Monday, August 5, 2002

The Funniest Distraction Online

When you think of great film critics you think of Shallot, Siskle, Ebert, Roper (whoever he is). Add Mr. Cranky to your list.

By means of an introduction, the best we can offer is a window into this critic's mind. Where many critics review by a system of thumbs or stars, Mr. Cranky measures films on a totally different scale – bombs:

Almost tolerable

Consistently annoying

Will require therapy after viewing

As good as a poke in the eye with a sharp stick

So godawful that it ruptured the very fabric of space and time with the sheer overpowering force of its mediocrity.

Proof that Jesus died in vain.

Since 1995, Shadow Culture has been producing Mr. Cranky (who, it seems, is actually three men writing under one pseudonym). Each week their site, features scathing reviews of current theatrical and rental releases.

The real pleasure of Mr. Cranky, though, isn't his opinion, per se. It's the writing. Each review is so bitter and smart that you'll be hard pressed not to email every one you come across to your email clique. When Mr. Cranky is in top form, when his reviews are so side-splitting that they just have to be read aloud to your co-workers or loved-ones down the hall, than the reviewed film actually becomes irrelevant. In many reviews, the description of the movie-going experience, not the film itself, is the real editorial subject.

There are priceless gems in Mr. Cranky's archived reviews. "The Tigger Movie," "I Am Sam," and "Battlefield Earth" are Cloudjammer's favorites (the latter of these two reviews is responsible for converting me into a Mr. Cranky devotee), but his review of "Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows" is not to be missed. This movie-goers tragedy stretched Mr. Cranky's rating system past it's former limit and created the "nuke" rating.

So go check out – we hit his site at least once a week and everyone we've ever directed to it has become an immediate fan. fb

They're Cooking with Flags

You can hardly go a day without seeing a news report showing someone, somewhere, putting the stars and stripes to the torch. It's become so mundane a spectacle that we're desensitized to the act —we forget that the incineration of a US flag is supposed to be a mournful ceremonial act. Instead, it's a protest. A dam breaks in Syria, out come the flags and matches. Germany places a tariff on cornmeal or jobless rates rise in Korea, Old Glory goes to the flame.

But why do they do it? Why is our red, white, and blue an object of worldwide incendiary hatred?

In our pseudo-ally Saudi Arabia, activists (of the non-terrorist persuasion), burn our flag and effigies of our president in protest of the ten-thousand American soldiers stationed in their country. What they fail to protest is the Monarchical government that invited those soldiers within the borders and built the multi-million dollar complexes they inhabit. Do they burn the green standard of the Saudi kingdom? Of course not. Our Saudi allies welcome us in English and defame us in Arabic. We are the menace, the intruders, the meddlers.

Worse still are the occasions of hatred inspired by our lack of intervention. Palestinian nationalists, frustrated with the Clinton-administration's progress toward the realization of peace in the Levant, burned our flag in protest. When the Bush-administration took a hands-off policy in the region, they burned the flag in protest of our absence. Damned if we do, damned if we don't

Notice the flags themselves. Certainly ours is not the only national standard put to the flame; Britain and Israel have their fair share of bonfires to their credit. But our flag must be hard to come by — often the flags being burned are home-made replicas fashioned from bed-sheets and paint. They're easy to spot: the stripes will be in the wrong alternating order, the canton will be the wrong color or filled with Stars of David. But every now and them you see a demonstration setting fire to an authentic American flag, colors crisp and sewn edges clean and straight.

Where are these people getting these flags?

Someone must be making a tremendous amount of money selling these flags to Hamas rally coordinators and Oregon anarchists. Perhaps we should put indestructible VIN numbers in the stitching, like we do with cars, so that government investigators can track the burned flag back to it's vendor. Perhaps we should make the flags out of something that burns noxious just to mess with the protestors.

I don't mean to tout the jingoist trumpet. Does the US meddle too much in the affairs of nations? Absolutely. Do we give them cause to hate us? Likely. But the reasons for our tampering are much simpler than I think most political scientists realize. The US isn't, fundamentally, a bully or a tyrant. We just want everyone to get along. Live in peace and make money — that might as well be the State Department's foreign policy creed. If there is instability or unrest in your nation how can we make money together? How can we all live in consumer bliss? Malls just don't last against the backdrop of war.

Those ten-thousand soldiers in Saudi Arabia are there, ostensibly, to prevent invasion. The peace process in the Levant is working to create two safe, stable prosperous countries — Israel and Palestine. The war against terror is meant to quiet a ring of global criminals. Are these really causes for such animosity?

Depends on where you're sitting, I suppose.

I say let them burn the flags. Each time I see them setting alight an Old Glory I see the strength and influence our country — something we should be proud of. We can't even go to our local polls without foreign governments and interest groups watching with baited breath. fb

An Online Army of One

Before you can compete online, you must master basic marksmanshipAmerica's Army requires players to work together to complete missionsClose quarters combat in America's ArmyRemember the movie "The Last Starfighter?" It was a mid-eighties sci-fi flick notable for only two things: It was the first feature film to use computer generated special effects and it introduced the comical idea of military recruitment through video games. The premise involved an alien race, desperate for starfighter pilots, distributing Atari-like arcade games to various planets and recruiting the highest-scoring players for service in their interstellar war. (Advanced aliens? Pah! The game wasn't even 16-bit!).

But as is too often the case, life has imitated fiction (I can't bring myself to refer to "Starfighter" as art). The United States Army, in its infinite wisdom and budget, has recently unveiled a video game of it's own – America's Army.

Based on the popular Unreal engine, America's Army is an online video game that allows players to slip into the role of an American soldier. You proceed through basic training and, depending on how well you do, have the opportunity to advance to sniper school (modules for Ranger and Airborne schools will be released soon, according to

Cool? Definitely. A practical use of taxpayer money? Well, that depends on how you look at it.

The military is a notorious big spender. Even before the recent controversies involving rampant credit abuse among the officer corps, our uniformed services were well known for their thousand-dollar toilets and multi-million-dollar aircraft. And they love to spend our taxpayer dollars on advertising. The Army and Air Force have spent millions promoting their new identities; all five military branches have invested in enormous recruitment campaigns. The mere fact that we can recite their slogans – "An Army of one," "The few, the proud, the Marines," "Cross into the blue" – is testament to their collective marketing machine.

America's Army took three years to build and has, to date, cost taxpayers 6.3 million dollars. That may sound like a lot, but compared to all the "Army of one" commercials running prime time it's small change. What's more, America's Army has two distinct features in its favor: it targets a specific market of people very successfully and it's fun as hell.

Lieutenant Colonel Casey Wardynski, the originator and director of America's Army, saw a niche into which the military could easily slip. Online multiplayer war games are extremely popular and, under the Army's subtle direction, could be an extremely effective way to present the values of what it takes to be a solider.

The U.S. Army is using America's Army to recruit people through video games. Sounds like the premise to a movie.

The game is amazing, though. Working with a team of other online players, you fight a variety of missions against ethnically-ambiguous terrorists. The scenery and graphics are stunning – the game play fast and compelling.

Perhaps the neatest interface innovation America's Army brings to the table is that everyone is the hero. In the conventional online model, one group of players would act as soldiers and another would act as terrorists. In America's Army, however, every online player is a US soldier. While two competing teams of players would see themselves as the good guy in green fatigues, the opposing team is always rendered as the terrorists. It's all a matter of perspective– one I'm sure wouldn't be lost on Lt. Col. Wardynski or Donald Rumsfeld. Post 9/11, America's Army would have had their funding cut if they had been encouraging online terrorism.

America's Army is just the vanguard of a wave of military video games coming our way. Over the next five years the Army is planning a series of games, from interpersonal role-playing games like their "Soldier" project to developments that would allow career America's Army players to rise in rank and command platoons of lower ranking e-recruits online. Whether or not the Navy or Air Force follow suit is anyone's guess (the Navy website is practically a video game already).

"The Last Starfighter" these games are not. America's Army rocks. Only time will tell if it actually drives online gamers to their local recruiter. fb