Sunday, February 19, 2012

Crazy Heart


Directed by Scott Cooper

Written by Scott Cooper
Based on the novel by Thomas Cobb

Jeff Bridges ... Bad Blake
Maggie Gyllenhaal ... Jean Craddock
Robert Duvall ... Wayne

Rated R
Runtime: 1 hr. 52 min.

Late in Crazy Heart there’s a shot of a character standing over a running stream, surrounded by woodland. That shot felt like a tall, cold drink of water after a day’s work in the hot son. It may be the first time we see a liquid other than alcohol, urine, vomit, or ginger ale. Regardless, it is certainly the first time we've seen lush, green surroundings. We’ve traveled through arid landscapes both human and natural to arrive at this point.

Our guide has been Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges) a rundown, broke former country music great who gigs from one small bowling alley to the next dive bar. Each night it’s a different backing band, a different crowd, a different woman. I imagine they all start to look the same. Maybe that’s why there’s so much alcohol. It deadens him to the monotony. Or maybe the alcohol is part of the monotony.

It’s broken when he walks into a venue early to hear his pianist for the night jamming by his lonesome. Bad compliments him. Seeing that as an invitation, the pianist asks if Bad might grant his niece and interview.

You might think you see where this is all heading. Well, you do and you don’t. Many films have all the arc of a laser beam. They set up the character, present a problem, and guide you headlong into the solution. There might be a subplot or two here and there, but best make sure you don’t stray too far. Well, that ain’t life and this movie understands that. It strays, allowing all those subplots, those things vying for Bad’s attention, to become the plot.

Bad Blake’s life has been out of balance for longer than we know. It’s got too much alcohol, too many marriages, too many hurts and broken dreams. Maybe it begins to tip the other way when the pianist’s niece, Maggie, walks into his hotel room, but I don’t want to label it so simply. Because meeting her has nothing to do with the sour relationship between he and the young country and western star he gave his start, Tommy Sweet. And while both of these have a bearing on his songwriting, it has its own demands.

None of these relationships begin or end exactly as we predict. The actors are certainly to be credited with creating such real characters. Maggie Gyllenhall is asked to do a lot. To appear onscreen with an infatuation with Bad Blake. To make some tricky, hairpin emotional turns in scenes. I won’t mention the actor playing Tommy Sweet. I didn’t know who it was going in. It was an amazing revelation, both daring and perfect. All l will say is that sometimes you need an unknown and sometimes you need a superstar. This time out you need a superstar, and he acted, looked, and sang the part.

Is there an actor who inhabits a role better than Jeff Bridges? As with most of his roles, this isn’t particularly showy. He’s not asked to go to emotional extremes. But there’s not a moment that we don’t believe that this is Bad Blake on screen. And that’s the highest compliment.

A lot of movies with great performances are only about the performances. First time director Scott Cooper doesn’t make that mistake here. Let me return to the experience I had of relief when that stream came on screen. It was a skilled and sure director with a thorough knowledge and understanding of the story he’s telling that led me to that sensation.

I suppose the last thing to mention is the music. Jeff Bridges wouldn’t sign on until he knew the music was going to be right, because he felt the movie would fail if it wasn’t. He was right, and the music holds up its end of the bargain.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Surrogates (2009)


Directed by Jonathan Mostow

Screenplay by Michael Ferris & John Brancato
Based on the graphic novel by Robert Venditti and Brett Weldele

Bruce Willis ... Tom Greer
Radha Mitchell ... Peters
Rosamund Pike ... Maggie
Boris Kodjoe ... Stone
James Cromwell ... Older Canter
Ving Rhames ... The Prophet

Rated PG-13
Runtime: 1 hr. 29 min.

Why Surrogates? It's the question I imagine you're wondering. I haven't blogged with any sort of consistency, so why did I decide that Surrogates was something I not only needed to see but also needed to review?

Well, first, I get a free Redbox code the beginning of the month and this was one of the movies I knew The Girlfriend didn't want to see. A-ha! But apparently I did. Yes. It's true. On to the second reason: I read a book about cloud computing. It's entitled The Big Switch: Rewiring the World from Edison to Google by Nicholas Carr. Highly recommended. Short explanation of cloud computing: computers will no longer have software. They'll simply be ports to access the internet where the programs will be housed. This is already beginning. Google Docs anyone?

So as I was reading this book, I extrapolated what this could eventually mean and arrived at the underlying premise of Surrogates. People no longer go outside in their own bodies. They plug into their surrogates at home, controlling them as they go out into the world to live their lives. These surrogates most often turn out to be idealized versions of themselves. Surrogate Tom Greer (Bruce Willis) has a full head of hair. It's an intriguing premise. Too bad the movie isn't.

It sure seems like it should be, though. This movie wants to have its cake and eat it too. And also your cake. And ice cream. And that deep dish pizza at the next table over. Below, some of the conventions the movie touches on but never fully realizes.

Police Procedural: A young man and woman die when their surrogates get zapped. Unlike The Matrix, this shouldn't happen. Bruce Willis investigates.

Film Noir: Would you believe the murders lead to a conspiracy? Also, Bruce's surrogate gets damaged while investigating. He's all alone out there.

Social Commentary: Some people don't want to live through surrogates. They live in ghettos. They're led by The Prophet (Ving Rhames)

Action: Robots are much stronger than humans and can leap really high.

Drama: Bruce lost his son before the movie begins. He tries to reach out to his wife (Rosamund Pike). She wants to lose herself in her surrogate. That young man who dies at the beginning? Turns out he's the son of the man who invented surrogates, Canter Strickland (James Cromwell). He and Bruce Willis bond.

Mistaken Identity: Yeah, about that bonding scene. It's weird. Mr. Strickland's using a surrogate. An adolescent surrogate. A 15-year-old talking about losing his son is just somehow odd. People can also plug into any surrogate they want. It's illegal, but who cares in the movies?

Sure seems like a lot, doesn't it? It is. However, there's not actually too much here for one movie. The issue is that they give equal shrift to everything. The filmmakers needed to figure what they were trying to say and focus on that. Think about how successful Dark City was when all it focused on was the film noir. As it is, there's bravery here as evidenced by the movie's conclusion, it's just mired in plot and convention.

I also think the surrogates could have been portrayed better. There's a hypothesis entitled the uncanny valley. Stated simply, the closer something gets to resembling a human, the less empathy a human will feel toward it. The surrogates in the movie are the actual actors either with more makeup or CGI touch-up. It's still readily apparent that it's the actors. I think using either motion capture or full CGI rendering might have provided a more interesting commentary. We the viewer would have felt less empathy for the surrogates, which is the movie's wish. That would then have forced us as viewers to work through how the society in the movie would have worked through these same feelings.

But again, the movie put too much effort into too many places. It's details like these that got left behind.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Are Videogames Art?

Doesn't the very fact that this question is being asked indicate that, yes, in fact they are art? Isn't that what art is to a certain extent: something that is placed in the public forum to be judged?

I think the question arises because videogames initially were only consumed. A series of neverending challenges. Enemies got faster. Obstacles got harder. Eventually you died. The age of high scores. It was little more than competition. Some were attempting grander things, probably inspired by Dungeons & Dragons. I remember there was a vaguely quest game for Atari called Adventure. You had to kill dragons and go through mazes and get a colored key to unlock a similarly colored castle or something like that. It's pretty hilariously described here. I never really got it. Of course there's the whole ET fiasco. I used to feel bad I didn't get that game, then I found out it was considered the worst game ever. Things fell into place on that day.

I guess, well at least in my gaming evolution, NES came next. Technology allowed a little more complexity. Including an end. Not that I knew what the ends often were. Except (SPOILERS!!!) Contra. Thank you Up, Up, Down, Down, Left, Right, Left, Right, B, A Start. But you see what this gave us? Structure. Story. Games were once more trying to be more. I recently watched my roommate wending his way through the first Zelda game. Wow did that look frustrating. You sense the developer's frustration. "I want to tell a story and all I have are these 8-bit graphics and crap memory." I remember everyone being really excited about Ninja Gaiden. How it told a story in cut scenes.*

This is where a major argument comes into play for me. This yearning to do more. I think a lot of people get caught up in still thinking of videogames as simply product. Something churned out to entertain. But the people regularly playing these games are not thinking this way. There's a respect for the work that goes into creating a game. And the praise and blame begins and ends with the designers and developers. They are spoken of in tones reserved for Scorsese or Pixar. As the creative force behind a large work involving multiple disciplines. And they do. They oversee a huge amount of people. It's not just programming. You have to have a vision to work toward. Think of it this way. You have a character. Do you want his shirt to be blue or green? Programming will get you there but someone has to make that choice. Initially, the choices were not much more than this. But as the systems have developed, there's not much difference in the amount of thought that can (and in better games, does) go into design choices. Playing through Zelda: Twilight Princess, it's obvious that a lot of effort went into desiging the bosses and spirits. And a lot of Miyazaki viewing. I'm sure there were sketches upon sketches. Games need this. This integrity. They've become too complex not to. They would simply unravel otherwise.

Perhaps that's another argument for games as art, that these games are pulling from other disciplines. And well. I'm playing through Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. Yes, I'm behind. Anyway, the cut scenes are on the whole excellent. The script is well-written. It moves the story forward and creates character. The motion of the characters is remarkable as well. I'm not sure whether they used motion capture or not. And that doesn't matter, because whatever choice was made was the correct one. The movement is incredibly natural. The voice talent as well is top notch. And not just the stars- "Stars?" you ask? Yes: Samuel L. Jackson; James Woods; David Cross; Chris Penn; Ice-T; and Clifton Collins, Jr all lend their voices. But the lead is LA-based rapper Young Maylay. And you know what? He's perfect. Everyone's perfect. This actually shows a lot more care than most animated movies demonstrate by simply hiring a bunch of big stars in hopes a name will draw people into the theater. Meanwhile, the voices fall flat.

The subtlety videogames are able to convey is also remarkable. There's a blind character in San Andreas. It took me a little while to realize that he was blind. I could tell there was something different, but I couldn't quite put my finger on it. But all the clues were there. I had to put them together for myself. It takes the character in the game a lot longer to realize...and that's exactly in line with the character the designers created.

I think a major issue in this discussion is that the people asking the question weren't involved in the evolution. They played Space Invaders and then gave up when games began scrolling. Or they played NES and went to college and decided that those games were a waste of time. And, to a certain extent, they're right. I liken games to architecture: they are both forms that are meant to be used. They are created experiences that you walk into. If we follow this analogy through, Atari was teepees and we're moving into some really nice houses. Mansions. And we're beginning to see glimpses of Frank Lloyd Wright. OK. I don't know how well that analogy holds up, but I think you get the picture.

A major issue for some is control. We as game players are given control and the ability to make choices. Some feel that this control prevents it from being art. Well, I have a couple responses. First, rather simplistically, why not? It's not that new a concept. Performance art makes people the art all the time, but at the same time, what's wrong with having a choice? What's wrong with putting me in the story? Don't some movies seem to be dying to give us that experience? Paul Greengrass's career (Bloody Sunday, Bournes Supremacy and Ultimatum, United 93) is based on this desire. Second, all we're doing is making a choice. We aren't designing the rest of the game. It's really not any different than turning a page in a novel. Or, yes, a choose-your-own-adventure, but those things were crap. Plus, sometimes I'd rather feel like I'm in the action scene rather than simply watching.

This is where videogames have the most to grow. The mixing of action scenes and story. Not that it's a new issue. Sondheim's big development in the musical was letting the songs move us from one point to the next. Choices are made in his songs and emotions revealed. The plot doesn't stop for a song. And isn't a lot of the criticism of action movies the fact that the action essentially stops the movie? I'll tell you that San Andreas does a great job of this.

The big question in all of this that no one's asking is, "What's the end result?" Where are videogames headed? That's the root of this question. The other media art forms, the ones that most of us experience day in and day out, are finite to a certain extent. Think about this. I read or was recently told something I had never considered: the book is basically unchanged since its creation. Someone who read the Gutenberg Bible would know exactly what to do with any book you picked from your shelf. You'd just have to teach them English. The experience of watching a movie hasn't changed too much. But there is no other medium so tied to technology as the videogame. If there's no end in sight for technology, how can we predict what the videogame experience will become? The Wiimote is just the beginning.

So where did this lead us? Nowhere. Because most of the people asking this question aren't playing games. And no one's going to change their mind because of anything I or anyone else has written. But that's where the Wiimote makes things interesting. People are playing who never had. Your grandparents might be on a Wii Bowling league. And who knows where that will lead.**

* Cut scene: If you only know movie lingo, cut scene in videogame lingo means the exact opposite. It's scenes that are added in. Think of cutting from the action you control to a scene you watch.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

A Good Day

Busy getting coffee while my computer booted up, making small talk with coworkers. I sit down and open Explorer, wondering if there's anything special about today that might make Google alter its logo. Do a double-take. The logo looks pretty normal, but I notice below: 09/09/09 09:09:09. My eyes wip to the clock at the bottom of my screen to see the time change from 9:08 to 9:09. Success!!!

A good day.

I'm going to celebrate by ordering a Threadless T for $9. This one, to be precise. It's called "A Simple Plan."

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Throw Hester Under the Bus Some Passes*

If you're a Bears fan, you're as disappointed as I am about the Bears first preseason game. Some of you are panicking, some of you have brushed it off, but I can't believe anyone isn't disappointed. We all wanted to witness Cutler firing missiles around the field, hitting his receivers, giving us confidence in them. Instead, we saw a few nice completions and a whole bunch of passes to Hester. (And let's not get all excited about the 30-yarder to Dez Clark. That's what Dez brings to the team. I've seen Grossman and Orton make nearly the same throw with the same result.)

And that's where it gets confusing to me. Why Hester? If there wasn't really a gameplan, why focus so much on him? Cutler believes in Earl Bennett. Why not try and convey some of that confidence to the fans? Well, I don't think Jay feels beholden to the fans. I do think the very fact that he trusts Bennett is the reason he didn't look to him. And conversely, he looked to Hester so much because he doesn't trust him.

At its best, this means Cutler was trying to establish a bond with his #1 receiver in a game situation. At its worst, Cutler was pointing out to the coaches he can't work with this guy and here's why. The truth? Who knows. What do I think? I think it's somewhere in the middle.

Cutler and Hester looked off in their communication. Cutler oftentimes seemed to want to throw sooner but wasn't sure his receiver was ready. Or he'd throw to a spot he thought Hester was supposed to be in.

And then the interception. Yes, it was a horrible pass. It was classic Grossman (except Jay stepped up...before he threw off his back foot). But as that ball sailed away from him, I'll bet Cutler's thought was, "Come on, Hester. Fight for it." I imagine it's what Brandon Marshall would have done in Denver. I imagine it's what Cutler feels Bennett or Aromashodu or Rideau would have done, those receivers Cutler mentions the most. I saw it with my own eyes in camp: they go up for the ball.

What did Hester do? He watched with all the excitement I had sitting on the couch.

No, Hester's not a huge guy. But if you want to play receiver, you've got to give your quarterback...and the fans...more.

* A little Amish syntax humor.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

The Hangover (2009)


Directed by Todd Phillips
Written by Jon Lucas & Scott Moore

Bradley Cooper ... Phil Wenneck
Ed Helms ... Stu Price
Zach Galifianakis ... Alan Garner
Justin Bartha ... Doug Billings
Heather Graham ... Jade

Rated R
Runtime: 1 hr. 40 mins.

The Hangover is outrageous. And I don't mean gross-out (though there's some of that). But flat-out, jaw-droppin', "I can't believe this is happening" outrageous. Why can't more comedies be like this? Why can't more comedies have this sense of glee and utter abandon? Why do so many comedies feel so damn...written? Well, because they've been shoved through studio execs who think that if they can't reach every single demographic they won't have a job. That creates fear and timidity and it's ruining Hollywood. I'd thank God for the success of The Hangover but we've got a year, tops, until the lukewarm rehash. Until then....

The set-up: 1 man is getting married. 3 men accompany him to Vegas for his bachelor party. The celebration begins on the roof, shots of Jager going down like college. The next morning (afternoon?), they awaken to find their suite trashed, a chicken roaming free, a tiger locked in the bathroom, and a baby in a closet. Other maladies are revealed slowly like a missing tooth (found fairly quickly, the explanation lagging). And, oh yeah, their friend, you know, the one getting married? Yeah. They can't find him.

There's a noirish element to the film. Certainly not in the sunlight, but to the mystery. There's a certain elegance to a movie that not only raises the stakes so high but also provides answers.

And we're led through these adventures by three incredibly capable comedic actors as the friends: Bradley Cooper, he of whom is oft asked, why is he not more famous? Yea, verily. Ed Helms, as the whipped, and cuckolded dentist and Zach Galifanakis, the dim bulb who I'm pretty sure does not curse. Though he is wont to do any number of other things.

So what else is there to say? Not much. Kudos to you, director Todd Phillips and writers Jon Lucas and Scott Moore. Seems like you got to make the movie you wanted to make. To critics other than Ebert, what is wrong with you? Don't you like to have fun? To the rest of you, have fun. Go see it.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

The Foxiness of the Foxy Megan Fox

I've discovered a profound respect for Megan Fox.

OK. The obvious: she's hot. And that's the perfect word: hot. Hot connotes a beauty that is not subtle. It is evident in every aspect. Facial features are striking in a slightly severe way. Bodies are skinny except for the chest. Sexuality is blatant. This is Megan Fox. She's hot. Not the look I go for, but that's not what we're talking about here.

I respect her, and here's why. When Transformers came out, the internet was ablaze with her hotness. Who is this Megan Fox? People couldn't get enough. Transformers came out nearly two years ago. An eternity on the blogosphere. But she still remains the hottest. No one has replaced her.

This came out in a discussion with my roommate when he asked who the girl in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen preview is. As I began explaining, I realized really what she has accomplished.

Now, I'm not looking through People Magazine every day, but my perception is that she carefully regulates the amount of exposure she has. No tales of wild partying or drunken, public incidents. Not even something as innocent and seemingly prerequisite as bikini photos on vacation. Photos are from magazine spreads and current sets only.

And suddenly it dawned on me what she's done. She's been able to maintain an aura of mystery. She is letting her films be where admirers can define her personality. And see her.

So kudos to you, Megan Fox. May your reign be long and successful.

Away We Go (2009)


John Krasinski ... Burt Farlander
Maya Rudolph ... Verona De Tessant
Carmen Ejogo ... Grace De Tessant
Catherine O'Hara ... Gloria Farlander
Jeff Daniels ... Jerry Farlander
Allison Janney ... Lily
Jim Gaffigan ... Lowell
Maggie Gyllenhaal ... LN
Josh Hamilton ... Roderick
Chris Messina ... Tom Garnett
Melanie Lynskey ... Munch Garnett
Paul Schneider ... Courtney Farlander

Directed by Sam Mendes

Written by Dave Eggers & Vendela Vida

Rated R
Runtime: 1 hr. 38 mins.

You might love this movie, and I don't begrudge you if you do. I'm happy for you. I wish I could love it, and if I had seen it on another night, I might have, but not tonight. I couldn't reconcile the wildly shifting tones, nor the fact that these characters whom I love, Burt Farlander and Verona De Tessant (John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph respectively), were so often supporting characters in a movie about them.

So, the good. Again, Burt and Verona. Here is a real couple. They've been together for long enough to understand that they love each other. Expression isn't always necessary. No official tally here, but I only recall one kiss and one time they hold hands. One of my favorite details was watching them aggravate and embarrass each other, but it never blows up into an argument. Here are two people who have been together long enough to understand what it means to be with this other person, and accept what comes along with that.

The movie opens in a surprising and hilarious scene that I don't want to go into detail about. Suffice to say, the end result is Verona pregnant. Several months later, they have dinner plans with Burt's parents.

This has been the good. The bad begins with Catherine O'Hara as Burt's mom. That's a difficult sentence to write. The instant I saw her, I smiled. She's that level of actor able to make me smile in anticipation. So what's wrong? Well, she doesn't do a bad job. But her character is so outlandish, it's jarring after having spent time with Burt and Verona who are so real. She says inappropriate things about how big Verona is and then drags her inside and plops down beside her on the couch, laying her head on Verona's stomach to hear the baby's heartbeat. And then Jeff Daniels comes in as Burt's dad. As the family sits down to eat, he prays to the great food-gatherer or something and constantly says "outstanding" or "super" and stumbles, hilariously, over the word "indigenous" as he describes a pricey statue sitting behind them. Oh, and they're moving out of the country a month before they grandchild is born.

OK. All this is funny and well-performed, but is it necessary? Burt and Verona react as we do: we can't believe what's going on. But just because they react in a natural manner doesn't make what's happening on screen any more real to us as an audience. It just makes it even more incongruous. It also relegates Burt and Verona to mute witnesses.

This sets up the Homerian structure of the movie. Burt and Verona moved to the house they currently live in to be close to Burt's parents. Verona's parents passed away when she was 22. But now, they wonder if there's any reason to stay. And so they travel about the country, reconnecting with people: Verona's former boss in Arizona, her sister, Burt's old childhood friend in Madison, college friends in Montreal, and an unplanned visit to his brother in Miami.

As Tom and Munch Garnett, Burt and Verona's friends in Montreal who have a beautiful, mixed family but a deep hurt, Chris Messina and Melanize Lynskey create the only truly real people that they encounter. The rest are either only somewhat successful or as outlandish as Burt's parents. Or even moreso as when we meet Maggie Gynllenhaal's character breastfeeding her toddler. Yup.

What also happens is that places, people, and situations that are supposed to foster character development, actually, by their uniform link to the past, become exposition. Yes, we learn more about Burt and Verona, but they don't grow. The growth happens as they travel from place to place.

But even this is handled poorly as another movie succumbs to the sirens of the pop music soundtrack. Delicate scenes of wonderful, heartbreaking dialogue collapse as some unknown singer-songwriter emotes in the background. I know, it's not his fault his songs are playing too loudly and at the wrong time, but I want to take it out on him. A scene that calls for stillness and attention has a chugging soundtrack that's telling me the next scene is comin' right up.

I hold director Sam Mendes partly responsible as he seems to have let his actors go too far. But I also hold the writers, Dave Eggers and his wife, Vendela Vida, responsible. Dave's a great writer, but a first-time screenwriter. Needs to aim for a bit more consistency in tone next time. Not taking him to task, just something to be aware of.

All this to say people in the theater didn't notice, as there were tears galore around me. I'm also using strong language for something that didn't offend me, just disappointed me. If I've pointed out things you don't pick up on in movies, please, go see it. I don't want to dissuade you from what might be a truly moving experience.