24 February 2010

White Whales

[Note: Because this is a film so little seen and hard to find, and because I want to discuss its plot and themes, I have summarized much of the film in the following post. If you intend to watch it sometime and don’t want the end spoiled, you might want to read much passed the paragraph starting with "The story begins with..."]

Friðrik Þór Friðriksson’s directorial career began in the realm of documentary. When Icelandic national cinema came to into its own in the ‘80s after the founding of the Icelandic Film Fund (IFF), Friðrik Þór was chiefly known for his controversial short Brennu-Njals saga (1980) which takes the saga’s name of “Burnt-Njal’s saga” to heart by literally dousing a copy of the national treasure with gasoline and setting it aflame to music by Icelandic punk legends Þeyr. Two years later, he became arguably the most popular director among young Icelanders with his documentary Rock in Reykjavík (1982, Rokk í Reykjavík) about the Icelandic (post-)punk movement. Of course, Þeyr took part in this film as well, and Friðrik Þór has commented on his fondness for this group, enough so to single them out when interviewed about his work for the later documentary Screaming Masterpiece (2005, Gargandi snilld). Obviously, punk played heavily into his earliest works, and so it’s not surprising that 5 years after his punk rock documentary, his debut feature film tells an essentially “punk” story.

White Whales (1987, Skytturnar) is ostensibly the story of two whale fishers, the cynical Grímur and his his overweight yet optimistic fishing mate Bubbi, who return to Reykjavík after a fishing trip only to find rejection, misery, and existential ennui—like “whales out of water.” English viewers will find this metaphor, reflected in the title, rather easily. Everywhere they go, no one seems to really accept them or welcome them. One bar patron gives us out titular line when he ridicules the overweight Bubbi as a “white whale.”

It’s interesting, then, that the word “skytturnar” does not mean “white whales” but rather “the riflemen” or “the sharpshooters.” This is an interesting point, as I feel it shows a shift in audience expectations.

The de facto lead of this film is the bitter Grímur (Þórarinn Óskar Þórarinsson), not the softie Bubbi (Eggert Guðmundsson). Despite our initial impressions of the two on the boat, where Grímur reads literature as Bubbi looks at pornographic magazines, we are quickly lead to find the former as cynical and bitter compared to the perhaps foolishly optimistic and friendly Bubbi.

The story begins with the capture of a whale and the ships arrival on shore, where Grímur and Bubbi watch the beginning of the slaughter process. We are greeted into the world of White Whales through the literally destruction of the title’s most obvious character. As long blades strip the blubber off the carcass, Grímur convinces one of the workers to give me a hunk of whale meat so that he can take it to his grandmother. While hitchhiking into the city, the two are first kicked out when Grímur tells a man who has been complaining about the rudeness of people these days to change the fucking radio station. Then, while hitching their second ride, they see a horse that has been hit by another car, and Grímur borrows the trucker’s rifle to perform a “mercy killing.” These early moments give Grímur a darker caste. Not evil, mind you, as we can see his sense of mercy in putting the horse out of its misery. Still, there is something undeniably pessimistic to his character. When Bubbi becomes sad and distraught over the horse, the rift in the viewer’s attitudes grows wider. We are upset over the horse’s death, and when Grímur explains himself, his attempt to remind Bubbi that they have killed many fish and whales as well does little to improve his image. We see something in the more emotional open and thereby vulnerable Bubbi, in his timid awkwardness.

The next section of the story is essentially a chronicle of Grímur’s failures, with Bubbi as his hopeful companion. They meet Grímur’s grandmother, who welcomes the two with nagging and backhanded insults. Despite Bubbi’s claim that Grímur’s wife will gladly take him back when they appear with a box of chocolates for the kids and smiles on their faces, they are violently kicked out and threatened. Even the drunk girl who invites them both back to their place for more drinks and music crosses them when the police arrive about a noise complaint, saying she did not invite them over and that they are intruders. All this builds up to the film’s climax when, immediately released from the prison after brief questioning, Grímur steals a cop car and the two go careening into the front of a sporting goods store. Grímur gets out the rifles from the display case, loads two up with bullets, and hands one to Bubbi. In a moment of desperate desire to release the built up tension, the two begin to blast the store apart, pumping lead into the chests of Adidas-wearing mannequins and picking items of the wall.

When the cops inevitably appear, they quite expectedly assume the worst and try to gas the two frustrated characters out. Bubbi makes the first run for it and is gunned down, and in the resulting confusion, Grímur makes his break for it. Despite his initial success at eluding the police (due primarily to their own incompetence), they eventually catch up to him at a deserted swimming pool. It is there, at the bottom of the drained pool, where he too is finally gunned down. In his dying moments, we see what is presumably Grímur’s first “killing”—a goldfish struggling frantically next to his bowl. The connection to the death of the horse at the beginning is emphasized when we remember him mentioning how they have also killed whales and fish. It’s hard not to view Grímur’s death as another “mercy killing,” putting him out of the misery that drove him to such depths and the death of Bubbi, the only person sympathetic to his character throughout the film.

Of course, the two titles give us different takes on this story. Grímur is more the “rifleman” while Bubbi is more the “white whale.” One title makes us think more of Grímur, of his decent into nihilism and death, and his inevitably “mercy killing.” The other makes us sympathise with Bubbi, who is lost in the modern world and ultimately destroyed by it. Yet the two titles imply that both are of the same kind, and the meaning of the film may be more closely tied to the interaction of both these titles. Both characters, to greater or lesser degree, are out of place in the city’s modernity—“white whales”—but they also both play their part in their own decent into rebellion against this world and thus death—“the riflemen.” In this way, Bubbi plays an unusual role, in that Grímur’s treatment of him makes us like Grímur less, and yet the similarity between the two make us more likely to sympathise with both. Despite the fact that Grímur’s death can easily be seen as justified, we still feel sad over it. In this way, the film does an excellent job at relating it to the “mercy killing” of the horse. On one hand, we sort of know it had to be done. On the other hand, we wish it didn’t have to be like that. We wish that we could somehow cure them.

I mentioned at the beginning that I consider this film related to punk, and I will now clarify. On one level, Icelandic rock music figures heavily in much of the film, but that is hardly a reason to call a movie “punk.” Rather, it is the overall theme of the film that captures that same mentality. In punk, there is a sense of anger that something is wrong, that the world should be different, and yet there is no real way to fix it. Both this film and punk rebel against modern life while still remaining within the realm of modernity. Neither suggests that we live on farms and raise our own food. They merely shout, “This modern life is alienating!” White Whales precedes films like SLC Punk! (1998) in its portrayal of the ultimately self-destroying nature of the punk mindset. Rage and anarchy destroy itself, and then what remains? Yet like SLC Punk! It also does so without discrediting that mindset for what it is. There is some usefulness in being angry over injustice, but if it does not lead to anything productive or creative, then it can only lead to destruction. It becomes purposeless and misunderstood, like bullets into mannequins.

09 February 2010

Let's Play! ChuLip - Episode 9

When will this game ever end? Apparently not any time soon. We begin the long, gruelling quest for money which, of course, means rooting through the garbage and receiving monetary compensation for kissing people. What kind of lesson is this game trying to teach?

Can you believe we've got nine episodes up? This is it for now, no backlogged episodes left until we decide to submit ourselves to more of this confounding game. It's so close to being fun...

08 February 2010

Let's Play! ChuLip - Episode 8

We dive right back into more ChuLip. The lucky streak continues! Whooyeah!

07 February 2010

Kenka Bancho: Badass Rumble

Do you think you have what it takes to be the biggest badass in all of Japan? Or are you just some punkass wannabe puppy trying to run with the wolves? Hopefully, you're a real man. A manly man. The kind with manliness coming out of his armpits and machismo to spare. Otherwise, don't bother. Kenka Bancho: Badass Rumble doesn't have time for you.

Seriously, though, this game is downright fun. Early on, as your dad trains you in the ways of the fist, he gives you three handy steps that just about sum up a huge part of this game:

1. Stare 'em down.
2. Talk 'em down.
3. Beat 'em down.

That's right, this game is a brawler. I've seen some people claim this is an RPG. Calling Kenka Bancho an RPG is like calling Persona 3 and 4 dating sims. Just because it has some of the genre elements does not make it of that genre. Kenka Bancho is a brawler with RPG elements, so while you can expect leveling up and navigating a very small number of menus to "equip" your attacks, the brunt of the gameplay focuses on beating the living snot out of anyone who looks at you funny.

But before I go into all the individual elements that make up this game, I want to make something clear from the beginning. Aside from the restraints of the clock and one or two cut scenes at the beginning, this game does not require you to do anything. Yes, there is a story. Yes, there is a "goal." But if you're just too much of a delinquent for things like "plot" and "purpose," you can throw it all to hell and do whatever you want. Think of the sandbox game format, only everything is unlocked from the beginning and you never get shoehorned into doing quests if you don't want to. It's like that save file that everyone has on their memory card for GTA: Vice City, where you can just mess around. Only, you know, you can also not mess around, and do what you're supposed to. Maybe this all sounds a little confusing, after all, don't games normally want you to play them? Yes, and Kenka Bancho encourages you to play it to its fullest, but in keeping with the spirit of the kind of attitude the game centres on, I like the fact that it never forces you.

Honestly, this aspect is one of my favourites, in part because I think everyone will play the game a little differently and get a different experience out of it.

In the same way, your fight style is versatile (especially as your list of available moves grows). Yes, you can just pick the strongest attack, but that won't always work. Some attacks leave you open. Some attacks may be weaker but have a wide range and be able to hit multiple enemies. I really enjoyed spending time in the Moves menu developing my character's fight style and then testing it out on the streets. The input for attacks stays the same, but you get to customize what each button will do in a given situation. Plus, between fast hits, strong hits, charge attacks, tackles, pushes, back attacks, grabs, pins, local specialties, and so forth, just how you utilize your fight style can vary. I found myself loving the grabs and pins, in particular against bosses. In large groups, though, holding onto a guy while you headbutt him and knee him in the teeth leaves you open to charge attacks from his friends. So I often focused on heavy hitting grabs and pins for bosses and wide ranged pushes, strong hits, and local specialties for times when there are just too many enemies on me. My fight style seemed to be best suited for one-on-one (the real man's way to fight, if you ask me), so I actually had less trouble with most bosses than I did with some of the punks on the street (especially those shabazzos with lead pipes—real man don't use weapons, punks!)

Oh, and before you fight, the honourable thing to do is stare them down with your "menchi eye beams." Some peons will just run off crying, but those worth their weight will stare you back and you'll go into smack talk mode. You'll be shown a phrase and then have to push the right button sequence to correctly say it and not sound like an idiot. For example, it'll say, "Yo mamma's so fat!" And then you have to select "Yo," "mamma's," and "so fat" in time. (To see it played out, watch the trailer embedded below.) If you get it right, you get in the first hit. If you fail, they get the first hit. Oh, and if you string together another phrase that also makes sense, they'll give it to you too.

However, while fighting all the other banchos (the strongest guy from a prefecture, a kingpin, and thus a boss fight) so that you can be the most badass bancho in Japan seems to be the primary goal of the game, that's not the only thing you can do. In addition to shopping for clothes and new haircuts, you're also supposed to be on a class field trip. So, you know, you're supposed to go with your class to temples and stuff. Pretty boring, right?

At first glance, the story events don't look as fun as brawling with the other yankii (Japanese delinquents), but it adds another element of interest. If you want the most "plot," this is where it happens. And don't worry, sometimes you get to fight someone threatening a friend, though this story seems to be more focused on your friends trying to get you to not fight. Now, the first time through, I tried to get to the final bancho and claim my spot as most badass punk in all of Japan, so I skipped some of the plot to try tracking down as many banchos as possible, but on subsequent playthroughs, I plan on trying one where I focus solely on the story and try to avoid confrontation as much as possible. I have to wonder what kind of ending you'd get. Would the game laugh at you for playing something called "Badass Rumble" and then doing nothing but hang out with your friends at temples in Kyoto? Or would this be another valid ending?

As backwards as it sounds, I think it's in the spirit of the delinquent attitude of the game for the ending to be just as valid. "Look at you, you delinquent. Yeah, so what if it's called 'Badass Rumble'? You don't care. You're too cool to care."

Speaking of which, did I mention that the game ranks your badassitude depending on if you do honourable things or if you're just some candy-ass cheater? For example, you can pick up weapons like baseball bats and wooden swords to wail on your opponents, which gives you great range and damage, but that's just not how a real man does it. You'll loose points, and the pompadour in the upper left corner will start to droop. Plus, your coolest bancho friends won't want to hang out with you. That's just not cool, man. Of course, for all intensive purposes, using a weapon is easier, and they give you the option. The punishment of a sagging pompadour doesn't seem too severe. Who needs friends when you have a baseball bat, right? But it's a mental thing. I played through the entire game with my pompadour icon huge and sparkling. That meter was always at max, because I didn't try to pull that cheap stuff. But why? It would've made the game easier and it's all provided to you in the game. You aren't entering a cheat code, and god knows your enemies love to use them. Still, it gtes to you. It puts you in the place of those wannabe yakuzas that are Japanese delinquents: You want to be honourable and cool. You don't want to just beat everyone up, you want to do it the hard way, and have everyone respect you (even if "everyone" is just an icon in a video game). In the same way, if you just up and attack delinquents, you'll always get the first hit. Staring them down and then talking them down is more risky—they might hit first!—but it'll raise your badassitude instead of lower it. Plus, it's more fun anyway!

However, the game does has its issues. In particular, the camera can be a little frustrating at times during those big fights. Someone will appear out of a blind spot behind the camera and hit you with a tackle, but then I suppose that would happen normally in a fight against a gang of punks anyway. Still, it can be annoying. Also, while there is a lock-on feature to help you hit, and I certainly encourage it for one-on-one fights, it doesn't really matter if you use it or not in big fights. With so many people, you sometimes just end up swinging around wildly like an idiot. So you try to lock-on, but you need to keep refreshing it to target the closest enemies or you end up swinging wildly again when they move out of range and you try to hit that guy coming up behind you. Overall, whenever a fight gets more than three of four against you, things can just get frustrating, but I guess it's my fault for bullheadedly standing my ground anyway.

Also, the button you use to grab or pin is the same button for picking up items, which means that sometimes you try to grab an enemy and end up picking up the weapon they dropped, only to have to discard before you can do anything or start swinging and make that pompadour sag.

These minor technical issues aside, the game is really fun, and in its uniqueness (though I suppose this is the third in the series for Japan), you're more willing to excuse it for a few faults.

Michael Jackson's Moonwalker

Today was, apparently, Super Bowl Sunday. This fact would have completely eluded me had a local pizza place not emailed me about their "Big Game Special." The special was, admittedly, a pretty good deal, so Menchi, Diatron, and I decided to take them up on the offer.

With our pizzas in hand and an evening ahead of us, we settle down to watch some DVDs at the apartment. None of us have cable, and we've never really missed it. I mentioned I have recently received Michael Jackson's Moonwalker through Netflix, and we all unanimously decided that we had to watch it. Before we even popped in the disc, the joke had already formed, "Screw the Super Bowl, we're watching Moonwalker!" Little did we know how right we were.

I think we all entered this movie expecting something corny and perhaps even laughably bad. Having played the Sega Genesis game based on the film, we had high hopes for just how inexplicably bizarre and random it would be. The weird thing is, we were sort of right, and yet... it wasn't "so bad it's good," it was simply amazing. It wasn't laughably bad, even though the plot was contrived, the special effects outrageous, and everything overdone and over the top. It was good. It was great. It had us cheering louder than our neighbor's Super Bowl party. See that image of us as the Reaction Guys, poised on the edge of our seats, enraptured in the excitedment? That was how we were for the entirety of this movie.

I think what you have to understand with this movie is that it is quite literally straight out of Michael Jackson's imagination. And that's a good thing, if you're open to it. It's an adventure. Who cares if it doesn't make any sense that he can transform into a car, robot, and spaceship? Who cares if there's no explanation behind about 90% of this film. It's Michael Jackson, and that's enough. It's music video logic. And honestly, this film is a lot like a bunch of extended music videos.

I mean, really, Michael Jackson's Moonwalker is the greatest tribute to Michael Jackson there is. It was a tribute to his life made not after his death and the wake of his failed career and decent into papparazzi hell, but rather while he was still in his prime. It's Michael Jackson being and doing everything that made him great, that made him an icon and the King of Pop.

And please, don't make the obvious joke about the plot of Michael Jackson saving children. If you ask me, I think he was a sad, lonely man who just wanted to be a kid again. Just watch this movie and you'll agree with me that all he ever really wanted was what he could never have—his childhood back.

Let's Play! ChuLip - Episode 7

Check out our seventh episode of Let's Play! ChuLip. Behold as Menchi and I actually begin to make a little progress!