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For a moviegoer with the right attitude and a sometimes unhealthy amount of imagination, it’s almost impossible not to make connections between movies, actors, and roles. Hence the idea of an “unofficial sequel” - a movie that (by chance or intent) continues the story or theme of a previous work, without explicitly referring to it. Not to be confused with a spin-off, this is a movie that contains intrinsic elements that link it to another movie. Take The Rock. It’s easy to imagine Sean Connery’s incarcerated ex-MI6 agent as an alternate version of James Bond, who was locked up during the latter half of the Cold War.
There are a few other movies that I’ve decided, at least in my own mind, are unofficial sequels. My favorite is probably Mr. Brooks, which I think makes a pretty great sequel to American Psycho. Consider: in American Psycho, Christian Bale plays a twenty-something 1980s power broker whose obsessive compulsive personality allows him to conceal the fact that he’s a serial killer. In Mr. Brooks, Kevin Costner plays a 40-something successful business owner and family man in 2007… whose greatest secret is a lifetime of meticulous, calculated murders. He even separates the killer part of his personality as Marshall (William Hurt) who to me represents the bloodthirsty, manic nature of Bale’s character in American Psycho.
The clincher is a scene near the end of the movie, where Costner’s character reveals to a serial killer protégé that he used to be a very different person. “Before I was the Thumbprint Killer, Mr. Smith,” he tells the man, “I killed a lot of people in a lot of different ways.” Chainsaws are not explicitly mentioned.
Another movie with an easy connection to previous films is Gran Torino, for which Clint Eastwood both stars and directs. Eastwood plays a gruff, angry widower in Detroit, who feels isolated from the rest of his family and a neighborhood that’s becoming increasingly ethnic. While there’s no evidence for a direct connection (indeed, Eastwood would probably not welcome this kind of speculation) the Gran Torino character seems like an extension of “Dirty” Harry Callahan, San Francisco Police detective and Smith & Wesson enthusiast of the Dirty Harry films.
Consider his proficiency with firearms, his intense hatred of injustice, his distrust of minorities (which might be expected, if not forgiven, in a 70s SFPD cop), his appreciation for American auto muscle, and general unwillingness to try anything new. By the end of the movie he’s let go of his anger and atoned for some of the less ethical things he did on the force. Of course, a lot of this draws on the fact that Eastwood is surly and angry in just about everything.
But the latest movie to draw more than inspiration from past work (and, I’ll be honest, the reason I wrote this story) isn’t even out yet. Take a look at the trailer for the upcoming R.I.P.D. below.
Now, this movie is pretty clearly a zombified Men In Black ripoff, and honestly, it doesn’t look all that good - typical matinee popcorn fare. The only reason I bring it to your attention is that Jeff Bridges plays the undead Agent K to Ryan Reynolds’ rookie Agent J. Bridges’ character is an Old West lawman, a shoot-first-ask-questions-later guy with a ten gallon hat and a six shooter. Who bears more than a passing resemblance to…
U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn of the Coen Brothers’ 2010 True Grit remake, also played by Jeff Bridges. The supernatural storyline of R.I.P.D. (based on a comic book of the same name) allows us to stretch imagination a bit, and assume that the Marshal was recruited into zombie-killing service after his death at the end of True Grit. Surely he’d be counted among “the greatest lawmen who ever lived and died.” Good grief, he’s even got the same accent and haircut.
Once again, all these thin connections are entirely in my head. But they help me enjoy otherwise lukewarm movies (like Mr. Brooks and R.I.P.D.) that most people wouldn’t give a second glance. And when it comes to movies, I’m out for every bit of fun that I can have. If I find more interesting fare, I might just have to amend this article later.
In a response to making the final rounds of Consumerist’s “Worst Company In America” poll after “winning” the not-so-coveted award last year, EA’s COO Peter Moore wrote a conciliatory message on the company’s official blog. “WE CAN DO BETTER,” declares the title, but inside, you’ll find very little substantive evidence that Electronic Arts intends anything of the sort.
First, Moore declares that EA sees a disproportionate amount of votes because of the tech-focused nature of its customers. Then he compares EA (perhaps not without at least some justification) to the New York Yankees, a franchise and company whose incredible success and wealth is matched only by the vitriol of its detractors. After a brief conciliatory note on the failed SimCity launch, Moore creates a literal laundry list of why all the complaints against EA are wrong, including the claims that SimCity’s online function is DRM and that Origin is a failed Steam competitor. The list ends with a self-pat about how EA refuses to cave in to conservative demands that they remove the ability to create gay and lesbian characters in games.
Wow. Way to miss the point, Peter. While I’ll grant you points for not being a bigot, saying how bad your company isn’t doesn’t detract from the very real problems it has in the way it treats its customers. Take the SimCity DRM issue, or rather, non-issue - the problem with the always-on server limitation isn’t that it’s protecting revenues. It’s that its inclusion makes the game worse for players, and that EA has steadfastly refused to alter it in spite of the fact that it is wholly unnecessary to the single-player focus of the game.
Again, in the Origin issue, Moore frames his argument as if people are complaining that the service exists at all.
- Some claim there’s no room for Origin as a competitor to Steam. 45 million registered users are proving that wrong.
PC players don’t care about the competition of digital marketplaces. They care that they can’t buy the games they want on the platform they already use. Creating your own digital boutique is just fine - denying your product to your #1 competitor (which is the only real reason for the service at all) smacks of profiteering and bad grace. How many registered users would Origin have if Mass Effect 3 or Crysis 3 weren’t “Only On Origin”?
The problem is that EA wants to stop being labelled as a horrible, anti-consumer company, without actually making the changes that would stop them from being one. Moore admits that his company will almost certainly top the Consumerist poll for a second year straight, and become the first company in the contest’s 8-year history to do so. But he offers only backhanded praise to himself and his coworkers, proclaiming without irony that the perceived prejudice against his multi-billion dollar company is the result of a vocal minority. When you’ve become a symbol of corporate excess and greed that outstrips freaking Wal-Mart, you don’t get to complain that gamers are picking on you.
To Peter Moore and the rest of EA’s board, I say this: you’ve still got a few days to turn it all around. Like Ebeneezer Scrooge, you can choose to do the right thing (or at least begin to) in the hopes that your anti-consumer reputation won’t be carved in stone for another year. Offer your AAA games on Steam. Quit milking Madden and other sports franchises on a yearly basis. Stop driving the DLC and in-app purchase boom. For the love of God, let people play SimCity by themselves. In short, put your money where your mouth is. Then, and only then, will you prove that you really can do better.
This review is not belated, because I snagged an advance reader copy off of eBay.
Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me. This playground maxim has echoed through the decades, and like so many well-known parables, it’s wrong. The core concept of Max Barry’s latest novel, Lexicon, takes this idea to its logical conclusion: turning words into literal weapons.
Lexicon employs a split narrative, showing the reader a vast underground organization through the eyes of a panicked, confused victim, then through its most powerful operative. The nameless group has harnessed the power of words that people used to call “magic”, distilling and refining the fearful ability to control people with modern linguistic theory and centuries of practical application. What follows treads in Barry’s familiar wheelhouse of thriller, though it strays even further into sci-fi territory than his previous novel, Machine Man. The novel splits its attention three ways: developing its deep protagonist and antagonist characters, weaving a tense and action-filled story, and exploring a fascinating world where language has the power to grip and hold on to the human mind.
The first half of the book merely hints at the Organization that dominates the narrative. Long ago, a group of brilliant people studied the biblical Tower of Babel and similar stories throughout human history, finding that language is the common thread in events that have disrupted entire regions. Through careful experimentation, they’ve distilled language down into “command words,” nonsensical to all but an incredibly specific subset of people. Their operatives are called and named after Poets (“They’re good with words”), and they do all kinds of secret agent chicanery using these words as their wetwork tools.
While the setting is fascinating, it’s the characters that will push you through. Barry excels at female leads, and Emily is hands-down his best yet, taking the Oliver Twist motif in a twisted (sorry) direction. Her coming-of-age story drives the whole plot, though you’re never sure if you’re supposed to be rooting for or against her. She guides the reader through the Organization, agonizingly slowly at times, but in such a way that allows you to appreciate the gravity of the linguistic power they’re trying to control. Will, the other side of the coin, plays the everyman. While his story isn’t quite as interesting - most of it is spent running - the payoff at the climax makes the investment well worth it.
The prose itself is another draw, as anyone who’s delved into the author’s previous work knows well. While not quite the non-stop wit of absurdist authors, the dialogue and monologue of Barry’s characters is more natural, with some laugh-out-loud black humor that can creep into the most serious of moments. While the initial chapters are very contrasting, owing to the non-linear nature of the story’s design, things soon ramp up to breakneck pace. Once you reach the middle of the book you’ll find it hard to stop until the end.
In between chapters, Barry delivers short snippets of prose exploring how language works in the real world, and the ways in which the Internet is changing it. How does our always-on tracking make us vulnerable? How do world events shape the lexicon of English and other languages - and how does it work in reverse? These bite-sized pieces of food for thought will keep you thinking about the application of language in life and society. Oh, and between these bits and in the themes in the main story, the author rolls around in linguistic theory like my dog in a pile of horse dung. (Keep an eye out in these interstitial pages for references to previous Max Barry books.)
All that said, the ending is a bit of a let-down for me. It’s definitely one of Barry’s weakest, which is disappointing, since Lexicon is by far his most ambitious novel to date. The “big bad” seems to devolve towards the end, and the final note is left unexplained, to the detriment of both the reader and the characters. When it comes to endings, less is oftentimes more. Here’s a good example of where less is just less.
Even so, Lexicon is a must-read for fans of Barry, or anyone who loves a smart thriller with a hint of science fiction. Those who’ve studied language or persuasion will get a particular kick out of the themes presented, and everyone else should enjoy the wonderful characters and fascinating framework.
Lexicon will be available in print and digital on June 18th.
I love musicals, and it’s a love for which I offer no apologies. And in the lists of musicals that I love, there are none higher than Les Misérables. The music, the characters, and the drama are unmatched in my admittedly limited experience, so it’s no surprise that the film adaptation of the musical was my most anticipated movie of 2012.
Any attempt to bring such a beloved piece to a new medium is ambitious, but director Tom Hooper tried for something even greater: a movie that engrosses the actors as much as the audience. Les Misérables was filmed as a blockbuster movie, not as an adapted play, and the actors were encouraged to draw upon their characters and surroundings to create a more “true” version of Les Misérables to the screen. In effect, this makes the movie a period piece drama in which 90% of the dialogue just happens to be sung instead of spoken. This is as opposed to a true musical, which takes advantage of the extra dimension and effect of the cinema but otherwise leaves the stage content intact. Think of it as the difference between Moulin Rouge and The Producers (2006): the former uses every trick in the book to present a movie-style spectacle, while the latter is essentially a stage play with some effects thrown in.
This unconventional mix of singing and acting made me wary of the project, but I’m happy to report that it comes off well, for the most part. Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway deliver some masterful performances, and the music and lyrics are in no way diminished by the extra flourishes of emotion and intensity added. On the other hand, it’s a jarring experience if you’re expecting the familiar Les Mis atmosphere - imagine if the intense portrayals of the 1998 film version starring Liam Neeson were sung instead of spoken, and you’d be pretty close.
The “film first” approach works amazingly well in some parts of the movie, and not so well in others. Les Mis is at its most intense during the solos, notably “I Dreamed A Dream,” “What Have I Done” and “Empty Chairs At Empty Tables.” Tight shots of the faces of the actors with a narrow depth of field let emotion spill out in waves, and allow for an intimacy that’s impossible in stage performances. These are the tear-jerkers, folks, and a large part of the reason that Les Mis was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, and why Jackman and Hathaway are up for Best Leading Actor and Best Supporting Actress, respectively. These raw performances alone make the movie worth watching.
The approach also works fantastically for set pieces. Enormous environments like the shipyard work camp, Javert’s scene on the Seine, and the walls of Paris could never be captured this way in a stage production, no matter how flamboyant. In moments like these it gives the musical a sense of scale never before seen: sweeping transitions and computer-aided establishing shots give the viewer a great connection to 19th century Paris. The scene in which the rebels take controls of General Lamarque’s funeral procession is a perfect mix of history and pageantry that just can’t be done on stage.
(Strangely, the set for the main barricade seems a little cramped. It’s probably pretty accurate in the historical context of the June Rebellion, but the massive barricade seen in the curtain call - and the trailers - is a lot more impressive.)
All that said, the film-first technique brings the movie to a grinding halt when it’s employed for middle distances. When two or more main characters are singing non-identical lyrics (which happens quite a lot) the quick cuts to close ups make both the action and the singing confusing. This happens early when Javert confronts Val-Jean in the hospital, during the rousing “One Day More” ensemble number, and is especially evident in the garden scene between Marias, Cosette and Eponine.
How many people are singing here? If you said one, you’re off by two.
On the stage, you can see all the actors at once, and good stage direction lets you know who to focus on when all are singing different lyrics at the same time. It’s an incredible combination of lyrics and composition. In the movie, all you get is close-ups, removing one half to two thirds of the visual “punch” at any given moment. This was probably hard to recognize when the movie was being filmed, and the director and producers were watching the scenes unfold as they were meant to be seen, with all relevant actors visible at once. After film from two or three cameras hits the editing room, you get a jumpy mess that leaves the audience dizzy.
Acting and casting are superb. Jackman and Hathaway are worthy of every bit of the praise given to them, even if Hathaway doesn’t seem to like her own performance. Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter steal the show and provide some much-needed comic relief whenever they appear as the Thénardiers. There is one glaring exception, however, and that’s Russel Crowe as Inspector Javert.
I’ve got to admit that I love Javert. He’s a truly sympathetic villain: a policeman whose incredible dedication to morality and law is both his strength and his weakness. Javert never does anything that’s actually wrong (ruthless, yes, but not wrong by any means), and how many villains can say that? In the various stage productions of Les Misérables, Javert has been played many ways, but he’s at his best when he’s given passion and intensity to truly match Val-Jean on an emotional level, like in the confrontation scene from the original Broadway cast. Here’s a Spotify link.
24601, bring me that flag. I want to stick it in a 60-foot Reuben sandwich.
But Crowe seems to be sleeping through the entire film. There’s very little passion to the part, to say nothing of the flat and listless singing. Javert seems to ironically come to life at the character’s finale, but the rest of the time he’s an empty space on the screen. It’s a real shame, because Crowe is a better actor than that, even if his singing talent leaves a lot to be desired. Like another actor.
Is Les Misérables worth your hard-earned nine bucks? Absolutely. You’re not going to see anything like it from 2012 or 2013, and fans of the musical will benefit from the reinterpretations and expanded horizons. While it certainly could have been better with some adjusted cinematography, editing and casting, it’s a movie experience that is well worth the considerable time investment. If only we could get a live orchestra into each and every Cinemark.
I’ve had some tumultuous events in my personal life, so I didn’t have time to note that I’d successfully completed the National Novel Writing Month challenge with my story, Good Intentions. This was my first year participating in NaNoWriMo, as it’s called, and the experience of feverishly writing for thirty days (and nights) was an interesting one… but not without its flaws.
The whole point of NaNoWriMo is to encourage people to write, and in that, it succeeds greatly. The support tools at NaNoWriMo.org are both challenging and encouraging, allowing free tracking tools to all and a healthy sense of community, with a focus on your local urban area. I went to four or five “write-ins” at a local independent book store during November, and while they were somewhat counterproductive (since all that socializing gets in the way of, you know, writing) they were certainly enjoyable and very encouraging.
But the problem I have with NaNoWriMo as it is now is an exhaustive emphasis on output. NaNoWriMo is an almost perfect example of quantity over quality. Every official and unofficial communication I saw was all about making it to 50,000 words, a very small novel or a long novella, with almost no consideration of the quality of the work after that. The work of some of my fellow local writers, and even to an extent my own, reflects this. A large percentage of the participants who do complete the challenge do so with just a few words over the finish line - a local participant declared his novel “finished” at 5,006 words. There was a startling lack of creativity in a lot of participants as well; multiple prospective authors were writing fan fiction (the bottom of the creative barrel) or filling up their word counts with self-referential fluff.
Granted, one of the central points of the event is to rite as much as you can and do the rest later - beat back your inner editor, as it were. And there’s certainly something to be said for that: if you complete the challenge, you’re well on your way to a workable first draft for an actual factual novel. But as Charlie Jane Anders of io9 notes, there’s a difference between a first draft that merely needs a lot of work (pretty much all of them) and a chunk of prose that’s better left alone to start from scratch.
Overall, I’m glad I participated in National Novel Writing Month, and I do have a good start for my story, even if it will need to be rewritten - probably more than once. But in order for the program to produce actual, publishable novels instead of mere word counts, I think it needs a little more time in draft.
“Belated Reviews” is a series of ill-timed critical looks at books, movies, games, etc., that I’m too busy/uninterested/poor to check out at the time of their release.
Released: September 4th, 2012
Read: October, 2012
Talk about belated - it’s been nearly two years since I posted a new entry to this series. Then again, it’s been at least that long since I’ve felt the need to expound upon a piece of entertainment that my regular readers (all six of you) might not otherwise find. With that said, let’s take a look at Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross’ singularity magnum opus.
If you’re not familiar with the concept of “the Singularity”, it’s the idea that technological advancement will eventually reach a point of such rapid progress that humanity will find itself suddenly and irreversibly given tools of great power, like the ability to create sentient machines, or to upload our consciousness itself to digital versions - the stuff of sci-fi dreams. The comparison to the theological rapture concept is perhaps more apt than the authors intended: the Singularity is a frequent talking point of 21st century prophets like Ray Kurzweil, who rather naively think that technology will be the savior of the human race.
The story of Rapture of the Nerds takes place after a fictional Singularity, in which the majority of humans have abandoned their physical bodies and uploaded their consciousness to The Cloud, a massive and nearly limitless quantum computer made out of most of the mass of the inner solar system. The protagonist, Huw Jones, lives in Wales, trying to stick to a purely human experience with the other Earth-dwellers in “meatspace”.
Conflict arrives in the form of a jury selection, where Huw is tasked with determining what to do with some of the technology The Cloud sends to their old-fashioned forbears on Earth. Through a series of rather unlikely events, he’s introduced to a technological parasite, kidnapped by both religious fundamentalists and deviants, attacked by a continent-sized ant colony, and eventually uploaded to the cloud himself. Throughout the story Huw is bombarded by new and almost entirely alien experiences, his very mind and body surrendered to the external forces that act upon him. The fact that he’s got unresolved mommy and daddy issues doesn’t help.
Rapture is more a series of hypothetical tableaus than a story in the classical sense: snapshots of far-out possibilities that satisfy the science fiction reader by being at least vaguely possible extensions of current technological trends. When people are uploaded to The Cloud, they shed their physical bodies for avatars that are as malleable as any forum handle, and even their brain functions are customized and duplicated like files on your computer desktop. In a particularly interesting example, cloud-dwelling humans can be “rooted” like a Unix system and essentially remote controlled.
Make no mistake, the ideas presented in Rapture, every one at least distantly associated with some facet of current scientific and social trends, are fascinating. The modifications that characters in The Cloud can make to themselves and their surroundings makes for an amazing sandbox, set to a counterpoint of familiar battles with bureaucracy and ego. Just as interesting is the post-singularity world created by Doctorow and Stross, a modern take on Eurasia that spans an entire solar system. (That said, a large portion of the earth-bound story reveals deep, unwavering and ugly prejudice on the part of both authors towards Americans and religious devotees in general.)
But a sandbox is all it is - the story shifts so quickly between settings and situations that actually sorting out the causal relationships between the beats is nigh impossible. Like a pretentious art film set to prose, Rapture rushes towards conceptual set pieces with no real regard for progression, or for what its characters will do next. With the exception of the protagonist, the characters are uniformly one-dimensional, making motivations hard to justify. The central love story (such as it is) is popularly frustrating, as the protagonist repeatedly declares his love for Bonnie without ever really giving any reason for his sudden and isolated outpourings of emotion.
The ending is particularly disappointing. In a book filled with fantastic extrapolations, the climax is flat, a reconciliation of Huw’s flaws that seems only barely connected to the shattering experiences he’s had. As a character Huw “learns his lesson”, but does little with the revelation afterwards. In the end he’s simply a vessel for the reader to take a whirlwind trip through a post-Singularity setting.
Rapture of the Nerds may still be worth a read if you’re a true Singularity believer, or if you’re simply fascinated by the post-modern mythology that’s being built up around the humanist ideal (like yours truly). I began reading it on the web, where’s it’s been posted by the authors for free, but eventually got so wrapped up in the ideas that I bought it on Kindle. That said, the ideas presented will stay with you - the characters and story won’t. Also note that the subjects presented aren’t for the squeamish or easily offended; Rapture of the Nerds would get an easy “X” rating from the MPAA. 5/10.
Despite growing up in both Georgia and Texas, I’ve managed to cultivate a distinctly neutral American accent, probably thanks to my father’s speech training. Perhaps it’s this lack of accent in my own speaking voice that’s given me an interest in English accents from around the country and the world. I often practice different international accents for fun (hey, don’t judge) and I’ve long looked for a reference beyond stereotypical portrayals in comedy movies.
Tonight I found the most comprehensive and complete guide for English accents from all over the world. It’s called the International Dialects of English Archive, and it catalogs audio samples from English speakers both in English-speaking countries (for different regional dialects) and elsewhere (for second-language speakers). So whether you’d like to study the sounds of Savannah, Georgia or Georgia, former Soviet Union, IDEA has you covered. It’s a project of the University of Kansas.
Incidentally, if IDEA were to catalog my normal accent, they’d probably classify it as Nebraskan: Omaha, Nebraska has been documented as having the most neutral accent in the U.S. That’s why a lot of telemarketing and customer service centers used to be located there, before being shipped off to India. Of course, when I’m tired or really angry, my voice takes a southbound train to rural Texas in a hurry.
If you’re not familiar with the somewhat outdated musical phenomenon of the barbershop quartet, then take a few moments to edumacate yourself with the help of old Centauri himself, Robert Preston.
Now that that’s out of the way, check out some of the solo-quartet stylings of one anonymous SoundCloud user. This barbershop fan creates short clips in the style of the classic American quartets, using random Internet memes, forum comments and a few requests as his material. Check out a couple of well-known quips from everyone’s favorite cartoony shooter, Team Fortress 2:
How about some favorite movie quotes?
All of these are done by one guy, with some amatuer recording equipment and his PC. It’s not quite Statler Brothers quality, but for the strange intersection of quartet fans and Internet addicts it’s great stuff. Here are my two favorites: the most surprisingly literate 4chan meme ever…
…and an inscrutable emoticon.
If you enjoy these as much as I do, check out WhyNotBarbershop’s profile on SoundCloud, where there are currently just over 300 of these clips. He takes requests, and if you ask for one, shoot a few bucks to his PayPal account for the trouble.