Despite the premise of HBO’s new show Hung being about a man’s overly-large sexual organ, it looks like the whole affair will be stolen, in true HBO fashion, by women: Anne Heche and the always-astounding Jane Adams look fantastic!
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Between this film by Donnie Darko‘s Richard Kelly and the upcoming My Sister’s Keeper, it looks as though Cameron Diaz might be back in fighting shape, in terms of choosing interesting parts (in which case we will forgive her for the Vegas movie co-starring Ashton Kutcher). Whoever cast James Marsden as Diaz’s husband should get a raise, they make for a compelling, if impossibly gorgeous couple. Kelly’s Southland Tales was a bloody disaster, so keep your fingers and toes crossed that this one returns the director to some kind of glory.
When the Devil’s Loose
Releasing: 1 September 2009 (US)
These days it’s hard to decipher the line of demarcation between a great songwriter and a good one. It seems like that line is the taste of Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, today’s modern indie folk hero, who has an impeccable knack for picking flawless openers. The one that sparked my interest most sincerely lay behind the Alabama bred six-string troubadour, A.A. Bondy, and his subtle stories of love, despair, and everything in between. “When the Devil’s Loose” is the lead single off the album by the same name (due out in September on Fat Possum) and shares a sense of melody analogous to that of his label companion, Andrew Bird, but the sonic palette itself falls in line more with the Southern tradition the label has always prided itself in. If “When the Devil’s Loose” is any indication of the rest of the record, then expect Bondy to be a household name from here on out.
01 When the Devil’s Loose
02 Mightiest of Guns
03 A Slow Parade
04 To the Morning
05 Oh the Vampyre
06 I Can See the Pines Are Dancing
07 False River
08 On the Moon
09 The Mercy Wheel
10 The Coal Hits the Fire
“When the Devil’s Loose” [MP3]
The opening scene in Indigo Prophecy is one of the most memorable moments in gaming for anyone that’s played it. The main character, Lucas, goes into a trance and kills a man in the bathroom of a small restaurant. Play it once and it seems fairly unremarkable: You clean up the murder scene and flee out the back door. Not much happens. But on a second try, when the player realizes the wealth of options available, it’s impossible not to feel a sense of wonder. Clean up the murder? Hide the murder weapon? Wash your hands? Pay your bill? Call someone? The vast number of small choices is impressive, but the real accomplishment of this scene is that all these choice are presented to the player without any moral implications. There aren’t any “good” or “bad” options. Cleaning up the murder doesn’t make you a bad person, and paying your bill doesn’t make you a good person. The game presents the player choice without morality.
Unfortunately the rest of the game failed to live up to that level of ingenuity. The story of Indigo Prophecy was split into several scenes, and while each scene has its own variety of choices, their consequences had little effect on the next scene. The game was structured like a series of sandboxes, giving players a false sense of control when really we were being pulled along a traditional linear narrative. For all the choices we had to make, the consequences ultimately didn’t matter.
A karma system would have fixed this dilemma by putting our actions in a larger context. Even though players would essentially be leveling up their character with arbitrary points, we would at least know that our actions were contributing to something greater than our current situation. A karma system lets us know where our actions stand in the grand scheme of things. If game doesn’t use arbitrary points to give our actions consequence, than that consequence must come through in the story: The consequences of any decision must directly affect the story for the player to feel like their input genuinely matters. If we can see the results of our actions on the plot or the characters, than there’s no need for a system of points.
The flash game Storyteller by Daniel Benmergui takes this approach to consequence in games. It’s beautiful in its simplicity: Told in just three panels, it distils the classic adventure story into three pivotal scenes and three pivotal choices. It revolves around three characters, and depending on how the player rearranges them within each scene, the outcome of the story changes. Does the knight kill the wizard or does the wizard kill the knight? Does the prince save the princess or does the princess save the prince? We could make a story with no conflict and a happy ending, or one in which all the heroes die. There’s no need for a karma system because we can immediately see the short-term and long-term consequences of our actions on the lives of these characters. The downside to this is that there’s not much of a story to tell. The characters have no names and there’s no plot, the only real story is the one we make up and it can be as complex or as thin as our imaginations let it be. Bernmergui is giving up authorial control in order to let us experience the full breadth of choice and consequence.
So consequences free from morality must affect the story, but giving the player too many choices can dilute the story. A middle ground can be found in Mass Effect, which strikes a nearly perfect balance between these two options. We don’t have nearly as much control over the story as we do in Storyteller; Mass Effect, like Indigo Prophecy, is very linear. When we’re finally able to explore the solar system, we can only choose the order of which story-progressing missions we accept, but we still have to complete all of them before we can advance. We can change how the story is told, but not the story itself. To make up for this we’re given choices at key moments with dire consequences, such as the possible deaths of central characters. Since death is a real possibility, the tangible consequence of our actions can be felt in the main story. There are also several short stories within the game whose endings are entirely dependant on our actions. There’s the mourning man who wants the military to give him his wife’s dead body, the gambler who wants us to test a device that will help him cheat, or the waitress worried about her sister working as an undercover agent. By giving the player choices within these short stories, and consequences that play out with these minor characters and sub-plots, we don’t notice how little we actually affect the main story.
But there’s no ignoring the fact that Mass Effect does have a karma system. Every choice we make gives us either Paragon points or Renegade points, and for most gamers these easily translate into “good” and “evil.” Such associations are unfortunate because the Renegade options are hardly evil. Some actions may make Shepard act cold, but never truly evil. The game does a commendable job giving us a range of emotions in our choices without making those choices blatantly good or bad, but the presence of the karma system undermines everything the game does right by separating all the consequences into only two categories. Sometimes the Renegade option is the best choice, but it may be difficult to convince a player trying to play through the game as a good character to go with that option simply because of its unwarranted assumption of being “evil.”
The karma system is a narrative shortcut: Instead of writing consequences into the story, a player is given points and measures consequence by how full the “good” or “bad” meter is. Yet it’s become an established feature of open ended games, sometimes to the detriment of the game. Even though it’s a relatively new mechanic (at least in its more comprehensive forms) it’s already outdated as games like Storyteller and Mass Effect prove it’s possible to represent consequence without the morality.
Up until this point, they had avoided responsibility. They lived like nomads, sequestered from family and friends while indulging in their own insular (and happy) homebound careers. But biology - like money, and power, and the possibility of same - changes everything, and for unmarried couple Burt Farlander (John Krasinski) and Verona De Tessant (Maya Rudolph), the lack of a legitimate home for their newborn child brings about the need for change. But with only the slightest connection to the rest of the real world, such a massive personal modification will require a point by point breakdown of the possibilities. Thus begins a road trip which takes the couple back home (to his parents) to Arizona (her friends and family), Wisconsin, Montreal and Miami - and in the process, our expectant parents learn that home is not necessarily where the heart is. It’s actually where true happiness dwells.
For Sam Mendes, such cinematic ground seems strikingly similar to the territory he traversed with such suburban nightmare masterworks as American Beauty and Revolutionary Road. This time around, however, instead of equating ennui and malaise with an upcoming interpersonal Armageddon, the English filmmaker finally finds a funny bone. Scripted by A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius scribe Dave Eggers (along with wife Vendela Vida) Away We Go first appears to be a collection of Americana clichés. But then it actually evolves into a telling statement on growing up, taking charge, and realizing that life cannot be a constant struggle to continuously stray off the beaten path. Sure, the examples that Mendes and his collaborators use seem arch in their stereotypical approaches. But with each chestnut comes a rejection, and a realization.
The trip begins at the Farlander house, where SCTV‘s Catherine O’Hara and Jeff Daniels give middle age wistfulness a wacky, uneven coating. One moment they are celebrating their son’s upcoming parentage. The next they are abandoning him for a long planned pilgrimage to Europe. To the Farlanders, two years seems like nothing. But to new mom to be Verona, it’s like a declaration of grandparental abandonment. Things don’t get better in Phoenix, where ex-coworker Allison Janney puts on one of the worst displays of post-modern maternal cool ever conceived. In both of these sequences, Mendes relies on a kind of Caucasian white face, a blanket denouncement of white man’s culture combined with obvious sitcom types. But by making Burt and Verona disgusted by such outbursts, by giving them the silent critical eye the material mandates, the movie manages to override the Galleria burlesque.
Things change radically once we get to Wisconsin. Maggie Gyllenhaal practically steals the film as LN (“Ellen”), a New Age joke who buys into every organic composting conspiracy theory in the realm of ridiculous hands-off guardianship. Along with her semi-conscious partner Roderick (underplayed brilliantly by Josh Hamilton), they provide Burt and Verona with the chutzpah to finally stand up for themselves. Up until this point, our leads were likely to sit back dumbfounded, politely nodding as one ridiculous idea after another is fostered toward their future. But the minute LN starts her frazzled family bed routine, a light bulb goes off in our heroes’ heads. This is the where their formerly unfriendly and close realm mindset will lead them - into a similarly styled space filled with made-up philosophies and arguably insane pronouncements. And their dinner table reaction to all the hedonistic nonsense is one of Away We Go‘s greatest comeuppances.
At this point, Mendes can no longer avoid the melancholy. Montreal sees the couple facing mortality - both their own and the still unborn child’s - with uneasy trepidation, and an emergency mission to Miami underlines the fragility of their common law relationship. It’s interesting that Away We Go champions such unconventional ‘marriages’, offering Burt and Verona as the far more spiritual and centered pair in a whirlwind of crude and incomplete couples. It’s the same with almost every aspect of the film. As Mendes mocks child rearing and prenatal psychobabble, he gives us a duo that seem so present, so completely in tune with each other and their situation, that we hope none of this nascent negativity sticks. By the time they realize that they simply have to take that necessary leap of faith (during a conversation on a trampoline, no less), we wonder where the jump will take them.
In the end, it’s not very surprising where they land. What’s really amazing is how moving the revelation becomes. For all its jokey upscale jive, the occasional smug self-satisfaction Burt and Verona use to calm their frazzling nerves, Away We Go provides the kind of closure that elevates our ongoing worries. They may not have it all figured out, and there are moments when even their soothing tone of optimism seems blind and unbelievable, but the bottom line remains - these are two people who realized they were wrong and then tried to do the right thing. They took on the list of social requirements for happy families and found the flaws in each and every one. Luckily, Mendes has an amazing cast to collect his thoughts. Krasinski’s Burt is beautiful in his deadpan directness. He doesn’t mince words so much as carefully pick the ones he know will do the most damage. Rudolph elevates her status as a legitimate movie star, looking both stunning and scared as the portal from which all the promise - and problems - commence.
Yet the final shot is something worth celebrating, a moment of perfect peace after 90 minutes of pinball emotions and crisis-like upheavals. As Burt and Verona sit, their arms interlaced, they appear to finally realize that they can have it all - social acceptance and isolated exclusivity. They don’t need to be unhappy married making fun of their own offspring, or miserable martyrs to some unspoken sense of personal diversity. They can be themselves while still seeing the best that the real world has to offer. They are smart enough to accept the good and conscious enough to reject the bad. It may be tough to tell if their arriving daughter will recognize the lengths they have gone to in securing her future. Luckily, they’ve done the leg work for her - and the journey is well worth taking.
// Notes from the Road
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