Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Broken Flowers

I don't bust out the 1 star rating on Netflix very often, but Broken Flowers has received that honor. You'd think a movie with an 86% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes would guarantee at least some level of enjoyment. Nope. The critics seem to love it, but if you look around at forums or user ratings you'll see I'm not alone in my disappointment.

It doesn't take much for me to enjoy a movie. I have to be entertained or walk away thinking. Either is acceptable, both are great. Broken Flowers managed to come up with neither. For a movie billed as a comedy it was decidedly not funny. No laughter, no smile, no dry statement aloud of "That's funny," not even a pleasant retrospective afterwards of some ridiculous moment.

Okay, so it's not humor I'm going to get out of this… maybe there are interesting characters? Nope. I'm cool with many forms of Bill Murray (everything from Ghostbusters to Lost in Translation to Life Aquatic), but his character in Broken Flowers has crossed the line from being understated to stating nothing. The women of the film provide the only personality, but they are constrained to short vignettes. So really you're stranded with no emotional anchor for the entire film.

How about plot? Certainly this slow, unfunny movie with bland characters must tell an interesting tale? Not the case. The setup is forced and the plot goes nowhere. No really, nowhere - the ending was extremely unsatisfying. You know, the sort where the credits start scrolling and you say aloud "Really? That's it?" You can squint and say that the movie made a statement about a man going on a journey to find out he wanted something he didn't know he wanted. But really at that point you're just trying to find a way to justify the wasted hour and a half of your life.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

28 Weeks Later

I quite enjoyed 28 Days Later. It's a zombie movie that's not a zombie movie. In this world it's not about the dead rising, it' s about a virus that turns people into rage-filled assailants. This curates a different theme from the normal shambling hordes (even compared to those movies that do have fast zombies). The story is unveiled in an interesting way too, with the events of the movie happening well after the initial outbreak. You usually don't expect mystery from a zombie flick, but 28 Days Later delivers. Thoroughly enjoyed it, and highly recommend it to anyone with the stomach for the thrills and gore.

So I decided to check out its sequel: 28 Weeks Later. And I'm decided more conflicted about this one. With one hand it makes bold statements and presents interesting scenarios, while with the other hand it frustrates me to no end with people making stupid decisions.

This movie takes place after the Infected have died of starvation and Great Britain is being reclaimed. The United States military is securing an area of London, incinerating any possible remnants of the virus, and slowly reintroducing the citizens that had escaped the outbreak. It's an interesting setting with lots of possibilities. Well, as far as moviemaking goes there's only one possibility (another outbreak), but you know what I mean.

I don't take any offense to the core events that unfold after this, but the details of how they came to pass drive me nuts. I don't like movies where the world is saved by the actions of one child's, nor do I like movies where one child's actions damn the entire world (although the latter is far more likely). There are too many key moments in 28 Weeks Later where everything goes to crap because of something stupid. There's no guard looking over the potentially infected mother; the civilians are frantically relocated to an unsecure location; nobody tells the kids nor their eventual caretakers that they might be different. These events unfold for stupid reasons, when perfectly good reasons could have been given with just a few more minutes of footage. There are guards posted over the mother, but they get distracted or just plain overtaken; There's a proper heavily-drilled procedure for locking down the civilians but something else goes wrong and the protection is compromised. Blah, blah, blah - it's not hard to switch the blame here from stupid people to something more reasonable. Yes, I realize that there are people out there making dumb decision that just might destroy us all, but I don't think that makes a good movie. That just gets you cursing that the screen, rolling your eyes, and saying "well I wouldn't have done that."

Despite these faults, the movie does manage to make some bold statements. It's not easy to get a viewer to sympathize with the military opening up on innocents, but in this movie you totally do. There's a theme throughout the movie of various people making sacrifices for the greater good. The ballsy thing about the movie is that these actions cause the end of all civilization as we know it. In other words, compassion and heroism not only leads to failure, but repercussions on an epic scale. It is by no means your standard zombie movie message, and it'll keep your brain churning well after the movie is over.

I'm finding that the movies in this genre I like best are the ones with smart people making smart decisions in a difficult situation. That doesn't guarantee success for them. That's a good message: the right choices don't always lead to success. Saying that dumb choices lead to failure is a worthless message. I liked the original Dawn of the Dead because it was a story about people trying to carve out a life for themselves in a horrible situation. You watched what they did and though "hmmm, that's an interesting idea - I wonder how it'll work out." You cared for the characters because on some level you could relate to them.

Now I'm not saying that 28 Weeks Later is a bad movie. It's not. It's has an interested setting and premise, it's well executed, and it'll keep you thinking afterwards. But there were some serious lapses in storytelling that almost ruined the experience for me. Almost. I would still take another ride through this world again 28 Months Later or whatever, but this time no freaking kids, okay?

Assassin's Creed (Xbox 360)

There was a fair share of controversy around Assassin's Creed when it was released last Fall. There seemed to be a split between people who thought it was flawless and others who got caught up on something and ended up bashing it. And now that I've played the game I totally understand why it played out that way. Assassin's Creed is a game that is so close to greatness that it's few flaws stick out in sharp contrast. Whether you love it or are disappointed by it depends on whether those flaws are enough to pull you out of the experience. I personally was able to largely ignore the blemishes and really enjoy myself, but I was left with a feeling that this game could have been so much more.

Let's get one thing out of the way first - Assassin's Creed looks great. The presentation of games these days is often judged on sheer graphic photorealism. And Creed has that, but what it really excels at is motion. Altair runs, stalks, climbs, and fights in a completely fluid manner. You leap across rooftops, drop down into the streets, and disappear amongst the bustling merchants… and it all looks totally natural and effortless. The way that Altair climbs walls, shuffling around and reaching for handholds, is truly impressive.

The cities in the game are amazingly lifelike. There's detail everywhere, and when you climb up to a vantage point to get a full panorama it all looks extraordinary. At the street level there are people everywhere going through their daily tasks, looking quite natural. But it's here that the fa├žade first started to crack for me. I hadn't even finished my first assassination before I'd heard many of the voice clips repeat two or three times. It's hard to feel that it's a living city with realistically behaving citizens when they all say the exact same thing. This is standard fare in video games, of course. But Assassin's Creed hides its videogame-ness so well in so many other places that little things like this stand out.

For a game about assassination it's really critical for the world to behave believably. The game really succeeds when you're stalking your target waiting for the right moment, or frantically trying to elude the guards after you've raised the alarm. But it falls apart when you realize that the guards chase just as doggedly when you accidentally bump into one of them as after you've murdered their king. Or when you sometimes can take down a guard in plain sight and no one seems to care. Or when you decimate an entire section of guards because they always let you fight them one at a time. All of these things work to change the atmosphere from being a sandbox game to becoming an arcade game.

You follow an interesting structure leading up to each assassination. You scout out the area from the rooftops, perform some investigations so you know when to strike, and then you get approval from the local assassin's bureau to go after your mark. The problem is that there doesn't seem to be much point to carefully planning out your attack. The investigations you do simply unlock the final assassination - they don't actually have any specific bearing on how it carries out. It would be great if additional planning gave you the locations of the guards, or arranged a distraction that provided a better opening. But instead you simple waltz up to the target, see a cut scene, and do the deed. There are some satisfying assassinations, but in general there's a ton of untapped potential here.

One of the things that really bothered me was the inconsistency in Altair's moral code. He's supposed to be an honorable assassin, who claims poison is a cowards tool and refuses to slay the innocent. But somehow the town guards are not considered amongst the innocent. Never mind that these guards are just working people with families at home. Altair always sides with the accused in disputes with the guards, assuming them all to be corrupt. I know it's a lot to ask from a video game, but I feel that the game's story and characters would hold more weight if you actually had to do out your job in the least disruptive way. When I first played the game I naturally tried to bypass guards and perform the sneakiest assassinations possible (this coming from a guy who hates stealth games). But over time I realized it was far easier to just murder every single guard who got in my way. Subltety be damned.

All of these things I complain about are what prevents Assassin's Creed from being a true masterpiece. But I wouldn't even be talking about them if it weren't so close. When it works, it works really well. The premise behind the entire story is really clever. It provides an excellent framework and leads really well to more games in the same franchise. Which I hope to see. The developer has really taken some of the ideas from their work on Prince of Persia to the next level, and with some focus they could have something truly amazing on their hands. As is Assassin's Creed is still a must play, just forgive me for wanting it to be more than it is.