July 31, 2010
901 Tequila Branding
I clicked on a banner advertisement for the first time in a long time, and ended up at a web site that I think has done an excellent job of creating an emotional atmosphere and connection with its audience. 901 Tequila is a tequila from Justin Timberlake and I think visiting the site, experiencing the marketing and method of delivery, and exploring a bit about how and why they went this direction is very interesting.
I've grabbed the background song and image in case the site ever goes away. (Make sure to hit play on the song.) But definitely check out the site as it is several orders of magnitude better to interact with it in its native form.
July 17, 2010
Distant Worlds II
I attended the Friday half of the Distant Worlds: music from Final Fantasy at the San Francisco Symphony last night. I really enjoyed it, although I would have enjoyed it more if I had the entire hall to myself. ^_^ Primarily because the audience acted less like a symphony performance and more like a get-together. So there was a lot of clapping and cheering and even a few jokes called out. I didn't appreciate all the clapping during the credits, which prevented me from hearing Terra's Theme.
I kept my eyes closed as much as possible, during the performance, so that I wouldn't get distracted by the visuals they had up. They played pieces from a variety of Final Fantasy games, including one from the upcoming FFXIV online game. I know Roger Ebert is skeptical about the artistic nature of games, but having played the games added a lot of emotional depth to the music I was hearing. I have a much deeper understanding of what the music is trying to convey, and an emotional attachment to the songs. I got goosebumps during Aerith's Theme, JENOVA, as well as a few other songs. (No goosebumps during One Winged Angel because that was played sort of like karaoke&emdash;I chanted but the choir was a little weak.) The music from FFXI and FFXIII didn't have the same effect on me, because I didn't really have any context for it. There was an older couple sitting in front of me that didn't even know what Final Fantasy was, and I don't think they got much out of it and were somewhat confused by everyone else's enthusiasm.
One thing that I was confused about was clarified for me last night. I'd picked up the FFXIII soundtrack while in Japan, and although I haven't taken the time to listen to it (on purpose) I did listen to a few songs. And my immediate thought was that this is not Final Fantasy music. It didn't sound right. Sounded much more like a typical classical soundtrack. I thought perhaps Nobou Uematsu was doing something different. But, the FFXIII soundtrack was entirely composed by Masashi Hamauzu.
After getting back to Alla's place, I ordered both Distant Worlds CDs. (The Symphony Store was selling them for $20 each so it was cheaper ordering off Amazon.) I really enjoyed some of the new compositions, and want to be able to listen to them at home.
July 7, 2010
Lilith Fair 2010
I went to Lilith Fair with Yvonne and two of her friends, Tina and Jackie, yesterday at the Shoreline Amphiteatre in Mountain View. (Make the drive to the venue itself to purchase tickets; they are significantly cheaper that way.) I had a lot of fun, but mostly because of Yvonne, Tina, and Jackie and not the fair. We did end up meeting Dantam and her friends later on, after having gotten there around 1:30pm but not actually listening to any music until 4pm.
The event wasn't put on the way I expected. Gates opened at 2:30pm as I was told by the box office when I purchased the tickets. It didn't take too long to get inside although everyone's bag was thoroughly checked which meant slow entry. But the lawn didn't open until 3:30pm so we ended up standing in that line for a while too. They obviously wanted you to spend time checking out the sponsor booths, getting samples, and buying food, drink, or other little things. Borders was selling CDs at relatively high prices.
After eating a bit on the lawn, I stayed with our spot while they went off to check things out. They came back with a bunch of freebies. All the freebies are for women though, so I didn't really get much. One person still had a bunch of stuff she needed to get rid of before performances on the main stage started, so I was offered something for "my girlfriend".
I did get to see the one artist I really cared about though, which was A Fine Frenzy. Their set was kind of short and on one of the small stages though. And the audio setup wasn't super great. But it was still cool. Much cooler was getting Alison Monro to sign my CD (I bought it from the Borders tent after I found out there was going to be a signing). I think she was happy when I told her I came to Lilith specifically to see them. ^_^ The guy behind me in line was pretty nice and took a photo of me and Alison, which he promised to mail me later.
I didn't get a chance to see Terra Naomi (heard her a bit while in line for the lawn, and sounded interesting) or Kitten and I think I would have liked to. It wasn't that clear to me how the schedule worked; we only found out about the multiple stages after getting inside.
The sponsor booths basically shut down once the main stage opened. Everyone piled in to see the main attractions. But none of them had any real interest for me. All the new interesting artists were outside on the little stages, before the main performances. We stayed through Colbie Caillat, The Bangles, and left in the middle of Miranda Lambert around 8:15pm because they all had class the next day. Looks like we missed Heart and then finally Sarah McLachlan, who is the only one any of us had any interest in listening to.
There are a bunch of other artists participating in Lilith Fair that I would have really liked to see, but they weren't playing in San Francisco. Some of them "oldies" like Sheryl Crow and Suzanne Vega and Beth Orton, but most of them newbies or people I haven't heard about before (too many to list here) and they usually only showed up at one or two of the venues, whichever happened to be closest to where they live. I actually thought Lilith was primarily to show off new interesting female artists, so have a main set featuring artists that made music before I was born was a little disappointing.
June 28, 2010
I recently went on something of a whirlwind business trip through three countries as part of a project we've been working on at Netflix for a short time now. My trip started off in Hong Kong, then Shenzhen, China, followed by Seoul, Korea and finally Osaka and Tokyo in Japan. It had been almost ten years since I was last in Hong Kong, and it was my first time visiting Japan. I was in Korea last year for business but not in Seoul that time.
Things were pretty hectic in the beginning. We had one day in Hong Kong to acclimate to the time change, but Shenzhen and Seoul were completely filled each day with meetings and travel so there wasn't any free time at all. Mitch and I extended our stay in Tokyo, Japan a little extra though, so we could do some things that we wanted to. I was especially excited about Tokyo because I've wanted to visit Akihabara and Shibuya for a very long time.
In Hong Kong, we went to Lantau Island via the Ngong Ping Cable Car to see the Tian Tan Buddha tourist attraction. I say tourist attraction because when I was there ten years ago the site wasn't so commercialized. The clouds were very low that day, which meant our cable car went right through some dense fog, and walking around at the peak meant walking around through clouds.
Crossing from Hong Kong into Shenzhen meant going through the China border inspections. It wasn't a big deal, but it is like crossing between countries. (Returning into Hong Kong took much longer.) Shenzhen is pretty much what I expected with small towns, usually containing an obvious main street, based around industrial areas. The factories are what brings workers into Shenzhen and keeps money flowing into that area.
Both Hong Kong and Shenzhen were very hot and humid. My body is not at all accustomed to that sort of environment so I was constantly sweating. I think one day the humidity was listed as 90%, and the temperature was always above 30°C.
After China we flew into Seoul, Korea. I like visiting Korea because I have a friend there that works at Samsung. His English is quite good and we get along well. It happened to be his daughter's 100-day celebration when we were there, and he gave me a cute little rice cake treat. I was also hoping to meet up with someone in Seoul whom I just recently met at Can Jam 2010 when I was exhibiting, but a schedule conflict prevented us from doing so.
One thing that I really liked in Seoul were the interactive maps. Both the subway and shopping mall had an interactive map. Using the touchscreen, you could select where you wanted to go, or search for where you wanted to go, and it would provide detailed animated directions on the map itself for how to get there. This is so much better than the static maps used here in the United States. Although I suspect there would be some hesitation of installing expensive maps in U.S. subway systems out of fear of graffiti or vandalism. People, and police officers, appear to be so much nicer, polite, and courteous in Korea than in the U.S. (Obviously this is even more true in Japan, where manners are extremely important.)
After Korea, we flew into Osaka, Japan for our last business engagement. This is where it first hit me how expensive things are in Japan. I'd heard and read about things being expensive there, but a fruit plate in the hotel restaurant was more than USD $40, and I found out the waitresses at that restaurant were probably only making about USD $10/hr. I thought at least food should be about the same price as in big U.S. cities if the pay scale is about the same, but since it is more expensive and going out to dinners and drinks are such a big part of Japanese culture people must spend a significant portion of their income on food. The pre-packaged meals at 7-11 are priced around what I usually spend if I'm eating out to lunch at home.
Also really expensive are pets. We stopped in a pet store in Osaka, and kittens and puppies are regularly priced over USD $1000 and often close to USD $1500. Some of them were even around USD $3000-$4000. The pet stores were pretty small, and probably had about a dozen or so of kittens and puppies. There was one store that also had some monkeys. No prices were listed on the monkeys; I imagine they might be considered a luxury where if you have to ask, you can't afford it. One thing I noticed though was that all the kittens and puppies were very young. It's a lot easier to sell cute kittens and puppies, and I saw a bunch of girls watching and saying kawaii a lot, but it also makes me wonder what happens to the ones not adopted. If they only keep young ones in the store, the others might be discarded. T_T
After Osaka we went to Tokyo. For a few hours one day Mitch and I took the train to Hakone and went to the Kappa Tengoku onsen. It took about two hours each way by train, and we spent about two hours at the onsen itself. The soaking pool water was very hot. So hot that I immediately started sweating like crazy and my body began tingling all over. I had to get out and shower in cold water once, and also sit mostly out of the pool, in order to cool down. I also got over a dozen bug bites right away. Most of them got bigger and only just started disappearing a couple days ago.
But by far I spent the most time in Akihabara and Shibuya. Akihabara was very exciting for me because of all the shops and the culture. Maid cafés have gotten very popular and there were dozens of maids on the streets handing out flyers and trying to convince customers to enter their shops. We didn't end up going into a maid café though. Which was fine by me since I was spending all my time shopping anyway. Although I would have liked to go to one. As well as check out some of the other crazy theme restaurants; I'm not sure where they are though since they're not in Akihabara. I didn't get a chance to check out a love hotel or capsule hotel either.
There are a bunch of otaku-stores in Akihabara, unsurprisingly. The stores tend to be thin and tall. Only the stores that sell electronics or are like department stores have enough floor space that things don't seem cramped. There was tons of manga, anime, movies and TV shows, figures, video games, and pink stuff. Although when it came to figures and trinkets only the most recent stuff was getting shelf space. I can't read Japanese so manga and anime was pretty much out. Plus, music and videos are super expensive over there. A new release movie on DVD or Blu-ray might be over USD $50. PC and console games are only slightly more expensive than in the U.S. And there is a ton more selection. I picked up a few video games that are only available in Japan including Atelier Rorona, Record of Agarest War, and Agarest Senki Zero; I need to learn how to read Japanese before I can play them though. I would have also gotten Atelier Totori but it was releasing a couple of days after our return flight. I only picked up a couple of music CDs, because at those prices I couldn't just grab stuff that might be good. I did find a Final Fantasy XIII collectors music set though which I immediately purchased. (Have yet to buy the game though.) Mostly I bought figures to add to my collection: I got some Mari Makinami figures from the new Evangelion 2.0 rebuild; Nagi and Tsugumi from Crazy Shrine Maidens; Ein from Phantom, a couple of Vocaloid Hatsune Miku wind-up music toys; a distorted Rei; and Chocobo and Moogle plushies.
The other thing I spent a lot of money on is clothing. I really like Japanese casual street fashion. The sort of interesting stuff you can't find in the U.S. and gets featured in some video games. Most recently in The World Ends With You, a Nintendo DS game that deals heavily with fashion and takes place in Shibuya, although the store names were changed. (The game itself gets a bit repetitive and collecting all the items would take several play-throughs.) To find the better stuff, I ended up shopping mostly at Jeans Mate in Akihabara and Parco in Shibuya. Individual stores in Parco are relatively small and devoted to a single brand, the clothing selection is limited, and there is usually only a handful of specific styles per brand. Prices at Jeans Mate and some of the stores at Parco tended to start at around USD $30 for a T-shirt. But some of the really high-end stores in Parco sold a single T-shirt for USD $300. Some of the stores had more complex clothing, like jackets, that sold for USD $1000. This despite being something that could be made for a few dollars in material and labor. I limited myself to things that were priced at the lower end, but even then I think I spent more on clothing this one time than I've spent on clothing my entire life so far.
There were two things that made it more difficult to buy clothing in Japan. First was the extreme leaning towards girls' clothing. There are entire mall buildings that only contain girl clothes. I would say only about 10% of the stores sold boys' clothing. The two types of stores were also physically segregated in many cases. Only the larger non-boutique stores carried both male and female clothing.
Secondly, the clothes in Japan aren't sized for me. I had to purchase size XL / LL or size 4 (for shirts) and even then it is a tight fit. My shoes are 2cm larger than the largest they stock in shoes and socks. On many occasions I simply couldn't buy the clothes because they didn't sell it in my size. I guess there are a couple of stores that do sell larger clothing, but you have to go find them specially.
I think I could have spent a whole lot more money in Tokyo, both on toys and clothes. And there are still a lot of other things to do and see just in Tokyo itself, never mind the rest of Japan. I'm not much into sight-seeing, but I can imagine myself spending weeks more exploring just Tokyo.
April 18, 2010
Florence + The Machine
I just got back from seeing Florence + The Machine live at Mezzanine in San Francisco. It was great and I had a lot of fun. Her music is unique and very engaging. There's something about her songs that is very hard to pin down; when asked what type of music it is I don't know that I can say something better than Alternative-Indie, and yet that's wrong. She sings real lyrics that remain catchy and magical. The backing band, and in particular The Machine, brings it all together to create an experience and music I want to listen to over and over again.
I ended up spending the night with Becker, whom I sold my extra ticket to, and a pair of sisters, Heidi and Mary, from Oklahoma who flew over for the weekend just to attend the concert (and do some tourist stuff). Becker was crazy excited the entire time. We also met a girl from Ireland who was stuck on holiday due to the volcano ash. Having them to hang out with did make it more enjoyable for me, although I spent most of the night just enjoying the music.
Before Florence + The Machine came on, some music was being played by DJ's Aaron and Nako. I liked some of what they spun, but probably less than half. The intro band was Holy Hail. Unfortunately it seems as though their setup was messed up because none of us could understand anything being sung. What little I could understand didn't impress me. Pretty much everyone was just standing around waiting for Florence + The Machine to show up.
Florence has an awesome voice and really gets into the music while singing, except she does it while being herself. When watching her on stage, I feel like she's dancing and flailing just the way she wants to and not through some choreographed set. I feel like she dances and moves the way I do. She sounds quite different when speaking instead of singing though.
I particularly like The Machine (Isabella Summers) who is on keyboards. I feel as though the drums provide the musical foundation but Isabella provides the glue. There are drums, bass, guitar, and harp. Everything else that flows throughout the songs is provided by Isabella. So I gave her a heart-hand and she gave me one back. ^_^
After the show, said good-bye to Becker as he was buying a Lungs T-shirt and gave Heidi and Mary a ride back to their hotel.
I should also mention that by chance Carol Chang happened to walk by while I was waiting in line. We talked for a minute or two as she was on her way to meet some friends for diner. I haven't seen her in years. It was really nice to see her again.
March 28, 2010
FUTURESTATES is a miniseries of science-fiction webispodes that look at future social possibilities. The ideas aren't particularly ground-breaking, but the execution is excellent. I highly suggest spending some time to watch through them.
Some of the topics explored include the environment, over-population, virtual reality, economics, and social divide.
March 11, 2010
Harder Better Faster Stronger
Words not required.
January 22, 2010
Solar Gard gets some free publicity from this amazing Pow! Pow! booth babe.
September 19, 2009
What's In The Box
It's been a very long time since I last blogged. But something popped up today that really caught my attention. What's In The Box. I'm not really sure what this is. Do your own exploring. Something is coming. (Half-Life 2?)
October 5, 2008
Final Fantasy XII
I finally finished Final Fantasy XII. This is probably the first Final Fantasy where I ended up trying to do all sorts of unnecessary and somewhat hard to find side quests. I suspect mostly because of the new combat system, which is a lot like combat might be in a MMORPG and no doubt a lot of the engine came from the work put into Final Fantasy XI. Exploring and moving through the environments was more engaging and interesting, because combat just happens without you having to enter a special game mode. Which makes moving between places feel more natural.
In this new combat system, you control one of your three party characters and can switch back and forth at will. The other two characters are set to execute commands in a prioritized list, using what Square Enix calls gambits. So you might set Penelo to heal whenever someone gets low on HP, but otherwise cast haste and then finally attack if none of those spells are necessary. Because I ended up doing a lot of exploring and side quests, I did get all of my characters to level 99. That's the first time I've done that in a Final Fantasy. It did help that you can equip accessories that will increase your experience awarded.
The party I ended up using most was Ashe, Penelo, and Fran. That provided a pretty good mix of close-combat, healing, and ranged-attack. Bathier wasn't particularly interesting to use with his guns. Vaan is sort of a basic all-around character, and Basch was my pole-arms fighter. In Final Fantasy XII, you sort of have complete control over how your characters end up developing because you can purchase skills on the License Board. In the beginning it makes sense to focus characters on different skill sets so you have a good combination in your party. Later on, it is possible to purchase all the licenses and the characters are then differentiated by their natural talent (i.e. stats).
Final Fantasy XII is set in a world called Ivalice. It's a very rich world, with good back story and everything was made consistent. There are a number of different races, the most interesting being the Viera who are an apparently all-female race of rabbit-like humanoids that live in the woods, separate from the rest of civilization. Only a very few leave the wood to live among the other races. I'm not entirely sure how the Viera reproduce. This isn't made clear in the game, but there is one side quest where a Viera and Hume begin a relationship although it seems clear the two species cannot reproduce with each other.
The graphics of Final Fantasy XII aren't all that different than that found in Final Fantasy X. Perhaps a bit more polished, and the world environment is certainly different because it is fully 3-D and can be explored that way. I do feel like the music was bit less memorable and more background than thematic though. The environments were large, and you tended to spend quite a bit of time in them just since you have to travel by foot, and the music was composed to match.
The story was good, and typical of what you expect from the higher-numbered Final Fantasy games. Interesting, fully fleshed out, but also somewhat grounded and less fantastical than the ones put together for the earlier stories. For me, this is a bit unfortunate because it doesn't have the feel of a sweeping epic or provide me with an intense emotional connection.
June 30, 2008
LAFF 2008 + Electric Daisy
This year Netflix's film festival-related party was in Los Angeles as part of the LA Film Festival. Luna and I drove down and stayed in a hotel near the beach. We spent some time exploring there, and ate at a theme seafood restaurant (not super great). But probably the most memorable part of exploring was this pet store we found near the hotel that had some kittens and cats for adoption. Of course Luna wanted to bring them home, but we can't take care of any more cats than we already have.
Netflix's party was co-hosted by FOX again, in some expensive house up in the hills. I guess someone actually lives there, but it was available for rent. It has a really great view of Los Angeles, and there was a swimming pool and it was fairly large in comparison to the types of houses that you might find in the area. Luna mostly ate some food, and met Reed for the first time. I danced a little bit but not much. We didn't stay too late.
Since we had gone down to Los Angeles before, this time we went to Universal Studios instead of Disneyland. The park was much more movie-oriented of course, and more shows than rides. So I didn't find it as much fun but there were certainly a lot of interesting things to see. We did the ride that goes through the park and stage sets. There was a Mummy ride in promotion with the new Mummy movie. We had a good time for the most part.
At night I went with Greg Orzell to Electric Daisy. That was definitely the most exciting part of my trip. Luna isn't into that sort of music or dancing so she didn't go. It took us a long time to get inside, but it was really great. Tons of people, but not too many so you didn't have room to dance since it was outdoors at a stadium. Although it was too many if you wanted to try and get in and out of the stadium. I wasn't really dressed the part. I should have worn shorts and a T-shirt instead of slacks and a clubbing shirt. A lot of people were wearing a lot less clothing.
The best set was definitely by BT. His music is upbeat enough to keep the body moving, but intricate and beautiful at the same time instead of just being a bunch of drum 'n bass, jungle, or house. Paul Oakenfold was also there, but I thought his set was just okay. I also remember Paul Van Dyk's set, because he was last and probably the most heavily promoted of the artists. He included a strong laser light show, and it was probably good to place him last because his music is more trance and ambient so it slowed things down a bit. But that also meant it wasn't really the most exciting music to listen to in this party environment.
There was one scary incident during the carnival, when a girl collapsed. I ran to find the local paramedics, but by the time I actually found them someone had already called it in. I'm not sure what ended up happening to her, but I think she was okay when they found her.
Overall a really fun time. I danced pretty much non-stop for around four hours. Massive leg cramps but I danced through those too. :)
June 18, 2008
Gunsmith Cats is a really fun read full of excitement and great characters. They're not really deep characters, but they've got a lot of personality and the interaction and relationships between them is excellent. This extends to the bad guys in the story as well.
I've blown through the original manga series, and started the sequel Gunsmith Cats Burst. Unfortunately the last volume of Burst isn't published in the U.S. yet, and so I'm left of a bit of a cliff-hanger. I'm really looking forward to the release of the last Burst volume.
I would guess the most distinctive feature of this manga is the attention to detail when it comes to firearms. Apparently Kenichi Sonada is a big gun fan, and so he does a lot of research into them and that carries over directly into the manga. Plus, he is very careful in his drawing and consistency, which I always appreciate since it gives a manga real polish. It's much more pleasant to read something that is fully consistent and view panels where you can see what is going on (even during heavy action) and flow together. A lot of mangaka fail at this, even the popular ones.
But what really keeps me going and not wanting to put down the book are the characters and plot. The story is long-running and fully fleshed out, and I can read these stories again and again and still enjoy them just as much as the first time. I'd have to say Gunsmith Cats is one of my favorite mangas.
April 13, 2008
Karen will be leaving to Switzerland soon. I have to remember it's Switzerland and not Sweden by remembering it's the neutral place. She and Sebastian are moving there, because Sebastian got a professorship at the University. It's going to be a big change for her, and this'll probably be the last time I get to see her for a few years.
We drove up and then took BART into San Francisco to meet up with some of her other friends. Ended up going around to a few bars and just hanging out. One place was really tiny and crowded and the music was really loud. The other place was larger and so we had more room. Played one of those cheap video game kiosks and some darts. A bunch of people were playing beer pong in the back room. Looked kind of gross considering everywhere the ping pong ball was going.
Anyway, Karen had a lot of fun so that's good. It'll give her a good memory before leaving.
March 8, 2008
Shortly after BloodRayne came out, I read all sorts of horrible reviews about it. People condemned Uwe Boll as worst director of all time and wondered how he could get funding in the face of his failure, and who in their right mind was willing to fund his future directorial works. When you read things like this, you can't be entirely sure if people are just being too hard on something or someone, or if it's sort of just a bandwagon sort of thing. But in this case, everything you'll read is right.
Cast a handful of excellent actors in character roles that are completely shallow, mix with a composer who doesn't realize the music must follow the movie, throw in one version of every scene you thought was cool when you were 10-years-old, and then cut corners on anything that will cost money. And don't forget the obligatory sex scene since your star is considered a sex symbol. That's pretty much what you'll experience with this movie. Oh, and the plot sucks too.
March 7, 2008
Sunabozu is an anime that is crude and unapologetic about it. In the Kanto desert, life is harsh and cheap. A catastrophe from long ago left the world barren and lifeless. Knowledge of the old technologies has been lost, and great metropolises are ruins. The Sunabozu, or Desert Punk, is the greatest handyman in the Kanto desert. Handymen are basically people you can hire to do just about whatever you want. His extreme cunning and skill with the shotgun has created a legend. But he's also an extremely horny and selfish boy; any beautiful girl turns him into a drooling idiot, especially if she has big ones.
Sunabozu's nemesis is Asagiri Junko, a skilled beauty who Sunabozu lusts after but who always seems to get the best of him. His sidekick is the Kosuna, a 14-year-old girl who desires to become the Kanto desert's most skilled beauty. She has some work cut out for her, dealing with Sunabozu and Junko. A number of other regular characters show up along the way.
The series is sort of split into halves. The first half is a bunch of random handyman missions that establishes the setting and the characters. These episodes stand alone and their primary entertainment value is on the humor, which is often crude and leaning towards the fantastical or slapstick. The second half launches into a political struggle between two different factions who have differing opinions on the direction things should be taken. It's during these episodes that a plot forms and the characters begin having to face more serious issues.
My favorite character would have to be Kosuna. And I really like her seiyu, Chiwa Saito. Her voice is young, energetic, and fits Kosuna perfectly. Plus, she is able to pull of a really cool monkey laugh that is a huge part of Kosuna's personality.
The artwork is very nice as well. Although I don't really like when they draw male faces all scrunched up and weirded out in order to show strange and extreme expressions. They never end up doing that on the female faces—they always look nice.
Unfortunately, Luna tells me that the series was forced to end early because it wasn't popular enough. I did feel a little disappointed by the ending because just as lines were being drawn and a story of epic conflict being built up, it comes to a conclusion. The future is left open and you never find out what will really happen. Still, seeing Kosuna grow up and watching the interplay of her, Sunabozu, and Junko is interesting.
One word of warning: the English ADR is completely changed from the original Japanese. So you'll be hearing a whole different set of conversations if you watch it dubbed.
March 4, 2008
Woman on the Edge of Time
Calvin gave me Woman on the Edge of Time, by Marge Piercy, for a birthday gift. It was written in 1976 and features a world set at that time, seen through the eyes of a poor disenchanted Hispanic woman living in the slums of New York City. Consuelo, the narrator of this novel, wonders if she is going crazy because she begins seeing and talking to a man who claims to be from the future. She ends up in a psychiatric ward for other reasons, and comes to believe that there is a utopian future that runs a risk of not happening, depending on what she can do in the present day.
There are several layers to this book. At one level, this is a book that looks at and criticizes the treatment of and attitudes towards people who have been deemed by the rest of society as crazy. Piercy depicts a situation, based on reality, where these psychiatric patients are treated more like laboratory animals and sub-human creatures undeserving of consideration. This is also seen in the racial segregation between Caucasians and Hispanics. Consuelo lives in a world where she is ugly, poor, and must suffer the whims of those in power. Those in power are the white men and women who run the world and they are rich and beautiful, living with control over their own lives.
Another layer is brought out in the presentation of this utopia that Consuelo learns of and begins to love. In this future, her child is reborn carefree and loved instead of poor and stolen away. People live close to the earth, as large extended families who share material goods and love freely. It is a world where anyone can do what they wish, and both physical and mental illness are completely understood and easily cured. No one is wanting, although at the same time no one wants. It's both attractive and at the same time does not seem right. Idealistic but not at all realistic. But then they've figured out how to breed out the qualities they consider harmful.
Lastly there is a question of belief. It's never clear whether or not Consuelo is actually imagining things, or if she really is able to travel through her mind to the future and live there among those people as if she were there in physical form. The copy on the back of my book implies her experiences are real, but in truth the novel does not. If it is the truth, then calling her crazy and locking her up could be the worst thing for all of us. If it isn't the truth, then she really is crazy and probably needs to be there. How can you ever know?
March 2, 2008
Ghost in the Shell: Solid State Society
Ghost in the Shell: Solid State Society takes place in the story line created in the Stand Alone Complex television series featuring Section 9. In those two years since The Laughing Man and The Individual Eleven incidents, Section 9 has changed. Motoko has left and is pursuing her own goals, and Section 9 is expanding which puts Togusa and Batou into teaching roles for a number of new recruits. The movie begins with a series of suicides somehow linked to a terrorist organization. All signs point to a hacker who is causing these suicides and has some overarching plan concealed by these inexplicable suicides. Motoko's role in these events is unclear, as she shows up at opportune times without providing an explanation.
This film appears to be commenting on social issues possibly facing Japan today, and the world as a whole to some degree. There is a growing class of elderly who require care but are not productive member of society. The birth rate in developed countries is declining as people focus on careers and couples decide not to have children. It can be very difficult to address these issues, because in a lot of cases the solutions run counter to individual desires or current socially acceptable policies and moral ideas.
The question is really whether or not doing the right thing is really what's best for us all in the long run.
Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence
Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence continues the story line that began in the original Ghost in the Shell and was also directed by Mamoru Oshii. You do need to have watched the first movie to fully appreciate the second, as it provides background into the characters and establishes the backstory. There are a lot of parallels in the presentation between the two films as well.
This time the story's primary character is Batou, as Motoko is unavailable after the events of the first movie (trying to avoid a spoiler). He and his partner Togusa are investigating a case of gynoids, or human-like robots with AI, that are murdering their owners. Their investigation leads them to a criminal operation or horrific proportions.
If you liked the first film, you should like this one. However there is a heavier requirement on thinking and deductive reasoning this time. In the first film, a lot of the ideas and questions were discussed outright. In Innocence, the ideas are presented through the plot, like in the first film, but not as much time is spent actually speaking out the implications of those ideas. And for some of them you'll really need to try and figure it out on your own; waiting for the explanation will cause you to miss the significance of what you just saw.
The visual capabilities have greatly improved in the past several years, giving Innocence a more polished look. The animation itself is also more fluid and animated than before, as it was done using cel shaded models rather than hand drawings. I think the same composer came back to do the score, and the sound is very similar to the first film although this time 5.1 was the original production goal. I don't like it as much as Yoko Kanno's work, but it's still good.
Unfortunately, it seems like the disc copy I picked up is of an older release that contains closed-captions style English subtitles.
Avalon is interesting, but it's slow. Directed by Mamoru Oshii, it's no surprise that there are a lot of deep thoughts and questions about life, reality, and ones perception of the world. However it requires the viewer to work hard at paying attention, as it can't keep you there on its own.
The world is in some sort of post apocalyptic era, where fresh food and studio apartments are considered a luxury. It's not really clear what the world is like, as everything in the film focuses on the game, which is a VR first-person-shooter of incredible reality. Ash, the protagonist, is exceptionally good at this game, and is trying to find some way to finish it; to get to the final level. Over time it becomes clear there's something unique about getting that far, and that only makes her want it even more.
Oshii is an excellent director, and there is a lot to take in from the film. The environments, backgrounds, and every detail contributes in some small way. Near the climax, I really found myself anticipating what would happen next, hoping to find an answer. And in that sense it was satisfying. However I wish the journey had been a little more enjoyable.
I didn't hear good things about Ultraviolet, even though I tend to like movies starring Milla Jovovich. It was written and directed by Kurt Wimmer, who also wrote and directed the amazing Equilibrium, and knowing that now I find it disappointing that Ultraviolet is in almost every way a the same story of Equilibrium, except without the emotional strength, inner conflict, and excellent choreography.
A lot of the same symbolism is used throughout, with the church and religion and big brother. The same scenes are used as well, with very similar rooms and types of action sequences. But the action sequences are horrible. In Equilibrium people with guns could actually aim. In Ultraviolet, the police don't seem to know how to point a gun at something a dozen feet away, and are so stupid they don't shoot even when Violet's basically harmless. I do like the overall feel of the movie, and its imagery, style, and use of color. There were some nice special effects as well.
But it's still a rehash of Equilibrium, which is a movie better by orders of magnitude.
February 28, 2008
It is Luna's birthday today. We didn't do much of anything special, but Silke did come over and gave her a potted flower as a gift. They were watching The Animatrix when I got home, because Silke came over earlier. For dinner we ate Chinese take out and Luna cooked some vegetables. Then we had a Sogo Bakery cake that we bought from 99 Ranch this past weekend. Later on we spent some time just sitting on the floor talking about random things, before it got a little late and Silke left.
February 26, 2008
Night at the Museum
Night at the Museum, starring Ben Stiller, is pretty much your run-of-the-mill family movie. Ben Stiller is a down-on-his-luck dad who is now divorced and not exactly the greatest role model for his son because he can't keep a stable job. He finds a job as night watchman at the Museum of American History in New York City, where he's surprised to discover everything in the museum comes to life at night. What follows are pretty much what you expect: having to impress his son, deal with his job and overcome his personal desire to give up, foiling a plot, and getting the girl.
There are some pretty big time actors in the film, including Robin Williams, Owen Wilson, Dick Van Dyke, and Mickey Rooney, but it's not like this is a film requiring any great acting. Just lots of antics and continual comic relief mixed with simple action. It would be interesting to know if attendance at the museum actually went up following the release of this movie. Things like that usually happen, and I suspect attendance did increase for a short time.
February 24, 2008
28 Weeks Later
I really liked 28 Days Later, and thought 28 Weeks Later should be pretty good too since it was supposed to closely follow the original timeline and looked very similar in style and visuals. I didn't know it was directed by Juan Carlos Fresnadillo instead of Danny Boyle though. Perhaps if I had known, or I'd read a little bit more about the film, I wouldn't have been so excited to watch it. I'd heard generally good things after it was released in theaters, but the two films are very different in purpose.
Whereas I liked to call 28 Days Later a movie with zombies in it (specifically a science-fiction movie), 28 Weeks Later is decidedly a zombie movie and nothing else. It's so much a zombie movie that it really doesn't make sense at time, when it was convenient for adding to the chaos. There's no reason behind the plot, and the character development is extremely slim. I think there were some attempts at putting in things to think about, but they are pretty simple thoughts and aren't presented in a strong or unique way. Might as well ignore them.
If you're just looking for a zombie movie, 28 Weeks Later might be perfect for you, although I personally like the Resident Evil movies better for that.
The Lone Gunmen
I happened to notice that the DVD box set of The Lone Gunmen was on sale and picked it up, completing our collection. I thought this was a great spin-off show and was disappointed when it got cancelled, although I can understand it had limited appeal to the hardcore techies who watched The X-Files. The show's much more technical and focused on conspiracies, without the background that the general public can relate to. I sort of wonder what people thought about the show after 9/11, as the pilot episode was actually a government conspiracy to crash an airplane into the World Trade Center, and this episode was shown in March of that year.
I also knew that Luna would like watching The Lone Gunmen. She liked many episodes of The X-Files and especially those that were funny. The Lone Gunmen tends to have funny things in every episode, just because the characters are funny and they have absurd ideas about how to go about things. She especially likes Frohike because he acts so kawaii and looks moe.
February 23, 2008
Visit from Silke
Silke's back in San Jose again after about two years. She's the new team lead for development in Germany, and Karsten who used to be the team lead is now a manager. So IBM flew her out to meet some of the people she's working with in San Jose and for some training. This was her first time meeting Luna, although I'd mentioned Luna to her the last time she was here.
We went to eat at Sato Sushi. The food was good although a little pricey as usual for a Japanese restaurant. We mostly talked about how things are at IBM and what the people there that both of us know are doing now. Luna talked a little bit about her classes. Luna thought it was strange that Silke would go to live at a monastery and learn Kung Fu.
Afterwards, we came back home and played a game of Hunters and Gatherers. It was actually a very close game until I got lucky and pulled out the shrine which let me get all of the field, which we were previously sharing, to myself. If I hadn't pulled that I wouldn't have won, because I was trailing by a fair margin the entire time.
February 21, 2008
Patlabor: The TV Series
So whereas the Patlabor OVA was a little disappointing, the full length television series Patlabor: The TV Series isn't so bad. It's not great, but it's about what you'd expect from a Saturday morning cartoon. A bit of action, some laughs, and outrageous but likable characters. It's a little on the long side, at 47 episodes, but they go by fairly quickly and there are some interesting, although simple, stories.
Despite the franchise's tremendous success in general, I'm not really sure what it has going for it. I suspect it's more of a mecha action sort of appeal to younger audiences. Having recently watched You're Under Arrest! I have to say YUA is a much better show overall with more lasting appeal than Patlabor: TV.
February 17, 2008
When Luna first saw the trailer for The Holiday she laughed and then punched me in the face. Cameron Diaz's character had found out her boyfriend slept with his secretary and walked out the front door and punched him twice. I don't think Luna put it on her queue right away, but we saw the trailer again and that's probably when she did.
There's really nothing special about The Holiday in terms of plot, but it does have some very good actors and a little gimmick which thankfully isn't overused. Amanda (Cameron Diaz) happens to be a movie trailer director/editor/something and every once in a while imagines hearing voiceovers describing the drama in her life. That's the gimmick, and it's used a few times. Otherwise, it's your typical people in bad relationship find other people and everything works out in the end. Simple, straightforward, and it'll be the characters that make you like the movie or not.
I did kind of like Miles (Jack Black) because his view on the world is a little kooky. He sees a theatrical score in just about everything and that's a fun and cool way of seeing things. He's a composer in the movie, of course.
February 14, 2008
Strangers in Paradise
Strangers in Paradise, by Terry Moore, is a masterpiece. Every once in a while there comes a book that has everything and holds you so tight you forget to breathe and savor each page while being unable to turn to the next one. This is one of them.
I think there are some stories that can only be told right with pictures, and Strangers in Paradise really exploits the graphic medium to its fullest. You can't describe in words the smirk on someone's face or the burning in someone's eyes. Those simple words don't convey the whole and any attempt to describe it in words is like looking at a beautiful painting an inch at a time. You can only see those things by absorbing it all at once. In any other form, Strangers in Paradise would be just a pale rendering.
Moore's sense of composition and attention to emotional detail in each frame is perfect. It all comes together without once placing you in an uncomfortable visual flow or inability to fully understand the frame, the page, and the story. I'd love to read it in full color, but the black and white pocket books are really good anyway.
Katchoo, Francine, David, and their friends and enemies are wonderful. When you follow a person through good and bad, the rough spots and with all their emotions and thoughts fully exposed, you can't help by fall in love with them. They become part of you. Katchoo and Francine are soul mates in the real sense of the word. That doesn't mean they always get along and live in a perfect world. It means no matter what they're together and each carrying a part of the other even when they're apart, and that will never change.
There's all the stuff that makes life interesting, fun, exciting, and an adventure. Plus a whole other global conspiracy and criminal element that has them trapped and prevents them from being able to control their own lives. Those external events that you try to hide from the ones you love to protect them, or save them, when that means hurting them and sacrificing yourself or other people. Those sorts of hard but real-life decisions that many people face and struggle to overcome.
This is a story I'm going to read again. And I'm going to enjoy it just as much that time, and the time after.
February 13, 2008
Fear and Trembling
Tintin got me Stupeur et tremblements for my birthday. It's originally a French novelette by Amélie Nothomb that I believe is autobiographical in nature. Amélie immigrates to Japan for the purpose of working at a Japanese company for one year. The cultural and corporate differences coupled with her gaijin status create a uniquely amusing yet ridiculously horrific experience for her. What she thinks shows good initiative or understanding in fact results in suspicion or corporate loss of face. Those she thinks are nice are in fact quick to betray. Hopes will be casually dashed by the inadvertent comments of a superior. In sum, a world of social politics that is like a mine field for Amélie and her coworkers.
The translation reads very easily, and the book itself looks as if published for a young teen audience with large type and lots of white space. There isn't any difficult vocabulary and the sentence structure is simple. I wonder though, as it was originally written in French, just how well it translates. It seems like a lot of the amusement would depend a lot on how it was written by the author. So perhaps something was lost in the translation. I actually finished the entire book in one sitting, but it's not a whole lot of pages so that's not much of a feat anyway.
February 12, 2008
I saw Hyper Police in the manga section of a bookstore, and remembered it because it looked like it might be a fun read. It's an action-comedy taking place sometime in the future where cross-breeding between humans and animals has created a whole set of new species like cat girls and werewolves and turtle men. Natsuki is a cat girl working as a bounty hunter with a bunch of other human and non-human characters. They all have very distinct personalities and the author, MEE, has a lot of fun with creating absurd situations and lots of fan service. When taking a break from all the explosions and craziness, romance between the different characters starts to grow.
The manga is ten volumes, and doesn't really have an overall plot. Each chapter tends to stand on its own as a little adventure, although sometimes a story will take place over a handful of chapters. There aren't any amazing ideas or new things presented in the manga, and if you're going to remember anything special it would have to be the characters and hysteria. Unfortunately, while I think the artwork itself is good, the composition could use a little work. It wasn't bad, but every once in a while there was a frame where you couldn't figure out what was going on, or the directions between adjacent frames would conflict.
February 4, 2008
Infernal Affairs 2 & 3
Infernal Affairs 2 and Infernal Affairs 3 are the sequels to a great movie I watched a few years ago, Infernal Affairs. This first one was recently remade in the U.S. but I haven't seen it. The primary reason I liked Infernal Affairs was because of the competing tension between Yan and Lau both working for the other team while still trying to defeat each other. It's an excellent game of chess.
Wu jian dao 2 is different. This movie actually takes place before the first Wu jian dao, and focuses more on the relationship between the gangster Sam and police officer Wong, who are the leaders of the gang and police in Wu jian dao. We see their history, and what led them to who they became in the first movie. Yan and Lau are also there, but in their younger selves. The lack of tension and a somewhat confusing chain of events made it harder to like Wu jian dao 2. I felt the strength of focus found in the first movie was lost, even though the acting and characters were just as good and the story well tied into the series as a whole. (Brief glimpses into Yan's thing with watches and Lau's love of music are nice touches.)
Wu jian dao 3 is even more confusing than 2. This takes place some time after the first movie, as the police try to uncover who else might be gang moles. Lau is now a big time police officer, and involved in the investigation. However, things aren't exactly right. There are problems at home with his wife Mary, and his investigation seems to take odd turns. There are lots of flashbacks to new events that show more background on Yan and Lau. The psychiatrist played by Kelly Chen makes are reappearance. In the end, things make sense but you will have to piece things together. Unfortunately, the ending is disappointing but fitting with the whole series' idea of continuous hell.
January 28, 2008
The original Rollerball film is one of those science-fiction classics that starred an out-of-place movie star in an interesting and thoughtful social commentary. I'm sure I watched it on television when I was younger, and something about it made me remember the name although not the content. This movie is about Jonathan, the star of a violent sport named Rollerball who is asked to retire despite an unprecedented performance. In this world, the lives of the populace are tightly controlled by multi-nationals that dictate everything from public knowledge to families. The multi-nats fear Jonathan's influence on the public, because the game was designed to create violent failures but Jonathan never loses.
This movie is about the growing influence of corporations and a subconscious fear of a dystopian future society. There is no more war, or poverty, or global conflict. Everyone has what they need to survive, but not what they want or desire. This is kept in check a great deal by preventing people from having any idea that there might be more to life than what the companies give them. And Rollerball is the blood sport that allows them to vicariously unleash their tension while reinforcing the idea that in the end you always lose. Jonathan struggles to break out of this mental prison and take control of his own life.
January 27, 2008
Luc Besson's created another high-energy action thrill ride with Banlieue 13. District B13 is a run down slum that's been walled off by the French government. The people behind lack simple public services such as garbage collection or public schooling, and the district is run by criminal organizations and smaller gangs. Leïto's a sort of vigilante trying to take down the local power Taha, but runs into trouble with the authorities allowing Taha to enslave Leïto's sister, Lola. The remainder of the film follows Leïto's attempts to free his sister while working with an undercover cop named Damien to prevent the detonation of a nuclear warhead.
With only that simple plot and its over-the-top likable characters, this movie wouldn't be worth mentioning much. But Luc Besson really knows how to create a great ride and District B13 certainly doesn't disappoint. Leïto is actually played by David Belle who is famous for the parkour movement. This film is an amazing showcase of that physical art form, with extended sequences of parkour throughout. The action is swift, tight, and filmed very well so the audience can clearly follow everything. Many times a director will use quick cuts and jerky motion to create a false sense of excitement and activity, but that's not the case here.
All in all an excellent action film that's a lot of fun to watch, and fun to watch a second time.
Dragon's World: A Fantasy Made Real
I'm not even sure what you should call Dragon's World: A Fantasy Made Real. It's presented as a documentary, but it's pure fantasy. In a nutshell, an aspiring paleontologist (who happens to want to believe in fire-breathing dragons) comes across a frozen dinosaur. As the ice preserved tissue, he has more to work with than fossilized bone and discovers gas sacks and trace residue of metals capable of creating a spark. (Don't ask me how evolution results in a defense mechanism that requires eating rocks.) This researcher also theorizes about derivations of the dragon, accounting for the mythology found in different cultures around the world.
I guess if you already believe in dragons then you might be interested in watching this. But if you don't or are looking for something with actual scientific foundations then this is probably a waste of your time. At best, it's one person's extremely simple ramblings on what might have been, based on the human imagination.
January 21, 2008
24: Season 6
I really like 24, but I was disappointed by season 6. I feel like this is where the show has finally Jumped the Shark. Previous seasons have always brought something new to the series. New characters, political discussion, and plot mechanisms are part of the special sauce for this show. But as long as there's excitement and tension, I really felt compelled to watch. Admittedly the blatant sell-out to Cisco in the previous season was a little annoying, but I tried to ignore that as it was only in one episode.
But season six is the first season where I felt like everything has been recycled. The plot lines, the technologies, the threats, and the core character types are all remixes of the previous seasons. There's certainly a good level of current events pulled in, but that can't get rid of the unbelievable aspects of the show, which I won't discuss in depth at risk of ruining it for others. Cisco does make another blatant appearance, and the terrorist threats are now on the order of every three or four hours. They really need to stop trying to outdo themselves based solely on quantity.
The only saving grace of this season is the clearer focus on the characters. That's always been one of the most important parts of this series, and I think the writers realized that needed to be given some extra attention this time around, since the plot was weaker and less realistic than it needed to be. I'm really not sure where season seven will take us; it's a bit difficult for me to expect something great.
January 14, 2008
Eagle vs. Shark
Iris said she's been wanting to see Eagle vs. Shark ever since its debut at Sundance. That alone should give you some idea of what type of film it is, and personally I didn't like it a whole lot. However, there is a large group of people who do like this sort of humor, so I'm not surprised it was received so well as an indie romantic comedy.
The film focuses around two "social losers". Lily, who works at a burger joint, has a crush on Jarrod, who works in the same mall at a video game store. Neither of them fits into the mainstream, and Jarrod seems to live in a strange fantasy version of himself where he's macho and envied by others although he knows deep down this isn't true. Through a strange set of events, Lily and Jarrod find out just how well they fit together, while making fools of themselves the whole time. Which makes it so their foolishness really doesn't matter.
I found parts of the film amusing, but overall I don't think the film was that great. It's got a nice message and the acting is good in its own quirky way, but it's also sort of pointless and boring. Iris really liked it, I think, but I think Luna might have fallen asleep during the middle.
Patlabor: The Mobile Police OVA
Patlabor: The Mobile Police OVA is three discs of compressed story line and action starring Section 2, a group of special police officers whose job it is to handle Patlabor crime, or crime committed by people while in mecha. It's basically a police action-comedy. It's also what kicked off the entire Patlabor series of TV shows and films and was directed by Mamoru Oshii.
Despite all that I can't really recommend it. It's short at only a handful of episodes and as a result all of the character development and story is very compressed. The OVA itself doesn't really end, and you need to watch the movie to pick up where it left off.
January 9, 2008
Wii with Karen + Sebastian
Luna, Iris, and I went up to visit Karen and Sebastian tonight because Sebastian will be leaving to Switzerland soon to start working there as a professor. Karen won't be joining him until after she graduates from Stanford, which should be sometime this summer. We went out to Thai food, which was good and reasonably priced, and I think I spent most of the time talking to Sebastian and Karen about the Presidential candidates and public policy ideas. Karen thinks it is unfair that people are fined based on their income in Switzerland, for example, while Sebastian and I think it makes sense because fines are supposed to be punishments rather than to be fees or to reflect any particular costs.
Afterwards we went back to Karen's place and played Wii Sports. It's the first time Luna or I had played a Wii; Iris had played before. I was okay at Wii Tennis, but I couldn't do well at Wii Boxing or Wii Bowling. Boxing seemed to have a very heavy delay between movement of the remote and nunchuck, and the most effective techniques really didn't look anything like what the characters on screen were doing. I don't really know what was wrong with bowling though, because I just couldn't get it to swing the arm and release the ball correctly.
Lastly we played a round of Pictionary. The teams were Karen, Luna, and me versus Sebastian and Iris. Our team pulled ahead early on very quickly, but then we got hit by a short period of losses and they caught up. In the end we got to the finish first though, and won the game. A couple of times it was easier to guess off the other team's artist, but that's okay because Sebastian likes to do that and so it's acceptable strategy. :)
January 7, 2008
I'm not really sure why Luna decided to rent Ed Wood, but I vaguely recall seeing it before. It's not exactly your typical Tim Burton film, as it's a biography of the real director Ed Wood's attempts to make it big in Hollywood. It has an amazing cast, starring Johnny Depp of course but also Sarah Jessica Parker, Bill Murray, and a number of other great actors in supporting roles. The best performance being given by Martin Landau for his portrayal of Bela Legosi. Every once in a while an actor really pulls off a real person, and Landau does that here.
The movie itself isn't all that interesting though. Most people these days have never heard of Ed Wood, and none of his movies are actually good (which is part of the point). Without anything real to connect oneself to the movie, there needs to be something special about it that will entertain, or fascinate, or emotionally grab the viewer. This movie really doesn't do that because it's just the life of Ed Wood, dramatized by Tim Burton in the same manner Ed Wood dramatized his own movies.
January 3, 2008
Shrek the Third
I really didn't have any desire to watch Shrek the Third, but Luna wanted to so we did. I'm not a fan of the Shrek series since I think they're all very unoriginal and simple. Shrek the Third didn't disappoint in that regard; in fact I think it's the most cliché-ridden and predictable of all three. Particularly annoying to me was the whole baby sequence sometime in the middle of the film, especially since they didn't put a lot of effort into making the babies move realistically and instead it looked like a bunch of rubber toys.
I did like some of the nice little homages they put into the film, like the coconut horses joke from Monty Python and the voices of John Cleese and Eric Idle or the Charlie's Angels reference. But that doesn't really make up for the film as a whole. If you liked the first two Shrek movies, I suspect you might enjoy watching the third although perhaps not as much. I thought the first two were okay, and I didn't have any problem watching the third, but I wouldn't choose to spend my time watching it again.
December 30, 2007
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Luna rented the original Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie because she's been watching through the entire new TV series and really likes it. I guess she wanted to see where it all started. I remember reading this book after getting it through one of the school's book orders.
I was actually surprised to see so many actors in the film that have either become famous or at least had serious careers. It's also a little different than I remembered, with more parody and self-deprecating humor; I remembered a lot of fighting in the book which I guess was an adaptation of the movie. It also surprised me to learn that Joss Whedon also wrote and directed the movie. He's a very highly regarded person in the television industry and by the general public, and I don't remember Buffy the Vampire Slayer having been considered a critical success.
Anyway, the movie wasn't anything special but I found it entertaining at times. Pretty short and straight forward. I can't find any faults in the film, but I think it's standard television movie fare.
You're Under Arrest! The Motion Picture
You're Under Arrest! The Motion Picture takes place a few months after the OVA just as Natsumi and Miyuki are finishing up their training away from Bokuto station. The same cast of characters are there, and you really have to have seen the OVA to appreciate the movie because no time is spent on character development or back story. The movie really is a feature film with Bokuto station up against a band of terrorists and heavy on action and plot instead of humor.
In terms of production, it's obvious that a lot more time and money was put into the movie than into the OVA. The picture is clearer and there is a lot more detail in every scene. There is surround sound, although it's a little too discretely mixed. I liked seeing Natsumi and Miyuki in action again, and it was cool to see them in a slightly more grown up version of the television series.
December 29, 2007
Why Hot Songs Are Crap
Rolling Stone has an excellent article about why compressed songs sound bad. The practice of compressing music is also referred to as mixing "hot", because all of the sounds are boosted until they all measure close to the max decibel level which is usually displayed as red and white on a spectral analysis graph. This can also result in a form of clipping when a frequency is boosted such that its amplitude hits the ceiling for too long. Imagine a sine wave that has a peak of -0dB. To the left and right of the peak, the amplitude drops. But if the entire signal is boosted, the areas to the left and right of the peak will also be at -0dB.
This is one of the most annoying aspects of music produced today because really high end gear will expose these problems. But on the other hand, it does mean that for lots of music, you won't hear much difference if you listen on high end gear or mass market gear. In other words, if that's the sort of music that you listen to, you don't need to spend time or money on good speakers or electronics. Things may actually sound better to you if you don't, because a high-frequency roll off will make it less fatiguing to listen.
Well mastered audio on good gear will sound loads better though. I've remarked before about an album from Tosca, classical music, and other well mastered CDs that let you hear the instruments and performers. Wide dynamic range adds a lot of depth and captures the meanings behind a passage that is supposed to be done with fortissimo instead of pianissimo.
December 28, 2007
Home from Christmas
Luna and I just got back from spending Christmas at my parents house in New York. We were there for four days, not including the two days spent flying. Dennis and Iris were there until the 24th, after which they went to Iris' parents' place. Calvin took the same flights that we did.
Luna was really excited to see so much snow, and the first day she wanted to go outside and play in it. But it was raining at that time and she hadn't packed the right clothing for us. In fact, she only packed me one pair of pants and the wrong shirts, so I ended up having to go buy some pants and wash the clothes often. Luna also bought some boots and a bag while we were out. We never got around to actually playing in the snow afterwards.
And I actually spent two days just watching season one of Heroes on my mom's laptop. Luna watched season one just before we flew out, without me. Heroes has excellent characters and a great plot. That's really what's so good about the show. There is a pretty large cast of people, some with super powers and some without, who find themselves bound together through taut strings of destiny to save the world. As things are revealed and you try to piece together the puzzle of motivations and challenges, so are they doing the same thing.
Unfortunately, while there's a really strong cast and excellent plot, the execution itself is plagued with sloppiness. That's a real turn off for me, and Luna didn't like it either after I started pointing them out to her. There are scenes that show up in one episode, and then you see them again in the following episode but the dialog, action, and even the set have changed. Part of me thinks this must have become a deliberate choice, if it didn't already start out that way. There's even one character who shows up and then mysteriously disappears without explanation. And some Ando-paradoxes are never answered.
Still, it's a great show and I can understand why people really like it. There's a whole lot of inside jokes and little gestures as well, such as George Takei's license plate or Stan Lee's cameo. I did appreciate those, although I suspect the vast majority of viewers didn't even notice.
Christmas day Luna and I spent sleeping. She wanted to wake up early to get presents, but then after that we both went back to sleep and ended up spending a lot of the night actually awake instead of sleeping. I got a new pair of sneakers which I really needed because mine are so old; I was actually looking at some when we went out earlier to buy the pants, but ended up not buying any. I also got socks and some money. Luna got a coat and a pair of warm socks. Calvin got me Transmission and Luna a scarf. Dennis and Iris gave us Genki Hats of Luna and Artemis.
The day after Christmas Luna and I took Amtrak to New York City. She wanted to see the Statue of Liberty and ground zero. The train ride was about 2.5 hours each direction, and was convenient because once in the city we could just take the subway and walk. Unfortunately the actual Statue of Liberty ferries and stops took four whole hours to do. We had to wait in line for a long time to get onto the ferry, which has airport-like security screening, and then again on the way to Ellis Island and back to Manhattan. We couldn't get into the Statue of Liberty itself though because all of the time passes had been given out; you need to reserve well in advance it seems. So other than some quick pictures it wasn't very fruitful. It's also a lot smaller than I thought it would be. The tickets are sold out of Castle Clinton though, and the whole thing brought back memories of Deus Ex.
Afterwards we went to ground zero but didn't enter the special memorial thing they have set up while construction is going on. Luna just snapped some quick pictures through holes in the fence they set up around the hole. When we saw some local cemeteries she thought the people that died there had been buried right there, but of course those are just regular cemeteries next to churches.
Dinner was at Roxy's Delicatessen which is pricey but nice. I probably wouldn't go back again though. Service was a little slow and I saw one of the wrapped muffins fall on the floor and then get put back onto the shelf (it was wrapped, so not really a big deal, but still feels weird). We walked around Times Square for a long time, visiting places like the M&M store and Hershey store until it was time for our train back.
It's the flight back to San Jose that was really annoying. Our plane at Albany arrived late, so there was no airplane for us to take to Detroit even though we could have left if a plane and crew had been available. As a result, we missed our connection in Detroit and ended up taking a later flight to Minneapolis/St. Paul on standby. And since we were late arriving there, our flight to San Jose had already left and we would have to stay overnight if we wanted to catch the next one. Instead, we got on standby for a flight to San Francisco, and arrived at SFO around 12:30am without any of our luggage. We had to wait a long time for a shuttle that would take us to where Luna and I parked at SJC, and finally arrived home at 3am. Northwest needs to find our luggage and somehow get it back to California to deliver to our home.
Cat O' Nine Tales
Luna picked out Cat O' Nine Tales by Jeffrey Archer from the airport bookstore, probably because it had the picture of a cat on the front and some amusing cat illustrations inside. But we were both pretty disappointed at the quality of the stories and writing. I ended up reading the whole thing on the airplane, but Luna hasn't bothered to get past the first few stories.
This book is a compilation of twelve short stories, typically telling about some crime or interesting caper that Archer heard about while in prison himself, embellished from the short plot and punch-line that you'd read about in the paper. But those embellishments are extremely simple, predictable, and usually end up following exactly the sort of twist you've heard about before. The characters aren't interesting and rather two-dimensional, and the writing is suitable for young teens. All in all, nothing remarkable about this book or its stories.
Calvin gave me Transmission by Hari Kunzru for Christmas. In this story, psychologically stressed Arjun Mehta unleashes an extremely devastating virus onto the Internet which leads to a cascade of events he can no longer control. The book received some decent praise, but I found it somewhat dated and exaggerated. No doubt in 2004, when it was published, a lot of the ideas and slang Kunzru used would have been considered hip by the typically unaware critics, but I didn't find the "name dropping" that appealing. I refer to it that way because terms like RL are tossed out once but the overall tone of narration and its characters don't speak using that sort of vocabulary.
I was also disappointed with how the characters' plot lines were woven together and with the conclusion. It's not atypical for an author to begin a story with characters in different locations and plot lines, but Kunzru never actually brings those plot lines together in any meaningful way. Guy Swift, Leela, and Gaby really don't matter and are only there to provide some additional characters and interest. But they never drive the plot forward. And in the end, everything is wrapped up in an afterward-like concluding chapter that tries to explain what happened to everyone years later. But it's told from the perspective of someone who doesn't know, which sucks since the whole book was placing you next to those characters up until that point.
December 27, 2007
The Great Train Robbery
The Great Train Robbery is one of Michael Crichton's earliest novels and appears to be getting another printing these days. It's a little different from his other books, in that it is historical fiction based on the actual train robbery of 1855 where a team of highly skilled and intelligent thieves managed a heist that was almost never solved. It also reads differently as a sort of dramatized documentary. A lot of the chapters are short but heavy on character and plot detail written as someone who is compiling information about the subject for informative purposes rather than entertainment. That's probably part of why I didn't find this book as fun to read as some of his others. However, the amount of research Crichton brought to this book is indicative of the dedication to accuracy found in all of his books.
December 25, 2007
Empire is a novel by Orson Scott Card published last year. I found it in the airport book store and the back cover described a book very much like what I had recently been thinking about, regarding the current direction of the U.S. government and society as a whole. The main characters are all U.S. soldiers or veterans that lean right to varying degrees, who are caught up in a sort of rebellion when a successful rocket attack takes out the top members of the Executive branch and cabinet. In the resulting chaos, a left-wing group conquers New York City and various state and local governments begin aligning themselves with this new organization.
I wish Card had focused more on the issues, morals, and ideas associated with how and why this could happen and the consequences of a country that has become so divided and complacent. Instead the majority of words are there to move the plot along without a whole lot of commentary on the subject. That's understandable, considering this is supposed to be a thriller and exploration of a possible near future for the United States.
To his immense credit, Card does make parallels to a possible consequence within the story, and the book has underlying criticism of both right- and left-wing extremists as well as the citizens who have allowed things to reach this point. Which is good, because it slips those thoughts into the reader without forcing the issue. People of any political leaning can read it, enjoy it, and not feel like Card is trying to force his own beliefs upon them. Your individual political views will shape your perceptions of the story and its political opinions. Although I suspect (and no doubt Card does as well) that people who lean far in one direction or the other will not be able to see that they are exactly the kind of people being criticized by the book. Instead, they will believe the book vindicates their own political choices.
December 21, 2007
My Neighbor Totoro
My Neighbor Totoro is probably Hayao Miyazaki's most famous film, although it's from 1988 and not as fascinating as his contemporary works. There's less action, less visual and aural spectacle, and a much simpler and shallow story. But it's also an amazing children's tale that you can still enjoy as an adult and it contains universal appeal. Basically it's a great movie that everyone will like and be willing to watch multiple times.
The film centers around 11-year-old Satsuki and her younger sister Mei after moving to the countryside with their father. Their mother is in the hospital with some sort of chronic illness that is never fully explained. The entire film is presented from the viewpoint of someone of Satsuki and Mei's ages, which means the world appears simple in some ways, grand in others, and magical but overwhelming. Totoro is a forest spirit that appears to Mei and then Satsuki. He lives in the enormous tree at the nearby temple.
I really liked this film. It's endearing, fun, and magical just like Satsuki and Mei. The songs have a sing-along quality to them, and the art is colorful and vibrant. The English ADR is pretty good as well since it was done by Disney. There aren't any deep thoughts or epic conflicts here; it's more like the type of movie you'd watch on a lazy Sunday afternoon.
December 19, 2007
You're Under Arrest!
You're Under Arrest! is an OVA of the manga of the same name written by Kosuke Fujishima. The two main characters are Miyuki and Natsumi, who are partners in the traffic division of Bokuto Police Station. They meet for the first time in the first episode and become quick friends and close partners. There are a number of supporting characters, including the love interests of both Miyuki and Natsumi. Every character has a very distinct personality which all together work very well. I particularly like the character of Natsumi. She's super strong, aggressive, and rough-and-tumble. Miyuki is the quiet intelligent one, with a not-so-secret love of machines and guns.
I would describe the series as a really good Saturday-morning cartoon. Each episode is pretty standalone with a few stories spanning two episodes. Of course there's a real progression of character development and plot over the entire series, unlike U.S. cartoons which are never intended to end or change. It's suitable for very young children as well as adults. In fact, I'd say young children and teens are the prime audience. I found Bokuto's police force very inspirational and I can imagine children wanting to grow up to become policemen and policewomen (there's even a girl that does that in the show).
I enjoyed You're Under Arrest! because of the characters, decent stories, and overall fun attitude with a nice splash of action. There aren't any annoying issues like reused cels or evident budget problems. Very solid production, but not particularly remarkable.
December 18, 2007
Tank Girl: The Gifting
Tank Girl makes her return after a long haitus with Tank Girl: The Gifting from IDW Publishing. This compilation of short stories is a departure from the more traditional visual narrative of the earlier comics. Many of the stories contain only a handful of words and a few pages of illustration; some are simple ditties that speak with the Tank Girl attitude. But the overall personality of Tank Girl, Booga, and their compatriots in mischief is the same, and no doubt welcome by Tank Girl aficionados who are a little older and mature these days.
The Gifting was not illustrated by Jamie Hewitt, but instead by Ashley Wood who has created a look of rough lines and watercolor. It's certainly a more visually interesting and freeform approach, but I did find it a little dry because of the earthy, washed-out color scheme. And I didn't enjoy the plotless or very short skits as much.
Still, Tank Girl is back. She's a little more grown up but just as much an irresponsible and reckless misfit as ever, even if she no longer lives in a shack in the Outback. I believe she's going to be returning in some future volumes which I plan to pick up, in large part just because I've started the collection.
December 15, 2007
After four years of university, the Genshiken manga comes to an end with a total of nine volumes. It's been quite enjoyable following the members of Genshiken as they came to know each other and to know themselves, and I have no doubt I'll be re-reading this manga in the future.
I could really identify with the Genshiken, their ideas and personalities, and the clashes arising from Kasukabe's and Ogiue's attitudes towards otaku. Kio Shimoku made some excellent choices in the characters he brought together in the Genshiken, with depth and realistic personalities (with the occasional amusing ones) that both highlight the ideas and challenges of otaku while complementing each other to bring out interesting and intelligent interactions and ideas.
Shimoku is a very good manga artist. Many artists, even for popular series, are poor at creating a sequence of panels, establishing context, and making clear exactly what is going on. This manga suffers from none of those issues. There's also a lot of time and detail put into every frame, into the characters look and mood, and the backgrounds. I suppose that's particularly important given the subject matter and audience of this manga, but it's always nice to actually see an artist put so much effort into his work.
At the end of the nine volumes, I found myself slightly disappointed that it was all over, but not as much as after reading through Azumanga Daioh. Perhaps that's only because I had to wait so long between volumes of Genshiken, and reading it through in one sitting would make my attachment to the characters stronger. There's a little bit left open for a continuing series, but I doubt that will happen.
December 13, 2007
The Boy Who Would Live Forever
The Boy Who Would Live Forever is the fifth novel in Frederik Pohl's Heechee saga, and sort of falls outside of the previous novels by focusing on a completely new set of characters and separate plot line. The two main characters in this book are Stan, a boy who used to live close to poverty until getting to Gateway, and Estrella, whose background is more of a mystery. Together they become the first human visitors to the Heechee core, where time moves 40,000 times slower than on the outside. Klara and Albert Einstein play secondary roles, as well as Wan who is something of a galactic annoyance who cannot be ignored.
This time a lot of time is spent illustrating how the Heechee live in the core and on their cultural differences from Homo sapiens. I found some of that interesting simply because of the Heechee's tremendous influence in the previous novels, but honestly there isn't a whole lot of newness to this novel in the series. It feels much more like an auxiliary novel instead of an important one.
December 11, 2007
All Over the Guy
All Over the Guy is a movie from a few years back that I found a promotional copy for at Netflix. Sounded a little interesting from the tagline: 4 friends, 3 guys, 2 couples &emdash; You Do The Math. (I guess it ended up with a different tagline later on.) It's a simple story about love and relationships, but with very complicated characters. The characters are what makes this movie worth anything, but I suppose anyone interested in this type of movie would already be looking at it from that angle. So while I found it interesting to watch, I don't think it's particularly great.
The four friends in the movie are played by Dan Bucatinsky, Richard Ruccolo, Sasha Alexander, and Adam Goldberg. Richard's character, Tom, is the one that I found most engaging and as a result felt the film focused most on, even though the screen time is probably fairly equally distributed with Dan's character, Eli. Eli's sort of messed up but in a sort of wishy-washy way. Tom's character is messed up in a weird mental-complex sort of way, which is what makes him unpredictable and frustrating but someone you want to see turn out okay and happy.
December 8, 2007
The Day of the Triffids
BBC's 1981 television adaptation of The Day of the Triffids was available as a freebie at Netflix so I picked it up. I really didn't know anything about it, but I knew that it falls under the category of sci-fi cult classic. I figured it would look old, but still be interesting and worth watching for its cultural value.
Triffids are a plant-animal that sting animals and then eat them, much like spiders or insect-eating plants do in reality. Only Triffids seem to possess some mediocre level of intelligence and can move around. When an unexplained astral phenomenon leaves most of the human race blind, the Triffids start having a free lunch. Conveniently, there's no explanation for where Triffids came from (they are a magically introduced new species) or the astral phenomenon either.
The statements I later saw comparing it to 28 Days Later are apt. However, I really liked 28 Days Later and felt let down by The Day of the Triffids. What I didn't like about this TV series was that there wasn't a whole lot of direction. I've been led to understand that is how the novel was as well, but I felt for the time involved something more should be accomplished. The ending left things a little too open as well. The screeching music could be very annoying too.
December 3, 2007
Cute Bunny and Bells
Ferry Halim has a new cute little game up called Winterbells. You are a little white bunny and it is snowing bells. The goal is to bounce up the bells for as long as you can to get points. If you fall down, your run is over. I could easily see myself playing at this for a while and trying to better my score. The sprites and sound effects are just great. :D
November 30, 2007
Luna and I have both wanted to watch Ratatouille since we first saw the trailer. This is Pixar's latest film, and was directed by Brad Bird. We watched it with my parents because they were here helping us fix up the backyard.
I really liked it. There was a lot of fun stuff in there, and of course it's a movie that can be enjoyed by the whole family. Although the main character of the story is a rat, the human characters also play a large role and look very similar to the style used in The Incredibles. I was sort of hoping the people would look more realistic, or have some more texture to them.
I always like to try and find the new technological advances that Pixar put into their films. Each film usually adds something new but subtle. I think there were two things they worked on specifically for Ratatouille: reflections and crowds. A lot of action takes place in the restaurant kitchen, and that means pots and pans and lots of shiny surfaces reflecting all over the place. It was not focused on, but I think a lot of attention went into making sure those reflections looked real and were accurate. And a lot of action involves lots and lots of rats. In previous films, the crowds were composed of individuals that pretty much did the same thing (e.g. A Bug's Life or Finding Nemo). In Ratatouille, each individual is doing something unique and independent. There was one scene that was particularly nice involving all of the rats in the kitchen.
November 28, 2007
Annals of the Heechee
Annals of the Heechee is the final book in the Heechee saga by Frederik Pohl. (The Boy Who Would Live Forever is the newest novel in the saga, but I don't think it was originally intended to be. I could be wrong though.) This time, the foe is finally revealed and their motivations are explained. The usual suspects are present, of course, although this time Robinette Broadhead is a machine-stored being, and a whole lot of the story and ideas revolve around the idea of living that way, while still being involved in the physical world.
I did sort of feel like some of the technological behaviors available to Robinette and the other machine-stored humans, Heechee, or AI programs were not grounded in science though. Pohl either didn't think it through, or chose to ignore those issues for the sake of the story. Although none of his books are really hard science anyway, at least the technology mentioned in the previous novels was of a type that did not require reconciliation with current science. The ideas behind machine-stored humans would have needed to match the science of 1987 though, and they don't.
One thing I felt brought some nice energy to the book were the characters of Oniko and Sneezy. They are children, one human the other Heechee, and their child-like innocence in serious situations and hoping to see how they would turn out in the end was exciting. Unfortunately, their story-arc takes a back seat to things once their purpose in the overall plot is done.
November 27, 2007
Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem
Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem is an interesting mix of dark plot, adventure game, and action horror. But more than all that it is creepy. Really creepy. That's the part I liked most about the game, but also the part that sometimes made me say I need to stop because it's too dark right now and I'm sitting by myself.
The gameplay takes place over a period of a little over 2000 years, and begins with the corruption of a Roman centurion, Pious, by one of three gods. Each god commands one aspect of the world: physical, mental, or spiritual. The three aspects balance each other out and this cycle of strengths and weaknesses plays an important part in your ability to defeat this centurion turned Lich as you use magic and physical weapons to defeat the undead and overcome obstacles. At different points in time, a person comes into contact with Pious' plans for his god, and you play as that person to unravel a little bit more of the story and learn new magic spells to combat the darkness.
I did like how the story unfolded, and learning how the lives of all those people involved thread together to prevent the coming darkness from being successfully unleashed upon the world. It's not particularly complicated, but it is well written and kept me curious and trying to piece the parts together.
Unfortunately, I was not as pleased with the combat system. It's a bit awkward, because you cannot execute movements and attacks as fluidly and naturally as I would have liked. It doesn't have the capabilities or easy of control found in many action-RPGs or fighting games. There was also a bit of a learning curve, but once I figured out how things were supposed to behave and how to work with the movement and combat system, it wasn't too bad. But definitely not exciting.
As I mentioned above, what was really great was the creepiness. There were sounds that got to me, especially the first time I heard them and was expecting something to happen with those sounds. And there are lots of little visuals that are subconsciously disturbing as you pass by, and then even more disturbing if you try to pay closer attention. The designers put a lot of attention into all of this, and it pays off.
You can also play through multiple times, with slightly different enemies and corresponding strategies, based on whom you choose, acting as Pious, to be your god. I don't think that's worth too much though, since the story will remain the same.
November 25, 2007
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
High-energy excitement. That's how I would explain the contemporary film adaptation of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Unlike the earlier BBC attempt, which may go down in history as one of the most disappointing adaptations of all time, this version comes with good actors, a good screenplay, and the budget and production quality this book deserves. Complete with rodent overlords.
The movie captures very well the characters created by Douglas Adams. I thought the actor choices were apt, especially for Marvin who truly comes across as a depressed robot. Alan Rickman is just the perfect voice for that role. The only thing I found a little disappointing was the way Zephod's twin heads was done. It's certainly a lot better than a fake rubber head perched on the actor's shoulder, but it didn't play that much of a role in the film; you could have simply ignored that aspect of his character for the most part.
I did feel a little weird that the story and plot elements of the film didn't match up with how I remembered the book, and Wikipedia points out that I wasn't just imagining things. I think the movie is very good, but I wonder if I would have liked it better if it held closer to the original story. It's hard to say, because on its own this version of the movie is very strong.
The visuals and costumes were very good. I particularly liked the construction of Earth. That visual sequence was vast and contained some of the best exhibitions of natural beauty found on Earth. And the way it was put together looked believable, even if at the time I was thinking to myself how it wouldn't hold up to scientific analysis. :p
THGttG is considered an excellent subwoofer test, and I have to agree. The sound production is great. Very immersive and unique with great sound effects that are fun but fit right in. And completely full spectrum without holding anything back. The grilles on the top of my subwoofers got pushed off by the driver excursion which tells me this is the first movie that has actually driving my subs close to their limit. I plan to address that problem soon.
I'm sure real fans of Douglas Adams works are going to find a number of nits to pick about the movie, but I really enjoyed it and would watch it again.
Herman USA is a quaint film inspired by the true story of a sort of dating-event that was organized by the town of Herman, Minnesota. I haven't looked into the actual events, but in the film Herman is dying out because women are leaving and the men that stay behind are getting older and more desperate for love. One of the town leaders has the idea of hosting a festival with the specific intent of attracting women looking for love. The media attention predictably launches the event to unexpected heights and thousands of women descend upon Herman.
From there, the movie becomes a story about finding real love during and after a crazy weekend and a showcase of the human side of things. These are believable characters, in a situation that will easily resonate with many people. However, it's not a movie that's going to leave you feeling like you've just finished watching a work or art or like you are witness to an amazing event. It is in the end a simple story with a simple but heart-felt meaning to it, and will be an enjoyable experience for people who like that kind of movie.
November 23, 2007
Howl's Moving Castle
Howl's Moving Castle is Studio Ghibli's latest production directed by Hayao Miyazaki, although based off the novel of the same name by Diana Wynne Jones. It's a great movie, and Miyazaki's movies generally are, but I didn't think it was as good as some of his previous works.
From a visual and aural perspective, Howl's is very well done. It's detailed and lush and there are really great themes running throughout the film. But it is not the visual feast of Spirited Away, or the aural feast of Princess Mononoke. And the story is a little simpler than either of those. It focuses upon Sophie, a young girl who doesn't really know what why she is there or what she means to herself, and her relationship with Howl, a wizard who reputedly eats young girls' hearts as he travels around in his giant steampunk walking castle. Over time, Sophie finds purpose and love in herself and her relationship with Howl.
I guess Howl is a little more of a pure children's story than the Miyazaki other movies I mentioned above. Perhaps that is why I don't like it as much, even though it is a great film. It lacks the layers and emotional intensity I really love.
November 22, 2007
Macross, or The Super Dimension Fortress Macross, is one of the most famous anime series of all time. There are several television seasons and movies produced in this universe, and it is the inspiration for Robotech. It is one of the first examples of anime mecha shows, and a fan favorite for many reasons.
I'd never watched it before, but as one of the anime classics I thought I should. After watching the series, I can see why it resonated so strongly with children and fans of anime at the time, but in truth I found it to be disappointing in more than a few ways. Macross certainly has a very interesting story revolving around war and love, in a very complicated and all too human manner. That part I think was very well written. Unfortunately a combination of insufficient funding, poorly done or rushed animation, and dated character designs marred the production. There were two whole episodes that consisted of flashback material, which is usually an indication of funding or time problems, and certainly unwelcome distractions when watching the series. A number of times the animation was actually quite bad, with unnatural character movement or inconsistent drawing. And it's quite clear exactly what time period the characters come from, despite the science-fiction setting, because of their clothing and hair styles. This was also reflected in the opening theme song.
A lot of people do like the art style of Macross, which you can find in many other animes. I've never been a particular fan of this style myself, but at least usually it doesn't come across as a negative. This time it did though, because of all the problems with how it was drawn and how I kept thinking the people look like they're from the 70's or early 80's.
The idea of the Zentradi and how the human must combat this threat is quite interesting. The contrast between these two races provided a lot of fertile ground for the plot and philosophical ideas about men and women, social mores, and attitudes about war and the enemy. This story arc, and that of the love interests during the course of the series, are easily the most enjoyable aspects of the series.
Overall, I found some parts of the series enjoyable but at times the poor quality made me feel pretty disappointed in it. So there was sort of a roller coaster ride between disappointment and enjoyment throughout. In the end, I'm not particularly wanting to watch more in the series, although I sort of wonder exactly what will happen to the characters.
November 19, 2007
Transformers is excellent, even if it was directed by Michael Bay. Possibly because he poked some fun at himself and displayed some restraint for sappy clichés and relationship scenes. Instead, we've got awesome Transformer-esque lines like "there's more than meets the eye to you" and Bumblebee playing back songs that are really amusing for what he's trying to convey. I guess if you've got all of that material to work with and can leave out the relationship scenes that take over the screen, you've got gold. "This is easily a hundred times cooler than Armageddon... I swear to god!"
There are really only two human characters that have large roles: Sam Witwickey played by Shia LaBeouf and Mikaela Banes played by Megan Fox. They both give excellent performances, but it's also very important that they're the only human characters that matter, because you can follow them very closely throughout the story and they're of an age group that just about everyone can identify with. Old enough for young kids to look forward to those days, and young enough for everyone else to remember and appreciate who they are.
The rest of the human characters are really supporting cast for Sam, Mikaela, the Autobots and Decepticons. And of course it's really the Transformers that steal the show. They've got the four that really matter: Optimus Prime, Bumblebee, Megatron, and Starscream. I can't remember the others, so they're not important. :p Truthfully, though, most of the Transformers don't have significant roles. The only exception is Bumblebee, and he can't actually talk until much later in the movie so his role is primarily used to facilitate the plot. What the Transformers are great at is being giant robots and are just super cool to watch.
The amount of detail and special effects that went into the Transformers is excellent. They've preserved the original transformation sound of the cartoon, and made the actual transformation process really amazing, with lots of detail and exposed lines and components. Technically, while there appears to be a lot of movement to their transformations, I think that's more an artifact of the complexity of the models, rather than the complexity of the transformation animations. But sometimes those animations are given extra attention when they're going to be the focus on screen. If you're going to do giant transforming robots that fight, you can't do much better than this.
With excellent visuals you need excellent aural support. And Transformers doesn't disappoint there either. There are full-range sound effects that are excellent with a really well done score and songs that keep your blood pumping and the pace quick and engaging. This isn't a movie where watching it a second time you might be tempted to skip over some parts, hoping to get to the next cool scene. (Well, there might be a few, but even then there's enough going on to keep your eyes happy that you won't want to.) Of course the audio track includes massive bass lines, for all those ground-smashing action sequences, but it also includes amazing use of the upper octaves to create a really full sound.
If there is one complaint I have about the film, it's the editing. There were a few cuts where it didn't really look like the different takes were meant to sit next to each other. Either that there was something in-between missing, or the two sides of the scene or conversation took place at different times, or with different people, and were then slapped together. Still, that's a small complaint and not one that detracts a whole lot from the movie.
Spider-Man 3 is just as good as the other Spidey movies, in my opinion. I know some people were disappointed with it, and with Venom, but I really liked it. I don't really remember what role Venom played in the comics; it was a long time ago when I read the ones with Venom. But from what I can remember it is relatively faithful to the original characteristics, although of course the plot is changed for the purpose of the movie.
Tobey Maguire portrayed his descent into hedonism very well, although I am not really sure how that all worked out in the end without him going into real details on the situation with Mary Jane. That part was conveniently left out of the movie. I do think some of the criticism over the shallowness of Sandman's story is valid though. His character is given a backstory and personal motivations which are never brought to conclusion. But Topher Grace as Eddie Brock, Peter Parker's rival at the Daily Bugle, was an inspired choice. Not only does he bear a disconcerting physical resemblance to Tobey Maguire, but he carries the same sort of personality as well. I thought this really helped place him opposite Peter Parker.
The cool things about Spider-Man 3 are the action sequences and special effects, and I was not disappointed in either of those areas. There are some really cool aerial fight sequences, and the special effects for Venom and the Sandman are spectacular. Another aspect that might be easily overlooked is the makeup for Peter Parker. As he falls farther and farther from grace, the ugliness of his inner self begins to reflect itself upon his outer self. It's subtle, but very effective and well done.
November 18, 2007
Heechee Rendezvous is the third book in Frederik Pohl's Heechee saga. As the name implies, this is the novel in which humans and Heechees finally meet face-to-face. In addition to revealing what the Heechee look like, and providing answers to some of the questions that the human archeologists were constantly asking themselves about the Heechee, the story also reveals exactly why the Heechee did what they did, and why. A lot of answers are given in this book, along with really interesting ideas about the universe and why some things are the way they are.
There are some new characters introduced in Heechee Rendezvous, not the least of which are the Heechee. But a man named Audee and his wife cross paths with Wan, the boy from the second book who was raised on the Heechee food factory. Wan's character is uniquely defined, and an illustrative exposition of nurture over nature.
I just came across a Wired article about 23andMe, who will decode your genetic sequence for a mere $1000. After submitting a sample of your saliva, your genotype data will be available for you to view on their web site. This isn't exactly the same as the early scene in Gattaca where upon being born, Jerome is given specific probabilities for certain diseases and health problems, but it's close. Based on the latest research into genetic influence on physical, mental, and health characteristics, you can see if there is some likelihood you might want to pay attention to certain things. You can also see how genetically similar you might be to other people in general.
deCODEme is another service that does the same thing, for about the same price. I'm not particularly sure if there is any difference in these services. Technically, they should be able to deduce and tell you the same thing, at which point it just comes down to price, but more than that privacy and the user experience. Privacy is going to be the most important, because as seen in Gattaca, it will all be about the protections in place and attitudes we adopt that determine what happens with this new capability.
November 12, 2007
Apocalypto is Mel Gibson's latest film, about a tribe that finds themselves hunted by Mayans. Many are killed. The women are raped. The children are left to die. And the rest are tied up and led to a fate unknown at forced march. The movie then follows the efforts of Jaguar Paw, one of the villagers who was captured, as he witnesses the cruelty and viciousness of his captors on their journey, and then his escape and revenge.
A lot of the movie is cliché or at least predictable: the repetition of a "wise" saying, the replay of some activity or behavior that was seen earlier, or the fulfillment of prophecy told by one who is afflicted. I found myself being disappointed whenever these simple-minded behaviors or plot devices were used because they distracted from the beautiful setting of the film.
The film was shot in lush forests full of life and amazing sounds and sights. The actors were chosen to closely resemble what people of that ethnicity and time probably looked like. And all dialogue is in the native language, which adds to its authenticity and really helps convey the time, the culture, and the people. I think that's probably what I really liked most about the film; it transported me to a place in history.
However, I found the violence in Apocalypto a little harder to stomach. It wasn't that things were particularly cruel, like what I've seen in some other films. It's mostly that instead of people being wounded or dying by a sword through the gut, or an arrow in the back, people died by having parts of their skull scraped off, or being bludgeoned to death, or arrows through the back of their head. There was a lot of it, and it was graphic and blasé at the same time.
It's a little hard to watch a movie like this and forget that it was made by Mel Gibson. Recent events have made it clear what his personal feelings are about certain things, and one can't help but wonder if there are ulterior or subconscious motives at work in the portrayal of the Mayans. Still, this is an exciting action movie, as long as you're not looking for a deep plot.
November 11, 2007
Settlers of Catan and The Crazy Stone
Tonight was originally a movie night, but Mitch and Tintin had to cancel which prompted Wendy to ask if we could have a game night instead; she said she was movied-out. So it ended up Wendy, Brian, Matt, Ling, and Thomas showed up, but I was a little annoyed because everything came together so haphazardly. For starters, Brian asked if we had any coupons to get food after I IM'ed him that morning, and I thought we had confirmed going to King Buffet at 7pm; that Matt and Ling would be carpooling with Wendy and Brian; and that Thomas was not coming because he never replied to the mailing list and Brian said not to count him in. Brian did say he would call back if that changed, but I missed his calls and didn't see any of Wendy's IMs (which ended up on my work computer).
With me, things aren't going to go very well with last minute changes or decisions because I am not easy to reach when I am home. I also rarely like to do things on short notice. Anyway, what happened is Luna and I drove to King Buffet and it was only after we were there for a while that I discovered Wendy's voice mail. We ended up ordering from Golden House Chinese and picked up on the way home to meet Wendy and Brian to eat. Matt and Ling would show up later, because they already ate, and I didn't even know Thomas was coming until later.
Regardless, we played a Seafarers scenario of Settlers of Catan. Wendy and Brian played as a team. I ended up getting trapped into a corner very early in the game because I took a risk on more resources rather than ensuring I could not get trapped. So it became a very tough game for me to enjoy. Luna had a lot of fun though, because she kept exploring. The rest of the players thought she was far ahead because she explored so far, but she wasn't building anything which would hurt her later. Wendy and Brian ended up having enough room to build a little on the mainland while maintaining the resources needed to explore out and establish themselves on another island. That, with their development card victory points, won them the game.
Afterwards, we watched Crazy Stone because Luna really wanted to watch it and kept talking about it all night. Wendy and Brian ended up staying, I think, just because Luna was so enthusiastic about it. They were really tired though, and left before it finished because Wendy was falling asleep. I thought it was okay; I don't like that kind of humor so much and found the way it was cut a little disorienting. Matt thought it was very funny though.
November 9, 2007
Beyond The Blue Event Horizon
For some stupid reason, a bunch of the books in the Heechee saga by Frederik Pohl are out of print. And the ones that appear to be in print are expensive paperbacks. This is exactly the reason things like the Project Gutenberg and Google Books are so important, although in this case the books aren't that old and Pohl is still alive. Still, it should not be so difficult for someone to find copies of a book they want to read. Eventually, I was able to find them from various small bookstores across the country using AbeBooks.
Anyway, the second in the series is Beyond the Blue Event Horizon. Despite the title, this book is more about Robinette Broadhead's hope of crossing the Schwarzschild Radius that has tormented him. In fact, the majority of the book focuses instead on a family that has been sent out to a Heechee food factory, in hopes of ending the food shortages on Earth. What they find, in addition to the food factory, surpasses their wildest dreams.
This chapter of the Heechee Saga is a little different than Gateway. Whereas the first novel was heavily focused upon the mental state of Robin, Beyond the Blue Event Horizon is more about exploring the Heechee's technology and providing some background on their motivations. A lot of new ideas are put forward as the foundation for the novels that will come afterwards. I found myself really looking forward to finding out what would happen next, and trying to put together the puzzle pieces, but I was a little disappointed with the ending. The last chapter wraps everything up very quickly, and lays things out instead of letting things unfold over time. I felt like it was doing some clean up in preparation for the next novel.
October 30, 2007
I don't really recall what prompted me to put The Warrior onto my queue, but it does star Ziyi Zhang which is a good sign. Unfortunately, I found the movie to be a bit boring. It tells the tale of a group of Korean soldiers who are trying to find their way back home from China through the desert, during a time when the Mongols in the North are fighting the Emperor of China (I think). Ziyi Zhang plays a princess who the Mongols have captured, and the Korean soldiers take it upon themselves to try and rescue her. What follows is a bloody battle where hundreds of soldiers on both sides die for the sake of the princess, who is understandably upset about this fact. "The Warrior" is one of the Korean soldiers who she finds herself attracted to, because of his skill and strength of character.
You can tell a lot of money was spent creating this film, with sets in the desert and other remote locations, costumes, the somewhat large-scale battles, and all of the sets. There are decent characters among the Korean soldiers, but Ziyi's character is probably the most interesting of them all because she changes over time, and plays such an active and important role in what happens and the actions of the soldiers that have rescued her.
Despite all that, I don't feel like I really got anything out of the movie, and the ending leaves a lot to be desired. It almost feels like a lost cause, where despite everything that has been done, the losses greatly outweigh the gains.
October 28, 2007
Nurse Betty isn't the kind of movie I'd pay to see in a theater (not that I'd really pay to see things in the theater) or spend money on in general, but another Hollywood Video was closing and it was only $2.50. I knew enough about the movie to think it would be funny, especially since Renée Zellweger is such a good actress. And I figured it would be the type of movie Luna would like, because it would be a little whimsical sort of dark comedy.
Well, Renée Zellweger did a great job acting in this film. She came across as a totally believable and clueless woman in search of her true (imaginary) love. It really helps to approach this film without knowing anything about the story or what to expect, because it takes interesting little turns liberally sprinkled with doses of comedic gold. Luna and I both laughed out loud many times during the movie.
I could see myself watching this movie again, next time I want to see something funny or someone asks to watch something funny. We don't have many comedies on our shelf, and this is one of the better ones you could choose to have in your collection.
I really like The Craft. I've seen it before, and the image of Fairuza Balk's character has always been with me since then. She's so purely goth. The other characters don't really interest me as much, although it's Sarah, played by Rachel True, who is the main character and good witch in the film. The basic story shows the four girls, outcasts at school, forming a coven and invoking the spirit but then abusing the power. Sarah must do something to escape the wrath of her cohorts when she tries to leave the coven.
It's really the characters that I like best about this film. They're dark, sexy, and fiercely independent. They're the outcasts, who don't let the world get to them and find companionship and support in each other to overcome the things that oppose them. Unfortunately, Nancy (Fairuza Balk's character) has lived with pain in her heart for so long that the pain consumes her, and she lashes out. But that's why she's so interesting, and alluring. Rachel is very plain, and simple in comparison.
Overall it's a fairly straight-forward and formulaic in some sense, but I still find it entertaining to watch and a slightly thrilling ride.
October 22, 2007
1408: Theatrical Version
1408 is the film adaptation of a Stephen King story about a ghost debunker who finally meets his match when he stays one night in room 1408 of the Dolphin hotel in New York City. Played by John Cusack, the main character Mike Enslin gets trapped in this room, where paranormal activity starts torturing him. The room is clearly out to drive him crazy or to suicide, and there's a one hour countdown to it. The movie follows Cusack's attempts to escape and survive, physically as well as mentally, the impossible things that the room throws at him.
And I think that's actually where I was left behind. I'm not so interested in seeing how the character deals with situations that are obviously not real. You might say he's in a parallel universe, or what happens in that room doesn't extend beyond the walls, or Enslin is just going crazy. But it's just one thing after another shown to the audience in a discomforting and disconcerting way. I think Cusack did a great job acting, but in this movie I didn't really care about that, although it was necessary otherwise the events would not be as believable. He is basically the only actor in the film, as the majority of time is spent inside the room.
The Devil's Backbone
The Devil's Backbone is a ghost story by the same director as Pan's Labyrinth. Set some time during the Spanish Civil War (Guillermo del Toro must like that time period), it tells the story of a ghost that is haunting a boy's orphanage far from the nearest town. The opening scene shows that a boy somehow died a violent death, and now his ghost appears to want something from the other boys at the orphanage. The adult characters are in slightly dysfunctional relationships, and strange things begin to unfold as one of them makes a play for money.
The beginning of the movie was a little creepy, because there were a number of times when the ghost appeared to be hunting the other boys. However, later one it's not as creepy as the main focus shifts onto the actions of the living, and the ghost starts playing a minor role. I found myself interested in seeing what would happen next, but not by much.
Tomb Raider: Legend
Tomb Raider: Legend is the first Tomb Raider game I've actually purchased and played all the way through. I picked it up because it received critical reviews as a platformer that took Lara back to her original roots in great ways. And I have to say I was very pleased with the game, and went through it quickly and thoroughly in only a few days. (I did look at spoilers to find some of the harder trophies, but otherwise went through the puzzles and time trials on my own wits and skill. It might have been easier for me to find the trophies without cheating if the contrast on the TV was better.)
The graphics are great. Nothing awe inspiring, but there are rich environments in many different locations around the globe, as Lara tries to uncover the truth behind her mother's disappearance and unlock the legend of a sword and seemingly ubiquitous stones. It was enjoyable to move between these different places, seeing different things, and navigating the different puzzles with the platform variations in each location. There are a large number of cut scenes, rendered in the game engine, with wonderful voice overs by voice actors who did a fabulous job.
I think the music is better than the graphics, and that's saying something. The soundtrack was exciting, engaging, fit the mood and storyline wonderfully, and well done. I actually am a little disappointed that the subwoofer and speakers I have for our video game set up aren't that good. I think I would have enjoyed the music even more if they were.
I should mention that the hard difficulty setting isn't actually that hard. I played through everything on hard the first time through, and never really died as a result of combat. Mistakes yes, but not from bad guys hitting me with bullets. This game is not a fighting game. It's in there, as a nice change of pace from the platforming elements, as well as an opportunity to do some minorly cool things, but it won't win any awards or present a real challenge. There are also a few vehicle sequences thrown in for good measure.
What this game is really good at is presenting a platforming challenge with good puzzles that require you to think on your toes and interact with the environment to move forward. If you're into that sort of thing, you should definitely give this game a go.
October 20, 2007
Night Watch and Vampire Effect (The Twins Effect)
We hosted a pretty big movie night tonight, and as it turned out it was sort of good that Wendy and Brian had to cancel at the last minute because we used up all the seats as is. Matt and Ling showed up a little late, and Mitch and his wife showed up for the first time. Tintin, Thomas, and Greg filled the rest of it out. We had two XL pizzas from Round Table because I had some coupons from the raffle I entered for Anthony's son's school Halloween party.
The first movie we watched was picked in a sort of democratic fashion. Even though it was supposed to be a scary movie night, a lot of people didn't really want to watch something that scary. So our first movie was Night Watch, a Russian film about good vampires versus evil vampires. It's a strange film, because the world of these vampires is a little kooky, rather than dramatic and beautiful. Their cars have jet engines on them and the bad guy boss plays video games while directing his minions. It looked a little low budget as well, and the storyline wasn't all that deep. Tintin liked it, but I thought it was just okay.
Greg, and Mitch and his wife left at that point, because they all had things to do the next morning. But the rest of us watched a second movie, Chin Gei Bin, which is primarily sold as starring the pop duo of Charlene Choi and Gillian Chung, with a cameo of Jackie Chan. Jackie Chan actually shows up for more than a cameo, and Karen Mok also makes an appearance which was pretty cool. I liked this film because it didn't take itself too seriously and was just a lot of fun. The action scenes are over the top but cool and exciting. The jokes flow freely and they aren't afraid to poke fun at themselves. And there's a odd-couple love story that makes things interesting. Ling told us afterwards that all of the subtitles were completely made up though. I've put the sequel, The Twins Effect 2, onto my queue. :)
October 19, 2007
Interlude is an amazing science fiction three-episode OVA about a high school boy who finds himself falling into a parallel world involving shadow creatures and where the people he knows don't seem to exist. A mysterious girl appears to him in this parallel world, and seeing her is the catalyst that causes him to question his sanity and his existence. He is tormented by dreams and visions of tragedy, where his oldest and best friend, Tama, lies dying in his arms.
The three episodes break the story down into three parts. I don't want to go into detail, because that would ruin the mental exploration that you are forced to go through as the story unfolds and things are revealed, but I found the journey and its conclusion to be immensely satisfying. It's a story about oneself and the obligations, guilt, and love that we all internally demand of ourselves. In the end, it's up to each person to find his or her own peace and the ability to move forward with hope despite the overwhelming despair that we perceive around us.
October 18, 2007
The Dark Crystal
Samir's mentioned The Dark Crystal several times as a great fantasy adventure movie. It was released in 1982 and created by Jim Henson and Frank Oz, perhaps the most famous of all puppeteers, as an unprecedented collaborative work. It tells the story about the crystal, which cracked 1000 years ago, plunging the land into chaos. The Gelfling Jen must go on a journey to return the shard to the crystal before the three suns are in convergence, or the land will forever remain in darkness.
The thing that struck me right away is the way the puppets do not move like puppets, much, and the shots (some of which involve blue-screening) do not hide parts of the puppets. Normally the bottom half of the puppets are hidden if they are being manipulated by stiff wires from below, or there are strings from above that make them move in a floppy manner. Even the facial movements seem to be like that of claymation, although not as expressive as it would have been if that was true.
The Dark Crystal is a great fantasy tale, but it's very simple as well. The simplicity and lack of real story development is what disappointed me. This would be a great film for children under the age of ten, but if you're looking for a fantasy story that is really engaging and challenges the mental processes of the protagonist and the viewer, you might want to look elsewhere.
October 16, 2007
I got tickets to a pre-release screening of Rendition from Samit who couldn't make it. Rendition releases nationwide this Friday, and is a movie about the U.S. practice of extraordinary rendition with an all-star cast. Unfortunately, although I think the story is there, it doesn't have enough time to really explore the subject and its political agenda is blatantly clear, rather than one that forms in the mind of the viewer through the story and characters. I think it could have done more justice to the topic if the movie was an hour longer, and if the director had not chosen to create a "smart" ending that pushes aside the real point of the film and also happens to make the plot nonsensical.
The negative consequences of the practice of rendition are only exposed through the actions of Khalid El-Emin and Fatima Fawal but the movie depicts the horrors of rendition through the character of Anwar El-Ibrahimi. This presents a real disconnect, because Anwar is the one who the audience identifies with as the innocent and tortured, and as an American. Khalid is a foreigner who displays anger at the world he is living in. The consequences and long-term impact upon Anwar, his family, and the people involved in his detention, are not explored. Yet those are some of the most important political and moral problems associated with this practice.
I also don't think this movie is going to be able to change anyone's existing opinions on the practice of extraordinary rendition. It was fairly clear that the audience majority at the theater was against the practice. Despite this, I felt it was not always an emotional opposition, but for some only an objective opposition; the movie includes some attempts at lightening the mood (which I think is a mistake) and the laughter is something I could not participate in. Luna did not particularly like the movie because it is just a reminder to her of the bad things that are going on, which she doesn't want to see.
Anyone that agrees with the argument of necessity will attack the movie for having such a clear agenda and declare the film a fictional story that is not representative of the truth. And even if they can get past there, the movie does not require such a person to reach an internal conflict in their thought processes to force them to question their own beliefs. That's an extremely hard thing to do, and you can't do it with rhetoric as the movie attempts to do.
Lastly, I was disappointed with the ending. You go through the film being constantly subjected to the dilemmas of extraordinary rendition, and then the ending suddenly requires you to shift gears and try and figure out exactly what happened. And in doing so, you are forced to leave the theater thinking about that, instead of thinking about the real subject matter. Plus, if you actually think it through, the plot as presented is not congruent with the ending, and to some degree it would appear the consequences no longer torment those involved.
October 15, 2007
Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones
Ubisoft has created a masterpiece with its trilogy of Prince of Persia games. The third and final installment in this epic story is Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones. In the first chapter, things are set up. The Prince's foolish pride and noble birthright open him to temptations that result in a catastrophe. In Warrior Within, the consequences of that catastrophe have tormented the Prince, twisting his soul. The Two Thrones offers the Prince a path out of the darkness, and a chance for redemption. The character development of the Prince and his interactions with Farah and Kaileena are wonderful to follow.
The mood, environment, and music of this chapter of the story reflects the Prince's opportunity for redemption. It is no longer dark and twisted, although at times the Prince's dark nature is reflected both in his physical appearance and in his location. But as he falls between the dungeons of the castle and climbs back up to fight the Vizier, the Prince begins to find his compassion and humanity again through the efforts of Farah. Unfortunately Farah serves only as a puzzle point and a focus of the Prince's thoughts, and not as a companion in combat like in the first chapter.
In terms of platforming, a few new elements have been added that keep the third game from being solely an extension of the first game. These new elements make it possible for the designers to create new platforming puzzles that are unfamiliar to the player. But the biggest change is the addition of quick kills to the combat system. If you are able to sneak up on an enemy, or multiple enemies, you can issue a series of timed reactions to quickly dispatch them without them having a chance to fight back or alert others to your presence. The hard difficulty changes in this respect, because quick kills become a necessary expedient, especially during combat where backup can be called upon. Quick kills are also integrated into the boss fights, so defeating bosses becomes a combination of strategy and timing, instead of pattern-based combo attacks.
As you can probably tell from the timestamp, I only spent a few days playing The Two Thrones. This is partially because it was so much fun, but also because it's a lot more straight-forward than the second game and quick kills are easier and faster for moving forward than trying to take care of a bunch of enemies without dying on the hard difficulty setting.
October 14, 2007
Game Night at Karen's
Luna and I just came back from having a game night (afternoon) at Karen's place. Ilya and his wife Katya also came; the last time I saw them was at Jamie and Keelan's wedding in Philadelphia. We played a game of Settlers of Catan, without any expansions. It was a close match, but in the end Katya had more resources and managed to pull ahead because I lost longest road to Karen. With longest road, I only needed one more victory point but Katya managed to pull that one off with a development card. Luna even tried to help me win, but she only traded me enough to upgrade to a city and get one point. Ilya suffers from the same sickness as Sebastian, and was constantly peeking at Katya's cards.
Ilya and Katya had to leave because they had other dinner plans, but the rest of us went to dinner at a fancy Indian restaurant. Good food, but not a whole lot of it for the price. I guess some of it was too spicy for Luna, because even though we ordered non-spicy dishes she said they were all too spicy for her liking.
Sebastian will be leaving for Switzerland at the beginning of next year, and Karen will be going after she graduates. So I'm not sure if we'll meet up with Sebastian again before he leaves. He's going to be doing post-doctoral work at a university there, and Karen plans to get a job in industry.
After dinner, we played a couple games of Apples to Apples. It's a party game where you try and pick a card from your hand that best matches the idea for that round. For example, the idea might be arrogance and you might have a card that is for an actor you think is arrogant. Or you might have nothing similar, in which case you'd play something completely unrelated. Each round, there is a judge who picks the card they like best, and whoever played that card wins a point. Conceptually it sounds like it might be amusing to play, but in reality it wasn't that much fun. Perhaps with more players, or judges who picked by some more ridiculous criteria, it would be.
October 13, 2007
Battle Royale II
I wasn't planning to watch it, because I'd heard it wasn't much of a movie, but Luna rented Battle Royale II because she wanted to watch it. I thought the first movie was brilliant. Unfortunately, the sequel really doesn't make any sense and has no purpose to it. It's just a violent mash-up of teens with guns and insane adults with guns, justified by superficial motivations and excuses. There's a lame attempt at a political message, but it's completely an afterthought that doesn't actually have much influence on the plot.
In Battle Royale II, Shuya Nanahara leads a terrorist organization called The Wild Seven from an island off the coast of Japan (which for some reason the Japanese government does not want to simply bomb to oblivion). This time the students are kidnapped for a new Battle Royale where the purpose is to storm the island and kill Nanahara. Their landing looks like a small reenactment of World War II. About a third of the students die before you even recognize their faces. The Wild Seven claims to be fighting all adults, for having created a world where children cannot live in happiness and specifically Japanese children. Apparently blowing up downtown Tokyo is the method by which this will be accomplished, despite there being lots of Japanese children in Tokyo.
The Battle Royale II Wikipedia entry has a little bit of analysis of the political message that is supposed to be conveyed by the film. But the contrived plot (Nanahara has heavy artillery, why didn't he shoot down the helicopter instead of trying to swat flies on the beach?) and lack of character development makes it pointless. And in the end, nothing was accomplished other than a lot of people died for no good reason. Only this time, it was because of Shuya they died. The corrupt government and adults of the world are certainly doing bad things but Shuya hasn't done anything better.
October 12, 2007
Prince of Persia: Warrior Within
Prince of Persia: Warrior Within is the immediate sequel to Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. It picks up where the first game left off, with the Prince travelling to an remote island in an attempt to stop the Empress of Time from ever creating the sands of time, because having changed the past there is a creature hunting the Prince to remove him from timeline. This creature, the Dahaka, torments the Prince and thus the Prince himself has become a tormented soul. Everything about Warrior Within reflects that darkness with a Prince that has lost all compassion and acts out of desperation, and combat that is vicious and violent.
That's the first thing that will hit you when to start playing Warrior Within. The prequel was bright, morally simple, and contained a fair share of playful banter between the Prince and his partner Farah. That has completely changed here as the environments are dark and monochromatic with enemies and creatures obscenely disfigured and hellish in their appearance. The soundtrack is loud, harsh, and violent during combat but can be quite nice and ambient otherwise. (Think Quake and Trent Reznor.) The combat is extremely violent now, with finishing moves like decapitation or full body-length splices. Instead of disappearing into sand, the enemies now exhibit blood and gore before turning to dust.
Whether or not you feel this change is for the better or worse, the gameplay itself is a significant improvement, taking something great and making it excellent. The platforming is not as simple, although the basic elements are the same. Hand holds and ledges are integrated into the environment and structures. There are new elements that you must use to move forward and new traps as well.
The new combat system is a lot more fun. It's more intense and you can do so many more things than before. In much the same way as Oni, you can grapple with, throw, and manipulate your enemy directly during combat. Unlike Oni, though, you can use all of your moves from the beginning, instead of having to learn them over time. But you can also make use of the walls and poles around you, allow for leaping, spinning, and other acrobatic attacks and escapes. There are a bunch of combinations you can execute, and then chaining combinations together makes for exciting and challenging battles. If you choose the hard difficulty, using your environment wisely and identifying the most effective strategies for each enemy becomes very important. It also makes combat very hard overall.
The plot and motivations of the Prince and the other primary characters is very different this time around. Instead of trying to save others, the Prince is motivated by a selfish desire to save his own life, selfish in that he does not care who else has to die in order for him to accomplish this. There is no doubt or conflict involved in his decisions to murder those that would oppose or obstruct his goal, regardless of their motivations.
Overall an excellent game. I ended up playing it a second time through, right away, to get the better ending, and when doing so it was just as enjoyable as the first time through.
The Pursuit of Happyness
I remember seeing a trailer for The Pursuit of Happyness a while back, and thinking it must be an excellent film. Will Smith is an amazing actor who happens to be a real person and who has the ability to portray a real person, unlike many other actors. The story sounded inspirational, and very well done. That turned out to be true, and I really liked this movie.
Although not entirely accurate, the film is extremely close to the real life story of Christopher Gardner, who transformed his life from that of a homeless single father to that of financial security and independence, by pursuing his dream while never giving up on his son. Twenty years later, the real Chris Gardner is an extremely successful man, who pursued and obtained happiness, and is enjoying life.
The two main characters of the film are Chris Gardner and his son, Christopher, played by Will Smith and his son Jaden Smith respectively. Both of them give outstanding performances, although Jaden probably didn't have to act as anything other than himself for most scenes. I thought it was an amazing display of ability how Will Smith portrays such a devoted and caring father who sometimes loses it when he's faced with the loss of his son, or the inability to care for his family, and the stress and uncertainty of it all gets to him. When frantic, he can't help but lash out at those around him, even at his son. Jaden has a few great acting scenes at those times, which I'm sure must have been very strange to him since I'm sure his father doesn't act that way in real life.
October 9, 2007
Vandread is a two season anime series (the second season is called The Second Stage) of 13 episodes each. Despite being two seasons, the plot takes places across the two evenly, so it's really like one season of 26 episodes. The initial premise is very amusing: a world of men at war with a world of women. Each side has no realistic concept of the other sex, and reproduces artificially. In fact, men are indoctrinated to see women as barbaric ugly monsters that will eat their insides, and women to see men as disgusting egotistical creatures. When they are forced to meet, because some female pirates captured a male battleship, they don't even want to touch each other.
That initial conflict begins a very interesting and fun tale of gender exploration and adventure, with a healthy dose of symbolism. Over time, the three male characters and several primary female characters learn to live together, understand each other on an individual level (losing stereotypes and conquering their conditioned fear), and also to complement each other. The symbolism exposes itself through the ways by which the cast finds their lives better and their abilities strengthened when the men and women come together to overcome their problems.
Some of the best parts of the series are the space battles. This is exciting and fast-paced space combat with hundreds of ships on the screen at the time. They really went all out to make it look great both visually and mechanically. I was very glad to see the CG work here does not look sterile; the cel shading is well done. Each battle introduces new twists and challenges, as their enemy adopts new attack vectors. The final battle is immense and really brings things to a climax. I also liked the a number of the regularly repeated melodies. They fit well and helped form the mood and emotions of the scenes.
The only thing I didn't like so much was the regular monologuing of Hibiki, the main male character, about proving his existence. It's a nice idea and one that is central to the thought processes of this series, but I'd rather not get hit over the head with it. Especially since it doesn't make a whole lot of sense to be wasting time over that when looking down the barrel of a laser.
October 7, 2007
Game Night at Matt & Ling's
Luna and I just got back from a game night at Matt and Ling's place, up in Fremont. They live very close to Shannon and Yvonne, actually. Wendy, Brian, and Quyen were there and Thomas showed up later at 8pm. We ate some random stuff for a while before starting the games. Luna wanted to play Bohnanza again so we played that first. Wendy won that with 13 points; I had 12 and Luna had 9. By that time Thomas had arrived so we needed to figure out how to get eight people into a game. We ended up splitting into two groups. Luna played Settlers of Catan with Wendy, Ling, and Brian. And I played a game called Nexus Ops with Quyen, Thomas, and Matt.
Nexus Ops is a little remiscent in the look of its units to Starcraft. The basic idea is to acquire victory points by completing missions and winning battles against the other players. There are six types of units, with the cheaper ones being very weak and the more expensive ones very powerful. The mid-level units have certain abilities that make them more useful in some situations than in others. You're also limited in the number of a type of unit you can purchase, and the combat system makes it benficial to have a good mix of unit types.
The main mistake I think many of us made was to consider this a territory game. That's how the board looks, and also how many similar games are designed. But Nexus Ops is a capture game, which means there is no reason to try and take and hold territories unless there is some immediate benefit. Losing a territory makes sense if that lets you win a battle somewhere else. It's a pretty fun game, but tense because just about everything you might do is likely to leave you open to a successful counter-attack. It becomes important to figure out the trade-offs. I ended up coming in second place, with 11 points; Quyen was the first to 12. I think if I'd been more aggresive I could have won, because I would only need to win one more battle to reach 12 points before Quyen.
October 3, 2007
Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time
Ubisoft really captured the essence of the original Prince of Persia with their updated version, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. The original platforming gameplay has been redone in 3D but with the same essential ease and simplicity of the original by keeping the direction of movement in the six primary directions, by maintaining discrete movement units, and by including many of the same elements. Combat is also very similar to the original, although with updated moves and new acrobatic techniques. Each enemy tends to have a specific set of attack and defense vectors, requiring you to identify and then use their weakness against them. The difficulties in combat arise from having to combat many enemies at once and keeping everything straight during the fast-paced action. It's also important to continually avoid entering a bad combat situation.
The difficulty of combat and the platform puzzles increases over the course of the game at a very nice pace. I found myself with sweaty hands on many occassions when trying to jump from place to place and figure out the right way to proceed, especially nearer the end when a wrong move spells certain death. Combat becomes fierce enough to give your hands and wrists a good workout. Many of the puzzles are similar in their elements but put together present new challenges and will require you to think things through. Thankfully there tends to only be one path by which you can proceed through an area, so you don't have to worry about putting yourself into a dead end.
I also liked the introduction of the Prince's partner, Farah. In a vein similar to Ico, Farah must be kept safe from enemies (although she usually is, being able to move and think on her own and attack from a distance with her bow) but she is also able to help solve puzzles because she is thinner than the Prince and can fit through cracks. She also moves the plot forward because she knows what needs to be done to undo the sands of time and is someone the Prince can have a conversation with.
September 30, 2007
The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords
I started playing The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords a long time ago, with Shannon. In fact, I pretty much bought it because it can be multi-player and I wanted to play it with Shannon and Yvonne. But we haven't seen much of each other in a while so I decided I might as well finish it up. While this Zelda is really good, it is just more fun to play with other people because that's how it was designed. Plus, you can only play the Tingle mini-games with more than one player.
This version of Zelda is much closer to the types you find on the Game Body platform, instead of the recent console platforms. Partially because it makes use of the Game Boy Advance screen to provide different views for each player. It's very similar in look and feel to The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past from the Super Nintendo, but with updated gameplay and nicer graphics technology. Being able to control four Links, either on your own or with other people, lends itself to new and interesting puzzles that require cooperation or can be done more quickly or easily with friends at hand.
Nintendo really did something cool, with GBA multiplayer games. It's an expensive hardware investment, but it does make for some really fun and engaging play with friends.
September 29, 2007
GameStop Ratings Advisories
Luna and I stopped in at GameStop today, and while we were browsing through the games I heard something interesting. There was a mother in, buying a game for her son who was not there with her, and as she was paying for the game, the GameStop employee was informing her of the ESRB rating and description. I suppose this is normal policy now, when selling games to parents or grandparents, because of all the public outcry, lawsuits, and legislation attempts over children ending up with violent or sexual games.
Of course, I'm in the camp that believes the responsibility for making sure your children play games that you think are suitable belongs entirely with the parents/purchaser. But since computer and video games are something the majority of that generation don't understand, they want a ratings board and laws to do that for them.
Phantom: The Animation
Luna put Phantom: The Animation onto her queue; I'd never heard about it. It's a three-episode OVA from a few years ago, that's very similar to the storyline of La Femme Nikita, only this time there are two of them. Ein is a young girl who has been brainwashed and now serves as an assassin for someone named Scythe. Zwei was given a choice to become train and become an assassin as well, after having his memories erased.
With nothing else in their lives, Ein and Zwei find meaning in their work and in each other. The chance for redemption and escape is always there, but it's one thing to do that, and another altogether to live a normal life when your talent and mental state is one of murder.
I liked how the emotional aspects of the characters were approached, although there were a few times things were a little too whiny or exaggerated. At least the writers did not make Ein and Zwei crazy-talented gunslingers; their methods of assassination and how they shoot are pretty close to reality, but the enemies are strangely slow to the trigger.
The artwork and CG of Phantom is very good. It's a perfect mixture of clean lines, bold colors, and moody atmosphere. The movements of people and the physics of the environment are excellent. The characters were designed by Koji Watanabe, and I really liked the character design in Phantom.
September 28, 2007
Blade Runner: The Final Cut Coming Soon
Wired is running an interview with Ridley Scott about a new version of one of the most famous Science Fiction films of all time. Blade Runner: The Final Cut will be released in theaters this October, and on DVD this December (finally someone understands long windows before DVD suck, although I'm sure this time it's motivated by sales research). Scott answers some interesting questions that have been batted around by fans of the film for decades, and talks about why he's been working on The Final Cut.
Superficially it seems like something similar to George Lucas' desire to refresh the original Star Wars Episodes IV-VI, but it looks like Scott's motivation is just to clean it up, so we don't have to worry about stupid changes to the plot or scenes. Wired writes about Scott's efforts:
As the millennium turned, he continued polishing: erasing stray f/x wires, trimming shots originally extended to accommodate the voice-over, even rebuilding a scene in which the stunt double was obvious.
I'm definitely looking forward to this. Blade Runner is one of my favorite films of all time, and was very influential to me growing up. It really defined an entire genre of books, movies, and even video games. I just hope the DVD won't be particularly expensive, and perhaps I'll even be motivated to purchase it in a high-definition format, although that really depends on where things are in the marketplace and DRM as the new year comes around.
I would have watched Misaki Chronicles earlier, having ordered it right after finishing Divergence Eve, but I don't like to watch more than one thing at a time. Misaki Chronicles continues the story of Divergence Eve where it left off, and the first few episodes slowly reveal exactly what is going on, and why. Once the mystery is understood by both the audience and the characters involved (Kiri, Lyar, and later Misaki) then the plot shifts towards trying to solve the mystery, and save themselves and the universe from annihilation.
A lot of Misaki Chronicles is spent revealing Misaki's past and her motivations for joining Watcher's Nest. The plot is really driven forward by Lyar though, which is a little unusual but very effective. You will see a little bit of her background as well, and get to know her character better as she goes on missions to defeat the Ghouls on Earth itself. Suzanna is also brought back into the show, after having become a supporting character in the first season. Some of the questions about Pris and LeBlanc are also answered.
I really liked how Misaki Chronicles took things to a conclusion. As a whole, the two series tell a very interesting story, with a nice mixture of character development and science fiction. Once you learn what's going on, you need to go back and re-examine exactly what you thought you'd seen and learned about Misaki's past and the pasts of the other characters. The end is satisfying, if a little sad, but also with just the right amount of hope. Hope for the future, and for the memory of Misaki too.
September 26, 2007
Shadow of the Giant
Shadow of the Giant is the final installment of Bean's story, covering the final world unification by Peter Wiggin as Bean nears the end of his life. It reads as the direct continuation of the previous book, Shadow Puppets, and is a little more rewarding and easier to follow if you read the two together.
Although I really enjoyed the entire Shadow series, I didn't feel as excited or interested in this specific novel. There is a lot of stuff going on, with Bean and Petra searching for their babies and Peter attempting to unite the world against Hot Soup, Virlomi, and Alai's plans for world domination. But there isn't a lot of depth. Reading it, I felt like many things were glossed over a bit too much. I think there are whole portions of the plot that could have been a novel on their own, but instead the actions and results are treated like anecdotes. That's not exactly wrong, considering this is supposed to focus on Bean's life, but even then Bean's role isn't in the forefront.
Perhaps Card is trying a little too hard to avoid the emotional and intellectual meaning that he put into the sequels to Ender's Game. Those novels were very different in flavor, compared to Ender's Game, and aren't as popular as a result. However Shadow of the Giant lacks the special ingredient that is needed in a book that is supposed to be closer to hard science-fiction: a new idea. Shadow of the Giant seems more like a clean-up effort than something that is supposed to be a great work of fiction. It's unfortunate, because I did really enjoy the earlier Shadow books.
It's hard to find a good reference of the three-episode short story Luna and I watched tonight, Bake Neko (Japanese pronunciation). Which is unfortunate because this is an amazing grown up ghost story, done in a very unique and visually appealing manner. It's hard to envision it correctly, from the screen capture shown here, but the art style looks like pencil on paper, with the grain and flat coloring found in some types of older art. This shader caught my attention right away.
Bake Neko is the third story in a series of three, bundled together as a three-disc set titled Ayakashi Japanese Classic Horror. We only watched Bake Neko though; Luna did not put the other two on her queue because she said they're not as good. Bake Neko is about a demon cat (thus the name) who is killing the members of a family with questionable moral fortitude. A travelling medicine peddler happens to be there when the bake neko strikes, and takes on the task of defending the family against the bake neko, while forcing the explanation of why this spirit is holding a grudge.
I think this is a perfect ghost story tale, but not suitable for little children. The nature of the grudge and the events that led up to it, along with the visual depictions, are much closer to authentic Snow White than the Disney Snow White. But I think this is the sort of movie that you will want to share, and watch again with different people.
September 24, 2007
Okage: Shadow King
I picked up Okage: Shadow King from the bargain bin for $5. It's a little old, and I vaguely remembered hearing about it, so for $5 it seemed like a good thing to take a chance on. As it turns out, the price I paid is pretty close to what it's worth, relative to the cost of other RPGs you could buy, either back then or today. The premise is strong, but the execution is weak.
In Okage, you play the role of a teenage boy named Ari who is possessed by an Evil Shadow King named Stan, and then rushed off by your parents to go questing to destroy other Evil Kings. Stan, as a Shadow King, is your shadow. He's tethered to you that way, and actually far from evil and quite powerless. Most of the fun in Okage comes from the amusing and cool dialogue and silliness of its plot.
The visuals are pretty nice, anime-styled, bright, and colorful. The music is okay, but not anything special, and suffers from having been written without knowing how it was going to be used. In other words, the music isn't appropriate to the mood or action that is taking place on the screen, in my opinion. But that's a nit compared to where the game really falls apart.
The biggest problem is with the mechanics of the game. Instead of walking up stairs, or through open doorways, you have to hit a button. And sometimes it seems like the animators took the easy way out and moved the camera to first-person-view instead of animating the action, like when you go up and down ladders. Load times are very slow, and until I got used to it moving between rooms or areas was always a test of my patience. Load times are also slow after combat, with no indication as to when it is okay to hit a button and continue your journey. Instead, I would just keep button mashing until the post-combat screen exited. Experience and level ups are handled in series, instead of in parallel, and when the level up music plays everything stops for the full music duration.
Another annoying aspect of the combat is the transition between menus. It's very hard to identify the currently selected menu choice, and when you select a menu item the next menu does not immediately appear but instead transitions in. This transition is slow enough that you cannot enter commands from memory without inserting conscious pauses, and the fact you cannot easily see the current menu choice means you need time to look, to avoid making mistakes.
The game also comes in a little short, and I finished it in about 25 hours. I think the majority of time was spent in combat, sometimes fighting enemies that I originally fought while at level 1, because the designers do not adjust the enemies in different areas based on your progress. Most combat was boring, until I realized you can fight more efficiently by executing combination attacks and there was a real-time aspect to the turn-based actions, similar to the first Final Fantasy where it might pay off to select different enemies from the start. Then it was no longer simple button mashing, but unless the enemies were difficult, it also meant battles were pretty much the same if you hit the same monster groups.
Overall, Okage is about what I'd expect from a group of developers and designers who had never put together an RPG before, possible one of their earlier video game works, and who aren't avid RPGers themselves.
September 23, 2007
Madlax is a more recent anime done by Bee Train, the same people who did Noir. I guess as their sophomore work in this genre, Madlax certainly shows that they've matured. But I think there's still a long way for them to go.
Madlax suffers from some of the same problems that Noir did, such as close-quarters gunfights with unrealistic dramatic emphasis, and a soundtrack that is better but misused. This time the music was pleasing, but it repeated so often and was not used as character themes but instead mood music, that it became tiring. Although you'll probably walk away with it stuck in your head. There is extensive recycling of content again, including as the series comes to a conclusion, which is disappointing.
What Bee Train got right this time, though, is the character development and plot. Madlax is told in a manner similar to some excellent novels, where in the beginning you move back-and-forth between different players whose threads are then brought together as their relationships and roles in the plot are revealed. Sometimes I think this approach works very well, and other times I think it makes you get lost. In Madlax, I think they used the approach successfully. However, I also think they moved too slowly in the beginning. A viewer will need patience and the will to try and piece things together for the first several episodes, otherwise boredom is likely to set in.
I did feel that the ending was a little disappointing. The nature of the conclusion and the connection between Madlax, Margaret, and Laetitia were fulfilling and met my expectations and suspicions, based on things that had been hinted at or revealed before. But I felt the end result was a little bit too close to taking the easy way out, in terms of writing an ending. There was an opportunity to really expose Margaret's innermost desires, and the opportunity wasn't exercised to its fullest potential.
September 22, 2007
Wow. Pan's Labyrinth is not what I was expecting. I was thinking some magical fairy tale where a young boy or girl has to overcome personal adversity and go on a journey of self-exploration and wonder, with some nice ending when the quest is accomplished. But that's not what this is. There is magic and personal adversity and a journey of self-exploration and wonder, but it ends with a cruelty that surprised me. It may not surprise you if you come into this film with different expectations. It probably won't shock you, because there is a significant level of cruelty and disillusionment throughout the film.
That is actually part of why this film is a masterpiece. This fantastical tale is not for children. There are two plots running parallel, with the little girl Ofelia trapped between them. On one side, a cruel and vicious captain commands a military occupation while hunting rebels in the woods. This captain is the new step-father of Ofelia, but there is no love between them, and his presence is as a poison to Ofelia and her mother. On the other side is Ofelia's quest to reclaim her crown as princess of the underworld. She must acquire treasures at great personal risk and with great bravery, in order to do so and escape from her unfortunate circumstance. This dichotomy drives everything forward, and produces such a wonderful contrast between hope and despair, innocence and sin.
September 16, 2007
Nine Person Game Night
We hosted a pretty big game night yesterday evening. It started out with plans for just Brian, Wendy, and Tintin in addition to Luna and me for a total of five people. But Thomas, Matt, Ling, and Quyen (somehow pronounced like Quinn) showed up as well. Matt and Ling brought four huge pizzas from Mr. Pizza Man because they had organized a tailgate type party up in San Francisco and there were leftovers. I'd never heard of Mr. Pizza Man before. The pizzas aren't great, but they were free and a lot. They only brought cheese and pepperoni, which I don't like so much anyway, so maybe the ones with lots of toppings taste better. The crust was pretty nice where it met the pizza.
Quyen brought a big tub of games to choose from, but with nine people it was pretty hard finding a game. We played something called Bohnanza. Basically, each turn you are forced to plant beans that you have in your ordered hand or that you received by trading, and the goal is to create large bean patches that you sell into the discard piile in exchange for gold. There is a different number of each type of bean, which is inversely proportional to their gold value. Selling beans removes some number of those beans from the game. The person with the most gold at the end wins. I thought it was okay, but not really my type of game. Luna, however, likes it because it's straight-forward and moves quickly.
Next we played a six-player game of Settlers of Catan with the Seafarers expansion. The doubled-up teams were Matt and Ling, Luna and me, and Wendy and Brian. Even on the same team, Wendy and Brian didn't always act in agreement, which shouldn't be a surprise. I think if this game had involved military pieces, they'd have somehow gotten themselves into a civil war. :p Despite that, they won very handily because they were the primary producers of wheat, with enough sheep and ore to puchase a huge number of development cards. They ended up winning with cities, victory points and largest army, and always had a huge stock of resources since seven didn't come up very much. Luna and I were in second place, and would have done better if I had listened to Luna and placed our second settlement at the corner of some resoures on the other side of the board, but instead I chose the wood port on a single brick hex.
Luna keeps making fun of me for losing whenever we play Settlers of Catan. I think it's been too long and I'm out of practice, since when we played in North Carolina, it was often me or Alan in first place.
September 13, 2007
Origin: Spirits of the Past
I think I got a promo seed packet for Origin: Spirits of the Past from this year's Fanime. I don't know where that seed packet went though. It's a little strange, because I guess Origin was published in the U.S. at the end of last year. But I suppose Fanime is exactly the right place to advertise for a movie like this.
Origin takes place in the future, after mutated plants in a lunar research lab erupted and attacked Earth. Most of the initial damage was due to large chunks of rock that flew off but then the forest began taking over. This isn't explained right at the beginning, but knowing this is not a spoiler. From there, it starts looking like one of the central themes will be man having to choose between cooperation or control over nature.
I really liked this film because it mixes some good, basic ideas, with a decent dose of action and science fiction. It reminded me in a lot of ways of some of the thematic and action films produced by Studio Ghibli, although Origin was produced by Gonzo and according to Luna a lot of the artists were outsourced to a Chinese firm. It doesn't have as many layers or subtleties as some, but it's got enough for the whole family to enjoy.
September 10, 2007
After watching Serenity, I thought I should give the Firefly TV series a second chance, as I liked Serenity but didn't have the full back story. When Firefly first started airing, I didn't get into it because I felt it lacked meaning. I don't think that's why it didn't do very well and ended up getting cancelled, but I've come to look for TV series that are leading somewhere and are designed to have a definite ending rather than an ongoing open plot. And while there is an overarcing plot to Firefly, about River and the men with blue hands, the individual episodes of Firefly are designed to stand alone. So plot-wise, it doesn't really matter if you had seen a previous episode, for the most part.
What Firefly is is an amazing character study. There is a depth to the characters which is very rare in most television shows, and significant character development both within an episode and across episodes. In a lot of ways, it is the kind of character exploration you find in those books that become best sellers or classics. A great deal of attention was given to ensuring the people and world of Firefly seem real and human. And I think they did an excellent job at it.
It also doesn't look like they skimped on any part of the show's production. The costumes and sets and outdoor scenes were completely filled out and felt whole. The feel of things, the dirtiness, and the consistency of environments all fit together perfectly. It's unfortunate the series did not pull in enough viewers and was cancelled prematurely. The unexpected cancellation also means the series did not really come to a conclusion, which Serenity tries to provide.
September 9, 2007
Tintin & Bottle Rocket
Tintin came over yesterday evening to play a game of Settlers of Catan. We played the basic version, just Tintin, Luna, and me. Tintin didn't pick very good starting locations, which ended up making it very difficult for her to do well. Luna got really lucky with a bunch of rolled elevens and ended up winning by a pretty good margin.
As it happens, Tintin's movie also arrived yesterday and so we ended up watching it after the game. She got Bottle Rocket, a Wes Anderson film starring Owen and Luke Wilson as a couple of reckless friends who don't really know what to do with themselves and end up holding up a bookstore. This is followed by escaping to a motel where the maid becomes a love interest, and then returning to try and pull off one more heist that couldn't have gone more wrong.
If you're familiar with Wes Anderson's quirky sense of humor and movie style, and you like it, then you'll probably like Bottle Rocket. If his movies don't really appeal to you, then it's more of a 50/50 chance as to whether or not you'll think this movie is something special. This was his directorial debut, as well as the acting debut of the two Wilson brothers.
September 6, 2007
Xenosaga: Episode III
It's been a long time since I finished a video game, and there were several points in time when I didn't play for a week or more, but the final chapter of the epic saga is done and I do believe Xenosaga: Episode III to be the best in the series. I'll go into technical details later, but the all of the open questions, character backgrounds, and plot twists are finally explained. But because the authors never shy away from taking as much time as necessary to tell the story, it doesn't at all feel rushed or artificial. This time, the lengthy cut scenes did not leave me feeling impatient to continue, because everything from the previous two episodes starts to make sense and held my interest. I think they also made a conscious decision to leave out cut scenes or portions of cut scenes that did not reveal any new information, or at least hint at something that you want to know.
I also found the ending very satisfactory. It'd say it ranks up there as one of the best endings of any role-playing game. No doubt it helps that there is so much depth to the story. The ending sequence is quite long and feels both sad and triumphant at the same time. It does not trivialize the long journey that you, the player, had to go through in order to reach it and bring things to a conclusion. Things will be different from now on, but finally things will also be all right. It really shows a remarkable attention to quality to see such a large storyline succeed over the length of three games.
Visually, Xenosaga: Episode III is a nice improvement over Episode II. The body movement of character is more natural during the pre-rendered scenes, and now have subtle facial expression changes that were not done before. I would say the visuals during gameplay are very similar though, and if there are any improvements they are minor enough that I could not notice them outright. The environments are much nicer, more detailed, and feel more open though. I think some effort must have been taken to try and make urban and natural environments that felt more realistic and interesting than they did before.
The music is well done again, and there are some really nice final battle music. Not as memorable or emotional as the most famous of them all (Kefka) but I noticed them and liked the mood created by the music during those battles.
Travel is still handled the same way as before, with larger world maps that have areas you can enter, and the majority of your travel occuring via the Elsa during which time you can work on side quests. Movement through combat areas is also pretty much the same, as is the feel of the puzzles you encounter. The puzzles are new, which is good, and some of them are forms of less common types of puzzles, which is also good.
One of the most important aspects of any RPG is the combat system, and I think Episode III finally got the character battles right. You have enough EP, or you can make it so you have enough, to utilize ether skills and tech skills liberally which is the primary strategic aspect of combat. The boost and special attacks are still there, and share the same gauge. It's possible to increase the maximum of that gauge as well, which can be extremely useful. Special attacks are used to maximize awarded points at the end of combat, so it's important to use them often, which means you won't use boost often. However it is nice to have it there because boosting can make a big difference when in a pinch. Overall, you have a lot more control over things and the different tech skills provide more variety during combat. You can also use the ether skills to good effect most of the time.
The E.S. combat is still not as fun though, even if it is less boring this time because of the inclusion of special combinations depending on the attacks you use and a much greater importance on using the right types of attacks and support items during boss battles. However, regular E.S. combat might as well be holding down the attack button. The boss battles are also only difficult in that they have to be extremely drawn out. Since there really aren't a whole lot of options during E.S. combat, the only way to make them hard is to make them long, with special high-damage attacks by the boss that you need to prepare against. I would have been perfectly happy with the E.S. battle system left out, even though it isn't as bad as before.
A new skill upgrade system is also introduced this time, although it is very similar to the one from Episode II. You still spend points to unlock skills along a few set paths, but there are only two primary paths this time and you can traverse them in parallel if desired. However, completing a primary path gives you a special master skill which can be very useful. At certain times during the story you can also find items that will unlock additional EX skills. These skills do not require you to follow a path to obtain them, and you can learn them at any time provided you have enough skill points. These skills let you give a character a useful auxiliary skill that doesn't have anything to do with their primary paths, or taken as a whole may let you adjust the combat or support options available to that character in a significant way. I found this skill system to be less annoying and confusing, and more flexible, than the previous ones.
September 5, 2007
Gary gave me a $5 coupon to Best Buy the other day, and I had a couple of $2 gift cards from when Luna and I went to one of their special events and filled out a survey. Most of the time, it doesn't make any sense to buy something from brick-and-mortar stores because it's cheaper to order them online, but with $9 in credit I decided it was worth stopping by to take a look at what they had. After talking to Tintin for a while on the phone, comparing prices in the store against prices online, I chose to get Divergence Eve. As it turns out, the price I paid after the coupon and gift cards is about the same as what I would have paid if I ordered online.
But I think it was a pretty decent choice. Superficially the series is about massive fan service, but to be honest I don't think it spends an abnormal amount of time on that. It's more like something that just is, rather than something the storyboarders went out of their way to focus on instead of other things. Of course many people are likely to disagree on that. What I liked about the series is how well thought out the overall plot is, as things are revealed with hints and little backstories, with the protagonist Misaki figuring out what's going on and her role in things. Plus, the series doesn't shy from consequences of the situation or the indifference of some of the players involved.
Misaki and three other cadets, Luxandra, Kiri, and Suzanna, arrive at a some sort of research facility named Watcher's Nest that has been set up around a strange orbital body. Faster-than-light travel is somehow connected with the phenomenon that is occuring at this location, and the four of them are joining the defense forces there to fight an "enemy", the nature of which is classified. Each of them has their own different reasons for leaving Earth behind and pursuing this career, but unfortunately it won't end happily for most of them.
There is extensive use of amateurish-CG for the 3D space craft and outer space visuals. It's amateurish because it has the budget look-and-feel of older 3D CG work, rather than more sophisticated work that is available. As a result, the space structures and ships look flat and fake, and plastic rather than organic and gritty. CG is also used for some of the 2D visuals, which work fine since those are mostly console interfaces or visual displays and not supposed to be physical objects. This sort of cheap mashup of CG and drawn or cel-shaded art always disappoints me. Over time I got used to it, but it's still a let down.
The biggest disappointment, however, was the ending. Throughout the first twelve episodes, things move at a fair pace, although not quickly. During this time, things are slowly revealed. The motivations and different loyalties, and the opening scenes showing backstory, give depth to the plot. Even though there isn't a whole lot of character development other than for Misaki; the time spent on other characters is too little, although not insignificant in their meaning. But in the last episode, everything is suddenly explained outright when it really could have used a few more episodes to try and actually illustrate the situation instead of dictating it, and the ending is conveniently short and without any exploration of the repurcussions.
The only thing I can think of is that Divergence Eve is not supposed to be considered complete. There is a second thirteen-episode series, Misaki Chronicles, which looks like it explores the consequences of Divergence Eve's ending. But in a fun and entertaining way.
Regardless, I enjoyed watching Divergence Eve and have ordered Misaki Chronicles because I want to see what happens next. The series kept me interested in the plot, and I found myself attached to Misaki and really trying to understand how she could get out of this okay, considering what has happened to everyone else. There's also a lot of deeper subtext going on throughout the series which isn't focused on and doesn't need to be picked up in order to understand or enjoy things, but its presence does provide a little more depth.
September 2, 2007
Paycheck is a full-length movie based off a Philip K. Dick short story by the same name. Philip K. Dick is one of my favorite authors, and many of his stories get turned into movies that I like. Paycheck isn't the greatest movie, but I still like the premise and the ideas involved, even if I think the writers failed to create a logically consistent plot. Philip K. Dick might have been a little crazy, but his stories always made sense. The reason the movie's plot doesn't work is because you are shown enough information to know how and why the protagonist, Michael Jennings, comes to his decisions, but that information is inconsistent with what he ends up doing. If you can get past that, then this is a decent action-thriller.
I don't want to give away any spoilers, but the Paycheck movie basically takes the simple and interesting science fiction premise of the short story and builds a longer plot around it. The premise is really something that can be presented in a much shorter time frame, which is why most of the movie is John Woo action. At least it wasn't crazy over-the-top action like some of the other movies he's directed, although there are a few times when things are just a little too convenient. And I won't say Ben Affleck's acting is very good, but I always like seeing Uma Thurman act.
We also discovered something interesting while watching this movie, though. Kiba seemed to really like it. He watched most of it, and the ending, and sat comfortably the whole time to do so. At the climax, when there were lots of explosions with loud noises and bright flashes on the screen, he even got down and went closer to the front, instead of running away like the other cats would do.
September 1, 2007
Rome: Season Two
Well, season two of Rome is finished. Luna actually watched the last disc without me while I was at work today, so she had to watch it again with me when I got home. There's not a whole lot more to say about this series that I didn't cover in my entry for Rome: Season One. The two series comprise a whole, and it is not as though things change much in the manner, style, or quality between the two. It's unfortunate that the series will not continue; I suppose there wasn't enough viewership of season two in the U.S. to cover the exorbitant costs of its production. Which is a shame since it is such a well done drama.
Season two is slightly shorter than season one at ten episodes instead of tweleve, and follows the rise of Octavian to "first citizen" and the fall of his political rival, Marc Antony. Lucius Vorenus remains cursed after the death of Niobe, but tries to find redemption by his children and meaning in his principles. Titus Pullo's life becomes a tragedy of love, betrayal, and bittersweet conclusion. All in all, and excellent ending to an outstanding series.
August 31, 2007
Mission: Impossible III isn't too bad. I really liked the first movie, but the second wasn't particularly great. However M:I:III is a great action movie with a lot of the gadgets that made the first movie fun. It is not as much an espionage movie like the first one though, which is a little disappointing, but if you just want a really exciting action movie then this has you covered. The film was directed by J.J. Abrams who also did one of my favorite TV series, Alias and Ethan Hunt's activities are a lot like those of Sydney Bristow, but with a little more James Bond and a little less Marshall Flinkman. Ving Rhames is back again, and the villian is played by the very villainous Philip Seymour Hoffman. But most of the actors take a back seat to Tom Cruise, except perhaps for Hoffman.
There's nothing particularly amazing about the special effects, action sequences, visuals, or score. Although there are a few times where things were pretty cool, like the helicopter chase or building jump. But J.J. Abrams does what he does best, which is to create a heightened sense of tension and emergency throughout the entire film, with downtime used to forward the plot.
August 29, 2007
Scary Movie 4
And, now Scary Movie 4, which Luna put on her queue. This installment of the parody series takes much of its content from Saw, The Grudge, The Village, and War of the Worlds. Much of the same cast returns for this film directed by David Zucker, including Brenda who mysteriously is alive after having died in a very obvious manner in Scary Movie 3. There are also a couple of self-deprecating cameos by Dr. Phil and Shaquille O'Neal in the beginning which are actually quite good. Still, it is another Scary Movie which means Luna liked it a lot but I didn't so much.
August 28, 2007
300 was not exactly what I was expecting. I was expecting a historical retelling of the Battle of Thermopylae, full of drama, action, historical accuracy, and realism. I guess I should have done a little more reading up on what the movie was, because it was something completely different. It's my own fault though, because anyone who'd bothered to check would have known this. 300 is the movie adaptation of Frank Miller's graphic novel of the same name, and a very good adapation of it at that. But because it is a very good adaptation, it oozes the Frank Miller style, and is more of a tall tale account of the battle, with outrageous creatuers and larger than life characters.
The movie is quite good, but you should not go into this expecting much of a story or a lot of drama. Characters are archetypical, from King Leonidis to the description of the Spartans to the traitor and Xerces the Great. If you leave this movie thinking those are accurate depictions of the characters and Spartan society, you'll be fooling yourself. (Not that everything described about Sparta was incorrect.) The basic facts about the actual battle, however, are fairly accurate. You can compare the events of the film with those described in the Wikipedia article about the Battle of Thermopylae.
Overall, a very enjoyable movie with outstanding if fantastical visuals and stylized combat and an excellent score. I didn't really like the metal that played a few times as a sort of theme song, but I'm sure most people found it worked very well.
August 27, 2007
Scary Movie 3
After watching Scary Movie 2, Luna wanted us to watch Scary Movie 3 which stars many of the same actors in returning roles and spoofs again many contemporary films like The Matrix, The Ring, and 8 Mile. The thing is, while I know and enjoy pretty much all of the films spoofed in the movie, I didn't laugh out loud while watching it. There were one or two chuckles, but that's about it. It could be that I was super tired, but I still don't think many of the jokes are that funny. They're goofy and slapstick which Luna really liked, but I found myself watching and waiting for something more interesting to happen.
August 26, 2007
First Game Night with Wendy
We had our first game night with Wendy, Brian, and Thomas just now. They have game nights fairly often, with a usual crowd which Luna and I haven't met before. This time, though, game night was at our house and it was just the five of us. Which is a good number. We ordered take out from Buca di Beppo because I had a $10 gift card that I received in the mail at some point, but Thomas is picky about food or something and brought his own Chinese food. Wendy was really happy to meet Nami and Kiba, and to play with them. I think she said she likes Nami more, but that might have just been because Nami was wearing her cone which makes her look cuter. Brian couldn't remember their names. :p
Afterwards, we played Settlers of Catan. I think SoC is my favorite board game, and it's one that Wendy and Brian really like to play also. I guess they are used to playing with someone who has some house rules and does some things a little differently, while I'm only used to playing by the specific rules mentioned in the rule books. I guess they have also never played any of the non-predefined maps, because this time we played random (which actually shows up in some of the map books) and they were a little surprised. Brian won the first game, and Wendy the second; we played with Seafarers the second game.
Wendy and Brian are incredibly competitive, but Brian more so I think. Brian spends a long time trying to figure out the right move, and tries to be tricky about his cards and trading and stuff like that. They were sitting next to each other and often arguing (in a friendly manner) about trades and points and strategies and other things like that. Often poking or pinching each other too. :) Thomas was a lot quieter, but built steadily. Luna and I were also kind of poking at each other, but not so aggressively as Brian and Wendy. Even though Luna played before, with Karen and Sebastian, she'd forgotten all the rules.
It wasn't anything bad, except for one time that Brian tried to take one of Wendy's resource cards after using the robber without waiting for her to give it to him. He grabbed a development card instead, which Wendy smacked down on to make sure he couldn't see what she had. But that ended up bending the card pretty badly. Brian gave me a replacement card though, which was nice of him. Otherwise it'd be really easy to spot the card in the development card deck.
For the second game, Luna and Brian switched seats so Brian and Wendy couldn't reach each other anymore. Things became a little calmer then; I think it's probably best if they are out of each others reach for these kind of games. After the game though it doesn't matter. They don't hold grudges or anything like that.
The second game ended after I traded a sheep resource to Wendy, which allowed to her build a city and reach twelve points. In retrospect, it may have been wiser to not trade with her, but I don't think I had that good a chance of winning anyway. The early game had stuck me with very little resources after being cut off by one of Wendy's settlements, and I needed longest road or largest army to have a chance, but Thomas was far ahead of me in road length and Wendy had like six soldiers out.
Anyway, we ended around 3am, and they left shortly afterwards. Luna had a really good time. Better than she thought she was going to, and she wants to play again sometime soon. It'll probably be a while before we play again though. Alla is coming back for the Labor Day weekend so we're going to meet up with her then. Maybe the weekend after.
August 25, 2007
Scary Movie 2
Luna watched Scary Movie back in Shanghai, and she thought it was super funny. So we watched Scary Movie 2 tonight. This one in the series spoofs a whole lot of movies, although many of them are short spoofs. The one long-running spoof is of them trapped in the haunted mansion, trying to defeat the ghosts that are sort of trying to kill them but not really. I kind of felt like there were too many little spoofs without anything really funny about the spoofing of those movies. Luna really liked it though. She found some parts really hilarious, and other parts entertaining if they weren't hilarious.
August 24, 2007
All About Lily Chou-Chou
I'm not going to write a lot about the film All About Lily Chou Chou. I didn't bother to watch the whole thing. Luna picked this movie because it's supposed to be famous and she likes the people in it or something. But the movie just isn't good. The story is boring and slow and it was shot on such a low budget I think a mass-market camcorder was used without anyone in charge of the lighting or anything else. As far as I can tell, the story is about a 14-year-old boy who starts liking the music of some pop star Lily Chou Chou, and starts participating in a fan site. But he's also an idiot who lets a bunch of bullies abuse him all the time.
The only good thing about the film is the music. It's not great, because either it wasn't recorded very well or something else about how the movie was made decreased the quality. You can tell it's missing something that you'd find or a CD. But there are some pieces where I liked it more to close my eyes and listen than to be distracted by the blurry picture on screen.
Wallace & Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit
Maybe it's because I'd already seen the ending on the airplane, but Wallace & Grommit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit seemed to lack humor. I don't actually think it is because I'd seen the ending. Movies like this, when funny, are supposed to be funny no matter how many times you've watched it. I think it's kind of like how the Mr. Bean shorts are really funny when he's not talking, but then his movie wasn't. It seemed something like that. So I was disappointed that it wasn't as funny as I hoped it would be. Luna didn't like it at all, and even fell asleep in the middle.
If I were to pick the most amusing part of the movie, I'd say it was the little bunnies. Unfortunately, they don't play a large part in the film. Neither, in fact, do Wallace's contraptions. There are contraptions, but they don't actually matter that much and their "contraptionism" doesn't matter that much. There are little jokes and funny things here and there, but I want antics. And there aren't enough antics to go around this time.
August 23, 2007
You've Got Mail
Luna decided to watch You've Got Mail because the English language lessons she is listening to these days talked about the movie. I guess she wanted to know a little more about what they were referencing so we watched it. To be honest, it was better than I expected it to be, but that's not really saying all that much. I think to a large extent the movie was put together to make money, since it put Tom Hanks back with Meg Ryan for another romantic-comedy-in-the-big-city-between-two-people-who-are-far-apart-but-come-together. In other words, Sleepless in Seattle, also starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. This time, they're both in New York and instead of the radio and snail mail, they exchange email over AOL. The movie was made in 1998, just as AOL was starting to fall apart.
The one thing I did kind of like was how the story captured the difference in personalities a person has in RL as opposed to online. The manner of speaking when you write an email, or communicate in a chat room, is very different than how you would speak to others that you meet in person. Both Hanks and Ryan exhibit this behavior in the film.
If you do watch this movie, the only thing I'd say is be prepared for it to be as realistic as any other romantic comedy. In the end, everything works out romantically, but all the other details are ignored.
August 22, 2007
Stranger Than Fiction
I think Samir is the one that recommended I put Stranger Than Fiction onto my queue. I'm glad I did, because it turned out to be a really wonderful movie. It's intelligent, witty, unique, and kept my attention the entire time. In an interesting way, this film about a book made me really think the way reading a book would, and is a "page turner" in that respect. The film works on a lot of different levels because of how its put together the same way a story would be. Most movies or books of this type are supposed to have some meaning because of the depth of its characters or the plot. But this time the slice of life is presented as an interesting idea by placing you outside the story. And just like Harold Crick, I didn't know if this was going to end up being a tragedy or a comedy.
The beginning of the movie is pretty interesting in its own way. Harold Crick works for the IRS as an auditor. He's probably in his late thirties, and is obsessed with numbers in an autistic sort of way. He counts his steps. He counts the number of tiles on the floor. He always does the same thing, each day, at the exact same time. All of this is explained by the narrator as Harold is introduced to you. But suddenly, Harold can hear the narrator too. And so as Harold's day-to-day routine unravels because he thinks he's gone insane, he meets a woman Ana Pascal who is going to change the way he thinks about life.
Harold is played by Will Ferrell, but this is not a comedic role. It's a serious character, who quite literally belives himself to be a character it someone else's work of literature. It's interesting to imagine how one's life may just be a plot device. A character who was created for a specific purpose, and then discarded once that purpose has been fulfilled. Ferrell does an excellent job, in my opinion, which shows that he can do more than be the goofball.
Ana Pascal is played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, and I think this is the first time I've seen her in anything. She also does an excellent job with her character. You can really tell what she is thinking, or trying to convey, through the quality of her words and body language. I think she's an intriguing actress, because she doesn't seem to be the kind of woman that gets cast into a leading role. It's almost like she's the person that isn't an actor or actress. She doesn't really look like one, and it doesn't really seem like she's acting. But I suppose that's what it would mean to actually be a great actress.
Anyway, I liked everything about this movie. The story, acting, ideas, music (not remarkable but still very nice), and the precise balance by which you, the audience, is both outside the story and part of it at the same time.
The Emperor's New Groove
The Emperor's New Groove is several years old, and I've never found it appealing enough to watch. Luna thinks it is funny though, and so we watched it tonight. I just don't think there's a whole lot to the film. It just seems too simple for me. I'm sure it's great for kids though, because it plays just like a Saturday morning cartoon (only longer) and has action, excitement, bad guys who lose and good guys who learn a valuable life lesson in friendship. And I'll admit I did find one or two spots funny, but overall it didn't do anything to surprise me or make me laugh out loud. Too straightforward and the plot predictable. And I also had a really hard time getting the voices of David Spade and Wendie Malick out of my head, having watched them on Just Shoot Me! for so long.
In fact, I didn't think the voice actors were well chosen. David Spade didn't sound right as the Emperor. Something about his voice didn't fit the body. And Wendie Malick doesn't actually sound as young and lively as Chicha looks. Even John Goodman doesn't really fit the body of Pacha; Pacha's more fit than the voice sounds, I think.
The other main attraction of a film like this is the songs. And there really isn't a memorable song during the movie, and I can only vaguely remember two or three songs with singing in them. Other movies of this type, especially Disney movies, have timeless songs that children and adults will remember, even after they've forgotten other things about the movie. Nothing of that sort here.
August 20, 2007
Robin Hood: Season One
Well, I started watching the first season of BBC's Robin Hood with "modern sensibilities" and I immediately didn't like it. Luna agreed with me that the show was pretty stupid and poorly made. How can you like a show where in the first episode a troope of horses sneak up to within a few meters of a person in the forest, Robin Hood has a sword fight where the primary goal seems to be to perform as many ineffective but flashy moves, and the castle archers can't hit people that are ten feet away? Well, I suppose you could if you really didn't care about any of that. The appeal of these modern sensibilities appears to be mostly a failed attempt at making Old English sound hip. But if you give it a little longer, things actually get better after the fourth or fifth episode.
Although things do get better, that's not to say they become great. Each episode pretty much stands alone with some sort of idea or lesson to be told or illustrated through the actions of Robin Hood and the peasants involved. The badly choreographed fight sequences and focus on flashy presentation are slowly replaced by actual plot and drama, although the plot and drama isn't all that deep or complicated. Still, once that happens the show becomes an acceptable diversion. It won't win any awards for acting, or costumes, or plot, or pretty much anything though. It also becomes a little tiring to see how many excuses the writers have to come up with so the Sheriff of Nottingham and Guy of Gisborne don't just die, even though Robin Hood has more than ample opportunity to do so.
I do have to say that the first season finale is somewhat satisfying. The situation does actually move forward in the final episodes, with the conflict really coming to a head under the public eye. However, in the last fifteen minutes everything gets fixed up and the world is back to normal (and there's one last incredibly stupid bow and arrow trick just to make you feel dumb again) and ready for another pointless episode when season two begins.
August 19, 2007
I ended up liking the science-fiction thriller Cypher more than I thought I would when it first started out. I think the reason I liked it so much is because the film keeps you guessing, and Jeremy Northam does such a good job at playing a character that has to keep guessing too. The movie opens with Morgan Sullivan, Northam's character, going through a job interview to become an industrial spy. His personality is strange: willful but subdued. As things move forward, it becomes less clear exactly what is going on, who is in control, and who to trust. Sullivan bounces between startling revelations that threaten his life, and somehow has to find a way out.
While the majority of the film focuses on Sullivan, his life-line, so to speak, is his contact Rita Foster, played by Lucy Liu. Sullivan wants to trust Rita, because she's the only one that doesn't seem to be trying to use him. But she's secretive and reportedly works for someone that no one trusts. I think Lucy Liu was a great choice for this role, because she has a certain flair and pulls off the role of secret agent very convincingly.
The CG in this film isn't perfect. It's not bad or poorly done, but it's also not seamless. When CG is used, it's somewhat obvious and I always feel that reflects poorly upon a film. CG should be used to create a reality that is part of the whole, instead of single-shot special effects that suddenly don't fit with the rest of the environment or movie. While my complaint does not apply to every use of CG in the film, I still think it could have been done better.
Still, overall the directing is pretty good and I also think the score works pretty well. This movie isn't a blockbuster and won't become a cult classic either. It lacks a truly unique vision or something new and exciting. It's just a really good thriller.
Another movie that isn't very good. Death Trance is a no-story, no-sense, beat-em-up action movie that doesn't actually have much to do with death or trances. The premise is simple: there is a coffin which will grant its owner any wish and a few different people who try to get this wish. Of course, the real result of opening the coffin is a little different. Because this film doesn't even try to have any purpose beyond the fighting, there's nothing else to talk about. The combat is highly choreographed stylistic violence, with an emphasis on "coolness" without making sense. The hordes of fist-fodder don't even fight back. There are three really good fighters in the film, and the only time things aren't a one-way beating is when they're fighting each other.
Two little tidbits of note. This is the acting debut of Kentaro Seagal, the son of action star Stephen Seagal, who happens to be asking the FBI for an apology these days. The film features music by Dir en grey, a famous "J-rock" band that seems more heavy metal and industrial than rock to me.
While not great, the anime Midori no Hibi is fun to watch and is in many ways your typial shonen anime with decent amounts of fan service and subtle jokes. Of course, the most obvious joke is the basis of the story: a 17-year-old boy wakes up to find his right hand (which is his fighting hand) has turned into a 16-year-old girl who has had a crush on him for the past three years. Seiji has to learn how to cope with a cheerful girl stuck to him 24/7, when his place in life has so far been very isolated and somber. He has a reputation for being a violent and delinquent punk and portrays that character in public, while inside he secretly longs for a more normal high school life (and a girlfriend). Midori also has two public and private sides to herself. In public, she is extremely shy and unsure of herself. In private, and as Seiji's right hand girl, she's loud, bold, and full of energy.
There are a few other characters who play important parts during the anime. Seiji's 10-year-old neighbor also has a crush on him, and seems to know more about male and female relationships than should be appropriate. The class president, Ayase, is a super-serious and head-strong student, but tries to show her softer side after finding out what Seiji is really like. Seiji's older sister, Rin, is even "tougher" than Seiji and occassionally has fun beating him up and in general causing him grief.
I feel like the anime is split into three parts. The first third is probably the funniest, with both Seiji and Midori having to try and figure out how to continue living this way and all of the crazy things they have to do to try and hide the truth from others while discovering truths about each other. The second part is not as fun or interesting to watch though. Some of those episodes felt a little like filler, although in another sense it shows just how familiar Seiji and Midori have become. It's more of a normal part of life at that point. And of course the third part brings everything to conclusion, forcing Seiji and Midori to make their own decisions and grow as a character.
From a technical standpoint, Midori Days is done very well. The art and sound is excellent, which isn't too surprising considering it is only a few years old. There's a certain vibrancy and engaging pace that makes it very easy to watch and keep your attention. Luna watched it too, but doesn't find it interesting except for the funny parts. She doesn't really care about characters or plot, only if there is something hilarious going on. I thought the Japanese voice acting was very good too, and somehow the voice of Midori seems very familiar, but checking the history of Mai Nakahara I haven't seen any of the others. The English ADR is not good though. I wouldn't recommend watching this dubbed.
I suspect if you like the anime, you might like the manga as well. I'm considering whether or not I should get it. Although this really isn't my type of anime or manga, it does seem like it would be an amusing read and one that I might read through more than once.
August 18, 2007
Kazuo Umezz's Horror Theater
Next in Luna's series of Japanese horror films is the 6-episode Kazuo Umezz's Horror Theater. Each episode is its own short story, about an hour long, and generally focuses on one particular psychological fear or disorder of some sort. If you like a sort of supernatural bent to an issue like that (e.g. dealing with the loss of a loved one, obsession, fear) then you might like this series. However I didn't like it at all. The stories moved slowly, and the scenes were often longer than they should be, ruining the pace of things. The directing appeared amateurish in many cases, resulting in disjoint scene cuts that did not maintain the correct perspective or cheap ways of achieving something. The special effects were pretty cheaply done; you can tell when something is fake because of the stilted movements and unrealistic appearance. The acting was also very inconsistent, but mostly on the low end. And there was no good mood music. A good score could have helped support the stories and compensate a little for the other flaws, but most of the time there was no music. When there was, it was usually wrong.
August 15, 2007
Whisper of the Heart
Whisper of the Heart, or Mimi wo Sumaseba, is a Studio Ghibli film produced by Hayao Miyazaki (he also wrote the screenplay), but it was directed by Yoshifumi Kondo and is based off a one-volume manga by Aoi Hiiragi. The anime is about a young girl and boy who end up falling in love, with the focus on the girl, Tsukishima, learning things about herself and love. I really liked this film a lot. The story and characters are endearing and fun to watch, and will put a smile on your face.
Tsukishima has an adventurous and bold personality, with just a bit of soft little-girl-femininity. She has a quiet determination, and looks at the world with her own unique perspective. It's a perspective that includes the sort of magic and imagination a young child has, coupled with moving into the world of adolescence. This lets things serve a purpose in many different levels. For example, the Baron could be alive and just pretending to be a statue, and then later on takes on a much deeper meaning for both Tsukishima and Shiro Nishi.
I was a little surprised at the score used during the film, the first time it popped up. It's not conventional. It has some electronic influences, in a film that doesn't really have that mood. But it works, and after a while it feels right. I think that has a lot to do with the colorful and lively attitude of exploration and excitement than Tsukishima's character portrays.
Among the other Studio Ghibli films, I think Whisper of the Heart is closest in feel to Kiki's Delivery Service. I just thought I would mention that, because this film did remind me of Kiki in a lot of ways.
There's also a nice little reveal during the closing credits, if you watch closely. I thought it was a really nice touch that showed just how much the people involved care about the characters.
(The image is from Tatsuno Hiroyuki's web site, which no longer appears to be available. I pulled it off the Wingsee art page.)
One Missed Call
Luna's entered another one of her horror movie phases, which means Japanese horror movies. One of her favorites is One Missed Call by famed director Takashi Miike. This movie follows the familiar plot line of a sort of death curse that moves from one person to another, as each person dies. It's up to the one girl who has seen her friends die one by one to figure out how to stop the curse from continuing. In this movie, the victims receive a voicemail from the future, from themselves with a recording of their death. The curse moves onto the next person by following a call from the victim's mobile phone address book.
I didn't like the movie, but for the reasons that fans of the genre would like it. It's creepy without being just one big gore-fest. It features pretty girls trying to escape from their imminent death. You have to try and figure it out as it goes along, and in true Japanese fashion there is some sort of horrible background that is the source of the curse. (American horror films are usually just the result of a psycho.) It moves a little slowly though. Overall it's just not my taste.
August 13, 2007
Casino Royale is good. Much better than the couple of Bond movies that came before, this film was directed by Martin Campbell who also did Goldeneye, the last really good Bond film in my opinion. This movie, and Daniel Craig as the new James Bond, is very different from the more recent movies. The overall tone is much darker, and Craig does not play a womanizer or flippant jet-setting secret agent but instead a ruthless agent on a mission. This carries over into everything, and Bond's life really is in danger, unlike previous films where Bond is cool and collected even as sharks or lasers are bearing down. The action is also very exciting. I think the first foot chase of the film might be the best I've ever seen.
Although this film is a remake of Ian Flemming's first Bond novel, it takes place in the year 2006 with all of the technology and political issues of the contemporary world. There is even a direct reference to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The villians in this film are not uber-evil maniacs with enormous but unexplainable financial resources, but instead just "organizations" with interests in something or another that involves violence and things of similar ilk. There are in fact four different plots strung together, with the main one providing the bulk of the movie, but each of which involves a different criminal activity. Although the movie does refer to all of them as terrorist activities, they really aren't by definition.
I did notice something interesting about this Bond film though. There really aren't many women involved, and there is a distinct lack of sexual overtness. The opening theme song is sung by a man and the accompanying sequence does not have any female forms in it. Bond never has sex with a woman as a strategy to turn her or gather information, or even just as recreational movie entertainment. Not to say he doesn't engage in similar tactics, but in this movie his actions are only until the point he has what he wants, and it does not at all appear to be something done out of pleasure. It's just his job.
August 11, 2007
Rome: Season One
HBO has created an amazing historical drama: Rome. Whatever they're doing to figure out how to make original content, they're doing it right. Season one of Rome follows the fall of the Roman republic and rise and then sudden fall of Gaius Julius Caesar, as well as the lives of two soldiers of the 13th legion during that same time. With characters from both the aristocracy and plebian classes, the series presents a really vibrant and wonderfully accurate picture of Roman civilization at the time. Of course many of the specifics of things are pure speculation and dramatization, but I don't think most people are in danger of taking those things at their face value. The only exception being the close relationship between Caesar and the two soldiers, Vorenus and Pullo, when there is no historical knowledge of such a relationship from what I know.
What is amazing is that no expense was spared in the production of this series. The sets are lavishly constructed to exacting detail on such a grand scale. The costumes, dirt, props, clothing, and everything else is realistically rebuilt as well as can be from historical documents. The designers and writers really did their homework, as can be seen from the situations and people and little things in every scene throughout each episode. The full religious influence and social and cultural aspects of Roman civilization reveal themselves all the time. And the actors are outstanding in their portrayal of the same.
It's important to keep in mind that means this show does not flinch from depicting many things that contemporary people would find offensive, disgusting, or even simply foolish. But ridding oneself of an ethnocentric view towards things is one of the best things a person can do. The DVDs come with a special feature "Roads to Rome" which changes the angle and will overlay informational tidbits in a pretty decorative box throughout the show, explaining words, phrases, situations, and other values of the time. Watching with this turned on can be very educational, and maybe even necessary for people who don't already have a background in Roman civilization. I say necessary because otherwise it could be very easy to dismiss things as there for the sake of drama or creative license, or to regard Roman civilization as barbarous when it was one of the most civilized.
I think that's what I really like about the series. It isn't shy about immersing the viewer in true Roman society while giving life to history in a facinating and entertaining way. I'd recommend taking a look at HBO's Rome Revealed presentations which are short introductions to some things Roman. A good starting point, but not really much in depth.
Of course, not everything is covered and there is argument over how Rome presents things. One of the things Luna picked up on was the contradiction between how people in the show seem to engage in sex all the time. Homosexual, bisexual, heterosexual, and the nudity of performers and slaves don't match up with the severe stigma associated with adultery. There's also a history of incest in the families of some famous Romans like Caligula and in Rome between Octavian (later the first emperor Augustus) and his sister Octavia. Yet incest was very much taboo back then as it is today. But I think the show does a decent job of depicting how things really were behind closed doors, when the public face of things was very different. It's just that most of the time things are taking place behind closed doors, so it's harder to pick up on those aspects that represent how one must carry themself in public.
For more historical inaccuracies and errors, check out the extensive documentation on the individual episodes listed on Wikipedia. Click on the actual episode title for the information.
August 6, 2007
I watched the first few episodes of Firefly when it was airing on television, and never really got into it. Sure, it was a decent cowboy space opera, but it didn't seem to be going anywhere in particular. I was never interested in Cowboy Bebop either though. Anyway, there was a ton of hype and excitement about Serenity, especially among the hard-core Firefly fans. And it looked like the kind of movie I would enjoy, so Luna and I watched it last night. I think the movie can be summed up as a really good episode of Firefly with some answers revealed and larger risks exercised. But just like the show, you're still sort of in the same place you started.
If you liked Firefly, I'm sure you'll like Serenity a lot. The movie is very well done, and the only criticism I have is the one I mentioned above where it feels like one episode of an ongoing storyline, only you know the storyline isn't going to reach any real conclusion. The special effects and combat choreography are top notch and blend seamlessly into the overall weave so you never feel like something is there just to show off. Sometimes those things are either focused on too long, or the only thing to look at, which makes the movie suffer. But not here. There also aren't any cheap camera tricks or scene cuts to try and up the excitement artificially.
I should also briefly comment on the sound. The score and sound effects are also very well done, but there isn't anything really memorable here. Some movies will leave you with a theme song or chorus melody that is unforgettable, while others will really impress upon you a aural feeling that will make you remember the movie's audio, even if you can't really explain why. Serenity's sound blends into the movie perfectly as a mood enhancer, but it doesn't do anything else.
Joss Whedon is known for the quality of his screenwriting, and Serenity is no exception. The story is interesting, moves at a good pace, with little twists here and there but also a healthy amount of things being obvious or expected to the viewer, so the casual viewer won't feel like you he doesn't know what's going on. There are two different science-fiction themes running through the movie. The first is the centralized government versus the outer-rim colonies. The second has to do with conspiracy and cover-up of a scientific accident, which is already giving away more than I should but the movie's been out for a while now. These are decent additions to the story, but I would have liked more exploration of them than they could fit into the two hours.
August 2, 2007
The Prestige had some success when it came out, although I think it ran into a little trouble from sounding a lot like The Illusionist which came out at the same time. Regardless, I decided I'd give it a shot since it looked a little interesting. And turns out that it was pretty good. The story revolves around the rivalry of two magicians during the 19th century (looks like to me) who each wants to be the better magician, but whose rivalry is obsessive and dirty after the wife of one dies during a stage accident.
The entire movie works as a magic trick itself, described in the film as three stages: the pledge where the ordinary is shown, the turn where the ordinary becomes extraordinary, and the prestige when the everything is shown to be all right. During the course of the film, you are presented with that same problem. Things are happening which don't really make sense, yet without any explaination for how. Then the how is slowly revealed, and at the very end what you thought happened is shown to not have happened. At least superficially, because just like with a magic trick getting to the last part is where all the real magic is.
This film stars some excellent actors. I've always like Michael Caine, and I think he does an excellent job here as well. Hugh Jackman also does a good job, but I like Christian Bale's performance more. Bale has been acting longer and from a younger age, so perhaps that's not so surprising. I'm also sure a lot of people are happy to see Scarlett Johansson, but I think she's much better in some other films.
Watching the television series I, Claudius is one of my most memorable moments from high school. Our Latin teacher, Mrs. Stark if I recall correctly, showed us this series as a way of teaching us about both the historical facts as well as the culture and society of the Roman Empire. Luna likes learning about history, so I thought this would be a good thing for her to watch. At first she found it a little boring, because it is a little old and somewhat dry, but after a while she really got into it. The intrigue and drama is very interesting.
The 13-episode series tells the story of the first emperors of Rome, starting with Augustus, then Tiberius, Caligula, and ending with the death of Claudius. It is Claudius who is the narrator of this long story, as the one person who manages to survive the political assassinations during all three of the previous emperors' rule.
Even though Rome was ruled by men, it is really the women and the ability for women to control their emperor that moved the political landscape. Livia, the wife of Augustus, is probably the finest example of this because of her cold heart and calculating nature. One by one, without care for who it is, she removes obstacles from the path of her son Tiberius becoming emperor. But many other women, such as Livilla and Messalina, are just as cruel and conniving.
Of course, there is some dramatic license used in the telling of this story, especially since so many things are not known for sure. But from an educational and historical perspective, I think this is an excellent series. The quality of actors and the sordid facts really brings this part of history to life.
(As a bonus, you can see Patrick Stewart when he still had hair.)
July 29, 2007
The Great Yokai War
I'm not really sure why Yôkai daisensô was recommended to me, although it does fall into the genre of childrens' fantasy. The story is a very simple stop-the-bad-guy and save-the-world situation, featuring a young boy who has greatness bestowed upon him as the Kirin Rider, defender of the people (although he kind of looks like a girl sometimes). But other than the fantastical costumes, there's not much going for this movie. In fact, the protagonist doesn't even really fight that much; he just holds onto the sword as the sword fights.
The movie does star Luna's favorite Japanese actress, Chiaki Kuriyama, as the servant of the evil guy, but she doesn't do a whole lot in the movie. There's brief fighting, but not a lot of material for her to work with. Sometimes I wonder how she picks which films or television series to star in, as she's very recognizable (at least in the United States) and has a very long filmography, yet doesn't seem to ever play an outstanding role.
The movie is supposed to be a little goofy, and is probably geared towards younger children despite having a MPAA rating of PG-13. This is the sort of stuff I think children would watch when they're ten years old or possibly younger. This is despite being directed by Takashi Miike, who is more well known for his gory, scary films.
July 22, 2007
Ah! My Goddess
The full 26-episode version of Aa! Megami-sama is a lot better than the stripped down OVA which removes a lot of the plot and character development. The relationship between Keiichi and Belldandy evolves more slowly and naturally, and the supporting cast is introduced slowly and really only as support for the two of them. Whereas I thought the OVA was rushed and incomplete, the TV series was fully fleshed out although later on I felt like things were dragging along in their relationship.
One thing I noticed right away was the improved art quality of the anime. It was produced a few years after the OVA, and recent advancements have been significant, but it was still extremely clean and nice to watch. I did not notice any tearing from deinterlacing artifacts, and the coloring was bright and lively. The opening and closing animations and songs were not that catchy or entertaining though.
Overall I think this is an anime series that well represents the genre. The characters are memorable and the goddess costumes are very distinctive. There are plans for a second season of the series. I'm not entirely sure I will decide to watch it, as this genre of anime doesn't appeal to me that much, but I do think this series falls into the classics category.
July 16, 2007
This Film Is Not Yet Rated
This Film Is Not Yet Rated is an independent documentary that looks at how the Motion Picture Association of America rates movies for theatrical release. They have a secret review board whose job it is to evaluate submitted films and make an "average parent" judgement as to its rating. The creater of the documentary, Kirby Dick, makes a pretty good case that the MPAA is applying the personal morals of the people in charge to films, in ways which are sure to please some particular groups, but also hurt the public at large. And because of how those ratings are used, the morals of those individuals really do dictate what can be made and what cannot.
I think really that this film is a good start at exposing how movies (as well as television and video games) are not considered equal intellectual pursuits as books. The same sort of judgemental activity applied towards books is the motivation for Banned Books Week. People seem to recognize that you can't just classify violence as categorically bad, or sex as categorically bad, or even pedophilia as categorically bad. Yet the same intellectual truth disappears when applied to other "relatively young" media.
One great example of this, as pointed out in the film, is the movie Boys Don't Cry. The original submitted version received an NC-17 rating for the sex scene between Brandon Teena and Lara Tisdel. However, the film as a whole is an extremely important film that portrays a real story and discusses a sensitive but timely subject in a very grown up and intellectual way.
Another example is the documentary Gunner Palace, which is a documentary about the soldiers in Baghdad that uses real footage taken as interviews with soldiers and as operational documentation. Of course, given the subject matter, violence, language, and other realities of life and war are fully exposed. This film was given an NC-17 as well, but really is exactly the sort of thing the American public, including children as they are paying attention to world events and politics, should see. The director made a very lucid comment about the silliness of trying to put a rating on reality.
In fact, one thing critics of violence and sex in popular media never allow for is the difference between fantasy and reality. It's always a blanket statement that all children cannot distinguish between the two, when of course it's all individual. Plus, there is the argument that fantasy violence desensitizes people towards real violence. But there are ten-year-olds who can go on gory and realistic frag-fests for hours a day, then get grossed out by a dead rat. While there are fourty-year-olds who can't tell the difference between the two (i.e. they find the fantasy frag-fest as disgusting as the dead rat).
I guess my overal rant is simply about individuals, or groups of people, trying to impose their personal morality upon others. This applies not only toward movie ratings, but also towards other personal moral beliefs like homosexuality or polygamy/polyandry or even less controversial things like social mores. And just as much towards fantasy (as a depiction) violence and sex, the two big flags when it comes time for the MPAA to assign a rating to a movie.
July 12, 2007
Invader Zim is an amazing Nickelodeon series by comic author Jhonen Vasquez. It's funny, off-the-wall, exciting, and as exaggerated as any children's show full of satirical imagination can be. Pictured here is Gaz, who is the most awesome angsty goth girl you'll ever find. Luna and I laughed a lot. Enough to make you hurt. The show isn't perfect; there are a few times when an episode or sequence lacked that extra spiciness, but overall its excellent.
Zim is an Invader of the Irken military, at least in his mind. As an Invader, he's maniacal, insane, and while technically competent, about as likely to conquer a planet as a shoelace. Havoc is very easily possible, its just conquering that's a problem for him. His sidekick is GIR, a dysfunctional robot slave who has more interest in TV and junk food than in fulfilling their mission.
Zim's archnemesis is Dib, a super-intelligent dweeb who sees Zim as the Invader he is, but lacks the ability to convince anyone else of this fact, despite Zim's inhuman behavior and physical appearance. As the lone defender of Earth against Zim's incompetent invasion, Dib struggles mightily against Zim without once receiving acknowledgement by anyone else. Dib's sister Gaz is the only other person who knows of Zim's true nature, but she's intelligent enough to know Zim's doomed to doom to fail with doom, his doom, and would rather spend time playing video games.
Some episodes are short at about 10 minutes, while others span a couple of episodes clocking in around 40 minutes. There's usually some simple social situation or human characteristic that an episode explodes into a comic force, like teenage acne or avoiding late fees at your local video store. The hilarity of a water balloon the size of Greenland, with a big stylized smiley face on it, is genius.
Besides all of the wonderful content, Zim is outstanding in two other categories as well that aren't often so special for an afternoon television show: art and music.
The majority of artwork is CG and its amazingly good. Lines are bold; figures are animated and vibrant; movement is smooth and appears like what you might expect from a hand-drawn character. The shapes and colors are basic, but filled out to provide depth and texture. The only ugly is the poor deinterlacing or cadence flags that was done during the transfer to DVD.
The music is amazing. This is music you'll want to buy on CD and use as background music or personal theme songs all the time. It's heavily influenced by techno, although extremely well matched to the mood and action, and full of awesome little surprises like the choir of piggies. Unfortunately, it doesn't look like the tracks (which are not recycled) are available for purchase.
Lastly, although extremely important, the voice acting is excellent. The tone, pacing, and speech patterns are perfect for each character, sounding realistic but exaggerated enough to make the characters really unique. Zim, in particular, must have been extremely difficult to voice because of his constant tonal and pacing changes. But Richard Horvitz pulled it off amazingly.
July 6, 2007
The Last Carcassone
So Alla will be leaving soon for the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania to get her MBA. Her orientation classes start at the end of the month, and next week is her last week at IBM. She's really busy getting everything ready, and planning to take a short vacation before she flies out to start classes. And so last night she and Eric came over for one last game of Carcassone. I ended up making some mistakes, and didn't build any cities which is why I didn't win the game. Luna ended up with the most points by playing under the radar and won the game.
Alla also met Kiba and Nami for the first time, and she really liked Nami until she tried climbing up her back during the game. She played with Nami a little bit before dinner, but Kiba didn't come down until later.
It also seems like Alla might have broken her toe. She told me someone at work stepped on her foot by accident, really heavily and with some hard shoes, and it's been a week already but it still hurts to walk and move. I think it should be okay.
July 3, 2007
Luna and I watched MirrorMask last night. Samir had recommended it to me, and I like Neil Gaiman's The Sandman graphic novels (although I didn't like so much his Anansi Boys). MirrorMask is a really fun and interesting fantasy movie about a young girl in England who visits a world of her own creation in a dream, after being forced to deal with the possible loss of her mother who is undergoing surgery that same night. The allegorical aspects of that crisis and her personal desires for a different life extend directly into the dream world, giving her quest and trials personal meaning. However, I wish it could have been treated as a real fantasy world, rather than a dream one.
The protagonist Helena is played by a young actress named Stephanie Leonidas. While I don't think the acting was that great, I think she did a decent job. There were a few times where body language and emotional displays seemed too choreographed and scripted. Unfortunately, that did detract a little from the mood.
The special effects are pretty good though. Not amazing, but very convincing and imaginative in a dreamy way. Overall I really liked it as a fairy tale story about a quest. I don't think it's as good as some other movies in this genre though, because some things just felt a little lacking. I don't like how it was a dream, or how certain things that happened in the dream world were a little too convenient.
July 2, 2007
Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End with Karen
Karen came down to visit us today. It's been a long time since we've seen her. We introduced Nami and Kiba to her, and she had fun playing with them even though she's allergic. Because she played with them, she started sneezing a lot. We'd vacuumed a lot before she came over, so she wouldn't be uncomfortable, but playing with them kind of defeated the purpose. She brought over a couple of movies, but we decided to head out to see Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End.
We got the to theater a little early. It turns out we were able to use those $5 vouchers I got back from a Century Theaters in North Carolina, even though that was three years ago. Since we were there early, we played around in the arcade. Luna and I tried some shooting games. Karen tried a shooting game one time, but then moved onto pinball.
There weren't a lot of people in the theater. Probably about twenty or thirty. This third intallment of PotC didn't feel as good as the first, or even the second. It's basically a straight continutation of Dead Man's Chest, which was sort of a problem for Karen since she didn't remember the previous movies. The first half of the movie was a little boring to me. I thought they could have done more there to make it a little more exciting. And while I found the climax very exciting, it did leave a lot of unanswered questions. It seemed that all of the pirate ships were destroyed, yet afterwards they weren't. And the issues between Will and Elizabeth aren't really resolved, they just sort of get ignored.
After the movie, it was pretty late so we drove to a Vietnamese place on Capitol Expressway near the Target. They stay open a little later, and have good food for a good price. Apparently Karen's never eaten that kind of Vietnamese food before.
July 1, 2007
Happy Lesson that advertised itself into my queue. It's not the type of anime that appeals to me, but after seeing its trailer run on so many DVD previews, and wanting to find something funny to watch, I decided to give it a shot. Unfortunately, my initial assessment of this series turned out dead on. The best part about Happy Lesson? The chibi closing animation. I love those chibis.
The basic premise of Happy Lesson is a lesson in happiness for troublemaker student Chitose by five of his teachers who become his self-appointed moms. Chitose's parents died when he was very young, and he grew up in an orphanage. For whatever reason, he returns to his parents home, the only thing left to him, when he enters high school.
The five moms each have very distinct and exaggerated personalities and quirky behavior which is what makes the series fun and endearing. Each episode tends to focus on one mom, or later on one of the other girls who enters Chitose's life, with antics galore. There isn't really any over-arcing storyline, which does mean it ends a little weakly. It doesn't really feel like an ending at all. Of course, there's the second season, Happy Lesson Advance, but that's not available yet. I might decide to check it out, just to see how things go.
There is also a Happy Lesson OVA, which is on the fourth disc. The first episode of the OVA is the same as the first episode of the 13-episode series. So you can skip it. But the second and third episodes are new, and somewhat worth watching. However, the relationships between Chitose and his adopted sisters is completely different, and doesn't match the series. The fourth and fifth episodes are not available in the U.S.
June 28, 2007
Movie Night: Breach
Had some different people over for a movie night tonight. Tintin and Ken came again, but Greg and Angelika are new attendees. Both of them work at Netflix with me, although Angelika just started. I wasn't sure if Julie was going to show up, and she ended up not coming, but I'd ordered Round Table pizza this time at her suggestion. There was some communication issues about the movie, and it ended up that no one put anything on the queue. So Tintin and Ken brought some movies that they'd had at home, and we ended up watching Breach.
Breach is a dramatization of the capture of a U.S. operative, Robert Hanssen, who delivered intelligence to the KGB over many years while working in Russia. Chris Cooper plays this double-agent, and Ryan Phillippe plays the young and ambitious FBI rookie who befriends and then exposes Hanssen. The rest of the cast is filled out with other excellent actors like Laura Linney and Dennis Haysbert. And the acting is superb.
The plot and dramatization is pretty intense and interesting. Although Hanssen is introduced as the bad guy, he really doesn't seem like one. Even if you disagree with his very conservative and religious morals, you can't help admiring him for his integrity. Which makes it all the more difficult to accept him as a traitor. I think that dichotomy is really the films strongest point.
June 24, 2007
The End of Evangelion
I've been resisting watching The End of Evangelion, because I really like the original ending of Neon Genesis Evangelion and thought any attempt at remaking it to satisfy the people who felt let down or confused b the original attempt would be something of a corruption. But I decided to give it a go after seeing that it has been welcomed by many, and also after Tintin said she was going to watch it. While I do really like how it turned out because it's pretty exciting, I don't think it's as good as the original ending, and in fact I felt let down by this version.
There are some real answers in End of Evangelion, such as the real goal of SEELE and how the human instrumentality project is of interest to them. And the level of action and excitement is pretty high, providing a traditional sort of climax instead of the completely philosophical and psychological exploration of the original ending. The ending provided by End of Evangelion is similar in some ways to that of the original, but spelled out in a much clearer manner. But deep thinkers will still be happy to find so much available for interpreation.
However, I really felt like these were not the real characters. Their behavior and attitudes were exaggerated and did not match what I remember taking away from the series. Asuka's complete reversal is especially disturbing. It really made me feel like this was not Asuka, and that her performance was forced. There was also much more overt sexuality throughout the two episodes. I think this might be in part just pandering the fantasies of fans, although there is some merit to how its used.
One thing I didn't like was the use of real life shots. I understand some people really liked them, and it does add a certain dimension to the film which can be considered important and meaningful. But I didn't like the discontinuity.
June 23, 2007
Little Britain: Season Two
Season two of Little Britain brought the skits and characters much closer to those that I liked in season three. It's still not as good as season three though, and comes in a little short at only six episodes. The second disc is actually a big compilation of outtakes and interviews and special features. There's a documentary on it as well, but I didn't bother to watch much of the second disc. Luna watched a little more. The included image is from of one of the better skits from season two: "bitty"!
June 19, 2007
I just finished watching Dead Leaves, a crazy psychadelic action comedy anime about a pair of mutants who stage a wacky shoot-em-up beat-em-down prison break that is non-stop visual and aural excitement. And that's about it. Sure, it doesn't have the best plot or any character development or any redeeming social value. But neither do most music videos. And I really think that's the best way to characterize this movie. Watch it with your brain turned off, just absorb the wonderful visuals and music, and you'll really enjoy it.
The DVD features both stereo and 5.1 surround sound for both the Japanese and English audio tracks. The film itself isn't drawn with a huge amount of detail, although it certainly does have a crazy amount of movement in its short 50 minutes, so I suspect it compresses very well. Which allowed them to fit a lot of extras on the disc. If you're into watching typical, and some not-so-typical, Japanese post-production interviews then you should definitely check out the extras.
June 18, 2007
Little Britain: Season One
After enjoying the third season and live production of Little Britain so much, Luna and I watched the first season, which is eight episodes long. We both really liked the third season and live DVD, and Luna was laughing out loud non-stop. But the first season wasn't all that good. There were a few real funny gems, but a lot of the skits weren't all that entertaining. It felt more like watching some completely random characterization, which would only be funny if you knew someone that was just like that. But since the characters tend to be completely fictional exaggerations, that's not very likely. Unless maybe you live in Britain.
June 17, 2007
Shannon & Yvonne for Dinner
Shannon & Yvonne and Mei-Ling came over for dinner last night. It's been so long since Luna and I last saw them, which was when we went over to their house shortly after Luna arrived. Luna made a bunch of Chinese dishes for them to eat, and a fruit plate. They brought some leftover ice cream for dessert, even though we'd bought ice cream before, and orange juice too. Of course the first thing they all wanted to do was find the kitties. They all ran under the bed at first, but after a while Niea and then Asuka came out. Yvonne managed to scare Chie out later on, and after I held him for a long time he calmed down and Yvonne and Mei-Ling could also hold him.
After dinner, Luna started playing her PSP, and Yvonne looked for a movie to watch. Since Shannon wanted to play a board game, Yvonne could watch whatever she wanted and she and Mei-Ling watched Monty Python's The Meaning of Life. Shannon and I played Scrabble, and I won by a few dozen points. Shannon kept trying to make up words so she could use her high-point letters. After a while Luna sat next to us to watch.
It was after the movie ended that Yvonne actually scared Chie out. And Shannon petted Shelly while I held him out of the aquarium. Shelly wasn't too scared. Probably since he'd spent a lot of time around Luna and me while I was trying to grow the plants and Ellie was having disinfectant put on every day. I put Blue Man Group's The Complex Rock Tour Live on to play in the background during this time. After they all left, Luna and I watched it for a short time, before going to bed.
June 15, 2007
Kingdom Hearts II
I'm more than a little late to the game, but I just finished playing through Kingdom Hearts 2, although I'm not entirely sure if I'm ever going to get around to going for 100% with this one. In terms of gameplay, technical features, and the visuals, Kingdom Hearts 2 is the same as Kingdom Hearts. They kept the same voice actors, which really would be a requirement for something like this, and the story continues where Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories ended. It's not required to have played KH:CoM, but it will help.
The world situation is a little different in KH2. While the worlds in KH tended to be more "dungeon-like" with many passages and places to explore as you tried to find your way around, the worlds of KH2 (some of which also appeared in KH) are more natural. You'll go through hallways and foyers or through mountain paths and towns, but for the most part there aren't any extra halls or rooms created just as something to go through. This also means finding treasures isn't a puzzle; they're all laid out in front of you as you move forward.
You also end up visiting each world multiple times. Each visit is a little shorter than they would be otherwise, but as the storyline progresses, things change on the worlds and you have to come back to find out what's going on and advance the plot. At first, I felt like there wasn't enough meat in each world's episodes. Too short and very straightforward. But after a while it felt more like a book, where the chapters aren't too long and you can read one chapter at a time, letting you then choose if you wanted to stop or continue.
I do seem to vaguely recall the storylines of the movies each world is based upon, being followed to some degree in KH. But it seems odd that coming back to those worlds in KH2, the storyline of the movie is played back again, but with some different angles. I'm not sure though, because I can't remember very well exactly what happened in each world of KH in terms of story.
There were some interesting worlds presented in KH2, which I wasn't expecting. The world of Tron makes an appearance, which was pretty cool. I was pleasantly surprised to find a world based on Steamboat Willie (I think the boat is referred to as Willy in KH2) and they really went out of their way to make it feel right. Luna was excited to see Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean, and Beauty and the Beast (I still think there are real problems with that film) and Chicken Little.
I finished my first run of the game in about 55 hours. That included several hours playing through the Gummi sections, trying to find everything. But since it's so hard to know what you need to do to get some Gummi blocks, I ended up with about 95% completion there. I also didn't complete all of the Jiminy journal entries at this time, because it looked like that would take a long time to do. And it did.
I wasn't bothering to use my Drive forms or Summons for most of the game (I also didn't actually know how to initiate a Summon for a long time) and leveling all of those up, and completing the Moogle synthesis stuff, probably took another 10 hours. At this point I reached level 99 and could fight Sephiroth without dying in a few seconds. That battle is one of my favorites, both in KH2 and KH. I'm at about 70 hours now, and the only thing I have left open, besides the Gummi blocks, is the final Paradox Cup tournament. Apparently finishing that cup takes about an hour straight through.
June 14, 2007
Full Metal Panic!: The Second Raid
Full Metal Panic!: The Second Raid is the second storyline in the Full Metal Panic! series. The second series, FUMOFFU!, doesn't really continue the storyline. TSR picks up about three months after the end of the first series, with the Viper-class ARM slave showing up again to cause trouble. TSR feels just like the first series, but with the characters growing up a little bit. There is not as much focus on action this time, and with only 13 episodes most of the time is spent on the non-action parts that make this series great.
In fact, the final battle isn't all that interesting. The best part about it is Kaname, and she's not fighting so much as giving Sosuke a scolding, in her own special way. In a lot of ways it felt really good to hear the voices of Kaname, Sosuke, and Testarossa again. Sosuke and Testarossa have the most distinctive and excellent English voice actors of Chris Patton and Hilary Haag, respectively. I think they're absolutely perfect choices for those two characters. Luci Christian's voice is not as distinctive, but it still felt good and familiar.
The final episode does close with a very open ending, which explictly points to a third production to continue the storyline. But given the time difference between FMP! and FMP!TSR, it might be a couple of years before we see it.
There are two things of note. First, make sure you watch the bonus OVA located in the extras on the fourth disc. You should watch this after watching TSR, since it takes place afterwards. It's a nice little thirty-minute episode that follows Tessa while they are docked and everyone has the day off to relax. I found it very enjoyable.
The second thing of note is that these DVDs were mastered such that you cannot skip over a bunch of logos and trailers in the beginning. Doing things like that really annoys me, and so again I wouldn't recommend purchasing the DVDs. It is incredibly annoying to have to watch some trailers or logos when you just want to get to the next episode, or to have to sit there for a few minutes when you really want to get started with what you want to watch.
June 10, 2007
Waking the Dead
I picked up a copy of the pilot and first season of Waking the Dead from Netflix. Looked a little interesting, and a lot of BBC stuff is pretty good. I didn't like the pilot that much. It felt a little too convenient and the acting and characters too forced. As if things needed to be specially dramatic and personalities extremely apparent and well defined. But the following episodes felt more natural and I enjoyed them more.
Waking the Dead is another one of those crime dramas where a team of investigators go through forensics, psychology, and plain old detective work to solve a murder. Where this series is a little different, and I think better, is that each story is given two full hours rather than one, and the clues and revealed such that the audience can really try to figure things out themselves. Since the camera isn't always on the investigators, but also on the other players, the audience has an opportunity to see the whole story, from all the characters' perspectives.
Another strength is given the full two hours, a lot more time can be spent on the actual motives, characters, and things don't have to be rushed. Things can progress more naturally, and the clues and detective work can go down some interesting avenues that don't actually involve the murder itself.
I also think the forensic work is a little more realistic. Although in one of the earlier episodes it was almost like Frankie, who leads the forensic team, had committed the murder herself considering how she examined a murder scene. But otherwise it doesn't seem as though they have magic computers or tests or anything like that, for the most part.
Still, overall its just about what you'd expect and very similar in flavor and subject matter to the other shows of this type.
June 9, 2007
We finished watching the final disc of Wolf's Rain last night, and Luna really likes it. It's very different from the manga, which I haven't read but she has, and apparently disc seven was an extra four episodes added after fans complained about the lack of closure from the original ending which is on disc six. Personally, I think it ended better and also made more sense on disc six, rather than disc seven. Plus, disc four is entirely recaps which I skipped completely. So it's not that long a series, but I think it's really a story about the journey. In a lot of ways it feels like one of those epic travel stories, where it's really the trials and struggles along the way that give it meaning.
It's that feeling that is the greatest strength of this series. The character development is very good, and the changing attitudes and personal decisions made by the characters as they journey together, come to rely upon each other, and discover different truths about themselves and the world around them, is what really makes it interesting to watch.
Flags of Our Fathers
Flags of Our Fathers is the companion film to Letters from Iwo Jima, told from the U.S. side. This film came out a year before Letters from Iwo Jima, and has a very different feeling to it. Whereas Letters from Iwo Jima focuses more upon the Japanese soldiers and the battle itself, Flags of Our Fathers spends relatively little time on the battlefield, choosing instead of explore how three soldiers coming back from the fighting deal with their celebrity status and then the remainder of their lives. It jumps back and forth a lot, between the war, time after the war, and the present day to tell their stories.
I didn't like Flags as much as Letters. There isn't as much excitement and it doesn't feel particularly extraordinary the majority of the time. It's much more like a memoir, or character study, of those three soldiers as they go through their lives during that time. But it lacks something. I'm not really sure what it lacks, but I wasn't engrossed in the film and it didn't feel like if I missed a portion that it would matter later on. Maybe it is the discontinuity of things that makes it that way.
The visual and audio quality is very high though. Both during the scenes on Iwo Jima and the ordinary settings back in the United States. You can tell that a lot went into making this film authentic at home, because it never feels wrong or staged or artificial. And the sound really is full range and makes you feel like you're there. I don't think the music was as good in this film though. I sort of feel like there were times when the mood could have been heightened, but wasn't. That's really an artistic choice though, in this kind of film, since realistically we don't walk around with background music. And it felt like a documentary or biography in that respect.
The acting is pretty good, overall, and Ryan Phillippe is an excellent actor. However I really felt like the one outstanding performance was that of Adam Beach, who played a Native American soldier and no one let him forget it. In a lot of ways, his character is the most tragic, because for everything he tried to do, it feels a lot like life left him behind and also that he could not find a way to move forward. Watching him, it really feels like he's carrying a heavy burden or is surrounded by ghosts. Even though it's Ryan Phillippe's character that seems to witness the most death and gore in the movie.
June 5, 2007
Luna and I were just looking for something relatively random but funny to watch, and ended up watching the movie 100 Girls. This is one of those cheesy sort of comedies about a boy trying to find a girl and the clash of the sexes. But it's also completely shameless when it comes to talking about that adolescent situation, sometimes in a little vulgar but foolish manner. But it's not gross or really over the top. I don't think this movie is that great, but it has amusing versions of the jokes you'd expect, with a lot of eye candy.
The basic plot can be outlined by the main character, Matthew, running into "the girl of his dreams" after a strange blackout that prevents him from actually knowing who the girl is. So he engages in various shenanigans to try and get into the girls' dormitory and identify the girl that he encountered that night. Some of what he does is funny, or crazy, but predictably over time he starts to have a certain appreciation for the other sex and how relationships are viewed differently by girls and boys.
June 2, 2007
Letters from Iwo Jima
The movie night I scheduled for tonight was cancelled because no one could show up except Samir. So we ended up with just me, Luna, and Samir to watch Letters from Iwo Jima. Jamie had gone down to Los Angeles to visit her family. Letters from Iwo Jima is a Clint Eastwood movie (as in he's the director) about the U.S. victory of Iwo Jima during World War II but told from the side of the Japanese troops that tried to hold the island despite being outnumbered and outgunned. It's a bleak film that depicts the horrors of war, but also one that portrays the Japanese soldiers as human beings who struggle despite knowing their homeland and families will be lost. This is a very good movie, but also one of those which you would not want to go through a second time.
I thought the actors were very good, and convincingly played the character roles they were given. Eastwood tries to give each of the characters some time to illustrate their basic humanity to the audience, with flashbacks and dialogue between the soldiers before the U.S. troops stormed the beachhead. I found myself a little confused though, at some times when I thought the social deference of officers was not correct.
Samir did not think it made sense for the soldiers to commit suicide, but Luna tells me that is how things were in reality, once the Japanese soldiers heard from their Emperor that they had lost the war. She says that many soldiers even killed their families and babies before killing themselves. This mental disposition continues today in Japan, and was recently discussed in a Slate article: Why are there so many suicides in Japan. But the article does not go into the real cultural and social reasons as much as arguing that public policy and social aversions towards mental illness does nothing to prevent this.
Luna and I are planning to watch the companion film, Flags of Our Fathers sometime soon. It wasn't rated as highly as Flags of Iwo Jima, although that may only be because Flags of Iwo Jima has much more of a freshness factor to it.
June 1, 2007
Luna's disc arrived damaged, so we couldn't watch what we were planning to tonight. Instead we watched a Japanese horror film named Kairo. Turns out Luna's seen it before, and she found the movie sort of boring and poorly made. It is poorly done, at least for the first half of the movie, and pretty slow paced, but I found it really creepy and scary. The music contributed to the creepiness; even Niea through it was really creepy music.
For the first half of the movie, it's not entirely clear what's going on. Something strange is happening, and people are dying or disappearing. Wherever they died there's a black blotch left behind, like their shadow but made of ash or some sort of stain. There's some connection to a web site that talks about seeing ghosts, and "the forbidden room" which is a room with the door taped over to stop people from going in, or anything from coming out.
Over time some ideas are introduced about ghosts, and lonliness, and the ethereal realm leaking into the physical world. And it's about this time that things also seem to have been done better. In the beginning, a lot of backgrounds looked fake and the editing pretty amateur. The lighting was also too dark, and lighting issues either improved or became less noticeable later on.
Overall it's not a great movie, but I thought it was pretty creepy. There's a U.S. remake also titled Pulse, but I don't plan to see it. The synopsis of the U.S. version seems to have changed the overall plot though. Possibly in an attempt to make things a little clearer and more logical.
May 29, 2007
I've been a fan of Leiji Matsumoto's drawing style for his heroines, even though I've never really watched any of his work. The one exception being his work on Interstella 5555, because I picked that up a while ago. I just watched Final Yamato (spoilers), and while I did really like how Yuki was drawn, I don't think the movie was that great. Maybe having watched the last chapter first was the wrong way to approach things, but I think Final Yamato is designed to stand alone while carrying more value for people who have seen the earlier episodes.
Some people really love the Yamato franchise. And it is certainly a grand and epic space opera, from one perspective. But I felt the movie lacked any real purpose. There's a basic plot and the characters feel like fully developed people, although I think there is not a whole lot of actual character development in the film. But it's kind of simple. There are bad guys and the good guys have to stop them from destroying the Earth.
Perhaps for someone who was really into the entire Yamato series, this movie would be a satisfying and proper conclusion. But I couldn't feel anything special about the characters or the final mission of Yamato.
So I've finally gotten around to watching the cult comedy, Napoleon Dynamite. The opening sequence where Napoleon has a little fun with He-Man on the school bus really sets the overall tone of the movie. It's inane yet somehow strangely rewarding. Despite Napoleon's grand loser status, everything works out just fine the way he is. And I think it's great how never once during the movie does Napoleon try to be someone he isn't.
Luna really liked watching Napoleon Dynamite because it's just so silly and full of stupidness. She really likes those kinds of comedies and laughed a lot during the entire movie. Something as simple as getting hit in the face with a piece of steak can have a lot of comedic value, and the actors in this movie can really pull that sort of stuff off. I think primarily because they can play the part of loser so well.
I just watched Zeiramu 2, which I ended up deciding to watch after seeing Iria: Zeiram the Animation. For some reason though, I failed to put the first Zeiramu movie on my queue first. I have to say the live action movies are similar to the animation in almost every way. Meaning it's fine on action but has absolutely no real plot.
In this movie, Iria needs to retrieve some sort of teleporter energy source, and is partnered up with a robot to do so. Although the partnering only lasts for a few minutes and was sort of without Iria's approval. However, the robot goes crazy and ends up targeting Iria and her friends for destruction. The rest of the movie involves fighting off the robot and trying to retrieve the teleporter energy source so they can escape.
Nothing really special about the movie, but some mind find it enjoyable as a dumb, but sort of fun, action movie featuring intergalactic bounty hunter, Iria.
May 27, 2007
Luna and I got back from FanimeCon 2007 at around 7pm. We got on the light rail this morning around 10am, and got to the convention center around 10:45am. Unfortunately, that was too late. This was the first time I'd gone so late, and it also seems like anime's increasing popularity is being represented at the cons (there are more cons this year as well). We ended up having to stand in line for at least 2.5 hours! The longest I've ever had to stand in line in previous years was about 15 minutes, although I'd never gotten there so late before. There were a lot more staff members this year as well, and I think they expanded into more rooms.
Anyway, we spent the vast majority of our time in the dealer's room, since both of us just really care about picking up some hard-to-find collectibles. At first, Luna got really sidetracked by seeing some of the dolls, because she saw some people selling clothing and accessories for them in the artists' room. And so we ended up not going through systematically and sort of running around to look for the doll seller. They're too expensive though, so she won't buy one until later.
Luna also ended up not always knowing what she wanted until after we had left a store, so in a couple of cases we actually ended up coming back to the same store to buy things a second time. Which is bad because you can usually get a little discount by buying more things all at once. So we probably could have saved a little more money if she would have known what she wanted at the beginning instead of only deciding later.
Yvonne had told me she wanted something from Paranoia Agent or Romeo x Juliet, but I couldn't find anything about those two shows. We ran into Sonia later on, and I asked her what Yvonne might like instead, but she couldn't think of anything except Romeo x Juliet. So we ended up getting Yvonne and Shannon one plushie each. Although now I'm not sure if Yvonne already has the plushie I ended up picking for her. Luna also picked up a Gackt single to send back to her cousin in Shanghai.
Anyway, I purchased a Gunslinger Girl wall scroll, while Luna got one of Kyo Kara Maoh!. I got a Tachikoma 1/24 scale model, although not at the greatest price, and the four figure Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children figure collection. Luna got a five-piece One Piece figure collection, but they didn't make a figure of Sanji who is Luna's favorite character. She decided not to get the special versions of Nami or Usopp. I got one doll of Lain in her bear pajamas, and also a doll of Kasukabe Saki in her President cosplay outfit, from Genshiken. I want to get the Ohno cosplay dolls as well, to go with Saki. I didn't see any of Ohno at the convention. Luna got the first eight volumes of xxxHolic and a Mokona doll that wiggles when you pull a string.
We walked a lot today, and carried back a lot of stuff. Both of our feet hurt now, but I think we found a lot of pretty good stuff that we wouldn't have found elsewhere. The One Piece collection is actually from a Japanese store that has two branches: one in Japan and the other in Los Angeles. The sellers were actually Japanese, and one of them didn't know very much English. So Luna talked to her in Japanese asking about the collection. They were also selling a Keroro collection but for the size of the pieces, neither of us thought it was a good price.
I did think it was interesting that this year's most popular characters were from Kingdom Hearts 2, by far. Organization XIII and Sora were popular cosplay costumes, and so many of the doujin artists featured Kingdom Hearts 2 characters. Final Fantasy and Naruto were not as popular anymore. There were a few people dressed as Princess Mononoke, more than I expected. The girl in front of us in line actually had a very good costume. There was also a bunch of Mario Bros. characters, and one group of girls came together as Princess Peach, Daisy, and Toadstool. A Shy Guy and Mario found them and they made a good group picture.
May 24, 2007
This Ugly Yet Beautiful World
I just finished watching This Ugly Yet Beautiful World, and ended up liking it more than I thought I would as the series originally progressed. Things start out a little like you might expect of a relationship anime set during high school, and about half way through I sort of decided it was a standard relationship series with a stupid monster attack gimmick. But once things were explained, things got a lot more interesting.
This anime is really about finding something for yourself, but then having to deal with the loss of something precious. Takeru begins the story as an apathetic teenage boy, who has ended up the way he is due to abandonment issues as a young child. He and his friend end up meeting Hikari (and later Akari) and suddenly things are different. Takeru starts growing up and coming out of his shell, because Hikari needs him and he has found something he needs just as much.
Unfortunately, things are not going to end up as everyone would wish they could. Ultimately, different people have to make different choices. And making one choice means giving up something else. This is not one of those stories where a boy is surrounded by many girls and he has to pick one (or be friends with them all, at least). This are a little less perfect in This Ugly Yet Beautiful World. But Takeru is going to learn to deal with it.
Shadow Hearts: From the New World
So I ended up not playing Shadow Hearts: From the New World because Luna played through the entire thing. Which isn't too bad, since it turns out to be a lot like the previous Shadow Hearts: Covenant. It's basically the same engine and in a lot of ways the same characters too, with a sort of simliar storyline. I think the fact all the characters are the same is a real turn off, although I really did like the new world look set in the Americas. She wanted to do everything and get all the items, including get both endings, which meant a final playing time of over 90 hours.
The reason I say all the characters are the same is because the skill sets and even some of the combat mechanisms and special abilities are the exact same. The initial protagonist, Johnny, carries a camera just like Anastasia. Although Johnny isn't all the strong at magic or fighting, so he actually isn't a great character to use for most of the game, but you have to keep him in the party to use the camera. Shania is this chapter's Yuri. Frank is Joachim (even down to the silliness and weird way of walking). Hilda is also like Joachim because she transforms into different attack modes depending on use. Ricardo is Lucia, except with a stupid guitar-weapon. Natan is like Karin, but not as interesting or important. And instead of a wolf (Blanca) now we have Mao (a giant talking cat) that doesn't have wolf bouts but instead tries to make a movie by fighting other giant talking cats.
Graphically, things are basically the same since it's the same engine, but with some minor improvements. Bodies and faces are smoother, with better polygon integration. Especially during movement. You won't see clipping or tearing. Motion capture also seems more natural. I really liked the initial look of the backgrounds because they're much more colorful and natural looking than the dark look of the previous games. So much so that I didn't feel the gothic vibe at first, and in fact I don't think this game has as strong a gothic vibe.
The combat system is a little improved as well. Combination attacks are a little more interesting because you can't just perform combos all the time. You have to increase your stock gauge by attacking and being attacked, and then use up a stock unit to combination attack. Performing combo magic requires you to consume two stock units. So first you have to beat on the enemy a little and then attempt combo magic. This usually means only being able to execute combo magic once per boss fight. Also, if there is a combo break, you don't lose the character's turn. The addition of stock is sort of in trade for SP to execute combos.
I didn't like the new Stellar and Stellar Chart magic system though. It made it very hard to assign magic to characters, since you first assign magic into groups (the chart), which has some limitations unless you spend money to improve the chart's flexibility, and then you have to assign the charts to the characters. Since you can't really tell what magic is already on a chart without moving the cursor onto each individual one, it becomes a somewhat labor intensive process. And it's not at all clear if doubling up stellars results in lower cost magic, which was one of the best ways to make magic affordable in Covenant.
Luna liked the game, but thinks it was a little short. It was only one disc, but I don't think it is that short. Luna probably could have finished it faster if she didn't try to find every last item. If you can read Chinese then you can read her entry about it.
May 20, 2007
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest
Luna and I just watched the second movie in the trilogy, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest. While there's a good amount of action and the running gags involving Captain Jack Sparrow can be very funny, the overall movie was lacking a really good plot. There are some basic motivations, without much exploration into the characters owning those motivations, to aquire a certain artifact. And then random action and hilarity ensues. So while this is a pretty fun movie to watch, I don't think it is as good as the first one.
There are a couple of subtle jokes, playing off the Pirates of the Caribbean Disney theme park attraction and the first movie, which I thought were nice to have included. But a couple of times I felt a lot more like it was the theme park attraction as a set, instead of a realistic environment. Not because of how things looked, but because of little behaviors that aren't really how people would act. I found that a little distracting.
I also didn't particularly like the way the crew of The Flying Dutchman was put together. I guess they wanted to do something different than just skeletons from the first movie, but I found the costume design to be a little far-fetched. If the crew is supposed to be composed of sailors, they should at least look like sailors in some fashion.
Despite that, the audio and video quality was very good. I really did feel immersed in the movie while watching, and that things looked very real. Including the special effects which can sometimes look too fake in some movies. Here, it was done very well and seamlessly integrated into film.
I am interested in watching the final installment, which will be coming out this year. Dead Man's Chest ends without a real conclusion, and I hope things get wrapped up in the third movie. In that way, I may decide the two movies should actually be together as one, and taken as a whole be a much better movie.
May 15, 2007
Pochi-chan (a.k.a. Sonia) is a really good artist who still has a little bit of trouble believing in herself. So I figured I'd plug her Pochi-chan deviantART page. Her style is very unique, in my opinion, and also very good. She's been spending a lot of time working on her style and technique, and has gotten a lot better. Some of her stuff looks amazing. Sonia thinks she needs her imagery to look sharper, with stronger distinct lines. But I think part of what's great is her softer approach to things. A more blending of colors and imagery.
Here's a link direct to her gallery. Some of the pieces I like are Time Mailman, 2007 Yay (more nostalgic than anything), Reincarnation, Eternally Hopeless Situation, Amelie, Mother's Day, and Fairy Tale In The Heavens.
Anyway, check it out. She's really into talking to people about art and technique so if you like something leave a comment on for her. Her dream is to do this professionally, and I think she has the talent and determination to make it. She just needs a little more confidence.
May 14, 2007
Luna and I celebrated Calvin's birthday today. We went over to his place in the afternoon to watch Children of Men with some of his friends, and then went to have dinner at A&J Restaurant in Cupertino Village. The food was good, although Luna thinks it was just okay since it wasn't really anything special. There were about eight of us total at dinner. I think most of them are friends Calvin met through work.
Children of Men is a movie that I had heard a little about and was slightly interested in seeing, but not really wanting to see it a lot. I feel a little funny about Clive Owen as an actor. He's good, but for some reason I don't really like his personality or something as an actor.
Anyway, the movie is about a police-state near-future variation of Britain where crackdowns on terrorism and illegal immigration have become both everyday background noise and also the political movement. The rest of the world has fallen into chaos, supposedly, with refugees trying to get into mainstream British society to live a better life. Of course, there is a political movement against these draconian policies. But the core of the plot is that humans are no longer able to conceive. The opening sequence is about the murder of an 18-year-old who is a celebrity only because he is the youngest person in the world.
Supposedly the movie is changed from the book in many ways to make it a political and social criticism of the current state of affairs. And I actually found that part of the film to be the most interesting. There isn't a lot of focus on the science, or reasons, or social changes that would result from a world without children. Although there is brief attention given to the violence that would arise from an entire species without hope of the future.
Unfortunately, I don't think there was anything that revolutionary or really special about how the film went about it. It kind of feels like the world situations and ideas are put together in a collage, but without any real thought about what that means. As someone that already knows about what goes on in the world, I don't feel like I got a whole lot out of it. And if someone doesn't know what's going on in the world, there's nothing in this film that would help them make the connection.
May 13, 2007
An Inconvenient Truth
I finally got around to watching An Inconvenient Truth, a documentary about global warming focusing on the personal crusade of former Vice-President Al Gore to educate people about this "climate crisis". A real quick presentation about the issue was given at the 2006 TED conference, which you might want to check out. I greatly respect Gore as one of the very few really educated and contemporarily-savvy politicians of our time. And the global warming problem is one that I have believed in for a long time now.
I think one of the primary reasons I really liked this documentary is because it feels less like an opinionated exposé or personal agenda and much more like the sort of presentation or lecture you might find in academia. Of course, due to the nature of the presentation, the actual research and science involved is glossed over, but it's important to note that the scientific results and their projected impact on our world are presented. Which is where things change from opinion and subjective points of view or conjecture into real scientific data, interpreted in a scientific manner, and presented for public consumption.
One thing of note about the DVD is there's a 30 minute extension in the extras that half rehashes the existing talking points of the presentation in the documentary, and half brings in new information about the topic that is related to those talking points that have come out of research since the movie was produced. It's probably of interest to some people, but if you've already accepted the situation then it's probably not worth the time. Might be better to find newer information on the web.
Gunbuster, or Aim for the Top!, is a facinating anime from 1988 that, for lack of a better description, contains a whole lot of heart. I approached this series thinking it was a simple "spacegirls in mecha" anime, but in fact I believe this is one of the best science fiction stories you could find. There is a little bit too much 80's flavor in the beginning and for the commercial intermission, but otherwise it's almost perfect. It seems like it could have been perfect if budgeted for a longer run (perhaps originally four episodes then extended to six).
Gunbuster follows a young girl who becomes one of the elite pilots of giant mecha to defend Earth against invasion by some sort of space monsters. In the beginning, it almost feels like an adaptation of Rocky with its focus on working out and training to make it into the space corps. Thankfully that soon ends, although the phrase "hard work and guts" continues to pop-up in the post-show science explanations.
But hard science is used for the physics of space travel (with some theoretical liberties, of course), and so suddenly the film starts taking on aspects of one of my favorite novels, The Forever War. It's a concept that was also very nicely explored in Voices of a Distant Star. The character and world situations are also very similar to those from Ender's Game. Irrespective of my comparisons, Gunbuster is a sum greater than its parts and an outstanding science fiction drama.
The thing that really makes this series shine is the character development and the viewer's personal involvement with those characters. The protagonist, Noriko, goes through real growth and transformation that is necessary, difficult, and also tragic. This series doesn't pull any punches. The situation and plot may be overwhelming for some, despite this series being approachable by both children and adults. In fact, I think this is one of those stories that can really be appreciated as a child, yet have even greater worth when you come back to it as an adult.
I also think that the seiyuu for Noriko, Noriko Hidaka (they share the same given name), did an outstanding job. I really felt like her character came across in a lot of ways through the voice work. Amano and Jung also have great voice actors behind them, although it was really Noriko that stood out to me. I didn't much like how Coach, voiced by Norio Wakamoto, sounded though.
One interesting thing of note is that each DVD has a short sequence available in 5.1 audio in the extras section. The sequence actually belongs in the plot of one of the episodes on the DVD, but is not part of the actual episode. So it's a little strange, watching something that provides a little more meat to the series but only after you've already gotten past that part of the story.
May 11, 2007
Nightmares & Fairy Tales: 1140 Rue Royale
Serena Valentino's final chapter in the Nightmares & Fairy Tales comic series, and a significant departure from the earlier issues as well. The previous chapters focused on sort of gothic adaptations of fairy tales and similar types of stories. The thread tying those stories together was the doll Annabelle, who is alive. 1140 Rue Royale is not that though, and instead loosely affiliated to the previous stories but primarily a single, focused drama providing revenge to the slaves of the real 1140 Rue Royale house in New Orleans.
While I found the previous chapters of Nightmares & Fairy Tales to be nice diversions and something like short bedtime reading, 1140 Rue Royale is more like a regular short story that can really pull you in. If you are unfamiliar with the real life events and stories about 1140 Rue Royale in real life, as I was, then the book's discovery process and mystery surrounding the house will be even more engrossing for you. If you're already familiar with the story, then this book provides a nice alternate ending to the legend, which you can add to your mental collection.
One thing I noticed right away upon opening this issue of Nightmares & Fairy Tales was the artwork. A new artist was signed on for this volume, and I like the style. It's not too detailed, but it's detailed enough to make it feel pregnant with mood. There is a great deal of line work involved to texture the people and places and give them that dark, gothic feeling. But it's not so overwhelming as to distract from the core focus of each panel. I did have some problems with the panel arrangement in the first few pages, because they did not clearly identify the visual flow. So I sort of guessed as to the correct chronological ordering.
May 10, 2007
My Beautiful Girl Mari
Mari Iyagi is a Korean film about a young boy who is going through a period of time where people are coming and going outside of his control. He finds a "sheep-girl" that becomes an alternate reality for him, allowing him to escape to a simple and beautiful world. While there is a lot to be said about the depth and emotional meaning carried by this anime's story, what I really enjoyed about it is its artisitic quality. To me, that was its most valuable aspect.
The film has a very interesting and unique artistic style to it. The environments are incredibly detailed, although not in terms of realism but rather in terms of existence. That's not exactly clear, but what I mean is so much effort was put into building out the landscapes and buildings and trees and grass, on a grand scale. As the characters move around, they are going into new places and each place has individual blades of grass and pieces of this or that all over the place. Things are not glossed over by painting large swathes of a single color.
Plus, it seems like everything was done in CG with a cel shader that I've not seen used anywhere else. Surfaces are actually flat, like you might see in a two-dimensional rendering done in a vector drawing program. (There's a subtle plug for Adobe in the opening sequence.) I really liked the look, and found it very pleasing to watch.
The art by itself is complimented by an exceptional score and foley work. You will want better quality audio gear to appreciate it, and surround sound. I could easily see people picking up soundtracks of this film because the individual tracks are excellent. I do think, though, that to fully appreciate the music you either need to be remembering the scenes associated with the music or watching the animation sequences while you listen.
May 7, 2007
Little Miss Sunshine
I watched Little Miss Sunshine because it was one of the most popular Sundance Film Festival choices last year. Both Dantam and Samir liked it a lot. In fact Dantam loves the characters and the story and the jokes and just about everything. But I wasn't that entertained by it. The acting and everything is top notch, and it's probably one of the best dark comedies every made, but that's just not my preference. I need a movie like this to be more amusing throughout the duration, which it wasn't. Amusement started to kick in when grandpa died, and then I laughed out loud during the beauty pageant ending. But otherwise I was just watching a dysfunctional family on a road trip.
If I were to give points, Little Miss Sunshine would win a lot for the acting. Everyone does a really great job. Olive, played by Abigail Breslin, feels like such a natural and real little girl, and not at all like a character or an actor. There are some really excellent scenes where you can see the body language coming across as if unconscious behavior. But the caliber of acting really carries over into all of the characters. The father and mother are played by Greg Kinnear and Toni Collette who are not moviestar characters but stressed-out and honest people. Alan Arkin plays an over-the-top grandpa who only has sex on the mind and speaks his mind quite loudly, which is a somewhat unrealistic character premise but one that really works and fits in with the family. Paul Dano plays the rebellious, gangly, sloppy, overall discontent teenager who feels stuck with his dysfunctional family. And he plays the part perfectly. Steve Carroll as the uncle kind of fits into the same odd place as the grandpa because of his mannerisms and personality, but in a strange yet insightful way it works out considering he tried to commit suicide at the beginning of the film.
It's possible I would have enjoyed the movie more if I could have watched it straight through without interruption. But Luna kept interrupting me to do things or ask me things or something. The upstairs computer crashed because she turned off the air conditioner even though I intentionally left it on, and she kept bugging me until I restarted it. At one point she even unplugged the projector which initiated a ground loop hum and instantly cut out the fan and bulb, possibly shortening the bulb life because it would have overheated a little at that point.
Magic: The Gathering Draft Tournament
I drove up to Stanford myself today to participate in a Magic: The Gathering draft tournament. Luna doesn't have any interest in playing, so I went by myself to an event organized by Karen's boyfriend, Sebastian. It was the first time I'd participated in a draft tournament, so I didn't really know what to do. Plus, the expansions we were drafting from were ones I was totally unfamiliar with. I ended up building a blue and white sliver deck which didn't do all that well. I won two out of six games, resulting in 2nd-to-last place.
Basically, in a draft tournament each participant opens a booster pack and selects a card before passing the remaining cards around the table. You then pick a card from the bunch you just received from your neighbor. And you continue this way until you've picked cards from the pack. You repeat this with two more booster packs, resulting in a total of 45 cards in your hand.
I was kind of operating under the assumption that I would need a fair amount of the picked cards to build my deck, so I ended up picking only blue and white, and only cards I felt would be compatible with each other the entire time. But in reality you should end up using only about 25 of your picked cards to build a 40-card deck. After I lost the first round (partially due to mana problems), Sebastian advised me to build a 40-card deck that included 17 lands. I did a little better once I did this.
I should have been more flexible in my drafting and picked cards from many different colors, independently of what I originally started drafting. Because I would have a decent chance of selecting 23 cards from a pair of colors that would be compatible with each other, and would have ended up with stronger cards. Instead, I didn't even incorporate any rares into my deck, and only had one viable strategy at the end. If I had not limited myself to blue and white as cards were passed around, I could have done better.
Plus, the new expansions are more complicated than the old cards. There are things like double-strike, and flanking, and other strange things like cards that can be used as either one or another card. The Time Spiral series also includes things like vanishing and suspend, or other time-based effects that result in cards appearing and disappearing from gameplay over time.
Anyway, there were eleven of us total, and the tournament took about five hours to complete, once you included organization overhead and then the final rare redrafting process at the end. This redrafing is done to prevent people from just taking rares during the draft process so they can keep them, regardless of whether or not they build a good deck.
May 6, 2007
Dual! Parallel Trouble Adventure
I found Dual! Parallel Trouble Adventure to be a sometimes entertaining 13-episode anime series (the 14th episode is sort of an extra) which seems to be a play on Evangelion, but done in a fun way. The character parallels are obvious, as is the connection between their endings. Anyway, I liked the first half of the series better than the second, because most of the funny stuff happens in the beginning. Things become more plot-oriented after that. From a technical standpoint, I don't think there's much to remark upon. It's sort of your average fare all around. I wasn't particularly impressed by anything, but there's nothing lacking either.
The basic plot is that due to a choice made in the past, two possible universes branched out. In one, things are pretty ordinary by realistic standards. In the other, alien technology has allowed for the creation of massive mecha. Two factions, led by researchers who used to work together, have control of this technology. One is attempting to take over the world while the other is trying to defend against global conquest. But this war is approached a little differently than you'd expect. I won't reveal that difference here, since it actually plays well to discover it while watching.
This is also one of those anime series where a bunch of girls end up all liking the same boy, who isn't doing anything to try and make them like him, and doesn't really know how to handle all the attention. In fact, because there are two parallel universes, it turns out the same girl likes him twice (counterparts from each universe). Conveniently there isn't a counterpart for himself, as then there would be two boys involved in the storyline which wouldn't work right.
Despite that angle, you won't find a lot of fan service in this series. It has more of a good-natured feeling to it. Unfortunately, the series is not particularly deep or revealing because of its mood. This might be perfect for some people, but I do like there to be a little more to things. Some things just aren't really answered fully, and the characters are pretty basic in their attitudes and actions. With the expected changes taking place at the expected times.
May 2, 2007
Shadow Hearts: Covenant
I just finished playing Shadow Hearts: Covenant, after about sixty hours of gameplay which is a little bit longer than I was expecting. But I ended up trying to find all of the best items and completing all of the sidequests, so the total time actually isn't that surprising. Covenant continues the story of Shadow Hearts, with Yuri continuing his role as protagonist. In fact, the storyline is very much a continuation, with characters and motivations from the first game carrying over into the second.
Overall, this sequel is an improvement in all aspects over the first game. Both technically and in terms of the story and gameplay. I'll start with the combat system, since that's probably where most of the time is spent. The introduction of combination chain attacks, different elemental physical and magical attack types, and useful auxiliary spells makes combat fun and strategically interesting. This is a much needed improvement over the combat system of the first game, where it was almost mechanical.
The judgement ring serves the same combat purpose in Covenant, but there are some customizations available depending on how you like to play. I preferred the "technical" setting, which makes hitting the correct areas a little harder and the punishment for missing a little more severe, but also allows for very nice combination attacks if you get good at it.
The graphics are also much improved. Character polygon counts are much higher and rendered and FMV scenes allow you to get right up to the characters and environments without things looking blocky. Motion capture, or careful animation work, is applied to all characters and monsters so that different movements are possible. This makes things look much better during predefined animation sequences, and also during combat since the different types of attacks can result in different enemy and character motions.
Another great thing about the graphics this time is that enemies don't always turn into crazy monsters or ghosts. Fighting a human actually involves fighting a human. Many monsters look more realistically physical, rather than spiritual manifestations, like snails or giant insects. Of course, demon possession and other magical or spiritual transformation still takes place, but in a much more accepting manner.
The music is also better overall, although I still found the music too repetitive in many cases. Especially for combat. I would have liked more variety in music as I travelled between different places and entered combat in different places. But the music seems to be limited by disc. So the music you encounter changes once you get to disc two, but then you're still restricted to the portion of the disc which was alloted for music.
A lot of the problems I mentioned in my earlier post for Shadow Hearts are resolved in Covenant. I didn't have to deal with not enough of a particular accessory, forcing me to keep swapping out accessories between characters. And the only time you ran into enemies that you really couldn't defeat without knowing ahead of time their special attacks or weaknesses was in special battles, where generally a loss would be okay and you could try again.
I did really like how the plot continues from the first game, and also continues the trend of not really having evil antagonists (for the most part) but instead simply people with different viewpoints about how they want to change the world. Although there are a few times when insanity or just plain evil surface, due to humans losing control or great tragedy befalling them, for the most part. Regardless, if you liked Shadow Hearts, you'll like Covenant a lot more.
I'm looking forward to the next one, Shadow Hearts: From the New World, but Luna says she wants to play that one. So I'll probably end up watching most of the time, so I don't miss out on the story. But because of how Covenant ended, it looks like FtNW won't have any direct connection.
April 29, 2007
I just finished watching the four-disc series Kamichu!, which is an anime about a junior high school girl who overnight becomes a god. She doesn't know what kind of god though (this is traditional Japanese gods, where there are gods for everything from soy beans to rice to wind and boats, see Shinto), and she has two close friends who end up leading her on fun godly antics. I liked the earlier episodes more than the later ones, because things were more exploratory and oriented around discovery in the beginning. Later on, it becomes more about learning life lessons and stuff like that.
There are a few things which I think really worth mentioning about this anime. First is the artwork. I really liked the art, and the character designs. In fact, some of the more detailed artist renderings are illustrations I'd be happy to pick up and frame. I've never heard of the artist before though. Unfortunately I can't find a reference to him or her right now. The backgrounds and environments are also very detailed. It does not at all feel like a simple or rush job, and everything's wonderful to watch.
The second thing I really liked was the music. Both the opening and closing songs, but in particular the closing song. It's sung by Mako of the Japanese pop group Bon-Bon Blanco, who plays the maracas in the group. The song itself isn't written by her or Bon-Bon Blanco though. The closing animation is particularly fun to watch because it has Yurie dancing with the maracas along with Matsuri on taiko drum and Mitsue on guitar, all to the tune of the song. Yurie is voiced by Mako, and this is a little tribute to that.
April 23, 2007
Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance
Boksuneun Naui Geot is another movie by the maker of Lady Vengeance and Oldboy. It's actually the first one of the three that was made. I don't think this film is as good as the others, and in fact the newest one, Lady Vengeance, is the best of the three in my opinion. However, if you like Chan-wook Park's films you'll probably appreciate this one.
All of his films are punctuated by a certain gruesome mentality which is certainly present here, as well as a sort of desperate and emotional motivation that drives each of the normal personalities towards cruel and vindictive extremes. Many more people are victims of that situation in this film than the others, though. Unfortunately, I found parts of this movie a little slow moving and therefore sometimes boring. The intensity was less focused and interrupted on occassion, which actually prompted me to playback at 2x right near the end.
April 19, 2007
Thank You For Smoking
I watched Thank You For Smoking, and tried to get Luna to watch it as well but it did not hold her interest. Before starting to watch this movie, I had some preconceptions about its subject matter. I knew it was a comedy, and figured it was a story that would poke fun at the cigarette industry and all of the things it does to try and increase its market share. But, it turned out to be a much more interesting discourse about the right to persuade, cajole, and argue either side of an argument and pokes fun at everyone involved.
I think the acting is very good in this film, and Aaron Eckhart does a great job as the protagonist whom you are sort of rooting for since he's just a normal guy and decent father, but at the same time represents an industry that the vast majority of people dislike. This presents a very interesting dichotomy which allows for a lot of fun conversation and character interaction, such as bragging rights about who is a target for murder or how many people a product is responsible for killing.
The central theme of the movie seems to be taking personal responsibility for personal decisions, with a "moral flexibility" which is not exactly admirable but is certainly relatable. But one thing many of the advocates of legalization of controlled substances for personal use do not address is the impact of such use on our society's overall health and the economic consequences. Unfortunately, that's not directly addressed in this movie either, but it certainly does argue that as a society we've decided to allow that burden to exist as the trade-off for personal vices.
Overall, I really enjoyed this film and would recommend anyone to see it. It's rated R for language and sexual content, but I think this is an R-rated films which parents should be willing to take their children to see.
April 15, 2007
The Grudge & The Grudge 2
Luna keeps putting scary movies onto her queue, so we watched The Grudge and then right afterwards The Grudge 2, both American remakes of the original Ju-On Japanese horror series. I'm easily scared by these kind of films because of my imagination, and these two movies are no exception.
The first film is more Japanese-like in how it approaches horror, and closely follows the original Ju-On. There is a mystery about why there is this woman killing people, which is gradually unravelled as the story progresses. Things are logical and realistic, other than the supernatural aspect (arguably), which heightens the suspense.
The second film is a little different. Although a little bit more about the characters pasts are revealed, the viewer already knows what's going on and to a fair extent why. The plot jumps around a little more than it should, so the seemingly simultaneous "hauntings" in Japan and Chicago are a little confusing until you piece together the puzzle. But overall this chapter is more about showing Kayoko in action a lot.
I think the creepiest part of the two movies is the audio mix. The dynamic range is very large for a movie, which means regardless of your listening volume the heart-pounding sequences are going to surprise and intensify. Plus, the surround channels are put to extremely good use, with seamless movement and precise location. Which is somewhat disturbing since you don't have eyes in the back of your head, and that's exactly how things are going to get you in the movie.
April 14, 2007
I stumbled across a series of shorts called HellHoles today. There are four episodes. Each is about four and half minutes long. I actually watched the fourth and final episode first, but it's entertaining enough that I ended up watching the first three as well. Despite being a web short, the production quality is very high and I think I recognize the actors. It's not really scary so much as interesting and amusing.
April 13, 2007
Genshiken: Cosplay Confessions
I finally got a chance to watch the final volume of Genshiken. I ordered the three disc set because I like the show so much (I've also been reading the manga) and even though I'd seen the first two discs already, I watched the three discs through again. The TV series follows the manga closely, which is good. I think both the manga and anime have their own good points and are very complimentary to each other, since the presentation formats are each used to their full potential.
There's some narration at the end of episode 11 that hints at the anime being cancelled prematurely. It was a 12-episode run, which is not the 13-episodes of a half-season, and far short of the normal 26-episode season. So the last episode ends when Sasahara becomes chairman of Genshiken and right before Ogiue shows up. Despite this, the anime ends well without feeling forced or incomplete.
It seems that a Genshiken OVA has started showing in Japan. I'm not entirely clear yet on if I will have to purchase the Kujibiki Unbalance OVA to get three Genshiken episodes, in a format flipped from the Genshiken series having three Kujiun episodes.
April 12, 2007
Luna rented another Japanese horror film, Mail, which also stars Chiaki Kuriyama. This time, the main character is a ghost hunter who recites some special mantra and then shoots ghosts who are tormenting the living. The show is a series of nine short episodes, some only a few minutes long while others are much longer depending on what needs to be revealed. Chiaki shows up as his sidekick after a couple of episodes.
Unfortunately, I think the split purpose is a weakness. Some of the episodes are just little ghost hunts that don't have anything to do with the main plotline. They're there to illustrate his job more than anything, and at least they show up in the beginning rather than continually splitting up the real story. But later on it really doesn't matter because the important episodes are the long ones at the end that reveal how he came to be in this situation.
The twist is a little predictable though, and the ending is supposed to be very emotional and smart, but it also happens to conflict with one of the earlier ghost hunting episodes. So having remembered that, suddenly the ending becomes a little disappointing. The story itself is decently written, but nothing great. Chiaki's performance is also okay, but not great. At least the special effects are consistent and the overal production quality isn't lacking.
April 11, 2007
I just finished watching Kizzu Ritan with Luna and although it's a critically acclaimed movie, which Luna likes a lot both for its content and its soundtrack, from a famous Japanese directory, I didn't like it much. At times, it held my interest because I wanted to know what was going to happen next, but most of the time I couldn't even tell what was happening to whom and how much time has elapsed between scenes.
In terms of flavor, this movie feels a lot like those 80's movies I remember of a somewhat stupid but good-looking guy in his mid-20's trying to accomplish something like become the best boxer or fighting champion. But it does actually have a lot more meaning and depth than any of those crappy movies. I think if I could actually figure out what was going on most of the time, I would have liked it better.
The problem is that although the movie succeeds at following a group of boys trying to find their place in life following high school graduation, I wasn't really sure what each of the boys was actually doing. I can tell you where they've ended up, but for example I don't think the shy boy with the doll ended up marrying the waitress Sachiko, even though it seems like it at one point. I also thought Masaru was killed, but then he wasn't, and I still don't know how he became a major Yakuza player. There's also some time spent on other supporting characters which I think resulted in some loss of focus.
Anyway, Luna thinks it's a good film, and a lot of people out there do too. I do like some of the music, and I think Luna likes it too because some tracks have a video game flavor to it.
April 9, 2007
RahXephon (TV series and The Motion Picture)
Some people recommend watching RahXephon: The Motion Picture as a cap to the TV series. I, however, recommend only the TV series if you choose to watch this work, and even then it's not all that amazing. The problem is that RahXephon is someone's attempt to remake Neon Genesis Evangelion in a manner that makes more sense. The RahXephon movie does a better job of that than the TV series, but it's also a chopped up that the plot doesn't make sense. And in both cases the depth and emotional meaning of Evangelion is lost.
It is a little disappointing to be watching something only to think very often "that's from Evangelion". It ruins the whole idea of watching something new. The angels are replaced by Mulians, and Unit 01 by the RahXephon. Ayato even goes through the same sequence of internal conflict and realization that Shinji does. Instead of some complex character dynamics, things are pretty standard fare with the protagonist having multiple love interests, so to speak, and predictable character development.
There are some pretty nice visuals, but the art quality is a little inconsistent. At times, I thought the artist had changed because of the difference in visual depth afforded to characters, and also line quality of character faces. The larger, more complicated sequences tended to look better than the simple conversations with characters in profile. The music is okay for the most part. I found the choral aspect of combat and "tuning" interesting at first, but then a little boring.
The movie makes things a little clearer because it starts out with some explanations of what's going on, rather than revealing them over time as the protagonist Kamina Ayato discovers them. And the ending narrates exactly what's going on rather quickly and concisely, whereas the TV series prolongs the explanation and forces the viewer to figure things out as they unfold. It should be noted that although the meaning remains the same between the TV series and movie, there are significant differences in the plot and the ending itself.
April 7, 2007
Multiple Personality Detective Psycho is a six-episode TV series that Luna wanted to watch because she really liked the manga. She likes this kind of genre a lot; where there's some sort of supernatural death going on and a detective. But MPD Psycho turned out to be really boring, slow, disconnected and strangely pointless, with really poor production quality. Even Luna admits that the television adaptation is boring and not something worth watching.
For starters, most of the time things really don't make any sense. Somehow, things are supposed to be connected and the multiple personality disorder of the detective is a big part of this. But each episode something new happens which doesn't have any logical connection to where things have gone so far, such as deciding to put flowers into the brains of random girls, but then deciding to set fire to a bunch of people. Throughout, there's one antagonist who has the ability to transfer between people, but even then the transfer protocol changes without explanation.
On top of that, the picture quality is bad with poor lighting. It looks a lot like someone filmed things on a consumer-grade camcorder and then used random special effects they found in some cheap video editing software. There were a number of times when it was blatantly obvious the rain was added in post-production even with such low picture quality. Later on they had real water, coming out of a sprinkler. And in the last episode, the fire special effects were just horrible since there wasn't any smoke and the things that were on fire weren't actually burning.
In the end, the motivations are revealed and the big questions are answered, although unlike a good detective story the viewer really has no way of piecing together the answers for themselves. In large part because none of the little questions can be answered since they don't make any sense at all. It's simply too random, illogical, and disconnected.
April 6, 2007
Luna and I watched Shinobi today. I'd saved it on my queue for a while now, because Tintin said it would be a good movie to see. I thought that while it doesn't have anything particularly special about it, the action sequences are very entertaining and the plot satisfying. Luna was disappoinnted though because she's seen the original and prefers that. A good way of describing Shinobi is as a ninja version of the classic Romeo and Juliet.
Visually, Shinobi is very rich and vibrant. Since it's a modern film, there are a lot of special effects that are well integrated, on a picture that is enjoyable to see. A lot of the movie takes place in various natural settings, such as in the forest, desert, or rocky areas. The audio production is also pretty good, with music and sound effects that accentuate the situation and action sequences.
Unfortunately, Shinobi lacks the depth of story that would really take this movie to the next level. I would watch Shinobi again as a fun movie, but it's not one that I would recommend as there are better choices that are also as visually satisfying and of the same caliber action.
April 4, 2007
Luna and I watched Shikoku, a Japanese horror film made in 1999 that features one of Luna's favorite actresses, Kuriyama Shiaki. The story takes place on the island of Shikoku and is about the island's name being "Four Lands" but the pronunciation the same as "Death Lands". I won't go into how the two are related because that would give away too much, but if you like those kinds of Japanese horror films you'll like Shikoku.
Despite being filmed in 1999, the picture looks a little outdated. As if it was made in the 80's. It does have something of a low-budget feel to it, and there certainly aren't any amazing special effects. Everything you see is realistic and contemporary, which heightens the level of tension.
It's also probably better to watch it in stereo, despite the DVD having a DTS 5.1 track, because the surround mixing was not done correctly. There are times when you think something should be in the background but it only comes out the mains, and other times when something comes out of the surrounds but actually occurs in front of you.
April 3, 2007
GloomCookie: The Final Curtain
Just finished reading the latest collection of GloomCookie: The Final Curtain. This volume collects issues 24-28 and also features a new artist, Vincent Batignole. Unfortunately, I wasn't as pleased with this latest set, partly because the story seemed a little thin, and also because the artwork was very flat.
In comparison to earlier GloomCookie issues, these have much less text and dialogue, and many pages consisting of mostly art panels. And while I feel Batignole's characters are very stylish and evocative, I also feel his style lacks depth or detail. There are a lot of solid colors and large blocks, rather than intricate detail or really gothic flavoring. Most everything is mono- or duo-tone. That's certainly his style, and one appreciated by many people, but I find it lacking in comparison to earlier artists.
This set features heavily on the characters of Moon Raven and sort of cleans up where things were left off with Sebastian. But it doesn't have as much development or revelation, or as deep a romantic and moody feeling, as the earlier volumes. I feel as if it's either a transitional volume or a somewhat weak closing just to get things tied up at the end of the series. It could have been a lot stronger, I think, if there was more drama or emotional risk involved.
Things are left unanswered regarding Damien and Chrys though, so I look forward to reading the next volume and seeing how the GloomCookies continue.
March 31, 2007
The Greatwinter Trilogy
I purchased the hardcover edition of Souls in the Great Machine, by Sean McMullen, back near its initial release. The promise of sequels was there, but I didn't get around to reading them until just now. The Greatwinter Triology is finished off with The Miocene Arrow and Eyes of the Calculor, but I felt both of these books lesser works than the first.
Souls in the Great Machine takes a very interesting premise about where things might end up if advances in electrical engineering were stunted by an artificial force, and how in such a situation the ownership of a calculator (i.e. calculor in Greatwinter) would be a force to reckon with. There is a lot of interesting character development and world development in this novel, as well as lots of ideas to play with. The book consists of two parts, where characters and ideas are developed in the first half, and the climax and revelations are revealed in the second. This is not a seminal work, but it's very enjoyable to read.
Unfortunately, The Miocene Arrow was not as interesting to me. Perhaps the biggest obstacle was how closely it resembled the manga Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. The miasma became the callscour. There are warring factions where combat is primarily conducted through airplanes (although I wonder just how much research McMullen put into aerial combat). The idea of female flyers is unique and romantic. There's even reference to the Dorok people.
There is also much less character development in this novel, and a much greater focus on play-by-play narration of combat. I can't really recall any interesting or new ideas, either. Regardless, after reading about half way through, I found myself wanting to find out what happens next.
Eyes of the Calculor brings things to a conclusion, and the lands of Australica and North America are brought together. (Mexhaven appears to be ignored, despite claims of a large population. And apparently no humans survived on any other large land areas, even though one would imagine the Call being less fatal over Asia.) It reads much like The Miocene Arrow, and also suffers from a lack of character development. The interplay between Martyne and Velesti is interesting for a time, but the radical change in character of Serjon was somewhat unbelievable and the complete dismissal of Bronlar was disappointing. The relationship between Samondel and Martyne pales in comparison to the one between Glasken and Lemorel in the first novel, or even the lesser one between Darien and Ilyire.
I also found it somewhat interesting that in all three novels, McMullen presents at one female character as insane. In Souls in the Great Machine, it was Lemorel. In The Miocene Arrow it was Bronlar. And in Eyes of the Calculor, there is Jemli. In all three cases, these women were normal and endearing characters to begin with. Only to suddenly become vindictive, petty, and cruel. I really don't know what to make of this particular aspect of McMullen's trilogy.
March 25, 2007
Luna and I just went through all nine seasons of The X-Files, and the movie. The X-Files is one of my favorite television series, so I grabbed all of the DVDs when they went on sale a while ago. Luna likes some of the episodes more than others. She finds the more action-oriented creature features or the comedy ones most to her liking. I like those, but its the conspiracy episodes I like best. One thing Luna didn't like when we started watching was the opening theme song, because she thought it was creepy. Later on, though, she didn't mind.
There were a couple of interesting things I noticed, watching through everything in one go. One example is the transition from fullscreen to widescreen, where some of the middle seasons actually stretch the picture on occasion to achieve widescreen aspect ratios. But the later seasons are really widescreen. I also found there was one season which overall seemed like a bad transfer. I think it was either the second or third seasons.
I also realized that the series really wasn't as good once Mulder left, and Agents Doggett and Reyes became the main characters. It also sounded a little weird hearing Scully take on the more imaginative character once Mulder wasn't there. Doggett became her foil as the skeptic, which was her previous role beside Mulder. The creature features became less creative and more of what you might expect on a typical horror film.
Another aspect that I initially found a little strange was watching episodes one after another. Most of the episodes are not continuations, and expect to take place in time with their airdates. In other words, there really is supposed to be a week of time between episodes, or even an entire summer (two or three months). Skipping over that elapsed time is a little strange.
Now we just need to wait until December 22, 2012.
March 11, 2007
Bridge and Settlers of Catan
Karen and Sebastian came over yesterday night. Luna spent most of the afternoon preparing food for our dinner. She made beef curry, mapo tofu, some cooked vegetables, some sort of soy sauce flavored chicken, and a fifth dish I can't remember now. This was the first time Sebastian's been here, so he spent some time looking at the bookshelves and turtles and playing with the cats. I think Karen sort of played with the cats vicariously at first, but then later on she played with Niea with Luna's rope. Her allergies didn't act up because I'd vacuumed a lot that day.
After dinner we played bridge for a few hours. I was partnered with Sebastian this time, so it was boys against girls. We didn't play perfectly; Luna didn't bid something she should have when she probably had ten of the clubs and both Sebastian and I bid wrong once. But in the end Sebastian and I beat them by a hundred or so points. It was a pretty long game.
There was some time left after bridge before Sebastian and Karen wanted to go home, so we played a game of Settlers of Catan. Luna dropped out after a while because she was too tired (although after she napped for a short time she was awake again). Near the end of the game Sebastian and Karen were vying for first place, trading the Longest Road points and attempting to build as quickly as possible since they were both getting most of the resources. But I built slowly, with three cities cut off from expansion and each other, and with very few resources. And on my final turn I grabbed Largest Army and revealed two victory point development cards, allowing me to leap from six to ten points as a surprise to both Karen and Sebastian.
March 8, 2007
iiO - Poetica
Anyone who's into the dance scene is sure to know of iiO's amazing single, Rapture. The duo recently released an album titled Poetica, which contains more dance numbers of the same high caliber featuring Nadia Ali's distinctive voice. It also contains a few tracks which have different sound to them. Maybe less dance and more melodic or down tempo. Not as catchy but still very good and worthy of appreciation. Overall, I find the entire album very enjoyable.
Sinéad O'Connor - So Far...The Best of Sinéad O'Connor
So, this album, So Far...The Best of Sinéad O'Connor, collects the best singles of Sinéad O'Connor's career up until 1997. While I've always felt somewhat drawn to her, and vividly recall seeing her tear the Pope's photo on Saturday Night Live, I never really paid attention to her music before. And I found myself not really noticing this album while listening to it. Perhaps it was just because I wasn't entirely focused upon it, but more so I think it's that her songs aren't catchy or unique or rhythmic. Instead, it's the lyrics that really matter and that requires careful attention.
I suspect I'll have to listen to this album and the songs several times. I will have to listen carefully to the lyrics and exactly what she is trying to say. Her songs are very contemporary and fueled by her feelings and opinions on current events and the human condition. So maybe I won't have the background or context that is required to fully appreciate her music. Regardless, I don't think I'll be able to appreciate her music without putting some more effort into it.
March 3, 2007
Tonight's movie night featured Half Nelson, a Sundance film selection that Tintin brought. Ken came with her, and Wendy and Brian showed up and brought along two new people: Ling and Matt. Thomas and Julie also showed up. Half Nelson was okay, in my opinion, although it has gotten excellent reviews from critics. It's a very intelligent and interesting character study, but not very entertaining or thought provoking in my opinion. The acting is certainly very good, and the plot and environment are both believable and well developed. I think the film has a firm basis in reality.
February 18, 2007
I just finished playing Shadow Hearts, a gothic RPG set in 1913 shortly before World War I. It features some traditional RPG concepts like elemental magic and standard dungeon exploration and combat. The biggest differences are in the mood which is more spiritual and religious while set in realistic environments and the use of a "judgement ring" as your key to successful action both in and out of combat. It's also a little shorter at about 30 hours, in part because it eschews world travel in favor of moving directly between individual locations.
The storyline and environments are interesting and fully realized. Since you move between locations without having to manually traverse the distance, and the locations can only be seen from one angle, they are fully rendered with detail and care. Over time, you'll come to understand the motives of both your archnemesis and the protagonists in a very natural and fluid manner. And at the end, when everything is revealed, those motives are ones you can sympathesize with.
The judgement ring deserves special attention since so much of what you do involves it. It's most often used during combat to successfully execute the action you chose from the battle menu. As a spinner turns, you have to time your button press as it passes through certain areas. Depending on how well you an time things, you may or may not succeed at performing your selected action, and you may be able to perform the action with a bonus like extra damage or stronger magic.
The ring is also used at various parts outside of combat to open doors and win items. This secondary use is somewhat pointless as there isn't any real penalty for failure since you're always close to a save point and in most cases you don't lose anything—you just have to try again.
Unfortunately, the judgement ring is probably the only thing that keeps combat from becoming a boring button pressing session. Since you have to constantly focus and concentrate on timing, the ring keeps your attention. Otherwise both you and the enemy will end up performing the same actions over and over again. There is little need for variety in attacks since your choices are so limited (there are not a lot of spells or special skills to choose from). That's not to say combat doesn't require some strategy and thought. It's turn-based and the enemies are strong enough that you'll have to pay attention to healing and status abnormalities.
Also, some of the bosses are difficult because they have unique attacks often with status effects and there is no way to plan ahead for protection against those effects. You'll only find out the best form of preparation after you've entered battle, and by then it's too late to change your equipment or characters. Since you are limited in what accessories you can equip, I often found myself in trouble for not having the right things equipped, and there aren't enough of the rarer items to keep them equipped on characters all the time. Eventually I was removing all accessories before swapping a character out.
Graphically, the monsters and characters aren't all that great. The polygon count seems low, although perhaps not for the time, and the movements a little jerky. Plus, all the monsters look very strange. They're often some form of deformed ghost or spirit, and even normal enemies that you would expect to be human become some sort of monster during combat to reflect strange occult experiments that were performed on them or their mental state.
I did like the music. It fit the mood and environments very well, although they are not the best compositions.
February 17, 2007
Le Portrait de Petite Cossette
Luna got me the two volume manga Le Portrait de Petite Cossette for my birthday. She really liked the anime, and I think the story is a little interesting and well done for such a short work, but it suffers from some technical problems. The first volume introduces Cossette and Eiri and sets everything up. Cossette was murdered and is cursed to linger for eternity due to the hatred of her worldly possessions. She needs Eiri to gather her possessions together and free her soul. But the second volume introduces an unexpected twist that suddenly paints the whole situation in a different light.
I like the gothic artwork, mood, and emotional aspects, but it can be extremely hard to keep track of what's going on. Sometimes there are two dialogues going on at the same time across several panels which makes it a little harder to follow what's going on unless you want to read through it twice. And panels often don't flow together correctly, with changes in angle or movement that takes effort to decipher. There's no indication of scene changes or gaps in time, so you may not realize that the location or time has changed until later on when more context is revealed.
February 15, 2007
I finally finished watching the four-disc set of Galaxy Angel. It took so long to finish because I started watching Battlestar Galactica with Luna. Not really a problem since I thought the series was okay but not great. Each standalone episode is short and contains what might be considered typical bishoujo comedy but I don't find those recycled antics that amusing.
February 14, 2007
.hack//AI Buster is a novel originally written in Japanese and translated to English. The storyline takes place in the .hack world, which is a MMORPG taken to technological extremes. While the book is decent, it's real target audience is much younger. I'd say around ten-years-old. The writing style, manner of basic and obvious explanation, and straightforward narrative match that audience. Even the print is large and well spaced to be less overwhelming.
The author seems to have a decent understanding of how things could work from a technological point of view, but the mythology of .hack is very simplistic and betrays the non-technical background of its creators. The claims and ideas that the .hack world is based upon are homogenous and idealistic without much basis in reality. Still, the central arc of the story is interesting if cliché. Although I'm sure it would come across as very exciting and new to someone without a technical background and of a younger age.
February 11, 2007
Breakfast of Champions
Calvin got me the book Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut for Christmas a while back, but I'd placed it on the bedroom closet shelf and forgotten about it until I came across it the other day. So I decided to read it as I'd gone through just about everything else and had nothing new to read. Unfortunately, it reads like vintage Vonnegut and I've never liked his style. He's got a lot to say, and there's humor for those who can appreciate the style, but it's not for me. It's a satirical work of fiction that hits home in a lot of ways but for myself I'd rather read something else.
I had my 27th birthday party today. Luna and I cooked Italian food, including spaghetti and meatballs, some fried salmon, and a tomato-based chicken dish. We had bread and cheese, some green grapes, and ice cream cake for dessert. Alla showed up, of course, as did Ellen, Tintin, and Samir and Jamie. Dantam couldn't make it because she was caring for one of her friends who was sick. A lot of people arrived late, and then Ellen left early because she had plans to go dancing in San Francisco, and Samir and Jamie left around the same time as her.
Alla, Ellen, and Dantam pitched in to get me a Logitech Harmony 550 remote control for the upstairs system. Samir and Jamie got me Xenosaga: Episode III, and Tintin got me an interesting little postcard for Neon Genesis Evangelion. Luna got me the two volume manga of Le Portrait de Petit Cossette and a copy of .hack//AI buster.
Since Alla and Tintin stayed around, we played a game of Puerto Rico. It moved a lot faster this time since we knew what we were doing, and we also discovered that some of the things we'd done the first time were incorrect. This time Luna won. For a short period of time in the middle Tintin and Alla weren't paying much attention because they started talking about French movies and the language.
February 10, 2007
BT - This Binary Universe
I've always liked BT's music, and recently picked up his This Binary Universe DVD/CD combination album. The DVD features music in DTS 5.1 audio format, which adds a new dimension to the composition since it was designed that way to begin with. I found the surround version more immersive and engaging than the stereo version, no doubt because BT had that format in mind to begin with. This album is a little different though, because it's less of an ambient or trance work. Instead, it has more in common with classical, jazz, or an opus with electronic flavors. Some, including myself, may find this less appealing than his earlier works.
February 1, 2007
Battlestar Galactica Season 2.0 + 2.5
Whereas season one of Battlestar Galactica dealt primarily with survival and escape, I think season two deals more with the politics and economics of the new fleet civilization. Now that they've managed to escape the constant fear of Cylon attack, things turn inward. Episodes in season two deal with the political landscape, economics and morals in a time of war, and internal military conflict. This season also goes in depth into the Cylon civilization, way of thinking, and also culture (to some extent). I think the most interesting issue dealt with here is also the idea of Cylons as individuals instead of a collective.
In terms of production quality, season two is of the same high caliber as the previous season. Unfortunately, I ended up originally purchasing on season two point five because I assumed it was sort of like season two with some extras, notably the extended version of the Pegasus episode. But in fact the full second season must be purchased in two disc-sets. Which is both pricy and annoying. Because we finished season one, and didn't have season two, we ended up buying it from the store for about $10 more than if we'd ordered it online.
January 29, 2007
Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater
I've finished playing Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater. It's very similar to the style and pacing of Metal Gear Solid 2 but the approach is a little different. There's a greater emphasis on camoflauge, which made it easier for me to hide in this game, and also on using things to fix yourself up in the field. I was a little confused at the beginning because I didn't realize this game chronicles the first mission of Snake, but not of Solid Snake.
I found the storyline of Metal Gear Solid 3 to be less thought-provoking than the previous ones. It was only at the end that reasons and motivations were revealed, and those revelations weren't that interesting. Just somewhat basic and expected. There is, however, an ongoing dialogue regarding the idea of allies and enemies as they change over time with the political landscape. Perhaps an interesting new thought to some, but not to me. I do think it is a little sad how the notion of a soldier in this game results in so much sacrifice, even though it's a noble idea.
January 24, 2007
Battlestar Galactica: Season One
I've been saving Battlestar Galactica to watch with Luna. It's a really good space drama, and we just finished going through season one. Most of season one focuses on recovery of the fleet after fleeing the Cylon attack. Each episode tends to deal with a particular aspect or issue that is likely to arise in the sort of situation they're in, such as dealing with the Cylon spies, finding resources, and the revelations of new information about different people. The episodes maintain the primary plot arc while developing the characters and exploring the issues of survival.
The production values of the series are extremely high. The sound, picture, story, and acting are all top-notch. Episodes, although individually dealing with something new and separate each time, flow together very well and keep the viewer engaged and thinking. I also think every episode challenges the actors and the production crew.
Perhaps the only disappointing aspect of the television series proper is the slower pace. Whereas the miniseries was one epic and fast moving storyline, like a really well developed and deep movie, the television series does feel more like a television series that is not as tight and drawn out simply because each episode is written after the previous, rather than all at once as a single longer unit.
January 22, 2007
Magic: The Gathering and Bridge
Luna and I just got back from visiting Karen and Sebastian. We went up and first played a little Bridge. Karen had to re-teach me and teach Luna how to play. I think Luna and I did okay, especially considering that Karen is really into it. She didn't really know what to do when I started playing a little irrationally, but that made things more interesting. After playing a while we got hungry and went to a Thai restaurant to eat. The food was pretty good. We talked about random things like Sebastian's research and television shows, then went back to their place to play cards a little longer.
I also played a few games of Magic: The Gathering with Sebastian. He's still really into the game, and recently went to a tournament. While we played that, Karen and Luna played a different card game but I'm not sure what. Sebastian has some newer cards and dealt more with direct damage or disabling effects which posed a major problem for my creature-based decks. There are some very interesting cards available now, which unfortunately can really alter the balance of gameplay in my opinion if you're not up-to-date.
January 21, 2007
Luna's been a little homesick lately, and she really wanted to have some Chinese television programming to watch. So we looked around at some satellite dish services and found a package and channel she wanted from Dish Network. We ordered only the Chinese package, and the installer showed up today to get everything set up. He was quiet but did a good job and wore booties over his shoes while inside the house. It took a while to get the dish pointed correctly, with me inside reporting on the signal test results.
Installation required drilling a hole through the exterior wall and running a coax cable. So, the satellite dish is really only available from one location right now: the bedroom. Moving the TV would require running coax through the floor or walls or something, and I'm not going to do that anytime soon.
Another issue is the set-top box itself. It's a Dish 381 unit, and it's hot even when turned off. No components can be placed on top of it, even with some breathing room. I had the Playstation 2 on top of it for a short time and that caused it to shut down while I was playing a game, even though the Dish 381 was off.
The Chinese picture and audio quality isn't that great. You can see compression artifiacts, and most of the time the picture looks worse than local channels. But it's real Chinese television so Luna is happy.
January 19, 2007
I got Alla the board game Puerto Rico for Christmas. It's an economic building game where players compete against each other to produce goods and build the colony. This was our first time playing. Alla also invited Christian, Marcus, Duncan, and Marie. Luna and I were on a team, as were Alla and Marie although Marie didn't really pay attention. The rules are a little complicated so we spent a lot of the initial time reading each rule as the game progressed.
Once we got the hang of things, the game is actually pretty fun. I still don't like it as much as some other games because although you are competing against each other, you don't directly interact with each other as much. The way things progress is a little strange at first, but then makes sense. And the way you pick roles ends up introducing some strategy which is more subtle than one might first think.
January 18, 2007
We had a fair number of people over yesterday as a sort of "meet-Luna" movie night. Dantam showed up, but Alla couldn't make it (we stopped by to see her before though), as well as the Wendy-gang: Wendy, Brian, Thomas, Anh, and Kristina. Samir also showed up for the first time in a long time, but Jamie couldn't make it because she was up in San Francisco. Tintin and one of her coworkers, Ken, also showed up.
We had pizza for dinner, and spent some time talking about random things. Dantam wore a pair of Luna's Keroro-Gunso slippers (I think Dororo).
When it came time to pick a movie, no one was sure what to watch and we ended up watching XX/XY, which Anh brought from his Blockbuster subscription. Luna didn't understand a lot of it other than the main character, Coles, was basically having sex with everyone else. The beginning was strange in an artsy way, but then basically it got a little boring. It's supposed to be a look into relationships and a man who really doesn't know what he wants or what he's doing, but it just wasn't very fun to watch. The only person who seemed to like it was Ken. And we'd never met him before. :p
January 15, 2007
Calvin gave me a copy of Octavia E. Butler's Blood Child (the collection of short stories and essays) for my birthday. I think she is an excellent writer, which means my opinion pretty much matches everyone else, and I enjoy reading her work although I'll admit they're a little different from the science fiction I prefer to read. Blood Child contains a few really interesting and poignant short stories, and a couple of essays. Everything is pretty engaging, although I didn't care for the essays so much.
January 12, 2007
GitS:SAC 2nd Gig Soundtrack
The 2nd gig of Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex is also scored by Yoko Kanno. As I mentioned before, the soundtrack is even better in this season, and very enjoyable. That said, there are some differences between this season and the first. I found the second season's soundtrack to be more experimental. Somewhat mixing rock, classical, jazz, and electronic influences together in an interesting way that is sometimes very pleasing but also sometimes a little grating. I'm sure other people would have different opinions about each track, but my personal tastes made me like some songs much more than others.
Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex 2nd Gig
I just finished watching the 2nd gig of Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. I think the second season takes what they accomplished in the first season and improves upon it in all ways. The artwork and CG is better than before; it's more refined than in the first season. Yoko Kanno takes the music and soundtrack even farther, and I really like how every episode has its own audio production instead of recycling the music. Perhaps the best part of 2nd gig is how there is more character involvement. Motoko's past and emotions play a larger role this time.
The ending is a little sad, but very well done. Unfortunately Motoko and Section 9 are not able to prevent the last assassination, because they learn about it too late. Although I'm not entirely sure exactly what motivated the last part, as there are two characters involved whom I did not recognize although it seems they should have appeared earlier. I particularly appreciated the last scene which plays homage to the original manga.
January 8, 2007
Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King
I just completed Dragon Quest VIII. It took me about 75 hours, which is not as long as I thought it would since Bryant told me it took him 110 hours because he kept dying a lot. The game is very good, although I found myself spending a lot of time in combat. The battles are not too boring or repetitive, so that's not necessarily a bad thing. The character design is by Akira Toriyama, who is famous for his particular drawing style. There are several great things about this game, with a few minor issues that don't really detract from the overall experience.
The arching storyline is long, well developed, and interesting. Things start out fairly simple, and get more complicated and involved as little things are revealed and discovered along the way. It really helps that there are some well developed supporting characters, as well as very well developed main characters, who give the story more feeling. The voice acting, of which there is a fair amount, really helps flesh out all of the people involved.
Although I did like the character design, after it grew on me, it is slightly annoying that so many of the people you meet look the same. Maybe several dozen character designs were made for the people you will meet casually, which means you're going to see the same person over and over again in many places. The monster design is very interesting though, because lots of animations were developed for each monster.
There is a flaw in the combat system though. Dragon Quest VIII takes the approach where you have to choose the actions for all party members at the beginning of each turn, thus requiring you to make some strategic decisions to maximize the effectiveness of each turn. However, if you change your settings so that Jessica, Yangus, and Angelo make their own decisions, you'll actually get a better result. This is because in this mode, each of them makes a decision on what to do right before they do it, rather than at the beginning of the turn. So they can make much more informed decisions that are appropriate for the moment. They also seem to have more information about the current status of each enemy's remaining hit points and their weaknesses. So you can become a much more effective in combat if you don't take control.
I liked the music, from an orchestral point of view, although I don't think there's anything particularly special about it. I wouldn't be interested in the soundtrack, or really be able to tell you about any specific songs. The same music was used in many places many times, which is not unexpected, but it also reinforced the problem of repetition that you saw with the characters.
Another minor issue I had was with the controls. Two buttons act as confirm depending on the situation. So sometimes I found myself trying to open the menu but instead performing an action. You get used to it, but every once in a while it still gets you.
The alchemy system is a little interesting, but not that exciting. Many of the better items can be made using alchemy, but you're best off just getting a list of recipes and continuously shoving stuff in your alchemy pot. If you try to put stuff together that doesn't create anything, you find out right away, so there's not a whole lot of point in experimenting. Sometimes you do create something worse, but most recipes don't end up that way.
I really liked the ending. It's actually an interactive ending, so while the ending moves forward you can walk around and explore and talk to people, and also make some more of the yes/no decisions that pop up throughout the game. I don't actually think the yes/no decisions, during the game or during the ending, affect the ending or the storyline though. Mostly you can just use them to change the response you get for that particular question. I think it would be great if more games adopted interactive endings.
January 7, 2007
Galaxy Angel Z
Galaxy Angel Z happens to be the second season of the Galaxy Angel series, but I ended up watching it first by mistake. Each episode is approximately 15 minutes long and both designed and suitable for younger children. The jokes are blatant, episodes are stand-alone, pacing is fast, and the plot is simple. I'm sure many adults will still find the show funny to watch, but I wasn't interested most of the time. A few moments of amusement, but that's about it. I did enjoy the opening and ending songs though.
January 4, 2007
Material Girls is another movie that Alla put on her queue. It's a movie I would consider targeted at pre-teen and early teen girls, because it stars Hilary Duff and also her sister Haylie. The plot's pretty simple and predictable, so nothing special there, and the acting is pretty bad. The only good actors involved are Brent Spiner and Angelica Houston, but their characters are so simple they could have played the parts in their sleep. There were a few little in-jokes which you might appreciate, but overall nothing worth watching.
January 3, 2007
Alla put Hostage on her queue, but hasn't taken it home yet. The story is extremely cliché: police negotiator makes a mistake, causing him to be full of guilt, and have a messed up family as a result. Then ends up being in a situation that brings back memories of that mistake, and he has to deal with it and overcome the guilt to save the day. Overall, the acting is not so great, and the plot convenient and exaggerated and unimportant. Perhaps the worst thing is that the ending is incomplete. The real reasons behind what's been going on are barely revealed, and after what happens at the end, you expect that things are not going to be okay. But instead, they are okay. Which doesn't make a whole lot of sense.
January 1, 2007
War of the Worlds
I put War of the Worlds on my queue mainly because it's a movie that has caused many a subwoofer to bottom out. And I wanted to put my new subwoofers to the test. If I'd done everything right, I'd be able to listen to this movie at reference levels and my subwoofers should not bottom out and instead capture the earth-shaking intent of the sound mix. I was very pleased to discover that my subwoofers were up to the task.
There are many sequences in the film where the characters are experiencing what are essentially mini-earthquakes. I played the movie at perhaps -5dB from reference, not entirely sure, but those times the subwoofers really did recreate the earthquake experience in my primary listening position. It felt like an actual earthquake, although not as high on the richter scale as if I was actually in the movie (which would be bad, if my house collapsed), still something that would have been recorded and felt by seismologists.
Anyway, with regards to the movie, it was a decent action movie but there isn't much of a plot or anything really going on except for mass hysteria and a general fleeing from the aliens by the public. The acting is okay, but it's not like any of them have to do much except be really scared and run away a lot. Nothing else happens, since all of humanity's efforts are in vain, and the audience is not involved with any plans to fight back.
But it's an excellent movie for exercising your subwoofers, as long as they can handle it instead of breaking.
December 31, 2006
Koi Kaze was not what I expected. Based on the cover art I was thinking it was a shoujo anime, but it's actually very complicated and serious. And the topic it deals with is not one that most people will find themselves comfortable with. In Koi Kaze, a 27-year-old man, Koshiro, and a 15-year-old girl, Nanoka, end up meeting each other, and by circumstance going on something of a date at an amusement park. Mostly because they didn't have anything better to do. They end up finding themselves somewhat attracted to each other, but then learn that they are in fact brother and sister who have not seen each other since their parents' divorce.
Koshiro finds himself attracted to Nanoka despite his best efforts to fight it, and so acts in a very gruff and arrogant manner towards her. But it's clear he really cares about her and is actually very protective and treats her somewhat badly because he doesn't know of any other way to deal with it. Nanoka, on the other hand, finds herself with growing feelings towards Koshiro even though she has some suitors at school.
Eventually, Koshiro and Nanoka need to figure out how they are going to deal with their mutual attraction and love for each other, despite the cultural taboo against incest and also their significant age difference. In many ways, all of the same feelings and social pressures they are subject to can be seen in what homosexuals have to deal with, in certain cultures and communities.
These ideas create a gut reaction of disgust or perversion in many people, even though there is not necessarily a real reason for it. If you mention incest, or an age difference like that, the majority of people will immediately come to certain conclusions about the two people involved. But this is more of a learned behavior and prejudice than anything else. Being able to overcome that is a very difficult thing to do. Koshiro remarks on this when he asks who else but he and Nanoka has the right to decide if this will make their lives miserable.
I found the artwork of the series very interesting. It's drawn in a style almost like watercolor or crayon, that has a sort of nostalgic feel to it. I think this is the first time I've seen that art style, but I don't watch a lot of shoujo anime.
December 30, 2006
Dark City Movie Night
I had a bunch of new people show up to tonight's movie night, since Wendy and Brian have too many friends and so always have more people to bring. Although all of their friends do happen to be Asian. Anyway, Alla also showed up, and so did Thomas. New people Anh, Kristina, Roger, and Naomi showed up as well. Alla didn't stay for the movie though. This was the first movie night I've held with the new subwoofers, and I played back the Irene scene from Black Hawk Down as a demo. I'm not sure they felt as much as they could, because everyone was sitting in the second row during the demo.
We ended up watching Dark City, in large part because Kristina thinks Keifer Sutherland is really attractive from his role in 24. He plays a completely different kind of character in Dark City though, so I don't know if that worked out for her. Naomi actually only showed up shortly before the movie started, and left right after.
Most people left after the movie, but Wendy, Brian, and Thomas stayed longer. We decided to watch another movie, and Wendy picked The Avengers. She found it amusing in the beginning, but both she and Brian fell asleep pretty early into the movie, since it was so late. I was pretty tired too, but I stayed up to watch the whole thing.
December 29, 2006
24: Season 5
The fifth season of 24 was exceptionally good. I was very pleased to see the writers were able to take things to the next level, rather that simply trying to pile on more terrorist threats. I also felt this season held a much more balanced view of politics than season four, while still trying to make the viewers think about things for themselves. I think it was a good choice to include a more international flavor as well. The drama and tension of the series remained high throughout, and it was unfortunate that a number of good characters were killed off.
The acting I was most impressed by was that of President Charles Logan. I can't believe that was just acting. It really feels like his personality and behavior. He has facial tics, body language that matches up with his thoughts, emotions, and personality very well, and a character that really captures a lot of ideas and complexity seemingly without effort.
There is still a little in-show advertising going on though, which I don't really like because of how blatant it can be, and thus revealing of the artificial nature of the show. Both Sprint (I think, I didn't notice the phone brand much) and Cisco got way too much air-time, and the extensive use of texting was yucky and didn't make sense most of the time.
I also think 24 needs to get some real technical advisors, both for technology and other procedural things. But the thing that really got to me was inserting random technobabble whenever they want to make something sound complicated. Using the term "data mine" five times each episode does not make those people sound like they know what they're talking about. You'd think the writers feel you could data mine your grandma.
December 24, 2006
The Place Promised in Our Early Days
I didn't know it until watching through some of the seiyu interviews afterwards, but Kumo no Muko, Yakusoku no Basho was also created and directed by Makoto Shinkai who created by himself Hoshi no Koe. This followup work had full financial backing and a full production crew, and as a result could be much longer and fully realized. And like the predecessor, this work is also a masterpiece in all aspects.
Visually, the anime is stunning. CG and an extremely high level of perfection with the cel shading and animation, plus absolutely beautiful environments full of emotion make this film a joy to watch. The character designs are wonderful and full-bodied. The music is also amazing and was composed by Tenmon. There are some choice string pieces featuring violins (which play an important role in the film) and a piano, as well as a beautiful ending song, Kimi no Koe, performed by Ai Kawashima.
There are some parallels in the storylines of Kumo no Muko, Yakusoku no Basho and Hoshi no Koe. Both deal with a boy and girl who become separated from each other due to events outside their control, living with that separation over an extended period of time, and feelings of profound loss. There are several situations of separation and then reunion that play across the span of the story. They also both have interesting technological aspects that play an integral part in these emotions. But this film leaves the viewer with more hope for the future than Hoshi no Koe does.
One interesting twist to the setting is that post-WWII, Japan is split into the North and South by what appear to be Russia and the U.S.A. In a manner very much like Germany was. A sort of cold war exists between the two halves, which are separated by water instead of a man-made wall. And there is a constant threat of further war between the two sides.
Although I watched the film in Japanese with English subtitles, there are a number of English voice actors that were cast for the English ADR which I really like. I suspect the English dub is pretty good. There is actually a short period of English dialogue between to American military officials in the original Japanese, which sounds very wooden and strange.
Alla's Final Essays
I spent most of today over at Alla's place, going over her MBA application essays. Got there around 11:30am and left around 6:30pm. I'd say we probably spent about four or five hours with me reading and offering suggestions for improvement. But these should be her final drafts, pretty much. She's getting some feedback from Ellen and Tomer as well. She also hired a professional review service for $300, but wasn't entirely happy with the results. I think I've probably spent a couple dozen hours working with her on her essays over the past few months.
We also exchanged Christmas gifts. I knew what she was getting for me because she told me not to order "anything". She gave me season five of 24. I also gave her present to her, although I'd had it ready a while ago. She didn't want it before. I got her the board game Puerto Rico. She wasn't very surprised. But I haven't played a board game with her in a long time. This might be the last board game I get her, since it's hard to find really good games and you don't want too many since you won't play them that often.
December 23, 2006
Kakurenbo is a short film done entirely in CG but with cel shaders to look like traditional animation. It's a creepy story, the kind you'd consider campfire fare, about kids who play hide and seek in an old city but never return once they enter. The rendering, atmosphere (both visual and aural) are excellent and chilling. The story is a little short; I think a longer version could build more suspense and pull the viewer in deeper. But otherwise it's great.
December 22, 2006
Trigun is one of the most famous anime series, which originally aired in 1998. If you go to a convention, you'll definitely see a Vash or two. Easily recognizable and well known. I think the storyline, concept, and episodes are pretty good. Entertaining and meaninful at the same time. The only thing I didn't particularly like is the revelation of Vash's true nature and how things came to be on the desert planet. I feel like things would be more meaningful if that wasn't the case.
The real focus of the story is on what is the right thing to do. Unfortunately, it also asks and answers the extremely hard question of sacrifice or sin for the greater good. And while I think the message that Naito-sama is trying to convey is a good and important one, I don't know if I can agree with it. I feel like my opinions are closer to those of Wolfwood, rather than those of Vash. Because the truth is, all of the suffering could have been lessened if Vash had been willing to punish Knives to begin with. Even if the truth is that he has no right to do so. I do think it's more important to do the right thing than the thing that serves the greater good, but you also have to be able to do what's necessary to protect others. I believe that protecting others is the right thing even if it doesn't necessarily serve the greater good or requires you to do something which you really shouldn't.
That's why I thought the ending was a bit of a let-down. I really don't think things will necessarily get any better. But the whole point of the series is to make it clear that you have to try. And many times it won't make things better, but sometimes it does. And maybe that's the best you can do, and that's really the right thing to do.
December 20, 2006
Luna Was Approved
Luna's K-1 visa application was officially approved today. :D She had her interview at the U.S. Consulate in Guanghzou, which is about a day's train ride away from Shanghai. The interview was about ten minutes long, although she didn't get in to see the interviewer until maybe an hour and a half or two hours after her scheduled time. She was asked how we met, a few basic factual questions about me, and some simple things like that. Nothing tricky. She had to hand over all of the information about both of us for their records.
The only bad thing that happened was sometime before or during the interview she lost her Keroro wallet. Nothing important in it, only some cash. But Luna says that it's okay because the good thing balances out with the bad thing. And she can try to buy the wallet again from the store in Shanghai near her workplace. She thinks it might have been stolen when she wasn't paying attention, because Guangzhou is so crowded and busy, and people visiting the consulate might be convenient and good targets.
Anyway, she has to go to the Guangzhou post office on Friday to pick up the visa packet, along with her passport. I'm not really sure why the packet is sent to the Guangzhou post office to get picked up, and not just picked up at the consulate or actually mailed from the Guangzhou post office to the Shanghai post office or her home. It's probably a good idea for it to be kept very safe so the visa couldn't be intercepted and used by someone else. But still seems strange. So she's staying in Guangzhou until she can pick up the visa there.
Alias: Season 5
Season five marks the conclusion of Alias, one of my favorite television series. The viewership had been dropping off, and I think the supernatural turn taken in season four may have contributed to that. Regardless, I still think it's a great series in all seasons, full of intensity and drama and intrigue. And knowing that the show was coming to an end, they produced an unbelievably good conclusion, that really feels like an ending and not a cancellation.
Season five brings back more of the original cast which helped make the series great, like Sark and Will, with some cameos in flashbacks for characters like Francie and Marshall's wife. Everything comes to a head with Sydney's mom, Irina, finally revealing her endgame in a manner which really makes you wonder what her feels are for Sydney, both in this series and in everything that she did previously. Sloane's quest is resolved, and all the questions about Rambaldi are answered.
Some new characters are introduced, and I think Rachel does an excellent job acting, although sometimes the lines seemed a bit corny or convenient. Not just for her, but also for other characters like Will, a handful of times in different episodes. I also really liked Renée Rienne, and it was kind of interesting to see a few people from the first season of 24 show up, all together, and all for the bad guys.
December 19, 2006
Sealed Sonotube Subwoofers
In my quest for the ultimate subwoofer (restriction being no infinite baffle) flat to 5Hz, I purchased four 15" TC-2000 single voice coil drivers. After going through WinISD Pro and forums and gathering information and advice from many sources over a few months, these are the drivers I ended up with and the enclosure design would be to use sonotubes. I decided to use a sealed enclosure rather than a ported one because the port volume would be too great and a passive radiator would have too much group delay and somewhat extreme mass requirements for reaching 5Hz. I've put up photos of the construction process.
The sonotubes are approximately 4' in length, and 20" in diameter. Each endcap is three layers of 3/4" MDF, with two layers inside and one layer outside. Having three layers for the endcaps posted a problem because you cannot purchase binding posts long enough to go through that far. So what I did is run brass bolts in from the inside to meet with short binding posts run in from the outside. The end caps, dowels, and protective grille over the top driver brings the total height of each subwoofer to approximately 4.5'.
Most people cover their sonotubes with a black fabric "sock". I wanted something that would look a little nicer, so I covered mine with cherry veneer. Unfortunately, due to bumps in the outside of the tubes, there are some ridges in the veneer. And Alla and I had some issues with the glue, so there are some glue marks on the outside near one of the endcaps. We also had glue on our hands for a few days afterwards. So overall the finished look is not commercial quality when seen up close, but from a distance they look very nice.
The project as a whole took a few weekends to complete. A lot of time was spent waiting on the endcap paint to dry, and sand, and recoat. I purchased a high quality mask to protect myself while cutting the MDF, as MDF creates a very fine sawdust when it is cut, and contains carcinogens. It's really best to cut MDF outside in the open air, rather than in the garage. I wish I'd found and purchased a larger circle jig though, because my makeshift one was not perfectly accurate.
I am driving the finished subwoofers with a Behringer EP2500 subwoofer and giving it low-pass boost and equalization to mimic a Linkwitz-Transform using a Behringer DCX2496. You can accomplish the same thing with a cheaper unit, but the DCX2496 provides some additional flexibility. The cables were cut from a spool of Impact Acoustics 14/4 (four runs of 14awg in the sleeve) I won in a contest a while back. I'm doubling up the runs so the signal path is 14/2 each. Each channel of the EP2500 is driving two drivers in parallel, for a ~2Ω load.
Using a Behringer ECM8000 microphone with an M-Audio MobilePre, I calibrated and equalized the subwoofer response flat down to somewhere below 5Hz, possibly even 2Hz, because of room gain benefits. The subwoofer can be driven to reference levels without clipping.
At reference levels, it's a tiny bit noticeable. It's possible to increase the low-pass filter to boost those frequencies several more dB, in which case it really feels like there is a rotor passing over you. I'm not really sure what the dB level is supposed to be; 0dB implies 115dB to me, which I don't necessarily think I can reach at 5Hz, but at ~105dB it's already vibrating the entire house. The whole movie plays way loud at reference levels though, since it's all gunshots and explosions.
Regardless, at this point I feel like I've accomplished building the ultimate traditional subwoofer, and can reproduce all the infrasonics I might need. Now I just need to get much better speakers that have flatter overall response and can reproduce high frequencies well. :)
December 12, 2006
Luna tells me that Gungrave is considered by some to be too commercialized, but that she thinks it's really good. I also think it's pretty good, however I like the first half of the storyline much more than the second. Basically, it tells the story of two street punks who have been together since growing up in an orphanage and how they transition into the mafia. At a particular point in time, events drove them to decide upon what it means to have power and control and the purpose of such things. But their decisions are split, which leads into the second half of the series. But I think the second half is too action oriented and supernatural. I liked a lot more the first half which deals with the characters and ideas.
From a technical standpoint, the animation is very good. I particularly liked how well the artists were able to convey the aging of each character as they grow older. The story takes place over a few decades, and seeing characters faces as they age is probably a distinctive quality of this series. The music is also pretty good, but sometimes I felt it a little odd. Styles change depending on the mood and setting, in ways which seem appropriate for those changes, but which sometimes don't mix together in the right way, in my opinion.
There are some ideas, ideals, and questions posed in this series. I think that some of those are very well represented and presented. However I'm not sure if a viewer can just accept those at face value. Because, unfortunately, it seems like each character's beliefs are strict rules, rather than circumstantial. And ultimately, the things they were striving for may have been achieved more easily and in a better manner had they taken a different path in life. Given that, I can't say I'd agree with the choices most of them made. Although taking that other path may have been a very difficult thing to do.
December 11, 2006
Christmas Presents w/Shannon and Yvonne
Yesterday I went to visit Shannon and Yvonne having not seen them in a long time. I brought them their Christmas presents, but also had to show them how to order things online to order my own Christmas present. :p They both wanted to get me Kingdom Hearts 2 because they want to see it. Hopefully they know how to use a shopping cart and go through the checkout process now and can do it again in the future. During dinner we talked a little bit about things like the video game controversery and the different attitudes towards sex and violence seen in the United States and Europe.
Afterwards, we decided to go to rent some movies. Wasn't sure what to pick. It's hard to find good movies at the store because the selection is so small. Shannon wanted something funny. Yvonne kept picking weird movies like the black and white Robin Hood. We settled on Beetlejuice, The Princess Bride (again), and Back to the Future. Beetlejuice is too creepy for Shannon, so only Yvonne and I watched it. Yvonne got creeped out too though. They both really liked Back to the Future and we need to rent the sequels next time. Back to the Future gave Yvonne a chance to make fun of me for being old. XD I'm just going to have to get them a copy of The Princess Bride rather than keep renting it.
December 9, 2006
Blade Trinity is a movie I mostly got because I enjoy the series in general. While I think this film lives up to expectations in terms of action, I think the plot is a little weak because it relies a bit too much on cliché and style instead of substance. I also did not particularly like the attempt at mythology introduced both with the villian and the conclusion. It didn't fit with the previous mythology. And for some reason humans are able to compete with the vampires. That doesn't fit either. Anyway, as a pure action movie it's fine as long as you don't think too hard.
December 8, 2006
Ice Age: The Meltdown
Ice Age: The Meltdown is the sequel to the very entertaining and creative Ice Age. I really like the first one. It's funny, has great characters and character development, a somewhat simple but well executed story, and great visuals and audio. Unfortunately, I don't think the sequel lives up to the name.
The sequel seems short with a recycled storyline and a lot of filler. It's just not as exciting because the build-up isn't there, nor the character exploration. There are several Scrat shorts interspersed within the film, and they really have nothing to do with the storyline. Instead, they eat up time and distract by acting as frequent and hollow intermissions. I also felt a lot of the jokes fell a little flat.
I did really like the sloth music sequence, but I think it could have gone a little farther. It's similar to the dodo music sequence from the first movie, but slightly less amusing.
December 7, 2006
Chapterhouse: Dune is the last novel of the original Dune series by Frank Herbert. It tells the second half of the story started in Heretics of Dune and follows the first half in pacing, tone, and content. I find myself more engrossed in these later volumes even though they contain less food for thought and more traditional plot movement. Yet there remain some interesting mysteries with the Bene Gesserit, Bene Tleilax, and the Honored Matres. But at the same time, it almost feels like Herbert is less imaginative and leaves too many unanswered questions.
Perhaps the weakest part of this novel. At the end, I don't feel as though anything has actually been resolved. The landscape of power changes dramatically, but not in any way that is so dramatic or revelatory with regards to The Golden Path. It's as if things are just back to where they were before, and all of the opportunities for further exploring The Golden Path, human evolution, and changes in social order are lost or ignored.
It feels like Chapterhouse: Dune should transition into another story that answers the questions and examines the impact of the new Bene Gesserit order. But there isn't anything more to the story.
December 6, 2006
Shadow of the Colossus
Shadow of the Colossus is the prequel to the cult favorite Ico, but developed after Ico by the same team. It has much of the same mood and atmosphere, and control scheme that tastes familiar although is more advanced and refined. The graphics are improved, and the sound track was done by Kow Otani, whom I think is an excellent composer. The coolest thing about this game is how you take on the giant colossi.
That's something which I think would be extremely hard to accomplish. You have a person of normal height, and you have to defeat colossi of all shapes and sizes, both in the water, on land, and those that go through the skies. The behavior and AI of the colossi seems natural although limited in their actions. Each has a particular weak spot or specific sequence of events that allow you to defeat them. Identifying the correct sequence of actions to take, and how to approach each colossus, is the real puzzle and a wonderful puzzle.
The ending is excellent. I was left with a feeling of foreboding, having played Ico, and at times felt saddened with a sense of loss, then at times held hope. The music and scenery and how things transpire in the end made me wonder if I'd done everything I could, and also wondering if I'd done the right thing. But that's where the hope comes into play.
Shadow of the Colossus also provides additional challenges for those who want to play through again. Apparently there are special items and weapons you can acquire if you play through on hard mode or with the time challenge. Those don't interest me a whole lot because the basic attack strategies are already known to me and I also know what the ending will be.
December 4, 2006
Ellen's Indecisive Birthday
So this year I've christened Ellen's annual event as her "Indecisive Birthday". Because we spent like two hours just figuring out what to do after dinner. Alla and I got her a gift certificate to some dance studio she likes, but Alla wasn't able to make it to the party. We had dinner at an Italian restaurant named Fiorillo's. Nice atmosphere and food, but fancy-pricey. Huong and Marty were there, along with Rita and her boyfriend, Ryne, whom I'd never met before, and Karissa and Brian, plus the usual Ellen-birthday-regulars that I don't remember names of. The original plan was to go roller skating afterwards. But things got all weird after dinner.
So after dinner the group of us were going to Cal Skate Milpitas. I'd brought my rollerblades, and it was Huong and Marty, Ellen, Rita and Ryne, and I think and Justin and a Brian. But when we got there, a few of them got spooked by the atmosphere and some people they say, so we decided to go to the Dave & Buster's at the Great Mall.
D&B's seemed so much more like a Las Vegas casino than it did when I went to one with the IBM Extreme Blue team over in New York maybe four years ago. People were getting carded to get in, and if you didn't realize you were looking at arcade games, you'd think it was a casino floor. Anyway, once we got in, people weren't sure what to do and started thinking about going to a movie. Or to the miniature golf place also at the mall. Justin didn't even really want to see a movie.
Anyway, I gave up trying to figure out what we were going to do at some point during the discussion and we ended up going to see the movie Deja Vu. The movie was okay. It got some of the technical details right, and there are lots of interesting clues along the way. And I really liked how they approached the terrorism subject and that it was not overly focused upon as anything more than a crime. But parts of it were predictable and other parts were just scienfically convenient/irreconcilable.
November 30, 2006
Had a bunch of new people show up tonight to watch Cars, Pixar's newest feature film. Dantam came after not being here in a long time, and Julie showed up again. Kristen and her fiance (or husband) showed up also. As did Wendy and Reza. Unfortunately Brian had to work late and couldn't make it. Originally even more people were coming but there were a number of last minute cancellations. We ordered Round Table pizza this time, which turns out to be much more expensive pizza, although also more food and toppings. Kristen brought salad and wine.
Kristen is supposedly allergic to cats. She showed up and had forgotten to take her allergy pill, but wasn't so bad. A few sniffles maybe. I vacuumed a lot the day before so that probably helped. I didn't open the windows though because it's too cold these days. Reza and Kristen's fiance seemed to have some interest in car subwoofers. And Reza seems to know a lot about cars. He recognized a lot of the cars in the movie right away.
Cars is one of Pixar's best films yet. There are a lot of subtle and little jokes, that show an extreme attention to detail and overall fun. The credits were filled with lots of fun stuff too. And I especially liked the John Ratzenberger sequence. The story is excellent and while not the most original, the execution was superb.
I think the new technology featured in Cars is lighting and motion blur. Anyone familiar with 3D rendering knows that one of the reasons you need high frame rates is because there isn't any natural motion blur when you render a scene. It's a static image. So if you only show 24fps of a static image, the brain won't be able to fill in the missing frames and you'll see jerky motion. But in Cars, motion looked real. Absolutely necessary for something as fast paced as car racing.
The special deal with the lighting was in the reflection, gloss, and refraction. Cars have a very reflective surface, and many things both in nature and man-made have certain lighting behavior. Dealing with things like mirrors and bending of the light to match the material requires enormous computation time because each individual light ray needs to be traced as it bounces around the scene. But Pixar got it, and it's all over the place in this film. The car reflections look right, and so does the lighting from headlamps on the pavement and the ambient look of highway signs.
Although the sport of car racing doesn't interest me, I think Cars is an amazing movie and wonderful story.
November 25, 2006
Giant Robo: The Animation
Although highly recommended, and praised as an epic and powerful anime, Giant Robo: The Animation couldn't hold my attention very well. I felt like things were sometimes too silly for its serious tone (seeing the army of Dr. Wily is a bit too comical), like things were sometimes stupid in their approach (Giant Robo destroys town to save citizens, a la Power Rangers), and also like the producers felt their audience needed to be smashed in the face with explanations. I like epic shows to have depth and complexity, rather than shallow motives and extensive dialogue explaining things in an unrealistic manner.
November 21, 2006
Heretics of Dune
Heretics of Dune marks the full transition of Frank Herbert's writing from the more dry and objective style found in his earlier works to an emotional narrative that includes characters with raw humanity. It also, however, represents a work that seems less polished in some of the word choices. This is the first novel where I noticed sentences and sayings that you might easily find in other stories. The complexity and depth of the novel remains on par with what you expect and demand of Herbert, but Heretics of Dune also manages to grip you more strongly than his earlier novels. It's more of a "page-turner".
One thing I find interesting is that although the Golden Path has changed things in many significant and subtle ways, and that this is visible in the novel, the plots and machinations of the various power groups still remain. It is as if the human race, and these organizations maintained through ritual and extreme religious loyalty, are somehow stagnant in terms of social progress. I'm not really sure what that says about the world of Dune, or if it is really just saying something about Herbert.
Also, the more I think about this series, the more I wonder why it falls into the category of science fiction. In seems to be lacking the scientific basis for many of the differences between its world and ours. Perhaps you could say those details have been overlooked, but I think if you replaced the physical elements with antiquities, the books would have instead been classified as fantasy.
November 18, 2006
Impromptu Movie Night
I originally invited some people over tonight for a game night, because Luna was supposed to have French class today. But people ended up being more interested in having a movie night instead. So I ordered some pizza and Wendy, Brian, Christian, Tintin, and two of Wendy's friends, Jennifer and Thomas, showed up. We watched Shiri first, and then 2LDK.
Shiri was Wendy's pick, because it looked interesting to her as a Korean combination of action and romance. But it turned out she'd already seen it. She just didn't remember. She only remembered the original poster, with Hyun/Hee on the front, which is not on my version of the DVD because I have a special edition from Korea.
2LDK was a sort of group pick, between Wendy, Thomas, and Jennifer. Brian didn't watch it because he had something he needed to work on. Everyone really liked it, although Wendy thought the end went too extreme and gory for her taste.
November 16, 2006
So I've started watching Genshiken and it is so extraordinarily good. It's smart, funny, insightful, thought-provoking or goofy depending on your mood, and introspective all at the same time. This is an anime, based off a manga, that goes into the otaku subculture with a critical and appraising eye. It's also a perspective that I can really relate to, because these sorts of things are exactly what I go through myself. All I can say is that I'm super lucky to have found someone like Luna who is the same as me.
The only crappy thing (and thus the reason for the :_( in the title) is that Netflix doesn't have the third disc! That's crappy because now I'm stuck wanting to find out what happens next and I can't. I'm probably going to have to see if some place like Hollywood Video, Blockbuster, or the library has it. But I really doubt it. None of the searches are turning it up either.
November 15, 2006
Kiddy Grade turned out to be more entertaining than I thought, primarily because of the character personalities. They are solid personalities and also extreme, but without overwhelming stereotypes or excessive repetition. The plot and pacing is standard fare, and there's some fan service. The world presented is interesting. Overall I found the premise and characters engaging and fun to watch, although I wouldn't say this series is anything special.
November 13, 2006
Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life
I didn't feel like playing video games as much tonight, so I ended up watching Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life. I just really like these movies because they're fun, exciting, and entertaining action movies with fairly interesting plots that aren't simple or dumbed-down. The action sequences are good, and visuals of many places around the world and of exotic locations makes things more surreal while at the same time establishing the type of world the movie takes place in.
November 12, 2006
I don't remember when I first saw The Saint, but I remember really liking it. Simon Templar was intriguing because he moves between personas so fluidly and easily. And the plot and action was well developed and gripping. Although not a whole lot of time was spent talking about cold fusion, the concept was presented quickly, without obviousness, and as part of the overall whole. I just watched the film again, and I still like it just as much.
November 10, 2006
Tonight's movie night featured The Rundown, an action comedy starring The Rock, Seann William Scott, Rosario Dawson, and one of my favorites, Christopher Walken, as the bad guy. I ordered food from Buca di Beppo because I had a $10 off coupon. But it turned out more expensive than I wanted even with that coupon. At one point, up to ten people were going to be here, so I cooked a lot of spaghetti and meatballs, but there ended up being only six of us. Wendy and Brian came, and so did Christian and Alla, and one of Wendy's friends who is a new attendee, Julie.
This was a pretty hectic movie night since I had to cook spaghetti and meatballs, and stop at Albertsons to get French bread. I also picked up Christian from his place and dropped him off afterwards, but he lives close. I picked up Julie from nearby as she took public transportation. Alla left at 10pm right after the movie because she had to do some other things, and sort of started the exodus. Which was probably a good thing because it took me about an hour to clean up everything. One of the kitties had tasted some spaghetti and meatball which resulted in some vomit.
The Rundown was fun, funny, and exciting. All of the primary actors acted in the way you would expect, if you're familiar with them, and as always Christopher Walken was great as himself. The bullet dodging was a little extreme, but nothing you wouldn't expect from this sort of movie. I do think the director cheated a lot of the action sequences by using fast cuts and extreme angles to make things more exciting than they actually were. But it was still cool to watch. Julie was exploding with laughter throughout the movie.
November 7, 2006
I just fiinished playing Chrono Cross, the sequel to the extremely enjoyable Chrono Trigger, although it's a sequel in terms of world and events, rather than characters and timeline. Chrono Cross has everything that was great about the first game, in terms of characters, plot, and time interest. But for some reason I found myself sometimes having trouble coming back to the game to continue forward. Still, there are lots of interesting aspects to the game and once I got into it I tended to keep going.
I found the combat sometimes on the boring side. Most battles were very easy, unless you cared about trying to set element traps or get special items. You can pretty much just do whatever to win most battles. This isn't true for bosses or other certain battles, where elements come into play. The element system is simple but effective and inserts a level of strategy that can make battles interesting and fun. When the elements would make a difference. For the vast majority of normal encounters, selecting melee attacks over and over worked.
The plot is very good and twisting though, and certainly held my interest. Although as things neared the end, I felt like everything was being revealed through narration rather than exploration or discovery. People tended to start monologuing and the whole of things would be revealed through information databases or other access terminals.
As far as sound and music goes, I wish the regular combat music was more interesting, or would change more often. I didn't like it that much and found it repetitive. Special battles and other environmental music was pretty good though. At those times, the music was good at conveying a mood or invoking certain emotions complementary to what was occurring on screen.
November 6, 2006
God Emperor of Dune
The fourth novel in the Dune saga is God Emperor of Dune. The story continues, four thousand years after the ascension of Leto II, and at the end (or beginning, depending on your viewpoint) of the Golden Path. The economics, politics, culture, and social behavior of the entire species has changed as a result of those four thousand years of specific and controlled totalitarianism. God Emperor of Dune has a lot of ideas with regard to social orders, rather than political ones, and also some interesting personal revelations.
God Emperor of Dune brings back the open conflict of the first novel, pitting an Atreides descendant against the tyranny of Leto II, who is now almost entirely sand worm, maintaining only his human mind. I found the characters of Siona, Duncan, and Hwi very interesting and captivating because of their viewpoints and interactions with Leto II.
Ah! My Goddess! The Movie
Aa! Megamisama! The Movie takes place a short time after the end of the five episode OVA. The storyline is not a continuation of the OVA, and instead of much more action and plot driven. There is an antagonist, from Belldandy's past, who fights against the wrongs of heaven. Overall, the production is much nicer for this big-screen feature, and it's exciting to watch. Building upon the character development from the OVA makes for a richer experience.
The only thing I wish hadn't occurred is the final revelation when the antagonist is defeated. There is a long and good build up of his reasons for trying to change the celestial order, and at the beginning these reasons can be considered valid and also make his fight desireable. But then at the end, when it is revealed how he will bring about change, it all goes bad. His means are not acceptable or desireable, although his goal is. I wish they could have kept the two in sync, which would have made the climax more interesting and made either outcome possible.
November 5, 2006
Children of Dune
It's been a while since I watched the Sci-Fi version of Dune, and I've been wanting to see Children of Dune ever since. I just finished watching the two disc miniseries, and found it very enjoyable, but not as much so as the first.
Children of Dune doesn't have the same amount of intensity I felt in Dune. I think it's partly a result of the somewhat rushed pacing of the first part, which does admittedly mirror the book in that manner. Parts two and three are actually the story told in Dune Messiah, and more captivating.
The most intriguing character this time was Alia. I think her character was the most interesting and difficult to portray. Unfortunately, I don't think the acting was that great overall.
The special effects were pretty good, when they weren't obvious. There were a few times where things didn't look very well done. But there were dozens of times when it was very well done. The audio production and music was very good as well.
November 4, 2006
I was intrigued by the poster and brief description of THX 1138 when it was rereleased a few years ago. I found the film very interesting. It's a very strange film, with a plot and ending that I feel leaves a lot of room for interpretation; if it even makes sense to do so. The movie shares a lot of themes with other dystopian and Orwellian movies, but also has some unclear elements that made me wonder about the reality of THX 1138's existence. A reality further put into question as other things are revealed.
I found it surprising high quality in terms of visuals, special effects, and audio for a film made in 1969. But it turns out George Lucas reworked scenes to improve them when it was re-mastered for DVD release, and apparently redid some scenes in their entirety, only inserting the actors into the rendered environments. So I guess that's not too amazing after all. But I think the final product is very good as a result.
November 3, 2006
Oh My Goddess!
Oh My Goddess! is one of the more famous anime series, based off a popular manga. I watched the first OVA, which is only five episodes. I really liked the characters, and the short length of the series means the character faults are not overdone. But at the end of the fifth episode, I was left feeling as if the series wasn't over. I would have liked it to keep going. Perhaps I'll grab the full season TV series.
One thing I noticed right away about the OVA is the catchy and recognizable songs. There are a few songs which for some reason just seem familiar, including the ending theme. Despite being played over and over, I never got tired of them. There are also some really cool animation sequences. I especially like the crayon-looking drawing of Skuld chasing after some bugs.
November 2, 2006
And Now for Something Completely Different
And Now For Something Completely Different is a collection of skits by the Monty Python troupe. I like the majority of their films, and this collection has some really great skits with some of their most famous lines. But it also had a lot of random filler that I felt wasn't particularly funny and pointless. So it kept feeling like I was going back and forth between funniness and boredom. I think a much shorter version with a smaller selection of skits would have made for a tighter and better film.
November 1, 2006
If you're going to do historical fiction, at least make it historically correct. That's really what ruined the movie Gladiator for me. I can accept that this is a dramatization and fiction, so characters play different roles and you could consider this an elseworld, but at least get the culture and civilization correct.
The opening combat was just wrong, which started things off the wrong way, and every time I saw incoherent lettering or the thumbs-up I just got distracted. I also don't think the correct landscape was used for the city of Rome; I could not identify the seven hills I was expecting nor any aqueduct waterways. And for some reason, the contemporary speech patterns and emphasis tones just didn't sound right for a culture that spoke and wrote Latin.
Although overall the score was well done, there was significant influence in some of the compositions from Mars: Bringer of War. So much so that I kept thinking of that instead of the movie.
I also thought that while a lot of effort was put into generating the CG landscapes and city population and buildings, the fact that it was so obviously CG detracted from the effect. It is still extremely important to composite the CG and non-CG elements together, and I don't think they succeeded as much as they needed to here.
If there is any overly redeeming quality to the film, it's the acting. I think everyone involved gave exceptional performances. Some of that was unfortunately offset by poor dramatizations, especially at the end. I think the truth is much more moving than a choreographed tribute, but that doesn't seem to be the style of big-budget action films.
October 30, 2006
Maburaho is one of those silly romantic comedy anime series where a bunch of girls chase after a boy for some reason or another and hilarity and silliness ensues. I do think Maburaho delivers pretty well in that regard, and I really liked the characters. There are some really great plot devices, but I didn't find it as consistently funny as some other series'. Still, I think if you go for this kind of series, Maburaho is probably exactly what you're looking for.
A Spanish Skeleton
This weekend I spent a lot of time with Shannon. She came over with her mom on Saturday because they needed back the mattress. They don't sleep over anymore because they're all so busy with school and things like that. And they have a guest visiting now so they needed the mattress. We played some more of The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventures and Shannon ate some of the food I cooked even though it has tomatoes.
I took Shannon back home and then slept over that night because we worked on making her a skeleton for her Spanish class today. They do this every year for Día de los Muertos, although Shannon didn't pay attention and didn't know what it was for. We ended up cutting out the basic shapes from styrofoam and sticking them together with the metal wire from inside of twisties.
The rest of the day both Shannon and Yvonne did a lot of studying and homework. I helped Shannon study her Spanish and also a little with her English. But for some reason I was very tired so I took a nap. I think maybe because it was so cold.
October 29, 2006
Gundress has the name Masamune Shirow attached, and that somewhat attracted me to this film because I really like his work. But that public relations gimmick is about all this movie has going for it. It's a very simple and unoriginal action movie with some basic characters and a bit of excitement. There's really nothing special about this movie.
There are a couple things to note regarding the linked review. Nudity while navigating the mind or cyberspace is signature Shirow because it represents the inner view of oneself. A person's own view of himself or herself doesn't really have anything to do with external trappings like clothes. The nudity is symbolic. And the reason the male representation does not have any genitalia is because it is illegal to depict those things in Japan (or at least it was—I'm not entirely sure of the current law). Alissa didn't have any genitalia depicted either.
October 28, 2006
I had some people over last night to watch Silent Hill, the movie adaptation of the first game of the series. It's close to Halloween, and so Wendy said a scary movie might be a good choice. Silent Hill isn't a gory or slasher movie. It's a creepy movie. And I thought it did a very good job of being creepy, although the acting and dialogue wasn't wonderful and the plot seemed a little rushed near the climax. But everyone agreed it was creepy.
Wendy's husband, Brian, also came. As did Alla and Christian and Tintin whom I hadn't seen in a long time. Alla had some trouble understanding what was going on, I think because the movie progressed somewhat like the game would in revealing clues over time and making it so things were confusing and disorienting. This does heighten the creepiness in my opinion. But she didn't like it because it wasn't realistic to her.
October 23, 2006
A View to a Kill
I watched A View to a Kill, Roger Moore's last James Bond film, just now, and I'm starting to think overall it's not worth going through the entire Bond catalog. The past few James Bond movies I've watched I've rated only three stars on Netflix, and I can't really think of any that I enjoyed as much as Goldeneye. What I did really like about this film though, was Christopher Walken. He's a great villian in this film.
October 22, 2006
I gave Killer Bunnies to Shannon for her birthday, and got to play it with her and Yvonne this weekend. It turns out to be a very fun game, as recommended by the owner of the Legends store at Oakridge. The rules are a little bit complicated, which made Shannon give up on reading them, but once you understand them the gameplay is very simple and relatively fast moving. What's great is that strategy, planning, and competition are strong elements while not being overwhelmingly complex. And it's just plain fun. It would be even more fun with more players.
One drawback is that winning is to some extent luck. You can do a great job of dominating the game by killing off the other players bunnies efficiently and quickly, but if you don't happen to end up with the correct carrot, you can still lose. So even though you are the better player, you aren't guaranteed to win despite winning everything along the way. I suspect this was done to make things a little less annoying for younger children where poor players might just give up completely. It also makes it so the game can continue even though one player has gathered a plurality of the carrots.
Another issue is that you can keep buying expansion packs to get stranger cards and more wacky behavior. I do think they took a less money-grubbing approach than other collectable card games, since you just buy specific expansion packs in a certain order that provide specific cards. And that certainly allows the game to stay fresh for longer. But there are a lot of expansion packs and you probably do want to get them all.
After we played Killer Bunnies, we watched The Chronicles of Narnia. Shannon and Yvonne both remembered the books much better than I do, and were able to point out some minor inconsistencies that seemed to have crept in as a way to meet the film's time limits and make things a little simplier to absorb. I think they both liked it, and Yvonne did agree the women in the film weren't exactly the greatest. Mei-Ling kept getting scared for no real good reason. She said the music was very erie and that was making her get scared, even though the rest of us didn't feel that way.
Before I left, I helped Yvonne with her chemistry homework. I hope she understands better the shells and energy levels and concepts about atomic geometry a little better now. But mostly she just tries to find the answer and write it down without thinking much about why that's the right answer. We found the Atomic orbital entry on Wikipedia quite useful. Especially for visualizing the orbital shapes.
October 21, 2006
Children of Dune
In preparation for watching the Sci-Fi channel's adaptation of it, I read Children of Dune, which is really the culmination of the plot started in Dune: Messiah. Children of Dune follows the next generation of Atredies as they maneuver through plotting and events as momentous as those described in the first book of the series, and as they reach their destiny. Although I think the focus is much more on Leto II and not his sister Ghanima.
Everything you liked in the first book is here in the third as well. There's political intrigue and betrayal, as well as mystery as to where things can be driven by the Atredies family. Explorations go into the mysteries of prescience and the risk of Abomination. The path which Paul chose to discard are not rejected by his son Leto II, perhaps because Leto does not have love to temper his decisions. In any event, the story continues to unfold and remains very interesting and the ideas presented very thought provoking.
October 16, 2006
Chinjeolhan Geumjassi, which for some reason seems to have two English web sites (1, 2), is the final installment in director Chan-wook Park's Vengeance Trilogy. The second in the series is Oldboy, but I haven't seen the first one yet. That's okay, because it's not necessary to view these in order. The thing about Lady Vengeance is that it really hits you in the gut with a powerful fist of raw, primal emotion.
This film deals with kidnapping, which can automatically invoke extreme feelings in just about all directions, if well done. And Park doesn't hold anything back. Lady Vengeance is "The Witch", a woman who can appear kind-hearted and full of love while at the same time so cold and calculating against people who have wronged her. She is sent to prison at the age of 19 for kidnapping and smothering a 5-year-old boy to death. When she is released thirteen years later and offered a tofu cake by a priest, she tips the cake onto the ground. This sets the mood of the entire film.
I found myself gripped by the characters, which are portrayed by outstanding actors, the story, which is intelligent and complex, and the emotions which are so basic you cannot avoid a vicarious experience. As with Oldboy, be prepared for anything, because everything is going to be put before you.
Donnie Darko is a cult classic that happens to include an amazing cast set in an amazing premise. This is not a film that reveals the truth. It's a film that posits and explores the potential in humankind's experience of life. At times it's thrilling. Other times scary. It's definitely thought-provoking, and completely captivating. It's very hard to explain, but the most important requirement when watching this film is to try and believe.
There are lots of ways to look at the content of this film. This is one of those movies that if it was a book, you'd find English teachers trying to get you to come up with interpretations and explanations and themes, all of which could be right but are probably more a reflection of the viewer than the author.
I think the best thing about this film is that you have to figure out for yourself, along with Donnie, exactly what must happen. There are people who contribute to the solution, but unravelling the situation is a rewarding puzzle both for the audience and for Donnie as his character comes to a realization.
October 15, 2006
Voices of a Distant Star
Hoshi no Koe was an amazingly good short film. It's only 25 minutes but it's exciting, emotional, and poignant all at the same time. There have been some comparisons to The Forever War but they're really very different. In Hoshi no Koe, two friends are separated by the limitations of light speed. One has no connection with normalcy except through the SMS line, and the other is tethered by that line.
Human lives are short. It used to take weeks to send a letter by mail. And as the film alludes, your world can be measured in how far you can send a message to someone else. Today, you can easily send a message to someone anywhere else on Earth and it will arrive in less than a second. But once there are people away from Earth, the time to send a message will become measured in light seconds. In this particular case, the messages are taking much longer than that.
As a soldier on a battleship, traversing through the stars, you leave behind everything that is Earth. You also leave behind the people who represent humanity. And sending a message will take a very long time. Years may pass between replies. But that is your link to everything else.
For someone on Earth, to receive those messages, is like hearing from a ghost, but at the same time is someone whom you know to be real and familiar. That person is not gone, but by the time you've received the message, what was said is long past. And the world continued around you, as this message travelled through time to reach you in the future. And so you're trapped by your past. But it's not a trap you can simply escape from because doing so means abandoning something precious.
The worst part about it all is that there's always the chance someone you saw yesterday really died years ago.
October 14, 2006
Record of Lodoss War: Chronicles of the Heroic Knight
Record of Lodoss War: Chronicles of the Heroic Knight is considered an anime sequel to Record of Lodoss War, but it is actually a more lengthly adaptation of the original manga. As a result, if you watch both of the series, the first disc of the sequel won't seem to make sense given the events of the first. But if you only watch the sequel, you won't understand everything that took place in the first have of the first series. Basically, you're stuck.
As with what I wrote about the first series, I wasn't too impressed with this series. On the first disc I saw a number of production flaws. The remaining three discs cover the longer second story arc revolving around the knight in training Spark, rather than free knight Parn. There's some decent character development here but no real depth to anything. Visuals are okay for the time, music could have been better, but the rest of the execution is amateur. The basic plot is still there, it's just not used very well.
October 10, 2006
Since I didn't bring anything interesting on the airplane (I wasn't sure what they would try to confiscate or make me check into my luggage) I bought a copy of Wired Magazine and Anansi Boys to read on the flight back. Anansi Boys is the first Neil Gaiman novel I've read. The story is extremely good and extremely well written. But I don't think it's my type of book. So I'm not sure I'll read his other novels.
What Anansi Boys is, is a fully developed folk tale like you might have read as a child or read about if you studied other cultures, mixed with a little bit of a modern thriller to give it an extra bite. It's the kind of story that you might find about the animals of the zodiac or why there is a sun and moon or why the fox can never be friends with the hare. That sort of story, at its basic roots. And Neil Gaiman pulls it of perfectly.
The Devil Wears Prada
On my flight over to Philadelphia, the movie shown was The Devil Wears Prada, which I actually first heard about from a blog posting The Devil Wears
Prada Theater Uniforms. It's a movie that delivers pretty much exactly what you would expect, although there seems to be a tiny argument saying the fashion industry is important because of its impact on everyday life (so does the candy industry--that doesn't mean candy is actually so very important).
Meryl Streep is of course excellent in her role, which can be both cruel and heart-wrenching at the same time. But I was surprised by how well Anne Hathaway performed in this more grown up role, even if she wasn't amazing. The only thing I felt a little unfulfilling was the ease with which everything worked out for her in the end. It was too simple, too under-developed, and her boyfriend didn't ask any questions.
October 2, 2006
Dune Messiah is the second book in the series by Frank Herbert, but it's sort of a transition book. It's a little shorter than the novels that come before and after it, and has less meat to it. Rather it sort of bridges the empire built by Paul Atreides with that which will be governed by his children. So it's a good book, but not as interesting or thought provoking as the first or third.
September 28, 2006
Radiata Stories takes the world of RPGs to an entirely new level. The one word that really describes the world and people and culture of Radiata is vibrant. It just seems so alive. There are over 200 different characters, each with their own personality, daily schedule, and role to play in the game (small or large). As I learned more and more about each person, I came to know them all fairly well. I knew their names, places they would frequent, and sometimes motivations. The scenery, maps, and architecture are brilliantly realized; this is not a tiled map. I would often admire the scenery as I travelled on roads (yes, roads, like normal people).
From a technical standpoint, this game really delivers. There were several new technologies put in as nice touches which you wouldn't really notice, but help to put polish on the game and also add more life to the world. Some examples of this are the random behavior of street lamp halos, or the POV display of characters during battle, or correct shadow placement, or texture and lighting shaders applied to the screen.
The music is also very good. It's environmental but exciting and always fits the mood. The only thing I wish was that the battle music would be a little more interesting. I found it a little too monotone or repetitive to my liking.
In fact, the only thing that wasn't so great was the combat. There was a little strategy involved, where guarding and moving to a new position could help. And you have to order your teammates to perform certain things in support on some occasions, although the AI is pretty decent regardless. But overall I felt like it was a little on the button-mashing side and once you've picked a decent set of attacks it doesn't matter anymore. You can't really do any special moves and getting new abilities or attack modes requires you to change your party members.
Another thing that's really great about the game is how you can make a real life-altering decision halfway through. It completely changes how you have to view things, having to choose between two mutually exclusive choices. Either choice requires you to make compromises which in an ideal situation you wouldn't have to make. And each side can be considered right and wrong at the same time.
Because the split makes playing through the game a second time worth it, I clocked in about 75 hours total. That sets a new record, beating out Star Ocean by a few hours.
September 27, 2006
Record of Lodoss War
Record of Lodoss War is a famous anime. Considered one of the archetypes of the fantasy genre. And it does follow very closely the sorts of things developed in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy and also Dungeons & Dragons (original). But I didn't think it was that great. The art and music was fine, especially considering the 1990 date. And the basic plot was there. But it was just very simple and straightforward, without much depth. I also felt the dialogue could have been better; conversations were very convenient at times.
September 24, 2006
Alien Nine is a four-volume manga by Hitoshi Tomizawa. It's about some middle-school girls who join the Alien Party; a group of school kids whose responsibility it is to protect the other students from alien invaders. But the real situation is a lot more complex and subtle than that. I really like the ideas presented in this story, which is very imaginative, and I also like the characters. They're all unique and interesting. All of that put together in this unique situation makes for great reading.
The only thing is that there doesn't really feel like a real conclusion to the plot. I think that's partially simply because the world the story takes place in is familiar enough to feel like something that would happen in the near future, but strange enough that you feel a need for things to get back to our reality. But that's not something that will happen, and this alternative future is something that fits their sense of normalcy so anything that changed that would be a strange thing to occur.
Love Fest SF 2006
I just got back from the San Francisco LoveFest, 2006. I didn't go the previous two years (when it was called Love Parade) because Shannon had her birthday parties. But this year Shannon isn't having a birthday party. I took Caltrain up to BART right to the middle of the event. Took a little under 2 hours that way. I met up with Alla and some of her friends as the parade was moving down Market Street.
The parade wasn't as good as I thought it would be. For starters, most of the people were not dancing. The crowd got larger in the afternoon, but most people just stood around. It seemed more of a San Francisco parade where people were more interested in dressing funny and strutting around than in the music and dancing. We saw a bunch of naked men walking around, and also a naked transvestite. The number of naked men far outnumbered the number of topless women. Alla's friends weren't much interested in dancing either; they just kept walking around and standing in front of floats.
The music also had good points and bad points. I would say about half the floats had music I didn't like, and the other half had decent music that was just messed up because the speakers were being overdriven and creating a lot of distortion. They also boosted the bass frequencies and at times, because the floats were so close in the plaza, it seemed like a war between DJs as they tried to out-bass their neighbors. During the parade, there were large sections without music, which also wasn't that great.
Unfortunately, it was so loud my ears were ringing within the first few minutes. I should have brought my earplugs.
There were a few floats that were good. And DJ Rap showed up to do a set later in the afternoon, which was really cool to see. She was doing a little less breakbeat and a little more drum 'n bass, so while I liked seeing her and was excited, I didn't like her music as much as her debut album. But it was the right type of music for this venue, I suppose. Alla didn't like what she did with the synthesized music at all; she said it made her feel naseous.
I did find out about the promotional tracks off Beatport though, which I was able to download for free. Not WAV format, unfortunately, but MP3. They gave out a download card if you gave a $10 donation to enter the plaza. Turns out you really didn't need to get the card in order to access the promotional tracks. Two of Alla's friends thought the $10 donation was required, partially because of how they set up the entrance, and decided not to enter the plaza.
I feel a little sick now, with a headache and I notice now a sunburn. I think the sun, the activity, and a lack of water has left me dehydrated and with a headache. I bought some Gatorade that I hope will help a little. Not sure if I will go next year. If I do, I'll have to remember to bring ear plugs.
September 22, 2006
Noir looked very appealing to me because it featured some female assassins and claimed stylized gunfights and good action. But I was really disappointed by how it turned out. It's 26 episodes, but because of the heavy use of flashbacks as a plot device and to recap the previous episode, I think it could have been done a lot better as a 13 episode series. If anything, the word I would use to describe this series is inconsistent.
The action sequences are inconsistent. Sometimes, especially in the first episodes, Kirika and Mireille do some really cool things, both physically and strategically. But at other times they just walk up and stand there for a while pointing their gun, then shoot. In fact, I think they should have died within the first few episodes and the only reason they didn't is because the bad guys completely suck. Even the special bad guys are stupid and suck. How can they be surrounded by a dozen enemies, who are standing within a dozen feet, and not get riddled with bullets because they don't even move. They don't even turn their body to provide a smaller target.
The music was inconsistent too. Sometimes it sounded really good, but other times it was all messed up. For example, I don't know how it could be considered a good idea to mix a regular beat with choir singing when that singing isn't scored at the same tempo. Someone needs to go back to music school or at least the director or mixer needs to get their ears fixed.
Now that it's over, I'm not sure what happened at the end.
September 20, 2006
I finished re-reading Battlefield Earth, a book I bought a while ago. I thought back then it was better than I expected, and I still think it's a great book. It's nothing spectacular or really ground-breaking, but it is exciting and has some really imaginative points. Mostly it keeps you wanting to read because you want the Psychos to get overthrown and see humanity liberated. But what I really like is the epic nature of the story, which includes a lot of detail as it progresses. Of course, it's detail that is explained plainly and blatantly, so it's not a complicated plot, but it's still very enjoyable.
September 16, 2006
Fullmetal Alchemist: The Movie
Fullmetal Alchemist: The Movie is a two-hour sequel to the series that picks up a while after the series ended. You cannot appreciate this film unless you have watched the entire series, so that is something to keep in mind. The story background and character development heavily depends upon the series, although there is a weak attempt in the beginning at giving new viewers some context. I found the pacing of the movie to be much better than the series, while still maintaining a quality story.
The villian of this movie doesn't have the greatest amount of screen time, but her character and role doesn't feel rushed either. Probably because she is involved in things from the beginning and her plan unravels slowly but steadily. Unfortunately, the movie does suffer a bit from trying to hit you over the head with its message regarding war and conflict and fear and hate.
What was interesting is the movie draws explicit parallels between the persecution that it is depicting now, in this parallel world, with the persecution that was a focal point of the series. And the gypsies are dealt with as the primary target, rather than the Jews, which is very uncommon but actually closer to history. It's probably that there's never been a large community clamoring about what happened to the gypsies, compared to the Jews, at that time in Germany.
September 14, 2006
Luna really liked Fullmetal Alchemist and told me I should watch it. She liked the story, and the ending, and the opening and closing music. I also liked the ending, which was surprising and also very well done, but found the story too drawn out and the rock music isn't my taste. The artwork is pretty decent and a lot of the action was pretty good too.
I liked the characters and the overall plot arc, but it just took too long and I felt like things repeated themselves too often. I guess a lot of things were sort of building up over time, in a detailed manner, but it wasn't until the episodes near the end that I thought anything was really getting accomplished. At that point, the extended character development does pay off a bit, but not a whole lot.
September 11, 2006
Turns out Thunderball is another James Bond movie that I've seen but didn't recognize by the name. This Bond movie was okay, but not that special I don't think. The best part about it were the underwater scenes, which were done very well and also somewhat exciting. But the villian wasn't particularly evil, although the cat-and-mouse dance between him and Bond did keep things a little interesting.
September 7, 2006
Replacement Plus 12.3 Driver
The replacement Plus 12.3 driver I requested from SVSound arrived today, although it didn't get sent to my office like I'd asked. I guess that change got lost in the RMA shuffle. Anyway, swapped it into my subwoofer and the rattling is gone. I played back Kodo's Ibuki and the two tracks Dub Gusset and Swords off Leftfield's Rhythm and Stealth. No rattling from those tracks or the startup thump either.
September 6, 2006
Mom over Labor Day
My mom visited this past weekend because it was Labor Day weekend. She arrived Saturday night and left early on Tuesday morning. She did bring me the pluge router I wanted. She also brought me two small albums of the wedding photos Luna and I had done last time I was in Shanghai. The photos look good, but the albums are a little crappy if fancy looking. They have the name of the studio on the front, instead of our names, and the veneer is missing from the back of one of them. My favorite picture is the one where Luna looks angry and is holding the Hello Kitty dolls.
Sunday morning my mom and I went to a Church in Fremont because Calvin went there to say a few words about Labor Day. He really only talked for about 5 minutes, and I had to sit through all the sermon stuff and preaching. I wonder if preachers recognize some of the hypocricy they spout. In this particular sermon, the only reason you might not consider it hypocritical is if you aren't willing to question your own faith. Which is the point, I guess.
September 2, 2006
Memnoch The Devil
I read another Anne Rice book, Memnoch The Devil, and I've sort of decided not to continue reading Anne Rice books for a while. Memnoch The Devil captures all of the brilliance and cultural elegance I think is the strength and beauty of Anne Rice's stories. I'm not entirely sure what her intention is regarding the discussion between God and Memnoch, but it's an intriguing discourse and also an interesting way to think about the history of Christianity. It is that back-and-forth between Memnoch and Lestat that brings a level of intelligent intensity to this novel.
August 31, 2006
I finished Psychonauts last night, a critically acclaimed but not so widely known platform game where you play the character of Raz, a boy who goes to a psychonaut training camp that is really just like a stereotypical summer camp in the woods for little kids. And that's where all the fun begins. From a gameplay standpoint, the game is full of perfection. You'll do everything from platforming to collecting items and exploring your environment. It's just a fun game in that sense. But where it really shines is the humor.
Everything is insanely amusing. The job of a psychonaut is to use psychic powers in the real world and to enter the minds of others to solve their psychological problems. Thus a large part of your time is spent exploring the minds of people who have psychological issues. Since the real world itself is a little on the crazy side, entering people's minds is even more entertaining. Imagine taking the phrase "it's more afraid of you and you are of it", turn it into a nightmare, and a fish. Then run around in there. That's the kind of humor you'll find in Psychonauts.
I think the game designers did a great job of putting in fun gameplay mechanisms, like facing off against Napoleon in a strategic battle. Or lucha matches with a wrestler that can fly. Emotional baggage is a crying hatbox or purse. And you're going to face off against tiny little men in suits trying to stamp you out. All full of dry hiliarity. I especially liked the milkman. Who is the milkman?
August 27, 2006
Tales of Symphonia
Tales of Symphonia was excellent. Probably the best (there aren't many anyway) RPG I've found for the GameCube, and also one of the best regardless of platform. I was surprised to discover many of the combat features from Star Ocean seem to have originated in Tales of Symphonia, although Star Ocean did improve upon them. In terms of gameplay and mechanics, Tales of Symphonia was excellent. I couldn't complain about anything.
I think the first thing that will strike you in this game is the graphics. The world is bright, colorful, and vibrant and looks very much like the animation cut-scenes because of the cel shaders. Although somewhat simplistic in appearance, the characters and backgrounds are rich and build an excellent environment for running around in.
The story is a bit traditional, although there are a few tweaks thrown in and the basics were expanded upon in depth and with a great attention to detail. One thing that was really well done is making sure there aren't any loose ends in such a complex plot. You really do have to take everything to completion in order to save the world. It's not as simple as defeating a final boss and everything goes back to normal. The struggle to save the world is long and involves many people and enemies.
The only thing I wish was better is some of the dialogue. At times, the conversations are a little out of place because it doesn't seem like the sort of thing people would say in reality. A bit too explanatory and forced at times.
August 21, 2006
Shaun of the Dead
I just watched Shaun of the Dead, a movie that Anthony from work said was really good and funny. It's an odd sort of movie, mixing zombies with a sort of casual attitude and British humor. For example, instead of running away from the zombies, Shaun and his friend decide to sit on the couch and figure things out. I enjoyed it, and it was fairly amusing at times although yucky at other times.
One unfortunate thing I discovered is that one of the Plus 12.3 drivers I received from SVSound is defective. It rattles sometimes, and I found it even rattled when out of the subwoofer just from the initial turn-on thump. I thought this was due to a loose screw or loose fastening before, but turns out it's a defect in the driver itself. So SVSound is shipping me a replacement. They do have some of the best customer service I've experienced.
August 19, 2006
I actually saw parts of FLCL for the first time on Adult Swim while at a hotel somewhere. It was extremely strange and didn't make any sense. And actually, that turns out to be pretty much true even if you watch the series from beginning to end rather than in pieces. The main character, Naota, gets beat up by guitars and robots erupt from his head on a regular basis. And just about every other scene makes fun or something or other, or is done in a comedic fashion. But I have to say I actually enjoyed it as a whole.
FLCL just has some strange amount of extreme energy throughout the entire series. It shows up even during the end credits, which are longer than usual but captivating in its own way. The sound of the show is rock, and it sounds like pure Japanese rock to me—not Western-adapted rock. And it fits and fills the show perfectly.
I guess never knowing what will happen next, coupled with great artwork and visual sequences, energetic music, and crazy memorable characters just makes the series work in a strange way. It's like seeing some artwork that shouldn't make sense but has an unnatural attraction to it anyway.
August 14, 2006
Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children
Amazing. That's the one word that came to my mind almost immediately after beginning to watch Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children. I've been waiting to see this for a while now, and finally managed to find the DVD for a decent price. I think the story was a little too action-focused, but not in a bad way. The visuals were amazing, and the amount of detail and effort they put into the world and sequences is amazing. The soundtrack was very evocative, and the movie brought back so many memories and emotions.
The reapperance of Sephiroth gave me goosebumps. Even though I knew he was coming, seeing him again and feeling the evil with his theme music was very tense and dramatic. It felt like a resurrection of evil. Sephiroth really does epitomize hatred so well, and knowing the background behind him and Cloud and what Sephiroth has done and seeks truly makes him a fearsome character. I do still think Kefka is still a better antagonist than Sephiroth, but Sephiroth has the emotion whereas Kefka is more of a villain.
It does help a lot if you have played Final Fantasy VII, because a lot of the characters and the world and plot depends upon the development of things in the game. While the DVD does include a decent synopsis of events from the game, it doesn't capture everything. But, it would be a good idea to watch the synopsis before watching Advent Children if you've never played FFVII or if it's been a while since you have. Even then, there are things about the film you will not fully understand unless you have played the game.
August 13, 2006
I really liked the first movie, but the sequel Underworld: Evolution lost just about all of the original's culture and is a pure action movie. The action sequences are pretty intense and exciting, and the creature effects are great this time as they were in the first movie. I think the sexuality of both Beckinsale and Speedman are over exploited though. I wish the sophistication of the first movie had remained though.
There was an opportunity here to continue the exploration of the culture, the politics, and the infighting but instead all of those chances are skipped so as to move from one fight scene to the next. What happened to all of the other lycans and death dealers? It's like they've simply disappeared from the conflict, when we know they're still there and should be intimately involved in the chaos. I did like the scenes involving the historian though, as that brought back some of the wonderful sense of mythology found in the first movie.
Instead the majority of non-fight time involves Selene remembering more of her past. This is somewhat important, because it reveals back-story that further enriches her character, but it's also a little convenient in that it's history that wasn't necessary for the character development. And I think the extensive use of flashbacks was a poor choice of directing. Flashbacks in the first movie served real purpose for revealing truths and moving the plot forward. This time, they're more of a gimmick and contain very little information.
So Close is a Hong Kong action movie that looked pretty entertaining from just what I saw and read on the DVD case. And the action part is certainly very entertaining. I think this movie is a good example of Hong Kong martial arts movies, and all three actresses are very good at acting and the choreographed martial arts. Unfortunately, the movie lacks focus because the writers tried to cram too much into it and the sequence of events is not always clear.
Metroid Prime 2: Echoes
I just completed Metroid Prime 2: Echoes and it was every bit as enjoyable as the previous one, although even more expansive because the world is larger. From a gameplay standpoint, Echoes is pretty much identical to Prime, except some of the weapons and gear have been replaced with new variants that lead to new types of puzzles. I did like the change in enemy. Space pirates and metroids play a minor role this time.
Banner of the Stars I & II
It seems I forgot to write an entry for Banner of the Stars, so I'll combine it with my entry for Banner of the Stars II, as they are really too closely tied to be considered sequels instead of the same series. Unfortunately, I still have to see Banner of the Stars III but it isn't yet licensed in the U.S. The story as a whole is what really gives this anime value, so I am really looking forward to watching the next chapter.
As I mentioned earlier in my review of Crest of the Stars, there isn't anything particularly special about the series. Banner of the Stars has the same look, characters, and continues the story. But taken as a whole, the story becomes exceptionally motivating because of the characters. Since so much time and effort is put on developing the characters and also revealing the characters to the audience, I think anyone would start to care for them. And so although superficially there isn't anything special about the series, the normal story and normal characters do create something special which is very complex and takes time to appreciate.
August 12, 2006
Vittorio the Vampire
I finished reading Vittorio the Vampire last night. It has a very different tone to it than some of her other books, and is different in other ways as well. The religious aspect seems to be at odds with the beliefs presented of vampires in The Vampire Chronicles series, and the length of time involved is also very short. It's still captivating in its own way though, and at times interesting to read not so much for the locale or the details as it is for the story.
August 11, 2006
V for Vendetta
A few friends came over tonight to watch V for Vendetta. Jeannie, Gary, and Dantam showed up and Bryant was supposed to be he never did and we couldn't reach him by phone. The movie turned out enormously better than I was expecting. Natalie Portman and Hugo Weaving were excellent, and I was especially impressed by how well the personality and emotion of V could be portrayed even from behind the mask. The visuals, action sequences, and sound were also very good.
One aspect I particularly liked was the basis in reality that the world of V exists within. Although this is a comic book adaptation, the people are not supers and do not have any abnormal powers. There aren't any strange guns or weapons, and the characters are human in their normality and emotion. This is extremely important because the ideals and morality of this film is built upon the idea of you and I, and not the idea of something supernatural or larger than the individual.
There really is too much to say about the ideals and morality present in this film, and they come directly from the comic. The original work is sometimes said to be a satire and criticism of the UK government when Margaret Thatcher served as prime minister, because the comic features the opposing views of anarchism and fascism. The movie was modified to some degree to feature the opposing views of liberalism and (religious) conservatism, to some degree. It's taken a little farther than simple left-wing/right-wing politics.
Unfortunately, the thing that really made this movie have an impact upon me is because it captures so well exactly how I feel about certain things today. I think it's been such a long time since a movie that does this has been produced, where the current political, social, and economic situations are the real focus rather than an intellectual side-note. And it's certainly the first one that takes it as far as this one does for something that I am living through.
I do hope people will understand when it is said "artists use lies to tell the truth" that the statement is as much about the movie itself as it is about what's going on in the movie.
August 8, 2006
The Law of Ueki
I found the first disc of The Law of Ueki for free at work, and watched it shortly thereafter. Nothing special, but I figured it was only one more disc so I might as well finish it. Well, I watched the second disc yesterday and discovered that there are in fact over fifty episodes, and many more discs to come (but not entered into Netflix). So I've decided not to continue watching. It's just not worth it.
The story has a strange and potentially promising premise, here gods are battling for the supreme title, and humans are given a single power to act as their proxies in battle. Ueki is given the power to turn trash into trees. And from that you can figure out the basis of every episode. Each episode involves Ueki meeting one or more combatants and of course defeating them.
There is an extremely weak attempt at creating some background or personality for each combatant. I think it'd have been better to just completely skip that as it doesn't make much sense to have flashbacks during battle and there's no value resulting from the backstory. There's also a relatively weak attempt at justifying the reasons for fighting this way.
There are a few funny points, but not enough of them that are funny enough to save the series. Many attempts at humor were simply lost on me. The voice acting is not that great either. The voices do match the personalities, but don't seem that refined.
August 7, 2006
I ended up watching Tomb Raider again. It's not a particularly great movie, but I like it for the action sequences, electronic soundtrack, and overall high level of energy. There are of course things that just don't seem to fit because the movie seems much more real than the video game, but if you can overlook those then there's no issue. And Angelina Jolie's attitude as Lara Croft is excellent.
August 6, 2006
The Fifth Element
I got a little tired of playing video games, so decided to watch another movie. I hadn't watched The Fifth Element in a while so I decided to pop it in. The Fifth Element is one of my favorite films because of the action, music, visual sequences, and mostly because it's just a lot of fun. Crazy things are always happening with crazy characters. So as usual, I enjoyed it a lot.
August 5, 2006
I watched The Incredibles again today. That's probably the fifth time I've watched it. I would have continued watching the anime series I started, except Netflix is taking too long to deliver them. Anyway, The Incredibles has some incredible bass sequences and gave the new Plus 12.3 drivers a workout. One of the drivers wasn't screwed in tight enough, which resulted in some problems during high excursion, so I had to pause the film and fix that.
Queen of the Damned
I just finished reading Queen of the Damned again, after having watched the movie a while back with Dantam and Alla. Since the movie wasn't very good, and left out a lot of the real value of an Anne Rice novel, I wanted to go back and compare it to the book. The book is much better, of course, and also very different than how the movie ended up.
I don't like Queen of the Damned as a book as much I liked some of Anne Rice's other Vampire Chronicle books. Maybe in part because it tries to establish the origin of vampires and thus remove some of the mystery. Maybe also in part because it has less to do with the contemporary seductive qualities of vampires or the exploration of history than others. Anyway, it's still good, just not one of my favorites if I were to pick one.
August 3, 2006
Crest of the Stars
Crest of the Stars is the first series of a string of anime based off the works of Morioka Hiroyuki. On its own, this series is an interesting but simple story involving two unlikely teenage companions thrust into the misfortune of war. At times it's touching and exciting, but overall nothing too spectacular. However, I have hopes that following these two through all of the series will result in a sum that is greater than its parts.
I do think the artwork, both 2D and CG, is very good and well integrated with each other. I think they did a good job of spending the time and effort to produce each episode without cheating by reusing scenes too much, although that may be because a lot more of it is CG than I suspect. The background music was also decent, with what looks to be a full orchestral score.
August 1, 2006
I just finished playing Xenogears, which is an old game from 1998 but one with an amazing story and depth of intellect and emotion. From a technical standpoint, it's a very traditional RPG that has all of the hallmarks of the time. Which is good, but lacking in comparison to contemporary games. As a result movement, combat, and the audio are not particularly great. In particular combat is somewhat repetitive although a bit above par for the times. It's really the content that makes this game shine.
The first thing that one needs to realize about Xenogears is there are two layers to everything in the game. On the surface, you are presented with a lot of challenging ideas and plot mechanisms and characters that will really make you think. But beneath all of that is additional meaning which you can only extract if you have the background required to do so. And I am pretty sure I don't have all of it.
Some of the discussion points referenced include World War II and Nazi Germany with themes that can be applied towards anti-semitism as well as prejudice and social caste systems that apply or have applied to many other societies, such as India. There are also references to Freud's ego, superego, and id which make concrete appearances. Some references are to popular culture and include Star Wars, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Volton, Final Fantasy, and Soylent Green. I'm sure I've missed a few.
Perhaps the biggest talking point is how the concepts of religion, the church, sin, sacrifice, and God become the central plot around which everything else revolves. There is meaning behind the protagonist being the one who will destroy God, as well as arguably the reincarnation of Adam while another protagonist is the reincarnation of Eve. Other characters have representative roles as well, including Miang and Cain and Abel. The lambs have both a negative conotation in general speak, but a positive conotation in regards to biblical reference. There is both a clear criticism of how religion has been approached by people and an argument that tries to force you to find your own true faith. People assume certain things when it comes to God and religion because those are assumptions that are comforting. If those assumptions are removed or proven incorrect, are you willing to reshape your own view of the universe?
All in all, while I wasn't particularly impressed by the gameplay I do think many things were done very well for the time. But all of that is of very little importance compared to the storyline and the amount of thought that went into conveying those ideas and questions to the player. The second disc actually goes into a narration mode for significant amount of time, no doubt because expanding upon those parts of the story would easily have doubled the game's play time. I'm very satisfied with where this game ended up.
I do have a few questions which aren't answered. This installment of the game is referred to as Episode V. And there is a clear connection between this game and Xenosaga. But I have no idea how tight that connection is.
July 30, 2006
Bubblegum Crisis Tokyo 2040
I watched Bubblegum Crisis Tokyo 2040 for maybe the fourth time. Although this time it was the Essential Anime edition which features a 5.1 remix of the English soundtrack and some special features like VA commentary. In almost all respects this edition is the same, and I don't think the surround channels were used to their fullest potential. Unfortunately the Japanese soundtrack was not remixed as well. I did also notice a few transfer errors on maybe the 4th disc. Regardless, this is one of my favorite series and always enjoyable to watch.
July 20, 2006
Venus Hum - The Colors of the Wheel
I ordered a promotional pre-release copy of Venus Hum's new album, The Colors of the Wheel because I really liked their first album. But this second album isn't as enjoyable. It's too discordant and feels experimental. The sound is very different than the first album. The lyrics themselves have the same sort of similar range of expression though. Sometimes celebratory and at other times hinting at some deeper, personal emotion.
The promotional copy was shipped out to customers earlier than the public release date came with a set of four crayons and a little coloring picture of The Colors of the Wheel, although this was shipped without any hard backing so it arrived with some creases. Certainly not in collector condition. That doesn't really matter to me though, as I'm really just interested in their music and the crayons and coloring sheet are just something fun to have gotten as a bonus. I'm not actually going to use them.
July 16, 2006
March of the Penguins
The best thing about March of the Penguins are the visuals. You get to see Emperor Penguins up close because the cameras were right in with them. This docu-drama chronicles the mating ritual of the Emperor Penguin from the time they leave the ocean until the babies enter the ocean for the first time. It's a very moving film, but I got the impression that things were so difficult for the penguins I'm not sure how they keep up their population.
July 15, 2006
I finished reading Idoru again last night. I actually think I like this best out of all his books. Perhaps because of all his works, this one seems to be one that feels the most real. Maybe it's just easier to digest because it doesn't require as many changes to our current society and level of technology. Regardless, it has a bit of everything in it presented from that abstract, objective point of view that characterizes Gibson's writing.
In Idoru, Gibson takes some then-current, and now even more current, ideas and expands upon them in a way that might seem a little far-fetched to some, but very realistic to others. And truthfully some of the things he's talked about have come to pass in their own way, although not to the extent he has described.
Even if you don't take any interest in that aspect of the book, the plot is captivating and fast-moving. You might find the ending, and some parts of the interim, unsatisfying as there are some loose ends and it doesn't really feel like Gibson had figured out the conclusion himself. But a large part of Gibson's appeal is the ride and as with most rides, you'll feel a little let down at the end because it is just simply over.
July 10, 2006
But I'm a Cheerleader
But I'm a Cheerleader is supposed to be a really funny satire on "fixing" homosexuals. And I do think they put a great deal of effort into that, with both the obvious and the little things in the background contributing to the overall effect. Unfortunately it wasn't super funny. Perhaps because no matter what happens along the way, you have to end up with the expected ending. Or maybe the comedy is a little too dry.
July 9, 2006
Mezzo is a hard-hitting action TV series involving the Danger Service Agency, your for-hire danger team. Each episode involves the DSA being hired to perform some sort of dangerous activity like delivery of volatile goods or acting as bodyguards. I really liked it as a fun action series, but there really isn't any encompassing story arc so don't expect much there. The artwork is nice as I do like Yasuomi Umetsu's work. I also really enjoyed the rock music by BARNABYS.
As a movie, Indigo Prophecy is a dramatic psychological thriller. But as a game, it's crap. From basic point of view, Indigo Prophecy is a movie script adapted to a choose-your-own-adventure video game. And just like those books, there are different premature endings and a few different final endings you can end up with. But the path is extremely linear as well, where your choices really don't have much impact on the overall flow of things unless you hit a premature ending.
What makes Indigo Prophecy a crappy game is the gameplay. Of which there isn't any. There are three action types: simon-says, button mashing or balancing L/R, and one time of target practice. Every single action sequence, such as dodging cars or fleeing a scene, involves simon-says. Whenever you're supposed to be exerting effort, you button mash L/R. Whenever you're supposed to be controlling effort, you balance L/R. The target practice is one time at a gun-range so it stands alone. But that's it for gameplay. Many times the button mashing L/R occurs for no apparent reason as well.
The regular action choices and conversation choices are selected by moving the right analog stick, rather than a menu. That's not innovation or even intelligence, especially since the displayed choices are so vague. A person's name might show up, and selecting that name might result in you asking about that person, or it might result in hearing that person's thoughts. The single verb stay might me one thing in one context, and a completely different one in another. So just as with the gameplay, the menu system is crap.
Lastly, moving around is crap as well. The camera moves too slowly for decent manual control, changes angles on you all the time so you're no longer pressing a direction on the analog control stick that makes sense, and it's too hard to get your character to actually walk in the right direction. So you're going to look like you're walking and running around drunk, slamming into walls and walking diagonally or in circles. Plus, you have to line up correctly with items to interact with them, but it's not easy to do that as turning isn't really possible as a separate behavior.
I'm just glad to get the game over with. Total playtime about 6 hours, not including the numerous premature endings that resulted in reloads. Which happens to be another stupid aspect of the game. Loading takes a long time, and it occurs often as scenes change. And if you hit a premature ending, you have two choices: load last save or stop. If you select load last save, the game completely reloads the state even though you were just in the same place. Everything should already be in memory.
July 7, 2006
The Professional is one of those strange films that leaves a lasting impression on you. Written and Directed by Luc Besson, this is one of his earlier films before he went all out in action. The story is interesting in an outrageous way, but the best thing about this film are the characters and how well they are portrayed by the actors.
The three main characters of this film are played by Jean Reno, Gary Oldman, and a very young Natalie Portman. And the acting is superb. Jean Reno carries out the portrayal of a hitman who is completely dumbfounded by the 12-year-old Portman with amazing believability. Natalie Portman is also amazing in her role. Her character is at times strong despite wounds, and at other times emotional and immature. Gary Oldman's character is intense, psychotic, and realistic in a combination that makes him a formidable antagonist.
One thing I found a little disconcerting was the score by Eric Serra. It sounded too close to the compositions used in The Fifth Element, also scored by Eric Serra and by Luc Besson (and also with Gary Oldman in a great role).
July 5, 2006
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
Indiana Jones: Temple of Doom was the only Indiana Jones movie I hadn't seen. So I watched it tonight and it's another fun Indiana Jones movie full of action, light comedy, and crazy villians involving an unbelievable plot. And as a light action film, it's great. There's not much else to it, but that's okay because this movie isn't trying to do or say anything special.
July 4, 2006
Full Metal Panic? FUMOFFU!
Full Metal Panic? FUMOFFU! is a completely hilarious follow-up to Full Metal Panic! and the title hints at the attitude of this series. Whereas Full Metal Panic! was a comedic, but serious, storyline involving terrorists and some sort of bio-technological secret, FUMOFFU! is a tongue-in-cheek romp across everything Full Metal Panic! and I couldn't help laughing out loud throughout the show. Warning: spoilers below.
My favorite part of the show was the appearance and antics of Sousuke inside his custom designed Bonta-Kun A.S., which he later developed as a combat suit for sale on the arms market. It is just too funny to see a theme park mascot, who happens to look much cuter than anything from Disney, running around beating up the bad guys and protecting Kaname while only being able to say "fumo".
There are lots of other comedic elements throughout the series, many of which depend on shock surprise for its impact. So unfortunately, I think there are many comedy sequences which won't be as fun to watch a second time around, although anticipating those sequences might be part of the fun too, depending on the sequence and your personality.
July 3, 2006
Neon Genesis Evangelion: Platinum
Neon Genesis Evangelion has always been one of my favorite anime series. It has a little bit of everything, and does it with an incredible level of emotional and thought-provoking impact. It's also one of the most confusing anime, with a great amount of freedom of interpretation. If there is any anime which will survive as an epic classical work, this is it.
Recently released was the Platinum Edition of Eva, which remixed the audio in 5.1 and also included quite a bit of cel clean-up. The audio is much nicer and the 5.1 channels are used to excellent effect, although I did hear a few glitches. The major cel transfer problems have been corrected, although I did still see one segment which had some alignment jitter.
Also included in the Platinum Edition are director's cut versions of episodes 21-24. These director's cuts include a few minutes per episode of additional background story or revealing secrets. This additional footage can help one understand a little bit more of what the conclusion is leading up to and what the characters went through to become who they are. But sometimes it also results in more questions. Some of the footage is different as well, such as the Eva graveyard or elevator.
June 29, 2006
Full Metal Panic!
Full Metal Panic! turned out to be an entertaining anime, although in a lot of ways it's a typical mecha show without much else. What is great about it is the constant level of excitement and comedy. The characters all have very extreme personalities that are amusing on their own, and when combined with each other and crazy situations the entertainment value rises pretty fast. There wasn't anything special other than that.
There were a few nice songs during the series, but not many which means most of the songs were played back quite often. So in some ways the songs worked as a theme for certain situations, but in other ways it just felt like you were hearing the same thing again. However, the opening and ending songs and video sequences changed a few times, and that was actually interesting.
One thing I found annoying was the voice-over done by the voice actors during the FBI copyright warning at the beginning of each disc. That sort of thing alone would make me not want to purchase the series. It's an in-your-face reminder of how some executives and industry people think of their customers. Especially since this anime featured one of my favorite voice actors, Hillary Haag, as well as others I recognize.
A few things about the story and situation were not revealed at any time during the series. I suspect those questions might be answered in the sequel.
June 28, 2006
Queen of the Damned
Today I held a small movie night, with only Dantam and Alla attending. I moved it from tomorrow to today because Alla has something else planned for tomorrow night. So I cooked some food at home, which seemed to impress Dantam for some strange reason. And then we watched Queen of the Damned. Unfortunately, I think this is a movie that sort of gets more content for having read the book, and also loses some of its appeal for having read the book.
Stuart Townsend does a very good job at portraying the Vampire Lestat, but I really think casting Aliyah as Akasha was messed up, or at least what the director had her act out was just wrong. It doesn't fit the role of Akasha very well at all, and I also recall the physical description of Akasha being different in the book. Townsend matches Lestat very well, on the other hand.
I also thought there was way too much emphasis on the rock music and also messed up special effects. Blurring people to make them seem faster doesn't accomplish that effect. It only makes things look messed up. And then there were some sequences with crazy visuals that really didn't make sense either. Some aspects of the plot were inconsistent with the mood and emotional aspects that I think Anne Rice tries to convey in her stories.
I think the most memorable part of the evening was Dantam's opinion on Stuart Townsend.
June 25, 2006
A Deepness in the Sky
I just finished re-reading A Deepness in the Sky, another Vernor Vinge book that I think is very good. This book stands alone from his previous work, A Fire Upon the Deep, but knowing what you do from reading that book does make certain things both more clear and also places things in a different, larger light. It is something that changes how you will perceive the book and the things it talks about.
There are lots of interesting concepts and technologies worked into this story. The Spiders are a unique and interesting species, that have evolved in a way very different than what you would expect possible given their unique environmental conditions. There is also a strange virus or bacteria called mindrot, which when controlled can create a "Focused" person who becomes an intelligent computer, essentially achieving the dream of artificial intelligence, but at the cost of a person. Another interesting concept threading throughout the story is the physical, social, and cultural difference between Spiders and humans.
In addition to of all that, the story itself is very exciting and the characters very interesting to read about. The character Pham Nuwen has a very special role, especially knowing what his fate will be from reading A Fire Upon the Deep. There are other characters who are also uniquely intriguing, such as Qiwi because of howw she is molded and manipulated by the villian Thomas Nau, and Ezr Vinh who has an unbreakable loyalty to the woman Trixia Bonsol even though she is lost to him for decades.
June 22, 2006
I'm not really sure why people like Pulp Fiction so much. I remember it was one of Jessica's favorite movies when it came out. So I finally watched it, and while it was somewhat unique in its storytelling approach, Chungking Express came out the same year and shares a similar storytelling approach. I suppose it's no coincidence Quentin Tarantino brought Chungking Express over for a U.S. release given his statement of being a huge fan of Won Kar Wai. The only difference is that I'm not really sure what the point of Pulp Fiction is. There's some speculation about religion being a factor, and maybe that's true, but I don't think that's really clear or prominent.
June 20, 2006
Steamboy was an amazing film. Everything about it was excellent. The visuals were extremely detailed to an extent I'd never seen before. The CG work was almost seamless, and artistically done. The audio was immersive and explosive and the score wonderful. The story itself has meaning without weighing down the pure action of the film. And the characters have depth, in a very focused but not really one-dimensional way. Throughout the entire movie I was totally engrossed in the film and fully enjoying it.
Sony got some amazing voice talent for the show, including Patrick Stewart who has become more popular for anime voice acting, and he is very good at it, and also Alfred Molina and Anna Paquin who did a great job. The distinctive voice of Kari Wahlgren is also there, who it turns out has been in many shows and video games that I am familiar with. Because this movie takes place in England, watching it with the English voice actors is actually a much better choice than watching it with the Japanese voice actors.
Steamboy has some incredible audio as well. There is a constant amount of background audio in the movie, as many scenes take place in areas containing heavy machinery. And the massive action sequences involving steam engines and other steam-powered war machines are filled with the noise that will accompany such action and machinery. This film also has a large number of low-frequency effects that require a bottom-feeding subwoofer, and accurate reproduction of machinery that will stress good high-frequency reproduction as well.
Watching the special features, the artists and animators talk about how this was the one anime where there was no deadline on the artwork. And so they could spend as much time as they wanted to draw the images Katsuhiro Otomo envisioned and put down on paper. And that is an incredible amount of detail. This is one anime that would really benefit from a high-definition video transfer. And the images are beautiful as well.
Underlying the story is a cautionary exploration of how technology is a cold, powerful, and raw tool that must be tempered with morality and the human heart. Ray's father and grandfather represent the extremes of this spectrum, and he is torn between them as he tries to find for himself an answer that he can live by. But of course this isn't an easy question, and it does't have a simple answer, and it is still one of those ideas which is something a person can only provide an answer for from their gut and their heart. Otomo will not give you an answer.
June 19, 2006
Fruits Basket was recommended to me by Netflix, and it seems to be a highly regarded series. This is true, to some extent. The characters are well developed but one-dimensional in their complexity (which drives the meaning of the series). And the animation work is very good for most of the episodes. But while the series does make a valiant attempt at humor and poking fun at anime in general, it doesn't pull it off as well as I had hoped. Instead most of the humor was lost on me. Ultimately, the theme of the movie is intelligent, but something that I've already heard many times so while the episodes do very well at discussing the theme, I found them somewhat boring and simple.
June 15, 2006
Must Love Dogs
A bunch of people were going to show up for movie night tonight, but at the last minute the roster got shuffled. So Alla, Dantam, Zhao, Sasha, Femi, and then at the last minute Kristie, showed up. Originally the girl-to-boy ratio was going to be higher, but regardless we watched Must Love Dogs which has a very clichéd and predictable plot, but some really funny points which is what made the movie enjoyable. Otherwise, it would have been just another typical romantic comedy.
MySpace became a big topic of discussion at this movie night for some reason. I'm not a member and don't plan to be, but everyone else attending has at least an empty profile on there, and some are actively using the site. The discussion about MySpace, and also other things, seems to reinforce the idea that the universe is actively working against Dantam when it comes to certain things.
June 13, 2006
I finished Pikmin 2 after a gruelling 25 hours of gameplay. Pikmin 2 builds on all of the strengths of the first game, and adds the twists of white poisonous and purple heavy Pikmin, which have a sometimes minor and other times interesting effect on gameplay. I think the addition of the purple and red juices has a much greater impact on strategy and skill, because of their effect and limited duration which can be used to extreme advantage at times. The wider range of enemies and and requirement for more fine-grained and speedy control of your Pikmin army makes things more challenging and more fun at the same time.
June 12, 2006
Karen recommended Downfall to me a few weeks ago. It's gotten very good reviews, and I can understand why. The movie tells the story of the last days within Hitler's bunker from a few different viewpoints, and is partially based off a book by Hitler's secretary during that time. The re-creation is very realistic, although a lot of it was dramatized for theatrical effect, and I suspect miscellaneous plot additions were made to enhance the viewing experience. The acting is very good, and I think the real value in this film is how it makes the all of the people come to life as people and not just as villains.
I was impressed by the attention to detail in this movie. Everything from the rubble to the uniforms, and maybe even behavioral characteristics (although I can't be sure about that) seemed very auhentic. I'm certain that a great deal of effort was put forth in making all of that as close to the original as possible. I also really liked the sound production values. The surround mix is used to good effect both within the bunker and outside when Berlin was being shelled. Underground, low frequency information made it possible to somewhat experience the effects of artillery landing above.
June 11, 2006
No Way Out
No Way Out is a decent thriller, starring Kevin Costner with an important but relatively short role by Sean Young. There's nothing really special about this movie, but if you like thrillers I think this one will satisfy. The basic storyline is one where an accidental death and the potential for scandal result in a coverup investigation. Costner's character knows what really happened, but needs to find a safe way to expose the truth.
A Fire Upon the Deep
I just finished re-reading A Fire Upon the Deep and even though I already knew the plot and ending, it found myself just as engrossed by the story this time as I had the first time. As a writer, Vernor Vinge is both visionary and imaginative. Some of the ideas which he uses in this book are very interesting but he doesn't hit you over the head with them. Instead, they are finely woven into the story so that you come to accept those ideas as part of the world involved. This book is exciting and smart at the same time.
Iria: Zeiram the Animation
I didn't know this until after the film, but Iria: Zeiram the Animation is the prequel OVA to two live-action movies starring the same character. While I enjoyed this anime, it really is just an action movie without much more going for it. But as an action anime, it was very well done with really no repeat frames and a fast pace without the artists cheating out by showing barely moving images. There really isn't much story or purpose to it though.
June 10, 2006
Netflix 5M Celebration
Today Netflix had a company party to celebrate reaching 5 million subscribers. Shuttle service was provided to Nestldown, a private park-like area in the Santa Cruz mountains. The theme of the party was a carnival, so there were some carnies, carnival games, and food like hot dogs and cotton candy.
I learned how to play Bocce Ball from William, and played against him, his wife, Donna, Tod, and one of the event people (who was also a Netflix subscriber, going through the top 250 movies off IMDB). I did okay, especially at the beginning, but later on I wasn't thinking about it as much so didn't do as well.
Afterwards, Tod and I went down to the pond and listened to some live music from a quartet playing a violin, two guitars, and an acordian. All of the instruments were amped though. I saw Lin's daughter Alexandria there so went up to talk to them. Then Alex wanted me to go with her into the forest so I went up. We walked around in there for a while and we were going to go back but then she changed her mind and started hiking some more. She ended up seeing the train and running after it, and I couldn't get her to stop so we could tell Lin we were going after the train.
We followed the train for a while then stopped in the games field to play some volleyball and frisbee and use the swings. Then we'd been gone for a while so I told her we had to go back, and followed the train tracks back to the pond where she met back up with her dad. Turns out Lin didn't realize we had run off and so went looking for us back at the cabin area.
Afterwards, I met up with Samir and Jamie and we rode the shuttle back down to Netflix HQ and then I drove home.
June 9, 2006
Poker at Alla's
Tonight was the first time I'd played Texas Hold'em, although I'd watched Bryant play before. Alla wanted to have people over so she invited me to play at her place. I didn't realize, although I should have known, that we would be playing for money until after I got there and asked. I also didn't want to stay very late. We were going to start at 8pm, and I was planning to leave at 9pm.
But things didn't really turn out that way. No one else showed up until 8:20pm, and even then many people didn't know how to play either so we didn't actually start playing a game until 9pm. A lot of people showed up, I think 13 total people were there including Alla. And so we split into two games. I ended up at the table where most of the other people didn't know how to play either, other than Paul and Alla.
Anyway, I started with $9, and we played maybe a dozen hands. In the end, I tied with Kristie at finishing with $17, although she started out with $10. The last hand also resulted in me giving her a couple of dollars because I was already pretty ahead, and so I played it through even though I knew she had better cards than me. It was kind of uncomfortable playing, because it was very warm with so many people there.
24 - Season 4
The fourth season of 24 was not as good as the previous three seasons. While I think the story was as well developed and still very dramatic and intense, I also think the writing changed in three bad ways. First off, sometimes the dialogue sounded a little silly. The relationship discussions didn't fit in as well as before. Second, there was one episode that looked like a giant Cisco commercial. That ruined things a bit. Lastly, this episode took a very one-sided approach towards recent events, when it used to take a more objective view that at least included a balance of both sides.
That third aspect did bother me a bit. The entire season argued heavily in favor of being able to do whatever it takes to achieve your end. There were a few times when things were presented in the other light, where principles and law have to be upheld, but the arguments were weak and the plot and counter-arguments always won over. In previous seasons, the line between good and bad, the right thing to do and the wrong thing to do, were always a little fuzzy. In this season, the line was razor sharp.
Another thing I noticed that just about all of the technical details, and the terms they used to describe them, were just plain wrong. Someone made things up and just assumes the audience has no idea that it's all fake. That's not really a bad assumption, but it did make some things just wrong for me when I watched it. Interestingly, when uber-hacker Chloe actually said things or did things, it did make sense and was accurate. It's almost like she rewrote her lines to be correct or something. Although that seems extremely unlikely.
Stellvia turned out to be better than I thought it would be, although not as good as it could have been. The series starts out a little slow, and I felt like there wasn't enough content in many of the episodes. The character Shima Katase also stays a little too long in the unconfident crybaby mode, although I don't necessarily think that's unrealistic. Despite this, the story got more interesting in the second half and contains some good moments, especially dealing with relationships and sometimes human nature, although it didn't focus too hard on any one aspect.
Stellvia has some good music, and also pretty good graphics. I liked the character designs a lot, for the most part, although I felt they didn't get the CG work right for the ships because they didn't take into acceleration. So the movements were too stiff and visibly wrong.
I did really enjoy some of the jokes and joke sound effects, but they started to occur less often as the show became more serious. I would have liked it if they included more of them, but that could have detracted some from the seriousness of the ideas and topics later on. So I can understand leaving it out.
June 6, 2006
0:2 at Settlers of Catan
Alla came over last night to viist, mostly motivated by desire to pick up her movies. Anyway, we ended up playing two games of Settlers of Catan, the second one with the Seafarers of Catan expansion. Unfortunately, I lost both games.
May 31, 2006
License to Kill
I watched License to Kill not knowing that I'd already seen the ending to it before. I like this James Bond film because it has an interesting plot and pretty good action sequences. Supporting actress Carey Lowell has been one of my favorite Bond girls since I first saw this film, and Q's more active role as a field agent is also memorable.
May 30, 2006
Building a Pushcart
Yesterday Shannon and Yvonne had the day off from school. I also technically had the day off, but I came in to do some work for a few hours anyway. Anyway, Shannon had to build a pushcart for one of her class projects because they just read a book called The Pushcart War. I picked up some balsa wood and carved wheels (made in China) from Michaels and then went over to their house in the afternoon.
It took us a few hours to build the pushcart, but it came out pretty good. I tried to let Shannon do as much as possible, but Yvonne wanted to cut some wood and also liked to use the sandpaper a lot. And Mei-Ling didn't want Shannon to use the saw, even though using a hand saw is safer than using a utility knife. Afterwards, Shannon and I made little paper boxes and bags filled with beads and stickers to put into the cart for her to sell. Shannon kept rejecting other ideas for what to sell.
While I was there, Yvonne got tortured by some guy who was visiting. He kept trying to make her use her MP3 player and then said he would show her how to clean up her hard disk because she has almost no space left. Which of course would have been a tragic thing if he had succeeded in his attempt. Yvonne is doing a lot of schoolwork stuff lately because she's been thinking too much about getting into a college and doesn't think she can get into any good ones. But her levels of failure are, in general, much higher than reality. So she should be fine. Only she needs to figure out what she wants to study.
May 29, 2006
Superficially, Gunslinger Girl is a story about pre-adolescent and adolescent girls who are trained as efficient killers as part of a government special operations team. But if you approach this anime with that mindset, you will be extremely surprised at what this extremely tight and intelligent series really offers. The characters, story, and emotional aspects explored by the writers are some of the best I have ever experienced. What this series is really about are young girls who are trying to understand what life means for them in respect to their father-figure handlers.
You might think it cruel for these girls to have been brain-washed and forced to live in such a controlled and violent environment. But on the surface, all of these young girls were saved from horrible situations and the conditioning serves both to help them forget about what happened to them and to perform their duties more effectively. It might be hard to say whether or not they are better off with their new lives, or if it would have been best to leave them to die or live with their physical and mental scars. I certainly would not wish any young girl to live the way they do, but I think given the choice that this is a better option.
What really drives this series forward are the relationships that each girl has with her handler. Although they are not biologically related, the pair of handler and girl is referred to as a fratello, and their relationship is very much like that of a father and daughter. But as with reality, some girls will suffer tragedy or emotional hurt due to events outside of their control or from how their handler views them. Some handlers look at their cyborgs as tools to be used and nothing more. While others treat their girl as their own daughter. And because the girls and handlers are human, they come with all of the flaws and complexity that you would expect to find in real life. Regardless of if you like how a handler treats his girl, you have to understand that they are a fratello, and the girls would never accept a different handler.
I think that the depth of these characters and the realistic complexity of their relationships would actually provide more than enough detail for a much longer storyline or for greater focus on individual girls. But this series is extremely focused and so there is a great deal to pull out of each episode. The ending is so bittersweet and should really strike a chord within you because you've grown to understand and feel for the girls.
Two things that were really great with this production were the CG and music. The animators made great use of 3-D models and cel shading to create wonderful characters movements that looked absolutely great. It has an energy and fullness to it that you cannot find in traditional hand drawn animation. The music was heavy on the piano and stringed arrangements, partially because the series takes place in Italy, but also because it suits the mood of things very well.
Today Shannon and I went to FanimeCon 2006. I woke up early at 7:40am because I had to go pick up Shannon from her house. Then we came back and got the usual orange juice and bagel sandwiches before taking the VTA light rail from my house up to the San Jose Convention Center. We got there around 10am, and it was actually very quiet. Lots more people showed up around lunch time.
The only thing that really interests either me or Shannon is the dealer room. Finding hard to find items at lower than usual prices (if you shop smart and have a knack for bargaining) to make up for the registration fee is what we're both interested in. The first thing we did is find gifts for the people we wanted to get stuff for. I found a set of Keroro dolls for Luna, some Sailor Moon figures and accessories for Dantam, because I missed her birthday, and a Bleach plushie for Yvonne. Shannon bought some Inuyasha figures for her friends and a Bleach plushie for Yvonne.
Afterwards, we went around and bought stuff for ourselves. Shannon got some Pokémon plushies, and a Yu-Gi-Oh! booster pack. I think she should have bought something else too at least. I found a bunch of good stuff, including Range Murata's Robot Vol. 2, a bunch of Ghost in the Shell figures, some of which I got real cheap because the dealer wanted to unload them, and a really cute Tonberry plushie.
We met up with Alla's brother, Sasha, for a few minutes and his friend Simon shortly before we left. But then came home as soon as we'd finished shopping. Shannon was a little tired from all the walking and standing, and she wanted to visit the kitties and and I wanted to play video games with her.
I challenged her to a two-player battle in Pikmin 2 where I thoroughly stomped her even though I tried to help. She didn't really want to play that anymore. I thought it was fun. So we switched over to The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventures which I specifically bought so we could play together. This was lots of fun, and Shannon really liked it too. Although she has trouble defeating enemies efficiently sometimes.
We got to Death Mountain before I had to take her to meet her mom and Yvonne at some place for them to go have dinner with someone they know. Today was a long but really fun day.
May 26, 2006
I watched Octopussy tonight and I was unfortunately a little disappointed by it. While the action sequences were pretty exciting, and probably very advanced for the time, I felt the story was a bit disjointed and maybe too convenient. The way the Russians as a whole and the military officer specifically are pulled into the film was unbelievable. And they could have at least gotten native Russian speakers to play the Russian characters. There were a few laughs, but overall I thought the puns and one-liners were way overdone, and that a lot of the movie was too goofy.
May 25, 2006
Now and Then, Here and There
For some reason, I'd heard of Now and Then, Here and There and decided to watch it. I'm glad I ended up doing so, because it turns out to be an epic but tragic and harsh story. It has intense action, flawed characters that you will really care about, and a dramatic plot. The English dub is okay, but the Japanese voice acting is better. The drawing style is a little on the older style, but it grows on you. And the music is a first class soundtrack, with songs that really enhance the mood without becoming the focus of your attention.
May 22, 2006
Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty
I just finished playing Metal Gear Solid 2. It was just as good as the first one, although with even more effort going into the gameplay, missions and map design, and storyline. One thing that really impresses me, after going through the game, was how smoothly the combat, sneaking, and activities are handled. Everything felt very natural and continually moving forward. There are no load times, or strange responses that make you wonder why the character just did something when you meant something else. Being able to pull that off is impressive.
The story of this game is much more complex and layered than the previous game. I won't reveal anything and risk spoiling things for people who haven't played the game (although it is old now) but it is a story that is extremely well thought through. The story slowly unravels as you move forward in the game, revealing ideas and motivations that require you to think for yourself about the issues and current events that are going on in your world today.
Some might find it surprising that it is a Japanese game maker that would explore American ideals to such depth, rather than an American game maker. But Hideo Kojima is someone who you can tell really has deep belief in what he does and that it is important to try and make other people think about their lives and the world around them. In many ways the ideas presented are universally applicable, despite being based in New York City and on American ideals. I think, actually, that American publishers would not be willing to distribute a game that might carry such a heavy political and social message.
May 21, 2006
I just finished Scrapped Princess and it turned out better than I thought. I expected it to be a somewhat silly show geared towards general amusement. But there's actually a lot more to be found in it. The series begins by dropping you into the middle of the action, so it starts out a little confusing, but things are quickly explained in a natural and unhurried way. It turns out that the appearances of the situation are deceiving, and there is a great deal going on underneath the surface that has resulted in this crisis for the three main characters and the people they interact with.
That is one of the good things about this series. The character development is thorough without being forced and not at all stereotypical. It's a serious anime, with just the right amount of light-hearted humor interspersed with a slightly more than necessary amount of emotionally revealing dialogue. But at least they don't spend crazy amounts of time talking or explaining when no one would act that way in real life.
It's also good that there is no filler in this story. Every moment is used to further develop characters and drive the plot in a way that is necessary for the story, but not in a manner that is obviously wasted time to get out another episode. I think the writers really took the time to figure out what should happen, when it should happen, and how much each character needs to be involved in those events. And then they started working on the anime.
May 17, 2006
Xenosaga: Episode II
I just finished Xenosaga Episode II: Jenseits von Gut und Bose and I did enjoy this installment much more than the first. While there are still many flaws, a great deal of the gameplay was improved, and in particular combat was no longer a drag. I also liked the updated character designs and 3-D models, and the more detailed and cleaner environments rendered in full 3-D. The music was done by Yoko Kanno, and so actually much better than the first game in my opinion.
Some people have complained about the combat system in this episode, but I liked it quite a bit, even if I found that magic still played an incredibly minor role due to not being able to chain magic but being able to heavily chain regular attacks. As a result, it is much easier to do significant damage using normal attacks and chaining and attempting to do so with magic is pointless. Having the boost gauge be shared, and allowing up to four combination attacks per character, with chaining depending on boosting and character turns, made things much more strategic and interesting. And being able to switch characters during combat is both important and allows for a more enemy-specific strategy during combat.
Battles still did sometimes have a tendency to become repetitive, but that was less of an issue unless there were exactly two or four combatants involved, as the combat sequence revolves in a four-stage cycle. Double attacks were pretty useless for me, for the same reason as magic. What was interesting is that in the same way you can use boost and chain attacks to take out an enemy very efficiently, the enemies could sometimes (although rarely) do the same to you. The AI doesn't seem to have been made intelligent enough to take advantage of this the same way you can.
A couple of the annoyances that still persist are having to confirm the use of elevators and having character target selection sometimes opposite the controller direction pressed. I don't know why the developers still haven't figured that out. And while the cutscene sequences are shorter than the first episode, there is still a great deal of time spent watching. But the story is still this game's greatest strength, so I didn't mind the cutscenes this time. They were short enough to deal with.
I do think the developers missed out on some great opportunities for mini-games instead of cutscenes. There are several situations where having to press the correct buttons with correct timings, or pilot a ship, could have added to the fun.
I also thought the skill system was extremely flawed. All characters have access to the same set of skills, which technically means you can customize them. But it doesn't make a whole lot of sense to customize them "incorrectly". Yet accessing more powerful skills requires you to unlock less powerful skills in specific sets to get the required amount of class points. As a result, you will often have to learn skills you have absolutely no interest in to access skills you do want. This is wasted class and skill points, and you now have a skill you'll never use. This is not all that different from the first game, except those were all status-based skills, while these skills include magic. So you might have to get Ziggy, a fighter, skills like Medica or Boost +1 when all you're really interested in is Expansion Slot.
Perhaps the most annoying part of the game is the Good Samaritan side-quests. The vast majority of these quests are scavenger hunts involving a lot of back and forth fetching and delivering. This, coupled with the somewhat slow load times and the fact you cannot execute a quest before it gets triggered even if you know what to do, becomes quite annoying.
May 15, 2006
Karen visited me today, and we went out to eat at Mimi's Chinese Kitchen. I still think it's one of the best Chinese restaurants in the area, perhaps because it is a small family-owned and family-run restaurant. Unfortunately, there wasn't as much vegetarian choice for Karen, but they can of course provide custom orders so we were able to get stuff that Karen would eat. Afterwards, we came back to my place and watched Elizabeth. Karen enjoyed the film, and it's probably the fourth time or so that I've watched it.
I really didn't have any idea what Brazil (Terry Gilliam's version) was about, but I'd heard it was a very good and influencial movie, and when I decided to watch it I had thought I might like Terry Gilliam films. The movie is good, but I think what may have been seen as a comedic satire of the growing military-industrial complex and the possible extremes of situation is now unfortunately too close to reality. Rather than being able to laugh and speculate on what's presented in the movie, I felt like it was a realistic satire of the current situation in the United States.
May 14, 2006
Lord of War
Lord of War was an excellent movie. Everything I was hoping it would be, both in terms of the subject matter, the acting, and the plot. The story takes place over the course of a few decades, following the political events that shaped the arms trade that we currently live with. I'm glad the real focus is on the lifestyle and circle of people that an arms dealer has, and not heavily focused on the individual events that occur. That way, this movie really can be about the arms trade, and not about a person who just happens to be an arms dealer.
Nicholas Cage plays his role extremely well, and I think the supporting cast is very good as well. The production values that went into this film are high and I believe attempt to be as authentic to the spirit of the film and the realities of the situation as possible. Locales like war torn Sierra Leone and the post-cold war former Soviet Union states are as commonly the backdrop for this story as New York City. And it is all presented in a very matter-of-fact manner, which both helps provide a more objective view and to be an informative movie.
May 13, 2006
Witch Hunter Robin
I just finished watching Witch Hunter Robin. Stephen watched it when it first came out, and he seemed to like it. It wasn't as appealing to me, but I've been running low on choices so I decided to watch it. And actually, it wasn't that great after all.
In the beginning, each episode sort of stood alone, so there wasn't much continuity pushing it forward. Kind of like single episodes in a TV series. Which isn't necessarily bad, but then things switch completely over and a plot beings. Only the plot moves very slowly, without any reason for doing so, and the events that occurred before seem to have become both inconsequential and they just don't happen anymore. As it turns out, the series only became really interesting for maybe the last three episodes.
I did like most of the drawing though. I thought that was well done. One thing that bugged me in the beginning was the slight mismatch between CG and painted/drawn environments. But eventually things got better. Either I became accustomed to it or they got better at integrating the two.
May 10, 2006
Rumor Has It
Rumor Has It is an unique movie. While poking a little fun at the community of Pasadena, California, the story is loosely built around the idea that The Graduate was based on an actual family and actual events. This only serves as the basis of the plot, which is good, because the writers and actors were able to do a lot on top of that. But, this is another one of those movies where what happens is okay for a woman to have done, but switched around it never would have worked. That always ends up bothering me for some reason.
More style than substance. That's unfortunately how I would describe the Aeon Flux movie. Which is too bad since it has a lot of potential given the current political climate and its intelligent premise, as well as featuring the talent of Charlize Theron. Like the animated series, the movie is primarily driven by action. But the plot and mysteries of the world are too easily revealed through narration and simple conversation. The background behind the Monicans is never explored, and some things like re-surfacing memories are never explained.
I did happen to watch this on the flight over to Shanghai, so perhaps I would have enjoyed it more on the big screen with a real sound-system. Because ultimately, it is the action, special effects, and audio production that would have made this movie worth anything. Still, I think the story is very lacking.
The Ringworld Throne
I finished reading The Ringworld Throne on the way to Shanghai. This third book in the Ringworld series is not as interesting, although still enjoyable to read. The focus of this book is more upon the culture and different species of humanoid that have evolved on the Ringworld, rather than as much of the hard science. I think that is partially why this book is not as interesting, as how things have evolved is more arbitrary than anything.
I left this book with Luna, because she said she would like to try reading it. I think some of the vocabulary might be hard for her, and also that there are some words and ideas which are sort of made-up just for the book. But maybe she will enjoy some of it.
May 8, 2006
I picked up Lucifer's Hammer before flying out to Shanghai because I knew I would need a book to read on the two flights and maybe sometimes while I was at my dad's apartment. I figured it might be pretty good based on its sales record and having Larry Niven as one of the authors. While it was a page turner, I think it was more of a mainstream scientific thriller than a science-fiction book. A lot of Niven's characteristic hard science was gone, and instead the story is more drama laced with science.
In some ways, this is your typical natural disaster story. The kind you'd see dozens of times in the movies and maybe read about too. However, one thing going for this specific book is the scope of that disaster. Several dozen meteorite strikes of significant size across a large percentage of the Earth's surface means global disaster. Lucifer's Hammer focuses on what happens in Los Angeles and parts of the SF Bay Area.
Two things I found interesting about the story were its cold war influence and period environment. The book was written in 1977, when the cold war was still a news topic and American culture and social order was very different from today. So part of me found reading this book now to be anachronistic, but once I accepted things for how they were presented that problem went away.
I think I would have enjoyed this story more if there was a greater focus on the hard science. Although I'm not really sure how you can do that when you're exploring a known environment. At which point the focus sort of has to be on character and humanity.
Visiting Luna Again
I just got back from my second visit to Luna in Shanghai. I flew out on April 29th and got back today, because the first week of May is a Chinese holiday and she didn't have work, so we could spend a lot of time together. The week went by really fast, and I was sad to leave. Luna's family picked me up at the airport, and I had dinner with them at Pizza Hut because Luna wanted either that or McDonald's. Afterwards, her dad took me back to my dad's place.
One of the things we did was to take a bus trip to her uncle's house, someplace north of Shanghai. The bus trip took around four hours, and including waiting time probably six hour total. I met her uncle's family and we went to a nearby park with his grandchildren to ride paddle boats. I accidentally dropped Luna too hard on the ground and she hurt her knee. We stayed overnight in a nearby hotel, and the next day went to a different park which involved lots of hiking. Some parts of this park were almost too crowded to enjoy. To return, we took a train back. Boarding the train was a little crazy, with everyone pushing to get on even though it is not as if the train will leave until everyone is on anyway.
While in Shanghai, we visited her grandparents, and also the family of one of her cousins. Her cousin has a PlayStation 2, and we played a few games including Naruto: Narutimate Hero 3, Devil May Cry 3, and Shinobi. I wasn't very good at the Naruto game, because I didn't know the controls for any good moves, and Devil May Cry 3 was very boring. Shinobi was a little fun, but not much. It's very much like a 3-D version of the original.
Luna and I watched lots of various things. She wasn't at all interested in Sneakers, but after I finally convinced her to watch Battlestar Galactica: The Miniseries, she got into it and wants to watch the rest of the seasons. She originally said she didn't want to watch it anymore because a baby was killed early in the show. We also watched Juon, which really came across as a B-movie to me, but it is a bit creepy. Just very hard to follow because of how it is structured. Luna says it helps to have read the story first. She also really likes Kamen Rider, even though I think it is silly.
Shanghai was extremely crowded, even more so than last time, because of the holiday. Many Chinese tourists were there. In the popular spots, such as The Bund, you could sometimes barely move. The pollution and smoking got to me much more this time, especially when we went to a fancy restaurant and there was so much smoke in the room I started to feel sick. Luna kept taking me outside or to the window to get fresh air. I got a sore throat from all the pollution, I think.
Two special things we did were to get Luna her engagement ring, and to take the wedding photos. We went to a lot of different jewelry stores, probably more than a dozen, although that's not as hard to do as it sounds as a department store will have several jewelry stores on a single floor. After looking at a lot of different styles, we found a signature cut at one of the stores that Luna really liked. It was a decent price, although I still haven't figured out how the discount was calculated and why, and she's happy with it.
For the wedding photos we went to Milan Studios, which Luna says is the best wedding photo studio in Shanghai. It's certainly a big production, and they provided the clothing and makeup, and seem to have purchased a fake building in the park for their photo shoots. I asked Luna not to pick any of the photos that have fake English words in them. The photo shoot took around twelve hours to finish, because there were so many people and not enough photographers and sometimes even not enough clothing (of the right type). Some of the costumes were a little strange to consider for wedding photos, unless you are specifically looking for an older time period, and it was very tiring for Luna. Partly because she had such a hard time following directions for posing.
All of those activities took up most of the week. Saturday and Sunday we finally relaxed. We were both very tired from so much walking around and doing so many things, including time spent shopping for gifts. So these last two days are when we just spent time at home watching things and resting.
Cheaper by the Dozen 2
On the flight back to San Francisco, I got a chance to watch Cheaper by the Dozen 2, although I haven't seen the first movie. What I did like about this film was Steve Martin, but that's about it. The story is predictable and simple, and the events nothing new to see. So while I can't recommend this movie as a comedy, it wasn't bad and I could appreciate the humor for what it was.
Luna and I wanted to watch a movie while I was visiting. Instead of going to the Peace Cinema at Raffles City, which is new and tends to show the newer blockbuster releases, we went to a different, smaller cinema which seemed to have been recently renovated, and saw Eight Below. This movie claims to be inspired by a true story, but I would consider that a lie. There also weren't any English subtitles, but that's okay because dogs don't talk and it was extremely easy to figure out what people were saying since the dialogue was so simple and predictable.
I consider the idea of this movie being based on a true story to be a lie because from what I can tell, the only thing based on a true story is the idea of Antarctic scientists/explorers getting beaten up by the elements and having sled dogs. I don't think any significant sequence of events that occurred in the storyline of the movie has any relation to a sequence of events that took place in reality.
I also didn't really like how personalities were given to each of the dogs by having them act certain ways on command and the use of camera angles and sound effects (dog noises). I suppose giving the dogs personalities is essential to the film, because the story is in large part about how the dogs survive on their own for so long. But their personalities were too artificial for me.
While I don't think the length of time the dogs are left down to survive, without water, is realistic at all, I do think this is a decent "Disney" movie and can be enjoyed in that respect. I just don't have much interest in that sort of movie these days.
May 1, 2006
I had heard that Fantastic Four (what happened to the "The"? guess I was remembering the old issues) wasn't that great a superhero movie. I got a chance to watch it on the flight over to Shanghai, and yeah, it isn't that great a superhero movie.
The plot is very simple and the sequence of events and character development formulaic. There isn't a whole lot of villiany, even though the villian (not necessarily a person) should be what drives a superhero story forward. Instead, it's like a huge chunk of the movie is used to "create" the Fantastic Four, and then they just fight a bad guy at the end.
The acting also wasn't very interesting. A lot of the behavior, dialogue, and body language seemed canned. You can't get a whole lot of human expression out of Thing, but the rest really did look a lot like something from the silver age of comic books.
April 28, 2006
Chrono Crusade is another series I wasn't planning to watch, but since I'm running out of things to watch and it's free, I decided to give it a try. Luna told me about half-way through that she doesn't think it is that great, and I agree. On the one hand the mythology of the bible is well incorporated with artistic liberties taken, and some interesting questions are posed without any concrete answers, of course. But at other times, the dialogue is corny, the action sequences are childish, and it is sometimes hard to empathize with the characters.
I did like the artwork very much, although the men were a little too bishonen for my taste. I think the artists may have temporarily changed for a short period of time in the middle of the series, as there was an obvious change in character drawing at one point. But it later reverted back to the original.
There was also some good music at times, although sometimes it wasn't anything special either. The first episode on disc five had some strange crackly noise throughout, which I found quite annoying, but I have no idea if that was a mixing/mastering problem or due to some other problem.
Two bonuses were the English dub including Hillary Haag and Jessica Boone. Both particular favorites of mine. I also recognized Laura Chapman and Tiffany Grant from the credits, although their voices are not as unique.
April 27, 2006
Canadian Music Creators Coalition
A number of Canadian musicians have formed the Canadian Music Creators Coalition. This group was created to stand against recent political and legal "abuses" that have been harming the reputation and consumers of the Canadian music industry. The three goals of this coalition are to make it clear that suing consumers is bad, DRM is a risky and more often than not negative proposition, and to promote local Canadian music. They also want to make it clear that the labels are not looking out for the best interests of musicians or consumers. The top three coalition members listed on the home page are: Barenaked Ladies, Avril Lavigne, and Sarah McLachlan.
The Ringworld Engineers
I just finished re-reading The Ringworld Engineers. This is the second book in the series, and one that was not originally planned but eventually written because of the amount of feedback towards the first book. I would say it's about the same quality as the first book, in terms of its style and substance.
The second novel takes place several years later, and goes a bit further into the origins of the Ringworld, although not as much as some might hope. There is some exploration of the Ringworld species and their culture, and also the technology of the Ringworld. As the title suggests, the engineers of the Ringworld are revealed, although there isn't much told about them other than what they did in the shaping of the Ringworld.
April 24, 2006
Intellectual Property Protection Act of 2006
I've become even more unhappy with the current administration after the appointment of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. John Ashcroft was bad, but he typically went after big brother surveillence type stuff. Which the rest of the administration was already doing anyway. Gonzales is going further and bringing the war of IP-terrorism into our homes. The Intellectual Property Protection Act of 2006 will make it extremely easy for law enforcement to lock you up and confiscate all of your personal property if you decide to exercise your fair use rights. Because 13-year-old girls are funding terrorists by sharing music they like with their friends.
April 16, 2006
I just finished the Battle Royale manga, which is fifteen volumes (longer than it had to be). I think the movie is excellent, and an important sort of film. The manga, however, perhaps is not. I think if less time had been spent on what felt like filler-frames to me, and instead the content had been presented in a more concise manner, then it would have been more enjoyable to read.
The most important aspect of the manga is the emotional and personal spin it puts on each of the characters. This is something that is not done to this extent in either the novel or the movie. The main characters and also all of the other students are given a lot of page time that provides backstory and motiviations for their behavior. There is some of this in the novel, but a lot more is explored in the manga. In some cases this exploration is interesting. In other cases, it's included more as a point to take away and not really important.
Number of the Beast
I just read Number of the Beast, which is a sort of capstone book in Heinlein's stories, as it joins together several threads started in other novels. But unfortunately I didn't enjoy the contents that much. A lot of time is spent on dialogue, very pointless in many cases with a certain repetition that becomes tiring without being obvious. I didn't really see anything new presented, although there is a lot to do with clashing personalities in relationships. As others have pointed out, this book is sort of a giant in-joke. But I guess I don't have what it takes to appreciate that.
Farewell, My Concubine
Ba Wang Bie Ji is another Chinese movie that includes Gong Li in its cast. Unfortunately, I didn't enjoy this movie as much. It was fine as far as the story, production, and acting is concerned, but I didn't really care about the characters and just about every scene involved unhappiness. In fact, the only character I thought worth anything is the one played by Gong Li, and she ends up dead a little more than half way through. Plus, she is constantly at odds with Dieyi, who remains a child throughout the movie.
April 15, 2006
The Emperor and The Assassin
Jing Ke ci Qin Wang tells the story of the first emperor's conquest of the six kingdoms, during the time leading up to when the assassin Jing Ke attempts to take the life of Qin Wang (King of Qin). The role of Lady Zhao, played by Gong Li, is prominently featured. The acting could have been better, and the king's descent into madness if not as glaring as some might consider it should have been. Regardless, the story is interesting both for its content and for the perspective used to tell it.