Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Comedy Double Feature! Role Models and Juno

This last weekend I did not see Quantum or Twilight, but Role Models because I had a few free passes (which can’t be used on new releases) and the trailer struck me as legitimately funny. I was greatly relieved to find that they did not use up all the good lines; Hamlet 2 and Pineapple Express, I’m looking at you.

In fact, Role Models does a much better job of actually realizing the comic potential of its premise. Of course, that could be because it aims lower. The notion of a stoner action movie and a sequel to hamlet both abound with possibility. It isn’t very hard to see the arc of “Two misfits are forced to act as role models for two younger misfits!” Yet the hilarity, it doth ensue.

It is crude at times (Pee joke? Check), offensive at others (Teaching a kid how to properly ogle a woman breasts? Check) and frequently, nonsensically stupid (eight-year-old kid with eight-year-old-kid legs driving a car? Check). At the same time there is enough creativity and character to put those flaws to good purpose. In other words, it has a very novel pee jokes. But really, Jane Lynch’s character, the drug-addict turned mentor program supervisor, and the LARP parody scenes alone make the film well-worth watching.

The weekend before last, I saw an even better comedy. One of the best movies to be released in the past few years actually. A movie called Juno. I realize I’m about a year late to the party, but that’s the way I role. Look for my take on The Dark Knight in 2015. In my defense, several of my writer-nerd friends also have yet to see it and I now understand how sad that is. Because Juno is brilliantly written.

It’s a simple story with a lot of complex issues, but Diablo Cody keeps things light-hearted without becoming preachy. At times, some of the issues felt overly simplified, but that’s because the movie aspires to be more than a moral battleground. Honestly, don’t we have enough of those already? The plot is fairly predictable, but it feels natural and moves along quick.

It’s the talking which really makes the movie great though. I have a soft spot for witty repartee and Juno’s is relentlessly witty; think Gilmore Girls written by (and for) the internet generation. Sure, it gets a smidge precious here and there, but it beats the hell out of the stale collection of one-liners culled from MTV that usually constitute teenspeak. Really, Diablo Cody’s “people talking to each other” is the best there is this side of Joss Whedon.

A criticism I do not get is that the titular heroine is too smart for her age. I mean, she is, but I fail to see the problem. The converse happens all the time in Hollywood without complaint or criticism. To me, all the characters seemed to have just the right amount of sass and flaw, though they walk the line when it comes to quirkiness.

In just a couple of hours I will be departing for the frozen north, where food, family and uncertain internet connections await. After that I will be facing off against an onslaught of ‘the suck,’ consisting of thirty pages worth of papers, two tests, a Spanish oral presentation and work to fill in the cracks. If this tempest has an eye to stand in, I’ll try to post something then. If not, I’ll see you on the other side. Till then, Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Duck and Cover!

Ah, I love the fifties, a time when you could apparently survive a nuclear holocaust with nothing more than the grace of god, a happy jingle and quick reflexes.

Seriously folks, it was an awesome era. A world of big bands and artful deco. A world where women did household chores wearing pearls and heels, while men wearing smoking jackets spoke in a faint but ever present vibrato. A world awaiting a bright future filled with flying cars, silver jumpsuits and personal robots that was just beyond a horizon clouded only by the specter of nuclear war.

At least that was theory. Instead we ended up with Vietnam, George W. Bush and Reality TV. Kinda makes you wonder what the hell happened. At least the Fallout Series is here to remind us that things could be worse, by creating a universe where both the fondest hopes and gravest fears of post-war America are realized. The resultant atmosphere could be described as “Nukepunk” (if, like me, you are a proponent of adding ‘punk’ as a suffix to random words in order to form a nomenclature for retro-futuristic/dystopian subgenres), or as the middle ground between Mad Max and Lost in Space. It is a thoroughly interesting fictional landscape, rife with references and the best bad science-fiction tropes.

I was dubious when I heard that Bethesda was handling the third entry in the series: the combat in Morrowind sucked, and I did not come around again for Oblivion despite the promise of virtual taxidermy. But the verdict is in and Fallout 3 is a fantastic game. It is not the same as its predecessors, but that’s not entirely a bad thing.

The bad news is that series’ trademark dark humor has been toned down considerably. While I would have liked to see Bethesda push the envelope more, but it's not really their fault. You just can't pull off things like F02’s ballgag bit nowadays. Ratings boards scrutinize the hell out of these things and retailers don’t want to cause a stir with parents who believe that video games are just toys for children. One thing Bethesda could have worked on is a little more character interaction. There are lots of interesting folk in the wastes of Washington DC, but you spend most of your time alone.

In the good news department, graphics have come a long way from the isometric camera of Fallout 1 & 2, allowing you to actually appreciate all the rich detail of the unique aesthetic. You can switch to third person whenever you want, though for combat, first person is pretty much the only way to go considering it is primarily conducted with guns. You also won’t be distracted by the odd skating-like run animation. The audio is a mixed bag. The sound effects and all the voice acting is spot on, but a little more variety in the song department would be greatly appreciated.

Bethesda’s real triumph is fusing the series’ trademark turn based action point system with first person shooting. Combat occurs in real-time, with controls that feel slightly more cumbersome than a typical FPS. Once you hit your VATS menu though, you can spend action points to target specific parts of the enemy as in the Fallouts of old. Time is stopped while you build a queue of orders, and it is drastically slowed down for enemies as your character carries them out. Usually you can snap off about 3 shots in the time it takes a foe to retaliate or close the distance. Needless to say, this makes the gunplay much more forgiving of slow reflexes.

VATs isn’t really a revolution, since you’re still just using your weapon to shoot, hit, or otherwise maim things to death, but each attack is given a cinematic presentation; the camera may follow your projectiles trajectory into the enemy, or pan around you as you throw a punch. It might sound small, but it makes each random encounter feel meaningful, adding to the atmospheric nature of the game. The only downside is all the pausing and selective slowdown essentially breaks the game for multiplayer.

Speaking of breaks, there are a few bugs here and there. I’m playing on a pretty powerful machine, so I haven’t run into much trouble, but others have run into crashes fairly frequently. When it comes to the consoles I know nothing, but word on the street is it’s more stable on the 360 than the PS3.

Well. I think I’ve gone on for long enough for today. Extremely high chance of movie reviews come Wednesday.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Through The Looking Glass

There comes a time, in our modern age, when a writer feels a powerful compulsion to put his personal minutiae on the internet for the world to digest. Generally, it is best for him to ignore it. When he gives in, it is generally best for the world to ignore him. But here we are.

Chances are strong that you already know I am Hank Whitson; writer, procrastinator, smartass. If you want to know more, click on the dashing portrait to the right for my Facebook. To those of you without Facebooks… consider getting one? Regardless of how well you know me, it’s safe to wager you’ve come seeking some sort of entertainment, either to stave off the wild bores or to escape unpleasant tasks that are breathing down your neck.

Here you can expect witty Holkinsean commentary on recent trends in the media, important current events and brief reviews of movies, video games and books. I might post short stories and excerpts of my own writing here, until I can craft a proper home for them elseweb. On occasion I will talk about what’s going in my life; the sort of projects I’m working on, and the various demons trying to thwart me. That being said, I will do my damndest to keep pretentious reflections on my process and self-pitying “life is pain” posts to a minimum. Should I falter, call me out on it.

Right now I am in the middle of Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Travelers Wife on audiobook, and I can honestly say that each chapter blows my mind. Other than recommendations by trusted friends, nothing is more likely to sell me on a story than a great premise. You might go so far as to call me a premise whore. Of course, nothing is more heartbreaking than looking at a good premise which fails to realize its full-potential, a “What if…?” which fails to answer all the subsequent “how about”s and “then what”s. And in their efforts to ask and answer all of these questions, many authors allow their characters to fall through the cracks, and really, Characters carry the story.

This is precisely where Niffeneger excels. Her dual-first person narrative develops her characters fantastically, allowing us to appreciate every angle of their unique circumstance. The much lauded premise is centered around a man who suffers from “chrono-displacement," a genetic disorder which plays out like temporal ADD. She answers basic time travels questions like “what would you say to yourself in the past?” but also breathes life into the romance genre, exploring more complicated inquiries such as “What would your relationship be like if you corresponded with your spouse as she was growing up?”

It is my most earnest desire to write books like this one day. Presently, I fear that I am on track to follow Frank Beddor’s footsteps with Looking Glass Wars. He had a great premise; Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland explored through epic battles a-la Star Wars. Despite a brilliantly defined atmosphere, developed by high quality concept art, a companion soundtrack and a pretty swank website, the characters are thin as the decks of card soldiers they do battle with. They possess the grim solemnity and angst of adolescence, but they lack the complicated emotional and motivational dualities which are inherent to that turbulent age. This triteness is exacerbated by pithy lessons like learning to be yourself and using imagination for good. To give you an example of what passes for wit and originality in Beddor's world, Queen Redd, based on the Red Queen of Carroll's Alice, is the main villain of the book, and the title of the second book in the trilogy is Seeing Redd.

There are plenty of other unrealized premises I could chose to pick on, but Beddor’s shortcomings are enjoying a particular clarity in my mind at present, as I am reading The Annotated Alice for the first time. I can only imagine how fans of the original must have felt when they read Beddor’s book. Even going backwards, it’s painfully clear how he failed to capture the spirit of Carroll’s masterpiece. He has made it plain that he was not trying to duplicate the former text, but one cannot help but wish that he took more from Carroll's characters. In the end, they are what make exploring the depths of wonderland so appealing. I don't mean to suggest that Beddor made no effort; Looking Glass Wars is rife with references, homages and inside jokes, but the man isn’t a skilled enough writer to do his concept justice.

It’s a shame too, because I believe Beddor’s multi media approach should be regarded as a signpost of things to come. It leaves me to wonder if we will soon see people Intellectual Property Engineers who will conceive, publicize and oversee fictional worlds, then hire more talented artists to truly bring them to life. I can see myself taking up that mantel, especially if I can’t hack it as a writer. But I want to try telling my own stories first. Just seems like the right thing to do.

That’s all for now. Be warned that this blog will not follow a strict update schedule. I live too fast and dangerous for that sort of commitment. Someone would end up hurt. Instead, I will try to provide readers with a sort of general forecast for future content in each post. Since we’ve still got that nice New Blog smell, you can expect scattered showers of updates popping up in the next few days, provided the impending academic pressure front doesn’t foul everything up. Good Bless and God Night.