Archive for March, 2020

Defective Detective

Posted in FILM, Interactive, MUSIC with tags , , on March 28, 2020 by dcairns

On the advice of a friend I bought my first video game in maybe ten years, Disco Elysium.

Highly recommended, especially if you’re thinking of self-isolating. This will comfortably fill a week of your time (with breaks for eating and strolling from room to room).

It’s an RPG that’s also cinematic and literary. It’s the reverse of a shoot-em-up and if you’ve never, ever enjoyed a video game, this one would still be worth trying.

It’s a noir detective story where your cop is a drug-addled alcoholic who wakes up with total amnesia and has to discover who he is, how the world he’s in (an insanely detailed fictional planet) functions, and what the case he’s on is all about, before hopefully solving it. As with the likes of Chinatown, the case escalates as it complicates, until the whole of society, seemingly, is implicated.

It’s very intriguing, beautiful, and frequently hilarious. Some of this is because of the character’s extremely dysfunctional personality: you get to select from multiple-choice dialogue options as you interrogate suspects, and some of them are truly insane, and will lead your character into peculiar situations.

But what was truly remarkable to me was how emotional it was. For instance, one scene involves notifying a woman that her husband is dead. You have to select from available options, which you end up with depending on what kind of a personality you’ve chosen to build (for instance, have you gone on the wagon? or are you high?) and on chance. With delicate music by British Sea Power providing a melancholy bed for the action, I found myself desperately hoping I could pull this off and not traumatise the poor non-player character more than necessary.

And there are transcendental scenes too. Little miracles.

I’d be really interested if some movie lovers out there who haven’t gotten into games in a big way were to try this one out and report back. You can easily get a week of entertainment out of a single playing, and it rewards multiple plays, too: you can choose variants on the character with different levels of empathy, emotion and strength, and these skills will unlock different clues and discoveries in the story. As you play, your character can not only acquire skills and tools (a shopping bag for collecting empties is very handy — collecting the deposit is one of the main ways of earning cash), he develops a political view, which can range from communism, through social democracy, to fascism, or, like me, you can be a muddled combination of the first two (there wasn’t an easy socialist option). And all of this affects your outcome.

Supporting cast: this is usually the weak spot in games for me, and some of the voice acting is sub-movie standard, but you have a partner, Kim, and the guy doing him — dry, sardonic, French — is terrific. No matter how you play the game, so far as I can see (but I haven’t tried fascism and don’t think I CAN), the combo of wild, drunken amnesiac and calm, eyebrow-raised partner is highly cinematic.

On the other hand, while the first-person-shooter type game has a built-in cinematic aspect (and we’ve seen mainly lame attempts by movies to imitate it), Disco Elysium is presented as a high-angle shot which observes the characters from a distance. You can pull in or out a bit to get more of a panorama but you can’t create a closeup of a radically different angle, and sometimes relevant action or scenery is reported from offscreen — enlisting your visual imagination in an unusual way. Any desire for an “impactful” presentation is frustrated — it’s kind of like going to the flat, distant observation of a standard 1931 Warners movie after a lifetime of 3D Marvel costumed punch-ups, the airiness and distance forces a different kind of engagement. It’s effective, though, and might even be borrowed by some smart filmmaker as an unusual one-off approach to the right story.

This all comes about because the creators, an Estonian art collective led by novelist Robert Kurvitz, have really huge ambitions — the game is intended to challenge your thinking and change your manner of existing and interacting with the world.

You can buy it online from the link above and own it instantly.

The Lights are Going Out

Posted in FILM, Television with tags , , , , , on March 27, 2020 by dcairns

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Dominik Graf is this really interesting director of, largely, German crime shows. He and his favourite writers have really advanced the form. But his feature films tend not to do well.

My theory about why is that Graf is too in love with the fashionable tools of the moment — his TV shows all date fast, due to the visual tricks deployed, though this dating doesn’t really hurt them as entertainment. His up-to-the-minute stylistic flourishes, which show up in the colour correction, the fonts, the transitions, seem to militate against whatever “cinematic” means. I liked his 2014 BELOVED SISTERS but the pastel lettering splattered all over it was an abomination, and it was hard to understand how such an intelligent and nifty filmmaker could commit such an abomination.

So naturally he loves drones and they’re all over his latest TV work, Die Lüge, die wir Zukunft nennen, an episode of Polizeiruf 110. Hey, I love drones too, but something tells me the gratuitous use of them is going to age fast, and they’re CERTAINLY gratuitous here. Though one is grateful for spacious photography at this historical moment, even if it is of Munich.

Plot: a unit of cops is ordered to run surveillance on a company suspected of insider trading. The cops realize that the information they’re getting allows them a chance to get in on the action, and they start insider trading too. Then Internal Affairs start investigating the investigators and the team breaks up in acrimony, leading to OTT mayhem. It’s all delivered at the rattling pace Graf has increasingly perpetrated, barreling through confusion into sheer hysteria. Very satisfying and at times horrifying to watch.

There’s one masterstroke that owes nothing to fashion. A character is dying. There’s a lot going on: they ask him whether he wants to be buried or cremated and, delirious, he says “Surprise me.”

Graf cuts rapidly between every major room we’ve seen him in in the show, but they’re now empty. And the lights blink out, and the omnipresent computer screens go blank.

Poetry.

Beautiful, bleak.

The screenplay is by Günter Schütter.

Thanks to Hannu Nuotio.

Nixon on Ice

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , on March 26, 2020 by dcairns

SLEEPER came up in conversation the other day. You might want to consider getting frozen until this is all over (Covid-19/Trump/the Marvel universe).

The specific bit referred to is the reference to Nixon. Woody Allen has been revived from cryogenics in the year 2173, two hundred years after being put on ice. The people who have defrosted him try to bring him up to speed on historical developments.

A bit of TV news footage is screened for him: Dick Nixon addresses the nation. “Some of us have a theory that he might once have been a president of the United States, but that he did something horrendous so that all records, everything was wiped out about him. There is nothing in the history books, there are no pictures on stamps, no money…”

“Yes,” says Woody, “He actually was president of the United States, but I know that whenever he used to leave the White House the secret service used to count the silverware.”

What’s impressive here is that the movie opened in December 1973 and was presumably shot months earlier, and Nixon didn’t resign until August ’74. So that we could say that among his other accomplishments, WA doesn’t get enough credit for being a prophet.

(Please don’t let’s make this a referendum on his guilt or innocence vis-a-vis sex crimes. You’re allowed your opinion and I’m hanging on to my lack of one.)

I wonder how Trump will fare. Nixon, of course, was not erased from history but he certainly didn’t get commemorative stamps, just a bloated biopic. Trump seems unfilmable as even while he’s happening, he remains unimaginable. And there’s no inner life there to explore. Oliver Stone admitted he had to make his fictional Nixon gifted with more self-awareness than the real guy (as when he compares himself ruefully to Kennedy).

Back to SLEEPER: I had to look up a reference right before this one. It’s explained that our civilisation was largely wiped out by a war, when “a man called Albert Shanker got ahold of a nuclear warhead.” I had no idea who that was and probably audiences at the time outside the US didn’t either, but Shanker was president of the United Federation of Teachers. Which I find very funny, even without looking deeper into his character to discover what it was that made Allen feel he couldn’t be trusted with a nuke.