Film: Loose Cannons (2010)

aka: Mine vaganti
language: Italian
director: Ferzan Ozpetek
length: 113 minutes
watched on: 25/2
film still
I’m breaking some sort of fast on film-watching with this film; it’s been about a month since the last one. I’m getting too caught up in reading books, and more importantly, there doesn’t seem to be anything good on at the moment. Or at least, nothing that’s caught my eye. Anyway, this is just another gay-themed comedy, but from Italy.

As a quick run down of the plot, guy comes back home to small-town Italy planning to come out to parents and run away/achieve freedom or something; he’s upstaged when his brother comes out instead and runs off leaving him to deal with a father who’s just had a heart attack and left him in charge of the family business.

The only thing is, I can’t think of much to say about the film; it didn’t leave much of a lasting impression on me. I was sad to be reminded that people really do react with horror at some people coming out, but apart from that, I wasn’t really moved by it. I think it tried too hard to inject some emotion into the film in the third act, especially, and couldn’t really decide whether to stick with the comedy aspect.

Anyway, the comedy was good, at least; there were a few decent jokes here and there which made me laugh. And some of the supporting characters were great, like the servants and the grandma, and the four gay guys that show up unexpectedly, trying to hide their very overt campness from the parents. The main character (young guy on the right of the photo) was completely wooden, though, and couldn’t act to save his life.

The story didn’t really hold too much water in my opinion, either, and much of the film consisted of one of those many plots which can only possibly come about because people are being complete idiots. I suppose the way that the father is so patriarchal and expects his sons to take after him in every way – aside from both being gay, neither wants to be in charge of the father’s factory – is a part of Italian culture that I don’t get, in some way. Perhaps just because my parents aren’t like that at all? I couldn’t work out why the brother hadn’t gone “fuck it all” and moved away to Rome, like the main character, years before; it didn’t make much sense to me.

Also there was some kind of weird sexual tension between the main character and the girl sitting opposite him in the photo, and I wasn’t sure if she knew he was gay; she’d certainly met his boyfriend by the end. I couldn’t work out what they were trying to do with that relationship.

Anyway, it was alright, and an entertaining 2 hours, although a 2 hours that reminded me very painfully why it’s a bad idea to drink beer before going into a cinema. The only other lasting effect it had on me was the fact that it was filmed in Southern Italy during the summer last year, and about five minutes after coming out of the cinema I thought “oh, shit, I’m still in Scotland!” It was the fact that it was cold and the fact that I went from hearing Italian (which, to be fair, I don’t understand much of) back to hearing accented English again… But anyway, I guess that’s some kind of mental cue telling me it’d be a good idea to get out this damn country. We’ll see about that, anyway!

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Game: Lemmings 2: The Tribes (1993)

developers: DMA Design
length: 120 levels
box art Roughly, this is my way of saying “I do more than just books and films”. Sadly, the rest of it tends to be Lemmings. I really wear my obsessions on my sleeve, don’t I? Well, anyway, I’m honestly surprised that I’ve gone this far without playing Lemmings’ sequel, The Tribes. I’m not even sure why – I’ve had a capable DOS emulator for the past few years, so I’ve definitely been able to play it. I reckon it’s because I could never get the sound to work before; having never had a PC, I never learnt the standard way of installing things on DOS, which involve a separate setup program and a choice of soundcards. And if you don’t pick the right one, no sound for you. DOSBox can emulate them all, but you still have to pick it.

Anyway, having already played through about 5 of the titular tribes (almost half the game, since there are 12 tribes of ten levels each) before finding this out, I found it a bit annoying that I hadn’t found out before. Anyway, Lemmings 2 is a big departure from the style and feel of the original Lemmings (unlike the previous “Mission Pack” sequels of Oh No! More Lemmings and Xmas Lemmings), although it still captivated my attention, because they’re still, well, Lemmings that I’m guiding round the screen. But it was in such a different way that it was almost unrecognisable.

You see, in Lemmings, there were 8 skills. Same 8 skills in every level, don’t change, always the same. In Lemmings 2, there are about 60. It’s quite a jump. Each level has a different set of up to 8. And as you can imagine, this can get quite confusing.
skillset
There are a lot. It reeks of the developers getting excited after the success of the original and piling in as much as they can (one might note that Lemmings 3, which is even less-played than this game, dispenses with the idea of skills almost altogether, suggesting that they thought they went too far, perhaps). Sure, some are interesting skills. The pouring skills are fun to work out, for instance, and there are a few interesting new ways of making explosions or digging. And some are, admittedly, welcome, such as horizontal building, always frustrating to try and reconcile in the original game. At the same time, there are a few that seem very pointless. Why have a Stomper when we already have Diggers, for instance? What’s the point in Attractors – is it just so that people don’t have to use Blockers anymore? Because they’re quite annoying, really.

But that frustration was part of what made Lemmings special. The fact that you had limitations on what skills you have made sure that you had to work out certain strategies for when you play the game. The fact that there were so few skills meant that you could experiment at length with their interactions. Lemmings 2 doesn’t truly have either of these factors to it. You can experiment with the interactions between skills, but only when the levels cough them up together. The game does provide practice levels, but I’m hardly about to waste my time playing through those.

And then there’s the wind skills: the ones like magic carpets, hang gliders and goddamn twisters that are affected by your subsequent use of the Fan tool. Essentially, you have to guide them as well as simply giving them the skill. One of Lemmings’ strengths is that you give the lemming the skill by clicking on it once and leaving it to do its business. They’re not the only controllable skills, either: how about a superman, archer or roper (aka Lazy Man’s Builder)? You have to either guide these with your mouse or tell them where to shoot. And that can be annoying when other lemmings are approaching fast.

Anyway, all these skills kept getting too much for me, and there were plenty of times when I frustratedly had to turn to a guide for help, not knowing what the hell X or Y skill does, or unable put two and two together because of the unfamiliarity of the system. And in the worst cases, finding a solution that seemed too difficult to be true and then finding out that it was indeed the intended solution. But those truly difficult levels were rare, unfortunately. Much of the game didn’t pose me an enjoyable enough challenge. A lot of it was what seemed to me to be fake difficulty, too, especially where you have to rely on controlling the wind and whatnot.

Even then, when I went to the Classic levels, which would presumably be more like the original (all the levels use only the original skillset – including skills like Blockers and Diggers that I don’t think were really used anywhere else, and Builders, that were unfortunately rare in lieu of Stackers, Platformers and Ropers, all of which are easier to use), it turns out the game’s programmed in slightly different ways, so that there are enough differences in how one assigns skills and how far lemmings can fall that it becomes infuriating. Why on earth can the lemmings fall more than half a screen height now, for instance, and what is the point of them getting knocked out when they get close to the splatting distance? And aargh, why can’t you assign a builder to someone when he’s near another builder? It may sound like I’m nitpicking, but this makes all the difference in some levels, particularly in a certain Classic level where you have to use builders to slow the crowd down – easily done in the original but here you have to carefully place your mouse so that you don’t accidentally try to select a builder, which would be impossible in the original.

OK, that probably made no sense. Whatever. There are good points about this game, anyway, like the fact that you can now have levels that are taller than they are wide (which I suppose gives the higher splatting distance context), and the fact that it’s divided into themed levels by “tribe” of lemmings (there’s a really tenuous storyline, something like you have to get the gold medal in all the levels in order to collect the gold medallion and lead them to safety… yeah…). Some are kinda funny, like the Space tribe (easily the best graphically, and with at least one of the most challenging levels), whose music is the theme from 2001, or the Highland tribe, with ginger lemmings.

The tribes are a bit too short, however and the music can be repetitive for some of them (do we really have to listen to Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer over and over during the Polar tribe??), although this has both good and bad points – the levels build up in difficulty quite fast, so there’s a very sharp learning curve, especially if you’ve never played Lemmings before. Some of the final levels don’t really feel like final levels, as well, although some quite definitely do.

The graphics are quite annoying, too. Instead of Lemmings’ organic feel, this game is divided into blocks, and the walls and surfaces are, more often than not, flat and straight (although this varies a bit by tribe). This makes levels feel repetitive. I can tell why this is; presumably it’s easier to code, and it helps with all the skills that require a flat surface. But the original coped with this fine. It’s also a lot more difficult to tell what’s a block and what isn’t, as there are often harmless objects in the field, which the original avoided almost completely. So sometimes the lemmings walk straight past things that you were expecting to have to bash through.

Finally, before I whine myself to death, one more thing: the game has abandoned the original’s targets, taking 60 lemmings into the first level of each tribe and taking forward the lemmings from one level to the next. Instead of a target of 50%, say, you pass the level if you get even a single lemming to the exit. You’ll only get a bronze medal for your efforts, but there the damage is done: you’re also not told how much you need to get for a gold medal on each level; on most levels it’s 100%, but on a select few you’re allowed a small number of losses, usually when exploders are involved. The whole system of getting medals for your efforts is reflective of what my cynical self will now complain is the norm in the modern gaming industry – achievements and achievement seeking. You’re meant to get gold on every level in order to get the Good Ending, the game chastising you if you haven’t yet got gold on any one level. And to date, I have only one level left without a gold medal: the last level in the Sports tribe, named “Take Up Archery”. And “Take Up Archery” can go fuck itself with an arrow.

So yeah, didn’t like the game, but it has a small number of excellent levels and kept me engrossed. I’ll stick to the original. And the original sequels: ONML is a fantastic game as well.

Book #8: The Left Hand of Darkness (1969)

author: Ursula LeGuin
language: English
length: 248 pages
finished on: 14/2

book cover Another self-proclaimed “classic of science fiction” that looked interesting on the shelves of my local library, The Left Hand of Darkness starts with the premise of a planet populated by a hermaphroditic species of humans and explores the implications behind such a race. Essentially, “what if there was no male and female binary?”

The planet is called Gethen, but nicknamed Winter – as this suggests, the planet is in the midst of an ice age and is permanently cold without a particularly hot summer (although it does have a summer). We see the planet through the eyes of an envoy from Earth, who pretty much has a hard time internalising that the inhabitants aren’t really men or women but somewhere inbetween.

I found that the story didn’t really kick off in a real way until over halfway through, so there were many pages of boredom during the early stages of the book – but I’ve already read at least 3 of LeGuin’s Earthsea series, so I know that she’s able to right reasonably well. It only became truly gripping, though, during the final stages of the book, when the two main characters – the envoy Genly and the disgraced prime minister Estraven, who was exiled as a madman for believing the story of the strange alien (or that was their excuse) – are trekking across the planet’s ice cap, and their isolation and the tension between them becomes palpable. And that’s when we really see both characters through each other’s eyes.

But LeGuin’s writing also annoyed me in many places. The book starts off narrated by Genly with some interludes in the form of folk tales that would be told on Winter. These are generally interesting and shine a light on how certain myths might be told differently by a race without men or women. But without much warning, she starts alternating the narration between Genly and Estraven about halfway through the book. The first chapter in which this happens is signposted as such, but the second isn’t, and it took me a whole page and a half to figure out what was going on. I felt she could have done this from the start.

In another section, Genly awakens from a nightmare to find himself in the midst of a real raid – but this was written so ambiguously that I thought he was still in the dream five pages later and had to flick back to confirm that he wasn’t, and was still confused even then. So I think this could have been a bit more straightforward.

Anyway, all that aside for a moment while I talk about the people – I feel that there were a couple of things that were somewhat unbelievable about them. For one, their entire sexual life is centred around a monthly period of oestrus or ‘heat’ (called kemmer) when they get uncontrollable urges and are let off from work. This is alright in itself – I think the purpose is to make them functionally asexual for most of the month – but during this period they apparently acquire one or the other of the sexes, along with, apparently, gender. It’s pretty much explicit that this is them acquiring for their sexual roles a dominant masculine and submissive feminine role, and I have a hard time believing that. Why not just keep them agendered? I certainly refuse to believe that they’d use a different pronoun for those in the different roles – as a more detailed explanation, I think this would break the coreferentiality of pronouns, especially if you talk about someone on two different days (must you talk about the same person with a different pronoun? This wouldn’t make sense). I also think it’s missing the point of grammatical gender a bit and equating it with social/sexual gender.

I’ll get back to some other linguistic issues I had with the book in a second, though. The reasons behind such a race are rather clumsily handwaved, saying that they must have been an ancient experiment by some precursor race… well, fair enough. The other thing I ought to mention is that the people are referred to as men with male pronouns, which gives a rather cute impression of a planet of gays. Kinda makes me wonder…

LeGuin’s other major implication is that in a single-gendered society, one wouldn’t have wars, because one wouldn’t have the more dominant and violent masculine personalities getting at one another. I don’t buy this for a second, and I’m almost insulted on behalf of the male gender. I find these kinds of gender stereotypes annoying and dated, but given that the book is 30 years old, and that Genly as a character certainly does see the world in a very binary fashion, I can forgive this. The implication that the Gethenians wouldn’t see their world in such binary terms is more interesting to me, and it’s this sort of yin-yang binary that is referenced in the title, part of the full form “light is the left hand of darkness”. There is a sort of point in there that men are only dominant and violent because there are women to contrast with them and be submissive, but still, I don’t buy it.

The more convincing reason for the Gethenians never having had a war – that their planet is too damn cold and they would rather stay at home and keep warm – is only given a single paragraph, apparently as an afterthought.

But just as interesting is to consider the two countries of the story – the disorganised but friendly and welcoming kingdom of Karhide and the well-organised-with-a-high-standard-of-living but unwelcoming republic of Orgoreyn (nicely enforcing another binary there – other countries are said to exist but not expanded upon) – who are embroiled in a border dispute. Here, particularly given the period it was written in, I think it would be more apt to instead draw a comparison to a different kind of war, specifically Cold War. Fighting is carried out in a faraway place on behalf of the two countries, although it’s not called war. Orgoreyn is an obvious pastiche of the Soviet Union, with its 33 constituent republics and mentions of the state providing employment for all “units” (ie, citizens). Their Inspectors, who spy on the lives of citizens, stop you at every opportunity to check your papers. When Genly becomes a pawn in the international conflict, he’s eventually shipped off to the Gulag (or “Voluntary Farm” as it’s known in the novel), only to have to be rescued by Estraven. On those grounds I wouldn’t say that the planet hadn’t known war at all.

Anyway, as far as language issues are concerned, there’s the thing with the pronouns, which I’ve already noted, the thing that made me really angry was the paragraph talking about Karhidish’s many words for snow. OK, LeGuin can do whatever she likes with her fictional languages, but the Eskimo myth inspires such bile within me that I nearly threw the book down in disgust. I guess I’m glad I didn’t, though, because it’s after this point (roughly and coincidentally) that it really got good. There’s also the claim that the languages don’t have a word for “war”. I… oh fuck it.

There are a few more things I’d quite like to complain about but that would be getting into the realms of nitpicking, and I can’t really be bothered. I suppose I will mention briefly that I found the sections discussing the Ekumen (the confederation of worlds which Genly represents, which is evidently developed further in a greater series of books that this is a part of) far more believable than many of the sections discussing the Gethenians. But anyway, good premise and good storyline, but the execution could have been clearer in parts and it could have been more focussed, because there are a few things that it would have been nicer to have gone into more depth about and a few things that I felt were a bit superfluous.

Book #7: Watchmen (1986)

authors: Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons
language: English
length: like 400 pages or something
finished on: 7/2
book coverIt’s time for me to play that old game of Catch Up on Reading Those Classics You Never Got Around To, once again, this time in the form of influential 1980s comic books. I’ve been intending on reading this for a while now and only recently realised that I can actually request books from other libraries in the city, which is good considering that the local library doesn’t stock it…

Anyway, the first thing I’ll say is that the book is very thick and complex. It constructs a parallel world in the Cold War era inhabited by superheroes, each with their own fully-fleshed out backstory. That alone is going to bring you a very complex story. Yet it’s also very regimentedly structured, each chapter predictable in its rough length and bookended by a full colour plate and a two page spread of some kind of article from the superheroes’ world. This structure comes right down to the framing, which I found a bit too rigid for my liking, as it’s generally a 9×9 set on each page, meaning that most frames are in portrait. I haven’t really read many American-style comics (or many comics other than Tintin, where the framing’s generally landscape-oriented and not at all rigid in the size of each frame), so I’m not sure if this is a common theme among these books, or if it’s just a feature of this particular book. It certainly displays the authors’ bias towards character-driven plots quite well. The way that the chapters often introduce quite a dramatic shift in the focus of the plot (often focussing on a new character in each new chapter) certainly betray the book’s origins as a serial comic, too.

There’s so much attention to detail by the artist, Gibbons, that I don’t even know where to begin. It’s just things like the way you can always spot little things in the background that are obviously afforded some significance, or the way that when you read the pirate comic story that’s interwoven with some of the main narrative, it’s shown in that old newspaper print colouring, with slightly faded colours, as if you’re reading it off a page straight from this other world. In a kind of alternate-history joke, Americans never get into superheroes in a world actually inhabited by them, and end up reading pirate stories instead, which I found amusing. But at the same time, I found it confusing when the pirate story was interwoven with the main narrative, because the way it jumped back and forth between the two was usually very disorientating, and I found that in certain places, I had to read through the pirate story first and then read through the main story just so that I could keep track.

This form of interruption in the story kept happening quite a lot in the book, and I started to get annoyed with it after a while. The other main form of interruption was the sections of three or four pages of prose between each chapter, which I found difficult to adjust back to reading. Some were easier than others, but there was at least one that I read kind of half-heartedly and went “what the fuck?” afterwards. To be fair, there were a couple of sections of graphic storytelling that made me WTF too, but that’s the one that sticks out in my memory. I just found that the prose sections were the biggest thing that interrupted the flow. But I guess that’s one of those things that happens with serial storytelling; the flow can be interrupted quite easily.

Anyway, I quite enjoyed most of the rest; characters were good (all with their own flaws, of course), plot was fascinating… I guess there was a bit too much obvious attempts at philosophy, which kind of made me glaze over a bit, but meh. The Cold War theme was also obvious and present throughout, playing off real public fears of the time that I guess are a bit lost on me. The story explores how the presence of the

Now what I think I’m going to do is what’s fast becoming one of my favourite hobbies: complaining about artistic renditions of planetary bodies. Specifically Mars, since that’s the planet that Dr Manhattan (the blue superhuman guy who’s the only one with real superpowers and arguably the point of divergence with the real timeline, since he introduces a lot of environmentally-friendly technology and wins Vietnam for America) goes to when he decides that he doesn’t like humanity anymore (or something, anyway).

We see Mars in two chapters; in the first, it appears to be night-time, but several references are made in Manhattan’s monologue that the sun is shining. What bothered me about this chapter is the pinkness of Mars… now, I know we know it as the Red Planet, but if you actually look at a photo of Mars, it’s a kind of orange-brown desert colour… not pink. It could even be described as purple here. OK, so, benefit of the doubt, it could actually be like that at night. In the second chapter when he teleports his girlfriend to Mars with him, it becomes daytime, and it looks more like how I’ve seen Mars depicted in the past, with an orange sky and beautiful cliffs.

But then they seem to make what to me now seems like an error of geography. One minute they’re in their floating castle above the south pole, and in the time they take to have a conversation they’re approaching Olympus Mons, which is in the northern hemisphere. I know that they haven’t teleported, because she didn’t want to be teleported, so his flying machine must be going awfully fast to travel that distance. That aside, Olympus Mons isn’t depicted quite how it would be in real life… now, I don’t know how much of this they would have known in 1986, but Olympus has a really shallow gradient and is 1000 or so km across. It wouldn’t fit onto a horizon, or indeed really look much like a mountain to a casual observer, more like a massive cliff at the bottom and quite flat for someone on it. And then they seem to turn a corner and reach the Valles Marineris – not so fast, there are three other massive shield volcanos between Olympus and there.

Anyway, I should probably stop bitching about bits like this that don’t even matter that much. It’s just so… satisfying! But while I’m at it, I guess I might add that there’s a very poetic-sounding speech from Manhattan which uses the simile “rarer than a quark”. You know, rarer than one of the universe’s most common particles? Kinda loses its ring, doesn’t it? Anyway, all that aside, I enjoyed the book thoroughly and would recommend it.

(I’m also now dreaming of going to Mars after reading about it on Wikipedia and seeing images like this one:
Martian sunset Excuse me while I shed a tear for my inevitably earth-bound existence.)

Book #6: Tintin: Hergé and His Creation (1991)

author: Harry Thompson
language: English
length: 215 pages

book cover I feel disingenuous posting this cover picture, since I got a really old copy out the library and it doesn’t look quite like this, although it does have the same Tintin stamp on the front.

As with my last post about Totoro, I’m going to keep this one short, this time because I’ve already ranted about Tintin on the blog. The book also didn’t really provide me with any new information about Tintin or Hergé – it would probably be better described as a biography of Hergé rather than Tintin, incidentally, although the focus is kept on Tintin rather than other aspects of Hergé’s life most of the time.

It’s also actually getting to the stage where it’s out of date; particularly, Tintin in the Congo has been published in English now, and Spielberg has restarted his film project (mumblemumbleit’llberubbish), which he apparently abandoned in 1983 after Hergé’s death (I had heard that before but forgot about it).

It’s a well-written book, though, if not as good as another very similar book by Michael Farr that I’ve read that was much better simply by virtue of having full-colour illustrations on almost every page. That said, there were some black-and-white photos in the middle, none of which I’d seen before (Hergé with the English translators, for instance, who really look like they’re straight out of the 1950s… which does make a lot of sense, of course…). Hergé’s and Tintin’s life is divided neatly into sections by which book Hergé was writing at the time, and each section is well paced and easy to read, meaning that I zipped through the book in a semi-fascinated way.

The author does go to great pains to explain why he thinks Hergé wasn’t a Nazi sympathiser… I will always think this is one of the most simultaneously tragic and comic things about any biography of Hergé, the way they always have to delve into the can o’ worms that is the whole Nazi thing. Meh; it just got to the point a couple of times when I decided that he must have partly decided to write the book as a rebuttal to those who think that he was a Nazi sympathiser.

Worth it for any Tintin fan, anyway, but I guess you might as well read the Michael Farr book really if you happen to be interested. It gives basically all the same information but with illustrations, which is kind of important when you’re talking about a visual medium such as Tintin.