“Focus”: Film Review

Con artists are not lacking for terrific movies about them. Audiences were treated to a slew of them in the early 70s, starting with Joseph Mankiewicz’s masterful Sleuth, followed the next year by the Best Picture winning The Sting, which had Paul Newman and Robert Redford tag-teaming and two-three and even four-timing with aplomb. Even Orson Welles’ came out of quasi-self-imposed cinema exile to offer his still unparalleled film essay F for Fake in 1975, which continues to challenge audiences and critics alike with its ambiguous depictions of fraud and fakery. After the unmitigated failure of The Sting II, however, the genre quieted, with only a few treats in the 80s and 90s like John Cleese and Charles Chrichton’s caper A Fish Called Wanda and Minghella’s The Talented Mr Ripley. The genre arguably reached its heyday at the turn of the century, with Ocean’s Eleven providing a luxurious remake of a rather lackaidasical caper from the 60s, trading in that film’s notable Rat Pack for a slew of Hollywood elite, before Spielberg and Scott got into the game the following years with fine efforts like Catch Me If You Can and Matchstick Men, respectively. The makers of Focus seem at least partially aware of this rich history, indeed one of the film’s production companies is even called Ratpac-Dune (one named after the men, the other the former Las Vegas casino?), but rather than doing anything to enliven the genre, they struggle to offer anything remotely enjoyable.

Will Smith plays Nicky Spurgeon, a veteran con man who decides to teach a few moves on the streets and between the bed sheets to Margot Robbie’s ingenue, Jess Barrett. After a week of conning every character in their immediate vicinity, Nicky breaks off the relationship and disappears. Three years later, while pulling another con in Beunos Aires, whom should he run into but– look, I’m sure you get where this is going, and the film doesn’t offer much innovation beyond this routine.

The plot isn’t so much the problem however, despite how derivative it all seems. The real problem with this movie is that the character development is so laughable. Will Smith is a skilled con artist with a troubled past you see. I know this because he tells this to Margot Robbie’s character after knowing her for less than a few hours. Luckily for their unbelievably fast relationship, Robbie is an orphan with dyslexia who longs to be a master con artist herself. I also know this because this is her response, topping what would otherwise be a strangely personal disclosure from Smith. Despite each knowing the other to be a con artist, neither seems particularly troubled about offering these potentially ruinous details about their past, nor does the film feel particularly worried about how sloppy the exposition seems. It’s also particularly strange that for a movie in which both characters lie constantly to everyone, including one another, this awkward reveal should be so honest. I guess the filmmakers weren’t worried that it’s implausible, because everything in this movie straddles that strange line between unbelievable and completely far-fetched. Or maybe this scene exists since without this dialogue you’d learn next to nothing else about these two by watching them interact for another two hours. The whole effort feels like a con job, as if the directors were curious to see how much concern you could lose before you stopped anteing up.

Divided into two distinct halves which each focus on one of the two main characters (see what the filmmakers did there?), both sections suffer from frustratingly dull leads who have almost no chemistry. So little is their chemistry that the entire film seems like a perpetual screen test for relative new-comer Margot Robbie, who tries her best to impress Smith with her precocious sensibility. The tactic doesn’t work even when that’s what the script demands, and it works even less when it asks for anything else. Robbie is undeniably beautiful, but she lacks the charisma necessary to carry this movie, not to mention her voice seems incapable of expressing any convincing emotion. This wouldn’t be so problematic if Smith didn’t seem so bored for most of the movie. He’s not quite as dull as he was in After Earth, but this damns him with the faintest of praise. So instead of anything passing for a rapport, Robbie spends most of the movie smiling at everything for no reason while Smith does exactly the opposite. Neither balances out the other, nor are they particularly enjoyable to watch for any of it.

The leaden performances aren’t helped much by the film’s forgettable style, which shows flair but never much promise. The cinematographer has some fun pulling focus in a few scenes (again, see what the filmmakers did there?), but Focus never achieves anything more than a glib rendition of a weak script trying too hard to keep the audience and the characters hoodwinked. This keeps everyone at an unbridgeable distance, and this becomes all the more problematic when the film expects the audience to care about the success of these characters. Ocean’s Eleven was smug, sure, but Danny Ocean’s love for his ex-wife never seemed anything less than genuine, and anchored an otherwise mad-cap game of trickery and deceit. In Focus, however, we’re never quite sure if it’s all just another con, and even if it isn’t, the couple don’t seem to have much real affection for each other anyway.

I was also unsure as to how or why we are expected to thrill to the efforts of smarmy con artists hustling ostensibly innocent Americans for so much of the movie. In other con movies, especially the Ocean trilogy and The Sting, the deceit was enjoyable precisely because the men being conned were so deserving of it, here it just seems in poor taste–especially given that the bulk of the action happens in New Orleans of all places, in the all-too-recent wake of both an economic and literal disaster. That the film seems to want us to root for these people rather than be mildly unnerved by their actions is at the least mildly perturbing.

By the time the film seems to be approaching some conclusion–which feels like a hasty studio rewrite than a satisfying payoff–I was simply grateful for it to end, if only so that I didn’t have to watch these static characters continue their boring, leaden existence. But as if in keeping with the spirit of the characters, the film proceeded to rob from me of even this small satisfaction by forcing in yet another monologue that is ludicrous in length, placement and level of exposition. That this moment also serves as the only real development for yet another character seems downright lazy rather than a pleasant surprise. Though none of this is quite so atrocious as Now You See Me, an unendingly ludicrous and asinine magic-caper flick that somehow managed to eek out a forthcoming sequel, this movie isn’t much better.

That Warner Brothers dumped this movie at the tail end of February with little fanfare ought to give pause to anyone considering seeing it. Innocuous, derivative and immediately forgettable, Focus may demand just that with its very tagline, but the film never provides a good reason for you to give it any.

Focus opens this Friday.

Forbes’ analysis of “The Order: 1886″ game length is a bit short of the mark

Promotional image for Ready at Dawn’s “The Order: 1886″

In an opinion piece posted on Forbes today, Paul Tassi explores the debate of video game length, especially in regards to the recently leaked gameplay footage that clocks total time for The Order: 1886 at about five hours (the YouTube video has been since deleted, however, and Ready at Dawn has remained quiet on the issue). I thought I’d examine this article in more detail since my last post focused on a similar issue, examining it from the opposite perspective of too much story, writing about the narrative excess in Alien: Isolation–a game I found commendable in many respects, but ultimately far too long.

While Tassi reasonably wonders to what degree the retail cost of a videogame ought to factor into evaluating a game’s worth, he leaves a great many issues raised by his question unexplored.

To begin with, his metric seems to come at the cost of considering the practical considerations of videogame production. Tassi compares the $60 price tag of AAA games like The Order and Dragon Age: Inquisition to that of indie games priced at $15-20, and examines this cost difference solely at the degree of narrative length. I don’t mean to suggest that Tassi doesn’t understand that games cost money to produce, but this fact ought to be considered before one goes talking about rates like dollar per game hour.

Unlike the movie industry, game studios have much greater flexibility in pricing their games, and unlike the movie industry, where a movie ticket for an indie movie made on a shoestring budget will cost you the same as a $300 million tentpole blockbuster, suggested video game pricing categories typically reflect to some degree the development cost associated with the game. Though Tassi himself acknowledges this point, his deference to indie games is confusing then, because it’s almost as if he forgot that Indie games don’t cost less than AAA games because they typically tend to be shorter, they’re priced lower because their production budgets don’t allow them to compete graphically with the games from major studios.

There are also marketing considerations involved in this price difference. If a company spends tens of millions of dollars on a video game, it’s a given that they want to ensure its success, and one of the best ways to do this is with market saturation, which typically costs twice as much as the game’s budget. Just look at the massive marketing blitz Activision put on for Destiny, the cost of which landed in the hundreds of millions.

While no game studio would ever explicitly use marketing costs to justify game prices to gamers (nevermind that’s part of why these games are so damn expensive at retail), nor would they try the same using production costs, the cost associated with producing the game nevertheless colours the means by which these games are pitched to us for consumption. The best place to notice this trend is through video production diaries developed by these studios. Indeed, those produced by Ready at Dawn and available through the Playstation channel on Youtube subtly hint at this logic as the game developers discuss at length the exhausting detail and precision of creating this game world, from the lighting, to the costuming, music and voice acting. The point that these developers try to hammer in with each percussive note underscoring their self-directed praise is the effort–and by inevitable extension it seems, the cost–associated with making a game world this “rich”, this “alive”, one that they claim will truly push the limits of next-gen. You know the pitch.

So rather than focus on the dollar figure, developers try to ascribe value to the content offered by the game. Ready at Dawn focuses on the immersive, cinematic qualities of the game (curiously saying nothing about the length, or defending brevity in other games when the issue is raised). Other studios, meanwhile, confront game length head on and tout length as an asset. Developer’s CD Projeckt Red promise over 100 hours of gameplay for The Witcher 3, Bungie touted a much-publicized ten-year life-cycle for Destiny (which seems more hyperbolic and implausible with each passing day).

But let’s not forget it’s up to the players to decide how much they care that the game eschews multiplayer in favour of period authentic clothing (in a purposefully anachronistic Victorian London with laser guns and supernatural monsters, but let’s chalk that up to artistic license). I don’t mean to suggest that there actually was a meeting in which Ready at Dawn decided this (though I would’ve loved to be a fly on the wall for that meeting if it had), my point is that the developers are nonetheless trying to sell the player on the visual spectacle associated with this game rather than gameplay modes. It’s an interesting tactic, not without merit, and I’ll be interested to see how it pans out in the next few days after the game is released.

What troubles me with all these hard-line dollar evaluations we seem to have to make here, and it can be found in both the rhetoric of game developers, and the metric of Tassi which prompted this analysis, is that none of these conversations admit any room for considering narrative mechanics. The difficulty is suggested by the very absurdity of the proposition. Indeed, how could one put a dollar figure on story and plot? What about characterization? Does having a strong, male, white hero warrant $5 of the $60 price tag? Tack on an extra 50 cents if he has a complicated, traumatic backstory and make it an even dollar if he’s tasked with saving an equally troubled young heroine?

But the point that seems to be overlooked in any of these discussions and proclamations on value and length is the aspect of story-telling. Shorter is no better than longer when it comes to narrative.

If the incomparable novelist E.M. Forster has taught me anything through his succinct works of fiction or his brilliant work on narrative craft, Aspects of the Novel, it’s that in matters of story and structure, length is proscribed according to how much or how little it is needed to satisfy the requirements of the narrative. Those conditions are set, I think, by the mind of exacting artists in absolute control of the story they wish to tell–cringe-inducing game metrics like $/hr be damned.

I’m aware that deferring to novels is impractical under these conditions. Novels are often the work of a singular mind and cost little to produce by comparison. Considerations of a novel’s financial success or failure are more elastic for that reason, and a book can be considered successful if it sells a small number of copies that would be considered disastrous if a game were to sell the same amount. While authors and publishers obviously hope that their books will sell (especially those with huge marketing campaigns, production runs and upfront deals), the massive cost of producing a film or video game places these content creators in an especially precarious position of having to submit to the dictates of the market or risk financial ruin.

I also reject Tassi’s suggestion that games ought to be a certain length given their cost. To proscribe a length seems too much like dogma than anything resembling practical advice. But this proscription is precisely what Tassi offers in his conclusion, even going so far to suggest ten hours “to be about the minimum appropriate length for a campaign or story mode in a $60 game not attached to an overwhelmingly attractive multiplayer experience like you’d find in Halo or Call of Duty”. I agree that developers ought to be cognizant of the price they’re charging for these AAA titles and produce content accordingly, but I disagree on his reasoning.

Tassi defers to comparably short games like The Last of Us and Bioshock Infinite as evidence that narrative games ought to shoot closer to fifteen hours than five, but even these games weren’t above adding in a few narrative non sequiturs to pad the length of the game past the ten-hour mark. In the case of Bioshock especially there were a few hours I would’ve gladly seen jettisoned given the way they stopped the story in its tracks or sent it on wild detours. And even Tassi’s praise for the games suggests that he really isn’t so confident in his ten-hour minimum as it might seem. Indeed, acknowledging the brevity of these games, he declares that “they’ve been some of [his] favorite titles of the last few years regardless [of their length], because of how well their campaigns were designed, or how well their stories were told”. So why should the length of a game matter if the campaign is wonderfully conceived and wonderfully executed? The excessive qualifiers Tassi loads into his ten-hour proscription seems to hint at an answer. To be fair to Tassi, he’s not fiercely advocating anything about what games ought to be, but his cursory remarks nonetheless leave too many considerations unexplored for me to get on board with his analysis.

Ultimately, even if The Order: 1886 releases to poor reviews, it would be foolish for critics to pin the game’s failures on the brevity of its campaign. It might be that this game’s campaign is too short, but this is not to say that short campaigns, even in AAA games, are inherently a problem.

On the Narrative Excess of Alien: Isolation

Amanda Ripley from Alien: Isolation

(Note: This analysis of the narrative of Creative Assembly’s ambitious game does not feature any spoilers until the final few paragraphs. I note in the piece at which point these spoilers begin, so those who have yet to play the game and don’t want to have the story ruined can still follow along until then. Bear in mind that I do speak obliquely about events in both Alien and Aliens, but then if you haven’t seen those films already then you should unplug your internet until you’ve done so.)

There is a moment, towards the finale of Ridley Scott’s Alien, as Ripley is making a last-ditch effort to escape the impending destruction of her ship, that she rounds a corner to find the titular creature blocking her only means of reaching the lifeboat. Frantic, Ripley abandons her plan, returns to the command deck and attempts to override the auto-destruct sequence. A moment too late, Ripley realizes in a furious panic that she must risk the corridor or die. The moment is one of utter terror and dread, complemented by the dazzling mise-en-scene of the spaceship in its turbulent death throes. Now imagine if Ripley had gone back to the lifeboat to discover its door sealed, and imagine also that she improvises a new plan, one that takes her down an elevator shaft, which leads to a new section of the ship, in which a maintenance android patrols the grounds, and she must run around turning off switches and logging into terminals to override doors, before getting into a spacesuit and walking along the outside of the hull to manually force her way into the lifeboat, which is carrying an alien that she then has to defeat. The scenario would be absurd, overdone, and would exchange the viewer’s panic and terror for tedium and frustration. Nonetheless, this contrived scenario roughly approximates the exercise in excessive paces that Alien: Isolation puts the player through.

I am not the first to note these narrative excesses in the game, numerous reviewers were quick to criticize this aspect of an otherwise commendable game, yet they often did so with a brief rhetorical flourish about the length making the game dull and repetitive. While I agree with their conclusion, I think this problematic aspect of the game is worth taking a more sustained and critical look. Before I begin I should say I found the game design exemplary and the graphics terrific, but like some other gamers and reviewers, I too was dismayed at the interminable length of the game. I often wondered while playing whether the game was designed to be completed over a series of weeks, in two-hour blocks perhaps, but while playing it seems quite clear that the game clearly isn’t designed to be consumed episodically. The entire story unfolds almost uninterrupted, some chapters fold into the next without ostensible interruption, and the game makes no attempt to sequester its various acts into an episodic format. Reading the positive reviews of gamers, I noted a recurring tendency for them to disagree with the consensus that the game is too long. For them, the game’s length was an asset rather than a problem, and they saw the complaints of the game’s length as haters trying to find fault where none existed. The script even received a nomination from the Writer’s Guild of America, so who are we to bitch? Well, in a way they have a point, it’s not that any of the scenarios in the game are in themselves ridiculous or entirely out of place in the Alien franchise, and it’s certainly a step up from Gearbox Software’s cash-grab Aliens: Colonial Marines released the year before. But if I may be so bold, non-gamer that I am, I want to offer a critique of the game’s length from a narratological perspective, that is to say, to examine the logic of the game’s story. I want to argue that the narrative flow of the game suffers as a result of the writers inability to craft a concise narrative to guide their unabashed love for all things Alien.

A screenshot from the game that perfectly captures all the elements the game got right.

Though the writers are clearly fans of the franchise, this love balloons into obsessive compulsion by the end of the game, as though they wanted to create a virtual romp through every major plot point of the Alien franchise, with Ripley’s daughter substituting for Ripley. Now, if the writers were trying to do an ironic critique of the narrative of the films, which always begin contemplatively, lead to a succession of cliffhangers and always conclude with a startling return of the titular foe for the hero to vanquish, the results might have made the length of the game more palatable. As it stands, the first twelve hours of the game follow roughly this formula. But the length seems more a product of three writers unwilling to cut any idea they’d developed for the plot. Worse yet, pacing is almost non-existent in this game. Climaxes lead to yet more climaxes, which might then include long stretches of isolation, followed by more climaxes, before ending, unbelievably, with a series of deus ex machina anticlimaxes. The events of the game’s final four hours blend with all the nuance of ingredients thrown into a high-speed mixer.

Since the plot of the game invites comparisons to the films in the series, consider how crucial the arrangement of plot was in the success of the first two films. Aliens especially is an exercise in patience. It takes nearly 70 minutes before an alien even rears its ugly little head; the lead-up is spent using all the tools of the cinematic craft to evoke an atmosphere of dread and foreboding, which complements the relentless pace of the film’s final 70 minutes. The first ten or twelve hours of Alien: Isolation roughly follows this template: it takes nearly 3 or 4 hours before the creature appears, and by the end of this first half the tension is almost unbearable, until the alien is finally dispatched and the game seems ready to guide the player to its conclusion, but then the game continues after this ostensible end. And continues. And continues. For another 10 hours. To give you a sense of how interminable it all becomes, imagine that after the finale of Aliens, Ripley then found herself on-board an overrun Sulaco, and had to move floor by floor towards the lifeboat for safety. And then, after that, there was another ship to run through, and then another, each with an increasing degree of danger. Indeed, save a few details, this is roughly what occurs in Alien: Isolation, and after roughly 14 hours of gameplay. Had any of the films attempted this, their structure would have collapsed under the weight of their narrative digressions, but it’s as if the game’s writers never stopped to consider when enough content was enough.

The ironic failure of the game then is that it offers too much gameplay. And yet, at the same time, it doesn’t offer new gameplay so much as it rearranges the mechanics of an otherwise sound game. Towards the later half of the game you’re playing a series of challenge maps tethered together by a loose story. “This time you’re in a series of rooms and there are multiple aliens!” “Now you’re in a series of narrow corridors and there’s only one!” “Now there’s robots!”. It becomes a game of permutations rather than a story.

Part of this absurd length seems mandated by the game’s style, which offers an unbroken flow of narrative. Ripley only arrives at a new location because the player brought her there–the game never cuts to the chase. Yet that cutting is what becomes so vital in film for establishing and maintaining pace. We don’t need to see Ripley run all the way from the hive in the bowels of the ship to the lifeboat in Alien Resurrection, we get roughly 5 shots totalling 30 seconds punctuated by a rather absurd, death-defying leap over a yawning chasm (I never claimed Alien Resurrection had an intelligent story, ok?). However, because the game style dictates we can never break from the uninterrupted POV of Ripley, the same moment from the film would dictate that the player must navigate through every room, past every obstacle, and thereby turn what would otherwise be a burst of cinematic energy into a gaming slog.

Another gameplay factor that contributes to the interminable length of the game is the sometimes questionable decision to limit the player to whisper-quiet crawling for much of it, since any sudden noise (especially running) triggers an almost immediate game-over as the acoustically sensitive baddies come running after you. This is understandable in moments of quiet dread, but somewhat perplexing during the more climactic moments. Even when sirens are blaring, lights strobing and things are falling apart–moments when the game seems to be demanding you to run for the nearest exit–the design often mandates that you crawl from hiding spot to hiding spot, just as you did when there was only a hyper-alert alien stalking you.

This disregard for pacing hobbles any sense of narrative momentum. Alarms continuously warn you to escape, but the level requires you to expend 20 minutes in the process. Even Ripley’s escape at the end of Alien mercifully ends after 8 minutes, and that’s even with her backtracking. Interestingly, the studio mandated director’s cut of the film gives us an example of pacing injured by the insertion of extraneous material. In the new version, Ripley’s escape is delayed by her discovery of the alien nest, and the sordid fate of her crew. Scott once explained his reason for the deletion was that the scene hurt the pacing of the film: Ripley’s trying to escape and then the scene becomes needlessly complicated and extended. Even though in the intervening years Scott changed his mind and decided to reinsert the scene, astute viewers will notice slight differences between the original cut of the scene included on the original DVD and the new material added to the film. The newer cut runs significantly shorter, Ripley’s indecision at the end is replaced by quick determination. The new cut is a detour, but Scott keeps it mercifully short. Based on the substantial excess in story, Alien: Isolation seems to think more of everything is necessarily better. It seems eager to provide you as lengthy an experience it can provide, even if that means returning to old areas just for the sake of running through them again with flame effects added.

Here below there be spoilers to the ending of the game:
All of these design mechanics would not prove so problematic if the game kept the core of the story in stark focus throughout. Unfortunately, this game’s narrative is a mess of subplots and digressions that diminish rather than enhance the main goals of the game. At its core this game features one main character with one thematic goal: Amanda wants to discover the truth about her mother’s disappearance. Any player aware of Alien canon knows that this goal is doomed to end in tragedy for the hero, and the game satisfies this end as best as possible. The game also features a literal goal, one implicit to the very genre it belongs to: survival-horror. The weakest parts of the game for me occurred when the game abandoned the thematic goal in favour of the mere literal goal, while the game succeeded brilliantly when its thematic goal drove the narrative and survival served only as a game mechanic. Survival as a main goal is too broad to anchor any narrative exclusively. Yet this game tries, offering hour after hour, level after level, in which the only goal (other than to go from point a to point b, sometimes throwing a switch in-between) is to survive. After Amanda accomplishes her main goal, a quasi-reconciliation with her dear old mum that is bittersweet and altogether too brief, the writers should have given some serious consideration to ending the game shortly after, maybe with a quick denouement that has Amanda escaping to safety. Instead, the game continues for another several hours, tacking on more needless subplots until finally achieving this obvious resolution. The length is pointless because the main goal has been satisfied and the remaining goal is weak, it functions only to keep the game going. The length becomes boring because it no longer functions on narrative, but on plotted moments, as if forgetting it featured more than 20 hours of such things.

A further note on the reconciliation scene seems useful, for here again the game design betrays the potential for a truly cathartic pay-off. Rather than show us Amanda’s reaction to her mother’s farewell message, we instead maintain Amanda’s point of view listening to an audio recording of her mother. The entire scene is conducted exclusively through sound then. Some might consider this an interesting design mechanic, and I’m sure there’s an argument to be made for the style of this mechanic, but I for one wonder if the game makers didn’t trust themselves to adequately render the necessary emotional nuance on Amanda’s face. After all, the game provides cutscenes at the beginning and during the middle which show Amanda’s face, but this moment is left curiously inert. I can’t imagine how much more satisfying the scene would have been had the gamers been privy to the devastating range of emotions Amanda would have been put through listening to this message: excitement, grief, elation, and finally frustration for a hopeful reconciliation that can never be. I would’ve gladly traded 10 hours of gameplay for the makers to give us that single shot. For all the months they must have spent planning, programming and debugging those hours, they might have better spent their efforts on perfecting those two minutes of facial animation in the game. 

How then is this game supposed to be played? How is it intended to be enjoyed? Even played piecemeal, over several days, the game is still exhausting. The style robs the drama of its impact, the length does the same. The narrative is overstuffed with continuations, as if a child were rambling about a story and beginning each new idea with the coordinating phrase “and then…” And yet… Less is often more, especially when there’s nothing left to say.

Promotional Image for Alien: Isolation, showcasing all the facial nuance the player is never permitted to see in the game.

Recommended Reading: Quantum Dot LCD

A few weeks ago Digital Trends posted a useful, layman-friendly guide to the emerging technology of quantum dot technology and its impact on future TVs. Essentially the technology improves upon existing LCD screens by using semiconductive nanocrystals to produce faithful representations of colours (especially white). Though black levels still pale (pardon the pun) in comparison to OLED, quantum dots nonetheless improve the colour reproduction of those less costly LCD screens. Whatever the benefits or drawbacks, I find the technology behind the screens utterly fascinating.

Here’s the link for Digital Trends article:

http://www.digitaltrends.com/home-theater/how-quantum-dot-lcd-tvs-work/

Back in 2013, CNET offered its own jargon heavy guide to the same technology for those interested:

http://www.cnet.com/news/what-are-quantum-dots-and-how-could-they-help-your-next-tv/

About that Interview we’ll never see…

James Franco and Seth Rogen in the movie that was but never will be seen, The Interview

So let me get this straight: North Korea insists it had nothing to do with the cyber attacks against Sony, nor with subsequent threats against theatres daring to show The Interviewthat piece of purposefully political piffle–and then, in a bid to prove its innocence, demands to the US that it be involved in the investigation using the same threatening rhetoric as the hackers?

And let me try to further straighten this out: Sony, in an interview with CNN, claims that it did not kowtow to terrorism, did not censor the right of artists to free speech, did not submit to the fanatical and fantastical threats made on behalf of a theocratic dictatorship, by barring the release of a satirical movie indefinitely out of fear that its showing might incite further reprisals?

And one more knot to untie: Did theatre owners, unphased by actual instances of violence in the past (most troublingly after a crazed gunman attacked a movie theatre in Aurora during The Dark Knight Rises, allegedly inspired by the film which preceded it), deem that in this particular instance, with only the implied threat of violence, that the imagined safety of its patrons trumps their right to participate in the democratic free expression of ideas? Are we to believe this surrender is in no way motivated by the sophistication of the cyber attacks and the antiquated cyber security of the theatres to protect their own data? Has the pandering rhetoric of these theatres successfully convinced patrons that this self-interested submission was instead an altruistic gesture, even when North Korea was keen to assure people it had no interest in attacking theatre-going civilians? (Nevermind North Korea lacks the remotest capability of launching even a bottle rocket against the US.)

Paramount deserves some credit for fostering no illusions about the absurdity of its actions when it refused to allow Team America: World Police to be shown in place of The Interview, which would have been a fitting substitution since it too was entirely devoted to killing a North Korean supreme leader (Kim Jong-il in the former film, the departed dear leader of a people now ruled by his son, Kim Jong-un, the target in the latter film). At least now Paramount has provided a better understanding as to why it has yet to release Team America on blu-ray, despite announcing it back during the format wars in 2007. And at most we should be grateful that no corporation is trying to profit directly from terrorism. But given the particulars of these threats, targeted as they were against the swine of Western Capitalism (a detail which The Interview pokes fun at with its poster), I don’t think the herd would be opposed to buying a ticket to something right about now.

Though we’re not quite on that slippery slope towards the total destruction of Western culture, the development is troubling enough without needing to sound quite so hyperbolic. The whole situation is saved from absolute insanity by the fact that unlike another more famous instance of artistic censorship, nobody has yet been killed over this film.

Given the absurdity of the situation, and the heights to which it has been propelled in media, I’d say Franco and Rogen have the plot of their next comedy, but given the chance that it may offend someone, somewhere, somehow, I doubt we’ll ever hear it whispered.

Recommended reading: WIRED briefly explores the science behind Interstellar

The one and only stargate: The black hole at the centre of Nolan’s latest, Interstellar

If for no other reason than its fully working model of a black hole (that required 800 terabytes of data to capture), Nolan’s Interstellar will undoubtedly secure a vaunted space in the realm of science-fiction (or is it now more appropriate to label it as science-fact?):

http://www.wired.com/2014/10/astrophysics-interstellar-black-hole/

I am certainly looking forward to the scientific articles that Kip Thorne, the movie’s scientific consultant, is set to write after seeing the fruit of thirty years of work modeled before his keen and scrutinizing eyes. Whether I’ll understand any of it is a different subject to anticipate.

Darren Aronofsky Ought to Make an Oil Sands Documentary

Cenovus’ Christina Lake oil sands operation

Darren Aronofsky’s been making the rounds on the internet recently more for a piece of environmental writing published on The Daily Beast than for one of his films, so it seems to me the only logical next step would be to combine the two. Did anyone else notice that an incredible story readily discloses itself in Aronofsky’s diary? It reads almost like an environmentalist version of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, with environmental violations taking the place of slavery, the oil-profiteering Suncor dutifully filling in for the tyrannical slave-dealing Company, and things looking bleaker and grimmer for the human race as Aronofsky and his team travel upriver.

Not only does Aronofsky expose the root of the problem in Alberta clearly in his account, but he also demonstrates a need for heightened attention to the issue when he writes “It’s funny [that the situation in Alberta is so extreme] because as an American you somehow always think Canada is on the right side of the issues”. The vast majority of Canadians have willfully deluded themselves to this same conclusion. Even with the lengthening litany of environmental, legal and social abuses the Canadian government has left in its wake, many still refuse to acknowledge that there might be something amiss in Canada. They casually wave away the mounting odour of a jingoistic conservative minority that believes Canada’s resources to be the sole property of a select few. They see no problem with suborning a whole country to strip-mine its environment for a temporary gain which spares no thought for the future.

Other than the constant drone of journalists reporting back some new fresh hell about the oil sands, not much of a fuss has been made in the popular consciousness about the situation in Alberta. Sure, there’s one documentary on Youtube about it, but Youtube is hardly the source for authoritative information. There’s another documentary on Netflix featuring forty-five minutes of aerial flybys of the Alberta oil sands. But with no music, no facts, and no Al Gore (it is otherwise silent save for some abstract sounds) it’s rather useless as a documentary. Aronofsky and DiCaprio could give us that ole’ time religion, Sodom and Gomorrah apocalyptic agitprop cinema that seems sorely needed to wake up these dumb statues and breathing stones in society.

According to the National Post, DiCaprio is already at work on his own environmental documentary, but I see no harm in Aronofsky doing his own. Or why not a collaboration between the two? What better pair for this material could there be between Aronofsky, energized by his recent, eco-toned apocalyptic visions in Noah, and DiCaprio, longtime defender and proselytizer of environmentalism?

“Someone else says it doesn’t feel like Canada,” Aronofsky writes, “feels more like Russia”. The suggestion is not far removed from the reality since both countries are ruled by political thuggery and oligarchical monopoly (the Ford Dynasty in Toronto being the most recent, ruinous and failed example). Indeed, Russia’s claim for the Arctic follows roughly the same logic as the Harper government: if nobody else is going to use it for profit then we might as well. A similar argument can be traced back to the Dawes Act of 1887, enacted so that the US Congress could appropriate land from Native Americans, whom the Congress felt weren’t using the resource-rich land to its fullest potential. As a Canadian I’m not so much embarrassed by this current situation as I am enraged by it, and I’m quite happy to let Aronofsky and DiCaprio be the ones to radicalize me.

The Cancer of Canada: The Alberta oil sands. Notice the stark division between the “developed” area and the undeveloped side. I’ll leave you to determine what Suncorp and the Canadian government call each side.

The Calls are Coming from Inside the House: Adam Wingard’s “The Guest”

After establishing himself amongst horror lovers as a quirky, smart and genre-literate director with You’re Next, Adam Wingard resists the easy request to imitate himself and instead makes an action thriller that blasts open the horror film highlights of the 70s and 80s to extract a post-modern glimmer of what made those films so cool. Continue reading

Film Recommendation: The Umbrellas of Cherbourg

Catherine Deneuve at the train station, begging her lover to stay, promising she would wait for him, knowing it couldn’t possibly be true: Jacques Demy’s fantastically grand musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg broke my heart. An ambitious musical on a limited budget, Cherbourg covers a half-decade span of time in the lives of two young lovers separated by time. Entirely sung, with lyrics that range from the inessential to the unforgettable, Cherbourg is an intimately scaled epic.

Here’s an English version of the song, covered innumerable times by numerous artists, sung here by the gorgeous Connie Francis (Futurama fans might already be familiar with this song from a rather appropriate appropriation). But don’t forget it was Michel Legrand who created its original French incarnation, a devastating duet between a teary-eyed Deneuve and a stoic Nino Castelnuovo in Cherbourg‘s most emotionally climactic scene. Deneuve was never more lovely or more beautiful.

Rodgers and Hammerstein Collection on sale today only

Click the image to be taken to Amazon.ca

The Rodgers & Hammerstein Collection (Amazon Exclusive Box Set) (State Fair / Oklahoma! / The King and I / Carousel / South Pacific / The Sound of Music) [Blu-ray] (Bilingual)

If it’s your cup of fine Earl Grey, Rodgers and Hammerstein are on sale today only at Amazon.ca for the bargain rate price of $56 CAD. Even if you’re only interested in two of the included 6 films, at this cost its cheaper than buying them individually. And from what I’ve read and seen the transfers are terrific.