Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Gaijin Games, Death Wish, Taxi Driver, stuff

My adoration for Gaijin Games has been made clear before. Out of that last post grew a rapturous---and I hope interesting---review of Bit.Trip Flux, over at Slant Magazine.

"Like Dziga Vertov's films, Mondrian's paintings, or Balanchine's choreography, BIT.TRIP FLUX presents the spectacle of a medium reveling in its essential properties, offering an aesthetic experience that wasn't possible until the form was created to engender it."

And then that led to an interview with Gaijin Games CEO Alex Neuse, which is chock-full of interesting practical tidbits and the occasional matzoh ball of conceptualism.

"Usually games teach the player how the game world works and stick to it; like when I'm playing Halo, I know a Grunt isn't going to suddenly split into four slower moving Grunts. But BIT.TRIP is all about simple visual elements that could do anything, and a lot of the humor of the BIT.TRIP games comes from that kind of surprise attack."

Meantime, my tradition of arguing with Glenn Kenny (all in good fun!) continues, as we argue about Death Wish, argue about Scorsese, and occasionally argue about criticism and Lester Bangs.

"I'm quite happy to say that social responsibility is more a negative than a positive virtue. That is, no artist is obliged to deliver "a positive message", but you are indeed obliged not to be actively evil. Y'know as if you were a person---you don't actually have to do missionary work, but you should refrain from yelling "ching-chong-Chinaman" every time you see a Vietnamese person on the subway. "

And finally... I've been writing regular game reviews over at Slant, which has been great---writing something that feels lower-stakes than my usual creative output is incredibly effective as a confidence booster. And occasionally, I get to write something as fun as my review of Pokemon White.

"So how does someone old enough to have voted for Paul Tsongas end up playing the new Pokemon game?"

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Red Riding Hood

I really wanted Red Riding Hood to be great, largely because the idea that Catherine Hardwicke would take her anger over being fired from Twilight and channel it into making the American equivalent of a Catherine Brellait film was a hugely appealing meta-narrative. My hopes were raised when I saw that she'd cast Amanda Seyfriend, arguably the greatest and most underrated actress of her generation. Ever since Veronica Mars, I've been eager to see Seyfried get a role that lets her show off her tremendous actorly intelligence; like Robert DeNiro, she makes very smart choices even when playing dumb characters, and can convey inner life with great economy of gesture. In Mean Girls, Seyfried's every slack-jawed stare was active and compelling, and the lines she did have were bring-down-the-house funny with wittily faux-earnest chirpiness. And in Veronica Mars (the first season, the good one) she took a cliched L.A. party-girl character and made her specific and individual through one layered line reading after another.

So I ignored the bad reviews Red Riding Hood got, especially since most of them seemed like more lame boynerd Twilight-bashing. The tendency of male critics to gleefully embrace power/revenge fantasies and scream in indignation when confronted with fantasies of romance is just embarrassing, almost as embarassing as the Dungeons & Dragons-rulebook grumblings that the McCullen clan aren't "real vampires", whatever the fuck that means. I kept hoping that Red Riding Hood was going to be the movie that turned Catherine Hardwicke into Kathryn Bigelow, a female director who can make Hollywood genres seem new again via sharp intelligence and a unique perspective.

No such luck. Red Riding Hood is unforgivably dull, routine, and worse yet, appallingly professional. The problem isn't the panting romanticism, but rather the lack of same. An early flashback scene mixing bunny-slaughter and pre-teen lust takes place in vast beds of studio-built, brightly artificial flowers, and the first ten minutes had me looking forward to more Guy-Maddin-for-girls production design and unhinged, Almodovar-esque melodrama. But that visionary quality is lost the instant the movie proper starts. From then on it's all tediously "good" shots, in which every pan begins with a vertical movement, ends with a horizontal movement, and focus-shifts from foreground to background on an important beat. It's all quite proper and utterly numbing, and there's no way for wooly, hairy, slavering romance to break out when every beat is so carefully manicured.

And the orange-and-teal! Oy, the orange-and-teal! You don't get a sense of timelessness when your movie looks exactly like every other goddamn piece of digital color correction in the last ten years. Shot after shot is built around an orange thing in the foreground, teal in the background and then---OMG!!!!---rack focus to an orange thing in the background! Red and white are perfectly good colors to use in this story, and the occasional cameo appearance by purple suggests that someone in the production design department wants to make the movie look a little more interesting, but ultimately the color choices, like the camera setups, are indistinguishable from any other Hollywood action movie, part of the appalling homogenization that computerized industrial filmmaking has wrought.

Even Seyfried is reduced to typical young-actress mummery, wandering around with big eyes and a half-open mouth instead of making her character into a convincing human being. But then, nearly everyone in the movie suffers from the same lack of individuality, which I largely attribute to Hardwicke's refusal to let any of the actors decide clearly whether they're inhabitants of a medieval world completely different from our own, or basically modern people who just happen to be in the middle of nowhere. It doesn't help that the scriptwriter seems to think that the villagers are living before the invention of subtext; every line expresses exactly what it says, leaving the actors with no choices worth making. Only Gary Oldman gets to do anything other than be tediously sincere, perhaps thanks to English actors' inimitable knack for ignoring bad direction and breaking off bits of scenery to nibble when given nothing better to do.

Worst of all, although the movie early and often hammers on the theme that Valerie is set apart from the others by an inner darkness which gives her a unique connection to the Wolf, the script never, ever lets that be expressed through action. In some misguided attempt, perhaps, to make her "relatable", the first scene's intriguing hints of sadism are immediately dropped, and she's never allowed to have so much as an uncharitable thought. The movie seems to want to rebuke the fairy-tale division of victimized girl and threatening male by locating the Wolf's darkness within Valerie, but her only moments of violence are harmless (and ineffectual) gestures of self-defense. So while the movie is built around the Wolf's desire to make Valerie his consort, his temptations never seem very tempting to this Good Girl, and the suspense becomes purely external---WHO is the werewolf? WHAT was her wanna-be boyfriend doing when the attack happened? WHICH herring is the red one?---rather than character-driven. Suspense built around character choices deepens the audience's involvement in the story; suspense built around narrative conditions is merely screenwriter preening.

I had hoped that getting booted from Twilight would inspire Hardwicke to make something loopier, more intense, and more personal, but instead, she's trying to be Chris Weitz, making movies as polished, professional, and of-no-possible-interest-to-anyone as The Golden Compass. Every shot is nicely composed, Hollywood-busy (that is, full of background activity that never threatens to catch the viewer's interest), and perfectly un-striking. A fairy-tale movie needs to seize the viewer, either through unexpected grungy realism or wildly expressionist eccentricity, and force them into the kind of childlike credulity that movies and fairy tales can conjure. They need love, sex, blood, and profound weirdness. Red Riding Hood's clock-punching won't give anyone nightmares, fantasies, or even something to think about on the drive home. What a waste.