Monday, November 23, 2009

To Ride or Not To Ride

Ever since their inception, the whole point of video games has been to recreate a virtual world in which one could do things one normally wouldn't (nor couldn't) do.  Squashing Goombas, bombing dodongos, rushing Zerg; if any of these phrases make any sort of sense to you, then I'm sure you've spent you're fair share of time behind a controller or keyboard.  Anyway, the point is, video games were created to allow us to do the impossible in a virtual environment.  Of course, this didn't stop some developers from trying to create as realistic an experiences as humanly possible.

Which brings us to the topic of today's little temper tantrum.  Tony Hawk Ride.  If you're not familiar with the series, it's a skateboarding series in which you traverse various environments on a skateboard, searching for that ever elusive perfect score by performing tricks, stringing together combos, and generally goofing around on a skateboard.  The series began as purely trick-based, but as the franchise went on, it began to delve further and further into the ridiculous (particularly in Tony Hawk's Underground 2, in which the Jackass crew hijacked the entire game and all but ruined everything great about the first Underground).

Ride, the most recent installment, is apparently seeking to take things back to basics with perhaps the most pointless of all gaming peripherals.

It's a wireless, board-shaped controller that's essentially a skateboard without wheels.  There are sensors lining every corner of the board, which control your skater based on your own movements.  This seems like a simple enough concept (and frankly, one I'm surprised they haven't resorted to sooner), but what concerns me is execution.  Now, I'll admit, I haven't actually tried this thing yet.  I'm not about to drop $120 on a game franchise that hasn't seen a decent installment in six years.  ...Okay, Project 8 wasn't bad.

Anyway, just from looking at this thing, I can guess that the entire game must be predicated on the player's own hand-eye-foot coordination.  I imagine a veteran skateboarder like, say, Tony Hawk might be pretty good at this game.  A guy like me, who can't walk six steps without tripping over a pine cone, might have a bit of a problem.  And if the actual reviews are any indication, my assessment is perfectly accurate.  IGN refers to the game as the "skateboarding equivalent of button-mashing."  What appears to require a good bit of finesse to perfect is, in fact, a chore for the casual player and, to some extent, the hardcore gamer.  In essence, this makes Tony Hawk Ride the rare hardcore game that is only playable to someone who's hardcore at something other than gaming.

But my quibble isn't so much with the controls as the board itself.  In theory, it's not that bad an idea.  I mean, we already have fishing rods for fishing games and steering wheels for racing games, so why not a skateboard for a skateboarding game?  Well, does anyone remember an arcade game called Top Skater?

This game first appeared in arcades in 1997, and I vividly remember wasting many a dollar in an effort to figure the damn thing out.  Functionally, the two games operate the same way.  You're asked to control a stationary facsimile of a moving skateboard.  The problem with this approach is two-fold.

First, you have to maneuver the board the same way you would in real life, only in this instance the physics involved are completely different.  The primary agent involved in real skateboarding is momentum.  With Ride and Top Skater, though, it's imperative that you stay in one place.  Ride does, at least, have an advantage over Top Skater, in that it's operation is based on motion-sensors rather than mechanics.  The problem still stands, though, that you're being asked to manipulate the board in more or less the same way that you might in real life.  And you're just as likely to awkwardly trip over the board as you are to pull the tricks off effectively.  Again, it comes back to experience.  If you already know how to do this, then you're in no need of any tutorial.

Secondly, it dictates the style of gameplay.  Tony Hawk Ride's casual mode is essentially a souped-up version of Top Skater.  You're character is on-rails, so to speak, being thrust through the course by the invisible hand of Mr. Hawk himself.  According to the reviews, the free-roaming modes of the game are nigh unplayable precisely due to the awkwardness of mimicking the action of skateboarding.

Again, having not played it, I really couldn't say for myself.  So what's my point, then?  I'm not sure, exactly.  You could probably dig out a thesis for this post if you tried hard enough, but I guess what I'm more concerned with is that this once great gaming franchise has been reduced to pulling stunts like asking $120 for a gimmicky controller and a half-assed game.  It's not enough to pretend to be skateboarding.  They now want us to pay double price to pretend to pretend to skateboard.

Complain, complain, complain.....

Monday, November 16, 2009

Zombie Haiku Zen

Last month, I entered a zombie haiku contest.  Didn't think I'd win.  Multiple entries were allowed, so said the site's editor, so I sent in five.  Checked my email this morning and lo and behold I 'd won the contest.  The prize was a signed copy of this book, written by FoG's own Don Roff.  I don't know if they'll publish my zombie haiku, so I'll just post 'em:

The shamblers approach.
I cock my rifle once more,
And it's out of shells...

When bullets dry up
and the gasoline is gone,
just use a pick-axe!

"This is too much fun!"
Mike said, hacking up two more.
I think he needs help...

Cities deserted,
They've eaten everyone else.
A farm life awaits.

Dear God, it can't be...
First they learned to congregate,
Now they're on horseback!

And there you have it; five haiku about zombies that won me a book.  Also, just for fun, this entire post can be read as several haiku.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Food That Will Kill Me: The Twinkie Weiner Sandwich

In the world of junk food, there is a legend.  A concoction so equally beloved and reviled, that a simple google search will bring up hundreds of sites from people detailing their experience with the monstrosity.  I'm speaking, of course, of the Twinkie Weiner Sandwich.  Because I'm a glutton for punishment, as well as shitty food, I thought I'd try out this culinary disaster for myself.  And because I refuse to simply make one, eat it, and then tell you about it, we're going to treat it like an experiment!

1.  Define the Question: What does a Twinkie Weiner Sandwich taste like?

2.  Gather Information:  The most notable appearance of this nightmare fuel comes from the 1989 cult classic UHF.  Thanks to the powers of YouTube, we can watch Weird Al Yankovic himself prepare such a feast.

Seems straightforward enough.

3.  Form a Hypothesis:  The Twinkie Weiner Sandwich is the most disgusting invention ever to spring forth from Satan's gaping maw.

4.  Collect Data:  First thing's first.  You'll need the ingredients:

A pack of hotdogs, cheez whiz, and a box of Twinkies.  Serves eight (or nobody, depending on who you ask).  For the purposes of this experiment, and because I may not live that long, we're only going to prepare one.
Wrap the hotdog in a paper towel and microwave for one minute.  The hotdog may whistle and generally sound like a lobster screaming bloody murder, but this is normal.  It's just the hotdog splitting in half.


Next, split the Twinkie in half from underneath, in the shape of a hotdog bun.  You could probably just do this with your hands or a butter knife, but I decided to take the Tim Taylor approach.  WARNING: DO NOT LICK THE KNIFE WHEN YOU'RE DONE.


 Place the hotdog inside the Twinkie.
Next, apply the cheez whiz as desired.  I imagine you could replace cheez whiz with your condiment of choice, but I also can't imagine anything actually making this abomination any better.  If I had to guess at a more suitable replacement, I'd say...marshmallow cream?  Maybe?
And now we enjoy the fruits of the Devil's Workshop.  The only thing we're not going to follow Weird Al on is dipping the Twinkie Weiner Sandwich in coffee.  Ugh.
5. Analyze the Data:  The first bite yields surprising results.  It's not quite the abomination I was fearing it might be.  The intense sugar overload of the Twinkie is balanced out by the equally high sodium content of the hotdog and cheez whiz.  The result is a surprisingly smooth sandwich thatOH GOD MY INSIDES ARE SCREAMING!!!!!


 (Hours later)  I felt it necessary to at least finish eating the Twinkie Weiner Sandwich, which was a bit of a chore, as it was firmly in the middle of the food spectrum, between inedible and delicious. 
6. Interpret the Data:  After the first bite sank in, things pretty much went south.  Compared to the taste, which was surprisingly not awful, my stomach reacted with a series of pangs and gurgles which would probably translate to "What the Hell is all this???"  The digestion process is accompanied by a wave of terror that can only be explained as the body's fight-or-flight response to the hardening of one's arteries.  Once it was all gone, there was only one thing that could cleanse the palate:

7. Draw Conclusions:  I do not recommend this disgusting thing to anyone.  I fail to see how anyone, least of all Weird Al Yankovic, can stomach such garbage.

Friday, July 10, 2009

LiveBlogging Call of Duty 4

A couple days ago, I used my Twitter feed to liveblog my thoughts on Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. Since it was the first time I'd either A) played a Call of Duty game or B) liveblogged anything, I thought it might be fun to recount my limited thoughts on what was supposedly one of the best games of 2007/2008. For my part, I enjoyed it, and might do it again if the mood strikes. Who knows, maybe I'll turn it into a running series?

Just started playing Call of Duty 4. Never played one of these before. First impression: Why play Syriana when I could just watch the DVD?

3:28 PM: Wait...I just witnessed a tertiary character's execution from a first person perspective? WTF?

3:45 PM:
The "Protect person X" mission is the clear sign that a game has run out of ideas. This is only level 2.

3:47 PM:
Third world country? Helicopters? Are we ripping off Black Hawk Down already??

3:49 PM:
I love how I unlock achievements for doing things that the game requires me to do anyway.

3:58 PM:
Wait... "1/30 of enemy intelligence retrieved"? Is this a fetch quest?? (Edit: It wasn't.)

4:09 PM:
I love how for all of CoD4's supremely impressive graphics, 90% of the shrapnel flying around is still crappy 2D sprites.

4:31 PM:
Stuck in a firefight at some TV station. No snarky comment for now.

4:37 PM:
The game's strict "Friendly fire is bad" restriction apparently only applies to officers. Privates are fair game. Good to know.

5:11 PM:
The game just quoted Robert McNamara; reminded me that he died a couple days ago. Guess I'll play this one for him today.

Early on, I made the mistake of convincing the game I was up to playing on hard mode. Eventually, I got a little too into the game and ended up getting stuck on a number of levels where, if I played the level for too long, I'd forget what I was even supposed to be doing. Suffice it to say, liveblogging was no longer the priority.

This all culminated in a mission called "One Shot, One Kill", where I botch an assassination, only to have to flee from a city's worth of soldiers with a wounded douchebag of a partner in tow. At level's end, you're tasked with holing up inside a fairground (ferris wheel and bumper cars and all), waiting for the chopper to pick you up, all the while wave upon wave of enemy soldiers keep trying to pick you off. Thanks to "Hard Mode", I got stuck on this level for a good 3 hours before giving up and taking the game back to the store with the excuse that it was 'defective'.

Stupid Call of Duty...

Sunday, June 7, 2009

21st Century Uplifter

I want to share with you a story about my most adventure in buying music.  This story takes place in a Best Buy, partly because they've driven out every Mom-n-Pop music store in town, but mostly because it's where I buy most of my music anyway.

Anyway, I went to Best Buy with the intent of picking up one of two new albums from two bands that I've grown up listening to: Green Day's 21st Century Breakdown or 311's Uplifter.  Shut up, I like what I like.  The buzz surrounding the new Green Day album has been deafening.  It seemed like everywhere I looked someone was raving about it (Rob Sheffield's review seems particularly delusional), and I was already kinda sick of the constant pounding and shouting of "Know Your Enemy".  So I went into the store with two strikes against that one.

On the other hand, "Hey You" is easily the best new 311 song I've heard in five or six years.  So that's one point for 311.  The downside is that it seems no matter how hard I look, I can't find anything written about Uplifter.  Even Rolling Stone is ignoring this one, and they review everything.  So that wasn't really a good sign.  One strike against it.

Once I got to the store, my decision was pretty much made for me.  Best Buy was ALL SOLD OUT of 21st Century Breakdown, unless I wanted to buy the super-deluxe version or the LP for an extra ten bucks.  I didn't.  That sealed the deal for me.  I went to grab a copy of Uplifter, only to find that seemingly nobody had bought the dozens of copies Best Buy had.  Doesn't surprise me; nobody is promoting it, and "Hey You"'s been getting minimal radio play at best.

As a Green Day fan going all the way back to Nimrod, it kills me to say that 21st Century Breakdown is just going to have to wait.  Instead I bought Uplifter and was pleasantly surprised at it.  An album this diverse and enjoyable deserves to be heard by more people.  

So I'd like to say thank you to all the teenagers out there.  You made my purchase decision that much easier.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Crank: High Voltage

Not every movie is for every audience. That's a pretty well understood fact. Probably no other film in recent memory exemplifies that fact better than Crank: High Voltage, a film that takes every wacky excess of the original Crank, dials it up to eleven, and then sets the whole thing on fire just for kicks.

So if you've seen the poster, you pretty much know the story. Chev Chelios (Jason Statham) died. But then he got better. After falling from a helicopter at the end of the first film and bouncing off a car, Chev is scraped off the pavement by the Asian mafia. He wakes up a couple months later in a crappy operating room with an artificial heart and his own in a cooler halfway across town. The movie then follows Chev as he rampages across Los Angeles, searching for the man who stole his heart and attempting to keep his body charged any and every way possible.

The first thing to note about Crank 2 is that everybody from the original is back. And I DO mean everybody. There are cameos out the wazoo; even Efren Ramirez is back playing the psychotic twin brother of his character from the first film (and just because his character was apparently not crazy enough, they decided to give him "full body Tourette's"). The movie is full of bizarre callbacks to the first film. There are more crazy 'juicing up' sequences; there's another weird public sex scene; ridiculous escapes and shootouts; it's all here. Crank: High Voltage is pretty much everything one might expect from a sequel to a movie like Crank.

But is it a better film? Not really. Sure, it's loads more fun, it's crazier, and a hell of a lot funnier. But it doesn't really build on the foundation of the original, just continues it's mad descent into lunacy. For me, the climactic fight scene felt like a bit of a letdown. Then again, when your first film ends with the hero and villian falling out of a helicopter, you're gonna be hard pressed to top that. But damn, if they don't try. Depending on your taste for over the top, cartoony action, the final shot of the film will either leave you disgusted or laughing your ass off. I fell into the latter.

There's so much about Crank: High Voltage that I want to talk about, but I feel like mentioning any of it might spoil it for anyone else. Suffice it to say, the trailers only show a fraction of the strange things you'll encounter in this film. With an equally twisted musical score composed by Mike Patton, Crank: High Voltage moves and spazzes out like a speed freak in a candy store, and if you enjoyed the first film at all, you'll definitely get a kick outta this one. Is it great filmmaking? No. But writer/directors Neveldine and Taylor and Jason Statham know exactly what they're doing, and it's one of the most fun, aggressive, and wacked out action films ever made.

Four stars (****) out of five.

And just for fun, here's a bit of Mike Patton's score:

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Observe and Report

If Judd Apatow is the proprietor of today's "Idiot manchildren growing up" comedies, NC native Jody Hill is making a name for himself with a series of "Idiot manchildren being reinforced" comedies.  Ronnie Barnhardt (Seth Rogen) feels like he could be the equally disturbed younger brother of The Foot Fist Way's Fred Simmons.  But whereas Fred seemed to at least learn something from his ordeal, Ronnie's creepy worldview is not only vindicated, but frighteningly encouraged.

Ronnie is the head of security at a New Mexico shopping mall.  He spends his days pining for the use of a six-shooter while on duty, as well as Brandi (Anna Faris), the girl who works the cosmetics counter.  When a flasher starts terrorizing the mall (and the audience) with his dangly member, Ronnie takes it upon himself and his team to hunt the flasher down and protect Brandi.

What follows is Ronnie taking advantage of the situation to go on one ridiculous ego trip after another and to woo Brandi (seemingly by force).  The film is more of a disturbed character study than a plot-driven comedy.  It does bear a lot in common with The Foot Fist Way, especially in watching our hero's well-being continuously put to the test, often with violent results.  It's a film that almost forces you to root for Ronnie, because in the real world we'd probably hate this guy.

Ultimately, it's this aspect of the film that will either make or break it for you.  If you're willing to forgive some of Ronnie's more violent excesses and impulses, you'll probably have a fun afternoon at the movies.  On the other hand, you may find yourself aghast at Ronnie's behavior, especially once the real detective (Ray Liotta) arrives onto the scene, much to Ronnie's chagrin.  It's a credit to Seth Rogen that the central character's performance is as strong as it is, because the film that he finds himself in is really pretty flimsy.  

Just like with his previous film, Jody Hill seems far more interested in character than he is in plot.  The film ultimately suffers from having almost nothing to do, leaving Rogen to invent shenanigans for Ronnie to get into (the increasingly quiet shouting match with a fellow mall employee: priceless).  There are some great laughs along the way, but the film can't overcome its lack of structure to be anything other than a curiosity.  Which is a shame, because Ronnie's character arc is surprisingly strong.  It's fun seeing Seth Rogen actually play a character other than himself for once, but the film surrounding him is largely unimpressive.  Observe and Report is certainly funny, but a strong central performance does not a good film make.  

Three stars (***) out of five.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Back from the Past!

If you've ever been to Universal Studios-Orlando (pre-2007), you probably know the geeky fun of going on the Back to the Future ride. It sat along the northeastern edge of the park, housed in a huge building dubbed the Institute of Future Technology. Outside, you could get your picture taken with Doc Brown's DeLorean and um... Time...Train...thing. You know, the train from the end of Part III. I know I got my picture taken with the DeLorean when I was a kid, but I'm afraid that picture's been lost to time.

Anyway, the ride closed two years ago this week (March 30, 2007) to make way for, of all things, a ride based on The Simpsons. Of all the things that could possibly replace the Back to the Future ride, this was far from the worst, but still somewhat heartbreaking. The Simpsons isn't even a Universal property, what business do they have replacing Back to the freaking Future??

Well, what's done is done, and not you, nor I, nor anyone else will get to chase Biff through the past, the future, and elsewhere ever again. But the ride is not completely gone. Apparently all of the ride footage can be found on the newest edition of the Back to the Future DVD (still waiting on a blu-ray...). That's pretty cool. I'm sure if you thrashed yourself around on your couch like an idiot, you could replicate the feel of the ride...

But the entire point of this post is that I just discovered this on YouTube. Apparently, while standing in line for the Simpsons ride, you can see one of the video screens directly reference the fact that a Back to the Future ride once stood there:

How cool is that? And yes, that's Christopher Lloyd, still voicing Doc Brown at the age of 70. Wow, is he really that old?

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Flea Market Finds #1

Oh, the countless wonderful things you can find at a flea market. I've fallen into the habit of heading out to the NC State Fairgrounds every Saturday afternoon to sift through the mass of junk and whatnots to see what I can find. In particular, I keep an eye out for derelict video games and their respective consoles. Two weeks ago I came away with a fully functional Super NES.

Today, I poked through one particular booth, when I came across some older Super NES carts. All of them sports titles, not worth the plastic they're made out of. Underneath the table, though I saw a box. Poking out of the box was the top of an NES joystick.

"I'll give you a dollar for this joystick," I said to the owner of the booth.
"Hell," he said, "I'll give you the whole box for a dollar."

So I came home with my prize. Not entirely sure what it was I'd just paid for. All I knew was that I'd scored an NES QuickShot for a dollar. Good enough for me. Once I got home, I unloaded the box and found the following:

This. I paid one dollar, one hunderd pennies, for this. Let's take a closer look.

Near as I can figure it, there's two PC joysticks, two Super NES sticks, two Atari 2600 sticks, a PSX fishing rod, and an NES QuickShot. Now, I really have no use for half of these, but I'm sure I can hawk these elsewhere and make a profit (I mean, geez, I paid a dollar for all these). The PC joysticks might be dumpster fodder, though.

Ah, this. I'd have paid several dollars for one of these guys. What's best is, this looks to be in nearly perfect condition. Now I can play Game Boy games on my Super NES on my flatscreen TV! This is all more or less what I was most interested in. But wait! There's more...

I'm not sure if this is supposed to be a cutting board or not. Doesn't really matter, because I fully intend on using it as such. Underneath it is some kind of poster of Franklin College (beats me) of unknown age.

Hmm. There's a picture inside of George Burns posing with no less than ten Las Vegas showgirls. This might actually be worth a read.

Hah! See what they've done there? They've taken all the 'Joy' out of the Joy of Cooking and replaced it with 'Soy'! Ho ho! ...ugh.

Um...hmm. These appear to be candles, and I'd wager they both are liquor scented, though I sincerely hope not. Not that I really have any intention of burning them. Then there's the tin, which I'm not sure what to make of. Is it an old tobacco tin? An old shaving cream tin? What? Beats me.

Also in the box was an ancient dashboard cassette player, a CD titled "Yellowman Sings the Blues", yet another game controller whose origin and use is completely unknown to me, and an apron. Now, I have no idea what I'm going to do with all this other stuff. The books and the CD I can probably hawk at a second hand store or just donate to Goodwill or something. Otherwise, I'm sure the guy was just glad somebody paid him so they could throw his junk away from him.

Oh well. I wonder what I'll find next week...

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

North Carolina: The Bucket State

This morning, I heard one of the most depressing, disturbing and all together strangest radio ads I've ever heard in my life.

It begins with these two vaguely familiar voices discussing all the things they want to do before they die. It then becomes apparent that these two voices are middling impersonations of Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson, and that whatever they're pitching is pitched under the guise of a reference to The Bucket List.

So they're listing off all these things that are on their bucket lists, then all of a sudden a third, unrelated voice says something along the lines of "You can experience all these things, and everything else on your bucket list, right here in North Carolina."


If you're trying to advertise this state and all the great things one might do here, why on Earth would you want to associate it with a film -- not even a particularly good one -- all about death and dying? Why not make your slogan something like: "Make North Carolina your final destination?" Or maybe: "Take a Bucket Trip to Tarheel country!" Or better yet...

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Basic Cable Breakdown

I would review the two movies I saw over the weekend, but instead I feel like I need to write about something that's been bugging me for far too long. I'm not sure where to begin, so I'll just jump right into the quagmire.

Right now, AMC has two Emmy award winning shows: Mad Men and Breaking Bad. TV Land occasionally shows movies. MTV rarely ever shows actual music videos (or music anything) anymore. Cartoon Network has a number of live action shows in rotation. TNT (of "We Know Drama" fame) occasionally runs comedies. TBS (of "Very Funny" fame) occasionally shows action movies. Seeing a pattern here?

I can remember a time when cable networks actually stuck to their central concept. MTV and VH1 ran music videos, or at least shows about music. AMC ran nothing but American Movies (generally the Classics). TV Land played nothing but old TV shows. The Weather Channel only reported the weather.

When exactly did cable networks decide it was ok to program their schedules counter to their own demographic? It seems as though the trend began with the advent of reality television. I've done little research to confirm this, but near as I can guess, this entire trend started when MTV unveiled one of the most poorly named shows on television: The Real World. In theory, the idea is a sound one. Cherry-pick a diverse handful off MTV's most loyal viewers, force them to live together and capture the ensuing drama for all the world to see.

Then something started happening. The show took off, ratings grew, and the network started rolling out similar reality shows. More or less the same thing happened to a number of other networks. Even channels like The Discovery Channel aren't immune to this. As entertaining as shows like Survivorman, Deadliest Catch, and Cash Cab (technically a gameshow, but whatever) are, there's little getting around the fact that these are reality programs repurposed as documentary/infotainment.

Several networks have this problem, some moreso than others. FOX frequently shuffles around it's original programming to make room for sports programming and reality TV shows. It's meant the death knell for many a unique series. But that's an argument I surely don't need to dig back up.

The other culprit in diluting the programming pool is the easy out that is the motion picture. Got a gap in your schedule? Stick in xXx, Blazing Saddles, Groundhog Day, or one of hundreds of films doomed to wander the basic cable wasteland for all eternity. It doesn't seem to matter anymore if a given film has anything to do with the network it's airing on. AMC, a network whose initials once actually stood for American Movie Classics, now airs 21st century garbage like Catwoman, Reign of Fire, and Ocean's Twelve. And if it's not something recent, it's an older film that nobody in their right mind would ever consider a classic. Sure, a decent film slips in every once in a while, but more often than not it's Hellfighters followed by Terminator 3 followed by a marathon of Breaking Bad.

I guess what I'm basically trying to get at here is that in diluting a network's central selling point, many of these channels are starting to run together. Instead of having separate channels for sci-fi, education, or anything even vaguely manly, you might as well just watch Spike. There, you can get your fix of Star Wars, MANswers, pro wrestling, et al. Gone are days of a dedicated network. There's just no such thing anymore as a channel dedicated to airing nothing but old TV shows that actually shows old TV shows.

The closest you can get these days are TCM, VH1-Classic, ESPN-Cl....You know what? Pretty much anything with 'classic' in its name goes without saying. These networks basically work off the notion that you want to watch what you've been watching for years. And I do. Sure, it's fine if the programs themselves change, so long as the format stays the same. If you want consistency in a TV network, you're best bets are ESPN, QVC, The Weather Channel, pretty much any channel without actual original programming. At least then you can be sure that they'll never try to shoehorn in reality TV or tangentially related movies.

You should probably take everything I've just said with a pretty large grain of salt. I don't really watch all that much TV in the first place. Though it's mostly because of the very things I've been talking about here. So....yeah.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Warner Bros. Owns (Some of) You

So last night, thanks to the kind folks at the SXSW film festival and, I watched Josh Koury's documentary We Are Wizards. It's a fun little documentary; not very well structured, but it paints an interesting picture. Most people might watch this and see how a book can change a person's life. And while that's certainly one of the themes running throughout the film, I feel like I came away with something a tad more sinister.

If you want to get technical, yeah, that's pretty much what the movie's about. But look at the individual case studies they present. Graphic artist and uber-funnyman Brad Neely loved the movies so much that he created his own fake book-on-tape version: Wizard People, Dear Reader. A couple of guys in a toolshed created a tribute band, dubbing themselves Harry and the Potters. A pair of kids, inspired by the band, create their own Harry Potter music. Melissa Anelli, proprietor of The Leaky Cauldron, a Potter fansite, takes it upon herself to chronicle the experience of living in the middle of the Harry Potter phenomenon. Other tales are told, but the idea eventually emerges that JK Rowling's series is the primary catalyst in these people's lives, and without it they'd be seemingly lost.

Again, you could argue that the film sort of becomes a thesis on the positive effects of fan culture. Maybe this is just the cynic in me, but I kinda see it as a cautionary tale about how consumer culture has irrevocably implanted itself into people's lives. Not even a cautionary tale. That would imply that it hasn't happened yet. But it has. Without Harry Potter, the unifying catalyst in these people's lives would be gone. This documentary wouldn't even exist. Late in the film, Neely makes the observation that without Wizard People, he'd never have landed a job working for [adult swim]. And of all the people that the film highlights, he comes across as the one person who truly gets how ingrained pop culture is in his life, and everyone else's.

There's no doubting it, the corporations have already won. Chances are, if you're a Harry Potter fan, Warner Bros. already has your money. When the Potter theme park opens, you'll probably go. The same is true for any company. McDonald's, Microsoft, Disney, Viacom, etc. Our ultimate choice, as consumers, is the corporation with which to align ourselves. You can support Warner Bros. by going to see the next Harry Potter movie; you can support Viacom by watching MTV or going to see Transformers 2; you can support Nintendo by buying a Wii instead of an Xbox 360. And so on. And so on. And so on.

I know that sounds pretty grim, but isn't that what's ultimately at the heart of fan culture these days? Without the artist, there'd be no intellectual property. Without the corporation, there'd be no promoting the intellectual property to potential viewers. Without the viewers, there'd be no fan culture. Sure, the fans do have some say in what gets support and what doesn't, but when it comes to the point where the fans are so starved for more that they start bending the property inward and regurgitating it themselves, where does that leave us?

Look, I support fandoms. I've been a Star Wars fan for years upon years. I own my fair share of X-Men action figures. As I type this, I'm wearing a Blue Sun t-shirt. I get it. You become a fan and you wanna show your support. That's awesome. But what I don't get is the gi-normous fan fiction community, the cosplayers, the people who make it their life's work to take their fandom of choice and attempt to make it as palpably real as possible. I just don't understand it. I respect it, but I don't get it.

Why not use that very same motivation to try and create something new? Why not create something that others might one day build a fan community around? That's the thing that gets me about We Are Wizards. The film shows us all these people who've been influenced by Harry Potter to go out and create, and yet the only person who seems able to acquit himself of the books (or in his case the films) is Brad Neely. Melissa Anelli, webmistress of The Leaky Cauldron, comes close as well. However, even though she's branched out and written her own book, that book is still a reflection of the Hary Potter fan community.

I don't know. It feels as though the film addresses this problem, however subtle that address might be, but never ventures to suggest any solutions. Well, it does, but it's in the form of a right-wing Christian naysayer, and it comes off as too obviously antagonistic. Sure, this is just a documentary about one particular fandom, but I never read any of this into films like Trekkies or Ringers or Heart of an Empire or Done the Impossible. I'm not trying to suggest that the problem is exclusive to Harry Potter, because it absolutely isn't. I'm just wondering why nobody's bothered tackling the issue before now.

Ok, I'm going to just shut up now before my fandom license gets revoked.

Saturday, March 7, 2009


Possible spoilers ahead. Fair warning.

My initial gut reaction to Watchmen was a strange one. It is a good film, I definitely appreciated how they adapted most of the material. Parts of the film I felt worked fantastically. Other parts, not so much. While it's an easy film to appreciate, it is definitely not an easy one to enjoy. Like the book, the film is a dark, almost mournful thesis on the state and direction of our civilization. Overall, Watchmen is a very difficult film, and one that refuses to be dismissed lightly. And I think that's a good thing. One thing director Zack Snyder certainly cannot be accused of is selling the film's soul to Hollywood. The heart of the film is very much intact and, as anyone who's read the book can tell you, that heart is a heavy, distressed, and disconcerting heart.

The film takes place in an alternate universe where masked vigilantes are a matter of fact. The timeline delineates with the arrival of Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), a physicist granted immeasurable powers thanks to an experiment that goes haywire. Thanks to Dr. Manhattan, and the presence of other crimefighters, Richard Nixon is still president (in the film's present, 1985), the US won the Vietnam War, and is inching ever closer to nuclear war with Russia. That's the climate in which the film's story takes place.

The plot proper revolves around Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), a sociopathic crimefighter investigating the murder of his colleague The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). Their team, Watchmen, have long since disbanded and fallen out of practice, but The Comedian's murder, prompts Rorschach, along with his fellow Watchmen -- Nite Owl/Dan Drieberg (Patrick Wilson), Ozymandias/Adrien Viedt (Matthew Goode), Silk Spectre/Laurie Jupiter (Malin Ackerman), and Dr. Manhattan -- to solve the case before World War III erupts.

Of course, this is the briefest possible description of what takes place in the film's 163 minutes. The film takes great pains to incorporate as much of the graphic novel's dense material as it possibly can. And just like with Lord of the Rings, many fan favorites had to be left out. Dr. Long, Rorschach's psychiatrist, is present, but his story is not. Bernard and Bernie, newsstand vendor and comic reader are present, but again, their story is not. "Tales of the Black Freighter", the comic Bernie reads in Watchmen, is nowhere to be seen (though, to be fair, it will be released in the coming weeks and reinserted in the film on DVD). There are many other parts of the book that are alluded to, but never given full consideration.

The film works perfectly fine without any of these things, though I might argue that it loses a bit of the flavor that made the book such a rich experience. Then again, Zack Snyder and his team acquit themselves well of creating their own rich experience. Whereas Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons used the book as an opportunity to play with the telling of a comic story, Snyder pushed a few filmic boundaries, and brings the story to life in a way that only a film can. The greatest example of this is in the opening credits, a sequence in which we see the entire history of masked vigilantes in a series of moving tableaus, from rise and fall of the Minutemen of 1940 to the formation and eventual collapse of the Watchmen, all set to Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A-changin'". It's a wonderful way of bringing image and song together to create new meaning but, sadly, the film rarely reaches such heights again.

Thematically, the concepts that Moore dealt with in his story are all mostly present and accounted for. The problem is that Snyder only presents them, never following through and exploring them. We get that each of the masked crimefighters have their own demons, that none of them (even Dr. Manhattan) are perfect, but it's left to the viewer to decide what any of it means. Snyder's film feels like a teenager retelling the comic's story but never quite grasping what Alan Moore was trying to say. Is the murderous, yet righteous, Rorschach supposed to be the film's moral center? Are Ozymandias and Dr. Manhattan right in their assessment of mankind? Or should we side with Dan and Laurie and just try to concentrate on our own lives? In refusing to take sides, the film comes across as sort of nihilistic, even afraid to commit to one ideology. Then again, the same can be argued of Moore's original story.

The ultimate conundrum is that this is a lot of baggage for what is being marketed as a $100+ million action movie. People going into the film expecting more of the same from "The visionary director of 300 and Dawn of the Dead" are in for a rude awakening. Yes, there is quite a bit of action and gore. Yes, the film has a fantastic aesthetic to it. And yes, it's every bit as successful in its adaptation as Snyder's previous films. But rather than being energetic, Watchmen plays out more like a requiem to a genre that may have seen it's last hurrah.

Ok, ok. I've talked a lot about the big issues surrounding Watchmen. And you've probably guessed that I found a lot to enjoy about the film. So, in a nutshell, what works? Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach. The visual effects. Snyder's choice of pop songs for key scenes. The (mostly) slavish faithfulness to the book.

What doesn't work? For one, I can't tell if the aging makeup on Richard Nixon and Sally Jupiter (Carla Gugino) was meant to be cartoony or not. It's painfully obvious. Like most people, I think the plot falls short in the final 15 minutes. The change made to the film's big twist may be less ridiculous, but that doesn't mean it works any better. It raises its own red flags and illogicalities that are just too big to ignore. Also, the film is long, and occasionally feels it. Even if you've read the book, you may find yourself waiting for the next action beat, because certain scenes just seem to drag.

Overall, Watchmen is a faithful adaptation to what was once considered an unfilmable book. Given the legal struggles, narrative hurdles, and numerous false starts over the years, it's a small miracle that the film even exists in the first place. It is definitely a sight to behold, and an experience that I look forward to having again soon. However, it is not at all uplifting or life affirming. It's a brave film with a morally ambiguous ending, and even though the ending might not be great, the journey to get there is thought-provoking and engaging.

Watchmen is definitely not for everyone. Those with a strong stomach, a keen eye for detail, and a working knowledge of literature (not just comics) will get more out of Watchmen than those just looking for a good superhero yarn.

4 stars (****) out of five.

Friday, February 27, 2009


Potential spoilers ahead. Fair warning.

The late 1990s were a special time to be a Star Wars fan. The original trilogy was re-released in theaters. Sure, the additions Lucas made varied in quality. But more than that, there were rumblings of the absolutely unheard of. For the first time in fifteen years, it sounded like there might actually be a new movie -- no, a new trilogy -- on the way. Back then, we didn't know what to expect. There was no inkling in anyone's mind that the eventual trilogy would feature Hayden Christensen complaining about sand or Liam Neeson ruining the magic of The Force. Hindsight is 20/20, but back then you could've cut the anticipation with a vibro-axe.

That's what Kyle Newman's long in the works Fanboys is all about. It's 1998, and Star Wars fans are holding their collective breath for Episode One: The Phantom Menace. Four friends hatch a plan to break into Lucasfilm headquarters and steal a workprint of the film, and each of them has their own reason for making the journey. Eric (Sam Huntington) wants to make peace with his best friend, Linus, who's dying of cancer. Linus (Chris Marquette) wants to go because he won't live to see the May 19, 1999 release date. Windows (Jay Baruchel) wants to go for the chance to finally meet his online girlfriend. Hutch (Dan Fogler) wants to go because it's his van they're driving. And Zoe (Kristen Bell) tags along because the movie would be a total sausagefest otherwise.

What follows is pretty much your standard road trip comedy, albeit with a severe Star Wars bent. The film hits every road movie cliche, and wastes no time in geeking out at every opportunity. Along the way, the guys have run-ins with gay bikers, a gaggle of Trekkies led by Seth Rogen, geek guru Harry Knowles (badly caricatured by Ethan Suplee), and more celebrity cameos than you can shake a stick at.

A movie like Fanboys really lives and dies by it's Star Wars jokes. Honestly, it's about 50/50. For every good joke or visual gag, there are an equal number Star Wars lines quoted out of context that are clearly meant to be funny, but simply aren't. Referring to your friends by saying "These aren't the droids you're looking for"? Really? Come on. Granted, there is one line involving a doctor that's pretty great, but other than that I could really do without these. Also, from a Star Wars fanboy's perspective, the movie sometimes seems too generic. Whenever a character asks another character a piece of Star Wars trivia, it's embarrassingly easy. It makes one wonder if the writers are really Star Wars fans at all. You guys couldn't do a little more research?

And overall, that's my biggest complaint with Fanboys. It ultimately feels too light; like they could've delved a tad deeper into the fandom. I'm not asking that they make a bunch of weird, obscure references to the expanded universe or anything, but a little true fanboyism might gone a long way. Of course, there is a fine line to walk. Go too geeky and you risk alienating casual viewers who don't know an ewok from a cooking wok. To their credit, each of the main cast acquit themselves well, especially Dan Fogler, who looks and acts like the fat little brother Han Solo never had.

Much has been made of the "Linus has cancer" subplot, which Harvey Weinstein tried to cut out entirely a year ago. Star Wars fans went ballistic, boycotted Superhero Movie (how well did that really go over??), and got the subplot re-added. After all that mess, I'd say it was worth it. While it's remarkably light for such a depressing plot point, it works. It keeps the film firmly grounded as Eric and Linus' journey, rather than just about four dudes on a road trip. There is a decent payoff in the end, but it's almost entirely undercut when we learn what their initial feud was over in the first place.

Ultimately, Fanboys is sort of a "Star Wars fans only" affair, and while it doesn't have the R-rated teeth of a Sex Drive or even a Road Trip, it's definitely a fun little ode to the pursuits of one's youth. For fans, the movie is a nice reminder of the collective mindset of a decade ago. Even if you hated The Phantom Menace, you know you couldn't wait to see it. And if the movie has one ultimate success, it's in reminding us that Tom Petty was right. Waiting WAS the hardest part.

3.5 stars (***1/2) out of five.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Top Ten of 2008

It's February, and that means my one month grace period on culling together my list is officially over. So now, I've seen most of the Oscar bait, I've mulled it over, and I've come to my final decision on what I think are the best movies of 2008. You'll find that my list is genre-intensive, and that's primarily because I felt 2008 was the best year for genre cinema since 2005, perhaps even since 1989. Comic book films finally went legit, Dreamworks created a film every bit as dynamic and visually crisp as the best of PIXAR, and certain films did a wonderful job of highlighting the marginalia of populer culture.

As I've done in the past, I'll give you my 20-11 list, then count down from ten to one, explaining myself along the way.

20. In Bruges
19. Mongol
18. Frost/Nixon
17. Son of Rambow
16. Tropic Thunder
15. Man on Wire
14. Valkyrie
13. Burn After Reading
12. Quantum of Solace
11. Gran Torino

10. Kung Fu Panda - As great as WALL-E is, I find Kung Fu Panda the more purely entertaining film. It's got a gorgeous animation style; it's funny, never resorting to fart jokes or pop culture references; Hans Zimmer's score is one of the most dynamic and engaging scores of the year; Jack Black and Dustin Hoffman sell their characters remarkably well; and the action sequences are simply tremendous. Kung Fu Panda makes my #10 spot because it thoroughly surprised me. I was expecting to love WALL-E; I wasn't expecting anything from Kung Fu Panda.

9. Speed Racer - Perhaps the most misunderstood movie of 2008, I think Speed Racer is destined to reach Blade Runner-like heights of cult cinema. As cartoony as a lot of the movie is, the visual effects are a monster leap forward from anything I've ever seen, and more than sell the world that the Wachowskis set up. It's probably the geekiest movie of the year, really only playing to one particular audience. The people that seem to get the movie absolutely love it, and I proudly count myself among them.

8. Let the Right One In - I've made it pretty clear how little respect I have for the vampire genre. More often than not, vampire stories shirk the rules when it's convenient to the plot, and that never ceases to bug me. Either follow the rules, or don't bother. So when a movie like Let the Right One In comes along, I have to take notice. Even the title follows the rules of the genre. But beyond simply being a successful vampire flick, this is a movie about a surprisingly intense friendship with some potentially dangerous consequences. It's far, far more successful than that other vampire movie from last year. Of course, that was no contest.

7. Milk - Regardless of your personal politics, it's hard to deny Milk as a powerful biography and political success story. Gus Van Sant subdues his more artistic sensibilities to allow Sean Penn all the room he needs for one outstanding performance. Even then, Van Sant does some really unique things with archival footage, and it helps tell Harvey Milk's story remarkably well. Of course, the reason to see the film is for Sean Penn's performance, but Emile Hirsch, James Franco, and Josh Brolin give equally successful turns.

6. Hellboy II: The Golden Army - 2008 was perhaps the best year for comic book films ever, and in the year of Iron Man and The Dark Knight, it's easy to overlook a film like Hellboy II. Everything Guillermo del Toro learned from Pan's Labyrinth is on display here, which includes an extraordinary amount of visual effects (practical and CG), makeup effects, and sheer imagination. Hellboy II really lives and dies by Ron Perlman's performance, and he performs admirably. Along with Speed Racer, this is certainly one of the most creative films in quite some time.

5. Iron Man - Now, The Dark Knight might technically be the better film, but (like Kung Fu Panda) I find Iron Man more purely entertaining. Robert Downey, Jr's turn as Tony Stark is simply one of a number of wonderful performances in 2008, and he goes a long way in making the film watchable. Of course, Jon Favreau's steady direction and knowhow for marrying practical effects with CG also help make Iron Man the popcorn action flick to beat in 2008. Only time will tell if Marvel Studios can parlay Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk into an equally successful franchise, but until then, Iron Man is a better film than we probably deserve.

4. The Dark Knight - And then there was Batman. To me, the success of The Dark Knight always seemed like a foregone conclusion (sorta like my reaction to WALL-E). My expectations were very high, and they were met. That's not to slight the film's achievement. Christopher Nolan deserves a lot of credit for springboarding from the already admirable Batman Begins into a film that's considerably more complex. Heath Ledger's take on The Joker is, indeed, fantastic and disturbing, but it's Aaron Eckhart's turn as Harvey Dent that really breathes life into the film. As a superhero film, I doubt The Dark Knight will ever be topped.

3. The Wrestler - As harshly brutal, gruesome, and starkly realistic as Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler is, you'll be hard pressed to find a more likable film, and the reason for that is Mickey Rourke's performance as Randy "The Ram" Robinson, a has-been pro wrestler faced with his own mortality. It's easily the best performance of 2008, and the film is one that you're not likely to forget any time soon. It's bound to be Rourke's signature performance, and it's almost certainly Aronofsky's best film. If you don't shed a tear for Randy at any point during this film, you just might be a robot.

2. WALL-E - As I've pointed out before, my love for WALL-E seemed predestined. I'd been looking forward to it ever since I saw the teaser attached to Ratatouille. A PIXAR sci-fi movie? I'm there. But what I found was not just a great sci-fi story, but a remarkably moving love story as well. The things that Andrew Stanton and his team do with visual storytelling is awe-inspiring, and it's one of the most deft and agile animated films ever made. And as much as I've kinda dumped on it so far in this post, let me make it clear: I absolutely adore WALL-E. It's one of the more life-affirming films of the year, almost as life-affirming as...

1. Slumdog Millionaire - WALL-E may be the most deft and agile animated film ever made, but Danny Boyle's tale of a lovestruck youth competing on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire to win the attention of the girl of his dreams is every bit as deft and agile in its storytelling. The way Boyle and his team deal in flashbacks and time jumps is not only astounding, but remarkable in how fluid much of the film ends up being. It's a film that's not always easy to watch, but the ultimate reward in watching Jamal succeed in his journey is like nothing else I saw in 2008.

Friday, January 23, 2009

The Wrestler (2008)

Everyone knows professional wrestling is fake. The matches aren't so much actual brawls as they are choreographed flips, turns, and slaps. What's real, however, is the physical and emotional stress that some of the combatants endure in and out of the ring. It's this aspect of the sport that director Darren Aronofsky's film The Wrestler chooses to illuminate, and to shocking success.

It's been 20 years since Randy "The Ram" Robinson (Mickey Rourke) was in his heyday. Today, he works weekdays at a supermarket and in the local New Jersey wrestling circuits on the weekends. Randy suffers a heart attack after a particularly brutal 'hardcore' match, and as a result, begins to re-evaluate his life. He attempts to court his favorite stripper, Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), who, like Randy, is also a performer whose work is suffering due to her age. At the same time, Randy tries desperately to reconnect with his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood), and set up a reunion match with his former rival, The Ayatollah (Ernest "The Cat" Miller").

The Wrestler succeeds in not falling into any of the trappings usually associated with professional wrestling. All the wrestlers play their parts as heros and villains, heels and faces, but backstage everyone is just happy to be hanging out. There's no evil promoter trying to exploit his performers, nor any concern over ratings or ego. The Wrestler treats its culture of choice much in the same way that last year's Role Models treated LARPing: merely as the accepted way of things. And that's good. It means we can concentrate on the characters as real people rather than as cartoons.

After having tried his hand at science fiction in The Fountain (some find it incoherent, I think it's a beautiful film), Aronofsky gets 'back to basics' with The Wrestler. The film is shot very minimally. Shot on 16mm, lots of handheld shots, lots of static shots, zero CG. Stylistically, it bears more in common with his first film, Pi, than his other two films, and I think that was for the best. The story is a relatively small one about an equally small world, and the film reflects that nicely. Aronofsky restrains his style enough to allow the characters to develop naturally.

Which, again, was for the best, because once the movie ends, you'll be talking about Mickey Rourke's performance more than anything else. It's nothing short of magic watching Rourke throw himself 100% into The Ram. He's no doubt tapping into his own years as a 'has been' in order to show us just what Randy's going through. He plays the character honestly, realistically. Just when it seems that Randy's going to make it, he finds a way to screw up and put himself back to zero. We've all been there (in one way or another), and that's what makes the character work.

Rourke's been working consistently since 1979, but he's been on the comeback trail ever since he surprised everyone by being the best thing about Sin City. I'm sure he'll get his due come Oscar night, and he absolutely deserves it. Not only is The Ram one of the best characters of the year, but his movie is one that'll have you laughing and crying, cheering and cringing. The harsh reality Aronofsky puts on display here is every bit as entertaining as anything you're likely to see this year, and perhaps for a long time. Your mileage may vary depending on your tolerance for stripteases and a little bit of gore, but if you can stomache it, The Wrestler more than delivers.

Five stars (*****) out of five.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Five Movies that Deserved Better in 2008

There were a lot of movies in 2008. And, as with any year, many of those movies go unwatched, unappreciated, and unloved, either because they were mismarketed or simply released at the wrong time. Here are five movies that, while not top ten material, absolutely deserve a second look from some, and a first look from others.

Son of Rambow - The movie that Be Kind, Rewind wished it could have been, and one of the best family films of the year. It'll inspire any one, young or old, to pick up a camera and start making their own movie. Maybe I'm just a sucker for this kind of movie, but it's got a great heart, a great cast of youngsters, and it's proof enough that Garth Jennings is a director worth wactching.

In Bruges - This one is kind of a hard sell right out of the gate. A comedy about hitmen laying low in Belgium and examining their life while ruminating on the works of Hieronymus Bosch. Yeah, it's pretty ambitious for a first-time director. But while it's not quite as strong as it wants to be, it's definitely funny, and both Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson earned their Golden Globe nominations.

Blindness - Not necessarily mismarketed so much as just met with general apathy. The story of an epidemic of blindness and the chaos that the situatio wreaks on the world is sort of Children of Men-lite, but still fairly successful. It's a bleak, bleak movie, but one that I'm sure will become a cult classic once it hits DVD.

The Spirit - Yeah, it's still in theaters, but it's already being ignored as the worst comic book movie of the year (I guess everyone forgot about Punisher: War Zone). Put Frank Miller behind the camera and let him write the script, and I guarantee he'll deliver something akin to The Spirit every time. And if this movie is your kind of thing, then you'll love what he has to offer. It's certainly a lot of fun, but by no means great cinema.

RockNRolla - Guy Ritchie wants to make a trilogy with the characters from this movie, but it looks like that'll never happen, because RockNRolla tanked hard at the US box office. And while it's not nearly as good as Snatch, it's still a fun ride. Gerard Butler and Thandie Newton totally sell this movie, and the way they play off each other more or less makes the movie.

Others worth remembering: Appaloosa; City of Ember; The Day the Earth Stood Still; Diary of the Dead; Ghost Town; Hamlet 2; Midnight Meat Train; Rambo; Role Models; Zack and Miri Make a Porno