Be warned: Extremely minor spoilers for Iron Man 3. No spoiler warning for Avengers. That was last year. You should have seen it already.
So, here in the United States, Iron Man 3 was released last night. Being the nerd that I am, my wife and I saw one of the first showings. The revenue was already over $307.7 million in international sales, so I was pretty sure it was going to be a good movie as I went in. Much like everyone else in the theater, I enjoyed the effects, the humor, the twist and the finale, but what stuck out to me as the most memorable part of the story was the establishment of Tony Stark's character in the beginning of the film.
"Everything's changed since New York", is one of the first things we hear Tony say in the Iron Man 3 trailer, referencing the events of The Avengers. "I can't sleep" is another line in the same trailer. From these few lines, we can already tell that the events in New York left something with Tony, or rather, took something away. The Avengers brought aliens, gods and monsters to Earth. Tony Stark, for all his genius, is still a man in an iron suit. Compare that to Thor, The Hulk, and Loki (not so much to Hawk-Eye and Black Widow), and you can see how Tony Stark has developed a complex, anxiety attacks, and a sort of PTSD, in the first act of Iron Man 3.
Here's a guy that, no matter what he can create, is already somewhat out of his league, and the range of villains he has to fight went from a quite literal hostile takeover in Iron Man 1, weapons manufacturer and another mechanical genius in Iron Man 2, to a race of aliens and gods in Avengers. The stakes suddenly surpassed him, and no matter how smart he is, Tony isn't a god.
Interesting to see how much smaller Tony is outside of his armor
So what does he do? In Tony Stark fashion, he overcompensates. At the end of Avengers, he's using the the Mark VII armor. At the beginning of Iron Man 3, he's just finishing up the Mark 42. So, Stark has built, (almost obsessively) 35 suits of armor between Avengers and Iron Man 3, to compensate for the fact that for once, just being Tony Stark may not be good enough to protect who he loves.
No matter what the cause of the anxiety attacks, Downey Jr plays the part well. As someone who used to get anxiety attacks for a period in my life, there was an odd familiarity with Stark losing his cool, not being able to breathe, and needing to escape. So why did I like this aspect of the film the most? The Iron Man franchise asks you to suspend quite a large amount of disbelief as it is, but this brings something very human to the table.
This is what made the most impact on me. Tony Stark is human, and while he still wears multiple suits of armor, the events of The Avengers left him somewhat psychologically wounded, or at the very least, bruised. And like anyone who has suffered psychological bruises knows, even a suit of armor can't protect you from yourself.
The first time I saw the trailer for Chronicle, it was when I went to see Captain America. At first, I really didn't know what to make of it, but it certainly caught my attention.
The minimalist poster made me really wonder about this movieThe trailer reminded me of Cloverfield for more than one reason. First, and most obviously was the 'found footage' style in which the trailer, (and the movie) was shot. Secondly, was the fact that aside from the Facebook URL, they never mentioned the name of the movie in the trailer. No flashy title sequence, no mention of it in dialogue. That alone made me curious. Cloverfield did the same at the end of their trailer, only showing the release date, 1.18.08 at the end of the trailer (which, humorously, many thought was in fact the title of the movie).
Chronicle amazed me on numerous levels. Not really knowing what to expect (except for some sweet sweet powers, and very cool, minimalist poster art), I went into the movie hoping to be engaged. Chronicle didn't disappoint.
From here on out, there may be spoilers-
Chronicle takes a genre that has become very popular in the past few years and makes it new. Super heroes have only looked cooler as visual effects technology has gotten more advanced, and the audience has been eating it up. Chronicle follows three high school students, Andrew, Matt and Steve as they gain super powers, build a friendship, and become stronger. As nothing goes completely as planned, we also see how the tragic life of one of the characters, mixed with his near godlike abilities, results in disaster. To really understand how this all happens, you have to understand the characters, which writer Max Landis and director, John Trank help us do very well.
The principle cast: Matt, Steve and AndrewWhat sets Chronicle apart is that none of the three main characters are actually 'heroes' at all. What the movie does best is describe how real high school students would react if they somehow developed super powers. They mess with people, play pranks, and Andrew raises his social status from the kid that was picked on to being cheered on at a party. There was no greater good that they fought against. No evil mastermind bent on world domination that they had to thwart. They did what any other high school students (and many adults) would do. They used their powers for personal gain.
It was at this point in the film that we really got the first glimpse of who these characters were under the hood. From the fun-loving, popular Steve, to the philosopher-quoting Matt who wants to do more in life, but falls short, to the physically and emotionally abused Andrew. With the inability to defend himself at school or from his father, coupled with his inability to do anything to save his dying mother, Andrew uses the newfound powers to overcompensate for his overall weakness and lack of control of his life or the world around him. By virtue of the variety of these character's walks of life, Landis and Trank give us a cast that we can easily empathize with.
The disturbed AndrewAs the character's powers increase, and their aspirations grow, Andrew's home life deteriorates as his mother slips closer and closer to death. Placing the blame on Andrew, his father becomes more and more abusive until in a fit of rage, Andrew snaps, starting the downfall of the trio. Tensions and tempers rise, until the death of one of the characters splits the relationship of the remaining two, leading to a super powered face-off in the final act.
The story has been done before. "With great power comes great responsibility," is often quoted when referring to superhero movies. Chronicle takes what we already know, and removes the gleam of Iron man's armor, the wit in Spider-Man, the magnificence of Thor, and the camaraderie of X-Men. So what sets it apart? Realism. Characters act how real kids act. They speak the way high school students speak. Andrew's motivations of achieving social acceptance, and caring for his mother are easily believable. When the film reaches its dramatic third act, we understand how his megalomaniacal attitude and eventual decline comes to pass. The only thing that I wish was different was more time to see the decline in action. Due to the nature of how it was filmed, Chronicle only allows us to see what the Andrew though worthy of getting on tape. Which of course leads us to...
How It Was Filmed
Andrew plays cameraman for both the audience, and the movie that is his life.As I mentioned before, Chronicle is a 'found footage' genre, much like Cloverfield and The Blair Witch Project. It makes more sense though, in this movie. The movie opens with Andrew filming his abusive, drunk father attempting to get into his room. "I'm filming everything from here on out," he says. We see the world through Andrew's eyes. On a number of occasions, characters make mention of it, saying that it's creepy that Andrew is filming them for no apparent reason. One thing that Andrew does say in his defense is a response to Steve, who says that it's like a barrier between him and everyone else. "Maybe I want a barrier," Andrew replies. The camera is Andrew's protective shield. In a way, it's a disassociation method. He's the star of his own movie, but he sees it as someone on the outside looking in. As Chronicle progresses, Andrew uses his telekinesis to have the camera levitate around him, the perfect way for the director to achieve different shot types while still holding on to the found footage genre. We even get to see different points of view through security cameras, mobile phones, and other film people filming the events happening around them. This calls back to the title of the movie, Chronicle, being a chronicle of the events that these young men lived.
Before Chronicle came on, the trailer for Battleship played (for my thoughts on that, read my previous blog here). One thing I noticed was the overuse of CG. Of course, I haven't seen the movie, but from what I can tell, it will suffer from what Transformers had: an overuse of visual effects. Without them, I can't imagine that the movie would be anywhere near as enjoyable, which says a lot about the movie overall. This was another thing that set Chronicle apart. For the first two acts, the majority of the effects were practical, or at the most, subtle. We didn't see any glow bits, power rays or things of that sort. What we did see, however, we're the effects of those powers. We didn't see the energy that made objects move, but we saw the result of it. We saw the result of people being knocked around, not the actual force that did the act. This allowed us to focus more of the people, rather than the glamour. As someone who loves visual effects, but hates seeing them over used and replacing good storytelling, this was a breath of fresh air.
Chronicle could have been better. My girlfriend said that she wished that she saw Andrew become more evil throughout the movie. I wish I had seen more of their discovery of their abilities and how it affected their daily lives. But of what I did see, Chronicle did a fantastic job of revitalizing more than one genre at the same time. Landis even leaves enough room for a sequel, which I certainly hope we see. For a mid-winter release, I'd say it was a success. And, with an estimated budget of $12 million, and already toping $40 million in less than two weeks, I'd say that the box office agrees.
Or maybe my standards for what defines a movie as "good" have changed over the years. Whatever the case, I can't for the life of me understand why Underworld: Awakening (3D) was rated as favorably as it was. When the Underworld series started in 2003, it had something very cool in it's hands. A secret war lasting for centuries between Vampires and Werewolves spills into the human world. Personally, I ate it up. It took a fresh look at subject matter that had been done to death before. There was a society, a caste system, new mythology and structure to devour. The characters were interesting, just human enough to be flawed, but monster enough to make things exciting. Throw in the new Vampire/Werewolf hybrid that looked like the lead singer from Creed, and they were good to go! They had me, hook line and sinker. Three movies later, I couldn't care less.
One is a 'rock' singer. One is a werewolf/vampire hybrid. Can you guess which is which?Underworld: Evolution expanded on the already great Underworld, taking the mythos even deeper after the interesting cliffhanger (that if I remember correctly, didn't really amount to anything). We got to go further into the history of the war, and some major events happen to the characters. The film took what was great about the one prior, and made it better. Unfortunatley, I was still unable to tell the difference between Scott Speedman and Scott Stapp.
The third Underworld movie, Rise of the Lycans proved to me that writer Danny McBride was commited to this story. He further established the story by doing his version of a period piece, moving the setting back into the dark ages to show how the current feud between Vampires and Lycans (werewolves) came to be. An interesting note was that the protagonist of the first to movies, Kate Beckinsale's Selene, wasn't present at all. This said to me that the writer wanted to take the time to add another dimension, and validity to the story we had already seen. This installment also proved that it wasn't necessary to wrap the series in the same clothes it had on in the past two movies to be successful. After The Matrix, a number of gun-toting, leather-clad action movies came out that I felt lacked substance. Rise of the Lycans totally changed the game by taking us out of the comfort zone, adding new perspectives on older characters, and made the world that we were introduced to ever so much more vast. Underworld: Awakening took all that was done to grow that world, and marginalized it.
This was the color palette for the entire movie.When I first saw the trailer for Underworld: Awakening, I was hopeful. The series had been going well so far, and this one was going to open up the war to humans some more. Unfortunately, I found that Awakening took a turn for the worse. Instead of utilizing the deep mythos of the past, and the hierarchical structure that the Vampires had before, it focused on more leather and more shooting, but without any real purpose. In a barely-there introduction that took about 40 seconds to bring new viewers up to speed, one of the main characters is seen for possibly half a minute, and never heard from again. Cut to twelve years later, and our heroine wakes up to a world that she's a stranger to.
I don't care who these people are.Selene finding her footing in this new world was boring. Humans know about Vampires and Werewolves, and even "have routine checks at points inside the city", yet Selene puts on a coat, and is instantly incognito. No one questions who she is, no checkpoints are seen. She even has a short conversation with a guard, who is none the wiser of her fangy ways. Throughout the story, she meets other vampires who announce their presences pretty much exactly like that. "Hey, it's ok. I'm like you. Check out my flashy blue Vampire eyes". Selene, convinced by Mr Glowey Eyes then go back to his coven only to meet his father, who in a lovely cliche is also the leader of that particular group of Vampires. He of course plays the card, "why did you bring them here, you've doomed us all!" Of course, action ensues as he's proven right.
I don't care who this is either.If you couldn't already tell, Awakening left me with the impression that rather than raise the bar like they did with the previous three movies, they tried their damndest to hold onto the status quo. They introduce Subject Two. A young girl Vampire/Werewolf hybrid that we're told is Selene's daughter, although there is absolutely no reason to believe so. For some reason, she's important to the plot, but I found myself forgetting about her, waiting for something more intriguing to come along. There's a human detective who plays a minor role who is equally forgettable, no matter how badly the writer tries to shoehorn him into a position of importance.
Without spoiling any more, I'll say this: At the end, nothing has changed. Nothing was resolved, no greater goal was achieved. There are still Vampires, Werewolves and humans. Selene still goes around shooting stuff, but now she has a little hybrid with her. Nothing was surprising, as the movie followed a very cookie-cutter formula. I was so disappointed with the fact that after such build-up and fleshing out of this world, the writer did so little to use it. I almost wish that this movie was condensed into a few webisodes, and the feature was something more substantial.
A while ago, I knew someone who grew up in a city in Poland. While she recounted her childhood, she told me about seeing tanks stationed throughout different neighborhoods and rolling through the streets. As I listened, I couldn't imagine something like that happening here in the United States.
No matter what your opinion of our government, we haven't ever been occupied by another country. Most of us who have grown up here haven't seen the literal aspects of war on a daily basis. War, to most Americans (less so for many Europeans), is much more abstract and distant; we see news reports on TV and the Internet, protesters on the street and higher gas prices. Regardless of how much the media may put forth the idea of "Us versus Them" when it comes to conflicts around the world, I doubt that many of us imagine that we'll be invaded by a foreign power. Homefront, by THQ and KAOS Studios examines what could possibly happen were our fears of invasion realized.
The story takes place in 2026, but starts out by bringing the player up to speed on what's happened in the last 15 years through video footage of news reports and some snazzy motion graphics. Major events such as the death of Kim Jong-Il and the rise of his son, Kim Jong-Un, the unification of North and South Korea, the fall of Japan and ever rising conflict in the Middle East are all displayed in gritty sequences that display the progression of Korea's military growth. Then, under the guise of launching a communication satellite, Korea detonates an EMP over the United States, disabling all electronics, and swatting planes out of the sky. Hawaii is the first to fall, followed by San Francisco as Korean forces slowly make their way east until they reach the irradiated Mississippi River and are forced to stop. The game starts as the player, a pilot living in Colorado, is accosted and thrown down the stairs from his apartment by the KPA, The Korean People's Army.
Thats when it gets ugly.
When I bought the game at my local Gamestop, my friend Tom warned me that there were a few scenes that might make me feel uncomfortable. I reassured him that I'd be OK, having played the controversial "No Russian" mission, and been OK, if maybe a little shaken. Tom looked at me, and said, "Still... It's a bit heavy...". I was actually surprised by this, as I'm a reasonably healthy, socially and morally stable 31 year old. I went ahead and bought the game.
You start out being thrown down a flight of stairs, herded onto a bus, and driven through a Colorado Town. While being transported, the player is shown a jarring scene of the occupied United States. Citizens are rounded up into cages, shot in the street, beaten, abused and humiliated. This continues until the bus that you're on is attacked, and you're set free by rebel forces, and the gameplay starts. The upsetting scenes don't stop there, however. You're fighting on American soil, and Kaos Studios does their best to remind you of that. You fight your way through suburbs, through a White Castle and Hooters, supermarkets and stadiums. At one point, you see a bulldozer filling a mass grave with american bodies. One of your team finally loses his mind and starts shooting off rounds.
While these visions of human atrocity are unfortunately something that most of us have seen in newsreels and textbooks, (and for the unluckiest of us, first-hand), never before have we seen this happen on our home soil. I found that while I was playing, I became more and more upset with what I was seeing. This game was suddenly a lot more personal.
This could have been my neighborhood. A character mentions as he enters a labor camp that he saw his dentist there the week before. This all made me think; why is it that we as gamers become so desensitized while we play modern war games like Call of Duty, Socom and Battlefield, (which all are essentially the same game as Homefront, except for the setting), yet we feel no personal remorse or attachment to the cause? Does framing a story in our own backyard add legitimacy to any potential feelings of discomfort or anger? What do countries like Russia and France feel when they see our games? What about the middle east? We as gamers feel quite at ease sprinting through the dusty, sun-bleached maps of Battlefield: Bad Company 2, gunning down insurgents, or knifing Russian soldiers in Call of Duty. Yet, why did I feel so personally molested seeing the Korean People's Army driving tanks through my back yard in a video game?
I haven't yet finished Homefront, and to be honest, I have a hard time playing it. After the mass grave scene, I can't imagine what else Kaos Studio may throw at me. One thing is for sure though. They touched a nerve. And by doing so, they force me not only to reexamine what I enjoy about common realistic military games, but what I would do were this a reality. While I may never see North America invaded during my lifetime, it's not an impossible thing. Do Americans have the will and the bravery to defend our country, were it attacked, and our government toppled? I hope that I never have to find out.