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Something I like!: A review of Kingdom Hearts Birth by Sleep

Every gamer, from the casual to the hardcore, holds a few select titles close to his heart. With no bearing on the game’s actual quality, some titles just sneak right past our discerning critic’s barriers and snuggle into our breast, further entrenching themselves as the weight of time and nostalgia drive the title deeper into the halls of cherished memory. Many games are good, several are great, but only a few reach this cherished distinction. For example, lots of people love Chrono Trigger ( I am not one of them, since I never owned and SNES, and yes, I’m still bitter about missing out on the fun), professing it to be the greatest RPG of all time even though it’s actually a dull, derivative product. As for me, personally, several titles hold a special place in my heart organ: The entire Final Fantasy series from VII-X (including Tactics, which is the best game ever), the criminally under appreciated Xenogears, the bubbly and colorful  Megaman Legends, and, of course, the original Kingdom Hearts. For those not in the know, Kingdom Hearts is an action role-playing game that combines Final Fantasy and Disney worlds. Yes, as in Walt Disney. Don’t ask me how someone came up with this concept; I don’t know. I’m just glad they did. Well, the 12 year-old Japanese girl inside my brain is glad, anyway.

I’m sure the previous paragraph may seem long-winded and probably unnecessary, but I just wanted to describe the near-religious reverence I feel towards the first Kingdom Hearts. This review will not be objective; you have been warned. I’m going to delay my actual review to indulge one more tangent, and that is to stress that my unconditional love extends only to the first Kingdom Hearts, and not to any of the other 3 sequels. Chain of Memories was a great game. It had a solid battle system and really stretched the capacity of the then-cutting-edge GameBoy Advance to heights I didn’t think possible. It’s very contained plot was good too, and really allowed for some deeper character portrayal. However, that very strength was also its weakness, i.e- it’s very limited scope. The whole story was ultimately pointless enough to be condensed as a 3 minute opening CGI sequence to Kingdom hearts 2. Kingdom Hearts 2 itself was horrible, and lost almost everything that made the first so endearing. 358/2 Days was almost as bad as its title, and was even more superfluous than Chain of Memories. It had had a clunky, unresponsive battle system, and shallow non-descript worlds in which the player solely interacted with faceless enemies. Sadly, none of those sequels came close to matching the original.

Enter Birth by Sleep, the only other title in the series that reaches the same solar system of sweetness that is Kingdom Hearts 1. Finally, 5 years into its run, the PSP’s existence is  justified. Unfortunately, the game is UMD disc-only, so the PSPGO still has no reason to be. Anyway, the game is good, and the story mode is split into 3 points of view of the different main characters, so the experience doesn’t ever get dull, and the story unfolds layer by layer as you revisit worlds with the different protagonists. This is a neat little twist, which really sets this title apart from the other games in the series (Chain of Memories dabbled with the concept by letting the player go through the game a second time as Riku).

Birth By Sleep is a prequel to the original game, and centers around the 3 main characters, Ventus, Terra, and Aqua (who is super hot, maybe the hottest video game character ever, not that that’s important; what’s inside is what counts). The three are apprentice keyblade masters who become trapped in the machinations of the “fallen” master Xehanort, who mysteriously shares a name with Kingdom Hearts 2 main nemesis, and has been experimenting with the power of darkness. He tries to recruit Terra to his side, and the 2 other friends must follow him through various Disney Worlds and make sure he doesn’t give in to temptation. I’ll admit, it may seem like Terra, Ventus, and Aqua are just stand ins for Riku, Sora, and Kairi from the main series, but they really are independent and well-developed characters. You can’t help but get pulled into their quest to find and help each other. And the way it all ties up in the end and sets up the beginning of Kingdom Hearts is very satisfying. As with the other sequels, the main weakness lies in the individual stories within the Disney Worlds, as they often feel rushed, and just don’t carry the same weight as the main plot.

If you’ll allow me to be concise for a minute; this is a beautiful game. Now, let me be long-winded again. Graphically, it looks every bit as good as the PlayStation 2 installments, maybe even better. It is a visual feast. The game really pushes the PSP’s capabilities. Square Enix did not spare many expenses for this title’s production. The character models especially are something to behold, let me tell you. Unfortunately, some of the environments are rather bare, and a few of the Disney Worlds feel rather shallow. As per usual with the series, camera angles can get frustrating at times. But some flaws can be forgiven, given the hand held medium.

The gameplay is great. Specifically, the battle system is amazing. It may be the best in the series. There’s the standard attack, jump, and guard buttons, of course, but there’s also a list of extra attacks called “commands” assigned to the triangle button. Not only is the order and command list customizable, but the commands themselves can leveled up for higher damage and be merged to create new, more powerful attacks. In addition, your character has finishing attacks, which can also level up and be switched out, and shot-lock attacks, used for enemy groups, which can be upgraded swapped out as well. Characters also have special forms they morph into once certain requirements are met, usually specific attack combination. Again, you are given several different forms from which to choose. The fun doesn’t end there, though, as you also have the option to D-link, which involves taking on the attack and command patterns of other characters for a limited amount of time. You can D-link with the other 2 protagonists, but also the different Disney characters you meet throughout the adventure. So what we get is an incredibly deep, fully customizable battle system. Let me suggest you play the game in Proud mode though. Normal is a bit too easy, but Proud really forces you to learn enemy attack patterns and hone your attack style.

A huge complaint most had with the previous titles, especially Kingdom Hearts 2, were the crap-rific mini games. Those sins have been atoned for. The Command Board is a mini-game you can access anytime, and is basically a violent monopoly. You move along a board game and buy spaces to which you can graft attack commands to weaken the other players as they pass by. Also, using your attacks in the mini-game actually level up the commands, too. So it’s not just a time waster. It’s addictive, too. Add multiplayer and a few more boards, and I’d pay retail value just for that game.

The music is great, too, as in all the other games in the series. This time around they used Simple and Clean from the first game as its theme song, and I have to admit when the techno remix started up in the intro video, I got pumped up.

Anyway, Birth by Sleep is an amazing title, and if you own PSP, then you have no excuse not to also own this game. Go out and get it, son. Highly recommended.

The Subway Hero

Today I was a subway hero, and I don’t mean the delicious sandwich fast food chain. We’re talking underground trains. I will write the rest of this post in 3rd person to make it sound more heroic and aggrandize my exploits.

A heavy rain pelted the dark, soaked streets of the city. His city. Tokyo. Man has never known a harsher mistress than this Eastern Babylon, rife with crime, death, drugs, and perverted dudes who rent used women’s panties from vending machines. His shoes struck the cold, hard, unforgiving, unyielding, spartan, rough, unfeeling, uncompromising, Procrustean pavement rhythmically, as he read his thesaurus. Laughing children gallivanted past him on the way to school, oblivious to the bleak  future ahead of them. Blind to the harsh bitch of a city that would rape their dreams and aspirations from their cold, dead hands. Unless he could stop it. Seeing the children steeled his resolve to save the damned city. This Sodom or Gomorrah would not burst into flames, but instead be delivered unto salvation by an impetuous hero.  An adorable little boy in high, checkered socks and shorts, sporting one of those cute little fisherman hats, bumped into the hero, and looked up with a regretful expression, ready to apologize, but our hero gazed down upon him not in anger, but with a priest-like expression of love and benevolence. The little boy shuddered, instinctively fearing anything related to priests, even figuratively, and ran away in fear. No matter, our hero doesn’t require gratitude. He will bear the cross  over 40 years of wandering the desert and being kicked out of pretty gardens….and all sort of other religious metaphors.

Frantic salary men, more worried about arriving less than 45 minutes early to work than disporting good manners, bumped into, and brushed past him, as they rocketed towards the train station. Filled with the fear of being chastised for no reason by an old bald guy, who can’t get promoted any higher than section chief, and appropriately takes out his frustration on younger employees, and probably his children, those hollowed shells of men slave 14-16 hours a day in the office-fields of the Tokyo mega-scape. Rows upon countless rows of open desk space with no privacy, and the Sauron-like eyes of their superiors always on them, making sure they stamp the pointless forms correctly. But he would save them. He would save them becau–who is that cute girl walking by? Don’t remember seeing her before. Wow, those are nice legs. Good sense of style, too. Oh, man, but her umbrella is covering her face, how can I tell if—No! No! You are a hero! Get your head back in the game. This is a bad, harsh city! She’s probably had her dreams crushed repeatedly, and she needs to be saved, too. Never forget–Oh! There it is; the umbrella moved. She’s pretty hot, man. Really? Yea. Oh, well, try pulling her over and getting her number as she passes. Nah, she’s got earphones on, probably listening to music. Well, damn. That sucks, dude. I know…anyway, you were saying?

The stark gates of Minami-Sunamachi station smoldered into view. Rough-looking high-school kids were drinking fruit juice and joking with each other outside the Mini Stop convenience store, checkered-pant wearing, hyper-tanned Cerberi guarding the entryway to the under-earth. The hero squared his shoulders and proudly walked past them, showing no fear until one of them staggered back in laughter and almost bumped into the hero, so he had to stop, and bow his head shyly saying “sorry”, and then shuffle past them quickly. He would save them, too, in time. Ser Sagremor shook the oppressive rainwater from his umbrella, and entered the subway.

The damp, rainy-morning air flooded his nostrils, assaulting his olfactory sensibilities. Streams of soggy sheeple fled past him towards the turnstiles, flooding onto the train platform. He swiped his super cool metro card over the turnstile scanner (it’s like the future!) and moved along the train platform, pushing past motionless shades, waiting to be ferried to their workplace.  Not a shred of hope could be found in this under-realm. From the darkness of the tunnel arose the screeches of metal and gears, plummeting towards the station. Eventually, the metal hell-tube slowly came into view, and unevenly ground to a halt. The doors slid open, revealing a train car packed to the brim with the squeezed flesh of soul-deprived humans. Black, gray, and pin-striped cloth filled our hero’s vision as he pushed himself into the busy train compartment, forcefully moving aside the yielding mass of briefcases mp3 player ear phone wire. A cheerful jingle resonated across the platform, signaling the impeding closure of train car doors. Disconsolate latecomers frantically tried to push themselves onto the full train. Oh no, they might have to wait all of 3 minutes for the next car! Impossible! Let them in! A chubby guy wearing a sweat-stained short-sleeve shirt tried to squeeze into our hero’s car, but as the doors closed Sagremor pushed him back out onto the platform.  He may be a hero, but he sure as hell isn’t riding a crowded train with a sweaty fat guy. Who sweats when it’s raining and like 15 degrees, anyway?

The doors hovered in a near-closed position, and everyone inside the train car collectively took a deep breath and sucked in their stomach until the satisfying click of the shutting hatch resonated in the car. The mass of bodies then re-expanded fluidly, taking up all the available space in the crowded car. The train picked up speed, and was soon on its way along the Tozai Metro Line, plummeting towards the evil city’s black heart. Suddenly, an elbow jabbed into our hero’s shoulder. He looked to his right, and some douche nozzle was sleeping while holding onto one of the hand holds. As the train swayed along its tracks, the asshole’s elbow would swing around and hit people. Like 6-8 different people were getting jabbed. What the hell! How can someone sleep standing up? That’s like what horses do. This is some farm animal shit here. The train continued upon its frantic course, and the asshat’s elbow continued to pound innocents as he slept away, safe in his nerdy dreams. As the train began decelerating upon its approach to the next station, his elbow slammed square into a marginally cute girl’s back, and stayed there as the train’s slowing motion pushed the sleeping man upon the poor little secretary’s back. Our hero watched the unfolding, horrifying events, and then, suddenly, a spark lit in his breast. This was his time. Sagremor would save everyone.

(Note: Regular font=embellished version/Italic font=what actually happened)

Sagremor tapped the dumb ass on his shoulder, in an attempt to wake him and reason with the idiot. However, when the slumbering jackass awoke, they weren’t human eyes he opened. It was an Oni demon! From the 9th layer of Buddhist hell, the demon had used the man’s dreams as a gateway to manifest itself into our world!

I tapped the guy on the shoulder, and said “please wake up.” He sort of opened his eyes lazily, and answered with a confused “huh?”

The woman he had been leaning on screamed in terror, and the demon swiped at her shirt with its wicked claws, tearing off a significant portion of her blouse, revealing a toned mid-riff. He closed in looking for the kill, but our hero jumped in front of the damsel, and warned the demon not to get any closer.

That ticked me off, so I shook him even harder and said “Wake up!”he sort of came to and said “Oh, sorry. I’m a little tired.”

The demon laughed haughtily in Sagremor’s face, and warned the mortal not to interfere until he had also ripped off the girl’s blue jacket, revealing her cleavage. Sagremor agreed that would be for the best and let the demon take another well-aimed swipe at the girl. The demon now professed he also wanted to strip her of her pants, but Sagremor thought that would be going too far, and that a stand had to be made somewhere. He charged up his eye-beams, and blasted the demon through the train car off of a cliff back into the 9th layer of Buddhist hell.

That made me even madder, so I said “You’re tired? Really? You know who else is tired? Me, and everyone on this train. This isn’t a bed; it’s a crowded train. Stay awake, and pay attention to your manners.” He then apologized again, and stood up straight.

However, Sagremor’s sweet optic blast was so powerful, it opened the hell portal even further, and whole armies of demons began streaming into the mortal realm. The now scantily clad maiden begged Sagremor to save everyone, and he looked back at her and said “you didn’t have to ask, babe” and gave her a thumbs up as he jumped down into the hell pit, while charging his blast. As he fell, he charged up with so much energy he exploded in the middle of the portal killing millions of countless demons and closing the hell gateway at the same time. The people on the train wept tears of both joy and sadness as they witnessed THE ULTIMATE SACRIFICE. When Sagremor next opened his eyes he was in heaven, standing before God on his throne of angels. God said “Sagremor, my son, why have you sacrificed yourself for such wicked, unworthy people? Never mind, now you will take your rightful place by my side forever.” But Sagremor shot God a sad smile, and answered “Father, I cannot. My protectorate lies below, as does my duty. Send me back to the mortals, whether they be worthy or not.” And God responded with “But why? Why do you fight for them?” And Sagremor badassedly said “Do I need a reason?” Then God smiled, and waved his magical hand to teleport our hero back to the mortal realm. These were his parting words: “My son, I truly wish that I, God, could be as awesome as you are. Now go; go and save the world from Buddhist demons.” And so Sagremor fell back to Earth, back to that crowded subway train.

The guy got off 2 stations later, and when he left, the 8 people around me said “thanks” and smiled.

The nearly wrecked train continued along its trajectory, and Sagremor dismounted at Kayabacho station, deep in the heart of the financial district, where rich people put their money into stocks to lose half their fortune. He left cheering and gratitude behind as he scanned his card on the cool turnstile reader (The future is now!), and ascended the steps towards the light of day. He stepped outside of the train station, out onto a Tokyo bathed in sunlight, rewarding its hero’s deeds. A chorus of angels sang his praises, and curly-haired cherubs gave him high-fives as he proceeded through the crowded streets to his office. The people he passed congratulated him. They clapped for him. They cheered for Sagremor, the subway hero.

Open to Interpretation, Part 1

As you are aware, a week ago we had The Girl on the podcast, and one of the topics we discussed was the question of perception of a work of art and authorial intent versus audience absorption. (If you didn’t know that, I suggest you go listen to that episode right now, especially since I am not doing justice to the segment). That idea and line of thought has stuck with me since then, and considering in our next episode we will have a guest who is a soon to be published author, I want to explore it further. Given the complexity of the topic, I have divided it in two, the author and the audience. This is part one, regarding the creator, and part two will be posted next Wednesday.

Oh, and just to clarify, when I say “creator” I refer to any person who produces a piece of art, be it literature, visual art, music, or otherwise. Creator seemed the most neutral and all-encompassing term, and the linguistic nerd in me likes its connection to Greek poiesis, from which we get poetry but literally means “maker.”

Yes, That Was Intentional

I wanted to begin with a sweeping, axiomatic statement about the personal nature of the creative process, but that is not true, even in the general sense. Poe, in his essay on the writing of The Raven, makes a fine argument for the distinction between personal emotions and emotions intentionally infused into poetry (but considering how his own emotions so closely matched his poetic expression, one cannot but question his motives and conclusions), and I personally have written pieces with the intent to invoke emotions I was not feeling at the time, so we can abandon that line of reasoning. However, from this we can reach one conclusion, which I judge accurate despite its breadth, and that is that creators act with intent.

I’m sure some of you are saying, “Well, yeah, obviously.” But allow me to unpack that assertion, so I can show you that there is more to that seemingly simple statement than meets the eye. Too often in my English classes or among friends I have heard, “But did the author really mean that?” The answer, in the vast majority of cases, is “Yes, absolutely.” (I concede that an audience can infer meanings that the author did not intend, and I will address that in Part 2. For the sake of this essay, I believe that almost all of a work’s meanings are intentional.) People who have not tried to create a piece of art themselves, or who do so only casually, are often not aware of how minutely the creator has crafted the finished product. An apt metaphor for the general understanding of artistic creation is amateur photography. The photographer will pick an angle that will create a pleasing composition, choose a lense size and color template, wait until the lighting is right, and captures the image.

That most people believe this is self-evident in their somewhat low appraisal of the craft. Pat Rothfuss, author of The Name of the Wind, related the following story in his blog, which I think is a good indicator of the common opinion about artistic creation (even though Pat is specifically referring to writing a novel).

“Of course, writing a novel isn’t simple. Anyone that’s ever tried writing one knows this. The problem is, a lot of people haven’t tried. They assume writing is easy because, technically, anyone can do it.

To illustrate my point: Just as I was getting published, I met one of the big, A-list fantasy authors. (Who will remain nameless here.)

He told me the story of the time he’d met a doctor at a party. When the author mentioned that he wrote for a living, the doctor said: “Yeah, I was going to write a novel. But I just don’t seem to have the time.” Link.

Pat goes on to show a letter from a fan who asks him why it’s taking so long for him to finish the sequel to The Name of the Wind:

“But, boy do you have a problem. Finishing tasks?? Why isn’t your editor doing a better job of guiding you? Here’s my quick recommendation: stop going to conventions. Your first book is a great hit, you don’t need any more marketing there. Sit down and decide where to END the second part. You don’t need to write any more. If book two is anything like book one, it is basically chronological. You’re done with book two!! Stop in a logical place, smooth out the transitions, and begin obsessing about book three. Good luck.” Ibid.

Pat is obviously put off by this would-be advisor, and with good reason. Unfortunately, her opinion is prevalent among those who do not create art. To return to my photography metaphor, people believe that the artist, or the writer, or the musician, sit down at their table, gather together the elements of their art (characters, shapes, colors, plot points, vocals, instrument tracks, chapters, dialogue, etc.) and simply compose them into something that, by virtue of arrangement of its parts, is Art. Of course anyone can put those elements together; the only thing that separates the artist from the everyman is the artist’s better understanding of how to assemble the elements.

To a degree, that is true. The Greats are the Greats because they are masters at using the elements of their craft, but it is absolutely false that all they do is arrange a “collage” of their field’s chosen materials. The truth, the sobering reality that kills so many would-be creative dreams, is that the creator has to fabricate all of those elements from nothing. In order to make our photographer metaphor reflect the real creative process, we must make him manufacture himself every single thing that is in his shot. He did not merely stumble upon a good location with all of the elements in place, needing only proper lighting and camera positioning. No, he had to hand make every single blade of grass, every single speck of dirt, every single leaf on the trees.

Now I put this question to you: if our photographer must craft himself everything that will be in his picture, does it not stand to reason that he will design all the elements in such a way as to enhance the shot, or draw the eye a certain way, or give the viewer a certain impression? Would he not manipulate all of his leaves and blades and specks to suit what he wants the picture to say?

I will pause a moment to let you think about that.

What this means is that every brush stroke, every word, every music note, every movie take, is deliberate. This means that the smallest, least noticeable, most prevalent building block of the chosen medium requires the creator’s complete attention. You know that book in the bookstore that is 400,000 words long? That author knowingly and intentionally chose all 400,000 of those words. That song on the radio? The artist intentionally chose for the bass track to drop in volume for two seconds during the chorus.

This is why most people are not successful creators. This is why most people who set out to write a novel don’t finish it. It is simply far more complex and work-intensive than they realize.

But I digress. The point of this business with the photographer metaphor is to show you that the creator devises all of the elements of the work, which means he or she has full opportunity to make sure every single aspect serves the greater theme, or message, or design. Hence, when I said way back at the beginning that creators act with intent, I meant that absolutely every aspect of a piece of art is there because the artist wanted it there.

The Question of Subconscious Intent

Having concluded with such a statement, I must address the question of subconscious meaning and intent. By which I mean the creator inserting some theme or meaning into the work without actually being aware of doing so. This idea is in and of itself a slippery creature, since we must be careful to draw the line between unintended authorial meaning and meaning inferred by the audience. The latter is what you see all the time in English classes, where smart-ass students try to argue that some poem is secretly about sex, or that Tolkien’s Ring is the atomic bomb. I will address inferred meaning next time, but for now I limit myself to actual authorial intent.

I find myself at a loss to define this idea outright, so I will resort to an example. If we survey the works of H. P. Lovecraft, we find in them numerous examples of xenophobia and racism. One need only read his description of the black man brought back to life in Herbert West – Reanimator to grasp his general disposition toward other races. However, Lovecraft did not write with the express intent to comment on race or racial hierarchy; it simply entered his writing as a part of his psyche. This is what I refer to when I say subconscious intent: an idea or meaning that the creator puts into the work without conscious thought. When we read the literature of the Greeks and Romans, we find that they casually mention slavery and misogyny. They do not do so because they want to make a statement about those topics, (unless of course they are directly addressing them), but rather because it is so ubiquitous to their thought process that they do not realize they are doing it.

It should come as no surprise that subconscious intent is a topic of great interest to art critics, since what an artist puts into a work subconsciously provides a great deal of insight into his or her mind and personality. Express intent is less reliable, since the creator controls it. It is glaringly obvious that Vergil’s Aeneid is about the glory of Augustus and is a finely crafted propaganda piece, but less obvious are Vergil’s own thoughts on the matter. The hints of melancholy, the ambiguous nature of some of the passages: these tell us more about Vergil than any of the beautiful lines describing the founding of the Julian line or Jupiter’s grant of “imperium sine fine” (I.279).

To use a more modern example, almost all of Christopher Nolan’s films involve a man who is too emotionally attached to a woman, and how that attachment works against the man. Now, there is a good case that this is intentional, and not subconscious, since it appears so often and is so integral to the stories. However, is it intentional that the man loses the woman either early in the movie or before it even begins? Or is that particular aspect something that creeps its way into each story without Nolan setting out to put it in there? If so, what does that say about Nolan and how he views emotional attachment to what we have already lost?

Like I said, it’s great fodder for criticism and scholarly debate.

The question that we must inevitably consider is whether to categorize something as intentional authorial meaning or subconscious, unintended expression. What makes this question tricky is that the answer can change depending on the audience and the time period relative to the work’s completion. An enormous amount of criticism, Classical criticism in particular, is devoted to explaining how previous scholars incorrectly interpreted the texts of the ancients, and how this newest critical view, unencumbered by the previous generation’s mind set, has determined the true meanings and subconscious meanings of the works.

Sometimes creators themselves help us in this regard, though we must always be wary of authorial recollections and not treat them as unfiltered truth. We can all recall when a writer or musician inserts some little bit into his work that references or echoes the work of another artist. “Subconscious influence” and all that. The creator draws a link between the two pieces by incorporating part of one into the other. Usually it’s a specific phrase or short chord progression, something the author’s brain absorbed on its own without the author consciously choosing to remember it. These references can be subconscious intent, however I must stress again that we should not trust the artist when it comes to these interpretations. He or she may have known full well that the line was from something else, and used it anyway in order to draw the parallel.

The point of all this is again to clarify my conclusion from the first section: that every single aspect of a work of art is there because the artist wants it to be there. That statement is still true, but now we can add a layer to that by pointing out that, while every element is there on purpose, not all of the meanings attached to those elements are there on purpose. Some are there because the creator simply cannot divorce himself from them: they are so ubiquitous to the creator’s thought process that he cannot see that they exist. Others are there as snippets of half-remembered influences or even just emotions that the artist cannot excise from the creative process.

Well, I think that is a serviceable overview of authorial intent, both conscious and subconscious, and should serve as a good background for the real issue: audience interpretation and absorption. Therein lies the truly interesting aspect of creative expression and Art, and we shall delve into that next week.

Podcast Episode 17: “I’m Also Eating an Apple”

The newest Impetuous Windmills podcast has arrived. Alas, there is no guest spot this week, so you’ll just have to endure the two of us until next time, when we have a very special guest planned. Get it on iTunes, on the RSS, or here.

Comments and questions are always appreciated. And if you have any topic you want us to discuss or revisit, send me an email at deprava@impetuouswindmills.com or leave a comment here. Enjoy.

A Waste of Money: A review of Linkin Park’s A Thousand Suns

In 44 horrible minutes Linkin Park just undid all the awesome times and rocking out of the previous 4.5 albums (I’m including the JAY-Z mashup cd because it’s rad, and makes me feel badass when I go jogging to Dirt off Your Shoulder/Lying from You). Just to let you know how bad A Thouand Suns is; I have deleted Linkin Park from my Facebook “Likes” list. And I do not take Facebook lightly. This is for real.

The problem here is Linkin Park realistically reached their stylistic peak with Meteora. They had Mike rap the verse, and Chester scream the chorus to thrashing guitars and cool sound effects. A good formula. Minutes to Midnight was a desperate attempt at depth and lyrical content. And now they’re just diving off the cliff. I should have known there would be problems when, prior to release, they described A Thousand Suns as not an album, but an “experience. ”

I know most of my audience may be tempted to think I am overreacting, as usual. So let me bring out the big guns right away.  The album ends with an acoustic track. A Linkin Park cd closes with Chester’s raspy-ass rock/rap scream trying to sound introspective and soft over some bland guitar strumming. That’s deep, bro. I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again. An unplugged track is a rock band’s death knell. I don’t know what it is with aging bands, but they inevitably reach the point where they feel they need to go bare bones on you, usually around the 5th or 6th album. They need to display their true musical merit. For some reason 3 chords on an acoustic guitar is thought to provide that. The bell is tolling for thee, Linkin Park.

Unfortunately, the rest of the tracks on the cd are god-awful, to boot. About five “songs” are 1:30 min. long segments of white noise with garbled MLK Jr. speeches or something in the background. That’s deep, too, bro. And all political and shit. If anyone can properly convey MLK’s message it’s a prog-rock band made up of 4 white dudes and 2 Asians. So minus the acoustic song, and the white noise stuff, that leaves us with about 9 actual music tracks. What an album! 9 whole songs?!

They’re awful, too, by the way. Iridescent is a bad Coldplay ripoff.  Being spared Chris Martin’s whiny British voice would normally be a plus. Unfortunately, here they just swap it out with Chester’s raspy-ass rock/rap voice trying to sound whiny and British. Or is it Mike’s? I wish I cared enough to listen to the song again. Burning in the Skies is tolerable until you listen to the lyrics, and it turns out the song is about “the blood of innocents burning in the skies.” …..if you say so. Blackout has a weird upbeat dance thing going on, but the end result sounds like an 80’s new-wave tune being raped by a howler monkey. Then there’s the Mike Shinoda “hardcore” rap tracks, like When They Come for Me, which sound like Lil’ Kim beats from the 90’s that couldn’t get past the cutting room. But he does reference Lauryn Hill and Biggie. If that doesn’t legitimize your rap credentials, I don’t what does. There’s also a track called Robot Boy; just thought I’d throw that out there. Waiting for the End features the Sigur Ros drawn out ambient guitar reverb effect, which is harder to tolerate when it’s not coming from an artsy Icelandic folk/prog-rock band.

A Thousands Suns is an awful album, and if Linkin Park had any love for their fans they would unmake the CD. Just give everyone their money back, and hit the recording studio again. I won’t even recommend top tracks or anything like that, since it’s all trash.

The Fair-Weather Bigot

I’m going to get a little political here, and I don’t know that much about law and politics, so I apologize, but I’m going to do it anyway. Also, please keep in mind I live in Japan, so my news is on a 3-5 day delay unless it involves sumo scandals or former J-pop stars caught with drugs.

So it seems a week or 2 ago a Florida pastor named Terry Jones organized and advertised a proposed Koran burning on September 11. I don’t know the details, but September 11 passed by without any Koran burning in Southern Florida. The good pastor canceled the event. There are 2 possible explanation. Either Pastor Jones got scared because the backlash and negative public pressure, or he never planned to do it from the beginning and just used it as a publicity stunt. For the rest of the article I’m going to assume the former is the case, since the latter is a fairly poorly planned marketing campaign. Any extra parishioners attracted by a promised Koran burning would probably be promptly disillusioned by the event’s cancellation. It is also conceivable the pastor had a change of heart, but I’m a pessimist so let’s not even entertain that thought.

Assuming Pastor Terry Jones genuinely planned and wanted to burn Korans, but canceled the party due to public pressure, I’d like to say something. Burning the Koran is a bad thing. No question. But deciding not to burn a Koran due to public pressure is even worse. All it does is reveal you to be a fair-weather bigot with paper-thin ideals. If you believe in something, do it. You’re allowed to demonstrate your beliefs in America. Show the world how narrow-minded and stupid you are! No need to hide.

What we have here is an opportunistic sectarian, who probably watched too much FOX news coverage concerning certain NYC mosque zoning plans, and got the mistaken idea unabashed Islam hating was en vogue.  Unfortunately, he jumped on the bandwagon a little too late, when the anti-NYC-mosque fervor had already died down. But there’s more. Pastor Jones’ big mistake was he didn’t realize there are degrees to bigotry. Devoting whole hours of negative news coverage to a proposed Muslim community 5 subway stops from the site of the World Trade Center is ok. After all, they can still worship Allah anywhere else, we’re not infringing on any existing right.  We’re just stopping them from building this specific mosque in this specific location. Exception to every rule, right? Makes perfect sense if you’re white and racist. But burning a religion’s holy book?! Totally different. Hard to argue you still respect Islam, and have nothing against Muslims in general etc. if you’re burning the Koran, is it? Plus, who hasn’t been involved in zoning disputes? Blocking a proposed mosque is really no different than stopping your neighbor from erecting that 12 foot tall fence that infringes on your property line. It would lower your home’s value by at least 12%! But book burning? No points of reference for that, unless you’re German and in your 70’s.

Which brings us to today’s theme: the low-calorie bigot, a phenomenon Pastor Jones failed to take into account when he tried to schedule a Koran burning. The no caffeine added racist likes to keep his true feelings to himself. He doesn’t act on his ignorance because he doesn’t want to be thought of as a bad person. But when easy, indirect opportunities to display hatred present themselves, he takes them. He renames French fries “Freedom Fries” when French people don’t want to support our manufactured wars. He votes to allow police forces to racially profile Latino immigrants (not on the same day he pays them $50 to landscape his 2.5-acre lawn, of course). He votes to ban gay marriage in California because being gay is totally cool and fine, yo. He probably has several gay friends, in fact. Just as long as they keep it to themselves. And when he sees a news story about  a Muslim **** build*****near*****World Trade Center*****. He gets mad, and protests. Why? Because all the above provide easy, anonymous avenues to act upon his true feelings. But lining up outside a church in Florida, no doubt with news vans nearby, and burning a Koran? The fair-weather bigot tucks his tail between his legs and stays home.

I’m not addressing the news and political figures who manufacture the above situations. They have their own set of incentives, and that’s a whole different discussion. But the target audience of news stories that feed upon uninformed patriotism is made up of people like Pastor Terry Jones. People who get on their podium, whether it be a pulpit or the family couch holding a beer, and proclaim the superiority and righteousness of their own ideals over others’, while never actually acting on those sentiments. To be clear, I do not support book burning, nor do I wish Pastor Terry Jones had gone through on his plans to burn the Koran. Honestly, I wish he had just shut up to begin with. But if Terry Jones does truly believe Jesus himself would have burned a Koran, and that Islam is such a terrible institution, then by all means burn that book. Hold your protests. Grow some balls, and act on your ideals. You are allowed to, as long as your actions do no break state and federal laws.

Podcast Episode 16: “Gravitass”

The newest episode of the Impetuous Windmills podcast is now live, on iTunes, the RSS, and here.

This week we have a special guest, The Girl, whose presence allows us to revisit some of our previous discussions centered on gender, elevating this show to “our most highbrow podcast ever.”

The Girl has her own blog at eminihonde.blogspot.com, where she chronicles her adventures as member of the JET program in Japan, so check it out.

Also, big announcement coming soon…maybe.

Canada is Hell: A Review of Valhalla Rising

Deprava and I were desperate for a topic we could discuss on the podcast, and since I had recently downloaded Valhalla Rising, I naively suggested we watch and review it. Little did I know I was going to subject us to one of all time’s most misguidedly pretentious indie foreign movies.

The term “like watching a train wreck” gets thrown around a lot, but Valhalla Rising is nothing “like” watching a train wreck. It is one. It’s also a burning building, a car wreck, and any other of the innumerable tragedies that can befall people. Anyone who knows anything about film knows not to give Danes or Swedes money and a camera. And yes, Ingmar Bergman, that means you, too. It must be something about the cold, or just the general condition of Nordic countries, but these people do not know how to have fun. I guess the only thing they can do up there is think about life’s hardship and man’s cruel nature. Their films reflect this.

Anyway, some British film studio decided to give some money to Nicolas Winding Refn, who is Danish. As in the country, not the delicious cheese pastry. And that is how this film was born. Mr. Winding Refn went to film school. I’m sure of this. I know he attended the class where they discussed the close-up shot of a man’s face in the left foreground, with another man standing farther behind him in the right background. Unfortunately, I don’t think he showed up for any more classes, as that shot makes up about 85% of the movie. And in these shots, people have conversations. As in, the dude in the foreground talks to the guy behind him. I guess people didn’t face each other to speak in the 11th century. Maybe eye contact is a relatively new social norm. I don’t know. People stand around a lot in the film. About 25 minutes of the movie are just guys standing, not doing anything. In Scotland, on a boat, in Canada (yes, Canada), wherever. People do lots of standing in this film in front of a tripod-free camera. Let me just rephrase everything very clearly. This movie’s director had no idea what he was doing.

Now that we’ve established the director’s incompetence, let’s get to the film itself. The protagonist is a viking named One-eye who is being held as a slave in Scotland. Or he may be Scottish, too. I don’t know, but nothing else in the movie has anything to do with the Norse, and since it’s called Valhalla Rising, I’m assuming One-eye is a viking. Humor me. He doesn’t speak, and is being held prisoner by 5 Scottish dudes in the middle of nowhere and forced to fight people. I don’t know where they get those people; there’s not a village in sight. One-eye can see the future, which is helpful, but he sees it in red. Because you know, just seeing the future is a pointless plot device, but seeing it in red lends all sorts of artistic and thematic elements….like….the color red. Anyway, One-eye escapes from, and kills, his captors and then runs into a group of about 10 Christians on the way to Jerusalem for the Crusades. They recruit him because the plot demands it, and they get lost on the way to Jerusalem and end up in America. They must have taken a wrong turn in Albuquerque…or China. It’s all equally close to Jerusalem and America. Once they arrive in the new world, which is hell by the way, a half-assed Heart of Darkness routine starts up and they all die at the end. Sorry for the spoiler, but it’s an Anglo-Danish indie movie, so if you were expecting a happy ending you need professional help. Oh, and I meant that literally about the US/Canada being hell. The movie is split up into chapters, and as soon as they arrive to the new world, which looks suspiciously like just a different part of Scotland, we see “Chapter V: Hell” flash onscreen. Real subtle. I’d say this is the director making a political statement, but I honestly have no idea what the hell was going on in the movie.

I’m now going to describe the film’s climax, and I think you’ll get a much clearer picture of what kind of movie this is. Note: the following all takes place in slow motion, and with guitar reverb humming in the background. So the climax switches back and forth between 4 different events. In one event, One-eye wades into  a river and stacks stones up on each other on an island. That’s it; no explanation as to why. As the guitar reverb intensifies, the scene switches between the stone stacking, a boy sitting on a river bank, a man sodomizing another man, the old war-band leader praying, and another guy licking his own reflection in the river water. All in slow motion, of course. All very high brow.

The movie is plagued by so many other problems; it’s hard to keep everything straight. For example, in every single fight sequence, One-eye dives forward, chops at a guy’s leg, and then slits the dude’s throat. There’s about 5 fight scenes, and he does the same damn move in every one. Did they only have enough budget for one day of action choreography? The movie is racist as hell, too. American Indians are pretty much analogous to the soulless, sub-human blacks of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. The movie just has no point. The protagonist is a shadow; he may as well not have been there. He doesn’t speak, and we never learn anything about his past, his personality, nothing. He’s just a cut out these stupid Christians take with them to Canada. And please, I don’t mean Christians are stupid, but these specific Christians clearly are. The acting overall is awful. That’s all I’ll say about that. And there’s no music. The soundtrack is either thrumming guitar or someone slamming their palms down on an organ and holding the keys down. I think the director may have just handed random instruments to a toddler and recorded the result. Oh! How could I forget, One-eye is accompanied by a young boy through the movie.  Hm…silent warrior and a young companion…boy that’s totally new! There’s lots more I could mention but it relates directly to the plot, what little of it there is, and I don’t want to completely ruin the movie.

I’m about 80% sure the dialogue was written by a high 19 year old philosophy minor for extra credit. First of all, every damn line is mumbled and/or whispered. No Toastmasters here. Every line is a short, declarative sentence. They must not have had conjunctions in 11th century Scotland though they did speak contemporary Scottish with a contemporary Scottish accent. For example, early in the film a chieftain says (with the shaky cam in his face. The person he is addressing if of course standing about 10 feet behind him. And remember, it’s all whispered/mumbled):

“You can’t trust Christians. (10 second pause). I hear tell they eat their own God. (5 second pause) His  blood and flesh. (10 second pause). They only have one God. (15 second pause). We have many Gods.”

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, that is a line from the movie. It’s true. Later in the film One-eye is staring at the sky, and a man he’d recently crucified asks him “What do you see?(10 second pause). Do you see yourself?” That shit is deep, bro. Like a well.

I have never seen such misguided self importance. The makers of this film had their heads so far up their own ass they came back out of their own mouths in a ridiculous ouroboros ring of pretension. To be honest, I laughed my butt off from start to finish, so if you have the right kind of sense of humor you may enjoy the movie. I do not recommend it though.

Well, that's actually only one windmill…