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.