Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Classic Films: Scarface (1983)

"[Y]ou asked me if I was in the meth business or the money business. Neither. I'm in the empire business." - Walter White (Breaking Bad)
Recently I was watching the Howard Hughes biopic The Aviator, where I learned a lot about Howard Hughes - including the fact that he was responsible for the original Scarface. As much as I tried to look for the original, I was not able to find it on DVD. So I settled for the 80s remake; though given it was also on the AFI's list of top gangster films, settled might be underselling it.

The first thing that struck me about the movie was how 80s it was, even down to a montage set to pop music. For better or worse, the film definitely lets you know where it sits. It's an ambitious film, as such a story demands, though the runtime made the film feel like it had slightly overstayed its welcome. Did it really need to be near 3 hours to tell that story?

The film centres around the anti-hero Tony Montana (brilliantly played by Al Pacino); a character that through sheer determination drives the world to change around him. A ruthless despicable man who will stop at nothing to get what he wants, which was both his path to glory and to his eventual downfall.

This leads to what feels to me as cliché. We cannot root for the anti-hero, we cannot condone what he has done. His downfall is set by his moral trajectory. Otherwise we are rooting for a monster. Here I feel the film did something interesting; it recast the character into a somewhat sympathetic light. He needed to die, but he was broken long before his final breath.

But what lesson are we meant to take from a film where the downfall of a monster was one last shred of humanity? Perhaps its a statement of the inhumanity of the drug trade, and that what we are meant to understand is how ruthless the drug trade is. Indeed, this is what I read the filmmaker argued to avoid censorship, and something entirely understandable by looking at what's happening in Mexico today.

While the film is violence and full of profanities, the film doesn't seem in any way shocking because of them. Maybe in 1983 it was one film that raised the bar, but doesn't stand out today. It's a reminder of how desensitised I've become.

I want to say I enjoyed the film, but I'm not sure how accurate that would be. While it was epic in ambition, and the portrayal by Pacino was mesmerising, it was let done by excessive length, a simplistic plot, and very little in the way of character development. When Walter White explains on Breaking Bad that he's in the empire business, we have taken the journey with him and can see and understand why he's done what he's done. Scarface by contrast was quite hollow - an immigrant who wanted the world, but miscalculated what that actually meant.

Saturday, 19 January 2013

The Shift To Digital Sales

I was disappointed to read that Green Man Gaming - a digital games website - has decided to join the list of online retailers that support the Australian publishing industry's price-gauging of Australian consumers. It did so, it claims, because the publisher was put under pressure by an Australian retailer.
Hi - we have had a number of enquiries about price increases on Borderlands 2 and XCOM Enemy Unknown in Australia and New Zealand. This was done at the request of the publisher based on local retailer feedback. We would rather not have had to do this but we really value the relationship with our publishing partner.
I'm not faulting Green Man Gaming for this (though it will mean that I won't be getting BioShock Infinite from them given it's a 2K title), but it is disappointing that once again the Australian consumer is being punished for choosing an alternative option to physical product. Especially, too, that the move is in response to a physical distributor putting pressure on the publishing company.

The thing is, the more that I see the possibilities of digital distribution, the more I wonder what the need for physical distribution is any more. It seems that I'm not the only one wondering this, and that its enough of a concern for the physical distribution chain to manipulate the market to justify its own existence.

There are two different ways in which this practice seems unfair. The first is that we as consumers are being punished for choosing differently to the status quo. The retail chain cannot compete in the retail market as it stands, so instead of shifting to cater for the new demand, it is manipulating the market to make it the least unattractive option for buying an attractive product. The second is that by doing this, it perpetuates the high prices that Australians are forced to pay for games.

I want to support gaming, and as a consumer my way of doing this is to pay for products. If I want to see more games being made, I need to pay for existing games. Yet local publishing rights and retail chains are relics of a pre-Internet era; I no more need them than I need Australian book publishers if its going to be cheaper to get books sent from the UK than to buy locally. They are just a price-gauger between me and my gaming.

A long article was recently published on why it is game prices won't go lower for Australians. It's a good read, but what struck me was this line from an anonymous source:
"People complain so much [about game prices in Australia] but they still go out and buy the games. It's a lot of noise but very little action. If consumers got fed up with paying so much for games in this country, they'd stop buying them altogether, both at retail and digitally. But that hasn't happened on a mass scale yet."
There's no question that games are an in-demand product. Yet stores like Green Man Gaming are a way for people to have their displeasure recorded as more than just noise. If it weren't that people were looking for cheaper online alternatives, then why would retail chains and publishers be worried about the online presence? Otherwise voicing our displeasure is all we can do. And as one who has stopped buying games when they are being price-gauged*, it's disappointing that an alternative to abstaining altogether is being taken away.

I'm happy to pay for games, I'm not happy to be ripped-off because I need to support an outdated distribution model. People using Green Man Gaming (as opposed to acquiring the games illegally) was a legitimate way of expressing displeasure at the current state of retail in Australia. For me, the hunt is on for another GMG equivalent until the eventual (yet sadly prolonged) death of those archaic retail chains. I'm just glad that I was able to pick up XCOM Enemy Unknown when I did off GMG, as its a great game and well worth supporting.

*Fallout New Vegas, Civilization V, RAGE, Diablo III, Max Payne 3, and Farcry 3 are all AAA titles that have been lost sales due to price-gauging. I've been happy to wait until they're bargain bin and on massive discount before purchasing.

Dishonored Hornets' Nest Achievement

This isn't really much of anything, but since this blog is my online dumping ground, I thought this is as good a place as any to link to a brief instructional video I made on how to get a particular achievement in the excellent game Dishonored.

Still playing through the game (nearly finished), and still very much enjoying the experience.

Friday, 18 January 2013

Lance Armstrong Is The Victim Of A Conspiracy!!!

Lance Armstrong was to go down in history as the greatest athlete in the history of humanity. If he were born in another age, we'd learn about the demigod he would no doubt have been come to be recognised as. Instead, in our cynical sensationalistic time, driven by a corrupt media and the insatiable desire to destroy all that is good, his name has been driven through the mud.

I didn't see his "confession" on Oprah (obviously you use Oprah because she's not going to ask the tough questions), but I'm sure it wasn't really him. It's obviously a stunt double, and you can tell it's not him because he looks nothing like the real Lance. This is an actor who people see as Lance because they want to see him as Lance. There's some serious schadenfreude going on, stemming from the jealously that they are all too fat, ugly, and stupid to even know how to ride a bike.

And it's that jealousy that has driven those absurd accusations against him. All those other riders, the dopers who couldn't touch Lance even when cheating themselves, have to make up stories about the one clean rider who embarrassed those cheaters time and time again. Are we really meant to take the word of cheating cheats who lied about cheating? They are self-confessed liars and cheaters! Hence their word is worthless.

Since there is no real evidence against Lance, this witch-hunt is wrong. To strip away the greatness from the greatest sportsman in history is the greatest injustice our society has ever done! Lance Armstrong passed all his drug tests - FACT. Lance Armstrong was never caught using or with drugs - FACT. Everyone testifying against him is a self-confessed liar or being threatened by the US Government - FACT. The only FACT we can take away from this is the FACT that the facts don't add up.

The media even admits it themselves. In trying to account for the overwhelming absurdity of their own conspiracy, they admit that this would have to be the most elaborate doping conspiracy in the history of sport. Absurd!!! Might as well allege that Lance was bribing other racers too. Hah! What does the media take us for?

We shouldn't stand for this! Those of us who care about the Truth should stand up for Lance Armstrong. His only crime was being the best, and those who hate that fact have ruined his reputation. They may take away his records, they may take away his Olympic bronze medal, they may his prize-money, but they can NEVER take away his TRUE greatness.

Monday, 14 January 2013

Classic Films: Taxi Driver

"I'm not Bertrand Russell. Well what do ya want. I'm a cabbie you know." - Wizard
One would think that a moralistic misanthrope would not be well-suited to life as a taxi driver; especially not on a night shift in a big city where there are so many triggers. I'm not sure whether moralist or misanthrope are completely accurate descriptions for Travis Bickle, but I do feel it captures something about the character.

Immediately, through narration and fascinating cinematography, I was drawn into the isolation and loneliness of Travis Bickle. The city was alive, yet he was detached. He carted people around whom he despised, took fares that a sane person would turn down for risk to personal safety. While other cabbies prompted him to buy a gun to protect himself, he bought one after a fare insinuated what it would do to a woman's pussy.

The film reminded me in many ways of The King Of Comedy, especially that the main character was driven by his own delusions. De Niro was perfect for the role. Reading up on the film after, the scenes where he nailed aspects of portraying the delusions of the main character were not scripted. Don't know how many takes they did, but the ones there were sublime. The scene in the restaurant trying to justify why the women he was semi-stalking should go out with him was just perfect.

If there's one issue I have with the film, it was the ambiguity of the final act. Why was it that he was going to kill the presidential candidate? Was the ending real or a delusion? Perhaps these questions are better not answered, or perhaps a 2nd viewing is warranted (a 2nd viewing is most definitely on the cards anyway). It was fascinating that Bickle was such an antihero that his effort to rescue a child prostitute is not heroic in the slightest, let alone fully appreciate just what the consequences of his actions were. It was brutal, surreal, and almost sociopathic. But as I think the point was, we were looking at the situation through the eyes of Travis Bickle, as the contrast with the media reaction demonstrated. What a film!

Monday, 7 January 2013

Classic Films: Duck Soup

"He may look like an idiot and talk like an idiot but don't let that fool you. He really is an idiot." - Groucho Marx
Comedy is something that really doesn't seem suited to the feature length presentation. Looking through the AFI's list of top 100 comedies, of the films I've seen on that list, very few I would consider good because they were funny (that's not to say they weren't good films). Aside from Monty Python's Holy Grail and Blazing Saddles, there's very few comedies I'd watch for their comedic value. For me, a stand-up show or TV are better avenues for laughs (I write this as I'm rewatching Seinfeld for the Nth time).

Comedy was at the focus of this film. Jokes were coming as quick as they could be delivered, especially when Groucho was talking. And if one joke fell flat, there was always another on its way. Some of the jokes did indeed fall flat, but there were quite a few hilarious ones too. The delivery of the final confrontation with the ambassador was superb. The visual gags were more hit than miss, including the wonderful mirror scene. I was surprised that they could get away with an implicit reference to bestiality in 1933!

I might blame sitcoms for modern films trying to do comedy with facile attempts for plausibility, and I think they suffer for it. Duck Soup didn't leave us wondering how on earth someone like Mr Firefly could just get put into a position of power, or why two incompetents (including one who turned everything into a visual gag) were given the task of being a spy. Nor were we wondering why that poor vendor needed to have his hat set on fire twice.

I was curious to find out after seeing the movie that the Marx Brothers first began in the Vaudeville and on Broadway before making films. The film, especially early on had that theatrical flavour to it - complete with a musical number or two just for the sake of it. Entertaining, but something that seems largely lost to modern cinema outside of Mel Brooks films. I do wonder if the film's comedy was partly a relic of the silent film era, or that comedy of this style is better suited to stand-up routines. In either case, modern comedies don't resemble this apparent historically significant comedies, and in my opinion that's a pity.

Sunday, 6 January 2013

Classic Films - The Challenge

Last year, I was able to work my way through a different album each day. Towards the end of the year, I realised that this was an opportunity to be able to listen to some of the culturally and historically significant albums. While I managed to get a few in, a large portion of the new music I heard were from unsigned or underground metal acts whose music was on Bandcamp.

About 6 months ago, after reading another one of those "greatest films of all times" list of which I had not even heard of most of the films listed - let alone seen any - I decided that for this year, I would watch a classic film each week. I made a list and started watching films on it (Annie Hall, Vertigo, The Maltese Falcon, Lawrence Of Arabia, The Battleship Potemkin, etc.), but this year I've decided to make a regular thing of it.

I use the term classic a bit loosely, so I can incorporate films that are of cult status, or classic for all the wrong reasons. My experience of doing this in the past is I see the things that shows like The Simpsons or Family Guy referenced/ripped-of/paid homage to. In any case, I hope to better understand the magic of cinema as Scorsese brilliantly conveyed in the delightful film Hugo. Week 1: Duck Soup Week 2: Taxi Driver

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

Brainstorming Session At Bethesda

"Look what we've done with the Fallout franchise. We've turned an existing franchise into millions of sales. Can we do that again?"
"If we're taking franchises that were big in the late 90s, I wonder if there's a way we can reboot the Thief franchise?"
"Eidos still owns the intellectual property rights to that game."
"Besides, rumour has it that they are working on a new game."
"Still, I really think we could have a go of doing a Thief game well. What if we took the general idea of Thief and changed a few of the mechanics?"
"Like what?"
"Well, instead of slowly sneaking up on people and clobbering them over the head, how about we sneak up on people to stab them?"
"That's a start, but it doesn't sound like enough."
"We could change the focus away from stealing. Stealing would be there, but it wouldn't matter as much."
"So what would the goal be?"
"Remember in Oblivion where we assassinated the Emperor at the beginning? Imagine if the Emperor's guards were in on it and could frame the protagonist."
"And from there, the protagonist seeks revenge... I like it. What else?"
"What if, too, we take away the punishment for not being stealth? We make it so stealth can be there for those gamers who crave stealth, but also allow gamers to play it like an FPS."
"But won't that discourage people from using stealth? Why make a stealth mechanic if it's only optional?"
"I know, we'll reward players who use stealth with a different ending - a good ending. And punish players who just kill everyone by giving them a bad ending."
"That sounds a little like Bioshock."
"Bioshock also did cool magic powers, perhaps we can use them too."
"Oh, and we should include zombies because they're the in-thing right now."
"Yes, this is sounding more and more like a game. Let's get on this quick before Thief 4 comes out."

Perhaps Bethesda weren't going out on a limb conceptually, but what's not to love about a game that combines Thief, Bioshock, and the Elder Scrolls franchise?