Monday, June 18, 2012

Silent Hill Series, pt. 9

Silent Hill: Downpour -- Bad Boy, Bad Boy, Whatcha Gonna Do?

The evolution of the Silent Hill series (some might say de-evolution) is certainly interesting to experience. From humble beginnings, the franchise peaked quickly and then descended into a sometimes brilliant, often frustrating stew of experimentation and tweaks to the material. I feel like the Glory Days are gone; we probably won’t get anything else as good as Silent Hill 2, at least not while anyone other than Konami is building the world. With our expectations adjusted, let’s take one more stroll down those broken, misty streets as I talk about the latest game, Silent Hill: Downpour. This review doubles as a follow-up to my Cautious Enthusiasm post.

First of all, the elements really aren’t kind to the town of Silent Hill, are they? We’ve had fog, ash, smoke, snow, and now rain. I can’t wait for Silent Hill: Typhoon and Silent Hill: Everything Is On Fucking Fire.

Alright, let’s get the bottom line out of the way first: I give Downpour a thumbs-up, despite acknowledging that it’s nowhere near as good as the first few games and has some big flaws. I give this verdict a lot, don’t I? The gamemakers this time around are clearly in love with the material and Downpour plays as a tender homage, with so many shout-outs to previous titles that you can make a drinking game out of it. Once again, it’s trying to be more like Silent Hill 2 than any other (drink!), but it’s actually bold enough to try tossing some new things into the formula. You play as Murphy Pendleton, a taciturn chap who’s spent some years in prison for crimes that are initially unknown. Considering that the game opens with Murphy bribing a corrupt guard and brutally assaulting a fat guy in a prison shower, we can deduce that he’s in the clink for more than tax evasion. Murphy’s being transferred to another prison when the bus crashes due to lack of road. I’ll give you one guess where. Murphy would like to run for it, but he’s being chased by a lady cop (drink!) with a mysterious grudge against him, and the town itself isn’t gonna let him go without a psychologically tormenting tug-of-war.

Probably the thing I like most about Downpour is the look and feel of its setpieces. We’re in a whole new section of town, which begs the question of how Silent Hill can keep expanding when there’s fucking nobody there, but whatever. The word that popped into my mind as I explored the streets was wartorn. This version of Silent Hill looks like the site of a long, desperate battle that the humans lost. The roads are shattered and choked with makeshift barriers. The houses are shut and fortified. Sinister cop cars, not driven by cops, are on the prowl. Here and there, the earth has opened up into vast chasms, and the buildings teeter on the brink. It’s easy to get lost, and there are countless nooks and crannies where Murphy may find useful items, or even sidequests. Yes, there are sidequests, which is pretty awesome. Most of them take the form of little mini-stories, glimpses into other people’s tortured lives. And make no mistake, they’re not easy to find. Determined as I was to complete as much of the game as possible, I had to consult a walkthrough frequently, and do a ton of backtracking. It’s refreshing that the game is nonlinear and refuses to pander; you seriously have to pay attention to find all the secrets, and that’s good. I honestly loved this take on Silent Hill; it felt real and dreamlike at the same time.

Wish I could say the same for the Otherworld. We know that Silent Hill tends to shift into nightmare mode, but what makes it scary is that you’re still in the same place; it’s just hideously changed. Earlier games force you to re-explore the map, freaked out by the ways in which the familiar environment has become alien. In Downpour, the Otherworld sections have no connection to reality; they’re fucked-up pocket universes without rhyme or reason, and they tend to play out like the world’s least enjoyable carnival rides. Also, Murphy’s always getting chased by this giant red-lit smear that apparently wants to microwave him to death; it reminded me of one harrowing sequence in Silent Hill 3 (drink!), but it takes most of its cues from the chases in Shattered Memories (and drink again!). I don’t think it works as well as either one of them; it’s not scary or even that interesting, just an annoying chore that you often have to try multiple times. Overall, the Otherworld is kind of dumb, more of a grisly theme park than a twisted reflection of reality, and I’m glad the game doesn’t spend too much time there.

Now, what about all the details? Well, combat manages to be simplified and convoluted at the same time. You can only carry one melee weapon and one firearm; the former will break over time like in Origins (drink!), and the latter has few bullets. I liked this basic system and there’s never a lack of long skinny things to hit monsters with, but I rarely used a gun at all, mainly because you have to drop the melee weapon to wield it. The various functions were a bit confusing; pretty much every button on the PS3 controller does something, and I had trouble remembering what was what. The trademark flashlight and radio get a nice upgrade, though. Murphy eventually finds a light with a UV feature that enables him to find invisible clues, and he also gets a police radio, which plays actual dispatches when monsters are near. And the monsters? Eh, they’re alright. There’s not many types and they’re all quite humanoid, which is a different take on the material, to be sure. I didn’t find them scary but they could be startling. Far creepier is Murphy’s clothing, which appears to be an organic lifeform that secretes and absorbs blood depending on its wearer’s health. Also, at random times it will begin to rain, lightly at first and then torrentially. Monsters become more numerous and violent in the rain, and Murphy must seek shelter. Nice touch.

Problem is, a lot of what we get in the game is arbitrary. The constant rain is a pretty vague metaphor, considering it’s in the freaking title. Likewise, it’s hard to tell what a lot of the monsters and visual motifs are supposed to represent. In Silent Hill 2, we can tell why James is seeing what he’s seeing. Murphy’s character is kept ambiguous, in part because his dark deeds change depending on how you play, and so all that symbolism gets lost. Other elements are too un-subtle. One sidequest involves our prison-bitch hero freeing caged birds. How painfully obvious. There’s also a new Pyramid Head analogy (drink up!), a huge dude in a rubber cowl and gas mask who wields a sledgehammer and who is Murphy’s Dark Side, just like he previously served as the Dark Side of James, Travis, and Alex. Dear people who make Silent Hill games, please retire that particular trope. And Murphy’s kind of hard to relate to, especially with his tiny eyes. Seriously, why are his eyes so tiny and close together? Was he a preemie or something? As in Homecoming, the ending you get depends on what you do at specific points (chug!), and it’s very easy to go good or bad. I got a good ending and it was a little too happy. Let’s just say that the protagonists behave in a manner that totally contradicts their previous relationship. As for the supporting characters, they’re mostly there to act tormented and then be quickly killed by their own guilt, as if we were reading the Cliff’s Notes for the plot of Silent Hill 2 (drink!). The exception is a magical black mailman who acts all cryptic and spooky, I guess because these games are no longer safe from Hollywood racial cliches.

One final note: Downpour needed way more troubleshooting. The frame rate is terrible; the game jumps and stutters like mad, especially when you rotate the camera. There’s a few noteworthy glitches, the worst of which occurs in the subway, which Murphy can gradually unlock by doing favors for a hobo. It’s supposed to act as a shortcut, but some of it remained locked even after I’d completed the sidequests, thereby requiring me to wear out Murphy’s shoes as I trudged back and forth across the town. I looked online, and many other people have experienced this glitch. Way to go, Vatra Games. Maybe there’s a reason you only have two titles out.

Downpour didn’t get great reviews, but it gets a decent one from me. It takes a serious swing at recapturing the old vibe, and while it often whiffs, it succeeds hugely in looking awesome, playing pretty well, forcing you to explore and search, and rewarding longtime fans of the series (one tribute to Silent Hill 4 had me giggling with glee). This game could’ve been better, but I had a lot of fun playing it and it gives me some hope that the series will keep entertaining me. Although I’m filled with horror and disgust at the next entry, Book of Memories, which is...I choke on bile even as I type isometric beat-em-up with co-op multiplayer. So, yeah, say goodbye to isolation, claustrophobia, subtlety, dread, and everything that makes Silent Hill good. What’s the best way to suck all the horror out of a horror game? Make it so that you and three buddies can beat the shit out of Pyramid Head! Seriously, I’m fucking pissed. I will not acknowledge Book of Memories as a real Silent Hill game, and I hope it bombs. But I assume that one day, more actual entries will appear, and I’ll be all over them. And there’s a new movie coming out, too! So I may return to this review series. For now, it’s been fun taking you on a tour of my favorite shitty vacation spot. do we get out? I could’ve sworn this road was open, but now it’s in ruins. Weird. And why is it getting dark so early? And did you just hear something nearby?



Friday, June 15, 2012

Silent Hill Series, pt. 8

Silent Hill: The Movie -- Everything’s Gonna Be Okay

Do you know how many times the heroine of the Silent Hill movie tells someone, “Everything’s gonna be okay!”? At least three. And each time, she is lying. It is not going to be okay. Nothing and nobody in this movie is okay. When has anything in Silent Hill ever been okay?

Sorry for the delay. With one thing and another, it took me awhile to get around to my final two reviews. It’ll be a short wait for Silent Hill: Downpour, which I’m playing through right now, but in the meantime, I’ve rewatched the 2006 film adaptation and can give my latest impressions. The movie was directed by Christophe Gans of France, who made Brotherhood of the Wolf, an absolutely fuck-nutters film that’s also one of my favorites of all time. Reviewing Silent Hill: The Movie is a bit tricky because people tend to judge it quite differently based on their experience, or lack thereof, with the games. It got mostly negative reviews from mainstream critics, whereas Silent Hill fans tend to defend it. Obviously, I fall 100% into the latter category...but it’s not right to diss the critics for “not being fans,” because a movie should stand up on its own merits. And as one online review said, is it that I like the film, or that I desperately want to like the film?

Alright, nuts and bolts time. The movie takes the plot from the first Silent Hill game but borrows elements from the second and third. Motherhood is a huge theme this time around, and so the protagonist is now a lady, Rose DaSilva (played by Radha Mitchell), whose frail young daughter, Sharon (Jodelle Ferland, my initial pick for Katniss Everdeen), has chosen somnambulism as a hobby and tends to scream “SILENT HILLLLLLL!!!” in her sleep. For unclear reasons, Rose decides to take Sharon to the town itself against the wishes of her husband (Sean Bean, looking uncomfortable playing a good guy). And you know the drill: Rose’s car crashes, Sharon disappears, and Rose begins a desperate search, eventually teaming up with butch policewoman Cybil Bennett (Laurie Holden) as they are besieged by creepy creatures and the abandoned, ash-choked town undergoes routine reality shifts. Back in the real world, Sean Bean scampers around doing research that serves only to educate the audience. The beautiful Deborah Kara Unger plays Dahlia Gillespie, here reduced to a broken victim. Villain duties fall to the extremely effective Alice Krige as the leader of the Silent Hill Order, who starts out nice-seeming, the key phrase being “starts out.” And....yeah. Events progress with the usual what-the-fuckitude.

If there’s one thing Christophe Gans can do, it’s make a film that looks fantastic. As a fan, I am deeply pleased by the set dressing alone. The haunted town is realized very well, both inside and out, and there are many close parallels with the game. The plot even employs video game logic; a lot of time is devoted to Rose and Cybil just exploring and finding clues that lead them from place to place, and I have no problem with that! I actually prefer it to all the tiresome cultists and their predictable dogma. The monsters aren’t utilized enough, but when they do appear, they look and sound and act just frightening enough. (The exception is the musclebound Pyramid Head, who is way the fuck over the top, yet somehow can’t defeat the ladies when they duck into a closet. Lame.) There’s lots of fire and ash, lots of wonderfully decrepit and detailed setpieces, a huge helping of religious imagery, and little enough gore that when the grisly moments do happen, they pack an extra punch. (I have trouble watching the cruel death of one character, even after repeated viewings.) Kudos also to the sound design, and thank Cthulhu they mostly used music from the franchise! Akira Yamaoka’s compositions work just as well here as they do in the games. It’s true that the film lacks a lot of subtlety; there’s not much time for quiet dread and too much time for loud noises, screaming, and mayhem. Boo to that, I say! However, on the whole, this fan is touched by such a loving cinematic homage.

That said, this is not a very good movie. I mean, I freely admit it. I’m kind to it because I love the Silent Hill series, but newcomers are gonna be pretty damn confused. One thing the movie preserves is the game’s ambiguity, and while we fanboys and -girls expect that, someone with no prior knowledge is in trouble. There is a lot more explanation given than there was in the first game, but it’s presented very awkwardly. The plot keeps pausing to deliver huge chunks of backstory. Poor Sean Bean has nothing to do but discover Useful Information that we can read over his shoulder, although I imagine he’s just grateful that, for once, he doesn’t die. On the whole, the screenplay is very weak and lessens the characters, and the actors can’t always salvage their roles. Radha Mitchell is very good as Rose, but all she really has to do is run, shout, scream, be desperate and determined, and falsely tell everyone it’s gonna be okay. Likewise, the likable Laurie Holden is stalled by the fact that her Officer Bennett is kind of a dope. Everyone else has to be cryptic, or zealous, or clueless, or all three at once. The film is best when it’s focusing on atmosphere and mystery, worst when it’s dominated by lame characterizations. I suppose this is also true of the games, so....yay? Yay that they copied the bad as well as the good?

As a fanboy, there’s one more thing I want to whine about, and that’s the Nature of the Beast. Beware, spoilers follow! In the games, the exact nature of the evil that infests Silent Hill is never truly explained. Alessa Gillespie is the catalyst, but not the origin; the evil merely latches onto her wounded, hate-filled self and rides her all the way to dominion over the town. Part of what we see is real, and part of what we see is (presumably) a projection of Alessa’s hate. The movie adds an extra layer or two of reality; there are even moments when two characters occupy the same space but can’t see or hear one another. I’m down with that. But we also get “Dark Alessa,” a version of the little girl who looks like she’s heading out to audition for The Ring and who talks with the spooky wisdom of an adult. Jodelle Ferland plays this role very well indeed, but the problem (BIG SPOILER) is that she’s the Devil. As in, the Devil. Literally. She pretty much admits it near the end. My response: No, no, no, no, no, NO. WRONG. FALSE. Yes, I know there’s oodles of pseudo-Christian symbology in the Silent Hill series, and I know the movie wants to provide at least a partial explanation, but that was the wrong damn direction to take. It’s too ham-handed. What does it even mean? That Silent Hill is literally a portal to Hell? That Satan has time to fuck around with religious nuts in ratty old mining towns? This twist diminishes the last act of the film; they should have kept the origin of the evil ambiguous, as the games do. Because it’s far more dangerous to piss off the fans than it is to confuse the uninitiated. And that’s my rant.

So, for all its flaws, the Silent Hill movie is a more or less worthy tribute to the games. Is it maybe a little too in love with the source material? Yes. Did it have way too much influence on later games in the series? Yes, but that’s not really the movie’s fault. I’d be harsher if it were supposed to slot into the canon of the games, but since it’s merely an adaptation of what has come before, I’m alright with it. Parts of it are truly incredible to behold, and the actors and filmmakers elevate the sometimes sloppy material. So if anyone says to me, “I’ve been playing the Silent Hill games and I REALLY love them and I wanna see the film but I’m afraid it’s gonna suck; what do you think?” I can just smile and tell’s gonna be okay.


Monday, June 11, 2012

Lord of the Rings Geekout, pt. 2: Best & Worst Changes

For the second half of my unabashedly nerdy look at the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, I’m going to examine some of the differences between Peter Jackson’s films and J.R.R. Tolkien’s novels. Many changes were made, of course, because adapting a thousand-plus-page epic into three movies (even long movies) is a Herculean task. Much must be altered or dropped. Needless to say, many nerds out there will always despise the films because they MISSED THE POINT and TOOK OUT THE BEST STUFF and are HIDEOUSLY DISRESPECTFUL to the books which are the BEST BOOKS EVER WRITTEN. Sorry, nerds, but they’re really not. Tolkien was a folklorist and historian, not a novelist, and while his trilogy is a wonderful, timeless, and groundbreaking example of fantasy, it’s only a mediocre example of literature. But that’s off-topic. Time to analyze Book vs. Movie!

First off, I’ll continue to piss off the Tolkien fanboys by discussing some of the changes Team Jackson made that were actually for the better -- that improved or clarified the plot and made for a more compelling adventure. Controversy ahead!

The 5 Best Changes Made to the LotR Films

5. Showing Stuff Instead of Just Describing It
Tolkien loved to have his characters give long, grandiose monologues about events that had happened, were happening, or would happen. A good filmmaker knows that no one wants to hear about cool stuff when they can see it. The opening battle against Sauron? Saruman’s imprisonment of Gandalf? Gandalf’s zero-gravity fight with the Balrog? Gollum’s origin story? These and many other sequences are only described secondhand in the novels, but in the films, we witness them in all their badassery.
4. Gollum Acting Batshit Crazy
Everyone was impressed by how vivid a character Gollum was, especially considering he was made up of pixels and mocap. Team Jackson got inside the creepy little dude’s head in a big way, creating scenes in which he literally argues and converses with himself. This tug-of-war between well-meaning Sméagol and vicious Gollum was incredible to watch; he stole the show from Frodo and Sam, and his schizo complexity would have won Andy Serkis an Oscar nod if the Academy weren’t run by backwards-minded old carrion birds.
3. No Tom Bombadil
I want to slap people who whine about this character’s exclusion. Seriously, fuck Tom Bombadil. He’s a capering, singing, blue-clad weirdo whom the Hobbits encounter early on, and waaaayyyy too much time is spent on this doofus, his sexy wife, and their awkward interactions with Frodo and company. Tom is supposed to be the avatar of Gaia, or the embodiment of human innocence, or something, but I personally think he’s one of Tolkien’s dumbest creations and he would have worked in the films about as well as a machine gun that fired pink tortoises.
2. Actual Female Characters
Was Tolkien sexist? No, but he was working with tropes of high fantasy, in which women are either stuck on a distant pillar and idealized, or stranded somewhere in the background. It was absolutely necessary that the few female characters in LotR be given depth and complexity, and while it didn’t always work (I’ll get to that shortly), it strengthened the story a good deal. Éowyn in particular is an absolutely wonderful character whom I adore; in the books, she’s austere and humorless and never really seems like a real woman. I also liked that Rohan lady who’s reunited with her kids in Two Towers. Humanity! Tolkien didn’t do it well! But the filmmakers did, thank God.
1. No Scouring of the Shire
People complained that Return of the King (the movie) takes forever to end. They would have rioted if Team Jackson had been dumb enough to include the Scouring of the Shire, an additional adventure that occurs after the Ring has been destroyed and the good guys have triumphed. Frodo and co. return home to discover that Saruman has escaped Isengard and royally fucked things up in the Shire. The place is in ruins, the Hobbits have been enslaved by evil Men, and our heroes must rally and kick some ass. It’s supposed to be a solemn rumination on how innocence can be spoilt and evil can creep in anywhere...but it’s also one extended climax too many. I honestly think that putting this in the movie would have ruined its ending and lessened what came before. And they were going to put it in, initially. So heave a huge sigh of relief that they didn’t, because three or four climactic scenes were more than enough!

But I can’t totally defend the films. I freely admit that a lot of the changes were misguided, bizarre, or just plain dumb. Here are the five that make me groan the most.

The 5 Worst Changes Made to the LotR Films

5. Anachronisms
I’m not a huge fan of the arch manner in which the characters tend to talk. But every now and then, a line of dialogue occurs that makes me facepalm because it is so goddamn inappropriate for a Middle-Earth setting. Examples include “Let’s hunt some Orc!”, “C’mon, we can take ’em!”, and “Looks like meat’s back on the menu, boys!” What exactly were the screenwriters thinking? I believe the worst verbal anachronism comes in a deleted scene in Two Towers where Gimli actually uses the term “nervous system.” D’oh!
4. Arwen Mopes....a Lot
Like I said, I’m grateful that they did something with Tolkien’s sparse female characters. And I have nothing against Liv Tyler. But her misty, dazed portrayal of Arwen clashes with the overall tone and brings the films’ momentum grinding to a halt whenever she appears. She is just not an interesting character (except for the early bit where she rescues Frodo from the Ringwraiths), I feel no investment in her relationship with Aragorn, and...for fuck’s sake, Liv, why are you talking like David After Dentist? Stop moving in slow motion, Liv! Stop it! Can someone turn the actual movie back on?
3. Elves to the Rescue!
Those Elves sure know how to make an entrance. Unfortunately, Team Jackson apparently decided that their main function was to pop up and save the day in ways that make no goddamn sense. Yeah, those Elves abruptly joining the battle at Helm’s deep? Nothing as contrived as that in the book! And how about the time Elrond apparently teleports from Rivendell to give Aragorn his new kingly sword? Aragorn was, by the way, supposed to acquire that sword way back in the first book when he first visits Rivendell. Jesus, guys, if you’re gonna alter the plot so much, can you at least not make the Elves into your own personal Deus Ex Machina? They’re awesome, but they’re not that awesome.
2. All the Fakeout Deaths
A couple times in the books, Tolkien has characters seemingly die, then turn up alive once again. Fair enough. But the number of times the movies pull this shit is shameless. Seriously, there are better ways to generate fake tension. Gandalf apparently dying in the first film? I can accept that one; it’s canon. But Aragorn “dying” in Two Towers just so he can have a dream about mopey Arwen? Or the fraudulent editing that makes it look like Merry and Pippin die earlier? And let’s not forget the eight or nine times Frodo appears to kick the bucket. Every time this happens, it weakens the film, especially to a fan of the book who knows it’s all bullshit.
1. A Short Detour to Osgiliath
Rrrrgh, this rankles me. Two Towers (the book), when Frodo and Sam encounter Faramir, the young captain is briefly tempted by the Ring, but gets over it pretty quick and lets them go on their way. Hooray! In the movie, he drags the Hobbits and Gollum all the fucking way to the city of Osgiliath so they can have a big action climax there. THIS RUINS EVERYTHING. It totally fucks up the trajectory of Frodo and Sam’s subplot and renders pointless all the journeying they did in the second film. Plus it seriously diminishes Faramir as a character; the whole point Tolkien was trying to make in the book was that some people are inherently truthful and good! I know the filmmakers were itching to show off their cool Osgiliath set, but come on! Of all the drastic changes made to the plot, this is one of the most glaring, and a slap in the face to those of us who know our Tolkien and our Middle-Earth geography.
Honorable Mention: Denethor’s Ridiculous Death Scene
Denethor, Steward of Gondor, sinks into despair and madness and tries to burn himself and his son Faramir alive. Faramir is saved but Denethor perishes on the funeral pyre. In the book, anyway. In the movie, Denethor catches on fire, runs a mile (I’m not exaggerating. It is literally a mile) while still on fire, and falls off the giant stone prow of the city (as he continues to be on fucking fire). I know the movies have some dumb moments, but this sets a record. It’s not on the main list because it happens so quickly. But it’s still dumb, dumb, DUMB.

Lastly, I’d like to educate the masses a little. As previously noted, the LotR books contain a metric ton of info and a lot had to be left out. But some of that stuff is good to know, especially since it adds a lot of clarity to stuff that is in the films. So here’s...

5 Tidbits of Information Missing From the Films That Are Useful To Know

5. Faramir is Gandalf’s pupil.
Yep. He is. Do the movies ever acknowledge that Gandalf and Faramir know each other well? Not really. But, in fact, the wizard gave much tutelage to the Gondorian captain during the latter’s upbringing. No wonder Faramir is so much more thoughtful and compassionate than his macho father and brother! And no wonder Gandalf seems so invested in Faramir’s safety! Denethor briefly mentions this relationship in a deleted scene, but that’s it. Now you know.
4. Merry’s sword has magical anti-Nazgûl powers.
For such a terrifying villain, the Witch King sure dies easy. Merry stabs him in the leg, which apparently paralyzes him for the five freaking minutes Éowyn takes to finish the job. What, is Merry’s sword magic? Actually.....yeah. In the book, the Hobbits get their swords from a burial mound (after nearly being killed by its undead inhabitant), and Tolkien flat-out says that the swords are old, arcane, and magical, and that Merry’s blade is one of the few in the world that could seriously wound a Ringwraith. Contrived? You bet. But at least it’s an explanation.
3. What’s up with those eagles? Well...
Soooo, when you’re a Level 80 Wizard, you get a Summon Giant Fuck-Off Eagles spell? Not only does one rescue Gandalf from Saruman, but a whole squadron turn up during the final battle to kick some Nazgûl ass and retrieve Frodo and Sam. Well, if you’ve read the books (as well as their predecessor, The Hobbit), you’d know that Gandalf has a long-standing friendship with the Eagles of Middle-Earth, having saved the life of their king once. So, yeah, they’re good guys who rally to the aid of the humans. Oh, and they can talk. Would giant talking eagles have been too silly for the films? Naaaahhhhhh.
2. Denethor has a Seeing-Stone.
What’s Denethor’s problem, anyway? Why is he so hostile, so paranoid, so quick to abandon his post, and so all-around whacko? Fear not, there is a reason. When Saruman unveils his Palantír (the magical Seeing-Stone that allows him to commune with Sauron), Gandalf mentions that not all the Stones are accounted for. Well, one of them is in Denethor’s possession. That’s how Denethor seems to know so much all the time, and also why he’s crazy. Sauron has been using the Stone to spy on his foes and warp the Steward of Gondor’s fragile little mind. The movie hints at this; there’s even a deleted scene where Aragorn uses a Seeing-Stone right there in Denethor’s throne room. So, yes, there is method to his madness.
1. A lot more time passes than you think.
Obviously we know on some level that traveling places takes awhile in a world where the horse is the height of technology. In order for a movie to flow smoothly, it must hasten from plot point to plot point, ignoring the passage of time. But the films don’t quite clarify how much time is going by. All those journeys and quests take weeks, sometimes months. Enough for the characters to spend lots of personal bonding time with each other that we never get to see. But here’s the biggie: did you know that a number of years pass between Bilbo’s birthday party and Frodo and Sam’s departure from Hobbiton with the Ring? Years! What, you thought Gandalf popped over to Gondor and back in a freaking week? Sorry, Elijah Wood lovers, but Frodo is technically middle-aged by the time he begins his quest. Next time you watch the films, keep reminding yourself that the characters have been at this Ring business for a good chunk of their lives. It helps.

Perhaps my little geekout made you appreciate the movies more, or maybe it just cemented your hatred of them. Or maybe you never gave a shit about Lord of the Rings in the first place. But I hope you’ve enjoyed geeking out with me! Till next time, my precious.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Lord of the Rings Geekout, pt. 1: Top 10 Deleted Scenes

I just rewatched the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Extended Edition, of course. Once you’ve seen the Extended Edition, you can never go back, much like the One Ring itself. The sheer volume of deleted and expanded scenes is such that they could practically be edited together into their own, very confusing movie. Some of them are engaging and some are irrelevant, but there’s a few that, I firmly believe, never should have been deleted from the theatrical cut in the first place. Time to seriously flex my nerd muscles (not that I don’t do that all the time anyway) and rhapsodize about everyone’s favorite ginormous fantasy epic! Here, in order of my irritation that they were left on the cutting room floor, are...


(I’ll indicate whether each scene comes from The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, or The Return of the King. I’ll also use “EE” and “TC” to mean “Extended Edition” and “Theatrical Cut.”)

10. Avalanche of Skulls (RotK)
Heh. This one’s at the bottom because it’s really silly -- a bit of the ghoulish excess that Peter Jackson has relished since his Z-level horror film days. If you recall, Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas go into the underground Kingdom of the Dead to recruit the cursed souls therein to fight on their side. Which they do, because Aragorn is badass. But in the EE, there’s a goofy/ghastly coda to the scene in which the dead city cracks open to release hundreds of thousands of skulls, which cascade over our heroes and threaten to sweep them away. It makes no fucking sense, and it’s awesome. Fun fact: they actually made thousands of tiny fake skulls for the scene, many of which wound up as illicit souvenirs. Check the free box at your local yard sale!

9. Gandalf vs. Witch King (RotK)
In a scene that closely follows the book, Gandalf and Pippin run smack dab into the evil Witch King (that’s the black-robed creep with the spiky helmet) during the attack on the city of Minas Tirith. Our beloved grumpy wizard confronts the vile wraith, who draws a flaming sword and shatters Gandalf’s staff, leaving him helpless. Holy shit! Gandalf is supposed to be fucking impossible to beat! It’s meant to be the moment of ultimate despair before the swelling of hope, and it works damn well. Yes, it has a lame resolution (in the book, too) when the Witch King refrains from killing Gandalf because he hears the horns of the approaching Rohan army. Uh, wow, you can’t spare five extra seconds to kill one of your greatest foes? Whatever. It’s still a great scene.

8. The Elves Are Leaving (FotR)
This one’s just a quiet little moment from early in the story, and it’s mainly there for the sake of exposition and foreshadowing. But it’s lovely nonetheless. Shortly after they leave home, Frodo and Sam witness a dreamy procession of Elves drifting through the forest, and comment on how the Elves are leaving Middle Earth forever and sailing away to the West, aka, Tolkien’s metaphor for the Afterlife. In the book, as I recall, the Hobbits actually get to hang out with these Elves, who are pretty cool. The movie only gives them a moment, but it’s a nice moment. A bit of calm mystery before all the action and bloodshed and ballyhoo. And it helps define the Elves and their motivations...not that the Elves don’t constantly reference their own fate every time they open their damn mouths.

7. Éomer Actually Gets To Do Shit (TT and RotK)
If you’ve only seen the TC, you may remember Éomer (played by Karl Urban) as the bland, sexy brother of Éowyn who spends the second and third movie just kind of being there without much to contribute, except for that one time he helps Gandalf save the day. Well, the poor guy got fucked over in the TC, that’s for sure. The EE gives us considerably more of Éomer, and while he’s still not the most compelling character, at least he gets to show genuine emotion! We see him find his mortally wounded cousin, Prince Théodred. We see him as a more active participant in commanding the Riders of Rohan. And we get his best scene in the entire story: his discovery of Éowyn, whom he thought was safe at home, badly wounded on the battlefield. Watching Éomer clutching his sister and howling in anguish, one recalls that Karl Urban has proven to be a damn compelling actor. I hope Star Trek leads him to a better career!

6. Aragorn is How Old? (TT)
This scene’s a little peculiar, but incredibly cute. During the journey to Helm’s Deep, Éowyn tries doing something nice for Aragorn, whom she has a giant, raging crush on. She makes him some soup! polite terms, she should leave cooking to the serving wenches. Viggo Mortensen gets to have a rare moment of comedy as he makes a valiant attempt to choke down the lumpy, greasy meal while Éowyn beams. And then, in an unexpected reference to the source material, Éowyn is gobsmacked to learn that Aragorn is eighty-seven freaking years old. Elf DNA has its benefits! I’m guessing they took that bit out because they figured it’d just confuse the dopey moviegoing public. And they’re right. But for us nerds, it’s a tasty treat. Way tastier than Éowyn’s nasty-ass soup.

5. The Mouth of Sauron (RotK)
Given how much Peter Jackson loves creeping us out, I’m surprised this fucked-up scene didn’t make the cut. Late in the game, when Aragorn and his army arrive at the Black Gate of Mordor, they are met by a sinister envoy known as the Mouth of Sauron. This eyeless, rotten-toothed guy is FUCKING SCARY, and it doesn’t hurt that he’s played by character actor Bruce Spence, also known as the gyro pilot from Mad Max, the Trainman from Matrix Revolutions, and many other things. He proceeds to demoralize our heroes by giving them Frodo’s chainmail shirt and claiming (falsely) that Frodo was captured and died a horrible death by torture. Even though we know he’s lying, the looks of horror and despair on everyone’s faces are hard to watch. Aragorn eventually gets sick of the Mouth’s snarling and cuts his fucking head off, thereby showing that Kings don’t need no stinkin’ diplomatic skills. An awesomely evil scene that should have stayed in.

4. Chillin’ in Lothlórien (FotR)
In the TC, the Fellowship’s time in the Elven forest kingdom of Lothlórien is pretty much just a glorified pit stop. Show up, mope, look in a magic birdbath, leave. But in the EE, way more time is spent among the towering, blue-lit trees, and it adds a ton! Every member of the Fellowship gets some character building. We see Boromir all haunted by guilt and dread. We see Sam make a tragicomic attempt to compose a rhyme about Gandalf’s fireworks. We see Gimli fall beard over boots in love with Queen Galadriel, who gives him three golden hairs from her head. We also see a bit more of the Elven King, Celeborn, and the warden, Haldir, aka, That Random Elf Dude Who Shows Up at Helm’s Deep and Gets Killed While We Try to Remember Who the Hell He Is. Lothlórien goes from being a gorgeous tourist attraction to a place of deep mystery, tragedy, and self-reflection...and the last peaceful place for our heroes before the final descent into peril. Oh, and the Elves give the Fellowship a bunch of bitching gifts, including their special cloaks, unbreakable rope for Sam, and that badass curvy knife Aragorn uses.

3. Boromir’s Dysfunctional Family (TT) covered this in an article, but it cannot be emphasized enough. This scene is REALLY important and NEEDED to be in the film. It’s a flashback that Faramir has to happier times in the city of Osgiliath, which has just been liberated by the Men of Gondor, led by Boromir. It also pretty much defines everything about Boromir, Faramir, and their father, Denethor. The dynamic between the father and sons is all laid out: Denethor adores Boromir and thinks Faramir is useless, Faramir’s deeply hurt and determined to prove himself, and Boromir is torn between love for his brother and loyalty to his asshole dad. All of this makes their motivations down the road soooooo much clearer. And speaking of motivation...we get the rather crucial tidbit that Denethor knows about the One Ring, wants Gondor to have it, and sends Boromir to claim it. In other words, Boromir is planning to take the Ring throughout the entire first film. Wow, does that clear up a bunch of confusing things or what! Of all the supporting characters, this manly family unit is extra-compelling, and I wish the TC had taken the time to establish them better. Sigh.

2. Faramir and Éowyn Fall in Love (RotK)
Boy, does Éowyn get dicked over. In the TC, at least. She’s like the most lovable non-Hobbit character and we want her to live happily ever after, but her crush, Aragorn, has Friendzoned her in favor of a boring Elf chick. She kills the fucking Witch King, almost dies, and then what? Nothing! What a crock! Well...the EE only spends an additional minute or two on her fate, but it’s worth it, because we make the rather happy discovery that Éowyn and Faramir fall in love while healing from their wounds. And that’s why they’re standing together during Aragorn’s coronation. Awwwww! Now isn’t that nice? Nobody gets left out in the cold! Isn’t that a more fitting reward for both these characters than the non-resolution they got in theaters? And it’s damn symbolic, too, marking the reconciliation between Gondor and Rohan and presumably leading to an unbreakable new bloodline. Seeing it in the EE made me seriously pissed off that it was deleted in the first place. Oh, and Miranda Otto and David Wenham create a more convincing love story in one to two minutes than Kristin Stewart and Robert Pattinson do in five fucking movies. Just saying.

1. The Death of Saruman (RotK)
At least Éowyn and Faramir were still in the movie at the end. The same can’t be said of Saruman, who was a major baddie in the first two films, suffered a humiliating defeat at the climax of Two Towers, and then....vanished. No indication of his ultimate fate. No screen time in the final film. What the fuck, Peter Jackson. You cast Christopher Lee and then treat him like this? Have no fear, the Extended Edition is here to give Saruman the proper kiss-off and become my number one deleted scene. When Aragorn, Gandalf, Théoden, and the other good guys arrive at the flooded ruins of Isengard, they find Saruman waiting for them in full-on Sore Loser mode. They try to pump him for information, he acts like a gigantic asshole, dire threats are thrown back and forth -- and it’s all for naught, because Saruman is stabbed in the back by his own sidekick, Gríma Wormtongue, who receives an arrow in the heart from Legolas for his troubles. Saruman then falls off the tower of Orthanc and lands on a giant spiked wheel. SPLAT! It’s a tad over-the-top, but the entire scene is incredibly tense and well-acted, foreshadowing the depths of evil that our heroes are about to witness. We also see that the magic Seeing-Stone fell off the tower too, which is why it’s lying there for Pippin to find. I name this number one just because it was such a dick move to completely erase Saruman and Wormtongue from the third film. Thanks to the EE, all is well.

More Lord of the Rings geekery is forthcoming! Stay tuned!

Saturday, June 2, 2012

The Watership Down Legacy

The Watership Down Legacy

Let me put on my fuzzy ears and talk about the strange sub-genre of books about talking animals. I tend to write this kind of fiction myself; it interests me, what can I say? The tricky part is writing talking-animal stories for adults. I honestly believe that we grown-up types like the genre, possibly because we can project ourselves more easily onto furry critters. After all, Aesop’s fables were meant to showcase all the follies of mankind. But books about animals still tend to get shunted into the kiddie lit department, except when they don’t. “Adult” talking animal stories seem to fall into three main categories. You’ve got your Redwall types: stories that cut out humans altogether and present themselves as fantasies that happen to star critters. That’s what I like to write. Then you’ve got the feel-good, uplifting, triumph-of-the-furry-heart tales like Babe or The Incredible Journey, which often get marketed as children’s books anyway. Finally, there’s the dark little niche genre that was possibly defined by Richard Adams’ Watership Down: books about talking animals that are ostensibly set in the real world, but are most certainly not for children. These are what I want to talk about here.

Watership Down is, of course, an ultimately uplifting adventure in which a group of wild rabbits look for a new home in the British countryside. Adams had trouble publishing it, but now it has entered onto the list of Best Books Ever and spawned an incredibly grim and bloody cartoon adaptation. I recently reread it and it’s as gripping as ever, but I’m not going to talk too long about it because I prefer drawing attention to books that you might not have heard of, books that followed in the elongated footsteps of Hazel, Fiver, Bigwig, and their band of heroic lagomorphs. I will say that Adams definitely struck some kind of gold. Watership Down can be read to a mature child, but it’s really a book for adults, and clearly adults like to read an adventure story about bunnies. Why? Because they’re cute? Because heroism is a universal thing that inspires us, no matter what physical form the hero takes? Because Adams put a ton of work into creating a bunny society with its own language, customs, mores, and mythology? All of the above, probably. Here are three other books that tried the same formula, with varied results.

First off, the most obvious copycat (pun definitely intended)...Tailchaser’s Song by Tad Williams. Now, I adore me some Tad Williams, but I’d be the first to admit that he initially built his career off of paying heavy homage to other writers -- Tolkien, primarily, but also Richard Adams. His debut novel is about a brave cat named Fritti Tailchaser who sets out to find his missing girlfriend and enters a wilderness world where cats have built their own independent culture and something really fucked-up is lurking in the shadows. It’s a very good book (my favorite to read on airplane flights), but yeah, it is reeeeeally derivative of Watership Down, right down to the invented kitty language and myths. Where it differs is in its handling of the premise. Obviously, cats are domesticated, so the humans in Tailchaser’s Song are seen, not as terrifying bringers of destruction, but as foolish yet well-meaning benefactors -- and they appear very fleetingly. Tailchaser’s adventure is more along the lines of a dark fantasy. I won’t spoil what happens, but let’s just say that the gods in the cats’ mythology turn out to be very tangible indeed.

I would say that Tailchaser’s Song is the most accessible of the books in this post, because while dark and disturbing things do happen, it’s more along the lines of a whiz-bang adventure than an unflinching look at the harshness of life. Williams’ story leaves reality behind partway through, which makes it both less unsettling and less compelling. Watership Down works on our emotions because we know it’s “real” and any awful, tragic thing could happen at any moment. That’s how life works, especially when you’re a bunny. Tailchaser’s Song makes the leap into all-out fantasy and thus fails to deliver the same narrative punch, even as we fear for the safety of the feline characters. It follows the archetype of the hero’s journey and there’s never any doubt that Tailchaser and his sidekicks will make it through. The ending is really good, though -- Tailchaser does find his ladylove, but then things get complicated. In a good way. I definitely recommend the book; just know that it’s not as profound or grueling as Watership Down. For many people, that will be a plus.

And to those people who can’t handle the gritty miseries of Watership Down, I say this: in the name of all that is holy, DO NOT read The Plague Dogs. This is another book by Richard Adams, written five years later and concerning dogs rather than rabbits. Having just read it, I can safely say that it is a gripping and powerful work of fiction, I loved it, and it will utterly destroy your fucking soul. This book is BRUTAL. It will make you cry and almost lose your faith in humanity. It’s about two dogs, a big black mutt named Rowf and a fox terrier named Snitter, who are having unspeakable things done to them in an animal testing facility. Rowf, for instance, is drowned in a water tank every day just to see what’ll happen. They escape and, with some help from an enterprising fox, attempt to eke out an existence in the harsh, windswept landscape of England’s Lake District. Unfortunately, they must kill sheep to survive, which sparks a manhunt, which leads to an accidental death, which leads a vicious reporter to theorize that the dogs are carrying bubonic plague from a bioweapons experiment. And then things get really bleak.

I expected The Plague Dogs to follow similar lines as Watership Down, but it really doesn’t. It’s darker, weirder, less accessible, and more pessimistic about the direction humanity is going in. Most of it revolves around the personalities of the dogs. Rowf is simpleminded and has known nothing but abuse, and so can’t not be angry. Snitter is smart and cheerful, but since the researchers literally carved his brain up, he exists in a constant state of delusion. His shattered thoughts serve as a template for the narrative, which moves along with nightmare logic as things just escalate and the cruel world closes in on the two hapless canines. Make no mistake, I recommend this book...just know that your emotions will be put through hell.

The book’s one major weakness is its portrayal of animal testing. Yes, I wholly agree that it’s bad. But Adams clearly has an axe to grind, and so he makes his human researchers into sociopathic monsters who calmly pour coffee while discussing the kittens they just poisoned, or the rabbits who have cleaning products squirted into their eyeballs. This over-the-top depiction seems to suggest dark satire, but since the rest of the book is played without a wink, I’m not exactly sure what Adams was trying to accomplish. So, yeah, the overall tone of The Plague Dogs is uneven, but most readers will be too busy sobbing and biting their nails to care. Read this book if you have a strong constitution. A very strong constitution.

(By the way, this one also got a cartoon adaptation, but while the book manages a last-minute happy resolution, the film's conclusion is closer to what Adams wrote before his publishers made him change it. Keep that in mind, because the original ending may make you want to kill yourself. Just saying.)

I seem to have ranked these in order of weirdness, so it’s appropriate that I’m ending with Empire of the Ants by Bernard Werber. What a batshit book this is, starting with the simple fact that we’re sliding down the evolutionary ladder from warm furballs to unlovable insects. Or maybe up the ladder, for ants actually have incredibly advanced societies and are capable of great feats of engineering and adaptive technology. In fact, some speculate that when humans are gone, ants will inherit the earth. That’s certainly what Werber implies. He tells two stories that, for most of the book, are barely connected. The first concerns a French family who move into a new apartment and discover something very strange in the cellar. The other is about, yes, a mighty ant colony where a few individual ants realize that something invisible is killing their brethren and there seems to be a conspiracy to cover it up. Unfortunately, Empire of the Ants suffers from the disconnection between these two stories and their radically different tones; the humans’ tale is pitched like a horror story, while the ants’ adventures are like a Pixar film directed by Dario Argento on shrooms.

Frankly, the book would have been better if the boring humans were mostly or entirely absent  (the awkward English translation doesn’t help). Werber clearly did a ton of research on the inner workings of ant colonies, and the result is quite fascinating. He succeeds in making his ants kind-of sort-of sentient while never forgetting that their “culture” is so different from ours that we can’t really understand what’s going on in their little heads. Every ant character is defined by his or her role in the colony; they have no fear of death and share a kind of pheromone-based collective consciousness that adds many layers to their wordless conversations. We see how each ant species has its own tricks, its own technology, and we learn about the complex and ever-shifting series of wars and alliances between the ants and the other insects they share their world with. It’s neat! The actual plot is sort of a distraction, really, and none of the ants get much personality because, well, they’re freaking ants. Werber is definitely saying something ironic about the nature of humanity, especially at the end, when the human and ant stories finally intersect. I’m not sure he quite succeeds -- but then, this is the first book in a trilogy, and the sequels have apparently never been released in English. So maybe I’ll never know. Bottom line, Empire of the Ants is an odd and engrossing little book, for all its narrative faults. It’ll definitely make you think before you step on an anthill.

Sooooo....yeah. Here are three interesting books that explore the idea of an animal society in the human world. I’ve had a little trouble writing this concluding paragraph because I don’t quite know why these books work the way they do. Certainly it’s difficult to get an “adult” novel about talking critters published, but it happens anyway when the planets are properly aligned. I believe that a good story is universal and readers will respond to it if the protagonists are humans, rabbits, ants, cauliflower, whatever. And that there’s a definite link between the way we anthropomorphize animals and the way we view ourselves. I guess you should give one or more of these books a read and draw your own conclusions. Read Tailchaser’s Song if you want a rip-roaring adventure, The Plague Dogs if you want a depressing essay on human evil, and Empire of the Ants if you want a weird, cerebral metaphor. Or just read Watership Down, the book that started all this brouhaha. Because it totally holds up. So there’s another reason these books exist: our compassion for animals will never die. We have the ability to love them and fear for them. So maybe there’s hope for the human race after all.