Sunday, February 28, 2010

Two lists

The AV Club made a list of 35 odds 'n' sods albums as essential as official releases and the first surprise is that they found that many worthy ones. The writers certainly admit that all aren't perfect but that's not the point - the point is that these are up to the standards of the other albums and by the ones I'm familiar with (about half) that's true. I would have added Joy Division's Still and The Great Lost Kinks Album and maybe even the Sex Pistols' Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle which has always seemed more a stray tracks collection than a soundtrack (especially since it doesn't have much to do with the film).

A different note is IO9's 75 Books You Should Own for DC Comics' 75 Anniversary. The whole "own" bit makes this too aggressive, especially considering that several selections are Absolute/Omnibus editions that are too much (too much money, too much size) for even many fans. There's one real slip - Mad and The Spirit are now owned by DC but aren't in any sense part of its history. Some of the selections really shouldn't have been (Golden Age, 52, Blackest Night) but more importantly the emphasis on what can currently be bought means large chunks of DC is missing - nearly all of the Western, SF, horror and war comics, completely all of the romance, comedy and teen (nobody really wants a Binky or Scooter revival but trust me that some of the Jerry Lewis and Bob Hope issues still hold up), and genuine but unreprinted treasures such as Sugar & Spike. Otherwise, the list is pretty decent and it's nice to see recognition for often overlooked titles like WE3 (one of the best works in any medium I've encountered in the past decade), Doctor 13: Architecture and Morality, Sleeper and the finale to Grant Morrison's Animal Man.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Worst rock films?

The headline says Jim DeRogatis Picks the Worst Rock Movies Ever but in fact he's really picking movies often claimed to be the best where he doesn't agree. Normally this would be a big "so what" but DeRogatis is a decent critic (I worked with him briefly years ago on a newspaper Elvis tribute) and also because I mostly agree with him. The Last Waltz always seemed far more boring than its rep suggests and mainly because it feels too staged. Woodstock as a movie isn't quite so tedious (or maybe it is but in a different way) but as he points out the myth is and while you'd think that punk would have punctured that, well I guess that too was a bit too much myth. DeRogatis nails the problem with Heavy Metal Parking Lot and if you've seen any of director Jeff Krulik's other films you'd know he's full of hipster scorn masquerading as an appreciation for trash culture. (Oddly enough I used to work with somebody who might have been in the film except for an accident - she had tickets and was ready to go but did something that resulted in her mother grounding her so she never made the show.) Now I'll admit HMPL does have a kind of mean, voyeuristic fun in watching rednecks be rednecks but then again have you ever been tailgating before a college football game? As DeRogatis points out, the vast majority of the people in either case are perfectly fine but it's the small percentage of jerks that are amusing or annoying.

As for Rock Star I'm not sure what he saw in it - this should have been almost the greatest film ever but mostly fell flat.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Food prejudices

I sometimes go to a place that serves Chicago hot dogs, a bit unusual considering that I live half a continent away. They have a big mass-produced sign saying that they won't put ketchup on hot dogs which for all I know is a national prejudice but one I always associate with Chicago. Maybe that's because the first time I encountered such an idea was in a Straight Dope column which originated from Chicago.

The thing that's so funny is that like so many prejudices the anti-ketchup people have a definite reason (ketchup is too sweet) but a reason that still won't convince anybody, maybe because it's arbitrary. Have you ever had a Chicago dog? Relish and a pickle spear? Peppers? Tomatoes? People that state "ketchup smothers the flavor of the hot dog" but who will eat a Chicago dog that smothers the flavor even more are simply dishonest.

These prejudices can be found in lots of places. I remember a Food Network chef saying that a well-done steak shouldn't even be eaten but really that's not his call. It's easy to start an argument in some places about the "proper" way to make chili or BBQ. Some people clearly enjoy questioning the authenticity of ethnic/international restaurants. I once read somebody who blasted all the supposedly ignorant diners who eat sushi with chopsticks (in Japan it's finger food) or who bite it in two instead of eating all at once, something that stood out to me because I hate eating sushi with my fingers and frequently the pieces are too big to really enjoy unless bitten in half. And people I know who've been to Thailand or Mexico then point out how our Thai and Mexican restaurants aren't quite like what is eaten there? Not news and even if it was nobody cares.

Now I know that much of this is just people creating arguments about something that doesn't matter or can't be resolved just as others will get into cats vs dogs, or DC vs Marvel, or pretty much anything involving sports. The difference with food tends to be that they can pretend to scientific reasons (the too-sweet ketchup approach) or historical ones (whether chili should have beans). In the end none of that matters. To paraphrase Duke Ellington if it tastes good then it is good.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

What happened to World of Warcraft

I started WoW a few months after it went online but after about a year went to playing intermittently, usually about one month on then two off. I just noticed that last year I only played two months and a good bit of that is because of the great simplification that's been going on. Summer of 2008 I had figured that would be my last but just a couple of months later Jon at work told me that with a new patch hunters could now tame devilsaurs so of course I was back. (Though as cool as devilsaurs look I found core hounds to be much better.)

A good example is Alterac Valley. When I first reached the level to enter it was fairly complex. Each side tended to break up into teams to gather the materials for flyers or reinforcements, try to summon the big gods, round up wolves, capture mines, etc. There was strategy involved even if getting 40 complete strangers to do it was tough. One result is that matches could last a long time - I was in one that went two hours and there were believable reports of some that lasted up to six. Today, though, that's nearly all gone. AV matches tend to be races to take out the towers then the general and as a result rarely last more than 20-30 minutes. I was even in one that lasted just nine.

There are probably hundreds of other changes designed to simplify and speed up the game that mostly feels like dumbing it down. Some of this was inevitable. Increasing the leveling speed almost had to be done so that enough people would be at the cap for the expansions. The hunter mechanics were so hard to understand correctly that most hunters were played very poorly - that definitely needed to be streamlined. While it does remove some of the concrete feel of a persistent world to allow players to enter a battleground from anywhere I have to admit that I like that. And while allowing the purchase of purple gear through honor points caused an outcry from hardcore players it's the only way non-raiders like me would ever get this stuff.

But I guess what really seems missing is the feeling for about the first couple of years of openness and discovery. Though I rarely join groups and have never been in an instance raid I did participate in several city raids. The impromptu weekend battles around Tarren Mill were a hoot even if there were fairly pointless. There was a lot of crafting discussions and figuring out best approaches to gear or talents. Guilds since then seem to be less friendly though maybe I'm just in the wrong ones. (Being in a large, imploding guild was certainly less than fun even if it had a train-wreck fascination.)

The expansions drained most of that while the daily quests, jousting and world pvp took much of the rest. With players spread out there's less opportunity for ad hoc pvp (or even ad hoc help) and the battlegrounds and dailies absorb attention. In a way I suppose it's better that there's a direction but it still feels like something is missing and I'm certainly not the only person to feel that way. It was fun for a while to level characters in different races or classes but after a while you're playing through the same quest for the sixth or seventh time so yawn. (Blizz has steadfastly refused introducing random factors and events, don't know whether that's from specific design issues or a more abstract sense of purpose.) Admittedly one of the great things about WoW is that it supports numerous types of playing styles and personalities but that can't really help much after a while. Once hitting the cap everything feels more restricted but then lots of hardcore players feel otherwise. Maybe it's just that grinding the same dailies and waiting hours for an instance aren't really for me. I'll admit that the Cataclysm expansion will draw me back by essentially creating a new but still familiar game but that's probably months away.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Chuck Season Three

The story so far: One of my local TV stations used to run The Simpsons syndicated when I got home and was eating dinner. When Chuck started it was right after The Simpsons so even though the premise wasn't that promising I ended up watching maybe a third or so of the first season. Eventually The Simpsons was ditched in favor of Jeopardy or some other mindless game show so I now almost never watch "live" TV and consequently was mostly going to pass on Chuck )even though that makes it sound like I thought this through to a decision when really I never considered it). But a guy at work kept talking it up and eventually I watched nearly all the second season, missing only a few at the first. And it was pretty fun in a mostly haphazard sort of way. There was a big mis-step when they decided to Get Serious and have Chuck secretly witness Sarah murder an unarmed spy who was threatening him but I knew the show couldn't pull off any real drama and sure enough that lasted barely into the next episode. Then there was a big, reasonably inventive storyline at the end (Chevy Chase as an evil mastermind!) that worked pretty well and made big shakeups in the premise.

The story today: Except Season Three undid everything in the first episode. The worst decision was to kill off the corporate-shill store manager but not reveal that to most of the characters, instead telling them he'd been transferred to another store. So why not just transfer him? The murder is out of keeping with the show's tone, especially when it went to this much trouble to reboot. That was the other mistake - undoing the previous story elements so that the status quo is the same as the first two seasons.

There is one change that's been kept so far which is that Chuck now has an improved Intersect in his head that will let him do actions he couldn't before - kung fu, surgical procedures, speak foreign languages, etc. The mistake is that the writers decided to make it defective so that sometimes the Intersect works and sometimes not. Stated that way this seems like a decent approach that avoids making Chuck a superspy but clearly it wasn't thought completely through. The problem is that the defect is being used so that the Intersect doesn't work when that's "dramatic" but works when the writers need it to. So in a recent episode Chuck learned a martial arts kick when it was useful for a comic gag (and to start a subplot) but not when it was actually needed for a real fight.

There also doesn't seem to have been much thought about how the show should actually work now that the original concept has been more or less played out. The conflict between spy activity and Buy More regular life drove most of the humor but now that connection is long gone and we're left with a decent workplace sitcom and a half-assed spy show. Getting the two together will start to be more and more arbitrary, possibly ending up with the approach taken by Friends where all the main characters had to be in every episode so eventually the two or three main stories had no relation to each other and could have been shuffled with no effect on each other.

Oh and that whole romantic/sexual tension stuff is just not tense or funny or interesting - same for Chuck's timid nerdiness. I may give the show one more episode to do something but most likely it's a finished deal.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Avatar (Cameron 2009)

If I was 15 there's a good chance I'd think this was an amazing film but since that's been a long time ago now all I think is why so many awards are going to what is in every respect except budget a B-movie. Yes that does sound almost like a compliment but I mean it's closer to one of those lame Lippert productions that MST3K loved to ridicule (except that Avatar is mostly an animated film). It probably doesn't take any more than 15 minutes into Avatar than you can predict the entire story. Isn't there supposed to be some kind of second act twist? Or did Cameron (who can still direct an action sequence like nobody's business but shouldn't be writing his own films) believe that he'd actually done that? Michelle Rodriguez could have hooked him up with a Lost writer or two. (Just imagine The People teaming up with The Others leading a herd of polar bears.)

Some stray thoughts:

* So 140 years into the future when they send a super-expensive piece of biotech out into the field nobody bothers to put a GPS into it?

* The aliens are a mix of generic American Indians and Ewoks (and mostly "played" by black actors) while the evil miners & soldiers are almost all white guys. Did nobody point this out to Cameron? Or was a working title for the film Liberal Guilt? (Though not guilty enough for Cameron to realize how racist this is.) Can you imagine if he'd swapped Rodriguez and Ribisi's roles? Or better yet had the mining boss played by, say, Oprah?

* This good v. evil idea is also why the military sequences are deliberately evocative of Vietnam movies. Notice how the opening sequence is mostly VTOL-type craft but later we get what are essentially helicopters. I couldn't help but think of a line from Gardens of Stone where somebody says how can the enemy possibly hope to win by fighting helicopers with bows and arrows and the response is how could they possibly hope to defeat an enemy that would fight helicopters with bows and arrows.

* One reason for making the aliens that way is Cameron wanted them to be utopian and one function of utopias over the past four centuries is to criticize the existing social structure. But Cameron really should have been telling a story and he's made them so perfect that at some point there's really no drama. Even trying to make them underdogs he went so far to underpower them that he had to create a "flux" to reduce the power of most human weapons and vehicle. Apparently even that didn't satisify him and in the film's most jaw-dropping moment (again, not meant in a good way) he used a literal deus ex mundus to save the aliens. (Mama Planet has a sense of dramatic timing - note how she didn't bother attacking until it would change the course of the battle.)

* Why even bother making Jake lame? The story would have played out almost exactly the same if he wasn't and actually might have been more interesting if he had a conflict between duty and what he's seeing rather than wanting to get an operation. (Though honestly I'm not really sure if viewers are supposed to believe he's thinking at all considering how little is devoted to anything except his Dances With Wolves moments.)

* And like the Costner film this is in a long line where some white guy shows minorities/Third Worlders/indigenous people how they can save themselves and live a proper life. (Or similarly a man showing women how to be women in Tootsie.) What seems so obvious in stuff from the 30s & 40s probably gets a pass now if we have to read subtitles.

* So Rodriguez does show up to rescue our heroes from prison. Good for her. But wait - didn't she disobey direct orders and visibly break ranks? Shouldn't she be in prison herself waiting a court martial?

* For a world that's so deadly (I half expected something on the order of Harry Harrison's Deathworld) it's notable that by the end bodies can lie in the forest for hours and nothing tries to nibble on it. Maybe The People don't taste so good. Ever notice how many designers (or creative consultants if that's their title) when trying to come up with alien wildlife just add a couple of limbs? Now why would animals that live in a heavily undergrown jungle need extra legs? Especially on a planet that we're told has lower gravity (though apart from that bit of dialogue there's nothing else to indicate it).

* I also can't help wondering why the shaman woman knew the Tree of Life can transfer a consciousness. Is that something they do often? An inspired guess?

* The frequent use of 2008/9 slang ("bitch" etc), attitudes and the simplistic story mean that viewers in a 30-40 years will think this is just as dated as old stuff seems to us now. The dialogue part in SF is always tough because if you try to make it too much like a potential future then you're likely to lose readers/viewers (think of A Clockwork Orange (book not film) or Riddley Walker). Still, Cameron didn't even bother trying. Dude, the computers are just toys - they can't improve the film.

* Nobody cares but it was odd (well not too odd, in fact barely even worth mentioning) watching Drag Me to Hell in the morning and then going to this later and seeing the same character actor Dileep Rao (psychic and scientist respectively). He's been in exactly two feature films and I just happened to see them on the same day.