Wednesday, June 30, 2010

media update: June

As much as I'd like to say that I haven't written recently because I've been having exotic adventures, that ain't true. For once I've been busy at work, and not just dreamily scrolling down page after page of adorable cats on Petfinder. Seriously, only the terms of my lease are keeping me from driving down to La Jolla and adopting Stella Lugosi and Lady Gaga. They're besties, so there's just no way I could separate them. And unlike Beyonce and Jay-Z, I don't think I'd even change their names.

Where was I? Oh yeah. Like I was saying, work's been busy. I think I mentioned this, but I moved out of that department I hated so much (praise Jeebus!) and back into my old one. My former boss Red, who was working in management on a trial basis, didn't get the permanent position, so they imported some chick from Texas. I felt bad for Red. Oh, sure, I was irritated that he kept trying to get me to be more outgoing, and he once told me that he doesn't believe in evolution (he's literally the only sci-fi freak I've ever met who isn't an atheist or agnostic), but I liked him well enough. The new chick, on the other hand...well, let's just say I'm glad she's supervising my FORMER department. To give you an idea: one Thursday afternoon, she said "Tomorrow's Donut Friday! As in...'donut' eat anything for breakfast tomorrow because I'm bringing donuts for everyone!"

...yeah. And she walked down EVERY FUCKING AISLE repeating this witticism. I was like, "Yeah, bitch, I heard you the first time, and it wasn't funny then either." Seriously! These cubes are crammed so close together you can hear a mouse pissing on a cotton ball in the next aisle. I hardly think her loud ass would have any trouble being heard.

What else? Well, Daddy-O came to California last weekend. G joined us on Saturday, and we all went to the Self-Realization Fellowship in Malibu, which was gorgeous and peaceful...until some bitch (not an employee) came marching up to us and told my dad in a very pissy fashion to speak more quietly because people were meditating. Like most people his age, he's going a bit deaf, so I don't think he knew he was being a bit loud. I was probably much more to blame, because it was my responsibility to tell him to take it down a notch, but then again I didn't think he was being all that loud, or that anyone would be such a twunt about it! Plus we didn't even SEE anyone meditating near us. He would have been fine with lowering his voice if she had asked politely, but she was so rude that he got into a pissing match with her. But it was merely a small blot on an otherwise lovely day.

During his visit, we also went to a botanical garden not too far from my place, sat in Borders and read in companionable silence, went shopping for early birthday presents, and talked for hours. It was a very short visit, but of course it's always wonderful to see my dad!

This is one of my shorter media updates, despite the fact that I have, no exaggeration, 32 library books checked out right now. Practically my entire hold list came in at once, and I just about shit a kitten when the librarian plopped that teetering stack on the counter. I usually give a book 50 pages before deciding whether to finish it (unless it's by one of my fave raves), but I might have to be ruthless and cut it down to one chapter until I make a decent dent in that pile. I figure the average author will pull out his or her A game at the beginning in hopes of hooking readers, so if the first chapter blows, I can't imagine the rest would be any better.

Asterisks denote something I particularly enjoyed or found especially worthy of my time; your mileage may vary. And a PSA for my fellow gamers: I review Heavy Rain at the end of this entry. I tried to keep it as spoiler-free as possible, and I certainly don't spoil any major story elements, but if you don't want to know ANYTHING about the game, you might want to stop reading as soon as you see the box art.


1. Gone by Mo Hayder: Detective Jack Caffrey investigates when a carjacker steals a car with a little girl in the backseat. At first Jack thinks that the carjacker didn't mean to take the child too, but then another car with a little girl in it is stolen, and it becomes obvious that something truly sinister is afoot. Unfortunately, I didn't like this one nearly as much as her previous books, though it's diverting enough.


1. People Are Unappealing* by Sara Barron: A hysterically funny collection of essays covering everything from the author's stint as an Olive Garden waitress (where on one memorable occasion a customer asked her if a pork dish was vegetarian) to landing a date with her dream guy and discovering his pee fetish.

2. Orange Is the New Black* by Piper Kerman: Shortly after graduating from college, the author's girlfriend convinced her to smuggle money for a West African drug lord. Kerman initially enjoyed the excitement, but eventually it got too scary and she stopped doing it. She thought she'd gotten away with it, but years later the police showed up at her door and arrested her. After pleading guilty to a lesser charge, Kerman was sent to federal prison for 13 months. Her experience in prison wasn't nearly as harrowing as you might think; she made friends with several other inmates, and she was never sexually or physically assaulted. But, of course, it wasn't exactly summer camp either. A fascinating look at a place most of us will hopefully never visit, and peppered with black humor and lots of bizarre details, like a prison recipe for cheesecake (ingredients: graham crackers, 4 pats of margarine, Laughing Cow cheese, vanilla pudding, Cremora, and a squeeze bottle of lemon juice) and how to make a dildo using a spork, a maxipad, and a rubber finger cut from a glove. Crafty!

3. Medium Raw by Anthony Bourdain: A selection of essays from my favorite celebrity chef, covering everything from the evils of McDonald's to a secret meeting during which he and several other foodies shamefully, but with great pleasure, ate ortolan (a small bird that's roasted and eaten whole, including the beak and bones; it's illegal to eat it because the ortolan is a protected species in Europe). Marriage and fatherhood have defanged him somewhat, but not entirely; one chapter is called "Alan Richman [a food critic] Is A Douchebag."


1. Kaze Hikaru vol. 17 by Taeko Watanabe

2. Rin-Ne vol. 3 by Rumiko Takahashi

3. Wild Ones vol. 10 by Kiyo Fujiwara

4. Small Favors* vol. 2 by Colleen Coover

5. V.B. Rose vol. 8 by Banri Hidaka

6. Kick-Ass* by Mark Millar and John Romita Jr.

7. Rasetsu* by Chika Shiomi

8. Sand Chronicles* vol. 8 by Hinako Ashihara


1. From Paris with Love: The title is misleading as all hell, because it sounds like a romantic comedy or the latest sex tape from a certain obnoxious hotel heiress. It's actually an action flick in which a man working for the US Embassy in Paris partners up with an American spy, and together they try to stop a terrorist attack. It's much more fun than I expected, and John Travolta (as the foulmouthed spy with an itchy trigger finger) has some great lines.

2. Edge of Darkness: Mel Gibson plays a Boston detective whose daughter is gunned down right in front of him. When he begins investigating, he uncovers a conspiracy that some very influential people will do anything to keep quiet. A particularly good jump scare and an excellent performance by Ray Winstone just aren't enough to redeem such a depressing movie, especially considering the appalling and incongruous schmaltz generously ladled all over the last scene.

3. Toy Story 3*: When Andy is getting ready to go away to college, he decides to only take Woody with him and put the rest of his old toys in storage. But a mix-up leads to the toys being donated to a daycare center, and when it turns out that things are much more sinister than they initially seemed, Woody has to figure out a way to save his friends.

Not surprisingly, Pixar hit it out of the park again. TS3 is gorgeously animated, funny as hell, and bittersweet. During the last ten minutes, you could barely even hear the dialogue over the sniffling coming from the audience. I don't know how Pixar manages to consistently make such amazing movies (excluding Cars; I didn't hate it, but I didn't think it was up to their standards), but I hope they never stop.

4. The Road: After the apocalypse, a man and his son set out in hopes of finding safety. Along the way, they must hide from cannibals, find food and shelter, and try to keep a small spark of hope alive. The DVD should have come with a free prescription for Prozac. It was very well done, but one of the most intensely depressing movies I've ever seen.

5. Youth in Revolt*: Nick Twisp (played by Michael Cera, which tells you pretty much everything you need to know about the character) is dragged to a trailer park on vacation by his mother and her boyfriend. While there, he meets a sophisticated teenager named Sheeni and falls instantly in love. She's got a thing for Frenchmen, so he creates an imaginary alter ego named Francois Dillinger. Francois serves as Nick's id, doing and saying the things Nick can't in order to win Sheeni's heart. I wasn't sure what to expect from this movie, but it was a riotously funny and delightful surprise.


I've loved video games ever since they came into vogue in the early 1980's. Many an allowance dollar was fed into the change machine at the local convenience store so I could play Q*Bert, Burger Time, Ms. Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, or Jungle Hunt. Eventually, the video game craze cooled off considerably, arcades began to close down, and it was rare to see a machine outside of a bar or bowling alley.

But then video game companies started shifting their focus to the home market. I was working as an assistant manager at Blockbuster in 1997, and one particularly slow night, when the store had been thoroughly cleaned and all of the movies had been checked in, one of the employees asked me if he could switch the game in our demo Playstation and play something else. I said sure, and about ten minutes later, I went over to see what he'd picked. A woman onscreen was unloading a clip into a moaning zombie.

"Whoa, what's that?" I asked, awestruck.

"It's called Resident Evil. It's really cool 'cause you get to kill zombies and shit. Wanna try?" he asked, handing me the controller.

And thus, my dormant video game addiction came raging back to the surface. I bought a Playstation and copy of Resident Evil the very next day. Eventually, I added a Dreamcast to the mix, and shortly after moving back to California in 2001, I bought a PS2. Now, in addition to those systems, I own a Gamecube, Nintendo DS, and Wii. G has an XBOX360 and a PS3, so between the two of us, we have our video game needs covered.

Sorry for the trip down Memory Lane. My point is that I've played hundreds of video games over the last 30+ years, and Heavy Rain has secured a place in my top 5 of all time.

Two years after a tragedy that changed his life forever, Ethan Mars is a broken man: divorced, haunted by the past, and trying desperately to bond with his emotionally distant son Shaun. One day, he and Shaun go to the park, and while Shaun is riding the carousel, Ethan blacks out. When he comes to, he's standing in the middle of an unfamiliar street and Shaun is nowhere to be found.

It turns out that Shaun has been abducted by the Origami Killer, who kidnaps little boys and traps them in a well during the rainy season. The child has about 4 days before the well fills up and he drowns, after which the murderer dumps the body in a deserted area and leaves an origami figure in its hand and an orchid on its chest. Ethan is contacted by the killer, who demands that he undergo several trials. For each one that he successfully completes, he gets more clues to Shaun's location. But the trials are physically and psychologically excruciating, and as the city continues to get pelted by record rainfall, Shaun's time is quickly running out.

One of the print ads for Heavy Rain has the tag line "How far would you go to save someone you love?" Of course, we'd all like to believe that we'd go through anything in order to protect our loved ones. But here's an example (which I've made as vague as possible in order to avoid spoilers) from the game. Imagine you're in Ethan's shoes, and you've just gone through a horrible test only to find yourself faced with another one. There are only two ways out of the room. One is a door right next to you that leads to safety. The other way could kill you instantly if you're not careful, but at the end, you'll get more clues to your loved one's whereabouts. You want those clues, but you're already so exhausted and wounded from your previous trial that you don't know if you can do it. Besides, how do you know that the killer isn't just toying with you? How can you be sure the clues are legitimate? Who wouldn't (even if only for a split second) be tempted to go out that door to freedom?

Heavy Rain has lots of choices like that, and some of them are TOUGH. During my playthrough, I made a decision that caused G to gasp in outrage. I paused the game and we had a very lively discussion about what I'd just done. Heavy Rain is filled with moral quandaries. You can make arguments for and against just about everything major you have to do in the game.

Although Ethan is the main character, you also play as three other characters (not including one spoilery character that you briefly control), all of whom bring special skills to the table. Norman Jayden is an FBI profiler with a nifty virtual reality device that helps him find and analyze clues. Madison Paige, who looks like Mariska Hargitay's less attractive sister, is a young woman who tries to help Ethan with his quest, and she's not afraid to use her sex appeal to get information. (Apparently the developers aren't adverse to it either; notice how she and her tight tank top are front and center on the game box.) Scott Shelby is a private investigator hired by the victims' families, and even though he's in his late 40's and out of shape, he can throw down with the best of them.

Gameplay primarily consists of quicktime events (or QTEs). For example, if you're engaged in a physical altercation, you might have to hit the triangle button to deliver an uppercut, thrust the controller down to smash something over your opponent's head, or press a combination of buttons simultaneously to choke someone out. If you're not fast enough, you could get hurt or even killed. None of the main characters are safe; ALL of them can die, and the story will go on without them, so you really have to pay attention and have excellent reflexes if you want everyone to survive to the very end. Non-QTE gameplay also involves following onscreen prompts, but you generally don't have to be speedy about it, just accurate. The first half-hour or so of Heavy Rain is devoted to menial, non-QTE tasks like brushing your teeth, shaving, and getting the table ready for lunch. I'm sure lots of gamers were bored stiff by that section, but this was the first PS3 game I'd ever played, so I appreciated the opportunity to get used to the controls in a safe setting.

It's hard to believe Heavy Rain was written and directed by David Cage, the same guy who did Indigo Prophecy. I enjoyed IP, but the story took such a massive and bizarre shit near the end that it almost ruined the whole thing for me. Heavy Rain is like a cross between a Choose Your Own Adventure book and a really good thriller, and when it was over, G and I looked at each other, shook our heads in amazement, talked about what we'd just experienced...and started up a new game. It's one of the rare games that's almost as much fun to watch as it is to play.

The graphics are astonishing. At times, the characters look real, although they occasionally suffer from the same "rubber lips" that plague just about every CGI human being. Most of the backgrounds are so detailed that they might as well be photographs. The soundtrack is perfect, ranging from haunting piano themes and swelling violins to thumping techno during a nightclub scene. The opening and ending credits are really cool. And there's lots of fun bonus content after you finish the game, including concept art and videos of the game's creation.

Of course, Heavy Rain has some flaws. Most of the voices are good or at least tolerable, but there are a few cringeworthy exceptions; the kids are especially bad, and one character sounds EXACTLY like porn actress Bambi Woods, who spent the entirety of Debbie Does Dallas sounding like she was stoned out of her gourd. (I, um, read that somewhere. Yeah.) I think part of the problem is that the characters are supposed to be American, but many of the voice actors aren't, so some of the line reads sound strange. For example, I didn't know the FBI agent's first name was actually Norman until another character said it, because his voice actor pronounces it more like "Nahmah". We ran into a few technical glitches ranging from the sound going out to a character showing up where they definitely weren't supposed to be. The controls can be a bit unforgiving, and the camera angles aren't always particularly helpful. But these cons are so insignificant compared to the pros that they hardly even matter.

This game certainly isn't for everyone. Assuming you don't play on easy mode (which we didn't), you'd better know the PS3 controller backwards and forwards. It's not a "feel good" kind of game, and no matter what decisions you make, you're bound to encounter a few story elements that leave you unsettled. And it more than earns its M rating; it's violent, the language can be very salty, and there's a sex scene and both male and female nudity. (No nether bits, of course, but you do see buttocks and bare breasts, and since the graphics are so realistic, you'll be like "Whoa, boobies!") But if you're looking for a game that will make you mist up, make you exercise both your brain and your fingers, and make you tenser than you've ever been playing a video game, you absolutely must play Heavy Rain. It was one of the most memorable gaming experiences of my life.