Sunday, August 24, 2014

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (4/5)

At this point everyone hates Frank Miller.  You hate Frank Miller.  I hate Frank Miller.  All your friends hate Frank Miller.  Your grandmother, if she knows who he is, probably hates Frank Miller too.  After many years of contributing to the development of American comic books, Miller’s talent and credibility hit a serious wall sometime in the 21st century.  His output has been so bad that people have started to wonder whether or not he was ever talented.  To top it all off, in addition to putting out lazily written drivel, he also released a bizarre anti-Occupy Wall Street rant that fully revealed his inner neocon.  Miller’s politics were never exactly subtle—in fact, if one of his characters came upon nuance, he would have likely socked it in the jaw—but there was a certain complexity to his political positions, which often camped out somewhere in the borderlands where liberals and libertarians have achieved an uneasy truce.  So judging merely by Miller’s involvement, there was little reason to be optimistic about a long delayed sequel to the original Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller collaboration, Sin City.

But, surprisingly, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For has turned out to be a worthy sequel to the stylish and brutal original.  Despite the diminishing quality of both Miller and Rodriguez’s work in recent years, there must be something about working together that brings out the best in both artists.  Like the first movie, A Dame to Kill For is split into several distinct but vaguely interrelated tales.  Two of the film’s stories, the eponymous “A Dame to Kill For” and “Just Another Saturday Night,” are taken straight from Miller’s funny books where the other two, “The Long Bad Night” and “Nancy’s Last Dance,” were written by Miller exclusively for the film. The events of Dame occur before and after the events of the first film, making it a sort of pre-sequel and allowing Miller and Rodriguez to resurrect fan favorite characters like Marv.

“Just Another Saturday Night” is little more than a cynical smirk of a story that serves to set the stage for the rest.  The film’s meatiest tale is the titular “Dame to Kill For.”  Taking over for Clive Owen, Josh Brolin plays Dwight who gets pulled back into a world of seduction and double crosses by his old flame, Ava.  Played by Eva Green in various stages of undress (she’s French), Ava is the femme fatale turned up to eleven.  Able to transform herself into varying female archetypes so she fits the desires of any single man, Ava is a consummate manipulator. 
The femme fatale standard is highly problematic, but in certain films she has been made to symbolize female agency within a patriarchal world.  It would be difficult to redeem Ava, and there’s no confusing the writing of Frank Miller for a feminist treatise, but I’m not quite willing to call Miller an outright misogynist.  (Perhaps Ava’s ability to transform herself is a critique of the kinds of boxes men wish to box women into?)  And to complicate matters somewhat, A Dame to Kill For brings back the women of Old Town, an area of Sin City controlled and policed by its resident prostitutes.  If anything, A Dame to Kill For arguably tests the limits of third-wave feminism.

The two stories written specifically for Dame feel a little trim compared to those first written for the page.  In the first Sin City, there was a sense that each individual yarn could have been expanded into its own film, which is not the case in the sequel.  “The Long Bad Night” follows the preternaturally lucky Johnny (Joseph Gordon Levitt) as he weasels his way into a high stakes card game and makes enemies of the unrelenting big bad, Senator Roarke (played with gusto once again by Powers Boothe).  I naturally love the noir inspired irony that for someone with unerring luck, Johnny still has a horrendous time in Sin City.  (I also thoroughly enjoyed the scene stealing cameo from Christopher Lloyd.)  By contrast, “Nancy’s Last Dance,” a more direct sequel to the first film, suffers somewhat.  The story of Nancy Callahan (Jessica Alba) and her attempt to avenge the death of police officer and her savior, John Hartigan, played once again by Bruce Willis, only this time, well, dead, seems too undercooked to have much of an impact. 

If A Dame to Kill For lacks some of the more memorable elements of the original—a dead Benecio Del Toro speaking from the grave while part of a gun sticks out from his head or Elijah Wood’s trophy room—each story seems to slide into the next more easily for a more cohesive whole.  Plenty of critics have claimed the film has come too late and audiences are used to its box of tricks by now.  I impolitely disagree.  Dame may not be as good as the first film, but I think it injects something much needed into today’s genre of comic book movies: a sense of visual experimentation. 

Here Rodriguez expands on what he accomplished in the original film, mixing in metaphorical images of a tiny Johnny sliced apart by Rourke or staging a car chase around Marv’s head as he remembers what happened earlier in the night.  If anything, today’s comic book films are far more conservative visually then they were a decade ago or more ago.  Marvel, the most financially successful maker of comic book films, appears to be uninterested in fusing the distinct visuals of film and comic books lest it muss up their plans for franchise domination.  (I wouldn’t be surprised if this was part of the reason for the departure of Edgar Wright, a unique visual stylist, from Ant Man).  Compare the relatively safe imagery of the Marvel films to the hyperkinetic camera movement of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movies, or the disorienting use or split screen in Ang Lee’s Hulk, or, to stretch back farther, the infusion of German Expressionism into Tim Burton’s Batman films.  Hell, even the now forgotten 90s superhero film The Shadow has some wonderfully bizarre imagery that would be deemed too out there in 2014.  I’m a fan of Marvel’s movies, but I’m also somewhat nostalgic for that period of time in the aughts when comic books were providing a new template for what was possible in Hollywood films.  In 2005, the original Sin City seemed like the culmination of a series of experiments, but in 2014, A Dame to Kill For seems wholly singular.  

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (4.5/5)

In the summer of 2003, Star Wars fans were attempting to recover from the one, two groin kicks that were Episode 1 (1999) and Episode II (2003).  While I’m sometimes inclined to defend segments from those movies, I also remember being exhausted by the cycle of anticipation and disappointment that accompanied the first two prequel films.  The Star Wars galaxy was starting to feel stale at that point, and after two disappointing films many fans of George Lucas’s adventures far, far away were becoming a little despondent.  It’s around this time that Knights of the Old Republic, the first Star Wars role playing game, came out and reminded a generation of players why they fell in love with Star Wars to begin with.

Unlike most Star Wars games, which often take place concurrent with the most recent film, Knights of the Old Republic (KotOR) escapes the tricky issue of continuity by taking place 4,000 years prior to the events of the original trilogy.  Originally, the game was supposed to tie into the world of the second trilogy, specifically Episode II which was in production at the same time.  However, Lucasarts gave the developers, Bioware, the option to set their game in the distant past, which they smartly chose to do.  This shift in time allows the creators of KothOR to craft a Star Wars game without worrying about questions of continuity or relevance to George Lucas’s more recent cinematic creations.  In other words, KotOR rebuffed corporate synergy in order to achieve a sense of artistic integrity.  But despite the drastic temporal shift, KotOR wound up capturing the essence of Star Wars better than the prequels, much less most Star Wars videogames. 

The freedom inherent in setting KotOR thousands of years prior to the original trilogy allowed Bioware to superimpose the motifs and archetypes of Star Wars onto a new and exciting world.  Like most RPGs, in KotOR you are able to pick and choose elements of your main character, including gender and general appearance.  The class system also generally conforms to the archetypes used by Lucas in the Star Wars films, an element of the game that extends to the varying characters that join your party throughout the game.  In addition to your self-made main character, you also get to control a soldier (Carth), a Wookie (Zaalbar), a resourceful street urchin (Mission), a Mandalorian warrior (Canderous), a handful of Jedis (Bastila, Juhani, Jolee), and a couple of droids (T3-M4 and HK-47). 

Not every character is great (Carth can be awfully whiny for a soldier), but every player will have his or her favorites (I was always partial to the cantankerous Canderous and the gruff Jedi loner, Jolee).  But more importantly, these characters fit nicely within the world of Star Wars, judging by much of the extended universe, a more difficult task than you might imagine.  You could easily split the characters into those who serve to maintain order in the galaxy and those who live in the shadows of the two warring factions of the Republic and the Sith.  In other words, they’re either rogues or acolytes, the same tension that exists between Luke Skywalker and Han Solo in the Episode IV. 
KotOR also captures the visual essence of Star Wars.  In particular, they replicate the scope and sense of the infinite in the world of Star Wars.  While you can only explore a relatively small fenced in portion of each planet, the use of a horizon, whether it’s the dunes of Tatooine or the unending plains of Dantooine, gives you a sense of the infinite.  This extreme scope has always been an integral aspect of Star Wars, from the initial invocation of a galaxy “far, far away” to the seemingly unending pit Palpating is drop into at the end of Return of the Jedi.  And yet, so few video games have managed to really capture this visual and thematic element of the Star Wars films.

But BioWare wasn’t just content with capturing the essence of Star Wars; they also wanted to revamp the role playing genre.  For many years RPGs had been associated with turn based fighting and somewhat tedious class, weapons and magic management.  And while KotOR has maintained those core elements, they have also made the genre far more cinematic.  KotOR was released shortly before World of Warcraft, and like those similarly detailed MMORPGs it helped usher in the immersive qualities to the genre.  There’s no switching perspective as you move from the world map to the dungeons to the battles.  Instead, everything maintains a fluid third person view.  And unlike the MMORPGs and RPGs of the same era, there’s less emphasis on tedious fights and minigames.  There’s a limit to how far your characters can level up, and you can only get into so many battles on each planet.  In other words, you won’t find yourself wandering around for hours on end trying to find more random monsters to fight.  In order to emphasize story, the game makes it easier to level up by completing tasks for non playable characters rather than randomized battles. Many of the side quests are related to characters in your party, making them more central to narrative elements like plot and characterization.  All of these aspects help reinforce the game’s cinematic qualities, which seems especially fitting for a Star Wars game.

There are numerous aspects of the game that add to its replayability (that is, if you have the patients to replay a game that can take upwards of fifty hours to complete).  In order to mirror the choices made by Anakin and Luke Skywaler, the main character must choose to serve either the dark or light side of the force, a decision made through a number of choices throughout the game.  BioWare made the dark side of the force suitably enticing, since it often leads to more fights and easier solutions.  There’s a really fun assassination subplot that you must take on a few dark side points if you want to complete it.  You’re also given some freedom as to which planets you want to visit in what order, but of course there’s still a correct way of completing the game if you want to gather every character and finish as many side quests as possible (Tatooine, Kashyyyk, Manaan, and Korriban). 

The enticing possibility that you could play as a hero in the Star Wars universe has lead plenty of fans to buy subpar Star Wars games, so there’s something especially powerful when a Star Wars video game chooses not only to capture the sense of fun and adventure of the best films but also in general expands on what the medium can accomplish.  In some ways, KotOR reinforces the power of myth and archetype inherent in Lucas’s Star Wars by transporting the actions to a different time while maintaining the core aspects of that galaxy far, far away. 


Quick spoiler warning: From here on out, I’m going to discuss a major plot twist in the game and its general importance to the genre and the themes of Star Wars.

As I mentioned earlier, at the start of the game you go through the process of creating your main character, choosing the gender, class and abilities of your blank slate.  Well, the main character has more of a history than you might imagine.  As the story goes in KotOR, the Republic is in a life or death struggle against the forces of the Sith, currently lead by a former Jedi Darth Malak.  Malak’s mentor used to be Darth Revan, also a fallen Jedi.  But Revan was defeated prior to the game by the Jedi Bastila.  We’re lead to believe that Bastila has killed Revan, but in a twist reminiscent of the “I am your father” scene from The Empire Strikes Back, it turns out that Revan wasn’t killed; rather, he was captured by Bastila and turned over to the Jedi council who decided to wipe his memory in order to bring him back to the light side.  In fact, the character you created at the beginning of the game is Revan, so you have been playing as the dark lord this entire time without realizing it.

There are a few implications to this reveal.  The tabula rasa origins of your character has long been a staple of the RPG genre.  But the Revan twist adds a meta aspect to the creation of the main character.  Just as you have conjured the elements of the main character out of thin air, so too has the Jedi council.  In other words, at the beginning, rather than just going through the normal motions of character creation, you are, unwittingly, in the role of the Jedi council remaking Revan from the ground up. 

The Revan reveal also adds a layer of truth to your dialogue choices.  While playing your character it is possible to veer from being kind hearted to callous in the blink of an eye.  Character inconsistency was always nagged me in games where you are given branching dialogue options.  Where most critics focus on ways in which dialogue options do or do not appropriately transform a game’s narrative, few focus on how these dialogue options allow you to craft your own unique character.  Of course, this makes little sense if you can be altruistic one minute and vicious the next.  But knowledge that you used to be Darth Revan actually explains your character’s extreme bi-polar disorder: any acts of evil can be chalked up to your history as Revan bubbling to the surface, even if you are trying to follow the light side.

Finally, the story of Revan and Malak ties nicely into one of the stronger aspects of the prequel trilogy.  Prior to the battle between the Republic and the Sith, the Jedi were involved in a war against the Mandalorians.  As Jedis, Revan and Malak managed to defeat the Mandalorians, but in doing so they adopted a tough uncaring attitude towards casualties.  It is suggested, then, that the necessity of victory may have forced Revan and Malak to turn towards the dark side.  Although KotOR was released prior to the completion of the prequel trilogy, Malak and Revan’s turn to the dark side seems to echo some of the themes from Episodes II and III.  Throughout the prequels, it is suggested that the Jedi have lost their way, in part because they have abandoned their role as peacekeepers in favor of becoming warriors, a choice that makes sense in their given situation, but is ultimately their downfall.  And, of course, the real threat behind the Clone Wars, Palpatine, has engineered it so that no matter which side becomes the victor, he will be the ultimate winner.  Both the prequel trilogy and KotOR illustrate the corrupting nature of warfare.