Saturday, December 28, 2013

Keeping Afloat: The Unique Triumph of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag

Black Flag is a masterclass on efficient sequel-making. Few media so skillfully borrow the positive elements from their predecessors, and so readily discard the negative ones. Gone are the endless loading screens, muddled interface, and frustrating AI of Assassin’s Creed III. No longer do I have to sit through pandering dialogue from characters I don’t care for or understand, or endure boring and buggy missions whose rewards conferred no tangible benefit. Ubisoft has very capably trimmed the fat, and replaced it with nothing but juicy prime cuts. 

They say that context is king, and in order to fully appreciate the considerable achievement that is Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, a small amount of context regarding its place within its own series (and in current gaming history) is necessary. The quality of the Assassin’s Creed series has followed a definite arc since the release of the first title in 2007. That game showcased exciting potential, even while crippled by repetitive and restrictive design. The sequel (Assassin’s Creed II) realized that potential, and raised the bar in all aspects. The follow-ups (Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood & Assassin’s Creed: Revelations) fleshed things out, and – while the series hit its peak at this point – they also began to show their age, retaining superfluous mechanics and bloating themselves with redundant or irrelevant new ones. Assassin’s Creed III marked an unprecedented low point, with oversimplified combat and missions, limp storytelling, an uninteresting setting, a weak protagonist, and a plethora of prohibitive bugs and loading screens. Since Altaïr first donned his hitman’s hood, series developer Ubisoft has consigned the franchise to an annual release schedule, meaning that we can expect a new Assassin’s Creed title every calendar year until “fans don’t want to play them anymore” (which of course is code for “until they’re so terrible we stop paying for them”). I played – or, more accurately, suffered through – Assassin’s Creed III thinking that the series had arrived at that fateful junction even earlier than anticipated. Black Flag, however, is continually showing me how wrong I was, and proving that there’s a lot a dedicated developer like Ubisoft can accomplish in just a year.

Friday, December 27, 2013

The Disney Treatment: Saving Mr. Banks

Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson in Saving Mr. Banks
The idea of a movie about Walt Disney persuading the English author P.L. (Pamela) Travers to let him adapt Mary Poppins to the screen is so tantalizing that you keep rooting for Saving Mr. Banks to work, long past the point where you can see it isn’t going to. Disney had been wooing Travers for twenty years before he finally got her to come to Los Angeles to collaborate with the screenwriter he’d chosen, Don DaGradi, and the songwriting Sherman brothers. But she kept putting off signing the contract, and her demands were plentiful and persnickety. In Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith’s screenplay, Travers (Emma Thompson) only agrees to make the trip because she hasn’t managed to write anything in years, and her agent convinces her that she badly needs the money. And still she arrives in Hollywood apparently determined that nothing Disney (Tom Hanks) can promise her will challenge her notion that he and his team are going to turn her 1934 children’s classic – a childhood favorite of Disney’s daughters – into something cutesy, sentimental and blandly commercialized.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Waiting Room: HBO's Getting On

If ever a TV show appeared to have made for the express purpose of being buried, it’s HBO's Getting On. An adaptation of an acclaimed British series, Getting On is set in the extended-care ward of a large, Southern California hospital. It’s a workplace comedy, but set in a workplace where the medical personnel are just doing whatever they can to make things easiest on people who have exhausted modern medicine’s ability to do anything to improve their lives. Whether they’re near death or lost in dementia, they’re just waiting out the clock, and so are their caregivers. The show is a black comedy, but a dry, poker-faced black comedy, about doing a job that numbs you to the everyday tragedy of human beings coming to the end of their road.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Serenity and Perversion: On Doris Lessing and Adore

Robin Wright and Naomi Watts in Adore

The death last month of the Nobel Prize-winning author Doris Lessing at the age of 94 drew a shower of obituaries and appreciations from across the English-speaking world. But few of those pieces talked about Adore, the movie French director Anne Fontaine and English screenwriter Christopher Hampton adapted this year from a story published in Lessing’s penultimate book, a collection of novellas entitled The Grandmothers. (It was published in 2003; Lessing’s final book, the novel/memoir Alfred & Emily, came out in 2008). As literary critics praised Lessing to the skies for her unabashed candor about female sexuality in novels like The Golden Notebook, credited as an influence to the second-wave feminist movement in the sixties, and for her revolutionary spirit, movie critics far and wide condemned Adore for its sexually transgressive subject: women who sleep with one another’s teenage sons. The movie people – largely male – who objected to Anne Fontaine’s lyrical and sensual depiction of what is, in essence, an incest story, didn’t acknowledge that the plot, tone, perspective and most of the dialogue came directly from Doris Lessing. And the literary people – often female – who eulogized Lessing didn’t rush to defend the movie. Why?

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

An Ear to the Ground: The Criterion Collection Release of Robert Altman's Nashville

When he died in 2006, Robert Altman was one of the most prolific and idiosyncratic of contemporary American directors. Always with an ear to the ground, he didn't follow fashionable trends, or cater expediently to public taste. Instead, he was gallantly intuitive in an open quest for authentic engagement, the quality of which was often revelatory. Most movies over time – good and bad – fit comfortably into genres with recognizable rules that defined them as genre pictures, so we could easily distinguish a film noir from a screwball comedy. But Altman defied those categorizations by delving into exactly what makes a genre tick. He did this by stripping away a movie's pedigree without losing the flavour of the genre itself. Whether he was doing a combat satire (M*A*S*H), a western (McCabe & Mrs. Miller), a detective story (The Long Goodbye), a murder mystery (Gosford Park), or stage drama (Come Back to the 5 and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean), Altman keenly re-defined our idea of what makes a genre picture by treating moviegoers, as critic Paul Coates once wrote about Jean-Luc Godard, as critics rather than consumers.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Betrayal: Theatre Lite

Rachel Weisz, Daniel Craig and Rafe Spall in Betrayal

Mike Nichols’ Broadway revival of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal has star power and impressive production values. Ian MacNeil’s set reconstructs itself from scene to scene in geometric pieces that, suggestively, don’t quite connect. Ann Roth’s handsome costumes provide subtle commentary on the three characters, two men and one woman who form the points of a love triangle. And Brian MacDevitt’s lighting is magnificent, especially in the transitions in and out of the pivotal scene in Italy, where Robert confronts his wife Emma with evidence that she’s been sleeping with his oldest friend, Jerry; it creates ghosts behind the backdrops to suggest the idea that the third member of the trio is inescapably present, just out of reach, whenever the other two are alone together. The designs make clear, provocative statements, so Nichols must have communicated a strong vision of the play to his collaborators. Yet the production itself doesn’t seem to be about anything except three actors on a stage.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Television Goes Global, and Other Reflections on TV in 2013

The final episode of AMC's Breaking Bad aired this past September.

The past twelve months have brought an embarrassment of riches to the dedicated television viewer. Not only a number of promising new series, but technological and industry developments have made television viewing richer, more diverse, and more convenient than it's ever been. But even on wholly traditional terms, TV has had a good year. AMC's Breaking Bad came to a powerful and satisfying conclusion. FX's Justified had another strong year, and its fifth season is set to air early in January. After some uneven early episodes, CBS's Americanized Sherlock Holmes procedural Elementary went from strength to strength, culminating in a powerful first season, and this fall has proven itself to be much more than the pale shadow of BBC's incomparable Sherlock it threatened to be on paper. In November, TBS premiered The Ground Floor, a new laugh track rom-com/office comedy from Bill Lawrence (Scrubs, Cougar Town) that has grown more charming and likeable with every passing episode. And a year ago, long before Fox's Brooklyn Nine-Nine hit the airwaves in September, who could have guessed that the best comedy team-up on television would be Homicide: Life on the Street's Andre Braugher and Saturday Night Live alum Andy Samberg? All in all, we have a lot to be thankful for this year. Below I review some of the more interesting developments in television in 2013.