20 September 2009

Games Games Games

In the last week, I've been to see two new films in cinemas and otherwise found myself engrossed in the DVDs of Batman: The Animated Series. There's something of a post-summer lull going on at the moment, and it seems like the only other films that are really showing on my radar at the moment are either not coming to cinemas until December or is otherwise a 3D re-release of Toy Story. It's a film that's been out for almost 15 years now, but that won't stop me doing a lovely celebratory post on here once I see it on the big-screen again.

In the meantime, we've got two films that happen to deal with games- as an occupation in Adventureland, and as the very apex of human achievement in Gamer, so it's needless to say which was the more thought-provoking. In spite of this somewhat premature drubbing, you can safely assume as ever that while minor plot spoilers may occur, I'm not going to spoil any major developments in either film in the course of the reviews.

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Adventureland is the new film from Superbad director, Greg Mottola, and it's a much more personal film than his first feature. It's based on his own time spent working in a big and slightly shoddy amusement park in the late 1980s, and follows James, the kind of sweet, awkward character that Michael Cera plays in... well, every single film that Michael Cera is in. So Mottola gains points right away by casting young up and comer Jesse Eisenberg in the lead instead as the unfortunate James, whose plans to travel Europe after his high-school graduation fall through, forcing him to take a minimum wage job at the titular amusement park and learn some lessons about real life that he wasn't particularly prepared for.


Essentially the antithesis of Superbad, this is a film that seems totally honest about the troubles of teenage life. Yes, I enjoyed Superbad, and found it very funny, but where Adventureland succeeds is in creating much more well-drawn characters than Seth and Evan in the earlier film. It's not as jam-packed with jokes as the earlier film, but as I said about Judd Apatow and Funny People, this is probably Greg Mottola's best film, though not necessarily his funniest. The comedy is there, but it's secondary to the story, which feels honest and natural throughout. Its subtleties mark it as a very different beast to the type of teen comedy that's come about since American Pie, which is, for my money, the most overrated comedy since A Midsummer Night's Dream. No, not an adaptation, I mean Shakespeare's original. And for a comedy "inspired" by Pie, it has to register on one of two levels for me to enjoy it- it has to be either really really funny (see Sex Drive, an unfortunately titled but surprisingly funny comedy) or otherwise feature great performances and a well-drawn story, and this film fits comfortably into the latter.

Jesse Eisenberg's performance may be cut from the same cloth as the typecast Michael Cera, but is immediately elevated because he's not Michael Cera, and thus he's a lot easier to empathise with. Eisenberg's co-star is Kristen Stewart- yes, she of Twilight fame. I've noted before that the character Bella Swan has all the charisma and common sense of a baked potato, and that Stewart was the most bearable part of the first Twilight film. Having watched her performance in this film, as James' love interest Em, I actually feel I did her a disservice with such faint praise. She's an actress I hope will make more films outside of That Franchise, because she's extremely capable and endearing when given the right material. Beyond that, there's a fairly phoned-in performance from Ryan Reynolds as the park's handyman, Connell, and the only other highlight is Bill Hader trying to steal the show once again as Bobby, the manically committed David Brent-esque manager of the park, who occasionally wields a baseball bat against litterbugs and cheaters, with Kristen Wiig playing his indulgent wife. So the film largely centres around James and Em, and is all the better for it.

And the best part of this is that they're given equal focus. It's all too often the case in modern romantic comedies that the audience is shown the main character's love interest solely through the eyes of the main character- this was one of the biggest oversights in (500) Days of Summer, for instance. Here we're not solely restricted to James' POV, as we see Connell's extra-marital affair with Em at various junctures. As none of the other characters yet know about it, Em is a much deeper character than most love interests, and the insights into her love life and family life never seem exposition-laden, nor do they distract from James' character arc. It is a little light on laughs for a romantic comedy, but the dramatic elements of Adventureland sit well with the film as a whole, and as coming-of-age films go, it's certainly worth a watch.

On the opposite end of the scale, we have Gamer, a higher-budget and more plot-burdened feature than Crank directors Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor are accustomed to. Gerard Butler continues in his quest to destroy the reputation created by his breakthrough film 300 by starring as Kable, the star of a computer game called Slayers. In the world of the film, Slayers is the ultimate gaming experience- players can take control of an actual human being in a fully immersive combat environment. The actual human beings in question are Death Row inmates, who will be set free if they can survive 40 sessions of the game. So far, so Death Race, but Kable is just a few missions away from freedom when the game's creator, Castle, takes steps to ensure he will not survive. Kable breaks loose and goes on a rampage to find his wife and child.

As recorded on this blog before, I like Crank. It had a certain harmlessness to its mindless violence, video game logic and use of 80s action movie tropes. I liked Crank 2: High Voltage slightly less because it took on a more misogynistic and jingoistic edge that made it more unpleasant to watch, but the video game logic was still enjoyable. Now that "Neveldine/Taylor" (as they're always credited) have actually created a film about a video game though, something has gone badly wrong. The game that Kable is trapped in is the product of a culture where Sims/Second Life culture has been taken to extremes, which we're told will come into reality "not too long from this very moment". It's an interesting enough idea, but somewhere between script and screen, the film became utterly bland. Gerard Butler is consistently unable to match King Leonidas from 300 in the succession of staid action films and horrible romantic comedies that have followed that performance, and Gamer is no return to form. That said, Neveldine/Taylor have never really been renowned for their character work.

That's not to say there aren't memorable moments and performances- in films as excessive as Neveldine/Taylor's output, there always are. Michael C. Hall is naturally the highlight of the whole thing- having set the small screen alight in Dexter these last few years, his cinematic debut as Castle takes an underwritten role and turns it into a nuanced and extremely enjoyable villain performance. I can guarantee this will not be the highlight of his cinematic career once it's done, but he's clearly having a whale of a time. Other memorable moments include Milo Ventimiglia in a bizarre cameo as a PVC-clad man whore called Rick Rape... yes, I'm being serious... and Terry Crews singing a creepy rendition of I've Got No Strings from Pinocchio, but that's all Gamer really amounts to- a few enjoyable moments of ridiculously over-the-top excess, caked in a bland sub-Seagal action plot.

Gamer was never going to be more than a guilty pleasure- that is what the Crank films are, after all. It was never going to make any real commentary on Second Life culture, beyond the uncomfortable and gruesome shots of a morbidly obese player in his underwear, masturbating at the sight of Kable beating on the aforementioned Rick Rape. Instead, the film is typical of Neveldine/Taylor's video-game sensibilities, but if that fat, naked pervert is what they think of the demographic a film like this could appeal to, it's hard to see how anyone can enjoy it. Not to mention the more offensive overtones of High Voltage making an unwelcome return here in the film's attitude to women. By the inclusion of a tangible plot, Gamer is taking itself more seriously than Crank, and thus it disqualifies itself as brainless entertainment. It's trash, like Crank, but this time it's utterly disposable.

So to conclude, Adventureland is an enjoyable watch and, I suspect, a good date film, but if you take a date to see Gamer, the odds are that that relationship isn't going to last. Unless your date is male, but even then he might be put off by your taste in films. Hell, don't take anyone to see it and just wait for the DVD if you must.

If you've seen either of the films reviewed, please comment on this post and let me know what you thought! The next post will most likely comprise Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and the much-delayed review of District 9.

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, make sure you don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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