Sunday, September 14, 2014

Freelancin': Atlas Shrugged Trilogy

A new video thingy-ma-bob! The grand ridiculous Ayn Rand trilogy of Objectivism finally concludes.  Three terrible cheaply made movies with all the quality of a mid-90s made-for-TV movie or worse, an Asylum creature feature.  And this is supposed to be the political epic that will make Barack Obama weep.  This hilariously bad franchise, one so cheap it had to change casts every movie, makes for the longest and most ridiculous Freelancin' yet.


(Apologies for the bad audio and video quality, like the movies themselves, everything went wrong with production on this one.)

The Zero Theorem

In 1985 a former member of Monty Python turned-director, Terry Gilliam gave to the world a film.  That film was, "Brazil", a twisted reimagination of the Orwellian super state, where Big Brother might be watching, but Big Brother is also incredibly stupid.  It was a land of endless bureaucratic clogs, ridiculous reams of corporate paperwork, and pneumatic tubes and ducts floating across every inch of the rotting cityscape.  The only escape from the constant madness on every inch was into your own fantasy, defeating your enemies only in your dreams.  This was Gilliam's masterpiece, a movie full of imagination.  Every piece and detail - be it the disgustingly cheery theme song, or the choking swarm of tentacle ducts - all added up to an entirely brilliant experience.

Of course, I could gush on and on about "Brazil", but only because I would much rather be talking about that movie than Terry Gilliam's ill-fated attempt to make lightning strike twice, the new film, "The Zero Theorem".  Once again Gilliam is conjuring for us a fantastic but entirely unreal vision of the future, where all people are controlled by lunatic powers beyond their comprehension.  "Zero Theorem" is very consciously a "Brazil" successor, with every element of the world design specifically made to be as unique as possible, and starring a protagonist who is losing his grip on reality while trapped in a hopeless future.  However, just because you're are trying to make a movie with the same impact and themes as "Brazil" does not mean you are actually going to succeed.

While "Brazil" and earlier Gilliam productions could proudly let their freak-flag fly with playful bizarrities and grotesqueries around every corner, "The Zero Theorem" seems to be going out of its way to be strange for no reason other than weirdness's own sake.  It comes off as oddly desperate and even pretentious with its world design, which is a nauseating combination of bright colors, hipster clothing, and the obligatory gangster dwarf.  This does not feel like a real world where people actually live and suffer within but rather a false front trying far too hard to be whimsical, like a Nickelodeon game show set or a ghastly children's museum.  "The Zero Theorem" is a lot of loud images, trying their hardest to impress, but failing to cover up the real problem here:  behind all the hipster quirks and weirdness, there is really nothing going on behind the scenes.  It is the 2014 answer to the Richard Kelly pseudo-political catastrophe, "Southland Tales", only made by a far more competent director who should have known better.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Editorial: On GamerGate

Originally I was simply going to post this discussion on the newest Freelancin', but I was never happy with how my tone came out.  Actually in the very last Freelancin' episode I took up the issue briefly.  That was just before the phrase "GamerGate" was coined, got a Twitter hashtag, and even received its own Wikipedia article.  Generally I dismissed the entire thing as silly rabble rousing.  Usually these kinds of gamer "controversies" such as the slacktavist fury over "Assassin's Creed Unity" lacking female playable character or anger over Dorito product-placement in GameTrailers videos all blow over in a matter of days.  GamerGate is not blowing over, this cannot be simply dismissed, it is going nowhere.  And that requires a more serious response than what I gave, and more measured analysis.

Luckily nobody reads me, or those who do are happy enough with what I post that I usually do not get death threats*.  This is a small-time operation, I am not a games journalist.  I suppose technically I might possibly fit in the broadest of definitions, but I am not getting paid for this, nobody wants me to shill Mountain Dew, and nobody is going to invite me to an industry party (E3 aside).  My reviews are usually years late, I'm ignoring "Destiny" right now to play "Persona 4".  I would love to get paid for this work, I would love more if I was as well-known and read as people like Geoff Keighley, Leigh Alexander, or Jim Sterling, but that is not the case.  There is a negative side though to being prominent, and that's the gaming community.  We are not a very happy crowd, and we are not very pleasant to people who try to write for us.  This GamerGate situation is showing off some of our worst behavior, and we are doing nothing but cannibalizing ourselves here.

Trying to dig through the strands that led to GamerGate is a difficult process, and at this point, I do not think a single person on either side of the battlefield actually knows entirely what is going on.  This is a protest movement without very many protests, a revolution with no clear goals, other than "more transparency" and "less lecturing" and "stop sleeping with the enemy [read: games companies]".  An excellent article that actually summarizes the entire hurricane of controversy was posted on Forbes, written by Erik Kain.  I recommend you read that.  Everybody is involved, from Indie developers, reddit moderators, 4chan, and a wave of journalists quixotically declaring that "gamers are dead".  There's a lot going on, and this is going to take a long while to meander through.  

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Shin Megami Tensei IV

The Shin Megami Tensei series has been for decades one of the most idiosyncratic and interesting Japanese franchises.   While most JRPGs were still aping Dungeons & Dragons with medieval settings, "Shin Megami Tensei 1" exploded on the SNES with a surreal cyberpunk plot.  In the first game, Tokyo is destroyed by an American nuclear attack, setting the stage for a sequel where the entire party is made up of cyborg messiahs in the wasteland.  This is the series that infamously featured such final bosses as Hitler and God (the God).  The ranks of monsters you control in these games are made up of exhaustively researched mythological figures and demons.  There is definitely more thought and originality in an SMT game than most gaming settings.  You will not find many Jungian archetypes or comparative religion in a Final Fantasy game, will you?

"Shin Megami Tensei IV" for the Nintendo 3DS* is the newest of the SMT main series, though that's mostly a question of naming versus actual plot significance.  Like most Japanese series, the games take place mostly in their own alternate realities, featuring only cameos from previous characters.  You could either be a veteran who learned Japanese to play "Shin Megami Tensei II" back in the 90s, or you could be somebody who has never played a video game in your life, and you will have roughly the same idea as to what is going on, which is none at all.  Beginning in a medieval kingdom, your journey in this game will take to several post-apocalyptic Tokyos overrun by demons, to trippy monochrome forests inhabited by destructive avatars of nihilism, and into battle with gods from every pantheon and religion.

"Sin Megumi Tensay IV" is not here to reinvent the wheel, it will follow the same conventions and use the same character sprites as older games without a care.  The plotline continues to follow the series traditions of your character getting roped into a chaotic world of good and evil warfare, and being forced to choose between the two.  Combat is the usual turn-based affair following old series traditions.  It is a rough, difficult affair where smart moves are rewarded with extra turns, and where mistakes are brutally punished.  You collect demons through conversation, building a party of mythological Pokemon which can be used to fight your way through the bizarre universe Atlus has laid out for you.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Snowpiercer

One can always be impressed by how the dumbest possible ideas can sometimes make for the best movies.  Execution is everything.  You can have a brilliant concept for a movie:  let's say a time traveling tragedy where the hero continues to mess with his own past trying to save his loved ones, only to ruin his life and the universe more and more with each change.  And then unfortunately end up derailed with "The Butterfly Effect".  How about a horror movie set in the Parisian catacombs where the heroes wind up borrowing down into Hell?  You get "As Above, So Below", a movie so utterly bland I physically was unable to write a review longer than three sentences*.  Yet then you take a preposterous premise, the kind of nonsense that would have passed for a season-filling "Doctor Who" episode during the Stephen Moffat era, and you make the grade with one of the best movies of the year.  Amazing, isn't it?

"Snowpiercer" is a Korean movie filled with an international cast of actors from Britain, America, and South Korea.  It is directed by Bong Joon-ho - best known for the giant monster movie, "The Host"** - in what is essentially his English-language debut.  90% of this movie is in English, and stars English-speaking actors such as Chris Evans, John Hurt, and Jamie Bell.  Joining the cast is South Korean actors Song Kang-ho and Go-An Sung, for that native touch.  "Snowpiercer" is also the most expensive Korean movie ever made, costing forty million dollars.  Thanks to its Anglo cast and general awesomeness, it has finally reached North America with a fairly large release a year after its debut on the Korean peninsula.  But thanks to my laziness, I am only getting around to reviewing it now.  Apologies.

The aforementioned awful concept is this:  the human race's attempts to stop global warming have been a brilliant success.  Unfortunately it worked far too well, because rather than suffering Al Gore's nightmares of dying polar bears, the entire world have been frozen, and most likely Al Gore himself is a block of ice.  The last bastion of humanity now lives on board a mile-long train which circles the planet every year on an endless track.  The seating arrangements have become much more literal, with the first class passengers living in a 1920s wonderland, while the steerage folk suffer in grimy darkness, eating nothing but blocks of ground-up cockaroaches.  Tired of the cruel abuse and torture from the 1%, Curtiss Everett (Chris Evans) leads a revolt amongst the oppressed to capture the train, seize the engine, and discover the mysteries of its master, the unseen godlike figure, Wilford.