A Dead Whale of a Tale

Hey guys, guess what? Yeah, it’s my turn to talk about this thing.

After playing Death Stranding on the PlayStation 4, I’m convinced that the gulf between American and Japanese cultures, as well as that between video games and movies, are still vast, and might not be crossed for several generations. I’m not sure if Hideo Kojima was trying to bridge those gaps in writing and designing this game, but if he was, I’m sorry to say that he failed.

The reason I’m sorry about that is because Death Stranding is an uncompromised venture. I can see that it was made with a sincere and unquestioned enthusiasm, but I think that a little questioning might have done it some good. I find its gameplay engrossing, but it’s not for everyone, and its cinematics and backstory — impressive though they are — are certainly not for most gaming audiences.

Death Stranding is a game about delivering things, not just hiking or walking as some folks like to complain. It’s about plotting routes, packing materials, and maintaining equipment (artificial and natural). It’s about setting up signs and services to facilitate trips for oneself as well as for others. It’s about making a plan and watching it come together. It’s also highly physical: balance and momentum are always at odds in this game, so one must consider each step carefully to avoid damaging tumbles.

What I’m saying is that Death Stranding is the sequel to Solar Jetman that I’ve been waiting for.

I’ve always loved games like Solar Jetman and The Oregon Trail, in which the details and decisions of travel actually matter. It bugs me when the challenges of roughing it are abstracted down to random monster encounters. I don’t want to just slide my characters around a world map; I want to experience it. I want to decide how to deal with a fallen tree, how to cross a rocky gorge, or how to scale a cliff. I want to see my characters heft themselves over logs, trudge through muddy fields, and fall over in the dirt. We’ve recently seen some rugged, outdoorsy adventures like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild or Red Dead Redemption II, and I think Death Stranding took a lot of inspiration from them. Still, Stranding, with its harsh, ghost-ridden world, leaves them far behind.

Death Stranding asks me to do all those things I talked about, from finding ways up mountains to finding ways around pirate camps. It gives me a big map, some basic tools, and a whole mountain of deliveries, and says, “Get to it.” It lets me explore, it lets me experiment. It lets me fall over, and then figure out the best way to avoid falling again. Some players jeer at this, saying that the protagonist’s flailing and flopping makes him look pathetic. I say, as I make Sam trundle across a barren, seemingly endless plain, bowed under hundreds of pounds of cargo, that feeling pathetic is part of the point. This game is as much about isolation as it is about delivering. It’s about trying to make a difference in an indifferent world.

Unfortunately, this sort of thing just isn’t all that popular. People don’t want to pretend that they’re small, or that they’re part of something greater than themselves. They want to feel powerful, important, better than what they already are. Of course, “better” is a subjective term, and only indicates what a person values, not the value of that person.

I admit that Death Stranding is simply not the sort of game that most gamers want to play, and I can’t say I blame them for their sniggering. This is a AAA, big-budget release, brought to us by the guy who made Metal Gear Solid, so expectations for the next big thing in action games were high. A ponderous meditation on loneliness and logistics was not what these people were looking for. I’d like to say that this was an intentional, large-scale joke committed by one of gaming’s best-known pranksters, but I’ve given up on analyzing Kojima’s motivations.

What I do know is that Hideo Kojima loves to spin stories. Big stories. Big, anime, sci-fi stories about world-ending catastrophes, the dangers of technology, and all manner of other social issues. He tends to be a little overzealous about it, though. I wouldn’t go so far as to say he’s the Ed Wood of video games, as he’s actually pretty damn talented, but I do fear that he shares some of Wood’s delusional verve.

You see, Kojima tries really, really hard to ape his favorite Hollywood movies, but oftentimes his efforts are misplaced. In Snatcher, one of his first games, there’s an early scene in which a character separates from his wife in a flying car. As the car ascends, the character says something, but the engine roar drowns it out. The wife says that she can’t hear him, but then he flies off, and we never know what was said. I take it that this was meant to be some sort of tearful parting, not unlike the Train-Station Goodbye of Since You Went Away, but this is not the last time the two characters ever see each other. In fact, since this scene occurs right at the beginning of the game, the two are bound to interact quite often. The mystery of the drowned-out line is never brought up again. It feels like Kojima just put it there to put it there. Without a fitting subtext, the drama falls on its face.

In Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, a game Kojima made many years into his career, there’s a love scene between two awkward scientists. The man’s an anime nerd who’s falls in love with any pretty girl he sees, and the woman’s a treacherous reptile who injects people with grey goo. There’s so little to like about these characters that the tender, heartfelt music that plays as they surrender to ardor only made me shake my head. Later, the woman commits suicide, while her new lover, witnessing the act through a computer screen, bawls likes a baby. I’m not even a fan of Shakespeare, and I was embarrassed at this overblown attempt to emulate him.

To put it simply, Kojima is very much in love with being a director, although I don’t think he knows what being a director really means.

Sadly, this lesson continues to elude him in Death Stranding, whose delightful kernel of gameplay is surrounded by an absurd, Lynchian melodrama. Although I just spoke about the profound melancholy that I feel when playing this game, I can’t say that’s what was intended, because the tone is all over the place.

The apocalyptic setting for the game is lovingly crafted, but its explanation is so complicated that it employs a whole glossary of jargon. There’s some dark symbolism with frightening implications, but there’s also a whole lot of ham-fisted silliness about ropes, knots, and strands that gets tiresome quickly. There’s also that unique preoccupation with marine life that could only have sprung from a culture of islanders. It’s striking, but it feels out of place in a story that won’t stop reminding us of how American it is.

I’d say the biggest problem, though, is in the game’s characters. They’re all modeled after real actors (and comedians and film directors), and they look amazing. Seriously, Death Stranding in action makes even non-gamers turn their heads with its up-to-the-minute cast and presentation. But then these fabulously rendered beings start talking, and we find that they’re given names that sound like Mega Man villains, and dialogue worse than anything Anakin Skywalker ever said.

“It’s all the truth, except for the lies.”
“We run together…like Mario and Princess ‘Beach.'”
“Take the first step, Sam, and deliver the president’s body to the incinerator.”

They say these things with tremendous gravity, and I’m left wondering how I’m supposed to react. I suppose this is the fault of poor translation. For all I know, the original Japanese script could have sounded downright poetic. National differences, however, can’t explain the indulgent visuals. When you play this game, expect lots of long, lingering shots on Lea Seydoux’s pouty face and panty-model’s butt.

I’m sure there are a lot of apologists who’ll say that I’m not supposed to take Kojima’s games very seriously. In fact, the first song that plays in Death Stranding — and there are a lot of songs — is titled “Don’t Be So Serious.” That would fall in line with the idea that Kojima is really a master troll, but I suspect it’s more of a copout, and a coverup for the man’s wanting skill as a storyteller.

I can get past this, though, because I love playing the game so much. It’s gotten to the point where I’m even thinking about it when I’m at work, or getting out of bed in the morning. I keep thinking about how I want to thread my route so as to complete the most deliveries in one swoop. I keep thinking about how I need to truck some metals from the distro center so I can finally finish that highway I’ve been working on. I keep thinking about the new bola gun I just got, and which MULE outpost I should try it out at. I keep thinking about BB, and how difficult being a parent really must be. In these manifold regards, the game really has its hooks in me.

My concern is that most others won’t agree with me, and as a result, we may never see another Death Stranding again. It was too much risk for too many eye-rolls. The thing is: I respect the risks that Kojima took with this game. I like that he left his fingerprints all over it. Any creative person should look to this game and be inspired by it. To the end of my days, I will gladly argue that big-budget entertainment is in sore need of that wondrous, childlike love of creation that Kojima is in touch with, cringeworthy or not.

Concerning Creepshow: The Series

Well, I’m glad it’s back, anyway.

The internet adores Shudder’s new Creepshow series. It seems to have set new ratings records for AMC’s horror streaming service, and its success has seen it renewed for a second season. I’m oh-so-glad for this, because I’ve loved Creepshow, the movie, for most of my life. To see it rise from the grave to warm adulation just jolts my jaded little heart.

So why do I feel that it’s lacking somewhere? What’s wrong with me? I want to enjoy it, and there are parts of it that I truly do, but when I watch it, I can’t help but pick it apart.

Part of it is in the direction. The show makes many missteps, even in its very first episode. Gray Matter, the short story by Stephen King, is a small-town suspense tale on the lines of Weeds, and it’s extremely simple. There are some terrific actors in it, including Breaking Bad‘s Giancarlo Esposito, but they don’t have much to work with. They have no time to develop as characters, and so they feel wasted. In The Crate and The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill, there are some actual dynamics going on. Henry Northrup changes from milquetoast to confident killer. Jordy turns from happy hick to suicidal alien food. There’s a change of some kind happening in Gray Matter, but it’s really just a jerk becoming a different kind of jerk.

Gray Matter also suffers from a poor ending. Where the short story ends on a note of uneasy dread, the show goes for exaggerated panic, and it doesn’t work very well.

The follow-up act, House of the Head, shares this problem. It’s a neat little story about a dollhouse that becomes the site of a figurine murder mystery. The premise is intriguing, and Cailey Fleming, who plays the little girl watching the weirdness unfold, gives an endearing performance. The suspense builds beautifully, setting us up for a shocking surprise ending…and then it just stops. Boo. Boo, I say!

Many times, it feels like the makers tried to cram too much story into too little space. The worst offender here is Times is Tough in Musky Holler, which really needed a whole forty minutes to itself. It’s basically one long execution scene, with its setup told in comic-book flashbacks. We’re supposed to relish the suffering of the assholes being condemned to death, but it’s not all that satisfying when we only have glimpses of their crimes.

It’s also very predictable. Most horror fans are familiar with the EC formula by now, so nothing Creepshow throws at us is capable of surprising. We know that someone innocent will suffer. We know that the asshole responsible will be punished for it, and we know that the creature/supernatural element is going to do the job. What we’re waiting to see is how it happens. The sad thing is that it often plays out exactly as we expected it to (The Silver Water of Lake Champlain), or else the show is frustratingly vague about it (Bad Wolf Down). Then there are times when the ending doesn’t make any sense at all! I’m looking at you, Night of the Paw.

What’s more, we don’t get a whole lot of that Creepshow feel. The vibrant, comic-book styling of the movie is rare, though sometimes it’s used to cover up sequences where actual visual effects would have been too expensive. It sure would have been nice to see those werewolf transformations, instead of a cheap flip book effect!

The music is weak, too. Where the score in the movie was haunting and thematic, the music in in the series is painful in its mediocrity. None of the stories has a theme of its own, and there’s no synth! What the hell, man?

Then there’s something else that bothers me. Now, I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I feel like the series doesn’t take itself seriously enough. Heh, crazy, right? I’ve been of the mind that modern television is far too grim these days, and needed some lightening up, and now I’m turning on myself. Maybe that’s why people love this series so much: they, too, are tired of all the self-serious bullshit on the tube, and are ready for something mature, but irreverent.

I can dig that, but I don’t think that pure irreverence works for Creepshow. It was great for the Tales of the Crypt series, which this new Creepshow seems nearer to than anything else. The movie, though, for all its silliness, still had an edge. It picked up on primal human frights, and forced us to look at them. Creepshow had people buried to their necks, struggling to keep their breath as relentless ocean waves battered their faces. Tales from the Crypt usually had people getting hit in the head with axes.

The two standout episodes of the series, The Finger and Skincrawlers, don’t lean on simple shock imagery. They present situations that are freaky, and yet relatable. What would you do if you discovered that your beloved pet started doing horrible things? What would you do if you had the opportunity to shed the body you’ve always hated, and become skinny in an instant?

I should note that these two stories also work so well because they feature run-down shlubs who hate their lives. These characters don’t need a lot of time, or deep, rich performances to make us feel for them. Not that DJ Qualls or Dana Gould do a poor job; they’re both great. There are wells of real emotion in them, and we want them to make it out of their situations alive. Still, they’re no match for the late Fritz Weaver and Hal Holbrook. Those two guys took a crazy story like The Crate and made magic out of it, simply by playing it straight. Most of the lesser actors in the Creepshow series don’t have the skill or experience to provide such effortless depth, and the whole show suffers for it.

Creepshow, the movie, succeeded because it found the spirit of the old EC comics: it slugged us in the gut before it gave us a hug. It hurt us because it loved us, and we couldn’t help but love it back, even though it left a bruise. Creepshow, the series, never quite hits that chord. It’s a little too playful, and it meanders around too much. It comes close, though, and I’m glad it’s going to be around to keep trying.

Final: John Goodman as Roland Turner

“Why is nothing going right for me? My life is a big bowl of shit.”

Here’s another certainty for you: If John Goodman is in a Coen brothers movie, he’s going to be a monster.

No exceptions. Consider Gale Snoats in Raising Arizona. Consider Karl Mundt in Barton Fink. Consider Walter Sobchak in The Big Lebowski. Consider Big Dan Teague in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and then consider this: Roland Turner, the junkie jazzman of Inside Llewyn Davis. It’s Goodman’s best role yet, in the best Coen brothers movie yet.

Inside Llewyn Davis is a masterpiece of all things film. It reminds me of Barton Fink, in that it’s about an idealistic New York artist whose life enters progressive collapse, but its ambition is restrained. Llewyn’s purpose is small and specific: it means only to explain how its title character winds up beaten in a back alley. It walks to that line and then stops, and this frustrates people, because the story leading to the event is so captivating.

Llewyn Davis is an aspiring folk singer in the 60s, and a mess of contradictions. He has an image in his mind of what a musician should be, and he feels that uncompromising adherence to this image should be enough for him to find financial success. Of course, this attitude gets him nowhere: he surfs couches, eludes pregnancies, judges his peers, and generally bums off everyone he knows.

When a fellow musician offers a car seat for a trip to Chicago, Llewyn sees a real opportunity to break into the business and turn his life around. Maybe, once he gets there, Llewyn can get face-time with club owner Bud Grossman, and land himself a serious gig. It’s during this surreal sojourn that he becomes trapped with the grumbling beatnik Johnny Five, and the ultra-hip Turner.

Turner reminds me of Barton Fink’s W.P. Mayhew, in that he’s also an older, more successful version of his film’s protagonist, but who is also broken down, washed up, and chemically dependent. Worst of all, Turner is unlikeable in the worst possible way: he’s a complete and irredeemable egotist. Like the know-it-all at your office, Turner has an opinion on everything, and he’s happy to let you know about it. To him, folk songs are a joke, and only jazz counts as true music. He considers himself a master pool player, and a worldly connoisseur of food, though some of it makes him shit himself.

Turner occasionally shows interest in Llewyn’s life, but it’s only so he can find a platform to spring into stories about himself. Aside from that, Turner peppers Llewyn with insults, jabs him with his cane, and requires frequent stops for “bathroom breaks.” The only peace Llewyn gets on the trip are during the long periods when Turner’s zonked out on smack.

In time, Turner waddles into dangerous territory when he asks about Llewyn’s former singing partner, who committed suicide. This is a subject that, for Llewyn, is still fresh and painful, and even touching on it causes him to lash out in anger. Of course, Turner doesn’t touch on it, but stomps on it like a child on an anthill, and so Llewyn quietly threatens him.

In response, Turner explains that he’s a practitioner of Santeria and other strange arts. He tells Llewyn that he’s above the folderol of fist fighting; he has the power to curse people. At first, this bluster sounds like the “Real mature, guys” thing that nerds use on bullies, but one must wonder, in light of the events that follow, whether there’s something to it after all.

Going over this, I’m not really sure why I find Roland Turner so fascinating. Maybe it’s because I feel for his rap, as it were. He’s a terrific asshole, forever in the process of salving his own ego. He is proud to be so many miles above the rest of the world, and yet he’s bitter that the world doesn’t understand his greatness. His character is a sad warning to Llewyn, who is similarly deluded. The fact is that Llewyn may not be suited for the life of a professional musician, but to him, anything else is mere “existence.” He doesn’t see that living in his own head and craving superiority over others only results in hateful isolation.

John Goodman, for all his charm, has always had a bit of menace about him: there’s a well of rage beneath his skin that you don’t want to poke into. He doesn’t unleash that beast in this movie, though. Instead, he affects a distant haughtiness that’s perfect for the role. Some viewers might be confused at his inclusion in the story, as it seems ornamental, but the performance is too tremendous to leave out. I also think that his presence facilitates a certain decision for Llewyn, one that will devastate most audiences. God bless Mr. Goodman for making it unforgettable, and God bless the Coens for bringing us one of the best movies ever made.

John Mahoney as W.P. Mayhew

“The truth, my honey, is a tart that does not bear scrutiny.”

There are many Johns in the Coen brothers’ weird thriller Barton Fink (Turturro, Goodman, Polito), but the chameleonic Mahoney, playing a tragic caricature of William Faulkner, always stood out to me. An ostensible gentleman with a pleasing Southern accent, Mayhew is a lot like the movie’s protagonist: a celebrated writer who’s sold himself to Hollywood, he’s a bit haughty, a bit selfish, and completely incapable of listening. He’s also a raging drunk and a woman-beater, a man we’d easily hate if he didn’t seem so sad, so lost, and so lonely.

You know what? Maybe I should just stop here. As much as I love Mayhew’s character, there’s little I can say about him that could provide any unseen insights. I think you’d do better to read this little celebration of Mahoney’s great work, and assume that its views mirror my own.

Jeff Bridges as The Dude

“Oh man, lodged WHERE?”

The Big Lebowski is not my favorite Coen brothers movie. I feel like many of its comic scenes miss their marks by miles. Combine that with irritating and unpleasant characters, like the pompous Maude Lebowski and the repulsive Jesus Quintana, and you have a movie that’s hard to take at times. Still, there are also many great comic scenes, and many lovable characters, not the least of which is the legend himself, Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski.

The Dude is the only protagonist on this list of faves, and that’s because he’s the ultimate Coen everyman: easygoing, put-upon, and unimpressed. His friends? A gun-flashing vet and an empty-headed surfer. His enemies? A wheelchair-bound mogul and a pack of German nihilists. His acquaintances? A milquetoast landlord and a mysterious cowpoke called The Stranger. It’s crazy-ness, but that’s L.A., and these are the 90s. The counter-culture is dead, Vietnam forgotten, and deregulation all but embraced. The Dude’s a burned-out hippie in a sold-out city, living in a soulless time.

That’s okay, though, because like most of us, all The Dude wants is a smooth cocktail and a bowling lane. Oh, and a new rug, too.

The Dude’s mission to replace his urine-stained rug sends him from the ‘burbs of West Hollywood to the beaches of Malibu, encountering all manner of mixed nuts along the way. It’s notable that The Dude also happens into an eclectic symphony of music, one including lounge, hula, experimental vocalization, and techno-pop. Despite all this, though, The Dude never strays from home for long. At day’s close, he always comes shambling back to his buddies: Walter, Donny, Creedence, and Bob.

As The Stranger explains, it’s this simple constancy that turns The Dude into The Man For His Time and Place. Even as a parade of jackasses aims to make his life hell — his car and apartment are repeatedly ravaged until, by the end of the film, they’re unrecognizable — Duder chugs along, donning his sunglasses, shaking his head, and uttering a “Fuck it.” I suppose it’s also what makes his adventure such a huge cult favorite: nothing about The Dude’s life seems probable, and yet, we’ve all lived it.

Alan Mandell as Rabbi Marshak

“Be a good boy.”

A common question asked when the credits roll on a Coen brothers movie is, “That’s it?” This is because their films are often mysterious, ambiguous, and just plain confusing. I wouldn’t place them beside the masturbatory ciphers of David Lynch or Jim Jarmusch, as Coen brothers movies are actually enjoyable and funny. However, this makes them all the more frustrating when they invariably yank the rug out from under us. A Serious Man is one of their most mystifying films. It begins with a short story that has no connection to the main one, and ends with several plot threads just waving in the air.

Probably the heaviest of these is the growing desire of its hapless protagonist, Larry Gopnik, to make some sense out of the worst two weeks of his life. With a divorce, bratty children, pushy neighbors, fender benders, student bribes, and felony charges all growling at his door, Larry is sinking in tsuris. He receives mounting advice from friends and acquaintances, alive and dead, to seek the counsel of his local rabbis. The most renowned of these is Rabbi Marshak, an ancient man who may well have the answers to Larry’s questions about Life, the Universe, and Everything.

Unfortunately, the man is quite difficult to get a hold of. In fact, Larry never actually gets to meet Marshak. To Larry, the rabbi is but a tiny face at the end of a dark hallway, a hall he may not enter out of concern for Marshak’s thinking time.

This precious privilege goes instead to Larry’s son Danny, as a post-bar mitzvah blessing. Having suffered through the ceremony while heroically stoned, Danny finds Marshak’s chamber to be an eclectic laboratory. Inside are stacks of what could only be described as “tomes,” grave paintings of Isaac and Abraham, and biological samples suspended in jars. Then, at last, Danny takes his seat before this bearded font of wisdom, to receive the pearls we’ve waited the whole film to hear.

And they’re paraphrased lyrics from a Jefferson Airplane song.

See, this is why Marshak is so great: he’s a pure example of the Coen brothers’ inimitable talent for making the profound seem absurd, and the absurd seem profound. Even after Marshak gives the emptiest blessing one can imagine, we, as an audience, can’t help but feel that we’ve experienced something soul-changing.

The plot’s buildup, Mandell’s enigmatic performance, and our own collective respect for our elders are masterfully harnessed to fashion a joke that doesn’t feel like a joke at all. Is Marshak messing with Danny? It doesn’t seem that way: the reference to Danny’s favorite band instantly connects the two. Is Marshak senile? It doesn’t seem that way: he knows who Danny is, and returns a precious MacGuffin to him. Is Marshak, maybe, not quite as wise as we’ve been led to believe? It doesn’t seem that way, either: there’s a playfulness about him, one found only in the greatest of gurus, that says he knows better.

I don’t know if any of this is what the Coens intended their viewers to feel, but all great art allows for interpretation. I believe that Marshak, and the terrific galaxy of storytelling at which he is centered, prove the Coens to be great artists after all.

George Clooney as Harry Pfarrer

“Can’t always wear a condom, right?”

Here’s a certainty for you: George Clooney, once known as the mom’s-fantasy pediatrician on the TV series ER, will instead be remembered — unquestionably, unarguably, and immovably — as an idiot.

Thank the Coens for this, as they sought Clooney out to play no fewer than four total dopes: Ulysses Everett McGill in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Miles Massey in Intolerable Cruelty, Baird Whitlock in Hail, Caesar!, and Harry Pfarrer, my favorite of the four, in Burn After Reading.

Like the other idiots on his Coen resume, Pfarrer is genial, persuasive, and very concerned with his personal appearance. Unlike them, he’s obsessed with floors, philandering, and food allergies. When he’s not drawing ladies into his bed while his wife is out of town, he’s boasting about his work as a bodyguard, or constructing sex devices in his basement.

There’s no way to put a nice face on it; the man is simply weird. He might be a perfect example of a sociopath coasting by on charm and good looks.

Now, is that the sort of man who should be trusted with a big gun? Ask Brad Pitt, who also stars in this movie. As you might expect, this is no Ocean’s Eleven: the single exchange between the two men is wordless and brief. It always yanks a gasp from its audience, though, and Harry’s subsequent breakdown is both confusing and hilarious. Clooney may not be too proud of these roles (he famously proclaimed upon finishing this movie that “I’ve played my last idiot!”), but I think he should be grateful for them. Any good-lookin’ Joe can make a drama or romance; it takes a real actor to do funny. Good on ya, George, we love you and your idiocy.