A week’s worth of movies

I’ve watched more movies than usual in the past week, and my wife suggested I write a post to summarize my thoughts on each. Many of these films wouldn’t normally get mentioned on this site–though I admit my criteria are somewhat arbitrary, shifting, and unclear.

So, here you are, Sam!

We started the week with Ant-Man and the Wasp. It was fun but unexceptional. I wouldn’t really mention it except for this post. Lots of humor, lots of heart, and a surprising amount of cool ’60s pulp sensibility, but not a lot of purpose. It actually annoyed me that a mid-credits scene tied the film into the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe, taking a largely whimsical film and inserting the illusory stakes and high death count of Infinity War. Special mention should be made of Michael Peña’s performance; he’s just incredible, and nothing highlights his range more than the jump from lighthearted and lovable sweetheart Luis in the Ant-Man films to the angry, bitter, aggressive, and courageous DEA agent at the heart of Narcos: Mexico.

Next up was American Gangster, and I had originally planned to write a post on this film alone. I might still do that. It instantly became one of my favorite crime movies, on par with something like Goodfellas or Casino–and the accelerating pace of the film as it progresses over the rise and fall of Frank Lucas’s criminal empire invited further parallels. I was therefore not at all surprised to see Nicholas Pileggi listed as an executive producer (though this was written by Steven Zaillian). Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe were absolutely mesmerizing as Lucas and detective-turned-prosecutor Richie Roberts, respectively. And I was surprised to see Josh Brolin, Cuba Gooding Jr., and Idris Elba pop up in significant background roles (many other great actors and performances here, but those were the ones that immediately stood out to me). A film directed by Ridley Scott is a little bit of a wild card, but American Gangster definitely stands among the good ones. It was interesting to read afterward how far the film deviated from actual events, and it probably warrants a discussion about how far true events can be stretched for dramatic purposes, especially if the film will still be marketed as a true story. Either way, Mark Jacobson’s New York Magazine article, “The Return of Superfly,” which was the basis for the film, has been bumped near the top of my reading list.

Then I watched The Incredibles 2. I liked that the sequel seemed like a movie with new ideas to explore using the setting and characters from the original. It was the rare sequel that felt like it had its own purpose for existing, and it built on the original film in fun and clever ways. I enjoyed it a lot, and I especially appreciated the added tension between husband and wife, the slick retro-futurist setting, and the still-interesting dynamics of this superhero family. I don’t know if I have much to say about it now, though. It was fun, but I don’t know that it will stand out much in my mind even half a year from now. (Ironically, Sam suggested this post in large part because she wanted me to write out my thoughts on this movie in particular, and yet it’s the one that I have the least to say on now.)

The best animated film I watched this week was Coco. This movie was so pure and beautiful. It would have been easy to do a movie that was about the young protagonist following his dreams despite his oppressive family situation; it would also have been easy to have a movie where family love and support is more important than chasing ambition. This movie very carefully found a middle ground, in the process developing rich themes and a complex cast of characters who all had room to learn and grow. I cried a lot, both out of heartbreak and joy. All that said, at the end of the day, the afterlife scenario laid out leaves some questions for me. Why do some of the deceased not only seem surprised but scared of the presence of a human boy? Why is there a second life after death that in turn leads to a second death? Do people have to work to have a decent afterlife? Is the relative affluence of a person tied to their remembrance by the living, and if so, how? Can people choose to appear any age? Do kids stay kids and the elderly stay elderly? To be fair, these are the sorts of problems inherent in many common conceptions of the afterlife, but the realm of the dead seemed fully realized and yet left ample opportunities for this sort of fridge-logic concern.

In other Pixar news, I also watched the new short film Kitbull, which similarly prompted a lot of crying for a lot of reasons. I have a lot of feelings about Kitbull. It hurt me and it made me feel really happy. It’s sweet. It’s touching. And the artwork and animation are great. With two Pixar feature films and this short, I guess I had a fairly Pixar-heavy week.

So after Coco was In Bruges. A dark comedy of two idiotic assassins camped out in the eponymous city while waiting for instructions from their benefactor, In Bruges started slow for me, but its ending was bittersweet, tragic, and ultimately ambiguous. I found much of the film crude, and Colin Farrell’s younger assassin character is excessively vulgar, often making ugly comments about race, sex, gender, and dwarfism (a dwarf actor, who is also a racist drug addict, serves as the center of a very bizarre B plot throughout the film, tying into the conclusion in a startling way that is ridiculous and kind of funny). The ugly humor, plus a proud ignorance and practically manic energy boiling over into child-like impatience, makes Farrell’s character difficult to like, and liking him and wanting to see him live become pretty central to the latter part of the film. Thankfully, Brendan Gleeson’s older mentor figure is sort of sweet and charming, and his faith in and love for his partner provides enough of a push to keep me invested. The best part is that the film’s twists and turns were genuinely unpredictable; the movie kept throwing me off course every time I thought I’d figured it out. I like weird films, and I like crime films, and I’m a little surprised that I never got around to this one before now.

To keep mixing things up, I watched All Work All Play next. This is the film I would least expect someone to recognize. It’s a documentary about professional esports, tracking the 2015 “season” of the IEM professional games. This was the only film I watched this week that I didn’t like. There were a lot of interesting individual stories, but nothing really got focused on. The team that had the most focus, set up as underdogs, was Cloud9, which was crushed in the championship and largely dropped from the film’s concern after that. The American team that won the championship, Team SoloMid, was injected intermittently throughout. Team WE, a Chinese team that seemed to actually be interesting underdogs, barely appeared at all. The personal life, ambition, and struggles of championship organizer Michal Blicharz represented the closest to an emotional core for the film, and I could have watched a whole film about him, his wife, and their child, but they were ultimately de-emphasized in favor of the tournament players (still, Blicharz serves as our guide throughout the events of the film). There were so many faces and names, and there was not enough focus. Curiously, the rules of League of Legends are explained, but then we barely see any coherent game footage. Additionally, the film felt overly defensive of esports as a real sport. I actually felt less inclined to view professional gaming as a legitimate sport by the end–certainly there’s a lot of skill, and the professional level of gaming is impressive, but I can’t help but wonder if “sport” is overused as a descriptor, if we shouldn’t come up with new descriptions or categories for tasks that aren’t strictly physical. Additionally, esports seems like a fundamentally flawed product that is ultimately bad for its players. The film almost unintentionally observes players acting like immature children, with at least one parent expressing concern about their emotional well-being. Plus, pro gamers are considered “old” before they hit thirty, yet their potential earnings appear to be considerably less than that of professional athletes. This seems like a situation setting these players up for doom in later life, especially since many of them are college dropouts who are probably too young to be making responsible financial decisions. The cheery optimism about the profession, and the attempt to combat negative stereotypes of pro gaming, results in the dodging of several thorny issues. Basically, every decision made by the documentarians, and the resultant lack of focus, made for an underwhelming narrative and uninteresting presentation. This documentary, if nothing else, helps to showcase how much of an art the genre of documentaries can be. When things go wrong, a documentary fails to be a good story worth watching, even if the subject matter should be interesting.

I closed out my week’s viewings with a solid choice, though: The Graduate. Dang, I know it’s a classic, but I didn’t realize just what a brilliantly neurotic dark comedy it would be. Dustin Hoffman is perfect as the insecure, depressed, aimless college grad Ben who is seduced and exploited by the predatory yet tragically broken Mrs. Robinson, played to perfection as well by Anne Bancroft. It’s in many ways an intriguing psychological study, and a scandalous presentation of upper-middle-class life, but it was the comedy that stuck with me the most. The dialogue was hilarious, the delivery impeccable, and The Graduate is loaded with strikingly absurd visuals, like the backyard pool scuba session or Hoffman’s swinging of a cross to ward off enraged wedding attendees. The cinematography in general is brilliant; I loved how Ben was often small and distant in the frame, overshadowed, if not surrounded, by Mrs. Robinson in the foreground, and I loved it even more when the film reverses this dynamic in a key moment. I only wish that Elaine Robinson (Katharine Ross) was given a little more purpose. She’s ultimately an object used in the power struggle between Mrs. Robinson and Ben. Sure, Ben loves Elaine and Elaine loves Ben, but it’s not clear why; I suspect that the intention was that Elaine is in many ways a younger version of her mother, someone who has yet to be broken and twisted by the world. Still, Elaine is mostly acted upon, and even in the wild ending, it’s unclear if she’s yet to make a decision that she truly wanted for herself.

GTA: A Mirrored View

I’ve been watching several nineties crime dramas on Netflix and Amazon Prime recently, movies like CasinoGoodfellasHeat, and Boyz n the Hood, viewing some for the first time.

It’s interesting to realize how much these films have shaped the Grand Theft Auto games–and, sadly, how much those games have borrowed heavily for style and visuals but often dumped theme and intent in the process.

The film allusions are often rather obvious. The Mafiosos in III and IV take obvious inspiration from the faded, past-their-prime, and sometimes desperate characters in Goodfellas or The Sopranos (perhaps most noticeable, besides in-universe promotions for a “Badfellas” movie, is the echoing of the toxic relationship between Tony and Livia Soprano in III‘s Toni Cipriani and his mother). Vice City is far from subtle in its heavy homages to the visuals, characters, themes, and sets of Scarface and Miami Vice. And all the games are heavy with nods and winks to films both in and out of the crime genre.

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A copy of Tony Montana’s mansion appears in Vice City.

In this line, Boyz n the Hood is often cited as an inspiration for San Andreas, while Heat is credited with influencing the heists in IV and V. I had just accepted this as common knowledge, but I was shocked to see just how much these games had pulled from the two films, at a level that is probably at least equal to the debt owed to Scarface.

I was actually left disappointed with San Andreas with my newfound hindsight. Characters and scenarios are borrowed from Boyz n the Hood, in addition to the general setting of an LA-look-alike in the city of Los Santos. But Boyz n the Hood is rich in thoughtful sociopolitical messaging, in avoiding simple dichotomies and obvious solutions. And rather than a presentation of thrilling casual violence, the gunplay in the movie is often brief and brutal, with horrible repercussions. There is in fact very little actual violence presented, though there is the steady percussion of gunshots and helicopters in flight and emergency sirens in the background. Boyz n the Hood refused to glamorize or villainize. It portrayed a toxic environment, poisoned by a racist and indifferent nation, killing its young people in a cycle of events that feels almost outside of the ability of any young person to resist and that preys on impulses of passion and loyalty that I think we all can understand; we as viewers can only hope that Tre Styles will take the lessons to heart learned from his father Furious to avoid the cycle of vendetta-fueled violence. (I don’t know where else to say this, but it was weird to me how much the third acts of A Bronx Tale and Boyz n the Hood are paralleled.)

In contrast, San Andreas largely glorifies gang life. The gang life leads protagonist CJ to wealth, opportunity, and a restoration of his surviving family. Yes, the gang life also sees family and friends killed, but most of the core cast of allies survive to see the end. In fact, the primary villains are those who betray their gang members, in addition to the corrupt cops those traitors work with/for. The enemy is obvious and external, not a creeping existential threat empowered by often-abstract institutionalized racism. One of CJ’s major dramatic hurdles is recognizing that in his efforts to go “legit,” building a sprawling and sometimes-legal business empire, he has abandoned his hood by failing to keep in the gang fight.

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Gangsters with hip-hop style in a low-rider carrying out a hit on foot after a drive-by. This could describe a good portion of San Andreas as well.

I’d like to think that I’m not being naive. In a game where the main verbs are “shoot” and “drive,” I understand that having a concrete antagonist that can be defeated is necessary. It’s power fantasy, lightly toying with myths of impoverished urban life on the streets. It’s about machismo, the same (toxic-) masculine values that fuel a more-than-small portion of the crime genre as a whole. And I also recognize that San Andreas draws on a plethora of crime films and “hood genre” films. I can only comment on those films that I have seen, and I recognize that something might be lost in translation; I might be reading references to Boyz n the Hood where the reference was unintentional or in fact drawn from another film in the genre.

Still, it’s disappointing to find San Andreas borrow so much from a rich and thoughtful story and then distill its visuals into a string of shoot-’em-up scenarios. Furthermore, IV and Red Dead Redemption showed that Rockstar could do more than simply ape classic action dramas; the studio could tell stories about the moral emptiness and ultimate personal loss that accompanies a life of crime, and about the sorts of forces that can lead a person to believe that that life of crime is the only option. Stories about personal choice and accountability, honor and loyalty, the desolation of debt, the cyclical nature of violence, and the overreaching authority of a callous and corrupt government filled these games.

Then for V, we see a simple reversal back to “whee, crime is fun” power fantasy. This is fitting, especially given how deeply indebted the game is to Heat.

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This GTA V mission plays out almost exactly like the first heist in Heat–though the guys in Heat get away clean, while this mission leads into a sprawling shoot-out.

Heat lives and dies on its heists. As for theme…it does not offer simple morals. We are all trapped in cycles we can’t escape, at a personal and institutional level (yes, Rockstar certainly continues to acknowledge that theme in Michael and Trevor’s story). There may be a message about time, or how you spend your life, or attachment, or even family, but it’s difficult to make the argument convincingly, and it largely feels nihilist.

For a film that spends so much time attempting to establish its characters (the entire movie is nearly three hours long!), I had difficulty caring about any of them. The criminals were bad guys–professionals, yes, but willing to drop anything if needed and willing to kill anyone who got in their way. One of them is even worse, a sexually violent killer and a hot-head who the rest of the team attempts to eliminate for being too reckless and violent. And Pacino’s cop character carries the baggage of the obsessed-cop trope, with serial failed marriages and an explosive temper (boy, Pacino over-acted in this one).  Besides De Niro’s crew leader and Pacino’s detective, most of the characters are simply defined, and characters of color especially fall into racist (or racist-adjacent) tropes. But I get that this is a movie that is fondly remembered for the intensely choreographed heists and anxiety-inducing, creeping dread of the cat-and-mouse game between cops and robbers. And I sure as hell enjoyed those elements.

GTA V similarly spent a lot of time attempting to set up its characters, who mostly rested on tropes or were lifted largely from Heat. Michael De Santa looks and acts rather like Neil McCauley (De Niro’s character), serving as a leader of the heist. Fry chef Breedan and young, reckless Chris are combined into Franklin (and Breedan’s quick and ignoble death driving the getaway car echoes the opening bank escape scene in the game). And the sociopathic serial killer Waingro’s appearance and voice and mannerisms and temper, and his willingness to go on killing sprees seemingly for fun, are all channeled into Trevor. There’s even a parallel disabled informant/hacker character who helps line up scores for the crews. One could even say that Chris’s marital problems are lifted onto De Santa’s character to give him added purpose.

The biggest influence of Heat seems to be in the heists used in Grand Theft AutoIV had Heat‘s crazy bank escape, gunmen attempting to flee from law enforcement on foot through the streets, firing assault rifles with big duffel bags of cash slung over their shoulders (“Three Leaf Clover“). But V went further with the replications of heists, placing the opening truck heist into the middle-game (“Blitz Play“), including a marginally similar climactic bank heist (“The Big Score,” though this probably draws more from movies like Die Hard with a Vengeance), and antagonizing the protagonist crew with almost-as-bad government agents much like in the film (this understates the point a little bit–government actors are always worse than the individual criminal in the Grand Theft Auto universe).

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Start of a bank heist in Grand Theft Auto IV.

It’s fascinating to me that after all this time, and all the effort to tell original stories, Rockstar still seems to be regurgitating the plots and visuals of classic films, spliced with its irreverent but increasingly predictable and shallow sardonic humor. Its most effective trick–in both IV and V–has been giving the player enough agency to make one major decision at the end. Will the player attempt to break the cycle repeated through the game, or be consumed by it? And does the player’s choice truly matter when larger forces are at play? Oddly, these third-act choices, which often feel rather railroaded after largely linear stories, are maybe the franchise’s most innovative contributions to the crime drama genre.


 

The GTA fan Wikia helpfully lays out many of the film allusions and influences in the games. By this list, prominent crime films that I would still need to see to more fully contextualize the games include:

  • Menace II SocietyColorsNew Jack CityEasy RiderTo Live and Die In L.A., and Training Day (for San Andreas); and
  • Carlito’s Way (for Vice City).

Maybe when/if I see these other films, I’ll revisit the subject. The above discussion is not an exhaustive list of film references (or even crime genre film references), and there are movies–like, for instance, much of Tarantino’s early oeuvre–that are of course referenced at least in small ways, which I have seen and which I did not discuss above.

But are there any movies that you can think of that seem like obvious influences on the Grand Theft Auto games? Or perhaps other books or games? (For instance, I can’t help but draw some connections to Mario Puzo’s books, especially Fools Die). Feel free to let me know in the comments!