Category Archives: Film/Television/Music/Media/Video Games

Movie and TV reviews. Making music, or listening. Playing video games and thinking about them. Opinions on media in general. Critical thoughts on same.

Fury Road and Arrival: Underrated and Mindbending


This last week I watched a couple of films that I think have gotten some critical attention, and success, but are still underrated. And, for me, kind of mind-blowing. But, maybe I’m thinking too much.

Okay, first of all, both of these films were nominated for Oscars. Fury Road won 6 of the 10 for which it was nominated! Arrival only won a single gold statue but garnered 8 nominations. So, it’s a bit stretched to say these were underrated films. I’m not suggested people didn’t realize these were good films. Obviously they did. Arrival has made nearly $200 million dollars worldwide on a $50 million budget and Fury Road made nearly twice that! No, these films have critical acclaim and lots of tickets sold. To me, what’s underrated is what each film managed to do and discuss in the course of their narratives. Namely, Fury Road honestly should make no sense whatsoever but, it’s completely coherent and even appears to be a relentless action film high on style but low on meaning. And, Arrival wants you to think of it as science fiction film but is much more of a meditation on the nature of our existence, our place in the cosmos, and how we think about the world and perceive it. Both of these films should leave you asking yourself about your place in the world, the universe, and society. What is civilization? How did we get here? Where are we going? And… why?

Why?

It’s the question that starts it all. We have been asking “Why?” since we learned to ask questions at all. Why is the sky blue? Why are there so many stars? Why does it rain? Sit down with a three year old and get ready. Every declaration you make will inevitably be met by the interrogatory “Why?” from the toddler.

“You need to eat your vegetables.” “Why?”

“We don’t hit our friends.” “Why?”

“Let’s put on clean clothes.” “Why?”

And so on. You just can’t answer enough times. There is always another why. But, it seems like as we get older, we stop asking why. At some point we just accept it. It is, that’s why.

So, Arrival has one answer to “why.” Because that’s the way we think and the way we think is predicated upon the language we speak. I’m going to try not to spoil the movie but if you haven’t watched either film yet, it would be a good idea to do that before reading the rest of this essay. Arrival uses the science fiction film to make us think about how we think and speak. It gets taken for granted. Most of us never think about the words we use and why we use them. And, it probably never occurs to most people at all to consider how our language, the diction, the syntax, is actually a framework for how we look at the world. We have all heard the (false) story of how the native Inuit people have 20 words for snow. It sort of makes sense that if your entire world is snow then you might have a more intimate relationship with snow and need more descriptive words for it than the one.

On the other hand, we have one word, “love” to describe a range of feelings. I love ice cream. I love my wife. I love heavy metal music. I love the smell of sage on summer mornings. I love my kids. All of these feelings but only one word.

Arrival uses the idea that a language you use changes the way you think. As a result of learning the alien language, the main character, Louise (played by Amy Adams) sees the world in a very different way and is able to save the day. But, the part of this film that blew my mind is it is also asking us to consider if we really understand fate versus free will. The predominant philosophy today is that we have free will. Even if you believe that God has a plan for you, you probably think that you have a choice to follow that plan or not. Few would say that our lives are predestined and we are going to fulfill our destiny no matter what. We, especially, Americans, like to see ourselves of agents of our own destiny. We can do what we want, be what we want.

But, Arrival asks us to consider: what if we don’t really fundamentally understand time and as a result, we don’t understand our place in the cosmos?  I have an amateur understanding of physics, basic and incomplete. I once read a book written by Michio Kaku called Hyperspace in which he tried to explain higher dimensions. Paraphrasing, because it has been many years since I read it, he gave the example of 2 dimensional beings who live on a sheet of paper. They might conceptually understand a third dimension. But, they wouldn’t be able to perceive it. Or, fish, living in water, might not really be able to understand the world on the other side of the surface of water, even though they can see some of it,

Is this what time is like? What if you could fold time like a piece of paper? We see time as linear experience, moving from the past to now into the future. But, what if that’s only because we are limited in our perception of time? And what if it’s because of the words we use? Our language is actually very much predicated on this understanding of time. We have verb tenses based on time, the past, present, and future.  Our very words indicate time and it is impossible to speak about almost anything without also defining time. The ball is red. The sun was hot. The boy will be here. Every complete sentence has a verb and every verb specifies a time. So, our very language structures our thinking about time as a linear, one way experience.

What if our language is actually limiting our experience of the world?

The other thing that occurred to me watching the film is how utterly alone we must be in the universe. Or, maybe we should hope we are. It’s comical to me, but scary, that the film explores the idea of what it would be like if aliens suddenly arrived. This has been done over and over. War of the Worlds, Independence Day, E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Contact, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and more. The story usually varies between the good aliens that have come in peace and want to help us, or the evil aliens here to destroy us and we have to fight them. If there are other advanced civilizations and if one does show up here, we better hope that they are the peaceful, helpful aliens. The truth is, if aliens were to visit us now, or in the next 1,000 years, I have to think that their technology will be so far advanced from ours that they will be essentially gods to us and we could only cower, grovel, and depend upon an advanced sense of ethics to go along with their advanced tech allowing them to travel the vast distances of space.

I regularly will reflect upon the distances in the solar system, the galaxy, and the universe. Interstellar travel is impossible. Or, it is if our understanding of physics doesn’t change in the future. People used to think a human being would die if they ever traveled on a train going over 30 mph. People wondered if humans would be able to survive the forces of air travel or going into space. Go back 20 years and tell someone that they will carry around the internet in their hand, using a computer the size of a candy bar, with a touchscreen, wirelessly connected to every other networked computer in the world, and they will think you are talking about science fiction. They might even say, “what’s an internet?” My first home computer in 1987 has 20 megabytes of hard disk space. That’s insane. I carry around a USB flash drive with twice that much and it cost me under $10!

To say something like “interstellar space travel is impossible” feels a bit foolish if only because it displays a hubris that we know all there is to know about the universe. In fifty years, much can change. In 100 years we may be seen as barbarians in much the same way a Civil War doctor seems like a butcher for hacking off limbs off left and right that today a doctor would save. But, what would it take to change the situation? What would make interstellar travel possible? We would need some way of dealing with vast time, and space, or both, in order to travel anywhere beyond our solar system. Time, itself, is a kind of distance. It is a measurement of the distance from one moment to the next. But, unlike other distances, we see only one direction to travel in time.

I have no clue how, or if, we will be able to do this. Will we learn to manipulate spacetime such that distances become inconsequential? Instead of traveling through space, we travel around it. I don’t know. Right now, it’s impossible. So, if any aliens were to show up in giant ships and they want our planet, then we will just have give it to them because fighting them would be like Seal Team Six fighting a tribe that has lived isolated in the Amazon for centuries. It won’t even be close.

Mad Max: Fury Road is utter madness. It is also utter genius. What other film is like it? Is it a Western? A Fantasy? A Science Fiction film? Mindless action thriller? It’s all of that. I’ve watched this film several times and, on one hand, it’s completely bizarre to think about the world of this film. The setting is our future, it appears. Or, a future. But, it looks like our world but also not our world. Those look like our cars and trucks and motor bikes. The technology looks familiar. They have crossbows, leather, spears, hand grenades, and machine guns. One of the characters tells his machine gun, “Sing brother Koch!,” a reference to the brand Heckler and Koch. The war boys chant “V-8! V-8! V-8!” We have heard of the V-8 engine. We know what that is.

Yet, you have to ask, what the hell happened to get them to that point? And who lives that life and is okay with it? Those characters all appear to live in a world of constant stress, constant flight or fight, constant trauma. And maybe the worst thing is that no one seems to think anything is abnormal. Oh, water is rationed? But, you’re going to pour it out on the ground in a giant wasteful cascade? Okay. You wear a respirator with a skull face all of the time? Sure. Someone affixes a skull logo to your codpiece for you after someone else blows powder onto your festering, scared back? Yes, that’s reasonable. Or, what kind of outlook on life do you have if you take a prisoner and make him into a literal bag of blood for you? What kind of value do you put on humanity if you think it’s okay to make people live their lives with metal cages on their face? Or their genitals (the wives of Immortan Joe wore chastity belts that looked like gaping mouths filled with steel teeth). All of the world says life is cheap and that existence is brutal and short.

But, that’s not even the most mind blowing thing, to me. That George MIller had this vision and put it on screen represents a remarkable achievement. But, the fact that it makes sense is the craziest thing of all. Why do we watch it and buy into any of the madness? Why don’t we reject it for the fever dream it is? Shiny and chrome? Witness me!? We look at the skulls, the wives, the strange masks all of the bad guys are wearing, and we accept it! What in this film is coherent and familiar enough to make it palatable to us?

Fury Road at once seems futuristic and anachronistic and medieval. It takes the fascism of Nazism and combines it with the brutal warfare of the Middle Ages. It is a perfect amalgam of genres that is the specific domain of post-modernism. Hand to hand combat with blades, crossbows, saws, knives, and spears gives us that medieval anesthetic as do the armors, the “cavalry” of the car chases. But, the guns and explosives make us think of the modern action film, the war film, and even the Western. The desert setting must be a deliberate allusion to Monument Valley and the classic Westerns. Max Rockatansky makes sense to us because his anti-hero character resonates with Clint Eastwood’s “Man With No Name” and Dirty Harry.

Is it a heist film? Furiosa is stealing Immortan Joe’s prize possessions, his breeding wives. Is it a quest film? A love story? Will Max and Furiosa learn to trust and to love and redeem the world of it’s hate? No, he’s leaving. He’s not going to help fix the world, he’s going to disappear into the wilderness again, just like the High Plains Drifter. Maybe it’s like a pirate film. The war boys and Joe seem to have a pirate culture and instead of ships, it’s cars and trucks. Instead of an ocean, it’s a giant expanse of sand and sun. Look at the “pole cat” warboys who swing on giant poles to attack other trucks and cars. It clearly echoes the way pirates would swing from rigging ropes to board enemy ships.

The reason that the gibbering instantly of Fury Road makes any sense at all to us is because it combines, cutting and pasting familiar elements of multiple genres. But, the true genius of the film is that it does it so well and still remains introspective and thoughtful.

Wait, the film with a guy strapped to bungee cords and playing random heavy metal power chords atop a super custom rig that has the sole purpose of driving him around with amps all while flames shoot out of the end of the guitar is thoughtful?

I think so, because the film seems to question culture itself. Why do we do what we do? How do we build culture? What do you have to go through to get to a place where reality is as depicted in Fury Road? Another reason that Fury Road makes sense is because Miller has clearly thought about this world and has created a mythology, a history, and there is depth there. A common criticism of post-modernism is the lack of heart and emotion. Fury Road threatens to go there. The nihilistic cult of Immortan Joe, woven of threads of death and destruction, and itself a pastiche, equal parts Viking myths (Valhalla), Christianity (water symbolism, the savior of the people, etc.), and NASCAR.

The film asks us to consider where our culture is taking us. Do we blindly follow our leader? Or, are we fighting for freedom? Are we victimizing others in order to enrich ourselves? Maybe it isn’t important exactly what “killed the world” in Fury Road as it is important to ask ourselves how far we are to making it possible. Are we killing the world? Are we worshipping death? Are we treating human life as worth only what we can take from it?

Both films ask the audience to consider the fundamental things that make us who we are, our language and our culture. What makes us do what we do? Here were are, rotating on a small rocky planet inside of an outer arm of relatively average sized galaxy, one of millions? Billions? Trillions? Do we even know how many galaxies there are? And, there we are, tiny little people, mere specks of dust when scaled against the cosmos, and we think what we do is sensible and obvious. But is it? Why do we do the things we do? We build houses, walls, fences, and lock the door at night. We used to live much closer together for safety but not now. Is that better? By what metric would we judge? Here we are, on this tiny planet, floating through a hostile vacuum of space, making up the rules as if we know what we are doing.

Why does anything we do make sense? Why are we not howling insanities at the skies above us all night long as we stare into the existential crisis that is interstellar space? How can we look into the blackness above us and not be utterly disturbed by how insignificant we really are in the face of it all. Part of the reason is because we don’t think about it. And, the other reason is that it doesn’t matter. Does it? All we have is ourselves and our lives here. What can we do in the face of such insignificance and powerlessness? Nothing. Or, rather, we can’t change that, so we create significance. Try to find “the green place” for each of us. Live with respect for the humanity in each of us. Try to see life from someone else’s point of view. Try to speak their language so you can truly understand them. Find love in the desert. Love someone even though you know they will one day leave you.

Live in the incoherence. Dwell amid the insanity. And, try not to be mediocre.

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Aspergers Are Us: an interesting documentary

I just watched a documentary called Apergers Are Us which I enjoyed. I have a family member who is diagnosed as being on this spectrum. My wife says she thinks I am, too, but my therapist disagrees. Since he has the medical degree, I go with his diagnoses even though my wife is super-intelligent and rarely wrong. I make it a habit to never disagree with her unless I am very certain I am right. In this case, I am very certain my therapist is right.

I must add that this digression probably bolsters my wife’s argument. But, really, it’s not a digression. It may help to understand my interest in the documentary. I’d like to understand my family member better and the fact that my wife thinks I am on the spectrum means I am interested in it to see why she thinks that.

But, back to the documentary. This is a film about four young men who are autistic and formed a sketch comedy troupe. If you’re unfamiliar, Asperger syndrome is a kind of autism. It’s part of the autism spectrum.

As a pervasive developmental disorder, Asperger syndrome is distinguished by a pattern of symptoms rather than a single symptom. It is characterized by qualitative impairment in social interaction, by stereotyped and restricted patterns of behavior, activities and interests, and by no clinically significant delay in cognitive development or general delay in language.[31] Intense preoccupation with a narrow subject, one-sided verbosity, restricted prosody, and physical clumsiness are typical of the condition, but are not required for diagnosis. –Wikipedia

All of that being said, this is not a documentary about Asperger syndrome, or even autism. It is about some guys who are on the spectrum, that is, they have Asperger syndrome to one degree or another. And, they perform sketch comedy. The documentary is centered on how they are preparing for a “final show.” It turns out it was not their actual final show because if you go their website, you will see that they are still performing. That doesn’t detract from the documentary, to me, though. I rather enjoyed it because, ultimately, it’s a glimpse into the lives of these four men. And, it tells us something about how they think and interact with the world.

A quote from their website gives some insight:

We’re the first comedy troupe composed of autistic people. We’ve performed original absurdist and satirical sketches since 2010. We do not poke fun at Asperger’s and we did not form to prove that autistic people can be funny. We formed for the same reason anyone does comedy: To make you laugh! Please do not expect us to be anything like The Big Bang Theory or anything else that relies on making fun of people. Expect silly deadpan sketches that appeal to Aspies and sympathetic others alike. 

In much the same way, the documentary isn’t about Asperger’s and it’s not trying to prove they are funny. But, I think it does want you to understand these men and get an idea for how they think. Like any good film, especially documentaries, it’s about the people, not the topic.

One of the men, Noah, is both autistic and a counselor, or teacher, I’m not very clear about that, for other autistic/Asperger’s people. I wasn’t unfamiliar with Asperger’s in general prior to this. But, I enjoyed seeing how he worked with the other three. For example, he talks to a young boy who is clearly autistic, most likely Asperger’s, and notes how the boy covers his ears so he can keep reading without Noah talking to him. He just accepts this. Of course, being Asperger’s himself, he continues trying to talk to the boy. But, he accepts the boy’s fixation on the train schedule. Later in their show, there is a sketch about “train schedule man” whose super power is knowing all of the train schedules and always being able to produce a train schedule on demand. A dubious super power, and funny. And, one can see where it came from.

Acceptance. It’s something that keeps up for me. In this case, accepting people for how they are without needing to change them or judge them. In another instance, New Michael (That’s his name. New Michael. When he was 18, he changed his name from “Aaron” to “New Michael.” That’s what he wanted to be called and what people call him.) is having a hard time dealing with rehearsal because they are at his house and his sister is home. He feels self-conscious about rehearsing with her around. He gets overwhelmed and has to leave. Noah accepts it. He doesn’t get angry. It just is the way things are.

It’s a very interesting way to think about life in general. What if we could all just accept each other? I realize we still need norms for how to interact. Society should still have rules. But, at the same time, maybe it would be a better world if we didn’t get so bent out of shape when people didn’t conform to those norms. I don’t know. It’s just something I’m thinking about. As a teacher, I am often confronted with situations where students don’t conform to how I think they should behave. On some level, it’s my job to teach them to conform to those norms. In a way, that’s what grammar is all about. It’s a set of rules we use to make sure everyone can understand us. And, yet, I believe that those who study semiotics would say that grammar doesn’t really matter as long as people understand what you say. I understand that point of view, but at the same time, I think it’s fair to make a judgment about people who don’t use grammar correctly. Carelessness or a lack of education both tell you something about someone.

While a grammarian and semiotician debate might be entertaining, at least on some level, and maybe to a few people (two or three, certainly), it really isn’t the subject of this post. Some of the acceptance has to come from understanding. When you understand that a kid on the autistic spectrum might get overwhelmed sometimes, and might need a break, then you don’t have to get so angry about it. It seems to me that many people get very angry when others don’t conform to their ideas of how to behave, or think.

Maybe I’m too romantic or optimistic. I’m not naive, though, that’s for sure. But, it seems to me that most people are trying to do the right thing, or at very least, do what is beneficial to themselves. There are people, of course, that are broken, and they are the kind of people that hurt others. I think they are more rare, though. Most might hurt someone in the course of trying to do what they need to do, thinking it is what is best. But, they aren’t trying to hurt someone on purpose. The key is to see what people want, what they are trying to do, not necessarily what the outcome is. If you can see what people want, it makes them more relatable, more human.

When you can understand how people think, you can see them for who they are. And, this was the interesting thing about the documentary to me. Being able to see, for example, that Asperger’s makes someone self-centered because that’s just how they are, how their brain works, and not some defect of character, gives you the ability to be less judgmental and more empathetic. And, interestingly, Noah seems to have developed some empathy for others. He recognizes when others need some space or are indulging in their specific interests (A characteristic of Asperger’s is having a deep interest in topics that might be unusual; for example, as seen in the film, trains and their schedules.). To me, I would think it was rude for someone to just have to leave, or to ignore me while reading something. But, it might not be their intention to be rude.

In any case, I appreciated the opportunity to learn something about the four guys in the film. Even if you don’t know someone with Asperger’s or autism, or who is “on the spectrum” then you still might find worth watching. I think it’s a good film in it’s own right.

How I am learning to play guitar

As a professional educator who is supposed to create “lifelong learners,” I feel it’s important for me to be one myself. In addition to learning Spanish, I am trying to learn to play guitar. I have really always wanted to play guitar but either I didn’t have the means (ie. a guitar to play) or I didn’t really know what to do.

Today, the Internet has a confusing multitude of sites and places for you to go. It’s possible, I think, to learn today in ways that were impossible only a decade ago. It’s another one of those moments where I think, “How did we live without this stuff?” There is almost too much information out there.

What I’m adding, I guess, is my experience in trying to learn and what I’m learning to do. You won’t find instructional theory here, or chord charts. But, instead, I plan to journal my process.

I started about a month ago. My stepson got a guitar and my daughter got a flute in July. The daughter got some lessons, practiced a lot, and was able to join her middle school band! I was so jealous because she appears to have actual musical talent! I always wanted to have musical talent! Maybe I could do it she could. So, I picked up my stepson’s guitar and started trying to learn based on the stuff I saw on the ‘Net. I found http://www.justinguitar.com for one. I also bought a Hal Leonard Essentials for Guitar  book that was similar to what my daughter had for flute.

After about a week, I decided to get my own guitar. This is where I made a mistake I hope others could avoid.

I bought a very inexpensive guitar.

I purchased an Epiphone DR-100 which is not a bad guitar. But, it’s not a good guitar either. What I should have done instead was to read just a bit further and realize that getting a decent starter guitar was a better idea. I thought, “Well, what if I don’t really like it? I don’t want to buy an expensive guitar and then not play it.”

Of course, buying an expensive guitar might be the reason I kept playing since I didn’t want the money to go to waste. I didn’t look at it that way.

Most importantly, I think it’s important to have a guitar you really like and that is a quality instrument. For me, that is the Yamaha FG700s. Go look around the Internet and you will see it is universally praised as a great entry-level guitar that is good enough to last you years. And, some people say it sounds good enough to stand amongst the Martins, Taylors, and Guilds that cost much more. I can’t say that for sure, but it makes me happy to think I have a guitar like that to play.

I can say it’s a really nice guitar for $200. Every time I play it I catch myself thinking, “Wow, that’s pretty!” It has a really nice sparkle and resonance in the tone that I very much admire. And, it keeps me wanting to play. I recently found some measurements online and checked. The factory setup is pretty good. The action is a little high but completely acceptable.

Okay, so that’s my first piece of advice. Don’t buy the least expensive guitar. Get a decent instrument. This Yamaha is the equal of any $400 – $600 guitar you can find. That I can can say pretty confidently. It’s important, I think to get a solid top on your guitar, for sound quality. This one has a solid spruce top.

My second piece of advice is to make sure you have light gauge strings. It’s easier on your fingers. My third piece of advice is practice a little bit, at least, every day. I shoot for about 30 minutes per day. Once per week my stepson and I go to a group guitar class through the city. It’s inexpensive but worth it to have an actual teacher watching you and correcting your issues. There’s also that aspect of having accountability to someone. I don’t want to show up and not have practiced the things from last week and have the teacher realize I haven’t been putting in the work.

So, that’s what I’ve been doing. I’ve been practicing my chords like A, E, D, C, G, G7, A7, D7, E7, and the dreaded B7. Why dreaded? It’s the only chord I’ve been working on that uses all four fingers! I have a lot of trouble getting all the fingers on the strings and not muting nearby strings. But, I have to say that when I first started with that chord, it just was a dull thud. I have definitely noticed that it is getting easier over time. Today, it still has a couple muted strings here and there, but I can usually get it to ring a bit better.

My friend Pat says it’s about developing touch. I also know it’s about muscle memory. Like so many things, to learn it is to repeat it. It takes hundreds, if not thousands, of repetitions, for the brain to internalize it and the muscles to memorize the movement.

I’m gonna go now and practice for a little bit. I plan to update as I go. Until then…

Dark Souls: The Ruiner

I see the BAFTAs for video games are out.

I’m surprised to see so few nominations for Dark Souls. This game is so good that I haven’t bothered playing anything else since it came out. Demon’s Souls kinda ruined other games for me but I was able to look past that and try to enjoy them. Dark Souls improved on Demon’s Souls so much that I find myself just not wanting to play other games.

If you don’t know, Dark Souls is a video game where you create a character who is thrown into a hostile, lonely world and must fight to survive… and eventually save the world, or doom it. It is set in a kind of medieval era of swords, arrows, and spells. It is known for its difficulty, as well. It is like the cruelest, merciless, pitiless game of Dungeons and Dragons ever. In some ways, the entire world wants to kill you. There are raised walkways with no railings, bridges with crumbled edges you can topple from, and even a few places where the ground kills you with poison or fire. And, you can’t avoid it, you have to endure it.

Artistically, it’s an amazing game. The look and feel is incredible. One day I was standing in a quiet area waiting to get summoned and I heard something. I spun the camera around but there was nothing. Then I heard it again. It was a quiet breath. I turned it up and, sure enough, it was the sound of my character breathing. Now that I’ve heard it, I hear it more frequently. And, different armors sound different. Weapons swing differently, and it matters in combat. Nothing like needing to kill some little guy and having a halberd in your hand only to watch it clang off of the cave walls.

There is such an attention to detail that you just know the developers and designers loved making this game. And, the story is much deeper than people think. It just isn’t spoon fed to you in cut scenes. You have to think about it and piece it together from hints and scraps. There are something like twenty or thirty different suits of armor/clothing, and you can mix and match. Different sets have different attributes: one set is light but has low resistance to physical damage, while another is heavy, very protective, yet it makes it hard to move. There are a dizzying number of weapons. You can wield daggers, short swords, long swords, great swords, curved swords, clubs, maces, halberds, spears, long bows, short bows, and crossbows. Nearly every weapon has strengths and weaknesses.

Every character has several attributes like strength, vitality, intelligence, faith, endurance, and so on. You begin with a certain amount of points in each attribute that determine your class. But, as you progress through the game, you acquire souls from enemies you defeat. These souls can be amassed and then “spent” to add points to your attributes. Increase your strength to use heavier weapons, or intelligence to use magic. Oh, yes, you can use magic, and miracles (faith-based magic from the Gods).

The game is complex and deep. It is not for everyone. But, I adore this game.

I love that almost any of the enemies can kill me, if I get sloppy. Sometimes I feel like a boss in the game, laying waste to my enemies and knowing that they whisper my name in fear at night (lol) and the game seems to sense my confidence and puts me back in my place. I forget about that one guy in the corner. He hits me in the middle of my swing, interrupting it. Now, my shield is down. The other guy hits me too. Then, the first swings, flailing wildly. My shield is up, but too late. Half of my health is gone. I need to get out. I back up and misjudge the distance, walking off the platform and plunging toward the depths. You died. Dark Souls.

In most other games I don’t care if I die or not. In Dark Souls it matters. I might lose all my souls or my humanity! Plus, I’ll have to fight back through the skeleton wheels. Should I go on? Should I try to summon a phantom to help? I’m also glad that Dark Souls was at least nominated for multiplayer. The multiplayer in this game is very underrated, if you ask me. I love getting summoned to help. I love the feeling of leading some poor guy through a tough area and showing him the nooks and crannies where treasure is hid and making sure he doesn’t get beat to a pulp by those silver knights. Lately, I have been trying my hand at invading other players. It’s like I’m a randomized mini-boss coming in to mess with them. It’s not malicious, exactly, it’s just part of the game. I have also taken to playing the game in human form more often so I can be invaded, too. Winning a player versus player duel is amazingly satisfying.

You begin the game with very basic armor, a broken sword hilt, and little knowledge of your place in the world. Exploration shows you glowing glyphs on the ground which you can read and get hints. The first ones you encounter are left by the game designers as a tutorial. Later in the game, they are generated by other players on the network. You can leave your own as well. So, you make your way through this ruined building, up stairs, through darkened hallways lit by sputtering torches, passing wretched undead who mostly ignore you… until they don’t and they try to kill you. You get a shield and a weapon and then you have to fight your first boss.

The bosses in this game are almost all enormous, terrifying, and seem impossible to beat. But, with patience and strategy, they are all beatable. Or, most of them can be pummeled with the help of a summoned phantom. But, not this first boss. You are on your own. And, when you do, finally, destroy the first boss, the feeling is amazing. You honestly feel that you have accomplished something.

Dark Souls does not coddle you, but it is not unfair. Everything that seems impossible is more like a puzzle. You must unlock the secret of each. Enemies have a pattern. Learn it and you can exploit it to make them so much easier to kill. The game rewards patience and cunning more than brute force and aggression. There are many games that I have played where this is at least one level that seems completely out of place and unfair. In God of War it was the level underwater and the level in Hades with the spinning bone platforms. Ridiculous! But, that’s what passes for difficult in other games. In Dark Souls it is difficult because the enemies are well-designed, the levels are fiendishly planned, and the choices so varied.

I have played this game exclusively since October when it came out. I have spent so many hours in the world. And, I will spend more, I am sure. I still haven’t played a magic using character, or faith based character. So, there’s that still ahead for me.

But, don’t play it if you like easy games or, for that matter, other games. Dark Souls makes it difficult to enjoy other games because they just seem so easy afterwards. After Dark Souls you are hardened, tried by fire and steel. You have stared into the abyss and walked through the darkness. You conquered fear. But, moreso, you died and lived to tell the tale.

A random items post for this first day of June.

I have a headache. Not a bad one, but it won’t go away. It’s bad enough that I don’t want to think too much.

We went to the movies today and saw Kung Fu Panda 2. It was okay. It was in 3D. That didn’t help my headache, I’m sure. I hate 3d movies. It’s such a gimmick. Mostly it makes the movie look dim and takes me out of the film. And, it costs more. I don’t think it’s better. Avatar, the poster child for a well-done 3d film is still just as entertaining in 2d.

Kung Fu Panda, and every other animated film these days, reminds me of how freaking great Pixar is at making them. The worst Pixar films are still better than anything Dreamworks does, or regular Disney films. The difference?

The writing is much smarter and the art direction is way more clever. But, mostly, it’s the writing. Great characters and perfect plots. Every time. That’s amazing.

I watched “The A-Team” movie from last year tonight. Very poor. Completely gratuitous action lacking most of the charm of the TV show. Even Liam Neeson couldn’t save the film.

Louis C. K. is hilarious. Watched his “Shameless” tonight, also. Short, but very funny.

The Twitter scandal with Rep. Anthony Weiner smells like a setup to me. Rep. Wiener is an outspoken critic of business as usual in Washington and a friend of Jon Stewart. When they can’t kill you then they have to kill your name. It’s the best way to deal with someone making you look bad and who won’t stop. You besmirch their character so people won’t listen to them anymore.

I studied more Spanish today. I am annoying my Favorite Woman in the World with questions. I am working on personal descriptions and occupations and learning verbs. Llevar is my favorite right now. Love that verb.

I didn’t install anything today. But there’s still a lavatory faucet awaiting me when I feel skippy.

Me and my FWITWW went to the teacher store today. Bought some paper for the walls, borders, posters and such. I got a new stamp for essay grading (6 Traits of Good Writing, woot!) and a fancy timer for keeping me on track during lessons (plus it has a random number generator I can use to pick kids at random to read or participate!). We spent, um, more than you would think reasonable.

Devin Townsend’s “Deconstruction” is an amazing metal album. You probably wouldn’t like it. It’s like Frank Zappa but mixed with Slayer and a dollop of Enya.

I remember when you had to be very selective about the pictures you took because you had to pay to develop them and there were only so many exposures on a roll of film. I took pictures of my kids eating In and Out today because I felt like it. Times have changed.

Must sleep now. Thanks for reading, hope it wasn’t a total waste of time for you.

My Song of the Day

I’ve had this song stuck in my head. Phil Collins, “In the Air Tonight.” Classic.

I can feel it coming in the air tonight, oh Lord
And I’ve been waiting for this moment for all my life, oh Lord
Can you feel it coming in the air tonight, oh Lord, oh Lord

Well if you told me you were drowning, I would not lend a hand
I’ve seen your face before my friend, but I don’t know if you know who I am
Well I was there and I saw what you did, I saw it with my own two eyes
So you can wipe off that grin, I know where you’ve been
It’s all been a pack of lies

And I can feel it coming in the air tonight, oh Lord
Well I’ve been waiting for this moment for all my life, oh Lord
I can feel it coming in the air tonight, oh Lord
Well I’ve been waiting for this moment for all my life, oh Lord, oh Lord

Well I remember, I remember, don’t worry, how could I ever forget
It’s the first time, the last time we ever met
But I know the reason why you keep your silence UP, oh no you don’t fool me
Well the hurt doesn’t show, but the pain still grows
It’s no stranger to you and me

I can feel it coming in the air tonight, oh Lord
Well been waiting for this moment for all my life, oh Lord
I can feel it in the air tonight, oh Lord, oh lord
Well I’ve been waiting for this moment for all my life, oh Lord
I can feel it coming in the air tonight, oh Lord
And I’ve been waiting for this moment for all my life, oh Lord
I can feel it in the air tonight, oh lord, oh lord, oh lord
Well I’ve been waiting for this moment for all my life, oh lord, oh lord

I can feel it in the air tonight, oh lord, oh lord, oh lord, oh lord
Well I’ve been waiting for this moment for all my life, oh lord, oh lord, oh lord

Shock Doctrine: A new book for me to read

Inspired by reading “Griftopia” by Matt Taibbi, I thought I’d pick up a new book. I got “Shock Doctrine” by Naomi Klein. But, before I say anything more about Shock Doctrine, I want to say a bit more about Griftopia.

Something that jumped out at me at the end of the book was when Taibbi talked about how most of the government’s operations are hidden from us. And, what’s worse, a lot of it is that way because we prefer it that way. One reason is that being informed about these issues takes work. Just reading this book was kind of tough sometimes. I’m not a numbers person. But, I can do pretty well with ideas and concepts. The chapters that talked bout credit default swaps, derivatives, and collateralized debt obligations were not easy to get through and I still feel like I have a weak understanding of the concepts at best. But, I do know the larger picture, that banks deliberately and knowingly built up fraudulent practices such as insuring things they didn’t own, or lying about the quality of the products they were selling to boost the prices they got for them. These are the kinds of things that land you and me and jail. But, the banks not only got away with it, they rewarded themselves for it.

Listen to the news. It’s right there. I listen to NPR almost every single morning and afternoon. In the morning, my local station KVCR has a 15 minute segment on finances. Do you have any idea how many corporations are actually making record profits right now? We are in the middle of a recession (does it feel like it’s ending to you?) and corporations are taking record profits? Doesn’t that seem odd to you? And, yet, jobless claims are rising again. Can you guess how corporations are taking these profits? Prices for things are not going down but the number of employees are.

Don’t even get me started about the price of gas and the blatant manipulation of those prices.

Taibbi pointed out how every story in politics, no matter how complex, gets boiled down into two narratives, one for the Fox News crowd and one for the MSNBC crowd. The Republicans pound one set of talking points and the Democrats the other. It’s pretty ridiculous. And sad. Because it means we aren’t getting real information and we can never get a chance to do something meaningful about it. Those “reforms” that President Obama is so proud of? They are to meaningful reform as running a vacuum over the carpet is to remodeling a room. As in, it’s not even close. But, it won’t matter, because it takes a lot of work to understand health care, or credit cards and then a new story pops up like a government shutdown, or revolution in the Middle East, or union busting in Wisconsin or whatever. And the memory fades. The story drops down the Memory Hole.

So, really, if you love your country, do some reading. At very least, stop watching network news and listen to NPR (and if you’re a conservative, it’s okay. Trust me. NPR is way less biased than you’ve been led to believe. Try listening for a month and see. Read a couple of papers. But, even better, get on Twitter and follow some people you like and trust who can start pointing you to stories in alternate press sources. Get better information.

See what I mean? It takes work. No wonder they keep getting away with it.

So, on to Shock Doctrine. I just barely started it. The book proposes that the people in government and business who subscribe to pure capitalism use disasters to take over new markets or push through “reforms” that would have otherwise have been politically impossible. It works because the people are trying to cope with the disaster and put their lives back together and they get too distracted to fight back. It’s why they were able to basically privatize the public education system in New Orleans right after Hurricane Katrina. The majority of schools in New Orleans are now charters.

I think this is the same thing going on right now with education. Conservatives and pure market capitalists are seizing on the Tea Party outrage over government spending to propose massive cuts to… yes, education. Meanwhile, they are also looking for ways to break up the powerful teachers’ unions. In the book, Klein talks about being in New Orleans in the days after Katrina and talking with residents about how politicians were describing this as an opportunity to start fresh, that New Orleans was a clean slate. One person said something like, “Why can’t they see what they’re doing here? Can’t they see how bad this is?” And another responds, “They see just fine, they’re evil.”

Exactly.

Stuff I Like Today

You know why The Daily Show with Jon Stewart is awesome? Because, even though he’s obviously a liberal/progressive thinker, he will take on both Republicans and Democrats equally. Now, honestly, he’s way more brutal to Republicans. But, then again, that’s because Republicans are totally ridiculous most of the time.

My iPad is awesome. I love it. I have written every blog post with it, except for one and that’s only because I happened to be sitting at the desktop when the idea came to me. I use my bluetooth keyboard with it to type a lot of words, but otherwise it’s freaking awesome.

I can’t wait to play Portal 2. Did you play Portal? That game was really awesome.

I like this iPad game called Sword and Sworcery. It has super cool 8bit looking graphics but they’re all beautiful and the music/sound is suh-weet. I like the soundtrack too. I bought it. I don’t know that I’ve ever bought a soundtrack for a game before. Certainly not an iPad game. It’s good, though. Suh-weet electronic music.

Politics make me totally nauseous. Donald Trump is perfect for this country. He should totally be president. We would deserve that. This is not stuff I like. Trump and Palin in 2012 is such a great idea. Let’s drive this country straight into the ground so we can start over. But, I like Matt Taibbi because he makes me think there’s still smart people telling the truth in the media. Like Jon Stewart.

I like Stephen Colbert, too. He tells the truth in a different way. He shows how ridiculous the Republicans mostly are by acting like them.

I like my kids. They are cool even when they get on my nerves. I like my students, too. They are cool even when they get on my nerves. Know what I really like? My girl. She is amazing in ways I haven’t even figured out yet. She’s often the smartest person I talk to all day, even if I talked to myself. She’s funny, loving, and hot. I don’t really like her, I love her.

I like the weather lately. Cool but with some sunshine and clouds. It’s way better than the fascism of summer around here. Summer is awful and hot and awful. I hate it. But, the weather lately, I like.

I like a good night’s sleep.

I like funny rumors the students at school start. Like the one they just started that next year Prom will be in the gym. I haven’t even had time to let the ink dry on the facility request for the gym before that word got out. Amazing. It’s hard to keep a secret in ASB, I guess.

I like that about five people, or less, thought that last paragraph was funny. But, I bet I really like those five people.

I like Mumford and Sons’ album “Sigh No More.” I ought not to like it since it’s like folk/bluegrass music, but it’s modern too and the lyrics resonate somewhere in the corners of my heart. I bought it and the Arcade Fire album “The Suburbs” since they were both nominated for album of the year. I just didn’t really get into “The Suburbs.” It’s not that the album was bad, it just didn’t grab me. But, “Sigh No More” did. Good album.

I like the comment I got on one of my more recent posts. One of my former students paid me a bunch of awesome compliments mentioning that my class was one of their favorites, then went on to quote back to me one of the journal topic quotes I put up in class for them to write about and they did it to inspire me! They inspired me with my own inspiration! That’s ridiculously cool! On top of that, they commented on my story and how it made them think. That’s awesome to me. I like that a lot. I may just print out that comment and frame.

I like that show “Swamp People.” One reason I like it is because my family on my Dad’s side is from Lousiana and are Cajuns. Not gator hunters, as far as I know, but they do raise crawdads and make awesome food with them, as I recall. I like it because there is, to me, an honesty in the way the hunters make their living in the swamp. Yes, they hunt alligators, and it’s violent and brutal. But, I think it also is honest and beautiful in it’s own way. I realize all to well that the show is edited and put together as a narrative and that not all we see is as it was or is, but I’m still buying what they’re selling. Those gator hunters like Troy have my respect as they are doing things I never could.

I like a cup of coffee in the morning with some Coffeemate creamer. I know that stuff is probably all kinds of awful for me but when I take that first drink of coffee I can feel it spread throughout my body like the will to live. I don’t need it as much as I used to because the apnea treatment is working. But, I still like a cup of coffee in the morning.

I like HDTV and BluRay movies. I can’t wait to get Apocalypse Now on BluRay. I hope it looks and sounds as good as I think it should. Have you seen Blade Runner in HD? OMG. So good. Avatar looks good, too, but not in the same way. Another movie that is awesome in HD is Nightmare Before Christmas.

Speaking of movies, I find that I like Quentin Tarrantino’s movies more upon repeated viewings. Inglorious Basterds is so amazing. And, I find Kill Bill to be one my favorite films these days. Both of those look great in HDTV, too.

I like my DishTV. I need to remind myself to call and compliment the installer. He did a great job and was very nice. I like HDTV so much I almost refuse to watch SD anymore. Good lord, I’m a picture snob! The Daily Show in HDTV is so much better. No really.

Okay, that’s enough stuff I like for today. Find one thing on here and go check it out and see if you like it to. Even better, leave me a comment on something you like. I gotta go watch a little more Swamp People before I got to sleep.

Is it just me? – Baby talking the news to us

I was watching CNN Sunday while using the elliptical. I’ve been doing that a lot lately. Watching CNN, not using the elliptical. Unfortunately. Anyway, I’m watching CNN and the woman on there, Fredericka Whitfield, was anchoring the weekend news. They had a bit on there about the Libyan woman who burst into the International hotel where the press have been staying and claimed that she had been beaten and raped by 14 Libyan soldiers. That’s a whole story in and of itself and you should click on that last sentence and read it if you haven’t already heard about it. Absolutely brutal.

Slight digression, but it plays into my point: if you click on “World” from their home page and look down, the first mention of this story is that a CNN reporter faced a gun and had his camera smashed!

OMG! Right? That poor reporter! I mean, honestly, that should be part of the story, but it’s more like a sentence or two in the story, not the bleeding headline! And, really, this is a big deal for that woman and a good story to really remind all of us what godawful things happen in war and are happening in Libya…

… but it’s still just a story about a woman. One woman. It’s awful, horrible, but, in reality, it’s human interest. It’s not the story. It’s perfect for illustrating how the Libyan government is abusing it’s citizens, how far they will go to hide the truth. Did you know that the press is NOT ALLOWED to leave the hotel without permission and not without a government “minder” either. No freedom of press at all in Libya. So, the story is important but it’s not THE story.

So, Ms. Whitfield is anchoring and I’m listening to her seque between stories and go to the weather and whatnot and it struck me. It’s like she’s talking to children. I didn’t feel like she was talking to me. It was like she was addressing a class of middle-schoolers. And, it wasn’t just her. The weather woman did the same thing (I didn’t get her name and don’t feel like researching to find it out). Then, another woman came on to do a segment with Ms. Whitfield and, I forget what they were talking about, but they cut to some video where the woman in the video said something about men doing obnoxious things, including farting. When they come back, Whitfield is giggling and can’t stop. She can’t even do the next story and they cut to commercial.

Okay, to be fair, we’ve all been there where something strikes you and you gotta giggle and can’t stop and it gets worse when you try to stop. Fine. But, on the other hand, you’re on CNN. Yemen, Syria, Libya, Egypt, Bahrain, et. al. are in various stages of revolution and people are dying. Japan is still in the throes of dealing with one of the biggest earthquakes and tsunami’s in history, and is probably dealing with a nuclear plant meltdown. But, you’re giggling about farts?

But, it got me to thinking… A lot of the news anchors talk to us like we’re children. Does that work? I know this is going to be a big shock to you, but I enjoy listening to NPR. Honestly, between reading blogs and Twitter for news, that’s my main source for fiding out what’s going on. Most broadcast news, like CNN and the local newscasts, is really just newsy entertainment. When there’s a huge, breaking story, I think CNN is probably the best place to go. But, if I want real information, I need to go on the ‘net or to Twitter or NPR.

And, that’s weird to me. I mean, with the stuff that passes for news on Fox News Channel, it’s weird that people don’t realize they’re being pandered to.

Okay, so I’m getting preachy. But, it was just a weird moment to me. I kept waiting for Whitfield to say, “Wow, like the stuff in Libya is just awful. Poor widdle woman just having awful, yucky things happen to her. Yucky! Let’s think happy thoughts now.” Is it just me? Do the news anchors have to talk like that? Do we really require our news to be entertaining? Isn’t it enough to be informed?

Retro Movie Review "Grosse Point Blank"

http://rcm.amazon.com/e/cm?t=theg0c5-20&o=1&p=8&l=bpl&asins=B002CLBJUU&fc1=000000&IS2=1&lt1=_blank&m=amazon&lc1=0000FF&bc1=000000&bg1=FFFFFF&f=ifrFrom 1997. Starring John Cusack, Minnie Driver. Co-Starring Joan Cusack, Dan Ackroyd, Hank Azzaria, Jeremy Piven. Ooh, and a cameo by Jenna Elfman, I think prior to her sitcom success! This is a dark comedy.

A little 1980’s nostalgia. Minnie Driver with an American accent. I think this is an underrated film. It wasn’t very popular at the time, though I liked it. I even saw it in the theater! The stars are charming as those two always are. Maybe it’s just me but I think John Cusack is charming in practically everything. He just has that quality that I like because he seems kind of pitiful and cool at the same time. Have you seen “Say Anything?” Same thing.
http://rcm.amazon.com/e/cm?t=theg0c5-20&o=1&p=8&l=bpl&asins=B0029XFN9Y&fc1=000000&IS2=1&lt1=_blank&m=amazon&lc1=0000FF&bc1=000000&bg1=FFFFFF&f=ifrhttp://rcm.amazon.com/e/cm?t=theg0c5-20&o=1&p=8&l=bpl&asins=B00005JKFA&fc1=000000&IS2=1&lt1=_blank&m=amazon&lc1=0000FF&bc1=000000&bg1=FFFFFF&f=ifr
Oh, another awesome John Cusack movie? “Better Off Dead.” Two dollars!!!

Besides this post being a blatant attempt by me to get you to click through to Amazon via my links here and buy something so my blog can get me some money (I’m a teacher, can you blame me for trying to make extra money?) I’m also trying to maybe give you a movie or two to watch.

Minnie Drive is awfully cute. She’s probably done a lot of other movies, but the only ones I can think of are “Good Will Hunting” (You’re one them Hahvahd smaht kids, right?) and when she did the voice of Jane in “Tarzan.” Anyway, this one is interesting in that she does a pretty darn good American accent for the whole movie. I listened for a slip or two but didn’t hear any.
http://rcm.amazon.com/e/cm?t=theg0c5-20&o=1&p=8&l=bpl&asins=B001MWBK72&fc1=000000&IS2=1&lt1=_blank&m=amazon&lc1=0000FF&bc1=000000&bg1=FFFFFF&f=ifrhttp://rcm.amazon.com/e/cm?t=theg0c5-20&o=1&p=8&l=bpl&asins=B000AAF1TU&fc1=000000&IS2=1&lt1=_blank&m=amazon&lc1=0000FF&bc1=000000&bg1=FFFFFF&f=ifr

So, my verdict on “Grosse Point Blank” is that you should watch it. It’s a fun movie. I enjoy it. Sure, I have a predilection for professional assassin movies, but this one is a fun twist on the genre. Cusack plays, Martin, a conflicted hitman who sees a therapist (this was pre-Sopranos, too) and is trying to work his way through his issues. He just isn’t feeling the same je ne sais quois about his work. Plus, another hit man (played by Dan Ackroyd!) is trying to get him to join a hitman union and he likes to work alone.

So, he goes to his high school reunion to do a job and also reconnect with a lost flame, Debi.

The movie’s plot is kind of confusing. I remember the first time I watched the movie and not really understanding exactly how he gets his work, who he works for, who that guy is trying to kill him and so on. Honestly, I think that the filmmakers didn’t really care about the plot except as a cute vehicle to tell the love story of the two main characters. And, if you like John Cusack at all, you should see this movie. He carries it, for sure.

***Warning! Spoilers ahead!***

One reason I like the movie is because I think it’s interesting to see how the filmmakers take a repugnant main character (a professional killer) and make him likeable to the audience. It takes a little slight of hand and a bit of cheating, too. Everyone he runs into is like, “Hey, Martin, it’s been ten years! Where have you been? What are you doing for a living?” He stammers a little and answers, “I’m a professional hitman.” They respond with, “Isn’t that nice?” Or, “That’s a growth industry.” I think we are to take it that they think he’s kidding.

So, if they think he’s kidding, why is it that none of the characters every asks again, “No, really, what are you up to?” They all just let it slide. And, if they believe him, why do none of them recoil as we all would? The only “normal” character is his therapist who tells him that he will notify the police if he will commit a crime, then later says, “Try not killing anyone for a few days, see how it feels.” So, that also seems inconsistent. I think that’s cheating. Either you create a world where no one cares that he’s a killer (which they didn’t) or you set it in a realistic world (which they did) where people react normally to meeting a professional killer.

At the end, when Debi realizes that Martin is, in fact, a killer, she screams hysterically and runs away. Now, she’s in love with him (still? again?) so you would think that she might have at least waited for some kind of explanation. But, no, she acts as if he has personally betrayed her. I can’t remember if he ever “jokingly” told her he was a killer. However, she hasn’t seen him for 10 years. He disappeared and made no contact with her. So, if you were her, would you really feel betrayed if in the two or three days since he came back that he failed to tell you he was a killer? I dunno. It just seems like the reaction is contrived rather than organic. Horrified? Yeah, I could buy horrified. Repusled? Okay. But, she is angry at him for what? For lying?

Whatever. You know what? Women are never consistent anyway. So, I guess the movie works.

Haha just kidding. I can’t speak for all women but My Favorite Woman in the Whole World (MFWITWW) has herself some double standards. So, there you go.

Anyway, as some who know me will remember, I wrote a screenplay with a similar main character and it was, in some way, inspired by this film. Professional killers as main characters are interesting. Unsympathetic characters as main characters are interesting, for that matter. One of the things that I struggled with was getting the main character to be likeable enough that the audience would care about him. And, it was tough to figure out how “normal” people would react to someone who was a killer. I still think it was a good screenplay but people get all sensitive about other people that kill people. Weird.