Friday, December 31, 2010

Happy New Year With Movies And Poop!

In honor of the new years, I present the movies from 2010 that sound like they could have been about poop, ordered by release date.

Waiting for Armageddon
Extraordinary Measures
Edge of Darkness
When in Rome
The Shinjuku Incident
Happy Tears
Green Zone
How To Train Your Dragon
The Greatest
The Back-up Plan
Exit Through the Gift Shop
Paper Man
Furry Vengeance
Harry Brown
Babies
Killers
Get Him to the Greek
Winter's Bone
The Killer Inside Me
The Girl Who Played With Fire
Eat Pray Love
The Expendables
Going the Distance
Never Let Me Go
You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger
Buried
Like Dandelion Dust
Inside Job
Stone
Red
Monsters
Due Date
Four Lions
Morning Glory
Unstoppable
The Next Three Days
127 Hours
Faster
Black Swan
True Grit
Rabbit Hole

Happy 2011!

Monday, December 20, 2010

Two Hunters

“There, in the clearing. She was here. You can see where she slept. You can she where she left her droppings. Over there’s the remains of her last meal. She was here, all right, recently. Come on, Winslow.”

“Shhh.”

“Winslow?”

“Shhh.”

“Winslow!”

“I said ‘Shhh’, didn’t I?”

“I heard you, what the devil are you doing back there?”

“I’m hiding, which is what you should be doing unless you want to be dragon lunch.”

“Dragon lunch?”

“SHHHH!”

“There’s no dragon here.”

“But there’s one close by. You just said she was here recently.”

“Yes, but that doesn’t mean she’s close. They’re incredibly fast--”

“This isn’t helping.”

“Just come out. It’s safe. Have a little dignity man, what kind of dragon hunter hides behind bushes?”

“An unproven one.”

“Winslow, be reasonable. Are you going to give back the money?”

“What money?”

“The money the Denrodians paid you to kill their dragon.”

“You know I don’t have it anymore.”

“Then you’re just going to have to kill it.”

“But I can’t--”

“Then you’re just going to have to die trying, aren’t you?”

“I’ve never been so terrified.”

“Of what? There’s no dragon.”

“There are dragon droppings! Right there.”

“Yes, droppings, which indicates a past dragon. There are no signs of a present dragon.”

“There’s probably someone I know in there...”

“Oh, don’t be crude. This is good. She’s old.”

“How can you tell--”

“These aren’t not the feces of a young dragon.”

“On second thought, I don’t want to know how you can tell.”

“Winslow... are you coming out from behind that bush or not?”

“... I... I guess.”

“Excellent. We’ll make a dragonslayer out of you yet.”

“Or get me killed.”

“Just as good, really. The only thing more honorable than being a living dragon slayer is being a dead one. Of course, you have ‘being dead’ to contend with.”

“I don’t want honor.”

“Excellent. A slayer does not ask for honor.”

“No, I mean I really don’t want it. I was planning on running away. I didn’t think they’d send you along to babysit me.”

“Run away? What kind of dragon hunter--”

“I AM NOT A DRAGON HUNTER!”

“Well... well. I’m confused.”

"I’m a gambler.”

“A gambler?”

“Yes. And I was in over my head. The only way I could raise the money to keep myself out of debtor’s prison was to collect the ransom on the lizard that’s been terrorizing Snuppet Lake.”

“So... Let me get this straight. You’re a gambler.”

“Yes.”

“And you found yourself in a financial crisis.”

“Yes.”

“And you looked at a dragon, and then you looked at debtor’s prison, and you decided that the dragon was the less-scary of the two?”

“It’s like I said, I had no intention of fighting anything.”

“So I guess your name’s not really Winslow the Fierce.”

“My name’s not Winslow at all. It’s Tud.”

“And you never led the routing of King Stammelhorn’s garrison.”

“I’ve never even been North of Scarttleputt Hills.”

“Is anything you said in town true?”

“Well, I did say that I had never killed a dragon before. That’s why you’re here.”

“Yes, why did you say that? If I were going to convince people to pay me to kill a dragon, I would have pretended that I’d killed one or two before. Which is easy enough for me, since I have.”

“No one would have believed me. Dragon-slayers are famous--the Denrodians would have demanded proof, and I would have been found out. It was a gamble...”

“Not a very smart one.”

“Smart gambles have been in short supply lately, which is the whole reason I’m in this predicament.”

“Well, if you’re going to kill a dragon, Tud the Unproven, you will need to learn a thing or two about them. And their dung.”

“Lovely.”

“Oh, don’t fret. I’m confident that the heart of a dragon-slayer rests within that chest of yours.”

“You really think that?”

“Not really, but you’re going to try anyway.”

“Oh.”

“Or else I’ll kill you, myself.”

"I see.”

"Yes, I thought you might. So you might as well start learning.”

“But--”

“No, no ‘buts’. These are your choices: make good on your promise, die trying, or die giving up. Which sounds best?”

"..make-good-on-my...”

“What was that?”

“Make good on my promise.”

“What was that?”

“I want to kill the dragon.”

“That’s the spirit. Now this one’s old, and that means--”

“She’ll be tired and out of shape?”

“Heavens, no. It means she’ll be thick-skinned and experienced. You really have no idea what you’re doing, do you?”

“No.”

“Well, Winslow, I can show you the ropes. Just try not to fall off and get yourself killed, right?

This story was written as part of a writing exercise. It's not purely random. Any more than usual, anyway. -- ]{p

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Mistborn Movie Musings

I know, I know, more Brandon Sanderson...

A hot topic among Sanderson-ites (does this work? We need a name) is the prospect of a film based on the Mistborn series--which have been optioned and are in the early, early stages of maybe-it'll-get-developed.  Sanderson doesn't actually expect the movie to get made, but he is a rising star in the world of fiction.  His contributions to the Wheel of Time series are introducing his other works to an ever-expanding audience.  And his young-adult series is farther along the movie track, which will bring more eyes to his Alcatraz books, which will bring more eyes to his other works.  I think a film based on his less-young-adult works is inevitable, and I think Mistborn is the most likely place to start.  In short, I think he's wrong.

This is not the only thing I think he's wrong about with regards to movies based on his own properties.  During the second Q&A last Wednesday, he was asked if he had a favorite director that he would want to helm the series.  He posited Robert Rodriguez, and my immediate response to that is "are you effing kidding me?"

First off, consider Rodriguez' body of work.  *shudder*  Moving on, let's take a look at this particular property, shall we?  It takes place in an imaginative and dense fantasy world.  It is much beloved by an ardent-but-surprisingly-large group of nerds.  It has a sizable cast of likable good-guys, many of whom get killed in dramatic and unexpected ways.  The bad guys include humans who are mutilated into monsters.  And the main character is a teenage girl who battles those monsters and kicks ass through the use of her newly-awakened magical powers.

If this doesn't scream Joss Whedon, then I don't know what does.

There was also a question about who Sanderson would want to play Kelsier, and he didn't have an answer, but to me the much more pressing question is who would play Vin.  Ten years ago I would have said Natalie Portman, but she's really too old to play a teenager in this series of films, the first of which might start production in, at best, a couple of years.

The best I can come up with is Ellen Page, which I must admit is a bit of a stretch.  She's certainly got the look and is a very capable actor; it's really a question of whether or not she could muster the intensity to override her inherent adorable-ness when required.  On the one hand, she's the girl we all hoped Thora Birch would grow up to be (seriously, what happened between Patriot Games and American Beauty?).

On the other hand, Hard Candy.

]{p

PS - If you haven't read Mistborn and aren't immediately revolted by spec-fiction (or reading in general), give it a try--it's quite good.

PPS - If anybody can get this set of books in front of Whedon, consider yourself tasked.

PPPS - Yes, Warbreaker would be an excellent movie as well, especially given the visually-oriented nature of the magic system.  Whether it is a more or less likely than Mistborn is a purely academic discussion, and I would have acknowledged that above, but that first paragraph was already running a bit long.

PPPPS - Why are you still reading post-scripts? Seriously, surf on over to Cracked or something.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Brandon Sanderson Post-Signing Geekout Blog Post

There were lots of questions about Brandon Sanderson's expanded cosmology, but the most interesting answer came well after the Q&A.  Said cosmology--the tale of Hoid and the Shards of Adonalsium--at this point amounts to little more than wild speculation about a series of easter eggs throughout Sanderson's corpus; Sanderson has confirmed very little, although you can occasionally gauge by his reactions to questions that the fans have figured out more than he intended.

He was asked if he had planned it from the very beginning--even in the 13 books he wrote before getting a single one published.  He said yes, that he had.  He wanted to write epic fantasy, but he knew he couldn't start a series and hope to get it published--so he created standalone novels and mini-series' that take place in the same universe and have at least one common character.  Since he knew he couldn't sell an editor on it, he hid it from the editors.

Last Wednesday at 7, fantasy author Brandon Sanderson did a signing at the Barnes & Noble in Chesterfield.  He came onto my radar by way of the Writing Excuses weekly podcast (the hands-down must-listen for anyone interested in writing) that I discovered through my brother-in-law, Bill.  We're tremendous fans, so we not only jumped at the chance to get stuff signed, Abby started making things for him to sign (hers are the four on the left). Abby even came in costume:
This being a mistcloak from the Mistborn trilogy.  We got pictures, we got all kinds of things signed.  Brandon even twit-pic'd Abby's costume, saying it was one of the best he'd ever seen (which gave her a perverse thrill).

Around quarter to nine the line was through, so he did Q&A in the store while he signed a few dozen copies of his book that were sitting on a display.  Once the store closed at 9, he continued the Q&A in the parking lot for another half hour or so--which consisted largely of RAFO-ing spoilers for Wheel of Time and his cosmology--and then invited whoever was interested back to his hotel to play Magic: The Gathering.

No, really.

And this was when the real fun began.  For starters, I was the first to the hotel, and Brandon was the second, so I had him to myself for about 5 minutes.  We chatted about... well, mostly about Dan Wells--who is another favorite author of mine that I discovered through the Writing Excuses podcast--while Brandon checked out some of his fan gifts.

Once enough players arrived, the games began.  There were two games--both were everybody-against-Brandon in a Magic variant called "Archenemy" and the players got solidly trounced in the first game by Brandon's "Cthulhu To The Face" deck.  Amid the spell-casting there was more discussion, less the form of a Q&A and more of friendly chatter.  To a certain point--at the end of the day we were all rabid fans hanging on every word of one of our idols.

The second game went better--Evan brought several decks and a few more of us joined the game.  The spoils of our victory were a code for The Great Hunt--a viral-type game leading up to the next Wheel of Time release.  As well we got more stuff signed.  And more pictures.

I've had the pleasure of meeting several mid-to-low-tier celebrities: Jonathan Coulton, Vienna Teng, Jason Webley, even Max Lucado once (although at the time I didn't have any idea who he was).  They're all super-polite and gracious and friendly, but being invited to hang out with ("hang out" here meaning "geek out over nerd games") someone you can normally only admire from a distance was a singularly thrilling experience.

It was one of the most fun evenings I've had in a while, and one of the most interesting for a while to come.

]{p

Saturday, August 28, 2010

One Titan Wore Green, Another Wore Orange

Abby and I watched Clash of the Titans the other night, and it was a lot less awful that I'd anticipated.

No doubt because we watched it in 2D.  It's a shame, really.  It's a competently-if-not-expertly directed action film, but it's legacy will be that it was the film where people realized 3D can suck.

Oh, there are still things to complain about.  The dialog was clunky.  Some of the CG effects needed more polish--Medusa, in particular, had a distracting, cartoony aura. Then there's the post-climax coda in which the movie reneges on its one moment of real drama--I won't spoil it for you, but it was a tad cheesy.

Also, a few of the action sequences felt clumsy.  Take, for example, the fight against the giant scorpions--the sense of scale was constantly shifting, and the ending was sudden and anti-climactic.  Oh, look, the scorpion's dead.  Oh, hi there Perseus, you did that, eh?  And I could have done without the Zack-Snyder-esque film-speed ramping.  Can we call that a cliche and move on already?

All that said, the Pegasus sequences looked pretty good, and the kraken battle worked for me.  The acting wasn't stellar, but it's wan't bad.  The production designer clearly got off on Lord of the Rings; I particularly enjoyed the film's imagining of Mount Olympus, and while the movie was not without anachronism, it managed to maintain its own internal logic.  Furthermore, Perseus' quest had sense of purpose and urgency to it--all these adventures ultimately serving a single goal.  I've always felt that Greek myths ramble too much, so that was a welcome change.

I will say one thing: I don't care for the way ancient mythologies are co-opted by Judeo-Christian sensibilities.  Hades, in particular, becomes a proxy for the devil because he is the Lord of the Underworld.  So you see elements of that in his character and design, and while the movie gave him at least some semi-plausible motives for feuding with Zeus, it's still in the vein of "I feed on human suffering".  Well, in the ancient Greek mythos, the Underworld was a place of darkness, not fire, and Hades more or less kept to himself.  The villain in the original film was Poseidon, who was a jealous and powerful and quick to anger, but not evil, per se.  In fact, one of the nice things about polytheism is that you can have conflict without making any one god or goddess a "bad guy", so it's a shame to see that thrown out.

I should give a quick hat tip to Abby here, because my casual knowledge of Greek mythology is drastically augmented by her academic knowledge of Greek archeology (and the fact that she knows the original film pretty well).  She also noted a number of visual inconsistencies in everything from costume design to Zeus' eagle (bald eagles, apparently, aren't indigenous to the Mediterranean).  If you ever want a discussion on problems with movies that take place in the ancient world (see also: 300, see also: Troy), hit her up.

]{p

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Harry Potter 3, Book and Movie

So I've been re-reading the Harry Potter series and finished my favorite from that franchise: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.  Unlike its predecessors it doesn't try to be a fairy tale; unlike its successors, it doesn't try to be a sprawling epic.  It's the only book whose villain isn't some incarnation of Voldemort, and it sports a unique dual-climax: first we get the reveal of who Sirius Black really is, then we get the time-traveling adventure that results in Wormtail's escape and Black's freedom.

The book introduces the dementors, who will remain the most fearsome creatures in the series.  We also get to meet Remus Lupin who, along with Black, give us a window into Harry's past while being amongst the most complex and well-rounded characters in the series.  Both Black and Lupin are tired, tormented crusaders, trapped by their idealism, misunderstood by their society, and hostage to their need to defend their loved ones.  Additionally, Lupin's relationship with Snape hints at a conflict that won't be fully understood until the final few chapters of Book 7.  We also get a prophecy from Professor Trelawny, which Dumbledore says is the second real one she's ever made.  We learn about the first in Book 5.

The film version of Azkaban also stands out for me, although in re-watching it I'm less enamored with it than before.  It's substantially better than the first two, but I think I may like Half-Blood Prince better.  Director Alfonso Cuarón focused on making the main characters real and placing them in a fantastical world, although the fantasy of that world registers as severe strangeness in some peripheral characters, like the driver of the Knight Bus (or his talking shrunken head).

There are some significant breaks from the novel: Cuarón stripped away absolutely everything that wasn't necessary to the plot, truncated quite a few scenes and filled the rest with character moments.  The Quidditch subplot is done away with almost entirely.  In the book, it's a major affair, taking up several chapters and ultimately resulting in a win for Potter.  This was important in the scope of the series: Harry was supposed to this great Quidditch player, but his team always ended up losing the House Cup.  They had pretty much gone as far as they could without a major victory to justify Harry's greatness.  In the movie, it's reduced to two brief scenes that are plot-essential: the dementors torment Harry, and the whomping willow destroys his broom.

The way dementors and petronus' are dealt with differs greatly from the book.  The dementors in the movie fly, and the emotional "coldness" Harry feels when they are near is translated into literal coldness on screen.  Things freeze when they're around.  This was, of course, a cinematic necessity (I don't know about the "flying" bit, but whatever).  But the most significant and impressive changes deal with the way Cuarón wrangled the double-climax ending.

Notably, he gave Harry more to do: in the book it's Lupin who discovers that Peter Pettigrew still lives, but in the movie Harry makes that discovery and then tells Lupin.  During the confrontation with Black, the movie leaves the audience guessing for a while about who's good and who's bad.  That scene in the book is much more straight-forward, with Lupin constantly asking Harry to let him explain.  During the time-travel sequence, Harry and Hermione interact more with themselves--saving their own lives, as it were.  This allows the first climax to pass less dramatically, setting up mysteries to be revealed once Harry and Hermione go back into the past.  It gives them more to do when they're replaying the evening (in the book, they basically hide in the woods and watch the action happen--it works, but it would be dreadfully boring to watch in a film).  This keeps the tension high and the pace brusk, preventing what could have become a very dull, protracted ending while not sacrificing major plot elements.

My only real complaint about the movie is that a few scenes aren't terribly well acted.  The leads were still too young to pull of some of the more complex scenes believably.

]{p

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Harry Potter And The High-Yield Mutual Fund

It was ten years ago this month (very nearly to the day, I think) that I started reading the Harry Potter series of books. I was a camp counselor, Goblet of Fire had just been released, and I was mystified at how rapt the children were in it. I had heard about the Potter-mania (and let us not forget that it was, in fact, a -mania), but to see it first hand was awe-inspiring. For the week after its release, every spare moment for nearly every camper was spent holed up in their bunks reading about Harry's adventure.

No, really.

I had to find out what the hell this was all about. So I picked up J.K. Rowling's first book and started reading--and was thoroughly entertained. Her stories were well-crafted and clever, if a bit childish. I read the first three books at a sprint but lost momentum about half-way through book 4, which I finished at a decidedly more leisurely pace. I read the final three books as they came out, but given the span of years between volumes, I lost a lot of detail. Characters vanished into the ephemera, and when their names reappeared, I admitted that they sounded vaguely familiar but I didn't really connect the dots of the longer story arcs.

With the films of the last book coming out this coming fall/summer, I decided it might be worthwhile to revisit the series, knowing how it turns out.

When I read Chamber of Secrets ten years ago, I remember being impressed with how Harry's ability to talk to snakes was showcased in the opening of book 1 and then became a pivotal plot point in book 2). In re-reading I'm even more amazed at the links between elements in the early stories and the way events play out at the end of the book. (And oh, uh, SPOILERS AHEAD, although I think the statute of limitations has passed for this series.)

Some of these feel a bit tenuous. In book 7, Ron uses the putter-outer (the inverse magical lighter) that was showcased in the first few paragraphs of book 1. Later in book 7 we get a reappearance of the golden snitch that Harry caught in his mouth at the end of the first book. While the connection is clearly there, it's possible, even likely, that they weren't planned from the very start but were written in later.

Some connections feel more like wild coincidences. After Fred, George, and Ron spring Harry from the Dursley's in the flying car, Mrs. Weasley singles out Fred and tells him he could have been killed, which, in the last book, he was. This might have been planned (it's quite possible that Rowling knew which characters weren't going to survive the series and put in a subtle nod), but it still feels like a bit of a stretch.

Then there's the unmistakable. I'm about two-thirds of the way through the second book, and so far both the first and second book have made some reference to Snape seemingly being able to read Harry's mind. We learn in book 5 that he absolutely can. For that matter, seeing Snape's interaction with Harry through the lens of his final revelation has been oddly fulfilling.

Also interesting is the contrast against the existing films. The best movies (Prisoner of Azkaban and Half-Blood Prince) are the ones that stray the farthest from the source material. The weakest (the first two) are the most faithful--although they weren't helped by larger-than-life performances or the woeful miscasting of Kenneth Branaugh as a dream-boat. On the other hand, Richard Harris was inspired casting as Dumbeldore (I much prefer him to Michael Gambon). On yet another hand, while I have the utmost respect for Maggie Smith, I always pictured Minerva McGonagall as Finola Hughes.

But what can you do, right?

]{p

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Happy Birthday To Me

Well, I made it to 30. It didn't feel like much until a friend asked how it felt to have lived three decades.

That made me feel a touch old.

Still, no use complaining--on the whole I'm quite happy with my life. I like what I do for a living and it's a career path with some good growth potential. I'm happily married, although currently childless. This is not a point of contention--I just always figured I'd have kids, or at least a kid, by now.

So yeah. Happy birthday to me. I'm 30.

Now what?

]{p

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Rebel Rebel, You Tore Your Dress

Last weekend was spent visiting the 'rents in Nashville, and I've decided that I never want to live there. It has all the things (except traffic) that I hated about LA (crowds, expense, impenetrable music scene) with a patina of redneck over everything and more religion than I can wash out of my clothing in a weekend. And then there's the ever-pervasive rebel flag, which was particularly evident in the town of Lynchburg (where we toured the Jack Daniel's distillery). In one of the little shops around town I found what may be the most offensive retail display I've ever seen: a shelf full of confederate-flag kitsch (shot glasses, et al) and Uncle Tom figurines.

I'm kicking myself for not getting a picture of it, if only because it's almost too outrageous to be believed by people who aren't, you know, inbred dumbshits.

I've always thought confederate flags were a sure sign of ignorance, but I got to thinking--these weren't hillbillies so much as they were die-hard southerners. They were also very conservative. In short, these are the type of people who would hear my views on Health Care and call me un-American. And while that didn't literally happen, it absolutely could have, and the more I thought about it, the more it pissed me off.

Because is there anything more overtly un-American than the Confederacy? This was a group of people who loved America so much that they couldn't bear to be a part of it anymore. They said "America, fuck you, we're through". They filed for a divorce on a national level. And don't give me that Southern Pride bullshit. If I got a swastika tattooed on my back and claimed I was celebrating my German heritage, I'd be taken out back and shot.

So here's my new stance--if you are willing to display a Confederate Flag in any context other than "oh yeah, that was a horrible thing that happened a long time ago", then you clearly hate America and cannot be trusted with the right to vote. That or you don't see anything wrong with proudly displaying the emblem of the most violent anti-American movement in history, and are therefore an idiot and should not be trusted with the right to vote.

Your call.

]{p

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Angels Are Bulletproof, I Take It

I was not expecting to like this. Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails quit his band after twenty years to start a side project with his new wife.

Was not expecting to like it at all.

Now that I've heard a song, my mind is changed. The music is unmistakably Trent. Most of the textures are straight out of his expanded catalog of musical noise, but the musical sensibilities bear an uncanny resemblance to the simple-yet-haunting piano melodies that show up in any number of NIN songs (off the top of my head, Right Where It Belongs, The Frail, and the bridge from With Teeth).

Additionally, it turns out Mariqueen Maandig (the new Mrs. Reznor) has one hell of a voice, and her introspective musings are an elegant match for the ambient soundscapes, much more so than Reznor's own anthemic wailings. Reznor's vocals are testosterone laden, angsty, and often poignant and intimate, but they're rarely introspective, and never elegant.

Anyway, if you're curious, check out some new music from How To Destroy Angels. Additionally, check their website and Twitter feed for updates. The new song, titled A Drowning, is long (7 minutes) and fairly down-tempo, but the clips on their site hint that the material they're working on is going to be a bit harder-rocking and challenging than this bit of introductory fare.

And while I certainly miss NIN, this is on pace to turn out to be a suitable replacement.

]{p

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Okay, But Where Are The Glorious Basterds?

Yeah... I'm done with Quentin Tarantino. Inglorious Basterds has been the impossible-to-Netflix movie of the year, and it finally landed in my queue, and Abby and I watched it, and I gotta be honest: it's a piece of shit. No really. It's a piece of shit.

First objection: narrative structure. Your immediate response should be "What did you expect? It's Tarantino." Fair point, but in all seriousness, what's with the chapter breaks? Unlike almost every other film Tarantino has made, this one went in chronological order. There was no reason for it, and nothing cute was gained from it. It was simply pretentious bullshit, giving it the vague appearance of a "literary quality". Having read a book or two, it behooves me to inform Mr. Tarantino that if Inglorious Basterds had been a book, no one would have published it. Especially since a book would have been sans all the graphic gore. And while I'm at it...

Second objection: it's overly gory. Your immediate response should be "What did you expect? It's Tarantino." Fair point, but would it kill him to throw in a little compelling action every once in a while? There was very little action, and most of it went too fast to be enjoyed. There was no shortage of gore, however, what with the scalping and carving going on. Most of the "action" action took place off camera--you hear about the Basterds' reputations, but you never get to see them earn them. All of their exploits happen between the first time we meet them, which is a lengthy monologue, and the second time we meet them, which is a lengthy dialog. Speaking of which...

Second objection: it's overly talky. Your immediate response should be... But I digress. Dialog is okay, if it serves a purpose. Even lots of dialog is okay, if it's done well. But the dialog in IB was insipid. Characters repeated plot points three and four times. Then that plot point was repeated back as a flash-back and/or a title card...

Fourth objection: the title cards. I realize I'm nitpicking, but how many fucking fonts do we need? Two for the opening credits? Another for chapter headings? Another for Goebbels' introduction? Another really funky one for Stigliz? Another scrawly one for the other major members of the Nazi Party? Plus whatever got used for the title. And while we're on the subject...

Fifth objection: the title. And not because of the spelling, artistic license, whatever. My problem is that it is a direct homage to a movie that it has nothing in common with. And I could say a little something about the marketing, because the movie I saw and the one I saw advertised had very little to do with each other either. And lord knows it had nothing to do with the actual goings-on of World War II, because...

Sixth objection: historical revisionism. The "facts" of history are one thing (if you haven't heard of the movie's major departure from actual history, I won't spoil it for you here), but I strenuously object to the cartoon-ification of Adolf Hitler. And he was a punchline in this movie. And in my opinion, treating him that way seriously cheapens World War II and the Holocaust. Which is not to say I outwardly approve of his major departure, which came from out of nowhere--as if space aliens killed the shark at the end of Jaws. Honestly, it's so surreal that it transcends the usual trying-to-make-an-interesting-movie argument against revisions, so I didn't care that much. Of course, by that point I was desperate for anything interesting to happen. Which brings me to my overarching complaint...

Seventh objection: it's fucking dull. This movie had no reason to be two and a half hours long, and it's doubly offensive that it should be so long and so boring all at once. Hell, between Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers, and The Pacific, Steven Spielberg has been responsible for nearly twenty-three hours of World War II footage--and it was all interesting. Apparently Tarantino couldn't stop drooling on his typewriter long enough to cobble more than ten minutes of interesting footage together for this overlong, epic master(bation)piece.

Now, I'd had my hesitations about Quentin Tarantino before, but with Inglorious Basterds I think he really nuked the fridge. And I don't say that lightly. But let's be honest with ourselves--Tarantino's recent catalog has consisted of increasingly overlong inside jokes and love letters to himself. Oh what the hell, let's be blatantly honest--his entire catalog is that way. Yes, Pulp Fiction was phenomenal, but I'm convinced that it was a fluke.

Pulp Fiction worked because it showed us a world of professional gangsters and criminals and showed them coping with larger-than-life problems while having lively philosophical discussions and the occasional dance-off. But mostly, it worked because it was totally unlike anything we had ever seen before. By contrast, Inglorious Basterds fails because it is exactly like everything we've seen from Quentin Tarantino. Every Tarantino cliche is in place. Even the old Mexican Standoff, and they stop the action in the middle of that scene to talk about it--to make sure that the audience knows it's a Mexican Standoff even though only one person is holding a gun.

Making homages to yourself isn't clever--it's pathetic. Making references to movies no one but you has seen isn't visionary, it's trite. They worked in Pulp Fiction because nobody noticed, but that shit just doesn't fly anymore. Seriously, can he once do something normal? When we need to know about the flammability of nitrate films, can you work it into the the dialog perhaps, rather than having Samuel L. Jackson describe it to us in an elaborate voice-over sequence? It's just not funny anymore. You know that... um... "mentally challenged" kid who made a joke once and everyone laughed, so now he keeps making the same joke over and over hoping it will get a laugh again? And we gave him sympathy laughs for a while, but now we just wish he'd either learn a new joke or shut the hell up... That kid is Quentin Tarantino.

And frankly, I'm done with him.

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Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Franchising, Franchising, Franchising

So, if you're a fan of Zero Punctuation, Yahtzee Croshaw's weekly game-review vlog, you've no doubt heard him rip into game developers for relying too heavily on their established franchises. He particularly berates Nintendo for the constant stream of Mario, Zelda, and Metroid titles for choking out new and fresh ideas. He points out, for example, that games like Okami are good games in the vein of the Zelda series, but without that name on it, it won't sell.

While I agree that over-reliance on franchises can be detrimental to the overall market and that good franchises are too often used to move mediocre product, I think there are some benefits to franchising product (games or otherwise) that are being overlooked.

The main benefit to customers is that a franchise sets expectations. You put in a Mario title and you can expect 3D platforming of a certain quality. In fact, the biggest complaints about franchise titles come from instances in which the new title doesn't meet the expectations associated with that franchise. The classic case of this was Super Mario Bros. 2, which was superior in gameplay to its predecessor, but met with resistance because it felt like a completely different game because, well, it was. There are plenty of more recent examples, like Super Mario Sunshine that had more emphasis on "graffiti" than platformimg or The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, which diverged aesthetically from the realism of the N64 titles.

In other situations, the franchise continues because developers want a version of the popular game available on current generation hardware. Consider MarioKart or Super Smash Bros., both of which have released exactly one iteration of their game per console. And his is perfectly reasonable, because once the new generation of console comes out, previous comers are nullified (with the exception of the PS2, which stubbornly refuses to die). Once the Wii came out, nobody stocked new GameCube titles, and since those games have huge fanbases, it's reasonable to expand the IP.

There are benefits to the developer as well. Continuing a franchise means less character design and a way to integrate ideas and improvements that didn't make it into previous installments. Look at both the Half-Life and Left 4 Dead franchises, in which the subsequent games add new dynamics and subtle improvements while building on the design (and in these cases the story) of the games that came before. This can also cut down on development time--again, look at L4D2, which is a better game than L4D but took a third as long to make.

So it should come as no surprise that Super Smash Bros. Brawl would come out for the Wii shortly after it's released. And if you're familiar with the SSM games, then you immediately know what to expect and whether or not you'll like it. And while you're free to lament the lack of original IP's out there, shitting on franchise games just for being franchise games seems a bit petty to me.

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Monday, April 12, 2010

I Am Not A Serial Reader

Over the weekend, I did something that I don't think I'd ever done before. I read an entire novel in one sitting. Okay, it was like three sittings over the course of a single evening, but you get my point. Now, I've come close--I read the last 200 pages of Breakfast of Champions in a single sitting (which I don't recommend, by the way, because it will literally make your brain hurt). But I'd never finished one within 24 hours of acquiring it. The novel in question is Dan Wells' debut--I Am Not A Serial Killer.

I was exposed to Dan Wells because of his involvement with Writing Excuses, a weekly writing podcast he puts on with Brandon Sanderson (Mistborn, The Gathering Storm) and Howard Taylor (Schlock Mercenary) and had heard enough about the novel from the podcasts to get a basic gist of the story: the hero is a teenage sociopath who faces someone or something that's murdering people in his small town and there's a supernatural element involved. I enjoy Wells' contributions to the podcast and was intrigued by what I'd heard enough to want to read it.

And I wanted to buy it new, since Wells is a new author whom I have some respect for, and I'd like him to be able to keep doing what he's doing. Unfortunately, I didn't want to buy it off Amazon, as I would have to spend $15 more dollars to qualify for free shipping, and I had one hell of a time finding it in bookstores. I eventually tracked it down a week and a half after it was released in a Borders, in the "Literature" section. Why that? God knows. It's thriller, although you could call it spec-fiction without stretching your imagination too much. Or you could even call it Young-Adult (I happen to know that is was marketed as such in some countries) because there's no sex, no cursing, and a fifteen-year-old protagonist.

But I found it and I cracked it open and was immediately engaged by the pitch-black humor of the protagonist. Four chapters later, the gory bits had begun and I kept reading because I had to know how this all resolved. The plot twists were surprising, the character moments were all very satisfying, and after a few hours I'd reached the 150 page mark and decided to go to bed.

But I couldn't sleep. I was too invested in the story. Besides, I was over half-way through it, so I went back downstairs to plow through so more. At a quarter to 4 in the morning, I set it down, exhausted and exasperated but thoroughly satisfied.

None of this should have happened. It's just not me. I'm not a voracious reader--I'm not even a particularly fast reader. I love a good story, but I get distracted easily and start probably twice as many books as I finish. Supernatural anything is a turn-off for me (note the big red A on the left), and I have a hard time getting into horror--books or movies. I've read exactly one Dean Koontz novel and I was supremely dissatisfied with the way it resolved. I won't say which one because I hate spoilers, but suffice it so say that the ending felt like the main character was cheating at a choose-your-own-adventure novel. I've started half a dozen Stephen King books, but only managed to finish two of them: Carrie because it was short and succinct, and Salem's Lot because the story is beautifully tragic and compelling, despite King's tendency to give every single character the voice of a goddamned country bumpkin. Even the elevator pitch for this book strikes me as a bit empty and derivative: a supernatural thriller starring a teenage Dexter Morgan. And yet, it works, and it works really, really well.

So if you're looking for some interesting reading and don't mind the macabre (while it is cuss-less and sex-less, it's not shy about gore), have a go at I Am Not A Serial Killer by Dan Wells.

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Friday, April 9, 2010

Super Mario Galaxy Done

This week, Abby and I finished Super Mario Galaxy. It's one of our favorite purchases for the Wii--I do all the wacky 3D platforming, Abby collects star bits with her pointer, looks up FAQ's when we get stuck, and tries to not scream out loud when I fall to my death (for some reason, she gets really nervous about me falling to my death... and I fall to my death rather often).

But we finished it. There are no more levels for us to play. This isn't tragic or anything, especially with Super Mario Galaxy 2 coming out in May, but it's interesting to look at the huge trek we took to get there. There are a total of 121 stars to collect (in reality, it's more like 243, but the official tally is 121), and that 121st star is a bitch-and-a-half, let me tell you. Actually, collecting the 121st star is relatively easy: that level is--quite literally--a walk in the park, but unlocking that final level is a bit of a chore.

SMG is a standard 3D platformer in the vein of Super Mario 64. You have a number of levels, each with a number of objectives to complete, netting you a "star". Getting more stars unlocks new levels and once you reach a certain number you can take on Bowser and win the game. ForGalaxy, you have 6 "rooms" which each give you access to 5 (or so) galaxies. Some of these are one-offs, but most have approximately 3 normal objectives that each net you a star. Additionally, there are some one-off galaxies not connected to any room but are stand-alone challenges. There are also a few hidden objectives and comet levels, which take place in a regular world but add some kind of challenge--a race against the clock, a race against a "cosmic" Mario, beating a boss fight without taking any damage, beating a level in which enemies move at double their normal speed, etc. You have a great deal of freedom about what levels you play--you can skip whole galaxies if you have enough stars to open the next one. Once you hit 60, you can face Bowser and win the game...

Unless you're a completionist. Beating the game just unlocks another comet, which adds a few new levels. These are the infamous Purple Coin Challenge levels, which includes Luigi's Purple Coins, a.k.a. THE MOST BRUTALLY DIFFICULT STAGE I'VE EVER PLAYED IN ANY 3D PLATFORMER EVAR!!1! Tally up all of the challenges and hidden objectives and you have 120 stars. Once you get the last one (and that last one took a very, very, very long time), you get to fight Bowser again, and then watch the ending cinematic and credit sequence again. This then unlocks the final level...

No, that's not right. It unlocks Luigi. You get to start over with no stars and do the whole thing again, only this time as Luigi. Luigi, it's worth noting, is just like Mario only he jumps higher and is harder to control. He's not so good with the starting and stopping. Also, the "cosmic" version of Luigi is quite a bit faster than Cosmic Mario, making those challenge levels that much harder. After you collect all 120 stars and fight Bowser again (keeping in mind that you have to beat him once before you can unlock the Purple Coin levels on the Luigi side), and watch the ending cinematic and credit sequence for the fourth time, that finally unlocks the 121st level.

Buh.

Okay, if it weren't still fun, I wouldn't have kept playing it. Life's too short to be a completionist for completion's sake. And Abby and I are pretty stoked about SMG2, which is supposed to be basically more of the same, only harder and less story-driven. So, if you don't hear much from us in late May, that's why.

Have a good weekend, all.

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Thursday, April 8, 2010

A Minor Car-medy Of Errors

So, maybe a month ago my engine light came on. I took it to my mechanic and was told that it was an engine misfire and that it needed new plugs, possibly a new coil and wires. Fixable, easy. However, do to some outside circumstances, I decided to put off fixing it for a couple weeks. So a couple weeks passed and it was getting near time for me to replace my tags--which meant I needed an inspection, which meant I needed to get that engine light cleared. I took it back to my mechanic, told them to replace the plugs and wires and see if that fixed it.

It didn't. Only, it took driving around for 50 miles for me to verify that it didn't (you have to drive enough to reset the monitors before they can run inspections). So I had them replace the ignition coil. Not only did that not fix it, but it brought to light another problem. The connectors for my ignition coil were loose and coming off--that was causing misfires and might, in fact, be the root of my whole problem. But the mechanic didn't have those connectors and couldn't get them. So much for getting my tags renewed on time. I'd have to go to the dealer, which I sort of needed to do anyway because there was a recall on one of my parts. Better yet, my mother and brother were planning on leaving a car with us over the weekend while they flew to Washington to visit my sister. With a little luck, I could get it fixed over the long weekend and have the means to get around in the meantime.

No such luck. I called the closest Hyundai dealer ("closest" is misleading, as it implies that any of them are close) and asked when I could get in to get this stuff fixed. Tuesday, they said. Fair enough, but in the mean time the connectors were getting worse. One in particular would shake itself loose every five or ten miles, causing multiple misfires which would start the engine bucking. So I'd have to pull off the road and jiggle the wires.

No, really.

Finally Tuesday came around and I got my car in. Hopefully, this would be a quick easy fix that could be handled while they were taking care of that recall. I got to the dealer (the wires only came loose twice during the trip) and was told that my car actually needed five recalls taken care of. Apparently the previous owner hadn't been too diligent about taking care of stuff that can be fixed for free.

They called me Tuesday afternoon--the recall-related fixes were in progress, but one of them would require a part that couldn't be obtained until Wednesday morning. The connectors were zip-tied into place (a free almost-as-good alternative to replacing an $1100 part). None of this, however, had anything to do with my engine light. That was caused by a leaking intake valve, and it would be a good idea to flush out the fuel line too, since I'd been driving with a bad intake valve for a couple weeks.

Fine. I'd leave the car with them overnight and pick it up on Wednesday.

Yesterday started out like any other Wednesday. I woke up, spent half an hour in the bathroom glued to the toilet with a trash can in front of me... actually, that's pretty unusual. I was, in fact, sick as a dog and would not be able to get into work. That pretty much foiled my plans for getting my car picked up, as I was relying on someone from the office giving me a lift down to the dealer at lunch. But it was just as well, because the dealer wanted to hang onto my car for one more day. Everything was fixed, but someone needed to put some miles on it to clear the engine monitors (see above). The guy at the dealership wanted to drive it home last night and back in the morning (he said he'd pay for gas) so he could do the inspections. I was in no condition to crawl out of bed, let alone pick up my car, so I agreed.

As this posts, I should be at the dealer picking up my car. Hopefully, nothing else has gone wrong, and I can get my tags renewed today or (at the latest) tomorrow.

When something else does go wrong, I'll write about it here!

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Friday, April 2, 2010

Google Fools

Google has absolutely made my April Fool's Day.

First and foremost, they changed their name to "Topeka" for the day (which is hilarious if you happen to recall that Topeka changed their name to Google for the month of March).

Gmail was missing vowels--low key, but well played.

Google UK offered an Android app that will translate animal noises into English.

But my favorite was the Google Annotations Gallery (GAG) from Google Code. It's a set of annotations you can use to express yourself in your code. There's the "Disclaimer" package, which includes such gems as @AnimalsHarmedDuringTheMaking or literary tags where you can label your method by its meter or as a Haiku. Or you can annotate with exclamations like @LOL, @Facepalm or @WTF.

That makes for a great April Fool's joke (and read the quick-start guide, if you're the least bit code-savvy it's hilarious). But the best part is, it's not a joke. They made it for real. You can put it in your classpath and use those annotations. You can mark your own code with @Hack if you want to.

And this is why Google is the awesome. Other reasons as well.

Have a good weekend.

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Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Step 1: Asbestos-Lined Tunic

This weekend we caught a couple movies in theaters, including Dreamworks' new animated film How To Train Your Dragon. I really didn't have any desire to see it at all, let alone in a theater, but it was a pleasant surprise: a movie geared towards children that is appropriate for children but is appealing to adults and not made by Pixar.

HTTYD, thankfully, doesn't placate kids. It's not a situation where the kids are smarter than the adults in the film. The dragon that interacts with our hero is a playful, emotional animal. It never talks, but is still able to communicate in a typically animalistic way. And there's plenty of high-flying dragon-riding action to be had, but the dragon antics have a sense of weight and scale and urgency.

In other words, this is the movie Eragon wishes it could have been.

The characters have a lot of heart, the dialog is curt and snappy. There are a couple of shots that were clearly designed to milk the 3-D and play around with focus. But honestly, I saw the film in 2-D and it was just fine. And there are plenty of jokes for adults, there were quite a few moments were my friends and I were laughing raucously... alone (one particular joke about a breast-plate stands out in my mind...).

The movie never got overly preachy, and when it came to the hero's plight, real choices and real sacrifices had to be made. And that's refreshing. And Abby would chastise me if I neglected to mention the quality of the animation of, particularly, stubble and fur--very impressive. So if you get a chance, take the kids to see How To Train Your Dragon.

Because it's way, way better than the last Shrek movie was.

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Friday, March 26, 2010

Left 4 Half-Life

Having just finished Half-Life 2, I'm starting to take a more broad-spectrum account of its role in Valve's life and library. The original Half-Life reinvented the first-person shooter, and the sequel sought to do the same. While HL2 doesn't break new ground the same way its predecessor did, it's a vastly better game in terms of improved mechanics, storytelling, graphics, writing, etc, etc, etc--I particularly liked the cinematic approach to the end, where it become more about atmosphere and new weapon mechanics than about fighting harder and harder boss fights. Having completed it, I have a better understanding of its role in shaping the company's other IP's and its direction.

Since releasing HL2, Valve has reinvented one franchise (Team Fortress) and launched two new ones: Portal and Left 4 Dead. Portal's inheritance from HL2 is relatively obvious. Not only was it packaged with Half-Life 2 and its episodic follow-ups, but it exists within the same world and is filled with recognizable sounds, objects, concepts, and mechanics. Team Fortress is only tangentially related--it started life as a Quake mod but was adapted to the HL world via Team Fortress Classic, and it has been a flagship in Valve's business model of entertainment-as-a-service. By contrast, the Left 4 Dead franchise is a brilliant culmination of concepts that were introduced in HL2, improved in L4D, and improved again in L4D2.

First, there's the basic gameplay paradigm: you are a survivor getting help from other survivors while trying to make your way through an urban setting filled with zombies. This is straight out of the "Ravenholm" chapter of HL2, where you traverse city streets and rooftops killing zombies with the aid of a NPC survivor. Ravenholm (and some later chapters) even feature proto-versions of the L4D panic events, where you have to dig in and defend against a wave of zombie attacks. Later in HL2 your role changes from individual-on-a-mission to squad-leader, which again feels very similar to the single-player gameplay of L4D.

The two games also have remarkably similar level-design, both visually and conceptually. Both take place in ruined civilizations. Both try to tell a lot of back-story using visual information worked into the scenery, including heavy use of graffiti. Both consist of linear paths that ape open-worlds. And both use a lot of the same "tricks" to draw the player towards the correct path.

Now, Valve has done a great deal of work to streamline their production without sacrificing game quality. The use of the AI director to spawn enemies in the L4D games, as well as new ways to play test that didn't eat into as much time for as many developers, meant that they were able to make a larger, more complex sequel to L4D in single year after spending 3 years on the original. And the ease of development here is a good indication of why Valve is moving away from monolithic story-puzzlers like HL and HL2 and towards smaller, iterable games like Portal or the Half-Life episodes or games that are more geared towards replay like TF2 and the L4D series.

For perspective, the L4D games both have only about 4 or 5 hours of gameplay if played once through. But they're still considered "full" games because they're meant to be replayed, and you can have dramatically different experiences from one play-through to the next. Half-Life 2 has closer to 12 hours of gameplay, all of it linear, and much of it puzzle-based. Geographically, it's substantially larger: any one of its chapters may be the same size as a full L4D campaign, and the vehicle levels are simply huge by comparison. And Half-Life is thematically about isolation, so you end up with setpieces that take place in huge, open spaces. L4D is more thematically tied to a claustrophobic feeling, so you end up with smaller areas. With the L4D games, you make your map, have the director plant enemies, and play test. In Half-Life games, you make 5 times as many larger maps, you place enemies manually, then you playtest your combat levels, readjust enemy placement, playtest your puzzles, readjust the maps, readjust enemy placements for adjusted maps, playtest combat with new enemy placements, and so forth.

When you add in the idea that early levels are often tutorials for later levels with more complex puzzles, you're looking at a huge development process. And if you're dedicated to quality, then you're going to end up with a long development cycle. Small wonder, then, that Half-Life 2 took five years to develop, and why we're seeing 4-5 hour "episodes" instead of a third full game.

That said, I've found the Half-Life games quite rewarding, if not as replayable, and I'm looking forward to starting the episodes where they add commentary tracks and (in episode 2) achievements. And then I'll be in the rabble clamoring for episode 3, no doubt.

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Thursday, March 25, 2010

Don't Click Unless You Have A Few Hours To Spare

No, really.

It doesn't update anymore, but it's still a fun sight to waste time: Rock and Roll Confidential's Hall of Douchebags. These are real pictures that real musicians used to promote themselves. Obviously, they're not the most successful musicians...

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Friday, March 19, 2010

I Already Made The Whole-Life Joke, Didn't I?

Well, I'm 12 years late to the party, but I finally got through Half-Life. Despite the fact that the graphics are a bit dated, I'm amazed at how well the game holds up. I enjoyed the mystery of the story, particularly that surrounding the G-Man, whom you see in frequent, fleeting bursts, but whom you only meet at the end. I enjoyed the fact that the final confrontation involved using all (or most) of the skills you've developed throughout the game, including the low-G platforming that was introduced when you enter the alien world. I liked the parallelism of the bookends--how it starts and ends on a train. Color me impressed.

So I went ahead and started on Half-Life 2, which I had attempted before, but had gotten away from while en route to Ravenholme (Chapter 5, methinks). It didn't take very long to get caught back up, partly because I could remember several of the puzzles, and partly because I had gotten used to the mechanics of the first, and partly because I didn't find the 4th chapter nearly as nauseating this time around (I've previously referred to it as "the vehicle section that doesn't end").

Playing the original has endeared me to the sequel, having better understanding for the conceits and logic of the universe of the game, as well as why NPC's think so highly of Gordon Freeman when he shows up out of the blue after a twenty-ish year hiatus. And I have to praise Valve for their approach in making a sequel. It's easy to make a sequel that apes the original, maybe adds a weapon or two, but follows the same plot and same characters in the same (or similar) settings in an oh-no-here-we-go-again sort of way (if not a straight-up retelling). Instead, Half-Life 2 takes place in an unrecognizable future that is indelibly connected and yet tacitly different from the world Freeman left behind in the first game.

It's also interesting that you are dropped into a foreign situation both as a player and a character. Freeman's been in stasis since the conclusion of the original, and while he's been gone the human race has been enslaved. You start out (on a train) with no idea what's going on or what you're supposed to do, only given the knowledge that "the right man in the wrong place can make all the difference in the world." In short, you're there to stir the shit.

So, along with a deeper story with a greater sense of immersion, you get better-developed characters, stronger voice acting, more casual dialog and fairly cinematic scenes that present story without completely obstructing gameplay. The presentation is vastly improved, there are new weapons and new enemies (and old weapons, and old enemies). While it still alternates between combat and physics puzzles, the puzzles feel less like a series of tutorials, and by the way, there is no more tutorial section--everything you need to know to play the game is worked into regular gameplay.

And then there's the addition of auto-saves. If they were int he first game, I had them turned off, and while I don't really use them, I appreciate that they're there. I went to the Final Fantasy school of "die well, die often, save well, save often", but almost every time I saved, both Auto-Save files (which appear to alternate auto-saves) had already updated, meaning the game was at least twice a diligent as I was.

So I'm enjoying Half-Life 2. I admire its bravery, because it takes a very solid step away from safe ground in what could have been a by-the-numbers shooter. We'll see if it ends with as much strength as it begins.

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Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Step Right Up...

So Abby and I recently watched Adventureland, and I thought I'd give my impressions. This is more of a discussion than a review, so if you haven't seen it, be warned that there will be spoilers. If want you want is a review, here's a short one: I liked it. I didn't love it, but I appreciated the approach it took.

Adventureland starts with an incredibly tired premise: geeky, virginal protagonist is preparing for a fancy trip but his family falls on hard times and he is forced to cancel his plans and take a shitty job where he will meet new and interesting (quirky) people and lose his virginity to a hot alternative girl who might just be the woman of his dreams. We've seen this plot (or a variation on it) in a hundred low-brow teen sex comedies. But the movie treats its subjects with a refreshing honesty and delicacy.

For example, take Jesse Eisenberg, who plays our hero: James. In other films (read "other films" as Zombieland), I've called Eisenberg the poor man's Michael Cera, but he seems much better suited to this role. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that Cera would have been miscast. But Eisenberg works because James isn't a generic nerd--he's a renaissance nerd! He has a degree in English literature and is going to Columbia to study journalism. His hair isn't Jew-fro, it's Roger Daltry. He has retained his virginity because he's a hopeless romantic and doesn't feel like he's really fallen in love. And he's not lacking in social graces either (which is not to say that he's totally bereft of awkwardness). In fact, he's rather funny to be around. Rather than give in to the tropes of teen sex comedies, Adventureland gives us a well-rounded character with real problems.

Likewise, Kristen Stewart's Em isn't your typical closet-geek-disguised-as-a-hot-chick. She's a real person, attractive but damaged and a little scary. On a side note, I haven't decided yet what I think of Stewart as an actress. You can't really hang Twilight on her, but I can't shake the feeling that she's being typecast here. Her performance was great, it just might not have been much of a performance. Time will tell. Time and The Runaways.

Now we all know what to expect from this sort of comedy (things start getting spoilery here, just so you're warned). Guy and girl will develop a relationship but it will be complicated by something or other. That something will blow up in their faces in Act II and the relationship will be off, meanwhile our hero will have a falling out with his parents and ruin what little remaining plans he had. But, with the help of his friends, he'll have a revelation and do something crazy to prove his love and win back the girl. Part of that revelation will undoubtedly involve our hero realizing that the shitty situation (in this case, working at a theme park) isn't that bad after all. Some of this happens in Adventureland, but not in ways you'd expect. Some of it flat out doesn't happen.

For starters, the theme park never stops being shitty. It's a surreal hell run by crazy people where the customers will threaten to knife you for a giant stuffed panda and where you have to hear Rock Me Amadeus twenty times a day. And worse yet, James and Em work in "Games", the shittiest part of this hell-hole. Second, James's friends never help him out. In fact, one friend does little apart from punch James in the balls whenever there's an opportunity. Almost everyone in the film betrays James at some point or another, except Bobby (Bill Hader), who runs the park. And I will pause here to interject that the one weak point of the movie for me was Bobby, who was played for comedy in a way that seemed to undermine the rest of the film.

Another example, and I really, really appreciate this: Em's and James's relationship wasn't the slightest bit contrived. There was no gimmick that brought them together (your basic sitcom version of this plot would have James lie about himself to impress the girl, that lie becomes the complication that drives them apart in Act II). Instead, they dug each other, and a relationship blossomed organically. There was a complicating factor, but it wasn't that they were from different worlds or that Em was embarrassed that her friends and family would find out (that particular trope gets a proper punch-up in the middle of the film). No, the problem was that she had been sleeping with the park's married handyman (a thoroughly enjoyable Ryan Reynolds).

And when their relationship goes to shit, it isn't because of misunderstandings--it's because they did genuinely awful things to each other. It got bad enough that I half-expected them to not get back together when they were reunited at the end of the movie.

Lastly, I want to credit this film with the proper use of subtext. There was a scene in which James gets chewed out by his mother after wrecking the car. She points out a bottle of liquor that she found in there--it was true that James had been drunk we he got in the accident, but the bottle was his father's. When the bottle hits the table, the scene stops being about James's mother's lecture. While she rants, James and his father exchange a number of pained looks--James is upset for being thrown under a bus; his father feels guilty for letting James take the fall completely, but he also feels too pathetic to step in.

So at the end of the day, I was really impressed by Adventureland. It took what could have been a very normal, mediocre story and made something honest and painful and real out of it.

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Tuesday, March 16, 2010

T.I.B.S. Texas Textbook Edition

I have a weird sort of affection for Texas, since I grew up there. But this is bullshit.

On Friday, Texas's board of education approved a social studies curriculum designed to put a more conservative spin on history. If you read through the article, you'll find a few disturbing trends.

First, there's the belief in Texas that history texts are too liberal. I find this frightening because across the country, history texts are overwhelmingly conservative. They cast American history in a light of marching progress, completely glossing over or ignoring the darker bits (not the least of which is our genocide of the natives, which dominated American politics for the first 100 years of her existence).

Second, there's the belief that America was founded on Christian principles, which is demonstrably untrue--laughably false, given that many of the founding fathers were openly deist. America was founded on, if anything, French philosophy.

Third, there's the belief that the skewing of history should be remedied by skewing it the other way. You don't fix a broken leg by breaking it in the opposite direction.

Fourth, there's the surprising lack of internal logic. One of the changes being proposed is to highlight that German and Italian Americans were interned during World War II along with Japanese Americans--to undermine the notion that Japanese internment was motivated by racism. But it doesn't. It just points out that racism was extended to Germans and Italians as well as the Japanese.

Lastly, I'm disturbed by what's overwhelmingly lacking: the opinion of anyone who is a historian (the changes are being championed by Dr. Don McLeroy, a dentist), and the pursuit of truth. Balance should not be an issue in history--there is one set of facts. Often those facts are subject to some interpretation, but that interpretation should be the activity of the students, not the history textbook.

This is bullshit.

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Monday, March 15, 2010

Salt Of The Earth

There's currently a bill to ban salt in restaurants in New York.

No. Really.

Customers would be allowed to use salt, according to the bill introduced by Assembly Felix Ortiz, but cooks, chefs, and bakers would not, under threat of $1,000 fine per violation. Now, this is stupid for more reasons that you think--the chemistry of salt in cooking does more than add flavor. The link above gives a lengthy overview of why this bill is lunacy, but if I may quote the article directly:

Ortiz admits that prior to introducing the bill he did not research salt’s role in food chemistry, its effect on flavor or his bill’s ramifications for the restaurant industry. He tells me he was prompted to introduce the bill because his father used salt excessively for many years, developed high blood pressure and had a heart attack.

Couple things. First, Ortiz admits that he did no research on the role of salt in cooking. Second, the main motivation is that his father used too much salt--but since salt would still be available to patrons, the bill would not have saved his father's life.

Seriously, people. Think before you legislate.

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Friday, March 12, 2010

The Karate Kid Re-Visited

With the Jackie Chan/Jaden Smith re-imagining of The Kung Fu Karate Kid coming out this summer, Abby and I decided to re-watch the original. "Re-watch" may not be the right word. I watched the sequels many, many times growing up, but I have no recollection of the original. I can remember many of the scenes, because the sequels mined their predecessor for footage whenever possible--the first five minutes of the second movie is a montage of the scenes from the first, including the final fight of the tournament.

On a side note, one my memories from the second film is this girl who appears to run out of the audience and hug Daniel after he wins the tournament--which struck me as a child as a weird thing to happen at a karate tournament. You never see her face, so I always remembered her as the random girl with the large butt. Turns out it was Elisabeth Shue.

Anyway, the original's good, but while we watched it Abby and I realized that you could never make that movie today. Why?

1. There's almost as much karate in the movie as there is in the title. With the exception of a few beatings through the middle, even as Daniel trains, there's not much fighting until the third act. When it finally happens, it's very watchable--not as over-the-top as what we're seeing in the previews for the 2010 version, but still fast and frenetic.

2. Lax pacing, in addition to a long running time (just over two hours). It's not that slower and longer movies don't regularly come out, it's just that a movie with the word "karate" in the title could not be nearly as relaxed if it were made today. There is no conflict in the film at all for about twenty minutes. It's an hour before Daniel signs up for the tournament, which drives the plot for the rest of the film and cements the relationship between Daniel and Mr. Miyagi. And if I had to cut anything, it'd be the romance subplot.

3. Mr. Miyagi is a bad influence. Under his supervision, Daniel lies on a registration form, drives without a license, and drinks alcohol.

4. Daniel is kind of a prick. The central conflict is about Daniel and some bullies, but Daniel doesn't help his cause at all. He starts two of the fights that lead to his epic beat-downs (although he certainly didn't deserve the beating they gave him)

5. Only the bad guys care about winning. Miyagi says over and over that Daniel doesn't have to win and that he shouldn't expect to win. The point is to make a good fight. His antagonists, on the other hand, are driven to win at all costs.

6. The main characters are actually kinda sorta like real human beings. Daniel is a jerky little teen from Newark. Mr. Miyagi is a lonely old Okinawan. Modern movies like heroes to be righteous and use quirks as proxies for flaws. Daniel and Miyagi's flaws are big and bold, while their quirks are more subtle. One of my favorite bits was the wide lapels on Mr. Miyagi's suit--because it's his only suit and he bought it in the seventies. It could have been played for comedy, but it was subdued--a character facet for anyone who cared to notice.

7. The 80's song montage. Back To The Future had The Power Of Love; Beverly Hills Cop had The Heat Is On; Top Gun had Danger Zone; Rocky had Eye Of The Tiger. Big movies in the 80's all had their cheesy theme song, it's just what you did. For The Karate Kid, the bulk of the climactic karate tournament happens while Joe Esposito sings You're The Best, kicked off by Elisabeth Shue (hilariously) invoking the title. The film suffers a little from it.

8. The training regimen almost kind of makes sense. Daniel has studied karate before the film's opening scenes--but he's learned it from books. Daniel is referred to as "Karate Kid" before he spends any kind of time with Mr. Miyagi, and when they do start training, they mostly work on his form, strength, balance, and reflexes. So it's mostly believable that Daniel can go from getting-his-ass-handed-to-him to winning the tournament in only two months--he already knew how to fight, he just sucked at it. The most telling sign of his transformation comes in the locker room when he nearly has an altercation. Two months ago, when confronted, he would have run or charged. This time, he snaps immediately into a defensive posture.

The Karate Kid works (where its sequels fail) because it's a triumph of solid storytelling over placating your audience. Yes, there's not a lot of fighting in it, but the movie isn't about fighting. It's about a kid without a father who goes on a right of passage and develops a relationship with an older man who lost his son. Their friendship is born of mutual respect and admiration, and their friendship is the heart and soul of the movie.

I'm curious about the re-invention. It's not hiding the fact that it will be drastically different, even the characters named are different (Dre instead of Daniel, Mr. Han instead of Mr. Miyagi). It takes place in Beijing rather than Los Angeles, the mentor is Chinese, not Okinawan. Etc, etc, etc. I'll defer to Rotten Tomatoes before I see it in theaters, but I'm cautiously optimistic--it might be a worthwhile.

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Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Oscar Reactions

So I actually picked the winner. Sort of. I wanted it to win, I just didn't think it would.

Am I talking about The Hurt Locker? Of course not, I was sure Avatar would win. I'm talking about the winner for Best Animated Short Film: Logorama.


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Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Open The Mac Valve For More Steam!

Right now there are only two software companies whose announcements I can really get excited about: Google and Valve.

Google's code is immaculate, their products are ubiquitous. Which is not to say that they haven't made a few missteps, but whether you like them or not, they've made your internet experience better. It's called the Wal-Mart effect: a few stingy shoppers harangue Wal-Mart to keep their prices low, but you get the benefit of their labors just by shopping there. In this case, Google reinvented e-mail with gmail, and it was so successful that Yahoo! and Hotmail copied them--hence, you get more storage on your Hotmail account. Or there's Chrome, Google's web-browser, which beat the pants off of IE and Firefox in speed tests. Microsoft and Mozilla stepped up their game in response, and you get the benefit of a faster browsing experience no matter which browser you use!

Also, they do something with search engines, I forget what exactly.

Now take a look at Valve. Yes, I've been wigging out over Portal 2 news and gushing over Half-Life, and I'd hoped to leave it at that. And then yesterday Valve announced that their distribution client, their gaming engine, and their entire catalog would be coming to Mac this spring.*

With all the platform wars going on, Valve decided the best way to do things was to open the field to more players. You know the Soul Caliber series of tournament fighters? In the last two numbered installments, the game had a difference "bonus" character for each platform. In Soul Caliber IV, for instance, XBOX 360 owners could play as Yoda, while PS3 owners could play as Darth Vader. If you want to play as both... well, you have to buy two versions of the game. It was new, it was innovative, it was downright dickish.

If you read the press-release from Valve (same link as above) regarding Steam-for-Mac, they say over and over that from now on, all their releases will be simultaneous for Mac, Windows, and XBOX 360. Games will run on native code, not emulation. They will be simultaneous builds, not ports. Furthermore, if you own a copy of game for Windows, you automatically get a license for Mac at no additional charge. In short, they've decided to take "gaming" away from Microsoft, and they've made pretty clear that the Mac version will not be some ugly younger sister, but will get the same treatment.

This is pretty groundbreaking, and it's one of the reasons I've come to respect Valve so much. What does this mean for you? Well, probably nothing, unless you count the Wal-Mart effect. Since Valve is catering to Apple and has re-written their distribution client to be compatible, they're going to be encouraging other game developers to write for Mac. Which means other software developers will begin to follow suit. So, if you're a Mac-user, you'll have more software available and if you're a Windows user you'll be better able to interact with Mac users.

And the world slowly becomes a more open place.

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*to clarify: the Steam client distributes games that are not made by Valve, and obviously not all of those will be Mac-compatible, but everything Valve makes will be.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Do Two Half-Life's Make A Whole?

Well, Portal 2 has been officially announced for the holidays--this time Valve told us using a straight-forward news release rather than their recent viral malarky (but don't worry, the press release contained a hidden login for the BBS site that revealed a co-op mode). Details will be unveiled over the coming month, but for right now we know a few things: GLaDOS is back, Chell is probably back, there's a co-op mode, and the game will be a full-size release (Portal is relatively small, taking only a few hours to get through on the first go, and only costing $10-$20 depending on where you buy it).

All this Portal news has made me curious about the Half-Life series, since the two take place in the same universe. For the uninitiated, Half-Life takes place in the Black Mesa research facility, Portal takes place in the Aperture Science Enrichment Center, and according to the mythology of the games the two corporations are rivals. Supposedly Half-Life 2: Episode 2 finishes up on the Borealis, a ship owned by Aperture Science. So there is further speculation that Portal 2 will tie in to the as-yet-unreleased Half-Life 2: Episode 3 somehow.

This would be much more exciting if I had played the Half-Life games, which I haven't. I have them all--I picked up the original on a whim and got the sequels with The Orange Box. But they tend to make me a bit sea-sick--especially the first one. But, again, with all this Portal news, I decided to give it another go--I futzed with the settings to find something that would be less grating on my sense of equilibrium (and was successful: 2-1 mouse movement and a 4:3 screen ratio did the trick). So now I've gotten about a third of the way through the original.

And holy shit...

Valve's fingerprints are pretty easy to recognize. Their games are all first-person shooters with a highly-developed story that is told interactively (read as: no cut-scenes). There's usually a pretty dark sense of humor at play, and the games are designed with an eye towards subverting expectations and making sure that the damned thing is--if nothing else--fun. You come to expect this from them--but I really wasn't expecting so much from their debut release. Hell, Half-Life came out in 1998; the pinnacles of PC shooters at that time were Duke Nukem and Doom. The zenith of PC puzzlers at that time was Riven.

But it's all there in Half-Life--the jokes, the surprises (floors surprisingly dropping out from under you as you enter a room), the creepy bad-guys, the background action, all those things that really immerse in you a universe are there. And even if you aren't following the story, it's pretty easy to play the game--kill anything that attacks you, do what it takes to advance. Characters are easily identifiable, even at a distance. And for a "shooter", there's a surprisingly large emphasis on puzzling. Not hard to see why it was considered such a break-through when it came out. And while visually, it's a bit dated, I'm having tremendous fun playing it.

You know, now that it doesn't make me want to throw up.

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Friday, March 5, 2010

Boy, Does My Ashburn!

So, Republican State Senator Roy Ashburn, who has a pretty healthy track record of voting against gay rights, was pulled over for drunk driving the other day. Leaving a gay bar. With another dude.

If you've seen Kirby Dick's Outrage, you'll know that this sort of thing happens all the time in politics. Washington (and California as well, it seems) is a haven of closeted self-loathing homosexuals who grow up to be self-oppressing homosexuals. Schadenfreude aside, can we start treating these people as people already?

Of course, it wasn't until 1973 that homosexuality was declassified as a form of insanity. So, there's progress there, I guess.

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Thursday, March 4, 2010

Gaming Soon 2: Eclectic Boogaloo

Valve have been busy.

In addition to the new Left 4 Dead 2 content coming this month, the Left 4 Dead content due out next month and a recent post to the Team Fortress 2 blog about the (final) forthcoming class update for the engineer, it looks like there've been some rumblings on the Portal 2 front as well.

On Monday, Valve released a somewhat cryptic update for Portal about having changed transmission frequencies. Since that update dropped, Portal is now sporting a new achievement that can be unlocked using radios that are now present throughout the game.

It gets weirder.

Each of the radios gives you some kind of audible signal when you move them to the right place in the level--four of them are Morse code that give the impression that GLaDOS is rebooting. The other 22 can be run through an SSTV program to generate numbered image files, all bearing the Aperture Science logo.

No, wait, it gets weirder.

The alphanumeric designations on the images, when run together into a single String, is an md5 hash for a phone number to a BBS dataline in Kirkland, Washington. The username and password for the BBS can be found in the Morse code messages, and from it you can retrieve (via telnet) some ASCII data streams that appear to be images of test chambers and memos from Cave Johnson, the fictional founder of Aperture Laboratories.

All of this brings me to my second point: the people at Valve are fucking insane.

Not nearly as insane, it seems, as the fans who've spent the last 48 hours decoding all of this and sharing their findings. Valve's managing director Gabe Newell is going to receive an award on the 11th of this month, and there's some speculation (reinforced by the fact that GLaDOS is in version 3.11) that he will use this opportunity to announce... something... be it Portal 2, Half-Life 2: Episode 3, The Orange Box 2, or something else in that vein.

And it seems to still be happening: yesterday another mysterious update dropped, this one labeled "Added valuable asset retrieval", and with it came a slightly changed ending to the game (don't worry, the song is intact). [SPOILER] Originally after defeating GLaDOS, you black out in the parking lot, but it's assumed that Chell escaped. Now, instead, a male robotic voice thanks you for assuming the party escort submission position and you are dragged backwards a short distance before the scene fades out.

So one thing's for sure, we've got a full-fledged alternate-reality-game going on here. This should be an interesting month. Between announcements, releases, and notes-and-ASCII-streams-generated-by-telnetting-into-a-BBS-(seriously-who-uses-that-anymore?)-whose-number-was-md5-encoded-in-image-files-which-were-encoded-as-audio-files-that-can-be-heard-so-as-to-unlock-a-brand-new-achievement-mysteriously-uploaded-on-Monday... we've got... well... um...

What was I saying?

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Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Post Band Reflections

The band had our first gig in two years Saturday night, and it went pretty well. It's invigorated us with a sense of purpose--it turns out we're actually pretty decent at the whole "music" thing. We just suck at the business side.

Three hours, lots of mistake, some visits from the whiskey fairy, getting home after two in the morning. Shouting drinking songs into a microphone while 50-or-so people sway and dance.

It was a blast.

On a related note, the band's website has been completely revamped. The finished product is at BlindSatellite.com and on the music page you can hear/download a song. We intend to grow that from one song to several songs in the next couple of months.

Exciting times. But mostly, it just felt good to play in front of people again.

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Monday, March 1, 2010

Gaming Soon

Some exciting video game news.

There's a new trailer up for Super Mario Galaxy 2, and they've announced the release date: May 23. So that's something to be excited about. Abby and I played the first one together and had quite a bit of fun doing so--and hey, any video game that's fun for both the semi-gamer husband and the non-gamer wife is a worthwhile investment! Nintendo has also promised us a new Zelda title before the year is out.

Towards the end of this month we should see some new content in Left 4 Dead 2--a new campaign called The Passing that will bring the survivors of the original Left 4 Dead in as non-playable characters. With it comes a new assault rifle (M60), a new melee weapon (the golf club), a new uncommon infected (the infected survivor, who drops health and ammo when you kill him), a new slew of achievements, and--if I'm not mistaken--a new as-yet-undisclosed gameplay mode. A month after that, there will be an add-on to the original L4D that serves as a prologue to the DLC for the sequel.

And last but not least, one of the most poorly-named games I've ever played has a sequel coming out this month with an even more ungainly name. That's right, the follow up to Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II is going to be called Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II: Chaos Rising.

B'der...

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Thursday, February 25, 2010

Don't Want No Short, Short Film

Over the weekend, Abby and I watched a collection of Oscar nominated animated short films. Here are my reactions:

French Roast - a man in a cafe loses his wallet. Wacky hijinks ensue. I was a little underwhelmed--it was well enough animated, but the moral of the story seemed to be that if you're a douchebag who behaves irresponsibly (by, say, ordering dozens of cups of coffee to cover for the fact that you don't have money to pay for the first), then you will be saved by a twist of fate involving a bum and an old lady who robs banks.

The Lady and the Reaper - an old lady is anxious to rejoin her late husband in heaven, but is revived by a zealous young doctor. Death and the doctor feud over the lady's soul. Wacky hijinks ensue. This one had an old-school Tom & Jerry vibe, which was fun, and there were some amusing character moments (Death has a 3-headed poodle), but it felt pretty shallow, at the end of the day.

A Matter of Loaf and Death - by far the longest of the short films, this one featuring those lovable scamps Wallace and Gromit. There's a mystery, a bakery, some inventions, a love interest... It was thoroughly enjoyable, although the pacing felt a bit uneven. But it ended with a bang and some wacky hijinks. Oh yeah, it will almost certainly win the Oscar, not because it was the best film, but because it's well-made, familiar, etc, etc, etc.

Granny O' Grimm's Sleeping Beauty - in which an old lady scare's the piss out of her granddaughter with a telling of the classic fairy tale that is sympathetic to the villain, an older fairy with a bum knee who resented not being invited to the party. It's fairly clever and the animation is interesting, but the film suffered for its voice acting. The voice of Granny O' Grimm and the design of the character were oddly mismatched--the voice having the air of a younger woman faking an older woman's brogue.

There were some other films mixed in to pad the running time (and thereby justify the ticket price), all of them honorable mentions. This included the underwhelming Partly Cloudy that preceded Pixar's Up in theaters, a Canadian film called Runaway that was fanny if a bit cynical, and a Polish film called The Kinematograph, that is perhaps the most self-congratulatory bit of tripe I've seen since Battlefield Earth. But, at last, after a warning about content, we got the final film of the program.

Logorama - no wacky hijinks here. It takes place in a world completely constructed from corporate logos. The telephone poles are T-Mobile logos, the people are AOL or Bic Pen logos, the main bad guy is Ronald McDonald, who steals a truck full of weapons and takes a Big Boy hostage. There are spectacular car chases, disasters, wild animals (including the MGM logo) running through the streets. The police are all Michelin men. The story could come from any gritty, hard-boiled action movie, but it's a cartoon in which every character, location, and background is a recognizable product. It was at once the most realistic and surreal film of the entire show.

It was jarring, funny, unsettling and thought-provoking, and it's my pick for the Oscar (even though it's going to lose to Wallace & Gromit). I hate to spoil it, so find a way to see it if you can (it'll show up on YouTube before too long).

Then again, maybe Logorama wasn't the "best", per se. Maybe it just appealed to my bizarre, twisted sense of humor. After all, my favorite animated short film ever was a little Polish gem called Fallen Art that is bizarre and twisted to say the least.

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