Texas-based web writer
zero dollars a day, plus expenses
This week I’m taking a two-week trip to India (for a wedding) and Ireland (for vacation). Since this will involve traveling in three different countries and total air travel time of over two days (counting flights and layovers), the contents of my bag had to be chosen with care and intent. I intend to keep it with me at all times, except during the various wedding functions. My standard phone is the DROID MAXX, an excellent combination of solid specs, great software, and extreme longevity. This is a Verizon phone, but Verizon LTE devices are world phones, and I should be able to pop a pre-paid SIM card into it just about anywhere. I’ve brought along a standard (unlocked) Nexus 5 as a backup.
I’ll be using at least some downtime to do regular work for Android Police, which means I’ll need a “real” computer. I’ve opted for the Windows-powered Thinkpad 8 tablet instead of my standard T420 to save on weight and space. The tablet has the added benefit of working well in a cramped economy seat and recharging with a standard USB cable. The travel-friendly Microsoft Wedge keyboard comes with a cover that folds in half to make a handy tablet stand, and since touchscreens still suck for text selection, I’ve added a Logitech Bluetooth mouse as well. I’ve thrown in a second tablet, my trusty LG G Pad 8.3, for access to downloadable Google Play Movies and TV shows for entertainment.
Power is a big part of all this. Belkin’s travel charger, with three US plugs and two USB plugs, is compact and versatile. I also have low-amp and hi-amp USB chargers for the phones and tablets. For keeping things charged on the plane I have the reliable Anker 90000mAh external USB charger. Various USB cables are thrown in, in case I have the opportunity to charge everything at once. Wall outlet adapters for both the UK (and Ireland) and India round it out. I’m bringing my ancient and gigantic Canon T1i on the trip, because I couldn’t find an alternative that was versatile, small, and cheap enough to justify just for this trip. I’m bringing my Tamron 18-270mm lens, a versatile super-zoom that should perform adequately (if not outstandingly) in any situation. The camera charger and a spare battery are included.
Various incidentals are also going in the bag. The most important is my passport, which will go in an anti-theft wallet that secures in a belt loop along with any cash and the contents of my regular wallet. A plastic folder holds all my flight and hotel print-outs for verification. A small bag has all the medication I might need, and a pair of House of Marley headphones (with in-line controls and a braided cord for easy wrapping) and earplugs should come in handy for obvious reasons. Finally, a USB drive (with backup copies of the documents) and SIM card tool hang out on the smaller caribiner.
Getting the bag organized is nearly as difficult as choosing the contents. I’ve used a standard Timbuk2 messenger bag for ten years now, and have found nothing that beats it for this function. I’ve strapped a BuiltNY neoprene lunchbag to one side of the bag’s larger strap. This handy zippable bag holds all the various plugs, cables, and chargers, making sure nothing is loose in the main compartment. A Caselogic DSLR holster is strapped to the opposite side. This way both of them are always in the same place and don’t bang around during transport. The tablets, keyboard, and documents fit nicely in the laptop sleeve, and the other gadgets and incidentals can be stowed in the various Timbuk2 pockets. I keep the small caribiner pinned to a tag, and it holds the USB drive, the SIM card tool, and my wrapped-up headphones for easy access. I think I’ve covered every contingency that’s possible on this trip. We’ll see how it all goes.
The rebel criminal with a heart of gold is a staple of science fiction, and has been so ever since Han Solo set the standard. His actions might not always be 100% lawful, but the guy will be your best friend for life. Even when he abandons you, it’s only so he can come back for a last-minute rescue. While he may put on a tough-as-nails show, you know he’s a good guy deep down, and he’ll always come out on the side of the angels.
Rex Nihilo is not that guy. He possesses all of the anti-hero’s charm, luck, wise-cracking attitude, and silver tongue, but none of his, well, heroism. Rex is always looking out for number one, and he’d be a lot better at it if his charm and wit were backed up by more than a few microns of intelligence or common sense. Rex Nihilo, the protagonist of Robert Kroese’s Starship Grifters, is Frank Abagnale by way of Zapp Brannigan, with none of the former’s innate intelligence and all of the latter’s misplaced bravado.
Starship Grifters is told from the perspective of Rex’s female android Sasha, the straight-laced and logical Abbot to his Costello. It’s her job to keep him and (if possible) herself alive while he bumbles through his latest scheme, coincidentally giving the reader no end of backstory on Kroese’s farcical science fiction universe. While a capable if somewhat beaten-up robot partner, Sasha is hampered by an inability to process original ideas. The moment she does, she shuts down and reboots, a failsafe intended to keep her model of robot from gaining sentience and destroying all life in the universe. It’s a real hamper to a thinking robo-gal. She is unfailingly truthful (which isn’t always the same as honest) and impeccably accurate, and her tendency towards sardonic wit meshes well with Rex’s flamboyant showmanship.
The book follows Rex and Sasha as they win a worthless planet and the billions of credits of debt it’s saddled with, then try to scheme their way into an even bigger fortune by alternately screwing over the evil galactic oppressors and the inevitably heroic rebels trying to take them down. Along the way they’ll gain and lose ridiculous theoretical sums of money, tell lies bigger than a gas giant, and deal with opponents both shrewd and annoyingly idiotic.
I love pretty much everything in the genre I refer to as “absurdist fantasy,” which includes such popular authors as Terry Pratchett, Christopher Moore, and the late great Douglas Adams, whom Kroese is clearly trying to emulate. The overall plot is a pastiche of science fiction in general and Star Wars in particular, going so far as to include analogs for the Empire and the Rebel Alliance, Princess Leia and Darth Vader, the Death Star and Endor, and a half-dozen other characters and tropes from Hollywood’s biggest scifi series. Like I said, I do like a good absurdist novel, but even over-the-top comedy needs a little subtlety, and there’s very little on display in Starship Grifters.
There are some good ideas explored in the novel. Sasha’s inability to have an original thought is both played for laughs and used skillfully in the narrative, as is her penchant for torturously erasing Rex’s thoughts so that he can safely ransom them. A debtor’s prison that drives an entire civilization, a corps of bounty hunters that’s become lazy and complacent after turning over their duties to hunter-killer drones, a Rebel Alliance staffed by the high school dropouts of spacefaring society, and a disguise technique that spins you on a genetic roulette wheel are all high points that benefit from thorough narrative exploration.
But at the end of the day, Krouse’s on-the-nose parody of Star Wars kept getting me down. I’ve got nothing against ridiculous characters or nods to the pillars of the genre, but Starship Grifters returns to that particular well one too many times, then goes back for five or six more sips. There’s a lack of subtly in the setting and characters, with the exception of Sasha and antagonist Gavin Larvitron, that makes parts of the book very hard to get through. Whereas The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy is a send-up of sci-fi in general that still manages to stand on its own legs, Starship Grifters is only a few steps above the likes of Thumb Wars or Barry Trotter. It would have benefited from more focus on the admittedly entertaining central con man story and the satirical world-building, and less reference and attempted parody. I also found the ending, a classic deus ex machina, a little too tidy.
That said, the book is not without a few laugh-out-loud passages, and the previously mentioned science fiction ideas are alternately hilarious and interesting. Starship Grifters has just enough humor and originality to earn itself a shy recommendation, if you can manage to stomach its innumerable Star Wars references and shameless shattering of the fourth wall.
Starship Grifters is available in paperback, Kindle and other ereader formats, and on audiobook. Full disclosure: the author provided me with a pre-release copy for the purposes of this review.
For the last year I’ve been running an experiment on myself: how much money can a PC gamer save if he or she only buys games below a certain price? Between March 30th, 2013 and March 30th, 2014, I decided that I wouldn’t pay more than $15 for a single game.
The amount of money I saved was staggering. in one year, I purchased a total of 36 games and DLC packages, mostly from Steam. If I had bought each one on the day of release, they would have cost me just under $1,040 altogether (according to this handy Steam pricing tool). By waiting for the prices to drop for sales, I paid only $274.82 - a savings of over $750 and a nearly 75% discount.
(full chart image here)
But honestly, this isn’t all that surprising. Everyone knows that Steam has some amazing game deals during their regular sales, and other digital marketplaces like Amazon are starting to follow suit. Older games in particular are given huge discounts. The interesting part of this experiment comes when you consider just how many of these games were so new.
Most of the games that I bought were less than a year old on the day that I purchased them. In total, I bought 29 games that were less than 12 months old, and they would have cost about $740 altogether had I purchased them on the day of release. By waiting for a Steam or Amazon discount, I managed to get them for just over $245. That’s a final savings of $495, about 66%. Or, to put it another way, a brand new graphics card.
Let’s say you don’t want to wait a year. The 17 games that I bought less than six months after their release cost me a total of $161, less than half of their original retail prices ($365). Of course, the less time you wait, the less you’ll save and the fewer options you’ll have. Cut those figures down to three months, and there are only 6 games that squeaked under my $15 limit (five of which were $15 or less at release anyway), for a total retail savings of 20%. It’s a much better idea to wait for the games you want, and use the savings to build up a backlog of cheaper games to tide you over.
A few caveats: one, a deal is only a deal if you want it. A lot of these games are titles I wouldn’t have bought or played had they not been so heavily discounted. That’s part of Steam’s business model: lower the prices to the point of impulse purchases. Some of the games I bought, particularly Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon, Poker Night 2, Strike Suit Infinity, and Skullgirls, were cheap enough to slide in under my $15 limit without any kind of discount. And of course, game prices go down in general as the game gets older. You’d still save money by simply waiting for a later date (about 35% for all the games I bought, closer to 25% for those less than two years old). I probably could have saved even more if I had kept an eye on more non-Steam markets, like Green Man Gaming, which generally offer Steam keys with purchase.
Here’s the moral of the story. When it comes to buying PC games, retail prices are for suckers. There’s nothing wrong with paying full price for a new game if you’re excited about it, but waiting to play it for just one year (and in some cases even less!) can result in dramatic savings. If you set a hard limit for yourself, you’ll save even more.
Full disclosure: I did cheat on two games. I bought Bioshock Infinite for twenty bucks in August during an Amazon sale (after constant pushes from a good friend), and I paid full price for Titanfall when it came out. I inserted the Steam sale price for Bioshock Infinite from December along with the DLC pack to keep the data relevant.
This year I decided to try an experiment: I’d see what kind of PC games I could play by never spending more than $15 on a single title. This is made possible almost exclusively by Steam and its never-ending cavalcade of awesome sales. I started my experiment last April, so I’ve got another few months to go, but it occurred to me that there was a crucial flaw in my process - it’s only applicable to people who have already spent a considerable amount of money on a gaming PC.
On the other hand, gaming isn’t just about triple-A titles with mind-blowing graphics. Steam is a friend to gigantic publisher and indie developer alike, and there are plenty of incredibly solid 2D games that are both cheap and compatible with almost any low-end computer. Here’s a handful of 2D games that I’ve enjoyed the hell out of this year, all of which are at least partially discounted during the Steam holiday sale. Most are also available on the Xbox and PlayStation download services. If you’re playing on a PC, you’ll want a controller for most of these titles.
This stealthy, stabby action game is every bit as good as the classics on ye olde 16-bit consoles. While Mark of the Ninja certainly has elements of both the Shinobi and Castlevania series, there is enough innovation in its mechanics that it feels completely fresh. It doesn’t hurt that the backgrounds and lighting effects are gorgeous.
You are a nameless ninja on a quest to avenge your clan leader, which will incidentally mean that you kill lots and lots of people with a combination of brutal takedowns and clever equipment. Or not - the game is flexible enough that it’s equally enjoyable whether you want to be a merciful and stealthy shadow or a psychopathic whirlwind of blades.The variable equipment system and alternate power costumes will add replay value to an otherwise short game. Oh, and lots of blood means Mark of the Ninja is not for kids, despite the cartoony art style.
I got turned on to the revamped Rayman after seeing the beautiful Rayman Jungle Run on Android. The new platformer series is a return to the character’s roots, and it’s better than anything Mario or Sonic have produced in the better part of a decade. The platforming in Origins is solid, but it’s the presentation that’s really fantastic: incredibly original character designs and environments will convince even the hardiest of hardware gluttons that 2D gaming has a place in the age of high definition.
Rayman Origins already has a sequel, Rayman Legends, which is still new enough that it’s on the pricey side compared with the rest of the games on this list. It’s also got a few 3D touches, but Legends should still be playable on laptops and desktops with integrated graphics.
An acronym for “Faster Than Light,” FTL tasks the player with running, maintaining, and defending a starship on a trek across the galaxy. FTL is unlike any game you’ve ever played, taking a few tips from real-time strategy games, management simulators, and the customization aspects of space shooters (without the shooter bits).
Most of the game is a series of seemingly benign decisions that force you along a branching path, managing your fuel and weapons carefully. The space combat itself is controlled chaos, a mix of ship-to-ship slugging, repelling boarding parties, and putting out fires both figurative and literal. FTL isn’t for everyone, but if you’ve ever wondered what the operations console on the Enterprise looks like, it’s right up your alley.
Mark of the Ninja rewards careful and thoughtful action, but Guacamelee is (as you might suspect) about as subtle as a thrown brick. This nacho-flavored tribute to Metroid and its contemporaries mixes solid beat-em-up components straight out of Battletoads with upgrade-driven exploration and fantastic art.
The sharp, colorful graphics really do look like a stylized version of the native art that they’re imitating. Surprisingly modern touches include meme shoutouts and drop-in, drop-out cooperative play. Guacamelee is worth the price of entry for its visual and audio elements alone, but those who enjoy 2D fighters or Double Dragon-style brawlers will be especially well-served.
Breath of Death VII is the sequel to six non-existent 2D RPGs, both an homage and a pastiche of the JRPG genre as it existed before the PlayStation era. The setting is a comedic mix of post-apocalypse and fantasy, where the undead live in harmony after a world-destroying war. You play as a sarcastic skeleton just trying to destroy a nameless evil with the aid of a ghost, a vampire, and a zombie. Who aren’t evil, by the way. Or at least they’re noticeably less evil than the other evil people.
Breath of Death VII and its sister game Cthulhu Saves The World are unflinchingly retro in their audio and video presentation (which might be a turn-off) but they’ve got just enough new ideas and refinements to breathe life into the old standards. They’re dirt cheap, too - you can pick them up for three dollars together.
This isn’t a comprehensive list, of course, and my tastes in 2D games are unapologetically mainstream. I’ve tried indie darlings like Bastion, Braid, Papers Please, and Fez, and I didn’t see the appeal, so consider me a philistine in the face of the modern 2D renaissance. But the games above should appeal to anyone who’s ever had fun while holding a Genesis controller, and they will run on just about any Windows machine. All of them are currently less than $10 on the Steam holiday sale (links to the individual store pages are in the titles), which ends on January 3rd.
Good news, everyone: I’m writing professionally once again! I’m now an editor for the fantastic Android Police, which in cop terms is probably something like a sergeant. I’m contractually barred from telling you why I left SlashGear/Android Community, and indeed why I haven’t been writing about tech for a while. But my last post on the previous site was exactly 18 months ago, so connect the dots for yourself.
In the interim I’ve had quite the time. I drove a train to the top of a mountain for about six months…
I ran from a forest fire…
And I became an Emergency Medical Technician, among other things.
Regrettably my changing fortunes meant I had to move back to Texas, but I’m gathering my resources to head up to Colorado again. And I don’t expect I shall return.
In fact, I mean not to.
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.