Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Crazy Like Us: Spec Ops: The Line

Judging by its sales figures, not many people bought Spec Ops: The Line. Theyre missing out. Great story. Great characters. Great dialogue. Just as amazing are the little touches, from the way the games physical geography mirrors the characters psychological progression to the use of music. Each of those elements could be an essay in itself.

In Spec Ops: The Line the player fills the shoes of Walker, leader of a three-man military reconnaissance team into sandstorm-wracked Dubai. Shenanigans ensue, and what started as a observation mission turns first into a military action adventure filled with the usual jargon--Hostiles ahead. Lock and Load. Tango Down--before shifting into a mystery/conspiracy involving water, the CIA and left hands not knowing what the right is doing, before taking an unexpected turn to the left, leaping aboard the Nightmare Express into full-on horror.

There are moral choices in Spec Ops The Line. Sometimes you get to make those choices. Other times, the game chooses for you. And sometimessometimes there is no choice.

It isnt always easy to tell one from the other. There were several moments in my first playthrough I made decisions without even realizing I had other options.

The game picked up some criticism for this approach. Players complained the game forced them down a path and then punished them for taking it. I can see that point of view, especially since there are moments when the game actually berates the player, either through the voices of a character or as prompts on the load screen.

Feel like a hero yet? The game asks.

To which a perfectly justifiable reply would be, Dont get self-righteous, Game. I didnt create an experience where in order to progress past a certain point the player has to SPOILER, you did. Were in this together, you and I, so dont start taking a tone.

It was a noble experiment. If nothing else, its something different to read during the load screens. That Hold X while running to Shit. Hold R2 to go blind stuff gets old fast.

In any case, I enjoyed the games approach to morality. It feltit felt like real life.

InFamous is another game with a moral component, but it plays them out in a very different way. In InFamous, when the moment of truth arrives, the game halts, outlines your options, and lets you make your decision. It also lets you know through a handy meter, not only whether youre the good or the bad guy, but HOW good or how bad you are and alters your powers and your experience accordingly.

With InFamous, you always know where you stand.

This is not true of Spec Ops: The Line and its not true of life.

Each day, we make choices. A lot of them

Many times we stop, think, weigh the pros and cons, and make the best decision we can. Sometimes it takes only a few seconds. In other cases, it takes days, weeks, even years. In the end we might be happy with our course of action or we may be stuck choosing the least bad of a series of terrible options. But we made the call, and were willing to live with it.

Thats not so bad.

There are also times we have no choice. Oh sure, technically we might have options, but from a practical standpoint..? Yeah. No. Not if we want to keep our fucking job. Or see our kids again. Or be able to look at ourselves in the mirror. Sometimes it means swallowing our pride or doing something that keeps us awake at night years later. Other times its staying true to our values even when it lands us into a world of shit, shit that could have been avoided if we could just learn to play ball like everybody else.

Those ones tend to bug us. We can always say we didnt have a choice, but that theres always a choice voice still haunts us whether it comes from others or from inside us.

Then theres the one that does real damage. The worst part is, often we dont even notice it.

There are times we make a decision and dont even realize weve made it. We made an assumption. We werent paying attention. Or maybe we grew up in an environment that taught us a specific approach and its never occurred to us to question whether or not that approach might actually be contributing to the very problem we're trying to avoid.

Or perhaps we started with something small and were slowly drawn into deeper waters. We moved our boundaries, changed the limits of what we would and wouldnt accept, didnt notice the line until long after we crossed it. And now that weve seen it, that line seems so far behind us, it feels we've covered too much ground to ever make our way back.  Our only choice is to lock the guilt and horror in a strongbox deep inside ourselves and push on down the river into our own personal heart of darkness, tangoing down the spiral in desperate hope that the results will somehow justify what weve lost or that well somehow come safely out the other side.

They wont, and we wont.

But unlike the game, which can only play out one way, we always have opportunities to turn back. The sooner the better, of course. The closer you are to the line, the less distance back you have to travel--but you can always turn around.

And if you dont have the strength to turn around and start the journey back, you can at least stop where you are and keep yourself from going further away from where you want to be.

The problem with this third type of bad decision is that it can be very subtle. It can be as simple as a thought. Thought solidifies into belief. Belief crystallizes into action. Action ignites the flames of consequences.

Heres an example:

Im writing this in 2013, in the wake of the Aurora and Sandy Hook massacres. Two movies in the theatre right now are Django Unchained, a race revenge fantasy, and Zero Dark Thirty, which tells the story of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden and includes graphic depictions of what some call enhanced interrogation techniques and others call out and out torture.

The conversation about violence is swirling around. We ask about its causes. We ask how to stop it. We argue over solutions--more guns? Less guns?--and we listen and commiserate with the stories of the victims. Some of us see this as a sign of worse things to come and a small portion of us are invested in believing it never happened at all, citing government conspiracies, finding it far easier to believe in a world where everything is orchestrated by some shadowy master plan than a world where children can be murdered for reasons that no one can understand or explain.

Well talk about anything to do with violence.with one exception.

We dont talk about perpetrators.

As of this writing, the closest weve come to a discussion on offenders has been vague talk about doing something about mental health issues. which sounds less like a commitment to research and treatment than a polite way of shrugging and saying. What can you do? Killers be crazy.

When you say doing something mental health issues are you talking about getting help for moms anxiety? Your co-workers depression? Charlie Sheen?

Of course not. Not them. Were not talking about those kind of mental health things. Were talking about, you know, CRAZY people. People who need real help.

By mental health issues were talking about people who might kill us. And by help we mean keep them the fuck away from us. Christ, Brodribb, does everything have to be spelled out?

What can you do?

Killers be Crazy.

 Its our shorthand for saying killers arent like us. Theyre different somehow. Alien. Forces of nature.

Except crazy didnt kill anybody. The second amendment lobbyists like to say that guns dont kill people. Well by that logic crazy doesnt kill people either.

People kill people. We want to convince ourselves it isnt true. We want to believe that killers are damaged or broken or less than human. They arent like us, we tell ourselves.

Which is an interesting rationalization. Because offenders often justify their treatment of victims by telling themselves the same thing.

They arent like us. Theyre half a world away. They arent like us. They dress differently. They arent like us. They dont believe in freedom. Or God. And we need to get them before they get us. But dont worry. In this situation killing is okay.

Because they arent like us.

And we arent like them.

Except that we are.

And by having the both the protagonists and enemies be U.S. soldiers, Spec Ops shows us that in no uncertain terms. Most video games dehumanize the enemy, either literally, by making them aliens, or hiding their humanity behind masks and uniforms and foreign languages. But in The Line, the men we are trying to kill are dressed like us. They speak like us. We see them trying to do good, and we see them in moments of quiet reflection. Long before the final scene, Spec Ops has us looking in the mirror.

I dont believe Spec Ops is saying we are all violent killers. Im not saying that anyone who has walked off the edge of a cliff or shot a non-combatant while playing videogames is a potential mass murderer. Most of us do it out of simple curiosity to see how the game responds when you push away from the boundaries.

But we do want to see the world as simply as most videogames portray it. There are villains and victims, martyrs, heroes, and featureless bystanders.

And that is a mistake, a choice we make without realizing. Reality isnt so simple.

Its simpler.

We are all human beings. We all have opportunities to be victims, villains, bystanders, or heroes in ways both big and small. Our choices make a difference. A big difference.

So let's try to be aware of when we're making them.

*  *  *

Other articles on Spec Ops: The Line :

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

More Than Meets The Mind: Robot Therapist -- Episode 2: Constructicons (Decepticons)

Constructicons: Group Session

SCAVENGER: (softly) Bonecrusher’s right. It’s my fault.

LONG HAUL: It wasn’t. We were all caught off guard. I was just as far away as you were. Mixmaster was caught right out in the open. There was no way we had time to combine.

It sounds like you feel things would have been different had you been able to form Devastator.

SCRAPPER: If we’d had time to form Devastator there wouldn’t have BEEN a battle of Charon. We would have made short work of those first few Autobots, fortified our position, and the situation wouldn‘t have had a chance to spiral out of control.

BONECRUSHER: Devastator is the first and the best. When we’re Devastator we’re unstoppable. If anything, there are times I wish we could be Devastator all the time.

SCAVENGER: I hate Devastator.

BONECRUSHER: Shut up, Scavenger! Devastator is the best thing that's ever happened to you. If you hadn't--

HOOK: No. Scavenger is absolutely right.

LONG HAUL: Hook, no!


HOOK: Devastator is a cancer. I am the greatest surgeon Cybertron has to offer. I have returned Transformers to life that were deemed beyond repair under the worst conditions imaginable. And yet what am I known for? Being one sixth of a giant, mindless wrecking machine.

BONECRUSHER: So you're better than the rest of us, is that what you're saying?

HOOK: Certainly better than you.

(Voices, talking over one another)

One at a time, please. Long Haul, we'll start with you.

LONG HAUL: Without Devastator, I'm nobody. Just a guy hauling equipment from place to place. With Devastator...I can contribute. I can be somebody, even if it's just being part of somebody else.

SCRAPPER: Yeah. Hook, you talk about being a surgeon, about saving lives. Well, Devastator has been the turning point how many battles? I mean you can talk about repair, but what about prevention?  What about the Decepticons we would have lost without Devastator there to swing the tide, to lead the way. I'm not trying to disrespect you, Hook, but the six of us together have probably saved more Decepticon lives, than you've ever done on your own.

HOOK: Say what you will. We are not Devastator. Devastator is what prevents us from being who we are.

BONECRUSHER: Fuck you, you--!!

LONG HAUL: Guys, let’s not…

SCRAPPER: Hook. Let’s talk about this.

HOOK: You can say all the pretty words you want, Scrapper. But it doesn't change the truth. Those lives we've saved. Those were in the past. We haven’t been effective as Devastator in a year and a half, and all of you know it. Predaking, Menasor, and Bruticus all have better numbers than us. This deciding point in a battle you talk about...when was the last time that happened? If you wish to delude yourself in thinking Charon would have gone differently had we been able to combine to comfort yourselves, that's your business. If you want to pretend everything is fine, go ahead but don’t expect me to be part of your self-deception.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to see to my patients.

Perhaps we should take a break

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Warrior Part 2: Brendan

(Click here for Part 1)


Tommys story is a mess, but his character is straight out of a romance novel or a teen movie. Hes the angry young man with the heros heart and a dark and mysterious past. Brendan, on the other hand, is just a normal guy, a teacher with a wife and two daughters. He is the nice one, the Jon Bon Jovi to Tommys W Axl Rose.

Tommys scenes are all gritty, grey, and despairing. Brendans world is filmed in vibrant colours, from the paint on his cheeks when we meet him at his daughters birthday party to the brightly lit school where he teaches. Tommy works out at the gym surrounded by grim, sallow-faced toughs in dark hoodies; Brendans students are colorfully dressed and energetic. Tommys night scenes are shot in darkness and shadow; Brendans blaze with the golden hues of sunset.

Their stories, too, are different. Tommys is an incomprehensible mishmash of anger, heroism, and angst. Brendans story is he wants to win the tournament because the prize money will let him keep his house.

Simple. Boring, even. Theres no mysterious past. Theres no fallen friends or life-saving feats of derring-do.  Its a  guy trying to keep his house. And that simplicity works to the Brendan storys advantage. With less going on, the character has room to breathe. We get a chance to get to know him.

Naturally, we make comparisons. Brendan has his life together where Tommy is damaged. Tommy is the dark; Brendan, the light. Tommy is a kamikaze with no target on a headlong rush for self-destruction. Brendan is trying to build a life for himself and his loved ones.

Tommy is out of control. Brendan.

Brendan is a control freak.

I  missed that in Brendan the first time I watched the movie, probably because I was too busy cheering for him. Normal, decent people with wives and families dont tend to do well in movies. They tend to either get killed or be shuttled off to the side as supporting characters. The common thinking is we want our heroes to be mad, bad, and dangerous to know. We want the obsessives, the Bad Boys, those damaged individuals with broken lives who dont play by the rules.

Not me. I was behind Brendan the whole way, to the point of resenting Tommy whenever he came on screen (Oh, of COURSE hes a war hero too. And then hes going to redeem himself, maybe by letting Brendan win the tournament, even though to everyone its clear hes the better fighter…”)

Ive always been a Laszlo guy. Fuck Rick.

Brendan, though, isnt a saint. Hes a good man, but he makes selfish decisions. In his first scene, its apparent he overspent on a birthday present in spite of a prior agreement he had with his wife Tess (Jennifer Morrison). He lies to her about not fighting until theres no way around it, and even when he comes clean, he never says it out loud, leaving his wife to make the implication.

Furthermore, his unilateral choice to participate in the parking lot fight puts Principal Zito (Kevin Dunn), a man he is clearly friends with, in an uncomfortable situation. It also gets him suspended without pay. So while Brendans decision to enter Sparta to earn the money to save his home is a noble one, its hard to ignore that the problem he is trying to solve is at least partially of his own creation.

When he gets his opportunity to fight in the tournament, he takes it without talking to his wife, despite the fact SHES STANDING RIGHT THERE.

BRENDAN: Im in. Im going.

TESS: Really? Thats your decision. You decided? Cause I really enjoyed that conversation we had about making that decision together.

Tess lists her concerns: her worries over Brendans safety, the type of opposition hell be facing. To her, the money isnt as important to her as the well-being of her family.

Brendan chooses to hear that as Tess thinking he cant do it, something she never once said.

Which, by the way, was a kindness on her part, because lets face it: Tess doesnt know shes in a sports movie. She can hardly be faulted for forming a belief based on the available evidence, and the available evidence paints a pretty clear picture. Even in his best days, Brendan was not exactly Anderson Silva in there. Hell, he wasnt even Michael Bisping.

Tess also points out that if Brendan DOES get  hurt and ends up in the hospital--not outside the realm of possibility considering its exactly what happened last time -- not only will there be no money, but there will be even more billshospital bills.

Which is a pretty good point. And not only do you have more expenses, what about income? How many jobs can you work  from a hospital bed? What happens then for money? Is TESS going to enter next years tournament?

And Brendan hears her and understands. He holds her and provides comfort while listening to her deepest fears. He reminds her of their connection, the strength of their years together, of their foundation of mutual love and support, and tells her that while this is important to him, she is important too and he wants to hear everything she has to say.

Ha, ha. Just kidding.

What Brendan does is say, Im gonna go, okay? But Id really love it if youd be with me on this.

To which I reply, Oh, go fuck yourself, Brendan.

Brendan is a nice guy, but Brendan also does what Brendan wants to do, the way he wants to do it. His participation in the smokers (and, if were being picky, the omission of his fighting background on his resume) is a lie of omission to Principal Zito.

During the confrontation outside his home, Brendan tells his father hes forgiven him--and there we see him lie again, not just to his father, but to himself. Brendan has convinced himself hes drawing boundaries when hes in reality putting up barriers.

There is only one person Brendan doesnt lie to, and that is his trainer Frank (Frank Grillo).

That doesnt stop him from trying to do things his way. He refuses Franks loan and instead insists on training--starting immediately. When Franks fighter is hurt, Brendan pushes to be the replacement.

But he doesnt lie to him. He CANT lie to him.

Because Frank knows Brendan better than he knows himself.

Brendan has no shortage of supports in his life. He has a wife and daughters, friends and students. But Brendan grew up in an alcoholic family, and no matter how many people care about him, he is a man who has learned to rely only on himself. He may be an excellent at taking care of his family, but he is not one to allow himself to be taken care of.

The exception is Frank.

We see it in the silence in the locker room before the first fight. When Frank finally speaks, the only words he says are the ones Brendan needs to hear.

We see in the fight scenes: Frank is Brendans eyes and ears, his lifeline, his tether in the storm. When Brendan is in trouble, it is Franks voice we hear reminding him to Breathe, breathe. During the fights, between rounds, or in the locker room, Frank is there.

We hear it in Tesss voice when she tells Frank on the phone Youve been spending so much time with Brendan, its like youre part of the family or something. Handing the phone over to Brendan she tells him, Its your boyfriend.

Shes joking--but shes also not. Shes hurt.

Frank tells Brendan things he wont hear from anyone else. When Brendan claims hes been fighting, Frank immediately guesses everything his fighter isnt telling him. Moments later, he spells Brendans problem out for him: You never listen to anyone.

After agreeing to train Brendan, the first thing Frank asks is whether his once and future protégé has let his wife in on his decision. Frank knows Brendan, he cares about him, but he also knows where and how he will fuck things up.

As it turns out, his prediction is absolutely right.

It is only while talking with Frank that Brendan comes as close as he ever does to admitting his own role in his financial plight. The parking lot thing kind of got me suspended, he says sheepishly. He is embarrassed about it.

But he also knows he cant lie to Frank.

Frank, Tess, Principal Zito and Brendans studentsthis is the difference between Brendans life and Tommys.

Sure, they have different personalities. Yes, they fight differently. The filmmakers unquestionably use lighting to contrast them with one another.

But at heart they are much the same. Theyve both learned that when it comes down to it, the only person they can trust is themselves.

This is where Brendan is lucky.

Because Brendan has people around who are willing to tell him when hes full of shitand they support him anyway.

In the movie, Tommys fans are strangers. Theyre marines offering their support, fight fans who saw him beat Mad Dog Grimes on the internet, and gym rats. Men cheer for him. Attractive young women wearing skimpy tank-tops hold up signs and scream (Of course they do. Fuck you, Tommy, you damaged-but-heroic sexually irresistible dickhead).

Brendans support comes from the people around him.

Frank is a always there. Principal Zito watches the first fight on his couch,  the second with his wife, and by the third has joined Brendans students at the Drive-In movie (They still have those?) to watch on the big screen.

And Tess? She spends the first fight folding towels, and trying not to look at the phone. She watches the second on TV. By the Koba fight, she is in the audience.

And before the finals, she is in the locker room with Brendan. Up until that moment, Frank is the only person weve seen in share that space with Brendan.

Hes finally let her in.

*  *  *

Brendan doesnt have any scenes with his father after their confrontation on his front lawn. Nevertheless, we see signs of his softening. The first time Pop gives Brendan a thumbs up during the tournament, he ignores it. The second time, he acknowledges it, just a little. In the finals, when Tommy and Brendan meet in the middle of the ring, Brendans question is Wheres Pop?

Maybe, just maybe, Brendan is learning that the people we love the most are still flawedand that it is possible to let them in anyway.

Wonder who taught him that?

NEXT: Part 3: the Tournament

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Great White

Great White would have been more appropriately named Very Good White.

There were a lot of ‘white’ bands in those lazy, crazy high school days of the eighties: Great White, White Lion, Whitesnake, White Wolf, White Heat…I want to say White Tiger, but that was a brothel investigated by a badly disguised Kurt Russell in Big Trouble in Little China. White was a probably the most popular band descriptor out there, with ‘king’ being the only possible competition (King Diamond, King’s X, Kingdom Come).

In the annals of the ‘white’ bands, Whitesnake would probably win Best Overall Career, White Lion would take the One-Hit-Wonder category (Though technically White Lion had two hits --’Wait,’ and ‘When the Children Cry’). Great White would place in both categories, but at best as a distant second or third.

That‘s Great White in a nutshell--Always very good. Never very great.

Yet at the same time, until I felt they went a little too far thinking they were blues musicians on ‘Hooked,’ Great White was one of the bands whose albums were no-brainer purchases for me. My two favourite Great White albums (Shot in the Dark from 1986 and 87’s Once Bitten) probably would have placed in my top 10 albums for those two respective years. ‘Psycho City,’ ‘…Twice Shy,’ ’Recovery: Live’ and their self-titled debut were reliable guests in my boom box, and even ‘Hooked’ isn’t so much bad as it is “not really what I wanted to hear.” Over the years, it’s even grown on me a little bit.

Great White was reliable. They delivered good stuff.

And by good stuff, I don‘t mean ‘the same album over and over.’ ‘Great White’ was an aggressive straight ahead metal album. ‘Shot in the Dark’ was poppier and more keyboardy. ‘Once Bitten’ was bluesier, but also heavier--kind of like a shotgun wedding between Led Zeppelin and Dokken. ‘Twice Shy’ turned up the Led Zeppelin influences which peaked on ‘Hooked.’ ‘Psycho City’ was a return to ‘Once Bitten’ territory, only with a nod to all they’d learned along the way. Each album was distinctive though, with it’s own sound. Yes, they were all clearly Great White, but they were also different enough that I never felt the band was repeating itself.

They also did a lot of cover songs, both well-known and obscure, and unlike a lot of their contemporaries, they weren‘t ashamed about it either. They did Led Zeppelin better than Led Zeppelin and their biggest hit was a cover of Ian Hunter’s ‘Once Bitten Twice Shy.‘

Very good. But not great.

They aren’t alone. Thousands of bands fall into this category. Thousands of bands and millions of people.

We worship the great. But what about the very good? There’s lots of them out there. They’re most visible in the entertainment industry where greatness and fame are the only things we have to remember people by--the bands, the stand-up comics, the actors, the writers.

But they’re in our lives too. People who are very good at what they do….whatever it may happen to be…but ultimately, not good enough to be recognized for it. Not charismatic enough to make an impression on enough people or not original enough to break any new ground.

Just…very good.

Maybe that’s why I listen to ‘Once Bitten,’ nearly two and a half decades later. Maybe, it’s my way of paying tribute to Very Good-ness, a way of remembering those who will not be remembered. Maybe it’s a way I comfort myself against the fears of the possibility--no, the likelihood--that most of the things I do, even the very good ones, will one day be gone and forgotten.

Or maybe I just like the music.

They aren’t called Very Good White for nothing, you know.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

"Wierzbowski & Crowe Are Down!": The Aliens Didn't Beat Us...We Beat Ourselves

WIERZBOWSKI: You know, I hate to speak ill of the dead, but I really believe Dietrich bears at least partial responsibility for our predicament.

CROWE: That’s a short sighted way of looking at it. The chain of causation was more complex than that.

WIERZBOWSKI: Maybe. But I can’t help but resent that she set Frost on fire.

CROWE: Yes, but she didn’t tell Frost to drop the bag of live ammunition he was carrying at our feet and throw himself down a stairwell. I was killed in the explosion and you…what happened to you anyway?

WIERZBOWSKI: I’m not 100% sure to be honest. Maybe I’m delusional and overly optimistic, but there’s no conclusive evidence I even died at all. Just screams and a camera with my name on it blurring to static.

It's kind of depressing. My ambiguous death is also the signature moment of my life, my sole contribution to the greater world. Which makes me wonder if I ever really lived.

CROWE: Sounds like you’re having a rough day.

WIERZBOWSKI:Yeah, I…I just wish I spoke up more, you know? Made my voice heard.

CROWE: If you had to do it over again, what would you say?

WIERZBOWSKI: Probably, ‘Dietrich, there’s an alien behind you.’

CROWE: I would have said. ‘Don’t light one of our only Persons of Color on fire with a flamethrower. Accident or not, it looks bad and sends the wrong message.’ Especially when Apone went down only moments later. Our only two non-white characters, gone in the first moments of combat.

WIERZBOWSKI:What about Vasquez?

CROWE: Vasquez was played by a non-Hispanic actor. That’s still problematic.

WIERZBOWSKI: I think you’re reading way too much into this. It’s just the way things worked out that’s all. You and I are white. So was Dietrich, the weak link in the master race.

I can’t believe that dizzy bitch lit Frost on fire. Her actions killed more of us than the aliens did. She made us look like buffoons.

CROWE: That bothers me too. I don’t blame Dietrich, per se, and I think calling her a dizzy bitch really diminishes her capabilities as a medic and as a marine not to mention reinforces harmful gender stereotypes, but that whole incident with the ammunition…Four of us were brought low as a consequence of that unlikely initial series of events. If things had gone even a little differently, the whole complexion of the ensuing battle might have turned out differently. I feel like the United States Colonial Marine Corps were unfairly labelled losers in that battle when the truth is, the Aliens never beat us. We beat ourselves.

And that really sticks in my craw.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Warrior Part 1: The Tommy Situation

Midway through my first viewing of Warrior, right about the time the tournament that makes up the second half of the movie started getting underway, my hindbrain made a psst noise and passed my conscious mind a note.

It read, how the fuck are they going to make this story work?

Warrior is about two estranged brothers who enter the same mixed martial arts tournament and end up facing one another in the finals. Theyre flawed human beings, but neither of them is a bad person. Each has a legitimate reason for competing. They get equal screen time over the first half of the movie, so were equally invested in both characters. Other than personal preference, theres no reason to root for one over  the other.

Its Rocky with two Rockys. The Karate Kid with two Ralph Macchios. King of the Ring with two Bret Harts.

Anyone else see the storytelling problem here?

You cant HAVE a Rocky story with two Rockys. 

Trust me on this. Ive watched pro wrestling since I was fifteen years old and have been involved in the business for seven or eight. I know a thing or two about fake fighting. And one of those two things is that 90% of the time, good guy vs. good guy does NOT work as a climax. Your best case scenario is a split crowd. Your worst case scenario is total ambivalence. Instead of being caught up in the moment, your audience is asking themselves: Who should I be cheering for here? Am I happy Joes punching Frank in the face or am I sad Franks getting punched by Joe?

Ideally in a fake fight--especially the centrepiece of your movie--you want everybody cheering for the same guy. You want them to tense when he gets in trouble. You want them to marvel at his gritty determination when he refuses to give up. And you want to them to leap to their feet and cheer as one when he overcomes the odds.

Having two good guys undermines that. Someones got to be Clubber Lang. You need a Sweep-the-Leg guy. Two Brets doesnt work--you need an Owen (or at least a Bam Bam Bigelow).

Does Warrior make it work?

Yes. But not really. Wellkind of.

But thats Warrior. It personifies duality. It has two protagonists. It straddles two genres--sports movie and family drama. It is both awesome and a complete mess at the same time. I cant even decide if its a good movie or notwhich makes it that much more fun to write about. To make things more digestible, well break things down into three parts: Tommy (Thomas Hardy) , Brendan (Joel Edgerton) , and the Sparta Tournament itself.

Beware. Spoilers abound.

Warrior opens withopening credits. How quaint. Dont see those often anymore. While thats happening, Pop is driving while listening to Moby Dick on tape (Its a white whale, I say, says the book on tape. Its symbolism, says I. Although I dont remember any brothers in Moby Dick. Or kickboxing).

Pop arrives home to find his estranged son drunk on his doorstep.  They talk about past resentments deliver exposition, and I dont give a fuck because Im meeting them for the first time and have no reason to care. Neither of them makes a great first impression: Pop (played by Nick Nolte) comes off to me as simpering and weak while Tommy acts like a sullen dickhead.

This is not a good start...not as an opening scene and certainly not as an introduction to two major characters. It doesnt even serve as a good launch pad for the Tommy/Pop story since Tommy doesnt ask Pop to train him until several scenes later.

This is a good time to ask: What IS Tommys story?

Judging by the next couple of scenes, Tommys story is about two things. First, he gets into the tournament by beating a world-class fighter at his local gym. This is Story One: Tommy wants to win the tournament. Secondly, he enlists his father to train him, which becomes Story Two: Will Tommy and Pop reconcile?

And for the next bit, everything is fine. The opening scene was unnecessary, but were back on the rails. Tommy acts like a jerk, but his father cracks down on him, earning our respect. From there a rejuvenated Pop tries to build an emotional bridge using a poster Tommy made as a teenager to inspire his wrestling career, only to have Tommy tell him again he isn't there for reconciliation. He's there to train. 

Story One: Training for the tournament. Check.

Story Two: The uncertain father/son relationship. Check. So far, so good.

And then it all goes to hell.

Our next Tommy-related scene is a group of soldiers in Iraq weve never seen before. Theyve found film of Tommy beating up the contender that a member of the gym staff uploaded to the internet. They compare it to grainy footage from a tape they're keeping in a locker.

Its him, one of them says.

And I say: What does this have to do with anything?

Tommy has a mysterious past. Fine. How does this relate to Story One or Story Two? Is this something that will impact them down the road? If so, fine. But this feels suspiciously like a Story Three to me.

Except that whose story is it? Tommys IN the story, but he isnt moving it forward. So far, Story Three is: U.S. Soldiers in Iraq solving a mystery.  Scooby Dooby Doo.

And don
t forget, while this is happening,  we have a WHOLE OTHER MAIN CHARACTER (Brendan) doing Main Character Things. Who presumably also has some connection to Tommy seeing as theyre brothers and all, but whatever it is, we haven't seen it. Is this going to be Story Four? A complication to Story One? Story 1-A? Nobody knows.

Mayhaps this next scene will clear everything up. Tommys making a phone call to a woman weve never seen before. Shes the widow of his dead Iraq buddy. Hes going to give her the money he wins from the tournament.

It's a noble gesture, and it fleshes out Tommys motivations for entering, but does it move our story forward?

Let's see...

Story One: Winning the tournament. Well, we know now WHY he wants to win, but does this scene have any impact on whether or not he reaches that goal. Nope

Story Two: Reconciliation with Dad. Nope.

Story Three (?): Well, that whole soldier business was in Iraq and THIS has to do with Iraq, so there that's something.  But this scene doesnt sound like part of a story. It sounds like Talking About Something That Already Happened. And if the Something That Already Happened is so damned interesting, why arent we watching a movie about THAT instead of a glorified karate tournament (And there's been precious little karate so far, let me tell you)?

Next all the fighters arrive at the tournament. Brendan and Tommy see each other. HOLY CRAP! Two Brothers! One Tournament! They havent seen each other in years! Story Four In Da House. SHIT IS ABOUT TO GO DOWN.

Ha, Ha. Just kidding. Nothing happens.

Paging, Story Four. If theres a Story Four in the building would you please make your way to the Starting Gate?

Moving on

Pop sees U.S soldier in Iraq talking on the news about Tommy rescuing him from an armoured vehicle. Pop is duly impressed but when he tries to talk to Tommy about it, Tommy storms out.

Ummokay, I guess. Thats one mystery solved. So Story Three is over, then?

Brendan finds Tommy on the beach. I'll talk about this scene more in Part 3. For now, lets stick to how it relates to Tommys story.

Brendan and Tommy argue. Tommy reveals hes mad at Brendan for choosing their father and his (Brendans) girlfriend-now-wife over Tommy and their mother. He storms out . Social workers, addictions counsellors, family support specialists, and conflict-management  nerds in the audience nudge their partners and murmur, are you noticing the pattern in Tommys behaviour? Partners shush their them and fantasize about what life would have been like with that science major they broke up with in college.

Meanwhile, we go to the scorecards.

Story Three (?): Iraq. Nothing.

Story Two: Pop and Tommy. Tommy defends AND insults the old man to his brother, so that ones a wash. No progress there.

Stories One and Four: The tournament. You know the one theyre both fighting in tomorrow? The one where both of them need the money and only one of them can win? That thing where theres the distinct possibility where the two of them and all those mixed emotions they feel for each other will be locked in a cage together in a dance of violence? That thing the whole movie is supposed to be ABOUT ?

What tournament?

Neither man mentions it.

The first time I watched this movie I thought I must have misinterpreted the press conference scene and they hadnt realized they were in the same tournament. I imagined the big reveal where they square off for the first time. Sure, it would be stupid and make no sense, but I can see someone deciding the emotional payoff was worth it.


The brothers knew about each other. They just didnt think it was worth mentioning.

Nothing? Not one thing? No May the best man win or I guess well find out how good Pops training methods really are or For that bullshit move you pulled with Mom, Im going to triangle-choke you until your head pops off and then make you name twenty chocolate bars while I snake-bite you, give you a face wash, and punch you in the balls?

I grew up with a younger brother. I GUARANTEE if we were ever going to square off in a mixed marital arts fight, at least one of those sentences would come out of my mouth. Probably all of them.

I know what youre thinking. Youre thinking: Wow. Dan really hates Warrior.

I can understand why you would think that.

But you would be wrong.

Stay tuned for Part 2.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

More Than Meets The Mind: Robot Therapist -- Episode 1: Thundercracker (Decepticon)

THUNDERCRACKER: It never should have happened.

What shouldn’t have happened?

THUNDERCRACKER: The Battle of Charon. The whole damn thing was supposed to be a simple raid, an energy grab. We should have been in and out. The Autobots shouldn’t have even known about it. Instead it turned into…well, what it turned into.

And you feel responsible.

THUNDERCRACKER: I never said that. (silence) It wasn’t supposed to be…it wasn’t supposed to be anything. Just a raid. And that shuttle got away…

Tell me about the raid.

THUNDERCRACKER: It was routine. Ratbat found the planet. Ravage did the initial recon. It was supposed to be a cakewalk. One ore refinery. Megatron didn’t even bother with the combiners. Just the three of us to soften up the locals from the air, Soundwave’s crew for the ground assault, and the Constructicons standing by to pick up what we needed and built a one-way Space Bridge to take the goodies home…

When you say ‘us’ you mean…

THUNDERCRACKER: The Seekers. Me, Skywarp, and Starscream. I was actually looking forward to it. Just the three of us, no coneheads to babysit…it was like old times…back when it was--well it wasn’t fun but you knew everybody, you know? Rumble was gonna trash talk and Skywarp was going to do something stupid, and Soundwave was gonna be a giant prick. Hell, you even got to recognize some of the Autobots after a while. You weren’t friends or anything, but…I can’t explain it. You’d look across the battlefield and you’d see familiar faces and it felt…it felt like things were the way they were supposed to be. Now I don’t even recognize half the faces on our side, let alone the Autobots. When I first saw them I thought the Stunticons WERE Autobots. Thank god, for recognition software, that’s all I’ll say.

So part of you feels a kinship with the Autobots.

THUNDERCRACKER: Well, we’re all Transformers. We’re all fighting for what we believe in, we’re just on different sides. It’s never personal.. The only guy I really hate is Mirage, and that’s a personal thing. He’s got one foot in and one foot out, and I can’t stand people who won’t pick a damn side. You can’t trust a guy like that. He’s one guy I go out of my way to take a shot at.

Let’s go back to the raid on Charon.

THUNDERCRACKER: Like I said, it was routine. Megatron ordered us to go in at seven from the Northeast because he needed the Constructicons for something else later; Starscream started the attack at seven-fifteen from the East because, well, because he’s Starscream.

And how did you feel about Starscream’s decision?

THUNDERCRACKER: Tactically, who cares? The refinery wasn’t exactly Omega Supreme. We fly in backwards and blindfolded, we were still going to crush those jabronis. It’s just a pain in the ass, this constant petty political bullshit. I just want to do my job and go home.

So Starscream’s decision to delay the initial assault had no bearing on what happened next?

THUNDERCRACKER: No. I mean, yes. They had a couple more minutes after we showed up in orbit. But it wasn’t going to do them any good. Soundwave had jammed their communications. They had no defense to speak of.

But a few of them had time to get to that shuttle.

THUNDERCRACKER: It didn’t matter. Yeah, maybe it gave them some prep time, but that shuttle wasn’t in the air until the attack was underway. In MY quadrant.

But by that time there was nothing you could have done. According to your report, you were on the other end of the complex, finishing a strafing run when you saw it. There was no way you could have turned in time to stop it before it broke atmosphere.


Thundercracker, no matter what you may feel, the Battle of Charon was not your fault. It’s normal to feel guilty, but under the circumstances, there was nothing you could have…

THUNDERCRACKER: I lied in my report.

I beg your pardon?

THUNDERCRACKER: I lied. I wasn’t on the other end of the complex. I saw the shuttle taking off before I started my run. I could have taken them out before they got off the runway.

So why didn’t you?

THUNDERCRACKER: I didn’t think they could do any harm.

You let them go.

THUNDERCRACKER: Yeah, I let them go. Does that make me a bad person? They were helpless. They weren’t soldiers, just a crew of refinery jockeys. They couldn’t fight back if they wanted to. What was I supposed to do, just blow them to pieces because they happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time?

I was trying to be merciful. I was trying to do a good thing.

I thought I was SAVING lives.

And look what happened instead.

Cloverfield: A Love Story

How many people are involved in getting a movie into my DVD player, do you think?

There are the producers who set the budget, and the writers who turn a concept into a script. Then you have actors and directors and make-up artists and visual effects people and gaffers and best boys. You have special effects artists and composers. You have the DVD manufacturer and the guys in the truck who delivered it to my local library.

That’s a lot of time, money and work so I can sit at home and be entertained instead of dusting my furniture.

I don’t often think to be thankful to all those people, but the other night, as the credits rolled, I bowed in my living room and breathed a quiet thank you .

Which movie was I watching, that touched my heart so deeply, you ask?

Would you believe Cloverfield?

For those of you who don’t know the movie, Cloverfield is the story of a a young man who is leaving to take a job in Japan.  The young man’s brother and the brother’s girlfriend, who have also dragooned the young fellow’s best friend to document the festivities with a hand held camera.

And there is a girl, of course, the woman the young man loves. Where she is concerned he has, in the words of Gob, “made a huge mistake.”

Oh and there’s a giant monster that rips the head off the Statue of Liberty and rampages through Manhattan.
It doesn’t end well for our heroes. The best-friend and-cameraman gets bitten in half. The young man and the love of his life are presumably killed by friendly fire when the military bombs Central Park. The brother is smooshed by a tail on the Brooklyn Bridge and another woman gets bitten by a spider-crab-dog monster, bleeds from her eyes, and explodes.

So why then did Cloverfield leave me misty-eyed and with a heart full of gratitude?

Because Clovefield is not a monster movie.

Cloverfield is a human movie.

Granted, almost all monster movies, at their core, are about humans. A Nightmare on Elm Street is about learning that not only are our parents not always able to save us, but we are also sometimes victims of their unfinished business. Deep Blue Sea is about scientific hubris. The Thing asks us to take a look the people we work beside every day and whispers: how well do we know them, really?

At the same time, the story of these movies is the story of the monster. Where did it come from? What does it want? How do we kill it? It doesn’t matter if they’re child murdering dream monsters, unknowable shape-shifting aliens, or super-smart mako sharks that throw medical gurneys through plate glass windows while doing long-division and explaining Plato’s allegory of the cave in its original Greek. The story is driven by the monsters.

The story that drives Cloverfield is this: Rob needs Beth to know how much he loves her.

The monster is not the problem. The monster is a complication.

Screaming pedestrians are a cliché in movies about giant monsters or alien invasions. They‘re bit players. In Cloverfield, the monster is the bit player. The story is the story of just a handful of those screaming pedestrians.

That is one of the reasons I like Cloverfield. It remembers what is important.

Many of us have our own giant monsters. For some these monsters are malignant social injustices such as sexism or racism. Some of us have political monsters: the jackboots of right-wing fascism; those creeping, commie liberals. We may have made a specific cause our monster: Disease, drunk driving, the horrors of violence in videogames or internet pornography.

Sometimes the monsters come from closer to us. Being treated with disrespect is a giant lizard with atomic-breath. Feeling ignored is a skyscraper-climbing ape that needs to be shot down with aeroplanes.

Sometimes those monsters live within our own heart. Fear. Self-sabotage. Guilt. Lack of confidence.

We all have our monsters.

And we want to kill them.

But we sometimes are so caught up in fighting our monsters, we forget about the screaming pedestrians. Other people turn into background players in our personal crusade. We don`t notice what our actions are doing to them. We become so focused on killing our monster, we forget the reason we took up arms against it in the first place, which was to reduce the amount of damage and human suffering in the world.

Cloverfield doesn`t forget. Its main characters comfort one another, grieve as much as possible given their circumstances, and go on to the best of their ability. While Rob has committed himself to finding Beth, he gives his friends multiple opportunities to back out and makes it clear he won`t think less of them. From the beginning of the movie--even before the monster appears--to the end, they care about one another.

And the secondary characters are no different. The first police officer we see isn`t staring upwards, slack-jawed, or popping off rounds at the monster with his service pistol. He`s directing people towards safety. The military has guns and tanks and uniforms, yes. But they also have ambulances and medical personnel and gurneys. We see them attacking the creature. But we also see them evacuating civilians and taking care of the wounded.

It`s easy to miss these things because the film doesn`t dwell on them. There`s no agonized slow motion facial expressions or swells of background music to turn moments of small, quiet heroism into grand gestures.

And to me that`s what makes it all the more remarkable. Because in letting us see so much of the best in human nature, and refusing to highlight it, Cloverfield tells us that kindness and empathy is not the exception, it`s the rule.

People are essentially good…and in crisis they are even better.

I don`t see this a lot in monster movies. Many show acts of kindness or self-sacrifice as something rare, that altruism is a rare quality that is the province of a special few--larger than life heroes or failures redeeming themselves in one magnificent final act.

It`s not true. Anyone can be kind at any time.

Others show us degenerating when things get bad. Burke locks Ripley and Newt in the medical lab with the alien. Walking Dead characters do twisted Walking Dead things. The monsters don’t just destroy us, they rip our social fabric to shreds, leaving us society gone and showing us to be at our core cowardly, selfish, and cruel.

It`s not true. Confronted with an outside threat, people pull together, not apart.

Most of us don’t just fear crisis. We fear the way we and the people around us will react. Will we run away or freeze? Will we find ourselves turning against our friends and neighbours? Will we abandon the things that matter most to us?

The people behind Cloverfield say no. And for that, I am grateful.