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Catfish: Don’t Believe What Everyone Wants You to Think It Is

A funny relationship exists between what we expect from something and how we experience that thing. Whether that thing is a movie, a book, an album, a restaurant, or even another human being, expectations color our opinions. With films, as with other things, inflated expectations can make a solid movie seem disappointing; Inception haters, I’m looking at you. On the other hand, low expectations can make a decent movie seem surprisingly great. I just caught Role Models the other day, and I never would have imagined that a Seann William Scott vehicle with such a hokey premise could be so genuinely funny. Yet I enjoyed that movie a lot.

So expectations can be a tricky thing, and it’s usually in our best interest to keep them under control one way or another. That’s probably why studios have taken trailers to their logical conclusion and essentially spelling out entire movies; if everyone gets exactly what they’re expecting, there’s no reason to complain afterward and circulate bad buzz. Take the The A-Team. There were no illusions or surprises about what that film was. Everything about its marketing gave a clear impression of what it would deliver, and it did. Nothing to complain about, but nothing particularly memorable either. Just truth in advertising.

Of course, I prefer the opposite course: a true teaser that hints at the tone and topic of a film without revealing much else. Given the choice, I’d rather not have detailed expectations going in, then have them matched exactly by a movie whose course I already have mapped out in my head. I’ll choose a sense of intrigue without concrete expectations almost every time. I like to be surprised. That’s why a great film festival find is so rewarding. There’s so little to know about a film in those early stages, that if I go out on a limb and it turns out to be great, the result is pure discovery and delight.

And so we come to Catfish, a film I saw at an early screening a few weeks ago, and which is getting a wider release this month. The marketing for Catfish doesn’t spell out the story for us at all. It’s closer to intrigue in a way, but goes a step further, almost goading its potential audience. Its stark black-and-red posters reveal nothing but the tagline, “Don’t let anyone tell you what it is,” evoking a possible horror movie where nothing is quite as it seems. Its trailer sets up a premise, but then takes a sharp turn and leaves us with press quotes like, “A bizarre and completely unpredictable mystery,” over tense footage and piercing sounds, conjuring up a potentially dark thriller or true crime story. At the screening, they even handed out cards suggesting we write about the film on Twitter or Facebook without ‘giving it away’ using the hashtag “#WhatIsCatfish”.

Now, I won’t spoil it for you until after the break, in case you prefer to play along with their game. However, I will say this: I felt betrayed and cheated and manipulated by Catfish, and not in a good way. The cues given by Catfish-related publicity materials created certain expectations for what kind of movie I might be seeing. What I ended up seeing was so different than what they lead me to expect — the emotions they primed me to have going in so totally mismatched the actual content of the film — that for the first time in my life, my expectations basically subverted and nearly ruined what is otherwise a fascinating, provocative film.

Let me expand on that. When a viewer is mentally prepared to watch what he believes is going to be a frightening, shocking, or intense film, he puts up his guard. He strains to figure out what’s coming next, to ready himself for the inevitable scare that’s on the way. And in a real horror movie, that scare eventually comes, allowing for a release of tension. But Catfish, it turns out, is not a horror movie at all. Despite the tone portrayed by the marketing, there are no scares, no sudden, startling reveals whatsoever. And so as a viewer, no release ever comes. We spend the movie anticipating a moment that’s never there — that was never going to be there. In fact, it’s a moment this movie is much better without. So not only have we been manipulated as viewers into feeling this vague sense of mystery and anticipation — solely for the purposes of generating social media buzz — but we’re then put in a frame of mind to not be able to appreciate the movie for what it actually has to offer.

For that, I couldn’t help but be more upset than impressed. The film has a lot to recommend it, but the overall experience was so jarring, the impression I’m left with isn’t even about the movie itself. It’s about a movie machine that took advantage of me, made me feel gullible, and too bitter to recommend putting others through the same wringer.

[For those interested, a few paragraphs below that talk in broad terms about the plot.]

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Under Culture Podcast #11: I’m Done With Museums

We’re back with a new episode, lucky number 11: foreign films, end-of-the-summer albums, artsy indie video games and more. Plus a fair amount of tangents including Michelle Pfeiffer’s best films and why we like How I Met Your Mother but can’t stand Ted Mosby. Oh, and a spirited debate about the artistic merits of The Jersey Shore. Not our most linear and well-planned episode, but a fun conversation all the same.

As usual, join in the discussion with comments or questions on anything we discuss, or anything you’d want to hear us to discuss next time, and we’ll respond on the next episode. Either in the comments section below or via email, we love getting feedback. If you like listening (or even if you don’t), don’t be afraid to leave a review in the iTunes store either.

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Scott Pilgrim vs Every Other Comic Book Movie Ever Made

Under Culture being dedicated to all things geek, it should come as no surprise that I found Scott Pilgrim vs the World to be an incredibly good time. Its portrayal of 20-something angst via retro game references, its fast-paced kung-fu fights set to an indie-rock soundtrack — the film was designed specifically to stimulate the pleasure center of people just like me, and boy did it succeed. I laughed, smiled, exclaimed or cheered almost all the way through this movie.

To be fair, those less immersed in the segments of pop culture this film revels in may find it a bit less satisfying. References might fly over the heads of those who never owned an NES or picked up a comic book, making all the subtle in-jokes a distraction rather than a delight. Plus, the romantic story does get a bit lost in the constant stream of whiz-bang action and pyrotechnics; I’d understand the criticism that by the end of the movie, it’s possible not to know exactly which love interest we’re supposed to hope Scott ends up with. Personally, I thought it made sense for a directionless hipster to have no idea who he really did or should love, and took heart that at least by the end he finally makes an attempt at committing to something.

That being said, no matter which side of the geek fence you fall on, this is still a movie that needs to be seen — mainly because its visual style is unlike anything out there.

If the team behind Scott Pilgrim doesn’t win an Oscar for film editing, it should only be because they somehow managed to win two. Honestly, I’ve never seen a more dynamic sense of movement on film. The camerawork in Scott Pilgrim is relentlessly kinetic, to the point where even during slower scenes of dialogue, we’re propelled continuously forward as if every moment is urgently leading to the next. I’ve never felt so much like a movie was barreling ahead and it was up to me just to keep up with it.

Part of this is a general approach to directing. No one uses editing as skillfully or with as much humor as Edgar Wright; from Spaced to Hot Fuzz, he’s always had a knack for the quick cut serving as punchline or flourish. But this time it’s more than just a signature style. In an interview with the /Filmcast, he explained how his intention was to replicate the visual style of a comic book, where every panel is its own ‘shot’. That means never cutting back and forth between the same image, never using any angle on the same scene twice, whether it’s a sword fight or a conversation. It’s a process I heard him describe prior to seeing the film, but didn’t realize how drastically it would effect the viewing experience.

Now, having seen it myself, I’m amazed at what a totally unique feel that method gives to the film. The pace is nonstop, leaping from shot to shot even in the most static scenes, just the way it feels to read a comic that’s really got its hooks in me. My eyes leap from speech bubble to speech bubble, letting the visuals just wash over as I launch ahead through the story. That’s what watching Scott Pilgrim felt like, for the first time in any comic book movie I’ve seen. It felt like reading a comic I can’t put down — frenetic and packed with details, but so much fun to read I rush through and have to go back later to appreciate them.

What’s more, it’s a bit boggling that directors have been making comics into movies for ages, yet no one else has had the guts (or maybe just work ethic) to try such a literal translation between mediums. There have been good Spider-Man movies, solid X-men movies, killer Batman movies, decent Superman movies, even a freaking Watchmen movie. But it took Edgar Wright and Scott Pilgrim to make a live action comic book movie that actually feels like a comic book, instead of running scared from the material and making a Hollywood action movie with comic book characters. For that, it’s worth seeing even if you don’t love the material. And for that, I love it even more.

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Death and Education: Learning in Limbo

Playing any video game is, in itself, a sort of out-of-body experience. Largely inert on our couches, we travel far and wide, have thrilling adventures in exotic locales, and perform acts both awful and beautiful, all without consequence to our physical selves. A few button presses on our side of the screen cause our virtual selves to open a door or climb a ladder, have a conversation or start a fist fight, rip the arms off a monster or trigger a bomb that levels a city.

Limbo takes this remove a step further by setting its action in the literal out-of-body experience of the game’s central character. In fact, the only thing we know about our game-self going in comes from the wonderfully terse description: “Uncertain of his sister’s fate, a boy enters Limbo.” For this journey, instead of inhabiting a well-defined character like ‘Space Marine’, ‘Gangster’, or ‘Medieval Hero’, we become a character twice removed from reality. While in theory there is a fictional boy in some fictional reality that resembles our own, what we are playing in Limbo is his out-of-body experience — an ethereal nightmare world of chiaroscuro forests, giant spiders, scheming bullies, and frightening technology.

That added distance between us, the players, and the action on screen changes how we perceive the game in two major ways, and these shifts make Limbo so essentially and marvelously different than most of what we’re used to in games.

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The Moment Avatar: The Last Airbender Proved It’s More Than a Kids’ Show

Two thirds of the way through season one of Avatar: The Last Airbender, in an episode titled “The Blue Spirit”, a single moment cemented the decision: “I’m sticking with this series ’til the end.”

Avatar had sufficiently charmed me leading up to this point — at least enough to find myself thirteen episodes deep into an anime-inspired Nickelodeon series — mainly by subverting my expectations. Here we have a show about teen heroes with the ability to control the elements, who inevitably have to use those powers to save the day. Shades of Captain Planet come to mind, a comparison which no show would ask for. But instead of campy feel-good environmentalism, Avatar employs these elements artfully, mixing a mysticism inspired by Eastern spirituality with the fluid fight choreography of Asian wire-fu cinema. The resulting dynamic allows for gripping action sequences, while telling meaningful stories in a fantasy world that stays grounded in its own logic. (As we discussed on our recent podcast, it would make a hell of a movie, if handled properly by the right people.)

Other potential kids’ show pitfalls are deftly sidestepped as well. The obligatory “And the moral of the story is…” moments are occasionally present, but tied in to the characters’ ongoing development in a way that feels earned rather than forced. Slapstick gags with Hanna Barbera sound effects are routinely employed, but for more than just cheap laughs, often bringing a character back down to earth when they become too serious or self-centered.

However, “a tolerable level of shtick” is not a very strong recommendation. Nor does being less shrill and shallow than other kid-safe cartoons make Avatar worth watching. Hence the revelatory moment in “The Blue Spirit” — the moment during which I fully realized that all the things the show does very right outweigh the litany of things it merely avoids doing wrong.

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Too Smart for Stupid: Underestimating the Audience for Inception

I’ve been looking forward to Inception for nearly a year now. From the very first teaser trailer released last August, my immediate reaction was, “Thank you, Christopher Nolan, for doing something ambitious and mysterious and unlike anything I’ve seen before. It doesn’t matter what this movie ends up being about, just sign me the fuck up.”

Now I have tickets to see it tomorrow night. The time has finally come. And as the floodgate on reviews was opened this week, most of the buzz is spectacular. Every indication is that film fans, action fans, mystery fans — and especially Nolan fans — are in for a real treat.

But while all us geeks are shivering with excitement, there’s an undercurrent of counter-buzz that makes my blood boil. Normally I’d relegate this to a snarky tweet linking to headlines like, “Is Inception Too Smart for Audiences?” or “Will Inception Be Christopher Nolan’s First Big Flop?”, but my frustration can’t be contained in a 140 character burst.

To be fair, a lot of these posts contain their own counter-arguments, matching doubts about the marketability of the movie with high praise for its quality. It’s probably true that a lot of smart people who liked Inception are just trying to look smarter by predicting it’ll be over the heads of a lot of “typical moviegoers”, or that the obtuse advertising has failed to lure in the average Joe.

But Jesus Christ, why take part in this self-fulfilling prophecy?! Anyone who writes about movies is disheartened by film criticism’s waning influence on what people actually pay to go see, constantly wondering if what they do is relevant in an age of overwhelming access to media. They call Transformers a giant piece of shit but it breaks box office records anyway. Meanwhile, all their festival favorites struggle to even get on screens in Iowa.

Yet here is their one single chance, in a summer chock full of commercial filler, to unequivocally say of a movie they admire, “This is a great, great film. Go see it and you won’t be disappointed,” and they hedge their bets by saying it might not sell in flyover country. Hey, geniuses, maybe it’s because you’re preemptively warning people they’ll just be confused, while feeding into the stereotype of pretentious film critics whose tastes are horribly out of touch?

Add to that the other maddening stereotype of middle America as a bunch of drooling simpletons that will only pay money to watch white heroes blow up racially ambiguous bad guys, and they’re making matters even worse. I’m not suggesting those people don’t exist — I know they do, I’ve stood behind them in grocery checkout lines in several states — but the reality is that they exist everywhere. There are plenty of sharp film lovers in St Louis and Omaha, just like there are plenty of Cheeto-eating dimwits in New York and Los Angeles. And guess what, those people respond best to TV ads during Cops re-runs in which a sassy comeback ending in an expletive gets cut off by something exploding.

Which is to say, your opinion will never reach them. So for the rest of us who value quality and the opinion of professionals, please, can you maybe afford the general public the benefit of the doubt?

I haven’t seen Inception yet, but I’m guessing I’ll really like it. Let’s not make that out as a way to earn some sort of intellectual merit badge. Let’s give credit where credit is due: a talented director making a brilliant film that lots of people will love. Writers, please, use what small powers you have for good. Praising genuinely good films that don’t condescend to their viewers, and getting lots of our friends to go see them, is the only way we can hope to get the next Inception.

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Under Culture Podcast #10: I’m Sick of Carrying This Crown

It’s July, it’s hot, there’s not a damn thing on TV or in theaters, and yet we put off our trip to the best ice cream parlor in Los Angeles to bring you a tasty new podcast. Summer party jams? Got ’em. Page-turning beach reads? Yep. Great TV shows to fill in the dead zone between Breaking Bad and Mad Men? You know it.

As usual, write in with comments or questions on anything we discuss here or you’d want us to discuss next time, and we’ll try to read and respond to them on the next episode. Either in the comments section below or via email, we love getting feedback. If you like listening (or even if you don’t), don’t be afraid to leave a review in the iTunes store either.

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LA Film Fest 2010 Round-Up: The Good, The Great, and The Artsy

Most movies, I pretty much know what I’m getting before I sit down. With all the posters and billboards, the multiple trailers and talk show appearances, omnipresent tv ads and online reviews, it’s generally safe to assign a rough mental score to a film before it’s even released. If that estimated number comes in above a 7 or so, I go see it. If it surprises me by being a 9, I get excited and recommend it to others. If it’s more of a 5, I discuss with my friends the little ways it let me down, tell people it’s watchable but to maybe wait to rent it. I rarely get movies totally wrong; I never think something will be an 8 and it turns out to be a 2. Every once in a while something that looks like a 4 turns out to be a 6, which is nice.

The point is, mainstream films are so heavily marketed and buzzed about, there are rarely any true surprises. That’s one of the reasons this year’s Exit Through the Gift Shop was such a remarkable breath of fresh air (and that’s all I’ll say until everyone has gone out and seen it). And it’s that potential for surprise that makes me such a fan of the Los Angeles Film Festival. With a carefully programmed bill of small, foreign, or pre-release movies, I really am choosing films based on short descriptions, having maybe read a stray comment on a movie blog, or possibly clicked on a brief teaser. For once, I have the chance to be completely floored by something — or, sure, totally bored and disappointed — but either way, when those lights go down, it’s an exciting feeling.

So in the interest of preserving that experience for my fellow film lovers, here are brief thoughts on what I was able to catch at last week’s film fest. No lengthy summaries or detailed analysis, but enough directional guidance so that anyone looking for a little surprise and delight can track down the films that really floored me this year. (Or conversely, know which ones are safe to catch on home video).

Six capsule reviews — ranked from fair to fantastic — after the break…

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Machinarium: The Beauty of Simplicity (and Beauty)

As I write, geeks in downtown LA conference booths are drooling at whiz-bang 3D warfare, or sweating to arm-flailing motion-control, both claiming to be the future of video games. Naturally, the purpose of big industry events like E3 is to show how your company is pushing the edges of possibility, breaking new ground, or any other slogan synonymous with doing cool new shit you ain’t seen before. And none of us tech-obsessed game fans are immune to the lure of fancy new gadgets.

Meanwhile, back at home, those of us not invited to the electronic entertainment orgy that’s clogging our twitter feeds are busy finishing up one of the medium’s most impressive achievements in Red Dead Redemption — the game that does sprawling in a way that redefines “open world”. With gorgeous vistas that stretch on forever, ambient sounds of wildlife punctuated by pistol fire, and chance encounters with strangers on dusty roads, the details of Red Dead are so masterfully executed, they create a space that feels genuinely alive. The sensation of being transported to this world eclipses what’s come before. This is a world worth absorbing, worth getting lost in.

And yet after weeks of travel across Red Dead‘s wide expanses, and now days of being tantalized by the flashy gizmos of tomorrow, what I find myself wishing for are more games like Machinarium.

Machinarium is short, taking a handful of play sessions to finish, or maybe a full day with some dedication. It’s simple, too. Built in Flash out of of fully hand-drawn 2D art, there aren’t many moving pieces. Players control a cute little robot in a gorgeously depicted steam-punk robot city, progressing from screen to screen by solving mind puzzles. The story, told mainly through animated thought-bubble flashbacks, is equally simple: some robot bullies captured his robot girlfriend and he wants to get her back.

The game works so well with just these basic elements because of its focus. The aesthetic isn’t overstuffed with show-offy level designs; the creators obviously had a vision for a world and they built it beautifully. The controls are classic adventure game style; click to walk somewhere, then click objects to use them. The rest is a matter of brain power, not a raft of complicated moves or tricky interfaces. And the characters, though only animated in the most rudimentary cartoon way, have more personality and charm than any number of action game heroes.

In a strange way, it reminded me of Braid, or even Portal (another game I’ve been replaying recently now that my Mac can run Steam). It’s a tight, short, delightful package that’s over before it starts dragging on with a bunch of dead weight. With Machinarium, I laughed more at a few robots dancing than I did at any of the caricatures in the first half of Red Dead‘s wild west tale. In the same way, I was more captivated by the artistry of its static backgrounds than I was by a bombastic trailer for the next Call of Duty game.

Those big companies are more than welcome to keep experimenting with bigger and more impressive things, trying to wow me. I like being wowed too. But what I’m really excited about are the little projects like Machinarium, where a small team with a vision executes a flawless little piece of art.

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Love or Hate It, in The End, Lost Made TV Better

In the days after the Lost finale, cafeteria tables and Facebook walls everywhere reverberated with the aftershocks of this year’s Big One. Six seasons of wild tangents and metaphysical questions came to a close with the biggest fictional TV series event on record: 5-plus hours devoted solely to wrapping up a crazy sci-fi mystery show that started with a plane crash and ended with… well, that part’s still up for debate.

Fans immediately went into a frenzy, passing judgment on whether the big conclusion was worth the years of buildup, and arguing over what this big island epic really meant in the end. However, an equally interesting point of discussion may be what it meant for us as TV viewers, and how this ground-breaking show, no matter what the moral of the story was, has changed the face of television. In a post-Lost world, its real legacy may not be the philosophic points it made, but what a show like this makes possible in the years to come. After all, the series may have had its flaws, but a flawed masterpiece is better than no masterpiece at all.

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