Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Martha Marcy May Marlene

2011 is long since behind us and the Academy Awards have come and gone, so I guess now is as good a time as any to say that Martha Marcy May Marlene was my favourite movie of last year.

Let me take a moment to contextualize that statement: despite my best efforts I still have yet to see Oscar nominees Hugo and Midnight in Paris (both of which I expect will be phenomenal), and I missed out on Tree of Life simply for lack of enthusiasm. I also never bothered to see The Iron Lady, Albert Nobbs, or War Horse because, quite frankly, I thought they looked like shit films and the word from critics was that my instincts were right. Finally, I also missed out on some allegedly great smaller flicks like A Separation, though I intend to rectify that shortly.

Now, with those caveats out of the way, let me tell you about why I thought Martha Marcy May Marlene was a sublime achievement in cinema.

Martha Marcy May Marlene takes place immediately after a young girl (predictably) named Martha -- played by the incredible Elizabeth Olsen -- escapes from a cult after two years of isolation from the rest of the world. The movie tells the story of her struggles to reintegrate herself into society while living with her sister Lucy. Throughout the film we see moments from Martha's time with the cult that explain what she went through and give a sense of why she ran away. These memories are so seamlessly integrated with the depiction of Martha's new life that it is sometimes difficult to tell whether what's on screen is a vision from the past or an event Martha is currently living through. And that's exactly the point.

The central conceit of Martha Marcy May Marlene is the psychological trauma that Martha suffers from as a result of her time with the cult. When the movie starts we see Martha at her weakest: she is terrified and alienated from society to the point of being completely unable to explain what's happened to her, even to her own sister. After a few minutes we see a memory from a few years earlier when she first encountered the cult, and it shows how normal and strong she was before. As the film progresses we both see Martha struggle to readjust to normal life and also her memories of the horrifying experience that broke down her personality. While Martha's mental scars become more apparent to her family, we the viewer become privy to the memories underneath. The result is that we not only begin to understand  her way of thinking, we also begin to share her fears.

Martha Marcy May Marlene is a psychological masterpiece that doesn't simply portray its main character's feelings of paranoia, it makes the viewer share them right along with her. As the cult's true nature becomes clear from Martha's memories, her outbursts around her sister seem less and less irrational and more poignantly understandable. By the end of the movie we are literally sharing her delusional hallucinations, or are we? Part of the film's brilliance is that we're never quite sure, just like Martha.

I've made it clear before that I'm a fan of horror movies, and that sentiment plays a major role in my affection for Martha Marcy May Marlene. It skirts the genre divide between psychological thriller and horror only insofar as the violence takes place almost entirely in Martha's mind. With that established, it should be clear that Martha Marcy May Marlene is not for the faint of heart: by the end of the movie I was literally sweating and ready to jump at the slightest movement in my peripheral vision. But that's just a testament how powerfully the film makes you understand Martha's battered and terrified perspective.

Martha Marcy May Marlene is not a film for everybody but it was without a doubt my favourite film of 2011. It affected me more than anything else I saw last year and so if you're prepared for a powerful and horrifying psychological thriller then I strongly recommend you check it out.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

LoL: David Mitchell's Soapbox

This morning I was made aware of David Mitchell's wonderful YouTube account where he releases short video rants in a series called David Mitchell's Soapbox. If you're familiar with David Mitchell and his sense of humour from great British programs like Peep Show then you'll know exactly what to expect here. The basic gist is that each three minute episode is a rant by Mitchell for/against something like "group consensus" and modern standards of spelling. As you can probably tell from that description, the videos are incredibly dry and sarcastic, so if that's the kind of thing you're into then you're bound to love them.

The one below is on 'LoL' and you might be surprised by Mitchell's take on the, erm, "word" (?). My favourite part of the video comes near the end when he shifts gears and starts into the use of smileys in texts/emails. It's a well thought out little rant that's as insightful about societal niceties as it is hilariously overwrought, which is exactly why I like it.


(Via Julia)

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Censored Doonesbury Cartoon on Women's Rights

Doonesbury cartoonist Gary Trudeau has come under fire this week for his set of strips mocking recent legal developments surrounding abortion and contraception in the United States. Specifically, the strips detail the trials of a young woman attempting to get an abortion in Texas. As The Guardian reports, some papers have refused to run the strips while others have relegated them to the editorial page.

The series is presented in its entirety below thanks to Media Watch, a blog run by SACOMSS.

I'm not going to write much about this, mostly because it's late and I'm tired right now, but also because Media Watch has already said everything I could possibly say on the issue. Briefly, this is not only a pretty depressing example of censorship, it's also (unusually) clearly indicative of the larger social and political problems behind the disputed abortion/contraception laws themselves. This isn't the first time Doonesbury has taken a controversial political stance, and likewise it's not the first time the strip has been censored. However, to my knowledge it is the first time that so many strips have been censored at the same time so as to completely stamp-out an issue. And it doesn't strike me as entirely coincidental that the political tipping point was a law about abortion/contraception, and more accurately about women's rights. Just don't take my lack of surprise as a sign of acceptance or apathy, it's more accurately a deeply rooted cynicism about how minorities are treated south of the border.

Anyway, it's late and I'm tired. The comic is above so give it a read.

(Via Media Watch via my friend Sam)

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Death of Home Consoles

I just finished watching an engrossing and shocking presentation by Ben Cousins of ngmoco (I'd never heard of him either) that persuasively outlines the impending "death" of videogame consoles as we know them. To be fair he doesn't say they'll disappear completely as much as fade into irrelevance/niche markets, but being compared to arcades is pretty much equivalent in my books.

Check out the presentation for yourself below. It's 26 minutes long but if you have any interest in gaming then trust me it's worth it:

As the video itself makes clear, this is far from the the first time someone has pondered whether the mobile gaming industry might displace home consoles. However, Cousins' presentation is the most tangible and immediate the mobile threat has ever seemed. As someone who grew up with home consoles it's a little saddening to see such sobering evidence that they're going the way of the dinosaur.

I only recently began testing the waters of mobile gaming, and while I've been pleasantly surprised by its depth and quality, I can't help but sense that there are ways in which the mobile platform is fundamentally lacking. It's less immersive by design given that it's portable and public (in the sense that you use it in public, often people can reach you on it, and it's a gateway platform with other functionality). On top of that the controls often create more of a distancing effect, from the perspectives of both users and programmers. All this adds up to the fact that while I thoroughly enjoy mobile gaming I don't and can't get lost in the experience. Maybe that's also a product of age (I have noticed a similar problem with some home console titles lately), but the inherent qualities of the mobile platform don't do it any favours.

(Via Kotaku)

PS: I promise I have some non-videogame related posts in the works!

Monday, March 12, 2012

Quantic Dream's Incredible "Kara" Tech Demo from GDC

In case you missed it, below is the amazing "Kara" tech demo that Quantic Dream's David Cage (of Heavy Rain fame) showed off at last week's Game Developers Conference 2012. It's an outstanding display of the PS3's power and a short but interesting exploration of the nature of artificial intelligence. But don't take my word for it, check out the video below:

What an incredible video. In a scant seven minutes the "Kara" figure manages to raise complex ideas about the manufacturing of artificial intelligence and the responsibilities of their creators; by extension those same concepts trouble conventional notions about the origins and value of sentient life. These are common science fiction tropes that I for one would be excited to see explored in a video game, and especially one by the likes of David Cage. 

Longtime readers (ha) will recall that I was more than a little excited for Heavy Rain Although the game didn't necessarily live up to my expectations, it was nevertheless an interesting and unique experiment for the medium. I'm excited to try out David Cage's next game, whatever it ends up being, and this tech demo has increased my curiosity about what that project will explore. If nothing else it shows that he is building upon the foundations he laid in Heavy Rain, both in terms of continuing that game's technological/graphical developments and also improving on its shortcomings. 

One of the most resounding criticisms of Heavy Rain was the fact that it was set in America but voiced (poorly) by French actors, thereby completely breaking any senses of immersion or tension. This demo clearly shows that Cage has heard those critiques and (hopefully) won't make the same mistake twice. The acting on display in the "Kara" demo is profoundly moving, and the mere idea of a game exactly likeHeavy Rain with that caliber of performance is buzz worthy. And I don't believe for a second that Cage would settle for simply Heavy Rain 2

Whatever's coming will be as unique and exciting as Cage's previous game was, and will clearly be building upon its strengths and weaknesses alike. It almost feels stupid to get my hopes up all over again, but this demo has me excited despite myself. Fingers crossed whatever we get from this lives up to its potential.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

A Visual Summary/Review of Drive

Please enjoy this shockingly accurate visual summary of Drive that I found on reddit:

Seriously, like 70% of the movie's run time is taken up by silent, awkward pauses while people wait for Ryan Gosling to answer simple questions. That said I did enjoy the movie, though I thought it was a victim of over-hype. 

Normally this is where I'd promise that there's a review coming, but honestly that's about as close to one as I'm likely to write.

(Via reddit user DrBrian)

Monday, March 5, 2012

Eurocentrism and the Reveal of Assassin's Creed 3

I don't think I've ever posted about it but I am a huge fan of the Assassin's Creed series of video games. The second game in particular stands as one of my favourite games in this generation of consoles. I'm a major proponent of story-driven games, and the Assassin's Creed series stands as one of the most engrossing and unique narratives in gaming today. Additionally I really enjoy how the developers of the series make a conscious effort to set each game in places and times that are unusual in the gaming community. In what other game could you explore a historically accurate rendition of Renaissance Florence, Third Crusade-era Jerusalem, or Ottoman-era Constantinople? These are only a few of the more superficial and spoiler-free reasons why I love the series, but they make one thing clear: there's simply nothing else like Assassin's Creed out there, in gaming or otherwise.

This week a lot of details were revealed about the next entry in the series, Assassin's Creed 3. Set to be released on October 30, 2012, this new game will take place in Revolutionary War-era America. What's exciting about the setting is that it gives the developers the opportunity to engage with the atrocities committed by both Colonial and Revolutionary forces upon the Native Americans in this time period. The series has never been shy about politics, and indeed one of the most interesting aspects of Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood was the radical political thread that writer Jeffrey Yohalem wove into the narrative. It's honestly my fondest memory of that game, and so I'm eager to see the series get political again. In Assassin's Creed 3 the historical mistreatment of the Native Americans will take the centre stage as the protagonist is said to be a half-English, half-Native American boy who's raised by Mohawks.

As much as possible for a blockbuster (and annualized) video game franchise, the Assassin's Creed games have made a habit of breaking new ground for the medium. Making a new main character in a major entry in the series half-Mohawk continues this tradition. Ubisoft also hasn't given up their dedication to authenticity, as "they've hired Native American actors and recorded whole scenes of dialogue in the actual Mohawk language." Moreover, early reports indicate that the beginning of the game will depict Ratohnhak√©:ton/Connor's childhood in a Mohawk village that's later burned down by white colonists, inspiring him to dedicate his life to fighting tyranny and injustice. So not only is the protagonist a sort of Mohawk Batman (!), it also seems that the game will at least touch upon the atrocities inflicted by the Americans/Europeans on the Native Americans. It certainly doesn't seem like Ubisoft is letting up on the franchise's tendency to push gaming to new and unexpected frontiers.

What I want to address in this blog post is the new protagonist's name. At this point the details are a little sketchy, but it seems as though the character actually has two namesRatohnhak√©:ton and Connor. 
The character's relationships with each of these names is still a little unclear, but it seems as though he calls himself Connor. In any case, the Internet has made a pretty clear decision to simply call him Connor. Here's an example from Rabidgames, a site that "calls him Connor because the other name is too long and copy & paste [sic] doesn’t really count as remembering a name."

On the one hand the name Connor is shorter and easier to remember and spell, both for the developers and for most of the people talking about the game online. Additionally, at this point fans seem to be most interested in the gameplay possibilities unlocked by the game's new engine. Any discussion of the narrative potential seems to be restricted to which historical events might be portrayed as opposed to what political stance(s) the game might take with regards to Native Americans. However, all that aside I find it more than a little troubling that the character who was just revealed to be half-Mohawk is already being called exclusively by his English name. I think that's a Eurocentric reaction that implicitly glosses over the most unique (and, in my opinion, interesting) aspect of the new character.

As reddit user AnEagle so aptly put it...
At this point it's not possible to do much more than speculate about Assassin's Creed 3 and its approach to the historical treatment of Native Americans. Without getting into spoilers I will say that the series' lore pretty much requires that the protagonist have at least some European ancestry so it makes sense that he's half-English. Time will tell if the emphasis on that side of his heritage is something the developers have written into the game (though based on everything I mentioned above it sure sounds like they're fully embracing his Mohawk roots). But what is clear is that fans of the series have decided it is at least easier to regard Ratohnhak√©:ton/Connor in a more traditional (read: western) fashion. And I think that's unfortunate.

I don't mean to condemn anyone's legitimate excitement about the game but I wish that more of the buzz I'm seeing online was about the unique narrative and political potential in the protagonist's origins. It's disappointing to find that the Assassin's Creed community seems disinterested in this new character's most unique trait and are instead gravitating towards the most familiar aspect of what we know about him so far. One would hope that fans of such a daring series would be eager for it to present new perspectives and ideas, but evidently that's not as exciting as what new multiplayer options will be available. Granted I may be making too much of something as trivial as the use (or lack thereof) of a name, but to me it does seem indicative of an apprehension for an unfamiliar concept (or in this case culture). Ironically the gaming community seems disinterested in the originality it so often pines for, but then that's a subject for another blog post. 

Here's hoping that as October 30 approaches there begins to be more excitement for this promising new evolution in the Assassin's Creed narrative.