Monday, September 29, 2014

Gone Girl

A few years ago, I came across a news show run a woman by the name of "Nancy Grace".  I found myself captivated by this woman immediately.  There was a magnetism to her that can only be found in the greatest of geniuses or the most dangerous of psychotics.  She was fascinating in all of the worst ways:  the self-assured crusading, the unceasing fiery anger, the clear insanity in her eyes, so obviously marking her as deeply deranged.  I was certain something had gone wrong.  There had been a mix-up, some mistake.  The anchor of this program was wearing a straight-jacket in a cell somewhere while a madwoman off her meds was being allowed to rant unhinged on national television.  The movie "Network" had come true.  Instead of Howard Beale we had Nancy Grace.  Still just as mad as Hell.

I remember grinning ear to ear.  This was all the validation I needed.  Nancy Grace did her wild song and dance against Scott Peterson or Casey Anthony or any of the other poor people she had set her sights upon.  Furious in her unproven certainty, she simply would throw out ridiculous claims.  Logic or evidence were not required.  I don't know what she used to get her "facts" - gut instinct, woman's intuition, coded crossword messages written by the aliens of Planet Zeta-9?  It did not matter.  She was abuse and rail against whatever creature she had in your paws.  She delighted in destroying people.

And the legal system shuddered before this woman and her army of self-righteous fans.  She had reinvented the media circus.  Grace stared boldly through the television set, triumphantly screaming whatever whim came into her mind.  People listened and nodded slowly in agreement.  If I ever needed proof that American society was rotten from top to bottom, I could not have asked for more.  Nancy Grace is on television, and she is allowed - nay, encouraged - to profit off of tragedy.  We love her because she tortures people both innocent and guilty for everybody's amusement.  You don't need to be without sin to throw the first stone anymore, you just need a Southern accent and a worldwide audience.

"Gone Girl", both in book and film form, is an examination on the effect Nancy Grace and her kind have on real people.  The hero of this story is the typical "bad guy" in the narrative that Grace uses so often to sell her moralizing diatribes to her legions of hungry fans.  This is the usual story of a rich White woman, Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike) disappearing without a trace.  Slowly everybody begins to suspect her husband, Nick (Ben Affleck) as the killer.  And all the ersatz Nancy Grace in the movie needs to call him a killer is a single selfie taken by a random woman, and a misplaced smile at a press conference.  Forget the actual truth or the real people involved, the Lifetime Original Movie template has very specific tropes.  Everybody has to play their part.

NYFF Press Screenings Week 2: The Princess of France, Hiroshima Mon Amour, Maps to the Stars, Time Out of Mind, Jauja

The 52nd New York Film Festival has opened to the public.  Every film media outlet is out there reporting about the movies, the celebrities, and the movies for the entire world.  The doors opened on Friday night, so now Lincoln Center is awash with celebrity, arthouse, and if you have a VIP card, really terrible white wine (get the champagne instead).

The biggest news so far has been the premiere of "Gone Girl", the new Oscar-buzzing thriller starring Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike.  Being a starstruck fool, I will report that I was in the same room as those super stars.  Affleck couldn't find a comfortable way to sit on his silly chair - so glamorous!  Rosamund Pike was so terrified she did not move a muscle for several minutes.  But who am I to criticize when she just put together the best performances of 2014, and I could not think of a question to ask?  Or could bring myself to even attempt to talk with anybody famous at the premiere party?  (Still got to hang with other Critics Academy peoples, who make for some of the best company I've had at a party.  And great goddamn rum.)  Even so, I have been breathing the same air as celebrities, the 21st century aristocracy, and that has to look good on a resume.  However, not nearly as awesome as "Gone Girl", already one of my favorite movies of 2014.  That's more of a privilege than anything else.

But this post is not about "Gone Girl".  Instead I will talk about the movies that may get washed away in David Fincher's wake, both the good and the bad.

I'll start with the good this time and begin with "Maps to the Stars", the new film from my favorite director of all time, David Cronenberg.  It is his second collaboration with former vampire, Robert Pattinson, after the truly awful "Cosmopolis".  This time luckily, it is not entirely a film about Pattinson in the back of a limousine.  He's instead of a limousine driver, and has a much smaller better-cast role.  Cronenberg moves from a movie about the disconnect of Wall Street Masters of the Universe to the disconnect of Hollywood celebrities and the phoniness of it all.  And somewhere while moving across the North American continent, Cronenberg also remembered how to be clever, funny, and extremely disturbing.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Poll: New Blog Title Needed

Okay, let us face facts here.  I am the world's worst brand marketer.  The name "Planet Blue" is terrible.  It was pretty much just a place holder from the beginning, because it was either that or just "BlueHighwind's Blog".  (And as for "Tales From the Q?", there are some things best left forgotten.)  Ultimately there are simple goals that a title must achieve.  #1 Be memorable - this isn't.  Nobody can remember the name of my blog.  #2 Be easily reached at the top of a Google searches - and I have failed even more miserably at that.  I mean, look at these jerks, stealing my title!  And calling it "Official" too.

We are nearing five years now at this blog.  There have been successes, but clearly improvements need to be made.  Some of those improvements have been embarrassingly basic, like actually re-reading and editing my text, to aesthetic such as the addition of screenshots and the new BH avatar.  Clearly though one of the worst problems this blog has is its title, and that needs to change.

Unfortunately, I am the world's worst namer for things.  I wrote up a list of fifty titles, nearly all of them terrible, and I'm down to about six ideas, none of which I'm hugely in love with, but they could be worse:

1. The Blog from 20,000 Fathoms
2. It Conquered the Internet
3. A Clockwork Blue
4. Blue Highwind's Lonely Hearts Club Blog
5. The Highwind Empire
6. The World Ends With Blue
7. EDIT:  Blog Highwind (suggested by Technobliterator)

Anyway, thanks to the magic of the Internet, I can have a conversation with everybody instead of carrying the burden alone.  Instead of making the decision myself, you all can!  (I am psychologically unable to make a decision, actually.  I cannot pick paper or plastic, let alone a name.)  So leave in the comments below which title you like most, or if you can come up with something even better than my attempts here.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

A Walk Among the Tombstones

It has been five years since "Taken".  At this point I need to accept the novelty of Liam's Neeson's career recreation, a former Oscar contender turned pulp action movie star, is no longer an elaborate gag, but a permanent state of being.  Oscar Schindler and Qui-Gon Jinn have become a grizzled angry man punching people in the face, and any level of irony ran out around the time Neeson was racing cars through Berlin in "Unknown".  So as long as he's become a crowd-pleasing gruff voice with sharp features and a gun, Liam Neeson is going to do crowd-pleasing genre films.  We have had the shooting wars in European cities ("Taken"), the nonsensical thrillers ("Non-Stop"), the survival adventures ("The Grey"), seems that we are overdue for a pulpy hardboiled detective noir, right?

"A Walk Among the Tombstones" is everything you would come to expect from a basic pulp fiction crime thriller, the kind that authors spend entire careers cultivating franchises around.  You know the drill:  a tortured detective, a city, and their battles against maniac serial killers, selling volumes after volumes.  Be it Alex Cross, Harry Bosch, Jack Reacher, Kinsey Millhone, etc, it is a genre made with obvious tropes, repetitive storylines, and read by a half-interested public who just want something saucy to read while at jury duty or the waiting room of a dentist's office.  Specifically this film comes from the Matthew Scudder novels, written by Lawrence Block, whose star is a divorced alcoholic private eye with a dark past.  Standard stuff.  This makes for the second attempt to adapt Scudder to the big screen, following the very poorly received 1986 Hal Ashby effort, "8 Million Ways to Die" starring Jeff Bridges and written by Oliver Stone*.  Will thirty years be enough time for a true franchise to begin?

Neeson is definitely the right actor for this material, carrying with him a dry air of veteran menace and bitterness in every scene.  Director and writer Scott Frank designs his film with an older era of noir in mind, with much of the cinematography resembling angular crime films from decades past.  Set in New York of 1999, the film returns to a traditional kind of investigation.  Scudder walks the streets and travels step by step from conversations with witnesses, with the case evolving like an episode of a police procedural from the pre-CSI technocrat era.  However, "A Walk Among the Tombstones" never reaches beyond it's generic origins.  A standard crime novel becomes a standard crime film, as disposable in this medium as it was in the pages of a five dollar paperback.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

New York Film Festival Press Screenings Week 1: '71, La Sapienza, Heaven Knows What, The Look of Silence, Seymour: An Introduction

This Friday the 52nd New York Film Festival is opening, bringing a wide selection of movies from around the world to Lincoln Center, Manhattan.  Usually this sort of event would not get covered on this blog, but I have some news.  This year I will be attending the press screenings of the NYFF - with a press pass - as part of their Critics Academy Program.   Check the list of names there in that posting, me, "Eric Fuchs" is one of them.  So for the past week I have been attending the press screenings of the Festival, previewing the films that will be shown very soon to the attendees, and much later released to the general public.  Even better, I get to attend the press conferences that the directors and stars of the films give.  Just this Friday I was sitting in the same room as Ethan Hawke (if you'll forgive my youthful starstruck mood).  I'm sitting right next to real critics, and eventually will be producing writings along with my fellows.

However, before I start doing the work for them, I need to do the work for me.  I have never been to a film festival before, so this is already an incredible honor and a unique taste of very different kinds of filmmaking than I usually find at the local cinema.  Last week I managed to five movies, meaning that a full review of them all is impractical.  Every week I'll quickly review the most impressive releases NYFF52 has to offer for you here at Planet Blue.  So let us begin, unfortunately, with the worst movie:

"La Sapienza" is a French drama film featuring a middle aged couple's journey to Italy to reignite their passion and their art.  Alexandre Schmidt (Fabrizio Rongione) is a successful architect celebrating the highpoint of his career, but also a zombie of a man, walking through life half asleep and cold to all those around him.  While he obsesses over his hero, a 17th century Baroque architect, Francesco Borromini, Alexandre has left his poor wife, Ali√©nor (Christelle Prot) to live a life of quiet desperation.  They eat silent tense dinners together unable to make a connection.  Eventually the couple runs into a pair of budding young Italian siblings, Goffredo (Ludovico Succio) and Lavinia (Arianna Nastro).  Splitting by gender, the Frenchmen inspire and are inspired by their Italian wards.  After a lovely vacation across Italy, everybody has learned more about their craft, their lives, and rediscovered their passion in life.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Freelancin': Atlas Shrugged Trilogy

A new video thingy-ma-bob! The grand ridiculous Ayn Rand trilogy of Objectivism finally concludes.  Three terrible cheaply made movies with all the quality of a mid-90s made-for-TV movie or worse, an Asylum creature feature.  And this is supposed to be the political epic that will make Barack Obama weep.  This hilariously bad franchise, one so cheap it had to change casts every movie, makes for the longest and most ridiculous Freelancin' yet.


(Apologies for the bad audio and video quality, like the movies themselves, everything went wrong with production on this one.)

The Zero Theorem

In 1985 a former member of Monty Python turned-director, Terry Gilliam gave to the world a film.  That film was, "Brazil", a twisted reimagination of the Orwellian super state, where Big Brother might be watching, but Big Brother is also incredibly stupid.  It was a land of endless bureaucratic clogs, ridiculous reams of corporate paperwork, and pneumatic tubes and ducts floating across every inch of the rotting cityscape.  The only escape from the constant madness on every inch was into your own fantasy, defeating your enemies only in your dreams.  This was Gilliam's masterpiece, a movie full of imagination.  Every piece and detail - be it the disgustingly cheery theme song, or the choking swarm of tentacle ducts - all added up to an entirely brilliant experience.

Of course, I could gush on and on about "Brazil", but only because I would much rather be talking about that movie than Terry Gilliam's ill-fated attempt to make lightning strike twice, the new film, "The Zero Theorem".  Once again Gilliam is conjuring for us a fantastic but entirely unreal vision of the future, where all people are controlled by lunatic powers beyond their comprehension.  "Zero Theorem" is very consciously a "Brazil" successor, with every element of the world design specifically made to be as unique as possible, and starring a protagonist who is losing his grip on reality while trapped in a hopeless future.  However, just because you're are trying to make a movie with the same impact and themes as "Brazil" does not mean you are actually going to succeed.

While "Brazil" and earlier Gilliam productions could proudly let their freak-flag fly with playful bizarrities and grotesqueries around every corner, "The Zero Theorem" seems to be going out of its way to be strange for no reason other than weirdness's own sake.  It comes off as oddly desperate and even pretentious with its world design, which is a nauseating combination of bright colors, hipster clothing, and the obligatory gangster dwarf.  This does not feel like a real world where people actually live and suffer within but rather a false front trying far too hard to be whimsical, like a Nickelodeon game show set or a ghastly children's museum.  "The Zero Theorem" is a lot of loud images, trying their hardest to impress, but failing to cover up the real problem here:  behind all the hipster quirks and weirdness, there is really nothing going on behind the scenes.  It is the 2014 answer to the Richard Kelly pseudo-political catastrophe, "Southland Tales", only made by a far more competent director who should have known better.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Editorial: On GamerGate

Originally I was simply going to post this discussion on the newest Freelancin', but I was never happy with how my tone came out.  Actually in the very last Freelancin' episode I took up the issue briefly.  That was just before the phrase "GamerGate" was coined, got a Twitter hashtag, and even received its own Wikipedia article.  Generally I dismissed the entire thing as silly rabble rousing.  Usually these kinds of gamer "controversies" such as the slacktavist fury over "Assassin's Creed Unity" lacking female playable character or anger over Dorito product-placement in GameTrailers videos all blow over in a matter of days.  GamerGate is not blowing over, this cannot be simply dismissed, it is going nowhere.  And that requires a more serious response than what I gave, and more measured analysis.

Luckily nobody reads me, or those who do are happy enough with what I post that I usually do not get death threats*.  This is a small-time operation, I am not a games journalist.  I suppose technically I might possibly fit in the broadest of definitions, but I am not getting paid for this, nobody wants me to shill Mountain Dew, and nobody is going to invite me to an industry party (E3 aside).  My reviews are usually years late, I'm ignoring "Destiny" right now to play "Persona 4".  I would love to get paid for this work, I would love more if I was as well-known and read as people like Geoff Keighley, Leigh Alexander, or Jim Sterling, but that is not the case.  There is a negative side though to being prominent, and that's the gaming community.  We are not a very happy crowd, and we are not very pleasant to people who try to write for us.  This GamerGate situation is showing off some of our worst behavior, and we are doing nothing but cannibalizing ourselves here.

Trying to dig through the strands that led to GamerGate is a difficult process, and at this point, I do not think a single person on either side of the battlefield actually knows entirely what is going on.  This is a protest movement without very many protests, a revolution with no clear goals, other than "more transparency" and "less lecturing" and "stop sleeping with the enemy [read: games companies]".  An excellent article that actually summarizes the entire hurricane of controversy was posted on Forbes, written by Erik Kain.  I recommend you read that.  Everybody is involved, from Indie developers, reddit moderators, 4chan, and a wave of journalists quixotically declaring that "gamers are dead".  There's a lot going on, and this is going to take a long while to meander through.  

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Shin Megami Tensei IV

The Shin Megami Tensei series has been for decades one of the most idiosyncratic and interesting Japanese franchises.   While most JRPGs were still aping Dungeons & Dragons with medieval settings, "Shin Megami Tensei 1" exploded on the SNES with a surreal cyberpunk plot.  In the first game, Tokyo is destroyed by an American nuclear attack, setting the stage for a sequel where the entire party is made up of cyborg messiahs in the wasteland.  This is the series that infamously featured such final bosses as Hitler and God (the God).  The ranks of monsters you control in these games are made up of exhaustively researched mythological figures and demons.  There is definitely more thought and originality in an SMT game than most gaming settings.  You will not find many Jungian archetypes or comparative religion in a Final Fantasy game, will you?

"Shin Megami Tensei IV" for the Nintendo 3DS* is the newest of the SMT main series, though that's mostly a question of naming versus actual plot significance.  Like most Japanese series, the games take place mostly in their own alternate realities, featuring only cameos from previous characters.  You could either be a veteran who learned Japanese to play "Shin Megami Tensei II" back in the 90s, or you could be somebody who has never played a video game in your life, and you will have roughly the same idea as to what is going on, which is none at all.  Beginning in a medieval kingdom, your journey in this game will take to several post-apocalyptic Tokyos overrun by demons, to trippy monochrome forests inhabited by destructive avatars of nihilism, and into battle with gods from every pantheon and religion.

"Sin Megumi Tensay IV" is not here to reinvent the wheel, it will follow the same conventions and use the same character sprites as older games without a care.  The plotline continues to follow the series traditions of your character getting roped into a chaotic world of good and evil warfare, and being forced to choose between the two.  Combat is the usual turn-based affair following old series traditions.  It is a rough, difficult affair where smart moves are rewarded with extra turns, and where mistakes are brutally punished.  You collect demons through conversation, building a party of mythological Pokemon which can be used to fight your way through the bizarre universe Atlus has laid out for you.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Snowpiercer

One can always be impressed by how the dumbest possible ideas can sometimes make for the best movies.  Execution is everything.  You can have a brilliant concept for a movie:  let's say a time traveling tragedy where the hero continues to mess with his own past trying to save his loved ones, only to ruin his life and the universe more and more with each change.  And then unfortunately end up derailed with "The Butterfly Effect".  How about a horror movie set in the Parisian catacombs where the heroes wind up borrowing down into Hell?  You get "As Above, So Below", a movie so utterly bland I physically was unable to write a review longer than three sentences*.  Yet then you take a preposterous premise, the kind of nonsense that would have passed for a season-filling "Doctor Who" episode during the Stephen Moffat era, and you make the grade with one of the best movies of the year.  Amazing, isn't it?

"Snowpiercer" is a Korean movie filled with an international cast of actors from Britain, America, and South Korea.  It is directed by Bong Joon-ho - best known for the giant monster movie, "The Host"** - in what is essentially his English-language debut.  90% of this movie is in English, and stars English-speaking actors such as Chris Evans, John Hurt, and Jamie Bell.  Joining the cast is South Korean actors Song Kang-ho and Go-An Sung, for that native touch.  "Snowpiercer" is also the most expensive Korean movie ever made, costing forty million dollars.  Thanks to its Anglo cast and general awesomeness, it has finally reached North America with a fairly large release a year after its debut on the Korean peninsula.  But thanks to my laziness, I am only getting around to reviewing it now.  Apologies.

The aforementioned awful concept is this:  the human race's attempts to stop global warming have been a brilliant success.  Unfortunately it worked far too well, because rather than suffering Al Gore's nightmares of dying polar bears, the entire world have been frozen, and most likely Al Gore himself is a block of ice.  The last bastion of humanity now lives on board a mile-long train which circles the planet every year on an endless track.  The seating arrangements have become much more literal, with the first class passengers living in a 1920s wonderland, while the steerage folk suffer in grimy darkness, eating nothing but blocks of ground-up cockaroaches.  Tired of the cruel abuse and torture from the 1%, Curtiss Everett (Chris Evans) leads a revolt amongst the oppressed to capture the train, seize the engine, and discover the mysteries of its master, the unseen godlike figure, Wilford.