Monday, May 31, 2010

Go See The Trotsky

On Friday I went to see The Trotsky, a new Canadian film about a young man named Leon who's convinced he is the reincarnation of famed Bolshevik Leon Trotsky. Leon tries to emulate every aspect of the historical Trotsky's life, and the film depicts his efforts to found an empowered student union at his Montreal West high school. Starring Jay Baruchel, The Trotsky is in limited release right now and you should go see it because it is great and deserves your support. And how often can you say that about mainstream Canadian cinema?

The Trotsky isn't what I'd call deep or psychologically complex, but it is a lot of fun. This is a real "for the love of the game" type movie, expertly crafted entertainment that relishes in the joy of story-telling. It's a hilarious underdog tale that dives headfirst into its ridiculous premise and makes you root for the least likely candidate. The Trotsky features an exceedingly clever and tightly-written script and an outstanding cast including Saul Rubinek, Michael Murphy, and Colm Feore. And Jay Baruchel...

In talking about The Trotsky it's important that I mention how much I usually detest Baruchel. He's been in a lot of movies and television shows that I really enjoy (Undeclared, How To Train Your Dragon, etc.) but something about him just rubs me the wrong way. I'm not saying that he's a bad actor (though talk about one-note), merely acknowledging my personal bias against him. Because despite my prejudice I still managed to wholeheartedly enjoy The Trotsky, and not in spite of Baruchel but because of him.

The movie seems to be written with an awareness of how annoying Baruchel can be, and a major focus of the plot is how people who hate him come to appreciate and support his cause. It's not that he acts any differently than in previous roles, rather the film seems to be specifically designed to capture his personality and endear it to the audience. By the end of The Trotsky I too was cheering Baruchel on and enjoying his typical nerdy whining as Leon, and honestly I don't think there's any other actor who could have brought the quirky character to life. Baruchel carries the movie and in turn it carries him. This truly is the epitome of a breakout leading performance.

 Jay Baruchel: Surprisingly great in The Trotsky

To reiterate: Jay Baruchel = remarkably awesome; The Trotsky = outstanding; You = should go see the it.

New Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World Trailer

A post at /Film has alerted me that there is a new trailer for Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World up on Facebook. I am including it below:

My excitement for the film is palpable, by which I mean that it is capable of being palped. At the same time I doubt it'll be anywhere near as good as the books. That's not to say the movie won't be earth-shatteringly awesome, but rather that the books set the bar so high that I'm lowering my expectations in preparation. I want to enjoy this film for what it is, not what it isn't, and then pontificate about the difference.

We shall see what Edgar Wright hath wrought come August 20th.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Glee On The Word "Fag"

Last night's episode of Glee featured a great scene that I was surprised to see on network television. In it the show's writers explicitly address derogatory use of the word "fag" and identify it as a hateful slur on the same level as words like "nigger" and "retard." It's an extremely powerful sequence that sends a fantastic message and I want to share it because the statement it makes cannot be reiterated enough.

To give a little context, in this episode Finn, a typically moral football player, finds out he's moving in with Kurt, a gay classmate and fellow member of the Glee club. Finn's mother recently started dating Kurt's father, Burt, who quickly became an important masculine role model to Finn. When Finn and Kurt start sharing a bedroom it puts a lot of stress on both of them, and the rising tension finally explodes in this fantastic scene:

I'm going to try to have a better clip soon

I don't have anything to add to Burt's speech, it's a powerful testament to the fact that using such hateful language is disgraceful. Considering Glee's popularity it's always admirable when the writers tackle important social issues. They're quick to criticize rural American culture but clearly aren't blind to their own faults, as seen in episodes like the racially-charged "Throwdown." There's also a brutal honesty to Glee that saves its moralizing from sounding like the stuff of after-school specials, as seen when they discussed disabilities in "Wheels." Burt's speech this week exhibited each of these strengths as he admitted his own guilt in having shared a hateful prejudice and indicted its perpetuation. Because so many people watch Glee it presents a a real opportunity for positive cultural influence, and moments like this show the writers are taking that possibility seriously.

If the sequence above had taken place in reality I would accuse Burt of being overly hard on Finn. The kid has repeatedly shown that he has a good heart and more than that he's struggling with his own serious issues. There's no doubt that Finn's treatment of Kurt is reprehensible, but Burt should have handled the situation better. He has taken it upon himself to become a father-figure to Finn, yet his exemplary criticism of the boy's language quickly devolves into an excommunication. Finn is wrong and he isn't Burt's real son so he has to go. No high school kid deserves to be so brutally devalued and disowned, period.

But this isn't reality, it's the television show Glee, and an episode entitled "Theatricality" no less.  Finn's a good kid, the audience likes him, and so hearing him use the word "fag" is especially shocking. Burt's rage is  righteous but hard to watch with Finn on the receiving end, and the divide between the audience's loyalty to Finn and their moral sensibility makes the whole event feel especially tragic. This elevated drama makes the scene all the more effective in sending the message that words like "fag" are hateful, hurtful, and unacceptable.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Thoughts on Dead Space and Horror

Fair warning: this post is particularly rambly, even for me.

I recently finished EA's 2008 survival-horror game Dead Space. The game's basic premise is "zombies in space," and in a lot of ways it resembles a futuristic Resident Evil.  It's also hugely influenced by films like Alien, Event Horizon, and The Thing. Seeing as how I adore all of those things it was no wonder that Dead Space would spark my interest, and having played through it I am happy to say that the game is awesome. It manages to keep you in constant suspense by cleverly utilizing horror tropes to create an unpredictable and terrifying atmosphere. On top of that the innovative strategic dismemberment gameplay mechanic demands that you approach each regular enemy differently, and the results are always ridiculously gruesome.

Dead Space has been out since 2008 and so it has already received massive amounts of coverage and a prequel, and next year it will be followed by Dead Space 2. I'm really excited for the sequel because it sounds like the developers are going to fix the only major problem with the original game: the story. Dead Space fails to emphasize its underlying story through gameplay and instead tasks the player with a series of contextually necessary objectives. In the end the only real accomplishment in the game is sheer survival, which is great but not substantial enough to really excite. There's also the fact that the protagonist, Issac Clarke, is a silent protagonist, an archaic gaming trope that invites the player to project onto the hero so as to give them a character; it's a bit of a cop-out writing-wise but nevertheless can be effective under the right circumstances (see Half-Life or Zelda). But Dead Space foregrounds Issac's development, particularly his declining mental stability, and given this focus it's counter-intuitive to make him silent and devoid of personality throughout most of the game.

I'm pretty late to the Dead Space party but I don't seem to be the only one: Scott Juster at Experience Points put up an excellent review of the game literally the day after I finished playing it. His post is well worth a read and he's now written a follow-up piece detailing how the game effects a horrific transformation in both Issac and the player. It's based upon a theory that Gerard Delaney posted at Binary Swan to describe how the real monsters in zombie movies are the human protagonists.

Even if you're not interested in Dead Space, Delaney's post makes some good points about the zombie genre, something I haven't thought about in a long time. It got me thinking about some of my favourite horror tales, including zombie movies, the sci-fi films mentioned above, and even a few classic novels and short stories. Far from being unique to the zombie subgenre, a lot of the most horrifying stories show monstrous transformations in their protagonists. The Thing, for example, focuses on the effects of paranoia by introducing a hostile, shape-shifting alien into a group of men. The Descent likewise examines how interpersonal relations and social niceties break down when a group of friends gets lost in an unexplored cave system.

Monsters and villains can be terrifying, but it's truly horrifying when protagonists are compromised. These are the characters we most easily identify with and so we can understand and even relate to their transformations, which in turn invites us to examine our values and limitations. Juster makes a compelling argument for Dead Space achieving this, but I think he's mostly projecting his own reaction to the sheer amount of gore that results from severing enemy limbs. Issac isn't defined well enough as a character to have a real transformation, he remains at all times a silent protagonist that stands as a placeholder for the player. He is what we put into him, no more, no less.

Dead Space succeeds in creating a terrifying atmosphere and repulsive gore, but there's just not enough to the game's characters or objectives. Hopefully the next one will fix this by giving Issac a voice, although it'll take more than that to make the story both horrifying and compelling.

Little Girl Writes to Nintendo, Gets Free DS

Definitely the cutest thing I've heard in a while. That's pretty awesome of Nintendo.

Via Kotaku.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Pac-Man on Google

Google has done something incredibly cool today: they've incorporated a playable version of Pac-Man into their logo.

If you use the search engine then you're probably familiar with how the company sometimes alters their logo to correspond with holidays like Christmas, Halloween, Valentine's Day, etc. Well today is apparently the 30th anniversary of Pac-Man, and Google is marking the occasion by sharing the game with the world. Clearly this is an effective strategy since I had no idea the game was so old, or that today was at all important really.

This probably won't last past today, but if you have a chance then check it out. Press the "Insert Coin" button beside the usual "Google Search" one and watch out for ghosts!

Found on Kotaku via, umm, Google.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

This Actually Happened: Alabama Teacher Used Assassination of Obama to Teach Geometry

A high school teacher in Alabama was reported for using the assassination of US President Barack Obama as an example to teach students about angles and parallel lines. Wow. I couldn't have made that up. The teacher is apparently not being fired though he has been placed on leave.

Joseph Brown, a senior in the geometry class.
, stated that the teacher "was talking about angles and said, 'If you're in this building, you would need to take this angle to shoot the president.' "

Reported (mostly) without commentary because the story says so much more on its own.

Found at Geekosystem via The Birmingham News

Joss Whedon's Glee Episode

Last night's episode of Glee, "Dream On," was directed by the incomparable Joss Whedon, and featured a guest appearance by Whedon-regular Neil Patrick Harris. As an admitted fan of both Glee and Whedon I was understandably excited, and with the added bonus of NPH the episode seemed sure to become an instant classic. And you know what? It sort of was.

The episode was certainly not without its problems, but overall I think it's the best we've seen from Glee since they won sectionals. It started out a bit rocky with the first act being almost entirely story driven; the story wasn't bad by any means, but on a musical show it was strange that there wasn't a single musical number for the first third of the episode. The next half hour made up for it in spades though, with a couple of incredible duets from NPH and series regular Matthew Morrison. There was also a special focus on wheelchair-bound character Artie, resulting in a heartbreaking fantasy rendition of "Safety Dance" that ranks among the best performances the show has ever had. On top of all that we got a surprising development about Jessie that could potentially change a predictable subplot into a much more interesting (if slightly contrived) story arc.

Overall it was a great episode that focused more on individual characters than the general ensemble, which makes sense given that Whedon was directing. He is a master with character development and in this episode he managed to interweave three different character-specific stories and have each of them feel equally relevant and interesting. The Glee cast is fairly large and so the focus on a few individuals was unsurprising and probably wise. To Whedon's credit none of the characters felt absent even if they didn't have any lines, which is more than you can say about a lot of the recent episodes. Most importantly the song choices were amazing and perfectly accentuated the characters' individual arcs. I really enjoyed the episode and hope Whedon comes back to direct another one soon. We certainly haven't seen the last of NPH's character...

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Primitivism in Contemporary Science Ficiton

I've been noticing a growing tendency in popular science fiction to express an ideology of romantic primitivism. As Wikipedia summarizes, the concept holds that "life was better or more moral during the early stages of mankind or among primitive peoples (or children) and has deteriorated with the growth of civilization." Unless you're one of the two people on the planet who didn't see Avatar you should easily be able to see the relevance of primitivism in popular culture. Furthermore a few other major sci-fi properties express similar philosophical leanings: the TV show Battlestar Galactica concluded last year with (spoiler warning) a futuristic human society abandoning all of their technology and knowledge to colonize a primitive Earth; now Steven Spielberg's upcoming show, Terra Nova, will apparently show a family from the year 2149 who go back to the time of the dinosaurs to alter history and save humanity from its "devotion to science."

Ok, so what the fuck?

Where is this sudden regressive impulse coming from? The philosophy certainly isn't new but its prevalence in science fiction lately is noteworthy and unnerving. Science fiction has always existed as a vehicle through which to consider and critique human society by imagining a different one. The genre allows us to question aspects of human life such as political structures or belief systems, and in that way to really question ourselves. Now the most popular sci-fi stories are placing the blame for humanity's woes squarely on the shoulders of technology and the individuals who propagate it... Huh?

This type of reductive thinking produces no room for analysis or discussion but instead encourages a moralistic mob mentality and a "get rid of the bad guys / things" type response, as seen at the end of Avatar. BSG started out as a liberal and critically minded examination of contemporary politics through the lens of a space opera, promoting new ways of thinking about concepts like race, religion, and war. When the show ended it suddenly devolved into an imperialistic treatise about faith, cyclical patterns, and the evils of technology. This ran completely counter to many of show's focal points, including the idea that the "evil" Cylons were for all intents and purposes people, a reflection of their human creators. The show's conclusion didn't make sense thematically, and fans of the show reacted accordingly.

Tellingly the endings of BSG and Avatar were essentially the same: 
the main characters integrated with alien noble savages by fucking them

What is the deal with all this romantic primitivism? The root of all human problems is always the humans themselves, and sci-fi has traditionally been a medium for exploring this issue in all its complexities. Now some of the most prominent examples of the genre are spouting off some ridiculous ideology about how technology is to blame and we should all abandon it to be more in touch with nature? I say again, what the fuck? I'm all for environmentalism but don't try to sell me some two-bit theory that shirks our responsibility and ignores the vast amounts of good that has come as a result of technological advancement. The solution's not as simple as that, and frankly it's not as stupid either. We need better answers and we deserve better stories.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Fake Painting Photography

A friend posted this link on Facebook, and when I went to the website it took me a solid minute to realize what I was seeing. Through the link is a series of photographs by Washington, DC artist Alexa Meade in which acrylic paint has been applied to subjects. The resulting images are look uncannily like paintings on canvas but are actually installation pieces.

I've included a few of my favourites here, but definitely check out the full gallery over at Bored Panda. This is the most effective realization of a "living painting" that I've seen since What Dreams May Come (say what you will about that movie, it was visually stunning). This is one of the most interesting and unique concepts I've encountered in recent memory, and I'm very curious to see what else Meade can come up with.

Thanks to Bekky for the link.

PSA: Portal Free on Steam Until May 24th

In case you haven't heard, Steam has been released for Mac and to celebrate the occasion Valve is offering Portal for free until May 24th. For both Mac and PC. If you haven't yet played the sublime experience that is Portal then trust me, you'll love it. If you have played the game but don't own it then why are you even still reading this? Run, don't walk, to the Steam website and get Portal now!

Via Kotaku

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Buffalo bufflo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo

The title of this post is a grammatically valid sentence in the English language. Seriously.

As the above chart indicates, the word "buffalo" is simultaneously a noun (the animal), a proper noun (the place), and a verb (to bully). The sentence roughly translates (ha!) to "Buffalo from Buffalo who are bullied by buffalo from Buffalo in turn buffalo other buffalo from Buffalo." That's a lot of buffalo.

According to Wikipedia the sentence was first used by William J. Rapaport in 1972 to demonstrate the potentially confusing nature of homonyms and homophones. I think it makes it pretty clear that English is a cruel and complex beast of a language. My condolences to every ESL student ever.

Thanks to Hayden for the heads up.

Josh Ritter

I mentioned a while back that I really like Josh Ritter. His new album came out last week, and I thought I'd take the opportunity to mention again how awesome he is.

Ritter's latest album, So Runs The World Away, was released internationally on May 4, 2010. It's available at any Starbucks location (apparently they sell some pretty solid CDs), and it's not half bad. Honestly I've only listened to it a few times so I haven't made up my mind about it yet. Ritter's albums usually take a few listens to really catch on, and so far I can only say I like this one. It seems to be getting generally positive reviews from credible sources so I'm sure I'll come around. Standout tracks include Change of Time, The Curse, and the cheesy but catchy Lantern.

I can, however, give a ringing endorsement of a few of his earlier records, Golden Age of Radio, The Animal Years, and The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter. On each of these albums Ritter's expert songwriting shines through on every song, with lyrics that are both instantly likable and profound upon deeper reflection. He particularly excels with ballads like The Last Temptation of Adam, the lyrics of which were the subject of an earlier post. Ritter covers a broad range of styles in his songs, ranging from the melodramatic to the densely literary to the barroom nostalgic. His sound is like a more pop, less surreal version of Bob Dyaln, both in terms of his vocals and country-folk roots. Golden Age in particular features a stripped down acoustic sound that's sure to please fans of singer-songwriters. On Animal Years and Historical Conquests Ritter expands upon this foundation with a full band in tow, giving him the room to really stretch out with his songs.

If you're a fan of good music then you owe it to yourself to at least check Ritter out. Some of my favourite tracks include Harrisburg, Song For The Fireflies, To The Dogs or Whoever, Wolves, and Lillian, Egypt. Below I'm embedding the video for Me & Jiggs, which is song that introduced me to Ritter. It clearly shows his singer-songwriter talent and pop sensibility, and is just a fantastic track. Give it a listen, and give him a shot.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Superheroes, Conservatism, and the Failure of Iron Man 2

I was going to write a general review of Iron Man 2 but I don't think I'm up to it, I just don't care enough about the movie. It's not anywhere near as good as it's predecessor, but at the same time it's not offensively bad like Transformers 2 or Spiderman 3. I don't have anything positive to say about it but there's no room to really have fun ripping into it. Iron Man 2 is just a painfully average mess of a movie that suffers from the same narcissism and self-indulgence that it portrays in its hero. The film has many interesting elements that unfortunately don't work as a final product, and it left me feeling... meh. Go see it, chances are that if you're reading this you either already have or will no matter what I say. If you're looking for a decent review check out the one at io9, it's the best I've read. This one over at The Washington Post isn't bad either.

All that said, while Iron Man 2 fails to inspire either awe or vitriol, it does provide the perfect context with which to bring up something I've been thinking a lot about lately: conservatism in superhero movies.

The Dark Knight is one of my favourite films, but I also think it's an incredibly right-wing movie. It's portrayal of Batman identifies superheroes as necessarily conservative and even fascistic entities, benevolent overseers that know best and act accordingly. In the movie Bruce Wayne takes the law into his own hands and goes to whatever lengths he deems necessary to impose his personal concept of justice on the inhabitants of Gotham city. While The Dark Knight explores the idea of superheros with a liberal sensibility, it eventually directs the audience to accept and even feel good about Batman's role. Don't get me wrong, I cheer right along with the crowd each time I watch the cinematic masterpiece, but the greater implications of its politics leave me vaguely unsettled. The fact that it ultimately justifies Batman's actions is particularly disturbing as a case-study in effective propaganda.

Iron Man 2's greatest flaw is that it asks whether or not superheroes should be allowed to act the way they do but then fails to explore the question in any meaningful way. The film opens with Tony Stark at his most narcissistic and flamboyantly right-wing: he talks about how he's "tired of the liberal agenda" while hanging an Obama "Hope" styled portrait of himself; later he refuses to turn the Iron Man technology over to the US government and flippantly tells the nation to trust him because he has "privatized peace." Stark cartoonishly symbolizes American conservatism with his brash self-confidence and determination to bear arms and be in charge. Just as Batman's selflessness and good intentions make it easy to accept his crusade in The Dark Knight, Robert Downey Jr.'s unbelievable charisma makes it's easy to buy into his rhetoric in Iron Man 2. At least until things start to go wrong.

Stark quickly succumbs to alcoholism, his god-complex, and unexpected adversaries. In Iron Man 2 the hero reaches his darkest hour, and the problem is that he never really comes back from it. The characters and the filmmakers certainly pretend that he makes a triumphant third-act return to form, but there's nothing to substantiate it; Stark is still the same old narcissist with little to no appreciation of the consequences of his actions, only by then it doesn't seem so forgivable in the context of his heroics. While the US government does attain his technology in the form of War Machine, Stark continues to do as he wishes using the Iron Man suit. By the time the movie wraps up the negative aspects of Stark being a superhero outweigh the benefits, and it's hard to stomach the idea of trusting him with such a potent weapon. In the end Mickey Rourke's prophecy rings truer than anything else in the movie: "If you could make God bleed then people will cease to believe in him."

The Dark Knight explicitly questions Batman's actions through the character of Lucius Fox, but ultimately all is forgiven because the end justifies the means. Iron Man 2 strives to achieve this sense of righteous balance but fails, leaving us with an overpowered egomaniac on the loose. Their relative merits aside, both films raise interesting questions about the very notion of super-human individuals. Can a liberal democratic society accept superheroes? Is there a way to rationalize their unique actions and freedoms? Is there room for democracy in the world(s) of superheroes or are the concepts antithetical? These are not new issues in the superhero genre, but the sudden popularity it has been given via film invites a reexamination. Never before have comic book heroes seemed to exist so tangibly within our contemporary reality, and so we are forced to ask: would we really want them to?

Friday, May 7, 2010

Mega Man Movie

There are no words necessary for this. It's Mega Man, and it's a movie. Enjoy.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Good News Everyone! Futurama Is Coming Back!

Words cannot express how excited I am for the new Futurama episodes starting this June on Comedy Central. It's hard to believe that the show was actually canceled in 2003. That's seven years ago. I've been watching it with a feverish regularity for the past four years running and it still seems as fresh as ever. The four DVD movies they released were a welcome treat, though they did not reach the level of quality the show had risen to by seasons three and four. I'm chocking that up to the awkward format (each movie also had to be four "self-contained" episodes for broadcasting) and eagerly awaiting the new season. From what we've heard it should be very interesting.

Above is the teaser trailer for the new season of Futurama on Comedy Central. Below is the first official image from the new episodes. Apparently Comedy Central Insider is going to be releasing new details about the upcoming season every weekday from now until the premiere on June 24. Depending on how awesome they prove to be I may also post them here. Hooray!

Cool Stuff: Viking Chess and The Game of Bones

I was reading a really interesting post at Experience Points that talks about a curious game called Kubb. I'm not going to try to explain the game's rules here because I haven't played it yet, but it seems to boil down to throwing wood rods at wood blocks. The Wikipedia entry calls Kubb a combination of bowling and horseshoes, and has a full explanation of how to play the game. It sounds amazing, and frankly anything that is colloquially known as "Viking Chess" has my attention. A related game, Bunnock, sounds equally badass and was allegedly invented by Russian soldiers station in Siberia. I'd be curious to play it if I knew where to get a bunch of horse anklebones.

I'll give an update once I've actually played Kubb, but in the meantime I thought I'd spread the word on these ridiculous games. Apparently they're really big in Europe and Saskatchewan. Has anyone reading this actually played either Kubb or Bunnock? Any thoughts? I have no idea what to expect besides a good time, so lemme know if you've heard or know anything.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

A Lesson Is Learned But The Damage Is Irreversible

I'm a fan of webcomics, and one of my all-time favourites is A Lesson Is Learned But The Damage Is Irreversible. It was written by Dale Beran and illustrated by David Hellman (later of Braid fame) and between 2004 and 2006 they published over 40 strips before going on hiatus. The comic used surreal imagery, a wry sense of humour, and an existential attitude to explore subjects like relationshipsdepression, consumerism, and accomplishment. If you follow those links they'll take you to strips that I think correspond with each concept, though that is by no means the last word on their potential meanings. Beran and Hellman used the comic to reflect upon the nature of human life from various angles, and each piece incorporates vast amounts of emotional and psychological content. The strips are more akin to paintings, and each one is beautiful and elegantly conceived.

If you've never heard of A Lesson Is Learned But The Damage Is Irreversible then I strongly recommend taking a look through their archives. Even if you don't like comics it's still easy to appreciate the complexity and depth of Beran and Hellman's work. Each script is written with a poetic sensibility, and the illustrations display a wide breadth of styles and techniques; the resulting images are some of the finest artistic works I've seen. I'll leave you with my favourite A Lesson Is Learned stip: the sprawling and medium-challenging Christmas Disaster Special from 2005. I would absolutely love to get a print of this one for my wall, if only to see it fully realized instead of constrained by the limits of my computer monitor.

Click the image to see it in full