Sunday, June 20, 2010


My father died suddenly. I found out some days later via email, from a distant relative who had no other way of getting in contact with me. My father and I had not been close in recent years. I loved him, but he could be an impossible man, and we simply didn't know how to reach across the divide old wrongs had created and relate to each other. This made saying goodbye difficult.

In the days and weeks following his death, memories I didn't know I had came to me like things dredged up from the depths of the ocean. Some of them were trash, some were treasures. Amidst these memories, I finally found my closure. But if I could have, I think I would have availed myself of the services of the NK Agency, whose work is at the core of the lyrical Japanese drama, Departures.

I begin with these personal details not to elicit sympathy or to make this about me, but rather because I think Departures is a film that, more even than most, we see through the lens of our own experiences. It makes us reflect on our own feelings about death, and about life. I certainly couldn't help but see profound echoes of my own life in Daigo's experiences.

Daigo has always dreamed of being a cellist. But after his orchestra in Tokyo is disbanded due to a lack of funding, he must put his dream aside and get a practical job to support himself and his wife. Responding to an ad in the paper for what he believes is a travel agency, he is greeted with the world's shortest job interview.

“Will you work hard?”


“You're hired.”

What he doesn't know at that point is the boss's gift for sizing people up. The boss later tells him, “You were born to do this.” I had the feeling he'd known this since he'd first laid eyes on Daigo. When confronting people at their most vulnerable is a part of your job, it helps to be perceptive about them.

For as it turns out, NK is not a travel agency. They are an “encoffinment” service. They perform the ritual of preparing the deceased for departure from this life. The ritual is a kind of performance, and it is of course not for the benefit of the dead, but for the living. We see Daigo and the boss perform the ritual for a number of families, each grieving in their own very different way. One man pushes his grief at his wife's death down deep inside him, and struggles to maintain a facade of stone. But during the ritual, Daigo and the boss add that perfect detail the man needed to recognize his wife, to grieve and to say goodbye. In another, the encoffinment ritual offers the parents of the deceased a last chance to make up for past wrongs to their departed child by finally acknowledging the identity they had always denied her. (Yes, this hit me pretty hard.)

As Daigo and the boss went about their work, I was powerfully reminded of the pair of casualty notification service officers played by Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster in The Messenger. Their unenviable role is to deliver the shattering news that begins the grieving process, while the NK Agency offers a chance to start bringing it to a close, but both pairs see people at their most
vulnerable. Casualty notification is a terrible duty, but also, as Harrelson's character describes it, a sacred one. I think the same is true of the encoffinment service in Departures. Not everyone sees it that way, and much of the film's drama lies in Daigo's struggles to accept his new occupation, and in the ways he is shunned by some for what they view as shameful work.

Of course they don't understand the dignity in what he does. They haven't seen it. We have. And crucially, during scenes of encoffinment and throughout the film, the camera is typically still, drinking in the events in long takes that transport us, without distraction, into the homes of the bereaved, and the film's other lovely locations. At the disused coffee shop that once belonged to Daigo's father, old records line the walls, and the stillness of the camera lets us absorb the place so completely, we can almost smell the musty air and feel the weight of memory.

All of this may sound terribly serious, and in many ways it is. But just as in life, humor sometimes emerges from the most serious of circumstances, and I was repeatedly impressed by how deftly and naturally the film followed up its most heartbreaking moments with moments of quiet, honest humor.

I was surprised, after viewing the film,to see it criticized by some for its sentimentality. I have a strong distaste for calculated sentimentality, for musical flourishes during sappy moments to create a pull on the heartstrings where none has been earned. Yes, Departures is a sentimental film, but it earns its sentimentality. Its tugs on the heartstrings—and they are numerous and powerful—are rooted in truth, and the musical flourishes that punctuate one of the film's most memorable scenes come straight from Daigo's heart.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Undiscovered country: My early impressions of the world of Red Dead Redemption

It’ll probably be a long time before I can comment on how Red Dead Redemption, the pioneering Western from Rockstar, ends, but I can say that it starts brilliantly. In the opening scene, your protagonist, John Marston, rides a train to the town of Armadillo, giving you not only a glimpse of the beautiful, untamed frontier country where the game takes place, but also a glimpse into the issues that loom large in this rapidly changing America of 1910. Two old biddies behind Marston bicker about the intersection of money and politics, while in front of him, a young lady expresses some bold new ideas about the nature of good and evil, only to be gently but firmly set straight by the traditional preacher who accompanies her. Indeed, Red Dead Redemption seems to be largely about the collision of the old and new, of shifting ideas about religion and politics, but also of the products of industry—cars and telephones both make early appearances--starting to dramatically change the way people live their lives. In the superb Grand Theft Auto IV, Rockstar demonstrated an earnest desire to explore the cultural forces that shape this country, and Red Dead Redemption seems poised to follow in that game’s footsteps.

Of course, every great Western needs a great protagonist at its center, and Marston seems to be made from the same mold as some of the genre’s greatest. An early scene provides him with the motivation for revenge that drives him in at least the earliest part of the story, but reveals little about him, leaving him with that hint of a shady past and that aura of mystery that can be so alluring in a man on horseback. He’s not so reticent, though, that we can’t connect with him. On the contrary, he treats kind people with the warmth becoming of a gentleman, and has an invitingly self-deprecating sense of humor. Of course, to a large extent, who John Marston is is up to you. My John Marston, like the person controlling him, seems to be something of a ne’er-do-well, and has spent more time in the Armadillo saloon playing poker than exploring the frontier, doing good deeds for troubled strangers. Clearly, this country was built by harder-working people than me.

But now that I’m sitting here at work on a lunch break, I’m positively desperate to get back to the world of Red Dead Redemption, to see what’s waiting for me out in that wild landscape. It’s clear, even at this very early stage, that this game is something special, a product of rare ambition and quality, and, if it delivers on the promise of its earliest moments, of rare meaning, too.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Memories of murders at the movies

Lately, I've seen three films that I've found deeply absorbing, all dealing with the consequences of corruption in systems of justice. Seeing them in close proximity to each other has had a profound effect on me, and they've grown into a kind of trilogy inside me, the thematic relationships between them increasing their power in my subconscious. I can't find the words to do them justice by half, but I need to try to process them.


Memories of Murder, 2003, directed by Bong-joon Ho

I'd not heard of this film until I saw it listed among Cinema Scope's best films of the past decade. Bong Joon-ho had also directed the great creature feature The Host, and I love a good crime film. I had to see it. I was not quite prepared for just how good it was.

Memories of Murder is a police procedural inspired by the investigation of South Korea's first known serial killer. In the provincial area where the murders are taking place, police procedure often involves trying to coerce confessions out of suspects who may or may not be guilty. A cop from Seoul, Detective Seo Tae-Yoon (Kim Sang-Kyeong) shows up to help with the investigation and his determination to get it right and to not just wrap things up by squeezing a confession out of an innocent man leads to a lot of tension between him and the local cop at the forefront of the investigation (Song Kang-ho, at least as valuable here as in The Host). Also making things difficult is the lack of forensic technology available in South Korea at the time, requiring DNA evidence to be shipped off to the U.S. for processing. In this corrupt and deeply lacking environment, the standards of Detective Seo may prove unsustainable.

Song Kang-ho's character initially seems like a sad and unredeemable excuse for a police officer. But there are situations in life that can change us. There's a final scene and a final image here that belong to Kang-ho, and that, for me, make up one of the most perfect and unforgettable conclusions to a film that I can recall seeing. It's a powerful evocation of how moments long gone can continue to haunt us forever, of how, as it's phrased in the film Magnolia, "We may be through with the past but the past ain't through with us."


The Secret in Their Eyes (El secreto de sus ojos), 2009, directed by Juan José Campanella

A very different film with a lot of very similar themes, this Argentinian movie won the Oscar for best foreign film. Some have criticized it for being too conventional, but I admit, I love its conventionality. It is a film in the classic tradition, deliberately paced, expertly directed, confident and beautiful.

Jumping between the mid-1970s and the late-1990s, this is a story of a retired legal official (Ricardo Darin, whose eyes speak volumes) now writing a novel that's inspired by a murder case that continues to obsess him, some 20-plus years later. His efforts, and his long-burning feelings for his former superior, lead him to seek her out, and we are privileged to sit in on their intimate conversations.

The film works both as an absorbing love story and as a compelling crime thriller, and like Memories of Murder, it's also a criticism of corrupt systems of justice. It finds humor in unexpected moments and is gorgeously photographed, cutting loose from its mannered confines for one exhilarating scene at a packed soccer stadium, strung together as one long take, a shot made no less ingenious by the certain use of computer effects.

Some films with hefty political messages to convey can't balance their agendas with the human factor. This one absolutely does. I really feel I came to know the two central characters who, in the looks they share, say "I love you" again and again even when decorum prevents them from saying it aloud.


The Thin Blue Line, 1998, directed by Errol Morris

And lastly, a non-fiction film that explores a miscarriage of justice in the United States. This documentary is about the murder of a police officer in 1976 and how an overzealous district attorney, obsessed with maintaining his conviction/death penalty rate, had an innocent man put on death row for the crime. It's been described as the first film that actually solves a real-life murder mystery. It's also credited as the film that popularized the use of dramatic reenactments, but what I love about Morris' recreations is that they're impressionistic and dreamlike, much more haunting than the typical straightforward crime reenactments you often see on television. They confuse the actual event more than clarify it, which is only appropriate, as we hear wildly differing eyewitness accounts and interpretations of the moments just prior to the murder. While the facts of the case are compelling in and of themselves, Morris turns them here into something deeply cinematic.


When systems of justice fail the people they are meant to serve, when they persecute the innocent and let the guilty go free, everyone suffers.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

High Hopes for Game Room

Wanna come over and play Asteroids?

The reactions I've seen to Game Room have been pretty divided. A lot of people just don't see the appeal of using a powerful modern console to play ugly, thirty-year-old games. And I can understand this, especially if you're not old enough to remember these games in their heyday. It can be hard, after playing visually stunning games like God of War III, to see beyond the simple graphics and one-button gameplay of Outlaw and understand that this is what once passed for thrilling multiplayer competition.

For me, the appeal of Game Room is clear. But then, I grew up with the Atari 2600 and with smoky, neon-lit arcades in which you couldn't hear yourself think over the noise of all the machines. What wonderful times those were.

People say that games today are better. In many cases, that's true. But I also think that games today are different in a crucial way. Most games today are story-driven, and most of those games establish a difficulty that makes it possible for just about anyone to complete that story and have a satisfying experience. That's all well and good, and I adore many games that fit this description. But I think there remains something to be said for games that are pure, unforgiving tests of skill, just you vs. the machine, where your only goal is to earn as high a score as possible. The appeal of this philosophy lives on in newer games like Geometry Wars and Pac-Man: Championship Edition, but the best early examples of this are timeless. Asteroids Deluxe, probably my favorite Game Room launch title, is a game that remains a thoroughly captivating test of skill. Most games in the Game Room launch may not hold up quite so well, but I've sunk over 45 minutes into Asteroids Deluxe, with much of that time spent trying to surpass a friend on the leaderboards. (Game Room encourages this by having banners above each machine that display the name and score of the highest-ranked person on your friends' leaderboard.) When I finally did it, the result was a sense of accomplishment of the sort the mostly relatively easy games of today seldom deliver. The faithfully recreated cabinet, so detailed that I can read the fine text on the front as I'm playing (selecting Cabinet view in the Graphics options) is icing on the cake.

There are definitely some serious, frustrating bugs and performance issues in Game Room that need to be ironed out. And it's disappointing that, while the cabinets for the Atari arcade games have the authentic artwork, the Konami ones are utterly featureless. But in addition to Asteroids Deluxe, I find Centipede and Gravitar to be so pure and simple that they're as compelling to me today as they ever were, and I've even been introduced to Shao-lin's Road, a fun game I'd somehow never heard of before that's a follow-up to Yie Ar Kung-Fu, an arcade cIassic I once loved. And the versatility of the Challenge feature means I can test my skills against those of my friends in ways that were never possible in the good old days, when all I could hope for was to enter my initials on a machine's high score screen. Now I can get creative, establishing challenges that start at any point in a game, based on score or survival. It's awesome, when it's working properly.

I look forward to more games like these, old favorites that have stood the test of time as well as cIassics I've never played before, hitting Game Room. With my own arcade, I can finally fulfill my childhood dream of being like Ricky on "Silver Spoons."

We all had that dream, right?

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Greenberg: "Hurt people hurt people."

I expect that some people will come away from the new Noah Baumbach film Greenberg disliking the movie because they dislike the main character. Disliking Ben Stiller's Roger Greenberg is understandable. He doesn't earn our admiration and he doesn't deserve our sympathy. He's really quite an asshole. He lashes out at everyone and everything, penning vitriolic letters to American Airlines over seating conditions and to Starbucks for the Starbucksification of culture. Mostly, he lashes out at the person who deserves it the least: Florence, his brother's family's 25-year-old assistant, who is far more patient with Roger than he deserves.

But Florence understands what many others don't. She knows that not everyone has the skills necessary to function like a normal person in society, that what is absolutely effortless for most is downright impossible for others. “Normal things are hard for him,” she says in Roger's defense to a girlfriend who wonders why she puts up with him at all. At times, we can see that she asks herself that, too. But she must understand that in some way, it's not really her he's tearing to shreds when he launches into rant after rant, but himself.

He certainly has reasons to be angry at himself. At 25, he was in an up-and-coming band. With characteristic self-absorption, he made a decision on his own that affected the fate of everyone in the group. Though one of his former bandmates, Ivan (Rhys Ifans), makes an effort to maintain a friendship with Roger, they've never really forgiven him for it. They (and we) are flabbergasted by how, for so long, he still fails to outwardly take responsibility for his actions. A conversation late in the film is fascinating for the way in which this finally shifts for Roger, and for how, even in the midst of acknowledging that he behaved poorly, he still directs his anger outward at Ivan, who has made peace with the normal family life that replaced the rock stardom he once dreamed of, the sort of normal life that would be so impossible for Roger.

Greta Gerwig is great as Florence. It's a natural performance that conveys the complexity of her feelings about Roger and about herself in subtleties. She doesn't know what she wants to do with her life, which perhaps is why she gravitates to the 40-year-old Roger, who, after a nervous breakdown, is just “trying to do nothing for a while.” I still found it hard to accept that this rather wonderful young woman would get involved with such a neurotic misanthrope as Roger, but he certainly has no chance with a responsible woman his own age, at least not yet. Perhaps his relationship with Florence will help him grow into a man who does. At the very least, he should come away from it being a bit less of an asshole.

I didn't like Roger. But as someone who sometimes feels like I'm fumbling my way through life while everyone else has all the answers, I did see a bit of myself in him, and I did like this film.


Friday, March 12, 2010

Green Zone: Perhaps a bit too satisfying

Note: This commentary contains "spoilers." It won't spoil anything if you've seen the trailer for the film (which, like most trailers, gives away way too much) or if you've been paying any attention to news for the past seven years, but if you want to go into the film knowing as little as possible, see the movie before reading this.


Green Zone, the new Greengrass-Damon collaboration, feels like a natural extension of the Bourne films they made together. Damon's hero is a smidge less far-fetched, though he still gets his Bourne-like action movie moment, and the political concerns are a bit more prominent, though they're still couched in a movie that is concerned first and foremost with being entertaining. And it is entertaining, even when the guns aren't blazing. Greengrass creates a sense of heightened activity and unrest in Baghdad, demonstrating again, as he did in the Bourne films and United 93, his talent for immersing us in locations that feel real. When action does break out, it's thrilling and visceral. But it was the political concerns that drew me to the film. I expect that some comparisons to The Hurt Locker may be made, but the two films actually have little in common in my view. Locker is set during the Iraq war, but it is about the psychology of its central character. Green Zone is about the war. Damon's character is just the tool the film uses to raise its questions.

Green Zone takes place in 2003, and Matt Damon's Roy Miller is on the ground in Baghdad to search for the WMDs that were Bush's excuse for sending us there. In location after location, Miller and his team come up empty. Miller starts to get frustrated, and to ask unpleasant questions about the source and quality of their intel. In doing so, he's clearly standing in for many of us who remember the frustration of those months, the sense that we as a nation had let ourselves be duped. He raises the questions with his superiors, with government officials and with Lawrie Dayne (the always excellent Amy Ryan), a Wall Street Journal reporter whose stories have supported the administration's claims about WMDs. Her stories make repeated reference to an Iraqi informant named Magellan. Miller's pursuit of Magellan leads both to the film's biggest and best action chase sequence, and to Miller discovering the truth we now all know about the existence of WMDs in Iraq.

The film smartly takes its title from the heavily protected zone in the heart of Baghdad that is depicted here as a luxurious area of babes and beer. It's appropriate because life in that zone betrays none of the tumult going on just outside, because the administration's policies were foolhardy and hopelessly out of touch with reality. It may be that in years to come, this will be one of the films that helps define our view of the war. But it's just a bit too ham-fisted in its handling of the questions that drive it to be the film the Bush administration's manipulation of the American people deserves. At one point, Miller confronts the smarmy government official who, in the film's version of events, seems to be single-handedly responsible for engineering the WMD deception, and yells, “The reasons we go to war always matter!” It's too precise in its confrontation of an issue that made many of us feel misled and deeply unsatisfied. Trying to vicariously deliver the satisfaction we'll never get from that situation feels a bit like cheating here.


Saturday, January 23, 2010

Regarding raindrops

Regarding raindrops-

I remember watching raindrops roll
And skitter
On the windshield of my father's car
Speeding under the stormy all-swallowing sky
of Colorado
Watching them weave
Between their brethren
I would pick one
Whose journey seemed promising
I was absorbed in the outcome
Would it work its way to the window's edge and escape alone
And whole
Or would it touch another
Become something other
Larger than itself
And be absorbed?