29 April 2008

fucking blue shells...

Apparently, today's release of Grand Theft Auto IV is tantamount ("Marry me!") to some sort of cultural event. While I'm not the sort of person that's interested in dwelling on how far society must have fallen to make the release of a video game that counts among its defining characteristics the ability to have sex with a hooker in your car and then run her down to retrieve the money you paid her (I, frankly, loved GTA III... wasn't so sold on Vice City, and decided to pass up San Andreas all together once I found out you had to keep your character in good shape and maintain relationships with various ancillary characters. As a good friend of mine put it, we play video games so we don't have to nurture relationships that we're not necessarily interested in building), I do feel the need to point out that another long-standing, socially relevant interactive entertainment franchise saw the release of its latest iteration just two days ago. I, of course, refer to Mario Kart [Wii].

Mario Kart was a huge deal back in the glory days of video gaming (Super Nintendo days). I remember going to my cousins' house to do, well, anything at all (they're fun people), and getting sidetracked for the better part of the day playing Mario Kart. Admittedly, one of the more glaring downsides to the game was that only two people could play it at a time, so the other relatives sitting on the couch had to yell suggestions at the ones currently engaged in race or battle. But that was part of its charm, and a portion of what made all of those old games as awesome as they were, that you could find a way to enter into the playing experience without even having to pick up the controller.

I do believe that the original Mario Kart was the genesis of my affinity for the lamer, more pathetic characters in video games, but particularly in Nintendo games. I developed a bizarre affection for the Koopa Troopa in Mario Kart; he was not particularly fast, didn't possess great off-the-line acceleration, but he got me where I needed to go, and usually in just the right amount of time. He cornered well, which was a huge deal in battle mode, where just an extra quarter-second could all you to get around the wall and make the red shell that had your name on it smash harmlessly into the loopy, Mode 7-rendered level structure.

Mario Kart 64, though, was and remains the peak of the experience, and the precisely right combination of factors that came into play prevent any further iteration of the series from attaining the awesomeness that was the version that made its appearance on the Nintendo 64. For one thing, it was at the right time in my life (junior high and the first two, three years of high school were the halcyon days of my video game playing), where I was surrounded by friends that had the same affection for the multiplayer Nintendo games as myself. Concurrently, the N64 heralded the arrival of 4-player, split-screen multiplayer, which doubled the number of people that could be holding a controller and screaming at each other from the couch and the floor during a race, or a set of races. The game was balanced just right, as far as I was concerned, and even though I'd lost my beloved Koopa Troopa, I grew an appreciation for Mario's scaredey cat brother, Luigi (perhaps I just like the color green, who knows?).

Mario Kart 64 was one of the first games that lacked even the pretense of a narrative that engaged me emotionally, and from what I've been able to tell, the game stirred up a similar emotion in most of those that played it too often, as I did: a deep, abiding hatred for the character referred to as "the Mushroom retainer," Toad. To this day, even if I haven't looked at MK64 for months, I, and many people like me (I imagine), can perform, on cue, a halfway decent impression of Toad's more grating voice samples from the game. "I'm the best!" is the most remembered (just to piss the rest of us off, certain friends that shall remain nameless liked to play with Toad, because he was, almost unquestioningly, the best pure racer in the game. But that voice...), followed, with far more glee, the "Aaaaahhh!!" sound that he would make when struck particularly well with a shell, or when he fell off the edge of the racetrack.

A version of the game was released for the Game Boy Advance, but having tasted MK64, I was reluctant to return to the D-pad world of the GBA, and so while I purchased the game (and enjoyed it, relatively, given that I never had the opportunity to play it with other people, thus depriving myself of the best aspect of the game, the social component), it picked up dust soon after all the courses were unlocked.

Fast-forwarding to my second year of college, we saw the release of Mario Kart: Double Dash!! for the Nintendo GameCube. The Cube itself was little more than a series of missed opportunities, looking back on it, for its library of games was replete with software that would make even the most passionate Nintendo-and-only-Nintendo fanboy say, "Well, it was okay, but you know what would've made it a lot better?" (notable exceptions include: Wave Race: Blue Storm, the Resident Evil 1 REmake, Super Smash Bros Melee, F-Zero GX, and certainly others that I'm forgetting). Not making the cut of games that were good enough to live up to the Nintendo standard of quality was Mario Kart: Double Dash. Between the game's inability to impart a sense of speed upon the player, to the crummy-beyond-crummy battle mode (anyone who's played it will tell you that it's one of the key elements in the series), to the thought that two players to a single Kart would be enjoyable for anybody, Double Dash was badly conceived, poorly executed, and received by this Nintendo fan with less enthusiasm than that Forsaken game that came out on the 64.

Every once and a while, my less-than-popular opinion is proven right. This was one of those times. That's not to say that I relished in the fact that MK:DD was bad; this is more of an opportunity to state that I was right. For once.

Given the apparent worldwide popularity of the Nintendo DS, I'd have imagined meeting more people that have played Mario Kart DS, but it's been a rare occurrence. That's kind of a shame, for MKDS is, in a lot of ways, the perfect Mario Kart experience. It merges the controls of the SNES release with those introduced, and pretty much perfected, in MK64 (since I didn't mention it earlier, I should now: the power slide added a fantastic element of strategy, and skill, to a game that didn't really have a next "level" that those truly obsessed with the game could go to. Waggling the control stick on those N64 controllers back and forth was just what the game needed). It brought back some of the more notable levels from past Mario Karts, and introduced several fantastic new ones (the one inspired by Bowser's battleship in Super Mario Bros 3, particularly). Moreover, MKDS was probably Nintendo's first real foray into mainstream online play. They took their time getting there, and it certainly left a lot to be desired, but there was no other way for me (and probably hundreds, thousands, of other people) to play the game with anybody except over the impersonal, anonymous player-matching provided by the DS.

Now, finally, we come to Mario Kart Wii. I should get this out of the way: the Wii has not, as of yet, changed video gaming as we know it, certainly not the way I expected it would change it. Sure, the motion controls are, in theory, awesome, but very little that is truly revolutionary has been done with them. Granted, I have yet to play Okami, but a port of a Playstation 2 game will have to truly knock my socks off to make me think all of my pre-launch enthusiasm for the Wii was warranted. I still think its real impact will be felt in the realm of the Virtual Console, where a crazy little developer will design a game so out there, so completely different from what we even conceived as a "video game," that everyone who dearly loves this art form will be stunned for minutes, at least. That, and the distribution of classic games that dearly need a new audience.

The above paragraph was mostly a preface for this single point: the "Wii Wheel" (Nintendo really dropped the ball here; "Wii-l," anyone?) is virtually useless. Perhaps if you, or someone you know, has never even been introduced to the concept of the video game, it would have some purpose, but for anyone else, it simply gets in the way, and everyone is better off recovering an old GameCube controller (hey, another thing the Cube did right: proving that a wireless controller - my beloved Wavebird - was the way of the future) or jack the Nunchuck into the base of the Wiimote (see? "Wii-l!").

Aside from that, and the unforgivable ditching of the 2-player Grand Prix mode (who wants to play Mario Kart alone these days, or ever?), MKW is likely the best version in the series yet. The controls are the perfect mix of loose and tight, the track mixture may be the best yet, the jump from 8 racers to 12 throws a serious new dimension of crazy at the players, and online... Nintendo's finally entered the 21st century and given us real, honest-to-goodness online play (and I'm mostly okay with the continued omission of voice chat - it got to the point with Halo that I was muting every player before the game began. I don't think voice chat was designed with the intention of driving every other player insane, but that's what it's become. I should credit the people on Call of Duty 4, and Team Fortress 2, with being among the most reasonable, nay, entertaining people I've listened to on the Internet to date). I wasn't sold on the idea of the motorbikes (it's Mario Kart), but the simplistic trick system, and the wheelies, add another little dimension of strategy that people can add to their repertoires, if they want to. If not, the kart is still there.

I know plenty of people complain about the cheap catch-up that the AI, and your fellow players, can play (first place gets shitty items - fake item boxes and banana peels - while twelfth place gets more leader-seeking blue shells, invincibility stars and lightning bolts than they can handle), and the way the game can stack items coming at you so as to make you drop from first to seventh to eleventh in moments, but that's really part of Mario Kart at this point. Somebody once said that it's better to be lucky than good, right? Well, that's never more true than in a game of Mario Kart.

In my experience, the game brings people together more effectively than any interactive entertainment experience I've witnessed, with perhaps the notable exception of Rock Band (who doesn't want to sing "Fortunate Son," or play drums on "Limelight?"). Even my roommates, who refuse to play any Nintendo games with me at all, will happily sit down for a few games of Mario Kart. While it's not the most important experience a group of people can share, it's still something to do together. And that, as someone else once said, is not nothing.

I don't often grin when I open up a game and start to play it; I can't imagine smiling while playing GTA IV, for instance. I'll be laughing sadistically, I imagine, but pure, pure glee is not an emotional I anticipate experiencing during my playtime. But that fat little Italian plumber has so much of my youth wrapped up in his image that I can't help but be reminded of myriad happy times whenever I see him, or hear his voice. He's like that uncle that you can't see enough of.

25 April 2008

hey, dracula!

I remain convinced that The 40-Year Old Virgin (or 40YOV from this point forward) was jobbed out of its Best Picture Oscar nomination (not saying it deserved to win it, just saying it should've been nominated). I have a couple of reasons for saying this: 1) most of the best [mainstream] American films that have come out in the '00s have been comedies (and basically all of them have had something to do with Judd Apatow); 2) they nominated Sideways, and 40YOV deals with most of the same subject matter as Sideways, except that it does it in a much better way, and with characters that are actually likable; 3) movies with heart deserve to be recognized as such, and 40YOV has heart pouring out of its ears. Its ejaculate is heart.

Perhaps I'm somewhat biased towards a movie that so closely comments on my state of mind during these last three years (approaching four, which is a thought so depressing that I'd really rather not dwell on it), but one of the trademarks of the Apatow company of writers/directors/players is sincerity; not once in 40YOV, Knocked Up or Superbad (the big three, such as they are), did I feel like the movie was betraying its sensibility to garner laughs. The comedy, and the tragedy, all came from honest places, and I think this was the first time since that fantastic first film that the feeling was recaptured.

If I can avoid simply restating plot points and go for a transcription of my reaction to the film, I'm going to be pleased with the way this response comes out.

Forgetting Sarah Marshall is, as of this moment, and perhaps this moment only, my absolute favorite of the Judd Apatow gang's movies to date. The key to the R-rated comedy's success, in my mind, is, was, and always will be heart and sincerity, for you can throw as many curse words and sex jokes and exposed sex organs at the viewer as you want, but if they're not tied together in a meaningful way, and placed inside of a much greater framework that amounts to more than just dicks and titties, you might as well have just been spitting (or masturbating) into the wind.

FSM does this spectacularly well, and for reasons that far outstrip the sledgehammer subtlety of Jason Segel's penis flapping out in the dead, awkward air that floats into the room when his then-girlfriend (played by Kristen Bell, who will always, forever be Veronica Mars to me. She does a great job of not being Veronica Mars, but being Sarah Marshall, here, but I will always think of her as the lovely, spunky, feisty Veronica) drops the "there's someone else" bombshell on him. Every character that has a speaking part in the movie is attempting to overcome some sort of grand obstacle in their lives, be it artistic expression (the fellow that owns the bar in Hawaii that Jason's character Peter frequents), emotional expression (Jack McBrayer's emotionally frazzled newlywed) or expression of any kind at all (Jonah Hill's starstruck restaurant employee, who can't get past his man crush on Russell Brand's brilliantly funny British rock star). Sex is an obstacle as much as it is an answer, and that goes for everybody, male and female.

Speaking of males and females, one of the other big selling points of FSM is the inclusion of the strongest, best-developed female leads in one of the Apatow crew's movies since, well, maybe ever. I loved Catherine Keener's character in 40YOV, but it is tough to buy her two abrupt "switch" moments in the last twenty or thirty minutes of the movie ("Oh no, Andy's a serial killer!" to "Oh, Andy, you're just a virgin."). Knocked Up was almost malicious in its depiction of the female half of the relationship, and Superbad mostly used its women as a means to an end, or as ancillary, single-note cameos. The movies are mostly about the male experience, written by men with a specific point of view, so that obviously has to be taken into account, but it becomes tougher to forgives oversights of this sort when one is face-to-face with the fascinating and compelling women brought to life by Kristen Bell and Mila Kunis (who I'd written off for lost because of her longstanding involvement with the dumbass comedy that Fox has been riding for so long - That 70's Show and Family Guy).

Kristen Bell reveals sympathetic layers to her character that a lesser actress would've left untouched (if there's anything I can assume about her, it's that she knows every bitch is really just trying to compensate for a soft spot), and Mila Kunis plays a rebound girl to be proud of, one that's smart enough to know when to play along and when to tell the guy to get the fuck out.

As much as I would have loved a good melancholy ending to the movie, one where Peter finds his redemption in his staged Dracula puppet musical, and not naked in the arms of a girl who really does love him, despite his myriad flaws, I found comfort in the movie taking me where I expected it to go. It's so rare anymore for a movie to present me with characters that are likable enough for me to wish the best for them that it's rewarding when good things actually do happen to good people, even if they are fictional.

Much more writing would probably take this into the realm of autobiographical, and that's best saved for another night. One that involved alcohol.

21 April 2008

you know who turned him in? his fucking girlfriend

Thankfully, this will have nothing at all to do with complaining, yet again, about my miserable romantic track record (except for this part. Which is now over), but has everything to do with my fairly successful musical track record (not with regards to performance, but in the listening department). Specifically, and without the bullshit prefacing that typically comes in my writing, the Dillinger Escape Plan show from last Wednesday, and my reactions to the same.

I wrote my piece about the new album (Ire Works) in my Top 5 list for music in 2007, so I will endavour to avoid rehashing opinion that has already been penned. Suffice to say, I was jazzed at the prospect of seeing a band I've recently come to appreciate in a venue I've also recently come to appreciate (the Marquis... not even remotely as awesome as the location it replaced on the concert calendar - the late, lamented Rock Island - but a nice happy medium between a dive-y place and somewhere that a teenager's mother wouldn't get too nervous dropping him off at).

I've seen the performance of "Black Bubblegum" they did on Late Night a few more times than I'd care to admit,
I've watched the live snippets that came on the Miss Machine bonus DVD often enough, and I've been in awe of Greg's attempt to run over the crowd at Virgin Megastore for a while now. One of their bass players apparently used to refer to the band as the Dillinger Insurance Plan; the only band I know of where one of the guitar players gets nerve damage in his hand and has to quit (for the time being) and where the other one breaks his foot during the shoot for a video, necessitating the postponing of their nationwide tour for what felt like several months. Though I had yet to see Dillinger live, I knew what I was getting myself into.

I've also been to my fair share of shows at the Marquis (Pelican, Planes, ISIS), but I'd never been to one with a gate set up in the space between the bar area and the floor in front of the stage. I knew the rumors were true going in, but now I was committed, and I couldn't back out even if my cold feet froze me to the core.

No real worries, at least not for a while; the first opener was, as somebody put it, the "hometown heroes," Fear Before the March of Flames. Frankly, I found myself struggling to care. I probably should've, but there just wasn't anything about their music I found gripping. Particularly when I knew what was waiting in the wings.

The next act, I'm sad to say, I cannot recall their name. I remember they were from California, and that I enjoyed them a lot more than Fear. It was kind of standard, ISIS-esque metal/[something]core, but they played their music well, and with conviction. They were kind of like a B-movie band, but a good B-movie. I wish I could remember their name.

Then, Dillinger, after a wait that felt excruciatingly long. I can honestly say that I don't believe I've ever been through an experience that matches that of seeing The Dillinger Escape Plan perform live. The crowd basically rioted (but in a positive way... the thing I still hate about mosh pits is the one random asshole who doesn't want to enjoy himself, but just punch other people in the face and wreak as much havoc as he can. I didn't see much of those guys that night. Maybe it was because it was so chaotic, or because there wasn't one of those guys in the crowd, but it didn't look like anyone was genuinely trying to cause harm to anyone else. And here I was, worried I would see my first broken face at a show) from the second they began to play.

The band, however, made up for that by trying to assault the audience as thoroughly as they could. I haven't seen such a frenetic strobe light setup, well, ever, and I hope to god that anyone who might have been epileptic managed to escape the space before seizing, though it would've been tough to tell from the spasming throng screaming along to every lyric that escaped vocalist Greg Puciato's lips.

It's worth noting the abundance of crowd surfing at this show; I wasn't exactly expecting it. No less than three audience members wound up on stage, screaming and gyrating along with the band. It wasn't long before they (the band) took a vote and forbade anyone not actually playing from spending any more than two minutes onstage. To our credit, no one from the audience broke that rule the rest of the night (I timed people; I know).

As something of a latecomer to DEP, I can't compare this incarnation of the band to any other, but I can say that I am absolutely blown away by the fact that everyone with the exception of Puciato could go into what amounted to a controlled seizure and still play, well, what was on the album (as near as I could tell, anyway... it's not like most of this hardcore metal/mathcore/whatever genre they're credited with creating this week doesn't sound like so much noise to the... uninitiated, I suppose).

And I have to credit them with covering the entire span of the band's existence in one night: they played a little bit of everything, from "The Mullet Burden" off the Under the Running Boards EP to most of Ire Works, and "When Good Dogs Do Bad Things" from the band's transitional Irony is a Dead Scene, the EP they did with Mike Patton (!!) on lead vocals (I know I'm restating myself here, but this is just as much to remind me about the significance of the show and the album as it is to write a reaction for an audience).

Puciato is one scary motherfucker; the guy has biceps that are probably bigger than my head. It's easier to take a song like "Milk Lizard" seriously when the guy screaming the words looks as though he could take on every single member of FBTMOF and the other opening band without even breaking a sweat. He climbed across the ceiling during the closing number of the set: "Sunshine the Werewolf," from Miss Machine.

I want to keep jabbering on about this experience, but so much of it was about the immediacy of live music, of surrounding yourself with people as passionate, if not more so, about the music and the performance as you are, that trying to consider it after the fact feels like a task that I couldn't ever accomplish to my satisfaction.


It's worth posting a link to the photographs the good people from Westword took of the show; this is probably another one of those situations where pictures work a bit better than words:

20 April 2008

catch-up

I really didn't mean to take almost a month off from updating the journal that no one reads, but you know how life kind of gets in the way sometimes? Well, sometimes mummy movies get in the way, too.

Let's backtrack to yesterday, and see where we can go from there. The seven-month project, Mummies..., is completed, and has its "world premiere" last night in MATH 100 on campus. Turnout was significantly better than I'd expected, between friends and family, the friends and family of closer friends, co-workers, former instructors and, yes, a few people that no one else in the room knew. That means our advertising strategy (dressing up a few willing friends like mummies and making them wander the University of Colorado at Boulder with fliers) worked, at least a little bit.

It's an imperfect movie, but it has a lot of heart. It's trying really hard, particularly when you consider the fact that it was shot in three- and four-hour chunks after most, if not all, of us had struggled through long days at work beforehand, and when you factor in the sub-$1000 budget we were working with. It's probably almost exactly what we aspired to, and I think that everybody involved can feel pretty proud of what they accomplished. We made a movie with a coherent story, with characters, and with a really cheesy lightsaber-inspired effect.

As far as I can tell, it was received well. I've described it both as "Shaun of the Dead, only with frat boys instead of British people, mummies instead of zombies, and way less money" and as a weird spiritual descendant of Airplane, in that we do somewhat subscribe to the "throw everything at the wall and see what sticks" school of comedy (except that what we chose to have available to us is kind of limited, and the wall we're throwing things at is kind of small - if you don't like your comedy with loads of cursing and bizarre "what the fuck was that" moments, you might not find Mummies... your cup of tea), and, near as I can tell, those comparisons are pretty apt. People responded; I heard plenty of laughs from our pushing-200-person audience (about double what I'd hoped for, frankly). I'd gladly put our 53-minute long feature up against any of the "[Genre] Movie" bullshit that's invaded American screen comedy in this decade; they'd win in the production category (though I contend we got far better value out of our $700ish budget than any of those movies got out of their millions), but I think we'd take the cake for everything else.

It's a chore to make a smart stupid movie, and I think where the piece lives or dies is in the characterization (admittedly, that's the case for almost every sort of movie, but comedy is more dependent on its characters than most anyone probably cares to admit - how many sketches have bombed because the character around which they were built just wasn't, well, anything? Jimmy Fallon's characters vs John Belushi's characters. I think I'll rest my case, and this digression, for now). They're where you can get the "stupid movie" description - let's face it, if the characters are morons, mostly, you're probably going to assume the movie's moronic - and it's not too difficult to write a stupid character stupidly (Napoleon Dynamite's going to be my example here), but to write one smartly, to write, say, a Barry-in-High-Fidelity, or most anything Steve Martin played back when he was funny, that's where the rub is. If the characters are dumb, but their dialogue is smartly written, and their situation something resembling clever (that might be where our movie falters - the International Mummy Symposium, held at the college library, is not the most awe-inspiring locale. What happens in it, though, and here I'm thinking of the accessing of the information contained within the books housed in the building, is at the least intriguing, to my mind); if the movie handles its stupid characters well (frequently by associating them with somewhat more intelligent characters), then it probably breaks into that echelon of smart stupid movie.

The movie's acceptance by its audience probably also relates back to the comedy theory floated to me by my friend Sam Tallent a few years ago, an idea I have grown so attached to that I've appropriated it and reference it whenever I can (though I attempt to credit him every time). We'd just finished our second Choose Your Own Adventure play production (something I contended at the time to be the best comedy writing I had done, or would ever do, despite the fact that almost the entire play's style is cribbed from Futurama - a conscious choice, but I don't feel like my writing's held up all that well over the years) - the show involved beaver guards (guards that were beavers, that is), a mutated assassin crawdad, and, as Matt described him, a gay Willy Wonka ripoff that fights bulls on the weekend. As per standard operating procedure with these plays, the second of our three shows had been packed to the brim, and the space had been ripe with the laughter of an engaged audience. But, again, one of our featured characters was a self-aware, physicalized disembodied narrator that frequently got in arguments with the characters he was speaking about, and the second act opened with a five-minute-long scene that was a blatant ripoff of Kevin Smith's Clerks, except that the receptionists were talking about Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, rather than Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. I was struggling to understand why people responded to this bizarre hybrid child we'd unleashed on the world, and Sam, bless him, explained to me that he thought, above all, people responded to earnestness and sincerity. Our show (shows, really) had come from a special place in our hearts; they oozed, if nothing else, sincere. If for nothing else, people had taken to that and accepted the nonsensical world in which they'd found themselves.

I've sort of been riding on that thought for the last several years, and it amazes me each and every time that it bears itself out to be correct. I have this feeling that I'll be riding on it for the rest of the time that I'm producing work of any kind that I hope to subject an audience to, because I am most definitely not Herman Melville, nor am I Francois Truffaut, nor am I Aaron Sorkin, much though I might like to be that last fellow. "Profound" is not really something that's ever been attached to my work, and I kind of doubt it ever will, at this point. I don't particularly like the fact that my fate seems set that way, but I suppose accepting it would be the healthiest thing for me to do. I didn't set out to make low-budget, ridiculous movies, they just sort of found me.

I guess I wouldn't mind being Roger Corman, but why can't I be Joss Whedon instead (I'd make a play for being John Carpenter, but I think plenty of other people have that base covered far better than I ever could)?

More on things not related to the mummy movie later.