Book Review: The Devil in a Forest by Gene Wolfe

"Deep in a forest wilderness lay a village so humble, so insignificant, that only a handful of people knew it existed -- yet it was here that a mighty battle was waged in the endless struggle between Good and Evil."
This is the blurb on the back of the Ace Science Fiction paperback for Gene Wolfe's 1976 novel The Devil in a Forest. From that needlessly effusive set up, one might suppose it to be the starting point to the sort of epic fantasy stories that lines the shelves of bookstores with volume upon volume of goofy color illustrations and prose that would be utterly embarrassing to read out loud. (There's another printing with a description that's even more misleading) The closest Wolfe has come to writing that sort of fiction is The Wizard Knight -- which boasts the unusual quality of having a most conventional fantasy plot which in no way reads like conventional fantasy.

The Devil in a Forest isn't actually fantasy at all, but historical fiction. And rather than "a mighty battle [that] was waged in the endless struggle between Good and Evil," the conflict is a vortex of people and cultures that was the Medieval age; the story follows the tribulation of a small village caught in the center of it. The seemingly random murder of a traveling salesman by notorious by Wat, a notorious bandit, sets the ordeal in motion. The villagers attempt to bring Wat to justice themselves, only to fall victim to Wat's scheming just as soldiers are dispatched to the village to look for and arrest Wat. Wat, in the mean, is hiding out with char burners, themselves outlaws of a sort; and the meddling of Mother Cloot, a genuinely sociopathic witch, only causes the villagers more grief.

The story is told from the perspective of Mark, a young man without family, clearly searching for a male figure to emulate. Candidates include a soft-spoken, dangerously strong blacksmith, the local clergyman, Phillip the skeptic, Wat, and the thuggish soldiers that occupy the village. Mark struggles to make sense of his situation -- Wolfe makes much of Mark's intellectual ambition, quite notable coming from a peasant -- eventually reconciling the hard truths that he experiences first hand with the beliefs of the abbe, and the coal burners and even Mother Cloot.

With a character like Mark as the protagonist, it should come as no surprise that The Devil in a Forest reads like Wolfe attempting to write juvenile fiction. As such, it's very well done, if perhaps a bit too subtle for young readers and a bit too simple for the more sophisticated (I wouldn't describe myself as sophisticated, but I guessed the identity of a mysterious noble before he was even introduced). It's also a nice antidote to the poisonous sort of fiction that broadly portrays the pre-Christian Europeans cultures as pleasant, peaceful matriarchal peoples brutally oppressed by the no-good, patriarchal Medieval Church. The Church was not exactly all cuddles and sunshine, but may we all get over the romanticizing of people who ritually murdered young women?

On that selfish note, I'll simply say that The Devil in a Forest is very enjoyable historical fiction.


Brief Note...

I've not been working on a new post lately, which will surprise the few people who regularly read this site, likely to marvel at my dedication to writing so poorly so often. No doubt, those who have read since the beginning will wonder why I haven't posted my opinion on those ugly set pics from Shyamalan's upcoming The Last Airbender, an adaptation of an animated show from American cable television with a strong flavor of Eastern mysticism and martial arts, and a certain inclusion in my series of reviews on "Hollywood's Kung Fu Movies."

Well, the reason is two fold, and it relates to the direction this blog is starting to take.

I actually started writing a new blog post about stupid people on the internet, after one particularly stupid youtube user (who has an incongruously large amount of subscribers) responded with some mildly amusing barbs after I trolled one of his crap-tastic videos. I found myself unable to articulate my annoyance with this guy, and really wanted to write an entry on the IMDb boards for Night at the Museum: Battle for the Smithsonian, in which nearly every thread has some mention of the size, shape or general doability factor of Amy Adams' butt. While Miss Adams' ass is, in some scenes, a significant part of director Shawn Levy's mise en scene (often the best), these threads are definitely prime examples of the internet plus stupidity. But even the amusement of that waned quite quickly, and the less tasteless observations of that failed post reproduced here, where they are not the sole point.

I am not generally pleased by writing about things that I hate. The process of gathering my thoughts and expressing them in a semi-coherent manner drains me of any enthusiasm when it comes to the writing process. Since the results are neither impressive, nor relevant to anybody, there is no reason that a blog post should be painful for me to write, nor any reason I should spend undue time on one that would likely fall on deaf ears (was anybody ever convinced of anything they didn't already know or believe by a blog?). I do plan to use that particular youtube user's video for an upcoming post, but it will not be directed specifically at him, although he certainly has earned a dozen such polemics with his incredibly self-righteous and alarmingly self-defeating arguments.

Aside from my growing distaste for my own negative writing, I've found that reviewing the obscure films that I collect is far more gratifying than complaining about the mundane, obviously crappy assortment of... well, crap that's cluttered my blog this month. I've actually gotten a bit of traffic of my Thrilling Sword, Warriors of Virtue, and Child of Peach reviews, if Google Analytics can be trusted. This is a very promising sign. I would not mind one bit if my blog became a minor resource for fans of martial arts movies (truly comprehensive knowledge of the genre is too much for any one person, even though there are many who come close. I suggest the FLK Cinema forum for a friendly community with a wide knowledge of the genre's most disparate elements), or even for novice fans wanting to know more about the many unusual films that have been made over the years.

I don't expect to become competition for any of the other already great websites out there -- Hong Kong, Asian, and general film websites are a dime a dozen, as are book review sites and restaurant blogs. I hope that what I do write about will prove both unusual and weird enough to attract a more regular audience. There's plenty of people who have given their opinion on J.J. Abram's recent Star Trek film, just as there are plenty of people who have given their opinions on Gran Torino. There's far less information available on such films as, just for example, The Dwarf Sorcerer -- an amusing 1970's wuxia shenguai film from Taiwanese director Chui Chin-Hong heavily derived from Japanese films like Watari and Torawakamaru.

In the near future (hopefully within the coming weeks) I plan to review Chui Chung-hing's 1990 fantasy freak-fest, Twelve Fairies, Gene Wolfe's nearly forgotten juvenile historical novel (that was badly mislabled as epic fantasy) A Devil in the Forest, and Stephen Teo's much needed genre survey, Chinese Martial Arts Cinema: The Wuxia Tradition. Intermittently, I'll try to figure out a way to write an article on internet stupidity without engaging in it myself. Maybe that thing called "quality" will deign to make an appearance.


Pirate Game Review -- Final Fantasy X

It's nice to be surprised by a game that's better than it has any right to be. In the case of Final Fantasy X: Fantasy War, it quite literally has no right to be, because it's a pirate. I first saw a video of this on the now defunct CrashManExe Youtube account, which had a semi-regular series called "pirate rom hunt," which featured a number of wacky pirates from various companies. Final Fantasy X caught my attention by not only looking quite nice (especially in comparison to the side-scrolling Famicom and Game Boy Color pirate games that were featured) but also looking like it would be fun to play.

Having actually played it, now, I wish that Square had actually thought of making a side-scrolling Final Fantasy brawler for the Game Boy Color. This is easily the best of the pirate games that I've played. First off, the graphics are actually quite nice. The animation is surprisingly fluid, the character sprites look more or less like Final Fantasy characters, or at least Final Fantasy characters from before Tetsuya Nomura ruined the series and Square (I'm only bein half-sarcastic here) . The backgrounds are colorful, if not especially creative. I do like the boss stages, in particular. They look like you're running around in space with the big crystal in the background. The enemies are a bit confusing though. Antlion is there, but otherwise, the enemies are a boring bunch of skeletons, goblins, and slimes, with Frankenstein's monster being one of the bosses. The soundtrack, I've been informed, was ripped almost entirely from the GBC remake of SNK's King of Fighters '94. It sounds pretty good. The music in pirate games made by Waixing and Shenzhen can only be described as insidious pain that infects through the ear.

As for the gameplay itself, it's mediocre by the standards of professionally developed titles, but very good for an unlicensed Game Boy Color game. You walk your character to the right and attack the enemies that come onscreen. There's a jump button that you'll never use; pressing on a direction twice will cause your character to run and attacking while running will cause a lunge attack; pressing down-forward like in Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat will get your character to perform a special move. Your character levels up after killing enemies, which will increase his stats, although the only stat that really seems to increase much is the health bar. There's four characters to play as, a fighter, mage, thief and chocobo. I like the fighter best. The chocobo is awful, I think. The game gives unlimited continues, which makes it pretty easy to breeze through if you've got no pride.

All of these features are pretty standard beat-em-up features. If Square had actually made a game like this, they could have added character or even party customizability (multiplayer would be fun) and weapon upgrades to go with it. Given what they put together with Dissidia: Final Fantasy, I could see them incorporating customizable move sets as well. Square Enix should make this game on the DS or PSP in 2d, with wi-fi play. I could actually see it looking not unlike Odin Sphere or Muramasa: The Demon Blade, possibly giving it some solid old-school appeal that Sqare Enix -- in spite of being a company with over twenty years of contributions to video game culture and millions of die hard fans -- usually lacks, even in their most "fan service-y" games. If they don't like the idea of making a new Final Fantasy themed beat-em-up, how about making one with the "Mana" series? Those games have sucked for years now.

But since that will never happen, Final Fantasy X: Fantasy War is a good enough substitute. The GBC cart used to be pretty common on Ebay, but seems to have been snapped up by most of the obscure video game collectors. Most people will experience this game through emulation, which also makes it a free alternative to the game that Square Enix will never bother making (even though they should). Kudos to the developers of this particular pirate game. It's awesome.


Movie Review -- Child of Peach

I mentioned in my review of Thrilling Sword that it’s unusual for Chinese film makers to adapt stories from places outside of China. Outside of the occasional manga adaptation, this includes surrounding Asian countries. Bear in mind that the reverse is not always true. Japanese studios produced films like Shin Shikote (Shigeo Tanaka, 1962) and The Notorious Concubines (Koji Wakamatsu, 1969) which were based on Qin Shi Huang and the Jin Ping Mei respectively. That’s not to mention the number of television serials and animated films that have adapted Chinese literature, although The Journey to the West seems to be one of the more popular sources for adaptation.

That makes Child of Peach a peculiar case within the revival of fantasy themed martial arts films in the 1980’s, although it’s very similar in style to other films of its type made in Taiwan, thanks to director Chan Jun Leung and action choreographer Chui Chung-Hing, both of whom were involved in some capacity in nearly every fantasy kung fu film made in Taiwan during the eighties. It is a film based on the Japanese legend of Momotarō, the boy that came from a celestial peach. It’s a movie that one assumes is made for children but (much like Thrilling Sword) one I’d urge most parents not to park their offspring in front of.
The movie starts off with a cheerful theme song about the wondrous Peach Garden, which the helpful narrator locates at the top of “Mt. Himalayas” (this is in the subtitles). The camera moves over the garden, in which a monkey, bird and dog are playing, eventually turning into human versions of their animal selves, with young, acrobatic actors portraying their human selves. Peach Garden’s comfortable weather is generated by the Sword of the Sun that sits in the mountain (again, we’re told this by the trusty narrator), and a couple of humans that don’t turn into animals live inside the mountain, where they raise their baby and play with swords. It isn’t long before idyllic scene is broken up by the arrival of King Devil, who steals the magic sword. After a quick battle between the master and residents of Peach Garden and King Devil and his minions, the sword is removed from its spot, and the sunny day turns into a snowy night. King Devil then fights with the master of the garden with laser beams and flying swords, while his wife puts their baby in the giant magic peach, sending him away and asking a little fairy to look after him.
The movie then shows us how Peach Boy is adopted by an old, childless couple, how he is recruited to go and invade the island of demons (lead by King Devil) and meets Melon, Doggy, Birdie, and Monkey. All of that’s pretty much right in line with the Japanese story, although it’s the real weirdness is in the details -- as if a story about a boy that comes out of Peach wasn’t weird enough by itself.
The Taiwanese actors and country that stands in for an old Japan are jarring, especially given Chinese/Taiwanese/Hong Kong cinema’s propensity for demonizing the Japanese. The production designers seemingly tried for authenticity, which is nice. The design of the costumes, sets, and props are far closer to accurate than, say, Ninja: The Final Duel (Robert Tai, 1986), although I can’t say why they bothered. Particularly with the villains, the costumes and acting go so far into the realm of fantasy that the jab at authenticity in the rest of the film seems a bit half-hearted. Similarly, the fight scenes are choreographed (quite well) in styles that don’t look the least bit Japanese, even to my admittedly untrained eye. The pacing and acting also show that unique sensibility of Chan Jun-Leung’s films. That is, the pace is breakneck and the acting absolutely over the top.

Some of the art direction is all the more peculiar when the film in no way resembles similar Japanese films in either style or in content outside of the barest nods towards the Momotarō story. It's not reasonable to expect too much out of Child of Peach as cross-cultural myth-making. In spite of the setting and the basic story, this film is right in line with every other Taiwanese fantasy film of the eighties -- movies so alike yet so unlike anything else that they accidently transcend their parent genre/s of wuxia shenguai. The fact that the Peach Boy films radically change the setting and source of cultural information and still fit so well with movies like Hello Dracula (Chiu Ching-Hung, 1985) and The Twelve Fairies (Chiu Ching-Hung, 1990) is proof enough that the Taiwanese fantasy films of the eighties and early nineties constitute a movement that is both self-contained yet derivative and informed by previous precedents in the genres that birthed it. And it's weird.
That said, there’s some truly bizarre stuff that’s more than worth seeing. The special effects are optical printing done with more skill than what one normally associates with such fare. The fight scenes are truly well choreographed, often utilizing wire work to pull stuntmen off their feet and across the ground after they’ve been kicked or shot with a magic missile, both of which happen frequently. The stunt work is also brutal, with some particularly rough looking falls from high distances showing up fairly often. Also notable is some dangerous looking pyrotechnics, which are used to burn a large set. There are several scenes of dismemberment towards demons, usually involving animal appendages, such as the scene in which a shark demon’s fins are chopped off and Melon proposes to make soup of them (he can’t because they’re poisonous). The weirdest sights come during the finale, in which Doggy, Monkey, and Birdie use their animal powers to fight. Their arms literally turn into dog paws, gibbon arms and a bird’s wing respectively, the young actors actually using them to fight, with hilarious results. But what truly takes the cake is the Peach creature, composed of floating peaches obviously suspended by wires, and piloted by the mystical team of Peach Boy and his animal friends. It’s horrendously weird looking and makes noises like Donald Duck for no discernible reason. In fact, everything involving the magic peach is pretty wild. In one early scene, it actually pees on somebody.
The cast seems to be having a great time. Jin Tu and You Mei-fang are a great comic duo as Peach Boy’s adopted parents, their fighting and pratfalls generally being amusing if not actually funny. Jin Tu -- a veteran actor who worked often with director Chan -- even drums up some actual emotion during the many scenes where he deliberates over letting Peach Boy go demon hunting. Boon Saam once again impresses with his very physical acting, and the child acrobats who play the animal friends are wonderful in their very obvious innocence. They have fun, and so the audience does too. None of what they are called to do is all that demanding, but they accomplish it well enough.
The star of the film is Lam Siu-Lau (in Mandarin, Lin Xioalou) a diminutive actress with an impressive array of martial skills who often played roles in drag. She plays Peach Boy as a young boy and is totally unconvincing, which doesn’t matter since nothing in the movie is. Like the other actors, Lam brings a sense of fun to the role that I can’t see another actor pulling off. She’s also adorable with the big goofy hair and bright make up. She looks like a doll, which is likely what they were going for. Her roles in Child of Peach and its sequels, as well as Kung Fu Wonder Child (Lee Tso-Nam, 1986), have made her a favorite of some kung fu collectors.
I like this movie. In the five years between New Pilgrims to the West (1982) and Child of Peach (1987), it’s amazing how far fantasy film making in Taiwan had gone. The camera work is notably better, as is cinematography. Granted, this isn’t technically good film making. There are all sorts of weird continuity issues and the editing is at times, absolutely awful. I still like this movie. It’s weird, goofy, good fun that nobody would ever think of making now. Based on its weirdness alone, it’d be a good candidate for a release from one of the many cult film labels that are still alive and kicking, but with the very cavalier attitude towards nudity (nonsexual, I assure you) and apparently being more than a bit obscure, it’s not likely.
Let’s end with a picture of Hello Dracula star Liu Chih-Yu as Little Fairy, because she’s adorable.


This is why nobody takes you seriously...

Seriously, Bioware, could you get any lamer?

Btw, video is NSFW!

I know I mentioned Heather Chaplin's GDC remarks about the roundly juvenile mindset of male game developers, and it seems like Bioware is actually trying to make her point for her. Bioware has really dropped in my esteem ever since they started making console RPGs. On their youtube channel (already partnered, go figure) the developers write that the player will "explore a dark and mature fantasy world." No doubt, it doesn't get more mature than Marylin Manson music and a trailer highlighting blood and violence.

The pathetic thing about this is that there will doubtlessly be some group of idiots that think this is great "art." They'll skip decent/fun game and proclaim it a profound and literate work of interactive art. Making a trailer solely for the sex and violence in your game makes you look like the fanboyish prat that most people who don't play video games already figured people who do to be. If Bioware is planning on making great games, they need to make a game that people will play for something outside of pretty cutscenes and the promise of lesbian sex scenes. I don't expect anything good out of Dragon Age: Origins.


Movie Review -- Thrilling Sword

There are movies that truly defy any sort of conventional criticism or even basic understanding, and Thrilling Sword (Cheung Sang-Yee, 1981) is one of them. Out of the many Western films that have used and abused images and genre aesthetics from Asian films, I have been able to make some sense of what the film makers hoped to accomplish. Even DragonBall: Evolution makes a bit of sense if you attempt to defeat your imagination so thoroughly that “high school Goku” sounds like a good idea. Not only is it totally incomprehensible, but Thrilling Sword also adapts the very occidental fairy tale, Snow White, making it one of a fairly small number of Chinese films to even bother with another culture’s storytelling.

Not that it’s a particularly faithful retelling of the tale.
The movie opens with a scene of a woman in labor, the wife of a ruling warlord, or some such. A falling star shoots through the night sky (it’s a pretty awful looking wad of paper that’s dropped over an equally ugly miniature of the castle) through the roof of the castle, and into the woman’s uterus. She then births a bright red, squishy looking egg that pulses as if it were a beating heart. Not wanting it, the king tries to get rid of the egg, which falls into the possession of seven dwarfs. They hatch the egg, name the child inside of it Yaur-gi, and decide to raise her as their own child.
Up to this point, everything has been pretty close to the fairy tale as told by the Brothers Grimm, with the exception of the pulsating egg thing. This is where it stops. We are treated to a scene inside of an inn, as a giant, startlingly ugly looking cycloptic lizard wreaks havoc. We then cut to a scene of the now fully grown Yaur-gi as she goes about her chores, and Yur-Juhn, a prince disguised as a traveling knight errant, comes across her. They immediately take a liking to each other, but Yur-Juhn has urgent business and must leave. In the mean, a pair of magicians -- male and female -- comes to court, pledging to defeat the monster that was causing trouble at the inn, which they do. Gaining the trust of the locals, they are not suspected when they start to cause havoc in an attempt to subdue the people for their planned hostile takeover of the region. Utilizing the power of a stone idol, they control a fire breathing, multi-headed dragon that starts killing villagers. Yur-Juhn -- hero that he is -- defeats it.

While all this is going on, Yaur-gi becomes lonely and wants to see her prince. She leaves the dwarfs and shows up at the palace, where she is recognized as the daughter of the local ruler and therefore a princess. Seeing a way to seize control, the male half of the wizard-duo places the princess under mind control and plans to marry her. The prince then has to find a magic sword and armor to save her and the movie is nearly endless fighting until the incredibly strange, hilariously protracted finale.
As previously asserted, any attempt to critique this film as piece of cross-cultural adaptation will prove more or less self-defeating. Thrilling Sword is one of the daftest movies I’ve seen since I started actively seeking out weird kung fu movies six years ago. While something like The Forbidden Kingdom can be castigated for taking an entirely wrong approach to its source material, director Cheung San-Yee’s approach to Snow White is so indescribably grotesque that mere lack of fidelity is no longer a reasonable complaint. There are so many baffling elements -- the startlingly nasty human egg, the uncommonly vacant characterization, the scene where a sword is shoved into an orifice meant for little other than expulsion of the body’s worst filth -- that it’s hard to say for certain what the film makers intended, and whether or not they succeeded.
Of course, that also makes it hilarious. Although cheap and inept, there’s a lot of entertaining stuff in Thrilling Sword. The visual effects consist of optical printing, wire work, rubber suits and other in camera effects, all of which are that special combination of earnest and bad that makes them cute rather than grating. Similarly, the dwarfs are played by actors who are clearly not dwarfs. They play scenes without other actors against sets with an enlarged scale, while scenes with other actors are shot from an angle, doubtlessly with the actors portraying non-dwarfs standing on boxes and the actors playing dwarfs doing so on their knees.
Of interest to the fans of kung fu movies and Taiwanese exploitation films will be Chang Yi and Elsa Yeung as the villains, as well as Chiang Sheng’s role as action choreographer. The leads -- played by Fong Fong-fong and Lau Seung-Him -- aren’t anywhere nearly as interesting, which is surprising since they both put in respectable work in New Pilgrims to the West and Monkey War (Chan Jun-Leung, 1982). But what will probably irk fans of less fantasy-oriented martial arts movies is that the fight choreography itself isn’t all that great, and neither is the way its filmed or edited. The exceptional physical talents of Lau Seung-Him and especially Chang Yi are more or less upstaged by badly executed wire work, visual effects and rubber suited monsters.
The fantasy elements recall the films of the genre’s past. The visual effects are similar to those seen in the Cantonese serial adventures of the 1960’s, while the rubber monsters reflect a peculiar trend in martial arts films from Taiwan. Rubber suited monster-cum-wuxia films have mostly been the purview of Taiwanese film makers, reaching back to the late sixties/early seventies with films like Young Flying Hero (Tong Chim, 1970) and Devil Fighter (Pan Lei, 1969) -- movies that clearly took cues from popular Japanese kaiju films like Daimajin (Kimiyoshi Yasuda, 1966) and The Magic Serpent (Tetsuya Yamauchi, 1966). Sadly there’s only one giant beast in Thrilling Sword (and it only figures into one scene) but it’s also necessary to note that this is part of a resurgence of fantasy themed martial arts films in the early eighties, and it’s one of the only ones to include any monsters at all.
Thrilling Sword is a huge mess of a fun time, so long as you know how to enjoy bad movies. It doesn’t do anything particularly well, and it pales in comparison to similar films that were coming out at the time, notably Shaw Bros. fantasy wuxia like Bastard Swordsman (Lu Chin-Ku, 1983) and Taylor Wong’s update of Buddha’s Palm (1982). But at the same time, few movies adapt Snow White into an ancient Chinese setting with bat monsters, exploding demon statues, and laughably ugly magic armor and Plexiglas swords. It’s worth tracking down if you like obscure, pointlessly weird cinema, even more so if you actually enjoy it.
Just don't show it to your children.


Restaurant Review -- Chuy's

It’s something of an unofficial rule that you have to try something twice to know if it’s really good or bad. I didn’t need a second try at Chuy’s, which is easily my least favorite Tex-Mex-for-Gringos restaurant in Texas. But I got a second helping, and a third, thanks to my parents, who love the place and want to eat there for Mother’s Day and for birthdays and sometimes just because. In fact, I didn’t really need a first taste to know I wouldn’t like it.

For one thing, I recognized the name because of a minor scandal involving former President Bush’s moronic daughters’ attempt to purchase alcohol. For another, I recognized immediately the décor of a franchise restaurant that desperately wants to appear quirky and unique. I don’t have a problem with franchise restaurants per se, but whenever a franchise attempts the shtick that Chuy’s relies on – usually with stupid T-shirts and a clashing color scheme appealing to what white people think Mexican interior design looks like – it either annoys a customer, or shows how much of a rube they are (you can never trust somebody that owns a restaurant T-shirt without having worked there). The interior is such an ugly combination of "creatively" arranged mismatched floor tiles and garishly painted walls that look so shitty, it feels like walking into a giant clown's rectum with mise-en-scene by Mario Bava.

Example: the Chuy’s that I ate at is not ten miles from The Plano Tortilla Factory, a restaurant genuinely owned and operated by Mexican immigrants. They make the best empanadas I’ve ever had that weren’t made in a home kitchen. Nowhere in their establishment is there a painting of dogs playing pool or a hubcap covered wall or ceiling to be found. I checked. They don’t sell shirts with cartoon Mexicans or unfunny catch phrases, and they don’t have Christmas lights covering their exterior. They sell food.

Chuy’s sells food too, and it isn’t that good. At least, not as good as it should be for what they charge. Tex-Mex isn’t exactly complicated food. Even the sauces can be made without a great deal of effort provided you have a basic knowledge of how to cook, with some obvious exceptions (mole can be tricky, no doubt). It is senseless to pay $7.99 for a plate of cheese enchiladas, ranchero sauce, rice, beans and garnish (the “Classic Tex-Mex”), especially when there is nothing special about the recipe being used. In fact, there isn’t anything unique on the menu. Browsing their web site, they proudly state where each of their sauce recipes came from. Again, nothing wrong with that, but I could get this same food at a restaurant without the obnoxious, clashing tiles, the ugly bar pictures, and the stupidly large margarita glasses for six dollars.

On Mother’s day, my parents decided to order tres leches cake for desert. Our server went through the achingly dull process of explaining what tres leches cake was when they asked about deserts (the pastor at my parent’s church routinely asks my mom when she’ll make him another tres leches cake, as if he were a hungry dog she once fed expensive cake out of pity). When the waitress finally took the order and left, there was some discussion at the table about how silly it was for her to go through all that trouble to explain a desert that my family enjoys pretty regularly. I finally had to break in. The Jalapeno Ranch (creamy Jalapeno, they call it), the stupid shirts, the variety of margaritas, the Elvis theme and stereotypical faux-knick-nacky decoration: this is all quintessential of Mexican food for gringos. Why would you expect them not to assume we didn't know what tres leches cake was?

My family likes Tex-Mex food, and I confess that I don’t. Expectedly, they enjoy Chuy’s, and I don’t. Still, I also feel no qualms about saying that unless you’re going to Chuy’s in Austin to laugh about eating in the place where George W. Bush’s then underage daughters tried to buy mix drinks, don’t bother with Chuy’s. Go eat real Tex-Mex. Hell, go eat real Mexican cuisine. There’s plenty of it around and most of it is better than the boring stuff that you’ll be over charged for at Chuy’s. If you're not familiar with this kind of food, you'll be doing yourself a favor.


Review -- Star Trek (2009)

Among the many shameful things I enjoy is Star Trek. I watched the television shows regularly up until "Voyager" which was bad, and pretty much ignored "Enterprise," which might be the worst thing that Scott Bakula has ever done. Among the things that I greatly dislike is the term "reboot," especially now that every movie site and marketing campaign labels a remake a "reboot" because the word "remake" screams "we've run out of ideas and aren't even trying anymore." If you're making a remake, you might as well tack "Evolution" on as a sub-title to warn your audience not to pay for your crap.

So my expectations for J.J. Abram's Star Trek weren't set real high. Thankfully, they were met. When dealing with summer movies that offer little more than special effects and flashy, over the top performances from actors content with making money off of poo (nothing wrong with that), that's all you can really hope for. Star Trek is generic, silly science fiction. Abrams and the screenplay by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman includes every cliche from the series, including pseudo-technical jargon that makes no sense and the future-female mod uniform for Star Fleet's officers of the feminine persuasion. For a "reboot" it doesn't really do anything different and really just feels like Star Trek with a younger cast and a director with a less boring visual style than the ones that usually get saddled with "Star Trek" movies.

And that's all I want. The story is as preposterous as anything in generic science fiction, and obviously structured as it is for for future sequels not to interfere with the already established continuity of the movies and television shows -- like a comic book. Being a summer film also requires a cast of young, pretty people. So the major sci-fi conceit helps out there too, and like all bizarre science fiction concepts, it's transparent enough that even the characters seem to yawn through it while waiting to get back to the action. The actual writing for the characters is as bad as anything in Michael Bay's Transformers film from last summer (Orci and Kurtzman wrote that screenplay too) and the twenty minutes spent showing James Kirk's motivation for joining Star Fleet and Spock's abdication from the planet Vulcan are among the most boring parts of the movie. Lasting for only a few minutes, they're mercifully short but also a real shame coming off of the genuinely effective opening scene.

It also doesn't help that Chris Pine has a face that just screams "punch me" and plays a character to match. Still, he's not that bad and seems to understand the sort of movie he's acting in. Zachary Pinto as Spock let's his hair and make up do most of his acting for him, but also puts in good, believable work when required. Zoe Saldana is good looking and (as Roger Ebert very eloquently points out) is ill served by her costume, but she channels the Uhara of the old series while actually interacting with other characters.

Space Eric Bana is lots of fun and there's plenty action and wacky, nonsensical science fiction stuff (why does the Enterprise have a water turbine system that looks like a theme park ride that empties into a giant blender?) which is both good and bad. On the one hand, it's fun; on the other, it's dumb fun. Leonard Nimoy, in his scant screen time, gives a very nice and affecting performance, while Simon Pegg turns in a cartoony Scottsman stereotype as Scotty and some ass finally talked John Cho into playing a kung fu fighting Oriental. At what point does dumb fun abase the talented people involved?

I don't know. As far as space opera goes, this is one of the more enjoyable examples of what can be done with (or to) the genre. It'll annoy "Star Trek" fans that want to hear their favorite characters discuss the philosophical ramifications of anti-time wormholes that lead to the formation of universe imploding paradoxes. It'll please everybody who likes the old "Star Trek" series for it's goofy, sweet-natured fun. A trade-off, but not a bad one. Bring on the inevitable sequel.


You Are NOT Hardcore

I promise that after this post, I'll get back to bitching about movies.

You are not hardcore. You think you are, you probably say so on forums and youtube videos and your crappy web page, but you aren't. I'm specifically addressing video game players/hobbyists/fanatics. Because in all my years as a fan and collector of obscure movies I've never come across this attitude among the people I trade movies with in the same overwhelming quantity as I have with video gamers (although I have seen it, usually among collectors and idiots on IMDb's general film board). And while I'm very much aware that the world of popular music is the same way, with emo kids and scene kids and posers and hipsters, I don't care. Music can burn.

I read pretty often in forums that "If you're a hardcore gamer, go with Microsoft," or something to that effect, usually followed or preceded by a rant about how Nintendo abandoned their hardcore audience and the PSTriple ain't got games. And while I could say quite a bit about the awfulness of the Wii's library and how Sony screwed up, I'm perplexed by anybody thinking that the Xbox 360 is somehow "hardcore."

Let's take a moment to define our terms. Wikipedia actually goes out of their way to avoid defining it, although they are correct in stating that there is no universally accepted definition. It doesn't really matter one way or the other, because -- as with pornography -- we always know hardcore when we see it. Beating Gunstar Heroes without dying -- that's hardcore. Setting the world record in Donkey Kong -- that's hardcore. Taking several years to translate ROMs of Japanese games that would be unplayable without knowing the language -- that's hardcore. Learning another language for the sake of playing video games -- that's hardcore. Spending hours upon hours unlocking achievements that require no effort and trading insults with twelve year old boys and frat guys who had not touched a video game until Halo 2 came out -- that's not hardcore. Yet so many keep on insisting that it is.

People who claim to be "game journalists" actually repeat this claim. Since nobody can officially agree on the meaning of term, how can somebody who makes a claim to journalistic integrity take himself seriously when stating that, "A true hardcore gaming experience is delivered on the Xbox 360... The Xbox 360 is a gamers system." It's even sillier when the writer of that article explains that Xbox won the hardcore title because Microsoft charges a subscription fee for Xbox Live support. Apparently, multiplayer is now the deciding factor of being "hardcore." I was under the impression that being a hardcore gamer was simply being so fond of video games that you knew the history, the best of what was available, the best of what would be available, and probably had a genre or a developer or a series that was particularly appealing to you. What exactly is it about paying money for something that hardly costs Microsoft anything to maintain, which attracts all sorts of kids and loud adults who sound like kids, which features games that play better on the PC and exists more and more for the sake of micro-transactions (meaning you pay extra on a game that should have shipped with the content you're paying to download from a service you already pay a subscription to) hardcore? Even if you think it's worth the money, Live doesn't have anything to do with being "hardcore." The number of rubes and obnoxious children who will probably be able to keep up with you in Halo 3 proves that.

I'd say that the guys that run Hardcore Gaming 101 are pretty hardcore, even if I disagree with some of what they call great games, but they sure as hell aren't debating whether the Genesis is better or worse than the SNES. And there's the rub. If you're really hardcore, you'll want all three home systems, because you'll want all of the games that are worth playing. That isn't to say that you might not prefer one to the other. I hate the 360's controller. That doesn't mean that I don't want to play Star Ocean 4 or Last Remnant (although I'll wait for the PC releases). Even then, if I could afford all three consoles and both handhelds, I would. As it stands, the newest piece of hardware I own is a DS Lite, which I'm satisfied with. I'd rather play the Final Fantasy remakes and old school dungeon crawler revivals than the watered down CRPG lite and JRPG dreck that's taking up space on the Xbox 360. But I'm also not a hardcore gamer, even if my tastes skew a bit towards the obscure and more difficult end of the Role Playing genre.

Finally, I should also say that if you're a genre newbie who really likes Mass Effect or Halo or Fallout 3 or any of these newer iterations in established genres and franchises, you are not hardcore. Stop pretending that you are. If you are a retro-gamer who's played a million different games through emulation; you are not hardcore, so quit saying you are.

There's so much variety and so much raw material that's been produced in the past thirty years that it's highly unlikely that anybody can honestly claim to be acquainted with all aspects of video games and video game culture. Aside from the language barrier between the US and Japan, there's also games that come from China and Taiwan (not just pirates, but computer games and licensed console games) from South Korea, from eastern Europe and South America that have very little presence on the internet. GameFAQs hardly acknowledges the existence of Chinese PC games (from what I hear they have no desire to catalog them) and the fan translation scenes for these are as tiny as the audience for them outside their native countries. And what about homebrew and doujin games and ROM hacks? Are you not a hardcore gamer if you haven't played all of these? Perhaps it's more likely that somebody who has doesn't think so highly of your achievments or the gamer score that you so proudly display as your forum signature.

By claiming to be "hardcore" you cheapen the word, especially if the only reason you think you're hardcore is because you're playing games that are roundly praised by sycophantic game journalists and fans that emphatically post their opinions on the internet.The Wii has MadWorld, Baroque, and soon Muramasa: The Demon Blade. One is a bloody action game published by Sega, one is a Roguelike RPG (hard to get more hardcore than that), and the last is from Vanillaware, the respected developer of Odin Sphere, and one of the few 2d action games to have been developed for the 7th generation of home consoles. Halo 3 is designed to be picked up and played by anybody, while even most old-school, console RPG fans probably couldn't put up with the harsh difficulty and steep learning curve of a game like Baroque. You who herald the Xbox 360 as the home of the hardcore: which of these sounds more "hardcore" to you? It isn't about the systems themselves, but about what you're playing. After all, the Xbox actually has Spectral Force 3.

If you are hardcore, we'll be able to pick you out. Saying that you are kills your credibility. Claiming that Nintendo abandoned you makes you sound stupid. Claiming that Microsoft cares about you makes you sound even stupider. So stop.


Truth in Redundancy: Games are Games.

I recently ran across a light essay by David Jaffe -- creator of games like Twisted Metal and God of War -- responding to Heather Chaplin's hilarious rant at this year's Game Developer's Conference. I disagree with Jaffe on a number of things, particularly that he seems to think that video games are somehow exempt from the charge of being juvenile because the audience enjoys them and there's nothing inherently wrong with adolescent wish fulfillment, but one thing that interested me was this particular quote:

"Perhaps the reason games have not had their Citizen Kane moment yet is because games are not movies. And we don't want them to .e."

I've long been of the opinion that games work best when treated as games, and that all of the things that developers have been doing of late -- chief among them Square Enix -- are extraneous, wasted effort. Anybody remember The Bouncer? I hope not. That game is exactly the sort of thing that I've grown to hate about games. Squaresoft (this was before the merger with Enix) frequently touted it as a new paradigm in action games, releasing ads that said "play the action movie." Only problem: it quickly became apparent that you were actually going to "watch the action game" while wondering how in the world anybody could think it was okay to walk around in public dressed like the protagonist. The real problem with the game was not that it was basically an expensive version of the sort of game that people used to play in arcades for a quarter, it was that the actual game was interrupted every few minutes with expository cinematic sequences rendered at times in cgi and at times with the game engine. Either way, it was painful to watch bad dialogue and nonsensical exposition spouted every few minutes by some of Tetsuya Nomura's ugliest characters. It's not like that's the only game that has pretensions of actually being like a movie (Halo, Kingdom Hearts, Final Fantasy 10, Mass Effect, The Getaway, Metal Gear Solid 2-whatever they're on now, etc. are all guilty of this too) but God, was it ever noticable with The Bouncer.

The basic function of games is to be played. Pock-faced and overall overrated douchebag Tomonobu Itakagi, formerly of Tecmo's Team Ninja development firm, infamously described games as being about input and output. Basically, he believes that a simplicity of inputs used in clever ways that result in spectacular results on screen (output) is the key to good game play. Granted, The "Dead or Alive" series of fighting games is little more than a two button mash-a-thon, but in spite of that series, I think he's really hit the nail on the head. Games are about seeing something awesome happen with a simple effort that takes a bit of skill or cleverness or thinking to really master.

So how exactly can that be art?

It's one of the stranger facets of the game industry; as technology expands, developers utilize it for every purpose except gameplay. Have new game genres been invented since the Playstation? What's more, how have the fundamental generic principles changed for the existing styles of gaming? Of course, these questions are rhetorical, and I'm not about to demand of the gaming industry more innovation, mostly because I don't bother with newer games terribly often. I just feel it necessary to point out, as I'm about to say a series of potentially insulting things about game developers, gaming journalists, and the industry's loyal consumers. I happily wait for them to prove me wrong.

Generic games cannot be art. Role playing games, first person shooters, platformers, sports games, etc. cannot be art. Art is about the expression of personal truths. Tell me, you who hail Halo 3 and Final Fantasy 10 as masterworks of human civilization, what auteur is responsible for the thematic content of those games? For that matter, what exactly is the thematic content of those games? Okay, I'm using examples that only the eternal n00bs would hold as examples of "games as art," but look at games that are prime examples of games as games. Tetris, Mario, Diablo -- do these games have to be art to be great games?

But getting back to the point; it is hard to express a deeply held personal truth in terms of gameplay. Does Shigeru Miyamoto have something important to say when Mario jumps on a koopa? What does leveling up my Barbarian's strength in Diablo 2 say about the human condition? Now, you might be wondering about games that make use of heavy symbolism. For instance, the Persona series ties the RPG mechanics into a system based on tarot cards and their associated Jungian archetypes. And that's cool, and in a sense, it could be said to illustrate the depth of those archetypes and how each affects the human psyche -- the character's stats developing in particular directions based on which type of persona is being used and for how long. That's a bit of a stretch, but in order to try and find "truth" in gameplay, it has to be. And really, those tarot cards could be changed to anything, and it wouldn't affect the core gameplay itself. Now you might be ready to ask about narrative and how it is that I'm so far ignoring that.

Well so much for this problem: narrative is not gameplay.

You can't even get narrative across in gameplay, unless you consider the player's movement of their in game avatar to be narrative. The story would then proceed as: "Mario walks, then runs, then jumps on a goomba, then..." If you point out the hours worth of dialogue that has to be read in Planescape: Torment, or the "stunning" (lols) fmv of Final Fantasy 7, we are -- once again -- not talking about gameplay, but about mediocre "Choose-Your-Own-Adventure" writing and cheesy anime style cg animation, respectively. And as Heather Chaplin so gracelessly pointed out, when compared to every other form of narrative media, games lag far behind in the creation of mature, thought provoking, non-juvenile narrative.

This isn't to say that there aren't any games that transcend the limitations of their mechanics to become something special. Many people will tell you that they were (many still are) entranced by the Mother series, or by Ultima VII, or by Ico, or by Nights: Into Dreams. In fact, I'd say that if any game comes close to telling a story or expressing something in gameplay, it would probably be Ico, as far as consoles go. It gets even more difficult to draw a line or make a rule about art vs entertainment when it comes to PC gaming genres like text based adventures. What does one even say about something like Conway's Game of Life? (other than "wow")

But really, the problem is with kids who grew up in the past couple console generations and arrogant "gaming journalists" being insecure about their chosen hobby. These are the people who want for games to be anything but games. It's okay guys. I don't judge any of you. You sixteen year olds can go back to flaming each other on forums and increasing your collections of CloudxSephiroth doujin manga. You gaming journalists can go back to flaying developers in hypocritical rants and composing embarrasing odes to glorious Nippon, a land built of Pocky and Manga where everybody knows that games are serious business. Let the developers start making games again, without demanding "deep" story lines or "memorable" characters, because you won't get them. And don't just buy games because of the cool space marines on the box art, or the chick with huge boobs on the box art, or the spikey haired, emo Japanese guy on the box art, or the gratuitous blood and violence the game is purported to contain. If you want for developers to start working hard at their craft, in hopes of eventually seeing it become art, try rewarding them when they do right, instead of berating them for doing what makes money.

Games are games -- fact.