Threads

- 20/03/17 Movies,Reviews

downloadIn the 80s, we thought we’d be bombarded by nuclear missiles. Instead, we were bombarded by films about nuclear missiles. The United States initiated this conflict in 1983, with WarGames and The Day After. The USSR retaliated in 1986 with Letters of a Dead Man. The United Kingdom wasn’t slow to unleash its own nuclear missile film arsenal, with Threads exiting the bomb bay doors in 1984 and the animated When the Wind Blows following in 1986. Fortunately, the average film has a very small radioactive footprint, or none of us would have survived.

“Threads” is probably the most memorable of these films. It traumatized children upon its release, and even now it’s a compelling watch.

The film opens like a sitcom, with a couple in Sheffield decorating their flat. Television broadcasts warn of impeding nuclear war. Usually, sitcoms have to deal with their cast quitting the show, aging out of their role, or getting caught snorting coke. Threads solves the problem by killing almost the entire cast, and a great many people besides.

Soon, the cold war becomes extremely hot, and the world is engulfed by a three gigaton nuclear firestorm. Regrettably, some people actually survive. The rest of the film documents their struggles in the desolate aftermath. Society collapses to subsistence level. Basic wants are in dire need. We start to wonder about genetic mutations and birth defects, and the final scene gives you a lot to think about.

There are a lot of unforgettable images in Threads. A woman cradling a charcoal-black baby. Glass milkbottles instantly flash-melting. A burning cat. After nuclear winter collapses the biosphere, we see a door to door salesman selling dead rats for meat.

The film is almost comically grim, and you start to wonder if it’s supposed to be a parody of nuke films. If it is, it fooled me. I can’t find a single moment where the cast (or director Mick Jackson) winks at the camera – everyone handles the material with dour seriousness.

The BBC’s small budget works well for the film, giving it a filthy, lived-in quality. Sometimes the cheapness adds a new dimension to the horror, as in the hospital scene where open wounds are being sterilized with supermarket containers of Saxa salt.

There’s something intrinsically frightening about nuclear weapons. Perhaps it’s their hopelessness, and the way they knock the traditional rules of war into a cocked hat. Once, better weapons meant you were in a favorable position. Bill has a stick, and uses it to guard his food. Bob has a bigger stick, and uses it to take Bill’s food. So far, so good. But now Bill has a B53, and Bob has a RS-28, and now when they go to war neither of them will win. There will be no Bill, no Bob, and no food to fight over. They’re the most ghastly “off switch” ever achieved. And the only way to prevent their use is to…make more of them?

This is the sort of movie that dirties your TV screen or monitor. You think, your finger will come away coated in dirt and soot. It is a fantastic film that I don’t plan on seeing again, which I think was the goal.


Quake II

- 01/03/17 Games,Reviews

q2e1433652If you sacrifice a baby, everyone will call you a satanist, regardless of what god you actually did it for.

Remember the Columbine school shootings? They were blamed on the 1993 videogame Doom. It was theorised that Eric “RebDoomer” Harris had played the game for so long that his CRT monitor had become reality (or reality had become his CRT monitor) and that he was as shocked as anyone that his victims in Jefferson County didn’t bleed red pixels.

But in reality, Eric Harris no longer played Doom – he had moved on to Quake. But nobody accused him of being inspired by Quake, because Quake was far less of a cultural sensation than Doom and fewer people had heard of it. Just as every random smart-sounding quote gets attributed to Einstein, truth was sacrificed here for maximal memetic transmission. The Quake-Columbine connection was never made, simply because fewer people had heard of Quake. There’s no outrage to be generated from a game nobody in Middle America has heard of.

Quake 2 was even less of a cultural phenomenon than Quake. Nobody has ever attributed any act of violence to it at all. I wonder if John Carmack feels any regret that this is the case, and if I ever plan a spree shooting, I intend to give Quake 2 a shout-out in my shaky-cam Youtube manifesto. You’re welcome, John. Please pay it forward.

Truthfully, Quake 2 deserves a bit more fame, because it’s actually a better game than Quake. It’s not a brilliant shooter. It just takes the strong points of Quake, sticks bandaids over the weak points of Quake, and hopes you don’t notice. Often, you don’t.

The story’s a paragraph in the manual, as usual. Aliens have invaded, ARE YOU A BAD ENOUGH DUDE TO RESCUE THE PRESIDENT, et cetera. But effort has been made to make the gameworld feel like a real place. Spaceships swoop overhead like steel-winged birds. You explore areas with a recognisable purpose (a factory, a mine, a waste processing facility). Environments are somewhat responsive to your actions (you can blow holes in walls and smash panes of glass). Little touches like how enemies duck your shots and switch weapons on the fly are nice. 3D graphics are useless if you still feel like a rat in a maze, and Quake 2 goes a long way towards immersing the player in a believable world.

The weapons and enemies are fun (although there’s nothing as visually striking as the Shambler or the Cyberdemon), and the graphics aren’t that far behind Unreal’s. The game flows well, eschewing obvious “level breaks” for a more unified feel (instead of finishing a level, you walk to a door, experience a brief load screen, and then pick up where you left off.) The soundtrack is excellent. Apparently Sonic Mayhem had no idea how to write metal while he was recording it, and this strangely works. He avoids most of metal’s cliches, just because he’s not aware of them.

The only bad thing you can say about Quake 2 is that it’s a koala bear.

Evolution proceeds stage by stage. If you want C, you first must have B, and if you want B, you first must have A. This approach means there’s not much scope for a wildly novel trait to emerge. You cannot go from A all the way to Z in a single step. If a mutant koala was born with wings, it would be maladapted. Its body shape is not designed for flying. It’s not energetic enough for the rigors of powered flight. Maybe in a few million years a nearly unrecognisable descendant of the koala bear would have wings, but nearly every single one of the animal’s traits would have to change before wings, as a design, makes sense. Which gets bad, considering that the world doesn’t always give you a few million years. Right now, we’re razing the bush. The koala bear’s habitat is disappearing. It’s in a place where it needs an A-Z change, it needs wings, and it needs to modify very quickly or else it will die. But it won’t, because it can’t. Such is the way of evolution. Every strata level of the fossil record is littered with the calcified bones of the ones who died.

Games don’t exactly “evolve” in the way animals do. It is, in principle, possible for a new game with wildly novel traits to emerge. But the majority of games made are basically designed along the principle of “something that sold last season – with a few small tweaks.” Quake 2 fits this description. No drastic steps or changes, just gentle refinement of ideas presented in Quake. And just like real life, sometimes this takes you to an evolutionary dead end. The videogame industry (famously) crashed in 1983, as gamers wearied of generic, low-quality, nearly identical games. They were getting wise to the fact that Ms Pacman was just Pacman with a ribbon and lipstick. Incremental changes don’t work if the entire phenotype can no longer survive.

Quake 2 did not crash the industry. But it’s now very dated, and represents a style of FPS gaming that is no longer in fashion. The commercially viable FPS games are big, cinematic experiences, with Hans Zimmer scores and 3 hours of cutscenes. Quake has a tiny amount of that, but it baby-steps where Half-Life and Deus Ex pole vault.

I’ve played Quake 2’s single player mode a few times, along with some custom levels (the game never inspired the same level of interest in the modding community that the original did, either). It has yielded up most of its secrets. It’s a good game. It’s also a time capsule, and a look into a fossilized past.


Metallica – Hardwired…to Self Destruct

- 06/02/17 Music,Reviews

Metallica_Hardwired..._To_Self-Destruct_2016Kerry Packer was Australia’s richest man, and he didn’t care who knew it. It was dangerous to mention your own wealth in his company. Once, at a baccarat table in Vegas, a Texas oilman bragged that he was worth sixty million. Kerry didn’t miss a beat. “Toss you for it.”

Metallica’s like that. It’s all or nothing. Once they decide on a direction, they take that direction to its full or logical conclusion. Sometimes that conclusion is “Ride the Lightning”. Sometimes it’s “Lulu.” And now we’re here, with an album that’s average, but strangely intense in its averageness, if that makes sense. Imagine pouring a mug of tapwater, that’s utterly uncompromising in its 50C-ness. The definitive mug of lukewarm water, that all mugs of lukewarm water aspire to be.

Hardwired tries to merge their 80s thrash metal sound with various hard rock influences, with somewhat good results. I was hoping for more, but it’s listenable and well put together. Greg Fiedelman’s earthy production job stops things from sounding too modern, but the album doesn’t have a sonic “center”. There’s not a single track you can point to as a summary of the album’s thesis. It jumps around in style a lot, and also in quality.

The performances shocked me. James’s voice sounds…good. No more “GIMME FUE GIMME FAI GIMME DABAJABAZA” enunciation. And he’s backing it up live, too. Lars’s drumming is basic but sounds pretty decent now that he’s mixed in a non-asinine fashion. The band probably pulls of its best rhythm tone to date, with the guitars like a scorching streak of red war paint against the dry skin of the bass and drums. Everything works, everything makes sense.

The weak performer on the album is obviously Kirk Hammett. His bad habits are now incredibly pronounced, turning songs like “Confusion” into your one stop shop for bad Jimi Hendrix imitations. Sloppily played pentatonic runs, drenched in masturbatory wah pedal noise, written with no thought, no technique, and no ability to “ride” the feel of the song. On 2008’s Death Magnetic, he didn’t stand out at all. Now, he’s actively making the band worse.

If you agree, take heart from my suspicion that he won’t be in Metallica much longer. Note that he has zero writing credits on the album, and my reading of Blabbermouth reveals a dog-ate-my-homework level excuse about losing the phone that had all his riff ideas (should have lost the phone that had his shitty guitar solos, instead). I don’t buy it. There’s kids on Youtube who can play every riff Metallica ever recorded, but Kirk Hammett needs a phone to remember his own material? His heart is obviously no longer in this band and I predict he will be the next member to leave.

But he keeps his noodling down to a few seconds per song, leaving us with Hetfield’s amazing left hand and surprisingly decent voice to carry the album, and they both do…to an extent. “Hardwired” doesn’t stand out to me as excellent material, but “Atlas, Rise!” and “Moth into Flame” are incredible, capturing everything that was good about the Black album and marrying with a greater sense of musical adventure. If the whole album had sounded like this, a renaissance would be underway.

“Now That We’re Dead” and “Confusion” sound like efforts at arena rock. I can tolerate them, if not love them. Much of the second album is skipworthy, with the big exception being “Spit Out the Bone”, which brings back the riffs and speed and evokes memories of “Damage Inc” and “Dyers Eve”.

The pace of the album is fairly staid: I could have used more speed and energy. And this is one of those single albums turned into a double disc for no reason at all: I suspect you can make a far superior version of Hardwired…to Self Destruct by deleting/rearranging some of the tracks. Nothing like having to perform emergency triage surgery on an album, but there’s enough good material here that it’s a worthwhile endeavor.

Being a Metallica fan is exhausting. Some think they should have retired in 1991. Some think they should have retired in 1988. Some think they should have retired in 1981. No matter where you stand, this might be the closest to a return to form we’ll ever get, and I know not to look a gift Horseman in the mouth. Metallica tossed for it, and I don’t know if they beat the house, but they’re still here doing what they do.


Flashman – George MacDonald Fraser

- 30/01/17 Books,Reviews

220px-FlashmancoverStockbrokers cheered as they watched Wolf of Wall Street. Thousands of girls have tried to redeem Draco Malfoy through fanfiction. It’s surprisingly hard to create a villain that people actually dislike.

Flashman take a bully from Thomas Hughes’ Tom Brown’s School Days and describes his later adventures in the British Raj (and beyond). He rides horses, plays cricket, embarrasses himself in battle, and has carnal knowledge of many famous historical women. He’s incredibly cowardly, but his attempts to desert, abandon, and betray his own side are always misunderstood as acts of heroism, and he emerges from each book with a lapel weighed down by still more (spectacularly unearned) medals and decorations.

Fraser seems to be taking shots at Victorian-era vainglory. Or maybe he’s not even being cynical: Flashman legitimately inspires people, even though his heroics are a sham. Shadow puppets are cool, and they don’t get less cool because it’s a wrinkled, liver-spotted hand making them.

The books are hilarious and action-packed. What’s often missed is how well researched they are. Fraser was a soldier, a journalist, and a historian, and the Flashman Papers are packed full of footnotes illuminating the time period, all written from the presumption that Flashman himself is a real historical figure. (“Flashman, like many other European writers, uses the word “Ghazi” as though it referred to a tribe, although he certainly knew better. In Arabic “ghazi” is literally a conqueror, but may be accurately translated as hero or champion…”)

The books contain walk-on appearances from legendary figures, both real and fictional (even Sherlock Holmes). Frasier takes glee in depicting beloved cultural icons as nasty, malevolent people, every bit as bad as Flashman himself. It’s like the monster movie cliche where you have to show Godzilla smashing Big Ben or the Eiffel Tower.

I hit the eject button on this series after about four or five books. They were blurring together, and the sheer number of Flashman’s improbable escapes was starting to bother me (as was his supernatural ability to learn every new language he encountered). But like many women I had a good time with Flashman, at least while he lasted.

Fantasy writer David Gemmell learned early on to never discover the truth about his heroes. As a boy, he read a history book about the Alamo, and was revolted that he’d ever admired Jim Bowie and Davy Crockett. He took refuge in the books of Tolkien and Moorcock, where heroes’ names are written in permanent ink. Nobody can ever make Gandalf less than Gandalf. But some of us prefer heroes with feet of clay – or in Harry Paget Flashman’s case, an entire body made of the stuff.


Quake

- 02/01/17 Games,Reviews

quakeIn 1996, an amazing first person shooter came out and changed gaming forever. Regrettably, this is not a review of Duke Nukem 3D.

Quake isn’t a game. That’s the big misconception people have about it. It was an advanced 3D demo, intended to show off John Carmack’s latest tricks so he could sell his engine to licensees. It’s a product for modders and hackers and people who knew what “IPX tunneling” and “strafe jumping” meant. If you picked it up expecting to install it and have a good time, then the joke’s on you.

Gotta hand it to Carmack, this is one hell of an engine demo. For the first time, we were three fucking D. What does that mean? Better perception of height and depth. Variable camera angles. Light and shadow maps. More elaborate architecture (remember, in Doom you couldn’t even have a room on top of another room). Network architecture also got a shot in the arm, Quake ditches Doom’s clumsy ad hoc netplay for a contemporary server/client model, meaning you got to enjoy nice low latency while a 13 year old calls you a faggot.

But there’s no game, and that can’t be emphasised enough. The storyline could be written on a postcard (using a paintgun as a pen). The weapons are mostly copies of Doom’s. There is exactly one good monster in the game. The bosses are of the “push a button and watch it fall over dead” variety. There was more environmental interaction in Commander Keen.

Quake gets called a horror game, for some reason. Other than a Lovecraftian tilt to some of the artwork, most of the game’s ambience stems from technical limitations. Quake out of the box uses a range of 256 colors (well, 226, to be exact), meaning lightmaps utterly hog the palette (every single tone needs like 16 lighter/darker versions of itself). The verdict? You’re running around gray castles…but they’re very realistically lit gray castles! In movies, they say that it takes a lot money to make something look shitty. Quake was a game people bought 200Mhz Pentiums to play, but visually it looks like something you’d scrape off your shoes.

The single player mode is six hours of running around brown/grey castles, collecting keys. Multiplayer consists of trying to play the maps that came with the game, realising they suck, and downloading better ones from the internet.

Ditto for everything about Quake. It just feels unfinished. The weapons, the monsters…everything’s a placeholder reading [INSERT MORE COMPELLING CONTENT HERE]. This game begs you to mod it, and reskin it, and make it into something worth playing. You are the variable in Quake’s quality, not the developers. The power is in your hands!

Quake is the stone soup of PC gaming – a vaporous non-product that only becomes valuable when you put additional effort into it. It’s impressive as an engine demo, but those degrade at exactly the speed of Moore’s Law. The best FPS games lengthen their replay value with content, but that wasn’t the priority here. By the time you realised Quake was a lemon, you’d already bought it.

I still play Duke Nukem 3D and Blood. Though I don’t hate it, I cannot fathom a universe where I ever replay Quake. It’s a museum piece now, and you know what happens to those. They put them behind glass, and you’re not supposed to touch it.


Ralph 124C 41+ – Hugo Gernsback

- 08/12/16 Books,Reviews

11123_2Publishing’s most legendary svengali wrote this work of science fiction in 1911. Is it a good? No. Is it “so bad it’s good”? No. Is it interesting from a historical perspective? Yes.

The story could be reduced to a boring paragraph, and an (only vaguely) interesting sentence: Ralph (a brilliant inventor) must rescue a charming moll from the clutches of a Martian. The book sometimes has the subtitle “A Romance of the Year 2660”, which is more fitting, because the it’s actually the year 2660 that’s the star, not Ralph. We get taken from place to place, Gernsback showing us all sorts of fancy toys and tricks, while the plot dodders along behind like a guest that isn’t sure he’s wanted at a party.

Science fiction vide Jules Verne (and Mary Shelley) uses futuristic technology to reveal truths about the human condition. Science fiction vide HG Wells uses futuristic technology to reveal truths about society and its ordering. Science fiction vide Gernsback uses futuristic technology to reveal truths about…futuristic technology.

He shows us “telephots” (video phones), but the conversations held over them are all trivial. There’s entire newspapers held on a single sheet of paper (you view different “pages” by exposing the sheet to different lights), and tube tunnels that take you right through the center of the earth, and gyroscopes that take you to Mars, and many other things, all described with breathless, autistic zeal.

But there’s a old-fashioned quality to Gernsback’s futurism. One of the arguments brought up against alien abductions is that descriptions of alien spacecraft always seem to track mankind’s cultural aesthetics (fifty years ago the interiors were all paneled wood and bakelite, now they look like something from the X Files), and Ralph 124C 41+ is like that. A futuristic society where you still have a manservant to bring you breakfast.

Despite the clever and evocative title, (“One to forsee for many”), the prose is very bad. Dangling participles scream from the pages. Gernsback doesn’t use many commas, and untangling his clauses is a constant headacge. This aside, the book has a graceless way of just…telling you stuff. Blurting it out. Here’s where we meet Ralph:

“He yawned and stretched himself to his full height, revealing a physique much larger than that of the average man of his times and approaching that of the huge Martians. His physical superiority, however, was as nothing compared to his gigantic mind. He was Ralph 124C 41 +, one of the greatest living scientists and one of the ten men on the whole planet Earth permitted to use the Plus sign after his name.”

A modern writer would communicate this by indirect means (perhaps Ralph has to stoop to get through the doorway after coming home from an award ceremony). Gernsback just cuts right too it. “Meet Ralph, he’s big, he’s smart.” Gernsback was a man of technical inclination, a builder of wireless radios and many other thiings (Ralph 124C41+ was first serialised in an electronics magazine), and he might have not seen the point of “show, don’t tell”. An electrical manual must provide exact specifications of capacitance and resistance, not just a demonstration of the device in action, and he probably took the same lesson to his fiction. He didn’t realise that fiction doesn’t traffic in information, it traffics in experience, and it’s hard to get any experience from overly-literal descriptions beyond “online dating profile.”

I was bored, and didn’t finish it. I guess this is the closest you can get to being ripped off by Gernsback in 2016, so that’s something. It’s like a cultural experience where you visit a reconstructed medieval village and they put you in the stocks for a few seconds or something. The book tries to take you to the future, but the lanes are crossed, and you end up stuck in the past.


Hocus Pocus

- 06/11/16 Games,Reviews

hocus_pocusAs the 90s gained integers, you started to hear about “shareware” games. Instead of buying a $60.00 box of air and praying the game was as good as it looked in Nintendo Power, you actually got to play the fucker before you bought it. Imagine that! Next thing, you were up all night, watching a 2mb file called DOOM1_1.zip dribble down your dad’s 2400 baud modem.

My favourite part of gaming’s tidal changes (whether it’s the rise of the internet or the advent of CD drives) is playing all the weird crap that hit the market before the industry got its shit together. Apogee released a lot of oddball titles – you got the sense that they were seeing what would stick with the new shareware business model – and Hocus Pocus fits into that category.

Like many of their games, it was a new IP, made by an outsider with little history in the game business. It’s a side-scrolling platform game about a wizard who must collect crystal balls. You flip switches, ride elevators, fight enemies, and dodge identity theft lawsuits from Mario. The graphics are colorful, glossy and shiny, like someone sprayed the whole game with WD-40. The monsters and environments are visually creative.

Animation is a mixed bag. Some enemies run and move in a lifelike fashion, but your main character is a department store mannequin. Ditto for the audio in general. The music is half good, half unlistenable shit. The omnipresent PEW PEW PEW of Hocus firing his magic spell drove me to muting my audio.

I played the shareware version of this obsessively when I was 5 or so, becoming the intolerable local kid who would watch others play and fly into a rage at their incompetence. I played the nine levels so many times that I could draw a map of them from memory. When I revisit Hocus Pocus, I like it less and less. It’s playable and inoffensive, mostly because it’s hard to screw up platform games, but there’s not much too it.

Various things grate at me. The game has basically three enemies with different graphics. The gameplay never varies. There’s the sense that you’re playing the same level over and over with different graphics. Switch combination puzzles suck. The “jokes” sprinkled throughout probably sounded funnier on the drawing board. Super Mario Bros makes it look as shallow as a kid’s wading pool, and that’s bad. SMB should be the standard that platform games build on, not an insurmountable mile-high yardstick.

I never bothered with the full version. Shareware had a dark side – usually the paid version was just the free version + some more levels + maybe a new weapon or something. Very few Apogee titles were worth getting in full (Raptor being a notable exception). In some ways, Apogee made arcade games for the PC. Remember how Mortal Kombat would always leave you wanting more at the arcades but as soon as you got it for a home console you’d be sick of it, like, yesterday? Same story here. Some games are best confined to small doses.

As far as I know it works on Dosbox if you play without audio (no great loss). As was their policy, Apogee magnanimously allowed developers to retain the copyright on their worthless IPs, and so the developers theoretically could have started a Hocus Pocus burger chain or something. They didn’t.


Kathy Goes To Haiti – Kathy Acker

- 03/10/16 Books,Reviews

146908There’s a pianist joke that goes something like “When [butt of joke] started to play, Steinway himself came down personally and rubbed his name off the piano.” Some works would are improved by an attachment to their creator, others degraded. Thomas Pynchon and JD Salinger are/were notorious recluses who feel/felt that nothing about them should reach the wider world, except their books. This might be the polar opposite, a boos that’s almost worthless on its own merits, but gains a degree of interest through its connection to Kathy Acker.

In short, it’s the story of the author going to Haiti and having sex with several people there. I don’t know if it’s autobiographical, or intended as a riff on Cole Porter’s “Katie Goes to Haiti” (I suspect the latter).

It’s easier to say what it isn’t than what it is. It’s not experimental, and not particularly Burroughs inspired. There’s no cut-up prose. There’s sexual content, but no violence. It’s short but still overlong, with many pages detailing Kathy’s transport and lodging arrangements, as well as uneventful conversations with natives.

Kathy’s descriptions of carnal knowledge read like stereotypical male pornography. No “and then our HEARTS became as ONE”, just hyperbolic and florid descriptions of erogenous zones grinding. Towards the end, she abandons the “sexcation” angle and strays into political and social commentary.

If this wasn’t written by Acker, it would probably be instantly forgettable. But coming from one of the most notorious and difficult Beat Generation artists, you’d start to speculate on the whys and the wherefores. In other words, Acker’s name was a treasure map, so I was inspired to dig in barren soil.

The boring longeurs might be a parody of holiday writing (sun-kissed people giving you the blow-by-blow real estate dossier of their hotel suite, under the impression that this is as interesting to you as it is to them.) The male-oriented pornography might be a statement on…something. Cameras as phallic objects. Male gaze.

The political angle at the end is the most interesting, particularly in contrast. At the start, everyone she meets is happy, welcoming her with open arms and open legs. On the strength of her first few hours, Haiti is paradise on earth. But the further Kathy strays from the main tourist towns, she encounters other things: poverty, disaffection, and fear. Don’t forget, this book was written during the auspice of Papa Doc and Baby Doc. I heard someone say “Minnesota Nice is when you wait until someone’s left the room until you backtalk them.” Likewise, I’ve always thought that extreme, showy openness of much of the third world is often a mask for something.

It’s not much of a book no matter how you judge it, but it’s interesting. The Beat Generation was like Monty Python: most of their juice comes from surprise, and their defiance of convention. Here’s the ultimate and most cynical execution of that: a book that’s almost completely normal. Probably hard to find, but the things Acker wrote about aren’t. In fact, they’ve probably become even more common since her day, for better or for worse.


Ichi the Killer

- 14/09/16 Movies,Reviews

ichithekillerOnce, I heard a description of Family Guy that cuts right to the heart of the show’s failings. “The Simpsons, if every character was Homer.” Everyone’s crazy, everyone’s a clown, everyone’s the Lord of Misrule. Everyone’s a Punch and nobody’s a Judy. It’s a common failing in comedy: “the straight guy is boring. The screwball gets the laughs. So if we eliminate the straight guy and have two screwballs, it will be twice as funny!”

The straight guy provides ballast, you fool. Comedy’s like a game of table tennis. You can get pretty creative playing it, slamming balls off the wall while standing on your head. But it only works if you have a stable, unmoving net.

Ichi the Killer is not quite a comedy but has a similar weakness. It draws us (or perhaps anti-draws, given that it’s an adaptation of a Hideo Yamamoto manga) into the world of sadistic yakuza enforcers, and asks us to bask in the sangfroid of one particular sadistic yakuza enforcer, who is different to the others to the extent that he has scars on his face.

I don’t know what’s supposed to be shocking and awful and Ichi. Everyone in this film is a repulsive person. Gangsters crack jokes while scraping bloody remains off ceilings. Sociopathic prostitutes manipulate their johns. The movie sets gray against a backdrop of slightly lighter gray. It’s a good setting, but it needs some contrast. It needs a “straight guy”. It’s Family Guy all over again. If Homer’s the baseline, then Homer stops seeming shocking and funny – he’s just just the way things are.

I like the scars on Ichi’s face. A “Glasgow smile”, as they call it a few thousand miles away. The film’s best scene comes early on, where we see Ichi blow smoke through the cuts.

Elsewhere, the film’s aesthetic is less successful. The violence is undercut by the fact that 1) the effects are cheap and 2) the acting doesn’t sell us on the brutality. There’s a scene where Ichi tortures a man by puncturing his cheeks with an alarmingly huge pin…and in between bouts the man speaks calmly and lucidly. It’s like watching a WWE pay-per-view where wrestlers bounce back up after getting chairs smashed over their head.

Later, the effects team just gives up trying. CGI looked better in 1993. The remaining wheels fall off the movie’s wagon when we get to horrible special effects that look like a SyFy movie made in an antifreeze lab.

I haven’t read the manga, although I read Yamamoto’s other big work: Homunculus. It was fascinating, for what it was, but he doesn’t seem to be very adaptable as a mangaka. That might have been Ichi the Killer’s undoing. Generally, there are two schools of adapting manga: the first is to capture everything, the second is to try to capture the “spirit”. Both of them can fail horribly, but in unique ways. Judging unseen, this feels like the first case. You can’t shove ten volumes of manga into a DVD player, and you shouldn’t even tr

This was crying out to be something like that Cronenberg film, Eastern Promises, particularly that scene in the bathhouse, involving linoleum cutters. That moment was what this movie dreams of being when it grows up. Now, it’s just blowing smoke.


Blood

- 06/09/16 Games,Reviews

Blood_logoFilms such as The Cabin in the Woods are often described as “a love letter to horror.” Monolith’s 1997 first person shooter Blood is more like a rambling, 50 page Unabomber manifesto stuffed into horror’s mailbox at 2:00am, complete with the final line “ps: nice view thru yr bedroom window ;)”. Conceptually it’s one of most ridiculous and nebbish games ever made: the dialogue consists of groan-worthy riffs on famous horror movies, the levels are themed off places like the Overlook Hotel and Crystal Lake, the game shoves references to Lovecraft and George Romero under your face with such obsessive frequency that you almost want to pat it on the shoulder and say  “Relax, I get it. Stop trying so hard.”.

But it’s also one of the most fun shooters ever made. There’s just no cohesive direction to any of it, and strangely, that completely works.

You have 1) a brainless “shoot everything that moves” gameplay, 2) paired with a complicated set of RPG -style damage modifiers (as a simple example, stone gargoyles repel fire attacks). You have 1) a nonsensical throwaway plot about an old west gunfighter (with anachronisms galore), and 2) a very detailed mythos, right down to the fact that the enemy cultists speak a constructed language (there was a dictionary on the now-defunct Blood site, revealing said language to be the product of hurling Sanskrit and Latin at each other in a Participle Accelerator.) You have 1) shitty graphics (the Build engine was dated in 1996, and even more so in 1997), and 2) fairly groundbreaking use of 3D voxel imaging (for tombstones and such). Blood’s an anomaly.

The game’s a mess, in the best way possible. It’s like it was made by two different teams living on two different continents who could only communicate by carrier pidgeon.  “Throw a bunch of interesting ideas together” seldom works, but here’s the exception.

I’ve played through it several times, at various difficulty levels, and I still find it capricious, challenging, and occasionally brilliant. The Build Engine isn’t the prettiest whore on the waterfront, but it allows for destructible/deformable environments and the game takes those features and runs like they’re a pair of scissors. E1M3, “The Phantom Express”, takes place on board a moving train – it’s stunning as a visual effect, and the level design perfectly complements it: you have to fight tense gunbattles in narrow train corridors, etc. The only bad thing is that none of the later levels quite match it in creativity.

The weapons are savage and visceral (though I never figured out exactly how the voodoo doll work), and the level design fun, flowing, and filled with endearing human touches. Duke Nukem 3D was the anti-Quake. This is the antier-Quake. This is the final and complete triumph of content over technology, and nobody in gaming realised it, either then or now.

Not even Monolith did – Blood II was an inexplicable attempt at remaking this game with zero character or charm. And of course, the game still has a modding community.

Blood isn’t perfect. The final boss is the easiest one in the game. The weapons aren’t balanced all that well (generally, the cooler a weapon seems, the less useful it is in the game) and some of the enemies are truly ridiculous bullet sponges. It’s bimodal nature means it has daring creativity paired with cloddish FPS cliches – there’s the old “shoot a crack in the wall to reveal a secret area” wheeze…again…and again…

But it’s classic, and the rarest type of game: one that is impervious to time. To preserve a human body, you generally extract all eight litres of blood – and I guess this is where it all ends up. Duke Nukem 3D came out a year before and laid the ground for this type of game (gory violence + campy irreverent humor), but between the two of them, THIS is the one to play first, and perhaps last.


« Newer PostsOlder Posts »