Friday, May 8, 2009


Michel Gondry/Leos Carax/Bong Joon-Ho, 2009, Japan/France/South Korea

This month's member's screening at the Loft pleased much more than last month's. This is essentially a collection of three shorts, (Well, 30-minutes anyway), unified only by their setting: Tokyo.

Up front it is odd that a Japanese studio wanted to make a film about Tokyo and so asked three foreigners to do it. I think, however, the idea is that you are getting an outsider's perspective - appropriate for a cosmopolitan melting pot.

Michel Gondry comes as the most recognizable name to American audiences. I must say that his short "Interior Design" is surprisingly the most normal, (Or I should say least unusual), of the three. It is also, I feel, the most well-written and well acted.

The quick summary is that a young couple move to Tokyo. The man is an aspiring filmmaker, the woman is directionless. They are crowded into a friend's tiny apartment while they search for one of their own. Relationship drama. Comedy. The freefalling woman starts to fall apart, and then she transforms into a chair.

A chair.

She can switch back and forth, thankfully, and so hijinx ensue. Ultimately she seems to find happiness as a voyeuristic piece of furniture in some young musician's house. The end.

This is a quite enjoyable piece, but I must criticize it for two things. First, the transformation seems completely unmotivated. This is more or less a normal film about normal people until all of a sudden *bamf!* chair.

After that there is of course the subtle misogyny of turning a woman into a goddamn piece of furniture. Well, let me rephrase that a little: You have a woman who is doing nothing with herself, who is being pushed by everyone to have more ambition. She seems on the verge of some personal transformation, which is a cue for this quirky film to use the metaphor of literal transformation, but instead of redeeming herslf and becoming something greater, she only reinforces her failure by becoming a goddamn piece of furniture.

This seems like something Margaret Atwood would write, except Atwood would be rife with bitter irony. Here Gondry seems to just be playing a thoughtless joke on his female protagonist. The vibe you get is "Ha ha! Silly woman turned into a silly chair. Women are silly." This lady is actually happy that she is furniture. It's all she ever was!

The second short by Leos Carax, "Merde," is easily my favorite, not because it is objectively the best of the three, but because it appeals to my odd sense of humor and absurdism. If I had been asked to make a short for this movie I would have come up with something like this.

Essentially it is a riff on the giant-monster movie genre, but without any giant monsters. Complete with old Godzilla music, Tokyo is terrorized by an extremely eccentric man who lives in the sewers and comes to the surface and acts like an asshat. Brilliant.

Funny news bulletins. Candid public reactions. Utter weirdness. I'm just goingto leave it at that. In its way it is the least meaningful of the shorts, but also the most perfect, as it completely succeeds at everything it tries to do.

The last short, "Shaking Tokyo," is also quite good, but much more somber than the other two. It follows a hikikomori - what we in America might call an agoraphobic - through his strange, isolated life. His world is disrupted when a pizza delivery girl faints in his appartment and he has to try to wake her up.

Where it goes from here is actually quite unexpected and surreal - apocalyptic, yet absurd. My only disappointment is the typical heteronormative narrative thread of man + woman = love = story. Still a good film.

Anyway, if you like these sort of "city shorts" movies like Night on Earth and Paris Je T'Aime then this one comes highly recommended.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Plants vs. Zombies

by PopCap Games

Huh? I review something the day after it comes out? Pure chance. A quick surf around the intarwebs tells me that this game came hotly anticipated, and yet here I was, in my cave, completely unaware.

I logged onto Steam yesterday and literally just stumbled onto to this, still not realizing that I was looking at it on the day of its release and that a gajillion people everywhere else were slobbering all over it. I just thought, "Hmm, could be fun," and downloaded the demo.

Thirty minutes later my wallet unhinged and money changed hands. 10 dollars is a hard price to argue with when the game is so damned fun.

I have never played tower defense games before, so the concept is still fresh to me. Someone with more experience in the genre might find this game a little less exciting, but from what I hear, it's got enough innovation to please even the most jaded stalwart.

The concept and gameplay go as follows: You defend your cartoony house from hordes of cartoony zombies through the cunning placement of plants. Vegetable-flinging hilarity ensues.

It has a lot of the elements of ye olde real-time strategy game, but the resource management and tech-tree aspects are simplified, while strategic focus is on defense and careful positioning.

Where this game really suceeds is in its immense variety. Playing through adventure mode yields five different environments, each with their own rules and considerations. Every ten levels, just when things are about to get repetitive, you change scenarios and the game changes dramatically. Outside adventure mode are even more gameplay options. In fact, the game's 50 levels are really just prelude to all the other modes of play, (Yes, I already played through adventure mode - I got that hooked. I haven't devoured a game like this since 5th grade when all I played were rentals).

In all you have up to 48 different plants to fight with. Yes, with that many weapons there is some overlap and imbalance, but PopCap really has done a good job spreading out the utility. They found an awful lot of design space in what is a terribly straightforward genre. It helps that the Zombie horde is similarly varied, offering up new problems to be solved and anticipated by the player.

With all that said, the game is a little, well, casual, which doesn't bother me but might bother others. It's really not very hard and for all the variety in the game certain basic strategies still emerge as dominant. Most of the game's problematic units can be solved with emergency one-time-use explosives or something similar, leaving you to wallow in your repetitive horde strategy if you want to. It isn't until you play survival mode on hard difficulty that you are thrown enough curveballs to actually necessitate playing a more well-rounded defense.

And yet I'm still hooked. This might be a product of it being my first tower defnse game, in which case I'm still thrilling with the discovery of a fun new genre.

Certainly the demo could be better. It sucked me in because the concept was so fresh to me, but I think it is a huge, almost arrogant risk to limit your player to 30 minutes (Total! Forever!) when you could just give them the first ten levels and let the game sell itself.

Monday, May 4, 2009


by Klei

Got this one off Steam. This game is about three years old so I'm breaking exactly zero ground by writing about it. I told you timeliness was not going to be my strong suit. All I know is I'm so sad that I showed up late to this party.

I feel it's still worth writing about now, however, because it was just released to Xbox Live Arcade. Also, I feel like this was 2006's World of Goo - (Which I will be reviewing eventually) - a weird, beautiful, unique puzzle game that makes your brain work in ways it hasn't before.

Eets is touted as "Lemmings meets the Incredible Machine" and as high-concept sales pitches go, this one hits the mark dead on.

It's a puzzle game, like I said, and a completely bizarre one at that. In fact, perhaps the greatest criticism one can levy against this game is that it might be a little too weird. Strangeness can have mechanical implications in gaming: In this case the pieces you play with can be counterintuitive. It's not a big problem, mind you, but I can't say I wasn't a little baffled when I stepped away from this game and came back to it weeks later.

The game is like Lemmings in that you are guiding a hapless creature, (named Eets, if you can believe it), to an exit point. Unlike Lemmings you are given only one hapless creature to save, so there is no exploding him or turning him into a wall or shrugging your shoulders when an acceptable percentage of him falls into lava. Unless of course you like failure. Or comedy.

The game is like Incredible Machine in that you place objects all over the level in an attempt to construct the Rube Goldberg Device of Hilarious Victory. In other words you alter the environment so that a series of objects will bonk your stupid Eets over to where he stupid needs to stupid go.

Of course, a la Incredible Machine, you are free to solve puzzles wrongly in the name of playing Hilarious God of Physics. I spent a chunk of 7th and 8th grade seeing exactly how many bumpers I could make those little men hit before they died, laughing maniacally the entire time I did. (Admit it! You did it too!)

The game's formula is enhanced by Eets' emotions, which range from scared to happy to angry. Depending on his mood he will interact with the environment differently. Things can be done to change his mood, the most basic of which is to feed him different foods. Part of the puzzle becomes knowing when and where to change his mood so that he will behave in the way you need him to, (Hence the game's subtitle: Hunger. It's Emotional). This emotion mechanic is simple at first, but has increasingly dramatic effects as you progress through the game.

The game develops nicely as more and more contraptions and challenges get thrown your way. I will say the early worlds are a little repetitive and maybe too easy, but once the game ramps up the stakes it gets to be quite fun.

Where this game really succeeds is in its art-style and goofy items. This goofiness lends the game much of its appeal, but I must say that mechanically speaking, this game isn't quite as odd as it first appears. Allow me to explain.

In a "normal" puzzle game you might have a catapult that propels your character in an arc. Here instead it is a cranky looking whale that swallows you up and ejects you out his blowhole.

Elsewhere you might have a cannon that fires explosives when touched. Here it is a pig that, um, farts out a smaller pig-with-a-cape that soars through the sky until it hits something and explodes. Mechanically these things are normal, it's the crazy art concept placed on top of them that makes the game feels so strange and wonderful. Bear in mind this isn't exactly a complaint.

The music fits the game's art style very well, but could be better - and more varied. I keep wishing there were more songs in rotation as the ones I keep hearing are getting bland. The music is still a major strong point here, but if I am to draw more comparisons to World of Goo, Eets loses the music competition.

Finally I come to the demo. Considering that I bought this game the demo clearly does what it is supposed to. You are given the game's first "world" which does an admirable job showcasing the game's many weird concepts. I will stress like I always do that more might be gained by making the demo even bigger. Two worlds? So maybe I can see the game's puzzles outside of a "tutorial" setting? Am I so hard to please?

Friday, May 1, 2009

Hitler's Pope

by John Cornwell

Alright, I just finished this one last weekend.

First, the title is inflammatory, which bother's me. It's a common publisher's trick: Put "Hitler" or "Shakespeare" in your book's title and it will sell more. The actual text of this book is much fairer to the character of Pius XII than this title implies.

Anyway, Pius XII became Pope in 1939 and therefore bears the brunt of historical scrutiny in regards to what the Vatican did and did not do during the Holocaust. The author of this book points out the dishonest back-and-forth that has gone on between this Pope's supporters and detractors, with most texts being extremist reactions to the other side, making them either unfairly judgmental or blindly supportive.

Because Cornwell purports to offer a more balanced assessment of Pius XII, the title seems dishonest. But enough about that.

In the end Cornwell does indeed come down on the side of condemning Pius XII and calls him "Hitler's Pope" not because he was Hitler's pawn per se, but because his attitudes, personality, priorities and circumstances made him an inadvertent enabler of Hitler's rise to power. In other words, there couldn't have been a Pope more suited to Hitler's agenda.

These are, of course, controversial things to say. Bear in mind that I am not saying them, just reporting on a book that I read.

I am inclined to take Cornwell's position, however, but not because this book says things that I want to believe. I am not Catholic, but I am also not some anti-religious cynic who latches on to every bit of slander thrown towards the Vatican. I am inclined to believe Cornwell because he has written a fine piece of academic history: rigorously researched, well-organized, includes many interpretations of events, admits faulty knowledge, and supports arguments by finding suitable examples and counter-examples. I believe what this book says because it is very convincing, and not emotionally tainted.

This does mean the book is a bit dry. I can stomach dry history. Maybe you can't. I found it fascinating at first because I was learning so much about Vatican politics and history, subjects I knew basically nothing about before now. This is one of those books that reminds me that history is so much more intricate and intersting and nuanced than your war-obsessed high school teachers ever let you realize.

Anyway, Cornwell takes a different approach to the Pius XII controversies in that he writes a biography of the man, not so much a chronicle of the events. This is a useful approach because Eugenio Pacelli, the man who would become Pius XII, was an influential Vatican politician well before he ever became Pope and his influence on Church history - and the Vatican's relationship with Germany - began decades before World War II.

There is a lot of content covered in here, and even summarizing it would exceed the scope of this blog post. I feel the most important points to stress are that Pacelli is painted as a driving force in the Vatican's push for autocracy and heirarchy. This coupled with a legitmate fear of violent, atheistic communism caused him to make the same mistake nearly every world leader made during that era: They assumed Facism was the lesser of two evils when compared to Communism.

After that, Pacelli's silence during the holocaust is a many-layered thing. First there was the reality that the Vatican, being surrounded by Facist Italy, simply did not have the diplomatic freedom to speak its mind without fear of reprisal. The Pope certainly had no military solution against Mussolini or Hitler if they ever decided he was causing too much trouble by weilding his moral authority, and this is fair enough.

Second, however, is evidence of mild anti-semitism in Pacelli, distorted as it was by the mistaken belief that a Jewish conspiracy lie behind international Communism. The argument that Pacelli kept quiet against the Facists for the sake of peace falls apart when compared with his vocal stance against oppressive Communist regimes after WWII. In the years after the Holocaust, Pius XII demonstrated the Catholic Church's historic ability to resist inhumane oppression on a global scale, so why not the Nazis? (Bear in mind I am oversimplifying matters in ways the Cornwell does not).

Anyway, if you like your history dry and well-researched, and want a definitive volume on this subject, I highly recommend this book.