Friday, June 29, 2012

Mixed feelings on Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom

Lars von Trier is a Danish director best known for experimental films like 2009's Antichrist and last year's Melancholia. His next movie is called The Nymphomaniac. It's about a woman's sexual awakening. His explanation for the film's inspiration:
"My director of photography on Melancholia at one point voiced a surprising prejudice. He urged me not to fall into the trap that so many aging directors fall into--that the women get younger and younger and nuder and nuder. That's all I needed to hear. I most definitely intend for the women in my films to get younger and younger and nuder and nuder."
I couldn't keep that quote out of my head when watching a 12-year-old girl wearing heavy make-up and a fetishized schoolgirl outfit undress in Wes Anderson's new film, Moonrise Kingdom. Anderson is only 43; if Lars von Trier's hypothesis is correct, I shudder to think what Wes Anderson will be doing in ten years.

I don't want to come off as sex-negative, though. I consider myself a very liberal person when it comes to what's acceptable in film. But this awkward nudity was representative of Moonrise Kingdom's bigger problem: tonal clash.

Moonrise Kingdom is full of characters with complex, depressing backstories. The main character is a kid who's been orphaned. His love interest is a girl with emotional issues and uncaring parents. Edward Norton plays a scout leader who just wants to lead the troop but can't seem to control his situation at all, and Bruce Willis plays an aging police officer who's afraid of dying alone. Bill Murray is an unhappy husband who is physically abused by his wife.

But it's all got such a happy-go-lucky, "quirky" Wes Anderson attitude! The film sports a colorful 1960s Americana setting, with self-aware, intentionally unrealistic dialogue. This story is one that could be told better in a more un-ironic setting. It's about tortured characters coming to terms with their situations in life, and this doesn't seem to work with Wes Anderson's bright visual aesthetic.

Moonrise Kingdom also seems to be trying to convey a few subtexts. The entire movie is clearly an homage to the "young adult" adventure novels we see the female protagonist reading throughout the story. There also seems to be some sort of Noah's Ark narrative going on, but it's incomplete. There are some nice touches, like kids wearing creepy animal masks (reminiscent of In Bruges and The Wicker Man). But it doesn't seem to add up to anything. Moonrise Kingdom has a satisfyingly happy ending for all its melancholy characters, but I can only imagine the movie would be something more if its director took it more seriously.

I think back to Swedish director Tomas Alfredson's Let the Right One In, a film that conveyed a complex storyline through 12-year-old protagonists in a much more convincing way than Wes Anderson seems capable of. Perhaps the key to unlocking compelling preteen characters is the actors themselves--Alfredson spent almost a year casting the two leads. It shows, as Kåre Hedebrant and Lina Leandersson deliver spectacular performances as protagonists Oskar and Eli. This is something that cannot be understated when child actors are such a hit-or-miss affair.

Wes Anderson's casting, on the other hand, does not fare so well. All the characters in the film are evocative and compelling... except the main character, Sam Shakusky (payed by Jared Gilman). While his love interest Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward) provides a dark look into child psychology, Sam just falls into the standard "outcast kid" archetype. It's strange, because Wes Anderson has achieved character depth before with movies like The Life Aquatic. Perhaps it's just kids he struggles with--his portrayal of high school in Rushmore was also fairly unconvincing.

Let the Right One In's protagonists, in fact, have many 12-year-old-kid similarities with those of Moonrise Kingdom. Both Oskar and Sam are misunderstood nerdy boys who fall in love with forbidden women. Both Eli and Suzy are more mature than their age indicates; both have mysterious backgrounds and questionable parentage. Both have a pivotal scene in a bathtub.

And while I decried the slightly pedophilic nature of Suzy taking her clothes off, Let the Right One In also features a scene where the female protagonist disrobes and sleeps with the male lead. But with Eli and Oskar, it seems emotional and not out of place at all. After watching Moonrise Kingdom, I can't help but feel Wes Anderson has a lot to learn from Let the Right One In.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The most riveting online video game experience of my life

I've become fairly skilled at EA Sports' NHL series as of late. I don't play it for hours at a time, but I play a couple quick games online every day to blow off steam after work.

I'm not a big fan of online multiplayer gaming in general. I even write for a website called Only Single PlayerNHL is my exception. I almost don't see it on the same level I see all the "arty" games I play. The other games are there to give me some sort of intellectual fulfillment. NHL is there to fulfill my carnal gaming instincts. I used to play it against the computer, but eventually real human opponents are the only way to truly challenge your skills at a competitive game.

NHL 12 is not a perfect game. Players are assholes online, so they still try to get in fights with you and take shots on goal during every single stoppage in play. And when they get desperate, players online ALWAYS go for the cheap, glitchy wraparound goals. Even after all EA's tweaking, wraparounds are still the best way to take advantage of faults in the goalie's AI.

But on a twitch-impulse gameplay level, NHL 12 is immaculate. The developers have perfected the game's controls--players have total control over every aspect of their virtual pros' skates and sticks.
I've been on a roll lately, winning five games online in a row. They're ranked matches, so if you play well, you get matched up against other players who are of a higher skill level.

Tonight, I played a level 31 match--the highest I've ever played. I was feeling a bit cynical after winning so much, so I decided instead of playing as an NHL club, I'd play as a minor league team. I chose the Hershey Bears, the farm club of my hometown Washington Capitals.

Joel Rechlicz is mediocre at hockey. But in my virtual hockey game, he was vital.

Usually, it's NHL 12 online etiquette that if one player chooses a minor league or European team, the other player does the same so they're on a level playing field. But nope, my opponent tonight stuck with the NHL's St. Louis Blues. "Uh oh," I thought to myself. "This is the highest ranked match I've ever played online, and I'm playing as a minor league club against one of the best teams in the world." And then the game began.

Of course, the Blues scored right away to take an early lead. But amazingly, after endless forechecking and offensive pressure, I got one back! It continued this way through the duration of the game, my opponent and I trading goals--although I never had the lead. It was always St. Louis going ahead, and my team coming back to tie it up.

When my opponent was leading 4-3 in the third period and one of my players took a two-minute penalty, I thought the game was over. But alas, not only did I kill the penalty... I scored a shorthanded goal! Game tied, 4-4!

At this point, my hands were aching. Along with NHL 12's perfect controls come the attrition of constant attention to detail in playing. You can't passively play NHL 12. So not only was I in this heated online matchup, but I was facing the possibility of real-life injury to win the game. NHL features cutscenes during stoppages in play that people normally skip through to get to the real gameplay, but this late in the game I took every breather I could to rest my shaky hands for a few precious seconds.

And with the third period almost over, my star player Joel Rechlicz--perennial minor league enforcer, mediocre goal-scorer--scored his third goal of the night to complete a hat trick and win the game for my Hershey Bears. I nearly cried tears of joy.

This whole experience took about twenty minutes, but it felt like three hours. When the match finally ended and I emerged victorious, I rejoiced like I never have with a video game before.
While many game critics write off sports games as simple diversions, I felt legitimate emotional connection to my experience in NHL 12 tonight.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Kansas City, I Am Alive, and Lollipop Chainsaw

It's been a while since I've posted. My girlfriend and I have been in the middle of a move to Kansas City, Missouri! Now that we're all set up and I finally got internet in the apartment, I'll get back to my regular writing.

Right before leaving for KC, I finished Ubisoft's I Am Alive. It's received mixed reviews, but I loved it. Although it's obvious the developers wanted to create a more epic game than they were finally allowed, I Am Alive is a fantastic exploration of a nearly dead genre.

Survival-horror, once the bastion of Resident Evil and Silent Hill fame, has devolved into action and explosions. Perhaps this is because higher-fidelity graphics mean modern games don't need to rely on psychological horror to scare players. Perhaps it's because society today is increasingly ADD and doesn't want to spend more than 20 seconds walking through a room without shooting something. Regardless, survival-horror is an increasingly rare genre.

But there is hope! Swedish indie developer Frictional Games has been hard at work carrying the torch (or lantern?) for survival-horror with their Penumbra titles, and most recently, the iconic Amnesia: The Dark Descent. I Am Alive is an Xbox Live Arcade game in that same vein. While not as overtly scary as Amnesia, I Am Alive explores the "survival" part of "survival-horror." Bullets for your pistol are limited. Exposure to the dust around the city causes your stamina to fall. You can't climb forever like Lara Croft without hurting yourself. Most encounters with enemies are an exercise in finding a way to escape without a firefight.

I Am Alive has flaws. It's clear that the game's budget was slashed in the middle of production, with inaccessible areas and an abrupt ending. But the new ideas and unique approach in this title make the download worth it. Its emphasis on the struggle to survive and lack of empowerment of the player is a breath of fresh air in today's industry.

In other news, Suda 51's new effort, Lollipop Chainsaw, comes out on the 12th. And I'm worried. Grasshopper Manufacture's work has been getting increasingly silly and stupid. I know Suda is all about silly, but it seems he's beginning to phone it in. His 2005 opus, Killer7, had plenty of irreverent humor, but it was very dark and creepy at the same time. No More Heroes was less serious and more happy-go-lucky. Then Shadows of the Damned injected even more penis humor. I just hope Lollipop Chainsaw isn't as campy and half-hearted as it sounds like it's going to be.

At least Killer Is Dead has been announced for 2013.