Game Off

Osculate my manbag, Microsoft.

Why Microsoft’s Xbox division ought to think a little harder about the people who pay their wages.

I cancelled my Xbox Live subscription two days ago, and now that I’ve calmed down a little I would like to express fully the reasons behind my decision.

On the 16th of April I received an email stating that my account had been suspended. Why? My profile bio was comprised of the sentence “Your boy is back, bitches." Not the most mature of things for a married, 33 year-old man to have in his profile, granted, but the word "bitches" is common parlance and no longer used solely as a derogatory term toward women. Not only that, but Microsoft’s own system for administering customer profiles vets each change a user makes to their profile and blocks language outwith their boundary of acceptability. Clearly, at the time of editing my profile they themselves considered the word "bitches" entirely acceptable.

My profile had been like this for some time. I’m not exactly sure how long because I don’t generally make a note of these things, but it has certainly read the same for well over a year now. Whether it popped up on their radar through server sifting or someone making a complaint I don’t know, but Microsoft’s response was not to send an email saying “Hey, Craig, we appreciate the money you’ve been throwing at us for the past ten years, but could you please change that bio or we’ll suspend your account”. That would have been reasonable.

That would have been almost like two adults having a mature exchange of concerns.

No, Microsoft’s response is to throw their multi-billion dollar rattle from their multi-billion dollar pram and immediately suspend a user’s account. A paying user, mind, as unlike other services from alternative vendors Xbox Live is a monthly subscription service that ensures servers are maintained and that match-making of online gaming as well as content delivery is swift and efficient. That’s one of the reasons I went with the 360 this gen as opposed to PlayStation 3.

Now, if Microsoft are so sensitive to the use of a minor derogatory term in the pursuit of their oh-so family friendly online walled garden of Eden in which genteel children can play Viva Pinata without being exposed to the word “bitch” in someone’s profile then so be it. I would, however, like to point out that on any number of occasions I’ve been subjected to abusive language over voice chat, a huge proportion of it coming from children the pitch of whose voices make it apparent they haven’t yet reached puberty.

I and countless others like me are routinely subjected to children of the ages five and up who have yet to learn that calling someone a “f**king c**t” from behind the anonymity of an internet profile is neither big nor clever. Actually, a lot of supposed adults haven’t learned that either, but I tolerate it in all cases because I have the choice to be the bigger man and turn voice chat off if I find it offensive.

Why, then, don’t Microsoft implement age ratings for users, the same way they support parental controls for age-rated games content through the console’s operating system? The answer, I am increasingly beginning to suspect, is because they themselves are…well, go back a paragraph because I myself won’t use that kind of language freely in a public forum.

For anyone who keeps up with the gaming press and/or general zeitgeist there are any number of exhibits to support this, your honour. Consider Adam Orth’s recent address of customer concerns that the next Xbox’s rumoured always-on internet requirement could unnecessarily limit the functionality of a fully paid product.

Or how about the “Red Ring of Death" controversy; a scandal so notorious that it has entered the common lexicon such that even my 60-something parents asked if that was the problem when my first 360 packed in and went the way of the dodo. Microsoft have sold literally millions of consoles that they knew were faulty, choosing instead to implement a dubiously misnomer-ed “customer care” service in which they acknowledged you had been sold a faulty product, collected it from you (if it wasn’t past a certain age) and several weeks later returned a different, reconditioned machine most likely previously owned by some sticky-fingered little oik who took considerably less care of it than you yourself did.

Despite the fact this fault was acknowledged by Microsoft the replacement program didn’t apply to me because my machine was 3 years and 2 months old, so I was forced to give them my money again for a new console to continue playing the games I had already invested in. Had I displayed any presence of mind I would have gone with my gut instinct at that point and called it a day right there and then. However I naively believed in second chances, even for huge multinationals who admitted to hawking faulty products. Not any more.

Microsoft allow their paying customers to administer the entirety of their accounts online, including subscription renewals, bar one minor aspect; in order to cancel your subscription you need to phone and wait in a very, very long queue. How many people have wanted to quit and given up due to this barrier I can only imagine, as there are plenty of weak-willed individuals who would rather have a quiet yet expensive life rather than meet any kind of resistance. I totally understand that, because when a corporation like Microsoft who so openly abuse their customers beat you down relentlessly over the course of years it’s easy to give in.

In this instance I have decided that while I cannot compete with Microsoft in terms of the size of my rattle or my pram, I can at the very least display bigger balls and no longer give them my money hand over fist for sub-standard products, sub-standard customer service and a wantonly arrogant attitude to the paying public that beggars belief.

So ta-ta, Xbox. Adios, adieu, so long, fare well, auf wiedersehen goodbye. There are an awful lot of ways to continue spending my money on gaming as I have done over the last thirty years, and it certainly won’t be with you.

Holga 120CFN, Kodak Tri-X 400, HC-110B View high resolution

Holga 120CFN, Kodak Tri-X 400, HC-110B

Some things I have learned about Bavaria in the last 4 1/2 weeks

Four and a half weeks isn’t really time to claim that you’ve full immersed yourself in a foreign culture, but with a week and a half of my tenure here still to go I would like to share with you some unavoidable facts regarding this region of my host nation, Germany.


1) Beer is the single greatest argument for the continued existence of Bavaria as a distinct entity within its host nation.


For the last month I have had unfettered access to what qualifies quite easily as the best quality beer I have yet encountered in my 15 years as a legally entitled consumer of alcoholic beverages. Each of the notable local breweries produces, without exception, amazing beers. And they are cheap, mind. Stupidly cheap. As in “I’m Scottish and even I think this is cheap" cheap.


So to clarify, fantastic, cheap beer.


2) There are still people here who wear lederhosen as a matter of course.


This is both brilliant and disturbing in the same instant. These people tend to be older, but their casual yet committed adherence to their region’s traditional garb, even as they stroll along the concourse of a hIgh-end fashion outlet, exudes an intoxicating air of “f—- you” that even an occasionally kilt-wearing Scottish dude can’t quite appreciate. Still, they are lederhosen and lederhosen are wrong.


3) Ain’t no grasshopper like a Bayern grasshopper.


Maybe it’s the beer, but the wildlife round here is definitely on something. From bizarrely fuzzy and delicate spiders to the disturbingly gargantuan insects, everything that creeps around here is just the wrong side of unsettling.


4) Munich is a very, very cool city.


That air of nonchalance the lederhosen dudes I mentioned earlier exude? Munich itself exudes that from every brick and square inch of mortar. Except nobody there is in lederhosen. They’re too cool.


5) People around here don’t queue.


For a Brit this is disturbing. I spend a preset quota of my life in queues, even if I don’t need to, just as a matter of national duty. Here they either don’t know what a queue is, or more likely just don’t care. Oh, you’ve been waiting an hour on this bus which just turned up? F—- you. I’m going first.


6) The beer is cheap. And amazing.


7) You, making the effort to speak German, are a massive source of amusement.


Unlike other European countries I’ve visited where people seem too appreciate a foreigner making some effort to speak in their native tongue, Bavarians tend to just laugh in your face, often uncontrollably. This isn’t even true of other areas in Germany I’ve visited, but it certainly is here. Be prepared to become a source of unlimited amusement should you actually be the kind of person who likes to make an effort out of nothing other than common, basic courtesy.


The other day I decided I would insist on speaking English all day, in a futile effort at making some kind of point. I realised upon reflection that evening that essentially I had just been acting like a Sun reader in Benidorm.


8) Bavaria seems to think its actually in Austria.


Every morning I turn on the TV looking for world news, and the local channels are broadcasting live feeds from webcams in Vienna. Reporters are often talking about Vienna, or Austria in general. And no, this wasn’t an Austrian channel.


9) Don’t joke about Bavaria thinking its actually in Austria.


Shouting “GET TO THA CHOPPA!” in a comically bad Arnie accent in a feeble attempt to get one’s own back on someone who has just spent 5 minutes lauding at you for trying to speak some German will certainly get their attention. Just not in a good way.


10) Traditional Bavarian greetings are confusing.


The customary “Servus!" (sehr-vooss) means, in common usage, both “Hello!" and "Good riddance!" depending on the direction of the subject’s travel to/from you. Take it from me, don’t get confused.


The other, more traditional greeting of “Groß Got!" (quite literally "Great God!”) is just strange and sounds more like something Christopher Lloyd would have shouted in Back to the Future.


11) The bad points above can all be forgiven.


Because, and I’m not sure if I mentioned this, Bavarians make massively awesome, insanely cheap beer.

Why you didn’t actually like The Avengers.

I woke up to several revelations this morning:

1) I have been working awfully hard for three weeks straight and am very tired.

2) the first wee of the morning is a doozy when you’ve eaten asparagus for dinner.

3) The Avengers movie, which I watched via VoD last night, isn’t actually all that good.

Now, before we go any further let me qualify a few things. Generally speaking I have no beef or quarrel with the current spate of superhero movies. Of those I have seen sure, there have been disappointments (Iron Man 2 was a bit of a soulless crock), but there have actually been some halfway decent ones too (the first Iron Man was an unexpected delight, and nobody honestly expected the campness of Thor to translate as well as it did). I was never going to give my time to The Green Lantern so the relative merits or otherwise of that particular episode, which I believe are pretty much widely agreed upon by the paying public, are of no consequence to me.

News of The Avengers movie didn’t necessarily set my soul on fire, but I was at the very least interested to see how the “band of superheroes” concept was going to be wrangled onto the screen, and, crucially, by whom. When it was announced that Joss Whedon would direct and co-write I was, to say the least, presently surprised. Whedon has long been a figure of fond repute in sci-fi circles, and a man who has proven talent both for writing and directing.

It is markedly unusual for Hollywood to entrust a mega-budget franchise hopeful to someone of Whedon’s notable intelligence because, you know, he might make a film where people, like, talk and stuff and, like, nothing blows up and there are totally boring bits where, like, characters are developed and stuff. That’s why Michael Bay keeps getting handed blank cheques made payable to Transformers Holding Company: he’s not exactly renowned for his commitment to intelligent filmmaking so much as he is to the art of making pixels render in as shiny a fashion as possible before staging fights between those shiny pixels and some other shiny pixels.

Whedon, I reasoned with some naive kind of hope-within-a-hope, might just be the man to actually deliver the goods. Sure, the studio would insist that stuff blows up and that the “spectacle” quotient be fulfilled (is there such a thing as spectacle in cinema any more?), but Whedon would not enter into contract on a whim, and certainly not without establishing that he be allowed the requisite space for his characters to breathe and develop a little.

And I’m not suggesting for one minute that this is not the case.

What I am suggesting, however, is that the whole thing misfires terribly and is, contrary to popular perception, not a very good film at all. I put it to you that had you watched The Avengers on the big screen you may no doubt have been enthralled by the whizz-bang antics towering before you, but in the cold light of day, and watched in repeat from the comfort of your sofa, there will be no doubt that this is not as good a film as you remember it to be.

Firstly, I’m going to tell you some of the things I did enjoy about The Avengers. This will not take long.

  • Iron Man / Tony Stark gets some good smart-ass lines.
  • Mark Ruffalo is easily the most interesting Bruce banner yet committed to film.
  • Some of the dialogue is quite good.
  • Tom Hiddleston as Loki has immediately gone to the top of my list of favourite shit-eating grins.

That’s as kind as I’m going to be, because quite frankly The Avengers is lazy, unimaginative filmmaking of the type I have no longer the will nor the energy to tolerate. Let me explain.

THE PLOT

Some armour-plated extraterrestrial race or another has decided that Earth is ripe for invasion. The whom and the why are as irrelevant as this woefully tired motivation would suggest. In order to carry out their planned invasion they have enlisted the help of Loki, Thor’s mischievous brother, to act as their agent on Earth, tasking him with retrieving the Tesseract. The Tesseract is an all-powerful energy source whose discovery on Earth has given galactic agencies cause to consider mankind a viable opponent in the event of war, and also has the energy to open the portal necessary for said invading forces to encroach upon our planet. Currently it is in the safekeeping of Nick Fury and his agency S.H.I.E.L.D.

This awesome device is a glowing blue cube with edges of around four inches. This is handy because it means people can carry it around conveniently in a futuristic looking briefcase without worrying about hand luggage restrictions, and, of course, because we all know that stuff which glows blue looks cool.

So, to summarise, armoured alien entities invade earth seeking to steal an all-powerful cube which will make them an unstoppable force.

That’ll also be the plot of Transformers, then.

Not that I’m suggesting sharing plot details with Transformers is a bad thing. I’m telling you. If the best that someone can come up with in terms of plotting for a massively expensive, hype-driven summer tent pole movie in which both a prestigious comic book company and their film studio partner are investing money, legacy and credibility is to rip off one of the shittiest films in recent memory then alarm bells should be ringing at full volume, and someone should have been furiously tugging at the ejector seat lever.

THE CHARACTERS

Besides this threadbare excuse for propelling our heroes into jeopardy, the remainder of The Avengers revolves around our assembled squad spending most of their time trading egos and bickering. In some cases, chiefly that of Tony Stark, this is good fun, primarily because Robert Downey Jr. is by this point wearing the role like a pair of comfortable slippers and is able to walk that fine line between likeable and asshole with his eyes closed. Then again, maybe that’s a bad thing.

In most cases, such as that of Steve “Captain America” Rogers, this bickering just comes across as so much whining over what constitutes a “hero”, and the relative merits of having been born, altered or augmented as such.

This bickering is also what Joss Whedon and his gestalt writing entity would have you believe passes as “character development”. It does not. No, I repeat NO, character comes out of the events of this movie having learned anything new about themselves, except perhaps a mildly redeemed Tony Stark who somewhat half-heartedly puts an end to Rogers’ protestations that he has not the courage to sacrifice himself if necessary, and is therefore somehow an affront to the Avengers Initiative.

Even Bruce Banner is denied any great revelation, despite he and his colleagues constantly touching on the infuriatingly omnipresent notion of “The Other Guy” (just say “Hulk” already) who is not revealed in full glory until later in the movie. Much of the running time is spent by various characters quizzing Banner about how he has learned to control his anger in recent times and prevent the Hulk from manifesting itself, banner reticent to divulge his methods to the point where we expect something truly profound to be forthcoming at the necessary moment.

When Banner does finally reveal his technique (“That’s my secret, Cap. I’m always angry”) it comes as a nonsensical non-revelation that ranks right up there with Storm’s “Do you know what happens when a toad is truck by lightning?” bilge from X-Men. Don’t get me wrong, I have always had a soft spot for Hulk because, having dealt with anger management issues in the past, I can at least relate very remotely to the character of Banner, unlike any of the other members of his posse. I would also quite happily watch Mark Ruffalo in anything, and the blame here does not lie with him. I’ll say it again: Mark Ruffalo is easily the most interesting Bruce Banner yet committed to film. What I will not accept on behalf of the filmmakers is that this somehow passes as an insight into the character which will help me to understand him more and therefore invest myself in him emotionally. It is not, and i shall not.

Steve Rogers and Thor I need say little about. They are both attired in suitably camp threads that have no place in a contemporary setting, and I refuse to accept that at no point would someone offer them a more suitable wardrobe befitting their endeavours upon the face of 21st century Earth. Chris Hemsworth as Thor is value for money, if only because he valiantly does his best with the shoehorned thespian dialogue, his character having apparently spent no time acclimatising to the structure and cadence of dialogue amongst the humans of this planet which he was sent to defend, and which you might therefore have expected him to indulge himself in a little culturally. Chris Evans’ Captain America, whose solo outing I have not yet caught up with, is largely a god-fearing wetback of honourable intent, but relegated for the most part to being the butt of anachronistic jibes and torment rather than serving the plot much.

And so to Clint “Hawkeye” Barton (Jeremy Renner) and Natasha “Black Widow” Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), the only members of the team to rely upon old school skillsets (bow and arrow for Hawkeye and, err….. kicking and shooting for Romanoff) rather than super powers or high technology.

Hawkeye, and let’s broach this right away, is a total non-entity. Renner is a completely wasted talent here, which is a shame because in comparison with Orlando “Legolas” Bloom’s antics as an arrow-wielding ace in the LotR trilogy, Renner has the distinct advantage of having proven he can actually act worth a damn. Unfortunately here he is relegated first to the role of having become a mind-controlled goon of Loki’s bidding to suddenly and inexplicably snapping out of it, immediately coming to terms with the hundreds of innocent people he’s killed in the first hour and carrying on with nought a care in the world, and secondly to some dude who sits on a roof shooting aliens with arrows while everyone else does the talking.

Johansson’s assets are, well, her assets. She is here for two reasons. 1: sexual equality among the team. S.H.I.E.L.D. are an equal opportunities employer. 2: somewhat self-defeatingly of 1 her bum and her boobs look fantastic in a tight black costume. Other than this she is completely negated by any plot necessity, aside from some hints at her former relationship with Hawkey which neither prove consequential nor are expanded upon to any degree. Best of all, Romanoff somehow manages to transcend her status as a mere human by pulling off all kinds of death-defying feats, such as brushing off a slap from a Hulk and somehow grabbing hold of a passing airborne vehicle travelling at speed without having her arms ripped from their sockets. Aside from this Johansson is called upon to pout and shoot some guns, neither of which she seems to have much conviction for, and who can blame her?

Samuel L. Jackson is there because he has to be. That concludes my section on Samuel L. Jackson.

The only character besides Banner whom I found engaging was Agent Phil Coulson, seeing Clark Gregg return to his role from the Iron Man films and probably some of the other Marvel movies which I have forgotten. Coulson is the only character with whom it is reasonable to expect the audience to feel some empathy, chiefly because he is a) a nice guy and b) does not spend his time whining about demons from his past, undesirable character traits and/or other members of the team.

THE “ACTION”

I’m tempted to say that between the outbursts of witty banter and it’s admittedly self-aware trappings of humour there is almost enough going on to warrant checking out The Avengers, if you happen to be the one person on the planet who didn’t see it already. Tempted, but not committed to.

The explosions-in-a-can action of this movie, when it arrives, does so in the most mediocre of ways, shorn of any real spectacle and dedicated to that most Bay-like mantra of “if you blow enough stuff up people will be happy”. Well I’m sorry but it’s just not good enough any more.

The alien invasion, when it comes, is predicated on the most spastic of plans. In their infinite wisdom the invading force have decided that, rather than mobilise en-masse against military targets or indeed anything of any strategic benefit, they will instead do a bit of sightseeing. Can you guess where in the world the invasion force turns up and starts to attack? I’ll give you a clue: it’s a city we rarely see portrayed as the victim of any kind of attack in movies these days. Oh wait, I lied.

New York.

I’ve about had it up to here with New York on film right now. It seems if you want to knock lumps out of a city that’s where you need to be, and I can only imagine that filmmakers continue to use it now because effects companies have built up such a stockpile of assets in terms of 3D models of buildings and textures for the city that it’s just the easiest place to get the ball rolling from a technical standpoint. That Joss Whedon could come up with nothing more imaginative than a scenario that Michael Bay alone has already visited some three or four times now is damning in itself, but that it fails so miserably to evoke any kind of carnal response within me in view of said destruction is surely a sign that it’s time now to leave the decimation of cities, New York in particular, well alone for a while.

But back to the invasion plan. This amassed army choses to trickle through the portal into New York in limited numbers like blind pensioners working their way through the self-checkouts at your local supermarket, randomly scattering about the city to enact an agenda that seems to revolve around causing minor aesthetic damage to the facades of buildings and occasionally terrorising some boggle-eyed office workers. At one point some big, floating, armour plated worm things which look like they ought to do some damage (but whose name escapes me) show up and waft around like a bad smell, but we quickly establish that Hulk can pretty much kill those with one punch, so panic averted.

Quite how this plan was intended to work is beyond me, but it seems entirely misjudged and foolhardy on behalf of the fictional perpetrators and more importantly belies just how lazy Whedon and Co. have been in plotting their Great White Hope for the summer. Needless to say The Avengers get their act together and punch, hammer, blast, crush and knock the shit out of the woefully unprepared alien invasion force, close the portal and realise that yes, they can work together as a team.

Of course I fully appreciate that most people probably will not agree with the assertions I have made here, and indeed box office figures clearly show I am in the minority. Several people whose opinions I value greatly enjoyed this movie wholeheartedly and I have to say that really surprises me. I want you to know that I do not level these accusations out of some hormonal imbalance or need to be contrary. I do genuinely believe enough people have now had their expectations recalibrated by bad cinema to just accept that this kind of thing is as good as it can get, and that somehow the likes of this trash registers in their brains as being the equal of the recent Batman movies.

Inception was the most important film I saw in 2010 because it showed summer movies could be original, intelligent, thought-provoking, spectacular and commercially successful. Batman Begins, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises prove that a superhero franchise can imbue itself with the same traits. How quickly these lessons are forgotten.

God forbid if Christopher Nolan dropped dead tomorrow then based on audience reception we’d all be looking to Joss Whedon to take his place. Are you honestly going to sit there having watched The Avengers and tell me that would be a good thing?

Passing the time today while my boy Clive was having an operation at the vet. View high resolution

Passing the time today while my boy Clive was having an operation at the vet.

Olympus OM-2n, Zuiko 50mm f1.8, Kodak Tri-x 400 at 1600.
My wife is a beautiful woman, yet reluctant to be photographed. I have to take moments like these as and when they come. View high resolution

Olympus OM-2n, Zuiko 50mm f1.8, Kodak Tri-x 400 at 1600.

My wife is a beautiful woman, yet reluctant to be photographed. I have to take moments like these as and when they come.

Shame about the care labels. Rather ruin this, and I refuse to PhotoShop them. View high resolution

Shame about the care labels. Rather ruin this, and I refuse to PhotoShop them.

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