The Oscars are happening! These days the Academy nominate loads of films for Best Picture instead of just five, an inflatory move presumably intended to boost revenue by increasing the number of DVD boxes parading awards contention stickers. More immediately, though, it makes writing posts like this a pain in the ass, especially considering a prerequisite of being nominated is your film lasts for two and half fucking hours.
The Oscars, everybody! Have you seen all the best picture nominees? Probably not, some of them look super worthy and one of them is about slowly dying. I have, and here’s a look at them all and a little about what their Academy attention might mean.
Amour is nothing short of the undoing of a person onscreen, and in Riva it’s an alert and still-beautiful person (let’s not be crude, but if we all look like her when we’re 85 octenagerian banging is going to take off in a big way). Comparisons have been made to the life montage of square-headed miseraberk Carl in Pixar’s Up, but that’s allusive and warm and has a sad balloon as a metaphor for mortality, where Amour has a sparkling soul who shits and monosyllable-ises her dignity to nothingness while her husband tends and suffers. Of course, Up should blink tidily from hospital bedside to empty wake, because otherwise I could have stayed at home with the children to google gunshot wounds for two hours and saved £30. But equally Amour’s whole purpose is to dig into the distressing space in between – the slow loss of self, the small touches that comfort flintily, the inevitable triumph of decline.
Oh, fucking hell. If for any reason you want to accentuate the film’s cliff-face bleakness by all means remind yourself of the glamourous new wave peak of its leads – Riva a glaring feast of cheekbone in Hiroshima Mon Amour and Jean-Louis Trintignant wearing a high collar for all of fucking France in The Conformist, which is one of the Best Films. Alternatively you could read some @Michael_Haneke tweets to subvert the whole gazing into the human abyss heaviness. Good luck with that.
Ben Affleck’s true story spy thriller has all the characteristics of the career he’s trying to forge – it’s a bit political, a bit serious, and the period setting allows for his continuing tribute to ‘70s New Hollywood to extend to accurate swirl-bowl haircuts and plastic everything.
The problem is that it’s clearly the worst of the three films Affleck has so far directed, a small kernel of fascinating truth spread thin over flailing xenophobia (a lazy grab at tension from a filmmaker who’s smarter than this shows) and a final act that wrings idiot suspense from an airport escape using a shameful bag of manipulative clichés. As such I’d have trouble recommending Argo despite the fact Alan Arkin says “fuck” perhaps as many as fifteen times, which is excellent.
Beasts of The Southern Wild
Beasts Of The Southern Wild was made for a piece of string and three hammers using a cast of people who needed several months of training to become non-professional, and it’s still 68 times better than John Carter, the movie responsible for the Great Depression.
There are three reasons I love Beasts Of The Southern Wild even more than I love being sarcastic about the indie credentials of art films: because it projects a compelling image of a not-quite-sci-fi America divided along the lines of class and poverty shamefully exposed by Katrina, because the music is a soaring fairytale of hope that lifts a sodden nightmare, and because it includes the line “I hope you die, and when you die I’ll go to your grave and eat birthday cake by myself.”
The music bit is important – like David Simon’s HBO series Treme, Beasts looks at what makes communities strong even after their abandonment by the establishment and decides it’s probably getting drunk and dancing. It’s vital and defiant, and I expect it’s also too small and unspectacular to win – not when there are self-importantly staged musicals and presidential dramas in competition. Still, if 2012 featured a big-screen joy purer than watching Hush Puppy run through the Bathtub with sparklers held in each hand then I blinked and missed it.
In which we learn: That Tarantino can still pick his collaborators, even if none of them happen to be a strong-armed editor or anyone with balls enough to say “Hey, Quentin, maybe don’t be in this scene as the least convincing Australian ever. The Bonnie Situation was a long fucking time ago and this is pretty embarrassing for everybody”. Which is another way of saying that it’s Christoph Waltz, rather than the film around him, that makes Django Unchained feel fresh and arresting, and whenever he’s not onscreen the self-indulgence and lack of focus weigh heavily.
Problems include the apparent belief that obstinately protracted scenes accrue significance proportional to their length, that Taratino’s script over-pronounces its racist insults like a schoolkid trying out his first swear words, and that Samuel L Jackson has come dressed as a jar of Uncle Ben’s sauce. It’s a big pile for fine casting to overcome, which is why it doesn’t.
In which we learn: That Oscar voters love a musical, even when it’s shot like a sixth form vision poem.
More importantly we also learn that the songs in Les Misérables are really good, and that Hugh Jackman hasn’t forgotten his classical stage training despite ten years of doing press-ups and building a body that looks like the flank of a horse. Russell Crowe is both ridiculous as scowling man-of-law Javert and the least wretched he’s been for years – his pompous “I’m doing acting” furrow happens to be an exact match for Javert’s dickishness, and it’s tough to dislike a man who’s throwing his all into singing and is still a bit rubbish.
It’s okay to admit to having a small cry while Anne Hathaway sang I Dreamed A Dream – or at least it had better be because I’m doing it here – and also to acknowledge the success of the film’s technically ambitious decision to record all the vocal performances on set, which is largely what gives Hathaway’s steady, single-shot showcase its saddening whack. Plus points, too, for being filmed partially at Chatham’s Historic Dockyard, where I once gave guided tours of various maritime attractions, something which enabled me to make what’s likely to stay my least-heralded joke of 2013 in a one-line review of the film: It’s a bit ropery.
BECAUSE THERE IS A ROPERY IN THE DOCKYARD WHERE THEY MAKE ROPES .
Life Of Pi
Full marks anyway to the tiger, who eats a goat and a zebra, is called Richard Parker, and is my second favourite pretend tiger only after the one who came to tea because he drank all the water in the tap. Next to that drifting across the ocean on a transcendent journey of self-discovery and creaking analogy really is a piece of saved-in-a-bag-until-we’re-dying-of-thirst piss.
Life Of Pi is technically superb in a self-negating way whereby incredible effects work is a minimum requirement of making the story simply occur onscreen. Years of human endeavour sink the creature animation invisibly into the film’s reality, the crowning touch of this remarkable achievement being to give the audience an unobstructed view of the Booker-winning story which, it turns out, is really boring.
Still, as an adaptation of an award-winning novel which has made a giant pile of cash at the box-office, this is a smart shout for Best Picture, even though I secretly enjoyed fellow fiasco-magnet Cloud Atlas more as a movie less inclined to strike me in the face with its hammer-blow attempt at profundity.
While explaining his 2013 ballot card to The Hollywood Reporter, an anonymous academy voter recently said that “Spielberg deserves an Oscar every 10 years or so out of respect for what he does for the industry.” What he does for the industry in this case being to make a long-ass film about caucuses and securing the immediate financial future of Hollywood’s fake beard craftsmen.
Oh fine, Lincoln better than that – it’s also an engaging if heavyweight political drama dealing with issues of race and presidential legacy. The film was timely and serious, and we should thank it for showing by contrast the pop-culture shallowness of Django Unchained’s treatment of the same themes, even if it was also like an episode of the Old West Wing without Bradley Whitford
A special word for Daniel Day Lewis, who is here a model of tempered passion and thoughtfulness, and who delivers the kind of subdued intensity you’d expect from a president whose reward for bearing the weight of a civil war and successfully abolishing slavery was to be shot in the fucking head.
Silver Linings Playbook
Silver Linings Playbook has the haphazard profundity of As Good As It Gets, an apparently straightforward emotional drama given extra flight and poignancy by excellent performances and an interest in the awkward imperfection of human contact.
What it’s doing on the list is anyone’s guess – it’s enjoyable, but bar De Niro stripping back the irony and for once laying it on the line, this is good rather than great, a smart romance that embraces weird and shows Bradley Cooper can do more than glow from his teeth while wearing perfect tanned abs.
Zero Dark Thirty
While fellow-favourite Lincoln is celebrated as a recreation of a president’s historical decisiveness, Zero Dark Thirty is notable for not featuring Barack Obama or his nod to proceed with the assassination of Osama Bin Laden and being pilloried by various logic-illiterate sections of the media for it anyway, an idiot’s circus that only gave way to an equally tedious discussion about whether the film promotes or condemns the use of torture during interrogation.
All of which is to miss the point that Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t give an improvised fucking device about political gamesmanship or the eye of history – it’s a film about process and precision, about the front end of conflict, which in a modern context involves being Jessica Chastain and doing a serious face, and it’s told with a spareness and neutrality that borders on disinterest.
Still, it’s interesting that in a presidential election year the Academy’s best picture nominees are or less split between heavyweight politicising and searching for the meaning of life, with Django Unchained happier to pop a collar and think about how cool it is, the answer to which if you haven’t been paying attention is: nowhere near as fucking cool as Trintignant in The Conformist.
Here once again is a review of the year in film which is limited to the things I’ve been able to see in between having a job that doesn’t require me to watch films, raising two children and drinking enough coffee to fill the warmest, scariest lake in the world.
So, January, which had the benefit of being Oscar hangover month for the UK which caught up on the awards-angling pair of The Descendants, a family drama by Alexander Payne which was good even though the most exciting thing that happens is George Clooney running in loafers, and Shame, which was much more than its “pean to a penis” tag suggested and not too far off an internet pornography-age Taxi Driver. There was also The War Horse, which I didn’t watch because. In less gilded quarters The Darkest Hour was an alien invasion movie interesting for being set in Moscow and boring for every other reason including the fact its aliens were invisible, while Haywire was a spy story in which Ewan McGregor, Michael Fassbender and Channing Tatum made a deal with Gina Carano where they did all the acting and she punched them all in the face. Finally there was The Grey, in which Liam Neeson was supposed to elbow drop a pack of wolves for an hour and a half to amuse sniffy critics but instead snarled, survived and meditated on death in a way which was meaningful if you can swallow great snowy mouthfuls of received Hemingway.
The bitterly cynical Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close was a pretended cry of innocent profundity, a glib, mawkish fuck of a film that, if it were a man, would deserve death at the corner of a brick. Thankfully the rest of February was less awful: Freud and Jung drama A Dangerous Method was a David Cronenberg pilgrimage to the monocled font of all his knob-based neuroses and sex wounds, while Chronicle was a lo-fi superhero story strong on character and blissfully weak on capes, super-sized budgets and things that may or may not be CAAAAARRRs. The Woman In Black was a coming together of two great British institutions – Hammer Films and Harry Potter – which put enough fog and Ciaran Hinds on the screen to obscure the fact that Daniel Radcliffe isn’t ever going to be very good at acting. Conversely Woody Harrelson was a perfect James Ellroy hero in Rampart – a difficult mix of domestic fascism and obdurate intelligence – though the movie couldn’t keep pace with his performance, and there was no pace at all in Man On A Ledge, a film notable for being the moment we all realised Sam Worthington is the most boring man ever to accidentally become a Hollywood star. The film I enjoyed best all month was The Muppets, which was not only a joyous and skillful resurrection of past stars, but a brilliant film about the past (Eighties robot, Amy Adams and Jason Segel’s out-of-time couple, this glorious bit of dialogue) that pulled off the not inconsiderable trick of conjuring nostalgia without succumbing to it.
March cheered me up with John Carter, not because it was good, but because the way in which it was nearly good but also ridiculous, self-defeating and full of sand reminded me of David Lynch’s Dune, which is always an excellent thing. There were genuine disasters too – Wrath Of The Titans vied for least distinctive sequel of forever, earning a reprieve from oblivion thanks to the few seconds during which Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes beat the godly shit out of everything, and Act Of Valor might have had good intentions but also might as well have been a 90 minute shot of an erect penis wearing a marine special forces hat. Like this one. Drab smuggling thriller Contraband was further, tediously plotted proof that Mark Wahlberg is a better comedian than he is action star, something that fellow meat-lump Channing Tatum seemed to figure out for himself in the remake of ‘80s TV show 21 Jump Street, which had no business being as good as it was. Victim of an even bigger miscasting was the ever-intense Tom Hardy, who didn’t so much look uncomfortable in romantic comedy This Means War as like he wanted to tear the skin from the faces of everyone else in the film with his teeth, which lent the bantering courtship scenes an odd rhythm. I enjoyed that The Hunger Games was a movie aimed at the post-Twilight teenage market that had a capable female lead instead of a simpering leaf, but weirdly didn’t enjoy all the bits where kids killed each other, although I did enjoy the thrill of Aardman in full flow in The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists! even though the speed and imagination were compensating for a plot as messily constructed as that rubbish title. Lastly, Project X was basically Risky Business with a found-footage gimmick and a steady conviction that throwing up is funny, and on that basis couldn’t provide more of a contrast with This Is Not A Film, a poignant documentary from banned Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi that touches on the frustration of his forced retirement, but also on the magic of collaboration and hope for the country’s future.
April was good but also included Battleship. I’m generally forgiving of Hollywood’s moneymaking foibles, but there’s a biting emptiness here – even Transformers has a glued-on storyline about bad robots, but licensing Battleship, an archetypal game of chance based upon the existence of war rather than any specific instance of it, is no more narratively meaningful than adapting a roll of dice. Things improved marginally with Guy Pearce doing a Liam Neeson in sci-fi prison thumper Lockout, which must have been OK because all I can remember of it is the lopsided smile Pearce did every time he was punched in the face, then got actually good with Headhunters, an authentically Hitchockian manhunt grounded by practical set-piece panic but also stretched to dramatic extremes. The Cabin In The Woods was the kind of wry meta-take on the teen slasher genre you’d expect from writer/producer Joss Whedon, though the film’s best moment was Bradley Whitford being allowed to say “Oh COME ON” as sarcastically as possible. A mainline of Whedon arrived with The Avengers which it’s difficult to credit as anything but a triumph – a stable of stars and super-characters marshalled with unifying self-deprecation, a deftly managed set of character interactions and a fine way with pomp-nixing one-liners (“There’s only one God, ma’am, and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t dress like that”). The month was rounded off wonderfully, as things often are, by Audrey Tautou in La Délicatesse, which I enjoyed as an “after the fairy tale” follow-up to Amelie in which her Kassovitz-esque soul-mate dies suddenly and she’s cast into a world of imperfect second choices. It revels in the clumsy and the unappealing, and at least tries to get at the truth of caring for people.
For my birthday in May I got a Wes Anderson film I didn’t love very much in the shape of Moonrise Kingdom. Seeing as everyone is currently complaining about Brad Pitt’s ubiquitous perfume ad here’s an example of him selling something gloriously, the point being this kind of meticulously controlled joy explosion is what Anderson’s capable of at his best and nowhere to be seen in Moonrise Kingdom which reminded me of Max Fischer’s high school plays in Rushmore, a drama pretended by kids and at one ironic move from anything heartfelt (also Pitt should maybe do a Tati film). It was loads better than The Dictator, though, which without the outrage and explosive potential of unwitting collaborators felt overly scripted and trite. Getting worse before we get better, Piranha 3DD wasn’t so much a film as a flock of tits being dragged underwater in the company of David Hasselhoff, and American Pie: Reunion was a failure to let go which, even as someone who went to university the year American Pie was released, bored me to bastard tears and I only saw it because the stupid digital print of The Cabin In The Woods wouldn’t work at the local Odeon. Men In Black 3 didn’t need a smart plot or script because it had Josh Brolin doing a sinew-perfect Tommy Lee Jones impersonation and Will Smith, who is the most natural film star currently barely working. Romanian prison drama If I Want To Whistle, I Whistle… was controlled and angry, but the month’s best film was the breathless invention of The Raid, which turned a story about a policeman who’s good at kicking and walks up a tower block into a ballet of snapped shins and horrid landings.
Things slowed down a little in June. George Lucas showed why it was a good thing he’d sell LucasFilm to Disney at the end of the year with World War Two drama Red Tails, which proved once and for all that despite the vast technical resources at his disposal he’d become SOMEHOW INCAPABLE OF MAKING FILMS, while Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter wasn’t half as awful as everyone complained, sadly leaving it plenty of room for still being quite awful. Friends With Kids was a modern-day When Harry Met Sally blessed with a splendid cast (mostly, the cast of Bridesmaids) led by Jennifer Westfeldt, who also wrote and directed the film and probably smells really nice too, while Rock Of Ages drew a frankly unnecessarily good turn from Tom Cruise as a slow-moving Axl Rose-shaped monument to excess and was quite good fun, though this might be because I’m increasingly sure Don’t Stop Believing is the pinnacle of Western civilisation. Even this version. William Friedkin’s southern gothic Killer Joe was greasy and sickening like eating a bucket of cold chicken wings, and finally, Ridley Scott’s Prometheus arrived, and was almost a delicately constructed bridge between the rich universes of his past classics Alien and Blade Runner, but then, for reasons I’ve sworn about at length, wasn’t.
In July I found the world of Dr Seuss adaptation The Lorax generically right-on and a little threadbare, and then the month was given over to two giant superhero vehicles. The Amazing Spider-Man did a perfectly fine job of retelling the Peter Parker origin story, the more interesting thing being how soon it did so after Sam Raimi’s mostly-good series had stumbled, which says something about audience appetites for consuming the same superhero tales dressed in new costumes and the genre’s similarities to old Western cycles, but not nearly enough about how awesome Emma Stone is in this and everything else. Then there was The Dark Knight Rises, the biggest and somehow also smallest of Christopher Nolan’s Batman films. Nolan might be the only filmmaker working in superhero films to think of them consciously as myth, which makes his Batman movies rewardingly elaborate and serious but also tips them towards pretension, by which I mean the film was good but let’s all agree Bane’s voice wasn’t an example of the Emperor’s new clothes so much as the Emperor nakedly crotch-chopping his way down the high street (it’s also more or less unwatchable after you’ve seen this dead-eyed parody).
August threatened to be unbearable thanks to The Watch, a urban sci-fi comedy which relied on Richard Ayoade deadpanning about his balls for its only two laughs, and veteran action slog The Expendables 2, which felt like plugging electrodes into a dead muscle and watching it convulse uselessly. Mark Wahlberg was good in Ted, though the dry-humping cuddly bear concept become a friction burn all too soon, and Jeremy Renner was good in The Bourne Legacy, which was stripped, spare, and about the best anyone could have hoped for from a Matt Damon movie without Matt Damon. The best film of the month was Pixar’s Brave, which redrew Scotland as a paradise of lush green hills and tumbling red hair. I loved that it featured another crafty, self-assured female lead, and that the film was about a nuanced relationship with her mother and not drab daddy approval issues, but ever so slightly disappointed it didn’t come together as magically as it might.
September inadvertently offered a selection of films about masculinity. The Sweeney was a nasty film about men who breath frantically through their nose before headbutting something – impressive for £2 million, in the same was as making a bomb packed with shit in your kitchen is impressive – while Depression-era standoff Lawless was huskily acted but never coherent enough to be powerful, and Dredd was a purposeful science fiction success that dealt efficiently with all the big-city-in-the-future essentials in order to better spend its time beating the shit out of criminals. I enjoyed it so much I barely had time to think about how fascist it was. Elsewhere The Babymakers was a sub-Atapow life comedy about an infertile man stealing his own sperm from a fertility clinic that might have had a wry point to make if it wasn’t so focused on making wank gags instead. Fnally there were contrasting Joseph Gordon-Levitt films: Premium Rush, a shallow thriller about fixie-bike couriers in New York with some fairly unforgivable “Wow, X-Games!” moments, and Rian Johnson’s fantastic film about time-travel and hitmen, Looper, which is my favourite of the year thanks to its economically constructed near-and-further futures, and thanks to a dazzling set of ideas that contract to a cold kernel of truth: that the time we have is limited and this gives our choices meaning and weight.
October was somehow the most consistently enjoyable month of the year despite including Madagascar 3, a film which opted out of unbearably smug Dreamworks franchise building, hired Bryan Cranston, and did a nightmarish/brilliant remix of two of the worst songs of all time to somehow become my favourite animated film of the year. Ruby Sparks offered just enough unpleasantness in its cosy intellectual story of a trembling boy-genius writer and the perfect girl he accidentally invents, Skyfall explored the interesting things that can happen if you make Bond human again – in weakness he’s restored the half-century-old series to strength – but far and away the best film of the month was Beasts Of The Southern Wild, an out-of-time tale of American disenfranchisement that’s really about the joy of being alive, and holding close all those who get to share it with you. It’s a near-miracle of communal filmmaking and untrained performances, and you should see it without reading another word about it.
I’m a fan of Ben Affleck but Argo, which came out in November, isn’t his best film – it’s rich in the political buzz and New Hollywood style that make him so interesting, but over-amplifies its true story through manipulation and cliché when it’s strong enough to stand on its own. Happily the only other film I saw all month was End Of Watch, an escalating drama surrounding a pair of patrol cops in LA which derives all its strength from the touching, unforced friendship of Michael Peña and Jake Gyllenhaal.
Then, in December, I saw just one film – The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Speaking as a man who grew up thrilled at glimpses of even the most stilted fantasy worlds on the big screen, this was a huge, belting version of one of our most important stories, and all those who say otherwise haven’t lived a life desperately convincing themselves the fucking Rankin/Bass animation was watchable, even though Gollum was a frog.
And that’s everything. The things I feel most ridiculous for not having seen yet are Berberian Sound Studio, The Master and Rust And Bone. The best films I’ve caught up on from previous years are Night Moves and A Matter Of Life And Death, and the best television series I watched were the BBC Tinker, Tailor and Smiley’s People (having caught up on the fine film version of last year, it still has nothing on Alec Guinness) and Breaking Bad, season three of which is probably the best television I’ve ever seen.
The things I like about Cologne include: the large number of bicycles ridden throughout the city, which features a positively continental proportion of curved cruiser handlebars, the clattering of loaded freight trains as they pass over the Rhine and into the night, and the thick, urgent downpour of rain which seems to hit the city every evening, and is gone again so quickly that it might be just a very efficient way of cleaning up.
In contrast the list of things I don’t like includes: the refusal of both my colleagues in this nightly game of “sit by a window and upload video files very slowly” to adopt my suggested German slang term “Michael” when talking about memory s(ch)ticks (not strictly Cologne’s fault) and our taxi driver from today, who invited us to stare at a girl in tight denim shorts before sliding with cliché-lubed grace into a remark about how many black people there are in England. I suspect he doesn’t ride a cruiser. I suspect he rides a flaming cross with “I am a shitwheel dickeating racist” written on it.
Talking of racism, today we interviewed Warren Spector, who’s at the show with Disney showcase Epic Mickey, and for a very brief period of time I considered asking him if he’d thought about making the crows from Dumbo into a swooping, taunting, white supremacist boss battle. He’d be able to do this on the grounds that Epic Mickey is a device through which to trawl the Disney archive – it features a world called the Wasteland filled with forgotten works and characters, a canonical fictionalisation of Disney’s industrial and creative evolution that I find fascinating. Of course he wouldn’t do it, because he’s not a lunatic.
Listening to Spector speak is a pleasure. He’s both affable and shrewd, making him one of those rare people that it’s quite nice to be patronised by. My second favourite thing that anyone said today was his reply when asked which Disney movie he enjoys the most. ”That’s an easy question to ask and a hard one to answer,” he said, which we totally deserved because half of Europe has already asked him the same thing, twice. It doesn’t beat my favourite thing said today, though, which was Beyond director David Cage explaining his philosophy of game design, emphatic French accent wrapping around each syllable for barely sustainable conceptual torque: “I care about what people are doing with their minds,” he said, tapping his temples,”not what they’re doing with their thumbs.”
Having uttered the most singularly David Cage-ish thing of all time Cage went on to prove he had a sense of humour by admitting that at this point Quantic Dreams probably has the technical resources to create a virtual porn film starring Ellen Page. Even more than wondering who would dub such a performance (I’ve passed David my card) what I was thinking during his presentation was the actually fairly obvious thought that productions like Beyond and The Last Of Us are finally answering the question raised implicitly by Dragon’s Lair and early 1990s Siliwood – “How can we make interactive films that aren’t a crock of shit?” And the answer is “By spending millions of dollars to painstakingly subsume human performers into a virtual world and even then we sometimes get the mouths wrong,” which probably wouldn’t be of much comfort to those early pioneers, though thinking about Ellen Page all nude and digital and speaking with my voice just might be.
Really the most remarkable thing about Gamescom day three is that it was the first day open to the public, which means the show floor became a sea of bodies apparently programmed to stop at random and look at their fucking shoes. The ludicrousness of the whole enterprise was summed up this morning as the doors were about to open for the first time, with our cameras trained on hundreds of visitors behind a barrier who were looking back at us with their own cameras, an empty note of imagined significance bouncing infinitely back and forth.
My usual distraught cynicism has mostly been tempered during Gamescom by how much I’ve enjoyed Cologne and my boundless enthusiasm for cruiser handlebars. But the agitated eagerness physically bubbling just under the surface of so many of the public attending the show makes me feel wretched. Today the first man through the doors following an anticlimactic countdown (chanted uproariously by the crowd, but followed by an orderly trickle of ones and twos through the show’s rigid turnstile gates) walked briskly past the first of the Kolnmesse’s giant exhibition halls, unable to stop himself breaking into a nervous run as he turned a corner onto the main concourse, and gathered pace until he was sprinting through the PlayStation area and finally to the huge white walls of the Assassin’s Creed III booth. He hurried up and down the swerving queue track and finally settled into place under a sign which read “60 minutes from this point,” behind a pack of trade visitors who’d snuck in early.
The worst thing was he didn’t look sad, he just pulled out his camera and started filming again. It might be because it’s half three in the morning and there’s still half a gig to upload and I’ve slept for seven hours out of the last 48, but it hit me with a thud and it might be the worst thing I’ve ever seen.
There is a noise in the bathroom of my otherwise very nice Cologne hotel room that sounds like a classroom of expertly hapless recorder players heaving a discordant red-faced hurricane somewhere in the distance. This morning I found it quite comforting, although for a few moments in the smallest hours of last night after I’d uploaded the last of the video files that we’re here to make I became irrationally concerned that I’d developed an intricate form of tinnitus, probably thanks to the savage and meaningless noise barked from wall to wall of EA’s conference yesterday. Then I realised it was just the pipes.
This was day two of Gamescom, the media day, during which several thousand select members of the press are given the opportunity to walk the vastness of the show floor and, if they’re anything like me, imagine they’re exploring an abandoned Forerunner structure that echoes with an awful quiet in some forgotten monument to bigness among the stars.
Really I have only daydreamed this once, and it was spoilt by a woman in electric blue hotpants asking me in German something about the racing game to which her hotpants were no doubt intrinsically related. Such are the perils of the games expo, although in keeping with the general theme of complaining less about Cologne than LA I actually spent a rather pleasant morning among the coloured beanbags and playground geometry of the PlayStation area on the show floor. If this makes it sound like a soft-cornered asylum for people no longer able to deal appropriately with the jagged realities of the world beyond Sackboy’s flap-tongued embrace, then fair enough – PS3 is rapidly being repositioned as a kids’ thing, gearing up for a final hardcore hurrah with the portentously-named Beyond and The Last Of Us before making itself a photoshop flyer and doing children’s parties at the weekends.
Or if not that, then at least giving itself over to the growing LittleBigEmpire and saving a seat in assembly for children-skewing peripherals like Move and Wonderbook (that’s skewing not skewering. I am not a monster). Add to that the all-but-confirmed new budget model (the PS3 SlimSlim, or Sliiiim, still wide enough to knock your Sky box off the TV stand) which has defied rumours by not making an appearance at Gamescom (unless it’s really slim) and the PS3’s regression to childhood is tough to deny.
And who’d want to? Last year I watched joylessly blank-faced teens queue for hours to bullet each other to heaven on a stand dominated by Uncharted 3 and The Heist. This year I watched the cutest child in all of Germany sit in a full-sized wooden boxcar racer to play LittleBigPlanet Karting for a full half an hour while his mum watched patiently (I would like to meet the guys who approved his press accreditation though).
There’s a joyousness about the eclectic creativity and dressing-up box aesthetics that characterise PS3’s infant strand – The Puppeteer and Tearaway are the latest examples – and I think PlayStation does these vibrant kids games as well as anyone else. So I’m excited about the next year, but I can also hear the minor chord playing hauntingly in the background reminding me that, strange beasts that they are, games consoles always look their youngest right before they die, and in that respect the PS3 getting another price cut will be a bit like a favourite dog developing an arthritic limp that makes you want to hug them more often and take them out for longer walks that they can’t really enjoy anymore anyway.
(My secret hope is that The Last Of Us, which I saw today as we interviewed the game’s endearingly enthusiastic leads Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson, will be like the last big walk on which I took my own arthritic dog, Max, who shrugged off groaning hind leg stiffness for an afternoon of snapping at long grass and a puppyish playfight that made me cry. It is understandably a hope not conveyed in any of the magazine previews I’ve written so far).
Today’s entry seems to be dominated by daydreams and wandering memories, so it’s probably appropriate that the only game I actually played was Doom 3, which is being re-released along with Doom and Doom 2. I didn’t love what I played of Doom 3, partly because it lacks the fireball-sidestepping precision of its simpler predecessors, and partly because the 3D was so extreme that when I turned corners quickly it felt like the game was stapling each screen refresh directly onto my wet unblinking corneas, which even taking into account my 3D skepticism seems a high price to pay for things appearing to be slightly further away. I shall still play the first two, though, for sentimental reasons (anyone who at this point questions how I can call Doom’s spacebar-trigger carnage “sentimenal” following a eulogy to my dying dog probably has a very good fucking point).
Filming and being tired filled the rest of the day. At one point during the hour-long actor panel for The Last Of Us I realised I was physically rehearsing a facial expression I wished our guest presenter had made for a piece to camera earlier, and tried to pass it off as a debilitating facial tic. Then on the walk back to the hotel Dave Jackson claimed that Germany was “equidistant from everywhere” which seemed for a soaring moment to be a possibility before the drab insistence of Newtonianism reasserted itself. The prick.
The progress bars are inching towards some early morning event horizon and the clock is plowing mercilessly onwards while I blink and switch memory sticks and worry about tomorrow. I am at another videogames expo.
Only this one is Gamescom, in Cologne, and although an oppressive workload and the need to find internet that doesn’t run backwards give it a tang of E3’s bitterness, the fact that Cologne is really very nice and has more soul in a single block of its brutal Gothic cathedral than LA has in all its endless miles of numbing Godless sprawl makes it significantly more bearable.
We arrived yesterday, greeted by a taxi driver who told us enthusiastically that Resident Evil 6 was a “beautiful game” as we passed a giant advertisement pinned to a hotel, which made me think he was either mad or confusing it with Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus, which seemed unlikely.
Today the real business started, a day before the show itself opens in the mercilessly vast Koelnmesse, but still packed with conferences, previews and assorted bangdrumming. First was a Hitman Absolution event at an unassuming high street cinema called Residenz, which inside was an unexpectedly huge and glamorous theatre with rows of wide leather seats. Hitman isn’t my favourite game because I’m rubbish at it, and because before finally caving to demand for another one IO Interactive inflicted the lovehandled misery of Kane & Lynch upon the world, a kind of metabolic syndrome in game form. And they did it not once but twice, which proves it wasn’t an accident.
There was a new Hitman mode called Contracts which looks like a slick way to introduce customised mission design to an otherwise linear experience, but from my comfy chair in which I was unable to touch the row in front even when my seat was reclined I couldn’t shake the discomfort at the opening replay of Hitman’s “Hot Shower” trailer, a CG sequence cut to Lana Del Rey’s Video Games in which Agent 47 unalives a series of hapless bodyguards before entering a steamy bathroom where a woman presses a hand to the inside of a glass shower cubicle. What bothers me isn’t the clattering juxtaposition of soothing sound and impactful action (although Assassin’s Creed has already wanked that particular shaft to a raw straw already) but the charged intimacy of the final shot, which eroticises violence in way that I’m sure was deliberate but I’m still allowed not to like. I was also struck during the gameplay demonstration by the fact that Agent 47 looks significantly less sleek these days, one particular glance at his blanched marrow countenance suggesting no longer a razor dressed in a man-suit, Mortality by Armani, more divorcee physics teacher loses his shit, murders child with brick.
Outside the Residenz we stared at a banner hoarding for The Dark Knight Returns and I wondered how Bane would sound in German (like a man who belongs on a horse, I hoped) before a homeless guy asked if we were from Israel and told Dave he liked his glasses. After a moment’s reconsideration he came back to tell us he didn’t like them after all, but by then our thoughts had turned to the EA conference.
Initially it seemed the aim of the conference was to beat me insensible with sound, as the thunderous trailer to Army Of Two: The Devil’s Cartel was launched into the audience at a volume that at one point I felt certain I could chew. This is of course perfectly in-keeping with a series that’s basically about men dressed in pots and pans only taking a break from endless massacre to give each other a fist-bump, but I’m still going to give it a chance if only because it’s now being made by Visceral, who also made Dead Space and can therefore do pretty much whatever they want as far as I’m concerned.
Except make Dead Space 3, of course, which I’m furious about. Or at least I would be if I was the internet – instead I’m just quietly excited. The move towards bigger action and bigger Isaac’s face being on the screen does take the series away from the compressed diamond brilliance of the original, and I will miss the minimalist sci-fi hook that first drew me in. But that’s not a failing of Visceral, more a symptom of an industry and an audience that always demands more and louder with extra bits, and which would never let a series continue with perfectly judged smallness even if that’s what made it great in the first place.
On a less fun note I am pretty furious with EA’s approach to marketing Medal Of Honor: Warfighter. Executive producer Greg Goodrich told the audience today that it was more than just entertainment, and it would put gamers into the boots of real-life operatives. This drive to authenticity as a COD-trumping USP is turning Medal Of Honor into an unsettling celebration of war, conflating the real and the virtual and drawing children – who will regardless of rating be playing this game in the hundreds of thousands – into an unthinking glorification of the military. It’s even more worrying than the similar conflation in the US Navy-sanctioned film Act Of Valor, which used videogame imagery to draw in the Xbox crowd, because at least when you got down to it the film itself was dutifully earnest and dull. Medal Of Honor will have all of the cock-strumming fireworks and none of the clumsy drawbacks of real life. It is a bad idea.
So thank goodness for the Sony conference, which came straight after. There was a fair share of murder and other staples – Assassin’s Creed Liberation, Killzone Mercenary, Call Of Duty Black Ops: Declassified – but there were also new ideas that moved radically away from striking the life out of another human being as the focal point of digital entertainment. Tearaway is the new game from Media Molecule, the studio behind Little Big Planet, and it’s about interacting with a tactile pop-up world of craft and origami. You control a stack of folds called Iota, and your fingers can burst through the game like a paper bag if you push the back of the Vita, which is the best thing I’ve seen in a game since someone pointed out to me that by rapidly selecting and deselecting Donkey Kong on Mario Kart 64, “you can make it look like he’s wanking a great big cock on his head”.
The other standout was Rain, a downloadable game from Japan Studio about a boy in what looks like a lamplit early 20th Century street chasing a disappearing girl and discovering a world that’s invisible except when it rains. You guide the boy’s sodden silhouette, outlined through the downour, as he dodges watery monsters and tracks the girl. It looks sad like chasing an unrecoverable moment of happiness, which is why I’m sure I’m going to love it.
There’s something reassuringly mediocre about my favourite exploits in World Of Warcraft. I played the game for hundreds of hours, but never became any good at it – I never really understood crafting, never did a raid, never killed a dragon on a big hill (which is the end, right? Just joking – I know it never ends).
My favourite three things about World Of Warcraft are: my Orc shaman Kreck, the time Kreck spent pretending to be a highwayman in the bushes of Duskwood, and his obsessive, inconsequential mastery of the gorilla skin and rough stone markets at the auction houses of Azeroth.
Kreck was a shaman of necessity. Despite pouring days of my life in World Of Warcraft at no point did I want to admit to myself that I was, you know, into it. So I only played with real-life friends – or, to be more accurate, friend. As there were just two of us, we designed characters on the basis that we’d need to function as a pair. Being a shaman meant that Kreck was able to heal a little, and take a decent battering before falling onto his sad-eyed, white-bearded face.
He couldn’t heal as well as a dedicated healer, or soak up hits like a warrior – but that was his lot in life, the journeyman adventurer, the sighing, trying, nearly-guy of non-legend. He was partnered with a Troll rogue called Kanhoji – the sneaky specialist counterpoint to Kreck’s blunt utilitarianism, the disappearing whirl of knives and death that would (hopefully) offset Kreck’s mild usefulness.
And it kinda worked. Kreck’s limited bursts of unspectacular first aid and ability to die quite slowly while being lumped in the face helped Kanhoji to survive while they adventured through the Barrens. And after they worked their way through the game’s baby missions and took their first steps into the contested areas – where enemy human players stood in wait – things started to get interesting.
Around this point Kreck discovered that one thing he could do was turn into a wolf. This was particularly useful to Kreck as a means of running away, as it came during a stage in the game where most enemy players hadn’t yet come into possession of a mount. Also around this time Kreck and Kanhoji’s journey took them to the shadows of Duskwood, a low-level Alliance town linked to a nearby cemetery by a long, narrow road through the woods.
They became highwayman by accident. But it very soon became the thing I liked best about the game. Kanhoji would slip invisibly onto the road and stun the strongest enemy while Kreck charged his most powerful lightning bolt (*damp fizzle*). If it went wrong Hoji would disappear in a puff of smoke, while Kreck would turn into a wolf and sprint for the hills.
We stayed there for ages. It was far more fun than any of the quests the game would have us do. Kreck took to shouting “Stand and deliver!” as he leapt surprisingly but never quite imperiously onto the road, despite the fact it would be rendered unintelligible to the people we were attacking through the game’s language system. We began to buy kit to help us get better at this entirely pointless, unsanctioned robbery – weapons, health potions, rogue dust. And we were sad when we eventually levelled up to the point that killing the humans and dwarves in our cosy murder forest become too easy to be any fun.
Kreck and Kanhoji moved on, though they never really reconnected with the missions and story thread of the game itself. Motivated by highwayman greed, I had by this point worked out how to make a decent low-level profit from Kreck’s workmanlike trades: skinning and mining. In keeping with his unsubtle role in combat (unflinching damage sponge, blunt offensive instrument) Kreck was a orcish hump of primary industry – an unsophisticated tool of digging and tearing.
I knew I could never get rich this way – not proper, craft-a-magical-jockstrap-for-1000G rich. But with big-browed determination, Kreck went further in the hitting-and-gathering business than I ever expected.
It began in Stranglethorn Vale, the jungly forest and cove of beaches you reach if you turn left off the Duskwood road, instead of right to the cemetery. Here Kreck mined deposits of ore – copper and tin, mostly, which he would refine and sell in stacks on the auction house to other players. In the meantime he was also skinning wolves and gorillas, and selling the skins in stacks.
They made small money, these stacks. One or two gold a piece. But then Kreck realised he could sell the coarse and rough stones that were the by-product of his mining, too. At this point he had no idea why – that they were used by the kind of adventurers he’d never be to sharpen weapons during dungeon sieges, and master craftsmen as the simplest ingredients in their fine works. He just saw the numbers and played along.
The thing I liked best about this stretch of the game was developing a larger than life salesman personality for Kreck, which he’d assume as he entered big towns and cities. “Kreck’s Krazy Prices are back!” he’d announce on the city-wide chat channel. “Gorilla skins torn from the wildest beasts in the darkest depths of Strangelthorn Vale by my own hands! Gold ripped from the earth on the fiery plains of the Badlands!” It’s probably important to note that we weren’t playing on a role-playing server, so the response was usually “STFU, Krack” or a barely intelligible coded list of other players’ wares (“58+DPS underpants craft now yr mats need 3+gold eyes +buff 4ice 10fire!”). But Kreck didn’t care. He had a business to run.
Although eventually greed got the better of him. Kreck knew he didn’t have the skills to become truly wealthy. But he began to get tired of the competition on the auction house from other skinners and miners. One day, when a rival skinner undercut his pelt sale by just ten copper, Kreck snapped. He bought his rival’s entire stock of pelts, and relisted them at a higher price than his original sale. And a terrible thing happened – it worked.
Soon Kreck was spending huge amounts of money trying to maintain a tragic monopoly on the least desirable, least profitable markets of Azeroth. He’d buy up huge stacks of stone and ore and place them in his bank vaults until the demand slowed and he had room to list them for auction. And all the while he was still digging and hunting for himself – Kreck was a worker, and it never occured to him that he could have just as easily have tried to manipulate the markets without his own supply of raw material. He was just reaching – overreaching – for a little success.
But supply in the markets of Azeroth is determined by the activity of players. Supply is limited only by player activity – supply was endless. By the time Kreck realised this he’d paid a small orcish fortune to expand his bank vaults to make room for piles and piles of almost worthless stones. It was the perfect financial allegory for Kreck’s rough-hewn life of compromise and unrewarded effort – unblinkingly trading hard-earned gold for a huge collection of meaningless rock.
It’s been years since I played World Of Warcraft. What I miss about it isn’t the grand complex scheme of items and skills and missions, but the room made in the world this kind of non-game gaming. I loved being a highwayman, though it’s word I bet doesn’t turn up in any WoW manual or guide book. I loved trying and failing to be a rough stone magnate, and above all I loved the way these things made me feel about Kreck – the dogged unsung no-mark who once stopped his friend from dying, for a little while.
If there’s a point to all this it’s that I’m currently experiencing some kind of pre-next gen wobble. Constrictions on my time mean I tend play tightly designed single-player games almost exclusively. I thought that fictional VP of Everything Kevin Butler’s comment on Trophies at E3 in 2010 was probably PlayStation 3’s high watermark (“Gaming is staying up until 3 AM to earn a trophy that isn’t real… but is”) but I increasingly find that trophies and achievements leave off-track explorations feeling illegitimate somehow. It’s not that I’m a keen collector, and I see the value in guiding and rewarding players, but they work against the kind of externally meaningless joy to be had from collecting a room full of ears in Fallout 3, or saving up to buy a house without using any magic in Skyrim.
I’ll leave you with this thought. If there was a trophy for each quest completed in World Of Warcraft, I’m not sure Kreck would ever have leapt through the hedges of Duskwood screaming an Adam Ant song that nobody could understand while preparing to be beaten senseless to allow Hoji to cudgel everyone in the back of the head. And that would’ve been sad.
We all know how the Pixar-Dreamworks comparison is supposed to run. Pixar are the infallible artists behind an unprecedented run of critical hits and huge moneyspinners which has defied Hollywood logic by combining big, relentless box-office with intelligence and emotional storytelling. They make huge profits and classic movies. Dreamworks makes Shrek.
Worse than that, Dreamworks makes Antz and a Shark’s Tale, and as many Shreks as are needed in between to stop it all falling apart. Its films are smirking shadows of its rival’s, bringing a plastic proficiency to the same insect hives and underwater worlds that Pixar conjures to bustling, beautiful life.
Or at least, it used to be that way. In 2006 Pixar released Cars, a film which never sat completely right with its earlier films. Maybe because the idea of a world populated by sentient vehicles with single giant amorphous eyeball windscreens is unsettling on a low-frequency existential level (What’s inside these cars? How do they build complex machinery with tyre hands?). Or maybe because the film ditched the successful formula of small, hidden communities which have magical adventures against the backdrop of our normal world – the toys playing inanimate, the monsters coming out at night.
Ratatouille was more familiar territory, but also beset by creative difficulties – Brad Bird replaced original director Jan Pinkava when story development floundered, and the exquisite views of Paris can only distract you for so long from the fact that a rat controlling a man by pulling his hair is sinister and, in a broader sense, pretty meaningless. Wall-E was a rallying cry for Pixar’s return to soaring artistry – “There’s, like, hardly any talking!” – and it was, for 20 minutes, before becoming a patronising reminder for humanity not to devolve into bright pink beachballs. It’s harder to argue against the pleasures of Up, and the condensed life of Carl and Ellie is masterful. But the ragtag tropes which it weaves its magic are tattered and recycled – a cartoon bird, a talking dog.
Meanwhile the same year, 2009, Dreamworks was putting away its own box of tattered ideas – talking animals, thoughts Pixar has already had, fish that are Will Smith – and making How To Train Your Dragon. If Kung Fu Panda and Monsters Vs Aliens had shown an unexpected wit and taste for fresh ideas, then Dragon was the first Dreamworks film to come up with the whole package – the dazzling looks and stays-with-you emotional smarts that are traditionally Pixar’s hallmark. Made by an old Disney director that John Lasseter had thrown off what came to be Bolt, you could say it should have been a Pixar project.
Since then Dreamworks has made Megamind, Kung Fu Panda 2 and Puss In Boots, while Pixar has made an (admittedly timeless) second sequel and, crucially, Cars 2. Cars 2, which fails John Lasseter’s self-imposed rule that Pixar sequels would only happen if they had a good enough story. Cars 2, which celebrates stupidity and moronically gobbles Pixar’s impeccable record of subtlety and intelligence. Cars 2 which, most worryingly of all, seems more focused on repeating the first film’s trick of selling toys to kids ($8 billion and counting – is that why Mater switches paint jobs so frequently?) than telling a heartening story.
And the future doesn’t look much brighter. While Brave has earned good reviews, it looks like Pixar has a slate of further sequels planned, for Monsters Inc, Finding Nemo and – for reasons known only to God and Disney’s accountants – Toy Story. Maybe Pixar’s magic touch of combining big audiences with creative wow is finally fading – and maybe that’s OK, because it’s something the folk at Dreamworks are pretty good at these days.
A version of this article first appeared in Total Film #192.