In this year of historic change with the U.S. electing America’s first African American President while in the midst of an unpopular war and the growing strength of gay rights protests, the time has never been better to reexamine the 1960s. The History Channel’s massive set, The 60s, covers all the turmoil and hope of that era through a series of major documentaries, including programs on JFK, Martin Luther King Jr., the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights struggle, the massive protest movements, and the race to the moon. It’s essential viewing for understanding a vital decade in American history as well as for shedding light on our current challenges.
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When he left Mystery Science Theater 3000 at the beginning of Season Five, many thought they had seen the last of Joel Hodgson as a satiric silhouette taking on famously bad movies. Last year, the cult comedian announced a comeback of sorts—and he brought several series alum (J. Elvis Weinstein, Trace Beaulieu, Frank Conniff, and Mary Jo Pehl) with him. With five fantastic self-produced episodes under their belts (each one improving on the next), the gang has given the old in-theater ribbing format a novel shot in the arm. Sure, it’s still the same old celluloid irreverence, but Joel and his cohorts have brought it right up to date.
1. Beyoncé - “If I Were a Boy”
2. Kanye West - “Love Lockdown”
3. T.I. - “Whatever You Like”
4. Lil Wayne - “A Milli”
5. N.E.R.D. - “Everyone Nose”
I am currently sitting on five reviews. Five. Five films I have already seen (in preparation for year end “Best of” consideration) and five films I am NOT allowed to write about. It’s the standard studio spiel - embargoes. Keeping the critical content under wraps until the publicist says we can finally speak our mind. It’s nothing new. We members of the new ‘Nth’ Estate are constantly required to live up to unrealistic rules, especially when considering the light speed dissemination of information that is the Internet. You’ll hear the online community complain quite a bit - e-publication ‘A’ gets to break the restrictions while they are stymied, sticking to a day-of-opening schedule.
While being the “first” to pass judgment on the latest Hollywood title used to mean something, the blogsphere fetish with festival exclusives, along with the still-in-flux feelings toward the Web in general means that many writers hoping to extol the virtues of cinema are left to rot in a nomenclature no-man’s land where old time marketers can’t tell the professionals from the plebes. And to make matters worse, what’s now global is ignored by those in control. Living in Tampa, I am stuck obeying Florida release rules. And yet PopMatters and SE&L are international draws. That means that if something like Milk doesn’t make it to theaters in the Sunshine State until sometime in 2009, that’s when I can run my review (in actuality, said film is scheduled to open on 12 December, 2008).
The excuse for embargoes is easy to understand - it’s called “control of public opinion”. If the studios have a turkey, a gosh-darn dump of a major motion picture and they want to keep the proposed demographic as clueless as possible, they will force critics to sit on their reviews, sometimes circumventing the process entirely by offering the dreaded Thursday night preview (or keeping the movie from journalists all together). Yet it’s weird when something like MENTIONED DELETED is offered almost four weeks before it hits the Cineplex - and yet we are told to refrain from even mentioning it before the Christmas Day delivery (heck, even this mere tongue in cheek mention may get me in trouble - masterpiece or not).
The other three films I have already seen besides Milk and MENTION DELETED are Doubt, the John Patrick Shanley adaptation of his Pulitzer prize winning play, Frost/Nixon, another theatrical turn brought to the big screen by Ron Howard, and early Oscar frontrunner Slumdog Millionaire, Danny Boyle’s unbelievably brilliant odyssey through India. As you can probably tell from the context, I loved all five of these films. They all represent varying degrees of greatness. Many, if not all, will probably make my Top Ten list for 2008, and each represents the pinnacle of cinema as an artform, a commercial consideration, and an entertainment enterprise. And yet if I offered up a legitimate review of any of them, I could be banned from all future press events.
Regional considerations are a funny thing. Disney’s ‘world’ is just 70 miles away from my office, and yet they never fail to ignore their Florida critics when it comes to previews, press materials, or awards season screeners. On the other hand, we’ve had word of mouth advances for motion picture puke like Disaster Movie, Meet Dave, and perhaps the year’s absolute worst cinematic atrocity - Towelhead. It seems that outside the major metropolitan markets of the US - read: New York, LA, San Francisco, Chicago and DC - a “catch as catch can” concept is at work. If you get a screening, bully. If not, well then wait a couple of days. Death Race 2008 will have a big bang premiere you can sink your souring review skills in.
Naturally, the studios still insist on embargoes, and as discussed before, that makes sense. Why let the public know what an unsightly stink bomb you have up your sleeves when the TV ads for Four Christmases make it look like a rib-tickling, raunchy lark. But how do you defend keeping a lid on quality? If I loved Milk, if I was bowelled over by MENTION DELETED, why not let me say so? Will my voice make any real difference to those already poised to see it? Will an emphatically positive review from Short Ends and Leader actually turn off potential viewers? While one can’t see the publicists as being this insightful, are they aware of the love/loathe relationship currently playing out between the critic and the messageboard community? Could they be thinking that the anti-Bill Gibron brigade is so massive that, if he likes something, it’s a sure sign to avoid it at all costs?
And this doesn’t explain the up and down, hit or miss mumblings of places like Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, or that most flagrant of “why’s he so special?” candidates, EmanuelLevy.com. All of these sites have reviews up of David Fincher’s unmentionable movie. Mr. Levy, the man with the massive moustache, even has takes on The Reader, Revolutionary Road, and Defiance. His Frost/Nixon was posted on 4 November and his Milk arrived two days before. No one is questioning his access (clearly, the studios don’t care that he violates dates by sometimes a month or more), but one does argue the necessity for keeping others at bay. Can Mr. Levy, who many may come to rely on for his early take on titles, be much more of a benefit/liability than a lowly Florida critic who’s stuck waiting until Friday to post his thoughts?
Again, we are not talking about films I can’t wait to tear apart. I am not chomping at the bit to vivisect ACTORS NAME DELETED‘s pitch perfect performance, Boyle’s use of the amazing Indian landscape, or Michael Sheen’s amazing take on that British bad boy of staged journalism, David Frost. My keyboard isn’t smoking from the scolding I’m prepared to give Sean Penn’s career pinnacle, Meryl Streep’s amazing transformation into a surly ‘60s nun, or the wonder that is old school artistry transformed to a post-modern mindset. If anything, I am supremely frustrated that, in a season that has so far sparked little interest beyond the occasional inspired mainstream amusement, I can’t celebrate some truly stellar filmmaking.
Critics are typically attracted to the profession because of their love of the medium (music, art, film) they are putting into perspective. Embargoes are like hearing a great song and then not being able to play it for your friends. In the case of the five reviews I am sitting on, I want to argue over and discuss them, to let readers into the pleasures each one offers while hopefully giving them fodder to further their own experience while in the theater. Sure, keeping the searing slaughter of a high profile title - say, my complete dismissal of the crap that was Blindness - is probably best saved for the day the film opens. After all, it’s not going to do anyone (reader, writer, greenlighter) any good. But when it’s time to trumpet the wonders of the annual awards season, a barrier seems foolish. Guess I’ll just have to wait until the courtesy screeners start arriving in the mail. Then all bets are off, right?
Over at the Infovore blog, Tom Armitage wrote a very interesting essay about using games to tell stories specific to their medium. Just as a TV series is constructed differently than film in terms of story and ideas, so too should video game plots stick with their specific merits. If all you do is create a game that relies on cutscenes with basic gameplay mixed in-between, then your experience will be little better than a movie with buttons. In order for a video game to be great, it must not only draw influences from other mediums but also make them work in ways that only it can. Stories that involve accomplishment, overcoming obstacles, and other elements of “play” are adept to certain mediums. Capcom’s Okami is an excellent example of this concept in action. Though not without its faults, the game deserves some inspection for using several narrative devices that could only be used in a video game. In any other medium, it simply wouldn’t work to tell the story in Okami.
That story is that of being a Sun God who is spreading nature and rejuvenating the landscape. The first time this occurs in a film would be fine, but the numerous times Amaretsu restores a pool, tree, or landscape would quickly get old. In a game, however, with the reward of celestial points and the cutscene in which you see the result of your work, it suffers no feelings of repetitiveness. Healing the land over and over again combines with the sense of accomplishment in a way that allows a narrative that would otherwise be dull for a passive observer. The participation with the celestial brush uses similar elements. Seeing Amaretsu perform a miracle in a T.V. episode would easily become trite after the third or fourth time; in a game the fun of seeing people’s reaction to things changing mystically is always rewarding because it is no longer the miracle we’re looking for, it’s the reaction to what we’ve done. The moment where you must help Susano by inking in the sword slashes for him also explore a relationship that would otherwise not work: having the audience actively enjoy redeeming a fallen hero. The brush lets the player find value in redeeming Susano that would otherwise not be present for an audience. Lord of the Rings could not have had Legolas take all the credit from Aragorn without infuriating some audience members, but because it’s an element of the game design, Okami is able to competently explore such a story. We no longer look for the vindication of our hero getting credit for their actions, we feel the accomplishment of helping the bumbling underdog.
Analyzing the plot of a Japanese game can get tricky if it delves deeply into their culture. As a Westerner, I don’t have the understanding and basic knowledge that is necessary to appreciate Okami’s nuance. I picked up on stuff like the Nansō Satomi Hakkenden references, but constantly miss the Kanji tweaks and nuance. I’ve delved into enough anime to at least understand that a lot of complicated stuff is going on just in those tiny details. I doubt the Greek Gods make much sense to someone who hasn’t read about them extensively, so the conundrum is understandable. I also…ah…didn’t finish the game. I got about half-way through and realized I was literally forcing myself to play for the sake of some misguided sense of professionalism. I’m not alone in failing to finish the game—MTV Multiplayer did a stat crunch based off posted hours on the Wii network and deduced that on average, most Okami players go for about 15 hours and then quit. By my clock, I was in Orochi’s dungeon helping make the sacrificial dinner at that point. So whether or not you actually finished the game, let’s talk about why some people have trouble with finishing the game when it’s gorgeous, entertaining, and fun to play. What’s interesting about this is that even though I find prohibitively long games to be annoying, I also still regularly play them. For as much as much as many critics fail to grasp that a video game is not just a movie with buttons, there are still certain elements that can be borrowed from linear mediums with video games. What can be observed here?
It can be counter-intuitive to contrast two video games to one another, but in Okami’s case putting it next to Twilight Princess yields some interesting results. Chiefly, although Twilight Princess is a much more stereotypical game in terms of art and plot, more people statistically have finished the game. One reason might be what an IGN video review of Okami observed, the dungeons in Okami are much more organic and fluid. There isn’t always a moment where you realize you’re in a dungeon or when you’re interacting with people, the two modes are blurred. In the Moon Temple when you first go inside there are people to talk to and fetch quests to perform instead of the usual dungeon activities. Conversely, just when you’re done collecting the Dog Warriors to enter the Wind Shrine, you find out there are three more scattered all over the landscape. On the surface these don’t seem like problems because they don’t impede gameplay. What they do instead though is chop up the flow of the game. The flow of a video game is the correlation between player expectation in contrast to what the game is giving them. What Twilight Princess delivers in this regard is precisely the feature that the IGN review mentions: everything is clearly labeled and organized in that game. When you enter a dungeon, you’re going to be doing dungeon type things for a set amount of time. Usually an hour or two, with a nice new item to be found, and a big heart container at the end. The precise number of dungeons and their locations are all neatly laid out on the map and whenever I’m done screwing around the huge world, I can roll up to one and create a precise sensation of accomplishment. That doesn’t really exist in Okami. I have no idea how many Cherry Blossom trees I need to go heal, the brushstrokes are granted at seemingly random times, and I was still entering brand new portions of the landscape 15 hours deep. The result is a game where the flow just keeps going and going without me having any real way to stagger my engagement.
There are lots of games that utilize mini-episodes in a larger structure: Silent Hill 2 and Call of Duty 4 work in precisely that manner along with countless other games. The difference here is that Okami’s length starts to work against it. The blurred game activities and exploration are elegantly done throughout the game, but the problem is that it’s a steady stream of gameplay instead of organized bursts. That kind of game flow can’t sustain a player for more than…about 15 hours, I guess. What do you do for really long movie? A long book? You do exactly what Twilight Princess did, you break everything up into sections and chapters. You do what Grand Theft Auto does and make each mission take about thirty to fifty minutes before you go back to roaming the setting of the story. This isn’t supposed to be an indictment of Okami, just an exploration of why precisely it didn’t do as well at this as you’d think it would. The setting, story, and art are all perfectly gorgeous but it’s interesting to puzzle over why that still wasn’t enough to keep people playing. It’s easy to write off consumer culture as wanting nothing more than to play games about being a space marine or ultimate badasses. And the countless games that feed into that easy impulse should be criticized for it. For what it’s worth, though, there is a reason people have trouble finishing Okami, and that means they aren’t getting the full experience with it. As those who toiled through and finished the game will attest, the reason I outlined is not a very good one. It is, however, a reason.