Thursday, 30 June 2011

"This Never Happened to the Other Fellow"

This is the latest in a series of monthly pieces on the James Bond franchise, as part of The Incredible Suit's  Blogalongabond. For more info, check out here, and here. For my prior entries, click here.

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service opens in a manner that seems somewhat restrained in light of the increasing bombast of the past five films. Events begin with M and Q querying the whereabouts of an AWOL Bond, a Bond who, it turns out, is trailing a rather melancholy young woman as she drives to the beach. A Bond who saves this woman from herself as she bounds into the arms of the sea. A Bond who engages in a rough and ready brawl, without too much of the superman about him, all the while his features obscured or rendered distant, the camera teasing us before the damsel flees without thanks. This veiled Bond is already so different the laws of the series are bending around him also, leading to the over the top meta-comment, “this never happened to the other fellow,” before the opening credits role, recapping scenes from the past five films – none of which show a certain Sean Connery. And so it is that, slap-bang in the middle of the so-called “Blofeld Trilogy”, the 007 franchise has its first major identity crisis in the form of George Lazenby.

In an odd way, the timing of this first shift in the series comes at a rather fortuitous time in the series’ narrative, presenting as it does a new side of Bond never before seen in the movies. For, on the one hand, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is a fairly standard Bond tale; Bond continues to track down the elusive head of SPECTRE, Ernst Stavros Blofeld, uncovering his latest scheme to get rich quick or kill loads trying, complete with an exotic hideaway, dodgy foreign heavies (hi Rosa Klebb – I mean Irma Bunt!) and shots of a well oiled bald head. On the other hand, however, and far more memorable, is the story of a formidable, if troubled, young woman who penetrates Bond’s cool composure and leaves him vulnerable to love, and eventually, marriage. If any woman was to break Bond, it would be Contessa Teresa “Tracy” di Vicenzo, the headstrong daughter of crime-lord Marc-Ange Draco. Like Bond, she is impulsive and dangerous – though it no doubt helps that she carries the stunning looks of Diana Rigg; if there was ever a Bond girl to fall for, it is she.

Lazenby’s Bond is more of a straight man than Connery’s; he packs the charm, the smarts, and the strength, but he doesn’t have that edge of calculated aggression that marked Connery’s take on the character, and as such his slightly more earnest rendition of Bond gels far better with the lover’s tragedy at work in this film in a way that I struggle to see Connery working with quite so well. Everything in the film, from the narrative, through the meta references to the past films, and the re-arranged score, conspires to suggest that we’ve entered a transition phase; that Bond has moved on. The result of course, is that OHMSS has become something of an anomaly in the Bond canon; Connery returned one more time to the EON productions with Diamonds Are Forever, before Moore took over the reins and the series became something else entirely in order to stay relevant in the more liberal 70s. Lazenby will forever been known as “the weaker Bond” as a result of this, and I feel it’s an unfair judgement – in this instance, the shift in Bond is something of an evolution rather than a reboot, presenting a facet to the character that complements what came before.

It help that OHMSS is, regardless of its own marked individualities, a stand-up Bond film within the series’ general formula. Shirking gadgets and clumsy plot turns in favour of something streamlined and focused, characters are allowed to breathe a little more; even the device of Blofeld is allowed to become an actual character in the hands of Telly Savalas, wiping the floor with the dodgy remains of Emilio Largo and – dare I say it – the “iconic” take of the character in the form of Pleasance. With consistent pacing throughout, OHMSS feels like a refreshing new direction in the series, one it unfortunately didn’t follow. As it stands, OHMSS offers the first, highly compressed, example of the more general identity crisis of the series as a whole – a sort of shoe in that people unfairly forget. If more Bond films had followed in the steps planted here, perhaps things might have turned out a little differently later on.

Friday, 17 June 2011

Joystick Cinema; appendix

Following last week's article on videogames, I had a discussion with a friend over whether or not the term 'A to B' successfully conveys what I'm trying to say. He argued more that such an image pushes the idea of a linear narrative, a hangover from other art forms that games could, and should, shirk off, and I agree with him. Linear narratives are of course fine, but I suppose it forms a more general idea of how videogames allow one to work through an experience, be it linear narrative or free-form. This point is well illustrated by an online game he linked to me, which really helps elaborate what we're both arguing and so I thought I'd include it on the blog. I won't say much about it, just check it out and have a play around with it. Some of the results are pretty fantastic, and it's a pretty succinct example of how the direct control of a single scenario can be re-interpreted ad nauseum, and how figuring out how to tease out new narratives becomes a game in itself.

(A few people have trouble getting past the start screen, as the game doesn't specify what to do next. Just press 'enter' and the scenario should begin!)

Monday, 13 June 2011

X-Men: First Class Review

The fact that I’m only uploading my review of X-Men: First Class this evening, despite watching it last Friday, will no doubt imply a lot of things that are largely correct. Mildly entertaining viewing that ultimately proves to be largely forgettable beyond a daft aftertaste, this latest foray into world of the oppressed mutants takes two steps forward and one back. Matthew Vaughn’s chapter in the bloated X-Men landscape continually offers new, interesting takes on the franchise - only to then firmly deflate them through inadequate plotting, an inability to really focus on anything enough to give it gravitas, and truly poor post-production considerations.

Much of this is a result of the film’s attempt to tell two stories that could each fulfil a two hour film in themselves; on the one hand, we have the formation of the original X-Men, class of 1962; Havok (Lucas Till), Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones), Darwin (Edi Gathegi), and Angel Salvadore (Zoe Kravitz), all led by a young Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) as part of a sub-CIA plan to stop the terrorist plot of fascist mutant Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon). Sebastian Shaw however happened to be present twenty years earlier, acting as a scientist in the Nazi concentration camp where a young Magneto first manifested his powers, and thus we come to the second plot, and the one that the film is clearly more interested in telling; the origin of Magneto (Michael Fassbender). Yes, that’s right, seven years after being originally announced, Singer’s original plans for an X-Men Origins: Magneto have come about, but in a very dilute, subordinate manner. For the duration of the plot, as these two threads culminate in a mission to stop Shaw from seeing through the Cuban Missile Crisis and creating a land fit only for mutants, the friendship of Xavier and Magneto is established and rushed through alongside the insertion of a team to justify the film’s new title.

The resulting storyline thus attempts to accomplish too much for its own good; one minute we’re dealing with Magneto’s vendetta against all of those who killed his family in the camp, the next we’re being pulled by bungee cord back to Xavier’s attempts to establish peace between humans and mutants through negotiating with the disparate sides. What was clearly supposed to be a subtle nod to the fact that the mutant crisis figures as a metaphor for discrimination at large then becomes a rather po-faced first class in ethics and morality, cardboard cut-out bigots polluting the film to either shout out “but what about us normal people?” or “Mutant and proud!” Both of those lines are from the film, and the exploration of the tension between species doesn’t extend much beyond that (and the obvious “you fight what you become” thread with Magneto’s defence of fascism with facism). This wouldn’t be a problem if the film wasn’t clearly trying so hard to elevate the film beyond comic-book adventure and try and have some message of how backward people (especially in the ‘60s – you sexist lot you!) can be.

What makes this all the more annoying is that, when the Shaw/X-Men conflict is stripped away, the focus on Xavier and Magneto has some serious potential, and it’s clear that the filmmakers knew this too; everything feels tacked on in comparison to the attention paid to McAvoy’s and Fassbender’s fine acting. Fassbender’s Magneto particularly is the one figure who comes out of this whole affair feeling like a full-blooded, interesting character, and it’s a damn shame they didn’t just make Origins: Magneto with him and McAvoy after all. The ultimate shallowness of the film’s shuffling comes to be mirrored in its lacklustre scoring and sound editing – by the final moments of the film, with Magneto’s dilemma between good and evil reaching its peak as the X-Men around him fight for peace, the score jarringly alternates between its overly bombastic heroic theme and emphatically surly “amoral” score in a manner that almost becomes comic. Ultimately though the laughs come from the Super-Marionette air combat between Banshee and Angel, complete with barely visible wires. Seriously, if your film’s being rushed through post-production, work your script around it.

This review has focussed largely on First Class’s negatives, and there are admittedly some good points beyond the nascent Magneto plotline; Jennifer Lawrence proves to be a sympathetic Mystique even if her character arc mirrors the general binary approach to development that plagues the film as a whole, and Bacon is suitably sleazy as the mentalist Shaw. But all these things get capped by the crap surrounding them; the plot shifts, the poor implementation of special effects, and that classic pitfall of all team movies; pointless characters. Why is January Jones here? And when will she learn how to act? Ultimately, X-Men: First Class is neither terrible nor particularly good – it just exists, lodged somewhere between the original film and The Last Stand (Origins: Wolverine continues to reside happily within its role as crap-fest absolute). If you fancy some inoffensive fluff that doesn’t totally condescend to their audience or hold them in utter contempt, Bay-style, this is it. Just don’t believe all the hype; this is in no way a repeat performance of X2.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Joystick Cinema

It isn’t exactly groundbreaking news that Roger Ebert is a pretty outspoken kind of guy, and sometimes his opinions can be more than a little controversial. Whilst I personally agree with him wholeheartedly on the state of contemporary 3D cinema as just the latest in distracting gimmickry, his argument last year that video games cannot be labelled as art seemed to offer a rather outdated model as to why this was the case. Essentially, video games merely consist of moving from objective A to B he says, an exercise in skill and repetition that cannot allow for a full bodied narrative in the way that good cinema might – it’s too distracting, too distanced, too encumbered by its own mechanics. You might initially respond as I did, thinking “huh, maybe in Super Mario Bros. twenty five years ago – but what about Grand Theft Auto, or Monkey Island, Shadow of the Colossus etc., etc.” But, in a way he seemingly didn’t realise, Ebert’s right; videogames are essentially about a direct manipulation of events along a delineated pattern, no matter how “open world” or falsely “free choice” it may advertise itself as. There is a path, or a series of paths that lead from a start-point to an end-point, already pre-determined, that one must move through by playing the game (I am exclusively talking about single-player narrative gaming here, or else multiplayer gaming strongly rooted in a thematic campaign. Competitive gaming that sells itself on skill over a personal experience, as in the cases of Street Fighter or Dance Dance Revolution, is largely a separate breed). But why should this stop videogames from being labelled as “art”?

The root of the problem lies, I believe, in Ebert’s implicit comparison of the idea of a video game to that of a film, and whilst the pair have similarities, there are fundamental differences that many people – not merely Ebert, but even those who argue for the validity of video games – seem only vaguely aware of. This sense of difference is realised in how often ardent gamers clamour for their favourite videogames to be adapted into film, as if this will somehow justify their appreciation of the medium’s highlights to a wider, non-gaming audience. To look at some of the most recent videogame adaptations, such as Max Payne and Hitman, is to see that the results always fall flat, pleasing no one; the resultant work seems to treat its subject matter with a level of condescension, as if it’s above the material. It only fuels the general idea that video games are the stuff of silly stories and childish fantasy play, and whilst there’s plenty of this, the best games step beyond such matter, but not necessarily on an obvious plot-level. For those of you who’ve played Hitman, consider, can that game ever really translate to screen? I don’t think so – at least, not without it becoming something rather distinct from the appeal of the original material.

This is because the best narrative video games today aren’t trying to just simply tell a story bound up in the process of moving from A to B, but the exercise of moving from A to B is instead one that leads into an immediate, intensely vicarious experiencing of an atmosphere in a way that not even film can achieve; as corny as it sounds, when you play a game like Limbo or Shadow of the Colossus – chosen because of just how minimalistic their approach to story-telling is in favour of “objectivised play” – you are soaking up an atmosphere that is just as worthy of attention, and as well realised, as that in a good film, a good book, or good music. It’s merely going about it in its own way. The opening minutes of Limbo are included below to try and illustrate the entrance into a highly atmospheric world....

....but really the only way to fully understand what I’m arguing is to go ahead and play the game; to just watch it defeats the whole point. The narrative structure becomes entwined in the reward/ punishment scheme of gaming as something the player works through to offer a sense of achievement and consequence. Every time, say, the boy dies gruesomely in Limbo, you are directly responsible, and those who were immersed in the work felt suitably disturbed by this situation on a level that extended beyond watching a nameless boy die tragically in a film. As similar as it may be to the death of a beloved character in a film or a novel, there’s just something slightly more penetrative that comes from the more pronouncedly vicarious nature of the game world.

Further, I believe this is a large part as to why the open world games produced by Rockstar, such as LA Noire, Red Dead Redemption and the Grand Theft Auto series are just so successful. Their scripted narrative heavily emulates the classic features of, alternately, film noir, spaghetti westerns and modern crime, and when you stop to consider any of them they have moments that, homage or not, are founded upon rather derivative plot turns. Vice City, arguably the best of the GTA games, is by and large a retread of Scarface with a bit of Miami Vice thrown in for good measure. The reason why it works is essentially the same as that of the more easily identifiable “ambient” currents of the likes of Limbo – the well-realised open world environment links with a highly temporal pop culture to strongly emulate a zeitgeist that, in playing, one experiences more directly and is thus more involved in. It’s more than just the tension of a good gaming sequence, though that is part of it (such sequences can exist outside of narrative gaming, as illustrated in the competitive games referenced earlier). All the points together allow for a sort of washing-over through a more total immersion.

Like cinema, video games are an impure medium, reliant as they are on the coupling of audio and visual – and with so many games being so derivative of filmic trends, it’s not hard to see why people compare them in what I think are the wrong ways. Video games shouldn’t be made into films, what’s the rush to do so? You’re merely stripping away that direct involvement that makes video gaming so unique in the first place as a story-telling medium or “art.” Daft plot or no, Metal Gear Solid, in its later iterations, is undoubtedly encumbered by its growing obsession with cinematic cut-scenes in lieu of extended game-play, and at its core, it’s thus no different to any other cinematic adaptation of a medium that, in being so reliant on “frame” narratives that allow for immersion and ambience, can’t carry into a more densely plotted two hour feature. There’s nothing wrong with that, it should be embraced. Objective hunting may be what stops video games from being films, but it’s what makes the best of them great. I for one hope studio suits never make an adaptation of Limbo; I’ll work from point A to B all by myself, thank you very much.

17/06/11 - APPENDIX (AISLE)

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Something's cookin'

I've got something a bit different simmering away, which will hopefully be delivered within the next few days. I'm finally making good on the promise I made back at Christmas regarding Roger Ebert's stance on video games - but wait, don't worry! Films are directly involved too!

Phew. Anyway, to whet your appetite, soak up this footage from last year's indie hit Limbo. Or better yet, go ahead and play it - it's pretty integral to my argument.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

'Apocalypse Now' Review

As part of its 40th anniversary, Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam epic, Apocalypse Now, has had its restored (though not Redux) cut released nationwide. Having somehow criminally avoided the film for the past twenty one years of my life, despite owning both versions on DVD, this cinematic re-release was my first experience of Captain Willard’s trek into the heart of darkness. And boy am I glad. A classic example of New Hollywood cinema, swiftly swooping in as one of my all-time favourite films with ease, Apocalypse Now is as delirious, exhausting, and mesmerising as the war its beleaguered soldiers live through.

The film focuses on special operations vet Captain Benjamin L. Willard (Martin Sheen) as he begins what will turn out to be his final mission in ‘Nam, despite his dependency on front-line life and quiet relish in the strife of battle. He must travel up the Nung River into Cambodia to find the rogue factor, Colonel Walter E. Kurtz (Marlon Brando), a decorated soldier and member of the Green Berets who has seemingly gone insane. What follows is a sprawling two and a half hour journey into the black heart of the Vietnam War, as Willard’s Patrol Boat Erebus and its ragtag crew (Albert Hall, Sam Bottoms, Frederic Forrest and a young Laurence Fishburne) experience firsthand the varying ways people submit to the violent world of the jungle and its ways. Robert Duvall’s Bill Kilgore provides a source of blackly comic insanity through his love of surfboards, napalm, and Wagner, that steadily gets stripped down further and further into the jungle; self preservation and the sound of gunfire coalesce into a heady mix that results in the final, total disconnect of Kurtz from the supposed reality of the war surrounding him.

Apocalypse Now really succeeds in evoking the haunting, ambivalent quality of the war; at once repulsive and terribly attractive on a primal level, as the whole thing plays out as a slow-burning fever; from the outset, Willard’s perspective as narrator seems somewhat less than grounded, with Sheen’s turn being one of a number of strong performances across the film as a whole. His Willard is quietly strong even as he clearly frays along at the edges, with the steady transformation of the likes of Sam Bottom’s Lance offering a taste of what will finally come to be found in the bloody temple of Kurtz; the final pit-stop of a New Hollywood bad trip that could only be complete with the addition of Dennis Hopper’s court jester Photojournalist. By the time we reach Cambodia, and these characters (and their actors) have been allowed to fully realise their delirium, the film has – quite ably – undergone a total shift in tone.

This is strongly aided by the masterful cinematography of Vittorio Storaro, creating spectacular vistas of violence interspersed with the natural, haunting beauty of the jungle when quiet. When paired with the adept editing throughout, the film is a total visual feast, only then to be aided with a suitably eerie electronic score that comes to bow down to the pleasures of carnival of war in peak moments like ‘Do Lung.’ And then of course there is The Doors, fittingly appropriate for a film so feverish and free.

This is the war film to lord over all war films since; there is no didacticism, there are no heroes, there is no worthy kernel. There is only the power of war to reduce the human soul to horrible, dark places of violence and hallucination that are nevertheless utterly engrossing to watch, and seemingly as horrifically engrossing to experience. Coppola’s work is a masterpiece; a feather in a cap already brimming. If, like me, you’ve gone this long without seeing it, see it now. And see it in the cinema, on the front row, with the speakers blasting “Ride of the Valkyries” straight at your face.