Saturday, February 16, 2013

A Good Day to Die Hard, or: Of Course it Sucked, it Came Out in February

To start: It was not as bad as I'd feared. Granted, my expectations were through the floor. I'd dug a nice little trench in the crawl space for them alongside the Jewish family from the beginning of Inglourious Basterds. Based on the promo clip Fox released, I thought A Good Day to Die Hard would be literally unwatchable, but it turned out to be only figuratively unwatchable. The promo clip was incoherent, seemingly the work of a desperate editor trying to salvage a film after half the footage had been erased in an airport X-ray machine, but its defenders claimed that it had been cut down from the real scene. I thought that was impossible: why would anyone try to promote a movie by creating a clip that bad? But I have to eat my words on this one. The apologists were right and the continuity in the real movie was better; however, the shooting was every bit as inept as it appeared.

Director John Moore has convinced himself that it's a stylistic choice to look like you don't know where to point the camera or how to hold it steady, resulting in a "style" indistinguishable from "not knowing what the fuck you are doing." Imagine a Die Hard movie shot by the crew of The Office, if the crew of The Office was suffering from seizures and also didn't know how to use cameras. Going in I had feared that you wouldn't be able to tell what was happening. In fact, you can tell what's happening*, it's just that it all looks like shit.

Let's back up. Whenever people discuss Die Hard you have to go through the whole thing of What Makes Die Hard Die Hard. The big thing used to be, it's not Die Hard unless it's an enclosed setting. But by now we've had more sprawling Die Hards than claustrophobic ones, and With a Vengeance is better than Die Hard 2 (which is not all that claustrophobic) anyway. So that's out.

Next we say it's about how McClane is supposed to be a human-scale hero, a guy who gets hurt, bleeds, and strains to make it to the end. The funny thing is that everybody who's seen Die Hard knows this and says it constantly. Surely the people making the movies know that too and yet when it's time to make another movie it's always ignored. The writers and director and Bruce Willis must be aware of it, but I suspect it may just be impossible these days to make a tentpole action movie on a scale that isn't completely unbelievable. I expect that if you did walk in with a perfect Die Hard script, on the scale of the first or even second movie, with the vulnerable McClane everyone wants, it would be rejected because it doesn't have enough big trailer moments or something. The point is, that's out and it will never happen again.

Personally, I think a key ingredient is that McClane doesn't want to be there. Somehow he's put in a situation where he's the only guy fit to help and he has no choice but to do something. In the first movie it was because he's the only one in the building who can do anything. He's a cop, so he's tough and trained, he hasn't been caught by the terrorist like everybody else, and he's inside the building so he has important knowledge that the bunglers outside aren't privy to. Die Hard 2 suffers because the airport cops and the military are all there to handle the situation and McClane is just charging around like a dickhead telling everybody they're wrong. It turns out to be good that he's there because the military guys are corrupt, but he didn't know that, he's only right because he's the hero and the script validates him. The third movie forces McClane's hand by having Simon Gruber ask for him by name; a bit straightforward but it gets the job done. Live Free or Die Hard is pretty shaky in this regard -- again, the FBI cyber-squad is right there, but they ignore Justin Long for some reason so McClane has to do something. It's also forced, but unlike Die Hard 2, at least there's a clear reason why McClane thinks the proper authorities are on the wrong track. Ultimately, though, by the fourth movie, McClane seems to have resigned himself to being "that guy," as driven home in an unnecessary speech about what it means to be "that guy."

So over the years, everything that makes Die Hard Die Hard has gradually fallen away and become meaningless. We have been reduced to the level of the undemanding masses who shrug, "It's just a dumb action movie, what do you expect?" Well, we expected DIE HARD, you turds who make it okay for studios to pass off dreck like this! Stop letting them off the hook!

Sorry, no, of course that is unrealistic. Die Hard is dead, but what we can expect is a competently-made, if somewhat generic, action film. Against all odds, that is what Live Free or Die Hard delivered: Invincible McClane and spectacular action gags mostly involving motor vehicles getting thrown in the air. What was easy to take for granted is how director Len Wiseman shot it and cut it in such a way that you could see the cars getting thrown around. It looked cool and the effects were mostly practical, not CG (until the silly, disposable Harrier set piece). Live Free was a respectable throwback action picture, despite the fact that any Die Hard fan could give you a litany of reasons why it was not much of a Die Hard, whatever that means anymore. I have Live Free on DVD and have rewatched it and have shown it to others. It's pretty good.

So know that I am not holding A Good Day to Die Hard to any super-elite film snob standard when I say it is a big, loud, stupid mess. It is the biggest, loudest, stupidest, messiest Die Hard of them all. If what you want is big, loud, stupid and messy, then have at your trough of slop, piggy. This movie has buckets of what your undiscerning maw craves.

Big and loud is not a problem in and of itself, although this movie takes it to laughable extremes. Unlike Live Free, A Good Day is rated R, because you can make a super-shitty movie or you can water it down to PG-13, but you can't do both. To its credit, there is a grittiness that has returned to the franchise. Expendables are expended more mercilessly, there is a higher body count, bloodier (harmless) injuries and far more gunplay. In retrospect Live Free was oddly gun-light, substituting a smidge of martial arts and lots of aggressive driving. Now the aggressive driving remains -- does it ever! -- but the gunfights have returned and boy, are there lots of them. The movie is obsessed with big, loud guns, the bigger and louder and gunnier the better. There are so many and they are so big, and how fucking manly are all these guns! There is nothing inventive or clever or memorable about the gunfights, but there are lots of bullets flying and it is all oh so hardcore.

Now, when I say stupid, I'm not talking about how improbable the plot is or the fact that they survive unsurvivable things. The very first thing that happens to McClane is that he is flips a truck in a violent wreck, and the second thing that happens is he gets hit full-on by a sturdy Mercedes SUV. Neither of these things registers more as a slight annoyance, and it just builds from there. So if we were going to talk about that bullshit, well, forget about it. We'll be here all day.

The stupid part I'm talking about is the part we're still supposed to kind of care about, and that's the character story. There's a germ of brilliance here, in that teaming McClane with his son is long overdue. At this point Die Hard has become enshrined as the Guy Movie to rule them all, the male bonding movie that dudes enjoy with their dads or sons, and it's a no-brainer to do a father/son Die Hard. Too bad, then, that his son is played by Jai Courtney. Courtney is fine if what you want is a macho muscled tough guy bro because only the manliest manly men will do in your overcooked man gun bang bang fantasies. But he is lacking in terms of charisma, humor and screen presence. So McClane spends the movie trying to reconnect with this bland zero in a series of flat exchanges sandwiched between massive destruction and who cares? It doesn't help that neither of them ever act like they might die. Vengeance was filled with preposterous action, but Willis and Samuel L. Jackson's performances really sold that they were were risking their necks every time and that bought a lot of goodwill. But now I'm back to the part of Die Hard that is dead. Never mind. Moving on.

The big issue is that McClane's son is mad because McClane has been an absent father. It turns out this is because McClane worked too much. Why did McClane pour himself into his job instead of his family? As he confesses in a subtext-free exchange with a fellow father while his son poignantly/cornily overhears, "I always thought it was good to work a lot." What? That's it? You thought it was good to work a lot? Not anything complex or interesting, like you were afraid to work things out with your wife (as implied by earlier movies), or emotions were always difficult for you, or you wished you could be there but the job was so demanding, etc., etc.? Virtually anything is more interesting than this weird second-grade-level logic, like "someone once told me working was good so I thought it was good to work more." What? Seriously?

As if to emphasize the flat dialogue, every talking scene is staged as two guys standing next to each other talking. No Sorkin-style walk-and-talks here, not even any minor business for the actors to occupy their hands, just two dudes standing side-by-side on the same plane with their heads turned slightly toward one another. All the panache of a Kevin Smith scene minus the snappy comic timing, and yes, this movie just made me compliment Kevin Smith in the year 2013.

And then there's messy, which to me is actually the biggest sin. Because if the action were good, we could go join the pigs in the slop and say it's just a big dumb action movie, who cares, I got my eye candy. But the bare minimum for a big dumb action movie is that the big dumb action is good. And here, it's not only mediocre in conception but abysmal in execution. If you make an action movie, your job is to make the action look cool, not shitty. If your action looks shitty instead of cool you have failed, the end. This action looks shitty, and it looks shitty on purpose because John Moore had some dumb idea about how handheld cameras are fitting because McClane is out of his element or whatever and he was wrong. He made a wrong choice and now the action sucks. And that is death because the movie is already stupid and unbelievable and the Jai Courtney is a black hole of nothing and GOOD ACTION WAS THE ONE THING THAT COULD SAVE IT BECAUSE ALL IS FORGIVEN IF IT'S COOL but no, it's ugly and dull and hard to follow and that's that, you lose, shut up and go home.

You know you're in trouble when a director can fuck up credits. Like, opening titles, those things. It's kind of not even something you can fuck up. Or so you would think. And it's not like it's hard to get right! I don't really remember if Die Hard had opening credits, aside from the nice title where the words "Die" and "Hard" slide together from opposite sides of the screen. But that movie had a nice slow build, plenty of time for credits if it did indeed have them, no problem. I remember they didn't piss me off, and that's pretty much all you ever should have to remember about opening credits.

Die Hard 2 throws the title on the screen, we fly through the letter "A" to see McClane's car getting towed, and we're off. All business, no more credits. Same with Vengeance, which is my favorite -- "Die Hard," in small letters, timed to the opening bars of "Summer in the City," then BAM! "WITH A VENGEANCE," huge, smashing everything, on the big kickoff drumbeat of the song, and it's terrific. Pretty soon stuff is blowing up, and again, no opening credits, which feels very fitting to the franchise.

Live Free was different. They did the whole opening credits roll, with a cheesy computer-themed font and all the letters cycling, and then settling on the right letters, and then fading out individually. Too fussy for Die Hard, in my opinion, but taken on its own, nothing really wrong with it. The credits played out over some minor setup with lots of people typing. Great.

A Good Day to Die Hard opens with a couple of Russian guys we don't know speaking obliquely, in Russian, about stuff we don't understand yet or care about while hilariously super-serious music booms over everything to let us know the movie we are about to see is very serious and hardcore, no really. Then, while people are still having subtitled conversations, we start cutting to new locations, which are established with more subtitles like "Moscow," and then while subtitled conversations and subtitled establishing shots are still going on, opening credits begin! There's some animated boxes behind the text to set the credits apart, but they're synced to nothing in particular, musically or visually. They continue to appear as we cut to Jai Courtney walking through a loud nightclub and the evil T-Mobile girl riding around on a motorcycle and unzipping herself sexily, and occasionally other subtitles continue to appear on screen as more Russian is spoken and more locations are established, and it's a ridiculous mess.

You can't roll titles when other titles are happening and then compound that with really busy scenes that demand our attention! It's a clusterfuck of text and images, and anyone with any taste would say why not wait for a quiet moment, like McClane walking through the airport, to dole some of this stuff out? Or, better yet, just do what most of the Die Hard movies have done and skip the opening credits since you clearly have no place to put them? I can't believe this noisy hunk of bombast, of all movies, passed up the chance for a big booming SMASH into a full-screen title card.

Like the whole poorly chosen handheld aesthetic of the movie, the clumsy credits are creating a problem where none needs to exist. It's a subtle thing and you might think it's nitpicky, but it's the first signal that you're in the hands of someone who doesn't know how to dole out visual information in a pleasing and coherent way, which is a problem when that person is, you know, making a motion picture.**

Still, I expected worse.

*Mostly. If you saw the movie, I dare you to tell me how McClane got out of his zip-ties. His son cuts off his own zip-ties, but McClane's just disappear.

**Another example of how loud and messy the movie is: I didn't hear McClane say "Yippee-kay-yay." My sister claims he did. I have no idea when that would have been. It's safe to say the moment didn't land.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Monday, April 02, 2012

Monday, February 13, 2012

Wednesday, April 28, 2010


It's weird to see so many TV bloggers and critics earnestly evaluating the Glee back nine saying things like "all the songs don't give the story and characters room to breathe." I mean, I suppose if it's your job and you're obligated to say things about every episode, you have to say things like, "I don't think the character moments landed here" or "This story didn't really make any sense."

But what I don't understand is how anyone has any expectation that Glee is capable of things like coherent, believable stories and character motivations that you can track logically and invest in emotionally. The series has never done that. Supposedly the pilot was solid but even that got butchered before it hit the air. If you follow me on Twitter, you know I've belabored the point that Glee's stories and characters were never good in numerous tweets. But the reason I feel so strongly about it, the reason I feel compelled to repeat it every time someone says something like "too much songs, not enough story," is that Glee made me feel that strongly. Basically, I enjoy the show now, but I also feel like it was constantly betraying me until I learned not to trust it.

Like a lot of Gleeks, I did musical theater in high school, so I've always wanted to like Glee. And when I started watching it, and tried to take the story and the world and the characters seriously, I was constantly insulted by the most idiotic, unbelievable plot contrivances imaginable. Schue's wife and Quinn, in particular, were made into irredeemably loathsome shrews so extreme that we could not feel sympathy for Mr. Schue and Finn, we could only write them off as hopeless morons. The only sensible conclusion is that everybody on the show is a joke. (Jayma Mays getting hilariously engaged for no reason to the poor coach she couldn't stand was supposed to make us hate her too, right? Good.) Not to mention the repetitive stories that would have us believe that the existence of Glee club -- the very premise of the show -- was at stake every single week. It's fine once in a while, but schmuck bait like that loses its impact fast. I'm pretty sure Glee club is not going to be permanently disbanded three episodes into the series, so let's move on to some other plots, please.

Glee basically trained me in every possible way to not care about anything you would normally take seriously about a show. I hung on for the musical numbers and Sue -- not just the best things about the show, but many weeks the only things about the show that were remotely watchable at all. I went through a period of episodes where Stephanie watched the show without me and I literally fast forwarded everything but songs and Sue, and didn't feel like I missed much. So if they're OD'ing on those things now, I don't really mind. There's nothing else on offer there, so let's load up on songs and Sue and enjoy them until we can't anymore. If they're shortchanging their stories, which never made any sense, great. I can enjoy the stories more now because we're done with the horrible baby secrets and Schue is divorcing, so they are actually better, but it's also because I've learned not to ever take anything in them seriously at all.

And you know what? Between the show's changes to lean more on its popular elements, and the adjustments in my own expectations, I quite enjoy the show now. They're playing to their strengths, and even discovering new ones (Brittany and Santana especially, and I was surprised how much I enjoyed Kurt last night). But taking it seriously (or asking for more of what the show does worst) is a recipe for disappointment, and I feel like people who want it more like the first half of the season were watching a different show than I was. The time to complain that the show is bad has passed. If you're still with it after all it's done, I would think you'd have made peace with it.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

What Else I've Learned About Making Web Series

Making Vlog Star, and before that, Kenny Bloggerly's Internet Life, has been a constant learning experience.

When you look at things that become popular on the Internet, most of them are bizarre curiosities, often things that you never would have imagined existed, let alone would be discovered by a huge, fascinated audience. Because of this, it's easy to conclude that if you do something random and weird, you will capture people's attention based largely on the curiosity factor.

That was the thinking behind Kenny Bloggerly's Internet Life, a show where the whole joke hinged on anticlimax. No content, no jokes, no events, and abrupt endings. One thing that was fun about it was that after a while it's harder to write nothing than it is to write something, and talking about something without actually saying anything about it required increasingly awkward contortions of language. And the character developed mannerisms that were increasingly distinctive, which gave the show a little but of substance after all. In the end, the show subverted its own uneventfulness by actually launching an unexpectedly high-stakes story arc, though it was approached with the same strangely hesitant structure of everything else.

Is it weird that I'm analyzing my own shows here like they are some established work? This is what I would be like if I were to record a DVD commentary.

Anyway, the problem with this kind of show, I think, is that before viewers can enjoy the joke of having their expectations constantly frustrated, they have to discover the show, and that requires viewers to be thrilled enough to share the show with others. (It also requires the makers to be savvy and dedicated about publicizing their work and targeting a potentially receptive audience, like Felicia Day, which is something I'm still trying to figure out.) The central anti-joke of Kenny Bloggerly is something that (theoretically) grows more satisfying with subsequent episodes, as one learns the rhythm of the show and the games of the character. But any individual episode is unlikely to pack a big punch. You might smile with amusement, but let's be honest, a video about nothing happening is not going to set the world on fire. Shows where the joke is that there isn't one are generally more fun for creators than viewers. If something is going to attract attention for its weirdness, it has to be exceptionally, genuinely unique. Without that, the average viewer will lack the motivation to explore multiple episodes unless he or she truly has a lot of time on his or her hands.

Which brings us to the central ratio that determines the success of any piece of entertainment, but is especially marked in the field of web videos:


Where Investment, usually time, must be as low as possible, and Reward, the viewer's enjoyment and satisfaction must be as high as possible.

I know, this seems like a no-brainer, but when you are in your own world creating a series, it's easy to presume that something will be great simply because you are the one making it and you are great.

If a video is long, over 2 or 3 minutes, or especially over 5 minutes, most people won't watch the whole thing. I've made plenty of videos over 5 minutes that I hoped people would watch, yet if I click on a video and discover it's over 5, I'll usually bail. It's a big Internet and when you're procrastinating, it's hard to commit that much time to a single video. If a video requires that you be caught up on the continuity of a series to understand it, you'll be similarly unlikely to get all the way through it. Too much Investment.

If you can invest a small amount of time but come away with a high level of enjoyment, you'll come away extra-satisfied. And what's more, you'll be willing to explore more episodes. They're like bite-sized candies -- a lot of pleasure for a small investment. This is something that Jake & Amir does really well. They never waste much of your time, and while there are some duds, more often than not, you feel like you got your 90 seconds' worth and you might as well watch another one. The most extreme example is the compulsively watchable 5 Second Films, which are basically the web video equivalent of potato chips. Again, some are bad, some are brilliant, but when most of them are at least pretty good and it only takes 8 seconds to watch another one, why not roll the dice a few more times? (And if something is really good, right away, it can even get away with being over 5 minutes.)

I know, I know, this is a lot of words to say that people like videos that are good and don't waste their time, which is blindingly obvious but easier said than done.

With Vlog Star, I've always made an effort to keep the Investment side of the ratio low, at least time-wise -- episodes are consistently 2-3 minutes or less. Where I've faltered, I think, is on the reward side. Season 1 leaned too heavily on the central joke that Nate is a has-been web star, yet it never hit this joke in a big, memorable way, nor did it offer much variation on the concept. What's more, it was pretty uneventful. This grew out of a few attempts at Channel 101 pilots like this and this, where I found that trying to squeeze too much plot into a 5 minute video seemed to leave the comedy without much room to breathe. I came to believe that webisodes based around a single, funny scene could lower the Investment side while raising the Reward side at the same time. The problem with Vlog Star season 1 was that the scenes were just not funny enough. Maybe they had too much room to breathe.

With season 2 I attempted to correct the problem of the show's uneventfulness. You might notice that there is a much stronger story arc informing the season, especially at the beginning and end. The problem I found here was that we ended up with too many episodes that were basically just connective tissue for the story arcs, but with little comic meat of their own. My favorite episodes from season 2 are the standalones like "Arm Run Over By Car" or the mini-arcs, like the cup-stacking/juggling episodes or the Road Trip arc. These, I think, are a good way to inject story without bogging things down with scenes that are purely functional or turning things into a soap opera that ask too much of viewers.

(An example of a series I think has the soap opera problem is Break a Leg, a very well-made show that aspires to the Arrested Development style and builds an intricate comic universe that diverges from reality to the point that it's kind of impenetrable after the first few episodes. In spite of that, it's pretty successful as web series go, and seems to have helped its creators find further work in the field, so what do I know? My point is I have trouble getting into it because it starts to feel like work.)

Yes, I am aware of the irony that the Investment/Reward ratio of this blog post is astonishingly low.

My point? I guess it's that I'm still working at this, and trying not to get discouraged that I'm such a slow learner. More Vlog Star episodes are on their way, and if you don't notice a difference, it's not for a lack of overthinking. The goal this season is to further refine the all important Investment/Reward ratio. I'm trying to make things more accessible -- more stand-alone episodes, less exposition, something that you can jump in and watch without being caught up on 20+ previous episodes -- and funnier -- which is a constant battle against my rusty and limited performing ability.

Enjoy the new season! I hope it's good.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

What I've Learned About Making Web Series

A year or so ago I heard that USC is now offering a web video class, which I thought was ridiculous. Nobody knows how to guarantee success in web video; big media companies like HBO and Warner Brothers are throwing money at it and failing all the time. Why pay tuition to take a class in it? There are no rules. We are all inventing them right now.

Having made a total of three seasons of two different web series, I think I have learned a few things about the form. The first one is that nobody cares about web series. I'm not just saying that because nobody cares about my web series; I know that's just because they're not very entertaining. But I have a sneaking suspicion that nobody cares about any web series, really, except for people who are making their own web series, watching each other's shows to see what works and hoping against hope that there is a market for this format.

If you look at the views of even the more successful web shows, they pale in comparison to the views of random one-offs, quirky vloggers and internet curiosities. So, you could let an unselfconscious nineteen-year-old vamp on a webcam for five minutes of jump-cutting and get five million views, or you can spend ten thousand dollars on actors, locations, equipment and crew and get ten thousand views if you're lucky. Who wouldn't want to make a web show?

Has any web series ever even gone viral? When the pinnacle of the form is French Maid TV, it's time to question whether that form is worth making viable. Congratulations, you've leveraged T&A against product placement, now just make something that a person would want to watch a second time.

There are exceptions, of course--as I've mentioned, Jake & Amir is both popular and entertaining. But that show aside, I've never heard a real person in real life say how much they love a web series, or even that they have watched one. Does mainstream America even know they exist?

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Speed: Needed

One of the reasons I picked up Need for Speed Carbon, despite the fact that I still feel guilty about not finishing Most Wanted on PS2, is that I was looking for something else to make use of the Nerf Wii Wheel peripheral that so far I've only been using with Speed Racer. Now, I've only played it for two days, but in that time I have learned two things. One is that the game is generally pretty fun and the other is that the default "steering wheel" style control scheme is an unmitigated disaster. It is possible to control the car only in the loosest sense of the word, in the same way that if you shake a box with a cat inside you could be said to be "controlling" the cat. Yes, your actions affect its movement, but not in any kind of predictable or repeatable way. It's not a matter of the tilt being too sensitive or not sensitive enough; somehow it is both. Your car won't turn enough, until after the turn is over, at which point it will curve straight into a wall even though you have straightened the wheel. I've seen it said that there is a learning curve here, and maybe if I could figure out exactly when in the turn I ought to stop turning my car even though the turn is not done yet, there would some way to do it. But I suspect that by the time I mastered such a thing, the experience would bear little resemblance to operating a steering wheel anyway. Furthermore, I believe a simple thing like maneuvering a virtual car around a corner while not even at top speed should not require a learning curve tantamount to landing the space shuttle. Call me crazy, but that is just how I was raised.

At first I feared the game, though graphically gorgeous (for the Wii anyway) would be completely unplayable. There is no excuse for control this hopeless (especially when the Wii's other racers prove it's possible), and I can only conclude that the guys at EA simply failed at it. Maybe there is some specific issue with their physics model, which was designed to be controlled by an analog stick, that cannot be ported over to a tilting controller without destroying the fabric of the game. I don't know.

Happily, there are 5 control schemes here to choose from. One of them involves tilting the nunchuck, which works marginally better than the Wiimote (imagine an angry cat on a leash instead of in a box), but twisting a nunchuck is nothing like using a steering wheel anyway, so why bother? The last two options involve steering with the analog stick, which is an absolute delight, especially after an hour of slamming your unruly car into walls with your Wii wheel. The analog stick steering is, in fact, especially good, and furthermore, the Wiimote throttle control, in which you tilt the controller like a gas pedal, works like a charm. Yes, it sounds counterintuitive and completely stupid, but in fact it triggered an epiphany -- the key to racing, especially in these games, is actually not steering at all. After all, any idiot can steer (once he is using a sensible control scheme and not one that is fundamentally broken); one usually blows a race by trying to take a turn too fast. This is because mastering finesse with the gas, brake and handbrake are the key to success. Once I tried control scheme 5 (4 is nice too, as it tethers the Wiimote to brake/reverse as well as gas, but unfortunately the handbrake is operated by jerking back on the nunchuck, which doesn't seem to do anything), I found myself commanding the throttle and handbrake with an assurance and precision I had never experienced playing NFS with a conventional controller. In fact, it works so well, I wondered if EA's programmers had consciously not bothered to perfect steering wheel controls, so certain were they that the weird nunchuck-analog/Wiimote gas pedal scheme was superior.

So yes, the game is playable and so far, a lot of fun on the Wii -- not just in spite of, but even due to, the Wii's unique controls. But not the ones you expect.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Phones Are Ruining My Life

All of you with iPhones and Blackberries and assorted cool phones with apps and web browsing and so forth ought to know, every time I see you staring down at your phones, activating the screen with that precious little swipe-to-unlock, it is like a knife in my heart. Every time your status updates appear on Facebook with the attribution "from Facebook for iPhone," I fight back tears as my soul overflows with agonizing envy.

You see, most people are either frivolous enough to go ahead and spend money on fancy phones full of exciting features no one needs, or sensible enough to not care about them. Unfortunately, I am neither. I have an overwhelming gadget lust that is matched only by my unbearable cheapness. So what happens is, I look at these phones longingly, then discover how much they actually cost to operate on a month-to-month basis, and conclude that voluntarily doubling one of my monthly bills would be an act of extraordinary idiocy for someone with a modest income who is already carrying around massive debt.

If I were a reasonable person in full control of my faculties, it might end there. Unfortunately, every time I see a banner ad for a smartphone, or an individual engaging in the aforementioned screen-swipe, all my Want rushes back to the surface. I am locked in a struggle with consumerism. Don't get me wrong, consumerism is delightful if you lean back and let it wash over you (at least until you lose your job or something and discover that you are broke and your money has been squandered on trifles that will provide neither food nor shelter), but it's a force to be reckoned with should you try to resist. Everywhere you go, people are entranced by their little phones, blissfully tapping away. Obviously there is something awesome happening on phones these days, and here I am missing out on the modern world!

Where was I? Oh yes, so then I get sucked back in to my Phone Want. And I start searching for halfassed alternatives. Maybe the aptly named EnV Touch would sate my appetite; there's html web browsing and a second-rate but good-looking touch screen; and a flip-out keyboard for texting might be kind of nice. And there's even the VPak: an unlimited data plan, plus VCast videos, for $15! But would this really satisfy me? Would the savings be worth the reduced functionality? Maybe not. I talked myself out of it.

This week, Verizon replaced the VPak option with a limited data plan with no VCast for $5 more, and I lamented my missed opportunity to be grandfathered in. On the other hand, now there is the Samsung Rogue, a much slicker option as far as halfassed smartphone alternatives go. I'm not opposed to limited data plans as a concept; my limited text plan suits me fine. But Verizon's data limits are absurdly stingy and a terrible value. The $20 option, for 75 mb a month, is only $10 less than a Blackberry unlimited data plan. And the only unlimited options put you in territory that is exactly the same as a Blackberry. So why would you ever get a phone with less? It's like if GM made the Chevy Aveo cost the same as a Cadillac CTS -- is the Aveo really there to be bought or is it just there to make the upsell look better?

It's Apple's fault, actually -- their iPhone price drop has fucked the industry by forcing every carrier to flatten their handset prices to around $100, regardless of whether it makes any sense, and then to make back the subsidy with unreasonable data plans, just like AT&T.

I just want to stop thinking about phones. I want to stop reading reviews, comparing prices, hoping in vain to beat the system and find the nonexistent rate combinations that would actually make sense. It is a real problem.

I tried to psychoanalyze myself out of it. You don't really want a phone, I told myself. You want what the phone symbolizes: the financial security to spend money wastefully, the additional discretionary income that comes with the career success that continues to elude you. A phone would not make you happy. Focus on self-improvement and hard work and the rest will follow. Your phone obsession, and the absurd amount of time and mental energy it consumes, is only an impediment to your success. This worked for a week or two, but then it came back.

I know I don't need all this bullshit. I have a laptop I carry almost everywhere anyway. I have a fucking map in my car, and even that I only use about once a year. I go through an average day never needing the capability a smartphone would give me, except that I am constantly thinking about smartphones and how I could possibly acquire one.

The Blackberry Storm 2 looks like it's going to be pretty good.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

My Favorite Insomnia Cafe Bathroom Graffiti

From the bathroom of Insomnia Cafe, an insufferable yet invaluable screenwriter haunt:

Today is my last day with Jon DuBos and I just want the world to know he's my Best Friend and I love him more than you will ever know.
- Sam Sam

He knows
He loves Sam Sam too!
=) 8-19-07

Today I celebrate one year without Jon DuBos. Awesome! To think I ever thought he was my Best Friend(!) or even cool! Looking back, I now see what a douchebag he was. I loathe him more than you will ever know.
-Sam Sam


By the way, does anyone know what "BFM forever" is supposed to mean?

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Ghosts: Busted

Just finished Ghostbusters: The Video Game today on the Wii. How was it? Terrific.

Normally I like the stylized, cartoony designs that show up on underpowered Nintendo ports. I thought the goofy look of Windwaker suited the game nicely, much better than Twilight Princess' hideous attempt at fantasy realism.

In this case, though, I did eye the graphics of the PS3 and 360 Ghostbusters games with envy. Despite its precarious perch on the ledge of the uncanny valley, the attempt at photorealism does help the game to feel like it takes place in the universe of the movies.

That said, once you are playing the game, you never give it a thought. And I doubt the slicker versions can match the fun factor of the Wii's control scheme. The nunchuck/Wiimote combo is in top form, immersing you in the gameplay while never feeling gimmicky. Smashing the ghosts around by waving the Wiimote is perfect (although it might have been better with less delay between real-life and onscreen movement, but whatever).

The Wii version stands on its own and never feels like a hobbled version of a better game. If you go and actually compare it to the other versions, you'll find the levels can be very different, and some (like an extended outdoor Times Square battle) have been omitted. Some things, like exposition about a Super Slammer weapon, have no purpose in the Wii version, where you never use the Super Slammer (a mega-trap on the roof of Ecto-1). But basically, the story still works and is always fun.

The difficulty is exactly right. There is a nice hit system where your energy builds back up if you don't get hit for a while, and fellow busters can revive each other providing they're around and not dead too. All this means you don't die that often, and when you do, you're usually started at a reasonable point not too far from where it happened. There's still enough challenge to keep it interesting, without all the failure and repetition that makes me frustrated and bored and keeps me from finishing most games. Combined with the voice work and decent story, it easily makes for what's easly the best movie-to-game conversion ever (admittedly a low bar to clear, but still).

I guess more hardcore gamers complain when a game is too short and easy, but I like when I can play through a game and enjoy it without investing over forty hours of time. I feel like I got my money's worth, much more than when I have to give up on a game and never come back to it after finishing 5% of it.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Trade Secret

Oh, by the way, in case you don't know me on Facebook or follow me on Twitter -- in case you are still living in the era when things like blogs and phonographs and daguerrotypes are the cutting edge of communications technology -- there is this.

The article makes it sound like I'm riding high already; in fact, it is a bit premature. I can still barely pay my credit card balance, and not because I just bought a ranch and a pony with big fancy Hollywood fuck-you money. Things are still not quite so definite. But as much as I prefer to keep quiet about things until they are more certain, this is still my first mention in the trades, and it's no fun to let that go by without showing people, even if I have to qualify it heavily.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Terminator Salvation: Unacceptable

Slant's Terminator Salvation review neatly and concisely articulates the central plot hole that devastates the entirety of Terminator Salvation, the same one I would have written about had I blogged about it in a more timely fashion.

How is it that Skynet is actively targeting Connor in Salvation, fully aware of both his future centrality to events and his childhood escape from their robot assassins? The established timeline does not support this. Armed with this knowledge, why would Skynet even commence with their eventual plans to attack the Connors in a different time, knowing as they must that such plans will fail? Another question: Why am I putting more thought into this than the screenwriters did?

To add on to that point -- since the machines shouldn't even know that Connor is important, it is even more outrageous that they know that Reese is important. If Skynet knows Reese, Skynet knows everything, and the entire franchise is stupid and pointless. To accept Terminator Salvation on any level is to create a black hole of stupidity that disintegrates and swallows up the franchise in toto, and that simply cannot be tolerated.

Just as the T-800 in T2 tells John, "I know now why you cry," I can say that I know now why Steve continually denies the existence of T3. Personally I thought T3 had enough good moments to outweigh the bad -- sure, there's some timeline discrepancies with John's age and some dopey failed jokes, and the general feeling of a franchise being stretched too thin... but there is also the pleasure of revisiting something familiar, a few memorable action scenes, an interesting arc for John, an effective, if depressing, ending, and some successful comic moments as well. Overall, there is enough to recommend it as a watchable, if inferior and not-wholly-canonical entry in the series.

Terminator Salvation, however, should not be allowed in the door at all. There's just nothing that good in there; the action is flashy but utterly unmemorable and uninvolving, Sam Worthington and Anton Yelchin do their best to connect, but at no point does the story reward them or us or give anyone a reason to invest in the characters, and the ending is just plain retarded, as was the equally retarded ending it replaced. Certainly nothing here good enough to justify overlooking the staggering crimes of logic and story.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Transporter 3

Transporter 3 is an essential entry in the franchise, assuming you have been waiting for the Transporter to fall in love with the least charismatic girl in the world. Actually, their chemistry is so bad that it's more like he falls in like, or falls in tolerate. By the end, he can sort of stand her, and she's goaded and pestered him into having grudging sex with her that he doesn't completely hate.

The problem is not that she's useless, annoying, dumb, shallow, and constantly distracted by booze and pills, it's that the actress playing her fails to make any of this fun. A charming girl could make us like this idiot, and that would have been kind of brilliant, the perfect love interest for a franchise so wonderfully, unapologetically brainless. Unfortunately, Natalya Rudakova is not that charming girl.

A fan's first thought might be, who cares? After all, we don't watch this for the story, and the slo-mo easy-listening-scored love scenes in the first Transporter movie were painful too. But those scenes felt more compartmentalized. You could grit your teeth and get through them, and they never felt like they dominated the movie. Unfortunately, in Transporter 3, we are stuck in a car with the girl for most of the movie, and worse yet, there is nothing to occupy our attention but their dull banter about food and the green-screen backgrounds quietly sailing past the windows.

One of Luc Besson's strengths is setting up simple but high stakes dramatic situations with crisp, economical pacing that quickly pulls you in. This strength is not in evidence here, where we jump around to various situations we don't care about before finally meeting the Transporter fishing. The first big fight scene is thrown away in a flashback, which is a clever and subtle way to sap out what little tension there is -- in these movies, we know the Transporter will always win a fight, but watching it when it's already over just makes the danger even less significant. (In an odd touch, several henchman bones are obviously snapped in this sequence, but conspicuously lacking the crunching sound effects that would make them satisfying -- a PG-13 concession perhaps?)

The pacing is leaden, the action scenes are too few and too brief, and at least two-thirds of the movie (though it feels like more) is the Transporter driving his car while talking to boring people. The fight scenes are well-choreographed, but they are too short, and they're shot and cut in showy, annoying ways that make them less exciting instead of more.

For a franchise that revolves around a man driving a car, the car chases have never been the series' strongest suit. The first movie's first scene was its only decent car chase, and the second movie had several hilarious car gags, but no extended car action that was actually impressive. In this installment, new director Olivier Megaton seems to have pioneered new ways to make speeding cars look dull. Either that, or he shot a bunch of terrible footage and tried to save it in the cutting room with lame and desperate editing tricks. Here are some tips for him in case next time he wants to make his car chases good:

1) The best way to add excitement is not to get as far away from the cars as you can -- don't shoot the whole thing from a helicopter.

2) When you're choosing a bad guy car to chase the hero's black luxury sedan, maybe don't select a nearly identical black luxury sedan, especially if you're going to shoot the whole thing from a helicopter. I shouldn't have to constantly check the Audi and Mercedes logos to tell whose car I'm looking at.

3) I can tell when you speed up the footage. Are you trying to disguise the fact that you shot the whole thing at 10 miles per hour, or are you just fast-forwarding it for me because you know how boring it is? If it's the latter, then thanks, I guess, but maybe next time have the cars do more cool shit than swerve at each other on an empty road.

4) Two-wheeling between the trucks was a nice, appropriately stupid-in-a-good-way kind of idea. Now just don't surround it with worthless filler and then we'll have something.

On the plus side, my fondness for the first two Transporter movies has increased as I'm reminded how difficult it is to do fun, low-budget action. This car-bound, claustrophobic exercise made me wonder if they ran out of money.

There are a few decent set pieces here, including a well-conceived but half-assedly executed bike/car chase, a nonsensical but sorta clever underwater predicament, and a climax on a train that is hilariously awesome and far superior to the lousy airplane fight at the end of Transporter 2. Unfortunately, they're buried by the movie's many flaws.