Thursday, January 31, 2008

Cooper Lawrence: "My bad!"

After angry video gamers spammed her Amazon.com book pages into oblivion last week, pop psychologist Cooper Lawrence retracted her misinformed criticism of Bioware's Mass Effect in an interview with The New York Times last week.
According to the article, Lawrence had been briefed on the game's alleged "pornographic" content prior to her appearance on Fox News' The Live Desk With Martha MacCallum and had never played the game nor had she seen the titillating clip in question. During a brief scene in the sci-fi/action game's final act, the main character engages in a PG-13 sex romp with one of the other members of his/her crew. Of course Lawrence was misinformed, claiming on national television that the game objectified women and was a bad influence on impressionable young minds.
"I recognize that I misspoke,” she told the Times last week . “I really regret saying that, and now that I’ve seen the game and seen the sex scenes it’s kind of a joke. Before the show I had asked somebody about what they had heard, and they had said it’s like pornography." She then added, "But it’s not like pornography. I’ve seen episodes of Lost that are more sexually explicit.”
It's startling that even following the release of such groundbreaking artistic accomplishments such as Mass Effect, BioShock and Super Mario Galaxy, games remain pop culture's perennial scapegoat. Nevertheless, her retraction represents a victory for the gaming community, which came out in force to expose the ignorance at work in that fateful Fox News segment.

Friday, January 25, 2008

A Little Geek Justice

It's surprising that major news networks are so keen on inviting so-called "experts" onto their shows to discuss the latest video game and lambast it for its graphic displays of violence and sexuality, which will undoubtedly turn the next generation of youngsters into ravenous, bloodthirsty nymphomaniacs.

The latest target? Mass Effect. The venue? Fox News. On a recent Live Desk With Martha McCallum, alleged psychologist and author Cooper Lawrence discusses some interesting "facts" about the popular action/adventure title. She critiques the game's graphic depictions of sexuality (huh?), its objectification of women (wha?) and its over-the-top violence (buh?). That sounds a little off. Since Fox News prides itself on being "fair and balanced" (snicker), game expert Geoff Keighley was also invited to the discussion and he was...barely allowed to speak. And when he was, he was hardly taken seriously. Watch the clip and see for yourself.

Let's get back to Ms. Lawrence's "graphic" sex uproar. As you all know, Mass Effect does have a sex scene as part of the romantic subplot that players can access near the end of the campaign. Keep in mind, it's a PG-13 sex scene. In other words, about 3 seconds of side boob. Hold on, that's not very graphic at all! I guess she fudged that little factoid. She also said that the game objectifies women, which is funny because you can play as either gender, both of which can engage in the romantic subplot. That's not too objectifying at all. Seems equal opportunity to me.

What about the graphic violence? Well, there were a lot of lasers flying about the two times I played through the game, and I do believe I shot plenty of robots and aliens (bad guys, by the way), but they did that in Star Wars, right? Those were family films, unlike the porn saga Star Whores, which I've yet to see. I guess Ms. Lawrence is 0 for 3. It's like she never even played the game? Oh wait, she didn't!

Geoff points this out in the interview. How can someone claim to be an expert on a given subject and then not have the slightest idea of its content? And when Geoff asked her a very honest question, "Cooper, have you ever played Mass Effect?" She smugly replied with a condescending "No!"

So essentially, she's talking in general terms about a type of entertainment she clearly knows nothing about and is not at all interested in. As a journalist and a gamer, this segment was extremely insulting to me and Fox News should be ashamed of itself for not issuing an immediate retraction. Ms. Lawrence should be even more ashamed for not doing the necessary research.

This segment was a disgusting misrepresentation of a fantastic, groundbreaking game that is in no way "Luke Skywalker Meets Debbie Does Dallas" as one panelist describes it.

Thankfully, the gaming community has come out in full force (myself included), spamming Ms. Lawrence's Amazon.com page for her latest book The Cult of Perfection: Making Peace with Your Inner Overachiever. I guess "inner" is the operative word there, since on the outside, she's an ignorant quack.


UPDATE: Amazon.com has removed comment functionality on the Cult of Perfection due to the massive influx of negative reviews. Whether this sent a message or not is yet to be seen.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Cloverfield: A Wort Report Review

Cloverfield is one of those rare event films that lives up to all of its insurmountable hype. A hand-held take on the monster disaster film—think “Godzilla Witch Project,” Cloverfield thrills consistently without wearing out its welcome during its lean 84 minute running time.

Of course, being a disaster movie, Cloverfield is set in midtown Manhattan (apparently New York is the only city in the United States as far as Hollywood is concerned), where a group of twenty-somethings are throwing a surprise party for Rob (Michael Stahl-David), who’s headed for Japan for a new job the following day. We’re introduced to several characters during the opening scenes of the film, including Lily (Jessica Lucas), cameraman Hud (T.J. Miller), his would-be love interest Marlena (Lizzy Caplan) and Rob’s sweetheart Beth (Odette Yussman). For a while you forget what this film is really about when it delves into soap opera territory with a lot of “who’s sleeping with who” dialogue, as Hud awkwardly chimes in while documenting the evening. Of course, then there’s an explosion, a roar, and some hardcore monster-on-city action. That’s what you paid for, right?

As for the monster, it’s hard to pin down what the hell it is exactly. Presumably it came from the ocean, although Hud speculates that it may be some kind of alien (“Like Superman?”). It sort of resembles a bat, but there are definite elements of crocodile, crab, spider and other creepy crawlies thrown in. It doesn’t help in the identification process when you really never get a good look at the creature until the final moments of the film.

While most monster-philes will be disappointed to learn that Cloverfield isn’t 100 percent in-your-face monster all the time, fear not. Think back to how Spielberg handled Jaws way back in 1975. While the shark is never fully revealed until the third act you get plenty of glimpses throughout, and when the shark isn’t visible you certainly feel its presence through the now-iconic John Williams score. In Cloverfield, whenever the monster is not on-screen, you absolutely know it’s nearby. When the characters are hiding on a subway platform while the military assaults the creature above, you can hear its deafening roars and footsteps as the lights flicker on and off. You never get the grand, sweeping special-effects shot that shows off the weeks and months put into animating the creature, just bits and pieces when appropriate. You see only what the characters see, and know only what the characters know. You never learn what the creature is or why it's smashing everything in its path, but this only serves to ignite the imagination. And that's never a bad thing.

With a movie like this, there isn’t much of a threat to the main characters if they’re hiding in the tunnels right? Wrong. Producer J.J. Abrams and director Matt Reeves injected this film with a fair amount of one-on-one terror with smaller creatures, or parasites, that fall off of the larger creature. Resembling a cross between a crocodile and a spider-crab, these things are quick, ravenous and have a nasty surprise for anyone they happen to bite. They add a whole new level of horror to an already thrilling film.

And while this film is action-packed, it’s also poignant in its perhaps unintentional allusion to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The street-level view of toppling buildings, panicking crowds, billowing smoke and falling debris absolutely conjure up images of that infamous day, and may draw some criticism from some audiences who may find the use of such imagery—unavoidable though it may be—in something as seemingly frivolous as a monster movie.

With months of Internet viral marketing behind it, Cloverfield came out of the gate this weekend as one of the most unique theater-going experiences one is likely to encounter this year. While monster movies are in no way new to American audiences raised on King Kong, Godzilla and other celluloid city-stompers, Abrams and Reeves have turned the genre on its ear and created something truly innovative in originality-starved Hollywood.

Bring on the sequel.

Friday, January 18, 2008

What is Cloverfield?

Cloverfield stomps its way into theaters today, January 18, thus ending the six-month long viral ad campaign that has riled up film fans and obsessive-compulsive basement dwellers over just what this film is about. What does the monster look like? What is the significance of the title Cloverfield? Why does J.J. Abrams (of Lost fame) feel the need to incessantly toy with his core audience?

Well, for starters, Cloverfield, through its offbeat and secretive marketing campaign, has blurred the lines between advertising and entertainment and has turned a January film release—typically a dumping ground for Hollywood schlock (I’m looking at you, 27 Dresses)—into a full-blown event. Had this been your typical monster movie, with full-reveals of the creature in the first few trailers to show off the film’s visual effects wizardry, it wouldn’t be on most people’s radar. The idea of another movie about a monster demolishing New York—particularly after 1998’s Americanized Godzilla underwhelmed us all—just doesn’t seem that appealing. But Cloverfield has this shroud of mystery surrounding it that’s pretty compelling.

In addition, using “lost camcorder footage” to tell the story is enticing. Not only does it frame the monster attack as a real-life event, but it allows filmmakers the opportunity to leave out the cumbersome exposition that typically plagues films like this. Rewind ten years to the aforementioned American Godzilla film. It screeches to a halt when the characters are forced to explain why the hell this mutant iguana is trashing Manhattan. Turns out it’s pregnant and looking for a nest. Ugh. Wouldn’t it be cooler if it was just really, really pissed off? Cloverfield is giving us everything we want—a giant, pissed off monster tormenting Manhattanites—without the technobabble and pointless justification.

If you’re like me, you’ve been looking forward to Cloverfield since the mysterious trailer that showed prior to Transformers. But as the mystery reveals itself in all its flickering glory on movie screens across the country, will audiences feel cheated after following this film for so long? Stay tuned for the Wort Report Review of Cloverfield next week.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

A Not-So-Pop Princess

It should come to no surprise to any of you that I have been a hardcore Star Wars fan for most of my life. I’ve seen each of the films countless times, I’ve read libraries of off-shoot novels and I’ve purchased enough of the merchandise to choke ten rancors. I’m a geek. Unapologetically, thoroughly and consistently.

However, during last night’s American Idol premiere, a part of me died inside, as I’m sure was the case for many Star Wars fans who happened to get a glimpse of Christine Tolisano’s audition. It was as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced.

You see, Christine thought it would be a fantastic idea to come to an American Idol audition complete with Princess Leia earbuns and Star Wars logo belt buckle. Needless to say, I cringed, you cringed, and George Lucas might have cringed as well.

Like I said, I’m a geek. I was wearing a Boba Fett t-shirt while I was watching the show, in fact. But somewhere down the line you realize that if you let your geeky obsessions truly define you in certain situations, then you're selling yourself short. Christine, American Idol is giving you a chance at a record contract. At the very least, it’s a shot at being on television. Did you really think that a Princess Leia hairstyle was going to win over Randy, Paula and Simon? It’s the equivalent of me wearing my Star Wars tie (I have one) to a job interview. All they’ll see is Mark Hamill staring them in the face from right above my navel. And that’s not a good first impression.

I should also point out that following her unsuccessful audition, she proceeded to complain that the judges don't recognize individuals in selecting contestant. Individuals? She based her hairstyle on a oft-imitated fictional character and had a movie logo for a belt buckle. What’s individual about that?

Star Wars fans have had a rough couple of years. Public perception of the prequel films was less than stellar and all of the conventions and the hoopla brought a lot of frightening fringe individuals out of the woodwork that cling far-too-tightly to their Lando Calrissian action figures. People began starting their own Jedi religions, standing on movie lines for months at a time and engaging in other agonizing displays of overzealous fandom. In a way, rabid devotion can be cool. People can and should be passionate about what they love. But like anything else, it does get taken a tad too far. Wanna wear a Star Wars t-shirt? That's cool. I do it all the time. Have a Star Wars collection? Great. I have a pretty epic one myself. But it's when you start throwing your obsession in people's face with an awkward ferocity that would make a wampa blush that you ruin it for the rest of us. Let it be part of you, not all of you.

Around the third time someone rang me on my cell to tell me that the “Star Wars chick was my dream girl,” I realized that her display has set the mainstream geek movement back quite a ways. Not to mention the hairy fat guy who found it appropriate to dress in the Princess Leia slave outfit from Return of the Jedi for his audition last night, but that’s another article entirely.

Friday, January 11, 2008

While My Guitar (-shaped Controller) Gently Weeps

I hope everyone out there on the Interweb is having an awesome year thus far. I know that I’ve been MIA for the last week or so, but the strains of some semblance of a social life coupled with a hectic work schedule have left me more or less taxed. And yes, that last sentence was meant to get you thinking about tax season, since it’s pretty much here.

Explanation for procrastination aside, I should admit that I’ve been spending a fair amount of time honing my skills at Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock. And before all the naysayers chime in with “James, just learn to play real guitar and put down the plastic toy with the brightly colored buttons,” let me just say f*ck off, first of all. Okay, I admit that’s a bit harsh, but that’s a conversation that seems to come up whenever I mention how fun the game is to someone less guitar heroic. Yes, I’m aware that it’s just a video game and that getting five stars on “Even Flow” does not compare to someone spending hundreds of dollars and countless hours learning to master real chords for real songs on a real guitar. But lighten up. It’s the equivalent of someone saying “why are you playing Super Mario Bros. when you can be a real Italian plumber who steps on turtles, frantically collects coins and eats random mushrooms that come out of flashing boxes emblazoned with question marks?” It’s just an idiotic argument. Video games are escapism, first and foremost.

But after winning a grueling guitar battle with Satan himself, I’m pretty happy with the latest iteration of the Guitar Hero franchise. It’s got a good mix of old and new. You can start off a play session with some vintage Aerosmith or The Rolling Stones and move onto some Tenacious D…yes, I said Tenacious D before rocking out to KISS and DragonForce. Plus, thanks to the aforementioned guitar boss battles, you’ll test your skills against rockers like Tom Morello and Slash, who later become playable characters.

It’s available for just about every system out there, so if you’re not hip to Guitar Hero by now, what the hell are you waiting for?