Thursday, October 1, 2015

[Video Game Review] Journey

journey screenshot

Journey, © 2012 Thatgamecompany

This game almost makes me wish I smoked, because I think I need a cigarette after playing it.

The best word I can think of to describe Journey is "exquisite": in terms of design, visuals, music, playability, length, fun factor, and overall gestalt. I haven't really been part of the video gaming scene since I finished college, but this might be the most beautiful game I've ever played (and I mean that in more than just a graphical sense).

Indeed, I would go as far as to say that Journey has truly spiritual dimensions. It feels like an interactive parable from one of the world's great religions, one about the human soul, life and death, friendship, and the rewards which flow from striving towards something greater than oneself, even at great personal cost. This game has a lot of depth for something you can finish in under three hours.

As a matter of fact, I'm not sure that I can even really say that Journey is a game at all, at least in the traditional sense. It's impossible to take damage (the worst that can happen is losing a bit of your "scarf"; the longer it gets, the farther you can jump), there's no time limit, and the "puzzles" are very simplistic. There is no loss condition, and basically nothing to do except move forward. Despite this, there were moments, deep in the bowels of some ancient ruin, being pursued by unstoppable, flying serpent-guardians made of stone, where I was truly afraid, despite knowing for a fact that there was nothing they could do to hurt or kill me, even in-game.

Thatgamecompany is renowned for not simply releasing action-oriented titles, but interactive works of art, which are specifically designed to provoke emotional responses in players. I would say that Journey achieves this goal in spectacular fashion.

You'll grow far more attached to this nameless, faceless avatar than you would expect.

The game opens on a vast and endless desert, with the player's non-gendered avatar sitting in the sand. It stands, and after a brief, wordless tutorial on how to manipulate the camera, the player is left to decide which way to go. That's it: no half-hour unskippable opening cinematic, no backstory, no text, no voice-over, no nothing. I found it deeply refreshing to simply be thrust into the game-world and allowed to make my own decisions about where to go and what to do.

Since the only moving thing in this featureless world of sand is a flapping "scarf" atop a nearby dune, the player will most likely decide to move towards that. As you crest the dune, the camera pulls back to simultaneously reveal a shining mountaintop in the impossibly-far distance, and a stunning panoramic vista of ancient sand-choked ruins. The word "Journey" fades into view above the mountaintop, and you realize that the developers have just gotten you to willingly walk right into the title-screen without even realizing that you were playing right along. Journey is full of moments like this, where gameplay and game-design work together, instead of at cross-purposes. Sometimes the camera-work was so smooth that it was hard to tell whether I was playing a game or directing a movie.

Another thing that I loved is that there's zero dialogue in this game. No text, no narration, no spoken dialogue, not even a HUD. Asides from the aforementioned title-screen and the end credits, Journey is a game totally devoid of linguistic content. Just like in real life, there's nothing blinking in the corner of your vision to distract you from what you're seeing and doing, which has the effect of keeping the player in the here-and-now, rather than distracted how many points they've got left or have earned so far. This game isn't about winning, it's about... well, the journey.

And what a journey it is.

When this vista opened up, I was literally struck dumb in the middle of a sentence; all I could do was stare in awe.

This game will take you over sand and under the sea and through the earth and up, up, up into the very highest reaches of the stratosphere. You'll run, leap, fly, swim, and even sneak your way through a world which feels simultaneously solid and otherworldly, plausible and fantastic. You'll feel wonder, foreboding, fear, sorrow, and even the tender concern for a beloved traveling companion.

You might even make a friend along the way: about two-thirds of the way through, I realized that I suddenly had a companion, a second figure identical to myself. Like me, it seemed unable to talk, but we could "sing" to each other (if you can call it that; it's really more like a pulse of white light accompanied by a tone and a glowing glyph). Since singing and touching refilled each other's jump-power, we stuck close together whenever possible. By the end, I was surprised at how emotionally attached I got to my nameless, faceless "buddy", even if s/he couldn't communicate with me in any linguistic sense (kind of like the Companion Cube from Portal).

"I am glad you are here with me. Here at the end of all things, Sam."

Journey is full of genuinely touching moments, despite not having a single word of written nor spoken dialogue. It's packed from beginning to end with a sense of wonder and exploration, of mind-blowing revelations and stunning, silencing vistas which emerge without warning. The desert (indeed, the entire game) reminded me of trekking over Sleeping Bear Dunes as a child: you never know what you're going to see when you crest the next rise, but it's sure to blow you away.

Friday, September 25, 2015

[Book Review] A Detroit Anthology

A Detroit Anthology (2014)
Edited by Anna Clark
Featuring essays, photographs, art, and poetry by Grace Lee Boggs, John Carlisle, Desiree Cooper, dream hampton, Steve Hughes, Jamaal May, Tracie McMillan, Marsha Music, Shaka Senghor, Thomas J. Sugrue, and many others.

Named a Notable Book of 2015 by The Library of Michigan

"I see a bunch of regular-ass people doing regular-ass shit because Detroit is a regular-ass city with regular-ass problems just like everyone else. Which is why I wholeheartedly believe that Detroit will be just fine."
—"We Love Detroit; Even If You Don't," by Aaron Foley

Despite having lived adjacent to the Motor City for virtually all of my formative years, I realized recently that I knew next to nothing about Detroit. Sure, I'd been to the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village on field trips, and I had been to Greektown many times with my family, but I was ashamed and a little dismayed to realize that even in my late twenties I still knew almost nothing about the city's history or culture. It never even occurred to me to ask why the city seemed so empty and blighted; as a kid, I just assumed that all major cities consisted of central hubs ringed by miles of empty structures and blight.

So I've taken it upon myself to start learning more about the Motor City and its geography, history, culture, and people. After a quick crash-course in local history (I highly recommend Scott Martelle's Detroit: A Biography for a handy overview of the city's three centuries of colorful existence), I decided to launch right into discovering what it's like to actually live in a city which most Americans view with a complex mixture of disgust, pity, and fear.

Right from the Introduction, the editor remarks that "[e]ven local writers often pen stories that are meant to explain Detroit to those who live elsewhere." This is not one of those books: it's full of art by Detroiters, about Detroit and for Detroit(ers).

Not all of the entries are stories, either. There seems to be a roughly-even split between prose, poetry, and black-and-white photography. I was glad to see, however, that this is not a coffee-table anthology of schadenfreude-laced ruin porn; with the exception of two mandatory shots of the G.A.R. Building and a certain baroque parking garage, there are no images of abandoned structures in this anthology. What the editor chooses to focus on instead is the 713,000 residents who still call Detroit their home, and are living with the fallout from all those highly-photogenic ruins. This is not a rose-colored view of a city on the rebound, but it doesn't wallow in loss either. There are a few shots of the poor and the homeless, yes, but there are a far greater number of shots of everyday Detroiters doing everyday things, like fishing on Belle Isle, tending community gardens, children blowing bubbles at Hart Plaza, people waiting for buses, and one particularly delightful image of a twentysomething electronica fan doing what appears to be the Twist at an outdoor music festival, opposite a small girl in a sundress who is zealously imitating his dance moves. In short: the normality which can still be found in what is arguably one of the least-normal cities in America.

I'll admit I'm not much of a poet, or a critic thereof, and as a result much of the poetry in this anthology left me more confused than moved. I'm willing to chalk this up to unfamiliarity with the form, though quite a few of them left an impression on me. Some of them left me more with a vague sense of emotion formed by a string of seemingly disconnected words (most of them negative), though several (such as "Infernal" by Tyehimba Jess and "what you'd find buried in the dirt under charles f. kettering sr. high school (detroit, michigan)" by francine j. harris [name in lowercase by choice]) were quite profoundly moving.

For me, as a writer who works primarily in prose, the main point of this anthology was the narratives about living in (or surviving) Detroit. Some of these stories are funny. Most are poignant and sad. Many are shocking, or angry and defiant. All of them are true and, by virtue of that truth, incredibly raw. Take for instance "The Imam I Knew", in which Omar Syed Mahmood recounts a side of the now-infamous Imam Luqman which the papers failed to mention: a man who was willing to dig into his own family's winter food-budget so that other families in his flock would not go hungry during Ramadan. In "The Fixer" by John Carlisle, one man runs an unregistered lawnmower-repair business out of a parking lot next to the abandoned shop he hopes to buy someday, waiting patiently for the day when it will go into tax lien and he can snap it up, and watching helplessly as scrappers dismantle the property which he does not yet own.

Reading this anthology will give you a picture of Detroit which is often glossed over in mainstream media, which is replete with head-shaking, finger-wagging sermons about the death of the American Dream, as embodied by the Motor City. A Detroit Anthology reminds us that the city is still very much alive, thank-you-very-much, and to mourn it while it still lives is a disservice to all the human beings who are still trying to make their way in a city which the rest of the world has already written-off. This anthology seeks to un-write, to rewrite that dismissal, and show that the city's motto is just as relevant and necessary and true as it's ever been: Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus ("We hope for better things; it will arise from the ashes").

Monday, September 21, 2015

A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (2014)
Director/Writer: Ana Lily Amirpour
Starring: Sheila Vand, Arash Marandi, Marshall Manesh

The very first line line of spoken dialogue in this movie comes from a young boy, asking "Can I have some money?" Which is highly appropriate, because the director took mine. Or rather, she would have, if I had followed my initial impulse to see it in theaters instead of waiting for it to be available at the library. If I'd wasted both an evening and my money I would be quite put out, but since as it turned out I only lost 99 minutes I can't be too upset with myself.

I could easily imagine shots from A Girl Walks Home being used as the backdrop for an episode of a prime-time family sitcom. You know the episode: the wife wants to go see the new art-house film at the Historic Downtown Theatre, but her blue-collar husband doesn't like foreign movies. But not wanting to appear uncultured or xenophobic, he pays for their tickets anyway, and we get to watch him squirm in his chair as his every fear is proven right and made painfully, inescapably real. It could almost be funny, except the only genuinely funny thing in this entire movie is one brief shot of a young female vampire riding a skateboard while wearing a chador.


It feels almost like the director was trying to collect every negative stereotype of foreign films in one place. For starters, Girl is an ultra-low-budget affair, and filmed entirely in black-and-white. There are subtitles (the dialogue is all in Farsi, even though it was filmed in California). All the characters are either shallow assholes, depressed and listless, slowly losing their youth, drowning in existential ennui, dying of terminal illnesses, or already dead. The scenery is all rusting industrial complexes, deserted city streets, or squalid apartments. Not a single person in this movie is enjoying themselves, not even the vampire.

Dialogue is delivered laconically, in one- or two-word statements interspersed with several seconds of painfully awkward silence to space them out. At one point, the leading male ("Arash") makes out with the titular girl in her subterranean apartment (to the lively tune of Death by The White Lies), but the director manages to make three actions (the girl puts on a record, turns around, then they make out) take what I think was the entire five minutes that the song lasts. I get that one of the participants in this makeout session has literally all the time in the world, but there is just no way that any teenage boy could delay gratification for that long. It feels like the director found what she knew, just knew was the absolute perfect song to go with this scene, but she didn't have enough dialogue to fill  the scene and couldn't afford to bay the band to shorten it, so she just told her actors to do everything with excruciating slowness to kill time, so their actions sync up with the song.

While it's true that many real-life conversations do contain a lot more silence that we realize, the reason movies are interesting is because they cut that stuff out: they condense life into a faster-paced, better-edited version of itself.

Despite the agonizing length of this movie, almost none of that time is used to fill us in on the backstory or to give context. Near the end of the very first, scene, Arash walks past what appears to be a drainage ditch full of human bodies. This is never explained, mentioned, or commented-upon by any of the characters, not even news or radio anchors heard in passing. Except for one shot in Act III where there are a larger number of bodies in the same ditch, and one additional body is being tossed unceremoniously into it.

Girl is full of non-sequiturs, loose ends, and the unexplained. For example, the transition between Acts II and III is a two-minute sequence of a drag queen in a black cowboy-shirt ballroom dancing with a Mylar balloon in an empty, abandoned courtyard. Just like the ditch-full-of-bodies from earlier, this is also never explained, commented-upon or explored, and the drag queen is never seen or alluded to again.

This was your cue to run, bro, not to erotically stick your finger in her mouth. What did you think was going to happen?

The posters and flyers all billed this movie as "[t]he first Iranian Vampire Western ever made," but being filmed in California, even the dusty part, does not a Western make. Girl does not exist within the milieu of the Western genre; if Girl is a Western, then so is Bad Santa, which at least is set in Phoenix, AZ and featured a bank robbery (of sorts). I suspect the director was afraid that people wouldn't pay to see an Iranian-American vampire movie, so she tacked-on "Western" in a bid to make people curious and sell more tickets. And I suppose it worked, after a fashion, since I got suckered into watching it.

I went into this movie thinking that I might broaden my horizons a little, but all I got out of it was a powerful aversion to art-house films. Which is not quite the learning experience I had in mind.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

The Hipster Vampires of Detroit

Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)
Director: Jim Jarmusch
Starring: Loki, Jadis the White Witch, Jane Eyre, Chekov, and Mr. Ollivander

This movie was not what I expected. I'm not sure what I was expecting, but it wasn't this. Still not sure whether that's a good thing or a bad thing.

The plot runs something like this: Adam (Tom Hiddleston) is a musician and aesthete living a solitary existence in an old house in Detroit that he got on the cheap, supporting his art and music habits by composing indie rock records and selling them to record companies through a human middleman named Ian (Anton Yelchin), who is unaware that his sort-of-mentor, sort-of-friend is really a vampire. Bored to undeath with the endless stupidity of "the zombies" (mortals) and a general crushing sense of ennui, Adam considers killing himself with a specially-made .38 caliber bullet made from ultra-dense cocobolo wood. But before he can muster the will to end his undeath, he gets a video call from his vampire "wife", Eve, who's been unliving it up in Tangiers with her old friend and mentor Christopher Marlowe (played delightfully by John Hurt), who as it turns out really did write all of Shakespeare's plays.

Eve, fearing that her semi-estranged husband needs some cheering-up, catches a redeye to Detroit, and Adam gives her a grand tour of the ruins of Detroit: lots of weed-choked fields, coyote-haunted ruins, empty streets and houses, and of course the Michigan Theatre (a movie-palace-turned-parking-garage), the old Packard Plant, and all the favored haunts of urbexers and ruin-pornographers alike. Maybe this stuff is still news to people outside the Midwest, but for me, living so close to Detroit, it just comes off as trite. News flash: Detroit isn't a ghost town there are still 700,000 people living in there right now. It's easy and terribly romantic to write it off as a lost cause, but that's pretty demeaning to the people who actually live there. It's like unironically posting "RIP Native Americans" in your tumblr feed: they're still very much alive, thank you very much, and they resent the assumption that their struggle to survive is over.

Which brings me to another problem I had with this movie: like Gran Torino before it, Lovers is yet another movie set in Detroit (a city where 80% of residents are black) which features virtually no black people. The one black man in this movie is a medical technologist, so the film gets points for not giving in to easy stereotypes. But besides that guy, I think there's one black extra in the whole movie; that is the full extent of their representation onscreen. Clearly, since the director must have been to Detroit in order to film this thing, the only explanation is that he (or the studio) isn't interested in portraying Detroit accurately.

Anyway, getting back to the summary: Eve shows up and Adam shows her around, and they talk and philosophize and opine about just how tragic it is that the zombies can't be as wise and good and refined and civilized as they are. Adam seems to cheer up for a while under Eve's influence, but their reverie is rudely interrupted by the arrival of Ava, Eve's "teenage" sister from LA, who shows up uninvited in their house one night, asking if she can crash on their couch and eat their "food".

Mia Wasikowska is spot-on with her portrayal of Ava as a bratty, self-absorbed teenie-bopper who either can't read anger in other people's voices and faces, or else has complete faith that pouting and begging will get her out of trouble when said people inevitably explode at her. The character is grating, but that's definitely intentional here, since she's practically the only character who induces change at all: without her, Adam and Eve would probably spend the whole movie lounging around, listening to indie music on vinyl, and drinking type O negative out of crystal absinthe-glasses. Their existence is stable and comfortable, if a bit dull: Ava throws a wrench into all that.

The main reason I tuned in was for the promise of a vampire movie set in Detroit. With its wide-open spaces, appalling murder rate, spotty law enforcement, and large numbers of streetlights that just don't work, Detroit seemed like the kind of place where vampires would run wild.

But Hiddleston's Adam and Swinton's Eve are anything but wild: they're refined, elegant creatures who've had centuries to cultivate perfect taste in music, literature, and even science. They're epicures and philosophers who, instead of spending their (un)lives on the Eternal Hunt, drink sparingly and spend most of their free time creating art. Definitely an interesting take on the standard vampire, a creature ruled by its passions, but I was kinda hoping to see the undead going completely apeshit in the D.

This movie is definitely not for everyone; I don't think it was for me, personally. At least, not more than once. But it was certainly interesting to see vampires as something other than villains or protagonists in an action, horror, or action/horror movie. It was interesting to think of them as people with houses, careers, long-distance relationships, and in-laws they can't stand. But that's part of why I watch movies about vampires in the first place: I want to be entertained with tales of Gothic horror and gratuitous bloodletting.

If you're into indie music and sadness and being too tragically hip for this world, these are definitely your vampires. But I think my palette has been thoroughly cleansed, and I'm ready to get back on the vampire-as-monster bandwagon, thanks.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

[Movie Review] Moby Dick (1956)

Moby Dick (1956)
Director: John Huston
Starring: Gregory Peck, Richard Basehart, Leo Genn, Orson Welles
Screenplay: Ray Bradbury

For years I've been getting suggestions from authors whom I greatly respect and admire that Herman Melville's epic masterpiece Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, is a tale which is worthy of that nebulous and ill-defined distinction of being a "Great American Novel". I had never really given the book much thought, and never seriously considered reading it, until I realized that the recommendations were really starting to pile up: once I realized that this book had been recommended by no less than Nicholas Meyer, Mike Carey, even the astonishingly-talented Ray Bradbury, I decided I really had to see what all the fuss was about.

But I'm a man of limited means, so I thought I would rent the movie from my local library before committing to the novel. After all, that thing is HUGE! You might even say it's a whale of a tale.

"Haunting" is the best word that I can think of to describe this film. I think I finally understand why people keep reading the book, despite its forbidding size: the tale of Ahab and his mad, all-consuming quest for revenge has a way of gripping the mind. I keep finding myself thinking about this story and its characters, even several weeks after watching this film for the first time.

(Oh yeah, I guess there are spoilers ahead. Even though I'm pretty sure the statute of limitations on spoilers expired a long time ago.)

I'm sure you're all familiar with the basic outline of the story, even if you've never read it or seen the movie: Captain Ahab is maimed in an ill-fated encounter with an unusually large and intelligent white sperm-whale named Moby Dick, and spends the rest of his life (as well as his ship and the lives of his crew) in a Quixotic, suicidal quest to take his revenge against the monster who took his leg and scarred his face. Sure, there's all that stuff about Ishmael and Queequeg and Starbuck and all the rest, but make no mistake: Ahab is the real star here, even if it's the White Whale who gets the title.

Peck gives a commanding, sonorous performance as the crazed-but-brilliant Captain Ahab, master of the whaling ship Pequod. He's a bit more handsome than I expected Ahab to look, but Peck's Ahab is scarred more deeply inside than out. Ahab is not just a gibbering madman, though: he is an accomplished leader of men, an experienced sea-captain, and possessed of a brilliant analytical mind.

Orson Welles gives an unexpected cameo as Father Mapple, who delivers a sermon (on the subject of Jonah and the Whale, of course) which closes out the first act. Watching Welles transition smoothly from glowering intensity to thundering rage to pious tenderness is a fascinating study in emotional nuance from a master actor; do not skip this scene, however you might feel about listening to sermons.

As I watched, I was struck by the diversity of the Pequod's crew: in an era where segregation of the races was still enforced by law in many parts of the world, the crew of the Pequod includes Irishmen, Africans, New Englanders, Native Americans, African-Americans, and even a Polynesian Islander. The tasks assigned to various crewmen do not seem to hinge on race (though it's worth noting that the captain and all three of his mates are white), and race is not a barrier to promotion. After demonstrating his considerable skill with a harpoon, Queequeg is immediately recruited to the Pequod with a whopping sixtieth part of the voyage's profits (compared to Ishmael's measly three-hundredth).

Bradbury's screenplay is axiom-dense. It seems like every other line is some sort of pithy maxim that could easily spark hours of book-club conversations and classroom debates:
  • "Better a sober cannibal [for a bedfellow] than a drunken Christian." ~Ishmael
  • "Captain Ahab did not name himself. .Sign the paper now, and wrong him not because he happens to have a wicked name." ~Bildad
  • "Captains can't break the law. They is the law, as far as I'm concerned." ~Flask

Moby-Dick is actually a very philosophical film, despite the blue-collar setting. Lots of thought-provoking dialogue on the nature of Man, the sea and man's place upon it, what rights (if any) one man may hold over another), the extent of obedience and duty to one's captain, and whether it is moral to seek revenge against an unthinking animal. As First Mate Starbuck warns his captain, "To be enraged with a dumb brute that acted out of blind instinct... is blasphemous." There's a lot of deep thought here, and (at least initially) the viewer might even feel some sympathy with Ahab's desire for what he sees as justice, when he explains why he acts as he does:
Look ye, Starbuck... all visible objects are but as pasteboard masks. Some inscrutable yet reasoning thing puts forth the molding of their features. The white whale tasks me. He heaps me. Yet he is but a mask. It is the thing behind the mask I chiefly hate. The malignant thing that has plagued and frightened Man since time began. The thing that mauls and mutilates our race... not killing us outright, but letting us live on... with half a heart and half a lung.
But over the course of the film, we come to have less and less sympathy with Ahab, as it becomes clear just how many people he's willing to take down with him. Besides risking his own life and (remaining) limbs, he risks his ship, the Pequod, which he does not own; the financial well-being of all the New Bedford families who depend on this voyage's success for their sustenance; the lives of his crewmen, and the wages they bring home to their own families; and even (some might argue) his very soul.

In the course of his quest, Ahab encounters other captains who have had their own run-ins with Moby-Dick. Captain Boomer, who lost his hand to the whale (an even greater blow to a seaman than the loss of a leg!), makes jokes about his hook ("Better than flesh and blood! Like her so much, I've a mind to have me other arm cut off,") and professes that he is simply grateful to be alive after such a harrowing encounter. Ahab, of course, refuses to hear the wisdom of these words, and plunges on. The second captain, Gardiner, has suffered an even more terrible loss than either Ahab or Boomer, though not to his own body: his twelve-year-old son was killed by the whale, and the body was lost overboard. Gardiner begs Ahab to stay and help him search for his son's body, but Ahab, throwing Christian charity aside, and continues in his quest.

Sadly, unlike the acting, the script, and pretty much everything else about this movie, the whales of Moby Dick are merely "passable" at best. The first whale-chase was convincing enough that I, having never seen real whales up close, briefly wondered whether they might be real. But the illusion only remains convincing because all we see of the fleeing whales are their humps: as soon as I understood that that was all the prop-makers had built, and this was all of them we were going to see, it became a little harder to suspend my disbelief. When the White Whale himself breaches for the first time, it is instantly clear that he's a puppet, and not an especially convincing one. To be fair, this was 1956, and filmmakers were fairly limited by the technology of their day, but it was still something of an anticlimax that the main antagonist looked so fake.

Despite its technological shortcomings, Moby Dick is absolutely worth your time and attention. If you've ever wondered whether the book is any good, but been scared off by its tremendous size and "SERIOUS BUSINESS" reputation, then this film is the next best thing. Your knowledge of this tale will impress the hell out of your friends at parties, and Peck's crazed, throat-shredding screaming of Ahab's final lines - some of the best last words ever penned - is worth the price of admission alone.
"Ye damned whale! From hell's heart I stab at thee! For hate's sake... I spit my last breath at thee...thou damned whale!"

Monday, April 27, 2015

Read Before You Recommend

An Open Letter to TIME Magazine

Dear Editor,

I recently came across an article from your Entertainment section, entitled "Five Fantasy Epics That Would Have Made for Better TV Than Game of Thrones", by Chris Wilson. While I agree with his assessment that the books he recommends would probably do well as high-budget cable TV shows, I'm curious as to how he can make such a recommendation in the first place, since he admits in the article that he hasn't actually read most of the material he's "recommending".

He begins by stating that he never actually finished reading the first installment of George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire; in fact, he gave up completely, less than a third of the way into the first book. He's admitted he never read the books, and it's not even clear whether he's watched the show they were adapted into, so how can Mr. Wilson seriously suggest that these other properties would make for better television than Game of Thrones?

When Roger Ebert posted a review of the film Tru Loved without actually finishing it, his readership were so outraged at his lack of professionalism that he was forced to re-watch the entire film, review it again, and issue an apology. I'm not so cruel as to suggest that Mr. Wilson be made to read all of books in all the series he's recommending (since this would likely amount to a life-sentence for the poor man), but he certainly shouldn't be recommending books he hasn't read, and doesn't even seem to respect.

Not only has he not done his research, he also confesses that virtually every series he "recommends" has a dramatic drop-off in quality later on, or that he simply got bored with them after a few volumes. I came away from this article with a strong impression that Mr. Wilson doesn't actually enjoy reading fantasy novels in the first place. In fact, he seems to have nothing but disdain for the genre. Of the eight fantasy series which he mentions by name in his article, he tells us that he never finished reading five of them. Some of them, he never even started reading: he prefaces his recommendation of Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time by saying "I never actually got into these books".

TV shows cost a lot of money to produce, so if Mr. Wilson is going to recommend a property to be developed into a full-fledged television program, he had better make sure it's a cracking good read, not just something that someone else told him was probably alright.

Why is this guy recommending that people make TV shows out of books he hasn't finished reading, and didn't enjoy in the first place? And more importantly, why are you guys paying him to do it?

Monday, April 20, 2015

[Movie Review] It Follows

It Follows made it hard for me to fall asleep the night I saw it. Hell, it made me look behind myself more than a few times as I walked back to my car, even in a well-lit parking garage in the heart of downtown Ann Arbor. I think this is mainly because the film feels so familiar and essentially Midwestern, making it much more plausible that this could happen to me, personally. A horror movie set in New York or L.A. could never match It Follows for creepiness, because they could never pass for where I live. This isn't a ghost story that happened in a land far, far away; it happened right here, in these very woods, on a night very much like this one. And the quality of plausibility, the idea that this could happen to you, is what separates a merely spooky story from a terrifying one.

Californians are used to seeing themselves and their neighborhoods in movies, but those of us who grew up in Southeast Michigan have a harder time finding media that accurately represent our home region. In fact, there are only a few big-name films (Gran Torino, Robocop, 8 Mile) and TV shows (Freaks and Geeks, Hung) that spring readily to mind, and even the most recent of these is already four years old.

Because Southeast Michigan movies are such a rare breed, it was somewhat surreal to see teenagers on the big screen that actually looked like my own school-friends, living in houses that actually look like the houses I grew up around. The exterior shots are full of cozy working-class two-stories with white aluminum siding and blue vinyl above-ground pools in the backyard, often installed behind fully separate one-car garages, separated from one another by a grid of chain-link fences . t's all hauntingly familiar to me, which probably explains why I found this movie was so singularly creepy: everywhere in this movie reminds me strongly of places that I've actually lived in or visited with some regularity, from the neat little rows of suburban houses to the pacific splendor of an "up north" cabin to the hauntingly empty shells of burned-out homes and abandoned parks within Detroit itself.

Just try driving past one of these at night,
and tell me it doesn't freak you out. I dare you.

Although the geography of the film is explicit, the time is left ambiguous. The main characters (all in their late teens or early twenties) spend much of the first act lounging in living rooms and basements that look like they haven't been redecorated since the seventies, complete with dark wood-paneling and beige shag carpeting (I think I even saw a macramé owl in the background at one point), but homes that look like this are extremely common in the Detroit area, even today. The kids drive cars that look like they're from the 1980s, but they wear their hair and clothes more-or-less like modern teens and twentysomethings do (though not quite; something's missing, I'm just not sure what). Cell phones never appear, but one of the main characters is repeatedly shown reading Dostoyevsky's The Idiot on a Kindle-esque clamshell e-reader.

The plot of this dark and twisted tale follows Jay (short for Jamie), a freshman or sophomore a local community college, who's been dating an older guy, Hugh, who she's been thinking about sleeping with for the first time. After doing the deed in the backseat of Hugh's hot rod, the young man goes to the trunk to get something while Jay idly soliloquizes, then returns - major shocker! - with a chloroform-soaked cloth which he presses to Jay's face until she passes out. She wakes up some time later, handcuffed into a wheelchair, on a wall-less upper floor of one of Detroit's many abandoned factories. Slowly walking around her, pointing his flashlight out into the night, Hugh explains that something, some unknown entity or person, has been following him for a long time; someone passed it to him through sex, and now he's passed it to her. She can get rid of it by passing it to someone else in turn, but until she does, it will be moving towards her. It only walks, never runs, but it never sleeps, never stops, and only she (or someone whom "it" has pursued before) will be able to see it. No matter what she does or how far she flees, no matter how sturdy the doors she bolts herself behind, it will always be out there, day and night, never stopping or resting, always walking straight towards her.

That's one helluva setup, right? I won't spoil the rest of the movie for you (if you want to know how it ends, look it up on Wikipedia or something), but I can tell you this: I've never felt so uncomfortable while gazing on the figure of an attractive female, mainly because this film is very much aware of the male gaze and how it works, but makes you feel uncomfortable for looking. Jay is definitely sexualized, but it's a kind of coquettish, awkward sexuality that makes me, as a male in my late twenties, feel unsure whether it's OK for me to look or not; this creates tension and cognitive dissonance which reverberates throughout the film.

An example: when Hugh brings Jay home after showing her "it" for the first time, he unceremoniously dumps her on the street outside her home, and zooms off into the night. As her friends rush towards her, the camera affords us a full view of Jay's pink-panty-clad buttocks as she drops to her knees in tears on the front lawn of her parents' home. In another context, this shot would be nothing but empty-headed fanservice, but here it just feels deeply wrong. The audience is made to feel uncomfortable for watching her from this angle while she's having a complete (and totally understandable) emotional breakdown, because there's dissonance between the content of the shot (shapely female buttocks) and the mood (sorrow, vulnerability).

The soundtrack, by Disasterpeace, will definitely be a hit with the hipster crowd. It's all 80s-style 8-bit chiptune synthesizers playing slow, eerie moodscapes, interpsersed with a few high-tension, nerve-janglers. Each piece develops slowly out of layered and riffs, usually with a noticeable echo-filter overlaid. Everything is dark, cold, and minor key, and just as circular/repetitive (in a good way) as the titular it-that-follows. Cold, artificial, unearthly, and highly atmospheric; definitely worth a listen, but only in a well-lit room. Listening to it, I can't help but be reminded of the Lavender Town Syndrome creepypasta that's been passed around the virtual campfires for who-knows-how-long.

I was also impressed with the way the director extracted maximum creep-factor from a minimal special effects budget: since "it" can look like anyone, and changes its appearance to avoid easy detection by its prey, they didn't even need to stick with just one person to play "it". The fact that its appearance changes is key to the story, as well as the overwhelming sense of forebodeing that permeates this film. You find yourself scanning the background every time Jay is in a public space, looking for any extra that seems to be walking towards the camera; we feel distracted and mentally taxed by the need to observe Jay's surroundings, helping put us even more thoroughly in her shoes.

Some critics have been talking about how "it" stands for the relentlessness of urban decay (in Detroit and elsewhere, as the economy limps along and America's preeminence begins to tarnish), but I'm not sure I buy it. The director has said in interviews that he doesn't really care what people think "it" is, as long as they're frightened. Personally, I think that it stands better as a metaphor for STDs (and AIDS in particular), but better still as a parable of teenagers coming to grips with their own looming mortality. As one character says late in the film, quoting Dostoyevsky:

When there is torture, there is pain and wounds, physical agony, and all this distracts the mind from mental suffering, so that one is tormented by the wounds until the moment of death. And the most terrible agony may not be in the wounds themselves but in knowing for certain that within an hour, then within 10 minutes, then within half a minute, now at this very instant—your soul will leave your body and you will no longer be a person, and that this is certain. The worst thing is that it is certain.

...and that's enough to freak anybody out.