24 November 2011

This Is How Many Movies I Saw in 2011

Each entry on the list you are about to read/skim represents an instance of 2011 movie-going for me. Kids: Unless your last name is "Ebert," don't try this at home:


That's 80 movies in total, which is simultaneously impressive and depressing. And the list doesn't take into account the movies I saw on Blu-ray and Apple TV, or the movies that I took my girlfriend to see. Last night she and I went to see My Week With Marilyn. A few weeks before that, we saw Pedro Almodovar's The Skin I Live In. Pro tip: If you want to sound sophisticated at your holiday office party this year, inform everyone within earshot that you've just seen "Almodovar's latest." Everybody will be all like, "Wow, that guy in [INSERT YOUR DEPT. NAME HERE] is pretty sophisticated."

Not pictured: jacket caves.
Now, here is some math that is probably wrong: Assuming an average runtime of 90 minutes per movie, that's 7,200 minutes--or 120 hours--of theater-going. There are 168 hours in a week (24 hours per day multiplied by seven days), which means that I spent the equivalent of five back-to-back 24-hour days watching movies.

I was going to do even more math for you, breaking all of this into fractals, perhaps even work out a pie chart for your enjoyment. Then I remembered that I am a product of the U.S. public school system, and that my math skills, after several decades in hibernation, have degenerated to the point where I can no longer perform such feats. What those math feats would have displayed was this: I spent a not-insignificant chunk of this year sitting in the dark.

Because Vancouver receives more than its fair share of rain, I usually take a daily vitamin D supplement. Since I started reviewing movies, I've doubled my dosage, lest I find myself on a downward spiral of misery and popcorn.

I do not look forward to the movie screenings. Not because I dread seeing all of these terrible movies, an act which I'm certain is eroding my terrible math skills even further. I dread the screenings because of the people. Put a bunch of people together, lower the lights, and bad behaviors inevitably occur.

Once, in New York, I found a seat in a packed West Village theater, only to realize, when the lights went down, that the man sitting next to me had trojan horsed a dozen hot wings into the theater with him. He noisily began eating them in the dark, gristle taking flight all around him, the pungent smell of Frank's Hot Sauce searing my nostrils. Beside myself with fury, I moved to the only remaining seat in the theater--which was in the front row, of course--where I sat quietly fuming (and, worse still: craving hot wings) for the rest of the movie. I couldn't tell you the name of the movie that I saw that night. But, for as long as I live, I will never forget that a-hole and his hot wings.

My biggest peeve these days is the phone-checker. I do not understand for the life of me why one would spend $12.50 on a movie ticket, then choose to text throughout said experience. And no matter how discrete these people think they are being, no matter how skillful they are at constructing elaborate jacket caves in their laps, the light always seeps out at some point, searing the faces off the skulls a la Raiders of the Lost Ark of myself and everyone else in the vicinity. Number of times in 2011 that I asked phone checkers to cool it: 16. Number of times they actually cooled it: 16. Because they know, even before I give them the shoulder tap and the would-you-mind whisper in my nun voice, that what they are doing is rude and wrong. Today's life lesson: people will do all kinds of rude and wrong things until they are caught and/or someone tells them not to. See: Herman Cain.

Another story: During a recent early morning screening of The Three Musketeers (I know) at the Tinseltown Theater, a man with a Bluetooth earpiece blinking in his ear and a military-style haircut sat in front of me cracking and gobbling pistachios that he had smuggled into the theater with him. He really wolfed them down too, eating with wild abandon. People always eat with wild abandon in movie theaters, myself included. (Side note: The only time that I wish I had a third hand is when I eat popcorn. Well, there is one other time when I wish that I had a third hand, but I won't be going into it here.) As this guy cracked and gobbled away, I seethed and seethed. I no longer watched the movie. Instead, I tried, in vain, to think up some stern but gentle words that I could whisper to him post shoulder-tap. "Sir, would you mind not cracking those pistachios so loudly?" "Excuse me, but could you eat your nuts a little more quietly?" Everything I came up with sounded plain ridiculous. 

In the end, I did nothing. I glared and fumed and seethed at Dr. Pistachio, which is what I had dubbed the man (I imagined him as a small-time Batman villain for some reason), wishing with all my might that his pistachio-eating head would explode.

After the movie, the lights came up. Dr. Pistachio, when he rose from his seat, turned out to be far shorter than I expected him to be. And he had two teenaged boys with him--obviously his sons--who, by the number of eye rolls-per-second they delivered in his direction, no doubt gave Dr. Pistachio hell early and often in his days. In the darkness, the man was a nut-hoovering fiend who gleefully destroyed my movie-going experience; in the dark, he had become larger than life. But in the post-movie light, I realized that the man was simply a beleaguered dad wearing an old jacket with a hole in the sleeve who was out with his kids to see a free movie on a Saturday morning. Dr. Pistachio, if you're out there reading this, I am sorry for seething and fuming at you that day.

My most memorable movie-going experience of this year happened in late March, on a brisk, clear morning. My colleague and movie-going partner Victor Lucas and I hustled over to the Park Theater on Cambie Street for a 10 a.m. screening of Insidious. Of the four venues we typically see movies in, the Park Theater is by far the oldest, creakiest, and most cavernous. It's a throw-back theater that shows--how quaint--only one movie at a time. The Insidious screening was press-only, which meant that the movie was being shown inside this airplane hangar-sized theater to six shivering writers, Vic and me. Pro tip: If you attend an early-morning screening at The Park, wear an extra sweater. It's cold in there.

This was also one of those rare screenings when I knew almost nothing about the movie I was about to see. This is the ideal way to see a movie. The less I know, the more surprise I get. All I knew was that Insidious was a horror movie, a genre which makes me prone to writing phrases like "laughably terrible" in my notebook. That's not to say that I don't like horror movies. I do like them. But the number of good horror movies out there, the ones that are not laughably terrible, the ones that give me, as I say, a "good creep," can be counted on two hands (while my third, fictional hand busily shovels popcorn into my mouth).

So the lights went down inside the Park, the Psycho-like violin shrieks--WEET, WEET, WEET--began coming from the Park's old, blown out speakers, and the word INSIDIOUS appeared on the screen in 11,000-point font. "Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha!" I said, elbowing Vic who was shivering next to me and sipping his tea. "Look how laughably terrible this is!"

Then I stopped laughing and elbowing. And then I started quietly cursing at the screen, which is what I do whenever I experience a good creep. There is a five minute stretch of this movie that was so difficult for me to watch that I briefly considered leaving the theater altogether. No kidding. If you're wondering what stretch I'm referring to, here's a hint: It begins with a late-night knock at the front door. You're right, the last act of Insidious goes to hell--in more ways than one--but the first two-thirds of the movie got under my skin, where it continues to reside to this day.

Getting under my skin is no small achievement. Of the 80 movies I saw in 2011, only about 10 managed to really get under my skin: Bridesmaids, Rango, Insidious, X-Men: First Class, Source Code, Hanna, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Drive, Moneyball, Real Steel, J. Edgar. OK, so that's 11 movies. Of those 11, four would probably qualify as drop-everything-and-go-see-it events: Bridesmaids, Rango, Drive, Hanna. And of those four, the only movie that I would whole-heartedly recommend, the only movie that doesn't require any caveats or disclaimers from me, is Bridesmaids. Boy, did I ever enjoy that.

Did I nod off a few times? Sure I did. Hey, you try and sit through Cowboys & Aliens, or Mars Needs Moms. But what surprises me the most when I look back over this list is how little I experienced in the way of real feeling when I saw these damn things. There isn't much in the way of bona fide escapism here. Nothing really moved me much, or captivated me. Hell, most of these movies barely held my attention. Most of these movies left me feeling empty and numb. They went into my eyes, and my ears, but they sure didn't stay for long. Now that I think about it, maybe people are building those jacket caves and buzzing through bags of pistachios for a reason.

I've got a few more movies to see before I can wind down for the year: Mission: Impossible--Ghost Protocol, the new Sherlock Holmes, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, The Adventures of Tintin, David Fincher's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. So my work isn't quite finished, not yet anyway. Sure, I'll do it all again in 2012. I'll spend another five or six of the ensuing 365 days sitting in the dark. Here's hoping I feel more--much more--in the coming year.

17 November 2011

Zelda: Still Crazy After All These Years

Over the past week I have hurled myself at the The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword the same way that the 747 hurled itself into the island on Lost or Chris Farley hurled his stomach at coffee tables. I have spent more time "living" in the game's fictional world lately than I have in the real world.

My sincerest apologies to friends, family, girlfriend, and cats.

How intense was my Skyward Sword obsession? While walking by a brick wall in the stairwell of my building on Beatty Street a few days ago, I noticed a suspicious-looking crack and, no kidding, thought, I'd better get a bomb on that.

I can already hear the doo-deet-doo-doo-dee song.
Skyward Sword is one of those rare, borderline-unhealthy, personal-responsibilities-shirking experiences that a person has maybe only four or five times in his or her lifetime. (You can read my A.V. Club review here. And the Reviews on the Run review aired last Monday on G4 and City TV. Check your local listings, Canada.)

At the start of the game I was 100-percent certain that I'd outgrown the Zelda series. 2003's Wind Waker bored me to tears and was a struggle to finish. I made two runs at 2006's Twilight Princess, and wound up abandoning the game both times at the same juncture. (That juncture: when you meet the man/lady person dressed in the robes/housecoat who lives in the hut with the kids at the base of the Goron-inhabited mountain.) And the DS games, Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks? They didn't jazz me much.

When I dutifully reported to the Nintendo booth last June at E3 for my demo of Skyward Sword, I dreaded having to fly a pet bird, or play a harp, or sample the one-to-one Wii MotionPlus Master Sword controls. I thought: Who on earth could possibly still be into this baloney except for the people who sh*t themselves blind whenever Nintendo announces dumb things like Luigi's Mansion 2When the well-groomed public relations person (note: Nintendo's PR people are always extremely well-groomed) bestowed upon me a Wii remote for my demo, he did so with dramatic reverence, as if he was allowing me to sip from the Holy Grail itself rather than letting me play a couple minutes of what appeared to be Ocarina of Time 9: Now With Harps. During the demo I flicked the Wii remote at the TV screen with the same brand of zoned-out disinterest that I typically reserve for flicking something I don't want off my index finger. And, yes, the thing that I don't want in question would be a booger.

Flash forward to early November. One rainy afternoon Skyward Sword arrived via Fed Ex. The game and I, not surprisingly, did not get off to a good start. The first 10 hours--yes, I said "the first 10 hours"--were almost all uphill for me. What follows are actual texts that I sent to my colleague, Victor Lucas, during that 10 hour stretch:

"Four solid hours into Zelda and I am delivering soup to some f***ing guy. Goddamn it all."

"Now I'm being told that I need to purchase a bug net. A BUG NET. Four hours in."

"No, I'm not even in a dungeon yet."

"Honestly, I think Nintendo has been smelling their own farts for too long."

"Six and a half hours in, still have only gotten through ONE DUNGEON in Z."

While still struggling through those initial 10 hours, I'd leave work each afternoon, informing Vic that I was going home to enjoy my daily "Zelda nap." I wasn't kidding. Every afternoon I'd fall sound asleep on the couch while the Zelda-branded gold controller, sitting in my lap, quietly lost communication with the Wii.

Then Skyward Sword came howling to life. From that point forward, I experienced more jaw-dropping awe in every 15 minute interval of Skyward Sword than I did in Uncharted 3 in its entirety. And I'm comparing the two, partly because doing so will further aggravate Uncharted 3's staunchest fans, and partly because both games, if you really think about it, have similar goals.

1. Both games set out to tell the story of an everyman hero on a quest.

2. Both aim to evoke a sense of curiosity and wonder.

3. Both send their heroes into the darkest, most dangerous places in the name of acquiring shiny treasure.

Despite their thematic similarities, one game is a masterpiece of design, an elegant marriage of form and function, and a legitimate work of art, while the other is a middling series of noisy set-pieces interspersed with quippy cutscenes. In summary: One game I lived; the other I observed from afar.

No, Skyward Sword isn't perfect. Things go to hell at times. What you've heard about the Wii MotionPlus controls is true: they really do malign the game. Sometimes the controls stand between you and your enjoyment, which is borderline unforgivable. No, they're not insurmountable by any means, but during any sword-centric boss battle--and there are plenty--many gamers will want to quit in frustration. Pro tip: Don't quit. Pro tip number two: Purchase the best shield in the game--the one that repairs itself during battle--as early as you can, and get accustomed to using it. This will probably shave about 10 hours off your playthrough. I didn't appreciate the importance of the shield until the very end. And when I say "the very end," I mean "the final battle." Instead of using the shield I went with a lock-on-and-jump-around-a lot approach. What a dummy I am sometimes. Pro tip number three: Don't fool with the wood or iron shields. They are rubbish. I've been finished with Skyward Sword since last Saturday and I still have an unused iron shield collecting dust in the Item Check at the Skyloft bazaar in the center of town.

Here's a text that I sent to Vic during my final 10 hours of Skyward Sword:

"I had about 500 dungeon orgasms today. No kidding. This is the most fun, most satisfaction that I've gotten from a game in years."

And my final text:

"It's over. :("

Not pictured: Me sobbing.
What an utterly stunning turn of events. If you came to me three months ago and told me that Skyward Sword was going to completely blow my toupee off, I would have backed away from you slowly while scanning my surroundings for an object I might be able to use to deliver a blow to your head. What amazes me most is that this truly beautiful game, easily one of the most artful games of 2011, comes to us courtesy of the now-dead Wii, the kick-sand-in-its-face puniest of the recent generation of consoles. A bit of perspective: the Wii has even less horsepower than the 3DS does.

Boy, is this game ever a thumb in the eye to every developer and publisher out there who practically trips over himself to make boasts about their cutting-edge tech. For the last time, people, tech does not matter. I'm so sick of hearing about how your new game uses the Bink Video (no way!), or what the 4.2 version of your engine (codename: Pterodactyl v. 4.2) can do, or how many mega-polygons were used to build such and such character's dumb hat. We spend far too much time in this industry talking about tech. New Year's resolution, everyone: Let's try to talk about tech less in 2012.

As we stare down the barrel of the new console launches in 2012--and the rumor is that Microsoft will reveal their new Xbox thing at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in a few short weeks--as we find ourselves tempted to celebrate the "specs" of this console or that upcoming game, remember to center yourself by recalling 2011's Skyward Sword, i.e. a game that is most definitely not in high-definition (not even remotely); a game that is so far behind the damn times tech-wise that it's practically archaic (it looks like a game that the characters in Modern Warfare 3 would point and laugh at); a game that, despite these woeful shortcomings, features as much heart as, if not more heart, than any game released this year.

So find a way to play it. Find a way to cope with the control scheme. Find a way to get through those opening 10 hours, even if you have to hire a neighbor kid to do it for you. Because there are things in this game, bona fide wonders, that every gamer has to see.

04 November 2011

Dear Games: Please Stop Trying To Be Movies. Your Friend, Scott

Last Thursday afternoon I sat on a panel at the Merging Media conference here in Vancouver titled, "A Tale of Two Worlds: When Film/TV-Game Worlds Collide." Fellow panelists included the current narrative director for the Halo franchise (Armando Troisi); the script writer for Steven Spielberg's Big, Vague, Not-Boomblox Videogame Project from a couple years back (Adam Sigel); the writer for the Avatar and Lost videogame adaptations (John Meadows); a guy who is currently making an MMO based on the Family Guy series (Ian Verchere); and a woman from New York who specializes in something called "transmedia" (Caitlin Burns). "Transmedia" was only the second most overused buzzword at the conference. "Gamification" was the first.

Talking with these fine people got me thinking about the role that stories play in videogames these days. Though more energy, effort and money is being spent on professional writers, producers, and motion-capture/facial-capture technology than at any point in videogame history, the stories that games tell, or at least are attempting to tell, somehow seem to matter less all the time. Case in point: put a gun to my head and ask me to recount the plot points for the following three titles and here's what I would likely tell you:

Gears of War 3: I killed a bunch of guys, then more guys showed up. These new guys were glowing, and I killed them, too. Then Baird said something stupid. Then Marcus takes off his doo-rag and reveals that he is, in fact, not balding at all. Then he stares remorsefully out at the ocean, apparently reflecting on all the Regular Guys and Glowing Guys that he killed. THE END.

Battlefield 3: I went to some vague Middle Eastern country/hot zone and killed a bunch of bad guys, then I went someplace else. I flew in a jet, and there were some nuclear weapons involved at one point. I had a few side objectives now and then, but for the most part I shot at the people who were shooting at me and/or wearing ski masks--anyone wearing a ski mask must be killed on sight!--and I continued to shoot at them until they stopped shooting at me. THE END.

Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception: Nathan Drake and his elderly, cologne-wearing gentleman companion go on a globe-trotting adventure to find treasures, and along the way, villains show up, because they want the treasures, too. Then Chloe, the sexy one with the dark hair, blue eyes and man's voice from the last game, shows up, which makes the game interesting for awhile. But then she goes away, which is sad. Then that milquetoast Elena shows up. Goddamn it, Elena, go back to buying old issues of Good Housekeeping off eBay or whatever it is that you do when you're not starring in/ruining an Uncharted game. Then I ran away from the same skittering spider horde about 42 times. I shot a bunch of bad guys, and near the end some Special Bad Guys with fire instead of heads (!) show up, and I shot them too. THE END.

The narrative thread common to all three games is this: I shot a bunch of bad guys. Which, after fifty years, is somehow the one story that videogames can tell really, really well. In fact, someone should make a game titled, I Shot A Bunch of Bad Guys. That might move the needle a bit. Digression: I also would like someone to make games called Exploding Barrels (self-explanatory), Cutscene (nothing but cutscenes), and H.U.D. (the head's-up display is so intrusive that it occupies no less than 100-percent of the screen at all times). Because the only way that we're ever going to get past these crutches is by exploding them. Digression two: Exploding Crutches would be a terrific name for an iPhone game. Someone please make it.

A cutscene was once revered as a rare, hard-earned treat. It was the apple pie at the end of the steak dinner, served to gamers for putting in the time and for playing well. I remember sinking entire nights into Street Fighter II (SNES) in my tiny apartment in Chicago in the early '90's, all in the name of achieving the game's "perfect ending." (See it here, along with an incredibly tense final two rounds between Ryu and M. Bison.) In order to achieve this ending, one had to finish the game on level eight--the greatest level of them all--without losing a single round. No small task, I assure you. Yet I did it. My reward? A static group snapshot of the game's roster of characters peering out at me from my 19-inch TV screen. Sprawled across the screen was the word "CONGRATULATIONS" followed by an exclamation point, which appeared to have been typed out by a bleary-eyed programmer only seconds before the game shipped.

No doubt I shuddered with jizz-blowing joy when I finally saw this screen. I probably envisioned myself among that group of elite fighters, thinking, Yes, friends, we have waged many battles since Thursday, or perhaps Wednesday. But in the end, once a champion has emerged (me), after everything is said and done, we shall always respect one another as warriors....

It's funny to me now to remember a time when I would have worked so damn hard for a photo of a bunch of characters, a word, and a piece of punctuation. 

But I did.

Not all that long ago--maybe two, three years ago--whenever I would trigger a cutscene in a game, I would put down the controller, sit back, and really soak it in. I would think, So that's what happened after I shot all those guys. I ran that way and exchanged lines of terrible/inane dialogue with a non-playable character. Ha, ha! I once chastised a fellow gamer after he confessed to being a chronic cutscene-skipper. "Without the story, without context, you're not doing anything other than pressing some buttons!" I said excitedly, waving my arms in his direction like a crazy person. He wasn't convinced.

Yet now, every cutscene in every game has somehow become little more than an opportunity for me to check email or scan Twitter. It's true. No matter how brief or pithy it is, no matter how many best-selling science fiction writers were hired to punch up the dialogue, or how cutting-edge the facial-capture technology is (Heavy Rain featured a record 7.6 different kinds of frowns), watching a cutscene almost always results in me waking up on my couch half an hour later feeling as if Dexter Morgan has chloroformed me. Even the cutscenes in Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception, which purports to be the ultimate realization of cinematic videogame experiences (remember these commercials?), seem to somehow matter less--far less--than the cutscenes did in Uncharted 2.

So what has changed over the last couple years? Why is it so damn easy for me to ignore this stuff?

Maybe I'm playing too many games these days. Which is a possibility, because right now I am consuming an almost inhuman amount of content each week. Or, maybe I'm simply tired of having my supposedly interactive experiences abruptly turned into one-way streets. Or, maybe it's the superfluous nature of cutscenes, i.e. watching Marcus Fenix stare out at the ocean matters less, or feels less purposeful, than shooting at the Glowing Guys. No matter what it is, relying on cutscenes to do the heavy lifting when it comes to telling your game's story feels old and lazy to me. Games--and I talked about this during the panel last week--need to stop trying so damn hard to ape film and television all the time. The goal should not be to make a game look or feel more like a movie; the goal should be to figure out what games can do that no other medium can.

Games have gotten into the habit of telling us things instead of showing us things. They explain away whatever mystery they might have had. Nothing is ever subtle, or left to the imagination anymore. Every game tries to out-cutscene the game that came before it--we need more dialogue! more motion-capture! someone turn the money hose back on!--and the result is a kind of cutscene arms race which can only lead to a wasteland populated by legions of blank-eyed, Twitter-checking gamers.

Gamers are among the smartest, most imaginative people I know. All we ask for, all we need is a little narrative nudge. We can fill in the blanks for ourselves. Trust me, Game Developers, we can handle it. We're glad to do it. 

I recently played a game titled Kirby's Return to Dreamland for the Wii. One particularly memorable moment involved me defeating an enemy by--get this--sucking a second enemy into my mouth (press the 1 button) and blowing him at said enemy. (I know!) After doing this, a star-shaped hole suddenly opened up in the center of the screen for no apparent reason. I thought, Why not? and I jumped into the hole.

The star-shaped suck-hole (another great name for an iPhone game: Star-shaped Suck-hole) transported me to another "land" where an encroaching purple cloud threatened to kill me. Question: How did I know that the cloud would kill me? Answer: It was a particularly evil shade of purple. I ran/waddled away from the purple cloud, navigating obstacles and using my suck-blow attacks on enemies as quickly as I could, attempting to always stay a few steps ahead of what I was sure would be my doom.

No, none of this makes any sense whatsoever. 

Yet there is a self-evident logic inherent to the experience. The game creates its own unique visual language; it has its own set of  surrealist rules (example: purple clouds are bad). It has a tangible sense of discovery and wonder. Best of all, it evokes a specific feeling--the feeling one gets when something shouldn't make sense, and yet, against all odds, somehow does--that is, to my mind, far more powerful and exciting than even the mightiest of mo-capped Hollywood-grade cutscenes.

So exactly what kind of narrative is this? I'll tell you what kind: it's the kind of narrative that games can do, and should do, more often.