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Can't Stop the Movies
2Aug/150

Spike Lee: Bad 25 (2012)

Concealing myself

In celebration of the 25th anniversary of Michael Jackson's album Bad, and as a sudden memorial service, Spike Lee directs a behind-the-scenes look at the crafting of Bad and how it reflected the singer's growing insecurity of living in public.

Concealing myselfWe've completed a lot of projects together at this point, and we're almost caught up with Spike Lee. Looking over the dozens of movies we've written about, how often can either of us say we've been having fun? I mean it both in the sense of writing about these movies, or watching them. Maybe the Akira Kurosawa Yojimbo / Sanjuro movies, or early in Spike's career with School Daze. But overall our writings have been instructive, sometimes illuminating, always fulfilling, but very rarely fun.

Bad 25 is something of a welcome and much appreciated break in this regard. Yes, there's still Spike's exhaustive approach to documentary film making. He gets a plethora of interview subjects to come and discuss topics ranging from Michael Jackson's note-specific octave skills to the sheer mania surrounding his tremendous popularity. But there's also just a sense of fun and creation since we're watching a man at the height of his creative powers making tunes which he honestly hoped were going to change the world.

It's an experience where I am happy to examine it for what it is, and not what I wish it could have been. Spike uses considerable restraint in avoiding the more complicated aspects of Jackson's life, and I suppose how you feel about this decision will vary depending on how much weight you give the allegations. I never believed he abused or molested anyone, but he was basically a unicorn in pop music, too beautiful and pure to stay unsullied for long. Keeping that in mind, I like that Spike didn't feed into the tabloid longing for more weird stories, and divorced from the sheer volume of their production when Jackson was alive it's easier to see some of them for the racist attacks they were.

We've been on something of a break from Spike these last few weeks, and there are issues raised in Bad 25 which fit the rest of his career well, but this is still a slight, if glowing, film. How did you feel coming back into the world of Spike and the music of Jackson?The handshake“Slight” is probably most in line with what I felt. I've never been a huge fan of Michael Jackson, and the moments in Bad 25 that skimmed the surface of his mass appeal—and hinted at not only how significant a figure he was to fans at the time, but also why—were the most interesting. This is a movie that makes me want to understand more about the deeper fan psychology and social factors of Jackson's success.

Lee and most of his interview subjects are coming from a point where Jackson's genius as a pop megastar is never questioned, and their conversations have the bittersweet joy of a group of friends reminiscing over someone they lost. The depth of feeling is there, and is mostly what Lee seems concerned with—even if Jackson the person is often still playing second string to Jackson the musician. This isn't always the case, of course, and some of the strongest moments involve stories that peek past the commonly accepted persona: a friend recalls one night in a hotel where, the TV playing footage of his legion of fans, Jackson turned and declared “I love this.” Another tells about a time Michael answered the phone in his “normal voice,” before speculating about the various ways Jackson tried to remain a perpetual child.

These scenes show an interesting and personal look at what seemed to be two competing impulses that led to the formation of Jackson's pop persona: the embrace of (and maybe fear of losing) childlike innocence and wonder, and the genuine joy he got from making his fans happy. This is such a different, and refreshing, look at celebrity—one in which the constructed public persona is at the service of a deeper need to entertain and satisfy others (and not simply masking the more cynical, self-serving celebrity cliché we're used to seeing). I wish we got more of it—and maybe Spike isn't interested in exploring these deeper aspects of Jackson's persona too much further because they'd demystify the musical legend—but as it stands these sequences stand out in an otherwise equally joyful documentary.

31Jul/150

Why Video Games: Telltale’s The Walking Dead Season One and Two

The threat

Why Video Games is our ongoing look at the construction, reception, interpretation, and impact of important video games.  For the introduction to our series, please click here.

The threatI was wondering when we would get to Telltale's take on the media juggernaut that is The Walking Dead.  It was one of the series I wrote about glowingly in our first article, and considering the way adventure games have found a breath of new life in this current generation of Steam and touch pads it seems necessary to examine just what it is that made The Walking Dead so special for me.  But, more importantly, I'm curious about what design and storytelling observations you made during your first run through of the game, as you suggested this after we finished up Octodad.  Not only was it a game series you had not yet touched, but also in a fictional universe you'd not partaken of in other forms of media.

In preparation for this piece, we played both Season 1, the 100 Days side-story that bookends Season 1, and Season 2.  It makes sense for us to speak of these things as a whole, but to do so I'm going to have to deal with my emotional ties to Season 1, the curiosity generated by the chopped up storytelling of 100 Days, and then the immense dislike bordering on hatred of Season 2.  For this first time, we're going to be dealing with something in our thoughtful fashion that I did not enjoy, for reasons I want to share and hopefully elaborate with you over the course of this conversation.

As a long-time adventure gamer weaned in the Sierra mold, the player / avatar framework which drives the two Seasons was incredible.  So as much as I do strongly dislike Season 2, there's still a freshness to adventure gaming which I haven't felt since they died a temporary death at the birth of 3D gaming.  Telltale's Walking Dead games are a stirring example of how far we've come, but still how far we can go, and potential regressions to avoid along the way.  Since this was your first walk among the dead, how did you react?Brief warmthHaving played two seasons worth of The Walking Dead, there are a number of fascinations about this experience I hope will unfold as we go, but there is one thing at the top of my list as an obstacle and an open question for us and the gaming world. It's something I began asking myself from the beginning of my play through, and only stopped asking myself to eliminate the distraction. And the question is "Is The Walking Dead even a game?". I never felt like I had control over the story. So far as I could tell, the puzzles had an extremely limited set of options, and some only had one solution (a matter of finding a particular key to open a door, etc). I felt an unusual lack of agency as a player, and that troubled me and gave me pause for a while. Now I'm going to skip straight to my conclusion on the matter and then we can go back through and examine the why and wherefores as they seem relevant. The conclusion I drew was that yes, it is a game. But not based on any criteria I had previously.

In our series introduction, we made a statement about exploring the idea of games as the approximation of some experience. And by that definition, The Walking Dead knocks it out of the park. There is no doubt about what experience is being had, and though there are some narrative forks in the road, the depth of the apocalyptic experience and the emotional investment that were awakened within me as a player are unprecedented.

I still have this nagging question about how to dig down into this experience analytically. Genre tags like "adventure" and "interactive fiction" all share bits and pieces of similarity to my observations about The Walking Dead, but none of them quite hit the nail on the head.

With adventure games, The Walking Dead shares the generally linear story progression to a singular ending, where the focus is on the cleverness and richness of the journey through the content. With interactive fiction it shares a focus on the value of the writing and the characterization of the world and its inhabitants. I thought for a while this might be an appropriate genre assignment, with voice acting and animation substituted for a text display. But in some interactive fiction titles I've explored, there are various and sundry endings and turns of the story that I didn't feel were present on the steadfast hand of the writers of The Walking Dead. As both a player and a developer, I felt that no matter what choices I made, the experience was steering me with unsettling inevitability toward one conclusion.

With that, however, I'd like to champion the fact that inevitability and desperation are integral to the story and emotional tone, so it works. REALLY well. As a player, no matter how strange it seemed as a game, it felt right for the story. As a developer, I just kept wondering about that sense of agency, which in many games is crucial. This is only game I've ever played where your own emotional fortitude is the primary gate of access to the next segment of content.

28Jul/150

Manglehorn (2015)

Keys keys everywhere a key

Manglehorn is an ex-high school baseball coach in a small town where he now works as a locksmith. Still hung up on an old relationship, he spends his time restlessly ambling around town, caught somewhere between ambivalent sadness and impotent anger. David Gordon Green's latest features a good performance from Al Pacino, who's working from an uneven and clueless screenplay by Paul Logan.

Keys keys everywhere a keyI can't figure out David Gordon Green. His jump from super-indies like George Washington and All the Real Girls into Pineapple Express and a stint directing episodes of Eastbound and Down showed an ability to imbue aggressively improper comedy with a level of character darkness that lent depth without too much seriousness—it was a shift not telegraphed by his earlier films, but not altogether surprising either. Then the one-two punch of 2013's Prince Avalanche and 2014's Joe suggested a return to form: small, personal films characterized by tight formal control over a story engineered to play as naturalistic and meandering. This was promising, as Joe turned out to be one of the best films of the year.

All this contextualizing is an attempt on my part to qualify what has, since I watched it a few days ago, become a pretty intense distaste for Green's newest film, the Al Pacino-starring Manglehorn. Things start off well enough: Manglehorn runs a locksmith shop in a generic small town, where he's friendly and familiar with everyone he encounters—everyone from the bank tellers to old students greet him as he's out and about, referring to him simply as Manglehorn or “Coach,” exchanging generic baseball cliches. He has the ambling, soft incorrigibility of a lonely grandpa. An early scene sees him taking a call to help get a woman's child out of her locked car, and he casually, almost parentally lectures her on how she should do a better job of keeping it clean (“you gotta take care of these things,” patting the hood).

27Jul/152

Clouds of Sils Maria (2015)

Another damn superhero movie

Maria is trying to deal with a divorce, the death of an old friend, and a sudden interest to return to the play which catapulted her into stardom decades ago.  As her assistant, Valentine, works to keep Maria's life in order Maria is confronted with her age as the role which made her famous goes to a young starlet of dubious talent.  Oliver Assayas writes and directs Clouds of Sils Maria with stars Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, and Chloë Grace Moretz.

Another damn superhero movieSometimes, I watch a film and can’t help but wonder what the effect would be if someone else played a specific character. Rarer still is the film where a performer seems to so completely embody the role it’s impossible to consider anyone else taking the mantle. Then there are those roles of eerie perfection, where skill and talent make it impossible for us to think of anyone else in that role, but circumstances surrounding their life and careers outside of the film make their perfection almost inevitable. There are direct examples, such as Jean-Claude Van Damme’s sad performance in JCVD, and then there are films like Clouds of Sils Maria, whose central performance by Kristen Stewart embraces a character I feel has been waiting for her all this time.

Stewart gets little respect and regard from many cineastes because of her work in the Twilight films and reputation for being barely capable of emoting. It seems we’ve grown so accustomed to big emotions, which certainly have their place in cinema, instead of the subtle performances which luminaries like Philip Seymour Hoffman and Liv Ullman were capable of. Stewart’s role in Clouds of Sils Maria reads almost like a challenge to those who have found her too subdued in the past, because it is a role which requires subtlety and close reading to get to what makes her so spectacular.

Clouds of Sils Maria is not without its other pleasures, and I must resist the temptation to read this solely as a film about Stewart, but the truth is Stewart is merely emblematic of the larger problems writer / director Oliver Assayas illuminates. We have a nasty habit of driving actresses into despair, creating perpetual tabloid icons to love and learn lessons from with every exaggerated misstep. Assayas doesn’t plunge us into this tabloid hyperreality, though it intrudes on the plot of Clouds from time to time. Instead he looks at the momentary peace disrupted by these leeches, and the long-term effects of being someone driven into a position of disdain.

24Jul/150

Slow West (2015)

John Maclean's Slow West

This shore will be a trek won't itSlow West desperately wants to be a quirky, self-aware western that both embraces and subverts familiar aspects of the genre, and there were moments when I really wanted it to be that too. There's so much potential here. When I saw that Michael Fassbender and Ben Mendelsohn were going to be in a western together, I ignored the shitty trailer and imagined the kind of movie this team-up might make.

Ben Mendelsohn has the perfect face for an old-fashioned outlaw—he projects a superficial ambivalence hiding intense inner focus and menace (see his recent roles in Starred Up and Lost River, or his batshit crazy turn in Animal Kingdom, and reflect on how none of those movies did anything to deserve being mentioned in the same paragraph as Slow West). I could see him playing a really awesome Doc Holliday. Fassbender has the face and gravity to play a great Man-With-No-Name-style drifter (which is basically the role he has here), and I couldn't wait to see the two work off of each other.