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January 15, 2010

Why I Didn't Like Avatar

Well, another year, another post. As usual, I'm either inspired by Brett, or egged on by Jake. In this case, it's the latter. Because I didn't particularly like Avatar, and he worked on it, and he'd like to know why.

By the way, there are probably SPOILERS in here; I'm not keeping track.

I have three one-liners to pick from when someone asks me what I thought of Avatar:

Ultimately, I came to realize that the third one is the most accurate, or most meaningful, of the three.

This is a mystery going to back to everyone's enchantment with Lord of the Rings. I was pretty bored, not by one or another of them, but by all three. These movies, as well as Avatar, feel almost vaudevillian in their desperation to entertain. It brings to mind the interminable sequence at the end of Coppola's The Cotton Club, where someone tap dances madly while a montage of violent mobstery acts are spliced in.

One of the generally unheralded crimes of the Star Wars prequels, made clear if you rewatch the original trilogy, is one of numbers. Everyone used to speculate how cool it would be when a hundred Jedi are on the screen fighting at once, and ultimately, no, it wasn't actually particularly cool - and it's not just because they were fighting robots, or even because George Lucas was directing.

It turns out that things are more exciting when you care about at least one person in the fight, the stakes are high, and the action is grounded in human terms. That's why the Luke/Darth fight is exciting, while the Yoda/Dooku fight is ridiculous. And why Han and Luke versus, count them, four Tie Fighters(!), is exciting, while that mess on the screen at the start of Episode 3 feels more like a hidden object game.

The prevailing digital filmmaking ethos seems to be: Nothing is impossible, and let's prove it. So it's not enough to have a few dozen creatures skittering after our heroes in Moria - it has to be a ZILLION of them ALL over the CEILING! The stakes can't merely be human, they must leak to the the edges of our peripheral vision and fill us with unfathomable dread.

The stuff I remember most fondly from LOTR are the parts with the people in it, or something so convincing it may as well be people. The first 30 minutes of Fellowship are my favorite, because old-fashioned acting takes center stage. After that, for every 2 minutes of credible drama - the excellent Boromir sequences springs to mind - there seem to be 10 minutes of cameras swooping around oliphants.

(A minor digression into digital camerawork: For all his recent flaws as a filmmaker, George Lucas knows the value of classic camera setups. Entirely digital Pixar knows this too. The camera itself is a proxy for the human eye, and the further it gets from what natural human movement is, the more detached the viewer becomes. Keep it up too long and the mind detects something fishy going on and stops caring. This is one reason why videogame cinematics are so frequently terrible.)

Er... what was this post supposed to be about? Oh yes, Avatar. Back to it.

Of passing mention, at best, is the story. There were no surprises and almost nobody to care about. The choice to make the Navi tribal, largely primitive, and deeply grounded in the planet led (falsely, I believe) to making them humorless and tiresomely dire, It's a very old 'alien culture' setup that's never been particularly interesting: There's the one you know who's kind of fun, and the ones you don't who are kind of jerks.

Which leads us to the terrific CGI and the vaunted "well thought out world" of Pandora, like, say, the part with the floating mountains. There are in fact, lots of great touches. The hair-plugs are a nice indicator that the interconnectedness of the natural world isn't just New Age chatter. At the same time, I have trouble squaring this with the tooth-and-claw nature of ecosystem. This is a world turned against itself, as if the white and red blood cells in our own bodies were tribes warring for territory.

For all the color and splendor and beauty, and those very cool horses (for whom the word 'cheval' was coined a few centuries early), Pandora seems like it could have been envisioned by Thomas Kinkade, with all the glowy bits and unspoilt exquisiteness. It's sci-fi fantasy wrought at the level of kitsch.

One final, shamelessly sexist note: Titanic was celebrated as the ultimate date movie, with the romantic first half for chicks, and the exciting 2nd half for guys. However valid that observation was or wasn't, Avatar seems to have been built with the same structure. The first half is glowy, ephemeral, romantic, dreamy. Then the guys finally get their explosions.

OK, so isn't it true that a calm-to-stormy dramatic structure is a classic formulation? Sure. But each end of that spectrum in Avatar seems calculatedly over the top; not just a bit glowy, and not just a little explody. It feels like a cynical, inorganic construction, a whole brought down by its ingeniusly engineered parts.

And all of that is why I didn't like Avatar.


July 23, 2009


I've always thought Ron Howard's films are underrated, but it may be because I knew little about the facts before going in. I knew nothing about Apollo 13 or John Nash before seeing those films, and found them pretty gripping.

Frost/Nixon on the other hand... not so gripping. The biggest problem was Michael Sheen, just a twitchy mess as David Frost. Look to YouTube videos for the real thing, an assured and canny interviewer. Sheen portrays a cheap, false charisma that feels parodic at best; part Austin Powers, part Ricky Gervais. You can't believe he was a beloved media figure.

Most everyone else is fine, and Langella is great. Sadly, the best of his performance is buried in the DVD extras. Watch both versions of his Farewell speech. The speech itself was amazing, but his performance is breathtaking. There's a good argument for keeping the speech out of the body of the film, but I think it should at least have played over the credits.


March 17, 2009

Who's the Bigger Dumbath: The Dumbath or the Dumbath who Followth him?

My 2nd shot at the LOTRO trial, and Turbine's stubborn insistence that I pay good money for their hard work, has convinced me to pony up.

(On the other hand, I still think it's a bad business model. They could have had $15/mo since this post way back in 2007.)

March 10, 2009

Lord of the Roost

I've been plugging away at a 10-day free trial (again) of Lord of the Rings Online, and finding it lovely.

A big surprise, however, was the chicken game. You take control of a chicken and complete errands using Fast Run, Evade, and Earthworm Detection skills. My chicken has less obvious capabilities too, and they're fun to explore. For instance, I was able to pick up some honey and carry it around; unfortunately, no merchant would give me the time of day.

Leveling up the chicken has been a steep challenge - actually, I'm not even sure if it's possible, because I can't get XP 1. Every MOB is at least 4 levels above me, and my best attempts at pecking and evading the local wolves have ended badly. The red fox, curiously enough, cannot be attacked.

So if anyone wants to group for this adventure, I could use the help. Perhaps as gang of chickens, we can take out one of these wolves and make a name for ourselves on the farm. Let me know.

February 28, 2009


Liv: "Gen, if you don't stop whining, I'm going to get annoyed."
Gen: "You're already annoyed!

February 18, 2009

It was 20 Years Ago Today

Twenty years ago, I was working in the Kaiser mailroom and pursuing a vaguely bohemian lifestyle on the cheap. Those were fun times, but I needed rescuing.

A friend told me that KPFA needed "computer guru". It's funny to think how common that term was back then, to describe hobbyists like me. That was before anyone knew how to work one of these contraptions.

I walked into KPFA to do data entry for a marathon, under the guiding eye of my mentor Larry (the real guru). It started as humble data entry, but it turned out to be the beginning of my professional career.

January 1, 2009

Just One Resolution

Start blogging (and stop Facebooking.)

P.S. Thanks, Jake.

Now Playing:

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
Deathly Hallows

Status: Done.

Mood: Goodbye, Harry Potter (sniffle).

Notes: Changed my mind: Review pending...

Kingdom Hearts
Kingdom Kill Me Now

Status: Finished the 7th or so successive 'final' boss in a wide-eyed stupor at 1AM.

Mood: Like I just opened Al Capone's Vault.

Notes: I played through Kingdom Hearts, and watched it commit all the crimes of design that I do my best to avoid, (exploitation of a bad camera, mazelike level design, baffling side quests, enemies that look the same but get stronger to match your progress, lack of guideposts for the player, obscure button commands introduced mid-game, and did I mention all the false finales?) and all I can think is: As a game designer, I'm trying too hard.

I never thought of myself as one of those tiresome Disney haters, but KH is a tour of Disney at it's shallowest. It's not that the source material was awful (Awful? No. Tedious? Sometimes.) but when the characters arrive in KH, stand on their marks, and recite a handful of familiar lines with sound-alike voices, it's easy to forget what you ever liked about them. With the exception of Goofy and Donald, who are fun to have around throughout, every character has a 'best public face' blandness. Exploring Kingdom Hearts is more like scanning the box art on a shelf full of Disney DVDs than exploring the settings and characters themselves.

In the end, it feels less like a game than another PR venture; that strange Disney mix of marketing and entertainment that we all know and love.

Indigo Prophecy
Indigo Prophecy

Status: STILL just past the diner investigation. I'm saving this until I have a few vacation days to focus on it.

Mood: Really intrigued.

Notes: I'm only an hour into this, and I get the feeling I'm playing an "important" game, in terms of design. The tutorial is goofy, the art isn't grand, and the writing is just ok. But there's serious vision behind this game.

If I could sum it up based on what little I've played, the goal is not to have you play a movie - a tiresome cliche when it comes to game design - but to play a novel. You get an "omniscient" viewpoint by playing multiple characters, each with their own motivations and "mood", who wonder about the other characters you're playing: "Why did he try to mop up the floor?". You can interact with lots of stuff, sometimes in trivial ways that just serve to illustrate your character.

Game designers consistently commit the crime of building stories around plot instead of character. Tim Schafer was one of the few to recognize early on that, just as gameplay is about interesting player decisions, good fiction is about interesting character decisions: Raskolnikov's decision to murder, Sancho Panza's decision to keep following Don Quixote, Manny's decision to find Mesche.

Indigo seems to be all about characters, their motivations and their decisions, but it puts you in their shoes. From what I can tell, you aren't defining the characters with your actions (I agree with Bob Bates that a good story is best told by the storyteller.) so much as exploring their dimensions.

Anyhow, I just got started, so I can't say too much. Maybe it'll go off the rails soon or get tiresome. But right now I'm enthralled.


Considering I was a film major, the number of classic films I haven't seen is scandalous. On the other hand, as I get older, my take on any given film becomes more sophisticated.

Take Bambi for instance. What a cutie! And little Thumper with his big eyes and one tooth? I just wanna hug him! The ice pond scene had me laughing, and that lightning storm was so scary!

Aside from all that though, I had no idea going into it that I'd be watching an art film, sometimes an extremely self-conscious art film. This came out just two years after Fantasia and the experimentation was fast and furious, and still carries a punch. So much of it is stylized that it becomes a trivia challenge -- name that art inspiration. The forest fire alone seemed like a mix of Van Gogh and Edvard Munch, and I'm sure I missed a lot more references than I caught.


The other big surprise is that everyone knows what happens in Bambi, and everyone is wrong. I always knew there was a forest fire, that it kills Bambi's mother, and that a hunter kills his father. Wrong! The hunter actually kills Bambi's mother. The forest fire kills nobody, and aside from scaring the wits out of everyone, has pretty much zero impact on idyllic forest life.

In fact, I was rather dreading two scenes of grief and loss packed into a 70 minute kids movie and I got... none! The scene where Bambi searches for his mother is beautifully done, especially the inspired audio track, and then... cut to a sunny day, Bambi has horns, all these cute critters have creepily low voices and... what? Bambi's Mom? That's sooo 2nd act, dude.

In general, the film starts out very strong and then gets very weak when it needs to return to its cycle of life outline, with some dated sexual politics for chuckles, and -- sorry, Walt -- a laughable noble patriarch schtick that just kept coming back when I'd almost forgotten about it. The implication at the end is that Bambi will now become a self-absorbed, distant sire, just like his dad.

But really, the plot is an afterthought. You can tell that for Disney, it was more important to find a barebones story that he could adorn with cute animals and brilliant animation. For all the talk of how animation is "growing up" in the past decade, Disney appears to have been strenuously rescuing it from the kiddie realm way back then. Sure, the kids will be absorbed, but it just happens to be a work of art too.

Xenosaga Volume 1: Der Wille zur Macht

Status: Somewhere in the middle.

Mood: Too stressful to play for an hour at a shot.

Notes: It's been a very long time since I had the time to sink into an epic RPG like Xenosaga. Y'know, the ones where you get a save point every 2 or 3 hours, so you have to leave the PS2 running while you go to work. But I couldn't wait any longer; it's been burning a hole in my bookshelf since before Gen was born.

Xenosaga is one of those anime titles where awkward lovelorn teens are in charge of military vehicles of impossible power, and the only people over 20 are the grizzled drill sergeant and/or former general, and the kindly old woman with a kimono, pins in her white hair and a permanent squint (I haven't seen her in the game, but I know she's there). Oops, I almost forgot the scarred-but-sexy, humorless, laconic veteran of war who's prematurely greying at 25. I haven't met him yet either, but he'll probably be enjoying a rare moment of tranquility, eating rice at the old woman's house.

I'm repeatedly amazed at how complex Japanese RPGs are allowed to be. In American RPGs it's like: "Do you want this scrap of armor on your left arm or right arm? And you'll have to choose between these three rings, because you only have two fingers."

Japanese RPGs have all these slots to hold theoretical items that nobody has ever used one day in their lives. "You can upgrade your Tech slot, your Ether slot, or your Skill slot, and each turn will require two slots to have at least one point left over from the previous turn. When your slot becomes overpowered, you can interrupt the command order to call in a Gaia entity relevant to the slot and the accumulated power of the items used to fill it. Don't let your Action Points fall below those of your Gaia entity or it will turn against you!"

Uh-kay... What the hell do kids eat in Japan? I want my kids to eat that stuff too.

Afghanistan: A Short History of its People and Politics

Status: Done.

Mood: Naturally, I want to go visit.

Notes: Now and then I wonder if my attention span is permanently damaged by a tight schedule, too much coffee, Genevieve-style play, pop culture, videogames... not necessarily in that order. So I pick up something like this and take as long as I damn well please to finish it. If my mind isn't too restless and I'm able to get a few pages in, my brain feels like its soaking in a spa, stretching out, letting all the trivia drain away.

Believe it or not, my interest in the book has nothing to do with the Taliban or the US invasion. I just wanted to read up on a region I know almost nothing about. It was a solid read.

The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion

Status: SO finished

Mood: I probably played it too hard, but what a game!

Notes: There's not a lot I can add to all the reviews in the 90s and the O Face every gamer displays when playing or talking about the game.

But to give you a sense of how open ended the game is, I'll relate my best 'kill'. I own a magician's spire, far up in the snowy mountains. It just so happens that one of my assassination contracts led me up there, to a campsite near the spire.

I shot an arrow at the tough Nord to get his attention and scurried towards my spire while he pursued. I ran inside and took teleportals to get up to the tiny platform at the very top of the spire. A few seconds later he popped up there next to me. Before he could swing his huge axe, and I hit him with my paralyze wand. He stiffened up and slooowly fell over backward, tumbling off the platform and bouncing an outcropping or two as he fell into the fog below. I saw the axe fall out of his hand, so I think just before he fell out of sight, so I think the fall actually killed him.

I headed back down and sure enough, he was lying there on a snowdrift, his axe several feet away. I searched him, grabbed his axe, and whistled off to get my next mission.

24: Season 1
24: Season 1

Status: Finished!

Mood: What's for dessert?

Notes: I remember watching about halfway through the 1st season when this show started, and getting turned off by the weird blend of comic book plotting and the grueling psychic pain of it all. Everyone is always pulling a gun on someone else and then finding an excuse not to shoot, and the unending daughter-in-peril thread made me want to put my eyes out.

Turns out I had only seen the first four episodes, but it felt like half a season because so much was crammed into them. By 4am, Jack has pulled a gun on his supervisor, watched two allies get killed, and broken agency protocol about 12 times, and that's just one out of four intertwined narrative threads.

I rented these to give them a second chance, and dammit, I'm hooked.

One third of the way through the season, at what appears to be the end of the First Act, I can't imagine what they'll be doing for 16 more hours, but I can begin to see the broader arc in outline. For several hours, the heroes and their various victim friends just can't seem to catch a break. But the good guys are beginning to put some pieces together and stop playing defense, and the every tiny victory becomes quite cheerworthy as a result.

In a way, the show is a continuous feat of pell mell shark jumping, and the shark manages to catch a bite now and then (amnesia? Please...) What keeps me interested, besides the audacity of the circus act, are the characters. Sutherland and Haysbert are excellent, but the characters that flit into and out of each episode are themselves highly watchable. Michael Massee as bad guy Gaines is fantastic, the random waitress that Bauer has to take as a hostage, the various co-workers at CTU, the scary brother of the thug from the early episodes, all of these guys combine Central Casting origins with inspired ambiguity to keep us guessing. The destiny of our heroes usually depends on the motivations of these characters, and scrutinizing each new encounter for clues becomes the driving force behind the show.

I've been curious to revisit the 1995 Johnny Depp film Nick of Time. It also features real-time plotting, and the main character trying to save his family while being steered into assassinating a political figure. (And no, his name is not Nick.) I remember liking it more than the critics -- I wonder if it plays out as a pilot for a fun TV series?

The 40 Year Old Virgin
40-Year-Old Virgin

Maybe watching it at home on a rainy afternoon was the wrong way to go, or maybe the extended version really waters down the original, but man, Livia and I both thought this flick was overrated.

We liked the amiable tone, most of the characters, Carell's performance, and I think Romany Malco pretty much ran away with every scene he was in (Who is this guy? I've never seen him before.)

But aside from that? Well, it turns out there's a limit to how much sex talk and swearing I care to listen to over the course of two hours, and this one passed that limit about an hour in.

The Cat Returns
The Cat Returns

This is generally considered the weakest of Ghibli Studios films, but I was surprised at how weak it really was, especially in the dialogue.

The great thing about the Ghibli films (like Pixar films) is that there's no age group that they don't appeal to. Unlike Disney films, which might appeal to adults about half the time, even the least complex Ghibli film (My Neighbor Totoro) engages both adults and kids by aiming high.

It's pretty instructive, in fact, to watch the American dub of a movie like Kiki's Delivery Service, and then watch it in the original Japanese with subtitles. The Japanese dialogue is more complex and less inclined to snarky retorts and cheap gags. There are more half-thoughts and character details, and a little less emotional coddling.

But what's really instructive is to watch the feature on the DVD about the dubbing of The Cat Returns. The most important goal, apparently, was to match the words up to the mouth animations, which meant the actors were rewriting as they went along, altering some writer's painstaking craft on the fly so the animations would match up.

To make matters worse, the subtitles for the movie are actually "dubtitles", transcribed from the dubbing session instead of translated from the original Japanese. For a viewer who doesn't know Japanese, this puts the the original script entirely out of reach.

So kids will probably enjoy the movie, but parents should be prepared for that "I'm on an all-sugar diet" feeling that accompanies a lot of Disney animation.

Lamaze Chime Garden
Chime Garden

Status: Ongoing. May soon break.

Mood: Varied

Notes: This is the toy equivalent of a "button masher". Whomp your little hand on any big flower and it plays a note. Or at higher settings, it plays a short tune, or a pretty long tune. As each note of the tune plays, one of the flowers lights up.

The notable thing about this toy is the quality of the music. Most kids toys have dreadful little speakers scratching out a tune as best they can. The more complex the song -- especially if they have singing, like a Disney toy based on a movie -- the worse the sound. The Chime Garden sounds great, especially at the highest setting (if I can figure out how to post audio, I'll try to have some comparative samples up soon).

Gen is least interested in the note-by-note play. Turns out she likes to put on some music and dance (kind of bumping up and down where she sits). Or turn towards another toy while the music is playing, then when the tune ends, she turns around, whomps a flower with both hands to get it started again, then gets back to her other toy.

Just tonight, the tunes started warping, repeating, and cutting out early. She has to work extra hard to keep her soundtrack going, but it's also kind of hilarious. I'm hoping to get a recording of that too.

UPDATE: Looks like it just needed batteries...

We ♥ Katamari Damacy (PS2)
Katamari 2

Status: Done

Mood: Sated

Notes: Good old Katamari. I was very excited about this sequel, although I hadn't quite exhausted the original. I tumbled through it pretty quickly.

Turns out, I didn't need more Katamari. Replaying the original every couple of years would probably be have been enough. It had better music, better interface, the king's dialogue was less annoying. In W♥KD, an added level of self-referential chatter with the common folk just delays me from rolling the Katamari.

This one's got some twists: underwater rolling, speedway rolling, rolling up clouds, etc. It's still all just rolling, which is fine. Ultimately, it's the same game with different backdrops. If you wanted that wonderful final level of KD to get even bigger and grander, this is probably as good as it gets. If the Katamari got any larger, it would become a replacement Earth with all stuff of humanity trapped in the middle. Heh.

Half-Life 2 (PC)
Half-Life 2

Status: Done

Mood: Nonplussed

Notes: I played this game with the nagging sense that I should enjoy it more than I do. It's great to solve puzzles again in an FPS, and the atmosphere and detail in some levels (especially those low-tide river sections) is fantastic. So what's not to like?

It was interesting to look at these levels as an LD. The game could have leaned back on its physics and graphics engines, known license, the always crisp and responsive weapon play, and the basic fun of shooting enemies. But the scenarios were thought through at a high-concept so each was distinct from the last, each a set piece worthy of discussion: "That one where you go under the bridge", "the part that played like the movie Tremors", "running from the tripods", etc.

Ultimately, though, I didn't care much. There wasn't a lot to enjoy except the moment-to-moment impulse: Where you were pointed, what you were facing, what weapons you had on hand. I didn't feel a story building. I didn't care about what's-her-name or her father. I didn't care about the goal. I felt like the game often treated me like a child, valued primarily for his trigger finger: "You gotta go do this, Gordon". "Oh, here, I'll unlock this door, Gordon." "Wow, I can't believe I'm meeting Gordon Freeman." This could be said of other games too, but here it came into sharp relief against the years-in-the-making sophistication of the graphics and engineering.

The original Half-Life felt like a brilliant lark: The funny characters, the delightful and credible enemy design, the audacity of the tram intro and of certain puzzles like the giant tentacle in the rocket lab. Valve seems to have taken their invention too seriously and tried to make a tourable sci-fi epic, with none of the punch and humor of the original. You can see every discipline polished to a high sheen -- the art, physics, facial animations, level design, combat balance -- a team working on each and fitting them together like a giant puzzle, but I don't know if any one person had a sense of what it should look like when you stepped back and took it all in. The resulting game falls short of the sum (or perhaps more accurately, concatenation) of its parts.

I've always thought that the conceit of being permanently behind the eyes of a non-speaking character has both a personalizing effect, and a distancing effect. It was more effective in the original HL because you were a recognized character, but not a special one -- kind of an everyman. The character might as well be you. In HL2, you're now notorious, no longer an everyman, and yet you never say a word, and minions look to your mute self and your ability to throw boards around as a sign of greatness. It doesn't work.

A necessary corrolary of this design (apparently) is that the experience is continuous. No cuts, no objective views of your character, no cinematics that aren't part of the character's direct experience. The first-person viewpoint of your average shooter is already a narrative liability (how many films adopt that viewpoint, and for how long?). As you're forced to walk every step of the journey, you find yourself dead-reckoning your way through the story as well, which nearly snuffs the pacing of the narrative altogether. It's a primitive form of storytelling, and I hope HL3 recognizes that and puts story in front where it belongs.

Genesis: The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway
Lamb Lies Down

Notes: Couldn't stop thinking about this old favorite recently, and I hit several stores trying to find it, but the only thing to be found was a "Best of" album. Amazon had it, of course. I never expected the internet to be the indispensible archive of all my lost teenage pursuits.

Listening to the album for the first time in 15 years, I was surprised at the muddy sound, like a live performance (not a complaint, really), and the huge amount of organ work, which you just don't hear much of anymore. One thing hasn't changed for me though -- the storyline of Rael is still compelling and bewildering and impossible to figure out. There are a few websites devoted to decoding the odyssey, but like Kubrick's 2001, it's an odyssey I'd rather try to figure out myself.

Man, this album is a masterpiece.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (PS2)
Chamber of Secrets

Status: Done

Mood: Glad to be through it

Notes: After my extended station at the altar of Star Wars, I've become curious about how other publishers mine an established license for gameplay. Specifically, how do they use a non-violent license, since Star Wars, Terminator, and James Bond offer pretty clear options for gameplay.

The answer, with regards to Harry Potter, is to throw in a bunch of puzzles... and a bunch of violence. As befits the perilous Hogwarts environment, there's always something trying to attack you, from garden gnomes, to animated books, to older student prefects. While I can't exactly recommend the game, there are surprising moments of wonderfulness that redeem the grueling moments inbetween. The stealth mechanism is frustrating, the framerate is shockingly bad, the dialogue more juvenile than it needs to be. But flying around the fully detailed Hogwarts castle on a broom is really cool, as is exploring the gigantic place on foot, and several puzzles are nicely done.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (audiobook)
Half-Blood Prince

Status: Ain't tellin'

Mood: Won't say

Notes:This is one of those geek events that everyone should enjoy on their own terms, so I'd rather not say anything until people have time to finish.

The Century (audiobook)
The Century

Status: Done

Notes: Fifteen CDs covering 100 years, this audio documentary has to breeze over a lot of detail. It's still a fun ride though, and I'm learning about my weakest subject, everything prior to 1930. The very best part is interviews with people who lived through the time. Hearing people talk first hand about WWI trench warfare, or the farmgirl who witnessed the Wright Brothers' flight, nothing quite matches it. Great voices telling great stories.

The 7th disc of the series is called "Civilians at War", and speaks of how all sides specifically targeted civilians, for purposes of terror, demoralization, or sheer hatred and revenge. It's very, very grim stuff, and I admire the series for devoting an entire disc to such a depressing, unrelenting narrative. Needless to say, it seriously blurs the line between the concepts of terrorism and 'total war'.

Ratchet & Clank: Up Your Arsenal (PS2)
Up Your Arsenal

Status: Done (twice)

Mood: Glad there aren't any more to get hooked on, at the moment.

Notes: After finishing R&C2, I felt I'd had enough for a while. But I mentioned it to Gresko and he brought in R&C3 for me, and I thought I'd check out the opening, and now I'm hooked all over again. Funnier than the previous two, and with various tweaks to make the gameplay a little sleeker. Once again, I broke my usual rule and replayed this one to find the better weapons, etc.

Star Wars: Episode 3: Revenge of the Sith
Revenge of the Sith

Status: Done

Verdict: "At least I'm not watching TV"

Notes: I've always wanted to avoid falling into the TV trap of just watching because there's nothing else to do, or because everything else takes too much energy. Just about any artform, of course, can produce something engaging enough to keep the eyes open the lull the brain to sleep, but TV is so utterly passive that it becomes an easy scapegoat, and makes your personal choice of brain-candy look good by comparison: "Well at least I'm not watching TV".

Revenge of the Sith is one of those well-tailored, slickly diverting games that makes TV look relatively healthy. Which isn't to say I'm not enjoying it. It's fun, it's got sound and fury, clips from the movie, experience points, combos, sound-alike actors with a few good lines, and non-stop action. And Star Wars, woo! I'm not sure my brain is any more engaged than it would be watching the average episode of Law & Order. But the game is more addictive, takes a hell of a lot longer to finish, and costs $50 more.

Not to single out ROTS here; most videogames on the market (including some I've reviewed here) might fit this description. The trick is to recognize when they're putting me into the "alpha glow" state of TV and stop playing. Wow... harsh.

Ratchet & Clank: Going Commando
Going Commando

Status: Done, but I can imagine firing it up again one day

Verdict: Ingenious and addictive

Notes: I think Insomniac has a better track record than Blizzard in terms of keeping their franchises intact and making each installment better than the last. R&C capitalizes on one of the things that made the Spyro series so much fun: The pleasure of watching scads of sparkly stuff (Spyro's gems, Ratchet's bolts) jingling into your inventory. Not to mention beautiful artwork, just enough puzzles to keep the brain alive, and a breezy sense of action that's all but unique to Insomniac.

I admire the game for making complex strategic choices seem like mindless fun. My enemy is through a doorway and around the corner; I can't use the straight-shooting machine gun, the guided missile is has too wide of a turning radius, I'm out of ammo for the HK220 smart missiles, my bomb-gun is too short-range, and a gap in the ground swallows my roving spiderbot. Aha! I'll toss my decoy puppet into the doorway and draw them into view for my sniper gun! Hmm, only 4 rounds left. I'd better make them count...

Normally, I never replay games. But R&C has a very neat Challenge mode, which adds multipliers to the bolts you can collect. The longer you remain untouched by the enemies, the more each bolt is worth (up to 20x). This lets you afford the high-powered weaponry which you can only dream about during the first playthrough. Brilliant!

Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas (audiobook)
Beyond Belief

Status: Disc 4 of 4

Mood: Wishing it was unabridged

Notes: The first arrival from Simply Audiobooks; I decided to enjoy the audio version of a book that Livia is reading, and I put it into the queue before I realized it was abridged (as a rule, I avoid unabridged stuff unless it's throwaway fiction of the Dan Brown variety). A few years ago I read The Gnostic Gospels, by the same author. For some reason, historical Christianity is fascinating to me and these books don't disappoint.

Law & Order: Justice is Served
Law & Order: Justice is Served

Status: Guilty! Guilty! Guilty!

Verdict: Easily worth $5 and 6 hours.

Notes: I found this for $5 at Target, a hard bargain for me to pass up. I like these investigation/courtroom games; they're a very small sub-category of adventure games, with a deliberate attention to detail that most games lack. After the first L&O game, I had low expectations for this one, but I was surprised. The interview characters are very distinct personalities, and a lot of care went into to the interview animations.

The story ain't bad, there are some decent puzzles (easy enough not to kill the momentum) and no time limits or other nonsense. It's fun to interview the kindly next-door neighbor, a helpful old lady, then order research into her background, tail her around town, and drag her in for a psych profile just for the hell of it.

The best thing about this game is the characters, their faces and voices. You can "recognize" them, they seem familiar, but not quite from central casting. In fact, the bit players have a lot more personality than the show regulars. There are so few games with an interesting cast of characters, (or the time to get to know them) that this is a real achievement, pretty special in the world of games.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (audiobook)
Order of the Phoenix

Status: Done.

Mood: Intrigued, kinda scared

Notes: Let me sing, yet again, the praises of Jim Dale. If you've seen the Potter movies on DVD, you've heard his voice in the interactive sections. During one sequence here, he plays about a million characters in chattering conversation, and manages to keep them distinct, serious, and funny by turns. His standout performance on this set is the muttering house-elf named Creature.

This is my favorite in the series. The politics of the school and ministry are fascinating, darkness lurks at the margins, and everyone's fate seems to hang by a thread. I never dreamed the series could get this involving.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (audiobook)
Goblet of Fire

Status: Finished

Verdict: Pretty good.

Notes: Fun book, and if you've never heard Jim Dale voice all the characters in the Harry Potter series, this is possibly his best work yet. A huge cast of characters to deal with, and differentiate, and he does justice to every one. Madame Maxine saying "Dum-bel-y-dore..." had me cracking up. He even has to sing this time!
Rowling is increasingly clever about introducing plot points that don't look like plot points, to explain some quirk of plotting far down the road. This more than anything, I think, makes her books increasingly long. But I'm not complaining, cuz my commute can get pretty long too.

Jade Empire (XBox)
Jade Empire

Status: Finished! And sold on Ebay!

Mood: Glad to have played, glad to be finished.

Notes: There's no game in recent memory that's been such a start-and-stop affair. Travel a ways, get into a long-winded discussion, initiate a fight that's over in about 20 seconds, travel a ways longer, load a new map, repeat. The load times are excruciating, especially when you're just shuttling between two locations over and over (as in the Imperial fighting arena). The dialogues are fairly standard stuff, but using about twice as many words as necessary, making this one of the first games in which I habitually skip voicelines before the characters finish. So I applaud Bioware for the milieu, the artwork, and the engaging combat engine, but please, let me play!

Full Review Here

Katamari Damacy (PS2)
Katamari Damacy

Status: Finished, working on bonus levels

Mood: Enthusiastic! But distracted by different unfinished games

Notes: This is the silliest game I've ever played, possibly the simplest, and one of the most fun. You roll a big ball around and pick up objects -- that's it! In the beginning, your ball can only pick up ants and thumbtacks. As it gets bigger, you work your way up to crayons, then batteries, then balls of yarn, then gita (Japanese sandals), then small animals and upward from there. Part of the fun is the absurdity of laying waste to a household, then a small town as you roll everything up into your ball. I can't recommend it enough. And it's only 20 bucks!

LEGO: Star Wars (PS2)
LEGO Star Wars

Status: It's all over but the invincibility, and who needs that anymore?

Mood: At 30 hours, this game is about 10 times too short.

Notes: This rivals Katamari Damacy for silliness, but only because deflates the self-serious Star Wars into LEGO icons. The minute I saw Qui-Gon's arched little eyebrows and ponytail on a LEGO head, I was hooked. In terms of design, it feels like a variant on Ratchet and Clank. Run around, kill enemies, get "bolts" (aka LEGO studs). Use the studs to buy things (in this case, new characters and cheatcodes). It doesn't have the serious stunting of R&C, but there are several puzzles, and that wonderful circular structure where you revisit earlier levels with capabilities that you find in later ones. In this case, the capabilities you pick up are innate to the characters you uncover. So in essence, it's a collecting game, and you don't want to stop until you've seen LEGO Anakin fighting LEGO Obi-wan while LEGO Palpatine snickers in the background (Does this actually happen? I'm not telling...)

Globalization and it's Discontents - Alfred Stiglitz
Globalization, etc.

Status: Still just starting.

Mood: Ready to learn; anticipating bouts of depression.

Notes: Globalization is one of those trendy subjects I've been planning to learn about for some time, like Chaos Theory and Genetic Engineering. I wanted to get to it before it became entirely passe, so picked up this book by Nobel Laureate Stiglitz. He lets on early that he considers globalization a necessary evolution of the economic world, but also recognizes that it's hurting a lot of the people it's usually touted as helping. Now I just have to keep reading and find out why.

This is one of those subjects I got used to while working at KPFA. There's no hope in the world of stopping the engine of commerce that feeds globalization, but I like to think a discussion this will make a few well-intentioned bureaucrats work towards containing the damage.

Warcraft: Day of the Dragon - Richard Knaak
Day of the Dragon

Status: Ground to a halt, for now

Mood: Ho hum...

Notes: When I first got hooked on World of Warcraft, I became interested in the lore of the game. I thought I'd be excited somewhat more about visiting places and meeting people if I knew their backgrounds. The histories on the WoW webpages are a great place to start, but there are still a lot of unanswered questions.

There are significant barriers at work for me here. Given limited time, I vastly prefer non-fiction to fiction. And fantasy is probably the hardest fiction for me to get into. AND, my interest in WoW itself is flagging. So, about halfway in, I'm getting pretty much what I expected. A bit of lore, a few uninteresting characters, a narrative that feels tailored step-by-step to provide thrills and no real sense of risk for the reader. Writers often talk about characters that begin to write themselves, resisting the writer's manipulations. But readers get the same feeling as characters come alive. They develop a faith in the characters' independence, and a parallel trust that the writer isn't just fudging events to progress the characters toward a predetermined fate. So far, events and characters appear too "scripted" to make me care.

I just checked the Amazon reviews, however, which say it starts poorly but gets much better. I guess I'll keep at it.

Sullivan's Travels
Sullivan's Travels

Directed by: Preston Sturges

Written by: Preston Sturges

Starring: Joel McCrae, Veronica Lake

A few years ago I assembled a list of "desert island" films, movies with enough variety and depth to keep me interested on the proverbial desert island. This was one of my choices, based on a viewing from 1982 or so. I watched it again recently, on the Criterion Collection DVD and I'm not so sure anymore.

I still like it a lot, but what came across well in a repertory theater with an admiring crowd was more quaint and dated on a TV screen 20 years later. The humor is broader than I remember (like the old "everyone gets pulled into the swimming pool one by one" schtick) and the banter doesn't spark the way it once did. Some movies inspire a nostalgic forgiveness for the gaffes and missteps, but this one offers up a little to much to forgive sometimes. Still, the setup, the opening road scene, lots of the dialogue, the fascinating mood shift, and that beautiful church scene still make this a worthwhile rental.