Saturday, November 15, 2014

Housekeeping!

I know I've never been particularly consistent with my postings, but considering I was posting regularly and suddenly stopped I felt I owed everyone a note as to what changed all of a sudden.  I've actually been hired by BuzzPo.com to write about a lot of the same entertainment related stuff that I post here, and so most of my work for the past month or so has gone up there.  All of my posts are under my C.T. Rex pseudonym, so please go ahead and search that out for more on #GamerGate and everything else.

You've also probably seen I cross-post quite frequently over at Their Finest Hour, but there is one post I put up there that I didn't put up here since Allan really deserved the traffic, and that's my #GamerGate breakdown post called Here's GamerGate In 5 Easy Bites.  If you don't know much about #GamerGate or you want to help someone else understand it, feel free to check it out: http://theirfinesthour.net/2014/10/heres-gamergate-in-5-easy-bites/

I'll still be posting here on my blog from time to time, but they'll be my more personal essays and things not really applicable to BuzzPo, so keep an eye out for new stuff.

Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Boycotts Aren't Harassment

Didn’t expect to write anything on #GamerGate again quite so soon, but ever since Intel pulled their ads from Gamasutra, I keep seeing people pushing this notion that the boycotts constitute some form of harassment of the sites against which they are targeted, or at the very least they’re an extreme reaction where a more temperate measure should be applied.

First of all, that word “harassment” has been tossed around far too loosely when it comes to #GamerGate, and it’s one of the main reasons we are where we are today. Dissent, disagreement, and desire for change in media does not constitute harassment, and while harassment can occur in and around a boycott, neither does a boycott, even one that involves targeting advertisers. In fact the boycott is one of the greatest tools consumers have to affect change without having to resort to harassment or worse, violence.

Now like any other tool, it can be abused, which is what that more nuanced argument about “extreme reactions” is trying to get at. For example, we saw it used against the Mozilla CEO for having supported the passage of a particular marriage law years prior and outside his role at the company. There we had consumers trying to punish a particular individual for a particular political belief that didn’t have any bearing on his duties at the company or affect how the company would or did operate. To be clear, people were well within their rights to boycott, and that boycott was not harassment, but specifically targeting an individual over political beliefs that don’t affect a company is not the best use of that tool as it will punish many innocent people in an attempt to bring about a political change that could be best accomplished through other means.

On Erik Kain’s latest stream, Greg Tito from The Escapist expressed that kind of sentiment by lamenting the potential financial impact on people working at a website because of #GamerGate supporters being upset at one post by one writer. It’s true that some perfectly innocent people will be harmed as a result of the boycotts, but in order to determine whether that unfortunate consequence is necessary and where the blame for it lies, we must examine how we got to this situation in the first place, which was not due to one post by one writer.

It was actually many posts by many writers across many sites. It was many editors at many sites allowing those posts to go up. It was many moderators at many sites quashing discussion and kicking people off of forums and out of comment sections.

Moreover, the content of those many posts at those many sites was not simply some benign difference of opinion over a video game or a political philosophy, but a direct attack on the very consumers who now boycott them. The many posts also came in a suspiciously short time frame, which suggested the collusion that was later evidenced by the GameJournoPros list.

And perhaps most importantly, the many people at the many sites have refused all other avenues for the redress of consumers' grievances. They didn’t allow consumers to express their anger directly via comments and forums. They didn’t issue apologies, counters to the opinions of their writers, or public reprimands of those writers. Many of the sites’ employees even took to Twitter to poke the bear. They did not fire or otherwise reprimand those that did so, nor did they address the original conflicts of interest that started the discussions in the first place. By closing comments and refusing to address the issue, the many people at the many sites effectively eliminated all other options for consumers other than to boycott, and so boycott they have.

It’s rather ironic to hear Tito express the sentiment he did, since The Escapist proved quite clearly how the websites could have diffused the situation for themselves by taking actions that most gamers have lauded as appropriate. They allowed discussion on their forums, and on two separate occasions that I can recall addressed the issue loudly and clearly, and they made changes to their policies as a result. And I suspect if it came down to it, they would’ve terminated a writer rather than allow harm to come to their whole site.

Thus with #GamerGate, people are not punishing a whole company for the thoughts of one individual. They are trying to affect an industry-wide change with the only option left available to them as a direct result of the actions of the very websites they are boycotting. Not only are they not abusing the tool, they are using it for precisely the purposes it is best suited.

And it’s working.

Friday, October 3, 2014

What now, #GamerGate?


Well it’s been over a month now since the rise of #GamerGate, and if you’ve still not heard of it, I recommend scrolling back through my previous work to read this post, this post, and this one to get you started. Or for those TL;DR folks, #GamerGate is a consumer revolt by gamers who have gotten fed up with the corruption in the video game industry and the utter lack of journalistic ethics in a gaming media that seems hell bent on pushing a progressive sociopolitical narrative into gaming.

I sat down to write this post in the midst of the natural lull one might expect in an Internet-driven conflict lasting this long. People had begun to wonder if this whole thing were coming to an end, with both sides staking claim to victory. Gamers noted the decline in readership of prominent sites, the rise of alternatives like TechRaptor and 8chan, and the tag itself reaching the milestone of 1 million uses suggested the certain demise of the opposition; journowarriors pointed to the lull and general lack of interest on the part of bigger media sites as evidence the tempest in a teapot would soon peter out.  The question on everyone's mind seemed to be "what's next?"

Then Intel went ahead and blew everything up all over again. Responding to requests by gamers, Intel pulled its ads from Gamasutra, one of many websites that contributed to the barrage of “Gamers are dead” articles that really put this whole thing into full swing. That in turn has provoked the same kind of vitriol and journalistic malpractice as those original articles, and so the smoldering embers burn anew.

Fortunately that demonstrates handily how the cycle of lull and victory is the path #GamerGate will take going forward, so long as gamers choose to continue to fight. It’s a war of attrition that can only end once one side has been metaphorically wiped out. With each victory, the losing side will go quiet for a time to regroup and reposition, but another battle will wait just around the corner.

As long as the journowarriors have their sites and their positions, they’ll keep pushing their particular agenda. Calls for #GamerGate to drop the tag “tainted by its misogynistic origins”, appoint leaders, and focus on specific goals will continue as well. On their face, those do seem like perfectly logical and reasonable suggestions. After all, leaders and goals help to focus efforts and reduce the possibility of some random troll trying to speak for the community at large just by slapping the tag on their tweet.

In reality, it’s just a bit of pernicious concern trolling. A leader can be smeared, threatened, bullied, and otherwise taken off the field of battle to leave an army in disarray, and known goalposts can be more easily defended or moved if necessary. As some gamers have noticed, that kind of targeting is precisely the kind of thing called for by the social justice bible of Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals.

A disparate swarm of people each with their own particular targets, however, can dig their stingers in again and again until their enemy runs screaming from the field. No one sting will be a decisive death blow though, and therefore if gamers wish to have a more honest, open media bereft of the moral proselytizing of our social betters, they will just have to keep up their pressure from all directions despite the lulls. Whether it’s writing sponsors like Intel, digging into DiGRA as Sargon of Akkad has been, or even the simple act of using the #gamergate and #notyourshield tags in a tweet, each attack is one more bit of damage to the narrative.

That #GamerGate has evolved from a mere hashtag to a full on community of new friends should certainly help with the long road ahead, especially given the opposition already was a tight-knit clique of backscratchers. Thus if any one top priority should exist among #GamerGate supporters, it should be to continue to make connections and further cement the existing ones.

That includes the “right-wing” voices whose attention has been piqued by this conflict and about which many gamers have expressed some concerns. They fear the further encroachment of politics in gaming and/or that the Right simply doesn’t have gamers’ best interests at heart. Personally I think people like Milo Yiannopoulos over at Breitbart have done great work dispelling that fear, but to still apprehensive gamers I would merely restate that every ally attacking the enemy is useful, either as distraction, fodder, or genuine damage dealer.

Whether we fight for political reasons or not, what lies ahead is a long and brutal campaign on perhaps the last front in the larger culture war. There will be endless waves of enemies bent on our collective enslavement to their particular ideology. We're gamers; let’s see how high of a score we can rack up.

Round 2. Fight!

*this post cross-posted at http://www.theirfinesthour.net

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Why #GamerGate Matters

Punching Glass Joe has come a long way. (Image via IGN)

A common refrain in response to discussions of #GamerGate goes something like this: “ISIS is overrunning Iraq, Russia has invaded Ukraine, there’s rioting in Ferguson, the economy still sucks, there are scandals all over the place, and you want to talk about a bunch of man-children who are angry that girls are getting to play with their toys? Who cares!?”

Firstly, human beings are fully capable of expressing interest in more than one topic at a time, and so too can the media report on more than one news event in a day. Discussing #GamerGate does not invalidate the seriousness of any of those other issues, nor does it indicate that someone lacks understanding of those other events. Frankly, there’s little that can be done about them by the average Joe anyway, so it is not as if turning our attention for a moment to discuss something over which we have slightly more direct control will result in catastrophe.

Secondly, those “toys” are a $100 billion industry that cuts across all age groups and spans most of the globe. In fact, 59% of all Americans play video games of some sort, and the average gamer has been doing so for 14 years. So what once might have been a novelty for children now functions as a central component of the cultural identity for anyone in the Western world under the age of 35. It’s also an industry on the leading edge of our technological development, so it’s highly likely that the media of the future will follow in the footsteps of today’s gaming media as this younger generation that grew up with its particular form of content delivery comes to power.

Moreover, video games have evolved as an art form to one whose stories and cinematics can rival the best Hollywood has to offer and where gamers even get paid to practice and compete in tournaments like their brethren in professional athletics. As the industry grows, so too will its influence on the culture at large, and that culture will in turn govern the politics and policies that come into play with things like ISIS, the economy, and health care. Thus what happens in this industry can very easily have a wide and lasting impact, certainly at least as much as a riot in Missouri.

Finally, that framing of #GamerGate is precisely the kind of journalistic malpractice that created the firestorm in the first place. Gamers do not think girls are taking away their toys nor are they angry about women increasingly entering the industry, but they are tired of watching people who claim to be journalists pushing their particular social agenda, smearing people with the actions of the few trolls that exist in every community, and getting into bed with the subjects they cover.

Yes, the spark that ignited this firestorm involved the personal sexual activities of a female developer, but even then gamers were hardly concerned with her sexual proclivities, only the resultant conflict of interest her choice of partners had created. Rather than investigating if the accusations of malfeasance leveled against her and her partners had any merit, the games media sought to suppress any discussion of the issue at all. Were it not for that attempted censorship, the simmering pool of discontentment that had been building for so long within the community likely would not have been set ablaze. Then, rather than squelching that fire by admitting their mistakes and addressing gamers’ concerns, the gaming media effectively soaked themselves in gasoline and took a run through the flames by turning on their readers and maligning them as hateful misogynists.

As a result, we have people of all genders, races, and political persuasions banding together to demand objectivity and transparency in journalism, while pushing efforts that promote actual equality rather than the faux equality of outcomes and quotas. And despite the vehement attacks upon them, they have already succeeded in forcing several major outlets to re-examine their policies and in funding the efforts of a group the social justice crowd attempted to destroy.

Why would we not want to celebrate that and hold it up as an example to all the other media that has long since abandoned the pursuit of objectivity to the pressures of greed and political correctness? In what way does it help us with any of those other ostensibly more important issues to look at this established beachhead against corruption in journalism and the misery that political correctness brings to simply shrug and say “meh, nerds”?

We may not have the capability to change the President’s mind on deployment of troops or ensure justice is carried out either in Washington or Ferguson, but gamers have shown us we can affect an industry poised to substantially influence the culture of the future. Right now we can help nudge it in the direction of objective journalism and free expression such that when we log on to view the regular news version of the Kotakus and IGNs that will likely be the future of the rest of our media, we might be able to rest assured they’re not hyping a shooting for ratings or skunking scandals as some racist witch hunt. Let’s not waste that opportunity.

*this post cross-posted at http://theirfinesthour.net/

Monday, September 8, 2014

Cataclysmic Clash: Gamers vs. Journalists

Glass Joe was never a match for Little Mac
(Image: Charles Williams (CC))
A ton of things have happened since my last post on what is now known as Gamer Gate. Some hours after it went live several gaming websites, who won’t be named and won’t be linked because they don’t deserve the traffic, posted articles all containing the same theme: “Gamers” are dead, they don’t have to be our audience, and this controversy is little more than the death rattle of a white male misogynistic culture. One of these articles even went so far as to decry “fun” being the primary criteria by which we determine how good a game is.

The blowback from gamers accelerated to form two hashtags, #GamerGate and #NotYourShield, as people of various colors, genders, and sexualities came out to prove gamers were not dead and that they were, in fact, a diverse audience that didn’t appreciate being spoken for by their opponents. Despite learning that Quinn had done more than simply lie and cheat on her boyfriend (she had wrecked the efforts of another group to promote women in the industry), gamers sought to push on from that initial spark of controversy to talk about the real underlying problems in the industry and its media. Their opponents continued to insist that was a lie and all these diverse voices were either fake or brainwashed. Finally, gamers found another outlet for their voices, as Adam Baldwin and Internet Aristocrat showed up on my friend Ed Morrissey's show along with several thousand viewers and chatters to hash out the issue, and now we all take a breath and wait for the next turn in the road.

Meanwhile, gamers continue to demand that they be treated as individuals and allowed to criticize others as individuals. They laugh at the notion that the “gamer” identity is dead seeing as they're all still playing games and the term never reflected some particular demographic in the first place. They proclaim unabashedly that it’s unjust and unfair for them to be tarred by the actions of the various assholes of the Internet because their inability to Care Bear Stare these trolls into good people does not signify approval of said trolls. Similarly, just because they happen to disagree with an interpretation of a particular trope (or even agree but enjoy the game despite it) that does not mean they should be declared dead to everyone and tossed out of the community. They likewise note individuality comes with the price of being responsible for one’s actions, and therefore it is not only ok but also just to criticize those persons who act in an unethical manner and expect them to rectify their behavior.

This has been fascinating to watch since for once the forces of political correctness and collectivism seem to have met their match in a group of people that simply refuses to bend to their will. Gamers will not be shamed into accepting the victimhood of the Quinns and Sarkeesians of the world, nor will they be lectured to by the journalists that happily parrot that narrative or be silenced by the forum moderators who seek to censor any opposition. Since every other aspect of Western Civilization has buckled and cowed before the various –isms that sprang forth over the last half century or so, one must wonder what it is, exactly, about this particular community that allows it to fight back with such ferocity.

No doubt one possibility is that video games have always been a great equalizer. Bosses, puzzles, finish lines, match results, and scoreboards do not care what gender, race, or sexual orientation the player is, so there’s little room for blaming oppression for failure. In multiplayer games, it’s unlikely that one player can even tell what gender, race, sexual orientation, social status, etc. another player is. Most of the time another player exists as merely stream of text and/or a digital avatar that in no way reflects their real life image such that hated rivals can end up forming bonds without even knowing it.

Thus when games do afford players the opportunity to form groups, such as squads in FPSes or guilds in MMOs, their primary concerns are a person’s skill level, their willingness to improve that skill, and their general attitude rather than their superficial characteristics or political ideology. After all, the most politically correct person in the world is of no help to the team if they can’t shoot straight, and they’ll be incredibly distracting if they won’t shut up about how a particular character model is degrading to women. They definitely won’t improve the team’s odds if every time they screw up they blame some troll for harassing them rather than reflect upon what they did wrong and try to do better next time.

Hannah Wallen argues that the resistance stems from the fact that most gamers gave up on the social ladder long ago, and so threats to cast them down it and incentives to raise them up it mean nothing to them, thereby making them immune to the favorite shaming tactics of social justice warriors. Certainly this situation resembles the high school cliques of cheerleaders and athletes staring down their noses at the gross nerds who are so weak and pathetic they have to play games on the Internet, so she may not be too far off.

Ultimately, I wonder if it’s not something much simpler. Perhaps it’s just that gamers remember what it was like before their hobby became cool, and they’ll be damned if they’ll be driven out by the very people who used to deride them for enjoying it.

*this post cross-posted at http://theirfinesthour.net

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Zoe Quinn Scandal: Nepotism and Censorship in Gaming

A firestorm has erupted in the video game community this past week, and before I get started on talking about that, let me offer this blanket warning that all the links and videos in this post may contain strong language and thus are probably NSFW.

The controversy centers on independent game developer Zoe Quinn, and it began with her submission of her game, Depression Quest, to the Steam Greenlight program that allows the Steam community to select games for distribution on that service. Since Depression Quest is a simple text-based game designed to get players to understand depression, it was widely panned by that community.

However, Quinn gained enormous sympathy from the video game industry, particularly among gaming journalists, following an incident with the image forum Wizardchan. After some uncouth posts criticizing her and her game appeared on their site, Quinn took to social media to accuse the self-described virgin adult male community at Wizardchan of harassing her both online and via telephone. Despite their assertions they had nothing to do with the attacks on Quinn, the Wizardchan guys were lambasted for being sexists and misogynists by her supporters and the gaming press, and there were accusations on both sides of people’s personal information being leaked and websites being hacked.

Ultimately, the game was green-lit over the objections of the larger gaming community, and in light of the Wizardchan incident, many suspected it was due to the influence of industry members sympathetic to Quinn’s arguments that the attacks and the criticism were just another attempt to keep a woman down.

Fast forward to a few days ago when Quinn’s ex-boyfriend put up an extremely long blogpost that lists his grievances with her and the reasons for their relationship failing. His post includes multiple screen grabs of their private conversations that demonstrate her being a serial liar who cheated on him with at least five other men, one of whom is her married boss and another of whom works for the prominent gaming journalism site Kotaku.

Now for some time gamers have been complaining about the nepotism and corruption within the industry, with gaming journalists and game developers frequently being caught in bed with each other. Since the “in bed” in this case was quite literal, all manner of Youtube videos and forum posts on the issue began to appear analyzing the post by Quinn’s ex and the positive coverage Quinn has received by sites like Kotaku.

The response to these commentaries has been a vehement attempt to censor any discussion of this issue, with moderators at gaming sites and sites like reddit.com pulling down any posts that had to do with this incident. Quinn herself directly targeted one Youtube channel called MundaneMatt with a bogus copyright claim in attempt to get his video on the subject killed. That resulted in many more angry videos, such as this excellent analysis of the entire sequence of events by a guy called InternetAristocrat.

And of course, Quinn and her allies have tried to frame the entire controversy as a bunch of angry white males out to slut shame a woman for sleeping around because gamers are misogynists etc.

This conflict has played itself out over and over again over the past few years as the social justice people have gone full court press on the video game industry, complaining that they cater to young white males and don’t highlight or hire women, gays, or minorities with enough frequency. When gamers push back on these notions, they are met with outright censorship and accusations of misogyny, sexism, homophobia, and racism just like we see with conservatives and the War on Women.

If conservatives and libertarians were smart, they’d get into the gaming arena and help gamers who don't yet realize they're conservatives fight off the forces of so-called "social justice" that have invaded that arena of entertainment. Otherwise it will soon join the educational system, the news media, movies, and television shows as just another conduit for progressives to shove their ideology down people's throats.

*this post cross-posted at http://www.theirfinesthour.net and http://realraw.us

Friday, August 22, 2014

Not Quite Expendable Yet

Sometimes more is better.

I miss the days of the classic action movie, where one or two manly men fought their way through a small army of goofy henchmen and sub bosses to an ultimate showdown with a charismatic villain, all the while dropping one liners dripping with gloriously awful puns. The explosions were real and if somebody so much as bumped the camera, much less shook it, they’d be lucky to keep their job.  Yep, those were the days.  So when Sylvester Stallone sought to rekindle that spirit with the action hero team-ups we always wanted and never got, you can bet I was on board with this Expendables thing.

Thus far, the Expendables movies have been fun little romps, though not without their flaws.  The first one started beautifully but unfortunately transitioned into a more modern style of filmmaking that obscured a great finale with darkness, shakycam, fast cutting, and lame CG effects.  The second one did a better job on that front, but it also had a much less coherent plot. Then again, the Chuck Norris cameo alone made that film worth the price of admission, so now we've got The Expendables 3 with even more 80s and 90s action stars filing into the ranks.

Like the first two, this one is quite a mixed bag. The action choreography is great once again, but it’s also heavily obscured by the camera work and editing. Some of the sequences look almost like they have unfinished effects in them, and as many people have noted in their complaints about the movie, it’s only PG-13 which somewhat undercuts the whole gratuitous violence thing for which these kinds of films are known.

Of course, these movies operate primarily on the nostalgia of seeing old stars back in action, and on that front it delivers quite well with a bunch of classic faces that oddly enough includes Kesley Grammer.  Fortunately though Grammer is not an action star, he’s always dependable in almost any capacity. In this case, he’s the recruiter friend of Stallone’s Barney Ross tasked with finding some new blood that’s more expendable than usual.

Given Jason Statham is the closest thing we have to a modern day Stallone/Schwarzenegger and he’s already a member of the team, it’s a foregone conclusion the newbies are a group we've all barely heard of and thus have a hard time taking seriously when compared to the star power of their elder compatriots. That has raised some hackles since most everyone came to this movie to see our favorite sexagenarian action heroes blowing stuff up and aping their old one-liners, not a bunch of 20-somethings who have yet to make a mark on the world. On the off chance you might recognize their names, that group is made up of Kellan Lutz, Glen Powell, Victor Ortiz, and Ronda Rousey.

Personally, I thought they handled the sequence with the “kids” rather well.  The setup for it is certainly abrupt, but the recruitment and the subsequent mission not only were enjoyable, but a good way to keep from overusing the in-jokes from all the classic actors.  And frankly, at some point these old guys will, in fact, be “too old for this shit” as evidenced by the fact that the climactic showdown between Stallone and Mel Gibson is shot a mile away from both men so that you might not notice their stunt doubles.  (You’ll notice.)  So at some point somebody has to take over, and why not see if you can’t create a new crop of action stars that are not comic book characters?

The young guns portion also introduces Antonio Banderas’ character, who you will either find terribly hilarious or totally insufferable.  I fell into the former category, which made the very pointed reference in his back story to the attacks on our consulate in Benghazi all the more poignant.  It’s perhaps the only real world call out that doesn't rely on some form of self-deprecation.

Of the remaining new old faces, Wesley Snipes’ character is pretty funny too, but he fades into the background early on. Harrison Ford pops in and out randomly, and he’s clearly just there to replace Bruce Willis, who bailed over a financial dispute, so there’s very little in the way of references to his movies. As I alluded to earlier, Mel Gibson handles the head villain duties and although there isn’t much to his character, he sells it incredibly well anyway which makes his return to the big screen quite welcome.

The Governator returns for a bit more screen time this go round, now that he’s back making movies again, but poor Jet Li could've stayed home and nobody would've noticed.  Sadly, Jason Statham gets horribly short-changed by being the middle child caught between the classics and the newbs.

An early leak of the full movie online combined with some bad word of mouth crushed this film at the box office, so who knows if The Expendables 4 will make it to the screen, but I still think this idea has some gas in the tank so long as Sly can decide what kind of movie he really wants to make.  Watering it down to PG-13 and turning the old guys into obligatory cameos just won’t cut it, but an over the top classic action movie where the students become the masters? That could be worth seeing.

*This post cross-posted at http://theirfinesthour.net/

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Comedians of the Galaxy

I'm high on believin' that you're in love with me.


Of all the trailers I've seen this year, the one for Guardians of the Galaxy was by far the most intriguing. It had an incredibly irreverent tone that’s sorely lacking around Hollywood lately and used a clever bit of self-deprecation to introduce a group of Marvel characters about which I knew very little. I couldn't help but wonder whether or not the entire movie would be as amusing as the trailer or if that was just a really great bit of marketing.

I was pleased to discover that irreverence permeates the entire movie, and it’s the comedic flair that saves it from being another Green Lantern. Like that film, Guardians seeks to establish too much too quickly, and so it’s stuffed to the gills with exposition, much of which is incredibly redundant. I don’t think I heard the name "Gamora" come up without a reminder that she is the “adopted daughter” of Thanos, for example. It also changes locations so frequently that it’s hard to ever get a feel for any one place, and the lack of travel time makes the galaxy seem considerably smaller than it should.

The group’s assembly is similarly rushed and kind of clumsy, but once they get together everything becomes much more entertaining. I wish the movie had started right at the lineup scene from the trailer and just cut out all of the unnecessary exposition at the beginning. It would've lent some mystery to how long these characters knew each other and that in turn could've obscured the fact that they’re willing to call each other family even though we've only seen them together as a group for like a half hour.

In any event, their banter is fast, furious, and terribly amusing. Each one has their own particular quirks, and those quirks are used to great effect in the group dynamic, such as Drax the Destroyer's (Dave Bautista) inability to grasp most metaphors. Still, the show really belongs to Chris Pratt's Peter Quill and Bradley Cooper's Rocket Raccoon. They’re the perfect kind of snarky anti-heroes, and without them, the rest of the characters would fall flat. Zoe Saldana's Gamora gets the worst of it, seeing as she’s a walking cliché without much else to her, but even the pretty wonderfully realized Groot needed Rocket to handle some of the thoughts that Vin Diesel and the animators couldn't convey with the words “I am Groot.”

One of my fears for this movie was that Rocket and Groot would look completely out of place given they are computer generated and the rest of the cast is not. Every so often the Uncanny Valley would appear, but for the most part they look like they are in fact there beside the actors.

Alas, the same can’t be said of the story, since there isn't much of one at all. There’s a MacGuffin everyone wants, and a super strong baddie who wants to use it to kill a planet full of innocent civilians. Since the Guardians are a group of misfits who aren't particularly super and don’t really care about being heroes, they’re at least interesting, but the villains are so unbelievably boring and cliché that they might as well not even be there. In fact I think you could replace Lee Pace with the MacGuffin itself and nobody would realize something changed.

And while it's nice Earth isn't in the crossfire for once, they do end up having a climatic battle above a city on a very Earth-like planet that we know so little about it might as well be Earth anyway. Not sure about you, but I feel like the whole “giant aerial battle to defend the major city from alien invaders” thing has been thoroughly played out at this point.

That said, that battle does include one of the single most out-there tactics a hero has ever tried on a villain. For all the movie's faults, it's things like that which make it so much fun that it's easy to let the other stuff slide. That and the incredible soundtrack rocking in the background, which consists in large part of awesome 70s and 80s tunes that come from Quill's cassette tape. There may come a day when I'll get Hooked On a Feeling out of my head, but it is not this day.

Marvel clearly gets that their audience came to have a good time, not to see a bunch of superheroes suffer through “real world” issues, which makes even these otherwise less than stellar assemblies an enjoyable experience. They're also willing to take a risk on a bunch of wacky characters like these to branch off from churning out sequels all the time, and for that I'm happy to say go ahead and see Guardians of the Galaxy. It might not be the best story you've ever seen, but it’ll make you laugh.

(It has a bit more profanity than any of the other Marvel movies though, so you might want to leave the youngsters at home.)

*this post cross-posted at http://www.theirfinesthour.net

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Blue Shell Solutions

Don't mess with Luigi in Mario Kart


A couple months back Mario Kart 8 came out to give the Wii U a good paddle-shocking back from the edge of death, and with it returns one of the most infamous items in all of gaming: the Spiny Shell. Also known more commonly as the Blue Shell, it’s appeared in many iterations of the Mario Kart franchise over the years, and its notoriety comes from how infuriating it is to be on the receiving end of it.

For the uninitiated, Mario Kart is a deviously addictive little party game from Nintendo wherein players control their favorite Mario characters and their souped-up gokarts in a race across whimsical landscapes. It has created and destroyed more friendships than perhaps any other thing invented by man, due in no small part to the abundance of crazy items the racers can use to harass their fellow players. One such item is the aforementioned Spiny Shell, which when fired promptly homes in on the first place player and blasts them into the sky. Virtually unavoidable, that little blue turtle shell with the spikes coming out of it is a stream of vulgarities just waiting to happen.

Ostensibly the Spiny Shell exists to balance out a first-place player’s ability to open up an insurmountable lead over the other racers. Not only will the person out front likely have more skill than the others, they don’t face many of the hazards of riding in the middle of the pack such as other racers ramming them. In addition, they get first crack at any boosts or items on the track. Thus we have the Spiny Shell, which in theory would allow the players to slow down the top racer just enough to catch up.

In practice, the Spiny Shell serves mainly as a means for lower ranked players (and especially the AI racers) to troll the better ones. Now don’t get me wrong, that can make for some incredible entertainment, particularly if you’re not the person in first, but it’s certainly not terribly effective at bridging the skill gap that put the players in their relative positions in the first place. It merely gives one group a means to lash out at another in a futile attempt to feel better when they come up short by comparison. It neither imparts skill to them nor encourages them to improve. It can’t take away the drive, skill, luck or natural talent of the winner either, but it can frustrate them enough to stop playing.

This holds true for all schemes that seek to impose equality of outcome by attempting to redistribute success. Progressive tax systems that take money from the rich and give it to the poor never succeed in creating rich people out of the poor, nor have they turned the Warren Buffets of the world into paupers. Obamacare hasn’t made the poor healthier and the wealthy sicker. EPA regulations and fines haven’t stopped oil and gas companies from dominating the energy market, nor have the subsidies to solar companies made green energy more financially viable. Or to pick an example in the news today, giving Gaza to the Palestinians didn’t make them freer and the Israelis less democratic.

When the frustration of being harassed for their success grows large enough, people just leave the game. In the Mario Kart world, that takes the form of incredibly creative uses of profanity, flying controllers, and someone stomping out of the room ne’er to return. In the real world, it involves hiding money, skirting regulations, buying exemptions, or straight up moving out of the jurisdiction of those who would seek to use these Blue Shells.

So the next time a politician comes to you with a magic bullet that will make the less fortunate, less skillful, less talented, and/or less hard working get to a better place by shooting it at the folks who have succeeded due to their ability, effort, or dumb luck, just remember that like that spiny blue shell, it'll change very little beyond making someone else’s life miserable.

Also, Luigi will drive by your house and give you the death stare for it.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Retro Review: Independence Day

In 1996, that would've been a tragedy.


Whether it’s A Nightmare Before Christmas on Halloween, Saving Private Ryan on Memorial Day, or Die Hard at Christmas, we've all got our favorite holiday movie traditions. For the 4th of July, there’s no better movie to watch than the aptly titled Independence Day. Conveniently abbreviated “ID4” by an incredible marketing campaign that helped push it to the top of the 1996 box office, it’s a funny, exciting, patriotic disaster romp that I love to watch every time America’s birthday rolls around and one of my top 10 all time favorite movies.

Looking back at it, Independence Day is remarkably tame compared to the destruction porn of today, as well as writer/director Roland Emmerich's later efforts. Instead of two hours of loosely connected edifice obliteration like we see nowadays, ID4 wraps up most of the disaster stuff by the end of the first act. By changing it up like that, the action doesn't get overwhelming to the point of monotony and we get to see actors doing stuff other than running and shouting.

That first forty-five minutes or so doesn't overdo it either. It plays out exactly like a good disaster film should: quietly introducing a looming threat and then teasing it just long enough to make the reveal satisfying. The new Godzilla did that using smoke, debris, and other scenery, but ID4 does it by introducing us to its characters. Just as the full alien menace might be revealed, it cuts away to meet a new group of people, and each group features secondary and tertiary characters who actually stick around for more than five minutes. That not only fleshes out the movie world, but also obscures who’s disposable since there are so many from which to choose.

When we finally get around to the city-sized alien spaceships, they don’t come out guns blazing; they settle in to a sinister hover above national landmarks. No swarm of alien fighters for some foreplay demolition either, just an eerie green spotlight on the target below. In LA, the spotlight shines in the face of Will Smith’s girlfriend’s stripper pal standing on the roof and mumbling “it’s so pretty.” Since we met her earlier, the knowledge of how utterly screwed she is builds tension in a way some random extra can’t.

Tension also builds from what doesn't happen at this point. Nobody shouts about rising percentages or counts the seconds to total annihilation. Even the ticking clock in the movie only appears a couple of times, but characters rush, drop things in haste, honk horns in frustration, bail from stopped vehicles, and anxiously check their watches in mid stride. When Jeff Goldblum finally shows us the clock hitting zero and ominously announces “time’s up”, we all hold our collective breath.

At last the special effects begin, which still look convincing today because they’re real explosions destroying scale models. CGI had just come on the scene, so it was only good enough to enhance a movie but not good enough to fully take over. That had two advantages. One, the best CGI today still can’t mimic reality perfectly, and two, spending all that time building a model and setting up a multitude of cameras to get that one shot right means nobody is going to obscure the final result. Thus it’s with a steady, distant camera we watch a wall of fire brutally smash its way through major cities.

And then, silence.

No slow motion pan of characters mutedly screaming in terror and grief while the sad music plays in the background, just the “July 3rd” title card and a lingering shot of destroyed New York City. That way everything gets a moment to sink in, and the date card gives our subconscious a frame of reference that adds a sense of scale newer movies undermine by jumping right off to the next action scene without rhyme or reason.

In the second act, ID4 shifts from a disaster film to more of a science fiction thriller, wherein a disparate band of characters come together as they try to figure out how to deal with an unstoppable killing machine. Since it avoids stacking coincidences as much as possible, the cast assembles with enough plausibility that we can focus our suspension of disbelief on the big things, like telepathic aliens. A lesser movie would've had Vivica Fox emerge from the rubble right next to the missing First Lady, run into Will Smith and the convoy in the desert, and then miraculously drive them all to Area 51 by random chance.

Meanwhile, the film builds on the despair created by the destruction in the first act. Our heroic Will Smith fueled counterattack turns into a desperate attempt to escape, and probably the only time in movie history the white guy gets killed off instead of the black guy. The alien prisoner intones that peace between us is impossible; they just want us to die. Nuclear weapons do nothing, the rescued First Lady dies anyway, and the optimistic environmentalist goes on a bender.

Were it Transformers: Age of Extinction, the goofy subplot about Randy Quaid's kid being sick would have appeared at this point to ruin all the other drama with its blatant attempt to generate sympathy. Instead, it’s cut in favor of better material. Unfortunately, so too are the scenes that explain how a Mac can hack an alien mothership, but you can’t have everything.

Once everyone is sufficiently depressed, we launch into the action-comedy finale. It’s also the part that aggravated tons of non-Americans. How deliciously ironic it is for people to complain about patriotism/jingoism in a movie that features an epic speech about humanity putting aside petty differences and uniting in common interest. I guess that line from the British guy about it being about bloody time somebody (America) came up with a counter-offensive was a bridge too far. Not that Hollywood is known for realism, but considering America’s military and economic might dominated the globe in the 90s, who else exactly would they expect to organize a worldwide counter-strike against an alien threat?

Anyway, ID4 sidesteps another action overdose by splitting up the cast so that Smith and Goldblum's characters embark on the quieter mission to the mothership while Bill Pullman and co. conduct the big aerial battle below. That makes both sequences feel longer without having to show a bunch of repetitive shots of F-18s blowing up and such. Plus there’s more room to insert comedy that would otherwise feel out of place.

Fortunately the filmmakers had the presence of mind to swap out the ridiculous ending where Randy Quaid randomly shows up in his biplane to sacrifice himself. Such edits seem to be infrequent of late. If somebody thinks something looks cool, it ends up in the final product no matter how much it ruins the flow, tone, or general consistency of the movie, if for no other reason than it usually cost a fortune to produce with CGI.

But even that silly ending could probably work with ID4’s superb soundtrack behind it. Whether it’s the terrifying alien attack, the quiet romantic moments, or the thrilling bombast of victory, David Arnold’s score sells every minute of screen time. Indeed, the hopeful little piccolo that kicks off President Whitmore's speech may be the only reason it comes across as fantastically rousing rather than pathetically cornball.

I could go on for pages more, but ultimately what we’re talking about here is fun. This movie is fun. It’s not bogged down with attempts to “ground it in reality.” It doesn't have all the color sucked out and replaced with muted grays and browns for the same. It has nods to similar past movies, but it’s not another rebooted retread of somebody else’s story. It doesn't rely on any one big star to carry the cast, though it did have the man they call Jayne in it, and the actors look like they’re genuinely into their roles. Despite the marketing campaign’s focus, the action doesn't overstay its welcome and therefore remains wonderfully exciting. It even makes you laugh from time to time to break up the tension. All in all, Independence Day is a textbook example of how to do the big summer blockbuster right.

So grab some popcorn and enjoy it again before they ruin it with a sequel.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Less is More than Meets the Eye

One city shall stand, one shall fall.
(Image by Sarjex - Check out her 
store)

Much has been said about Michael Bay and the Transformers franchise under his watch, and I’m certainly no stranger to opining about the writers that normally are in charge of these films. Fortunately Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman have gone on to ruin somebody else’s franchise, and Ehren Kruger who previously played third fiddle to them has taken the reigns. With them gone, we finally get to see how much the dreaded duo influenced the direction of these movies, and how much stemmed from Michael Bay just wanting to blow stuff up.

At the core of Transformers: Age of Extinction there’s a really great movie about an altruistic alien race of transforming robots whose spirit has been broken by the willingness of humans to screw them over, and the single dad who restores that spirit after a chance encounter with their leader. Or there’s a story about a cynical government bureaucrat stuck in an “us or them” mentality and exemplifying the axiom “the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.” Or it’s an action packed take on the “should” vs. “could” of technological development. Or…well you get the picture.

Maybe Bay & Co. just got tired of hearing how there’s no plot to these movies and decided to give us every plot they could possibly think up, because this one is stuffed to the gills. That is not to say these plot threads are raised and forgotten as they were in the Orci/Kurtzman scripts, but they are developed at the expense of one another. Subplots and scenes that would normally be chopped out in the interest of time/sequels simply stay in the movie as though the first cut got canned and shipped without ever going through the editing process. It becomes a veritable round robin of story arcs that eventually meet up with some robotic dinosaurs for Bay’s patented CGI Explosion Fiesta.

And as much as I love me some epic dinobot action, they’re really not relevant to any of the story arcs in this movie. They’re just an attempt to up the ante in a franchise that can’t really get any more filled with things going boom. It’s unfortunate because, well, giant transforming dinosaurs are perhaps the one thing we haven’t seen before in these movies, and it’s a shame to waste them.

At the same time, Bay leaves out the smaller, transitional scenes that could glue those cool sequences together rather than cut the redundant action bits. It would take a few scant moments to show us the relative positions of characters and their travel routes to alleviate the feeling that everyone conveniently teleports to where they need to be, but then we wouldn’t have time for Optimus Prime riding a mechanical firebreathing T-Rex. At least not without officially crossing the three hour mark this movie sneaks under.

The action sequences drag on forever as a result, even more so than what I previously complained about in Man of Steel. Funnily enough, a truck riding a dinosaur to fight a small army of walking cars while being harassed by a spaceship trying to vacuum them all up still caused less devastation than the new Superman.

There is one good thing about the movie being overlong, and that’s getting to hear Steve Jablonsky do his thing. He handles the score once again, and he’s pretty much the only guy who has done his job perfectly every time so far.

Despite the editing problems, Bay & Co. did learn some lessons from the prior movies. The transformers themselves are more starkly and solidly colored this time, and the use of shaky cam and hypercutting was lessened, although not eliminated. In any case, it’s much easier to tell which robots are fighting which, and they’re given considerably more personality this time around, not that it’s a high bar to clear.

The toilet humor departed with OrciKurtz and has been replaced by mostly witty banter, which is something right up Mark Wahlberg’s alley. He leads an entirely new cast that includes Kelsey Grammer and Stanley Tucci, both of whom never disappoint. All three of their characters were interesting in their own way, with Tucci’s even breaking a long overdone trope, but they’re unfortunately all handicapped by the spinning wheel of subplots I mentioned earlier. With something like five villains vying for the title of Big Bad and a dozen good guys running around, nobody can retain focus long enough to feel like a fleshed out character.

That’s really the bottom line with this one: the clutter turns what could’ve been a remarkably interesting summer popcorn flick into too much of a mess to shine. It’s not as ridiculous as Revenge of the Fallen, nor as irritating as Dark of the Moon, but even the original Transformers was more coherent. Too disappointing to recommend outright, I can only say that nobody does over-the-top action better than Michael Bay and there’s no better place for it than in a theater. So if that’s your thing, go ahead and add to Age of Extinction’s $300 million worldwide gross.

*this post cross-posted at http://www.theirfinesthour.net

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Lone Survivor Lives Up

They're the ones fighting.


As Allan Bourdius continued his awesome coverage of the 70th anniversary of DDay on Twitter, I noted my amazement that the entire venture didn't turn into a slaughter and complete defeat for the Allies given all the things that went awry that day. It’s a serious reminder that any plan can fall apart at the whim of Murphy’s Law, and unfortunately for the group of Navy SEALs at the heart of Lone Survivor, that proves true for them as well.

For those who don’t know, Lone Survivor relates the tale of retired Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell who, as the title suggests, is the only one of his comrades to come back alive from a borked mission to capture/kill a Taliban bigwig. Between a few goat herders, unreliable communications, the unforgiving terrain of Afghanistan, and a small army of Taliban fighters, the SEALs' mission priority quickly shifts from reconnaissance to simply getting home in one piece.

It’s pretty impressive how well the film conveys the brutality and the desperation of the ensuing firefight. Between the acting, the cinematography, and some stuntmen who really know how to sell a fall, it’s not hard to find yourself wincing just watching it. Hollywood usually likes to exaggerate things for effect, so one might find themselves questioning the plausibility of these guys taking as much damage as they do and continue fighting, but from what I’ve read, the movie actually tones it down some. For example, Luttrell had to crawl several miles after shrapnel tore up his legs, but in the movie he’s only reduced to walking with a bit of a limp. Sometimes reality is simply more unbelievable than fiction.

And yes I did compliment the acting up there. I know people like to give Mark Wahlberg grief, but I can’t say I’ve ever had him ruin a film and this one is no different. Given his star power and the fact that he plays Luttrell, it wouldn’t have been surprising to see it turn into a one man action hero piece with every other member of the team used as red shirts, but fortunately this film didn’t do that. Instead we get a good look at team leader Michael P. “Murph” Murphy and fellow team members Danny Dietz and Matthew “Axe” Axelson, played by Taylor Kitsh, Emile Hirsch, and Ben Foster respectively. The actors do a fine job of conveying their personas without hamming it up or needing the script constantly double-back for a flashback or other random contrivance.

Of course, whenever somebody makes a movie about American soldiers that doesn't show them actively rebelling against the military, complaints about jingoism abound. I've seen that come up about this one too, but as usual it’s unfounded. The Americans are not portrayed as saints, and the Taliban are nameless and faceless because SEALs do not have time to ask for their personal histories in the middle of a gunfight. Further, there’s no moral equivalency to be drawn with the Taliban, who are in reality even more reprehensible than the movie portrays them. On top of that, one of the actual Hollywood embellishments of the film gives the Afghan civilians a chance to shine brighter, rather than minimizing or otherwise white washing their part in the story.

All in all this is a solid film, and despite knowing the story going in, I found myself really engaged and occasionally even surprised. It’s easy to forget what we as a nation ask our warriors to suffer through on our behalf, and it’s nice for once to have a movie that focuses on that rather than using them as props for a running commentary on the politics of the conflict in which they’re engaged. Director Peter Berg and his cast and crew said they set out to make an authentic movie that does justice to the men it portrayed and what they endured. As a civilian with no ties to the real life action heroes on which it is based, I’m hardly in a position to judge whether or not they succeeded, but I will recommend seeing Lone Survivor just the same.

*this post cross-posted at http://www.theirfinesthour.net

Monday, June 2, 2014

Droning On (About RoboCop)

One of these things is not like the other.

RoboCop continues the tradition of rebooting franchises and not giving us the common courtesy of some form of subtitle so that we can differentiate between the new one and the old one. Seems like filmmakers hope that by sticking to the original name they can completely overwrite the original so that nobody remembers how much better it was. Fortunately, in this version Alex Murphy becomes a black cyborg with a single organic white hand so I can refer to him as RoboJackson and anyone who’s old enough to remember the 80s will get the joke.

RoboJackson is about everything except this Alex Murphy guy who gets turned into a cyborg and the family that has to live with that new reality. It’s about drones, corporate greed, businesses in bed with government, modern news coverage, and did I mention drones? It’s like the filmmakers saw all the wonderful satire of the original film and felt like if they didn't stuff this one full of social commentary, people would think they didn't get it.

The difference between their film and the original in that regard is that the satire of the original film was window dressing. It was just the backdrop to a story about a man trying to regain his humanity after being turned into a robot, and then that man getting some sweet revenge with his new robotic body. This movie is too busy cutting away to Samuel L. Jackson doing his best Glenn Beck impression and Michael Keaton’s evil corporate machinations to focus on that part. This guy doesn't know how to go home to his family because Gary Oldman brought him back to life as only a head and a hand. Who needs all the drone crap when you have any number of PTSD and wounded warrior allegories right there?

Joel Kinnaman was doing a perfectly fine job of acting, why not let him take a crack at that? It actually would've been an interesting way to retell this story, and thus perhaps justify itself. That’s not to say doing the drones vs. human police thing couldn't have been interesting, but it’s so on the nose in this movie that you might as well have had Sam Jackson shouting “Drones, motherf***er! Do you want them!?” (I’d totally watch that movie, by the way.)

Then you have the corporate greed thing, which the original film already handled. Not to mention pretty much every other movie since then. In the 80s it may have seemed like privatization run amok was the dystopian future to which we were headed, but now one would expect the construction of RoboCop to be the Hail Mary of a corporation trying to survive the squeeze between health care costs and government regulation. Michael Keaton’s character should have been a man desperate to stay in business and distraught that he can’t afford to keep enough officers on the payroll to protect the citizenry. Instead he’s just another CEO who’s so anxious to make money he’s willing to outright murder people.

Then again this is the sanitized, PG-13 version so they keep the murdering to a minimum, to the point of having RoboJackson zapping people with a taser instead of perforating their genitals. That was a result of the budget exploding and the studio getting nervous they couldn't recoup their money on an R-rated film, which only serves to reinforce what I said in the Godzilla review about filmmakers not having to worry about and work within their limitations.

So rather than the comically gratuitous violence that was a hallmark of the original RoboCop, we get a CGI Michael Jackson cylon dancing around the screen to blast apart equally non-existent robots. It’s not even Alex Murphy deciding which robots to blast most of the time since Gary Oldman's character somehow wires him to let the robot part make the decisions without him noticing. Does anyone else miss the days of an actual guy on an actual set with actual props doing actual things?

Thus yet another perfectly good cult classic becomes a bloated big budget CGI action fest complete with all the usual tropes and continuing the trend of watering down everything that’s unique about a franchise in pursuit of the all mighty dollar. Perhaps Hollywood loves that greedy executive plotline so much because they can relate to it so well.

Overall, it’s not a terrible movie, it’s just terribly average. If you’re looking to waste a couple hours with the upcoming Blu-ray, it’ll do the job adequately. Otherwise find something else to buy with your dollar.

*this post cross-posted at http://www.theirfinesthour.net

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Save the Princess, Save the World

"Well excuuuuse me, princess."
If we’re not hearing about some kid who was corrupted by violent video games, we’re hearing about how it’s an industry dominated by creepy misogynist males. Yesterday, I read an article by Jeopardy! winner Arthur Chu that somehow manages to link both things together. He uses the latest killer psycho as a springboard into a discussion about “nerd culture” and misogyny.

His argument wanders a bit between various media, but the crux of it is this:

But the overall problem is one of a culture where instead of seeing women as, you know, people, protagonists of their own stories just like we are of ours, men are taught that women are things to “earn,” to “win.” That if we try hard enough and persist long enough, we’ll get the girl in the end. Like life is a video game and women, like money and status, are just part of the reward we get for doing well.

So what happens to nerdy guys who keep finding out that the princess they were promised is always in another castle? When they “do everything right,” they get good grades, they get a decent job, and that wife they were promised in the package deal doesn’t arrive? When the persistent passive-aggressive Nice Guy act fails, do they step it up to elaborate Steve-Urkel-esque stalking and stunts? Do they try elaborate Revenge of the Nerds-style ruses? Do they tap into their inner John Galt and try blatant, violent rape?

It’s rather amusing that he would bring up Super Mario Bros. because anyone who’s ever actually beaten that game knows that even after going through all those castles, the princess doesn’t so much as kiss Mario at the end. She merely says, “Thank you Mario! Your quest is over.”  In fact, fans enjoy pointing out Princess Toadstool (or Peach if you prefer) doesn’t demonstrate much romantic interest in Mario despite his numerous rescues, and that evidence suggests the only person to get her in bed was actually Bowser.

So why would we keep rescuing her if she’s not going to fall into bed with us in the end? Because that’s not the point of the quest, and everyone knows it.  We male gamers have had to listen to this tripe for years now about how rescuing the princess is some misogynistic exercise that turns women into mere objects we fight to possess.  Fact is, Mario never set out to rescue Peach because he thought he’d get laid, and neither did the player controlling him.  We do it because a wrong has been committed against her, and we’re the only ones around still able to rectify that wrong.

Treating women like trophies is the bad guy’s shtick, and it’s that villain’s choice to act on that evil impulse which spurs an otherwise unassuming hero-to-be into action.  The hero doesn’t strip the princess of her power and freedom; he sets out to punish the villain and restore the princess to her rightful place as ruler of the kingdom.  Once she regains her power, she’s free to reward a hero in any way she wishes, be it a simple thank you, a kiss, wealth, power, or even a cake.  (Since the cake is a lie, the real reward is having grown into a capable adult during the journey, but that’s a much longer discussion.)

If a gamer wants to collect and abuse women, they’ll have to pick a game where they are not a white knight rescuing the princess. They’ll be playing something more like a Grand Theft Auto game, where they’re at best an anti-hero and at worst an outright villain.  Even then, it’s clear to any normal human being that the behavior of that kind of protagonist is not to be emulated in the real world. Otherwise we’d have an epidemic of nerds stealing cars and trying to run down people on sidewalks for fun.

Violence, misogyny, and all around immature behavior is not a function of “nerd culture”; it’s a fact of the human condition, one of which geeks and nerds are acutely aware. Most of them have been pushed around, disrespected, and otherwise treated like crap their entire lives, which is why they spend so much time buried in their favorite fictional universes.

Young male geeks and nerds submerge themselves in the role of the hero because they have the very natural instinct to pick up the sword and defend a woman’s honor from the villains who will always exist.  They may not understand social niceties or the intricacies of female behavior, but the instinct to protect is still there.  Casting that instinct as a latent form of misogyny that should be repressed only serves to empower villains, not women.

But with all that said, I haven’t answered Mr. Chu’s question, have I? So what do video games teach a guy to do when his princess still isn’t in this castle?  Fight his way to the next castle.

*h/t to Sarjex, for the graphic. Check out more of her work in her store.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Oh My God, It's a Godzilla Review!

"They are all...perfect."

Typically when I sit down to write one of these reviews, I take a quick look around the Internet to see what others have said so as not to sound repetitive and help crystallize my own thoughts. With this new Godzilla film, it seems opinions are all over the place. I, for one, thought it was awesome.

Perhaps the most commonly cited criticism is that we don’t get to see enough of the titular monster wrecking stuff. They’re not wrong that the big man’s actual screen time front and center is rather limited, but in this case it’s actually a good thing because destruction porn is getting old.

The reliability of CGI has shattered any limits as to what a filmmaker can put on the screen, and unencumbered by those limitations, they’re never forced to figure out how to sell the movie’s world to the audience. Instead of trying to one-up each other with better stories, characters, or emotional moments, they do it with longer, more explosive action sequences. In essence, they’ve forgotten the art of the tease. They just strip everything off and rub it in your face until one of you is finished.

But Godzilla isn’t a cheap thrill. Godzilla builds an atmosphere. It gives you a glimpse here and a glimpse there, letting your imagination take over and fill in the details. Just when you think you’re about to see it in all its glory, it dances away and you want to shout “oh come on!” Then finally, when the anticipation becomes nearly unbearable and you lean over the edge of your seat in frustrated expectation, only then does it go all the way. In that instant, your imagination merges with the reality before you in a glorious volcanic eruption of blue flame.

I think I may have cheered a little in the theater, even.

Fact is director Gareth Edwards did a fabulous job setting the tone, and I can’t remember the last time I was that tense in a theater. Long, steady shots and slow pans to reveal human characters right amidst the action really help sell the scale of it all, and as I alluded to earlier, there’s a lot of strategic obfuscation of the monsters to build suspense. That’s coupled with some really great sound design, so even if you can’t see one, you can hear it.

This movie is LOUD by the way. Godzilla’s roar will rattle your teeth, and Alexandre Desplat’s score starts out rather oppressive too. Fortunately by the end it settles right in to put the finishing touch on the ambiance. All in all, it’s impressive just how much Edwards was able to do with a little bit of leg and some heavy breathing to set the mood.

Of course directing includes getting the most out of your actors too, and that leads to the second major criticism out there, which is that, with the exception of Bryan Cranston, the actors are wooden and/or their characters are too shallow. That’s true. None of these people have much more to do than react to things. Most critics wanted the movie to focus on the dynamic character Cranston plays, but it actually centers on his son played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson who is much more sedate.

However, that actually worked for me on two levels. First, not having somebody chewing scenery or droning on for a half hour about their clichéd problems let me ride along with this guy, rather than simply watch him deal with this stuff. Second, since Cranston sets the tone early with such a rich performance, it felt intentional that some of the other characters were not so full of pathos. Given Cranston’s character spends so much time manically obsessed over what happened at the beginning of the film, one could expect his son to distance himself by burying his feelings to the point of constant stoicism. In addition, he’s a soldier whose job is to deal with bombs, and so he comes off as a guy who is simply compartmentalizing, rather than wooden. I don’t think it would’ve worked to have him Shia Labeoufing his way around.

I’d say the only real misstep on that front is with Ken Watanabe. His performance reeks of an incredibly deep back story, but we never really find out what it is and his character has so little to do that he could be cut from the film entirely. Then again, his is the one that officially kills any idea that Global Warming caused this mess, so that’s a bonus.

Ironically, Godzilla himself is surprisingly expressive. He’s not the dancing anthropomorphized kids’ version, but his face does convey a range of feeling from being cranky at being woken up to desperation to stay alive. Despite complaints from the Japanese that he looks fat, I think he was incredibly well realized, a grizzled veteran of a more violent age.

That kind of describes the whole movie: a remnant of a different time brought to the modern era. If you remember what it’s like to worry and wonder about something peeking out from the shadows, I think you’ll enjoy this new Godzilla, but if you’re looking for hardcore monster on monster action like Pacific Rim, this one’s not for you.

*this post cross-posted at http://www.theirfinesthour.net

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Godlike! Epic Games & Free Markets

Ah, those were the days.

Last week Epic Games announced they are making another Unreal Tournament (UT) game. Unreal Tournament is a first-person shooter franchise that helped define my college experience, with the first game providing comfort on many a lonely eve my freshman year and its successor Unreal Tournament 2004 being a go-to game for the cadre of friends I amassed over my tenure there. Years later I’d buy a brand new PC just to play Unreal Tournament 3, and though UT3 turned out to be a disappointing entry in the franchise, the idea of a new UT game is still pretty exciting. What’s especially interesting about this one is the business model Epic has put forward:

Mark Rein, the Gears of War and Unreal Tournament studio's VP, teased a new game last week. This Unreal Tournament will be a free game -- "not free to play, just free."

Fans with an Unreal Engine 4 subscription can participate in the crowdsourced development the next Unreal Tournament, with fan-created mods playing an integral role in its life post-launch. Epic intends to create a marketplace where creators can give away or sell their custom content. Epic's cut from those sales is what will pay for the game. 

Epic is certainly no stranger to giving players the freedom to modify their games. Previous UT games came with tools to build mods and maps, and players could run their own servers with these custom changes installed. The game clients even facilitated distribution of mods by automatically downloading them when someone joined the match rather than requiring that player to obtain it beforehand. Still, that’s a far cry from making user-generated content a central facet of the game and giving its creators the option to get paid for their work.

Presumably Epic hopes that this will generate some interest in and subscriptions to their Unreal Engine 4 development kit, but it’s still an intriguing way of going about it. They’re essentially betting on their player community not only being involved and productive, but actually becoming successful indie game developers as a result of that experience. I don’t think it gets much more consumer-friendly than that.

It’s just another wonderful example of capitalism at work in an industry that has largely managed to evade the grubby hands of government regulation and subsidy. Even the famed Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) that handles all those parental advisories you see on video game covers is a non-profit organization to which companies voluntarily submit their games for review. So the market is free to function like good markets do.

As a result we get literally free games and an industry that responds to the desires of the consumer, once it figures out what the consumer actually wants of course. When that desire is clear, loud, and direct like the backlash last year to some of Microsoft’s policies for the Xbox One, you’ll see even a corporate giant do an about face. When it’s a little murkier, the changes take longer. For example, overzealous Digital Rights Management (DRM) has given way to convenience-providing services like Steam, and pay-to-win freemium business models are being phased out for more balanced pay-as-you-go options like we’ve seen with The Walking Dead.

And since the big players can’t squash a little one under onerous regulation quite as easily as they can in an industry more deeply in bed with the government, they still have to worry about being upstaged by small, independent developers. One guy spending a few hours coding a simple mobile game can become a breakout hit overnight, and employees unhappy with the direction their studios take can leave to form their own development teams.

Imagine if instead we had a video game industry run like the health care one. You’d be mandated to have at least one video game system in your home, but the stores would only sell a combo pack of a Playstation 4 with a Wii U. Every time you turned the system on, you’d have to pay a $20 copay. The games themselves would cost $1,000 each, and you’d need to fill out three sets of paperwork about your gaming habits before being able to enter the store. (Though I think Game Stop does that already.) Of course the only store that would actually take your money would be the run down Walmart in the seedier section of town. Oh, and you’d occasionally be forced to buy your deadbeat neighbor the latest of Call of Duty.

Personally, I prefer the free market where Epic Games decides to try turning me into a producer and I get to play a game for which I’d gladly pay at no cost to me even if I never contribute a thing to the game’s development.

*this post cross-posted at http://www.theirfinesthour.net

Friday, May 9, 2014

A Tangled Web


"What? I'd rather be in The Avengers too."

The Amazing Spider-Man could best be summed up with the word “unnecessary.” It was a reboot made to keep the rights to everyone’s favorite wall crawler from going back to Marvel, and nothing about it was the least bit remarkable. It could’ve been a passable superhero flick on its own, but it’s a bad case of déjà vu when held against the previous Spider-Man installment made by Sam Raimi.

Now we’ve got the sequel to the reboot…just typing that phrase I feel a disturbance in the Force. In fact, any time Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman write a script, a shiver goes down my spine as though…well you know how it goes. I didn’t realize they had written this one going in, but as soon as their names appeared in the credits, I said “well, that explains everything.”

They’re the genius pair who gave us such exceptionally written films like Transformers and the Star Trek reboot. That is to say, they’re exceptionally full of ridiculous contrivances, laughably bad science, stupid one-dimensional characters, and dead end plot threads. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is no different.

A director who blows stuff up as well as Michael Bay or one who replaces half the script with lens flare like JJ Abrams can usually overload the sensory input of the average audience member long enough to keep them from noticing most of those problems, but the aptly named director of this film, Marc Webb, is not one of those guys.  As a result there's nothing to distract from the movie stumbling face first into a cobweb of worthless plot threads that stick and never want to let go.

Similarly, the action sequences start off quite enjoyable, but are quickly bogged down by an excessive use of slow-motion ramping in which Spidey’s spider-sense is treated less like an early warning system and more like an omniscient awareness of his surroundings.  This amps the sense of déjà vu up to eleven by telegraphing exactly what will happen, waiting a few seconds, and then showing it.

Another problem that may or may not be due to the script is Andrew Garfield’s Peter Parker, who is so self-assured and cocky even without the costume on that the conflicts of the film feel more like mild inconveniences rather than life threatening events. That said, Garfield and Emma Stone have great chemistry, no doubt due in part to their real life relationship, which makes their scenes together fun.  It’s just a shame that the movie turns their romance into an endless retread of “will they, won’t they?”

Of course, if it weren’t for Orci and Kurtzman’s trademark character teleportation act, she wouldn’t be around often enough to make it as tedious as it is. But hey, I guess it’s not totally impossible that normal human Gwen Stacey could cross a panic-stricken New York City in the middle of a blackout to arrive mere moments after Spider-Man so they can bicker as she finds herself in mortal peril. Again.

Meanwhile Jamie Foxx disappears into the special effect that is Electro early on, and Dane DeHaan’s Harry Osborne is basically a walking talking contrivance so we get no help on the villain front. The cherry on top is Sally Field acting like every scene that includes Aunt May is the most important thing in the movie, rather than belonging on the cutting room floor.

“Too much” being the theme of this movie, Hans Zimmer crafted a score that just blasts away as though each scene is the most epic thing ever put to film.  Though I've enjoyed a number of Zimmer's scores over the years, I didn't even care for the melody of this one, bombast aside.

So what’s left to say? I could follow their example and pad this out with nitpicking individual stupid moments, comparing it to the far superior Sam Raimi sequel, or just ranting about how I wish Orci and Kurtzman would stop putting their grubby hands all over some of my favorite franchises, but like The Amazing Spider-Man 2, that would just be unnecessary.

*this post cross-posted over at http://theirfinesthour.net/