26 January 2009

How to Write a Tropic Thunder Review Without Discussing the Actual Film (Almost).

I really liked the idea of Grindhouse: let’s have a double-feature – an A-movie and a B-movie, written by two directors fluent in the language of cinema, and put some fake ads in-between, just like the good ol’ days. It’s a pity American audiences didn’t share my enthusiasm – otherwise the film(s) wouldn’t have reached me in its butchered state. See, it turns out that firstly, people didn’t want to sit through some trailers, a movie, some fake trailers, and then another movie. Secondly, Grindhouse was floundering at the box office, presumably due to the former. And thirdly, people were leaving the theatre after Planet Terror (the first film in the double-feature), because they didn’t *get* it. It wasn’t that they didn’t *get* Planet Terror as a parody of those ridiculous 80s action films with black-and-white-evil terrorists – though presumably they didn’t get that either – audiences simply thought that the film was over, put their coats on and trundled on home, never mind the fact that they paid to see a film called “Grindhouse” and this film was clearly called “Planet Terror”. So while Tarantino and Rodriguez may yet be fluent in Cinemanese, they clearly weren’t fluent in the language of the common people. Hollywood’s solution? Cut it in two, and market the halves as two separate films. Whether this made things better or worse is uncertain, and depending on who you ask (a Hollywood exec or a film critic), the answers might differ. One thing’s for certain, though: Tarantino and Rodriguez intended Grindhouse to be a double-feature, both as a parody of Hollywood action films and B-movies, and as a tribute to the old school ‘grindhouse’ features they used to enjoy in their formative years; and the Average Joe just didn’t get it. Was it the film’s fault or the Average American’s fault? I suppose we’ll never know, though perhaps it would have been wiser and more prudent to test this little entertainment experiment on a smaller market first. One thing’s for certain: Grindhouse failed to execute its intentions as a film.

Grindhouse: surprisingly too high-brow.

Tropic Thunder succeeds where Grindhouse failed. See, it turns out that while ‘people’ didn’t want to sit through real trailers, a movie, fake trailers, and another movie, they *do* want to sit through real trailers, then fake trailers, and a movie. Pure genius. Furthermore, it turns out that people do enjoy parody that is unabashedly self-aware, and will turn out in droves to watch a movie about movies, or more specifically, a movie about a bunch of people making a movie featuring fictional big-name stars played by real big-name stars. Scratch that, it’s a movie about a bunch of people making a fictional war movie based on a book about a real war, featuring fictional Hollywood actors played by real Hollywood actors that have been thrown into an actual warzone in an effort to bring out more authentic performances. Sound confusing? On paper, sure [and prepare to be even more confused by the end of this review], but in execution, surprisingly not. Allow me to use an example from classic literature – hey, if you’ve made it this far, you’re ready for this – Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes. Now Don Quixote was a farmer in 16th Century Spain who, having read a lot of romantic literature, went completely barmy and decided to leave behind his provincial life to become a knight errant. Don Quixote the book, however, is a real novel by a real writer masquerading as a fictional history written by two fictional authors - one of which refers to the other in derogative terms – detailing his ridiculous quests to comedic effect. The novel itself, though regarded by many as romantic literature, was written as a parody and perhaps even a cautionary tale about the dangers of reading too many romance books, though it’s an exercise in frustration trying to determine whether or not the caution itself is also a parody. Here’s the real kicker: Don Quixote, though fictional, believes himself to be real, and believes his adventures to be real, and though he receives word that his deeds have been recorded in multiple historical accounts, and even questions their veracity, his real journey becomes one of gradually realising that he is a character in a book, and is in fact not real.

Did I mention that Don Quixote was the first novel ever written? Self-awareness is so primal to the language of storytelling that we’ve had four centuries to get used to it. We’re a generation of children raised on Winnie the Pooh – once a cartoon of a book with a narrator, since reduced to a cartoon based on a book – where Tigger would get down from that tree by [reluctantly] asking the narrator turn the book on its side so that he could slide down the words on the opposite page. Self-aware characters are part of our psyche; the Collective Unconscious. It’s the language of the common people. And Tropic Thunder speaks it fluently to great comedic effect. More to the point, Ben Stiller speaks it fluently. I was more surprised to see the story, scriptwriting, direction and production credits to his name than I was that the film actually made sense. Sorry, I lied, Ben Stiller’s heavy involvement made me even more surprised that the film made sense, and I should no longer be surprised that it did so regardless, given that I’ve just spent an entire paragraph explaining why it does make sense [all the while not making sense myself].

Proof that 'seriously funny' isn't an oxymoron.

So now you know why you should understand Tropic Thunder as a text, but why should you enjoy watching it? The answer is simple: because people loved and still love Don Quixote. Ben Stiller plays the Don Quixote of Tropic Thunder, Tugg Speedman, who in turn plays Sergeant Four Leaf. A great deal of the comedy derives from us understanding that the actors are in an actual warzone, while Tugg Speedman does not. Instead, Tugg clutches tightly to the script (like a blankie) and the map, marching wantonly through the mine-rigged jungles of Vietnam, despite the pleas of his supporting cast. Unlike Quixote, Speedman’s journey is not one of discovering that Four Leaf is not real (even though he isn’t), or even that he isn’t Stupid Jack (though it takes some convincing); it’s discovering that he’s not just in a movie; he’s in a real war with real enemies. Watching the disparity between what makes an effective combat move in battle and what makes a visually appealing combat move in a blockbuster action film is the funniest thing this side of Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Jack Black has the dubious honour of channelling his idol, Ozzy Osbourne [you’ll see what I mean], but the Sancho Panza of Tropic Thunder is without a doubt Robert Downey Jr’s Kirk Lazarus. An American Hollywood actor playing an Australian Hollywood actor who immerses himself in his roles so much that he undergoes an experimental skin pigment treatment to play a black American soldier, who is still somehow the first person to realise that they are in a real jungle full of real landmines and real terrorists with real weapons, all the while remaining in character! Downey Jr’s new agent deserves a huge pat on the back [or a fat cheque] if you ask me. If I may use another analogy from the greats of Western literature, it reminds me of “World’s End”, the eighth book of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series. All the characters in the book find themselves huddled together in the same inn at the edge of all worlds, telling stories to pass the time until the storm blows over. Each character has a splendid and amazing story to tell, and nearly all the characters in their stories tell stories to each other, and so on and so forth. In his foreword to the book, Stephen King described these tales as stories within stories, or rather, nested Chinese boxes. Likewise, the characters of Tropic Thunder are like little babushkas we can be excited to open.

The 'minstrel show' returns with Kirk Lazarus, and it's not as controversial as you think...

Tropic Thunder is so many things. It’s a subversive discussion of Real and Unreal using low-brow humour and slapstick as the vehicle. It’s a Jurassic Park/Lost World story, where a seemingly brilliant idea goes awry when things get out of control. It’s a parody of the Hollywood action blockbuster. It’s a hilarious jab at Hollywood’s desperate attempts at authenticity. No one in Hollywood is spared, really – not Eddie Murphy, not Stallone, definitely not Sean Penn, not the late Heath Ledger, not anyone - even Tom Cruise has a few good larks at his own expense. But the number one thing Tropic Thunder is, is bloody hilarious.

Mission accomplished.

P.S. Watch it with some friends and see how many trailers they get through before they realise the movie's started!

23 January 2009

Games Industry = Epic Fail.

In an interview with Gamasutra, Peter Molyneux reflected on an era of broken dreams and untapped potential.

"I would say, to a great extent, we in the development community have really let this industry down. Because I wouldn't say there were exponentially more people playing computer games today than there were when Game Developers Conference first started. Fifteen years ago? Twenty years ago? It's been quite a while.

When it seems to me that the number of people that use computer games as entertainment isn't getting exponentially bigger. Although the market is getting bigger, and we're selling eight million units.

But I've been really thinking about, I remember back in the early eighties... when Clive Sinclair in England released the Sinclair Spectrum.

And he famously said, "Every home in Britain will have one of these, and people won't watch television anymore, they will play computer games." That was a dream that was put forth in the seventies, when this thing had 1K of RAM -- and for a little while, we all believed that."

Strong words from Mr. Molyneux.

Despite its seniority, the Gaming Industry indeed remains infantile when compared to the other entertainment industries. The Wii's recent successes notwithstanding, videogames are still very much a niche industry, with very few mainstream standouts ['Wii Sports' and 'Wii Fit' are the only two that really spring to mind]. Compare that with the movie and music industries, both of which maintain a steady stream of major releases all year round, and it appears that Gaming has a long way to go.

The more I hear from Molyneux, the more I think he should be developing Wii games:

"Now, there seems to be this big barrier that exists. And I was actually just in the shops, down here -- I'd forgotten to bring a shirt -- and I was talking to the bloke who's selling me a shirt, and he said: "Aw, I don't play computer games. Because I'm not good enough. I can't get my head round this thing. [Molyneux holds up an Xbox 360 controller.] Every time I do it, I hit my head against a wall."

Too many characters, too many characters!!!

So he openly acknowledges that the X360 controller is alienating, and yet his Fable series appears exlusively on Xbox consoles. Obviously there's other reasons for these decisions [Lionhead is an in-house developer for starters], but ultimately I'm sure he could afford to leave and take his ideas with him.

"You know, I think you can already see that games are being made that are making inroads in [bridging casual and core games], but unfortunately, they're not quite as obvious. Maybe they are, when you think about it. Wii Sports is a huge step to bring casual gamers and hardcore players together."

Surprising comments for someone who once counted himself amongst the Wii's biggest detractors.

Do you agree with Mr. Molyneux? Is the Gaming Industry behind, a shadow of what it should be? Will Sinclair's vision ever be realised? Post your thoughts below.

15 Reasons Why Videogames Are Heaps Better Than Real Life.

  1. You only get one life. That would be ZERO lives in a videogame.

  2. Unless you believe in the afterlife, in which case you only have two. That would be ONE life in a videogame - with cheats on - and cheats are just no fun.

  3. If you don't like the layout of your house, you can't just switch to debug mode and put girders in.

  4. I ate A LOT of mushrooms a couple of weeks ago. They didn't give me extra lives, they didn't make me increase in size; they didn't even give me prophetic visions. FAIL.


  6. I smashed open my television screen the other day to see what bonuses were inside. No shields, no speed boots, not even a few lousy golden rings.

  7. What a disappointment.

  8. Sewer pipes don't lead to other worlds filled with turtles, coins and funky music. They just lead to a whole lot of excrement.

  9. I learnt this from my two plumber friends. Neither of them can jump very high, nor shoot fireballs when they wear white overalls. SNORE.

  10. I tried busting open a crate with a crowbar, and not only was it harder to do than in Half-Life, it didn't have any money or weapons inside. Which brings me to my next point:

  11. You have to work for money. Well, you *can* kill people for money or steal, but you'll land your ass in jail if you get caught. In a videogame, you can find money in oil drums, barrels, treasure chests or just lying on the ground. And if the cops still want to arrest you, you can usually kill them and take their money too. Okay, that was two points.

  12. There's shopping centres everywhere full of items you don't need or can't carry, and you have to QUEUE to purchase them. In videogames there's just one merchant who sells everything and no queues! Then I can fit my new bicycle in my backpack along with my 150 animals sealed in compact balls for my convenience. I don't need to waste money on food there either, because there's usually juicy red apples and delicious chicken dinners lying on the ground. And get this: the floor is clean enough to EAT OFF!

  13. Or I can go fishing, and I'll know whether or not I'm going to catch something within five seconds. No more day-long fruitless fishing trips! No bait required! Oh, and boots and tyres can swim around the water just like regular fish, and they still put up a helluva fight when you're reeling them in. Free tyres! Makes boot-fishing fun!

  14. I drive a 1982 Ford Laser to the bus stop each morning. I'd rather drive that BMW across the street, but I can't because I don't have the key sad . In videogames I wouldn't need to catch the bus to get to work on time [hell, I wouldn't need to go to work]. All I'd need is my '82 Laser and a bazooka. Congestion go bye-bye!

  15. I can't even do an olley on a skateboard, let alone snowboard. In Steep Slope Sliders, I can do a chicken salad, canned crab, salvation, and finish with a tasteful 1260 degree indy nosebone. Off a cliff. And live.

  16. You have a wife. You can't turn sound off. Think about it.

  17. I have to listen to crappy Top 40 songs on the radio at work. Who's on the charts? Pussycat Dolls, Britney Spears, but NO K.K. Slider.

Which do you prefer?

21 January 2009

'Fanboy' This, 'Fanboy' That: Gaming's New Apartheid.

It's not 'fanboys' themselves that I despise, but rather the use of the term in the first place. Every time I see *that word*, I shudder. It irks me, like fingernails running down a blackboard, or watching custard move. 

The reasons I hate the term 'fanboy':

When did this ridiculous title first pop up?
When people got sick of calling other people 'biased'? Honestly, it feels like I just woke up one morning a year or two ago, hopped on the interwebs, and all of a sudden every gamer and his dog started calling other gamers 'fanboys' as a derogatory term.

• This in turn annoys me because it hails back to the times of apartheid,
where one would call their adult, male slave 'boy' to denote their apparent inferiority and standing in society. It also reminds me of the French, who address their waiters as garcon [translation: boy] when ordering a meal.

It also annoys me that the word has an inherent gender,
suggesting that females can't be ardent fans of a particular console or console manufacturer (which I gather is what 'fanboy' ultimately means).

The word is redundant.
Either you mean someone's a fan (derived from 'fanatic', duh!) of a particular console or console manufacturer, or you mean that they are biased towards a particular console or console manufacturer, and therefore their viewpoint on a particular game or gaming-related topic cannot be taken without a grain of salt.

In what other arena of entertainment is being a fan considered a bad thing?
I can't think of any. The last time I remember being a fan of anything being a bad thing was when that Pantera fan killed 'Dimebag' Darrell or when that Beatles fan killed John Lennon. Okay, sometimes being a fan can be a bad thing, but there's nothing wrong with enjoying or admiring something. Perhaps it's only a bad thing when someone's admiration of something equates to an unreasonable hatred of another thing, say a side project or a solo career. In any case, it has to be pointed out that neither of these killers was called a 'fanboy', even though their love for their respective favourite bands led to the death of those bands' members. If they can get away with it, then that guy who said that Halo 3 was the best game of all time should get away with it too. He didn't kill anyone from Bungie (well, he might have killed Masterchief a few times, what with being a 'n00b' and all).

It just plain sounds dumb, and it makes the people who use the word sound dumb as well.
It's like when people make that face (you know, that face) when they call someone a 'spastic' or a 'retard'. Didn't you used to think it made them look like a complete wanker, or at the very least, retarded (though I guess that was the point)? Well, that's what you sound like when you call someone a 'fanboy'. Take that!

But I'm not finished yet! The term 'hardcore gamer' is also a load of subjugating codswallop. It's a ridiculous elitist term coined by gamers to elevate themselves above the 'casual gamers', 'fanboys' and the 'n00bs'. It would be like a movie buff calling themselves a 'hardcore movie buff' to separate themselves from movie buffs that clearly don't watch enough movies [not 'buff enuff']. People who see movies once in a blue moon don't call themselves 'casual movie buffs' now, do they? Then why the hell would someone who plays a videogame here and there call themselves a 'casual gamer'?! Chances are, if you're reading this blog, then you are a gamer.

Now that we've established that *the word* actually means 'fan', and that 'hardcore gamer' actually means 'gamer', we can all stop using them. Right?

19 January 2009

Console Q & A with The Red Baron.

I thought I'd share with you all my opinions on this generation of consoles through this email I recently received from a friend today. It looks like he's seriously considering purchasing a console, particularly a 360...

Dear Sir,

I am writing to you because I consider you a paragon of gaming console knowledge, and seek your advice.

To assist in this process, I have formulated several questions which I humbly implore you to answer.

Firstly, allow me to thank you for your sincere flattery - it will get you everywhere - and your humble imploration.


1) In your opinion, which console - overall - is the "best"?

Let's be honest here, the Xbox 360 really is the best console this generation, for reasons that will be stated in the following question. As a Wii owner, a displaced Sega fan, and a gamer, I'll be the first to admit it. But one glaring black mark against its name is the console's infamous unreliability: RROD. This may not be a problem with 360s manufactured since late October, which I'll expand on later.

2) In your opinion, which console has the best games?

The Xbox 360, hands down. It has the most 'great' games in its library. But it does depend a great deal on what type of games you like, and what type of gamer you are. If you are not into first-person shooters, for instance, or you play FPSs predominantly on your PC, then this greatly diminishes the who's who list of 360 titles. In terms of playing games unique to the console, the Wii probably has the strongest library. Nowhere else will you be able to play games like Wii Sports, or a Nintendo game like Mario Kart.

3) In your opinion, what are the two best games for each console?

I'm picking exclusives here, but there are plenty of great multi-platform games on the 360 and PS3 (most of which are superior on the 360, in my estimation):
Xbox 360 - Gears of War, Fable II
PS3 - LittleBigPlanet, Resistance 2
Wii - Super Mario Galaxy, de Blob


1) Do you own an Xbox 360, and if so, do you also have Xbox Live?

No and no.

2) If not, have you at least played it, and what do you think of it?

Yes, and Xbox Live is great and all, but when you're used to online gaming on a PC, I doubt it will blow your socks off given you have to pay subscription fees. As far as online console gaming, though, it's unparalleled. A lot can be said for online community AND it's evil cousin headset-spamming, too. Whether the difference between it and the Playstation Network is substantial enough to warrant said fee is hard to say - unfortunately I've not yet played online with a PS3. Mario Kart Wii is probably the smoothest online console game you'll ever play, though.

At $400 (AU) for an Xbox 360, plus paying for games, extra controllers, accessories and Live subscription, is it really even worth it...or should I just stick to my PC?

Again, it depends what you'll be playing on it. I'm looking at a list of '9' games on IGN and here's what I get:

Grand Theft Auto IV (uncensored on PC in Australia, and let's face it, GTA controls are always better on PC), Bioshock (also on PC & PS3), Fallout 3 (also on PC & PS3), Gears of War 2 (exclusive, FINALLY!), Fable II (now we're getting somewhere), Gears of War (also on PC, but likely better on 360), Prince of Persia (also on PC & PS3 AND not as good as Sands of Time), Mass Effect (allegedly improved and less-buggy on PC), Call of Duty 4 (probably better on PC)...you get the idea.

If you want racers, fighters, or sport games, then go for it - there are a few non-shooters I can recommend. If you like predominantly FPSs and RTSs, then you should probably stick with the PC. With the exclusives, you've really got to decide just how badly you want to play a certain game. It could well be worth it.

To put the value in perspective, I bought my Wii for $500.00 at launch with Wii Sports, Zelda, and an extra Wii-mote. The 360 is a three year old console, so perhaps they're demanding too much still. Provided your computer requires no upgrades, you could feasibly purchase Mass Effect, Fallout 3, Far Cry 2 and Red Alert 3 for less than the cost of a 360. Hell, I think I just talked myself out of it.

IF you choose to purchase a 360, make sure you purchase one of the new 'Jasper' units. It should be far less susceptible to overheating and RROD. You can determine this by checking the amperage next to the serial barcode:

12.1 Amps good, 14.2 Amps bad!

Check here for more detail on that.

BOTTOM LINE: If you like the sound of Viva Pinata, Gears of War 1 & 2, Fable II and Ninja Gaiden II, then go for it. Those are the best 360-only games around in my estimation.

Thanks in advance,

Buddy O. Pal

No worries, mate. I hope I helped more than I confused.

Feel free to weigh in with your own opinions so that Buddy can make up his buddy mind.

18 January 2009


When I was in the shower yesterday [not that I didn't take a shower today, mind you], I was thinking about Artificial Intelligence in videogames, as you do. Specifically, I was thinking about how cheap it really is, and how far it has to go.

Every game is a God-game.

By way of an analogy, imagine that God is your worst enemy [if you're a Satanist or a raging atheist, you may not need to imagine at all!] and that you must use everything at your disposal to defeat him. Problem is, God made everything and knows where all the items are at all times. He knows every possible use for every possible item, all of your moves and abilities, and effective counter-maneuvers for each of your potential attacks. Sound unfair? Well, that's basically a videogame in a nutshell.

Hmmm...look at all the pretty coloured arrows!

In the government, there is what we call a 'separation of powers' (pictured above). It's what keeps the system honest. You have the executive powers given to the Prime Minister or Head of State, the judicial powers given to the High Court, and the legislative powers invested in the Parliament. If you're from the good ol' US of A, just substitute the words 'President', 'Supreme Court' and 'Congress' into the previous sentence. In videogames, there's none of that.

Now that I've successfully bored you with a double-whammy of politics and religion, let's get back to the videogames. Quite frankly, I think that the A.I. in videogames sucks. Now, I don't pretend to understand the technical ins and outs of Artificial Intelligence, but when Ryu KO's you in four punches, you know something's amiss. The computer's team is always a tightly run ship, a hive-mind of players that control with individual precision, and share exactly the same goals. Like an autistic child, the A.I. has no theory of mind - it doesn't wonder what the other player is thinking or planning, it knows. It doesn't need to 'watch' your actions closely and respond on the fly - it knows exactly what you've done as soon as you pressed the button, and it has a pre-scripted action to respond with. We'd never have beaten a videogame if it weren't for developer-imposed handicaps such as poor aim, slow running, reduced damage, and smaller health bars - all shortcomings that seem to carry over on those blasted escort missions.

I'm Escort Mission, remember me? We had some swell times together, didn't we?

It is for all these reasons and more that I call for a 'separation of powers' for all videogame A.I. Your NPC's A.I. should not be controlled by the same A.I. that is hunting you both down with a Kalishnakov, nor should Mr. Kalishnakov generate the level he should be exploring. The goalie shouldn't know that the full back intends to pass the ball back to him until he sees the ball being passed back to him. Chun Li shouldn't somersault over my hadouken because I entered 'down, diagonal, right + hard punch', but because she 'sees' a fireball flying towards her.

Whether this would necessitate the use of multiple CPUs is outside of my expertise, but doubtless it would require many hours of intense programming. It would be an ambitious undertaking to say the least, but the reason it seems so daunting is that so little headway has been made over the years. Other aspects of game development - graphics, sound, controls, even story - have been moving ahead in leaps and bounds, while A.I. is still in its infancy. With photorealism firmly within our grasp, and recorded soundtracks that dwarf some Hollywood productions, where else is there to go? The future must be with A.I.

Does videogame A.I. leave you wanting? Do escort missions piss you off? Can SkyNet be stopped in time? Drop your pennies below!

01 January 2009

Review on the Run: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

I hate comparing great films to other great films, because they don't need to ride on the coat-tails of what came before them. Having said that, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a great drama in the tradition of Forrest Gump. It's the story of an extraordinary man trying to lead a normal life. Such is the strangeness of his situation - born prematurely aged, his body grows younger as his mind gets older - that every 'normal' thing Benjamin does seems like a bonafide miracle.

Benjamin Button touches on themes of life, death, time, aging, and coincidence. It's a long movie on paper, but in dealing with the passage of time, it never feels long. I kept wanting to see what was around the bend in the life of this curious man. There are many moments of levity, but the second half of the film feels heavy on the heart, and it hurts. The grounding of the narrative and the performances by Pitt, Blanchett and company really make you buy into Mr Button's weird and wonderful tale.

When the credits roll, watch all the elderly people leave the cinema. You'll find yourself wondering how young they are.

5 out of 5 Red Tri-planes