Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Review of "My Year of Flops" by Nathan Rabin

Watching bad movies has been a favourite pasttime of mine for almost two decades now. I'm not alone in this questionable activity and different folks derive different strokes therein. Some enjoy feeling superior to others. Some come for a laugh. And some, and I admit I am guilty of this, enjoy inflicting bad movies on others for the sadistic joy of watching somebody else cringe. In any case, I've seen more than my share of cinematic shit and I fear that it has warped my sensibilities.

My quest for awfulness has led me to read several books about bad movies. Such books are essential for seeking movies that have otherwise escaped notice. Most of them adopt a snarky tone and give play-by-play accounts of the worst aspects of the films. The better books provide backstory to showcase production follies and the devatating effect on the careers of those involved, as well as contacting members of the cast and crew and allowing them to reminisce.

My Year of Flops, by Nathan Rabin, senior editor of The Onion's AV club, has all the best qualities that a rotten movie book should. However, the aim is different. Whereas other movie books have been written exclusively to mock, Rabin watches bad movies to find undiscovered gems. It is well known that if art and entertainment are misunderstood in their time, the public can punish the artists involved with mockery and shunning. When Nathan Rabin watches a notorious flop, he tries to see the good in each of these creations. However, if there is no good to be found, mockery ensues.

Those of us who revel in cinematic garbage know that there are several types of bad movie. To be avoided are movies that purposefully try to be awful and fail. Many such films are created every year and, surprise-surprise, it actually takes talent to purposefully make a cheesy movie. The result is an awful lineup of shitty horror movies that try to bad and hope that snarky viewers like myself will watch for a laugh. The result is usually excruciating. Sorry guys, the best bad movies are sincere efforts that have gone awry. My Year of Flops is composed entirely of sincere efforts.

Rabin has three ratings in his system: Failure, Fiasco and Secret Success. A Secret Success is a film which he feels is actually good, but misunderstood. A Fiasco is a film that is filled with love and effort that has gone horribly wrong, resulting in hilarity. A Failure simply has nothing going for it. It's a useful way to sort. Those who wish to find secret successes can seek them. For the rest, the Fiasco/Failure ratings are an excellent way to separate the hilarious from the irredeemably horrible.

Rabin's writing is charming, often following his stream of consciousness which invariably leads to the river of sewage that is his "case". He often begins his case files talking about some other bad movie, waxing witty on a thought which helps illuminate his subject. My only complaint with the writing is that often it seems like Rabin is playing to an audience which has already seen the movie in question, rather than introducing an outsider to the madness.

There are too many movies to list here, but some highlights include "The Conqueror", featuring John Wayne playing Genghis Khan in the role that would kill him, "Battlefield Earth", wherein John Travolta plays a hulking alien overlord to appease his Scientologist masters, and one of my personal favourites "Southland Tales", featuring an ensemble cast in a senseless story set in an incomprehensible future that constantly leaves the viewer giggling, "What the hell is going on?" Rabin concludes with his tortured minute-by-minute notes as he watches the director's cut of "Waterworld". Ugh.

My Year of Flops is clever and charming. Readers who are having a lousy day need only pick up the book, read a single case file for ten minutes, and I guarantee their quality of life will be improved. Nathan Rabin is obviously passionate about cinema and it shows in his writing. He loves to sift bad movies to find a good performance, a beautiful shot, a truth, a cool idea or an excellent line of dialogue. When he finds one, his praise is touching. When he can't find one, his commentary makes me laugh out loud. It's a marvelous masterwork of mockery, a must for movie masochists!
4 1/2 manic pixie dream-girls out of 5

Monday, August 22, 2011

My Conversation with Jack Layton

In the winter of ought two and ought three, in a small, dirty campus room lit by buzzing fluorescent lights, I met Jack Layton. Before me were rather uninspiring candidates who wished to become leader of the New Democratic Party. Behind me was a depressing crowd scarcely more numerous than the candidates. It was cold outside and, indoors, the meeting whispered bleakness. You could not be in that room and escape the feeling that you were alone, that your voice didn't matter, and the struggle for human right and human gain was over.

That is, until candidate Jack Layton spoke. I had known previously that he was a professor and notoriously green, so I had been canvassing for him. However, it was only until I saw him speak live that I was inspired. When he spoke, he banished all the cold and hopelessness of that unhappy gathering. He made me believe that impossible things could be accomplished.

After the meeting, he sat at my table and asked my small group of friends what most concerned us. I told him that nationalism was inhibiting governments. He adopted a serious expression and asked, "What do you mean?" I told him that multinational corporations don't care about nations, that they move money about the globe to avoid taxes and exploit legal loopholes, while national governments can only disjointedly patrol their own borders: The only way to have true democratic socialism is a world government (see this post), but nationalism was standing in the way.

He thought for a moment, but an aide tapped him on the shoulder. Jack said, "This is interesting. I have to go for a moment but I'll be back to continue this." He left our table. Unfortunately, some ridiculous incident where my girlfriend accidentally kissed Pierre Ducasse on the mouth occupied my attention and we left the meeting in the midst of a minor quarrel. It was one of those things that only a young person could get upset about, but it seemed really important at the time. My conversation with Jack Layton remained unresolved.

For the next eight years, after Jack's successful leadership campaign concluded, he was mostly ignored by the Canadian public. Somehow, his speeches and stage presence seemed dulled. I'm not sure if this was a deliberate effort on the part of his PR people to make him seem more boring and middle-of-the-road, a time-honoured Canadian path to greatness. If that's so, it didn't work for Jack. He seemed to fade into the background, noticed only when people mocked his moustache.

The election of 2011 began similarly to the other elections. The media continued to cast the election as a two-way race between the Liberals and Conservatives with the other parties as minor distractions. But this year was different. Jack, returning from a battle with cancer and a broken hip, stormed into the public consciousness. He shed his boring persona and became a champion who fights with a grin on his face, damn the adversity. When I went to see him for his public appearance at Station 20 in Saskatoon, the atmosphere of hopelessness in that bleak campus room so many years ago was gone, replaced by infectious optimism. I couldn't get near the man, let alone have a discussion with him about nationalism. Again my conversation was unresolved.

And now suddenly he's gone. After catapulting the NDP to the official opposition, Jack Layton's cancer returned and today he died. Our conversation will never be finished. But that's how it is for all Canadians today. Like my conversation, Jack Layton leapt into our national dialogue and suddenly he's gone just as it was getting good.

I don't know what it was that made his last year on earth different from his previous years in federal politics. Perhaps his brush with death filled him with exuberance for life that captured the public's heart. Perhaps the lingering threat of cancer pushed him to live every campaign day to its fullest.

As a lesson for us all, I could insert some cliche along the lines of, "Live every day like it's your last" here, but I don't think it's necessary. His life speaks for itself. He accomplished the seemingly-impossible, just as he promised. In an era where opportunistic so-called-capitalism is waxing, he led an NDP surge in Quebec, of all places, and oversaw the first federal democratic socialist opposition. His dream of a kinder, cleverer Canada has never seemed nearer.

Thank you, Jack, for ever-sowing the seeds of hope in my jaded heart.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

MMO Games are Officially Boring Now

Awhile ago, I played a game on Facebook called Mafia Wars. I'm sure that this game has undergone massive changes in the year-and-a-half since I quit playing, but back then, it was a disaster. You clicked buttons over and over again which represented various crimes. You bought and received simplistic items, including horribly unbalanced items that could be purchased with real dollars. Then you spent health points to attack other people, another button-clicking action that produced simplistic results. This poorly-planned mess could barely be called a game. And yet I came back again and again, checking my Mafia Wars account several times daily once my energy meters refilled to click more buttons.

Why? Because the game also included character development and advancement. After each crime you committed you gained experience points and levelled the abilities of your character. I had to stay up just one extra hour so I could gain enough energy to commit a crime that would level me! Ooh! I just got an awesome ice cream truck that adds to my attack score! Greasy Jeremy's doing awesome!

That was okay for awhile, but then it began to irritate me. I began the question the spiritual, intellectual, temporal and entertainment purpose of levelling my Mafia Wars character. When I searched for answers, I saw the roaring abyss of nothingness and knew it was time to move on. Greasy Jeremy went clean and gifted all items he was able to his friends who played.

It was after I had purchased DC Universe Online two months ago that I began to hear the roar of the abyss again. I had been anticipating the release of this game for more than a year. Superheroes are awesome and I was eager to play an MMO on my PS3. At first I took delight as Ludwig van Scorchoven, a tight-panted, shirtless villain wearing a top hat, launched burning meteors at victims through sheer passion and shattered the eardrums of his enemies with sound blasts. Then I lost interest. When he gained level 12, I actually angerly tossed the controller at my feet. This was going nowhere. I was bored and I had spent $60 on a game which no trader would accept because I had used the free month of subscription. I was screwed and felt like a retard because I had spent good money on a game that offered less play value than even Mafia Wars.

The fault with DC Universe is not in the mechanics of the game. The mechanics are fine. The problem was that I had played this game before. In 2007 I spent half a year immersed in City of Heroes, another MMO superhuman game. This game used the same MMO formula as World of WarCraft, easily the world's most successful MMO. I had also encountered the MMO formula in by brief forays into Champions Online (which is actually more fun than City of Heroes) and Lord of the Rings Online.

The formula goes like this: you create a hero. Then you run around attacking groups of eternally respawning enemies who have their names written in different colours to help you know if they're too tough. These mindless idiots stand around waiting to be attacked, despite the fact that their friends are being slaughtered ten feet away. Certain NPC characters can be seen standing around in central locations, offering quests. The quests are usually tasks like, "Defeat 20 mindless enemies" or "Click on five helpfully glowing boxes". Occasionally, you can recruit the help of your friends to beat up some mindless enemies, or you'll be minding your own business and then suddenly die when a Player Killer ambushes you.

However, the thing that truly annoys me about the MMO formula is that nothing is permanent. Despite the fact that numberless NPCs say stuff like, "Congratulations! You sure showed those orcs a thing or two" or "Excellent. Scarecrow is behind bars", your hero cannot truly influence his environment. Those orcs will always be respawning in the woods and Scarecrow's fear gas can always be seen floating above Gotham. Every box, sidewalk and building is indestructible and if you write your name on the wall with a machine-gun, it will vanish within 30 seconds.

In short, once the novelty of attacking mindless enemies and other PCs vanishes, all that is left is character advancement and development. This is no different than that catastrophe of a game, Mafia Wars. Experience points are a wonderful incentive to play a game, but levelling your character is not a game. The game should be how your character interacts with the environment and other players. If your character's effect on the environment is meaningless, so is the game.

So here is my decree. Until some game washes away the stagnant World of Warcraft MMO format, I will never play another. I want to see my avatar make meaningful change possible upon his world.

And yes, I know that with the current way MMOs are played, such a proposition would be impossible. Great mountains of defeated enemies thousands-deep would litter the forest. Troublemakers would wander around burning down buildings. Within a week, any City of Heroes would be reduced to a pile of scorched rubble, save for a few buildings which still stand, blasted into the shapes of penises.

Please allow me to describe the MMO I want to see. Not being a game designer, I have no idea if such a universe could exist under our current technology constraints. But here goes.

Nothing is randomly spawned in-game. Every NPC who lives there exists even when no PCs are around to see them. They have a place in the universe where they live and routines that they follow to survive and have fun. They have wants, needs and fears. In this way, every NPC is a potential quest-giver: he or she wants money, food, a place to live, the attentions of a loved one or vengeance on an enemy. Any PC who talks to one can hear them say, "God I'm hungry. Can you get me some food?" or "Mister Blister stole my purse! Teach him a lesson and I'll make it worth your while!" PCs should be allowed to create their own quests which any other PC can complete for reward. When every PC logs off, he leaves his character behind as an NPC with a place in the universe.

The universe should be a place of creation as well as destruction. In order to counterbalance the troublemakers who want to burn everything, PCs should be able to own property that they would want to protect. Using basic materials such as wood, stone, fabric and metal, players should be able to build and design structures, furniture and other posessions, kind of like Little Big Planet with a permanent address. Can you imagine how awesome it would be to publish a book on virtual paper in this universe?

The universe itself should be a story. If the actions of the players cause the destruction of the universe, then the universe will have to reset itself and everybody has to make new characters. If they don't like that, well maybe they should have worked a little harder to prevent disaster.

Lastly, it seems as though such a universe would have to be one in which death is rare, if non-existent. So either comic, high-magic or high-technology. But defeat should be meaningful and have consequences. Either a loss of XP or money or something should do the trick.

Because players can create, this game would necessarily have to be M-rated. When players are allowed to create, the cocks start appearing. The sex-obsessed masses of humanity will begin constructing giant dicks within a day of the game's launch, so there's yet another reason to have the universe be a comic place. Or, God! Even better, I'd love to see prudish players forming decency leagues in-game and destroying every penis they see!

Okay, this game is starting to sound like a sociology experiment. But don't the best games, like the best art, tap into humanity's embarassing nature? I'll stop my description here, other than to say that I would love to see an MMO based on GURPS Goblins. Those of you who know me well, however, will not be surprised and accuse me of indulging my Goblins obsession. Guilty as charged.

So. Anybody want to buy a copy of DC Universe Online off me? Anybody?... (crickets chirping...)