Monday, May 9, 2011
Mother was the nurterer, she who provides sustenance, the introducer of foods, the assigner of candied beets, the Torquemada overseeing the Grand Inquisition into whether we truly loved the "cheesy broccoli surprise" or not--and woe betide he who said 'nay'. She was the one who convinced you wholeheartedly that chicken-fried pork chops were "nutritious." She was the one who aged her marshmallow Peeps to the right amount of crunchiness. She made the winter snowfall into a form of ice cream which to this day makes your mouth water.
Mother was the banker. She may not have owned the keys to the coinpurse initially but sooner or later they were hers. She was the tax collector, the county assessor who determined, without any income or bonuses of her own, with a job that only began each day but never ended, what deductions she could make from the treasury to support what SHE needed. If Father insisted that we save more money, it was only because she allowed him to. She made Christmases memorable because money wasn't an object, and if it cost too much well, then fiddle-dee-dee Scarlett, tomorrow is another day and she would find a way to pay for it.
Mother was the doctor, the Hippocratic Queen. She shot Band-Aids like a six-gun pistolero, she wielded the wand of Mercurochrome with the deftness of an ancient wizard. Baby Aspirin and Ludens Cherry Cough Drops fell from her hands like sweet ambrosia. She was the courier of school sick days, the Watcher who remained vigilant of you were sick or hurt.
Mother was the true disciplinarian, and if Father was the Screw who wielded the billy club with harsh justice, she was the Warden whose job it was to oversee behavior modification. Her power lay in Guilt, because the worst beating you ever received paled in comparison to the look of disappointment on her face when you realized your screw up in the most Royal of Ways. If "we'll just see how things go when your Father gets home" was the death knell, seeing her eyes welled with tears at your spanking was the killing blow, because she knew as you one day would that wisdom is often painful.
Mother was the Principal. Your lunches, your homework, your field trip permission slips and report cards, all handled by her with the deftness of a pit boss in Vegas. Whether she attended PTA meetings or helped out during birthday parties, her finger was on the pulse of your education. She didn't fully understand your algebra, but she made damn sure YOU did before you went to bed at night. Coordination was anything from taking you hunting for leaves as part of your science project to bringing you a snack during a late night study.
But Mother was also imperfect. She'd tell you to watch your weight but have Ding Dongs and Chocodiles always within reach. She'd talk about church and family and the worst family fights always followed the Sunday morning worship services. She would tend to your every need but not watch out for herself when you noticed her smoking too much. You couldn't win these fights, for she was always very stoic, and in her mind you didn't really have a damn thing to say given how often she had given of herself over the years.
Ironically, these were her most important lessons of all, because she was imperfect, she was a human being, and the one word you could always take away from these contemplations was sacrifice. She had her weaknesses, but sacrificed her well-being for the family. She lacked compassion to a degree, but only because she had personally experienced it. She would feel disappointment even if you made the same mistakes she did, but only because she wanted you to always, always do better, to take advantage of the opportunities that she never did.
Finally, Mother was and will always be Love. She never lost sight of your dreams, never lacked pride in your accomplishments, never took a hug or a kiss for granted. Working ceaselessly to run a well-oiled household machine, she never asked for or expected thanks, which is why I write this now. Mom, you make the world better just for being in it, and while I know you feel my gratitude, you would never be so proud to ask for it as payment for your endless work.
Saturday, January 1, 2011
I'm not a big fan of Hollywood remakes or movie adaptations of hit TV shows from bygone eras. The most obvious case of the former is The Day The Earth Stood Still, which while somewhat good at certain points, should have really been titled The Day Some Producer Googled "von Neumann Probes". A case of the latter is The Flintstones in terms of animation (the upcoming Smurfs film may fall into this category), and another live-action vs. live action example is The Dukes of Hazzard. I could go on and on about this, and in some cases Hollywood did get it right, e.g., Charlie's Angels and Mission: Impossible. Remakes often do little more than to explain to an already jaded public that Hollywood is completely out of original ideas.
Probably one of the more difficult genres to recreate for modern audiences are the 80s films. There was an aspect of fashion, music and culture that doesn't translate well to the 21st century. I figure once it's had a VH1 special done about it with D-list comedians, it's time to consider it vintage. As much as I would love to see "Savage" Steve Holland come back and do a modern-day version of Better Off Dead, the only actor who even remotely resembles John Cusack is Shia LaBeouf, and I already hate that mo-fo with the fire of a thousand suns.
Which in a roundabout way brings me to the remake of The Karate Kid. Sure it's staged around a Chinese martial arts master this time (in which case it should have been titled "The Kung Fu Kid", but there was no way the producers would have sacrificed the name value), and yes it was an obvious vehicle for Will Smith to showcase his son Jaden (who coincidentally was in the aforementioned Day The Earth Stood Still remake), but surprisingly it worked, and I'll tell you why.
First, let's consider the original. As a fat kid growing up in the 80s, any film where the outsider/nerd/new guy manages to kick a bully's ass was instant cinema gold to me. That film had one fat kid in it, and he was taken out with a roundhouse kick to the gut in the first few minutes of the tournament. So, living vicariously through an obviously good-looking 30-year-old Italian kid pretending to be a teenager was the unfortunate requirement; a much more voluptuous Elisabeth Shue helped considerably as well. Ralph Macchio's Daniel Laruso was the veritable fish out of water, moving from his Jersey neighborhood to the suburbs of LA. Moving in on the former girlfriend of Johnny Lawrence was mistake #1, since he was the star pupil of the local Cobra Kai dojo (creating the obvious trope that for every instructor who teaches peace and tranquility through martial arts, there's always some crazy-as-fuck sensei who just wants to beat the shit out of the world because he can). Enter Mr. Miyagi, the unassuming apartment fix-it guy, and well, you know the rest. Through a clever combination of chores as muscle-memory exercises and immersion in Eastern philosophy, the kid from the East Coast discovers the magic of the Far East and a friend in an old Japanese man who has his own crosses to bear. Even as a kid, I realized Daniel-San never really seemed to click with the whole Zen aspect of things, but he goes through the motions, learns the techniques and in the end proves himself. He finds a friend along the way, gets the girl and we get a film that generally does everything right. William Zabka typecasts himself forevermore as the blond asshole bully and Ralph Macchio commits career suicide that finally buried the corpse after My Cousin Vinny.
So how does the remake compare and in many cases improve on the original? For one, it was eminently more believable as a fish-out-of-water story. While some may say that going from the East to West coast is in a cultural way almost moving to a different country, here it actually happens. Mom gets a job in Beijing and young Dre is immersed in a culture and language where he is a complete outsider. He falls for a cute girl, in this case a violinist who happens to have close family ties to Cheng, this film's Johnny Lawrence. Cheng and his group of Cobra Kai toadies quickly use Dre as a punching bag, and we get to the inevitable show starter where Dre pulls one over on them, and they commence to beating the tar out of him. Enter this film's Miyagi (Mr. Han) in a homage to the first film, taking on all the kids in a well-choreographed scene which pays additional respect to Jackie Chan's style of using his combatant and the environment to his advantage, getting the kids to actually hit each other, then using one kid's windbreaker to hog-tie a bunch of his buddies.
Again, remake mirrors original with the visit to Cheng's school, where the challenge is dropped and the training for the tournament begins. However in this case Dre seems a bit more focused in terms of his willingness to learn the ropes. While the film's location allowed a deeper immersion in the fundamentals of kung fu and the concept of chi by visiting the literal birthplace of Chinese martial arts (the visit to Okinawa didn't happen until the sequel with the first series, and even then Daniel's character never really "connected" with it), Jaden is infinitely more believable as a kid who realizes he's been given a unique opportunity to change his life and way of looking at things. The training is much more believable, as Smith's fitness eventually reflects hours upon hours of training and discipline.
Here too is a deeper, more painful storyline, as Mr Han is revealed to have lost his wife and son (in this case, a boy not much younger than Dre) in a car accident during a family argument. Chan excels at this point, showing true pain and sorrow, and we see Dre helping his mentor move past the tragedy in a way that the Daniel/Miyagi story never seemed to get right.
Fast forward to the tournament, and it pretty much plays out like the original - Chen's master doing everything he can not to be embarrassed by the upstart Dre/Han combo, Dre quickly moving up through the ranks, culminating in a signature move that wins him the tournament. Chen is nothing more than a one-trick pony throughout the entire film, never losing his violent streak or his scowl until the very end, culminating in a moment that was much more satisfactory to the honorable teacher dynamic than in the original.
Overall, being a film I was initially skeptical about, I found this one to improve upon the original, which while still a good film, had some overall flaws. Jackie Chan shows more range than we were used to seeing, perhaps since he wasn't playing second fiddle to the ever-annoying Chris Tucker. Jaden Smith really shines as Dre, making him a kid I'd prefer showing as an example to my children than the Daniel character in the original. This film is less 'mushy' than the original (which was a quintessential teen film), and my one big gripe aside from Chen's stony performance was that the romantic subplot seemed very awkward given a largely pre-teen cast. This remake also didn't overwhelm the audience with a catchy soundtrack, given that the "You're the Best" song pretty much solidified itself as an anthem in the original film. As with most Smith vehicles, there is some degree of rapping involved, but here it was at the end and didn't overshadow the key moments. The cinematography of China was amazing, and scenes of the Great Wall and the monastery made the film that much more enjoyable.
So, never let it be said that a remake can't succeed and in many, many cases improve upon the original. I'm sure this film will stand out as an exception to the rule, but if nothing else, it proved to be a more believable story with much better acting than it's kitschy, dated predecessor.
Tuesday, November 2, 2010
The idealized image I see for governmental politics is distilled in the Rob Reiner film, The American President. In a somewhat unusual story, a widowed and very popular Democratic President Shepherd (Douglas) becomes romantically involved with a contracted environmental lobbyist Sidney Ellen Wade (Bening) with former ties to ACLU-related protests such as flag burning in front of the South African (and at that time apartheid-based) embassy. This is used as fuel in a smear campaign headed by Republican presidential hopeful Bob Rumson (Dreyfuss) - bearing an uncanny resemblance to Dick Cheney - to show that Shepherd has dubious moral character in light of his extramarital relationship and his questionable support of a critical gun control bill.
The fictional President Shepherd is someone who we would hope any President aspires to be: popular, attractive, close with his kids, friends and subordinates, and deeply in love with American principles and freedoms. At the same time, he's a man who deeply misses his late wife and is trying to find love in a position where every aspect of his personal life is under a microscope. He wants privacy, and realizes that the public at large doesn't care since any indication he's a man with wants and needs is seen as weak character.
The climax of the film, culminating in him playing politics to win a bet with Wade over her environmental reform bill vs. his crime bill, combined with outside attacks on his character that weaken his approval rating (going into the election year for his 2nd term) and wrecking his relationship with wade, is a heartfelt speech which I think explains several key points about why America, great as it is, is not an easy place to live in:
1) Freedom of Speech: America isn't easy. America is advanced citizenship. You gotta want it bad, 'cause it's gonna put up a fight. It's gonna say "You want free speech? Let's see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who's standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours. You want to claim this land as the land of the free? Then the symbol of your country can't just be a flag; the symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag in protest. Show me that, defend that, celebrate that in your classrooms. Then, you can stand up and sing about the "land of the free".
2) Political puffery: I've known Bob Rumson for years, and I've been operating under the assumption that the reason Bob devotes so much time and energy to shouting at the rain was that he simply didn't get it. Well, I was wrong. Bob's problem isn't that he doesn't get it. Bob's problem is that he can't sell it! We have serious problems to solve, and we need serious people to solve them. And whatever your particular problem is, I promise you, Bob Rumson is not the least bit interested in solving it. He is interested in two things and two things only: making you afraid of it and telling you who's to blame for it. That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you win elections. You gather a group of middle-aged, middle-class, middle-income voters who remember with longing an easier time, and you talk to them about family and American values and character. And wave an old photo of the President's girlfriend and you scream about patriotism and you tell them, she's to blame for their lot in life, and you go on television and you call her a whore.
I keep going back to this film because in many ways it's an American presidency I'd like to see. It's a guy standing up for his right to privacy and love as much as his right to govern as he sees fit. The downside is that it's a Hollywood presidency, and even in light of the spinoff that resulted (The West Wing) which appealed to many liberals and was the bane of right-leaning viewers, it's unlikely such a person could be elected today. Yes, it's idealized to a degree, but it still gives curmudgeons like me a feeling of hope in electing representatives we can respect as both a leader and an individual.
Monday, October 18, 2010
Sometimes I greatly dislike Wizards of the Coast (WoTC).
More specifically, I dislike their business model, which over the years I compare to the Once-ler from "The Lorax," who retorted "A Thneed's a Fine-Something-That-All-People-Need!" whenever questioned about the utility of his product. I'm sitting here, having leafed through their new Red Box Edition, still sort of shaking my head. It's like someone re-released the original Rubik's Cube, and even though you solved it way back in the 80s, it's some new edition with 'vintage' colors, the original feel of the twisting/turning mechanism, but also, alas, outdated by a slew of successive Rubik-type puzzle games intended to draw the attention of older or more-clever players wanting a challenge.
See, I cut my teeth on this version of the game back in 1983: .
I enjoyed coloring in the numbers on the dice with my black Crayola. I remember the simple character sheet mock-up and the Keep on the Borderlands module. I was also 13 years old, fighting significant Catholic school ennui and having to deal with my unrequited feelings for the girl in our class who sprouted 34Ds seemingly overnight. Testosterone + Catholic guilt is a recipe for disaster, and slaying orcs by the metric shitload was apparently the only alleviation for the army of horny orcs inside me. But I digress...
Regardless, there was a space of not more than 2 months before I cut my teeth on the first edition of AD&D which was what all my buddies had since gravitated towards, whether it was more of an appeal to our nerdy minds or the semi-naked female drawings I can't say for sure. Fast forward 27 years later, I saw little need to update to this version (which cleverly, ha ha, re-used the original Larry Elmore art of the first "Red Box" edition--smooth move, Ex-Lax, as they used to say in the high school parlance):
I understand their reasoning, I really do: Issue a less-complex rule set aimed at younger or newer players wanting the "feel" of D&D without the hassle of having to buy a slew of core rulebooks. The idea was also to draw in players who wanted the experience of their weekly 4-5 hour sessions but with slightly faster game dynamics that allowed shorter encounter times. Believe me, I get this. After numerous gaming sessions where our 5-6 hours of play crept into the 7-7.5 hour territory simply because we wanted to get in one last encounter before the next monthly session (read: Adulthood sometimes sucks), you often want a rock/paper/scissors/lizard/Spock turnaround for a given battle.
The confusion for me stems from the fact that the 4th edition ruleset was already "dumbed down" a bit to appeal to (a) the experienced online RPG gamer, (b) someone who disliked the extremes of 3rd edition rules, where every action had 15 different modifiers, (c) someone who appreciated the concept of Power Cards being added in (getting Magic: The Gathering chocolate into their pen/paper RPG peanut butter as it were), and/or (d) appeal to the 21st century mindset by building character development through a snazzy new application interface. They even released a preview of the 4th edition rules designed to introduce them to the changes in the core rules. With all these aspects designed to draw in new players and to suck existing, experienced players into a new style of game play, the box set re-release is mainly an appeal to nostalgia. My pessimistic opinion is it's an unnecessary and blatantly shitty way of squeezing more money out of a gamer, many of whom are already taxed in their hobby with a rough economy and an already 20+ rulebook/supplement heavy 4th edition.
Remember that in the beginning, there were just two dudes (Gygax and Arneson) using a homegrown ruleset to expand on their wargaming hobby. When you read the history of the game it's at times amazing to witness the evolution of a worldwide phenomenon and later a perfect example of how greed and a questionable business model can screw up a franchise. D&D is at it's most basic an appeal to introverted, imaginative role-playing. The archetypal nerd is the staple image because simply, it's often the truth. Screw that whole "Vin Diesel plays D&D so nanny-nanny boo-boo" shit; Vin Diesel also used to sport an afro and made breakdancing instructional videos before he became the musclebound action star, plus I am certain few of us can snap their fingers to summon hot women instantly.
As a public service message for thems who want a nice history of the game, here then is my general overview of the Wizards of the Coast business model for RPGs, from about 4 years back to current:
1) This is a niche market which is relatively easy to exploit despite the usually argumentative and intelligent nature of the target audience-- in essence operating on a "hate the dealer, need his drug" dynamic. To quote High Fidelity, "fetish properties are not unlike porn. I'd feel guilty taking their money, if I wasn't... well... kinda one of them." While I will grant a few gamers have matured beyond the 'buy everything' phase, I am still certain R.A. Salvatore could publish "Drizzt and Guenhwyvar Go Quantity Surveying" and get on the NYT Bestseller's list.
2) Profit. Many nerds (or their parents) are well-employed or have some measure of disposable income to spend on said gaming products. Even if liquid cash isn't available, the nerds are more than willing to forego food, sex, hygiene, sex, sleep and sex in order to obtain the Preciouss. I was watching a documentary on Todd MacFarlane once, and one of the kids interviewed was a pizza delivery guy in his early 20s, living in his parent's house, with a basement room full literally floor-to-ceiling of mint-in-box McFarlane toys. The same could be said for collectors of comic books or movie memorabilia. WoTC uses this to their advantage.
3) Issue rule set revision. Make it 100% incompatible with the previous rules, and use the revised approach to roll out the new business model to an Internet-savvy crowd at Gen Con. Tease us with a demo of a 3d character/dungeon visualizer that will never become reality. As a donkey punch, get rid of the paper-based game periodicals to further prop up your new web-based enterprise. It's as if a thousand guys reading Dragon on the shitter suddenly cried out in terror, and were suddenly silenced.
4) Proceed to break the Player's Handbook into 3-4 sizeable chunks to allow timely dissolution of new classes, races and powers and reduced savings account balances.
5) Ditto for Dungeon Master's Guide and Monster Manuals.
6) Issue secondary materials to appeal to each class group (e.g., divine, martial, psionic). Make them ungodly expensive.
7) Take Forgotten Realms and totally fuck it up the ass. Seriously, Greenwood isn't dead yet, can we refrain from pissing on his grave, please? Why do fantasy designers feel the need to revamp/withdraw magic use as if it's some sort of steampunk effect? Did we learn how not to do this from Dragonlance?
8) To their credit, create incredibly sweet application to manage character design, coupled with a reasonably-priced website to obtain rule updates which seamlessly integrate with the builder application. This alone is why I often give issues 1-7 a pass. Character Builder rocks like a chair, issues aside. Regardless, I still like a hardcover book to read when I'm in the bathroom, so this perk isn't always ideal.
9) As a further slap in the face, refuse to introduce new artists by re-using annoying and often inconsistent artwork lifted from the 3rd edition books. I'm talking to you, the guy who keeps reusing the pointy-nosed monsters (not everything looks like a troll) and who thinks everyone runs and fights at 45 degree angles.
10) After your new ruleset is firmly ingrained into the public mindset, create recruitment, erm, social gatherings designed to integrate Facebook and Twitter with weekly gaming experiences while also drumming up business for game shops. While I was never involved in Encounters (some of us have kids), it looks like a very fun diversion assuming you could get into a "good" group.
11) After your new gaming model and Internet communication mechanisms are firmly ingrained in the social milieu, issue the new "back to basics" homage to the original D&D box set with a stripped down rule set designed to appeal to younger, less-experienced gamers. Immediately conceal your obvious "Fuck you" to experienced gamers by appealing to their sense of nostalgia and aforementioned disposable income. As I said before, some of us went to Advanced D&D because the basic stuff was too basic. Also roll the new boxed set out at Gen Con and subsequent events as if it's a well-made trailer for an ultimately crappy movie. Use the catchphrase "Essentials" to make it seem this basic set integrates seamlessly with existing 4th edition core rules.
12) Simultaneously redeem yourself slightly with a truly kick-ass reboot of the Dark Sun campaign setting. I'm not getting heavy into it now, but I'm liking what I see. My concern is their scheduled lack of meaningful 4E products for the next six months (given the focus on board games and Gamma World).
13) Piss off the Gothic fantasy RPG crowd by rolling out the Ravenloft reboot as a board game. For sixty fucking dollars. With no coupons. Come on, people, if I want to play Mousetrap, I'll go buy friggin' Mousetrap. I want my original I6 module with my quasi-3d maps and my card game integrated with my pen and paper D&D.
14) Space your release of new miniature sets as far apart as possible, tease us with fears of a new manufacturer which sucks, then dangle the ginormous Orcus figure carrot as if it's going to make it all worthwhile. Would it kill you to roll out a new series of player minis in the interim?
15) Demonstrate occasional coolness with totally cool audio podcasts with Wil Wheaton and the Penny Arcade/PVP dudes, then screw it up with a boring-as-Hell "video" podcast featuring all the overweight, unattractive writers/actors from Robot Chicken who aren't Seth Green, and who obviously make learning D&D as interesting as watching paint dry. Son, I am disappoint. I still give props to Andy Collins regardless because the dude rocks, even in the face of apparent DM boredom and player naivete.
Thursday, April 22, 2010
There are times in America, most notably "Nipplegate" from the Super Bowl XXXVIII halftime show in 2004, where I facepalm over the apparent ignorance of the American viewing public. We can watch a four-hour extravaganza of men slamming against other men over who has possession of a ball of cowhide, interspersed with a number of flowerly commercials about erectile dysfunction, but suddenly a 2 second shot of a female breast is what signals the death-knell of America as we know it. Americans can see dozens of simulated murders, rapes and assaults on prime-time television every week, but show a few seconds of a buttock--male or female--and that's a travesty of entertainment.
But back to the film, for which I don't understand all the bashing. The language was no worse than what I've heard junior-high kids speaking (and this from 1982, mind you), and it's all over any Myspace or Facebook page you see written by teenagers. Also, for the unenlightened idiots out there--the writer of the comic is Scottish. In the U.K., the C-word is no more heinous than calling someone an asshole in the U.S.. It's used prolifically by men and women of all ages over there, even more during football games.
However, since it was scripted to come out of the mouth of a 10-year-old female vigilante assassin, it's somehow the worst thing in the universe, ever and we are all weaker as a species because of it. The violence of the film still pales in comparison to the slasher porn from Saw and related flicks that any teenager sees on a given weekend (or whichever tween manages to sneak it in past an ignorant parent during a trip to Blockbuster). Adults and reviewers often have misplaced priorities when considering the ultimate theme of the film, and in this case their response was true to form.