Monday, March 19, 2012

Game Change

            There’s something odd about making historical movies so soon after the event happened.  Even a good decade means that there’s at least been a generational gap, although major events will always remain in the public’s mind.  Game Change is coming out a mere 4 years after Sarah Palin’s attempt at vice-presidency.  Yet with another election just around the corner, the timing on this couldn’t be better, especially on showing how bad the last 4 years could’ve been.
            John McCain (Ed Harris) knows he needs something to help him in the polls.  Steve Schmidt (Woody Harrelson) suggests getting a charismatic woman as his VP, and eventually Alaskan governor Sarah Palin (Julianne Moore) is picked.  And from there, we should all know what happened.
            Obviously, the movie doesn’t really need to focus on the history part of this.  20-30 years from now, maybe.  As it stands, what it’s really meant to show is just how big a mistake was almost made.  It quickly becomes clear to everyone involved, from the staff to the viewer, that Sarah Palin was unprepared and nobody knew it.  The checks weren’t made, people weren’t asked the right questions, nothing was done right.  And how unprepared she was is simply terrifying.  No matter what your political stance is, the honest fact the movie shows is that, emotionally and intellectually, she should not have been vice president, and the constant threat looming over of John McCain dying in office and leaving her in charge could’ve been downright dangerous.
            The other big focus the movie has is on the media.  The movie constantly switches between its own footage and archival footage of various news outlets (along with Tina Fey’s portrayal on Saturday Night Live).  All of it is shown to give the pure feeling of how Palin wasn’t ready.  When she agrees that she can handle the media early on, you might wince knowing just what happened.  And yet, for all the constant criticisms of her, we’re also reminded of the 48 hour news cycle.  Schmidt says at one point that it doesn’t matter how much you screw up, in 48 hours the media won’t remember as long as you make a great speech in the meantime.  And Palin makes some great charismatic speeches.  We come to two big questions.  Could she have ultimately actually come out on top, even with all the speeches she made?  And will anybody even remember anything she did in 20 years?  Oh sure, we’ll probably latch on to her biggest mistakes (people still joke about Al Gore inventing the internet), but will we really remember how close we might’ve been to having Palin as president?
            In a way, the movie stands as a historical artifact this way, a way to exist past the 48 hour news cycle and stand as a constant reminder of what surely would’ve been a political disaster.  Especially as we get closer to Election Day.

21 Jump Street

            I’ve never seen an episode of 21 Jump Street in my life.  Up until recently, I probably couldn’t even tell you anything about the show besides “Johnny Depp was on it, right?”  This didn’t stop me from being rather wary about a 21 Jump Street movie, especially one that’s playing the concept for comedy when I know the original series was serious.  But then I found out it was directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller, who also directed Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs.  For those who did not see Cloudy, it took the book and loaded up on self-referential humor, ridiculousness, and an armory worth of Chekov’s guns, and they made it all work.  And 21 Jump Street takes the same concepts, and shows they still work in live-action.
            Schmidt (Jonah Hill, who also developed the story) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) are former high school classmates who ended up on the police force together.  Schmidt has the brains and Jenko has the brawn, yet they’re still completely incompetent and screw up their first arrest.  This leads to them getting put in the 21 Jump Street program (a program explained as “an old concept that’s been recycled because we’ve run out of ideas”), which puts young-looking cops into a high school to attempt to infiltrate a drug ring.  Unfortunately, an early schedule screw-up means that Schmidt ends up with the popular kids, while Jenko gets put with the nerds.  And naturally, hilarity ensues.
            Part of the reason the movie works so well is that it plays the concept for laughs.  Yes, I’m sure 21 Jump Street was a perfectly great show back in the day, but the very concept just makes me raise an eyebrow now.  Instead, it takes everything about it, gathers up as many cop and high school tropes as it can, and parodies them all.  The chief of Jump Street (played by Ice Cube, in what’s a surprisingly good role for the man who did Are We There Yet? and Are We Done Yet?) outright admits from the start that he’s the angry black chief, and his simple plan of “infiltrate the dealers, find the supplier” is just repeated with no questions answered.  A car chase partway through the movie takes place in the middle of traffic, along with several other ridiculous things happening along the way.  And in the middle of this, there’s, let’s just say it, dick jokes.  Lots and lots of dick jokes.  Yet they’re well-written dick jokes.  After all, Jonah Hill basically started his career on dick jokes in Superbad.  They don’t feel forced or groan-worthy.  They have that almost naturalistic feel, the casual but ridiculous conversations that these characters constantly have.  That just happen to revolve around dicks.
            And for all the laughter, the movie still manages to hit the right amount of heart and morals.  After all, it is a movie about repeating high school, the question being what would you do different the second time around.  The nerd finding out that he actually fits in with the popular kids in the 7-year interim and the popular kid finding out that, not only are his antics no longer appreciated, but he’s now stuck with the nerds.  The completely different aspect for the two not only gets some laughs, but it also gets the thought of how different things could’ve been.  Now, some of the beats the story hits have been done far too many times before and aren’t even played for laughs (does it even ruin anything if I say that there’s a disconnect between Jenko and Schmidt at some point in the movie?).  It somehow manages to work, but it does feel a little bit routine, and a few more laughs at some points could’ve probably helped.
            Really, considering my expectations for a 21 Jump Street movie were pretty much “Why?” this movie far exceeded them.  It’s a smart, but crude, comedy that has enough thought behind it to actually make it lasting rather than just another R rated comedy.  Which is always nice.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective

            I might as well just say this outright: If I had played Ghost Trick before I made my 5 must-play video games of the year, it might’ve topped the list.  Hell, if I went right now and made a list of my top 5 favorite DS games, I can almost guarantee Ghost Trick would be on it, right next to the Ace Attorney games by the same creator.  I just want to make it clear from the start, I could just as easily call this “I rave about Ghost Trick for several pages”.
            The game starts with your character dead.  Well, really, were you expecting something else out of a game called Ghost Trick?  Naturally, you’re a ghost, and unfortunately, your character has complete amnesia at the start.  Pretty soon, he finds out who he is and that he can use his powers to manipulate objects, along with rewinding time back to 4 minutes before people’s deaths to save them (but not his own death).  And he also finds out that, if he doesn’t figure out who he is by dawn, he’s going to vanish.  Of course, what follows is one night full of mysteries, questions, and lots of people dying.
            You’ll have to excuse the fact that I’m being rather vague with the plot.  The honest part of it is that it’s hard to talk about the plot without spoiling things.  Now, I will get to the gameplay, and it’s excellent, but it is the plot and the writing that makes this game so great, which is rather what’d you expect from the creator of the Ace Attorney games.  And what makes the plot great is that it gives you information when it gives you information.  It gives you each layer slowly, answering a question while making you ask two more.  Every character comes back, every line of dialogue means something different.  This is the kind of game where, after finishing it, even though it’s completely linear, I could easily go right back in and look for all the clues that were dropped from the start to several of the game’s major twists.  Really, the story dominates the game to the effect of almost being like a visual novel, albeit with gameplay completely unlike that genre (I’ll get to it, I swear).
            And along with a great story comes great writing.  Again, what can I say, Ace Attorney, expected, etc.  It just gives you characters that are entirely memorable.  Well, part of that also comes with the character designs.  There are “generic” designs for characters, characters that don’t have completely ridiculous hair or significant features.  But then the writing even elevates these minor characters to unique status.  The dialogue is just incredibly well-balanced.  It’s expository without being boring.  It’s hilarious at times, and then it will just turn around and touch you in unexpected ways.  I swear one of the lines near the end had me laugh at the same time that tears came to my eyes.  There’s few movies outside of Pixar that can get that kind of emotional resonance from me, and yet a DS game got me.  It’s just that good.
            I suppose at some point in the realm of a game, we should talk about the gameplay.  It is mainly as described before: people die, and you have to go back and manipulate objects to prevent their deaths.  The main thing is that you can only hop between objects fairly close to each other.  This means that, half the time, simply figuring out how to get close to the objects you actually have to manipulate in order to prevent the death can be a challenge.  Generally, it requires hopping around, seeing where people go during the four-minute timeframe, what manipulating objects does, and so on until suddenly there’s that moment where everything clicks.  You realize you use that, that goes there, and suddenly fate has been averted.  It’s a satisfying feeling.  Of course, the other challenge to the gameplay is that it’s very possible to get stuck somewhere or mess things up in the timeframe.  Fortunately, at that point, you just have to go back again and figure things out.  The game even makes sure to give you checkpoints at certain points so that you don’t have to redo EVERYthing.  It’s like someone took the unwinnable scenarios from old adventure games and actually made them palatable.  You can mess up, but it’s so easy to go back that it’s not a hassle.  Really, what the gameplay does is give adventure games a fresh innovation, that stays true to the genre in its own ways while at the same time doing something fairly unique.  I can’t say no other game has done it, but it’s so fun and simple to learn that it just works well.
            Ghost Trick is simply just one of those games I love.  It’s well-written, it has a great story, fun gameplay, and it all comes together to make an experience that’s near-perfect.  It’s even available on iOS now with the first two chapters for free.  There’s just no excuse for not playing it.