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Tuesday, Jul 1, 2008

Will Smith is the new up to date version of the late in life career of Charleton Heston. No, he’s not some gun wielding NRA apologist who narrates Bible videos in between bouts with aging. As one of Hollywood’s leading ticket/turnstile draws, he’s embraced the science fiction format in a way no actor has since the one and only Chuckster. From Independence Day, Men in Black, I, Robot, I Am Legend, and now his latest, the surreal super hero movie Hancock, no other contemporary star has dabbled in the speculative as often as he. Sure, he moderates such stints with powerful dramas and urbane comedies, but it’s clear that the majority of his bankability comes from action and adventure. Whether this latest film will advance his reputation remains to be seen.


LA is riddled with crime, but there’s a bigger problem within their midst. You’d figure that the city would love its resident comic book style crime fighter. But John Hancock is a troubled man. Driven to drink by demons he cannot control (or in most cases, remember) and horribly unappreciated - thanks in part to his antisocial attitude and tendency to destroy more than he saves - he still tries to bring down the bad guys. One day, he rescues PR man Ray Embrey from an oncoming train, and in an attempt to return the favor, the image maker proposes to overhaul Hancock’s reputation. This makes his young son ecstatic, and his pretty wife Mary uncomfortable. From the moment she sees the angry superhero, she senses a connection. After a stint in jail and a political change of heart, the public may have forgiven Hancock, but his past seems destined to destroy him.


Hancock is either a brilliant disaster or an often uneven masterwork. It either represents Will Smith’s decision to break free of his formerly fashionable (and profitable) summer movie mythos, or another chink in a box office armor that has shown some signs of wear as of late. While it cements actor/turned director Peter Berg’s status as a filmmaker to watch (next up for him - another try at bringing Dune to the big screen), it doesn’t do more than his fascinating USA/A-OK actioner of last year, The Kingdom. And with a supporting cast consisting of Jason Bateman and Charlize Theron, it’s hard to question the talent on display. But a quick glance at the film’s history (multiple stints in development Hell over the last few decades) and the numerous names previously attached to it indicates that, considering the chaos it was forged in, we’re lucky that the results are so likeable.


There are actually two movies battling like graphic novel champions to dominate Hancock‘s narrative. One literally wants to wonder about Gods on Earth, how their immortal powers play amongst the more humble elements of humanity. The other feeds off this, turning our surprisingly sour hero into an anger fueled alcoholic who has nothing but contempt for those he’s supposed to serve. Like the shabby My Super Ex-Girlfriend before, Hancock tries to show a jaded populace taking their savior for granted, unable to appreciate the altruistic acts he accomplishes. Instead, there are noisy news reports condemning the destruction that comes with his crime-fighting (isn’t that a given, considering he has to do what people can’t?) and the surliness he projects to cover the pain of being taken for granted.


From an audience perspective, the biggest hurdle to overcome here is the inherent anticipation Smith brings to his projects. From the trailers, the film appears to be a rollicking comedy with some more action-oriented undertones. Our statured celeb will be dishing the dingers and driving home the humor with his natural personality and panache. In truth, the second half spirals into a deep meditation on the notion of fate, and how even beings unbound to this reality can’t avoid its fickle hand. Things turn dark, dour, and very depressive. The moment this happens, at least half the audience will abandon Hancock in a manner similar to how the citizens of LA treat the onscreen character. They won’t buy into the last act dramaturgy, preferring the sequences where Smith curses out old ladies and tosses French-accented bullies up in the air.


Yet it’s this very notion of how to deal with immortal mortality that lifts Hancock above the typical popcorn fare. It suggests something rather intriguing, and director Berg appears comfortable dealing with these more substantive themes. The opening car chase is cute clever, what with the oversized slapstick of our drunken hero using buildings as a backdrop for his unstable gestures. But when he gets down one-on-one, our filmmaker finds engaging ways to deconstruct the genre. Had the film featured more of this, had it stuck to its Tonight He Comes origins (there are too many post-greenlight script doctors to bother mentioning), there’d be something really unique here. By it’s very definition, any attempt to break convention is awkward and disorienting. Unfortunately, Hancock can’t find a way to make said struggles work for itself. Instead, it falls back on old fashioned motion picture majesty - and can’t quite make it all the way.


Smith’s performance is pitched perfectly between art and artifice. He never stretches beyond the boundaries his paycheck demands, but at the same time you can sense he understands where a Hancock success would take him. As part of Berg’s growing company, Jason Bateman does the mild mannered idealist act quite well. He never overplays the obvious one-liners he’s sometimes reduced to relying on. Then there’s Charlize Theron. Given a not so subtle supermodel glow, her role is so ridiculously underwritten that you wonder how the minds behind this movie thought they could get away with it. She’s a last act catalyst, a red herring as real clue creation that definitely fails to live up to the inferences.


In fact, Hancock often feels like the outline for a much larger epic. At 90 minutes, it breezes by on waves of scheduled superficiality, and when it needs to stop and make an impact, editing takes us quickly to the next F/X setpiece. Indeed, the biggest battle within this film is not the one between our hero and the bad guys. Instead, it’s the clash between grand intentions and focus group execution…and it looks like those comment cards almost won out. There will be those who dismiss this movie as nothing more than subpar Smith, a blip on a retail radar that usually brings home the bacon in grand style. But there is something more inventive going on here, a chance at changing the genre dynamic that Tinsel Town just couldn’t handle. The results become an uneven, if ultimately entertaining, experience. Leave it to Smith to succeed despite himself. 


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Tuesday, Jul 1, 2008

Just wanted to give the nod to two good organizations related to music.  The first is the Rhythm and Blues Foundation, which is headed up by a number of R&B artists (including Jerry Butler, Gamble & Huff) to help out musicians and performers get by in an industry that rarely takes care of its own.  For more info, see their website.  Then there’s (RED) which this NY Times article describes as “a nonprofit organization that arranges for companies to contribute a share of profits on certain products to fight AIDS in Africa (which) is starting a digital music service for that purpose.”  For more info, see (RED) at their website.


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Tuesday, Jul 1, 2008

In his essay about the Eiffel Tower, Roland Barthes seems somewhat dazzled by its singularity, but part of what he says about it seems true not just of the tower but of much of totemic goods circulated in our consumerist economy.  Barthes points out the essential uselessness of the tower, which makes it a “pure signifier, i.e., a form in which men unceasingly put meaning (which they extract at will from their knowledge, their dreams, their history).” The key to its usefulness as a signifier is its functional pointlessness. “In order to satisfy this great oneiric function, which makes it into a kind of total monument, the Tower must escape reason.” In this, it resembles our advertising discourse, which is increasingly desgined to achieve our blithe acceptance of illogic as a matter of course and is likewise aspiring to the level of “total monument”—its monolithic presence and fluid adaptability offers everyone a reason to become wrapped up in it. Barthes continues, “The first condition of this victorious flight is that the Tower be an utterly useless monument.” But since we are under the illusion that ours is a pragmatic, rational culture, we are scandalized by this apparent lack of function, so, as Barthes points out, we supply alibis enumerating its usefulness to science and engineering. These are “quite ridiculous” since they “are nothing in comparison to the great imaginary function which enables men to be strictly human.” 


It seems to me that what Barthes is saying about the Eiffel Tower is very similar to what Rob Walker argues about various brands in Buying In. Hello Kitty and Red Bull are gloriously meaningless in and of themselves, which make them adaptable to whatever personal uses we want to put them to in order to conjure our identity into being through the language of goods—before this articulation identity remains notional and inchoate, something we can’t define or prove. Once we make our identity manifest in the goods, we need to broadcast our ownership of the goods to make the identity functional in the social sphere. So the Eiffel Tower is not useless, it’s just that its purported use masks its real one, the same way that Red Bull (or Coca Cola for that matter) pretends to be a beverage while truly offering us a malleable symbol—a lifestyle or personality building-block. What’s more, if Barthes is right, the prevalence of these symbols is not a blight but the essence of our humanity, that which “enables men to be strictly human.” One wonders if there are any alternatives to the commercial brands for the sort of symbols that can be at once deeply personal and near-universally recognizable—through which, as Barthes describes the Eiffel Tower, “one can feel oneself cut off from the world and yet the owner of a world.”


From what repository did such symbols come from in the past, before consumerism? Were people simply human in a different, more circumscribed way? Would we want to return to it, even if we could?


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Tuesday, Jul 1, 2008

How’s this for cool? Three teenagers from Arlington, TX, have started a rock band as a tribute to Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight book series. The girls, aged 14 and 15, have composed original tracks all dealing in one way or another with Meyer’s vampiric works.


On Wednesday, an MTV camera crew will film one of their performances at the George W. Hawkes Central Library in Arlington.


The Star-Telegram has an update on the event here, which also includes an interview with the bandmates. Their comments about discovering in the Twilight books a way to define themselves and their teen-ness are rather fascinating. One of the girls is quoted: “I really admire [Meyer’s] her ability to get human nature right. The way that she shows people in this amazing, true light is really inspiring to me.”


After the Wednesday show, the girls will perform on 1 August at Arlington’s Parks Barnes & Noble store to celebrate the release of the fourth book in the Twilight series, Breaking Dawn.


Bella Cullen Project’s MySpace page is here. Skip around the CD player a bit ‘til you find the song “Switzerland”. It’s great.


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Monday, Jun 30, 2008
L.B. Jeffries goes over the various problems with gauging how hard a game should be for developers and some potential solutions.


Despite how seemingly obvious the concept may be, there is actually a great deal of discussion about how difficult a game should be. Why should a game be hard if the goal is to get as many people playing as possible? The original purpose of having challenge comes from the arcade days of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Games weren’t even meant to be beatable by the average person, just to be interesting enough to earn a set amount of money. On the Pickford Bros. blog, Pickford remembers the break from this model with the first console game he made. The publisher simply requested that the game be winnable. Now games have to have a last level, Mario actually gets the right Princess eventually, and the game has a point where it finally ends. How do you balance the desire to have the player beat the game with the need to make that accomplishment satisfying?


 


Tailoring difficulty for a player’s enjoyment is a much tougher task than it sounds. The traditional method of counting quarters was a simple gauge of success for a game; you knew the game was fun because people were playing it. Now a developer has to factor in a huge number of variables. For starters, the players themselves don’t always know where they stand with a game. The easy mode for Devil May Cry 4 may be highly appropriate for someone new to the series, while easy in Bioshock is borderline boring for anyone even remotely skilled at games. Chris Bateman explains in a fascinating blog post how tricky this balance becomes even if you have the alternative of making the game adapt to the player. With adaptive gameplay, the best strategy is to lose a few times so the game makes itself easier. If the player gets killed too many times before they have learned how to play, by the time they figure it out and are ready for a challenge it’ll be too easy. Finally, there is the simple problem of some players enjoying difficulty more than others. Challenge and overcoming it is still a source of satisfaction for some people. Bateman ends the post with the lament that there is simply too little information for developers to really know if they’ve got the right level of difficulty for their audience.


Beyond balancing difficulty is the simple question of whether it serves any purpose in the game at all. Back at the Pickford blog, another article goes into the various game design options that let a player break down the difficulty at their own pace. Although these games still utilize difficulty to a certain extent, there is always a way out. In some games, you can just level grind until your characters can overpower a boss. Interactive fiction or puzzles rarely maintain their difficulty because you can always check for hints online. The origin of such accommodations in these games was to make sure that someone who enjoyed the plot would always be able to get to the end. After all, as Pickford notes, when you’re telling a story, getting to the conclusion is the reward, not overcoming a tricky boss fight. Using GTA 4 as an example, Pickford notes that keeping up both challenging gameplay and also having a compelling narrative then becomes problematic. We all want to know what happens to Nico at the end, but doing those last couple of missions over and over can ruin the pace of the story. They just become annoying. Where is our way out if we don’t care about the satisfaction of saying we beat the game? If we’re there for the experience, is any difficulty that stops it really appropriate?


 


Yet just because the difficulty is hard to get right doesn’t mean it can’t serve another purpose. What if we used difficulty in conjunction with the plot? A more organized approach beyond just making everything have more health or deal more damage. For example, going back to Bioshock, if you play the game on Easy, hunting the Big Daddy becomes a light affair. Yet that’s contrary to their role in the story as fearsome protectors, which you appreciate more in the higher difficulty settings. You don’t really get the full narrative experience if you play it on a low difficulty. If you play the game on Hard, a Big Daddy is a very difficult, strategic affair that can take several tries. Would it have been better, for the sake of the story delivering an experience, if the Big Daddy was still hard to kill even on Easy? The method seems to work in more free-form RPG’s like Fallout. If you pick a fight with a super mutant in that game, rather than talking your way out, it is always guaranteed to be an unpleasant exchange for you. That’s consistent with the story and the setting: the super mutants are extremely dangerous and poised to take over the West Coast. Yet in the couple of instances where the game forces you to engage in direct combat with them, it offers a lot of help to lighten up the exchange. What one game does and the other doesn’t is that they adapt the difficulty with the plot. A person who is represented as a badass stays a badass.


Such considerations of difficulty become even more prevalent as multiplayer becomes a huge feature in video games. Why develop a brilliant A.I. or carefully balanced difficulty system when players can just go online and fight real people? Rankings and choice of opponents give a player the same set of options that developers spend years developing themselves. It also lets them feel that sense of accomplishment that beating a tough game provides as well. In an article with ‘The Escapist’, Kieron Gillen muses that challenging games are quickly becoming the equivalent of ‘80s metal. They’re such an acquired taste and appeal to such a small group that they aren’t able to find a home anywhere except the underground scene. This seems like a loss in terms of what difficulty could potentially add to a game if there was a bit more thought behind it. The satisfaction of beating a difficult game or having the highest score will always be there for players. It cannot hurt to wonder what other uses challenge in games may have for creating a game experience.


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