Saturday, February 9, 2013

Celluloid Stuff: Canis Lupus Edition

          The other night I had the distinct pleasure of watching The Grey, starring Liam Neeson and a slew of recognizable (if, perhaps, unnameable) character actors. The film follows a group of oil riggers, traveling from  the pipelines to anchorage, whose plane goes down over the wilds of Alaska. In the wake of the crash, the seven living men find themselves stranded in the frozen wastes and, worse, infringing upon the hunting grounds of a particularly vicious wolf pack. From there on you can reach into your big bag of cliches and figure out the rest of the synopsis: the men must band together to face the wolves and (you guessed it) themselves in order to survive.

I'm everyone - and no one. Everywhere - nowhere. Call me Darkman.

          Realistically the movie could have been renamed Liam Neeson Vs. Wolves and it would have better highlighted the best/most defining characteristics of the film. That's not to say that there's no merit to the rest of the story; there's actually some rather moving character development and effective plot devices throughout the film. But, come on, look at this guy: he's got a knife taped to one hand and wolverine-style airplane liquor bottle claws on the other. No award winning writing or mind-bending plot twist can eclipse the rough-and-tumble badassery of Mr. Schindler himself. Comedic swooning aside, the movie was better than I had anticipated and has led me to create this list of other noteworthy wolf-based movies. Much to my chagrin, however, it is actually pretty tough to find quality films that include lupine creatures of the non-were nature. As such, this list is rather brief.

Wolfen (1981):
Who's a hungry boy?

          When Detective Dewey Wilson is assigned to investigate the gruesome homicide of a millionaire and his wife, he soon connects the case to a trail of murders (primarily those of drunkards, druggies, and derelicts) seemingly animalistic in nature. His search leads him to (a much younger) Edward James Olmos and a group of Noreastern natives who tell them legend of a wolf-pack that once roamed the lands, but has since moved their killing grounds to the slums of New York City.

This, but on a faded black t-shirt that I "discovered" at an overpriced vintage boutique

          Besides having some very excellent 80's cover and poster art, this movie boasts some rather impressive effects and cinematography for its time and genre. If you like old horror movies that aren't your run-of-the-mill monster/slasher/cheese-fests, give this one a couple hours of your time. You likely wont regret it. And even if you do, you'd best keep it to yourself... wolves can smell displeasure and they aren't particularly fond of it.

Jungle Book (1967):
They're only happy cause he still tastes like the bbq sauce he had on his pulled pork sandwich at lunch

          Yes, I know this toon isn't about wolves, per se, but Mowgli wouldn't be around if he hadn't been raised by them. And that's a win in my book. For wolves. A win for wolves. Anyway, the synopsis goes like this: this kid has a long and rich life growing up in a den of wolves and then some other stuff happens. The End. If you don't know this story, don't take my word for it, watch it yourself. Or go crawl into a dark dank crevasse somewhere because you don't deserve sunlight; the Jungle Book is an obligatory children's movie and it is to be respected as such.

Jungle Book (1994):
You bred raptors?! 

          The same as above, except Mowgli looks like Liu Kang and Sam Neil has a mustache.

Princess Mononoke (1997):
I don't think they'd be so keen on her if they knew where she got that animal skin cape

          If you don't immediately shy away from animated works from across the Pacific pond, then this film is easily the best on the list. If you do, perhaps the time has come to open your mind just a tad and give our Japanese comrades another chance. And, for the record, it isn't just this film; every film by the renowned Studio Ghibli is a gem in one way or another...that is, unless you don't like heathen.

She looks exactly like Amanda Seyfried

          When a rural village is attacked by a demon, a local boy stops it only to find that the demon is, in fact, a cursed boar god and, unfortunately the deadly curse has been passed on to to the boy. Fortunately, the very same curse gives the boy super-human strength (the kind of strength one might use to, say, arrow someone's arm off their body in the midst of battle or perhaps tie your shoes so tightly, not even your greatest nemesis could untie them). Anyway, the kid finds out there may be a cure for this curse of his somewhere in the west, and so the quest begins. Eventually he arrives at Iron Town, a town known for mining...iron (spoiler alert) that also happens to be responsible for the boar god's curse. You see, the town is sucking their resources from the surrounding land, a land riddled with forest spirits and gods of all shapes and sizes (most of whom are not too keen on the humans and their interloping), and if they aren't kept in check... bad stuff will happen. Oh, also there's this girl who hangs out with these really big wolves and she does some stuff or whatever.

Why I Didn't Put The Breed, starring Michelle Rodriguez, on This List:
From the Rob Liefeld school of perspective

          Dogs. Not wolves. And that movie was terrible.

          Aside from being sure to mention that scene in Beauty and the Beast when Belle escapes and Beast has a throwdown with some big bad you-know-whats, that about wraps up my list. If you've got some noteworthy wolf movies that aren't of the were- variety, you be sure to let me know. Tanks!

Friday, January 18, 2013

Stuff That Never Happened (Virtual Edition)

          In March of 1998, a little company known as Blizzard Entertainment (best known for masterminding the most commercially successful MMORPG of all time, World of Warcraft) bestowed upon our tiny blue speck of a planet my all-time favorite real-time strategy game, Starcraft (edging out the Warcraft series, and blowing Age of Empires back to the DOS age). The game was wildly successful and is considered by some to be one of the best and most important games of all time.

          The game, following the exploits of three species waging war against one another for dominance in a remote part of the milky way galaxy, was and is a tour de force of story, style, and execution. The problem? It left me wanting more. I loved the story, the environments, the character design, really the whole Starcraft universe. The Brood War expansion that followed alleviated some of my wanton blood-lust, but it still didn't quiet my hunger. 

          Then something wonderful happened; Starcraft: Ghost was announced. Now, my video gaming experience up until this point has been largely split between two camps: flight simulators and third person adventure platformers. Starcraft was, for the most part, the only strategy game I played with any real investment, which I largely credit to the quality of the universe in which it takes place. With age, I've incorporated first-person shooters into my tastes, but still, to this day I tend to avoid anything top-down or involving a lot of resource management, so Starcraft remains an anomaly.
          Ghost, however, was like Blizzard had reached deep into my chest, removed my heart, and developed it into a video game, or so it seemed. It was intended as a third person shooter, the story following the exploits of Nova, a Terran Ghost (a stealth-based psychic espionage sniper class of warrior), with potential for a multiplayer mode that would allow users access to several other classic warrior classes of Starcraft, including the Marine, Firebat, and, from the looks of it, perhaps even Zerg or Protoss characters as well.

          For a time it seemed as though my long-time dream of getting up close and personal with a Hydralisk before blasting it in the face with a flamethrower was going to come true. But then, it didn't. Ghost, it seems, was cursed. The damn project faced setback after delay until one day when I walked down the block to my local Game Crazy (yes, the defunct Hollywood Video gaming subsidiary), the clerk told me that the game had been put on indefinite hold by Blizzard, though everyone else counted it out as canceled. Then, like rubbing salt in the wound, the bastard told me that the $5 I put down as a reservation was non-refundable but could be applied to another gaming purchase. That day a part of me died. That was the day I lost my innocence. That day was my childhood's end. That day was [insert tired cliche regarding purity, incorruptibility, and/or virtue and their inevitable dissolution]. There is one upside, however, to this sad tale: I'll never know if the game sucked.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Stuff of Euphonious Fortitude (Low Gravity Edition)

Some choices in life can be rather difficult, like Mexican or Italian, window or aisle, flats or heels, medium or large, heads or tails, wheat or white, etc. Others are decidedly easier, like whom you would save between your best friend, your significant other, and your mother if all were in a near-fatal accident together but only one could survive. My point being that listening to heavy metal shreddage paired with growling akin to that of bears or the demon-possessed is a fine way to spend your Sunday, but a softer touch, too, has its merits. As such I give you my list of the gentler side of my favorite tunes. So, head on into your office/library, swath yourself in your finest smoking jacket, plop down in your most velvety oak armchair, plunk two whiskey stones into a low-ball glass, fill 'er up with something smooth, and enjoy.

1. Why? - Alopecia

Hyper-sexed pull-no-punches indie white-boy pseudo-hip-hop with a flair for the melodramatic and a monotone drawl, and the lyrical prowess to match. Check these kids out.

2. Sufjan Stevens - Illinois (Alternatively: Sufjan Stevens Invites You To: Come On Feel the Illinoise)

Once the poster-boy for indie rock, this record is Sufjan Stevens' crowning achievement (as far as I'm concerned). Between managing to craft one of the most hauntingly beautiful while simultaneously creepy songs that I have ever heard (that being "John Wayne Gacy, Jr." ... yes, a song about the killer clown himself) and composing what is, arguably, one of the greatest indie rock anthems of all time (the highly lauded "Chicago" ... a song so unassuming yet pervasive enough to rock culture for Snow Patrol to mention it in one of their biggest hits), this record is, in a word, superb.

3. Stars - Set Yourself on Fire

If taking this album at face value, it would seem that the folks in Stars do not have the most stable love lives. Luckily, that means they've had the kind of sourpuss life experience that writes a pretty killer record about love, loss, and all the shit and sunshine between.

4. The Kings of Convenience - Riot on an Empty Street

My first introduction to this Norwegian folk-pop duo was this: their video for "I'd Rather Dance Than Talk With You," which, in all respects, is as charming and fun as the song is catchy and clever. While this song is the highlight of the record, the rest of Riot on an Empty Street is still fantastic in its own right.

5. Belle & Sebastian - Dear Catastrophe Waitress

Growing up, I knew Scotland to be good for a select few things: Golf, Scotch, Braveheart, and Sean Connery. As stereotypical and hyperbolic as that list may be, if I hadn't just looked up where they were from, Scotland wouldn't have even been on my list of places that Belle & Sebastian might hail from. Regardless, they drop a mean jam (read: pleasant song) and this record was my first of theirs, and still my favorite of the lot (especially: "Dear Catastrophe Waitress," "I'm A Cuckoo," and "Step Into My Office, Baby").

6. Paul Baribeau - Paul Baribeau

I love folk punk. It is a vastly under-appreciated genre of music with a lot of deep-rooted passion, energy, and creativity. By the same token, it is inherently flawed for the same raw unadulterated attitude that gives in weight. Simply put, it will never be widely recognized as a truly legitimate musical style because it simply does not care to be. Paul Baribeau is one of the best examples of this dichotomy. He doesn't make music for anyone but himself, but he does so in an extremely endearing way.

7. The Devil Makes Three - The Devil Makes Three

"Santa Cruz, California" may not be even remotely synonymous with "kick-ass bluegrass", but a 5th of bourbon and this record might make you second guess that... hell, you can probably skip the bourbon (though I wouldn't). These guys are deep-southern musicianship on top of northern pacific poesy on top of just a hell-of-a-lot of fun.

8. Laura Marling - I Speak Because I Can

Hailing from Hampshire, this English siren's backing band contains, among others, a couple of the boys from Mumford & Sons. You can either do as I do and revel in that fact, or you can keep your comments to yourself and get out of my house. Less pluckily adolescent than her first record, I Speak Because I Can illustrates how Marling has matured into a musician of both instrumental and lyrical depth, if not having completely grown out of her girlish yearnings and cynicism.

9. Midlake - The Trials of Van Occupanther

This album is the kind of thing I could picture myself listening to in a cabin somewhere in the Pacific Northwest while I felled trees and grew a lumberjack beard fueled by pancakes and moonshine. I don't think it needs further explanation.

10. Beirut - The Lon Gisland EP

Beirut's shortest production also happens to be their best. Occupying the orchestral corner of indie music, this record boasts some very curious instrumentation, boasting obscure instruments such as flugelhorn, euphonium, and glockenspiel to name a few. The opening track, "Elephant Gun," is my favorite of the bunch.

11. Fiona Apple - Extraordinary Machine

For me, Fiona Apple is one of the most consistently strong and talented female musicians in rock throughout the last ten years. This album is just another example of her brilliance, tenacity, and vision. Oh, also, she's good friends with Zach Galifianakis, and that is just the bee's knees.

12. The Dear Hunter - Act II: The Meaning of, and All Things Regarding Ms. Leading

When chatting with friends and acquaintances about this band, the overwhelming majority of people say things like "Oh, yeah, I love Deerhunter," or "You mean like that movie?" This usually leads me to respond with things like "No, I don't like shoegaze" or "Yes, exactly like that movie." In truth this band has not nor will they ever get the recognition that I think they deserve. These conversations are proof of that. This album is a tremendous accomplishment, following a single story arc of an unnamed protagonist narrator falling in love with a prostitute and boasting one of the most fluid progressions since the symphonies and operas of time long past. Seriously, check out this band.

So, the next time you're looking to illustrate your musical prowess and snobbishness, pull up this list and drop some knowledge on any fool ballsy enough to challenge you (just keep in mind that people don't generally appreciate hipster douche-bags).

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Scurry Stuff!

I find myself sitting in a rather chilly room listening to the white noise of an exceedingly dusty floor-fan, the din broken only by the caterwaul of the occasional passing freight train, reading a number of different articles about a number of various scary things, from movies to books to video games and beyond. As such, I've found my brain in the certain kind of condition conducive to compiling a list of my very favorite spooky things. You are traveling through another diatribe, a diatribe not only of sight and sound, but of mind; a journey into a tedious land of subjugation. Your next stop: Sean's Brain!

1: The Twilight Zone (TV Show)

          So, remember that one time when that dude was a bank teller and he was all Gosh, I sure do love reading, but his boss was all Nuh uh, you'd best be gettin' to tellerin', and then he went down into the vault and there was, like, this huge explosion, or whatever, and everybody died except him and then, like, he totally had time to read all the books he wanted, except he tripped and broke his glasses and then he couldn't read any books at all and he was like But, there was tiiiiiiiiime! but there wasn't time cause that dude was super blind and couldn't read squat? Yeah, that was awesome. So is this show. All of it.

2: Marble Hornets (YouTube Series)

          If you've ever heard of the Something Awful Forum myth of Slender Man, Marble Hornets is where it really took off. A low-budget short film series, Marble Hornets follows the exploits of some college kids as they try to make a student film, only to repeatedly encounter the Slender Man, a spindly featureless suited entity with malevolent intent. While the series isn't particularly complex and the later videos are a little so-so, watch this by yourself at night and its sure to give you the kind of heeby-jeebies that'll have you sleeping with a night light on and the curtains tightly drawn.

3: The Collected Works of H.P. Lovecraft (Print)

          Yeah, maybe this was on my best books list, but come on, there are few things out there quite as terrifying as the kinds of cosmic horror Lovecraft so skillfully... crafted. We're talking the kinds of ancient and forbidden horrors that will disembowel you, or, if you're really unlucky, you'll survive only to be driven completely and utterly insane by the things you've seen and known. The dude was so prolific in the creation of this genre that it's now known as "Lovecraftian horror." That's a win in my book.

3.5: Dagon (Film)

          Based on a combination of two of Lovecraft's short stories, Dagon and The Shadow Over Innsmouth, this film follows Paul Marsh, Miskatonic University sweater-wearing stock market tycoon, and his girlfriend, Maria, as they and a pair of friends are shipwrecked off the shore of a small Spanish town called Imbocca (a play on the Spanish words for 'in mouth'). Paul and Maria go ashore to get help, only to find that the town seems all but abandoned aside from a few rather strange, unblinking, near-translucent  residents with bizarre religious practices at a church of the Esoteric Order of Dagon. And things go from there. While the acting isn't so great and the special effects are mediocre, the film boasts an interestingly creepy story line and one of the most bone rattling murder (by skinning) scenes I've ever had the fortune of seeing. For the record, the rest of the film's violence is minimal.

4: Dead Space (Video Game)

          When a response team is sent to investigate the Ishimura, a derelict mining vessel in high orbit around an alien planet, they find that the greater portion of the crew has been brutally murdered or rendered insane by a collection of freakish monsters, called necromorphs. Separated from the rest of the response team, lone engineer Isaac Clarke must make his way around the ship repairing its vital systems and defending himself from the creatures. There's a scene in this game when the player must walk down a long corridor toward their next goal while, at the end of the corridor, you can see the shadow of a man repeatedly and deliberately bashing his head against a bulkhead. It was the one scene in the game that made me feel legitimately uneasy. While the rest of the game is plenty scary (relying on jump-out-and-grab you scares and the terror of being stalked and charged by nigh unstoppable freak-beasts), its the moments in between that are really spooky.

5: Pandorum (Film)

          Dead Space, but movie-style... sort of... Pandorum is the story of Elysium, a starship intended to colonize the Earth-like planet Tanis. But, when two crew members wake from hypersleep, they find that the crew they were intended to relieve is nowhere to be found and bloodthirsty beasts roam the corridors. You can pretty much figure out the rest. Oh, also there's space madness (basically a ridiculously intense version of cabin fever), that they call Pandorum (I know, spoiler alert).

6: Thinking About What Might Be Lurking Out of the Corner of My Eye Within Every Single Dark Crevice, Alleyway, Bush, Shadow, or Otherwise Whilst Walking Home By Myself in the Middle of the Night (My Imagination)
          I think this one is pretty self-explanatory.

7: Jurassic Park (Film)

          I know, I know; Jurassic Park isn't scary. Oh, wait. It is. Scary awesome, that is. Also, when I saw this movie in theaters, I was six and it terrified the bejesus out of me, especially the scene where Newman gets attacked by the Dilophosaurus (the little guy with the frills who spits acid). I legitimately had nightmares for years because of that scene. Lame, perhaps, but no less the truth.

8: Australia

Apart from the fact that this country/continent was founded by criminals so gnarly and uncouth that the U.K. didn't want them anywhere near civilization, every single feature, creature, or otherwise on this death island wants to unceremoniously destroy/devour/defile every single molecule that does, has, or will ever be a part of you and your existence.

Other Notable Scary Things:
A. Tape Worms (Parasites in General)

B. Oprah

C. Bees

D. Hospitals/Slaughterhouses/Sanitariums (Operational or Abandoned)

E. Mimes/Mime Offspring

F. Carnies

G. Juggalos

H. Drowning/Burning Alive/Awkward Family Get-Togethers

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Stuff of Euphonious Fortitude (High Gravity Edition)

          In the time of myth, it is said that Marsyas, the satyr, challenged Apollo, god of music (amongst other things), to a musical duel. Not thinking things through, Marsyas accepted that the contest be judged by the Muses (a trio, the goddesses of inspiration) and, though the satyr played well, he lost. For his hubris (challenging a god under any circumstance was a big no-no), Apollo flayed the satyr's skin from his flesh. Today, for your listening pleasure, I present you with a list of albums so rocktacular, they may flay the very skin from your flesh. So, grab your darkest intoxicant, whet your finest blade, and let the deafening begin.

1. Every Time I Die - The Big Dirty

          Something about the fact that Every Time I Die's vocalist, Keith Buckley, once taught English before realizing that touring the country playing a freakish chimera of hardcore punk and southern-esque metal would make him a better living and afford him better times makes me love this band all the more. The Big Dirty, their paramount album, only furthers this conclusion. Rarely do I come across an album so fluid and well-built that I can listen to it from start to finish as a single harmonious unit; this album is one of those rare cases. From the energizing opening track, "No Son of Mine," to the final line of "Imitation is the Sincerest Form of Battery" (It is better to destroy than to create what is meaningless, so the picture will not be finished), The Big Dirty is a tour de force of cacophonous glory. For reference: listening to this album garners the same satisfaction one might feel if one were a viking warrior of yore, sinking his mace deep into the fleshy gut of his enemies, for about 36 minutes and 20 seconds.

2. Protest the Hero - Fortress

          Protest the Hero is the Tango to Every Time I Die's Cash. If you don't understand that reference; first, get out of my house and educate yourself; second, here's what I mean: where Every Time I Die is a viking collapsing cranial cavities, Protest the Hero is a samurai decapitating noggins with a single fluid slice. Their second album, Fortress, is a brilliantly executed intersection of flawless technical performance, bizarre time signatures, and brutal lyricism. The one unfortunate thing about this album is that the opening track, "Bloodmeat" (a song referencing the violent escapades of a one Genghis Khan), outshines the rest. That is not to say that the rest of the album isn't notworthy, "Bloodmeat" is just the best thing they've ever written.

3. Children of Bodom - Are You Dead Yet?

          I once heard somebody call Children of Bodom the Disneyland of metal and, truth be told, the title is pretty spot on, though not in the sense that they are overcrowded with children and, as a result, lousy with germs. They are, however, fun, upbeat, and even whimsical (as far as ear-drum rupturing metal is concerned). Also, experiencing Children of Bodom is a good deal more fun than going to Knotts Berry Farm. Are You Dead Yet?, their fifth album, while short, is the best of the bunch (and stands the test of time, it came out in 2005). A point of interest: the lead vocalist, Alexi Laiho, is also the lead guitarist and does a good deal of writing for the band and, though he comes across as a silly little Finn, he is an exemplary musician. Furthermore, this band boasts the best keyboarding I've ever heard.

          As I have decided to finish this post so that I might make myself a cocktail, I'll do my usual rundown of the rest of the list, but with a bit more gusto:

4. Balzac - Beyond the Darkness

Japanese Punk brought to the states courtesy of the Misfits... except these Japanese dudes are far better musicians than their deathlock toting American counterparts, regardless of how silly their bag-wearing mascot may be. That is, with the exception of their vocalist, who pretty much just growls and yells indistinguishably (so I'm not sure what language they perform in half the time).

5. Cancer Bats - Hail Destroyer

Another hideous love-child of metal and punk, this band occupies the speedier route and does so with raw baditude. If I were in a modern version of the Warriors (oh, great, another cult film reference), not only would I want this album to be my soundtrack, I'd want these dudes in my street gang.

6. Bring Me The Horizon - Suicide Season

Unlike the previous entrant, these skinny limey Brits are not a group of fellows whom I would want to back me in a street fight. They do, however, manage to spew out an especially brutal and well put together hodgepodge of grindcore, death metal, and maybe even a dash of screamo.

7. Gallows - Orchestra of Wolves

And lastly, I give you another set of skinny limey Brits, Gallows. Their music, however, is vastly different from that of BMTH and, were I a roman emperor determining which group lives or dies, it'd be no contest; Gallows would be the victors, even if I did only keep them around to feed them to my rather corpulent lions (I'd be a tad to generous with their feeding in this fantasy). Anyway, Gallows occupies a large portion of the space in my brain reserved for the musically and lyrically punk rock elite. I know, it sounds like a terribly narrow brain-region, but I assure you there's not a lot of room up there for much else.

And that about wraps it up. Time for a gut-wrenching adult beverage.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Stuff of Literary Value

Hark! Hearest thou a sound from yonder hills? Liketh angels singing thine glorious hymns from up on high or the sweetest of songbirds professing a love purer than the finest gold. Nay! It is merely I, bard of the barreling tides, come yet again to profess an affinity for all things fantastic, bizarre, macabre, or otherwise. In this episode we meet a few of my favorite authors (and my favorite of their works). Preparest to be rocketh'd! Be stunned! Be amazed! Be more than likely completely and utterly indifferent!

1. Haruki Murakami - Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World

          Yeah, hittin' you with the Japanese guy right outta the gate. Bet you didn't see that one coming. Haruki Murakami is easily my favorite non-English speaking (read: writing) author, and for good reason: he loves rainy days, smoky jazz clubs, whiskey, and questionably alternative realities. His body of work is like the profile of a gentleman who'll get into my pants on the first date, no matter how many times I promise myself he wont. And Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World is the cherry on top of the proverbial sundae, pie, cake, or otherwise.
          With chapters staggered between two parallel narratives, both stories follow an unnamed protagonist as he makes his way through a heretofore unfamiliar landscape. The first narration (the odd chapters) follows a man, identifying himself as a Calcutec (Calcutecs being a body of people responsible for protecting data from their counterparts, the Semiotecs, who are chiefly responsible for stealing data), as he takes a job for a mysterious scientist experimenting on "sound removal" deep within his city's sewer system. In the second (the odd chapters), the narrator comes upon a mysterious walled town and, through a process of excising himself of his shadow and learning to be a Dreamreader via watching the residual dreams from the skulls of dead unicorns (less the classic white horse variety and more an ugly breed of passive bovine creatures), becomes a citizen of the town.
          While both narratives have merits in their own right, it's how the two weave together that really makes this book special. Be wary, however, because Murakami is partial to his own brand of awkward sexuality, the one element of his work of which I am not fond, because it always removes me from my immersion in his books. Hard Boiled, thankfully, suffers the least of it. That being said, Murakami's collected body of work is something to behold. Check it out.

2. Salvador Plascencia - The People of Paper

          A curious book, to say the least, Salvador Plascencia's debut novel, The People of Paper, centers around the story of Federico de la Fe and his daughter, Little Merced, as they travel from Mexico to the United States following their abandonment by Federico's wife and Little Merced's mother, also named Merced, to wage a war against the influence of Saturn (yes, the planet). The narrative is littered with outlandish religious, historical, and cultural references, in conjunction with a tremendously unique physical layout (some pages follow a traditional paragraph structure, others are columned; some have only a single word upon them, others are completely blacked out; one name has been physically cut from each page upon which it appears; and, halfway through the novel, the narrative starts over). Some of these unique elements can be a bit jarring, especially the restart, and it is hard to separate the story with the breaking of the 4th wall (some of the author's personal life appears to intrude upon the book, though the nature of the novel makes it hard to verify the intrusion as fact rather than fiction), but the loveliness of the entire narrative, the characters, and really the book as a physical object (I implore you to get your hands on the hardcover version depicted above), makes this my current favorite book of all time. And it has held that title for five long years (and counting).

3. Joe Meno - The Boy Detective Fails

          It has come to my attention, at this point, that my list of all-time favorite authors/books could be perceived as somewhat bleak. The stories that populate this list are not, per se, the happiest of tales, but I think each of them have a merit beyond that of a simple binary happy vs. sad judgment system, and if your opinion varies therein, you're wrong.
          Joe Meno's The Boy Detective Fails follows the story of Billy Argo, the aforementioned boy detective all-grown-up, as he resides within the Shady Glens Facility, a home for the mentally incompetent, following the apparent suicide of the Watson-to-his-Holmes and his sister, Caroline. There amongst the (also mentally incompetent) villains of his past and with the assistance of another brother-sister team, the Mumford siblings, Billy, once more, takes up the mantle of boy detective to glean the truth behind his sister's out-of-character demise and confront the monotony (and oddity) of the real world.
          This book holds a special place in my heart, melodramatic as the blurb may seem. Anyone with as overactive an imagination as mine who has been confronted with the sobering agony that is the real world will understand my sentiment. Seriously, though, read this beauty (even if realizing that you'll never be super-anything does make you want to quietly sob yourself to sleep).

4. Dave Eggers - A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

          The first thing that you need to understand about Dave Eggers (beside the fact that he penned the big screen version of Where the Wild Things Are) is that he is impregnably narcissistic. The second is that, once you've read this book, you may find his narcissism somewhat deserved (and you'll probably hate that). The first of two memoirs on this list, this is the first I ever read (and willingly, at that). Truth is, I stumbled upon it accidentally in an airport on the way to a family reunion while I was in high school. I figured the title offered but two outcomes: something worth laughing at or something worth remembering. That flight took 6+ hours, but I can't verify that as truth because I don't recall voluntarily putting the book down, but for necessary bathroom breaks.
          Like Plasencia, Eggers likes to break the 4th wall. In Staggering Genius he does so through the character of his younger brother, and it is always self-deprecating. Unfortunately, as a result of his narcissism elsewhere, it feels like false modesty, more often than not. Still, its hard to deny that this book is a monument to the genre. Bear in mind, however, it has some of the saddest opening chapters I've ever encountered.

5. Mark Z. Danielewski - House of Leaves

          Probably the most difficult read of every other book on this list in regards to physical structure, narrative structure, and sheer girth, House of Leaves is equal parts unnerving horror story, star-crossed tragedy, and text book. Yes, I do mean like text book like the information tomes of your adolescent nightmares. Following, if I'm recalling correctly, up to 5 different narratives throughout different points in the story, the overarching tale follows a journalistic photographer, by the name of Will Navidson, as he documents his family's move to a suburban home in Virginia, only to find that the house is actually larger on the inside than it is on the outside. From there, everything goes the way of Wonderland (that is, to say, completely mad), and I would be remiss in my duty if I were to spoil even a fraction of the rest of this tremendous literary feat. Between the fragmented nature of the multi-layered narratives and the superb characterization and attention to detail, this book is like the McGraw Hill corporation had a love child with H.P. Lovecraft. Seriously, this book is as wonderful as it is terrifying as it is complicated and it is very easy to get lost in it.

6. Norton Juster - The Phantom Tollbooth

          When I have children, this is the book I will use, following the collected works of Dr. Seuss, to ease them from the world of non-picture book literature and into a world populated by the tropes of the English language, grammar, punctuation, and allegory. If you've never had the fortune of reading this gem, but you are fond of the English language and all of its foibles and follies, get off your good-for-nothing derriere and read it like a responsible adult.

And now, time for the honorable mentions (or, as I like to call 'em, the rest of the list that I am too lazy to write about):

1. Eiji Yoshikawa - Musashi
          A literary biography of the greatest Samurai who ever lived. 'Nuff said.

2. Cormac McCarthy - The Road
          The most hauntingly beautiful post-apocalyptic story of all time, and one hell of a love letter from McCarthy to his son.

3. Nick Flynn - Another Bullshit Night in Suck City
          The second memoir on this list. Tremendously sad. Poetic. Wonderful. Illuminating.

4. Eating Animals & Everything is Illuminated - Johnathan Saffron Foer
          The first, the best pro-vegetarian/vegan book I've ever read. The second, a lovely semi-memoir touching on the importance of family, history, tolerance, and the merits of being a very premium guy.

5. The Collected Works of H.P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allen Poe, Kurt Vonnegut, etc.
          I don't believe this requires any explanation. Thank you, goodnight!

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Stuff of Systems Past

          So it's Monday night, I've just finished slingin' brews for eight hours, and all I want is to cozy up on my couch wrapped in a blanket cocoon next to a warm fire and play me some old fashioned vidya games. There are, however, a few hurdles to that end: my SNES is packed away in a box somewhere in the back of my closet, in moving around so frequently I've liquidated most of my systems and game collections, aaaand my Xbox 360 exploded out the back (literally, some kind of faulty power supply issue). It would seem that I'll be hard pressed to make that desire a reality. As such, I've decided to compile a list of my favorite games that nobody has ever heard of (or, in some cases, nobody respects enough). For the record, this list is not in any particular order other than the order in which they come to mind, nor is it comprehensive. I'm sure there are plenty of noteworthy bizarre games out there that I am forgetting.

1. The Neverhood (PC):

          Perhaps one of the more influential gaming experiences of my formative years, this one still stands as one of my all-time favorites. While the idea of a point-and-click game seems to be pretty simplistic conceptually, the genre boasts some pretty heavy hitters from the days of gaming past: Myst, The Monkey Island series, Sam & Max Hit the Road. The Neverhood is, by far and large, my favorite of the lot. Between the brilliantly imaginative and colorful universe in which the game takes place, the clever and ingenious puzzles from start to finish, completely off-the-wall soundtrack (thanks to the space-cadet mind of a Mr. Terry S. Taylor), and the tremendous detail (there's a hallway in the game upon which is etched the entire readable genesis story of the world), there's not a thing about this game that isn't totally endearing.

          While the puzzles can sometimes be tedious (a downfall of the point-and-click genre I've yet to bypass), and the narrative doesn't really kick into gear until after the halfway point, the Neverhood stands as one of the greater games to come out of the mid 90s. A point of interest: the game was produced by Dreamworks Interactive (the studio that went on to become EA Los Angeles and start the Medal of Honor francise) and created by Doug TenNapel (the creator of Earthworm Jim).

2. Shadow of the Colossus (PS2)

          Probably the most well-known of the games on this list, Shadow of the Colossus (from the studio that created Ico and the forthcoming The Last Guardian) is a game that has not garnered near the amount of attention or respect that it deserves. While the story is somewhat minimal (an unnamed hero traverses a perilous landscape to save a girl that he, presumably, loves), the subtle narrative and environmental metaphors paired with the beautiful sprawling environments and an especially tenacious horse (I can't help but think it the inspiration behind the iteration of Link's horse, Epona, from Twilight Princess) draw in the player and create an emotional link to the characters without drowning the tale in melodrama.

          The funny thing is, Shadow of the Colossus is a puzzle game at its core. The gameplay revolves around the player traveling to a number different locales throughout the world to kill a series of colossi, each one requiring the player to follow a unique path to that end. Some of the beasts are hulking monsters that the player must carefully ascend, whereas others are smaller, more agile creatures which require more environmental interaction. In any case, each puzzle requires the player to think on their feet and keep their wits about them. While the ending relies on a somewhat cheap and unsatisfying twist, the beauty and genius of the rest of the game is really what makes Shadow of the Colossus shine.

3. Spawn: In The Demon's Hand (Dreamcast):

          A vast departure from the previous entrant, Spawn: In the Demon's Hand is not elegant nor moving in any way. It is, however, a delightfully playful romp through a dystopian world in which demons and angels alike wage war upon the battlefield that is Earth with little to no regard to their surroundings nor the beings which inhabit them (these beings being the very humans whose souls they battle for). I wouldn't expect any less from the Demon General turned Anti-hero/Savior that is Spawn.
          Spawn: In the Demon's Hand is an arena fighting game in the same vein as Star Wars Jedi Power Battles (another game of which people haven't heard), except it didn't suck nearly as much (read: wasn't nearly as terrible). I'd give you a comparative list of reasons as to why Spawn was awesome and Jedi Power Battles made me want to vomit up my intestines and hang myself with them, but since you've never heard of either, I'll save us both time and you can just take my word for it. Anyway, Spawn: Yadda Yadda follows a very simple arcade-style type of gameplay (handy since it was actually released in arcades as well) in which 1-4 players duke it out Thunderdome style in fully 3D rendered semi-interactive environments, kind of like Super Smash Bros. (which came out the same year), but with more dimensions and less coinage to backing it.

          Unfortunately, much like the system for which it was developed, the game was an underdog from the start. Pair that with some wonky camera programming and some clunky AI and you get an all but forgetful package for everyone in the world... except for the few die-hards who realized that the true joy in this game is in getting to send some of your closest friends to hell (both proverbially and in-game literally). Also you get to go to hell and destroy Malebolgia, one of the demons in charge and the reason Spawn is Spawn, and that's pretty damn cool.

4. Oddworld: Munch's Oddysee (Xbox)

          Hooray! Another puzzle game has made the list! The Oddworld franchise is, well...odd, to say the least. That did not, however, divert me from falling in love with its weirdness. Oddworld: Munch's Oddysee is, in my pseudo-humble opinion, the best of the franchise. The third in the series and the first to enter the world of 3D gaming, it follows the exploits of Munch, a one-legged merman-esque critter, as he tries to track down the remainder of his species (a sad lot fished to the brink of extinction) and save them, and himself, from being eaten. Also, some other stuff happens that's important to the future of Oddworld or whatever.

          This game sits somewhere between the gaming styles of The Neverhood and Shadow of the Colossus; it isn't quite a point-and-click, but it doesn't have the same free-roaming play style of Shadow [etc.], relying mostly on self-contained puzzle rooms for the bulk of the game. Like so many of the obscure games I appreciate, this game's bright points revolve around its story, uniqueness, and character. Far stranger, wittier, and cleverer than your standard lot of games, Oddworld: Munch's Oddysee (really the whole Oddworld francise) glows an unnatural green in a world of taupes.

5. War of the Monsters (PS2)

          This game, more than any of the others on this list, I have a pretty serious attachment to. I can't tell you the number of hours I spent playing this game with my little brother, nor can I properly express you you the joy therein. For a couple of poor boys who grew up watching Godzilla movies by candlelight in our tiny cabin on our parent's struggling farm in the middle of the Great Depression (I may be misrepresenting our plight) and having nothing but garbage in the way of giant-monster games to play, this game...oh, boy...this game was a godsend. Finally someone got it right. No, I don't want to bumble slowly around the city, destroying just a few buildings and/or fellow monsters before the round is over. No, I'm not interested in poorly executed 3D environments represented on a 2D plane. What I do want is the ability to completely devastate entire communities while bashing the pants off of my fellow beasts in fully rendered 3D environments. Thank you, War of the Monsters, for making my tremendously destructive and somewhat genocidal dreams come true. Honestly, I can't conjure up a single thing about this game that I would change. For its time and execution, this game is pretty damn close to perfect. For good measure, here's another picture:

          I was going to keep truckin' with this list, but that seems like a pretty solid note on which to end. So, instead of continuing down the road I'm just going to do a short list of some honorable mentions sans images. In any case, all the games on this list are noteworthy and maybe sometime in the future I'll come back and properly finish this list.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Jill of the Jungle (PC): honestly, the first platformer I can remember playing, the story follows a lady who traverses the jungle and can transform into both a frog and a phoenix in order to kill baddies. God bless whoever came up with this one (turns it was Epic Games, the brainchildren behind the Unreal and Gears of War franchises, who figured?).
  • Vagrant Story (PS): As far as I know, the most innovative action-rpg of its time. It used a clever non-turn-based system revolving around cool-downs and platformer-style action in which the game would pause to show the player the potential range of attack. Also the entire story revolves around dungeon exploring, cults, murder plots, and dragon slaying. Metal.
  • Crimson Sea (Xbox): By far and large the worst game on this list (be that in regards to visual quality, gameplay, story, or otherwise), but I'll be damned if I didn't have a ton of fun with it. Sure, the controls and camera are wonky, some of the levels are ugly and ill-conceived, the lore is melodramatic and weird, and the final boss battle is probably the single most frustratingly unbalanced bout since Mike Tyson pushed his mother down the stairs...I don't really remember where I was going with this one. Still, I stand by Crimson Sea for whatever reason.