Wednesday, February 22, 2017

The Sugar Bowl Secret

Since I was a child, I've been obsessed with the book series A Series of Unfortunate Events, and the mysteries within. The biggest mystery, of course, is the sugar bowl, which is made out to be incredibly important, but whose contents are never revealed. 

Well, I think I've solved the sugar bowl secret.

It is a combination of many theories, several of which had individual components which were accurate, but left inconsistencies in the timeline, or a questionable motive, or headaches. And yet, the answer is incredibly simple. You may already know the answer without understanding why that answer is actually incredibly satisfying. However, as we learned in the end of The End, every answer only leads to more mysteries, which is why the relatively simple answer below opens up many complex questions, which may take up to five pages of a Word document to explain.

So in the spirit of Lemony Snicket himself, who in this series loves to present the answer to a mystery before introducing the question, I will give you the answer, and then explain it in thorough detail.

The Sugar Bowl contains nothing, but it did, at one time, contain something very important. Neither side knows that its contents have been missing for some time.

So, simple answer. But what was that important thing? Why are people chasing it if it no longer contains anything? If there's nothing out there, what was that sound?

Well, put on a pot of coffee, because we're going to be here for awhile.

PART I: The Tumultuous Timeline 

We know from the end of The End that when Beatrice and Bertrand were on the Island, they discovered a cure for the Medusoid Mycelium that could self-replicate, and was even more potent than horseradish: a hybrid between horseradish and apples. A horseradish factory, for example, can be burnt down, and its output is slow to produce anyway (it also, according to Mushroom Minutia, is only known to “dilute” the poison, but not necessarily cure it, particularly if it was weaponized like Gregor Anwhistle intended).

But what if noble volunteers planted an entire orchard of horseradish-apple trees, and the seeds from those apples went on to create more trees, and more trees after that, until the entire world was covered with hybrid-apple trees? Well then the entire world would be safe from the MM, eventually. While on the Island, the parents tried to dig a tunnel from the arboretum to the Gregorian Grotto, in the hopes of controlling the supply of both the poison and the cure, but they were stopped by Ishmael. So they stowed an apple core away in a sugar bowl.

Some time after Beatrice and Bertrand Baudelaire left the island, perhaps over a decade later, perhaps not even until after they died, word got out that they had a secret cure for the MM hidden in a sugar bowl. However, only the Baudelaires (and perhaps the castaways who they left behind) knew what that cure was. Then, unfortunately, they died. So a great quest began from both sides of the schism to capture this sugar bowl—both sides knowing that it contained a cure, but neither side knowing exactly what that cure was. But the Baudelaires took a secret to their grave: they had already used the contents of the sugar bowl years ago to plant an apple tree orchard on Lousy Lane (hence the bitter apples, mentioned in The Reptile Room). Which means even if someone found the sugar bowl, it would be empty, and they would quickly realize how many lives were lost in the hopes of finding a cure for something that neither side knew they had all along.

(And since the apple tree in The End symbolizes knowledge—alluding to the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden—it would be appropriate that the Baudelaire legacy is spreading a symbol of knowledge to guard against evil)

Now, hang on there, because I can tell you're aching to say some nasty things. I can back this up.

PART II: The Objectionable Objections

First, there is some required reading.

Snicket Sleuth is obviously a true virtuoso. He is in fact so brilliant that he mostly solved the mystery without even realizing it.

As you probably know, The Horseradish Hybrid/Apple Core theory is by far the most popular theory, and the theory that makes the most sense in terms of what we're actually told in the text. However, as you also probably know, the former blog entry lists many timeline inconsistencies this theory entails.

Incredibly, however, the latter blog post corrects most of these supposed inconsistencies, but it doesn't appear he connected the dots. Snicket Sleuth points out brilliantly (and there's really no other way to read it, in hindsight) that for a long time, V.F.D. sugar bowls contained hidden microphones.

Here are the timeline objections raised by SS. My refutes will be in bold text.

  • Beatrice and Lemony are still engaged when Olaf frames him for arson. Jacques advises him to flee the country and provides him with a V.F.D. Disguise Kit. Its manual lists the sugar bowl as one of its optional items. He also tells Lemony he will contact Beatrice so she doesn’t believe the horrible things the Daily Punctillo has printed about him.
The sugar bowl is an optional item in the V.F.D. Disguise kit because it contains a hidden microphone, which would not always be needed on secret assignments, particularly if the assignment did not involve a restaurant, cafe or picnic.
  • Lemony attends a V.F.D. meeting with his brother before his departure. Geraldine Julienne has just started leaking the organization’s secrets to the public. One volunteer complains that these disruptions will lead the younger apprentices to forget the “sugar bowl secret”. This happens before Beatrice’s stay on the island because V.F.D. understands Lemony is still alive and the vicinity at that point.
The “sugar bowl secret” is that they contain hidden recording devices. If young volunteers forget that, they may start divulging secrets, not realizing that those secrets are being recorded. If someone like GJ gets her hands on those recordings, she can leak those secrets to the public. Which, of course, is exactly what happened.
  • The Vineyard of Flagrant Drapes warns Lemony not to attend the wedding he planned for Beatrice, and that sugar bowls will be provided at his discretion.
Once again, sugar bowls, plural, because the wedding, at Lemony's discretion, could very easily be bugged with hidden recording devices at all the guests' tables.

So what I'm saying is this: any mention of sugar bowls before THE sugar bowl is merely a standard V.F.D., microphone-bugged sugar bowl. This is important.

We also get the sense that because the “sugar bowl secret” got out, sugar bowls were phased out of V.F.D. No point in using them if both sides of the schism know what's inside them.

Why am I bringing this up? Because it begins to clear up the seemingly inconsistent timeline, and also ties into the elusive involvement of the city's sixth-most important financial adviser.

PART III: The Squalor Significance

Esme claims that Beatrice stole her sugar bowl. But Lemony makes it clear in The Hostile Hospital that he stole the sugar bowl from Esme. (“...Something I did many years ago that still troubles me...Was it really necessary to steal that sugar bowl from Esme Squalor?”)

We ALSO know that it is mentioned in the Slippery Slope that a certain sugar bowl contains evidence that could clear Lemony Snicket of accusations of arson. How do all these things connect?
To me the chain of events is simple: the sugar bowl to which Esme is referring contained a recording that proved Lemony Snicket did not commit arson. So he stole her sugar bowl in the hopes of clearing his name. He gave the sugar bowl to Beatrice, to prove to her that he did not commit the crimes which the Daily Punctillio accused him of. However, Esme saw Beatrice with this sugar bowl, and assumed that she stole it.

I love the idea that Esme is not only wrong about who stole her sugar bowl, but is completely oblivious to the fact that everyone else around her is talking about a different sugar bowl entirely. Also, Esme says this about the sugar bowl in the Penultimate Peril:

You know what it means to the Baudelaires and what it means to the Snickets.”

If I'm correct, this line makes a lot more sense. Evidence clearing Lemony Snicket of terrible crimes would mean a great deal to Beatrice Baudelaire (and likely Bertrand, since it seems he and L were friends at one time) and the Snickets.

If you're not keen on this idea of their being two sugar bowls, each being conflated with the other, then I'm afraid you've missed a big theme in this series. We are lead to believe that there's a “survivor of the fire,” but the “survivor of the fire” turns out to be Quigley, the third Quagmire triplet, and not a Baudelaire parent. In TPP the children are tasked with differentiating between twins named Frank and Ernest, who are almost impossible to tell apart—then to top it all off, we find out they're actually triplets, and we're introduced to Dewey. In the Beatrice Letters and The End, we find out that there have been two Beatrices the entire time. So it would be absolutely in keeping with the running motifs of the series for there to be two sugar bowls.

However, we must answer the biggest question of all: would an antidote to the MM even be all that important? 

PART IV: The Inexplicable Importance

Snicket Sleuth posits that the idea of the sugar bowl containing a cure for the MM is silly, because they already have a horseradish factory, and horseradish seems to work just fine. However, I think the idea is that Horseradish wouldn't be effective against weaponized MM, whereas this hybrid could be effective. After all, as I stated many paragraphs ago, horseradish merely dilutes the poison

But here's the kicker: he also points out that it appears that Count Olaf and Esme, at least, had no idea that the MM still existed. That would deflate this entire thing, if true.

What my brother means,” Fiona explained, “is that inside this helmet is the Medusoid Mycelium.”
The Baudelaires gasped and looked at one another in horror, as Count Olaf peered through the helmet’s tiny window, his eyes wide beneath his eyebrow. “The Medusoid Mycelium,” he murmured, and ran his tongue thoughtfully along his teeth. “Could it be?”
“Impossible,” Esmé. Squalor said. “That fungus was destroyed long ago.”
“They brought it with them,” the hook-handed man said. “That’s why the baby was so sick.”
“This is marvelous,” Olaf said, his voice as raspy and wheezy as if he were poisoned himself. “As soon as you Baudelaires are in the brig, I’m going to open this helmet and toss it inside! You’ll suffer as I’ve always wanted you to suffer.”

[The Grim Grotto, Chapter Thirteen]

I'm going to contest this point, however. Olaf merely says “Could it be?” and ran his tongue thoughtfully along his teeth. The person who says it's impossible is—drumroll—Esme, who we have established doesn't really have any idea what's going on.

So what are we to make of Olaf's inscrutable reaction to seeing the Medusoid Mycelium? Well, it is here we must address yet another mystery. My favorite mystery. Chapter 39 of Mushroom Minutia. Visitable Fungal Ditches.

Lemony Snicket mentions twice in The Grim Grotto that he wishes the children had looked at that chapter. Why? Because it would have had useful information. It makes sense that such a chapter would have shown that there are apparently various other places, like ditches, one can visit and find important fungi. And apparently such fungi is important to VFD, since the chapter is coded with VFD initials. What fungus is important to VFD? The Medusoid Mycelium. This is all to say that the Gorgonian Grotto is not the only place one can find this deadly fungus, it's just a place where one can find it, in addition to a number of visitable fungal ditches.

Here's my theory: the Man with the beard but no hair and the Woman with hair, but no beard are clearly the Big Bads of the villainous side of VFD, right? Which means if there's a weaponized deadly fungus, they'd be the ones in charge of it. Count Olaf, of course, along with most villainous people in the ASOUE books, would never dare open a book and do research, so he was likely told that the villainous side of VFD has all the Medusoid Mycelium available, but they won't use it until they know they have the sugar bowl, which they believe contains the antidote. So when Olaf sees the MM-infested helmet, he's not surprised that the fungus exists—he's surprised that there's more of it out there. And now he can use it for himself.

Remember, his plan in The Penultimate Peril is to high-tail it out of the Hotel Denouement with the sugar bowl and the Medusoid Mycelium, which he hid in the figurehead of the Carmelita. Olaf, in this above moment in TGG, realizes that he doesn't need to worry about his even-more-evil higher ups. He has some MM of his own now, and if he can get the cure (or, what he assumes will be the cure), he can do whatever he wants.

PART V: The Tragic Truth

There is a part of this theory which I'm not sure about, but merits consideration: I think it's quite possible that at least someone of prominence in each half of the schism knew, eventually, that the sugar bowl contained nothing. Think about it. Captain Widdershins seems both ashamed and horrified at his daughter finding out what's contained inside it. What would be more shameful to reveal to your children than the fact that your family and many people they loved had died in the pursuit of something completely meaningless? What would people on the “good” side of the schism think? They might revolt. They might mutiny. They might form another schism. Maybe that, more than anything, is why the higher-ups at the “good” side of VFD want to keep the sugar bowl from getting in the hands of their enemies: because if their enemies find out that there's nothing inside, then both sides will know that countless good people died for nothing. It's the kind of secret that might destroy their side of VFD forever.

And maybe the higher-ups of the “bad” side of VFD know the same thing. They know that if their enemies (the “good guys”) realize the sugar bowl is empty, then they'll realize that the “bad” side has nothing to lord over them. They'll realize that they have no reason to fear the other side of the schism, because without a cure, they can't use the fungus. And their cohorts will realize that they've committed countless villainous deeds in the name of nothing at all. It's the kind of secret that might destroy their side of VFD forever.

So, to conclude, I think it is important to examine something incredibly important to A Series of Unfortunate Events: Dramatic Irony. It was mentioned in the very first book, and it is a constant theme. The bigoted crowd can't tell each other apart from the “freaks” in the end of The Carnivorous Carnival. In The Ersatz Elevator the contents of “V.F.D.” turns out to be a red herring, while a Red Herring turns out to contain something very important. And of course Olaf dies by the hand of his own weapon in The End. So it would make sense that the mystery of the sugar bowl—a vessel typically reserved for holding something very sweet—hold something very bitter. Like a bitter apple core, or the bitter dramatic irony that by the time anyone went looking for it, it contained nothing at all.

Monday, February 17, 2014

International Bad Movie Database: Lady in the Water

"It was a dangerous movie to make. It's a movie that doesn't follow rules, the rules and conventions of storytelling. I know how to make movies, 'within the system,' you know what I mean?...and that can become constricting. I want to lean towards originality more, and originality requires breaking rules."
--M. Knight Shyamalan on Lady in the Water

If you look up the definition of hubris in the dictionary, “Casting yourself in a fantasy movie about storytelling as a brilliant writer whose at-first misunderstood work is predestined to later inspire great leaders and capture the hearts of millions,” probably wouldn't be the definition you'd see. But, you know, it should be; because it takes a whole heck of a lot of hubris do something that, like, hubris-y. So does making the main villain of your fantasy movie about storytelling a stiff movie critic (who's also a book critic, wouldn't you know it) who points out the movie's cliches as we, the audience, are watching them happen. I mean, no one would even think of doing that, right?

Well, M. Knight Shyamalan would, and the thing is, he almost kinda sorta gets away with it, though maybe not in the ways he was expectingShyamalan's movies, the ones he made in his heyday at least, are incredibly refreshing to watch in this endlessly disappointing, sequel/80's reboot-crazy Hollywood climate right now. Go back and watch The Village—first of all, because it's one of the most under-rated movies of the past decade or so and it's themes, cinematography, atmosphere, pacing and performances are worth revisiting—and be amazed at the fact that that movie, a quiet, contemplative thriller in which very little happens, was one of the most anticipated and top-selling films of the year. It's rare that we get works of pure imagination like that in Hollywood these days that become huge blockbusters. What was the last one? Source Code, maybe, and before that Inception. Looper? That's like three I can remember in the past three years. Not a lot. And yet Shyamalan had a string of four fantastic and original movies in a row that were not only huge box-office/DVD successes, but that also merited deeper examination and discussion, whether you loved them or hated them.

And then he made Lady in the Water. Critically, it was universally panned, and I don't remember talking to anyone that loved it when it came out. The marketing did not help, certainly; it was being sold as a dark fantasy horror movie, when it's actually basically a quirky indie flick with moments of broad humor, fourth-wall-breaking and whimsical fantasy that isn't really supposed to be scary at all. It's a weird movie, to be sure, and considering how much fun I had revisiting Signs, Unbreakable and The Village recently, it only felt fair to re-examine his (well, except for Airbender) most critically-maligned work.

Well, then. I can tell you right now that you're not going to like it now if you didn't like it before. The movie is just provocative, and needlessly so. And yet it's also one of the most interesting movies I've watched in a long time. I can't say I liked Lady in the Water, but few movies have irritated me in such interesting ways.

The plot, it should be said, makes no sense, though in the end, I would argue that it shouldn't. The gist of this movie is that a fairy tail creature comes into the life of this bumbling, faithless guy named Cleveland. Slowly but surely, she convinces him that she is in fact a fairy tail creature, and that the people in his apartment complex all have some sort of role to fulfill in the fairy tail of her life. So the formerly faithless man has to convince a bunch of people in his apartment complex to suspend their disbelieve and cynicism and just believe in something, gosh-darn it! That's the gist of it. What's nonsensical is the mythology of the fairy tail itself, which is so absolutely bananas that it sounds like Shyamalan was just spit-balling it as he went along. But, wait a minute, that's exactly what he did—see, this whole fairy tail is based off an entirely improvised bed-time story he told his children. I'll try to recap it. So there's a pool, see, and a nymph lives in there...except she didn't always live there because she came from wherever her home world is...except she doesn't remember it...or maybe the people from her home world don't remember her, or...well wait, she totally has like, a house hidden in that swimming pool, so maybe she has always lived there. Anyway she has to get back to her home world (or...I don't know, go there for the first time) because she's like a queen nymph or something, so her return would be super meaningful for her people...or, wait, if they don't remember her, why would it be meaningful? And how would they know she's a queen nymph? She just looks like a regular...anyway. There's some monkeys that protect her by throwing stuff at the evil grass-wolves that are trying to kill her—oh, I forgot to mention, there's some grass-wolves—and the guild—oh, right, there's a guild—has to do...I don't know. They have to create a world, or something? Not like, a universe. Just a world of people or...culture...or...I...I don't know. Wait, maybe the guild is part of the World and the World has to create the guild?

So yeah. Whether or not you think converting such a bed-time story into a movie is a good idea is up to personal taste. But I would argue that the fact that it's incomprehensibly bonkers is actually somewhat effective for the story that Shyamalan is trying to tell. In order for us to be “wowed” by the fact that all these wildly different people living in the same apartment complex would come together and suspend their disbelieve and just believe in something (gosh-darn it) in order to protect this fairy tail creature, perhaps it's best that the fairy tail itself is insane and seemingly logic-less. A faith-over-reason sort of thing.

This story, actually, kind of works for the first half of the movie. Shyamalan has an eye for the camera, first of all, and he acquaints us with the tenants of this shabby apartment complex (and of course our endlessly drab protagonist, Cleveland) with stark, compellingly minimalist camera work. The way he films it, we actually feel like we're taking a sneaky peek into these people's lives. We get shots of the tenants from outside their window, on their front porch peering through their slightly ajar door, from the opposite side of the pool that they're sitting on, and we only actually go into their apartments if they let Cleveland in as well. The characters themselves are over-the-top caricatures, archetypes, but it works, because makes the story feel more lighthearted and kid-friendly. To give these characters a ton of depth would be to sacrifice some of its charming innocence. If you're telling a bed time story to your kid, you wouldn't say, “Johnny hid behind his arrogance like a vampire shields its face from the light behind its cowl; ever since his wife had been stabbed to death in that K-Mart bathroom by the man she had been cheating on him with, Johnny had become a man divided. Half of him was sad for his loss; that was the half that wanted to hold her again; to say he was sorry; to kiss her passionately and make love to her fortnightly. The other half was livid; this was the half that wanted blood. And so every day since that fateful stabbing, Johnny had been pumping iron with one arm, leaving the other one limp and lifeless, symbolizing his internal division. Every day he did 500 reps with his right arm, and his right arm only. 2 reps for the amount of times his wife was stabbed, 10 reps for the amount of times he would have stabbed the man that killed her, and 488 reps for the amount of times he would have stabbed his wife had he found out earlier that she had been cheating on him.”

No, you'd say, “Johnny was a quirky guy who only lifted weights on one side of his body—so one side of his body was super strong! Now go to bed.” Which is to say, the secondary characters may lack depth, but their simplicity gives them a child-like charm.

While first half of the movie is compelling, you do quickly start to get the slightest impression that not everything is on the up-and-up. For one thing, if you haven't seen the movie, you're probably assuming that our titular Lady in the Water, the fairy tail creature, is the one that tells us the mythology of the fairy tail. No, no. See the Lady in the Water—whose name, I have somehow failed to mention, is Story. Say, do think you that might be symbolism?—doesn't say much of anything at all. If fact, she probably only has about a page of dialogue total. She doesn't say anything because, I think, she's bound by secrecy. For some reason. Because otherwise the Divine Lords of Fairy-Tailery would smite her. Or because it would be inconvenient for Shyamalan's script. So because of this arbitrary secrecy Cleveland has to enlist in other ways to find out Story's, ahem, story. The only thing Story will willingly say is that she's a water nymph. Well, wouldn't you just know it, there's an old Chinese woman who happens to be an expert on fairy-tails about water nymphs that lives in Cleveland's very apartment complex! Now, at this point, we're okay with this ridiculous coincidence, because the movie is well-shot, has clearly shown itself to have a good sense of humor, and because we get the sense that this is a story about destiny, and hey, maybe Cleveland and this Chinese woman are destined to meet, like LOST. Wouldn't that be something?

"...This movie--I basically said, 'I'm willing to break any rule. Anything that makes the movie safe and says, "okay, the good guy does this, then this happens; the audience needs this kind of thing at this point, at this part in the movie." I wanted to throw all that out and just do whatever the imagination wanted, you know? Just like, free form, and see if faith, just faith in storytelling could bring this to a thrilling conclusion."

But in the second half of the movie, things start to seriously drag, because here's the problem with this entire scenario: as charmingly silly as it is, it is a painfully lazy way of establishing the mythology. Having a character who happens to know every detail of the fairy-tail, and thus the plot of the movie, in the movie means that there's never really a sense of discovery about anything that happens; because any time something unexpected and potentially exciting happens, the characters can just ask the character who knows everything and find out what do no next. In the immortal words of Bob Servo from Mystery Science Theater 3000, “This is a movie that states what it's going to do, and then does it.” Economic, but not terribly fun, is it? This is why Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland didn't work, either. As soon as Alice gets to Wonderland, and we think a bunch of cool fantastical things are going to happen, a boring creature shows her a scroll that says, “You must go here, and then there, and then get this sword, and use this sword to slay a dragon.” And then, sure enough, Alice goes here, and then there, and then gets a sword, and uses that sword to slay that dragon. If we know exactly what's going to happen, and when, and where and to whom, then what's the point of the movie?

Ah,” you say, “but in Lady in the Water, we don't know which characters are going to end up being part of the World (an assembly of people who play an important part in rescuing the water nymph).” Except that we do, because mean-mister movie critic does know which characters need to be assembled. And he tells us. Continuing the movie on its path of telling us what it's going to do, and then executing it as planned. Now, he doesn't know exactly who they'll be, but because the movie that he's in is so cliché, he figures out what types of people they'll be just based on his knowledge of cliché stories. You're confused. Let me back up here.

Cleveland, realizing he needs to assemble a very specific group of people (a healer, a guild, a black person), and given the fact that this is, in fact, a bed-time story that he's trying to play out, he figures that he should ask the apartment's new resident, the movie critic, an expert on movies and books and archetypes. The cynical movie critic gives him very specific answers, and Cleveland trusts him implicitly. “AH,” you say, “but the movie critic is wrong! That's the whole point of the movie,” you say, “that movie critics are big buffoons who think they know everything, and that we shouldn't presume to know the outcome of the story just based on its beginning, or something!” But here's the thing: the movie critic is right. The movie's big twist, spoiler alert, is that Cleveland, based on the critic's advice, assembles the wrong group of people for the World. The moral here, kiddies, is that anybody who claims to know anything about movies or books is stupid and wrong. But Shyamalan's moral doesn't make sense, because in the end, the critic actually is right—the critic merely named the types of people Cleveland should look for, and even though Cleveland didn't pick the right people, the types of people that the critic mentioned do in fact still end up being the types of people that Cleveland should have been looking for in the first place. And if this paragraph is confusing and makes no sense to you, it's because this movie is confusing and makes no sense in the first place.

And in case you were wondering, yes, Shyamalan really does cast himself as a “brilliant” writer whose at-first misunderstood work is predestined to later inspire great leaders and capture the hearts of millions. Story tells his future, you see, and Story is never wrong. If the first problem with the movie is that it's too up-front about exactly what it's going to do, the second problem with the movie is that it's way too up-front about the fact that it's a movie. Which is to say that Shyamalan breaks the fourth wall a lot, and it gets to the point where we can't possibly buy into its premise, because Shyamalan clearly doesn't either. He keeps poking fun at the fact that the story is silly, poking fun at the fact that it's using horrible clichés, poking fun at the fact that there's way too much exposition, but he never stops doing those things. It'd be like if your little brother wet the bed every night on purpose, just for laughs. Even if he knows what he's doing is wrong, and even if he makes light of it by joking about it, that doesn't mean that he gets to keep doing it, simply because he recognizes that it's wrong. It's bad to wet the bed. People don't like it. You shouldn't do it. Shyamalan will also use characters to verbalize how the audience should feel and what certain things symbolize. At no point will you see something on screen and think something along the lines of, “I wonder if Shyamalan is trying to make a statement here about how critics are often cynical to the point where they can't appreciate a fun, lighthearted and imaginative story.” Oh, no. Shyamalan makes sure you're thinking exactly what he wants you to think at any given moment. This is not a movie whose themes are open for interpretation. The director/writer/co-star interprets it for you as you're watching the movie. The director's commentary could literally just be him reading off all the characters' lines.

But here's the thing with this movie: its flaws are so baffling that they really end up making it compulsively watchable. First of all, its heart really is in the right place. Shyamalan wanted to make a modern bed-time story that was imaginative and unique. He really did. He just also wanted to make grand statements about the magic of storytelling and the importance of a child-like acceptance of ridiculous fantasies. I know those desires don't have to be mutually exclusive, because the movie Hugo exists. Lady in the Water is torn between wanting to be a bed-time story and Shyamalan wanting to go on a webcam and just rant to the world about his feelings on storytelling. But you know what? That's kind of a fascinating mixture. I'm intrigued by movies where I learn more about the director than the story he or she is trying to tell. That's what makes The Room so utterly compelling. Lady in the Water isn't The Room, let that be clear: there's some great cinematography to be found here, some great performances, and a few good ideas; but there is an amazing sense that we're really discovering the man behind the camera, here. By the second half of the movie, we stop feeling like we're getting a sneaky peek into the lives of people living in an apartment complex, and start feeling like we're getting a sneaky, sometimes disconcerting peek into the darkest corners of Shyamalan's imagination.

What I'm trying to say is, this is a movie that should be studied in film school. There are several instances in the first half of the movie that are examples of genuinely great movie-making. And yet more often than not, it's an example of exactly how to not make a movie. You might walk away from it loving Shyamalan's sheer audacity, you might be walk away from it hating is arrogant use of cliches, but it is impossible to not have an opinion about it. It's an indifference-proof movie. And it's one worth watching.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Playing Zelda (In No Particular Order): Twilight Princess

The Legend of Zelda is the greatest gaming series ever. Join me as I play through every last one of them in no particular order, and write mildly thoughtful ramblings on each. This week: the unexpectedly controversial Twilight Princess.

Twilight Princess is either the worst Zelda game or the best Zelda game, depending on who you ask and on what day of the week. Even more than the formula-bending Majora’s Mask and the cel-shaded Wind Waker, Twilight Princess has become the most polarizing entry in Gaming’s Greatest Series. Which is a pretty strange thing, when you think about it, because Twilight Princess was supposed to be the Zelda game for everyone.

It had a similar visual style to The Greatest Game of All, Ocarina of Time. Pre-release hype began gathering that it was dark! and Link was an adult! which is really cool! and the game was so dark! and adult! that it was going to earn a T rating! Enough with all those danged kiddie Zelda games with their cartoon graphics and big-headed children as protagonists! Twilight Princess was going to be the biggest! and the best! and most epic! See? It even says so right on the back of the box! During previews, sentences like “If Wii Sports is for the non-gamers, Twilight Princess is for the hardcore!” were thrown around. IGN’s review was littered with drool-o-riffic statements like “Ocarina, your time is up!” and “this new method of [motion] control obliterates the former one and there is no going back!” and “the greatest Zelda game ever created and one of the best launch titles in the history of launch titles!” The game won approximately a billion Game of the Year awards (this was back when people didn’t arbitrarily hate Nintendo for “abandoning them” with their “casual games”) and was declared by a more than a few gaming outlets to be The Best Game Ever.

So…what happened?

Well, Twilight Princess is the first game I ever remember getting backlash. Now, Pre-release Backlash had always been around—the internet practically exploded with Nerd Rage when Wind Waker‘s cel-shaded graphical style was first revealed. But then people actually played it, and realized it was one of the greatest games ever. Twilight Princess, though, received a whole other type of backlash that wasn’t common at the time: It received a mountain of hype, won countless awards, was loved by players everywhere, and then suddenly critics and gamers alike went: “Hang on! Never mind. This game is actually a pile of garbage. Forget all that ‘best game ever’ stuff.”

So…what happened?

Read the whole thing over at Zelda Universe, and join in the surprisingly reasonable discussion!

Monday, April 15, 2013

Infinite Struggle

Bioshock Infinite is an astonishing work of imagination and storytelling until it decides to be a shooter instead. The introduction of the world of Columbia is one of the most stunning sections of gaming in recent memory. The haunting walk through spiraling stairs. An unexpected launch. A city in the sky. A baptism. The constantly surprising presence of two of my now-favorite characters in gaming: Rosalind and Robert Lutece. For the first hour of the game I was stunned at its beauty, its meticulous architecture and ability to so immediately create a compelling, dense fictional world filled with history and secrets. And then the game handed me a gun.

Michael Abbott over at Brainy Gamer recently wrote: “Bioshock Infinite is a shooter with a problem, but the problem isn't the shooting. The problem is that [it] has nothing to say about the shooting” and I don't disagree with him. After the game introduces its violent side (in an actually-rather-stunning scene featuring a mock slave auction) we are still graced with moments of brilliant art direction, memorable performances and intriguing storytelling, but we must look at these things quickly—we're only ever five minutes away from another violent set-piece. But my main issue with the game differs from Mr. Abbott's. Shooting is par for the course in a game about violent revolution, if not exactly original. Thematically, at least, it makes sense. What doesn't make sense is the game's use of “vigors”. And vigors have nothing to do with anything at all.

What are these things, anyway? About an hour into the game (depending on how much you linger—I'm the lingering sort) you come across a kiosk at a festival where a woman is selling a potion. A “vigor,” she calls it. You drink it and immediately get the ability to possess machines into being your ally. You use this new power to force a robot to grant you entrance into a locked gate.

Now think about that for a second. It is an incredible fact. You, Booker DeWitt, an old-fashioned, grizzled war vet, drink some random potion at a random festival that some random woman is just giving away for free, and you get the ability to control machines with your mind. The game looks at this and says: Eh. Not long after that you drink a similar potion—vigor, sorry—that allows you to shoot fire from your hands. Eh. Not long after that, you get a vigor that grants the ability to summon a murder of crows with your mind or something to peck your enemies to death. Eh.
This would be fine if the Eh were the point, but it isn't. The game isn't trying to create a world where everyone has access to crazy, mind-altering potions. Because apparently, everyone does not. Most people don't seem to be aware that these Vigors even exist. This creates a disconnect that threatens to distract from the whole danged experience. You have these abilities, and the enemies have these abilities, and that's it. But, why? How? These potions that grant people the ability to essentially perform witchcraft are just lying around like dirty laundry. Heck, I got my first one for free.

Why didn't everyone take a free sample of the Posession Vigor and trick that robot into opening the gate?

What's stopping one of the black slaves from picking up that Murder of Crows Vigor off the ground where I found it and starting a bloody revolution to free the slaves?

Why do we need these things? 

How are they making the game better?

The answer: because vigors are cool, bro. They're totally awesome. The ability to rip your enemies to shreds with crows is effin' beast. Brooooooooooooooooooooooooo.

The game is at a crossroads. It wants to be an intelligent piece of sci-fi that features commentary on the political and social issues of today. It wants to create a compelling fictional universe filled with dense mythology. It wants to tackle issues of gender and race. But it also wants to make money. Ain't no one selling games about the Tea Party and slavery without some good old fashioned blood and guts. Here's a game about slavery and feminism where you play as a boring white guy who shoots fire out of his hands.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Playing Zelda (In No Particular Order): Skyward Sword

The Legend of Zelda is the greatest gaming series ever. Join me as I play through every last one of them in no particular order, and write mildly thoughtful ramblings on each. This week: the latest Zelda game, Skyward Sword.

It would be easy to view Skyward Sword as a game cursed by patterns: the patterns in the game's myriad of puzzles, for example, or the patterns of attack of every monster we fight; but of course, the biggest pattern of all is the structure of the game itself, in which we must help a tribe of strange creatures, solve many pattern-based puzzles, and fight many pattern-based enemies all in the attempts of finding a pattern-based dungeon; and then once we conquer it we must find a song, play the song, find the next tribe of strange creatures and do this over and over again until the game is done.

This, to be fair, could be said of pretty much every Zelda game these days, and perhaps you feel like Tevis Thompson, who recently wrote that Zelda games are fundamentally broken at their core, and have grown incredibly boring. Mr. Thompson claims that the series is broken, and I claim that the series has never been better, and this is okay, because Zelda is a series that means many different things to many different people. For some, Zelda is about exploration. For me, it's the the part that comes after it: discovery. And perhaps this is why I'm consistently enraptured by this series whose main elements are consistently the same, and whose structures are increasingly linear: because even in Zelda games with very little to explore, there is always much to discover.

When I first wrote about the game last year, I was struck by its emphasis on character development, and the same holds up upon a second playthrough. Like Majora's Mask and Wind Waker before it, Skyward Sword presents a world filled with people whose problems and personalities are so well-defined, unique and grounded in reality that despite their vibrantly over-the-top animations they feel distinctly more human and relatable than any technically-more-realistically-rendered character in Skyrim or Heavy Rain. The animation on display here is the sort that would make Walt Disney proud, the sort that allows for a wide-range of expressions, gestures and life that motion capture simply can't (*ahem*) capture yet.

Which brings us back to the subject of exploration and discovery: there are many, including Mr. Thompson, that feel that Zelda has strayed away from its original draw of the joy of exploring a world full of secrets. I propose that Zelda is still about that, but the secrets we discover aren't necessarily just in hidden caves and endless forests anymore (though Skyward Sword has both those things, and pretty, floating islands to top it all off): Zelda has become a series in which the characters are just as much fun to explore and discover as the world they inhabit. In the original Zelda, we were thrilled by discovering a bush we could burn to reveal a hidden stash of rupees; in Skyward Sword we are thrilled by discovering that the exasperatingly energetic flying-shop owner by day is actually a morbid philosopher by night, or that beneath our village, if we move a specific grave stone in the cemetery, we find a half-man, half-bat creature who literally feeds on the joy of others, or that there's a ghost haunting the bathroom in your school who desperately needs toilet paper. (So, fine, not all the characters are relatable.) Skyward Sword is a world filled with secrets, perhaps more than any other Zelda game before it, but its secrets aren't limited to blowing up holes in walls and discovering treasure chests (though once again, Skyward has that in spades, and also floating islands which are awesome); but to discover those secrets we have to be willing to look in new places.

These new places include the way we play the game itself. In Skyward Sword, all play is rewarding. And perhaps this is Skyward's the biggest source of wonder: the structure is the same as its ever been, but within that structure we find a level of tactility and interaction heretofore unseen in the series. Swinging your sword is no longer relegated to a simple button, which is good because its use is no longer tied down to simply slaying monsters. Controlled with nearly 1:1 gestures, your sword can be used to write symbols on walls, as a means to stab and carry pumpkins to then throw at people (which is unnecessary, but silly and fun) or to make massive eyes dizzy (which is necessary to solve puzzles, and also silly and fun), and we get to discover these and many more surprising secondary uses for ourselves. Your instrument is, like the instruments in most every Zelda game, really only necessary at specific junctures to unlock new areas, but you can also whip it out and strum along with the background music as you run around, should you feel so inclined, or use it serenade a floating bar full of lonely gossipers. And we don't just walk up to caves and treasure chests with our boring old feet anymore—we fly to islands floating in the sky on a colorful bird, and then leap off mid-flight and sky-dive to our destination. Every aspect of play has been enhanced to be as interactive and fun as possible; every item has countless unknown uses that we as the player get to discover; even something as mundane and tired as a “stamina meter” is used as the basis of countless clever puzzles. Of course you'll have to use motion controls for all of it, but at this point you know where you stand on them.

The level of interaction feels heightened due in no small part to the fact that this is an economically designed game, that upon replay, recalls the dense and compacted nature of the original Zelda or The Minish Cap, games where every screen had an army of monsters to fight or a secret to find. After Twilight Princess' vast yet largely empty overworld, Skyward's compact world full of secrets is a welcome contrast. Faron Woods feels as big as any Hyrule forest ever has, yet it's tough to walk five feet without running into an environmental puzzle to solve, an enemy to fight, a character to interact with or a hidden treasure to unearth. Yet whereas most Zelda games offer very similar sorts of puzzles and discoveries throughout their lengthy running times, Skyward Sword is constantly evolving, constantly introducing new ways to play, new means of discovery.

Yet the “Modern Zelda” detractors all seem to go back to the same thing: the first Zelda had you make your own path; you could explore anywhere on the map from the beginning of the game and complete dungeons out of order, and all these things are wonderful. But to use this argument is to assume that Modern Zelda games are trying to accomplish the same goal as the first, which isn't exactly the case: Modern Zelda games still want us to explore, they still want us to find secret caves with hidden treasure and talk to strange characters who speak in arcane riddles, but they want to do something on top of all that: they want to tell us a story. And if we've learned anything from Skyrim, it's that you can't have an involving, coherent narrative with a memorable beginning, middle and end, endless sidequests, well-written characters and a nonlinear structure that allows you do whatever you want whenever you want. Some of those things are going to get lost in the shuffle; usually it's the characters and story and writing.

Here the story is key. Ever since Ocarina of Time, the Zelda games have provided a series of incredibly well-written, whimsical and character-driven tales about growing up (though anyone who's read any of the brilliant essays of Dan Merrill knows the series is about a great deal more than that). Skyward Sword is indeed a game that starts us out on a linear path, but if we can look past the idea of the linear path we find that it's not a boring one: in the first hour of the game we are introduced to a wide range of hilariously well-written and stunningly animated characters, form a bond with a strange bird who serves as an important companion, and establish Zelda as a surprisingly human, atypical human being (rather than the stoic and boring Padme-esque caricature presented in Ocarina and Princess). Here is a game where we want to save the damsel in distress not because we're expected to, but because she's a three-dimensional human being with whom the game has allowed us to form a relationship before taking her away from us. Skyward is able to establish these character relationships and dramatic tension because of its first hour or two (depending on how quick a learner you are) of guided exploration, and the emotional payoff that we experience throughout the rest of the adventure prove that those hours were worth it.

But here we must discuss the formula; Mr. Thompson has argued that Zelda simply can't be surprising, can't evoke the same sense of wonder it once did when it sticks to the same old formula in every last game. Yet for me, the formula is everything; with the formula the game is able to create a sense of forboding and dread, which we see on Link's increasingly wearisome face before he plunges into every one of the land's many dungeons. He knows that he will find a dungeon, and he knows that dungeon will have brain-bending puzzles, and he knows that the end will house a terrifying beast for him to conquer. You can chalk it all up to laziness if you want, but I believe the series has earned a certain artistic credibility after 25 years of remarkable games, and for me, it is an obvious fact: the player's knowledge of the inevitable is what gives the dungeons their aura of unease and, at times, horror. It is what makes the brief cutscenes of Link staring down into the dungeons' abysmal entrances so effective: he knows that it is a trialsome dungeon, and he knows that it will be more difficult than the last.
And yet the formula is also a comfort; for fans, playing a Zelda game is like coming home. We know we will conquer trialsome dungeons, but we also know that we will be rewarded. We know that we will meet exciting and funny new characters, but we do not know who they will be, or what they'll be like. We know we will explore vast new worlds, but we do not know the puzzles that they will contain, or how they will look. I do think fans are ready for the series' next Majora's Mask; I think the formula has been refined time and time again, and perhaps here perfected. But if the formula goes unchanged, few will complain. Skyfall wasn't a great Bond film because it shattered a fifty-year-old formula, but because it executed that formula in a stylish and thrilling way. Such is the case with Zelda.

A depressingly few amount of games can claim to provide a satisfying, character-driven story with brilliant writing. Skyward Sword does all that and provides us with a stunningly crafted and colorfully animated world that begs us to interact with it, explore it and discover its secrets, be it a cave in the side of a volcano or a surprising character trait. It does all this with some of the most ingenious puzzle design to ever grace an action game, and with a control scheme that constantly amazes with its versatility. Which is to say that it is one of the best Zelda games ever. Which is to say it is one of the best games, period.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a beautiful film presented in the ugliest format imaginable. I'm talking about HFR, which means “High Frame Rate,” which means everything looks like it takes place on the set of a PS3-generated Spanish soap opera.

I'm not going to dwell on the format, here; so many negative things have been said about it, and so little has been said about the film itself, that it seems wrong to speak of it much further. But I can't not mention it because I don't believe a single minute went by where I wasn't utterly distracted by the camera, or the lighting, or the jarring disconnect between CGI and reality. Thankfully I saw the film two days later in good old 2D, 24 frames per second. As I suspected during my first viewing, this is a wonderful film marred mostly by the negative hype surrounding its length and format.

The Hobbit has a different tone than The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and you might not much like it. Tolkien fans know this going in, but general audiences, judging by the conversations I overheard leaving the theater, are likely to be surprised by the series' shift toward the lighthearted. It's a more whimsical story, with sillier characters, wordier wordplay, and slappier slapstick. It's also, as a result, a bit more warm and heartfelt than anything we've seen so far from Peter Jackson's Middle Earth. But you might not be coming for warmth and whimsy (the dude sitting next to me complained about the abundance of “cartoonish bull****.”). I was never of the opinion that Jackson's original trilogy was an unquestionable, flawless masterpiece (though I think it's very good) but one can't deny that the previous films contained a little something for everyone: fans of more lighthearted fantasy had the Hobbits to root for; fans of dudebro badassery had swashbuckling Aragorn; fans of attractive men also had swashbuckling Aragorn, and Orlando Bloom's abs, if that weren't enough. Here we have only one little Hobbit, thirteen pudgy Dwarves and a very old Wizard. Their battles are almost all comical and graceless, and the last one involves throwing pinecones. If you're coming for “cool” you're going to leave disappointed. But if you're coming for “A Delightful, Adventurous Romp!” or “Fun For the Whole Family!” you're going to have a grand old time.

I had a grand old time.

The film's greatest assets are its dedicated performances from Martin Freeman (Bilbo Baggins) and Ian McKellen (Gandalf), the former of whom is an immediately more likeable character than Frodo, probably because he has a wide range of emotion, is genuinely funny, and has a face that doesn't always look like this:

and the latter of whom pretty much had the entire audience applauding every time he appeared on screen. McKellen has tapped into something with Gandalf that I frankly don't understand, nor that probably can be truly understood. The man just commands attention and exudes wisdom, and his grandfatherly demeanor toward Bilbo gives us a genuinely affecting relationship that serves as the emotional core of the film.

We also have a great deal of Dwarves, who are not as fleshed-out as characters, but are always entertaining. One night, the sheltered, introverted Bilbo has his home unexpectedly bombarded by a group of no less than thirteen Dwarves, who proceed to drink all his wine and eat all his pastries and generally make a noisy, filthy mess of things. Unbeknownst to Bilbo, Gandalf (who is always up to something) has recruited Bilbo to accompany these thirteen Dwarves on an adventure to The Lonely Mountain, which used to be the home of the Dwarves, ages ago, before it was overtaken by the fearsome dragon Smaug. There the adventurers will slay the dragon, reclaim the gold he has stolen from the Dwarves of olden times, and make their leader, Thorin, king of the mountain, or something. That the film is called An Unexpected Journey is telling, because it is certainly the journey that is the fun part here, and not the destination.

And what a journey it is. The adventure proper starts off in appropriately ominous fashion, with all the Dwarves gathered around a fire, singing a grim, bellowed hymn about the trials they will soon face; and soon enough, with a stunning synthesis of practical effects, CGI and masterful set design, the fifteen adventurers (thirteen Dwarves plus Bilbo and Gandalf, for those keeping track) encounter a fantastical array of characters, monsters and set-pieces, culminating in one of the more thrilling finales in a blockbuster this year. By the time we reach the Rock Giants of the Misty Mountains and the Battle of Riddles with Gollum (Andy Serkis giving the best performance of his career) we've forgotten all about all those boring parts in between.

Ah, the boring parts. There are a few. The first at is the beginning of the film itself, which features an awkward bit of exposition that I frankly don't think was needed at all. We have one of those sweeping epic historical recaps that The Fellowship of the Ring started with, only this one narrated by Ian Holm, reprising his role as Bilbo. And then, after epic battles are recounted and the history of the Dwarves' plight is recapped, Bilbo ends with “And this, my dear Frodo, is where I come in...”

Except then the film lingers on a five minute scene where Bilbo actually doesn't come into the story at all. Instead of just jumping into the narrative we're forced to watch Iam Holm pretending to write There and Back Again while Elija Wood makes a distracting and unnecessary cameo as Frodo, and we're supposed to be thrilled as the two talk about nothing and generally waste five minutes of movie time before we really get to the story. It's weird.

Now, fortunately, this introduction is short, and then we're off to the races. Unfortunately, the races take a pit stop in Rivendale just as soon as they get interesting, and that bit's not short at all. It's very long, actually, and most of it involves Gandalf sitting at a table talking with characters whose relevance to the film we don't understand about mythology and Tolkieny stuff that most people don't care about. It all comes at the worst possible time; just as the film has settled into a steady, adventurous pace, we arrive at Rivendale and everything comes to a dead halt for what feels like half an hour. Aside from the very beginning and end of it, almost the entire sequence could have been completely cut out, and the film would be better for it.

With these two scenes removed the film would be about half an hour shorter, and that would still leave it as being pretty long. Much has been made about the film's length, and I must admit, despite my aggravations in Rivendale, I didn't particularly notice or mind the length at all. But I'm also a really big fan of The Hobbit. It's a simple truth that not all audiences will be willing to put up with a three hour movie whose action sequences are more comical than suspenseful, but the one I saw it with last night laughed at every joke and seemed generally pretty thrilled by the experience. (of course there was that one guy who wrote it all off as “cartoonish bull****.” Can't win 'em all, I guess).

Perhaps the oddest thing about An Unexpected Journey is that it currently has a 65% on Rotten Tomatoes. It can't say I particularly understand it. It has state-of-the art visuals, compelling performances, stunning cinematography and several of the more compelling scenes in Jackson's entire Tolkien series. It is a long film, to be sure, but not any longer than the other Lord of the Rings films; it is an occasionally digressive film, but not any more than King Kong. The truth is that some people just aren't going to be on board with Jackson's Hobbit trilogy, for the simple fact that it is a trilogy. I don't think it's a stretch to say that we're all a bit sick of trilogies at this point. We're franchised-out. The thought of another trilogy, even one by a considerable, Academy Award winning director, is just a wearisome thought for most.

See, the original Lord of the Rings trilogy came at just the right time: just when Star Wars: The Phantom Menace had come out and disappointed nearly everyone over the age of thirteen, Fellowship came along and captured the adventurous spirit of the original Star Wars in a way that Menace utterly failed. It was the right film at the right time. The Hobbit, unfortunately, is the right film at the wrong time. It is a three-hour, action fantasy epic in a movie-going world filled with three-hour action fantasy epics; it is a new franchise in a world filled with new franchises. In the end, many will be turned off by the very idea of it.

And yet to think like this is to apply cynicism to a completely uncynical movie. Once again Jackson has captured the wide-eyed, optimistic magic of the original Star Wars and applied his own personal stamp to it; in areas where he could have simply rested on the majesty of the set design and costume work and you know, New Zealand, he enhances already beautiful shots by doing something unexpected with the camera; he is able to apply what the original series taught about fight choreography to quieter scenes, resulting in an amazing scene early on where 13 Dwarves are rummaging around Bilbo's house in 13 different rooms, all doing 13 different things at 13 different times, and Jackson captures it in a single shot. Yes, this is an overblown franchise action flick, but that doesn't stop Jackson from trying to make it the best overblown franchise action flick.

So. There are a number of things that might turn you off about An Unexpected Journey, chief among them being the fact that it exists as the first part of a nine hour trilogy. But separated from the Hollywood landscape, separated from the darker tone of the original TLOTR trilogy, and separated from HFR projection (for real: just see it in 24 fps) this is another beautiful film in Jackson's Tolkien cannon, with all the things that made The Lord of the Rings great, and all of the things that made them flawed.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Videogames as Videogames: New Super Mario Bros. 2

Want to read my vaguely smartsy ramblings on a Super Mario Bros. game? Smartsy ramblings that include such passages as:

Where most major franchises are striving to imitate Hollywood and take notes from the language of film, Mario’s games feel more like ballet. There is less a story here than there is the suggestion of one; our emotional attachment to the character springs not from dialogue but from the grace of movement, form and balance in association with vivid musical compositions. The music informs the movement, the movement informs the level design, and so on; each individual element crafted with what must be exhaustive meticulousness to tie into a larger whole. When combined with brightly colored, vivid stereoscopic visuals that make you feel like you’re staring at a magical shoebox diorama come to life, New Super Mario Bros. 2 becomes something quite special: a video game that knows it’s a video game, that likes the fact that it’s a video game, that joyfully uses and expands upon the language of video games. When one attempts to explain what makes pressing a series of buttons that causes a virtual Italian man to jump on fishes with bright, golden trails of coins trailing from their butts fun, one has realized how indescribably different this medium can be from any other when it rejects Hollywood and embraces its gamey-ness. 

Then head on over here to read the whole thing! If not, head on over there anyway and tell me how much I suck in the comments section.