Always Sometimes Monsters

always-sometimes-monsters

A mumblecore road movie told with the open-ended mechanics of early computer RPGs like Wasteland, and the aesthetics of a 16-bit Final Fantasy, Always Sometimes Monsters casts a wide net thematically. Its title, explained by developers Vagabond Dog in a Nietzschean monologue, posits every action the player takes as being amoral, even cruel depending on the perspective. Right and wrong do not exist, only costs, benefits, and consequences. Portraying a customizable Writer–race, gender, even sexual orientation are decided–players are tasked with reaching an ex’s wedding within a month. Starting practically broke and on a tight schedule, how to progress from city to city (five in total, though the last two are limited to single buildings) is left up to individuals through a series of mini-games: do you knuckle down in the hope sweat and toil gets you enough money for the trip; or do you lie, cheat, and steal to get ahead? The latter certainly becomes enticing when a lack of cash forces you to sleep in alleyways and forage in dumpsters–as can happen in the game’s early portions. Three primary municipalities along the way–ghetto Dubstown, blue-collar Beaton, and dusty pit stop Salt City–show stark class divisions: political and economic elites keep the working poor in a stranglehold, holding all the jobs, the buildings, and the healthcare decisions (a doctor refusing treatment for a friend who OD’ed). All sides resort to extreme measures (striking workers with a unique form of vandalism; a company exec attempting to bribe the Writer for good press) to attain their goals. The Writer, and the player by extension, is given little choice but to operate in a morally, ethically bankrupt status quo, or else go hungry on the streets. While often disingenuous–Vagabond Dog seem to think smug posturing is a better political alternative to empathy and collective action–this college freshman, both-sides-are-bad political philosophy takes a backseat to the game’s primary function: tossing players into financial ruin, then tasking them with survival.

Still the King

godzilla-1954

The original Godzilla is as much an elegy to classical Japan as it is allegory for the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Fishing boats are going down in flames on the high seas and villages are trampled during storms. The source is revealed to be a fire-breathing dinosaur awoken by nuclear testing. Godzilla is worshiped by locals as some ancient spirit. He is angry, though, and the people of Japan are the ones he takes it out on.

Ishiro Honda frames scenes with the urgency of raw newsreel footage, fixated on actors shrieking and panicking rather than the theatrical projection expected of good acting–counter-intuitively, this makes the drama less histrionic. Recurring elements are borrowed from Akira Kurosawa’s film noir Stray Dog (which Honda worked on as second unit): one-off vignettes showcase life in post-war Japan, where commuters on a train grumble about needing to build fallout shelters, and politicians in the Diet building nearly riot over whether or not to release vital information to the public. Summer heat is also stressed, with sweaty men frequently shown cleaning themselves up. The docudrama style reenforces Japan’s devastation as one which isn’t remote, chilling spectacle, but an all-too-real horror.

Thundering on, the film shreds the exploitation movie standard to become something poetic. During the climactic destruction of Tokyo, scenes alternate between composer Akira Ifukube’s orchestral music, punctuated with drumbeats as relentless as Godzilla himself, and horrific ambiance. A mother cradles her children, whispering “We’ll be with your Daddy,” accompanied solely by the beast’s approaching footsteps. Such tiny reminders of World War II and ancient customs suggest Godzilla is Japanese imperialism, made flesh by Fatman and Little Boy, and a reminder of the suffering it wrought. A living ghost haunting the survivors and threatening the peace of future generations, a thematic strain picked up decades later in Shusuke Kaneko’s Godzilla, Mothra, and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack. Godzilla’s death–reluctantly brought on by scientist Dr. Serizawa’s super-weapon, the Oxygen Destroyer–is not treated as a triumphalist narrative, but funereal. Ships full of onlookers circle Tokyo Bay, Ifukube conducting the horns with long, mournful notes. Even in anger and fear, there’s no denial of the country’s heritage. Instead, the film buries tradition at sea, hoping for a future where the old ways can do no harm–if the bomb doesn’t get us all first.

What Social Life? – Movies 2014: October

  • Poseidon Rex (2013) – Dir. Mark L. Lester
  • Creature (2011) – Dir. Fred M. Andrews
  • Friday the 13th (1980) – Dir. Sean Cunningham
  • Phantoms (1998) – Dir. Joe Chappelle
  • The Believers (1987) – Dir. John Schlesinger
  • Oculus (2014) – Dir. Mike Flanagan
  • Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981) – Dir. Steve Miner
  • Sunshine Cleaning (2008) – Dir. Christine Jeffs
  • Filth (2013) – Dir. Jon S. Baird
  • Shivers (1975) – Dir. David Cronenberg
  • Byzantium (2013) – Dir. Neil Jordan
  • The Equalizer (2014) – Dir. Antoine Fuqua
  • Resolution (2012) – Dir. Justin Benson
  • House on Haunted Hill (1959) – Dir. William Castle
  • Q (1982) – Dir. Larry Cohen
  • Friday the 13th Part 3 (1982) – Dir. Steve Miner
  • Citizen X (1995) – Dir. Chris Gerolmo
  • Need for Speed (2014) – Dir. Scott Waugh
  • The Producers (1968) – Dir. Mel Brooks
  • V/H/S 2 (2013) – Dir. Simon Barrett, Jason Eisener, Adam Wingard, Gareth Evans, Timo Tjahanto, Eduardo Sanchez, & Gregg Hale
  • Rogue (2007) – Dir. Greg McLean
  • Godzilla 2000: Millennium (1999) – Dir. Takao Okawara
  • Sabotage (2014) – Dir. David Ayer
  • The Birds (1963) – Dir. Alfred Hitchcock
  • The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013) – Dir. Francis Lawrence
  • John Wick (2014) – Dir. Chad Stahelski
  • Way of the Dragon (1972) – Dir. Bruce Lee
  • The Sacrament (2013) – Dir. Ti West
  • Wolfen (1981) – Dir. Michael Wadleigh
  • Rigor Mortis (2013) – Dir. Juno Mak

Total: 30 (YTD: 178)

Surprisingly, I spent a lot of October playing catchup for 2014 releases, either that I missed or had just come out. Oculus and Need for Speed were both surprises, as was John Wick. A total riff on action movie highlights, Wick is a reminder American blockbusters have flatlined as vehicles for stuntwork and choreography. Rather than extensions of a film, these are treated as checklist items foisted onto a second unit. John Wick addresses this problem head on by having a stunt coordinator (Chad Stahelski) for a director; story beats are brisk, allowing room for lovingly-depicted fist-fights and gun battles. Keanu Reeves plays the titular ex-hitman as someone fundamentally broken in every way but his ability to kill people (his favorite move being a gunshot to the face); the death of his wife before the start of the movie leaves him aimless and distraught, a sole comfort being a puppy she bought him as a final gift. When a Russian mobster’s kid kills it and takes his car, Reeves switches to a steely focus–he fights with quick takedowns, every jab and elbow intended to maneuver his suppressed pistol towards another man’s skull–revenge becomes his means of coping with grief when robbed of any healthy alternatives. Wick slinks back into an underworld of neon-lit dance floors, darkly-comedic euphemisms (“I need a dinner reservation”), and a gold coin currency not unlike what one would expect from a videogame. Everyone around him wonders if he’s “working again.” Stahelski’s action-focus unveils a world so entrenched in violence as a cottage industry, it becomes unreal and captivating.

There’s a similar stylized aesthetic to Antoine Fuqua’s The Equalizer. Based on an 80s TV show, but structured like a modern superhero film, Equalizer is a lot more dour than John Wick, though no less ridiculous: euphemisms are out, while Denzel Washington indulges in Frank Miller vigilantism (bullying and berating crooks before straight up beating/murdering them), ready with contingency upon contingency like Batman at his most over-the-top. There’s a brush up against self-awareness and meta-commentary, here (a Home Depot climax is shot like a slasher movie, Denzel doing his best Michael Myers stare as he watches mobsters die from jury-rigged contraptions [i.e. a barbed wire noose]), but Fuqua and Washington are too enamored with their protagonist to pursue this angle.

They Will Destroy Her

alien-isolation

I’ve been hiding in a locker for ten minutes, leaning back with the left analog stick, begging under my breath for a gunmetal gray, nine-foot tall insect with a reptilian snarl to go away. It passes by my hiding hole two or three times. Sometimes it seems to leave, only to charge right back to my location. Finally, it leans up to the locker, and I’m prompted to press L2 to hold my breath. Red flashes at the corner of the screen. Lines appear to blur my vision. My fingers ache. The Alien snorts smoke into my face. Then, it rips open the door and murders me.

Creative Assembly have made moments like this the defining experience of Alien: Isolation. Slowly built and frustrating, with the slightest wrong move rewarded in death, each level does everything to make players feel helpless and unprepared. We’re dropped into the role of Amanda Ripley, daughter of franchise heroine Ellen. Jumping at a chance to find answers regarding her mother’s disappearance, she flies off to the space station Sevastopol, only to find carnage, decay, and an Alien prowling the halls and vents. Like with Metal Gear Solid, movement is forced by necessity into an agonizing crawl. Players begin to think less of reaching objectives, more of reaching the next hiding spot–and hoping no one finds them. Even the most incremental gains become regarded with suspicion and dread. IEDs and gadgets can be constructed to tip the scales, but the openings they provide are fleeting at best. A flamethrower proves to be only a Hail Mary, burning itself out rapidly if one isn’t careful with the fuel.

The developers, and publisher Sega, have touted the connection to Ridley Scott’s 1979 film, particularly the cobbled-together industrialism and a handful of similar plot beats. Silence is used as much as sound to denote mood. Structurally, however, the game more resembles Alien 3 by way of the System Shock games. The Alien in the original film was patient in the pursuit of its victims, sometimes waiting for them to come to it. Isolation‘s Alien is aggressive: it savages bystanders and sets off security protocols with its very presence, but fixates specifically on late arrival Amanda, pursuing her, seeking new conquest. A sexual predator as natural disaster.

The Alien also isn’t the sole threat: the bodies in its wake and the malfunctioning support systems aboard Sevastopol have caused the dwindling survivors to revert to tribalism. Found scavenging, looting, and killing–Ripley is seen as a potential thief, so they mainly try to kill her on sight. Android “Working Joes” constructed to be helpful, compliant workers grab for her throat as they utter bland pleasantries. Sevastopol itself is designed to impede evacuation, with crumbling hallways, doors locked by Colonial Marshals and an AI system which shuts down transit to key areas. Even allies regard Ripley as bait, a petite piece of meat to entice the Alien into a trap. Amongst these factions, women are few, seemingly going with their groups out of fear for their lives. Halfway through the game, players encounter a lone woman sitting on a waiting room sofa, staring out a window into space. Tired, she wishes to Ripley for this whole ordeal to be over. With the Alien prowling about the level, her end is almost foregone. For Ripley, she could be a portent. She’s alone, surrounded by forces which seek to dominate, exploit, or control her, and if they can’t, they will destroy her.

Need for Speed

need-for-speed

Dangling inside a souped-up Ford Shelby Mustang, hooked to a helicopter flying over a cliff, drag racer Tobey (Aaron Paul) keeps his passenger Julia (Imogen Poots) calm by asking her “What color are my eyes?” This results in the two amusedly arguing over whose are bluer, marking a development in their relationship (and later romance). It’s a moment which could have teetered Need for Speed into twee territory, if director Scott Waugh and screenwriters George and John Gatins hadn’t consistently built up these two–and the larger group they work in–as equals with genuine camaraderie. Operating first out of a struggling body shop, the crew are a bunch of blue-collar specialists who complement one another. They move as a unit, demonstrated early on in a rural street race: Tobey as the lead driver and figurehead, backed by an eye in the sky, a mechanic, a techie monitoring the race, and a second driver serving as both protege and ringer. Trust is implicit. When the upstart is killed by a sneering trust-fund dickhead, who pins the death on Tobey (resulting in a two-year stint), it takes hardly any effort to bring the band back together for a cross-country revenge trip doubling as attempt to enter a prestige drag race. Julia at first seems an interloper; a condition on which Tobey gets to use the Mustang he borrows from an impressed benefactor. Tobey is reluctant at first, but won over (curious, even) by her confidence, communicated in Paul’s infectious smile and David Carradine cool when conversing with her. While not attuned, initially, with the group’s jargon or the way they play loose with the laws of physics, Julia more than proves herself capable. She assists with a mobile refuel, makes keen observations about various players (challenging the masculinity of a Hummer-driving bounty hunter working for Tobey’s 1%-er rival, Poots delivers the phrase “inferiority complex” with a posh pinky wag serving as a double entendre), and readily takes the wheel when needed. Rather than undercutting, or even threatening, the others, she becomes a new, key component to the whole.

Here, Need for Speed comes dangerously close to James Cameron’s 80s oeuvre. The Terminator, Aliens, and The Abyss highlight inclusive collectives with natural gives-and-takes. If a member falters, the others pick up the slack. If the group’s existence is threatened, an individual sacrifices him/herself to keep the others moving. This trait runs throughout Need for Speed, but is notable in two scenes: first, a lengthy detour in Detroit from the cross-country plot, so the crew can rescue a crew member from a humdrum office job. Superfluous as the scene is–largely it becomes an excuse to show off Campus Martius and Woodward Avenue via car chase (with accurate State Trooper vehicles and uniforms, to boot)–it speaks to the unwillingness of Tobey’s crew to go on this personal crusade without one of their own. Later, when an attempted hit on Tobey leaves Julia injured, the group rallies to ensure her safety and recovery–importantly, she isn’t used as a prompt to reignite the revenge quest. All that matters is the group. This theme is so resonant, even when it ends on franchise-setup, Waugh’s film preserves its integrity.

The Apocalypse Only Inspires Ennui

the-rover

Guy Pearce on a kill quest to get back his car. A couple revelations of underlying motives aside, this is all there is to The Rover‘s plot. Abducting the younger brother (Robert Pattinson) of one of the thieves, Pearce plays Eric, a traumatized survivor of global economic collapse, with a single-mindedness communicated entirely in his middle-distance stare. Nothing wavers in The Rover. Director David Michôd holds the frame on every shot, whether Pearce is driving down a highway, asking about his prey’s whereabouts, or murdering the latest person in his way. Also telling how many of Eric’s conversations end up being two people talking past one another: in an opium den, he asks “Have you seen my car?”, to which a woman replies “What’s your name?”, eliciting only “Have you seen it?” Eric is also a quick trigger finger, blowing the brains out of a random soldier attempting to take away his only lead (amongst other murders). Dialogue and violence are both stunted exchanges between selfish people, encapsulating how broken this world is. People are introduced laying about their homes or what passes for businesses, waiting for something, anything to break the tedium–the apocalypse only inspires ennui. Nowhere is this more apparent than when Eric reveals the fate of his wife to another soldier, to the latter’s disinterest. The confession is erased moments later by a couple gunshots. Michôd toys with the idea Pattinson’s talkative, emotional (possibly slow) captive might be the only person left who can relate to Eric: he prompts conversations unrelated to the plot, sings, even uses pleasantries, the last vestiges of civilized behavior. Momentarily, Eric even shows flickers of humanity. That there are only flickers accentuates how doomed civilization is.

Friday the 13th Part 2

fridaythe13thpart2

John Carpenter’s Halloween became the structural basis of the slasher. Friday the 13th attempted to codify its subtext into a repressive morality tale. Part 2 goes even further, locking in character types and their fates. Mrs. Voorhees out of the picture, Jason gets his turn. He first removes the previous film’s final girl, Alice, in an eerie prologue sequence, then goes back to Crystal Lake and reenacts the previous film. Many characters and situations in the film double for those in part one: the archery fakeout is replaced with a flirty slingshot gag; the two-dudes-one-girl trio driving down the road in a pickup not only act like the similarly-introduced, Kevin Bacon-led kids, but physically resemble them; new final girl Ginny is in a relationship similar to the one Alice had previously with camp owner Steve (the slashers still hadn’t gotten about to making “virgin” a prerequisite, it seems). The impression given is Jason, hidden away in the wilderness, had been observing mommy dearest, and is simply imitating her actions–perhaps even trying to outdo her, spearing two horny counselors at once when it comes time to repeat the arrow kill. That Jason mimics his mother’s sexual dysfunction and seeks her approval, even building a shrine to her, suggests an Oedipal complex. Too bad for Ginny: she attempts to use her child psychology lessons, by play-acting as Mrs. Voorhees, to calm the psycho before her. It doesn’t go well.

Some Much Needed Personality

Stray Bullets: Killers #7
Art and Writing by David Lapham
Published by Image

stray-bullets-killers-7

A sunny day of baseball. A young couple–Eli and Virginia–watching a game and excitedly talking about the boy’s acceptance into art school. Later, they drive through Baltimore, stopping to visit the girl’s old friends at an electronics store. This leads to them witnessing violent crime firsthand, and begins to unravel a loving, if rocky, relationship. David Lapham’s patience and craft as a storyteller built to this moment. He’s spent six issues criss-crossing the lovers’ histories and their 1987 present, exposing neuroses and a raw, emotional need for someone to care for them, scars and all. Now established, Lapham shows what could make such potent love break. Virginia is sucked back into a criminal life she left behind out of sentimental obligation–her friends gunned down, she turns to an unstable mobster acquaintance–dragging Eli (begrudgingly) into that world. Shocked by the violence he’d only previously known from Virginia’s stories–after watching a pedestrian, unrelated to the crime, get shot and die in the process–Eli cracks. He even unleashes insults at Virginia he otherwise wouldn’t have uttered. Violence and bad pasts intrude via happenstance, tainting what seemed a pleasant present. Lapham hammers this point in his closing page: with the same page-wide, three-panel layout as his opening. Where Virginia and Eli were shown close together and talking, the last page has them in a car, silent, a bullet hole in the windshield dividing them. Innocence and guilt are fluid, nebulous concepts in Stray Bullets: Lapham cares more about the human cost of crime.

Batgirl #35
Art by Babs Tarr and Maris Wicks
Writing by Cameron Stewart and Brendan Fletcher
Published by DC

batgirl-35

With a color palette of reds and oranges, aspect-to-aspect panel transitions, and emphasis on hip, humorous dialogue, Batgirl has become a testing grounds of sorts for DC. An attempt at capturing the lighter inflections of Marvel’s mild quirk comics–Hawkeye primarily, but see also recent volumes of Young Avengers, Daredevil, and Ms. Marvel–to break up the dreary monotony of the New 52 lineup. No sign of the baroque, 90s-Image grotesques to be found here, let alone the tough guy posturing meant to evoke Batman from the Nolan films or the Arkham video games (minus the individual variations of those productions). In fairness, this in itself is only a small step further from Gail Simone’s tenure as series writer: the New 52 “voice”, as it were, was kept at arm’s length in favor of traditional tights ‘n fights storytelling. Brendan Fletcher and Cameron Stewart’s script doesn’t deviate: there’s a slightly different status quo introduced (Barbara Gordon/Batgirl moved in with new roommates, in Gotham City’s more “cool” neighborhood), a threat is introduced (topical issues of identity theft and hacking are referenced), which Batgirl gets to dispatch with her skillset.

Babs Tarr gets to flex the most muscle: page compositions depicting smartphone-era sensory overload are paired with the rubber-face rom-com antics of an Archie comic: the second and third pages have Barbara, hungover from an atypical night of partying, stumbling out of bed at the behest of a friend’s text (represented as a variant of the word balloon), before an embarrassing encounter with a guy she made out with the night before–complete with exaggerated grimace and tiny lines to indicate surprise. Like the Mild Quirks, the new Batgirl uses modern parlance and self-awareness to hang on older, more instructive models of superhero comics. This shows off moral/ethical considerations without judgmental tisk-tisking. It also allows wiggle room for DC to get some much needed personality back into circulation.

The Passive-Aggressive Method to Swallowing Your Soul

oculus

Oculus’ opening minutes are a vanilla ghost movie, with forlorn expressions and ominous lingering shots of the film’s centerpiece prop, a mirror housing a demonic presence. Creep scares where objects in reflections are different than reality. Entirely expected. Then, Karen Gillan hijacks the mirror and sets up a Do It Yourself science experiment to prove supernatural influence before destroying it, and the film veers wildly into Christopher Nolan territory. Space and time intertwine in disorienting ways, Gillan and her puppy-eyed, confused brother (Brenton Thwaites) find themselves not only facing off against an unseen tormentor, but reliving childhood trauma, where the mirror exerted malevolent influence over their parents–a series of events which culminated in the father killing the mother, and Thwaites’ younger self being institutionalized for killing the father in self-defense. The two timelines collide, adult Gillan or Thwaites wandering into a room to find their child selves (or vice versa), making them feel small. Gillan’s methodical safeguards and Thwaites’ learned, rational explanations for the paranormal become quaint attempts to control forces which defy reason and will not be contained, simply because their power lies within the deepest recesses of the subconscious.

Writer/director Mike Flanagan depicts the entity as a needler. It mutters insults to the mother in the father’s voice (“What did you say?”, she asks, to which he responds, “Nothing”); later, it accentuates and distorts a c-section scar she self-consciously notes when looking at her reflection. The mirror sows doubt amongst the siblings by offering alternative explanations for its actions, such as when cameras used to document its activities instead show them moving objects themselves previously seen shifting of their own volition. Outside observers become unable to see the truth the siblings know, because the entity (like any abuser) hides the bruises and has an excuse handy to deflect blame. Appearances kept, it continues to harass and bully until, unable to take anymore, the abused (tragically) attempt to strike back. This lurking horror revels in causing pain and misery without every physically acting against anyone. It knows full well society can, and will, find a way to blame the victims.