Baseball Toaster Western Homes
Monthly archives: December 2007


DVD's I Got for Christmas
2007-12-31 16:11
by Mark T.R. Donohue

300 I liked this movie a lot more than I thought I would. After Sin City, I assumed that the question of the comic book adaptation had been settled -- yes, you can make a shot-by-shot remake of a graphic novel if you want to, but there's really no reason that you should. 300 director Zack Snyder achieves a two-things-at-once feel in his film that Robert Rodriguez entirely missed in his; there are scenes where the dialogue being quite seriously spouted by the actors is completely at odds with the visual composition of the shots, and that's the point. 300 works as a film, while Sin City didn't, because the choice is entirely up to the viewer which "version" to pay attention to; you can look at the visuals (which tell the story quite elegantly) or you can tune out the CGI and watch the acting, which is as good as it could be. In fact 300's low budget (relative to other blockbuster action films) is a huge part of its charm. It feels often like a high-school theater version of a much bigger work -- the 300 look more like 15, and there's basically only five speaking roles of any import. After the pointless Sin City and the dreadful Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow I was worried about the future of all-digital film, but obviously there's a whole new group of young auteurs coming up now to whom the style makes perfect sense. 300 isn't a great movie but it definitely stands as a small landmark. It's quite obviously green-screened throughout, but is the first of that sort of movie I've seen where that wasn't the first, foremost, and only reason to even see the picture.

The Simpsons Movie I didn't hate it, but I felt strongly afterwards that it didn't need to be. Unlike the "South Park" film, which came out at the exact right point in that show's life cycle and really elevated both Matt Stone and Trey Parker's ideas of what they were capable of and what the country would allow them to get away with, there isn't anything left to be added to the legacy of "The Simpsons" as a TV series. The movie simply exists. There was money to be made, and so it was, but on the whole the Movie feels like a tired, nothing-added souvenir of a cultural phenomenon well past its peak. Exactly like the "X-Files" movie, come to think of it. It would be nice if we lived in a society where the people who owned "The Simpsons" respected their property enough to just leave it be. In every sense the perfect half-hour sitcom, why take the best-evolved freshwater fish in existence and toss it into deep salt water?

The War I meant to write a piece when it originally aired in September about how important and wonderful Ken Burns' The War is, but I didn't then. Now I'm really not going to give it the time it deserves, because I still feel like I've barely scratched the surface having watched it twice through on DVD. Instead of trying to speak to the film, I'm going to share something I've long thought that hopefully will impress upon you the importance of understanding our history enough that you'll make the time commitment to get through this massive work at least once. I suspect that the United States is presently under the control of men who are old enough to remember the pride, unity, and nobility of the WWII era without necessarily having any real sense of its human costs. The neocons are so consumed by the idea of a "just war" that they'll quite gladly throw out truth, democracy, due process, and much else in the pursuit of framing our various current military exploits in a far more flattering light than they deserve. The War, quite eloquently, puts paid to the idea of a "good" war. It has a lot of other significant things to say about race, class, gender, culture, and nationality, but more than anything else, what is unforgettable about it is the haunted look still in the eyes of men who lost the better part of themselves to a necessary conflict.

So Much for Video Game "Journalism"
2007-12-07 04:25
by Mark T.R. Donohue

About a year ago, when Western Homes was in its awkward infancy, I wrote a meandering piece about the barriers to entry in the video game journalism business. At the time the piece was intended to serve as an excuse, going forward, for reviews of games that weren't particularly new to the market that I was theoretically going to be writing in due time. As it turns out, I've barely touched the video game scene on this page.

Why is that? Well, I haven't stopped gaming, but the function that the hobby serves for me has inverted from what it was when I was younger. I used to play pretty much exclusively single-player games, geeking out on them to a degree that would seem excessive to the unitiated -- spending 80 to 100 hours maxing out the stats of my party members in role-playing games, or playing through 20 or 30 full seasons in the franchise modes of sports titles. When I was in high school or later on in my nightmarish postcollegiate cubicle job, gaming was the precise opposite of all the awful interactions with non-simulated people through which I had to suffer each day. Nowadays, when I'm alone I'm pretty much either working, practicing an instrument, or sleeping; video games are something I do almost exclusively socially. On the rare occasion that I set aside some time in the evening to play games when I don't have company, it's because I'm signing on to XBox Live to reconnect with a friend living elsewhere in the country. What games are played, who wins, and whether every last mode, camera angle, hidden unlockable bonus character, and cheat code are exploited is completely immaterial. I haven't gotten 100% completion in a game in ages, and I've finally reached the point where this doesn't eat away at my self-esteem as a human being. (Were my 17-year-old self to fall through a time warp and read that sentence, he would likely think I had either been brainwashed or replaced by a replicant.)

Anyone who's gamed even a little must recognize the difference between the single-player experience and the divided focus involved in playing with your friends. Truth is for most of the titles I have stacked on the entertainment unit at this particular moment I've never gone much deeper than the multiplayer quickplay mode. And that's fine -- they're products I paid for, and I can choose to use them however I like (even if it makes no sense, like how my weird friend Ken insisted on watching through all of the special features on the Bender's Big Score DVD, including the tedious "science lecture" and the entire "Everybody Loves Hypnotoad" episode," before watching the film proper). However, in the same manner that I would never write a review of a book I didn't finish, a CD to which I only listened once, or a film of which I missed the first fifteen minutes, I don't think it's fair to critique games that I've only ever engaged on a relatively shallow level.

So I haven't done any video game writing at all in the past year, for that reason and also for the reason I alluded to in that old essay -- I don't really stand to benefit any. While people have come across my blogs and offered me work doing music writing, television criticism, book reviews, and (rather to my surprise) political analysis, no one has come forth offering to pay me to write about video games, and even if I dedicated three meticulously constructed posts a week to the subject, I highly doubt that anyone would.

The keepers of the keys to the video game "journalism" world are in fact the marketing departments of the very publishing companies producing the products that game magazine and website writers are supposed to be critiquing objectively. This is something that's been quietly understood in the community for several years now, but overdue outrage has finally bubbled forth this week as one publisher finally went too far -- or, more accurately, one publisher finally got caught going too far.

If you follow the electronic gaming business at all, you're probably aware that a variety of factors have led to this holiday season arriving as a perfect storm of frantic competition between the major game companies. For arguably the first time since the early 80's, there are three consoles with legitimate designs on the title of industry leader. This puts pressure on publishers to deliver three versions of every game, which with the wildly divergent engineering and control systems of the Nintendo Wii, XBox 360, and Playstation 3 is rendered almost as complex as making three entirely distinct pieces of software. With Halo 3 bowing earlier this year and Grand Theft Auto IV delayed into 2008, no surefire hits were scheduled for this November. Game companies have invested very many millions of dollars in expensive, AAA cross-platform titles featuring entirely new intellectual properties. Not all of them will succeed. Some people are going to get extremely rich, and others will lose their jobs, and it's as unclear as it has ever been in the industry who falls into which column.

It's important to understand just how much pressure is on the marketers of these games -- otherwise the outright despicable behavior of Eidos Interactive, publishers of the new action/adventure title Kane & Lynch: Dead Men, seems as ridiculous as the Patriots needing to cheat to win football games. After investing some $100,000 (possibly much more) in advertising for their big holiday release on the popular news and review site GameSpot, Eidos was apparently quite displeased with the 6.0-scored review written by editorial director Jeff Gerstmann. Gerstmann called the game "ugly" and described the control scheme as unworthy for such a high-profile title. In about as much time as it takes to say "There goes the last shred of credibility the entire game journalism community had," Gerstmann was fired.

It's not entirely clear whether the immediate agent of Gerstmann's summary dismissal was Eidos itself or the advertising department at GameSpot -- but of course, with so much of the site's revenue flowing from that one single source, the two amount to the same thing. I'm no muckraker and don't have any particular interest in doing the Williams/Fainaru-Wada thing and tracking down the precise ballistics of the smoking gun, so let me give you a couple of quick links and then we'll move on to the larger point I wish to draw from this debacle.

The first thing that you should read is N'Gai Croal's marvelous reflection on the scandal for; Croal approaches the problem from many different and thought-provoking angles. Ultimately, though, he arrives at a somewhat pessimistic and vaguely self-serving conclusion: the "enthusiast press" will forever be compromised, and only game writers working for mainstream media outlets can be trusted. Of course, that is precisely what Croal is. A nice bit of detective work at reveals a number of fundamental changes made to the original Gerstmann piece shortly after the writer's firing. And it would be remiss not to mention the savagely funny Penny Arcade strip that brought this whole story to my attention in the first place.

A video review removed from GameSpot but preserved (of course) on YouTube was of particular interest to me -- even within the confines of the brief running time, Gerstmann immediately stands out as a particular kind of gamer than others of the breed will recognize immediately. The dude is old-school -- he doesn't seem to care one whit about full-motion video or Hollywood-quality voice acting. When he's allowed to speak in his own voice, it's easy to detect what his biases are. He didn't like the game because it didn't control as smoothly as Ninja Gaiden and the graphics weren't as flawless as BioShock's. People who play games with different priorities could easily watch this review and come away from it thinking that the game's premise and characters looked cool and they could deal with some subpar controls and a few dropped frames from the graphics engine.

I didn't really have any interest in playing Kane & Lynch, before or after this news broke, but I don't like shooters in general, and I can easily think of an alternate example that I'm playing right now -- The Simpsons Game. The reviews for that title were generally lukewarm, noting that the gameplay was pretty shaky but the writing and visual style were solid. I bought the game with that in mind, and although the imprecise jumping and the PS1-level stupidity of the hovering camera have hampered my good time a little bit, for the most part playing through the best simulation yet of an interactive "Simpsons" episode has been totally worth the time and money I've spent on it. Likewise, every review I read of Guitar Hero III for the XBox 360 said that the new Les Paul-shaped controller ate the lunch of the old X-Plorer one that came with GHII. You know what? I've played them both, and I like the X-Plorer. Critics are not gods. If I was a big fan of the successful Hitman series, which has very similar pros and cons to those attributed to Kane & Lynch, I would probably go ahead and get the game even based on Gerstmann's pan job.

So let's go back again to that piece I wrote last year for a second:

The true sign of a good critic to me is not unlike that of a good artist: a defined aesthetic. Sometimes [Roger] Ebert can utterly pan a movie but I can come away from reading his review with a pretty good feeling that I will enjoy it. It's for this very same reason that I trust the Penny Arcade guys' opinions the most when I am on the fence about what game to get.... I know what they like. I know what we have in common and where we disagree. When they rave about a sleeper game like Apex or Katamari Damacy and I go out on a limb and buy it, I am seldom if ever disappointed. Isn't the ultimate function of the critic to represent to you whether or not your money will be well-spent on whichever entertainment product it is in which they are theoretically expert?

Gerstmann, although I was not familiar with his work before he became a martyr, seems to fit this description. His success and popularity (message board geeks are outraged out of all proportion to reality, perhaps worse than I've seen since all those people who became Rockies fans on September 19th of this year went on the Denver Post boards a month later to bitch and moan about how the franchise screwed them out of the World Series tickets that they as diehard thick-and-thin supporters were entitled to) stemmed from the fact that he was one of the very few guys in the whole business who didn't use the gutless mediated language of most game criticism. Ironically, and brutally, GameSpot management is now using this very rationale to build a flimsy case that Gerstmann wasn't fired just for the Kane & Lynch piece but rather for an ongoing problem with "tone." Isn't "tone" just marketingspeak for "style?" If Gerstmann wanted to set himself up as the Stephen A. Smith of game reviewing, shouldn't his employer's response have been "more power to you?"

Well, no, because ultimately as Croal writes the publishers, and the console manufacturers, and even the guys over in ad sales, have no respect for game writers and they never have. And, honestly, I have to ask myself -- why should they? Just look at this wishy-washy response to the controversy from one of the parade o' hacks over at GameSpy. There couldn't possibly be a clearer divide in the online responses to this situation. The non-moneymaking, lo-fi fan sites are digging for the facts and sounding the trumpets, and the big guys -- IGN, GameSpy, GameSpot itself -- are sticking to their stories the way Bush stuck to that WMD bill of sale. "Our responsibility is to our readers and nobody else and we attempt to act in your interests by asking the questions that we think you want asked and posting the information that will benefit you," writes Gabe Graziani. You're a lying weasel, writes Mark T.R. Donohue.

I danced around the issue a little more delicately the last time this topic came up, but the gloves are off now. Video game "writers," you should all be ashamed of yourself. You allowed this to happen by making guys with style and verve and a distinct viewpoint the exception rather than the rule. You started letting marketing departments write your preview copy for you. You've completely confirmed my worst suspicions about the vast majority of people working for game sites and game magazines -- that they're all a bunch of maladjusted obsessive losers who were too lazy or stupid to hack it as programmers and now do what they do just so they can play video games all the time, not caring a whit about the quality of their writing or their integrity as journalists.

You know, it's almost enough to leave the whole hobby behind, only... well, Psychonauts is coming out for XBox Live Arcade this month, and Mass Effect is supposed to be rad. My goodness, it's like the Sosa-McGwire home run chase all over again.

The "Futurama" Movie: New Problems for a (Sort of) New Format
2007-12-05 10:11
by Mark T.R. Donohue

The research department, with whom I first viewed Bender's Big Score a week ago Tuesday, said in no uncertain terms that he'd never been as excited for a new DVD as for this one, the first of four planned straight-to-DVD feature-length movies reuniting the creative staff and the voice actors of the late Fox sci-fi cartoon sitcom "Futurama." It's worth keeping in mind that this is an individual who has every available season of "Degrassi High," "Degrassi: The Next Generation," and "The Kids of Degrassi Street" in his collection. Coming from his lips, the superlative drips with portent.

So it's interesting -- or maybe it's to be expected -- that while on first viewing with the biggest "Futurama" fan I know we both were rather disappointed with the new movie, after several reairings with more casual fans, I've reached the conclusion that Bender's Big Score is really funnier the less "Futurama" experience you have. That's a little surprising considering the out-of-control level of fan service the picture tries to cram in -- every tertiary, one-off character from the show's five seasons seems to drift through at some point or another, from Elzar to the Robot Mafia to Scruffy the Janitor. I guess it's a tribute to the writing that despite the high amount of intertextuality all of these random cameos still get laughs out of the uninitiated. Or maybe it's something that I as an obsessive devourer of genre television seldom get to experience -- something that's just purely from-the-gut funny but goes under the head of the diehard because he's too busy trying to remember precisely where the character or joke previously appeared.

Which is all well and good, but you can't put the shaving cream back into the can, and I still have to approach Bender's Big Score as a fan who's viewed and absorbed the four DVD volumes to the point where the R.D. and I can communicate entirely in snippets of "Futurama" dialogue. I also think that the straight-to-DVD television sequel is something that we're going to see a lot more of in the future, and it's certainly not too early to make bold pronouncements about the specific peculiarities of this new genre. After all, we've got the "Family Guy" spinoff Stewie Griffin: The Untold Story, and now we've got Bender's Big Score, and that's two, which is a trend.

The obvious problem that both the "Family Guy" and "Futurama" "movies" have had to face is that the content contained within has to serve a dual function. The content has to be both enjoyable and watchable as a single-serving, feature-length movie and as a multi-part sequence of half-hour television episodes. For "Family Guy," the seams were a little more obvious, as the episodes sewn together for Stewie Griffin were originally intended as just three more installments for the show's comeback fourth season. Fox smelled profit in the air and rushed the episodes into production for a quickie DVD which came out with scant interstitial material and unbleeped swears -- a way, in short, to fool fans into buying three separate SKU's for one season's worth of material (two volumes of the standalone episodes plus the "movie"). The "Futurama" movie has a somewhat less base background. Originally conceived as a way to both make money and meet fan demand, when Matt Groening and his creative team got the go-ahead to make four new films, they were really supposed to be movies -- television re-airings were a secondary concern. But a funny thing happened. Actually, "Family Guy" happened, with its relaunch not only winning solid ratings for Fox but also (and more importantly) giving the network the chance to make huge profits off the sale of further DVD sets. So not only are these four movies being made (well, I guess they've already been made, the long lead times involved in animation make getting tenses precisely right here kind of tricky), but Comedy Central has commissioned thirteen additional episodes to run next year.

The fact that there's going to be a network home for new "Futurama," I suppose, motivated the creative team to shift the master plan for the movies into more of an episodic framework. Bender's Big Score, because it was the first of the lot, suffers from a lot of confusion in this regard. It tends to speed up and slow down every twenty minutes, as the logic of a 22-minute sitcom is imposed late in the writing process. Even the title, which was decided on long before the writing was complete, doesn't really make a lot of sense -- in the commentary track, Groening and David Cohen discuss how the titular "big score" was actually dropped from the script midway through animation because the plot had already grown complicated enough. And there's a lot of other problems with the film as a whole -- dull, irritating villains that grow tiresome less than halfway in, a plot twist that's too easy to figure out and makes the savvy genre viewer mountingly impatient for the last two-thirds, important characters that go missing for long, dull flashbacks that most viewers will already have foreseen -- that are the inevitable fallout of a show that never made even a two-part episode during its original run suddenly switching to what in effect is a four-show serial.

What was initially brilliant about "Futurama" -- and indeed, why for a lot of folks including myself it immediately supplanted "The Simpsons" as the authority among cartoon sitcoms -- is that science fiction is a genre that lends itself beautifully to short-form storytelling, from "The Lady, or The Tiger?" to "The Twilight Zone." Because so many of the devices of science fiction are intimately familiar to the "Star Trek" types who adopted "Futurama" with such fury, the show was able to quickly develop a shorthand where complicated metaphysical ideas flew by at the same speed the gags do on "The Simpsons." That also logically insisted that "Futurama," plotwise, had to be pretty predictable most of the time -- since the great beats of science fiction literature were being parodied, most of the audience for whom the show was intended was going to know the endings well ahead of time. That's not a big deal for a 22-minute sitcom, but it kind of smashes the momentum of a 90-minute movie. About thirty minutes into Bender's Big Score, I knew I had figured out the twist. If it was a regular episode, big deal, it would be over already. But rather I had to sit there feeling as if my intelligence was being increasingly insulted as the storytelling went painstakingly through every step of a time-travel process of which I had already intuited the full workings. I guess that would be fine if the laughs didn't flag, but they do, and after a certain point all of the fan-service cameos become overkill -- don't put Bubblegum Tate in a "Futurama" episode unless you're going to give him something cool to do!

So viewing the movie for the first time from an obsessive fan's perspective, I couldn't help but be let down. That's the problem with obsessives, we're just never satisfied. I bought the two-disc special edition of Superbad yesterday and even though it came with stickers -- rad little Michael Ceras and Seth Rogens in action poses! -- I still couldn't help but feel let down that it only took me the better part of an afternoon to zip through all of the added content, commentaries, and deleted scenes. There's no such thing as enough for an obsessive. I'm glad that I took the time to show Bender's Big Score to some other friends, ranging from people who had caught a couple of reruns on Adult Swim to people who had borrowed the season sets from me and watched through them once. Backing down from true fanhood, it's easier to appreciate how challenging it must have been to find the characters' voices after two years off and how much of a task it must have been to do this while conceiving and writing a story four times more ambitious than any the writers had ever tackled before. Bender's Big Score works, it has a solid emotional arc and the rules of causality seem to be more or less adhered to for time travel yarn standards -- the thing holds together a hell of a lot better than Back to the Future Part II, is all I'm saying.

And it's highly likely that the next three movies will be far more satisfying, if only because the expectations will have been adjusted to a more reasonable level by the time they begin to roll out. It's the fifth volume of "Futurama" the series, which we probably won't see until 2009, that I really can't wait to own. Since the movies are the direct agent of that dream becoming a reality, I must wholeheartedly support them, even if the longer format doesn't particularly lend itself to the "Futurama" style.