Wednesday, May 30, 2012

5 TV Shows I Regret Watching

1. Survivor — I could fill this list with reality shows, but I'll save myself from embarrassment by stopping with this one. I spent too many hours of my early 20s in suspense over utter stupidity. The fact that the show is still on and apparently people still watch it amazes me.

2. Lost — The final two seasons were as awful as the first four were great. The exhilarating ramp-up only made the face-plant all the more devastating.

3. She-Ra: Princess of Power — The He-Man spin-off tricked me into watching a girls' show, no more masculine than Rainbow Brite or Strawberry Shortcake. Only now am I coming to terms with how severely I was bamboozled and emasculated.

4. King of the Hill — Because it came from Beavis and Butt-Head creator Mike Judge, I expected greatness. When it didn't come, I kept on watching, assuming it would eventually become funny or at least spout some redeeming quality. Never happened, at least in the show's first 10 years, after which I grudgingly gave up all hope and stopped watching.

5. Home Improvement — Tim Allen, terrible though he is, was far from the worst part of the show. There was the stupid half-face Wilson gimmick, the awful child actors, Al's oafishness and, well, Tim Allen. I think I watched every episode. Woe unto me.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Review: Men in Black III

Men in Black 3 is not only a time travel movie, but a time machine that takes you back to when a Men in Black movie could actually be good. Too bad it can't erase Men in Black 2. But it does manage to counteract that movie's awfulness, sealing up the franchise's spot in the ranks of series known by the scientific classification of "mostly good."

Had the threequel been awful, MIB would have been thrust into the dungeon of the damned, with Resident Evil, The Mummy and Underworld. Instead, it's up in the clubhouse, knocking down martinis and setting up tee times with Harry Potter, Mission: Impossible and the Bourne movies.

Do you realize it's been an entire election cycle since Will Smith starred in an action movie? Or any movie at all? In 2008 he popped up in Hancock and Seven Pounds. Since then, he's spent most of his time turning his children into Karate Kids and songstresses who whip their hair back and forth. MIB3 again proves its time machine qualities by zapping the megastud back into existence as if there were no gap in the timeline.

Smith is as young-seeming and boisterous as ever, and his partner, Tommy Lee Jones, is older and craggier, settling for part-time work in this outing. For much of the movie his character is played by his 1969 version, courtesy of Josh Brolin. He's so scarily excellent at matching Jones's crotchety ways that throngs of moviegoers will demand Brolin and Jones remake Freaky Friday.

There are as many ways a time travel movie can go wrong as there are unwatchable NBA playoff games, and MIB3 avoids most of them by keeping things simple, stupid and splashy. It copies off Back to the Future's paper by injecting daddy issues, sad-but-reversible deaths and a time travel method (plunging off the tops of buildings and pressing a button when you almost hit the ground) every bit as plausible as DeLorean gunning.

Men in Black's specialty has always been trotting out a parade of aliens that seemed to have been designed by 11-year-olds, rendered by 15-year-old CGI editors. The awfulness of the animation would be distracting if the image of the hideous Johnny Knoxville-faced alien from the last movie, 10 years ago, wasn't seared into the brain of anyone who suffered through that one. About at the midway point of MIB3 you stop questioning the sight of hairballs launching scorpion boomerangs from their wrists or sushi shopkeepers dropping their trousers to reveal they're Teddy Ruxpin's pal, Grubby.

The plot, such as it is, involves Big Will BASE-jumping back to 1969, to save the world, Tommy Lee Jones who was Josh Brolin when he was younger, hang out with Andy Warhol, see that the Mets win the World Series and fight a future and past bad guy in a tag team battle royale ladder match as Apollo 11 launches, secretly filling outer space with a blue laser grid that will protect us forever and ever.

Just lost you there, right? Try and forget about the story and focus on Smith's buddy cop act with two iterations of Brolin/Jones. Oh, and know that there will be gyro cycles and humongous jetpacks. And most importantly, pie.

Now that Men in Black is officially a mostly good series, maybe Smith will get back to work and stop making Rebecca Blacks off his offspring. If not, we may have to sic that blue laser grid on him.

Starring Will Smith, Tommy Lee Jones and Josh Brolin. Written by Etan Cohen, David Koepp, Jeff Nathanson and Michael Soccio, based on the comic by Lowell Cunningham. Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld. Rated PG-13. 106 minutes.

My novel, Stormin' Mormon, is available as a Kindle book for $1.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Top 10 NES Games

Note: I believe this list played a large part in my position as videogames editor being eliminated at GuySpeed. I wrote this list for the site, saved it and received this feedback from management:

Base Wars and Bayou Billy are extremely odd choices – and wouldn't be on most people's top 100 new game lists.  There's a lot of classic games (I.e. Punch Out, Contra, Metal Gear, Ghosts N Goblins, Metroid, Kid Icarus, River city Ransom, etc etc etc) that are hands down better than those 2 games.  We should also replace those 2 games, as well as Blades of Steel, with 3 games that are more universal favorites like the ones I mentioned above.
I refused to substitute the games -- this was my top 10 list, not one designed by committee -- instead offering to withdraw the post and deduct it from my invoice. Four hours later, I received an email telling me that my position had been eliminated (although I would still be allowed to cover E3 and submit posts for reduced pay) because there wasn't much interest in GuySpeed's videogame coverage. This was odd because I had recently been told to switch from doing news posts to top 10 lists for the same reason. This would have been my first top 10 to post at GuySpeed. Bayou Billy, I took one for you, sir:

If your childhood was anything like mine, the Nintendo Entertainment System was your babysitter, social conduit and cruel dominatrix. Its chiptune soundtracks, blocky-yet-beautiful graphics and uniformly evil difficulty level -- not to mention its wrist-ripping controller -- made it tough to go back to the likes of Pac-Man and Donkey Kong at the crusty, soon-to-be-extinct arcade.
There were so many brilliant, ground-breaking successes on the system that it would be easy to list my favorite 100 NES games. Here are the best of the best of the best.
10. Base Wars (Ultra, 1991) -- Baseball isn't such a slow-moving, leisurely sport when it's played by armed robots. Games were as much a war of attrition as they were about runs, because each play on the base paths was decided by one-on-one battles. You could customize your lineup with a mix of heavy bruisers, spry hoverbots and laser-cannoned snipers. There's no telling how many arm punches little brothers suffered from older siblings when they dared beaned the opponent's star batter, destroying him and forcing the game to end in forfeit.
9. Tetris (Nintendo, 1989) -- Forget Reagan and Gorbachev. This Russian import is what really ended the Cold War. The hypnotic, falling-blocks puzzle game set the standard for all others in the genre to strive for. If you didn't play this so much in your youth that when you closed your eyes you saw falling blocks, you aren't human. There have been countless Tetris updates since, but none feel quite as right as this one.
8. Super Mario Bros. (Nintendo, 1986) -- Saving the princess was a rite of passage that proved you had come of age as a young man. Even if you couldn't beat level 8-4, you lied and said you could as you snuck up late at night, practicing, failing and smashing your controller in frustration. The game plays a little stiff now, but at the time of release there was nothing like it. Filled with secrets such as the Minus World, warp zones and hidden 1-up blocks, Super Mario Bros. was the gateway-drug game for every child of the1980s.
7. Blades of Steel (Konami, 1987) -- Another arm-puncher. The hockey sim's on-ice fights were the rough template for Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat. And it somehow made sense that the loser got sent to the penalty box. It was also totally mind-blowing how the electronic voice announced the title. It was a sign that you were about to entire the big-time.
6. Mega Man 3 (Capcom, 1990) -- The first two Mega Man releases were great, but the third outing was when the series hit perfection, nailing just the right balance of incredibly frustrating challenge, stunningly cartoonish graphics and jubilant boss fights. Finally managing to pummel those bastards Snake Man and Needle Man after hours of failure felt like great accomplishments.
5. Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse (Konami, 1990) -- There was something about NES-era threequels that allowed the developers to refine promising concepts into thriving perfection. That was the case with this hack-and-slash tangle with the creatures of the night. You could suit up as whip-wielding hero or one of his three pals as you set to take down Count Dracula. Branching paths with different endings made you want to play through again and again.
4. The Adventures of Bayou Billy (Konami, 1989) -- Playing as a Crocodile Dundee clone slugging his way through the Deep South to rescue his captured girlfriend, Bayou Billy evolved the brawler genre by changing up the gameplay. One level you'd be punching crocs in the face, the next you'd steer a Jeep through an obstacle course, lobbing grenades at choppers. Then you'd pull out the NES Zapper and do a drive-by on enemies who chucked stuff at you. And that ending was pure magic.
3. Super Mario Bros. 3 (Nintendo, 1990) -- Here's the ultimate example of threequel perfection. The Mario formula shifted to an overworld navigation layout that added depth to the act of chugging through each world. In between levels, you could tangle with roaming Hammer Brothers or try a matching card games to stock your inventory with power-ups. You could save your progress and come back for more later, and there was even a head-to-head competitive multiplayer minigame to blow of steam. Just as Mario finally gained the ability to fly in the game, his series hit its loftiest heights.
2. Tecmo Super Bowl (Tecmo, 1991) -- We still prefer this game and its Super Nintendo remake to modern Maddens. The simplified football action may not have been realistic, but it's pad-popping, player-tumbling flourishes captured the spirit of the game better than anything not named NFL Blitz. There were eight plays the offense and defense could select, leading to pre-snap, rock-paper-scissors-like mindgames that were every bit as important as your reaction time and button-mashing ability on the field.
1. The Legend of Zelda (Nintendo, 1987) -- The cruelest of mistresses, the swords-and-sorcery exploration-fest tossed you into a brutal, monster-teeming open world with no direction or hand-holding. In the days before online walkthroughs existed, you had to rely on Nintendo Power walkthroughs and jungle gym secret swaps to make your way through the unforgiving fantasy realm. With its puzzles, items and upgrades, Zelda was the first action role-playing game in the lives of a generation of gamers.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Review: 6 Bullets

It's no longer sad that Jean-Claude Van Damme's career is reduced to direct-to-video movies. It's been so long since the days of Bloodsport and Kickboxer that it seems almost quaint to think back to the days in which Van Damme was a bona fide action star rather than a self-satirical joke.

The beauty of 6 Bullets is that Van Damme isn't in on the joke. Even at age 51 and with approximately one third of the muscle mass he rocked in his salad days, he plays the role of stone-cold enforcer with as much ferocity as he did Lyon in Lionheart.

Allow me to quote the Internet Movie Database's dead-on tagline for his latest movie:

"An ex-mercenary known for finding missing children is hired by a mixed martial arts fighter whose daughter has been kidnapped."
That says it all, doesn't it? Van Damme, of course, is the ex-merc, and he surrounds himself with actors far more obscure than him so he can still emit 1990s-style star power. Although the editing room seems to be doing Van Damme some favors in showing him dispatch roomfulls of enemies with his flashy fists and stone cold glare, he still shows that he's spry and physically imposing. The fight scenes are fun to watch, and the scenes that are intended to be serious inspire some good laughs because they're so self-serious.

6 Bullets does not fit the definition of what most would call a good movie, but screw most people. I had a great time with the movie, all the way up to the resonant finale, in which Van Damme unleashes a catch phrase contrasting his ability to forgive sins with that of God. Oh, Van Damme, you've still got it.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Review: The Dictator

A lot of brilliant movie comedians blow their loads early in their careers with their best stuff, collecting enough fans to stick by them as they get less funnier with each movie. It's happened to Adam Sandler, Will Ferrell and Seth Rogen, and now, with the OK-but-not-mind-blowing The Dictator, Sacha Baron Cohen.

One thing that's killing Cohen is his own fame. No longer will he be able to ambush people as Borat or Bruno for the sake of a documentary. Now he'll have to play regular characters with plain three-act scripts. Take away Cohen's ability to trap idiots into making fools of themselves is like stripping Superman of his ability to soar. Sure, he can still punch through walls, but he can no longer fly.

Weird accents and speech patterns can only take you so far when you're not exploiting hapless victims for shock effect, and Cohen beats all the forced comedy he can out of his north African dictator creation, Aladeen.

Cohen is subtly making his case to be known as the Charlie Chaplin of our time by echoing Chaplin's Hitler satire, The Great Dictator. Like the creaky 1940 movie, Cohen's film mixes up a delusional dictator with a lookalike he also plays. And just as in the older movie, the not-so-great Dictator ends awkwardly, with a long, semi-serious speech that makes blunt political points.

The biggest difference in the two movies is sex jokes. Cohen tries to play pubic hair, masturbation, misunderstandings about rape and homophobia -- not to mention loads of racial humor -- for his biggest laughs. He's skilled enough to make most of the jokes work, but they come off more as stand-alone rimshots than snowballing jokes that build into something bigger and more consistent.

Anna Faris pops up as Cohen's straight man and romantic interest, playing a hyper-politically correct Brooklynite caterer who takes Aladeen under her wing after he winds up in the U.S. and can't get anyone to believe that he's the real dictator after an underling has swapped him out for a body double.

The forced romance sucks a lot of the wind out of the comedy sails. Even though she's playing a character not meant to be taken seriously, Faris is too inherently sweet to be the continual butt of jokes that Cohen makes her, calling her mannish/boyish and overweight. Instead of rooting for the unlikely love to blossom, it's too easy just to feel bad for the Faris character. Their relationship seems to have seeped in from some other, dumber movie, just plopped in to give structure to a shapeless brain dump of one-off laughs.

When The Dictator is funny, it's funny enough to make you forgive it when it's awful. But when it's awful it makes you wonder whether or not it will ever get funny again. And whether Cohen will ever be as great as he once was.

Starring Sacha Baron Cohen, Anna Faris and Ben Kingsley. Written by Cohen, Alec Berg, David Mandel and Jeff Schaffer. Directed by Larry Charles. Rated R. 83 minutes.

My novel, Stormin' Mormon, is available as a Kindle book for $1.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Top 5 Things I Fear About Getting Even Older Than I Am Already

1. Poor vision. If my vision ever declines enough to need them, I'll probably just try to fake it that I can see. Sunglasses annoy me, and there's no way I could ever touch my eyeballs to apply or remove contacts.

2. Lack of energy. I already need a good 6-8 hours more sleep per week than I used to. It will be frustrating not to have the energy to do the things that need to be done to get ahead in life. And it will be more depressing to feel the urge to choose sleep over success.

3. Cancer. It seems that it's pretty much a guarantee that you'll be hit with some form of cancer if you manage to live long enough. Which kind will it be? Waiting to find out will be the worst game of Uno ever.

4. Rectal/prostate exams. Eventually these become a part of your annual medical regimen. I'm not sure the diseases they might help diagnose and cure are worse than the tests themselves.

5. People around you dying. Death is the most frightening musical chairs contest ever. Each time someone close to you keels over, you've not only got to deal with life without them, but once again stare into your own existential void.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

5 Superheroes Who Would Be Funny As Avengers

1. Spider-Ham. Always loved that guy. The mask did a great job of hiding the fact that he's teen pig photographer Peter Porker. Underrated.

2. Count Chocula. Probably more suited to be an X-Man, but he would rival Hulk for the "loose cannon" role.

3. Betty. You know, like from Betty and Veronica. She may not seem like much on the surface, but is clearly an immortal with death stare powers. Read between the Archie comics lines.

4. Felix the Cat. That little scamp is always wriggling himself out of hairy situations. Good cat to have on your side.

5. Super Man. Because it would be so demeaning to him to have to be a part of a team that takes down threats too big for him to handle alone. Judging from how he always acts as though the Justice League of America is so lucky to have him around.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Review: The Avengers

Even with all the star power and momentum in the world, the long-masterplanned centerpiece of the Marvel movieverse could have easily ended up a bloated failure.

The poor special effects for Hulk alone -- which producers seemed to think was OK for the past two movies in that series -- could have torpedoed all his scenes, if not the entire movie. There was no guarantee that Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Jeremy Renner, Chris Helmsworth and Scarlett Johansson could generate any workable chemistry. And the sight of the garishly-costumed heroes together could have been giggle-inducing rather than awe-inspiring.

Instead, the movie is just about perfect, at least as far as popcorn-chomping trifles go. While it infuriates me that some are dismissing Christopher Nolan's far superior work with Batman by calling The Avengers the best superhero movie ever made, I can't hate on The Aventures because it's such a rib-rattling explosion of entertainment, feeling almost too short at 143 minutes.

The film flows with the momentum of a comic book composed of full-page bleed impact-moment illustrations. Samuel L. Jackson serves as a strong point guard in this all-star game, setting up the myriad stars for easy, yet nonetheless thrilling, windmill dunks.

I caught the movie in LIEMAX 3D -- the half-hearted converted-theater "IMAX" instead of the true, wall-to-wall, giant-screeen wonder -- and appreciated the way the third dimension added depth without feeling the need to throw things in your face every five seconds.

The movie is something of a cinematic coming-out party for Joss Whedon, a TV god whose only theatrical credit was Serenity (2005), an adaptation/remake of his cult-favorite TV show Firefly. Consider Whedon a conqueror of another medium, and hope he follows through by directing the telegraphed sequel.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

The Legend of Zelda: Symphony of the Goddesses Review

I swear to you that this is not a review of an orchestra concert, OK? So hear me out before you close out this window and get back to your Facebook stalking.

Some people love classical music and think it's perfectly reasonable to pay $50 a ticket to see a bunch of greybeards play the instruments the rest of us got bored with at age 10, and that's great. I am not one of them. For me, classical music fits in somewhere between high school trig class and staring at walls in my spectrum of preferred entertainment.

I'd gone 33 years without ever feeling the urge to see an orchestra concert, and was sure I could have gone a few hundred more. But then came The Legend of Zelda: Symphony of the Goddesses to change my mind. Like many people, I love all things Zelda. It's been that way since I was 8 and my grandma gave me a shiny golden cartridge to go along with my new Nintendo Entertainment System.

The concert converted me into a connoisseur of classical music. Now I can appreciate the oboes' flat notes, the harmony between the bass and the harps and the excellently refined dinging of the xylophone.

Just kidding. I hardly noticed the music, which as far as I was concerned was just elevator musak with vaguely recognizable melodies accompanying the freakin' awesomest Zelda movie anyone has put together.

Imagine if someone had been sitting behind you your whole life, recording your most triumphant moments and making them into a movie on a giant HD screen set to Joe Esposito's "You're the Best Around," Survivor's "Eye of the Tiger" and things like that. That's pretty much this concert. Only it's the life of Link and the music isn't quite so great.

My 5-year-old son, Luke, whose Zelda worship rivals my own, sat agog as Link shanked Ganon in the chest what seemed like hundreds of thousands of times through all the mainline Zelda games. We giggled as cuckoos swarmed the green-hooded hero, chasing him around and inflicting red flashes of pain. We stifled tears as Link waved goodbye to his little sister at the end of Wind Waker.

Almost every Zelda game has been a remake of the previous entry, with the hero, heroine and villains names unchanged. Despite that, fans try to make sense of the overarching "story," and Nintendo has lately sort of retroactively agreed that "oh yeah, this is totally a cohesive legend with an actual timeline." The show follows along that supposed timeline, subtly, unintentionally mocking the concept by showing how similar so many moments in every game have been.

Even though it's awe-inspiring to revisit some of the greatest moments of your gaming life, it's also halfway depressing, making you step back and think, "Did I really need to waste those 500 hours doing the same damn things over and over again?

Such thoughts were chased away by the next daring rescue, bellowing boss intro or horseback leap across a chasm.

The series, which has spanned 26 years, has a ton of high moments, and the visuals manage to capture just about all of the great ones. The only time the show falters is when it cuts to live footage of the musicians for a few seconds. I saw the moments as obligatory homages, sort of like when you tip your mail man, but Luke was not so forgiving. He protested by refusing to clap at the end of pieces that dared cut away from videogame footage.

To be fair, the musicians looked sort of bored having to play for a crowd of ingrates like us. No doubt they don't find 8-bit chiptunes as challenging as Beethoven's 92nd Sonata in the Fifth Octave, or whatever. We felt a little bad for them, especially for having to just sit there as the conductor, who did nothing but wave her hands around, pretending to be in control as no musicians watched, took all the credit.

By the way, although Luke and I are huge Zelda fans, were nowhere near as devoted as many of the other people who showed up. The crowd bustled with people wearing green Link tunics, black-and-gold Ganondorf armor and white, frilly Zelda dresses. Most of those who didn't go in full cosplay mode wore at least one piece of clothing emblazoned with the Triforce symbol. Perusing the crowd was self-affirming, giving even the biggest Zelda dweebs a chance to say, "Thank the goddesses I'm not as much of a dork as that guy."

Not that there was any judgment at play. Like a a comic con, there was a silent understanding that we had all seen the same things, suffered in the same ways and developed a shared understanding of a transcendent cultural movement that we not only have followed, but felt a part of.

Or maybe it was more like an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. We were drawn together because we all have a serious problem, and it was time to admit it. Either or.