Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Expendables

Written by Joe the Revelator

How it started:

Around a table lit by one bare, swaying light bulb, surrounded by guards armed with machineguns and banks of security cameras, a secret writer’s meeting took place. On the table was a half-spilled folder containing files with the following headings; Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, Randy Couture, Steve Austin, Terry Crews, Mickey Rourke, Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger… And they said; How can we bring these men together?

Answer; You can’t. Not believably, at least.

From the onset The Expendables looks like a movie bulging with testosterone and steroids, surrounded by guns, skulls, and fire- a feast of bullets and bombs with more than a sprinkling of blood. But after a few scenes it becomes evident that the most magnanimous achievement of this film is the cast. The cast. The cast. And this point is stressed again and again.

The very jacket of the movie is nothing more than a list of names with the tagline “Choose Your Weapon”, likely implying that the actors themselves are the weapons. Most of the actors don’t even don a role for the film. With the exception of Lundgren and Li, everyone seems to be playing themselves or a culmination of their previous roles. In a moment of levity, Couture even goes so far as to explain his cauliflower ear, a result of rigorous wrestling, which is laughed off by the other men as an old story they’re tired of hearing; possibly from their studio chairs or trailers.

Not to say that the boy’s club, all-star, dream team casts don’t make for good movies. There are plenty of examples of big names or bad-to-the-bone men coming together to kick ass. Dirty Dozen, The Magnificent Seven, Ocean’s Eleven. But each character was given his due by way of clever introduction and dialogue. Unless you know most of the expendables being expended from their earlier work, you’re left watching a bunch of big sweaty guys shooting the ribs out of pirates.

The plot is laid out like a connect-the-dots game. Group of paramilitary mercenaries get hired to do another dirty job. Biggest, most world-weary of the mean men feels sorry and sympathizes over the plight of smaller, less mean men (or women) in a land not their own. They all come together out of a sense of duty, gunfights ensue, one of them is a traitor, the government is corrupt, white people are behind the evil, blah, blah, blah…

With tank treads over guts,

The action is bloody and looks expensive and there’s a lot of fiery death. Bad guys die in cool ways. Knives are thrown. Dudes are punched. Fists are bumped. If you plan on enjoying this movie I would first recommend drinking a beer or ten, and inviting over your friends. The ones who smell like motor oil and locker rooms.

Monday, November 29, 2010

11-29-10 - Blog Update

So, as those who come here regularly may have noticed, my last post was about a week ago. I just wanted to explain that this is because I've been both out of town on vacation and working on a new short story. And, of course, I have a final exam to worry about, so my time to write has decreased for a short while.

I have not yet decided if the short story that is taking up my usual blog writing time will be posted here or not. It is a short story that is very personal to me, and I haven't been able to decide whether posting it will be a good idea or not, as it has a subtle relevance to events that have occurred recently in my life. In the end, I probably will, and probably nobody will have any idea why I worried so much about it. Long story short, I'll be done with it by the end of this upcoming week, probably, so normal blog posting will resume around that time.

Hope everyone has had a great thanksgiving. Happy holidays to all.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Forrest Gump vs The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Just yesterday I watched Forrest Gump with a couple of friends. I had only seen this movie once before when I was quite young, and remembered next to nothing of it. I remembered the box of chocolates. I remembered Tom Hanks' Alabama drawl. And that was pretty much it.

And then I watched it. I have to admit, Forrest Gump is a damn good movie. Seeing Forrest's life and how he interacted with the world in amusing and implausible ways... it's good stuff. By the end, though, it got me thinking. Forrest Gump has a lot in common with another movie: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Like Gump, Button is a movie focused upon one man's life story, and how that odd life turned out to be both lasting and rewarding. In Forrest Gump, the quirk is that Tom Hanks' character is slow in the head. In The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, the quirk is that Brad Pitt's character is born old and then gets younger as the years pass by.

After the similarities occurred to me, I wondered which one was better. And now I'm about to make my case for one above the other. You might disagree; I don't really care. I just think it makes for an interesting comparison and topic for conversation.

Forrest Gump

More than any other movie of this genre (feel-good fictional autobiographies?) that I've seen, Forrest Gump wins out in terms of intermixing Forrest's life with events in history. It is completely unbelievable, to be sure, but that doesn't stop it from being interesting and giving the movie a sense of epic permanence. Examples are many. I'm pretty sure Forrest Gump meets every president from John F. Kennedy to Gerald Ford in an impressive feat of visual effects; Tom Hanks is somehow imposed into old footage of the actual presidents. Forrest Gump is also present during the Vietnam War, saving an entire squad of wounded soldiers from being killed. He is responsible for discovering the Watergate scandal, founding the Apple corporation, and defending American honor in an epic ping-pong tournament with Chinese Communists. And that is only a handful of examples in a vast sea of events that Forrest is able to influence and change throughout the movie.

Sure, this is completely ridiculous and entirely untrue, but it serves a number of interesting purposes in the movie. It shows us that even someone borderline retarded can change history, even without meaning to. It provides varied milieus within which we can see Forrest shine. And it shows us that taking life as it comes is perhaps more rewarding than taking everything too seriously.

One thing that I specifically liked in Gump that is directly comparable to Button is the growth of the supporting characters. Forrest Gump never seems to change, but the few friends he makes do change over time and their progression is compelling. Forrest's childhood friend Jenny is the penultimate example, although one that is tragic to watch. Growing up with an extremely rough childhood, she turns to experimentation and the excesses of the hippie culture in order to cope, unable to recognize for a long time that perhaps real happiness lies in the example that Forrest supplies: simplicity and faith in the goodness of the self and others. Similarly, Forrest's friend Lieutenant Dane is, for most of the movie, obsessed with what others think of him, particularly his family and their heroic sacrifices in war. When Forrest rescues Dane from that fate in Vietnam, he is unable to wrap his head around the fact that he is now free to make whatever he wants to out of life. And Forrest helps him, like Jenny, to change for the better, despite the fact that Forrest makes next to no actually specific effort to do so. Such is the carefree nature of Forrest Gump.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a similar movie, but I think Button's strength lies in how Benjamin's ability to transcend the dramas and uncertainties of aging and death inspire others to overcome difficulties and faults of their own. Most of this comes through the oddities of his own unique life. For example, he basically spends his 'childhood' among old people because that is how Benjamin looks; old and wrinkly. This shows him how to go through life making the most of every moment, because he spent this time with people who, nearing the end, have learnt to value every second of what life has to offer. Benjamin is able to spend time with and understand people who are going through mid-life crises at a time when, chronologically, he would probably be in college if he was a normal individual. In the end, he is a man who approaches life with a caring wisdom along with the desire to savor every option that lies before him, no matter the consequences. Thus, near the end of the movie, he travels the world without regard to personal comfort or cost, just to enjoy it all, as much as he can, before the inevitable end.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is defined by Benjamin's odyssey throughout life, and Benjamin's own life is defined by these influences upon him by other people. Unlike Forrest Gump, Benjamin Button is a man who learns from people even as he inspires them to change for the better. Thus the movie is a character-driven one. Benjamin meets people of all shapes, sizes, and colors as he passes throughout life. Benjamin meets a woman who believes she has failed to live her dreams, and is able to learn about the value of meeting dreams while simultaneously teaching her that she still has time left to do what she wants to do. Benjamin meets his father who believes himself irredeemable for what he has done, and helps his father to realize that even those who have made mistakes can achieve redemption. In doing so, Benjamin recognizes the value of giving people, and himself, second chances.

And, perhaps most of all, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a love story. Benjamin's relationship with Daisy is central to the movie, along with what they learn from one another in their ongoing quest to make the most out of life. And, unlike Forrest Gump's one-sided relationship with Jenny, the love of Benjamin and Daisy is one that is mutual; part of what makes the story so intriguing is how it evolves over the years and how they learn when they are at a point when they are ready for one another.


It is probably easy to tell that I favor The Curious Case of Benjamin Button over Forrest Gump. That is not to say that I disliked Forrest Gump, quite the opposite. It is more to say that I found Button to be the deeper movie, with more appealing characters, with a more believable tale, and with a lead character who actually changes throughout the movie, and not just physically. Perhaps part of Forrest Gump's charm is that he is constant and always true and unchanging, but I found it more true to life to watch Benjamin Button's search for meaning, with all of its pitfalls, uncertainties, and victories. Forrest Gump I found comparable to the Tim Burton movie, Big Fish. They were both enjoyable, fantastical romps. But, in the end, you can't really see yourself in the shoes of the characters within those films. Or at least I couldn't.

Thus does The Curious Case of Benjamin Button take the prize, winning out over Forrest Gump.

This Film is Not Yet Rated (2006) Directed by Kirby Dick

Reviewed by Dionysuspsyche

I love rating movies. I love giving reviews and adding or subtracting stars to movies I did or didn't like. I'll admit, I'm not always unbiased. Sometimes my feelings on movies are arbitrary or strange or downright conflicted. My husband may hate a movie that he feels is “stupid,” yet I can't quit cracking up. He'll repeat a line, and I'll just shake my head. Sometimes I like bad movies because I can make fun of it the whole time. Or good movies in part because Rotten Tomatoes gave them a great review, and as a result we saw it. Over the years, we won't see a movie unless a certain number of people liked it. Yet, what about the movies no one sees? How would one decide what pieces of movies were or weren't appropriate for certain audiences?

This Film is Not Yet Rated (2006) documentary is a critique of the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America). This movie has been on my Must See list since it came out, and I'll admit I was jazzed when today I finally sat down and watched it. Who are the MPAA raters? They are a secret group that rates films for audiences. Every day parents we are told. What are the rules for this? Well, there are guidelines mostly, except for the foul language rule, which we are told has to do mainly with the f word, but also how words like shit, ass, etc. are used. The movie blends multiple aspects that prove to make it a documentary where you don't get bored. It brings out big name director/writers that everybody knows, directors/writers who made movies you probably don't know, and how the MPAA might be biased on rating movies since 1969.

Matt Stone talks about how when he and Trey Parker made their first major movie Orgazmo, a movie about a Mormon who becomes a porn star, they were given an NC-17 rating with NO comments on what they needed to change in order to achieve a different rating. However, after their success with South Park, they were called and given a check list of what would turn the film into a more acceptable film for a wider audience.

Stone's testimony is probably the best used example. While watching the movie, I had some skepticism. Of course an independent filmmaker might find that their movie receives a higher rating like R or NC 17 as opposed to a run of the mill rom-com churned out from the latest factory. We know that a lot of filmmakers who start out have unique and exciting ideas get their film in the door only to become a sell out who's run out of ideas years later. By that point of course, they have mainstream Hollywood backing them.

Matt Stone is best known for his co-creation and writing contributions to the hit television series South Park

Once up and comers tended to back up this idea too. It is unfair that being new to the process, you are not given more attention and help from the filmmaking industry. This Film is Not Yet Rated also let us know that the MPAA is paid BY the industry to create ratings to assist parents in deciding the appropriateness of movies. Their appeals court is incorporated by movie theatre head honchos.
Kevin Smith with his creations Jay and Silent Bob

Independent movies can tend to explore areas that the general public is not necessarily going to go see—whether it be rating, topic, or just because it's too weird. Of course main stream audiences will probably be made more squeamish by a film depicting homosexuality than one showing heterosexual acts. But giving different ratings based on sexual position? On pubes vs. none? On a more prominent filmmaker who depicts violence and rape than love with grinding? Well, now that doesn't seem quite fair.
What we learn in the movie is that the MPAA is a board that is secret so that their raters will not be under “pressure” from the public. Kirby Dick hires a private investigator to reveal the identities of these people which turns into an exciting chase scene that doesn't quite rival the Richard Nixon story, but is not without its thrills. As the movie presses on, you find yourself more critical of the movies you watch and why they are rated the way they are. How what we don't and didn't know does make us doubt their ability to accurately rate movies without any systematic rating, just feelings and impressions.

My favorite part of the movie is where the debate of violence vs. sex comes up. Obviously, they both make the industry a lot of money. They draw out viewers. They get blood pumping—they both do. Another documentary filmmaker is interviewed about his war/military film and its viewing and subsequent rating by the MPAA. Regardless of what we feel individually regarding violence and sexuality, it does make us think about what is deemed appropriate for which age groups and what isn't. Who are these people judging movies? How can appealing to this board for a different rating affect one's movie? Will cutting the movie make it better? More widely viewable for audiences? Is it a distinction of creativity or is it crass and vulgar? Is it because it wasn't a money maker? Or was it just someone's opinion who was outvoted?

One area left alone by the documentary had to do with horror movies. They may have glossed over it when they were discussing the amount of blood and how that affects the rating, but I wanted to know why certain horror movies net a PG-13 and what equals R. If anyone does a follow up to this documentary, please cover that. I'd still love to know. Of course, plenty of people could sleep a month after The Ring came out, but I knew a bunch of us that couldn't.

It is an underdog story in many ways, and you can't help but feel like telling Kirby Dick, “You're doing a good job. Don't let the man get you down.” Maybe that means I've seen Empire Records too many times. However, Dick is not an “in your face-this is all wrong” type of documentary maker. What he does do is a great job of laying out his evidence for viewers, and we see that his plight is for a better, more conclusive, and more structured rating system, his heart and his investigating may do American audiences more good than bad in the long run.

Kirby Dick

After the movie, I found myself feeling more discriminate about my film watching. It makes me wonder whether or not these films would be better with more or less censorship. There are a lot of crude and crass things in the world. What one might find offensive about a movie could be its lack of intelligence, its degradation of human life, or its unnecessary sexuality. Maybe something that I view as a tasteless piece of crap someone else might see as a hilarious, unobtrusive treasure. Maybe something I view as beautiful lovemaking someone else might see as obscene. I did walk away with a lot of questions, but I found them turned less at the MPAA and more at the general public. I do think the MPAA should come up with a more quantitative way of categorizing movies, and a less qualitative way of saying, “I don't like that...NC-17.”

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Engineering in the Ancient World

Written by CarpeCyprinidas

There's really only one practical reason to read this book by J. G. Landels:

Zombie apocalypse/other doomsday scenario that reduces civilization to ruins.
When a dark age comes along, there have to be a few prepared to deal with the real world as the rest of us recover from the shell-shock of a post-internet world. Knowing how to build a basic man-powered crane to erect walls and an efficient catapult to defend them could be crucial to your survival.

Pictured above: Ancient Romans preparing to decimate the zombie hordes.

Practical applications aside, it fascinates.
I read this book cover-to-cover in almost a single plane trip from Houston to Pittsburgh. Perhaps you would say this book only holds appeal for a certain type of person; but a physics or classics background isn't a prerequisite. If you've ever wondered at the Acropolis in Athens or Roman aqueducts, taken aback both by the beauty of design and the impressive scale, your interest was likely piqued by the sheer magnitude of what was accomplished without the aid of modern technology. Or maybe you played Rome Total War and want to know just how capable the Greeks and Romans truly were at building catapults; or, in a similar vein, have heard tales of Archimedes building ship-toppling cranes which he deployed to defend the walls of Syracuse.

The Romans built aqueducts like this one at Pont du Gard in France to provide a course for water running to their cities miles away from their source. This bridge is part of a system 31 miles long built in the 1st century AD and stands over 160 feet high. Another Roman aqueduct at Segovia built around the same time is still used today.

Any of these things could lead you to read this short account of ancient engineering, and for me it was a combination of all of them. The technical accomplishments of the Greeks and Romans are often side-lined to discuss art, politics, and literature, but their engineering also gives us something to marvel at. This is a society that can do much more than tell a good yarn; they solve real-world problems through the application of science and the scientific method.

Landels gives an easy-to-follow account of ancient engineering that neither indulges in technobabble nor talks down the subject matter. He maintains balance between strict report on ancient engineering matters and the occasional glance into how all of this mattered in the lives of the Greeks and Romans. Even the already stimulating topic of water supply and engineering is enhanced with an account of water administration in ancient Rome. There are no shiny pictures, but the pages feature clearly drawn illustrations that provide reconstructions of the various mechanical devices described. All that the book requires that you bring to the table is a somewhat mechanical mind with an understanding of basic principles of physics such as friction and action/reaction.

In short, I highly recommend this book for the inquisitive mind that wants to know "how does it work?", with a bent for the ancient. I picked up my copy at Half-Price Books for a pittance, but if you are lazy or haven't the luck to find it there it is also available free online at Google Books or for purchase from an Amazon.com bookseller near you.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Lost: The Complete Review - Part 3

I've decided that, between my assessments of the different characters, I will have interludes where I talk about something or other within Lost that either bugged me or that stood out as very interesting or important. First off...

The Problem of Walt

Who Walt is is relatively unimportant. He is the son of one of the other survivors, Michael, and it is through Walt's kidnapping that events are forced into motion with regard to the Others. Eventually, through questionable sacrifices, Walt is returned to America where presumably he leads a normal life. At this point, he largely disappears from the show (his last brief appearance that I can remember is in Season 5). But really, Walt isn't the issue here.

The issue is with the smoke monster. As I mentioned before, the smoke monster is able to take on the bodies and appearance of other people, and faces the survivors with these doppelgangers in order to judge them and also to lead them into chaos. In Season 6, we learn definitively that the smoke monster can ONLY take on the visages of people who are already dead. And this is where the problem arises.

Throughout the first half of the series, after Walt is kidnapped, he appears to a number of survivors randomly, without warning, and disappears just as quick as he came. This Walt apparition behaves much like the smoke monster does, leading the survivors into and out of danger on a whim. It leads Shannon to her death, and it also convinces Locke out of committing suicide. Through this, it is clear that the Walt manifestation has had some very important influences on the plot, and probably is the smoke monster's favorite form aside from Jack's dad, Christian. But this is Walt here. Christian is dead... but Walt?

Do you see the hole? Walt never dies in Lost. The smoke monster is supposedly unable to take on the forms of those who aren't dead. So... what the hell is that Walt ghost? Maybe I'm picky or perfectionist, but this really bugged me by the end of Lost, where most all other important plot points were given some form of explanation.

Kate Austen

I tried to like Kate. I really did. That is because I think I know what they were trying to do with her and, in theory, it was good. Kate, I believe, was intended to be this strong and independent woman who relied on no-one but herself. She seems made to be the heart of the team, so to speak, and appears to always align herself with the team that is 'right'. I was astonished to learn that she was originally supposed to be the main character of the entire series. The only thing that prevented that from happening was the writers realizing that killing Jack in the first episode would make the audience feel betrayed for investing in his character. Thus, Kate was shifted to, arguably, the second-most important character.

However, in practice, Kate is almost always insufferably annoying. Her past is that of the fugitive from the law. On the bright side, this aspect of her character gave me a strong sense of her independence and self-reliance, particularly during her flashbacks. But this also gave her some dumbass need to be a total flake, far too often. The prime example is where, after many episodes of unresolved sexual tension, she kisses Jack in the forest. Afterwards, she looks at him like he has caught the plague, and then runs off without a word. Why? We'll never know. There are many examples; she often ignores reasonable commands to stay put in favor of going off and getting captured, she takes for-fucking-ever to decide between choosing Jack or Sawyer, and she never seems to actually fit herself in to the group of survivors.

I want to expand on that last part. Kate's character is very strange and unlikable to me primarily because of this. She is ever-present and often a central focus for Lost but, despite this, she seems to have ZERO relevance to the show. It seems like her only purpose is to prolong the relationship agony bullshit, flip-flopping from Jack to Sawyer, back and forth. She has barely any connection to any of the other survivors, and those connections that she does make seem to dissipate in short order. In fact, she only makes brief friendships with Sun and Claire, making both of these friendships because of issues of pregnancy and babies for each. Hmm; now there's a thought. Perhaps the purpose of Kate is to become more akin to the traditional perception of feminine norms; she makes a shift through the series from independent woman to caretaking mother. Whaaaat? Sexist writers!

More seriously, though, Kate seems like one of the weakest characters to me. She has little to do with any characters outside of the Jack and Sawyer love triangle, she even (perhaps unintentionally) interferes with Sawyer and Juliet's relationship later on. She consistently makes decisions on a "Born to Run" basis. She simply feels like she is there to interfere with the lives of other characters. Her decision to return to the island to help Claire, while noble, fails to keep interest. Right at the end, where you feel Jack has grown in character to the point of not wanting Kate anymore, they profess their love for one another and I just wanted to vomit all over the screen. Kate just isn't one of my favorite characters, what can I say? Maybe it was the actress? Or maybe what was theoretically excellent simply wasn't able to make the cut in practice. We'll never know.

Fevre Dream

Written by Joe the Revelator

Mississippi Vampires;

Writer George R. R. Martin is best known for his exciting fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire, although his earlier successes can be found in television scripts, short Sci-Fi’s and novellas; gracing the pages of magazines and newly reprinted paperbacks like Armageddon Rag, Dying of the Light, and Fevre Dream. His stories are intricate and delightful, and his characters are immediately relatable.

The vampire lore in Fevre Dream deviate heavily from myth and borrows liberally from other contemporary writers, or is borrowed from, as Martin first published this in 1982. The cover of Fevre Dreams (newest print) was the only misleading feature of this novel. I plucked it from the shelf of the used bookstore, aghast that anything written by Martin would be stacked alongside the other smutty vampire tales, between Rice and Hamilton. But when I held it in my hands it sure looked like another sex-loaded bloodsucker tale; a naked prostrate woman lounging across the top of the title, a leathery winged bat flying across a blue moonlit riverfront, dark and eerie over a horizon of scraggly trees. The jacket quotes claim “sexy” and “romantic”.

Well, you know the saying; never judge a book...blah blah blah.

The story has barely a smattering of romance. And as sexy as the vampires are, (Martin has a thing for women with purple eyes) sex itself is hardly mentioned, and never a feature. The vampires aren’t even the focus of the story until well into the second half. It’s more about the thralls; the men who act as human counterparts and guardians for the vampires during the day. And of course, the steamboats.

Steamboats and their crews dominate large portions of the early chapters and several references to Mark Twain are made, not in a tacky way, but more in homage. The picture he paints of life on the steamers, of clashing ethnic views in the 1800’s, and of the racial tensions in a world turning against slavery, is vivid and capturing, and strikes the perfect balance as to not take away the spotlight from the supernatural elements. The voice he uses for Captain Abner Marsh, the "ugliest man to captain a steamer", has an audible twang of southern dialect that remains clear yet true to the source.

A schism has grown between the old and the new in the vampire ranks; between those that drink from human victims, and those that can abstain by using a tonic substitute for blood. While most of the vampires tend to be obscurely mentioned and killed off as the story progresses, those that support the plot are lavished with exceptional description and smart dialogue. Even the long, one-sided speeches that can often hurt the rhythm and stall the reader, are dynamic and keep up momentum.

Vlad vs. Bad;

This is not some cheap bump-in-the-night thriller. It’s a vampire tale with real substance to it, something I never thought I would say. With some scenes so gruesome and dark it’s a toss-up over who can commit more atrocities, those that feed off mankind, or men. By the end you’ll be left with a mixed sense of loss or regret for the fierce killers, maybe even a little sympathy.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Lost: The Complete Review - Part 2

A Character Study

The most appealing part of Lost was the characters and how they are one of the primary focuses of the show. You get to know these characters on a very personal level; you see absolutely terrible things happen to them to the point where their triumphs have real meaning and emotion behind them. One of the primary themes is that of rebirth. All of the characters who visit the island are all people who have deep and inherent flaws brought upon them through past events. Through an immense need for survival and through the realization that they may never be rescued or may never leave, these characters realize that, perhaps, the concerns and motivations that had driven them before aren't worth it. If you were stuck on a (mostly) deserted island, what would you do? Forced to fend for yourself and rely on total strangers who may soon become closest friends, you would change. But would you change for the better?

That particular question is one that comes up again and again throughout the series, and it is an interesting one. Some characters hold on to their preconceived notions of self; Sawyer holds himself to his quest for lonely vengeance. But some characters seize the opportunity to redefine themselves; Locke on the island is almost unrecognizable from the Locke that lived before the crash. Some characters succeed in this redefinition and come out the better for it; Hurley overcomes his fear of numbers (long story) and his need for comfort food. Some try and simply aren't strong enough to overcome their past; Sayid tries and tries to get over his days as a torturer and ultimately fails. The plethora of stories and characters mesh and clash with each other, making for a show that is defined by people growing, learning from their own mistakes, coming to rely on one another.

One particular plot device that is used to force characters to come to terms with themselves (up until around the fifth season) is that of the smoke monster. The smoke monster is, for the longest time, one of the scariest and yet most compelling things about the island. It appears to the survivors on numerous occasions, manifesting itself as people from their past. Seeing your long dead father march out from the trees would be immensely disturbing, as much as talking with your dead brother about the sins you committed in the past. The smoke monster, until the fifth season, serves as a sort of elemental force of judgment, and is used as a device to force characters out of their funks or comfort zones. Sometimes it is for the better, as when Jack is able to come to terms with the death of his father after following his shade through the forest. Sometimes it is for the worse, as when Eko speaks with his dead brother and then summarily gets the living crap beaten out of him by the smoke monster. Long story short; this helps to make a show about characters and their growth even more meaningful and intimate, as the smoke monster forces characters to face their fears and their mistakes.

At this point out, I want to talk about each of the major characters, one by one, and talk about what made them worth watching. Or why they sucked. Because I like character studies and because I feel like it.

Jack Shephard

Jack makes for a character that is both interesting and immensely frustrating. At first, I found a lot in common with him. Jack is obsessive in helping others, and can often get in over his head in doing so. He is the unofficial leader of the survivors for a long time, and takes it upon himself these gargantuan responsibilities of managing a group of people on an island without civilized food or care. It is clear, though, that while Jack is capable of helping people due to his profession as a surgeon and leadership abilities, he will not stop until he is able to succeed. While, in a sense, this is an admirable quality that he will sacrifice all in order to help people, it is something that results in nervous breakdowns, insane amounts of sleeplessness, and decisions that, while they may seem rational, are clearly, to the viewer, wrong.

There are countless decisions that Jack makes that are stupid. But nowhere is this more clear than with his constant inability to get along with Locke. I won't get into the details of Locke's character just yet but, despite Locke's foggy rationality, it is clear that Locke knows what he is doing. Other characters also make decisions that are perfectly correct, but Jack irritatingly opposes them. This makes it so that, for the majority of Lost's middle seasons, Jack is reduced to a stubborn dumbass who just won't agree with people who clearly know exactly what to do. His constant angst over wanting to be with Kate also gets on the nerves.

However, he redeems himself in the end. This obsessive nature eventually causes him to snap and, after a significant amount of time as an idiotic bearded bum, he reconstructs himself in a way that keeps the best of his qualities along with opening himself to possibilities beyond simply the rational. Logic defines Jack, and this opening of himself to faith and a willingness to put stock in things that seem unbelievable is a powerful step for him. And it is engrossing to watch. I found myself amazed in seasons five and six with regard to Jack. He actually became an interesting character again; he conceded decision-making to other people while similarly gaining a sympathy with Locke. Jack realized that he couldn't fix everything and came to understand that self-sacrifice has to have limits and understanding.

In the end, then, I came to appreciate Jack and what they did with his character. I loved him in the beginning; I loved his willingness to help strangers no matter the cost along with his obsessive desire to fix things. In the middle, he was an annoying pissant, but I see that this was done intentionally to pave the way for the end, where he transcends his failures to become someone greater for it. His death, while predictable, was thus one that was not without sadness for me.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Lost: The Complete Review - Part 1

So the unthinkable has occurred. I have finally finished the entirety of the TV show known as Lost. Yes, I know; for those of you who know of this massive undertaking, you must be saying, "Well, it's about damn time!" But what can I say? I was taking my sweet time. I started it somewhere around a year ago, after all. So, you know what? I'll make it up to you. I'll make this my most comprehensive review yet, and all of it will be awesome.

This will be spoilertastic. Beware.

The Premise

Lost involves a plane crashing into the middle of nowhere, leaving almost all of its survivors on an island that nobody has ever seen before. No, this isn't Survivor. This island is a messed up place, and impossible events occur that can't be explained. A pillar of smoke terrorizes the island, appearing when one least expects it in order to kill and generally scare the crap out of everyone. For no particular reason, polar bears occasionally show up. The remnants of a massive statue can be seen on one part of the island. The survivors see things that they shouldn't, such as people who have died along with those who haven't. Needless to say, there's some serious shit going down here.

The show's overall plot revolves around figuring out the secrets of the island, along with people trying to get off of it then back on again like some sort of drug. We watch it because we want to know more; the show is both very good and very irritating at revealing very little. Whenever the end logo appears, "Lost", you want to shake your fists at the TV. Whenever it says, "Previously, on Lost...", you want to smack the fast-forward button as fast as you can. It is a show predicated on the need to keep you hooked.

But the real meat of the show comes with the characters. Each of these characters are truly lost in their own way, and it is clear that they, perhaps, are there precisely so that they can figure out how to fix themselves, how to reconstruct their identities, and how to get over previous traumatic experiences. This is the best part of the show, as each of the characters for the most part are greatly detailed with multiple facets. The acting is mostly brilliant and the relationships that grow between the survivors are compelling to watch. Thus it is that, even when you could care less about Lost's shenanigans in telling you jack shit about the island, your affection for at least some of the characters keep you watching and hoping that they succeed even if everyone else fails.

The Island: Pros and Cons

After watching six seasons of this, I can mostly say that the island is absolutely preposterous. For a show focused on the ambiguity of human personality and relationships, to discover that the island's entire purpose is to contain some mythic battle between good and evil was very disappointing. For most of the show, you see that none of these characters necessarily have the right answers. Jack may be a decisive leader, but he is also emotionally imbalanced. Locke may be the epitome of wisdom in human form, but he is also far too susceptible to doubt. Kate may be... nevermind. Kate is a twat.

For the first five seasons, it is clear that there is something powerful and unclear behind the unexplainable events that occur on the island. Nobody quite knows what that is, and the emphasis is as much about simply surviving as discovering why the strange shit keeps happening. This uncertainty helps one to empathize with the characters; they are strangers in a strange land, and it is only their own determination and willingness to cooperate that can help them to survive. However, it is also clear that manipulating some and bullying others can help one survive as well. Thus does Lost become analagous to real life; what is good and evil is never altogether clear. It also makes the personal stories have that much more resonance; the big picture is murky, which makes individual successes that much more potent.

However, this inexplicably switches in the sixth season to a cosmic battle between good and evil. It is revealed that the island's guardian (the good guy) is in place to prevent the smoke monster (the bad guy) from escaping the island and somehow destroying the world. I won't lie; seeing the smoke-monster-personified-Locke is chilling and magnetic. But there is next to no way to empathize with him. Why shouldn't I think that those who align themselves with the smoke monster are complete idiots? Why has the perspective shifted from the trials and triumphs of the individual characters to a more surface level fight to victory?

Flashbacks, Flashforwards, and Flashing my Brains Out

One saving grace here is the flashbacks. Throughout Lost, the episodes are almost always split between events happening on the island and events that happened at some other time. What these serve to do is to give us that character focus so that, even if what happens on the island is boring or irritating, we can enjoy a side story that has a definable beginning and end, regardless of whatever cliffhanger the island portion chooses to foist upon us. Some of these flashbacks are more interesting than others; Hurley's almost always bring a smile in some way whereas Sayid's flashbacks can often cause eye-rolling as we are subjected to yet more torture shenanigans. Some have more impact on the characters than others; Locke's flashbacks of defying despair despite all odds is far more appealing than discovering how Jack got his dumbass tattooes.

Later on in the series, we get the flashforwards where, instead of going back in time, we go forward. This is perhaps the hardest to keep track of, as the events of the flashforward eventually, somehow, metastasize into the present, but they are interesting for the most part. Aside from Jack's epic homeless man beard. They show us what happens when the main characters are away from the island, how their progression as individuals seems to halt, and why they must return. These were the least interesting 'flashes', but I could see their use after a while.

Then, finally, we have the flash-sideways. In the sixth season, the flash-sideways presents us with a sort of parallel universe where we see what would have happened if the characters hadn't of crashed on the island back in the FIRST season. At first, I was skeptical, but in the end it allowed me to enjoy the presence of characters who had passed away or changed beyond recognition once more. It somehow brought out the nostalgia of the 'good old days' of Lost. We get to see Locke again as his old self, we get to see people meet each other once again for the first time and, through indescribable means, recall their memories of the island in the other universe and remember what these people meant to them. It is difficult to explain, but it serves a purpose that helps to bring light to the show when it needs it most, when the events occurring on the island are too awful or too opaque.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Dawn of War

Dawn of War, like Dungeon Fighter Online, is one of those games that I would never have picked up myself without pressure from friends to do so. Thankfully, my reaction was somewhat similar; I ended up liking this game a lot.

Dawn of War is a real-time strategy game set in the Warhammer 40k fictional universe. For those unfamiliar with this setting, think back to your times wandering around malls. Do you remember looking curiously inside game stores from the outside and seeing grown men (usually heavy-set and bearded) move little painted pewter figurines around in mock battles? What that was was people playing the original Warhammer 40k tabletop game, what this video game was based upon. I've never played it myself as it is a very expensive game to play; those figurines cost a bundle and you have to paint the damn things yourself. But some people like it. After playing Dawn of War, I can say that I loved the gameplay but am still distaseful of the setting itself.

The Frenzy of War

Part of what made the game's setting so unappealing was that it involves a number of wildly different factions who are in a continuous state of war. This game is defined by combat and death, and buckets of blood are hardly uncommon along with grotesque killings. Your commanders seem to be undergoing a competition to see who can kill something the nastiest. Certainly, the game's over-the-top feel keeps it free from too much disgust, but it still does little to conceal the crapsack world that this takes place in. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised. The word "war" is in the title, after all. But it does get tiresome after a while.

One good thing about this fictional universe is it has made for a design choice that can involve some simply massive battles. With instances like this, you are too busy micromanaging to care about the bloodshed, guiding a gigantic steel robot to target where the enemy is weakest at one moment, sending rocket raiders to the enemy's flanks in another. This is where the game shines as you are able to use your units' diverse abilities to tip the balance in your favor. And unlike most real-time strategy games I've played, Dawn of War has some truly epic possibilities on the tactical level; the unit list is varied and their abilities usually interesting and useful.

The Nuances of Conflict

What makes the gameplay so intriguing is the sheer amount of options before you. For each faction there are usually up to around twenty different units with varying degrees of firepower, strengths, weaknesses, and abilities. Building a unit of infantry gives you a couple of guys. From there it is up to you whether you want to build additional units into the squad (which can be done directly from the squad's interface) and they often have a number of options with regard to the weapons you can suit them out with. Similarly, you can choose to attach leader units to them to improve morale, or you could attach a unique and separate commander unit to the squad to give additional bonuses.

The possibilities are so many that one can often have one squad of the same kind of unit be suited out and prepared for a completely separate scenario than the other one. You can give them plasma guns, flamethrowers, long-range sniper rifles, machine gun emplacements, rocket launchers, mortars, and more. Each weapon has its own separate advantage and disadvantage. Machine guns will rip up any opposing infantry from afar, but is less effective against vehicles and enemies who get too close. Flamethrowers do a ton of damage at close range and ruin morale but, if the enemy has any form of armor, their effectiveness can be limited considerably. The separate commander units and buildings have even more unique abilities and upgrades that can be considered, including lightning storms, satellite-guided air strikes, and teleportation capabilities. As one can clearly tell, Dawn of War is a game that has a great deal of replayability, making it a perfect candidate for a good game to play with friends.


In the end, the only thing that I found irritating about Dawn of War was the fact that, if all else is equal, the one who has captured the most territory is given a decisive advantage. This makes it much more difficult for an underdog to make a comeback because their resources are that much more limited. Thus the irritating scenario is created where, even if the underdog is a genius at using what little troops he has to work with, the greater resources of the winning faction make an effective retaliation improbable. This is a problem with a number of real-time strategy games, but with this one I found that it made me far more willing to quit if I started to lose; why would I bother to go to the trouble of fighting to the last when defeat was a foregone conclusion?

Overall, the game is excellent, though, despite the flaws and passable setting. Each of the factions feel mostly unique and, with the strategic options near endless, the game has an enormous replay value. Dawn of War wasn't good enough to make me bother to look into the more recent sequel, but it was pretty good for something I had little desire to play in the first place.


Saturday, November 13, 2010

Fallout: New Vegas

Written by Joe the Revelator

If the Jetsons and Mad Max had an irradiated, punk-rocking, leatherclad child, Fallout would be it. Bethesda has contributed another great RPG into the post-apocalyptic series and this time it’s wearing a sheriff’s badge. The quirky, mature, ultra-violent fun of Fallout 3 has been brought back. And what could have been a repeat of Bethesda’s 2008 hit has distinguished itself enough to capture the interests of the player for another go-around. The Vault Dweller can step aside for this one, cuz’ the California Mail Courier is on the case. (Courier, See; The Postman)

This is not your daddy’s wasteland;

Officially there have been five Fallout games; Fallout, Fallout 2, Fallout: Brotherhood of Steel, Fallout 3, and Fallout: New Vegas. What began in Fallout 1 & 2 as clunky 2-D turn-based action game, in which your little character trots around a grid to increase your percentile chance to shoot at supermutants and ghouls, has evolved into the sleek 3-D realtime shooter with a magic panic button (V for Vats) that allows you to freeze time and perform attacks based on your character’s skills; again, to shoot at supermutants and ghouls. There was also an in-betweener squad-based tactics game, Fallout: BOS, which became a buoy after the original developers folded up shop, thus sending the entire Fallout line floating away into videogame limbo until Bethseda could rescue it.

The action in New Vegas gets kicking much quicker than the last Fallout game. Instead of an hour of establishing the vault dweller’s childhood background through tutorials, mini quests, and menu descriptions, you’re given a brief sharp-tongued apology from a greasy-haired gangster before he puts two slugs in your head and leaves you for dead in the desert. The screen goes black, and like a cowboy revenge movie of old, you wake up in the Doc’s office angry and burning for satisfaction. You’re taken through a quick spin with the menu options to pick your character’s generic-looking face and beard, a turn of the dial on a carnival test-o-meter grip to set your stats, and you’re ready to sling some hot lead.

The quests are equally reminiscent of golden age western cinema, those that don’t deal exclusively with fallout-themed motifs. (it’s hard to inject rat-pack and John Wayne values into a group of Brotherhood knights) Defend the town from a gang of escaped convicts. Save the frontier soldiers from the raider’s camp. Settle up old debts and accounts, etc. The gun-slinging and whisky-sipping prove effective as the game progresses too, as there are perks to support pistol skills and modifications for weapons, which means you’ll be less inclined to ditch your revolver when a laser rifle gets dropped in your lap.

A new feature is also offered at the beginning of the game; Hardcore mode, wherein the player must monitor their hydration/hunger levels and remain mindful of companions’ health, since they can die permanently instead of falling over unconscious. Greater challenges, as well as Faction-based quests and disguises, guarantee more than one playthrough. And like so many of the newer games that lean on the player’s online profile, this one through Steam, there are more achievements than you can shake a radscorpion at.

Bugs- Not the irradiated type;

Fallout: New Vegas doesn’t ride off into the sunset without any hiccups though. Almost every quest that deals with NPC’s following you around or getting ‘saved’ from capture is fraught with minor glitches. A quick look at the unofficial wiki or support site lists half a dozen methods to get around each fouled scenario, so they aren’t without hope or possibility of fixes in future patches. But there’s nothing as irritating as turning in an overlong quest, to find that the person who sent you chasing after a wild goose is hiding in the ethereal plane. Or when you’ve sighted a mutant’s head through the scope of a high-powered rifle, and the moment you pull the trigger his bloodspatter blinks and turns into your windows desktop.

I was sent on one particular errand through a factory full of killer robots. The first mechanical bully to stand in my way was given a 12-gauge shot to the chest, which recoiled him so hard that he flew rag-doll into a wall. Literally. His corpse got trapped inside the wall, and throughout the entire factory I could hear him clunking around like some clumsy metal poltergeist. Eventually I had to turn off the sound to finish my search of the compound.

The quests themselves will sometimes cancel out other storylines, forcing you to navigate through a web of missions that may or may not burn your chances with other factions or game companions. It stands to reason that killing a gangster’s boss will make him sore with you, but there are a few quest updates that will pop up on your screen without warning and neatly file itself away into your ‘completed’ or ‘failed’ list. So when in doubt, check ahead. I don’t often advise walkthroughs for games, RPG’s especially, but New Vegas is faction-sensitive enough to merit a quick peek at later chapters. Unless you really are the sort of devil-may-care type who doesn’t mind which side of the coin you land on, so long as the loot is rich.

When the gunsmoke clears;

New Vegas is witty and intelligent without going over the player’s head, and makes references to past installments without pandering too heavily to diehard followers of the Fallout franchise. The novelty of alternate quest-lines and endings are weighty enough to justify the price. The fights are hailstorms of bullets and explosions. The story is interesting, controversial with sharp twists. All in all it’s a good play, which will keep you rummaging through trash bins and bomb shelters while the computer overmind watches like you’re a hobo from 1984.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Brief Blog Downtime

Hello all. My laptop has had some issues this week, making it impossible to write for the blog, as I use the laptop for everything Inquisitive Loon related. This, along with midterm busyness, has prompted me to take the week off. My normal posting schedule will resume next week. Damn faulty laptop chargers!

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Man Who Laughs

In my next reading of a Batman comic, I inadvertently selected one that is a direct sequel to Batman: Year One. In The Man Who Laughs, we see Batman encounter the Joker for the very first time, and we see how their endless rivalry came into being.

The Emissary of Chaos

As most know these days after the release of The Dark Knight, the Joker serves as Batman's arch-enemy. Unlike most of those he fights, the Joker is one who is completely and irreperably insane. He also can be incredibly destructive and murderous, and this tends to raise interesting questions as Batman imprisons him again and again. Is it moral to capture such a dangerous individual over and over when all he does is escape to kill again? Is it justified to kill him if he is such a danger to society? The Joker's endless killing antics also raise questions regarding Batman himself. Whenever the Joker shows up, Batman is always hard pressed to stop him, and the effort to think like the Joker in order to do so has intense ramifications for Batman himself. Is it psychologically damaging to force one's self to think from the perspective of serial killers all the time? Is Batman himself sane? Many Batman comics raise these questions as we see that Batman could potentially have been the Joker. After all, Bruce Wayne is not a mentally stable person to begin with. He could just as easily have snapped against society as a whole instead of focusing directly on the criminal element.

The Man Who Laughs raises a lot of these questions, a noble effort that is only appropriate for the "first meeting" between Batman and the Joker. In actuality, this is technically not the first time. Instead it is a retelling of sorts, much like Batman: Year One is not actually the first Batman comic. Regardless, in The Man Who Laughs, we see the Joker "for the first time" and start to respect how chaotic and dangerous he can be. We see how, despite his madness, he is clever enough to cause chaos throughout the city, tainting Gotham with his own insane proclivities. And we see the disturbing effect of the Joker's laughing gas "for the first time". Needless to say, this comic has some gruesome images and, if you want to read it, you should be forewarned.

The Man Who Shrugs

However, despite the questions the comic raised, I found myself unexcited by the story. The Joker makes yet another attempt to ruin Gotham, but does so in a way that seems too broad and seems to go by too fast. In short, the comic tries to do too much and suffers for it. At one point, the Joker lets the inmates of Arkham Asylum out into the streets of Gotham (exactly like in the movie Batman Begins), but the crisis is resolved the instant Batman shows up. In a mere two pages, Batman beats the crap out of a couple inmates then declares the emergency over. Similarly, a failed hostage situation is encompassed within three pages. Instead of picking up the pace, I felt that this jumping through events caused the story to suffer. Each of the problems the Joker creates are addressed very quickly and then moved past. This made it feel that the Joker wasn't that much of a threat and also that the authors were unwilling to go into detail on any level.

This is evidenced by the questions the story raises. It makes one wonder if Batman is a stable individual. It makes one wonder if the Joker serves almost like an elemental force of chaos instead of as a troubled person. But then these questions are ignored in favor of a speedy turn of events and the inevitable end of Joker's plans. An intriguing look at the answers to these questions is not to be had. Basically, this comic felt too much like the stereotype of a comic; it involved punching and heroics but ultimately failed to make me think about motivations or become involved with the characters. The story was scattered and weak, and only once or twice did it make me actually fear what the Joker was capable of. But only for moments. Sadly, the Joker's crappy and cheesy dialogue only contributed to the neutering of his character.


As one can tell, I wasn't terribly impressed by The Man Who Laughs. I know there are better Joker and Batman stories out there, I just wanted to try this one because I had heard good things and because I had not read it before. Basically, if you are interested in the Joker, there are much better places to look. For a mildly entertaining romp through Gotham, this satisfies the urge. But beyond that, this comic fails to impress.


Friday, November 5, 2010

Trick 'r Treat

Written by Joe the Revelator

Trick 'r Treat

Lately I’ve been disappointed by horror movies. We’ve had a long stream of big budget remakes, re-chewed like so much Hollywood cud, and fed back to us still bearing the original titles; Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, Halloween, My Bloody Valentine. Were these plots so original, so exquisitely crafted that no modern storyteller could hope to rival them? How about the subsequent sequels (12 for Friday, 9 for Nightmare, 10 for Halloween) that dribbled out years after their release?

On the other side of the franchise tugboats are the more formulaic chase-and-chop thrillers, most of which are shoveled out as ‘strait to dvd’ rental exclusives, aimed toward the casual couch-bound horror fan who doesn’t mind feeding the B-Movie machine. There’s also an increasing popularity in torture porn, like Hostel and Saw, which feature gory what-if situations that could have sprung from the minds of demented construction workers. And if you like watching exorcisms, there’s a whole slew of newer, less edgy retreads of the original Exorcist, guaranteed to horrify preteen girls and devout Catholics.

Horror movies; the reason we can’t have nice things?

I submit that it is not the genre that is in deficit, but the writing. Old and new, there are some great thriller flicks waiting to be found; just not the ones that features a screamy pair of breasts that limp weakly away from the champion-power-walker murderers.

Trick 'r Treat follows the rarer path of campfire storytelling in which several horror pulps are mashed together into a scary movie, one that blessedly doesn’t take itself too seriously. The theme of the movie and the drive of its cast is the strict adherence to old Halloween rules, which we’ve gradually forgotten over the years. Keep jack-o-lanterns lit. Offer treats to appease the ghouls. Respect the dead. And always inspect your candy.

Not since Tales from the Hood has there been a more shameless slaughter of the unwary, told on a case-by-case basis. The elementary school principal is killing his students and stalking the youth of the town, who in turn suffers a run-in with adolescent werewolves. The trick or treaters’ are playing deadly pranks on each other, the curmudgeonly neighbor really is a crazy old creep with a terrible secret, the candy is poisoned, and the goblins are running amuck.

Trick 'r Treat doesn’t so much rely on heart-stopping thrill moments where the score cues you up for a scare. It’s more about nostalgia, bringing you back to small town comfort zones, and slowly twisting those comforts back around on you. This is one of those rare movies that can drag you back to your childhood when everything was still spooky at night, when your fresh mind could actually imagine a witch living in the abandoned house across the street.

And the credits roll...

Rent Trick 'r Treat, because it might be the first or last time you won’t be lying to your date when you say “It’s really not too scary,” or “the storytelling’s actually good.”

Since I dropped so many horrors, here are a few others I recommend:

High Tension, The Descent, Pandorum, Dawn of the Dead (remake), Shawn of the Dead (comedy), Silent Hill, 30 Days of Night, House on Haunted Hill (remake), 13 Ghosts (remake), Wrong Turn, Cabin Fever, 28 Days Later, Event Horizon