which you can interact with that environment – that’s about it.  As such, it requires a different sort of interpretation and assessment than those of the previous category – a sort closer to that of the visual arts.  Players might ask themselves what certain colors or objects represent to them, or what the significance is of the fact that a certain series of notes plays whenever an action is carried out.  However, for now this type of game is still mired in abstraction (not necessarily a bad thing in itself, but it seems that’s all there is), and most do not prompt us to ask such questions of them.

None of this is meant to be condemning – games are a fledgling genre, all things considered, and artistic sensibilities surrounding them are even younger.  There is no way that games could be as artistically advanced as other contemporary mediums as of yet.  However, there is so much potential in this regard that is truly fascinating.  The unique element that games as a genre possess is their interactivity, and we have barely scratched the surface of the implications this interactivity has for art.  An “artist” might contemplate not only the question of “What does this image or sound communicate?”, but also, “What do the choices I give (or do not give) my players communicate?”.  As some simplistic examples, what would it mean if you could raze the landscape in a game like Flower, but every time you did the colors faded a bit?  What would it mean in a story-driven game if all 100 branching story paths led to the same dismal ending?  Interactivity is an exciting element because it is so unexplored, and because it is a more active way of communicating ideas to an audience than the passive mediums of television and film.

There are challenges to these artistic endeavors, to be sure.  Production costs, the long hours involved in fleshing out multiple story paths, coordinating large teams to pursue a goal less tangible, perhaps, than the usual, are just a few.  However, I am optimistic that games like Heavy Rain and Flower can serve as the initial building blocks for something great.

April 23, 2010 at 2:30 am Leave a comment

Review: The Man from Earth

I’m usually not a fan of philosophical movies.  Films such as Waking Life and What the bleep do we know? especially grate on my sensibilities as they showcase a largely simplified and puerile view of their subjects dressed up in pop-art special effects, and the arguments that they put forth to their audience are riddled with sensationalized examples.  It seems that in many cases, these films are trying to convince you that they are “deep” by reinforcing their argument with showy filmic techniques rather than any real intellectual merit.  When a friend recommended The Man from Earth to me recently, I was therefore a bit wary.  I was intrigued by the premise, but worried that it would simply be another instance of psuedo-scientific art house babble that can only truly be enjoyed through the haze of a narcotic fog.

But enough of ridiculing other movies.  I am happy to say that I was pleasantly surprised by The Man from Earth: while it is a philosophical movie, it does things right.  The film consists of nothing more than a group of purported intellectuals sitting around and riffing off a single concept, but this concept is interesting enough, and explored from a wide enough variety of angles, that it never gets boring.  There is none of the aforementioned showy panache present here: there is one setting, no special effects, and only a basic framework of a plot that draws the characters together to wax philosophical.  This movie is all about the conversation, which if not mind-expanding is at least an intelligent exploration of the subject at hand.

The basic premise of the story is that a retiring college professor, who has been at his current institution for some 10 years, draws his peers together in order to say his goodbyes and ends up revealing to them that he is, through some unknown providence, an immortal being.  He is to the best of his knowledge originally a Cro Magnon who has been in existence for roughly 14,000 years, and shows no scars or signs of aging beyond his current physical appearance of a 30-something caucasian man.  (As a side note, I’m a bit surprised that race never came up as a topic, either from an anthropological perspective or as a wry “aren’t-you-lucky” remark on his ability to survive through centuries of mankind’s persecution of one another.)  This prompts a philosophical discussion in which he and his peers, who are largely humoring him, explore what it would be like for a man to live for that colossal amount of time.  The discussion is broken up intermittently by a few different things happening in and around the cabin they share – the protagonist, John, fielding a phone call or receiving a returning guest, for example – and in the interim we are treated to a few plot points and a look into what the other characters think of their potentially unbalanced colleague.

A potential criticism of the movie is that the characters are unbelievable – that no reasonable people would go along with such a concept and would rather immediately institutionalize their friend.  However, understanding the conceit of the movie, suspension of disbelief in this regard is a small matter.  The film reminds me most strongly of a play like “No Exit,” or “Waiting for Godot,” where there is an unusual concept fielded at the outset, and the overarching plot takes a back seat to the character’s Socratic dialogue as they explore their situation.  The characters in these plays are at times unreasonable in their behavior, but that isn’t the point – the point lies in the discussion they are having and in the absurdity of their plight.  Of course, this is not an absurdist work, or even high art, and so the film stops just shy of larger literary themes.  I almost wish that the filmmakers had gone all the way and taken a magical realist stab at their subject, in which the supernatural subject is treated like the mundane (or at least accepted as reasonable) by the characters involved.  Perhaps this would have bypassed the need for an ungainly plot and allowed for greater extrapolation of the subject matter.

The dialogue itself is commendable as an exploration of character mentality.  It is harder to say human mentality, as such a human does not exist.  The parts of John’s story that can be extrapolated to the rest of the human race (as in the things he learns and the human priorities that change on a long enough timeline) are largely hit-or-miss, their resonance varying depending on the viewer’s beliefs.  For example, John is an atheist by experience and a polyamorous man by near necessity, his priorities shifting from religion and love – the latter of which he has “gotten over” too many times to believe in – to the accumulation of knowledge and casual sex.*  While it is fine and believable for one man to adapt in this way to his abnormal situation, it is quite another to say that this is a societal lens, and to extrapolate from here that all men have these same priorities deep down.  It would be just as reasonable to explore an immortal man who sees himself as being blessed by a deity and spends his ageless life spreading gospel.  The story ultimately works as an exploration of a single man’s mentality, and nothing more, but that ends up being more than enough.

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* If this sounds like a liberal slant, it is, but I found it to be reasonable and low-key enough not to be politically oppressive.  The professed scenario regarding Jesus and Buddha, which I won’t go into here for spoilers’ sake, is believable from a historical and cross-religious stance, and doesn’t explicitly discount either religion’s veracity.  The only slight issue I took with a political curve was a single wry comment on environmentalism, which, personal opinions aside, was touched upon too lightly to be considered anything but a small political jab.

March 3, 2010 at 10:35 pm Leave a comment

The Horror

With Halloween and its abundance of cheaply produced horror flicks fast approaching, a question occurred to me: why is it that we generally think of these movies as being scarier in theaters? I’ve heard this belief articulated by several friends more invested in the genre than myself, and trailers for such films have been milking the conception for years, with taglines such as “A movie you have to see in theaters,” “The scariest movie in theaters,” or “Too scary/intense/gruesome for theaters.” TV spots for this year’s Paranormal Activity, as seen below, even show reaction shots of what is supposedly an audience at the film’s screening.

Paranormal_Audience Paranormal_Audience2

Certainly the experience is more immersive with a massive screen and sound system, and the darkness of the theater is conducive to such frights, but it seems to me that there is something more to the phenomenon. Agoraphobia and other fears of public spaces are possible contributors: in the state of suspended disbelief (or perhaps a state receptive to fear) that a horror movie requires of its viewers, it is easy to imagine a knife-wielding maniac in the row of seats behind you. Being removed from the safety of your home helps too: not only do you lack the comforts of familiar space while watching the film, but after the movie you have to return to a now empty and perhaps compromised abode. So many horror stories take place in residential settings that the vacated house you return to is now one of possible danger.

One of the scariest movies I have ever seen was indeed in theaters: The Ring (if you didn’t find this terrifying, well I was only fifteen at the time). It’s worth noting that the girl herself was not what scared me: it was instead the horrified rictuses of those who died, and the automation of their television sets. The mind can fill the rest in better than any image. Transforming a TV into an vehicle of horror is more clever than it seems at first: it is not just that it’s an object present in nearly every household. Otherwise, it would hardly be scarier than a monster in the closet. It is rather an object that we spend a tremendous amount of time with (an old estimate puts the average American’s viewing time at 6 hrs/day, and I doubt it has decreased since then), and one that we are used to controlling with the greatest of ease (seriously, all you need is a single thumb). Furthermore, television is normally a one-way glass: we can look at people all around the world from the security of our seats. Conversely, they can’t look at us: Harrison Ford or the Channel 12 news crew can’t see you picking your nose. It is therefore terrifying (it was to me, at least) when this relationship is inverted and things start crawling out of the set towards you. No longer do you have a convenient window into exciting places; now terrible, nameless things have a window right into your room.

Oh yeah, Happy Halloween.

October 27, 2009 at 6:17 pm Leave a comment


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