Wednesday, March 30, 2011

#16 -- "Sucker Punch" Reviewed | * *

"It's like Michael Moore's version of Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure. That movie would blow, and so does this."

The titular sucker punch refers to the fact that you, moviegoer, are what powers shallow, exploitative, CGI-soaked power-fantasies that dominate modern Hollywood. And that's why this movie is hard to enjoy, even when its German/orc/robot bodycount is in the hundreds. 

A girl's mom dies, she is taken to an insane asylum named after the lead singer of The Eurthymics so that her wicked Stepdad can have her declared insane, lobotomized, and then collect her inheritance. The asylum is a grimy toilet filled with sad girls and corrupt orderlies that consider themselves kings. They keep saying when the girls are lobotomized, they see paradise. Twenty minutes into the movie, the girl called Babydoll is lobotomized for seemingly no reason by Don Draper

What follows is a lengthy flashback told through a weird framing narrative. Without warning, the events of the previous 5 days before the lobotomy are related, but now, Babydoll is introduced as a "new girl," not at an insane asylum, but at a brothel, of all things. So what's going on? It's a badly-handled shift. Look, the workers at the asylum -- ostensibly the "real" world -- are re-drawn as 60's swingers and scummy club-goers. The girls working the brothel are mesmerizing dancers, we're told, and the dances they perform represent who they truly are when given the chance to create art. They lose themselves when dancing, falling into their roles as entertainers, all for the enjoyment of the club's audience. 

When Babydoll dances, she assures herself -- as all diluted entertainers throughout history have -- that this, distracting the trollish, all-male audience, is power, and she is then sent to a world where, at least in her mind, she's a hero. She fights samurai in an absurd costume, using katana and pistol like it's time to Devil May Cry, and it's so over-the-top that you, the actual movie-goer, should make the realization: 

This is satire. 

A poorly executed satire, sure, but it's satire nonetheless. Between the art direction, which eerily echoes Unreal Tournament III, and the "How The Fuck?!" action, particularly during the robots-on-a-train sequence, we give it 2 stars. We can't in good faith recommend it though. To anybody. It's basically all for naught. Let's drill down just a little bit further into the satire, because it's the only thing saving the story. It sure as shit isn't the characters, but a story can be carried a decent distance on the bent ankles of "concept" and "industry commentary." Yes, it's a metaphor for the stupidity of Hollywood, but so were Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back and Three Amigos! and those movies wasn't self-important and were very funny. 

This movie isn't good, but it isn't good for the reasons you'd initially think. Breaking this busted, poorly-acted metaphor down:

  • Girl in insane asylum. The innocent goes to Hollywood, realizes it's an icky, insane, corrupt place that lobotomizes people if they cause trouble or stop being profitable.
  • The subconscious brothel fantasy. What the higher-ups in Hollywood try to glam up to keep the audiences coming back and "the talent" dreaming their dreams and dancing their dances. There's a jarring sequence when the worm-man villain says he won't kill the girls just yet because they're going to make him so much 'effing money. But at this point, are we still talking about actresses or a certain writer/director/producer auteur, hmmm?
  • The steampunk power-fantasy sequences. The movies "the talent" are told they are making, when in reality, they are actually making smut for the leering masses back in the brothel. Can the girls use this power to get what they want? Maybe. Is it empowering? Well, it's a mocking empowerment. Was it actually empowering to see Angelia Jolie punch dudes in Salt? No. And this is the same.

So it's no coincidence that the battles are bloodless, without consequence, and highly-stylized (/wink). It's no coincidence that these girls jump from battle to battle like highly-disposable working actors over the course of the movie. One day they're shooting an empty-suited, steampunk, (deliberately) historically-inaccurate World War I set-piece, the next, they're slaying inhuman orcs and murdering CGI dragons. Setting dragon-slaying to a cover of an Iggy Pop song is so blatant that it has to be mocking Kill Bill or any movie that thinks using obscure music for action sequences is hip. Then, it's worth repeating, comes the above-mentioned robots-on-a-train. And seriously, this scene is the "entering the Copacabana" of tracking-shot action sequences. We dare any living director from Michael Bay to Timur Bekmambetov to shoot a more jaw-dropping piece of ass-kickery. This movie treats action sequences like musicals treat elaborate dance-numbers. We just drop into them like pocket-dimension murder-soliloquies. They're the only moments when the movie speaks to the audience and goddamn they're good. Snappy, crunchy, hyper-accelerated and beautifully choreographed, like good bullet-riddled dance hip-hoperas should be. Give that one girl, Sweet Pea, her own movie, because she rocks the hoodie, assault rifle, and zweihander like it's her IRS-documented occupation.

She is self-employed and will have many itemized business expenses.

This film movie is a commentary on how we've allowed talented artists to become corrupted by the movie-making machine. Problem is, it has to become a monster to kill a monster. It's not a fun topic to tackle with a straight face. Somehow, Sucker Punch is a fairly humorless dry-heave, when we want physical comedy to be funny, but it's just gross to watch our friend wretch over a shit-stained toilet. For example, movies like Hot Fuzz manage to be comedic homages to the stupidity of Bad Boys II while sufficiently matching the action one-to-one. But this -- this isn't a celebration of thrilling cinema -- it's a dirge. We want to talk about Sucker Punch, the steaming-hot afterbirth of the 2000's.

We also want to talk about movies being compared to video games as a negative. Did you notice we compared it to a video game earlier? We did. But we didn't mention that we mentioned it (until now). Go back up and try to find the reference, it's in passing, but kinda funny, now that we think about it. 

Go do it, scroll back up. We'll wait. Do it. Did you find it? Good. 

Now, want to know why movies like Sucker Punch borrow concept and style from modern video games? Because modern Hollywood movies are artistic graveyards and aren't worth borrowing from. That's why this very film is throwing itself on its sword in defiant mockery. Today, imagination lives in interactive media, so to say it looks like a video game is a compliment. How is it that Quentin Tarantino borrows from shitty 70's exploitation grindhouse B-movies and he's called an visionary auteur? We're assuming nobody lives and dies by the artistic integrity of I'm Gonna Git You, Suckah! So how is the rambling, patchwork plot of Inglourious Basterds (sic (the rod up that man's ass has a rod up its ass)) worth any praise? His characters are matchsticks. His plots are vignettes. He knows nothing about story structure. Nothing he shoots could be called "beautiful."

Except the car chase scene in Death Proof. That's beautiful. 

And yet, Tarantino's best moments are when he steals, so we take that back about Death Proof. He steals the spiky dialogue from snarky French films by way of blaxploitation. He steals the Yakuza gangster attitude from Japanese anime. Want to know a secret? Video games stole from Japanese anime. American movies stole from video games. Anime stole from American movies. Oh, shit! Inspirational ouroboros! See, the thing is, these Tarantino eccentricities aren't part of conscious American culture -- we give it some grace. Sucker Punch's school-girl, robot enslicing, Call of Duty fetishism is very much a part of conscious American culture. It gets no grace. It gets no grace because it's Apple Jacks, and kids love that not everybody understand why they like it, in spite of it not tasting like apples, man.

But Sucker Punch. Oh, Sucker Punch. You are, at first glance, everything that parents hate in their children. Sucker Punch is basically a problem child -- it's other peoples' kids. Parents love making snap judgments about other peoples' kids. Maybe the movie critics of Sucker Punch are meant to represent the parents that actually allow and enable these movies to succeed, or something? We're just stunned that nobody has made this comparison of the film-making industrial-complex -- it took us a while to see Inception as a metaphor for constructing a movie and planting a story inside an audience, and not many critics made that link right away. These people should go back to, uh, like, creative critique, college, for the film-watcher? Put it on a dog

We've said before that Avatar is passable because of its audacious bird-flipping to accusations of being generic (it's a monomyth, assholes, just like Dances With Wolves, just like Star Wars, and just like The Bible). Avatar also lifts from 90's video games of all things. Those floating mountains are straight out of Chrono Trigger, which probably lifted them from a 70's prog-rock album cover by Roger Dean. You might call Sucker Punch a kid's wet dream. You'd be right. It's also a film exec's worst nightmare coke-fueled rampage ever. A bad movie about how they allow bad movies to be made, hurting talented people to make half a metric fuck-ton of money? With elaborate -- and unsurprisingly removed from this cut of the movie -- dance sequences? With too much CGI and no discernible script? Man, the dialogue in this bad. It's video game bad. But the action is video game good, which is better than movie great action. Eh, we'll call it a wash. 

Sucker Punch didn't need to exist. The only justification for its existence is so we could all have the black mirror held up to us and have it scream, "You're an enabler! Look what the machine does to cinema, to art, to critique, to talent!" It's like Michael Moore's version of Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure. That movie would blow, and so does this. It's like staring into a backed-up toilet and the only way for you to come to grips with a clog this bad is for somebody to smash the porcelain. And what a goddamn mess it makes. For all it does "right," it still doesn't "win." A casualty of war, this thing is exactly $7 worth of terrible. Here's hoping we've gotten all of this self-loathing out of our systems.

* *
(out of 4)

-- Ghost Little and Doberman
on Twitter  |  @GhostLittle_WTF

#15 -- Guys Don't Particularly Like Strip Clubs

"We could've kept everybody happily blackout drunk for this entire weekend with the money you're wasting on having somebody's mom hit you with brittle pillow!"

NB: This is entry #15. We skipped #14. Why? Because #14 is Paradise Lost, the greatest thing ever written. Not only do we need to do it justice, we got to writing about it, and left the computer for a bit, and then came back, and had an epiphany. Needless to say, in order to prove a point, the review of Paradise Lost might not go live until July 19, 2011. You'll understand why when it drops. So, instead, we have a treatise on strip clubs.

| | |

Fact: 9 out of 10 guys in any group of friends dislike, if not outright loathe, strip clubs. 

We approach them the way we might approach an wobbling badger, so unmistakably infected with rabies, that we can't help but stare, wait, and see if this animal isn't simply friendly and wants to pal around. We make excuses later, jaws locking up, hand swelling with animal saliva and puss-choked blood. We feign ignorance even in defeat. By design, guys might get fired up along with everybody else at the prospect of the idea of maybe going to the strip club and run for the 15-passenger van like a 14-year old after his second shot of Wild Turkey, like, ever. But they're still just lying to themselves and everybody around them. They might even try to explain to their girlfriend -- metaphorical rabid-badger bite be damned -- how sick their trip to the strip club with their buddies was and how girls just don't "get it."

No. No, no, and no. 

You are fucking embarrassed and ashamed. You would bathe your brain in lye if you thought it might wash the stink out of you but you know it won't do the job. You can't un-smell this shit. You didn't know what the hell you were doing while you were there. You weren't really sure what you were paying for. You will always and forever remember that strangling burn whenever you hear Wicked Garden by Stone Temple Pilots, and you really don't ever want to have to go back to a place like that.

But as sure as the sun shines, birds fly, and grass grows, there naturally is that 1 guy out of the 10 that does, quite honestly, really and honestly love strip clubs. He is infatuated with the notion. He's medium-sized and usually wins your fantasy football league too. He's the one that is being done a favor by all of his saner, emotionally-grounded buds when they agree to venture into that yawning chasm of clingy carpet and blackened cum stains. So, this one friend, is a burden! Yes, you, Trevor

(We don't know anybody named Trevor, but we'd bet 4 of the finest otter pelts and a bottle of firewater that some fuckstick named Trevor is causing his friends trouble somewhere right now.) So, Trevor, asshole, you should realize that you are an awkward bundle of blue-ball-loving baggage. Want the fast answer as to why you think strip clubs are awesome, Trevor? Because you got puked on during a BJ once. Since then, all of this right here seems, well, kinda okay, man.

Trevor is the guy that will actively save single dollar bills for months if he knows he's going to Vegas, or Atlantic City, or the suburbs of Tampa, or something with his bros. He'll save up for it like most people would save up to buy a new set of headphones or or a sofa or a lift ticket at Vail. It is at the forefront of his brain. He'll read up on these things and study and go back and watch those parts of The Wrestler that take place in the strip club to try to understand how things might work. He'll tell you about all the shit he's seen at the clubs before. He'll tell you about those times in Montreal and Prague the way middle-aged guys show you pictures of their kids on a swingset.

Well, those girls are somebody's kids on a... swing. Of some sort. These stories are terrible. Worse than the dentist. Worse than choking. Worse than hearing a guy's story about watching poker on TV. It's a second-hand description of something that doesn't qualify as a vague turn-on. How can you, Trevors of the world, giggle at this kind of sexuality when you know that the Internet is a thing that exists?

"Yeaaaaahhhhh! Strippers! Whoooo!" Untrue. Guys don't care. Groups of guys don't care. They know that if they go to a strip club, and they show up wearing decent clothing because... well, who really knows what's appropriate to wear in front of women that have chosen inverted nudity as their profession... they know they, as a group, are there to be drained of their cash. That's why you go there. When you walk in the door, you are literally obligated to shell out cash. It's not fucking Lowe's Home Building Supply! You can't peruse and think, "hmmm... I suppose I could let a vagina rub on me if I wanted, but I don't think I have time this weekend. And we're going to the lake next weekend. And then Thanksgiving is the week after that. Never mind. No, thanks Cheyenne, I'm quite alright. Thanks for your help in my decision. Nice vulva though." It's not like that! What you see is what you're getting, scars and cellulite included. LeRoy is going to be there by the door with his earpiece and shaved head and your fear vectors are going to activate, and you're going to sit down in that creaky, damp chair, and drink two $12 Scotch and sodas out of a dixie cup, while Trevor blows his water bill money on a lapdance from a chick eating a cheeseburger.

"Guys! Look! I'm making it rain!" Fuck you, dude! We could've kept everybody happily blackout drunk for this entire weekend with the money you're wasting on having somebody's mom hit you with brittle pillow!

You'll probably pop half a chub and walk uncomfortably out of the club later that night with no money and blue balls.

Thank god the cover was... oh, wait, yeah, it was like $30 to get in. But we all had fun, didn't we? No. Strip club regulars have fun. The dudes waaaay past the point of caring that watch reckless young groups of idiots come in -- and they pray every day that one of these little punks tries to get too rough with one of their regular girls (Yazmeene, the first 'Y' is silent, the third 'e' isn't) so they can come flying in with a bottle of Jaeger upside his head, and the punk just lies there bleeding and crying, and the local and his girl (Fanta) run back to his truck where he can plow her over and over before showing her his softer side -- and that's their entertainment on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

 -- Doberman
on Twitter  |  @GhostLittle_WTF

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

#13 -- "F-Zero GX" Reviewed | * * *

"...casually whittling down the competition as you race is shark-esque. It's Tiburonean."

The men and women that work on Wall Street are often accused of making money off of other people by simply saying the shit they own is more valuable than the shit other people own. Oftentimes, that shit is something like the predicted value of a commodity in Malaysia, and the Wall Street firm has a physical copy of the exact booking numbers to back up what they're saying, so you don't have much a leg to stand on if you want to disagree. Plus, these investment firms have a team of, like, 30 dudes and chicks fresh out of Columbia Law on retainer. Mean motherfuckers. The kind of people that list "killing drifters" in the Interests section of their Facebook profile. Regardless, Armie Killingsmanship, Esquire, is legally right in more ways than you are. Don't bother trying to fight them in a court of law. A lot of people think what these firms do is rigged, calling them thieves and morally-compromised manipulators, caring about nothing but their dangerous competition, gambling all day and night because putting their nuts on the chopping block is the only way they can achieve an erection these days. We don't really know how it works -- we assume at the end of it all, one guy gets rich and the loser gets prostate cancer or something. F-Zero GX is the greatest Wall Street Investment Firm Simulator to date. It's Goldman Sachs: The Official Game Of The Firm.

In this game, you either win, or you die of prostate cancer. Slow, omnipresent, sad, probably-already-there prostate cancer. How much are you willing to risk to win?! Some of it? ALL of it?! The answer is "all" of it, of course, and "it," is a pronoun representing pride, in this case. It becometh pride. Unfortunately for you, in this game, you're strapped to the back of a rocket, which goes fast. Also, it's a race. Also, there are 29 other rockets racing against you on a narrow gun-metal pulse-light lattice. And they want to kill you. All of them want to kill all of the cells in your body. Add rock music. Speed up the rock music, add techno-synth bass, and Bollywoodlian lights.

F-Zero GX is the sport that would exist if there was an apocalypse, and the only people that survived were a tribe of former MIT engineering PhD candidates and a tribe of professional wrestlers trained as old-school method actors that can't manage to break character anymore. Both groups eat cocaine and Bolivian Tree-Frog sandwiches, and nothing else! Then they build and race rocket cars in contests where on-track murder is encouraged. You'll learn that explosive murder is the best kind of murder and fast rocket cars are the best kind of rocket cars. We like things that go fast. Going fast, straight, is a thrill in this game. Control is never certain. Basic operation of your rocket car can be a mind-killer in F-Zero GX. The speed, and the precision you can and must continue to exact upon your craft at that speed, is skin-cracking.

While your skin is cracking, you'll have a few things to do. Keep an eye on your shields, expend extra shield energy for a speed boost, stay within the guardrails, and try to eliminate your opponents. Before talking about how thrilling eliminating a rival can be, the sensation of boosting needs addressing. It's frightening. It's necessary. It's the repeated sensation of chopping down a tree with an ax while the girl you like watches. The rush of hitting the Y button drains your shields a bit, leaving you open to attack and maybe to fishtailing out of control. The strength of the thrust can be tailored prior to the race, balanced with your overall top-speed, which is the only major machine-tuning you need to take part in. You pray things hold steady. Your back-end might fly out. On steep uphills, you can grind your nose right into the track. Boosting into the guard-rail, losing shields twice-over while scrubbing a ton of speed is another hole in your head -- you just don't need it. That worst-case scenario is a fucking Sword of Damocles, yet it is too exhilarating not to lay into the boost button. 

Sidebar: They recently had a computer named Watson on Jeopardy! It crushed. The problem with having a computer compete against humans for a prize that is only tangible to a human -- money, for instance -- defeats the purpose of having them compete. The computer doesn't feel greed and it doesn't comprehend personal consequence. Program a Virtual Intelligence (V.I.) opponent that can process material, malice, and irrational value. Program a V.I. that can deliberately cause somebody grief. One that can become afraid of a human or find joy in personal operation. We want a digital opponent that is excited to hit the boost button and regrets when it hits it too many times. That would be impressive. 

Near the end of each lap, there's usually a "Pit Strip" on the course. In the future, there is no pit crew! You just service your car with pink ooze, or magnets, or science, or however it works. It's a bit like driving through strawberry milkshake and it refills your shields/boost while slowing you down a tad. You always exhale slowly for the half-second you drive through it. It's the most fun you'll have losing speed while racing and the second most fun you can have while breathing.

You need shields. They sort of keep you safe and every car has them. Killing your opponent's shields is the crunch of cracking semi-frozen cubes out of an ice tray. If they crash and burn, they get no points for the race. It's such a simple concept! "Go fast in your hover-ship for three laps." There are literally no other rules in F-Zero GX. It's simpler than full contact soccer with no off-sides. It's horse-racing with swords. (We would so go to watch the horse-sword-race! Every jockey would have to be a cosmically bombastic roided-out David Bowie and every horse would have to be a car -- then we'd go to watch. Otherwise, no, we just need a GameCube.)

The scenery flows by at 1500 km/h like hot soy milk spread over a Christmas snowfall. In particular, the Lightning levels stand out. The relativity of rain spraying in your face ironically forces you to not blink. Yet it remains a videogame made in 2003 -- suck it, modern HD rendering software! The tracks swoop, climb, loop, and rollercoaster. Rollercoaster is a verb now. It pains our vital organs to know that one false move during the race, and we'll send our custom-built plasma-coffin into the Smeared 2D Plane Of The Beyond. That Smeared 2D Plane Of The Beyond is the world far below each of the elevated tracks -- it is everything that sucks in life. It is:

Removal from the race completely. Fall and explode. Exploding means you lose because your car has exploded. It's a stunning, real feeling. Cats run in fear and homes echo with profanity when this occurs.

A reminder from the announcer. The announcer is normally is reminding you that "YOU'VE GOT BOOST POWER!" in his most enthusiastic Sega-voice -- that you're "Off course." His voice is your dad in all the menus in the game, giving you info on cars, races, lap records, and then... "Off course." It's one of gaming's most brutal reminders that you disappoint your father and you can't escape your Oedipus Complex.

Removal from the modern videogame realm. The crash isn't spectacular. You just turn into a low-resolution smokey blip on a Smeared 2D Plane Of The Beyond. The transition is a stark contrast. You don't deserve 128-bits anymore. You can try again if you dare, fucker.

As we mentioned earlier, you can't drink th
e salty tears of the A.I.'s infinite sadness when you knock them off course, because the A.I. is run by the game, the game isn't alive, and therefore can't "lose," but you can inflict very permanent damage on your rival racers' point totals. Starting with a field of 30 racers and casually whittling down the competition as you race is shark-esque. It's Tiburonean. It's hard to eliminate a fellow racer. You have to bash his craft into the wall, or do a spin attack. The spin attack changes you into a power tool for a few seconds. Ostensibly, you "are become fucksaw, The Destroyer Of Worlds." It helps you smash your opponents to shit and it also helps you take absurdly-sharp corners. Depending on what you're driving, your car can be somewhat floaty in it's controls, it is a hover-vehicle after all. The spin attack pressures you with absurd down-force (or something, there might be some mythology behind how it works) and suddenly your car is a table-mounted disc-sander wrapped in double-sided tape. The difference in friction is so dangerous that you absolutely must know your car, the track, and the competition intimately.

If you take a corner, hit the spin-trigger, hug the hairpin, and smash a few rivals, it's sensational. It ignites your senses! The cars are tiny compared to the size of the track -- giving you ample room to maneuver if the whole field is clustered together -- and you're always wowed that you can collide, let alone smash, your fellow racers at 1500 km/h. When a car dies on track, it loses all friction but maintains its speed, so the most common thing you'll see is this black, burning ember ricocheting helplessly between the walls before eventually stopping. The busted cars stay on the course for the rest of the race too, so there's a chance these poor fuckers might be hit the next lap. That's fantastic continuity. You'll be coming around on lap 2 or 3 and see the smoking wreckage and think, "yup, I orphaned that guy's (or lady's (or alien's)) kids. Good." 

And you don't care! You can't help but become a villain in F-Zero GX. The game will step on your neck and take your ear as a trophy if you don't. F-Zero GX makes you mean. It's a game that's hard in a way that the only chance you have is to get mean. That's what good competition does to you. You've got to hate losing. There's no helping hand, no grinding, no upgrading, no guidebook, no way to out-smart, no way to cheat. You can out-cheat though. The entire game is cheating because there are no rules. The entire thing is just there from the beginning. Your progress is measured in your ability and your victories. The victories might be leftovers, they might be full meals -- you'll take what you can get. 

"Go fast in your hover-ship for three laps." 

The game isn't good until you get ruthless. It's a cocktail of pure skill, self-loathing, cheap gin, and dehydrated bull semen. 

Are you willing to sacrifice it? Your pride, we mean. This game will make you rethink your morals. It's a moral oil-change. Cram a lifetime of emotions into one race. Cram your youth, your anticipation, your thrills, your love, your career, your naivete, your fears, your downfalls, your malice, your identity, your triumphs, your shattered dreams, and your answered prayers. Cram a thousand lifetimes into a moment of leisure. 

* * *
(out of 4)

Recommended related reading:
[ExciteTruck  |  * * * *] by Doberman
[The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask  |  * * * ½] by Ghost Little
[Final Fantasy IX  |  * * * *] by Ghost Little

-- Doberman
on Twitter  |  @GhostLittle_WTF

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

#12 -- "Final Fantasy IX" Reviewed | * * * *

"Final Fantasy IX is a videogame, meditating."

There's a difference between prolonged self-reflection and cowardice. Not risking anything can be a huge risk. You might stagnate. You might be accused of not caring, of beating a dead horse, or of trying to squeeze blood from a stone. Merely pretending to not take a risk though... that is a legitimate creativity Philosopher's Stone. Aha, and now we can venture into the realm of satire, a flexible form if executed well. It grants you the ability to toy with critics, lean on well-worn supports, bait, switch, lure, surprise, skew, skewer, parody, honor, celebrate, and prove your understanding of creativity's contents. If done correctly, that is. In the hive-mind that acts as the capitol city to What's That From?, Final Fantasy IX is universally recognized as the third best video game of all time, a position it's held for 11 years now. Here's why:
  1. The hero, Zidane, is every little boy's hero because he's like the older brother we all wish we had growing up. He's brash, kind, supportive, reckless, funny, and he's got a tail that helps him accomplish his shenanigans.
  2. The villain, Kuja, has the kind of teeth that every little boy would love to scatter across the deck of a wooden ship. He monologues. He's a little he-bitch.
  3. There's a moment when the love interest, Princess Garnet, might kill herself, but instead does something with a dagger you could never see coming.
  4. The music is sticky honey. It clings to the roof of your mouth and it summers in your heart's new-found unseasonable warmth. I want to ferment it into an alcoholic drink and then get smashed off of Final Fantasy IX's music 12 years from now.
  5. Its opening takes place during a kidnapping that uses a flying theater boat as a diversion.
Yes, the beginning. The beginning is a Muppets-doing-Shakespeare moment (complete with a sly reference that the play being performed on the night of the kidnapping is by one 'Lord Avon'). Then the story morphs into a swashbuckling version of Mission: Impossible before really getting down to business when your party of four traverses a forest that turns to stone, an then ice cave, and then finally a quiet hamlet with a windmill. We take a breather at the end of the first hour before finding out that our finally, officially kidnapped princess has her own plan, and the quiet hamlet has a dark secret.

The thing that makes the intro to this game so damn charming is that it roleplays how you or we would act in a roleplaying game. The flavor is set from your first bite. It knows if you were the hero, you'd know your role, winking and smiling at the camera while slathering the princess with amber-brown sappy charm. It knows the book-smart, but regal/clueless princess wouldn't react to any kind of charm -- her character is real enough to require time and proof of heroism in equal measures to be won over. It knows Vivi, our child-in-stature Black Mage, will be everybody's favorite character because he's friendly, in-touch, mildly-innocent, and is stronger in magic than his small body should allow. Seriously, he brings the hurt. Vivi is a Christmas bonus inked in at the bottom of your meager paycheck. Every game needs "FUCK YEAH!" moments, and with little Vivi dropping meteorites on the dragon that just incapacitated the princess, you get them in Final Fantasy IX right when you need them.

And the story knows this tale needs a condescending knight who is sworn to priggish-flavored chivalry, but earns back street cred with honest ass-kicking during those closer battles. Steiner is his name. He's a goof and his repartee with Zidane is fun to watch. There's a lot of tasteful Warner Bros. animation inside Steiner's character. In fact, all of the characters are so clearly conceived and drawn to be themselves that you will find yourself giddy waiting for each genre trope to rear its head. This is an exemplary demonstration of a story hitting the established notes. Rewinding back to the Muppets-doing-Shakespeare reference from a few paragraphs back, that guy knew how to do tragedy (or rip it off from Italian folk stories, but who's counting?). The best tragedies forecast an end to your characters' recognizable happiness. You show something familiar and potentially ordinary, which is precisely how Final Fantasy IX starts. Oh, there's an intelligent but naive princess! Oh, there's a rebel with a charming heart! Oh, and that little magician will be his sidekick! And that big, brick-shaped knight in rusted armor will be their moral compass! 

Dangle that in front of the player. Let them snuggle up the characters. Let them think they're in control and that they know how the story will go. Then, when the player falls, and assumes they'll be caught, let them fall. And they'll fall hard. 

Kuja arrives, face stained with rain, blinking at our heroes after they've fallen in a tough battle. He barely notices them. Saddling up on his pearlescent Portuguese Fuck-Dragon, his thunderstorm musical theme queues up. He exits. Disc 1 ends. 

It's a stunning turn. It's too early in the story to equate it to the deaths of Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet or Polonius in Hamlet -- which are famous for being gigantic sign-posts whose oozy-black words read : "the shit will continue to spill until all main characters die" -- but it's an act-ending turn nonetheless. It's here that Final Fantasy IX shifts from slow-burning 32-bit fairy-tale to an artistic-medium story-buster. A few things have happened:
  1. The bad guy has arrived. He is bad. So bad that we don't even know his name yet. And he ignored us.
  2. Our (our!) characters have come far, but they're coming off a tough loss, and we're left for dead in a massacred city in the rain.
  3. The bad guy is selling his stockpile of magical golems, living weapons to the princess' mother. For what reason? He's so supremely bad, this can't be all there is! What else? What else?!
  4. Our happy band of friends is scattered. The characters wonder aloud if those absent are worried about them.
  5. We, the player, have to get up off the couch, take a breath, and change discs to Disc 2. We miss this sensation. It is turning pages in a book you love. There's a certain physical/mental friction point that is engaged when this happens. Yes, you have to change the disc, and that is the only thing you want to do right now because you need to know what happens! It's the same feeling you get when you eat chicken wings, gnawing the meat off of the bones. It's the feeling of ending a chapter in a book, flipping the page, and seeing Act II: Wherein We Learn Of Villainy, and there's nothing but another turn of this weighty, frictious paper between you and Zidane's fate. "Get it out of my way," you growl. You leap off of your sofa, slam in Disc 2, and scramble back into your blanket-fort as the next scene fades in.
Act breaks are fun. There are too many of them on TV. We like shows on HBO and Showtime, mostly because there's swearing in them, and that makes them more real, but we miss the act breaks. We don't like ads, they tasteless intrusions into TV shows that we're already paying cable companies to see, but the emotional crescendo and comedic punchline come straight from act breaks, very important tools in storytelling, so when premium TV networks do full-hour shows, it feels, just, odd, you know? It's like a really long act in a play or a long chapter in a book, and the narrative can lose focus. Videogames had act breaks for a brief period in the form of the disc-change -- a lost art.
Sidebar: Final Fantasy VII, Final Fantasy VIII, and Final Fantasy IX have the best "end of Disc 1" moments in videogames. FF7 had Aeris' encounter with Jenova, FF8 had Squall stealing a car and getting stabbed by Edea, and FF9 had Kuja's arrival. All huge tonal shifts that wreak of a live theatricality missing from modern entertainment. The viewer is deliberately removed from the immersion and the story. Take a breath. And now we begin again.

BOOM! That feeling separating yourself from the story and collecting one's thoughts is rad as hell! It was sort of a phenomenon of the PlayStation 1 era of videogames because the discs were cheap and they could cram tons of CGI movies and spoken audio into games to help them sell to glassy-eyed pre-teen fuckwits back then. This is sort of lost now, and we miss it on occasion. 

Onward and downward. The story, formerly confined to the Mist Continent (yes, it's called that for that exact reason), expands. Your map is now just the lower corner of a much bigger map. The "oops, the world is way bigger," moment is also unique to videogames.

The game says, "You've only just begun." 
"Hell yes," is your reply. 

A detail that you've learned earlier is that despite the abundance of airships in Final Fantasy IX, they run on mist. Listen, there is no mist on these other continents and the oceans are filled with vicious monsters that eat ships. This is a Christopher Nolan-style detail nugget about the mist only being one continent and that it powers the airships. You forget about it when it's mentioned, but it ends up being a pretty key plot point during the third act. Oh, what, Batman mentions re-routing part of Wayne Industries' investments to wireless network development at the fifteen-minute mark of The Dark Knight?

BOOM! That cell-phone sonar location during the final battle with The Joker two hours later is rad as fuck!

Speaking of complexity, the gameplay in Final Fantasy IX is certainly not. You could almost play it with one button since the towns are filled with people you can press X to talk to or not press X to not talk to, and the battles are filled with monsters you can press X whack with your weapon of choice, be it dagger, sword, club, lacrosse stick, wolverine claw, spear, or fork. There are a lot of ways to tune your enemy's piano and some are immune or weak to this or that, and there's minor magic management. It's basic, it's sort of slow, and it's got great sound effects for when you enslicen a piece of bandersnatch off of that froth-mouthed freak-wolf. The game does this fun thing though where it will give you the chance to use new, stronger weapons or armor before you're done learning the abilities that are stapled to your older equipment. Spells et al are learned by wearing a helmet or whathaveyou but you'll most likely get a better one before you've worn it long enough for the character to fully absorb the ability. This results in some light juggling. It's infrequent, the system maintains its simplicity. The simplicity keeps with the game's relax-you theme. This is how it succeeds.

It's in the presentation, the music, the story, and the world. The magic of human-videogame interface is what makes the thing hum. It's a place you want to occupy and that's the metaphorical steeplechase that trips people up when they can't grasp the "why" of videogames as a medium "for" something. This game defies its digital upbringing. Final Fantasy IX has a point to make: games have come a long way. It's quite reflective, the more we think about it. This game isn't here to suck up your time. It isn't here to give you something to do, to capitalize on popularity, to one-up a competitor, or to boast. Final Fantasy IX is a videogame, meditating. Its deeper recesses are accessed when your right brain is left to focus on something methodical. For example, when you wash dishes, you might hum to yourself. It's a partly-made-up tune, mostly original, brought out by silencing a part of your brain that is often too noisy. 

While one part of your mind is left to run on muscle memory, what's left is the part that can think without interruption: "Wow! Just look at what's become of sprites and pixels." Self-reflective characters. Ornate, intricate worlds. Art, realized in its purposeful detailed twists. Similes within metaphors, external references, villains worth hating, motivations worth questioning, personal physicality being engaged when nostalgia is tickled or when a song is sung as Garnet steals Zidane's dagger at the end of Disc 3. In that moment, traumatized after the death of her mother, the princess runs from the hero, blade in hand, to a view of her half-destroyed kingdom that served as the backdrop for our leads' first meeting. She bounces to the edge, tilts back her neck, and cuts off all of her hair. And oh, shit, do the other characters have something to say about this. The princess goes from naive to adult -- no taller, but somehow grown both up and out. 

Final Fantasy IX turns off the noisy parts of our brains if you let it. It does what it does for reasons that warm your heart. It isn't here to sell you anything, or be marketable, or assert dominance. The game is neither hip nor cool, ironically two things that the pleather-ensconced Final Fantasy franchise gropes for with unrestrained hornyness in the year 2011 AD. 

No, instead, Final Fantasy IX, is trying to open your eyes to the possibility of something better. Look, when your girlfriend does something seemingly stupid, and you don't understand why, and something gets ruined, like, we dunno, she throws away your container of week-old leftover spaghetti and meatballs from the fridge, so now there's just a gigantic empty space on the shelf and you have nothing to eat. Well, what you realize a day or so later after brooding over your spilled meatballs, is that she was actually clearing space for homemade chocolate chip muffins, and it dawns on you that your default assumption of negativity is a bad approach. In movies, in books, in videogames, and in life, we err too often on the side of the brain's din. We assume that the noise is the substance. For once, that isn't the case. There's more, if you can shut yourself off. There's truth and there's kindness in here. You can trust Final Fantasy IX to fill in empty spaces with homemade chocolate chip muffins.

* * * *
(out of 4)

-- Ghost Little
on Twitter  |  @GhostLittle_WTF

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

#11 -- "Princess Mononoke" Reviewed | * * * *

"...body of a reindeer, feet of a chicken, antlers like tree roots, chest plumage of an eagle, tail of a fox, face like a painted semi-humanoid African lion mask (yup!)..."

The moral of Princess Mononoke flies in the face of established western religion. Well-sketched human ambiguity flies in the face of established western religion. Taking place in a land that sort-of-isn't-ancient-Japan (further research suggests it's technically around the 1300s, but a fantastical version of the 1300s, so it might as well be in Asia-Narnia), the earth is being contaminated. Humans have been driving the soil too hard, subjugating the animals too harshly, and mining too deeply for iron to build their fortresses of sand and mud. There is societal and technological progress as a result. Humans are safer from the wild beasts. We have crude guns. The mountains are being tamed. The future is drawing closer. And somewhere in the wilderness, a princess raised by a thirty-foot wolf is plotting revenge against the fortress' governess. 

This is cinema's animated, foreign, ancient, Gaia-theory-infused, epic saga. It's better than The Godfather Part II, but maybe not quite as good as The Godfather.

The leaves are green but the rivers have begun to run brown in this place. Under the shadowy forest canopy, demons are beginning to possess the strongest animals. They leak blackened, cursed blood that writhe like lecherous worms when cut. The demons' skin is comprised of half-dissected land-bound octopi. These demons are manifestations of the earth's anger at the growing imbalance -- an imbalance that the greedy, desperate humans have brought. The very ground we walk on fighting back against the people fighting to survive? The animals have every right to the planet that we do, don't they? With both sides fighting for justifiable survival, what side doe we take?

In short: neither side. In the most un-western way possible, good and bad are not binary in this movie. Supreme benevolence and total evil don't exist in this sort-of-isn't-ancient-Japanese land. There is no God, there is no Satan. There are, however, forces of greater sentience that humans can't quite comprehend. And isn't that what a god really is? There are wicked demons that can be killed and there are kinder spirits that can also be killed. And there are people, but there is no carved set of rules. There is no infallible source of unquestionable truth. There's nothing to default to in this story. 

Goodness is not openly declared. Its concept must be explored and discovered by all of the characters, be they man, woman, or wolf-god.

The prince, one of our two main characters, capable with the bow and with the sword, rides a straight-up lovable red elk across the countryside. That red elk might be my favorite animal in any movie ever. He's mildly fantastic, but could certainly exist somewhere in the world. Throughout the movie, the elk will: get scared, face certain death, get the prince out of danger, carry him when he's injured, disobey and follows when it's told not to, and get shot with an arrow. We want one. We'd ride it to the bar. 

Traveling closer to town, the prince passes out familiar greetings to villagers. They're clearly fans of his red elk and they adore the shit out of the prince. Five minutes later though, the prince has killed a rampaging boar god and in doing so, learns he's cursed with the creature's anger -- that anger will soon kill him. Natch. So in defense of his home, the infinitely noble (and I mean that, he's honorable to a fault), the prince will die, eaten from the inside-out by worming feelings of rage. The demon, which lives in his arm, occasionally rises up, feeding on the fury around the prince, its half-dissected land-bound octopi skin showing through in the ickiest, most believable way imaginable. 

How can we root for this guy? He's damned. He's tainted and his fate is written. He can't fight back against evil, because that just speeds up the curse's consumption of his soul. But you do root for him. Because his character is not binary. He doesn't turn the other cheek, he doesn't wait for the world, he isn't complacent, he isn't self-pitying. He gears up. He gets shit done. He doesn't do this stuff to survive, he knows he's already dead. He doesn't do this stuff because he's commanded to or sent on a quest. He doesn't do it out of thoughtless devotion to something he doesn't understand (at least not at first, but then the princess shows up (but she's a total sweetie (at least not at first, again))). No, the prince does this because he looks at the problems, assesses his own shit situation, and then goes totally Flash Gordon on the rapidly eroding landscape of sort-of-isn't-ancient-Japan. 

Traveling some distance across the countryside, he eventually learns from the governess of the fortress that it was she that killed the boar god, who in turn cursed the prince. The boar god was enraged by an iron bullet she'd shot, that hatred allowed the demon to enter and corrupt the boar god (who by the way, is, like, a boar the size of an orca). The governess was defending her people from the forest beasts, she shot the boar god in defense. And then what does she do? She apologizes to the prince for being an accessory to his being cursed. Oh, also, the governess cares for lepers and rescues women from brothels in the city and gives them shelter. 

Oh, come on, man! Give us a bad guy! We have the prince, we have the governess, we demons possessing giant animals, and we have... well, we have the princess. 

The princess. We love the princess. She's a fantastic foil to the prince. She's a total spitting-cobra that meshes flawlessly with the prince's cool, focused self-confidence. Their arguments are so one-sided. She threatens to kill him the way normal people would inhale or use punctuation. And he just goes about his business -- listening to her, but focusing on the bigger issues, like the impending eco-pocalypse. He doesn't snap at her, isn't mean to her, and doesn't sass back at her. He knows she's worried, but fighting her won't improve his situation. He's just got liquid nitrogen running through his veins. Pretty soon, she realizes what he's all about. They save one another from death on multiple occasions. They're both determined, headstrong, thoughtful, sometimes vulnerable, and always capable. They rock our socks off every time. They're better than the husband and wife from The Fountain. They're so much better than Harry and Sally. They're one of the best couples you'll find in any story. 

See, the prince is basically half-hatred by the end of the first hour, so him just handling his shit is exciting to watch. You pray he won't become a self-loathing blob of a human and he doesn't! When he goes demonic, the noise fades out, he goes sort of expressionless, and moves through his troubles like a determined white dandelion. He bends swords slowly like they grass. He gets shot (bloodily too, there's a hole in his chest that's the circumference of an mature ferret at one point) and keeps walking. He saves the princess from the governess and they retreat to the woods. 

What follows is a chase across the wilderness. The governess wants to secure her power by killing the peaceful forest spirit that gives life to all the nice spirits. If it dies, then the beasts like the wolves and the boars and the apes will become docile. This keeps up with the running themes of survivalism and prickishness, in that everybody, man, woman, or wolf-god, are capable of being emotionally small. 

Eventually, we gather that the best thing we all can do is: moderation. The animals need to stop being pissed off. The humans need to be less greedy when they dig for iron or gather resources. The demons need to go and fuck right off, because they're just being tricky dickholes that want to ruin people's good times. The governess gets her arm bitten off at one point by a disembodied wolf head, which is so sudden and so un-graphic that you sort of forget it happens. 

The scariest moment occurs when the great forest spirit (body of a reindeer, feet of a chicken, antlers like tree roots, chest plumage of an eagle, tail of a fox, face like a painted semi-humanoid African lion mask (yup!)) is just chilling out, making flowers grow wherever it walks, and it gets its head shot off. It then mutates over the course of a few hard-to-watch minutes into a toxic single-celled organism. It walks like a headless emaciated gorilla. Growing a hundred feet tall, sort of amorphous, but with transparent, spidery limbs and too many fingers. It's so faceless, yet familiar and human(ish)-shaped, that you can't help but be terrified of this good thing being desecrated by violence. 

Rewind for a sec. Earlier on, when it had a head, the great forest spirit has the opportunity to cure the prince of his demonic curse when it heals the ferret-sized wound in his chest. But it doesn't. The prince wonders this aloud. Well, because that wouldn't solve anything. The prince has to go on wondering, growing, fighting, riding giant wolves, learning to appreciate the princess' passionate desire to protect her forest, and eventually realize on his own that he needs and wants to restore the balance of nature in the world. Nobody tells him to do this. Nobody tells him when he's done it. It's beautiful when he restores the great forest spirit to its rightful form with the princess' help. The gigantic spirit collapses into a lake and the water purifies the decaying forest the way a good deus ex machina should. The hatred subsides, the demons are defeated.  

And the princess has to go back into the forest. It's an optimistic but very sad ending. It isn't "boo-hoo" sad. It's more of "goddamn, we suck" sad.  

We'd knock it down a peg for being a movie for tree-hugging dipshit hippies, but we'd be missing the point if we did, and then the hippies would win. It isn't entirely about that. The truth behind Princess Mononoke is that there is no one true force of white goodness and there is no source of endless evil blackness. We aren't here on earth to please the righteous, or even attack the wicked. Ambiguity can be a tough conclusion to grasp. It's a vital lesson in life though. We're all just trying to make it in a world filled with forces bigger and stronger than ourselves. If you can't handle that, that unfairness, then you'll succumb. You'll default to an extreme -- complacent, weak goodness or rage-blinded wickedness, whichever is the path of least resistance. The prince and the princess are dangerously close to these ends of the spectrum until they meet each other. Through mutual, personal identification, they gradually discover a better truth (and it's a long-ass movie, let me remind you, clocking in at about 2.5 hours) than these simpler default settings of "this" or "that." 

They are fluctuating shades. In the end, they get it. They are much greater than the sum of their more obvious parts. 

* * * *
(out of 4)

-- Ghost Little and Doberman
on Twitter  |  @GhostLittle_WTF