Monday, 27 October 2014

Rad Racer: Forza Horizon 2

Forza Horizon 2 has managed to do something I never thought was possible – it got me to actually play – AND ENJOY (natch) – a racing game. Its fun, accessible progression and open-world gameplay mixed with a nice selection of cars ensures a copious amount of fun for everyone – not just gearheads.

I should preface review by noting that I don’t play a lot of racing games. I’m not much of a twitch-gamer in general. My reflexes could best be described as ‘sloth-like’ on a good day. It’s why I never managed to finish Ninja Gaiden on the NES, why I don’t play online shooters and why I’m not particularly good at racing games. I’m also not much of a car guy. I don’t know gear differential from a hole in the head. That said, Horizons is wonderfully accessible to people of *all* skill levels and/or automobile affinity (Automobile Affinity is my Cars tribute band). There are a large number of various ‘racing assists’ (things such as traction control, ABS and even a driving line that goes so far as to show you when you should brake and when you need to accelerate) that help even the field a little bit to make even the worst racer at least passable. Then, as you get better, you can remove these assists one by one, and gradually reap more rewards (the game pays out bonus credits in-game if you have certain assists turned off). It helped me gradually improve to a point where I’m almost competent – much like training wheels on a bicycle.

If you’ve seen the screenshots, you probably already know this, but this game is absolutely *gorgeous*. Rendered in 1080P with vibrant colours and full day/night and weather effects (well, *rain*, at least – you won’t see much snow in the middle of summer in the Mediterranean, which is what the game is modelled after), you’ll sometimes find yourself shocked by how detailed everything looks. At one point, I was driving along the coast, into the sunset and the sun glinted off my windscreen and, I have to say, it was positively breathtaking. This is clearly a game that could not have been made on the Xbox 360 – in many ways, it feels like one of the first ‘Next-Gen’ games on the XBone.

The main crux of the gameplay involves cruising around the French/Italian countryside while you race in various championships, which, in a nice change, tend to be based on various body-types (for instance, hatchbacks, ‘classic roadsters’, etc.) rather than being strictly class-based. There’s a good selection of different championship types, encompassing the more than 200 cars in the game’s roster meaning there’s something for everyone. As someone who struggles with the rather intimidating speed of the super-cars, I did just fine for myself sticking to slower championships starring hatchbacks, off-road trucks, etc. The best part was that the game never makes you feel guilty – the in-game avatar who acts as the de facto ‘leader’ of the Horizon racing festival (voiced by and using a digitized avatar of Sean Maguire – Robin Hood himself, from ABC’s ‘Once Upon A Time’) will congratulate you on every accomplishment, no matter if it’s a hatchback-hop across the countryside or a circuit race with S-class super-cars. While the game may have been holding my hand a little bit, I never felt bad about it.

While the racing is tight, responsive (even if the off-road sections stretch the boundaries of truth just a little bit – something tells me a McLaren P1 wouldn’t handle quite as well bombing through apple orchards as this game would have us believe) and rewarding, the open-world nature of the game sometimes provide the most fun you’ll have in Horizon. There are various collectables and ‘speed traps’ (which are exactly what you’d think – try and hit the radar gun going as fast as humanly possible, and then compare your speed score vs your friends) which can keep you busy for hours without even pulling up to the starting line. Another nice selling point is the ‘drivatar’ concept – which was introduced in the XBone launch game, Forza 5, but realized more fully in this game. Basically, if your friends have the game, it will note your racing tendencies (are you a wrecker, do you tend to pass in corners or on straights, etc.) and then basically upload a ‘ghost’ version of your racer into the Cloud , which will then show up in other people’s games – AND ACTUALLY EARN YOU MONEY BASED ON ITS PERFORMANCE. That’s right – your ghosted ‘drivatar’ can earn you in-game credits when you’re not even playing. How cool is that?

Online play is also a real selling point – you’re never more than a few button presses away from joining an online session and, if you’re not a fan of racing with randos, setting up a private session with your friends is a breeze. For the most part, lag is almost non-existent and the racing is fast and fun – and your racer’s progression is not tiered to multi or single player, meaning you can still gain levels even if you’re just mucking around with your friends, seeing who can fly down the freeway in the shortest amount of time. Basically, this game plays like I hoped the ill-fated experiment, Motor City Online, was going to be like back in the early-00s. Anyone remember that game? Online MMO with an ‘open world’ where you could cruise around, showing off your car, do pick-up races… except none of it worked like it was supposed to. God, what a trainwreck that was. Anyway, I’m digressing way too much here. Back on point.

The soundtrack is uniformly outstanding – everything from modern rock, to alternative, to the standard euro-dance to a station that plays classical music (complete with a DJ who speaks entirely in Italian). In a nice touch, the game’s DJs will invariably make note of different in-game happenings to help create the illusion of a cohesive world. This is obviously standard stuff in most open-world action games, to be sure, but it’s nice to see this level of polish here, as well.

Now for the frustrating bits – there’s not much point to ‘levelling’ beyond showing how long you’ve been playing the game. Since every level requires exactly 20,000 experience points, once you’ve unlocked all of the in-game ‘perks’, your racer’s level just becomes a simple number that makes you look intimidating in online sessions.
The game also has a few bugs – times won’t post or update properly, speed traps won’t properly pop when you drive through, etc. Niggling things to be sure, but you really have to wonder how these seemingly tiny issues weren’t ironed out prior to shipping?
The collision detection can also be inconsistent– sometimes if you’re drifting around a corner and you give a little love tap to the wall, it’s counted as a ‘drift tap’ – which actually earns you experience – but sometimes hitting the wall with the exact same amount of force is enough to kill your scoring streak.
In truth, these are tiny issues on what is otherwise a very clean, polished and incredibly enjoyable racing game.

Forza Horizon 2 is the first game I’ve played on my XBone that has really made me stop and say, “If this is what this generation of games can do, we're living in the future now.” Other games had one or two aspects (the instant-connectivity, the graphical fidelity, the Cloud support, etc.) but there hadn’t been a game that brought them all together in such a complete package, until now.

Geek Score: 9 out of 10 Bacon Strips

What I’m Playing: Forza Horizon 2 – XBone, Infamous: Second Son – PS4, Wasteland 2 – PC

What I’m Reading: Fables by Bill Willingham

Friday, 11 July 2014

DonRocko vs. Depression

Warning: Serious post is serious. Again. I apologize.

Some people call it a struggle, but I’ve always likened my battle with depression to a prize fight with an infinite number of rounds.
Some rounds I am able to stick, move and jab – landing just enough to keep me ahead on the scorecard.
Some rounds it goes the other way.
These past couple of rounds, though, have been real bad – Depression landed some heavy, heavy body blows, leaving me winded and bruised. Times like this I just have to focus on staying on my feet, avoiding the knockout and hoping that once the bell rings, I’ve got good cut-men/women in my corner to help stem the bleeding.
It’s a pretty good analogy, I think.

Not that there are a lot of ‘good’ things about depression, but one thing I hate the most is the way it can make others around me feel. My wife sees me crying, asks “What’s wrong?” and I honestly don’t know how to respond.
That segues nicely into another gripe I have – the way your brain revolts and decides to take everything out of context. Honestly - how do you explain that you’re crying about your cat who died 10 years ago because your brain just decided that’s how it was going to torture you at this given moment? Or how a wonderful song about walking in the Australian wilderness, carrying lanterns to light your way becomes less literal and more metaphorical – and how, no matter how hard you try, you are just unable to see any light at the moment. You'll even catch yourself briefly and you *know* it's illogical, but it doesn't matter. It's frustrating, so you start hating how you feel - which, in turn, makes you more depressed. Spirals, man. They're the worst kind of pasta.
I realize that writing this down won’t do much. It’s cathartic, certainly. And it represents a little growth on my part – feeling confident enough that I can share this, knowing that I’m opening myself up to (perceived) ridicule. I also know that this is the sort of thing I’ll *never* post on Facebook. I worry too much about my mom to have her worrying about me, if that makes sense.
So I’m sorry for not writing any film-reviews lately (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is *incredible*, FYI). At the moment, I’m just going to keep going out there every round and do my best to keep punching.

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

We Interrupt Your Regularly-Scheduled Programming

What originally started out as a few tweets in support of Bell ‘Let’s Talk’ day inadvertently expanded into a full-blown blog post. So I beg your pardon for a moment to get serious on you all before returning you to your regularly-scheduled movie reviews and pop culture references.

I’ll be honest with you – I’ve started and then stopped writing this post a few times. I debated whether I should write it at all. I wanted to get the words right, but natural, inner snark that tends to pour through when I’m writing keeps trying to come out. But it’s hard to be snarky. It’s a difficult subject. I hope I’ve done my best here. I’m not writing as a cry for help. I’m not writing as a plea for attention. I’m simply writing with the hope that my personal experiences can encourage others to seek help, even if they’re not sure if they need it. I think the phrase, “Let’s Talk” is quite apropos when dealing with mental illness.

My grandfather was diagnosed with schizophrenia when he was 32. It had a ripple effect on my entire family for as long as I can remember. He dealt with it the best he could – BC Mental Health saw him regularly and my mother was as supportive as she could be. I had read something somewhere that said that schizophrenia tended to skip a generation - and when you’re a hypochondriac like me and any headache is a potential brain tumour, this sort of information digs deep into your psyche. But, 34 years on, it would appear that I’ve been spared that disorder. That’s not why I’m writing this post, though.

I think most of my friends would describe me as a happy (maybe), friendly (hopefully) sort. As a result, it would likely surprise them to hear that I’ve struggled with anxiety and depression since high school.

Now the anxiety bit isn’t news, exactly – I’ve talked openly about it in the past. It’s mainly a social anxiety – I shut down when I confront new people. It tends to manifest as a crippling shyness. I can’t hold a conversation with someone I’ve known for more than a month. Which can make it difficult to make new friends – but as a result, the friends I do keep in my (relatively) closed circle are the best of the best. They had the patience to hang around, in some cases, or poke and prod until I have no excuse but to start talking, in others. There is no hyperbole when I say my friends are all wonderful people and I love each and every one of them.

The depression, however, is… trickier. It’s insidious. It’ll dig in and I won’t quite be sure where it’s coming from, yet it never fully goes away either. It’ll come in waves – some days I’m perfectly fine. Some days, it’s only present in terms of small, nagging, self-doubt – like needles poking my cerebral cortex. Some days it manifests in full-on, blind rage at nothing in particular – like my mind is staging some act of revolt (these days are the ones that scare me the most, if I’m being perfectly honest). Other days, it’s just hard to get out of bed in the morning (and not in an ‘I only got 4 hours of sleep’ sort of way, either). One thing I can always count on, though – once I start feeling bad, it can quickly snowball. You see, I have a decent life – I have a loving family, great friends, a decent job – so my brain essentially starts thinking, “What is this bullshit? You have no right to be depressed. Get off your ass and go, damnit! Think of the poor people who are unemployed, or who just lost their loved ones… THOSE are the people who have a right to be sad. Not you.” Which, of course, is illogical. I *know* it’s illogical. Sometimes we can’t help the way we feel any more than we can control the weather. But the point is, my brain doesn’t care – it lays this big guilt-trip on me, which then feeds into a healthy dose of self-loathing, which makes me even more anxious, which makes me more depressed, which…

You see what I mean? Insidious.

The façade I put on – and sometimes it really *is* a façade, despite the fact that spending time with my friends is something I love doing – probably does a great job of convincing my friends that everything is fine, when it’s often not.

The low point for me was a few years ago. 2011, to be precise. I was experiencing some *severe* anxiety that year. It was manifesting in all sorts of nasty physical symptoms. I became convinced I was dying. It affected my work, my family life... Anyway, I was in my car driving along 49th Avenue on my way to work. A big dump truck was coming the opposite direction and I found myself thinking… if I just let the car edge into the oncoming lane, that’d be it. It’d be over. Simple. It was the most selfish, terrifying thought I’ve ever had. Of course, nothing came of it – the dump truck passed and I drove on, yet I found myself locked on that idea. Every car that came in the opposite direction became another opportunity to right this perceived wrong. Eventually, I pulled over, started hyperventilating, then broke down and wept for about 10 minutes. Then I looked at myself in the mirror, steeled my reserve and continued on my way to work. The strangest thing about that whole incident was the fact that what stuck with me more was the guilt about being five minutes late for work (No, I didn’t get in trouble). I think prior to this post going live, I’ve told maybe three people that story.

The moral of this story is that it’s never easy to tell if people are struggling. Sometimes they’ll do anything in their power to make it look like everything’s all right. In short, I could be the poster-boy for Bell’s whole campaign (if I was better-looking and more charismatic, at least).

Despite everything, I continued to compartmentalize and kept everything in until last year. It was at PAX, of all places, where I attended a panel by the Take This project ( I’ll tell you - it takes a lot of bravery to sit in front of a room full of 500 people and basically bare your soul (remember – this is at a video game conference, so while the panelists are talking about the lowest points in their lives, people are playing Halo next door) but that’s what these individuals all did. It may seem clichéd to say, but it changed my life. My wife and I returned to the hotel after that panel and I broke down – I talked for almost two hours (again, this is during the middle of PAX, mind you, which is usually my happiest weekend of the year). She listened, held me, supported me. And afterwards… I felt a little better. It wasn’t magic. I wasn’t instantly ‘fixed’. I still have good days and bad days. But my point is this - you don’t *need* to suffer alone. Every little bit helps. Find a good friend who you trust – they’ll listen. They may not be able to *do* anything other than saying, “Jeez, that sucks, dude…” - but that’s often not the point. It’s the listening that matters.

I’m not a Bell customer. I’m not a stockholder in their company. I have no vested interest in them at all, but I respect the idea behind ‘Bell Let’s Talk Day’. Because we should be able to talk about this. There has long been an unfair, negative stigma toward mental illness.

Smash the stigma. Let’s start talking.

Friday, 3 January 2014

5 Favourite Films of 2013 (With Special Bonus Content!)

2013 was just flat-out a great year for movies. From the triumphant returns of two of our favourite Avengers (In Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World) to Star Trek bringing arguably its most-famed villain out of mothballs – and having Sherlock himself play him – there was a lot to be excited about.

There are occasions when I have a hard time coming up with 5 films for my year-end list (I think of 2005 in particular when it was Serenity, Batman Begins and.. well..). This year it was hard coming up with 5 films, as well, but for a different reason altogether – there were a tonne of legitimately ‘great’ films this year. One has worked its way into my Top-10 of all-time, another was a more-than-worthy sequel to another one of my All-Time-Top-10 and the other three are incredible films in their own right that should all garner significant awards attention.

In honour of that, I’m going to do something I’ve never done before – I’m starting off with an ‘honourable mention’ section in order to ensure that some of the films that I’d otherwise have to leave off get their due (especially since I was so damned lax with my movie reviews this past year – suffice it to say, they all deserved their fair share of bacon).

Honourable Mentions

Frozen - This Disneyfied take on the Hans Christien Andersen classic, ‘The Snow Queen’ was disarming in all the right ways - Charming performances, a wonderful soundtrack and a powerful, uplifting message. Plus it managed to sneak an Arrested Development reference in there for those who were keen enough to spot it. What’s not to love?

Star Trek Into Darkness - This film’s deceptive ad campaign managed to keep me in the dark who Benedict Cumberbatch’s character was – right up until they started talking about the Eugenics Wars (KHAAAAAAAAAAN!). At that point, I grinned like an idiot, sat back and thoroughly enjoyed this well-paced, action-oriented sequel. The Trek ‘reboot’ was one of my favourites of 2009, so I’m especially pleased that this film turned out as well as it did. … Plus, did I mention Benedict Cumberbatch. … CUMBERBATCH!

Catching Fire - The second novel in the Hunger Games trilogy was my favourite of the three books, so I was eagerly looking forward to the film adaptation – specifically, the portrayal of two of my favourite characters in Johanna and Finnick. I’m pleased to say that the casting in both instances was spot-on. The action-sequences were tight and the new director did away with that damned, handheld, shaky-cam. In short, it was everything I hoped it would be. Now, the real trick will be seeing if they can take the very real issues that exist with Mockingjay, the third novel in the trilogy, and seeing if they can iron them out for the theatrical release. We shall see.

Now, without further adieu -

Top-5 Films of 2013

5. Captain Phillips - For my money, one of the toughest genres to do right is the ‘based on real events’ thriller. Because the event already happened in real life, anyone with real-world knowledge of the situation can have a tough time buying in (for instance, if we know the character survives their ordeal, do we care when someone pulls a gun on them?). The great films in the genre manage to succeed in spite of this with memorable performances by the leads and creating spectacular set-pieces that manage to stay grounded and within the boundaries set up by the true-to-life situation. Captain Phillips succeeds on both of those fronts. Tom Hanks’ titular character is a model everyman (a bit of a hard-ass to his employees, but only because he takes his job seriously) thrown into an impossible situation when Somali pirates take over his Maersk freighter. Director Paul Greengrass is wise to humanize the pirates (giving them ample screen time, back stories, etc.) , as well, so the film doesn’t just play out as simply a ‘good vs evil’ morality play - which serves to make the climactic confrontation that much more tense. In all, it’s a solid thriller with a harrowing climax and my fifth favourite film of the year.

4. The World’s End - Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost’s conclusion to their so-called ‘Cornetto’ trilogy (so named because a character in the film eats a different-flavoured Cornetto ice cream cone in each film – they otherwise literally have nothing in common, short of all being awesome) is quite possibly the greatest high school reunion / pub crawl / alien invasion movie of all-time. Pegg stars as Gary King, the former King (hurr hurr) of his high school, who has fallen on tougher times. In a bid to try and regain some semblance of his former glory, he meets up with his old chums so they might conquer the elusive ‘Golden Mile’ (12 pubs, 12 pints, 1 glorious night!). Of course, as you'd expect, his hometown has been taken over by alien-robot invaders, which serves to complicate matters somewhat. What makes the film so great is that – like its Cornetto sibling, Shaun of the Dead – it recognizes the trappings of the film (in this case, alien invasion sci-fi) and plays with it in a manner that’s at once deconstructing, yet reverential. It never parodies the genre, though the film is unquestionably one of the funniest of the year on its own merits. My second-favourite of the Cornetto trilogy (behind the aforementioned brilliance that is Shaun..) and my fourth-favourite movie of the calendar year.

3. The Wolf of Wall Street - Speaking of funny films, The Wolf of Wall Street is definitely hilarious in its own, depraved way. Think about that for a second – a Martin Scorcese film starring Leonardo DiCaprio was one of the funniest movies of the year. It’s been said that a great character performance can make a good film great (Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) and a great film incredible (Ledger in The Dark Knight). DiCaprio’s performance as the titular Wolf (chaotic-neutral stockbroker Jordan Belfort) is one such performance. He’s utterly mesmerizing. Unhinged, unscrupulous and unapologetically debauched, he’ll go down as one of the great anti-heroes of modern cinema. A lot of people have drawn comparisons to Pacino’s Scarface, but the truth of the matter is that Al was chewing scenery for a lot of that film. Leo’s performance is more nuanced. You see glimpses there, behind his rich, entitled veneer, that hint of a man who worked hard for what he has – and is now fighting furiously to hold onto it. It’s an incredible performance that elevates this very good film to something great – and my third-favourite film of 2013.

2. Before Midnight - You may be aware that the Richard Linklater-directed Before Sunrise is one of my ten-favourite films of all-time. That film was released in 1995. 9 years after that, we got the sequel, Before Sunset (one of my favourites of 2004, just behind Spider-Man 2). Now, 9 years after that, we are gifted the third film in this unlikely franchise. I use the term ‘gifted’ purposefully. The movies never make much money. Indeed, they barely qualify as wide releases. Yet here we are, nine years after the second and a shocking 18 years after the first movie (my God, if that doesn’t make you feel old, nothing will) getting to revisit these two characters that we’ve come to know and love. It’s like stopping by to catch up with good friends. 18 years after their first chance meeting on a train in Vienna, Ethan Hawke’s Jesse and Julie Delpy’s Celine are now entering middle-age. We learn they never got married, but they live together with twin girls of their own. We get to meet Jesse’s son from his previous marriage (the one that was ostensibly dissolved following the couple’s second meeting in Paris during the events of Before Sunset). We discover that Jesse moved to France to be with Celine, but he’s quickly becoming homesick. Just snippets, but they paint a picture of a relationship 18 years in the making. If the first film was about the joys of young love and the second film was about second chances, this film is about relationships – and both the good things and bad that come with them. Honest, thoughtful and sweet, it was my second-favourite film of 2013.

1. Gravity - ‘Revolutionary’ is a film term that gets thrown around like confetti sometimes, but there are the rare cases when such hyperbole is actually warranted. Gravity will change the way you view FX-driven films. It’s tense, taut, thrilling filmmaking with the most immersive use of 3D in the history of cinema. You feel like you’re out there, floating in space. It’s an incredible, technical marvel that’s made human by tremendous performances by the two leads (Sandra Bullock and George Clooney). I’m sure you’re all sick of hearing me rave about it after my previous review, but to put it simply - a triumph and the best film of 2013.

What I’m Playing: Dead Rising 3 on X-Box One

What I’m Reading: Fables (Vertigo), Walking Dead vol. 19 (Image)

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Gravity Will Turn Your Opinion of 3D Films Upside Down

‘Game-changer’ is a phrase I’ve never been a huge fan of. It feels contrived and forced at the best of times – and the fact that it’s been used to describe everything from video games to toilet paper lessens its effect somewhat. (Honestly, does new, super-absorbent Charmin really constitute a ‘game-changing’ revolution?) With that being said, however, if there was ever a movie that probably deserved such a title, it would be Gravity. The film will shift your perceptions of what FX-driven, 3D-cinema can do. Its tight, concise narrative drives the action forward relentlessly in one of the most intense movie-going experiences you’ll see this year – if not of all-time.

The minimalist story involves astronauts (George Clooney as the mission captain, Matt Kowalski and Sandra Bullock as specialist Ryan Stone) installing a new camera on the Hubble space telescope. After 5 minutes of breathtaking FX shots (Clooney’s Kowalski, remarking on his last spacewalk before retirement, intones, “You can’t beat the view.”) disaster strikes and the remaining 90 minutes are spent gripping your armrests and holding your breath.

I’m not a fan of 3D. I think it’s a gimmicky cash-grab that studios tack on in post when they want to artificially inflate a film’s box office by charging higher ticket prices. That being said, this film is the best argument anyone could ever make for the medium. You can’t help but feel like it must have felt back in the '70s when they saw Kubrick’s ‘2001’ for the first time. Or better still - when they saw Georges Melies’ ‘A Trip to the Moon’ way back in 1902. It feels downright revolutionary.

Never before has 3D been used so effectively to draw you into a film and help immerse you in the experience. Avatar *looked* cool, but it didn’t manage anything close to this. Using various POV and FX-shots, Alfonso Cuaron succeeds in making the audience part of the film – you’ll feel like you’re out there floating yourself. The dull, muted sound effects (because space) serve to add to the experience. There are times when the only sound you hear is breathing and the rapid thump-thump-thump of the character’s heart. Soon you’ll realize it’s not just their heart that’s pounding, either. It’s an incredible experience and it simply would not have been possible without the use of 3D.

Of course, for all the technical brilliance demonstrated, the movie would fall flat were it not for the rock-solid performances of the two leads. Though very little exposition is provided, they manage to craft characters we care for – and when you think that basically the entire movie is just the two of them in front of a green screen, that’s an incredible feat. Though Bullock’s Ryan Stone is unquestionably the star of the film, I found George Clooney’s performance managed to eclipse it as his all-American space hero, Captain Stanley Kowalski, could’ve easily fallen into simple caricature (like my esteemed friend noted, a live-action Buzz Lightyear), however he manages to keep him grounded, relatable and likable.

Director Alfonso Cuaron (who has previously filmed the incredible 2006 dystopian sci-fi gem, Children of Men, as well as the best Harry Potter movie, The Prisoner of Azkaban, among others) keeps the pace up and barely gives his viewers a chance to catch their breath. It’s a dizzying film, but given its subject matter, the breakneck pace suits it perfectly. It clocks in at just over an hour and a half and by the time it’s through you’ll need to take a moment to decompress before leaving the theater. The aforementioned CG-aided cinematography simply needs to be seen to be believed and he utilizes POV shots in an absorbing, engrossing manner.

Gravity is nothing short of a filmmaking triumph. It’s a mesmerizing spectacle. An utter joy to watch that serves as a master-class in pacing and shows that great science-fiction doesn’t have to take place in a galaxy far, far away. Its use of 3D will serve as the new standard-bearer for the industry and is one of the only movies I will ever recommend that you *must* see in that specific format. Better still, see it in IMAX. See it in 3D. Just see it. Space is a vacuum and this film will take your breath away.

Geek Score: 10 out of 10 Bacon Strips (Golden Bacon Award)

What I’m Playing: GTA V for X-Box 360

What I’m Reading: X-Files season 10 (IDW), Batman Zero Year (Scott Snyder)

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Hands Off My Franchise!

Or: How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love Pop Culture

I'm not sure if I mentioned this before, but I'm something of a zombie afficionado. I've seen most of the great zombie films - and quite a few of the not-so-great ones, as well. I have a bookshelf that has two full shelves of zombie literature. Without a doubt, the crown jewel - the piece de resistance, if you will - would have to be Max Brooks' sprawling epic, World War Z: The Oral History of the Zombie War. It's fantastic. More than a simple zombie book, it takes a global scope and really shines a light on the human condition - how do we react during periods of unrest? The conceit is that the novel doesn't really have a main character - the narrator (Brooks himself, ostensibly) travels the globe, interviewing various people and recording their memories of the great zombie war, some ten years after humanity had 'won'. The result is a series of vignettes that piece together a sprawling epic that is, at times chilling, believable (especially by genre standards) and utterly human. The book is as much about humanity as it is about zombies and it's written with incredibly-intelligent prose.

I've read it cover-to-cover five times and every time I read it, I love it all the more. Forget zombie novels, it's my favourite novel, period. I'm something of a Patient Zero in that I have lent my copy out to five different people now and each person who has read it has been similarly amazed (two even bought their own copies).

So, suffice it to say, I'm a bit of a zealot.

When word first came out in 2009 that Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio's production companies were engaged in a bidding war over the rights to Brooks' novel I was both excited and terrified. I was excited because the idea of a big-budget, globe-trotting zombie epic would be the be-all, end-all, 'I can die a happy man' sort of once-in-a-lifetime (or so I thought at the time) deal. Simultaneously, I was terrified, because there was the very real potential of Hollywood fucking up this perfect, beautiful little thing that I loved so dearly.

Keep in mind, this was somewhat ahead of the curve in terms of zombies in mainstream culture. The Walking Dead wouldn't premiere on AMC until the following August (at which point the genre officially exploded - now we have zombies on TV, zombies in music, zombies that fall in love, etc.).

Eventually, Brad Pitt won the bidding war and early reviews of the first-draft of the script (as written by J. Michael Straczynski) were unanimously positive.

I was excited.

Then, word came out that they brought in another writer to change the script in a bid to make it more 'filmable' (which, in my opinion, was bad news because the book as it was essentially was 'unfilmable' (at least not in one movie), so this had to mean they were "Hollywooding" it up a bit).

I was terrified.

Then, MORE re-writes - this time, from Drew Goddard and Damon Lindelof (whom I loved from LOST and the Star Trek reboot - and at this point I hadn't yet experienced the disappointment that is Prometheus.)

I was excited.

Then came words of endless re-shoots, release delays and, finally, a trailer that showed ... *gasp* ... FAST zombies. ... Who are JUMPING. ... And creating a literal MOUNTAIN of writhing, CGI flesh that was trying to climb over the (extremely mild spoiler here) Israel defense perimeter. In short, the trailer made it appear that the film was everything that I feared it would become. A dumbed-down, over-simplified, Hollywood version of my favourite novel of all-time.

I was inconsolable. I ranted on Twitter. I cursed Brad Pitt's name. I even spat on my DVD copy of The Curious Life of Benjamin Button. (I don't actually own that movie)

Early reviews started sneaking out and they were, surprisingly, quite positive. I'm not going to say I was emboldened, but I began to take notice again. The reviews were quick to warn you that the connection to the source material was scant, at best, but the film was an enjoyable zombie epic. Given that I had decided to shut up and give Max Brooks my money (through residuals, anyway) the moment the movie deal was signed, my mind was set. I was *going* to see this movie.

I saw the film today and it was a perfectly serviceable - indeed, even enjoyable - zombie film. If it had been called 'Brad Pitt in "Global Zompocalypse"', I might have really loved it. But, alas, it was called World War Z, and I'm stuck here, two hours after the film, ranting on the internet about 'what might have been'.

But the purpose of this post isn't to post a ranty review on the many things they did wrong, or the numerous things they could have done differently to make the film more closely resemble the source material. What I'm trying to say here, in my own, convoluted way, is that geeks, as a general rule, are passionate people. We unabashedly *love* certain things - love talking about them, love sharing them with our friends, love debating-minutiae-until-we're-blue-in-the-face about them.

But we're also fiercely protective of these things we've come to love. I've long argued that the Hipster is an offshoot off the genus, 'Geekus Sapien'. Think about it - they love music and hideous clothes almost as much as we love zombies and sci-fi. They'll debate the merits of their favourite band with anyone who'll listen, ad nauseam. But what really connects us here is the need to brag about how long we've been 'into' things. Seriously, I know a few people who've actually said, "You think the TV show is good? I read Game of Thrones when I was in tenth grade!"

As for me? "I liked zombies before they were a thing. Now everybody's all about them. I bet they've never even read Wellington's Monster trilogy. Pfft."

Here's the thing, though - we're going to have to get used to this. Hollywood is going to stripmine our beloved franchises and turn them into bastardized, Hollywood versions of themselves as 'geek' is now bigger than ever. As ironic (see? hipster) as it sounds, all of a sudden we're cool. We run shit. We're a target market. The biggest show on TV is a drama about the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse. A-list stars are actually asking for roles in a new Star Wars film. Joss Whedon is the most sought-after director in Hollywood. Tyrion Lannister won an Emmy, for pete's sake (well deserved, too, I might add).

It's a brave new world, but we're going to have to get used to giving up control of these things that we hold so dear. It's scary, I know. I have a couple of friends who have the same sort of trepidation towards the new Ender's Game movie, starring Harrison Ford, that I had regarding World War Z. To them, I can only say, I feel your pain.

But the bottom line is this - even if Hollywood cocks it up, in no way should it change the way you felt in the first place. That comic book, series of novels, etc. is still just as incredible as it was the first time you read/watched/played it. Dig it out, devour it, savour it again, pass it off to a friend.

And then hit the internet and debate the hell out of how much better the book was than the movie.

What I'm Playing:The Last of Us on PS3

What I'm Reading:100 Bullets - vol. 13 (Azzarrello / Rizzo) (The end of a truly epic series. I can't wait)

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

X-Box 180

Title shamelessly stolen from every clever Kotaku commenter

So I was all set to review Before Midnight before finding out that Microsoft has flip-flopped on their decision to enforce DRM and allow used games on the XBone. As I mentioned in my previous post, I was one of the few *proponents* of the system in its (now-outdated) iteration, so I’m a little disappointed here.

In short, rather than the brave new digital realm – complete with sharing games with friends all over the world (which was the best part of the ‘old model’ of the X-Bone that Microsoft just could never manage to properly explain to the public at large – a case of their marketing machine failing them) we see a victory of the ‘old guard’ of video games. Digital downloads cannot be ‘shared’. The idea of a game library that travels where you do requires a really large suitcase instead of a simple internet connection. Discs will be required to be in the system tray in order to play. In essence, it’ll be ‘business as usual’.

While I suppose it’s admirable that Microsoft listened to their customers (who almost universally lambasted the old model – justifiably or not), ultimately I liken this to the old explorers who were told if they sailed too far, they’d fall off the edge of the Earth … only unlike those explorers, Microsoft actually listened, turned around and sailed back to port.

Sure, nobody died of scurvy, but we didn’t find a Northwest Passage, either, right?

What I’m Reading: Batman & Robin (Peter Tomasi), Green Lantern (Geoff Johns)

What I’m Playing: The Last of Us on PS3 (It is seriously *amazing*. Believe the hype.)