2012 Archives - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
2Aug/150

Spike Lee: Bad 25 (2012)

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

Earlier video game writing was under the banner Why Video Games, now Pixels In Praxis.  For a FAQ on Pixels In Praxis and explanation of spoiler policy, 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.

28Jun/150

Spike Lee: Red Hook Summer (2012)

Flik is annoyed he has to spend the summer with his grandfather, Da Good Bishop Enoch Rouse, in Red Hook.  But Flik is about to learn some lessons about what lies a virtuous exterior can hide, and how the best of people may not be enough to overcome the past.  Spike Lee directs from a script cowritten by James McBride and stars Clarke Peters and Jules Brown.

Harsh truthRed Hook Summer is going to be an odd film to talk about, at least for me, because a plot development in the third act shifts the focus of the narrative is such a jarring and irreversible way that a lot of what I would have chosen to talk about becomes a distraction. I'll try to do that anyway here, but I'm curious both what you think the role of that late narrative twist is, as well as how it impacts the rest of the movie.

In the initial scenes here we get a kind of updating of Crooklyn with notes of some of Spike Lee's other “neighborhood films.” There's a sense of nostalgia, but not necessarily located in the central character of Flik—who functions as a reverse of many of Spike's typical New Yorkers, coming to the Red Hook housing project from Atlanta, wielding an iPad and toting his own vegan food for the summer. This is telegraphed as a coming-of-age tale in which Flik will reconnect with roots he didn't know he had in the form of his grandfather, Da Good Bishop Enoch Rouse of the Lil' Piece of Heaven Baptist Church.

Two notes: First, we saw the Lil' Piece of Heaven church for a few brief moments in Da Sweet Blood of Jesus—hooray for intertextuality. Second, it's interesting that Flik does form an attachment to Red Hook, but that ultimately his grandfather isn't the reason. We learn that he moved to New York late in his life, and the city ends up functioning more as an incidental site of Flik's first childhood romance as opposed to a kind of essential site of cultural connection the way it so often does in Spike's films.

That said, the first act of Red Hook Summer is some of the strongest film-making Spike's exhibited lately when it comes to painting a diverse, colorful picture of a neighborhood vibrating with life. From the moment of Flik's arrival we get a handful of long tracking shots that follow him and Bishop Enoch through Red Hook, and in addition to instantly evoking a community with deep ties and history, these sequences serve to establish the latter's role. Bishop Enoch commands admiration and familiarity from everyone he encounters, from a sort of teasing mutual respect with a Jehovah's Witness also gently proselytizing outside each day to a local drug dealer who, despite threatening violence almost immediately, seems to have some residual regard for the man from his own childhood.

There is more raw life and passion in the opening acts of Red Hook Summer than we've seen from Spike since Summer of Sam, and yet that plot development that comes to define much of the film doesn't sit quite right with me. I appreciate what Spike's trying to do and how it comes to redefine many of the scenes leading up to it—and Bishop Enoch's increasingly oppressive zealotry and condemnation of Flik's lifestyle telegraphs much of this well—but the way Lee handles the revelation and its aftermath seems surprisingly unfocused. It shifts our attention away from a character who at that point needs all eyes firmly on him. I realize I've written far more than I meant to in starting out—what did you make of this one a second time around?‏Spreading the wordMy second time around left me with greater appreciation, and apprehension, about Red Hook Summer (first review here).  The vibration of neighborhood life, especially one in the midst of such decay as the Red Hook projects are, is what keeps Spike's return community narratives wonderful for long stretches.  Watching Red Hook Summer again I was struck by how vibrant the colors of each of the characters are.  We have the deep reds of the neighborhood drug dealers, purples of Flik's mother and Bishop Enoch's preaching garment, and the crisp whites of the church parishioners - save one curiously silent man in the back who is in a light pink suit.  Spike makes Red Hook Summer look like two different ideas of a film from a pre-adolescents perspective by presenting all the neighborhood players in such vivid color, like a kid introduced to oil paintings for the first time, and the shaky framing and grainy digital look from Flik's iPad.

The intertextuality of Red Hook Summer with the rest of Spike's filmography is impressive as well, because Spike's been doing this for over two decades and keeps giving us subtle clues about the life of the neighborhood.  This is where focusing on the church, and the vibrancy of color, brings new evolution to his community films.  All vacillate around the church and it's important to note that of all the characters in Red Hook Summer only two are white - one of the cops and Jesus.  The cops are still pursuing the poor for the wrong reasons and turning a blind eye to Bishop Enoch's past, much like the church continues to shuttle Bishop Enoch around whenever his past sins catch up with him.  The vibrancy of community life is in the stories each of the people tell one another, which is why those colorful scenes of the players interacting are the best, not in the institutions they worship or work for.

Bringing these ideas ahead, maybe this is how we can work with the late-film molestation twist.  The always fantastic Colman Domingo and Clarke Peters give powerhouse performances when the truth is revealed, and Spike finds the perfect note of style to end on as the Bishop looks up toward Heaven with crosses burned into his eyes as he preaches almost incoherently for reason.  I agree with you that it's jarring, but not because of the sudden reveal or most of the execution, rather because of one crucial style shift during Bishop Enoch's confession.  The grainy digital stock of Flik's iPad is capturing the historical truth, not the colorful emotional one, and that was the perfect choice to film the Bishop as he dances around what he did.  But switching back to the colorful and crisp style for the act itself is hitting emotional truth, but also the historical truth, and ends up feeling like it's making light of what the Bishop did.  If Spike had kept the grainy digital look while incorporating the vibrant color then the revelation would have stuck out a bit less and incorporated both thematic styles.  Instead, it comes across as a cartoon about molestation, and we end up back at that territory where Spike is really trying to shed a light on corrupt institutions but ends up using trauma in a disempowering way.‏

5May/140

Kathryn Bigelow: Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

Not content to rest on the success of The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow's last film, to-date, is a close examination of the process and psychological toll Americans withstood during the hunt for Osama bin Laden.  Andrew reviewed the film once before and was impressed, if not wowed, by Bigelow's willingness to blur enemy and ally together.  Now he and Kyle are looking at it from a new vantage point, removed from the fanfare of the '12 election and awards season, and with new eyes question its worth in an America where we've only now gone a month without a combat death of an American soldier for the first time in a decade.

Pale shadowAndrewCommentaryBannerI want to start on something that we discussed a bit when we were talking about The Hurt Locker last week.  You had mentioned that it was a smash success when, yes, it won many awards but it didn't exactly light the box office on fire.  Four years later Kathryn Bigelow returned to the fertile emotional and political ground of our post-9/11 state for Zero Dark Thirty.

The Hurt Locker still haunts my memory while Zero Dark Thirty (ZDT from this point on) does not.  It's not that ZDT is a failure by any stretch of the word, except perhaps as an ethical treatment of torture (something I don't agree with but we must discuss), and it made almost $150 million worldwide as well as winning Bigelow another slew of rewards.  But it just doesn't resonate the same with me as The Hurt Locker or even Near Dark.

So, now that we've got all of Bigelow's films to-date on our viewing radar, where did you fall with ZDT?

Kyle Commentary BannerThe first time I watched ZDT I was caught a little off-guard and my appreciation grew substantially afterward. The movie was more subdued than I had expected, coming from the tense suspense and action of The Hurt Locker, and I was especially impressed with how Bigelow handled the climactic raid. What ultimately left the strongest impression overall was the way ZDT refused to build any kind of conventional thriller-style suspense—we see the intelligence gathering and interpreting process as a slow, mostly grinding and disappointing one. There are a handful of moments of action, but they don't come off as exciting, and when Bin Laden's compound is finally stormed, we get a slow and deliberate exercise free of any action conventions. There is a lot going on here, but the lasting impression for me was always the way Bigelow stripped the film of the more classically entertaining elements she injects so well into The Hurt Locker, resulting in a more draining, patience-testing experience that mimics Maya's journey throughout the film.

This is fitting considering the way Bigelow has always adjusted her chosen conventions and formal techniques in relation to her characters (and we see the same thing with her handling of the suspense in The Hurt Locker)—but this time around ZDT didn't impress me as much. I don't know that my reaction to the film changed dramatically, but the magnitude of the reaction did. This is still a complicated movie with a lot of impressive things going on, but this second time through I didn't feel like I took as much away from it.

Let's start with the torture material that dominates the early scenes—I'm curious to get your thoughts there, and whether they're any different than when you first watched the movie.

26Jul/130

Oliver Stone: Savages (2012)

In Oliver Stone's latest, and to-date last, feature film Savages, he tackles the drug trade with his exuberant style.  O (Blake Lively), has been living and loving Chon (Taylor Kitsch) and Ben (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) since they returned with potent marijuana seeds and started a respectable empire.  A drug lord (Selma Hayek) makes their life hell after they refuse to join together and attracts the attention of a dirty DEA Agent (John Travolta).Role playingKyle Commentary BannerThe setup of Savages involves two friends, Chon and Ben, who run a phenomenally successful pot operation out of southern California while involved in a three-way relationship with O (played by Blake Lively), though for all the differences Taylor Kitsch and Aaron Taylor-Johnson's monotonous performances lend the two, she may as well be involved with one guy whose hairstyle changes rapidly and without warning. Since O is played as if a random selection of clips from the O.C. joined together and became a person via black magic, I considered the possibility that the men could each only handle half of the relationship, and that their arrangement was one of self-preservation. You know a movie that's trying to be provocative isn't working when you start checking your email during the sex scenes.

As the movie begins, a Mexican drug kingpin played by Selma Hayek is demanding to partner with Chon and Ben to expand her business in the States, and they refuse her offer, because they are witless morons. Setting into motion the events of the rest of the movie, Lively's character is kidnapped by Hayek's henchman (played as one of the few highlights of the movie by Benecio del Toro), and when that happened I cheered. Out loud. I cheered, alone in my living room, at my TV. I don't think that's the reaction Stone was going for.

Most of what makes Savages so bad, in fact, is the trio of performances at its center, the awfulness of which bafflingly grows stronger the more of them are on-screen together—it's like a talentless Voltron. The supporting roles by del Toro, John Travolta, and Selma Hayek are all far more interesting and well-played, and once the movie gets it's setup done there are a handful of scenes that generate at least some momentum solely because Stone finally gets Chon, Ben, and O off the screen for a few minutes. I especially liked a scene where Travolta's crooked FBI agent is visited at his suburban home by del Toro's slimy enforcer (whose loyalties shift by the minute), and the two negotiating multiple agreements all at once.

At times, Stone seems to want the movie to be a gritty crime tale where everyone is double, triple, and quadruple-crossing everyone else, and then at others he wants it to be a morality fable (complete with Lively's hilariously melodramatic updates on the story, delivered in a horrendous voice-over). Mostly he seems to want it to be a slick and shallow action movie, which is perhaps the strangest part. Benecio del Toro here especially deserves a better movie, Travolta deserves more screen time, and Blake Lively deserves to be in nothing ever again.

I hate Natural Born Killers, which I find unwatchable thanks to the style, but it has something it wants to say (even if we disagree on how substantial that thing is)—Savages is a bit less grating in its basic structure (a bit), but it has nothing to say, and it says nothing aggressively. It's bloated, over-directed, tone-deaf, and underwritten. It's like Bad Boys 2 without Michael Bay's delicate touch for style and humor.