Wednesday, August 28, 2013

I'll wait for the Nintendo 4DS for adults

So Nintendo and GameStop have partnered again to distribute rare Pokemon for download at GameStop stores across America, which means it's time once again for me to visit the Starbucks next door to my local GameStop, then pretend to be working on my laptop, while, underneath the table, I discreetly have my all-black DS Lite turned on and ready to wirelessly receive the shiny Dialga. And I'll have to do this twice more over the coming weeks, since they'll be distributing a shiny Palkia and a shiny Giratina as well.

Yes, it's all quite aggravating (among other words that you might apply to my situation as a grown man making a trip out specifically to acquire a digital monster). But I won't be manipulated into going into GameStop, where I would have no intention of spending money, and where I would assuredly be the only adult there not at all hidden in the corner to download a rare Pokemon, shaking my head and trying to avoid eye contact as the employees ask if I need any help. And, unfortunately, their wireless transmitter (actually just a DS of their own) isn't strong enough for me to pull this off from my car in the parking lot, so heading into Starbucks is the only way to go.

And my black DS Lite—once upon a time, it was as professional-looking as any handheld electronic device out there. Now, it just looks like another huge Nintendo toy. So, under the table it goes.

And here Nintendo comes again trying to up the ante, with its newly announced 2DS handheld, for tech that one would be embarrassed to be seen in public with. I know it's not marketed toward me, and I'm not saying I don't see the sense in it. But... damn! On the one hand, I actually kind of want one. If it's more comfortable to hold than their clamshell designs of the last few years, which have indeed left much to be desired ergonomically, then that would be a pretty big deal to me. That price, meanwhile, is quite the deal, period. In this economy, those savings are not inconsequential for anyone in the market for a 3DS. On the other hand, I would be absolutely embarrassed to be seen playing that thing in public, or even in private.

Seriously, when will Nintendo have the sense to design for adults a grown-up piece of hardware that we won't be embarrassed to carry around in public while heading out to download rare Pokemon? Seriously!

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Screens of the new content in Final Fantasy Tactics for PSP

(This first one's actually from Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together. Perhaps note the differences in visual quality I mentioned in my previous posts about each game. Even the text boxes are snazzier in Tactics Ogre.)


Among the most luxurious of the little luxuries in Square Enix's PSP remake of Tactics Ogre is the ability to save a screen capture at any time via a simple two-button combination. The game will save the image to the memory stick in pristine resolution, with an added copyright stamp to make it look extra legit, as though you got the screenshot directly from the publisher. Time was, even a leading enthusiast publication like Electronic Gaming Monthly would have a hard time getting quality images of games for its coverage. Moving forward, we should nowadays expect some sort of built-in screen (and video) capture feature to be standard on all consoles, allowing even amateur bloggers to share their best in-game moments across the web.

It's too bad I didn't take more screens during my playthrough of Tactics Ogre. I didn't originally plan to run an image-heavy blog. Since I'm not an artist, any picture I post would almost certainly be some stock image taken from somewhere else, so what would even be the point, right? But, in researching the traffic data on my old blog (which, despite not having had new content posted to it in several months, still gets several times more hits daily than this blog), I realized that it got far more hits via Google's image search than via plain Google web search. So, while playing Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions for the PSP, I made sure to take several screen captures in preparation for an image-heavy blog post. Final Fantasy Tactics doesn't actually have a built-in screen capture feature—Tactics Ogre was a little ahead of the curve in that regard—but a few simple hacks will get you there (and, honestly, is there a single PSP owner who hasn't hacked their system?).

So, while admitting that this entire post is little more than a shameless traffic-grab, I'll just highlight some of the new content that The War of the Lions adds over the original Final Fantasy Tactics, since I imagine that's what would be of greatest interest about the game to my readers.

A lighthearted scene taking place on Agrias's birthday:


This yields the brand new "Tynar Rouge" accessory for female characters. Equip it on Agrias, and she'll give Orlandeau a run for his money as the game's most dominating character.

Luso, game hunter and protagonist of Final Fantasy Tactics A2 for the DS, joins the party:


His "Game Hunter" class comes with the same abilities as Ramza's unique "Squire" class, and Luso's stats are mostly the same as Ramza's as well. His one distinguishing characteristic is that, while in his default class, he has an innate "Poach" ability, meaning that any monster he cuts down will be transformed into an item for purchase at the Poachers' Den. Also, he can learn Ultima earlier than Ramza, then teach it to Ramza earlier than Ramza could learn it in the original game. Too bad Ultima sucks....

Balthier from Final Fantasy XII:


Balthier is awesome. His "Sky Pirate" class has all the same skills as Mustadio's "Machinist" class, plus he has a set of "Plunder" action abilities, which are higher-accuracy versions of the thief's "Steal" actions. But his best skill is "Barrage"—basically an "X-Fight" action that lets him attack four times in a row for half normal damage each hit, and none of the hits can be blocked or dodged. Add to that his incredible speed, high evade, and his versatility in being able to equip guns, bows, knives, swords, polearms, shields, heavy armor, and even knight swords, and he's one of the best characters in the game, at least among those without special sword skills. I only wish they had bothered to address the fact that he and Mustadio share a last name.

The new "Lionel's New Liege Lord" side quest introduces us to two new foes who have a history with Beowulf and Reis:


With it no longer being possible to steal from Marquis Elmdore, this quest is also where you'll get the Masamune and Genji Armor in the single-player game. For any of the rest of the Genji equipment, you'll have to find someone to join you for the multiplayer modes.

In the new "Disorder in the Order" side quest, Ramza hunts down some brigands formerly of his father's old unit. For some reason, Agrias participates as a guest party member in this battle. If you bring Orlandeau, he'll also have a few words. Otherwise, there's not much to see here:


An extra battle, wherein Meliadoul confronts another of the Knights Templar:


The above battle actually occurs before Meliadoul's original confrontation with her father, Folmarv, so this just fills in a small gap. Unfortunately, it's the only new Meliadoul scene, but, by the time she joins the party, you're practically at the end of the story anyway.

A pretty significant new scene that finally addresses why Agrias seems to abandon her original mission of guarding Ovelia:


As you can see, it also settles, once and for all, the age-old debate over whether Ovelia had a knife in her hand. If you have no idea what I'm talking about, consider yourself lucky.

Argath's last stand:


That's just a taste of what's new in The War of the Lions. For those curious to see more (but not curious enough to play the game for themselves), you can probably find the extra scenes and battles in their entirety on YouTube.

Next, some random shots of scenes that are not new (although they are newly translated) but that, for whatever reason, I thought were worth capturing.

A cute moment in the new translation:


Barich (AKA Balk) explains the way of things:


I didn't even remember this character from the first time I played the game, but damn if he doesn't make sense!

And, finally, more of Argath (AKA Algus) being unbelievably awful:

final_fantasy_tactics_argath_1 final_fantasy_tactics_argath_2 final_fantasy_tactics_argath_3 final_fantasy_tactics_argath_4 final_fantasy_tactics_argath_5 final_fantasy_tactics_argath_6 final_fantasy_tactics_argath_7 final_fantasy_tactics_argath_8 final_fantasy_tactics_argath_9 final_fantasy_tactics_argath_whoresons

Yes, you read that right. He said "whoresons." And, since Google isn't quite sophisticated enough yet to connect searches to text contained in images, I'm typing out the word in order to make sure that, the next time someone does a search for "final fantasy tactics whoresons," this post will be there for them.


Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions (PSP) (Square Enix, 2007)

Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions

I don't know if I'd call it my absolute favorite game of all time, but, among the games that I personally own, Final Fantasy Tactics (1997) would be at the top of the list of those I would nominate to be inducted into the canon of titles that belong in every gamer's library, in the same sense that every literate person's book library should include a copy of George Orwell's 1984, regardless of whether they ever actually pick up and read it. Square's tactical RPG for the PS1 was universally acclaimed in its own time, and it remains as playable now as it was then. No subsequent release in the genre (or perhaps in any genre) has managed to surpass or even equal its across-the-board excellence in gameplay, story, and sound. It inspired a still-active fan community, which has subjected the game's extensive yet accessible mechanics to a staggering degree of in-depth analysis. And, these days, it can be had fairly cheaply on a variety of platforms, leaving little excuse not to own it. That said, the 2007 enhanced port for the PSP, Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions, may not be the ideal way to play it.

The War of the Lions is about 90-95 percent a straight port of the PS1 original. It does little to take advantage of the PSP's superior specs, and if there's anything in the game that really dates it, it's the low-res menus, character portraits, and text. Those are the parts that are a bit hard on the eyes now compared to more recent games of otherwise similar design, including Square Enix's 2011 PSP remake of Tactics Ogre. The battle graphics, on the other hand, hold up quite well even against later games done in the same isometric visual style. Although the character sprites are also low-res, I was truly amazed, coming to this game after having just played Tactics Ogre, at how much larger and more animated the sprites are in Final Fantasy Tactics. The polygonal battlefields, although blocky and repetitive, are also notable for being fully 3-D and rotatable, with story battles often opening with dramatic camera pans.

If anything, The War of the Lions seems actually technically inferior to the original PS1 version. This sloppy port is marred by severe input lag when simply scrolling through menus, slowdown any time a character casts a spell or performs a special attack, conspicuous drops in the audio as it pauses every time the game has to load a different clip or track, and a general tinniness to the sound. Most inexplicably, even altogether lost are the cheesy lines that characters would occasionally mutter before they performed their spells or special attacks during battles in the original game ("Heaven's wish to destroy all minds... Holy Explosion!"). These defects collectively make the PSP version, in my opinion, inferior to the original, which can be downloaded via the PSN store for the same price as The War of the Lions and for play on the same PSP and PS Vita platforms (plus PS3 as well).

Still, if you're someone who has already played the original to death, The War of the Lions does offer some fresh incentives to revisit the game. The one attempt to beautify the game comes in the form of a handful of new pre-rendered movie sequences, which utilize cel-shading to achieve a gorgeous hand-drawn look. These new cut scenes, some of which replace scenes formerly handled with the isometric graphics, such as the classic grass whistle moment, are very pretty, although the English voice acting is underwhelming, and, overall, I didn't find that their inclusion enhanced my appreciation of the story or characters in any way. The best and weightiest moments in the story continue to be found in the battles, with the characters at each other's throats.

That brings us to the new English-language translation. The original PS1 translation is among the most notorious in the annals of bad video game translations, so, for players of the English versions, the new translation may actually be the most appealing aspect of the port. Written in roughly the same verbose style as Vagrant Story and Final Fantasy XII (although Alexander O. Smith, the translator for those other games, was not involved this time), the new English script is an improvement overall, although it is not in every respect a trade up. It's nice to have this consistent voice across all these translations, so as to mirror the Japanese scripts all having originally been written by one man, Yasumi Matsuno (although I have no idea whether Matsuno himself wrote in equivalently wordy and arcane Japanese). Thus, "Holy Stone" becomes "Auracite," "Death City" becomes "Necrohol," and, for whatever reason, "mummers" are now apparently a common thread through the English-language Matsuno-verse.

For the most part, the new text is not too overwrought, although it's also never snappy or quotable. Despite the original translation's reputation, it actually was not all bad. The tutorial was gibberish ("This was the darkened items won't appear"), and there was some sloppy work on a lot of the ancillary text in the game, such as the optional errands you could do for extra JP. But the most critical part of the script—the dialogue—was handled with far more care, and if the translation never stood out and impressed, at least it never distracted by drawing attention to itself but rather simply conveyed the story in generally comprehensible English.

My favorite sequence in the entire story, the mid-battle confrontation between the game's two most embittered characters, Argath and Milleuda (formerly Algus and Miluda), was, in my opinion, far stronger and more memorable in the old translation. For comparison, here first is the old text:
Miluda: Who do you think you are!? We're not your animals! We're human, just like you! There's no difference among us other than our families! You ever been hungry? With only soup to eat for months? Why do we have to suffer? Because you nobles deprive us our right to live!

Algus: Human? Hmph, ridiculous! From the minute you were born you had to obey us! From the second you were born you were our animals!!

Miluda: Says who!? That's nonsense! Who decided all this?!

Algus: It's the Will of Heaven!

Miluda: Heaven? God would never say such things! In his eyes, all are equal! He'd never let this happen! Never!

Algus: Animals have no God!!

Miluda: !!!!

And here's the new text:
Milleuda: How can you nobles live as you do and yet hold your heads so high? We are not chattel. We are humans, no less than you! What flaw do you hold there to be in us? That we were born between a different set of walls? Do you know what it means to hunger? To sup for months on naught but broth of bean? Why must we be made to starve that you might grow fat? You call us thieves, but it is you who steal from us the right to live!

Argath: You, no less human than we? Ha! Now there's a beastly thought. You've been less than we from the moment your baseborn father fell upon your mother in whatever gutter saw you sired! You've been chattel since you came into the world drenched in common blood!

Milleuda: By whose decree?! Who decides such foul and absurd things?

Argath: 'Tis heaven's will!

Milleuda: Heaven's will? You would pin your bigotry on the gods? No god would fain forgive such sin, much less embrace it! All men are equal in the eyes of the gods!

Argath: Men, yes. But the gods have no eyes for chattel.

Milleuda: You speak of devils, not gods!

The old translation is certainly not the most polished, while I would have no strong complaint against the new text judged on its own merits. But, in its relative succinctness and directness, the old script possesses an immediacy that I feel lends the dialogue far greater force on both sides. Remember that these characters are exchanging words while engaging in mortal combat with one another. There's also a coarseness to the original translation here, whether it's intentional or not, that I think rings truer in reflecting where these two characters are each coming from, which is kind of the whole point of that chapter in the story. Argath is of a house fallen from nobility, on account of his craven grandfather having disgraced the family name by turning self-serving traitor during wartime. Growing up, both hearing how proud was once his noble house, while experiencing firsthand the classism shown those of his family's now lesser rank, he has developed his own warped notions of what it means to be noble versus common, and how each is to be regarded. Milleuda, meanwhile, fought honorably to defend the crown as a member of a peasant brigade that, at war's end, was turned out by their liege lord without due recompense. With no faith whatsoever left in the nobility, she has chosen to take matters into her own hands, leading a desperate and violent uprising. Each resents the other's very existence, yet the bitter irony is that they are, both of them, the spit-upon meager.

And there are other, similar instances, mostly during story battles, where the old translation sticks out as more direct, more forceful, and more memorable.

You'll also note that, in the new translation, these characters have apparently become polytheistic. War of the Lions translator Tom Slattery has defended this decision, explaining that the original Japanese text leaves no ambiguity—the characters refer to gods, plural. I don't find this altogether satisfactory, but, without doing a lot of research into the original Japanese and what Matsuno really intended, I'll just have to take his word on it. In any case, this change does little to obscure the fact that the game's Church of Glabados is blatantly modeled after the Christian Church, its foundational story of Saint Ajora very specifically mirroring that of Jesus Christ. I'm still shocked that such a major publisher as Square ever signed off on this story. Certainly, Japanese video games had been mining Christianity as mythology for years before Final Fantasy Tactics, but it rarely went deeper than having angelic imagery backed by zero research into the actual tenets of the Western religion. In writing Final Fantasy Tactics, Matsuno had clearly not only researched the gospel narrative but the history of the church as well, including popular criticisms and conspiracy theories. It would be amazing if, one of these days, some interviewer could get him to talk about what he was thinking when he wrote this story, but that probably won't ever happen.

The rest of the story is typical Matsuno, full of intelligent and deliciously ambitious human characters, and mercifully free of the cliches and stunted melodrama that have lately sunk nearly the entire Japanese RPG genre. If anything, I had a harder time wrapping my head around it now than when I first played the game over a decade ago. I don't know if that's because of the new wordier translation or just because, as a younger man then, I didn't pay as much attention and so didn't even notice when I was missing something. But the plot goes so deep with layers upon layers of characters pulling other characters' strings that eventually I was getting headaches trying to keep straight who the real players were, if indeed there even were any and not just a mess of pawns. There are two warring dukes, each backing a different puppet successor to the throne. Behind the dukes, there are yet more scheming and opportunistic lords. Then there's the church, encouraging, if not even instigating, the conflict from behind the scenes, so that, in the ruined aftermath, it can displace the crown and assume power itself. And there's the church's knights, who seem not very strong in the faith at all but rather working toward their own frightening agenda. Add to all that a couple key wildcards and this was and remains one of the densest and most complicated yet thoroughly engrossing tales in any Japanese RPG.

Besides a new translation, the game has also seen the addition of a number of story scenes and battles. Most of them are optional and not, all told, of great consequence, but almost every unique character that joins your party, with the exceptions of the much-hated siblings from Chapter III, gets at least a few extra lines of dialogue now. One of the disappointing things about the original game was how characters such as Agrias and Orlandeau (formerly Orlandu), so seemingly significant when first introduced, would become completely forgotten by the story almost as soon as they joined your party. At last, The War of the Lions partially corrects that with at least a few acknowledgments that these characters are still alive and fighting the good fight late into the story (assuming you haven't let them die or dismissed them). Beowulf and Reis even get probably several times more dialogue in their new scenes than they ever had in the original game.

Speaking of party members, there are two brand new ones. Luso, protagonist of Final Fantasy Tactics A2: Grimoire of the Rift for the Nintendo DS, is nearly a clone of Ramza in terms of his abilities. Balthier from Final Fantasy XII, meanwhile, is like a much better version of Mustadio and is one of the strongest characters in the game.

There are also two new classes: the dark knight and the onion knight. The requirements for unlocking the dark knight are so demanding, however, that I still didn't have it by the time I had exhausted all the game's non-random content. The onion knight can be unlocked with less effort, but it takes even longer to develop into something viable, and, more importantly, it can't equip any skills, which is the whole fun of the game.

One of the interesting things about Yasumi Matsuno is that, on most of the games he has worked on, he has been credited for both "scenario" (story) and "game design" (gameplay), and most of his games have been lauded on both counts. On Final Fantasy Tactics, however, the design credit went to Hiroyuki Ito, Square's own resident systems guy for its Final Fantasy series—this despite the fact that the game's battle mechanics were largely recycled from Matsuno's own Tactics Ogre. In any case, this was, to me, a true "dream team" of Japanese RPG technicians, and the gameplay still holds up as some of the deepest and most rewarding in the tactical RPG genre.

The battlefields in this game are small compared to the average in the genre, which can make the action feel small. Personally, I find that this just speeds things up, since it minimizes that tiresome opening phase in many other games, where both sides spend the first several turns getting units into position and maybe buffing themselves before they can even attack one another. But the addictive quality of the experience probably owes less to the actual combat than to the possibilities for character setups afforded by Ito's Job system, which encourages players to mix and match learned skills from different classes in order to develop versatile super-characters. You can equip a thief with the archer's accuracy-boosting "Concentration" support ability, for example, to raise the success rate of the thief's "Steal" actions. Or, better yet, equip both "Concentration" and "Steal" on a ninja, which is even faster than a thief, to maximize their success rate. (Well, actually, if you really want to maximize your chances, Balthier's default class is just as fast as a ninja and comes with better versions of the thief's skills—just part of why he's so awesome in this game.) As another example, you can take the dragoon's "Jump" attack, the strength and speed of which is determined by the character's own speed, and equip it on a ninja, which has much higher speed than the rather sluggish dragoon. But, since "Jump" also receives a damage bonus when the character performing it is equipped with a spear, you might want to also outfit that ninja with the dragoon's "Equip Polearms" support ability, which allows non-dragoons to wield spears. (Or, again, you can just have Balthier learn "Jump," since he's already fast and can naturally equip spears.) The flexibility of this system is rivaled only by the other games in the Final Fantasy Tactics series, and the joy of the experience is in devising your own combinations to suit your play style and personality, instead of having to discern, through trial and error, the rigid "correct" strategy through each battle.

On the unfortunate side, not only are the new War of the Lions-exclusive classes fairly impractical, since they take far too long to attain, but even the old classes require more JP to unlock and develop now. Well, to be precise, the North American PS1 release was, in some sense, an "easy type" revision that, among other things, had lowered JP requirements compared to the original Japanese version. The War of the Lions merely restores these requirements to their original settings for all regions. Regardless, I must say, I think the game is less fun as a result. It's still not a terribly difficult game, but I definitely noticed whenever I would go into a story battle lacking an ability that I had formerly relied upon in my playthrough of the PS1 version. In the PSP game, I found myself spending too much time working to learn new skills and not enough time actually enjoying using them.

There are two easily overlooked yet notable improvements to the gameplay. First, the total roster size for the player's party has been increased from 16 to 24, which is exactly enough to accommodate all the characters, both unique and generic, that will offer to join you through the regular course of the story and side quests (i.e. excluding generic characters that you might recruit randomly). In the PS1 game, if you wanted to recruit all the unique characters, you would eventually have to dismiss some of the six generic party members that Ramza begins with. In truth, you don't really need that many generic characters, but I still hated having to dismiss anyone. Now, that's no longer an issue. Alas, there still isn't room enough to have all those characters and still have space to recruit and breed monsters. Darn.

The other significant change for the better is that Meliadoul's "Unyielding Blade" sword skills (formerly "Mighty Sword") have been modified to be more effective. Before, these skills would target an enemy's equipment, destroying it and dealing damage in the process, but if the enemy didn't have that piece of equipment to target (monsters, for example, don't have any equipment at all), the skill wouldn't do anything. Now, these attacks will simply do raw damage when there is no equipment to destroy. This change makes Meliadoul far more useful a character, especially in random battles, where monsters make up the bulk of the enemy force. Alas, against any human foe with the "Safeguard" ability (formerly "Maintenance") to protect against their equipment being broken or stolen, these sword skills remain completely ineffective.

A few changes I really would have liked to have seen that didn't make it in are 1) a "quick save" option to suspend your progress mid-battle, 2) a way to flee or avoid random battles, and 3) an "undo" function, at least for movement if not actions. Seems like these should have been obvious things to implement in this day and age, but instead this conspicuous absence of the little conveniences stick out and mark the game as one of its time.

Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions for the PSP is not everything it could have been, nor even everything that the original Final Fantasy Tactics was. The technical issues are endlessly irritating, but the new content is appreciated. For anyone casually interested in playing Final Fantasy Tactics for the first time, I would still recommend the PS1 version as the more fun and less frustrating. Even with its extra content, The War of the Lions is only really worth it for hardcore completionists.

There are, of course, yet other options. The War of the Lions has been ported to iOS, and, although I don't have an iPhone or iPad myself, I've heard that that version runs free of the slowdown in the PSP version. It also has noticeably sharper graphics than any previous version of the game. On the other hand, it doesn't include the PSP version's multiplayer modes, which is a shame, since the challenging battles in the co-op mode were the only real post-endgame content Final Fantasy Tactics has ever had, as well as the only way to acquire many of the best items, such as most of the Genji equipment.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

From One Second to the Next (Werner Herzog, 2013)

So apparently AT&T, as part of its "It Can Wait" campaign to discourage against texting while driving—you've probably encountered some of their obnoxiously devastating (devastatingly obnoxious?) previous PSAs on TV, the radio, or the YouTube—has managed to enlist no less than Werner Herzog himself to direct a short documentary on the subject. Not only that but, in a show of solidarity, the other major wireless carriers—Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile—have also joined in and attached their names to this new film.

I am loath to categorize this post under my "Movies" section, since it's really just a 35-minute PSA, but it's either that or "Uncategorized."

As PSAs go, however, it's quite powerful, as indeed were all of AT&T's previous efforts. And if it's not too insensitive of me to say, I also found it at times oddly, inappropriately amusing in its blend of solemn tone and somber message with footage that far too honestly captures human beings at our most unimpressive. I don't mean the images of perpetrators overcome with guilt at the side of the road but rather the human interest story-esque introduction to a blacksmith, who, through no fault of his own, contributed to the deaths of two other men, when their vehicle was spun into his, after first colliding with a driver who was texting. I mean, really, was it necessary to visit this blameless man at his ranch, catch him with his horses and his cowboy hat, and have him proudly reflect upon his rustic lifestyle and values, before asking him to recount one of the worst moments of his life? I suppose there's a sub-narrative here about the technology's encroachment upon nobler, now dying ways of life (and also, yes, apparently the guy is never without the cowboy hat). Mostly, as with Grizzly Man, I think it evinces the documentarian's deep reverence for even our thoroughly human foolishness.

But, as a PSA, is it effective? I must say, I'm skeptical of the efficacy of any of the videos in this entire campaign. Yes, the message is right and good, and I'm quite over caring about any conspiracy theories concerning AT&T's less-than-noble motives behind it. I personally never text—neither send nor receive—while driving, nor do I ever answer my phone while at the wheel—not even while moving very slowly in the parking lot. But that just seems like common sense to me. I'm pretty sure, on an intellectual level, everybody recognizes that texting while driving is dangerous. These PSAs then try to drive that message home on an emotional level. The problem, however, is that I don't know how likely most young drivers are to identify with the perpetrators in the ads. They're not depicted as awful people, but at least some of them are confessed to have been habitual texters while driving. Other than that, we don't know a whole lot about them. One thing that is consistently emphasized is that they were "average Joe" types, the message being that it could just as easily happen to you or me, which, one supposes, is the right way to go. Or is it?

In truth, I think, when a person chooses to text while driving, it is not that they are unaware of the risk but rather that they think themselves better than the odds. It's especially easy to convince ourselves of that when these PSAs give no indication that the perpetrators featured are in any way "above average" as human beings, leaving us much room to label them "below average," never mind that we are catching them on their knees at their most admittedly small and pathetic, which can have the unintended effect of making them seem actually kind of dumb. Of course, the takeaway is supposed to be not that they texted while driving because they were dumb, but rather it was that they texted while driving that made them dumb, and doing so would make you dumb too. But what is the likelihood that a smartphone-owning driver—one irresponsible enough have considered texting while driving in the first place—will default to the latter conclusion over the former?

I'm not saying AT&T needs to look for a more impressive set of perpetrators to feature in its PSAs. I just think this message is one that is really hard to convincingly communicate through other people's stories. It would probably be far more effective to make every prospective driver take part in a practical exercise that could somehow show just how impaired their attentiveness becomes when they are answering texts while at the wheel. Perhaps you could run a simulation, where the student plays a driving video game, while, at the same time, a phone receives texts periodically, which the student must read aloud to a proctor. If the student didn't realize on their own how badly they were doing, their score would shortly prove how impossible it is to read the texts without severely impairing their ability to perform at the driving game. I don't know how feasible such a thing would be to set up, but it would probably make for a good lesson on the counterproductiveness of multitasking in general.

Then again, I also never smoke and have never wanted to. I've always thought it common sense that smoking is bad for you and everyone around you. But maybe that's really just the message that was drilled into me from an early age—at home, in school, on after-school TV, and even in arcade games. If they show these PSAs to kids—drill the message into them well before they ever get to drive OR text—it just might work.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Brandi Carlile - Humphrey's Concerts by the Bay, August 9, 2013

Brandi Carlile - Humphrey's Concerts by the Bay

I saw Brandi Carlile in concert last Friday at Humphrey's in San Diego. It was a good show, my second time seeing her live. She last played in San Diego at the local House of Blues less than a year ago, when she was touring to promote her 2012 album, Bear Creek. This year's show, as part of her "'Hard Way Home' Summer Convoy" tour, again highlighted the Bear Creek material, which is not as much to my taste as her previous albums. It has several tracks I enjoy, but it's also by far her most country work, with an earthier and more playful sound than I was prepared or hoping for. Compared to last year's show at the House of Blues, Friday's concert was probably even more so channeling the spirit behind Bear Creek, as Brandi and the band largely eschewed electric instruments. They did bring along a banjo/Dobro-player this time, whereas last year they had a fiddler.

About a third of the set was Bear Creek songs, all taken from the front half of the album, as was the case last year. "Hard Way Home" is not one of my favorite tracks on the album, and I actually find "Raise Hell" a tad irritating, although the latter at least is a crowd-pleaser when performed live, as she appropriately injects the vocals with a lot more energy and emotion than found on the oddly tepid record. "Keep Your Heart Young" is a silly song, as country as anything else from Bear Creek, but I like its melody and find the lyrics endearing. It's probably my favorite Bear Creek track, maybe alongside "100." Interestingly, through most of last year's tour, the band would play "100" with electric guitars, including a solo as part of an extended intro, giving the song quite a different character that I much preferred over the Bear Creek album version. Not this time, alas, as they stuck with the acoustics.

From Brandi's eponymous debut album, they played "What Can I Say" and "Closer to You." Again, neither are favorites of mine, although I would say that the lyrics "Oh Lord, what can I say / I'm so sad since you went away" (actually written by band mate Tim Hanseroth) are among her most memorable. She also introduced "Closer to You" with the sweet story of how, when she was just starting out playing shows as a teenager, at the end of the night, after she had gone to bed, having safely tucked away her whopping $120 for the gig, the twins, Tim and Phil Hanseroth—the other two core members of the Brandi Carlile Band—would sneak their shares of the money into her guitar case, because they had jobs and she didn't.

From The Story, they played, of course, "The Story," still Brandi's biggest hit to date. This performance was a touch disappointing, as it didn't have the level of production as on the album or as in previous live shows. Still, a great song is a great song, and it's always amazing when an artist can get the crowd on its feet from just the instantly familiar opening guitar strums of a beloved hit.

Speaking of which, this was, refreshingly for me, a concert where the average attendee was noticeably older than me. Being older, they also sat for most of the show, however, which was maybe a bit lame, compared to the Tegan and Sara show at the same venue, where everybody was on their feet throughout. I didn't especially mind, as I myself preferred to sit, but it was a tad embarrassing, I thought, that, upon Brandi's insistence that the San Diego crowd get up and "behave badly" ("Whatever your week has been, put it behind you!"), the audience cheered loudly enough but then afterward quickly resumed forming the image of a beaten people.

Also from The Story, they performed "Have You Ever" and "Again Today," the former a somewhat rare inclusion in her live shows, but one which, with its yodeling, perhaps has found renewed life fitting perfectly alongside the Bear Creek material. "Again Today" is a song I find kind of boring for the first three minutes, but I listen to it in anticipation of what happens three minutes in, and this is another one that always sounds better and more powerful live.

From Give Up the Ghost, Brandi performed "Looking Out" and "Dreams," two songs quite tonally different from one another, but each of which I have, at different times, considered my favorite of hers. That was something I loved about that third album—that it showed off Brandi's musical versatility, not only in her ability to draw from and synthesize different genres (folk, rock, country, pop) for crossover appeal, but also in that she had songs of different moods. For "Looking Out," a song to encourage us when we find ourselves on our knees and feeling alone, Brandi took the stage alone and sang it as a gentle serenade. The band's performance of "Dreams," Brandi's most invigorating song to empower all the unapologetic romantics, was, at this show, one of the least assuming, least pretentious numbers. They played it straight, and, accompanied as it was by the serendipitous sight of a shooting star across the night sky, it was the highlight of the night.

Typically, Brandi will also perform a few covers at her live shows, debuting a new one with each tour. Last year, she did an amazing interpretation of Prince's "Nothing Compares 2 U," which I actually felt was superior to Sinead O'Connor's. This time, the band covered Fleetwood Mac's "The Chain." It was a great, albeit predictable, rendition tapping into that husky side to Brandi's vocals. If I could sing, I would want to be able to sing like Brandi Carlile. Or, erm, whoever the male equivalent is, I guess. As a vocalist, she has range but is also honest. She can be tough, she can be sweet, she can croon, and she can howl. But, however she sings, she always does it in a way that doesn't compromise but rather upholds the integrity of the song itself. Even when the song is not her own, she'll sing the words with conviction of personal experience.

Another tradition at Brandi's live shows is that the band will do one song completely unplugged, and she'll encourage the crowd to cozy up as close to the stage as possible. Unfortunately, because of the outdoor venue with its reserved seating, this probably wouldn't have been possible at Humphrey's.

To close the night, she performed the cheesily rousing "Pride and Joy" from Give Up the Ghost (the live arrangement, with the swelling string section at the end, plus a new drum segment just before, and, by this point, they had also brought out the electric guitars), Bear Creek's "That Wasn't Me" on piano (a song I still haven't quite warmed to, probably because I can't sing along to it), and a cover of Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues." I must confess, I'm not a fan of that last one, nor of Brandi's version, but it is one of her signature live songs.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Under the Dome (and other Brian K. Vaughan stuff)

I've been watching Under the Dome, the new CBS science fiction show based on a Stephen King novel, about a small town becoming enclosed in a mysterious invisible dome. It started out promising, with a high-budget pilot that showed off such thrilling scenes as a cow being bisected and a semi exploding on impact with an invisible wall. The thrills-per-episode count has steeply declined since that premiere, however, as it seems this is going to be a longer series than originally anticipated, and they're going to pad the length of it drawing out the yokel characters' uniformly vile personal stories. I've never read any of Stephen King's writing, but I've seen a few other television productions based on his horror works, and Under the Dome seems to be following the same formula. Bad things are going to happen to bad people, and the meaningless explanation for it all is going to be some creepy devil or alien.

I was interested in this show primarily because I heard that the adaptation was developed by Brian K. Vaughan, creator of my two favorite comic book series. Oh, what I'd give for a television adaptation of Runaways or Y: The Last Man instead of this crap. Every once in a while, there will be rumblings of film adaptations, but both those series seem to me tailor-made for TV. Runaways, if the new Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. show takes off, would be a great choice to lead a potential "Phase Two"  to the television side of the Marvel Cinematic Universe—a story that would feel very much of a piece with the films, but one whose characters would have good reason to avoid crossing paths with the movie heroes. Y: The Last Man, meanwhile, with its provocative ideas and nearly all-female cast, would be sure to turn heads on cable.

Speaking of Y: The Last Man, I was recently waiting for a flight at the airport, when I noticed a young lady, also waiting at the gate, who was reading the final volume of the paperback collected editions. I wanted to compliment her on her good taste, but, peering over at her page, I recognized that she was just about to come upon the story's most affecting moment, and I wasn't going to be a jackass and intrude on that. But it did seem an extraordinary opportunity to observe someone else's in-the-moment reaction to a scene that had once struck me so powerfully. Would she perhaps gasp at the next turn of the page, grimace or maybe even have to put the book down before checking it again to verify and fully absorb the truth of what she had just seen? I'd witnessed strong reactions in public before just to text messages that turned out to be utterly foolish ("No! My fantasy football season is ruined!"), so a gasp here was not out of the question.

Alas, the page turned, the moment came, and then the page turned again without any notable delay, and I could not read any change in the woman's manner. She had seemed mildly anxious the entire time I'd been discreetly observing her, but that's common among people waiting at airports. She was there alone, probably guardedly looking to distract herself from having to acknowledge the crowd of people around her, hence why she was reading a comic book, while waiting for her flight. She did, about a minute later, walk off without finishing the rest of the book, and I did not see her again before our plane arrived, so perhaps she had gone to the restroom to weep. But, no, although I had been anticipating a strong reaction to a strong moment, her poker face was probably as much as I should have expected, and it didn't mean she was some hollow inhuman monster. She was, after all, a grown adult, who must have learned how to master her emotional reflexes while in public and surrounded by strangers. I may very well have looked the same when I came to that moment. I wasn't observing myself, so I wouldn't know. I only remember that, on the inside, my heart was broken. It must have been the same for her. And, come to think of it, I don't even know that it was her first time reading it, so maybe she had already braced herself in anticipation.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Breaking Bad (The First 54 Episodes)

So I just got through binge-watching 54 episodes of Breaking Bad on Netflix. With the critically acclaimed AMC drama scheduled to begin running through its final 8 episodes next week, I wanted to get caught up, so that I could join in on the mania over how it will all end. Except... I don't have AMC, so I actually won't be able to follow along each week as my social networking feeds go nuts with reactions to the final episodes. I might just as well have waited another year, so that I might be able to enjoy watching the entire highly serialized drama straight through, instead of now having to go through this long period of withdrawal. Oh well.

In any case, no contrarian review from me; the show is all the good things people have said about it, so if none of that has sold you on it yet, certainly neither will anything I say. Admittedly, I myself was a bit of a hard sell in this case, hence why I'm only getting into the show so late. This perhaps speaks poorly of my taste as a consumer of television, that I'll set aside appointment viewing time for almost any crappy new show that happens to be centered around an otherworldly mystery, an apocalyptic (or potentially apocalyptic) "event," characters with superhuman abilities, or Kristin Kreuk, meanwhile yawning any time somebody tries to explain the appeal of Mad Men to me. In my defense, I don't only watch genre shows. I loved Friday Night Lights, and one of my current favorite shows is Justified, which I have just as hard a time getting other people to watch as they've had getting me to watch Breaking Bad. But it's true that I tend to gravitate toward high-concept shows with escapist premises that can be briefly yet sensationally summarized in a few words ("Mysterious event causes everyone on the planet to lose consciousness at the same time," "Genius gets himself sent to prison so that he can break his brother out of prison," "Dina Meyer plays Batgirl–er, Oracle, that is, in The WB's adaptation of DC's Birds of Prey," etc.), ideally with some sort of "mystery" that promises an answer, or where the endgame is built into the premise. And it's true that such shows almost never follow through in exploring those premises with writing that exhibits much skill or substance. Meanwhile, no matter how you try to spin the plot of Breaking Bad, it cannot help but sound like a depressingly "realistic" drama about dealing drugs and people facing their own mortality–the sort of story you might imagine goes on for real in the bad part of town where a sad friend or family member lives. There is no "hook," except the promise that the writing is brilliant. Give it a chance, however–you need only "bear with it" through the second episode–and you'll find it one of the most addictive and relentlessly suspenseful serialized shows in television history.

Now comes the agonizing wait until the final episodes get added to Netflix (or wherever else I can watch them legit). In the meantime, I have, this coming fall, now TWO hours of Once Upon a Time every week to look forward to. *Groan* I so wish I had seen Breaking Bad before watching that show, because Giancarlo Esposito plays such an awesome character on Breaking Bad, but I'll always remember him first as the genie on Once Upon a Time, one of the least dignified roles on recent primetime television (and his current character on Revolution isn't much better).

Sunday, August 4, 2013

The Wolverine (James Mangold, 2013)

The Wolverine

Quick Take:

Neither especially inspired nor especially skillfully made, it is nevertheless an above-average action movie, largely on the strength of its main character and its lead actor. Bonus points if you're a Japanophile. Decent.

SPOILERY Thoughts:

The Wolverine is not a terribly ambitious, original, accomplished, or fun film. It doesn't make a lot of sense, but it's also never crazy or weird enough to be remarkable even just in a so-bad-it's-good sense. It's a movie that plays it safe, from a veteran director (James Mangold of Kate & Leopold) professional enough to treat the superhero source material with respect while still keeping the geek world at arm's length. It's less comic book-y than the average superhero movie. It vaguely references the events of X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) and assumes an understanding of Wolverine's mutant powers—in fact, the whole premise of Wolverine being immortal is something that I don't think was ever explicitly confirmed in any previous film—but, for the most part, this is a fairly standalone story, without a lot of fanservice references or setups for sequels or spin-offs (which may actually make this, on second thought, one of the braver superhero movies out there). Aside from Wolverine, there are only two other characters—Viper and Yukio—that stick out as genre types. The way the story plays out is perhaps more characteristic of a traditional action thriller than a superhero movie, which can be both good and bad. On the one hand, it feels more grounded than a lot of superhero movies. On the other hand, it sacrifices a bit of the fantastic and settles into a possibly even more tired action movie formula.

So it's not really a good movie but also not quite a bad one. What pushes The Wolverine just above the dreaded territory of "merely inoffensive" is, ultimately, Wolverine himself and Hugh Jackman. Jackman will never own this role the way that Robert Downey, Jr. owns the role of Tony Stark, but his Wolverine is very cool and never tiresome. These movies, the fans, and even the role itself have been blessed to have him filling it for so many years and so many performances now. In the hands of a lesser actor, this could be just a snarling tough guy with claws, and people who don't go to superhero movies might lament that Jackman, a darling of the musical theater world, has had to become the mutant Wolverine in order to make it as a bankable movie star. But Jackman, for his part, has always contributed his utmost toward crafting the movie Wolverine into a compelling character, bringing a combination of confidence, charisma, and just the right amount of moody introspection and pathos for a badass with a bit more substance and psychological depth than the typical action hero. He's haunted but never self-pitying. After all the previews that played up the theme of immortality being a burden, I loved when, come Yashida's offer to relieve him of the burden in the actual movie, Wolverine immediately shot it down without ever giving it much consideration, because 1) it's an offensively stupid suggestion, 2) Wolverine has too much self-respect to take the easy way out, and 3) Wolverine has too much sense to be making deals with shady old businessmen on their deathbeds.

Aside from Jackman's Wolverine just being a great character, there is also, with this being our sixth time at the movies with him (including a cameo in X-Men: First Class (2011)), a familiarity here, as well as an affection earned over years—a major advantage this movie commands over others with similar scripts. I mean, I'll take the Wolverine I know any day over whoever the hell that stranger in the fourth Bourne movie was supposed to be.

The rest of the movie is unremarkable, although it's fairly attractively shot, even with Australia standing in for Japan through most of it. The story is both confused, in the convoluted manner of a spy thriller, and sometimes plain dumb, in the nonsensical manner of a superhero movie. There's more of the former than the latter, yet it is the latter that most distracts. Although the movie avoids a lot of the usual stupidity found in comic book plots, it does unfortunately hinge on one really stupid premise. I mean, seriously, Yashida's scientists figured out a way to steal Wolverine's immortality (more precisely, his healing factor, I assume)?

Even once you get over the ridiculousness of that idea, nothing about Yashida's execution of the plan makes any sense. When it was over, my brother asked me what exactly Yashida's endgame was supposed to be. Was he planning, after having faked his own death, to just come back seventy years younger and resume as eternal head of his corporation? I thought about it for a moment and, actually, I couldn't think of any reason why not. In that world—a world where a guy once yanked the Golden Gate Bridge to serve as a platform to Alcatraz—would there be anything so unbelievable about a guy coming back from the dead, having harnessed the power of immortality, to rule his empire in a gigantic silver suit of armor? Either that or Yashida planned to command only from within the suit of armor, while pretending that he was actually his own granddaughter in there. And his actual granddaughter, "weak" and under his thumb, would go along with that, making the occasional public appearance as the puppet head of the company, before "changing into" (read: switching places with) the Silver Samurai when playing executive hardball. That at least would explain why Yashida willed everything to his granddaughter; he planned to rule through her. Except that... it still doesn't explain why he faked his death at all! Yashida had the adamantium armor, he had ninjas enough to crush any rival Yakuza, and it even seemed that he could have captured Wolverine much earlier in the movie. So why all the subterfuge, when he could have just directly taken everything he needed the moment he got Wolverine sleeping in his mansion?

No, the plot of The Wolverine cannot bear much scrutiny, but it's reasonably entertaining and, with the more obnoxious elements in previous X-Men movies having been removed from this standalone film, spending another two hours with Hugh Jackman's Wolverine feels like coming home. And, speaking of obnoxious elements, that mid-credits stinger? Best stinger ever!