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Monthly Archives: September 2012

Really Bad Movies: Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

There are times when the true, awe-inspiring stupidity and insipidness of mass media works never really strikes you until the thought hits: THIS. WAS. WRITTEN. By people who presumably have normally functioning human brains. Sometimes by more than one of those said people. For every work of art in which you are keen on finding out who the artist is in order to praise him, there are many others so bad you put them out of your head, forgetting completely that people were behind them making them work. Elevator muzak, for example, was printed out on paper, then recorded by real musicians with real instruments in recording studios. The lame jokes dominating family sitcoms such as Full House were also written.

That feeling hit me once again when I watched Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. It’s true we don’t expect a whole lot of depth from a Michael Bay movie, but Revenge of the Fallen takes hormonal teenage guy visual candy to an unprecedented level. Although Bay doesn’t use his seizure-inducing flash cut style to his usual extent in this movie, it does contain all of the mean-spirited drunken frat boy in your face attitude that also defines his films. One of the opening jokes features main character Sam Witwicky’s pet dogs humping each other, another features his mother eating pot brownies, and it culminates with one of Sam’s friends being put down with a freaking taser because he won’t shut up! Meanwhile, the romantic subplot revolves around Sam’s apparent inability to say the three magic romance words to Mikayla. People, somebody wrote all this!

Part of the problem is pretty generic; this is a movie which is trying to center a plot about giant transforming robots trying to destroy each other around humans. The main characters are Sam Witwicky and his girlfriend Mikayla, both returning from the first Transformers movie. Sam is off to college, but he begins speaking jibberish in class. He is seeing symbols which he apparently picked up when the all spark from the last movie went kablooey, and this makes him the only source of the history of Cybertron. Everyone is after him. Ultimately there’s something about a group of Transformers called the Fallen, and another something about some kind of doomsday device.

It isn’t that I didn’t want to pay attention or didn’t try. It’s just that trying to pay attention is a chore. Michael Bay directed Revenge of the Fallen with the completely wrong idea of the proper way of holding the audience’s attention at any and all cost. He doesn’t do it through good storytelling, but with female curves and explodey things. Normally, things like that make for a very fun action movie, but the problem is that your brain can only take so much visual candy before it tunes out. Revenge of the Fallen is two and a half hours long, which is an awful long time to watch mindless action candy no matter how much you love it. By the end, my brain was so numb that it felt like it was drizzling out of my ears.

Revenge of the Fallen plays out like one giant action sequence without any of the wit needed to make it bearable. The plot thread about Sam’s symbols wears out before the halfway point, and the rest of the movie blends together from there. Stuff happens, matter explodes, and many of the robots talk in the most annoying voices possible. Everyone just forgets everything the movie is supposed to be about, which is usually acceptable for brain candy. But this feels different because of the length – it feels like everyone had a base need or desire to replace the story with as much gratuitous action as possible.

The movie isn’t served very well by its mythology. Yes, the movie tries to push a mystical, mythological background onto us to make it interesting. To my utter lack of surprise, this fails. The big problem is that Michael Bay doesn’t know when to lay off his accelerator. In order to tell a good story epic, the story has to remain strong. The Lord of the Rings and Avatar had stories and themes. I would blame the writers for being blind rats, but the three-person writing crew includes Ehren Kruger (The Ring) and two of the writers of the awesome 2009 Star Trek reboot. Let’s chalk this up to executive interference. Anyway, Bay hits the gas and drives this movie right over the canyon. The difference between him and James Cameron is that Cameron knows to let up at times to let the story go in whatever natural direction it’s turning in.

The advice of Timothy Leary applies when you shove Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen into your disc tray. Tune in, turn on, drop out. Worse than being a shiny thing that doesn’t realize it’s a shiny thing, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen DOES know it’s a shiny thing and it takes every available opportunity to remind you of that until you hate it. Kind of like a diva.

Really Great Movies: The Social Network

I take back every bad thing I ever said about Justin Timberlake. It’s that he came riding in on the back of a popular boy band, and we all know how that usually turns out, right? Well, if you were among the many, many Timberlake bashers, you may take heart in the fact that his singing hasn’t really changed one bit. However, he has proven to be a great pop music innovator, but what really surprised me is his acting ability. In The Social Network, he plays Napster founder Sean Parker, the charismatic machine gun-talking salesman who leads Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg down the path to success, but at the cost of Zuckerberg’s soul.

How do you make a good movie about the formation of a website? Well, hiring David Fincher to direct is a good start. It’s pretty odd that a project like this would come from Fincher. The Social Network is, after all, a movie which is giving acknowledgement to the beginnings of one of the most dominant corporations in the world. One of Fincher’s other indisputable classics (he’s building an impressive resume of them) was Fight Club, a roaring primal scream from one person in a materialistic, corporate world wondering where the line between his gussied up material character and his real self is drawn. Also on the staff of The Social Network is the great screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, who wrote A Few Good Men, The American President, and created TV’s The West Wing. The Social Network, as a result, is written and directed in a very engaging manner.

The Social Network’s universe revolves around Mark Zuckerberg, a young Harvard student first seen mouthing off to his girlfriend with the cold bluntness and efficiency one might hear in someone with Asperger’s Syndrome. She finally ditches him with equivocal coldness and efficiency, sending The Zuck back to his dorm to get drunk and badmouth the girl in his blog before setting up a hot-or-not site called Facemash, which crashes parts of the Harvard network. It also brings him to the attention of Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, who have an idea for a Harvard alumi dating site and and thing The Zuck is the perfect guy to get it online. Zuckerberg likes the idea and uses it to create a whole new social network for people to stay in touch.

Long story short: It gets big. It expands in a way no one has ever seen before. Mark gets rich and inadvertently screws everyone over.

Mark Zuckerberg the way The Social Network portrays him is a tangled mass of contradictions. He is a genius who is easily led on by a very good snake oil salesman. He is a stone, thick and impenetrable for most people but he has an excellent idea of what makes people tick. He is a faithful friend to his friend and business partner, Eduardo, but doesn’t seem to care that Eduardo was screwed over by Sean Parker. Zuckerberg has a personality set to the robot position for the entirety of The Social Network. He seems alienated from the real world most of the time, but is a creative innovator who is able to make billions by analyzing the base desires of humanity.

Zuckerberg likes the idea of a universal connections network, so he takes his inspiration from the Winklevoss twins and a grand from Eduardo for his startup fee. When two girls at a Bill Gates lecture tell Mark and Eduardo to Facebook them, they know they’re on to something, and Sean Parker enters the picture as something of an advisor to Facebook. He has two things Mark and Eduardo need: The first is an excess of charisma shooting from every pore in his body at the speed of sound. The second and more important thing is connections, which Eduardo come in handy when Eduardo tries to make them himself in New York City and fails. Parker definitely plays a role in the success of Facebook, but he also turns into a wedge when he correctly calculates the respective reactions of Mark and Eduardo to him when they first meet. Mark, shooting for the stars, likes Sean. Eduardo, who doesn’t like him, prefers a more conservative approach. Sean, acting like the average kid after doing something which results in his folks playing the good parent/bad parent routine, snuggles up to Mark and uses him as a shield.

The Social Network is set around a pair of lawsuits Zuckerberg faces from the Winklevoss twins and Eduardo. They are all suing Zuckerberg, the Winklevoss twins because they believe he committed intellectual property theft by using their idea to form Facebook and Eduardo because he came back for a slice of the Facebook stock which Sean Parker slickly tricked him out of. The story is told in flashbacks, but they are mostly unbroken so the interruptions to the boardroom scenes are kept at a minimum.

There is a little bit of a Shakespearean element to The Social Network. No one dies, of course, but Mark seems to be made into some shade of Hamlet. Lawsuits are used as vengeance killings once Mark wipes his formerly solid relationships with his friends right off the face of the Earth. Like Hamlet, The Zuck seems lost and uncaring in his own little world at times, much to the detraction of everything that isn’t taking place in his head. The Social Network ends not with a massacre, but with a bitter irony: His Facebook site now has over a million members, but Mark Zuckerberg has no one left in his corner to help him fight his battles. The final scene is Mark, having the kind of money which society deifies, sitting pathetically in an empty boardroom, attempting to friend his ex-girlfriend on Facebook.

It’s possible that by making Mark Zuckerberg such an alienated character even a the best of times, Fincher was turning The Social Network into an other social commentary about where the tricky location of a blurry line between materialism and reality, where the accumulation of things ends and the actual person is formed. If that’s the case, maybe The Social Network has something in common with Fight Club after all.

Leftworld

There was a small-time store for left-handers I used to support. I had its page liked on Facebook, which is something I rarely do even for small businesses I really DO like that much. One day, I noticed that I stopped getting its feed. I visited their page and noticed that not only had they not updated anything since 2010, but their information had been reduced. I looked up the place on Google and spotted its Twitter feed, which has been dormant for over a year. My natural conclusion was that it had shut down.

There’s a need for stores that cater exclusively to lefties. Left-handed people are fairly common, but not so common that we’re taken into consideration about the small material products that get created. There are small little courtesy products like scissors and can openers that make it easier to be a southpaw in a world where people were once burned at the stake because of a few misunderstood Bible passages glorifying the right hand of the lord. For the most part, however, we’re stuck fighting through a right-handed world with even a lot of everyday activities. We don’t find pants with flies for left-handed people. All the cameras and video game controllers I’ve ever owned were designed with easier right-handed use in mind. And while it’s possible to learn how to play the guitar left-handed, it’s so tricky that a lot of the most prominent left-handed guitarists who ever lived learned to play right-handed, straight.

If the whole world was to suddenly convert to left-handedness tomorrow, and every product was for lefties when I woke up in the morning, I have to say I don’t know how well I’d make the adjustment. I spent my life fighting with right-handed things that make life difficult for not only lefties, but people like me who are lefties by necessity of birth defect on their right arm.

I’m so used to living in that world that I wouldn’t know where to begin if the world made an overnight shift to left-handers. More to the point is that I’ve spent a lifetime learning to use so many things right-handed that, in spite of my left being my dominant hand, I would have to go about re-training and reprogramming my head to use left-handed devices properly. Learning to use something meant to be used by a dominant hand that isn’t our own gives us the patience and persistence necessary to learn to use our right hands as compliments to our left hands, and over the course of time we begin to take our ambidexterity for granted. The difference is that while a right-hander keeps a left arm hanging around uselessly, southpaws are trained by modern instincts to have some extent of use for our right arms as well. Waking up in a left-handed world would deprive us of that because instead of using two hands to make up for the right-handedness we lack, we would suddenly be forced to adjust to barely needing our right arms to do anything.

I’ve learned to do several difficult things right-handed. When I try to play the few guitar notes I’ve learned in my life, I do it right-handed. I know how to shoot a bow and arrow right-handed, though I use firearms left-handed. I drive right-handed, but it isn’t like I have a choice in that matter.

Being left-handed is a blessing in that it makes lefties more ambidextrous. Right-handers don’t have this luxury – the world caters almost exclusively to their needs. But being left-handed means learning to use right-handed devices because the left-handed devices aren’t around as often as we would like.

What Star Wars Taught Me About Silver Era Video Games

What Star Wars Taught Me About Silver Era Video Games

When bloody war and mass slaughter come to mind, people usually don’t think of Star Wars. That’s an irony if you think about it – the word “Wars” is right there in the title. However, I have recently started using the video game Star Wars: Battlefront as my newest stress reliever, and my kill counts have been something to behold.

Battlefront is one of the more unusual entries into the Star Wars video game canon because you don’t get to play as any characters of significance. You’re not Han Solo, Darth Vader, or Qui-gon Jin. You don’t even get to take up arms as the rank and file. You’re the dude in the trenches who runs into the thick of battle to do the actual fighting. You die, you respawn, you run around shooting everyone and everything in sight until you die again.

This isn’t the prototype video game level, where you walk from one end to the other, taking out everything in sight. In Battlefront, you’re placed in an enclosed area, placed into the body of a Rebel, Stormtrooper, Clone Soldier, or Confederate Droid, and from there you basically kill everything in sight. You’re not the strategist or morale commander in Battlefront; your mission is to partake in fighting for your side using any means necessary. Hopefully your side will win. Sometimes it won’t. None of the big space dogfights from the movies made it into Battlefront, which is a strike against it. (Although its sequel, Star Wars: Battlefront II has them. Sadly, though, they were done in the most half-assed way imaginable – as was virtually every other feature of it.)

There’s no particular point. You have to capture the occasional command post to stay in the battle, because those are the points your troops spawn from. Sometimes the game plays lip service to an objective; on Endor, you have to protect or destroy the bunker, depending on who your playing as; on Geonosis, you have that same object with the Union Ships; on Hoth, it’s the Shield Generator. Yet, for all the objectives, I don’t know of a single gamer who would be fooled. Battlefront is a button-masher, straight up. It even has the option of a first-person viewpoint, which is something I usually appreciate, though not in this case.

With the abundance of scavenger hunts in video games, a game like Star Wars: Battlefront seems more important than ever. Although you’ll probably want to avoid shooting your own teammates, Battlefront is generally a throwback to the old days of games being games. Battlefront has music from the Star Wars movies, but it finds its strengths through alteration of the movies’ settings and what might be the expanded universe. What pushes it over the top, at least in my opinion, is the way the glitches and set rules the game uses allow me to freely run about, experiment, and do everything in my power to undermine and tear down the structure of the game without it noticing.

There are consequences to leaving the battlefield that I try to avoid. There are a million different in-universe vehicles to be commandeered, all of which handle differently. There are different weapons, character classes, and ways to go about dealing with bad guys. The combination of hilarious glitches, overlooked breaks, and freewheeling nature of the game itself provide a fertile ground for imaginative gamers to run rampant and wild, provided they’re not afraid to take a few hits and losses. From seeing if I can sneak around an enemy spawn point all stealth-like in an effort to capture it without being seen to getting a sense of the heights of cloud city by accidentally falling from one of the platform ledges (not a good idea, it turns out), Battlefront may be the most 16-bit video game I’ve ever played that was a genuine next-gen console game and not just a next-gen console game done with a 16-bit engine and 2D graphics.

The broken programming and glitches in this case don’t deter the experience. As I’m at least trying to convey in my book, an occasional glitch and a sometime-broken program can be part of the fun. One of the major differences between the real 16-bit games Rob and I constantly experimented with as kids and the pseudo-16-bit games and emulators of today is those glitches. Today, technology is advanced and game testing is so standard that a new game in the 16-bit style is mechanically perfect.

That’s what makes Star Wars: Battlefront such a unique case. It’s a game that is 16-bit in spirit, including through a lot of the execution, and yet next-gen. Games used to get made like that all the time. Like many other gamers my age, I still love and revere the 16-bit generation as the infallible Silver Era of video games. Although games are always evolving and getting better, sometimes it’s hard to remember what made the old days special. It took a next-gen game coded on a license notorious for producing some of the worst video games of all time to remind me of it.