Month: December 2011 (page 1 of 5)

IT CAME FROM NETFLIX! Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas

Logo courtesy Netflix.  No logos were harmed in the creation of this banner.


The American Dream. We’ve all heard of it. Politicians love to talk about it. People come from distant shores seeking it. All sorts of products promise to give it to you for three easy payments of $99.95 plus shipping and handling. But what is it, really? Has anyone really achieved it? And where do you go looking for it? Los Angeles, maybe? Las Vegas? A motocross race? The bottom of one’s navel?

Courtesy Rhino Films

Hunter S. Thompson looked for it in all those places and more. His journey was prompted by the gradual deflation of the stronger hippie movements of the mid-60s in the United States. By the time 1970 rolled around it was clear to him that his peers and former fellow luminaries of peaceful enlightenment and conscientious objection were bound for a gradual and inevitable burnout. And then, in 1971, Thompson and his lawyer friend went to Las Vegas to cover a motocross race because, hey, it’s Vegas, baby.

Being the sort of schizophrenic, drug-addled and absolutely brilliant journalist that liked to drop his pants in the face of convention right after burrito night, Thompson framed his journey in what the French would call roman à clef, and instead of Hunter S. Thompson, it was Spider Jerusalem Raoul Duke renting fast cars, wrecking hotel rooms and wielding deadly flyswatters in his journey across the desert towards the City of Sin and all that waited there for him. His lawyer friend was called Dr. Gonzo, not with any intent of invoking the presence of a particular Muppet but after his preferred form of journalism. After all, why would one go to all this trouble to set up this interesting little framing device and leave the fourth wall unpainted? That’d just be gouache.

Courtesy Rhino Films
The man himself. Sort of.

So within the pages of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream we have Duke and Gonzo delving into various forms of drug binges, thankfully not often at the same time. After all, when you’re going on a serious acid trip or an ill-advised ether bender, it’s good to have a sober buddy to keep you from electrocuting yourself or trying to find a machine gun to deal with the fascist Doberman Pinchers dressed as Mitt Romney trying to eat your scrotum. And if you’ve never been on anything approaching the aforementioned experiences, don’t worry. Monty Python alum Terry Gilliam has graciously gone out of his way to capture the surreal nature of such moments for you.

Yeah, they made this novel into a movie in 1998 with Johnny Depp as Duke and Benicio del Toro as Dr. Gonzo, and if nothing else the casting is absolutely brilliant. If you thought Depp was good, funny and wacky as Captain Jack Sparrow, hold on to your goddamn hat. He apparently captures the drug-infused rapid-fire lifestyle of Thompson so completely and accurately that the Doctor of Jounalism disrupted the premiere of the film by jumping up and down on his seats yelling about bats in the throes of a potent acid flashback. I’d like to think Depp and Gilliam took that as a compliment. I happen to think del Toro is a little underrated as an actor, as he is every bit as chameleon-like as Depp if not moreso. As you watch the film, the actual plot tends to wax and wane in importance as the focus clearly becomes the unique and occasionally batshit experiences of these two individuals. They really come to life on the screen.

Courtesy Rhino Films
They’re good friends.

There’s an undercurrent of ennui and restlessness to the whole piece. Thompson is a thoroughly unhappy and cynical man, longing for a time of innocence and free thought that has passed him (and us) by. His famous ‘wave speech’ is captured more or less in the film, discussing how tides of independence and intellectual righteousness never seem to last as long as they should. What we have here, then, is less a linear progression of a narrative and more a snapshot of a man, a time and an idea. The man is utterly unique and completely irreplaceable. The time echoes into our modern age with all its restlessness, discontent and escapism. The idea is that the American Dream, whatever it actually may be, is ever elusive and never truly obtainable. It’s the white stag of the modern age. Even the people who douse themselves in wealth and laugh at the vast majority of the less fortunate can’t be said to be truly happy. How can they be, when all they want is more?

Okay. Here we are, almost 800 words later. If you hung on this long and are digging on what I’m saying, Fear and Loathing is Las Vegas is definitely something you should see, since it’s kind of like this review only a thousand times more bizzare. The people who tuned out when I started rambling can go back to waiting for that new Three Stooges abomination to hit theatres for all I care. Fear and Loathing may not be the most coherent, cleanly-shot or easily-accessible film you’ll ever see, but it definitely has something to say and it doesn’t seem to give a damn if you understand it at the time or not. It rambles, it wanders, it screams and cries and laughs and freaks the fuck out. You’re going to remember it. Provided you don’t black out.

Josh Loomis can’t always make it to the local megaplex, and thus must turn to alternative forms of cinematic entertainment. There might not be overpriced soda pop & over-buttered popcorn, and it’s unclear if this week’s film came in the mail or was delivered via the dark & mysterious tubes of the Internet. Only one thing is certain… IT CAME FROM NETFLIX.

Expansions in the Force

Courtesy LucasArts

Let’s face an honest truth. The universe George Lucas created back in 1977 is a better place than he originally imagined. With the exception of Empire Strikes Back, which was written & directed by guys that weren’t Lucas, the original trilogy established his galaxy far, far away and populated it with strange aliens, turbulent politics and an ancient battle between good and evil held in balance by a mysterious omnipresent energy field dubbed the Force. Have you noticed I haven’t said anything about the characters? That’s because they’re pretty standard adventure fare.

Think about it. Luke’s arc is so Campbellian in A New Hope one might think a copy of Hero With A Thousand Faces was stashed in Lucas’ trailer. The other characters are iconic, sure, but only because they’ve been in stories we’ve been telling for centuries. There’s nothing wrong with this, mind you, and I’d be the first to say that old stories are still worth telling as long as they’re told well.

That last bit’s the catch, isn’t it? We can look at the six feature films of Star Wars (and no I am NOT counting that CGI stuff) and see with clarity that while Lucas can dream up really neat settings, the population of those settings can get a bit dodgy at times. Hence fan fascination with the likes of Wedge Antilles.

Oh, you know Wedge. He was in all three movies. Blew up both Death Stars? Escaped Hoth? First Luke’s wingman and then Lando’s? That’s gotta ring a few bells.

It was after the first three movies were finished back in the 80s that people started looking to fill in some of the missing pieces of the Star Wars universe themselves, and Wedge was one of the characters that stood out. He was reliable, loyal, an ace pilot and cool under fire. So people started writing about him. To this day, the novels and comics featuring Wedge and Rogue Squadron are some of the highly regarded works of the so-called Expanded Universe.

What made Wedge worth writing about was the fact that he was a blank slate. Any writer could have filled that slate with him as a traditional adventurous hero, but he was depicted as a more rounded, seasoned warrior, a man who’d seen the far side of the galaxy and came back knowing he was fighting for the right cause. In a universe where characters with realistic emotions and concrete motivations could be few and far between, where some technology and concepts can best be described as ‘magic in space’, Wedge thrived.

The Expanded Universe came to include calculating and ruthless military foes like Grand Admiral Thrawn, questionably motivated fringe operators like Mara Jade and the Black Sun criminal empire, Rebel-affiliated black ops commandos like Kyle Katarn… they even fished Boba Fett out of the guts of a desert monster (explosives are apparently a good expectorate). But it was still all within the confines of Lucas’ original vision. The good guys won, the bad guys lost. The only shades of grey could exist between and after the films. And even then, you only had a handful of the iconic warrior-wizards with glowing laser swords to set Star Wars apart from a plethora of other sci-fi settings.

Enter the Old Republic.

Courtesy LucasArts & Dark Horse Comics

This is Ulic Qel-Droma. He’s one of the first characters introduced in the graphic novels that set the scene 4,000 years before the Battle of Yavin. Instead of following a Campbellian arc, however, Ulic is shown to be a headstrong and powerful warrior who’s heart tends to be in the right place but also leaps before he looks more often than not. His tale of pursuing justice only to fall to the Dark Side makes him, in essence, the Darth Vader of his time, and in my humble opinion is everything the six feature films should have been in terms of the development of such a character.

It’s pretty telling that when it comes to Star Wars gaming, the Old Republic time period has yielded some of the best storytelling thanks to a pair of RPGs produced by BioWare and Obsidian. Knights of the Old Republic and its sequel have become standards by which the likes of Mass Effect and Dragon Age are measured. People have been waiting to get their hands on a third game in the series, and instead BioWare has produced an MMO, which I’ve experienced a bit of first-hand.

While I still consider its gameplay safe and not terribly innovative, I keep thinking about the story. How do they keep things interesting? How does it change when more people are in the mix? And what role, exactly, are we playing in the unfolding events in the galaxy? Are we destined to be a teeming mass of Luke Skywalkers and Ulic Qel-Dromas all claiming to have stopped the same galactic threat? Or will players be more like Wedge Antilles, settling at a cantina and simply saying “Yes, I was there. I saw it happen” in the manner of a grizzled, battle-worn veteran?

I’d like to think it’ll be the latter. With so many MMOs giving no thought to the ramifications of millions of people killing the same NPC repeatedly, The Old Republic seems to be taking extreme care to make an individual player’s story a personal experience, rather than the same one everybody else is having. It gives context and meaning for the typically asinine goings-on in such a game in a way that belies the “been there, done that” feel of its mechanics. It gets away from some of the weaknesses of previous MMOs while polishing some of its mainstay aspects to a shine, just as the Old Republic setting does away with a lot of Lucas’ bullshit while maintaining the feel of his galaxy’s atmosphere, mood and themes, much as Wedge’s novels or earlier games did.

I can see why The Old Republic may not be for everybody. But the more I think about it, the more I may need to give it another shot.


Courtesy Blizzard Entertainment

Another season has begun in the universe of StarCraft 2. And where does it find me? Yep. Bottom rung. Nothing’s really changed.

Or has it?

With the new job settling into a rhythm that I can cope with, I’m starting to plan more and stress less (at least a bit). Into those plans I’m trying to include things like eating better, exercising more (perhaps joining a gym?) and playing at least 3 matches of the aforementioned game a night. Why? The reason’s simple.

I’m tired of being terribronze.

I consider myself a casual gamer, in that I don’t really have aspirations of playing professionally at any point. I don’t want the game to become a job. And as envious as I am of the likes of Day[9] and TotalBiscuit who’ve managed to make gaming the central focus of their lives without the fun getting sucked out of actually playing said games, I do not have the financial freedom or liberty from obligations to make that drastic a career change. I’m pushing it as it is trying to find enough time to write in the space between seconds every day.

So why do I care about the arbitrary ranking I have in a online strategy game?

I guess it comes down to a measure of pride. Not the most noble of intentions, but there you have it. I fancy myself a bit of a smarty-pants. I got teased about it a lot in school. I was never good at physical activities, sports or even dancing, save for choreographed bits on-stage. I did all right in fencing, tennis and judo in college but it’s been a long time since then and my skills are rusty as hell. My brain, though? Sharp as ever. At least I’d like to think so.

Gaming’s a place where your physical prowess means nothing. It’s all about what’s going on upstairs. Strategy games are one of the ultimate expressions of this, and if it’s happening in real time? Even better. You need not only the capacity to plan and execute complex tactics but the timing and presence of mind to do so quickly and under pressure. It takes discipline and tenacity.

That’s the big, overarching thought, at least. I’m also not fond of losing to cheese and I’d like to think it happens less often in higher leagues.

The mere act of playing more often seems to help. Just a few days after the opening of the season and I’m already maintaining a position in the top 8. Granted, it’s among 100 players as terribronze as myself, but it’s better than nothing. My strongest matchup is still against Zerg while Protoss continue to beat me regularly. Even so, I seem to be winning more than I’m losing. I just have to keep it up.

Because at the very least, it’s keeping my brain in shape. And I don’t even have to pay a monthly fee to do it.

This Is Gonna Suck


Artists come in all shapes and sizes. Some paint, some create music, others bring out the statues held captive by blocks of stone and still others start with blank pages to create new worlds and memorable characters. But regardless of the art involved, all artists need to face an unfortunate and ugly truth.

Not everything an artist creates is going to be good. In fact, a lot of it will struggle to merely be mediocre.

It isn’t an easy thing to admit to oneself. I know of some people who perform and create without any real talent or passion, and the lack of commitment shows. Not only are such charlatans unwilling to practice or improve, they’re all but immune to criticism. To even intimate that they are performing at a less than exceptional level is tantamount to blasphemy in their minds. They’ll never, ever look at their work from a point of view outside of their own and realize the flaws in it, be they minute or monstrous. To be honest, I feel sorrier for them than I do the other extreme.

We are our own worst critics, and there are those who focus on their flaws and shortcomings entirely too much. All they see in their art is the mistakes they make. They don’t see the forest, or even necessarily the trees, just a tiny bit of bird crap on a single leaf; next thing you know they’re burning the forest down because “it’s all shit.” They may have talent and passion, and they might be aware of how practice would improve their art, but they lack the motivation because of how they see everything they create. It’s a difficult obstacle to overcome.

To be successful, I feel an artist should be somewhere in the middle. Hold on to what you do that’s good, and work your way past the rest. Know in your heart and your mind that you do good work, but don’t boast about it even when people tell you how good it is. Find the right balance between ego and humility.

And know that stuff you do may very well suck.

I’ve heard it said that every artist has 10,000 bad drawings in them; you just have to get past those. I’d venture to say most writers have at least ten times that many bad words they need to write before things start getting good. And even then, it might not get you anywhere. Remember that metaphor for getting a novel finished, the one where you put a bucket on your head and slam it against a brick wall until either you or the wall fall over? Some writers go through multiple buckets because they’re just that stubborn. I think I’m on my third.

The important thing is not to give up. Know some stuff you write will suck. Accept that, and write through it. Pull out the old Lucas-flavored line of “I’ll fix it in post.” Write the stuff that sucks, then peel away the sucky stuff until all that’s left is good stuff.

And if you can’t kick your ass into gear to do it, find someone else to do it for you.

I’ll kick your ass, friends, if you kick mine.

Boxing Day

Happy Boxing Day!

Saint Nick is taking the day off, and so am I.

Happy Boxing Day, everyone! Enjoy a little extra time with family and friends if you can.

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