Bad Taste

I really like Iron Man 2. This is not a popular opinion; the movie is usually listed near the bottom of MCU movie rankings, especially when held up against its predecessor.

But I really like it all the same. I suppose there’s no accounting for bad taste.

Perhaps there’s some explanation for my deep affection for this much-maligned movie when the context with which I first saw the film is taken into account. The summer of 2010 saw my heart acting up with the symptoms of something potentially dire, but without any clear cause. This period of uncertainty was less than fun, to put it mildly, so a movie where the protagonist was dealing with his own chest-related issues struck a very personal cord. I’m fully aware of the film’s flaws, but my opinions of Iron Man 2 will forever be tied up with the circumstances when I first saw it.

I go on and on on this blog about how art is a two-way street, about how the viewer/reader/player affects the work almost as much as the creator. What one brings to the table inherently changes the final effect of the piece. My own medical issues, for example, have had drastic effects on my opinion of Iron Man 2.

In light of that, it’s hard to really provide a framework with which to declare a movie the best. Something I love may not work for you, and vice versa. I found Never Let Me Go to be profoundly moving, but I’m sure there’s someone out there who’d call it melodramatic schlock, just as there are people who loved 50/50 while I found it somewhat hollow. I still love (500) Days Of Summer, but what I like about has changed as I’ve gotten older (and hopefully wiser).

Take the ending to The Last of Us. Without getting too much into it (because even six years on, talking about the ending still feels taboo), Joel has decided that there’s something that Ellie shouldn’t do and he’s going to do whatever it takes to ensure no harm befalls the teenage girl who’s become like a daughter to him. It’s a rampage, against a faction we’d been led to believe were heroic, culminating in the player – as Joel – shooting an unarmed man. Naturally, its response has proven it divisive. In the ensuing discussion, however, it became clear that players who had children of their own were more likely to sympathize with Joel’s choice than non-parents. The player’s own personal life informs their response to the narrative.

So is it a bad ending? I certainly read some criticisms of it, just as I read praises. While I’d say that it is empirically good, I do have to wonder if describing something empirically is even possible. There’s little doubt that it’s well-crafted and, I’d say, well-earned. But that doesn’t mean you have to like it; and it doesn’t matter how good it is, if you don’t like it you don’t like it.

As I said, there’s no accounting for bad taste.

I think we’re too hard on people who like stuff that’s not considered good, that there are too many pleasures we consider guilty. I’m sure we’ve all stories in one form or another that seem childish or shallow now, but once upon a time meant the world to you. I will forever have a soft spot for Lewis Carrol’s “Jabberwocky” and John Betjemen’s “False Security” since they were among my introduction to poetry, and two I took a real shine to years and years ago. Henry V is my favorite Shakespeare play, not because of the St. Crispin’s Day Speech or really any merit of itself, but because it was the first of his plays that I really dig into sixteen-odd years ago. Pretentious as it is, I want to say that Ulysses by James Joyce is my favorite book, not out of an adoration for obtuse literature, but from the delight of classes spent examining the book and finding meaning and, with all of that, falling in love with the work. I’m sure had I read it under other circumstances I would have dismissed it as being overwrought nonsense.

Secondhand Lions has a middling score on Rotten Tomatoes, but I absolutely love the movie all the same. I know that Army of Two: The Devil’s Cartel is far from a really great game, but it’s an absolute delight to play on the weekend with your brother and a couple beers. I don’t care what you think, Toto’s “Africa” is an absolutely stellar piece of music.

Maybe I’m too hard on people. I think Batman v Superman is an absolute mess, but y’know what, if you like it, good for you. We can talk until the sky falls about what’s a good piece of art and what’s not, but I think we’re kinda missing the forest for the trees. So long as the story made you feel something and isn’t hurting anyone else, where’s the harm in liking it? I enjoy watching bad movies, I love playing excellent games, and I’ll gladly go to bat for Iron Man 2.

After all, there really is no accounting for bad taste.

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Obsolescence

I have a floppy disk lying around somewhere with stuff on it I must have written when I was around eight or ten years old. I don’t know exactly what’s on it and I’m not sure where it is at any given moment; it’s one of those things that I’ll happen on occasion and think to myself “hey, I should get the files off of this some time.”

Of course, there is the whole issue of finding a floppy disk reader. My laptop doesn’t even have a CD drive anymore and what once seemed so standard a feature on computers has become quite rare. I’m sure that with a measure of effort I could find somewhere that would transfer the files for me, but that would require forethought (and actually knowing where that disk is).

I’m kinda sure modern software still supports opening Word docs saved in a format twenty years old, but if it doesn’t there’s yet another hurdle. Tech has moved on enough as to make some stuff inaccessible.

Take Flash games and videos, for instance, the hallmark of my adolescence. As the internet develops, it’s shied away from the format to the point that some browsers no longer support it. In light of that, some websites have shut down (pour one out for YTMND) and with it has gone years of content, unlikely to be seen again. Granted, some of these do live on as recorded videos and what not, but it’s not quite the same. You can still watch Harry Potter Puppet Pals on YouTube, but you can’t click on a certain frame during Trouble at Hogwarts to watch a hidden short about Ron bothering some butterflies. Sure, there’s a recording of it on YouTube too, but that little hint of interactivity, that secret easter egg that you could find and tell your friends about, isn’t there. Should Flash fall further into disuse (with a planned end slated for 2020), it’ll only be a matter of time until you need an older machine to watch an older video.

But what about when that old content is no longer there? Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Game is a wonderful game: an old school side-scrolling beat-’em-up based on the eponymous movie, its pixel art graphics and local four-player support made it a staple of my PS3 library. Then the game’s license with publisher Ubisoft expired and the game was removed from the PSN Store and Xbox Live Arcade and it could no longer be bought or downloaded. Just like that, it’s gone. I might have it on my PS3, but it’s not something I could recommend to a friend to get, nor can I grab any DLC I might have missed. Barring a rerelease of some sort, anyone in the future looking to have the game, well, can’t. So if someone’s trying to create an archive of side-scrolling beat-’em-ups or games based on movies based on a comic inspired by games, they’re out of luck.

This sort of digital obsolescence is an actual concern of digital archivists. Consider any game designed for the Vectrex, a console I adore if only for how idiosyncratic it is. The game Minestorm, a knock-off of Asteroids designed explicitly for it, mayn’t have much that sets it apart from its ‘inspiration.’ The Vectrex, however, allows for vector graphics that create a particularly brilliant display of the game (which is actually just like the arcade cabinet of Asteroids). You can emulate the game and console all you want, but that particular experience is gone lest you can get your hands on a vector display.  How do you preserve something when you lack the hardware to do so?

I mentioned last week that I’d always have the old stuff to go back to, but sometimes that’s sadly not true. Ms. Pac-Man just isn’t the same without that arcade stick, and Asteroids without the vector graphics is a lesser game. Maybe the lesson here is to be present and enjoy stuff when you can.

Or maybe it’s to get your files off the damn floppy disk.

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They Changed it And That’s Okay

The band Barcelona enthralled me with their first album, Absolutes, with its soaring melancholic piano-driven sound paired with some soulful songwriting. It was a shock to the system when their sophomore album, Not Quite Yours, instead featured a more rhythm-focused sound and the piano relegated to support in many songs. Their third, Basic Man, sounds even less alt-rock; it’s an album full of mellow synthy grooves. Each of their albums sounds wildly different, which is a bit of a bummer if you’re looking for, say, a follow-up to Absolutes.

I once heard it said that if you wished a band sounded more like their older albums, then you should go listen to their older albums. I was resistant to that idea at first; part of why I get into any musical artist is because I like what I’ve heard; why can’t they keep to what works? Over time, though, I’ve come to appreciate this sort of sonic shifting. Five Score and Seven Years Ago is a radically different album from Relient K’s prior Mmhmm, but it was instrumental in the band’s growth that brought them to Forget and Not Slow Down, their best album. Change, as it happens, is a necessity for an act to evolve. Run River North has dispensed with the violins that helped make their debut album so singular, but their DNA is still all over their latest Monsters Calling Home, Vol. 1 and there’s little doubt their music is still outstanding. Plus, moving away from the violins has led to new renditions of old songs performed live on tour that are at once wholly unlike from and utterly recognizable as the studio recorded songs.

Consider this ethos in the context of video games. Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune is a fantastic game that Uncharted 2: Among Thieves improves on which is ultimately perfected in Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End. Fundamentally, all three games are very similar to each other, though there are naturally the differences that come with any sequel. Consider this not unlike U2’s Boy, October, and War; three albums that feature very similar sounds. If you liked War you will probably also really like Boy; if you liked Among Thieves, then A Thief’s End will be right up your alley.

But then some game series like to really shake things up. Though Metal Gear Solid 2 features much of the same features of Metal Gear Solid, the sequel exchanges Solid Snake for Raiden, already a marked difference. Where the first game is something of a power trip, the second is not at all shy about critiquing that power fantasy. Mechanically, it is the next step from the original, but the game makes you question it all and so the game feels quite different. MGS 3 takes away the industrial settings of the prior games and throws you in the Soviet jungle. Gone too is your Soliton Radar: it’s the Cold War and you have to rely on a rudimentary sonar and your wiles to stay hidden. The fourth game upends the weapon system; no longer do you rummage guns from the battlefield; now you can order them through a mobile store. Also, you’re playing as an old man who gets episodes of PTSD if he kills too many people.

All of these variations make some pretty major changes to how you play the game. The focus on camouflage in the third game forces the player to adopt a slower pace throughout the game: without your soliton you really need to keep an eye on where enemy soldiers are rather than hiding in a box and checking your minimap. The new weapon system in 4 gives you more options for engagements: I used a silenced sniper rifle to carve a stealthy, deadly path behind enemy lines.

The next game, Peace Walker, has bite-size missions befitting its publishing on Sony’s portable PSP. Choosing limited loadouts for each mission is a different flavor of strategizing from what’s come before; maybe this mission you’ll shoot your way through, maybe on this one you’ll be sneaky. I was very hesitant about Metal Gear Solid V and its open-world. Up to now, the MGS games have been very linear experiences — all the better to weave its crazy stories. An open world would change all that, right? Turned out that yes, it was wildly different, but it was also a ridiculous amount of fun applying the game’s stealth mechanics to a different setting. It felt like a totally different game, and yet unquestioningly Metal Gear, like how U2’s War, Joshua Tree, and Achtung Baby are all very different albums, yet still the same band. Sure, I was disappointed that I didn’t get to play as Solid Snake anymore after the first Metal Gear Solid (Old Snake in 4 is very different); but I can go back to MGS1 for that if I want that, just as I can always put on “Like A Song” if I need a change of pace after listening to Joshua Tree.

What defines an artistic work, be it a game series or musical artist, is an intriguing question. There are some cases where wildly different projects aren’t really seen as an issue (think directors, actors, writers), but others where it is a big deal (Revenge of the Sith, A New Hope, and The Last Jedi are very different Star Wars movies and some folk ain’t happy about that). While more of the same isn’t often a bad thing — I love how Uncharted 4 perfected the series, there’s always something exciting about seeing a work redefine itself, as in Metal Gear Solid V, The Last Jedi, or Run River’s North latest EP.

And besides, if I have a hankering for the older stuff, it’s all still there if I want it.

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The Wickiness

John Wick has a delightfully simple premise: Retired assassin lives okay life. Punk kid steals retired assassin’s car and kills his puppy (that was given to him by his recently deceased wife). Retired assassin un-retires and goes on a  brutal rampage of revenge.

Simple, effective.

And honestly, when so many action movies are trying to be super smart with overly complex plots and schemes, “dude gets revenge for dead dog” is wonderfully simple. It harkens back to classic action movies like Die Hard, Predator, or even Commando where a straightforward plot serves primarily to deliver thrills. Die Hard’s concept of a New York cop as the sole defender of a captured skyscraper is fantastic and the film uses it — crawling in the ducts, elevator excitement, parking garage fun — to a wonderful extent. The titular alien of Predator makes for a challenging fight in the jungle. Kidnapping John Matrix’s daughter is just Commando’s excuse for Arnold Schwarzenegger to kill bad guys in inventive ways. A hallmark of these classics is a focus on the action over the effects. The Predator might be a stealthy alien, but its final showdown against Dutch is much more about the fight itself than it is a spectacle of effects. John Wick is a movie like these, replete with that personal sort of action, but, y’know, modern.

It certainly helps that John Wick is no slouch in the mythology department. John may be an assassin, but he’s not just any assassin: he’s a member of a secret society, a group with their own rules, currency, and even a sanctuary of a hotel in New York. We’re not told terribly much about this underground world, but we get to see much of it, and a lot more is certainly implied by characters’ responses and actions. The world feels massive, one with reams of untold stories that echo more the Marvel movies or a Sergio Leone western than a typical action movie. John Wick manages to perfectly combine mythmaking with 80s action thrills to create one of the best series of modern action movies.

It’s a step above similar contemporaries like The Expendables and The Transporter, two movies which are great, dumb fun with their own interesting worlds, but don’t quite deliver on the same exhilarating thrills that the John Wick movies do. The fights in John Wick Chapter 3: Parabellum are not only wonderfully choreographed, but they’re shot in long, wide shots that allow the audience to watch the fights play out and the skill of the fighters. Void of staccato jumpcuts, Parabellum plays out like a classic Jackie Chan flick, where there’s such emphasis on the artistry of the fight. It helps that these fights are straight up creative. Parabellum features a fight in the New York Public Library (books are lethal) and another where the combatants are surrounded by cases full of knives (which are quickly broken open and so ensues a knife fight). One of the final fights sees Keanu Reeves squaring off against Indonesian actors Yayan Ruhian and Cecep Arif Rahman — guys from the fantastic action movie The Raid. But it ain’t enough to just have these exceptional fighters throw down, Parabellum sets this fight in a glass room with glass walls, floors, and cases. It’s beautiful and decidedly unique.

So much of this relies on how slick the movie is. The John Wick movies have a very clear idea of what they are and it’s played to the hilt. Russian, Japanese, Latin, and Indonesian are all spoken in the movies and have subtitles — that often emphasize words by coloring them in neon purple and making them triple the size. The operators of the assassins’ network are dressed like ‘50s secretaries, but decked out in punk tattoos and piercings, but still using typewriters, switchboards, and old computers. I’ve seen the movies described as neo-noir, and that is certainly true, but toss in influences of every action genre — from anime to westerns to martial arts — and you’ve a fuller picture.

All this to say that John Wick fills a particular niche that we didn’t even know we need, a hyper-violent action movie that pairs its blood and guns with fantastic, imaginative craft. Give me more movies with this Wicky sensibility!

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Here Comes The Ending

In many ways, I’m super jealous of the writers behind the Game of Thrones tv show. Over the years, they’ve built up an array of excellently developed and flawed characters, well-rounded, conflicted people who are often their own worst enemy. It’s Jon Snow’s loyalty to his homeland that makes his relationship with the Free Folk so fraught, but it’s that relationship that ends up saving his life. Petyr Baelish is delightfully conniving – he’s someone who wants power and will double cross anyone — even himself — if it gets him there. They’re complex, with shifting and conflicting loyalties that mean that sometimes the enemy of your enemy is not your friend. The show gets a lot of mileage from throwing curveballs at these characters and watching what happens.

But then, I’m really happy I’m not writing Game of Thrones. Part of every story is its ending and I really don’t want to have to figure out how to bring that behemothic narrative to a resolution. Where do these characters’ arcs have to go? How will these myriad conflicts be resolved? What’s up with the White Walkers? There’s a lot going on.

The show’s finale airs tomorrow night, after a truncated season. It’s been rough; a lot of character arcs have been quickened in an effort to get everyone where they have to be before the end. Some have gotten the short end of the stick, some others have been given their moment to shine, and most have gotten some combination of both. There’s a lot in this season that I like, if not necessarily its execution.

Endings are hard.

I’m one of the few who adores the conclusion to Lost. After six seasons of mysteries and lore building, the series needed to come to a satisfying conclusion. And boy howdy, there were a lot of questions. Who put that wheel there? How’s time travel work exactly? Why did that bird screams Hurley’s name? Questions.

I figure the showrunners of Lost realized early on that short of an FAQ session, there was no way to answer every single question. So they wisely decided to hone in on the characters of the show and give them the resolution they needed. Some mysteries were solved, sure, but the focus was more on giving closure to the characters.

Take Sawyer, unapologetically my favorite character alongside Desmond and Ben. At the start of the series, he’s nothing more than a selfish jackass who wants to be hated. But as the series progresses, he discovers a gentler, protective side of him. Naturally, the culmination of it all has Sawyer making choices that are a testament to how far he’s come and finally, finally getting his happy ending.

Not all of our questions are answered — we never found out what the deal was with that dang bird — but by the time the final episode’s credits rolled I felt satisfied, I felt like my investment in Lost, its world, and its characters had all been worth it.

Honestly, that’s what really matters. Was it worth it? I have seen some awful movies in the past, but I remember more than a few of them fondly because of the circumstances of my viewing (like running a commentary with a friend in an empty theater). Lost was worth it for the journey it brought me on, for the characters I met and loved. I have no doubt that the ending to Game of Thrones will be far from perfect, but I think I’ll be happy so long as I get my closure, as long as l feel like my time with the show has been worth it.

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Where’s My History Lesson?

The Assassin’s Creed series might be my ultimate guilty pleasure of a video game. Some of them are really good (II and Brotherhood), some… less so (the original and, honestly, III). Then there’s one like Black Flag which has a really cool central mechanic (ships!) but really accentuates the worst parts of the series (missions where you have to follow someone and then not be seen… and failing makes you have to slowly walk with the followee again). Then there’s the overall lack of polish: Edward clips through the ship’s rigging when he runs along the bulwark, something you will do several times when you sail up to an island and run to jump off into the water. I’m hesitant to call them really great games, but they are fun, especially when III and Black Flag gives you a pirate ship.

Given that the succeeding games did not give you any pirate ships, I didn’t play any past Black Flag in 2014. Eventually, I finally came around and picked up Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey because not only does the game give you a pirate ship (sorry, a trireme), but at long last, the game finally gives you an option for the player character to be a woman. And something about RPG elements being a big part of it too.

Anyway, I’m days into the game, though I’m not sure how far into the actual story I am — I keep getting distracted fighting soldiers and sinking ships as my badass warrior pirate lady. Odyssey reminds me of why I enjoy these games so much, they’re fun, a little ridiculous, and there are few things as great as staking out a camp and then one by one killing the soldiers within before they know you’re there.

But, I’m kinda bummed that Odyssey has kinda lost its history lessons. Part of the whole schtick of these games is that you’re someone from present day reliving the past via the Animus and genetic memories. The framing device means other characters from the present can provide you with information about places and people you encounter. This means there’s a whole bunch of reading you can do about historical people and places you see. Running around Renaissance Italy and see a funky tower? Here’s some history! Wanna know what the big deal about the Hagia Sophia is? Here you go! What’s up with Colonial Boston? History! Yes, it’s kinda like homework to read through these database entries, but it really adds to the overall sense of place.

But this info is nowhere to be found in Odyssey. Islands in the Greek archipelago are just islands, places and temples are just places and temples, with little indication of their importance of factuality. Early on the game, you visit Ithaca and the ruins of Odysseus’ home. Which is awesome because, hello, The Odyssey! But without a measure of familiarity with Homer’s epic, you wouldn’t realize what a big deal it is. I’ve recently met a historian by the name of Herodotos who’s helping me with my quest, but the game itself has given no indication about the lasting reputation he’s had on the modern world. When I vied against the Borgias in Brotherhood it was an added bonus to know that these were, to an extent, actual historical people. Losing that framing robs Assassin’s Creed of one of its fun — and surprisingly educational — aspects.

This isn’t really a big knock against Odyssey. Like I said, it’s a really fun game, even with the small bugs (that may or may not be features). It’s an open world game, a genre which I have mixed feelings about, but there’s a lot to do so it stays pretty fresh. Plus, I bought a skin from a blacksmith that turns my horse into a unicorn, so at the end of the day, I’m okay with a little lack of history.

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Of Places Good

I’m not great at watching tv. The act of putting aside everything to sit in front of the television (or, let’s be honest: my laptop) makes me antsy. Watching it with someone’s better, since then I feel like I’m spending time with a friend and so not just sitting around. Point is, all this means binge watching shows isn’t something I’m good at – it notoriously took me four years to ‘binge’ Breaking Bad.

However, building with LEGO makes me feel like I’m doing something, and watching something on Netflix at the same time somehow justifies it in my mind. Usually.

That long preamble is to say that when I’ve found a show where I really wanna hit “next episode” it’s something that’s particularly excellent.

Right now, that show is The Good Place. Recommended to me by a friend, I finally started watching it while folding laundry (see? being productive). I’m halfway through the first season and having an absolute ball.

The show is smart, sharp as a blade, but also one that doesn’t feel the need to flaunt it all around. It’s a show that’ll merrily name drop Emmanuel Kant and Machiavelli one moment and make a joke about the less-than-stellar quality of Floridian DJs the next. Though an understanding of the ethical philosophies upheld by the mentioned thinkers isn’t necessary to get a joke, they inform the plot of the show and individual episodes. Basically, The Good Place is a sitcom that explores ethics and morality not through people monologuing and debating, but instead through actual plot points.

For example, Kant said that the real judge of the morality of an action is its motivation, not the result. When Eleanor, the show’s protagonist, tries to prove she’s a good person to get ahead, she realizes she’s failing because what she’s doing is not truly altruistic. By crafting narratives around thorny philosophical questions, The Good Place is able to explore the ramifications of certain ideologies, while still propelling characters and making jokes about cacti. The show doesn’t need to flaunt its intellectualism around; its stories do that for it.

It helps that The Good Place takes after showrunner Michael Schur’s other shows (Parks and Recreation, Brooklyn 99) by featuring characters who are well sketched out and, though flawed, fundamentally nice to each other. These aren’t characters constantly trying to one-up each other and narrative conflict doesn’t arrive by pitting them at odds. It leads to interesting setups, where the central thrust becomes how do these goofballs solve the problem before them.

Its sense of fun and big heart gets combined with a love of moral philosophizing to make The Good Place a delightfully watchable show. Which isn’t something I say a lot.

Anyway. That’s the blog post, time to enjoy my Saturday by building something with LEGO while watching more The Good Place.

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