If you have played Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare then Modern Warfare 2 will probably feel like more of the same. But developer Infinity Ward has struck upon a formula for action that works and change for the sake of change would only bring disaster. The new additions are mostly minor, but they’re all improvements. The campaign doesn’t shy away from exploring some dark themes, and the result is a story that weighs on you even if there are some plot holes. The multiplayer simply gives you more of what you want: more unlockables, more perks, more killstreaks, more challenges, more ranks, and as a result, you’ll be upgrading something nearly every round. Finally, the new cooperative Spec Ops contains some of the most satisfying and frightening firefights of the entire game. The game is an evolution of a proven formula; it’s more of the same, made better.
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In a tucked away corner of Iraq, a community of Kurdish Jews live such an isolated existence that they speak the language of Jesus, Aramaic. Ariel Sabar’s father called this place home before moving to Los Angeles as a professor. Sabar travels back to his father’s homeland in search of his own heritage and identity. Part linguistic exploration, part history lesson and part memoir, the Sabars’ tale lends another, oft-overlooked dimension to the story of the Iraqi people.
This was the decade in which television became art. So argues Emily Nussbuam in a recent New York Magazine essay, “When TV Became Art”. She certainly makes a strong case that 2000-2009 was a pivotal age for TV and I strongly recommend her essay to anyone interested in the development of television over the past decade. I agree that this was, all in all, the finest decade for great television.
Others have argued that TV had arisen as an art form in earlier decades, some (though in dwindling numbers) arguing for the fifties, based on the series that presented staged plays for a television audience, including such original masterpieces as “Twelve Angry Men”, written by Reginald Rose for Studio One, and “Requiem for a Heavyweight”, written by Rod Serling for Playhouse 90. Later, Robert J. Thompson, in his widely cited Television’s Second Golden Age: From Hill Street Blues to ER, argued for the eighties as the crucial period. But Nussbaum has numbers on her side; it is difficult to argue against the sheer quantity of very fine shows that emerged in the past ten years. The number of truly great series from the past ten years is so substantial that it might surpass the number of great shows from all previous decades combined.
Nonetheless, I want to take issue with Nussbaum. I think that chopping the overall picture up into decade-sized blocks obscures the reality. I believe that one can point at a precise point where TV became art, and that point was the debut of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. No one questions the enormous influence that Joss Whedon’s quirky series exerted on other shows, but I do not believe that many people realize the degree to which it altered the TV landscape. TV was not art before Buffy, but it was afterwards.
In contrast, the show that Nussbaum promotes as the apex of TV as Art, The Wire, has not actually played a crucial role in that development. The Wire is a beneficiary of the birth of TV as art, a promulgator of that development, not its cause. There is no question it is a truly great show, but it really did nothing to change TV. Television had already changed, and we largely have Buffy to thank for that. To be fair, Nussbaum does mention Buffy and Joss Whedon frequently in her essay, obviously crediting both the show and the creator for much of the best that the decade had to offer, but she seems to imply that TV as art was a work in progress as the decade began and it most definitely was not.
Although many realize just how revolutionary Buffy was as a series and the impact that it made on the medium (many TV creators site it as their favorite show while others acknowledge its direct influence), not everyone is aware of how groundbreaking the series was or of the number of concrete changes it wrought on television. It was not merely a great TV series in its own right, it helped redefine what TV could do. Let me enumerate some of the changes made, all of them rather substantial.
One of the most important changes that Buffy brought about was a new understanding of long story arcs on TV. A very brief history of narrative on television is in order to provide a context for my point. For most of the history of television, the format of series was episodic. On almost all shows (excepting soap operas), no matter what happened on one episode of a series, the next week would witness a complete reset. If James West was beaten to a pulp or even shot on The Wild, Wild West, the next week he would be as fine as ever.
No matter what happens on The Dick Van Dyke Show, Dick and Laura would never refer to it again. As a result, each episode was self-contained and ignored any kind of narrative order. Watch the episodes of It Takes a Thief in any order that you wish; juxtapose an episode from season four and then from season two and it wouldn’t make the slightest difference. This began to change with Hill Street Blues and the shows that Robert J. Thompson applauded: St. Elsewhere, China Beach, L. A. Law, and thirtysomething. For the first time on primetime television, stories got messy and spilled over from one episode to another…
Return to the best television show of the ‘80s and early ‘90s with the first season of Designing Women DVD. Brilliantly cast, the show centers around the ladies of Sugarbakers, an interior design firm in Atlanta, Georgia. Dixie Carter plays Julia Sugarbaker, a sophisticated widow from old money. Delta Burke is her younger sister, Suzanne, an ex- beauty queen and ex-wife of many pageants and several husbands. Annie Potts plays Mary Jo Shively, a divorced mother of two and suburban everywoman, while Jean Smart plays Charlene Frazier, a poor girl from Arkansas who’s moving up in the world.
“Delightful” is the word that best describes Designing Women. Somehow this show manages to be simultaneously a fresh breath of feminism and the last gasp of the New South. For who can fail to take delight in a show that is as tough, smart and warm hearted as the women that it portrays? The special feature is a cast reunion from 2006, which is quite good especially when the actors start ignoring the moderator and head off on their own conversation.
Like many of the best James Cameron protagonists, Jake Sully—the crippled Marine and accidental ambassador of humanity in Avatar—is both astoundingly arrogant and self-assured, and yet without a home. Like Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jack in Titanic and Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley in Aliens, Jake has confidence to spare, verging on reckless. Yet he’s an outcast, riven between worlds, and fated to battle for survival against incredible odds. Sully seems another of the filmmaker’s combative, daring, and inventive stand-ins for himself. You don’t doubt that if the film’s multi-hyphenate (writer/director/producer/editor) found himself on another world, without the use of his legs, facing doubt and ridicule from all corners, he’d probably do just fine.
From the figure of Jake (Sam Worthington), rolling in his wheelchair off a space transport onto an alien world where he will find his quasi-religious purpose, to the vistas of alien beings aligning themselves in a grand armada against the genocidal human corporate mercenaries fighting for access to precious raw materials, Avatar is the prototypical Cameron event-film. It’s a story of cataclysmic battles and personal revelations, punched through with exclamation marks and related via ground-breaking special effects that work overtime to heighten the emotional impact of the primal drama on display. It’s also—more uniquely to this entry in Cameron’s oeuvre—a metaphor for our society’s benighted state, where uploading one’s consciousness into a grander, more worldly and aware creature, serves as the ultimate escape from a venal and polluted (in every sense of the word) present reality.
Set about a century and a half in the future, Avatar drops its hero (a Marine wounded in some pointless brushfire war in Argentina) on the planet of Pandora. There, a massive Halliburton-like company has been given essential autonomy to strip-mine the world for a rare substance, Unobtainium, that provides desperately needed energy back on an apparently environmentally devastated and overcrowded Earth.
To that end, the company enlists a force of roughneck mercenaries, many recently ex-military (another stinging allusion to our current state of affairs), who are trying to carve out more human-friendly space on a pretty inhospitable world. If a swath of Pandora’s fantastically predatory animals (Cameron had a field day inventing these things, a befanged menagerie from some dark and unknown corner of the Jurassic Era) and its tall, blue-skinned, humanoid inhabitants, the Na’vi, get slaughtered along the way, then that’s the price of entrepreneurial mineral resource expropriation.
Coexisting uneasily alongside this transplanted corporate-military complex are a batch of scientists trying to study the indigenous flora and fauna, as well as the proud and withdrawn Na’vi, a warrior people clearly meant to evoke the Native American tribes doomed in their fight against the ever-encroaching European people. Jake is on Pandora because his very recently-dead brother worked with these scientists, and somebody with his DNA is needed to enter the consciousness of an avatar, a specially bred Na’vi who can then be used to research the planet’s surface and interact with its inhabitants.
Disliked as a cripple by the company’s macho gunsels, and distrusted as a trigger-happy soldier boy by the scientists, Jake jumps into his new career as an avatar driver, if for no other reason than it gives him the chance to walk and run again—even if it’s while his real body lays unconscious in a research lab, hooked up to machines. Once he has infiltrated the Na’vi, it isn’t long, though, before Jake—a defensive and distrustful follower of orders—starts questioning what the humans are doing on Pandora, and falling in love with the Na’vi, especially one particularly svelte and feline huntress, Neytiri (Zoe Saldana, acting with a brand of ferocious passion rarely seen in animated creations).
At first, Cameron establishes a brisk momentum, staging viewers into his densely-layered alien world, where trees grow to the size of the World Trade Center and an entire mountain range floats in midair. The humanist-militarist tension is thickly palpable, as it only can be when moralists stand between an industrial enterprise and its source of profit. Those representing either side—the scarred ex-Marine Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang, who looks carved from a sinewy and tanned block of marble) and head researcher Dr. Grace Augustine (Weaver, delivering some impeccably voiced sarcastic barbs)—are equally contemptuous and disinterested in compromise.
While the dramatic stage is well-set, it’s once Avatar starts hacking into the dense exposition of Pandora itself that Cameron begins to set his epic apart. The level of complexity found in this creation, from a whole new alien language to the planet’s interlocking system of biological checks and balances, is something not previously seen in science-fiction film. It feels whole, complete, and Tolkienesque, much like the world of Pandora itself.
The awesome beauty with which Cameron paints his sumptuously photographed 3-D landscapes (his characters spend a suspicious amount of time racing along tree branches high above ground, all the better to indulge the format’s love of depth perspective) achieves a level of alien wonder that carries many hints of the written genre’s space opera greats, but has practically never been achieved before on screen. Cameron’s evocations of everything from Blackwater’s Iraq massacres to the Trail of Tears gives his story an uncommon resonance. This is a whole new kind of science fiction filmmaking, something particularly grandly spectacular, even if occasionally daft and overblown.
As Avatar roars toward a great, planet-shaking sequence of battles (tilt-rotor gunships battling bow-wielding Na’vi on winged, dragon-like creatures), it loses some of the dramatic tension that charged up such a head of steam in the beginning. Some of this has to do with the film’s love story, which is wounded not by the essence of the story itself (which is, in fact, quite potently romantic) but by Worthington’s performance. A skilled performer with a quiet dignity, Worthington can’t nearly match Saldana’s fire. There is also too much of an outdated, noble savage aura to Cameron’s treatment of the Na’vi, like something that artists of an earlier era might have presented Native Americans.
Or maybe it’s the glasses. Perhaps there is a limit to how seriously one can take a film that is best seen through oversized Ray-Bans.