In interviews with famous authors, they always say that in order to become a real writer you must write even when you are not inspired, because deadlines wait for no one, and to be able to write on demand is what professionalism is all about. This can be said of any creative endeavor–from design, illustration, video games, music, photography, to filmmaking. If all the creative professionals waited until they were struck by inspiration, entire industries would grind to a halt–even unrelated industries like processed food, because even those need packaging design from graphic designers.
In some industries the deadlines are brutal, and either you perform on demand, or you lose all your clients and drop off the radar. For example, a film composer often only get a week or two to compose more than an hour’s worth of full-blown orchestral music like the epic scores you hear in blockbuster movies. If film composers all waited for the muse to come so they can channel the spirits of Prokofiev and Stravinsky, then they’d have ended their careers before they even got their foot in the door.
The most essential skill that a professional writer possesses is the ability to write even when the muse isn’t hanging around, and be able to revise or rewrite so that the final result will be just as compelling as if it was written with the muse hovering over his shoulder (or sitting on his lap, depending on the kind of relationship he has with his muse). I think this is one of the most important lessons, and probably the hardest lesson, for aspiring writers to learn. I suppose if you don’t care to become a professional writer and only want to write for enjoyment or self-expression, then you can take years or even decades to write a single novel and that would be fine; but if there’s any desire to write professionally and have a career as a writer, then it’s necessary to buckle down and learn some discipline.
Sure, it’s blissful when you’ve got the muse’s cute little bottom sitting on your lap, but she’s a fickle creature and you better learn to write without her, or else become her plaything, to be cast aside without warning, and possibly never being in her favor again.
I’m slowly weaning myself off of the addictive high supplied by my alluring but capricious and cruel muse. I no longer want to be controlled by her, allowing her to mess with my enthusiasm, my confidence, and my passion. One day, I’ll be strong enough so that when she comes and purrs in my ear, I’ll just throw her over my shoulder, take her to the bedroom, and ravish her, but I will not pine after her like a love-sick puppy afterwards when she gets up and leaves without saying good-bye. She’ll merely be a fun fling that adds a little extra spice to my writing routine now and then, but I’ll live out a perfectly happy life even if I never see her again.
Yeah, that’s the kind of relationship I have with my muse. I bet yours isn’t all that different, and I bet you want to wean yourself off of her too, if you could.
It took me a long time to read through Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison, and I finally finished it recently. It’s not that the book was hard to read, just that I wasn’t really in the mindset for all the digressions that had nothing to do with the real emotional core of the story. It really should have been split into two separate books, where all the anecdotal detours are taken out and put into a different book, and the relationship between Bone, her mother, and her step-father become the sole focus. For me, this is a cautionary tale of what happens when an author doesn’t understand what’s truly essential in a story and what’s superfluous and diluting to the core of the narrative.
Overall, I thought it was a good book, and the prose was earthy and sincere. The ending was heartbreaking and the pivotal scene where Bone’s entire world finally catches on fire and turns into a maddening blaze was very powerful. It’s just too bad that the author took all those irrelevant and inconsequential detours in order to get to that moment.
I’ve always loved the Samoyed breed of dogs because they are one of the most beautiful breeds, and also have lovely personalities. Elena’s nephew recently got a Samoyed puppy, and he’s been pouring all his time and energy into the little fur ball. He brought her over to visit recently and I took some pics of the little cutie:
Here she is a few weeks later:
The Chinese are some of the most unimaginative people alive when it comes to naming pets, as you can’t throw a rock without hitting someone that’s named their dog “Lucky.” And yes, this Samoyed puppy is also named Lucky, just like every other dog we come across in China.
There is this gorgeous Samoyed with a hilarious name that lives in our residential community: 翠花 （pronounced “Tzwei Hwa”), which means “Jade Flower.” To someone who’s not Chinese, this might sound like a beautiful, poetic name full of cultural depth, but to the Chinese, it’s a dorky name for a dog, reeking of that country bumpkin vibe. The first time Elena met the dog and learned of her name, she couldn’t believe her ears, and she couldn’t wait to get home and tell me about it. When I heard of the dog’s name, I nearly died.
So, what are the dorkiest pet names you’ve ever heard?
I finished playing Crysis 2 recently, and it’s been quite fun, although the lack of freedom compared to the first Crysis game (or even Far Cry, the spiritual predecessor) was a bit disappointing. A lot people have complained that Crysis 2′s graphics on the consoles are a step backwards, since the first game was PC only, allowing for really high-end graphics running on hardware that easily ran circles around either the Xbox 360 or Playstation 3. Personally, I think whatever differences are irrelevant because the level of graphics on the current consoles when it comes to the big AAA titles with focus on eye-candy is already very impressive, and I really have nothing to complain about. Crysis 2 is one such game where I have nothing to complain about graphically.
Story-wise, it’s pretty standard alien invasion stuff without any real emotional resonance or compelling plot twists. Essentially, it has no heart and soul and is just an excuse to kill stuff and blow shit up.
One thing I noticed over and over in the game is that other than a female character in the scripted scenes, and during the very final scene, there were essentially no women at all in the entire city of New York. All the diseased corpses and sick people are all males with similar average build and similar clothes, and there were also no children and elderly folks, or even people of different weight and height–everyone looks so generic that I felt like I was playing a game from the 90′s.
The nanosuit game mechanics was fun, and you pretty much have to rely on it to survive at all in the game, so thankfully the suit wasn’t a pain in the ass to use, and was genuinely useful. The weapon balance was terrible, since you could pretty much stick to a few choices and never even bother with any of the other alternatives, and that defeats the whole purpose of having a full arsenal to choose from for different situations. Game designers are mostly really bad at this, and they need to learn to design their games so that all the different weapons would be used at some point and for different purposes.
There were a lot more scripted events this time than the previous games, including Far Cry, and it was kind of annoying since they keep taking control away from the player during these scripted events. They need to learn some lessons from Valve and how the Half-Life franchise designs scripted events without ever taking away control from the player.
The score for Crysis 2 is excellent (mainly by composers Borislav Slavov and Tilman Sillescu), being head-above-shoulders better than the similar hybrid orchestral/electronic scores that’s the standard today. But I find it really annoying when Hans Zimmer’s name is plastered all over the promotion for the score when he only did a few tracks–in fact, it’s mainly Lorne Balfe (who work at Remote Control) that did them, and I suspect Hans just sort of supervised (being the head of Remote Control). If that wasn’t the case, then why would we see both of their names on every single track that supposed Hans composed? It’s nothing new really, where the biggest names involved in any project are always promoted as if they contributed so much, when in fact they contributed very little in the grand scheme of things. Movies do this all the time, where some big name actor with 2 lines and 3 minutes of screen time is plastered all over the movie’s promotion. I personally find this practice really disgusting and dishonest, bordering on false advertising, and I wish everyone would just stop doing it.
I enjoyed Crysis 2, but it’s not the kind of game I would ever think about when someone asks me about my favorite games.
Bioshock 2 is one of those games where I was surprised by how much I liked it. While I agree that it’s obvious the motivation behind the game was to milk the franchise for more money, I think the quality of the game itself more than makes up for whatever distaste I had for such a motivation. It’s obvious to me that Bioshock 2 wasn’t just a subpar game pushed out to make a quick buck–it is genuinely a high quality game with a lot of heart, and in fact, it was emotionally more involving for me than the first game.
For all the logical reasons I can think of, the first Bioshock game should have become one of my favorite games of all time, especially considering how much I loved System Shock 2, but the one thing I couldn’t love about the game was the lack of emotional involvement (although intellectually, the game resonated with me greatly). I always felt like I was simply a bystander observing the various deranged freaks of Rapture, but I never once felt like I cared enough outside of simple curiosity and fascination with the strange place. I had no emotional stake in that world, so it never won over my heart.
Towards the ending of the first game, it finally connected with me emotionally when I had to protect the Little Sisters, but by then, the game was almost finished. With Bioshock 2, they must’ve noticed how much players responded emotionally to that emotional connection to the Little Sisters towards the end, and decided to focus on it as the main storyline, and thus firmly established your emotional connection to the game right from the beginning. As a man who in the past really wanted a daughter, protecting the Little Sisters with my life was emotionally very involving, as was the connection with Eleanor. Hearing the Little Sisters say “Daddy, you always protect me from the monsters” just make me melt inside.
In terms of gameplay mechanics, I think the sequel is too easy. I’m one of those people who always pick “normal” or “medium” difficulty, because I think that’s the balance that game designers usually strive for, thus represents the optimal experience the most. On that level of difficulty, I found that I always had an over-abundance of ammo and health, and my wallet was almost always full even when I kept trying to spend as much money as I could at the vending machines. I suppose as soon as I noticed this, I should have changed the difficulty option to “hard,” but I don’t like doing that because I find the change in difficulty on hard usually feels a bit too artificial, and no longer feel like what the game designer originally intended.
The graphics this time was improved, especially in the character models. The Little Sisters actually look cute this time around, instead of freakish like the first game. The facial animation is still abysmal compared to many other AAA games though. In fact, after you save a Little Sister, her thanking you doesn’t even contain any mouth movements. I don’t know how these things end up getting overlooked or deemed not important enough. Maybe this game WAS rushed after all.
Rapture have always been, and always will be the main star of the Bioshock experience. In Bioshock 2, the city of Rapture is just as engrossing as in the first game, and without any retreading of the same places. It’s hard to think of another game where the world itself is so atmospheric, so fascinating, so beautiful, and so terrifying at the same time.
I think having played Bioshock 2, it actually improved my experience with Bioshock 1, and now I can’t really separate them anymore and must think of them as one big game instead of two. Some people don’t like Bioshock 2, but for me, it actually elevated the entire Bioshock franchise for me, and if I were to consider both games together, I would rank it as one of my all time favorite games, and that’s something Bioshock 1 couldn’t have done on its own. I think that says a lot about how good I think Bioshock 2 is.
Quickie TV/movie reviews:
Arrested Development – I have heard so much about this TV show for years and I finally slugged my way though all three seasons. For the most part, it’s really juvenile and crass, without characters you can actually care about. Everyone’s severely dysfunctional and clownish, except for the main character Michael, and because everyone is so outrageously selfish, greedy, and heartless, it just becomes like a circus of freaks. I don’t mind oddball characters, but when everyone’s that way, it becomes a bore fest of crude and predicable jokes. I’m surprised it’s gotten that much praise over the years. I personally like my comedy with some heart too, not just a train wreck of despicable human beings parading around.
The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters – An overrated documentary about people who are obsessed with the classic Donkey Kong arcade game, and their quest to achieve the world’s highest score. It’s actually kind of a shallow film because they characters themselves have shallow motivations for why they do what they do, and to try to force profound meaning onto these people just feels like reaching too far.
Somewhere – The main reason to watch this film is for Elle Fanning, who was just radiant in this film. The Fanning sisters are two of the most talented young actresses of their generation; they have that special talent of looking like they’re not acting at all. Dakota has now crossed into that awkward age where people don’t quite know what to make of her, and I’m personally not impressed by her latest efforts. Without that “precocious child” charm, she’s fairly bland as a teenager. I hope the same thing does not happen to Elle.
The film itself has no real plot, just a series of scenes showing the main lead as a lonely and detached famous movie actor who despite his celebrity status, feels absolutely nothing and was basically just sleepwalking through his life with indifference. When the daughter he barely knows become his responsibility for a short while, his life seems to be just a little bit more colorful as he spends time with his daughter and tries to bond with her. But as soon as she leaves for summer camp, he falls apart as the emptiness of his life returns and becomes too much to bear.
In a way, this film was sort of like Lost In Translation (a film I love), but without the sense of humor, the heartwarming friendship/romance, or the quirky backdrop of a foreign culture. So, in other words, if you stripped away all the charm from Lost In Translation, you get this film.
Phoebe In Wonderland – Another film starring Elle Fanning, though she was a bit younger in this film. I liked the premise of the film, but I didn’t like the execution. I find it a bit disappointing when writers are incapable of understanding the difference between precocious children and children saying adult dialogues. When writers make the mistake of doing the latter, the work becomes pretentious and contrived. Elle was amazing in this film though, displaying the same kind of radiance that her sister Dakota did at the same age. Their parents must be incredibly proud.
Body Snatchers – This 1993 remake is more visceral than the previous versions and in general an okay film, but something about the audio mix just really rubbed me the wrong way. The entire movie sounded like everything was overdubbed later in the studio and had this unnatural awkwardness. Some older films have this sound, but you never hear it in more modern films, since I think audio engineers have since then figured out how to make everything sound more natural.
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo – A well-crafted thriller, with one of the most interesting heroines in recent memory. You really feel for her when others abuse her, and then, sweet revenge! I’m going to watch the rest of the trilogy and see if the other two are any good.
Unstoppable – A pretty standard action/thriller in the form of a runaway train. Thank God at least Tony Scoot didn’t go overboard with excessively gimmicky editing and camera movements.
The Men Who Stare At Goats – A not particularly funny satire comedy about the military’s misguided attempt to train soldiers into super soldiers with psychic super powers.
X-Men Origins: Wolverine – Not as good as the other X-Men films, being smaller in scale, with less at stake, not as elegant in execution, and also not as fun in general. But for a comic book movies, it’s not bad really.
Black Swan – I enjoyed the paranoid intensity of the film, but overall, the main motif of the story isn’t really one that resonates with me personally. I’m also slightly tired of seeing Natalie Portman playing roles where she’s falling apart emotionally all the time. She’s very good at it, but I want to see her do something totally different now.
Rango – While some of the dialogue was witty and it was refreshing to see an animated 3D feature with talking animals that was obviously aimed at adults, I found the overall experience lacking in emotional resonance or satisfying character development, while the plot was highly derivative and predicable.
Mars Needs Moms – It plot was so simplistic that I felt it was even too simple for children. Perhaps I’m just spoiled by animated films that are a lot more sophisticated, such as those from Pixar. The emotional core was also not very powerful, thus was unable to move me (again, Pixar destroys the competition when it comes to emotionally resonant storytelling).
Winter’s Bone – An excellent film with a poetically sparse toughness at its core. Jennifer Lawrence was just amazing as the 17 yr-old protagonist whose courage surpasses most adults if faced with the same harrowing situation.
The Other Guys – There were some genuinely funny moments, but as a whole, it tries too hard to be funny and doesn’t know when to ease up for better timing.
I Am Number Four – A fairly standard sci-fi action flick that doesn’t really stand out from the crowd. It’s also quite predictable in both the storyline and the execution.
Animal Kingdom – This could have been a much more engaging film if it had been directed by someone else–maybe someone like Michael Mann, but because the director stubbornly forced very sterile camera work on almost every scene, regardless of the psychological and emotional intensity of them, he suffocates the film in a pool of contrived banal atmosphere and downplays every single emotionally intense moment that should have been devastating. The ending is great, but by then, the director had already snuffed the drama out of the film.
Twilight: Eclipse – Not a whole lot of imagination behind this entire series, and it’s curious why this unoriginal and unremarkable series became such a phenomenon. I suppose despite it’s lack of real depth and emotional resonance, it ticks all the right boxes for teenage girls and lonely housewives. It’s almost embarrassing to see how the female fantasies are played out in the storyline, but then again, I suppose to most females, the transparency of most male fantasies in the media is just as laughable.
The King’s Speech – A pleasant and simple film about friendship and overcoming one’s fears and past. What makes it interesting is the fact the friendship is between a prince/king and a commoner, and it’s the commoner who helps the royalty triumph over his inner demons.
My Summer of Love – A film about lesbian love and what happens when that love is based on lies and illusion. The depiction of the romance itself feels a bit clumsy and not quite convincing enough.
Drive Angry – A completely ludicrous film that’s so over-the-top that you feel embarrassed for it. It tried to go for the grindhouse sensibility, but the execution just didn’t feel right. At this point, Nicolas Cage needs to be put out of his misery. Just stop taking on more films. Go write and direct or produce, but please just stop acting, because there’s nothing left to see anymore.
Source Code – A very entertaining and engrossing sci-fi thriller. It’s the kind of film where you don’t really care if the science behind it all is totally logical or not, because you have invested enough of your emotions to not care anymore.
The Fighter – Excellent film that explores family, loyalty, and the fighting spirit that one must have in order to make dreams come true. Christian Bale was amazing in this film–he was completely transformed into another person from the inside out. I already have immense respect for him as an actor, but this film elevated him and put him in the pantheon of the greatest actors who ever lived, IMO. And lucky for us, he still has a long career in front of him.
Paul – A very enjoyable buddy comedy that feels a lot more natural than other comedies with fantastical premises, and this is considering the fact its main protagonist is a grey little alien dude.
No Strings Attached – Natalie Portman has the ability to elevate any film she’s in because she’s simply that good of an actress, and because she’s the female lead, I think I enjoyed this film more than I would have if some lesser actress played the same role. I usually can’t stand Ashton Kutcher, since I generally can’t stand loud and obnoxious people, but he managed to play the lead role fairly low-key and likable.
Sucker Punch – The story is paper-thin and exists only as an excuse for all the cartoony action scenes with excessive slow-motion, dressed with teenage boy fantasies. It could have been so much more if only the writing had more substance. At this point, I’m beginning to feel that Dawn of the Dead was a fluke, and that Zack Snyder is really just a one-trick pony.
Stake Land – A decent post-apocalyptic vampire flick–sort of like The Road meets I Am Legend. It’s doesn’t display any extraordinary amount of talent or vision, but it’s solid.
Paranormal Activity 2 – I rarely run across movies that make me feel like I just wasted precious time on something so meaningless and so unremarkable. This is one of those movies. It simply repeats the exact same formula as the first film, except the pacing and the scares are not nearly as effective. They could’ve at least tried to innovate a bit instead of just repeating the exact same formula, because we’ve already seen it and know exactly how the template works.
Hanna – An action thriller/arthouse hybrid that stars the mesmerizing Saoirse Ronan. The plot and the characterizations are underdeveloped, although the premise is intriguing. Cate Blanchet is so underused in the film that it was tragic. She is capable of so much more than a cardboard cutout villain. Eric Bana’s role could have been played by just about anyone, since it’s such a generic character.
For an action thriller, some of the fight choreography and filming was disappointing. A couple of fight scene felt completely lacking in dynamic and power, as if the actors were just rehearsing the scenes instead of going all out and making it as believable as possible. There wasn’t enough sense of speed and impact, and I’m not talking about faking it by speeding up the frames or using over-the-top sound effects–I’m talking about simple believability. I can’t even recall the last time I saw actions scenes shot so badly.
The score by The Chemical Brothers is one of the worst film scores I have ever heard in my life. I completely understand what The Chemical Brothers and the director attempted, but they failed. They wanted an edgy, unconventional, and hip score, but the fact is, The Chemical Brothers wouldn’t know what film scoring is even if it slapped them upside the head. There were so many scenes with inappropriate and ineffective instrumentation, convoluted arrangements, contradicting sense of rhythm, and even the sound design of the synth patches they used were completely inappropriate for the intended scenes. For example, where a sinister low distorted drone and grating 16th note bassline would’ve been perfect, they’d use some high-pitched bleep and random synth effects that felt completely out of place with the mood or rhythm of the scene. The attempt at edginess also ran counter to what the editing and pacing of the action actually was on the screen.
Please, don’t hire the Chemical Brothers for any future film scoring. If you must hire a hip electronic act to do scoring, try Orbital, Daft Punk or Trent Reznor instead.
Blood the Last Vampire – This live action adaptation of the anime got torn to pieces by the critics, and it really isn’t that bad compared to any other standard Hollywood action flick. Sure, the budget is much smaller and the special effects much less impressive (in fact, downright embarrassing in some parts), but the core of the film is no worse than other mainstream action flicks playing in the theater at the time. Gianna Jun (Jun Ji-Hyun) nailed the Saya character, and I was impressed by her English. I had the feeling that if this film was made ten years ago, Zhang Ziyi would have been a likely candidate to play the Saya character.
The Adjustment Bureau – This film reminded me of Dark City in its concept, but with a very different premise and tone. I really enjoyed the film’s message and what it tried to convey in terms of emotions. It may not be realistic or totally logical, but its heart is in the right place, and its sincerity really moved me. The one glaring problem I had with it was that it sorely needed one extra scene showing the female leading trying to reach the male lead after he left her in the hospital, and the case workers continued to block her efforts until she gave up. It just didn’t make sense to me why she didn’t even try to contact him for an explanation. Wouldn’t she wonder if maybe he got into an accident and that’s why he disappeared? If it was only a matter of pride, then I don’t buy it. People just don’t behave that way–we have this built-in mechanism where we demand closure, and she displayed none of that, which made her unbelievable as a character.
My Sassy Girl – This remake of a Korean film was a direct-to-DVD release, and it’s one of the rare instances where I think it didn’t have to be doomed to that fate, since it’s not that bad at all when compared to any other Hollywood romantic comedy. The opening title sequence looks like cheap television cinematography, but the film itself doesn’t, so if they had just reshot the opening title sequence, it could have been a theatrical release. Compared to the Korean version, it’s less farcical and more logical, and I liked it better than the Korean version (but then again, I was not impressed by the Korean version at all).
Just go With It – These types of romantic comedies are so predictable that you can almost swap the characters of the storyline between them and they would still be the same films. Other than Brooklyn Decker’s jaw-dropping hotness in some scenes, this is just like any other mainstream Hollywood romantic comedy.
Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps – I don’t quite see the reason for making this sequel. It doesn’t really make any profound statements about the recent economic meltdown, and if the only real meat to this story is the family drama, then perhaps this sequel should not have been made at all.
Zack and Miri Make A Porno – I don’t think I laughed, or even chuckled throughout this Kevin Smith letdown. It just wasn’t very imaginative for such a wild premise. Kevin Smith really is one of the most overrated filmmakers out there, because he’s essentially a one-trick pony and that trick got old a long time ago.
Chloe – I was surprised that Atom Egoyan made this, since it’s more of a conventional thriller than artsy study of broken people that he usually makes. I enjoyed it mostly for the Julianne Moore’s great acting, and the bit of eye candy from a nude Amanda Seyfried was also quite welcome, but emotionally this film just isn’t as satisfying as some of his previous films.
Office Space – I had seen part of this film many years ago, but I didn’t feel compelled to finish it. I decided to give it another try, since I have pretty much seen all of Mike Judge’s other films. I can’t say it got better the second time around–it’s still kind of just an okay film that makes you chuckle a little here and there, but that’s about it. I get the humor and the satire, but as a film, it doesn’t rate that high for me as it does for the cult following it has.