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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