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Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Three PAX a day

My wife is awesome.

This point cannot be stressed enough. When PAX came to the east coast, my wife offered-- offered, mind you, as in "Took the Initiative"-- to take the kids to visit her mother for the weekend so I could spend the entire weekend geeking out in Boston.

Such a woman comes around once in a generation, and she married me. You have no idea how happy that makes me.

For those of you not in the know, PAX is the Penny Arcade Exposition. It's run by the guys who write the venerable comic strip, which is kind of a big deal. I have an on-again-off-again relationship with the strip. I'll read it for a while, and then they'll write a comic that pisses me off enough to stop reading it for a few months, but then I'll check back and they'll have something funny enough that I'll read the backlog again.

Anyway, PAX was a West Coast phenomenon for a long time, but they announced "baby PAX" would be coming to Boston sometime last year.

The last convention I'd been to was back in the early 1990s. I saw Jimmy Doohan at a Star Trek convention in Albany with my folks. (He signed my copy of Mr. Scott's Guide to the Enterprise, and seemed like a pretty cool dude.) It was a pretty small affair, just one big room at a hotel.

PAX, on the other hand, is freakin' massive. Even PAX east, which was supposed to be a miniature version of PAX, was big. It took up three floors of Hynes Convention Center in Boston, and was big enough that after three days of wandering the floor, I was still getting lost.

What follows is my report from all three days, as written on Sunday night after the convention ended.


FRIDAY


GAH! Had to work late, and I already missed Wil Wheaton's key note speech because PAX started at 2PM on Friday. I also got lost on the way to the hotel.

The weekend was not off to a stellar start.

When I got to the hotel I found out they were out of rooms, and in order to honor my reservation they had to upgrade me to a suite... at no charge. Things were looking up.

After checking in I beat feet for Lir's Irish pub, which was where I had arranged to meet some people from a gaming forum that I'm a member of called Gamers with Jobs. I reserved space for about 20. 45 showed up. We took over the bar.

I met a bunch of nice people, and had my first beer in about four years. A pint of Guinness, that I didn't even have to buy for myself. Things were really looking up.


We hung out until around 9PM, at which point those of us who remained at the bar hit the convention to see what there was to see. I wound up playing a card game called Space Munchkin until 1 in the morning with one of the gamers from the bar, a random forum goer, and a dude who looked a whole lot like the male Captain Hammer groupie in Dr. Horrible (I don't think it was him, but I couldn't man up enough to ask)

By the way, Space Munchkin is hilarious, and if you're a fan of card games I recommend it. It's cutthroat as all heck, though, so try to keep it friendly.


SATURDAY


After that, I hit my suite (glee!) and watched a show called "Supernatural" which was pretty gruesome considering it's a cable network show. Fell asleep afterward and woke up at 6AM because A) I'm a morning person and B) I kids usually wake up by then so I'm conditioned to wake up before 7 anyway. Got up, felt like pancakes and thought for sure there was an iHop on Boylston street, but there wasn't so I got donuts instead.

It was 8AM when I got in line, which had extended out into the Prudential center mall by then, and the convention wasn't even due to open until 10AM. I got in the line for the Expo hall, which would feature a bunch of game companies presenting their wares.

As I waited in line, they announced the Joystiq breakfast, which I was under the impression you needed an invitation for so I didn't go. I found out later that I could have hung out with some dudes from Gamers with Jobs (including minor celebrity Julian "Rabbit" Murdoch, who I met at Lir's the night before and found him to be a genuinely nice person.)

(It was Saturday that I discovered that most of conventioneering was spent waiting in line. I waited in line to get into the convention. Then I waited in line to go to a panel (hosted by minor celebrity Julian "Rabbit" Murdoch), then I waited in line to get into another panel (hosted by the same guy. I'm not a stalker, honest) I waited in line to try video games, then I waited in line to collect a "prize" that I won from Intel for wearing an Intel advertising button (it turned out to be a pen with an LED flasher circuit in it.) Then I waited in line to try some video games in the free-play console room.)

When the doors opened I made my way to one of the theatres to see a panel about machinima. I don’t really know anything about machinima, and have never made machinima, but I like saying “machinima” and I found the concept of someone making cartoons by recording what happens in a game and editing it together is fascinating to that part of me that wants to make things but knows it will never actually happen.

After that I spent a bit of time browsing the floors and trying to find people I’d met the night before.

Before I knew it, it was both lunchtime and time to get in line for a panel on the Death of Print as it pertains to gaming journalism, which included Julian Rabbit Murdoch. I had good reason to be stalking him at this point, as he left some items at the previous evening’s meet-up, and I wanted to return them. Plus, he’s dreamy. I popped out of the convention hall to grab a sack lunch from Trader Joes, because they’re turkey club wraps are a) delicious and b) cheaper than anything I was likely to find within the convention hall. I returned to find that the line stretched on for hundreds of people. I happened to secure a spot in line with some fellow Gamers with Jobs , where we discussed the iPad and compared it to a Kindle, which someone standing near us in line happened to have and let us look at. I must say, the screen is quite impressive, but I still have my old Luddite reservations about reading books one something that needs batteries. Say what you want about paperbacks, a flight attendant will never instruct you to stop reading one so the pilot can land the plane.

The panel was interesting. If you wanted to set it to music, you could call it Internet Killed the Magazine Star or something perhaps a bit cleverer if you were smarter. The banter amongst the panelists was good, and everyone was in good spirits in spite of the fact that they were a bunch of writers talking about how one venue for them to sell their work was going away.


Later I got to check out the expo hall. There were some interesting games on display. A lot of downloadable games for the Xbox, including updates of Snake (Snake 360) and Warlord (Gravitronix). A new multiplayer game called APB that basically takes Cops and Robbers into the digital age with an open city that lets you steal cars as a crook or commandeer them as a cop. I didn't get a chance to try it, but the demo looked interesting.

Another XBLA game called Monday Night Combat had a big presence. My impressions of it was that they took Quake Arena, added all the classes from Team Fortress 2 (mixing the genders up a bit) and added cheerleaders in skimpy outfits.

It will likely sell millions of copies.

After that I attended the other Julian Murdoch panel (again, totally not a stalker) on podcasting for PR. The panel featured such giants of the video game podcastosphere as Jeff Green, Sean Elliot, Ken Levine (!) and Microsoft's Major Nelson.

Highlight of the panel: During the Question and Answer section a woman purporting to be working for Sony Online Entertainment asked a panel featuring people who work for EA and Microsoft for advice. They were very diplomatic and told her to swing by after the panel, but I doubt she got much out of them.

After that, I probably ended up passing up the chance to have dinner with some gamers with jobs alums because I wanted to be sure to say high to my wife and kids before it was their (my kids) bedtime and my phone was out of charge from twittering all day.

Then I had dinner, and found my way to the freeplay console rooms where I finally got to try Rock Band 2 (I suck at drums) and Beatles Rock Band. I also saved myself twenty bucks by trying Brutal Legend and realizing that, funny though it may be, has elements of two-- count 'em!-- genres that I hate: Racing games and Real Time Strategy games. Around the fifth time I failed the "drive the kegs of beer to the beach without them blowing up" mission, I realized I would spend a lot of time frustrated at the game.

I turned in on the early side on Saturday, getting to bed just before midnight.


SUNDAY


For the final day of PAX, all I really wanted to do was hit the "Pitch Your Game Idea" panel and maybe do some freeplay. (Gosh, that sounds like a drug reference, doesn't it? Hey man, you know where I can score some freeplay? )

I wound up attending the Blamimations panel, which was entertaining but served to remind me of why I don't read PvP anymore. Afterward, I got to the mic to pitch my idea only to have it shut down before I finished for legal reasons (they thought licensing would be a problem for a game about The Tick). Sigh.

I left shortly after my idea was rejected because I didn't want to see the prizes that people with better ideas than I had would win. Because I'm all bitter and stuff.

I went back out into the expo floor to see if the lines would be shorter on Sunday. My intention was to hit up the Skate 3 booth, which was having a contest where you could win a free skateboard deck if you scored over 70,000 points in the equivalent of Burnout's crash mode. The line wrapped around the booth and appeared to be devouring itself like a serpent, so I decided I didn't really need a skateboard deck and moved along. I did get a chance to try Snake360 and 'Splosion Man, which is not a new game but is from a studio that is pitching new games. Splosion man is pretty fun, and if I had an Xbox 360 I'd consider picking it up. And I'm not only saying that because the guy running the booth was surprised that I'd never played the game before.

I had just about decided to go home, with a heavy heart, but then I ran into some of the Gamers With Jobs I'd met on Friday. They were off to play Carcassonne, which Julian Rabbit Murdoch (totally not a stalker!) frequently praises on the GWJ podcast. They let me in on a game, and I ate lunch while building a ginormous city. Came in dead last (in fact, the person who won had to leave halfway through the game), but I enjoyed playing.

Then, with a slightly heavier heart, I made my way out of the convention hall, pausing briefly at a vendor booth to note that they had some Epically Awesome Heroscape expansions that I heroically resisted buying because I have an entire dresser full of Heroscape characters, many of which I haven't actually even fielded in a game yet.

All told, it was two and a half days where I had a great deal of fun. Many thanks and kudos must go out to my wife, who made it possible.

I don't know if I'll ever make it to another PAX, but I don't know if another PAX would be quite the same. I'm left with some good memories, a few new friends, and some pictures of awesome cosplayers.

And that's epic win, as far as I'm concerned.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Have You Tried Turning it Off and On Again?

Ah, the Britcom. You introduced the world to John Cleese and Rowan Atkinson. You spawned dozens of shows that spawned dozens of pale American imitations. I’ve long admired your writers for their sharp wit, dry humor, and complete fearlessness in the face of the PC police.

Only a comedy starring John Cleese could feature an incompetent bell-hop whose incompetence traced directly from his home country of Spain. When John Larroquett tried it here in the States, he had to make the bell-hop of ambiguous origin and it just didn’t work as well, even though he did exactly the same jokes.

The Britcom has long been the refuge of the geek. Monty Python is an old geek standby, and no geek worth his salt can’t spout off at least a dozen in-jokes pertaining to the speed of an unladen swallow, or the doggedness of the black knight.

Later, given the choice between Rowan Atkinson or Bob Saget, the discerning geek took Atkinson whenever possible.

Recently a new British comedy has entered the geek lexicon (or “geexicon” to take a bad meme and run with it). The I.T. Crowd.

I remember how I was first exposed to the I.T. Crowd. It was featured on a Danish blog that linked to funny videos and flash games. I clicked on a link I couldn’t read under a picture of a forlorn looking Irishman sitting under a desk, flanked by women’s legs. I assumed it was one of those amusing “commercials banned in America!” shows, so I gave it a look.

I was greeted by what was possibly the most rocking theme song I’ve ever heard. Following that came one of the funniest TV shows I’d seen in a very long time. For a brief period, all of the episodes from Season 1 were available on Google Video, and I downloaded all six of them. Then, once the DVD was released in region 1, I deleted those and bought a real copy. Thus, I was able to rationalize my pirate-like behavior by clinging to the argument that it’s not stealing if nobody wants to sell you a copy (NOTE: This logic only applies to digital copies. I do not feel justified in stealing a car that is no longer manufactured just because the manufacturer won’t sell it to me. I would, however, feel justified in downloading blueprints to build my own Tucker.) (FOOTNOTE TO NOTE: I bet you thought I was going to say “Delorean” didn’t you?)

The I.T. Crowd is the play-on-words title of a show about a pair of social pariahs that work in the I.T. department of a major corporation. Maurice Moss is the standard bespectacled nerd living with his mother. Roy is the slacker geek. Their world is shaken up when a feisty redhead bluffs her way into getting hired as the I.T. manager by the only person on the planet who knows less about computers than she does.

Together the trio (or quartet, if you count Richmond, the goth who lives in the server room) have standard misadventures pertaining to the foibles of their office and personal lives.

It’s really not very different from a dozen other office comedies, but there is a metric buttload (1 metric buttload = 1.10231 imperial buttloads) of geek humor. I enjoy just looking at the background of the I.T. office and trying to identify the various bits of geek culture sitting around. The first episode of Season 1 features L33T subtitles, although the rest of the episodes appear to have that feature broken. Also, the DVDs themselves are worth the purchase just for the menus.

That may sound weird, but the Menus for the I.T. Crowd DVDs are the best menus ever. Each season references a different era of video gaming. Season 1 is all Atari 2600, Coleco Vision and Vector Traced arcade graphics. Season 2 is all about the 8 and 16 bit console era, with the episode select screen reminiscent of the original Mortal Kombat character selection screen. Season 3, recently released to region 1, is all about flash games. The Special Features menu is a spectacularly well done reference to Grow Cube, which surprised me because I didn’t realize enough people knew about Grow Cube to make that joke work.

The Missus and I got ourselves season 3 on DVD for Valentine’s day, and as someone who was mildly disappointed in season 2 (in particular the unceremonious killing off of the company CEO and his subsequent replacement by his lecherous, idiot son), I have to say it’s come back with a vengeance. The Missus and I have watched the first four episodes, and we haven’t laughed so hard since we saw Knocked Up.

One of the episodes we saw last night involved Jen, the IT manager, being called on to give a speech about technology because she’d won employee of the month. Now, seeing as how she bluffed her way into the job, she doesn’t know anything about computers. So Moss and Roy, fed up with her swelled head at being named employee of the month, offer to write a speech for her. They even provide props: a black box with a blinking red light that they inform Jen is “The Internet.” Then they try to stifle their laughter as she prattles on to the crowd about this wondrous little box that does so much for everyone.

Sure, it’s an old plot device (trick the clueless speech-giver into embarrassing herself in front of an audience), but they throw some new twists in it to keep it fresh. I won’t tell you what twists, because it would ruin the fun.

Unless the series drops off a cliff in the last two episodes of season 3, I can wholeheartedly recommend the entire series to anyone who likes Geek Humor. It will be a worthwhile addition to your own repertoire of in jokes. I’ll get you started: 0 1 1 8 9 9 9…

Plus, after watching the season 1 episode The Haunting of Bill Krause, you’ll never be able to hear “Candle in the Wind” the same way again.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Down

Well, everybody has to jump the shark sometime, right? The A-Team had Stockwell, MASH had Alan Alda as a director, Firefly had the entire fourth disc (The last four episodes have their moments, but let’s be honest: They’re not anywhere near as well written as the episodes on the previous discs. The Bounty Hunter and the Brothel villains were so 2 dimensional you could use them to split atoms and not initiate a nuclear event.).

And Pixar has Up. WARNING: THE FOLLOWING WILL CONTAIN SPOILERS.

Savvy credit-watchers will note that Up does not boast the involvement of John Lasseter at all, and Andrew Stanton or Brad Bird except in the role of “Executive Producers.” “Executive Producer” is a Hollywood term that means “I’ll give you some money and take the credit for your success, but I’m not doing any work.”

This is understandable. Lasseter, Stanton and Bird have been practically living in the studio since Toy Story. They have families, and they’ve made a pile of money. I don’t blame them one bit for wanting to spend more time with their kids. Unfortunately, like Jim Henson’s death, they took all the magic with them and what remained was only someone trying desperately to imitate what was uniquely inimitable.

Like all Pixar movies, Up is technically impressive. The visuals are stunning in some places, and the animation is exquisite (whoever researched the dogs earned his money.) Unlike Pixar movies, however, the writing leans too heavily on sight gags and shies away from character exploration almost entirely. It’s like a Dreamworks movie got lost and Pixar kidnapped it. (Hey-yoh!)

There are a lot of things wrong with the movie, but I think the fundamental problem is the lack of empathy. Every other Pixar movie has been the manifestation of some passion or affection that men like John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton or Brad Bird had for something. Toys and Finding Nemo were about their kids. Cars was about their parents. Ratatouille was about their own passion for creation. No matter what the movie, either Bird or Stanton (or both) were speaking through the main characters. It’s why the movies were so good, why the characters rang so true. They were honest.

The creative heads behind Up not only fail to empathize with the main character, they don’t even seem to like him at all. Let’s have a look at what happens to the main character through the course of the movie.

1) He meets the love of his life in a decrepit, run-down old house, and falls through the ceiling and breaks his arm. (They later buy the house and fix it up as a married couple)
2) He marries the love of his life, and they attempt to have children but an apparent miscarriage leaves her barren. (I say “apparent” because that scene is part of a musical montage of their relationship that takes up about 10 minutes of the first reel.)
3) During the musical montage, they decide to follow their childhood dreams by setting up a savings jar to go exploring, but on three occasions, they have to use the money in the savings jar to pay for emergencies.
4) During the musical montage, the main character buys plane tickets to the Amazon so they can fulfill their dreams of being explorers in their retirement.
5) But before he can present the tickets to her, she has a heart attack and dies. During the musical montage.
6) The neighborhood around the house he and his wife rebuilt from the ground has gone commercial. Surrounded by glass and steel monoliths, he is the last holdout and won’t sell to the developer.
7) A construction worker backs over his mailbox, which he and his wife hand painted during the musical montage, and though well meaning won’t let the old man repair it himself.
8) The old man gets evicted from his house after hitting the construction worker who wouldn’t let him have his mailbox over the head with his cane.
9) The old man flies his house to the Amazon, following the footsteps of the childhood hero he and his wife shared, and the reason why they wanted to explore the amazon in the first place.
10) Only it turns out that his childhood hero is a homicidal lunatic who sets his house on fire and subsequently tries to kill him.
So in the course of the movie, he loses his wife, his house, and his childhood hero. But it’s all okay because he helped a small, annoying kid rescue a large, annoying bird.

Furthermore, nobody in the movie listens to the main character or seems to care about him at all. The land developers won’t listen to him. The guys from the old folk’s home won’t listen to him. The annoying kid that accidentally tagged along on the trip to the Amazon won’t listen to him. His childhood hero won’t listen to him. The talking dog, who is the lone bright spot in the movie, won’t listen to him. The only person in the movie who gave a rat’s rear end what the main character thought about anything was killed off in the first ten minutes.

His character isn’t even well written. When we initially meet him, he’s shy. Almost timid. Under his wife’s influence, he’s happy. But after her death, he turns into cranky old coot stereotype number 7, Asner variant. Sure, his house is surrounded by skyscrapers and construction workers, but his transformation from mousey balloon vendor to crusty old fart is so sudden that I can’t help but wonder if the only contact the writers had with old people came from watching Abe Vigoda and Wolford Brimley movies. Memo to Pixar: Not every old person living alone is perpetually cranky.

And he’s not the only character who’s taken directly from the Saturday Morning TV School of Character Stereotypes. The other primary character is a chubby boy scout who is seeking his “helping the elderly” merit badge. He’s your standard annoying, wise-beyond-his-years preadolescent whose innocence will show the old man the error of his ways. At one point, the kid is talking about his estranged father (Aww! He lacks a father figure. And look! The main character lacks a son! I wonder where this is going…) he remarks that what he really remembers is the little, boring, everyday stuff that he did get to do, not the big, important stuff that he didn’t. That thud you hear is the message being delivered like a sack of tainted meat into a dumpster. Pardon me while I gag myself with a screwdriver.

The villains aren’t particularly fleshed out either. The land developer has no dialog, and exists primarily as a man with a cell phone who stands in for corporate soullessness (lessness… lessness… lessness.) I won’t harp on him, because he’s not really supposed to be a fleshed out villain, though I will point out that Pixar has done the Corporate Villain so much better in both Monster’s Inc and The Incredibles.

The other villain, which you could see coming from the start of the movie if you pay close enough attention, is the main character’s childhood hero. A celebrated explorer, he is disgraced when scientists dispute his findings of a seven foot tall bird that roams the remotest regions of the Amazon rainforest. He sets out for the rainforest, vowing to return only when he has positive proof that he’s not a liar. When we find him next, he is not merely bitter at his mistreatment at the hands of the press, but downright bat-guano insane. It is strongly intimated that he murdered any explorer/archaeologist/botanist who he ever encountered in the rainforest because he suspected them of trying to capture his bird and steal his glory.

The main problem with the villain is that the writers think that “bat-guano-insane” is a substitute for personality. Every other villain in a Pixar movie has had human motivations, and has been sympathetic to some degree. Even the Aussie dentist in Finding Nemo was more clueless than evil. This guy is just completely inhuman, and not in the “I believe what I was programmed to believe” way that the Wheel was in Wall-E. He’s just… one-dimensional. It’s like someone said “Oh, let’s just make him a hunter who kills people. That’s good enough, right?” and everyone just nodded.

The one character, or group of characters, that are well written and fully realized are the dogs. The villain has an enormous pack of dogs at his command, and he has outfitted them with collars that translate their thoughts into English. This opens up the inevitable “I would like that ball!” and “SQUIRREL!” jokes that actually work. They’re the only thing in the movie that does.

I’d be more willing to forgive the cardboard characters if the rest of the movie wasn’t taken whole cloth from the cliché factory as well. The whole denouement is so laughably derivative I would accuse it of being brilliant parody if they weren’t taking themselves so seriously. The villain sets the main character’s house on fire as a distraction, because the main character is defending the large bird. Seeing his whole life go up in flames, the old man rushes to extinguish the flames, leaving the villain open to waltz off with the bird. How the main character was supposed to stop the villain, who at the time was flanked by his army of vicious dogs and carrying a rifle that acts like a shotgun, isn’t discussed. But the annoying kid is very disappointed at the main character for just letting the bird go.

After the kid yells at the old man for acting like a human being instead of some paragon of selfless giving (+1), the old man reverts to full on grouch mode and takes his house to finish what he set out to do in the first place. And he does it, by jiminy. The house sets down right where he and his wife planned to build their retirement home.

But it’s all hollow. We know this, because as he puts the furniture back where it belongs and rehangs the pictures on the walls the score plays sad music, and the color scheme is just slightly muted, even the photograph of his wife seems to look down on him in disappointment. All that was missing was him looking at a mirror with a melancholy expression, only to turn away in disgust at what he had become. And quite frankly, I’m not altogether certain he didn’t. By this point in the movie my eyes were rolling so much I’m sure I missed some things.

When the kid shows up and steals some balloons so he can chase after the bird himself, the main character finally “gets it.” He expunges the house of everything inside, so the withering balloons could lift what remained skyward once more. The last we see of the furniture, as the house flies away, is his chair sitting neatly next to his wife’s chair on the ground as the triumphal music swells and eggs the old man onward and upward. (Yeah! You dump that old crappy symbol of the life you had with your wife. Forget her, it’s time to go save some kid you don’t know and a bird you don’t like!) He chases after the villain, who has captured the annoying child and left him tied to a chair and ready to drop from the loading dock of his blimp to the ground so many thousands of feet below. The villain and the main character have a climactic battle that employs a clumsy version of the “I threw my back out” joke that was so much better in The Incredibles. See, it’s funny because they’re both so old. Also old people smell like prunes.

Seriously. That’s how the dogs find him as he sneaks aboard the villain’s airship. They smell prunes. They couldn’t even spare the cash for some additional syllables and use the word “liniment.”

Needless to say, the kid is rescued. The villain was dispatched through the use of a high-fall the likes of which I haven’t seen since I watched every movie that ever came out between 1985 and 1999.

Finally, we’re treated to a scene where the annoying kids finally gets his helping the elderly merit badge, with the main character standing by his side because the kid’s father couldn’t be there (all together now: Awwww!) and then they go share ice cream and count different color cars, just like the kid used to do with his dad (and again: Awwwwww!) and apparently the court order remanding the old man to a home has been rescinded, or at least it’s unenforceable because he now lives in the villain’s airship.

Oh, and just to throw a bone to those of us who understood why it was important to the main character to keep a promise he made to his wife so many years ago, the last we see of the house, it just happened to land right where he wanted to put it. What a coincidence.

I suppose Up was an accurate enough title for the movie, given the infatuation with flight. But if they wanted to make it more accurate and a whole lot more descriptive they would have called it “Trite.”

That’s not something I ever thought I’d be able to say about a Pixar movie. Usually they come right up to the edge of being trite without actually falling off the precipice. This one just points the car at the edge of the cliff and lays down rubber.

I have more complaints, like about how this movie is a violent departure from Pixar’s classical themes about how nostalgia is a good and fundamentally human emotion, and the fact that it’s not only okay, but admirable that people have attachments to physical objects. Heck, if the people who made Up had done Cars, the residents of Radiator Springs would just pack up and move to California, because it’s just a road, right? Move on.

But I’m running long, so I won’t. In conclusion, I just want to say that I will no longer buy a Pixar movie on DVD just because Pixar did it. It was my last vestige of fanboy mentality, and Up snuffed it out. I don’t know whether I should be angry or grateful.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Movies You Never Heard Of 2: Oscar

So this is number two in an ongoing series of movies you’ve probably never heard of, but are worth your time. At least, if you like the kind of movies I like, and if you didn’t you probably wouldn’t be reading this (Hi Dad!).

Oscar is a farcical comedy (remember: 2010’s theme is the Farce) that is similar to Waiting For Godot, in the sense that the titular character features prominently only by reference. Oscar is the chauffer for a notorious crime family during the prohibition era. Sylvester Stallone plays the head of that family, Angelo “Snaps” Provolone.

Yes, they named an Italian mobster after a cheese. It’s that kind of movie.

Provolone’s father is played by Kirk Douglas, who exhorts his son to give up his disgraceful gangster life and restore the family name. Being as how Grandpa Provolone is on his deathbed at the time, Snaps can hardly refuse. So, bootlegging is out, and banking is in. Snaps uses his considerable fortune to secure a seat on the board at a prominent bank.

The movie chronicles his first day as a legitimate businessman. And nothing is easy.

Snaps is married to the woman who played Emporer Ming’s daughter in Flash Gordon. The couple have a daughter played by Marisa Tomei, who is bound and determined to get out of her father’s stifling shadow and see the world. On this, the first day of Snaps’ legitimate career, she hatches a plot to escape: claim to have been impregnated by Oscar, the chauffer, who is conveniently away fighting the Huns in the Great War. (I’m allowed to say “Hun” because my great-grandparents; maternal and paternal; all came over from Germany in the early 1900s, just in time to be put right back on another boat back to Germany to fight the Kaiser.)

Meanwhile, the Provolone family accountant presents himself to Snaps with evidence that he had embezzled a sizeable sum of money during his tenure, and wishes to ransom it for the hand of Snaps’ daughter in marriage.

And, across town, a rival family gets suspicious of how quiet it’s been on Provolone’s side of town, and decides that now is the time to make a power play for control of the Provolone territory.

And thus begins a whirlwind of miscommunications, misunderstandings and misreadings that grow more frenetic and more confusing right to the very end of the picture, when everything gets tied up in a nice pink frilly bow.

The writing is excellent and snappy, and it’s probably one of the better farces to come out of Hollywood in the past twenty years, but what’s really notable are the cameo performances. Don Ameche plays a priest. Tim Curry plays an elocution coach brought in by Snaps to help him sound respectable. Harry Shearer (of Spinal Tap fame, as well as every Christopher Guest movie ever made) does a hilarious turn as one half of a pair of bickering tailors who beam with pride when their work is featured in a grisly newspaper photograph of a gangster’s demise. Finally, Red from That Seventies Show gives his all as a gruff Eliot Ness wannabe that is bent on exposing Snaps for the gangster he was.

And unlike most cameo-rich films, every single character is important to the plot. Like a butterfly in the Amazon that makes it rain in New York, the simplest actions of a humble servant can unleash a thunderstorm of antics. Especially Oscar, who appears at the last possible second and has exactly one line of dialogue in the entire movie.

Sylvester Stallone is wildly underappreciated as a writer, and as an actor. His performance in Oscar should have been Oscar worthy, but the academy doesn’t seem to realize how hard comedy is and too often mistakes aggressive mugging for talent. Seeing him, as Snaps, dealing with the ever mounting pile of things that threaten his death-bed promise to his father is a legitimate treat, and it’s definitely in my top ten funniest movies that I’ve ever seen list.

I won’t write anymore on the subject, because anything else I add will only ruin the fun. While Oscar does stand up to multiple viewings, nothing quite compares to seeing it for the first time and finding out what’s going to go wrong next.

So go borrow, rent or buy a copy of Oscar on DVD. You will not regret the expense.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Who, How, What, Where, When and sometimes Why?

So I was sitting here wondering what to write about, since I have a moment to write something, and I decided: Oh, what the heck, let’s write about video games again.

Because that’ll never get old.

Today I thought I’d write about what I look for in a game. The short answer is: I want to blow stuff up for points. But that’s a little glib, and in spite of some very good advice I received from people I duped into reading this blog, I want to write more than that.

Besides that, it misses some points that I want to get out there, because I know I can’t be the only one who found Half Life 2: Episode 1 boring and frustrating in equal measures. I’ve since finished it, and as of this writing I am halfway through Episode 2, which I am enjoying much more than Episode 1. That discrepancy made me ponder games in general and how I interact with them. Furthermore, it gave me a really cool idea for another “TAXONOMY OF GAMERS” type article that are typically written either by people who think WASD is an acronym (Hint: It stands for Why Are you Scribing Dreck?) or by someone who is tired of the old “Hardcore” versus “Casual” dichotomy. Since I am neither of those things, I thought I’d try injecting some new blood into an old meme. Next week I’ll explore Rick Rolling.

Basically, my thoughts are this: There are six different kinds of gamers, and they each correlate to the six questions they claim to teach journalism students.

Who? The Who gamer is not a fan of modern pop music, and instead prefers rock operas about handicapped people who are really good at pinball.

Well, no. A Who-type gamer is the sort of gamer who is very into character development. “Who am I?” they ask of the game. To the Who-type gamer, the real draw of the game is being someone interesting while in game.

There are variants within this faction. Some Who-types prefer a highly defined, developed character. Others prefer the blank-slate avatar onto which they can be whoever they want to be. In this regard, the Who gamer can enjoy either a game like Dragon Age or a game like Fallout 3. It doesn’t really matter, since we’re not defining games as being “who-games,” but are rather defining gamers by motivations.

Who-types are also big on MMORPGs, for reasons that should be obvious. It’s not that they’re self-centered; it’s just that they are most interested in making an interesting character for themselves in the game world.

What? The What gamer is all about action. “What am I doing?” is the defining question of this type. This gamer is largely unconcerned with plot or character motivations. He (or she) just wants to jump in and start making things happen.

Games appealing to the What-type gamer involve beat-em-ups, shoot-em-ups, fighters, and first-person shooters that don’t involve a lot of gratuitous puzzle solving. The What-gamer is visceral, and doesn’t want to pause the action so he can figure out how a cantilever works.

No, we’re not talking about you, Half-Life 2 episode 1. Perish the thought.

If you’ve ever gotten frustrated at an FPS because you had to find a key on the other side of a level, or because you couldn’t figure out where you were supposed to go next, then you’re probably a What-type.

Where? A Where gamer comes into being by getting bitten by another where gamer, or by pissing of an old gypsy lady.

Ahem.

Actually, the where gamer is all about exploration. Figuring out where to go, or just wandering around the world to find interesting things and places is this gamer-type’s chief motivator. The where gamer is big on TACOs (Totally Arbitrary Collectible Objects, a term coined in Anachronox that I have adopted in the hopes that it catches on) which are hidden cleverly and diabolically throughout a game environment.

You’ll never hear a Where-type gamer complain about the lack of a breadcrumb trail. The Where-type likes figuring out where he’s supposed to go next… within reason. At some point a game stops focusing on exploring the environment and just becomes poorly designed.

When? “Are we there yet?” asks the gamer type who is all about speed. The When-type gamer is big into racing games, timed challenges, speed runs and pretty much anything involving a stopwatch.

The guys you see posting youtube videos in which they beat Super Mario Brothers in four minutes are When-type gamers. I admire their borderline obsession with shaving milliseconds off of corners, but have never been able to master it.

Why? “Why am I doing this?” asks the Why-type, also known as the method-gamer by nobody but me because I just made that term up. Story is very important to the Why gamer, to the point where he’ll play something with mediocre gameplay just to get the story. Gamers who played Brutal Legend to completion are probably Why-types.

Interestingly, “why” is also the question non-why-types will ask why-types when they talk about finishing the latest Final Fantasy game. (If that doesn’t generate hate mail, I’ll try insulting Twilight fans. My device for ruling the world runs on Emo rage.)

How? (Offensive reference to aboriginal American greeting contemplated, but thought the better of) “How am I supposed to do that?” asks the gamer who loves puzzles. This gamer-type doesn’t need fancy graphics, or complicated stories, or even weapons. The How-type gamer only needs a simple mechanic or two, and a developer with a sadistic streak to make the mechanic interesting.

Gamers who like Portal, Crush and Tetris are of the How type.

RTS gamers fall into this category as well, since the RTS genre is basically a very complicated puzzle revolving around the mechanics of proper resource utilization.


Of course, nobody is going to fit neatly into one category, but just about everyone will be mostly one and occasionally none of the others.

For example, I am mostly a What-type gamer, with very little Where, When or How and virtually no When. Who and Why are interesting to me, but not obligatory. I’d much rather be blowing stuff up for an interesting reason than wandering around a world carefully constructed to be hard to navigate, or that obscures my objectives so I can’t find them.

Basically, my ideal game is Berzerk! on the Atari 2600. Everything else, with the possible exception of Contra, has been downhill but with prettier graphics.