Sunday, April 26, 2009

Harry Potter vs Lord of the Rings: whoever wins, you lose

Nerds like holding pissing contests about stuff they didn't do themselves. Grand Theft Auto vs. Saint's Row. Thundercats vs. GI Joe. Laces in vs. laces out. A biggie used to be Star Wars vs. Lord of the Rings (and it is imperative that you only like ONE, okay?) but that's not one I particularly care about, as there is a very clear winner. Harry Potter vs. Lord of the Rings, however? Hoo boy.

The standard reaction here from respectable and intelligent individuals is Lord of the Rings. Surely, those movies have won awards and the books are like... very old... and stuff. And if they're really old and people still read them, they must be good, right? Indeed, it must! Good stuff, short blog post.

No! You are not rid of me so easily, you buttbabies! Much more recently, a new player appeared on the block. The block being a block inhabited by fiction filled with wizards and trolls and shit, so not a very tough block, but still. The literary adventures of boy wizard Harry Potter have been enrapturing the imaginations children of all ages since '97. Quick to jump on what's popular, Hollywood would bring these magical adventures to the screen in '01 starring every British actor who ever lived.

After a good forty years of trying, it was kiwi director Peter Jackson who finally succeeded in bringing that other fantasy story to the screen in the very same year: the first part of the Rings trilogy The Fellowship of the Ring.

Having successful film adaptations come out in the same year, featuring wizards and following a fairly typical Hero's Journey plot are about the only things the two sagas had in common, but it didn't stop them from being mentioned in the same breath in many a conversation. Eventually Lord of the Rings became ACADEMY AWARD WINNER Lord of the Rings, and the LotR (acronyms, something else nerds love) crowd knew "their" series was the better.

I remember sitting in the theatre watching The Return of the King for the first time, when I hear a man in his thirties telling the two ladies he was with that the book was more "spannend", a Dutch word meaning something between "exciting" and "tense". I wonder what book he read, cuz it couldn't have been Return of the King.

The Return of the King I read featured near two-hundred pages of appendices. Appendices featuring exciting stuff like pronunciation of names, chronologies, genealogies, etymologies and little easter egg details like the entire relationship between a main character and his wife.

J.R.R. Tolkien, author of the damned thing, was a scholar, first and foremost. He spent most of his tragedy-stricken youth coming up with far away lands filled with fantastical creatures, even going as far as to make up different languages for different creatures. Dude had a shitty time as a kid (everybody got sick, died), a shitty time as a young man (everybody went to World War I, died) but he managed to pick himself up by the coattails and become a fucking professor of linguistics at some fancy university. You could say the man did pretty well for himself. In fact, he used his knowledge of ancient sagas and legends combined with all that shit he made up as a young fella to tell his kids very elaborate stories. One of those he brought to a publisher and saw the light of day as The Hobbit, a relatively straightforward adventure story about timid tunnel-dweller Bilbo Baggins and a bunch of interchangeable dwarves, one of which was very fat, looking for treasure.

A few years later, the publisher asked for a sequel story. This would become The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien envisioned LotR more as a straight up sequel to The Hobbit at first. Bilbo was still the protagonist in an early draft, accompanied by comic relief hobbit Trotter. Although Bilbo and Trotter eventually became Bilbo's cousin Frodo and his gardener Sam, the early chapters of the work still showcase Tolkien's Hobbit state of mind. Just like in that earlier work, our protagonists just kind of skipped along from encounter to encounter, each step a bit closer to the end of their adventure.

And yes, in the initial chapters of The Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo and Sam get lost in the Old Forest, almost get strangled by Old Man Willow (all trees in this forest are kind of sentient, but Willow's a straight up sociopath) and also almost stabbed by ghosts! Well, that sounds kind of cool, right? That's a lot of adventure in a pretty short period. Well, it would be, if not for the intervention of one of the most baffling literary characters of all times.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Tom Bombadil.

Neither Dwarf nor Hobbit nor man, Tom Bombadil is an enigma wrapped in a mystery wrapped in shit. For the uninitiated, Frodo and Sam are on a quest to destroy the One Ring, an evil artefact that can grant great power to its bearer, but ultimately corrupts all who come into contact with it. Great kings of men have fallen prey to its will, and now it's up to these little Hobbits to destroy it before Sauron can reclaim it. Bombadil don't give a shit, though. He plays with it, wears it, sings a few songs to it. That's how he rolls. We've just spent a good one hundred pages detailing how evil and awesome and corrupting the One Ring is, only to have Bore-a The Explorer here just casually undermine all that. Oh, and remember all that adventure Frodo and Sam were having?

  • Trees of the Old Forest moving about to make them get lost? They give up and go to sleep by a riverbed.

  • Old Man Willow tries to strangle them in their sleep: Tom Bombadil shows up and tells the willow to fuck off. In song.

  • Stabbed by ghosts? Tom Bombadil shows up and tells the ghosts to fuck off. In song.

For some reason, Bombadil didn't make it into the movie.

If you've noticed song is kind of a big deal here in Middle-earth, you're right. Tolkien loved song, and by gum, don't you wanna hear these poems he wrote? Bet you do! Especially Fellowship is just riddled with them, some of them stretching over pages and pages.

Did you think Aragorn and Legolas and Gimli were cool dudes? Would you like to know more about them? You're in luck! My man J.R.R. will tell you all about where they came from in excruciating detail. He will tell you about Aragorn's grampappy and where he came from! He will tell you who designed the Rivendell shithouses! He will tell you what kind of azaleas Elrond likes to keep! He will... huh? That girl? Uh, yeah, she's Aragorn's fiance or some shit, I dunno. Look, they decided to take it easy, we'll see where we can pick it up from once he's king, okay? Jeez.

You may also remember the classic scene from the movie where wizard Gandalf faces off with a huge demon in an underground kingdom? If not, spoilers follow.

Before the movie, there was a decades-long debate over whether or not the demon had wings. Now, even if you've seen just the above YouTube, you'd think that scene would bear at least a little concrete description. Hahaha fuck that, let's get back to describing trees. Am I glad to be out of that cave! Coincidentally, the first thing they enter after they're out of there is a beautiful elven forest, filled to the brim with beautiful and noble elves descended from even more beautiful and nobler elves.

There's only a few character voices in Lord of the Rings. There's Epic Saga Character (every elf and noble human), British Country Squire (the Hobbits) and Retarded Approximation Of What Blue Collar People Sound Like Because I Am A Professor And I Have Forgotten What That Sounds Like (Sam, the orcs). Character identification? Fuck that shit, I've got some fucking vistas and lineages to describe like you wouldn't believe.

I've heard a librarian once say she thought it was a shame how children who came fresh off of Harry Potter and wanted to read more and what was like Harry Potter please? immediately got forwarded to Lord of the Rings because hey, 's got wizards and shit, right?

Harry Potter's also got a whole bunch of likeable characters, situations easy to identify with and clever mystery plots unravelled by the cunning and bravery of the hero and his allies. Almost every little derail used to enrich the world is also used in the plot somehow and isn't just empty window dressing. It's not great literature by any means, but it's a fun read, which is definitely more than one can say about LotR.

My final argument: a fox calls the Hobbits queer.

"Hobbits!" he thought. "Well, what next? I have heard of strange doings in this land, but I have seldom heard of a hobbit sleeping out of doors under a tree. Three of them! There's something mighty queer behind this." He was quite right, but he never found out any more about it.

I rest my case. Also, this is a deleted scene from Fellowship where the fox sees them.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

They see me rollin'

I was a slothful child. I enjoyed watching television and movies, reading books and comics. My mother urged me to get a hobby. Sports, art, music... anything to get me out of the house and off my ass on days without school. The thing that held me back most was the fact that I didn't want to be the one kid at whatever congregation of other kids somewhere who knew absolutely nothing about the reason for convening in the first place.

Years after my mother had already given up on me, a friend of mine suggests I join her new boyfriend and her in a game I'd only ever heard of on the tube.

That's right: I was introduced to the exciting world pen and paper RPGs. Now look at these people oozing sex. Yeah, I know.

You may have heard the term Role-Playing Game (acronym fun time!) related to videogames. Baldur's Gate, Neverwinter Nights, Knights of the Old Republic, Fallout, ... all games in which you can customize a character's abilities and skills and have a different experience each time you play, depending on how different you make your guy/gal and the choices you make for him/her.

A video game RPG has -- best case scenario -- a beautifully realized world, with a couple of possible paths your character may take and a whole bunch of options for character building.

In a pen and paper RPG, you sit around with some buds and everyone assumes the part of a character. One of your friends will have to assume the position of Game Master (GM). He's playing every dude in the world you guys encounter, friend or foe. He comes up with the story and sometimes has to be a referee on the fly, when the rules don't cover a certain situation.

As you can see on the picture above, all the players have a sheet of paper. This is aptly named a character sheet. Their characters are represented by miniatures and placed on a grid. That's usually something only reserved for fight scenes. If you're not locked in combat, everything's pretty much resolved by conversation or role-play, if you will. No dice need be rolled in that case.

Best case scenario in a pen and paper RPG: it's a fun mix of board game, improv theater and storytelling. Unless you have cool props or a very good artist as a GM, you'll mostly have to put your imagination to use in conjuring up fantastic landscapes, but in my opinion, that's part of the charm. It's all extremely silly, of course, but not much sillier than playing videogames or looking forward to the third sequel to a movie about a teenage boy bitten by a radioactive spider.

Alas! All is not joy and mirth in the land of make-believe! Quite the contrary to relatively linear video games, there's a huge amount of input from the people you play with in P&P. There's a much bigger difference in replaying the same adventure in P&P with another group of people than by restarting a videogame and making a different guy. Like with any group activity, there's good teams and bad teams. Here are some ways a group can fuck up. Asterisk-marked ones are those I've experienced personally.

1) Players don't show up/show up late.

2) Players express disinterest quite rudely: ie. start playing video games, texting, watching tv, or even fall asleep*.

3) Some players study the rules so intently that they make characters who can pretty much end combat encounters by themselves (this was especially a concern in previous editions of the most popular P&P game Dungeons and Dragons). These players are usually the ones that kind of forego the role-playing aspect of the game. Many times, not always, will be working in the IT sector.*

4) On the other end of the spectrum you've got the snowflakes: my character is so special and dramatic and goddammit I will talk and talk and talk about my character and you fuckers will LISTEN because he is UNIQUE and AMAZING.

5) The game's meant to be a story you all partake in. Some GMs don't agree. Dude's got an awesome story and you're all lucky to be in it, bitches. This guy'll intterupt his players to allow himself to hog some more spotlight. Listen to these two non-player characters talk to each other some more!*

All in all, I'd say the Pen and Paper RPG will be going the way of the comic book in the next ten years. You have to be a certain... kind of person to even come into contact with it, and the majority of them ain't the slickest. I remember browsing through books at the local gaming store with a friend, who was explaining the pros and cons of some system or other. A guy who was almost but not quite invading our personal space started to chip in, slowly encroaching on Poland in the meantime. Description: overweight, bearded, ponytail, bespectacled and not particularly pleasant smelling. Perhaps the only time I've ever literally backed away slowly in disgust.

Unlike comic books, which can actually be purchased at your supermarket or bookstore, P&P games are still extremely niche entertainment, and they ain't gonna come out of hiding soon. I give it five to ten more years, maybe.

Oh, and since you stuck it out based on that title:

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The wages of art

Frans Hals, a 17th century baroque painter, was reviled for his depiction of "vulgar" subjects. Crassness such as POOR PEOPLE and LAUGHTER shocked many possible patrons and left the poor man to die penniless and unappreciated. A few centuries later, a movement called impressionism reared its head and used many of Hals' shunned techniques and subjects. Unfortunately for Hals, he had not become a mummy or a vampire by that time, so he was not able to reap any rewards from his visionary style.

Imagine then, in the early 21st century, a group of last-year student teachers off to Berlin. Each one is assigned to organize a guided tour of a part of the city. One of the accompanying teachers feels she needs to stress the fact that sometimes genius just goes unappreciated. To illustrate this point, she like to use as a modern example that fantastic innovator Tarantino, not that... trash we were subjected to on the bus ride over here.

Oh yes, we certainly saw some trash. In fact, I dare you to pick out the trash she's ragging on two days after the fact.

Ice Age 2: The Meltdown
I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry
Shaun of the Dead

If you guessed that she was calling critically acclaimed horror-romcom Shaun of the Dead a piece of shit: bingo. At least offensive enough to use it as an example as the sort of drivel a TRUE INNOVATOR like Tarantino had to fight against.

This poor, delusional old lady can't really be blamed. Many, many folk don't really enjoy movies. They just use them as means to sound clever. Films, books, all kinds of art. Things like Ice Age 2 and Chuck and Larry are too unremarkable and by-the-numbers to really get any notice in the press. And how often does a really bad movie get a lot of press anyway? Gigli did, I suppose, but that was at least five years ago. Maybe the "Movie" movies do.

This lady just encountered a movie with humor slightly more complicated than your average sitcom and gory situations. Having never heard of the film, she must have been sure it was some direct-to-video cheapie only enjoyable by immature college students (not saying it wasn't enjoyed by that very segment of the population) and therefore safe to mock and belittle. The frustrating thing was that this woman held a position of authority, and thus pretty much also held sway over the minds of the undecided -- mostly female -- majority who didn't like it because it featured OMG BLOOD. Granted, a bus full of non-native English speakers might not have been the best venue for such a film, but it is that woman's arrogance and need to prove how knowledgeable she was that probably dissuaded the fence-sitters from giving it a second chance in more quiet surroundings.

Oh, frustration, if only thy bosom was more like Scarlett Johanssen's!

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Mostly poo

I visited a friend yesterday and watched four movies overnight, and one and a half movies in the morning. I managed to find the last one and a half genuinely entertaining (although I'll admit I slept through most of two of the the four night-films, so I can't make a decent value judgment on those).

The films were, in order:

The Spirit
Fast & Furious
Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li
The Black Cauldron


Tales of the Black Freighter
Role Models

What a masochist I must seem! I dozed through much of The Spirit and The Black Cauldron. The former, I think, won't really improve with seeing more of it. Black Cauldron seems to push all my fantasy-loving geek buttons for me to like -- although probably not love -- it once I see it through to completion.

My good friend Rutger, at whose place I was watching all these fine films, likened Frank Miller's Will Eisner's The Spirit to a routine by famous Dutch cabaretier Hans Theeuwen. In it, he was a poet who treated the audience to typical Theeuwen-style agressive exaggeration. His poem was a staccato of nonsense, each verse trying to top the last in "poetic" imagery that became steadily more coarse. As The Spirit verbally masturbates about his beloved Central City, he assures us for example that "she is no cheap whore, made up to look like jailbait". That's the Spirit!

Fast & Furious: gotta give credit to producer Neal H. Moritz. The dude sold us the same movie four times, to great financial gain for all involved. It's cynical. It's exploitative. It's "car porn". But it manages to be over the top, silly and sometimes amazingly gay. Especially check out Vin's dramatic hero shot in front of a field of hard-pumpin' oil drills, arms clutched over barrel-chest.

If you want a street fightin' good time, I suggest you go back to that 1994 JCVD-starring classic, cuz The Legend of Chun-Li is mostly a complete and utter slog to get through. There are some amusingly awful bits (whenever something supernatural and utterly unexplained happens, Chris Klein is on screen, you think about Bison's origin for even a second, or Kristin Kreuk narrates like a robot). If you are a Street Fighter fan, you might get all angry about this movie. If you do, kill yourself. It's a damn video game, and it's quite likely there will never be a "good" movie based on a video game.

Despite still not really seeing the point of why it was made in the first place, Tales of the Black Freighter is entertaining enough. It pretty much plays like an animated Creepshow segment, or perhaps the one with the zombie pilots from Heavy Metal. If I have one complaint, it's that the Black Freighter itself probably would have stayed scarier if we didn't see its undead crew. The expanded role for bosun Ridley (or his head, anyway) worked quite well. Shame the characters' mouths aren't as expressive as they could be. But I guess that's a DVD animation budget, huh?

If you want to spend an hour and a half being entertained by Paul Rudd and Seann William Scott acting like horrible cunts around minors, Role Models is the film for you. Faced with community service, the two must enroll in a mentor program to help unfortunate youths. Jane Lynch shines as the not-too-off-the-wagon charity leader. It's also amazing at how much mileage the movie gets out of the concept of Live Action Role Playing (or LARPing) by basing its entire third act around nerds hitting each other with foam swords.

How do I do it?

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Nerds with parents

I'm not ashamed to say I still live with my parents. I'm sure many somewhat more productive members of society do. Besides the delicious ravioli and such, this creates many an opportunity for insight in the tastes of people who don't really actively watch movies or pay much attention to critical analysis beforehand.

As mentioned a few days ago, I picked up a relatively cheap 2 disc edition of Transformers, wondering if it would still hold up. It's a simple premise, after all: robot, meet other robot's fist. This house-of-cards foundation is held aloft by some very goofy yet earnest performances by Shia LaBoeuf and Josh Duhamel (you'd think it was a Canadian movie). In fact, that's the description I'd use to sum up my positive feelings towards this movie. It's silly at all times and it's very honest about it. Pretty much every line coming out of robot king Optimus Prime is a hoot in how over the top it's delivered. That's right, he is the king of the robots and also a truck. Steve Jablonsky's Hans Zimmer-lite music only underscores this bombast with appropriately swelling heroic strings for the good guy Autobots (who are automobiles, mostly) or diabolic choirs for the evil Decepticons (who are often deceptive). Can't go mentioning the Awesome American Army here, a star in most Michael Bay movies. As I watched Duhamel and Tyrese's squad fight a robot scorpion wittily named Scorponok, I was considering joining the armed forces myself, until I realized there are no Decepticons in real life and we mostly just shoot poor, preferably brown people instead.

The home audience was lapping it up. Ohhhs and aahhs at all the appropriate moments, laughter at none of the inappropriate moments and even the remark that the scarier bits were "like a horror movie". The home audience? My mother and sister. I've been using my mother as a barometer for the tastes of the dreaded GENERAL AUDIENCE for years now. She's not foolproof (she was no big fan of The Dark Knight, and that can't have made all its money on geek dollars alone), but it's always entertaining to hear the opinion of one less immersed in such things.

Things I have found out over the years:

1) A likeable protagonist is essential. Making him humorously inept is a plus. Training montages may counteract this, if you wish. Kung Fu Panda was one of the few films I remember my mother looking forward to owning on DVD.

2) A romantic subplot really isn't, unless the movie is romantic in nature. If you absolutely need a girl to reel in the cooties, make the main guy a main girl. No reason a girl can't have adventures with robots or aliens -- tentacled or otherwise -- or dinosaurs or muppets.

3) Make the conflict straightforward: don't steep it in your universe's lore. People won't remember any of that stuff anyway. Look to legendary animated failure Delgo for a prime example of this.

4) Humor! Your main guys are fun dudes the audience would like to hang out with, while the villains are probably somewhere kicking puppies and performing backalley abortions. You don't have to make it an all-out comedy whenever the protagonists are on screen, but even the grimandgritty Dark Knight had moments of levity with Batman's butler Alfred and magical negro Lucius. These moments, of course, worked like gangbusters with my parents.

5) This guy.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Why aren't we driving on the road?

Many of the films I watch feature violence and death as a selling point. I have gone from finding violence and action "really cool" as a child to "really cool and fucking hilarious" as a (quasi-)adult. What happened? I'm sure smarter and more entertaining people than me have written many, many words on why we need violence in our entertainment. My question is, why is a lot of it so damn funny?

In Punisher:War Zone, the film's titular character punches a fellow human being's face off. He also decapitates a wheelchair-bound old man with a kitchen knife and puts a chair leg through another man's eye. If you're anything like me, the corners of your mouth started gently pulling themselves upward as you read those last two sentences, a vague sense of bliss slowly descending over your troubled soul. Hell, if you're really like me, you've seen War Zone a few times already.

A lot of hoopla has been made of the fact that anyone who really likes films like War Zone or Rambo has latent fascist tendencies. Certainly, anyone who thinks the streets overflow with scum that can only be dealt with by way of gunshots to the genitals or hoards firearms and katanas while wearing combat gear exclusively must be a deeply unpleasant individual. But what of the people who find the exploits of Frank Castle (the aforementioned "Punisher", for those not in the know) truly funny?

Fret not, my children, for we are the blessed. Well, not blessed in any religious or really beneficial sense, but I do believe that if laughter is your reaction to glorified violence in film, you've reached a higher level of movie-going, at least. Violence in real life is unpleasant, scary, a last resort of the desperate and, in our civilized society, luckily not very common. Our goals and labors in this society have become more and more intellectual in nature, rather than physical. The need for an alpha male to establish his dominance through use of force is steadily becoming more and more archaic and, in the most extreme of cases, ludicrous. In our entertainment, however, violence is quite pervasive. Serious films use violence to make a serious point. Even children's cartoons have no small amount of conflict resolved by the use of force, however sanitized. And then there's stuff like Bad Boys II, a film aimed (technically) at adults.

In this light-hearted summer fare set to the sweet tones of Sean "Diddy" Combs, heads are blown up, hearts are pulled out of rib cages and the corpses of fat Cuban men are gleefully run over by Ferraris. The violence in a film like this serves no real purpose other than its viewers to live vicariously through. It's pretty much everything the evolved lover of violence could want. I'm not counting stuff like Hot Fuzz or Crank, since those films -- while brilliant in their own right -- are quite obviously meant to be funny by virtue of jokes in the screenplay. Bad Boys II has these pre-conceived jokes as well (some of them, such as the Reggie interrogation, even work), but you're not going to tell me director Michael Bay thought we'd laugh at the destruction of a Cuban shantytown while a hastily added voice-over reassures us "Naw it's cool it's where they make the drugs, mang!"

Out of the Great Sea to Middle-earth I am come.

Hehehe, I am come.

Rest assured, I haven't come anywhere (yet). I start this blog with only the most noble of intentions and generally no clue as to what I will ramble about. Are you still with me? Fantastic. I knew you were a real G. I mean, as real a G as reads a blog post with the word "Middle-earth" in its title. So you're at least DJ Whoo Kidd, I suppose.

Movies are one of my big pastimes, so it's only natural that movies are going to get mentioned. Video games might get some time to shine as well, although I don't have a decent enough PC nor the right generation of console to report on something very current. I read from time to time as well, but mostly shitty stuff. But come to think of it, so are the movies, so that won't be a deterrent.

Today I picked up the 2-disc edition of Transformers, a movie I haven't seen since it came out. I liked it well enough then, but haven't really felt the need to revisit it. Let's see if it plays as well on a small screen. Surely, Megan Fox and that blonde hacker lady play just fine on a laptop screen, so it's all up to the robots.