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Thursday, Jul 31, 2008
Capcom's shoot 'em up Wolf of the Battlefield: Commando 3 is oddly reminiscent of another recent Capcom game...

Picking up Wolf of the Battlefield: Commando 3 for a playthrough, I was struck with an unflinching sense of déja vu.  “Schiller, you idiot, of course you’re feeling déja vu,” you say, “it’s the third game in a series.  Chances are, it has something in common with the first two Commando games, yes?” 


Well, yes, but those games are oddly not what Commando 3 reminds me of.


In fact, by the time Wolf of the Battlefield: Commando 3 came out, I had all but forgotten about the first two Commando games, and why not?  They were released in 1985 and 1991 (as Commando and Mercs in America, and as Wolf of the Battlefield and Wolf of the Battlefield 2 in Japan), which means I’ve had plenty of time for my TV and game-addled brain to forget they ever existed as anything but a footnote to Bionic Commando, perhaps my favorite game of all time.  No, what Wolf of the Battlefield immediately evokes is a different Capcom franchise, one more recent, more immediate, and more…mediocre.


That franchise would be the Rocketmen franchise.


Obviously, it hasn’t been that long since I put down Rocketmen: Axis of Evil (probably) for good, which was fine with me given that its distinct (read: awkward) art style and oddly cumbersome shoot-everything-that-moves action were starting to grate on me a bit.  As such, it was an utter shock to find Commando 3 with a very similar, though thankfully devoted to two dimensions, art style in the cutscenes and a play style highly reminiscent of that belonging to Rocketmen.  You choose one of three different characters with varying attributes, and then proceed to run around with one analog stick and shoot in every direction with the other analog stick.  Along the way you pick up prisoners, hop into various vehicles, and cause a whole lot of mayhem.


On one hand, this sort of gameplay is a perfect fit for the style of those old overhead Commando games—the number of times I used to wish there was an easy way to run in one direction and shoot in another in Commando and Mercs is pretty much uncountable.  On the other hand, it feels like folly to release this thing so close to the release of Rocketmen.  All that’s going to happen is that people who consider themselves fans of this sort of game are simply going to get burned out on it.  Who’s going to want to play another overhead run ‘n gun after this?  Anyone?


On the bright side, the play mechanics in Commando 3 are a marked improvement on the Rocketmen style.  For one, it plays much faster—the control is crisp and the action is fast.  I’m also simultaneously overjoyed and frustrated by the fact that Capcom saw fit to bring back the original Commando‘s idea that putting secret areas in random places would be a good idea.  That’s right, in order to find all of the secret areas in the game, you pretty much have to toss grenades at every square inch of the map.  There are some clues floating around that mark certain spots as more likely to have a secret area hidden beneath them, but some of them just feel utterly random in their placement.  While I can appreciate the retro value of the randomly placed secrets, I can’t help but wonder if something involving a puzzle or a clever clue would be a more satisfying way to hide a secret.


Fans of this type of game who haven’t given Rocketmen: Axis of Evil a look yet will be in luck—Wolf of the Battlefield: Commando 3 is better, for a number of quantifiable reasons.  Still, Rocketmen wore out its welcome a little bit quicker than I’d hoped, and I imagine that Commando 3 will do the same.  Of course, downloading Commando 3 offers access to the Street Fighter 2 HD open beta, so there’s value added on top of the fact that it’s a better, if still flawed, game.  If you’re a fan of Commando and/or Mercs, you’ll probably have a good time with the third entry in the series; if you’re simply an overhead run ‘n gunner who’s starting to get a little burned out on your genre of choice, do yourself a favor and avoid it.  You’ll thank yourself later.


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Thursday, Jul 31, 2008

Megan McArdle linked to this paper published recently in the Journal of Consumer Research. The upshot of it is something that we all intuitively take for granted, namely that the degree to which we enjoy what we taste in food is bound up with what we think that food represents culturally. If we think vegan cookies represent righteous earth consciousness, and we are similarly righteous, those cookies are going to taste better to us, regardless whether or not they are actually vegan. (McArdle points out the opposite case, when people reject vegan food only when they know it’s vegan. I tend to fall into that camp; I don’t want to endorse that ideology at a gut level, though I have been known to eat—maybe even enjoy—a Planet Platter or two at Souen.)


Part of this is what is called the assimilation effect—our brains make food taste like what we expect it to taste like based on previous experiences. But our expectations are also a matter of ideology. To a perhaps large degree, we consume the ideas symbolized by the food, not the actually sensual qualities of it, and what we taste is affected by our feelings about those ideas. Furthermore, we may consume certain representative foods as a means of experiencing the ideas—of participating in them in lieu of thinking them through, or of deepening our attachment to them and making our believing in them feel like something. The products may no longer merely symbolize the ideas and emotions with which they are associated, but may instead stand as the gatekeepers to them—access to such emotions and ideas are controlled by access to the associated goods (e.g., you can’t be a real football fan with tickets to the games and an RV to tailgate in; you aren’t going to feel healthy unless you are eating the products associated with health in the public consciousness.)


The questions at the heart of this is what allows us to replace the sensual qualities of food with symbolic ones, and why it occurs. Here’s how the researchers put it:


individual preferences are not independent of culture (Fieldhouse 1995; Rozin 1996). If innate taste preferences were the sole driving force behind food choice, then few would persevere with unpleasant tastes such as coffee, beer, or chili peppers (Germov and Williams 1999; Matlin 1983). Rather, foods and beverages are experienced in a sociocultural context. For instance, the first time a person experiences the taste of beer, it would likely taste unpleasantly bitter. However, consuming alcohol at restaurants, pubs, nightclubs, and parties is generally considered a social experience, which provides positive reinforcement of the taste of beer itself (Germov and Williams 1999). In this way, a preference for beer is acquired through repetition that is driven socially and culturally rather than biologically. Thus, one’s evaluation of the taste of a food or beverage stems from both an objective process (in which the inherent properties of the item stimulate taste receptors and engender a positive or negative sensory experience) and a subjective process (in which society creates a particular impression of the product, to which individuals then react). This subjective process is not yet fully understood.


They posit the two forces working in unison to constitute our tastes, but it seems plausible that the objective process is being supplanted by the subjective process, that the balance is shifting. Do we instigate this subjective process as a way to derive more pleasure from food? Do we do it knowingly as a means as shoring up our place in the social hierarchy—“I’m going to be the sort of person who enjoys pinot noirs and capers”? Or are we persuaded to do it by marketing, which may be the primary force that associates the foods with ideas in the first place? (Though by no means is it the only one; the ordinary coincidences of life and various cultural traditions of course give foods resonance. But a consumer society is distinguished by the dominance of advertising discourse, by its centrality in disseminating cultural symbolism.) The authors point out, “Among other implications, the framework implies that the positioning of a brand (in terms of image) may influence marketing success as much as a product’s objective taste, because the image affects how consumers experience the taste.” That seems pretty self-evident to me. The objective taste of something has almost become an alibi for enjoying what we really want from a branded food—the opportunity to participate in the fantasies promulgated by the advertising, to belong to a group of like-minded consumers, to experience the vague feelings connected to the good, to project our identity through the brand as a symbol. Coca-Cola is like battery acid in a can, but I still find myself enjoying one now and then, despite how much it hurts my stomach. So this kind of consumption harms me physically, but am I compensated by the nebulous, hard-to-articulate psychological pleasures I get instead? Or is the psychological damage deeper, masked from me, to manifest later as an inability to access unmediated pleasure, or as an addiction to certain rituals of consumption? Once I’ve had a Coke and a smile, does it get harder to have the latter without the former?


But it may be pointless to complain about the process by which our values get bound up with what we eat. It may simply be inevitable that we express our political choices and self-concepts deliberately through what we choose to eat (the “self-congruity theory”), even though how food actually tastes is politically and culturally agnostic. This creates a crevice in which marketers can insinuate themselves.


The taste of food alone is not powerful enough to create the kind of brand allegiances that can be made profitable. But could advertising be systematically denigrating the importance of what food actually tastes like (something no amount of advertising can ultimately affect), with our consequently suppressing our ability to register sensual stimuli? I’m haunted by the notion that these symbolic ideas that have been attached to the things I consume have kept me from ever really tasting food. One of the goals of advertising as a system (as opposed to individual ads) may be to accomplish that suppression—to encourage us to distrust our own senses (make us insecure about what we experience as pleasurable) in favor of cultural messages. (Advertising’s other systemic goal, as I’ve argued many times before, is to promote a sort of free associational illogic in place of rational chains of cause and effect. These two goals seem related, perhaps reducible to the same thing.)


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Wednesday, Jul 30, 2008

Live from Abbey Road show seven (Sundance Channel, Thursday, July 24 at 10 p.m. Eastern and Pacific) has an incredibly diverse line-up this week.  Cheers to the show’s staff for presenting Modern American mainstream pop next to what’s been called the new Celtic soul sound and classic British hard rock to create another eclectic episode.


Matchbox Twenty‘s Paul Doucette admits at the outset to being “a dork for the Beatles”, and imagines he’ll have every nook and cranny of Abbey Road’s studio one committed to memory before the band finishes its session! The entire band goes into the details behind the creation of the track “How Far We’ve Come” (off of 2007’s Exile on Mainstream) before launching into an incredible live version of it. It’s the balance between these bits of trivia and the live performances that Live from Abbey Road really gets right.


In addition to rehearsals and performances of “I Can’t Let You Go” and “Bright Lights”, Matchbox Twenty pulls out its Lennon and McCartney cover. “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window” is something the band “tacked on” to “Bright Lights” because the two songs shared some elements, but add-on or no, it’s a beautiful bit of homage.


The Script is a trio from Dublin that includes former studio musicians, had a single of the week in the UK and toured with last episode darlings the Hoosiers. These interview clips give an interesting, detailed background on the first song too. “We Cry”, it is explained, is a song that came from walking down one of the meanest streets in Ireland and wanting to express to its inhabitants the idea that, “a problem shared is a problem halved”. The song itself, as well as the performance shown here, is brilliant. The Script’s other performance, “Man Who Can’t Be Moved” is a gorgeous love song so perfectly realized that if I wasn’t watching it, I wouldn’t believe it was recorded live.


Joe Eliott starts Def Leppard‘s segment by explaining how the industry has changed so dramatically since the 1980s. When Def Leppard began, bands had five albums in which to prove their staying power, often not breaking through until the third or fourth. In the ‘90s, however, the standard procedure became to cut a band if its second release wasn’t a million-seller. He theorizes that there’d be no Def Leppard if there hadn’t been a third record (which was, by the way, Pyromania!). And that would be a shame, as the band makes quite clear as it fires up “Rocket” from 1987’s Hysteria.


The band members give their all on a cover of “Rock On” and it’s amazing! Then, they play a new one called “C’mon C’mon”, from this year’s Songs From the Sparkle Lounge, and it’s not only good, it’s a prime example of rock and roll in top form. At one point during the interviews, Elliott is saying that they all saw Marc Bolan, David Bowie and Queen growing up, and guitarist Viv Campbell states matter-of-factly “Rock and Roll was a religion back then. It was something that you focused on and it changed your life.”


As the world has become increasingly focused on “product” and “the next next big thing” it’s lamentable to watch those beliefs dying out. No worries, though. Some say the old ways still yet survive, and with musical diversity like what’s shown each week on Live from Abbey Road, I predict a re-awakening!



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Wednesday, Jul 30, 2008

It’s never pleasant when something that was lightweight (albeit cheesy) and fun is forced into profit sharing mode. Put another way, when a franchise has to jerryrig its purpose in order to pump out another meaningless sequel/tre-quel/quad-cast, there’s very little entertainment fuel left for the fire. Take the latest unnecessary Mummy movie about to hit theaters this Friday (1 August). Here’s a flaccid little excuse for escapism that has the audacity to squander two of the finest talents ever to grace a Hong Kong action epic, and then it dumps the series’ signature character in favor of a last act battle between zombies and statues (trust us - it’s not nearly as cool as it sounds).


No one begrudges a movie star from earning a paycheck. Even our most celebrated and seasoned actors (Sir Ben Kingsley, are you listening?) have been known to lower their standards in order to up their income bracket. That being said, their profiteering doesn’t always have to be so obvious, or god-awful. This year alone, we’ve seen the aforementioned Oscar winner playing a crosseyed cornjob in Mike Myers seminal stink bomb The Love Guru. Joe Montegna - The Simpsons’ Fat Tony and Broadway’s original Ricky Roma - went effete for a turn as Larry the Cable Guy’s buddy in Witless Protection. Heck, even John Turturro took another break from indie angst to revisit popcorn land in You Don’t Mess with the Zohan (last year, it was Transformers).


Naturally, there are some who would never consider such a step down, or who simply bow out before they can capitalize on their newfound fiscal fame. The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor has a perfect example of this high idealism in Rachel Weisz. Back in 1999, when Stephen Sommers was hired to bring the old school Universal creature up to date, his choice for the female lead - Evie Carnahan - was a fresh faced British actress with some minor onscreen credits. In 2001, when The Mummy Returns arrived, Weisz was more well known. Four years later, Oscar awarded the hard working performer for her turn in The Constant Gardener. Even then, Weisz expressed interest in reprising the role for this latest turn. Clearly, somewhere along the way, cooler aesthetic heads prevailed.


This happens a lot. Stephen Spielberg wanted Sean Connery back as Indiana Jones’ Dad for the latest installment of the action hero’s serial on steroids adventures. The temperamental Scottish legend said “No”. Similarly, Michael Keaton dropped out of the Batman movies when Tim Burton bailed. There are also instances where series staples are unceremoniously “dropped” from the planned follow-up. Imhotep himself, Arnold Vosloo, was told by original Mummy man Sommers that a follow-up was in the works, and they there were plans on bringing his character back. Fast forward a few years and Egypt is out, Jet Li is in, and the entire narrative was jet set over to China. That really must suck - especially when you’re the character everyone is supposedly clamoring for.


Of course none of this matters in a monster movie. All we really care about is the spook show. The Mummy films were never what you’d call frightening. They were more like heightened hype-horror - excess which might have been terrifying were the obvious strings and zippers not constantly reminding you of the schlock value. Sommers is an expert at such goblin grandstanding. Look at Van Helsing (you’d be wise NOT to take that advice literally). It took every famous fiend in Hollywoodland and transformed them into a computer generated free for all where logic and fun were shuttled aside and sacrificed for more and more Dracula-babies. Such showboating is standard operating procedure for this cinematic kid in a celluloid candy story. Unfortunately, in turning things over to Cohen, Sommers and the series went from the frying pan to fiasco’s fires.


Cohen completely misses the purpose of the Mummy franchise. He thinks he’s making Indiana Jones: The Far Less Professional Years. He handles action sequences with all the grace of someone who once made a movie about a killer airplane (Stealth - look it up) and uses every camera trick and editing ploy in the book in hopes that no one will notice the ineptness. When you have characters careening down a Shanghai street, their fireworks truck poised precariously to explode, one should be on the edge of their seat, not shrouding their eyes in dull skepticism. Not all spectacle stuntwork has to seem plausible, by Cohen’s take on this material gives one’s suspension of disbelief a major high impact workout.


Even worse is the aforementioned corpses vs. ceramics showdown. Like the infamous pygmy mummies from the second Sommers film, the amount of visual overkill on display is enough to give audiences a virtual headache. As every mainframe in California renders the ridiculous undead melee, Cohen keeps his camera as far away from the reality - literally and figuratively - as possible. This means that, at any given moment, the epic finale of Tomb of the Dragon Emperor looks like the final ant confront from a high octane version of Phase IV. Even worse, when we do eventually get close-ups, it’s hard to tell the motion capture performers from the computer generated fighters.


The last straw, however, has everything to do with the regional relocation and Vosloo-less casting decisions. Jet Li is, without question, one of the genre’s greats. His work with Jackie Chan in this spring’s The Forbidden Kingdom was that half-baked hackwork’s sole saving grace. Even as he approaches middle age (and a self-imposed desire to work in ‘straight dramatic films’ only), he can still kick major hinder. Now, add in a frequent female co-star of the mighty martial artist, the equally amazing Michelle Yeoh, and you’ve got a match made in Shaw Brothers heaven. When they square off, swords blazing and skills matched, it should resonate with heavy Hong Kong energy.


But Cohen blows it again, thwarting the choreography and avoiding the whole “wire fu” thing for some overcranked Ridley Scott-ishness and incompetent framing. Even the skeletons and statues are treated with more respect. To say that Li and Yeoh are wasted here suggests that anyone entering this latest Mummy massacre will actually have heard from them (or better still, recognize their non-Tinsel Town turns before the lens). Instead, they are merely the fodder for another pointless chapter, a ‘no one asked for it’ return trip to a place that wasn’t that interesting the first two times through. Weisz was right to bail - especially in light of how horribly underwritten this updated Evie ends up being (Maria Bello as her replacement is just bad).


About the only person to come out of The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor not reeking of friendly yeti feces (don’t ask) is Brendan Fraser. Sure, the 39 year old is given a college age son in the film (it’s a soap opera level of biological time teasing) and he’s reduced to little more than a comedic foil for the foolishness surrounding him, but the ladies sure do love his shirtless musk (there was an audible girlie gasp in the theater when his semi-chiseled form got a loving close-up). Indeed, he’s got a Teflon talent which tends to wick away any lasting impact from his frequently incomprehensible career move - Dudley Do-Right? Monkeybone?  As a perfect example of unnecessary coffer stuffing, this latest Mummy installment will probably be profitable enough to warrant yet a fourth foray into sarcophagus. And if part three is any indication of quality, the next cloth wrapped creature feature will be even more uninspired.


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Wednesday, Jul 30, 2008

Some might consider it a bit of a comedown: that after six books of poetry and at least one novel published by a major publisher (Knopf Canada’s Between Mountains in 2004), that Maggie Helwig has decided to publish a follow-up with a small Canadian press in Coach House Books. I was curious, so I asked the publisher about it and was told, “Maggie’s always loved what we do, and that, paired with the fact that we publish a lot of books set in or about Toronto, made us the right home for Girls Fall Down.” Fair enough. It’s still strange, though, that a novel that’s tied not only to Toronto as a setting, but has a framing device involving post-9/11 paranoia couldn’t find a home in a much bigger pond.


Girls Fall Down is about a mysterious gas or poison (or virus, take your pick) that has infiltrated the Toronto subway system in the year 2002 and is causing teenaged girls to become sick with strange rashes and vomiting. Helwig metaphorically makes reference to the sarin gas attacks in Tokyo in 1995 (and acknowledges that she was inspired by Haruki Murakami’s Underground in the Acknowledgments section), but it could be a metaphor for any random attack by plague, whether it’s anthrax or the case of SARS that Toronto was overcome with in 2003.


However, the book is really a love story about a diabetic photographer named Alex, who is slowly losing his sight from his disease, and a woman named Susie, who is on her own crusade to find her missing schizophrenic brother. The pair had briefly been lovers in the late 1980s, but that affair was shattered by Susie, who packed up and moved to Vancouver without so much in the way of a forwarding number or address. So when they meet again under coincidental circumstances, it makes for a compelling love story.


It would, perhaps, be more compelling if Helwig didn’t relegate portions of the story to flashback status, making it hard to tell at which point in the relationship the action is taking place. The framing device is annoying too, and interjects itself in weird places in the narrative; it also doesn’t seem to have a whole lot to do with the main action: a simple story of rekindled desire. When the loose threads of the two distinct stories tie up, at the end of the novel, it seems forced and laboured, if not padded. And the action more or less stops on a dime, leaving dear readers hanging as to what happens next. Does Alex go totally blind? Do he and Suzanne stick together in the end? Tough to say. All we get are tantalizing hints that things seem to be on the verge of going wrong.


That said, where Girls Fall Down succeeds is in the actions of its two main protagonists, both of whom might remind readers of Henry and Clare in The Time Traveler’s Wife. In fact, much of the thrill of the novel comes from the fact that Alex is diabetic and could go off into a stupor at any time, any inappropriate time, unless he’s on top of his blood sugar levels. This leads to a bit of paranoia in the narrative: that Alex is about to do (or say) the Wrong Thing at the Wrong Time. It’s like watching a train wreck about to unfold.


Overall, Girls Fall Down is a fun, quick read. But anyone expecting any profundities about terror and what it means in the nature of romance might come away from the book a bit disappointed. One could have done away with the rashes and puking, and come up with a much shorter and easier to digest story about love and its fleeting moments of panic. Helwig might be playing in the minor leagues here, but, after reading Girls this reviewer comes away with the impression that with a little more focus and an eye on the ball, she could hit the next one out of the park.


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