Monday, November 5, 2012

A Few (Dozen) Words About Metal

In the mid nineties, when I was just into high school, I was introduced to metal music by my friend Billy.  We were messing around in the computer lab and he played some Metallica that sounded neat.  Since I have always been one to take the plunge on new music, I asked Billy what was the heaviest, fastest Metallica record.  That night I went to the record store and picked up "Master of Puppets" and played it in my bedroom.  It scared the shit out of me.

"Puppets" has never been my favorite metal record, but it was my first, and the parts I liked were enough to kickstart my addiction to metal.  Over the next few years I managed to get some of my friends into it, but they couldn't understand why I continued to listen to all of the other music that I liked.  Japanese pop, Alternative, new wave... that wasn't very "metal" at all, was it?  Actually, yeah.  I think it was.

Image courtesy of
Metal is a huge term that encompasses a massive variety of music.  As a genre tag, it's a term only slightly less loaded than "punk".  A lot of people have their ideas of what Metal is and isn't.  In my experience, however, metal can be gentle or harsh, simple or complex, artsy or accessible, loud or soft (but usually loud).  I'm not even going to begin to go in detail on this, because we'd be here all day.

No matter what, metal bands tend to swing for the fences.  Death and thrash metal bands try to be the fastest and most aggressive.  Power metal bands try to thrill and inspire.  Black metal bands try to sound incredibly evil and confrontational.  Symphonic metal bands try to be the next Wagner.

The common factor of all metal is that whatever floats your boat, you do.  You do it hard, and you do it for keeps.  Some metal bands write about real world issues, or transcendence, or God.  Others write songs about elves and dragons.  But if you're going to sing about Elven warriors, you'd better sing it like you mean it.

A lot of metal bands know that what they do is ridiculous.  They laugh about it between beers after the show.  But when they're up on stage, they're the warriors of metal, and those dragons need slaying.  Metal fans have senses of humor, no question.  But we love what we love for real.  If this was all a joke, we'd be hipsters.

Metal is my philosophy.  And that means that I enjoy what I want to enjoy in life, regardless of what other people think about it.  But I don't try to "freak the normals" with my music or art or ideology.  As long as people are tolerant of me, why should I mess with their day?  Live life the way you want, and let others do the same.  That's metal to me.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Movie Review: Cloud Atlas (2012)... And Kittens

Note: Instead of screencaps of Cloud Atlas, please enjoy these adorable pictures of Memebon, the adorable Japanese smooshface kitty.

SEE three directors carrying a total of six separate plots across a gaping ravine!  SEE a cast of acrobats somersault gracefully from one plot to another!  PRAY that this travelling circus doesn't plummet to certain doom on the rocks below!

He's so freaking cute!
If you're a cinephile, you owe it to yourself to see Cloud Atlas, just to be part of the conversation.  If you aren't, I recommend approaching with caution.  This is a long, long movie.  It doesn't break three hours, but it feels like four.  But these problems are perhaps unavoidable given the ridiculous high-wire act that directors Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski, and Tom Tykwer have set up for themselves.

Cloud Atlas is basically an anthology of six short films, but all told at the same time, with the same actors playing various roles in multiple stories.  Astonishingly, this never gets confusing.  Due to truly masterful editing, not only does every plot remain clear, the parallels between the six stories are made apparent throughout.  Sometimes two people are simultaneously engaged in similar tasks, and sometimes the connections are a bit more poetic.  Somebody deserves an award for this.

What isn't deserving of an award was how sore my ass was after about six hours... er, 2.75 hours of this.  But what kind of film is this, you may ask?  The answer is, six kinds:

1) In the 19th century, a white man on a ship makes an uneasy truce with a runaway slave who has stowed away in his cabin, gradually awakening to the evils of slavery.

2) In the early 20th century, a young gay composer works uneasily with a cranky old genius to craft what will hopefully be a masterpiece.

3) A spunky, black, female investigative reporter tries to blow the lid off an evil corporate plot against alternative energy in the 1970's, and gets shot at an awful lot.

Box kitty has found a box!
4) In modern London, a scrappy old publisher finds himself involuntarily checked into an old folks' "home", and plots a cunning escape with a gang of dissenters.

5) Neo-Seoul in the 23rd century is home to a cottage industry of synthetic hostesses, bred only to serve.  One of them wakes up to reality and becomes an unlikely rebel.

6) Far, far, in the future, a race of primitive tribesmen are menaced by a more violent tribe, but a visitor from an advanced civilization may be able to help them.

That's a lot of genres for one movie, and they're all done well enough.  Unfortunately, hardly any of it is "great".  And while "well enough" might sustain a fun ninety minutes, three hours demand a bit more "oomph".  Some stories are good, even great, while others I could have done without.

The best of the lot is the lighthearted nursing home escape, which could have been a fine movie on its own with a little polish.  I also enjoyed the far future plot, especially the dialect that the tribespeople spoke.  A lot of people will probably complain that it was hard to decipher, but it was a shockingly well realized bizarro-English that added color to the story.

The thriller plot is serviceable, despite a gratuitous cute dog murder (what is it with cute animals being introduced just to get killed in movies?).  The other plots are mostly meh, with the Neo Seoul plot proving the most annoying.  It's the most outwardly "Wachowski-ish" story, with gorgeous visuals, a boneheaded plot that amounts to "Logan's Run 2: Even Runnier", and a completely wasted Doona Bae in the lead role, directed down to sub-Matrix speed.

I'm done with my popcorn now!  Mew!
So after all this, what is the "point"?  Well, in each story one character leaves some kind of record of their ordeal, which someone in the next story reads and is inspired by in some way.  There's also this intimation that the same sorts of conflicts repeat throughout time, but this just draws attention to the fact that the film's six plots are thematically redundant.  This becomes obvious at the end, when every plot reaches its "I've learned something today" speech, and the dialog just does cartwheels of profundity.

Basically it's six films in one, and if that's all you expect, it could be time well spent.  I'm grateful I saw Cloud Atlas, but ye gods was my ass sore by the end.  If nothing else, I got to see Tom Hanks as a bald-headed London thug, and Susan Sarandon as a gibberish spouting holy woman.  These are the small pleasures that make life worth living.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Cryptopsy - "Cryptopsy" Album Review

It's been a hard life for Cryptopsy, those Canadian vanguards of technical death metal.  The thing about tech-death (as some of us like to call it) is that to the untrained ear it sounds like an endless stream of blast beats, squealing guitars and "roo roo roo".  But in a genre so apparently monotonous, Crytopsy have done more than any band I know to keep things interesting.  This has had the unfortunate side effect of pissing off the more cro-magnon elements of their fanbase, who greet any change in style with cries of "SELLOUT!".  The idea that a band that sounds like the Frankenstein monster molesting a lawn mower could be considered sellouts is hilarious, and I'll leave it at that.

The band has always been anchored by the inhuman drumming of eight-armed colossus Flo Mounier, who appears to rule the band with an iron fist.  Cryptopsy hasn't maintained a stable lineup for more than an album at a time, and notably has had no less than four lead singers over 8 albums.  Current vocalist Matt McGachy has caused a pretty obnoxious fan backlash, mostly because he had the gall to sing melodically once or twice on the album "The Unspoken King" instead of gargling nails the entire time like you're supposed to do in death metal.  This was apparently a sign that Cryptopsy were just trying to sell T-Shirts in Hot Topic and be sellouts.  My own opinion of "The Unspoken King" was just that it wasn't terribly interesting.  I still haven't actually gotten through the whole thing.

The angry fan outcry that greeted "The Unspoken King" was probably responsible for Cryptopsy's latest effort, the self-titled "Cryptopsy".  Mounier would never admit to this, but the whole affair reeks of damage control.  The band's last two efforts were wildly experimental, but this one hearkens back to the band's earlier efforts.  More specifically it sounds like a cross between "None So Vile" and "Whisper Supremacy", with eight tracks that add up to about 34 minutes of almost non stop blast and noise.  The band's best lead guitarist, Jon Levasseur has even returned with some really badass solos.  In short, it's a very "safe" Cryptopsy.

The band's efforts to not anger anyone result in an album that is likely to please pretty much everyone, even if I doubt it wil be anyone's favorite.  The biggest roadblock for me is McGachy, who is easily my least favorite of Cryptopsy's singers.  He was apparently hired for the amount of range he has, and a closer listen to "The Unspoken King" might back that up.  On "Cryptopsy" he consistently sounds like an army of vacuum cleaners playing from the other end of a long drainage pipe.  There's virtually no shading or variety to his performance, and this is the first Cryptopsy record I've heard that would be better as an instrumental.

It's very possible that McGachy, along with the rest of the band, is holding back.  I really wish they wouldn't.  Still, even middle of the road Cryptopsy is something to treasure.  Jon Levasseur still sounds like no other guitarist on earth, playing riffs that sound "undead", like they were dug up from the earth and reconstituted in a way that almost makes melodic sense.  The drums are still amazing, and this album boasts the band's best production quality in years.

Don't look a gift horse in the mouth.  If you've ever liked Cryptopsy, you'll like "Cryptopsy".  And I hope that the fans are a little nicer to these guys this time around.

EDIT: I think I was a bit harsh in this review.  After listening to this record a few more times it's begun to grow on me.  I also finally gave "The Unspoken King" a full and fair listen, and it proves Matt McGachy is a much more capable vocalist than this record led me to believe.  

Even on "Cryptopsy", he does reach for a few good moments (the shriek in the middle of "Two Pound Torch" is my favorite).  Still, I feel like he's holding back here, and I hope the band puts his talents to better use in later albums... and doesn't fire him too soon!

Friday, October 12, 2012

The Coming Evolution of Man

The popular belief is that America and the world in general are more deeply divided than we've ever been.  I don't buy it.  The world has ALWAYS been populated by a wide variety of people.  People in the city have always thought differently than people in the country.  People in Asia, Europe, Africa, and the Middle East have always been vastly different.  And yet, I consistently hear people say that we've never been more divided than we are today, that even 10 or 15 years ago, things were vastly different.  They were, but not for the reasons you might think.

The real reason is the Internet.  That may not be the only reason, but it's the biggest one.  Think of it this way.  A hundred years ago, if someone on the other side of the country said something you found distasteful, it probably wouldn't have bothered you in the least.  The reason is that you would never have heard about it.  Unless you lived in their geographical area, or worked together, or traveled to meet, the two of you would likely live in your own little bubbles, content that the world was fine and dandy.  All those people that you may currently think are destroying America with their views (most of could slot someone in that role)?  They wouldn't have bothered you in the least, unless something happened to get into your local paper.

Today, people vent out every stupid silly little thought that crosses their minds into cyberspace.  Twitter accounts from across the world are pooled together in massive feeds and consumed by people they don't even know and probably will never meet in person.  What this means is that suddenly we have billions of neighbors, or at least we feel like we do.  Even people who don't bother to use the Internet are affected.  Since news can travel at light speed  across the world, our helpful news anchors on TV and our eager news reporters are happy to vacuum suck everything that's likely to provoke, enrage, entertain, and most importantly ensnare an audience.

Suddenly there are people who you hear everyday (at least virtually) saying things you haven't heard before! And that goes for everyone.  As a young suburban liberal, I was concerned that a conservative wind was rising to destroy my nation and my ideals.  Everywhere I looked on the Internet or on TV people were saying things I found distasteful, and only after a few years studying American history did I realize that these people have always been there.  But I hadn't been privy to their thoughts, and they hadn't heard mine.  They alarmed me just as much as I probably alarmed them.  I had to come to a realization that these scary thoughts weren't new.  I had just been happily ignorant.

I was now aware of things that I was not.  I had a new-found perspective on the world.  I had evolved.

I believe that we are collectively undergoing one of the most stressful times that humanity has ever undergone.  Not physically stressful, like the years of the plague or the ice age.  But mentally we are under a stress that we have never had to handle.  Modern communication (especially the Internet) is almost certainly a good thing.  It allows us too pool resources and talent across the entire world, and draw on a wider range of experience and insight than has ever been possible.  It is also very scary.

Those angry protesters in the Middle East, burning American flags over depictions of Mohammed are a perfect example.  Before modern communication, many Americans would never have even heard of Mohammed.  Those angry protesters would never have even seen that film, or those cartoons.  But here's the important bit:  How many of the Middle Eastern people that you've seen on TV in the last month have been protesting with flaming effigies or looting embassies?  A fair amount I'd wager.  The truth is that only an incredibly small percentage of people in the Middle East are angry enough to do that.  Most go on about their day.  But we never see them.  Tolerant people peacefully going about their day don't make for exciting news stories.

We need to evolve.  And we need to so by working on many skills that are new to us.  To process all of this new and conflicting stimuli we need to learn to think critically.  We must realize the bias of our sources, and the fact that anything someone tells you could be wrong.  More importantly, we need to stop succumbing to the easy fiction that the end times are near and the other side will soon destroy us all.  They've always been there, and the sooner we all learn to ignore them like we always have, the better off we'll be.

Flickchart - 1337 Get!

I finally hit my 1337th movie on Flickchart, so I am now officially a super l33t movie critic.  If you're curious, the film that pushed me over the top was 1951's "Angels in the Outfield", which slotted into my chart at 880, between "28 Days Later" (879) and "The Grapes of Wrath" (881).  

Want to check out my Flickchart to see what my favorite movies ever are? Click the Flickchart banner to the right.  See you at the movies 8-)

(By the way, the picture in my Flickchart icon isn't me, it's Janosc from the film "Werckmeister Harmonies")

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Movie Review: "Dredd" (2012)

"Dredd" (2012, dir. Pete Travis) is an excellent film, full stop.  Visualize for me, if you will, a snotty film critic who thinks he's so clever for starting his review with a joke like "You'll... DREDD having to see this movie!".  Imagine punching his face so hard that his teeth explode out the back of his head.  Now imagine Judge Dredd doing it.  Feels good, doesn't it?

It's very important to me that movies, especially action movies, handle violence properly.  The brutality of the violence should match the material, and the filmmakers should be conscious of how the audience is meant to feel about said violence.  For example, "Drive" fell flat for a few reasons, mostly because it's head-crushing ultraviolence was completely out of place with the rest of the film.  Other movies that aim at a PG-13 audience and hedge their bets fail from the other direction.

"Dredd" has no such problems, which is important when your main character is a fascist supercop.  The film is set in Mega City One, an endless steel urban sprawl stretching along the east coast of the U.S. from Boston to Washington D.C.  Crime is essentially unstoppable, and the only thing nominally protecting the citizens is an army of "Judges", given the authority to assess guilt and pass sentence personally.

Photo Credit: Joe Alblas

What's fascinating about this movie is that its universe is so morally grey.  This is not about good vs evil.  It is literally a war between the criminals and the cops for control of the populace.  As Dredd engages in shootouts with perps, copious innocent life is lost, and bystanders run screaming as in actual war zones.  Most people we meet are only loyal to the Law or the criminals as far as it will save their own skins.

Of course, the fact that the drug that the criminals traffic in (called Slo-Mo) bears a serious resemblance to pot is not at all coincidental.  Lena Headey's villainous "Ma-Ma" is one hell of an antagonist, since her chief motivator is fear, not sadism.  A formerly victimized hooker, she killed her pimp and took over his drug ring.  Clearly she is still traumatized, and turns her terror into rage to control others and never again be the victim.

Director Pete Travis allows the violence in "Dredd" to aim for the entire spectrum of audience reaction.  Sometimes, when Dredd's victims are clearly evil (and often stupid) we are led to feel vicarious satisfaction at how efficently Dredd sets their heads on fire.  At other times, the violence is not at all pleasant, and we don't exactly feel good about it.

Thankfully, Travis never turns the violence into an endurance test.  Rather his film has a solid moral compass, certainly one more solid than its protagonist has.  The most effective device for this is the way that Dredd is teamed up with a rookie who failed out of the academy, but is allowed a last chance because she's a powerful psychic.  It is Dredd's responsibility to give her a final pass/fail on-the-job examination.

This is rather more brilliant than you might think.  The standard stereotype is that men are harder, and better suited to jobs like this, than are empathetic women.  However, "Dredd" literalizes this by giving her actual psychic powers: She can read people's thoughts and emotions in a way that Dredd is physically incapable of doing, not just because she's a woman.  Furthermore, after the usual "first day jitters" subside she proves to be precisely as capable as her mentor, but in very different ways.  Sometimes a little emotional intelligence allows for more effective ass kicking, which is just awesome.

SomethingAwful's review of the film is excellent, and like them I find myself with too much to say about "Dredd" to write a review of reasonable length.  One of their insights bears repeating: The film has a recurring obsession with violence against the face.  Dredd is never seen without his helmet, and a clear contrast is made between his faceless authority and the criminals on the other side, who are all individuals.  A significant amount of the violence in Dredd involves current or past violence involving people's faces being cut, or blown off, or what have you.  I'll leave you to fill in the gaps.

The most important weapon in "Dredd"s arsenal is not the non-stop action, or the stylish direction that only rarely crosses into showing off.  It's the wit.  The ill-conceived "Judge Dredd" with Sylvester Stallone tried to be funny, and was terrible.  "Dredd" is witty.  The entire situation is absurd, and no stupid one liners are required for thinking audiences to laugh at it.  Thankfully Travis trusts that his audience will be smart enough to laugh, cheer, wince, and think at all the right moments.  For that, I'm very grateful.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

On Interactive Art

It's been said that video games are a lesser art form than movies, books, or others because they are interactive.  If the user is allowed to shape the experience, this somehow means that it is less pure than a film, where the artist shows you what they want to show you, when they want to, and directs your attention precisely.  Of course, I think this is bollocks.  And the popular web comic xkcd has given me a wonderful example of why.

The comic is titled "Click And Drag", and it begins with a character holding onto a balloon flying through the air, saying:

"From the stories / I expected the world to be sad / And it was / And I expected it to be wonderful. / It was. / I just didn't expect it to be so BIG."

The final panel shows the balloon flyer to be a small part of a large landscape.  In truth the landscape is many many many times larger, and you can only see it by clicking and dragging the final panel to see more of the picture.  Xkcd is fond of this sort of user punking, and I rolled my eyes at it when I realized what was going on.  But then I started exploring.

The picture wasn't just larger than the viewable area, it was astronomically larger.  As I scrolled, scrolled, and scrolled it just kept going.  Little gags pepper the image, consisting of the standard xkcd stick figures, separated by what felt like miles of landscape.  Some were hilarious, other touching, but I knew there was no way in hell I would be able to see them all.

At several points I'd reach a branch.  I would see what looked like a little mine shaft cut into a hill, looking like it reached deep into the earth.  Yet the hills that it cut into continued on into the distance.  I knew that if I went into that pit to explore, I would likely never find that hill again.  What sights would I miss?  It took so long to scan through the enormous image that my choices had a consequence, not for the characters in the picture, but for me.

For something as low tech as an oversized image in a javascript (yes, I did try hacking it to see the whole thing at once), this struck me as awfully profound, and the opening dialog of the strip carried much greater meaning than I had anticipated.  Interactive art can be just as effective as non-interactive art, and in very unique ways.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Overlooked Films: Angst (1983)

Director Gerald Kargl's sole known feature film "Angst" (1983) really is an amazing piece of work.  It's obscurity is a crime, and any lover of sheer film technique and/or the dark arts really ought to check it out.  The nameless killer that the picture focuses on is not a hero, nor even an anti-hero.  In fact, he's pretty pathetic.  We first see him in prison where he has spent half of his life due to one and a half prior murders.

The prisons psychologists ask what he dreams about.  "Flowers... flowers... always flowers". As a result they turn him loose.  His ever-present voiceover informs us that all he can discuss is how much he loves killing, and who he should kill next.  This time he will kill, and continue to kill.  This time, they will not catch him.

He doesn't appear to have a plan, and basically makes it up as he goes.  Indeed he has to.  Everyone who sees him looking at them can immediately tell that there's something wrong with him.  As a result, it's quite a ways into the film before he can even secure a single victim.

"Hi!  I'm looking for some... victims?  Yeah, innocent ones!  You got those?"

In one brilliant scene he catches a cab, and begins plotting the murder of his attractive female driver.  As he unlaces his shoes to strangle her, his voiceover abruptly switches to an account of his first love, and the edgy S&M games they used to engage in.  The driver can see him practically salivating and slams on the brakes to demand that he leave the cab.  He loses his nerve when cornered, freaks out and bolts into the woods instead, shoelaces in hand.

This is our protagonist.  The camera follows him from a variety of angles that frequently make no sense.  The most noteworthy shots are filmed from a waist mounted, rotating camera that pans around him frenetically as he runs, always pointed at his panicking face.  Usually, however, our perspective is above and off to the side, as if we were a roving surveillance camera.  The cinematography here is stellar, and suburban Austria is depicted as a crisp, bright, wintery place to raise a family.

Of course, that's not the movie we're watching.  In this one, the killer eventually happens upon an empty home in the burbs that he thinks would make "a paradise" for him.  He hides when the inhabitants come home (no children, thankfully), but is quickly discovered.  At first he tries to subdue them all in any way that he can, but finds it more challenging that he thought.  Everything goes wrong.  His elaborate scheme to torture them fails when one dies ahead of schedule.  He loses it quickly, and in blind rage takes whatever he can get.

In the one truly grisly act of violence in the film, our "hero" becomes nothing more than a beast, slavering over his kill, raging until there's nothing left.  It's pretty shocking, but this isn't the payoff.  Our killer can't just leave well enough alone, and decides to take the bodies with him.  Because "he has plans for them".  Of course he does.  Watching him gather the bodies in almost real time is riveting.  You wonder, how long is he going to dither here in this abbatoir?  Everyone's already DEAD!

I see you haven't thought this through...

It's clear that the killer in "Angst" is mentally addled to say the least, and his plans are constantly undermined by his own fear and incompetence.  That's why I love this film.  It's almost certainly the most realistic depiction of this sort of killer.  He isn't charismatic.  He isn't even smart.  He just kills.  His victims are in the wrong place at the wrong time, and perhaps remind him of someone.

This apparent accuracy is only one reason that "Angst" is one of the best films I've seen in a long, long time.  Brilliant cinematography is another.  The perfect score by Klaus Schulze alternates between moody synth washes and a Kraftwerkian robot groove for the more panicky moments.  Some comedy involving the family dog is subtle genius.

What kicks it over the top is a fearless lead performance by Erwin Leder.  Patrick Bateman be damned, this nameless maniac is not messing around, and every little degree of panic, rage, glee, and confusion is visible on his sweat-drenched face.  The film's final pan up to the skyline provides some hollow comfort, as we realize that this beautiful city could somehow produce this guy.

"Angst" is nearly unavailable, except for a German DVD release from several years ago.  You may be able to find it online somewhere.  I also hear there's a thing called BitTorrent.

Friday, September 7, 2012

For the Record, I Remain Fairy-Agnostic

As Disney sequels go, "Return to Neverland" is not a bad one.  That is faint praise, and the fact that I have seen enough Disney sequels to make that call says something.  But what I'll always remember "Return to Neverland" for is a truly strange plot twist that sent my brain into a mad philosophical quandary.

In the film, Wendy's daughter Jane winds up in Neverland somehow, where of course Peter Pan has never grown up or aged.  Jane is much more skeptical than her dear mother, and at one point in the film, petulantly declares that she doesn't believe in fairies.  At this point Tinkerbell suddenly gets weak and faints.  Peter and/or the Lost Boys (it's been a while) explain that Tinks life force comes from people's belief in fairies, and that she will only be healed when Jane truly believes.

Now 'ang on a minnit.  I highly doubt that Jane believed in fairies at any point, so her declaring this should have had no effect on Tinkerbell.  This implies that Tinkerbell does NOT draw her power from peoples' belief in fairies.  Rather, Tink gains her power from her own false delusion that people believe.    She must now must confront the not-so-shocking truth that this cynical, boring little girl doesn't believe in her.  Clearly that is just one shock too many.

I am a little surprised that the headstrong Tinkerbell would have such a fragile psyche and/or belief system.  While I'm sure this was just a poorly thought out plot development put in by a hack screenwriter, it sure is fun to let your brain run with the implications of it all.  Do YOU believe in fairies?  Your answer could have consequences... unless you just keep your mouth shut.

FOOTNOTE: My friend Jeremy Duffy (a.k.a. The Geek Professor) raises an interesting counterpoint.  He argues that the film is based in a belief system in which words have power.  Therefore, the act of speaking the words "I don't believe in fairies" is an act of violence.  I hadn't thought of this, and there are many people even in the U.S. who believe this, which is why some people claim that people listening to music about Satan isn't harmless.  Food for thought!

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Flickchart is awesome!

Flickchart is an amazing website that not too many people seem to know about.  For cinephiles with too much time on their hands, there's not much on the internet that's nearly as addictive.

Essentially it's FaceMash, but with movies.  It all started with an argument over which was the better movie: Pulp Fiction or The Empire Strikes Back.  In the words of the website "If they're all Five Stars, then which one's the best?".  Flickchart has a pretty great solution to all of this.  If you sign up for a free account, you are given a series of choices between two films.  You click on the poster for the movie you like better, then a new choice is provided.  If you haven't seen a film, you can say so and it won't come up again.

As you continually choose between films, Flickchart gradually fills in a list of every movie you've ever seen, ranked by your preference.  It will start by offering well known films, then using your choices it will suggest films you are likely to have seen.  So far, I have over 1200 films on my chart.  You can also search for a film by title and reslot it into your chart, which I now do for every movie I see.

As a movie fanatic who loves listing things I like, I've become a hopeless Flickchart addict.  It's like a slot machine for me, as I constantly click and am rewarded with movie posters.  Some of them bring back memories, while others inspire me to check out films I've never heard of.  Meanwhile, the website also combines the results of everybody's Flickcharts to create what they hope is a better barometer of film quality than the imdb top 100.

What sucks about the top 100 is that when some hot new fanboy property comes out millions of idiots rate it 10, and suddenly The Avengers is the greatest film of all time according to imdb.  Flickchart has methods of avoiding this.  Recently, they implemented a few behind the scenes algorithms, such as scaling films based on how new they are to counteract "fanboy rush".  Other algorithms are harder to explain, but the net result is a pretty good picture of what self-proclaimed movie fanatics on the internet think are the best films.

It's a work in progress, but I like the list.  It doesn't mirror my personal best of all time, but I think it's accurate.  What's really great about it is that it clearly is a list of people's "favorite" movies.  It's refreshing to see a best of list that's actually populated with movies people enjoy regularly.  While I like Citizen Kane very much*, isn't it more believable that the Internet's favorite film is Star Wars?

Check out my Flickchart by clicking on the banner I just added to the sidebar on this page.  Let me know what you think!  And make sure to comment with a link to yours, if you feel like sharing... I'd love to see!

* Before any smart aleck brings up the 2012 Sight and Sound poll, I haven't seen Vertigo yet.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Speaking of Satan

The current travelling circus surrounding Apple's ongoing blackmail of Samsung is darkly fascinating.  It's amazing that trials like this happen at all, let alone that they happen so frequently.  It's not amazing that the average person's reaction is to agree with Apple that Samsung copied the iPhone.  They did.  So what?

Everybody copies.  Copying in itself is not an evil word.  We all stand on the shoulders of giants.  Nobody is that special.  Apple made a brilliant breakthrough with the iPhone, and it clearly was the shot heard 'round the world in the cellphone industry.  Of course Samsung was going to learn from it and apply some of Apple's insight to their own models.  To do otherwise would be to willingly sabotage their own business.

Yes, Samsung's phones look similar to iPhones, because they're rounded rectangles with ginormous screens and hardly any buttons.  Rounded rectangles make logical sense because they are ergonomic and won't chip furniture.  Apple's other innovations have similar practical reasons for existing.  You can't (or shouldn't be able to) patent that.

If Samsung started putting a big stylized piece of fruit on their phones and rebranding them "The iStrawberry", I would see an ethical reason to sue.  At that point they'd actually be trying to FOOL people into buying the wrong phone.  Samsung was not doing that.  It's like some caveman trying to rub two wet fish together and wondering why there's no spark.  Once Og in the cave next door lights a fire using sticks, Oop is going to follow that example unless he's a total incompetant.  Welcome to real life.

Apple does not have an exclusive right to rounded rectangles.  Nobody has ever bought a Samsung phone and been crushed to realize it isn't an iPhone.  Apple are crooks, using the legal system to blackmail their competition.  This should be obvious to anyone with a brain, and it's clearly obvious to the judge of this case, who is doing an admirable job of towing the line of impartiality when one side is so clearly doing the work of Lucifer.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Style Savvy: Trendsetters Trailer looks AWESOME

I am tapdancing with joy right now after seeing this new trailer for Style Savvy: Trendsetters.  I've been a ridiculous fan of Style Savvy since it came out on the DS, and while I knew there was a sequel, I didn't expect it to ever get brought over!

I love Style Savvy to pieces, and will definitely write an article about the original game in the near future to explain why a metalhead like me would consider picking the girliest game on the planet for his favorite DS title.  For the time being, I'm most excited to see that the game has expanded to include men's fashion as well.  I wonder if this means I'll get to have a male avatar this time?  Then again, I enjoyed making my female alter ego stylish so much that I might not choose to change that :)

Friday, August 10, 2012

Green Day - "Insomniac" Album Review

It's hard to remember these days that Green Day didn't used to be a shitty pop punk version of Bruce Springsteen.  Let's travel back to those golden days before the broadway musicals, the collaborations with the cast of Glee (if I just imagined that, well it's not much of a stretch, is it?), and charity team ups with Bono.  Back when Billie Joe Armstrong, Tre Cool, and Mike Dirnt were nothing more than one of the tightest rock bands of their day, making mosh pits go crazy and radio listeners bob their heads in equal measure.  Before Billie Joe was the savior of America he was a brilliant songwriter, and don't ever forget it.  Time to revisit one of the most influential albums of my teenage years:

Green Day - "Insomniac" (1995)

This CD was my go-to rock record for years, and still a personal favorite not just among Green Day albums but rock albums is general.  While "Dookie" captured lightning in a bottle, this is Green Day's peak of songwriting prowess, though perhaps I'm biased in that I prefer music made by crazy people.  And "Insomniac" is clearly the work of a man going slowly insane.  The music is jagged, violent, rough, but still hooky as all getout.

Green Day pull out all the stops and prove what a powerful force they could be as a pure band.  Tracks like "Geek Stink Breath" and "Panic Song" do unexpected things with the band's dynamics.  Mike Dirnt's bass and Tre Cool's drumming have way more color than they need to for this kind of music, and that means that "Insomniac" has more depth and replay value than most albums of this type.  Who'd have thought that Brain Stew, with it's dunderheaded five note riff repeated endlessly could somehow not get boring?  The fact that it climaxes by seguing into the frenetic "Jaded" probably has a lot to do with it's appeal.

Billie Joe Armstrong's melodies had gotten ridiculously tight, the verses and choruses so short and simple that not a second is wasted.  "Brat" is the album in a nutshell,  not even two minutes long, frantic, cynical and hilarious.  I love how the vocals just barely avoid being swallowed up by the rest of the band, as Billie Joe spits the darkest venom at maturity itself: "Got a plan of action and cold blood and it smells of defiance / I'll just wait for Mom and Dad to die - get my inheritance".

Oh yeah, those lyrics.  Not sure what was in Billie Joe's water at this point, but I think it was children and years of touring.  This led to lyrics like "The world is a sick machine breeding a mass of shit", and "I'm blowin' off steam with methamphetamine".  As a young metalhead who hadn't discovered metal yet, I ate this up like mashed potatoes and meat loaf.  Besides, unlike a lot of pop bands with accessible melodies and confrontational lyrics, Green Day had two big advantages: Their melodies were better and the venom was very real.

Some of it was clearly directed at Armstrong and the band itself.  "Walking Contradiction" is the most obvious, with Billie Joe wondering if people might be right and he really is a shill: "I beg to differ, on the contrary / Agree with every word that you say ... My wallet's fat and so is my head... I'm a walking contradiction / and I ain't got no right".

The album's title is entirely apt, drawn from the fact the Billie Joe couldn't sleep during this period, and song after song depicts a mind about to snap.  Truth is, I can often relate, and this music isn't gloomy or ruminating, it's cathartic.  When the world stresses me the fuck out I'm grateful to be able to crank songs like "Bab's Uvula Who" and flail like a crazy person in front of my stereo system.

"Insomniac"'s only flaw is that so many of the tracks are five-star genius that the few three-point-five-star tracks stick out like a sore thumb.  "86" and "Westbound Sign" in particular are frequent victims of the skip button.  But in an album that's barely half an hour long, the songs barely two minutes, it's a forgivable flaw.  And none of it's actually bad.  "Insomniac" is an easy entry into my personal hall of fame, and you should definitely reacquaint yourself with it if it's slipped from your memories.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Metal Roundup - Nile, Alcest, Cynic

So I was lucky enough to stumble into the local record store during an underground metal clearance sale, and you know I hit that something fierce.  Specifically, I left with the following three CDs, all of which are well worth your time and attention:

Nile - "Those Whom The Gods Detest"

I'm a big fan of Nile, though I only had one of their CDs before now.  Fact is, "Annihilation of the Wicked" was so fulfilling, and I've been listening to it for so long that I never felt a need to buy any of their other albums.  But I broke down yesterday and picked this one up.  For the uninitiated, Nile is a technical death metal band from Florida (cookie monster vocals, super-fast brutal riffs, blast beat drums) that is well known for their fascination with ancient Egypt.  Their lyrics (surprisingly intelligible for tech-death music) tend to use some aspect of Egyptian history or religion as a jumping off point for some suitably grisly death metal song.

On "Those Whom The Gods Detest" Nile expands their use of traditional middle-eastern instrumentation and acoustic passages to great effect.  Furthermore, they've begun branching out conceptually into Islam and Persia, with "atmospherics" to match the lyrics.  The music is predictably great Nile.  As far as I can gather one Nile CD is as good as the next, but there's just nobody else doing death metal this epic.

Alcest - "Ecailles de Lune"

Alcest is basically a one man project from France that marries atmospheric black metal with shoegaze music, of all things.  It's a delicate combination of buzzing guitar drone, acoustic accompaniment, and clean, mellow vocals.  Alcest's secret weapon is vocalist Neige's ability to let loose with some of the most effective black metal shrieks I've ever heard.  What makes it special is that the shrieking (and buzz guitar) is buried rather low in the mix, so that the instruments surrounding it bring out some very complex emotions.

This is night music, the kind of thing that you put on in the late evening while you're winding down, light a few candles, and relax.  "Ecailles de Lune" is a meditative, soothing listen that makes me feel nostalgic for a mythical past that never existed.  Interestingly, I now read that Alcest's music is Neige's attempt to evoke his childhood memories of visiting a far off "fairy land".  I'd say this qualifies as a success.

Cynic - "Traced in Air"

For many years, Cynic was a legend in progressive metal circles.  Their 1993 album "Focus" was a visionary blend of technical death metal and jazz that turned those genres on their heads, just in time for the band to break up.  Thankfully they reformed over a decade later and released a proper follow-up.

As with some of my favorite records by Tool, Protest the Hero, and King Crimson, "Traced in Air" is one of those platters that succeed at a very difficult task.  There's a real trick to making progressive music that flows, and isn't just wanky and awkward.  Cynic make this stuff sound natural, like it's just water off a duck's back for them.

It's brain expanding stuff, and compelling, though it definitely starts feeling "wandery" after a while.  Yet at a surprisingly brief 35 minutes, "Traced in Air" never quite wears out its welcome.  This CD is just long enough to give my brain a place to play, and the mystical album art makes it an even more fascinating trip.

Friday, July 6, 2012

The Offspring - "Days Go By" Album Review

I've been meaning to write about the new Offspring album for several days now, but there's a problem.  See, every time I try to write about it, I want to listen to it, and when I listen to it, it's so catchy that I can't concentrate on writing.  So I'm going to grudgingly press stop on my CD player and tell you that yes, the Offspring are still a band.  Also, and more surprisingly, their new album is really damn good.

Most people lost track of The Offspring after "Americana", which means that not enough people heard the excellent follow up "Conspiracy of One".  Fortunately, these people also missed "Splinter", a frustrating follow up with 2 or 3 great tracks, a lot of filler, and some total garbage.  After "Splinter" came the generally crummy "Rise and Fall, Rage and Grace", and the less said about that the better.

Honestly, I'm shocked the band didn't call it quits after that record, but we fortunate few who still care have finally been treated to "Days Go By", an ear-pleasing bouquet of melodies that just lights my heart on fire.  Perhaps that sounds weird when used to describe The Offspring, but they've been edging this way for a few records now, trading raw decibels for versatility.  On "Days Go By", the band is artistically invigorated, and cranking out earworms like there's no tomorrow.

There are a few songs with the classic Offspring sound (fast, loud, lots of woah-oh's), so you can check those boxes as you hear them.  But the album's best tracks come from the band going off on tangents, like the latino-dub-rap of "O.C. Guns".  There's another love ballad ("All I Have Left Is You"), and it's a good one this time.  Of course there's the once-each-album naked attempt at a crossover hit, and this time it's "Cruising California (Bumpin' In My Trunk)".

Punk scene people are predictably crying sell out, but firstly they're wrong, and secondly they're about 20 years too late.  The Offspring have always been kinda goofy, and if you've got a problem with that, they don't need your money.  So yes, they do rip off two separate Katy Perry songs in two different tracks (I'll let you spot them).  Whatever works.

Meanwhile, Dexter Holland's gift for melody reaches new heights in some great pop tracks. the title track "Days Go By" is a joyous, life-affirming anthem that is impossible to ignore.  "Secrets From The Underground" is an optimistic ode to the recent political unrest (Tea Party, Occupy, etc): "There's something rising up / Not one, but a million who have had enough".  Oh, and I had a great laugh at "I Wanna Secret Family (With You)", where a married man drunkenly revels in his love for a stripper.

It's like night and day comparing this to The Offspring's last record.  In an effort to sound mature on "Rise and Fall", they only managed to sound stodgy and old.  "Days Go By" dispells any doubt I have about the group's future.  The dark clouds have dispelled, and the band has managed to evolve without ever losing their playful edge.  No, it doesn't sound like "Smash" for a single minute, and that's fine with me.  As a bone thrown to the old-schoolers, there's a gorgeous re-recording of "Dirty Magic", one of the band's best early songs.  Totally necessary, if only because it will sound better on my next mix CD ^_^

Oh, and the record closes with some great heavy shit just in case you were missing it.  "Divide By Zero" and "Slim Pickens Does The Right Thing And Rides The Bomb To Hell" make a double feature that will will light your ass on fire.  "Slim Pickens" is a song so good that words fail me.  I just can't even articulate how much it makes me want to bounce around and sing like a gibbering idiot, mostly because just thinking about it has gotten it lodged in my brain again, and now my CD player is calling again.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Forgotten Films: "The Thirteenth Floor" (1999)

I stumbled across a pretty nifty little movie on Netflix last night called "The Thirteenth Floor" (1999).  I vaguely remember that it came out around the same time as "The Matrix", and was unfortunately compared to it and found lame.  This is a shame, because "The Thirteenth Floor" is not an action picture.  If anything, it's closer to 1998's Dark City: a neo-noir sci-fi experiment that requires you to use your noodle a bit more than some would like.  I fell into it free of expectations and was very pleased indeed.

"The Thirteenth Floor" is above all a mystery, and a pretty original one (admittedly based on a sci-fi novel from 1964).  The film opens in 1930's Los Angeles, as Hannon Fuller (Armin Muehller-Stahl) is fretting about having discovered something he wishes he hadn't.  He puts his concerns down in a letter for a colleague and leaves it with a shady bartender for safekeeping (starting the film off with possibly the dumbest decision anyone in it ever makes).  He then wakes up in the late 1990's, having actually been plugged into a virtual reality simulation of the past that is stunningly realistic.  As he attempts to reach his colleague in the real world to share his terrible secret, he is of course shot and killed.

Things get interesting when the intended recipient of the letter, Douglas Hall (strangely bug-eyed actor Craig Berko) realizes that it looks very much as though he murdered Fuller the previous night.  This comes as a surprise to him, since the two were co-workers and friends, and murder isn't really in his nature.  The two of them had been part of a small team working on the most impressive VR simulation ever created.  While the system isn't being used, the NPC's go about their daily business just as if they were real people, with hopes and dreams and ambitions and all that.  Nobody is more proud of this than uber-geek Jason Whitney (Vincent D'Onofrio), who bears a suspicious resemblance to the shady bartender we've already met.

Unfortunately, when someone logs into the system, they fall unconscious and their brain is literally swapped with that of an NPC for the duration of their simulation time.  As you'd imagine, this isn't a terribly nice thing to do, even to a person who isn't really a person.  It's only a matter of time before someone in the VR 1930's gets a bit suspicious of their constant blackouts, especially when the "players" are free to indulge in whatever mischief they want free of long-term consequences.

To reveal more would be a spoiler, so I'll just say that the central murder mystery is pretty original and a definite brain teaser.  More importantly, it's intricately tied to the philosophical dilemma of the film.  It's reminiscent of Blade Runner, but with a much more timely spin.  If anything it's more relevant in the 2010's than when this film came out.  1999 was before we had Grand Theft Auto IV, Fallout 3, and other immersive sandbox games, where we can now interact with increasingly realistic NPCs, and seriously screw with their lives if we have the inclination.  As a gamer and philosopher, it's pretty damn though provoking.

On a basic film-making level, The Thirteenth Floor isn't exactly great, but it's solid all-around.  The direction isn't flashy, but occasionally quite good: a sequence where the real world and virtual world are cut between as two characters and their analogues have separate conversations is stunningly bizarre.  The principal actors all get to play two characters, one real and one virtual, sometimes leading to pretty interesting results.  The biggest problem is that leading man Craig Berko is thoroughly upstaged anytime Vincent D'Onofrio is onscreen, making him feel a bit generic.

To be clear, D'Onofrio is one of my favorite actors of all time, and this is some of his best work.  He nails the "geek who lives in a lab" down pat, but as the virtual bartender he knocks it out of the park.  You don't trust him from the moment you lay eyes on him, and as he gradually discovers the nature of his world the audience alternately loves and fears him.  You can't help but sympathize with the poor bastard, but he isn't the nicest guy in the world.  Really, the film is worth watching just for him, even if that means that the rest of the cast suffers by comparison.

"The Thirteenth Floor" isn't a masterpiece on the level of "Dark City", but certainly has more of a brain in its head than "The Matrix".  The ending is a bit contrived and Hollywood-happy, but it plays by the movie's rules without cheating too much, and I can't say I felt betrayed by it.  Of course you can predict how the movie's going to end ten minutes before it actually does, but it's good drama all the same.  The romantic subplot was also surprisingly fulfilling, and just as deep as it needed to be.  Got two hours to kill?  You could do much worse.

Friday, May 25, 2012

'Deth Is Not The End

Here's to Megadeth, the most surprisingly long-lived and consistently amazing thrash metal band in history.  After the egomaniacal young guitar virtuoso Dave Mustaine was booted from Metallica in 1983, he channeled his desire for vengeance into a band whose speed and venom ran vertiginous circles around his former band.  Megadeth truly was a unique beast at that time, boasting two players of the punk / speed metal persuasion, and two others from a Jazz Fusion background.  No band as technically gifted as Megadeth aimed so squarely at the mosh pits.  While more progressive ensembles could boast comparable or superior skill, Megadeth was more interested in beating the audience senseless than dazzling them with time signatures.

A few things worked against them from the start, chief among them being rampant substance abuse.  Megadeth was collectively full of so many volatile chemicals that if shaken too hard they might actually have exploded.  Marry this to the unstable personalities of the band members themselves, and low recording budgets that only got lower as they were wasted on progressively more expensive drugs, and it's no wonder that their early material was so damn erratic.  But there's something about the sheer blinding insanity of it all that makes Megadeth Mark I a truly unique beast.

"Killing Is My Business... And Business Is Good!" was an astounding debut marred at the time by atrocious production (and that unspeakably poor cover art).  Thankfully, we youngsters can now buy the 2002 reissue from Loud Records that unearthed the masterpiece buried within.  It stands up better than most early thrash records (now that we can actually hear what the hell is going on), because Mustaine was the rare virtuoso shredder trying to do nothing more than whip the pits into a frenzy (Only early Testament comes close on this score).

The band's follow up "Peace Sells... But Who's Buying?" was more musically accomplished, but the songs were just a bit more boring.  Plus, Mustaine's vocals on that record are arguably his worst ever (and they're an aquired taste to begin with).  Still, "Woke Up Dead", "Peace Sells", and "Bad Omen" always get my blood pumping.  At this point band members started not showing up to gigs and pawning equipment for heroin, and disintegration followed.  Given this early history, nobody would have expected Megadeth to have lasted more than a few years at best before killing themselves.

Against all odds, Mustaine has carved out a 30 year career with a revolving door band line-up (consisting of whoever can stand to hang around him long enough to record a proper record).  After all of those burned bridges, changes of fashion, pointless feuds with other bands, and the occasional awful, awful record, Megadeth has remained my favorite metal ensemble for two reasons: Mustaine is a phenomenal guitarist, and he is nearly as gifted a songwriter.  I could play you five Megadeth songs back to back from various eras, and aside from the vocals you would never guess they were the same group.  Dave's written violent thrashers, emotional ballads, personal statements, political rants, spoken word craziness, and blatant radio pop.

Wanna explore some 'Deth?  You might as well start with their 2010 album Endgame, which is their best album in a decade and shows off how well their new sound blends shredding and violence with powerful songwriting.  You also can't go wrong with the 1992 high-water mark "Countdown to Extinction".  It's mostly mid-tempo, radio friendly metal (ala "Black Album" Metallica), but also Megadeth's most consistently well written record by a long shot.

Check out these great samples from YouTube, and throw the horns!

"Rattlehead" (from "Killing Is My Business... And Business Is Good!")
"Sweating Bullets" (from "Countdown to Extinction")
"44 Minutes" (from "Endgame")

Monday, May 21, 2012


I found The Oatmeal's recent comic extolling the virtues of Nikola Tesla to be pretty embarrassing.  Even without doing much research into the matter it reeked of hero worship.  Specifically, it seemed to be that Internet specific brand of drooling hero worship, elevating Tesla beyond misunderstood genius to a Chuck Norris caliber geek demigod.  The cult of Tesla is fairly strong among a certain subsection of Internet geeks, due in no small part to the excellent film "The Prestige", and the universal desire to show how cool you are by liking someone the mainstream isn't familiar with.  I imagine that many members of this cult read The Oatmeal (I read it as well, so I'm not knocking the fanbase).

Essentially, The Oatmeal's comic argues that Tesla never did anything bad and Edison is some kind of constantly evil-doing super-douche (I imagine the word douche was used a record number of times in the comic proper, since it's an image and not text I can't be bothered to count).  The comic gives credit to Tesla for pretty much anything he ever had anything to do with, and gives none to Edison.  I think the piece crossed the line into uncomfortable when it discussed the eventually fatal injuries suffered by Clarence Dally, an employee of Edison's working with X-rays.  It also mentions that Edison nearly went blind from exposure himself.
"Dally is considered to be the first American to die from exposure to radiation -- FINALLY Edison invents something original!".
The ante was upped when Alex Knapp at Forbes published a criticism that pushed a few of The Oatmeal's buttons.  I had to agree with the vast majority of Knapp's points, though I won't reiterate them here.  What I found doubly interesting was The Oatmeal's response, which foamed with just as much rage as the original article. (Bonus pointer for Internet debates... if every second or third point you make contains profanity, you may want to attempt a second draft). In the end, the cartoonist dismisses all criticism with the following:
"I'm a comedian, and I speak in hyperbole.  If you sharpshoot my work you will find that I exaggerate for the sake of comedy... My comic was a meditation on being a geek and by example explores one of the greatest geeks of our time: Nikola Goddamn Tesla".
Do you know when a comic stops being "just a comic"?  When jokes don't appear to be on the agenda.  This "comic" was a mostly straight faced piece of Tesla-worship.  If somehow it was misunderstood satire, then I'd love someone to point out the places where it is in any way indicated that The Oatmeal was exaggerating.  It was so deadpan that I'm sure readers are already taking it's assertions at face value.  That's the problem with freedom of speech.  You have the freedom to spread misinformation and exaggeration all you like.  It's up to the audience to think critically about what they read, and sadly many of us are ill-equipped to do so.

Really, it wouldn't have bothered me if not for the "EDISON IS A DEMONIC EVIL SATAN HITLER THAT SHOULD ROAST IN HELL" tone of the whole thing.  Come on, the dude accomplished a lot.  Can't we applaud what Tesla did without putting a black cape and mustache on Edison?  Tesla was really neat and brilliant, a lot of people don't know who he is.  And The Prestige is a great movie.  I hope we can all agree on that much.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Great Movies - Shame (2011)

 The most fascinating thing about Shame, last year's most egregious Oscar snub, is how ambiguous it really is.  Everyone who sees it seems convinced that it had some really clear message that is completely different from the message that other people got out of it.  Does this make it a failure?  I don't think so.

A lesser film would have mickey-moused it's audience into reaching certain conclusions about its characters and their actions.  What Shame does is present entirely believable characters, and simply showing us the truth of human life.  The events of the movie aren't ambiguous at all, but what we take away from the film is.

Shame is the story of Brandon (Michael Fassbender), a successful businessman of some undefined trade who is a sex addict.  He voraciously consumes sex in all forms (always consensual): prostitutes, pornography, one-night stands, you name it.  Clearly he takes little pleasure in the activity, and it's more of a compulsion than a passion.  It is revealed that he has never had a steady relationship that lasted for any length of time, and has no real interest in one.

At the same time, men find him likable and dependable, and women find him fascinating.  In several scenes, he goes out drinking with his boss, who is married but a shameless womanizer.  The boss indulges in the most obvious and shameless pick up ploys imaginable, while women cast curious gazes at Brandon, who has a certain magnetic appeal despite his efforts to deflect all attention away from himself.  Yet he is incapable of enjoying a normal relationship, and physical intimacy is only possible for Brandon through casual or paid encounters.

Brandon lives a life that functions as a giant decoy for who he really is.  He appears to have no interest other than sex, yet at work he remains pleasantly anonymous.  His office computer's hard drive is filled with pornography, but nobody has a clue.  The shell of his life begins to crack when he gains an unwanted roommate: His sister Sissy, who we gather has been bad news for Brandon for her entire life.

Sissy moves into his apartment by decree, and their relationship is clearly just not right.  Both of them are a little too familiar and mentally occupied with each other, and while there's no suggestion that incest has ever occurred, there's clearly some unhealthy baggage between the two of them.  Pretty much everything Sissy does qualifies as a cry for help, especially when Brandon attempts to remove her from his life.  It's shocking how bluntly she uses the phrase "I love you" as an attack, to wound and shame Brandon in moments of conflict.

The one thing that is clear about Brandon is that he needs serious therapy.  For what?  Well, that's where things get a little murky.  My take on the film is that despite his endless sex drive, Brandon can't make the transition from friend to lover.  He's personable, and even takes a co-worker on a date at one point.  But when he tries to make the relationship physical, he's incapable of doing so.  Many people I've known have struggled with the virgin / whore dichotomy, or the "friend-zone", or whatever you want to classify it as.  But that's why porn, whores, and one-night stands appeal to him.  No hang ups, no responsibility, no intimacy.  The endless clinging of his insane sister clearly doesn't help matters.

Brandon is clearly miserable, but it's clear from this film that he's not likely to ever recieve treatment or analysis due to the way the world sees his ailment.  Modern America is a very uptight society when it comes to sex, and another character dismisses fans of pornography as sick perverts.  The reaction of many critics to this film backs this up even more.  Many describe it as an after-school special exposing the dangers of sex.  I see a potentially good person crushed under the weight of his own shame.

Who among us would feel comfortable proclaiming "I am a sex addict", "I need help interacting with women romantically" or "I have an unhealthy relationship with my sister"?  We vilify those who suffer, and Fassbender's portrait of suffering is one of the most compelling I've ever seen.  In moments of crisis, he throws himself into ever more dangerous situations and becomes more self-destructive.  At the end of the film he has an emotional breakdown on a pier in the rain.  It sounds so cliched, and yet the actor somehow never completely lets go.  He's still penning his tension up inside, even when falling to the ground crying, which is all the more heartbreaking.

The final shot (which bookends an early one) is absolutely perfect.  I saw the film with a friend who interpreted the meaning of that scene (and the film) in an entirely different way.  Yet we both felt the same way about the ending.  I think that speaks to the brilliance of Shame.  Sometimes fiction hits notes of truth so pure that they are sharper than real life.  Shame holds a mirror up to the America in which we live today.  What do we see?  It's up to us to figure that out.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Film Geek Cage Match: "Kill Bill" vs. "Videodrome"

"Kill Bill Vol. 2" Movie Poster
Flickchart is an amazing site for a film dork like myself.  It gives you a series of "A or B" choices among all of the movies ever made.  You can dismiss films you haven't seen, and as you continually make choices, it populates your personal ranked list of films.  It also combines the list of all registered Flickcharters into a mega-list (currently The Dark Knight is the most loved film amongst members).

The real fun of Flickchart is in those impossible choices.  As the site founders say "If they're all five-star films, which is the best?".  Today's #mindblow matchup for me was "Kill Bill Vol. 2" vs "Videodrome".  Both are among my favorite films, and among their director's best work.  But in the end, THERE CAN BE ONLY ONE.

Both parts of the "Kill Bill" epic are presented as separate choices in Flickchart, and while the four hour combined version is there, it's also a version I haven't seen.  I rank "Kill Bill Vol. 2" as if I was ranking both films as one, since it's the part I prefer (I rank "Kill Bil Vol. 1" slightly lower).  While "Pulp Fiction" is in my opinion the best movie ever made, the "Kill Bill" films are probably the purest distillation of what makes Tarantino such a bloody great director.

"Kill Bill" is a bubbling cauldron of several genres, but mostly martial arts and revenge thriller.  Many critics only saw the directorial flash, but I responded to the deeper elements of the screenplay (mostly present in part two).  I even like the film being split into two parts: In part one we think we know the score, but in part two we realize that Bill is much more complex than we realized.  A film that began with bloodshed, violence, rape, and mayhem shifts gradually to being about actual characters with complex motivations.  At the same time, the saga is satisfying on a basic pulp level as well.  Tarantino knows how to pull out the colorful sunset and spaghetti western music at just the right moment to make the film's climax ludicrous and heart-wrenching all at once.

Meanwhile, "Videodrome" is an altogether different beast.  An early masterpiece from David Cronenberg, it was decades ahead of its time.  The film cracks open so many juicy philosophical issues that it befuddled most viewers in 1983.  Today it makes much more sense, but remains uniquely unsettling.

"Videodrome": James Woods gets very
personal with Debbie Harry's lips
In "Videodrome", James Woods plays Max Renn, the sleazy owner of a Canadian cable station that traffics in graphic sex and violence to increase ratings.  Through a pirate satellite dish he intercepts a vile program that consists solely of grainy footage of rape and torture performed by hooded figures in a bright orange room.  Max becomes obsessed with the show, and is sure that it's "what's next".

As he investigates the nature of the mysterious program, its true nature is discovered: the show contains a buried signal that induces brain tumors and physical mutations in those who view it.  A cassette slot opens up in Woods' stomache through with tapes can be inserted to control his brain.  The insanity only piles on from there, and Wood's journey from "anti-hero" to "completely broken shell of a person" is spectacular.

Both films are slightly sloppy and by no means perfect, despite my unending love for them.  I feel that "Kill Bill" is a home run on an emotional level while "Videodrome" is equally successful on an intellectual one.  Tarantino's films are pure joy for their audience, while Cronenberg's are out to make the viewer squirm.  On a given night I might be in the mood for one or the other.

In the end, I had to choose "Videodrome" for a few reasons.  First, as satisfying a film as "Kill Bill" is, "Videodrome" strikes a nerve in my psyche that no other film does.  What makes it so special is that despite the creepy nightmare fuel that it presents us with, the movie is inescapably Canadian.  There's something about the wholesome, inoffensive feeling of early 80's Toronto that makes it the perfect background for a transgressive horror film.  Surprisingly, there isn't much actual violence in the film.  What little violence there is, however, is even more shocking because of the sheer banality of the world it happens in.  The aggressively low-tech practical effects help even more, despite a few shots that are unconvincing.

In addition, "Videodrome" is shorter and more focused, with more consistent performances (the acting isn't "good" as much as uniformly weird, though Woods is phenomenal).  In addition, the ending of "Kill Bill" is just a bit off, while "Videodrome" ends with one that is harsh, powerful, and ambiguous.  Despite the bleak imagery, it's entirely unclear what happens immediately after the cut to black, and I always find myself smiling.

Monday, May 7, 2012

An Art Manifesto

Art is anything conceived (in whole or in part) to inspire an aesthetic response in people experiencing it.

Craft is anything conceived (in whole or in part) to accomplish a practical purpose.

Art and craft frequently overlap, and it's extremely rare for something to be one and not the other.

A brick is a work of craft.  A brick has structural requirements that it must fulfill.  If it does not fit well with other bricks to make a sturdy wall, then it has failed as a brick.

A brick may also be a work of art.  Many people choose to use bricks that are a certain color or have a certain texture over others for aesthetic reasons.  Any brick intentionally designed to look a certain way is to that degree a work of art.

A book is a work of art.  If any amount of creative effort went into the text of said book, or how to present it in book form, art was created.  While this book may be used as a doorstop, it was not designed to do so.

A book is also a work of craft.  After all, a book that is bound poorly, or with paper that falls apart at the slightest tug will be a failure as a book. 

A movie is art.  Film-makers employ narratives, as well as scripts, visual storytelling, music, sound design, and human acting (usually) to inspire some aesthetic response in their audience.

A video game is art.  Game-makers employ narratives, as well as scripts, visual storytelling, music, sound design, human acting (more all the time), and interactive world building to inspire some aesthetic response in their audience.

A Thomas Kinkade painting is art.  It may not be particularly adventurous, and it may have been one of a run of several thousand identical paintings churned out of a factory, but that does not change the painting's goal of inspiring an aesthetic response in its audience.

A Conceptual art exhibit is art.  If a conceptual artist places an empty canvas on an easel in the middle of an art gallery, then gives the installation he has created a title such as "How I'm Feeling At The Moment", he has created art.  It may not make sense to many viewers, and a critic may declare it a waste of everyone's time.  Nevertheless, the installation-space was organized with an aesthetic goal of some sort in mind, even if the artist is the only one who knows for sure what it was, or if that goal was simply to tick people off.

Pornography is art.  As long as any creative effort went into camera angles, stage lighting, props, casting, or a script, art was created.  Exceptions might include accidentally caught surveillance footage, or when the camera is just plopped down randomly before some stuff happens with no care as to its placement.  To be fair, that could be said to describe "Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes", which is considered an actual movie.

All art deserves first amendment protection.  Nobody can rightfully have the art that they've created forcibly destroyed, and no artist can be rightfully sent to jail for creating undesirable art.  The government cannot rightfully demand that a work of art carry a warning label.  And no legal body can rightfully debate whether or not a work of art is "obscene", and thereby undeserving of protection.  Art exists, and will continue to do so.  You have the right not to like it.  And others have the right to enjoy it.  Get used to it.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Pinball in Your Own Damn House!

Ever since I was a young boy, I've played the silver ball.  Pinball combines the addictive, goal and score based game play of video games with the real world sound and light shows of slot machines.  As the machines have gradually faded into obscurity that my fandom has escalated into an obsession.  As much as I love my video games, it's certainly something different when you're actually knocking a ball around in physical space to win.  While I sadly don't own my own, there are still tables out there in the wild for anyone to play if you know where to look.  Check out Pinside for tables near you!

If you are fortunate enough to own a video game console, you can also enjoy the game at home more easily than ever before.  The following 3 games are your best bets for satisfying your long dormant pinball lust... or finding it, if you're new to the world of ramps, flippers, and MULTIBALL!

Pinball FX2 (Xbox 360) / Zen Pinball (PlayStation 3)


Some pinball sims like to do what can't be done with the constraints of real world physics, and nobody does it better than Zen studios.  I'm not sure what's up with the different name on Xbox 360, but I'm thoroughly enjoying Pinball FX 2.  There are a ton of tables available for purchase, running about $2.50 each.  I started with the core set of four tables:
  • Rome (Roman legion theme)
  • Pasha (Persian bazaar / trading caravan theme)
  • Secrets of the Deep (Undersea exploration theme)
  • Biolab (Sci-fi parody theme)
Each of these has some really nifty feature that you couldn't do in reality.  The most impressive at first to me was the ramps on the Rome table that look like Aqueducts, with water flowing down that splashes when the balls runs through it!  My favorite table overall is Secrets of the Deep, which has beautiful dark blue graphics and a complex table flow (my favorite aspect of a good pinball table).  All four of the base tables are fun, and Zen Studio's physics are arguably the best ever seen in a pinball sim.

Zen Pinball will definitely scratch your pinball itch.  True to their name, these tables are the kind that you can just relax and enjoy for minutes at a time.  As such, it's a shame that the demo constantly pauses and nags you to purchase the game.  Honestly, just take the plunge and buy it.  You'll be glad you did.  The graphical and audio presentation is astounding, and the game play backs it up.

Pasha from Pinball FX2.  The detail on Zen's tables is stunning.

Pinball Hall Of Fame: Williams Edition (Xbox 360, Playstation 3, Wii, 3DS)


The other shining light for Pinball fans these days is FarSight studios, who really came into their own with Pinball Hall Of Fame: Williams Edition.  The special thing about FarSight's sims their goal of duplicating famous pinball tables to the most accurate degree possible.  It's almost spooky how the memories came rushing back to me when I fired this game up, and you'll feel the same way if any of these titles ring a bell:
  • Black Knight
  • Firepower
  • Funhouse
  • Gorgar
  • Pin*Bot
  • Space Shuttle
  • Taxi
  • Whirlwind
  • Jive Time
  • Sorceror
  • Tales of the Arabian Nights
  • Medieval Madness
  • No Good Gofers
All tables are replicated flawlessly, warts and all, so even the quirky bits quirk up like they do in real arcades.  Thankfully, this collection is full of great tables: Medieval Madness especially, is known as one of the best of all time (and surprisingly hard to find in the wild).  It covers all eras from the early solid state tables to the later whiz-bang effects overkill era of the late 90's.  Heck, Jive Time dates all the way back to the punishing pre-solid state era, with a rolling score counter and everything.

Obviously, FarSight's sims are of more interest to people who are already real-world pinball fanatics.  The old tables simply weren't designed to fit elegantly on a widescreen TV, being more or less vertical.  Thankfully, the camera system is pretty good in PHoF:WC, and there are so many angles that one is bound to suit your needs.  The biggest problem is a few of the more modern tables have so many bells and whistles that they just overwhelm the player.  In an actual table it isn't a problem, but visually processing all of that in a sim is pretty tough ("No Good Gofers" is nearly unplayable at times).  But this problem only applies to two or three at most of the 13 stellar tables.  Any serious pinball fan really ought to own this game.

Incidentally, the Xbox 360 version is far and away the best.  The PlayStation 3 version is just as good in the graphics and sound department, but has some bad load times.  Plus, the flippers on the PS3 occasionally glitch up... not constantly, but just enough to be irritating.

Pinball Arcade (Playstation 3, Xbox 360)


Pinball Arcade is the newest release from FarSight, and my hope for the future, with a few caveats.  It uses the Pinball Hall of Fame engine, but this time they've gotten every major pinball manufacturer on board, and with future downloadable content the plan is to faithfully replicate as many classic tables as possible.  I really wish them nothing but success in this endeavor, and I'm optomistic that it will succeed.  That said, I have a few quibbles with the initial release, which consists of the following tables:

-Ripley's Believe It or Not! (Stern)
-Tales of the Arabian Nights (Williams)
-Black Hole (Gottleib)
-Theatre of Magic (Bally)

Three out of those four are of the latter day "gadgets and overkill" school of table design.  It's not that I dislike that style particularly, but those tables are notably harder to enjoy in video game form.  The tables are so busy that it's tough to even follow the ball.  For some reason the camera system has been actually made worse since PHoF, with fewer angles and no description of which one you're currently using.  There's also only one view for when the ball is being launched, and it makes skill shots unreasonably tough.

The Ripley's and Theatre of Magic tables are really hard to follow, partly because it always looks like I'm staring down at them from 100 ft up.  Things would also be much easier to follow with a simple dimmer switch for the table lighting.  Everything is so damn bright!  Still, these flaws are nothing that a 1.1 version patch couldn't easily fix.  Besides, the physics and presentation are stellar.  Video pinball and real life pinball will always feel different, but these tables play great.  Most importantly, the graphics and sound are so damn authentic.  Arabian Nights looks notably crisper with the new engine, but the great success here is Black Hole.

Black Hole, from Pinball Arcade... my new obsession.

Let's be clear about Black Hole: I. Love. This. Table.  I have actually never played it in reality, but I swear to before I die.  It's not friendly to novices or casual players, and it's nearly impossible to figure out what the hell you're supposed to do.  Once you do, it's fascinating.  There's actually a second table BELOW the main one, under glass.  It's dark until you enable it, when it finally lights up to reveal a mini-table that's upside down.  That's right, the flippers are at the top, and the ball flows up.  To get a good score, you need to strategically enter the lower table, open the airlock and re-enter the main table without dying.  It's gripping, and the atmosphere is so early 80's and TRON-like that I'm fascinated with it.

Mostly, I encourage pinball fans to download Pinball Arcade for the promise that it represents.  The downloadable tables in the works look like they're skewing new and complicated, but that seems to be what the fans want.  Here's hoping that a few of the older tables make it in, because I love what FarSight's doing here.  It really is a good time to be a Pinball fan.