44 Days of Paranoia #21: Broken City (dir by Allen Hughes)

For today’s entry in the 44 Days of Paranoia, let’s take a look at one of the most disappointing films of 2013, Broken City.

It’s a bit hard to describe the plot of Broken City, not because it’s particularly clever but just because there’s so much of it.  The film starts with New York police detective Billy Taggart (Mark Wahlberg) murdering a man in cold blood.  But don’t worry, the murdered man was a murderer himself who was only out of jail on a technicality.  The Mayor of New York, Nicholas Hostetler (Russell Crowe, who sounds like he’s as much of a New Yorker as I am and I ain’t no New Yorker), pulls some strings and get a judge to drop the charges against Billy.  The Mayor tells Billy that he’s a hero but Billy is still forced to leave the police.

Jump forward seven years later.  Mayor Hostetler is locked in a tight re-election battle.  His opponent is a liberal councilman named Jack Valliant (Barry Pepper.)  Yes, the man’s last name is Valliant and — surprise! — it turns out that he’s actually a really sincere guy who wants to make New York a great place to live.  We know this because we get to sit through an endless debate between him and Hostetler.  While Hostetler gives a speech about how he’s against higher taxes, Valliant says that all he’s doing is asking the rich “to pay their fair share.”  The debate audience, of course, explodes into applause.  Valliant never gets around to saying, “If you like your plan, you can keep your plan.”  Maybe they’re saving that for the sequel.

Meanwhile, Billy is now a private investigator.  His girlfriend is an actress who has just appeared in an independent film.  When Billy goes to the premiere, he’s so upset over the sight of his girlfriend being taken from behind on the big screen that he starts drinking and attacking random strangers on the street.

Meanwhile, (in many ways, Broken City is a movie of meanwhiles) Mayor Hostetler has hired Billy to follow his wife Cathleen (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and discover who she’s having an affair with.  Working with his assistant (played by Alona Tal), Billy follows Cathleen and discovers that she’s been spending time with Paul Andrews (Kyle Chandler), who happens to be the manager of the Valliant campaign…

Or is she?  As Billy subsequently discovers, the truth is a lot more complicated than it seems (or probably needs to be).

Broken City got a lot of attention because the script was listed on the 2008 Black List.  The Black List is an annual list of the “best” unproduced scripts in Hollywood.  Now, it should be understood that the concept of what makes something the “best” is always open to interpretation.  In the case of the Black List, the “best” is determined by a survey of studio and production executives.  The Black List comes out every December and it usually provides an excuse for lazy entertainment writers to write yet another article or blog post bemoaning all of the Hollywood remakes while so many creative and original scripts remain unproduced.

But here’s the thing.  Since, I started reviewing films for the Shattered Lens, I’ve had the chance to see several films that were produced from Black List scripts.  A few of them have been good but the majority of them have either been likable but forgettable (i.e., Cedar Rapids) or else they’ve been total and complete disasters, like The Beaver.  Typically, Black List films tend to be overly complicated, overly ambitious, and never quite as intelligent as they may seem.  Frequently, Black List scripts tend to be a bit cutesy in a way that’s effective on paper but annoying on screen.  (For example, naming your film’s only good politician Jack Valliant is one of those cutesy concepts that tend to turn up in a lot of Black List scripts.)  Several of these scripts, Broken City included, are thrillers that attempt to use the conventions of the genre film to make some larger point about American society.  They’ve usually got some sort of dreary political subtext and they always seem to feature a twist that’s surprising only because it doesn’t make any sense.

And that is certainly the case when it comes to Broken City.  Don’t get me wrong — the film starts well and Mark Wahlberg is well-cast as the hero.  But, with each passing minute of film, things get messier and messier until, finally, it’s impossible to take the film seriously.  It’s obvious that director Allen Hughes meant for Broken City to be more than just a thriller.  Instead, in much the same way that Charles Dickens used London, Hughes makes a valiant effort to use the film’s New York as a metaphor for our own corrupt society.  Under Hughes’s direction, Broken City does a lot without doing any of it that well.

Indeed, if I could give this film an A for effort and ambition, I certainly would.  However, in the end, a film should first be judged by what is actually seen on-screen.  Taken by that standard, Broken City is a mess, a disorganized collection of themes and subplots that attempts to do so much that it accomplishes very little.  Russell Crowe and Catherine Zeta-Jones both struggle to sound like New Yorkers while Barry Pepper is so overly intense and wired as the saintly Valliant that I would be scared to vote for him.  Seriously, he seems like the type who would start a war in the name of social justice and then end up having so much fun killing and conquering that he’d forget what the reason for fighting was in the first place.  On a positive note, Mark Wahlberg and Alona Tal have a very likable chemistry and it’s too bad that the rest of the film didn’t take better advantage of it.

Broken City?  Broken film.

Other Entries In The 44 Days of Paranoia 

  1. Clonus
  2. Executive Action
  3. Winter Kills
  4. Interview With The Assassin
  5. The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald
  6. JFK
  7. Beyond The Doors
  8. Three Days of the Condor
  9. They Saved Hitler’s Brain
  10. The Intruder
  11. Police, Adjective
  12. Burn After Reading
  13. Quiz Show
  14. Flying Blind
  15. God Told Me To
  16. Wag the Dog
  17. Cheaters
  18. Scream and Scream Again
  19. Capricorn One
  20. Seven Days In May

The New York Film Critics Online Honor 12 Years A Slave

12 Years A Slave didn’t just win Boston today.  It was also named best picture of the year by the New York Film Critics Online.

Personally, I’m hoping that next year, sites like AwardsDaily, AwardsWatch, Goldderby, and others will join together to form the Online Oscar Precursors Watchers Association and they’ll give out awards to the various critical groups.  For example, they could hand out awards for the Best Jump On The Bandwagon, Best Out-Of-Nowhere winner, or the Honorary Award For The Award That Was Most Obviously Determined By A Desire To Tick People Off.

But, until that happens, here’s are the New York Film Critics Online’s pick for the best of 2013:

“12 Years a Slave”

Alfonso Cuaron (“Gravity”)

Chiwetel Ejiofor (“12 Years a Slave”)

Cate Blanchett (“Blue Jasmine”)

Jared Leto (“Dallas Buyers Club”)

Lupita Nyong’o (“12 Years A Slave”)

Spike Jonze (“Her”)

Adele Exarchopoulos (“Blue Is the Warmest Color”)

“Inside Llewyn Davis”

Ryan Coogler (“Fruitvale Station”)

Emmanuel Lubezki (“Gravity”)

“The Act of Killing”

“Blue Is the Warmest Color”

“The Wind Rises”

“American Hustle”

12 Years A Slave Wins In Boston

The Boston Society Of Film Critics voted earlier today and 12 Years A Slave — which, so far, has been underperforming with the critics’ groups — swept the awards.  The Wolf of Wall Street came in second for most of the major awards.

“12 Years a Slave”
Runner-up: “The Wolf of Wall Street”

Steve McQueen (“12 Years a Slave”)
Runner-up: Martin Scorsese (“The Wolf of Wall Street”)

Chiwetel Ejiofor (“12 Years a Slave”)
Runner-up: Leonardo DiCaprio (“The Wolf of Wall Street”)

Cate Blanchett (“Blue Jasmine”)
Runner-up: Judi Dench (“Philomena”)

James Gandolfini (“Enough Said”)
Barkhad Abdi (“Capt. Phillips”) and Jared Leto (“Dallas Buyers Club”) tie for second.

June Squibb (“Nebraska”)
Lupita Nyong’o (“12 Years a Slave”)

Nicole Holofcener (“Enough Said”)
“The Wolf of Wall Street”

Runner-up: “Blue Is the Warmest Color”

“The Act of Killing,” Josh Oppenheimer
“Blackfish,” “Leviathan,” “At Berkeley,” “Crash Reel,” “20 Feet from Stardom ”

“The Wind Rises,” Hayao Miyazaki

Ryan Coogler (“Fruitvale Station”)
Runner-up: Josh Oppenheimer (“Act of Killing”)

Emmanuel Lubezki (“Gravity”)
Phillippe Le Sourd (“The Grandmaster”)

Daniel P. Hanley, Mike Hill (“Rush”)
Runner-up: Thelma Schoonmaker (“The Wolf of Wall Street”)

“Inside Llewyn Davis”
Runner-up: “Nebraska”

The Los Angeles Film Critics Honor James Franco!

Earlier today, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association announced the picks for the best of 2013.  There are a few things worth noting:

1) Her is coming on surprisingly strong.

2) James Franco won best supporting actor for Spring Breakers!  Well, technically, Franco tied with Jared Leto for Dallas Buyers Club.  But still, it’s good to see Franco’s audacious performance getting some recognition.

3) My favorite film of 2013 — Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color — came in second for best editing.

Here are the winners:

“Gravity,” “Her”

Alfonso Cuaron, “Gravity”
Runner-up: Spike Jonze, “Her”

Bruce Dern, “Nebraska”
Runner-up: Chiwetel Ejiofor, “12 Years a Slave”

Cate Blanchett (“Blue Jasmine”); Adele Exarchopoulos (“Blue is the Warmest Color”)

James Franco, “Spring Breakers”; Jared Leto, “Dallas Buyers Club”

Lupita Nyongo, “12 Years a Slave”
Runner-up: June Squibb, “Nebraska”

“Before Midnight,” Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke & Richard Linklater
Runner-up: “Her,” Spike Jonze

“Gravity,” Alfonso Cuaron & Mark Sanger
Runner-up: “Upstream Color,” Shane Carruth & David Lowery

“Gravity,” Emmanuel Lubezki
Runner-up: “Inside Llewyn Davis,” Bruno Delbonnel

“Her,” K.K. Barrett
Runner-up: “Inside Llewyn Davis,” Jess Gonchor

“Inside Llewyn Davis,” T Bone Burnett
Runner-up: “Her,” Arcade Fire & Owen Pallett

“Blue is the Warmest Color”
Runner-up: “The Great Beauty”

“Ernest and Celestine”
Runner-up: “The Wind Rises”

“Stories We Tell”
Runner-up: “The Act of Killing”

Song of the Day: Let’s Duet (performed by Dewey and Darlene Cox)

The temperature started to drop on Thursday night.  Since Friday, it hasn’t gotten above freezing and all the roads are covered in ice.  I’ve been stuck inside for three days now.

But things are getting better because this morning, I woke up and one of my favorite movies was on Comedy Central.  Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story always makes me happy.  I watched it, I laughed, and I forgot about the weather.  Today’s song of the day is my favorite song from Walk Hard, “Let’s Duet.”


Glorious Fantasy, Part Two: Final Fantasy II

And now for Part 2 of my recurring series in which I ambitiously try to play through every single game in the Final Fantasy franchise, from FF1 through FF13-2, with as many of the ‘side’ titles, spinoffs, and other games along the way as I can manage.

For those who are still unfamiliar with my premise (read: probably everyone), here’s a recap:

Most people have already played many/most/all of the games that I’m going to write about in this series (weirdly, as I compiled the list of games, I personally have not played a fair number of them). I don’t care. I’m going to look at all (most? I’m bad with structure, we’ll see how long this lasts) of the following things from these games:

– Some objective data. What version of the game did I play, and why did I select that one. Since it is now obvious to me that I’m going to play a fair number of ‘remakes’ in the early Final Fantasy games, I’m also going to research the differences and try to note some of them here. This was a big part of my experience with FF1, which I am now intending to revisit as a part of this series later.
– Is the game any good? Seriously! I’m sure some of these games suck!
– Is the answer to that question, “It just doesn’t hold up”? Why? <– This question is not going to last into the more modern games, but I suspect it could affect games even as recent as FF7, the graphics of which I'm afraid will hurt my brain.
– How would I place this game in a historical context? I want to watch the series evolve and devolve and side-volve as I go.
– Did I enjoy this game? What were the emotions and insane facial expressions I went through while playing it?
– How many times I frantically Googled maps for enormous maze-like dungeons because I no longer have the patience to solve them on my own?
– Was it… challenging? Were these games ever hard? Does the challenge ebb and flow?
– No MMORPGs. Sorry FF14 fans, I don’t ‘do’ MMORPGs anymore. Plus, the plan here hopefully doesn’t involve spending a bunch of money acquiring and (especially) subscribing to games.

I think all of this is extremely important knowledge, and that the human race will be improved by my research.


Now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk about the second game in the Final Fantasy series…another that I had never played before… Final Fantasy II.

It’s not surprising that I hadn’t played this game before, and it’s probably true for a lot of people, even now. FF2 was never translated into English on the NES system, and, indeed, was not widely available in other languages until the “Dawn of Souls” release (with FF1!) in late 2004 (exact date varying based on your nationality). The reasons for this are murky. I have heard that Square didn’t think FF2 and FF3 would sell well in the United States and other markets outside of Japan, as well as a handful of other explanations. Suffice to say, it hardly matters now, over 20 years later.

What version did I play? Why, oddly enough, I played the iOS version. I had purchased it as a game to play during downtime at work, so I already possessed the version. I had not gotten as far as I’d expected to during said downtime, but I hit the afterburner after I decided to take this series a little bit more seriously. The main differences from the original, according to my research, are the the graphics are much prettier (muuuuuuch prettier, and high res!), you can dash, and the game does away with the ‘ineffective hit’ if your target dies after you’ve input a command but before it is executed. I have also heard that in the original game, your HP only upgraded if your character took significant damage, whereas the version I played seemed to award an HP up to all characters every ten battles or so. I do not think I could have completed the game relying on just that HP-up.

FF2 is the first game in the series (well, it is only the second game…) to feature that story-connective-tissue I discussed in the original. In this case, the basic premise is that four youths were attacked by soldiers of the Palamecian Empire near the town of Fynn. Three of them later wake up in the city of Altair, having been saved by Rebel sympathizers. The three friends join the Rebellion and, frankly, do most of the heavy lifting themselves. Although the narrative certainly isn’t as comprehensive as some of the later titles (indeed, Final Fantasy IV is the first game that begins to look like a ‘modern’ JRPG title), it does do a little more to guide you from place to place. I will admit that I still used a world map to help me figure out what was where, but I found my overall need for outside assistance in making it through this game in a reasonable amount of time was much less than Final Fantasy.

Okay, now, let’s talk about the elephant in the room. The thing everyone either seems to tolerate or completely loathe about FF2… and that’s the leveling system. Unlike every other game in the series (at least, that I’ve played), you do not gain experience levels in FF2. At all. Instead, your stats raise when you use them, or need them. For example, attacking repeatedly with your weapons begins to raise your strength. Having a shield equipped and being attacked begins to raise your evasion. Using magical spells raises your intelligence (Black) or spirit (White). Suffering damage raises your max HP, but also your Stamina (which determines how much HP you gain when your HP goes up). Spending 30 minutes casing spells in one battle slowly may eke out some extra MP for you if you have the patience. Now, obviously, this makes some of your stats comparatively hard to raise (max MP, again, anyone?), and since you need some of everything to be successful in this game, I can see how it would cripple some parties, and make it unfun to play. I’m totally with you.

But I kind of secretly really enjoyed it.

If only because it gave me the freedom to turn the girl of the party, Maria (who as you might expect starts out fast and with good magic, and terrible physical stats) into a frenzied dual-sword-wielding dervish, while the typical FF hero, Firion, became a Red Wizard, standing in the back row and slinging spells. Of course, I could have mixed and matched those attributes any way I wanted, and, indeed, Maria also had some of the most formidable spells (such as Flare) at her command, and youth #3, the hulking Guy, was an excellent back-up White Mage. Balance can be hard to achieve in FF2, however, because once you’ve passed a certain point with Strength or Spirit or Intelligence, the magic stats begin to lower your strength, and vice versa. As a result, if you want to have a balanced character, you have to always be using a mix of abilities and never go into auto-battle mode or spend every turn curing wounds.

Fortunately, mixing abilities also has its benefits, as your spells and weapons gain ‘levels’ as well, as they are used, becoming more powerful (and in the case of spells, more expensive).

The plot of the game is still pretty rudimentary, but it does introduce a couple of key staples of later games: FF2 is the first title to feature chocobos, Cid as an airship commander, and the order of Dragoons. It was also the first game to use the MP system that would be a series staple for about fifteen years or so, though it would not reappear in the next title.

I should also note that FF2 can be quite difficult. I often felt the enemies were challenging during the early-mid part of the game, but I also think I hit kind of a critical mass with leveling up stats and eventually became overpowered. Because of the mechanics of the game, that condition never really changed; no matter how high my warrior woman’s strength got, it seemed that it could always get a little bit higher. I occasionally found it beneficial to grind out a couple levels of new spells (most of them are pretty ineffective at level 1) but this was a fairly painless process. The difficulty is also tempered by the easy availability of powerful items like HiPotions and Ethers, which are not as expensive as they should be given how much they alleviate the difficulty of the later dungeons.

I suppose my overall impression of the game was pleasant…but it’s not one of the series’ stronger entries in my mind. It stands as a bit of an odd duck; not really influential on later titles, except perhaps as a failed experiment. While it advances in some ways from the original game, these are not significant advances, and even the unique character sprites won’t be carried over into the next title… which I will write about soon.