Monday, January 9, 2012

Go West, Young Lad

Western films have always held a special place in my heart. So many different types of stories can be told within a relatively limited, familiar setting. There's nothing so quintessentially American as a Western.

The genre saw its heyday in the fifties and sixties, but you still see one occasionally. I haven't seen very many old Westerns, because I rarely like any movie made before 1980 or so. But Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch is one I've seen, and holy shit is it good. This movie has a level of violence that's shocking to my jaded 2012 sensibilities; imagine the impact in 1969. Sergio Leone's Man With No Name trilogy was equally well-made.

But, as a child of the nineties, the first Western I ever saw was Unforgiven. Clint Eastwood can direct as well as act, as he shows with this film. Unforgiven takes some familiar elements we've seen in Westerns before - grizzled old bounty hunter, old scores to settle, whores - and turns all of it upside down. The old West was not a nice place. Realism wasn't this gritty again until Batman Begins.

In 2002, mobster movie mastermind Martin Scorsese released Gangs of New York, a film that can be called the anti-Western in a very real sense. It's set during the same time period Westerns are often set, but instead of the wide, open spaces, everything is cramped and filthy. (Side note: Can Scorsese and DiCaprio make amazing movies together or what? The Aviator, The Departed, even Shutter Island were all fantastic.)

Despite the potential, we didn't get a really good Western video game until 2010's Red Dead Redemption. You should play it now if you haven't yet, because I am going to spoil the hell out of this game.



Red Dead Redemption has a story that only could have come from Rockstar, the masterminds behind Grand Theft Auto IV. The game opens in 1911, following gunslinger John Marston. He wants to kill bandit chief Dutch, but his motivations aren't clear at first. It's eventually revealed that Marston is a former bandit who's trying to put his past behind him. Some unsavory government agents have kidnapped his wife and young son until Marston finds and kills every member of his former gang.

After a lot of awesome open-world game goodness, Marston manages to kill everyone on his list. The quest marker tells you to ride home and get your family. In any other game, you would see a joyful family reunion, and the game would end. But oh no, this is Rockstar, and things are never that easy. Marston lives with his wife and son for a while, teaching his son to hunt and helping his wife with household tasks. But remember, this is a Western, and a main theme of Westerns is that you can never, ever escape your past. Redemption is not an option. Before too long, the government agents show up and give Marston the only thing he deserves: a bullet to the head.

The game picks up three years later, after Marston's wife's death. You're now playing as Marston's son, Jack. You can clean up any side quests as Jack if you want. But, one strange blip appears on your map as soon as you start playing as Jack. It's not marked as a story mission, it's marked as a side quest. This is the option to perpetuate the cycle of violence by killing the man who killed your father, or let bygones be bygones. I made the only real choice - to kill that bastard. It's presented as a duel, and after the deed is done, Jack walks past the camera, the words Red Dead Redemption flash on the screen, and the credits roll.

It's the only time I've ever cried during a video game.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Video Game Retrospective: Mass Effect 1 & 2

I like RPGs, but too many of them have this generic medieval European fantasy setting. That's a shame, because the genre is capable of so much more. Like science fiction, for instance.

Call the first Mass Effect a flawed masterpiece. Developer Bioware was just coming off the successful Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic games and the ancient-China influenced RPG Jade Empire. So they had a real track record of RPGs with unconventional settings. As a sci-fi nerd, I was really looking forward to it. A sci-fi RPG with a deep, fully realized universe, believable characters, romance options, and pretty decent third-person shooting action? It's like they had looked into my brain's list of video game desires, and assembled a game especially for me.

And boy, did it ever work. The universe is utterly compelling. Take the story of the quarians, who invented this race of self-replicating machines, who then proceeded to take over the quarians' homeworld. Now, they're a refugee race that lives entirely on a fleet of 50,000 starships. Or the story of the krogan, who were winning a brutal war until scientists developed a "genophage" that significantly decreased their birthrate. Now the krogan are a dying race.

Other aspects of the universe can be a little derivative - or simply "influenced" by older sci-fi universes, depending on how generous you're feeling. The whole idea of humanity being the new kid on the block in this wider galactic civilization is right out of Star Trek, for instance.

But actually playing the game was sometimes a less than pleasant experience. It had severe, noticeable texture pop-in that could be really jarring. Also, the game masked loading times with super-long elevator rides, which would be fine, except it meant that installing the game to your hard drive would not decrease loading times. And don't get me started on the Mako - a little car you drove around planet surfaces that had the worst driving controls imaginable.

Maybe that seems like a lot of complaining, but I really did enjoy the first game. The main story missions were all fun and very high-quality. The voice acting was all great, especially Seth Green as starship pilot Joker and the always reliable Keith David as Captain Anderson. You were also tasked with making several key decisions during your play-through, which would have major effects on how the subsequent games' stories would play out. And, of course, immersing yourself in the universe never got old. It's just a shame that it still had these other issues that made the game a less than stellar experience.

Until Mass Effect 2, that is. They fixed everything wrong with the first game. Everything. The Mako? Gone. Elevator load times and jarring texture pop-in? Gone and gone. Extremely boring side missions? Gone. What's left is a kick-ass sci-fi RPG with a heaping helping of third-person shooting action that rivals Gears of War.

The story is vastly improved from the first game. While that game tasked you with tracking down some random bad guy, Mass Effect 2 takes its structure from a heist film - spend much of the game recruiting your team, and finally do the suicide mission itself.

The characterization is some of the best I've ever seen in a video game. Every one of your team members are real people with personalities, not limp video game characters. This is in large part due to the character-specific missions, where your team member needs some help with some issue. These were all great, from Grunt's need to fell like a real krogan, to Mordin's desire to rescue an old friend, to Jacob's need for help with his stranded, possibly insane father. That last mission, in particular, was very fun, even if is an obvious homage to Apocalypse Now.

Choices are back in full effect. You're charged with making very serious decisions regarding all sorts of things. It's almost unbelievable how many plot threads they're going to have to account for in Mass Effect 3.

I've played through both games twice, first as a male, good character and then as a female, evil character. The gender of your character really only matters when it comes to who you can romance. It also cleverly changes some of your dialog options. However, playing as an evil character doesn't change nearly as much as I originally thought it would. Sure, some missions will play out slightly differently, but there aren't many ways playing an evil character will truly change the game. I realized that a "renegade" character, as the game calls it, isn't really evil per se, just more of a selfish bitch.

Play these games. Then play Mass Effect 3. You won't be disappointed.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Movie Review: Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Planet of the Apes fanboys don't come any bigger than me. This has been one of my favorite movie franchises for as long as I can remember. It's telling that as I was in the theater watching Rise of the Planet of the Apes, I wasn't thinking at all about where this fits into the continuity of those movies, if it does at all. I was thinking about what a kick-ass movie it was. Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a knockout, a slam dunk, a home run. It's everything I could have wanted from a latter-day Apes film.

James Franco stars as Will Rodman, a chemist testing a drug that may cure Alzheimer's. He tests it on chimpanzees, and one day takes home a baby chimp that inherited the effects of the drug from his mother. The baby grows up to be Caesar, who is super-intelligent thanks to the effects of this drug. After tragedy strikes, Caesar takes things into his own stinking paws.

The human characters are so-so. They're there more to move the plot along than anything else. James Franco is fine as the scientist playing God. Freida Pinto, the token love interest, does little more than stand around looking incredibly hot and spouting sci-fi cliches. ("You're messing with things that aren't meant to be messed with!") John Lithgow is natural as the dad with Alzheimer's.

No, the real characters in this movie are the apes, specifically head ape Caesar. Andy Serkis plays Caesar, buried under layers of motion-captured CGI. Serkis previously did similar roles as Gollum and King Kong. Here he makes Caesar, ironically, the most human character in the film. He says more with a few eyeball movements than most actors can with a whole monologue. It will be an extreme injustice if he doesn't get nominated for an Oscar.

Speaking of which, the CGI in this film is breathtaking. The CGI apes are almost indistinguishable from real apes. It's not just there to look pretty, either. This movie simply wouldn't work with less believable apes or, God forbid, humans in makeup.

There are little hints and nods towards the other movies in the series, but it's not distracting at all. I don't know if it's supposed to be a prequel or a reboot or what, but I do know it's a damn good movie that you owe it to yourself to see.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Amazon Kindle Review

I've never been too interested in reading ebooks. I resisted the revolution, sticking to my outdated paper for as long as possible. But, the Kindle had a major revision and price drop last year, and I couldn't put off the inevitable any longer.

It's difficult to convey the physical size of the Kindle in just a picture. You really have to hold it in your hands. It's extremely thin - any thinner, and it would feel flimsy. The screen seems like just the right size - any smaller, and you would have to turn the pages too quickly. The Kindle won't fit in your pocket, but it's still smaller than a paperback book.

The advantage of dedicated e-readers over something like the iPad is the e-ink display. It really works. The first time I saw the Kindle, I thought it was a sticker or something over the screen. It looks just like a paper book. Maybe the only thing a little off is the background, which is a light gray color, not white. Also, every time you turn the page, the screen goes black for an instant before showing you the next page. It's a bit jarring the first few times, but I soon didn't even notice it.

Another advantage of e-ink is that it allows for tremendous battery life. It doesn't use power when it's just displaying words, so it can last a long time. I found Amazon's claim of two weeks of battery life with moderate to heavy use to be about right. Of course, this is nothing compared to paper books, where you never have to worry about battery life at all.

Actually putting books on the device is so easy, my grandmother could do it. If you want to buy the books from Amazon's store, it's all built in and automatic. The store is organized reasonably well, and it's easy to search or browse or what have you. One feature I really like is the ability to download the first few chapters of any book in the store for free.

Putting your own books on the Kindle is still easy enough. I suggest using the amazing piece of free software, Calibre, for this purpose. Think iTunes, but for ebooks. Unfortunately, sometimes file formats will be an issue. There's no universal mp3-like format for ebooks, so some formats work on this device and others work on that device. The Kindle can natively read the .mobi format. It's relatively common, but not universal. A more common ebook format is .epub, which is what the Nook and Apple's iBooks platform both use. The Kindle can't read .epub books, so you have to use Calibre to convert. Sometimes this works fine, but other times the formatting can get messed up.

PDF files are the other common ebook file format. The Kindle does have PDF support, but since most PDF files were made for a computer screen, this is less than ideal. You have to use the buttons to zoom in and out and navigate around the document, which is a big pain in the ass. I never bother with PDFs on my Kindle.

I also frequently copy-paste long texts from the Internet to read on the Kindle. I do this almost any time I come across a long article I want to read. The e-ink screen is just that good. I've also gotten into reading fanfiction on my Kindle. Through some experimentation, I've found the best way to do this is to copy-paste the text into Word, then save it as an .html file. Then use Calibre to transfer it to the Kindle.

It's difficult to understate how awesome Calibre is. I couldn't imagine trying to read ebooks without it. It even has this "fetch news" feature that will pull content from online newspapers and magazines, and put it into a Kindle-friendly format. If there's a website you visit frequently that doesn't already have fetch news support, it's an easy enough process to add it to Calibre using RSS feeds.

So, the Kindle's great if you want to read ebooks, but do you want to read ebooks? That's a tougher question. An advantage of reading books over say, playing PSP is that you could do it at the beach or in the bath and not have to worry about getting water or sand on it. The Kindle changes that. I'm wary about taking it to those places, because just like a cell phone or any other device, water is very bad.

The Kindle is also not ideal for textbooks or reference books. I read a lot of those "...For Dummies" books, and I like to flip around those a lot. Trying to find a specific page on the Kindle is very difficult. It's fine for novels and other books that are meant to be read straight from beginning to end, but for anything else I'll still take paper.

There's also still some sentimental attachment to paper books. I like holding it, looking at the cover, etc. I like putting a book I've finished on my shelf to remind everyone how smart and well-read I am. And it's still very weird paying money for something I can't hold in my hands.

So if you want to start reading ebooks, the Kindle is probably your best bet. But whether reading ebooks is desirable is another issue.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Immigration

This is a pretty spectacular story. This guy, Jose Vargas, is a prominent journalist with the Washington Post. He reveals in that article that he is an illegal immigrant. His parents sent him here illegally as a child, and he has been here ever since. He goes through his struggles as he tries to hide his immigration status from various employers and government agencies.

He ends up advocating for the Dream act, a bill proposed in Congress that would grant citizenship to any illegal immigrant who was taken here as a child, if they get a college degree or serve in the military, and have a clean criminal record, among other requirements. It makes sense. If your parents took you here when you were two years old, you are, for all intents and purposes, an American. The Constitution grants citizenship to anyone born on American soil, regardless of parental immigration status. Whether you were born here or were taken here as an infant appears to be a meaningless distinction. Deporting an adult who was taken here illegally as a child amounts to nothing more than punishing him for the mistakes of his parents.

On the other hand, I understand the reluctance to pass the Dream act. Maybe its passage would guarantee hundreds of thousands of children would be sent here illegally by their parents. After all, one thing all parents want for their children is a better life. And the Dream act would prompt many overseas parents to send their children here illegally, just for that small chance of gaining American citizenship.

Immigration is a difficult issue to grapple with. As someone lucky enough to be born on American soil, I've never had to worry about things like this. Vargas' article was a real mind-opener for me. I sympathize with his plight, but I understand the two sides of this coin.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

You stink of human!

I normally don't like movies made before I was born. It's just not my thing. They're usually too slowly paced, with dumb stories, etc. However, there are a few exceptions. Citizen Kane, The Godfather, and the Planet of the Apes series. What an awesome science fiction franchise.

It all started with the novel La Plan├Ęte des singes by French author Pierre Boulle. It concerned a French astronaut who landed on a planet populated by intelligent apes. It wasn't bad, but it's clear Boulle was more of a social satirist than a sci-fi writer. That was a pretty crazy nugget of a story, however, and a loose film adaptation was released a few years later.

The original Planet of the Apes film is the most famous Apes property, and for good reason. Charlton Heston starred as Taylor, an American astronaut who left Earth because he believed "there has to be something better than man." Due to the effects of time dilation, several thousand years have passed since he left Earth. He lands on what he thinks is another planet in orbit around a star light years away.

Soon enough, he's captured by intelligent apes who hunt humans for sport and scientific examination. Two chimpanzee scientists, Cornelius and Zira, take interest in Taylor for his ability to speak. The orangutan statesman Dr. Zaius, however, believes Taylor to be a threat, because he knows the true story of his planet. He knows man is a cruel animal, and he cannot allow Taylor to live if he wants to protect ape-kind.

Dr. Zaius is the best part of the movie. He's the best kind of villain - he's right. About everything. He's played as the film's antagonist, but he's only doing what he thinks is best for his species. His methods might be a little rough, but the only reason he's not the protagonist of this film is because of his species. Dr. Zaius is both the Minister of Science and Chief Defender of the Faith, which Taylor points out as being a contradiction. Talk about subtle references to creationism.

Rod Serling co-wrote the movie, and it really does feel like one long Twilight Zone episode. The early parts of the film have this kind of creepy "what the hell is going on here?" type of feel. The final, haunting image is also pure Serling. I also really like the division of species displayed in ape society, based on real ape characteristics. Chimpanzees are the scientists and intellectuals, orangutans are the statesmen and philosophers, and gorillas are the warriors and manual laborers.

The film spawned four sequels, some of them good. The first sequel, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, concerned Heston lookalike Brent, who crash lands on the planet of the apes looking for Taylor. Taylor disappears under mysterious circumstances, and Brent has to find him. There are some heavy-handed references to the Vietnam War, with bloodthirsty gorilla warlord General Ursus giving a rousing speech early in the film. This was easily the best scene in the whole movie. It's eventually revealed that Taylor was captured by some human mutants who live underground and worship an atomic bomb. (!) Talk about WTF. The bomb is detonated at the end of the movie, destroying the world. This was supposedly a last-minute script revision by Heston, who wanted to prevent any further sequels. It didn't.

Beneath is a weird, weird movie. Mutants? Bomb worship? It's also kind of surprising they were able to get away with such a bleak ending in a mainstream Hollywood film. It also suffered from a significantly lower budget than the first movie, so it has special effects that were bad even by 1970 standards. Fans of the first movie will be entertained by this, but it didn't set the world on fire.

The next sequel starts with a deus ex machina. A lot of movie plots are resolved by deus ex machinas, but Escape from the Planet of the Apes sets its plot in motion by one. The chimpanzee scientists Cornelius and Zira have somehow retrieved the spaceship Taylor crash landed in, got it to work, and flew it through space and back in time to 1970s Los Angeles. So these apes, who were amazed at a paper airplane in the first movie, have somehow rediscovered space travel. Yeah, right. There's also this mysterious chimpanzee scientist Dr. Milo, described as the brains behind the whole operation, but he dies early in the film, so he never explains exactly how he accomplished this amazing feat. This premise also fails from a sci-fi perspective. The effects of time-dilation due to relativity, making Taylor travel forward in time, are explained readily enough in the first film, but going back in time makes no sense at all.

However, Escape is a pretty good movie once you get over the really dumb premise. It takes many of its cues from the original Pierre Boulle novel. The apes are first studied as curiosities, then paraded around as celebrities, and finally hunted as threats. More complexity is added when Zira gives birth. Dr. Otto Hasslein, played with some intensity by character actor Eric Braeden, does the Dr. Zaius thing this time around. Hasslein, the science adviser to the president, believes, rightly, that the apes come from Earth's future, and that either their descendants or apes they teach to talk will one day overpower man as Earth's dominant species. Thus, he believes the apes should be exterminated. Like all good villains, you can understand his perspective and his goals, even if you might disagree with some of his means.

The next film, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, concerns Caesar, the ape born in the previous movie. Humans have begun to enslave apes, and as the only ape capable of speech, it's up to Caesar to start the revolution. It uses the old cliche of a randomly totalitarian government to create dramatic tension, but otherwise it's a pretty good movie.

Conquest is a dark, dark movie. There are some obvious parallels to the civil rights era and to various Communist revolutions in the intensity and nature of the apes' revolt. Nonetheless, it can be really uncomfortable to watch sometimes. Who, exactly, are we supposed to root for when an abused gorilla is shown murdering a police officer? This is a movie with no easy answers. Roddy McDowall played Cornelius in the previous movies, and he returns in Conquest as ape revolutionary Caesar. It's a very different performance. Caesar's final speech at the end of the movie is absolutely bone-chilling. It's not affected by some "now let's have compassion" lines hastily added in post-production.

The final film, Battle for the Planet of the Apes, is about one final battle between humans and apes. Caesar is now the leader of ape society, and he leads the charge against some final bands of humans. There are short scenes set further in the future, about 1200 years before Taylor, at the beginning and end of Battle, that show the Lawgiver. The Lawgiver is sort of an ape prophet; the apes are shown bowing to statues of him in the first two movies. Here, he's preaching friendship and harmony, while in the first two movies the apes twist around his message and say he advocated hatred and killing of humans. It's a really interesting dichotomy.

Other than the Lawgiver scenes, however, Battle isn't a good movie. First, it's clear they were working with a bare-bones budget. The makeup and sets are laughable. The script is kind of dumb, and the whole thing just feels unnecessary. Only hardcore Apes fans need apply.

So that's the original Apes film series. It's pretty amazing that anyone new to the series can start with any film, keep watching them in order, and the last one will always tie in to the next one. No other film series does anything like that. The first movie is fantastic. It has everything you could want out of a sci-fi romp. The sequels are pretty good, especially Escape. They'll stand forever as one of the best sci-fi film series of all time.

But wait, the Apes saga was far from over. It's a valuable property, so it was resurrected in 2001 by Tim Burton. His "re-imagined" Planet of the Apes movie uses that core nugget of an idea from the novel and first movie to make a whole new story. Mark Wahlberg stars as Leo Davidson, the American astronaut, and also features Tim Roth as villainous chimpanzee General Thade, and a prominent Michael Clarke Duncan as a high-ranking military gorilla.

This movie gets a lot of hatred on the Internet, but I don't think all of it is deserved. No, it's not as good as the original, but that's not a fair comparison. That was the first ever Planet of the Apes movie, nothing can ever repeat that. This one is not supposed to be a simple remake. It's just another loose adaptation of the novel, like the original movie. I think the world is big enough that more than one film adaptation of the same source material can coexist.

Okay, it was just kind of a dumb summer popcorn movie, but it did have some things going for it. First, except for Mark Wahlberg, the performances were pretty good. I especially like Tim Roth as General Thade. The original movie portrayed chimpanzees as being all-around smart and good, but chimps can be kind of nasty. Watch a documentary on chimpanzees, and you'll see that they kill their young and can be obsessed with sex and violence. Tim Roth was able to capture this creepy nastiness very well. Also good was Paul Giamatti as a sleazy orangutan slave-trader, Michael Clarke Duncan as Thade's right-hand ape, and Charlton Heston in a cameo role as Thade's father.

The makeup and ape movements were fantastic this time around, as well. The original film series just had humans acting human-like, but in ape makeup. This movie gets the actors to act ape-like - shrieking, sniffing, jumping, and walking on all fours. Someone did their homework. Plus, the makeup is very realistic in this movie.

That says nothing about the plot holes big enough to drive a car through, and the eye-rollingly bad action movie cliches. Like: the kid who wants to fight the apes, but as soon as he gets out there, his horse falls over and Mark Wahlberg has to go rescue him, which he does, just in time. Snore. Overall, the remake is good for some mindless fun, but not much more.

Can you tell I'm excited for the new movie, Rise of the Planet of the Apes? Because I am.